Orignally published on Open Salon 6 May 2009
Just before I left for Africa for the first time, my mother told me the story about the time she gave up on religion. Her father had been born in the old country in 1891. He left home at the age of eleven (people grew up faster in those days) and at the same time he left home, he turned his back on God.
When my mother was a child, the priest in her church told the congregation that anyone who was not a Roman Catholic was going to Hell. “That meant my father was going to Hell,” she told me. “And I KNEW that couldn’t be true, because he was the best man I knew.”
My mother raised four children. All have advanced degrees, all are productive citizens. She founded two environmental organizations, traveled all around the world, and was loved by many on three continents.
She came to visit me while I was in Africa. We both did the canopy walk, two hundred feet in the air. She was just a few weeks shy of her seventieth birthday.
The last time I saw her was when I went to visit her for three weeks during December 2005-January 2006. Every day we would go out and cover three miles (I ran, she rode her bicycle.)
In March of 2006, she was out riding her bicycle and was hit by a car and broke her rib. She continued riding every day and in April was hit by another car. A woman in an SUV barreled past a stop sign and slammed into her. She was dead before she hit the ground.
The last lesson she had to teach was that the biggest risk of all is not taking any risks.
All photos by author
UPDATE 8 MAY 2011: I just ran across some more photos of my mother’s trip to Africa. The first one is of her and me at Saint George’s Castle at Elmina, and the second is of my mother and my wife’s mother at the family house in Cape Coast. Enjoy!
UPDATE 13 MAY 2012: Here are some pictures I took in the Florida Everglades on 3 January 2006 during our last visit together. Enjoy!
UPDATE 12 MAY 2013: Here are some pictures taken on an outing with my mother and her sister, my Aunt Nancy, 19 March 1999. The setting is Old Trinity Church of Dorchester County, Maryland. Established c. 1675, Old Trinity is the oldest Episcopal Church in continuous use in the United States.
Here is a picture of my grand-nephew Patrick, taken on the occasion of his first birthday.
I believe I was named after my great-great-grandfather, Patrick Kedian. I don’t know this for sure, and it’s too late now to ask my mother. But as I write this I have in front of me a copy of my grandmother’s baptismal certificate. She was born Mary Josephine Comber in Bekan Parish, County Mayo, Ireland, in 1892. The certificate lists her parents as Michael Comber and Catherine Kedian, and also listed as “Sponsor” is Patrick Kedian, whom I assume is the father of Catherine. An online search of the census records turned up one Patrick Kedian, born in County Mayo in 1841 and still living there at the time of the 1911 census, and no other Patrick Kedian who could possibly fill the bill. So I’m pretty sure this guy was my great-great-grandfather.
I wonder what he would have thought as a young man if he could have looked 150 years ahead into the future and seen a little African kid walking around with his name?
All photos by author
“Havre de Grace” is French for “Haven of Grace.” The city is a rewarding destination for the urban hiker, especially during the days of Indian Summer with most of the tourists having departed for warmer climates.
Located at the very top of the Chesapeake, where the Susquehanna empties into the Bay, it was originally established as the village of Harmer’s Town. During the American Revolution, the Marquis de Lafayette paid a visit and remarked on the resemblance to the French port of Havre de Grace. In 1785, the residents re-named their city in honor of the general.
Four years later, the House of Representatives had to choose a new capitol city for the new nation; Havre de Grace lost to Washington DC by one vote.
With the last strains of “If I Could Have a Beer With Jesus” (courtesy of the local radio station) ringing in my ears, I pull into the public parking lot located at the confluence of Market and Commerce Streets. It’s the first Saturday after Thanksgiving, a cold gray November late morning. The sky is obscured by ominous-looking cumulus clouds, and a gentle breeze is blowing up from the Bay.
The parking lot overlooks the City Marina. Stately yachts and sleek-looking cigarette boats are tied up at their moorings, awaiting another Spring. I don’t see anything that looks like a fishing boat. Once upon a time, this city was a nexus for the harvest and distribution of seafood from what H.L. Mencken called the “Immense Protein Factory,” but apparently those days are long gone.
My first stop is the Havre de Grace Decoy Museum, which boasts of “one of the finest collections of working and decorative Chesapeake Bay decoys ever assembled.” The most interesting exhibit chronicles the history of market hunting in the mid-nineteenth century. Newfangled innovations like railroads and refrigerated cars, combined with burgeoning – and hungry – populations in the nearby metropolises of Baltimore and Philadelphia, made the upper Chesapeake a magnet for market hunters. Some of the “punt guns” on display – over eight feet long, capable of firing a pound of shot at a time – looked more suitable for antitank warfare than bird shooting.
Of course, the Tragedy of the Commons soon became manifest, and laws were passed against that sort of thing, but the Chesapeake Bay waterfowl populations never returned to anything like their former abundance and diversity. Only the mallard ducks and Canada geese – which feed on farmers’ corn – have returned in anything like their former numbers.
Meanwhile cheap mass-produced decoys made the hand-carved version obsolete, at least for its original purpose. Decoy carvers reinvented themselves as “wildlife artists,” and the top floor of the museum is devoted to their work. Some of the examples — with every feather burned on by a dentist’s drill – look so realistic you expect them to start quacking. Oddly, some of the display cases feature life-size wax simulacra of the wildlife artists next to their wares. The effect is mildly unsettling – I find myself stealing second and third glances at them to make sure they aren’t moving.
My next stop is right next door — the Havre de Grace Maritime Museum. The exhibits told the story of the Susquehannock, the Iroquoian-speaking people who inhabited the area when Captain John Smith arrived in 1608. Display cases feature arrowheads, hand-axes, and pipes made by an extinct race. Also on display are petroglyophs made by people so long-gone that even the Susquehannock had no idea who made them, or what they meant.
I step outside and begin walking along the waterfront promenade. By now it’s past noon. The cloud cover is beginning to break up, letting in shafts of brilliant sunshine extending from the heavens above to the Bay below. A red-bellied woodpecker flits back and forth amidst the trees at the water’s edge. In the cove I see ring-billed seagulls, mallard ducks, and one wood duck.
I follow, more or less, the path designated by the Havre de Grace Office of Tourism as “Lafayette Trail.” From Concord Street I turn left on Revolution Street, then right on Market Street, which turns into Saint John’s Street. At Saint Johns & Washington Avenue I take a detour to stop in at the Rodgers House Tavern (“built in 1788”). Wayne, the hefty thirty-something guy behind the bar, greets me like I’m an old friend. I order a bottle of Rolling Rock and settle in to take in my surroundings. A hand-lettered sign announces “ATTENTION: All tabs must be paid before leaving. We no longer accept checks.”
I ask Wayne if the watermen, once the iconic figure of the Bay, are all gone from Havre de Grace. He tells me, “There’ still a few of ‘em left, I think.” I mention I didn’t see any fishing boats at the City Marina. “They’re all in the last row,” he explains. Of course.
I bid Wayne good day and continue along Saint John’s Street, which turns into Union Avenue. I pass under a railroad bridge and pause for a time, contemplating the rusted ironwork of what I am sure was is abandoned relic of a bygone age. The roar of an Amtrak train thundering overhead jars me out of my reverie.
I continue along Water Street, past the Susquehanna and Tidewater Canal. A flock of Canada geese are grazing along the towpath which separate the stagnant water of the canal from the brilliant blue of the Susquehanna. Some pilings driven into the riverbed served as perches for a flock of cormorants.
I continue along the river and came to the entrance to Joe K’s North Trail, which occupies an old railroad bed. Someone has filled in the space between the twin steel rails with fine gravel, making a comfortable walking path. I walk under the Thomas G. Hatem Memorial Bridge which carries the traffic from US Route 40 across the Susquehanna, and follow the path over a little viaduct running through a wetland. The roar of traffic from Route 40 fades to a low hum as the salt marsh grass yields to a sycamores and oaks, covered with tangled vines. About a hundred yards after I pass under another railroad bridge, the twin steel rails disappear into the earth. The flatness of the railroad bed gives way to gently undulating hills as the trail veers off to the left and continues for a stretch, before vanishing in a thicket of thorns and a field of boulders.
I decide to start heading back. From Juniata Street I turn left on Ostego Street then right on Union Avenue, past the old Victorian-style homes with their slate-roofed turrets and bay windows. Some of these houses have been converted into bed & breakfast establishments, while others sit forlornly, paint peeling from their wooden siding, as if waiting for some wealthy yuppie couple to purchase them and rescue them from decay.
I end up where I began, at the City Marina. I espy some weather-beaten craft, homely as a tobacco farmer’s pickup truck, tied up in the last row, as if to spare tourists from the sight. I stand alone at the edge of the parking lot, carefully scrutinizing these vessels. Now what I know about boats you could put in your eye with room to spare, but taking into account their ample deck space, overhead canopies for protection against foul weather, total lack of anywhere to sit, and general dingy appearance, I decide these must be the last remnants of the city’s once-proud seafood industry.
On the way out I stop in at a popular seafood restaurant at the water’s edge. Holly, my bright young waitress (and part-time nursing student) informs me that the only item on the menu we can be sure came from the Chesapeake is the oysters – and even those are from Virginia. So much for the immense protein factory.
Holly brings me a plate of Rappahannock River oysters. As a bonus, for a mere six dollars and fifty cents, I get a glass of locally brewed Flying Dog Pearl Necklace Oyster Stout (“all profits go to Chesapeake Bay oyster habitat recovery efforts”) to quench the thirst of a weary urban hiker.
All photos by author
Originally published on Open Salon 13 August 2012
On our last night in the chalet that has been our home for almost the past two years, my wife Yaa poured a glass of wine for me and I stepped outside onto the back porch we never used, to take in the night air. The moon was shining brightly but still it was raining, great big fat drops that fell lazily from the sky one by one like tears. The termites were performing their dispersal flight, and the toads had materialized seemingly from out of nowhere and were having a feast.
A termite’s life cannot have much to recommend it: living in darkness, eating each others’ shit, and so forth. About the only bright spot would seem to be the annual dispersal flight, in which millions of shiny new alates, like teenagers resplendent in their prom finery, leave the colony and for a few brief moments start heading for the light. They’ve been doing this every year for untold millions of years, even though not one out of a million makes it. No second chances for them.
Almost three years ago, I wrote what I thought was my swan song from OS (I ended up staying away for all of two months). I had just gotten a letter from USCIS, saying they might not approve my wife’s visa for years, so I decided to go to Africa to be with her. Since then it’s been quite a ride. I have been to the island monastery where they brought the Holy Ark of the Covenant in the Fifth Century BC, and I came face to face with a couple of friendly hippos. I have seen elephants and hyenas up close. I have been baptized by the priest of the Crocodile God, and I have searched for a cryptid in the jungles of Ankasa. I have watched 92 baby sea turtles begin their lives, and I have watched a bouncing baby boy with my name begin his.
Feeding my grand-nephew Patrick, thereby proving I’ve done one thing to justify my existence
But, all good things must come to an end.
Initially, I had regarded this African sojourn as an interruption of my real life, but last March when I received word that I did not get a fellowship I had applied for in Medical Journalism at Johns Hopkins University, suddenly I had a hard time thinking of a reason why I should want to go back. I asked the NGO sponsoring me in Ghana if they would renew me for another year, but they said No. I understand. This was never meant to be a career.
I have to say, I had found a pretty comfortable berth to ride out the worst of this none-dare-call-it-depression. I have never seen things as bad as they were when I left the United States three years ago.
Then there is the little matter of health insurance. Three years ago, I had a policy with a $10,000 (not a typo) deductible for which I paid fifty dollars a month. The same policy today would cost me three times as much, as well as an equal amount for my wife. A policy that actually gave us a fighting chance of avoiding bankruptcy in the unlikely event of a really serious illness would cost several times that.
So I don’t know what’s going to happen next. We shall just have to see.
All photos by author
Originally published on Open Salon 6 August 2012
The hippopotamus is widely distributed throughout sub-Saharan Africa but its range is now highly fragmented. The only other living species of hippopotamid, the pygmy hippopotamus, is found only in a few scattered locations in Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Coté d’Ivoire.
The word “Hippopotamus” is derived from Greek and means “River horse.” The Fante word for hippopotamus is “Nsusun,” which means “Water elephant.” In fact hippopotamids are not closely related to either horses or elephants. Traditionally they have been grouped in the Order Artiodactyla, or even-toed hoofed mammals, but studies of nuclear DNA, mitochondrial DNA, and fossils all indicate that their closest relatives are not their fellow hoofed mammals at all, but rather the Order Cetacea, which comprises the whales, including the dolphins. The last common ancestor of hippopotamids and whales is believed to have lived some 55-60 mya.
The oldest known stem-group hippopotamid fossil is Elomeryx, which lived some 40 million years ago and was 1.5 meters long, about the size of a modern-day pig or tapir.
Anthracotherium, which arose about 33 million years ago, was about the same size as a modern hippopotamus, although with a much narrower head.
Bui National Park, located along the Black Volta River, is one of two remaining places in Ghana where hippos can be seen in their wild state. (The other is Weichiau Community Hippo Sanctuary in the Upper West Region.) The park contains the Bui Dam, constructed by Sinohydro Corporation of China. Filling of the reservoir commenced last July, and the hydroelectric power plant is expected to begin operating next year.
Accompanied by my wife Yaa, I traveled to Bui National Park in Ghana’s Northern region in hope of viewing some of these great beasts. We arrived mid-afternoon and, after settling in our accommodations, hiked to the summit of Kre Wura along with some American students taking a break from their labors at the University of Legon. This is the largest animal we saw:
Fortunately, the paucity of wildlife was somewhat compensated by the panoramic 360° view afforded us.
On the way down, we noticed a whole swarm of dragonflies dogging our every step. They definitely were following us. When we stopped, they stopped and hovered; when we started again, so did they.
Scientists have long known that mosquitoes are attracted to our scent. Since dragonflies eat mosquitoes, it makes sense that they should be attracted as well. I wonder if anyone has ever investigated this?
The next day we were up before dawn in hopes of finding Nsusun. Accompanied by park employees Peter, Ebenezer, and Isaac, we set off.
Peter told us that the park contains some 430 hippos. He added that the flooding of the valley has greatly increased their available habitat but ironically has made them all that much harder to find, by scattering them over a wider area.
We passed by the top of trees almost completely submerged by the advancing waters.
Then we stopped at one of the reservoir’s many islands to take in the view.
After that it was back to the search.
We stopped to offer two fishermen a tow back to the boat launch, a favor for which they were extremely grateful.
We didn’t see any hippos. After a couple of hours we pulled up at the boat landing and disembarked.
By late afternoon we were back in Kumasi at the house of our sister Beatrice where she stays with our nephew Pa Ko (called P.K.) and our grand-nephew Papa Tetchie.
You don’t always find what you’re looking for, but sometimes it’s important to make the search anyway, just so you can see what you had all along was enough.
Elomeryx skeleton illustration courtesy of Phillip D Gingerich
Anthracotherium illustration via Wikimedia Commons
All other photos by author
Originally published on Open Salon 30 July 2012
The Witches’ Camp at Kpatinga provides sanctuary for women who have been forced to flee their homes because of accusations of witchcraft. World Vision Ghana provides support for these women in an effort to help them improve their lot.
Accompanied by my wife Yaa, my daughter Baaba and my nephew Harry, we departed Kumasi at six in the morning and arrived at the bus stop in Tamale mid-afternoon. Our driver met us and, after we purchased some supplies, he drove us for three hours over rutted bumpy dirt roads, past miles and miles of acacia scrub rendered a verdant green by the recent rains, until we arrived at a rest house in Gushiegu where we had arranged to spend the night. We fell asleep to the sound of frogs chorusing.
The next morning we spent another hour traversing more rutted bumpy dirt roads before arriving in the village square of Kpatinga. There we were met by Hafez, a local teacher who had agreed to be our guide and interpreter. We journeyed to the Witches’ Camp located at the outskirts of the village, and Hafez introduced us to Musa, the village elder entrusted with the welfare of the inhabitants of the Witches’ Camp.
Musa and Hafez
Forty-four individuals live here, mostly women along with a few small children. Typically, the women who have sought refuge here have to remain here for the rest of their lives, although any children who accompany them are free to go once they reach adulthood.
Some of the younger women hire out their labor at the local village for a pittance. Some tend vegetable gardens and keep chickens and guinea fowl.
We saw sheep and goats aplenty, but Hafez told us that they belong to the residents of the village proper, not the Witches’ Camp.
When asked how they ended up here, these women are remarkably laconic about their experiences. No high drama here. One after another told us the same sad story: A family member died. I was accused of witchcraft. I had to flee my village. Shrug.
Some of these women were divorced or widowed when this happened. Others had husbands, but their husbands apparently were unable to do anything to protect them.
“We can’t sleep at night,” one of the women told us. “All we can see is the faces of our children.”
World Vision Ghana has provided these women with food and mattresses and has also built latrines as well as simple but sturdy dwellings for them to replace the mud huts which had an annoying habitat of washing away in a heavy rain.
World Vision also built a small church and a small school for the children.
Just as important, World Vision has worked hard to help overcome the isolation these women face. They built a cornmill and a water pump for all to use, thereby enticing the residents of Kpatinga to come by and see for themselves that the dwellers here are not so scary after all. (The cornmill is currently in need of repairs, the water pump is running just fine).
The plan worked. The children in the Witches’ Camp now attend school in the village with all the other local children. World Vision plans to take this one step farther and build a magnet school at the Witches’ Camp to attract the children of Kpatinga proper.
Near the end of our visit we presented the ladies with some small tokens of our appreciation for their hospitality: bread, biscuits, soap, and a small cash honorarium. They thanked us warmly.
Finally we spoke with Zhefal, a young girl living with her mother at the Witches’ Camp who is now in her second year of school. When I asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up, she smiled and without a moment’s hesitation replied, “A teacher.”
To learn more about World Vision Ghana click here.
To sponsor a child in Ghana through World Vision click here.
To make a contribution to World Vision click here.
All photos by author
Originally published on Open Salon 26 March 2012
Tuesday 13 March 2012: We departed at the ungodly hour of five AM and drove all day long, stopping at Kintampo Falls to take in the scenery.
Wednesday 14 March 2012: Our intrepid guide Issa showed us this track and raised our hopes when he told us it had been made by a young lion.
Upon further examination, however, he noticed the toenail marks and concluded it was the track of a hyena.
Thursday 15 March 2012: We visited the village of Larabanga and viewed the oldest mosque in Ghana, built in 1421.
I was beset by a swarm of raggedy little children, all vying with each other for the honor of holding my hand in their greasy, sticky little mitts.
Friday 16 March 2012: We saw nine elephants cooling off in the water hole. The glare from the sun was so great I couldn’t see what my camera was capturing, so I just had to point and shoot and hope for the best. That explains why some of these photos are not well centered.
As I stood on the bank snapping pictures, out of the corner of my eye I noticed the swish of the tail of a crocodile swimming right towards me. I took a few steps back from the water’s edge, not wanting to become lunch for that beast whilst I was absorbed in the task of photographing the elephants.
Scientists now tell us that the elephant is descended from more fully aquatic ancestors and, watching these lumbering giants returning to their putative ancestral home, I had no trouble believing it.
Saturday 17 March 2012: We departed the park at the even more ungodly hour of three AM, stopping in a little village in Brong-Ahafo where the monkey is still venerated.
We checked in at the visitor center to pick up Edmond, one of the village elders, who agreed to serve as our guide. As we walked along the forest path, Edmond explained to us that the sanctuary is home to two species of monkey: the Mona Monkey and the Colobus Monkey. He also noted that whenever a monkey dies, the villagers give it a proper burial inside a monkey-sized coffin and erect a marker over the grave site.
I was lucky enough to get some excellent picture of a Colobus monkey, Normally this species is extremely shy and almost impossible to photograph, but this guy wasn’t shy at all. In fact, he was glaring at me so intently from his perch I thought maybe he wanted to challenge me to a fight.
After dropping Edmond off we got back to pounding pavement. I didn’t get home until nine PM.
And someone was waiting for me.
All photos by author