Thursday, March 29, 2007

A good reason to stay healthy

March 28

Visited my first hospital in Africa today. Wanted to get sick in the small blue pails that were littered everywhere. Some held food, other feces, other stuff I don’t want to know about.

There were people everywhere; in beds, on windowsills, on mattresses by the beds, on blankets beside the mattresses and some were just sitting on the floor.

The doctors sat at desks in the middle of the room. The air stood still while nurses in crisp green uniforms bustled from bed to bed.

A woman moaned in the corner, another breastfed an infant on the floor.

I saw brown, dirty handprints on the wall and had to lean against the wall not to lose my balance.

I saw one patient changing her own bed. Another stretched and grimaced as she moved her blue pail away from her head.

A colleague and I picked our way through the bodies in various states of life and death, and sat at the end of a long bench of a women waiting for a bed or waiting to see the doctor. We were waiting for an interview. A trivial request, really.

My resilience to remain healthy in Africa has been fortified and my aversion to hospitals intensified. T.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

African Power: The Verdict

March 27, 2007

How many bicycles have I owned in my life? There was the orange one with the banana seat that the training wheels came off of. There was a black one with a banana seat (banana seats were big in the early 80s) that Andrew and I would cruise no-hands around the parking lot at Dalhousie Elementary. And a red one that I rammed into the iron gate at that same school, and a black BMX with black foam padding on the crossbar. I’m sure there were others I’m not remembering.

During the teenage years it was mountain bikes. First the Miyata that somebody stole out of our garage. The insurance money from the theft bought the Marin that’s still hanging from a nail on the wall of that same garage. That was the best bike I ever had. Took me through the Kananaskis and across Graham Island and all over Toronto. I retired it for a road bike that really loves to fly.

Whitehorse is a mountain biking extravaganza and I bought a workhorse of a Giant when we lived there. It and the road bike and Trish’s sweet Specialized came down to Calgary on the back of the Honda when we left the Yukon. All three sit gritty in the basement at Edgemont.

It made sense to get a bike in Kumasi. I’ve got to get around somehow. Footing it was only possible some of the time and cab fares add up. Plus, I love to ride. I love the wind in my face, the blood in my legs, the riding by motorists trapped in traffic. Here, I love the bemused and bewildered looks on African faces as I roll by. They stare at oboroni (white man) anyway, why not give them something to stare at? Oboroni on a bike.

Despite finding this joie de vivre, African Power is without a doubt the worst machine I’ve ever put to pedal.

Buying anything in Africa is a bit of a crapshoot. You never quite know what you’re going to get. That applies to everything from food to footwear to bus fares. African Power cost the equivalent of $42 and looks just like a Canadian Tire special: plastic pedals, spot welded rear forks, cheap rims. Made in China, sold in Africa. I should have known better.

I did know better. I saw the quality. I felt the shimmy when I give it a test ride, and the tweak in the left pedal. I bought it anyway. The left crank broke off on the first hill I climbed. I wasn’t surprised, just a little sad. I’d hoped to at least ride home without problems.

The mechanic stuck the crank back on with a fresh bolt. He couldn’t do anything about the seat, which is too short and is also weak and starting to bend under my weight. The second time I road home the traffic bell broke off when my leg brushed against it. I snapped off a reflector with my foot on a dismount. Today, the cracked left pedal fell apart. African Power is disintegrating.

I’m resolved not to put any more money into this poor specimen, but that resolve may fade as necessity dictates. The bike’s got to last me six more months. Then I’ll give it to some neighbourhood kid, if there’s anything left to give. G.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Ingenuity comes in handy

Between blackouts, shocking fridges and hunting for malaria infected
mosquitos Graeme and I have somehow found time to play chess, or rather
Graeme has found the patience to teach me chess. And yes, great
patience is required when teaching me anything, as I am a self-professed
sore loser.

Here is a photo of our prized chess board. If you look closely you’ll see
that the rooks are batteries, the bishops bits of candy (dirty, dirty
bishops) and the pawns are various coins that will soon become obsolete when
Ghana changes its currency in July.

Our board also comes in handy when playing ‘draft’ - the Ghanaian version of
checkers. During the heat of the afternoon many men (as it seems only men
are allowed or inclined play this game) take to the streets and sit on long benches in the shade, jumping each other’s pieces furiously. Men like to play this game in
groups and will often sit facing each other, alternating partners as one man wins and another loses.

I have yet to move our modest draft board out onto the streets. When I do, rest assured I will be practiced and ready to beat any man who dares sit with me in the shade!

These are the slippers of an Ashanti chief. Note the pom-poms match his
traditional cloth. These chiefs are more than traditional figure heads who
live in huge homes and air conditioned palaces they are fashionable trend
setters. T.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Why didn’t one of us pay attention during physics class?

March 23

As we enter the rainy season there are certain practicalities and safety measures that we must take. The first, and I’m sure there will be many more, is to understand the power of an electrical storm. More specifically, the combined power of a small refrigerator and a bolt of lightning. Energy runs in circles and so too does Graeme when he’s been zapped by the fridge.

Is it the tins of Nescafe piled atop a twenty year old bar fridge that are sending an unknown quantity of volts through Graeme's body? The tins of beans inside the fridge, perhaps? Or maybe it’s the electrical flow in that general area of our room combined with the lightning outside. Most likely a loose wire is touching the appliance’s metal body. Whatever the scientific explanation, our nightly ritual of purifying water just became a lot more exciting with a sound and light show!

This will also reduce the late night snacks of leftover rice and fish heads (yes, there’s an actual fish head in our fridge right now.) T.

p.s. It wasn’t so bad the first time, but by the third time I think the sweat built up. G.

Celine Dion doesn’t sound African to me

March 23, 2007

Music, like most if not all hallmarks of civilization, can trace its roots back to Africa. People have been drumming on this continent for millennia beyond our comprehension. But those roots are frayed and thin indeed if they still bear any connection to some of the crap that comes out of Western culture today.

Call me anti-ethnocentric, but when I come to Africa I don’t expect to hear shitass Western music that was popular a decade ago. Yet that’s what they play on Ghana's most popular radio station, where Trish is working, much of the time. And everybody within earshot sings along.

Celine Dion, Shania Twain, Bryan Adams. These are Canadian pop stars whose music, I’m sorry to say, sucks. And I was a big Bryan Adams fan, back when he was Reckless. But they’re all huge in Ghana right now, though none of them looks or sounds African to me.

The day does not go by that each of these wonders of the Western musical tradition gets some airtime for something they wrote five or 10 or even 15 years ago. At least Whitney Houston is black, but still, ‘I Will Always Love You,’ her biggest hit that I used to convert into punk rock in my head back when I was wiping tables at Red Robin, bears little resemblance to anything one could conceivably call African. Yet it gets played every day in Ghana.

And I won’t even go into the primo alternative to Western pop schlock, which is Gospel. I wrote about that already. If I had to choose a plain of hell where the demons played either that theme song from Titanic or the croonings of the Born Agains, I’d take hell with Celine. At least I would spend eternity gagging, rather than suicidal.

Give me djembes, dammit. Drums, bells, flutes. Hell, throw in some guitar, Ali Farka TourĂ© style. There’s an entire chapter in our Lonely Planet guide devoted to “The Music of West Africa” that lists ten must-have albums. It doesn’t include anything by Celine Dion, or Shania Twain or any of the other pop divas who plague the airwaves all the time.

Thank Jah for Bob Marley. At least you can hear and feel the African roots in Reggae, so its popularity here is justified. Plus, I enjoy it. But I know there’s a rich tradition of fantastic music that I’ve never heard before, or very little: Islamic bells, pygmy water rhythms, xylophone tunes of bizarre ranges. And that’s not even the mainstream stuff, like TourĂ© and Youssou N’Dour.

Yet none of it ever gets any airtime. Trumped by Bryan. Barf.

Oh shit… does this mean West Africa will soon be rocking (and I use that term as mockingly as possible) with Hanson? And what about Alanis? Has it been 10 years since Jagged Little Pill? The other day I heard KrissKross, no joke, you remember those punk-ass kids with the backwards clothes who sang “Jump… jump!”

If they’re getting hot now, what can this mean for the future?

I mourn for you, Ghana — loudly, to drown out the mushy wailings of Western pop stars who have usurped your airwaves. Yet everyone around me seems to dig it. I’ll have to chalk it on the growing list of things about Africa that I don’t understand. G.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Finding the words

March 21

I learned long ago that to even begin to understand a culture you must
first attempt to learn the language. The two are inextricably linked.
Thank you, quannimiit, to my Inuit colleagues for insisting on speaking in
Inuktitut and for conducting story meetings in that powerful, commanding
language. The experience has served me well.

I can go hours in a vacuum of Twi (pronounced ‘chfwee,’ which in itself is not easy), the language of the Ashantis who populate Kumasi and much of Ghana. Take this moment, for instance. As I write this I’m straining to hear the radio presenter. He’s speaking English. Drowning him out are about a dozen colleagues, all speaking Twi, loudly. ‘Me bah,’ I want to say. ‘I will beat you.’ Sometimes I yell out random words in Twi just to see if people are listening…. 'Entontomb!' (mosquito) or ‘Brukutu!’ (powerful drink that I think causes big erections.) Yup, they’re listening.

This is Prisclla. Note the missing ‘i’ in her name. Aside from my colleagues at the
radio station she is my most astute and patient Twi language teacher. The
key to our lessons is simple: Prisclla doesn’t speak English. The reason:
her mother is dead (“My mother is dead” is the one phrase she knows, and she says repeatedly when I sit with her in her hairdressing tent, regardless of whatever we’re talking about.) Prisclla left school after Grade 3 to take care of her siblings.

It’s the words that can’t be found that also speak volumes. ‘AIDS,’ for
example, has not been translated into Twi, whereas ‘computer’ has. The word for
computer runs on for about a sentence and means a ‘modern device that thinks
for you’ (akin to the Inuit word for ‘computer.’) The word for car translates
to mean ‘thing that moves but covers your head while moving.’ And then my
favourite, a bicycle. A ‘daddy pon-coh’ (another word I use randomly to check
colleague’s dexterity and to be part of the cacophony of noise in the
office.) By the way, ‘daddy pon-coh’ translates to mean “metal horse.”
Wheee! Giddy up. T.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Update on medium rare hunk of meat craving

March 18

It’s as if the cow knew I yearned for a piece of its flesh. The beast came
charging towards me and other pedestrians, oblivious to the honking cars,
tro tros and small tents set up along the roadside. The man with the rope lasso
in his hand could have stood to take a few rodeo lessons and a foot chase
may have been a more effective way to capture the beast.

Celebrated not getting trampled by a herd of hungry bovines by eating a
particularly well fed one this weekend. Divine and very pricey, but worth
every penny, (even the stomach churnings that I battled today.) Hours after
my cow encounter on a Kumasi highway I came face to face with the cow of my
dreams, a dead one, covered with a thick peppery sauce, oozing blood and
sweet vitality. Judging by the angular hips and emaciated state of the mad
beast on the road earlier, I knew this cow was imported. She came straight
from South Africa.

As I write this I’m forced to inhale the fumes from the diesel generator
outside our window. I ask Graeme if he wants some water, and I’m reduced to
yelling at him. I am reminded of some of the camps I visited out on the
land in Nunavut, shouting to be heard over the engine of the blasted thing.

Number of times I’m nearly run over daily: 5
Number of pineapples purchased: 12
Bowls of rice eaten: 31
Bags of plantain chips eaten: 35
Number of four-star Sudoku puzzles completed: 12
Estimated time for a package to arrive from Canada by air: 3 weeks
Estimated cost of an air package from Canada: $197.50
Buckets of sweat off Graeme’s back (size of a kid’s sand pail): 4
Buckets of diarreah (size of a small waste basket): 8 (combined)
Number of sodas (chiefly Fanta) consumed: 90 (combined)
Number of times we’ve forgotten to brush our teeth: 26 (combined)
Number of ring tones on my phone: 39
Number of times the power goes out daily: at least once
Number of times the power went out during week of ghana’s “independence”: 0
Food aid contribution from US government (2006): 22 million
Cost of ghana’s birthday party: 20 million
Portion of that 20 million spent on purchase of luxury cars for visiting
dignitaries: at least half.
Number of invited African heads of state: 12
Number installed by military coup: 10
Number of tough questions asked by Ghanaian journalists to Robert Mugabe: 0
Number of times Ghana’s president has had tea with the Queen: 1
Number of Mosquitos who have met my hand: 33
Number of ants murdered: 472
Number of post larium violent dreams: 2
Number of times I’ve thought I had malaria: 5
Number of times Graeme says I’ve thought I had malaria: 30
Number of times I’ve heard Celine Dion on the radio: Every day.
Number of colleagues who sing along with Celine Dion: anyone within ear shot
Number of goats that have tried to bite me: 2
Percentage of cabs that have a message from Jesus on their back windshield:
Percentage of cab drivers who drive as if they’ll meet Jesus around the next
bend: 90
Number of people I’ve met named Jesus: 1
Number of Ghanaians I’ve met who don’t go to church: 0
Number of South Africans who contract HIV daily: 1500
Number of numerically detailed lists I could write: endless.

Why can’t there be transit like this back home?

March 19

It’s not like the Africans have a lot to teach us about infrastructure. The hygienic wisdom of the open sewer concept has already been questioned in these pages; enough said. Note also that I write now by candlelight. Ghana suffers from nationwide rolling blackouts each week because the publicly-owned Akosmobo dam doesn’t generate enough hydroelectricity to power homes all the time as well as meet its commercial obligations (guess who gets screwed in that equation).

So there’s room for improvement in the public services sector. But when it comes to public transport Africa is miles ahead of North America.

Well, that’s not quite true. Mexicans follow the same handy custom, whereby anybody (always a man) can get a van or a car and drive around picking up fares. I reckon every third car in Ghana is a vehicle for hire. It’s such an obvious business opportunity, especially for roadways clogged with single-driver vehicles across Canada and the United States.

Within Kumasi it costs anything between 10 and 30 cents to jump on a ‘tro-tro,’ depending how far you want to travel. You just flag down a passing van that has some dude hanging out the side door, hollering the van’s destination at potential pedestrian customers. If there’s room on board the van pulls over, you get in and squish into a seat and hope the driver is from the relatively sane end of the Ghanaian motorist spectrum, which ranges from swerving daredevil menace to vengeful religious myopic. Seatbelts and speed limits don’t really exist. Before you get off, you pay.

Sure, tro-tros are packed tight with people, baggage and, sometimes, livestock (look closely for monkey in picture above). Sometimes they go long distances and the farther they travel the more stuff of course, but they’re still way cheaper than the bus lines and often more reliable. During my trip back from Burkina the bus died on the side of the road and I did the tro-tro shuffle across the Ghana border and 600 kilometres farther south. There was a live goat on board the final 380 km, stuffed under the rear seats with a bunch of other luggage. He didn’t bite.

Laws prevent such services from operating in Canada and the United States, where we are waaayy more civilized and would never allow a goat on a bus with humans, what are you, crazy? Regulation does have its reasons: tro-tros are not very safe, liability is always an afterthought and goats do have fleas. But surely licensing regular drivers in regular cars driving regular routes for petty cash is a worthwhile solution to urban sprawl.

Wait, that’s not all. How about this concept: shared taxi! Same premise as the tro-tro, except you have four passenger seats instead of 22, so you charge a bit more. The cabbie drives a regular route down a busy street while passengers jump in and out at their leisure. If some foolish oboroni wants to pay for to-the-door service, he can have it for anywhere between $1 and $5. The sums are relatively paltry, but the proportions are not; shared taxis cost one tenth as much as a private hire.

For some reason the recent discovery of these intricacies did not satisfy my needs for transport efficiency and fiscal prudence (mine is part Scottish blood, after all). So I bought a bicycle, which has always kicked ass on all other modes of urban transport, and always will, amen. My new ride is a Chinese P.O.S. one might find at Canadian Tire. Cost me about $50 to buy her new, all tuned up. She’s called African Power. Blue. Lots of fancy doodads, like an electric horn that lights up and side mirrors. The first hill I climbed I put some torque into the left pedal and broke it off.

Not to worry, the guys at the shop said they’d fix her up. While I’m there I’ll get them to take off some of the gadgets, which truth be told make me feel like a bit of a wiener.

The only real concern will be keeping the line between crazy tro-tros on the left and open sewers on the right. Mom, don’t worry, I’m looking into getting a helmet. And I’m already immunized against typhus. G.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Jolly good of this African caddy to fix my lie like that

March 13


Wot ho? We found the best way to ruin a good walk, as Churchill would say, a quick jaunt from the Alliance Francais. Kumasi Royal, the links are called. Fine course. Fairways were a bit swampy, the greens somewhat desiccated and the bunkers filled with chopped Sahara, but this is Africa after all, old boy, what do you expect?

Caddies all round seemed the policy. Mine was James; fine fellow, good eye for a slice into the trees, wot. Knew the course too — made a fine recommendation for a second 3-wood on number four, a par 5, that got me on in three and down in two. And it was jolly good of him to fix my lie a little, each and every shot.

It wouldn’t matter if ’twere in the rough, the sticks or the midst of the fairway, James was on it every time, propping her up on a little tuft of grass he pinched together, just like a tee. Made for some fine outs, I must say.

A bit different from the way it’s done back home though, wot. I was a might surprised on the first hole, when James fixed my drive a little. Perhaps it’s because I’m in the rough, I thought , but no; punched my number two onto the fairway, and James teed her up au naturel by the time I got there.

I was about to protest, but then thought better. There would be penalities galore on the links elsewhere in the world, but we weren’t keeping score anyway, ha ha, and when in Africa…

Couldn’t help but wonder, though: where did this tradition come from? In our four, all the caddies did it, without hesitation. Clearly the way it’s done in Ghana, which would be considered — ahh, the word is so vulgar — cheating anywhere in Her Majesty’s Commonwealth. But ‘twas the British who ruled this country for three-and-a-half centuries, and I daresay those chaps would have introduced the game. Indeed, they must have built these very Royal links, or at least designed and instructed their creation.

So the caddy’s tradition of fixing the lie must have come from the British; a bending of the rules, as it were, acceptable since we’re not really on the Queen’s own soil, are we?

I must consider becoming a member. G.

Friday, March 9, 2007

The Worst Toilet(s) I Ever Saw

March 8, 2007

Back in Kumasi now, but I went to Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, for a weeklong film festival, and let me just saw that preventative Immodium drops are a good idea for prolonged overland travel in West Africa, whether you’ve got the runs or not.

There are no photos of my journey to Burkina, Trish and I having decided that it was more important for her to keep the camera in Kumasi to get photos of mentally ill people chained to the floor at a faith healing camp (see that story at, click on foreign correspondence and find her name). So I have only the description of memory to relay my discovery of the worst excuses for toilets I’ve ever seen, or smelt, in my life.

It was in Bolgatanga. I had already bought a return ticket for a tro-tro heading south, and thought I’d pee before climbing aboard. Did a quick recon, couldn’t find an alleyway private enough for my delicate Western sensibilities, so I asked a man at the bus depot where the toilet was and he pointed me down the street. A couple of teenage girls offered to guide me, assuring that it wasn’t far. They led the way past a smouldering trash heap being picked over by goats, past a swine wallowing in a muck puddle, to a young man seated at a roughhewn table beside a concrete hovel. He was holding a rag across his nose. I paid 200 cedis, and he tore a page out of an old phone book and handed it to me. I didn’t take it though, said no thanks, and the girls’ eyes went wide, until one of them said, “You have paper?” “Yes,” I said. They seemed relieved. I walked up to the hovel and through the doorway that was marked “Male” with white paint.

Okay. So our Western notion of a toilet is a tad luxurious, compared to most of the rest of the world. A simple hole in the floor, over which one squats, is very common technology, and not just in Africa. But what I saw and smelled in that room was enough to drive a man to religion.

I tried not to step in the stream that came running out of the hut. Inside, I was alone. There were several stalls, separated only by short concrete walls. Each stall had a couple of bricks for the feet on either side of a small pit that was shallow enough to be superfluous. There were lumps everywhere, filling the holes to an uncomfortable height, over which one would not want to squat, for fear of contact. They were strewn all about the holes as well, even on the brick footstools. I must digress, but not without mentioning that the West African diet must be as varied and unpredictable as any on the planet.

I deemed the first stall unacceptable, but the second was no better, and the stench was overwhelming, so I looked no further, stayed on the path, unzipped and let fly in the general direction of the pile that filled the hole. I tried not to notice the splash radius, and I had a spiritual moment of thankfulness that my purpose was only liquid, not solid, and that I was wearing pants.

I got out of there as fast as I could. “All done,” I said cheerfully when I emerged. The girls gaped at me in amazement; their jaws dropped open, they could not believe how fast I’d been. We started walking back and they wanted to know if I was okay. “I only had to do number one,” I said, which made no sense to them. So I explained: I only had to urinate. “Ohhh,” the one girl said. “I thought you had to make feces.” No, I said, I’m too shy to do like the Ghanaians do and just urinate anywhere, with people watching, and I wanted some privacy. I explained the difference between number one and number two. “What is number three?” There is no number three. I told them to share this information with their friends. Just doing my cultural duty.

Late that night, several hundred kilometres down the road, I got off another tro-tro at a place called Kintampo, and walked to the back of a gas station where men were lined up to pee against the wall. I paid my 200 cedis — what for, I still wonder? — and stood in my second piss river of the day to relieve myself again. In the gloom, to my right, I noticed a man drop his trousers, squat, and stick his hand underneath as though readying to catch whatever came out.

Surely not. Surely there is a line drawn here somewhere. Surely it doesn’t make any sense, when a group of people are standing in a line, pissing and shitting, to catch your poo and find a better place to put it. I do not know, for I did not watch, but zipped up, turned and wove my way through a crowd of people, all post-toilette, who were scooping handfuls of water from a bucket and scouring their hands and sandaled feet. G.

Pieces from Trisha

March 9

On being a sports personality on LUV fm:

The technician tells me to sound more like the BBC, then he tells me to
sound more American. What he’s saying is, sound more white. I oblige, pump
up the volume, inflate the lungs and sound like a cartoon, muscular version
of myself as I deliver a promo for LUV FM's sports programming. I inhale, the tech smiles at me and I think of everything I hate about private radio.

On being a white woman in a radio studio while children discuss 50 years
of being free from their “colonial master”:

On Saturday I was a guest on a kid’s radio show. The same show I appeared
on the morning after a journalist was shot and killed in Kumasi. (The irony
of encouraging young Ghanaians to be journalists in the wake of the
journalist’s death will stick with me for some time -- still no word on
whether his death was politically motivated or if he was the victim of a
random armed robbery.) The topic of Saturday’s show was Ghana at 50 and
whether Ghanaians are truly free. The children (10-16 years old) were
astute in their understanding of the World Bank and its control over their
country’s budget and also on the understanding of military rule, which they
have known in their lifetime. Ghana at 50, what does this mean? I
contributed where I could, and said 50 years wasn’t a long time. Empty
words, really. They asked me whether the black man is capable of ruling?
Me! The white woman! One child said no, that white man should return and
rule us. I responded by saying black people are ruling countries all over
the world and that you should be proud of who you are and where you come
from. One boy said that in 50 years maybe Ghana will be more like the
United States. What a terrible measuring stick, I think to myself. I came
home, turned on the television, watched five minutes of “African Idol” and
felt sick.

On desperately wanting a steak and a glass of red wine:

Medium rare please and a glass of Wolf Blass Yellow Label would do nicely right now. Ate what I think was goat-on-a-stick Friday night, gave the bones to a friend to eat.

On wanting all dogs to be like Mabel:

Or at least be as well taken care of and loved like my dear sweet Mabel, pictured here at Brackley Beach in PEI in January. Am scared of the dogs here. I think, if given the opportunity, they would eat my leg. They look as if they need to eat at least my hand. The poor darlings are emaciated and in desperate need of medical attention.

On Ghana’s 50th celebrations:

Happy Birthday Ghana! Celebrated 50 years of independence from colonial
rule with colleagues at Luv FM and watched the parade in Accra on
television. Television watching is interactive here, complete with a
national anthem sing-a-long singing and a recital of the country's pledge of
allegiance. And loud! Yikes…I am quiet as a mouse compared to my
colleagues. Felt inspired to march home after watching thousands of
military personnel and school children march on television and through the
streets of Kumasi. Ah, the Brits mark is indelible. Wore my dorky "Ghana@50" T-shirt and literally talked to every single person I walked by, in
Twi and in English, on March 6th. Glorious, friendly and fiercely proud
Ghana! T.