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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.

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