Sunday, November 11, 2007


I was getting ready for a fancy dinner out with visiting colleagues from Europe last weekend, when I decided I would wear my very special silver bracelet – which had been hand crafted as a gift to me from a friend who is an extremely talented jeweler, after my son passed away. It says “those we hold in our arms a little while, we hold in our hearts forever” and is engraved on the inside with his name. I lifted the black velvet box where I keep it and my heart sank. I felt like someone had kicked me in the stomach – the box felt so light I knew instantly the bracelet was missing. I opened it anyway and peeked in at the empty cavity within. I talked myself through what I already knew – there was no chance of me having left it anywhere else. I am not a materialistic person by any description, nor very sentimental about most things, but this bracelet holds an indescribable meaning for me. I wasn’t prepared to face it being missing. I searched numbly around the bedroom, looking in places I knew it would not be and eventually allowing myself to face the facts. One of the staff had stolen it.

I immediately thought of all the recent happenings in the house. Eric the gardener’s diesel theft and his subsequent dismissal. Eric’s ominous letter warning me about Beatrice the maid, and Gilbert the cook’s worried comments about how he feared things could go missing with the house so volatile.

I came slowly out of the room and walked downstairs feeling dazed and highly upset. John saw me coming and knew something was up. I guess I had the look on my face. “What?! What is it??”, I explained. John’s first questions were the ones I expected, about whether I might have left it somewhere or in another box etc. Once we both realised it was gone from the room, there was that feeling of being violated and betrayed, but at the same time, not a huge surprise. Just disappointment.

John said the next morning he would fire everyone. I knew we were in for an interesting week. I didn’t know how very interesting…

We came downstairs the next morning, met Gilbert mopping the floor. “Gilbert, you can go home. Something very important is missing and no one can be in the house. Thanks and have a nice life.” Gilbert was bewildered to say the least. I almost felt bad. He asked and I tried to briefly explain what was missing. He said he didn’t have a clue what the thing was but John cut him short, retrieved his key and he stepped out alongside us on the way out. The door was locked. We met the gardener out front with his machete, slicing through the ever growing weeds. John gave him the same speech. He put down the huge knife, wiped his brow and shrugged. “Yes sir. Okay.” He walked out the gate. The only one left was Beatrice who actually lives out back in the staff quarters with her two twin grown daughters. She was already gone for the day to her other job for an Italian Diplomat as his maid. John said, no worry, we’ll see her in the evening.

We saw Bea briefly that night as she was bringing in the laundry. John told her what had happened and that everyone was to leave. She didn't need to work. She asked what was missing and where it had been and I showed her the space on the dresser where it had been. The next morning we met Gilbert at the gate. The security guard had barred him from entering so he had waited for us to drive out. He looked disheveled and his eyes were wild. I rolled down the window – he smelled. A stench barely achievable by human beings at the worst of times. Gilbert has always had a problem with body odour, and his last boss actually bought him deodorant and soap and made him shower regularly throughout the day! She also bought him a full body white servant’s outfit which she insisted he wear. We inherited the product – i.e. Gilbert made sure he was always smelling ok and looking clean when he came to work. That day he obviously had let all the composure out the window, with the prospect of losing his job.

“Madam, sir, please. I have not slept. I cannot steal. I do not know the thing you are speaking of. There is only one way to find the thief. We need to bring a traditional priest. A juju. That way we will know who has done it”.

I couldn’t help but pause at that moment to reflect on how bizarre it was. The fact that someone had just said that to me and was 100% serious. And how even more bizarre it is that I live in a country where the majority of people believe deep down that this IS the true way to catch a thief. I've even read a BBC article on how Witchcraft is alive and well in Africa

I’ve heard many stories from Ghanaians and Expats alike about how things were stolen and that these juju men, dressed in all white with frayed white cloth hats resembling doilies and always bare feet, were called in to set up a test to expose the guilty party. Sometimes there was a pot of boiling oil, sometimes there was a chicken to be killed and there are many other tests – all of these claim to reveal which person is guilty by the results. In all cases I’ve heard of, the guilty person is so fearful that at the last minute they confess. So powerful the human mind is!!! We agreed that Gilbert could find a neutral juju man. I was curious where all this would go.

That evening we were sitting in the lounge with a visitor and Beatrice poked her head in the door. I immediately wondered how she had gotten into the house. We just assumed we had forgotten to lock the door behind us on our way in. She asked if I had seen the bracelet. I said no. John told her that we had decided to call in a juju doctor to find out who took it. She jumped up off the chair. “What?! Why?? Noooooo, not me, I don’t want to be involved in those things. I am a church going woman! You don’t need those things, o!”. Very nervous reaction. Hmmmmm. She told me to take heart, and that she would come by on the weekend and help me look for it. She told me that she had no doubt we’d find it. I thought it was quite strange that she should be sure we’d find it.

When she left John smirked. She or her daughters took it. She’s snuck upstairs and brought it back. Go look, I bet it’s back. Quinci and I ran up the stairs to look. Nothing. I had thought it ridiculous and far too obvious and couldn’t believe it would be, but still I hoped. The bottom line was that I wanted the bracelet back.

We went off for yet another dinner out. This time all of us were out. We got back and I headed to the shower when John called me back. Holli, come and look. The bracelet is back.

I ran around the corner incredulous. There, in a second velvet box that held some of my earrings (that I hadn’t even noticed were missing), was my bracelet shoved in, with the earrings. It didn’t fit so it peeked out. The box where it belonged had been shoved to the back. It was just so obvious. But it meant she had a key! Or she was the witch Eric claimed…
Now it’s the weekend. Bea hasn’t come to help me look, because she knows the bracelet is back and that I’ve found it.

Only now it’s our turn to play mind tricks. Tomorrow she will be told that we have not found the bracelet and that she must leave the house.

Meanwhile the dishes are stacking up, the clothes have become a mountain in the laundry room and the floor has a full layer of dust. There’s been no servants for almost a week!

I called Gilbert today and he’ll be back tomorrow. Ah, I look forward to my glass of fresh squeezed orange juice and a clean house at the end of the day. I’m not spoiled am I?? This is a hardship post (according to most Western and European Embassies). Afterall, we are living among powerful spirits, witches and juju curses surround us.

The Guard and the Gardener

And just when I thought I’d preserved a small cocoon of modern civilization and a trustworthy crew around myself, the surprises of Africa knock me on the head again.

So this is what has been happening in my household over the past few weeks, while friends of mine in Canada are worrying about getting winter coats, and buying groceries, cleaning the house, kids getting a cold and the like, I am dealing with the dark corners of deceit and witchcraft in the heart of Africa.

A few weeks ago, while sitting among friends at Champs Sports Bar (a Canadian owned Mexican joint in Ghana), on Trivia night, surrounded by 20 tables of rowdy Expats, we received a frantic call from the house. It was Beatrice the ex-maid, (recently relegated to ironing only) – she warned John “Sir, please there is big trouble in the house!”. Expecting a fire or worse, we asked what it was. “It’s Eric (the gardener who has been with us for 6 years) – he’s been stealing the diesel! Even tonight, just now, he has taken two jerry cans of diesel, he and the guard” (A professional company has been hired to have one guard sitting on duty at our gate 24/7 to protect us and more importantly the expensive equipment for the company stored in our garages). Beatrice explained that Eric and the guard had been doing this for over a year on nights when we were out, bringing a taxi to the gate, filling the two cans, and then Eric jumping in the taxi, heading off somewhere into town to sell them. She also pointed out that Devon our oldest son had been returning from his friend’s place and had seen the taxi and Eric and the guard at the gate.

I shouldn’t have been, but I was shocked. Eric had always seemed a very loyal if not too intelligent guy. I paid him for numerous small jobs he would do for me, apart from his wages, and had always helped him out when he came with various sad stories over the years, of sick and needy relatives. We bought him a fridge and a TV and he lived for free in the quarters at the back of the house. By Ghanaian standards, for an illiterate guy with no gardening skills he was doing ok. As a gardener he was incompetent if not downright abusive! One day years ago when John had asked him to trim the palm fronds touching the windows, we came home in the evening to find the entire majestic tree pared down to a dead and pathetic stump. “It will grow back!”, he seemed so sure. It still stands, rotten and smelling out back…

But I digress… Now we had to deal with the situation at hand. There are two large drums of diesel sitting in the garage, to refill the generator (one of Eric’s jobs), as and when the electricity went through periods of long outages (very common in our dear Ghana).
We never kept track of the amount of diesel in the drums, it was a tedious job, not worth the time, and we basically trusted Eric. Well now we had to grill the guard, call in the management of the security company and fire Eric.

The guard denied any taxi having been there, denied any knowledge of Eric removing diesel and basically insisted on his innocence. After asking a few other people in the neighborhood, we discovered the same guard had his own diesel business passing out the back gate of the last place he was ‘guarding’! We called in his bosses who were only too happy to have him removed immediately. They were also very interested in what we would do with Eric. “Sir please – we would remove him for you. Throw his things in the road and not allow him through the gate again”. We were less into the dramatics. The truth is that he is a single guy, with few if any family in the city, and no money, skills or resources. We knew he had nowhere to go. John confronted him, he pleaded innocence, we gave him till the end of the month to go.

From that day, there was mayhem in the house. Every day when we left for work there was sneaking, and sneering and distrust and loud arguments and threats abounding. Gilbert the cook and cleaner confronted us one morning on our way out. “Please madam, sir, (I can’t get him to stop calling me this pretentious term which makes me feel old and elitist!). “The house is not fine. Sometimes Eric and Beatrice they fight. Sometimes I am upstairs and Eric could come in, he could take things. Bea too – she brings the laundry when I am not here. Please, the doors, I feel it is not safe to leave them open. Until Eric is gone and things are normal again”. We weren’t too concerned. The day came and went and Eric left. We paid him a few month’s services (as in common in Ghana – instead of putting a thief in jail, you pay them for a few months and see them on their way). And the security company was ready and happily put his things out. We followed up by sending a driver from the office to transport his things to wherever he wanted.

Just before Eric left, he handed me a hand written note. It was very difficult to read, but I pieced together what I could. It basically alleged that the reason Bea had made up these horrible stories against him was that he had confronted her for bringing too many men to the house. He claimed she was a witch and that she promised she would revenge him. This was how she had accomplished it, he claimed. Then he made an ominous statement that I was next on the witches list, as she perceived me to be the cause of her losing the main job in the house (as we had recently brought in the company’s official cook Gilbert). He claimed she would work her way to me next…

I put it down, we laughed a bit. Africa! Eric!!! I just thought to myself how bizarre my life was over here, even now, secluded in the Expat world of work, dinners, big airconditioned house with foreign satellite TV and a real supermarket to shop at (but that's another story!)…

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

They Eat Cats in Ghana

That’s what I thought last night while watching an Australian Forensic Investigation program. In the true life case, a man had been sentenced to life in prison for killing a neighbor over a fight about their cats. Both people were avid cat lovers and owners apparently.

Sometimes I forget what extremes of cultural difference I live in. Trying to explain to a Ghanaian that some families in Europe and the West actually view cats and dogs as a family member, and have been known to photograph these animals and place the photos in frames on display in their homes... well that’s as difficult as it is for me to explain to people back in Canada, that in Ghana, cats are viewed no differently than chickens, and are killed, prepared and eaten in much the same way. Not everyone in Ghana eats cats or dogs, but then not everyone in Canada eats Maple syrup and I could safely say that people eat maple syrup in Canada.

I thought it would be fun to find some examples of Ghanaian quisine that would shock and horrify just a little.

Cat stew at a local restaurant (along with the artist’s depiction of a cat head on a plate) rated right up at the top, along with the ever loved Shito sauce – a dark brown well named paste, made from burned salted shrimps and small fish with hot peppers and ginger. MMMM!

I think I’ve already covered ‘bush meat’ – which is a funky name for big cane rats – which are sold on the roadside, bodies open splayed and stretched across homemade wooden grills. Again… appetizing? Those who say no in this part of the world are the minority.

I must say, the first time I brought pizza home to the Ghanaian traditional compound which I lived in for 5 years (a whole ‘nuther story!), the reaction by all resembled what Westerners would say about the aforementioned items in this story. No one knew what cheese was, nor why anyone would bake bread so thin, then smother it with what looks like glue and tomato sauce!!! I got the nervous giggles from the kids and the disgusted dismissal of such food by the adults.

To each his own I guess – except when you live in the grey zone between both worlds!

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Another health myth blasted 'out of the water'!

Well as I mentioned in my last rant.. blog entry, I've been watching a great documentary series put out by the BBC called The Truth About Food
and they have quite categorically blown away some widely held beliefs regarding what makes us healthy and what is pure myth. All of us have heard over the past 10 years at least that you must drink at least 2 litres of water daily in order to aid digestion, clean out the system, enhance your skins elasticity, hydration and youthfulness. Numerous diets have extoled the virtues of gulping down 8 to 10 glasses of water a day and many of us obliged all in the name of good health.

The BBC's team decided to test the theories and took a set of identical twins, depriving one of any water for 5 days, while the other had to drink 2 litres on top of her regular consumption of drinks for the 5 days. At the end of the period both twins were tested and the results compared to the original readings. The result was that neither twin exhibited any major change after five days. Their skin's elasticity and moisture levels were exactly as before.

Why? Well, it turns out that the average adult loses up to two litres of water each day through our regular activities - just breathing, sweating and going to the bathroom. This could be where the myth that we need two litres a day originated.

What we all lose sight of is that any drinks we consume during a given day, (apart from alcohol), count towards making up this amount - including tea and coffee - and more shockingly - a third of our water needs comes from our food.

The rest of the water we force down just flows right through us and out the other end!

Flush that myth out my friends!

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Throw away your Detox books and grab some Chocolate

It is quite a popular belief amongst health conscious people and those who aspire to be, that doing a detox now and then or even as often as possible is a helpful way to clean out the system and reverse the effects of a binge weekend or holiday or lifestyle! Afterall, with a week long basically fasting – consuming little more than dandelion tea and wheatgrass shakes – how could you avoid the health benefits?

Detox is one of those guilt inspiring things I’ve come across many times. In various health food and book stores I can't help notice the brightly lit promotion pyramids of 10 day or 7 day or 3 day or even 1 day Detox programs with glossy bright pictures of fit chicks holding green shakes - which all promise to rejuvenate your liver and kidneys, give you a full skin makeover, take off 10 to 20 years, and other miraculous benefits. I have friends who claim to have endured these regimens regularly and limited their intake to watery fruits, deep green veggies and teas only for weeks at a time - and they swear by it.

On the surface it makes sense. No one has ever disputed the nutritional qualities of green vegetables – have they? Herbal teas seem quite body friendly too. No baddies like caffeine or alcohol or sugars... The question is whether one week or a few days of consuming only these foods is powerful and potent enough to effect the levels of toxins and impurities in our bodies.
I’ve always felt guilty for never gathering the required willpower or determination to commit to one of these detox programs – I mean what is the sacrifice of a week of your life to extremely healthy eating? Especially if the benefits to the body are palpable?! Bad bad me…

Which is why I watched with interest the other day – a segment on a wonderful program on BBC – a professionally presented documentary called The Truth About Food , which sought to scientifically test this detox theory. There was no miracle Detox program promoter nor any naysayer involved – just a scientific hypothesis with an objective set of test subjects – 5 ladies in a test group indulging in chocolate, chips, steak, wine etc. and 5 in the Detox group – limited to bean sprout smoothies, chick pea salads and a variety of herbal teas… and at the end of the one week test period ..... Drum roll........ believe it or not there was absolutely no difference in the liver, kidney, skin, heart or any other organ and no difference at all in the levels of toxins in either group.
This was, as you'd imagine, all very relieving to me. I opened a fresh bottle of red wine and tucked into a succulent bar of dark chocolate. Decadence, it turns out, does not negatively affect you.

Well now I do realise the results of this experiment could be dangerous, and could give us all free license to indulge indefinitely, but at the end of the day we have been over simplifying our understanding of the body’s processes and ignoring the fact that it has been designed to eliminate toxins naturally. 7 measly days and some greens will not significantly affect the body’s natural abilities to clean our systems out, nor the levels of impurities within. It is only in the case of chronic alcoholics where the liver is no longer able to deal with the levels of alcohol that you are doing your body serious harm. But in those cases a 7 day Detox is perhaps even less likely to make a difference.
So I have renewed faith in the theory that everything in moderation is just fine. And as I sip the wine, I realise life’s too short for willpower!! Can I have some cake too??

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Heaven on Earth

There are some places on earth, some things that once seen cannot be captured, cannot be written or described. It’s like taking a photograph of a breathtaking scene, but once you view the photo back at home, it's an underwhelming experience to say the least. These are the photos that your friends breeze by with only a quick glance, and you plead with them trying to convince them how wonderful it looked when you were there, conceding eventually that ‘you had to be there’, and leaving it at that.

There were places we sailed to in the Caribbean this summer that do defy description, but I can’t help but try. To describe the experience is to say it was like stepping into a postcard where you just know the colours have been digitally enhanced – only they haven’t. So you spend days trying to adjust your eyes, blinking and squinting and trying to see the place as something real and ‘of this world’, when what is in front of you is just so surreal. The place that jumps to mind is the Tobago Cays (pronounced Keys). It’s a set of coral reefs and sand bars just south of Martinique – a place that can only be reached by boat. And despite the dangers of sailing among shallow coral reefs and sandbars, there are boats galore anchored at the Cays, presumably all year round. I think once you’ve discovered such a place, you tell everyone you know and you go back yourself, just to see if you were dreaming the first time. We went during the off season, hurricane season! (and missed Dean by less than a week!). Still, the boats were flocked to this oasis in the sea. We arrived at dusk, dangerously close to darkness, which would have been quite difficult to negotiate – as per the guide book we had been reading, we navigated a narrow path between two tiny islands and got Shiloh anchored facing the reef. Then we just marveled and ogled and stared wide eyed in every direction at the colours of the ocean and sky and the palm trees on these tiny sand bars, blowing gently in the wind. And once the sun set, the ocean and sky lit up in different ways – the stars shone like I have never seen before. They flooded the sky completely, leaving us all to guess at the constellations above us. The ocean too came alive with tiny creatures that gave off fluorescent blue ink in bursts and had us all leaning over the edge of the boat, speculating and in awe.

When we woke the next morning and sat with coffee in hand admiring our surroundings, I felt we’d definitely reached heaven.

Every shade of blue, teal, turquoise and many others there is no name for, surrounded us in the sky and in the water. And we spent the day discovering each tiny island, buzzing around on the dinghy and taking it up to the reef. Once there, John put on the snorkel mask and dipped his face over the edge of the dinghy. He came up excitedly saying Holli, you should see what’s down here just below us! Go in! So I put on the mask and carefully dipped over the edge into the warm water. I was absolutely shocked and overwhelmed. Within my reach were hundreds of multicoloured fish, coral and other mysterious underwater life, and all the colours were indescribably diverse and bright. I came bursting up out of the water, unable to breathe in the mask and trying excitedly to speak and flailing about – Trish and John thought something was wrong. I flung off the mask and started babbling about what was just under me. It was like being in the real life world of Finding Nemo!

This trip out to the reef took a turn for the worse however, as my non-outdoorsy suburban upbringing exposed me when I needed to think practically and react accordingly a few minutes later…

John had decided to jump in and get some photos, however he had jumped out of the boat right onto a jutting coral and cut his stomach. He said he was okay, and continued to swim about with the camera in hand. Seconds later we realised how strong the currents were, as Trish and I in the dinghy had drifted quite far from the reef where John was.

John motioned for me to start the dinghy engine and head back over to him, but as we were just above so much coral, I couldn’t let the engine down into the water. I looked up and he was even farther away and I panicked. I eventually got the engine down in the water and revved it so hard it took us jolting forward. It started pouring rain just then and I forgot all my lessons about steering a dinghy. I would rev and turn the steering stick in completely the wrong direction until we were even further away. Circles, rain, panic, John in the distance tredding with the camera and the mask. I was a mess. SWIM OVER HERE! I shouted, and when his reply came back, I CAN’T! My panic rose to a new level. My hands were shaking and I was imagining him being dragged away into the deep ocean while we did frantic donuts and dodged coral with this stupid dinghy!!

Eventually we got close enough back to him and he pulled himself back on, about to ask me what went wrong and why I was so frantic, when I just burst into tears. I don’t think I’ll ever get to live that one down. Only later, safely on the boat did I realise how little danger any of us had been in. The water was warm, there were about 6 other snorkellers and a couple other dinghys right by us. The rain storm hadn’t even phased them, though it sent me into panic mode!!! Ah well – the lessons in life I learn at all ages!!! I vow never to let these things panic me again.

We set off reluctantly from heaven the next afternoon, headed for more worldly looking islands and the daunting prospect of many many flights back to Ghana.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

The journey beginning

The beginning of the journey

It’s been ages since I’ve written – I feel like what I imagine a confession is like in a Catholic Church. Having said this, admittedly, everything I know about Church I’ve seen on TV… But I transgress…

I’ve been away on a great holiday and an adventure to be remembered, so really I now have no excuse not to write!

We named our new boat Shiloh.

It had been three years coming, this boat, the dream that comes with it, and the events that molded it’s most special name.

When I first met John we talked excitedly about one day having a life where there are no boundaries, no country, city, neighborhood, house to be bolted down to. I guess this desire is not in everyone and it is one of the things that we hold dear as a partnership.

How to accomplish this? John never doubted. He is practical, and had the idea since he was young about dressing up a caravan and touring, or even better, buying a boat and sailing everywhere our hearts desired.

Through our chats we eventually realised our thought of touring Africa on land was not remotely practical. Friends of his had had this idea, started in Morocco and were headed to Cape Town, only their caravan was shot to pieces on entering Nigeria along the way. Living in Africa gives you far too much practical knowledge of all the possibilities of what could happen. The number of armed borders between the countries was daunting enough, and then there was John’s experience in a Togolese jail, after having driven down the wrong street at the wrong time unknowingly when the Togo President was out in town and heading for the airport. They had kept he and our other colleagues in cells for the day without explanation, fearing them to be terrorists or worse, and waiting till the President had safely left the country before they were released.

We instead cultivated the idea that we could purchase a boat now, have it kept somewhere, take our vacations on it for the next few years while we learned about it, and got our minds used to the lifestyle, and eventually move onto the boat.

Only our hearts were broken in June 2005 when my baby Shiloh, our vibrant, opinionated, adorably stubborn and talented little boy died. In my arms. After a 3 day illness, having been rushed to the hospital on the 4th morning when it became obvious it was not the flu or malaria. In the overcrowded, depressing Ghana hospital ward, sharing a bed with another boy who died minutes later. My Shiloh stopped breathing and my life stopped. Everything was a blur for weeks. Everything about life changed for me. I became more timid and forgot how to walk down stairs sometimes and was generally keeping it together only barely. John was tremendous. He still is.

It was only much later when we allowed ourselves to dream again and live again that we rekindled the idea of the boat. And the perfect idea came to mind. We could name the boat Shiloh, and keep his spirit and his name with us in all our journeys.

We bought the boat in March, after visiting the Caribbean, home of catamarans – which are extremely popular as floating hotel rooms for the chartering crowd. We stepped aboard so many models and makes that we had only seen on the Internet, and the boat for us became clear quite quickly. It’s a French made 41’ catamaran, 2003 model, from a company called Lagoon. It’s white and bright and spacious and airy. It is fiberglass, with two engines and two sails and fitted with some very helpful modern amenities like an autopilot and digital depth and wind meters. It’s cozy and strong and won us over right there. We actually took ownership in July and made copious and tedious arrangements for all of us – John, myself, my friend, all our three children and the eldest one’s girlfriend, to fly from all corners of the world, to meet in little Tortola, to pick up our boat and sail her ourselves, from the company where she had finished her tour of duty, down to Grenada to her new home for the next few years, with a Charter company there.

We all moved straight onto the boat and set about getting it ready for the journey.

It needed to be renamed, and well this was a subject carefully treaded by many. Sailing is a very superstitious endeavour and most sailors will tell you it is bad luck to rename a boat unless you perform a certain set of rituals. So once we had the new name in a great font of my choice, in the right size and material, ordered and designed locally in Tortola, we needed to perform the rituals. We knew we needed champagne but that was about it. Thanks to the gadgets of the modern world, we used Internet access on a cell phone and found a whole ritual – complete with speeches honouring Poseidon and libations to the sea at various intervals, along with enough champagne to share among our little crew.

Shiloh was born!!! We were ready for the journey… well sort of.

I sort of lost the registration papers we’d been handed the day before and mayhem ensued for about half a day….

But that’s the next story!

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Need a doctor?

I thought my global friends might appreciate a typical roadside sign in Ghana - advertising 'general practitioner' in a village...

Monday, June 11, 2007

Sunday in Ghana

Tales of a Private Island

For most of us Westerners, the dream of having our own tropical island is just that - a dream.

Oh but to be a Lebanese family in West Africa...

This weekend we were invited to a farewell party for one of the Ambassadors to Ghana, on a friend's friends' island. Yes, not their house but their island.

We drove from the city along the one highway (read stretch of tarred road without numerous potholes) in Ghana, in a cavalcade of Diplomatic vehicles, out to the village of Ada. Here we found local boys waiting with the family's fleet of little boats, and the lot of us were taxied in groups along the coast of small basic fishing villages (in photo 1), out to the island. It is a gorgeous sandy place, with the river on one side and the ocean on the other... the only building is the family's gorgeous modern house, with windows everywhere and broken tiles in mosaics around the outdoor bar and patio and even in the washroom where an 8ft high Adam and Eve with the snake and apple are expertly created in a mural of broken mirror and colourful tiles...

We arrived on the little peer and were met by our generous hosts, and ushered up to the party which populated their yard - the majority of the island. The kids quickly headed off to join the others being pulled along by speedboats on the floating yellow donuts.

We spent the afternoon casually hobnobbing with the various Ambassadors and their wives, and other people of importance... until it was time for lunch and we were all led into the lounge where a massive buffet awaited the crowd. The 100 or so people barely made a dint in the offerings. The bar men floated among us, filling wine glasses and taking orders... all they needed were white gloves to evoke a movie scene in my mind.

I think of how we have been toying with the idea of leaving Ghana - moving back to 'civilized countries' where the electricity works and the water flows... then I realize there are just so many interesting aspects to our lives here... Where in Mississauga or Houston or London England would we enjoy a day at our friend's private island, complete with palm trees and cocktails and the warm sun above us? Sometimes it's fun to indulge, not to judge, to throw away the PC questions about what is fair and what is right and just join the priveleged few who really know how to enjoy.

I think we'll stay put a while longer and observe the many facets of life that are Ghana.

Monday, May 21, 2007

The lighter side

It's been ages since I've written. I feel I've foresaken my blog!!

I had/have a long piece almost ready to publish - it's full of ghastly statistics about flying in Africa and the perils of the local airlines...

But alas, it seems I am getting older and simpler and just too tired this month to dwell on the tragic realities.

I have rediscovered Calvin & Hobbes. And it is a jubilant reunion.

I've attempted to insert some profound but gorgeously simple life lessons, tidbits from the genius himself - however, blogger is not cooperating tonight.

Tomorrow I will find a way to share the wisdom....

Tonight I am feeling more and more like the old me of a few weeks ago, ready to tear into the ineptitude of the Internet in Africa - why it's pathetic and limited and underutilized... but I transgress... Calvin tomorrow it is. Good night.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Antrak Off-track

My disastrous travels across West Africa…

As per Part 1 below – I made it to Ouagadougou Burkina Faso, from Accra, the 766kms, on a rickety 10 seater plane… courtesy of Antrak Air.

On my return to Accra, days later and via two other separate airlines I looked them up and shockingly they actually have a website!

The most hilarious thing is that their motto is, “an Airline of Distinction and Excellence”. Well my experience was anything but excellent.

After my two designated days in Ouaga, I decided to give the airline a call, to confirm my booking on the flying coffin, to return to Accra that evening. Only when I called I was told that they don’t fly on Fridays. “But I have a ticket in my hand that says I’m to fly back to Accra tonight!!”, I said in a miniature panic at the thought of spending a lonely weekend in the desert town… The answer came back at me that they might fly on Sunday. “And what if I need to get back to Accra today?”…. (ask a silly question), she answered that I could try some other airlines… At who’s cost?! I had already been robbed blind on the two way fare of USD $450. I could have flown to London!
She calmly took my number, “in case of anything”… (Like what I might ask? In case a miracle happened and the airline became professional?!).

I spent the rest of the day visiting various travel agents and airline offices to try and arrange a route home. Getting around in West Africa is a nightmare at the best of times. Ouaga is not the best of times. My options all involved at least an extra two stops and one or two extra countries on the trip… At one point I even considered flying Air France to Paris, transferring to Amsterdam and flying with KLM all the way back down to Ghana…

Eventually I was able to get a seat on Air Burkina the following day, to Abidjan, with a stop over in Bobodioulasso (where?! You ask…). From Abidjan I transferred to Air Ivoire on a flight to Accra. All said and done, the journey was 8 hours long. In a normal airplane, with normal schedules, and normal circumstances, this would have been a quick business flight, less than two hours long.

But then this was not a normal circumstance…

I received a call from a little French speaking lady a few days after I’d returned home. “Madam, Antrak will fly tonight”.


Monday, April 23, 2007

The SAGA OF OUAGA – Part 1

I spent a few days in Ouagadougou last week. Where, you might ask, the h*ll is Ouagadougou. It is the uneventful, hotter than parts of hell, capital city of Burkina Faso (which is a country directly north of Ghana, bordering on the Sahara desert).

It would be an understatement to say that the trip was ‘quite an experience’. It all started with the pre-flight nightmares. I arrived at the airport, bags in tow, only to discover there was no check in desk for my airline. I should have heeded the signs at this point and gone straight home. But, being me, I didn’t. I was sent to multiple buildings on the airport property in search of anyone who might know when and where I could check in for Antrak Air to Ouagadougou. Eventually I found one other man who was looking for the same elusive plane.. When we met he was on the phone, calling a friend in Ouaga to find out the weather, as he had heard from an Antrak staff member (who was now nowhere to be found), that the flight would only go if there was no rain up in Ouaga. He figured if he didn’t phone to find out the status, no one else would. The two of us stood and shared ‘madness of traveling in Africa’ stories, and waited. And after an hour or so a few ladies from Antrak showed up and explained that the captain should be here soon and we should ‘exercise patience’, but his car had overheated in traffic…

Three hours after the scheduled take off time, myself, my traveling companion and eight others who had been in a nearby hotel after the Antrak flight from the night before had been cancelled, all set off behind a check in clerk, to the boarding gate.

When I saw the plane for the first time I was gripped with panic. It sat on the runway like some boy’s toy with two propellers – one on each side. It only fit 10 people!!!!!! All my instincts said DON’T GET IN!!!! Still, I walked up the little 3 steps to get in and realized the aisle was about 4 ft tall – meaning all of us had to crouch to get into the seats. Can you say claustrophobic?! The seats were tiny too. No space for an air hostess (so there was none), nor a toilet (must be a luxury), and we could see our bags in a pile at the back. The cockpit was fully open. The two captains (finally having arrived after the car troubles… ) never spoke to us or looked back – not on take off, forget safety instructions!, nor as we landed. I guess the key words here are ‘we landed’, alive.

I must throw in a few more details though - It was so loud in there when the engines started that none of us could believe it! It was like forcibly sitting beside a massive diesel generator. And it shook and vibrated the whole TWO AND A HALF HOURS of the flight.

The icing on the cake was when I first noticed something in my peripheral vision, moving beside me on the wall and realized it was a cockroach. During the flight I think I saw a whole family of them crawling around on the walls and ceiling. It was great. I was wondering whether I’d find one in my luggage!

It was one of the scariest flights I’ve been on yet. (And this includes the time I was flying to Sierra Leone on Bellview Airlines and the crew told us they didn’t have enough life jackets for all the passengers, and we should all bear with them!).. By the way, as an aside, that very Airline had two major crashes in Nigeria last year, killing a total of over 200 people…

Luckily we landed without dying, though it felt pretty terrifying when we hit the runway and the back of the plane skidded from side to side…

I managed to find my way to the hotel at 11:30pm - though we were scheduled to arrive at 8:30pm... The hotel rooms were nice (if decorated like many wedding cakes) – great comfy bed, and the pillows were actually made of chipped foam and not the usual chipped wood or rock that you normally find in West African hotels…

I hit the pillow and slept with an appreciation for solid ground, unknown in my life to date.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

HBO Joins the Club of Naïve Westerners…

...Or when is a Documentary not a Documentary?

I have been busy picking on Oprah (see post about Oprah’s Charities), but I was even more shocked to read that the documentary titled Ithuteng – Never Stop Learning , which is being promoted by HBO, has just won numerous awards at 2006 Film festivals. There are interviews all over the Net, with the young American filmmakers, describing their experiences during filming, and the haunting stories that make up the ‘reality’of the lives of it’s characters. The New York Times screened the film and wrote “It’s a Film about Despair in South Africa, and a School that Offers Hope”.

It’s infuriating! The Star Online website flaunts photos of Hollywood’s elite, rubbing shoulders with the poor, victimized youth of Ithuteng, whom they have flown across, all expenses paid, for the numerous awards shows and press conferences!!! And all of this took place long after Carte Blanche exposed their stories as false, and showed footage of these youngsters admitting the whole thing was a scam to get money and recognition for themselves and the biggest criminal of all – Mama Jackey!!

I wrote to HBO, to inquire about their process of validating the supposedly factual documentaries they promote but not surprisingly, they ignored it. It seems Hollywood is craving an image of caring, of supporting those in need, of looking like the good guys – it’s become trendy to give back to Africa. Like the cosmetics campaigns where they promise to give a dollar from every tube of lipstick sold to stop AIDS in Africa. What a joke…

The thing is, that the makers of the Ithuteng Documentary are the sons of the Chairman of NBC, and whose mother is actress Susan St. James, (in other words, they’ve got a few connections), and promotions were not an issue. The topic of the documentary fit right into the current trends, and the subjects of the documentary were more than happy to market a good story and keep milking it, for a free trip to Hollywood, all sort of royalties and global recognition – despite the fact that back home the bubble had burst and they have admitted on camera that all the stories were lies. The sad truth is that Hollywood sells images and stories and the truth is absolutely irrelevant.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Shall we do a rain dance??

... More musings on the 50 years since Independence...

In Ghana we are having a serious energy crisis. They say by the 27th of this month the country’s one hydro electric dam will have to be shut down due to low water levels. Meaning a total blackout countrywide, indefinitely!!!! And those of us lucky enough to have generators for power at our houses will have to buy diesel, which is also in critically low supply and which can be expected to rise in price exponentially over the next month. Can you imagine – the successive governments have never bothered to build another power generating source in the country since the first dam was built in the 1960s!!!

We depend on rain and if it doesn’t rain then we are in trouble. That’s the state this country is in… absolutely unfathomable. Currently, the country is on power rationing, with 12 hours of no electricity for every 24hours with electricity! Power is becoming a luxury – a basic lightbulb in a socket that emits light will be a rare thing, especially in the rural areas of the country - very soon. Not to mention the effect these power cuts are having on businesses. Some are being destroyed by cut productivity already.

All the banners from the anniversary celebrations we had on March 7th lie strewn around the capital city. No one has bothered to remove them so they are left as glaring reminders that once the party is over, the follow up is forgotten.
What are we celebrating again?

Maybe we should all set up a little solar panel and wind generator and bunker down for the rough times ahead...

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Ghana at 50 - What are we celebrating??

Well sadly I missed Ghana's 50th Anniversary. While I was flying around the world to trade shows and Caribbean Islands, Ghana was Celebrating 50 years of Freedom and autonomy from it's former colonizer - the British Empire. March 7th marked the day that the Gold Coast became Ghana and the people were handed over the country that had been manipulated and built up by British colonial powers - the first African country to gain independence in 1957.

50 years on and what has become of this promising Star of Africa??

According to World Bank statistics, a country like Botswana, that acheived it's Independence in 1966, has a per capita income per head of over $11,000 (2005), compared to just $ 2,600 for Ghana. The adult literacy rate in Botswana is 79% compared to 74% for Ghana. Gross enrolment for primary, secondary and tertiary schools is 70% for Botswana and only 46% for Ghana. A country like Singapore, that gained its independence from Britain in 1965, has an income per capita of over $ 28,000, adult literacy of 93% and primary, secondary and tertiary enrolment of 87%.

Ghana is lagging behind. The hospitals are absolutely appalling. There is no public transport system. Ghettos and slums are growing. Corruption is rampant. There is no manufacturing, all natural resources leave the country in their raw form. The Gold is disappearing along with all it's revenues, to foreign companies.

A quick look at current poverty statistics is not promising:

Total population, 2003:
20.7 million
Rural population density (people per km2), 2003:
Number of rural poor:
6.5 million
Poor as % of total rural population, 2000-01:
GNI per capita (US$), 2003:
Population living below US$1 a day:
Population living below US$2 a day:
Population living below the national poverty line:
Share of poorest 20% in national income or consumption:

Source: World Bank

So .... what are we celebrating?

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Little update on the Tree hugger story

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

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

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

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

Go figure.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Another look at Oprah Winfrey's charities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, February 24, 2007

What we saw on our walk to the Supermarket today

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 19, 2007

America reaches a new level of insanity

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

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

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Great British humour

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

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

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

Friday, February 16, 2007

For Shiloh

If you were a farmer you’d plant pumpkins

Huge orange nuclear blast pumpkins!

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

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

And you’d wear a fedora to match the suit

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

If you were a bird you would soar higher than happiness

And deeper than 6 oceans

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

Touch my cheek so briefly and float on past

Making speed look like a breeze

If you were pink candy floss

You would melt and still be crunchy in my teeth

Fresh and warm and comforting

But you would disappear if I tried to hold you

On my tongue

I would be left with the remnants of u

You cannot be held

You are more than man and mountains below u are small

Though I can’t see u

I feel your red sports car energy

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

Pass in an instant

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Cut out cut flowers at Valentines...

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 12, 2007

I've got a bone to pick with Oprah

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tree hugger Part 2

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

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

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

Friday, February 9, 2007

I've been called a treehugger...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Visit to Nigeria

We spent the week in Lagos last week…

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

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

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

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


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

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

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

in an Airport

Try to write in an airport

About fruit? Exotic fruit?

Will my plantain chips do?

Whenever I get to an airport, or even from the moment I wake up on a morning when I’m traveling, I have secret rituals.

When I am traveling alone I am free to act out these rituals one by one until the plane arrives.

Any airport I arrive at, if there is a shop of any description – and at some of the airports I’ve been to in West Africa, they are of ANY DESCRIPTION! – I go into the shop and scour it’s shelves. I usually search first for something obscure – a trinket no one lese would choose, a gift that speaks to me, or a drink or food item that is bizarre and specific to the place I am in, so I can take it home and use it as a sensory description of where I’ve been.

The last time I was in Milan I spent over an hour in the main duty free shop trying to indulge these criteria. I was so pleased when I found the shelves of hot pepper chocolate. Not only was the box glossy and rich brown, but the shocking red thin red peppers on the front caught my eye and I felt giddy like a child. It was bizarre and made of authentic Italian chocolate, and no one would have ever heard of it, nor tasted it. I imagined all the reactions of each family member to it, and knew this was one I would share best with my sister. And we did…

From the obscure purchase, I move on to the necessity for a snack or meal or both. When traveling I lose the ability to decipher hunger from boredom, desire from curiousity. My limits become cloudy and undefined as if the anticipation of different time zones and no ground beneath my feet change the mundane rules and habits that define me at home. I almost always manage to find something. I will stand at the counter of the serve yourself restaurant or snack bar or vending machine for an extraordinary length of time, pondering the amount I should order, the number of items, whether the flavours of what I’ve decided on will match, how much it will all cost and whether it’s worth the money and how much it would come to in the currency of my home or the country I’m going to, or translated into dollars. Then I choose and move on to reading material if there is any. Magazines are always the first choice, then I look for a good novel or even brochures if there is nothing else. I may take a stroll back through the shop – anything to avoid sitting by the gate for any period longer than completely necessary.

Today is the Ghana airport with it’s never ending renovations, newly opened Duty Free shop and snack bar which moved from one end of the ill-defined main hall of the departure lounge to the other. The once lively far end of the building with a bar and lounge area next to small shops is all boarded up and abandoned. Flying out from Gate 1 (of the two Gates), it feels as if you’ve wandered into the wrong section of the renovations. But as with most things in Ghana, this is the temporary/permanence of the way things are and will be, and no one seems too bothered either way.

Today in my adventure through the shop, after sniffing each perfume and giving myself the inevitable scent headache, I glanced at the fancy alcohol bottles, (wishing some were plastic and weighed less), and actually ventured into the ‘Ghana’ section of the shop that sells highly over-priced, non-representative locally made items. I found some tiny soap stone picture frames, which are made in far off East Africa and hence are not remotely ‘local’ but were designed with the local kente patterns in atypical colour combinations. The perfect purchase. I bought two and wandered to the snack bar. I am always happy to find Diet Coke anywhere I go. It is rare in West Africa, and despite it’s reputation as a pathetic frivolous American iconic export, I just love it. Diet Coke is my innocent indulgence. There was a whole row of Diet Coke in the fridge and it was chilled! There were unpromising pastries in the fridge as well, (which would be microwaved into a frightening texture and temperature by the barmaid, so were therefore out of the question). I saw some plantain chips in a double wrapped clear plastic bag, which assured me they wouldn’t be stale or have absorbed the taste of the stale airport air. I bought the Coke and the chips and here I sit to write.

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