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Saturday, April 28, 2007

Grandpa, July 1916 - April 2007

My grandfather died the day after we arrived in London; he was 90. He had suffered a stroke a few weeks earlier and it turned out to be worse than initially suspected. Afterward he was apparently a bit confused about his hospital surroundings but remained in good spirits. A few days before he died he fell into a deep sleep and stayed that way until the end.

When I read the news via email my heart sank and I cried. "He was 90," everyone said, but it was still hard. It's hard to imagine going home to no Grandpa. It's hard to imagine Christmas Eve without him pulling a cat's tail with boyish glee. It's hard to imagine Christmas without his post-meal nap and his constant wisecracks and occasional malipropisms.

But, he was 90. He did live long, and live well, it seems. He was survived by all five of his children, all in good health, and all his 16 grandchildren, and both his great-grandchilden, all in good health, all leading interesting good lives. He was a lucky man, and he went the way we all hope to. And when these thoughts crossed my mind I felt better, though I do wish I could have said goodbye in person, and I will miss him.

I don't know a whole lot about his early life. Here in Scotland, following roots from the other side of my family, I'm realizing how little I know of any of my grandparents' lives before I came along with the same self-absorbed tendencies of most babies. I know he was a pilot involved in the WWII effort, and he had some funny stories about using gophers as target practice in Saskatchewan during training. I know he met Grandma, in a Montreal co-op housing unit I believe, and married her around 1945, June 27, same day as my parents 25 years later. I know they had five children. I hear he was a strict father, though its hard for me to reconcile that with the playful and easygoing grandfather I knew. To me he was a trickster, always ready with a randomly wry observation when conversations got too heated or serious.

He was almost 60 when I was born, and 65 when my parents returned our family to its Nova Scotian roots to be closer to the rest of the family on both sides. At that time I associate him with boats on Nova Scotia's South Shore, and later with ham radio, and later still with email and msn chat technology, which he used to keep in touch with us grandkids (and meet people from around the world who he said were keen to practice English). He once quipped about me, "This guy is too damn prolific a writer, I can't keep up with all his web sites!" A little later still, he got into digital cameras.

Grandpa was an engineer by training and he never lost his love of tinkering and learning, and it shows in the wedding photos on my laptop, where he can be seen discussing various digital cameras with several of my cousins. Looking at these photos, I felt grateful that he'd had a chance to meet my wife Miia and benefit from her shoulder massages, gift of gab, and their mutual love of teasing and joking. I also realized that his curiosity lasted his entire life - in some of those wedding photos he can be seen on his tippy toes peering toward the front of the room, perhaps unable to hear the speeches but curious all the same.

I also have one fond memory of a gift he gave me, years ago after he had a heart attack, of a small rubber wheel that could be wound and sent skittering around the room, bouncing off objects, turning, and spinning away. It was technological, curious, a little odd, simple and fun, the perfect symbol of the man.

I will miss him, I will honour him and cherish his memory, and I will try to emulate him.

Orkney Isles

After a great couple of nights camping out and hiking on the Isle of Skye, and meeting other travellers such as Baz and Catherine with whom we sat shivering and swapping stories under a full moon last night, we spent all day today on the bus then ferry to the Orkney Isles. Tonight we are staying in a hostel where Miia has befriended some Frenchmen eating lamb. The highlands remain absolutely stunning - great pictures to come, once we finish getting the Ghana onces posted. Tomorrow, more hiking.


Friday, April 27, 2007

Blue Skies in Skye

Oh so sweet sunset over the Scottish highlands, our tent just some metres away and the sheep with their babies grazing at our left. This is the life.

We bussed it from Glasgow to wherever. With our bus pass we can get on and off wherever seems right and Portree fit the part. Now here on the Isle of Skye on the West coast of Scotland. It is truly beautiful here, the people as friendly as they are known for, and the landscape breathtaking. Each turn the bus took revealed a whole new vista more perfect than a postcard.

We are well indeed.

The rest of today will be hiking on the highlands and tomorrow back on the bus to Thurso on the northern tip of Scotland, passing Loch Ness and Inverness en route.

A big shout out to everyone there. Strange but I am feeling quite ready to come home, to look for work, to settle down. It feels good to know that coming back now is good timing. It feels good to have all this learning and traveling behind us.

It is nice to wake up in the tent, Chris beside me and the sheep outside. The air is fresh and the laundry drying on the line. Scotland.


Glasgow goodbye

Given time constraints we decided to leave Glasgow a bit earlier than expected, but we did manage to find my grandmother's resting place, where her ashes were scattered back in 1984. It's a beautiful garden where many people have been scattered, where relatives visit often, leave flowers and pictures at their favourite tree. We laid some flowers on the other side of a willow tree from another Margaret, born around the same time as Nanny, for company, said a prayer for her and thanked her for her kindness, cried a little, and had lunch on a nearby bench feeling very peaceful.

That night we paid one last visit to the Legion and met Auntie Ella's best friend Cathy Barnshaw, and a few others who knew her and shared some nice memories. Cathy thanked us for bringing those back. We were given more small gifts and left them with a small bottle of Bell's Scotch and a picture of us in Cape Breton. We also managed to confirm that all the Conways, Ella's children and grandchildren, had left Glasgow. My cousins David and Margo apparently moved south a few miles to a town starting with a K many years ago with the kids, but the Legion folks hadn't heard from them since.


Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Glaswegian Legion

We visited the British Legion's Scottish office, where my Great Auntie Ella and Great Uncle Davey were both Presidents for a number of years. They were remembered very fondly by those old enough to remember their tenure. Stuart Tailor showed us around with particular attention to many pictures of Ella adorning the walls, surrounded by men. She was known as a spitfire, a kind woman, but one who "didn't suffer fools" according to Stuart. He treated us to an Isle of Skye scotch, very fine, and we sat down with some of the members and shared travel stories. They remembered Ella, but not very well. A member of the social committee came by and gave us a little gift, a British pin and a Scottish pin, and begged us to come to Bingo night on Saturday, where there will be many oldtimers who will likely be able to tell us Ella and Davey stories. Can't wait.


Tuesday, April 24, 2007


We arrived in Glasgow by train yesterday (we hitched almost to Scotland but at that point the rain, the time, and the oversized highways discouraged us - plus the train was cheap, highly recommended by a sweet elderly couple who drove us there - they took up rock climbing when they turned 60 - and gave us a gorgeous view of the rolling heather and masses of recently born sheep), Monday, had some haggis immediately after checking into the hostel. It was embedded in chicken, which was embedded in bacon, which was surrounded by broiled potatoes and veggies, fantastic. Miia had scampies. It turned out to be open mic night, which was mainly one 'host' singing most of the night, trying to prompt the 10 audience members to sing. Miia was the first (of two) to take him up on it. She nervously sang a couple songs on the host's very fine guitar, got a free beer for her troubles. It was beautiful. The other audience member who sang was a fortyish guy who sang a barritone ballod of young boys in trouble - it brought tears to my eye. Today we'll try to find the spot where my grandmother's ashes were spread back in '83.


Saturday, April 21, 2007

Glasgow or Bust

Just a very quick update: after a slightly longer than expected visit to Cheddar, a small town near Bristol, we have hitched our way northeast as far as Warwick, which is near Stratford, where Shakespeare used to live. We're staying with the Steeds, a family Miia knows through her church; they moved to England a couple years ago and are lovely people (with two lovely dogs). Tomorrow we'll see some castle ruins and move further northward.


Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Our Goodbyes

(by Miia)
Monday morning Chris and I both sent out text messages to the many people we had befriended during our five months in Ghana. The day was a kind one, with a flood of messages and phone calls coming back at us with well wishes. Like our wedding parties, it was somehow so touching to get a look at all the good people who have blessed our lives.

After finishing up some last pieces of work, I did the rounds, stopping in at all the little shops we had frequented - Mary who sells bread, Ama Mansa who also sells bread, Rebecca who sells us yams and tomatoes, Suzie who sells drinks, Ananse the tailor, the shoe-repair guy, the batik guy, the woman who sells us water and the woman who sells us regular foodstuffs. Some were so sad to see us go, giving us small gifts of bread or canned drinks for the trip home. Henry, our friend who was in the car accident with us in November, came over to be with me as I packed and Vida stopped by with two pieces of batik she had made and gave as a going away gift. Stephen and Prosper met up with us at lunch time and gave us a piece of batik to remember them by. Kwaku came home from work early and Conor, Chris, Chantal and I went out for our last supper.

We went in two taxis to the airport with Chantal, Conor, Kwaku, Mary, Chris and I. Dacosta was already waiting for us there. After we checked our baggage, we rejoined our friends and laughed, talked and sang some songs. Again, it was so heart warming and when, at last, we left them, we heard Conor calling out, "Obruni!" our inside joke making fun of all those who call out to us Obruni every day.

Heart heavy, we joined the long queue, pushed our way through immigration and got on board the plane that, while waiting on the tarmac, had electricity failures three times. But at last, we were up in the air and by sunrise landing in London.

As I always do, I am having a hard time adjusting. I feel dizzy with the culture shock. How different and vast the world is, how different people are. Sometimes we will say all people are the same, all people are kind, all people are generous, etc. but there are differences that you can feel and live. Neither good nor bad, you just have to adapt, find the beauty in it, and enjoy it for what it is. And of course it's sad when you go. It's especially sad when you leave friends who you know will probably never have a chance to visit you so staying in touch will be about when you make it back. In our case, it seems unlikely that we will be in Ghana any time soon.

I don't know how else to describe it. That's just a little about how it is. I miss Ghana as I miss so many people in so many places in the world. But for now, this is the freshest, the most intense and the saddest. I hope it will soften with time and I will be left with a strong sense of appreciation, understanding and love for Ghana. I hope I can share that with you with respect and reverence.

Much love, as always, Miia

At Kintampo wateralls

Travelling in Northern and Central Ghana

1. Crocodile in Paga, sated with a live chicken
2. Beautiful golden grasses of Pikworo
3. The underside of where the waterfalls pass in the rain season
4. Kintampo waterfalls
5. Conor sliding down on his bum at the base of the waterfall. This was quite a feat and took a whole lot of courage. Thanks to him, Chris and I did the same. But Conor won the respect and admiration of the folks around him!

More Northern Ghana

1. Miia and Conor cracking up in the guest house
2. The inside of the church in Navrongo, made of mud and decorated in traditional fashion by local women
3. The inside of a traditional Northern house with stack of calabash bowls
4. Doorway to the traditional house
5. The outside of the Navrongo church

More pics

1. Mama and baby baboons
2. Conor handing out hockey cards and starting a near riot
3. Our house - we were living in the apartment on the bottom right.
4. The public beach near Independence Square in Accra
5. The first elephant we saw in Mole, just walking through the woods.

Northern Ghana

1. Mud n Stick Mosque entrance (we weren't allowed in), 2. Python shedding skin, 3. elephant snuggle, 4. poolfight, 5. lone elephant

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Last Days in Ghana

We made one last visit to Dacosta and W’s two sons at Burma Camp. Unfortunately W’s wife Grace was at a Good Friday church service so we missed her. There was a sitcom on the TV about rich Ghanaian boys chasing rich Ghanaian girls at a go-kart track with air hockey, and that helped kill the moments of awkward silence. When we spoke it was of Dacosta’s upcoming tour of duty in Cote d’Ivoire. He had just returned from classroom training in Takoradi on the west coast, where they had explained some of the origins of the conflict. According to the Ghanaian Air Force, the problem is rooted in Cote d’Ivoire’s constitution, which guarantees land ownership and other rights based on parentage. This gives access to foreigners who have lineage in Cote d’Ivoire, while some life-long residents whose parents may have been from elsewhere are excluded. This is what Dacosta said the rebel groups are fighting to change, with great resistance from their President. On Monday Dacosta will see us off at the airport, then a few days later he will fly to Cote d’Ivoire for a six-month stint. Hopefully all will go well for him and he will return to marry his fiancée, live happily ever after, maybe even get an education in Canada some day.
On Saturday Conor and I were stoked to represent the paper in a football (soccer) match against the dreaded Inquirer. We arrived at the dirt pitch only to learn that the match had been postponed – apparently we’d missed the memo. Instead we watched an exciting amateur league game, which ended in a 2-2 draw after the red team was assessed a penalty they didn’t agree with and, after much animated gesticulation and hollering, left the field in protest with minutes left to play. We asked the yellow team what the hell had happened. “Miscommunication,” they explained.

“So, you’re stuck with a tie when you could have scored on the penalty and won?”

“Yes,” they laughed. If that had happened at a Canadian amateur hockey game there would have been a brawl.
We spent Easter Sunday at Nana Araba Apt’s beautiful home on the McArthey Hill. She had us, several students, and another professor Abena and Abena’s son Joshua, who is a precocious and intelligent 15. We mostly chatted with them. Abena is an African American woman who grew up in Chicago, moved to New York as a young woman, and that’s where Joshua was born. In 2001 they moved to Ghana so she could teach here; they will return to Chicago and be near her mother in the summer.

For someone hoping to be a parent fairly soon, the relationship between this mother and son was quite inspiring. They were clearly friends, but she made no attempt to be hip with him, she parented him and steered him gently, yet let him speak his capable mind, cheered for him when he said things she approved of, shook her head bemusedly when he made teenaged follies, like referring to the 80s as ‘back in the day.’ Conor stoked the fire saying, “That was BT: Before Thriller.”

Together the five of us laughed a lot, talked sports and movies and music and other pop culture hungers, but also the strangeness of life in Ghana for North Americans, corruption, assumptions, expectations, unwanted attention, and the strain it has on one’s patience, also the good things, the easiness of people, the relaxed way of being, the friendliness – all those human cultural paradoxes.
The only really awkward moment was when we started questioning why anyone would send missionaries to Ghana, only to find out that most of their best friends are missionaries. The answer to our question is apparently that the various strains of Christianity are competing with each other, and sometimes the Muslims, for membership. Abena added, “the countries that need Christ most won’t let the missionaries in.” We changed the subject back to basketball.

When the students left, one of them waved and said, “Bye obruni!” Conor, Miia and I waved back and then realized he was talking to the dog.
We spent Easter Monday as it should be, with family. We met L&S at Ovation, a hot new Nigerian restaurant that gives massages and pedicures while you wait for your food. Miia and Conor each got a massage, L got her nails done. S and I talked Nigerian politics and architecture and ate lots of spicy snail. The Nigerian elections are coming up on April 14 and 22. The incumbents are expected to win but a new President will take the reigns as Obasanjo’s eight years are up – it will be the first time Nigeria replaces one elected government with another, the experiential equivalent of a barmitzfah for a young democracy. S explained a bit of the history of Nigerian politics, with particular reference to Lagos. Lagos was once a city with a plan, and Nigeria a county of just three regions, according to S. When a federal government was first created, it shared profits from resources equally with those regions. When civil war broke out and the feds needed more money to fund it, the deal was changed, temporarily, so that the majority of money from resource sales went to the feds. The war ended, the war was won, the temporary arrangement was never rescinded. Incidentally, the plan for Lagos was scrapped, and the capital, and all the accompanying money and development, was moved to Abuja. But Lagos kept growing, remained the business capital. The growth was just completely unplanned. Was the plan good? “Any plan would be better than no plan,” according to S.

Now there are many more regions, and they don’t much like that all their money keeps going to the feds, who don’t seem to do a lot with it. In the words of one rebel fighter, “We asked the government for a hospital and they said ‘it’s in the pipeline, you’ll get it soon.’ We asked for a school and they said, ‘it’s in the pipeline, be patient.’ We asked for some roads and they said, ‘that too is in the pipeline, don’t worry.’ So, we decided to open the pipeline. But there was no hospital, no school, and no roads in there, so we opened another one, and another one.”

What S wants most for Nigeria, he said, is a plan. Any plan. Socialist, libertarian, social democratic, centralized capitalism, free market, as long as it’s something. But he swears that things will improve, that now that Nigeria has gone democratic, it won’t go back. It has changed in other ways too, like the recent proliferation of the nuclear family over more extended ties, which has altered the face of architecture in ultra-modern, chaotic Lagos, where S does most of his business now, after many years building landmark buildings in Japan and Europe.

The meal itself, I thought, was fantastic. S and L swore to us that Nigerian food has more variety, more vegetables, and more flavours than Ghanaian food, and they were right. Of course it helps if you like meat. Bush meat was on the menu, but not in the kitchen (as is often the case in Ghana regardless of the kind of food), so we had beef, snail, beef, dried fish, and haddock. Yam was a prominent feature, but many different things were done with said yam. One was pounded much like fufu. Another was the skin, dried and pounded, sweet-tasting. Another was mashed in with some other vegetables, like a casserole. Most were spicy. I loved it.

I feel so lucky to have discovered this part of my family half a world away, so talented and interesting, with much in common yet so different. We promised that this would not be goodbye but seeya, that we would see them again in Canada or Nigeria. I hope that proves to be true. We hope also to see their daughters in the UK as we pass through.
Our last weekend in Ghana has been much like the rest of our time here: frustrating and inspiring.

On Saturday Conor and I were again excited by the prospect of playing football with Ghanaians. We waiting around the office for several hours before many others showed up – turned out the game had been delayed to accommodate Bossman’s schedule. We travelled together to the pitch with the new Marketing Manager (the last guy got canned for stealing after his constant sexual harassment of female employees failed to do the job) screaming sporadically along the way – he was really psyched. “Where’s my players!” he bellowed when he first entered the building. Turned out he was our assistant coach.

At the pitch, which was twice the size of the one we’d been to last weekend (giving a frightening advantage to the skill players), we were surprised to find ourselves enmeshed within a circle of unfamiliar faces, all of seem had skill levels slightly below a Zidane or a Ronaldo. “Where are the fat alcoholic journalists?” we wanted to know. On the full team, only about seven players, including foreigners, actually work at the paper. Of those, one started, two didn’t play at all.

Sule, a business writer (the only staffer to start), explained it this way: “We need their help. Because the Inquirer (our opponent) will also use ringers, and the bosses want to win to make a good name for the paper.” And so went our notion of a fun afternoon with co-workers. My frustration boiled over when two of our ringers started blasting balls at my feet and laughing when I couldn’t control them. Whether even a pro could control balls going that speed was not the issue, it was that obroni couldn’t. In the end, our ringers dominated their ringers and won the game 2-1. Conor and I got about 3 minutes playing time at the end when it looked like we couldn’t do too much damage. I played striker and didn’t get a single touch. Conor’s impact on the game was more significant: he saved a goal heading one away from the near post, and promptly fouled a guy in the box (with help from a team-mate), and they scored on the ensuing penalty kick. The other team threatened to boycott the game at one point, but cooler heads prevailed and everyone was in a good mood at the end. Conor and I went around shaking hands with our opponents because that’s what you do when you lack skill.

While all this was going on Miia was occupying herself with a young man who started our hitting but became belligerent when she shut him down, explaining first that her husband was nearby and then adding that he was too small for her. It was then that he pulled out the “you people” offence, whereby he explained how white people were evil and responsible for all of Africa’s problems, and of course that includes Miia. Chief among his complaints was that Ghanaians are treated badly in Britain by whites. “I know,” said Miia, “Those white people are racist. Just like you are racist.” She tried to explain how little he knew about her, how she was not British, for example.

“Well the Dutch do it too.”

“I’m not Dutch.”

“The Germans too.”

“Not German.” This goes on for a while, the European nationality naming. Finally Miia explains to him that she is Finnish, using the Finnish language, which he does not recognize.

“What language is that?”

“Go find out and then you will know something about me at least.” But he doesn’t really care, he knows she is a white woman who doesn’t want his sex, that’s all he needs.

After the game she pointed him out to me and he started chirping at her again, then later at me. I had none of her patience for it, none of her verbal acumen. I just shoved him and told him to get lost, insulted and threatened him. A team-mate, one of the semi-pros, intervened, shooed the guy away, told me not to bother with it, it’s not worth it.

Miia and I headed from the game to visit our friends Edward the Vet and his Russian wife Elena, who applied to immigrate to Canada three years ago and are still waiting. They have renewed hope because friends of theirs were just accepted after a five year wait. We explain to them our frustrations with Ghana, and I talk about how I don’t like what I’m becoming, this impatient shover of people. I used to be so slow to anger, and I still abhor violence, yet almost my very first recourse was shoving. They were more than understanding. “Racism is everywhere,” Edward says. “Can you believe some Ghanaians think that all white people are racist?” Think of the paradox of that.

But they reminded us why we love Ghana too, because, like everywhere I guess, the vast majority of people are kind and loving, they want to connect with other humans, to learn rather than make assumptions and presume to have knowledge. Elena cooked us a fantastic Russian meal that made us miss our last excursion some, and they showed us their many puppies (they breed and sell them), and we played some with their daughter Ilona, who is at a rambunctious age, and it was a great afternoon.

Afterward we visited Cynthia and Little John where we used to live, and had a surprisingly nice afternoon. We again extended our invitation that if they send Little John to school in Canada he can live with us for free, and they said they would keep it in mind in another decade or so. Cynthia seems in a much better mood without her husband around, the whole house seems lighter actually, and they were very sweet to us and we were very grateful.

Alas, tranquility is fleeting. At the notorious Circle Miia was sexually assaulted for the fourth time in five months, this time right before my eyes in the strangest and most unexpected fashion. We stopped amidst the night-time madness because Miia wanted to replace her broken sandals. As soon as she stopped a man came up behind her and kissed her neck, I was flabbergasted and literally couldn’t not believe my eyes. Surely that could not have just happened. I came closer and stared in the man’s eyes to see what the hell was going on with him. He just stared back in what seemed to be a challenge, but maybe it was just the blankness of a junkie or a madman. “What the hell did you just do?” I demanded. It was only then that Miia, assuming the slobber on her neck had come from me, turned around and realized what was amiss.

“Did you just kiss me?!” she shouted incredulously; realizing as she did so that indeed that’s what had happened, she followed her question with, you guessed it, a shove, a mighty shove that sent him flying back. I followed Miia’s shove with my own, and bore down on him, expecting him to flee. He just glared at me, again in a challenge or vacant oblivion. I was so mad I spit on him. He jumped back a bit, surprised at least, then came back toward me.

I stared him down and finally said in kind of a low growl that betrayed all the anger I felt, “Keep walking.” And there’s the answer to my recent question: Given the opportunity to really tear into someone who maybe even deserved it, I let it go by, I guess because deep down I know there is nothing to be gained from it, and so much can be lost, not least of which is myself. The lady selling the sandals wanted to know why I didn’t beat him. Even Kwaku, gentle man of peace and sweet man of God, when we told him, asked if I had beat him. “No, but I spit on him,” I answered.
”Oh, good.”

We closed an overstimulous day at our favourite neighbourhood eating spot drinking rum.

Sunday was less hyperactive; we treated our housemates to dinner at a famous chop called La something in Achimoto, a nice area. The place was very popular and quite cheap, and Conor and I both had grasscutter meat. Grasscutter is a large bush rodent, quite populous and popular. It was a bit gamey, kind of goat-like, but not bad at all. We’re eating as much local wares as possible while we can, today is our last chance for fufu. Mary, our 19-year-old housemate and cousin of Kwaku, who we helped connect with a program that will allow her to return to school, which she has been unable to afford, left us the sweetest and kindest note I think I’ve ever ready, sitting on the desk in our room. Both Kwaku and Mary have been so good to us, and seem so tickled just to have us around, just to get the opportunity to get to know us, it’s humbling and affirming at the same time. They are the bedrock of our time in Ghana, and we are so lucky that we got to live with them for this time. They showed us how to make fufu, how to fetch water and carry it on the head, how much things cost, how things work, and basically had our backs whenever we needed them.

We also paid a visit to our tailor, who was sad to lose such good customers – he is a master tailor and made Miia a few dresses, me a gorgeous bright traditional kente shirt, and his workmanship is really exceptional, but he’s also just another very kind, very humble Ghanaian. It’s not been an easy experience here, but people like this, real people who can engage us as equals, without villainizing us or putting us on a pedestal, who treat us human, they have made the experience memorable, educational, wonderful, beautiful, and the same time.

We will miss Ghana, but it will be okay because we will be alive, human, and home.


London Town

I won't give a full update now as we're about to go enjoy the last of daylight in a park, but we arrived safe and sound in London this morning - thanks Ghana International Air. Hopefully we'll get a chance to provide more details of our last days in Accra soon. In a couple days we'll visit our friend Megan in Cheddar (near Bristol) and then head north to Scotland to chase ancestral ghosts.


Friday, April 13, 2007

And still more elephants...

Beautiful Tree

Cool Chris

More Elephants!

and Miia.

Baboon Love

Larabanga Mosque

Built as far back as the 13th century in a tiny rural northern town, it is a tourist haven where locals mob anything with pockets in the hopes of donations. We gave some but we grumbled that surely there must be a better system for capitalizing on the tourists without intimidating them and potentially scaring others off.

Conor Om

Large Dragonfly

This guy landed right on my face and stayed a while.


Elephants bathing in Mole National Park

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Conor Snaps

It happens to everyone eventually. Last night after a lovely Nigerian dinner with Nigerian in-laws, who dropped us near home, a beggar started pestering us and wouldn't leave us alone, followed us home. Finally our good natured troubador turned and began shouting. "I already told you no. Do not follow us anymore. Do you live this way? No? Then go away, stop following us, it is very frightening?" The man seemed legitimately bewildered, but he did cross a line, following people in the night to their home. As Conor pointed out, he specifically honed in on Miia, who he perhaps presumed was the most easily intimidated. The man uttered some random death threats, Conor mocked him, we went home and slept. Never a dull moment.

Another Scorcher

(by Miia, posted by Chris)

We walk fast through Circle foot traffic. Vendors selling steaming kenke, steamed corn, sandals, shirts, shoe strings, stationary. We push through, past the beggars with deformed legs, past the small refugee children who cling to your fingers and try to remove your rings, past the women selling sachets of water and the men carrying boxes of bread on their heads. It's madness this and yet, somehow, the pulse of place alive with a kind of quickness you miss in the too quiet streets of cities in the north.

It's a hot day and we're sweating. Sweat dripping down my forehead, my feet hot, my shirt soaked and sticking to my back. The sun hits hard and the air so thick you can drink it. The trotro bus mates call out"Kaneshie, Kaneshie, Kaneshie", "Circle, Circle,Circle", "Accra, Accra, Accra" and you walk past fast as they call out, "Obroni, oko hein?" (White man, where are you going?)

It's day one post work and the first truly free day for Chris and me. So it's shopping day for souvenirs for friends and for us. Chris buys pieces of beautiful hand woven kente cloth, the pieces stitched together, and takes them to the tailor Anansi who, for$7, will sew a long sleeve shirt for him. I likeAnansi. He has sewn me things before and he does agood job. "I am a master tailor," he says.

So this is our last week. We are busy catching up with all our old friends. Friday night at the residences for the airforce with our friend Dacosta. Sunday lunch with Nana at her gorgeous house. Monday night with Nigerian-in-laws at a restaurant that serves GIANT African snails and gives you free massages and manicures and pedicures while you wait for your meal. Tonight Caledonian society and later this week a day trip to the village where we started our Ghana visit at the funeral of our friend David's mother. It feels weird leaving - exciting and sad at the same time. You get used to a place and you come to take in ways of being and ways of seeing. When you go home, it's hard to share your point of view because you are looking at things from Ghana even if your feet are on Canada. I know it from experience. I know the tears I've shed in the past when I've been disoriented and lost in those first months home. This time I'll be with Chris so maybe it'll be different. We'll see.

I am buying Ghanaian cloth. It's beautiful. It's a kind of living heritage. I call itUNESCO-World-Heritage-You-Can-Wear. Pret-a-porter-Ghana. Other exciting news that in just some weeks we'll be in Paris again and I will get to see my dear friend Benoit for the first time in five years. He'll get to meet Chris and we'll get to meet his partner. Always new adventures on the road ahead!

Much love, yet again, to all of you and for many, seeyou soon!

Recent Happenings

Last weekend we went to our second and last Ghanaian funeral. The deceased was our friend L’s sister-in-law’s father. This was a very low budget, low-key affair compared to Mercy’s funeral in Ayirebi because the man was universally considered a bastard. He was a sub-chief, so a big man, but a strict disciplinarian who married several women, beat his many children, and financially supported only himself. They handed out the usual pamphlet with his obit, which was the funniest one I’ve ever read. “We called him Papa, he was too cold and hard to be ‘Daddy’. Papa’s favourite expression was ‘come here, let me beat you.’ He believed that to spare the rod was to spare the child. He taught us the meaning of the phrase ‘baker’s dozen’, because after 12 blows he was sure to make it a baker’s dozen.” It went on from there and at least respectfully thanked him for teaching them to be accountable and take care of themselves. There was drumming, but no dancing. We sat for a while at let everyone stare at us, the MC made several oboruni jokes which were translated to us as ‘he is welcoming you’ as everyone clutched their bellies in hysterics, a guy took Miia’s phone number, Conor ate some cow-hoof soup.
Even in what to us is a fairly humble home in a poorer part of town, with no running water and frequent power outages, we can’t escape occasional pleas for money. A couple weeks ago a neighbour we’d not yet met dropped by to exchange pleasantries and ask us for a few bucks to help pay her daughter’s transport back to school. Conor spared me the trouble by saying no right away, explaining that we had no vehicle ourselves, travelled by trotro, made very little money, and were facing great expenses back home, all true. It’s a difficult position to be in because one feels cruel saying no, but A) doesn’t want to contribute to the rich white bank machine stereotype and B) does not want to create relationships based on dependency. Yet it’s tempting because, assuming the woman was being straight with us, a little of our money could go a long way.

Then on Sunday, we got a knock on our window from a neighbour who told us we had a guest, “a white man.” It was a Greek guy who was living in Accra but had come on hard times, couldn’t afford to feed his wife and child. The neighbours, seeing that he was white, sent him to us. We gave him some produce, canned goods, rice and milk, and Conor gave him some multivitamins so he could at least get some nutritional supplements if he wasn’t eating well [he caught us at one of those bare cupboard moments].

Charity is a strange thing – I don’t see it ever creating a just world, yet it’s needed as a short term model. Miia and I were figuring our income and expenses in Ghana and we basically broke even, but given our white guilt and colonial history and ongoing inequalities and all that, we feel driven to give a little more back, want to donate to some educational expenses for students in need, who would otherwise just drop out, particularly girls who are most likely to do so. We also hope our work was of some value to Ghana, but that is less tangible and harder to judge. Having said all that, what I can’t stand is self-congratulatory rich eco-maniacs who think that because they give a little something they should be international heroes.

“It is justice, not charity, that is wanting in this world.” -Mary Wollstonecraft
The other day I got a call from Miia telling me she had been sexually assaulted again – that’s three times, all in the same area, which unfortunately surrounds the best internet café in town where she does a lot of her work. Some guy had jumped at her shouting words she didn’t understand and grabbed her breast hard. The first time something like this happened, when a guy grabbed her crotch, I was with her but didn’t see the problem until Miia was punching the guy and giving him the finger and a stream of profanity. The next two times I wasn’t there. The only time I’ve really got involved was with that cabbie who I shoved away and away and away from her after he hit her face (I think by accident, but still he was being an asshole on so many levels). I’m not a violent guy, I don’t think. I don’t have a history of violence. But when Miia calls me so upset, so frustrated, so at a loss as to what she is supposed to do, I want to hurt somebody. These guys who do these things are sick in the head, and I don’t know if there’d be anything gained in breaking their faces, other than blowing off steam. But when you consider this, that my wife has been sexually assaulted three times in five months here, can you blame us if it makes us furious at times? I hope this is the last time, believe me, because if I’m around when some guy tries that kind of shit again, I don’t know if I’ll be able to restrain myself. On a side note, I read an article by a Ghanaian in the UK, a psychologist, who wrote that being black in the UK is bad for your mental health, and he backed it up statistically. I’m sure the same is true for being a racialized minority in any country, including Ghana – it’s definitely been a challenge for my mental health anyway. It’s amazing what humans can do to people they perceive as being different.
We’re starting to say our goodbyes here, which is sad. We met with Patrick last night, who loves to talk politics. His main complaint with this government, of which he is a party member, is that even though he’s a long-time supporter they don’t give him contracts. “It’s not African,” he quipped. Patrick’s a whiz with the one-liner. He kindly drove us a long way home, past the Pentecostal revival going all Easter weekend in our hood. “Christians taking money from the poor,” he said. We may go back to the village of Ayirebi with him on Wednesday.
I never thought I’d see this: yesterday on the midday news they did a poll asking “should homosexuality be encouraged?” Eighty percent said yes. In Ghana!

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Slave Tourism

At Elmina Castle we emerged blinking from the notorious slave dungeons, which remain oppressive in their stench and their darkness, and in the knowledge that millions of people were branded their, chained there, raped and murdered there, and that the survivors were sent to sea in the bottom of a shoulder-to-shoulder boat’s belly to perish at sea or work to death in servitude in some far-off unknown land. Some of the Africans and African-Americans with whom we had shared our tour had cried, and there was a strange tension between the blacks and whites throughout, with the two groups drifting apart and leaving a physical distance between them.

In the bright daylight, a young West African man said to me, “Your people have caused much harm to Africa. Americans.”

“Oh, but I’m not American,” I said quickly. “I’m Canadian.”


Before I could talk more about heritage, our tour guide picked up his canned speech of the ‘evil trade,’ and I was hurt by what the young man had said. He was right, in a way, but wrong, I felt, to say it that way. It’s a hell of a thing to say to another human being, someone you know nothing about, someone you have never spoken to before, with a smile on your face.

I wanted to tell him that Nova Scotians had provided one of the major destinations for slaves on the underground railroad so that they could escape the evil trade in human beings. But even there I’m laden with guilt because I know what the white Nova Scotians have done to black Nova Scotians since, that the home they provided was not so welcoming or hospitable, that blacks were sanctioned off in the worst parts, then forced out when it was convenient and a space was needed for a garbage dump.

I wanted to tell him that the other side of my family was Scottish, and probably far too poor to be involved in the slave trade as buyers or sellers. But who knows? I can’t account for every dead ancestor. And even if I could and they were clean, did they stop this trade? Did they speak out against it? No, they were complicit.

As were many Africans. Particularly the ones selling slaves. Apparently in the Congo in the 15th century, many Africans became so covetous of European goods that they simply kidnapped a neighbour or two and sold them to the Europeans. In Ghana the Ashanti did most of the selling because they were the biggest, most powerful, and possibly craziest society (they had a saying, ‘kill 1,000 of us and another 1,000 will replace them’ – this was the strength, determination, and quantity of their warriors), but all the tribes were in the trade to some extent. They captured their enemies and sold them; some of them too got rich from the slave trade. In fact, slavery was a common practice in much of Africa long before the arrival of the Europeans, who inflated the practice into a global trade and created something far bigger out of it, far more devastating. There was no mention of the role played by Africans at any of the slave tourism sites we visited during our tour of Ghana.

Even though the Africans involved, and those complicit, may not have had a market to sell their neighbours to without the involvement of Europeans, they were still responsible for their own actions, because on the flipside Europeans could not have run a slave trade so efficiently without help from Africans. Europeans were obviously the biggest factor but it’s more complicated than people make it out to be and to point the finger at one person and say, “Your people did it,” is useless.

It’s important to acknowledge that Europeans, of all the people and groups involved or complicit in the slave trade during those 400 years, were the most powerful and the richest, and therefore made the most money and were most responsible for what happened. But they couldn’t have done it alone.

Slave tourism is a strange thing. On the one hand it is supposed to provide an important rite of passage for many slave descendants, especially African Americans, i.e. the chance to face these things, to visit the sites where such atrocities happened, to reconnect with their centuries-old roots, to see the land of their ancestors, where blacks rule and are not an oppressed ‘minority.’ It was a visibly powerful experience for the African Americans with whom we shared our tour.

I guess I’m just surprised at the way it is managed. First of all, Ghana has a Ministry of Tourism and Diaspora that focuses a huge amount of its resources on getting money from African American tourists. Fine, but no such department exists to channel the remittance payments of the 3-5 million Ghanaians living abroad, whose cash transfers home account for about 20 percent of Ghana’s economy already. Imagine if that was channelled toward healthcare, education, and infrastructure.

But the obsession of the Ghanaian government remains on African Americans’ money (more so than it is on helping them as people to rediscover their roots). As Prosper put it, “If African Americans really care about Africa, they should put their money into it; they should move here or invest here.” But how African are African-Americans in terms of culture? There are many cultural differences between African Americans and African Africans. Besides which, many of the Africans saying “hello brother” to African Americans are the descendants of the people who sold them down the river to begin with, and I wonder if African Americans are sometimes angry at all at their African brothers for that, or would they rather leave it in the past?

I don’t write these things to alleviate what Europeans did as colonialists based on their assumption of superiority, not only to slaves but to all Africans, and to indigenous peoples they encountered across the ‘new’ world, all the many human atrocities, and the fallout of inequality that remains to today. But the responsibility for the trans-Atlantic slave trade also rests on all our ancestors, and all humanity, to some degree or another, and therefore the responsibility for reconciling differences, for righting current wrongs against humanity, including poverty everywhere, also rests heavy upon us all.



Royal rumble: Miia, myself, and our housemate and neighbours versus one crazy cab driver, who upped the price after dropping us off and refused to unhand a suitcase until we paid up. Everyone jumped into the fray and said the price was too high, and five different hands tugged the bag in all directions. He swore, we swore, he spat, we spat, he pushed, we pushed. Finally, Miia gave in, gave him the extra buck because sometimes fighting over principles is uneconomic and bad for your health. He slapped the bill from her hand and hit her in the face in the process. She snapped, got up in his face screaming. I snapped, shoved him once, twice, three times backward, screamed obscenities, told him to take his money and get gone. He looked a bit shocked, but he started yelling again. I screamed back. Kwaku restrained me, pulled me back to the house. I took the suitcase in, came back out and the guy was back in his cab, shaking and sweating and still yelling, but in the process of leaving. Kwaku is a peace-loving man and I’m glad he brought such a cool head to an explosive event. I was mad, confused, it made so sense. Cabbies often try to cheat you, so does everyone else. But this was over the top, extortion in the face of mass opposition. He was mad, or desperate.


After our trip to two jails in Kumasi, someone asked me what I thought about Ghanaian prisons. “The same thing I think of all prisons,” I said. “They’re terrible.”

“But worse in Africa,” he said, and there’s some truth to it, because they have twice the number of people they’re supposed to hold, they are filthy, there is 0 privacy (not unlike a Ghanaian village), no space, and I don’t think the amenities are quite adequate for comfort. The men look sick. I know they are poor because rich men don’t go to jail. The most positive thing I can say about Ghanaian prisons is that there are less than 20,000 people in them (they are supposed to hold no more than 4,000), which compares quite favourably to the situation in the United States, where 1 in 40 people live in jail, where you’ll also find 20 black me for every 1 in an American university.

The prison guards were kind, however, and in both jails they had started a basic literacy program. In the men’s jail, which is part of the King of Ashanti’s Palace compound, this program was being taught by two prisoners, both teachers, one of whom is being released because of the President Kufuor’s Ghana@50 amnesty. In the women’s jail it is being taught by a guard. It is this kind of program that Miia’s work is trying to build on, but she’s conflicted because she knows that whatever minor good a jail might be able to do is far exceeded by its harm. In a way the literacy programs are a harm reduction model, trying to make the best of a bad situation.

While we crammed myself, Conor, Miia, our friend from UNDP, and four guards into the warden’s tiny office at the women’s prison, a young woman was brought in by a guard, crying. She had been granted amnesty too, and they had called her mother to come pick her up. She dropped to her knees and begged not to be given to her mother, this teenage prisoner. The warden dismissed her with gentle laughter, said it was best, she’d be free, and explained to us afterward that they didn’t want the girl to reunite with her three nogoodnick friends who she used to run crimes with. She was most likely in for petty theft, like most of the women there, though for some it was pot smoking, which carries a ten-year bid. The exceptions are the babies, whose only crime was being born to a poor woman who got caught during pregnancy.

We pulled away from the women’s jail in our air-conditioned UN four-wheel drive and set out to find a cheap motel, which had a serious mosquito infestation that kept me awake much of the night, which may have fuelled my impatience with the next day’s conversations of Somalia and Congo history, of which we all talked like experts despite none of us having been there. That’s the way of the information highway. The real highway was littered with remnants of accidents, vehicles bashed beyond recognition. It’s probably just easier to leave the car corpse there than remove it, but it serves as an excellent reminder of the perils of reckless driving. Our UN driver, an uncanny kind of character, talked a lot about how drivers can be so impatient as he whipped from lane to lane and passed everything travelling under the speed of sound. Still, it took us all day to get back to Accra.
There was no rest for the hypocritical as we crossed Accra traffic at dusk to surprise my cousin Bell on her 50th birthday. This was my chance to meet three new Nigerian cousins: B, Do, and Ta. It was a beautiful evening, S&L went all out and the catered affair with live band was fancier than my wedding! Wonderful to get to know my Uncle Ben’s nieces and nephews on the other side of the world, dance with them, pose for posterity, gorge myself on a Nigerian/Ghanaian buffet, and meet their interesting friends, like Milly, who works for the world food program and hates Ghanaian rice.


Tuesday, April 03, 2007


We greeted Conor at the airport with primeval excitement. Dacosta accompanied us and escorted Conor from the airport [civilians are not allowed in the airport unless they have a flight] to where we waited outside the velvet ropes. All of Ghana had been swept clean, refurbished, and decorated in the gold, green and red for his visit [or possibly the 50th anniversary].

Conor got an immediate taste of Dacosta’s honour. He took us to the airport taxi stand and they gave us a high price. Dacosta was so offended by whatever the driver told him he marched away with us in hot pursuit and the airport officials calling after him, “soldier, soldier, 30 thousand okay?!” My guess is that they suggested to him a jacked up price and a split of the extra with him for his complacency in duping the whites. He is incorruptible.
We got up at 5 am on Independence Day to beat the crowds, but didn’t manage to leave the house until close to 7:00 because Mary and Kwaku wanted to take advantage of the fact that the neighbours’ water was flowing and fill up. We took two taxis to Independence Square at the south end of town, on the waterfront. It was me, Miia, Conor, Kwaku, his girlfriend Vita, and Mary. We pushed through the crowds just between two chief's ensembles, hoisting their rulers on the royal carriage high above their heads to the cheering crowds. Somewhere along the line we lost Mary [who is Kwaku’s 19-year-old cousin]. We pushed our way into the VIP invite-only area, assisted by our white skin. When the police demanded Kwaku’s invitation he said, “I’m with these white people; please let them in.” And they did. White privilege strikes. The cops did their best to control the massive crowd of tens of thousands, but were clearly in over their heads. At one point I saw a cop argue and refuse entry into the stands to one guy while about 50 other guys ducked in behind the cop’s back. Eventually they just gave up and let the masses pour in and sour the space of the rich; we all cheered together in the end.

Independence Square is large enough to fit a few American football fields in it and is surrounded by stands, which were freshly painted in Ghana colours, filled with Ghana fans and citizens, also in Ghana colours, waving Ghana flags. Then came the diplomats, presidents, and figureheads, with their aids and guards chasing after tinted cars, identifiable only by their flags. Whereas the chiefs had gone through the crowds, these guys whipped right around them, to the head of the square, where they hid in the shade of the tarmac with the media.

Then came the hardware: armed soldiers of both genders and all departments, uniformed school children, tanks and trucks, performing routines choreographed using the same Ghanaian colours. Planes and helicopters did flyovers and the crowd went nuts, frenzied in delight. What joy to be Ghanaian today!! Everyone danced and sang traditional songs for Jesus, even the Muslims, until the cops started swinging their sticks, hitting some, who laughed in response, but cowered away the next time the stick came out.

Speeches were given but not heard; the speakers hadn’t been changed since 1957 and looked straight out of a M*A*S*H set. When all the soldiers and world leaders dispersed, the motorcycles roared from the nearby streets and did tricks for the crowd as more cops waved more sticks to beat the crowd back. Some got hit by sticks; some by bikes, nobody seemed to mind much, the tricks were worth it.

When the crowd cleared out we headed for home – found Mary on the way. She was smiling and had had a great day on her own, then used the money we paid her for helping us around the house to pay for a trotro home, and a haircut, and was planning to go see a concert but changed her plans to accompany us to the house and show us how to make fufu, which started with peeling cassavas with a big knife – lots of hacking away, she made it look easy. Anyway there were no serious injuries. We pounded first the boiled cassava then the boiled plantain, then pounded the two together. One person rotates the mush, the other pounds. Coordination/ rhythm are important. We were slow to learn, Conor got whacked twice, once by Mary and once by Miia. Toward the end we were getting better, but Mary never stopped laughing. “I never thought I’d see it,” she said. “Ghana is 50 and the white people are making fufu.” It was delicious, but a week later Kwaku made some and it was so much smoother, so much better.

The next morning we became even more Ghanaian by fetching water. Miia even carried it on her head, and by doing so was able to carry twice as much at a time as Conor or I. All our neighbours lined the streets to point and laugh, and Mary seemed embarrassed, whether by us or the neighbours I’m still not sure, but she practically begged us to let her do it herself. We refused because the work went four times faster, even if we spilled a little.

These experiences gave Conor and me an idea: Oburoni TV, where the white guys do typical Ghanaian things on cable TV. I think Ghanaians would find it the funniest show on primetime.
Bossman was in a good mood when I introduced Conor to him, and he told us both the story of how his father had been a dental surgeon, quite well off, until certain generals took over the country and drove out the rich, and their money too. An interesting development strategy. Bossman’s dad was embarrassed to be Ghanaian then, and Bossman grew up with a certain shame that lingered until the generals surrendered power just over a decade ago. Now he's back but he understands why people leave Ghana to try to use their talents elsewhere. He just wants them to send their money for development. He hired Conor part-time.