Monday, July 23, 2007

Hospitality, Ghana style

July 17-19, 2007
Obuasi, Ghana

Like the shy smile that escapes from the stoic expression of a Ghanaian security guard or an old woman selling snails in the market, Ghanaian hospitality is unexpected. Unexpected, but once extended ultimately warm and genuine.

Take for example a recent trip to Obuasi, a gold mining town not far from Kumasi. While there a colleague and I were warmly welcomed. We were invited into homes, well fed, watered and encouraged to relax with a Star beer in hand while listening to wall-shaking loud Christian rock music. Women cooked our meals outside over charcoal pits; another woman, the wife of Bernard who took time off from his job as news editor of a local radio station to guide us, also spent hours preparing food for the guests from out of town.

Always, I ate with the men, secretly wanting to be let into the world of the women; cooking, tending to the children, knowing how they make so much from so little. A handshake, a modest bow was my only contact. After our meal made over the charcoal pit I met the women. The electricity suddenly cut out in an all-to-common blackout and we stood talking, laughing in the dark. Then the rains came, swift and unexpected. One woman handed me her umbrella; another guided me out the door.

Later that evening we were offered a ride by a man who had room in his car. The next day we drank pito, a fermented drink from palm trees with the galamsayers (illegal miners) in the bush. They too were hospitable, warm, welcoming, despite the job we were both there to do, which was tell their unfortunate story.

And then there was the legal mine worker at Anglogold Ashanti who insisted he stop the car so he could harvest some corn for us from the company’s property. Or the women we met while on a father visit with Bernard. He was there to see the child he had with another woman. We left nothing bur rather walked away with meat pies for our trip back to Kumasi.

Ghanaians are quick to socialize and to extend an offer to socialize with them by offering the best chair in the house (even if it means it comes from a bedroom at the back of the house), an overturned bowl or a stool to sit on.

Unexpected and greatly appreciated. Makes me wonder what I am giving in return. (T)

Pieces from Obuasi

July 17-19
Obuasi, Ghana

When I should have taken a picture

A small child, maybe three years old, squats atop a huge mound of garbage in a community near Obuasi, about an hour’s drive south of Kumasi. The mound is taller than the highest building in a 10-kilometre radius. People are selling oranges, meat pies at the base of the mound, and a mechanic shop spills out from the foothills of the heap. Meanwhile, the young girl is crouched. I watch her; she uses her left hand to wipe, somehow managing to balance herself atop layers of trash. I’m not the only one watching. A tin can’s throw from the girl sits a vulture about the size as her. We both watch. I walk away and the bird stays, no doubt hoping to claim its piece of paradise.


Mob justice – do you want my cell phone?
Am walking back to the guesthouse with a colleague when a crowd gathers in front of us. They’re yelling. It’s difficult to see what’s happening in the dark as I struggle for firm footing on a road that’s quickly turning into a mudslide. I hear screams that sound like a wounded animal. We stop and ask what’s going on and are told a young man was caught trying to steal a woman’s cell phone. “It’s not that serious,” my colleague says, pushing me on. “They won’t kill him.” Is that supposed to be a relief?

Where am I?
Ama, 17 years old, strips naked and sings. We watch from a distance and a staff member of the Pentecost Prayer camp is instructed to clothe her and tell her to calm down. There is an oboruni visitor, says the pastor.

Later Ama’s mother explains that her daughter ate cake that had a concoction in it, a mixture of juju (aka voodoo) and cocoa, and that’s what made her “mad.” Ama is in chains; she clings to me, calls me her friend. She speaks in Twi, her voice shakes and she tugs at the chain on her ankle.

Another girl, visibly mentally handicapped, flails her arms, moans to communicate and cries out when people approach her. She’s eight and wants to move freely but can’t.

A man who uses a blue plastic bucket as a drum becomes tired and folds himself onto the hard cement floor.

He unwraps scraps of paper from the cloth that he uses as a shirt. He says this is his cash and extends his hand asking for a thousand cedis. “Give me thousand, thousand,” he says.

The pastor prays, hands in the air. Women surround him, murmuring “Jesus, Jesus,” competing to be heard over each other’s voices. Adding to the din are the disabled girl, who keeps moaning and the chained man who keeps chanting, “thousand cedis, thousand cedis.”

Destitute and depressing

A 100-year-old Ghanaian man looks a lot like a tree trunk; gnarled but somehow strong. The 100-year-old man I met recently is living at what the government calls a home for the destitute. The owner calls the man an ‘inmate.’ His eyes belie his situation and tell a story that upon a hurried, sideways glance looked desperate. I averted my eyes wanting to respect both his age and his Muslim beliefs.

He, a man who had a stroke 12 years ago, and a blind mentally handicapped boy whose family left him at a bus stop a few months ago are classified as Ghana’s destitute. Living amongst them is 70-year-old Ernest. White, British, wealthy and married to a Ghanaian woman half his age who works at the home. We meet, he extends a hand, that same hand later gropes his wife, his wife’s sister and anyone else who comes within reach. He, unlike the rest of the ‘inmates’ chooses to live here. (T)

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Obruni trio incites small riot in tro-tro park

July 6, 2007
Korfidua, Ghana
*Special Guest appearance by N. Lesaux

When teaching children that you can’t believe everything you hear or read, I might use the example that in some countries, like Ghana, roosters crow much before dawn. A good segue to a more serious discussion about people bending the truth a little or a “rule of thumb” that doesn’t always apply.

On a typically hot Friday, in an eastern Ghana crowded tro-tro park, Trish, Graeme, and I arrived on our return to Kumasi. Reportedly, there was a tro-tro leaving imminently. I deemed the tro-tro in question to be "full"; it appeared two to a seat. But, the mate who deals in tro-tro logistics ensured Graeme—a trusting guy—there was space for us and our sturdy, Canadian-made packs. It wasn’t in our best interest to express doubt.

With the work of three men, our packs were compressed into new shapes, and the back doors barely closed. Our eyes on the luggage and Trish buying a baggie of popcorn (a harbinger, really), we were clearly focused on the wrong things. Inside the seemingly full tro-tro, a heated conversation in Twi between the mate and passengers was taking place. In just seconds, before we could see exactly what was happening, there was a flurry of honking and the tro-tro, now carrying our packs, drove across the chaotic parking lot where the heated discussion escalated. We quickly followed. With passengers on their seats’ edges waving their tickets, Trish asks, “What’s the problem here?” Various folks explain that they have purchased tickets, yet the mate tells them at least one person has to get off. Borrowing Trish’s words, many exclaim “it’s not fair,” and Trish reassures them they have a seat.

Next, Graeme (like Alexander having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day) is whisked into the middle seat of the front row, where he sat motionless for several hours so as not to shift gears for the driver. Still at the door, Trish and I were insistent we wouldn’t bump anyone off. The mate motioned for each of us to take a jumpseat at the door. Maybe the mate isn’t riding? Nope, he was riding and took it upon himself to share Trish’s jumpseat; by journey’s end, the three of us were busy naming capital cities of countries worldwide.

The ride itself was entirely uneventful. In hindsight, there wasn’t room for three, white or black. And, as someone who advocates for people with disabilities, I can’t help but worry about the dwarf who disembarked from the tro tro as the scene in the park started to brew… (N)

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Briny Ocean Toss...

July 2, 2007
Ada, Ghana

Long ferry rides between Pictou and Prince Edward Island, time in a rubber dinghy and standing on a pier anywhere in the world always make me long for home. Call it the salty sea air, the familiar rhythm of the waves, or plain ole maritime nostalgia, the longing to be close to the water is a part of me. A part, that with time and distance from home, encrusts like a barnacle to my memory.

And so it was that I happened on the Atlantic Ocean (on this side of the world!) recently; the North Atlantic’s hotter and more rollicking cousin, the South Atlantic.

(*Note: Images of beach only, courtesy N. Leseaux. The Bald Guy took the camera, hence the absence of photos of the actual ocean voyage about to be described...)

My shipmates: a crew of Ghanaian competitive deep sea fishermen, a fellow Canadian and Moses, a Ghanaian who had never been to sea before. (Note: A trip onto the ocean is as elusive to many Ghanaians as the tundra is to many Canadians.)

Good timing and a smile landed me a seat on the “Hooker” for the afternoon.

(*Note: Above photo is NOT an image of the Hooker)

The Hooker, complete with the logo of a buxom woman in silhouette sitting in the curve of a hook, is a private yacht/deep sea fishing vessel. She’s owned by three, presumably wealthy, Americans and operated by Ghanaians who compete to catch some of the world’s biggest fish in competitions around the world. The boat is fully rigged with high tech green flashing gadgets and sonar screens, bait the size of the biggest lake trout I’ve ever caught, and hooks designed for slaying fish the size of a whale.

We traveled about 30 kilometres into offshore waters, smashing through waves sometimes three times the height of the boat. Standing with legs square, holding onto the hooker’s grips as we rollicked over the waves crashing to shore, I fully embraced the ‘barnacle’ and couldn’t resist humming that Maritime classic, “Farewell to Nova Scotia.” Far off Nova Scotia was quickly forgotten between heaving a sigh and a wish and then part of my tuna sandwich over board.

We fished hard for seven hours, mostly trawling for blue marlin. Despite my preparation to land this 300 pound fish, which included a quick course in the art of stand up-sit down fishing, the mighty marlin didn’t surface. Two wa-who (phonetic spelling) did instead.

No matter. A day fishing opens the eyes, flares the nostrils and douses one with a good dose of humility and homesickness. (T)

Wednesday, July 11, 2007


July 5, 2007
Wli, Volta Region

Gonna get last-minute poetic on this one... we went to Volta with Nonie, Trish's longtime amigo and sister spirit...

Through Air.

Bound by trees.
Mountain hidden.
African fortress... guide required...

Beautiful hominid finds solace...

and takes a bath...

and picks friend's sunburned flesh...

and clutches shorn mate 'round the throat.

He also bathes.

And tries not to disturb the bats...

That hang alongside the Earth Fountain.

O my friends
cleaned by Mother Nature's milk.
Time to go.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

“It will have to be shot”

July 4, 2007
Hohoe, Ghana

Help! Can anybody hear me?

I know my voice must be muffled by this cobra’s esophagus that I find myself so rudely half-inserted into, but still: if anyone can hear me, help a brother iguana out. For the sake of all that is decent and sacred, come quickly, and bring a crowbar. Or better yet, a machete.

This is not my fault, let me assure. I was merely relaxing in the shade of this small mango tree, digesting a fine repast of flies and others from the insect world — creatures that, incidentally, you humans consider pests — when suddenly this savage black serpent sprang at me from out of nowhere and swallows my upper torso.

Aagh! The pain from her fangs is excruciating! Each one punctured the skin behind my forelegs, what you humans would call the ‘armpits,’ thus eliminating any chance I might have had at fighting the beast off or running away. Now her venom has paralyzed me and I can feel my head being slowly digested.

O! Won’t someone come to my aid?

What’s that!? I can hear you! Someone is there, a witness to this criminal assault. Humans, talking. Surely they’ll intervene; they are said to practice morality. For pity’s sake, please save me!

I am melting, and the voices don’t seem to be getting any closer. Perhaps the humans are afraid. Can they not see my desperation, that the cobra has her maw full of me at the moment? They have nothing to fear. Just step up, swing a cutlass, cut her in half and pull me out. I’ll just scuttle away, as always, but with a promise never to utter an ill word about humans, if one of you would kindly pry me from these jaws.

AAGH! She’s done it now: clamped down with those merciless throat muscles, gave a brutal twist and snapped my spine. Even if I could have recovered from her poison, I’m doomed now. I’m snake feces.

She is pulling me deeper into the long cavern now, fleshy and dark, the tunnel of my death. My ears are slowly melting in digestive acid, but I can just hear the words of one of those pitiless, voyeuristic humans watching this terrible display. Judging by the accent, he sounds like a local. “It will have to be killed,” he says.

I presume he means the cobra, not me. For I am already dead. I’ve had a good life, I suppose, for an iguana. I just hope those wretches watching know that one day the cobra will come for them, too. The cobra gets us all, in the end. (G)

Not a big fan of soldiers threatening to arrest me

July 1, 2007
Canada Day
Accra, Kumasi

I hate that sinking feeling you get when you first realize you might be in real trouble. It’s the feeling you get when you’re a kid and you know you’ve done something bad, like break a vase or injure a sibling. It’s the same pit-of-the-stomach sensation you have when you’re driving a car that’s about to crash — loss of control, of dire consequences that have suddenly become inevitable.

My run-in with the soldier in Accra wasn’t even close to the risk that some journalists expose themselves to, but I can’t deny the sour guts feeling I felt when he emerged from behind a broken stone wall outside the African Union summit and told me to come stand before him.

I tried to play it cool; I hadn’t done anything illegal and so should have had nothing to worry about… but this was cops — more than cops, soldiers — and it was also Africa where the unwritten rules are different, and none of those things are necessarily interested in one’s guilt or innocence.

I’d tried — too late! — to get accreditation to cover the summit as a freelance journalist. Once denied I decided to roam the streets outside the conference hall, looking for interviews or, hopefully, police crackdowns on protest demonstrations.

I found an old man on a deserted street around back of the compound and he gave me his thoughts about the uselessness of the summit. I took his photo with the conference hall as a backdrop and was about to write his name down when he got nervous about being so open in the street and led me to a doorway through a stone wall.

The tank on the other side of the wall surprised us both. The attending soldiers told us to leave. We did.

But as we separated one of the soldiers came out — big guy, mid-20s, in camouflage — and told us to come stand before him and explain ourselves.

I had been spied by a security telescope on top of the conference hall, he said. They’d watched me walking around the area and seen me give something to the old man. The soldier wanted to know what I’d given him. Otherwise he would detain me until someone from the command post could come pick me up for further questioning.

Sometimes my pulse quickens when I’m covering a political event and there’s a question I’m about to ask that is going to provoke at least controversy, if not anger. I’ve gotten used to that feeling of adrenaline when challenging authority in a very public way. I try to stay calm, think about how I’m going to ask the question in a simple way, stand and deliver.

But when this soldier was explaining my arrest and interrogation as though they were foregone conclusions… I admit, I was scared.

I told him I was a tourist passing by. I had given the old man nothing but a pen to write his name with. We were only talking, that was all. The old man and the soldier got slightly heated with each other, as Ghanaians do. The old man voluntarily emptied his pockets, holding up a wad of cash. “I am not a small man,” he said.

The soldier hushed him and turned to me. Having dealt with a number of African cops and customs officials over the last few months, some of whom were corrupt, I could see this was a reasonable man trying to do his job.

He told me that as a white man I should know better. Security at this sort of function was tight and they had to be concerned about terrorists. I told him I understood and did not want to cause a problem and would leave the area now.

The soldier said I would be allowed to leave — relief! — but first he wanted to look in my bag. I crouched and opened it, showing him my raincoat, my notebook… and my recording device wrapped in a Ziplock. He picked it up — a little metal box with wires and cables coming out of it — and asked me to explain. I told him it was for recording conversations but there was nothing on it, which was true. He looked at me. “You did not take any video?” No, I said, which was also true — I took a photo, but no video, but didn’t bother explaining that bit. Nor did I pull my camera out of my bulging pocket.

He gave me back the minidisk and advised me not to keep walking around like I had been. And he let us go. I thanked him and said goodbye to the old man and walked away.

Halfway down the street it occurred to me that the soldier might wonder why a tourist would carry a recording device. Or he might report back to the surveillance team on the rooftop that might claim, rightly, that I had taken a photograph, and once again order my detention.

Once at the main street I flagged the next passing taxi, back to the neighbourhood where I was lodged. I figured that was enough work for one day. (G)

Saturday, July 7, 2007

“Take it down?”

June 30
Accra, Ghana

That’s what the barber asked me once I was seated in his chair, covered in an apron with a length of toilet paper wrapped around my neck. Had only had one haircut in Africa, done by Trish, and that was more of a trim. My locks were getting poofy and always full of sweat, so I decided to get a true African cut.

His name was Prosper. Apprehension kicked in when he came at the top of my head with the electric clippers. I stopped him and asked if he had any scissors, but Prosper’s English wasn’t so hot. I hesitated. But then I thought what the hell, and told him to do whatever he thought best.

Prosper came a’shearing, first at the base of my neck. Maybe he’s going to ‘blend it’ like the barbers do back home, I thought. But when I felt the clippers working on the thinning spot at the peak of my melon I knew we were in for the shortest of short.

I shaved my own head once about five years ago but I didn’t do as good a job as Prosper. He got it all, he left nothing. ‘Take it down’ indeed. In the mirror I watched my head go naked. So did several Ghanaians hanging about the parlour, which was air-conditioned on a hot afternoon. I doubted they’d seen a white man get his hair cut like theirs before, down to stubble.

Then Prosper changed clippers and took some shorter ones to my face. I’d asked him at the outset if he could shave my two-day beard as well, but I expected some cream and a straight razor. Foolish me. He grated the clippers across my face and neck. They nicked my throat and the sight of my blood drained my humour in an instant. Blood-borne diseases like hepatitis and HIV are not epidemic in Ghana but they are common enough…

Prosper started heating some water in a kettle and I asked him what for. “To take down the rest,” he said, rubbing his own bald head to show me. I told him no thanks; my hair was short enough. Then I thanked him and paid 20,000 and got out of there, back to the heat of the day.

I wear a hat now. My coiffure is cooler than it was but my shorn cranium is like a white beacon glaring in the sun and I don’t want to get a burn or attract more stares than I already do. Hope Trish likes it. (G)