Wednesday, April 25, 2007

A Recent Night

It’s 6:30pm. I’m at the office, working on my laptop.

The power goes out, the office plunged into darkness. The national load sharing program is sporadic, unpredictable. It’s now dark in my office, and the fan has stopped.

When the fans stop the heat makes itself known. It’s always apparent, below the surface, indicated by the thin layer of moisture that is ever-present on your skin. But when the fans stop, the heat truly emerges from invisible recesses. It descends, sucks your energy in an apparent attempt to generate yet more heat – you feel tired immediately, listless.

I pack up my things, and walk out of the office.

In the dusk light, the night watchman, Sadiq, is praying, his head towards east, towards Mecca. I wait for him to finish, then hand him the keys.

“Do you think that the power will come back on soon?” I ask Sadiq.

Sadiq smiles. He has a warm smile, like a young grandfather. “As for that,” he responds, “I can’t best tell.”

No one can predict the vagaries of the Volta River Authority. It’s another factor that is out of people’s control here: like the weather, although this one is man-made. If the power goes out, the population accepts it. There’s no recourse, especially given the state of energy emergency the country finds itself in.

I jump into a shared taxi, squish in next to two women. “Anawula” I say, and between laughs at my attempts at Dagbani, they respond, “nahh.”

The taxi drops me at my neighbourhood, and I wander through the darkened paths, avoiding sprawling sheep and head-level clotheslines, my eyes squinting in the half-light. “Ti deema!” neighbours call out to me – “let’s eat!” Food is shared here, always – to deny someone the opportunity to partake in your meal is an insult.

In my compound, I’m greeted by one of the old women. This compound is predominantly female – maybe 10 out of the 15 inhabitants is a woman. She takes my arm and, with a flashlight, gestures at the ground in front of my door. Written in charcoal is a message: my friend Sadik (not the watchman) has come to greet me. Greetings are a regular social ritual here, and I’m honoured that Sadik has taken the time to come to my home.

In my room, I open the windows in an attempt to drive some of the heat out into the relatively cooler evening air. I eat my TZ outside, sitting on a low stool. I can’t see the soup into which I dip the maize paste – I have to feel around in the dark with my finger, determine the level of the liquid.

I walk outside for “ataya”, tea. A group of young men is gathered around a small charcoal stove. This neighbourhood is called Moshizongo – meaning the neighbourhood of the Moshi, an ethnic group from neighbouring Burkina Faso. Some of the traditions from this country have made their way into my area, including tea. Men can frequently be seen sitting around such stoves, brewing and re-brewing green tea, passing it around in small cups.

This stove is ingeniously made from old bicycle rims – the spokes are twisted into coils which support the flaming charcoal. A small teapot sits atop it all, and the flames lick the sides of the pot as the liquid inside hisses. The whole contraption looks medieval, like it was forged in hell.

One of the men, Chief, plucks the pot from the flames with his bare hand. I wince, knowing that my uncalloused fingers would never accomplish such a feat. He carefully pours the tea into a separate cup, lifting the pot as high as possible above the cup – this ensures maximum mixing of the tea. Like a good wine, he wants as much oxygen to get into the drink.

Chief isn’t his real name. Someone walks by and greets him, calling him Abass. This is his real name, but he shakes his head and calls out to the person. He’s been granted honorary chieftancy over the neighbourhood, and wears the honour with pride.

We drink our tea, and some of the more curious in the group ask me question after question about life in Canada. I tell them this activity is one of the things I most value about life in Ghana – a communal gathering of friends.

After, I fill a bucket with water, and head to the outdoor open-air concrete stall that serves as a bathroom. I shower under the moonlight and stars, trying to get as cold as possible. As I sleep, I know I’ll be hot. I’ll rotate throughout the night, trying to expose each part of my body to the night’s air, feeling like a pig on a spit.

I use my mosquito net. I hate the feeling of mosquito bites – not for the itchiness, but for the terrible potential they carry. Will that mosquito carry the malaria parasite? Mosquitoes here are like a game of malarial Russian roulette.

So under my net, rotating in my mattress already damp with sweat, I try to catch faint draughts of air through my window. I hope that tomorrow, the Gods at VRA will grant us power.

The sounds of distant drumming (a youth troupe practising for an upcoming demonstration) move through my window slats.

I sleep.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

The rains

The rains have started to fall.

At the first sign of rain, all the children in my compound rushed into the centre courtyard, dancing and clapping their hands. This rainfall signals the gradual transition into the rainy season – that movement from parched, brown landscapes into lush green fields and humidity. And it’s certainly cause to celebrate.

It’s an understatement to say that the rains are significant here. Not only will they provide some respite from the omnipresent heat – more importantly, they’ll provide life to the farmers of Ghana.

The majority of farming here is irrigated by rain. In the dry season, nothing can grow (there are some exceptions – for instance, onion fields can be seen near perennial water sources like rivers). Yams, cassava, groundnuts, hot pepper, tomatoes, corn – they’re all dependent on nature, and if the rains don’t come, the crops won’t grow.

So the fact that the rains have come, and are falling more consistently early in the season, bodes well for the people of northern Ghana. People are happy, then, when the downpours come.

Another issue with rain is Ghana’s power. We’re currently experiencing an energy crisis. The majority (something like 70%) of Ghana’s power is generated through a hydroelectric dam on Lake Akosombo. The problem is that last year’s rains were not sufficient, and left the water level in the dam too low to operate at maximum capacity. Thermal generating plants are being constructed to help bolster the system’s output, but from what I’ve read, this is still a few months away.

As a result, the power company has instituted power rationing. This means that 25% of the time, my neighbourhood has no power – for 12 hours at night, and then a day later, 12 hours during the day, we have no electricity in our house.

I can’t imagine the effect this is having on Ghana’s industry – imagine a factory which normally operates around the clock, not being able to operate 25% of the time because of a lack of power.

And there’s no immediate end in sight. In the south, the rains aren’t expected to start falling until July – until then, the water level in the dam will continue to dip lower and lower.

In urban Canada, we often see rain as a nuisance, preventing us from bike riding or a visit to the park – or at best, we thank the rain for improving the colour of our lawn.

In Ghana, the rain is life: an example of how the vagaries of nature can upset the fragile balance so many people cling to. For many people here life here is precarious and uncertain – this lack of security, I think, is one of the primary characteristics of poverty.