Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Tropical tree #2 - a pictorial Christmas post

So, I made the Christmas chocolate squares afterall - and managed to save them for our trip up the coast to the sailing club in Ada for Christmas. And they were excellent! Decadent. And I shared.

We had a second Christmas tree for our secret Santa out at the beach (the gifts included an Obama apron from classic Ghana cloth and some Kasapreko Alomo Bitters (a tonic to make men 'strong and virile')!

On the way out to the beach we had the pleasure of the Ghana Christmas traffic, and all it's sights:

Hemasie!!! (No clue whether this is spelled correctly) These are the traditional ghouls of the holiday season in Accra. They've been invading compounds and traffic lights since I can remember, scaring the children and extorting money, while entertaining all. The public seems to have a love hate relationship with them. As for me - I'm not a fan:

The hemasie outfits have always been pretty similar - bright clown type costumes, with creepy painted brown masks like this:

But it seems the modern world has infiltrated even this tradition in Ghana - since now they are using rubber Halloween masks instead. What a sight at your car window!

Then we saw a young girl, literally wobbling under the weight and mass of her wares:

And right after her, followed other members of the family:

In front of us at quite a few traffic lights was a pick-up truck (that's a bakkie to JW), full to capacity with bags and a bunch of young girls, excited and giggling. I used to love sitting in the back of a truck. But when they kept up along side us on the highway, I couldn't help think how dangerous it is... The funny thing is that the police have started to pull us over checking for seatbelts while trucks like this zoom past... sigh...

We came up beside a fancy Ghana hearse all decked out, and cracked up when some very alive inhabitants peered out and waved...

The long drives are just never boring. There was the bread seller:

and the tiger nut seller who was doing a booming trade with the tro-tros...

And the last minute gift idea - the massive clock!

We had some non-vehicular traffic to deal with along the way as well - a shepherd and his flock (and some resulting dust!)

Eventually we did arrive at the beach, and proceeded to vegitate. Amongst lots of eating, drinking and some sailing. At night, we shared our little rooms with a din of mosquitos, held back by our enveloping netting, the muggy heat, and the throbbing sounds from the nearby spot, who celebrated into the wee hours, with a 5 song repertoire...

On Christmas day, a sail up to the mouth of the river, opening into the ocean, we came across supper in the form of four massive fresh cassava fish, caught by a lovely couple in their canoe, and all for under $15.

Boxing Day's supper arrived at first as a visitor. A sheep who spent the night in our midst, bleating randomly, and found to be alert and pacing on my midnight trip to the loo... In the morning he watched the sun come up, but before 9am the deed was done. Soon he was marinating in garlic and spices, and then onto the coals of the barbeque... The executioner and his mates enjoyed the full head and various entrails, while a gang of other expats descended on the club and devoured the rest. A true feast was had by all.

We made it through a Christmas without snow, mistletoe, turkey or stuffing. Ghana gave us her best - sunshine, fresh fish, warm river water for swimming.

She offered up a sheep and entertained us through the night, whether it was wanted or not. Ghana gave us her sights and sounds and shared the holiday with us.

The police graced each roadblock with a smile and a hand reached out - it's Christmas oh!

Afehyia Paa everyone! Ghana-style.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

What does a black metal tree say about Christmas?

What does your Christmas tree say about you? Apparently it’s a tool for deep psychological analysis. I came across quite a few websites polarizing people based on the tree they choose. Here's some examples:

White Lights: You ask houseguests to remove their shoes.
Multicolored Lights: You're an extrovert.
Blinking Lights: You have attention deficit disorder.
Homemade Ornaments: You have lots of children.
Strung Popcorn: You have too much time on your hands.
Red balls only: You wish you lived in a department store.

Only none of these apply to me. What does my Christmas tree say about me?

Well, the fact that my boys, JW the ever non traditional and Q the teen boy, almost stopped me from putting it up altogether should say something.

We’re sort of ‘stuck’ in Ghana this year. This means we’ve all flown so much during the year that we couldn’t be bothered to plan and execute a family holiday half way across the world. So here we are.

We decided with friends to head down the coast for the few days over Christmas. No tradition, just beach, barbeques, vegging out.

BUT as the days grew closer I felt the inexplicable tug, that voice that says, ‘Put something up!”, “make it look a bit like Christmas around here!” So I voiced it. God forbid! I got attacked on two sides.

“Why? We won’t even BE here! We have no presents this year, remember we agreed!”

“You’ve become your mother.”

No offense Mom, but when it comes to Christmas you’re a hard act at follow. Ever since I can remember our house was decked out – from the designer wreath at the front door, to vines up the banister. Christmas scene in the living room bay window, candle clusters with holly, and a tree out of a designer mag for sure. Martha Stewart has nothing on my mom. One year, she saw a magnificent tree in a shop, decorated completely in white and gold. It was fully lit. People stopped to marvel at it. She then approached the store manager, made an offer, and ended up carting off the whole tree, wrapped in cellophane, fully decorated and lit. (No serious work THAT year!) And since this year my sister and her little family have taken over the family house, the tradition will carry on.

Then there’s me – the black sheep. Spent most Christmases over the past 13 years in Africa, or as a guest. Never made a Christmas turkey, never decked the halls, never had a designer tree.

This year takes the award for the least effort made in a Christmas tree erection.
I gave in though to the little voice, and dragged out the black wrought iron tree. It’s about 2 feet tall and has little spots for tea lights, but JW pointed out that it looks more like an orange seller’s stand in Ghana. It just might be the origin of our little tree, come to think of it!

I bought some hand casted Ghanaian glass stars at a sale and hung them with ribbon from our sad black tree. Added a few left over ornaments from unremembered Christmases past, and voila! My attempt at 2009 Christmas decorations.

Now what would the experts say about that? My tree isn’t real or fake. It’s metal! There are no white OR multicoloured lights. There just might be candles. There are no designer or homemade decorations, just a few Ghanaian made stars and some old leftovers.

But I’ve got my loved ones around me. And lots of vodka, wine and chocolate.
I might even make some Christmas chocolate squares… or I might drink more vodka and eat all the raw ingredients.

Merry Christmas Holli style ☺

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Creepy Christmas Creations

We have no little kids in the house anymore. This means there is no frantic pre-Christmas shopping, and no anticipation of the palpable excitement of Christmas morning. I miss that. I miss the plastic smells of new toys at Christmas, and I get to thinking about all the toys that marked each season in my own childhood and my kids too.

I always thought Sea Monkeys were creepy as a kid, but I was strangely drawn to them. I remember them big and bold, the whole family on display on the back page of the Betty and Veronica comic books. They looked like proper families – people’s torsos on mermaid bodies. I wanted them so badly but they were only available by mail order. I vaguely remember my whiny pleas and my parents insistence that they would buy no such thing and that I was wasting my breath.

Sigh. Sea Monkeys were marketed as real live pets, but people said they were just plastic. I so wanted to believe they were real. I imagined how I would have hours of fun watching the human-like family interacting in a fishbowl…

Over the years, many creepy toys have been marketed to our kids. From Furbies ‘intelligent toys built to learn and grow each time you interacted with them’, to My Twinn Doll, custom ordered to look exactly, eerily like each little girl. There is something very wrong about this.

Back in my day there were Creepy Crawlers, home made gelatinous insects that we indulged with morbid curiousity, and Teddy Ruxpin, the psycho looking bear with the blind stare and monotone voice.

There was Simon, the sci-fi looking console that made you feel like you were communicating with the Battleship enterprise, eminating creepy tones to lit up segments you bashed out in sequence…

There have been numerous anatomically correct peeing dolls, including Baby Wee Wee, that I’m sure I had… and recently there was the craze of the Tickle Me Elmo.

This year, there is really no imagination in the created hype over Chinese hamsters called Zhu Zhu Pets. Big yawn. I hear that they’ve sold out, there have been reported riots in Walmart stores, and some evil grinchly entrepreneurs are extorting huge sums from brainwashed parents on ebay…

BUT what I happened upon today takes the cake for the creepiest toy ever. It gives me one of those, ‘what is the world coming to’ shudders.

It is a new toy that looks more like something in a sci-fi flick about a world where cloning and android beings have taken over fully.

But it is being marketed today. It’s called Genpets TM, and the ‘catchy’ tag line is: “MASS PRODUCED, BIO ENGINEERED PETS, IMPLEMENTED TODAY”… WTF??!!

Reading their website, I don’t even know where to begin with the creepy factor.

You have to see this site to believe it. The RFQ say that these ‘pets’ (that look like badly designed plush toys) actually feel pain, have blood, muscle and tissue and bleed if cut. What?!

And eerily like the marketing of Sea Monkeys, the makers claim they have a special technology that keeps the lifeform in a state of limbo, like a coma until you take ownership and spark them to life.

Writing this inspired me to look into the whole Sea Monkey mystery, to cure that childhood curiousity once and for all. Thanks to the Internet and the Sea Monkey’s official website, I now know that they are nothing more than a tiny species of brine shrimp. What a let down.

And the Genpet? I can only hope they are the hoax of the season.


Update. My faith in humanity has been temporarily restored – the Genpet is indeed an elaborate farce. A school project taken to the extreme. Taken to the Internet, for naïve surfers like me to happen upon and worry that the world has slipped into a sci-fi nightmare. I think I need to get outdoors more.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Africa: the content of the continent

Here's a funny but sad take, posted on Graph Jam, on how the rest of the world sees Africa:

Below is a facts snapshot of Africa, depicted as a map, posted by Chris Burns on World Famous Design Junkies - which I thought was excellent and thought provoking:

Both these maps were posted or pointed out by Scarlet Lion - a great blogger in Liberia - check her out!!! She's a great photographer and commentator.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Frustration sandwich on rock bread

Sandwiches are a very rare breed of food in Ghana. You’d think that it took an inordinate amount of talent to come up with the humble recipe of two slices of bread and some filling.

But truly. It is a feat in Ghana to find such an offering at a restaurant. In all my years here, all the restaurants (I’m sure I’ve been to most), … sandwiches are just not there on the featured list.

Which is why a quick business lunch in Accra is never just that. It either involves a trip to a local ‘spot’ with heavy fufu and soup, banku, oily sauces and stews and the inevitable mountain of rice… OR a lengthy visit to one of the city’s upscale restaurants, with their full dinner menu on offer. Who wants lamb tagine for lunch? A big bowl of spaghetti? Pepper steak with chips and hot veggies?

NO! Just a simple tuna sandwich please. Bread, can of tuna, mayo… should I come in the back and assist? No problem. And can we speed this experience up a bit?

Here might be the juncture to explain that there are literally no fast food chains in Ghana. Well, except for a few South African ones and the emphasis is NOT on fast.

So yesterday when we had a consultant in-house, and needed to pop out for a quick bite, it became all the more frustrating.

We have discovered ONE little place, Cuppa Cappuccino, that makes sandwiches in our area. The trouble is that, with the scarcity of sandwich shops, EVERYONE has found the same place. When we arrived it was like a convention of 4x4’s (the choice vehicle for the NGO’s and corporates here), and walking in was like a meet and greet the who’s who…

The waitresses struggle on a good day at this place, so they were basically swamped (though not in the slightest bit concerned), and there wasn’t a seat in sight. Many people mulled shoulder to shoulder around their cash out and serving station, making the whole place feel like a sardine tin from the inside.

It would be over an hour before we’d get a seat, order and be served. It just wouldn’t do.

We made one of those decisions (that you know are bad right away), to try the place we’d seen recently renovated just up the road and around the corner. Mabella’s Nest.

I now know why we stick to the devil we know. We arrived behind a huge delivery truck and navigated our way in (after having to inquire whether they were even open), over beer cases and boxes…

There wasn’t a soul inside. As a first impression, the dim green lighting, fans beating away like caged birds, with only a narrow passage way to sit in, only made us cringe further.

I knew we were in trouble. We should have just taken it as a sign we needed to diet, and headed back to the office hungry - but we had a guest in tow!

We sat. The place is basically a bar. A pool table fills out the place like a swimming pool, with a sliver of space for the tiny tables along the bar. Obviously the food aspect of this place was an afterthought. The cheap Chinese hollow silver chairs creaked and moaned under us.

Then the menus came. They had the usual dinner fare, but there were actually a few sandwich options – for GH10 – 12!! (At about USD $7 – 10, it was more than double the price of Cappuccinos).

The waitress, a pubescent and reluctant girl, with a syrupy slow manner jotted down our orders. Two clubs and a cheese sandwich.

Luckily we were busily chatting, because after 30 minutes a man appeared to tell us that the chef (chef?! in an empty bar, making sandwiches) noticed he was missing some vital ingredients. This is actually a very common Ghana restaurant problem. We said fine, please make due.

Another 30 or so minutes later (that adds up to an hour folks, for overpriced sandwiches!), we were brought the plates, one by one at 5 minute intervals, from the far away kitchen.
They looked like sandwiches, and sort of smelled like sandwiches. But upon touch, we knew there was something very wrong. They FELT like Styrofoam blocks. Rock hard and crumbly.

Now I don’t entirely blame them – here I blame the Brits. They imported some bread making recipe during colonial days that is missing something important, like perhaps eggs? The bread in Ghana (except for special browns) is pretty vile. Locals call it butter bread, but it’s like softer Styrofoam. (The French on the other hand brought the lovely baguette to the region).

Looks like Mabella took some stale butter bread and laid it out for an hour on a low broiler. It wasn’t toasty brown, but it was rock hard. Taking a bite caused a mass avalanche of bread chards and mystery food bits on the plates, our laps, and down my top! We spent the mealtime apologizing for how messy the food was, as it was causing a diversion from our chit chat.

JW ordered the cheese on baguette and they had managed even to destroy that. Rock hard and gum damaging.

So in the end, I can’t blame the Brits. I had to blame Mabella. I hear the place is owned by an Aussie actually, so I definitely blame him!

Interestingly our guest told us that in the past he’d visited this place with an ex, and they’d left since it had a stripper’s pole in the corner. Well that’s gone now, but nothing and no one has replaced it.

Mabella’s Nest was a den of shame. A pathetic excuse for a restaurant that I can only hope does better as a bar. I'd rather have gone to the dentist than this place, and after the bread, I might have to! It was wrong from every angle and an experience I wouldn't wish on many...

If I had an inkling of 'restauranteur' in my blood, I’d open a place here that made sandwiches. Quickly, Efficiently. For a good price… but I don’t. And this is Ghana afterall. What would we complain about if everything worked perfectly?

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Parenting funnies from Toothpaste for Dinner

How was your day, son?

Something you want to tell us?

In these economic times...

Modern parenting - reversal of roles...

Thanks to Toothpaste For Dinner for the funnies - one of my fav cartoonists.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

The market children

Today in the market, the omnipotent Sun God drove us out of the jostling chaos, down a tiny grey alley called Chicken and Rice, lined with bright yellow plastic chairs, Maggi promotional thick plastic table covers… around the covered corner, where the constructed cave came to a dead end and held it’s promise of food and drink and muted lull.

The children scrambled below our plastic bags of random purchases, our drenched gritty limbs. There were five of them. Tiny, timid, they approached the counter on tippy toes, dusty little feet poking out from under long Muslim cloth dresses, the rubber of the slippers ground to nothing under their tiny heels.

Little ladies with head scarves and kohl under their deep brown eyes. They giggled as they jostled and peeked back over their shoulders at the disheveled *Obrunis.

They held up their offering to the tall counter, one small coin, and asked in turn for a miracle.

They scrambled into the seats at the plastic table, helping the tinier ones to reach. They waited, and discussed in hushed tones, while we sipped luke warm Pepsis, complaining to ourselves about the lack of proper cold Coke when you want one…

And the old man emerged from the makeshift kitchen, shuffling on his own worn down slippers. He held only one plate that held a small scoop of rice with a matchbox sized piece of meat atop the meager pile. The children exchanged glances – the moment held their hunger, desperation, excitement and fear – fear that each would not be able to carry to their mouth with their tiny little scooped fist, enough of this food to stop the aches in their belly.

The air was tight, tense, with the look you find in children’s eyes on Christmas morning in front of the unopened presents at the base of the tree. But today, like all days for these little ones is no Christmas, it is a day where they need to eat.

There the two podgy obrunis that we were, immersed, we could not look away. We were at once elated by the beauty of their impossible innocence, and humbled by the shame of the haves among the have-nots.

We called the old man and offered up a Cedi (less than a dollar) to feed the children some more. He shuffled away dutifully. His own hunger following slowly behind.

He emerged with a gruff command – shouted at the children and pointed in our direction. His finger poked the air and insisted they file over to us and hang their heads in gratitude.

Like a spectacle, we insisted loudly, awkwardly that they sit and enjoy.

The next plate arrived, this time piled far higher than the first. And we looked away as the children glanced wary at us. We nodded sheepishly. They returned to their task with fervor.

Soon the second plate was clean. The children licked and popped tiny fingers in and out of their mouths and quietly they slipped from the chairs, turned to say Thank you! And they were gone. Back out into the mayhem of the bustling market street.

Back to a life of hungry tomorrows and rough lessons. To heartache and laughter and the mysteries that held them like a dream from us.

We picked up our things and left the troubled dream, enveloped once again by the inhuman sway of the market beast.

*Obruni - white person (or any foreigner) in the Twi language

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Bars for Canada, Bikes for Ghana, Bucks for Cadbury

I love a feel good, help-the-world, tree-hugger type story. I love a good creamy, rich, sinfully sweet bar of chocolate too. So I should be impressed that Cadbury Canada partnered with Cadbury Ghana and the Bicycle factory, to donate 5000 bicycles to needy children in Ghana.

The campaign ran through the summer this year in Canada. All you had to do was buy a Caramilk or Dairy Milk or Dentyne gum etc. and send in the UPC code. For every hundred codes, Cadbury donated one bicycle, until the number reached 5 thousand.

Here’s the feel-good commercial that accompanied the campaign.

Instead of feeling inspired though, I was disturbed by the following:

1. Can we assume Canadians had an altruistic motive in participating? Come on, they only had to buy a chocolate bar. Hardly seems like selfless sacrifice…

2. Cadbury’s (the confection division of Cadbury Schweppes) revenue last year was over USD $5 Billion. I estimate the cost of this promotion for them to be about USD $225,000 or roughly twenty two thousand times less than their profits. Hardly seems like a HUGE sacrifice on their part either really.

3. Therefore this smells like a MASSIVE promotion for the Cadbury brand at little cost, and I’m not sure what impact.

4. My other concern is with the implications of the advert. They show the ‘African child’ using the bicycle as the following:

a. An ambulance – This is pathetic and sad but true. By showcasing this, Ghana is forced to admit that there is no healthcare in rural areas, and kids with bicycles will be expected to carry ill people to far off hospitals. The unimplied but more disturbing issue is the complete lack of facilities that will be awaiting them when they arrive.

b. A water truck – Hello! What happened to the millions and millions of wells donated and dug by the hundreds of NGOs over the years? Again, Ghana admits there is no safe drinking water for miles upon miles… and a kid on a bicycle is the answer????!!!!

c. A school bus – well as Canadians, the first thing that should strike us is the complete and utter lack of safety depicted here. The video shows 4 people on one bicycle – with a toddler sitting in the front basket, completely unharnessed. Over the untarred roads of rural Ghana. I guess it’s the assumption that if you can get 4 kids to school whatever way possible, then you’ve done your part – throw safety out the window, afterall they’re only African kids who would have had to walk anyway… There is no inference in this advert that of the small percentage of rural kids who actually go to school, most can expect to spend half their time labouring on their 'teachers' farms...

So thanks Canadians for eating more chocolate, making Cadbury richer and helping Africa by asking 5000 lucky juvenile recipients to solve Africa’s massive problems with bicycles!!!

Cadbury has been under fire recently for exploitative fair trade marketing, so it’s no wonder they are aiming to boost their reputation as a caring community oriented company.

According to Toyin Agbetu, head of Education and Social policy at Ligali, “Cadbury has a long history of exploitative behavior in Ghana. It was formed in England by the Quakers in 1900 and moved to what was then called the ‘Gold Coast’ in 1907. Its rampant abuse of the system of colonial enslavement in order to extract the best quality cocoa beans made the company the huge profits it enjoys today.”

What exactly constitutes fair trade status? In Cadbury’s case, they have agreed to pay $150 per tonn of cocoa above the minimum market price.

I posted a recent advert Cadbury’s released, promoting their fair trade brand of chocolate from Ghanaian cocoa. Agbetu points out that the advert alone “is likely to have cost more to make than their ‘social premium’ (of $150 per tonn) could generate in usable revenue each year.”

Sorry Brett - I tried to get positive about this one. It's great the kids got some bikes, but if you ask me, Cadbury's got a whole lot more out of the deal. And Canadians got to feel good about splurging on chocolate. Hmmmm.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Pork Show in Ghana - the swine are safe! Only foreigners have the flu...

Luckily Ghana has escaped the epidemic numbers of H1N1 cases so far. In fact most of Sub-Saharan Africa has very few cases (apart from South Africa). It’s just as well, with the lack of adequate healthcare and access to clinics, medication etc.

According to the World Health Organization, Ghana has only 18 reported cases of confirmed swine flu. ALL of these are from the International School that my son attends. He is one of the 18.

The Ghana Health Service took the whole thing quite seriously and closed the school down for over a week. They even made it front page news!

Meanwhile behind the scenes, in our case, the GHS didn’t bother to call us nor provide Tamiflu. Luckily, my son’s case was really mild. By the time we had the results of his tests back (2 days after the test), his symptoms were gone.

Also not so sure how contagious this virus is, since the rest of us in the house didn’t get a sniffle…

But I digress.

The fact that Ghana (except for a few privileged International students) has escaped the worst of the H1N1 strain, does not mean that Ghanaians are oblivious to the global hype.

In fact, the pork farmers and the roadside sellers here know all too well how rumours can ruin an industry.

This weekend, while at a Christmas bazaar in the 35 degree heat of Accra, I happened upon THIS:

What cracked me up – besides EVERYTHING – was the way they chose to 'get the message across' – pork is safe (i.e. cool – notice the cartoon pig with black shades), in contrast with the whole dead, cooked pig, nose burnt to a charred crisp, with pineapples for eyes!!! Gotta love Ghana.

Also, I think we have a logo copyright issue – notice the sponsors listed in the lower right side of the banner…

Friday, November 27, 2009

Oprah Out-earns a Country: my birthday and the poverty of a continent

This morning while nursing my mini-hangover (the aftermath of Grey Goose on ice, lots of sushi, unknown quantities of red wine and Irish coffee to finish), I happened upon the bill from my birthday dinner.

It turns out that to feed a lovely crew of 12, along with our share of drinks and sweets, we spent the equivalent of 10 months salary of my gardener.

Wow, that really puts things in perspective. Filling the bellies of 12 people in one evening… added up to 10 months salary for an average Ghanaian?!

Besides feeling like a true Expat – in every spoiled sense of the word – it sparked my interested to take a look at the disparities that abound all around me.

Today I found out that the annual revenue for the entire country of Sierra Leone (one of Ghana’s close neighbors on the West African coast) is USD $96million.

Oprah Winfrey alone made over two and a half times that… OF AN ENTIRE COUNTRY!!! According to Forbes list she pulled in $275million over the same period.

Tiger Woods and Madonna also out-earned Sierra Leone, with over $100m each…

Here’s another eye opening fact. The list below is the GDP per capita (ANNUAL take home pay) of the average person in these countries:

Ten Poorest Countries (based on 2004 GNP per capita in US$)

1. Burundi ... $90
2. Ethiopia ... $110
3. Democratic Republic of Congo ... $110
4. Liberia ... $110
5. Malawi ... $160
6. Guinea-Bissau ... $160
7. Eritrea ... $190
8. Niger ... $210
9. Sierra Leone ... $210
10. Rwanda ... $210

All of these countries are in Africa, and each figure is less than I spend at the Supermarket (in Africa!) every Saturday. People are surviving (really?!) on $200 per year?!!!

I feel a gratitude list coming on, but also a reality check.

Oprah’s 55th birthday this year (celebrated with a Mediterranean cruise for 1700 of her closest friends), cost $10m.

Equivalent to the annual income of over 100,000 Burundians.

Now I don’t feel so bad.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

40 begins with life...

I woke up this morning pretty much like any other. The alarm sounds, we hit snooze for 10 minutes, cherishing every last second of cuddliness before the second alarm, and then the forcing of the feet to hit the floor, stumbling crusty eyed into the washroom. Face wash, pee, brush teeth and so the day begins.

Turning 40 is kind of like New Year’s Eve. It’s supposed to be a big deal of some sort, but when it finally comes and there are no miraculous, life changing events, you just feel disappointed.

I’m not sure what I expected to happen today. I knew there’d be lots of facebook Happy Birthday messages and some face to face wishes. I knew I’d be looking forward to sushi and some great company at supper tonight, but on a deeper level I have been conditioned to believe something – bad or good – would happen.

I’ve read a bunch of things about turning 40. They include predictions that your eyesight fails, memory falters, and that you become somehow more wise. For me, halfway through day one, I believe my eyesight is still 20/20, my memory has been crap for years so no change there, and I don’t seem to have acquired a new outlook or any profound wisdom.

I have been trolling the Internet for interesting things, quotes, epiphanies on turning 40. Here’s an example of what I found:

“The first forty years of life give us the text: the next thirty supply the commentary”

“Forty is the old age of youth; fifty is the youth of old age.”

“Mental powers peak at 22 and start to deteriorate at 27” (Depressing!)

“Somebody told me the other day that "Life does Not begin at 40. Life begins when the last kid moves out and the dog dies."

(Not sure how relevant this is, but I’ve got a year and a half till the last kid moves out and the last dog we had, found a new home years ago.)

I then found a site with a woman’s list of “The 40 things every self respecting woman must have by the time she turns 40.”

Thought I’d check out how I measure up:

1.) Peace of mind (and a piece of property) – I hope a boat counts as a piece of property.

2.) A will – does it have to be updated? I wrote one when I was 27…

3.) Willpower – I hope dieting doesn’t count here, cuz if so, I’ve failed miserably and I don’t see any miracles happening this year…

4.) A savings account in your own name – Got it! Had one of those since I was 14 though…

5.) A mammogram – can I blame living in Ghana on NOT having this done? Wow – it’s my birthday and I feel guilty now… will add this to my TO DO list…

6.) A manicure (not to mention a pedicure, a facial and a massage--all on the same day) – gonna book one of those! I have an excuse now ☺

7.) A set of matching luggage – I paid an unfathomable amount for a set last year and never use them together…

8.) A ticket to some exotic place to unpack it – Grenada – no ticket yet, but the boat is waiting… so I’m ok on this one.

9.) A great hairdresser, gynecologist and stockbroker – NONE of these….

10.) A passionate, fiery, unforgettable love affair – I’ve been living one of these for the past 8 years!

11.) A little black dress that makes you look five pounds thinner – definitely need to go shopping. I’ve never had one of these. I might have had little black dresses over the years, but none made me look thinner.

12.) A sense of humor, style and purpose – Humour sometimes, style.. um…., purpose – I purposefully live toward a life of freedom, adventure and relaxation.

13.) A selfish streak – shopping must fit in here somewhere…

14.) A spiritual foundation that gets you through a very bad night without going crazy – I struggle with this one, but I know my little boy shines through for me on those brutal nights.

15.) A facial foundation that gets you through a very long day – living in Ghana this would backfire into a sweaty pool of peachy pudding on my collar!

16.) A good bra - I’ve got a few – for every type of shirt (which is no easy thing, wearing a non-standard size you can’t find in any North American store! Thank the universe for British bra sizes!)

17.) A good spa – well there is one I’ve been to in Accra, but the masseuses and pedicurists are known to cause damage at times…

18.) A library card (used often) – this must be old. I’ve got the Internet!!!

19.) A credit card (used sparingly) – Yes on both accounts. I don’t believe in debt.

20.) At least one person in your life who says: "You call, I come” – got a few of those. Lucky me!!! You know who you are – and THANKS for being there!

21.) Good body language (multilingual!) – I think I’m pretty good at this. I used to know how to flirt too, but that was long ago ☺

22.) A broken heart and the knowledge you can survive it – been there, definitely survived and came out better the other side of it.

23.) A cause celebre (domestic violence, infant mortality, save the whales--your choice) – I find myself getting worked up over gay marriage rights…does that count?

24.) A personal relationship with a higher being – I believe it’s all inside, just not always easy to find!!!

25.) A personal trainer – I wish!!! I always convince myself these are the reason Hollywood girls looks great, and I get wobblier…

26.) Selective amnesia ("What Saturday morning meeting?") – I have this without trying.

27.) Gall – Yup.

28.) A good skin-care regimen – Lux soap and water? Maybe I should be doing more?

29.) The ability to converse on any subject without benefit of concrete knowledge or access to facts – working with mostly men in the Telecomms industry has made me a pro in this area…

30.) A shocking secret – I’m sure I’ve got a few, but with my failing memory, I’ve forgotten them!

31.) A pair of silk pajamas – whoever wrote this does NOT live in the tropics. Birthday suit suits me fine.

32.) A lifetime membership in at least one organization dedicated to uplifting women – I prefer to surround myself with women who I admire.

33.) The phone number of someone who is good with their hands – I have one of these in-house!

34.) At least one drop-dead, don't-speak-to-me-because-you-know-you-don't-know-me gorgeous photo of yourself – This is why I love photoshop! What wrinkles??

35.) A friendship that has stood the test of time – if by the test of time you mean since we were 5, then yes!!!

36.) One last chance to tell the guy you were crazy about in your 20s who treated you like cigarette ashes on the floor what you were too dumb to know when he walked out with your heart in his hands: "Thank you, thank you, thank you." – I’ve done this and man it felt good.

37.) A soul mate – when I was 32 I found mine and never looked back.

38.) Faith, hope and a good fantasy – these are always within reach.

39.) A dream – definitely have one of those!

40.) A plan to make it come true – Grenada, Shiloh, we’re coming!!!

So, as I make my way through day one of the rest of my ‘over 40’ life, I reflect on the things I’ve done, those I’ve chosen not to do, and how I have faced the life that’s come my way.

I’m happy and that has to count for a lot.

I don’t feel so bad on this supposed milestone day. Afterall, most people I went to school with (not surprisingly) turned 40 this year, and they still seem normal! They are surviving, thriving and getting on with life.

Even famous people turn 40 this year – ones we still find hot like Gerard Butler and Jennifer Aniston.

I think life is about taking what’s thrown at you and sifting through it. Taking the things that you like and throwing back the rose creams… I’m hoping that each year I get better at doing that.

It’s also about standing up, standing out, asserting yourself for yourself and no one else. Whether you want to be rich and famous or a good knitter, or something in between…

Life is the journey and the journey is all we have.

Monday, November 23, 2009

'Tis the season - Ghana supermarket style

When I moved to Ghana all those years ago, I had to leave behind all my Western consumerist obsessions – Diet Coke, Kraft Dinner, chocolate bars - even boxed breakfast cereals for my little boy were things of another world. Firstly, they weren’t available. Second, even if they were, on our volunteer ‘stipend’ we wouldn’t have been able to afford them.

But there were always days when, buried in the blur of culture shock, we all longed for a ‘taste of home’. There was a small Lebanese grocery store called Kwatsons that we'd visit, at the top of the Osu main strip, just admiring all the expensive imported foods. And once in a blue moon I’d buy a little block of cheese, or some real butter (as opposed to the cheap and readily available, non-refrigerated mystery bread fat), a jar of jam and a fresh baguette bread.

Kwatsons became Koala over the years, though I assume it’s the same family who owns it. They’ve grown and expanded and today you can pretty much buy anything you might want. And these days I don’t have to look longingly, I just get on with the grocery shopping.

Accra has a big mall now, up the other end of town, through throngs of traffic… but I still prefer the family run Koala. They really try. Last December, in the blazing heat, they set up a fake snow machine outside the door, so when you were at the check outs looking out, it appeared as a blistery winter’s day in Canada. (Now THAT’s trying). They acknowledge each holiday – from Easter to Eid and of course Christmas.

It could be said that they are just capitalizing on the season. That there’s no authenticity, no heart. That maybe the staff who string these things up have no clue of the cultural significance…

I was in Koala on the weekend, and noticed they’d put up a Christmas tree this year!

I just had to take a photo and share. Here it is (and no, I did not stand on my head to take the picture):

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Toilet Politics, Oil and the Malibu Mansion

I was going to write the other day, on World Toilet Day – which was on Thursday. Not because I wanted to highlight the sad reality that a vast number of people on the continent where I live have no access to proper sanitation, including toilets…

I was going to write on that day because I heard, on the same BBC radio broadcast, another story about yet another massively rich, corrupt African stashing his billions abroad.

In other news, yesterday I heard the flabbergasting news that the EU is donating $1 BILLION to Nigeria, to help with corruption…

HUH? To help WITH corruption. Why does stuff like this still surprise me?
Right. A bit of background…

In the first story, our reluctant hero is Mr. TN Obiang, the Minister of Forestry and Agric. (and the son of the President) of Equatorial Guinea.

His country is the third richest in oil in Africa, just below Angola and Nigeria. There is a tiny population of half a million people. In 2007, the government sold USD$4.3 Billion in oil. Yet 90% of the 500,000 inhabitants live on less than a dollar a day.

This leaves quite a few billion for the government guys…

The news story goes on to explain that Mr. Obiang travels freely between his little country and the USA, to his Malibu Mansion, commonly carrying millions in cash each time he enters the states(normally punishable by a 5 year prison term), despite supposed laws in the states that deny entry to corrupt foreign officials. He keeps quite a few millions in bank accounts in America as well.

These laws are enforced, when it comes to guys like Mugabe – Zimbabwe’s tyrannical despot.

Why the double standard then?

Oil. And America’s interest in it.

Which brings us to the second story. The EU working with the Nigerian government, globally renowned for corruption, by offering them USD$1 Billion to assist…

Other African countries are up-in-arms about the choice of this massive donation to the richest oil country in Africa, eighth richest oil country in the world.

But that is the point really.

Oil. And the EU’s interest in it.

In the BBC story, the reporter asked so many of the questions I was squirming in my seat, itching to ask.

“Why Nigeria? With it’s vast oil reserves and billions in annual income from oil?”

“With the Nigerian government’s dismal track record for corruption, surely the EU is somewhat concerned that the funds will not be used as per their intended aim?”

etc. etc. etc.

The answers from the EU press officer were wishy-washy, non-committal. No surprise.

What makes my blood boil is that the bleeding heart Americans and Europeans don’t put all these facts together.

NGO’s grow and collaborate and fundraise, and promote guilt and scrape like finger nails on the thin raw skin of western conscience, to help, help, help! These helpless Africans.

Meanwhile the Western governments condone, concede, support and feed into the corruption.

When Mr. Obiang is welcomed at LAX, whisked over to his Malibu mansion in the stretch limo, darkened windows, cool aircon and refreshments in the back seat, there is a directly proportionate mass of slum dwellers back home, robbed of the basics of sanitation, housing, education, clean water, electricity. Babies are born and die the next day in a pool of their mother’s blood where the midwife couldn’t save their lives in the corrugated iron shack amid the thousands in a shanty.

I read further that despite his official salary of $6000 per month, he bought his mansion for $26million cash. Plus three Bugatti Veyron sports cars at £1.2million each.

The proceeds from just one of these cars would have bought enough mosquito nets for every child in his country, where malaria is the number one childkiller.

So the next time a campaign to end poverty in Africa comes my way, I’ll give them the address of T N Obiang in Malibu. I doubt he’s given yet.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Death to Uncle Ben!

I make a mean chili (con carne). It’s true (ok, people tell me it’s true so I choose to believe them). And the amazing thing about this fact is that it’s one of the only things I can cook. Well. My culinary skills are quite limited. You’re about to find out just how limited…

So it’s a lazy Sunday, the diet starts tomorrow (as usual), and I peel myself off the couch, inspired out of nowhere (but for the looming supper hour approaching), to make some chili. (I am usually off the hook for this task, as we have a cook who comes from Monday to Friday... I know, I know... spoiled).

I was humming away to myself in my sauna-cum-kitchen (in the house we inhabit, which used to be the Libyan Embassy of Accra – no joke! Irrelevant to this story but interesting and random).

I was actually feeling quite happy with myself, since I’d remembered to pick up chili powder in Houston last week. Chili powder cannot be bought in Ghana. Here, chili powder is exactly what it says it is – fire hot peppers, dried and ground into powder. I found this out the hard way once in my earlier years in Ghana, while making one of my ‘killer chilis’. I near killed a couple of guests…

But I digress. So there I was this fine evening, cutting and sautéing and humming, (this is a rare thing in my life), when Q walks in with that inevitable teenager question,

“What’s for supper?”

Me, proudly, “Chili!”

Q - “With rice?”

Me – “No, why?”

Q – “Well chili’s not chili without rice!”

So there it was. All my cooking ineptitude quivering, hanging, about to spill out, on this statement.

I cannot cook rice. There, I’ve said it.

I haven’t tried many times, but when I have it’s always been a disaster. Think rice pudding with lots of salt. Hmmm.

It’s not entirely my fault though. I grew up on the hideous fast-food-inspired Uncle Ben’s Instant rice. WHAT IS THAT STUFF?! I always hated rice as a result. Uncle Ben is creepy in general - who owns that company? Somehow I doubt it was Uncle Ben himself. Between he and Aunt Jemima, lots of racial stereotypes have stood the test of time... but apparently in unrelated news, Uncle Ben has a new image! He is now a CEO executive type, traveling the world...

Shit, where was I?

When I moved to Africa, I met a continent that is obsessed with rice. Carbs in general, but rice specifically.

I have a colleague from Mali who declared at lunch one day, “Without rice, there is no life. There is no life without rice.”

So, I tried rice in Africa, all over Africa, and it is great. Cooked so many ways, but always delicious. The texture, the taste. Who knew? Then I discovered all this rice is imported from Thailand, or thereabouts… When I had the misfortune of tasting local Ghanaian rice, I understood why everyone imported rice. Come on Africa! Come on Ghana! The climate is perfect – grow your own rice commercially!... sigh, one day…

But we are here to expose my pathetic ineptitude for making rice. And there we stood, my son and I in the steamy kitchen… and we made a decision.

An hour later, my humble gardener returned from his ‘quarters’ with the remaining dry rice and a tub of salt in one hand, a full, steamy pot of perfectly cooked rice in the other.

Yes, I asked my gardener to make rice for me. I know how pathetic this sounds. Having a gardener, who lives on-hand, available for my demented whims…

The fact that I laughed at myself nervously to him, offered him a bag of uncooked rice and some beers from our fridge as well as a small ‘overtime pay’ does not make up for it, I’m sure…

I think I’ve sunk to an unprecedented low.

I can imagine he and his new lady friend in their room…

Eric: “Please, we have to make a pot of rice for Madam”

Lady friend, “What? Rice for your madam, why? She cannot make rice?” Lady friend thinking, WHAT WOMAN CANNOT MAKE RICE?!


The truth is that if we take a look across cultures, and then back at ourselves, a lot is revealed about strange practices and habits we find normal. But sadly, in this instance, I cannot even blame cultural differences. I am just a spazz – cross culturally, who can’t make a pot of rice to save her life.

PS – the chili AND the rice were delicious! The diet starts tomorrow…

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Walk in - Roll Out. Houston hosts Holli

I landed in Houston for the second time in my life. The weather was gorgeous. Nothing else was…

I witnessed mile after strip mall infested mile to the hotel, to town, to the airport, and in between, I witnessed these:

- FLAT. F. L. A. T. - A speed bump might be considered a mountain in Houston.

- Christmas pics with pets… I’m not kidding. Dogs and cats are food in parts of the country where I live…

- Beautiful green precision cut lawns. New, just poured? sidewalks everywhere, and not a pedestrian in sight.

- In fact, on my solemn walk, I found out the hard way that not only are pedestrians NOT given the right of way, they are not given ANY way! There were NO pedestrian crossings at the traffic lights!

- I was confused with a Mexican (no doubt) as I WALKED (OMG, unheard of) – as young Mexicanos in pimped up cars slowed down, base thumping, to chat me up in Spanish… are you serious?

- Jack in the box

- Did I mention strip malls?

- Chili’s

- Nail salons (in strip malls)

- McDonald’s – no seriously. Every 2 blocks. In between the Jack in the Boxes…

- Drive-thru Pharmacies.

- Baby back ribs – like the kind on the Flintstones - massive. YUM!

- Bumpits – for big Texas hair – as seen on TV. This is SOOO Texas stereotype! C’mon people, we need to work at breaking these down, not fulfilling them to the letter… sigh.

- Muslim American military doctor goes postal… kills 13? He’d just been promoted and was headed to Afganistan to help Muslim Americans with their conflicting feelings… This was big news during my 3 day stay. Only in America.

- Restaurant motto on massive sign board – “Walk in – Roll out”

- Sheriff/police eat free policy at all conferences, including ours – Offshore Communications… and they did! Just waddled in, sat down at sponsored event lunches, (at reserved tables), and then waddled out. Wow. Wonder if this is listed in the perks of the job?

- Street names: Beauregard, Rip Van Winkle, Mossycup, Overcup, Broken Bough, Broken Arrow…

You gotta love Houston… or not. In my case, I think there will be no love lost from either side if I don’t make it back…

What I gained from the experience? 3 pounds.

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Modern Mission

In a random European Airport, under the harsh lights, at some ungodly hour, somewhere between the comfort of home and the great unknown, a group are huddled together for reassurance, uniform in cotton t-shirts, with big eyes and sturdy backpacks from Bass Pro Shops. Eager beavers, goats before the slaughter. Their thick backs bear the inscription ‘Malawi 2009’. Their armour is weak for the journey they have yet to begin.

Characteristically pudgy and pale, stodgy raw sausage ankles push out from under sensible cotton trousers and long modest skirts, stuffed into Dr. Scholls and Tevas for comfort. Their packs, like them, are stuffed, taut. Unscented sunblock, mosquito spray and bed nets; and ‘little gifts for the children’- and Dairy Milk fruit and nut bars for themselves. For strength.

They are jovial, yet a tangible nervous energy hangs over them like animals devoid of instinct, when the forest around them knows there is danger ahead. They have no idea. They decide to sing.

They hover, docile and domesticated around their guide. He is confident and all-knowing. He has actually BEEN TO AFRICA before, and he will lead this unprepared motley crew into the wild. His cheeks are a deeper red than the others, his enthusiasm rehearsed. He knows what lies ahead, but has pledged himself to a make believe cause…

The bland mass are willing but not able, well-meaning but insincere, sheltered and softened by processed foods and years of inactivity. They have emerged from the warm dark cave where they’ve been nurtured on clean running water and Starbucks, electricity and mod-cons, the frivolity of Hallmark love and television emotions.

There is not a muscle in sight. The sinews of these creatures have never strained. Never pulsed against the enemy that awaits.

Poverty the rat will mock them and eat it’s children with wanton fangs, and these soft bellied creatures will weep and mourn and look up to the Hosanna they’ve had inscribed on their XL tees. Cheek flesh will tremble, hot tears will well up and spill uselessly on the dry crusted surface of the African slum.

And the naïve smiles painted on their blank faces will be replaced. Temporarily smudged.

They will return a few weeks or months later, believing they’ve been changed forever. Licking their wounds they will retreat. They will cling limply to the belief that something has changed. That their mission has had a higher purpose…

They will remember the bright saucer eyes in the tiny brown faces atop spindly limbs, and believe there was connection, love, hope… while countless faceless rats scurry underfoot.

When our group are back in their warm caves, baking Pilsbury chocolate chip cookies, the trip to the wild will slip into a pocket of memory, a conversation for tea. A flash reflection before excess and indulgence overcome them once again. Swallowed by mountains and mountains of things.

Saturday, October 31, 2009


I'm still new to blog-love in the formal sense, so I was astonished to find out someone's got a 'blog-crush' on me! *blushes*, looks down, sweeps ground with toes...sways from side to side coquettishly (is that a word?)...

Well i have to say, it's mutual, I just didn't know how to show it - there's so much to learn!

Thank you wholeheartedly to Julochka, mother of the wonder-blog, Moments of perfect clarity - an outlet for madness with occasional flashes of insight. I've been visiting and thoroughly enjoying this blog for a while now... sort ot stalking from the sidelines and now it's all out in the open! J wrote a lovely tribute type post about Holli's Ramblings today. I'm trying not to let it go to my head, but it just might... (reminds self: "Holli, remember crushes pass, don't be broken hearted" later) :)

She also posted a wonderful photo of a globe with a beautiful Africa as the focal point - it's gorgeous and I'm posting it here (all rights reserved or something, photo belongs to Julochka - hopefully she will still like me and not have me arrested for using the image without permission)

Interestingly, Julochka and others who fearlessly go where others have not gone before - have pioneered new terms, which I've discovered, have not even made it into the world famous urban dictionary (let alone Websters)!!! The terms 'blog crush' and 'blog love' are all new and innovative people! We are molding and editing language to follow the trends of our time! Aren't you excited?!

I'm starting to feel part of something bigger than all of us as individuals. Thanks again... Oh, and Happy Halloween!

Friday, October 30, 2009

Friday Funnies from Natalie and Toothpaste

I discovered the hilarious comic genius of Natalie Dee a while ago and borrowed some of her bits here and here and here.

Her hubby is equally funny - his site is called Toothpaste for Dinner.

Here's a few of their recent comics that made me smile, and after all, TGIF! Smile with me :)

You have to love this, with all these new TV shows telling us how to 'dress for your body type'... as if we're all various fruits!






Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Girl in the box

Last time I was back in Canada visiting the family I found a box of my old life. It had hundreds of dusty and molding papers, photos, clippings, print outs, and mostly poems I had written.

I decided they would be worth keeping, if only for the humour and nostalgia in going over the thoughts and offerings of the teenage dreamer I was.

The plan has been to scan the lot, and then send the paper piles back for a boxed existence in my mother’s basement on some back shelf.

Last night I dragged out the various envelopes within, and sifted through. Most of the poems I found there were naïve and badly composed. They try too hard, with long adjectives and disjointed concepts. Who was that girl? I find it amazing that she lived in my frame, looked in the mirror and saw the young me.

So much has changed and I have forgotten how she felt. All that is left is the paper trail of her untidy emotions.

And then I found the following. It is dated April 22nd, 1994. I was 24 years old and Q was just over 1 year. We were living in an old row house in Toronto. The back window looked out over rusted train tracks and beyond that, lake Ontario.

The highrises around us were overflowing with the city’s poorest and most marginalized. We dodged used needles and condoms that littered the sidewalks on our daily outtings. I remember having at first thought the neighborhood was vibrant and gritty, when we had opted to move out here, for cheaper rent but still within walking distance to work.

We had recently lost our restaurant, investors had backed out right as the place was establishing itself as a fixture in the area. It was a few blocks over in the ‘trendy’ neighborhood of Queen West, and Q’s father, (my ex-locker partner and high school sweetheart) was on a slippery path to self destruction. It was the reason the business had fallen apart. Too much too young? Addiction: lies, behaviour changes followed.

This particular day, he gathered our comforter from the bed and carried it with purpose to the living room with it’s big bay window. Q and I watched him with curiousity, and I with a sinking feeling in my stomach. He hoisted himself up on a chair, and stretched from his tippy toes to nail the heavy blanket across the top of the window frame.

The smashing noise from the hammer was deafening and Q looked up at me, uneasy. I scooped him up and whisked him off to the other room to play. Then M walked by us. The light in the hallway had disappeared, shrouded in thick cloth.

M: “That old lady from next door! She keeps watching us! Well, I’ll show her…”

me: “What are you talking about?!”

Door slam. He was gone for the afternoon. I could only guess where, and did not want to take that mental journey. I lied down beside Q and his stuffed animals and sang softly, running my hands gently through his loose black curls, until he drifted off to sleep. Then I got up and decided to write, to put things in perspective and keep myself sane:

“His face was broad, the skin creamy and smooth and tight. This carefully beautiful face, created as if to make a mother question the sarcastic overtones of a ‘concept of God’.

Oh, he was no ordinary soul. A mother was sure. Why, one only had to ponder the enormous circumference of his eyes. Not uncommon was it to be stopped several times during the daily walks, with comments of praise and astonishment at the wonder of his gaze.

A mother again had to question her accomplishment. For even then she knew it was a twosome till death-do-us-part. Mother and child. Somehow she's known this while he played within her. Mompati - 'my companion', the name she'd given him after all the others on his birth papers.

And she felt comfort in that shred of stability, as everything else slowly fogged over around her.”
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