Sunday, December 03, 2006

A Royal Visit

The GG has come and gone in a blur of motorcades, dust, singing children, free lunch, important people, overprotective soldiers, dancing, kind words… At the end of it all, I was left impressed by the Governor General’s sincerity and passion, but still unsure of the value of such a large delegation to Africa. The Right Honourable MichaĆ«lle Jean’s visit to Tamale was an impressive whirlwind. She flew in to the Tamale airport from Accra in the late morning, stayed for about 6 hours, and then returned to Accra before nightfall. This was all part of a 5-day visit to Ghana, which in turn is part of a 5-country African tour she’s embarked upon.

Around 60 Canadians took part in the official luncheon at the Gariba Lodge, Tamale’s fanciest hotel. As I left work to bike to the Lodge, my shoes freshly shined and my shirt cleaned of the koko I’d spilled all over it that morning (maize/millet-based porridge wipes off surprisingly well), I could hear a siren sounding the passing of the GG’s parade of cars on the main road. By the time I got to the main road, I could only see the last of the 20-vehicle motorcade moving toward town: they were visiting a charity founded by a Canadian nun, which teaches skills like sewing and tie-dye to at-risk women.

As the sun beat down on me through a cloudless sky, I was thankful to have recovered my Bolga hat (bruised and battered but still fully functional). I met up with fellow EWBer Christian Beaudrie on the road, and we pushed our way through the radiant sun to the Gariba Lodge.

There, we stood around, making idle chit chat with each other and nervously wondering how to properly address the Governor General, as well as worrying that, conditioned by months in Ghana, I’d thrust my hand out in greeting to Her Excellency (she has to offer her hand first).

The air was also thick with the strangeness of it all – who would have thought that here, thousands of kilometres from Canada, volunteering to fight against global poverty, we’d be meeting Canada’s de facto head of state. I never thought that I’d be worrying about royal protocol on the streets of Tamale, but maybe I’m just not imaginative enough (reality once again proves stranger than fiction).

About an hour later, Mme Jean arrived to the sounds of a children’s choir and drums, surrounded by members of her Canadian entourage (mainly people involved in the development sector, including George Roter, our co-CEO for EWB).

The EWB delegation (made of Christian, Kristy Minor, George and me) got to speak with Mme Jean briefly before the lunch began and have our photo taken. She seemed genuinely interested in us, in what we’re doing here in Ghana.

According to Nancy Cosway (who heads the NORWASP project in the Northern Region), an aide approached the Governor General and told her they were running short of time, and that she needed to enter to begin lunch. She responded, “I’m here to learn from these people; that’s the reason I came here,” and continued to converse.

During the lunch, she spoke passionately about what she’d seen and experienced so far on her trip – focussing especially on inspirational women she’d met in Mali. Her sincerity was refreshing, and I was happy to see that, indeed, the GG has a heart, and it’s a big one. She asked further questions of the volunteers at the table, and a healthy discussion on the role of a Western volunteer overseas ensued.

The head of CIDA in Ghana was at our table. I was put on the spot when he said, “Luke, what do you think is the value of Western volunteers overseas is?” I won’t go into my response here, but I think it went over well enough. The lunch ended abruptly with the GG’s handlers whisking her off on a community visit before racing her to the airport to fly back to Accra.

The reaction among my Ghanaian co-workers to the GG’s visit was overwhelmingly positive. People were very happy to have seen Mme Jean on television as she got off the plane and started dancing to local drumming and dancing. They’re also very impressed that she’s black – a question I often get from people here is, “Are there black people in Canada?” It’s been a point of pride for me to be able to say that, yes, there are – indeed, our Governor General herself is black.

Mme Jean definitely projects a very humble, human face to people here – something that is rare in visiting officials, and something that I think is very important to reduce the paternalistic image of donor countries. As one of the secretaries in Walewale said to me, “The relations she had with the people were very good. She made a positive impact. Her human relation was very good.”

But that’s the big question I have – her degree of impact. At EWB we’re always encouraged to maximize the scope and quality of our impact, and I was left wondering if this trip was an effective use of resources. With all the money spent financing this trip, how many development projects could theoretically have been funded? Furthermore, does this trip encourage Canadians to simply pat ourselves on the pack and say “job well done?” with respect to our development projects (see this website for an example of such self-congratulatory feeling) when we should be saying “what MORE can we do?”

Of course, this trip can and will have benefits – bringing to light many of the problems facing the developing world so that we might be encouraged to act; humanizing and presenting a different, more positive side to these countries (by showing the Governor General celebrating many of the accomplishments in Africa); strengthening our official ties to the developing world. It’s just difficult to gauge the degree and effectiveness of this type of impact, and it’s difficult to weigh it against the potential problems.

In any case, the trip is underway. If it has to happen, I’m glad that it’s MichaĆ«lle Jean leading the way.

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Steve said...

Awesome story, Luke. I hope you bathed before you met her.

I'm sure her the GG will have many great things to say about you and EWB, both to the government and her high-society friends, both of which should mean good things for you and the organization.

Anonymous said...

Oi, you never answer my last question, did you show the Rt. Hon. Michaelle Jean your sand dance?

Did you exchange numbers at least?

Luke Brown said...

Steve: yes I bathed. But I think we were out of water at the time, so I probably only used a litre of store-bought purified water.

Anonymous: Who are you, anyway? No, I didn't do the sand dance. I was afraid one of the soldiermen guarding her would strike me down.

Anonymous said...

I'm your worst nightmare.

No I'm kidding its Pete