Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Not feeling too confident about this Cameroonian visa process

April 25, 2007

This better work.

Right now I am on my mobile phone with the Canadian consulate in Cameroon, where we are planning to travel in five days time, to hike Mount Cameroon. I’ve been told by the Cameroon embassy in Ottawa that visas are required before arrival in Douala, the international flight hub, but Cameroon does not have an embassy in Ghana. We would have to travel first to the nearest embassy in Abidjan in Cote d’Ivoire, or else mail our passports there — not items we are willing to trust to the West African postal system. We don’t have time for either of those options, anyway.

Now, maybe this is the fault of my imperfect French, but when I spoke to the Canadian consulate in Yaounde three weeks ago I was told that if we faxed them copies of our passports with a letter explaining our intentions things would work out. But it doesn’t sound like there’s any trace of those documents.

We’ll see. The consular agent is out on a walk and I’m to call back in one hour…

Okay, so mixed reports. Canadian officials in Cameroonian consulates say we need visas before arriving at Douala airport. Numerous travel websites and officials with the Cameroon embassy in Abidjan say we can buy visas at the airport once we arrive. We’re going with the latter wisdom, flying to Douala from Lome, the capital of Ghana’s neighbour Togo, on Monday.

Updates to follow… (G)

Why do these people keep hissing at me?

April 25, 2007

Normally I’m treated like a rock star. A rock star named ‘Bruni.’ You wouldn’t believe the attention I get, walking down the street. Small children see me coming and they laugh and wave and call my name, “Bruni!” Teenagers smile too, happy to see me even though I didn’t do anything. Even adults, for the most part, brighten up when my august presence comes along, as long as I smile or nod their way.

But I can’t understand why every now and then, just every now and then, a man or a woman insists on hissing at me.

It’s a very rude sound, the kind you’d hear from an audience at the end of a bad play or movie — one tone away from a ‘boooo!’ How can they be judging my performance? I didn’t do anything besides walk down the street, a feat many of their compatriots find delightful, I might add.

It gets worse. Whenever I turn my celebrated visage towards one of these hissers, they start flicking a hand out at me like I’m a bug or something. I know an eff-off gesture when I see one. Now, when I hear a hiss, I don’t even look.

They’ve heard of me, though, these hissers. If I don’t acknowledge their criticism at first hiss, they call my name, ‘Bruni!’ When I look over it never fails; the gesticulations continue. No manners, none atall.

Whatever these people want from me, I’m not interested. Now I only break my stride if I hear a child’s voice acknowledging my celebrity in an appropriate tone of adoration. They receive the beneficence of my attention. Those who hiss need not apply. G.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The perils of being oboroni

April 24

The game of haggling or bartering reached a new crescendo during a cab ride in Kumasi last week. During the 20 minute ride through heavy traffic accompanied by heavy bickering between the front seat and back seat I realized many things; the game isn’t always played fairly and the ante is certainly higher when an ‘obroni’ is on board.

Let me preface the following story by saying that although bartering is a national sport and a cultural norm here, there are certain goods and services that everyone agrees are a set price. No doubt years of haggling were contributing factors in setting prices that are committed to memory rather than recorded. Such is the case for a cab ride from point A, my office, to point B, a roundabout in the centre of Kumasi.

The ride started smoothly. A Ghanaian colleague and I told the driver our destination and he agreed to take us. It was only after my colleague handed him twenty thousand cedis expecting change that the fighting began. A certain amount of haggling, often with a few dramatic shouts and hand waving is to be expected during any cab ride in Ghana, but non stop bickering, followed by accusations, threats and police officers is not what is considered ‘normal.’

Thrown into the roundabout of dispute over the aforementioned cab ride is the word obroni or foreigner. My command of the local language is now good enough that I could decipher what the driver was saying about me, about my presumed cash flow and also what my colleague thought of his presumptions. The same cab ride had cost us five thousand cedis less the previous day, I heard my colleague say, and I agreed with her, this time in Twi. The cab driver upped the ante, called my colleague ugly and brought the car to a full stop. He exited the cab, walked to my door in the back and motioned for me to exit. I remained seated and my colleague demanded that the driver take us to the central police station to have the matter settled.

En route to the station we met a police officer. Again, the driver stopped the cab, motioned for us to get out and began yelling at the police officer to settle our dispute. The commotion attracted the attention of a number of people, each with their own view and calculation of what the cab ride should cost. It was agreed that he was wrong, we were right.

Later I thanked my colleague for speaking up, for refusing to allow my skin colour to decide the price of the cab. Sometimes five thousand cedis is worth fighting for.

…and then there are other times when it’s not worth fighting.

Take a recent visit to the Kumasi central prison. After two months of letter writing and phone calls a colleague and I were finally granted an interview with the prisons commander.

We arrive, are asked to take a seat outside his office and as we wait we watch as a series of hushed phone calls take place. Finally it’s decided that my colleague will be taken to see the commander, I, however will not.

The white lady has to stay, says the commander’s receptionist.

I quietly fume, agree to stay and rant inwardly about discrimination and assumptions. Jesus glares at me from a poster on the wall, Celine Dion screams at me from the radio and I stew in my own frustrations while a colleague carries out what turns out to be an in depth, fabulous, once in a lifetime interview with the commander. I am so proud and quickly my anger fades away.

After the interview, much to our surprise and delight we are invited back to the prison the following day. We are stripped of our camera, recording devices, even our cell phones and allowed to see what was deemed to be too “sensitive” the previous day.

Sensitive isn’t exactly the word I would use to describe the Kumasi central prison. Although we were denied access to the cells and the women’s section of the prison, I saw enough to understand what was so “sensitive.” 1600 inmates live in a facility designed for 7 hundred, there isn’t enough room for the inmates to lie down (they sleep in 2 hour shifts), diseases are rampant, some are barely clothed and clearly malnourished. Hard facts will tell this story, not sensitivity. T.

Monday, April 16, 2007

How many pieces of crap do these folks sell in a day?

April 15, 2007

If you’re in the market for a handkerchief these days, best get to Ghana, fast. Ditto for a pair of shoes, any shoes — Ghanaians have piles of’em, quite literally, on display in the streets near the main market. And rags. Lots of rags, and they’re cheap, like, 20 cents a rag.

All this stuff and much, much more is easy to find. Just get in a cab and drive down any main road and somebody selling something is bound to come to your window, offering whatever they have for sale: keychains, socks, toilet paper, you name it. You can buy a live goat in the streets of Kumasi. This market is busting with sellers.

Which makes me wonder: how much stuff can a person sell in a given day?

Funny thing is, I rarely see anybody buying. The guy selling T-shirts on the road to town in the morning is still there in the afternoon, the stack of shirts neatly folded and balanced on top of his head not seeming to have dwindled. Yet somebody must be buying, or else these people — let’s call them merchants — wouldn’t be out here selling every single day.

I have a friend I call White Man. He’s black, but it was his idea that I call him White Man. We met him shortly after we found our Kumasi home. Trish passes by him every day, and one day early on when I was walking with her he just started calling me Black Man. “I be White Man, you be Black Man,” he said with this big grin of his that shows off the gap between his eye teeth. Okay, you’re on… White Man.

White Man sells shoes from a street stall, up the hill and around the corner from where we live. One day I asked him how business was doing and he said so-so. He said he’d sold 20 pairs of shoes that day. I couldn’t believe it and suspected the language barrier was interfering with our mutual comprehension, but he was insistent. Twenty pairs. A so-so day.

Later on, when White Man and I got to know each other a bit better (though we have agreed to maintain the aliases and keep our true identities hidden from each other, for now), he told me that business was not good, that nobody has any money, and that often days go by when he does not sell a single pair of shoes.

Well, that was more like it. I knew his previous sales estimate had to be off.

I put in an order: a pair of sneakers, please, White Man, something I can go jogging in or play squash (recently I found some courts). Hopefully he’ll come through this week — I prefer to patronize merchants I know. But if not, I’ll be able to find what I’m looking for from some other shoe guy, because some other shoe guy will inevitably come looking for me. G.

Friday, April 13, 2007

The revolution or revulsion

April 12, 2007

Why blog when you can share pictures, intimate details of yourself and “poke
people” (ew, no thank you) from highschool? It’s instant messenger, online
dating, blogging and networking all wrapped up into one messy, self
indulgent, addictive package. And hot damn, I love it. I really love it, I
love the rush of seeing a new message in my inbox, I love the randomness,
the hurried details, the proud pics of mum and baby and the memories that
come flooding back when you connect with someone from your past.

Admittedly, facebooking from West Africa is a tad surreal. I am being asked
to divulge life details from years ago, I’m asking huge life questions that
I’d surely ask with more tact in person, and I’m summarizing life in the
north, Graeme, and life in Africa all in one or two sentences.

I think of Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Tipping Point and his profound
observation of the networkers among us. These are the people that are born
to talk, born to introduce us to each other and born perhaps someday to
become politicians. I used to think I knew a networker when I met one,
facebook has confirmed the networkers I am connected to and also opened the
door and my mind to new networkers. It’s a marketer’s dream and a
consumer’s potential nightmare.

I can’t help think of past friends and acquaintances as a bit like baseball
cards. We collect them, store their beautiful pictures and continue
scouring sites, other networks, other friend’s networks for connections that
will ground us, place us into categories. We are somebody when we can
amass 40 friends in a day. The webs we weave are deceptive indeed and I
can’t help wonder what will happen when the novelty of poking, catching up
and inviting someone to be your friend subsides. I guess we’ll just go back
to being friends with the people we really want to be friends with.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Driver! You just ditched my husband!

April 2, 2007

Instances which might warrant using our carefully folded and secretly stored emergency US cash:

1. When being threatened by official looking men at borders, customs/immigration officials on a power trip, police with four stars on their shoulders. (This has not happened to us, yet.)

2. In situations of national emergency, i.e. floods, earthquakes, tornados, severe political unrest or any time when we need to get out of a country as quickly as possible. (This hasn’t happened either.)

3. When Graeme is accidentally left behind in a small village many kilometers from Kumasi and we need to pay to get him back on the bus. We’d run out of cash on the way back from Mole and convinced a bus driver to let us pay later. At the town of Techiman he pulled over and pointed Graeme towards a bank, then drove away.

I exercised my vocal chords and knowledge of the local language when I was forced to stand up on the bus and yell, “Me kunu!” (My husband!) to get the driver to stop (which he eventually did, only after finding a service station to fix the exhaust pipe). First they kick him off the bus to get him to pay for the journey (we had jumped on at a junction, not at a station) and then they leave him in Techiman.

I jumped in a cab and went to get him back, still penniless since the only ATM in town was, of course, broken. We managed to cut a deal with a man who just happened to be carrying many, many millions of cedis (could have been billions, actually) and was willing to be our exchange service on the side of the road. We might as well have asked the chickens what the going exchange rate was! He joked that he was from the First West African bank after holding the fifty dollar bill up to the sun to check its authenticity.

The village in this photo is NOT Techiman, it's a village we passed well before the banking fiasco.

The women sitting near us on the bus thought the whole experience was hilarious and so did I, once me kunu was safely back on the bus again.

When on Safarti…

April 2, 2007
Mole National Park

To those of you who know Graeme well, continue reading. To those of you who have not yet had the pleasure of enjoying a camping trip, an afternoon in a canoe, a bus ride, a night out at a restaurant, a card game, a beer, a golf or squash game, or just a few hours of his time, perhaps you should wait to meet him in person (namely Stella, Len, Mark Black, Dominique) before continuing to read.

Picture it: we’re walking through the African savannah with a group of six white Europeans and one black African guide. We place our feet between twigs, gingerly stepping on moist leaves instead of crisp ones, we duck our heads under branches rather than snap them, we whisper to each other, point into thickets of bush rather than use our voices to alert our fellow safari hunters of the many animals roaming through the national park. I like our guide and am eager to see western hartebeests, defassa waterbucks, red flanked duikers and the elusive roan antelope. I think ‘I am the bush, I am an animal’ in an effort to be as quiet as possible. And then, it scurried up behind me…the Kluane barking squirrel, endemic in areas where cans of beans are eaten, and where toilet facilities are lacking. Its distinctive smell and sharp call make it a favourite with kids and lovers of the whoopee cushion. Yes, that’s right we came all the way to West Africa to only come face to face with a species I’m becoming more and more familiar with. A ‘pardon me’ could not suffice in masking its odor and our laughter at its surprise visit. From Safari to SafarTi. To ensure over exposure of the aforementioned Kluane barking squirrel we kept to the back of the line during our walk through the African savannah.

What are these? I mean really, is it a distant relative of the pig or a rhino? After careful examination (namely it eats like a pig, but walks and acts like a rhino) we’ve decided the grey, wrinkly skin and the horns qualify the African warthog to be closer to a rhino. In a typical western-centric way I want to name these beasts and document their every movement. Ghanaians scoff at them and throw black plastic bags at their hooves. I think they’re hilarious and nearly fell off my chair when we watched mama beastie and her six children trot off to bed in single file during our first night at the Mole National Park Motel.

Now, the elephants, they warrant more attention! They command attention in fact. These gentle giants were elusive the two days we spent at the national park. In fact, we had to hire a jeep, a guide with a gun and a driver to get to these majestic beasts. This goes against our principle of leaving as little impact on the land as possible, however, a sacrifice had to be made this close to the rainy season if we were to see elephants. (during the dry season they hang out closer to the watering hole near the national park’s motel, and have been known to drink from the pool!). Elephants truly live up to the title of world’s largest land mammal and seem to have more than five senses. They think a lot. They laugh, cry, mourn their dead and communicate long distances through vibrations. I need no more convincing of their power than what I saw in the African savannah of Mole National Park.

Am watching the moments between dawn and morning carefully. During our recent trip to the northern part of the Ghana we were fortunate to witness the sunrise twice. In both instances, the lines between the real and the imagined were blurred and I was again reminded to suspend expectations and belief of what is ‘normal.’ We saw kitties slipping into gutters, bats turn to birds and people rise from the ground ready to embrace another day with a bowlful of yams on their heads. Africa is wondrous in that space between dark and light.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

What are you looking at?

April 1, 2007
Mole National Park, Ghana

What? You got a problem? We got some kind of problem here? Why don’t you come over here and tell me about it? I’ll stomp the shit out of you!

These people, always getting in my face. I mean, here I am, out for a walk with my girl, getting a bite to eat now and then, and what do you know? Along comes a group of humans with nothing better to do than gawk at us.

Well, I’ve had enough. The next one of you takes a step closer, gets smushed.

I can always tell when they’re coming, too. Without loud, smelly humans around the savannah is always chill – or nearly always, unless the hyenas are stirring up trouble.

But every now and then you hear that mechanical racket. One of them rolling metal pods shows up and bursts out a bunch of stupid, pasty-faced primates, trying to sneak up and spy on us with their little electronic gadgets.

We’re polite; we try to ignore them. What do we care if they’re passing through? We don’t kick up a fuss for the warthogs or the waterbucks; we’re casual, you know? Live and let live, and you live a long time.

But noooo, that’s just too much for you humans to handle. You gotta be nosy. You have to get “a closer look.” (What, you think I can’t hear you? Look at these ears, runt!)

What a bunch of peeping Toms. Let me give you some advice: when I knock this tree down, take a hint. You’re next.

I’m not a rude pachyderm. I am, in fact, a gentleman. I don’t need to embarrass people. I can smell your fear from here, and you reek. Mission accomplished, as far as I’m concerned.

Me and my lady are going to amble on over this way. Why don’t you all just crawl back into your pod and skedaddle. Go find some crocodiles to ogle. G.