Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Tropical tree #2 - a pictorial Christmas post

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the last minute gift idea - the massive clock!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Afehyia Paa everyone! Ghana-style.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

What does a black metal tree say about Christmas?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’ve become your mother.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merry Christmas Holli style ☺

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Creepy Christmas Creations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Monday, December 14, 2009

Africa: the content of the continent

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

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

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

Friday, December 11, 2009

Frustration sandwich on rock bread

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Parenting funnies from Toothpaste for Dinner

How was your day, son?

Something you want to tell us?

In these economic times...

Modern parenting - reversal of roles...

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

Saturday, December 5, 2009

The market children

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Bars for Canada, Bikes for Ghana, Bucks for Cadbury

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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