Monday, June 25, 2007

A Better Place to Live

June 25

We’ve moved from room 133 to five rooms and a pantry in a bungalow of our very own.

Ah yes, life is good when I can hear Graeme but can’t see him, when I can eat grilled cheese sandwiches and when there’s a steady stream of running water (sometimes it’s even hot).

This seems like luxurious living. The power is sporadic, like everywhere in Ghana, but no matter: there’s a kitchen AND our own very pet snail living in the gutter outside.

Aside from the interrogating security guards at the front gate, the scorpions lurking in the bush outside and the vultures sitting atop the trash heap down the road, life here is pretty good.

We have left behind Bismark, our friend and custodian; Eman the manager and his wife Gloria (vendor of the “Making Jesus the Centre of Your Marriage” marital counseling book); several francophone Africans; the macho and often scantily clad men who work for Areeba, a popular telecommunications company in Ghana; and daily Twi lessons.

In exchange we have found scholarly solitude nestled deep in the trees of a well-manicured university campus.

We’ve said goodbye to the morning cries of roosters, and chickens; the calls for “BISMARK!” to come attend to one duty or another; and the swooshing sound of a broom sweeping away the dirt, and garbage under our window that woke us every morning. Our new place is quiet. Somehow, it’s unsettling, this quiet. Africa is loud. The African philosophy is simple. Music? Crank it. Air conditioning? If you’ve got it, use it, full blast. Here, though, all I hear is birds tapping on the roof, crickets calling and the rustling of leaves.

I may have to walk to the road later just to hear what I’m missing. Either that, or crank the radio, incite the dog living next door to bark and start yelling for Bismark. (T)

The People in Our (Old) Neighbourhood

June 20
Kumasi, Ghana

Over the course of five months, what was once a 15-minute walk to work has evolved into an hour. I have friends to greet every day now.

There’s Kofi and Opoku at the food stall just up the hill from our compound. There’s the woman who sells fried dough balls and often has a purple lip from the medication she’s taking. There’s Kwame Baah, the security guard for the rich Indian family across from the school where hundreds of kids run, eat from bowls or bags while dangling their legs from the wall. And then there’s Mavis, the 17-year old who often greets me with a mouthful of toothpaste on the roadside. And this is just the people living on the path before the main road! I feel welcomed, safe and part of the neighbourhood when I walk by the people that over five months I’ve gotten to know.

This morning, though, things were different. When I stopped to greet Kofi among a group of smiling children, two young men I didn’t know asked me for money. They had watched an exchange between Opoku and I. Opoku had returned my change from our previous day’s transaction over water sachets. He owed me 10,000 cedis, or about $1. The two men knew I had some money, and they wanted it.

They performed the now familiar hand-to-mouth signal that means ‘I’m hungry’ and insisted that since I had the cash I should relinquish my spare change. When I said no, they became angry. Oboruni this, oboruni that. I don’t know what all they were saying but what I do know is that these new acquaintances would not benefit from the friendships I’ve formed over five months. If anyone is getting my cash it’s the kids who sit idle watching others go to school, or the young girl who wears torn flip flops, or the half naked man who sleeps under a now demolished tin structure.

The need in Ghana, amongst the people that I walk by everyday is great. The need to be heard, to be respected, to be educated is far greater than the need for my cash, though. (T)

The Official Agent

June 17-20
Northern Ghana

“You are in luck,” the young man on the side of the road told us when we stopped at a junction to ask directions to the crocodile lagoon. In his thick Ghanaian accent he explained that he was an “official agent” of the community-based ecotourism project that tended the crocodiles for tourists like us to come see. He told my friend Christophe, who was driving, that if he would kindly unlock the car’s rear door he’d hop in and personally guide us to the ponds. Oh, and there was also the “head office” that we must stop by first, to pay part of our fee…

“We just want to know if the ponds are this way,” Christophe told him. He confirmed the direction, and explained again the required protocol. Christophe didn’t unlock the door. “Maybe after we get a bite to eat we will come back,” he said, and we drove away.

A lie for a lie. That seems to be the rule in rural Ghana, where sparse tourist destinations garner tourist dollars that don’t get spread evenly enough to satisfy the locals. So young men lie to tourists, claiming some bogus official capacity in the hope that suckers will take the bait. There’ll be a fee for his services, of course, and when the actual attendants at places like the crocodile ponds see a group of gullible foreigners with a local “guide” they know the fleece is on, and quote double prices.

Can you blame them? Well, not really. But kinda. I can’t truly empathize, but I can understand the compulsion of impoverished Africans to try and make a few bucks off transient white folks like me. Man’s gotta eat. So no, I can’t blame them.

But yes, I can, because it’s a scam and dishonesty never sits well with me. I don’t think lying sits well with any of us; we all do it, some more than others, from time to time in life, and when we do we know we’re behaving dishonourably. Deceit feels wrong. I’d rather skip the posturing and deal with a beggar… but then I’d usually turn a beggar down, too. Some dishonour is more forgivable than others, I guess.

Anyway, without the help of the “official agent” we still managed to find the crocs and watched them crush live chickens (scroll down for photos) before turning back south to find more wildlife.

This was my second visit to Mole National Park. Too bad Trish couldn’t come for this one. When she and I were here in March we managed to find two elephants way off in the bush during a guided 4X4 tour. This time a herd of bulls took up almost permanent residence in the waterhole at the bottom of the main escarpment.

Christophe and I arrived in time for the afternoon safari to the waterhole. The elephants are very accustomed to human presence and didn’t seem to care in the least as a small group of us watched them bathe.

Trish and I completely missed two primate species that are common to Mole when we were here before: the patas monkey…

And the olive baboon…

Both of which have been known to frequent the hotel veranda, where mostly obruni tourists lounge by the pool eating, drinking and smoking.

The morning of our departure I came walking along the veranda to watch the elephants take their morning bath when I heard a crashing in the bushes to my right, just off the plateau. Probably more baboons, I thought, but when I glanced over…

Yeah. I sat with this creature for almost an hour, watching him do what elephants do: eat. They consume 400 pounds of plant matter a day, I’m told. Eventually I went to get my camera but the batteries were almost dead, only enough juice for this final shot.

I bought more double-As before we got to Kintampo Falls, just off the southbound road home to Kumasi.

I stood at the base and took a pounding from the falling water that left me more refreshed than I have felt since sitting foot on African soil, five-and-a-half months ago. (G)

Thursday, June 21, 2007

“The crocodiles are friendly”

June 18, 2007

Paga, Ghana.

Let me tell you something about crocodiles. We are not tame, despite what the dipshit tour guide told you. We are not “friendly.” We are pissed off. Wouldn’t you be?

Think of it: we’ve been living on this planet, perhaps in this very pond, since long before the ancestors of you fleshy pink primates climbed down from the trees and stood on their hind legs. We’re cousins with the dinosaurs, for God’s sake. We predate mammals by millennia.

You might think such elder status might engender some respect in you more junior species, but noooooo. You smartypantses got to be entertained. So you pay these local black-skinned brethren of yours to call us from our lagoon, so that we may suffer indignity for your viewing pleasure.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ll take the chicken. Nothing better than live meat, even if these are the scrawniest fowl I’ve ever snapped. If that pathetic squawking is making you uncomfortable I’ll be happy to end it, if you’d just tell the guide to…


Yeah. Mouthful of feathers. A little gamey, especially the legs, but succulent, succulent. Where was I?

Ah yes. The asshole griping my tail has reminded me: I’m working. It is my job to be on display like a circus freak or one of those slaves lying in a zoo for humans like you to ogle. Well, go ahead: take your photographs.

I’ll have you know, though, that I could lash around faster than you could blink and take this guy’s hand off at the elbow. So just think about that as you ponder his invitation to come and sit on me for a photo.

Sit on me. Can you believe it? And people do, they come pose on top of me. They know I won’t hurt them. Last croc from the lagoon who shredded a human wound up as a pair of boots with matching belt. No thanks. Although I must admit, every croc has his breaking point…

But I see you don’t have the guts. I also see that there will be no more tasty morsels on offer today. Very well. This is the part of the tour where I slither back into the lagoon, and you take off, get lost, go do… whatever it is you humans do when you’re not busy demeaning a miracle of planetary biology that has survived ice ages relatively unchanged.

It’s been fun. Next time bring more chicken. (G)

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Images from the Beach

June 10
Green Turtle Lodge
Near Dixcove

There was a storm at the beach but that didn't matter. There is something about the ocean that is without despair.

We went to find our way back to where it was our heads used to be. We went looking for solace and we found it.

I never used to think of the beach when I though of Africa, but now I always will. The people who built this place have a very good thing going.

There are turtles nesting nearby, somewhere, but we did not find them. We didn't even look. Why would we?

Two nights at the Green Turtle Lodge weren't nearly enough. We may go back, before we leave in the fall.

There were local people about who live there. I wonder if they know they live in paradise.

How I went to have a shirt made and wound up profoundly influencing Ghana’s leaders of tomorrow (I hope)

June 14, 2007

Trish caught on to the popular Ghanaian tradition of having clothes tailor-made, rather than buying off the rack. Seemed like a good idea to me. Either keep buying Western-style clothes from vendors in the street; or, for the same price, buy African fabric and give it to a tailor, who will cut and sew a memento to be cherished. Done.

I got Francis the tailor’s phone number from Trish, who got it from a colleague at work. I called and arranged to meet him and jumped on a tro-tro.

When I got off at Tech Junction, a mad highway interchange on the outskirts of Kumasi, a grubby old man came at me through the throng of people, his face full of recognition, hand extended. I took it. “You are Francis?” He didn’t speak any English but gestured to his feet, which were old and cracked and gnarled and stuffed into sandals. The right one was wrapped in bloody gauze.

I looked into his eyes, not understanding a word he was saying. He clearly wasn’t Francis, but equally obvious was his desire for me to help him. He saw a white face in the crowd and, through it, salvation. He held his hands out in supplication.

What could I give him? I clapped my hands and spread them, Ghanaian style, to show I had nothing, no alternatives to offer. His look turned reproachful and he gestured to his stomach, then his mouth. Food, chop. I told him I had no chop to give him. I didn’t tell him that there was a dough ring in my backpack that I had already promised to another man, Ado, the 80-year-old who sits outside the British Council and gets sulky with me when I don’t bring him something to eat. So the dough ring was spoken for. What else could I do?

The old man reached in his pocket and pulled out a 500-cedi coin. He held it out to me, urging me with his eyes. “You want me to give you money?” Yes, yes please.

I couldn’t explain to him my principle of not giving money to beggars. Food I’ll always share — well, almost always — but I don’t like giving money because it propagates a bad lesson: that in life you can get something for nothing.

I felt a familiar pang of humility. Who am I to lecture an African elder with chewed up feet? Cold practicality answered. I’m the Westerner with the money he wants, that’s who.

The scenario was a common conundrum in Africa, where poverty reigns and pity is a remedy. But it’s not a cure. Giving 1,000 cedis to this man might slake his thirst or fill his belly for an hour, that’s it. White man’s charity has never been an economic foundation in Africa, and never will be, and I despair every time someone asks me for money because of my skin colour.

Paying him would have been what I call a fuck-off fee; paying him to go away and leave me alone because he was making me uncomfortable. It’s the easiest way out. My hand hovered by my pocket…

Then I saw the children. There were four of them dressed in school uniforms, watching the exchange, listening. I felt my face contort into a grimace of dour hopelessness that is becoming familiar. “Look,” I said to the man, gesturing to the children. “Look, there are children watching.” Their eyes got wide when I pointed at them. “What should we teach them? What should you and I be teaching them, right now?”

He didn’t comprehend what I was saying, of course. He was probably thinking: What have those kids got to do with me or my hunger or my mutilated feet? But he understood that I did not want to give him money. He also understood that I had sympathy; that I wanted to help him, but not this way.

I don’t know how to improve the lot of Ghanaians so that they can take pride in their country, their nation, their culture and not beg for scraps from white men — but giving 1,000 cedis to an old black man in front of these young black boys was not the right thing for this white man to do.

We held hands for a moment, both together, in front of us. “Another time,” I told him, and walked away. (G)

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Nobody said anything to me about de-worming

June 12, 2007

Apparently it’s common practice. Locals take a tablet every two or three months to flush the system... just in case. You never know where you might pick up Trichurus trichiura, or pinworm, to name just one of the nasties that may have taken up residence in my gastro-intestinal tract.

I seem to be writing about activities inside my guts a lot these days… I’d promise to stop, but I can’t be sure. I don’t know what to expect. Nobody said anything about the need to de-worm now and then.

Pinworms, roundworms, tapeworms, these are not in the guidebook. The travel doctor didn’t mention them. I don’t even know if worms are what I’ve got, or if the two pills I swallowed this morning will do the trick. The War of the Rhea has been on decline, but you never know when or where conflict may flare up. Periods of non-combat might just be appaisement, as Madame Csorba would say. It’s like the Cold War of the Rhea now… rumblings deep behind boundaries, uneasy tension, occasional explosions…

No war lasts forever though, and in the end we’ll win. We’ve got tactical advantage in almost every way: superior intelligence, medical technology, and we even outnumber them, if you count our elite White Cell Warriors. The enemy may have position, but this war is ours to win.

Justice is on our side; after all, they invaded us. I may carry a few prisoners back to Canada with me in three months (THREE MONTHS!!!) but we’ll just torture the shit out of them (pun) with clean food and water until they submit. Then we’ll extradite them, back to the liquid underworld. Sure, different continent, but they won’t know that.

I wonder… is this how epidemics start? Some dumbass traveler comes home full of parasites, dumps them in the wrong place and starts a plague? Best not find out, and go get some more deworming pills. (G)
The rain is thunderous, arriving deftly, carried in on great gusts of wind. The rain in Ghana, and perhaps in all of Africa for that matter, is celebrated, embraced and then cursed between sneezes and bouts of malaria by people standing in mud with damp clothes on.

“I’m sorry the rain is beating you." Yes the rain does beat. It thumps on
tin roofs, uproots umbrellas on small mango stands and washes roads into rivers. The rain gives, but it also takes. I met an elderly woman recently whose house and businesses flood during the rainy season. Each year she moves to the top floor of a nearby building and watches as her small chop bar (food stall) is swallowed by the rains. Last week, under a drizzly sky, she stood on her toes to reach the brown water lines on the wall of her house.

The rains inspire movement, or a series of motions, that normally takes three hours but all of a sudden takes three minutes. Children are swaddled on backs, food stalls collapsed and goods covered up before flip-flop-clad feet clop off for shelter. Those are the people that run from the rains. The ones that stay -- the women in the market choked with human traffic, the gleeful schoolchildren, the football players -- they dance, skip, jump and open their mouths to the glorious rains.

I remember the first time I felt rain in Ghana, and like the first snow that blankets the dirt and pavement in Canada it is beautiful in its simplicity and its ability to transform dry to wet and dirty to clean.

It now rains daily. Sometimes it’s a scampering, inspiring drizzle; other times
it’s worthy of placing a plastic bag on my head. Mostly though it encourages me to take shelter wherever I can find it, with the comfort of people who are just as in awe of the rains as I.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Sexual proposition provokes blank stare

June 5, 2007

I went to Kejetia Market looking for chickens to photograph. Bird flu had recently been reported in Ghana and I’d written a column for the Yukon News about the impossibility of containing a food chain pandemic in this part of the world. It needed some visual accompaniment.

Public photography is difficult in Ghana. People are easily offended by the camera, as I discovered several times. The chickenheads, as I found myself referring to the market women who carry baskets of chickens on their heads, did not want their pictures taken, even when I offered to pay double market price for one of their birds. Can’t say I blame them; it felt incredibly shameful and inappropriate to even ask, for the chickenhead’s existence is wretched and she knows it. But sometimes that’s the job.

I’d be a better man if I could say that it never occurred to me to try taking their pictures anyway, covertly, without permission, but it did and I attempted it. With our little digital point-and-shoot cupped in my palm and a newspaper draped over my wrist I walked slowly past the chickenheads, clicking away. They never caught me, but the results were crap, useless, and I was a bit of a scumbag. But I digress…

Finding the chickenheads took some doing. Kejetia is a vast network of wooden stalls with corrugated metal roofs where vendors sell everything imaginable, from slugs to cell phones. The marketplace is ringed with broken streets choking on the overflow of stalls and vendors.

During my quest for poultry I resolved to bisect the network, to walk right through the centre of Kejetia — something I had never done and have yet to do, for I got lost in the labyrinth and though I found my way out I missed the pulsating heart of that crazy, busy place. Another day…

When I made it to the far side I decided to up the ante and actually buy something from the outer stalls, where fresh produce is common. A middle-aged crone selling tomatoes yelled at me, and I went over.

She wanted to sell me 5,000 cedis worth. I told her I would take only 1,000, because the rest would go bad before I could eat them. There was a language barrier, but she agreed. When I handed over 1,000 cedis in coins, she started dancing and singing.

I couldn’t understand the words, but her performance was obviously for the benefit of her neighbours and passers-by. The gist of it was that she had gotten money from the oboroni and everyone should look at her. I put on my poker face and asked if I could please have some tomatoes.

Then things started to get weird. She waved me away and flagged down a passing waterseller, paying with some of the coins I’d given her, but I stood firm and repeated my request.

“Five thousand,” she said.
“No. One thousand.”
“Five thousand.”
“I gave you one thousand. I would like one thousand of tomatoes, please.”

A small crowd began to gather. Slightly miffed, the woman put a few of the smaller tomatoes in a bag along with some green legumes I did not recognize. She held the bag out but pulled it back when I reached for it. She looked at my eyes through my sunglasses and then poked herself in the crotch.

“You come,” she said. She pointed at my crotch, then poked her own again. “You come here.”


It’s times like these that test the poker face. Can it be kept straight when a haggard market crone is making such a proposition? The sunglasses helped and I did not respond, but I didn’t look away, either.

She mistook my lack of response for miscomprehension. “You come.” Poke, poke. “You come here.”

“She is saying she likes you,” said a woman standing behind me with a bowl on her head.

“I know what she’s saying. I’m saying I only want tomatoes.”

The interpreter laughed and explained to the crone that I wasn’t interested in her, just her produce. Everyone laughed except for the crone and me. She seemed genuinely offended and I was still waiting.

The interpreter intervened and tried to grab the bag and a fight almost broke out. Finally the crone gave me the tomatoes and I thanked her, unsmiling, and left.

I wonder what she would have charged for a photograph. Don’t think I’ll be going back to find out. (G)

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Language reporters can understand

June 1

It had all the makings of a good party: cold beer, food, beautiful people standing around on freshly manicured lawns in front of a three story mansion. The host was Ghana’s Minister of Defense, Dr. Kwame Addo-Kufuor, the brother of President John A. Kufuor. The guests of honour were Kumasi’s political journalists.

As the beer flowed and the mid-afternoon party got underway a few things became very clear. Kufuor would speak on his recent constituency tour and nothing else. When a colleague and I bypassed beer for a chance at a one-on-one interview with the man, he flatly denied he was campaigning for the 2008 presidential election. The throngs of people chanting his name, wearing T-shirts bearing his face, were a mere coincidence? When asked when the T-shirts were bought and how he would describe the day’s events he refused to accept the word campaign. Rather, he said, “It’s a sign that I’m an effective MP.” What about the campaign manager hovering nearby?

Also hovering, unseen but over Kufuor’s head, was a New Patriotic Party rule that says a minister campaigning for president must first resign his seat.

But why let power and public office get in the way of a campaign!

Now, what does every good host do for his guests, after the beer, the food? Well, he gives them a gift of course!

Kufuor prefaced his comments by saying: “Now, I don’t know what you’ll write when you return to your media houses, but…” And with that he invited a “friend and longtime political journalist” to the front of his living room. After a brief conference, Kufuor announced he was giving the journalists 10 million cedis, or about $1,000 US dollars (a small fortune by Ghanaian standards) to share among themselves. The reporters applauded.

Flabbergasted but not unfamiliar with envelopes of cash offered at Ghanaian press conferences — though I have never accepted one — I casually asked my colleagues what they’d spend the cash on. Most said it wasn’t enough, some said it was for transportation and then smiled knowing full well a taxi costs a fraction of the amount being doled out. When asked whether they’d include the “gift” from the Minister of Defense in their story they asked why. When asked whether the cash would influence how they wrote the story they said absolutely not. But what, then, I asked, is the story about? “Oh, it’s about how great a job the MP and Minister of Defense is doing.” Right.

In high school in Nova Scotia the true mark of a good party was a good ole fashioned fight. Sadly, journalists attending Kufuor’s party didn’t disappoint. Once a few figured they hadn’t received their fair share of the 10 million cedis, everyone grew suspicious which lead to accusations and a squabble on the front lawn. Another group became suspicious of a woman — not me — who they said was posing as a journalist. Imagine that, pretending to be a journalist — pretending to uncover the truth and doing it without bias or favour or conflict of interest.

Can’t wait to watch what happens in the 2008 elections.