Friday, June 29, 2007

A corny goodbye

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- Mark

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

A Prayer for Deliza and Giftina

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Pray,” she said.

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

“Show them you pray,” she repeated.

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

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

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

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

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

- Janet

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Take the Money and Run

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- Janet

Friday, June 15, 2007

Citizen's arrest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Man beat machine.

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

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

- Mark

Friday, June 1, 2007

Keeping it Stitched Together

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I just hope we can keep her dancing.

- Janet