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Sunday, December 31, 2006

The Last Hours of 2006

OK, just seven minutes left before I get logged off at the internet cafe but...

A HUGE Happy New Year to everyone! What a great year it's been indeed and thanks to everyone for your friendship, encouragement, support, thoughts, prayers, gifts, and all, all the rest. We are so blessed to have such wonderful families and such a great extended group of friends. Thanks to everyone who played a role in making 2006 one of the best years ever. Just a quick thank you list then:

To our parents and grandparents for all your support, for the logistical legwork you always have to do for us, the care packages, the emails... for being great parents.

To our brothers for your friendship, welcome, and kindness. We are blessed to have brothers who are also friends. (Congrats to Mika and Sian for getting engaged this Christmas! Hooray! And welcome Sian to our family.)

To David Firang for everything he did to make our trip to Ghana possible, for all the contacts he arranged, a place to live, and all the rest.

To my uncles Lauri and Reijo and their better halves Mirja and Liisa for welcoming us to Finland and making sure we were taken care of, housed, fed, had transportation... They were absolutely terrific all through the summer. Thanks too to the rest of the Suokonautio and Kosonen families for all your friendship and warmth, generosity and kindness.

To Catherine and her family in Estonia for putting us up. We were friends of friends and still you welcomed us.

To Tim, Martin, Leah, Gemma, Craig and family for helping us in our move from our house in Toronto. To my mom's neighbour Gwen for storing our stuff while we're away. To all of our friends who made sure we were sent off in style.

Oh! I'm out of time. More later then. But thanks again to everyone and again, Happy New Year! We love you.

Friday, December 29, 2006


Here is a rant/rap I wrote about the lessons of this journey back in London. Read fast for best results:

Walkin through the world with my white man’s eyes
Seeing pimps on vacation and priests telling lies
(on phony plantations under clear blue skies)
About crippled buffaloes on the brink of extinction
Chasing literate kids from dangerous depictions
Of million dollar bills and the myth of their freedom
Freedom ain’t free we told it takes bleedin
The White House literazis make blood literal
And they makin a crime outta bein a liberal
And the liberty from which kleptocracy was born
Is elusive as a high-horned unicorn
Amidst the ever present uniforms
Marching cross manufactured destiny
Trampling bleeding hearts like you and me
Hurling our bodies and pictures at the masses
With futures so dim they need coke-bottle glasses
Shouting our names the scariest of labels:
Jihad-lovin terrorists the other side of Abel
White House knows how to trample good ideas
Use the word terror and promise they’ll be freer
If we sacrifice now some kinda paradise awaits
So sacrifice liberty free speech and sell hate
The capitalist free-hand on the law’s long arm
Will slap every slave who tries to leave the farm
Or search for some meaning or true sense of home
Living in community instead of toiling alone
To feed the machine and climb the social ladder
On the heads of the helpless the rebels and the chatter
Of those who refuse the great compromise
Comfortably numb until a natural demise
These things I see from Helsinki to Osaka
Under leaders in suits from Thatcher to Mustafa
Nothin much changes in landscapes or time
Life is easy for the criminal mind
In the 3-piece suit at a microphoned table
With a Gucci watch and an Armoni label
While the beer-soaked escapists on the run
Ride third-class with a bottle and a shotgun
Mother Theresa hid in bubble-headed bliss
With her big good heart and a mailing list
But the war wages on with assaults on her poor
And anyone with money won’t fight anymore
Just push the button and your enemy is wiped
Send in the soldiers with chemicals and crackpipes
Hoping they survive civilian life
When state education spares their ass the knife
Or the gas or the gun or the garbage can
And slip them into slow death as a company man
But wait my white eyes see more than this
Like Mongolian herders following bliss
Falling all over in a fit of hard laughter
Eyes lit up with the knowledge of master
And the holder of more knowledge
Than is taught or learned in Ivey College
It’s the knowledge of the land and the secret of free
Knowing how to live beyond vicariously
Concretely over the land of generations
Sleeping under felt roofs until reincarnation
That bliss is so strong it beat the Soviets
Next to go down are the capitalists
Without trying to conquer but just to survive
And I also see other cultures being revived
Women in court speaking their own ancient language
With the gift of oration unpacking centuries of baggage
Before tin-eared judges too educated to understand
The ancient crimes of colonial man
And a sympathetic public that’s beginning to learn
About survival and revival and other ways to be
About the brain-washing propaganda machine
But I’ve also known way too much apathy
From the ones who should be down with what I seen
Thinking that by doing nothing they do no harm
While the fire eats paradise they turn up the charm
And waltz right through it untouched and unharmed
Sayin “please don’t hurt me look I’m unarmed”
How will all these sights in the world I behold
Look when untangled and when they unfold?
I know no better than so-called experts no TV
The real answer lies with you and with me

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Happy Holidays!

Happy Holidays, Seasons Greatings, Happy 2007, Peace Love and Hope to our friends, family, colleagues, and other readers of the Suokojamin World Tour!

We are headed to an Eco Village near the mighty Volta, near the Togo border in southern Ghana, for a relaxing (we hope) Christmas Day.

I leave you with a flashback to December 13, a Wednesday:

Mostly Wednesday was spent with Rich, an appropriately named 'Marketing Executive' who showed me where the government buildings are so that we could meet with a PR Man who was too busy and red-eyed hungry to see us. I had plenty of time to get to know this young man from Kumasi who hopes his job will get better. Selling advertising is a tough gig and I was given ample evidence last week. Frankie Boy replaced Rich on Thursday and he was a bit more talkative, wanting to know my likes and dislikes about Ghana - he really sympathized when I told him I love the friendliness and warmth and openness of people but hate how overwhelming those same great traits can be when they kick into oburoni (white person) induced overdrive. "They just are excited to meet a white person," he said. "But they need to respect your privacy and space." Frankie Boy is a smart guy, but that got us no where with the big men to whom we went begging, offering fluff pieces for a price and I realized I was wasting my time. But that day the paper ran the best piece I've done here, about village life and development, and I got a nice call of kudos from Rich that night. Frankie Boy promises to take us to a soccer game so all was not lost. Even Bossman himself was impressed by my early works. "I don't normally read the paper," he admitted. "But yours was very impressive." On my third and last day as an uninvited corporate guest I met Eddie, the only woman of the Mark Execs - she gave me a hard time until I confessed having had a poor sleep. The four of us were crammed into the company hatchback with our driver, who had just re-emerged from a week of AWOL. The conversation was fast and Twi and my head was filled with English-language worries abut the upcoming special edition, for which I'd met none of my assignments and would fail to do so if I didn't escape the clutches of a certain Marketing Manager with psychotic tendancies.

Fortunately it was Friday by then and nothing takes away the pain of a working week like sushi, ice cream, brownies, and real cappacino! You see it wasn't an ordinary Friday, it was the 3.5th anniversary of mine and Miia's fateful first date at the legendary El Mocambo, where Mick seduced Maggie back in the 60s or 70s or some other decade I don't remember. Emboldened and exhausted we embarked on another Accra weekend. Alas it was brownout night, and sleep was taunting in its evasions.

More of other people's pictures

Here is Makola market, the main and most central market in Accra. Before Christmas it is really the closest thing to utter chaos I've ever witnessed in my life. And yet somehow completely ordered.

A pictures of Ghanaian dancers similar to the ones I saw the other night.

And these are some traditional Ghanaian fabrics. Colourful and fun. The geometric designs and the weaving is a tradition from the North (I believe) and is called Kente cloth.

Just some pics to give you an idea of life here.

Attorney General pukes all over victims of tyrrany

Well, my interview with the Attorney General became the cover story for our special Christmas edition, which seems a pretty big deal. He was one shifty man with a serious attitude problem, but thanks to his aide I managed to get a decent scoop:


Friday, December 22, 2006

Other People's Pictures

Here is a woman walking down a dirt road in Ghana. Much like the road to our house. Note how red the soil is.

A Ghanaian taxi. They vary greatly in terms of state of disrepair and you always negotiate your price before going. Many interesting cab drivers we've had.

The insanity is Kaneshie Market, a shotr bus ride from our house (depending on traffic). It's a market and trotro (bus) station rolled into one. You need all your faculties to navigate nevermind shop.

And the last is a blue trotro. People do not ride on top but cargo is loaded on top and in the back. Generally you get 18 passengers or so, depending on the size and how it's been retrofitted. From our house to the main trotro station we go to, the fare is 3,000 cedis or 36 cents. From Accra to the town of Ho, a 2.5-3 hour trip to the capital of the Volta region, the fare is 30,000 cedis = $3.60.

Yes, these are other people's pictures but thought they might help you get a picture of what things are like here.

Looking the Other Way

Chris says, "Let's resolve to have a good day today, OK?"

And it was.

21/12/2006 - one month in Ghana

Share taxi with Chris. I get off at Circle station (Circle is short for Kwame Nkrumah Traffic Circle - one of the major traffic hubs in Accra). Traffic is killer before Christmas. Lots of standing still.

Photocopy a little shop all the paperwork for the university, incl. transcripts, resume, forms. The power connection comes and goes and the guy working at the store presses copy when the lights stop flickering.

Bus to University. Really nice woman beside me and we chat about this and that.

Drop off the paperwork. The opposition party was having it's leadership conference and the campus was full of people in colourful outfits, small parades, dancing, music. Alive.

Bus back to Circle. Buy fish pies from street vendor, a woman who doesn't speak English i.e. has not gone to school. She is warm and seems happy to communicate with me anyway, however we can.

Bus to Laterbiorkoshie and walk to the office of People's Dialogue. Hang out with Mabel the receptionist/accountant and chat. She is liking me more all the time. Me too her. Chat with Farouk and Lukman about plans for 2007 - I'd like to be doing more hands on stuff. Yes, we'll talk about it. I laugh that they should hire me and Lukman says, with great earnestness, yes! We'd love to hire you because then we could use you even more, have you here more. I'm flattered. When I leave, Mabel gives me a huge hug. Feels so good to be hugged. We've been strangers to everyone for a long time and never really feel close enough to anyone, it seems, to be hugged. I like it and feel... humbled. A friend.

I grab a cab back to Dansoman and it's a cabbie I've had before. We start to talk about politics and about the NDC candidate race. He says he's not about parties and votes for whoever makes the best promises. He starts to complain about the current party, that they haven't done enough, that crime has become a big problem. His cell phone was stolen. "Before," he says, "when the previous party was in power, if you were caught stealing, you would be killed. Now you get a lawyer!" "What we need," he says, "is more people's justice. Like, just recently a 22-yr-old guy was caught trying to steal the contents of a car in Dansoman. The people killed him. They beat him to death." "Were you there?" I ask. "Yes!" he replies, "I was there. And I think it's good he was killed. Too bad he was so young but now others know." Mm-hmmm. "Well," I say, "I think stealing is wrong. It also affects a whole community because you start to be afraid in your own home. BUT, I think is killing is even more wrong." Really, what more could I say?

I do an hour of internet and buy some canned mackerel and walk home. On my way, I stop by at a small shop stall that has beautiful batiks and fabrics. The seamstress takes my measurements and will have a dress ready for me in a week or so. Made to measure dress from hand dyed fabric: CDN$10. Can't be beat. I'm excited for my new dress.

As I am walking, I hear the familiar sound of drums in the park at the top of our street. It's a nightly thing. But somehow, I've never really HEARD it before. It's a warm early evening, already dark outside, and here I am in Africa and I can hear drums and singing. I approach two friendly looking youth on the street and ask, "What is that drumming?" "It's a group." "At the school." "No, at the culture centre." "Culture centre?" "Yes," says the young man, "I'd like to show you. Would you like to come?" "Yes, please. Let's go." He leads me down a path to a small centre at the back where there are not only drummer but eight dancers. They are dancing unbelievably fast. Indescribably fast. And still in sync. I stand mouth agape and watch. Amazing. Truly amazing. The dancers seem a little shy that I'm watching but they are so talented, so fit, so strong. They speak Ga between them, a smaller of the tribes of Ghana (the Ashante being the biggest). What fun indeed. And everyone was so nice.

Eventually I go home, make spaghetti with tomato sauce and fish. I shower and read in bed. Chris is working late for the special edition of the newspaper coming out the next day and his is the cover story. Eventually he comes home, we spend time together as he has his dinner, and tell our tales about the day.

Yes, we both had a good day. Let them all be so!

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

An International Human Rights Day at the Beach

On International Day for Human Rights, a Sunday, we met Henry at La Beach. The entrance fee is 20,000 cedis ($2.50) and we didn’t realize that Henry would need his fee covered by us. He also mentioned that someone had tried to take something from him illegally but it was one of those conversations where meaning is lost in translation and further questioning takes you nowhere. When I got up to meet Henry at the front gate a Nigerian boy named Douglas took his chance to sit down with Miia. When I returned he invited us both to his house and asked for my phone number, which people do a lot here, and in some cases (including this one) they end up calling you daily and nightly. Douglas left us for a while before returning with his elder brother, Wisdom, who had a serious case of bigmanitis, which was further agitated by inebriation. He took great delight in haggling with a mask vendor in front of us and insisting he had no more money to pay, before pulling out a giant wad of cash with his rolex hand to make his purchase. He warned us to be careful who we are friendly with and strutted off looking for lesser peacocks to recruit or subdue. Before the day was out we saw Wisdom involved in a near fistfight with Foolishness.

In Douglas’s case the phone calls came during free call hours, after 11 pm and before 7 am, and they started the same day I gave him the number. Eventually Miia put a stop to it without even offering any excuses; I was humbled by her assertiveness. It’s a shame that the first Nigerians we met here turned out to be slimy scammers because that is the stereotype many Ghanaians have of them. Fortunately we will have ample opportunity to meet other Nigerians who deflate the stereotypes.


Have you ever wondered who buys all those weight-loss gimmicks you see on television? Wonder no more: it is the Captain. He even has the vibrating belt, over which his money gut sweats all morning while he watches the news, before doing walking laps of the house with Sarah, and several minutes on the Nordic track. After observing this spectacle over instant coffee we hopped in a cab with a philosophical hopeless romantic driver who listened to nothing but Brian Adams and was thrilled to learn of the superstar’s Canadian roots. “I have all his cassettes, except the ones that haven’t come here yet – they always take so long to reach Ghana.” He was egalitarian on the issue of race. “Most people see you white they’ll double or triple the price for you,” he said. “But me, I charge the same for white, black, yellow, whatever.” For his equal rate he drove us all the way to the dentist, where my tooth was granted a temporary stay of execution and given daily saltwater swimming privileges.

I wish pickpockets were as egalitarian as that driver, but I’m pretty sure I was targeted for easy pickins. We were rushed into a trotro by an overenthusiastic mate (the guy who takes the money and helps the driver). I sat in back and Miia went up front. The guy in front of me handed back the change to the guy beside me, and somehow it got dropped. I helped to pick it up and he dropped it again; I helped again and he dropped it again. “Maybe you can get it yourself,” I said. It was then that I realized my cell phone was halfway out from my Velcro pocket. I jammed it back in and shoved myself away from him, but I was so scared to make a false accusation I let it drop and when he moved up to the seat in front of me I figured the phone must have just slid part-way out, as can happen with shallow pockets in a crowded vehicle.

When I got out of the vehicle, the same guy, who wore a full-length turquoise African print, let me go by him, which is in itself unusual. His accomplice, the original change dropper, had also moved up a row and when he got out he dropped the aisle chair (which can swing up to let people out) down in front of me so I had to stop and pick it up again. It was then I felt Mr. Turquoise’s hands all over me like an overeager teenage on a first date. I slapped his hand away and shouted “get your hands off me!” He climbed down from the bus after me and I glared but said nothing. I realized, only after he’d left the scene, that he had succeeded in nabbing about 30,000 (maybe $4) from me. It’s not a big loss, but I hate being targeted like that, double-teamed, mildly invaded.

Miia took it even harder than I did and went hunting for the guy. We found a turquoise-clad man nearby and I think it was him, but he denied having been on the bus with me and told Miia she was beautiful. I decided it better to just leave it be than confront possibly the wrong guy over 4 bucks. We walked through the market (where several men have tried and failed to pocket my possessions) and grabbed another trotro homeward and thanked the gods for the survival of my tooth against all odds.

That night I tried banku (fermented corn and cassava beat into a gooey paste, like fufu but fermented) for the first time, and was surprised to find it more palatable than fufu despite the fermentation.

Return to the Village

Our return to Ayirebi village was less eventful and less comfortable than our first trip. We landed first in a bus station insane asylum where the inmates swarmed us like a last meal offering friendship, transportation and merchandise all at a fair price. We headed right over the wall and landed at the next station over, where we were rescued by David and his brother-in-law, a professional getaway driver surrounded by hitman serenity. “I’m so happy you’re here,” David told us. “We’re so bored in the village! And I miss my boy. How’s he doing?” Sim is actually performing much more regularly under the watchful eye of Dacosta, who notes wistfully that corporal punishment is normal in Ghana.

We made a few stops along the way to the village, including a visit to a district assembly executive, who told us about the newest craze: cultural tourism. “The white people we know like to stay in big hotels,” he told us, but he had learned of another breed that apparently enjoys meeting people and learning about the place their in. When he learned that I write for the paper he jumped double-footed into the conversation and tossed a card and a special report my way.

We were put up in the spare house of a local doctor which was visibly clean but smelled of bat urine, where we slept on a comfortable mattress under two full-blast ceiling fans to ensure our full attention at the morning ceremony. The turnout was Friday low but some local politicians and media made the day and quoted our near-impromptu speeches verbatim. The Chief thanked us for single-handedly saving the village and we reiterated that it was but a small donation to a hardy and innovative group of people who had survived thousands of years without us. There was the usual talk of us starting an NGO and our usual efforts to diffuse such misplaced time-bombs. Our speeches were punctuated by spontaneous outbursts of cheers from the crown, especially when Miia said that girls need better access to school – at the moment they make up less than 40% of the senior secondary school.

After the ceremony I wanted to visit the new school feeding program where every primary student gets one square meal from the government; it’s a means to encourage attendance and improve health, and comes complete with de-worming kits and monthly weigh-ins to track growth. We brought along our own entourage in the form of David’s sister and his nephews, who had not forgotten our last visit and spent hours hanging about our windows peeking in at us, and loved holding our hands. The Sister wanted to know if having a pen-pal in Canada would improve her chances of immigrating there.

The teachers raved about the program saying attendance was soaring, and the kids tore through giant bowls of food. I interviewed a couple teachers and the lunch-lady on behalf of the paper while Miia did recognizance work via informal conversations and snapshots of the hungry future of the village. “Make sure you mention my name in the article,” said the Sister, a teacher herself but at a different school.

The only detractor from the program we found was our host, Dr. Bigman, who paid us a visit that evening as his minions ran in to build us a new bed. “I have a mattress that is Canadian-sized,” he told us. “But it needs a frame.” Fortunately the bed-frame was not really ready because the Canadian-sized mattress was filthy and we preferred the Ghana size, which is a double. The good doctor, who used to be leader of the opposition, a splinter group from the former military dictator turned international speech giver Flight Lieutenant Jerry J. Rawlings, explained to us that he is a rich man in terms of assets, even if other Ghanaian doctors who stayed in the west make more money. “I have six children and three houses,” he told us. “My friend in the UK has only one house and one child, a daughter.” Dr. Bigman felt that the school feeding program encourages children to go to school only to have them leave without an education, and that educating farmers is dangerous anyway because next thing you know they don’t want to farm anymore. “What they need is to be told to farm a small piece of land as hard as they can, like in the Soviet Union,” where he himself had been educated. It was the first time I’d ever heard someone use the Soviet Union as a good example of agricultural management.

Our ongoing party was joined by a Mr. Sleezmo, a long-time beat writer from the Daily Graphic, who informed me, several times, that the Daily Graphic is the biggest paper in the country, reaching 200,000 readers (I had heard 50,000 so maybe let’s call it an even hundred). He wanted to know how much our donation was until David intervened saying “don’t worry about the amount.” The writer wanted to know if we’d start an NGO and where in the world we had traveled (and also how to spell the names of those countries).

“Come to us you can write every day,” he told me, refusing my request for a business card. When I ran into him the next day he did make a point of showing my his name as the writer of a piece in the paper and reminded me of the circulation figures; whether he was trying to win me over to the graphic or rub it in that I worked in the minor leagues was unclear. I do wonder what it would be like to write for a state-run and controlled newspaper that focuses on crime stories and has a large circulation.

In time we finally excused ourselves from our gracious host and paid a late-night visit to the Chief, both to pay our respects and interview him for the paper. He obliged on both accounts and also humbly asked us for money to help him publish his book about the chieftancy system. We capped the day with a discussion with David about corruption, culture shock, and the tendency of some people to get a little and ask for more more more.

The next morning we met with the youngest district assembly member in the region and a village elder to hand over the 500,000 cedi (about $60) donation we promised and had a great antidote of a conversation about how education and agriculture are not mutually exclusive. He young DA member had great energy and optimism and told us that he ran for office because he wanted to help his elders bring positive developments to his village.

It was then that we tried fufu, cassava and corn pounded into a gooey pasty doughy kind of stuff that you dip in peanut sauce with fish – it’s as tasty as it sounds. David and Hannah took us out for lunch in the nearby town before we headed back to Accra. It is a delicacy that Ghanaians take very seriously: I read an account of inmates who, denied their fufu, pounded their cassava with their infected feet on a dirty floor to make it for themselves.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Middle Goby Sky over hills

Wonderful Mongolian Family

This fantastic family invited us to stay in their home, gave us 6 am vodka shots and plenty of food, and were fantastic hosts!

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Many Things


On Sunday we awoke to the 5 am drum parade circulating around our door, which was good preparation for a four-hour church service with three offerings, during which the preacher preached about how we are no different than madness with our clothes unfit for public consumption. “If he treated his first wife that way he’ll treat you the same; don’t believe his smooth talk!” he admonished us as we sweated in our tight white traditional funeral wear, up front and centre under the light of the videographer, projected onto the big screen TV. During the collections he reminded the congregation that believers give generously.

Patrick made no qualms about explaining the service. “All they want is money,” he said. “People here living hand to mouth in abject poverty and they have three offerings! Keep us in church for four hours.” He’s a believer but he has his limits and he doesn’t understand how so many different races could all be descendant from Adam and Eve either.

We relieved our post-church headaches in a dance with David’s nephews and nieces, Bernard, Evans and Albert and the twin girls both named Albena, with whom we exchanged moves and drew a crowd until David’s drunken cousin gave us the old pinch, a hard one. We asked David to give him a little talk, which David did very publicly before sending him home for the night, leaving us to sheepishly sip our cokes in the courtyard, where the kids raised Cain with paper airplanes and cranes made by Miia. Bernard sat on my lap and I snuck him sips of my coke (such a delicacy is not normally wasted on children). When I told him to share the remainder with his friends a near brawl ensued, and somehow David’s son Sim was at the epicentre. “That boy is mad,” said Bernard. Sim’s culture shock seemed to be agitating his ADD and none of the locals’ efforts to teach him good Ghanaian manners seemed to help much. A few piggyback rides distracted the kids from their problems.

We ate dinner with Dacosta, who loves the village food because it is so much fresher than in the city he now calls home.

Producing and Exporting Countries

After all the official things we had the chance to linger in bed and talk politics to the backbeat of the usual Christian music from the electronics store. “Why don’t all the cocoa, coffee and sugar producers create a CCSPEC and take Nestle over, drive up the prices on our non-petroleum addictions and make more money for the farmers.” That kind of nonsense. “Funny how cell phones make sense here and have brought people together, but they still exclude rural people who don’t have money and can’t get signals.”

Eventually we made way to see the Chief, passing a hoard of pre-schoolers on the way who made up a song: “white man give me money.” Their voices were beautiful until someone explained what the words meant.

We discussed the latest of David’s brain children with the Chief: he wants to start an organization and build a community centre, and we agreed to chip in a few dollars. Somehow this small gesture led to the Chief offering to make us Sub-Chief and Queen Mother, an offer that came with a lesson in the Chieftancy system (a subject on which the Chief has written a yet unpublished book): they must maintain political neutrality with no partisan affiliation, yet be judge jury mayor and planner for their village. The Chief is accountable to the village elders, who chose him and can remove him any time – unlikely in this case because he has served as Chief for 40 years. Society is patralineal with tremendous importance placed on clan or extended family. No one is without a parent: David has just inherited his father’s sister as his new mother. Age cannot prevent parentage; in some cases your father’s brothers little boy is considered your father. This way people are cared for all their lives; they are never alone and, from the North American point of view, they never have privacy.

By the time we left the Chief we had somehow committed ourselves to return for a ceremony in honour of our small gift toward the community centre. We thanked him for his lessons and his time and Henry took us straight to the senior secondary school, where the security guard had more time to kill than intruders and had landscaped himself a rock, sand, grass and shrub garden, which he took great delight in showing us. When we found the principal he was quick to announce, “We are a deprived school with many needs: lab equipment, books, uniforms.” The school receives little government support and runs mostly from school fees, which prevent many of the villagers from gaining an education beyond primary school. My internal calculator told me that the money required to educate every child in the village would be a few tens of thousands of dollars a year, and I wished I had that much to give or that I could devise an effective educational system that doesn’t require books, equipment, uniforms or buildings, only teachers. But I’m much better at criticizing pedagogy than inventing it.

The mild depression induced by the principal was quickly cured by the students whose classes we visited briefly. They were full of enthusiasm for life’s possibilities and asked us questions like ‘are you married?’ and ‘do you use chemistry in your life?’ We promised to return with addresses for Canadian universities so they can send away for application packages.

We left when classes were dismissed and later Dacosta accompanied to town on a full-sized bus like you find in rich countries, with a raised section in the back that gave us a clear view of the madness of the countryside roads. With fresh memories of the accident we held tightly to the seat in front of us and consoled ourselves with thoughts of the great mass of the vehicle and the unlikelihood of it crumpling around us in an accident. We made it safely to town but struck out on arrival: no sunscreen and no power. We checked our email at a café with a generator and took a 90 miles an hour taxi back to the village, holding hands. There was a dispute over the fee in which the driver refused our money unless more was added. Dacosta won the argument, as is his way.

We decided that night, based on village life, that I’m stronger at handling resource scarcity and Miia is stronger at handling the intense scrutiny and attention of an entire society. As a cab driver later pointed out to us, “no one is so strong in a car accident.”

Unearned Expertise

On our way to catch our ride back to Accra we met Ahmed, who had been our translator with the Chief (who speaks perfect English but tradition demands a translator). He told me that he started a local environmental group called Evergreen and he’d love my advice, something I felt utterly unqualified to offer, yet would have loved to learn more about. We agreed to talk in more detail on my return.

We got a ride with David’s old ‘mentor’ The Captain, who captains an Iranian merchant ship and runs several businesses (internet café, taxi service, farms, etc.). A few minutes down the road we heard a tearing noise and shrapnel started raining in through the open back window on Miia. She ducked into me in the middle seat and was luckily unharmed. It turned out to be nothing worse than a shredded tire but on the heals of the accident it had our hearts racing.

David and Patrick were just a few minutes behind us in a Tro-Tro (minivan bus) and were able to get us another ride into the nearest town, from where we we took a Tro-Tro all the way to Accra, which was thankfully uneventful.

We made it back just in time for the launch of CofA, College for Ama (a Saturday born woman likely to be studious by nature).

Two of the three founders gave speeches mentioning the importance of their fathers, who were visionary enough to insist on the education of their daughters in villages where female education is often seen as wasteful. Helen told of how her father used to make her take our library books and tell him what she learned before returning them. Professor Nana Apt added a story about how she returned to her home village to seek out her four former female classmates. One was dead, one in a mental institution, one old before her time, and the last led a life riddled with problems. Only she had been able to complete school and have more options, she told us. She wanted her program to help other girls have options.

There were supporters there all the way from the UK and America, one of whom read a beautiful poem about the birth of her daughter and her contemplation about whether the men in her life understood the importance of supporting the girl through her life. Another woman had started a similar program in Oregon and was raising money to give American girls the chance to travel to Ghana and meet and learn with their counterparts and peers here. She finished by giving a small check that her students had raised for CofA, but her speech felt sort of like a sales pitch. There were many questions, the most potent of which was “why are you focusing only on strong female students; what about weak students, shouldn’t they too receive support in their education?”

After the formalities we met Theresa, who works with an HIV education group in northern Ghana and invited us to come see their work, and Matt from Seattle who raises money for the private university and has lived her long enough to learn some Twi. It was he who informed us of the weekly pickup basketball games, though we have yet to see him there.

Outside attempting to sate our daylong hunger with crackers and fanta Jima found us; he had been sent to take us back to Lydia’s. We begged him to stop at a Chop so we could eat some faster than average cheap and tasty food.

New NGOs

Despite receiving several requests to start an NGO here we remain firm in our position that we are better suited to get involved with the work that is already happening here. We have neither the time, the money, nor the expertise to identify unfulfilled needs and try to fill them with an organization that we would have to abandon when we go home anyway.

Lydia on the other hand does have the expertise to see what is needed here, and she wants to start an organization to take care of the many orphans who end up on the streets of Accra, before they get there. It’s difficult for her though because she has to take care of the world’s strongest baby by herself. “This child is ruining my life,” she jokes. “I just need find a buyer for him.” Isaac usually responds by finding something to pull into pieces, preferably a piece of electronics or jewelry.

We gave Lydia some advice on her NGO: “write a business plan, explain how you will monitor results, get a board of committed, well connected and preferably rich people who can offer time and skills.”

She looked at us kind of blankly and said, “Nobody in Ghana helps like that.” Aside from the year of mandatory volunteer work Ghanaians do not have that culture of volunteerism, maybe because money is scarce or maybe because government here actually puts what resources it can into education, health and poverty reduction.

I tried to excuse our big talk and encourage her to start small, who knows where it could go. I hope she will give it a go, but even small scale it’s a big undertaking. We let it go and showed her our travel pictures and she showed us family photos on her laptop. Then we went shopping.

Market Madness

We made major investments in Ghanaian knowledge at the university bookshop – what a treasure chest! Then in the insanity of Makolah Market I was mobbed by five purveyors of pants, each frantically searching to show me a size 32, light coloured, cotton pair, except they showed me everything but. Only the sixth seller succeeded. Lydia bought a few things too, one of which was a tea towel she didn’t need. “I bought it because she was pregnant and has been walking in the sun for hours,” she told us.

A beautiful day was marred by marginally a corrupt cop, who pulled us over when Jima allegedly ran a red light on a left turn. He hopped into Jima’s lap and asked for a license, which was not produced. Lydia took the wheel and the cop informed her they were under arrest. They argued in Twi until we reached the police station, when Lydia finally relented to the 20,000 cedi ($2.50) bribe. On the way home she saw a cripple begging on the road; he was from her hometown so she put the window down to chat and gave him 10,000.

Two Tips for Life in Accra

When walking through the market at night watching vendors sell Nike and Nokia by candlelight, stuff all valuables out of reach and out of sight. I’ve had several failed and one successful pickpocket attempts against me. Luckily the successful one got only 30,000 cedies (a few dollars). Also watch for crotch-grabbing perverts.

When sitting in traffic you can get lots of shopping done as people come to your window selling batteries, garlic, halogen lamps, towels, toothpaste, health creams, bread, water, snacks, thighmasters, etc. etc. Just make sure you have roughly the right change otherwise the poor vendor may have to chase you for miles to give you your change once the lights change. Some vendors will even come onto the bus and make an elaborate pitch selling the greatest things at the best prices guaranteed.

The Captain

Meanwhile David had arranged for our free accommodation with Captain, who refused our offer of rent because it would be a betrayal to all the kindnesses he had received during his many world travels. “Believe me,” he said, “every time I travel I end up in someone’s home!” Everything the Captain says is an exclamation point.

“We have seven rooms and just us,” he added, neglecting to mention (as people often do) their ten-year-old nephew Little John, whose family is too poor and large to send him to school, so he lives with the Captain, does housework and in return receives room board and an education. How he finds time to study when he spends every waking moment doing domestic labour or being barked at to do more is beyond me.

So, we moved across town to what the Captain calls “the slums,” where we live in a 7-room house surrounded by walls covered in upturned shards of glass. The Captain is liberal only in his love of loudly sharing his opinion. When I told him I had started working at The Statesman he suggested that I demand a driver and payment in US dollars, thousands of them per week, more than I made in Canada. He has no qualms about expressing his displeasure with our friend David, whom he thinks is using us to build his own status here. “I gave that financial support to go to Canada,” he told us. “And I never hear from him again, no ‘hello, how are you?’ from him until he needs something from me.” The Captain yells and his wife Sarah barks; their daughter, who has moved back home, squeals like a psychotic infant on steroids. On our way here Captain had complained about the noise of the neighbours, but the only noise we get here is internally generated.

In the living room two of life’s great luxuries are almost always running: air conditioning and a maximum volume television. They are off when the power is out, which happens every sixth night in this part of town in order to save power. (Excluding personal generators, there is one source of electricity in this country: one dam in the Volta.) The sixth night comes without power or sleep because without our fan heat and mosquitoes get the better of us.

Aside from the treatment of Little John, these are minor annoyances and we have certain luxuries here, like our own private room and a bathroom we share with Little John; access to the kitchen and the Captain’s extensive DVD knockoffs from China, where he tells us you can see the best acrobatic acts in the world so don’t even try to tell him about Mongolia.

Living in gated comfort in a city with so much need is a great source of guilt, so we comfort ourselves with the knowledge that so far we are giving our free labour and maybe we will donate the rent we would have been paying to a good organization, sort of buying our conscious I guess.

That first night the Captain complained that his farm labourers, who are paid by the weight they pick, will always cheat given the chance. He has since told us that African culture is bullshit and that Arabs are not human – funny opinions for an African who makes his living via an Iranian merchant ship. “What would Woody Guthrie do?” Miia asked me. I told her Woody never went to Africa.


Right before I left Canada I got a filling and that tooth has been hurting ever since. Miia’s Uncle Lauri in Finland, who is a dentist, took a look at it and found nothing wrong, but somewhere in Russia the pain became pretty severe. I picked up some gargle in Mongolia and cream in Japan, but soon a lump emerged from the gum. Finally in Ghana I made an appointment with a dentist recommended by our guidebook.

“He’s probably friends with the author,” Captain bellowed. “He’ll charge you US dollars! Go to my dentist and pay in cedis, he has taken good care of me and my family!” Captain’s dentist, who really is very good I think and takes the time to explain things to me, quickly determined that the filling had been set too close to my gum and infected it, causing the lump and the pain. I’ve been on antibiotics ever since with some improvement, but I’m likely looking at a root canal in the new year.

International Solidarity

We have been on the lookout for ‘international solidarity workers’ here, i.e., people who care about people and the planet and are volunteering or working to do something about it. We even visited the Canadian embassy with vague daydreams of a cocktail reception with beavertails and poutine. We were sorely disappointed when there were no other Canadians there, not even on staff. We enjoyed a little AC as we filled out a form, and I saluted the flag (half mockingly and half homesickly) on the way out of the compound. The guards thought that was pretty funny.

The guards there, despite being Ghanaian, were laid back Canadian style with no guns. On the streets however I often see cops carrying rifles around, which is a little disconcerting. These are very young men generally, and even the military is barred from carrying weapons in public here. Fortunately, aside from traffic bribes, the cops here are not so overtly corrupt and don’t throw their weight around. There was a National Reconciliation Commission two years back and its recommendations seem to have done well to create stability and harmony here.

And just that afternoon we finally met some of those international solidarity workers, Tim from the UK and Megan from the USofA, who are paying to volunteer in a village for several months. The four of us popped in to see the launch of a new web site called Stop Killing Us, about climate change in Africa, which should have been interesting but consisted of watching people scroll through the web site while eerie music played. We invited our new friends to join us in visiting Dacosta and WO (warrant officer) for dinner at Burma Camp but they had to get back to their village.

The food at WO’s place was familiar and it turns out WO’s wife cooked all our food during Mercy’s funeral, even though several other women had taken credit for it. During dinner we met WO’s brother, an electrical engineer, who told us all about electricity supply in Ghana before retiring early. WO told us about Lebanon, from where he recently returned. “What happened there was terrible,” he confirmed. He’s been a soldier for more than 30 years and has survived too many dictatorships to count; he’ll retire soon. I told him and Dacosta about how my grandfather was in the air-force and was in WWII and they thought they had misunderstood when I told them his age. There are very few 90-year-olds around here.

We chatted politics briefly while watching the evening news, which focused on HIV and agriculture because it was Farmer’s Day in Ghana and AIDS Day internationally. It was pleasant and easy but as usual the transfer of information was a challenge because of language, cultural, and knowledge gaps. We know so little of this place and they know so little of ours, and they probably aren’t used to being asked so many questions.

The Statesman

I met the chief editor of The Statesman on Friday and started working there that Monday. He liked my credentials and thought I might help start a development desk, get some good stories and build contacts with district governments throughout the country. He introduced me around a bit and I met the editor, a woman from the UK who has been with the paper just over a year, the cartoonist, and the “youngest” staffer, the sports editor who everyone calls Uncle.

On Monday I met the rest of the editorial staff in a supposedly daily editorial meeting tentatively scheduled at 11 am. In reality, most days there is no editorial meeting. Mostly we discussed the special xmas issue coming out on Dec. 22, used largely to draw advertising revenue because the paper, which only recently went daily and is still running at a loss, hence my lack of pay. I’m okay calling it a great learning experience for now. It also gives me credibility and access; next week I will be interviewing the Attorney General and the national Chief of Chiefs. Even among my Ghanaian friends I feel like this work has earned me a new level of respect and understanding of what I’m about and what I’m doing here. Patrick in particular, who has always given me much respect, is a big fan of The Statesman and is a member of the ruling political party. He read my first editorial while I sat with him on a Tro Tro and was duly impressed. He promptly opened up to me about the need for good business practices in Ghana and to allow for leadership from the grassroots, politically and in business. “People are suffering,” he told me, “and they need to be heard.” He explained that in Ghana business is based on relationships and making the right impressions, but stressed that while he’ll grease the wheels with his charm he has never paid a bribe to get a contract.

According to Patrick and many others I’ve spoken with, The Statesman is a highly respected thinking person’s paper that shuns stories of petty crime and entertainment news (except in the weekend edition). At the same time, it struggles to be seen as truly independent from the ruling National Patriotic Party (NPP), which the paper supported long before it became government. It is supportive but does not pull punches when criticism is appropriate.

The editorial meeting though soon deteriorated into a series of complaints and questions: why doesn’t our unused vacation roll over into next year and how are we supposed to work on a special edition in addition to putting out a daily? The chief editor crushed all complaints in a lengthy lecture about being a team and following policy, during which he singled out several people who had offended him in various ways, leaving no room for dissent. All those lessons I learned about cross-cultural business came flooding back and still did not adequately explain all I was seeing and have seen since – it’s a different world.

Right away I was thrown to the wolves and given the task of interviewing Ben Ephson, editor of one of about 30 competing newspapers in Accra, about a very unscientific survey he did predicting the next president to be elected in 2008. “Hello Oburoni [White Man],” he greeted me, “have a seat.” He had the air of a big man was determined to let me know it. On the way over in a cab with an office boy as my guide I had quickly read Ephson’s pool and tried to memorize the names of the 16 candidates running for leadership and jotting down questions to ask. I guess I did alright because a beefed up version of my story was the lead story the next day. Miia and I celebrated with coke and red red (beans and plaintain).

Since then I’ve been writing every day, sometimes a little and sometimes a lot, and inviting large companies to pay to be featured with a story by me about them in our xmas edition – this is where commission could come in but I think I prefer writing for free than pitching for money.

Little John

We spend a fair bit of our time with Captain’s nephew, Little John, fighting for the right to do our own dishes – so well trained is he that he anticipates our needs before we dream them, brings me ice water after seeing me root around in the fridge unsuccessfully. He doesn’t understand that it is awkward for us to be so well served by a little boy (or anyone really).

He is as sweet and kind and hardworking a kid as anyone could hope to meet, yet I’ve never his “parents” praise him, only bark orders. Wondering if maybe we were being cultural fascists in judging Captain and Cynthia harshly for their treatment of Little John, Miia and I have each discussed the situation with other Ghanaians.

“I am opposed to that,” is what Patrick said to me, and Professor Apt said about the same to Miia. Patrick said no matter how poor he was he could never fathom letting his child go be a labourer in someone’s house. “They have no childhood,” he said, and Professor Apt has trouble remaining friends with people who have ‘foster children.’ Still, we know that Little John would have a very difficult life back in the village competing with his siblings for food.

I do feel that our presence here is good for him, if I can be so arrogant, because we are constantly giving him positive feedback and Miia has managed to get him laughing with a never-ending barrage of pokes, tickles, squeezes and jokes. He seems to like us and we like him a lot.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Two Stories Proud

Here are two recent pieces I did for The Statesman that I'm kind of proud of, the first is a special feature and the second a commentary:

The Development of Akim Ayirebi (photo by Miia Suokonautio)

A Warrior Dies but the War Lives On


Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Good News and Staying On

There are a few different things to write about about life in Ghana. Where to begin?

I met a German woman Meike yesterday who had found online the NGO where I will be and agreed by email to come volunteer in Ghana for 3 months with them. She took time off school to come live in Africa. When I met her, her eyes were full of tears and she had just finished changing her plane ticket to go back to Germany today. She had come with her fiance about a month ago and they had spent two weeks going around together. He went back after two weeks (as they had planned) and she was to then start her position in the slums. She said she ended up getting malaria almost as soon as he left but it seemed to me that she had a serious case of home sickness. She just wanted to go home.

As I listened to Meike I wanted to say, "I know! I felt the same way but it gets better. It really does. You just gotta keep trying." But it was too late. Her ticket was already changed and she was relieved to be going home today.

So what would I say to her if I were to say something?

I would say that although it's not obvious on first glance, there's so much good here. You can find a corner restaurant, a little internet cafe, a place to live, favourite waitresses and water vendors and newspaper vendors... When most big cities in the world are criticized for being so anonymous, this is not one of them. Here you can meet people and start to carve out a small space for yourself in no time.

I would tell her that the NGO she's partnered with is actually amazing. That Farouk, the director, is an incredible man. A passionate, smiley eyed genius. He's busy but he's busy because he's committed and working hard to make a difference in the lives of people who are in a bad situation. He believes in his own country and his own people and while so many Ghanaians with education and money are running to the North, he has stayed here to make change.

The way the organization runs and the model they work with, approaching their work as empowerment is incredible. How they have found leaders from within the slum community, how the microcredit program is actually working and getting more money into people's pockets, the way so many women are taking on leadership roles in a place where women are rarely given positions of power... I would want to help her see all this.

On Tuesday nights Chris and I play basketball with a group of foreigners to Ghana, mostly Americans and Canadians though many Europeans too. It's the one time of the week where I really have anything to do with white people aside from Chris. I realize this when I realize how different it is and how, bit by bit, I become more accultured to Ghanaians and find encountering the Northeners hard - competitive, individualistic, brash. None of the easy smiles and warm handshakes like the Ghanaians. If I were to go into a group of Ghanaians, I would shake everyone's hands and we would all introduce ourselves and we would ask of each other how we were. Among the basketball crowd, it's nothing like that and when I try to talk to people, they stare at me like I'm breaking some unspoken rules.

I am learning through experience.

But still, I like playing basketball and I like the running, the game, the sweating.

On Wednesday nights is a spoken word poetry reading at a local bar. Art too happens.

In the slums, at the community meeting, the moderator shouted, "Information!" and the people responded, "Power!" Then he shouted, "Homeless!" and the people answered, "But not hopeless!" Though it's me who has money, education, access to resources, their togetherness makes them so powerful. This too I like.

After basketball we go to a little restaurant called Chicken Lickin and indulge in a rare treat - cheese. People here don't eat cheese really so a vegetarian pizza on Tuesdays is a beautiful thing.

At the bookstore at the university, they have an extensive collection of fiction and nonfiction by Ghanaian authors. Chris and I bought a ton (maybe our single largest expense since we got here) and have been eating up the books. Even though I tried hard before leaving Canada to find books about Ghana and by Ghanaians, it was a near impossibility. But how good to read the words of Ghanaians reflecting life, studies, and stories!

I had a meeting this morning with a social work professor at the University of Ghana in Legon. It looks like I'll be teaching three courses beginning in January at the undergraduate level in the Department of Social Work. The prof I met with is great and though we only spent a little time together, he too struck me as brilliant and we had an excellent conversation. I'm looking forward to the chance to learn more from him, to teach, to meet more Ghanaians through the university, and even just to learn so much about social work in Ghana. Things keep happening when you network and meet people, talk to them, learn from them.

I would tell Meike not to give up; there are so many opportunities for so many things here.

I've been very diligent in not taking taxis even though they are cheap by Canadian standards. I make my way around town by minibus with the 12-20 other Ghanaian passengers with me, throwing myself into life here while learning the layout of the city. When we went to basketball, I met an expat woman who hasn't used a bus yet - just taxis and rides in private cars. Funny, I thought. I don't think I would even have the heart for that because although the minibuses are hot and can take a long time, are sometimes inconvenient and sometimes rough, they are also part of the transport of the people and if I want to learn about the people, then I should live among them, no?

But still, it can be hard here too. The pollution depresses me. It's so filthy and the waters hideous. The poverty depresses me, especially those who seem in such a bad way, sleeping on the roads, the kids begging, the people with disabilities grabbing at my ankles as I walk by. Chris was pickpocketed the other day and I had some random guy just grab my crotch as we were walking past. I hate that I can never just relax and my guard is always up. Three young girls stopped me yesterday as I was walking and talking to Chris on my cell phone to warn me that there are thieves about and I should be careful to watch my phone. Thoughtful girls.

The countryside too has many problems and as I think about all the people who ask us to take them to Canada, it's hard to really get excited about a place when people here aren't so excited about it either. The worst is when a mother holds up her baby, maybe a year old or even less, and says, "Take my baby to Canada." My heart breaks.

These are funny these so-called developing countries. So much poverty, frustration, problems. Yet at the same time such brilliant light and so many causes for hope and celebration. So much for me to learn.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Pieces of the Puzzle

Hi folks,

The posts below are more stories from the village, but to bring you up to speed on current events:

We just came back from a day at the beach, where the waves were huge and the water warm and salty. We spent a few great hours there with our friend Henry and some interesting Nigerian characters who we later saw involved in a near fight - they were a little '10-foot-tall-drunk-and-bullet-proof' and our association with them started when the younger of the two brothers tried to pick up Miia while I went to meet Henry.

Miia seems quite popular with the boys here (even more than at home) so I am suddenly feeling all protective, which is strange because frankly she can take good care of herself and always has. But, us being a team, she being the most important thing to me in life, I don't like it when people mistreat her or assume because she is sitting by herself they should make her their business.

That aside, I think we are adjusting to the culture somewhat and to the reality that privacy is concept that many peoples of our planet do not share - it is just not part of the cultural vocabulary, especially in the village. We went back to the village this weekend to make a small donation to a community centre, along with David. There was an insane amount of attention paid us and multiple requests for money or to start an NGO there, something we don't really have the capacity to do. It is difficult because we want to help, we want to be open, and we want to establish real relationships with people, but it is hard because the expectation of money is ever-lurking.

On the upside, we are happy to be back in the city, and I am really enjoying working at the Statesman. My boss, the editor, is a genius with more conservative politics than my own, which is a good learning experience. He puts a lot of faith in me but not so much that it is impossible to live up to. Miia is poised to become involved in the project with the slums and possible a couple of other things too, like the CofA project for example. We have some very good local friends already, and will hopefully make more expat friends through basketball - it's good to have a mix because expats understand the culture shock and adjustments one makes.

Life is good and the best thing, for me, is that I learn more here each day than I could in months at home. I, not knowing this place, am like an infant absorbing new pieces of the Ghanaian puzzle by the second.



Following a four-rice lunch and a glass of Guinness that trickled down-throat like molasses, there was dancing and donations in the town square, where three funerals converged and each set of mourners took turns on the dance dirt. Miia and I obliged the old ladies by kicking up dust with them as they waved kercheifs bearing Mercy's visage in our faces and some of the bolder (or higher on Kola nuts) among them went to grinding us, mainly me. We dodged them deftly and ran full tilt boogie into the children, who showed us some moves then cheered en masse as if we were hiphop superstars as we copied them then added our own innovations.

Our protectors ensured, by force of pinching our arms if necessary, that we danced no more than a few beats at a time and ushered us to our lawn furniture whenever things got too dusty-footed. Someone must have missed an assignment when a beggarman found his way beside us and asked for some money so he could become a Big City Cat. We guiltily refused and asked the man next to us (who turned out to be Edward, the owner of the apartment we were inhabiting) if people usually gave to beggars in Ayirebi. "No, if someone is hungry we give them food," he said. "That man must have been unwell to ask such a thing." Ethical burdens and personal fears: if we give this man money others will follow asking and human relationships are replaced by dependency on foreign whites and a vision of them as potential saviours or withholders of salvation.

We did give a small donation to help cover the enormous funeral costs (part of which was the cost of our presence there), and our attempts at subtlety were thwarted by Patrick announcing our gift over the microphone.

The dance ended at the onset of dusk because the main square has no lights and ample mosquitos. We adjourned to drinks and further dance lessons from our new friend Prince (a school teacher who was sweetly drunk and looking for his lost cell phone) at a local clandestine chop (food joint), which was boarded up to prevent late night drinkers from being exposed. The site of us dancing drew further hilarity and incredulity - white men dancing. We were quickly joined by Stanley, who won the USA Visa Lottery and will soon be moving to live with white people, whom he admires greatly despite knowing few. Knowing his fate but also the difficult conditions he was leaving, we could only wish him luck.


Under the midday African sun the coffin and its contents were lowered into the concrete lining endless red clay. We had joined the procession against ardent advice from our over-protective entourage and risked sunburn and sand fleas to bring our bodies along. More prayers were said and more songs were sung, more dances danced and more tears shed by convulsing mourners. The graveside service was mercifully short, and tragically beautiful. This was the final stage of sadness before the celebrations began in ernest. We cast our final glances toward Mercy as the first dirt struck her coffin. Gentle rest sweet lady.

Front Page News

If I may toot my horn a moment, I made the front page my first two days on the job at The Statesman, check it out:

Only Four Serious Contenders

Slashing the zeros makes sense; but why rush to join the Eco now?


Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Feasibility study for the application of Community-Led Infrastructure Finance Facility (CLIFF) operations in Ghana


(Here's Farouk in Old Fadama)

Check it out:

In Praise of Small Things

Thanks to everyone who has emailed or posted comments with encouragement. Indeed, as time passes and we slowly and gradually get used to life here, the weight of culture shock slowly lifts. The sense of joy at finding our way, however tentative, is a genuine relief.

So here then a bit of a sunnier post than the last.

Chris will write later, I'm sure, about his first days and week at The Statesmen newspaper, but it seems to be going well and he is learning a lot. He started on Monday and already on Tuesday his name was on the first page of the paper, accompanying an article he's written on his first day. Chris' contribution to today's paper was the editorial. He's off in the mornings and done in the afternoon around 5pm. So he's back to the 9-5 since mid-May when we both finished work; a six month break that was really amazing.

I've been getting to know the city as I zoom about meeting people that I've researched and connected with. Yesterday I went to the head office of SYTO (Student and Youth Travel Organization) and met with their awesome coordinator Tina. SYTO basically gets students and youth from around the world and places them in families and hooks them up in volunteer placements. Since I came in through the back door (I found out about SYTO from some folks at the computer place), I bypassed the $850US program fee. Tina linked me up with Farouk, the director of People's Dialogue on Human Settlements, an NGO dedicated to working with the urban poor. I met with Farouk yesterday, as well as his colleague Kojo, driver Biggie, and associate from another branch of the NGO. We drove straight to a community meeting in Old Fadama, an enormous slum of 35,000 people living beside a lagoon in central-west Accra. The land they are on is especially contentious presently as the government is planning to evict the slum dwellers to clean the lagoon, currently one of the most polluted bodies of water in all of Africa. At the community meeting, the Ghanaian Ombudswoman on Human Rights was the guest of honour and was there to address the concerns and questions of the community as they are being told that their eviction is imminent. Where they are moving to and when is still uncertain and so the Ombudswoman did her best to answer questions though still in vague terms.

It looks like I will be working with Farouk and People's Dialogue facilitating community organizing in the slums. Descriptions of the slum might well be in order at this juncture, although I'm not sure words would suffice. Of course they are, as the name suggests, slums. Overcrowded, flithy, polluted, small ramshackle dwellings. It's an intense, noisy place. Yet, at the same time, the meeting we were at was filled with positive energy and the slumdwellers have begun to organize themselves and were asking key questions, holding the Ombudswoman accountable for her mandate of human rights. When the meeting began, one of the leaders shouted out, "Information!" and the people shouted in unison, "Power!" Again, "Information!" and the response, "Power!" Then the leader shouted, "Homeless!" and the people replied this time, "But not hopeless!" Their energy, enthusiasm, and conviction was infectious. I liked how Farouk deferred attention from himself to the community members, was warmly welcomed in the slum, and didn't hold my hand or put me into some special place of honour (as it seems to happen often by grace of nothing else but my race). I will be back at the NGO on Tuesday afternoon next week and we will talk more about some of the things I will be doing.

Today I met with Professor Nana Araba Apt, an amazing and inspiring woman who did her Master of Social Work at U of T and even did her practicum placement at St Christopher House - same as me! She is now teaching at the university but recently launched CofA, short for College for Amma, an initiative that partners female university students with female junior high students from rural areas in an effort to keep them in school. Nana and I had lunch and talked about some ideas on how I can help out with CofA during these intial steps, writing some grants reports and also talking about some pedagogical questions on how best to proceed in the program design and implementation. It's an exciting venture and I think it will be a good side project to help out with if People's Dialogue begins to take centre stage.

Lastly, Chris and I found out about a kind of pick-up basketball for expats on Tuesday nights at the Ghana International School. We went last night and had a blast. We were a mixed bag of people - probably about 25 in all, including 4 women. We played for a few hours, sweat like crazy, and had a good time just running around and playing some basketball. I had a good time and although it had little to do with me, my team won every game I played - four in all. I'm already looking forward to next Tuesday.

Tomorrow we are off back to the village where we will be meeting with the Chief and our friend David is hoping to launch a new foundation he's starting up in the village. It will probably be quieter than the funeral, but probably fun anyway.

Because I've spent some time this week running errands as well as meeting with people, I feel like I've become much more familiar with the city and how it works - a good first step on starting to feel at home. Slowly too I get to know ways of doing things, ways of getting involved, and learnings to be had. I look forward to the chance to do more in time.

So, after a tough weekend, things start to ease up a little. I am happy for the relief and looking forward to the chance to become ever increasingly familiar with life here.

For those interested, I've now got a cell phone as well. So, for Chris, you can call him at 233 207 343 423. For me, I'm at 233 207 462 914. Our home number (best to call between 8&10pm our time) is 233 213 01405. We are five hours ahead of Ontario and four ahead of Nova Scotia.

Much love to everyone and thanks again for all the support, Miia

Sunday, December 03, 2006

The Funeral Service

During our visit to Akim Ayirebi Village we made a routine of walking to David's house, sitting around, and listening to loud music, always with multiple escorts, always in an unearned place of honour. We viewed the body on Saturday, third and fourth in line after David and Hannah, who were wailing, having entered a very deep period of mourning. We returned to our seat and sat there a long time as the music blared, some people danced and some swayed mournfully. We foolishly decided to go for a walk on our own and our great escape was quickly foiled by David's younger cousin, who said we needed David's permission to leave. David advised us that we could do whatever we wished but the Chief was on his way and tradition demanded that we pay our respects, which everyone did by standing on his arrival. Soon after the coffin was brought in to bring the body to the church for the service, during which we sat up front with the most senior family members, five priests and a bishop.

The service itself was lively and joyful, a celebration of Mercy's life that included Twi and English hymns, a biography of this devout woman's life (she and her deceased husband had started about a dozen churches together, borne 10 children by whom she is survived by five), tributes by the children, grandchildren, and in-laws, a song by the Women's Fellowship performed while they danced around the casket, a sermon on living life fearing nothing but God, an offering during which everybody in the church, including us, danced around the entire outter church while a brass band (hired by David) played, and announcements of donations to the church and community by David, his friend the Honourable former Minister of Health, and other dignitaries, to compensate the community for the loss of one of its esteemed elders.

[minutes almost up here, the burial comes next time...]

Return of the Kings

The Old Time African Gospel Hour woke us with all its singsong volume at about 5:00 am, wake up time at the equator, an hour ahead of the sun. The Christian reggae blared half a day before we realized that our guesthouse was next to a stereo store. Most of the guests stayed in the village houses but we were given a place of honour amongst the hired musicians and organizers at the outskirts in a room with bath and sweet running water. The gracious Edward, owner of the house we were staying at in Accra, husband of Lydia, Director of the Ghana Water Company, has no running water in his big city home, so this was a sweet luxury.

Having met the elders after our night of chaos tradition demanded that we report to the chief 's clay palace immediately after measurements for our funeral wear. David had made arrangements for a flat of Cokes and Fantas to be delivered to the Chief, his Sub-Chiefs, his Linguist, and the Queen mother. He gratefully accepted but, being unable to drink the entire flat himself, invited us to join him in a swig. We were given the great honour of receiving the "last drop," we were told, though I'm still not sure what that means. Much was said about us, that we had been places like Venezuala and India, raising money for the poor, spreading cash and wisdom around, all through our new friend Ahmed on our side and the Chief's linguist on royalty's side. Ahmed translated everything from Twi to English for us as we were welcomed into the family, the clan, and the community. They were so grateful for our presence at this difficult yet celebratory occasion. Through Ahmed we gave humble thanks and offered recipricol hospitality in Canada should they ever visit.

We were heroes in the village, swarmed everywhere by men, women, children and flies, all teaching us Twi and inviting us to take pictures. We were given an hand-held shopping tour (it being market day) by Dacosta and one of many Kojos (men born on Monday, like me) and given gifts of oranges and fried bread balls. Paying for anything ourselves was a hard-faught struggle, and the ladies cooking all of our meals over wood-fueled clay-contained fires smiled and waved away all offers of help. We met Dacosta's pasteur, who dislikes his current assignment because it means his kids will not receive the same quality education that they would in the city, but he was happy for our visit. And we passed the afternoon talking banking: loans are available at prohibitive interest rates so those few who have any spare money often invest it into building a house, bit by bit when they have the cash over many years. The landscape is filled with in-progress concrete houses. The village itself is not rich, many children (especially girls) don't go to school, and there is a hierarchy separating them from the ones who do attend. There is a pharmacy but when a woman cut her leg chopping vegetables the remedy was diced cassava. But people take care of each other, all are fed and all are housed. David is investing some of his Canadian-earned money into a centre for scholarships for girls and other assistance. We learned all this and more in a day.

Then the ambulence came with the body, brought it into David's courtyard, which fills the space between the two houses he just had built (one for his deceased mother and one for Hannah). We all sat around shaking hands, as tradition demands, waving to children, and finally, most joyously for us, welcoming Sir Henry back from the land of the living dead. He had a puffy head, a black eye and a giant smile.

The hard reality

Just yahoo chatted with a sfriend about all of this and her advice is to be calm and hang in there. But here's a bit of what's up these days...

How do we know that what we do is the right thing? How do we really live ethically?

I'm homesick - both in the way that a 10-year-old who goes to their first slumber party is and the way that a 29-year old woman who is doing her best to find her place in the world is. Missing the familar and at the same time trying to find what is right.

There is no denying that the situation in Ghana is quite different from that in Canada. The need can be overwhelming, the poverty levels extraordinary. Everything from literacy to basic food, shelter, and clothing are in need. Health clinics, educational supports, familial supports.... the list is, obviously, long.

Anyone who has read or studied anything about Africa knows this already. You don't have to have a PhD in African Studies to know this. I don't say this to be a pessimist or whatever; this is part of life here.

At the same time, there is enormous need in Canada. My work over the past years - with refugees, with migrants, with people at the drop-in and income tax clinic, with community development and in social advocacy all prove this to me over and over again. There is still so much to do in Canada. And, Canada is my home.

So I am torn.

We've been here, admittedly, not very long. I've come a long way to adapting to the new culture although there is still much to learn. Still, so much is uncertain. Will there be paid work? If not, how long is it feasible for us to stay? I am willing to volunteer but still need to find a good place to volunteer as well as am unsure how long I can volunteer for before we need to go back to Canada.

Also, I feel like I've travelled before but somehow this is different. Before, when I was younger, I didn't feel a hankering to build my own home, start my own family. With Chris now and after our three very good years in Toronto together, I find myself craving a life together in Canada, a regular home, children of our own. This too is calling me home. And it is a new feeling.

How long do we commit to being in Ghana? It's so hard to say. Initially I had thought that a year would be good - to familiarize ourselves with life here, to get involved, to understand the culture. But a year was predicated upon finding work. If we don't find good work, then how long?

I blogged earlier about our living situation and that we are now in a family where we have a good deal of space to come and go as we please. Having been there now, though, I find the politics of our hosts disturbing and the treatment of the boy who lives with them painful. He is just 10 years old and has been taken in by them because there are 9 children in his family and his parents can't support them all. Somehow he is related to our hosts. But he is, for lack of a better word, their slave and I ache when, at 10 at night, he is washing the last of the pots and pans, when at 5 in the morning, he is already sweeping the entire house. I never see him play, I never see him with other children, and I rarely see him smile. I find it too depressing to live there much longer.

But then where do we go? How do we find a place that we may only stay in for a few months? How do I commit to a landlord when I don't even know myself in the least how long we will be here? Is it worth making a financial commitment to buy a bed, some chairs, pots and pans when we may well be leaving in some months time because we don't have paid work? But in the meantime, can I emotionally stomach living in the same house much longer?

So it is that I'm torn. I want to come back to Canada to start a family, do good work there, be near my own family and new extended family, be close to old friends. In a weird way, and this is something that I honestly hadn't expected, this travel makes me, for the first time, feel like I begin to understand where home is. The last three years in Toronto, although we were sometimes crazy busy, were also a time when I began to feel like an adult, had chances to be involved in some really interesting work projects, and felt like I was able to realize many of my own dreams and goals.

At the same time, I am in Ghana. There is so much to do here and so much to learn. Already I feel like I've learned much and have had to challenge my own understandings of Ghana and of Africa. I don't want to pack it in early cause in many ways we haven't even given life here a chance. Still, I am feeling too overwhelmed to make the enormous effort required. It's a long and very arduous road.

My friend said I shouldn't worry about trying to answer all of the shoulds in my life. Living life means being responsive to my own needs and my own requirements. While I agree, there is a part of me that won't take that so easily. Part of the work is also challenging myself and not just being content to satisfy my own needs. It's also about finding something bigger to be involved in. Sometimes, I am finding, it is harder than you even think.

I worry that I have to save face with friends and family who seem to think there is something extra special or great about Chris and me for making this trip. I don't want to let anyone down. So, in a way, this is my own admission that it is really, really hard and I'm having a rough time. I honestly don't know what the right thing is to do. Should we stay or should we go back to Canada? Am I being sefish or am I being realistic? Or am I being naive to think that anything I have to contribute in this place will make a positive difference?

I miss winter and I miss what is familiar as well. That is the little girl who wants the comfort of what she knows and people she trusts and loves. Sometimes, like early in the morning, that part of me hurts the worst. That's when my heart aches and I cry on Chris' shoulder. I am thankful that he is here and such a good support. I hope I can be the same for him.

There it is, my version of my hard reality.


Returning with a newly programmed and localized phone we met Dacosta, another of David's many close friends. Dacosta is an anti-trafficking air force officer who hopes to save enough money to marry his girlfriend in the near future. He (or David) assigned himself as our permanent bodyguard, and he has the muscles (but no weaponry) to back it up. "Ghanaian military are forbidden to carry arms off-duty," he told us. Dacosta saw us safely to Patrick's already beat up sedan and somehow our bags had already been transported to its trunk.

Things like that just seem to happen for us here, though not always quickly. We stopped on the outskirts of town (where we now live) for a segregated lunch - Canadians in an air-conditioned fried food joint and locals eating Fufu (pounded cassava and corn) at a street stall. This was presumably to protect us from an unfamiliar dish but I suspect David, who has been a bit Canadianized, enjoyed the air conditioning as well. Only in the village did we start eating some of the local specialties and most of them are delicious. The street stall eaters' lunch lasted long enough for me to buy new sandals (having carried mine across three continents before forgetting them in Japan) and wander around with Miia pricing furniture in case we got our own place. Patrick and Henry finally returned, apparently having had a spot of car trouble (and perhaps an argument with Patrick's wife, who lives in the same area).

Our early morning trip to the country faded into a hazy afternoon, punctuated by a gloriously rainy dusk with the windows open and the relief of birth of the cool. All was well, then a little scary as the pandemonium of Ghana's wet night-time roads sunk in with the stray raindrops on our skin. Miia, from my left, grabbed my arm and said, "Just in case there's an accident I'll keep you from going through the window." No seatbelts in the back (as is the norm here and in most countries I've visited).

You know what happens next, I've more than foreshadowed here, but as David's scream echoed through the little car and the lights hit the unlit reversing logging truck I thought Miia's words about the windshield were to become prophesy, that I would find myself on the wrong side and all I could think was "shit, it's over."

In reality the crash wasn't that bad, though bad enough. The front end of the car was wrecked and Henry was in bad shape. The rest of us had pains, creaks, stiffness, and we were freaked. The hospital was Dantesque, slow moving and completely under-equipped. We followed the attendant as he pushed Henry via wheelchair into the overnight beds and saw sprawled humans four to a room (i.e. curtain enclosure) and looking none too lively. It was no place to be sick, or healthy. "And some people think aid money to Africa is a waste of resources," I said. There is no lack of need here, no abundance of any resource except the human variety.

After a few hours of waiting a pajama-clad policeman showed up with Patrick, who had waited with the vehicle to protect the evidence. He shook our hands and said, "Sorry this happened, but it's normal. I hope you had your seatbelt on."

"What seatbelt?" Oops. Didn't seem to make a difference.

We took a cab back to the scene and recovered our belongings, only to wait another half an hour for a ride with one of the villagers, who took us hellbent through dirtroads as David admonished in English and Twi, "Slow down we just had one accident already." The only slowdown we made was at the roadcheck: too many people in the car. Fortunately Dacosta had joined us and his military card got us through in almost no time.

Dacosta and Patrick hand-held us through the village to greet the elders and make our purpose known: to attend the funeral of Ama Mercy Firang, mother of our friend David. We were given Fanta Orange Drink, Fruitopia, tea, ice water, Twi lessons, eventually yams rice and fruit sauce with excellent service from the women, but no sleep, not yet. When it came, it hit us like a logging truck and knocked us out hot until 5:30 am.


Saturday, December 02, 2006

The Statesman

Hi folks,

Just a quick update that I met with the editor of the Statesman Newspaper this week and he has invited me to come work for him for a two-week trial period to help him develop a new Development & Business Bureau for the paper. He promised me a 'miniscule' wage plus commissions on any new advertising contracts I bring in, and my own column on human rights issues for the paper, so we'll see how it goes. I'll keep you posted.


Road Finders

On American Thanksgiving we visited Emmanuel Boadi at Pathfinder International, who told us of another pandemic "worse than AIDS." Women in villages commonly work themselves to a living death in which they have no energy, can no longer conceive, and become ostracized by their own communities and clans - a double death. Their families fear that their illness is the product of voodoo or some immoral behaviour, so Pathfinder works to educate people about the disease and its causes, about women's rights and family planning (the average Ghanaian woman births 4 or 5 children in her lifetime, a rate that is much higher outside of the cities). One of Mr. Boadi's greatest accomplishments has been beating the Bush administration, which refuses aid to organizations that talk about anything beyond abstinence as a form of birth control, in court. America's discriminatory funding rules were over-ruled.

We gave further thanks to David for introducing us to Professor Nana Araba Apt, a long ago graduate of U Toronto's Master's in Social Work program who has since returned home to begin numerous programs for girls in Ghana struggling to get a fair shot in education, commerce, and society. Despite having been an innovator herself, Nana quipped that Northern Ghana has become an NGO haven, leaving other regions under-served. She has responded by starting College for Ama (CofA), a summer camp and mentorship program for junior high school girls in impoverished communities, most of whom would have a 20% chance of getting through school without outside assistance: school fees are simply too high for their often large families and boys tend to get preferential treatment. Professor Apt was passionate, articulate, highly informed, and spoke no rhetoric or dogma. She has inspired Miia to try to volunteer there starting in the near future.

We took our leave of busy social workers and made our first visit to Burma Camp, Accra's military residence, named in honour of the Gold Coast (Ghana under the Brits) soldiers who fought in Burma during WWII. There we met Martin and Sir Henry (so named for his refusal to stop calling me Sir and Mr.), two first-year university students, Martin in computer tech and Henry in Business. These young men escorted us to buy a Ghanaian starter kit for our cell phone, we being fragile foreigners. Henry is David's nephew, under the Canadian family structure. Here he calls David 'Daddy' and David calls him 'Son' because David is the eldest male of his generation and Henry's father died in a car accident years ago. Little did we know when we learned this story that Henry would be hospitalized that same evening because of the same rough roads.

More later...


Friday, December 01, 2006

Just Ignorant Outsiders

Back in Indonesia, the haunting beauty call to prayer was my early morning nightmare for five months. I never expected to re-live such here. "I hate that noise," Lydia says. I love the sound but the timing is inescapable: five times a day starting at around 4:30 am. In Indonesia, where the overwhelming majority of the population is Muslim, I doubt anyone would ever admit to hating that sound. But here it's a sacred annoyance for the Christian majority. Of course, everyone here seems to wake up by 5 am prayer or no prayer (Jima was already cleaning the bathroom with another Houseworker, Ima, when the call to prayer proved catalyst for my early morning pee), and the majority and minority seem essentially tolerant of each other, even if they don't work together on spiritual matters.

Our early start did nothing to deter David from planning a full day for us, starting at the University of Accra (Legon), where we met two lecturers and the Dean of Geography, who promptly invited us to give guest lectures on David's word of our talent. We promised to follow up to further discuss what we can (and can't) do, what it is we know about and that much great portion of Ghana that we have yet to understand.

From the university we headed for the hills, where live rich Ghanaians and several African Americans who have come to rediscover their roots by living in isolation. Among the wealthy locals is the former Honourable Minister of Health, Samuel to us, who now imports Scandanevian fish for a living. As the new sedan made its way over bouldered roads to the peak of Ghanaian living, Lydia regaled us with the tale of her three years living in London, which she summed up as "Crazy. I never worked so hard in my life. Everybody there work so hard they have no time for you. I had to change my name to work there. I was Diane Money. Sometimes I'd give my real name and then remember and say, 'oh, but my friends call me Diane'. Then they call me Diane and I say, 'Diane? Who the hell is Diane?' Jesus Christ!" Lydia preferred her high school years in Cuba.

Eventually the sedan gave up the fight and Jima waited with it while David, Miia, Lydia, Isaac and I walked the last 500 metres or so to the Former Minister's house, a large, well-lit marble-and-jade-lined home. David explained that Ghanaian tradition demands all of us to give a self-introduction, explaining our purpose, short and long term goals etc, all very formal. I went first and my attempts at humility were foiled by David's promting: "Didn't you raise $1.5 million there?" "And you worked overseas yes?" Miia proved more successful in explaining that really we are here to learn, and to serve if possible, that we had some successes elsewhere but we are new here, and thus ignorant.

Minister Samual introduced his wife Irene, who is Treasurer of their fish venture, and described some projects he knew of that might interest us in solid waste management before treating our gustatories to the products of his post-governance labours covered in spinach sauce, chased with chilled red wine and white yams, delicious!

A fishy taste stayed with me as we drove back to the city and I watched the billboards go by, warning about AIDS, encouraging parents to make their diasporic children send them money via Western Union, asking me to support Ghanian farmers by buying local rice. Much of the advertising is dominated by NGOs practicing social marketing, and for these and other labours Ghanaians deserve much pride, I felt. Yet we frequently encounter forms of shame, starting that evening when Lydia told us, "The black man is so bad." I, being ignorant, had no idea what to say.