Monday, December 31, 2012

Happy New Year from across the ocean!

It's been over a year since we left Ghana's tropical shores. It's been a year of beginning a new lifestyle in many new places.

Living onboard our sailboat is a lifetime away from our experiences in West Africa, but no less challenging! We've traded dusty roads for salt water and a moving bed. We've left behind red red and fufu for doubles and rotis. Said goodbye to the rich traditions of Ghana to embrace the amazing diversity of the islands that speckle the Caribbean.

Join us on this new adventure! Our first year briefly described here in our new blog:

SV SHILOH - notes from the boat

Wishing all our old and new friends an amazing 2013!!!

The view from Tobago Cays, Grenadines

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Farewell Ghana - Hello new adventures


Boarding a plane from my suburban Canadian home so many years ago, with my three year old little boy, and our few worldly belongings in tow, I knew I had chosen adventure, the unknown, the road less traveled.
When we touched down in Ghana, West Africa, I was poised for a two year volunteer posting. I had no idea I’d be where I am today, after 16 years, about to fly out once again from my mother’s suburban Canadian home, to Grenada, nestled in the Caribbean windward islands, as a starting base, to sail the world with my true love and soul mate. My boy is grown, Ghana is an omnifarious memory, and the abyss of the unknown lies ahead, and beneath in the endless ocean.
_________________________________________________
My rearview mirror sees Ghana closer than she appears. Though we left her humid shores over five months ago, my time there was a lifetime. Perhaps more.
Ghana raised me from the blinding grip of naiveté, helped mold me, open my sheltered eyes, gave me a new world in which to raise a family and learn some heart piercing lessons about love and loss.
Ghana has been everything to me - from a highschool bully to my tour guide, my big sister, a boss you can never quite please. Ghana embraced me and showed me her beauty and her scars.
I learned to speak Twi with the tomato sellers in Makola market and learned to navigate potholes and open gutters with ease. I was privileged to be invited into a Ghanaian home and made part of the family – I learned the best banku is that made at home on a Saturday afternoon, with all the aunties and cousins, after a hot day in the market. My boys learned to wash their school socks with their cousins on Sundays in a singing line up of soapy suds and smiles.
I spent so many Sundays sipping local gin n’ juice at Labadi beach with ‘my girls’, serenaded by the glass eating acrobats “Everybody watch!”.
In Ghana I faced corruption and compassion, grit and beauty, poverty and richness in equal measure. It is a beautiful and complicated country. And Ghanaians are proud. They taught me about nationalism and a loyalty I had never known. As a Canadian I had always wondered what our ‘culture’ was. Ghanaians know their culture. And they will defend their flag at all times.
Ghana has a love affair with soccer (football) and every little boy plays – dreaming of following the footsteps of the stars that have paved their way. Essien, Desailly, Pele, Gyan… the streets literally burst with glee during international matches when Ghana scores or wins – the din of the cheering can be heard across the nation and it’s a magical thing. Being in Ghana for the World Cup is an experience I’ll never forget. Truly amazing.
But I am not a Ghanaian and no matter how long you live in Ghana, how much you love it, if you are not a Ghanaian, you will never be a Ghanaian. Ghana is a gracious and glorious host, but as a visitor there comes a time to go.
Alas, 16 years past and seasons brought life and love and death and change.
And the time has come to open another page in the book of life. It’s time to seek out more languages, more experiences, more countries and colours and flavours.
I invite everyone to find us over in our new abode, SV Shiloh, a vessel and a lifestyle, dedicated to the free spirit of my Ghanaian boy who left our world too soon. The new site is called SV-Shiloh: notes from the boat.
I have vowed to keep track of all the new experiences, the quirks and caverns and catastrophies that travel promises. And I’d love to share it with all the friends I made in Ghana and beyond, thanks to this blog.
Holli has rambled here enough.
Ye be hyia biyo (sp?!) Ghana! xoxo

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Ghana: Food adventures and the Cantonese Titanic

I used to be so adventurous when it came to food. Any street corner stall that offered up strange and wonderful mysterious delights caught my eye and my 'foodian' curiousity. The stranger the better. If the stall was situated alongside a sludge filled gutter, all the more intriguing. Pork chunks piled into a towering monstrosity, with hot pepper on the side at Osu night market. Gorgeous. Standing by vats of boiling oil, with the eye watering pepper smoke, blinking in anticipation of a piping hot handful of fried plantain, covered in burnt bits of ginger, garlic and pepper. Kelewele beside Koala on Osu Oxford Street. Only at night. Yum!

It's been so long since I've ventured out, beyond the safe confines of my local french bakery and fancy french restaurant, it was time. Last night we took the plunge in a big way, following some brave friends to a Chinese spot, just around the corner from Papaye.



Hangzhou Chinese Restaurant. Best Chinese food in a long long time - perhaps EVER!
Now let me qualify this statement. This is not a raving review, wherein I intimate that you would take your most important business visitors to Hangzhou. I don't think they could handle it. Shame though, they'll miss the most amazing food.

We parked in a dark alley and walked into what looked like an old concrete house, through the window we could see we were going to be the only patrons. A small Chinese woman rushed over to welcome us and find us a table. Meanwhile we looked around at a room, painted a long time ago a dull non-descript colour - possibly oatmeal beige, which had long turned a brownish grey. The main features were dusty posters promoting China, Chinese food and various electronics. A huge crack cut one wall down the centre, threatening to collapse the building on top of us. A huge palm tree grew straight up through the corner of the room, the ceiling cut neatly around it to free the palm fronds somewhere above. On the centre wall was on old fashioned TV, showing a Chinese talent show. A small wooden chair was placed directly in front of the TV. This is where our host retreated to, between serving us.

Our table was covered with a plastic lining, printed in flowers and lines, faded and torn in parts. The menus bled photos of food into the writing, to create a pinky swirl of unreadable water colour art.

It turned out quite lucky there were photos, as our host and waitress and most likely proprietress all-in-one, could not speak any English. A question "How long has this place been open?" was met with a blank stare and pointing to the menu. We realised our interactions would have to be limited to fingers stabbed toward the menu photos and reassuring nods.

We lost our adventurous spirit when it came to the deep fried camel hump, but I loved the menu's offering of "chips and fired chickens"!!! (Just had to snap that!)

While our food was being made outside through the side door somewhere, we marveled at our surroundings and threw out wild assumptions about the restaurant and who (apart from us) ate here. Indentured labourers? Underground gangs? We wondered if we’d get sick, and other ethnocentricities… shame on us for sure.

The food arrived, the plates, one by one, huge portions, amazing smells… and then we ate. OMG. The food was amazing. A friend’s suggestion of cucumber plate was a great starter – fresh yet salty and addictive. Spring rolls were small and dainty and so different from the usual… Fried noodles with pork was a huge steaming plate of soba type silky noodles, veggies and small tasty bits of pork. Moreish all the way. Other plates followed, including shrimps with cashew – huge buttery but crunchy cashews and tender seasoned shrimps, and the pork dumplings – to die for…. Basically everything was great. We washed it all down with Ghana’s famous brews, Gulder and Star.

In the background our host was mesmerized by the couple singing the theme from the Titanic in Cantonese on TV. Only when we turned to watch too, the English subtitles showed lyrics that were definitely the invention of someone other than Celine Dion! “I am the honeybee, you are the flower” the petite female singer cooed, and was echoed by the bespeckled grinning guy.

It was a great ending to a delicious meal. It was only when the bill came that it got better. Or rather unbelievable. The whole feast, including all our drinks came to about GHC16 per head, or roughly $9.75.

Not sure how indicative of the real Hangzhou in Eastern China this place is, but it gave us a new found appreciation. I wonder if the woman misses home and what brought her to Ghana? There is a story behind all expats, and hers will be forever a mystery. I for one, am glad she came. If you find yourself in Accra and love good food, check out Hangzhou.

Afterwards, a lively night of drinking and dancing Ghana style awaits, just around the corner at Accra's biggest spot under the stars, opposite Papaye.

I am proud to take part in Blog Action Day Oct 16, 2011 www.blogactionday.org

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Holli's world - Accra's Best Eats



Ok, so my son is gone and I am officially the mother of an empty nest. What better to focus on, than food? I figure I have started on the treadmill every day, just enough to ensure I won't explode while visiting all my favourite foody spots in town. Here's a list of some great ones:

Ethiopian Restaurant and Bar (02430681651) $

Ethiopian food isn’t the kind of stuff you warm to over time. You try it, you either love it or hate it, and there are no conversions thereafter. I’m a lover.

Years ago, ladies night in Accra consisted of first stop Lalibela Ethiopian restaurant, Osu, platters of hot, soft, sour injera dotted with dollops of rich stews. Lots of ‘big’ Stars (beer), lots of ladies chatter and a communal mayhem of hands, tearing away our injera plate. It was always licked clean. We were always happy and full and a tiny bit tipsy, heading out on the town afterwards. It was the ‘go to’ place for welcoming new people, the last stop before airport drop offs, and the favourite venue for orientations of new volunteers. And then it closed down. And we mourned.

Then last year a new Ethiopian opened in East Legon, on the main road, just up past the hotel that doubles as a church on Sundays. Ambiance is like a school cafeteria done up for ‘Ethiopia Day’, but the food is great. Same warm platters of injera and communal chop delight. Only drawback is that we can’t go on weekdays unless we are willing to factor in over an hour of traffic and ensuing road rage…


Deli France $$

There has never been, until now, a world class lunch spot, for quick sandwiches on real baguettes, for great coffee with the uber indulgence of ‘extreme chocolate’ (a dessert that you will never forget – halfway between a mousse and fudge, with a crunchy thin crust.) Everything in Deli France is imported from France – the bread comes frozen and is baked fresh every day. And you can tell. The place is tiny and cute, and hidden behind some vines and a big wide awning – in front of Ester’s Hotel, Airport Residential area (opposite the Knights of Malta). Logistics of ordering is still a bit of a nightmare, but these are the teething problems of new spots. Judging by the brisk business they are doing, having opened only a month ago, they will put all the other pseudo-sandwich joints out of business sooner than later. And the greatest danger for me is that it’s located a 1 minute walk from my office… Oh dear.


La Chaumiere (0302772408) $$$


Hands down the best restaurant in Ghana. Tucked away on a tricky little side alley, across from the Aviation building off Independence Ave. This place proves that great service and consistency are the best recipe for success. Many other fancier restaurants have popped up over the years, threatening to swallow up the business of places like this, but even with the fancy $1m reno’d Polo Club venue a stone’s throw away now, this place is booked solid most nights. Ahmed is owner and host and is there every night with a warm hello, and sends you off with a free digestif of your choice. Zambuca for me please! In between, his team bring marinated olives, peanuts, and ample baskets of fresh baguette, followed by consistently great French cuisine. You never leave hungry or unhappy. Promise!


Le Bouquet (024342222) $$


With the number of long term Lebanese in Ghana, and knowing from a visit to Beirut, how the Lebanese love to feed people, I am surprised there are not more of these restaurants in town. Le Bouquet has been around a long time, because their food is consistently fresh and tasty. Their prices have not jumped too high, and despite moving from the centre of Osu down to the beach road (by Jokers), they’ve maintained a loyal clientele. The mezza are the main attraction, despite the fact that the menu boasts pages of more substantial dishes, it’s the small shared plates that make a meal the most enjoyable. Smoked eggplant baba ghannouj is excellent, the vine leaves stuffed with rice are the perfect texture and tang. The fattoush is so fresh – a salad with a twist of mint and crisp fried pita chips. A table full of things to share is a guaranteed fun evening.


Katawodieso $

If you want an authentic experience, you have to visit Katawodi – just inside the Nyaniba junction, opposite the Darko Farms turn off. It is a place better seen than described. For years, this tiny outdoor spot, tucked away, barely noticeable from the street, has fed hundreds of business people on the go… Your first reaction once through the narrow passage is that you’ve walked into someone’s yard and should make a quick retreat. Don’t. Check it out!

At the very front, waakye (a rice and beans mixture) is for sale with all the fixin’s – stew, meat, boiled eggs, spaghetti, gari and more. Take away is a black ‘rubber’ (plastic) bag, while eat in is a plastic bowl and a big spoon. There are bench seats to the left. Don’t be shy, we all file in together.

If you prefer something else for lunch, keep walking through the yard all the way to the back, past the kids bathing and the ladies busy with daily chores. Around the corner is a well organised buffet style set up. On any given day, there might be garden egg stew, palaver sauce, rice, boiled yam, apem (boiled plantain). Same take away and eat in rules apply.

Lunch won’t cost more than a few cedis, the food is good and it will definitely be an experience.


Blue Gate $

Hands down, best tilapia around. Blue Gate was one of the first restaurants I visited in Ghana. It was excellent then and it’s excellent now. Back in the day, it was located in Osu, down the road from Papaye, with a roadside grill and a dimly lit outdoor restaurant hidden behind. The only food on the menu with tilapia with hot pepper and veggies, and banku on the side. Today, they’ve moved directly across the road, it’s still a roadside grill, but the restaurant has gone up a few notches.

They’ve got lights, a fancy bar and even TV for sports enthusiasts. And it’s double storey! And the menu has expanded to include chicken, potato chips (fries), yam chips and rice, though if you ask me, the original dish is the only thing worth going for.

When you arrive, you still choose a fish by pointing to a nicely browning one on the open grill. They nod and send you to a table. They still bring you a bowl of water and bottle of dish soap for your hands, because they still don’t bring any cutlery. The plate arrives, a whole fish, staring up at you, swimming in a bright red sauce of fiery peppers and a ginger sauce, along with heaps of veggies – carrots, cabbage and if you’re lucky, buttery chunks of fresh pear (avocado). It’s messy and fun and absolutely delicious.

Is there a blue gate? Does it matter?


Zion Thai (054 996 7644) $

The ‘Blue Gate corner’ in Osu is a hive of activity these days. More shops are popping up every day. Last year, a boutique on the corner, featuring tiny Asian ladies wear, morphed into what is now Zion Thai. A roadside café run by a great couple – she straight from rural Thailand, he a Ghana personality. Their adorable little boy who is around a lot is a perfect blend of the two. The food is so fresh – think ginger, cilantro, creamy coconut, peppers… and it’s cooked to order every time. Word of mouth has spread through the expat community and this corner has never seen so much white flesh. It’s become quite the Obruni joint. Food is cheap and excellent if not fast. Go with people who’s company you enjoy!


Michaelangelo’s (0244233533) $$$$


Leo's place feels like a mini visit to Italy. The ambiance is great and the hosts friendly. It's loud and boisterous, the olive oil and chianti are flowing. Though they will bring you menus, you might as well ignore them. Leo will come to your table and tell you what is fresh. He'll convince you to share a bunch of amazing sounding appetizers and the same for the mains. And after you're bullied into it, you can sit back and enjoy your chianti. The appetizers will arrive and you will all gorge yourselves. Fresh soft bresaola, dry sharp parmeggiano, peppery rocket, eggplant parmesan to die for... there is buffalo mozzarella and vine tomatoes.. it goes on. Everything must have arrived that afternoon by plane from small villages in the Italian countryside... The bill will shock you, but it's worth it for a splurge. Yum all the way.



Movenpick pool bar $$


If just for the turquoise attired agile roller skating waiters… Sailing by, spinning, twirling trays like acrobats afloat… these guys really make it look easy.



The Movenpick is Accra’s newest big multi-star hotel and it’s impressive. Huge and daunting, you can see it from far, and when you get up close, and even inside it’s like being in a different world. Have I been transplanted to Dubai? Somewhere in Europe? Heaven? No seriously though, it’s a nice looking hotel. The pool bar is situated, yes, you guessed it – by the pool. The ambiance is mellow, classy, inspiring. There is a Café del Mar type audio track, pumping out from speakers camouflaged as rocks and stones on the landscape around, and the roasted veggies and goat cheese salad is to die for. But really it’s all about those waiters! ☺

La Villa (0302 730333) $

Where there was once a Russian Embassy, there now lies a cute boutique hotel. The pool area belies a Moroccan get-a-way – with tented sofas and ornate lanterns. Just beyond a glass wall is the small modern designed Italian restaurant. The wine list is non-existent yet, but whatever bottle they bring you will be reasonably priced and ours was a good French. The pastas are yummy – we had lasagna and spaghetti with lemon cream and both tasted fresh and homemade. The in-house bread is strange small burnt buns and the beef ‘carpaccio’ is strangely cooked, but overall, it’s worth a visit.


Tasty Jerk $

This gem is one I am wary of sharing because it feels like our secret (I can delude myself, right?). It’s located on the road parallel to Osu Oxford Street, at the top of the Mama Mia Road. It’s painted while but if there is a sign, it’s quite small. There are 4 lopsided tables out front, made of tree trunks, and inside there’s a couple dark and dreary booths. Most come here for take-away. The menu is simple – grilled pork or chicken cut in chunks, marinated and cooked in Jamaican jerk spices. DELICIOUS. But you have to like pepper.
Each plate comes with a generous helping of fire hot sauce for dipping. Sides are kenkey, yam chips, peas and rice JA style and not much else. What else do you need?! All this goes down great with a cold beer. Mmmmm.


Kohinoor (0302 771999) $$

Arguably the best Indian cuisine in Ghana, Kohinoor is in a little alley in Osu, behind the old Russian Embassy. Its across from Livingstone Safari.
Ambiance leaves a lot to be desired – it’s a bright white, harshly lit canteen with plastic table flowers and a wonky wall of mirror… having said that, the food is reasonably priced, always fresh and delicious. My favs are samosa chat (samosas covered in tamarind sauce, yogurt and mint sauce with chick peas), bhuna/Goanish fish, their particular brand of butter chicken and of course the buttered naan. Heritage is fancier and much more expensive, but in my books Kohinoor has always been the winner.


Le Tandem (0243 709359) $$$$

Though nothing compares to La Chaumiere for me in terms of French food, this place is definitely a contender, though much more pricey. It’s located in East Cantonments, around the corner from Wangara and Elamat. You can reach it from the Labone/Cantonments side, or from Burma Camp Road. Like Chaumiere, the owner is the host and at times the waiter, he makes sure you know the specials and that you are happy with your food. The menu is extensive but changes daily as it’s written on a big board that’s brought from table to table. Dishes are authentic, fresh and innovative. He does a great soul meuniere ☺


Papaye $

Staple Ghana chicken-and-rice. Ghana’s answer to fast food. Take away or sit upstairs and watch the mayhem on the streets of Osu below. This place started in Osu on the main street eons ago and has expanded to Spintex Road as well. It is busy night and day. Chicken and rice or chips, plus a few other items like fried fish and a burger… but really it’s all about the shito – best in the world. The thick, black charred hot sauce is a personal indulgence. I smear it into the rice and stir, the more the better. Running nose and eyes, even better. As long as I have some tissues on hand, this is THE food. Although KFC recently opened only a block away, I don’t think Papaye has anything to worry about.



I’d love some suggestions – who knows a gem I haven’t been to or needs a second try? Always love feedback about food!!!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Moments like this

Blurry, the park across the street melts in my view and slips down in huge heavy tears onto my t-shirt. Five minutes before, I was posing for photos, thumbs up, with my boy. Our last breakfast at a cheesy local diner, I sipped a giant diet Coke and looked around at what would be his new neighborhood. I was bursting with joy and pride. I poked and tickled him and felt the vicariousness of his new exciting life.



Soft, now my knees like marshmallows, the sidewalk so hard below me, I know I will drop, crashing like the 23 story building looming behind me. I sway in the earthquake of emotion.

Strong, the bond as he holds me, his mom, towering over my weakness. Child becomes parent, small becomes big, life shifts irrevocably. I give in to the abyss of sadness that bubbles up. I’m really losing my baby.

Common, this rituals plays itself out in dorm rooms and concrete school hallways across the continent today. But mine is different, I convince myself, mine is special, mine is my whole life that has led up to this moment! No one can possibly understand. No mother has felt this crushing pride of loss.

Buried, deep in the smell of his cotton t-shirt, I cannot face the world or the truth. I have grown up with this man, this boy, this child of mine.

Floating above myself now, I see us in the airport in Ghana, 1998. My little guy and I, after a year of volunteering, are headed home to Canada for Christmas. He is 6 years old. We are so excited and anxious to get home to the family, it’s palpable. Only, as we stand at the immigration desk, there is hesitation and the officer is upset. Something is wrong. He calls a superior and ushers us aside. My boy looks up at me with those huge innocent eyes. He whispers,

“Mom? What’s wrong?”

I shrug and squeeze his hand as they lead us into a small windowless room. We have apparently overstayed our visa and there is a massive fine to pay. We are in trouble. I don’t have the money, I am at a loss as to how this happened, as our passports are held with the NGO I am working for. We are not going to make our plane. As the minutes tick by and we sit alone and silent in the pitiful room, my heart sinks. Tears stream down my face. My boy jumps up from the chair and leaps forward. He touches my cheeks gently, wiping my tears

“Mom, don’t cry. Everything is going to be ok. It will work out. We’ll be ok. Ok?”

And it was. I squeezed him so close. My heart nearly burst.
Something was arranged and we made our plane, running, hand in hand down the runway, out of breath, we boarded the plane. Everyone was annoyed at the delay. We looked at each other with a knowing… it is the bond. We’d been through another of life’s experiences together.


Spinning, I’m jolted back to now - the world around us circles, and the moment threatens to pass. Time taps my shoulder, we will have to leave. My tears will have to be dammed.

He pulls away,

“C’mon Mom, you’re gonna make me cry.”

Which only make my tears come harder. And I’ve done it. He breaks. His strong face, cracks and our bond is exposed. Emotion all over his face. It’s sealed forever.



Our song plays in my head, the guitar he strums to me in the kitchen on Saturday afternoons back home, Bon Iver:

“I am my mother's only one,

It's enough…

I wear my garment so it shows.

Now you know.

Only love is all maroon,

Gluey feathers on a flume

Sky is womb and she's the moon.

I am my mother on the wall, with us all

I move in water, shore to shore;

Nothing's more.

Only love is all maroon

Gluey feathers on a flume

Sky is womb and she's the moon…


Gazing, incredulous, from behind he grows smaller as he skips away into the huge building that eats him up. The car carries me limp, further and further way. In the distance, the song still serenades me. My boy has grown up and the world has him now.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Amadou and Mariam - Putting West Africa on the Map

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Pow wow - Poverty amidst prosperity in Canada

I have spent the past few years highlighting issues of poverty in Ghana through this blog. Many times I get feedback that asks me to look at poverty where I come from.

The sad fact that many North Americans don't want to face, is that we have some populations who live in 'developing world' conditions right in our backyard.

On this summer's holiday back home in Canada, we ventured out to a pow wow. First Nations people across North America celebrate their annual festival - called a pow wow - in the spring and summer months. Pow wows consist of dancing, drumming and traditional outfit contests. There is singing, dancing, smudging, and sales of food, clothes, jewelery etc.












We had a great time. But we also visited the reservation that hosted the pow wow. And we were shocked, disappointed and amazed at the way people are living in 2011 in a country like Canada.

The following statistics from the Public Service Alliance of Canada speak volumes:



*One in four First Nations children live in poverty.

* First Nations people suffer from Third World diseases such as tuberculosis at eight to 10 times the rate of Canadians in general.

* More than half of First Nations people are not employed.

* One Aboriginal child in eight is disabled, double the rate of all children in Canada.

* Among First Nations children, 43 per cent lack basic dental care.

* Aboriginal children are drastically over-represented in the child welfare system

* High school graduation rates for First Nations youth are half the Canadian rate.

* First Nations youth commit suicide at five to eight times the Canadian rate. The suicide rate for Inuit youth is six times as high as in the rest of the country.
* Diabetes among First Nations people is at least three times the national average.

* Recent Census data shows that 23 per cent of Aboriginal people live in houses in need of major repairs, compared to just 7 per cent of the non-Aboriginal population.

* Overcrowding among First Nations families is double the rate of that for all Canadian families. A recent government study found that more than half of Inuit families live in overcrowded conditions. Some three-bedroom homes are known to house as many as 20 people.

* More than 100 First Nations communities are under boil water advisories right now, meaning they have little or no access to clean water for drinking and sanitation.

* More than half of First Nations and Inuit people are under 25 years of age. This is the fastest growing population in Canada If poverty is not addressed today, it will continue to negatively impact First Nations families for generations to come.


Ghana and Africa as a whole has become the target trendy destination for eco-tourism and voluntourism as well as paid volunteering. Why do we not look inward at communities in North America that lack education, potable water, sanitation, access to health care in their communities?!

The First Nations of North America are the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about. Maybe it's not cool to meet up with friends and say you volunteered for two months on a reservation....

Maybe the photos you bring back will not be as exotic as those from Africa. You will not have paid over $3000 for your trip and flown across the globe. But is it any less important?

Ignorance of native issues in Canada is rife. As a city girl, I had no idea how much land across Canada belongs to our aboriginal groups, no idea what their culture was or how it has been eroded. No clue about the poverty that characterizes most reservations. The first time I ever visited a reservation I was already in my late 30's. I'd already lived in Africa for years. And this place was less than a two hour drive from my suburban home... Is our ignorance an excuse? Where is the media coverage? Where is the education on the sordid history of the clash between the aboriginal groups and the colonizers that led to the state of affairs today? How can we all turn a blind eye to the dysfunctional relations that have allowed part of a modern society to slip down through the cracks into the silent abyss?

I would venture to say that it is incredulous that westerners feel the superiority to come to Africa offering help of various kinds, when they have not even looked at the gaping wounds in their own societies. After all - CHARITY BEGINS AT HOME!

Monday, August 8, 2011

Lifestyles of the Far-flung Expat



Life as an expat in a far away land can be so varied, so many diverse experiences await you. But the one thing you are pretty likely to have in common with every other expat is the annual trip home.

You will be sitting with your desk calendar months in advance, plotting and planning and marking the potential dates… then you wait. You get on with your own reality for the time being.

But then, before you know it, time will have eaten itself in silence and you will notice the penned circle on your desk calendar, pinpointing a number which is approaching with speed. The blue ink swirls, a reminder that you aren’t prepared!

You will find yourself, a few weeks before the annual departure date, stealing time at the office, scouring TripAdvisor and cheapcarrental.com and booking the many flights…
oh the flights. Because there will no doubt be more than one place, one family, one set of friends to visit… not to mention the dentist appointments and drivers' license renewals! As an expat, your holidays are not your own. You know there will be time juggling ahead, and that despite your best efforts to spread yourself as thin as possible on those limited days… there will always be someone slighted, an old friend or aunt that feels hurt that you didn’t make that call, arrange that afternoon for tea. Sigh…

And there are the self-inflicted expectations… Afterall, you live in a tropical hothouse and hence you can’t very well return home, pasty - looking as if you haven’t been outside in months. So despite it being the rainy season in your adoptive home country (when you are lucky to see the sun poke it’s shining face through the wall of clouds for a few minutes in any given day), you wake on those last few Sunday mornings before the departure date, praying to various gods, just to allow you one hour to bake a bit, to tease out a slight bronze from your milky depths… to no avail. But you push this to the level of embarrassment, by donning a bikini, gauzy cover-up, and flip-flops, packing up your big beach towel and favourite book and heading down to the pool. You pass security guards and grounds staff in their winter’s finest – toques and windbreakers, and nod a quick hello. You lie, like the underbelly of a fish, a greyish white, on the recliners, chilled by the prickly breeze. You might be defiant, but you are betrayed by your skin - like a plucked raw chicken, you shiver - you are laughed at by the thick storm clouds above. Eventually you retreat in total defeat and pass the same staff, chuckling inwardly they must be, at the habits of these silly Obrunis**.

The last Saturdays hold their own pressures. You will suddenly start to appreciate the rich culture around you, the artifacts and beautiful fabrics, you will see all the vibrant colours and you will be thinking… gifts! Who recently had a baby, who will be celebrating their birthday while you are visiting, who would appreciate that special something that doesn’t come from a generic chain store at a western shopping mall? So therein follows the mad last minute panic shopping. And then you get all this nic-nacky stuff home, spread it out on your bed, beside the battered suitcase, and you wonder… does anyone really want all this stuff? Sigh…

You will realise that the beauty that these artifacts represent, is not in the items themselves, but in the boisterous sellers, in the jovial banter of the bargaining process. The beauty of the colours is reflected in the sun and the smells and the culture that they are a part of. And once removed from their environs, wrapped in your case and carefully unraveled on the other side, it is only your stories that accompany the gifts, that will breathe life into their fascinating charm. You can try to describe the lady, with the sleeping baby strapped to her back with a soft, worn wrapper tucked so carefully; her headload towering two feet above her small frame, who took the time to indulge you, who laughed and joked with you, and gave you a good price... Deep down you will know, sitting in a western living room, observing the glazed eyes around you – there will never be enough words to describe what constitutes your daily life, back home in expat-land.

There will be no words to cover the vastness of the open markets, where you were bumped and jostled along, loving every minute of the hustle and bustle, the voices, the cargo, the cloth, the charm, where you did your final shopping.

You will never be able to convey your ecstasy last week, at finding Cheddar flavoured Sun Chips (what?! In Ghana?! OMG!), on display out front of a random roadside shop, so excited in fact, that you almost caused an accident with a trotro and a traffic savvy goat, just to pull into the lot to buy them. Not to mention the cavernous open gutter you narrowly missed being engulfed in, to get there… and then to think to yourself, “Oh no, I’m supposed to be on diet this week, so I don’t look like such an elephant in my swim gear at the poolside barbeques back home”, and “now that I’m traveling, I could get Sun Chips every day!” Sigh…

But you will have fought the airport crowds and discomforts of the day long journey, and you will be home. To the familiar faces and smiles and the laughter that doesn’t forget you and invites you back in every time. As the partial observer you are, even of your own culture, you will notice the flaws and the beauty of those who will always love you, and who despite all your running away in life, you know you will always love in return. The time will be fleeting and the days will melt together, and before you know it, you will be back in expat-land to your alternate reality. And you will feel absolutely exhausted, and at the same time ‘at home’.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Danger of the Written Word

A week ago today, I embarked on what has turned out to be a very dangerous trip.
Not the wandering amid the streets of Jamestown, but the aftermath of my account of that event.

Instead of our usual cherished Saturday adventures deep in the ‘bend down’ boutiques of Makola, T and I headed to a much advertised arts festival.

The truth is that I have indeed become skeptical of the punctuality and grandiosity of events as advertised - and this comes from being disappointed many times over the past 15 years in Ghana.

The Street Art festival indeed disappointed me as I’d suspected it would. I spent two hours there and I did not give the event a ‘chance’ to get going. I later read some amazing accounts on Graham’s blog and others, and saw some great photos on Nana Kofi Acquah’s Photo blog here.

I was not in the mood that day to revel in the brightness of the eyes of children, to see the hope and beauty they possess inherently. I saw instead the reality of choked gutters and endemic poverty. I ignored the hope that the idea of art and expression brought to the area. I was in a melancholic mood.

But in writing about this, I made some mistakes that have taught me some valuable life lessons.

1. We have a responsibility to write without assumptions. We as bloggers are seen in a way as journalists, and the way we represent an event paints a picture. A picture that might be half drawn. That might not be coloured in for the reader.

2. As a blogger, we must accept that we are viewed, judged and convicted on the words of each post. We are therefore only as good as our last post. I may have written many times about the beauty, the vitality and the amazing spirit of Ghana before, but in one post, my jaded slant created a false impression that it’s very difficult to live with.

3. Readers can feed off the energy of comments. Mass mentality can happen on a website, as quick as can happen in a crowded street where someone shouts ‘thief’! Since writing my account of a less than perfect festival that I witnessed a portion of, in my bad mood, I have been labeled a racist, a bigot, an uninvited, unappreciative monger of poverty writing, and far, far worse.

It is disturbing and hurtful to be at the centre of a witch hunt in a country that I have called home for so long. It is sad to me that one blog post has created a venomous and violent response from the fellow bloggers that I share a creative space with, in Ghana’s online community.

I have learned many things. That I must be careful – I must present more well rounded accounts of events and leave my moods at home. That it is far more uplifting to see the beauty around us than the negative, as it is everywhere and it permeates. It is more of a challenge and more rewarding to pluck out the good and raise it up above the bad.

I have learned that hatred lies so shallow below the surface, and I have seen it’s ugly face in the blog posts and comments hurled at me. I have seen how easy it is for people to judge, to condemn without knowledge. To push someone into a box, a label that doesn’t befit them. (Perhaps I also unwittingly labeled and boxed the community of Jamestown with my account…)

I am resilient though, and I will continue to live my little life, and write from my humble perspective, and if Ghana will not embrace me, I will embrace myself.

The people of Jamestown too are resilient, and will brush off my grumpy critique, as it has been pointed out that I was not the intended audience, and if the children enjoyed the day, that is far more important.

I’d like to close with a quote that all of us should take to heart. It will help in my writing and I hope it will help my scathing critics:

“If each man or woman could understand that every other human life is as full of sorrows, or joys, or base temptations, of heartaches and of remorse as his own . . . how much kinder, how much gentler he would be.”

Monday, July 18, 2011

Chale Wote - festival for the hungry?


For weeks my inbox has been bombarded with event invites, information, flyers and promotional blurbs about an upcoming Street Art festival in Accra. In Jamestown, the poorest, most densely populated ghetto in Accra. Not only was it strange to be getting email correspondence about a festival in Jamestown, but foreign embassies were involved and were even asking for volunteers for the day.

One of the website blurbs states:

The festival is free and open to the public with more than 2,000 patrons expected to attend. CHALE WOTE Street Art Festival is a collaborative effort produced with the help of the Ga Mashie Development Agency, the Foundation for Contemporary Artists, JustGhana, Attukwei Art Foundation, Pidgin Music, DUST Magazine, ACT for Change, The WEB, and Ehalakasa Poetry Slum.

My carefully constructed cynicism told me that the event was a disaster in the making or at best, a non-starter, but I agreed to ‘check it out’ with T, for old times’ sake – to celebrate the curiousity that has helped us to know Ghana so well through the years.

This Saturday was the big day. T and I piled into a rickety taxi, left the relative serenity of Osu, and asked to go to the prison (the main Jamestown fort being both the ‘hub’ of the daily activities, AND the oldest prison in Ghana). He obliged. As he honked and dodged along the bumpy roads, we sat, bright and scrubbed and carefully devoid of jewellery or purses, looking out at the increasing squalor, the tightly choked lanes, the throngs of passers-by, jostling between taxis, tro tros, head loads and knee high festering piles of rubbish. We were in the heart of Jamestown.

He dropped us at a random corner, which seemed just as good as any, and we nodded at the cluster of old men gathered on makeshift benches on the other side of the green swamp gutter. We entered a dirt square, bordered by concrete walls, that housed an unorganised mess of people under canopies, selling fufu and a sad array of ‘local crafts’, along with a brass band in matching yellow t-shirts. There were easily 200 children below the age of 10, stomping around the band, in a rainbow of school uniform colours, following the pied piper of Jamestown, a lanky guy, with red rimmed hipster glasses, a hand painted t-shirt and a wacky expression.

Then the pied piper saw us, motioned to his crew and within seconds they attacked. Hundreds of knee high sets of brown hands and faces, all over our arms and legs, shouting, chanting, laughing, pushing. “Obruni!!!!!!!”

“Oh no!” This was NOT on my agenda. I have no clue why he sent them to us, but just as fast as they’d arrived, he motioned for their retreat and they were off, marching in another direction, leaving us self conscious and confused; the imprint of tiny bare toes on our ankles and feet; in a thick cloud of dust.

We tried to find something interesting to keep us there, but alas, after T taught the seller of the ‘ancient African beads’, that most were in fact, less than 6 months old and from China and India, we wandered out of the square.

We stood forlorn on the street corner, a spectacle of white curiousity, while T consulted her list of activities, printed off from the numerous flyers. There were hopeful events listed there, such as spoken word readings, experimental theater, fashion circus, Brazilian fight dancing, bike and rollerskate stunting party, live music etc. Looking around at the complete lack of signs, vibe and such, and instead at the din of a usual Saturday afternoon in Jamestown, kids bathing naked at the roadside, mothers sweating, pouring the dirty water from the buckets of their lives into the open fetid gutters… I remained skeptical.

Just then, T spotted the sign for a project that the North American Women’s group has been donating funds. It was painted roughly by hand, “Jaynii Streetwise” at the edge of the lighthouse (a colonial legacy at the coast and edge of Jamestown’s grasp). We stood for a minute at the top of the huge stone steps that led downward and out of view. Before us was the beach, a sand the colour of toast, and beyond that the vast ocean, whose waves sounded so peaceful and so at odds with the mayhem of the neighborhood behind us. To our right, knotted masses of fishermen’s nets hung on the broken and decaying walls of what was once a colonial building. Now, the half enclosed crumbled walls were occupied by family upon family. The children ducked and dived between their mothers as the women bent over the weekend laundry buckets. We were essentially within a few feet of the private lives of others, as if looking into an ant colony in primary school science class. No one noticed us though, and we descended the stairs.

We were on the beach. A few concrete rooms at various stages of completion were dotted along to the left. Some were painted, most half built. Nothing at all was happening here. One got the impression that the idea of anything one day occurring here had been abandoned. (I had read online that there was a bar here with the same name two years ago, complete with thatched umbrella shaded tables, but nothing of this is left today).

As we rounded the front of the first building we saw some movement. The door opened and a beautiful woman in a white sleeping dress emerged - turns out she is Jay of Jaynii. Behind her, the dark room produced small faces, one by one peering out at the visitors. I noticed a colouring book and fresh bright crayons on the floor by the door and knew the donations had definitely reached here.

Jay seemed not the least bit surprised by our impromptu visit, and while she explained to T what was ‘going on’ with the project, I peered in further. There were new looking caramel coloured leather sofas, two of them, piled with bags and boxes and ladies and children. They just seemed so odd. So out of place in this little salty, stuffy room at the edge of Jamestown, on the beach.

Jay introduced us to her new baby, sleeping peacefully in a small bassinet. Then she took us on a tour. But there was nothing much to see.

“Here is the hostel for the street children” she explained. It was a shell of a building. Nothing in it. No windows. It will be completed by next week. Hmmmmm.

“50 children will stay here. We need to get them out of what they are living in – urgently.” I wondered what she meant by this. Up above us on the the main street, the children lived in small rooms with no windows. They scrambled for food, they barely made it from day to day. What would be different here in this ghostly set of rooms?

“Here are the washrooms and toilets, donated by NAWA. But we haven’t yet finished the toilets.”

“Where is the library?” T asked.

“It is there.” We did not see it.

“Are there books for the library?”

“Yes there are some books.”

We didn’t see those either.

Jay invited us to her upcoming wedding celebrations as well - and though we were flattered, I had to wonder - weddings in Ghana, as elsewhere are expensive affairs. Jay lived in this one tiny room with at least 12 other people - how would she afford such an event. I hoped she was marrying rich...

Back at the top of the steep steps we bumped into an American couple, kitted out with money belts, sunglasses, festival programs in hand. They looked about as silly as us, and they hadn’t found anything more going on than we had.

Eventually we came across a couple more ‘events’ on random side streets – which consisted of western highschool students (who had obviously volunteered), looking flustered and harassed, policing groups of wild local kids, in painting dead car tires, t-shirts and walls. It was chaotic and not very entertaining, but at least the kids seemed to be having fun or some semblance of it.

We found another group of kids and a few artists in a decaying courtyard as well. Some were painting the walls, and three young Jamestown boys with roller skates on were jumping rows of their brave friends on the floor. A smattering of expats wandered between them all, trying to find enough to stick around for. We couldn’t find enough and ended up at Osekan, a beach front bar just out of Jamestown’s reach.

With our feet up, we sipped cokes. I wondered where the French Ambassador was. Did the funders visit their event? Did the do-gooders hope and expect to create a fully organised festival in the midst of a slum where food and water are luxuries?

What is art when you are hungry? What place do we have in pushing concepts onto people. What if they would have appreciated a bag of rice instead of paint on the streets? Tomorrow’s bath water, tipped into the road, will wash it away, and nothing will be left but a sour memory of another failed project in Ghana.

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

I have removed all photos that I had added to this post, which were not taken at the event, nor did they accurately represent the event. Instead, I tried to borrow some great photos from Ghana blogger Nana Kofi Acquah - who managed to get some great shots. Unfortunately Blogger will not let me upload photos as there seems to be a bug of some sort with this over the past two weeks :( I strongly recommend visiting Nana's site.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

In the news: Ghana today


Corpses have been removed from Tema morgue today, following an invasion of mice that were eating the bodies. It is not clear whether the hospital or family members are transferring the bodies to various other facilities./// Ghana’s President Atta Mills spoke to the nation on Sunday, giving the assurance that government would institute measures to check the menace of homosexuality and lesbianism that were gaining grounds within the country. He said those acts were contrary to the word of God and the norms and values of the Ghanaian society. He spoke in response to the words of Reverend Bosoma, who warned that if preventive measures were not taken, the situation could result in misfortunes and disasters in the country, just as it happened to Sodom and Gomorrah. The Reverend also condemned improper dressing, especially wearing of short skirts and open-chest blouses by females to expose their breasts, saying the practices were due to wrong adaptation of foreign culture./// Two Pastors of the Conquerors Redemption International Church, and a trader were charged with possessing fake currencies after suitcases of fake GHC50 notes were recovered from the church./// The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), announced the organisation of a durbar for the Transport Union to highlight health hazards associated with noise making. This has become necessary due to the intensity of noise making by some drivers at lorry stations and within the metropolis./// The Chief Nankpanduri and Naa Nimoh Naabare, the Chief of Kpemale in the Bunkpurugu-Yunyoo District Assembly in the Northern region, have held a joint press conference denying reports that they are at war because of a parcel of land./// Yaw Kesse, a 30-year-old farmer, was on Thursday sentenced to 16 months imprisonment by a Koforidua Magistrate’s Court for stealing cocoyam. When confronted he admitted to having stole the yams and sold them to a woman./// The Presbyterian Church of Ghana has presented a brand new Renault Duster 4x4 vehicle to the Headmaster of the Suhum Presbyterian Senior High School (SHS) to facilitate his work. At the same presentation, Rev. Dr Mante expressed concern about reports of homosexuals and lesbianism invading educational institutions in the country and urged heads of institutions and teachers to be vigilant and monitor the students and bring all those involved in those practices out. The school remains in need of a school bus./// A 45 year old farmer who doubled as a fetish priest, shot himself dead in the Nanumba-North District after butchering to death his third wife who was pregnant. His first and second wives were injured, but escaped death by fleeing. It was revealed during the investigation that the Police have in their possession a single obsolete Tata pick-up meant for patrolling two widespread districts.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Can Watching TV Be Therapeutic?


We’ve been watching In Treatment. An American TV series shot entirely within the confines of a therapist’s office. (The entire script is adapted from the Israeli show Be Tipul) It’s addictive and engrossing. J has even been glued to it, and he has no suspension of disbelief, meaning he normally hates any fictional drama series.

Throughout my life I’ve had friends in therapy. I felt like it was some sort of club I didn’t really need, had no clue how to join, but had a morbid curiousity about. I wondered whether there could truly be a formula where peoples’ lives could be spoken – like puzzle pieces poured onto a table - and with a therapist’s presence, reflecting the words back upon the wounded one like a mirror, the puzzle would fit together and the person would emerge cured…

In as much as a TV show reflects the reality of our lives, the series illustrates the fact that there is no secret at all. That therapists are not special nor gifted. That they have neuroses of their own, that they can be weak and impulsive and damaged. That they cannot see the patterns they theorize about, when it comes to their own lives. In essence, that they are just one of us. Normal in their imperfections.

This is depressing and elating at once.

At the end of the season 1, the hero, our therapist, decides finally to follow his heart, professing his love for a patient with whom the sexual tension has been palpable throughout the series. He visits her house, enters her bedroom and … has an anxiety attack on the edge of the bed. He begins to sweat uncontrollably and gasp for air. He flees.

I never believed in anxiety attacks when I was younger. I grew up with the impression that most psychological problems were just melodramatic self absorption. This was easy to believe. Easier than facing the possibility that life’s experiences could damage our minds, our hearts, our souls.

One day a few months after my six year old son died inexplicably in my arms, I found myself at the bottom of a pool of air, forgetting how to breath it in, how to stand, how to walk. I was gripped with panic at the thought of walking down the stairs, sipping water, living another moment. In my mind, I knew that something had to give. I would have to pass out or vomit or die.

I had an anxiety attack. I found myself on the side of the road in my car, on the streets of Accra, in a neighborhood I knew well. Lost, out of breath and terrified. I had to call a friend to come and save me.

I knew then that the mind was a delicate organ and I was so scared that mine was tipping into the uncontrollable. Turning against me. I have never been more frightened about my own sanity. I needed a miracle.

I wanted a therapist to soothe my shaking psyche. To talk me through my own mine field of experience. To make me better.

I came to realise that the choice was inside me. The strength to pull up and out of the abyss. Time is a healer, more than a $150 an hour psychotherapist.

Their theories and the incessant talking about memories and feelings are all stabs in the dark to help us, but in the end, futile without us. I have lost the naive belief in external cures. I am much more in awe of the human brain now though, and how it reacts to the blows of reality. I will never venture to judge again...

But my morbid curiousity is not abated. I have realised that watching the therapy dynamic is fascinating in it’s inaccuracy, interplay, and raw emotion. It makes brilliant television.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Ode to an Old Soul : For the Grand Mother who has gone

My grandmother died last night.

Most will send condolences and imagine the cordial service at a local church.

Some will picture her 93 year old frame, frail and dusty, giving in without resistance to the reaper’s grasp.

None will imagine her as the hero, bagging carrots in a factory until each finger bent irrevocably under the burden. Single handedly putting two boys through school on a pittance wage.

None will know how she loved Boy George later, his energy and crazy hair, and kept his poster on the back of her guest bedroom door in her tiny apartment with the slanted walls…

They will sit quietly at her funeral service, hands in their laps, listening to the generic words of the priest - not knowing that she was vibrant and alert, not so long before, and painfully aware of the limitations of her failing parts.

They won’t realise that she kept the family memories alive and well in her mind – she had the sharpest memory I’ve known. S at up in her hospital bed two months ago, head crusted with blood from where she’d fallen, body hunched and dry and so tiny… she said to me matter-of-factly:

“I’m 35 years old in here” (pointed at her heart)

“Getting old is annoying. People talk loudly to me. But I’m the same person I was at 35, just got stuck in this old body”


And it struck me.

So many are afraid of old people. They fear the fragility, as like a mirror, it fortells the future. It forces us to face our own mortality and the sickly smell of urine, warm and without dignity, that characterizes the demise into old age. It repells us.

We see them so often as already gone – mentally, physically. Many will not look for that flicker in their eye, that could reveal a person to relate to and understand. A person who has loved and been loved.

But it struck me when my gramma said this to me. I looked deep into her eyes, and there she was. Lover of shortbread cookies and the best baker of them in the world. A mother, a sister, a soul that I could relate to. It was a reminder that one day, this could be me.

I wanted to reach out to her, to hug her so tightly. But she’s never been the affectionate type. And her body had grown so skeletal (from the bad food, according to her), that I had to resist. To just be content to be in her presence. A woman who I’d grown up with. Who I had always loved, and who in that moment, I was so connected to.

And then I had to fly away, as I do, and the news came of her continued weakness.

The nurses hovering around her, a patient number on their rounds, chatting amongst themselves, lifting body parts and replacing them mechanically.

They didn’t know who she really was. I suppose they didn’t have time to look.

And as the talking around her got louder, she became quieter and more still. Her breathing got more shallow and her body started to shut down.

She slipped into a sleeping state. She was tired. I wasn’t there, but I know she was too tired to carry on. What with the annoying oxygen tube they put across her little face, and the sores on her legs refusing to give her a moment’s peace.

She decided to go, my grandmother did.

And as with everything in her life, she knew her own mind and she did what needed to be done.

But for us weaker ones left behind, I only hope we can do her legacy justice. Her soul escaped our world and left an emptiness we now hold.

Go well Gramma, we will remember you for the wonderful woman you were. No generic lip service from me. I love you forever.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Ode to the grown up boy - on leaving for University

I’m pressing my head up against your warm chest, breathing you in for those last ticking seconds.

Your sturdy arms encircle me so briefly but so tightly. There is action around us, the lights of cars and cameras, swirl around. The car horns are a dull – only barely piercing my consciousness. The suitcases and carts and people are all petty distractions, the reality around us is nothing. I am flooded with the emotion that is everything. That is my entire heart, my soul - all escape in a hot mess of tears, and my last futile attempts to hold my baby close.

Just minutes ago, we were singing along to the songs that you brought into my life, that will forever connect us through time. No One is Ever Gonna Love You More than I Do… I sang so loudly. I sang those words like an anthem. Like a Band of Horses, they were my ode to you.



We didn’t speak on that last drive through the city, on the way to this moment at the airport, where you have grown up in an instant and now you are gone.

I close my eyes and breathe you in; you, the tiny warm body against mine, just hours after your birth. I am transported for just a second. I am only twenty three. Clueless. A kid myself, but so desperate to be the mom you deserve. I pat the warm smooth fluff of your newborn hair and hold your miracle earlobe in my fingers. I weep.

I am at once elated and terrified. How will I raise you up? What will I give you? What will it take? I am only comforted that the love I have is everything. It encompasses me and it is a shield around you.

And now, as you tower above me, eighteen years have vanished behind us. There is no looking back. You are a man. Have I done the right things? Has the love been enough? Will it shield you now?

You have become so much more than that twenty three year old could imagine. We grew up together, you and me, outside the box. On the edge. Sometimes I held you close to protect you, and at times it was you who held me. Like the middle name I chose for you in those first few days of life, you are, and you have always been ‘Mompati – my companion’. I took you far far away from home. Together we crossed continents and navigated cultures. We have found love and opportunity and profound sadness. We have found joy.

And somewhere in there, you grew up. My quiet, sensitive boy, you became a shining musician and a stellar speaker. You taught yourself the things I couldn’t, and you didn’t hold my weaknesses against me. You see me, the flawed, the fragile... The girl who raised you up with the best of intentions.

And I know today that somehow, the love I had was strong enough. You in turn are stronger. The world awaits you, and it has a great surprise coming.

Please never be afraid to shine or share yourself. You are my gift to the world and I am proud to send you out there. Send you, guitar in tow, with your pile of suitcases, back across the continents, as you head down the footpath at the departures hall. And as you turn to wave goodbye, though my eyes are blurred with tears, I can see that spark, and it calms my worried mother-heart.

Go well Mompati. I love you more than these silly words can say.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Liar, Our Witch and my Wardrobe

Sometimes I am just completely blind sided by Ghana. There are moments when I am busy minding my own business, living my little expat life within the confines of this African republic, and culturally I trip over something that just has me reeling.

And then I remember that despite my hard drives full of pirated American TV series that fill us with the ultimate superficial each weekday evening, and the goat cheese in my salad, made with imported iceberg lettuce; this is NOT North America, and this little capsule called our home is situated squarely within an entirely different world.

There are undercurrents that pulsate just below the surface in Ghana, in my office, in my yard, in the strangers who pass me on the street. And there are moments when they peek out, when that reality faces me. At those times I am never prepared.

Last night I was bopping around my humid kitchen, wearing my Hello Kitty pyjama set, with my freshly washed hair tied up; I was dishing up our supper plates, anxious to head back into the relative cool of the living room to watch some mind numbing TV series.

“Madam” came the low voice from the pool of darkness beyond my kitchen window.
“Eric?” (assuming it was our gardener, (term used very loosely) who lives at the back of the house).

“Madam, I believe you are busy but I need to speak to you. Very important, very urgent. I beg.”

I begrudgingly put down my ladle and agreed to meet Eric around the side of the house.

So we met, I in cartoon pants with brightly coloured kittens scattered about my legs, opening the sliding doors, the bright and cool mixing with the dark heat. Eric stood glumly almost out of sight on the veranda.

“Yes Eric, what is wrong?” – I of course, assuming there would be a long winded story of medical or other woe, and a plea for money. But this was a different problem altogether.

Eric shifted and stuttered and said Madam a few times.

“It’s about Gilbert” (our cook and cleaner who has worked for the company over 12 years).

“Yes Eric?! What about Gilbert?”


“Well Madam, he is disturbing me in ways you won’t understand. In fact, it is very serious.”

“Ok, well you tell me and I’ll see what I can do” (me, clueless)

“Madam, in fact, he has been trying to… trying to… well he has been determined to kill me spiritually”.

Silence.

My first instinct is to laugh, which probably won’t go over well. I can see the shiny sweat on Eric’s forehead, reflecting the light from behind me. He is very serious.

“Madam, maybe these things you cannot understand. But even physically, he has been doing things. I am having so many challenges in life. Josephine has gone (this was Eric’s girlfriend, who was always way out of his league in my opinion), and Gilbert even today, he…. Well I must confess there was a problem in this house today”

Eric went on to explain that Gilbert had called a certain driver and started to talk to him loudly about how Eric had not been pulling his weight around the house, implying he was useless, and ‘damaging’ his name. Eric then came out of his room and they argued. Gilbert is a liar and possibly a witch?!

I was really not sure why the two of them would be arguing, nor what I was expected to do. But mostly I was pinching myself, wondering if really, I had been called out to hear that one of my staff was trying to kill the other spiritually. Juju. Again. This theme keeps reappearing.

And it’s not just among the relatively uneducated. Making that assumption would be to miss the undercurrent and remain completely oblivious to how this society functions.

I got up this morning with last night’s event freshly in my mind. I greeted Gilbert who was busy making eggs and saw Eric through the window. He was wielding a machete, and hacking away at the overgrown weeds. He gave me a look. His eyes narrowed, his brow furrowed. And he nodded. As if we had shared something… as if I should now understand… Yet I just smiled and carried on as the shallow obruni I am.

I arrived at work, thinking I’d left behind the sinister world of magic cooks and revengeful gardeners… and then I saw this.

A respected Member of Parliament in Ghana’s opposition party, on Ghana’s most popular morning television talk show this week, has claimed he has ‘conclusive evidence’ that the current president, John Atta-Mills, used a magic ring to win the election. He apparently wore the ring only during the election campaign – never before and never after. That is the only proof needed apparently. So there it is. Juju. Things I’ll never understand.

Eric left me with one final comment/warning as we parted ways at my sliding door last night.

“Madam- there are other things. When you go away Gilbert brings his own things to wash at your house. He delays in doing your things. And madam, I just want to say, THAT IS THE MAN WHO MAKES YOUR FOOD.”

And he wandered off pensively into the night.

And there I stood. I looked down. Hello Kitty smiled innocently back up at me. And I acknowledged that I who knows nothing, will have to resign myself to that fact.



Above - a table at a fetish market - selling ingredients for magic brews and curses....

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Walking in My Shoes - a trip and a loss.

Right now, in a tiny fishing village on South Africa’s arid West Coast called Doringbaai, my favourite shoes are living an entirely new life.

With the affection others reserve for beloved pets, loyal and by your side through thick and thin, I regarded my little black flats. They have literally toured the world with me. I confess that I can’t remember what country I bought them in originally, but I quickly discovered that they were more comfortable than slippers, yet worked in almost any scenario. And being flat and pliable, they packed so well too!

I have always had a difficult relationship with shoes. My wide feet and painful hereditary bunions (what a word), (thanks for that mom), have always meant that I’ve had to respect function before fashion. Most heels are excruciating and dainty shoes with thin straps across the foot are OUT in my world.

Then I found THE SHOES. Made by Nike – but never to be found again, despite searching in every mall ever since – they were crafted from real soft leather, flat, chinese slipper style, with a solid, athletic hidden sole. They were my saviour in so many situations. My comfort on long walks, in shopping malls, on rough trails, on my feet for hours at trade shows, dinners, cocktails, long plane rides across continents, office hours, party hours, market jaunts across Africa. How many shoes can say the same?!

So naturally I took them along (as always) on my latest trip – a meeting in Johannesburg, followed by a tack-on, sanity restoring, leisurely holiday to Cape Town.



We decided once in Cape Town, that having toured most of the Southern Cape, it would be a new adventure to travel northward up the west coast. It was a great trip. Unlike the touristy garden route and numerous wine routes, the west coast is dotted with genuine, hard working fishing villages.

The roads out to the coast from the main highway, branch like spindles on a spiders web, each country road opening up to the raging waves of the Atlantic, with a small settlement at each, clinging to the history of fishing that has been their livelihood and defined them all forever. It was quaint, and sometimes beautiful. It was small wooden brightly painted boats and toothless smiles. It was Afrikaans signposts and tiny galleries, small local restaurants and a persistent mist that blanketed the area each evening by 5.




We walked and walked, we shivered basked in the sun, and investigated all the corners we could. We met some great locals. We ate some fresh calamari. We saw the sets of seasonal campers from local inland towns, come to the coast for their seaside holidays.
My little black flats accompanied us everywhere (there they were below, on one of our last days together).



And then we came to Strandfontein.



The northern most stop on our trip, before the 5 hour journey back down the main highway to Cape Town. It was a sterile little town, built up a sloping hill, populated by a mosaic of modern guest houses and holiday retreats. The beach was long and flat and gorgeous. We knocked on some doors, inquired about accommodation for one night, found a friendly flat manager and booked in to a full little apartment.

We asked of restaurants and discovered there were none. We were told that 5km down the road, in the ‘coloured village’ of Doringbaai, there was a great little seafood place, run by an Afrikaans ‘tannie’ (aunty) and we should head over to book. We took a drive over to have a look. It was a tiny, non-descript village, built on the small fishing industry, and teeming with workers from the next town.


South Africa’s history, as we all know, is uncomfortable to say the least, when it comes to races and race relations. All over the Cape, there are coloured towns and villages. These people are truly a mixed group, each carrying blood from the original Kung San, Afrikaans whites, Malay, Indian, black and others. Despite the fact that the wide mixes mean that everyone looks so different, they are a distinct group with a certain accent, culture and community. They refer to themselves as coloured, so I had to overcome my North American hesitation, given the history of the word on our side of the world!

The fact is, that the coloured communities remain relatively poor, despite apartheid ending close to two decades ago. Laws can change overnight, but societies take a lot longer!

The small, majority coloured community of Doringbaai, are mostly fishermen and many work as domestics in the houses down the road in Strandfontein.

As we arrived for check-in, we met two of them. Both were maids, taking a no doubt well deserved break, after a day of cleaning. We greeted them, put down our things and headed out. The next morning we saw them padding along the road to start work as we left, and waved. Little did I know I’d left a piece of myself behind in that bedroom, that would link us forever. My favourite shoes.

I’m of course assuming here, that anyone would want my old beaten up shoes, as people’s forgotten gems are surely part of the job perks of being a maid in Strandfontein. I can only hope that they were in fact discovered, scooped up and brought home, the 5km stretch down the dirt road, to a little block house, full of life and chatter, and that someone has their soft reassurance under foot, even now.

My shoes will never see another continent again. They will not tread long arrival halls in Toronto or Dubai. They will not find themselves tucked into a suitcase, off on another adventure, ready to hit the streets of a new city somewhere else.

They are home forever in South Africa’s West Coast. They will see harder times and more work, will be filled with sand and the scent of the ocean, and hopefully they will be a soft comfort.

They live in Doringbaai now.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

This is not Kansas - Harbouring dangerous despots in Ghana


It’s definitely surreal. My ipad perched on my lap in bed, I read of human rights atrocities, people being burned alive, rebel troops from two sides of a political struggle killing and maiming innocent citizens in a city less than 300km from me. For months this chaos has been brewing. Laurent Gbagbo, Ivory Coast’s incumbent president has refused to leave his post after losing a democratic election last October.



Although international media is less concerned as they are with the developments in the oil-rich middle east, Ivory Coast has been heading toward the brink of an all-out civil war for months. Local media and that odd BBC article have been following.

Sometimes the lines are blurred between the good and the bad, the right and the wrong.

And in the middle are the people. The industries. The entire society is at a standstill, cowering, hiding from the bloodshed in the streets. Banks packed up so people cannot get paid. Sanctions have crippled the biggest industry – cocoa.

And at the heart of it all is one man’s insatiable ego.



And then yesterday, local media publishes a photo of a glamorous lady in designer shades, with her little boy – they are staying at Ghana’s finest hotel – The Labadi Beach. It is Mr. Laurent Gbagbo’s second wife.

How quaint. Apparently first wife is staying in my neighborhood as well.
It also comes out that Gbagbo owns a mansion in a near by luxury housing estate.

So here we are, in the middle of something ugly.

It’s days like this when the distant din of news – of CNN and BBC and Al Jazeera reporters ‘on the ground’, reporting disasters and developments around the world, come just that once step too close to home.

Dorothy ain't in Kansas anymore. Or in this case, Mississauga Ontario.

Could Ghana offer asylum to a man that has allowed close to 1000 citizens violently and senselessly murdered to keep his power for a few more days, weeks, months?



Will his wife be offered a luxury suite with money earned on the backs of those who lie dying in the streets in our neighboring country?

Will we all just watch it happen and turn the page to a new story?


In the meantime, the streets of Abidjan are in turmoil. And they have apparently descended on Gbagbo's residence. But they cannot find him... The family is not inside...I wonder where they are.
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