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.