October Episodes

[Updated: Nov 3, 2013]

Honouring the Girl Child and Mothers

The business college (actually a private senior high school) that is one of the several projects run by the client organization I am partnered with recently celebrated their 10th anniversary. The theme was “honouring the girl-child and mothers” and was a full Saturday event of impassioned speakers (mostly men), endless photo ops (I even made it in a few times), “cultural displays”, cake cutting (but not eating), and honours for the top performing students at the college. In attendance were the 300 or so students, local dignitaries representing the traditional authorities (chiefs) and real authorities (police and politicians), women elders from the community, religious leaders and anyone else who happened to wander by.

Overall this was a pretty interesting insight into Ghanaian culture, particular the emphasis on titles, hierarchies, elders and gender issues.  The later was partially acknowledged during the event when the speaker pointed out the completely one-sided gender roles that systematically favour men over women for educational opportunities while simultaneously adding the onerous burden of nearly all the domestic toil onto women and girls from a very early age. This celebration didn’t seem to do much to address these issues, but was quite heartfelt and sincere nonetheless. Played against the obvious admiration and respect given to elderly women it seemed slightly incongruent. The cultural displays, singing, MC-ing and other antics were fantastic and made sitting in the heat for several hours well worth it.

[Video coming soon when I get a good connection]

Video below:


Sala Leha is the Muslim Ghanaian equivalent of Eid al-Adha (“Feast of the Sacrifice”) which commemorates Ibrahim’s (Abraham’s) willingness to sacrifice his son for Allah (God) and marks the end of the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca in the Islamic Calendar. The family I’m living with is fairly typical for the Muslim majority of Northern Ghana and this celebration (one of only two in the calendar) was taken very seriously indeed.

While technically Sala was supposed to fall on the 15th of October this year (see Wikipedia for details on how this is determined), we ended up using the 15th as prep day and doing the actual celebration on the 16th. More or less, the prep work consisted of the men of the house procuring several appropriately sized and coloured ruminants and tying them up at various places near the compound so that the neighbours could see them. Being fairly well-to-do, our group ended up with three rams and a bull cow donated by various relatives. Curiously, none of this meat seemed to be on the menu for the actual sacrificial feast, but after some weeks delay it has since started turning up in meals. Meanwhile, the women (and me being given a token task of cutting carrots), set to work preparing a wide array of rice and vegetable dishes, a tea made from honey and hibiscus flowers, deep fried yams and plantains, roasted peanuts and an epic number of chicken hotdogs imported from Brazil. The men, close at hand, were nonetheless too focused on the epic 6-1 victory of the Ghana Blackstars over the Pharaohs of Egypt in World Cup qualifying to take much interest in the prep work.

The day of Sala started bright an’ early with new clothes for everybody and elaborate preparations getting ready to go to the Mosque for prayer. To my surprise, I was very warmly invited to attend the Mosque, but unfortunately after much delay in preparation, we ended up arriving just after the prayers had ended. I was a little disappointed, but no one else seemed to mind missing this ostensibly important aspect of the day. As we sat in the car waiting for the crowds to disperse we became an island in the middle of river of amazing, riotous colour and a celebration of all things cloth and clothing. Everybody from babies with full makeup, to little boys with Arab head coverings, to teenagers rocking bright pink and yellow suits, to grandmothers with flowing robes, scarves and every piece of jewelry they owned was out seeing and being seen. After watching this inverted fashion show, we made curt, perfunctory visits to a laundry list of friends and relatives to snap photos with the kids and exchange invitations to their various celebrations.

Back at the shack, two of the rams and the bull met their demise in the back alley behind the compound following the traditional Halal slaughtering methods, (but not much in the way of safety and sanitation). This aspect of the ritual was carried out by the father of the family with the kids all hovering nearby. The actual butchering and cutting up of the animals (rather unceremonious) was done by hired hands who looked as though they had been at it all morning at various locations around town. Preparations for the big feast began again in earnest and by 4:30 everything was ready. To my surprise, instead of serving everything at the house in the shade, all the food and chairs were brought out to the roadside and set up next to the swarming traffic and exhaust fumes. While I had been in the compound, a mass of 40-50 able-bodied young men had materialized around the food and within about 15 minutes had made very short work of the all the labour intensive preparations. The women, back at the compound, meanwhile had their own little party with some reserved food and a few bottles of Fanta each and looked to be having at least as much fun as the men. As quickly as the crowd of dudes outside emerged they vanished leaving a wake of dirty dishes and upturned chairs. By sunset it was all over and the final prayer was called.

Looking forward to the next celebration which takes place at the end of Ramadan next year.


Beach life in Winneba

EWB hosts regular quarterly retreats for the long-term staff in Ghana to get together and discuss strategy and updates from Canada and other countries. This fall’s retreat was in the quaint beachside town of Winneba about an hour west of Accra. Despite the 14 hours of travel one way, including a white-knuckle tro-tro (minibus) ride, the three day retreat was absolutely amazing. Having arrived in Ghana a month ago and quickly setting to work getting practical things done, I hadn’t yet had a chance to get excited about the inspiring and beautiful parts of the country. Laying on the golden brown sugar beach in Winneba, eating ice cream out of a bag was as close to perfect as I’ve experienced in Ghana or anywhere else in the world for that matter.


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Getting a Life

5:00am: Eyes open, brain sloppily starts firing neurons around trying to trial-and-error its way towards a cohesive thought. Lurching into gear, it presents a half-baked collage of blurry memories, smeared possible truths, and undigested bits of dreams. Why am I in a white net? Why are a goat and a rooster having a heated debate about when morning technically starts right outside my window? Where are these haunting, eerie minor key notes of Arabic announcing the Morning Prayer through tinny speakers coming from? Where the f#*k am I?

Two weeks in and just under ten months to go before my first tentatively scheduled return trip to Canada. My intention has been to get settled and comfortable as quickly as possible and to lay down a foundation for the long term. There have been the inevitable stumbles in the cultural department, (“Yes, I know it’s 10am, but good evening to you in advance, it’s the only word I know right now”); moments of extreme awkwardness trying to figure out the bucket bathroom/shower situation, (I dearly appreciate your solemn gravitas and discretion, old lady who pointed out the difference between the buckets); and the first furtive exploratory walks to the central market, (“Hey everybody, just trying to blend in and act natural. Never mind the stream of kids running after me yelling ‘hello’”). I am beginning to find a groove, but there much yet to discover.

10:00am: Driving through town to the nursery and business offices of the BDS client I am matched with, witnessing either the most beautifully choreographed and impeccably timed ballet of cars, motos, bicycles, pedestrians, herds of sheep, cows, and tractors all sharing the road with millimetre precision; or, the most spectacular affront to probability and statistics that has ever existed. Getting out of the city the landscape opens up to savannah grasslands and scattered trees. Agricultural initiatives of all types and levels of success are unceremoniously scattered around in plots on either side of the road. People on bikes carrying pickup truck sized loads of wood and kids in matching school uniforms stream by along the side of the road.

By all accounts I am living the dream: nice pad near the center of the small, but well provisioned town, plenty of people to talk with and kids that use my room for an amusement park after school, hearty home cooked meals to share with the families in the compound, and plenty of down time to sit and stare off into space wondering how it all came to be.  The next year stretches out in front of me like an ocean of potential; I can take an active role in shaping it or just as easily slide into tedious ennui. My goal is not just to survive, but to actually grow and thrive here. I’ve got a stack of books, a guitar, a yoga mat and some running shoes. I also have, what promises to be, challenging work in front of me partnering with a local agri-processing business to understand, synthesize and create lasting value in the community. Beyond that, I hope to take advantage of the opportunity to anthropologically, geographically, historically, linguistically and culturally come to know and appreciate this corner of the world as much as I am able. The apocalypsonian horseman of boredom, illness, loneliness and demotivation will always be in pursuit, but with enough mental maintenance and diversity of activity I should be able to stay well ahead.

5:00pm: The day’s heat is rolling back towards the west, it’s still light out enough to read and the mosquitoes haven’t wizened up to my presence yet. The girls next door are pounding the shit out of some poor, helpless root crop (cassava or yam) to make the classic dish fufu (kinda similar to doughy mashed potatoe). There is an ever expanding number of kids and babies tetering around, a wayward sheep has invited itself to try the scrap heap under the mango tree and the women of the house are shooting the shit around their outdoor charcoal fires. Out of the corner of the blue sky a small dark grey cloud is rounding up its posse to prepare for an attack. Within minutes, the sky is dark grey and Operation: Ahh! Get Everything Inside is underway. Several more minutes and the first drops start coming down, exponentially increasing to full tropical down pour. Not much to do but wait it out.

First Week in Tamale

After a mind-blending start in Accra, I made my way via the State Transit Bus up to my final destination of Tamale. Other than a 2.5hr delay in our departure due to “washing and checking the tires”, the rest of the 11hr trip was actually quite enjoyable and a good way to see some of the country.

After arriving, I got set up with my host family, who is actually the same family who runs the business I will be consulting with as part of my duties with EWB (much more details to follow). Accommodations are simple, but more than adequate: I have a private room in the multi-family compound, near the centre of town. Meals are also for the most part taken care of, so I’ve more or less got it made in the shade for the time being. Lots more to get used and to discuss in detail, but for now I’ll just let some photos do the talking…

Accra: Stunning in the Most Literal Sense

The five weeks of pre-departure training in Toronto before my arrival last Wednesday in Ghana, was like climbing up to the high diving board at the pool. On the way to the top, we learned all sorts of great theoretical things about diving, water, swimming techniques and what to do if things went wrong, but the closer I got to the jump off point,  the more inevitable a full-on, stinging belly flop into Africa seemed. As the water rushed closer to smacking me in the face, whilst flying from Toronto to Cairo and then on to Accra, I settled on a strategy of limp resignation and blind faith in the universe to go easy on me.

Arrival in Accra, was actually quite smooth, having our colleague Neal pick us up (I traveled with one other APS, Gordon), and take us to a basic, but very comfortable hotel near the airport.  From there we took a walk through one of the nicer areas of the city to the Accra Mall, for a double slap of culture shock. The mall is a beacon of consumerism, conspicuous consumption, globalization and American culture (you can buy golf clubs and cat food), standing in stark contrast to the dirt roads, chaotic traffic, and street vendors hocking phone cards and BBQ from glass boxes on their heads just outside. (This is a very similar establishment to the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, which was in the news this week.) Having purchased a mosquito net and some phone credit, we once again simultaneously left and entered reality on the way outside.

The first few days in the hot and bothered metropolis of Accra were a blur of traffic, heat manifest as a physical force, awkward expat herd dinners, byzantine marketplaces, tro-tro buses and many other sights and sounds that defy description and loosen my grasp on reality.  Back to the swimming metaphor, this is when I have realized that I have floated too far from the shore and the current is pulling me further out to sea. The panicked mix of embarrassment, guilt and shear desperation to return home was more of a shock than I expected having traveled and lived overseas before, but I do not think this first reaction will have a lasting effect on my stay here.

For better or worse, I was only in Accra for about three and a half days before moving North to my permanent base in the city of Tamale (more to come on that, next post). What I can say about Accra is only what was gleaned from my short stay, but the first impressions were very powerful. First of all, Ghana and Accra are not Africa-lite or Africa For Beginners, as far as I can tell, they are very much the real thing. Depending on how you crop the photo, however, you can capture very different worlds. The contradictions, disparities and contrasts were the most pronounced that I’ve seen anywhere else in the world. As the Lonely Planet describes it, Accra seems to be simultaneously crumbling and building; failing and succeeding; and moving forward and backward (and every other direction) with equal determination and momentum.  There’s a sense of tremendous activity with the traffic and building boom, but also crushing tedium as people sit by their road side stands and wait patiently for the next customer to happen by. There are all conceivable manner of consumer goods available, the very best in technology and communications, fancy clothes and shoes, one of the most expensive rental housing markets in Africa, and amazingly new and well-kept European and Asian automobiles clogging the streets. Existing in exasperating contrast to this technological modernity are the open sewers, goat herds, dirt roads and grinding poverty that seem to be in somewhat reluctant coexistence with each other. As seems to be a trend with most modern economic systems, it is much easier to put a fancy cellphone and a cold Coke in the hands of every citizen than it is to build roads, keep the power on, and keep people healthy.

I  will definitely get a chance to go back to Accra, during my time in Ghana and I hope to do a lot more exploring and learning, especially in the cultural and historical areas, as there’s clearly a lot more going on below the surface. On the final leg of my journey, I will be travelling overland to the Northern capital of Tamale about two-thirds the way up the country, where I will be living permanently.

I Don’t ♥ You Toronto, But Maybe We Can Be Friends

Hey Toronto…We need to talk, I know it’s not very original, but the line “it’s not you, it’s me” works here. I’ve only really spent time with you this month and that clearly is not enough time to understand all your depth and complexity. Still, I feel like we had a good run and it was fun while it lasted. Remember that time I got lost in your labyrinthine back alleys late one night on the way home and you opened up a wormhole that spit me right out at my back door. Or, all those times when you’d trip me with your phantom curbs in the sidewalk–hilarious, I fall for it every time!

I’ve really liked how you’ve organized yourself and packed so many different people, places, sights and sounds all interwoven in one place, but still kept things distinct and varied–like a quilt of plaids. You’ve also got some great ideas on stuff: 24hr streetcars, great options for recycling and compost, lots of end-of-trip bike facilities, and those super cute (and quiet) house sparrows that flutter around all over the place–best invasive bird species ever! Where you really shine, however, is in your bars and restaurants, or maybe this is just where I’ve spent the most time. It’s amazing how so many of your pubs have secret outdoor backyard areas or rooftop patios. I’m also a huge fan of your reasonable liquor laws (get it together Vancouver!): you can get a drink at a restaurant or a cafe without food–what a concept! I’d love to stick around to explore more, but I don’t think I can maintain the pace of the past month, we’re moving too fast and I need my space.

Again, not speaking from a lot of experience, more just my initial impressions, but you’ve got some serious issues Toronto and I don’t think I could live with you permanently.  I understand you’re a giant, spinning, churning humanity machine and you’ve got huge pressures to make sure everyone gets their food, water, electricity, their garbage picked up, and their sewage treated. Sometimes, however, I think you’re a bit too efficiency minded and it makes you seem a little impersonal and machine-like. I wouldn’t say I’m so shallow that it’s a deal breaker, because it’s what’s inside that counts, but you’re not exactly a stunner in the looks department. Especially coming from the drop-dead beautiful Vancouver with its ocean, mountains, and trees, you’re a little flat and dirty. Also, I only say this because I care, but at times you smell bad and it’s really unattractive.

All-in-all, Toronto, I think you’ve got a lot to offer and could make some people very happy and comfortable; we’re just at very different places in our lives. I feel like I’d need to change too much of myself to be happy living with you. I’d need to get a brand new set of hobbies (running in circles at the park, buying a hipster bike, drinking weak lagers, etc.) and interests (art, barhopping, wearing parkas). I just don’t have the time or interest to do that at this stage of my life. Thanks for the good times, I’ll definitely be back for visits here and there, but if I don’t see you for a while, take care of yourself.

Who’s Feeling Prepared?

IMG_4736Here’s the scenario: You have ten new long-term, overseas volunteers (African Program Staff, or APS) coming in for a month long training program at the Engineers Without Borders (EWB) National Office in Toronto. Each has vastly different skill sets, education, work experience, international experience, motivations, interests, and learning styles. Most will be going to completely different overseas projects, in different industries in one of the five countries where EWB operates.  The outcome of this training program is for every new recruit to be at least aware of–if not somewhat “prepared” to deal with–the vast number of potential scenarios, issues,  challenges and environments they might face.
Clearly, this is no easy task. Most people and other organizations would likely design a very technically rigorous curriculum to try to organize as much of the information as possible into concentrated chucks and fire away. Others would concentrate only on the basics (health, safety and security) and hope to fill people in more thoroughly on the ground. EWB‘s approach is somewhere between the “drinking from a firehose” method and the “figure it out when you get there”.  The array of topics covered is impressive, but the emphasis is necessarily more on the exposure of the issue, idea or concept than it is on deep understanding or mastery.

Here is just a sample of what we’ve been discussing lately:

  • African Histories
  • Urban/Rural Livelihoods
  • Anti-Oppression/Racism
  • Colonization/Imperialism
  • Gender Issues
  • Power Structures & Hierarchy
  • Root Causes Analysis
  • Systems Mapping
  • Behaviour Change Models
  • Human Centered Design
  • Participatory Approaches
  • Mental Health
  • Technology Diffusion
  • Emotional Intelligence
  • Safety and Security
  • Cognitive Biases
  • Social Entrepreneurship
  • Foresighting

Monitoring and Evaluation

Sometimes, what makes the biggest impact isn’t necessarily the content, but how it is being delivered. What really sets EWB Pre-Dep (Pre-Departure Program) apart, however is the amount of on the ground practise and the explicit connection between international development and local issues.  This has been by far the most interesting and valuable part of the past couple weeks for me as we’ve been able to connect and integrate the universal issues of oppression, embedded hierarchies, power structures and inequality that are at the root of many of the social issues both in Canada and in countries in Africa. We have been given the chance to make small, (yes, perhaps token), efforts to connect with the local African diaspora, First Nations leaders, women who have come through the prison system and the residents of some of Toronto’s poorer neighbourhoods. The exposure to these issues and the questions they have been raised will surely influence my time in Ghana, and I will definitely endeavour to dive more into Canadian social justice issues on thisIMG_0886 blog in the future.

About a week and a half left in the training program before I fly out to Accra on September 17th!

More to come…