Sena, the little girl at the roadside market who screamed at the site of me all of last year, has now stopped doing that. Each and everyday I would go to her mother’s stall to buy small items, like water or eggs, and everyday I would smile and try and talk to her. She slowly got used to the idea until finally one day I asked her brother’s name and she told me it was “Victus”. That seemed to give her a great sense of being a “big girl” and she waved bye-bye to me as I left. The next day, she said “Yevu, how?” and was very happy when I told her I was well. Later that afternoon, as she was being scrubbed clean in a bucket behind the stall, she piped up and made it very clear what she wanted from me. “Yevu, (insert child-garbled Ewe)”. Translated it came out to “white man, dash (or tip) me a toffee” So for 200 cedis (about 3 cents) worth of toffee, I bought a new best friend. I doubted whether our friendship would move beyond candy, but it has been weeks since the bribe and she still smiles and calls my name.
One of our major hassles last year was food. We had this woman cooking for us, who made us fear African cooking. We began to see it as a hazardous activity. With floating chicken heads and an endless supply of fish bones, we were just about ready to live on white bread. Fortunately, we have since found out she was a terrible example of a Ghanaian cook. The doctor even asked that she not cook for him anymore.
So this year, We are cooking for ourselves. Most people seemed shocked that I have any clue how to cook. Someone even told me that at home they were sure that all white girls ate was pre-packaged food, or how they put it “plenty hamburgers”. Anyhow, about every five days, I go to the market and buy whatever I need. For the most part because of the lack of tourists, no one at the market really tries to cheat me. Except for when I asked one guy the price on a thread bracelet and he quoted something equivalent to a teachers’ salary for 1½ days!
I have tracked down the vegetable sellers and stock up on the tiniest green peppers, cabbage, carrots and runner beans. I even got beets last week, but I am not sure how to cook them. I also got introduced to ground melon seeds which are awesome in stews. Depending on the week you can also buy gigantic mangos and apples imported from Togo. Pineapples are just starting to come into season, but they are still very expensive. One thing missing this time of the year are plantains and bananas, the weather is too wet. The market is crazy! Stall after stall sells whatever their small farm holding offered up that week. It is loud and crowded. Little girls carry plates on their heads, stacked high with things to sell. Sometime you will see a woman with a basket of chickens balanced on her head. I have no clue how they carry things like that with such ease. Everyone has something to sell. The thing about the informal economy is that you will have 10 women in a row selling the same thing, sometimes you will see one teenage girl with just 5 yams for sale next to a woman with a whole pile. But they still come.
My least favourite section is the meat section. The meat sits out in the open, with so many unidentifiable cuts. Chicken legs, still sporting feathers, sit next to chunks of pork. Smelly, slimy fish juices oozes off the cardboard tables it is stacked on. Women call to me to peer into their giant metal bowls. When I do, they stir the contents, exciting the hundreds of baby crabs within. Step into the butcher shop and you will see massive slabs of beef hanging from the rafters. There is no counter, you just walk in, tell the butcher how much you want and he hacks it off. It is hard to hold your breath, swat flies and deny marriage proposals.
Once you leave the market, you have to cross the crowded, muddy lorry park. All I hear is “Yevu! Yevu!” “Come here sweetie!” “Where to?” As taxis try to coax me into taking a lift. The few words I know in Ewe usually sends them off as I climb into one of the buses. Why pay 2 dollars to get home when the tro-tros cost only 30 cents?
Tro-tros are like russian roulette. They pack 16 people into the vans and drive at top speed. The drivers are speed daemons, knowing that the more times they run their route the more they will earn. Sometimes someone will recognize me and strike up conversation, other times a baby will get plopped on my lap. The driver’s mate will usually tell me to sit up front, but I try and refuse that. While we wait to load the van, I usually get engaged in conversation through the window. As I show off my few sentences of Ewe, the rest of the passengers will listen and say “cho”, a sort of equivalent sound to our “what!?” Once the bus is loaded, we set off, careening down the road, avoiding potholes, schoolchildren and cyclists. If you are lucky, you can convince the driver to play some Bob Marley, but it doesn’t usually matter because it is hard to hear anything. If there is even an inch of space left in the van, the driver will honk all the way along his route until he spots a passenger to fill the spot. For such a seemingly haphazard system, the tro-tro system works. If one van is full, there is soon one behind. They will carry anything for you, even stacking in metres high on the roof. I have even seen one half full of passengers and half full of oranges.
However, one of the problems with tro-tros is that they get stopped at every road block. That is a favorite thing of the police here. They sit on a bench at the side of the road, with their AK47s (or some sort of big scary gun) over their shoulders and pull over every car possible. They usually check the trunk for smuggled goods but other times they will just bang on the back of the van and send it on its way. I have yet to figure out what the system is. One night Ash and I took a tro-tro from the Togolese border. It being that town’s market day it was almost impossible to get a ride. When we finally did, we got jammed in next to two obese women. Ashley ended up on my lap and I told the Mate that if babies didn’t have to pay for sitting on their mom’s lap, then we should get a discount. My cheekiness saved us 1000 cedis (12 cents), a whole 1/5 of the fare!
Each stop the van made to unload passengers, there seemed to be an extra person who got added in the chaos. The passengers were getting upset, we were overloaded and we were sure to be delayed at the police checks. I asked a woman next to me, who turned out to be a teacher for children with disabilities, if the police would make people get out. She answered confidently that the police wouldn’t bother doing that if the driver paid the bribe. However the driver had another plan in mind. As we would approach a block, he would make like he was letting off passengers, the people would run to the other side of the barrier. Then we would pass the police check and the passengers would climb back in. After a couple of successful passes, we approached one where there was no place to unload passengers inconspicuously, so before we knew it, we had swerved into a service station and the mate jumped out to pretend to fill up the tank. But then the driver drove off, leaving the mate to sneak through the barrier on foot. Besides being the one who collects the fares and helps passengers unload their market goods from the van, the mate is the one who opens the doors for and deals with the police. But guess who was right next to the door in the spot where the mate should have been? Ashley! So without anyone having told us what the heck was going on, Ashley slides the door open to a police offices packing some serious heat. “OBRONI!”, he says in Twi, another language spoken here. Before I could stop myself, I say back “OBEBINI!” in the exact same tone he used. If he was going to call me “white man” then the appropriate answer had to be “black man”. Fortunately, I hadn’t mistaken his humour and I could see his teeth through his smile in the dark of the night. He laughed and switched to Ewe, asking me where I was going and what I was doing. It seemed his surprise at me understanding his languages made him forget to look inside the van. The driver, who I think was holding his breath, was sent on his way. The van inched slowly away from the barrier, the mate hopped back in and the people started laughing.
Police interactions are a bit nerve-racking here. You are never sure whether to laugh or cry. But I guess a good strategy is don’t argue with a man carrying a machine gun. We sometime travel in the hospital car so there is no stopping. But one day we were in the Doc’s car. Driving at top speed down the pothole ridden road one day, we got pulled over by a very angry looking cop brandishing a gun of a different type. He informed us that we were speeding and had dangerously overtaken a tro-tro. Anyhow, the doc jumps out and starts arguing with the cop. They seem to go in circles arguing about why he got stopped when 10 cars before him had done the same thing. Turns out the doc doesn’t have his licence with him, in fact it is about 7 hrs away sitting in his hometown. Finally, the pharmacist gets out of the car, after trying to stay quiet and says to the cop “he is a medical doctor, we are trying to get somewhere fast”. Well that changed everything! Suddenly it was all, doctor this and doctor that, and the cop started smiling. All I could do is laugh. How they got away with it after arguing quite aggressively with the cop is quite the lesson in how the Ghanaian force functions.
Living on the hospital compound makes situations I thought I would never see become my evening entertainment. But sometimes I wish I wasn’t so damn curious. One night after walking into the maternity ward, I went to see one of the orderlies’, C, who was leaning over the warming cot. Usually there is a fresh, slimy infant screaming in the cot, but this time it was a very yellow baby girl.
“jaundiced?” I asked,
“expired.”, C answered.
Apparently her mother had brought her in that evening and she had died of unknown causes. . C was usually quite stern with the patients, but her softer side wrapped the baby up, lay her hand on her and recited in Ewe. She was praying over her. With the hum of the hospital in the background, she wrapped her up and went to wash her hands. In the adjoining room, a woman moaned from the pain of contractions.
Later that night, after eating what seemed like half a watermelon, I walked to the standpipe to wash my hands. On my way, I heard a woman in labour. I didn’t think anything of it. But walking back to the house from the standpipe, I heard the wail of a newborn. Seems there was once again a slimy newborn to fill the warming cot.
It was my eighth week here and I have seen millions of things, lived a thousand emotions and witnessed what seems like a hundred births. I was a self-created insomniac, for the fear of missing something exciting while I slept. I can sleep forever when I get home, but I am in Ghana for three months. As I stood watching the doctor manually extract a lodged placenta the other night, I wondered what it would take for the health sector here to improve. Things seem painful at home or in textbooks, but here it was even worse without the painkillers or anaesthetic. “African women are tougher”, they say. But, the real reason is there is no money to numb her pain. Money or will… I am not sure. Sometimes I think it is mindset, like if they wanted the wards to be cleaner they would clean them. But when you realize an orderly makes about a dollar a day and is expected to perform some quite complex medical procedure, it is easy to see how things like dusting go by the wayside.
The blame game is really easy to play, but it doesn’t solve anything. I sometimes sit and wonder why in three years the library hasn’t been completed. There are smart, able-bodied people in this village, but they couldn’t seem to ally themselves and construct something that could improve their children’s education. But questioning the reasons why is a waste of my energy and usually drives me to a loaf of white bread, so I am trying to avoid it (both bread and questioning). Anyway, things are going well, so I will focus on that. Like the laws of the free-market, the invisible hand has somehow mobilized the committee to find the funds to finance the plastering. We had planned to travel to Cape Coast last weekend, so almost as a test we filled our part of the bargain by supplying the cement. We left on their promise to commence the work and returned to see freshly plastered walls. They even arranged to have the sand delivered after I failed to contact the supplier before I left. The coordinator also arranged with the district education board to review our report to see if he could find some money for furniture. I wish they would praise their own initiative and rejoice in their own hard work, but it seems Jesus gets that honour. When I was asked to close a meeting with a prayer the other day, they laughed when I said I didn’t know how. I made my best effort and said “May the library be completed swiftly, safely and successfully with the helping hands and heart of the community” (not bad for a prayer on the fly if I do say so myself) but they tacked on in the name of Jesus Christ, our father, the holy ghost etc etc etc. Apparently that is an integral part of a prayer…haha
That seems about all I have to say. Thank whoever you thank for no malaria in Canada, it sucks let me tell you. Thank that same character for clean drinking water from the tap, no parasites in the vegetables and reliable healthcare. While you are at it, say thanks for living in a country where children can grow up to be all they want to be. That is not to say that Ghana doesn’t have things that they can be grateful for which we lack in Canada. They can say thanks for a family dynamic that we have for the most part lost at home. For taking in your cousins, nieces, brothers when their parents are unable to care for them. They have the genuine kindness of strangers who greet one another as they pass in the street. The beautiful sunshine which shines most days of the year. The forgiving nature of the people, who seem to hold no grudges, whether it be about something small like being late for a meeting or a more serious offence. They can buy baskets of bananas for pennies, fresh plucked from the trees. Mangos drop from the skies while children run free, playing all day and collapsing exhausted under a tree for an afternoon nap. Washing in a bucket, as exhausting as it is, is a excuse to sit on the porch and watch the world go by, greeting everyone who passes and spying on the neighbors. Babies are a communal responsibility, if someone is struggling to carry one, with a nod and extended arms, she is passed to the next closest woman, no matter if she is known to the mother or not. As charming and magical as that sounds, the same goes for disciplining though, a misbehaving child is likely to get a swat from any adult who witness the misdemeanour.
If university life took all my time to think this past year, than this summer is more than making up for it. I contemplate like it is my job. To have time to absorb all this new information and reflect on it is such a luxury.
Keep in contact; even if I am not frequent with my updates, the comments and emails are much appreciated. With Love, Julia]]>
The roof is up and seems to be holding well. The children came and cleared out the inside and leveled the ground. It was a sight to see, all the children with every type of bucket, container and box clearing the dirt, weeds and rubbish that collected over the last few years in the untouched building site. It was amazing to sit inside afterwards…imagining how far the work has come since we first arrived. It was an overwhelming task at the beginning but as we chip away at it I can start visualizing children reading inside.
There seems to be two hats that I wear here. One being the construction hat, one that I wear well and can get lots done. But the other one doesn’t seem to sit as well. The one of committee member. Meetings and interactions with the library committee have been slow, frustrating and not very fruitful. It is tough because I feel that I am being being nice and polite and now have to be more business, which people don’t always like. We had a bit of a faceoff last week, when the members finally had a breakthrough and realized that they didn’t want us to just take over without their input. Although they made it nice and clear that they were happy to have the money, they weren’t happy with us making all the decisions in terms of how the building would be construction.
In non-library news, Abor is still lots of fun. Ashley and I decided to complete our “I-am-a-volunteer-in-Africa” look by trading headscarves for braids. So 6.5 hours of work later and we each had about an extra 3lbs of fake hair weaved into our own. We are starting to comply with the uniform of all aid workers and are hoping to compile a list of things that happen to girls when they go do overseas volunteering. So far we have; wearing african beads, dangly earings, buying african fabric, gettings moms to tie their babies to our backs, inventing imaginary husbands back at home, getting way too excited when you see any food from back at home (even if you would never buy it in Canada), carrying a nalgene…etc etc
aannnnyhhooowww I am making no sense whatsoever…I am half-listening to a converstaion that is going on behind me…. so to end, as the guy behind me keeps saying “TIA—> this is Africa…”
I must admit to not moving that much further along on the library. We have been stalled by waiting for official estimates and running around getting prices. BUT we have settled on where we will buy the supplies (Akatsi) because the cost of transport from Accra doesn’t justify the differences in prices. We have bargained quite hard, but I think we will still be quite short on money.
Last Thursday Alex and Ashley arrived so we have sort of invaded the town. Three whites walking down the street seems to overwhelm the people so they don’t yell. But when Ash and I walk down the street, it’s YEVU YEVU, come come, and Ablavi (ash’s ewe name) coming from all directions. We doubled on a bike the other day and that made ppl practically fall over laughing and someone sent a kid biking after us to give us the bike because they thought we were suffering… Having the other 2 around has been fun because we get to “debrief” at the end of the day, under our mosquito nets in the dark with the ticking fan..amazing how philosophical u get.
We decided to all stay together in the little house, just to make it easier, so it felt a little cramp when there were suddenly 3 big backpacks exploded on my little bedroom floor! The neighbors think it’s great that alex has 2 wives who cook for him and they proudly call us very african.
Business in Africa is so different than just vsiting or teaching. Beside teh corruption (first night that the others arrived the airport cops tried to charge us over $40 for stopping in the “wrong” zone.)
Opps I have 5 min left but the good news is Ashley’s eyelashes are just as long as mine so we might be getting a construction company to (quoting the foreman) “give us a few guys next Saturday” for putting the roof up! We are going to negotiate on Thursday, they are a big company from Accra who are putting up a new church.
ok love to all. Life is good!
Anyhow, after poking around to see what can be observed in the hospital or around town, I usually go back to the pharmacy or to the emergency department. While it is nothing like the emergency room of the famed “ER” it is still sort of exciting. You never know what will come in. It’s weird but the doctors seem to spend a lot of time laughing. But when you are so understaffed and the situation is so desperate what else can you do? One disturbing trend is how many women come in who have been injured by their partners. Whether it is a broken nose or injured eye, women here are defiantly marginalized. Makes me wonder how many more there are who don’t come to seek care.
If there was one thing I could wish upon the hospital pharmacy it would be free birth control for all young women. It being a catholic hospital (besides probably never being able to afford it..) they are not allowed to dispense it. But it seems almost every day there is a girl that comes in with an incomplete criminal abortion, as they call it. Believe me, the process in which they complete the abortion appears positively barbaric. Assisting on one last night was enough birth control for me for a long time…
So yes, every day I witness awful things. Things that make me feel weak and powerless and guilty that I will probably never have to suffer like the people here. But there are so many good moments. Moments like being allowed to deliver a screaming baby boy, or showing a mother, who had lost her first baby, her beautiful baby girl. She smiled at me and couldn’t wait to hold her. Moments where the midwife tells the doctor that she successfully resuscitated a very blue baby. Moments where even though I have no clue what a patient is saying nor does she know what I am saying, but holding her hand and smiling is all the communication necessary. I get it. I get why people work so damn hard to become doctors. I get why they come back day after day, even when the last day all you saw was death.
So this game, this game of, as the doctor put it, being born on the wrong continent can be cruel. It should make you want to just give up, but that doesn’t seem to. So they will keep fighting until balance becomes a reality.
Well… I started this post with no intention of being philosophical. I wanted to write funny stories like how people are worried that I am getting too lean, which is in part because of all the biking but also because I was sick most of last week. Being sick here is funny because of how much explaining you have to do when you are not able to eat goat stew made by some woman in the back of a bar in a small village with no bathrooms in sight or why all you have been eating for a week is 7up and tea biscuits. The pharmacist cure when I begged for Cipro (an antibiotic) was making me eat the hottest raw pepper and tomato relish with fried yam. Don’t ask me how but it totally cured me. Other things that make me smile is how the little girl next door always says “Ciao!” to me because her teacher at school is an Italian volunteer. Or how I have taken up the habit of singing while I walk around because that is what everyone does here, like the people on the buses at home who forget they are singing along to their ipods. Or how the power has gone on and off about 8 times since I started writing this blog. Or how a few days ago I apparently told someone to “not abort my baby” when I meant to say “do not bother me” in Ewe, apparently the intonation on one letter changes the whole sentence…great.
People here say the funniest things. Some of the best ones these past weeks have been:
“Come and lie on my belly so I can produce a white child.” –said by old woman in town translated by Vincentia from Ewe who was laughing so hard she tripped over.
“Julia has a good pelvis for children” –Doctor #1
“True, she could give birth to twins, side-by-side” –Doctor #2
“You have a big buttocks… (pause)… marry my brother!”
-Young woman in small town just east of Abor.
“Give me money, so I can buy at small car”
-Headmistress at Junior secondary school.
“Julia, I don’t like going to town with you… you’re too conspicuous.”
-Doctor, trying to get errands done but realizing how long it takes me to do anything done when small infants scream at the sight of me and people almost crash their bikes.
So life goes on here, each day brings something new. Things keep me smiling, like my adopted little sisters next door, who like to watch me do cartwheels and headstands on the grass or who I teach to ride my bike or type on my computer. In exchange they help me do my washing, which always takes me hours and drives me insane, because it usually starts raining right as I hang it out to dry. I like that about living here. The woman next door told me that my return was like having a daughter come home.
Alright.. I tried to make up for my delinquency when it came to contacting home. Keep texting me, I love to get all the messages at night. Allison, I got your letter, I will have to look up ur address in Pointe-Claire because you will be home soon. Mia, my love, I hung your drawing in my living room. People were very impressed by how well you draw. Seems that mail takes about 8 days from Canada and less than 20 from NZ! Amy, there is a letter in the mail for you, to conclude our conversation the other day.
I am off to throw rocks at a rooster, apparently if I kill it I can eat it…the thing is driving me insane it crows outside my window everyday at 4:30 and then continues all day long.]]>
I arrived on time and my whole body knew I was in Africa. My hair frizzed instantly, my skinned glowed and the humidity hit me smack in the face. Customs was a breeze. One marriage proposal and a nod of the head and my giant boxes of medical supplies were welcomed into Ghana. A smiling driver packed my things into the back of the pick-up and in true Africa time fashion, I had to be fed before we could set off to Abor. The Reverend Sister told me all about how the hospital was undergoing many changes and that I would have my work cut out for me. That is what I like to hear, that I would be put to work! But the most pressing issue at hand? When is your my brother Alex coming!
The drive to Abor was long… Not just because we stopped many times, for reasons I didn’t understand (mostly just to yell at people it seemed) or because of the thick Accra traffic, but because I was soooo excited to be there. I arrived late at night so the hospital was quiet. Well as quiet as it ever would be. The sister sent me off to bed, or so she thought, but I quickly went exploring! The maternity ward was exactly the same, complete with moaning woman awaiting a C-section, to which I was happily invited. My decline was met with a smile and a promise of many more babies to come. But the most exciting part of the evening? Malik finally showing up and opening the boxes of medical supplies. We sat on the floor of the pharmacy like children at Christmas tearing through the packages. I would ask what everything was for and he would exclaim how many lives each package would save. He assured me that everything would be used and that he was grateful for every last pill. I can’t even describe how good that felt. It was the most amazing feeling in the world knowing that all my worrying and hustling had the perfect outcome. I am still in shock about how much was packed into the boxes, every last inch was full of some magic pill. The funniest thing was, it was Lamisil, yes for athlete’s food that made Malik the happiest. Apparently, food disease is a chronic problem for which they do not have a treatment….go figure.
The next day I ran around the hospital saying hi to everyone, it was so nice to hear them screech when I walked in the room. I knew this visit would be different. I wasn’t a guest anymore, I had come back to do work and as lame as it sounds, I had come back to real friends.
The coolest thing about coming back to the same village is seeing how the kids have grown. Walking down the street, I recognize little ones who were here last year, some who are now walking. The little girl Sena, at the roadside market, is still terrified of me, but she is slowly getting better. Derek, the teacher’s son, is a big guy now and although he wasn’t feeling great yesterday showed me his new baby brother. His mom was heavily pregnant when I left last time so I was happy to see her new little boy. Millicent, has grown like crazy, looks like I will have to find a new dress fitting model for Mia!
As for the project…looks like everyone wants a library!!! I didn’t even ask, I mentioned I was working on it and one of the teacher’s said “the building a white man started”. You’re quite the legend in Abor Augie! They have told me all about your drumming and how much you loved Abor! The estimate for the roof is being done this week and the headmistress of the Primary has promised me the help of her students (uhh..child labour??) It is going well in that regard, everyone is very excited about it and think it can be completed by August, although we will see about that. It is just really nice to know that people know about it and the project is not as dusty as I believed it would be. So Abor should have a community children’s library by September. We have to contact the organizations about the books and the headmistress talked about charging a token membership for maintenance.
In general, I am sleeping well, the weather is a lot cooler this year. The only thing is the mangoes dropping from the trees all night and often onto the metal roof (it is their equivalent to the cracking beams that we have in the winter in our roofs…) I am cooking for myself and am happy to say there are plenty of veggies in season so I won’t get fat (despite that every Ghanaian likes to tell me that I already am fat…yay!!) Everyone is amazed how white I am, like paper they say. They cannot get over it, conversation will just stop and they will pinch my skin and wonder how anyone can be this pale. The hospital is busy busy. There is a new insurance scheme, which is good because the gov. is paying most of the care and medicines. But they staff is very overworked. The doc is practically alone because the extra doc who came to help is sick at home in bed. Last night he performed a 6 hour surgery on a hernia the size of a soccer ball, not a pretty sight. I watched for 30 minutes but soon got about 10 shades paler and decided it was best if I left… I will be braver next time hopefully.
I think that it is for now, there is so much more I could say but time is ticking and I am running out of energy.
I am in England at the moment, back at my aunt’s place. The weather is wet…surprise, surprise. Although I have been told it was nice for the past two weeks (mon oeil….). My Dad changed my flight to boost my excess baggage, so let’s hope that will help my case. Otherwise I am going to be really annoying and bring every last sock onboard in my hand luggage. I arrive in Ghana Thursday night, so extra time in England.
Text messaging works again like last time. Just go to the rogers website,
http://www.shoprogers.com/wireless/sendpcs.asp and enter my Montreal cell phone number. It is free and keeps me happy to get messages from home.
Love to all.]]>