Saturday, April 28, 2007

A night on the town

People here generally don’t go out at night. They’re on the streets at dawn, but back inside by dusk. Janet and I are very Ghanaian in that way. At home most nights by sundown, we prepare dinner, chat about our day, and then read before bed.

So I was surprised (and amused) Monday night to find myself in a car with a police escort speeding through the streets of Accra, chatting with a jet-setting soprano.

It all began a week ago when a friend of mine told me that New Brunswicker Measha Brueggergosman was coming to Accra to perform with an Italian chorus and orchestra, Teatro alla Scala.

I’m not a classical music fan, but thought it would be a good opportunity to see her perform (the only time I had heard her sing was at the wedding of a childhood friend). I also thought CBC might air an interview with her.

I e-mailed an interview request to her management company. Her husband wrote back, saying she’d be pleased to do an interview, but I didn’t receive it until a couple of hours before the show. He had asked that I contact her at her hotel but it was too late for that now. Janet and I decided to go to the show, hoping I’d be able to conduct a brief interview after the performance.

This performance was a big deal here. It was part of the events celebrating the country’s 50th anniversary of independence. The tickets were very expensive by Ghanaian standards ($30 - $50); most of the people who attended were foreigners and the country’s rich and powerful, including the president, John Kufuor.

We arrived late and the main doors were locked. The side entrance was manned by armed police officers (by armed, I mean they had semi-automatic rifles, not handguns). They said the president had already arrived and was seated for the performance. This meant that no one else could get in now, which greatly angered several Ghanaians who had arrived late but had tickets.

They left the door that was guarded by police and went back to the main entrance; they banged on the locked doors, and demanded to get in. Eventually, someone opened the door and let them into the lobby. Janet and I, who didn’t have tickets, snuck in behind them.

A staff member told them they had to wait in the lobby until intermission; otherwise they would disrupt the performance. They all began shouting at him, demanding to be let in. One guy made an angry gesture at a police officer, so a security guard kicked him out.

It was only when the theatre staff realized that there would be no intermission that they decided to let us in. Janet and I walked upstairs to the balcony and took our seats.

What we saw of the performance (Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9) was lovely, though I’m no judge of classical music. They got a standing ovation at the end, and Measha took centre stage when they bowed to the audience. I noticed she had a digital camera in her hand, and watched her turn to take a picture of the crowd just before she left the stage for her dressing room.

I hurried downstairs because her husband Markus had said that she would be catching a plane to Israel right after the performance. An orchestra member led me back stage, though he warned me that it would difficult to do an interview because she was changing and her car was waiting to take her to the airport. When she emerged from her dressing room, she smiled and said, “We’ll have to do the interview in the car on the way to the airport. Is that ok?” I ran to the lobby to tell Janet where I was going, and then ran out to the parking lot; Measha was already waiting in the car.

It wasn’t until we left the lot that I realized we had a police escort. The police motorcycle led us through the streets of Accra, the red light flashing and siren occasionally blaring when we had to cut through lanes of traffic.

Both of us were distracted, though amused, by the police escort, but we managed to get the interview done. We spoke about her performance and thoughts on her short stay in Accra. It turns she went to a popular market in the city core; she said that wherever she travels she tries to get the pulse of a place by going to marketplaces.

The interview ended when we reached the airport. At this point, the reporter became a porter. I helped carry her bags into a VIP lounge. At this point we were turned away; airport staff said she had to go through normal security first. We loaded her bags back into the car and drove to the regular departure gate. As we stepped out of the car, Measha said, “Can you get me a luggage cart?” I found one nearby and wheeled it over to the trunk of the car. We lifted her bags onto the cart and said goodbye. She stepped through the entrance to catch a plane to Tel Aviv. I stepped off the curb and walked to a nearby tro-tro stop to get a ride back to my apartment.

I sent the interview over the Internet to CBC the next day; it arrived two minutes before the show went to air.

- Mark

P.S. The interview aired on shift April 24. I’m going to try and post it on the blog. I don’t know how to do that yet so it could take a few days

Heat of the night

Earlier this week I met with a representative of a microfinance organization in her office. Our meeting was at 2 p.m. and when we arrived, the lights were flickering in the reception area. We were ushered right into her spacious office where she was hunkered over her desk. She lifted her eyes to greet us, but didn’t move. I looked up at the air conditioner hanging over her desk. It was barely squeaking. The room was hot, and I could immediately feel the dense humidity.

She sat up in her chair and motioned to the air conditioner. “Lights out,” she said. “Our generator isn’t working well. I haven’t been able to print anything for our meeting.” No further explanation was needed. The West Africa AIDS Foundation (WAAF) a fledgling NGO where I volunteer doesn’t have a generator. Most people don’t even bother coming to work on lights out days.

We chatted for a couple of minutes about the perpetual ‘lights out’ affecting the country. Every neighbourhood loses power for 12 hours every two days either during the day or at night on an alternating basis. This is the government’s way to conserve energy.

Ironically, two days ago I logged on to CBC radio’s morning show and heard Elizabeth Weir talking about the wait time for home energy audits. It can apparently take up to 8 weeks to get an audit in Saint John. Refitting a home to conserve energy takes money and commitment. Obviously with wait times as they are, people are taking the issue seriously. I wonder if the province would ever just consider shutting off residential and commercial power for a few days a week. This would certainly help people save money on their electrical bills and would have the additional benefit of lowering greenhouse gases. Hmmm…

In Ghana, people with enough money to purchase a generator are not thinking about conserving power. They’re thinking about comfort. The cost of generating power, however, triples while operating the machine.

In the neighbourhood where Mark and I live, most people around us have generators. We don’t have a generator. Not having a generator means that by 6:30 p.m. our world is dark. We have two candles in our room that we burn all evening. During this time, the room gets so hot, that we have to leave our door open to create a cross breeze. Keeping the door open lets the mosquitoes in and makes the candles burn faster.

We also have one basic rule on ‘lights out’ nights. No touching. Thankfully we have a king size bed so the rule is easy to enforce.

Going to bed with pajamas is optional but not recommended. The only problem with the no pajamas option is that without them you’ve got to really deal with the mosquitoes. Last week I woke up with 10 bites on my legs and feet. Thankfully we faithfully take our malaria pills.

Our refrigerator loses power so we have to keep it cold with frozen water bottles. We also freeze an extra couple of water bottles to take to bed with us. We cuddle with them to keep us cool. We’ve learned it’s important to wrap the water bottle in a towel before curling up with it. Not wrapping the water bottle means waking up in a pool of water some time around 2 a.m.

We live in an apartment complex but most houses around us are single family dwellings. They are occupied primarily by international workers and wealthy Ghanaians, all of whom have generators. To lessen the noise of the generator heard inside, the house immediately behind us has parked their generator at the back of their property right by our shared wall. The shared wall is about a foot away from our window, and the window is about 8 inches from our bed. When the lights go out, their generator turns on, and it sounds like it’s in bed with us. We can decrease the noise a bit by closing the window, but, well, as you can imagine, we don’t really want to close the window.

Thankfully tonight is not a lights out night. I can type away on my computer, see my food, and will probably get a full 7 hours of sleep. And, I might even get to cuddle with something other than my frozen water bottle.

- Janet

Tuesday, April 17, 2007


Last week mom and her friend Marcia came to visit. We were thrilled to have visitors from home and to show off the Ghana we’ve come to know. We also looked forward to touring around the country during our Easter break to experience some new aspects of Ghanaian life.

After spending a few days in Accra, we set out into the countryside and headed west.

Here are some snapshots from our trip.

On our way to El Mina, we stopped at the Buduburum Liberian refugee camp. This is a picture of the market at the entrance to the camp. Used clothing from Canada and the US is sold here for more than double the price it’s sold at home. I have seen t-shirts selling for $5 with the Salvation Army Thrift Store price tag of $1.50 still attached.

Checkers is a popular past time of young boys and men in Ghana. Some times a large group forms around the players cheering on their favourite as if it’s a baseball game.

The Buduburum refugee camp is home to 23,000 Liberian refugees. It once housed 43,000 people but many have returned home or moved on to a host country. The camp has no running water and no sewage system.

Fishing is a major industry in El Mina. This coastal town has been trading internationally for 500 years. It was first settled by the Portuguese as a trading post exporting Gold back to Europe. The Africans traded gold for weapons. The name of the town comes from the words “The Mine” signifying its importance as a location for mining gold. Because of the extensive history trading with Europeans (the Dutch, and British followed), many Ghanaians in this area have lighter skin and European last names.

The largest slave castle in West Africa is in El Mina. More than 2 million West Africans left for destinations abroad through the doors of the castle while the governor entertained in rooms above.

Just north of El Mina, Kakum National Park has a special canopy walk that carries visitors through hundred year old rain forest. At 100 ft above the ground, the sway of the walkway is not for those inclined to be timid or afraid of heights. Mark nervously set off in mom’s footsteps. Looking down is not recommended.

Further north of El Mina we spent two days on Lake Bosomtwi, a lake created by a large meteor strike millions of years ago. It is 25 square kilometers and inhabited by hundreds of people living in small villages dotted around the lake.

Upon entering one of the villages, I was greeted by a young woman on laundry duty who recruited my help. I don’t think I had the right technique because she let me go a few minutes later.

The dirt road into the lake was bumpy and almost inaccessible by anything with less agility than a 4 x 4. Thankfully we made it to a guesthouse run by a Ghanaian Austrian couple who had transformed a small piece of land into a garden paradise. The property was spectacular with its careful placement of flowers, shrubs, fruit trees and winding walkways. During the day, two young men made their way across the grass cutting it with machetes.

This is a picture of the traditional hut where we stayed overlooking the lake.

We met these boys walking along the road to one of the villages. They have met enough tourists that they know the instant gratification of digital cameras. Getting them to pose meant we had to let them see the image immediately following the click of the camera. Looking at the tiny screen they laughed hysterically and then quickly set up a pose for the next picture.

Nakedness is nothing to shy away from on Lake Bosomtwi. Young boys led us down to the lake shore to show us their boats. As we reached the edge of the water, they shed their clothes and ran into the lake. Here you can see them leaping off their boat.

The boats are simply wide boards. The villagers sit in the middle of the board and paddle with their hands. Apparently the people believe the lake is sacred so won’t allow traditional fishing boats on the lake waters. All fishermen use these boards to check their nets each morning.

The town of Okasombo was created to build the dam at the mouth of Lake Volta. The dam powers 80% of Ghana. This year the water levels are the lowest they’ve ever been so the country has been forced to conserve power. Right now all of Ghana loses electricity every 48 hours for 12 hours at a time. Productivity around the country is at an all time low, and there are many grumpy people who are unable to sleep at night without fans or air conditioners. Wealthy people and companies have generators, but in many cases people just don’t show up for work because there’s little they can do without power.

On the road out of Akosombo we nearly ran over this chameleon on the side of the road. Thankfully he hadn’t tried to camouflage himself.

In Amedzofe, a tiny town in the Avatime Hills, we spent two days hiking, and learning about life at 1800 feet. The town doesn’t have its own water source, so children as young as 5 get up at dawn to fetch water from nearby streams. The rainy season has yet to start in earnest so we met one woman scooping water out of a tiny pool one cup at a time.

About 4 kilometres away from Amedzofe through a steep bush path, the town of Biakpa has its own well. A young boy took his turn filling up buckets for cooking and washing.

From a distance it was okay to take this picture. As soon as I came closer to say hello, the young girl in blue took off screaming.

These three girls are orphans who have found a home with a woman named Maude. She has rescued 16 orphans from the community. She clearly loves the girls but keeps them busy with various tasks. Here they are getting Cassava seeds ready for planting.

Goats are all over rural Ghana. This goat pressed itself against the wall as it tried to pull some coolness out of the stones.

At the Tafi Atome Monkey Sanctuary we met the sacred Mona monkey. Unfortunately we had a difficult time calling them to us even though we’d brought a handful of bananas. The mangos hanging within close reach proved to be an easier alternative.

For our final night on the road, we arrived at a beach resort nestled between an estuary and the ocean. The resort was only accessible by land through sand dunes or by boat from a launch point a few kilometers away. We opted to go by land but nearly got stuck in the deep sand a few times.

Upon close inspection of the cabins (above) and the latrine (a bucket in the sand), mom and Marcia opted for a hotel nearby. They’re adventurous, but not that adventurous I was told. Since they were traveling all night the following day, I easily succumbed to this second option. Still with the view below beckoning from the door of each hut, I know I’ll be back.

- Janet

Thursday, April 12, 2007

White hot

It was 7:30 in the morning but it was already very hot; my breathing was shallow and shirt sweat-stained as we climbed into the tro-tro and slid into the back seat. It became even more stifling after 20 people had squeezed into the van, which couldn’t leave the yard because it was hemmed in by other tro-tros. I turned my head to the left and my colleague Renee had stuck her head out the window, gulping for air. I turned to my right. The man beside me had a woman sitting on his lap. I began to feel claustrophobic, and pulled out my book to try and calm myself down.

It didn’t work, and I began to feel more anxious, cramped and short of breath. I stood up and announced that we had to get off the bus. A man in the front motioned for me to sit down. Everyone turned around to look at me but no one got up to let us off. “We have to get off NOW!” I said, and started to push my way past the couple on my right. Everyone then got up so we could get out.

Outside the bus, Renee squatted close the ground with her head buried in her arms. I felt embarrassed by my outburst but thankful to be outside stretching my legs and catching my breath. We only agreed to get back on the tro-tro when we were given seats near the front by the window.

I sat down beside the man who had early urged me to sit down. I smiled sheepishly, and then laughed along with the people who were amused by the “obroni” who couldn’t take the heat at the back of the bus. The man turned to me and said, “The black man is strong,” he said. “Yes,” I said. “The black man is strong!”

A month ago, I had a similar meltdown on a tro-tro and we had to get off and board another one. I felt silly and worried that I had insulted them, leaving the impression that I found the conditions of the tro-tro (the heat, the overcrowding) unacceptable and beneath me.

I’m not one of the obronis that wants to blend in here, to be treated like a Ghanaian. But I am sensitive about the way people perceive me. I want them to respect and like me, and I try to do the same with them. I was glad that we were able to share a laugh over my hysteria on the bus, and move on.

- Mark

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

An upbeat celebration

We were walking down a rural road in central Ghana on Easter Sunday when we heard drums being played in the distance. Janet’s mother is visiting and she had just bought a drum, so she was quite excited to see where the sounds were coming from. We headed toward the closest town a half a kilometer away. On the way, though, the sounds stopped; we walked into the town centre and there wasn’t a drum to be seen or heard.

It was getting dark so we began walking back to our hotel. The drumming began again five minutes later. It grew so loud we thought it might be a parade of drummers marching toward us. We stopped a man on the road and asked him if he knew where the sound was coming from. He said it was from a town several kilometers away. Drumming is an important part of the culture here. But we’ve only been exposed to it at funerals so far, so Janet asked if that’s what it was for. “No, just for happiness,” he said and went on his way.

- Mark

The rule of radio

A woman was recently assaulted by her husband in a rural village outside Tamale, the capital of the Northern Region. The man wasn’t arrested and prosecuted, but his crime didn’t go unnoticed. It became the starting point for an ongoing discussion on the community radio station about how to stop domestic abuse.

In interviews with a variety of people in the community – men and women - they tackled central questions about women’s rights and domestic violence. Why do men feel entitled to abuse their wives? What can be done to stop them?

The program producer said the debate was cathartic and constructive; she said it allowed the community to have an open discussion about the causes and potential solutions to domestic violence.

She spoke about her radio station’s work on this story during a recent workshop for journalists in Tamale. As I listened to her recount the interviews they conducted and the questions they addressed, I thought about one that didn’t seem central to their debate: what role does the justice system play here?

Our human rights workshops are supposed focus primarily on access to justice for women and children, but that’s not why that question occurred to me. In Canada police and the courts are central to this discussion. I was quite surprised they didn’t seem to be important to the debate in this community.

I asked her if the recently passed Domestic Violence Act was discussed much in the community. She smiled politely. No, it wasn’t, she said.

We didn’t have an in-depth discussion about why the man wasn’t prosecuted, or why the community didn’t seem concerned that he wasn’t even though they were concerned about the issue itself.

It may be that they feel the justice system is too slow or unresponsive. It may be that it’s just not part of the way they solve problems. I don’t know for sure, but it’s important issue to keep in mind in discussions about human rights in Ghana, and around the world.

The rule of law may not be relevant but the role that radio plays certainly is.

- Mark

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Journeys of the mind

The day after I arrived in India on a cultural exchange in the fall of 1991, we were invited to a reception at the Canadian Embassy. I was talking with someone about the baseball pennant race back home when the ambassador interrupted us to say, “You won’t care about that soon enough.” He meant that we would become absorbed in Indian life, and disconnected from life back home (perhaps I would become a cricket fan instead).

He was right about being cut off from what went on at home. I was placed in a small town with no TV, newspapers, radio or Internet (in 1991 not many people used it in Canada, let alone India). A month after the end of the baseball season, I got a letter from my parents. They had enclosed a newspaper clipping from the sports section of the Evening Times Globe. It told of the Minnesota Twins victory over the Atlanta Braves in World Series.

Much has changed in 15 years - in the world of technology, though, not the world of Mark. The baseball season began earlier this week, and I listened to the first Boston Red Sox game at an Internet cafĂ© in Accra, just as I would have at home in Saint John. The next day, I read the analysis of the game on The Boston Globe online. It’s worth mentioning that Accra is a big city and that you can’t find internet cafes in many small towns, but New Delhi did not have high-speed internet in 1991 and neither did Accra.

The other thing we didn’t have back then was the cell phone. I would go a month without talking to mom, which was very difficult for her - and for me. The cell phone has changed the way we communicate in Canada, but it has revolutionized communication in the developing world, particularly in rural areas that never even had landlines (They’ve skipped that generation of technology entirely). You will find a little shack or stand on every street corner in cities and towns that sell pre-paid phone cards. Not many people have landlines, even in Accra. I talk to mom now most Sundays, most times with a line as clear as if I were calling from 15 minutes away.

I’m reading The Shadow of the Sun, a book about Africa by Polish writer Ryszard Kapuscinski. At the beginning he writes about how it used to take a long time to travel to faraway places – whether by foot, horseback or ship – and this allowed people to gradually adapt to a change in climate and culture. “Today nothing remains of these gradations,” he writes. “Air travel tears us violently out of snow and cold and hurls us that very same day into the blaze of the tropics. Suddenly, still rubbing our eyes, we find ourselves in a humid inferno.”

Communications technology now affords us similar journeys of the mind. It’s no longer true that, as the ambassador to India once said to me, “You won’t care about that soon enough.” When I listen to a game over the Internet, I’m transported across the ocean to a ballpark, the preferred trip of my childhood; when I talk to my mother, I see her standing by the dishwasher with a glass of wine in one hand and the phone in the other, and dad sitting at the table eating his dinner.

And then there is this online diary, which affords our friends and family glimpses into the lives that we’re living here. It bridges the gap for those who did not make the journey with us.

- Mark

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Being Obroni

“Hey white!”

I looked to my right and saw a woman gesturing angrily for us to move out of the way of oncoming cars. We were so startled by her comment that we quickly obeyed and moved onto the nearby foot path.

Every day I travel to work on tro-tros, rickety buses that when filled to capacity are hot, dusty, and uncomfortable. Within five minutes of being squashed like sardines into a seat, sweat rolls in droplets down my cheeks. I look around me and everyone else is glistening in much the same way.

Most of the time, I am the only white person on the bus. I pay the same price to ride on the bus as everyone else, I get just as dirty, and I sweat just as much. But somehow I am different. I am white. After two months in Ghana, I personally think I’ve earned the right to be “black.” By this I mean that I deserve the right to fit in and no longer be seen as an outsider.

I am an Obroni. Translated directly, it means white person. I am reminded of this fact about 5 times a day. Little children I walk past will point and say “Obroni, Obroni!” The expected response is for me to turn and wave. For children I always oblige. They wave back.

When adults yell out Obroni it can mean many things. Sometimes they call out “Obroni” and want me to buy something they’re selling. Other times they call out “Hey Obroni”, and they just want to point out that I’m different from them. For this no response is necessary. Still other times, it’s to identify they want my attention. “Obroni sit down. Obroni come here. Obroni come pay.”

Somehow the term Obroni softens our separate identity. It’s a foreign word for us, so even though we know it is said to identify us as being a different, it doesn’t sound harsh. Sometimes, it’s even endearing.

Last Friday night we traveled to the University of Ghana to attend a play. Accra has no sidewalks so we’re used to walking along the side of the road. As we entered the main gate, carefully making our way past fast moving cars, we heard the call.

“Hey white!” It was the first time anyone had ever called us this. We turned stunned and alarmed. The woman’s words were harsh and stung in our ears. We obeyed her command, but the anger of her voice lingers even now.

At home we are cultured not to overtly identify people as black or white. Sometimes at home I will use every word possible to describe someone before finally saying, “…you, know who he is, he’s black.”

We worry that calling someone black is a racial comment. Here, most of the time, it’s simply used for identification.

I hardly notice skin colour anymore. When I meet new people I sometimes think of who they remind me of back home. None of the people I’m thinking of are black. I notice my whiteness, but only because I’m constantly reminded that I am not black.

- Janet