Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Re-entry Strategies and Wise Words from Winnie the Pooh!

Well, it has been a whirlwind over here. I'm sorry I haven't posted in such a long while, but there came a point where things were a bit too overwhelming to sit down and write about. Tomorrow at 5:30PM I return to Canada via Dubai, and I honestly can't wait. For those who have talked to me recently, you know that I have been feeling pretty homesick, not least of all because I had a health situation that landed me in a Ghanaian hospital for two nights. That was scary,  but I made it through all the needles and ivs and medications and now I am almost right as rain, albeit ready to go home.

It's too bad that I had that situation happen right at the end of my experience here, as I was hoping to leave Ghana on a high note. That being said though, I have had the chance to make that happen in the past 3 days and I've been pretty successful. I'm not doing anything crazy - no more travelling for this girl save the flight home, but eating at some nice restaurants and heading to some central markets with my fellow Canadians and watching lots of movies to pass the time has been just what the doctor ordered. This in-between time does kind of suck though - not working or travelling - just waiting in anticipation for tomorrow to come!

Tonight we will head to a fancy restaurant here in Accra as a big group to celebrate our last night here. I'm looking forward to it, but even more so I am looking forward to tomorrow! Argh, time only flies when you are busy!

I'm not sure how to summarize my time here in Ghana - it was an adventure, a stretching time, a period of stepping out of my comfort zone in SO many ways. I learned a lot about myself, about the world, and about living and working overseas in a developing nation. Is it for me? Honestly, I don't know. I think I will need to come back to Canada and gain some further perspective on my experiences here before reaching a conclusion about that. There is so much to process, but I know that I will also have to deal with reverse culture shock when I return home. So for all my friends and family - please don't be offended if I don't reach out to you right away or if I seem moody or withdrawn or even ridiculously happy about small things. I've experienced so much here and been absorbed into a completely different culture and way of life. I've faced extreme poverty and inequality. I'm used to people stopping and saying hi on the street and feeling like a celebrity just because I happen to be white. It's going to be an adjustment. Bear with me, but know that if there is anything that got me through those nights in the hospital it was thinking of my loved ones back home and how blessed I am to have them!

I wish that I had the energy and memory to write about everything that has happened to me since my last post - but alas truly I don't! I did fly to the northern region to visit Tamale and Mole National Park and I was able to see wild elephants up close and a whole bunch of other fun and stressful events occurred! Perhaps over a cup of coffee at the Brown Dog or Williams I'll be able to share those with you in person,but for now I am focused on my re-entry to Canada.

A few days ago we had our last session with our Ghanaian guide here - Ophelia. We each gave presentations about our internship experiences and then she spoke to us about reverse culture shock and re-entry strategies. She did her best to prepare us for returning home by describing the past struggles that other students have had in returning home from another country. It seems that one of the biggest struggles is that things back home will have changed, and your loved ones won't be able to fully understand what happened to you while you were away and how it changed you. Not to mention, we will be thrown right into our 4th year of university and new jobs and new family situations all the while trying to process what we experienced here in Ghana. She gave us a list of possible re-entry strategies - ways we can make the adjustment back home easier for ourselves. Truthfully, I'm having a hard time remembering them all right now haha, but I can remember some. Journaling, listening to what happened at home before launching into my own stories, speaking with other international students or students who travelled abroad before, giving myself time and space to process properly, and ....and..... Oh man. I forget! I hope my re-entry will still go smoothly! (It's okay, I'll just ask my friends, they probably remember! :P)

I shared this quote when I gave my presentation to the others, and it made them all giggle. Yes, it's from Winnie-the-Pooh, but it just captures so well my experience here in Ghana.

“Promise me you'll always remember: You're braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”
Much love from Ghana, 

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Can we stay here forever?

On Saturday Sarah, Sikander and I left our hostel in Accra to travel further east along the coast to Ada Foah. Our mutual friend Eirwen was already there and had convinced us that we absolutely needed to join her, and we were excited to journey somewhere on our own and the prospect of being on a beautiful beach. We caught a taxi from our hostel to Tudu Station which, despite being much smaller than Tema Station, was probably the most intense experience I've had in trying to catch a trotro thus far. When we got out of the taxi, an elderly man approached and asked us where we were going. Once we indicated we were headed to Ada Foah, he motioned for us to follow him into the station. The station, just like all stations here in Accra, was dirty, busy, and filled with trotros and porters competing for customers. As soon as we began to walk through, a group of 4 to 5 Ghanaian men began trying to get us to go with their trotro - all of them yelling over each other, arguing with each other, and grabbing our arms. Deciding to trust our original guide (the elderly man) we did our best to ignore the clamor of drivers trying to get our business and followed him until he brought us to a trotro that had a sign on top that said, "Ada Foah." We thanked him and hopped on, but not before one of the other drivers who had tried to get us when we first walked in began a conversation with us from the door of the parked trotro. It went something like this:

Man: Okay, you are going to need to separate. Two stay here, one will come with me.

Me: No, no, we are going to stay together. Thank you.

Man (speaking to Sikander): You can't have both of them. One should come with me. You married?

Me (realizing what's happening): Yes, yes, we are married. We will stay together. Thank you.

Sarah: Yeah, we are both married to him. Sorry.

Man (speaking to Sikander): It's not fair for you to have both of them. In Ghana, a man should have just one wife. You should separate.

Me: No, no, we are rivals (how Ghanians refer to multiple wives). Sorry.

Sarah (laughing): We are sister wives!

Sikander: Sorry, we aren't separating.

At this point, the mate for our trotro came and  more people boarded, so the creepy man who wanted one of us for his wife was forced to leave. Talk about a bizarre experience!!

The trotro ride from Tudu Station to Ada Foah was long (about 2 and a half hours) but largely uneventful. The closer we got to Ada Foah though, the worse the roads became  - red dirt roads with ridiculous amounts of potholes that made the ride quite bumpy! We also unexpectedly had to change trotros once but that was okay. Once we got off the trotro in Ada Foah, we were on some back dirt road in a village area with a bunch of Ghanaians on motorbikes nearby. We had no idea where to go from there, except for that we were supposed to meet a Ghanaian named Winfrid from the Maranatha Beach Camp (where we would be staying) who would take us to the camp by boat. I couldn't see a river anywhere nearby so I was feeling a bit skeptical about our location. The Ghanaians on the motorbikes, upon finding out where we were headed, offered to take us to the boat location on their motorbikes (for a fee of course) but we weren't feeling too safe about that so we just asked them to tell us how to get to where the boat was. We started walking in the direction that they pointed (just straight ahead down the dirt road) but the more we walked the more misgivings I had about where we were headed. Maybe we hadn't communicated properly? As we continued to walk, I heard a distant voice from behind us say, "Hullo?" I ignored it at first, but then, "Hulllloo... Hullo!" We turned around and saw a Ghanaian guy with dreads in a bright orange shirt motioning to us. His name was Eric and Winfrid had apparently sent him to pick us up. He led us right back to where we had originally walked from and through an obscure path that cut through random parts of the surrounding village and market. Along the way he told us all about the various activities we could do once we arrived at Maranatha - we could take a 1 hour, 2 hour, or 3 hour boat ride to Rum Island (a place where rum is made), Crocodile Island (speaks for itself), the mangroves, the estuary (where the ocean meets the volta river), and an island where we could participate in basket weaving. He gave me his number and told me to call him if we wanted to do any of those activities. After about 10 minutes of walking we reached the boat - a long, wooden boat bobbing gently against the ruddy shore. We got into the boat and Desmond, the boat driver, fired up the small engine and we began to glide smoothly along the Volta River - which really looks like a beautiful lake. As the boat glided out into the river I felt like we were entering a dream. It was stunning. As far as the eye could see there was beaches, palm trees, sun and open sky and water. Beautiful, expensive houses lined the shore at first, but those eventually gave way to small, thatched huts made from palm trees. Long fishing boats could be seen gliding along the water or anchored on sandy shores, and a breeze from the ocean made everything seem just perfect. I literally kept thinking to myself, "I can't believe this is my life right now."
on our way

Maranatha Beach Camp is a rustic, but beautiful beach camp that  is right along the shore and surrounded by palm trees. On one side of the stretch of sandy beach is the ocean (hidden by a huge sand buffer) and the other is the serene Volta River. The accomodations are very simple - we slept in a small hut made out of palm tree branches that had no electricity and a floor of beach sand. The washrooms were quite...camplike. No flushing available, and a very strong stench when nearby - but even that couldn't take away from the beautiful environment we were in. When we first arrived we were quickly ushered to sit at a red wooden table under a canopy near the main bar/desk and immediately asked what we would like to drink and eat. We ordered some alcohol and dinner - I ordered jollof rice and tilapia, and let me tell you, it was the best fish I have ever tasted! I ended up eating tilapia for every meal there! We met Winfrid finally who is this super cool dude who runs the beach camp and we also happily reunited with Eirwen.
inside our hut

outside of our hut

the beach front

We ended up deciding to take a 1 hour boat ride to Rum Island and that was such a fun experience. It was us four, and a few other people who were also staying at the camp. The boat ride was just as spectacular and refreshing as the one to Maranatha, and the people we travelled with were entertaining and kind. The rum is actually made just by this one family that grows sugar cane on the island. They showed us how they crush the sugar cane, then add something to it and let it ferment for a bit, boil it twice, cool it quickly, and fill reused water jugs with the exceptionally strong rum. They make a white rum, and a unique red rum that is made using mahogany bark. After a tour of how the rum was made, the man of the island led us to a table where a bottle of white rum and a bottle of red rum and some shot glasses were waiting for us. He showed us this worn, tattered book filled with comments from people from all over the world that have come to  his island to try his rum, and began to pour us each a shot glass of white and red rum. I asked for half a shot glass of each because I doubted I would be able to stomach it, and I was glad I did! Man, that stuff burned!  It was so fun sitting around with everyone just laughing, grimacing, and giggling about the rum tasting! I decided to buy my dad a bottle of the red rum and we all piled back into the boat and headed back to Maranatha.
taste-testing the rum

where the rum is made

used to crush the sugar cane

We spent the rest of that evening relaxing in hammocks on the beach, eating dinner, drinking rum and coke, and just loving life basically. At around 8:30 PM they brought out big speakers and began to play hip-hop and party music, and lit a a big bonfire on the shore. People began to dance, and pull up chairs, and everything was pitch dark except for the light of the fire. It was really fun. We played games with some of the locals, laughed and danced and walked a long the beach. We made some unforgettable memories! We went to bed around 1:30 AM, but it was surprisingly really cold at night and we weren't provided with blankets so sleeping was difficult. It didn't help that there was sand in our beds and clothes and everywhere basically! I probably got about 2 hours of sleep, and then woke up at 4:30 to a creepy swishing and rattling along the walls of our hut. Sarah jumped into my bed and we anxiously tried to determine what in the world was outside of our hut - imagining all sorts of unpleasant scenarios! After we got up the courage to investigate, we discovered it was a man who was sweeping the sand around our hut, looking for lost valuables buried in the sand! We were relieved.

That morning we were very tired, but the beauty of our surroundings was invigorating. Robert, one of the locals, is a very high-energy young man who was absolutely hilarious- he came out at about 5AM singing and dancing and urging us to continue the party! Sarah and I were very lucky in the fact that we woke up so early, because one of my favorite moments of the whole trip happened at around 6:30AM.

Sarah and I, feeling extremely hungry, ordered a big breakfast and settled into some chairs on the beach to wait for our food to be ready. But Robert and three other local guys called us over to the red tables to eat. Puzzled, we followed and saw that instead of the food we had ordered there was a staple Ghanaian dish on the table - Kenke! Kenke is a mashed-potato like substance thats actually made from corn, that is soft and sticky. You eat it with your hands, dipping it into this bright red spicy sauce and eating tiny smoked fish and shrimps. This was what they had ordered for their breakfast, but they insisted that we join them. It was so precious because they created for us this atmosphere of family - all of us partaking in the same dish with our hands, laughing, enjoying and just feeling like there was no difference between us at all. It was cute because they kept being like, "Eat the big fish, and look she is eating more than you, you need to eat more! And don't be afraid of the shrimp!" etc. Haha,  I wish I could replay that meal over and over again! I'll miss that.
kenke - delicious!
eating breakfast with the guys

And soon after that, our food was ready and we had to stuff ourselves to the brim to finish eating our pineapple pancakes and eggs!

The rest of that day we spent walking along the beach, collecting seashells, relaxing, staring out at the serene beauty and half-jokingly asking each other, "Can we stay here forever!?" We were also ambushed by the most adorable children, and spent a good while playing with the young ones, while some of the older girls braided my hair.
Lounging in the hammock
sweet girls braiding my hair and being silly

We didn't end up leaving the island until around 5PM, meaning that we were travelling by trotro at nighttime for the first time - it was a bit exhilarating and we were all a bit delirious from lack of sleep, but we made it back to our hostel by 10:30PM. I had the best time in Ada Foah, and I miss the people and the atmosphere so much, but next weekend I will be going on another adventure to the Northern region of Ghana and I can't help but anticipate all the wonderful people and memories I will meet!

We will be flying from Accra to Tamale, staying the night in Tamale, then trotroing really early from Tamale to Mole National Park to go on a Safari and staying at Mole Motel for 2 nights! We will also visit some local villages and mosques, and I am sure we will have some unexpected adventures! We will leave Saturday morning, and then I will fly back from Tamale to Accra on my own on Tuesday! This will be interesting.
Can I stay here forever?!

Much love from Ghana,

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Rainforests and the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade

This weekend felt like it lasted a lifetime. I did so many incredible things this weekend, and it looks like next weekend will be even more adventurous! I have been a little surprised at myself - surprised at how readily I enjoy doing things that some people might be nervous to do.. Who am I kidding? I'm doing things that I am nervous to do! But the exhilaration of doing something that makes you afraid, finding that you can not only handle it but in fact enjoy it - is the best and most confidence-inducing feeling ever.

So this weekend blitz began on Friday evening, when myself and a few other interns from the HRAC went shopping along Oxford Street in Osu. The various hawkers are always on the look out for obrunis (white people) to sell their various wares, so it can be a little intimidating to walk along the street but I am getting better and better at handling it. As I was walking a man grabbed my arms and asked me to marry him, which is really par for the course here. After haggling a bit I bought a nice Ghanaian dress and some beads, and then headed to Cafe Dez Amis near Flagstaff  House (parliament). We were excited for the live music, but unfortunately the  music was pretty lame. Nevertheless, we ordered drinks and enjoyed our time there despite the onslaught of mosquitoes. 

Saturday morning we woke up at 4:30 am to be able to drive approximately 4 -5 hours to Kakum National Park in the West of Ghana. Our drive was long but it was really good to be out of the city and seeing more of the greenery that is truly so beautiful. Kakum National Park boasts of having Africa's oldest canopy walk - where you walk along narrow wooden planks supported by netting between 20 to 40 meters above ground and above the treetops of the lush rainforest. It was really nerve-wracking for me at first - the planks wobble and you have the sensation that you need to balance yourself really carefully or else you'll fall. But the view of the rainforest was amazing and we saw red and yellow butterflies fluttering among the treetops.  

 Although I was really nervous doing the canopy walk the first time, four of us from our group decided to do it again when there was no one else on it (admittedly, technically we weren't supposed to do that..shh). Doing it the second time was much more enjoyable - we walked faster and weren't too disturbed by the swaying or wobbling of the planks because we had already successfully done it once. The only part that really freaked me out was the part of the canopy walkway where the wooden plank was missing and there were only rungs like a horizontal ladder! But it was exhilarating and I felt like I had accomplished something after doing it.

After Kakum, we drove about a half hour to a restaurant that was like a big cottage on the edge of a small pond that is inhabited by crocodiles. We only saw one, and a  bunch of lizards (I fed one some lettuce) but it was cool. 

After that, we drove another hour or so to Cape Coast. The view of the coast from there is really beautiful, but we were primarily there to visit Cape Coast Castle. I really don't know how to adequately convey the emotions I experienced visiting that castle. 

For as long as I can remember I have heard about the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and the horrors of it, but it has always felt like some far and distant world that never seemed concretely real - it almost seemed too horrible to be true. But no longer does it seem that way. Cape Coast Castle was once used to hold up to 1000 slaves from West Africa for 2 weeks to 6 months before they were packed into ships like sardines to be slaves in North America.  We went right into the male dungeons where  men would be kept in the dark, naked, and overcrowded. We were shown how these men were forced to defecate on the floor of the dungeon and as a result the buildup of waste caked over the bricks and solidified. When it was later excavated, the waste was scrubbed away to reveal the original red brick underneath but a patch of the waste was left to remember the suffering of those men. We were also told how the British and other Europeans built a church right above where the men were kept in squalid dungeons. I truly don't understand how they could be Christian and still engage in the slave trade. We were shown the underground passage that the slaves would use to travel from their dungeons to the Door of No Return (they weren't even allowed in the open light) - the door through which all the slaves would pass to board the ships that would bear them far away, never to return. It felt unfair that I could walk in and out of that door  - I was able to pass through that door twice, but the men and women who were forced to be slaves were never able to. We were shown a small room just beside the female dungeons that was used to punish women who resisted rape from the white europeans - and I noticed how, unlike the male dungeons, the females were held in a room with a large window with bars so that the european men could easily choose whichever female they wanted. The females would have to both defecate and menstruate in the open like that and endure sexual assault - I can't even imagine it...  The final, and to be me the most harrowing, place we went to was an extremely small cell with two bolted doors that was both hot and dark. This cell was where slaves who were sick, resisted or were deemed difficult were forced to basically starve to death. As soon as we walked in the dark room I could feel the oppression - as if all the death and suffering had seeped into the walls and never left. It was awful but a truly significant experience. I can't help but think how messed up our world is and how much we take for granted - but that's a post for another day..
Cape Coast Castle,  on the coast

Cape Coast Castle

Entrance to the mall dungeons

Patch of human waste

only source of light in dungeons

The drive back to Accra was extremely long - we didn't arrive back until it was 9pm. The next morning (Sunday) me, Sarah, and Sikander embarked on a journey on our own to the East Coast of Ghana - Ada Foah! Our friend Eirwen (from England) was already there and had insisted that we join her. I am so glad that we did. The trip to Ada has been the highlight of my stay here in Ghana thus far and I know I won't ever forget it! 

You can read about it in my next post. 

Much love from Ghana, 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Palm Trees and Hip Hop

Finally, after a few rocky weeks of being sick off and on, being overtired, and secretly and sometimes not-so-secretly wishing to go home, I believe I have finally adjusted to life in Ghana. I don't know the exact time or reason why the transition happened - but I'm glad it has. I am really loving it here now.

The people around me have been really friendly and fun, work has been both fun and educational, and I'm getting used to all the sights, smells, and daily experiences that previously made me uncomfortable. Like crossing extremely busy roads at random without pedestrians having the right of way - that really freaked me out when I first came here. Now, not so much! It's just the way things are here.

I've done a few fun things since I last posted here. Last Friday my organization took all of us on a retreat to Tills Beach Resort for the day in order to bond, have fun, and brainstorm together. The drive up was really nice because it was my first time getting out of the city and seeing the lush greenery that makes up so much of Ghana. It really is quite beautiful, but sometimes the city can be overwhelming and feel inescapable.

The retreat was soo much fun! The beach was beautiful - lined with palm trees, fresh coconuts and completely empty except for us so it was like we had our own private beach. The waves were very big so we couldn't "swim" but we went in and steeled ourselves against the waves and tried not to topple over which is tons of fun. We sunbathed and ate a delicious lunch of Ghanaian staples - tilapia, jollof rice,  banku (though I'm not a fan of this - it's basically like mushy potato that you don't chew - you just swallow it :/), salad, pasta, jerk chicken, and beans. The tilapia was soooo good.  I am also proud to report that I am significantly darker skinned than when I first arrived - success!

On Saturday some of us interns went to Labadie Beach which is a lot closer to us than Tills Beach, but not as nice. I mean, the ocean is nice but the beach is busy with fishermen as they try and pull in  long nets via ropes, small, long boats and people selling all sorts of tourist-y items like masks, paintings and statues. As obrunis (white people) we stand out and are constantly bombarded by people trying to sell us things - it got a bit frustrating but it's improving my ability to say no and be firm, so that's good! We were so tired from being in the sun all day that when we got back to our hostel around 3PM we all took naps. I'm finding I am a lot more capable of taking naps here than I am when I'm in Canada. After our naps, we took a taxi (cramming all 5 of us into 1 as has become the norm) to Mamma Mia's - an Italian restaurant in Osu. We ordered the Seafood Platter and I was basically in heaven - grilled lobster, grilled prawns, calamari, fish, and fries! I lovee seafood so this made me prettty happy.

After Mamma Mia's we had planned to check out another jazz bar but we decided to be adventurous and check out The Alliance Francaise instead as they were having a special event that night. The Alliance Francaise was overflowing with people when we got there. It is an open venue with a stage and stadium-like seating but much smaller. The event was a hiphop/rap concert with a bunch of Ghanaian artists - but we were so surprised to find out that Sarkodie would also be performing! Sarkodie is a reallly famous Ghanian hiphip/rap artist and super talented! If you youtube him you can hear some of his crazy beats, though you probably won't understand what he is saying as most of his stuff is in Twi (the more dominant local language). The energy in the place was crazy and it was such a good experence! When Sarkodie came out people went crazy and despite how fast he raps almost everyone knew alll the words to his songs. I really recommend looking him up on youtube so you can hear a bit of what I was experiencing! :)

Yesterday was Monday,  meaning a return to my 5AM wake-up call, which is always difficult. However, work was really fun as we took a longer than normal lunch break and ended up making some great memories together as we laughed, talked and bonded. I love the people at my work and getting to know them and spending time with them is a huge highlight of my time here. I was told by one of my co-workers that I have an open and welcoming aura that makes people feel like I want to be their friend and that they will be safe with me - how sweet is that? It made my day.  :)

Now it is Tuesday and it's time to get into the swing of work again. I hope everyone back in Canada is doing well and I miss and love you all. Keep me in your prayers!

Also, for the record, my Ghanaian name is Akosua because I was born on a Sunday. It's pronounced "Akoseeya" though.

Much love from Ghana,

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Beans, Poptarts and Ice Cream

That is what I have eaten today in an attempt to find food somewhat familiar to my body.

Today is Sunday, so the canteen on the bottom floor of our hostel is closed while the street market only opened up after lunch-time. I was 'home' sick with some variant of food-poisoning this past Wednesday to Friday and have been trying to get back into eating Ghanaian food. It's hard when the only place nearby to get food on a Sunday is the market - which is the very place whose food I became sick from. At this point I will only touch the egg sandwiches (which are quite delicious).
Our hostel

Nkrumah statue head

the university

However, a  much needed trip to the mall yesterday resulted in a great find - frozen vegetables! We had been severely missing vegetables here as the local ones, for whatever reason, don't mix well with our immune systems. Sarah and I bought a bunch of frozen vegetables so today I feasted on cut green beans boiled in a pot on a rusted, old hot-plate. I am really looking forward to having an egg sandwich for dinner though.  I have been eating a looot of rice, which is a staple food here.  Jollof rice is delicious - spicy, but delicious. However, after a while it's nice to have something different.

This morning I had my first experience at a church service here - the church on campus called Legon Interdenominational Church (LIC). It felt so good to be at church and worshipping Jesus within the Ghanaian context. The service was pretty similar to services I've experienced in Canada - but with more dancing and hymns and warmth! I particularly love all the church clothing - bold and beautiful patterns that I can't wait to wear myself. I can't wait to visit some other churches and hopefully find one that I can call home while I am here.

This weekend has been particularly chill because a lot of us have been feeling a bit under the weather - although one in our group has had a more prolonged health complication. She is getting medical attention though so hopefully she will be better soon. Some of us did go to a jazz bar on Friday called +233 - and that was a really great experience! It was a more expensive place - with a 20 cedis cover charge, a patio lit by torches and pretty expensive fare, but the music definitely made it worth it. The live jazz band was amaaazing. I will try and upload a video of some of it on Facebook depending on the internet connection. I have a feeling we will be going there again.

I am sad that I have missed three days of work this week. Working at the Human Rights Advocacy Centre (HRAC) is really good - the staff and other interns are friendly and like to have a good time, but are also clearly dedicated to the human rights work that they do for their country. I am currently working on a report  in collaboration with another intern about remand prisoners - prisoners who have been languishing in prisons for extremely long periods of time (some up to 16 years) without even having a trial to determine their conviction. It's been really interesting learning about Ghanaian laws and trying to put together a list of recommendations on what next steps should be taken to protect remand prisoners and their rights. I am looking forward to getting back into it on Monday!

All in all, despite being sick and what I suspect is a bit of culture shock, I have been enjoying my time here. It's an adventure every day, and the people are generally really warm and friendly. I am learning about Ghana, about cross-cultural living, and about myself as I navigate my days here, and that is truly a priceless experience.

Much love from Ghana,

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Lost in Tema Station

July 2nd 2014

Today was our first official day of work at the Human Rights Advocacy Centre.  We were told it would take approximately 1 hour to get to work via trotro (the cramped, cheap public transportation) and with work starting at 8AM we resolved to leave the ISH (International Student Hostel) at 6:30 AM to catch the trotro for the first time on our own. Let me just say - we had quite the adventure.

When we woke up this morning it was pouring rain. Luckily I brought an umbrella with me from Canada, but not so luckily I didn’t bring my rain boots. We walked from ISH to the trotro station which was approximately a 10 – 15 minute walk. I was wearing my nice black flats because they were the nice work shoes that I brought with me and I wanted to make a good impression today.

We arrived at the trotro station at around 6:45/6:50 AM with our clothes already starting to stick to our bodies and my flats coated with a nice layer of red from an ‘almost’ slip in the mud. Our umbrellas were not doing too much to keep us sheltered from the rain so we were anxious to start our trotro journey.

We needed to catch a trotro headed into Accra, and to get off at Tema Station to catch another trotro headed to Labrodie and then finally get off at the stop in front of Kingdom Books & Stationary. So we waited for any of the mates in the rusted, large vans to pull to the side of the road, fling open its doors and yell, “Accra, Accra, Accra,” or to see the tell-tale Accra hand gesture. However, after about 10 minutes of many trotros coming and going it was plain that finding a trotro headed to Accra was going to be more difficult than we had hoped. I could feel a little flutter of panic beginning to form in my chest as I saw the minutes going by and there was still no trotro headed to Accra (with space anyways). There was no way I wanted to be late for our first day!

I breathed a relative sign of relief when a red Metro Mass Transit bus pulled to the side and I heard a voice yell, “Accra, Accra.” Many of us still waiting rushed towards the bus to claim the few remaining seats. We felt hesitant about using the bus as all of our ‘advisors’ on transportation had only mentioned trotros but if it was going to Tema Station then we figured it would be our best bet. On our way we stopped briefly to ask the mate if the bus was headed to Tema Station, and he assured us it was. Feeling lucky that we avoided the cramped trotros, we got on the bus and found some seats at the very back.

We paid 80 cedis to the mate as the bus pulled out and into the busy traffic, and I kept my eyes and ears attentive to any sight or mention of Tema Station. It was 7:03 AM when we pulled out of the bus. We had one hour to get to work. I figured that would be enough time, but still felt panicky. We had never been to Tema station before, and so I wanted to be sure that we got off at the right stop.

A Ghanaian lady sitting beside me assured me that she was also heading to Tema Station, and would let us know when the stop was approaching. It was still pouring rain, and traffic was an absolute nightmare – nearly at a deadlock in some places, very slowly moving in others with horns blaring everywhere. I kept my eye on the time, and it didn’t take long for us to realize that there was no way we were going to make it to the HRAC for 8AM. 

I texted our contact at the HRAC to let him know that we would be late to work, all the while cringing inside and hoping that we wouldn’t be much later than 8:00 AM.  My nerves shot up at the prospect of walking into work on the first day both late and frazzled from the rain, but I turned my attention to the next leg of our journey.

Finally after about an hour or so on the bus in extremely slow-moving traffic, the lady beside me indicated that we would be approaching Tema Station soon. The line of traffic heading into the station was crazy but finally the bus pulled to the side and opened its doors. The rain was pouring harder than ever, and all we could see from inside the bus was a queue of many people under umbrellas and wooden platforms, and a line of red buses. We hesitantly got out and stepped into the rain, and as the bus emptied and closed its doors we realized we had no idea where we needed to go from here.

We knew we needed to catch a trotro from Tema Station, but we had not been warned as to how big Tema Station was, and that the buses pull into a different terminal than the trotros! We had no idea that there was a huge market that intersects these two terminals, nor that there are tons of mini-terminals (those wooden platforms which people were packing into like sardines to escape the rain) all throughout the trotro terminal!

I don’t know if I can adequately paint the picture of the chaos that was occurring around us as the rain poured down and hundreds, probably thousands of people milled about trying to get out of the rain or to their next mode of transportation and the hundreds of trotros and other vehicles driving in and around these people and market women carrying loads of various items on their heads and calling from their stalls to entice you to buy something even in the downpour.
This is not a picture I took but found online. I didn't bring my camera with me on this journey. This is what Tema Station was like, only even more chaotic!

Added to all of this was the fact that the heavy downpour had caused the streets and terminals to begin to flood – ankle-deep water was rushing over our professionally-dressed feet carrying with it all sorts of  waste and colours and smells. My new flats had caused a blister to break out on my left heel and as I felt the cold, dirty water rushing over it I was silently praying it wouldn’t get infected.

Though we didn’t know where to go, we began to walk towards the trotros with a slight feeling of anxiety and giddiness - despite being a bit lost and soaking wet and surrounded by chaos, it was kind of an exhilarating experience. We laughed a lot at the somewhat outrageous situation we had found ourselves in. A good sense of humour is absolutely necessary when travelling through Accra for the first (few) times!

Ghanaian people are so friendly. We very clearly looked like 3 lost, wet, obrunis (white people) and as we meandered through the markets and terminals without us even asking a local would approach us or yell from across the way, “where you go?” and point us in the right direction. All we would get would be a point though so we would have to guess as to how far to walk in that direction and where to go but after a bit of doing this we managed to get to a trotro that was headed to labrodie! We climbed in the back and waited – a trotro won’t leave until there is a good amount of people inside (though it depends on the driver and the mate). Finally the trotro was semi-full and we pulled out of park and began our final journey towards labrodie.

Traffic was still crazy slow and hectic, and the rain was still pouring. The streets were semi-flooded in some parts and rain was trickling in through the window I was sitting beside. It didn’t matter though – we were all soaked to our skin anyways.  However, it WAS a bit of a shock when our trotro went through a big pool of water and we felt a great splash of cold water hit our legs and feet – there was a hole in the bottom of the van! We laughed it off. This is Ghana.

After an extremely slow trek through traffic, we got off at Kingdom Books & Stationary. We knew the HRAC was only a 10 minute walk away – but the rain was pouring, the streets were flooded in some parts, and it was our first time trying to walk there on our own so naturally, we were lost again. We called our contact at the HRAC though and he was able to give us directions.

Though we knew were headed in the right direction, the adventure wasn’t over. Because the streets were flooded in some parts we had to jump over huge waterways, climb onto the grassy sides of buildings and climb through a prickly flower bush that left sharp burrs all over my pencil skirt. But after what felt like ages, we arrived at the HRAC! We did our best to smooth down our frizzy, wet hair and pick out all the burrs and headed in. It was only when I was in reception waiting for our contact to come and greet us that I realized my feet were a dark blue and purple colour. They weren’t bruised – they were dyed! I guess my black Clark flats weren’t meant for walking through Ghanaian flood waters.

We arrived at the HRAC at 9:30 AM, a good hour and a half late. But to be honest, we felt very accomplished that we had made it there on our own at all!

Our way home from work was a whole other experience – it was better and not as crazy because we decided to take a taxi back rather than a trotro through the rain again (yes, it was still pouring by 4PM) but our taxi was malfunctioning for most of the trip.  Our driver had to get out of the cab and go under the car a few times to tinker around and fix something that was swooshing and clunking along the ground. The smell of gas was nauseating. But you know what, we made it to work and we made it home, and it was an unforgettable experience! 

Since it took us so long to get to work yesterday (July 2nd - 2 and a half hours) we woke up at 5AM today to get to work. We took the same route except we were able to get a trotro instead of a bus to Accra and it wasn't raining. It only took us an hour to get to work - what a relief! We arrive an hour early but it's better than being an hour and half late, so from now on guess who will be waking up at 5AM everyday?!

Also, my feet are still blue and purple. 

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Some Tidbits

It's only my second day in Accra, Ghana and I already feel like I have been here for a lifetime - maybe  it's the way the heat and humidity make you feel a low-level of exhaustion throughout most of the day,or the fact that everything about my life seems completely different here and it's hard to imagine my life back in Canada. Truthfully not much has happened yet but I feel like I've already learned a lot about Ghanaian culture, at least knowledge wise. I will have a whole 2 months to live it out in practice! 

So, some tidbits about Ghana and the culture. Right now there is a fuel shortage - I'm not sure about all the details exactly but it means that it's more difficult to get transportation, though not impossible. We were supposed to have a few different guest speakers for our orientation today but only one of them were able to make it. I'm not sure if or how that will affect my ability to get to and from work, but so far it seems that trotros (the public transportation vans) at least are still running. 

Today in our orientation we learned a bit about 'living and working in Ghana.' The main thing that stood out to me is that Ghanaians value relationships over efficiency - so for example, when you first go to work or show up to meetings (which will almost always start late) you should engage in conversations with your colleagues about their weekend, their family, etc. and start working after that! As Ophelia (our Ghanaian contact) said, "Ghanaians love to feel good!" It seems that, as obrunis (white people) we will have to gain the trust of those that we work with by making time for conversation and using proper titles when speaking to people. A good frame of mind is to address everyone with either Mr. or Mrs, or Auntie and Uncle (depending on the relationship). I really like that Ghanaians value relationships so much and I can't wait to meet my colleagues! 

Last night it was difficult sleeping for a number of reasons.  1) My bowels and stomach have been upset ever since the flights and I have been battling some nausea and loose bowel movements (so please keep me in your prayers). 2) There was a large and loud church service occurring under some white tents in the far distance with music and singing and noise makers until about 11pm. 3) Our room is right beside the common tv room, and some boys were in there until fairly late watching tv pretty loudly. 

That coupled with the heat means that I am basically exxxxhausted and still not feeling well. If it weren't for my stomach issues though, I would be super okay with life here. Yes it's hot, but you get used to it fairly quickly and the people are very friendly and engaging. 

I'm too exhausted right now to finish this post, but I'll post again soon! Tomorrow we have orientation from 8am to 6pm though, so it's a fair bet that I will be too exhausted tomorrow too! Tomorrow I will ride the trotro for the first time so that should be interesting! They basically cram as many people as they can in a big unconditioned van and stop wherever people are going along a route. Eek, I'm a little nervous. 

However, I am trusting in God and know that He is with me as I experience this unique culture. 

Much love from Ghana,