Sunday, December 7, 2008

Ghana Elections 2008 - Peace AND Prosperity?

The poll results trickle in uneventfully. The day awaited with a wary enthusiasm has arrived in Ghana. Election Day 2008. The third democratic election, the first time since the discovery of oil. Local and foreign media have been obsessing about Ghana and it’s chance to raise the image of Africa in terms of the democratic process, and the ability of an African nation to face it with calm and organization as opposed to violence and mayhem.

We stayed home today, taking it easy and keeping a low profile, as we’d been advised. I listened for gunfire or sirens but I heard roosters and birds chirping.
We tuned in to the local media stations and watched a relatively calm if not highly organized day at the polls for Ghana.

The most shocking thing to happen today is balloting materials turning up late at the polls and people being forced to break into two or three lines after having queued for hours in one line… Not earth shattering stuff.

Maybe Ghana will pull through tonight’s results like a fully democratic country, and accept the winner fairly.

There is a lot at stake though, and judging by the numerous posters and music videos by local artists, along with pleading commercials from pastors and politicians alike, begging the nation for peace, it seems that most are very afraid of something untoward happening.

I noticed today that the overwhelming message was peace. Is this the best an African democracy can hope for? That people do not tear into others with machetes, for supporting another party? Tribalsim plays a big part here in terms of who votes for which candidate and what party. This morning voters were told not to wear any partisan clothing or paraphernalia to the voting polls. One man didn’t heed the warning and was ‘almost lynched’ according to the local TV station, Metro TV.

Supporters of one or another of the two main parties take things quite seriously. We were caught up in a cavalcade of NDC supporters last night, and delayed over an hour on a short stretch of road. Buses and cars and motorcycles waving the NDC flag enthusiastically, surrounded us completely. There was a palpable frenzy in the air as the people swayed and sang and rolled their arms in the NDC campaign sign, indicating the need for change. One taxi stuck beside us for a long period caught my eye. It was an old station wagon, with three jubilant supporters waving flags and in the back seat a cow. Yes a live, full grown cow. Curled around itself in an impossible space, they would tap her head each time she tried to raise it… (these are the Kodak moments Ghana offers, when you just don't have your camera on hand!). Seemed like EVERYONE was out for the party. I guessed the cow would be part of the feast, either for the post election party or for the Eid celebrations which take place tomorrow for Ghana’s muslims.

For us visitors it’ll be the fourth day of a four day weekend. By the end of tomorrow we should know the winner. As we weaved along the road among the campaigners, I noticed as darkness fell on us last night in the car, each village we passed through, had no lights. No electricity yet. In 2008. The people came out of the dim lit rooms, paraffin lamps glowing within, to shout their support as we passed.

I wondered whether the new party would do more than maintain peace. I wondered if they would bring the basics to their people. Light in villages, schooling for the children, hope for the future.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The Ghanaian Job

Or, The Expat Experience, or 'An Exercise in Frustration'...

So my friend and interior decorating inspirational counsellor and I conspired to revamp my son’s bedroom and bathroom recently.

In our attempt to do it all on the cheap in a company provided, 70’s throwback style house (which was incidentally the Libyan Embassy in Ghana before we lived in it…), one of the aspects of our clever plan was to paint the en suite bathroom walls gold (to bring out the best in the hideous tiles). I mean, seems natural enough? No? Well, you’d be surprised how difficult it is to find gold paint in Ghana. Or maybe you wouldn’t…

So, as we do, we picked a Saturday when we were feeling particularly brave and energetic, and headed into ‘the Market’, the infamous neverending rolling squalor of Makola…There is a saying that anyone who has traversed the pathways of Makola knows, ‘You can find anything in that market!’ … but you might not find your way back out!!

So true to it’s legend, as we trudged through with green solid slime gutters underfoot, chickens and goats skirting around, and a constant flow of hot pulsing bodies surrounding us under the oppressively beating sun, we poked in and out of crowded alleys and deeper and deeper into the abyss, and alas we stumbled upon some sellers with.. wait.. GOLD SPRAY PAINT!!! So I bargained and bought two tins. The seller assured me this would easily cover a small bathroom. (All the walls are tiled halfway up).

We found our way out of the maze, after walking the ‘gauntlet’ of used clothes sellers, and buying more than a few “Selection, Madam!” items…at about $2 each..

And as things go in Ghana, we didn’t actually plan to do the dirty work ourselves!
We’d have Eric, the house help do it… Therein lies the ultimate Ghanaian experience. You want something done. It seems simple and straightforward. You convince yourself you are too busy etc. and ask the ‘helpers’ to do it. What could go wrong???

Silly question, really. Monday morning I armed Eric with three week’s worth of old Sunday Times, an industrial roll of tape, and the two spray paint cans, with strict and precise instructions – cover all the tiles, ceiling, sink, toilet etc. with the papers…

Monday I arrived home from work and opened the door of the bathroom… drum roll please…

The two empty spray cans tossed on the floor caught my eye first. Then the white walls... What’s wrong with this picture?

Then I opened the door further and there in the back corner behind the door, on a 2 x 2 ft. section of the wall, was gold.spray.paint. Newspaper was taped to the tiles below, about a half inch below where the tiles begin (hence the top of the tiles is now gold spray painted), and every few inches a piece of tape, placed vertically, right into the spray painted area of the wall. So that when you remove the tape, there is a tape shaped white rectangle on the gold portion of the wall.

Question to self: Where is Zen when you need him? Deep breaths. This is funny, right? Cute even... Don't snap, just avoid Eric for the day...

Really I should just leave it. What did I expect when I said, tape paper over everything? That it was assumed the REASON for this was to create protection from the gold paint? And how else would one tape up the paper, if not with thumbstrips of tape?! You mean you wanted the paint to be uniform?

I looked up at the ceiling – a fine mist of tapering gold…

When I asked Eric, determined to stay calm, about all these absolute F^&%^ ups, not to mention the fact that he didn’t bother to spray across the wall but over and over on the same spot until both cans were completely empty… he shrugged and said “Oh Madam, the paint wasn’t plenty, o. The man who sold it to you was cheating… And I forgot about the paper for the ceiling. Also, I don’t know how to put paper up on the ceiling. Madam, please, it will fall. …”

I’m tempted to give up, just as is and leave the mess that is there. After all, TIG (like “This Is Africa”, but my more dear to the heart version, ‘This Is Ghana’…). But I just can’t. So I will painstakingly explain what I REALLY meant the first time about the tape and then describe how one goes about spray painting, and send Eric himself into the market to find more of the paint…

I’m a glutton for punishment and Eric may never find his way out of the market…

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Now blow out your wishes and make a candle...

Birthdays, like New Years Eve are always anti-climactic. Everyone wishes you the best, and says have a great day! But what if it isn’t a particularly good day? Afterall, anything could happen. You could get your period and feel like a ten ton truck with a couple extra water filled tires hanging heavily around your waist, for example. You could get up, look in the mirror and see the dark circles of life settled deeply under your eyes.

You might just be facing a work day that is particularly stressful and have a pounding headache, and not enough time to grab a sandwich even for lunch.
It might just be that you find yourself completely alone on that particular day with nothing to do but contemplate all the far flung well wishes and your own self pity.
You might come home to a quiet house with yesterday’s chili in the fridge and reruns on TV…

Happy Birthday! I’d like mine postponed this year, and while you’re at it I’d like the number adjusted by 10 years.

I’d like a big surprise party so I could blush and feel special and then diamonds and other extravagant unnecessary luxuries to prove I’m loved. I’d like a chauffeur to pick me up and whisk me off to a spa for a day of full pampering and self indulgence.

But I’d settle for good health and savings in the bank. Uh oh, both those are in jeopardy this year as well.

Probably a good idea to skip the cake too, as the number of candles needed at this stage could crush the cake and start a fire!

Birthdays put so much pressure on you to be happy, be honoured and be remembered.

But what if deep down you know that you have a great family and friends who love you all the time and that you might get a random gift on an off day when no one is expecting you to, and won’t ask if you got spoiled on the big day?

Isn’t it just as good to have a great child, be in an amazing relationship, have a challenging job and dreams that are forming into tangible future plans? Is it not good enough to wake up to sunshine and warmth and two fried eggs on a plate?

Birthdays should give you a chance to reflect on how the year has disappeared and ask yourself what special moments you can remember. And then keep them with you. Birthdays should remind you that time is short and precious and irrevocable and that every minute, day, month, year you have should be filled up with your best. Loving those around you and laughing as much as possible.

I think I’ll dust off that bottle of champagne at the back of the liquor cabinet, pop it open and celebrate near 4 decades of an excellent life, and toast the effort to make the next 4 decades even better.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Exposing corporal punishment in Ghana schools hits a sour note

Yesterday in my response to an article on the virtues of Ghanaian schools, (or lack thereof), I received quite an earful/screenful from Anonymous.

I took a step back, digested his/her comments (highlighted below):

"I have read the article you quoted and to be frank your posting is much more biased and highly exaggerated in comparison.

In your hasty attempt to rebutt an article which, I suppose, does not conform to your idea of "Ghanaian education", you intentionally come up with half-truths and complete falsehoods to justify your entrenched perception.

That is a shame!

I am a Ghanaian. I, like many Ghanaian children, received my elementary and secondary education in an unimaginably poor rural area of Ghana, but I had a good foundation which enabled me to gain admission into an ivy-league college in the States.
We may not have had the very best of what money could buy, but certainly we did not recieve an inferior education judging by my grades in class.
It is totally false to claim that "students are not asked to write 'in their own words' about topics they read".In fact, we were taught never to copy from others but submit our own independent work every time.
Since when has teaching children to keep their environment clean become an abuse? In America, they have the money to hire peple to take care of the schools' environment, in Ghana the children help to clean. There is nothing superior about the American approach.
At least, we are not confronted with the issues of shootings and violence in many of the schools in the west. And the reason for that, if you care to know, is:Ghanaian children are taught to respect authority and not fear them,as you claimed.
Reading your post will not help the reader, because it is not only full of exaggerations, but outright antagonistic in nature.

Have a nice day!"

And then I came to the conclusion that my experiences and observations have not been imagined or exaggerated. Nor am I the only one to observe the things I noted. I realise that exposing the harsh truths about what really goes on in Ghanaian schools is something that many Ghanaians (especially those abroad)are not happy about at all.

There is a perception among many westerners that corporal punishment is negative, despite the circumstances, and therefore the truth of it being at the core of the Ghanaian school system is something often breezed over or brushed under the carpet.

I was then alerted to another article called "Ghana's School of Hard Knocks", in the Epoch Times, dated earlier this year, which could be considered biased by my anonymous reader, as this is written by a Canadian who teaches in Ghana, with a stepson attending school here. It's worth a read. Here is an excerpt:

" From the first moment of junior kindergarten, at the tender age of four, the cane enters the life of Ghana's school children. How else can teachers manage with classes ranging from 40 (the smallest I've heard) to 62? Teachers, breathe deeply.

The environment in schools is punitory. If a class does poorly on an exam, all the students may be caned. If a child's clothes aren't neat, his nails aren't trimmed, or he comes to school without a handkerchief, he may be caned. If he is late, it's the cane for sure.

" Having taught school here, I quickly noticed that the children are addicted to the cane. Without one in your hand, they feel it unnecessary to listen to you. They are like convicts in a prison, going wild when the guards are off the range.

I have noticed that children here often lie to avoid the harsh punishment. There is no emphasis on "goodness for goodness sake," or on internalizing moral reasoning—the moral code is governed by the cane. I worry that this focus on external may be the tiny seed from which corruption springs, and the popular idea that "if you're not caught, it wasn't wrong."

The trouble is that her observations are not false - I can relate to most examples she gives.

The question becomes whether corporal punishment is truly as bad as westerners believe, whether it hampers education and self confidence in children, whether it instills fear and develops the habit of lying, whether it is wrong morally and tramples the human rights of vulnerable children ... not whether it in fact occurs daily in Ghanaian schools. That answer is a resounding YES.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Corporal punishment and lack of teacher training in Ghana not to be idealised

I read an interesting article today by an American grant consultant, called 'Ghana offers some lessons in discipline, teacher quality', where he compares Ghanaian schools with those in Iowa, USA. With children having passed through both the public and private school systems here in Ghana, I found the lighthearted and naive assumptions and conclusions of the author to be disturbingly superficial.

The intention of the article was to stress both discipline and higher educational standards for the folks back home, but to praise both of these aspects of the Ghanaian educational system, without placing them in their context, with all their pitfalls, is also a dangerous stand to take.

There is a passing comment about the paddle that is present in the corner of every classroom. This American author would be no doubt suing the school board if his children were beaten with any of the implements used commonly in Ghanaian schools for ‘discipline’. He glances over what would be considered by western standards as a culture of child abuse in the educational system across Ghana.

Children are caned on a daily basis. The acts of indiscipline warranting the caning include being part of a class of 52 children, where one or two have not completed their homework or memorized a certain passage to perfection. My own son attended a semi private Ghanaian school for five years and came home with welts, having been beaten for this very reason, despite having completed the tasks himself.

When I confronted the teacher and principle I was told his skin was too soft and hence marks were left, and they could not be blamed for that. There is no guilt or shame among educators in Ghana for beating children. It is an integral part of the curriculum and culture. Students from as young as five years old are tasked daily with chopping grass with machetes and cleaning out gutters on the school compound. This again would amount to using children for manual labour by American standards, and again, not completing these tasks to the teacher’s satisfaction also attracts stiff beatings. The respect he commended in classrooms can be rather attributed to fear. Students may call their elders ‘Sir’ and “Ma’am’ but unlike the system in the west where often teachers are close mentors, in Ghana teachers and students have a relationship closer to dictator and servant.

I also came across an interesting article on the TimesOnline site, "African cane tames unruly British pupils". A teacher is interviewed at a Ghanaian school, "Children must be taught. You don’t sit down and discuss directions with a child – you tell them where to go,” he said. "Children are beaten for misbehaving or failing to do home-work, but not for poor results".

One of the students sent from the UK by his immigrated parents, Sienam, admitted that he had been caned “many, many times” by his teachers in Ghana. “Any time you do something you know you shouldn’t do or step out of line, you get caned.” It is the reality of the system.

Secondly, with regard to curriculum, the Ghanaian standard is modeled after the British system of the 1950s and 60s. The author must have seen on his many visits to Ghanaian schools, some of these textbooks taken directly from 1950s editions from the UK. The focus is on memorization and many times regurgitation. Essays which evoke the child’s imagination are not part of curriculum, and students are not asked to write ‘in their own words’ about topics they read about. What results, as a close American friend of mine teaching at the University of Legon currently experienced, is that 50 out of 60 students will submit THE EXACT SAME PAPER. She is now at a loss as to what recourse to take. I am not sure that American schools should encourage a return to this type of learning, when the school systems in the west have intentionally moved away from these methods, after realizing children gain irreplaceable skills by applying their knowledge outside textbooks.

I have yet another concern regarding the author’s assessment of the quality of teachers in Ghanaian schools. Constantly during my son’s five years at a prominent and well respected Ghanaian elementary school, I was shocked by the lack of basic grasp of English grammar amongst the teachers. They constantly marked wrong grammar as correct or even worse, corrected proper grammar with complete mistakes. The problem was not concerning only one teacher but many, and I can guarantee it is not an isolated problem with this particular school. The average pay for an elementary school teacher in Ghana is less than $200 per month, which does not attract the most talented pool. The wages and living conditions in the rural schools are even worse, meaning these schools suffer an even worse fate in terms of their faculty.

Kofi Annan, illustrated in the article as a typical example of the products of Ghanaian education, is the child of Ghanaian Royalty, having graduated from the then highly elite boarding school ‘Mfantsipim’ back when the British system resembled the contemporary curriculum of the day in the UK, is definitely not representative of the average Ghanaian child, with comparable opportunities. Especially in today’s Ghana.

In fact, he states that education is ‘mandatory’ in Ghana, and indeed it may be, but the reality on the ground is that the streets are lined with children hawking goods during school hours, and estimated figures are closer to 60% of urban children are actually attending school on a regular and consistent basis. The rural areas are nowhere near this figure. Many villages have no schools to attend, let alone the money for the fees.

Though I do agree it’s a good idea to get people in western countries with developed economies to stand up and re-evaluate their school systems and the lack of respect among the youth of today, I don’t believe that exonerating the educational system in a poor country like Ghana, with it’s lack of infrastructure and a culture of corporal punishment, is fair in the context given.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Shopping - Ghana style

The 'profession' of street hawking is alive and well in Ghana.

Today, I 'snuck' out of the office to run some quick errands during business hours, and found myself in a quagmire of traffic, taxi drivers shouting, the sun beating down relentlessly, in a snake of cars longer than a few CN cargo trains chained together. Completely stagnant and unmoving.

Instead of fuming and cursing endlessly to myself about how useless the traffic police are, in dealing with the constantly powerless traffic lights, and the fact that despite the massive explosion in urban dwellers and vehicles in Accra over the past 5 years, the roads have remained tiny one lane rivulets, letting cars trickle through like molasses down a rough canvass...

Today, imprisoned in the jam, encapsulated in my airconditioned 4x4, I busied myself by jotting down each item that a street seller pushed up to the chilled window, and below is the list, as complete as I could muster...

1. Shoes for boys and men

2. Magazines - Ebony, Time, Elle Decor

3. Brightly coloured soccer balls - with a head bouncing display by the seller

4. Shears for shaving your head (I must be having a really bad hair day to be offered these!)

5. Kitchen knife sets including the extra large cleaver for those bone cutting jobs

6. Small coffee tables - inscribed with the Ghanaian symbol Gye Nyame 'Except God', and polished with red and black shiny shoe polish

7. Soy milk, in a bowl of water (for chilling?)

8. Homemade peanut candy, cut in triangles and arranged in a bowl on the seller's head

9. Chinese branded pineapple crackers... hmmm

10. Bathroom scales

11. Men's leather belts

12. Lanterns (electric I think)

13. Socks

14. Cufflinks

15. Television remotes

16. Suit ties in fancy silk lined boxes

17. Plantain chips

18. Bread in sweating plastic bags

19. Water in clear plastic sachets (sold for biting the corners, sucking the contents and throwing the non-biodegradable shriveled remains on the side of the road - very popular)

20. Chinese New Year decorations for hanging on rearview mirrors (I have a feeling I'll be seeing lots of these in taxis soon)

21. Wooden walking canes

22. Pleather steering wheel covers

23. Rat poison and cockroach chalk (same seller)

24. Chinese Etah-a-Sketch boards - I got a demonstration!

25. A textbook called 'Americans in Literature'

26. Yams

27. Bottles of coke

28. Chilled tins of Milo (malted chocolate drink) in cooler box

29. Bathing sponges in rainbow colours

30. Wind-up toy spaceships

31. Brass bracelets

32. Ghana maps

33. Nail clippers

34. Mirrors with ‘I Love You’ inscribed on the bottom corner - hard to resist those...

35. Keychains with expensive car logos

36. Mobile phone prepaid units scratch cards

37. Sunglasses

38. Pleather passport holders

39. Bath towels

40. The Real Life of Barack Obama – somehow I knew it was a matter of days before these books would be at every traffic light

41. Toilet paper in 2 roll packs and 10 roll packs

42. Ice cream

43. Toothpicks

44. Laptop briefcase style bags

45. Hankerchiefs

46. Lawn chairs (I’m not kidding)

47. The History of Rwanda (I wonder where the guy found this book?)

48. Oranges

49. Earbuds

50. Shoe shine kit

51. Green apples

52. Red grapes

53. Chinese fans – for all this heat!

45 minutes later I emerged on the other side of the traffic light, waved through with 4 or 5 other cars by the military men in full gear and white gloves. I was finally headed to my destination, knowing that shopping malls are the silly construction of foreigners and take so long to get to, one could just buy everything along the way and turn back upon arrival.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Old Couple at Heathrow

Here they hover,

Two halves of a common whole

Strangers in their familiarity

Fussing and puttering; shaking

Settling at the table for tea

Together without words to string together

The regretful sagging bond that holds them

Year upon year in the face of inevitability

In the grizzly demise of self and spirit

Crumbs sit dryly on trembling lips

Mingle with the spots of age and the dissolution of vanity

Knobbled fingers grope and balance cups and napkins

Bruised veins betraying fragile surface

Muted mutterings, the fragility within…

But tender their need and knees

Barely touching under the table

Elaborate fans of printed news separating them

The explosion of paper’s bends and crackles

The only sound

But the communication is deeper

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Tropical Halloween!!!

Okay the truth is that Halloween is one pagan festival that we do not celebrate in Africa, I thought this photo was a cute adaptation on the theme for our tropical environment! I found it on a Halloween Photoshop contest called Jack'd Up Lanterns.

Happy Halloween to all my North American friends.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

It won't always be okay...

I’ve always been a rebel mom. I was pregnant at 22, and though I thought myself quite the mature adult, in retrospect I realize I was quite young. I don’t regret the path I took though, being a mother at 23 was amazing. I gave him a middle name Mompati – from Botswana, meaning ‘my companion’. I looked down at my little helpless baby and vowed never to be a ‘typical mom’ - whatever that was.

It turns out I have fulfilled that vow – having first orchestrated a stint owning my own petrol station during my son’s second year of life, managing seven staff, mostly illegal immigrants, on 24/7 shifts, and filling in myself even during the nights when staff couldn’t make it. Luckily I was young and energetic enough to juggle the baby at home and lucky to have an excellent babysitter and support of my family. I did all of this to give my boy and I a chance to move on, move up, move out. Discover the world or at least another corner of it.

When I announced to my family that I was moving to Africa with my son just before his fourth birthday, everyone reacted – mostly with astonishment and outrage. I took it all in stride, still believing I was the atypical mom, heading out on an adventure that would give my son a more well rounded world view and prepare him for life in the world, not just the suburb he was born in.

Our first years in Ghana were at times brutal, at times wonderful, but at all times atypical. We were given a large closet called the ‘boy’s quarters’ in a rich Ghanaian family’s home to live in. My son and I cuddled in our little space and decided together we’d give Ghana a chance. There were oodles of children who wanted to be his friend. They touched his hair and sang in unison and he looked up at me with his big shy pools for eyes, so trusting. “Is it okay Mom?” he said without speaking. And I assured him it was.

We enrolled him in the local school and had his uniform sewed by a tailor down the road. And when he headed off to school the first morning with the children fussing around him, all holding hands, I stood at the broken gate, and tears fell heavy down my cheeks. Is it ok Mom? I believed it was.

He learned to eat local food and speak in the sing song local speech, regurgitating the alphabet like his teacher asked. He fit in perfectly and they sent home his ruled workbooks with positive remarks, “Quinci is a good boy and listens well. He completes his exercises correctly and neatly”.

We both counted the days to the first Christmas back home. He missed the cold weather and chocolate bars that weren’t melted… I missed my family and just needed a break. The holiday was wonderful and my mother wept when we left. As we made it through security at the airport he looked up at me and saw my huge tears welling up – “It’s alright Mom” he promised and pulled me down to him for a big tight hug. And I believed it was.

The next years marked our full integration into Ghana. I met a man and we moved in to his family home of 54… We joined the ranks and my son had even more children to play with… At Christmas I couldn’t afford to spoil him in a home with over 30 poor children, and gave him a ball – one big soccer ball and a handful of candies in a homemade stocking. He beamed. I moved between guilt and pleasure at my son’s humble happiness.

The day he came home from school and showed me a welt on his hand I nearly exploded. He explained that the teacher had threatened to beat the entire class if even one did not complete their homework. Inevitably one or more of the kids let the rest down and as promised the teacher had taken out her long reed cane and lined he kids up, whacking each one. The next morning I was by his side at the school, pushing through the crowds of children who saw me not as a student’s mother but as ‘Obruni (white person), which they chanted frantically all the way from the car to the classroom door. I laid it on the line for the teacher – You touch my child again and you will deal with me. She assured me that he had not been the problem and that she beat everyone equally, she then bemoaned the soft skin of the whites and claimed he was the only child that had physical evidence of the beating. I walked out after repeating my first statement and meaning it. He walked along side me and looked up at me. “It’ll be okay now” I assured him. And it was.

The next year his baby brother came – a little Ghanaian, born and raised. We ‘outdoored’ him in the traditional way, with the elders gathered, pouring libation to the Gods... my big son sat by my side, dressed in a gold and white printed outfit with a matching hat. As they lowered his baby brother to the ground, naked and crying, to introduce him to the world, he looked up at me with those big eyes, “Is it okay Mom?” and without words I nodded and squeezed his little hand. I believed it was.

Years later when our youngest left us, dying after a three day illness in my arms, my big boy was far away visiting our relatives back in Canada. I spoke to my mother in a haze of tears and shock and then he came on the phone. His voice, like my anchor, brought me back to reality. He saved me from the oblivion of insanity.
And today I sit here helpless. He is now 15, towering above me, his feet and hands are double the size of mine. He is no longer my baby. He is grown. And he is hurting.
He has been in love and has tasted the exhilaration of a first kiss. I have witnessed his beaming face and I have felt proud and happy and ecstatic for him. I believed he was ‘on his way’ and I believed it would be alright.

But today he is quiet and confused and deeply hurt. He sits in his room at the edge of his bed, plucking melancholic tunes on his acoustic guitar. The girl has called it off, moved on, and seemingly for no reason. This is the reality of young love. And though I remember the days in tears in my room at 16, depressed and feeling I could not go on, I cannot bear to watch him feel even a fragment of that pain.

I have always been a rebel mom, never involved in PTA, always easy going, understanding, open-minded. But today I feel protective and conservative. Akin to the psycho middle American republican over involved high strung pageant mothers who cannot stand to see their child lose out. I have visions of marching straight over to this girl’s house, kicking in the door and holding her at gunpoint for harming my child. I want to make her cower in fear and give her a swift kick in the head for good measure.

But of course this is just a fantasy. The reality is far more scary. My son will have to face the world, and his own demons and enemies along the way. I can only hope that our adventures together have prepared him for the many things ahead that I will no longer be able to assure him will be okay.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Pyramid Adventures with Abdul

I have finally seen the pyramids! It’s been one of those things I have known must happen during my life and the opportunity plopped itself into my view in the most obscure way. There would be a tradeshow in Cairo and a couple colleagues had been earmarked to go. I knew immediately I would find a way to manipulate things in just the right way to get my name on that delegates list. And it was easier than I thought. The truth is quite effective as a coercive tool at times. I simply got all excited at the discussion regarding the show, and giddily shouted “I’ve always wanted to see the pyramids!!” with a slightly whiny, slightly pathetic tone.
“Good, then you go – I hate Cairo anyway. It’s dirty and loud and overcrowded”.


And here I am at the first day of the trade show, sitting at our exhibitor stand, bored stiff and itching to get out there into the dusty, bustling mess of Cairo.
It’s my third day here and I’ve managed to squeeze in the full pyramid tour, the fancy 6 story modern shopping mall, great Lebanese food at various venues and the famous Egyptian museum. Today is supposedly the reason for my presence here, but it is the least interesting part by far. There is no comparison. I am biding time through the show, knowing that on Thursday it will be over and I’ll be on the fancy hotel shuttle, weaving recklessly through the neverending streets of Cairo, to be dropped off at an unassuming yet hectic busy intersection which is the entrance to Khan el Khalili - the biggest market in Cairo.

What lingers tangibly in my mind is the surreal trip into back alleys of a Cairo suburb, that led through the desert on a two hours tour of the pyramids. I had subconsciously numbed my pre-expectations of what the trip would be like, to allow the experience to flow. And it did.

We had asked, like so many hundreds of thousands of others, at the hotel’s concierge, “We want to go to the pyramids!”. No problem – they would call us a yellow cab and he would take us there. It would take about an hour to get there. Once the cab arrived we quickly realized it might be an interesting trip – as the driver Ahmed didn’t speak a word of English. In fact he poked his chest, said his name and then managed to get two other words out – “No English.” He wasn’t kidding. Once we arrived we had a quite a time negotiating with him to wait for us while we took the tour…

But the taxi ride itself was magical in a way – we whizzed down a massive highway, past thousands of unfinished apartment blocks that seem to have been half built for decades. The bricks appeared to have been stacked, with no mortar, as if a strong wind could play dominoes with entire neighborhoods, pushing the first one, and leaving them all as massive brick piles shrouded in dust. The only signs of life in all these buildings were brightly coloured clothes, hanging from random balconies.
We came to the Nile on an overpass and Ahmed whizzed on, as if the romanticized Nile of history books was a daily sight, and to him it was. I must say – the Nile of my mind remains misty, with Ramses and his royal entourage floating down it’s banks in gold crusted boats… Today garbage lines the banks and multilane highways snake over it at various intervals through Cairo.

We settled in to the ride, soaking up the speed, the thousands of near misses with trucks, pedestrians and competing taxis, until abruptly Ahmed pulled the steering wheel to the left and entered what looked from the street as a non-penetrable building. Dust flew up, people darted to the sides and we entered what turned out to be an alley. A very narrow alley, that somehow accommodated our car plus old men, children, donkeys and carts on either side. I squeezed my eyes shut until we emerged on the other side, apparently having not crushed or maimed anyone…

It was as if we’d gone through the magical door on the beach… and entered a different Egypt. Where things moved slowly, where time had stood still. The roads were closer to foot paths, unpaved, a fine dusty dirt that made the atmosphere a light brown. It was as if life existed here in sepia. A few street sellers served small crowds of children – some in school uniforms, others shoeless and ashen. All of them beautiful, with black rimmed eyes and spiderlike eyelashes. One seller had hot tea in highball glasses, another was baking fresh pita bread. Old men squinted in small dark doorways. We passed a hand painted sign on one shop, “Desert Storm”. Inside were stables. Horses lined the streets, calmly chewing bunches of dry grass that had been dished up in huge troughs all along the path. Camels loomed over the horses. Some sat, their legs folded like a collapsible chair under their huge bodies. All wore brightly woven saddles. All seemed to be yawning in the dusty sunbaked morning.

Ahmed slowed to the appropriate pace and slid up beside a tiny shop. In hand-painted letters, the sign boastfully claimed “The Official Pyramid Tour Information centre”. Before we had time to contemplate the absurdity that this could be the ‘official’ anything, on a sleepy back alley, the proprietor (official information officer) appeared at the cab door, his huge stomach preceding him in a long gown, distorting the material like a giant hidden egg. He smiled a huge dubious grin, opening the cab door and ushering us into the ‘centre’.

Inside, the cool air was comforting and we sat awaiting the next phase of this bizarre journey. He sat us down on velvet benches and told us he would now show us the pyramid maps, and explain how the tours worked. He leaned on an elaborately carved table with one narrow drawer and slid it open. I almost laughed but then realized he was serious. In the drawer was a generous covering of sand, with nine marble pyramids arranged within. He talked quickly, explaining that the three large ones were for the three kings and the six smaller ones were for their wives. He drew lines in the sand with his pudgy brown fingers, explaining how our guide would take us around each, see the pyramids from a special angle where all nine are visible and we should take photos there. Then he told us there were three tours – big, medium and small. The big would take us around all the pyramids, and even into the tombs, the medium around only six… the small tour was made to sound completely useless and not worth discussing. We chose the medium, figuring once you’ve seen six pyramids, you pretty much know what 7 – 9 will be like. Plus we had Ahmed sitting in his cab, waiting to take us back to the hotel… It turns out this was the wrong answer – our friendly Ali Baba had only one plan for us – and that was the large tour with it’s big price tag. Surprise, surprise. He did make a good point though, which I had to concede, “You are here! How often you come to the pyramids? To Egypt?!”. So we ‘decided’ to take the large tour and once again we were brought out into the light, immersed in the smoky smell of the streets and immediately passed on to our guide. Ali Baba’s last comment after collecting the wads of money into his sticky wet palms – “If your guide make you happy, you also make him happy”. Translation – I’ve taken your money, but you will still pay again at the end to your guide. Hmmm.

Abdul our guide was young, mid twenties, tall slim and fit, and unlike most Arabic looking Egyptians, he had quite a dark complexion. His hair was black, shiny, wavy and quite stylishly combed back. He wore small rectangle glasses – again very modern and stylish. His eyes smiled beneath the glasses, with the long thick eyelashes batting at the glass each time he blinked. He wore a knock off blue Diesel t-shirt and jeans. Right away we felt comfortable – he was good at his job. “Welcome, welcome to Egypt.” Though he had said this a thousand times to a thousand tourists, he had a knack of making you feel special. We accepted the ‘honour’ and carried on. It was decided we would take one camel and one horse. I opted for the camel and was quickly ushered up onto the back of an ugly grouchy looking beast. The horse looked so much more civilized. Then without warning, and amidst Abdul shouting “lean back!”, the massive beast heaved upward in such a jolting motion, I was sure I would be thrown forward over it’s head onto the sand below. The front of the saddle ate my stomach as I was lurched forward and almost screamed. Then the camel unfolded another section of his awkward limbs and I was thrust backward with the same force. My camera, purse and jacket all threatening to leave my frantic grip in different directions. Seconds later I had my composure, the beast had reached a full upright position, and I was stories above the ground. I just could not believe how tall he was!

Abdul held his reigns and we walked along the road slowly for a few paces. Then we were at a very military looking gate, and a few very angry looking uniformed guards stood blocking our path. They talked aggressively with Abdul and then shouted to us “Get down!”. Once again the camel heeded Abdul’s tugs on the reign and just as abruptly he thrust me forward and then back until he was crumpled down to the ground and just about low enough for me to throw one leg over and jump off. Camel riding is not for the faint-hearted nor for those in skirts. Thank God I was wearing jeans. Without explanation we were told to walk the next 50 or so paces, while Abdul settled some bill with the guards, then caught up to us. “Back on the animals, and we head into the desert. Ok?!” Abdul had spoken. Though my instinct was to refuse getting back up on that camel, after observing some other disturbing things about it in the past few minutes, likeit’s hideous deep throated cries and tendency to shit constantly… Abdul laughed, but with authority shoved me back up on the massive saddle. At least I was much more prepared this time for the violent movements of embarkation…

We then left the streets and entered the desert. I instantly remembered the scent, the awe inspiring expanse and silence that the sand emits…that brought me back 20 years to my trip across the Kalahari as a hitchhiker… I took in the serenity and the crisp dry heat and settled into the journey.

Once we had reached deep enough into the desert, Abdul yanked the rope and brought the camel down again. Now the plan was that he and I would ride the camel together. Despite my western reservations about personal space and the fact that this once again took me outside my comfort zone, Abdul jumped aboard with ease. “Now we go fast”. And with that our camel took off, through the thick rolling sand, and I bounced uncontrollably behind Abdul. My tiny backpack slamming up and down behind me, threatening to toss all of its contents, my boobs defying the non-sports bra I was wearing and banging quite embarrassingly against Abdul’s back. I was mortified. However, despite my self-absorbed humiliation, Abdul noticed nothing and we galloped on, my colleague Patrice alone on the graceful brown horse, and me like a flailing idiot behind Abdul on the mad camel.

Everything suddenly melted away – the sun, the heat, the three of us. As we came up one sand dune, there they were in the distance. Epic, majestic – the pyramids. Abdul made a clicking noise and both animals stopped. In the distance various small groups dotted the sand, all facing the same direction. All in awe. We disembarked and snapped endless photos, as if by volumes of images, we could capture the essence of being there in the time and space.

There is something unexplainable when one comes face to face with such grandeur and with history that is at once mysterious and tangible. There are thousands of facts, theories and stories surrounding these pyramids. In fact there is an entire academic discipline dedicated to learning about the ancient Egyptian civilization. Standing in front of the great pyramids made me appreciate the mystery and I found I didn’t want to hear the modern day theories. I let the spectacle before me speak for itself.
We rode on, to get closer, over and around many dunes. At times we galloped, at times we went slowly, taking in the ancient windless expanse of desert. Abdul taught me to lean back on the camel and move with the rhythm. I watched Abdul and indeed his loose body did not bounce frantically. He taught me to loosen my fearful grip on the back of the saddle and ride hands free. I started to enjoy not just the amazing view but the ride, and the experience entirely.

At one point a uniformed guard galloped up beside us on an equally gigantic camel. His face was menacing and he shouted at length. Abdul smiled his infectious smile and answered back at intervals but the guard’s face did not falter. Eventually he grunted and turned back. “What happened? Anything wrong?” I asked Abdul from behind. Over his shoulder he assured me nonchalantly that the guard had only wondered why he didn’t see him in the desert yesterday, and that Abdul had told him he was at home with his children. A boy and a girl. I highly doubted his story. Either Arabic is an extremely aggressive sounding language or that guard had another bone to pick with Abdul.

The next event still has me amazed. We reached what seemed to be a random dune peak and Abdul gave the click for the camel to fold down. We jumped off and once again breathed in the serene magnitude of the nine pyramids. Here was the spot where all nine could be seen in a row. We took photos. I noticed to my left that a tiny crude fire burned, and on it a pitch black burnt tin can. Beside it was a plastic bag. Abdul walked over and peered in the tin can. “water boiled!” he exclaimed and dug into the plastic bag, retrieving a tall clear glass. He set it next to the fire in the sand, again he reached in the bag and found a spoon and a bag of what looked like salt. “Sugar!” he explained at noticing my interest in this ritual and the seemingly random fire pit. He proceeded to fill the glass one quarter with the white powder, pulled his t-shirt away from his body, lifted the steaming black tin from the fire and poured the bubbling water into the glass. Immediately he sipped. He closed his eyes and smiled. He offered his cup to both Patrice and I, while I shook my head I kept wondering how long that fire had been burning? Did he keep that little stash there permanently in an unmarked spot in the desert? How did he know when the water would be boiling? Etc etc… It will remain one of our desert mysteries…
Abdul stood and chatted. He asked for ‘an Egyptian minute’ to explain more about the gods and the pyramids. He also told us about the Cairo of today – where many of the men were ‘bad’, smoking hashish and drinking whiskey. “Abdul – no bad habits!” he assured us. We were in good hands.

We finally approached the pyramids from what appeared to be the ‘back’ – as we observed swarms of tour buses parked in rows beyond the massive stone structures. Abdul encouraged us to climb up – “Up further! I snap photos!” We rested a bit and I noticed the horse stood rubbing his face on the camel’s saddle. They looked so affectionate. I asked about them. “The camel is called Michael.” Michael?! Not Mohammed, Mahmood, Zaid?! “No he is Michael.” Big smile. And the horse? “Well she is a girl. Shalili. She is very good girl. She is the most calm horse. She knows her way. She handles Michael.” So there it was. The animals had been personified for me. I will forever have in my memory Michael the grumpy ugly old camel who resented my awkward mountings and ungratefulness, and his graceful lady friend, the Arabic princess Shalili who later rode me all the way back without fear or hesitation, despite my complete lack of knowledge of horse riding.

Abdul left us to walk around and said he would meet us at the other end with the animals.

We walked the perimeter of one of the pyramids, marveling at the massive size and peering upward at their looming presence with the sun unforgivingly beating down from above. Rounding a corner we approached the onslaught of puffy red faced American tourists in packs, following guides with red flags, roping in their unruly children and rubbing more sun block on their fat necks. From here the pyramids looked looming, crumbling at the bottom, and almost fake, like the constructions of Disney World. I was so happy at that very moment that we had been led astray, into that alley, for the Ali Baba version of pyramid tourism, and not the air-conditioned bus to the base of the pyramids, snacks and cold water onboard, departure time 45 minutes…

We came around the next pyramid and there was Abdul, chatting with some other local guides. He waved and we rejoined our little posse. “Now we see the tombs” said Abdul and we descended quickly down the Valley of the Kings into a deep valley. The noises and obnoxiousness of the tourist mobs faded away quickly behind the wall of dense sand. We had come to the excavation sites, completely off bounds to the public. We came to a loosely roped barbed wire fence. In the distance a tent with guards… “You wait here” said Abdul and he headed off to the tent. No doubt an amount was paid. Abdul had a way of getting us through all sorts of guard posts…

He came back awkwardly smoking a cigarette. “I thought you had no vices!” I accused. “No vices” he assured me. “But smoking! It’s a vice.” “But I don’t smoke so no problem”. He smiled. This was just a cigarette, only one, only today… The guy could get away with murder and maintain that peaceful confidence. On that note we came up to an arched doorway made of stone and buried in the dune. There was a thick barred door across it. He tossed the half smoked cigarette aside, pried back the corner of the bars and said “Get in!”

My Canadian nervousness got the better of me, “But are we allowed?” There was not another tourist in sight. “Of course!” said Abdul. Why did I bother to ask? We climbed inside. The air was so still and the chamber so silent it was impossible to be unaffected. Wow. We looked around. Abdul went into a turbo charged speech about the tomb and where the servants had entered, where the female guards had protected the king etc. I was in awe at all the barely visible hieroglyphics in the stones. These had not been shined and polished like those pieces extracted to the museums. This was the real thing. “Now we go down into the tomb” Abdul stated matter-of-factly. Again I was scared.

He jumped down into the mouth of the underground tomb room. It was a 5 foot drop. He held out his hand and we both made the jump. Then he went further, another step down into a pitch dark low roofed room. The small mouth where we entered was the only source of air and barely a source of light. My claustrophobia betrayed me and I almost bolted but Abdul was having none of it. “You stay, I show you the coffin!”. My curiousity won. He lit a small candle that he’d been carrying in his pocket. There it was – a massive slab of stone, pushed aside with a massive stone box below it. The resting place of an ancient Egyptian king. There we were, posing in front of it, deep underground in an offbounds excavation site, beyond the barbed wire, where not a soul knew our whereabouts and we knew not whether the place would crumble above us…

But alas we emerged, none the worse for wear, apart from dust in our mouths, hair and every other surface/orifice.

When we came out of the tombs the faithful horse stood, calmly bowing her head by the fence, while Michael was nowhere in sight. “Ah Michael!” Abdul shouted into the distance. We followed the direction of his bellow with our eyes and indeed there was Michael, on the path back to town. He stopped, looked up and then waited. Abdul explained that Michael was leading the way, asked us to walk slowly and he’d meet us down around the next curve. We walked a bit further, finding the experiences of the day amazing, and we came to a turn – there indeed was Abdul, smiling his sly smile, with both Michael and Shalili roped at his side. This time Abdul said “you will ride the horse alone. No problem. Horse like car. You want left you pull left, you want right, pull right, you want stop you pull back.” And that was it. I wondered what horseriding lessons were all about if this was the extent of training before being let loose on one’s own with a horse!! However thanks to Shalili and her patience and skill I had nothing to fear, nor any role to play. She galloped and slowed to the tune of Abdul’s clicking noises, and turned left and right by instinct. She had definitely taken this route thousands of times. In no time we were at the threshold between the desert and the road. Abdul instructed Michael and Shalili to stop. “Now,” Abdul explained, sitting above me on Michael’s massive back, with Patrice at his back, “end of tour. Are you happy? Now you need to also make Abdul happy.” The time had come for the second payout. We decided to offer him 100 Egyptian pounds ($20). He looked at the money and laughed. He made no attempt to take it from Patrice. “You know how much this is? Some people offer Euro20 EACH etc. but you can give from your heart. And are you happy?” Clearly he wasn’t going to settle for less than half of the initial offer. We caved in without argument. The last thing I wanted was to ruin this amazing experience, and annoy dear Abdul.

We disembarked and Abdul led us back into the shop we had started at. Or so we thought. It turns out Abdul had led us into the hands of another seller. The room was brightly lit, glass walls with clear bottles full of various coloured liquids surrounded us. “Welcome. Welcome to Egypt.” A beautiful young girl smiled and seated us. This sounded familiar! “What can I get you to drink?” She saw our parched and desperate faces… nothing, we assured her as we could see what was coming. “No problem, it is just my Egyptian hospitality.” At the same time I agreed with her, I knew the drink offer would be retracted the moment we declined the Egyptian perfume speech and subsequent purchase. “I am a doctor of odours”. I love this phrase, especially with her gorgeous accent. Yet still our reply was NO, NO THANKS. Thankfully we were set free immediately. There was Abdul, ready to usher us into our cab, knowing he’d done his best to get his sister/wife/friend/girlfriend some business out of the tourists…

Ahmed, leaning back, relaxing, awaited us. We glanced at our watches and realized we’d been gone in our pyramid world for far over two hours! We felt bad for the driver. We felt elated at the experience. We felt hot and tired and sore from the rides. We were thirsty and grateful and still a bit nervous. Like fish out of water. Like tourists.

For Ahmed and Abdul and Ali Baba it was business as usual. Another day in the Egyptian desert. Another set of naïve tourists taken through the system… We all waved. And waved some more as the car pulled off…

And we rode off through the dust and out the narrow alley… back to the sheltered world of the 5 star hotel….

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

A Depressing look at Baby Africa

Another poster from the site: 50 x 70

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

I've returned from the far corners of the world with a great link

You must click on the picture to enlarge it. Find many more great posters on this site!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Cosmopolitan Ghana - the Accra of today

The Accra I met more than a decade ago, on my arrival in Ghana was a crowded, hot humid yet dusty hive of activity. For the naïve volunteer set, of which I was a gold star member, it was an overwhelming sense of the absoluteness of cultural difference. There was nothing remotely familiar and we basked in the alien experience.

All of us were from the west, where a market is a tame organized centre for buying a variety of goods. In Accra the experience was quite different.

We were a procession, a snake like pinkish spectacle, chained together by sweaty fists and with a look of fear and excitement in our eyes. All conscious of where our money was hidden – strapped to our moist middles, under our cotton t-shirts and missionary style long shapeless flower skirts (prescribed by the NGO offices back home). We were paraded through a real market – African style.

People as deep as quicksand, we sunk deeper and deeper, away from the paved road into the colours, smells and sounds of the market. Smoked fish piled high on balancing trays, hundreds of tomato sellers in narrow rows, wide smiling African mamas, low down, faces behind their identical wares, each hoping their charm would win buyers and they would rise above the anonymity of their trade, to make enough to feed their family for the day.

We pushed on by, and through, sweating and squinting and averting the hoards of brown smudged fingers that reached out at our inadequately protected, sun beaten, damp white skin… shouts randomly from all directions, above the black heads and fleeting rainbows of colour and patterned cloth, “Obruni, obruni!!!”.

We managed to push our way through and were led single file past a grimy door into a tiny room. It was cooler and quieter than the outside, but the hum of the market surged palpably behind the grease coated glass. It was a Chinese take away. Our guide had apparently heard that Westerners like Chinese food and this was to be our treat, our solace for the day. The room had a few plastic patio tables with rubberized flower patterned table cloths. Each table boasted graying dust caked plastic flowers in tiny decorated pots. Roaches and ants scurried about. Random people leaned or slept at the tables. Just beyond the ‘dining room’ was a visible kitchen – the walls coated black with fuzzies caught in the dull greasy layer – far above the wall appeared to have been painted blue in some distant time. The metal surfaces were covered in random wilted vegetables and dirty piled plates.

We all stood huddled. There was an unspoken agreement that none of us were eating anything from this place. We compromised and ordered cokes. The reluctant waitress was woken up, wiped the saliva from the edge of her sleepy mouth, and as if in slow motion, she moved across the room to gather the bottles from the loudly buzzing overworked Coca Cola fridge. We rubbed the rust from the tops, and gulped the luke warm syrupy liquid, just wishing we could be transported magically back to the main road, to become invisible, to be out of here. Instead the return journey was more of the same and the group whined, complaining of sun stroke, heat stroke and bad tummies. Food choices that evening would be from very local, very peppery, very sketchy roadside ‘chop bars’. The restaurants in town were few. Either massively expensive and out of our reach, or more like the Chinese take away…

This was a typical first induction into being a volunteer in Ghana. Those of us who stayed – not many – have learned so many lessons since then. The market still thrives, writhes, dances daily. But now we know how to navigate. We’ve discovered there are actually things to buy and we can now bargain with the sellers, amusing them with local terms. We can be cut throat in our bargaining techniques. We are no longer amateurs.

But those who arrive today, in 2008, meet an entirely new Accra. The cosmopolitan city is arising, despite the persisting poverty and the traditions and the resistance. There is a new Accra for the trendy set, the academia and the professionals alike.

Today I found myself alone at lunchtime and popped in to ‘Cuppa Cappuccino’, a funky café near my office serving great salads, wraps, sandwiches, smoothies and of course – cappuccinos! In the big bowl mugs…

On any given day, the clientele pile in and out – alone to write or surf the net using the wifi, or in groups, chattering and nibbling and sipping. All dressed in 2008’s trends, talking about the relevant political and social issues affecting the world in general, and Africa specifically. Most are foreigners but definitely not all. In fact the groups are quite mixed.

Today I was alone so I observed. The scene was something absolutely unheard of 10 years ago.

The waitress smiles and is efficient and remembers my order. She sees I’m alone and brings me a few magazines to browse through while I await my greek salad and Diet Coke. I open a thick shiny mag with a gorgeous profile of an African model on the front. The make-up and lighting make this photo true art. I open the pages haphazardly at first, flipping along through glossy photos and adverts and admiring the artistic edge. Then I recognize some of the advertisements and the local jewelry in the modeling shoots. It’s a local magazine! On the cutting edge artistically and stylistically. Another absolute impossibility 10 years ago. Back then all printing had to be sent out of the country, or the images would be overlapped and discoloured, words cut off mid sentence…

This was something else. I wanted it as a coffee table centerpiece. It was called Canoe Quarterly. However, it is so ‘cool’ that I could not find out how to order it. But there was a web address: Canoe Quarterly. I visited the modern simplistic site and found some of the photo shoots from the magazine. The one below is from their site and speaks for itself…

So, I left the café, bumped into a few acquaintances at the other tables - some expat teachers from the International school, a couple of South African geologists… Then I heard many voices on the patio and noticed on my way out, a table of 12 new volunteers on their orientation. I knew this because they exuded newness, inexperience, and openness. Their Ghanaian guide was briefing them on some aspect of Ghanaian culture, while they sipped Mango Manias, café lattes and picked tiny triangles of brie and avocado sandwiches from their plates.

Things sure have changed since my day…

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

More trees slain in Accra...

The scandal!

Maybe I'll always be a tree hugger at heart, but I just cannot fathom the justification of hundreds and thousands of regal trees that shade the baking streets of Accra, being cut down, sawed, hacked and felled. Murdered.

This practice has been going on, intermittently since I arrived in Ghana in 1997. That year, the boulevard called Ring road, which was lined on either side by huge wonderful shade-giving trees, was gutted. Where careful planning and planting years earlier had created a tranquil majestic view from Danquah circle all the way up to Sankara - the overhanging branches, reaching from one side of the road to the other, suddenly looked barren, bright, harsh. The trees were being hacked to the ground. At the time some concerned groups wrapped huge purple ribbons around the trees in their defense and I believe the exercise was halted. Far too late though... Today a few trees remain, but they are all pared back, quivering on the edge of life...

Across from my office yesterday I found a typical crew of young fit guys, sent by the mysterious tree killing body, doing what they do best. Hacking innocent trees to death.

All my dramatics aside, it is heartbreaking to see. I suppose the reason is related to the recent housing development boom in the city - but I have to ask, who would prefer a barren wasteland as their view from a newly built house, to the soothing sway of an old tree?

Perhaps some of the other Ghana bloggers know more about why it's happening and what the justification is. I've heard that the Accra Metropolitian Authority (AMA) could be involved. These are the same people who have the curbs of the main streets, leading from the airport, painted a chalky white, every time a dignitary visits. Window dressing for the city... But killing trees? That definitely does not have an aesthetic advantage.

Last year at the 'Togo Embassy circle' near my house, a massive cluster of old trees, which amounted to a public park, were hacked to the ground. There was a protest with media coverage etc. It amounted to nothing. In place of the trees there is now one small statue, covered still with an old cardboard box, awaiting it's ribbon cutting ceremony... this is apparently development. This is apparently a tribute to the great ones... this is criminal!!!

Maybe it's just me... but I don't think there will ever be a day I can accept and condone it. They say when in Rome... but then this is not Rome and somehow I don't think the saying applies to the destruction of our environment...

Saturday, August 2, 2008

'Empty nest expat' - the emotions without the nest

Words prove inadequate to capture the majority of life’s most poignant moments and gripping emotions.

This morning I breezed by the empty bedroom, door wide open, dusty abandoned papers – the sum of eight years of private school in Ghana - left in sliding piles on the floor… Where the door would once be almost closed, the hum of the airconditioning purring and the soft breath of a teenager, sleeping, sleeping within.

It’s a Saturday morning. We’re up late, but he always woke later. I saved some bacon to fry up for him and we carried on with the day, always with the subconscious comfort of knowing he would pop his head into the lounge at some stage, bushy haired, sleepy eyed and shy, and he would find his mini soccer ball, like an old friend, to kick leisurely around…

Today is very quiet. Even with the music blasting from the speakers, to aid us along in the daily tasks, a vibrancy, an expectation is missing. It is truly a void.

Earlier this week, as the airplane lifted off, our middle son, second graduate, off to University in Canada, left the dark red soil of Ghana forever. It is the reality of living as an expat – the children don’t have a ‘home’ to come back to. We don’t know how long we’ll be here, there is no sentimentality in the company provided house, fully furnished. No bedroom to come back to forever, with all the medals and posters displayed as a haven, a fall back zone for the child, but mostly the parents – as seen in American movies… No, it’s just the raw emotional reality that the child has grown up and has gone.

I find myself, in the silence, burdened with the conflict between the emotional and the practical. Things have gone well. He has mastered the basics in life – brilliant at charming and influencing peers and adults alike, calm and affable yet the life of the party when the time is right. He found first love, and witnessing the dance was beautiful and nostalgic. But he did it better. He waited, he played and then he fell hard. No heartbreak yet, but those come. And we will not see it, feel it, we will not be part of that. He has grown up and he has gone. It’s natural. Yet it’s a sad reality for parents. He was never one day the cause of anger or worry. The rarity of this is not lost on me. At 18 years old, we can only wish him well and miss him in every way. Though the last two years prepared us for his departure – he was wrapped up in his own growing world, with emotions and passions and relationships evolving – we still felt his presence, cherished the small time together, the laughter in his eyes and the man he was becoming.

Still, today is difficult to face. He hasn’t gone away to a University a half a day’s drive away, he is gone in a much more profound way. He will live for four years at school, in a different world, a continent away, during which time the rest of his transformation will occur. He will definitely be a man. He will never be back. That process started in earnest this week.

As a step parent my emotional ties surprise me – but then he has always had a way of pulling people close, having them feed off his subtle but electric energy, and leaving you with a sense that you desire only to nurture and inspire him on his path. Four years were special, well spent, and enough to pull me in fully.
And next will be the last one. My own. I can’t as yet imagine it, though it will come, pushed along by the forces of nature and seasons and the urgency of puberty. He too has been an angel and I’m not sure whether to think we have been lucky or blessed.

I also find it strange, my melancholy. We have plans and aspirations and life affirming adventures ahead. We will not be sitting in the proverbial suburban house, on the matching opposite arm chairs, with the daily paper between us - the children’s bedrooms, ‘as they were’ upstairs, pathetically awaiting their return or a weekend visit with laundry in tow… We won’t be in that proverbial world, staring at each other over a pregnant silence… no empty nest syndrome for us. When the boys have gone we too will start a new life, like teenagers, on our boat… floating out to sea…

But still, there is the stark realization that the children we have raised are wonderful, complex and likeable people, and we’ll miss them with a love and admiration I would never have imagined until now.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Hair woes - culture shock at the saloon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued….

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Carrying dead bodies – punishment for bad parking in Accra

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, the officers may be questioned.


Thursday, July 24, 2008

Ghana gets a gold medal in hypocrisy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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