Tuesday, December 13, 2011

So Senegal…

Senegal is the last country on our West African tour. It is one of the most famous African countries, and apparently the most tourist-friendly in terms of infrastructure.

I have mixed feelings about Senegal. Admittedly, and unfortunately, Kat and I did not get to visit very much of the country. Our plans had to change rather drastically due to Ghana embassy schedule and sickness (I have to get a new visa to return to Ghana). We did not make it to St. Louis or The Gambia as originally planned, but we did visit a monastery a few hours north of Dakar and some sights to the south including ‘hedonistic’ Saly (technically geriatric hedonism -I kid you not), and Ndangane at the entrance to the Sine-Salomon Delta. We have also spent several days in the famous metropolitan Dakar, and this is where my Senegal story begins.

Before coming to Senegal, Kat and I had been living for 9 months in Ghana then travelling for five weeks through Ghana, Côte d'Ivoire, and Sierra Leone, all of which are tropical lush countries. Senegal… Senegal is different. Senegal is my image of North Africa. Dakar was a feast of our eyes and ears. Everything seems different here: the architecture, colourful buses, horse drawn carts, modern highways, mosques, graffiti (good graffiti), dusty dusty streets. Dakar is not technically in the desert, but the amount of sand/dust that covers the streets makes it feel like a desert city. Senegal has the most amazing music, but it doesn’t blast it at defining decibels from every available power source. Senegal is also country of many artistic talents. From their music to paintings to sculpture to drumming and dance, the arts are alive and well here. The traditional cultural music plays in odd harmony with the counter-culture graffiti arts. There is a beauty to Dakar; it is really a mesh-mash of old and new, Muslim and French, playful and stoic.

Dakar also stinks like no other city I have visited on this planet. It is like Manhattan in the summer with a garbage strike. Not everywhere, but predicting the stink is almost impossible and when it hits I want to reach for a gasmask. Kat and I ask ourselves: why? Why does the garbage here smell so rotten? This is a cooler and dryer climate than the countries we have come from; the garbage does not seem greater in quantity from Accra, Abidjan, or Freetown. I don’t remember Delhi smelling anywhere near this bad. So that is the mystery of Dakar. Why does it assault our noses so? To be fair, they also have great incense but it is not powerful enough to overcome the former in the battle for olfactory prominence.

Besides the nasal assault, Dakar offers so much of everything, particularly in the arts. I am very…shall we say sensitive to aesthetics. Ghana was initially quite depressing in this area. Ghanaians, as much as I love them, are not aesthetically inclined and even those with money don’t really focus on crafting a beautiful world. Ghana is not alone, West African is not generally know for its aesthetic beauty, and Freetown gets a pass from its mountainous topography. Senegal, and of course Dakar, has distinctive and deliberate architecture: arched windows, spiral staircases, and the boxy two or three story white-washed buildings that I associate with north African and middle-eastern architecture. It is likely the Arab-Muslim influence and I do enjoy. Gardens! Lush overflowing gardens stand out as a declaration of defiance against the sandy streets and the whitewashed angular buildings. Flowers and decorative palms are visible over walled courtyards, balconies and rooftops. And when the sinuses are not clogged with dust or garbage stink, one can smell the sweet perfume of these hidden gardens.

The visual arts and music… While the typical ‘African Art’ can be found a plenty in Dakar, other more original and inspired paintings and sculptures are easily found. Some of the sculptures are just plan bizarre, some are disturbing, and many are gallery worthy. The music is in another class all to itself. Senegal most definitely wins my vote for best West African music. I can’t describe it to you, so if you are not familiar with it, please take my word for it. Senegalese music is worth seeking out. (I am brining tones back and I am happy to share.) The only country that I can imagine beating out Senegal in their artistic talents is Mali, a country that sadly remains on my wish list, but if I like something 9 times out of 10 I am told it comes from Mali.

The last thing I will boast about on Senegal’s behalf is the dress. Most men wear traditional Muslim long tunics and matching pants and the women wear elegant flowing dresses and head wraps. They look fabulous pretty much all the time. Western dress is rare here, even in Dakar. The good taste of the Senegalese most definitely extends to their wardrobe. Of course being freakishly tall and lanky doesn’t hurt one’s elegant appearance. This is the other mystery of Senegal…why are the people here so crazy tall??? I am not exaggerating. I have never been surrounded by so many tall men and women in my life; and Kat who is 6 feet can vouch for this. It is like the country took on eugenics to create an army of basketball players. So height, slender physic, and flowing elegant dress seems to be that perfect equation for jaw-dropping beauty. As Kat remarked: “thank goodness it is not rude to stare”.

There has been so much to take in here. We have had a great ten days. I wont miss the harassment, which I personally find worse here than in any other country I have visited or lived in, and no, I have not been to Morocco.

In my next post I will talk about the actually places we visited.


Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Sierra Leone continued...Tiwai and Beaches

When I was young and my older sisters were travelling the world they would send home letters of their adventures. Each letter was read aloud and the images it conjured up of these far off places lived in my imagination and thoughts for years. I was thinking of these letters and the images they inspired as Kat and I headed off just before dawn on motorbikes (okada) for the Freetown government bus station.

At 5:30am the streets were more deserted than I had expected. The sun was not yet rising, and the only light came from the head beam of the okada as it wove around potholes and navigated speed bumps. The quiet of the streets felt precious and rare. The okada drove down through the lower part of the city, towards the water. If I had not been in a taxi the previous day that had taken this same route I may have been nervous, as the streets are so dark and as sweet as my driver seemed I didn’t want to be a naive fool. We drove up to Congo Cross, veered to the left down side streets to avoid construction, then around the stadium, and as we started to enter downtown we veered left again down a steep hill and through one of Freetown’s slums where life was stirring only slightly more than in our neighbourhood of Murry Town. Then we crossed the base of the business centre on Lightfood Boston St, just one street up from the coast and the government wharfs. The ride was perhaps fifteen minutes and all in the darkness, but knowing the turns my driver would make and seeing the map of the city in my mind calmed my often-excitable imagination. One week in I was already comfortable here.

The bus station was another pro-Sierra Lone experience with helpful strangers, and the bus manager making sure the guys loading our bags on the bus did not ask us for money. The boy selling water who left with our too big note did eventually find us again with the proper change. It is nice to be able to shrug and say “I am sure he will be back with change, and if not it is not a big loss.” I still check my bags and make sure the zippers are pulled shut, but if I didn’t I am also pretty positive some older woman would come up to me and let me know my bag was open and give a mini lecture on keeping my valuables safe.

So the journey out of Freetown and towards Bo was uneventful. The sunrise was beautiful through the morning mist, and the countryside was wild. This is one the most striking things about Sierra Leone. Of all the land we saw in our journeys apart from Freetown, greater Freetown and Bo (the two larges cities), only 10% or so was under cultivation or otherwise harnessed for human uses. Sierra Leone is jungle country and it is marvellous! I look at the thick jungle forest and think how does one ever begin to penetrate it? ‘Machete required’. The other thing I noticed was the number of villages supported by Plan International. The Freetown-Bo highway felt like the Plan strip. Very few other NGOs were working in this area, it was very much dominated by Plan. The signboards mentioned the project, sector area, beneficiary population, and length of project but it was hard to see these details as we sped past.

In Bo we found a poda poda (mini bus) headed to Tiwai. We bulked at the price as the distance did not seem so far…but it certainly took a long time. Our poda poda was loaded beyond capacity. People, dry goods, water canisters, and more…items were piled on the roof a good 4-5 feet high, and the floor under the seats …well ever inch was used. There were probably 27+ people in a mini bus that was built for perhaps 14. The floor (what little we had access to) became burning hot metal with the rotation of the parts (not a car person) below. When we passed through puddles steam rose through the holes in the floor. At one point we were all required to exit the bus and walk about 500 meters while the mini bus navigated a particularly bad stretch of water filled potholes the size of garden fish ponds. It was certainly an adventure…a five hour adventure on metal benches. While we had our doubts about the actually making it to our destination (Kat thought the axel was going to crumble, I thought the roof was going to cave in) we did. Our poda poda did break down once, about an hour delay (axel-tire issues), during which time Kat and I discovered the most lovely all natural toilet I have ever seen – a floor of dark black shells of some nut surrounded by some tall green plant (sorry I can’t be more specific)…as spa-like as a natural outhouse could be. Toilets are something of note and a conversation topic for travellers…you get to see it all.

Tiwai- an island forest reserve in the Moa river. There were small communities of people on Tiwai until the 1980s, then as our guide informed us a white man said that if the island was reserved for wildlife then the white people will come visit…income generation, education, employment, and animal conservation – this is Tiwai today. Our early morning guided walk through this 12-sq-km island jungle revealed six of the 11 different species of primates jumping around the canopy – the Red Columbus, Black and White Columbus, Diana monkey, Spotted Nose monkey, ….Macak, and another one whose name I can’t remember. Apparently Tiwai island is one of the best places in the world to view primates. We also saw two types of hornbills and many other birds. Our canoe trip around the island did not reveal the shy pigmy hippos but it was peaceful and felt completely ‘wild’. Nature has the upper hand here, as in most of Sierra Leone. It reminded me of Hippo Pools in Zimbabwe, but perhaps a bit more rustic and less developed. Kat and I tented and ate groundnut (peanut) soup for three of our four meals on the island.

The return trip from Tiwai to Freetown had an even earlier morning start. We arose at 4:30am and at 5am the boat arrived to take us to the mainland where two okada’s were be waiting to transport us to the poda poda stop in Portoru where we would be catching the first transport (6am) back to Bo. The boat ride was undertaken in darkness, the blackness of the trees only slightly blacker than the night sky, our driver was skilful and found the correct patch of mud on the mainland bank without the aid of any light. Our okada ride was just as magical. The air was cool and the ride fast but meditative. Can those two co-exist? Early mornings are a special time, and I was more than happy to have roused myself out of bed for this ride through the countryside. In Portoru we choose the same poda poda that brought us there. As my father says ‘the devil you know, is better than the devil you don’t.’ Again we broke down once, the front tires/axel this time. Another distinction in this journey besides the sunrise and are choice front seats (100x more comfortable than the metal benches) were the chickens among passengers, and as we discovered just before arriving in Bo…poached monkeys and some small type of antelope. As much as I don’t like to see monkeys being hunted I was struck by the fact that this sight could not be in any way more disturbing than the poultry, pig, or cattle farms around the world where animals are treated as biomass for human consumption. I was not too sad for the monkeys, they probably had a good life and every part will be used (food, witch doctors remedies, skin for any number of things). I was a bit surprised by my reaction, but I am not a vegetarian so I cannot get all righteous and upset about the sight of a few poached animals, it would be hypocritical.

After a short time in Bo (which included a failed bank run and a rush back to the poda poda to retrieve our mobile left in the car charger – success!) we headed to Freetown on yet another poda poda. In Freetown we collected more cash and our friend Cindy and headed to the famed beaches. Tokeh was first on the list.

Beaches – Tokeh and River No. 2
What can I tell you about Tokeh? After a 1.5 hour okada ride down not-really-existent-roads one comes to small, undeveloped, but lively Tokeh village and beach. The beach is made up of fine white sands and the surrounding mountains disappear into the sea. As Kat mused -maybe this is what Hawaii is like. Stunning! Our accommodation was very basic, no electricity, a bed, a mossy net, and a reed hut right on the beach. The culinary highlight was the oysters! One dozen for $2.50!!! (Don’t worry Dad, I ordered them both days, can’t pass that up.)The sunset was in pastels, the beers were cold, the ocean was calm, the rains did not last, a bonfire was lit for us, and we had the whole beach to ourselves…well we did share it with the small local population. We played, floated, and just hung out in the ocean for hours…this did eventually cause the most sever case of heatstroke I have ever experienced but that was yet to come. Tokeh was pretty much perfect. Sure mats on our wooden sun beds and bug spray could have improved things but really, it was pretty fabulous just the way it was.

From Tokeh we went to River No. 2, one beach closer to Freetown, Cindy continued on to Freetown as she had to work the next day. We had wanted to get to the Banana Islands but Kat and I could not justify the expense with Senegal still to come in our travels. River No. 2 is the expat weekend hangout. We arrived on a Sunday night and saw the last of the 4x4 crowd finish their beers and pay their overpriced tabs before heading back to town. It was overpriced. Still cheaper than the transport to and from Banana Islands, but overpriced for what was offered. Kat and I shrugged, we had no choice it was late and we had to stay. The beach was beautiful. Kat read to me until the sun set (we are reading The Empathic Civilization) and then we negotiated a dinner from a waiter who said there was no food left after the weekend. Boiled eggs and cuscus with a spicy tomato sauce did materialize and it was tasty. That night the heatstroke hit. Both Kat and I were ill and running to the toilet in turns, but only I was vomiting. The next day was a right-off, I was bed-bound until we were well enough to climb on okada’s and take the journey back to Freetown. I did managed one walk down the beach as it was a cloudy day and the beach is beautiful…the overpriced expat establishment does not destroy the natural beauty.

There is so much more I want to say, I feel I have not done it justice, not been descriptive enough, I want to share everything, share how this country makes me feel…but it is getting late and we leave tomorrow for Senegal.

Sierra Leone is a special place. It has, in two short weeks, found a spot in my heart. If I were offered a job here in the future I certainly hope I could accept it.

Kat and I are worried about our wallets, but we are also excited to be off to Senegal and The Gambia. It will be go go go for the ten days we are there. I will do my best to update the blog.


First impressions of Sierra Leone…

November 22, 2011

Sierra Leone is country I have longed to visit. This is a country that was destroyed by years of civil war, and an economic tailspin before that. I wrote two papers in my undergrad on Sierra Leone, one of the causes of the civil war, and another on the UN’s effort to lead the peace process. The war has made Sierra Leone famous for its diamonds and child soldiers. For most people, mention of the country conjures up images of chopped hands, drugged children with guns larger than themselves, and for those a bit more informed – the Kimberly Process which was the first international regulations to stop the sale of ‘conflict diamonds’. When I started studying Sierra Leone the UNDP’s data estimated the life expectancy in Sierra Leone at 37 years. This was 2001 data, today the life expectancy is estimated to be 52 years. This figure is so low because of the under 5 child mortality rate. Sierra Leone, despite the improvement of 13 years to its life expectancy is still one of the poorest countries in the world. It remains at the bottom of the UNDP’s development index.
There has been peace in Sierra Leone for nine years, almost ten. All the major NGOs work here. Every fifth car seems to have the logo of an NGO, UN body, World Bank, EU or other government aid agency. Despite all these efforts, I can say without a doubt, of all the countries I have travelled to in the world, Sierra Leone is notably the poorest.
How does one tell the level of poverty? Besides the high number of humanitarian aid cars… it is the small details. More women wear second-hand western clothing than African print cloth. (African cloth is more expensive.) Very few women here wear a weave or long braids, most have their natural hair breaded tight to heir heads or tiny dreads. As I learned in Ghana, weaves (wigs sewn into the natural hair) can be very pricy and must be redone every few months; same goes for long braid extensions. Private taxies are rare; almost all taxies are shared and drive a set route picking up passengers as they go. The more expensive but more convenient way to travel is by hired okada (motorbike). The general state of the taxies and poda podas (mini buses) are in welded/glued together, start with a prayer condition. The roads are bad, many are unpaved which can make okada transport more attractive. This is the case in the capital… conditions become more exaggerated in the rural areas.
More obvious evidence of the country’s troubles is the unreliable electricity. I have been told that during the dry season (December-June) electricity in the capital is rare, and might only come on every few weeks for a short period. In the wet season hydroelectric power is pretty consistent. Businesses that can afford it (and all NGOs) run on generators during the dry season. Again, if this is the condition in the capital, we hear most rural areas have no electricity, unless solar was being introduced.
As Kat and I walk through the business sector of Freetown, the numbers of beggars and homeless is striking. The numbers are still less than India, but too many for the population size, and far more than I have seen in any other African country I have visited. The misery on their faces is hard to ignore, and as terrible as this sounds, I have become mostly non-reactive to the faces of beggars… it is one of those survival strategies I suppose.
Another evidence of the poverty or lack of ‘development’ is the banking system. Most foreigners work with American cash, exchanging it on the street for Leones as required. Kat and I had a bit of trouble finding a bank that would accept her Visa (Mastercard is not commonly accepted in West Africa). We did find one but the largest sum we could withdraw was 400,000Leones (little less than $100), and that was double what we had been told to expect.

I promise you though, if you did not look for these things they would be far from your first impressions of this country. Our experience upon arrival at the airport was luckily not the norm. The hassle there was worrying, but we have not been hassled at all since then. Tourism, beyond the weekend jaunts of the expats community, is basically non-existent in Sierra Leone. It is safe, the beaches are easily the most beautiful of West Africa, but the tourists are not yet coming. The infrastructure to support them is slowly being up in place and I can imagine things will change a lot in the next ten years. I am, for the first time, exploring a country that has not yet become a backpacker destination. Maybe in the future I will complain about how much it has changed or how the charm has been lost, but hopefully that will be a conversation I have with my nieces in fifteen years after they strap on their backpacks and head over.
So the charm… Sierra Leoneans are lovely people. Really, just fabulous. Genuine, kind, helpful, and even if they see us as a dollar sign they don’t let it show. (My neighbours are blasting Celine Dion’s greatest hits, but I can’t hold that against them.  ) Kat and I have not felt like anyone has tried to cheat us, negotiations are not a headache. We have been offered rides by strangers (a necessary kindness with the state of the public transport system), and someone is always there to help us with directions or advice. The old adage ‘strangers in a strange land’ seems to apply to us here, and the help offered feels like a natural reaction to any stranger. Of course things are not perfect, tensions exist under the surface, the war broke apart families, communities, and involved almost everyone in one way or another. I asked the National General Secretary of the Sierra Leone YMCA if he was in the country during the war (knowing those who could fled), he said he left when Freetown was taken for the second time and he left because all of his friends from high school had joined the RUF and his father was afraid they would force him to join. He fled to Guinea, and when he returned all his friends were all dead. These memories and worse scars lie below the welcoming smiles of everyone old enough to remember. I have so many questions that I can’t ask, no one wants to talk about it, everyone knows someone involved if they were not involved themselves. They need to move forward. But if you don’t know the history, there would be little here to tell you of the war, babies are everywhere, laughter and life fills the air. Sierra Leone is under construction, roads, buildings, more roads…across the country. This country is moving forward, no one wants to look back.

Freetown is a beautiful city, despite the poverty. It is a city of hills and apparently the only areas in West Africa where mountains meet the coast. The city centre is formed at the base of a large bay, the downtown is along the water and the residential areas move up the hills. The views are stunning. Really almost picture perfect, certainly screams potential. It also feels more historic than the capitals of Cote D’iviore or Ghana, which is interesting as Freetown is a much younger city. It was created as a re-settlement colony for freed slaves after the abolition of slavery. Ghana in comparison was used to export slaves, and expect for the castles/forts that are relicts of this horrible history, Ghana does not have much historic feel. Old wooden homes are a common site down Freetown’s streets, as Kat remarked, have an old American feel to them. It is a distinctive charm to these homes, a charm that goes with fried chicken and grits. These homes were built by the British, but still feel like an American homestead over a British cottage.

Two of our friends in Ghana connected us to their friend Cindy who is living and working in Freetown. Cindy met us at the ferry wharf, hooked us up to an inexpensive room in the house she is living in, gave us tips on transport, and introduced us to her friends. It has been absolutely amazing to know someone here. Having someone, like Laura in Cote d’Ivoire, takes some much stress off the travels. We are so fortunate and we know it.

I can’t really explain the feeling I have here. Perhaps over the coming days I will be able to articulate it.

Wow a Prius just drove past…how does one get a hybrid car serviced here???

Sierra Leone has also inspired a new game – guess the NGO 4x4. Mercie Stopes, Oxfam, Save the Children, Christian Aid, Planned Parenthood, UNDP, WFP, World Bank, DFID, Plan, Concern Worldwide, UNFP, World Vision, MSF, International Crisis Group, medical this and that, agricultural this and that, UN (white car with big black UN logo…which agency? don’t know), BRAC. Basically it is a branding game. But really, can you imagine if every 5th car you saw at home had a company logo on it? To make it more obvious, each of these branded cars is a white 4x4. What does this do to one’s psyche?

Kat and I will head to Tiwai island next to check out the interior, wildlife, and village life, and then we are planning to explore the beaches along the Freetown peninsula…the famed beaches of Sierra Leone. I am not worried about the limited tourist infrastructure, I have learned over the years to ask for help (something I have really struggled with) and I am certain we will meet some great people when we stop and ask.


Ghana (final update)

Greetings from Ghana!!!

I have now been here for just over seven months; that means it has been six months since my last email. So much has happened during these past six months, I will not be able to share it all with you in this update, but I am sure stories will come out over time and those of you with fb have access to my photos and the status updates I make from time to time about my life here.

Today is Monday, November 7, 2011. I am in a stretch of paradise known as Axim beach, close to the Ghanaian boarder with Côte d’Ivoire. The ocean is crashing against the rocks with all the idyllic beauty that one could possibly imagine. To the left of the rocks is an uninhabited stretch of palm-fringed beach. Yes, indeed, paradise discovered. This is the beginning of my West African adventure. We have been here since Thursday and today my dear friend Kat and myself will cross over into Côte d’Ivoire on our journey westward to Senegal. In six weeks we will sample three countries: Côte d’Ivoire, Sierra Leone, and Senegal, flying back to Ghana for a few days with our dear friends, then it will be homeward bound for both of us. While we head to once war torn countries, it is communicating in French that we fear the most. After dealing with three different currencies in French, I better, finally, have my numbers down.

As much as I would like to speak about my adventure, I owe you all an update on Ghana. Well after seven months Ghana has become home, although exactly when it became home I can’t say for sure. It was always fun, exciting, challenging, and then it was familiar. Familiar = comforting = home in my books. When that warm lovely familiar feeling creped in the idea of leaving became scary, and the days and months until the end of my contract seemed to speed past. And now, I can hardly believe that it has been six months since I wrote, and I can’t believe I am leaving.

What bits of Ghana can I share with you?
Charly! (sounds like Char-lay) has become one of my favourite words. It is an anything word meaning friend, brother, dude, yo, etc. A gasp of realization or surprise is often “OH, Charly!”. “Charly, I’m coming.” Is one of the many phrases used to let you know that the person you need or are waiting for has every intention of coming, and sometimes does indeed showup. Yes time, is relative in Ghana. I am mostly good with flexible time, it is not like I am left standing in the cold as I wait. (hehehe…how is Canada?) A workshop starting two hours late, especially when the time given to participants was an hour earlier than the actually start, which means three hours late, can irk me a wee bit.
‘Sssssssssst’ ah a fun sound. Use it and heads here will turn. How else will a taxi know I want it or the waiter know I need him/her? The West African hiss as the Lonely Planet guidebook refers to it, takes a little getting used to for some; I embraced it. My apologies if I use it at home, it becomes second nature, and yes I will have just hissed at you.
I never did get the hang of Twi or Ga, the two main languages spoken in Accra. No surprise there, English is everywhere, and my ear for languages being as poor as it is struggled to recognise distinct sounds in these local tonal languages.
There are so many lovely other aspects to the way Ghanaians speak, interesting ways they use words or sounds they make. The handshake with the snap at the end also becomes second nature, and handshakes without it seem disengaged and unfriendly.

Ok moving away from language, I have now been to two church services. Interesting. One was Pentecostal, the other Methodist. Lots of music and women dressed up in fabulous African suits with head wraps, which is what I wanted to see really. The south of Ghana, for those that might not know, is very Christian. A new experience for me, while I have lived all over the world, this was my first time living amongst fervent Christians. I learned a lot, and was every amused by the signage:
“Redeemer variety” “By his Grace hair salon”, “Fear of God Chop Bar”, “God First Brick Factory”, “Exodus 15:23”, “With God Tire shop”, “God hath done it beauty salon”, and the list goes on…

I would speak to you about Ghanaian food but really, I don’t eat it much as the palm oil is very hard for me to digest. The food is heavy and the portions HUGE! If I never see fried chicken/fish again I will be ok with that. While my consumption of Ghanaian food declined there was a major upswing in my cooking. Dinner parties became commonplace among my friends here. The discovery of fresh basil, coriander, and mint was, oh, it was a happy day, as was the discovery of tofu at the Chinese grocer. My kitchen at Obruni House and then at my second home with Peter and Jessica was a busy place. Salads of every variety, lasagnes’, soups, stir-fries, muffins, pizzas, desserts, curries, crepes, the list goes on. Ghanaian dishes were not safe either; we adopted them, took out that excess oil and jazzed them up, Kat and I are always ready for a new culinary challenge.

In the past seven months I have met some terrific people and established what I very much hope to be lasting deep friendships. I have said too many goodbyes to too many of these important people. While I wont go on and on about these friends, I will tell you that my life here has been rich with amazing people, conversations, dinner parties, and dancing. We (Kat and I) have also received packages from friends who returned home. Anna sent prosciutto, parmesan, chocolate and coffee from Italy; Kim and Carolyn sent jasmine tea, dried sausage, chocolate, and coffee from Amsterdam. Anyone coming from Canada brought me a Vanity Fair…only missing two issues from the past 7 months, how amazing is that!! Friends are as important to the expat as water. Ghana has been full of friends, friends that become family, my Obruni family as I refer to them. My Ghanaian friends have also had a huge impact on my experience, and are the people who in the end make leaving so difficult… “See you in New York” or “Sure I will come to Washington” or “how could I not come to England to see you?” these are not the phrases I get to say to my Ghanaian friends…just goodbye, and “yes I hope I will come back one day”… not really a comforting goodbye to such dear friends.

One friend I don’t have to part with is Kat. Kat is my closest friend here in Ghana who I met on day 7 and who I will step off the plane with in Toronto. Our contracts ended in the same week and we are taking on West Africa together. Kat is also a CIDA intern and is from Toronto’s Bloor West Village…we also discovered that we went to the same Zumba class when I lived by High Park. (small worlds grow smaller).

So what have I seen around Ghana? I have been up to the north of the country, and all over the southern belt (mostly for work but also pleasure). Tamale, Kumasi, Ho, Koforida, Keta, Takoradi, Cape Coast, Akosombo, and the list of towns and villages goes on but they likely mean little to you. Since the majority of my time has been in the south, I have experienced mostly lush tropical Ghana. Just as the Inuit have hundreds of ways to describe snow, I feel Ghanaians could or should have the same for foliage. Trees at any one glance include palms of every variety, banana, bamboo, mango, avocado, rubber, papaya, mangrove, and African mahogany…a thousand different shades of green. The southern belt is hilly, but no mountains. Lush, lush, lush. The north however is dry as a savannah…which is what it is up there. Different and beautiful. I am sorry I did not get a chance to spend more time up north, but many never get there at all.

Yesterday morning Kat and I visited a village built on stilts over a lagoon. As legend has it, the villagers (pre-village) were being persecuted and on the run from warring tribes, a spirit told them to build their village on the lagoon and they would be safe. So far, so good. The transport there is by dugout canoe, an hour through the largest swamp forest in Ghana!! The wetlands were pretty cool, a neat way to start a Sunday morning.

So, my contract here has just been completed. I believe all of you know I was here working for the YMCA of Ghana as their Gender Advisor. It was a fabulous experience. In 7 months, I have designed a process of adapting a Gender Policy that was originally developed by the African Alliance of YMCAs. This process (framework) has now been implemented in Ghana and involves analysis, workshops, consultation, and focus groups. The a few months into my work here members of the executive at the African Alliance of YMCAs came to me to request that I create a framework for this process that can be used by other national YMCA movements in Africa in adapting the gender policy. This was pretty cool, how could I say no? The African Alliance of YMCAs has also talked about wanting to hire me on to move from one national movement to the next across Africa implementing this process. The likelihood that this job will ever materialized is slim as they do not have the funding, but I am flattered by their interest. Back to the Ghana Y… so to increase the sustainability of the work I was doing to (increasing gender equality awareness at the Y), I developed a gender-training manual that can be used by non-gender specialists. As part of the adaption process, I designed and conducted around 10 workshops on gender issues from basic gender awareness workshops to gender in advocacy, Results Based Management, and communication workshops. The activities and results from the workshops became the research on which my manual was based. I discovered through this processes that I really enjoy facilitating workshops. This might not come as a surprise to most of you but it was for me. What else have I been up to? Back in June and July I developed two gender equality youth leadership projects, one of which was endorsed by Ghana’s Ministry of Women’s and Children’s Affairs. That was pretty cool.
Towards the end of my contract I started thinking about how to get people to remember the gender equality concepts I was teaching and how to remind those at all levels of the Ghana YMCA that they had a gender policy. Well the YMCA seemed to like posters. They had a few posters tacked to the walls that were published by international YMCA bodies for events or campaigns that had taken place several years ago. I decided I should create a gender poster as a communication tool on gender issues in Ghana and the Gender Policy. Kat is a graphic designer (technically a medical communicator...a super cool job I will tell you about another time) so she was essential in designing the poster and playing with photos and layout. House of work! As of October, the poster 150 copies of the poster had been printed and are in the process of being distributed to members and the 50 YMCA branches around Ghana.
I struggled with doing this on my own at the beginning. I craved the collective input of a team. I wanted to bounce my ideas of people who new something about that I was talking about. Over time I had to get used to relying on myself, and myself alone. It got better, but I still think I would opt for collaboration over completely independent work.

Before closing I would like to mention Jessica and Peter Gross. Through a mutual friend, Peter contacted me to ask if I could look after his dog Bock while he and his wife were away on business trips. Kat and I (we are a 2 for 1 deal) moved in and Peter offered his home to us for the remainder of our time in Ghana. Yes a home, a real home with lovely furniture and bookcases!!!! So for our last 6 weeks in Ghana Kat and I lived in their home, feel in love with Bock dog, utilized their kitchen to the fullest, slept in AC on real pillows, and got a chance to know one of the most inspiring couples I have ever met. It is not their list of accomplishments, dazzling life, or hardships overcome that inspires, it is how they live their life, the simple moments, and how they treat others that has touched me. While not much older than us, they have become role models to Kat and myself. They are expecting their first baby, a girl, in March and I wish them all the best. They opened their home, gave us shelter and asked us for nothing. Of course we did what we could by filling the water tank and rising early to bake muffins before they woke, and making dinners…small kindnesses for such a huge gift.

So that is my update on Ghana. Of course there is so much more I have not shared, there are more stories that will come out over time I am sure.

In short, 7 months of: dancing, friendships, water challenges, communal living, shared lives, celebrations, food, excellent food, appreciating each moment, sad goodbyes, religiosity, gridlock traffic, oppressive heat, empty beaches, vibrant life, rains, energetic existence, never boring, rhythmic, laughter, re-imported coffee and cocoa, colourful fabric, more colourful beads, periods of high stress, beating sunshine, sexism, homophobia, police corruption, double standards, circular arguments, endless gratitude, bad roads, salty sea breezes, singing, smiles, handshakes, music, even more laughter and never, never enough dancing!

Now, West Africa, bring it on!!!
I hope you are all well, and in a few weeks I hope I will be seeing you. Good luck with the Christmas rush. Try dancing when no one is looking, it does wonders…promise.


Sunday, September 13, 2009

One week left.

Well I am nearing the end of my internship with Action Aid India's Aashray Adhikar Abhiyan (AAA). One week left to go. I have written up my observer report and I am just editing and adding to it at the moment. I created some template Log Frame Analysis (LFA) for each of the clinics to help the staff at AAA create their goals and objectives for the health clinics. These are also used to review and evaluate if a program is being successful.
I have been asked to create a Program Monitoring and Evaluation (PME) system for AAA. I will not be able to create the entire system for them as it needs to be done as a collective by the staff and volunteers, but I will create a template for them.
It was very affirming to be asked to do this, they obviously see that I have something of value to add, and I am the closest thing they will come to an expert on this stuff (scary I know). I might be green but I have the tools to do it, I have created such systems in my program and I was good at it there.

I was asked if AAA has the physical tools I need to do this work (computers, printers, etc). It has limited equipment and I am very glad I have my own computer. I would be writing everything by hand if I didn’t and then typing up when I could grain access. This organization is asked to do so much but they have been given so little. They are in desperate need for a few new computers, laptops would be helpful. They don’t have a scanner or a fax machine.

This is my organization’s website if anyone is interested. It hasn’t been updated in a while but it still has lots of information. http://www.homelesspeople.in/

This week I will be taking pictures at the clinics so I will be able to upload some soon.

As always, questions, comments and advice are welcome!


Sunday, August 16, 2009

Working with the homeless of Delhi.

I am very late with this update I know, I apologize.
I have been in India for a month and two weeks at my internship.

What am I doing?
I am going to be generating a report on the health clinics for the homeless of Delhi. This report is for Ashray Adhikar Abhiyan (AAA), a program of ActionAid. AAA is a shelter rights campaign for the homeless of Delhi. They have a variety of projects for the homeless – shelters, health clinics, community organization and outreach, legal aid, identity cards and voter registration, and some programs for street children. AAA uses the participatory approach with each of their projects and with their office staff. What does this mean? It means that things are done with input from everyone. There is a basic type of hierarchical structure but all problems, solutions, and program design are done through open discussion with staff, volunteers, and the homeless. Most of the volunteers are the homeless themselves. The program has been in operation since 2001and most projects are now run almost entirely by the volunteers.
ActionAid is a rights based organization and so is AAA. This means that they are focus on their beneficiaries knowing what their rights are and what they are entitled to through the government. This means right to health care- a government hospital can not refuse a patient (even though they do), the right to vote – very few of the homeless have any official identification and no permanent address.
Who are the homeless?
The homeless in Delhi are 90% men who have migrated to from their towns and villages in the hopes of finding employment and sending money home. About 90% of these men are employed on a regular bases. They work as labourers, rickshaw pullers, street venders, sweepers, cleaners, rage pickers, and during wedding season many are employed as catering staff, event staff, etc. These jobs, if I remember correctly, make up 80% of the Indian labour force. They are the backbone of the economy and the way of life here. These people are paid so poorly that they cannot afford to pay rent. If person comes to Delhi with little to no education or skills, no family with a residence, no contacts, then they are likely to end up sleeping on the streets.
My misconception:
When I first heard that I would be working for AAA and that they worked with the homeless I took a deep breath, thought about they shanty towns India is famous for and thought this is going to be hard. Rural poverty is hard to see, but urban poverty is much worse. Well as it turns out a shanty is a residence, a tarpaulin and a mud floor is still a home and can even have an address. The homeless in India are pavement dwellers. This means you have no roof over your heard, not even a tarpaulin, unless you want to classify an overpass as roof.
Where do they sleep?:
There are an estimated 150,000 homeless in Delhi (that’s the top figure, could be only 100,000). They homeless are very hard to count, particularly the women as they do their best to stay hidden. The majority of homeless in Delhi live in what is known as the Walled City – Old Delhi. If you life in Delhi, and you don’t live in this particular part of the city, you don’t come here. Tourist do as Delhi’s famous Red Fort and largest mosque (Jama Masjid) are here. There is also a bit of the flavour of old traditional India. You can walk down winding lanes/alleyways where everything needed for an India wedding can be found, each at food stalls that have been around for hundreds of years. It is a very busy place, very crowded, often smelly (can be a good smell), and of course dirty. There are very little access to clean water (clean for Delhi I mean), and as few toilets. It is in this region of Delhi that an estimated 50,000 homeless can be found. You won’t notice many during the day (they are working) but in the evenings they come and even a few hundred are shocking to see. They figures are the estimation of AAA, you won’t find government stats that high, but then the government would like to imagine there weren’t any.

The Health Clinics:
So my department. AAA, in partnership with several other organizations (including government organizations) has several health initiatives for: general health, chemical dependents, mental health, and a separate clinic for rickshaw pullers. They have clinics on Mon, Tues, Thur, and Friday. The clinics are held in the evening so patients don’t have to miss work to go. They are held in three different locations, all in or around Old Delhi. They treat as best they can (mostly acting as a pharmacy), and for those in need of hospital care they make referrals and volunteers personally take patients to the hospital to make sure they get seen. Their treatment in the hospital is also monitored and recorded. The clinics are not entirely free, the cost is about 2-3 rupees a visit and the medicines are included. The doctors volunteer their time.

General Health: this clinic sees patients with a variety of conditions, the most common seem to be breathing problems, joint pain, and injuries. Many of the conditions are chronic.

Chemical Dependents: this is a clinic for drug addicts. In order to attend the clinic it is mandatory to attending the sharing sessions held every week. This is a group therapy, AA style, to coincide with the drug therapy. The vast majority of patients are addicted to smack, a form of heroin, that is very readably available here (go Afghan poppies!). The drugs they are given have the same basic effects as the smack but without the harmful side effects. The doctor I was speaking to this week seems torn with this initiative as while giving them the pharmaceuticals is technically better for them from a health perspective, it is just another cocktail of drugs they get addicted. I asked him why he volunteers his time if he feels it doesn’t help. He responded noting that since these drugs are free the chemical dependents are not engaging in the illegal activities that they may be drawn to in order to be able to afford their addiction, and the harmful side effects are not there. Rock- Chemical Dependents- Hard place.

Mental Health: this clinic is still new, only about 9 months old. It treats the mentally ill homeless with drug therapy. There are not a huge number of patients at this clinic, some are voluntary, others involuntary, but it is having pretty good success. How do they treat involuntary patients? Well they hold a court at the Monday clinic, a magistrate comes and judges the patient according to the psychiatrist, patient records (whatever exist), testimony, and an interview with the patient. If deemed unfit, then medications can be given by force. Hospitalization of patients also takes place if needed.

Rickshaw Pullers: I am still trying to figure this clinic out. Why is there a special clinic for them? Well I believe it has something to do with the fact they make a bit more money. There are many levels in the homeless community. You all know about the Indian caste system I presume, well there are many castes within castes, and my guess is that since the rickshaw pullers are consider the higher end of the homeless population, this means they get a separate clinic. Maybe they would refuse to go to the general clinics. I will be finding out this information very soon.

I could use your help!!
I have never done anything like this before (shh don’t tell anyone) and I want to do it right. This report is for internal use but it is going to be their most up to date documentation on these clinics, 2003 was the last report. I am to observe, understand, make suggestions.
I have prepared a four page list of questions for the staff and volunteers (about 88 questions) on the clinics. Don’t assume I have asked all, or the right questions. If you have questions you want answered please, please, please send them my way.
Also if you have any tips on how this report should be done, please pass them along. I want to do this well. Perhaps there are those of you who have worked with homeless populations or with organizations who try and aid the homeless and can give me insight.

Thanks for reading.

p.s. I will be using this blog mainly to update about my work. I will keep future updates short now that you have the background. I may, from time to time add a bit about my personal life, but mostly this blog will be about my work. You can always email me if there is something you would like to know about that I am not included here. Thanks.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Well I am back in India and with my darling Javed.

We are in Delhi now. I flew into Mumbai just over a week ago now and after a day there we went down to Goa to Palollem Beach.

I was just looking through my old blog entries to try to find the name of a hotel I ate at here in Delhi last time and I read some of my first thoughts abut India. It seems now in hindsight that I was bound to fall in love in this country and that I would return. I don't believe in fate, but my heart was certainly open when I arrived here and clearly ready and willing to embrace what India offered me.
I might have grown to dislike Delhi over my multiple returns to this city but I am ready to see it anew this time around. That being said I have not yet left the hotel since my arrival. I have been focusing on my research for a project proposal to get vocational programs to neglected youth in Darfur for Plan Canada. Oh and studying for my exams that await me on my return to Toronto.

Tomorrow Javed and I head to Agra as he has to lead a group there. We have less than two days together now. Our time together has been short but positively splendid.
I will try to update this blog a little more regularly. Last post was July...oops.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Well I have been pretty busy since I returned to Canada. After the weekend at the cottage and a few days in London at my parent's house, my sister Ashley and I flew out to PEI to meet up with the Browns- my mother's fabulous family. We had an amazing time on Prince Edward Island. We were there about 4 days I think and then my parents, Ashley, and myself flew back to Toronto and then drove right up to the cottage. I am currently at the cottage soaking up all I can of it.
While on PEI we played on the beach (I refused to enter the freezing ocean), kayaked on the lakes, had fabulous long conversations and walks, and of course we ate and ate and ate! You know, typical family bonding. The weather was so stunning. We couldn't have asked for anything more.
And FYI PEI is BEAUTIFUL!!! I hadn't been to the island since I was small and it is stunning!! I don't think I saw anything more beautiful than the rolling sand dunes of PEI in all of my travels. I have seen lots of beautiful things, scenes as beautiful, but not more beautiful. Of course the strangely hot and super sunny days helped, they are a bit of a rarity for the island.
Enjoy the pics. (i hope they load)

Tuesday, July 01, 2008


I may have left the most beautiful city in the world when I left Paris, but I got to return to the most beautiful place. I know that sounds cheesy but In all my travels, and all I have seen, Muskoka remains the most beautiful place in the world. Along with my parents, Ashley and Geoff; Jen, Theo and Piper came up, as well as my Auntie Sue, and my aunts and uncles on my Dad's side came as well to say farewell to the cottage.
It was a wonderful weekend, even if I was severely jet-legged.
Reverse culture shock has started to affect me, I was rather paralysed when I went into Starbucks. I mild kind of panic attack followed but I calmed myself down without drawing attention. I don't know if I am quite ready for grande over-priced coffee. I am working on that though.