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 cbc.ca:

Mark (Sept. 6): http://www.cbc.ca/informationmorningsaintjohn/int_archives/2007_sep.html
Janet (July 19): http://www.cbc.ca/informationmorningsaintjohn/int_archives/2007_jul.html

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

Home

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

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Fear factor

We would have never come here if we had listened to the travel nurse in Saint John. She said we were going to the riskiest part of the world for picking up certain diseases: malaria, cholera, hepatitis, yellow fever, and dengue fever.

“Is it really the riskiest?" I asked.

“Yes,” she said.

“But I’ve been to places like Central America, Thailand, India,” I said.

“This is worse than all of them,” she said.

“And whatever you do,” she said before she began to administer the first of many expensive shots that provided some – but not complete - protection against these diseases, “don’t wear sandals. Wear protective footwear at all times. You never know what you’ll step on over there.”

This is when the fear started to set in. “Should we be doing this?” I asked Janet as we left the clinic. “It’s a little late to ask that now,” she said.

I was told there was much to fear about Ghana: diseases, pollution, armed robberies and traffic accidents (the leading cause of death).

I was so worked up that, on the third day I was here, I went to the hospital thinking I was having an asthma attack because of air pollution (I wasn’t). I haven’t been really sick yet or been in an accident, but Janet and I were nearly mugged (turned out Janet was too tough for them).

Ghana turned out to be not so frightening after all. Then we decided to take a trip to Nigeria, the scariest place in all of West Africa – except for maybe Sierre Leone, Liberia and Cote D’Ivoire…

There was so much to fear about Nigeria: it had the same diseases, but was more polluted and the roads were more dangerous. And it was more violent, way more violent. The day before we arrived, seven foreign oil workers were kidnapped in the Niger Delta, and armed robbers had broken into the house of the people Janet was to work with. (We went to Nigeria because Janet was giving some presentations on behalf of UNB.)

The Nigerians didn’t dispel my fears. Don’t go out alone, they all told me. And if you do, take taxis, not public transport. The buses and okadas (motorcycle taxis) get in more accidents and get robbed more often.

On the first morning, Janet went to work and I took a taxi to The Punch, the most popular daily newspaper in Lagos. I wanted to get a tour of the paper and go out on assignment with a reporter (see “A Sunday drive through Lagos” in the May folder). In a meeting with a group of editors they told me that the West exaggerates the dangers in Nigeria. “Yes, foreign oil workers are often kidnapped in the Niger Delta,” said one editor. “But they never kill any of them. They always let them go eventually.” But whatever you do, they all said, don’t ride the buses or the okadas. I took a cab back to the hotel.

The next day, I stayed in the room watching movies until noon. I didn’t want to take any more taxis (they were very expensive) and I was a bit spooked by all the Nigerians telling me to stay away from other, cheaper forms of transit.

At noon, I decided to venture out into the city. The guys at the front desk begged me to take a taxi. When it was clear I planned to take the bus, they gave in and wrote out directions for the bus stops.

I was so proud of myself as I stood at the bus stop waiting for one to come along, but still a little scared. One finally came along and I hopped on board. I nearly had a full-blown panic attack after the first minute. The bus stalled in traffic, and the air was thick with diesel exhaust. What if I have an asthma attack? What if the traffic’s so bad I can’t get back to the hotel before dark?!

I had calmed down by the time we reached the first stop, and decided to take a second bus that would take me all the way downtown. But I freaked out almost immediately after it pulled away from the stop; I got off at the next stop and made my way back to the hotel. Nonetheless I was very proud of my grand adventure. The hotel staff was delighted to see me back alive, and I couldn’t wait to tell Janet when she got back from her day riding around in taxis.

The next day I made it all the way down to Lagos Island, which has many large outdoor markets. Wary of pickpockets, I had my hand in my pocket, clutching my cash. As I walked down the sidewalk of a very busy street, I heard someone call from across the street, “White, white!” I usually ignore people who call out to me, thinking they’re street vendors or people looking for money, but this time I turned toward the man. He was pointing to the ground behind me. “You dropped some money,” he said. There on the sidewalk was some crumpled-up naira (Nigerian currency). Guess I wasn’t holding on to it so tightly after all.

How in this city of thieves and cons, I thought, did I happen upon the one honest guy? And why didn’t the other people on the street pounce on the money after I had dropped it on the ground. The stereotypes about Big Bad Nigeria were being proved wrong, at least in my case. I wandered the markets, down back alleys and side streets and people largely left me alone, except for the occasional person calling out, “Hey white, where are you going?”

I walked around for a few hours and then got back on the bus. As we passed over a bridge that connected Lagos Island with the mainland, I saw a large slum in marshy land near the water. I asked a passenger if he’d been down there before, and the mate collecting fares spoke up. “I grew up there,” he said. “I was schooled there.”

I was surprised when he spoke to me, just as the man who let me know my money had fallen to the ground surprised me. There is so much bad press about large African cities, some coming from the residents themselves, that we forget there is much good in them as well. People talk to each other; people help each other, just as they do everywhere else.

I’m not saying there’s nothing to fear. Everywhere I saw signs and heard stories about a city under siege. Barbed wire fencing around homes and businesses. Armed guards at banks and bank machines. Stories about people being robbed in their homes and on buses.

But you have to let down your guard a bit, or you won’t see much of what’s good in places like this. The same goes for being obsessed about getting in accidents or sick with malaria or cholera.

On our last day in Nigeria, a police officer gave me advice that’s worth heeding anywhere in the world.

We were pulled over at a police checkpoint, and an officer approached the car. I closed my hand over money I was holding so she couldn’t see it (police officers are said to be corrupt here and always looking for bribes). She peered briefly into the car and waved us on.

She must have noticed that I looked tense. As the car pulled away I heard her laugh; I turned around and she was looking at me. “Relax,” she said.

- Mark

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

A vacation in Togo

(Note: I wanted to write about our vacation in Togo, but didn't have time before returning to Canada. Here is the story with a few pictures)

We had hoped to go to Kenya or Mali for the last two weeks of June, which was also to be my last two weeks in West Africa, but due to the prohibitive cost of air travel to any place within Africa, we settled on Togo.

Togo is a country to the east of Ghana and is one of two slivers of land nestled between Ghana and Nigeria. It is French-speaking and has recently stabilized following a devastating civil war.

The border is only 3 hours from Accra, so it was easy for us to slip into the country, spend a few days touring around, and then head back to Ghana for a final few days at a beach resort.

We hit our first snag at the border where we were told our Ghanaian entry visas would have to be renewed before we could return to Ghana. We hadn’t expected this, and it would mean spending at least two days in Lomé, the capital, while we waited for the Ghanaian Embassy to process our visas to allow us to return across the border. Reports from the capital didn’t inspire a desire to spend more than an obligatory night there, but we had little alternative if we wanted to cross into Togo. We made the leap, and entered the country.

We spent our first night in a small hotel in a neighbourhood near the beach. The hotel bar and restaurant could have been plucked out of any small town in France. It had a beautiful outdoor patio, stone garden walls and a French Swiss owner. The room we stayed in was much less inspiring. It was musty had one dimly lit bulb hanging on a far wall and a toilet that didn’t flush. But, at $20 a night, we couldn’t really complain.

We dropped our things in our room, and went for a walk along the beach. Lomé spreads itself along one of West Africa’s most stunning beaches. The main road leaving Ghana and heading to Benin borders a sparkling sandy beach. Glistening blue water stretches out for miles from its edge. We watched Togolese families picnic in the shade of a few palm trees while children chased soccer balls along the hot sand. Couples strolled slowly along the edge of the water hand-in-hand.

Immediately we sensed a cultural difference between the people of Ghana and Togo. Even though Togolese look much the same as their Ghanaian neighbours, and some are from from the same tribes, they carried themselves differently. The people we watched seemed more leisurely. They held hands, sat under trees talking and laughing over food, and were well, more French. Obviously French colonization has had a lasting effect.

In the distance we heard music blasting. We followed the sound and were soon swallowed by a crowd. We pushed through the throngs of people and came across a stage on the beach where three women dressed in Coca Cola t-shirts were showing off their moves. The performance, we learned, was part of a summer dance competition sponsored by Coca Cola. The crowds voted for the best dancer by cheering loudly for their favourite. At the end of the summer, the final competitor would win a motor scooter.

By this time it was getting dark and we started to make our way back to the hotel. We took a side street called Avenue de la Presidence. I guess we should have realized from the name of the road and the unexpected silence that we were going in the wrong direction. A soldier approached us and demanded to know what we were doing. We told him we were heading back to our hotel. “Not this way,” he said. “You’re on the president’s property.”

Once we finally got back to the hotel, we lay down for a brief rest before dinner. We were excited about the menu selection which offered tempting French meals, but were tired from the bus ride and from crossing the border so decided to lay down our heads for a few minutes.

At 1 a.m. we woke up hungry.

The next morning our first activity was to go to the Ghanaian embassy to drop off our passports and apply for another visa. This was supposed to be an easy process, but an angry bureaucrat refused to simply allow us to fill out the application and pay our fee. After much convincing that we did indeed need another visa to cross back into Ghana and that he should take our money, he looked me and said sharply “Okay, but this is the last time I’m giving you a visa!”

We were told to return the next morning to pick up our visas. We paid our money and left.

Since we had to stick around Lomé until the next morning, we decided to go on a quick day trip to a place called Togoville, an hour’s drive from the city. Togoville is a small town on a lake where the locals practice voodoo. Most of the residents are also Catholic and in 2004 the pope visited the small town after the Virgin Mary was allegedly seen in a boat crossing the lake.

We also arrived at the village by boat thanks to a couple of local entrepreneurs who charged us $8 to sail a couple of kilometres across the lake. The boat was a carved out tree trunk, and the sail was a piece of plastic stuck to the top of a long wooden pole.

Once we arrived in Togoville we were met by Vincent, a man whose business card said he was a consultant and youth tourism trainer. For another small fee, he would guide us around the village and show us voodoo in the village.

I expected to see voodoo dolls and evidence of animal sacrifice, so was actually a bit disappointed by what seemed to be a series of neglected shrines. Mark reminded me that Hollywood had sensationalized voodoo and distorted it from its original conception.

Vincent told us that the locals believe that inanimate objects like trees, rocks and sculptures have living spirits. The villagers pay respects to these spirits with gifts of food and ask for guidance and protection.

After our brief tour, we returned to the dock where our boat was waiting to take us back across the lake. This time the wind direction made it impossible to use the sail, so our guide poled us across the water. It was a much more arduous trip and he definitely earned his $8.

Back at the hotel, we settled in at the restaurant anxious for a good meal. We didn’t dare lie down before dinner. The food was delicious. We had shrimp, couscous, and chocolate mousse for dessert.

At 3 a.m. we both regretted our meal. I was sick a couple of times, but Mark was so sick he hardly left the bathroom for the rest of the night.

In the morning, Mark was exhausted and didn’t think he could move on. I hated to pull him away from the comfort of the toilet, but also didn’t want to spend any more time in the musty room or in Lomé. I finally convinced him he could make it as far as Kpalime in the mountains an hour and a half drive away.

We waited for over an hour at the bus station for the bus to fill up. Twice Mark left in search of a toilet and returned looking sicker than before. I kept hoping the bus would fill up quickly, so we could move on, but it seemed to take forever, and we were still three people away from leaving.

Finally after his third or fourth trip to the terribly objectionable public bathroom, Mark told me he couldn’t make it. We would have to spend another day in Lomé. I was disappointed, but knew it was the right thing to do.

We quickly grabbed a taxi and found a guesthouse with a TV and DVD so that Mark could wait out the effects of the food poisoning while watching old Eddie Murphy movies.

The next 24 hours remain a blur. I read and Mark moved from the toilet to the bed.

We left for the mountains the next morning in a shared taxi with three people in the front and four squished into the back. Mark was tentatively feeling better, and we were keen to really start our vacation.

Thankfully Kpalime was a nice small town in a beautiful valley surrounded by lush green mountains. We found a quiet hotel on the outskirts of town with a pool and settled in.

A few minutes after we arrived, it started to pour. We were anxious to go hiking in the mountains, but waited out the rain at the hotel while eating conservatively. Mark had a cheese sandwich.

An hour or so later, the rain stopped and the sun came back out. We grabbed our day pack and made plans to visit an entomologist at the top of a nearby mountain.

“Will it rain again today?” I asked trying to decide whether or not to bring along a raincoat.

“No. It’s done for the day,” replied a staff person at the hotel. Another echoed his thoughts. “Don’t worry; there won’t be any more rain today.”

In Togo most people travel by motorcycle, and instead of taxis, the favourite way of getting around is by mototaxi. If we wanted to go to the top of the mountain, we would have to go this way. Our destination was 12 km and our driver’s name was Clement.

I had a little chat with Clement before we started. I reminded him that we didn’t need to drive quickly. “Doucement,” I said in French repeating what I’d heard someone say earlier. I liked the sound of this. Go softly. “Allez doucement,” I said again as we pushed off.

We climbed the mountain at an extremely slow pace. I smiled to myself as Clement inched up the road. He was being very careful, and for this I was thankful. It was actually quite breathtaking climbing up the mountain on a motorcycle. The air was fresh and cool following the rain storm and the view was spectacular.

At the top of the mountain we met Monsieur Prosper, an entomologist who makes a living taking tourists on guided hikes to see butterflies, and learn about native plants. He seemed surprised to see us, but was happy to take us on a tour. He warned us, however, that we wouldn’t see many butterflies because they don’t like the rain and were still in hiding.

“Why don’t butterflies come out in the rain?” Mark asked.

“For the same reason that you don’t like going out in the rain,” he replied.

We spent a wonderfully educational two hours with Monsieur Prosper as he guided us along the outskirts of his village. He is also a painter and uses only natural pigments for his colours. We saw a green leaf turn red and drip blood-like liquid when squeezed, and touched a sticky golden pigment the colour of the sun on the inside of a piece of bark.

He also showed us how a white powdery substance found on the back of a fern frond can leave a lasting mark on skin. It showed up much better on his skin than on mine.

After many interesting discoveries we looked to the east and saw huge black clouds storming towards us. It was going to rain hard and we hadn’t packed rain gear. We had a couple of minutes to quickly find shelter in a village school, and then it poured. The water came down in buckets, and left us stranded for 30 minutes or more. We had arranged for Clement to pick us up at 4 p.m. and worried that we wouldn’t get back in time to meet him. We also wondered if he’d be able to drive in the rain.

When the rain let up, we hurried back to Monsieur Prosper’s house and found Clement waiting for us. He had driven up the winding road in the pouring rain.
We hopped on the back of the motorcycle and started down the mountain. The rain pelted us we moved slowly but steadily down the road.

Back at the hotel, we changed, and then returned to the restaurant to order dinner. To our surprise Clement, our mototaxi driver was standing outside the kitchen. Not only was he a careful mototaxi driver, but he was also our chef.

Clement cooked us a great French meal – one of the best I’ve ever had – antelope marinated in red wine sauce. We enjoyed the meal, and slept soundly without any sign of food poisoning.

The next day we went on another hike to a waterfall where we saw huge fields of corn planted on the side of incredibly steep hills. I was amazed at the athletic strength required to plant and tend to these fields. We met a couple in their 50s who live halfway up the mountain and farm this land. An hour later we met the same woman returning from the village where she’d gone to get supplies. I was exhausted from the two hour walk. She looked refreshed and strong.

Togo is a beautiful country with a vibrant culture, good food (most of the time), and gentle people. Unfortunately we could only visit the country for a few days, and this was to be the end of our Togolese vacation. We bid goodbye to the green mountains and lush valley and Clement our multi-talented new friend. At the bus station we caught another shared taxi back to Ghana.

- Janet

Lost in the crowd

I met Victor on a street corner in an Accra neighbourhood called Pig Farm; I was standing mesmerized by the chaos around me, trying not to be so oblivious that I got hit by a car that was (literally) cutting a corner.

“This place is a wreck,” he said, referring to the neighbourhood.
To me it wasn’t. Coming from a city that sleeps most of the day and night (I say that with affection), I’m always fascinated by bustling urban neighbourhoods. Pig Farm is consumed with activity even by Accra standards; it’s a haven for people watchers.

Victor said Pig Farm was named after obrunis who had come and gone. “Germans used to raise pigs here more than 100 years ago,” he said.

In the tro-tro station, I watched a fight develop between two women. One threw a handful of dirt at the other, who ran and hid behind a stand selling cell phones. The first woman then picked a really big rock and hid behind a tro-tro, waiting for the other to emerge. I then turned my attention to a woman across the street screaming to be heard over the traffic (you can see her in the picture below, wearing a white baseball cap). I crossed the street and saw that she had a Bible in her hands; she was a street preacher, the first woman I’d seen doing this.

Victor and I chatted as I scanned the street for more action. The two women who’d been fighting had disappeared. The tro-tros and taxis were racing in and out of the station, fighting with each other for passengers. On all four corner of the junction were food stalls, vendors selling cell phones, newspapers, water. Pedestrians were racing across the road trying to avoid vehicles that would not slow down to let them cross safely.

As it turned out, Victor had good reason not to like Pig Farm. He had lost his job as a cook at an area guesthouse a few months ago. His wife and two daughters had moved back to their hometown northeast of Accra while he tried to find work. He was going to have to give up soon, though, he said. “I’m planning to join my family in a month if nothing works out here.”

It was a run of bad luck after a lot of good luck, he said. For 25 years, he’d gotten steady work, and been able to travel too. He was the personal cook of an oil executive in Nigeria for 15 years, he said, and learned to cook a lot of European food; Greek is his favourite because he was able to travel to Athens as a chef on board an oil tanker.

The he moved back to Ghana and worked for 10 years with a construction company; when he was laid off from there he went to work for the guesthouse.

Now that job was done, and he was on the lookout for another. But you can’t stay in Accra for long without work because it’s so expensive, which is why it looks like he’s heading to his hometown to rejoin his wife and children.

The problem with neighbourhoods like this anywhere in the world is that, with so much going on, people like Victor can get lost in the crowd.

- Mark

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Sermon on the bus

He seemed like a mild-mannered fellow when I sat down beside him in the front seat of the tro-tro. I was on my way to the refugee camp where I do volunteer work. As we sat there waiting for the tro-tro to leave, I read the newspaper, and he the Bible.

When the tro-tro filled up and left the station, the man stood and turned to face the rest of the passengers. Hunched over because the ceiling of the bus was low, he began to preach – in a no-more-nice-guy kind of way.

“This vehicle is awash in the blood of Jesus!” he said, punching words like “blood” and “Jesus” as if he were a preacher from the southern U.S.

I knew he was making reference to Christ dying for our sins, but his analogy – albeit an apt one - was really freaking me out. I didn’t like the image of the tro-tro being awash in the blood of anyone. These rickety-old mini-buses terrify foreigners; we don’t like being reminded of how dangerous they are, especially when you’re in the front with no seat belt!

He preached non-stop all the way to the camp, which is 45 minutes outside Accra. This is a very common occurrence here. Sometimes a preacher will hop on for just a minute to bless the bus and the passengers, which he believes will give a reasonable assurance of a safe journey; other times he’ll (they’re always men) will ride the whole way, and give a 20-minute or three-hour sermon, depending on how far the bus is going.

Many foreigners are surprised - and often irritated - by this practice because they're so accustomed to secular public spaces in their home countries. In Canada, a “man of god” would not be welcome to preach to a captive audience on a bus, where he would be forcing people with different beliefs to listen to his message.

Here, though, people are reverent and attentive. They nod their heads and say "amen" throughout these impromptu public services.

Muslims and Christians alike are very dedicated here; expressions of faith are public and very much part of daily life.

Earlier this week, I was taking a bus to the south of the country from the north, where most Muslim Ghanaians live. At a rest stop, I sat down on a bench under a large tree. To my right sat a pair of chickens (farm animals are also very much a part of life here, even in the cities); to my left, many of my Muslim bus mates were laying down prayer mats on the ground. They pray five times a day, no matter where they happen to be. In cities and towns in the north and south, the Muslim call to prayer can heard over loud speakers as early as five in the morning.

The morning after my bus ride, I awoke to a sermon by a man who seemed to be right outside my window. “You will dominate your life with the word of Jesus,” he said.

“In the name of Jesus, we pray,” he said. Then I heard people mutter “Amen” and “God Bless.”

I lay in bed listening for a while, wondering where this was coming from. Eventually I got up to make some coffee. I stepped outside my door, and saw five pairs of sandals sitting outside my neighbour’s room. The sounds were coming from inside. They were holding a church service with five people, in a tiny one-room apartment at seven o’clock on a Tuesday morning! I hear people grumble about being woken up at 5 am by the call to prayer; would I be now be awoken by my neighbour who had apparently turned her apartment into a chapel?

I used to get annoyed by these public displays of faith (they were so loud I considered my neighbour’s private service to be a public one), but I’ve grown relaxed about it over the months, mostly out of respect for Ghana’s right to be different from the West in this respect.

I could do without the sermons on the bus, though. They put the fear of God into most of the passengers, but they put the fear of tro-tros into me, and I still have to ride them for the next month before I go home.

- Mark

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Plotting for a Garden

My new garden patch is 3 feet by 8 feet.

"Wide enough for a small casket," my mom said ruefully staring down at the soil.

I stood up straight to stretch my back and looked down at my pathetic little patch of dirt. It had taken me all morning just to tear up the grass and prepare the soil for planting. Four hours of work had given me enough space to bury a body.

I walked over to the cottage and looked at the plants I’d picked up from the market the day before. I counted 29 plants. Four tomato plants, four kinds of herbs, six bean plants, six broccoli plants, four lettuce plants, four corn plants and a cantaloupe vine. I smiled at my overzealousness. There was no way all the plants were going to fit into my little garden plot.

I returned from Ghana Friday night and after the enthusiastic welcome of friends and family, was anxious to get to the cottage to plant a garden. I’d been inspired by Filipina and her corn field in Accra and vowed that I would have my very own personal garden this summer.

Early Saturday morning, I went to the garden center in Hampton to check out their vegetable plants. To have a garden this summer, I would have to skip some corners – it was way too late to plant seeds so I’d have to jump right to the plant stage. I knew that all of Filipina’s plants had come from seed, but this was the only way my garden had a chance of succeeding.

I hungrily eyed the various plants, and selected those that I thought might save me some money at the end of the summer. I also selected corn because I wanted to reap my crop at the same time Filipina would harvest hers in Accra at the end of August.

Arriving at the cottage I surveyed the property for a good piece of land with lots of sun exposure. I settled on a patch behind the cottage. Armed with a pitch fork, a hoe and pair of gloves, I went to work.

Despite the unusually cold July 1st weekend, I started to sweat. It was hard work. My back ached, and the plot seemed to grow at an incredibly slow pace. I stopped to rest and enlisted the help of my 2-year-old niece. Her job was to pick the rocks out of the soil and put them in a basket. Eager to help, she was a diligent worker. Time marched on.

At noon time, I decided to quit. My garden patch was small, but I didn’t have the energy to tear up any more of the lawn. I stuffed all of the plants into my little garden. Even though the instructions on the packages said they needed more room to grow, I decided that they’d have to share the space. In went all of the plants.

Standing back and assessing my work I laughed out loud. This was definitely a pathetic middle class garden. It wouldn’t feed even one person let alone an entire family.

Filipina would have scoffed at my effort. Every day when I’d walk home from work I would notice that her garden had grown by a few meters, but I never stopped to think how much effort she must have put into preparing her beds. She had transformed an entire grassy field into a flourishing garden with over 200 corn plants. It must have taken her weeks to complete.

I have to admit that even though my garden is small, I’m quite intrigued by it. Over the next few weeks I will tend to it, carefully alert to any predators that might attempt to sabotage my plants.

At the end of the summer when Filipina is harvesting her corn, I also hope to have a small crop. Her labour will feed her family for a few months. I’m hoping mine will help me prepare a nice welcome home dinner for Mark. I sure hope he likes broccoli.

- Janet

A sweet deal

I met Mohammed just after I’d walked through the front gate of my yard yesterday morning. He had a plastic blue container, which resembled my kitchen garbage can, perched on top of his head.

“Want to buy some honey?” he asked. “You can drink it with your tea, better for your health than sugar.”

“How much? I asked.

“40,000 cedis,” he said.

That was about $4.50 – way too much, I knew, but I agreed to pay it (A hopeless negotiator, I’m at a loss without Janet, a master of the art.)

He lifted the top off the container, grabbed an empty water bottle and began scooping out honey and pouring it into the bottle.

I peered into the blue container; it was full of dark, molasses-like liquid and floating chunks of honeycomb.

“Where does this honey come from?” I asked.

“In the north of the country, near the border of Burkina Faso,” he said.

He told me that his family was nomadic and had migrated to Ghana from Niger, a country northwest of Ghana. They herded cattle and goats, he said, and they also made honey. They had transported 400 litres of it by truck to Accra, where they it was sold in markets and on the streets by Mohammed.

There are a lot of small-time sellers like Mohammed in Ghana. People who peddle household products and food to car drivers in traffic jams. People who operate roadside stalls that sell as little as a few vegetables and cans of tomato paste. I always wonder if they sell enough to get by.
“Do you make good money?” I asked Mohammed.

“Small money,” he said, closing his thumb and finger together for emphasis, but enough money, he said, to make it worth the trip. - Mark

Sunday, July 1, 2007

A Sunday stroll through Accra

I really should have gotten up to run at 5:30 when the sun hadn’t risen yet and there were no cars on the road. I also should have thought to bring along some water, and a small towel to wipe the sweat off my face.

I didn’t hit the road until a few minutes after 8, and by 9 I found myself inhaling diesel on a busy four-lane road, and it was close to 30 degrees Celsius.

I slowed to a walk even though I had only finished about half my run. Dehydrated, discouraged, I could go no further. Where was I going to find my second wind?

As it happened, there was a marathon underway in conjunction with Ghana’s Republic Day celebrations (the same day we celebrate Canada Day). The lead runner happened to be coming toward me around the same time I was slowing down. It turned out I was doing my run on the same road; I was just going in the opposite direction.

I stopped to watch him as he ran by. He was way ahead of the field; he seemed focused, with a lot of remaining strength and energy. I’m not in any kind of shape to run a marathon today, I thought to myself, but surely I can run16 kilometres, my original goal for today.

I just need some water, and maybe something to wipe the sweat off my face. Since I’d slowed down, I'd started to sweat profusely. It stung my eyes as it streamed down my face from my forehead.

At a roadside stand I asked for a bottle of water. The clerk wanted 12,000 cedis for it, which is about a $1 Canadian and three times the regular price. I didn’t care. I would have given her twice that if she had asked.

I drank half of it and used the other half to wash my face. Then I started to run again, and as I did I began to encounter the rest of the field. That I was running in the opposite direction was very confusing for the runners and the bystanders.

One of the runners called out as he passed by, “Are you finished already?!” A spectator shouted, “Obruni, you’re going the wrong way!”

The obstacles were many for me as I made my way up the road – oncoming cars, clusters of runners. Even a pack of goats crossed the road in front of me! One of them made it to the centre of the street and realized he wasn’t going to make it, so he turned around and was quickly followed by his buddies.

At the next water station I stopped and had a cup of water and a cup of Milo, a popular Ghanaian chocolate milk drink (Milo was the corporate sponsor). I grabbed an extra bag of water and headed off back up the road. A group of bystanders laughed as I ran by and asked for my bag of water. I tossed it back over my shoulder and smiled at them as they dove for it before it hit the road and broke open.

Something to consider for runners back home who pay a lot of money for the “right” shoe: I passed two people at the 29-kilometre mark who were running in bare feet! One was running in flip-flops! (Don’t try this at home kids.)

Amused and re-energized I was able to run all the way home. I may feel good enough to do my next run in bare feet, or in flip-flops at least.

- Mark

Friday, June 29, 2007

A corny goodbye

Ghana’s tear ducts opened wide this morning, the day after Janet got on a plane and went back to Canada. Please forgive me for being so sappy (though I don’t know if Janet will when she reads this) but it’s been raining steadily since dawn, and I miss her already!

And I think a lot of other people here do too. Janet can touch people in a way I’ve seen rivaled only by her mother and my mother, and that ability was on display yesterday when I went on a bit of a farewell tour with her before she left.

Janet has written much about the women of Dade Link. They had become good friends of hers, and by extension mine, so we took one last walk there before we caught a cab to the airport.

We went to Filipina’s place first. She lives in a partly constructed building that resembles a parking garage. Construction was halted at some point and squatters like Filipina and her grandchildren now occupy it. She has planted a field of corn and groundnut plants that are now flourishing in the rainy season.

We passed through the cornfield and went up to the second floor of the building. Filipina was sitting on a mat spread on the concrete floor, but she sprung to her feet when she saw Janet. She hugged her and pointed at her heart when she pulled away, indicating that it was difficult to see Janet go. Filipina always chatters away whenever you see her. She doesn’t speak much English ,but she’s very emotional and gestures a lot so it’s not hard to understand what she’s trying to say.

When we left, Filipina waved and cried out goodbyes until we were out of sight.

Janet had already said goodbye to Elizabeth, Giftina and Deliza, but we were going by there anyway so, much to their surprise, there was a second round of goodbyes. When Deliza saw Janet come down the road, she smiled broadly and her eyes opened wide. She ran and told her mother and sister that Janet was here and they all came running out of their shack. The girls ran up and embraced her. They were so excited they hugged me too, which surprised me because they’ve always been friendly toward me but a little shy and standoff-ish.

Janet and I weren’t going to see each other for a couple of months, so I had been hoping to spend the last few moments at the airport alone with her. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be! A trio of women from Janet’s volunteer placement had planned to come and say goodbye – Esther, Rebecca and Momma Lou. They were all very excited to see Janet off; Rebecca and Esther even got dressed up for the occasion.

We sat around a table on the outdoor patio of the airport restaurant. Playing the part of the gloomy writer, I looked around and saw the foreboding signs of Janet’s departure – to my right the tail of the plane that would carry Janet to Canada, to my left gathering rain clouds! Janet and her friends chatted away, seemingly oblivious that she would be gone soon and might never see each other again.

This somehow didn’t matter to them, perhaps because – as Janet said to Filipina earlier that afternoon – we all leave pieces of ourselves behind with people when we go away. Those pieces of ourselves – or memories – feed and sustain us.

The same is true of the rain drops, which weren’t really tears at all of course, but nourishment for the corn that will feed Filipina and her granddaughters a couple of months after Janet has returned home.

I should still be here when it's ready, though, and Filipina has invited me to come eat some with her when it’s ready. I’ll let you know when I do.

- Mark

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

A Prayer for Deliza and Giftina

I was struck by a picture my mom sent me of my two-year-old niece, Ahree, taken at the zoo last week. I hadn’t seen her in almost six months and she looked older. When I left she was a toddler. Now she looks like a little girl. Six months isn’t a long time, but for a two-year-old, it’s one-third of a life time.

In Accra, I have made friends with a two-year-old who reminds me of my little niece. Her name is Deliza and I meet her every day as I walk to work. She lives in a small shack on a narrow dirt lane not far from our apartment that links two main roads. She lives with her mother Elizabeth and her five-year-old sister, Giftina, who is the same age as my other niece Meelahn.

Deliza has an incredible smile. We don’t speak the same language, but every time I see her, her face lights up. Together with her sister who’s in kindergarten, we recite the alphabet. She has no idea what we’re saying, but she listens carefully and utters sounds that closely resemble the sounds of the letters. Her mother, who neither reads nor writes, listens in eagerly, occasionally bursting with glee at her daughter’s academic prowess.

A few weeks ago, Mark and I returned from a week in Nigeria. I hadn’t told Elizabeth and the children that we’d be away, and they were obviously distressed by our unannounced absence. The day we returned, I went to visit. The girls came running over, and Elizabeth stood behind them looking relieved, her arms turned upwards towards the sky.

“Oh we pray for you,” she said urgently as I approached. I learned through an interpreter that she thought we’d returned to Canada. She’d spent the week praying that we’d come back.

As I approached their home she walked over to Deliza and told me that they’d all been praying for our safe return. Even Deliza. “She pray for you,” Elizabeth said pointing to her youngest daughter. “Every day she pray.”

She then tapped her daughter on the back of her head to get her attention.

“Pray,” she said.

Deliza squinted her eyes together and scrunched up her little face to show she was praying. She opened her eyes and looked for approval and I smiled. Her mother tapped her on the head again.

“Show them you pray,” she repeated.

Deliza obeyed again. She closed her eyes and her face tightened. This time she held the position for a few seconds. When she opened her eyes, she looked at me and a smile grew across her face.
At my birthday party a couple of weeks ago, Elizabeth and her children came as my guests. They were late for the grand event, and I was worried that they’d forgotten it was Saturday, the day of the party. Mark said he’d go and find them.

When Mark approached their home, he found the two girls all dressed up in beautiful little dresses. Inside their one room home they’d found the resources to outfit themselves for a party. Elizabeth was bathing and was not yet ready to go.



A while later, they arrived, and the girls filled themselves with platefuls of food and bottles of coke. After dinner we all hit the dance floor and both Giftina and Deliza moved to the music. A couple of hours later, I couldn’t find Deliza. I saw Elizabeth dancing and went over to learn the whereabouts of our little friend. As I approached her, I saw Deliza snuggled in a wrap tied to Elizabeth’s back. She was sleeping. The excitement of the day had tired her out and now in her sleep she moved to the rhythm of the music.

As I get ready to leave, I wonder about the lives of these two little girls. At 2 and 5 they are full of anticipation for their future and ready to learn. They don’t yet know the full harshness of the lives they have been born into. Without running water, a stable home and financial resources, their academic lives will likely end when they’re forced to pay school fees at the age of 10. With a mother who’s never been to school, and a father who shows up once every few months to drop off a couple of dollars to help raise the children, their future is terribly uncertain.

My active role in these two girls lives will end when I leave Accra on Thursday. I have two little girls back in Canada who are anxiously awaiting my return and are ready for me to return to my role as their Aunt. As time passes, it will be Deliza and Giftina who I will no longer recognize as they grow older. I can only hope that their lives are different than the ones I envision. Now it is my turn to pray.

- Janet

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Take the Money and Run

Cecelia stood beside me frantically pointing at the sky. “It’s going to rain,” she said anxiously. “I am leaving now.”

I looked behind me and saw thick black clouds racing across the sky towards us. She was right, it was definitely going to rain.

“Just wait a few more minutes Cecelia,” I said with mild amusement at her obvious alarm. “Your money will be ready very soon. There are only a few people left to receive their loans.”

“No, I have to go,” she said. “You collect the money and I’ll get it from you tomorrow.”

I was amazed at her anxiousness to leave. She had waited for weeks for this loan, but when faced with the choice of getting the loan that day, or escaping the impending rain, she was clearly prepared to leave the money behind.

I told her I could not collect her loan on her behalf; that if she wanted the money, she would have to wait.

Cecelia started pacing underneath the almond tree, a huge beautiful tree located in the front garden of the West Africa AIDS Foundation. Her faced was filled with worry and impatience. Finally the loan officer called her name.

“Cecelia Amaboe,” she called out. Cecelia almost tripped over herself in her hurry to reach the table. She grabbed the bag of money and quickly pressed her ink-covered finger on the page of the loan agreement. The first raindrops began to fall.

Without a backwards look, Cecelia stuffed her money in her purse and took off running. She gave a half wave over her shoulder and left the compound. Two minutes later, as she was running up the street to catch a bus, the skies opened.

After an eight-week delay, the income generating participants were finally going to receive their loans. Early in the afternoon on June 13th, we were all seated in a circle underneath the almond tree waiting for the microfinance institution to arrive. They were an hour late but this time had promised to come with money.

Because of the many weeks delay, many of the participants had all but given up on ever receiving the loans. As people living with HIV, they are used to being disappointed and rejected, and to them, this was another example.

The micro-credit institution’s excuse for the delay was complicated and difficult to accept. They told us they’d had to open a new account at a new bank and that this took weeks to complete. Then they explained that once the account was set up, the money for the loan, which had been given by a special government department, had mistakenly been sent back. Retrieving the money from the Ghanaian government was another long, bureaucratic task.

When the loan officers finally reached The West Africa AIDS Foundation, everyone breathed a sigh of relief. What mattered to everyone was that the money had finally arrived.

The loan officers sat at the top of the circle behind a wooden table with a stack of papers and bags of cash. One by one, the participants were called to the table. If they could read and write, they signed their name. If not, their thumbprint showed their identity.

The loan officers reminded them of the importance of paying back the loan.

“If you don’t pay back your loan on time,” one loan officer said, “You will start paying interest at 1.5% a day,” he said sternly. “And if you still don’t pay, we will come to your homes to find you. If that doesn’t work, we have the right to broadcast your name on the radio.”

I looked at the faces around the circle. All eyes were on the loan officer. They listened to every word. Their expressions told me that having their names broadcast on the radio for not repaying the loan would be the ultimate shame.

The loans were broken up into two types - working capital loans for business materials and supplies, and equity loans for equipment. The participants were allowed to take the working capital loans with them as none of them were larger that $400. The loan officers would hold on to the equity loans and go with the participants to buy the equipment directly.

I offered to take the equity loans for the bakery group and two other business owners to speed up the process. I could go with them to buy their equipment. With eight businesses and two loan officers, I was worried about how long it would take to buy all of the equipment.

The loan officer handed me the money. He gave me 25 million cedis in 10,000 denominations. I did a quick conversion and realized I was carrying about $3,000 in $1 bills. I filled half a small garbage bag with the cash.

As the final few received their working capital loans and the downpour began, everyone ran for cover. There was no power in the main office building, so we all sat with our bags of money in the dark waiting for the rain to let up.

We looked around for a taxi, but none could be found. Once the rain hit, I knew the taxis would be in high demand. I worried about carrying this much cash with me on the bus, but also couldn’t wait around all night for a taxi to appear.

The downpour slowly turned to a light rain, and I gathered my things to go. A few other participants covered their hair with plastic bags and we all headed for the door.

Within minutes we were soaked. The bag of money was so heavy I kept shifting it from one arm to the other. Finally I gave up, and put the bag on my head. We ran up the street towards the bus stop. Esther wore a green plastic bag on her head, Rebecca had a black bag covering her hair, and mine was covered with a bag of money.

Thankfully a bus came by just as we approached the bus stop, and we jumped in. We had our money, but were completely soaked. Cecelia was likely home by then. She was probably right to take the money and run.

- Janet

Friday, June 15, 2007

Citizen's arrest

Traffic jams are dispiriting enough back home, especially in bigger cities. In Ghana, there are added problems, like suffocating heat and diesel exhaust; there are also few traffic lights, and the ones that do exist are often not working because of power outages.

Ghanaians have come up with a novel solution to the problem, though: self-appointed citizen traffic cops!

I was traveling in a tro-tro late one afternoon when it got caught in a traffic jam caused by two streams of cars trying to merge onto one road. There was no right-of-way and no lights to manage the flow.

A guy on crutches and in tattered clothes had taken it upon himself to direct the traffic. He stood there at the intersection of the two roads and held up his crutch as a signal for one lane of cars to stop so the cars in the other lane could merge onto the main road. After a few minutes he would halt the other lane of traffic, and continue to alternate in this fashion.

He wasn’t doing this out of the goodness of his heart, of course. He was a poor man without a job trying to make a buck however he could. Many of the people in the cars, appreciative of his efforts, would hand him money as they passed onto the main road. (Many jobless people Ghana make money in creative ways like this. You will often see young men filling potholes on the highways. Many of them will halt traffic and ask for payment)

Not all people play by these makeshift rules of the road, though. On this day, our tro-tro driver grew impatient waiting for our turn to merge onto the main road. He left our lane and drove down the middle of the road; at the intersection he raced ahead of the oncoming cars and onto the main road. Our self-appointed traffic cop was furious! He waved a crutch in the air, and actually banged the side of the tro-tro with it as it passed by.

But he didn’t stop there. At a major intersection a half a mile up the road, an army officer was directing traffic because the lights had gone out in a power outage. The man began hobbling up the road on his crutches to tell the officer that the tro-tro driver had defied his attempts to maintain order at the intersection we had just passed through.

Of course, we found ourselves in another traffic jam right away, so the man on crutches was making his away to the next intersection faster than we were! We were all paying closing attention to the “foot race” between the tro-tro and the man. Who would reach the army officer first?

Man beat machine.

When the tro-tro arrived the man was raving at the army officer and waving a crutch in the direction of the tro-tro. After a minute or two of listening to the man’s complaints the officer approached our tro-tro driver. I was expecting the driver to pay a bribe to get himself out of the situation, but the officer merely said a few words to him and ambled back into the middle of the road to resume directing traffic. We passed through the intersection and went on our way.

I was a little disappointed with the outcome; a citizen’s arrest was in order, I thought. The government does not have – or will not spend – the money to install more lights or hire more traffic cops. This man was more than happy to fill the void in government services, much like the guys who fill potholes for cash on the country’s highways.

- Mark

Friday, June 1, 2007

Keeping it Stitched Together


I poked my head in the Almond Tree showroom and found Esther doing a little dance of joy. As she danced, she squealed excitedly. I had just told her she’d sold thirteen more hand bags and that they were en route to Canada.

Esther is one of the Almond Tree group members living with HIV. She is in the sewing group and has been working day and night for the last two months to produce and sell. Yesterday she came to work exhausted. I could see black lines under her eyes. I asked her if she was feeling well. She told me she’d been working.

“I worked until 1 a.m.” she said “And then I got up at 4 a.m. and worked again.”

Esther and her business partner Rebecca are driven to make their business succeed. They have dreams for their future – Esther wants to have a child with her partner, Ahmed, and Rebecca wants to send her five year old twins to a good school.

More immediately though, they both have rent to pay - two years worth upfront.

In Ghana landlords ask for rent months in advance. For many people living on $2/day, the sum is a small fortune. Rebecca has to pay about $300 and Esther’s payment will be close to $250. They’re both worried they won’t be able to come up with this money.

“Rebecca was in tears yesterday,” Esther told me quietly. “She has no idea how she’ll pay. She’s worried the landlord will tell her to leave.”

Esther’s landlord is a bit more understanding and has given her an extension. But his goodwill will only last so long. Her rent was due at the end of March.

In a life of uncertainty, the one thing Esther and Rebecca can control is how much they produce every day. And watching their work ethic, I think they’re constantly trying to beat their own record.

Fortunately one of their products, hand-made batik bags, are selling well. They’ve sold close to 50 bags in two months. Early on in May, a group of American Mormons arrived at the West Africa AIDS Foundation for a tour which ended at the Almond Tree Showroom. They swooped in and bought every bag the women had produced.

Other sales come from local volunteers heading back to Europe, the US or Canada and from visitors like my mom who bought clothing for my niece’s entire kindergarten class. The 13 bags sent to Canada were shipped for mom to sell at a church function on June 3rd, providing they arrive on time.

Yesterday I helped Esther and Rebecca figure out their profits for the month. They had sold just over $300 worth of products, and their material expenses came to $200. This left $100 to split between the two for June wages. Their profit will go along way to covering food and transportation, but is still far off the amount they need to pay their advanced rent.

Despite their challenges, I am confident that, with support, these strong, determined women will find a way to succeed.

I’m also sure, that as I write this, somewhere in the dark, Esther’s steady hand is turning a wheel on a manual sewing machine. And as the wheel turns, another bag is stitched together.

I just hope we can keep her dancing.

- Janet

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Meeting Jihad

His name was Jihad. “It’s a rather unfortunate name right now,” he told me with a small grin. “I’m a Christian, but my name is Arabic. It doesn’t have the same meaning as the other Jihad.”

We were spending the weekend at a beach camp in Ada, a small town about 2 hours away from Accra, when we met Jihad. He had dark brown leathery skin, black tousled curls and wore bright yellow trunks. His skin was so deeply tanned that I thought he might be half black. His features, however, were entirely Middle Eastern. On weekends, he said, he lived across the river. The rest of the time he lived between Accra and a mining town in the north.

“How long have you lived in Ghana?” I asked assuming business had brought him to Ghana.

“I’m Ghanaian,” he replied.

“Really?” I asked showing my surprise.

He laughed warmly. I could tell he was used to explaining his exotic lineage. He told me to have a seat; that he would be over shortly to tell us his story.

In 1880 Jihad’s great grandfather landed on Ghanaian soil. He had no idea where he’d arrived until he disembarked from the ship.

“He just knew he was going to the new world,” Jihad said.

Jihad lit the first of a steady flow of cigarettes and leaned forward in his chair. He explained that his great grandfather had grown up in Lebanon.

“Around that time – it was during the Ottoman Empire -” he said, “the Turks invaded Lebanon and forced the Christians into the mountains. The Christians resisted but eventually settled there peacefully. Once the Muslims took over power, the Christians were told all boys would have to perform military service when they turned 14. Families didn’t want their children joining the army so sent them off a year before they reached this age.”

It was when Jihad’s great grandfather was 13 that he, like many other young boys, set off for the new world. His brother had left three years earlier, so Jihad’s great grandfather left to join him.

“Once he got on the ship,” Jihad said “he told the captain he wanted to go to the New World.”

He never specified the exact location of “The New World”, and no one ever asked him exactly where he intended to go.

When he arrived in the New World, Jihad’s great grandfather found himself surrounded by black people. Much to his surprise he had arrived in Ghana.

“Where had his brother gone?” I asked curiously.

“Brazil,” he said laughing.

“What did your great grandfather do?” I asked.

“What could he do? It’s not like today when you just jump on another plane and head to a different country. He’d spent all of his money to get there. He had to stay.”

Other Lebanese migrants had arrived earlier in Ghana and they welcomed Jihad’s great grandfather into their newly established community.

“My great grandfather was a merchant,” Jihad said. “He built a life for himself in Ghana. It was here that he met my great grandmother who was also Lebanese. I’m a fourth generation Ghanaian.”

As Jihad paused to light his third cigarette I tried to think of him as Ghanaian. Being Ghanaian was clearly his birthright, but his attitude, personality, and character traits were strikingly Lebanese.

Ghana is not a multicultural country so it is extremely rare to meet a non-black Ghanaian. Yet here was Jihad identifying himself as a Ghanaian, and proud of his nationality.

There is a strong Lebanese community in Accra. They are astute business people and operate most of the successful grocery stores, restaurants and hotels. If a business has good customer service, and a nice atmosphere, it’s likely Lebanese. Before meeting Jihad, I had never wondered if these business owners were themselves Ghanaian.

Recently there’s been an influx of another group of people to Ghana. Chinese are flooding into the country; a new wave of immigrants looking to build their fortunes overseas.

“This has all happened within the last 3 or 4 years,” Jihad explained. “The Chinese government has built things for Ghana, and the country is welcoming their business. They built the national theatre, they built the Tema motorway, and they are helping to build a new rail system. Because of their gifts, the government doesn’t tax Chinese imports. So now they’re flooding the local markets with cheap products. The Ghanaian vendors are upset, but what can they do? The government won’t stop them from selling their products.”

Jihad talked about Ghanaian politics and corruption. He has found a way to live well amongst the chaos he told us.

“It’s the wild wild west,” he said.

In the north he owns a small gold mining operation. After a number of years in the business he has learned how to keep it operating.

“Each Christmas I fill envelopes for the police officers in my area,” he said.

We raised our eyebrows. Jihad was admitting to playing a role in the corruption that plagues this country, especially amongst the police force.

He sensed our judgment and responded directly

“I need them,” he said

We asked him if he’d made money from mining for gold.

He laughed and took a long drag on his fifth cigarette. “I’ve made fortunes and lost fortunes,” he said. “But I can’t stop. Once you’ve got gold fever there’s no going back. Nothing else will satisfy you.”

“Would you ever go back to Lebanon?” Mark asked.

“No, I can only go there for vacation,” he said. “The business men would eat me alive. And they have sharks.”

- Janet

Monday, May 28, 2007

A head start

Janet and I were heading out to dinner one night last week, and she had kindly bought a plant as a gift for our hosts. Can you carry it, she asked. Sure, I said, and she pointed to a pot on a ledge outside our apartment. Because it was dark, I couldn’t see that the pot was made of cement. It must have weighed about 50 pounds. I hoisted it over my right shoulder; my knees buckled, but being the man that I am I insisted on carrying it anyway – whining about it all the way of course.

I walked from our front door to the main street and announced that we would take a cab the rest of the way. It’s too heavy, I said. It’s just down the street, Janet said, and she offered to carry it for me. I was too much of a man for that, though. I waved off the cab and hoisted the cement planter back over my shoulder. Halfway down the street, my bony little shoulder was hurting.

Janet suggested balancing it on top of my head, much like Ghanaians carry baskets of food and pails of water. A friend who was coming with us to dinner rolled up a piece of cloth, and set it on top of my head as a holder. We set the planter on my head and off we went down the street.

The rolled cloth didn’t provide much support; the crown of my head started to hurt no more than 50 feet down the road. I lifted the planter off my head and hoisted it once again over my shoulder. I wobbled off down the road, whimpering the whole way to our friends’ place.

At home, I feel like the classic 98-pound weakling. I’m not strong or fast. An ex-girlfriend used to delight in telling me that I wouldn’t last five minutes in a forest full of predators. Here in Ghana, my physical inadequacies are even more pronounced. Every day, men, women and children carry pails of water and other supplies that are at least as heavy as the cement planter – for miles, in some cases!

Physical work is part of everyday life for many Ghanaians and Canadians; I’m one of the Canadians that has to exercise, though, because physical work isn’t part of my daily routine. I mention this because I started to jog again last week. I hadn’t been running up to this point because it’s so hot here, even early in the morning. But I’ve committed myself to running a marathon with my sister in the fall so I had to start training now.

I started with a five-kilometre run one morning a little after 6. I had run about a kilometer when a young guy overtook me on his way to work or school. This is very dispiriting for most runners; in this case, it was made worse by the fact that he was wearing flip flops, tight jeans and had a pack on his back. I picked up my pace but still couldn’t catch him.

It’s about the journey, I reminded myself, not the destination; and it’s certainly not about how fast you get there.

Maybe next I’ll trying running with a cement pot on my head.

- Mark

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Family law

She was only eight years old when her family decided that she was a witch, and banished her to the goat pen in the back yard. She lived there, tied to a post, until she was rescued by an NGO 10 years later. She is in the care of the NGO now and the parents have not been prosecuted for what they did to her.

Most Ghanaians believe in witchcraft, that women and girls are capable of casting spells that do harm to others. And even though the Ghanaian constitution guarantees children a right to a healthy and happy life - shelter, education, et cetera - there are traditional beliefs and practices that are still considered OK here. In the little girl's case, people may be sympathetic for her situation and be happy to see her safely in the hands of an NGO, but they would also sympathize with the parents' fear that she may be a witch capable of doing harm.

The same is true of child labour, the subject of some of our blogs in the past few months. More than 20 children who had been sold into slavery by their families were recently rescued by the International Migration organization, and returned home. Even though the parents broke the law they will not be prosecuted either.

We discussed both of these cases at a workshop in Cape Coast, which is ironically the site of one of the former slave castles (see "Door of No Return," March 13).

Renee and I told our Ghanaian colleagues we were puzzled that parents were allowed to get away with treating their kids this way. There are laws against what they're doing. Why is the country so reluctant to punish them, we wondered.

Most of the reporters in the room confirmed the widespread belief that people sympathized with the parents and did not want to see them go to jail for what they did. People believe witches exist, so while the parents behaviour seems cruel to outsiders it fits with country's traditional belief system. There is a witch camp up north where women are sent to live if they are deemed to be witches. It's difficult to find people here who don't believe in them, even in urban centres like Accra.

As hard as I try to see things from their point of view, I'm very disturbed by what happened to the little girl, and by the mere existence of the witch camp.

I find it difficult, though, to outright condemn child labour. I don't like it, of course, but there don't seem to be any real solutions. The problem is rooted in poverty, not the parents' irresponsibility or lack of love for their children. They sell their kids to work on farms, in the fishery, or as servants because they are poor. They can't afford to feed them or send them to school, and though the government has banned child trafficking they aren't doing anything to help lift the families out of poverty. In many cases, children rescued and returned home ending up being sold again.

- Mark

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

A Squatter's Field

Bent over with a scarf wrapped around her head, she hacks away at the ground in front of her. There’s a special exuberance in her movement. It rained last night – the first time in about six weeks – and this means her seeds might grow.

I approach her from behind. She doesn’t see me coming. As I near her, I call out.

“Filipina,” I yell. “Your plants have grown.”

Filipina whips around to face me, a huge grin spreading across her face.

“Yeeeessss!” she squeals. “The rain has come.”

Filipina a grandmother of four teenage girls, strides over with a pick axe swinging alongside her. She and her clan live near our apartment and I see them every morning when I walk to work. They live in an abandoned building next to a main road. The building looks like an empty car park but is a hive of activity. At least four family groups live in the building. Freshly washed clothes hang over the railings of the unfinished walls, and smoke billows out of the ground floor when food is cooking. Filipina is the head of her household and raises her grandchildren by herself.

In between the abandoned building and the path that takes me to work is a piece of land. During the dry season it was filled with a mix of grass and rocks. Recently Filipina and the other squatters have claimed it for food. Squatters turned urban farmers they’ve worked for the past month to prepare the field for planting. On many hot sunny afternoons, I’ve come home to Filipina bent over the ground hacking away at the soil. She planted seeds a few weeks ago but because there was no rain most of them failed to germinate and some plants that did grow rotted. A few were spared, but most of the field is still bare.

Filipina is a lively, spirited woman who cries out to us every time we pass. Sometimes I’ll hear my name from across the field. I’ll often look in the direction of the call and see Filipina waving her arms frantically from the top floor of the building. I often wonder how she reaches the floor as the stairs were never completed.

Today, she’s up early tilling the field ready to plant more seeds and admire the ones that grew overnight because the rain had come.

I inspect the small corn seedling poking its head out of the ground near my feet.

“I’m so glad it rained,” I say.

“Oh thank God,” she cries. “Now my plants will grow.”

She pauses thoughtfully and then asks “When do you go to Canada?”

I have told her my departure date many times, but remind her again that I leave at the end of June.

“Oh but we have to eat corn together,” she says wistfully.

Filipina stops for a minute and does some mental calculations. The frown on her face tells me the crop is not going to be ready before I leave for home.

Quickly the smile returns. “So you are off to work,” she says gleefully. “Well go and come.”

I turn to leave and then see Filipina’s grandchildren gathered at the railing of the abandoned building watching us from above. I wave.

I glance back at Filipina but can see that she’s already returned to her work.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Solemana the Teacher

She was wearing a neck brace so I assumed she’d been in a car accident. I was wrong, she is a teacher. Solemana, a stout woman with sharp eyes and a gentle smile teaches primary school. She has a sore neck because of all the writing and marking she does. I always have my head down, she told me.

Solemana may have her head down preparing for class and marking students work, but during the day she must keep her head up to keep track of all of her students. She teaches in the public school system and has 41 students in her class. Her students range in age from 10 to 16 even though they’re all in the same grade.

“The government is now giving school for free,” she said. “So the older students want to learn. Many of them missed out when they had to pay.”

It’s hard to discourage students in their teens from starting school, but I could only imagine how having such an age span in the classroom would make it difficult to teach. I asked Solemana how she coped.

“The older ones bully the younger ones,” she said. “It is hard for them. I told them [the government] that they shouldn’t put the older students in the same class as the younger ones, but there’s no place for them to go.”

I commented on the large class size and how tough it must be to teach that many students.

“Some of the other teachers have 50 or 51,” she said “I only have 41. Yes it’s very difficult, but most people don’t think so.”

I learned about Solemana’s life as a teacher as we bumped along in a Tro Tro on my way home from work. She had the demeanor of a good teacher who’d been in the system a long time. She was confident, and determined - a great communicator – but also seemed very tired.

Then she turned to me. “What are you doing here?” she asked.

“I’m working with people living with HIV to help them start businesses,” I said.

After saying this I looked for her reaction. There’s much stigma around HIV/AIDS in Ghana and I get mixed reactions when I tell people I’m working with people living with HIV. One woman a few weeks ago stuck out her tongue in disgust. One man asked me violently “Why would you want to work with them?” Another woman backed slowly away from me as I told her.

Solemana just looked forward thoughtfully. She hesitated for a brief moment and then spoke.

“They want us to teach about HIV in school,” she said. “They sent us for three days of training. They want us to tell the children how you can get it, where you can get it, and to beware of HIV.”

I was pleased to hear Solemana talk openly about HIV. As a teacher I hoped she would be enlightened enough to accept people living with HIV, but she actually seemed happy that I’d brought up the subject.

“Their brains are so young,” she said continuing the discussion. “They’re not ready to talk about sex. We tell them they can get it at the barber from razors, and that it’s something that happens between a man and a woman. That’s as far as we go. We tell them they can’t get it from touching someone.”

I told Solemana that I worked with 15 people living with HIV and some of them hadn’t even told their families they’re HIV positive.

“Oh you can’t,” she said adamantly. “They might expose you.”

“It’s very difficult” I said. “If you don’t tell anyone, then you live with your secret all alone, but if you tell people you run the risk of being hurt by your family. We need more people to understand about HIV so that people living with the virus won’t have to be afraid to tell others.”

Solemana nodded adding, “Many people are rejected.”

I smiled at her and wondered how many people she knew were infected with HIV. Perhaps she was even infected herself. 1 in 20 people are infected in Ghana, so there was a 5% chance she was HIV positive. Out of her entire family – extended families are very large in Ghana and can include up to 150 people if you include men with multiple wives – there were likely a handful living with the virus. Most people know someone who has died from HIV, but talking about it is still frightening. If you talk about it people might think you have it.

We descended from the Tro Tro as we’d reached the bus station. Solemana chugged along behind me as we wove in and around buses searching out the one to our next destination. I was going in one direction; she was going in another.

“How long have you been teaching,” I asked.

“37 years,” she said emphasizing the number. “I started in 1970.”

“That was before I was born,” I said laughing.

She chuckled and looked at me smiling, then grew serious.

“I have three years left, but I think I’m going to stop after this one.”

Her eyes flashed before me and I imagined her picturing the 41 students waiting for her every morning. After nearly four decades teaching she’d put in her time.

I had reached my bus. I thanked her for the chat, and left her to continue her shuffle down the street.

- Janet

Monday, May 14, 2007

A Sunday drive through Lagos

We stood amidst an empty lot in a busy but tranquil downtown Lagos neighbourhood. There were heaps of crumbled plaster, tattered clothing, old shoes and sneakers, empty water bottles and plastic bags, and the crumpled remains of small kitchen appliances. The lot was surrounded by a moat of sorts; actually it was a sewer full of garbage, and bubbling black liquid. A chicken and her chicks pecked away at garbage by the sewer's edge. Right beside the lot was a primary school; on this day they were doing English grammar lessons on benches outside. It was drizzling but the students were protected by an overhanging tin roof.

It was hard to believe that on a July evening last year, a four-storey apartment building collapsed on this site, killing 45 residents. It was not brought down by a fire or an earthquake. It collapsed because it was poorly constructed, though nobody new that until the day it simply gave way. The developer skipped town in the wake of the disaster and has not yet been found. The survivors have found new places to live, either on their own or with family and friends.

I was there with Sunday Aborisade, a reporter from a daily paper called The Punch. He was working on follow-up stories to last year's accident. The government had promised to do a number of things in response to the tragedy: erect a new building and provide compensation to the survivors, strengthen and enforce building codes, and knock down other buildings in the area that might also be unsafe. Sunday was checking with area residents to see what progress had been made on these promises.

We spoke with a man who lived beside one of the buildings that had been deemed unsafe. He ended up knocking it down himself because the owner had disappeared and the government was dragging its feet. He decided to do it himself to protect his family and his tenants. The government didn't plan to cover the costs of the demolition, though an official commended the man's initiative when we visited the planning and urban development department later in the day. He also told us that a committee had been formed to tackle the various issues related to the tragedy. Some had been acted on (stricter building codes had been adopted, 200 new enforcement officials had been hired) and some had not (work on the new building had not begun).

Working with reporters like Sunday always strengthens my faith in the power of journalism, whether it’s in Nigeria or Canada.

I met him at the Sheraton Hotel in an upscale part of the city. He was in a suit and tie, pressed and sweat-free, a difficult feat in a grimy, hot city like Lagos. I thought maybe we were going to a government press conference or maybe the courts, something that suited his dressy attire. No, he told me, we’re going to visit this building that had collapsed, killing nearly 50 people. The government had promised to help the survivors and prevent this happening again, and he said it was his job to check and see if they were keeping their promises.

He was full of enthusiasm for telling stories that impact the lives of ordinary people, something taught in journalism schools around the world but rare in the real world of journalism. We got caught in a traffic jam on the way to the site of the fallen building, so we had plenty of time to talk about the human interest stories he covered.

In traffic we were surrounded by hawkers trying to sell anything and everything to stalled motorists – toenail clippers, soft drinks, flashlights, meat pies, you name it. Sunday said he wrote a feature about them last year. He said the hawkers said it was a growing market; as the city grew more affluent and more populated people were trapped in longer and longer traffic jams. They had less time to shop and were a captive market. It was often more profitable than paying to rent a storefront in a crowded marketplace.

Further down the road we could see the waterfront of the Lagos Island in the distance. He said he had once gone down there to visit the small fishing villages. He wanted to learn more about their lives, to see if they were able to earn enough to support their families. As good reporters often do, he found another story while he was there. It turns that many people down on their luck in this very poor city try to kill themselves by jumping off a bridge into the water. Nearby fishermen are often there to pull them out before they die. Sunday found out the fishermen often took them to the hospital or nursed them back to health. The fishermen recorded the rescues in a log but did not report them to police because suicide is illegal and they didn’t want the survivors to be punished. Sunday was told that they saved up to 20 people a year. He said this story was important because it showed the generosity of the impoverished fishermen; he said it also showed that life was very hard for people here, and that they needed help. He said the politicians, giddy and optimistic from the country’s oil wealth, can forget that ordinary people are not all benefiting from the boom.

We drove across a bridge on the way to the department of planning and urban development. Sunday told me that last fall he began to feel a heavy vibration whenever he passed over the bridge. He called some structural engineers and asked them if there might be anything wrong. It was discovered that the bridge was indeed damaged and Sunday did a series of stories that led to structural repairs and a ban on heavy trucks.

Sunday is one of a rare breed of reporters. He is someone who has the ability to spot the interesting and important stories in everyday life, and the ability to make a difference by telling them.

He helped get a bridge repaired that, had it collapsed, could have killed a lot of people. I have no doubt that one day he'll be one of the reasons why the survivors of the collapsed building get a new place live, and other people in derelict buildings are moved before something tragic happens.

- Mark