Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Hair woes - culture shock at the saloon

I have definitely written enough Ghana criticism for at least a few days. Even I am wincing under the negativity. Even if all I wrote is true… Time to think about the lighter side of life.

I received a mail today from a guy who happened upon my blog – always nice when that happens… Anyway, after the usual ‘niceties’ between bloggers, “Great blog! Keep it up!” etc., he directed me to his blog, which is actually a link to his book called The Year of No Money in Tokyo. My curiousity was peaked so I went to ‘visit’ the site. It’s got a lot of great photos he’s taken in Japan that appeal to the ‘kitsch’ in every westerner. I love the ‘lost in translation’ signs in Asia…

I also jumped around on the site and found a great post he had written, which was featured in the Washington Post, about his experience getting his first haircut in Tokyo. He is a black American guy and had avoided the barber shops for fear of the blank looks he’d get when he walked in. The complete lack of experience they would have with his type of hair, and the social awkwardness that would ensue. And it did…
I can totally relate. My hair has been subjected to a myriad of cultural ‘mishaps’ in Ghana. In fact, in hair terms, it could be called abuse.

First memory I have is back in my volunteer days – the days where I would try anything... I had happened upon a free hair treatment offer at a trade fair near my office. A local company that sells African hair products had set up a makeshift salon and was offering a variety of treatments. I decided I would be spontaneous and dye my hair.
I have had it dyed every colour in the book over the years, from nasty brass blond courtesy the 80’s fad spray, Sun-in, to black and accidentally green in my teen years (trying to mix permanent black dye with a temporary rinse that hadn’t been drastic enough), to pink (during my downtown Toronto punkish-steel-toe-boots-with-miniskirts phase), to every colour of highlights, from chunky blond to 6 colour tiger stripes…. SO, what harm could a box of free hair dye, applied by professionals do?

Bad question, worse answer. The first thing is that I got that blank stare when I entered the little flimsy walled salon (however to be precise, it was a saloon- all hair salons in Ghana are called saloons… bring to mind some bar in the wild west with swinging doors! But I digress) –the blank stares from the hair technicians and the chattering ladies in the seats. I know what went through all of their minds, “An obruni?! (the local Twi term for white person or foreigner). Obruni hair is different. It’s like straw! What would she want us to do to it?!”. In retrospect I should have followed their instincts… and turned right back around. But I am stubborn and was determined.

I piped up and shoved my way to the front of the loosely formed queue. I chose my box of dye from the shelf – it showed a confident African American lady, with a relaxed smile and very short, tightly curled golden blond hair.
The hair colour made a nice contrast with her toasty brown complexion. And then there is me. Dark brown hair. Long, straight. Somewhat pale skin (some say olive complexion, but my high school science teacher was convinced I had yellow jaundice due to the yellow undertones in my skin). Basically blond hair would not compliment my complexion. The chances were it would make me look sullen and ill, but as I mentioned, I am stubborn and was now fully determined.

The lady sat me down and a small crowd formed to watch her section my long, bone straight brown locks and lather with the strong smelling dye. Though she pulled my hair in the most awkward way and tangled it beyond recognition, she managed to sauce it all up and then tied a plastic bag around my head. In the busy salon I was promptly forgotten. I sat observing the activity around me. Sweat trickled down my scalp and the itching was intense, but I feared touching my head, thinking it might squish the toxic dye out around the corners of the plastic and scorch my neck or ears or even blind myself. So I sat patiently and waited. And waited.
And time escaped me, and eventually many of the women who had been in the salon when I arrived had left and a new set of chattering bodies filled the space around me. I was gripped with panic. I knew they had forgotten me and that the dye had been left in too long.

I frantically pointed to my head and said “excuse me” to the general area where the technicians buzzed about. One of them looked at me. I saw surprise and fear pass briefly across her face. She had realized exactly what I had realized. The obruni!! We forgot about the obruni!

They all whisked me over to the sinks and spoke in hushed Twi, one of the local languages that I am semi proficient in…I heard enough to know they were worried.
They washed and rinsed and gasped. They literally gasped!

I forced my torso upward like a rocket, pushing against their hands that fought against me. I caught a glimpse of myself and also gasped.
My wet hair was white. Bright, milk white with a yellowish tobacco stained hue to it. It glowed.

No one knew what to do. But in true Ghanaian spirit, the same enthusiasm that can convince you a shoe fits you when your heel is hanging an inch off the back, they tried to console me.

“Madame, it looks nice! It will be ok.”

I was incredulous and sick to my stomach. “NO! You have to fix it! I have to give a presentation tomorrow!” (and that was true).

They explained that there was nothing they could do for at least two weeks as my hair was now very weak and might all fall out if they tried to dye over it.
I was weak in the knees and just stood up and walked out the door, back toward my office. EVERYONE stared at me.

On the way, through my tears, one man approached me. “Are you albino or a white?” he asked, genuinely curious and definitely not shy. I just kept walking.

When I got to the office the gasping continued. My boss took me aside. “What happened? What have they done to you?!”. I broke into tears. (Tears do not go over well in Ghana unless someone has died.). Everyone was awkward. My boss started shouting about these stupid, uneducated, inexperienced girls…and she demanded we walk straight back there and force them to fix it.

My other colleagues came up and touched my hair. Many laughed, most shook their heads and commiserated with me. I just wanted to disappear. I wanted my mommy, I wanted to start the day over and not have decided to be bold and spontaneous…

My boss was a very powerful Ghanaian woman. Standing 6 feet tall with an unforgiving stare and steel eyes, you never wanted to be on her bad side. She dragged me back up to the salon and through the crowds, who parted and whispered, and she presented me like something the cat dragged in. She laid into them all, pointing at the disaster they had created. Their comeback was priceless:

“But madam! The obruni! Her hair is different! She insisted we use the product on her hair but it is not meant for her! The hair is weak and soft! It’s not our fault!” and the others all nodded in sympathy. And the all looked at me as if I could explain. How dare I try and circumvent nature? Be something I wasn’t…
I wanted to disappear.

Eventually one of the women begrudgingly agreed to dye it over with a midbrown, but her disclaimer was shouted to all the witnesses in the room. “If her hair falls out, it’s not my fault.”

The next fifteen minutes of dye time was carefully measured, but took a few slow hours, while my stress levels reached a crescendo – convinced I would be bald…
My hair did not fall out, though it remained a strange, tye dyed reddish colour for weeks and I feared even brushing it as it felt like powder that could blow away at the slightest tug…

Sadly this is not the end of my hair nightmares in Ghana. It takes a lot to tame a stubborn girl and many more cultural faux pas before I gave up on the cross cultural hair adventures…

To be continued….

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Carrying dead bodies – punishment for bad parking in Accra

I was not shocked when I heard the story, but then I’ve been in Ghana a long time now… Here the authority of the military is many times unquestioned and more times abused by the ones in the uniforms. Human rights organizations would be up in arms, if they knew, if they cared. Ghana is not high on the radar though for these organizations. Ghana is the ever-promising ‘Gateway to Africa’! Embassies pop up here from every country on the globe, and investment is flowing in. In fact, this monthly ironically, CanademVolunteers, a Canadian International Development forum highlighted an article where “Ghana is Commended on Good Human Rights Record”.

Meanwhile, for the man in the street, life goes on – cowboy style, where those with a shred of authority lord it over those with less or none.

A couple of weeks ago, the ‘army boys’ up at the 37 Military hospital (home of the infamous bats in the trees above), decided it was time to stop a growing practice that was causing some congestion on the throughway in front of the hospital. The private mini vans which take the place of a formal public transport system, have organized themselves over the years in Ghana, into fairly organized associations and each driver/vehicle belongs to a specific organization, with a specific route and stopping points. The hospital in question has become an unofficial meeting point for the vehicles – ‘tro tros’ to all of us in Ghana. This does create quite a mess, as the drivers pull over ‘en mass’, and chaos ensues, with hundreds of street sellers, shouting, scurrying and touting their wares to those getting into, hanging out the windows of, and transiting the tro tros. Passengers dart around as well, and can be seen dashing out in front of the oncoming traffic… a very unsafe practice and a nuisance to all.

However, methods of dealing with this in other societies might be to:

A) Create a public transport system with designated stations
B) Or at least, create a designated station for the existing associations of tro tros.
C) Add no stopping, no parking signs and have a police patrol in front of the hospital

I doubt that physically dragging the drivers and their ‘mates’ (the guys who hang out the door calling out the destination and collecting money from the passengers), down into the mortuary of the hospital and forcing them into hard labour would be on the list.

Hundreds of drivers over the course of a few days were physically beaten and made to do such things as weed the lawns of the hospital, clean the floors of the mortuary, and even clean and carry corpses within the mortuary.

When asked about this highly disturbing and unwarranted form of punishment, the lady in charge, a lieutenant colonel, said “We need to teach them a lesson”.
Are these children? Are there no laws? And what ethics do the lawgivers possess – to force a citizen, without arrest or proof of guilt of a crime, to carry a dead body? What humour or justice or sense of righteousness is there in something as twisted as this??

The whole story is covered in the Ghana media, but not worthy of mention apparently at the BBC or any of the other foreign media houses, who rear their inquisitive heads, when there is a story ‘worthy of global attention’.

Instead Ghana is left to deal with these 'local matters', these incidents, which are numerous and far less reported outside of Accra, certainly. What does the government feel? Is this practice acceptable in their view?

They have not been available or perhaps not even asked to comment. For his part, the Brigadier General did comment that this goes against their regulations on dealing with civilians.

What will the repercussions be? What about the psychological affect on those forced into this bizarre punishment? What about their rights?

Well, the officers may be questioned.


Thursday, July 24, 2008

Ghana gets a gold medal in hypocrisy

I’m sure I’m going to develop the reputation of being a negative person – what with all my rants about Ghana and Africa in general.

This is not true, as Ghana has hosted me and shaped my life for over a decade and there have been countless experiences I would not change for the world. But it just never ceases to amaze me what goes on here from a political and economic perspective, while the governments of the developed world and the International Aid community turns a conveniently blind eye.

A recent article on the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation site, highlights the appalling decisions made by the government, with regard to public funds. The article is simply called “Ghana spends $1.4million on gold medals”. No catchy title needed. The story even raised eyebrows at BBC.

How, you might ask, can a country that solicits for and attracts billions of dollars in Aid every year from governments and NGOs globally, turn around and frivolously spend over one million dollars to honour some local ‘VIPs’??!! They were 18 carat gold medals, no less...

Aha – welcome to Ghana. Our outgoing president (elections to be held later this year), honoured himself at last week’s ceremonies with a $65,000 gold medallion….
A fellow blogger in Ghana, the ever positive and inspiring Kajsa, recently blogged about this story directly after a story about how Ghana is making changes in the health care system, to facilitate free maternity care for all. It would seem to balance this story out…

But if you look closely, you’ll discover that the free healthcare initiative is being sponsored by the British government, to a tune of $42 million pounds. How do the British taxpayers feel – seeing both these stories in juxtaposition? Why should the British government feel a sense of responsibility and care when the Ghanaian government cannot demonstrate this same level of concern for their own citizens by sacrificing, even once, and putting their money where their mouths are. As elections are coming up, the empty promises of the political campaigns are at an all time high.
Besides the fact that the Ghanaian government is not somehow accountable to it’s people, with it's reckless spending in the face of the abject poverty suffered by the majority, there is the other persistent question….

If Ghana was named The Gold Coast in the past and remains Africa's second largest exporter of gold, why on earth would they have to import these gold medals at such a ridiculous price tag in the first place??

Ghana exports unprocessed gold. The processing and refining into the profitable gold bars is all done outside it's borders.

Had the governments of the past or present in Ghana been forward thinking, perhaps the country would have supplied their own medals, and been bringing in $millions$ today in orders for gold medals from other frivolous spending governments…

Maybe they would even spend some of the profits on social welfare projects... but that is the Ghana of fantasy for now...

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

What I Saw on the Way Home From Work

Back when I lived in the city centre of Toronto, my walk home from work could be quite interesting, given that my apartment was located above a dodgy martial arts studio on a main street, opposite the largest Psychiatric hospital in the country. I could bump into a wide variety of eccentrics, intensely chewing on cigarette butts or pacing in ever shrinking circles. In the evenings I would meet ladies of the night on duty, taking shelter from the wind in the stairwell. I always thought it sweet of them to ask "How was work". "Fine thanks!" I'd blurt out and add another comment about the bad weather, but never looking them in the eye or inquiring as to their 'work'... My embarassment for the most part....

Now that I live in Ghana, all traces of embarassment have been washed away by heat, time and a generous helping of in your face reality. I have long ago been hit by the stark truth that everyone is too concerned about their own troubles to focus on my shyness or lack of it.

On my trip home from work on any given day I will see things that Toronto does not have in it's vast list of possibilities or imagination. The cigarette chewing, mumblers would be fascinated, I'm sure.

And now I am never too timid to inquire, observe, absorb.

Yesterday was a work day like any other. Drove through Accra's streets and turned into our 'upper middle class' (a very rare breed this side of the world) neighborhood. We turned off the main paved road and onto the loosely defined cul-de-sac dead end dirt road we live on. As usual, we passed the local boys - some belong to the lady who runs the corner store out of a metal shipping container, and the others seem to have no home at all. They are always amusing themselves on the side road, and bow out of the way as the 4x4 pulls around the corner. We veered into the drive, honking subconsciously at the large looming gate, for the guard to swing'er open.

Except the boys looked more excited than usual, they were dancing around something, and there were flames behind them. So my curiousity won a short internal battle and I jumped ship and went to 'say hi'.

They were all too happy to show me their proud catch - roasting, popping, bubbling and ashen, limbs hardened and extended over the bicycle tyre fire. "It's a goat!" the smallest one, Solomon piped up. The others moved aside to display it. Face up in clenched defiance, the goat burned, singed black, hair gone up in a putrid acrid smoke swirl. It's captors wholly excited and obviously proud. "We'll all chop!" (A Ghanaian slang meaning to eat). "Snap us!" (another Ghanaian term, for take a photo). I happily obliged. I was then cordially invited to join the barbeque which I declined but promised, in that ever hopeful Ghanaian way, "Next time!".

I slipped through the gate and closed that world behind me. The sharp contrast that faces me daily was right at my gate today. The smoke billowed up and over the gate and led me, as if by the hand, to my door where we parted ways again. The smoke, back to it's fire and the laughter of excited children. Me, into the air-conditioned cocoon, where meat is something on the weekly grocery list, bought filleted, without head, tail, legs...normally seasoned and served with an accompaniment. And completly devoid of the sense of pride and joy experienced by the barefooted boys a few metres away...

Monday, July 21, 2008

Tuesday photo of the day - snapshot of Northern Ghana

Life in a typical Northern Ghana compound...

Heat ripples slowly, like the dry crusted back of the lizard,
Across the compound yard
Swirled up in mini tired hurricanes of sand

The air is unrelenting
It stings and burns and is uncharitable

Water stains grey skin a glossy brown
as it pours in rivulets down the limbs of the inhabitants
Like life in a dead zone, from the cool earthen pots

Life happens despite the heat
In defiance of the sun and the conspiring earth
that threatens to crack upon itself and tip inward with decay

Life thrives
Muscles ripple in response
Backs bend and thickened feet slap the scorching dirt
There is action

Voices cry out
in vibrant tones
From one compound to another
Laughter, tears,
Humanity persisting...

Photo borrowed from mt friend Krissy - a fellow Ghana traveler.

Monday's photo(shop) humour of the day

Gangsta teletubbies? Gotta love'em.

Courtesy Worth 1000.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Sundays in Ghana...

My life is a bit surreal.

A typical Sunday, (when there are no visitors to entertain or take on coastal beach tours), means waking slowly and luxuriously anywhere between 10 and noon. The lie in is standard and savoured each week.

I shove the weekend’s dishes to the side (househelp arrives tomorrow), and cook up a bacon and egg affair with a variation or two. Now that I’m on my health diet, I usually make some high fibre flax pancakes as well.
We sit down with last week’s Sunday Times (it has been mysteriously couriered to our office for the past two years every Tuesday…) and enjoy brunch.

We might download some music from the Internet or put itunes on through the rigged up laptop/stereo and blast our favourites for a few hours while puttering around.
We might grab some magazines and head out back by the pool to have a swim, but mostly just a dip to cool off.

TV comes on about 5 or 6pm, while I see what’s in the kitchen to make up for supper. If I'm really ambitious, I'll have set a roast in the slow cooker earlier... By now the dishes cover almost every visible surface… should I wash them? No! What would Gilbert do tomorrow when he arrives? To be honest, every Sunday night before flipping the kitchen light switch, I feel a twinge of embarrassment. Or is it guilt. Imagine someone seeing my kitchen like this?! But I let it pass – Sundays are a day of relaxation, and plus who am I kidding? I haven’t washed more than 5 successive dishes in more than 8 years…

Sunday evenings, lie on the couch, watch old series or documentaries on our satellite TV, maybe rent a movie and hook it up on the projector screen for a home theatre, and eventually heave our lazy selves up to bed after 11.

But this is all so isolated.

Outside the concrete walls of our vast yard, protecting our fortress, there is buzzing action on Sundays, from long before 6am. If I randomly wake very early, and listen closely, beyond the airconditioner hum, I can hear rhythmic drums. Sometimes I hear this in the distance all night.

But by 6am children across this country have handwashed their uniforms for school tomorrow and are scrubbed up and poured into their Sunday best. Sunday is church day.
From every direction, off in the distance, I hear on Sundays, the hopeful and vibrant sounds of the revivalist churches. They're called 'Charismatic' churches here. Drums and guitars and tambourines, and the massive rhythmic heave of the soul of the people, in unison, once a week, praising their God. Church here is an all day affair on Sunday. It is only by 2 or 3pm the multitudes make their way out of the churches of every description, from colossal opulent temples to half built concrete structures, to makeshift worship centres of plastic chairs, under the trees.

Sunday is fufu day in Ghana too. Fufu, being Ghana’s national dish is quite a labour intensive endeavour in it’s preparation. Everywhere in compounds, apartments and houses around the country, women are boiling plantains (large cousin of the banana, left to ripen to black on the outside), and yams and cassava, for the ritual of mortar and pestle – mashing the tubors into a gummy ball.

This ball is then placed at the bottom of a bowl, over which is poured one of three traditional soups. Light soup is a tomato/hot pepper based broth with any variety of fish and meat added. Then there is palm soup, made from the oily orange flesh of the palm kernels which hang in clusters, red skinned walnut sized seeds, at the top of all palm trees. (The method of extracting the thick fleshy pulp is again quite a long, labour intensive process). The last is groundnut soup (peanut soup). It’s base is natural peanut butter, sometimes made from scratch as part of getting supper ready. Both these soups also have the tomato/hot pepper/various meats added.

Once tummies are full, washing has been done by hand, hung to dry, it’s then pulled in after dark and ironed, and everyone drifts off to bed, mostly exhausted. It’s about 8pm.

Tomorrow is another day. By 6am the children will have completed their chores and be scrubbed up and suited up, ready to head to school, or for the many others, ready to hit the streets to sell…

By 8am, I will rise and stretch and jump into the hot shower. I can hear Gilbert downstairs, the dishes clanging. He will have cleaned a space, big enough to get breakfast ready. When we come down the places are set at the dining table, we wolf down some eggs and coffee (decaf these days), and head out the door, connect the ipod to the stereo in the car… and head to work.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Photo of the day (today being the first)

Thought I'd start this, as I've found some great artistic, funny and engaging pictures lately.

This is the closest I come to being patriotic - a great surreal view...

Maybe it's the nostalgia for snow - being that it's 32 degrees here in Accra today, with a humidex reading of over 80%, and having personally not lived through more than a week of true Ontario-style blistering cold, snowy bitter hell for over 11 years, I can freely romanticize the crisp cool beauty of the calm, sunlit snow blanket.... nice.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Ode to the tomato - eating lots prevents sunburn!!

I watched an interesting program last night, on one of my favourite channels. Keeping in mind, as an Expat in Africa there is not much choice by way of television watching. Why, you say, more time to get out there and discover the continent! But I digress...
On our satellite DTH bouquet, we get robbed of $72 per month, for about 10 watchable channels. All are showing series from a few years back at best. BBC Prime rarely disappoints though, and it's culinary cousin BBC Food has some great shows. Tonight was "The Truth About Food". (It was probably aired in the UK in 2005)

The truth, according to the experts on this witty and wise program is:

1. Detox diets don't work, they are a myth - wheatgrass shakes are disgusting and now we know it's not worth the putrid mashed lawn taste and feel!

2. Drinking 2 extra litres a day is not beneficial to our skin. Really? Wow! That means about every diet known to humankind has missed out on some scientific facts...

3. Eating brightly coloured foods is good for your health. The brighter your plate, the better the eating.

Berries help memory

Spinach helps eyesight

4. Red wine is good for you - but only 2 glasses a day and only with a meal!!!

It's apparently the French secret to healthy hearts despite all the fatty cheeses, sauces and meat they consume. However, it's the pigment in the skin that holds all the benefits so white wine doesn't substitute! Cabernet Sauvignon is apparently the best. So drink up!

5. Tomatoes help protect skin against the damaging affects of the sun. Seems a tad far fetched but they took a typical pinky, freckled Brit who had zero tolerance and burned in the mid morning winter sun of chilly Scotland... Put her on a heavy tomato diet for a month or so, and presto - she could bask in the Caribbean without a pink patch in sight! ... or something like that. Living in a climate where the sun shines 350 of 365 days, at temperatures averaging 34 degrees celcius, this knowledge comes in handy! I will incorporate more of this readily available, ungenetically mutated local crop into my diet.

I knew Pablo Neruda, who remains my favourite poet of all time, wasn't dreaming when he deified the humble tomato... poem below:

Ode To Tomatoes

The street
filled with tomatoes,
light is
its juice
through the streets.
In December,
the tomato
the kitchen,
it enters at lunchtime,
its ease
on countertops,
among glasses,
butter dishes,
blue saltcellars.
It sheds
its own light,
benign majesty.
Unfortunately, we must
murder it:
the knife
into living flesh,
a cool
populates the salads
of Chile,
happily, it is wed
to the clear onion,
and to celebrate the union
child of the olive,
onto its halved hemispheres,
its fragrance,
salt, its magnetism;
it is the wedding
of the day,
its flag,
bubble vigorously,
the aroma
of the roast
at the door,
it's time!
come on!
and, on
the table, at the midpoint
of summer,
the tomato,
star of earth, recurrent
and fertile
its convolutions,
its canals,
its remarkable amplitude
and abundance,
no pit,
no husk,
no leaves or thorns,
the tomato offers
its gift
of fiery color
and cool completeness.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Prison number Cocktail - empty giving reaches new heights

An upscale cocktail named for Nelson Mandela?! The Hollywood trendy crowd has really taken things to a new level.

This time the Cavendish Hotel in London has named a cocktail for Nelson Mandela’s prison number, and claims to be donating half the proceeds to the 46664 Aids charity… It’s made of Cognac and Cointreau of course. The recipe can be found on a website that’s “dedicated to spotting the latest trends and hunting out the coolest new products, places, events and exhibitions.”

Accountability for these funds will no doubt be nil. The point is never how far these funds go, who’s pockets are filled, whether any change comes from it. The West is just obsessed with the trendiness of donating. Why not dress up in the latest styles, head on down to the ‘be seen’ places, order and elegantly sip an extravagant cocktail or three, get a bit tipsy, and feel an overwhelming sense of self gratification for our delusive philanthropy… After all, the ‘in crowd’ are all doing it. Maybe you’ll run into a celeb.

The recent 90th birthday concert of the same name was such a success, all those big names turned out, and even Amy Winehouse managed to make it through her performance without passing out in a drug infused coma…

Will there be follow up now, to track where and how the proceeds of the concert and the cocktails are spent? Why bother? Annie Lennox already made a heartwrenching video down in South Africa on three day visit. It will be viewed by hundreds of thousands of wet-eyed, big pocketed, lethargic westerners over the next year or so. It was featured on the 'Idols Gives Back' edition of the famous show...

No need to head down there again. Let’s all believe we’re doing our part. By buying overpriced lipstick, fancy drinks and concert tickets.

Friday, July 11, 2008

More on waste, corruption and lack of logic on the NGO scene in Ghana

Lately I’ve been in touch with various players in the fields of Aid and development for Africa. Time and time again I am faced with overly positive, self assured people who are confident that they are doing their part to end poverty, or AIDs, or malaria, or even traffic injuries in children in Africa. They dedicate their time and positive energy to a fault. They believe in and trust the organizations that work in these countries to carry out the good work for the right reasons, to a positive end.

They believe in the philosophies of aid and the mechanisms to implement it… This is where they are very wrong.

If anyone really thought about it, they would realize that aid organizations cannot possibly support the end of poverty or whatever other societal ill they campaign about – the very achievement of their goal would put them out of business. And make no mistake this is BIG BUSINESS.

Recently I had a chat with the country director of an American agricultural NGO in Ghana (fully funded by USAID). The organization has been operating for over 15 years here. The director has personally been here in his capacity for almost 10 years. He likes the lifestyle, he married a local. Are his projects successful? He laughs. “Well I have to support a handful of hopeless project initiatives every year, so they can be extended, and my job is secure for another couple years…”


This week, I had the opportunity in my professional life, to come face to face with a typical mind boggling policy of the Aid world. Another American organization, focusing on women’s issues such as health and human rights, also funded by USAID, that we serve as Internet providers. A year ago, we had installed a $15,000 satellite dish and uplink for one of their projects. This week I got a call from their IT Manager asking for a quote for another complete system, as they were closing the one project office and starting a new one in another location.

“But we can easily decommission and transport the dish to the new site, and resume your service there”. I explained, expecting a grateful OK from him.
“No, we can’t do that.” He explained to my amazement. “You see, that project is finished. It had a budget and a register of assets. Now that the project is complete, all assets are written off. It’s standard. So, we need to purchase a new set for the new project. It has a new budget allocated for communications.”

“But surely you can sell over the equipment from one project to the other! The equipment has a minimum 10 year lifespan and is only a year old!” I explained, thinking of the ABSOLUTE WASTE in funder’s resources.

“Holli, please understand, that is not how we work. The funders have allotted money for new equipment. That is what we do. Please let me know if we can send through the purchase order so I can get back to my superiors with feedback.”

And that was that.

So, another $15,000 for a new satellite dish and electronics, while a virtually new set, will rot on thelot of first office site down the road. No doubt these policies apply to the new Land Cruisers for the projects as well as office furniture, supplies etc etc etc… The other question relates to where the used vehicles and furniture go? There is surely a bustling side industry going on with all the local employees of the Aid orgs in possession of all these valuable written off assets…

How many women's lives could be saved, how much medication, shelter, support could have been covered with this wasted money???

Do the American taxpayers know this is going on?! Does Bono support this frivolous illogical waste??!!

Surely not. He doesn’t want to know about it. As long as he gets that ‘warm fuzzy feeling’ of being PC, helping the world, caring for the needy in Africa, he can sleep at night.

I am the negative one on the other hand, I must have lost my sense of empathy.
Then why is it me awake at night churning this hypocrisy over and over in my mind?
By the way – this woman’s rights NGO has no females in it’s senior management team. Not one…

Sunday, July 6, 2008

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly inspires

An excellent, touching, chilling, soul changing movie is a rare thing. In this day of brutally stupid, insulting empty humour and gun happy blood spurting American crap churned out weekly.

Living in a country where there are no movie theaters anyway, and the video rental shops are all renting illegal hand-me-downs from their relatives overseas… it is even more rare to find a movie that moves you.

We found one this week. Miraculously we had a few nights of peace and time to vegetate – with no foreign business visitors to entertain… we decided to visit the video shop. In Ghana, the concept of racking movies alphabetically has not yet surfaced… so I did the usual eye scan over all the obviously ridiculous choices, until I found a few with interesting covers. One of them was a foreign film, which is usually a no-no in our house as ‘someone’ hates reading the subtitles, but this one claimed it had English dubbing. The name was obscure “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. It caught my interest though, and for $2, I figured if it was unwatchable, we hadn’t broke the bank.

We set up our livingroom theater – (it does pay to have a gadget-man in your life at times…) and put the lights off to watch on the big pull down screen. Two hours later we were both moved. Deeply. What a movie, what a story, how excellently done, filmed, dubbed, presented. Wow.

The movie is an adaptation of a book. The book was written by the person who is the central character in the film. This is a true story about the former French editor of Elle magazine, who suffered a massive stroke and found himself completely paralyzed in every single way except his left eye. His mind was in top form. He was completely trapped in his body. With the painstakingly patient help of a speech therapist, he dictated the entire book by blinking letters… about his experience and view of the world around him.

One can’t help but imagine throughout the film what it would feel like to be in his place. To know it’s possible… it puts everything in perspective. It takes away everything we experience daily – completely turns life as we take for granted, on it’s head.

The depiction is touching, subtle, dark, a masterpiece.

Everyone should watch this film, read this book. Anyone who sees a film like this could not ignore the vast differences culturally between Europe and North America. It is presented without bling, without ‘in your face’ cinematography, without Hollywood names… it leaves one to see the real people in it, the gritty difficult reality, the mirror that we fear to hold up to ourselves…

But the journey is so worth it.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby, Fourth Estate, hc, 144 pp, $24.95

Friday, July 4, 2008

Giving Back - Volunteers flood into Ghana

That time of year is upon us again in Ghana – the time where every international flight that arrives, pours out scores of the bright and bushytailed, the hopeful and positive, the naïve and trusting…

they are…


Most of them come for the summer, some come to build a school and leave, some come for 6 months or even 2 year contracts. I hear that some of them pay thousands of hard earned or raised money to come and volunteer.

Either way, they come, like pale ants, they line the streets of Osu (Accra's main strip - affectionately called Oxford Street), dressed in the vibrant local designs that clash and look garish against pale skin. They don boubous (flowing shapeless long originally muslim gowns- very comfortable and cool and not unsimilar to a big nightgown) and Birks, or local ‘Charlie wotee’ (pronounced CHAH-LEH-WO-THE) – the common cheap imported Korean flip flops on every foot in Ghana. They get ‘corn row’ braids, exposing the pink fleshy skulls, and weaving in various colours of plastic ‘hair’. They think it makes them look ‘local’. In reality it makes them look like new prey, fresh meat for the hustlers and the 419ers. It pegs them as idealist, naïve, giving, gullible.

They sit in cafes gibbering away happily in packs. 90% are female between the ages of 18 and 25. They come from upper middle class families from across North America and Europe. They scratch at the pocked calves which peek out between the boubous and the ‘Jesus sandals’, dotted with tender pink or brown scabbing remnants of mosquito bites.

And then they disappear out into the ‘bush’ to work with ‘the people’. They cram into the trotros (over crowded privately run vans/minibuses in lieu of a formal public transport system in the country), happily taking babies and parcels on their laps, smiling too widely at everyone. Trying not to look conspicuous but realizing slowly over time that an Obruni (the local term for white person) can never, ever ride a trotro without looking conspicuous. Maybe some of them never realize this.

Most are wearing very bright pink rosy glasses with which to view the new world around them.

Inevitably they will spend some days close to a toilet, worshipping from both ends, having been ‘cool’ enough to try the street food, with LOTS of pepper. Some will brave the ‘mystery meat’ in the stews…

They will be robbed, if not directly, then by coworkers who see a chance and inflate prices. By the taxi drivers and the market sellers seeing opportunity stare them in the face… By landlords and ‘friends’ and the system in general.
It’s a cycle. It's a system. They fit the role within it.

Now before I get accused of being horribly harsh and unnecessarily negative, I must qualify my observations. I know these girls. I am these girls. I lived it, breathed it, sat in the 40 degree trotro, stuffed like a sardine with 40 others (in a 12 person capacity van built in 1970) hundreds of times. I held babies and smiled a lot and pretended the density of human flesh, with it’s pungent overpowering smell was fine. Pretended that my knees against me, pinned in on both sides by the volumous arms of the market women, with the radio blaring at it’s loudest through fried speakers, bouncing without shock absorbers through the potholed roads of Accra was fine. In a way it was. What doesn’t kill you…

12 years on, I have the clarity of hindsight. I see the well of experience that lay ahead of me back then and I watch them all fall straight down it now, year after year, time after time.

More and more volunteers come each year. What with Angelina Jolie, Chris Martin and Bono engaging the Hollywood and corporate crowd in the plight of Africa and the value of ‘giving back’, it has become glamourous, trendy.

There are new organizations popping up both locally and internationally, cashing in on the guilt trip dolled out to the impressionable in the west. Help Africa! Give back. Donate your money and your time. VSO, Peace Corps, Operation Crossroads, African Impact, Volunteer for Africa, Volunteer Avroad, i-to-i, Right to Play, Save the Children, Fight for the Children, Go Africa, Oxfam, Ripple Africa, Wish for Africa, Teamworks Abroad, Unite For Sight, Stand Against Poverty, Global Volunteers, Cosmic Volunteers, GapYearGhana, Cross Cultural Solutions, the list goes on and on and on...

No one has looked much at the statistics regarding the success of all of the donations and exchange programs and volunteer time… but that’s another story. What counts is the rich experience everyone has.

I found a travel blog website and zoned in on Ghana and the stories of this year’s volunteer troups. The diaries and accounts read just like a book. A book I’ve read so many times. The positive attitude reigns – despite being pick pocketed in a trotro, being food poisoned at the dump of a hotel, having local groups only participate in the great programs if they are paid to join in. Fist fights breaking out when some villagers hear others were paid more... Meanwhile these programs are designed for their benefit. Sigh…

I ache to ask the new recruits – and mostly because I don’t know what I would have answered back in my volunteer days – “What is it you feel you need to give back? Why is it that you will put up with fraud, discomforts, delays, disorganization, filth, and so many other obstacles that you would never put up with back home?”. “What is it exactly that you took that you feel the need to give back?”.

Every one of them who actually does a job here will be frustrated and will feel despair at some point. Every one will marvel at the chaos and the poverty and the resignation they see around them.

But they will go back remembering the bright eyes of the children, the friendly banter with the market sellers, the journeys where they saw goats tied to the tops of trotros and Jesus stickers on the back windows. It will be the memories of the ‘kitch’ and the kindness not the overbearing corruption and chaos they will take away.

This in turn breeds more of their kind.

But then they meet me – the one who stayed too long. The one who hears the annoying patronizing nasal tone the children use when they chant “Obruni, obruni, give me a pen. Give me money, be my friend” and run off laughing. Instead of their innocence I see the way they are being programmed from a tender age to take advantage, to hold their hands out, perpetually begging, to accept the mess around them and not strive for better.

My perspective is dangerous. I’ve lost my pink glasses. Perhaps I should stay indoors this time each year.
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