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Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Just to recap

For those who are joining our blog in midstream, maybe I'll give a bit of a background and update...

June 06 - we left Toronto and went to Nova Scotia. From there we went to Copenhagen, then by train to Sweden, by boat to Finland.

Summer 06 - spent in Finland as Chris writes book, Miia teaches English, we live in a cottage in the woods and Chris gets to know Miia's extended family.

Sept/Oct 06 - by boat to Estonia, then by bus to St Petersburg. Then train eastbound to Moscow, through Russia, through Siberia to Lake Baikal, then down to Mongolia. Bus trip round Mongolia down to Gobi, back up to Ulaan Baatar and then train to Beijing. Some days seeing the sights in Beijing and then train to Shanghai.

Nov 06 - boat from Shanghai to Osaka and then some two weeks in Iwakuni, Japan with Chris' brother Kevin. Visit to Hiroshima and off to Tokyo, flight to London, UK. Some time with friends in London and the fly to Accra, Ghana.

late Nov 06 - arrival in Ghana, car accident, our friend David's mother's funeral.

Dec 06 - Chris starts as Development Correspondent at a Ghanaian national daily newspaper The Statesman. Miia volunteers at NGO working in slums while trying to arrange for work... so beginning a many month search.

Christmas 06 spent on the shores of Lake Volta with a box of red wine, drumming lessons and a tent. Too sweet.

Jan 07 - reunion with Chris' extended relatives from Nigeria living in Accra, trip to the northern town of Tamale, Chris continues at newspaper and Miia starts volunteer job with NGO doing an assessment of educational supports program for needy kids.

Feb 07 - move in to new digs in central Accra, Miia quits first NGO after many weeks of non activity, gets malaria, starts paid work with UNDP on prison reform, and steps up work with NGO on educational assessment. Chris continues at newspaper covering countless interesting stories. Month ends with a four day trip to eastern part of Ghana and in Togo.

March 07 - friend Conor arrives from Canada, celebration of Ghana's 50th anniversary of independence, 10 days spent travelling all round Ghana, UNDP work and NGO work for Miia and newspaper work for Chris.

In the process, lots of new friends, lots of new learnings, and a slow but steady adjustment to life in Ghana. We came with the hope of shifting gears to another way of life and, well, that's what's happened.

Coming home?
The dates wax and wane depending on what good offers come our way. I was offered a one year contract this morning with good pay but am thinking I won't accept because, well, maybe it's time to come home... No shame in that, is there?

So for those just tuning in to this blog, there's the recap. The pictures posted here are mostly in order with the Africa ones interspersed as we had an Asia backlog. So though the most recent ones are of Japan, obviously we were there many months ago.

Much love to everyone!

Last of Miyajima

1. massive red-leaved tree on the up-mountain nature trail; it got dark and we had to turn back before we got to the top, 2. gate at night

More Miyajima

1. shrine, 2. gate, 3. ablution, 4. stroll, 5. sake


Miajima is a scenic and famous small island west of Hiroshima. The whole island is considered to be a spiritual entity. Pictures include: 1. Miajima gateway, 2. caught paper-toothed, 3. fertility god/ess, 4 & 5. shrine

Iwakuni Bridge

1. yet another shrine to deceased children, 2. Japan's third best bridge, 3. firewater, 4. dragonboy

BB's modern age

Around Iwakuni

1. The Iwakuni bridge is considered the third best in Japan, so it is a source of local pride and has therefore been painted onto sewage covers. 2. A shrine for deceased children. 3. There's a crane in them waters, if you can find it.

Brothers in Iwakuni

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Memories of Togo

We just got back from a great long weekend in Togo, where we were interviewing folks about the colonial splitting of the Ewe people, who now reside in Ghana, Togo, Benin, and Nigeria (plus about 50 other countries where some have gone to work). They originated in Nigeria and slowly made west for greener pastures and fishier waters. We had heard of an Ewe independence movement; there was even an armed uprising on Independence Day (March 6, 1957) in Ghana.

Things have calmed considerably since then; even the proudest Ewe seem to hold the Ewe nation as more of an ideal than actual goal. They would be happy with fairer treatment. In Ghana they are a minority; in Togo they are an oppressed majority ever since their guy was couped and murdered in '63. So it goes.

We went with two of my co-workers; Miia was our French translator but was also so much more. She was the best among us at building a report with people, gaining their trust, etc., and she also found plenty of leads and asked great questions. Hopefully there will be some articles appearing in the paper on this later this week.

The more personal side of the story is that Kpalime, the bordertown we visited in Togo, is stunningly beautiful and refreshinly devoid of hungry eyes and chants of "white man white man!!" Or, if they were there we just didn't know the Ewe word for white man so we didn't notice.

Togo also has some nice french bread and a sandwich culture, something I've been sorely missing. I ordered a 'cheeseburger' and received a really nice sandwich with some bits of beef, lots of cheese and veggies, oh yeah. Miia talked the owners of the burger joint into taking us to their village to meet the chief, who was a close personal friend of Togo's first president and paid dearly for it. The chief was officially spanked and humiliated after his friend Olympio was murdered, and his village has been neglected by their government ever since (it is still run by the son of the man who overthrew Olympio.

After our interview our guides gave us a ride on a rented motorbike out to the nearby dam, that had been started by Olympio and completed by Ewe nationalists trained in Yugoslavia after Olympio and Tito's deaths. They also showed us what was left of the nearby waterfall - a sheer rock and greenery face a few hundred feet high. Stunning even with the water diverted to the dam.

Once we returned to town, which received electricity and water from the dam operation three decades before the village providing the goods, our guides asked us for an exorbitant price, of which we gave them a fraction. Lesson learned: set a price up front.

Back on the Ghana side we went back to the Xofa eco-village we had visited at xmas. The service had somehow become even slower in our absense, so we cancelled a meal order and walked to the nearby village of Dodi. There we met two young Daniels, who introduced us to the chief and some women elders. We sat under a power line as they told us they had no electricity - some jerkface had run a power line right over their village and not bothered to hook them up, what a slap in the face!

Same story on both sides: the Ewe are neglected by the powers that be. So, a bunch of them who have moved to Germany start an Ewe independence movement, trying to get Ewes from all nations a proper homeland. It will never happen and it seems strange to me that a group in Germany is pushing this, but the Ewes we met said it was good, if unrealistic. They'd be happy with more attention, and dollars, from government.

On this visit to the Volta region on the eastern edge of Ghana we received far less attention and whiteman catcalls for some reason, maybe it had just been the xmas rush before. In general the Ewes seem more laid back than the city slickers of Accra.

Miia in the news

Miia has also written a couple of great features for the paper, but unfortunately neither of them were posted to the web site (not all of mine are either). However, she was interviewed for an article that appeared last Saturday, so here's that one:

Are white women being targeted?

Women and men

From Saturday's Paper:

Empowered women, enlightened men

Cycling Evolution

I quite enjoyed writing this one based on my own experiences about one of my favourite things, the bicycle:

The Cycling Evolution

Page 9 Newsflash - Dams Kill!!!

My name is on this by-line but really I co-wrote it with Bossman. My contribution starts at the tenth paragraph, starting with 'Meanwhile.' Basically I covered the environmental and social angle, which was stuffed after the economic mumbo-jumbo:

$25M seed money for Bui City

Friday, February 23, 2007


Editorial/Front Page: Accra Is Dying

And our lesson of the week is that sensational headlines sell. We've been using them all week, coupled with rather non-sensational stories, and sales are soaring. There's nothing inherently wrong with this article, which I wrote with some injections by Bossman, but my accompanying and much more progressive article about cycling was cut. Hopefully it will run next week along with some other alternative transportation pieces.

The Sting

The megalomaniacal managing editor gave more than the obligitory second chances to the blind proofreader, but the latter simply couldn't kick his habit. Perhaps the final straw should have been when the editor sent his proofreader on a drug buy/sting, a high-level high-risk expose to show how high on the hierarchy the dealer resides. It made so much sense to the editor to send a drug addict on this errand that he sent two: the proofreader and a reporter, both of whom had recently kicked.

"It gave the operation more authenticity," the editor would later bemoan. "We figured that they would know how to make a buy."

Perhaps they knew all too well; they came home in a profusely sweating mess two weeks later with no money, no drugs, and no story.

But that wasn't the final straw; the blind proofreader still rambles through the hallowed halls of nationalist journalism spewing one-liners at a mile-a-minute, sweating like banshees had ransacked his pituitary glands all night, cracking up the graffic designers. "Do you still work for me?" the editor sometimes asks. "I haven't seen you and I never know where you are. Are you sure you work for me?"

The proofreader smiles and reassures him,"Yes yes Sir, I've been recovering from illness but I am still at your service, one hundred percent ready to follow all orders and reflect your own opinions back to you."

It Pours

Like so many other things, life's tendency to ebb and spurt is magnified here. I spend some days on the phone listening to busy signals, cut signals, no answer signals, and not interested signals from interview prospects. Yesterday I wrote three articles and today I interviewed two people, both in a half-assed manner. Some days my name doesn't appear in the paper, other times a backlog of Benjamin originals cover the pages. Today I wrote the editorial/front-page story, which really shouldn't be the same thing but it never hurt the National Post. Ok maybe it did.

The first interview I did today was with Miia's boss on the 'orphan' project, which is really an orphan prevention thing, addressing the situations that create orphans before it happens. She's a character, perhaps the yang to Bossman's ying. 'They're' looking for someone to write a book about her/the orphan prevention project. It's a story rife with death threats, international high fashion, and victimized children, so if well -written it should be a best seller. "It's too bad you're leaving," she said.

"I could write that from home."

"Not really. We need someone not too sentimental."

"Oh he's not that," Miia added helpfully.

"Too bad you're leaving. We need someone who can incporate all the challenges, the hardships, without making another 'poor Africa' story."

Damn that's my specialty! But do I really want to write an authorized biography for a former Vogue writer? Will I not essentially become an anonymous stenographer? Still, given her connections with the publishing industry (she published those 20 books on interior design), it's guaranteed to get published. And it would pay, and it IS an interesting story.

"Too bad you're leaving." Yeah. You gotta hand it to Ghana, it contains the most interesting people.

The second meeting was also courtesy of Miia, with some Liberian refugees who run an NGO in the refugee settlement near Accra, which is apparently a model of excellence, free, open and better than the typical morbid 'camp' you read about in National Geographic. Many of the people there feel as Ghanaian as Liberian, having been there so long and still being afraid to return home in case the tenuous peace unmasks turbulent violence once again.

Anyway, they offered Miia a six-month volunteer placement including free accomodation, food, and a transporation stipend. This is somewhat akin to the common practice here of paying a very low salary but compensating with housing, food, transportation and such necessities, meaning the salary is all banked. Only in this case there's nothing to bank. Still, it wouldn't put us in the poorhouse.

"Too bad you're leaving."

Thursday, February 22, 2007

More Schools

1. BB & students, 2. M leading a game of British Bulldog, 3. Cleanup time, part of lunch everyday, 4. The whole school

Mountains near BB's Small School

Japanese Schools

1. The tallest, palest, student, 2. Head of the Class, 3. Double Dutch time, 4. She knows she's cute

Things Japanese

1. BB and GF singing keroake; 2. these girls are dressed like their favourite anime characters.

Hiroshima War Memorial

1. A-bomb dome, the most intact surviving building from before the bomb, 2. paper peace cranes made by children around the world, 3. the memorial museum

Fried the Way You Like It

damn I forget what this food is called, but it's basically like a crepe fried up with veggies and meats and cheese of your choice before your eyes (and on your table), delicious, fun and filling.


1. National Cultural Day 'Bread-Head' parade by school-children (BreadHead is a much-loved children's character); 2. Hiroshima streetscape

Street Squidy Goodness

Japanese Cultural Day

The day after we arrived in Japan was a national holiday: Cultural Day. Just down the road from Big Bro's was this production featuring a child-eating snake. The children happily fought back with water pistols and sqeals.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Iwakuni Japan

1. Big Brother's deck 2. Japanese philosophy in the capitalist era, 3. Japanese grocery (in the captialist era)


A brief history of family planning and reproductive health in Ghana

Is 50 percent processing a reasonable goal for Ghana?

The economics of crime

Boat Friends

This is Kim and Stillman, two fantastic Swedes we met on the boat from Shanghai to Osaka. They are doing this Swedish thing where you can take a year off from your job and someone who is un or underemployed takes over to get experience. When you return, you get your job back! They were loads of fun, and kept Miia good company while I slept (and bathed, in a big clean hot Japanese tub) off my Shanghai food poisoning.

Friday, February 16, 2007

What gets me boiling

I'm on this project doing a program audit for an NGO that works with underprivileged kids and orphans. Some might think that would encompass like all of Ghana's kids but alas, some are still much worse off than others.

My job is to go around with the education coordinator and driver in the NGO truck all around Ghana interviewing kids, teachers, principals.

Today we pulled into one spot and the driver turned off the engine. Sitting in the backseat, I noticed how one, two, three, more and more kids started appearing in the doorway in front of us. Not an unusual sight. These were all boys and all around 13-16 years old. Then I noticed it. The lock. The bars. They were all locked into one room. About 25 of them. They are so-called juvenile offenders awaiting their day in court. The cops are trying to track down their families so that they take responsibility. Sometimes the kids are intentionally leading them astray because they don't want to be rejoined with their families. After all, it's because of them that they are often on the streets.

I shudder when I see kids locked up. No matter the accusation - thievery most often - I cannot wrap my brain around what logic there is to take a young man and put him in a room with 24 of his peers and have them rot there. There is nothing to me that says there is a future here other than more of the same. The sight of them, like puppies at the pound, pushing their faces up against the bars is absolutely horrendous. I tremble as I write this.

Not long after, we have an errand to run and bring some files off the data stick to a woman who volunteers for the organization. We are driving in a pretty ritzy neighbourhood, large gated houses. We pass by the Ernst and Young offices - shiny, immaculate, beautiful. Across the road is the gate to where we're going, guarded by a paid guard. With the right OK, he opens the door. We drive through a picture of PleasantVille - manicured lawns, interlock driveways, big shiny 4x4s in the driveways. These are the residences for the foreign Ernst and Young staff. In the pool, yes pool, there are a bunch of boys about the same age as the ones in the cage. A white girl about the same age lounges on a chair bored. Everything pristine, air conditioned mansions.

Call me a lefty pinko bleeding heart idealist naive child. I don't care. There is no way these kids are living in a just world and there's no way there'll be peace when this inequality continues.

The starkness of it is more than painful.

Shanghai Goodbye

I spent my two days in Shanghai in a hotel room, sick like two dogs in the tropical night. So, this is the only decent picture I took of it. Seems like it could have been a good place under different circumstances.