Friday, September 7, 2007

Airborne once again!

Janet and I have both done interviews on CBC Radio since we've been back. Mine was yesterday morning; Janet did hers way back in July. For those of you who didn't get a chance to hear them, you can find both online at

Mark (Sept. 6):
Janet (July 19):

You can also click on the links in the menu on the left side of the page. You need a program like Real Audio (available free online) to listen to them.

If you get a chance to listen to them, let us know what you think!

- Mark

Sunday, September 2, 2007


I stayed overnight at the Liberian refugee camp on one of my last nights in Ghana, and watched “Refugee All Stars” on a big screen in an outdoor courtyard. “Refugee All Stars" is a documentary about refugees from war-torn Sierra Leone who formed a band on their camp in Guinea, which borders Sierra Leone and Liberia in West Africa.

It was an emotional experience watching this film with my friends from the camp. I see documentaries like this at home, but it’s usually with people like me who empathize but can’t personally relate to the subject matter. The Liberians connected on a very personal level to the experience of the “Refugee All Stars.” They felt the pain of exile from their homeland; they also felt that their newspaper “The Vision” inspired and entertained Liberian refugees in the same as the "Refugee All Stars" gave to a lift to people from Sierra Leone.

The “Refugee All Stars” have now gone home to Sierra Leone, however; “The Vision” and the people who publish it are still in Ghana, though they plan to take the paper to Liberia as early as December.

The Liberians are an articulate and passionate group, and they feel comfortable expressing themselves in front of a crowd. A few of them spoke to the group about their perceptions of the film once it was over. Joseph, an editor with the paper, addressed the question that’s on everyone’s mind: when do they return home to Liberia?

“We’ve have been in exile too long,” he said. “It’s time to go home.”

We tend to think of Africans as eager to immigrate to places like Canada, because life is so difficult in a lot of African countries. And in truth many people do long to get out, but many more want to stay home, or return home in the case of the Liberians.

A few months ago, I met a taxi driver who was very upset that Ghanaians had a hard time getting tourist visas to Canada. The Canadian government is very reluctant to issue visas, especially to young single men, because it suspects - and rightly so in many cases – that they will stay in Canada and not return home to Ghana.

This infuriated our driver because he wanted to visit Canada one day, and he was insulted by the suggestion that he would not want to return home to Ghana. “You can’t take me away from Ghana anymore than you can remove salt from the sea,” he said.

I agreed and told him it was the same for me, though I came from the other, colder side of the Atlantic.

I will miss Ghana because it has become a home of sorts to me, much like India, Halifax and Toronto, other places I have lived for short and long periods. But after seven months in a self-imposed exile, the Bay of Fundy beckons me. It’s time to go home.

- Mark

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Liberians get much needed tools of the trade

My time is quickly coming to an end, and one of my most rewarding experiences has been working with the "The Vision," the newspaper at the Liberian refugee camp outside Accra. They're great friends and journalists working under very difficult conditions.

They seldom have electricity, and just recently got a generator so they can power computers, lights, et cetera. They've had to operate with a short supply of basic things like paper and pens.

In addition, they've had to get by without easy access to things that Canadian journalists take for granted - cameras, tape recorders and up-to-date computer equipment.

To help them out, I asked some people back home to send much needed electronic equipment, and I want to thank them for their generous gifts. Judith Mackin, Peter Smit, and Patrick Sohy donated digital recorders so the reporters could tape interviews; Mike Tilley donated a camera because they've had to borrow one in the past to take pictures; and David Alston donated a laptop with a processor powerful enough to operate a page-buidling program so they could layout the paper themselves, rather than pay someone to do it for them.

In the picture above, a few of the guys are learning to build news pages on David's laptop, which we've attached to a monitor with a bigger screen size. If they learn this skill, it will help the paper save money and also make them more employable when they eventually return to Liberia.

The guys really appreciated these gifts. Thank you David, Mike, Judith, Peter and Patrick. Thank you, too, Katie Wallace, who brought the equipment with her when she visited Ghana in April.

- Mark

Monday, August 20, 2007

Recipe for success

Victor got a job! I got this piece of good news when he called shortly after returning from a visit to his hometown; he was there to visit his family and pay the school fees for his daughter so she could finish the year and get her marks. Upon his return he learned that a guesthouse wanted him to be their cook.

I was especially eagre to report this news because so few stories like Victor's have happy endings here. I was also happy, of course, because now I would get a meal cooked by Victor, as he promised to do when I gave him the money for daughter's fees ("A friend in need," July 28).

On Saturday, I went to the guesthouse with my friend Doug, and Victor made us lunch. I had a spicy vegetable dish with rice; it was especially good because he made it with fresh mushrooms (a rarity here).

Victor was as good as he said he was, and luckily the guesthouse thought so too.

My enthusiasm about his new job was tempered a bit, though, when I discovered that he was working seven days a week and was still finding it difficult to make ends meet. His starting salary was 500,000 cedis a month (about $60 Canadian). Bus fare alone costs him about 450,000 cedis a month because he has to travel far to work. He’s trying to find a place closer to the guesthouse but the city’s vacancy rate is really low.

Ideally he’ll find a place closer for about 150,000 cedis a month, and get a raise after he’s proved himself for a while. Then, he said, he’ll be able to bring his family back to Accra.

Low pay, long hours, and his family still so far away. His situation still seemed so difficult to me. But that’s not how Victor saw it. “It’s better than being idle,” he said.

- Mark

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The universal language of customer service

Mercy laughs at me every time I say "ay-ta-sein" (how are you?) or "ay-ya" (I am fine). She sells me fruit every day on my way home from work, and she also tries to teach me a new word or phrase in "Twi," the local language. When I stumble over my words she laughs and begins to speak in English.

Another one of my local vendors has put me on a crash-course in Twi; they don't realize that I will be gone in two weeks and they will be amongst the people that I will miss the most.

Coming from a SuperStore world, I have grown to really love my early morning/late afternoon routine here. I buy some staples at the grocery store equivalent here (coffee, apple juice, et cetera), but I get most of my things at roadside stands or shacks. I get my fruit from Mercy, tomatoes and beans from a stand up the road from her.

There is one little shop near my place where I buy things like bottled water, toilet paper, dish soap, bread, et cetera. Across the road from them I buy imported shortbread cookies (my late-night indulgence). I can't get anything else from them because the woman at the first shop is very territorial, and she's let it be known I should only buy from her.

One day I handed her 6,500 cedis for a bottle of water; she eyed me warily and said, "They charge that price across the street. I only charge 6,000." It reminded of the time I was at Java Moose and handed one of the owners enough change for a medium-size coffee at Tim Hortons. Let's just say it didn't pass unnoticed.

Big companies buy our loyalty through expensive advertising and branding campaigns. Small ones - in Ghana and in Canada - earn it through personal, daily contact.

The language of loyalty is sincerity and warmth, and it can be understood by foreigners here even if we don't speak Twi.

- Mark

Monday, August 6, 2007

Slaves to no one

I walked into the U.S. embassy in Accra this afternoon, and there was a large crowd gathered in the lobby. I was there to interview the public affairs director about a story I was working on; they were American visitors waiting for a guided tour. They were from a UCLA alumni group with ancestral ties to slaves brought to America in 1807 on one of the last ships before the slave trade was abolished.

One of them told me the trip was a pilgrimage of sorts to their ancestral home. Though they were descendants of Ghanaians, they couldn’t have been more “American” in the way they carried themselves. Ghanaians, in my limited experience here, are passive and respectful, much like Canadians. Americans seem more like Nigerians – very aggressive and demanding.
When I arrived, the group of Americans was very upset because the ambassador wasn’t back from a meeting yet, and she was going to lead the tour. They wanted to begin the tour before she got back, but the embassy staff told them they had to wait.

That wasn’t the answer they were looking for; as U.S. taxpayers they felt entitled to begin the tour when they were ready, not when the ambassador was ready. “We paid for this building,” one of them said.

The ambassador was late because she had been called away to a meeting with John Kufuor, the Ghanaian president. “You have to understand that you have to drop what you’re doing when the president calls for a meeting,” said an embassy staff person.

Then she began to say, “It’s like if you were in the U.S. and President Bush called…” but she was quickly interrupted.

“If Bush called us, we’d tell him to ‘stick it!’ ” said one of the Americans.

“Shhhh…” someone else whispered, as if to remind her she shouldn’t talk that way in an embassy.

I don’t mean to cast all of the Americans in one mould. (One of them was actually quite polite – very “Canadian,” you might say. He introduced himself to me, and asked what I was doing in Ghana.) Nonetheless, I was quite amused by how stereotypically “American” some of them were acting; I had a good chuckle at the Bush comment.

I also admired their brashness and confidence, especially when I considered how far African-Americans had come since the days of the slave trade.

The slaves left here in chains, thrown into the hulls of ships for lives of servitude. Two centuries later their descendants come to Ghana true “red, white and blue” Americans – slaves to nothing and no one, not even the U.S. ambassador’s schedule.

- Mark

Saturday, July 28, 2007

A friend in need

I got a call the other day from Victor, the unemployed man I wrote about in "Lost in the Crowd" (July 18).

"My daughter has been kicked out of school because we couldn't pay her school fees," he said. "Can you help me?"

"How much are the fees?" I asked.

"250,000 cedis," he said, which is about $30 Canadian.

I didn't know what to say to him. Giving money to people over here is a much-debated subject amongst foreign visitors. Some people believe that it's wrong; they think it encourages begging and discourages people from working for a living. Other people believe they should give; they think most people in need of help are trying hard to provide for themselves and their family, and should be helped out when they fall short.

For me, the truth lies somewhere in between. On the one hand, you'd go broke quickly here if you gave to everyone who asked you for money, and many of them don't actually need your help. (For example, I passed a well-dressed little boy with a cell phone on the street today, and all he said was, "Give me some money." Nothing ventured, nothing gained, I guess.) On the other hand, it feels wrong to turn away from people who appear to genuinely need help, and you have the means to do so.

The hard part is figuring out who "genuinely" needs your help.

Was Victor one of those people? I had only spoken to him for about a half an hour on a street corner. He had told me he'd fallen on hard times, that his wife and children had returned to their hometown to stay with family while he tried to find work in Accra. I had to trust that he was telling me the truth, and that his daughter would not finish the school year if I didn't give him money.

I thought back to our conversation on the street corner. I had immediately liked him. He was warm and thoughtful, and helpful as well. I had enjoyed our conversation so much that I gave him my phone number, without even being asked.

With this in mind, I said yes and told him to meet me downtown in front of the grocery store I often go to. He smiled and shook my hand warmly when I handed him the envelope with the money. He told me he would call when he got back from delivering the money to the school.

Remembering he was a cook, I told him all he had to do in exchange for the money was make me a meal upon his return. He readily agreed.

That was a fair trade, I thought, and it made my gift feel less like charity. After all, I often pay $30 or more for a meal in a Canadian restaurant. What's wrong with paying him the same amount of money for a home-cooked Ghanaian meal? And more importantly, a little girl gets to finish out the school year, and hopefully return again there in the fall.

- Mark