Saturday, July 28, 2007

A friend in need

I got a call the other day from Victor, the unemployed man I wrote about in "Lost in the Crowd" (July 18).

"My daughter has been kicked out of school because we couldn't pay her school fees," he said. "Can you help me?"

"How much are the fees?" I asked.

"250,000 cedis," he said, which is about $30 Canadian.

I didn't know what to say to him. Giving money to people over here is a much-debated subject amongst foreign visitors. Some people believe that it's wrong; they think it encourages begging and discourages people from working for a living. Other people believe they should give; they think most people in need of help are trying hard to provide for themselves and their family, and should be helped out when they fall short.

For me, the truth lies somewhere in between. On the one hand, you'd go broke quickly here if you gave to everyone who asked you for money, and many of them don't actually need your help. (For example, I passed a well-dressed little boy with a cell phone on the street today, and all he said was, "Give me some money." Nothing ventured, nothing gained, I guess.) On the other hand, it feels wrong to turn away from people who appear to genuinely need help, and you have the means to do so.

The hard part is figuring out who "genuinely" needs your help.

Was Victor one of those people? I had only spoken to him for about a half an hour on a street corner. He had told me he'd fallen on hard times, that his wife and children had returned to their hometown to stay with family while he tried to find work in Accra. I had to trust that he was telling me the truth, and that his daughter would not finish the school year if I didn't give him money.

I thought back to our conversation on the street corner. I had immediately liked him. He was warm and thoughtful, and helpful as well. I had enjoyed our conversation so much that I gave him my phone number, without even being asked.

With this in mind, I said yes and told him to meet me downtown in front of the grocery store I often go to. He smiled and shook my hand warmly when I handed him the envelope with the money. He told me he would call when he got back from delivering the money to the school.

Remembering he was a cook, I told him all he had to do in exchange for the money was make me a meal upon his return. He readily agreed.

That was a fair trade, I thought, and it made my gift feel less like charity. After all, I often pay $30 or more for a meal in a Canadian restaurant. What's wrong with paying him the same amount of money for a home-cooked Ghanaian meal? And more importantly, a little girl gets to finish out the school year, and hopefully return again there in the fall.

- Mark

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Fear factor

We would have never come here if we had listened to the travel nurse in Saint John. She said we were going to the riskiest part of the world for picking up certain diseases: malaria, cholera, hepatitis, yellow fever, and dengue fever.

“Is it really the riskiest?" I asked.

“Yes,” she said.

“But I’ve been to places like Central America, Thailand, India,” I said.

“This is worse than all of them,” she said.

“And whatever you do,” she said before she began to administer the first of many expensive shots that provided some – but not complete - protection against these diseases, “don’t wear sandals. Wear protective footwear at all times. You never know what you’ll step on over there.”

This is when the fear started to set in. “Should we be doing this?” I asked Janet as we left the clinic. “It’s a little late to ask that now,” she said.

I was told there was much to fear about Ghana: diseases, pollution, armed robberies and traffic accidents (the leading cause of death).

I was so worked up that, on the third day I was here, I went to the hospital thinking I was having an asthma attack because of air pollution (I wasn’t). I haven’t been really sick yet or been in an accident, but Janet and I were nearly mugged (turned out Janet was too tough for them).

Ghana turned out to be not so frightening after all. Then we decided to take a trip to Nigeria, the scariest place in all of West Africa – except for maybe Sierre Leone, Liberia and Cote D’Ivoire…

There was so much to fear about Nigeria: it had the same diseases, but was more polluted and the roads were more dangerous. And it was more violent, way more violent. The day before we arrived, seven foreign oil workers were kidnapped in the Niger Delta, and armed robbers had broken into the house of the people Janet was to work with. (We went to Nigeria because Janet was giving some presentations on behalf of UNB.)

The Nigerians didn’t dispel my fears. Don’t go out alone, they all told me. And if you do, take taxis, not public transport. The buses and okadas (motorcycle taxis) get in more accidents and get robbed more often.

On the first morning, Janet went to work and I took a taxi to The Punch, the most popular daily newspaper in Lagos. I wanted to get a tour of the paper and go out on assignment with a reporter (see “A Sunday drive through Lagos” in the May folder). In a meeting with a group of editors they told me that the West exaggerates the dangers in Nigeria. “Yes, foreign oil workers are often kidnapped in the Niger Delta,” said one editor. “But they never kill any of them. They always let them go eventually.” But whatever you do, they all said, don’t ride the buses or the okadas. I took a cab back to the hotel.

The next day, I stayed in the room watching movies until noon. I didn’t want to take any more taxis (they were very expensive) and I was a bit spooked by all the Nigerians telling me to stay away from other, cheaper forms of transit.

At noon, I decided to venture out into the city. The guys at the front desk begged me to take a taxi. When it was clear I planned to take the bus, they gave in and wrote out directions for the bus stops.

I was so proud of myself as I stood at the bus stop waiting for one to come along, but still a little scared. One finally came along and I hopped on board. I nearly had a full-blown panic attack after the first minute. The bus stalled in traffic, and the air was thick with diesel exhaust. What if I have an asthma attack? What if the traffic’s so bad I can’t get back to the hotel before dark?!

I had calmed down by the time we reached the first stop, and decided to take a second bus that would take me all the way downtown. But I freaked out almost immediately after it pulled away from the stop; I got off at the next stop and made my way back to the hotel. Nonetheless I was very proud of my grand adventure. The hotel staff was delighted to see me back alive, and I couldn’t wait to tell Janet when she got back from her day riding around in taxis.

The next day I made it all the way down to Lagos Island, which has many large outdoor markets. Wary of pickpockets, I had my hand in my pocket, clutching my cash. As I walked down the sidewalk of a very busy street, I heard someone call from across the street, “White, white!” I usually ignore people who call out to me, thinking they’re street vendors or people looking for money, but this time I turned toward the man. He was pointing to the ground behind me. “You dropped some money,” he said. There on the sidewalk was some crumpled-up naira (Nigerian currency). Guess I wasn’t holding on to it so tightly after all.

How in this city of thieves and cons, I thought, did I happen upon the one honest guy? And why didn’t the other people on the street pounce on the money after I had dropped it on the ground. The stereotypes about Big Bad Nigeria were being proved wrong, at least in my case. I wandered the markets, down back alleys and side streets and people largely left me alone, except for the occasional person calling out, “Hey white, where are you going?”

I walked around for a few hours and then got back on the bus. As we passed over a bridge that connected Lagos Island with the mainland, I saw a large slum in marshy land near the water. I asked a passenger if he’d been down there before, and the mate collecting fares spoke up. “I grew up there,” he said. “I was schooled there.”

I was surprised when he spoke to me, just as the man who let me know my money had fallen to the ground surprised me. There is so much bad press about large African cities, some coming from the residents themselves, that we forget there is much good in them as well. People talk to each other; people help each other, just as they do everywhere else.

I’m not saying there’s nothing to fear. Everywhere I saw signs and heard stories about a city under siege. Barbed wire fencing around homes and businesses. Armed guards at banks and bank machines. Stories about people being robbed in their homes and on buses.

But you have to let down your guard a bit, or you won’t see much of what’s good in places like this. The same goes for being obsessed about getting in accidents or sick with malaria or cholera.

On our last day in Nigeria, a police officer gave me advice that’s worth heeding anywhere in the world.

We were pulled over at a police checkpoint, and an officer approached the car. I closed my hand over money I was holding so she couldn’t see it (police officers are said to be corrupt here and always looking for bribes). She peered briefly into the car and waved us on.

She must have noticed that I looked tense. As the car pulled away I heard her laugh; I turned around and she was looking at me. “Relax,” she said.

- Mark

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

A vacation in Togo

(Note: I wanted to write about our vacation in Togo, but didn't have time before returning to Canada. Here is the story with a few pictures)

We had hoped to go to Kenya or Mali for the last two weeks of June, which was also to be my last two weeks in West Africa, but due to the prohibitive cost of air travel to any place within Africa, we settled on Togo.

Togo is a country to the east of Ghana and is one of two slivers of land nestled between Ghana and Nigeria. It is French-speaking and has recently stabilized following a devastating civil war.

The border is only 3 hours from Accra, so it was easy for us to slip into the country, spend a few days touring around, and then head back to Ghana for a final few days at a beach resort.

We hit our first snag at the border where we were told our Ghanaian entry visas would have to be renewed before we could return to Ghana. We hadn’t expected this, and it would mean spending at least two days in Lomé, the capital, while we waited for the Ghanaian Embassy to process our visas to allow us to return across the border. Reports from the capital didn’t inspire a desire to spend more than an obligatory night there, but we had little alternative if we wanted to cross into Togo. We made the leap, and entered the country.

We spent our first night in a small hotel in a neighbourhood near the beach. The hotel bar and restaurant could have been plucked out of any small town in France. It had a beautiful outdoor patio, stone garden walls and a French Swiss owner. The room we stayed in was much less inspiring. It was musty had one dimly lit bulb hanging on a far wall and a toilet that didn’t flush. But, at $20 a night, we couldn’t really complain.

We dropped our things in our room, and went for a walk along the beach. Lomé spreads itself along one of West Africa’s most stunning beaches. The main road leaving Ghana and heading to Benin borders a sparkling sandy beach. Glistening blue water stretches out for miles from its edge. We watched Togolese families picnic in the shade of a few palm trees while children chased soccer balls along the hot sand. Couples strolled slowly along the edge of the water hand-in-hand.

Immediately we sensed a cultural difference between the people of Ghana and Togo. Even though Togolese look much the same as their Ghanaian neighbours, and some are from from the same tribes, they carried themselves differently. The people we watched seemed more leisurely. They held hands, sat under trees talking and laughing over food, and were well, more French. Obviously French colonization has had a lasting effect.

In the distance we heard music blasting. We followed the sound and were soon swallowed by a crowd. We pushed through the throngs of people and came across a stage on the beach where three women dressed in Coca Cola t-shirts were showing off their moves. The performance, we learned, was part of a summer dance competition sponsored by Coca Cola. The crowds voted for the best dancer by cheering loudly for their favourite. At the end of the summer, the final competitor would win a motor scooter.

By this time it was getting dark and we started to make our way back to the hotel. We took a side street called Avenue de la Presidence. I guess we should have realized from the name of the road and the unexpected silence that we were going in the wrong direction. A soldier approached us and demanded to know what we were doing. We told him we were heading back to our hotel. “Not this way,” he said. “You’re on the president’s property.”

Once we finally got back to the hotel, we lay down for a brief rest before dinner. We were excited about the menu selection which offered tempting French meals, but were tired from the bus ride and from crossing the border so decided to lay down our heads for a few minutes.

At 1 a.m. we woke up hungry.

The next morning our first activity was to go to the Ghanaian embassy to drop off our passports and apply for another visa. This was supposed to be an easy process, but an angry bureaucrat refused to simply allow us to fill out the application and pay our fee. After much convincing that we did indeed need another visa to cross back into Ghana and that he should take our money, he looked me and said sharply “Okay, but this is the last time I’m giving you a visa!”

We were told to return the next morning to pick up our visas. We paid our money and left.

Since we had to stick around Lomé until the next morning, we decided to go on a quick day trip to a place called Togoville, an hour’s drive from the city. Togoville is a small town on a lake where the locals practice voodoo. Most of the residents are also Catholic and in 2004 the pope visited the small town after the Virgin Mary was allegedly seen in a boat crossing the lake.

We also arrived at the village by boat thanks to a couple of local entrepreneurs who charged us $8 to sail a couple of kilometres across the lake. The boat was a carved out tree trunk, and the sail was a piece of plastic stuck to the top of a long wooden pole.

Once we arrived in Togoville we were met by Vincent, a man whose business card said he was a consultant and youth tourism trainer. For another small fee, he would guide us around the village and show us voodoo in the village.

I expected to see voodoo dolls and evidence of animal sacrifice, so was actually a bit disappointed by what seemed to be a series of neglected shrines. Mark reminded me that Hollywood had sensationalized voodoo and distorted it from its original conception.

Vincent told us that the locals believe that inanimate objects like trees, rocks and sculptures have living spirits. The villagers pay respects to these spirits with gifts of food and ask for guidance and protection.

After our brief tour, we returned to the dock where our boat was waiting to take us back across the lake. This time the wind direction made it impossible to use the sail, so our guide poled us across the water. It was a much more arduous trip and he definitely earned his $8.

Back at the hotel, we settled in at the restaurant anxious for a good meal. We didn’t dare lie down before dinner. The food was delicious. We had shrimp, couscous, and chocolate mousse for dessert.

At 3 a.m. we both regretted our meal. I was sick a couple of times, but Mark was so sick he hardly left the bathroom for the rest of the night.

In the morning, Mark was exhausted and didn’t think he could move on. I hated to pull him away from the comfort of the toilet, but also didn’t want to spend any more time in the musty room or in Lomé. I finally convinced him he could make it as far as Kpalime in the mountains an hour and a half drive away.

We waited for over an hour at the bus station for the bus to fill up. Twice Mark left in search of a toilet and returned looking sicker than before. I kept hoping the bus would fill up quickly, so we could move on, but it seemed to take forever, and we were still three people away from leaving.

Finally after his third or fourth trip to the terribly objectionable public bathroom, Mark told me he couldn’t make it. We would have to spend another day in Lomé. I was disappointed, but knew it was the right thing to do.

We quickly grabbed a taxi and found a guesthouse with a TV and DVD so that Mark could wait out the effects of the food poisoning while watching old Eddie Murphy movies.

The next 24 hours remain a blur. I read and Mark moved from the toilet to the bed.

We left for the mountains the next morning in a shared taxi with three people in the front and four squished into the back. Mark was tentatively feeling better, and we were keen to really start our vacation.

Thankfully Kpalime was a nice small town in a beautiful valley surrounded by lush green mountains. We found a quiet hotel on the outskirts of town with a pool and settled in.

A few minutes after we arrived, it started to pour. We were anxious to go hiking in the mountains, but waited out the rain at the hotel while eating conservatively. Mark had a cheese sandwich.

An hour or so later, the rain stopped and the sun came back out. We grabbed our day pack and made plans to visit an entomologist at the top of a nearby mountain.

“Will it rain again today?” I asked trying to decide whether or not to bring along a raincoat.

“No. It’s done for the day,” replied a staff person at the hotel. Another echoed his thoughts. “Don’t worry; there won’t be any more rain today.”

In Togo most people travel by motorcycle, and instead of taxis, the favourite way of getting around is by mototaxi. If we wanted to go to the top of the mountain, we would have to go this way. Our destination was 12 km and our driver’s name was Clement.

I had a little chat with Clement before we started. I reminded him that we didn’t need to drive quickly. “Doucement,” I said in French repeating what I’d heard someone say earlier. I liked the sound of this. Go softly. “Allez doucement,” I said again as we pushed off.

We climbed the mountain at an extremely slow pace. I smiled to myself as Clement inched up the road. He was being very careful, and for this I was thankful. It was actually quite breathtaking climbing up the mountain on a motorcycle. The air was fresh and cool following the rain storm and the view was spectacular.

At the top of the mountain we met Monsieur Prosper, an entomologist who makes a living taking tourists on guided hikes to see butterflies, and learn about native plants. He seemed surprised to see us, but was happy to take us on a tour. He warned us, however, that we wouldn’t see many butterflies because they don’t like the rain and were still in hiding.

“Why don’t butterflies come out in the rain?” Mark asked.

“For the same reason that you don’t like going out in the rain,” he replied.

We spent a wonderfully educational two hours with Monsieur Prosper as he guided us along the outskirts of his village. He is also a painter and uses only natural pigments for his colours. We saw a green leaf turn red and drip blood-like liquid when squeezed, and touched a sticky golden pigment the colour of the sun on the inside of a piece of bark.

He also showed us how a white powdery substance found on the back of a fern frond can leave a lasting mark on skin. It showed up much better on his skin than on mine.

After many interesting discoveries we looked to the east and saw huge black clouds storming towards us. It was going to rain hard and we hadn’t packed rain gear. We had a couple of minutes to quickly find shelter in a village school, and then it poured. The water came down in buckets, and left us stranded for 30 minutes or more. We had arranged for Clement to pick us up at 4 p.m. and worried that we wouldn’t get back in time to meet him. We also wondered if he’d be able to drive in the rain.

When the rain let up, we hurried back to Monsieur Prosper’s house and found Clement waiting for us. He had driven up the winding road in the pouring rain.
We hopped on the back of the motorcycle and started down the mountain. The rain pelted us we moved slowly but steadily down the road.

Back at the hotel, we changed, and then returned to the restaurant to order dinner. To our surprise Clement, our mototaxi driver was standing outside the kitchen. Not only was he a careful mototaxi driver, but he was also our chef.

Clement cooked us a great French meal – one of the best I’ve ever had – antelope marinated in red wine sauce. We enjoyed the meal, and slept soundly without any sign of food poisoning.

The next day we went on another hike to a waterfall where we saw huge fields of corn planted on the side of incredibly steep hills. I was amazed at the athletic strength required to plant and tend to these fields. We met a couple in their 50s who live halfway up the mountain and farm this land. An hour later we met the same woman returning from the village where she’d gone to get supplies. I was exhausted from the two hour walk. She looked refreshed and strong.

Togo is a beautiful country with a vibrant culture, good food (most of the time), and gentle people. Unfortunately we could only visit the country for a few days, and this was to be the end of our Togolese vacation. We bid goodbye to the green mountains and lush valley and Clement our multi-talented new friend. At the bus station we caught another shared taxi back to Ghana.

- Janet

Lost in the crowd

I met Victor on a street corner in an Accra neighbourhood called Pig Farm; I was standing mesmerized by the chaos around me, trying not to be so oblivious that I got hit by a car that was (literally) cutting a corner.

“This place is a wreck,” he said, referring to the neighbourhood.
To me it wasn’t. Coming from a city that sleeps most of the day and night (I say that with affection), I’m always fascinated by bustling urban neighbourhoods. Pig Farm is consumed with activity even by Accra standards; it’s a haven for people watchers.

Victor said Pig Farm was named after obrunis who had come and gone. “Germans used to raise pigs here more than 100 years ago,” he said.

In the tro-tro station, I watched a fight develop between two women. One threw a handful of dirt at the other, who ran and hid behind a stand selling cell phones. The first woman then picked a really big rock and hid behind a tro-tro, waiting for the other to emerge. I then turned my attention to a woman across the street screaming to be heard over the traffic (you can see her in the picture below, wearing a white baseball cap). I crossed the street and saw that she had a Bible in her hands; she was a street preacher, the first woman I’d seen doing this.

Victor and I chatted as I scanned the street for more action. The two women who’d been fighting had disappeared. The tro-tros and taxis were racing in and out of the station, fighting with each other for passengers. On all four corner of the junction were food stalls, vendors selling cell phones, newspapers, water. Pedestrians were racing across the road trying to avoid vehicles that would not slow down to let them cross safely.

As it turned out, Victor had good reason not to like Pig Farm. He had lost his job as a cook at an area guesthouse a few months ago. His wife and two daughters had moved back to their hometown northeast of Accra while he tried to find work. He was going to have to give up soon, though, he said. “I’m planning to join my family in a month if nothing works out here.”

It was a run of bad luck after a lot of good luck, he said. For 25 years, he’d gotten steady work, and been able to travel too. He was the personal cook of an oil executive in Nigeria for 15 years, he said, and learned to cook a lot of European food; Greek is his favourite because he was able to travel to Athens as a chef on board an oil tanker.

The he moved back to Ghana and worked for 10 years with a construction company; when he was laid off from there he went to work for the guesthouse.

Now that job was done, and he was on the lookout for another. But you can’t stay in Accra for long without work because it’s so expensive, which is why it looks like he’s heading to his hometown to rejoin his wife and children.

The problem with neighbourhoods like this anywhere in the world is that, with so much going on, people like Victor can get lost in the crowd.

- Mark

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Sermon on the bus

He seemed like a mild-mannered fellow when I sat down beside him in the front seat of the tro-tro. I was on my way to the refugee camp where I do volunteer work. As we sat there waiting for the tro-tro to leave, I read the newspaper, and he the Bible.

When the tro-tro filled up and left the station, the man stood and turned to face the rest of the passengers. Hunched over because the ceiling of the bus was low, he began to preach – in a no-more-nice-guy kind of way.

“This vehicle is awash in the blood of Jesus!” he said, punching words like “blood” and “Jesus” as if he were a preacher from the southern U.S.

I knew he was making reference to Christ dying for our sins, but his analogy – albeit an apt one - was really freaking me out. I didn’t like the image of the tro-tro being awash in the blood of anyone. These rickety-old mini-buses terrify foreigners; we don’t like being reminded of how dangerous they are, especially when you’re in the front with no seat belt!

He preached non-stop all the way to the camp, which is 45 minutes outside Accra. This is a very common occurrence here. Sometimes a preacher will hop on for just a minute to bless the bus and the passengers, which he believes will give a reasonable assurance of a safe journey; other times he’ll (they’re always men) will ride the whole way, and give a 20-minute or three-hour sermon, depending on how far the bus is going.

Many foreigners are surprised - and often irritated - by this practice because they're so accustomed to secular public spaces in their home countries. In Canada, a “man of god” would not be welcome to preach to a captive audience on a bus, where he would be forcing people with different beliefs to listen to his message.

Here, though, people are reverent and attentive. They nod their heads and say "amen" throughout these impromptu public services.

Muslims and Christians alike are very dedicated here; expressions of faith are public and very much part of daily life.

Earlier this week, I was taking a bus to the south of the country from the north, where most Muslim Ghanaians live. At a rest stop, I sat down on a bench under a large tree. To my right sat a pair of chickens (farm animals are also very much a part of life here, even in the cities); to my left, many of my Muslim bus mates were laying down prayer mats on the ground. They pray five times a day, no matter where they happen to be. In cities and towns in the north and south, the Muslim call to prayer can heard over loud speakers as early as five in the morning.

The morning after my bus ride, I awoke to a sermon by a man who seemed to be right outside my window. “You will dominate your life with the word of Jesus,” he said.

“In the name of Jesus, we pray,” he said. Then I heard people mutter “Amen” and “God Bless.”

I lay in bed listening for a while, wondering where this was coming from. Eventually I got up to make some coffee. I stepped outside my door, and saw five pairs of sandals sitting outside my neighbour’s room. The sounds were coming from inside. They were holding a church service with five people, in a tiny one-room apartment at seven o’clock on a Tuesday morning! I hear people grumble about being woken up at 5 am by the call to prayer; would I be now be awoken by my neighbour who had apparently turned her apartment into a chapel?

I used to get annoyed by these public displays of faith (they were so loud I considered my neighbour’s private service to be a public one), but I’ve grown relaxed about it over the months, mostly out of respect for Ghana’s right to be different from the West in this respect.

I could do without the sermons on the bus, though. They put the fear of God into most of the passengers, but they put the fear of tro-tros into me, and I still have to ride them for the next month before I go home.

- Mark

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Plotting for a Garden

My new garden patch is 3 feet by 8 feet.

"Wide enough for a small casket," my mom said ruefully staring down at the soil.

I stood up straight to stretch my back and looked down at my pathetic little patch of dirt. It had taken me all morning just to tear up the grass and prepare the soil for planting. Four hours of work had given me enough space to bury a body.

I walked over to the cottage and looked at the plants I’d picked up from the market the day before. I counted 29 plants. Four tomato plants, four kinds of herbs, six bean plants, six broccoli plants, four lettuce plants, four corn plants and a cantaloupe vine. I smiled at my overzealousness. There was no way all the plants were going to fit into my little garden plot.

I returned from Ghana Friday night and after the enthusiastic welcome of friends and family, was anxious to get to the cottage to plant a garden. I’d been inspired by Filipina and her corn field in Accra and vowed that I would have my very own personal garden this summer.

Early Saturday morning, I went to the garden center in Hampton to check out their vegetable plants. To have a garden this summer, I would have to skip some corners – it was way too late to plant seeds so I’d have to jump right to the plant stage. I knew that all of Filipina’s plants had come from seed, but this was the only way my garden had a chance of succeeding.

I hungrily eyed the various plants, and selected those that I thought might save me some money at the end of the summer. I also selected corn because I wanted to reap my crop at the same time Filipina would harvest hers in Accra at the end of August.

Arriving at the cottage I surveyed the property for a good piece of land with lots of sun exposure. I settled on a patch behind the cottage. Armed with a pitch fork, a hoe and pair of gloves, I went to work.

Despite the unusually cold July 1st weekend, I started to sweat. It was hard work. My back ached, and the plot seemed to grow at an incredibly slow pace. I stopped to rest and enlisted the help of my 2-year-old niece. Her job was to pick the rocks out of the soil and put them in a basket. Eager to help, she was a diligent worker. Time marched on.

At noon time, I decided to quit. My garden patch was small, but I didn’t have the energy to tear up any more of the lawn. I stuffed all of the plants into my little garden. Even though the instructions on the packages said they needed more room to grow, I decided that they’d have to share the space. In went all of the plants.

Standing back and assessing my work I laughed out loud. This was definitely a pathetic middle class garden. It wouldn’t feed even one person let alone an entire family.

Filipina would have scoffed at my effort. Every day when I’d walk home from work I would notice that her garden had grown by a few meters, but I never stopped to think how much effort she must have put into preparing her beds. She had transformed an entire grassy field into a flourishing garden with over 200 corn plants. It must have taken her weeks to complete.

I have to admit that even though my garden is small, I’m quite intrigued by it. Over the next few weeks I will tend to it, carefully alert to any predators that might attempt to sabotage my plants.

At the end of the summer when Filipina is harvesting her corn, I also hope to have a small crop. Her labour will feed her family for a few months. I’m hoping mine will help me prepare a nice welcome home dinner for Mark. I sure hope he likes broccoli.

- Janet

A sweet deal

I met Mohammed just after I’d walked through the front gate of my yard yesterday morning. He had a plastic blue container, which resembled my kitchen garbage can, perched on top of his head.

“Want to buy some honey?” he asked. “You can drink it with your tea, better for your health than sugar.”

“How much? I asked.

“40,000 cedis,” he said.

That was about $4.50 – way too much, I knew, but I agreed to pay it (A hopeless negotiator, I’m at a loss without Janet, a master of the art.)

He lifted the top off the container, grabbed an empty water bottle and began scooping out honey and pouring it into the bottle.

I peered into the blue container; it was full of dark, molasses-like liquid and floating chunks of honeycomb.

“Where does this honey come from?” I asked.

“In the north of the country, near the border of Burkina Faso,” he said.

He told me that his family was nomadic and had migrated to Ghana from Niger, a country northwest of Ghana. They herded cattle and goats, he said, and they also made honey. They had transported 400 litres of it by truck to Accra, where they it was sold in markets and on the streets by Mohammed.

There are a lot of small-time sellers like Mohammed in Ghana. People who peddle household products and food to car drivers in traffic jams. People who operate roadside stalls that sell as little as a few vegetables and cans of tomato paste. I always wonder if they sell enough to get by.
“Do you make good money?” I asked Mohammed.

“Small money,” he said, closing his thumb and finger together for emphasis, but enough money, he said, to make it worth the trip. - Mark

Sunday, July 1, 2007

A Sunday stroll through Accra

I really should have gotten up to run at 5:30 when the sun hadn’t risen yet and there were no cars on the road. I also should have thought to bring along some water, and a small towel to wipe the sweat off my face.

I didn’t hit the road until a few minutes after 8, and by 9 I found myself inhaling diesel on a busy four-lane road, and it was close to 30 degrees Celsius.

I slowed to a walk even though I had only finished about half my run. Dehydrated, discouraged, I could go no further. Where was I going to find my second wind?

As it happened, there was a marathon underway in conjunction with Ghana’s Republic Day celebrations (the same day we celebrate Canada Day). The lead runner happened to be coming toward me around the same time I was slowing down. It turned out I was doing my run on the same road; I was just going in the opposite direction.

I stopped to watch him as he ran by. He was way ahead of the field; he seemed focused, with a lot of remaining strength and energy. I’m not in any kind of shape to run a marathon today, I thought to myself, but surely I can run16 kilometres, my original goal for today.

I just need some water, and maybe something to wipe the sweat off my face. Since I’d slowed down, I'd started to sweat profusely. It stung my eyes as it streamed down my face from my forehead.

At a roadside stand I asked for a bottle of water. The clerk wanted 12,000 cedis for it, which is about a $1 Canadian and three times the regular price. I didn’t care. I would have given her twice that if she had asked.

I drank half of it and used the other half to wash my face. Then I started to run again, and as I did I began to encounter the rest of the field. That I was running in the opposite direction was very confusing for the runners and the bystanders.

One of the runners called out as he passed by, “Are you finished already?!” A spectator shouted, “Obruni, you’re going the wrong way!”

The obstacles were many for me as I made my way up the road – oncoming cars, clusters of runners. Even a pack of goats crossed the road in front of me! One of them made it to the centre of the street and realized he wasn’t going to make it, so he turned around and was quickly followed by his buddies.

At the next water station I stopped and had a cup of water and a cup of Milo, a popular Ghanaian chocolate milk drink (Milo was the corporate sponsor). I grabbed an extra bag of water and headed off back up the road. A group of bystanders laughed as I ran by and asked for my bag of water. I tossed it back over my shoulder and smiled at them as they dove for it before it hit the road and broke open.

Something to consider for runners back home who pay a lot of money for the “right” shoe: I passed two people at the 29-kilometre mark who were running in bare feet! One was running in flip-flops! (Don’t try this at home kids.)

Amused and re-energized I was able to run all the way home. I may feel good enough to do my next run in bare feet, or in flip-flops at least.

- Mark