Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Full of surprises

Ok, I lied. I haven't totally gotten settled in. I was just out biking and I had to break to let a motorbike pass by. It was carrying two human beings, and four (live) goats. No sidecar. They did not teach us how to do this at motorcycle training in Canada (something to think about, Dad). I also purchased a bike lock and tried to install it but I am mechanically inept and just ended up hurting myself.

But on the way home it was dusk, and evening prayers were beginning. The air was filled with the smoke of a thousand wood stove fires, and the rhythmic singing of prayers was drifting through the streets. As I weaved my way among the humans and cars and bicycles and animals, I was reminded again of the strange and unique and raw beauty of the city. I hope I never lose sight of this.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Rural farming and wise goats


Last Tuesday I went and spent a day and night in a small village on the outskirts of Tamale, called Kambonayili. It's a farming community of roughly 207 people, where they grow crops like peanuts (called groundnuts here), yams, and maize. I was taken in by a kind and friendly farmer named Ibrahim, who spoke some English (and was quite excited to learn more!). I spent the first afternoon with some of the men of the village, shelling peanuts, which were to be processed by the women later on. So we sat in the shade of a mud-clay building, protected from the brutal heat of the afternoon sun, and I tried mastering the art of peanut shell removal (which I got pretty good at). I also entertained the local kids, who were pretty excited to have a foreign visitor among them. My whole visit actually ended up being with the men of the village, who stayed pretty segregated from the women, so I really didn't get much insight into their lives.

That evening, after a dinner of TZ (a starchy ball of paste made from flour of sorghum or other grains, which you eat with a soup or sauce), we sat around outside as the sun went down. It was really quite tranquil outside -- Kambonayili is off the power grid, so there weren't any traffic lights or blaring CD players to distract us. I stared at the stars as they emerged, and Ibrahim spent a good hour and a half reading through my "Dagbani for Beginners" book, reading out English sentences and their Dagbani equivalents. I was reminded of time at the cottage back in Canada (near North Bay), sitting outside and watching the sky in the evening, surrounded by trees and fresh air. At one point, some kind of insect ran into my shorts, only to emerge a few minutes later. It was a fairly large spider that would run a few steps, then hop a few times, then repeat. It dashed/hopped off into the bushes. If anyone can look up large hopping Ghanaian spiders, and tell me if it was highly poisonous, I would appreciate it (although maybe I'd rather not know).

The next morning people awoke before sunrise for morning prayers (Islam is the predominant religion in this area), and after breakfast it was time to start working the field. Ibrahim, his younger brother, another young farmer and I all walked roughly twenty minutes to Ibrahim's yam farm. It's the dry season, so there's not much growing now besides some grass and weeds, which need to be removed before planting season begins. So we all got down into the dirt with hand-held hoes, and hacked away at any greenery around, stacking it into piles.

It was pretty extreme work. After a few hours my hands were blistered, my throat was parched and my energy levels had basically dropped to zero. Keep in mind that temperatures go up to around 40 deg C at this time of year! Thankfully we had a slight breeze blowing through every once in a while -- I don't think I've ever experienced so much relief from a gentle breeze before.

But this experience really drove home how difficult farming is in this area. I was exhausted after one morning, but the next morning Ibrahim and his brothers will be up again and out in the field, and they will keep doing this. Imagine how disruptive an illness can be to this type of livelihood -- farming requires huge amounts of human exertion. If a farmer or his family fall ill at a critical time, then the fields will not be tended to and they run the risk of losing a crop, and thus a significant amount of food and/or money.

Ibrahim was, at least relative to his village, pretty well off. I have included a picture of him sitting proudly on his motorcycle in his home. I now have a much better appreciation for the type (and difficulty) of work that has gone into earning his standard of living.

As a thank you gift, I gave him my "Dagbani for Beginners" book. I think he'll get a lot of use out it, and I'll pick up another one to make sure I can keep learning the local language.

I am settling into Tamale now. I've gotten used to the goats that wander the streets (I was told that they are wise so they will not be stolen or hit by cars), the cows, the bicycles racing through the crowds of people (sometimes motorbikes too), constantly being honked at by taxis (white people are seen as pretty viable customers), and being greeted by every child I walk by. It's a town that full of a lot of life, and there's definitely a ridiculous amount of stuff left to discover.

I have included some pictures from my time in Kambonayili, as well as a picture of the aftermath of my hair removal surgery.

Thank you to everyone for the comments you've left!! I appreciate them all. And it looks like I have a lot of support for this pink bike idea... I should also mention that almost all the bikes in Tamale are women's bikes, so I would be riding a pink girls' bike with a basket. I'm up for it. (Sorry, Dad.)

Monday, February 13, 2006

First posting from Tamale

Hello from Tamale, Ghana. It has been a long and exciting trip to get here, and I’m incredibly happy to finally be getting settled into the city that will be my new home for the next 10 months!

On Wednesday, Monica and I flew from Toronto to London, England, where we had a several hour layover. We left the airport and met Monica’s friend for a cup of coffee before continuing on to Accra. This definitely made for a surreal situation – I went from a Canadian winter, to drinking tea and coffee in a British park while drunk people yelled at us, to landing in the sensory-stimulating city of Accra… all in the span of 22 hours.

Accra is Ghana’s capital city, with an official population of about 2.2 million – but this could be much higher. Suffice it to say that Accra is full of life and energy. However, I think that my emotional reaction to the city would have been a lot stronger if it hadn’t been for the month I spent in Bangkok’s largest slum, Klong Toey. I had already been exposed to a community with open sewer systems, dogs roaming the streets and tonnes of street vendors selling everything under the sun, so in a way I’d been given a bit of a buffer to this experience. Monica agreed, based on her experience in East Timor, and seeing Accra actually made her a bit homesick for Timor.

Tom met us at the airport, and showed us around. We didn’t stay too long in Accra, spending only enough time to visit Monica’s office and for me and Tom to get a haircut. In an effort to make a good impression on my new employers, I have shorn off my shaggy mop of hair. I hope it eventually grows back to its full lustre, although the barber did a very good job with us.

Another thing I am trying to do in the name of integration is avoid handing people things with my left hand. As is the case in many countries in the world, in Ghana your left hand is supposed to be used for cleaning your bottom, and so it is not polite to use it in other day to day activities. This is tough, since I’m left-handed. The word “left” is derived from a word meaning “sinister”, which I guess many Ghanaians will think I am as I hand them money from my disgusting left hand, but I’m making an effort to change this habit.

From Accra we went to the city of Kumasi, north-west of Accra, where we spent another night before continuing on to the small town of Atebubu. From Atebubu we took a combination of bus, station wagon, boat and truck to get to Tamale. If you are interested in checking on a map, the cities we went through were: Atebubu to Yeji, over Lake Volta by ferry to Makongo, then to Tamale. It was a pretty long four days of travelling!

So now I’m getting settled into Tamale. Today Tom and I went out and found me a bicycle. Many people ride bikes here – the city’s main street has its own dedicated bike path going both directions! We found a pretty sweet ride – maroon, single speed, basket on the front – in the market. We were given help bargaining from Tom’s brother Lukman (it’s pretty common for EWB volunteers to refer to the family they are staying with as their actual family members). There are no connotations with men and the colour pink here, so I might trade in my maroon bike for a pink one just for the hell of it – a cultural experience!

The best part of coming here so far has been the beginning of my demystification of Africa. Up until my experience with EWB, my knowledge of Africa was largely limited to what I read in the news, and what I saw on World Vision commercials. The picture they paint is, by and large, a fairly hopeless and victimised one. However, this picture is obviously a grossly over-simplified one. Yes, poverty is a powerful force here, but by focusing on the negative aspects of this continent, the media presents a very one-sided image of Africa. I feel blessed to have been given the opportunity to meet and talk with normal people living here, to understand that, just like anywhere else in the world, people here go to the store to buy food, go to work, spend time with friends, bike through the city, care for their children, fall in love. I am not denying that Africa is a continent facing incredible challenges; rather, I want to convey how visiting Ghana has helped me gain an appreciation of the universal humanity that is present here.

So in closing, I’ve posted a picture taken in Atebubu of tro-tro* drivers. They are sitting in the shade in the tro-tro station, collecting fares and preparing to transport people across the country. This is an example of one type of day to day life in Ghana, and is an image that I feel is important to better understand a country that is a world away, and largely unknown to many of us in Canada. It’s a very welcoming country, and a country full of incredible energy, and I hope to be able to share some of this energy with you through my blog!

*Tro-tros are any form of transport other than taxis or buses, such as vans converted to squeeze in many people.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Departure Imminent!

Ok, so this thing works. Thank you for the lovely comments in my test posting, dear friends. You are ever so wonderful.

So basically, I'll be trying to update this blog as often as I can, instead of sending out mass emails that people may or may not read. I figure this way, if you're interested, you can check out the blog, and if you'd like the whole series of updates, they're right here for easy consumption.

Just to recap: I've been living in the Engineers Without Borders Training House (sometimes referred to as 'Chez EWB') for the past month. It's been simultaneously zany and rewarding, and I'm quite sad to see everyone drifting away to airplanes.

There were nine of us in training, with another contingent of about six people who came and went in the house. We all became quite close, have shared some crazy times, and have definitely helped each other's learning process. I feel I've come away from training with a lot, and that's due in large part to how great our group was. Here is a group shot of us at Niagara Falls (back row: Sara, Rachel, Jean-Luc, Veronic, Dave, Louis, Chad and Monica. Front row: Mike, Me, Kathleen and Sarah).

Tomorrow, Monica and I will be flying from Toronto for Accra, Ghana. There, we’ll be met by an overseas EWB volunteer, Tom. Tom is going to take us on a bit of a trip across Ghana, eventually depositing me in Tamale, which is in the Northern Region of Ghana (see the map). This will be my home base for the coming year. Tom will then take Monica back to the capital city of Accra, where she’ll be based.

I'm definitely getting the butterflies now, but that's tempered by the knowledge that I've been given an incredible opportunity. This is an opportunity both for personal growth and learning, and also an opportunity to do work that will have a positive impact on people's lives. This is quite exciting, and as depature date rolls closers, I'm more and more glad that I decided to fill out the EWB application way back in August!

This is just a preliminary intro posting. Please check back regularly, and feel free to leave me messages. I will definitely appreciate it, and I'll be thinking of all of you tomorrow as I'm being hurled across the ocean. Kaloo kalay!

Sunday, February 05, 2006

First test posting

First test of my blog.