Viewing by month: November 2010

Portrait of a fifth month in West Africa

The slump in the middle of my sunken foam mattress has taken my pelvis and sacral spine hostage. Could be worse, I could be hungry.

At one point or the other I knew I would wake up as if in some lucid dream and realize I was in Africa. That’s what happens when I awake in the middle of the night in a U-shaped contortionist pile.

‘ Oh Ghana is one of the most stable countries in West Africa’ people said before I left. Then they starting reading out Journalist for Human Rights ( and began writing feverish e-mails- ARE YOU OK? DO YOU HAVE MALARIA?

Yes, the country is sitting on natural resources crooked as all hell, yes people don’t drink clean water sometimes and yes my belly has the semblance of a can of cream corn infected with Botulism. But, I’m ok. Sometimes I miss home, and I need to get a fix. I call my boyfriend when something ‘BIG’ happens.

I walk up to the guys selling scratch (that’s what you call mobile phone top up cards here…. I know it sounds naughty and drug -like) I scratch at my computer modem or phone top up cards like a drug addict feaning for their next fix…but in a way it’s like scratching at a mosquito bite that will suddenly rip open and expose all of these e-mails from family and friends to whom I should be regailing tales of Africa to. What it is…how dirty it is ( relative to most North American towns and cities)- how hard it must be for me to cope…how I’m hero for even stepping off a plane and into… here.

Relating how I live here sounds strange to an outside ear…. life is sometimes filled with bathrooms that are holes in the ground, water that gives me worms, power that…. I swear to god just went out and I am now working on reserve battery. I’m the first person who’s lived this life. It’s all relative. So how to regail?

It’s hard to explain that it hurts when the kids next door ask me for food every day, in this ” very stable West African country.” On the one hand I want to tell everyone I’m fine, but some…many people here aren’t, many people are hungry-but then I make Ghana sound like its famine ridden…it’s not, it’s filled with resilient people who can go three days without food, it’s not socially ‘right’ in our eyes…. but it makes it wrong that I hear people complaining they don’t have their bread and butter in Canada. Most of us do- some people here don’t.

Like it or lump it, when you walk a 12-year-old boy to the Chop Bar stands and buy him dinner because he’s going without…so his sisters can eat…. you realize …it could happen in Canada…. but it happens a lot here. It happens in what is considered to be middle class Ghana. My roof is made of tin, so are the roofs around me, but parents are sending their kids to school, washing and ironing their clothes, and trying as best they can to feed 1, 2 or 7 children…sounds the same as a North American family…. until you hear the father in the back yard of your house saying 2 of the kids are going without food tonight…because there’s not enough…and he’s not speaking of no food as in ‘there’s stil a jar of pickles in the fridge and some Kraft slices ,‘ there’s really no more ground up grain with stew.

I walk Kwame to the chop bar at 8pm. He says nothing as 2 fistfuls of Kenke (Kenke is a grainy dough of cornmeal and water, wrapped inside a corn husk and steamed until it reaches a Play-doh consistency it fills your stomach in much the same way) is spooned out to him. I know that if I didn’t live on the same property as him, he wouldn’t be eating…I know that by feeding him tonight it means nothing…. but I get tired of saying ‘no’ sometimes. Sometimes he lets me show him yoga moves…. he fills me up as I fill his tummy. It’s a cool exchange.

But I’m not here every night-

Ghana is still a low-income food deficit country. Despite developmental efforts by the World Food Programme, UNICEF and U-Name-It NGO’s it dropped 10 places to 152nd out of 182 countries in the 2009 Human Development Index ( WFP website). Some 45 percent of the population lives on less than US$1 a day- which is 3 cidi and 50 Pesois. To put it in context for ya’ll, 1 cidi will buy you a large bottle of water- and 2 cidi will give you a large portion of rice…. you might use you’re last remaining 50 pesois (cents) to travail the streets of Accra on a tro tro- an overland heap of metal with all manner of re-purposed parts feebly holding it together, to get you from one end of the city to the other.

On the average, seven out of ten people living in the rural areas of this country are poor- dirty water, malaria prone…poor. The situation is much worse in parts of northern Ghana where up to nine out of ten people live below the poverty line. I saw this in the north…and adding 3 to 4 children to your life of being a 9 out of 10 statistic is hard to swallow…but Ghana is a country with a stable democracy and ‘it’s all safe and stuff’ according to one of my friends back home…and journalists I have spoken to working in neighboring Sierra Leone and Liberia…

There is widespread food insecurity in northern Ghana and small wars are fought as a result. Its vegetation, climate and malnutrition rates are similar to those of Sahelian countries. The main occupations are food and cash crop farming. These groups have been identified as the most food-insecure people in the country- Accra is the centre of the universe.and…in 6 months I have come to believe that everything outside of this bustling town ceases to exist to it’s politicians.

In 2008, high food prices stretched already depleted family budgets, and in 2009, the impact of the global financial crisis led to a jagged downward lightening bolt statistical line in agricultural exports and a reduction in international remittances- I’ve visited desolate cocoa fields that Cadbury promises they’re coming back to re-jig…ahem international remittance

- Kwame is still hungry…alot…and he’s middle class.

Food continued- The goofing around part

I wake up with aches and pains in my back and curse the fact that I sleep on the floor because bed frames are hard to come by and because most people here know it’s the expats that want to buy bed frames- they jack up the price to that of a small mortgage. Still, instead of being mad about this fact I remember that Kwame is often hungry and every night I quietly creep by his two aunties who sleep n wooden benches in the cool Harmattan night-while the children who have school in the morning huddle together inside in safe, sleeping splendor.

You may wonder why I am deeking back and forth between silly house games I play and hunger in Accra and observances I’ve made on the perceived image of this country and the not-so-baseless interpretation of what in fact happens in this country….in a middle class community.

All I’m getting at is…their life is my life at the moment. I need to inject humor into my life sometimes to make up for some of the sadness I feel when the power is out and my fan whirs to a slow death halt. But if I told anyone that lives in this middle class Ghanaian community how I feel for them, feel that some how my life is entwined with theirs they’d tell me I’m being silly and to judge them in that way is unfair and out of context…but is that what you’d say?

So sometimes I look for huymerous vignettes …like these ones

So- from time to time I get loopy when I come home from a day at TV Africa so when my roommate Jess is brushing her teeth and I am blocking her spittoon this is how it goes down.

Jess: ‘ Can I spit’?

Sj retort: ‘ That’s what she said’

I whisper it slyly…and hope she’ll laugh…and she does because it takes her away from visions of interviews she conducted in Liberia with 33-year-old used-to-be-child soldiers. It’s a step away from hearing their voices asking her to be their mother when all she’s there to do is tell their story. What makes her feel even better is I made a sex joke with my head gear-like retainer in my mouth…….do you know how funny it sounds when someone says to you ‘dats what schee shaid’ ?…pretty blinking funny.

Two minutes later (approximately 10:45 last night) I was spotted galloping by her room on hand made Ghanaian broom stick…I was cackling like a witch through Jess’s bedroom screen door….I still had my retainer in…… imagine if I had of stayed on the anti malarials for more than 6 months? ( Known to induce Psychosis)

Yester night I was told by a woman carrying what looked like 18 pounds of meat on her head in the hot sun through Accra

‘ White lady you must be so hot, slow down your walking and feel betta…sorry you are hot.’

That’s what she said….


Things I learned to appreciate in August

  • That cold water really is in fact better for one’s hair
  • I like using hair care products for black hair. It’s so olive oily and divine smelling
  • I like the feeling of leave in conditioner and the smell of clean hair so much more after 4 days in the bush
  • I will never take a toilet for granted again
  • Let me reiterate, cold showers are really not that bad…
  • I love salads. But rice, was a completely overlooked food in my diet and it is A-ok
  • That you can cook a lot of things stove top…with a gas stove. These include- baked beans in a can from the expat store, chocolate to make chocolate macaroons (they stand the test of time those things…. they could be made over an open fire….god bless them), rice….rice…..also rice….it cooks rice good.
  • Learning how to cook foreign food has always been, and will remain one of my favorite things to do. The richness of inviting a Ghanaian to your home to teach you how to cook white beans ever so precisely and cutting onions with such care you want to take a picture of their goodness.
  • The sound of children singing in Ga ( local language) at 5:30am in your window and saying ‘ Aunty Sara How are you?’ will never leave my soul.
  • How everyone says ‘morning’ when it’s morning, ‘afta-noon’ when it’s afternoon and ‘evening’ when it’s evening to you. Even if they are straight faced and look like they want to kick your teeth in they say it…..I receive it.
  • Herculean sized cockroaches…yes even them I appreciate. They scuttle the way god intended them too. I love their freedom of movement and how the fact that they are so large make them intimidating, they know they’re intimidating, and …unless I flip them on their backs, they are un-stoppable.
  • Most of all…..I learned in August that even in the dankness of a dark story….there are things, moments and feelings to appreciate. Like the sound of someone’s voice that is far off in Canada saying ‘I love you’ when you’ve spent a day peeing in palm leaves and being laughed out of a refugee camp.

That’s August.

Month by Month

A month by month account is the best I can do with limited Internet and an inability to access this blog page nine times out of ten ( don’t fret I’ve been in contact with google Africa….no seriously I have!!!)

July: A month to settle in, a month to get used to the lackluster feeling of Accra. I craved the rural areas and spent 3 weeks convincing the IT boy at Critical TV to come to the Volta Region with me to do a human rights story on some neglected Lepars. The story was entitled ‘ How to pick Ghana’s battles’. Many lepars though painfully ostracised in Ghanaian society, are now well looked after in the nation’s capital… but only in the nation’s capital. Makafui, my intrepid new reporter was shocked at what happened to these people made to live on less than 5 dollars Canadian a month. Some go 3 days without food- their children turn to prostitution as a means to fund the family- many local men turn to the girls and call them ‘leper ladies’ of the night. It was my first intimate look at Ghana’s treatment of the ill- there is a pity here- but stigma sometimes stands in the way.

Makafui had never seen someone with the disease- he asked if it was contagious, I told him ‘no,’ and as simply as that…he was a activist journalist. Small success. I spent the month tasting Ghanaian food and learning the language – 30 phrases to be exact. I learned to cover my lower belly and thighs in a society where covering up is class. I had my thighs slapped on a busy street and went home to burn my short shorts that night ( well- put them in the back of the closet). I also found my home- the roof over my head with a space for yoga on the roof. I live for 40 dollars Canadian a month ( 50 cedi) and I pay my power bill ( when the power is on) once every two months. I live in Labadi- a middle class burb of Accra- I am on the fringe of the expat community with their barbed wire encased palaces and washing machines that feed on the little power and water Ghana has to be drained. Middle class in Accra equals tin roofed, cement houses, most of which have a water closet out back, but because I’m privileged, I have a toilet. I also have the most beautiful group of children that kick up the dust of our compound and call me aunty Sarah ( Sarah Jane is hard to say for most tongues here, understandably so I go by the name of Ama or Aunty Sarah). My night’s are usually laced with some time with Esther, Erica, Adjoa, Isaac, Emmanuel or whoever else is playing on our lot. They say ‘gimme toffee” and I say ‘would you like help with your schoolwork instead?’ Last week I helped Emmanuel who’s 13 answer the question ‘ what should Ghana do with it’s oil money when it comes’- it was like Christmas for me. Emmanuel says Ghana should have more hospitals so his mother can stop having children at home because ‘ it so loud’ ha ha. July laid the foundation of my life here. Open sewers no longer phase me, I know what points on my street I need to hold my breath at- and every other place outside of Accra has relatively clear sewers as the population is more meek in these areas, and garbage is burned.I’m not sure what is the worse of two evils- but what I feel is evil is simply a hurdle here- there’s a willingness to improve recycling, sewage……from the Ghanaians, not their leaders- there’s oil to think about.

I learned that Emmanuel was more transparent on the subject than his country’s leader.

That was what July was about…..talking to the locals.