Wednesday, February 21, 2007

I didn’t come to Africa to hang out in the jungle with all these white people

February 21, 2007

Kakum National Park, Ghana

Oboroni. We hear it every day. It’s a common term among local dialects that means “white man” or “foreigner.” When little kids yell the word at us in the streets it sounds like this: “Brunie!” And if we fail to respond, they say, louder: “Brooonie!!!” Usually a turn and a smiling wave of the hand is enough to satisfy them. They wave back. We fascinate them.

But we white folks don’t fascinate each other, that’s for sure. And I didn’t get up extra early on a Saturday to come hang out in this rainforest with a bunch of oboroni.

In fairness, we were not the first tourists to arrive at Kakum National Park this morning. The park was open half an hour before we got here, so conceivably there could have been another tour ahead of us. There probably was. If they didn’t scare off the wildlife, this troop of 23 sweating palefaces that we’re forced to be part of, shuffling through the forest behind our African guide, will surely eliminate any chance of glimpsing the elephants.

The park administrators did this on purpose. We’re all the same, might as well group’em together, make the early birds wait for the latecomers, who cares, just make sure everybody pays. Price of admission includes the guided tour, if you’re planning to walk the rope-and-cable bridge system they’ve got rigged up in the trees, 30 metres above the forest floor — which we most definitely are.

I hate guided group tours. Everybody does, everywhere in the world, you can tell, you can smell it. Every individual group of tourists that’s forced to be part of the larger group harbours a secret resentment for all these other people who had the same idea. None of us came here to hang out with folks just like us.

Well, what cannot be cured… we’ll take up the rear, thanks, no please, you go ahead, all of you.

The guide turns out to be not totally useless, when we can hear him. He says Canadians built this elevated walkway, using US funds as well as bows and arrows. In 1994 the Canadians trained the locals to build platforms up in the canopy and then fire arrows from tree to tree to lay the groundwork, so to speak, for the network of bridges. A project built by Canadians, financed by Americans and maintained by Ghanaians. Interesting. I’d be more interested if he was talking to me, instead of the masses.

And then he is talking to me as I wait my turn step onto the wooden plank that forms the base of the first bridge. He asks me where I’m from, nods. “Yes, Canadians built this.” Then he gestures. Off you go.

Being on the walkway is pretty cool, like when Luke fought Vader on that catwalk in the Cloud City before losing his hand — except it’s all green and leafy around us, not the grey electronica of a pseudo space station. She rocks like a ship on rough seas, though, bouncing up and down when too many people walk on her at once.

We walk from tree to tree through the network, snapping photos and ogling the foliage underneath us, between us and the forest floor. But shuffle along, shuffle along, someone’s always coming up behind.

And then it’s over. We hit the last platform, built on a hillside level with the trees. The guide is taking the group deeper into the forest, but he wants more money first.

No thank-you, sir. I’d love to learn more about this rainforest, what it was made of before and after the British logged the hell out of the place during the two centuries that they kept their colonial headquarters in nearby Cape Coast.

But a forest hike with 20 other people of any nationality is not my idea of a forest hike. Next time we’ll get here even earlier, and hope for something a little more exclusive.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Those African slaves got a raw deal, just a raw deal

February 17, 2007

Cape Coast, Ghana

Now I’m not one to dodge historic responsibility. I ain’t no racist, neither. White people, Europeans — my ancestors, yes indeed — have done some pretty atrocious things throughout the ages, to each other and to indigenous populations wherever they found them, and I must say the trans-Atlantic slave trade was a doozey to top them all.

But I can’t help feeling that something’s a little off with this slave fortress tour.

Yes I will walk down into the slave dungeons where hundreds of kidnapped men and, separately, women, were cramped into small chambers to fester in their filth for months whilst waiting for a ship to arrive, to take them across the Atlantic to a life of slavery in a mine or on a plantation somewhere in the Americas.

I will offer 5,000 cedis to this cleric sitting at the base of a shrine that commemorates the tunnel to the Door of No Return, where many contemplated and attempted suicide as they passed through to waiting boats. I will snap a photograph of the cleric, too.

Outside I will shake my head in disgust with all the others as the guide explains how the fortress church was built immediately above the dungeons, and the good white folks would pray even as the slaves were led away in chains.

I will walk along the ramparts lined with cannons, learning how the Cape Coast Castle was traded among European powers five times over 13 years in the middle of the 17th century like a chip in a poker game until the British — note, the British, my blood — established naval dominance and used the castle as their headquarters for 200 years, while the slave trade flourished.

I will step inside “The Cell,” where rebellious prisoners were locked without food or water until they simply died, their bodies to be cast into the ocean. I will smell the reek of this place and think of this horrible rotting death and tears will come to my eyes.

And at the end of the tour I will be too ashamed to ask the African guide a question to which I already know the answer: who brought the slaves here?

But this will prove too significant a point for me to leave alone, and I will return later, to ask this question that gnaws through my head, through my heart, and makes me wonder why it wasn’t part of the tour or the museum exhibit.

You see, ‘twas the Africans who brought other Africans here, and sold them into slavery. Contrary to a belief one can’t help but harbour after a tour of the Cape Coast Castle, the European powers-that-were did not delve inland, raiding villages for slaves; they bought them from other Africans and exploited a commodity that was already very much established in this part of the world.

In my opinion, this fact is overlooked by the lore on display at this UNESCO world heritage site.

I cannot imagine walking out of this place with a clear conscience. Anyone would feel the weight of this shame burned into history with the fire of 25 million souls dragged through hell.

But this shame is not reserved for those of us with white man’s blood. It is Africa’s disgrace as well.

Lest we forget. G.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The Yellow Trials *No Photo Available

February 12, 2007


As anyone who has spent time with me will attest to, I can and I have relieved myself just about anywhere. I do have limits, however. I will not, I learned this week, squat over a gushing open sewer in broad daylight with my skirt hiked up around my waist.

My limits were put to the test at LUV FM. The plumbing at my workplace has been clogged and this means the door leading to the toilet has been locked. And quite simply, a woman without a regular means to relieve herself means a woman with a festering bladder infection.

I won’t go into the details except to say that a wise friend of mine, who is now a doctor, once gave me great urinary tract advice. She said to take cranberry pills, a lot of them, when the first hints of a bladder infection surface. It is with this thought that I brought sixty tablets with me to Ghana. In one week I’ve consumed all of the tablets.

Last night I lamented not having my doctor friend in Kumasi. Instead, she’s in India and I’m suffering in the heat of a Sunday morning hunt for precious cranberry pills. I must insert here that a trip to the one hospital in Kumasi (one hospital to serve a million people!) for an antibiotic prescription is frankly not an option.

So into the market I went. And after eliciting the help of two girls who were begging for money (nothing in this world is free) I was taken to the pharmacy district of the Kejetia market. One pharmacist refused to even speak with me until I presented a slip from a doctor, another, after a confusing game of charades and a written conversation, tried to sell me a tonic for my blood.

Not deterred by the professionals, I sought out an herbalist instead. The sign looked promising: Herbs for low sperm count, for hernias and goiters, menstrual difficulties, bilharzias, erectile dysfunctions. The shop was closed (I intend to return tomorrow). Unfortunately my bladder doesn’t close on Sundays.

Sensing defeat was imminent I became desperate, scouring gas stations (many which boast a large collection of fruit juices) and inquiring at “drinking spots” or bars.
Some of the owners lamented the fact it was Sunday, where upon I would comment it was supposed to be a day of rest and then quietly lament the fact that my bladder was not really willing to take a rest.

Unfortunately my bladder must be content with water, and lots of it. Today, I will flush it thoroughly and hope that my limits aren’t put to the test again this week. T.

Steps Away But Worlds Apart

February 14, 2007


When I walk to work in the morning it’s not uncommon to be accompanied by a number of small children, decked out in yellow shirts with brown shorts or a brown skirt. The girls wear white frilly lacy socks that as the week progresses become brown, the boys swing their Nike or Adidas backpacks proudly. Their backpacks hold books on Math, English and Environmental Studies and usually a treasured pen or pencil.

Their small hands reach for mine as we navigate the dirt road that leads to their school and ultimately to my workplace. All are eager for my attention, some want money, some want to practice their English and some, I tell myself, just want the company of a white lady for just a few minutes a day.

If I leave work early I often meet the same children that walked with me in the morning. I ask them what they learned today and sometimes they open tattered notebooks written in Twi. I ask them to read aloud in their language, most times they oblige, and most times I don’t understand. They teach me, and I hope I’m teaching them something in return. We smile, bid each other farewell and invariably we meet again the next day.

Compare this to the group of children I meet just five minutes from the school area. We lock eyes and no greeting is exchanged. I say good morning, they look away. They are of the same stature and same age, I presume, as the exuberant children just steps away, their eyes give way to a much different experience. Their small arms carry weight under which their legs seem to buckle, their eyes dulled by events and experiences I don’t understand or bear witness to. Many are unloading goods from a truck or packing bowls full of the day’s merchandise to load onto their heads and then hopefully unload onto buyers. Many of these children are girls, many are accompanying their mothers, some are alone walking between cars on the busy highway beginning their sales for the day.

Although school is mandatory and free up to a certain grade in Ghana, hundreds of thousands of children will never enroll. A 2003 report by the Ghana statistical service survey shows that about one million of the country’s six million children are engaged in child labour.

This is one of the stories I am continuing to work on with colleagues at LUV FM in Kumasi. To read and find out more you can visit and click on foreign correspondence.

“Knowledge is like a baobab tree. No one person can embrace it with both arms.”
- Ancient Ghanaian proverb.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

These lizards are freaking me out

February 13, 2007


Maybe it’s the Larium, I don’t know. Travellers are warned of the potential psychotropic side effects of this malaria medication I have coursing through my veins right now. They say a small percentage of people on Larium are apt to suffer from side effects like paranoia, hallucination and general mental malaise. So far it looks like I’m in the clear — as long as the lizards running all over the street are real, and not figments of my imagination.

They’re everywhere, these long purple reptiles with orange heads and orange tails. They scuttle from underfoot as soon as they see me, up onto the walls. And then they watch me. They’re watching every step I take. They sit there, defying gravity, stuck to the wall with their little sucker feet, craning their heads around so they can get a better look. They are watching, all the time.

Then you know what happens? The little bastards start doing pushups, bobbing up and down like they’re getting ready to spring or something. They’re just biding their time, but they know. They know everything.

This alley is really narrow. It’s got high walls on both sides with lizards all over them, probably living inside them. There’s probably a whole army of lizards clinging to the other sides of these walls right now, doing push-ups, waiting for the order…

My God, this is where we live. This is right outside the door to our hostel. It’s a trap. I was so stupid not to see it before. They’re out there every day, clocking our movements, watching our comings and goings, waiting for the right moment to strike.

As soon as she gets home I’ll tell Trish we’re moving. I just hope the lizards don’t make their move first. G.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

To the scullery with thee!

February 7


After the near-trade of my services and womanly charms in Abonu (of which there weren’t enough goats in the village to offer Graeme in exchange for me) I’ve banished Graeme to the kitchen. The guys who live and work at the compound where we’re staying never cease to be amused by his presence over the propane range, a place where few Ghanaian men frequent. I reckon he’ll fetch a fair price among Ghanaian women if and when I ever have the chance to barter him in exchange for an interview. Bah! (plus I’m better at card games, in particular cribbage, than him! -- thanks for that suggestion casabooboo.)

Our first foray into an African village was quite the experience! After a grueling hike in the midday heat we arrived in Obu, a small village with just a few families. We were greeted with gusto and the young women insisted on showing me their secret handshake (which involved snapping, touching your lips and shaking and rubbing your booty into the hip of the other woman.) After much laughter and a few missed hip checks I got into the groove. We were again accosted for money and we fled, vowing to return next time with something besides money for this village.

Obu is akin to our Atlin; an oasis from traffic, people and the hustle of a city. We lounged in hammocks on the beach, stayed in a small bungalow surrounded by mango and orange trees and enjoyed the company of about a dozen small white cats.

We swam in Lake Bosumtwi, a primordial boiling experience, as the lake was created by a meteorite 1.3 million of years ago and its shallowness lends itself to feeling more like a hot bath than a refreshing dunk.

I am sure we will return to Obu and to Lake Bosumtwi. As for the chief who may or may not believe I’m his, perhaps another bottle of raspberry Schnapp’s can seal the deal! T.

Monday, February 5, 2007

Did I just sell my fiancé to this African chieftain?

February 4, 2007

Lake Bosumtwi

I don’t presume to be the savviest traveler, but I have been around the block, so to speak. I’ve negotiated a foreign custom or two in my time, with success, which is much appreciated, and with failure, which is usually smilingly indulged. Folks in other parts of the world are usually tolerant of folks like us, who are trying to learn about their culture.

I sure hope that holds true with the chief of this Ghanaian village, because I think he thinks I just gave him Trisha, my fiancé, as a gift.

I could be wrong. I hope I’m wrong. Dang this cultural barrier. When we sat down for this formal interview we thought we were prepared. We had already greased the appropriate palms and brought the requisite bottle of Schnapps as a gift (to be used in some sort of "ceremonial libation," so we're told). Once we were seated across from the chief and his entourage, I introduced myself. Then when I introduced Trisha as my wife, he said, “Thank-you,” like he’d just received an offering. And I’m thinking maybe he’s got the wrong idea.

White women are prized in this part of the world, especially good-looking ones, and I’ve fielded lots of stares from would-be suitors checking her out, then sizing me up. This local chief is no different; he just happens to be dressed a bit differently, in traditional Kente cloth. Hopefully I won’t have to pull it over his head, hockey-jersey style, and break us both out of here, which I will most certainly do if he tries to keep her as a concubine.

Wait a minute… he’s saying he’s not the chief. He’s the sub-chief. Well, that settles it then. Surely any contract, intentional or not, is non-binding if one of the parties is not who the other one thought. That kind of rhetoric spans the globe, I expect. Seems clear enough to me.

Might as well get down to business. And if, when it comes time to leave, these village officials make any attempts to keep my fiancé, I’ll use my new bartering skills to haggle our way out of it — or at least fetch a fair price. G.

Friday, February 2, 2007

Noodles to the Rescue

February 2, 2007


In broken English the old mother explained that the only food she had to offer at her roadside stand was fufu, which is a local staple made from mashed root, like cassava or yam.

“You like fufu?” She seemed skeptical.
“I’ve never tried it,” I replied. “But I’d like to.”
Her eyebrows were raised, like she couldn’t believe she was having this conversation. She lifted up a basin from behind her table and showed me a white ball of dough. “That’s fufu.”
“Sure,” I said.
“You want it?”

She almost laughed, but shook her head instead. “How much you want?” I shrugged.
“Four thousand, five thousand…”
“Five thousand.”
She cut a portion worth 5,000 cedis (about 50 cents) from the doughball. Then she started talking about sauces. I said I would trust her judgment. I walked away with two plastic bags, one with the doughy fufu, the other filled with warm goat stew.

Couldn’t wait to get home to try it; our first truly traditional Ghanaian meal. Trish ripped the doughball in half while I poured the stew into a bowl. The dough was very sticky, the meat very... goaty. I took a big whiff and then... best not to talk about what happened then. We gave it a good home. Where does food ever go, in the end?

We may or may not have finished fufu. There are no witnesses, no proof, so it's our word against nobody's. We followed up with Mr. Noodles, which were devoured ravenously, and may have helped to keep things, ahhh, regular. G.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Do they really have to play this Gospel music so loud?

February 1, 2007


Dear God,

Howya doing. Been a long time since I put in a formal request for an interview like this. I should say at the outset here that this conversation is going on my blog; hope you don't mind too much, or find that "irreverant" or even "blasphemous." It's only fitting, since the triumph that I feel at having found a quality Internet here in Ghana is mingled with evangelism each and every time I log on.

I have to ask: do the Born Agains who run this Internet cafe have to play this Gospel music so loud?

Far be it from me to criticize a man for his taste in music. Clearly, lots of people love to get together and croon about Jesus, and even more like to buy recordings of those croonings. And it's a testament to Your reach that here in this African metropolis there are huge billboards hailing the Return of Your Holy Progeny (you know who I mean). Here at the best public 'net connection in town we patrons are bombarded with blastings of hymns and praise headed your way, classics such as "Our God Is An Awesome God" -- who could forget that one -- and lyrics interspersed with declarations: "It's all for you, Lord, all for you;" "We're holding nothing back Lord, nothing at all;" "Jesus... JESUS... JEEESSUUUUUSSS!!!" Surely you can here them. And I'm sure you'd still hear just fine at a slightly lower volume.

They're some Christian folks, these Ghanains, at least here in the southern part of the country. Lots of nice singing emanating from churches on Sunday, all over the place. "God bless you"s from taxi drivers and merchants in the market when you don't haggle with them. And, of course, the dude who runs this cafe, who is singing along with to the same CD he plays over and over, every day: "I'm lost without you, Lord, lost without you..."

Please, for the love of You, find this man. And if you don't mind a small suggestion from a confessed agnostic, let me say just say, in the words of some immortals who shall remain nameless: LET THERE BE ROCK. Bring some power chords to these people's lives. They love you, you know that. Now let'em rock out to something that isn't all about you, your son or the Rapture. Something with enough soul of its own, that doesn't need to be worried about anyone else's. I suggest Rush. G.