Tuesday, September 4, 2007

travelling to the coast

Saying goodbye was bittersweet. I was very sad to be leaving my home for the past 3.5 months and leaving those people behind, but also very excited to be coming back to Canada and all the friends and family that I missed so much. I was also excited to be taking my time traveling back to the South and visiting some of the cities along the way.

We spent a day in Tamale for the final workshop, used to both collect and organize our thoughts and also to give the long-term volunteers a better idea of everything that we did throughout the summer, but it also gave us a chance to say a sort of good-bye to the Northern Region. The best part of the workshop, though, was the end where the long terms presented all of team Ghana with matching shirts, what they called our "Tony the Tiger" shirts. We had a ridiculous ceremony that had all of us laughing and crying and then took ridiculous pictures to commemorate the event. I also distributed the EWB batik cloth that I made with my host-mother to everyone that bought it from me, so we had a very colourful evening.

After the final workshop, I travelled to Kumasi, a large city in the Ashanti Region of Ghana to hang out for a day with 5 other people. We visited the market and the cultural centre, which was really, really cool. The cultural centre wasn't just a large amount of stores, like it is in Accra, but they also display how they do the weaving of the Kente cloth, make the clay pottery we used so much over the last few months, make all the small brass sculptures, as well as the wooden ones.

After spending all of Sunday in Kumasi, Janna and I left our four other travelling partners and made our way to Cape Coast, specifically to the Cape Coast Castle. During the days of the slave trade, the Cape Coast castle was one of the major places that they sold, and then held the prisoners for about six weeks before cramming them onto ships and sending them to the new world.

It was horrible. We went into the rooms where they kept the people between selling them and shipping them, and "rooms" is a very generous word. They were dungeons, small and cramped with very little light and even less air. They would throw the food into the dungeons from above and the people would fight for it. Once you were sold to a specific trading company, the initials of that person or company would be branded into the people's skin. Tribes were turned against each other. Full villages were burnt to the ground as people were being captured. And if you thought about staging a rebellion in the dungeons, the would put you in "the cell", the final room of three chambers and large locking doors about the size of a bathroom with no air, water, or food. They would starve and suffocate you for misbehaving.

During the summer I learned about the slave trade. I had a friend from Navrongo, a town near the Burkina Faso border that told me about the post there, one of the many places the slaves traded hands on the long trek to the coast. There were holes carved into rocks there that they would fill with soup to feed the slaves, but they would still have their hands tied behind their backs so they had to kneel on the hard rock and bend over, an extremely vulnerable position, to drink their soup.

I went to Salaga where there was a major slave market, half-way down the country. Here slaves were bathed, greased in shea butter, and given food to make them look large and healthy. They were tied to the large trees there in chains until the market day, and they would pray to be sold. Why would the pray to continue the journey as a captive? Because they saw what happened to those that didn't get sold.

So, after learning so about it during the summer, it seemed fitting that I would go visit the slave castle, but nothing could have prepared me for what I saw. I learned that 12 million people over 400 years were forced off the African continent and sent to Brazil (the largest shipment), the Caribbean (the second largest shipment) and North America (the remainder). Areas of the continent became wastelands, and entire tribes were destroyed. This was their Holocaust.

Yet, so many of the people have come to be at peace with it. They're not angry, but they accept it and say that they have learned from their mistakes. On the 1st of August, every year, they set aside a day to remember the tragedies that occurred, and vow never to let it happen again. This year was the launch of a program called "The Josephs", a series of events to "re-establish the African Nation as a nation of all its peoples, capable of delivering on the promise of God to Africa and the African peoples" and to "bring together, more closely, people in Ghana and brothers and sisters in the Diaspora and establish herself as the true gateway to the Homeland for Africans in the Diaspora."

The name, "The Josephs", was taken from the biblical story of Joseph, son of Jacob, who was sold into slavery by his brothers. In the story, Joseph eventually became ruler and forgave his brothers for selling him into slavery. Now the name Joseph refers to all those descended from those that were sold into slavery that make the pilgrimage back to Ghana to understand their heritage and to make peace with their ancestors.

I watched the launching of the Joseph program on the television on August 1st, and it was truly amazing. Many African rulers travelled to Elimina castle to take part in the event. There were many African-Americans that made the pilgrimage for this historic event. There were wonderful speeches and cultural displays, and at the end there was a feeling that Ghana was doing well, and trying hard to make amends with the more horrific parts of the area's long history.

These were some of the things that I was thinking about when I was standing in the dungeons, on the guard wall by the cannons, and then again while waiting by the Door of No Return. The Door was named that because it was where the slaves passed to join the boats that would bring them to the new world. I couldn't fathom how many people had passed through that door, praying that the journey would better than the last six weeks they spent in the dungeons, and hoping that the new world would not be so cruel.

As part of the tour we were brought through that door. I marveled at the view of the fishing boats and people along the coast line, the hustle and the bustle of a large city that had been temporally shut out of my mind as I had journeyed to the past. I almost missed our tour guide saying as he led as back around, "now this side is the Door of Return." He explained that all those that had descended from slaves were encouraged to enter the castle through those doors to help "break the curse" on the castle, and to enter back the way that their ancestors left.

We visited the museum as well and saw the shackles and a lot of other really interesting things, but the day was growing late and we were hungry! We ended up at a restaurant right on the shore overlooking both the coastline and some of the castle and I had some of the best banku and okra soup that I had all summer, mostly because of the salt air and the large amount of fish and seafood they put into it. The service was slow, but that's how it is in Ghana, and Janna and I sat there for a few hours with our new friend from Hong Kong that we met early in the day. We were full and satisfied, but we still had to make it back to Accra that night. We made our way to the tro-tro station (getting sidetracked along the way by pretty jewelry and fabric) and finally rolled into Accra at about 9:30 PM. We made our way to our pre-arranged hotel (where the other 14 JFs were staying) and almost collapsed into bed. It was a really long, really emotional day, but I'm so glad that it happened.

Tuesday morning we decided to head out to the cultural centre, this one being very different from the one in Kumasi. This one was mostly about selling souvenirs, but I was okay with that because it was our last day there and I had gifts to buy! Not only did I buy gifts, but I also bought myself a djembe, a west african drum. It was a little tiring being thought of as just a tourist, being overcharged for everything when we understood the money a lot better than the average tourist, but after we said, "we've been living here for four months, this costs 'x' amount", we usually got a much better deal on it.

Packing was a logistical nightmare, with 16 of our bags in one room and everyone trying to re-pack at the same time, but it ended up being a lot of fun as well with everyone pulling out the gifts they bought and clothing they had made and then trying to cram it all back into our bags without making them too heavy.

And then, in one sudden moment, I realized I was at the airport, surrounded by my friends but also leaving so many behind. I was ecstatic to be going home, but also incredibly sad to be leaving the place I called home for the past 3.5 months. I guess that's always going to part of leaving -- you'll be excited for what's coming but sad for what you're leaving behind.

But I'm not leaving it all behind. I just have to remember the friends that I made and not let the Laura in Winnipeg forget the Laura in Savelugu.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

religion, churches, and proper good-byes

My time here is rapidly coming to a close. I'm leaving my district this week. I'm heading to the south starting on the weekend. I leave Ghana on the 21st. I reach Toronto on the 22nd. I reach Winnipeg on the 26th.

I'm feeling a combination of sadness to leave the people that I've met over the past 3.5 months and extreme excitement to see my friends and family again. The biggest shock that I felt was realizing that I can be both sad and excited to leave, while the people that I've become close with, especially the family that I have been living with for the past 3.5 months, are only sad to see me go.

I realized it at church this past Sunday. I attend with my host family, who are conveniently enough, also Catholic. Church here in Ghana, and religion in general is really quite an experience. I have been to three churches since I've been here, and all have been very different from each other.

The first church I went to was on the first Sunday I was in Ghana. Janna, Holly and I woke early on Sunday morning and made our way to the Presbyterian Church in Tamale that was near where we were staying. The service, much to our dismay, was in Twi (the language mostly spoken in the southern, Ashanti region of Ghana) but we stayed anyway. People were ecstatic that we were there, and were volunteering to translate for us. In the middle of the service, people divided up into bible study groups and they made ours to be in English. The service went on for four hours -- something that I would have hardly noticed because there was so much going on all the time except for my growling stomach. They invited newcomers to the front of the church and asked us to introduce ourselves so that they could give us proper greetings.

The thing that blew me away the most, though, was the singing. These people had such power and strength in their voices. They prayed as they sang and they danced as they prayed. The energy that came out of the instrument area was astounding, and everyone was out of their seats and into the isles dancing. At one point I joined a conga line. Then, at one point, the choir rose to sing and everyone else -- musicians included -- sat silently waiting for them to begin. They sang a song with such beautiful harmonies, power, and grace that I was blown away. They sang with such belief that some parishioners were moved to tears. I only wish that I could hear it again.

In the middle of June a co-worker invited me to her church in Tamale, and since I was going to be in town anyway due to a workshop, I agreed. I showed up at the Baptist Church right before the service started and searched for my co-worker, but didn't see her, so I grabbed a seat near the back so I could watch everything that was going on. The biggest difference that I saw with this church was the music. While the first church had a definite West Africa feel mixed in with the gospel music, this church's music was nothing short of a mixture of pop and rock. And their voices were also amazing, except that they were out-fitted with microphones and speakers! After the first song my co-worker joined me, tears coming to her eyes that she was so happy to see that I accepted her invitation to be her guest.

Maybe it's just that I've never been to a Baptist church before, but I was unprepared for the way that they prayed. At one point I clasped my hands and bowed my head quietly, but I was surrounded by people with their eyes closed and arms out, calling out their prayers at the top of their voices with an amazing amount of conviction. The music was still playing and I was pulled away from my silent prayers, and just watched instead. This mass only lasted about 3 hours, which was once again too long for my growling stomach.

Usually, though, when I'm in Savelugu I attend a small (60 people at the ABSOLUTE max, usually about 40 people) church that's priest is from Mexico City. I like going to this one the best -- the music isn't as good or well prepared and the only musical instrument is a pair of drums by the back, but when I'm there, I belong to the church just as all of them do. The mass is almost the same as it is at the church I go to in Canada. I'm not the white person that gets stared at, I'm just one of them. We share the same faith and they all accept me for who I am. I've made quite a few of the friends I've made here through there.

Yet, at the end of Sunday's mass I was almost yelled at. After the mass I went to a friend that helps with litergical services to say that it was my last Sunday there, and to say good-bye. He was outraged. "You should have told us before. We should have given you proper good-byes. We didn't pray for your safe travels! We didn't thank God for sending you to us for this short time!" He went on for some time before stopping, grasping my hand, and saying, "oh, we will miss you."

It was then that I realized the impact of me leaving. That I'll probably not see these people again. That I really will miss my friends and the small church that I went to with the Father with a great sense of humour.

Despite being to three very different churches, the majority of people in my region are Muslim. The interesting thing is that whenever I discuss religion with any of my Muslim friends they always say the same thing, "we pray to the same God anyway." In fact, in Dagbani there seems to be just one word for any god: Naawuni, and it is used in many every day greetings. Naawuni son tuma (May God bless your work) Naawun' a ti bi ow (May God bring us tomorrow) Naawun' ni lubsina (May God bring us together again). The answer to all these is Ami. These greetings are said to Christians, Muslims, and Traditionalist alike. Where I live, there is no animosity between religions. People want to live in harmony. They want to understand each other instead of attacking them or hating them.

I think the world has something to learn from the people that I've spent time with this summer!

I begin travelling south on Saturday. The summer has both gone by as fast as lightening and as slow as I could ever believe; yet, the end is drawing near. I'll still be posting, so don't abandon me yet! I'll be very excited to see everyone again, but for now, I'm going allow myself to be sad about leaving.

Monday, August 6, 2007

The sights, sounds, and smells of Ghana

The day starts before the sun. I awake to the morning calls of the nearby mosque, the voice chanting over the speakers telling people to start getting ready for morning prayers. I desperately try to fall back asleep and it sometimes works, but the hen in my compound is about to wake as well with her 10 baby chicks. They start chirping just as I'm starting to drift back off, and I'm forced to admit I'm not going to get any more sleep.

I take my buck of water to the bathing room, pausing briefly to step around the scuffle that just started between the puppy and the mother hen. I finish bathing, get ready for work, and hop on my left-leaning bicycle and peddle into town, the opposite direction of the district assembly so I can visit my favourite eggs and tea place for breakfast.

I ride uphill most of the way, dodging goats and sheet that are searching the gutters and fields for their morning meal and passing many people shouting their greetings. Desiba! (Good morning) Nnaa Toomasin? (How is the coolness of the morning?) Nnaa A gbihiira? (How did you sleep) Gom beni (I slept well) Tuma be wula? (How is your work?) Alaafee (It is well).

About once a week there are workers cleaning out the open gutters, removing trash that has both blown and been thrown inside and piling it on the shoulder of the road, allowing it to dry. When it dries they will dispose of it by burning it, as it is done with all rubbish in the north, so the smell of burnt plastic and molding fruit permeates the air. I reach the stand by the side of the road where the lady makes the fried egg sandwiches and tea and sit at bench behind her. I greet her and she goes about making it right away. I'm a regular, and she likes me. I talk with the other regulars and they make me laugh, even though they are usually just asking me to marry them.

I hop back on my bicycle and go to work, getting calls all the way. "Malititi!" they yell and I wave my greetings and continue on -- I don't have time to stop for everyone that knows my name.

I reach the district assembly and snake from office to office greeting people along the way and taking a minute to play with the baby that stays with her mom during the day; Amina is too little to stay without her mom for the day. Her mom works as the district assembly cook, which means that whenever there's a workshop or meeting which needs food, she takes the orders, goes to her house, makes the food, and delivers it back. Meanwhile, if there is no food that needs to be prepared she sits with some assistants and relaxes for the day with her small child.

I reach my office and am told exciting news: that day we are going to a rural community to re-educate their WATSAN committee and make sure it is still active. A WATSAN committee is the group of people in the community that looks after the borehole pump, collecting dues from the people that use it and contacting area mechanics if it breaks. They also promote hygiene and sanitation practices in the community.

I grab my motorbike helmet and climb onto the back of a motorbike and we set on our way. The road starts off paved but we quickly turn off to the red dirt roads filled with potholes and bumps. We reach our destination in about 45 minutes and go straight to the "Chief's Palace." We remove our shoes, enter and squat before him. As he greets us and we answer "Nnaa", we clap quietly and rhythmically. He is satisfied with our greetings and offers us the traditional gift of kola nuts, a bitter nut that has a caffeine content that can ease hunger and stain your teeth if eaten too much. It was the original ingredient for cola drinks, though now they use artificial flavours.

The chief knew we were coming and gathered the WATSAN committee and other community leaders to the meeting spot in the village. We listened as the members talked us about challenges they were having (me through an interpreter) and asked us questions about certain situations. We asked them about the status of their accounts and money, and if the children are using the hand washing station that was just donated and set up outside the school latrines. Our time is quickly up (we have one more community to visit that day), but my co-workers are satisfied with the information we got and we promise to return a month later to see how their new initiatives are being implemented.

The second village we go to is much harder. The WATSAN committee has fallen into disarray, so we re-form it and start to give them some small training. We'll return when we have more materials to train them properly, funding for those materials, and a plan on how to train them and who has which tasks.

We return to the office just in time to jot down some notes and leave for the day, albeit early. We'll write our full reports tomorrow. It's market day, and that takes priority.

Before I reach the market I can feel the excitement and I hear many goats and sheet baaaing and making noise. People are holding them tied to rope calling out prices, and holding closed baskets that are filled with chickens and guinea fowl. I weave between them and pass a butcher feeling slightly nauseous from the waft of raw meet. I enter the market proper and get overwhelmed again by how many people there are and how much stuff there is, but I don't plan to stay long, I'm on a mission. I need batteries for my flashlight.

I complete my mission, eating a few treats along the way, and make my way back to my compound. I see a few more friends and stop to talk to them, so by the time that I get back to my room I'm tired and it's starting to get dark. The kids call me to come play some of the card games that I've taught them. The eldest son has just returned from Senior Secondary School (which usually boards its pupils) so he's still shy around me, but it's not long before we're laughing and teasing each other playfully.

The smell of the charcoal stove outside automatically makes me hungry and go to see what she's making. She's stirring a large pot of a dough-like material and I can tell by the smell and texture that we'll be eating TZ tonight -- a starchy dough made from maize and cassava flour that is a staple of northern meals. The soup, or thing that you dip the TZ into will be okra soup and I'm excited -- it's one of my favourites. It's much less slimy than what we had while in Toronto.

We finish quickly and it's almost time for bed; the morning comes early and it was a busy day. My family doesn't want to let me go yet, though, they instead entertain me with funny stories and ask me my plans for the following weekend or how I found the market that day.

I finally have to leave as I'm getting too tired to continue. The air is now cooler and I walk across the courtyard to my room sleepily. I crawl into the bednet that shields me from mosquitoes while I sleep and I smile. It was a good day, and tomorrow will be the same.

Monday, July 30, 2007

not just the good part 2.

I've had a week to think about this blog post, and what stories I wanted tell to show some of the harder parts of my stay here, and some of the challenges that Ghana faces. In thinking about what I wanted to write, I also thought about what I have already written and I want to make a small amendment.

I gave the image that I thought that all NGOs are evil. I've volunteering for an NGO that I think is pretty awesome. There's a lot of good people doing a lot of good things. I'm even coming around on the NGOs that use development practices that I don't agree with (like going to a community, drilling a well, and then leaving without any kind of hygiene education or teaching the community how to use the well, or who to contact if it breaks down etc) because I can still identify the good that comes out of it (another NGO or the goverment will train WATSAN committees and pick up the slack, and the community has another source of safe drinking water). It's a HUGE conversation and thought process to try to figure out what is good development, and I still have no idea. The best lesson that I've ever learned from EWB is that "development is complex." I'm not going to pretend I know everything or anything. These are all just my opinions based on what I see. To add to that, I'm really excited to hear from anyone that wants to challenge me on these opinions and ask me questions. I'm even more excited to see that people I don't know are reading my blog and hopefully enjoying my stories.

Now, onto today's stories.

Health Care
Ghana has a kind of health care insurance system. I don't know too much about it, but from what I gather people can pay about 82 000 cedies (about $10) a year and have their basic health needs covered. This means that if you think you have Malaria it will pay for the doctor's consult and for the doctor to write you a perscription, but if need buy the drugs then you have to pay for those yourself (about $7). If I'm wrong, please correct me.

The problem with this health care system is that the hospitals are usually only in the district capitals, so if you live in one of the villages then you have to travel to get the health card, which give an added expense. Also, it's a gamble. If you don't get sick that year, then you wasted a lot of good money, and getting that much money together at one time can be hard, especially if you come from a large family.

What happens instead? Instead of going to doctors, people go to see their local herbalist, medicine man, or juju man. This isn't always the worst thing; pharmaceutical companies have made billions (and more) stealing the secrets from these local medicine men, packaging them and placing them on supermarket shelves. In a lot of cases, what we buy are what these people are giving their patients raw. Sometimes it works.

Sometimes it doesn't. A few weeks ago a man and his five year old boy came to the local goverment to seek help. He was talking in Dagbani to start so I wasn't really paying attention until my eyes looked at the boy. He was serious and his right arm hung stiff and lifeless beside his body, his fingers stuck at a weird angle and the skin on his arm looked blackened. My coworker told me after that the kid had fallen and broken his arm on the football field, but instead of going to a doctor for x-rays and to get it set properly, they went to the local juju man instead. They were applying a mixture of herbs and chemicals to his arm and instead of fixing it, it instead had a weird reaction with the flesh and the bones were allowed to start heeling in the wrong position. Now he was asking for help to see a bone specialist in Kumasi or the boy would not be able to use his arm properly again.

This is just one story, but it's not all. I see so many people that are crippled because they didn't get the proper care, or that have injuries that could have been properly fixed. People that have problems that are fixed with a small surgery early in Canada, but here they are allowed to grow and worsen. I suspect it's the same with most developing countries, that a lot of things are overlooked, but the thing that I am frustrated with the most is someone willingly choosing NOT to go to a doctor. NOT to give their children the best that there is... but then I can also understand that sometimes the hospitals are too far and the cost of travel and time you are taking to go is too much.

I just keep thinking to the small boy. How his life will be changed because one day he decided to play football and fell badly. That he won't be able to do so much because of a bad decision from his parents and a juju man that didn't know how to set a broken bone.

Behaviour Change
Washing your hands is something that is ingrained into our culture, and yet, people in the western world still don't do it. Why? Now, what if washing your hands after you go to the toilet and before you eat could save your life? In a world where diarrhea kills and parasites and worms are passed from person to person like colds are in Canada, you'd think that washing your hands would be common sense.

Yet, somehow it's not. Somehow, despite all the education and workshops, people don't wash their hands. People are still getting sick and diseases are still being spread. The people here are not stupid -- they're incredibly hard working and smart and they're good people. There's still people in North America that don't wash their hands when the flowing water is right there! How are all the people in Ghana supposed to do it when water's not readily available and usually quite far away? Why should they be using so much water cleaning when during the dry season, sometimes there's barely enough to drink?

Guinea worm is one of the most awful things I've seen so far, and I live in an area where Guinea worm is at its worst. The flea that hosts the worm larvae is only just visible to the naked eye lives in the water. Once the flea is swallowed the worm travels to the intestines and mates. The female worm, now impregnated with thousands of larvae herself, travels through the body for anywhere between 9 and 18 months feeding on the host's tissues and bones. Now here's the really painful part: it has come out of the body somehow to recontaminate the water source and ensure the survival of the species, so it comes to the surface of the skin (usually in the legs or feet) and creates a large boil, which it will burst through when it feels water on the outer part of the skin. It will usually come out quite soon after the boil appears because the most soothing thing the host can do for the painful boil is to immerse it in water. The worm at this point is usually about a meter long (3 feet) and looks like a piece of angel hair pasta. Each time the female feels water, it will continue to release thousands of the larvae into the water source.

If you think what I'm describing is bad, the words on the page are nothing as compared to the pain and agony felt by the host when the worm is coming out, and it's not an easy process. It usually take ten to fourteen days for the worm to come out completely, and multiple infections are common. It's pulled out a little bit at a time each day and you have to be careful not to break it, theres' the risk of infection, or if broken right at the start, it can go back into the body and reemerge a week later.

It's a horrible parasite. It can take people out of work and school because of the severe pain. If you're a farmer and it comes at harvest time, your crop could be lost.

Want to know what can stop you from getting it? Filtering your water. If you get your water from a dam, stream, or other uncovered source, chances are that it's infected. There are a tonne of NGOs that are giving away filters to anyone that says they need one, and if you're not around those NGOs you can make your own. If you're out in the bush and are thirsty and come across a water hole without your official filter? You can drink the water through a handkerchief or your own shirt. If you have a boil or a worm coming out the actions you take should be simple: don't go in the water and continue to recontaminate the water source.

Yet, people continue to get infected. People don't filter their water. Despite hiring guards to keep people from going into the dams, people still find a way. How, with all the education sessions and posters and radio spots, do people still get this parasite? Is it that don't see the connection between their water and the worm? If it's growing inside you for over a year it's hard to make the connection, especially if some people get it and some people don't. You need to swallow both a male and female worm, so if the combination isn't right than you'll be okay...

The topic of behaviour change is one that I've seen before. How do you get people to drink fair trade coffee? How do you get people to stop smoking, especially when they know that it's dangerous? Why do people still drink and drive? Why are people not filtering their water?

I think that changing people's behaviour is one of the hardest and most complex things that anyone will try to do, but I also think that it's of paramount importance for development.

And I'm at a loss on how to do it.

In conclusion
This has been hard for me to write, but even harder for me to see. I hope that it gave you a small insight into some of the challenges that Ghana faces. It's really a wonderful country with fantastic people, and I'm having the time of my life here, but I didn't want to just portray the shiny happy moments. It is a struggle being here and seeing these things. I hope that I gave you a window into some of the harder parts of life here without it being too much like the commercials you see with the flies on the children's faces. I that you can see some of the real struggles here and some of the real people struggling.

Monday, July 23, 2007

not just the good.

For the past few months I've been telling everyone wonderful stories about my time here. I've been giving the image that everything is wonderful here in Ghana, but in reality, I've been leaving a lot out. I think it's time to share some of the challenges that Ghana faces and some of the heavier thoughts that I've been having.

I'm only sharing two stories with you today, and hopefully two more next weekend. I hope that you think about them.

Please, take me with you?
I get many, many proposals in a day. Usually they come from the people that I have breakfast with, people that I see almost every day that I've become friends with, and are said in a joking manner, but realistically they are also secretly hoping that I will say yes.

Why do I get these marriage proposals? The people see the colour of my skin and believe that I can give them a better life. That they won't have to work any more. That they won't suffer. That I can give them fancy cars and a big house and take them to Canada with me so they won't have to suffer. Clearly they don't think of the -40C winters, but it's more than that. They would happily leave their country and families for a "better" life.

It doesn't stop at marriage proposals. I've had women try to give me their babies. They are willing to give away their children because they hope that they will get a better education and be healthier. For this one, I really don't blame them. In Ghana, there's a one in eleven chance you won't reach your fifth birthday.

I try to explain to them that not everything is great in Canada, that we have our troubles too, but how can I tell someone, right to her face that her child won't get better health care in Canada? That out of 1000 births in Canada, only six will die before their fifth birthday instead of 112 as it is in Ghana.

But what else are they to believe? NGOs come to Ghana with handouts, boreholes and schools, and then leave again just as quickly as they came. They take pictures at all the cute children to show back home, sometimes leaving behind a football or some toffees, but not taking the time to listen to everyone's stories.

When I travel through Tamale, at every intersection in the road there are signs pointing the way to an NGO office. There's one charity in particular whose slogan sends shivers up my spine: "Giving hope to a world in need." How would you feel as a Ghanaian if you saw that sign every day? How would deal if the message that every NGO sends to you is, "You can't do it on your own. You need us."

On my recent trip to Laribanga, I saw what tourism could do to a developing country at its worst. The town has two famous attractions: the mosque and a "magical" stone. Because of the close proximity to Mole National Park, it gets quite a few white people coming through to see these two "attractions." While I praise the community's action to use these pieces of history to generate some income for the community, I cannot praise the attitude that comes with it.

Upon arriving in the town you are required to register at the "tourism office," a small room that doesn't even have a desk or a chair. When I arrived there with my two companions, it was empty, so we continued walking into town hoping to see the magical stone. On our way someone stopped us and said, "are you going to see the mosque?" We said no, and continued on our way. A VERY short time later a man on bicycle stopped us and told us that the stone was too far away to walk to, so we should pay him to take us on his bike (riding double in turns) and then pay him to tell us the history of the stone. We had heard about the people from Laribanga being aggressive in asking for money, but we didn't think it was going to be that bad. But, we had a short time frame and we decided that if the stone was too far to walk, then we should at least still try to see the mosque.

Instead of travelling straight there we meandered through the mud huts, talking to people as went. Small children were swarming around us, grabbing at our bags and tugging at our hands while looking up at us and asking, "thousand? thousand?" We were shocked... two year olds were begging for money! The older ones were pushing the little ones closer while also asking for "toffee", or the small hard candies that white people so often give. I knew better than to give candies to anyone other than the children that I knew well -- I had seen a woman be swarmed a year an a half ago in the Dominican Republic, shocked at how fast the children ripped the bag out of her hands and at the fight that erupted between the kids when they realized she didn't have enough for everyone.

But we wound our way towards the mosque anyway, and stopped very close to it. Two of us started talking to some people (they were actually pretty funny and interesting) and the other turned the corner, realized we were at the mosque, snapped a picture, then came back to join us.

Suddenly we were surrounded. About 10 men came racing towards us making a racquet and creating a commotion, giving us even more unwanted attention. One grabbed me and started pulling me away from the mosque but I threw his arm down. There was one in particular that was yelling at us, telling us that we were liars. That we didn't follow the proper procedure. That we were trying to cheat them from their money and that we were breaking the laws of Ghana. That we were stealing from the community. That we need to each pay them 20 000 to see the mosque... and we weren't even allowed inside due to the rules of Islam (women under the age of 50 are not allowed inside). Even when we tried to interject -- that no one was at the tourism office, that we didn't know the procedure (even though we had been told by some of the other Junior Fellows that had visited earlier), that we didn't lie to them (we really were going to see the stone first), they didn't listen. The leader didn't even want to hear our side, he just wanted to yell.

Is that any way to treat a visitor? I can imagine people in the past getting flustered and afraid and then just giving them the money to make them stop yelling. I can understand people not wanting to be the centre of attention as a large part of the community gather around them and wanting to get out... but we had been here for more than two months already. We weren't going to take it.

We tried to leave but they wouldn't let us. We told them that we didn't even want to see the mosque anymore. Someone demanded one our cameras so they could prove that we did, in fact, break the rules (which we never did deny), and when we said that they couldn't just demand someone's personal property, the accusations of "liar!" just intensified. Finally we said, "Is this any way to treat a guest? We're going to go back and tell all our other white friends not to visit Laribanga because the people are cruel and only want to take advantage of white people!" It was the only thing that shut them up. We were then escorted around the mosque -- for free -- and were told to take all the pictures we wanted.

It was one of the toughest moments I had since I arrived, and brought all kinds of questions to my mind. Is this what tourism can do to a town? That they look at white people and just see dollar signs? Yet, at the same time, the image that they have of white people can't be completely wrong... people who gave the kids "toffees" like I saw in the Dominican Republic, people who gave the 20 000 to see the mosque, and then donated three times that amount for general upkeep (another group of friends demanded to see a recent repair they made on the mosque, but the guides came up empty), these are realities of white people going to developing countries as tourists. There are many people that go to a cultural centre and pay full price for a painting that is WAY overpriced instead of bartering. Then, the people who sell these things start to expect it from you.

There are two brothers that live in Laribanga, that are honest and good guides that we met later that agreed with us. They said they couldn't believe how some of their neighbours treat us, and that we did nothing to deserve that kind of treatment. In their words the only thing that white people do wrong is "give money that is unwarrented."

I can't imagine being the farmer in Laribanga, working all day under the scorching sun trying to make enough food so his family can eat during the dry season, and seeing the white people throw money around. What does that say about the work that you do? How can you find pride in your work when you keep seeing how much better everyone else is living?

How have places like Cuba, Jamaica, Mexico, Thailand, and South Africa been changed by tourists? How can I travel so that I don't do so much harm to the people?

I can't give you a really accurate picture with just a few words, but I hope that I can open your eyes to a few of the things that I don't want or like to show about the country that I've grown to love so much. Yet, I'm allowing this blog to be a small window from Canada to my life here in Ghana, and what kind of window only shows the good? And what kind of person would that make me?

Sunday, July 15, 2007

rain revisited

It had been three weeks since it rained. The dust was choking and the heat was unbearable. The fine red dirt that is supposed to provide nutrients for the crops and give us hard roads instead was thrusted upwards in the air and carried by the wind, somehow always finding rest on my bags, clothes, and all flat surfaces in my room. On my recent travels to and from Damongo I watched outside the window of my trotro at the fields of maize at their crucial stage of budding -- they either need a lot of water at this point or they will wither and die. Indeed, the farmers that planted early are being punished for being proactive; their maize is turning brown.

Then on Thursday night, with a glorious crack of thunder, the skies opened up and rain came down like a solid sheet of water from above. Dinner has just ended and we ran outside both wanting to cool our hot bodies and wash the dust from our skin, all while grabbing the buckets we normally use for washing and placing them under the roof overhang.

The roofs are not immune to the red dust, and the water pouring thick from the corners of the roofs into the compound ran rusty brown for a few minutes. We emptied the buckets a few times until the water ran clean and the pounding of the raindrops was enough to dislodge all the dirt that had accumulated above.

When the small buckets had been filled with the clear water, we brought them over to our 3 large water barrels and filled those to the top, spilling all the while and not caring because we were soaked already. It was only about fifteen minutes from the start of the rain until we finished filling all the buckets, and the rain was still coming hard. "Lydia," I half-whispered to my 11 year old host sister, still trying to be heard above the echo of the raindrops on the tin roof, "let's get Dennis!" We picked up the small washing buckets we were playing with and ran over to where her older brother was playing and we called his name. He stopped playing and looked at us with wide open eyes before trying to turn and run... but we were faster than him. Two full tubs were splashed over his head and he stood there blinking for a few seconds before laughing hard and picking up the bucket at his feet. We ran but it made no matter... we were already as wet as we could be.

The three of kept splashing about, laughing and dancing as the thick raindrops beat us with their strength when I felt a full tub being released over my head. I blubber in surprise, turn around quickly wiping the hair from my face, and see my host mother (that I prefer to call sister) laughing with an empty bucket in her hands, wiping away the tears from laughing so hard. War was waged, and we all came out of the rain, what seemed like hours later, breathless, smiling, and exhausted.

The rain lasted for a long time, and while my family's most basic needs were met for the week, I also know that it was not enough to revive all the crops. Instead, the rain probably came too much -- instead of giving the soil the nutrients it needed, the rain probably washed many of them away, leaching the soil of what it gives to help plants grow.

It's officially the rainy season, but it hasn't rained much at all in the north. I'm afraid of what that means for the farmers, for the families that rely on that water and food for survival, and what will happen in the dry season if the rains don't come this year.

Luke, the long term volunteer with EWB that has been working on my project at the regional level (vs. the district level) recently made his own blog post on the rain with a link to a very interesting article, and he has pictures. I decided that I didn't want to take my camera out for fear of it getting wet... though it didn't make much difference. I forgot that despite the roof overhang I have over my window, the wind was blowing hard and was also blowing a lot of water into my room. Luckily, I always keep my drum, camera, and computer on the "uphill" part of my room, but I was scared anyway walking into my room with a few cms of water on the floor! It all dried and nothing was ruined, but I had to smack myself in the head all the same.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Playing tourist for just one day

This weekend was the mid-summer retreat for all the JFs, a time for reflection of what we've done so far and things we still want to accomplish before we leave. I was startled to find that I only have six weeks left in my placement, and then a few days after that for a final workshop / report day and travel back to Accra. While I knew that we had just past the half way mark, I was startled to find that we have so little time left. I'm only starting to really feel like I have a handle on the way things work here, and I have such a short time left. Don't get me wrong, I'm REALLY excited to go back home and see all my friends and family, but I know that I have so much still to accomplish here. It was a really good weekend to refocus and plan the remaining weeks here.

Yet, somewhere in between the storytelling, sharing of experiences, and really intellegent conversations about development on Friday, and the really intense interregation of our plans for the rest of the summer (in a fun mock-court style) and planning on Sunday, we managed to play tourist for the first time on Saturday.

We had travelled to Damongo from Tamale early Friday morning for the workshop in the town where Sarah from the McGill is staying. She's working with the Ministry of Food and Agriculture (MOFA) there, and set up most of the arrangements for hotels and buses. At this point, I have to mention the ride to Damongo. The road was bad. There's really no way to describe the bumping and shaking of a tro-tro on one of the worst roads in the Northern Region, but we finally made it there after about one hour on a paved (but still bumpy) road, and then two more on an almost unpassible road by tro-tro.

The state of the road really made me upset, not because of the headache that came about because of the shaking (though it sucked as well), but because this is the road to the main tourist attraction in the Northern Region. This tourist attraction is Mole National Park (said molay), a game reserve for the animals of West Africa to protect them from hungry hunters and the transformation of forest to farmland. It's really, really beautiful, peaceful, and rejuvinating... something I guess it might not have been if there was a large hotel and many tourists around, but I just kept thinking about how much wealth could be brought to the area if the road was paved and the area more developed for tourism (a gift shop, more hotel rooms, other activities). But then, it really wouldn't have the rustic charm and feeling of going back to nature, and the way things were 50 years ago when the park was established.

When asking the other Junior Fellows what we wanted to see at the game reserve, the unvarying answer was "elephants!" and within the first half hour of being there, we got our wish. The only way you can go into the main area of the reserve is with an armed guide, so for the first hour we sat at the viewing platform looking through binoculars to see many different kinds of antelope and birds, and enjoying each other's company. I hear a squeal of excitment coming from one of the volunteers and the rest of us turn to see what she's looking at; a heard of elephants is making its way to the water hole. We all jumped to our feet, pointing and snapping pictures as they crossed a more open area and slowly entered the water, swimming to the middle to meet some more elephants passing around the other way. We all willed them to stay there for a long time, so that when our tour started we could see them up close and personal.

They stayed for a short time into our tour, but more interesting was when they started to retreat and we followed them, getting even closer than before. They are truly magnificent creatures, and I enjoyed it so much. The funniest part was when we were watching the elephants, and our guide started to get a little worried. "Step back," he whispered and forced us back with movements of his hand. "You see how that little one is looking at you?" He's thinking about charging." Of course, we scrambled back in a hurry, and in doing so we saw another few elephants on the other side of us, but much farther away. Also truly beautiful, but now some were worried about being surrounded by the elephants with no way of escape. It was okay, our guide knew exactly what to do and we were safe, but there was a brief moment of panic.

We continued around the park for about two hours, seeing all three of the different kinds of antelope that lives in the park, as well as monkeys, warthogs (which are REALLY ugly, the Disney character was much cuter) and many different kinds of birds and trees.

When finished we relaxed for some time at the lodge still looking from high atop the ridge that gazes over the water hole and a large part of the park, ate some lunch, and some of us decided to walk to the nearby town of Larabanga. The town is known for two things; the oldest mosque in Ghana, and a stone that was not able to be removed from the ground when they tried to build the road (the story is that they kept removing it, but each morning it would back in the middle of where they were trying to build) and so the road curves around it.

Gill, Sarah and I visited the mosque only, but had a nice walk from Mole to Larabanga (about six kilometers) having some great conversations about development and tourism. All in all, it was a very good and refreshing day.

We also celebrated it being 07-07-07 by making the numbers with our bodies, and hands and took some pictures... at this point we were so tired from the day that everything was funny! We returned back to Damongo for dinner, and were told to meet back in the guest house for 8:00 PM for a special activity. After much confusion and silliness, Liz (a long term volunteer based in Tamale) tells us that we're now celebrating all the summer birthdays of the Junior Fellows and Long Term Volunteers, and they bring out something covered in candles as we all sing "Happy Birthday". My stomach flips... did they somehow find a way to get a cake? No, I realize as they get closer, it's really just a loaf of bread with the candles on top, but we all blew out the candles and had slice anyway.

It was a great start to my own birthday, as we then stayed up late playing charades and telling stories before finally turning in, knowing that we had a big day ahead of us on the Sunday. We worked really hard on Sunday, but I also got lots of birthday wishes (including a call from Folk Fest at 4:00 AM) and I got to talk to my family and some friends from home. I also got a bunch of emails and comments with birthday messages, so I thank each one of you for that.

The retreat was a lot of work and a lot of fun, and I know that I still have a tonne of work to do before I can go back to Canada. I'm so glad that we had the opportunity to refocus and share our plans for the coming weeks, as well as share some of our experiences from weeks past. I'm excited to see what I can accomplish.