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Monday, May 28, 2007

Some Closing Thoughts on the Year That Was

Miia's last post did a nice job of summing up not only some of our reverse culture shock frustrations upon re-entry, but also of some of the things we learned from Ghana.

Travel, while fun and exciting, can really mess with your mind, make it hard to fit in anywhere. You lose a sense of your own culture without ever really fitting in anywhere else, because you're not there long enough. I mean it takes many years to adapt to a new culture, and some never do fully adapt.

But you do learn to like and appreciate certain things as being better than at home. You miss home, because it's home, but there are certain things you really like. Like how Ghanaians act like they know each other even if they don't. They talk to strangers, and interact with them openly and freely. Hold each other's babies, no matter if you're a stranger. There's no fear in that.

But as a white outsider, you become too much an object of fascination, or desire, or ridicule, too easily, quickly, and often. So I found myself afraid of society, hiding from it. Here in Toronto, I find myself longing for that interaction, desperate for it, because everybody seems to have their heads down all the time. Or they look ahead but can't see but two feet in front of them. They are hypnotized. Maybe by all the advertising. Or maybe they are just living in their own heads, like I often do, but in so doing they fail to see the world going on around them, fail to participate with each other in this social experiment, or contract.

That's been the hardest thing about being back. Here are a few other random observations from the trip:

-I've always been sympathetic to First Nations land claims, but never done anything about it really other than argue with my non-aboriginal friends about it. Being in Mongolia, where people live off the land, where land is so important to their survival and to their souls, where there is so much vast openness, really hit the point home to me. The Europeans who settled Canada stole a way of life, and we perpetuate that sin to this day. It's unresolved. I don't know what the resolution should be, but it's a national shame.

-I've always been sympathric to the plight of newcomers to Canada, how hard it is to integrate into society, the economy, education system, et cetera here, how they often face racial and cultual prejudice and struggle with it daily. Ghana is a major source country of immigrants to Canada. It often broke my heart how hard Ghanaians were on their own country: women asking us to take their babies back with us, taxi drivers and friends of friends begging us for Canadian visas, a neighbour who couldn't understand why I'd leave Canada to come live in Kotobabi. But, on the level of economics, I get it. For the poor, Ghana is a very hard go. The better off know that their skills may never get fully developed there, or fully used, while they are having to kowtow to the Big Men who control society. If they don't get a foreign eduction, they may very well stagnate. And, about 20 percent of the country's GDP is remittance payments from Ghanaians abroad, sending money back home. So, of course people want to leave. I think though that Ghana has a serious brain drain problem, particularly in the areas of healthcare and teaching. A lot of good could be done by filling these holes, stopping the bleeding, and at the same channelling those remittance payments somehow toward renewal initiatives, i.e. infrastructure like hospitals, schools, etc. On the Canadian side, one of the best things we can do to help poorer countries reach their own goals is to ensure that people who come here from abroad find adequate employment. They want to contribute their skills to Canada, why aren't we letting that happen?!

-On the whole, development work is a crock. There is precious little of use being offered from rich nations to Ghana, and my experiences in other financially poor countries were much the same in that regard. Most development projects are more about controlling Ghana than facilitating its renewal. I don't quite advocate for a hundred percent withdrawal, but at the very least all tied (conditional) aid money should be untied, the conditions just don't help. Since when have rich countries had a monopoly on knowledge about how to live or how to govern?

-On a personal level, I still love travel, and I'm so grateful to have had this time. I highly recommend, to everyone who can possibly afford it, to take a gap year. It doesn't have to involve travel, the main thing is to de-enslave yourself from work for a while, explore, grow, blah blah, whatever, have fun, make a bunch of puppets, write a book. For us, it was cheaper than you'd think. In fact, it was much cheaper than if we just spent a year in Toronto not working, by a long shot. Try 20 bucks a day each, that's what we spent, total, in the last year, including airfare, accomodations, food, souvenirs, everything. It could be done cheaper even.

-There are still many places I want to visit in this world, but if I don't visit them, that's okay. The main thing, at this point, is I want to enjoy my life, do the work I love, worry as little as possible about the money. In this capitalist society you need some money, but not as much as most people around me seem to want. I want to write, do community work, have children, and be near family friends and true community. That will be my focus for the next long while.

-Hugh Brody wrote a great book called The Other Side of Eden where he said it's a myth that hunter-gatherers are the most nomadic people. They may move around but it's always in a small area, and they always come back to the same places year after year. Agriculturalists have big families (lots of workers), run out of land for the kids, send a bunch off to work in factories or colonise new lands, build cities, etc. Those who make enough money go travelling. This is something I have to think about, because it is very resource consumptive, and the world has precious little in the way of resources, and carbon emissions may sink us all. This isn't an argument against travel, just something to think about for now.

I guess that's it for now. I have drafted a big long piece that hopefully will get published somewhere I can link to. It is a discussion about Ghana, Africa, colonialism, and civilisation that further sums a lot of what I learned in the past year, so watch for that one.

Thanks to all who have been following this blog. It will be winding down now, but I'll continue posting travel stories over at my Benjibopper blog, which also has a bunch of creative and sometimes silly writing of mine, just for fun. I also imagine we'll keep this one up for posterity, and perhaps continue to use it as a family blog, putting occasional photos and updates on here, so feel free to continue visiting.

Thanks again and much love,
Chris Benjamin

Friday, May 25, 2007

Still Crazy After All These Years

It's strange to return to Toronto, feeling like a decade, rather than a year, has passed. Some small changes, some new development projects, new haircuts on friends but, otherwise, much the same. Part of me is confused - how on earth did the old neighbourhood keep going even after I left? How does life keep on keeping on even in our absence?

Culture shock is not really an adequate word. Less than the shock of plunging your hand in freezing cold water, this movement between place and space has that dreadful nausea like you've been on an amusement park ride too long. I want off and I want things to feel normal, though I don't even know what that is. I keep thinking that in some months, when I hopefully have a job and my own place to live and I wake up with Chris at my side and shuffle to the kitchen to fix a cup of coffee and greet the day, that is when I'll feel normal again.

Somehow too I think there are different kinds of cultural nausea. My head spins when I go from Canada to Finland but the South-North business is so much harsher, so much more extreme. On CBC this afternoon was a program trying to allow people in new subdivisions the right, contrary to the developer's rules, to have a clothes line and hang their laundry out to dry. "It doesn't make sense," comes the voice of the interviewee, "that on a day like today that is sweltering and where we want to conserve energy, that people can't put their clothes on the line to dry." What's news to me isn't the efforts to fight for the right to hang our clothes, rather it's that I never knew that it could be banned in the first place! Whatever makes more sense than being able to take your wet clothes and throw them on a piece of string, use a couple of clips and let the sun and the wind do precisely what they do best? Since when does a machine that sucks energy and resources to manufacture, ship, maintain and dispose of make more sense? It's these types of crazy anachronisms that make coming 'home' so much more difficult. I just don't understand when we lost ourselves like this.

I keep starting thoughts with, "In Ghana..." which is a bad sign. I want to be able to keep the lessons I learned, remember and honour the people and experiences. In many ways, my time in El Salvador and Nicaragua hasn't so much faded as been woven into the fabric of who I am. But Ghana is still centre stage and I find myself constantly comparing, constantly throwing out so much of what goes on in Canada because in Ghana, in Ghana, in Ghana... In Ghana, most people eat food that is grown locally. In Ghana, food isn't so processed, packaged and marketed. In Ghana, people are more freely generous without strings attached. In Ghana, spaces are more open and you can access people more easily without the oceans of bureaucracy to wade through first. In Ghana, parenting isn't an exercise in anxiety (no offense to all my friends who are new parents - this is more of a broader observation than an individual one). In Ghana, family is basically anyone who shares any relation to you in any way. In Ghana, people buy locally produced fabrics that are sewn by local tailors and brandnames have no dominion. In Ghana, big women are beautiful and are news anchors, movie stars, models. In Ghana, in Ghana... The list goes on. And then keeps going.

So I find myself back in the land of plenty where it's not uncommon to pat ourselves on the back to say, "We should be happy we weren't born there," or where you eat the last morcel because, "There are children starving in Africa," or where pictures of emaciated black children are on a cardboard box at the local West Indian roti shop with a few pennies lie at the bottom. I don't know what to make of any of this, of any of the changes or the differences. Most of all, I don't quite know how to live myself, to let it go while at the same time never letting up.



Tuesday, May 22, 2007


1. Gaudi building in Barcelona, 2. central Spain, 3. M at Picasso Museum (Barcelona), 4. Barcelona Buskers, 5. this is where they slaughter bulls for sport, 6. Dali toys, 7. Barcelona building


Here's Miia's good friend Benoit giving us a fascinating lecture on New Caledonian history.


The first three are funky old architectural gems, then you have Edinburgh Castle, and lastly, dusk dancers preparing for fire festival.

Orkney canyon


1. Orkney cliffs, 2. reflected hills, 3. blue skies, 4. sheepy campground, 5. black rock walk, 6. orkey standing rock monolith


1. Miia on the open mic, 2. glasgow cityscape, 3. a framed photo at the legion of my great-auntie ella, who is still held in great esteem there, 4. daldowie: my grandmother's resting place


1. dandy field near Oxford, 2. London friends Andrei and Gemma, 3. Cheddar (in Summerset) and its gorge, 4. bloggers unite, 5. Megan at work, 6. Jonothan and Andrew Steed in Warwick (they used to be part of Miia's youth group at Agricola Church in Trana)

final ghana pics

1. lone hawker, 2. pro soccer match, 3. kojo (chris) and kofi, 4. dacosta, miia, kwaku, mary, chantal, chris at airport, 5. pedestrian mall, 6. mary in churchwear, 7. paper team, 8. elena and ilona, 9. nkrumah and kuffuor ghana@50

around ghanagain

1. The boys love their ice cream, 2. fisher mending nets, 3. chris on canopy walk, 4. miia on canopy walk, 5. little lizard big lizard (these pictures courtesy of our friend H)

around Ghana

1. cape coast peninsula, 2. cape coast slave castle, 3. pretty waves, 4. conor miia chris behind kintampo waterfall, 5. city bats!, 6. slave dungeon, 7. memorial reef for ancestral slaves, 8. gate of no return, 9. elmina, 10. water on rocks, 11 & 12. rainforest canopy, 13. conor on canopy walk, 14. spiderwebs, 15. memorial plaque at slave castle