Saturday, August 25, 2007

Liberians get much needed tools of the trade

My time is quickly coming to an end, and one of my most rewarding experiences has been working with the "The Vision," the newspaper at the Liberian refugee camp outside Accra. They're great friends and journalists working under very difficult conditions.

They seldom have electricity, and just recently got a generator so they can power computers, lights, et cetera. They've had to operate with a short supply of basic things like paper and pens.

In addition, they've had to get by without easy access to things that Canadian journalists take for granted - cameras, tape recorders and up-to-date computer equipment.

To help them out, I asked some people back home to send much needed electronic equipment, and I want to thank them for their generous gifts. Judith Mackin, Peter Smit, and Patrick Sohy donated digital recorders so the reporters could tape interviews; Mike Tilley donated a camera because they've had to borrow one in the past to take pictures; and David Alston donated a laptop with a processor powerful enough to operate a page-buidling program so they could layout the paper themselves, rather than pay someone to do it for them.

In the picture above, a few of the guys are learning to build news pages on David's laptop, which we've attached to a monitor with a bigger screen size. If they learn this skill, it will help the paper save money and also make them more employable when they eventually return to Liberia.

The guys really appreciated these gifts. Thank you David, Mike, Judith, Peter and Patrick. Thank you, too, Katie Wallace, who brought the equipment with her when she visited Ghana in April.

- Mark

Monday, August 20, 2007

Recipe for success

Victor got a job! I got this piece of good news when he called shortly after returning from a visit to his hometown; he was there to visit his family and pay the school fees for his daughter so she could finish the year and get her marks. Upon his return he learned that a guesthouse wanted him to be their cook.

I was especially eagre to report this news because so few stories like Victor's have happy endings here. I was also happy, of course, because now I would get a meal cooked by Victor, as he promised to do when I gave him the money for daughter's fees ("A friend in need," July 28).

On Saturday, I went to the guesthouse with my friend Doug, and Victor made us lunch. I had a spicy vegetable dish with rice; it was especially good because he made it with fresh mushrooms (a rarity here).

Victor was as good as he said he was, and luckily the guesthouse thought so too.

My enthusiasm about his new job was tempered a bit, though, when I discovered that he was working seven days a week and was still finding it difficult to make ends meet. His starting salary was 500,000 cedis a month (about $60 Canadian). Bus fare alone costs him about 450,000 cedis a month because he has to travel far to work. He’s trying to find a place closer to the guesthouse but the city’s vacancy rate is really low.

Ideally he’ll find a place closer for about 150,000 cedis a month, and get a raise after he’s proved himself for a while. Then, he said, he’ll be able to bring his family back to Accra.

Low pay, long hours, and his family still so far away. His situation still seemed so difficult to me. But that’s not how Victor saw it. “It’s better than being idle,” he said.

- Mark

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The universal language of customer service

Mercy laughs at me every time I say "ay-ta-sein" (how are you?) or "ay-ya" (I am fine). She sells me fruit every day on my way home from work, and she also tries to teach me a new word or phrase in "Twi," the local language. When I stumble over my words she laughs and begins to speak in English.

Another one of my local vendors has put me on a crash-course in Twi; they don't realize that I will be gone in two weeks and they will be amongst the people that I will miss the most.

Coming from a SuperStore world, I have grown to really love my early morning/late afternoon routine here. I buy some staples at the grocery store equivalent here (coffee, apple juice, et cetera), but I get most of my things at roadside stands or shacks. I get my fruit from Mercy, tomatoes and beans from a stand up the road from her.

There is one little shop near my place where I buy things like bottled water, toilet paper, dish soap, bread, et cetera. Across the road from them I buy imported shortbread cookies (my late-night indulgence). I can't get anything else from them because the woman at the first shop is very territorial, and she's let it be known I should only buy from her.

One day I handed her 6,500 cedis for a bottle of water; she eyed me warily and said, "They charge that price across the street. I only charge 6,000." It reminded of the time I was at Java Moose and handed one of the owners enough change for a medium-size coffee at Tim Hortons. Let's just say it didn't pass unnoticed.

Big companies buy our loyalty through expensive advertising and branding campaigns. Small ones - in Ghana and in Canada - earn it through personal, daily contact.

The language of loyalty is sincerity and warmth, and it can be understood by foreigners here even if we don't speak Twi.

- Mark

Monday, August 6, 2007

Slaves to no one

I walked into the U.S. embassy in Accra this afternoon, and there was a large crowd gathered in the lobby. I was there to interview the public affairs director about a story I was working on; they were American visitors waiting for a guided tour. They were from a UCLA alumni group with ancestral ties to slaves brought to America in 1807 on one of the last ships before the slave trade was abolished.

One of them told me the trip was a pilgrimage of sorts to their ancestral home. Though they were descendants of Ghanaians, they couldn’t have been more “American” in the way they carried themselves. Ghanaians, in my limited experience here, are passive and respectful, much like Canadians. Americans seem more like Nigerians – very aggressive and demanding.
When I arrived, the group of Americans was very upset because the ambassador wasn’t back from a meeting yet, and she was going to lead the tour. They wanted to begin the tour before she got back, but the embassy staff told them they had to wait.

That wasn’t the answer they were looking for; as U.S. taxpayers they felt entitled to begin the tour when they were ready, not when the ambassador was ready. “We paid for this building,” one of them said.

The ambassador was late because she had been called away to a meeting with John Kufuor, the Ghanaian president. “You have to understand that you have to drop what you’re doing when the president calls for a meeting,” said an embassy staff person.

Then she began to say, “It’s like if you were in the U.S. and President Bush called…” but she was quickly interrupted.

“If Bush called us, we’d tell him to ‘stick it!’ ” said one of the Americans.

“Shhhh…” someone else whispered, as if to remind her she shouldn’t talk that way in an embassy.

I don’t mean to cast all of the Americans in one mould. (One of them was actually quite polite – very “Canadian,” you might say. He introduced himself to me, and asked what I was doing in Ghana.) Nonetheless, I was quite amused by how stereotypically “American” some of them were acting; I had a good chuckle at the Bush comment.

I also admired their brashness and confidence, especially when I considered how far African-Americans had come since the days of the slave trade.

The slaves left here in chains, thrown into the hulls of ships for lives of servitude. Two centuries later their descendants come to Ghana true “red, white and blue” Americans – slaves to nothing and no one, not even the U.S. ambassador’s schedule.

- Mark