Dumsor, Dumsor

“Dumsor” is literally “off-on” and refers to the “scheduled” load shedding that has been instituted to help Ghana “temporarily” manage a perfect storm of issues related to energy generation and distribution. The roots of the crisis go deep, and layer after layer of technical, social, political, geopolitical turmoil have created a situation that will take years to fully resolve.

The web of interrelated issues includes dropping oil prices, volatile foreign exchange, poor management and maintenance of the grid infrastructure, aging equipment, the rupturing of the West African gas pipeline near Takoradi, low water levels in the two main hydroelectric reservoirs, rapidly increasing year-on-year demand, and energy theft. The government owes money to the distribution company, Electricity Company of Ghana (ECG), which owes money to the generating authority, Volta River Authority (VRA), which owes money to the Ghana Natural Gas Company which runs the Atuabo Gas Processing Plant, and owes money to the West African Pipeline Co, which ships the natural gas from Nigeria. The ECG has kept electricity prices low for the past several decades for social and political reasons, but still has not been able to collect about $1.6billion from the government. Meanwhile, installed generating capacity has struggled to keep up with rapidly growing demand.

One would think this crisis would be a golden opportunity to usher in a new era of renewable energy sources, distributed micro-generation, and the de-bureaucratizing and depoliticizing of the electricity system, but this does not appear to be the case. Most Ghanaians who can afford to, have bought gas or diesel generators to supplement the variable grid power. This is mainly thought of as a last ditch, temporary measure to cope with the situation for a few more months until the crisis subsides. As with people everywhere, Ghanaian’s appetite for making the long-term, capital intensive decision to install a solar power system is fairly low. It is not that people do not understand the advantages of doing so, but when you are scrapping together just enough cash to eat and pay the rest of the bills, it is much easier just to buy a few litres of petrol at a time and try to get by.

Even on a large scale, the general direction Ghana has taken is to double-down on natural gas, light crude and other non-renewable sources. These are proven, low-risk technologies that are relatively cheap and dependable. There are bright spots and small initiatives to convert portions of the supply to renewable sources, but so far there is no evidence of a concerted effort to make a long-term change. The international community has not done much to promote or support a shift in energy policy as a whole and seems to be content with the status quo. Turkey is sending over two 225MW Karpowerships, (offshore power barges), to supplement generation which should be complete in the next month or so. Meanwhile, USAID is promoting its Gas Action Plan and Gas Master Plan to encourage more domestic production of natural gas, as well as pushing for the privatization of the ECG.



The Dumsor Report, released on August 6, is a great, data-backed analysis of the current electricity crisis, breaking down Dum and Sor for different neighbourhoods across Accra. It is clear from the data that this issue goes so much deeper than just scarcity or the logistical hurdles of electricity distribution. It touches on inequality, the allocation of a scarce basic resource, the abuses of public institutions for personal gain, and the way people relate to and think about energy. As they say in the report, “Do you have lights?” has replaced “Hello” in the Ghanaian vernacular and electricity is discussed with the same aura and wonder as the weather.



These issues permeate and bear upon the entire psyche of the country, undermining not only direct economic activity but also social and cultural norms and practices. The draining psychological effect of living under the Democlesian sword of unpredictable blackouts is hard for an outsider to comprehend. The exuberant shouts of joy in the streets when the lights turn on, the groans and expletives when it unexpectedly turns back off, the insipid, creeping fear and guilt of knowing that you’ve-had-lights-for-so-long-now-that-something-surely-must-be-wrong-and-that-your-good-fortune-can-only-mean-you-will-be-rewarded-with-an-extended-outage, take their toll in surprising ways.

As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says in her New York Times piece about the situation in Nigeria, “I cannot help but wonder how many medical catastrophes have occurred in public hospitals because of “no light,” how much agricultural produce has gone to waste, how many students forced to study in stuffy, hot air have failed exams, how many small businesses have foundered. What greatness have we lost, what brilliance stillborn?” Ghanaian MC, Sarkodie, says in his song Dumsor, “I think we deserve a break down and we want to understand what’s happening. What are you guys doing?” Dumsor has also spawned Youtube videos, a new Wikipedia article, a special dumsor flash light app for Android, dances, vigils, and endless political bickering between the country’s two main political parties.

This issue represents an example of something that I’ve seen repeated over and over again: a complex development issue that defies a simple story. You cannot just say “ECG is corrupt and the New Democratic Party (NDC), currently in power, is the cause”. You cannot just say “the World Bank and the IMF, forced Ghana to privatize its electricity generation in the 90s, and this is the cause”. You cannot just say, “Ghana should invest in renewables”, or “Ghana needs a Gas Action Plan”. No one explanation will suffice and no one solution will make everything go away.

Living in Ghana for the past two years, I’ve been relatively privileged with my access to electricity. Where I lived in Tamale, I was near the water pumping station, so there was near constant power. Where I am living in Accra, the compound has a generator for a few hours per night. I am also able to sit in coffee shops, plug-in my laptop at restaurants, and roam freely around the city in search of the elusive Sor. What has been most eye-opening is just how much electricity I need to survive. Basically about 5hrs of light at night,  a few hours throughout the day to charge my phone and laptop, and occasionally enough to run a small fan and I’m satisfied.

It is hard to know how dumsor will evolve and what the next few months will bring, but people are definitely working hard to solve these issues, citizens are active and engaged in debate about what to do and most are relatively good-humoured and optimistic that Ghana can overcome this set back and get back on track. It’s the weekend, so I should have power for at least 24hrs, life’s good!












Runin’ Tings


Imagine if I told you there is a miracle cure-all out there that makes you healthier, lengthens your life, protects you from disease, improves your willpower, brings you good mental health and concentration, and also makes you look and feel better. You’d probably be asking “what’s the catch?” Well, the catch is that this miracle cure is called exercise and if you want all the benefits you have to force yourself to do it for a few weeks before it becomes a habit and a self-reinforcing virtuous cycle.

I know how annoying it can be to hear all this gushing praise for exercise. There once was a time when I saw people running at the crack of dawn and thought them crazy, delusional, or otherwise chemically imbalanced. (The last one may not be far from the truth as the brain is awash in a potent speedball of stress-crushing, euphoria-inducing hormones and proteins during exercise). I have been reading up on the many benefits of habits and exercise and it seems the two go hand in hand to form the single best thing you can do for yourself after eating right. While this is apparently “common knowledge” it’s surprising how many people choose to ignore it completely.

I started jogging regularly in the early mornings about two and a half ago years ago and despite some rather significant gaps, I’ve mostly been able to stick with it. I was very concerned that moving to Ghana would send my running habit off the rails for good, but happily (and it’s really no surprise, people jog here as everywhere), I’ve been able to stick with it.

(As an important side note, in Ghana the term “running” has stronger connotations of diarrhea than it does in Canada, so for the first few weeks when I told people “I was running in the morning”, they looked at me a little funny. I’ve since amended this faux pas and say that I’ve been out “training” instead.)

Like everything else, the first few times going on my 6km grandpa jog around the tamale sports stadium near my house was a challenge. I was super concerned about standing out, looking silly, somehow annoying people with my “foreigner ways”, and simply not being able to keep up in the heat. Thankfully, these have all proven to be neurotic non-issues and I’ve been able to establish myself a “regular”. The hazards one faces on the roads, even early in the morning when the traffic is light, still take some getting used to: treacherous open storm gutters, giant mounds of rocks, feral sheep, herds of cattle, garbage fires, and Harmattan dust clouds are just a few of the adventures that keep things interesting.

For the most part, I like to run solo. This gives me the ability to leave as early as I want (typically hitting the road around 5:45am when there’s just enough light out to see), and to set my own pace, tracking progress with my endomondo app. I had been meeting up with two high school students, Gannu and Yazid, who live nearby and doing most of the route with them on Sundays, but (being high school students) their reliability isn’t the greatest. I’ve also trained with another guy, Aziz, a few times, which is great because he is a much stronger runner than I am. He claims to have a certificate that documents him as the fastest 1000m runner in West Africa for his age group. I haven’t seen the certificate, but I can believe it after listening to him describe his punishing 50km+ per week training schedule. He’s probably the most passionate runner I’ve met anywhere; unfortunately, he’s finding that running doesn’t pay the bills unless you’ve got a sponsorship and can get to Europe to work the marathon circuits.

Other than these regulars, there’s a familiar cast of characters out and about on the street at this time of morning: street sweepers, footballers doing wind sprints, older guys power walking, and many regular folks already going about their days. In much the same way as in Canada, I’ve notice that a sense of community starts to form out of these early morning encounters. You may only get as far as a nod of the head or a quick “good morning/dasiba”, but after some time a sense of solidarity and shared purpose starts to emerge. Whether you are young or old, fast or slow, man or woman, foreign or local, in shape or out of it, if you’re out there squarely facing the day and getting your move on, then you’re on the same team.

Running is the great universal equalizer and a common thread which people from all over the world can connect to. It’s woven into our DNA, it’s what we were designed for, and it is just one part of the vast commonality we share as humans that often gets lost in our ceaseless need to differentiate and pick out the differences between people. Last year about this time I was hard at work training for my first half marathon and helping organize the Vancouver edition of the Run to End Poverty/Run to Enable Possibilities fundraiser for EWB. The team in Vancity is at it again this year, so if you are at all inspired to take part or make a donation, I’m sure you’ll be glad you did: https://r2ep.ewb.ca/vancouver. The event takes place on June 22nd and there are running meetups every week leading up to the race: http://www.meetup.com/EWBVancouver/.














Scenes from The Volta

9:30pm Tuesday, April 22, 2014:

“You want to go to Volta over the Easter Weekend?”

“Ahhhermahhiiiii…”[glancing at map: that’s roughly two-thirds the length of country away. Visions of long hours on packed minibuses, crowds, confusion, “exposure”, risk, etc. all for a day and a half at a waterfall…], “…wha the hell, I’ll be there!”

4:30pm Thursday, April 24, 2014:

“You know, obroonii, that this is the party bus, ohhh!” [Way overexcited teenage driver’s mate on the knock-off-knock-off intercity coach bus between Tamale and Kumasi, as he’s dancing around the aisle to an extra loud, extra generic hip-life/auto-tuned-to-death dance number, supergluing the seat numbers back on while his colleague is crop dusting the seated passengers with two cans of air freshener.]

11:00pm Thursday, April 24, 2014:

“Hmm..energy levels seem to be dropping. I know just the thing to liven up this party-bus!” [Bus driver to himself, before queuing up the next three consecutive Nigerian movies] “Full volume? Oh yeah!”

10:30am Friday, April 25, 2014:

[At the Kejetia Tro Yard waiting for the bus (converted 80’s utility van) to fill up for the trip from Kumasi to Ho. Having just missed the last bus by mere minutes (one seat was left and there are two of us travelling together), we now pass from reality into the Kafka/Heller-esque, time-free parallel universe of the tro yard. When will the bus leave? It could be minutes, it could be hours, it doesn’t matter, it all comes down to a simple formula:

# of seats on the bus – (rate at which people decide to travel to Ho)*(amount of patience you have to wait)

It is a chess game of patience, social psychology, minute trends and arcane signals. There are rules, and patterns sometimes arise out of the chaos, but like antimatter they exist only to vanish as soon as they are discovered. It takes dedication and zen-like control in order to become good at picking the right bus to the right place at the right time to complete your journey.]

5:30pm Friday, April 25, 2014:

“Yeah, I’m not actually going all the way to Ho (even though you waited around for an hour or two to meet this specific criteria). The bridge is out and there are long queues at the one ferry crossing. Instead, I’ll “sell” you to another tro driver going that way and we’ll split the difference.” [Tro driver to us as we are unceremoniously dropped off in Kpong, still several hours from our destination.]

 8:00pm Friday, April 25, 2014:

“Oh shit, braa, our headlights are fading! Quick jiggle the cable to the battery that for some reason is under the seat.”

“Nah man, battery is dead. We’ve got no lights, chali. Maybe you should slow down a bit.”

“Slow down!!?”

“You guys are going to kill us all! Here is my flashlight.”

“Okay great! Front seat passenger: dangle out the window holding the flashlight. Yep that works! Crisis averted!”

[An interpretation of a conversation in Ewe between the tro driver, his mate and an old lady in the second row, during the last few kilometers into Ho.]

8:30pm, Friday, April 25, 2014

[Dropped off in the regional capital of Ho, no chance of covering the extra hour and a half to our final destination of Wli just outside of Hohoe to the North, my travel companion, Sean, and I weigh our options.]

“Let’s just flag a taxi and get him to take us to a guest house.”

[First taxi we see, picks us up, takes us more or less directly to the best, low priced motel in the city (suspiciously named “Work and Happiness”), doesn’t overcharge, and even offers to pick us up again in the morning! Where else in the world, (developed, developing, or otherwise) can you casually cruise into an unknown city with no contacts, no directions, no reservations and not much money, speak English to everyone, not get ripped off, not get taken for a taxi joy-ride, or be otherwise taken advantage of for being the silly tourists we are? The upturned cockroach in the motel hallway, legs curled upwards in agony/ecstasy, seems to indicate agreement.]

12:00pm, Sunday, April 27, 2o14

[Staring up into the crashing, tumbling upper Wli waterfalls after a 3hr hike in the jungle heat and humidity. Waves of mist discharge off the mid-point of the 50m high falls and drift off into the valley bellow. Roosting bats are hanging all along the cliff face above and are circling overhead. In the distance there is nothing but forest and mountains; at the waterfall pool, other than the group of 8 of us and our guide, there is just one other person around. Trotros, travel and all the minor irritations of living in this country seems incredibly trivial  and far, far away.]

1:30am, Tuesday, April 29, 2014

[Arrive back in Kumasi after a cumulative travel and wait time from Hohoe of 17hours, including 6hrs in the Ho tro yard which I came to know far too well. This is what it is, for better or worse. With time, the good moments will become  bad  memories (corrupted and half remembered), the really bad moments will become good stories, and the mediocre times will biodegrade and eventually vanish. All you are left with is some hazy impressions, a feeling or two, and a couple of interesting tales to tell–but that’s all anybody really needs or wants out of life when it comes down to it.]

Here are a few photos of the mountains:


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.