May 27, 2009

A Trip to the Cocoa Farm

Seth and his brother-in-law, Paul, share a cocoa farm near Achiase. I've been expressing interest in visiting the farm since I arrived, but it took them some time to take me seriously. On Monday, I finally got my chance to get even with the local roosters. Paul and I were up before dawn and disturbing their sleep as we prepared for a trip to the farm. Paul's two boys joined us on the journey.

We traveled in a tro-tro to a nearby village and from there set out on foot. The hike in featured lots of changing terrain: railroad tracks, rice farms, corn farms, river crossings, and winding trails through dense forest.

Once we reached the farm, we were hit by a rainstorm and took shelter with the neighbouring rice farmer. As we waited out the rain, Paul's older boy asked me to take his photo.

Cocoa is one of the main exports and more lucrative foodstuffs in Ghana. As such, the government manages the exportation of cocoa. As you can see in the two photos below, the cocoa fruit grows right off the trunk of the tree. When it's ripe it turns yellow, and you crack it open to take out the beans. The beans are then carried by labourers from the farm to the village. There they are dried, fermented, and bagged. The bags of dried beans are then sold to a purchasing clerk who, in turn, sells the beans to the government for export.

As we returned to Achiase, the people we passed were amazed and amused that a white man had gone out to the farm. By the time we returned to our neighbourhood, the news had spread that I'd visited the farm and many people had a good laugh and lots to say as we approached.

It was a good adventure and Marina is already set to join us on the next visit.

- Davis

Photo Post

To make up for the last post, which included no photos, I'm going to share some that I like from the last couple of weeks.

When it's not raining, we eat dinner out on the balcony. Every night the sky is so interesting, either with dramatic clouds and colours or with lots of bright stars.

This is the nursery school where Marina has been working. The children cling with their feet and hands so that you can carry them hands-free, though usually a sheet is wrapped around to sling them up. As a side note, this little girl pees on Marina at least every second day.

See if you can spot the man at the bottom of this well. They climb in and out using the notches in the walls. It's dug by shovel and pick-axe which takes several months. This well is about 60 feet deep. Some others go much further to reach the water table.

As I made my way home through this rainstorm, many people called out to me to come take shelter with them, but I was enjoying the bucketless shower. If I ever come across a rainy t-shirt contest, this photo will be my submission. Pretty hot, I know.

Speaking of lightning storms, here's one that approached this weekend as we were hanging out on the balcony of our home with some neighbourhood kids. This is a 30-second exposure, taken at dusk.

We went to visit the biggest tree in western Africa on the weekend and were equally impressed by this nearby bee's nest. Apparently these guys are pretty nasty and dangerous if you get on their bad side.

Here's Seth, our host father, hanging out Hugh Hefner style on the balcony. He was a teacher and now works for the government in disaster planning. He's got a youthful spirit and is always up for a laugh.

Here we are with a Japanese girl, Ayu, who is volunteering by herself in a nearby village as a music teacher for two years. I met her at this very internet cafe and invited her for a visit.

Finally, you might remember the food called Fufu that I tried at the beach a few weeks ago. This is how they make it by pounding plantain and cassava together. Watch the fingers!

- Davis

May 16, 2009

Last week it was the photo. Now I'm the disappointment.

Had you been a female market trader in the small Ghanaian village of Achiase this week, you would have received some exciting news on Tuesday morning. You would have been informed that there was a white man in the conference hall above the bank, registering names of local women so that he could divide his riches among them. You then would have promptly joined the stream of women who were abandoning their stalls and making their way to the bank. Upon arrival, you would find a room filled with more than a hundred women. Indeed, there would be a white man standing before them, rambling incoherently in english - which is not the local language. And his translator would be more or less relaying the message that you'd hoped for. After registering, you'd hurry out to help spread the news.

As you've probably guessed, the white man in this story is me. As for the riches, well, I haven't located those yet. And as for the 100 women, unfortunately this was only the start. Throughout the remainder of the week, growing numbers of local women continued to seek me out at the bank, at the school where Marina is working, and at our home.

The background to this story is that I arrived at the bank on Tuesday morning, expecting to meet with the project officer of the bank and be briefed about the existing groups and the issues that they were facing, then meet with one or two of them. So I was a bit frustrated when he was in and out of his chair, giving me a broken ten minutes of his time. He was anything but cooperative, but I was trying to be patient. I just needed the one morning with him, and after that my time would be focused with the women. A few minutes after one of his exits, and about 15% of the way into my many questions, another bank employee came into his office and called me upstairs for the meeting with the women. ("What??? Now???")

I entered the room and saw the crowd of women and the project officer. He gave a lengthy introduction in the local language (which I later learned was the source of all the confusion) and then left the room. So that's how it began. If you then factor in a translator who arrived late and didn't seem to understand a word I said in english, and a bit of the telephone game where a message gets relayed several times and becomes more confused with each repetition, you now have the necessary elements in place for a village-wide misunderstanding.

Of course, the misinformation is far more exciting and spreads far more quickly than the correction. However, in the midst of all this, I did manage to identify a few groups that I can begin working with. I now have a translator who is much more adept, and after a final explanation at church on Sunday (where many of the villagers will gather), I expect to have a more productive week next week!

- Davis

May 11, 2009

Our Mission under the Apple Tree

The above photo is a bit of a disappointment. While I did manage to capture the speedometer topping 90, the blind curve rapidly approaching as we careen down the centre of the narrow road, and the half-conscious, dozy gaze in the driver's eyes, I failed to include some of the more impressive hazards that we faced on our drive from Kasoa to our new home in Achiase. Among them was an old man wandering up the centre of our lane as we crested a hill, a number of sudden road diversions from recent accidents, shin-deep potholes, and numerous goats, chickens and small children darting out in front of us. In my defense, it's difficult to skillfully compose a photograph while holding on white-knuckled to any object in the van that isn't bouncing around too much to get a hold of.

Achiase means "under the apple tree", and we're finding the little village as charming as its name suggests. In comparison to Kasoa it's much smaller, cleaner, quieter, and more of a community. It seems we've learned more about traditional Ghanaian culture in the past two days than we had in the previous two weeks. For one, when visitors arrive at another person's home, it is customary that once they have been greeted and invited in, that one of them takes a few moments to explain their "mission" (the reason for which they have come), even if they were invited by the host for a specific reason or if it is something that they have already discussed. This seems to offer the host a great opportunity to size up his guests. I think that the people whose homes we've visited have quite enjoyed observing Marina and I as we take turns standing up and stammering out a little speech on our "mission".

Our new home is beautiful. Still no running water, but it's less than a year old and is surprisingly large. The family is made up of two parents and six kids - two of whom are adopted. Our favorite is a little girl named Precious who has been attached to Marina's side since we arrived. An indeterminable number of aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents live on the neighbouring lot, and there's always plenty of activity between the two homes and properties. It's fun :)

Our new projects sound amazing, also. Marina is now working with a sort of charity school that has been set up by a lady named Gladys to educate children from extremely poor and adoptive families. Gladys has a wonderful heart and seems to be the adoptive mother of every child in town. There are 142 children attending the school and she requires a lot of help to get things running as well as she would like. Marina is going to help her get the necessary structures in place. Gladys fell in love with Marina during Marina's explanation of our "mission", and introduced us to her mother... who is 112 years old!! We had fun chatting with her.

The project I'll be working on is with some local women who run small businesses in the community. The community bank had begun a program of micro-lending to these women, but since the women were failing to pay back the loans, the bank has put the program on hold. I'll be working with some of these women to learn more about their businesses and help them to manage the money and their businesses more effectively in order to increase their profits and pay back their loans. Today we met with the bank manager and project manager, and tomorrow I'll start meeting with some of the women. I can't wait to get started.

A final note is that, among the people we met today, one was the local chief. It's customary that when you move to one of these communities, the first thing that you do is to go to the palace and meet with the chief and eventually some of his sub-chiefs and elders. In this way, they have the opportunity to learn about your mission and welcome you to town. Then they are in the loop when the townspeople mention the sun-burnt obruni that they saw tripping over a chicken and falling into a puddle. The chief seems like a good man and was happy to receive us. He already invited us to a party on May 31st where he says he expects us to dress the part and get right into the dancing. No problem!

Here's a photo of myself, Marina, the chief (seated on his throne), Gladys, and Precious:

As we were leaving, he pointed to a large drum by the door and explained that it is used for either calling his sub-chiefs and elders, or all of the townspeople (depending on the beat that is drummed) to his palace for a meeting. We took such an interest that he brought us back in to show us the rest of the drums. One is taken along and beaten in front of him when he walks through town, some are played for dancing (and people did start gathering in the courtyard and dancing as these were being played), and two are called the talking drums. They are used to beat out the rythm of words, like a higher-level morse code. The first word that this boy is beating out is the name of the chief. You'd have to ask him what the rest means!

We have to travel to another town to use internet, but we'll try and do this at least once or twice a week. I expect we'll have lots of stories to share!

- Davis

P.S. Go Canucks Go!!

May 10, 2009

The Ever-Expanding Comfort Bubble

These days, Marina and I have a lot of time to simply sit and talk. As we look at the next few months of adventure and, beyond that, our married life together, something that's come up a few times is the idea of the comfort bubble. This is something that a mentor of mine used to talk about when I was growing up. He used this idea to talk about the limits that we set for ourselves, and our ability to push and expand these limits by introducing challenges and the unfamiliar into our lives. I'm willing to accept that this idea has perhaps had a greater influence on me than was ever intended. I get abnormally restless if my own limits hover around the same position for any extended period of time. Meanwhile, I have close friends who have relatively static and well-defined limits, within which they live quite fully and contentedly. I suppose we all have to strike our own balance.

To poke some fun, I decided to illustrate the approximate range of my current comfort bubble:

Some of these points are directly linked to one another. For instance, my comfort with losing money on the stock market directly contributed to my confidence in cutting my own hair (though I've never gotten a good look at the back...). And as you can see, while I've now absorbed the ability to propose into my comfort bubble, and marriage is duly creeping its way in as well, I would at this point much rather eat a brain than have a kid.

Marina and I have done a fair bit of comfort-bubble expansion over the last couple of weeks. We're both more comfortable standing at the head of a classroom and giving a make-it-up-as-you-go lesson to a group of students who range over several grades in age and ability. Marina has mastered the chaos of the tro-tros and taxis that take her to and from the orphanage each day. We're able to keep our thoughts straight as we stroll down the street and people call out to us from all sides. We've gained a new appreciation for buckets, though we do occasionally have running water. We've discovered that our malaria pills don't cause such overpowering nausea if they're taken in the middle of a meal. When the power went out for 20 hours yesterday we hardly noticed. We're even getting comfortable with some of the UFOs (unidentified food objects) that appear in our meals from time to time. So it seems it's time for us to move on to some new challenges.

Today we'll be traveling to a small village north of here to start on two new projects. Marina will be working at another orphanage and school, and I'll be helping out with a microlending project at a community bank. We're both nervous and excited for the change. Again!
Now... here's hoping that in our new home we may continue to avoid the infamous squat toilet...


May 9, 2009

The Orphanage

The children at the orphanage where I've been working lack a lot of things besides love and caring. They have blisters on their feet from walking with no shoes, they sleep on the floor, they wear the same clothes for days, they do not get nutritious food and they have no medical or school supplies. In spite of all that they lack, they're full of life, quick to smile and eager to learn.

There is a private school attached to the orphanage, but the week I arrived, classes were not in session. One of the workers showed me around for a few minutes before introducing me to some of the orphans, who were all packed inside the dining room watching TV. All he said was "Kids, this is madam Marina, she will be with us for a few weeks" he then turned to me and said "Akwäba" (welcome) and left the room. Instantly, I was surrounded by screaming children. They were hugging my limbs, pulling on my hands, and climbing up on the tables to get handfuls of my hair. They yelled from all directions "Madam! madam!" I spent most of the week coming up with new games to teach them, running with them under the hot sun, playing hide-and-go-seek, reading to them, and teaching them Spanish. A few of the older boys taught me some of their language, and how to play the bongos.

On the second week I was there, school re-opened, and a group of twenty Canadian volunteers arrived. Kids from around the town came to take classes with the orphans in small classrooms equipped with nothing more than a chalkboard and a few chairs. I taught the nursery class and the second grade. Every class began with an hour of prayer. Aside from that there was no structure whatsoever, and the teachers were not very helpful as they would mainly sleep or leave the classroom and not return. It surprised me to see that the nursery class had kids from ages three to six. None of them could read or write, and only a few knew their ABC's. Together with one of the other volunteers I tried to teach the kids the hokie pokie, however they had trouble with the parts of the body and could not differentiate left from right. This became our learning objective for the week. The second grade had a mix of seven and nine year olds who were learning basic addition and subtraction. For lack of other materials, we used leaves to work on these skills.

With the number of volunteers that are now working at this site, I hope that some real improvements will be made. Next week, I'll be starting in a new orphanage. I'm looking forward to working in the new location where the kids will likely be just as needy and without so much help.


May 8, 2009

Photos of Men at Work

I haven't said much about the work that I've been doing over here yet. I'm going to keep it brief, as it's a bit of a muddled situation to describe, and I'll have new and more exciting news to share tomorrow.

I spent the majority of my first week here working for an organization called the APS - the Association of Private Schools, which was formed to advocate on behalf of the private schools in the region and assist them with the resources that they are lacking. The work was mostly administrative, as the organization has been sitting stagnant for years and really didn't have much of a structure or plan to work from. I think it's enough to say that we've made some progress, but that I felt my impact was too indirect and that I can be of greater assistance with some other projects.

This week I've been teaching at the school that belongs to our host family. The routine is basically that I show up in the morning, the administrator calls me to one of about 5 different classrooms, and then walks out. Sometimes he hands me a textbook, and at first I used to ask him how far along the students were and what should be the topic of the lesson. I've since learned to thank him for the textbook, put it down on a desk as he walks out, and just get started.

Over the last five days I've taught a little bit of everything. I've really enjoyed getting to know the kids. They're quite curious, and of course some are very intelligent, but they work with next to nothing. Several kids in each class will have no paper or writing utensils. My last class this afternoon was a creative art class, so I brought in some crayons and paper and did some drawing with five little boys. Afterwords, we photographed their masterpieces.

I'm going to call it a day and crawl under my mosquito net. I'll post again tomorrow!

- Davis

May 3, 2009

Learning the Language

This means "white person". This is what the kids call out to us whenever we go walking on the street. Obruni! They call it from the roadside, from their yards, and from inside their homes. When you look over, they either give a friendly wave or a timid smile, and then continue to call it out as you proceed out of earshot, presumably notifying other kids in the neighbourhood that you're out and about.

Marina and I were walking with our host-sister, Asia, the other day, through a chorus of "Obruni!", when an older lady called out to us in the local language. Asia listened and then called out in reply: "If you want to see them, just come to my house!"

In order to get yourself a tro-tro, you first need to track down a beat up old van. Put a decal on the back window with an ambiguous phrase like "LET THEM SAY" or "SHARP BRAIN". Next, cram in some extra benches so that anyone over 5 feet tall has to reorganize his or her skeletal structure in order to fit inside. Then, submerge it in the ocean for six months. After you've pulled it out, roll it through a ditch of mud and garbage. Then unleash a pack of 50 neglected puppies to tear apart what remains of the interior. Now cram in another bench or two. Finally, charge people to sit inside as you drive eratically through intense heat and humidity, colliding with other tro-tros and bouncing over potholes and curbs.

This was our means of transport this weekend as we traveled to the capital city, Accra, to do some lounging on the beach and to attend the filming of a live TV show.

Not only the name that some of my friends used to use when referring to my family's pet poodle, this is also a very popular food among the Asante people in Ghana. It's cassava root and plantain pounded and cooked into gooey white dough and submerged in spicy soup. This is what I ate on the beach, under the direction of, Bena, the young Asante man who accompanied us. They brought us two bowls of water and some soap so that we could wash our hands at the table. Then you just dig right in with your fingers. Bena kept insisting that I stop chewing and just swallow the slimey stuff straight down, which made it feel like I was taking some kind of weird medication.

This was my fuel as I played soccer on the beach in what I estimate to have been 200 degree heat. I lasted about 20 minutes before retiring to the shade to inhale some water. Here's a photo of me, intensely focused, as I dazzle my teammates and opponents with some of the gangliest soccer moves they've ever seen:


This is the most popular variety TV show on national Ghanaian television. And guess what? You know someone who was on the program last night! Well, I was actually just in the studio audience, but it was still cool to receive a call from the one person who I actually know in Ghana, telling me that he saw me on the show. I asked how I looked and he said "Funny!" I think he meant to say "Dashing." It's sometimes difficult to weed through these cultural nuances.


May 1, 2009

A Story about Pineapples

Five years ago, I was hiking through the Sumatran jungle with my friend Paul in search of Orangutans. The heat and humidity were suffocating and we had all kinds of unnecessary gear loaded on our backs. In the afternoon, we stopped for lunch by a creek and feasted on the most delicious pineapple ever feasted on by man. It's juicy goodness set me on a determined quest to one day find its equal.

Two days ago, my friends, that quest concluded successfully.

Marina and I had just finished a rather pessimistic chat about what was actually good about Ghana (did I mention that we've faced a few challenges?), when the unassuming, spiky little fellow was delivered to us. After one bite, we looked up at each other, and proclaimed at the same moment "-the pineapples".

Since then, we've discovered a few more positives. By way of the delightful pineapple, actually. We purchased one for ourselves, and were walking home from the market, when a young man stepped out of his home and called out:
"Hey! What is that?"
"Um.. it's a pineapple."
"Ah, this no good!" he replied with a big smile, "leave it with me."
We told him we'd be back in some time. We took the pineapple home and chilled it in the fridge, then sliced it up and carried it down to his home. A man I'd met a couple of days earlier joined us and the four of us sat and slurped our pineapple in the shade.

Then today, I was walking Marina home when the same young man, Isaiah, came out of his home once more. This time, he was holding a pineapple of his own, and calling us over. He handed Marina the pineapple, and when we said we'd bring it back shortly, he told us to keep it for ourselves. As we were leaving (and clearing a path through the dozen or so kids that had gathered around to stare at us), he told us to drop by anytime.

Isaiah pushing a wheelbarrow up our street.

Earlier this evening, Marina and I were having a drink at a nearby patio-pub when we ran into Isaiah a third time. He joined us for a beer, and then invited us to go with him to church, where he told us he plays the bongo (my kind of church!). So, the three of us hopped in a taxi and headed off to church, with flip-flops on our feet and beer on our breath.

The church that Isaiah attends twice a week is a half-constructed building, on a dark little side-street, held up by wooden supports. The congregation sits under whirling fans and prays passionately along with the pastor, who gave his entire sermon staring directly at Marina and I and translating everything into english for us. This made it difficult to doze off. Once prayers were finished, we were invited to stand up and introduce ourselves, which we did, to warm welcomes all around. We then joined into the dancing, clapping, and singing (or off-key mumbling, in our case) as several of the church-goers drummed away on bongos of all shapes and sizes.

As we walked home with Isaiah, total strangers greeted me in the darkness - by name. "Day-bis", is all they'd say, with a smile. The Elghana coordinators had told us that our names would get around faster than we might expect. They were right. And it's nice to feel welcome.

On top of that, we've got a fresh, chilled, juicy pineapple waiting for us in the fridge!