Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Meeting Jihad

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

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

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

“I’m Ghanaian,” he replied.

“Really?” I asked showing my surprise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Brazil,” he said laughing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s the wild wild west,” he said.

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

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

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

He sensed our judgment and responded directly

“I need them,” he said

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

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

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

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

- Janet

Monday, May 28, 2007

A head start

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- Mark

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Family law

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- Mark

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

A Squatter's Field

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m so glad it rained,” I say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Solemana the Teacher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Solemana nodded adding, “Many people are rejected.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- Janet

Monday, May 14, 2007

A Sunday drive through Lagos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- Mark

Friday, May 11, 2007

Passage to Nigeria

This is a story about a quest for a Nigerian visa. It’s a story about bribes, corruption and lies. It’s a story about motorcycle adventures, armed robbery and a mysterious Nigerian woman called Ophelia.

I was travelling to Nigeria because UNB had asked me if I would be interested in helping them with their recruitment efforts. I was happy to help out and had arranged meetings for the second week of May with prospective students in Lagos. Mark planned to tag along as a tourist.

We were told getting a Nigerian visa was an easy, one-day proposition. We learned otherwise.

We gave ourselves a week to get the visa. Ideally we would have applied for the visa earlier, but due to some strange Ghanaian bureaucracy a 6-month visa runs out after only two months. This is thanks to a stamp immigration officials give at the airport that changes the visa status. This means that after two months anyone wishing to stay in the country longer has to submit their passports to Ghana Immigration, and pay for an extension they’ve already paid for. For three weeks in April, this is where our passports lay awaiting a new stamp.

Last week, with our newly legitimized Ghanaian visitor status, and passport in hand we set out for the Nigerian High Commission in Accra to apply for our visa. We planned to drop off our passports in the morning, and pick them up with the freshly pasted Nigerian visas in the afternoon.

When we arrived at the High Commission, we signed in with security and walked through a spacious courtyard. We entered a hallway and walked into a small side room with the sign “reception” hanging on the door. As we entered we were greeted by the voice of the receptionist speaking slowly and purposely to an American at the welcome window.

“Yes, I’m sorry,” I heard her say. “No, there’s nothing we can do…Yes, we are out of visa stickers…No I don’t know when we will get more…You could try going to Togo.”

The man’s voice at the window trailed in and out and I could make out only part of the conversation. He said something about having to get to Lagos for business. The woman smiled and slowly shook her head. “Let’s be positive,” she said. “Maybe they’ll be here tomorrow.”

I looked at Mark wearily. This wasn’t a good start to our visa negotiations.

The woman uttered the same hopeful words to us when we approached the window.

“Let’s be positive,” she said when I asked if she thought there would be visas the next day.

When I asked her what would happen if they didn’t arrive, she repeated the same words. “Let’s be positive.”

I knew we needed reinforcements so called on my Ghanaian friends to help me. Someone knew a Nigerian with good connections at the High Commission. We called him and he agreed to meet us the next morning.

Kaij, a big lumbering Nigerian arrived in a red jeep that looked like it had logged a lot of kilometers. I found out he is a professional driver and has a fleet of 4 x 4s to ferry people between Accra and Lagos. This jeep had evidently made a lot of trips overland between the two countries.

Mark and I jumped in to the truck and we were off. I was full of hope. He was a confident, no-nonsense kind of guy. I was sure he could help us get the visa.

At the High Commission Mark and I were told to sit in the reception room. Out of the corner of my eye I could see the receptionist talking to Kaij. He barely listened to her chatter about the visa stickers. He asked to speak to one of his contacts.

Soon Kaij left the room. We were obviously not important to the discussion. Two minutes later he came back and asked for our documents. We handed them to him; we sat quietly, anxiously waiting for his return.

A few minutes later he poked his head back in the room, and motioned for us to follow. “This is it,” I thought. “We’re going to get the visas.”

Instead he ushered us out of the building. I stopped at the door like a stubborn child. “What about the visas?” I said a bit bewildered.

“They don’t have any stickers,” he said.

“So there’s nothing they can do?” I asked. I couldn’t believe it. Kaij was walking away from the task. And he’d been unsuccessful. He was supposed to help us. This wasn’t possible. I’d had so much faith.

“We should come back tomorrow,” he said walking swiftly towards the exit. “Maybe they’ll have stickers then.”

This made no sense. I was sure that if they didn’t have stickers by the afternoon they would come up with an alternative. How could they just not have stickers and not make any concessions to people looking for visas. I felt completely powerless and immediately stressed.

“So what if they don’t have stickers tomorrow?” I asked. “Will they write us a letter to take to the airport?”

“They only write letters for Nigerians,” he said. “Hopefully they’ll have stickers. The woman I met with told me to call her tonight. They’ve sent someone to Togo today to get stickers. They should have them tomorrow.”

I was cautiously optimistic. Togo was only 3 hours away, so surely they could make it back that day. And, since they were responsible for not having stickers, they would expedite the processing time and we would get the visa tomorrow.

The next morning I called Kaij to find out what he had learned from his contact at the High Commission.

“They’ve sent someone early this morning to Togo,” he said. “They should be back by noon.”

“I thought they sent someone to Togo yesterday,” I said.

“I guess he didn’t go. But he went this morning,” Kaij replied. “They said they would call me around noon.”

This was Friday and our flight left on Sunday. There was nothing I could do but wait for Kaij’s call at noon. I couldn’t focus on anything else while waiting. We had to get the visas today.

At 12:30 I still hadn’t heard from Kaij. I dialed his number and he mumbled something into the phone about not yet hearing form the High Commission. He would call again and phone me back.

At 1:00 Kaij hadn’t called back so I called him again. I hated pestering him, but had no other option. I knew they stopped issuing visas at 2 p.m. which only gave us an hour. Kaij picked up right away.

“Let’s just go over there,” he said. “I’ll be there in a few minutes.”

I was thankful for some action. We’d go to the High Commission and demand the visa. I felt sure this time we’d get the visas.

At the guarded entrance, Kaij smiled at the guards and they nodded him in. He obviously had influence as everyone else had to officially sign in when they arrived. Kaij just waved and kept walking.

We returned to reception and were told to wait. Kaij’s contact wasn’t in the building. We waited 30 minutes and she still hadn’t arrived. I was getting visibly agitated and anxious. Finally Kaij got up and left the room. A few minutes later he came back and asked for the documents again. My hopes rose. Finally, they were going to do something.

Two minutes later he was back. “Let’s go,” he said.

I followed him silently out the door. Once we’d stepped outside, he said “They still don’t have visa stickers. I’m sorry but there’s nothing they can do.”

I felt like someone had kicked me in the stomach. Our flights left Sunday morning and I had presentations starting Monday morning for UNB. I had to get to Nigeria.

“What are our options?” I asked. “Can we go overland?”

“I could take you by car,” he said hesitantly, “But I might have trouble getting you across the Nigerian border. If you were black there’d be no problem. We could pay and you’d just walk across. But you’re white.” He paused as he said the word “white” indicating the clear problem with my skin colour.

I thought quickly. “How much do you think it would cost to get us across?” I said.

I imagined Mark and me slipping across the Nigerian border without visas. It all sounded quite adventurous and spy like, but a bit unrealistic. How would we get back out? What would we do about the plane tickets?

Kaij said he would make a few phone calls to his ‘friends’ at the border. He’d call me at 5.

My next task was to high tail it to Virgin Nigeria airlines to postpone our flight. I also needed to contact our host in Lagos to let them know we wouldn’t be coming on Sunday.

The airline agent at Virgin Nigeria shook her head as I described our visa sticker quest. She smiled sympathetically and agreed to change the dates. I explained we still didn’t know when we would get our visas.

“I’ll put a note on your file,” she said. “You can make as many changes as you need to free of charge.”

I’d never interacted with an airline so flexible before. I was thoroughly impressed with the service.

I thanked the woman – Sandra was her name – and on my way out asked “Have you ever heard of anything like this happening before?”

“Anything’s possible in Nigeria,” she said. The woman beside her gave a half smile and nodded in agreement.

Before Kaij called me back I knew we weren’t going to Nigeria overland. It was way too risky. I spoke with him briefly, explained I’d moved the flight time to Tuesday, and we agreed to try again Monday morning.

Monday morning I felt a renewed nervousness. I’d managed to relax over the weekend but as soon as I woke up the feeling of anxiousness returned. Surely the High Commission had brought the visa stickers back from Togo by now. We had to get the visa today.

At 8:00 I called the High Commission for an update. A young man answered. I asked him if there were visa stickers this morning. “Yes please,” he replied.

I felt cautiously optimistic. Perhaps it would all work out and we’d fly to Nigeria tomorrow.

When I got to work I asked someone from the office to call and confirm they had visa stickers. I thought that perhaps the man hadn’t understood my accent. I wanted to be sure there were stickers before calling Kaij.

“Hello ma’am,” my colleague said into the phone. “I’m calling to see if you have visa stickers this morning.”

There was a pause and then I heard “Oh, I see. Well when will you be getting visa stickers?”

My heart sank. My colleague continued.

“Well what do I do if I need to go to Nigeria? Oh I see. So there’s nothing else I can do? Oh I see. Okay. Thank you.”

I could no longer sit and wait around for the visa stickers to arrive. Obviously no one had gone to Togo to get visa stickers. And if no one was going to Togo, we’d have to go. We’d apply for a Nigerian visa in Togo.

My focus quickly shifted from getting a Nigerian visa to getting a Togo one. I left the office en route to the Togo embassy. I needed three photos, so while on the bus searched the sides of the road for a passport photo vendor.

I finally found one at a busy bus station. I followed the hand painted sign until I reached a wall where a red piece of material hung clumsily from a couple of nails. The backdrop was stuck between an apple seller and a vendor selling flip flops. I sat down on the chair and smiled for the camera.

Photos in hand, I walked into the Togo Embassy. I was fully charged and used my best French to charm the guy at reception into letting me see an official about getting my visa in a couple of hours.

It worked, and I was ushered into a small dark office on the main floor. “No lights” said a guy named Jean. He shrugged unapologetically.

We talked about Canada – he’d been to Moncton for La Francophonie in the late 90s and we both hummed the famous Quebec “Gens du pays” song. I could tell he liked me, and I felt pretty confident he’d get me a visa by the end of the day.

He told me to come back at 3 p.m. but emphasized that I should bring him back a present.

“What would you like?” I asked hoping it wasn’t money.

“You decide,” he said. “But it should be memorable.”

I went in search of a gift. I wandered around the western grocery store looking for something Canadian. There was nothing. Finally I settled on a bag of Cadbury chocolate mini eggs. I figured he’d probably never had them before. Also, the candy covering means they don’t melt in the heat – I thought it would be okay for his non air-conditioned office.

Jean was impressed with the gift and nodded approvingly after popping one of the mini eggs into his mouth. I told him to share it with his friends. “I’ll tell them it came from une gentille Canadienne.” he said

I skipped out of the office with my visa. We were off to Togo in the morning.

The bus to Togo left at 5:30 a.m. We woke up to our alarm at 4 a.m. and were picked up by taxi at 4:30.

At 6:25 we were still sitting in the parking lot of the bus station. We were hot and frustrated that the bus wasn’t moving. As is the Ghanaian custom it waited until all the seats were full. At 6:40 the last person climbed on and we were off.

Three hours later we arrived in the midst of chaos. The Togo/Ghanaian border is a sea of traders, hawkers, money changers, and people moving from one country to the next. We joined a wave heading in the direction of Togo.

We got through the Ghanaian/Togo checkpoints remarkably quickly, hopped in a cab and sped off to the Nigerian Embassy.

Our taxi driver insisted on accompanying us into the embassy. We had explained our situation and he said he knew people inside. He thought he could help.

We approached the receptionist who was a lady in her 70s who spoke Togolese French with a strong accent. I was happy to have the taxi driver with us. He described our situation to the woman.

“They can’t get a visa here if they live in Accra,” she said back in French. “They have to get it there.”

I stepped in and spoke English very slowly. I wanted to make sure she understood me completely. “We are here because they don’t have visa stickers in Accra,” I said. “We were told by the High Commission that we could get visa stickers here. Please, we really need your help. We’ve already missed one flight, and we have rescheduled it until tomorrow. We need the visa today.”

The woman shuffled around in the office and then reported back that we had to have all the proper paperwork. I could tell she thought this would make us go away. Thankfully we had everything she asked for.

She then said it would take 3 days.

Our taxi driver stepped in and pleaded our case. The woman hesitated again, and then said she’d have to talk to her supervisor. A few minutes later she reported back that they would process the visa that day.

Then she asked for payment.

We learned that a visa in Togo is almost double the price of a visa in Accra. We hadn’t brought enough money.

It was around this point that we met Ophelia. Ophelia was a 6 ft tall striking Nigerian woman. She wore a bright orange tank top, matching huge round dangly earrings, and high heels. Her black African hair was hidden below a short-hair stylized wig. She had an air of confidence that was almost intimidating.

Ophelia had been sent to Togo from Accra by her boss to get him a visa. He needed to go to Lagos, she said, because a colleague had been shot in Lagos during an armed robbery the day before. He was in a coma and they didn’t know if he would live. Her boss was flying out that night and needed the visa immediately.

Ophelia did not have enough money to cover the increased cost either. She leaned over to me and whispered in my ear. “The lady is pocketing the extra money,” she said. “I know it. She’s a crook.”

We had enough Ghana cedis to cover the difference in price but needed to find someone willing to change it for us. Ophelia told us to follow her to a market where we could change money.

We walked out of the Embassy trailing Ophelia. She stood confidently at the side of the road and called over three motorcycle drivers. She glanced back at us. “Hop on. It will be faster to go on moto-taxis,” she said.

Ophelia threw her leg over the back of the seat and the bike sped off. She’d clearly done this many times before. I stared at my driver. I had no option but to follow. I awkwardly pulled myself on to the bike. I hate to admit this, but it was the first time I’d ever been on a motorcycle. Mark climbed on the back of his bike, thrilled about the impending ride.

The three bikes wove in and out of traffic, raced around corners, and bumped over potholes. I wanted to wrap my arms around my driver to hold on, but knew I had to be cool and relax.

Ophelia took the lead. It was easy to see her out in front with her bright orange shirt. She was our marker and we only lost sight of her and the driver for a few brief moments before catching up. I felt like we were in a James Bond film and Ophelia was the leading lady. At any moment I was sure we’d start dodging bullets.

At the market we did our deal and returned along the same path. I was almost sad to say goodbye to my motorcycle driver.

Back at the Embassy we sat and waited for our visas. We chatted with Ophelia. She had an interesting past and had recently become a born again Christian. “I used to party a lot,” she said nonchalantly. “And then I became a believer.”

It was hard to imagine this motorcycle woman as a born again Christian, but she seemed serious about it. She explained that she gets up at 5 every morning to read her morning “devotional.”

Finally the moment arrived. The receptionist gave us our visas. They both bore bright green Nigerian visa stickers. I stared at the visa sticker. It was really quite stunning. It would be almost impossible to copy. We were now legitimate.

The final leg of our adventure was getting back to Accra. Ophelia also had to go back to Accra so we agreed to go together.

We rushed back to the border to catch a bus so Ophelia could get the visa to her boss. His plane was supposed to leave late afternoon.

At the border I looked behind me and saw Ophelia in a kneeling position beside a private car. It looked like she was praying. An older woman standing by the passenger door looked quite bewildered as Ophelia gestured wildly. I could tell she was telling the woman about the co-worker who’d been shot and her need to get back to Accra in a hurry.

I watched in fascination as Ophelia convinced this woman to take us back to Accra in her private car. The woman wearily relented and Ophelia called us over. She told us to hop into the car. We were a bit dumbstruck but decided to climb in.

We sailed back to Accra in our private Audi with a woman from Togo and her driver. We never did learn their names as we sat as quietly in the back seat. The woman also said very little. We listened to classical church music and sat hungrily as she ate a full course lunch in the front seat. We also read books; Ophelia studied her daily devotional intently.

Just before reaching Accra, we met up with Ophelia’s boss. He had been waiting for us on the side of the road. She handed him his visa and we continued on. As we pulled away she told us he’d decided to take a flight the next morning.

* * *

The next morning we were standing in line ready to board our flight when I noticed Ophelia’s boss standing nearby. I recognized him from the day before. I moved towards him and smiled.

“Hi, I recognize you from yesterday. I was in the car with Ophelia when we gave you your visa. We were also getting our visa in Togo. I’m really sorry to hear about your colleague.”

The man looked confused, “What colleague?” he asked.

“The one that was shot in Lagos,” I said

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said clearly confused.

“Oh, I thought someone in your company was shot?” My voice trailed off.

The man looked startled. “Did Ophelia tell you that?” he asked a bit sharply.

“Yes”. The words were out of my mouth before I realized I had revealed a lie. Ophelia had made up the story!

Mark figured out the situation much faster than me, and jumped in.

“Oh no, it must have been someone else,” he said trying to cover for our new friend.

I clued in and added “Yes. You’re right. I must be confused.”

“Are you going to Lagos for business?” I asked.

“Yes, I’m moving there,” he said

“For how long?” I asked.

“Six months,” he said

“We’ve been trying to get a visa since last week.” I commented.

“Yes. Me too. I’ve been trying since last Thursday.”

We boarded the plane, and sat in our seats. I heard my phone ring but couldn’t reach it in time. I looked at the missed call. It was from Ophelia. Maybe her boss had called her looking for an explanation of the mystery employee who’d been shot.

The plane took off and we were en route to Nigeria.

- Janet

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Child labour at the Liberian refugee camp

As I mentioned in an earlier post, once a week I go to the Liberian refugee camp outside Accra to work with reporters that publish a paper called The Vision. I recently had the privilege of helping a man named Abednego David publish his first-ever newspaper story. He was a quick study, researching and writing a draft of a story a week after our first meeting. It was on child labour at the Buduburam refugee camp and printed in the April edition of the paper. I've re-printed the story here for you to read. I hope to post some of the pictures in the next week. - Mark

"Children push wheelbarrows to survive in Buduburam"
By Abednego David

Samuel David, 14, a refugee child at Buduburam, doesn't go to school with other children. He goes to the Buduburam market at 6 am with a wheelbarrow, which was bought for him by his sister Mamie David.

David’s routine includes transporting heavy loads of vegetables and other goods to and from the market. He also makes deliveries to people’s homes in the camp.

He starts work very early in the morning and finishes at 6 pm. He said he can’t afford to go to school.

“I am not attending school because there’s no money for fees,” he said. “I give the money that I earn to my sister for food,” he said.

David is one of many boys who push wheelbarrows at Buduburam camp. Most of them do this work to survive and do not go to school. Many of them are also homeless or living with other children and no adults.

Aruna R. Kamara, 41, a Sierra Leonian refugee and Chairman of the United Wheelbarrow Association (UWBA), said his association has a membership of 50 persons. He said they pay 20,000 cedis (Ghanaian currency) to be part of the association.

He said 25 of them are children aged between 12 and 16 years. They are mostly Liberian and Sierra Leonian refugees, but there are also some Nigerians and Ghanaians.

Most children don’t have their own wheelbarrow, and rent on a daily basis for 12,000 cedis from business people on the camp.

“The children come to appeal to work for themselves,” said Kamara. “I cannot deny them, because they have to hustle for their living.”

Kamara said they have two types of child wheelbarrow pushers - the “regular and after-school pushers.”

The regulars are those children who work from 6am - 6pm daily. The after-school pushers report to work at the end of the school day.

Alhassan Adam, a 13-year-old Ghanaian who lives with his grandparents at Buduburam Village next to the refugee camp, said after the death of his biological parents, he needed to do something to survive.

“I started pushing wheelbarrow for the past five months, just to support my grandparents and myself,” said Adam.

Liberian refugee Jonathan Taryouway, 15, also said he does this work to survive. “I have to rent a wheelbarrow to eat, wash and pay my school fees,” he said.

Madam Jenneh Sandra Blay, Coordinator for Women’s and Children’s Affairs at the Liberia Refugee Welfare Council (LRWC), isn’t just concerned about the youth pushing wheelbarrows. She said they are doing other types of jobs as well.

She plans to meet with the children very soon, but she isn’t sure what can be done for them.

“For now the LRWC do not have any funds [to help] the children pushing wheelbarrows, washing pots and dishes for owners [of small restaurants] on the camp,” she said.

Blay said they have tried to help in the past by giving the children tickets for food at the UNHCR monthly food distribution centers.

She also said that many of the children don’t have families and that many of them live on the streets. She said it’s often difficult to integrate them into a new family.

“I believe they feel more comfortable on the street,” she said. “I have learned that some of them are going to Accra and other big cities begging for money.”

Madam Dorothy Kumah, a Social Welfare officer at the camp, said they have had some success, though. She said they rescued about 700 street children, and reintegrated them into a home where they enjoy parental care.

She said they’re conducting a study to find out how many children are still living on their own and in the streets at the camp.

Monday, May 7, 2007

The hills are alive with the sound of music...

On a hike last weekend in a forested area north of Accra, we climbed to the top of hill with a view of the valley below. It was mostly trees and other hilltops as far as the eye could see. About a kilometer away, though, we saw a cluster of red-sand colored roofs. We could hear people singing; it was Sunday so they were probably at church. We asked our guide if we could go check it out. He led us down footpath into the village.

“Can we go watch the black people dance and sing?”

We didn’t actually put it that way, but it was kind of what we meant. When we travel, we want to observe local customs and culture. Our intentions are fine; we just want to learn about how the local people – where they live, what they eat, how they entertain themselves, how they worship. But where do you draw the line between observing them and objectifying them? And how do you get a glimpse of their lives without invading their privacy?

We were a bit squeamish about crashing a church service, but as I said, we really wanted to see them dance and sing. So our guide led us into the church, and we sat down in a row near the altar. The service was in Twi (the local language) so we really didn’t know what was being said. After about 10 minutes our guide ushered us to front of the church where we were to present a small offering. We stood facing the congregation while he introduced us; then he told them we were interested in the singing and dancing.

Then the white people got exactly what they deserved.

The congregation would sing and dance, we were told, but only after we danced ourselves. So we were led down the centre aisle of the church like we were in a conga line. I did my best Elaine Benice impression – swinging my arms and kicking my feet as I followed Janet down the aisle. They clapped and sang as we made our way around the church; then we made our way back to the front and received an ovation. We put our donation in the basket and marched back down the centre aisle and on out of the church.

We could still hear them laughing, clapping and singing as we wandered off down the wooded trail.

- Mark

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

G'day mate!

A friend asked me the other day what I would want to do if I stayed in Ghana. "I want to be a tro-tro driver," I said. I couldn't be a "mate" - the guy who collects the fares - because I could never keep count of the people or the money. I just want to zoom around all day; dodging cars and sewers seems like a real-life video game to me.

It's odd, though, that I aspire to be a driver because they seem like such aloof, distant figures. You have some contact with the mate, at least, when you pay your fare or when you're trying to figure out where you're going. The driver, however, sits grim-faced upfront, weaving in and out of traffic; they rarely seem to talk with anyone at all.

Earlier this afternoon, I caught a tro-tro at a stop near my apartment. I was the first one on, so I hopped onto the seat beside the driver. We were alone for a few minutets, waiting for the mate to come back from a break so we could leave. I stared straight ahead, not even saying as much as "hello."

When we were a couple of minutes down the road, the driver turned to me and said, "You didn't even greet me when you got on. You said nothing." I said I was sorry, smiled, and shook his hand. It had felt wrong when I didn't even acknowledged him, and he confirmed that feeling. "That wasn't nice. I should have greeted you," I said.

"If I walked into your office, I would have greeted you. This is my office," he said, waving his hand and casting his eyes around the tro-tro. I turned around and the mate was nodding in agreement.

Accra is a big city. It can be easy to behave as you would in Canada, where it's nice but not necessary to be friendly toward people you come in contact with throughout the day. But the Ghanaian way is greet everyone warmly, even the guy who drives the tro-tro that gets you to work. After all, he's your mate too.