Monday, January 29, 2007

Play Time

On Friday night, we went to a couple of plays at the National Theatre. One was called “Streetism” and was about the life of street children in Accra. The other was called “Everyman,” a morality play about how a rich man must account for his life on earth to get into heaven.

What better way to get to know a place than through it’s culture. Well, we thought we’d gain that insight through the place itself – the plot, the themes, the acting styles. We didn’t consider what role the audience would play.

In most Western theatres audiences are reminded before the show to turn off their cell phones and it’s considered rude to talk during the performance. In Ghana, as it turned out, audience participation is part of the show. From the opening scene of Ghanaian people setting up mats on the streets of Accra to the final scene where street kids were convicted of theft but ultimately released into the care of local churches, audience hooted and hollered, laughed and shouted questions and made comments to the actors on stage. It must have taken incredible concentration to deliver lines amidst the racket in the audience.

At times it felt like the set of a lowbrow U.S. talk show. One particular scene involved a father and a stepmother trying to deal with their son, who is skipping school and getting poor grades. At one point the son puts up his fist and challenges his father to a fight, and the crowd goes nuts, some egging him on, others aghast that he would show such disrespect for his father.

I remember a couple of lines from a heckler who sat behind me. The father at one point was talking to the boy’s stepmother about how his real mother had left him and his son when he was a baby. He told her that’d raised him all by himself. The heckler called out, “Did you breastfeed him too?” When the stepmother was chastising the mother for the boy’s poor behaviour, the heckler shouted, “What are you giving him a hard time? You can’t even have kids.”

Later in the play, a little boy said he ran away to live on the streets because his father and mother were too busy at work to take proper care of him, the heckler shouted, “That’s no reason to leave home.”

At first I felt badly for the actors – especially the little kids – but then I realized it was part of the culture, a sign of their engagement in the play. They weren’t passive observers like they are back home.

I dare someone to try this at the Imperial. Post a note and let us know how it goes J

On Saturday we were torn between spending the day at the beach and the funeral of an important tribal chief that would draw tens of thousands of mourners to the centre of the city.

As travelers we to immerse ourselves in the culture, and in the lives of the people of the place we’re visiting. In the case, attend the funeral of a person who was very important to people here, to get a sense of how they mourn the death and celebrate the life of a public figure.

But then a big part of you just wants to escape the heat, pollution and and relentless busyness of the big city. Go sit by the beach, swim, drink beer, eat good food, go to sleep to the sound of the surf.

We went to the beach … though I felt guilty as we left the city in a cab, and saw mourners making their way through the streets to the funeral. It felt like the right thing to do once we got out there, though. There was a cool breeze coming off the water, a welcome break from heat and humidity of Accra. We stayed overnight, and came back to the city late Sunday afternoon.
- Mark

Photos from the Weekend

Sunset at the Beach near Big Milly's Campground

A huge wave hits Janet and Mark as they play in the surf near AMAAL

The private beach near AMAAL - we were the only ones swimming

A woman walks with dishes on her head in Accra

The Beach near Big Milly's

The Great Escape - From The Heat

Escaping the heat – or at least splashing it with some water - was my goal for this past weekend. I read in the Brandt guide book that there was a beach town about an hour from Accra called Kokrobite (pronounced Kokrobreetay). Ato, the JHR representative in Accra, laughed when Mark asked him how to get to Kokrobite (pronounced the way it’s spelt). We are quickly learning that the pronunciation of places in Ghana is not obvious. I will not be able to get around the city based on names on a map until I learn how to pronounce them properly. Ghanaians don’t know how to read maps or street names. Every place is identified by its proximity to something else. We live near Metro TV. We want to be dropped off near Koala supermarket. Please take us our friends’ house near the Poly Clinic. It’s actually quite funny and difficult to get used to. I asked our landlord to show us where our house was on the map, and she pointed to an area even I knew wasn’t close to where we actually live.

Our exit from Accra happened on Saturday morning. We negotiated a cab ride to Kokrobite for $100,0000 Ceedees, or roughly $12. It took us an hour to get there. The last leg of the journey took us through a village that stretched for 7 km along a narrow dusty road. Along the entire length of the village, little shops selling everything from hair clips to fresh pineapple, sat adjacent to the road. The shops were little more than metal or mud shacks with one or two people either asleep in whatever shade could be found, or sitting with children running around them. The children, barefooted and covered in dusty dirt, stopped and watched us as we passed.

We were delivered to AMAAL (The Academy of African Music And Arts Limited). It sounds more official than what we found. The ‘Academy’ was little more than a rundown, empty resort that was obviously past its prime. We were met by Victor, the manager of the Academy, who told us we were the only white people who’d checked in. Apparently there was one other person staying in a place that could easily hold 100 people. We didn’t see anyone else the entire time we were there. When we left, Victor told us to call him when we planned to return “Just to ensure you get a room,” he said.

Further down the road from AMAAL we found its westernized cousin. Big Milly’s, a beachfront, hostel, populated mostly by young expats and backpackers was as vibrant as AMAAL was empty. Big Milly we found out was a woman from Britain named Wendy. Her husband was from Ghana, and for 13 years they’d been running a successful business that pulled in travelers looking for a good time, western food, and access to a secure beach.

We spent part of the afternoon at Big Milly’s. There were many village people roaming the beach. Children played and danced on the beach, and young men spent hours repairing fishing nets.

I wandered along the beach with my camera to take some pictures. The children posed for me as long I would show them the photos on the digital screen once I’d taken them. Their poses grew sillier as I took more photos. They laughed gleefully upon seeing their reflected image on the screen. Later I found the kids playing quietly in a circle so took another picture.

The next morning I got up in search of bottled water. The first place I found told me to sit and wait, they’d go find water. Five minutes later a young woman came back telling me the water was all gone. I should go further down the road, about 50 metres she said. I went further down the road, and a young boy named Abdul told me they didn’t have bottled water either. He told me he would take me to find water.

Abdul, a young boy of about 14 jumped off his bike and walked with me down the dusty road toward the next stall. He told me he goes to school in Accra, an hour’s drive away to secondary school. He wants to become a refrigerator and air conditioner repair man. He also wants to be a boxer and showed me a couple of moves he’s been working on. He asked me if I had seen the big house near our resort.

“You mean the hotel they’re building?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said.

The building he was referring to was a monstrous construction project on the other side of AMAAL. We’d noticed it the day before. Apparently it’s been under construction for almost 5 years. We were told it would be finished in time for the 2008 African Cup. We had discussed the project the day before, unsure whether western corporate interests in Kokrobite were a good thing or not.

Abdul was convinced the hotel would change things for his village. “It will be great for development,” he said sweeping his arms across the area. Tourists will buy more from our village.”

I hoped he was right. Exclusive resorts often have a way of providing all services to their guests so that there is no need for them to leave the area. Hopefully, the friendliness of the villagers and a desire to truly get to know the culture of the area would pull people from their luxurious surroundings.

The highlight of the weekend was jumping into the surf coming off the Gulf of Guinea. We stayed close to shore for fear of the powerful under tow, but submerging into the cool waters was an incredible treat.

Our drive back was more Ghanaian style. We took three trotros to get back to our neighbourhood. Tro tros are vans or buses that go all over the city and serve as the country’s public transportation system. It was a longer, hotter trip this way, but only cost us about $1.50 to get back from Kokrobite.

Soaking wet by the time we reached our apartment from the heat of the trip home, we were thrilled that the air conditioning in our room was working.

We were glad to be back, but the memory of the surf will soon pull us back to Kokrobite.

- Janet

Friday, January 26, 2007

Our Patio

Our Breakfast Nook :)

January 25, 2007

Former UN secretary general Kofi Annan gave a lecture today - two days after he returned home after his retirement from the UN. He is revered here in his home country, and there was much celebration about his return.

Janet and I went down to the conference centre where the talk was being held, though we did not have a ticket and therefore not much chance of getting in.

We were standing outside the centre when a young man passed by and asked if we were going in. We said no because we didn't have tickets. He motioned for us to follow him, and he asked the guard at the door to let us in.

We followed along and he led us upstairs and into the auditorium. It was packed so we sat down on the stairs in the aisle. At this point I leaned over to Janet and said, "I have to pee really bad." I thought the talk would last a couple of hours, and I was afraid I would burst long before then. Janet told me sit tight. She said if I mentioned it to our host, whose name was Christian, he feel obliged to lead me to the bathroom. I didn't think I could hold so I leaned over and asked Christian where the bathroom was. Sure enough he insisted on taking me, and we shuffled past well-dressed women - me in my dirty sneakers and sweat-soaked clothing (I still haven't gotten use to perpetually sweating here).

By the time we returned, Kofi had walked to the podium and begun his speech. We shuffled past the women again - the only people moving in the entire 2,000-seat auditorium. Janet was surely mortified - on my behalf - the whole time.

The speech itself was on the future success of Africa, which Kofi said rested on three pillars - security and peace, development of the economy and social service, and human rights. It was not a gripping speech and it was very short at 20 minutes, but we felt very privileged to be there. Afterwards, we found out that Christian was part of the United Nations Association in Ghana. We exchanged numbers and promised him we'd take him out to dinner sometime for his kindness. He took us down to the floor of the auditorium and got someone to take a picture of the three of us. We'll post it when he e-mails it to us.

The thing that struck both Janet and I was the lax security at the event. The president, his ministers, and a former UN secretary general were there, and we weren't putting through a security screen at the door. Can you imagine walking into a talk by a prominent western leader and not being subject to security check?

- Mark

A representative day

January 24, 2007

In the morning Renee and I met with Ato at the JHR office in Accra. Renee is the person I will be organizing the workshops with. She is a radio journalist from B.C. who taught in Tanzania for three years.

Our jobs are mostly based around giving workshops on the fundamentals of good journalism and human rights reporting to reporters around the country. Today we found out where we will be going first and what kinds of rights issues we'll be focusing on. We'll be going to Hoe, a community in eastern Ghana, between Lake Volta (the largest lake in the country which houses the hydroelectric dam that powers most of the country) and the neighbouring country of Togo.

We'll be focusing on human rights issues that affect women and children for all of the workshops, with the help of a human rights activist from Amnesty International. We'll tailor the human rights education to the regions we visit, as the issues vary from place to place.

Ghana has had a constitution that protects human rights - a constitution that's a comprehensive as our own - but abuses still persist because it's only been in effect since 1992 and many Ghanaians still don't know much about it and continue with traditional practices that often violate individual rights.

For example, it's still legal to rape your wife - there was a failed attempt last year to pass a domestic violence bill because it contained a clause criminalizing marital rape.

In the afternoon we ended up at Darrell and Eva's. There I met an assemblyman - the equivalent of a city or town councilor in Canada - and got a good glimpse into the life of a politician. He says politics are very retail in Ghana - some would say the same is true in Canada! He got elected because he was able to get streetlights erected in his community. You realize this is a big deal here when you've wandered around pitch-black neighbourhoods at night that don't have them. He got the government to agree to donate the lights, but he had to fundraise to erect them. The government doesn't have the money for many infrastructure projects that we take for granted. He found a well-off local resident to pitch in some money and he paid the rest out of his own pocket. He says this is very common here. A lot of people expect politicians to financially support the community, as well as represent it.

Like our councilors at home, they also take on initiatives that are not officially part of their jobs. For example, he's organizing a quiz competition in local schools about the history of Ghana. It will coincide with the 50th anniversary of independence celebrations in March.

We also talked about Canada for a while because his sister lives in the Toronto area.

- Mark

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Great Expectations

I spent last night lying perfectly still. Moving created heat, and with the second blackout of the week, our air conditioner hung silently on the wall. At one point, I rolled over and said to Mark half joking "Can I go home?"

I have never experienced heat like West African heat. I looked in my closet this morning, and half smiled, half grimaced at the clothes I packed. All of my t-shirts will remain in the closet. The only things I'll be able to wear are sleeveless shirts, linen pants, and skirts. I'll melt away if I wear anything else.

Today, I also have blisters on my feet, and a few minutes ago noticed one is bleeding. Mark wanted to show me around the city yesterday so we walked from 11:00 a.m. until 8:30 p.m. We stopped periodically to eat, check in to the Internet cafe, and visit a couple of the JHR participants, but other than that, we walked. It was hot, but thankfully a cool breeze from the coast kept us fanned, and more or less content.

The streets are dusty, and there are no sidewalks, so we balanced our step between the sand at the edge of the road and the pavement where trucks and cars running on diesel left their black wake for us to inhale.

I've only seen a few neighbourhoods in Accra, but so far, there doesn't seem to be a downtown, or a central tourist district. "Is there any opulence in Accra?" I asked Mark. I was referring to my travels in China and Vietnam where cities clean up at least one area of the central district to impress tourists, and find ways of encouraging them to spend extra money. Mark said he hadn't seen this area yet.

Last night on our walk home from Koala, the western grocery store, we weaved in and around traffic to follow the path back to our apartment. It was dark, and I was thankful to have someone with me. We passed other ghanaians making the trek into the heart of the city as we were leaving it. Happily carrying my french baguette, goats cheese, and other western delicacies, I plodded forward, weary from my day in the dusty heat. Mark beckoned for me to follow him as we crossed the street. I looked up, checking both ways to watch for oncoming traffic but did not look down. I stepped forward and suddenly felt the ground disappear under my feet. Mark yelled out in alarm, but it was too late. I had stepped right into a sewer. My right foot went straight down three feet, and the baguette, having fallen from my grip went with it. A women, walking on the other side of the street, came running to my rescue, and Mark, alarmed tried to pull me back to my feet. Thankfully, I escaped with little more than a couple of bruises and a dirty wet foot. I now know that along the edge of every street in Accra runs a narrow sewage gutter. Whenever I cross the street, I will not only look both ways, but I will also look down.

The blackout last night affected our fridge. This morning, I realized we would have to eat all of the goat's cheese I'd bought the night before for breakfast. I was disappointed the expensive western delicacy wouldn't last more than a day, but was excited at the prospect of a nice breafast. I opened the cheese, and the smell that erupted, was so strong, I quickly closed the package. Perhaps the grocery store had experienced its own blackout and the cheese hadn't survived.

I am going to have to re-set my expectations for life in Ghana. I will not eat or live like I did in Saint John for the next 5 months. Cheese, yoghurt, and all things requiring refrigeration will be a thing of the past.

We showered in cold water this morning. Yesterday I longed for a hot shower. Today after a night without air conditioning, the cold water was wonderfully refreshing. I left the apartment optimistic and eager for today's new adventures.

Immediately upon leaving the apartment we learned there will be another blackout tomorrow night. Mark and I choked back a gasp. Maybe we can find someone to fan us in bed.

- Janet

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The journal-ist

In addition to reading material on human rights issues in Ghana, I'm reading a collection of novellas called The Summer He Didn't Die by Jim Harrison. Harrison's from Michigan and has written fiction, poetry and screenplays. The narrator in the last novella of this collection is talking about the main character's view on writing and travel. "He avoided keeping a regular journal except of the most nominal kind. Why turn everything immediately into language? Why not let it rest there among a trillion neurons and see what might wish to arise."

I'm not a journal writer by nature. To this point, though, I've felt the need to recount my days here as faithfully and as fully as I could. But I know that mundane, factual account of my days will bore you and me, so I'll try to be guided by the spirit of Harrison's approach.

A few things stand out from this day:

I went looking for a coffee along a sidewalk packed with vendors' stalls. The pathway followed a busy highway. It was noon hour; the place blazing hot, packed and very noisy. I walked up to one stall that served drinks. The waitress was sitting on a stall with her resting on her arm placed on the counter. I soon realized she was sound asleep amidst the racket. I said hello gently several times. She didn't wake up. I walked away and then returned, deciding I really needed that coffee. I said hello again, and again, and then she slowly woke up. I said I wanted a coffee. She said she didn't have one, but pulled out an ice coffee drink from her cooler. This is the same thing, she said. No it wasn't, I said. I would try and find a regular coffee somewhere else. Reflecting on this now, I wonder what's more incongruous - the woman falling asleep on this chaotic street, or me wanting a hot coffee instead of a cold one on such a humid day.

I went to Internet cafŽ after my futile search for a coffee, and then walked down a busy road toward the JHR office. The traffic moves slowly here at times and street vendors try to sell food, ballpoint bens, and clothing to cars that have slowed down. On my walk I encountered two guys trying to sell puppies to passing motorists. I've handled myself very well since I've been here. No serious culture shock yet, I've managed to keep my emotions in check. For some the sight of these vulnerable little pups being peddled to motorists in this heat, on this busy roadway, brought tears to my eyes.

The headline of the main newspaper read, "AMA IN MASSIVE CLEANUP" AMA stands for Accra Metropolitan Assembly. The local political authority has organized a community cleanup for the independence celebrations March 6. There will be a lot of foreign dignitaries and the city wants to present a clean image to the outside world. This city is a lot cleaner than many I've been to in the developing world. Many of us remarked on this when we first arrived here. But some of the beaches and busier sections are very dirty. Garbage is scattered on the street or sits in piles that substitute for garbage cans. Part of the cleanup involves removing street vendors and their rickety shacks. They are very much part of the street life and economy here, though, and I wonder where they're expected to go. The news story doesn't really touch on what happens to them. It reminds me of when Western cities have forcibly removed homeless people to make way for the Olympics - Atlanta in 1996 comes to mind.

- Mark

By the light of the computer screen

January 21, 2007

I'm writing this entry by the light of the computer screen - there are rolling blackouts across the city throughout the week. Tonight it's my neighbourhood's turn. I only discovered this when I arrived home here at 9:30.

My day was relatively uneventful. I got up at 10:30 - for the past several days it's been like this. I guess it will come to an end when I begin work early next week. We're still an orientation phase. It's been nice, though, catching up on sleep. It may be part of the reason why I haven't gotten sick yet. I haven't even experienced symptoms from the malaria pills. This is the fourth time I've taken them, and got sick only once so far - when I was in Panama with Sean in the spring. I should be careful not to jinx myself by writing about this. Stay tuned...

I had been wearing the same "trousers" for four days so I washed them and a shirt in a bucket and hung them online so they'd be ready for work tomorrow. I got measured today but the trousers won't be ready for a few days.

I decided to walk around today on my own to familiarize myself with the city. I tend to follow the people I'm with when I travel, so it was nice to have this day on my own to wander around.

The city landscape reminds me most of big cities like Delhi in India. It's relatively flat and very dusty, despite the humidity. It has two million people and is spread over a very large area. There several tall buildings across the city, but most are no more than five stories high.

The sky is hazy and overcast, and will be like this until the end of February, I'm told. There are northerly winds that are blowing the sand from Sahara south over the entire country. They're called the Harmattan winds and they blow every year at this time. It's reminds me of the southerly winds that bring the fog to the Bay of Fundy in the summer, I guess, only it's not so thick at ground level!

The sands cover the blue sky and obscure the sun. In the late afternoon, it looks like a yellow ball trying to poke through a light grey cloud cover. I find it beautiful and the idea of the sands blowing down from the Sahara strikes a romantic chord. Of course, the dust is probably contributing to my breathing problem so I'll be happy to see blue sky again come March.

- Mark

Card sharks

January 20, 2007

I got out of bed at about 10 am - so luxurious in my queen-size bed and air-conditioned room. I thought I was supposed to be roughing it here! I soon discovered, though, that the shower didn't work. I sat in the shower stall with a bucket of cold water and a scoop. I washed my hair and my feet and splashed some water on my face. I don't know how Janet's going to take this news about the shower - or lack thereof :)

I got dressed and unpacked my suitcases. The room now awaits Janet and her suitcases full of stuff. We seem to have plenty of room and closet space.

Joseph called just as I finished. He was going to take me, Eva and Darrell to the market to buy material for tailored clothes, which are quite cheap here. I walked down the road to meet him. I was in such a daze (I'm surviving on little sleep and only a coffee a day right now) that I walked right by him and his friend Derrick as they waved to me from the other side of the street.

We walked all the way to Eva and Darrell's. We kicked around for about an hour and I had my first coffee of the day. It was past noon by the time we headed to the market. The 'market' was actually many city blocks long, and encompassed the area stores, as well as street vendors. It was teaming with people - so invigorating, and it's quieter on the weekends apparently. We spent an hour jammed into a fabric store. It felt like shopping in a transport trailer - not very wide but long and high...and dark. I was looking for yards of cotton for tailored pants (or trousers, apparently pants mean underwear here, so we always get a smile when we said pants).

Afterward, we wandered up the street through more of the market. Darrell and I bought transistor radios from a street vendor and I also bought an iron! My clothes are wrinkled to the point that even the heat and humidity can't iron out.

I made another Ghanaian toddler cry. One of the market vendors gestured to a little girl, who was trying to catch my attention. I went over and knelt down in front of her. I started to talk and she started to cry! The woman smiled and picked the girl up to comfort her. She brought the little girl back over me and she started to wail even louder. This was the second time I'd made a girl cry since I arrived. At the hospital I leaned down to talk with a little in the waiting room. Her lower lip began to quiver, and then she cried and ran to her mother.

We then went for a late lunch at a local restaurant on a bustling but poor street. Ramshackle shacks house the shops and restaurants, the roads are dusty, open sewers line the sides of the roads, and garbage is everywhere. But damn that food is good - and cheap - at the places the discriminating locals eat. I treated today - $3.50 for everyone - not each, everyone. I had fish, rice and beans - it's become my staple here, the only variable the amount of spice.

A couple of things of note at the restaurant:
- The food is great but the bathroom facilities are not. Today I was led out the back door and down a filthy alley, and taken to an outdoor urinal with no door. A bunch of kids stood about 15 feet away, laughing at the white guy trying to pee discreetly.
- I finally made a little girl laugh, not cry - and I'm not referring to the previous story. When we entered the restaurant, a little kept laughing and chanting something at me in her native language. An adult translated for her - White guy, where are you going? White guy where are you going? We exchanged high fives with her and her friends and went inside.

The day was nice but considerably less interesting after that. I came home, stripped naked and lay on the bed with air conditioner going full blast. My clothes were soaked from the heat and humidity. I read the papers, listened to the radio. The big news of the week: in a small city in the centre of the country, a bunch of young people rioted because there had been several people murdered in the past month and the police hadn't been able to solve the crimes. The police compounded the problem by breaking up the protests, injuring a few people in the process. Mistrust of the police by the public and the media is a big deal here. Today the police held a workshop to encourage the media to cover the police more "fairly," which would in turn give the public a more balanced perspective on police activities.

I went to dinner with Darrell and Eva and had...surprise, and rice - but no beans this time. I may have to vary my diet a bit.

We came back to my place and played hearts on the patio. It's a very relaxing hangout.

- Mark

A fallen vegetarian

January 19, 2007

Got up today at 10 o clock. Was sure everyone would have been up and out by then, but found Kate, Sam and Renee in the lobby of the hotel, along with Ato.

Sam went to the market, Ato took Kate to the hotel to swim and Renee and I went for breakfast at a strip mall across the street from the University of Ghana, which is just off a busy highway.

I ordered an egg and cheese breakfast sandwich, which turned out contained sausage...I broke my vegetarian fast. I was so hungry and couldn't throw it away and order a new one. Lesser of two evils I suppose, huh, because the animal would have been killed in vain. Or is that just a rationalization!? :) Also had two cups of Nescafe!

We took a taxi back to the hotel and I packed to go to my new apartment. While I waited for Joseph (works for JHR) to pick me up, I sent an e-mail from the hostel Internet room. Heard news from Debra about my cat Isabel (Izzy's still being a territorial grump with Debra's cat Merlin).

Joseph arrived and we took a cab to the apartment, which is in a quiet area of the city near the US embassy and the United Nations Refugees office for West and Central Africa.

Our apartment is in a two-storey white building with an enclosed courtyard in the center of the building. There are palm trees and a little porch area in front of our apartment, which is on the first floor facing the courtyard. I foresee see early morning coffees and late-night chats on the little patio that has a table and three chairs. We have a one-room apartment (queen-size bed and bathroom) with an attached kitchen. We also have a TV that I can't figure out how to work yet! Damn...wanted to watch late-night Friday movies. Janet's not going to want me to watch them after she arrives. :)

After I arrived at my new place, fellow JHR participants Darryl and Eva showed up with Joseph. We then headed out on a walk to the waterfront. It didn't take long for us to leave the leafy, protected embassy area where our apartment is located, and down streets that led into a poor neighbourhood - open sewers along the sides of the road and rickety roadside stalls selling food, consumer goods...I have to learn to keep an eye on oncoming traffic and at the same time avoid stepping into the sewer gullies, which are three feet deep and filthy.

We went to Eva and Darryl's place, the home of the Volunteer Abroad program. I chatted with people there while Darryl and Eva got ready for Ato's birthday party (he was being honoured for turning 30). I met a couple from Alberta working just west of Accra (one in agriculture, one in forestry) and a woman from Vancouver who was traveling around the country doing educational seminars on preventing sexual assaults.

Before we went to Ato's party we went to a beach nearby their place. We drank a beer each and walked along the shore. After my experience yesterday it was so nice to breath clean ocean air. On our walk we met a woman who hosted an entertainment show on Metro TV, a popular local television station. She was a singer from New York but had African roots and thought it would be interesting to come here to get experience in TV. She was playing with a balloon when we met her. She was with a guy from Liberia, who sat on the sand and watched her dance.

After we left the beach we caught a cab to Ato's party at the Ghanaian Journalists Association. I drank many beers and even danced a bit, which would come as a surprise to anyone who knows me! The party was hosted by his radio station - Joy FM - and was sponsored by a wine company from South Africa that was trying to crack the market in Ghana.

- Mark

Accra takes my breath away!

January 18, 2007

Oh dear, I didn't not want to get out of bed this morning. I slept well but I was still so tired. At 8:20 they called my room to see where I was; we were supposed to meet at 8 in the lobby. I jumped out of bed, got dressed, threw some water on face and brushed my teeth. All done in five minutes. Got downstairs and the tro-tro wasn't even there yet. Took the opportunity to check e-mail. None of us can seem to break that addiction. We're suffering withdrawal from easy, high-speed access.

It turned out to be an "interesting" day. We started out with a nice breakfast and a great chat with a prominent human rights lawyer. She gave us a condensed history of the current human rights situation - a very engaging passionate woman. In future posts, as I get into my work, I'll start talking about specific human rights issues.

Mom: you should probably skip over this part.

In the afternoon, we went on a driving tour of the city and ended up in huge traffic jams - I was choking on the diesel and the humidity and the sand from the desert. Suddenly I could hardly breathe and realized I was having an attack. I popped a Benadryl but it didn't seem to work, so they rushed me off to the hospital! To make a long story short (you'll get the long one later) I was ok in the end but it was really scary at the time. The doctor didn't want to prescribe a puffer today. He said to come back if I was stilling having trouble.

The journey back from the hospital was interesting. We took a tro-tro until we got really tied up traffic - again! Joseph told me to jump out and then led me into a wooded area across the street from this crowded intersection. It tuned out to be a short cut to the next tro-tro station, and we beat the tro-tro by quite a bit - the traffic was that bad. The path through the wooded area cut through people's backyards, and it ran along a polluted swamp - polluted by raw sewage from the area homes. It turned to be a popular short cut for locals. We passed a number of people along the way - no foreigners. I felt strangely privileged because I knew I was seeing something that not many tourists would be exposed to. It reminded me of the open sewers in Saint John, and the creeks that kids walked along that were as polluted as this.

At the end of the path we crossed the main road right into the bus station, which was grubby and crowded. There were little stalls selling food and household goods. I didn't see any foreigners there either; it had that local feel - uninfected (or is that unaffected) by tourists.

We caught another tro-tro from the station - again, lots of slow -moving traffic, and my lungs burned every time I took a deep breath.

Had a wonderful meal to end the night. I was still recovering from the events of the afternoon so didn't head into the city with everyone else for dinner. Sent some e-mails and headed over to a Chinese restaurant near the hotel with Kate, one of the participants. I had spring rolls (which we think had meat in them though we were assured they didn't) and a seafood soup. Yummy!

Back at the hotel now writing in the journal. Going to read, watch the news and go to sleep.

- Mark

Food for thought

January 17, 2007

It would have been nice to have a day of rest, but it was not in the plans. I rolled out of bed at twenty to nine and a tro-tro (name for minibus) was here to pick us up at nine sharp (5 Atlantic time so I was still pretty sleepy).

We went to the Ghanaian Journalists Association to begin our orientation with Ato, JHR's country coordinator. We ate a nice breakfast on the patio outside the association and then went into an air-conditioned room (thankfully since it was already 25 degrees and muggy).

We heard two talks during the day. In the morning, it was Bright, Blewu, the head of the Ghanaian Journalists Association. He spoke about the history of the free press in Ghana. He says the media is in the embryonic stage right now because there was no real free press before freedom of speech was enshrined in the 1992 constitution. The real freedom came, though, after the criminal libel law was dropped in 2000. Until then a journalist could be jailed for criticizing or investigating a politician or prominent figure. There is still a libel law but it's a civil one so reporters are more inclined to investigate and/or comment on controversial subjects.

I had the most amazing lunch - a bean stew with fish and rice. Oh my God it was good. It was mildly spicy - I must find out what kinds of spices they use so Janet and I can try and cook it. I'm pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoy the food...for two reasons. One, I was so afraid of potential allergies to nutty dishes. But it is easy, as it turns out, to avoid them. Two, I had been told by many people that the food was unexceptional. But it's great so far. I think it's because fish, beans and rice are such staples in my diet. It's comfort food...

In the afternoon, we spoke with Egbert Faibile, a lawyer and journalist in Accra. He gave us a broad overview of the political system, and the culture and society.

By the end of the afternoon, I began to fade. You know that feeling when you're trying so hard to stay awake - the eyes flutter as you fight falling asleep.

We went back to our hostel and took a short nap. At night we went to the French association, which was interesting because the British colonized Ghana though it's surrounded by French African countries. We watched a performance by an African drum and dance troupe, and ate dinner. I had plantains and the same bean and fish stew. I didn't enjoy it as much because I don't like the sweetness of the plantains and the stew was a little too spicy. Had a beer and went back to the hostel to sleep.

- Mark

A safe landing

January 16, 2007

Arrived in Ghana after a flight from Toronto to London, and then London to Accra. The flights themselves - about six or seven hours each - were uneventful. I read, watched movies, and slept a bit. I flew to London alone but four of us were on the plane to Accra from London.

I was incredibly nervous and agitated on the flights over. It's hard to let things go for eight months - the cats, my family, my creature comforts. As much as I like the idea of traveling and international development work, I'm a homebody at heart. This kind of transition is especially tough because it's eight months long - longer than I've ever been away before. And the assignment is challenging. Figuring out what I'm able to contribute to human rights reporting in Ghana will take time.

I'm so happy Janet's coming, but it would have been nice to have her with me today.

The landing was also uneventful, which you could say is good news! I didn't even feel the wheels hit the runaway. As I stepped off the plane, I tried to absorb the atmosphere. It was muggy and dark, and we had to cross the tarmac to the terminal. It was a very small airport for a city of 2-million. It seemed to only have one terminal and just a couple of gates.

We got through customs quickly and went out the front door of the airport to find Ato, the head of Journalists for Human Rights in Ghana. He was to greet us and take us to our hotels and apartment, in my case. It was odd - there must have been a couple of hundred people there to greet passengers - entire families must have come out. There were also about 50 women with bedrolls on the ground in the entranceway - didn't get a chance to ask Ato what that was all about.

As it turns out I was put up in a hostel that night. The person hadn't yet vacated the apartment that Janet and I have rented for the next eight months.

First awkward moment with a local: Two guys carried my bags out to the car and I hadn't yet changed any money so couldn't give them a tip.

First moment of deprivation: As I write this diary, they called my room to say they were cutting the power for the night. These kinds of blackouts are apparently common to conserve electricity. So much for reading before bed...

- Mark

Black like me

January 15, 2007

Black like me: I went to a CIBC branch in downtown Toronto before I left for Pearson to catch my flight to London. I told the teller I needed some U.S. cash for a trip. She asked me where I was going, and I said Africa. She then told me that her great-great - or is it great-great-great? - grandfather had married a woman from Congo in the 1800s. He fell in love and wanted to marry her and bring her home with him. She wasn't a slave, but nonetheless he had to pay her family to take her away with him.

The teller didn't know she had African roots until she went in for surgery on her leg. She scarred heavily in a way that meant she might have black roots of some kind, the doctor told her, even though her skin colour and facial features were white. She asked her family members if they had black ancestors and she learned the story of her distant relatives.

I knew what she meant when she said the scarring might mean she had black roots. I got my ears pierced 10 years ago and one of them got infected. When it began to heal, a scar started to form on the lobe and grew until it formed a little ball of skin - highly annoying and embarrassing. I went to see a doctor when I was living in Toronto and he asked me if I had any black ancestors. He said this kind of scar tissue build-up was common in black people, but not in whites. He was Korean and said it was also a common occurrence in Asians. I only know of my Acadian, Welsh and Irish roots, but I've wondered about it ever since.

- Mark

Saturday, January 20, 2007

The last Saturday

Mark is in Accra. Today's my last day to run around and pick things up, drop things off, and make sure everyone knows how to reach us, our plumber, carpenter, and my mother, while we're away.

I felt pretty organized yesterday, but still had 10 last minute items I had to do on the last day I could access the North American working world - one being go to Service New Brunswick to replace the licence plate that fell off the car last June! The plates are sitting on the kitchen counter and still need to be installed.

Mark seems to be doing well in Accra. He arrived Tuesday night and I will join him next Tuesday night. I keep telling him he has to post something to the site, and hopefully he will soon. He's the one getting the head start on the adventure.

I guess he's already witnessed difficulties with the infrastructure in Ghana. Our apartment wasn't ready when he arrived so he's been staying in a hostel. The hostel's power cuts out every night so I think he's been going to bed early. Without light, it's tough to read in bed :)

He said he had a great bean and fish stew this week. As a vegetarian, I think he was happy to see this served as a common meal. We were all making bets on how long he'd be able to stay vegetarian in West Africa.

I also learned what I'm going to be doing in Ghana. I am going to be on a volunteer placement with the West African AIDS Foundation working on a microcredit project. It all came together this week. Canadian Crossroads International, an organization that Mark's worked with for close to 15 years, had an unexpectant vacancy open to work with their partner in Ghana. They needed to fill it by February 1st, and weren't sure how to get someone in place by then. Mark had happened to drop into the organization on Monday enroute to the airport and mentioned that I would be going with him to Ghana. He explained my skill set, and they said I'd be welcome to help out with the program from time to time. An hour later they were notified of this placement that needed to be filled, and after a few minutes of reflection realized I was a good fit.

We've been working out the details this week, and on Monday at the Toronto airport during my 4 hour layover, I'll be met by a Canadian Crossroads representative to sign a contract, exchange personal details, and begin my training.

From what I know right now, the West African AIDS Foundation is running a program with 15 AIDS patients to help them build skills to run their own businesses. The participants are being trainined in the art of bead, bread and batique making. There are some challenges with the participants moving from the training phase to running the business phase, and they'd like me to get involved to see how I might assist with this transition. It sounds like an interesting challenge.

It's already noon and I still need to drop off our espresso maker to Dave, pick up a lawnmower for John, take the kite surfer to Mike, clean the car to sell it, drop off information to our tenants, pick up last minute items for Ghana, and head out to Christine's for dinner. The deadlines are now real.


Monday, January 1, 2007

Getting Ready

Mark and I are getting our apartment ready for someone else to move in. It's harder than you might think. In the five years that I've lived in the apartment, I've accumulated a lot of "stuff". Thankfully we only have to move our personal things out from the bedroom. Everything else will stay as it is until we return.

We're also both a bit sentimental about our home. We had our last leisurely breakfast this morning. Mark leaves for Toronto on Saturday, so this is the last time we'll sit in our dining room enjoying coffee from our espresso maker and Montreal bagels from the market.

Today is also the day that Spunky leaves home and the espresso maker - his favourite roost in the apartment. I hope that he gets along okay with Mike. He's a brave man. No one else would take Spunky, so we're thankful Mike agreed to be the foster parent while we're away. If it doesn't go well, we're in trouble.

It's New Year's day. 2007 has begun.

- Janet