A Year Under a Ghanaian Sun

Since I’ve disappeared to a new continent for a year, this blog is my way of sharing my life here – the uncanny, the comical, the absurd, and some of the mundane – with my friends and family. It is also a way for me to chronicle the myriad of experiences that would otherwise escape into the dribble of my forgetfulness. This blog is my story.

A great big thanks to my obliging friend for setting up and designing this blog for me!

A note:
I’ll try my best to keep specific names and references out of this story (including my own), since no one wants to be unwittingly caricatured on the internet. And I don’t want to be held accountable for anything I write about my time here.

Posted in October | 4 Comments

A Golden Era of Sunshine Comes to an End

A golden era of sunshine is coming to an end. The wandering daughter returns.  On Friday, I accepted a new job with the International Development Research Centre.  So I’ll be returning to Ottawa just after Easter to welcome the beginning of spring.  Please pray for no freak snowstorms or cold snaps as it might be enough to scare me back to the Equator.

I began this journey to Ghana with some hesitation.  While I feel very positive about coming back, I am sad to say goodbye to what truly turned into a golden era of friendship and enjoyment here.   But nothing is forever…  On to the next life adventure.

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How (not) to throw an African conference

So I haven’t written for months.  And I had resigned myself to the fact that I would probably not resurrect my blog after 6 months of hibernation.  Between trying to keep a social life while doing a master’s degree by distance, I had long given up on blogging.  But here I am in Ouagadougou (Google that!) for a pan-African conference on education held once every three years, half exhausted, but at a table with a delightful glass of $3 wine (impossible in the Anglophone land of high-priced, low-quality wine of Ghana), an oven-baked pizza, and a strawberry Chantilly.  And suddenly, sitting with my 700-page textbook on utilization-focused evaluation in health promotion and 67 pages to read, I suddenly felt like blogging.

 How (not) to throw an African conference

I like the word ‘throw,’ as if one were ‘throwing’ a party – a haphazard affair where nothing other than the date of the event seems to be fixed or organized but in the end everyone and their best friend shows up and the host is caught running around trying to buy extra beer and ice from the cornerstore  while the guests rummage around trying to find glasses and a place to hang their coats.  A good party usually ends in a drunken heap.   A good African conference ends in a dinner at the president’s palace.

An experience in African organization:

  • Invite 500-1000 participants from across Africa, including high-level dignitaries.
  • Do not respond to emails from participants regarding conference logistics and fail to post details online.
  • Forget to send an email inviting the President and/or Minister of Education from Mauritania
  • Designate 6 official conference hotels, but:   a) neglect to confirm a hotel location for many participants and/or  b) have your participants show up at the designated hotel only to find out that their reservation has been supplanted by a new first-come-first-serve basis system.  Let participants spend the next 2-3 hours trying to find a vacant spot in another hotel jet-lagged and on an empty-belly.
  • Deflect blame for poor logistical organization.
  • Keep the entire assembly of participants waiting for 2 hours for the opening ceremonies to commence as the ‘dignitaries’ find a convenient time to show up.  Half-way through the opening ceremonies make the participants wait as the dignitaries leave the room for 15 minutes for a photo shoot.
  • Don’t provide the conference programme until the second day of the conference.
  • Do not indicate in which room the various sessions will take place.
  • Select groups to mount exhibition stalls.  Upon arrival, indicate that each space will be shared among 3 different organizations.
  • Invite people to submit academic papers for presentation.  Provide strict deadlines for submission and provide feedback for incorporation into the final submission. Select meritorious submissions and invite authors to present.  Upon arriving at the conference, inform presenters that the format of the parallels sessions have been changed to panel discussions.  Individual powerpoint presentations will no longer be allowed.  Panelists may make a 10 minute address. Evade responsibility for not contacting presenters about change in format due to death in family.  Blame colleague.
  • Don’t provide enough lunch for everyone.
  • Don’t provide enough headsets for simultaneous translation in French and English. Let Francophone and Anglophone Africans guess what each other are saying.
  • Dedicate a film hall to show documentaries, but neglect to provide amplifiers and speakers.  Set up a microphone next to the laptop speakers as a solution.
  • Periodically lock the computer/internet room.
  • And finally, invite all the participants to join the President and the First Lady at his palace for Moet champagne, 2007-vintage French wine, and dinner set in an outdoor terrace amidst twinkly lights, a fountain, and a live band.  At least one participant, including the author of this narrative, thinks this alone makes it worth coming to the conference.


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Language Part II: Lack of Communication and the South Africa Debacle

In many places around the world, local languages are under threat from the homogenizing effect of English and other international language.  In Ghana, it is rather English that is way sided by the local language.  Ghanaians seem to think it is quite natural to switch to their local language, even when a non-local speaker is engaged in the conversation.  The effect is exclusionary.  Not intentionally so, but callously so.  You can be standing in a group of people and they will chit chat right in front of you without any care that you are excluded from the conversation.  And this isn’t just an instance of a little white girl feeling overly sensitive.  I work in an ‘international’ office.  I don’t mean international as in Western.  I mean an office that recruits from across Africa.  My boss is from Uganda.  Other colleagues are from neighbouring Ivory Coast, Senegal, Togo and further afield from places like Tanzania.  And they all quietly grumble about the stark disregard for office conversations that take place in front of their faces in a language they don’t understand.

This language insensitivity was something that had clearly been getting under my skin without me actually putting my finger on my feeling of exclusion.  I felt it, but I never articulated the issue. And then there was a moment, when my boss, the number 2 guy in our organization, said to me, clearly and directly in front of the other colleagues, “In my culture, it’s rude to speak a language that those around you don’t understand.”  There wasn’t a single reaction from anyone in the group.  They know they do it and they don’t care.  They feel justified.  They say they like speaking their local language.  My boss’ verbalization of the problem however laid the first straw that would very quickly snap my tolerance.

Shortly afterwards, almost everyone from my work was attending a colleague’s funeral.  My work was coordinating the transport logistics for our group.  Yet in Ghana, coordination is generally a loose affair with a lot of unsuccessful attempts to herd unruly sheep and move as a group in any timely fashion.  So I had gone to the funeral, but was feeling ill and lightheaded that day.  After the church service, there was a lengthy discussion about how long the group would stay to socialize and when our bus would be heading back.  Not feeling well, I wanted to know what the plan was so that I knew whether to wait for the group or find my own way back.  Yet despite repeatedly asking ‘what’s going on?’ no one bothered to answer me.

Not too much after that, my work was preparing to host a large conference in South Africa.  Tensions in the office were fairly high as everyone was stressed out with preparations.  Twelve of us in total would be going to assist with presentations and/or the running of the event, but we were all scheduled to depart on different days depending on our respective tasks and duties.  Four of us had the same departure and went to check in as a group.  We got to the check-in counter of the international airport where the check in discussion proceeded in the local language.

All I got was a few tidbits revolving around the fact that our travel agent had neglected to forward the airline our seat preferences.  There was a lot of dialogue going back and forth in the local language, but I only got clips of conversations as they peppered their conversation with English phrases. One colleague kept talking about how tall she is and how she needed an aisle seat.  More talking.  Are they managing to negotiate seat preferences?  I ask what’s going on.  The response, “It’s a personal matter.”  My inappropriate response, “So personal that I’m the only one who doesn’t know what we’re talking about?”

Next item on the agenda.  Checking in the luggage.  Two colleagues are way overweight between the conference items they needed to bring and their personal luggage.  I, however, have packed extremely light.  No problem, they can use my unused kilos so they don’t have to pay overweight charges.  More processing in the local language.  The next thing I know, the agent hands over all the baggage tags to one woman and says they are under her name.  I was like, whoa, so what happens if our baggage gets lost?  Is she the only one who will be able to follow up with the missing luggage?  This is important, I say, as my luggage inconveniently goes missing all the time, seriously all the time.  And the woman who has been put in charge of our collective luggage is a surely, unhelpful type.  I don’t want to have to rely on her.  In exasperation, they say fine, just let me check in by myself.  Then I wait, I wait, I wait as the discussion go on and on in the local language.  Eventually I leave the check-in counter where the undecipherable discussion is still ongoing and go to wait in the nearby seats.  Like 20 minutes later I go back to the counter to inquire what’s going on. They say that because I checked in separately they are now trying to find other means of getting their luggage through without paying excess baggage dues.  I return to my seat and continue to wait out the process.  When they finally finish, they then walk right past me, clearly unimpressed with me.  So no one really speaks to me.  We board the flight.  We get off the flight.

Because it’s a large conference, we have hired some professional conference organizers to assist us.  The organizer arrives to meet us and put us on the shuttle to our hotel.  So all 5 of us are standing outside waiting for the shuttle. My Ghanaian colleagues are grouped together like a little trio, chatting away.  I stand just a couple of feet separate with the organizer.  Quite tired, still receiving the cold shoulder by my colleagues, and used to zoning out when the conversation buzzes around me in words I can’t decipher, I begin to do exactly that.  When out of the silence, the organizer turns to me and says, does it bother you that you don’t understand.  Yes, I said, point blankly.   It’s rude not just for me, but to exclude the woman my work has hired to help with our conference logistics.

We all board the shuttle.  As it turns out, of the 3 conference hotels, I am the only one from my work who was put in the third hotel.  The other three ladies headed off as a little clique into their hotel.  It wasn’t actually intentional, just no one noticed that the other colleagues who would be staying at the same hotel as me weren’t arriving until 3 days later.  As my colleagues got out of the shuttle, I asked them if there was a plan to meet up.  They noncommittally said they were going to rest for a while.  I didn’t hear from them for the entire weekend.  Apparently my slight at the airport was enough to carry over into noninclusion for the entire weekend.

Later on, we had a team meeting scheduled.  A van came to pick us up at our respective hotels.  I got into the bus without saying good morning and just sat down quietly.  The lack of politeness I displayed by not greeting people (greeting is a big deal here),  was enough for my colleague blow up at me for being rude.  This is despite the fact that no one bothered to check in on my all weekend.  I tried to explain how they exclude me all the time in their conversations, but she couldn’t see my point.  (For your reference, this blow-up was not permanent and me and this colleague get along perfectly well today. I’m not someone who typically fosters estranged work relations ).  But it was a very frustrating experience – an episode that got blown out of proportion by my actions and by theirs.  But at that point, I also had had enough.

And now, 4 months on, nearly one year in Ghana.  I have resigned myself to the way it is.  If my boss can’t do it, if my other African, but non-Ghanaian colleagues have no effect, surely my cold anger will only lead me into another hot water situation.

And so, when I need to get the hole in my office fixed so the mice stop pissing and shitting over my documents after I leave in the evening and I approach the human resources officer who then directs the entire conversation in the local language to the maintenance guy, I just stand by like a non-party to a discussion that is 100% tied to my personal issues.  At the end of the conversation, I gently inquire into what decisions have been made.  The hole doesn’t actually get fixed for another 3 months, but that is another issue…

For Ghanaians who pride themselves on being friendly, they are…and they aren’t.

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Language is supposed to be a window into a culture, a verbal eye into what you see around you.  It explains, it narrates, it gives meanings to the actions that unfold every day.  English is the most common language for bridging communication between two different cultures and is the primary working language in Ghana.  Yet speaking the same language as my colleagues creates an illusion of cultural commonality; it deceives people into thinking that our behaviour and actions are grounded in the same cultural expectations.  But they are not.  At my office it seems that because people are educated in English, work with international partners, and many even have relatives overseas, they (and me) are falsely lulled into acceptance of the other person’s sameness.  And I am increasingly realizing that those with whom I interact are largely unaware that social interactions in Ghana sometimes demand and elicit very different responses than they would in Canada.

One of the easiest (and most difficult) things about living in Japan is that you are at all times assumed to be different, and therefore to be innocently ignorant of social etiquette.  In Japan, there is a right way of doing everything. When you enter a building, you have take your shoes off and leave them facing backward at the door, bow at the right depth, use the right salutation depending on the seniority of the person you are addressing, use certain colors to wrap different types of gifts. The list goes on and on. As a foreigner in Japan, they will kindly show you how to do something or just forgive your foreigness.  In Ghana, they tell you to ‘be free’ – to feel at ease.  Yet this laid back attitude masks the fact that Ghanaians and non-Ghanaians may respond to social situations very differently and both parties may see the response by the other as an affront; yet neither party knows that they have reacted rudely or unacceptably.

Here is a very simple example.  Funerals are a big deal here and our office accountant is actually an acting chief in one of the nearby towns.  Most of my colleagues were planning on attending the funeral for the accountant’s mother and I was also asked to go.  As I didn’t have anything appropriate to wear to the funeral, I asked a colleague who is about my age if she had anything I could borrow.  No problem, she brought it to me gladly.  The next day at work, I went into her office which she shares with another colleague to say thank you and return the shirt she had lent me.  She was acting so weird, I didn’t know what was up.  Later she came into my office and said, why was I making a big deal about returning the shirt.  I was like I just came in to say thanks.  She said I didn’t need to do it in front of everyone.  I was like – whoa, I had no idea that this was a sensitive issue.  She didn’t really explain well but alluded to the idea of keeping things quiet to guard against jealously between colleagues when someone is given a favour. And secondly that borrowing clothes can be associated with being poor.  I apologized and said I had just acted in a very Canadian, and that borrowing clothes among female friends is not at all a private affair in Canada.  Then as she turned to leave the office, she stopped and in a perfect cultural communication faux-paux moment, point-blank stated that I had a couple of new zits on my face. Laughing, I told her that that in Canada that was an incredibly rude comment!  She replied that it is very common in Ghana to say such things.  And I was like – my point exactly!  You think I act strange or rude sometimes because you assume that social etiquette is universal.  Yet, you have no idea when you insult me and that I often find the actions of you and the other colleagues offensive, but you also have no idea. You think you are just acting normally.

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Borrowing Things

Taking. Receiving. Borrowing. Lending. Offering. Keeping. Returning.  These actions are socially negotiated within a particular cultural context.  They typically proceed in an expected manner according to culturally acceptable norms.  I am foreign to this cultural context and the Ghanaian social norms associated with these actions often confound me.

In Japan, people incessantly give gifts.  But these gifts are accepted with deference and gratitude – bowing, repeated thank yous, reciprocated gifts.  My Italian roommate says that in Italy even if someone offers you something as small as the last meatball, out of politeness you’re obliged to say – no, you take it. When the other person insists you should take it, you can eventually agree.  In Canada, we do this kind of thing too. If someone does something really special for you, you might even give them a thank you card or some kind of small gift.  In Ghana, my impression is that people accept easily, without reservations, without qualms.  Sometimes it even appears that they just offer things to themselves. At least this is how I, an outsider with a very shallow understanding of Ghanaian culture, perceive (and probably misunderstand) situations.  I stand by baffled as to how to understand and deal with various situations.

Example 1:  I won the candy count game on Canada day at the Canadian embassy and so brought some of the candies to work to share with my colleagues.  After going around and offering the candies to whoever was around, I offered to let one of the drivers take the rest of the candies.  While receiving the candies, he commented on what a good container it was.  Then because he liked the Tupperware container the candies were in, he just took the tupperware home.  He wanted it so he just took it.  I asked him to bring it back, and he said he would if he ‘remembered.’  It’s his now.

Example 2:  I lent a novel to my neighbours months ago and who seem to have no intention of returning it despite repeated reminders. They have never say, oh let me just dash in and grab it for you.  I guess it’s theirs now. I haven’t even read it.

Example 3:  Three of my neighbours just showed up in my compound with 6 huge plastic jerry cans for filling water and proceeded directly to my outdoor tap.  Apparently they needed water because their pump or something was broken at their house. Remember, we don’t have a free public water system here.  You have to pay for a truck to come and fill up your tank.  And my house doesn’t have a particularly big tank.  If you were Canadian, you would probably ask your neighbour if they minded if you tapped some of their water.  You probably wouldn’t just show up with three people in tow and countless jugs in hand and head directly through the tap, calling through the window that you’re here to take water.  A colleague of mine who happened to be over at my house learning how to bake cookies advised that I should tell the neighbours to fill only 3 jerry cans.  It seems like people don’t ask how much they can have, but rather wait for you to cut them off when they’ve passed their limit.

Example 4:  I was at a colleagues’ house when a few visitors from her parents’ church showed.  As per normal social etiquette, the visitors were offered drinks.  But not only did those visitors order a  drink to consume during the course of the visit, just before leaving they asked for another drink – one for the road.  Can you imagine going to someone’s house (uninvited) and then before you’re ready to go asking for a drink, as if their house was a take-out service.

Example 5:  I have a 16-year old cleaning girl.  Sometimes before I leave in the morning, I offer her treats that are in my fridge.  She never says thank you.  She just says OK.

Example 6:  A young colleague at my work asked my parents to bring a laptop from Canada for him when they came to visit because they are cheaper in Canada.  My parents had to run around to pick it up for him and tow it along with them as they crossed over the continents.  When he got it, I know he was very pleased, but all he said was thank you once and that was it.  No card.  No thanking them for going out of their way.  Nothing extra.  One thank you.

These are all petty examples.

Petty is a word frequently used in Ghana to connote small things.  But it used without negative connotation and without reference to lack of generosity or lack of importance.  For example, I recently had a conversation with a guy who had visited Tokyo and the petty cities around it (referring simply to the smaller surrounding cities).   I find it ironic that things but not actions or people are ‘petty’ in Ghana.  At any rate, I do not understand the protocols for giving and taking in this country.

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Fall out from the Sky

Chicken Little tried to tell everyone that the sky was puking but no one believed him.  He went away, head hanging with a puke-split skull.  

So I puked from 800 meters.  And it was amazing. 

I wiped my mouth on my arm and grabbed a bottle of water.

We landed gently on the soccer pitch in a small Ghanaian town.

It wasn’t the fear that did it, it was the turning.  The slow turning, and turning. 

After at least 20 minutes of hovering on the air currents it was time for the descent.  Well at least it was time for my stomach to descend since it was hovering in my mouth.

I may never be a bird, but I soared with them, circled with them. Went round and round, higher and higher.  For years, I’ve wanted to drift upon the air currents.

The wind took us and we lifted off. The sky was so beautifully peaceful.  It was like being suspended over creation.

We strapped in and ran towards the mouth of the cliff, confident that we could fly.  Not the way my sister thought she could fly when she was 5 years old and jumped off the couch into the window.  But really fly, like Peter Pan.

I waited for nearly a day and a half.  And finally it was my turn.  The tandem pilot called my name.

Without really knowi ng where it was, how to get there, or where we were going to sleep, we left for the great leap forward.

Every year over Easter Ghana has a huge paragliding festival.  At the last minute I found someone who thought going to this event was as fantastic an idea as I did.   

A tale in reverse – chronological aberration inspired while drinking Star Beer, my favourite local drink. 

Title:  How to spend a random Easter weekend (click here for the picture story: http://www.flickr.com/photos/tmludwick/sets/72157626655672155/).


In case you got lost, here’s the story told right-side up.

Easter weekend arrived without me being ready for it.  A few weeks earlier, I had heard about a paragliding event, but couldn’t get find many details or a crazy canuck to go with me.  But I did find an Estonian.  Thursday night on the way out of the pub, I randomly ran into a guy who I had just met the day before and figured I’d give it one last shot to find a paragliding partner.  The next day we made a last minute decision to go with the wind. We had no idea what we were getting into, no idea how long it would take us to get there, and no place to stay.  So we threw together a couple of yoga mats and a mosquito bed net into a backpack in case we needed to camp under the big wide sky.   As it turned out, we did end up camping, but in a proper tent at a proper venue set up by the festival.

We arrived at the transit station just in time to grab the two last seats in the tro tro aka squishy van.  Long legged Estonian got tucked up in the front seat between the driver and another passenger.  I got the retractable seat next to the door.  Imagine a 1 foot by one foot upholstered stool without a back.  That’s what I sat on as we jostled to and fro for the next 4 hours.

We finally arrived at the paragliding venue where I met a Lithuanian guy whose first name is coincidentally the same as my last name.

Since the paragliding works on a first come first serve basis , we couldn’t get a flight until the next day.    As it turns out, I am clearly not meant to fly so close to the sun.  Daedalus lesson number 2.   Apparently a lot of people suffer from vertigo when they go paragliding.   This never occurred to me.  I’m definitely one of those people who gets nauseous on ocean boats, windy car trips, and spinny amusement park rides.   But hey, if you’re going to puke, puke with flair.

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A thief is a thief is your neighbour

The income disparity is blatant. But does that justify the ubiquitous petty theft?

Housekeepers everywhere nick perfume, cameras, bras, anything.  The waiter nicks the restaurant owner’s cell phone.  The houseboy steals cash from the old man in the house.

If you fire them, the next person will steal from you just the same.

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