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Monday, January 22, 2007

Late January

Extended Family

One of the defining features of Ghanaian culture, according to Ghanaians, is the importance of the extended family, which can include the families of siblings, cousins, in-laws, or people who once treated you nicely when you were having a tough time, depending on the circumstances. This feature is both a luxury and a curse, depending mostly on how much money you have. For the poor, the extended family is the social safety net. For the wealthy, well-off, or even well educated, that net and its contents drag you down or prevents you from climbing higher.

Many of the Ghanaians we have met seem to wish they had no such encumbrances. They envy the formalized Canadian tax system that is designed to narrow the gaps between rich and poor without the bi-product of hangers on, debts called upon, and societal guilt trips. They envy the freedom not to give beyond the tax return.

In terms of leveling the playing field, I don’t know which system really works better, and of course both have deep cultural roots, one in a fundamental belief in individualism and the other in a sense of connectedness by blood. One could argue that the isolation Canadians often feel, especially if they are poor, or old, or in any way vulnerable, is too high a price to pay for our system. The concept of retirement homes doesn’t compute in Ghana; no family member could ever be abandoned to the will of calculating experts. Both systems offer benefits and costs. If one works better than the other, I offer the following explanation: the more effective system is simply better funded, top to bottom.


We saw David and his family off at the airport tonight. Sim was excited to be going home and I think his parents were relieved. “I can’t believe the corruption in this country!” David kept saying as multiple bribes passed hands, first to allow his entourage into the airport (only ticket-holders are allowed, technically speaking), then to rush through customs, then to allow their six massive overweight bags on the plane (plus carry-ons). It may have helped that the entourage included a warrant officer and chief of fire safety at the airport. We learned that Sam will be head to Singapore soon and WO will find himself on a six-month mission in the Congo with 400 other Ghanaian peacekeepers. The situation there has reportedly improved; let’s hope that trend continues with Kabila’s new-found legitimacy.

Scottish Dance Night in Africa

After a madcap day of arguments over reasons for the decline in sales at the paper and the lack of advertising, during which Bossman confessed that he was a poor business manager and took the accountant and head sales monkey down with him (The business manager has already quit, but the editorial team is swimming right along in our 7:00 AM fog, and we never miss a deadline; well, hardly ever), I agreed to come along with Miia to Scottish Dancing night at the Grasscutter’s Pub within the British Embassy. [A grasscutter is a rodent that resembles a rabbit and is sold flattened, as if steamrolled, for meat in most of Accra’s many markets.]

How quaint to be surrounded by ex-pats doing ancient dances, kick of the heel and a quick four-step, bow to your partner, spin around the post, etc. It seems so silly but I must admit it was fun, and they had J&B and all kinds of nice foreign beer. The local beer, Star or Club, is nice crisp lager, but variety is the purpose of life.

The highlight of the whole occasion was Michael, who is the Acting Acting High Commissioner (the High Commissioner post being vacant and the Acting HC on a trip home), and also Chieftan of the Scottish Society, the oldest in Africa at 120. “Interestingly I find myself in odd company; Jerry John Rawlings’ father was Chieftan in the late 40s. Back then the name was Rawlings John, but someone took Rawlings as the surname at one point and it stuck. Anyway I think JJ met his father but the relationship was certainly strained; with the father rejecting him.” A-ha! It all starts with rejection and feelings of inadequacy, next thing you know you’re a West African dictator.

We also met a man who has been in the cocoa business for so many years that he can tell the difference between a Kit Kat bar manufactured in Belgium from one manufactured in France; he promised to demystify the industry for me next week. And then there was Per (pronounced Pier), the latest in a long string of amicable and interesting Danes I’ve met, starting with a guy who travelled through Asia on winnings from betting on the Euro-Vision music contest back in 2000, whom I bombed around an Indonesian island with on a 2-stroke motorbike mostly in first gear.

Per works in the private sector but came to Ghana mainly to be with his girlfriend, who works for a Danish NGO. He was around our age and, despite sharing my claims to a Scottish heritage, was one of the least capable, and best natured, dancers among us. Not to dismiss the Ceilidh style or anything, but I’ll never understand people who take it so seriously that they forget to smile or giggle at all during the steps.

All in all this evening seemed so far removed from everyday Ghanaian life, and it had me wondering what all us oboruni were doing there so far from home in a place that perplexes, fascinates, and sometimes perturbs us. Certainly many of those there are doing interesting and even valuable work, but none will stay forever. I find it hard to fathom being an immigrant, picking up your whole life and taking it elsewhere, permanently. The sheer strength of will involved in such an act astounds me.


The paper is basically an insane asylum, right from the tyrant at the top, who runs the show with rants and tantrums, speeches and orders above all protests, while at the same time running a relative’s presidential campaign – conflict of interest anyone? - and appearing on his own weekly radio and television programs. The fingers of madness tickle the spine of the organization right down to the cartoonist who is so talented that he giggles profusely all day while drawing. He’s that funny. The proof-reader is half-blind and holds laid out articles an inch from his face. At first I thought it was a technique to catch every letter, then I saw him read a map at exactly the same distance. We have an 85% return rate (unsold papers) in some cities, and the manager quit because her office was too small. Nobody likes her anyway, possibly because nobody hired a woman to tell them what to do, or maybe something to do with working style. The business reporters flirt passionately with the graphics designers and sing painfully high-pitched love songs all day; the sales-master can’t muster four ads for a special edition and blames the accountant for his poor performance, who blames the editor who searches for a new accountant while the sales-master continues verbally assaulting his staff, sexually harassing reporters, asking editors to write sales letters, and generally under-performing. Four people do the work of 40 and the other 36, well what does that leave them really? The end result is pretty decent considering, but half the stories are cut n pastes from the newswires or from the internet, which has been down for a week making everyone’s job a bit difficult. All calls have to go through the receptionist, who in between offering regards for my wife looks as if she’s plotting to kill me or slap me at least. It’s a madhouse. Some days it gets to me; some days I love it. “I think you have a good job,” says the senior correspondent, and I realize that I am blessed with a certain amount of editorial freedom, input at a high level yet the chance to go out and hunt good stories, and just to write and write (which incidentally makes it harder to sit down at the end of a day and write some more personal stuff – I hope you all appreciate this), and to publish good words, build my portfolio while knowing that people will read what I write, ponder on it, reflect, maybe just maybe who knows take some kind of action. Through it all I’m learning a tonne, about Ghana, about development. It’s a good gig, but it’s harder than I expected.

Nothin Matters but the Weekend

We spent a fantabulous weekend with Nana, who lives on McArthur Hill, named for a British Lord who had his head spiked by the Ashanti to show exactly who ran the place. Up on that hill now reside mostly wealthy Africans and their hired help. Construction workers come by day and go by night, keeping up with the house boom.

Nana’s house is big and gorgeous. Her late husband was a Dutch art collector so it’s filled with stunning works, mostly African. One she bought from an NGO; it’s done by street kids.

We met Nana during our first week in Ghana through David Firang. Like Miia she did her MSW at U of Toronto, and she even did her practicum study at the same organization: St. Christopher House. That was 1969. A year later she graduated and spent some time in San Francisco, fighting post-grad malaise, and she met Mohammad Ali there. “All the American blacks were busy trying to be the most African, wearing supposedly African clothes, some people put on these Indian dots on their foreheads thinking they were African,” she told us. “It was the height of the black power movement. I had seen this guy on TV saying all this nonsense, foolish things. I had no interest in meeting him but they had this black power event and it was something to do. I wore my kente cloth. He came right up to me and asked ‘are you from Ghana? I was just there.’ He told me all the places he went and the things he did; everyone was so impressed with me but I really didn’t care much about it.”

Now she works at the private university, which she loves because there are only 400 students and the quality of education is far superior to that of the larger public universities, which have become little more than brain factories, and they aren’t even really cheaper she says. Nana has also put her theory into practice, starting organizations to help street kids and rural girls access education and learn skills to help them become fully functional, independent, healthy adults.

The weekend was spectacular in part for the little luxuries one can’t usually access here: fresh brewed coffee, made with bodum, for example. An air-conditioned room and a hot water shower. A view (or as close as you can get to one through the harmatan), art, books all through the house, high ceilings, everything clean, fried eggs, real sausage – cooked and served by Essi, who is Nana’s illiterate housekeeper; Nana loves her and says she is not the best cleaner but has taken good care of her and her house for many years; Nana would be really alone without her; Essi doesn’t work weekends but decided to come by and help out because Nana was sick from the harmatan dust and had guests to care for; there is love between these two women - mashed potatoes, dogs (healthy happy ones that don’t want to tear you to shreds). But most of all, most importantly, we were treated like human beings. Maybe it’s all the time she has spent in the West, or that she had a Dutch husband, but she understands us better than most Ghanaians, listens to us, laughs at our jokes, enjoys our stories, and shares some of our analysis of the world (though she is more conservative in some ways than expected, frowns somewhat on the ‘lower’ classes). We talk of big heady things, save the world over dinner (in theory). Strange to analyze poverty from a mansion on the hill, disconcerting even. But to look at her wealth and call her a hypocrite would be ridiculously simplistic, given that her life’s work has been to improve the lives of poor people, to try to help them get more of what she’s got.

[If I was going to attack somebody’s lifestyle, it would be the ‘ladies who lunch’ as Miia calls them. They come with their husbands, they live as far away from the locals as possible, have as little interaction with them as possible, and often suck millions from the local economy, all the while complaining voraciously about the place they have come to live. I suppose it’s their husbands who are really to blame, but it’s a truly nauseating club and I’m grateful that I’d never be welcome among them.]

Late in our stay a vet named Eddie came by; he applied to immigrate to Canada three years ago and is still awaiting his answer. He studied in Russia, married a Russian, brought her back home where they had two children: a now 10-yr-old boy who is a great dancer and performer and is criticized and sometimes even beaten by his teachers because he loves to draw, and a four-year-old girl whom Nana describes as a strong Ghanaian woman in the making.

In Russia Eddie felt endangered because of his race (he was beaten up twice there by groups of teenage boys, called monkey regularly, his wife was called a prostitute for being with him); in Ghana his wife is constantly harassed because of her race. Canada is neutral ground, they figure. Racism is everywhere, but Canada seems a bit more accepting of immigrants. We tell him that there is some truth to that, but that the racism is subtle yet strong, that it is displayed in lack of access to good jobs, good housing, etc., especially for immigrants. We give him little pieces of advice but his future is impossible to guess. Even if he is accepted they have yet to think about where in Canada to go; they have no family or friends there. They chose it because it was new, different from here, where he is frustrated that there are no x-ray machines for animals, that customers try to bargain with his prices, or just don’t pay, that he can’t really use everything he learned in Russia here. “When you care about your work,” he said, “you want to be the best you can be.”

Eddie has a good business going despite his frustrations. Despite people’s resistance to change or difference, Eddie convinced the government to let him do a home visit veterinary service. Instead of opening his own clinic he drives around Accra all day making house-calls. He is the vet to Nana’s two dogs: oboruni (literally ‘man from beyond the horizon’ but most commonly used to mean ‘white man’), a 12-yr-old white lab-like dog, and Katechie, a beautiful young Doberman with boundless strength and energy. We got to take them for a walk on Saturday; most of the neighbours know them well and paid more attention to the dogs than the white people walking them, which was nice. The exception was a construction worker who called to us to wait up for him, only to demand “give me dollars!” We just shook our heads and walked away.

Sometimes these little things hit you by surprise right when you’re feeling free and easy and it just cuts the steam from your engine. Earlier that morning some guy had stuck his face in mine and shouted “O-boruni!” Ghanaians will always tell you that it’s a neutral term, not an insult, but the truth is it can be used either way. It can be a hello or an attention getter, or an observation, an exclamation of excitement for an unusual sight. Children use it most often because they are so excited, especially in small villages where visitors are rare. But then there is your run of the mill jackass, found in every culture, usually young men, especially when in groups (it amazes me how much male humans are similar to dogs: they are bold in packs and meek and skulky on their own), who waits until you’re close and shouts in your face. That is an insult, not because of the word they used but because they’ve shouted in your face, picked on the person who is different, tried to intimidate, acted like a schoolyard bully. It is these people whose faces I want to disfigure in painful ways using my bare hands. It is things like that that always remind you that you don’t belong, you are an outsider, you are different. It is these things that prevent you from being human, from being normal, from feeling ‘authentic’ as a German woman we met on that same walk with the dogs put it so well despite apologizing for her English.

Late this afternoon we stocked up our book supply and gave Nana a list of what we’d borrowed. Eddie gave us a lift home because he lives not so far from us, and we chatted more about Canada. “I hear Canada has a north,” he said, “and that it is easy to get jobs there because no one lives there.” I wasn’t sure quite how easy it is, but I know people who’ve done it, loved it. I told him that I’ve never been up there, but that it seems about as different from Ghana as you can get: cold and spacious and expansive. “Like going to the north here,” he said. More different than that, I told him. But having been in Russia for seven years, learned Russian, come to understand the culture, I think he can handle Canada, if he can pass the vet exam and find work. I just hope he is prepared for a life of being the outsider; it’s not easy.

A friend and I have been emailing about it, and about our decision to leave Ghana earlier than expected, in another couple of months. She pointed out that in living in a dusty dirty smelly city, in commuting to work and having a dictatorial and at times verbally abusive boss, in living this difficult life we are learning about what it means to be Ghanaian, we are getting what we came for. It is an interesting point that raises the question, what did we really come for? Eddie told us that when he left Russia he was excited to return home, but it wasn’t what he expected when he got here because he’d had a na├»ve and youthful idea of Ghana, never having had to make his way here because he left so young. What did I expect here?

I came here because I wanted to live in the south again at least once more before settling down in a place and making my life there, because I wanted to learn about another place where so many of the immigrants I was working with come from, and because I wanted to live abroad for longer than I had before; five months in Indonesia was fantastic (though not easy either) and my only regret was that I couldn’t or just didn’t stay longer, didn’t plunge deeper into the culture and make it more of a home for myself. I wanted to spend a year or more in Ghana, long enough for it to feel like home. I have achieved the first two things: by working at the newspaper and living with a family (albeit a weird one) I have learned an enormous amount about this place in only a short time. Of course there is always much much more an outsider can learn, but I am happy with my progress in this regard. I have really enjoyed this last chance at travel for a while, including Ghana but also all the rest, to meet my new family in Finland, to see the great Mother Russia and be astounded by Mongolia, to visit China’s biggest cities and visit my brother in Japan, dine with friends in Soho. Ghana has been a difficult but rich experience and I will never regret coming.

The failure, if indeed we leave early as planned, will be the shorter than expected timeframe. I failed to make this place feel like home, or should I say made myself at home here. But I have my reasons, and it’s more than the dirt and dust and smell. The oboruni factor is a big one; it’s hard to make oneself at home when so many people are determined to remind you that you don’t belong, whether they mean to or not.

But even those who arguably do belong here want nothing more than to leave, to go to the promised land of rich white people. Yes, to some extent they are deluded, they have a false vision (as maybe I had coming here) of a nonexistent utopia where jobs rain from trees and everybody is ‘colour blind’ and ‘accent blind.’ But I can’t blame the taxi drivers for wanting a way out of a mundane and meagre existence. I can’t blame Eddie for wanting to go where he can make full use of his skills. That is also what Miia wants and I feel bad for her in that respect because it hasn’t happened here. Yes we haven’t exactly plugged away for years to make that happen, as many immigrants to Canada do. But, here is the big breakthrough in my mind: we don’t have to, and that is the big difference. The way I see it, sitting in traffic three hours a day to get to a job where you are either underpaid, underused, or verbally abused (or all three) is not cultural, it’s just shitty. It’s the shit hand most Ghanaians are dealt, and most of them would leave it in a second given the chance. Many of them do just that.

The biggest reason I want to go home is that I miss home, I miss my home, I miss being accepted as a human being, and I don’t have to throw myself through brick walls to feel at home, I just am. I am very very fortunate, privileged, that my home is a place that encourages, rewards, and facilitates good performance. We have the technological and educational advantages that most of the world longs for. I came to learn more, beyond theoretically, about why people immigrate to Canada. Okay, now I get it.

More than ever I believe in making societies where everybody gets those chances to fulfill their own potential and their own dreams. I believe that all countries, including my own, have a long way to go before access to those chances is equitable and fair. I don’t believe that poor countries should try to become the next Canada or USA or UK or whatever. Nor should they try to ‘act white.’ I feel that no nation really has it right, that we can all learn from each other but, more importantly, learn from what has never really been tried, and also learn from what worked pretty well before the misnamed concept of civilization came along thousands of years ago. I feel that African ‘development’ needs to be African driven, but that outsiders can help by listening to what Africans identify as their needs. I believe that travel is the single greatest educational experience a human being can have, and I think Miia and I should keep going south every several years so we never forget what it’s like, so we always keep learning in this very sensory way.

And I also believe in home. Eventually we all have to decide what and where home is for us, and I feel that I have come closer to figuring that out too.

One other observation: a lot of the people who choose to leave the place of their birth and/or upbringing and make a life elsewhere are very strange people. Often I think they leave because they don’t fit in to the place they’re from. So as long as you don’t fit in, why not leave and try somewhere more interesting? Ghana, to me, is at least 26 times more interesting a place than Canada, because it spits in the face of all my assumptions about life, about right and wrong, about the world. It always has me thinking and learning. That learning is fantastic, at times it gets me so excited I lay awake at night thinking about all the new ideas I’ve had, trying to fit all the day’s observations into my worldview, which has to expand or shift to fit the facts. It’s truly inspiring. But for people like me who, though maybe unusual and not exactly mainstream, feel pretty comfortable in their own culture (or at least are able to find comfortable pockets somewhere within the culture), being away from home always leaves a hole, a vacancy. But maybe for those who spend their lives away from home, the vacancy is there even at ‘home.’

Then again, maybe they are just more adaptable than I am.

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