Saturday, March 24, 2007

Home is where the heart is

A tent city is what comes to mind for most people when they think of refugee camps. Buduburum – a Liberian refugee camp an hour west of Accra - is a small city, a 17-year-old settlement with about 45,000 residents. There are cement and wooden shacks and small buildings that house families, restaurants, stores, a hospital, churches and schools.

There is a makeshift movie theatre, which has old wooden benches and a TV and DVD player suspended from the ceiling. There are bakeries that make darm good cinnamon rolls; I was told Americans introduced these tasty treats to Liberia.

In short, the Buduburum camp is a home, a place where Liberians have raised and schooled their kids, and buried their dead.

I went to the camp for the first time two weeks ago. A group of refugees publish a monthly newspaper there about life in the camp and events back home in Liberia. It's called The Vision, and is primarily about social justice issues. We went there to lay the groundwork for workshops JHR will conduct over the next five months.

Come visit Wednesday, The Vision people told us; it’s Decoration Day, the day of the year that Liberians clean up the gravesites of their dead relatives. It’s a national holiday in Liberia, and one here at Buduburum too.

We arrived at 8 a.m. that Wednesday (March 14) and headed straight for the graveyard. I was taken by complete surprise when we arrived there. I expected an air of solemnity, perhaps a quiet ceremony to honour the dead; instead, people were hard at work and the mood was for the most part celebratory

Most of the dead are buried above ground. Family members were clearing weeds and grass, and some were re-painting the concrete tombs. Some were bowing down over the graves in prayer or sorrow; others were clutching bottles of beer and dancing. You rarely see people drink in Ghana, so this was indeed an unusual sight.

We were with reporters from The Vision, so we had the opportunity to talk with people about family members they had buried here and what this day meant to them.

One man stood beside the graves of two close friends who died shortly after they graduated from high school in the late 1990s. I asked what he remembered about them. He said they were very close to each other, and were affectionately called the “politicians” by their friends, because they were always talking about politics. He said the students were so upset by their deaths most of them didn’t go to the graduation ceremony. They died of an illness that remains a mystery to this day because it’s not common to conduct autopsies.

We talked to an older man who was cleaning the gravesites of his brothers. His mother had also died in the camp, but he had shipped her body back to buried in Liberia. I asked what he and other people at the camp would do with the graveyard if they returned to Liberia. He said many people who have returned already dug up their relatives’ graves and shipped home the remains.
Figuring out where “home” is is a hugely controversial subject here, especially these days. The UN has begun a voluntary resettlement program, and will pay the costs of moving. But it has set June 30th as the deadline for people to take advantage of the program. It’s not clear what will happen then. Will people lose their refugee status? Will the UN cut off funding for the camp? Will people still here after the deadline be resettled in other countries? These are the questions that pre-occupy people here.

The camp was established in 1990 after a civil war erupted in Liberia. There have been brief interludes of peace since then, but the camp has continued to grow with each new outbreak of violence back home. Liberia has been at peace since 2003, and the UN would like to see people go home. Some are willing to return, some are not. There are varying reasons why many don’t want to go back. Some don’t trust the situation in Liberia; they think that war could break out again at any time. Some still hope to settle overseas in places like Canada or the U.S. Some have made a home here in Ghana, and want to stay.

I am continually struck by the ways in which the refugees have made Buduburum “home.”

There is group of young people that have formed an “intellectuals club,” where they meet every Wednesday to debate important issues. The most recent topic of discussion: is the Buduburum camp going to meet the UN Millennium Development Goals to reduce poverty worldwide by 2015? The MDGs were crafted for countries; these young people feel so at home here they want the camp meet them too. As you can imagine the problems on the camp are many – poor sanitation, water and food shortages and inadequate health care. The group plans to present recommendations based on their discussions to the camp’s political leaders.

Then there is the newspaper, The Vision. A British NGO pays to print the paper once a month. The Liberians who work there are volunteers. They are all youthful and idealistic. They are all motivated by a love for the camp and a desire to learn skills that will help them rebuild their lives when they are no longer refugees. They are incredibly patient (some have been here for 17 years) and focused on publishing stories that will help make the camp – their home for the foreseeable future - a better place to live.

- Mark

P.S. I will file more entries from the camp in the coming months. If you’re interested in learning more about The Vision, the Millennium Development Goals and the situation in Liberia, click on the links at top left-hand side of the page.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Time for the Almond Tree to Bear Fruit

There are two weeks left in the Almond Tree’s Business Training program. The Almond Tree is the name of the group of people living with HIV who are involved in a business training program at the West Africa AIDS Foundation where I am volunteering. At the end of March, the 15 participants in the program will apply for micro credit loans and start their businesses.

According to a microfinance institution in Ghana working with marginalized people in start up businesses, they have about a 30% chance of success. We’re trying to increase these odds as the participants need this project to work. They want desperately to live economically independent lives. They need to buy medicine, they need to send their children to school, and they need to pay for food and housing.

The one thing that connects the participants of the Almond Tree Project is their HIV status. In many cases they have been rejected by their families and friends. In some cases, their families don’t even know their status. Were they to know, the participants fear their families would banish them from their lives.

One woman, Vida, a thirty-five year old mother, has two children who are also HIV+. Her husband died a few years ago from HIV, leaving her bankrupt. The small amount of money she had went to cover hospital bills and medication. Prior to her husband’s death, she ran a small provisions store from her home. It was enough, she says, to cover monthly expenses. Now she has no savings, so is unable to invest in the inventory she would need to re-start the business. Vida is learning the alphabet and can now recognize the letters from A to H. She’s still working on the sounds of these letters.

One of the reasons many of the businesses of marginalized people fail during the start up phase is the owners have little or no savings. In North America, most people who start businesses know they won’t make a profit for many months. In some cases it can take years to turn a profit. They plan for this situation by both adequately financing their businesses, and making sure they have enough savings to cover their living expenses for an extended period of time.

In Ghana, when banks give out loans to people without savings, the money often goes to day to day living, rather than business expenses. By the end of the second month, the money is gone and the business fails. In practical terms, this scenario makes sense. If a parent is faced with the choice of either feeding a hungry child, or purchasing material for a sewing business, she will feed her child. The business will always rank as a lower priority.

For this reason, well-experienced microfinance institutions try to assess a client’s ability to pay versus their willingness to pay. Most people applying for small loans are willing to pay; they’re often, however, unable to pay. Unfortunately, this assessment has led many financial institutions to refuse marginalized people. Many even refuse to finance start up businesses because the risks are too high.

We have fortunately been able to find a sympathetic microfinance partner to work with on the Almond Tree Project. The organization is called the Ecumenical Church Loan Fund (ECLOF) and operates in many countries around the world. As a Christian organization, it isn’t mandated by profits. The Executive Director, a woman with a decade of experience in microfinance, is especially compassionate. She left a lucrative career as a consultant to work with ECLOF and has a special interest in working with people living with HIV because she knows 90% of all microfinance institutions won’t touch this group of people for fear they will die before paying back their loans.

Most microfinance institutions charge 4% interest per month, or 48% per year. ECLOF will charge our group 1% interest. Most microfinance institutions will provide little more than $100 in working capital per client. ECLOF believes the businesses must be adequately financed to succeed so is willing to provide up to $500 in working capital loans. ECLOF also understands that our participants need to have financial support during the start-up phase of their businesses so they won’t use their loans for day to day living. The organization is working to help us find wage grants for the first 6 weeks of business operation.

Some people have questioned us on our insistence that participants receive a wage grant during the start up phase of their businesses. “This will create dependency,” they say. “They were surviving before they entered the program, so they can survive while starting their businesses.”

What most people don’t realize and I have to admit I also questioned the grant before coming to Ghana, is that without this grant, the businesses will likely fail. Our participants did survive prior to entering the program, but they survived by finding odd jobs day to day. Some sold things like ice blocks and other small provisions; others gardened, washed clothes, or cleaned homes. None of these activities were sustainable, but with them, they scraped by. If we were to ask them to survive in the way they’d survived before, we would be asking them to pull their focus away from their business startup – only a small portion of their energy would go into actually building the business.

ECLOF, while bending rules to work with our group, isn’t totally risk averse. The Executive Director explained that a project officer will accompany each of the business owners to purchase capital equipment. No money for capital purchases will enter the hands of the business owner. This, she explained, ensures the money goes where it is supposed to go, and the businesses have everything they need to run effectively.

Our bakery group has many capital purchases. They need to buy an oven, mixing bowls, pans, and various other pieces of equipment. Their loan is also the largest of all of the businesses. Based on the price they can get for their bread, it would be next to impossible for them to pay back their loan at the normal interest rate. ECLOF has agreed to stretch the loan over a 2 year period (most loan periods are no longer than 5 months), and honour the 1% monthly interest rate. In Accra, landlords also want rent months in advance – sometimes up to two years. The bakery group has found a location that wants them to pay $25/month, for a year and a half in advance. The group is very proud of itself as the members talked the landlord down from $50/month and 2 years rent in advance.

Two years of rent at $25/month may not seem like a lot of money, but the advance rents are huge deterrents for people starting businesses in Ghana. Where most people make about $3/day, saving $500 would take years. It is only through loans, and compassionate microfinance institutions that our group could even dream of running their own bakery.

Once the businesses are running, the owners will make loan payments every two weeks. They will also start saving money. ECLOF will set up a savings account for all participants. It will go to help secure future loans, business expansions, and serve as a contingency fund.

We spoke to the group this week about starting to save money. They were asked to start saving 1,000 cedis per day (about 12 cents). At the end of each week, we would collect the money from them. Saving is a new concept for group, and as the loan officer talked about the benefits of saving, the group became more animated. Meri, a mother of 5 and a member of the bakery group, kept coming out with bursts of enthusiasm. I didn’t understand her statements because she spoke her native language, but to my ears, it sounded like a continuous stream of “Amen.”

On Friday, I went to meet the bakery group for their English and literacy lesson. I had forgotten it was also the day to collect the group’s savings for the week. Addrissu, one of the members hadn’t forgotten. Without my prompting, he proudly handed me five crisp 5,000 cedi bills, one from each of the group members.

As the group gets ready to embark on the start up phase of the business, I watch nervously, keenly aware of the statistics, and the chance of success. Even with wage subsidies, 1% interest rates, and a whole band of cheerleaders, they will struggle. Their challenges are beyond anything I can relate to.

Now that I have come to know the group members, I am confident they have the integrity, and determination to run their own businesses. I am also confident they are willing to pay back their loans. We now need to test their ability.

- Janet

A funeral march full of merriment

It was Saturday and we were laying on the beach at Kokrobite (the same beach west of Accra that Janet wrote about in an earlier entry). We had been for a swim and had lunch, and were now soaking up the sun and reading books.

Suddenly there was a commotion to our right. I turned to look that way down the beach, and there was a swarm of yelping and laughing people running toward us. I noticed the excited children first – dozens of them laughing and running along the shore. Then I saw a yellow coffin hoisted in the air above the crowd. Several people were holding it above their heads and running with down the beach, amidst the crowd.

It was a like a group of schoolboys holding their coach aloft as they raced around the field to celebrate a championship victory.

It was like a scene from an epic movie, watching these children, this yellow coffin held aloft, the women in black holding up the ends of their dresses as they ran to keep up with the crowd. The mid-day heat, the sights and sounds of waves crashing against the shore as they ran by us. All of this excitement, this merriment and celebration…in a funeral procession. What a way to go!

When they had passed by, I turned to Janet and said, “OK. I’ve seen everything now. I can get back on the plane, head home to Canada, and say my trip to Ghana was complete.”

- Mark

The tree of life

Every morning on my way to work, I walk through a housing project that reminds me a lot of McLaren Boulevard and the Rifle Range – in appearance and in character. The buildings are non-descript and some rundown, but it has a real neighborhood feel. Because the apartments are so small and likely very hot, people spend most of their time on the streets - cooking, sleeping, chatting and playing.

On evening I saw a group of children gathered around a middle-aged man. They had their notebooks opened in front of them, and were listening to the man intently. They all looked to me when I stopped to say hello. “Are you doing homework?” I asked the man. “Yes, we are,” he said. By the look on his face, I realized that I was disturbing the lesson. I smiled and moved on.

Many small neighborhoods and towns have a central gathering spot; the one that has stood out the most for me is the town tree, and this neighborhood has a grand one. About 150-feet high and leafy, it offers protection from the heat. Every morning and every afternoon, a group of men are gathered beneath it playing checkers. They often have three boards going at the same time, tournament style.

A few weeks ago, we visited a small town in the mountains called Amedzope (Janet wrote about it March 5). The “town tree” was the first thing I noticed when I stepped off the bus. There was a group of men – it’s always the men at these spots - gathered under the tree so I wandered over to say hello and escape the heat. It turned out the tree had been planted about 100 years ago when they settled the town. It was the centerpiece of the central square. They had even enhanced the space under the tree by constructing chairs out of stone tablets and fixing them to the ground.

Modern societies – in developing and developed countries – favour large urban centres, places that don’t have the intimacy of small towns and neighborhoods. I become nostalgic when I come upon places that have that small-town feel, those central gathering spots - be they trees, squares or marketplaces. You can find that in a small town like Amedzope and even a big city like Accra, if you look hard enough.

- Mark

P.S. What are the gatherings spots you like best – in your hometown or places that you’ve visited?

The towering termites

American novelist Jim Harrison wrote that spending time in natural settings - and taking in interest in the animals, plants and insects that inhabit them - can be a humbling experience for people. We humans are so enamored with what we think makes us special – our consciousness, ingenuity, and intelligence – that we forget about the wonders of the other living things that share the planet with us.

In Ghana, termite castles are the natural wonders that have captured my attention. I first noticed them when I left Accra a few weeks ago to conduct a workshop. Along the side of the road on the way of town, I noticed what looked like 10- 15-foot sand castles. My Ghanaian friend told me they were homes for termites that construct them with mud and grass.

They’re big enough to house a million or more termites, and are quite sophisticated in design. For example, they’re constructed in such a way that new air can flow in and old air out. Imagine an office tower that holds a million people constructed by hand out of such basic material. They’re so well built that Ghanaian Muslims have used mud from them to help reinforce mosques built with similar materials.

- Mark

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Door of no return

Cape Coast Castle, located on the Gulf of Guinea two hours east of Accra, was a major transit point for slaves until the early 1800s. Millions of Africans were captured by their countrymen and sold to the British, who held them here before they were shipped out to slave-owners in the Americas.

We visited the castle on Saturday. Usually, I remain interested but emotionally detached when visiting tourist sites, even ones that are centered on tragic events and circumstances. I couldn’t do this here. Among the things we saw and heard:

- Rebellious slaves were thrown into a dark cell with stone floors and walls. They put about 200 of them in there at a time, chained to the floor and walls. The only light came from three small windows 20-30 feet from the floor. The slaves ate there, vomited there, urinated and shat there. To clean the cell and the men, the guards would occasionally hose them down with water; the feces, rotting food, urine and vomit would be carried out in trenches along the floor. Twenty of us spent a few minutes down there, and the cell quickly heated up. I can’t imagine what it was like for those men. They often stayed there for up to two months.

- The really rebellious slaves were thrown into a cramped, windowless cell. They weren’t given food or water. They were placed there to starve to death. I was claustrophobic within seconds of entering the cell. It was terrifying to think of being left there to die.

- The women were held in a separate cell, and regularly raped by their British captors. If a woman resisted, she was thrown into a detention cell, which was no bigger than a big walk-in closet.

- The slaves boarded ships after passing through the “door of no return.” We walked through it and were treated to a beautiful view of the Ghanaian coastline. Africans who walked through it more than 200 years ago saw ships that would transport them across the sea to lives of torture and enslavement. Some preferred to drown themselves by jumping off the canoes that carried them to the ships.

- Some of the women who were raped by their British captors became pregnant. If they were discovered to be pregnant on the ships, they were tied up and tossed overboard alive.

A month ago, the governor-general visited Cape Castle and one of the pictures released to the media showed her crying at the door of no return. I rolled my eyes at the time, cynically thinking that she was being theatrical, putting on a show for the cameras. I had tears in my eyes at the same point, though, and at other moments on the tour.

I was initially surprised when a Ghanaian man poured the remains of a beer on the grave of a British officer buried at the fort. Looking back on it now, I can empathize with this gesture of disrespect and disgust.

One positive sign: when you re-enter the castle through the “door of no return” it has a sign that reads the “door of return” – a symbol of the fact that the ancestors of former slaves are now free to return to their homelands and rediscover their roots.

- Mark

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Ghana @ 50

Ghana celebrated it's 50 years of Independence from Britain yesterday. Thousands of Ghanaians took to the streets to celebrate. Mark and I made our way to Independence Square early in the morning, but not early enough to find a seat in the immense stadium. Many people grabbed seats as early as 5:30 a.m. and others spent the night there.

Once we realized it would be nearly impossible to see the proceedings, we headed to the back of Independence Square and down to the beach. Here we found hundreds of people enjoying the cool breeze while still feeling part of the festivities. The loud speaker from the stadium squawked out political speeches and marching tunes, but few seemed to pay much attention. We watched children and teens play soccer, splash in the surf, and wander along the water's edge. The breeze coming off the ocean was also a welcome air conditioner.

There's been much talk about the $20 million US spent on the celebrations, and heated discussion on exactly what Ghana has to celebrate, but yesterday, it seemed Ghanaians just wanted to party. They flooded the streets decked out in national colours. Mark and I even let one aggressive entrepreneur paint the country's flag on our toe nails.

There are good reasons to question the money spent on the festivities. Villages in northern Ghana still don't have eletricity. One journalist told us yesterday people in these same villages didn't even know Ghana was celebrating 50 years of Independence. The celebrations have little impact on their isolated lives.

For today, however, we'll leave political discussions behind. Yesterday Ghana seemed proud. It was nice to see people dancing in the street, and smiling as we passed. Last night at around 10 p.m. as we wearily headed home after 14 hours in the heat, we saw a young man stick his head out of a taxi window and yell in our direction "Ghana is 50!", he said. We smiled and waved back in a sign of unity.


Below you can find the day in pictures...

A young girl squats on the beach behind Independence Square

An aggressive entrepreneur convinces us to paint
our toe nails with the Ghanaian Flag

Hundreds of people flood onto the beach as Independence
Square fills to capacity

A few young boys enjoy playing soccer while decked out in national colours

Soldiers relax as they provide security during the proceedings

A patriotic woman watches her child on the beach

Mark's height allows us to catch a bit of the activity
inside Independence Square on camera

People dance in the streets to celebrate Ghana's Independence Day

A young girl watches as I take her picture,
half hiding behind the safety of a pole

Monday, March 5, 2007

No payoff for ignoring abuse

A grown man allegedly sexually abuses a little girl (or is “defiled,” the word they use here when referring to abuse of children). Rather than being arrested and prosecuted, the man pays off the little girl’s family and a local policeman.

A journalist brought up this story in a roundtable discussion at our recent workshop in Ho, a town in the Lake Volta Region. He had encountered three or four situations like this; they all ended in much the same way. He wanted to know how to write a story about what was happening, and it was difficult because no one would talk about it.

Since I arrived here six weeks ago, I’ve heard about many human rights violations that are not prosecuted, usually for two main reasons – poverty and stigmatization.

The case of the little girl is a typical example. Her family is very poor and could make good use of the money, the reporter said. The rape is also a great embarrassment to family. To be labeled a victim of abuse would affect her future marriage prospects, he said.

Police salaries are also low so the officer takes a cut and agrees not to pursue the case, which is in the best interests of the man but also the family that needs the money and doesn’t need the grief of this incident going public.

The same issues come up in other cases involving rights, like child trafficking for example. The families are often very poor and need the money selling the child brings to them. It also saves the family the expense of feeding and schooling the child.

In cases where they are rescued and reintegrated into their families, they are often ridiculed by other kids. Being trafficked means their family is poor, a stigma none of them want to carry around.

We encountered this scenario when we went to a town called Sogacope several weeks ago. A couple of kids didn’t show up for an interview about child trafficking because they didn’t want to be identified in a newspaper circulated in the community.

Nonetheless, these issues are important and need to be discussed in a public forum or they will not be addressed. In our group discussion around the little girl who was abused, we talked about ways he could report about the story. For example, he could offer anonymity to family that agreed to talk about their situation. If he included no details that could identify them, they could feel reasonable safe that their privacy would be protected.

The reporter was still unsure about pursuing the story. I plan to check back in with him in a few weeks. I’ll file an update if he’s made any progress on it.

- Mark

Sunday, March 4, 2007

A Bus Full of Bananas

Every hundred feet or so, we stopped to rest. I could feel my thighs shaking under the stress of the descent. The path was so narrow and the edge so steep that we dared not look anywhere but straight ahead. Decked out in hiking gear, and wearing sneakers for the first time since our arrival in Ghana, we were ready for the rugged terrain.

Suddenly behind me I could hear voices speaking a language other than English. I turned my head and saw two women walking quickly towards us. Dressed in skirts and light shirts, they carried large buckets on their heads and wore cheap plastic flip flops. They nodded a hello then sailed past us almost dancing down the path. We were on a well-trodden mountain path that connected two communities. The women were on their way from one to the other.

The town we were going to was Biakpa (pronounced Beeyapa). From there we would hiked to a waterfall. We’d spent the previous night in Amedzofe (pronounced Amedjopay), a small village on top of one of the highest mountains in Ghana. The prospect of cooler temperatures, fresh air, and hiking had easily lured us to this village five hours from the oppressive heat and pollution of Accra.

Amedzofe is one of the few towns in Ghana with a tourist information centre. It was set up by Peace Corps volunteers in 2003. Upon our arrival in the village, we were escorted to the centre where we met Jerry. A young boy of about 18 who’d just finished secondary school, he was thrilled to see us. We were the first tourists to arrive in two days so we quickly became his responsibility. We registered our names, learned of the ‘ecotourism’ activities available to us, and paid our fees for the activities we’d chosen.

Jerry, now our official guide for the weekend, took us on a tour of two guest houses. Mark and I selected a rustic lodge (i.e. sparsely furnished guest house badly in need of repairs with a large open common room and friendly atmosphere, but with running water) on the side of the mountain where two American missionaries were living. The rest of our group went for the more upscale guesthouse five minutes closer to the main square. Their rooms had fridges, nice furniture and was very clean but the taps weren’t running so the group had to settle for bucket showers.

One of the activities offered to tourists is a visit to the local waterfall. Jerry said we could walk into the waterfall, but because we were approaching the end of the dry season, there would be no water. Our only other option was to visit a waterfall a little further away, outside Biakpa - a village 45 minutes by foot down the mountain from Amedzofe. He warned us the trek would take about 5 hours, beginning to end. We agreed we would attempt it the following morning before heading back to Accra.

Thirty minutes into the journey, we started showing our lack of conditioning. I was amazed to feel my legs actually shaking as I tried to maintain balance, and support my weight while traveling along the bush path. The path itself, well worn from frequent travel between the villages, provided a stunning view of the valley and surrounding hills. Jerry pointed out mango trees, cocoa trees, and cassava plants – some growing wild in the bush while others clearly part of a plantation. We also saw dozens of colourful butterflies. Ghana apparently has ten times the number of species of butterflies to what’s found in North America.

We picked up another guide in Biakpa who led us to the waterfall. We loved the walk through the tropical forest. Vines hung from the tops of trees and we grabbed them to help us maintain our balance along another steep, narrow trail. During the final descent to the waterfall, we had to rappel down a steep rocky cliff while holding on to a rope. Mark grumbled about how unsafe it was and would only climb down once the rest of us had. We made it safely, but all agreed Parks Canada wouldn’t accept the liability for this last maneuver.

We made it back to Amedzofe in just less than five hours. As buses don’t travel to small villages on Sunday, we’d made arrangements with the local taxi driver (the only one) to take us into the closest city, Ho, where we would catch a bus back to Accra. We agreed he would pick us up at 2:30 at one of the guesthouses.

A one-taxi town

At 2:30 p.m. there was no taxi driver. We tried calling him on his cell phone, and learned he’d gone to Ho earlier in the day with another group of people. He was 30 minutes from Amedzofe he said. At 3:30 p.m. the taxi driver still hadn’t appeared. We called again. He’d had some trouble with his car, he explained, but would be there in 30 minutes. Finally at 4:30 he called to say he was just leaving Ho and would meet us in one hour. We learned later that he’d waited until he had a return fare before setting out for home.

At 6:00, twenty minutes before it gets dark, the taxi driver finally appeared. We were pretty upset because none of us wanted to travel down the mountain road in the dark. It is a steep narrow road, and definitely not advisable to attempt in anything but clear daylight. The taxi driver knew he was the only way out of town, and doubled his fare.

We made a quick decision and chose to stay an extra night in Amedzofe. Most of us had work commitments the next day so needed to get back to Accra as soon as possible. We learned the first bus of the morning left at 6:00 a.m. so agreed to be on it.

At 5:45 a.m. we were huddled in the village square waiting for the bus to appear. We were afraid the bus would fill up so dressed quickly, gathered our bags and hurried to be one of the first in line. We were the only ones in the square. Villagers started emerging from their homes, and a few people were sweeping walkways, but there was no sign of the bus.

Finally, a man we’d met the day before who was also traveling to Ho early on the bus arrived in the village square. He told us to follow him as he’d seen the bus. We followed him around a corner and came upon our bus. It was sitting in the middle of a narrow side street being loaded with three huge crates of bananas. The crates were being hoisted up on top of the roof and tied down with netting.

We were a bit concerned the banana crates might make the small bus top heavy especially as it plodded its way down the mountain path, but we knew that this bus was the only thing that was going to get us back to Accra, so we all boarded the bus and found our seats.

Twenty minutes later the bus moved to the town square where two men stood with five large boards. They also planned to load their supplies on the roof of the bus. The wood was too long to fit on the roof, so we sat in the bus and waited for another 20 minutes while the men sawed through the pieces of wood to shorten them so they could fit alongside the banana crates.

Finally the bus was loaded, and the seats were filled. We moved out of the town square towards the road leading down the mountain. Just before leaving the village, the bus stopped again near a group of people who’d gathered beside the road. The back doors opened, and more people pushed into the bus. Before we knew what was happening, men and women had squeezed their bodies into the bus, and some were squatting by our feet. There was no way to move, and the bus was so full it was almost hard to breathe.

I looked around and decided there was no way I was going down the mountain on this bus. “I’m getting off,” I said. “This is completely unsafe.” The others agreed, but as we began voicing our concerns, the bus driver started to close the back doors telling us to stay where we were. Luckily a local man sitting near us, recognized our growing panic, and yelled at the man to open the door. Soon the entire bus was complete pandemonium. Some of the passengers yelled at those crouched on the floor to get off so we would stay on, while others yelled at us for wanting to get off.

We fought our way to the back of the vehicle and jumped away from the bus. The remaining passengers scrambled to take our place. The bus filled up immediately and took off down the mountain without us.

Thankfully, our helpful friend, who’d shown us where the bus was hiding earlier that morning, jumped off with us. We protested, but he insisted saying he’d show us how to walk to the next town to find another bus.

Giddy with happiness that we could breathe, were in one piece, and no longer squashed into the bus, we started the long walk down the mountain.

Five minutes later, an empty bus used for collecting timber from nearby forests drove by. Our friend signaled for him to stop, and he agreed to drive us to the closest town.

We hopped onto the bus – each of us with our own seat - stretched out, and leaned back ready to enjoy the beautiful view. Without the load of banana crates, and wood, our bus moved along at a good pace. Ten minutes later we caught up with the first bus and passed it. We waved.

By noon, the increased traffic and the strong smell of diesel indicated we were almost in Accra. The sound of the waterfall, the clean mountain air, and the bus full of bananas, was completely left behind.

- Janet

Friday, March 2, 2007

Communal spirit

A few days after I returned home from a six-month trip to India in 1992, I was eating dinner with my family. Rather than dig in with my knife and fork - as is the custom in Canada - I dug in with my right hand - as is the custom in India. I recall my father being appalled. (Though not as much so as when he came home from work two weeks later and I had gotten an earring in each ear – as is the custom in Rajasthan, a state in India.)

Since then, on my various trips overseas, I’ve found myself in situations where I thought, “My father wouldn’t do this.” I’ve had many of these moments since I arrived in Ghana, but one that comes most readily to mind.

Ghanaians love a dish called “fufu.” It’s a mixture of cassava, maize and yam (or some combination of these) pounded into a dough-like ball. It’s then served inside a meat-based soup. You eat it by tearing off a piece of the dough and dipping it in the soup.

One day, I walked into a “chop shop” – Ghanaian term for a local restaurant – and a group of strangers asked me to sit down and have some “fufu” with them. They were eating out of the same bowl, and I politely declined by patting my tummy and saying, “I’d just ate, thanks, and I am full.”

An hour later I sat down for lunch with Renee, Janet and a couple of Ghanaians, who ordered a big bowl of “fufu” for us to share.

Once again, I declined. I had a good excuse again, though. I’m a vegetarian, I said, and the soup is meat-based! I tore a couple of pieces off the dough ball and that was it.

The truth is, though, I was a bit squeamish at the sight of all those hands dipping into the same bowl of soup, even though it’s customary to wash your hands thoroughly before the meal.

Like father, like son, I guess.

- Mark