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.
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