Author Archives: Antoinette Sarpong

About Antoinette Sarpong

Antoinette Sarpong was born in Toronto and grew up in Courtice, ON. After living in Burkina Faso for several months during a Canada World Youth exchange, she attended Ryerson University, where she graduated with a Bachelor of Journalism in 2005. She then worked as a story producer at CTV’s Canada AM before moving to Osaka, Japan, to teach English and write features for Kansai Scene magazine for five years. A self-confessed travel junkie, Antoinette is thrilled be part of the jhr team. Her journey is coming full circle to Africa, and Ghana, nonetheless, the country from which both her parents hail. She will be stationed in Accra for six months, working as a media rights educational officer at the African University College of Communications where she will be producing a human rights workshop curriculum, and collaborating with AUCC students, staff and local journalists in a variety of ways to promote human rights awareness on campus and in the community.

Africa’s mobile revolution

Mobile phone stands pepper cities and towns throughout Africa, where over 50 per cent of the population is expected to own a cellphone by 2012

I’m wedged between a rather sweaty man and the greasy window of a bus heading from Tamale to Nalerigu in northern Ghana. I’m going to research a story and traveling in Ghana’s Northern region is more arduous than I thought. The rural areas of Ghana are remarkable. You can gorge on visual candy. We inch closer to the Burkina border. A mosque whizzes by, followed by a cluster of mud huts.  A girl carrying a pail of water on her head crosses the path of a woman with a baby strapped to her back. This too is familiar, but the cellphone the woman pulled out her small plastic sack is definitely not.

Even here, in remote villages, I’ve seen several people toting mobile phones. Mobile moguls MTN and Vodafone are mark their territory with brightly-painted shop stalls. Something is happening here. Mobile technology isn’t just an urban luxury or some Western fad. Africa isn’t generally associated with technological advancement, but Africans are defying stereotypes. They’re embracing mobiles and closing the gap between all Africans with new lines of communication.

On my recent visit to Togo, I saw the same trend. In the capital, Lome, there was no shortage of vendors hawking currency and mobile credit on every corner. It was the same story back in Tamale, once I made the long journey back to Ghana’s northern transport hub. After getting a good night’s sleep, I ventured out onto the streets around the central market the next morning. It was there that I met 29-year-old Ahmed Souleymane working at a Vodafone kiosk. It was one of several on the same street.

I asked Souleymane for a 5 cedi credit voucher ($3.76 CAD) and a question about Tamale’s technological turn. “Do you have a lot of customers here?”

“Oh yes,” answered Souleymane. “We have plenty customers.”

Now that mobile phones can be manufactured rather inexpensively, they’ve become much more accessible to the average African. In 2008, the total African mobile subscriber base was roughly 280.7 million people, or 30 per cent of the entire population. In 2012, the total subscriber base is expected to reach 561 million, which is about 53.5 per cent of the entire continent, according to African Telecoms News.

It’s a far cry from my last visit to Africa in 2000, when I sat on a cold bench in a dimly-lit call centre in Burkina Faso. It had the personality of a bunker, but it also had one of the few operational land lines in the village where I was living.

Now with telecom heavyweights Tigo, Zain and the soon to be launched Glo Mobile creating more competition in Ghana’s mobile market, it’s not uncommon to see people using their mobile to check Facebook, their bank account or the price of plantains in a nearby town.

Mobile phones are also playing an important role in citizen journalism. Since 2007, The Voices of Africa Media Foundation has trained over 30 mobile reporters in Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya and Tanzania to use their mobile phones to report on issues in their communities. The mobile movement shows no sign of slowing down, I thought, as I watched another patron picked up some credit at Souleymane’s booth.

“Why do you think mobile phones are so popular now?” I asked.

“If we travel and want to meet someone in Gambaga, or Kumasi or Accra, said Souleymane, we don’t need to write them a letter anymore. It’s better to call them,” he continues, with a boyish grin. “It’s easy.”

The waiting room

Falling ill in Ghana is often accompanied by fears of contracting malaria, which accounts for one in five childhood deaths in the country

This is a first. I’m sitting in a hospital lab in Accra, being serenaded by Bollywood music on the radio at 9 a.m. I made it four months in Ghana without visiting an emergency room, but the headache and fever that I went to sleep with the night before were there to greet me the next morning. They were accompanied by abdominal pain and two marble-like lumps in my pelvic area, where no lumps had previously been before. I felt dizzy and disoriented, like being all too present in a hot, sweaty, lucid dream.

Like me, my roommate, upon hearing my symptoms and seeing my general state of confusion, seemed to think that malaria could be the bandit behind my missing bill of health. It was with good reason. I stopped taking my anti-malarial meds a few weeks ago. So here I am, at one of Accra’s more reputable hospitals as a male lab tech drew my blood. I clenched my left fist and turned away as he inserted a needle into a welcoming vein. I’m not a fan of needles, and I really dislike the surgical glove stench of hospitals.

“Are you crying?” asked the lab tech.

‘No,” I replied, rather disappointed by his callous bedside manner. “It’s sweat.”

“Oh, ok,” he said. “Go to the waiting room, I’ll call you.”

I paid 19 cedis ($13 CAD) for my consultation with the doctor, 38 cedis ($26.75 CAD) for the lab tests, and would later fork out 65 cedis ($46 CAD) at the pharmacy. It’s no wonder, at these prices, that many Ghanaians cannot seek medical treatment for malaria, a disease which is responsible for one in every five childhood deaths in Ghana. Ghana’s Health Minister, Dr. Ben Kunbuor, has even noted malaria’s strain on the economy. Fighting the disease accounts for one third of the national health budget. Combating malaria, one of the eight UN Millennium Development Goals, is likely to be unmet by the 2015 deadline, according to the United Nations Development Programme, unless more effort is made to focus on preventative care.

Sitting in a waiting room, knowing that the average Ghanaian suffers from two to three bouts of malaria a year, I began wondering about the ailments of the dozen or so people around me. It was somewhat of a relief, around 5 p.m., when a doctor told me that I had a urinary tract infection.

After several days of bed rest, pills and cranberry juice, life continued as usual. Giggling kids in school uniforms ran by me, on my way to work. Familiar faces in the neighbourhood waved as I passed. Even a lone hen added life to the scenery as it clucked its way across the road. That was until a sedan barreled into it. I guess this chicken crossed the road to cross over to the other side.

It was another reminder of why it’s so important to take time to relax and enjoy life, as Ghanaians so often do. Life can be hard, anywhere, really. But I’m always reminded of how meaningful each breath is when I get sick because I realize that it can be taken away so quickly—by a battered old sedan or a mosquito’s stealth sting.

So You Think you Can Gota

Ball, heel. Ball, heel, I tell myself. I glance at a woman shuffling around the circle of people in front of me. Then I glance behind me at my dance instructor. 

He’s a 28-year-old cyclone of arms and legs, and he’s coming right at me. I beg my body to follow the choreography while I try to keep up with the two drummers in a mirrored room at the University of Ghana’s School of Dance, lest I collide with my Ghanaian dance guru.

I think I have a pretty good sense of rhythm but this is my first African dance class and I’m not getting the movement as quickly as I would have hoped. Granted, I’m no professional, like the contestants on the recent slew of reality dance shows such as So You Think You Can Dance, Dancing with the Stars or America’s Best Dance Crew.

But I’m African. This should come naturally, right?

I’ve wanted to take a traditional dance class since my arrival in Ghana three months ago because music and dance are integral aspects of Ghanaian culture—in addition to being an amusing, drunken denouement to my family’s social gatherings.

Our instructor, Kofi Anthonio, summed up the importance of dance in Africa before teaching us our first series of movements. “In Africa,” said Anthonio, to the seven females sitting in a circle on the dance floor, “music and dance are like the ocean in which we swim.”

When an American friend told me about Anthonio’s weekly five cedi ($3.58 CAD) class, I was ready to dive in. I peeled myself out of bed, took some cough syrup to combat my impending cold and strapped on my dancing shoes.

That was my first mistake.

“We always say we are dancing in a pool,” said Anthonio. “Before we get in, we take off our sandals. We need to respect our ancestors.”

While African dance is often used at cultural celebrations, it can also be used for religious worship.

Standing barefoot in a circle, we start chanting our names to get into the dancing spirit as Mustafa, one of the two drummers, pounded on a traditional Ghanaian drum that is played with stick and hand. 

Minutes later, the tiny, mirrored dance studio filled with sound like a Sunday church service, punctuated with the pounding of Mustafa’s drum- the heart of any African dance rhythm. Lenny, the master drummer, gently chimed an African gankogui, a double bell made of iron that produces both a high pitched and low bass sound. I forgot about my cold as the hymn intensified and happily sang along as the bell and drum did their own melodic dance.

Our circle took on a whole new meaning once Anthonio explained its significance. “We normally dance in a clockwise direction in a circle. It signifies the life cycle and unity. I trust the person in front of me and the one at my back.”

Staring back at Anthonio as we performed the Gota, a partner’s dance hailing from Ghana’s Volta region, I tried to mimic his movement.

Mistake number two.

“Don’t worry if it’s not perfect,” said Anthonio. Of course, we need to stay true to movements, to respect our ancestors who gave them to us, but it takes time to get it,” laughed Anthonio, who has been studying African dance for seven years.

So as the dance gods and Anthonio intended it, I stopped thinking about the steps and crouched slightly to maintain the posture that many African dances demand. It was an intensely sweaty but fun two-hour workout that made me realize why African dance, a genre whose movements have inspired so many others, is strikingly beautiful.

Yes, the steps are important. But when it comes to African dance, it’s the minute you forget them and let the drum guide you that you are truly free.

From Trash to Treasure

Stuart Gold is an entrepreneur with a rather unusual marketing strategy. His product is complete trash—and he wants everyone to know it.

“This is our most popular bag,” says Gold, holding up a tote made of water sachets, commonly sold on the streets of Ghana. “You just fold it up, toss it in your shopping cart and you’re good to go,” he says, showing off his sack like a proud papa. “The best part,” adds Gold, “it’s waterproof.”

Gold is the CEO of Trashy Bags, a non-profit organization based in Accra that makes bags and accessories out of the discarded plastic bags that litter Ghana’s streets. In Ghana’s capital alone, it’s estimated that 270 tonnes of plastic waste is produced daily. By employing 60 Ghanaians at his factory and paying around 100 locals about $0.40 CAD for every kilo of plastic they collect, Gold is  supporting the economy and saving the environment in the process.

As I walk around the immaculately clean Trashy Bags showroom in Dwozulu, an industrial suburb of Accra, I find it hard to believe that the best-selling $4.00 CAD “smart bag,” made of 20 weaved water sachets, is really just rubbish.

The crinkle of plastic floods my ears as Gold leads me downstairs to the technicoloured factory where  the 10 million bags that have been collected are sanitized and sewn into sheets of fabric. Men and women, some with babies by their sides, are working at different stations, producing over 350 different designs.  A laptop bag, I’m told by twenty-five year old employee Josephine Edekor, will take two to three hours to make.

On another table, backpacks are being made with orphaned yogurt packages. I feel like I’ve stepped into an episode of Project Runway, with a motley crew of designers.

“It’s funny that I should be involved in this,” says Gold, in a charming English accent. The fifty-seven year old London native, who is an architect by trade, may seem an unlikely fashionista, but he’s clearly no stranger to ingenuity.  “I remember when I was 16,” says Gold, “my parents bought a new washing machine. There was this polystyrene packaging so I took it up to my bedroom, painted it, put lights under it and made it into a sort of table.”

It’s this ability to think outside the box and all of its packaging that Gold says needs to be encouraged in Ghana.

“What we’ve been taught in the developing world is that we don’t want to fit into categories. We should think outside them. But here [in Ghana] and in Africa, in general, people don’t do that,” says Gold. “They look at something and think, ‘this is rubbish,’ and throw it away.”

The Ghanaian government has also acknowledged this problem. After abandoning plans to ban the country’s cheapest form of packaging, they created  the Recycling Taskforce in 2004. The 16 person taskforce, made up of city officials, plastic manufacturers and water sachet producers, collects and delivers plastic bags to warehouses for recycling. But Accra’s choked gutters, beaches strewn with plastic debris and drivers tossing water sachets out car windows support statistics that show only two per cent of the city’s plastic waste is  recycled.

It will take time, says Gold, who co-founded Trashy Bags in 2007, to change attitudes towards the dangers of land pollution. But he’s optimistic. Trashy Bags are fast becoming a hit with Ghana’s expat community and are  sold at several retail outlets in the country. The bags are also exported overseas to Japan, Germany and Denmark and Gold hopes that more Ghanaians will embrace responsible waste disposal with better education.

“This project is not just about cleaning up,” he says. “It’s about teaching people that they can be innovative. By disposing of our rubbish responsibly, we are teaching by example and this is the best education of all.”

The Power of Proverbs in Ghana

In Ghana, proverbs are an education of sorts for young children like Enoch, left, and Erica

I got my wake-up call this morning right on schedule, at a quarter to six.

One of the twin girls living next door was wailing like a banshee as her mother bathed her with a bucket of cold water. As the crying girl, Akwele was being lathered up outside my window, her sister Akoko began bawling as well. Their mother tried to console them with some words in the local Ga language. When that failed, she raised a hand in the twin’s direction, but that only amplified the crying.

I went to the window as the twin’s father sauntered over to the bath basin.

He also said something in Ga and the tears stopped flowing. Still peeking out my window shutters, I saw an older boy in a school uniform join the scene as the dad spoke. Little did I know, class was already in session for the youngsters in my yard. I couldn’t understand what their father was saying, but a few English words greatly resonated with me:

“No condition is permanent.”

I may never know why the proud papa said what he said because his words of wisdom came wrapped in Ga packaging. However, I was familiar with the lesson behind them.

My Ghanaian friend, who was short on cash a few days before, also said them to me. “No condition is permanent,” he told me. “Business is slow right now, but things will change. They have to.” Even though I could only imagine the reality of the hardships that inspired his words, I understood their meaning having been raised by poetically proverbial parents.

That’s the thing about growing up Ghanaian. Proverbs play a pivotal role in our culture.

When I had to choose between two alternatives, my mom would listen to my situation and advise me that “the devil I knew was far better than the devil I didn’t.”

When I placed a dilemma at my dad’s feet, he would simply say: “Well, whatever you do, don’t test the depth of water with both your feet.” Upon careful reflection, which of course was his intention, I understood what I needed to do.

Africa is a continent known for its rich oral tradition. This is certainly the case in Ghana where one must talk little and listen much. Proverbs are life lessons. They’re morality and wisdom passed down in the form of poetic syntax. This is increasingly important in Ghana where the adult literacy rate is 65 per cent and 93 girls enter primary school for every 100 boys. Still too young to attend school, Akwele and Akoko were getting their education before sunrise.

I caught a cab to work. I was running late and Accra minibuses operate on rather loose schedules. I saw a vendor selling mobile phone credit along the way so I held out five cedi ($3.60 CAD) as the vendor jogged towards me at a red light. He gave me my phone card and my change just as the light changed. The cab took off- with the money I was supposed to hand over, still in my hand.

I looked back at the vendor who was yelling something at me as I sped off in the cab.

I felt awful. I asked the cabbie to drop me off and walked back to the point of sale. The vendor remembered me right away and smiled.

“Hey! You returned,” he said.

“Of course,” I replied, taking five cedis from my purse.

“I told you to drop it,” said the vendor, as he took his money.

“The car can’t stop on the roadway.”

“Oh,” I said, embarrassed. “I’m sorry.”

“You took the car back here?” asked the vendor.

“No, I walked.”

“Really?” he asked, smiling. “Thank you.”

“No, it was my mistake. Don’t mention it,” I yelled at the smiling vendor as I crossed the road to catch a minibus.

Someone once told me that you reap what you sow.

Alternative Medicine in Ghana Part Two: Herbal Remedies for the Common Cold

Ghanaian herbalist Kofi Budu with his cure for the common cold: mahogany bark.

When you’re living and working in a foreign country, at some point you can expect to get sick. So I wasn’t surprised when I came down with a cold last weekend.

What was surprising, though, was the strong disclaimer from the Ghanaian doctor that accompanied my prescription: “This will purify your blood,” he said, cupping the bark of a mahogany tree in his hands. Incidentally, this traditional Ghanaian cure for the common cold was also what the doctor ordered for infertile women. “When you drink this, you will conceive,” he said.

More interested in boosting my immunity than I was in babies and booster seats, I, like many Ghanaians, took the doctor’s words quite seriously. There are roughly 45,000 traditional healers in Ghana, with rural areas being the mecca for traditional medicine due to the high cost of mainstream medicine, doctor shortages and the deep spiritual beliefs that are often attributed to the causes of diseases in these regions.

I’ve always been curious about the efficacy of herbal remedies. My interest peaked following the recent arrests of illegal drug and aphrodisiac vendors at two of Accra’s major transportation hubs, Kaneshie Market and Nkrumah Circle, by Ghana’s Food and Drugs Board. It was a friend’s recommendation that led me to the office of 78-year-old herbalist Kofi Budu at his secluded house in the bushes of Akwadum, a small village in eastern Ghana.

Mr. Budu claims to have cured “countless” patients — both Ghanaian and foreign — of ailments ranging from diabetes and epilepsy to breast cancer and even AIDS. He does this, he says “with very potent herbs and roots” from his backyard.

After placing my prescribed bark into in a small plastic bag, Mr. Budu asked me to purchase potassium nitrate and M&B 760 from a drugstore to complete my prescription. The former is typically used in Western medicine as a diuretic, while the latter is an antibacterial.

Normally, Mr. Budu would mix the ingredients for me, but I had a long, bumpy journey back to Accra and it was getting dark. As the herbalist explained how I should boil my medicine, I stared at tree bark that he believes holds the key to curing some of the world’s deadliest diseases.

“So you’re telling me that you can cure cancer and AIDS?” I asked. “I’m telling you,” said Mr. Budu, with confidence. “I tried a medicine to treat about 10 people with AIDS and I was successful.”

Though section 18 of Ghana’s Food and Drugs Law prohibits the manufacturing of any drug that has not been registered with the Food and Drugs Board, many herbalists in Ghana have claimed to have found cures for serious illnesses like cancer and AIDS. However, doctor-patient confidentiality rules and the difficulty of actually finding a former patient to substantiate these claims leave much speculation about the effectiveness of herbal remedies.

Mr. Budu has been practising herbal medicine since 1942, having trained with his late father who was also an herbalist. He has absolutely no doubt in the efficacy of his medicine.

“African herbs are extremely powerful,” said Mr. Budu. If you know someone who is sick, bring them to me and I will cure them. You will see I am telling the truth.”

Mr. Budu didn’t charge me for my prescription because he said my restored health would “get the word out” about his medicine. So I made the rocky four-hour journey back to Accra and headed to a pharmacy near my home to pick up the necessary ingredients to concoct my cold cure. Surprisingly, they were sold out of M&B 760, at not one, but three local dispensaries. So I’d have to unlock the mysteries of Mr. Budu’s herbs another time.

In the meantime, already feeling refreshed from a plentiful dose of clean country air, I’ll settle for alternative medicine from my childhood: Advil, my bed and some chicken noodle soup.

Beauties and the Beasts

“They drugged me, and I started killing,” he said.

“I chopped off hands,” said another.

They were just boys, who couldn’t have been more than 10, but had seen more violence as child soldiers in Liberia than anyone should see in a lifetime.

As these boys, and several others like them, with equally horrific stories appeared on screen, they begged God for forgiveness.

Then, a video montage of Africans armed with machine guns shooting fellow Africans at close range. They were just random people caught up in the ravages of war.

Bodies hit the floor.

Repeatedly.

Blood spilled.

Repeatedly.

Civilians, who had been maimed with machetes, or small explosives, held their severed limbs, as a shocked and saddened audience couldn’t help themselves but stare at one of the two video screens on either side of a stage.

It was an assault of the senses in surround sound.

The 300 people in the audience, seated under the hauntingly beautiful lighting of chandeliers in the main conference room at the ritzy La Palm Beach Hotel, must have found this horrific imagery quite odd on a night dedicated to beauty.

So did Ekow Blankson, the affable, smooth-talking MC of the event that had brought everyone together that evening, the 2010 Miss ECOWAS Ghana pageant. “I know the images you just saw were disturbing,” said Blankson. “But the show must go on.”

2010 Miss ECOWAS winner, Ramatu Sidic

The annual Miss ECOWAS Ghana beauty pageant is one of many pageants in Ghana. It’s organized by Ghana-based event management group 702 Productions and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Commission. It’s not only a “cultural showcase of Ghanaian beauty and intellect,” but it’s also a chance for the 14 delegates, from all over Ghana to advocate for issues relevant to peace building and development in the ECOWAS region.

This year, the focus took aim at the eradication of small arms and light weapons, of which an estimated 30 million are smuggled, sold and traded in Africa, resulting in the imagery that had just stunned the audience.

But as MC Blankson suggested, the show went on, in typical pageant style. There were a series of catwalks in traditional outfits representing each delegate’s region. There was also a showcase of breathtaking fashion from up and coming Ghanaian designers, after which, the 14 beauties were whittled down to ten.

There were musical interludes and dance performances as contestants, no doubt, ran around chaotically backstage changing outfits.

Also, as expected, there was an esteemed panel of judges, comprised of prominent Ghanaians from the business community and public office, who posed questions to the delegates about issues related to politics, peacekeeping and development. Of course, there were many beautiful contestants, ranging in age from 20 to 25 years old who had primped and prepped for this evening for months.

There were glossed lips, perfectly coiffed black curls, and huge pearly white smiles that, if pageant clichés are true, were perhaps held firmly in place during those tense elimination periods, with Vaseline.

What was quite unexpected though, as the top 10 became five and the costumed strutting was replaced with “peace speeches” from three delegates, was the spotlight shifting from the beauty contest to the actual issues in the ECOWAS nations.

“We need to work more to empower the young people, especially women,” said delegate number 11, 25-year-old Kaimo Lutterodt.

“The youth have no jobs so they turn to crime,” Lutterodt continued. “Companies need to introduce apprentice schemes for young Ghanaians.”

Miss ECOWAS contestant shows off traditional outift from the northern region

Lutterodt, an articulate crowd favourite, entered the competition because she was “dedicated to the meaningful cause.” She also stood to win 3000 Ghana Cedis ($2,200 CAD), with a small ransom of other prizes and the chance to represent Ghana at the 2010 Peace Pageant at Sierra Leone in November.

Though the prizes and bragging rights alone were surely a strong motivator for the contestants, many of them, like Lutterodt, expressed a similar, desire to be ambassadors for Ghana so that they could address key issues.

Like 21-year-old communications student, Edna M. Agamah who said “the biggest challenge to youth in Ghana is that old men and women don’t know when to retire.”

If the ECOWAS pageant were awarded on crowd support, the thunderous applause and laughter that erupted after Agamah’s comment alone would have guaranteed her the diamond encrusted crown.

But instead, Agamah finished a respectable third, with 22-year-old year old Ramatu Sidic, from Accra taking the title.

Like so many pageants before, a stream of tears, a swarm of photographers and a thousand flashes followed as the former Miss ECOWAS, Sherilyn Reindorf Partey handed over of the proverbial scepter to Sidic.

It was definitely a night honouring the potential in 14 African beauties, which seemed fitting in a country renowned for its own beauty and potential. Initially, I was skeptical about whether a beauty pageant would empower young Ghanaian women and raise awareness about the issues that they face.

As the night wore on, my cynicism subsided.

All this was done, to my complete surprise, tastefully, though still with a lot of T&A: thought-provoking and articulate dialogue.

Both Sides of the Fence

Relaxing at a Cape Coast Beach Resort

Sometimes, I wonder what my life would be like if my Ghanaian parents hadn’t raised me in Canada. From a shaded hut at a Cape Coast beach resort, I couldn’t really picture it.

I probably wouldn’t be sipping a banana smoothie, or eating a Spanish omelette for breakfast. That $3.65 meal would likely cost more than my entire day’s wage. I probably wouldn’t feel so guilty for enjoying it so much either, but I did, a little bit. That’s the reality of straddling a cultural fence.

On the other side of the resort fence, female vendors were carrying meat skewers and plantain, with the utmost poise, in pans perched high on their heads. They did this completely undisturbed as massive waves came crashing in inches from their feet. I’m not sure I could do what they do and I’m pretty sure my parents decided to immigrate to Canada so that I wouldn’t have to.

One of the vendors with plantain perched on her head entered the resort. She started circling a table full of blonde-haired tourists as they pulled their wallets out to pay for their coffees. She greeted them with a huge smile on her face I hadn’t seen the whole time she was outside the resort. She exchanged a few words with the tourists, and then she reached into her nest of plantain and brought one closer to a young man’s face for his inspection. He smiled, politely refusing it, but another girl sitting across from him shrugged her shoulders in his direction and reached into her wallet to retrieve a few coins, which she exchanged for a few plantain.

Then the vendor approached my table, where me and my Ghanaian mate, Sly, were desperately trying to get the attention of a server, any server, to bring us our bill.

“Good morning,” said plantain girl.

“Morning,” we replied.

“Plantain?” she asked, waving a bag in my face.

“No, thanks,” I replied.

“Won’t you buy one to help me eat?” the girl said, with a slightly accusatory tone. “You have money.”

As she stood there staring at me, the waves came crashing in on the beach again, along with my guilt.

“I’m sorry,” I said, truthfully. “We just ate. We don’t want any. Maybe later, okay?”

“Where are you from?” the young girl asked.

“She’s Ghanaian,” said Sly, seemingly in defense of some “deep pocket” insinuation behind the girl’s line of questioning.

“She is not Ghanaian,” laughed the girl.

“Why do you say that?” I asked.

“You don’t sound Ghanaian,” she said.

“I am,” I said. “I was raised overseas.”

“Where?” asked the girl. “America?”

“No,” I replied, holding the actual answer ransom, for no particular reason other than to end the conversation.

I’ve always felt like I’ve happily sat on that fence between Ghanaian and Canadian cultures. Throw in some seasoning from years of travelling, and the cultural concoction that makes up my personality, it’s hard to pinpoint to any one locale. Here in Ghana, I’m often viewed just as obruni (the local lingo for a white person), as the next camera-toting tourist, once I open my mouth.

Then, I go back to Canada, or Japan, or Australia, or anywhere else I’ve resided. When asked where I’m from, my response, “I’m Canadian,” is usually met with a barrage of follow-up questions, mostly consisting of:

“Were you born in Canada?”

‘Where are you really from?”

“Where are your parents from?”

So sitting on this side of the globe, being asked, basically the same questions, I’m beginning to get a better sense of who I am, as a person, as I not only define the answers for complete strangers, but for myself as well.

I’m a person, who grew up in a household where we didn’t waste food, water or electricity because those are things that are never guaranteed in life.

Ghanaian.

I’m a person who loves getting an Earl Grey from Tim Hortons for the morning drive to work and I know all the words to the Tragically Hip song playing in the background.

Canadian.

I’ll be annoyed if the service is questionably slow or surly—Canadian—though I’ll probably be running late myself—Ghanaian.

I’m a person who eats fried plantain one day and salivates for a burger the next, which could place me on either side of that cultural fence.

A village chief at a celebration in Cape Coast in western Ghana

At a nearby park, a festival was underway. We decided to join. Ghanaian highlife music signaled the procession of village chiefs. As the music got louder, Ghanaians on both sides of the resort fence started dancing, with complete abandon, almost instinctively. Still waiting for the bill, I joined them. I may not necessarily know which side of the fence I should really be on, or why I even needed to choose sides in the first place when my position afforded me such a unique point of view.

So I decided to simply enjoy the view from my ledge and do as Ghanaians do: just dance

Mass Transit

A silver-bearded preacher stood in the centre of the room.

Passengers boarding buses in Accra

He was furiously waving a small, black bible in one hand, while the other hand remained diligently at his side, drowning in the fabric of a slightly oversized beige jacket sleeve. He was preaching at high decibel, in the local dialect, Ga –  I guess, since I don’t understand it.

His speech, peppered with God this and hallelujah that, was competing with the chatter of a scattered congregation. Those receiving the good word, who were seated in rows, or standing around the periphery, occasionally glanced at the preacher man.

I did too.

Not so much out of interest per se, but rather out of a distinct disinterest in the eventual boredom that awaited me in every other corner of the room as I grew weary of standing, or meeting another person’s awkward gaze.

It was a well-dressed crowd. Some wore traditional garb. Some were in business attire and others had clearly gone to the hairdresser before hand.

Despite his ill-fitted jacket, even Preacher Man was looking sharp, in a white collared shirt punctuated with a red tie, black trousers and polished black wingtips.

I opted for comfort over style, wearing black cotton pants, flip flops or chale wo tee, as they’re often called here by locals, and a pink camisole.

I stood out among everyone dressed for service, in their Sunday best.

In my defense, it wasn’t Sunday.  Nor was this a church service.

It was Friday morning and this was a bus station.

Not that it really makes a difference here in Ghana, because religious reverence isn’t confined to holy walls adorned with stained glass windows.

It’s present first thing in the morning, when I’m awoken by loud gospel music, only to open the window shutters and see the “God is my strength” sticker on my neighbour’s door. Or in the big bold sign at the Grace Almighty corner store – not to be confused with the God’s Grace Store, down the road from the Holy Spirit Hair Salon.

Though Ghanaians are traditionally animists and 25 percent of the population, primarily in the north, is Muslim, it’s often hard to believe that only about 60 percent of Ghanaians are actually Christian.

It seems like everyone is mad about Matthew, Mark, Luke and John here.

God is constantly referred to in conversation, proverbs, greetings and even Ghanaian names. One casual acquaintance has been inviting me to church since the day we met. I’m sure that I’ll attend service here… one day,just for the experience.  While I consider myself deeply spiritual, I’m far from church going, so I postpone our date every time. My response is usually met with disappointment. I suppose if I were as devoutly religious as so many Ghanaians are, I too would react the same way.
Wouldn’t you be disappointed to watch a friend not only spiraling down a path of self-damnation, but happily skipping along the way?

Back at the bus station, Preacher Man was wrapping up his sermon, which signaled the arrival of the bus heading to Kumasi. I was finally going to make that trip to my parent’s hometown, to be reunited with several members of my extended family, including my grandmother, who I hadn’t seen in twenty-some-odd years. I was excited of course, but I must confess, it was excitement mildly subdued with anxiety.

I heard that my 80 year-old grandmother’s health was ailing. Also, most of the people I was going to meet, for the first or second time, had existed to me only as names in holiday greeting cards or on the other end of static-filled periodic phone calls.

So I was feeling a strange brew of emotions when I boarded the bus.

Mostly, as I sat back in my rather spacious, 15-cedi-seat ($11 CAD),  I was feeling relief because I had been standing in a queue for almost an hour, waiting for this small luxury.

The whole trip was going to take about four to five hours, depending on traffic, so I braced myself for the loud Nigerian movies that so many travelers before me had said was the staple of the on-bus entertainment. With this little tip before the trip, I came prepared with a good book.

I reached into my purse and pulled out Richard Dowden’s Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles, unaware I was about to experience a small one myself.

The bus started to roll, and the sound coming out of the sound system was some Ghanaian highlife from my youth.

It made me smile as memories of road trips with my dad came flooding to my head. As I dove into my book, another sharply dressed man a few rows ahead dove out of his seat and into the aisle.

He also had a book in his hand.

“Oh no…” I thought. “Jesus….”

“Christ, the man said, followed by some words in the Ga language that were peppered with God this and hallelujah that. He strolled up and down the aisle, as if he were trying to seek out those who “hadn’t yet been saved.”

I tried to avoid making direct eye contact at first, then I switched up my game plan, lest he decipher my fidgety body language and know I was the culprit.

“Hypocrisy is a disease,” said the preacher, again in a voice loud enough to ensure no passenger could ignore his message or sleep during the journey.

“If you want the Lord to answer your prayers, the first step is humility.”

“Amen!” replied, what seemed like, the entire bus.

Suddenly, I was praying, to any god that would listen, for a loud Nigerian movie, as the bus rolled on.

Alive, Alert and Aware

A taxi driver threatened to kill me today.

I think.

A simple misunderstanding over my intended destination was the root of the problem and that misunderstanding amounted to five Ghana cedis, or roughly $3.62 CAD.

That much, I know.

When I arrived at the Accra Mall, my actual destination, and gave my initially agreed upon five cedis, it was rejected – with extreme prejudice. My formerly friendly driver sprung out of his car to follow me to the mall entrance, where I was headed with my back turned.  I didn’t make it very far before my right arm was seized mid-swing under the vice-like grip of the cabbie’s fingers.

“You bring ten cedis,” he barked.

“No. You said five. I got in the cab for five,” was my resolute reply.

This driver was also quite determined – to grab my wallet. He only loosened his grip of my arm momentarily to take a swipe at my purse. Naturally, this got my attention and I replied with language that can roughly be translated from the streets of Accra to this forum as: “Please sir, I don’t appreciate your aggressive physical contact. Please refrain from touching me and kindly go away.”

My driver responded in kind: “You said Accra Mall, not shopping centre. Bring me ten cedi.” Unbeknownst to me, at the time I was trying to go to the Accra Shopping Centre, that some locals call Accra’s most famous market, Makola, the Accra Mall.

The conversation bounced back and forth like an increasingly angry ping pong match, refereed by a small mob of idle taxi drivers and parking attendants that had nothing but a he-said, she-said set of emotionally-charged stories to render a verdict on.

In spite of the parking lot jury being stacked with cabbies, they sided with me.

Game. Set. Match.

Sadly, my victory was short-lived. After the ticked-off taxi driver got into his car and proceeded to pull out of the parking lot, he rolled up next to me, looked me up and down and bid me adieu:

“You don’t know me,” said the cabbie, furiously wagging his finger at me like an enraged head teacher at a naughty student. “I will punish you.”

“Are you threatening me?” I asked, suddenly relieved that I had scrawled down the driver’s vehicle i.d. number moments earlier.

He drove away, without answering.

The incident left me shaken, but fortunately, the questions in my head were the only things stirred. “Why would he be so desperate to squeeze me for five cedi?”

“Why do I feel like I’m constantly being hustled here?”

“Why is there so much corruption here?”

Then, as I strolled down the aisles of Shoprite supermarket, several thoughts came to mind.

One: minimum wage in Ghana, as of February 1, 2010, was 3.11 Ghana cedi a day, which is about $2.24 CAD.

Two: The national rate of inflation in Ghana has been on a steady incline, resting at 9.52% as of June 2010. Canada’s current rate, as of June 2010, is hovering just over 1 per cent.

Three: I just picked up a dish cloth that cost about 10 cedi. Even on my modest, but fair salary, here in Ghana, at this Shoprite, as was the trend at so many places in Accra, the prices weren’t right at all. I couldn’t afford a dish rag. Though my uni days were long behind me, I was eating instant noodles again, out of necessity.

Truth be told, I never really feel unsafe here in Ghana, but I do feel like everything I do requires all of my energy. Whether I’m fetching water for a bath, or sifting through my change purse for money for chicken, rice and a bag of pure water, I’m infinitely more aware that life is often harder here. I’m more aware of life, in general, which also, on a positive note, makes me feel, more alive too.

Alive, alert, and aware.

In a country with such abundant mineral wealth, it’s amazing that so little wealth actually reaches the pockets of Ghanaians. It’s no wonder that sometimes, people will do almost anything, including swipe at the pockets of others, to make that extra cedi.