Tag Archives: Travel

Zen and Goats: Last impressions of the little things in Tamale

I checked my phone – 9:30am. Half an hour had passed since my last meeting in Tamale was due to start. No sign of the big boss. Having waited up to 2 hours for meetings to start in the past, this was business as usual. This was my last day in Tamale and after a quick meeting with the principal it was back to packing, writing reports and saying goodbyes. I had planned for every moment to count, but this being Ghana, you have to go with the flow of the unexpected.

Rather than roll my eyes and carry on counting the goats in the courtyard, I figured this moment of calm in the warm Tamale sun on the balcony at my school was a keepsake of the bureaucratic tango of meetings in Ghana. “Remember this,” I whispered to myself.

“I am SOOOO sorry!”

I turned as I heard feet pounding and giant palms slapping the metal railing up the dusty staircase to the balcony I was leaning over.

“I had a problem with some guests. You know how they are, always rushing you around.”

It was the big man on campus, Al-Hajji Razak Saani, the recently appointed principal at the IIJ. I like Al-Hajji – he joined the school as principal at the same time I was preparing to leave.  I was gutted to have met such a welcoming man only to leave a few weeks later.  A man of the world, he spent much of his time in the US studying Communications, and the way he so authentically said “Chicaaaago” always cracked me up.

I assured him it was no problem. It had rained heavily the night before and the breeze was cool on the skin. I could have stood on that balcony for much longer, contently playing the tapes from my last six months in Tamale. But it was time for business.

Dusting off the couches with a flick of the rag, we sat down and asked each other about our families, the last meals we took and if our houses had survived the rains. All the boxes were checked.  I made a move for my bag and told him I had a gift. I handed over the tactile culmination of my time at the school: a curriculum document and guide for the jhr chapter for the next semester.

“I’ve been working on this for a couple weeks and I think it could be really useful for the school and the chapter. You guys can reference it and keep up the amazing work you’ve started.”

He brushed the cover with his hands and turned to take mine. I was taken aback but held on to see where he was going.

“You have given us so much. This book is so important to us, I can’t thank you enough.”

Being someone who is almost allergic to one-on-one praise, it was all I could do to squirm in my seat and just return the sentiments. I made a move to open up the book and walk him through it but his giant palms pressed it firmly shut.

“This program you are working on, I can’t thank you enough for the vision you have given our students. The worst thing in the world I could imagine would be to have this momentum come to a close.”

“So would I,” I said.

A montage of our workshops, brief moments in the hall, laughter, taps of chalk on board all came flooding back to me. I would have burst into tears if I hadn’t  bitten my lip so hard. “You guys have given me more than anything I could have asked for,” I stammered. “If you can keep this program going, then we will have all done our jobs.”

“I will do just that. Now tell me about this curriculum thing,” he said.

Just like the breeze on the deck and the taking of someone else’s hand in an unscheduled moment of zen, it’s the little things that have taught me can bring the biggest impact. While there was many a moment I was unsure of my impact, of what I were here to do, I’ve learned from my time in Ghana that no act is too small. Just as much, it has been in the little things, the little gestures and comments that have lead me to believe that jhr is making an impact on the lives of those it works with. Not always as grand and not always in the manner you expect, but if you keep your eyes and ears open like every good journalist should, you’ll see it.

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Meet the Tognis: Las familia Circo

Yecid’s clothes don’t fit him quite right, his shoes are four sizes too large, his left wrist sometimes pops out of place and it always aches with arthritis. The mangled joint is a painful reminder of a fall he suffered at work. At the same job he’s had more than forty years, where every night his employer beats him and a gathered crowd of spectators applaud his humiliation.

This may seem exploitative, but Yecid has passion for a craft he hopes others find silly. He’s a clown in the Darix Togni Italian National Circus. His employer is the tiger-tamer and both say the Circus is more than work, it is a culture, a family and a lifestyle they will perpetuate.

“When you are born into it (the circus). It is a part of you, it’s in your blood,” Yecid says. He sits on a concrete park bench between two temporary alligator ponds. He’s forty-five and at this point has done every job under the big top. In addition to clown duties he is also the crew’s chief animal wrangler and makes nightly cameos with the trapeze act. “The circus gives me joy, I live for the adventure.”

 This clown’s nomadic path began at birth in a caravan in Venezuela. His father was a trapeze artist and his mother dazzled audiences with graceful precision on the aerial silks (aka ribbon trapeze). “Her performance was the most beautiful,” he says, pausing a moment to wipe nostalgic tears from his face. “All eyes in the crowd were on her. It inspired me.”

As a toddler, he takes his first steps into the performance ring. The act is child- clown, but by five he is on the trapeze and in his teens he is seen on television screens across South America.

“I became famous, people in the streets of towns I’d never walked knew my name.” Yecid’s performance is an rigorous display of refined acrobatics executed above the heads of frenzied fans. During one of these spectacles his hand slips. Momentum carries him outside the net while gravity brings him down with force. He attempts to break his fall but his left arm shatters on impact. The accident leaves him with broken ribs, bruises and an arm no longer capable of strenuous trapeze maneuvers.

The last moments before showtime are critical. Backstage is an open-air yard fortified by strategically placed shipping containers, fences and temporary animal enclosures where five tigers, two alligators and one kangaroo watch the performer’s final preparations. A group of men converse in Spanish and Italian. They spin wrenches, tell jokes and fine tune the motorcycles used in the “Globe of death” act. Circo showgirls Astrid, Alessandra and Alissa plume their head-dresses while others gather around an octagonal pedestal beneath a canopy. Vera, a Brazilian acrobat, goes through a yogic stretch routine while Mongolian contortionists Inga and Tsatsral apply shimmered eye make-up to their faces.

Martina, a blonde Italian clown, and Ali, the resident mystic, sit on the edge of the octagon. The pair are already painted and take a few moments to entertain a baby while the child’s parents prepare. The infant is the seventh generation of Togni to travel with the circus. His parents are Francisco, the strong man, and Elis Togni, the solo trapeze artist.

“It’s an extended family,” says Elis, in a pleasant maternal voice. “We look out for each other, help each other.” She scans the group of artists gathered before her, “I know if I need help with the baby they are here. And they know they are safe and protected. If an outsider caused a problem it would be handled.”

The family patriarch is tiger-tamer and master of ceremonies Davio Togni. He and his brother Livio, a former Italian National Senator, keep a watchful eye over the circus and its naturalized offspring. This family tradition descends from a legendary Italian performer.

“In Milan, Darix Togni is synonymous with Circus,” says trapeze artist Daniel Togni, while reviewing the playlist for the night’s performance. He is the son of Davio, brother of Elis and heir apparent. “Darix was the first man in Italy to master the art of animal taming.” Daniel never met his famous ancestor, but the family moniker has defined much of his life. From youth, he studied circus performance in Italy, and the United States where his mother works as a costume supervisor for Cirque de Soleil. “Traveling with the circus is never boring,” he says.

It has been forty-four years since the Togni family last appeared in Ghana. Times have changed, and the entertainment market is unforgiving. In the interval several major circuses closed their tents permanently. However, the Togni’s continue to electrify their audience. At times the journey takes them into exotic, conflicted, and dangerous territory. In 2009, the circus was nearly stolen in Iran when an opportunist sponsor used the Twitter Revolution as an excuse to keep their tent and everything in it. They were forced to escape on a late night cargo ship organized by Uncle Livio and spent the next year entertaining a mysterious Oil Sheik in Qatar.

The Togni family owns a three uniquely arranged circuses. “When we come to places like this (Ghana) we bring the small circus. This is most peoples first time, so they are still amazed by the traditional acts.” The family business is headquartered in Lombardy, Italy. Their home-base is a large compound house on a ranch where family, friends, performers, giraffes, elephants and tigers are a welcome and common. But many of these performers haven’t seen home in years. Constant travel can weigh heavily on group dynamics and mileage with animals, artists and loads of burdensome equipment can revert to utter chaos.

Patriarch and animal trainer Davio, has a substantial scar on his abdomen. When asked how he got it he is quick to redirect the discussion. His son Daniel is more willing to tell the story. “He didn’t get it from the tigers,” he says with a laugh. The wound was left by one of two Brazilian brothers, once a part of the Togni’s circus. “It was the moto-boys. They were with the circus a while but they were drunkards,” says Daniel. “One night, they got drunk and one punched up his girlfriend’s face (a fellow performer- name withheld),” says Daniel, shifting to a serious tone. “My Father was teaching him a lesson when the other brother stabbed him.” He says, thrusting his right arm in front of him. “They took off and left my father with the knife still in him.”

Davio bled profusely but retained consciousness and enough strength to secure medical attention. The brothers fled to the nearest Brazilian embassy, leaving their bikes and other articles behind. The incident left the Togni family’s leader in hospital, a female artist unable to perform and no-one able to execute the final act. Rather than shut the tent, the crew rallied together. The Wonderboys, a pair of juggling, tight rope walkers from Colombia decided to give the Globe of Death a shot. By the time Davio was released the pair had mastered the act and perform it nightly ever since. “This is the way in the circus,” says Daniel.

Now, Yecid has performed with the Togni family’s circus for more than two years and his clowning has brought smiles to international faces of all ages. He sleeps backstage in a shipping crate cluttered with over-sized wardrobe changes, prop jokes and other more banal necessities of life. He has five children of his own, all in Venezuela, some in the circus and others who are not. “It is their decision, I would never force them into this life. But they know it is the only life for me.”

The Togni’s “Il Florigielo” Circus Ghana tour has been extended. The big top will continue to host shows six nights a week in Accra’s Children’s Park opposite National Theatre until May 20th.

Monkey business in Northern Ghana

I snapped photos of the setting sun over Ghana’s Mole National Park, not wanting the day to end.  As I turned around I realized I was not alone.   About ten feet away on the path leading to my chalet sat a female baboon staring expectantly at me.  I let out a piercing scream and began pounding on the door.

Irrational reaction?  Maybe.  Conventional wisdom says I should have shown-no-fear and charged, but if you had seen those teeth…

As the sun sets, a baboon relaxes at Mole National Park.

We had spent the day touring what the Bradt Ghana guide calls the “linchpin” of Northern Ghana’s tourist circuit.  Mole National Park is known as one of the cheapest ways in Africa to go on safari, but also an example of failure on the part of government and local communities to capitalize on tourism potential.

The park is served by a bumpy dirt road that takes hours to travel by an unreliable twice-daily bus service from Tamale, the regional capital where I live.  Many locals have lamented to me that if only the government paved the road, more people from the wealthier, more populated South would visit the park.

The only accommodation available is the Mole Motel, built in 1961.  Lack of competition has allowed the motel to charge almost double the standard Ghanaian prices for meals, drinks and rooms despite the basic décor and only periodic running water.  These drawbacks are compensated by a viewing platform metres from the swimming pool that overlooks two popular waterholes often frequented by elephants.

Perhaps most frustrating is that the 4, 480 square kilometre park can only be visited by walking a small area around the hotel or driving along 40 kilometres of road, providing a mere peek at the landscape and its wildlife which includes elephants, hippo, buffalo, primates and several species of antelope and birds.  The lack of surveillance has also created a haven for poachers – during our short time we heard the sound of gunfire come from the park.

That’s not to say we had no encounters with the animals nor that our time was a waste.  Our foot safari had barely left the information centre that morning when we witnessed four male elephants gracefully lope within a few feet of us as if we weren’t even there.

The baboons, however, were very much aware of our presence.   We were warned not to carry the black plastic bags used to carry food in Ghana and that “they don’t like girls.”

Back at my chalet my gender status crossed my mind as I looked at my camera case – black bag.  Half-asleep, my boyfriend opened the door to the darkened hotel room and I charged past him.  The baboon was slamming against the door and turning the handle, trying to get in.  I felt something brushing against my leg and let out a blood-curdling scream.

“What are you screaming like that for?!”

I realized he had won the fight with the baboon over the door handle and it was my camera case strap I had felt.

Later on in the hotel restaurant we heard several similar stories. One man woke up from a nap to find a baboon in his bed. A fighting match ensued and he had bruises to prove it.   We witnessed another German man get  mugged by a baboon for the black bag he was using to carry a towel. Mixed feelings of humour, anger and fear prevailed – we were being ambushed.

The sole fearless warrior among us was Joshua, a seven-year-old who lunged at the baboons with fire in his eyes, whipping a stick on the ground and fiercely whispering nonsensical threats.  His hotel room was next to mine so we tasked him with escorting me to and from my door.

If there’s anything I noticed about Mole, it is the solidarity among tourists who sit bouncing and jolting along that road through Northern Region to be overcharged and under-serviced.   We all agree – the chance to walk among and in some cases clash with the animals makes it all well worth it.

Ghana revisited

The author says revisiting a foreign country is like rereading a book—oddly familiar, but previously unnoticed details linger. Above is Accra'a main road, Oxford Street.

“I like the way you talk to me,” says Brian, one of the many young street hawkers lining Oxford Street, Accra’s main drag, as I turn down his offer to make me a bracelet with my name on it. “You have been here before,” he declared, after hearing me speak with a slight Ghanaian accent.

Brian is right. This is my second time in Ghana and I’m surprised by how natural it feels to be here. I was here last summer for a three month stint in Kumasi, so this time around feels a bit like I’m retracing my footsteps.

It’s a very interesting process to revisit a place you’ve already been, it’s like rereading a book—you know what to expect, but you pick up on details you never noticed before. I do miss the wide-eyed excitement and the shock and terror I felt as a novice visitor to Ghana, but I’m enjoying the cosy way I have already settled into a routine and that I’m already familiar with some of the county’s quirks.

I can navigate the city without a map or the luxury of street signs and names. I enjoy riding tro-tros (a local mode of public transportation) to get around town, though I’m fully aware the vehicles are overcrowded and would likely never pass Canadian safety standards nor emissions tests.

I find myself weaving through the tumultuous traffic like a game of Tetris and leaping over open sewers, pot holes and many other obstacles in the roads with relative ease. I know that streetlights are often more for decoration than illumination and I enjoy the game of chicken I play with drivers on a daily basis—they usually swerve at the last minute in an attempt not to hit you.

I get a kick out of the how amused locals are to hear me answer their questions in Twi (the major local language) or how happy they are that I know my Ghanaian name is Akua (born on Wednesday), that the two main political parties are the NDC and the NPP, that I pronounce “Danquah Circle” (a major transit hub in the city) properly, and have tried and enjoyed many local dishes.

I can negotiate with street vendors and taxi drivers to get a fair price, I know that if someone hisses at me like a snake they are just trying to get my attention and I could swear people yell obruni (white person) at me a lot less often (though this is very debatable).

I have embraced GMT (Ghana Man Time)—I know that ten minutes actually means one hour. I’ve accepted that if somebody tells me they are “not far” that they probably are. And, I’ve realised that most meetings are thought of as tentative.

I realise this sounds like an overly romantic account of the country and I know I’m no Ghana expert. I certainly expect some paramount challenges and days when I’d like to stow myself away on plane back to Canada. I am, after all, only three weeks into my entire six-month stay. Perhaps I am still in the honeymoon phase. Maybe I am, but I’m loving it nonetheless…for now.

On the road in Sierra Leone

The sky was just beginning to lighten as the roar of a motorcycle drew near.

Moments later, there was a light tap at the door.

“He’s here,” said the young man who runs a guesthouse in the diamond-studded eastern Sierra Leonean town of Kenema.

Out on the street, motorcycle driver Abraham Bungara balanced my bag on the handlebars, rammed a helmet on my head, and we sped off on a 140-kilometre journey to the Liberian border.

A minute later, we rolled up to a police checkpoint.

Several men sat in a mud hut next to a line of strings knotted together to form the roadblock.

Moo de bodee,” said Bungara.

“Huh?”

Moo de bodee,” he said. “Off.”

He was speaking Krio, a Sierra Leonean dialect comprised of buccaneer-style English with lots of local flavour that originated with people freed from slavery in Jamaica, who settled in Freetown in the 19th century.

We clambered off the bike and Bungara disappeared into the hut, where he shook hands with the police officer before the string was lowered and we roared off.

Paying bribes to get around is a necessity in some West African countries where authorities supplement low salaries—that may never be paid—with a system of informal taxation, collecting “tokens” from citizens for services such as road travel, primary education, and treatment in public hospitals.

It means free public services to people, the majority of whom live in extreme poverty, are free only on paper.

We tore along the gravel road, knees kissing the dirt on the corners, the sun rising over the dense forest.

Soon, we reached another checkpoint.

Bungara went into the hut with a policeman in a tired blue uniform too large for his skinny frame. A woman in a bright orange tank top and jeans approached and introduced herself as Alice.

“Can I see your documentation?” she asked.

“What documentation is that?”

“Just your documentation,” she said.

I held up my passport.

“What organization do you work for?” I asked her.

“INTERPOL.”

Bungara finished ponying up the bribe money with a smile and a handshake and we were on our way again.

At the next road block and the next, we repeated the process. Each roadblock cost 4,000 or 5,000 Leones, the equivalent to about $1 CAD. Over the 140-kilometre trip, we passed through six or seven of them.

If you refuse to pay, you would be detained, said Bungara.

“But you haven’t done anything wrong or illegal.”

“They’ll still detain you,” he said.

“And then what?”

He shrugged.

“You’re detained.”

“So you pay?”

He smiled. “So you pay.”

Buses and Bushes: a Journey from Kumasi to Accra

It was just after 6 p.m. when I arrived at the station.

The sun was sinking in the sky as I lugged my bag across the dusty lot in Kumasi, in Ghana’s Ashanti region, where buses leave for the capital, Accra.

“Craw, craw, craw, ten cedi,” I heard over the din, which means “Accra” in bus travel-speak. That bus wasn’t a terribly healthy looking creature but I handed over my money. A man who smelled rather pungently of alcohol whisked my bag from my dubious hands and tossed it in the underbelly of the bus beside sacks of bananas, chickens tied in bundles by their feet, and other regular bags.

I had figured out a schedule for my return to Accra. I’d go to the station around 5 p.m. The bus would leave by 6 p.m. Given the length of the trip and probable levels of traffic, I would arrive in Accra no later than 11 p.m., at which time I could go home, sleep, and be back at work early the next morning.

No sweat.

Buses do not leave on a set schedule. Rather, they will trundle out of hodgepodge stations when full. How long does that take? There is no telling.

The bus was – if you engaged a little wishful thinking – one-third full when I climbed aboard.

“Hello, I would like to be friends, what is your phone number please?” said the first man who slid into the seat beside me. He would be the first of four who wanted so badly to go to my country that, apparently, they’d even put up with me as a wife to get there. All were politely rebuffed.

The fifth man who sat down offered me a church pamphlet, and wordlessly began to read his own.

“Craw, craw, craw, ten cedi,” the driver called, and the sky faded to black and the chickens wriggled and clucked in the belly of the bus.

“Wanna bet when we’ll get to Accra?” I asked my silent seatmate.

The digital clock at the front of the bus read 7:02. He looked forward and back at the people filling (with a little wishful thinking) half the bus.

“Maybe by 12 at night,” he said.

“Craw, craw, craw, ten cedi,” the driver called, while the chickens wriggled and clucked in the belly of the bus.

“Now what time do you think?” I asked my seatmate.

The digital clock read 7:57. He looked forward and back at the people filling (with a little wishful thinking) 60 per cent of the bus. “Maybe by 1 in the morning,” he said.

“Now what time do you think?” I asked my seatmate.

The digital clock read 8:53. He looked forward and back. There were only three seats still empty.

“Maybe still by 1 in the morning,” he said.

The driver’s mate brought some bags out from the belly of the bus. There was my bag and a bundle of chickens there in the aisle. One, perhaps two, were dead.

We left after 9 p.m.

The bus trundled through the night for four hours. There are no bathroom breaks and the chickens clucked and smelled a little foul. A few people felt quite uncomfortable as we thumped and bumped over the last stretch of potholes before Accra.

Then a gunshot went off.

Or rather, what sounded like a gun shot. It was actually a tire blowing up.

It was 1:35 a.m.

We found a suitable place to pull over, sheltered behind a tractor trailer that was stuck in the ditch. Everyone piled out of the bus (except the chickens) and milled around. It was very dark in the middle of the forest. Grass higher than my head lined the roadway, dark and impenetrable against the paltry flashlight on my cell phone as I searched for a place to pee in the woods.

The place I found was not very good. Within seconds, a flashlight illuminated my rear and I heard peels of laughter from the direction of the tractor trailer.

In my haste to cover up, there was a mix-up between my trousers and my underwear regarding which goes on the outside. At last we boarded the bus again.

My silent seatmate pointed out the confusion between my garments and politely looked away, using his church pamphlet as a shield while I rectified the situation.

No chickens moved as we drove back to Accra.

It was 3:17 a.m. when I arrived home.