Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Little update on the Tree hugger story

I wrote a couple weeks ago about the felling of trees all over the city of Accra, and especially in one traffic circle that had massive trees over 100 years old.

We drove by the site the other day and noticed scores of workmen scurrying around, and vehicles from the Telecom company and the Public works all parked around the circle.

It turns out that in their infinite wisdom, they decided to finish their annihilation of the trees by digging up the massive roots... and in the process they managed to dig up an entire exchange worth of telephone wires as well as the water pipes supplying a whole neighborhood. The costs in materials alone to repair the damage is estimated at USD$30,000.

All this, in preparation to erect a statue of one of Ghana's highly important political figures.

Go figure.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Another look at Oprah Winfrey's charities

I really think it must be told - just what goes on when it comes to charities in Africa and the corruption that surrounds the whole 'industry'. Billions are 'donated' to a myriad of causes, and no one cares to know the authenticity of these charities! It's easier to pay the money and feel better about yourself and never look back. Take Oprah Winfrey who makes people's lives brighter by donating money to countless causes. Her generosity makes all the middle class North American women get that warm fuzzy feeling. I would probably have this same feeling, and be inspired after an hour of Oprah on the TV in my middle class livingroom. That is, if I didn't know too much.

I'm here to tell you it ain't that simple.

Oprah has turned her sights on South Africa over the past 5 years, in light of the abolition of Apartheid and the rise of the ANC. The Oprah Winfrey show, along with the NBA, became involved with a woman called 'Mama Jackey' back in 2001, in support of her home for orphaned and wayward black youth. They even invited Mama and 'her children' to the States to showcase their cause on the Oprah Show a few years ago.

Since then, Mama Jackey and her kids have been involved in quite a few arrests and court cases back home. A well known South African investigative reporting Television Show called Carte Blanche has uncovered the entire Ithuteng home and 'Trust' to be a fraud. They interviewed the teens who all admitted that the stories they told the sponsors were prompted by Mama Jackey, and were completely false. Their tears were fake, their parents are still alive and well. The Ithuteng home was said to house hundreds of orphaned and abandoned children and Oprah donated over USD$1 million for this house and scholarships for the students in 2005.

Carte Blanche investigated and discovered the monies had gone missing. No scholarships were being paid and the home remained empty. Jackey has since been charged with assault, kidnapping of reporters, and the finances of Ithuteng are under scutiny. It is a scam. It has always been a scam.

And the most disturbing part is that the Oprah show was contacted back in November 2006 when the scandal was unveiled. They had NO COMMENT.

And again this month, when contacted about the recent developments in the pending cases and discoveries, they had NO COMMENT. In fact, the Oprah Winfrey Foundation's official representative in South Africa, Mrs. Patricia Molaba was arrested this very week as a co-conspirator in the kidnapping of a reporter this month ... and the other person charged in the same crime? Mama Jackey Maarohanye.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

What we saw on our walk to the Supermarket today

I am just a simple suburban girl from Canada. Or am I? Can I say that now, after ten years living the deepest darkest heart of Africa? I've only seen snow for about 10 days in 10 years! What kind of Canadian does that make me?

Well I can say that it makes me a person who's seen alot of life that falls far outside the 'box' of the modern western suburban reality. I live with the constant ironies that typify modern Africa. Take today for example. J and I decided to hit the 'Supermarket' (one of two stores in Ghana that features more than 5 aisles of food products for sale - no illusions of a Loblaws Superstore here!). We decided we also needed a bit of exercise so we parked the car at the shop and took a walk up the main street in Accra that leads from the airport down through the town and ends at the beach (at the Atlantic Ocean). This road has been all decorated with flags and banners congratulating Ghana on it's 50th Anniversary of Independence from British rule. That topic will be a whole other post, laden with my pessimistic take on the whole anti-progress.

As we strolled along in the heat, to my right was the four foot deep open gutter, absolutely stinking with months worth of excrement, plastic bags, and basically thick deep green slime, and on our left, the hustle bustle of trotros (the overcrowded public taxi vans), taxis honking to get our attention and various other vehicles that would make a roadworthy inspector choke... A lovely walk along a main road in Accra.

I noticed a group of boys ahead of us on the pavement, jostling each other around, quite happy and pumped up on that preteen boy confidence. They had a pet dog in tow and something one of the boys carried was the centre of attention amongst them. We walked a bit faster and caught up, and as we did I noticed that what the boy held by it's long wiry tail was a fairly large animal of some description. It was not just any animal - it was a very fat, (enormous in fact) rodent. It was a rat. A great big sewer fed rat. It became obvious that the boys had been on a hunt of sorts - the one who held the beast was wearing a sock on his hand, caked with indescribable chunks of filth. All the boys carried long sticks which were sharpened at one end as well. They had gone looking for a rat in the sewers, with all their gear, in the same way boys might head out fishing in a pond... And they had been very lucky.

My experience leads me to know what happened next, after they turned off the main road where we strolled- they would get it home to their compound, and their arrival with this catch would attract quite a bit of attention - those who would envy them, those who would say they had caught bigger ones in their day - none of the feedback would be negative.

The boys would start up a fire outside on a black coalpot and burn the hair off the beast, after which it would be turned with care over the fire and shared - cut into chunks, bones and all - between the hunters and possibly a few morsels to the hungry onlookers.

This is Accra. We meanwhile arrived back at the Supermarket, headed in with our trolley and proceeded to buy variety pack breakfast cereals, sliced ham for sandwiches, some milk, frozen bacon, eggs. We did avoid the iceburg lettuce though - it was on special for the equivalent of USD$12 - imported for those who would splurge...

Did I say I lived in a place full of ironies? Total opposites? Two worlds.....

Monday, February 19, 2007

America reaches a new level of insanity

Well today marks one of the most inane and pathetic days in American history. Britney Spears tufts of hair for sale on ebay for upwards of $1 million... check it out! I kid you not.

This takes the American obsession with Pop Idols to a whole new level. It reminds me of Marilyn Munroe, Michael Jackson, Paris Hilton and the late Anna Nicole Smith to name few. All of these people craved fame, and got so much it ate them up. Michael is alive still, but his sanity was lost a very long time ago. Paris too, but she will crack. Her sexual escapades are just the beginning. Britney started out as some promoter's molded child star, managed to make the big jump to teen idol and then never grew up. She is now supposed to be a mother?! What a joke. She is now cracking under all the pressure. She's been looking like an absolute slob for months and the media catches every second of it. The break up with her scum sucking leech of a hubby seems to have been the final straw. She has now shaved her head amidst a frenzy of paparazzi and is crying out. But for what?!!! We envy these people, we become obsessed, we idolize - at the same time we resent them, we loathe them, we can't wait to get a magazine full of photos exposing their cellulite, the blob of ice cream they spilled on their shirt, the coveted photos of a hollywood superstar picking their nose. We kill them intentionally and with malice. We build them up as gods only to knock them back down. Do we really need to feel they are just slobs like us? Would it not have been easier just to acknowledge their humanity from the beginning? What makes Britney's hair worth a million dollars? It's over-processed and has split ends. How is it that when she commits suicide in the next few days or weeks or years, people will care more about the things she left behind than the life that was destroyed? Modern society is warped my friends. We all need a new outlook, a new perspective but it's nowhere in sight.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Great British humour

As a North American, I suppose I'm supposed to find Jim Carrey hilarious and Jack Black a laugh a minute. I suppose I should giggle at the antics of Adam Sandler or movies like 'Scary Movie'. Well I just don't. When I was growing up my Mom used to say I had a warped sense of humour. I think I've found her definition of warped in moderm British comedy. I love it. The best show on TV these days hands down is a hilarious skit show called The Catherine Tate Show. She is truly talented. Backed up by a great support cast, Catherine has standard skits and characters and they never fail to make me laugh. The best character on the Catherine Tate Show is 'Nan' - she actually becomes a crotchety old woman and lives the part. It's brilliant. An example from youtube added here for your viewing pleasure. Many more of the skits can be found by searching youtube. Watch - enjoy - laugh!

Little Britain is another one I love, but it walks the fine line between humour and vulgarity. I usually don't mind that line, so I get a laugh out of it too.

I felt it my duty to turn my fellow North Americans on to some modern comedy that is actually funny and involves some serious talent.

Friday, February 16, 2007

For Shiloh

If you were a farmer you’d plant pumpkins

Huge orange nuclear blast pumpkins!

If you were a singer you would wear a white suit and carry a shiny ebony walking stick

You’d have a purple satin handkerchief in your pocket on display

And you’d wear a fedora to match the suit

You would tip the hat forward and wink at all the ladies as you took over the stage…

If you were a bird you would soar higher than happiness

And deeper than 6 oceans

You would grace the sky of my mind with indigo paint brush wings

Touch my cheek so briefly and float on past

Making speed look like a breeze

If you were pink candy floss

You would melt and still be crunchy in my teeth

Fresh and warm and comforting

But you would disappear if I tried to hold you

On my tongue

I would be left with the remnants of u

You cannot be held

You are more than man and mountains below u are small

Though I can’t see u

I feel your red sports car energy

With a yellow lightning stripe down your soul that can only be glimpsed as you

Pass in an instant

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Cut out cut flowers at Valentines...

I have a problem with cut flowers. I know it goes against all romantic notions, but the truth is that I find the whole concept to be wasteful and destructive and far too indulgent. My idea of indulgence is chocolate. Now that is a luxury worth savoring! There's a great idea for a Valentine gift... hint hint

Ok - the thing is that I do love flowers. In Ghana I have the privilege of being surrounded by gorgeous bouganvillia (sp.?) bushes, hanging heavy with all shades of pink flowers, and oleander trees and the famous birds of paradise. I love all of them. But to me the thought of cutting them, for the purpose of shoving them into an ugly glass vase to watch them perish over the next few days is futile, not to mention sadistic. Why?! Enjoy them in nature! Take a walk in a park!
That was my rant for the day.

Valentine's Day as a 'holiday' is also another strange one. In Nigeria, all the men in an office bring cakes into the office for all the ladies. I like that idea, mostly because it involves cake. But i find the whole thing is blown far out of proportion in West Africa. A typical Valentine card costs 20,000 cedis, or about $2 - however in context, this is almost double the minimum wage per day in Ghana. Do we need to be promoting an empty holiday to a 'Highly Impoverished Poor Country - HIPC' (which Ghana declared itself officially a few years ago), whereby the commercial side of love is marketed without any historical background, to a naive and impressionable market?

I believe a kiss and hug daily would do all of us a world of good instead.

Monday, February 12, 2007

I've got a bone to pick with Oprah

I guess I've got a few bones to pick with Oprah. All of them involve her 'work' in Africa. The most recent applies to her touching story of October 2006, where her correspondent comes to Ghana, West Africa to investigate the horror of child trafficking and child slavery. I hate to say it, but what a joke!! No westerner will understand me unless they can get a feel for what I've seen here, absorb what is Ghana and what it is not, and what makes it tick. It's all welll and good for Oprah to help Katrina victims in the States, and get involved in domestic abuse issues. She is great at fulfilling dreams of middle Americans, but it becomes much more dangerous and highly inappropriate when she and her well meaning crew decide to take on the world! The world is not America, and the diversity in cultures is something she can only pay lip service to, and never hope to skim the surface of understanding.

This article can be found on the Oprah site, complete with pictures and touching words.

But it's empty. It takes the Western ideas of childhood and security, and pulls at our heartstrings by showing us the faces of seemingly innocent children whom we relate in our hearts and minds to our own. The truth is that these children live in a whole different world. Their parents have 5 to 20 children. They are poor to a level which is uncomprehensible to Westerners, they sold their own children for $20 or whatever minimal amount, just to have one less mouth to feed. They do not want these children back. Life is no better for them once the righteous NGO's of the world have gotten involved for a week or a month and liberated them. The truth is that the foreigners go away, and life goes back to normal and there's still no money and no moral obligation for the parents to keep from selling them again. The article mentions how the Government of Ghana is trying to change the plight of these kids. That is absolutely false. That I can guarantee with my eyes closed. They may make convincing speeches to guarantee the continued influx of foreign aid, but the truth is that the government here is more concerned with sending the children of it's core members to Yale and Harvard, and buying bigger and better vehicles. There is no welfare system in Ghana. It is a survival of the fittest out in the villages here. We are working at a level so far removed from the West, that the West's solutions are absurd and useless here. In Ghana when a child dies, the funeral is small or non-existent compared to an aged person. This is because there is an intrinsic belief that the life of a child is worthless. Only when someone has survived this life for many years are they respected.

There is also a level of ignorance in the villages that defies western understanding, and is not going to change in the near future. Rural communities have been subjected to the World Health Organization's campaigns to end malaria for decades. Still, a recent study in Northern Ghana showed that the majority of adults had no idea of the link between mosquitos and malaria. Babies are born, and many times the correlation between sex and procreation is not made! Babies die, and people believe they or the family has been cursed.

Ghana is a society which still has tribal shrines where families are obligated to give up their children to the ownership of the lead medicine man, to atone for sins of their forefathers. Ghanaians have no problem with these customs. They are old and they represent traditional culture, and if change will come, it must come gradually. Oprah and her crews are like band-aids that dontt stick, placed on gaping wounds. It just won't work.

I can guarantee that the seven children saved from slavery by one of Oprah's viewers, will suffer at their new orphanage and that the Orphanage owner will benefit personally and without guilt from the donations that will follow. This is Ghana.
More bones to pick later...

Tree hugger Part 2

Well the event happened. A bunch of well meaning artsy types got together on Saturday afternoon to protest the cutting of the trees, and my curiosity found me there are well.

An Australian lady living in Ghana and married to an ambassador, headed up the event, organizing everyone and funding the materials for the art that decorated the venue, as well as paying some local musicians and buying some boxes of bottled water. She is always involved in these meaningful artistic slanted events, and is the head of the local arts association as well. If I didn't have to work or choose to work for a living, I hope I'd be as righteous in my endeavors!

They had a pretty good turn out, and it was announced that all government bodies in Ghana had been contacted to explain the tree fellings, and each one denied knowledge or responsibility. Then some people wrote poems and read them aloud, others sang and played the trumpet and made noble speeches. However, the most poignant speech was by a tiny quite man who's command of English was minimal and stage presence almost non-existent. He is the little man who sells little tin airplanes at the traffic circle.
He's been there, under a tree, using it's branches to hang his little figurines forever it seems. At least for as long as I've been here, and that's past a decade now! Anyway, I had only wanted to hear the opinion on all this destruction, from a Ghanaian. He is the most affected Ghanaian. He whispered the story of how all the trees at the circle had been just as big when he was a little boy, meaning that they were quite old. He talked of each type of bird that had made these trees their home over the years, including those that stopped here on their migration path for years and years. He commented that those birds would not be back now that the trees were gone. He also pointed to the roads leading all four directions from the circle. "There used to be many trees on this road and that one too. But now the developers, they want the people to have city view. So the trees have been removed. Next the tree that provides me shelter may go, and if that happens, I will have to go as well." Then he bowed his head and was finished. I think that got to all of us. I mean it's easy to come into a country and tell people their ideas are wrong or destructive or backward, but it is touching when we witness an environmentalist at heart. A man who is as close to nature as we are too our sofas and TV remotes... It's sad for this reason that the trees keep going down.

Friday, February 9, 2007

I've been called a treehugger...

As a good Canadian export, I've been called a treehugger by Brits, South Africans, and various others. The truth is, I'm nothing like a tree hugger! I leave that to the experts.

I have never been much of an environmentalist, except for a couple bursts of motivation during the University years when I refused to use wrapping paper at Christmas and rolled all my family's presents up in the household bath towels and put them under the tree (didn't seem an issue that there was a whole tree felled for the occasion and put up on display!)... It was quite a profound stand in my mind, against the such frivolous use of the valuable and finite resource of paper. This lasted the Christmas season and was forgotten even before my New Years resolutions.

I've always found the blue box recycling campaign annoying - yet I was forced to adopt the habit by my mother at an early age. Here in Ghana there's no such thing as recycling, unless you include the fact that most items you throw away are combed over and dragged away by those less fortunate... So admittedly, although I've always loved the look of trees - especially coconut and palm trees - I've never been an advocate for promoting a green lifestyle.

However, even I have to draw the line at what is happening around me today. They are cutting all the trees down in Accra!!! It's absolutely tragic. Trees that have been growing for hundreds of years, that are landmarks in their own right! Trees that have provided shade and add a majestic quality to the squalor below.. are being mercilessly chopped at the base. Dead. And painted white afterwards in some cases!

It's absurd and disturbing and if you ask any Ghanaian why this is happening, no one knows - there are a few theories from the confident taxi drivers - but truthfully no one knows and no one seems to care. There has been a call for protest against this 'logging effort' in the capital city of Ghana, by a group of foriegners. Artists, diplomats, NGO workers all seem to be highly upset and want to hold a vigil around the most recent site of massacres, a traffic circle in the Cantonments area.

I can't help but to wonder how useless this effort is. Firstly, we are all foreigners, living in a culture that we imposed ourselves on. We don't even know exactly who is responsible -we just believe it to be an arm of local government, and what we do know is that the moment a new tree is felled, there are troops of local people arriving with wheelbarrows and trolleys and some just carry the tree limbs away on their heads. For them it's free firewood. These people are poor! What do they care about the beauty of a tree?! The famous psychologist Maslow theorised that humans must meet their heirarchy of needs
in a specific order. Survival is the basic element. Environmental, let alone aesthetic appreciation, comes far further up the pyramid of needs!

Basically what I am saying, after 10 years of living in Ghana, is that you cannot come in from the outside with ideas and moral slants that we consider 'normal', and expect them to be adopted into the hearts of another culture.

Some Ghanaians think the tree felling is horrible. Most of these people have been abroad and have adopted the idea that trees have value in the world. For the average Ghanaian in the street, and more so for the government worker who is following this mysterious order to cut all the trees down, the concern is just not there. A bunch of white guys holding hands around a traffic circle is just not going to change that.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Visit to Nigeria

We spent the week in Lagos last week…

What a country! I thought Abidjan was full of contrasts – mostly due to the disparity between the French neo-colonialists and the poor masses, with a good dose of modern corrupt tribal African politics… Nigeria has managed to take this to a whole different level.

We actually went to the Opera at the Yacht Club on Saturday night. In Lagos! Imagine a subculture of Expats functioning within a country of over 120 million people where poverty, pollution and corruption abound. These people take their drivers through the insane city streets, arriving at selected destinations that include an American run Mexican restaurant, (serving pitchers of Margheritas at over USD $40 each!), the famous Yacht club, a variety of shopping malls and supermarkets, Thai and Sushi restaurants, steak houses, tennis clubs, hotels etc etc… There are book clubs and International school PTA events and other activities to keep a kept Expat wife busy between her trips abroad. And all this in the midst of a nation ridden with corruption and violence and near complete upheaval. And the elections are right around the corner – due to take place in April. But of course all the Expats will be on vacation during those few weeks. The outcome is completely unknown, but the stakes are high.

Considering Nigeria is about the 6th largest oil producer in the world, the revenue that comes into the country on a daily basis is massive. The government controls and squanders unaccountable amounts of this. $600billion over the past half a decade at least. Being in power basically means access to billions, and some are willing and ready to kill for that position. It puts a whole new slant on democracy and the concept of free and fair elections!

Kidnappings of Expat oilworkers is at about 5 a week over the past couple of months, as local villages are suffering the effects of the oil plants, with no tangible benefit. Meanwhile the percentages paid by these companies to the governments disappear as soon as they are received. The result is a corrupt government turning a blind eye and the villagers seeing the white devil in close proximity. The laws are weak and the enforcement is non-existent. The boys are poor and desperate and the outcome is


This being said, we all manage to eek out our slice of the swirling money pie that hovers around the top circles in Nigeria, and business survives.. in a very Darwinian fashion!

See more of these amazing pictures in the Vanity Fair article.

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