Sunday, August 17, 2008


On the bus to Tamale, wedged between too many sweating bodies in stale, soft-rock ridden air, I am witnessing climate crisis happening.
The rainstorm yesterday was the official announcement of the second portion of the rainy season. The relentless torrential deluge drove us inside, pounding water in spurts and gushes through the hairline cracks between window panes. The Nalerigu dam had overflowed four days ago, fat and bursting from the steady, regular rains that came to East Mamprusi with me. Adding the punishment of a half-day's hurricane-volume lashing left miles of maize drowning in ugly, polluted runoff, and my fellow passengers gaping, scrambling over each other to see, muttering in Mampruli. The road to Walewale, ghastly even in the dry season, was transformed into kilometers of mud, four feet deep and sucking the tires of any vehicle heavier than a bicycle. Getting off the bus to lessen the load, we trudge through the mire, my Birkenstocks caked with mud upon reaching the bus again. Nasia township is flooded; the stretching fields of Savelugu district also under the swollen banks of the rivers and streams. Town after town has the steel-grey rain lapping threateningly at the edges of compounds, shimmering in cold ways in the breeze generated by more incoming clouds that three months ago were pregnant with promise and now breed only trouble.
The weather of mid-August is schizophrenic at best, shifting wildly from pounding heat to these desperate, sobbing rains, and back just as fast. It is only a pale preview of the emotional outburst expected from the clouds this coming September, rumoured to be a huge blow in an already decimating rainy season. The Burkina Faso government has decreed that it is only a matter of time before the re-opening of the dams to the north like last year, to once again save the savanna country by flooding the Ghanaian White Volta river. With the ground already so saturated, burdened with the water of the season thus far and the tears from last year's flood, the question gnawing at peoples' guts and minds is simple: Where will the water go?

Exit Signs

For three days, the funeral raging outside my window pounded the viscera-thrilling beats of talking drums, the ululating voices of women in mourning that wiped the common hip-hop off the air and reminded my insides that here, I was part of a deep, unfathomable Africa that I have come to glimpse, to fleetingly feel, to lust after and love. After weeks of its silence in the flood of westernized, "global" culture, wily Ghana was throwing everything she could at me to convince me to stay with her. I packed those belongings I would bring home, and released those I would sacrifice to the kindness of the people here, in spite of the strange beauty of her drumming and voice, the heartbeat of West Africa resonating in my chest.

Children in the road, women in the market, new acquaintances and strangers are kinder, gentler; men in the street restrain their habitual harassment towards a last chance at marrying a "white". Somehow the subtle shifts of the air are telling--they know I am on my way home. I imagine in some buried corner of their minds, in the areas that believe the white men manufacture cell phones with magic in addition to science, that the land, the ground, the rain has told them to behave; Ghana knows that a grave misstep of her people could jeopardize the effect of her drums and song. I buy my last helping of wagashi, take photos, exchange email addresses. My time in East Mamprusi is coming to an end.

The small puppy newly added to our compound household begins to follow me adoringly from the house to my office. At night, the goats wedge themselves against my door in a foul-smelling, innocent-if-stupid attempt at keeping me inside. The joking, half-pleading words of Sumnibomah women on my last visit repeat through my head: "You're not leaving yet, you're sleeping another night...". As my final load of washing dries under eaves pouring with rain--yet another of Mama Ghana's attempts at restraining me--I organize the last of my hours in Nalerigu into a schedule of last-minute errands, of simple tasks, of goodbyes. My last family meal passes. I give my final gifts.

In the early morning, I meet the motorbike called to take me to the transit station. Our load is cumbersome but manageable, as it was the first night I arrived. We ride carefully and reach our point of transfer; I buy my ticket, I stow my luggage, and I say my goodbyes to the driver.

The last bus of the week pulls out onto the Gambaga road turning south-west: towards Tamale, away from Nalerigu.

I fix my eyes on the sunrise over the Gambaga escarpment.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Exchange Rate

Just as I gave up things to come to Ghana, I find myself cataloguing the things I'm giving up in leaving it. I traded subculture for tribal culture; now I pass from not being allowed to show my thighs to having to shave my legs. I'm exchanging good white wine and a night life for bathing under the Milky Way. Sincere greetings from strangers for impersonal pedestrian safety; the sweeps of the Gambaga escarpment for the peaks of the Detroit skyline. The artisan community of Bolgatanga for the artist community of Toronto. Friends, family, familiarity and adventure, for friends, family, familiarity and history. Language barriers with common interest, for interest barriers with common language. Public transit that will wait for you, for public transit that arrives on time. Being "the white person" for being no one special, which is much more appetizing than it seems (I guarantee every EWB volunteer in Ghana has had a moment where they wanted to do terrible things to the next guy who reminded them they're a “Suliminga”).

But as I leave West Africa, I'm forced to take stock of the things I'm bringing home—obviously apart from Ghanaian outfits, Dagomba hats, and shea butter soap. I've taken enough pictures to drown my little ThinkPad laptop—they should be enough to give people a feel of what it was like, and just might be enough to help explain the things I've seen. I've taken recipes for food made with peanuts and fish, and the skill to eat it with only my right hand. I've taken an upper-leg strength and tone that can only come from perfecting the daily squat, and a right shoulder thinned but strong from carrying everything I need on it. I'm bringing a rear end bonier than usual from malarial weight loss and too many rocky jaunts on motorbikes. I'm bringing less-widened eyes, an understanding, a million questions. I'm bringing stories. I'm bringing hope.

And I'm bringing enthusiasm to convey my experiences, to use these four months in Ghana as the lever that moves the people of Africa closer to North American life. I haven't decided when to close this blog, because despite leaving Ghana, my placement is definitely not over. I have 8 months of explanation, sharing and storytelling to do—and thats apart from my almost inevitable battle with reverse-culture shock, as I come back into a world that is supposed to be familiar, but is so, so different than what I thought it was...

I've been told the most difficult part of this adventure is not leaving, is not the entry into a new culture. It's fitting yourself back into the one you left.

I'll keep you posted.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

In Quiet Ways

While my back was turned, the trees of Tamale erupted into varying shades of yellow flowers; it is the closest thing to a Western change of season I've seen since I arrived, and it reminds me of how long I've been living, as the locals say, “in Ghana here”. The taxi I take to the CIFS office is driven by a laughing Dagomba man who asks me, after I've greeted him in Dagbani, how long I have been “in Ghana here”.

As July screeches to a close, I find myself in a calm scramble to tie up loose ends. My schedule is erratic and comprehensive, pocked with day-by-day activity notes: day-trip to Sumniboma, EWB report 3 submission, cook for host family, visit primary school, PARED diagnostic...

...As August opens, I find myself in a flurry of activity unexpected in the last weeks of July. Where I thought was a work schedule like an open plain is actually riddled with the moguls of donor NGO visits; where I thought I would have two weeks to wrap up without interruption, I must navigate my wrap-up between entertaining the wonderful people from CARE international, the World Food Program, the District Assembly, and our own CIDA (Canadian International Development Agency). I'm glad for the bustle and business; it keeps me on task, keeps my momentum up, increases the balance on my still-growing bank of experiences. I'm glad for the field visits and the travelling that accompanies them; it gives me an opportunity to say goodbye to the more inaccessible pockets of East Mamprusi that I adore so much.

A former JF in my district a few years ago advised me to “enjoy falling in love with Nalerigu!” Instead I've found myself in love with the small surrounding communities; with the hills and valleys, the rushing sound of the streamwater after a hot rain, the rocky roads, baobabs in Sumniboma and Kusasi dancers in Zarantinga. I feel as though Nalerigu is not home—nothing can stand in for the place where I grew up—but is a benevolent stopping place, full of bustle and enough activity to keep a girl on her toes. Whenever I climb onto the back of a motorcycle, though, on my way out on the dangerous paths and steppes that lead to the small communities we visit, I feel the closest sensation to coming home that I have had since coming to “Ghana here”.

This coming week is my last in East Mamprusi, and as the preparations to leave become more hurried, I look at the people I pass on the street and wake to the sound of in a subtly different way. I am happy—nervous, slightly frightened, but very happy—to be going home, but I am not pleased to be leaving the North. Even as the tension of these weeks becomes tighter, and the small, culture-shocking differences in the way people are grate on me like a steel emery, I think about not seeing the hills and the remarkable blue of the clear West African sky, and it feels strange and hollow. What surprises me the most is my reaction: I have been told many times that I will never want to leave Africa, but not that the prospect of going home would be more appetizing, but less scary. I feel almost as though I could leave the people—but the thought of leaving the land tugs at me in quiet ways...

Sunday, August 3, 2008


Hacking out a living in a developing country is no easy task—if you are lucky enough that personal circumstances do not complicate it, macro-economic trends probably do. Nevertheless, I have seen some inspiring examples of people taking their skills, talents, and assistance and turning them into business.

These are some of them.

Rita runs her dress-making business from the former office of my NGO. Under the old PARED masthead are wide-flung barn doors that open her workshop: a set of tables, six Chinese manual sewing machines with stools, and 50 different posters of dress, outfit and clothing style collections. After scraping together enough money for technical training in Kumasi, she can reproduce any of the over 500 styles with little more than a glance at them—and make you a purse from the fabric fragments to boot. Rita works 7 days a week, 51 weeks a year when allowing for funerals, weddings, and the annual bout of malaria. She also trains 4-6 apprentice seamstresses, which she says she is thankful for “because otherwise I would have no friends”. Rita's work is consistent and busy—and despite struggling slightly to pay rising utility bills, her business appears to be taking off. It's easy to see why: Rita is easy company, and a good tailor to boot.

Bobobo's is situated across the Bolga road from a ritzy gas station in Tamale, but their products can be found in stores along the main drag. Through a grant from the French development agency, the women of Bobobo's buy organic, ethical-cooperative-farmed mangoes from the Integrated Tamale Fruit Company (a current partner of EWB) for solar-drying and packaging. The fruit leather is sinfully delicious, and it is one of the few places to buy any sort of dried fruit in the Northern Region at all. The low cost and maintenance of the solar dryer has allowed them to branch into drying bananas, coconut, tomatoes, ginger and hot pepper, and revenue from these sales is directed into the procurement of a juicing facility to expand their product line. Finding this place was a boon to me in the North, where fruit is seasonal to the extreme. The fact that eating dried mangoes can be virtually pesticide-, emissions-, cruelty- and guilt-free is an added bonus.

Adoko can be found by locating the bobbing, roaming Rasta hat in the Tamale Metromass bus station. A musician from Bolgatanga, he learned the trade of carving wooden toys from the same man who taught him to play the guitar. Smiling warmly and flipping the tiny acrobats that spin through his handiwork, he's a calm centre of the swirling hurricane of humanity that is the permanent weather condition of the station. For Ghc1.50, the toys are meant to bridge the gap in income between gigs with his band—after all, he said, he learned to make them so he could stay away from hard labour in construction gangs, and still have the energy (and undamaged fingers) to play at night. Every time I see him, there is a new invitation to a new gig; I have yet to see if his playing matches his handiwork.

Many people believe that the road to sustainable development is paved with economics instead of good intentions. EWB partners such as the Rural Enterprise Project are making leaps and bounds to help take small business into the smaller towns of the North, and help them succeed—but it is nice to see that even without REP, some people are taking care of business.

Hello, Goodbye

As my placement draws to a close, the focus I previously directed to establishing and cementing relationships in East Mamprusi has turned to closing and honouring the relationships I've formed. Some require short goodbyes, scheduled on a lunch break or afternoon before I leave for Tamale; other, more important relationships require some planning, and some quality time. When I realized the time I had remaining in Nalerigu had dwindled to two weeks, I pushed aside other concerns and arranged moto transportation to the Sakogu area: I needed to say goodbye to Sumniboma.

The three weeks that passed since my last visit had changed the place in the ways only good rains can. The maize and millet obscured the views of the village from the winding footpaths; the baobabs hung heavy with fruit where they once hung with flowers. My day-trip was poorly timed on both a Sakogu market day and a voter registration drive, and those who weren't out making their 4-day purchases were putting themselves on the political grid for the happily “compulsory activity” that is voting in their community. The Pastor had traveled to Gambaga for the periodic retrieval of the National Health Insurance Scheme hospital admission cards—we passed him on the road—but Doris, Mr. Sumniboma, the IFTs and the EQUALL teachers were all there, excitedly greeting me, happy that I had returned. It felt like an illogical sort of homecoming, so natural despite my language barriers, and so comfortable despite the lack of Nalerigu's amenities. On the way to the Chief's palace I was barraged with news: Doris' husband was returning from South Africa where he drove trucks, classes had vacated for a week, Mr. Sumniboma's mother's hut was threatening to collapse so she had to move into the spare room. For every item, I had a question—how was Doris' son? Is there any news on the Pastor's second wife? How is the teak seedling planting going? Have you been getting enough rain? The biggest news was splashed all over the village in the work and bustling activity of the women and kids. The District Assembly had approved a plan for the construction of a new 3-room school block for the community last week. In typical Sumniboma fashion, the entire community had begun breaking rocks for the foundation the next day. The many neat ziggurat piles of small stones stood like monuments to the incredible verve of this community. Especially when I realized the men had been seeding a new tree plantation, and the work was done entirely by young mothers and kids on vacation.

After sitting with the Chief, who thanked me for the mutual exchange of knowledge and asked me not to forget them, he suggested we take a photo of us together, so that they could have some record of my being here. The user-friendly nature of my camera preceded my teaching, and before I even got up to show them, they had figured it out. I promised to leave the photo with PARED; I wondered as I promised if it would wind up framed in the Chief's reception area, like the photos of his prominent brothers and sons.

The women wanted to give me something to remember them by, and to my delight, decided I should apply zaama, local henna on the hands and feet that dyes them a deep red. Doris and I talked for an hour, my hands wrinkling in the brown goo covering them. When we removed it, the colour was unbelievable, but the reaction from the women was incredible. Whooping laughter, excited hand-clapping, and the exclamation that I was a real Ghanaian woman now came rushing out of every house I went to greet. What a shame, I thought, that I only had 2 weeks.

The day was spent passing from house to house, explaining my intention and my obligation to leave, what Doris called “going to goodbye them”. Over and over, I was met with exuberant and surprised welcomes, swiftly followed by a look of disappointment that I was going “back to my place”. I left each house followed by cries of “God bless you!” and “Safe journey!”. Some even tried to give me kola—a cedi to purchase a traditional kola nut as a goodbye present, and enough money to buy ingredients for a whole meal's soup.

During late afternoon, standing by the motorbike about to depart for Nalerigu, the sadness hit me like a blow to the stomach. It wasn't like homesickness; I was missing Sumniboma already, and I hadn't even left. It was more regret that I may miss the leaps of progress that the amazing people of this village are fated for. To me, they are the poster-children for development—a whole community of Dorothys, in EWB-speak.

Remembering them cannot be difficult: they are impossible to forget.

For my fellow DRED heads at home...

Being at once a development worker, and a drama student, coming to a completely different culture sparked my interest in the performance art that culture breeds. It took me some time to find some examples of Ghanaian drama to experience firsthand; nothing up here is affluent enough to fund luxuries like theatres, and the school curriculums under-emphasize it, if it's present at all. But I finally found some—in the capital city of the Northern Region, and here in my home village. This is what I've figured out so far.

Drama here starts in dance--tribal storytelling of myths, or loosely improvised interactions between people dressed as chiefs and old gods at festivals. There is much more dance in these than drama, and the traditional drummers narrate the stories with a sort of morse-code with the drums. All traditional dance-dramas are non-speaking, although sometimes they sing. However, in high schools and through NGOs, western drama is being adapted to serve the needs of people here.

In NGOs, role playing is being utilized as a means of community outreach and social justice work. Role-playing modules that look suspiciously like Boal work are brought into rural communities and used to address issues like women's rights, HIV/AIDS stigmatization, pollution and bush burning, and to explain intervention projects for everything from water and sanitation to the installation of teak plantations. In rural and urban areas alike, Ghanaians have embraced the "energizer"--warm-up drama games that break up the monotony of the myriad workshops and long discussions that occur in the development community. I dont know who introduced it, but I think it's wonderful--it's great to see proud, well-dressed Ghanaian professionals clapping their arms together like crocodiles and still retaining their dignity with their peers.

In high schools, drama clubs and theatre projects are an after-school activity. They occur both in the local language of the school and in English, and more often than not, are written by the students or staff themselves. It is most common for the plays to be moralistic and educational in theme and tone, trying to teach good practices such as hand-washing, respect for women, and using latrines. That being said, I've found that excretion humour--the poop joke--is a universal standard, and is wholeheartedly embraced by Ghanaian high school populations in their drama. Technically, high school dramas in Ghana happen a lot like high school dramas in Canada: simple sets of furniture and props are used, and changed for a change in setting; students wear costumes that are easily recognizable to help to identify the roles they play, and they tailor language, speech patterns and accents to reinforce character. The structure of the plays is often simple, chronological, and familiar to me from my own high school. The difference is they're usually performed outside.

From my understanding, famous African playwrights such as Wole Soyinka are more often produced in the south of the country than here in the Northern Regions. There are also African stories that are the cultural equivalent of Oedipus Rex (adaptations of the original? I dont know--the people I've talked to think it's an African tale), possible evidence that drama that is too contentious to be put onstage here is shifted into literature.

Film, through the influences of Bollywood (India), Nollywood (the booming Nigerian film industry) and Hollywood, has crept into the popular culture of Ghana. Movies written and filmed in the Dagbani language are readily available in the large cities in the North--I'm bringing one home, although I'll barely be able to understand what's being said. These movies show the merger between traditional Dagomba culture and contemporary culture in Ghana fairly well--and the language barrier almost recreates the feeling I had getting off the plane.