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Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Border Post

A popular misconception about Africa is that it is a homogenous “dark continent”. Countries might have different names and fashion the typical red, yellow and green of their flags slightly differently. But otherwise the same. Sun, dust, corruption, flies, pot bellies, breasts, civil war and game. Africa.

Despite the obvious annoyances from hawkers, currency exchange “agents” and overloaded trucks I love border crossings in this region because I think they best undermine this notion. At these hectic junctions the world can change in the space of two hundred meters. This is most evident when crossing from English speaking Africa to francophone or Portuguese Africa.

This weekend I made my second venture into French speaking Togo, Ghana’s eastern neighbour. Having finished my stint with the TV station I headed off alone in search of some much needed rest and relaxation. Despite a fantastic six months the litter and traffic of Accra has worn me down. I spent Saturday on the Ghanaian side of the border in Keta, a small sinewy settlement strung along a sand bar separating the ocean from a shallow lagoon behind.

In its day Keta is supposed to have been a highlight for backpackers. However due to the ravages of a rising sea and retreating coastline much of it is now submerged out to sea. Only a third of the old Danish fort remains and an atmosphere of gloom surrounds the dwindling community. With the exception of a rotund Ghanaian businessman I spent the night in the 1960’s concrete Keta beach hotel alone. Depressing. I headed for Togo first thing on Sunday morning.

The border crossing is 40 miles further eastwards along the coast. Thanks to belated efforts at redeveloping the area the road out of Keta is exceptional and initially my TroTro was rattling on at a decent speed. However ten miles before the border the tar runs out and the paced slows as my back and the aging suspension have to contend with a rutted read earth road. Dust is everywhere and road side shacks, houses and schools are covered in a rusty haze as we pass.

Like Keta, Afloa is stretched along the road leading to and from the border crossing. Along with phone credit, water and nick-naks the street vendors sell Ghanaian staples; Banku, Watchi and Fufu. Bulky and unremarkable starches. To the north of the town is a mangrove swamp whilst the ocean marks the town’s southern extremity. A dirty unremarkable town. Impossibly however, peaking just above the rural skyline is a series of multistory hotels.

Thanks to the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 which deprived Germany of its African Colonial possessions German Togoland was divided between France and Britain and new border was drawn clumsily on the edge of the capital. Today downtown Lome, the seat of seat of government in Togo is only a few hundred meters from rural Ghana.

Immediately as you step foot in Togo you are on the main beach drag in the city. Aflao and Ghana is at once left behind. No Banku but rather baguettes. No Tro-tros but rather a fleet of motorbike taxis. Behind dirt and litter. In front a tarred coastal strip flanked on one side by shops and restaurant and on the other a pristine golden beach.


Lome beach


Downtown


The beach is not a boundary or a public toilet like in Accra but the heartbeat of the city. Toddlers run in and out of the waves on the shore line, teenagers play football further in whilst old men in trilby hats sit under the palms watching the world go by.

“Africa. Its all the same isn’t it!?”

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Gap Yaah!

As readers of some of my earlier posts (see Ghana: Africa for beginners) will have noticed, I have an unfair, irrational, but very real lack of tolerance for gap year students.

Whilst I never took a year away myself, I got my travel fix in a host of “gap summers” (Inter rail 2007, South Africa 2008 and Swaziland 2009). These summers were, without doubt, the richest and most rewarding of my life. Back then I conformed to many gap year stereotypes. I grew my hair long, wore African bracelets and even took a Swazi name during my time in the country. (Cringe!!)

However, even then, I had developed a sense of cynicism towards myself and others I saw on my travels. Here is an article entitled “Travel Politics” I wrote for the Student Newspaper The Sanctuary in 2008...



Spring is in the air in Manchester! At the slightest hint of the sun breaking through the Mancunian gloom, birds can be heard tweeting, lambs are frolicking and the population of Fallowfield are busying themselves for the forthcoming two days of summer. Flip flops are being extracted from the back of countless wardrobes, aviators are dusted off and all around flesh is being liberated from its kindly winter covering. Once the clocks go forward, thoughts inevitably turn to travel plans for the summer.
 
However, what the travel agents, websites, guidebooks and Lonely Planets don’t ever mention is the vast array of politics that is involved in travel. Where you have been and what you have seen is an all-important status symbol. Over at Sanctuary HQ we thought it might be nice to give you tips on how to hold your own in that inevitable conversation you will have with the person who “wants to make a difference” or longs to “see what’s out there”.
 
Whether encountered at university or abroad, these people are immediately recognisable. The males will have long scruffy hair, in the “just woken up” look, a complement of beads, scruffy jeans and t-shirts branded with slogans such as “baada ya Kazi”. The female look is “boho-chic”: kinked hair, flowing skirts, opened toed shoes and perhaps a “bag for life”. A fair trade drink is also an essential accessory.
 
If you find yourself cornered by such a frightfully bohemian youth, here is a blagger’s guide to surviving the inevitable one-upmanship. Firstly, when talking about previous travel experience, NEVER admit to holidaying on the Spanish coast, unless to state how disgustingly over-developed it is; the Brits that go there are terribly crass and poorly educated. Extra kudos is available to those that have been south of Gibraltar and east of Germany. The further away you go, the better person you are. However there are exceptions: camping in the Lake District or renting a cottage in the Highlands is now very kitsch; remember to stress that your midge-infested holiday was a conscious choice in order to lower your carbon foot- print, and that you have a deeply held disgust for the airline industry.
 
If the conversation turns to political ideology make sure that you establish your liberal credentials. Remember you have never voted, or even thought of voting for anyone other than The Green Party or the Socialists. You would never be seen reading the “Torygraph” - your newsstand diet consists entirely of The Guardian and The Big Issue (alongside The Sanctuary, of course!). The main issues that haunt you daily are the humanitarian situation in Tibet, the perils of Chelsea tractors, and the sad plight of the endangered Snow Leopard.
 
As a final parting shot, might I suggest that you mention your passion for voluntary work? Many of you will have no doubt helped to build the odd school in your gap year, but for those of you who haven’t, do not despair – be creative. Ever worked in a charity shop? Been a member of scouts or brownies? Helped an old lady with her shopping bags in Sainsbury’s? Perhaps lying is wrong, but bending the truth can never cause much harm, can it? Hopefully, if you have followed at least some of this advice, you should be able to escape the clutches of most self-righteous travellers unscathed, without having developed an inferiority complex.
 
From all of us at The Sanctuary travel team, enjoy going away this summer. Go and do what you love, and, if you do get sucked into a session of drawn out travel politics, then just remember my tips!





So why am I bring this all up now? Well, thanks to Mr Adam Waise and facebook status updates I discovered this little beauty about gap years by the satirical website The Daily Mash. Think the captivated the mentality of a gap year better than I ever could. Made me chuckle and thought it would for you too!

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Goodbye

Goodbye. I have been saying it a lot recently. Today’s, thankfully, will be the last for a few weeks. Rous, the last intern from my previous job will be somewhere over the Sahara as I finish this blog.

Maybe it is the length of time I have been here, or maybe it is because it is nearing the end of the European academic summer holidays but it feels like I am being abandoned! Looking back through my previous blogs (including the one called “friends”) it is telling that only Rob and Miriam are left out of my original group of expat mates. I have said goodbye to seven good friends in four weeks.

I came to Ghana on the last day of March, fresh faced and with open eyes, just as others like Jasmin (who was one of those who I went to Green Turtle Lodge with over Easter) were already mentally on the aeroplane home. The revolving door of interns coming and going still remains as it ever has. The big difference is me.

Whilst my mind is not at home, I am loosing my appetite for an atmosphere akin to a perpetual fresher’s week; nervous strangers determined to make friends with anyone who will have them. I also can't take the same trivial introductions. What are you called? Where are you from? What are you doing here? How long for? Have you been to Ghana before?

Sure it’s tiring. It’s sometimes sad. But it is the reality of the situation. It can also be very positive experience. It is making me more aware of the need to live in the moment and savour the good times. It has presented me with a unique opportunity to meet interesting people from all over the world who would otherwise pass me by. It also makes one realise who is and who is not important to you back home.

So as I say goodbye to those of you reading who have left Ghana, it is also a time to say thank you.

Like all expats I am in the revolving door edging further towards the exit sign. When I do take my leave, most likely sometime in the autumn, I will be wiser than when I came in.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

"This is Henry Wilkinson reporting for ETV Ghana"

It’s been a while since I have posted but life has been very busy. Homesickness has also periodically raised its head. There is nothing worse than writing when you’re tired or feeling down so I have been keeping my thoughts to myself. Only now do I feel that I can let everyone know what I have been doing this month.

In a nutshell life has been completely surreal! I now work three days a week as a news journalist for ETV Ghana. Up until August I will continue to work for my human rights organisation for two days a week. Thereafter I will be full time at ETV until the end of my contract at the start of October. After that? Who knows? As my parents would say, one day at a time!

In the last few weeks I have interviewed a whole host of Ghanaian hip hop stars at an open air concert in Takoradi, been a guest on a TV breakfast show to talk about gay rights (Ghana is in the grip of fervent homophobia at the moment) and reported on issues ranging from world population rise, the Ghana national rugby side and aid effectiveness. So far I have averaged a report a day, some of which are on my YouTube channel.

Unfortunately the internet is so damn slow. I only have patience to put up some of the better/ shorter ones!

As of tonight Eric and George finally leave the room! Over three months after they were supposed to, but at last I have a place of my own! I am typically woken by them getting ready for work at six. Having been under a fan all night the mornings are cold and I rise to put on a t-shirt, huff and puff a little bit before returning to the floor for an uneasy hour drifting in and out of sleep.

At seven both of my unwelcome housemates have gone. It is only then that I get myself up and about. First things first, I tune into 101.3fm for BBC World Service. A friendly British voice and an overview of the top headlines are a welcome change from constant Twi. If I haven’t come up with a story for the day ahead, 7.30’s Network Africa also provides some inspiration.

Breakfast is now cornflakes and long life milk. For a long time I couldn’t bring myself to pay the astronomical prices demanded from Koala supermarket. Instead I would get an omelette from one of the roadside shacks. However there is only so much oil and egg a man can take.

Like at my human rights job, ETV is a five minute walk from home. I am in the news room at 7.45 to check emails, facebook and more headlines. At eight it’s the morning news meeting. All journalists gather to share ideas with the news chief - The room is air conditioned, without natural light and with a number of TV’s on the wall playing output from CNN and rival channels. - After half an hour or so angles and emotions are decided upon and the eight of us are put on our various assignments.

Our initials, stories and deadlines are chalked on a board and we are allotted a cameraman, a car and a deadline. To make things tricky it is typically two journalists per cameraman and per car. To compound matters my drivers or cameramen often go AWOL, leaving me waiting by a car, looking at my watch and ringing any potential interviewees to guestimate when I could meet them.

Especially as a new journalist, getting contacts is a real problem. I don’t know enough people for a start, whilst those who know of me often suspect my motives. Many Ghanaian’s don’t like the way Africa is perceived in the western media and as a white "journalist" I am treated with caution. Others just don’t seem to have a relevant phone number. Very few organisations have a website and those that do often have numbers that will never connect. Nonetheless, after a series of false leads, frustrating conversations with receptionists who don’t understand a word of my English accent, I come up with someone. I then set off out into the streets of Accra.

My car just before going to cover a story in Takoradi Last weekend


Going out on location is without doubt the best bit about the job. The drivers know all the short cuts and rat runs in Accra. This means that I drive through areas of Accra that I would never see using public transport. Yesterday in a rush to get back to the office my driver took me through one of the slums to cut out a mile of gridlocked dual carriageway. The 4x4’s wheels were on the lip of an open sewer on one side, and a whisker away from people’s shacks on the other. This was after doing an interview in one of the city’s more affluent neighbourhoods. The two sides to Ghana in the space of an hour. A “normal” day at the office.

In terms of my interviewing technique, I think I am getting better. That is also the same for my stand up in front of the camera (The bit where I say, “this is Henry Wilkinson reporting for ETV Ghana”). I still need a couple of takes but the butterflies have gone. The majority of my colleagues don’t bother with a stand. However I was advised by a female journalist from America, who was at the station for my first week, that if you want to make it in TV you need to show that you are comfortable in front of the camera. I am not sure whether I do want to “make it”, but by putting myself out there I am at least keeping my options open.

I get back to the office in the mid afternoon. I often don’t get the time for lunch so I top up on sugary drinks before settling down to write my script. This is basically a word for word account of what I will say in the report. It also maps out where I will place interview snippets and my stand. This script is then looked at by the editor before I can do my voice over.

The voiceover is recorded on a boom microphone in the studio. Its then to the editing suite. Here visuals are put to the story and interview snippets are inserted. This is trickier than you would think. I have to select the best phrases from fifteen minutes of footage. As for visuals, they are usually captured by the camera man, but as a lot of my stories have an international focus I need to search for extra images footage from the internet.

The news goes out at eight and I usually complete the editing process by seven thirty. I walk home exhausted and with a splitting headache but with the pleasant feeling I have achieved something.

Its tough. I have no TV training, the hours are long and I am the only non Ghanaian in the news room. I miss conversing freely with someone who knows where I am coming from. Can I hack journalism long term? Not sure. But am I learning from it? Absolutely! To borrow a phrase from a previous post, its about “living life not just passing through it”.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Rainy Season

June makes way to July and the summer rainy season is still in full swing. The rains, come in short, sharp and heavy bursts roughly every forty eight hours.
 
The heat and regular cloud bursts has turned Accra into a sea of lush green. Looking out from the balcony at work a canopy of palms and fruit trees obscure the sight of the Nkrumah ring road and much of the city beyond. Were it not for the giant, and astonishingly ugly, president’s residence on the opposite hill you could be forgiven for thinking that Asylum Down is a small town marooned in the forest.
 
On street level green is also evident everywhere at the moment. Every square inch of spare earth has been hand sown patches of sorghum, millet and maize. These West African staples all grow at a phenomenal rate. In the twoish weeks that I was away two metre high Sorghum plants had appeared next to where I train for rugby at Cantoments.
 
Less happily I also came back to find my best suit in a coat of white wispy mould. It appears that a hint of sweat on cotton soon supports an ecosystem here so I have taken to washing pretty much everything after I wear it.
 
Rather than paying someone else to do this, I do my own in a bucket after work. I sometimes wonder if my shirts come out dirtier than when they come in but at least I do get a warm glow about my new found frugality. The only financial outlay for a week’s washing is a 25 peswas bar of sunlight soap and, if I have spilt red-red over myself, maybe a bag of OMO pre soak. (This means we save enough money to buy a big plate of Jollof rice and fried chicken each week- my Friday treat!)
 
After soaking, lathering and rubbing my collars, sleeves and pits together I put them into a fresh bucket of water and in wine making French peasant styleee, I pound the contents of the bucket with my feet as I shower. After washing I hang out to “dry” over night. Come six am I usually wake to the sound of a new storm rolling in. Some shirts are on the line for a week.

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

An update: Push It!

Saw this article on the BBC from the 14th of June about preachers in Nigeria. I think this totally concurs with my observation about certain sections of organised religion in the region.

By the magic of cut and paste....

Nigeria's pastors 'as rich as oil barons'

15 June 2011 (www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-12192152)
Nigeria's pastors run multi-million dollar businesses which rival that of oil tycoons, a Nigerian blogger who has researched the issue has told the BBC.
Mfonobong Nsehe, who blogs for Forbes business magazine, says pastors own businesses from hotels to fast-food chains.
"Preaching is big business. It's almost as profitable as the oil business," he said.
The joint wealth of five pastors was at least $200m (£121m), he said.
Evangelical churches have grown in Nigeria in recent years, with tens of thousands of people flocking to their services.
Mr Nsehe said the richest pastor, Bishop David Oyedepo of the Living Faith World Outreach Ministry, was worth about $150m.
Bishop Oyedepo owned a publishing company, university, an elite private school, four jets and homes in London and the United States, according to Mr Nsehe.
'Private jets'
The Nigerian blogger said Bishop Oyedepo was followed on the rich list by Pastor Chris Oyakhilome of the Believers' Loveworld Ministries. He was worth between $30 and $50m.
These pastors are flamboyant. You see them with private jets and expensive cars.
"Oyakhilome's diversified interests include newspapers, magazines, a local television station, a record label, satellite TV, hotels and extensive real estate," Mr Nsehe said.
He said three of the other richest pastors were:
  • Temitope Joshua Matthew of the Synagogue Church Of All Nations (worth between $10m and $15m);
  • Matthew Ashimolowo of Kingsway International Christian Centre (worth between $6 million and $10 million) and
  • Chris Okotie of the Household of God Church (worth between $3 million and $10 million).
Mr Nsehe said representatives of all the clergymen, except Pastor Ashimolowo, confirmed ownership of the assets he had listed on his blog.
"These pastors are flamboyant. You see them with private jets and expensive cars. This extravagance sends out the wrong message to their followers," he told the BBC's Network Africa programme.
He said the pastors acquired their wealth from various sources, including their congregations.
"We have Nigerians who are desperate, looking for solutions to their problems. They go to church for salvation, redemption and healing and pastors sometimes take advantage of them," Mr Nsehe said.

Friday, 24 June 2011

Push It!

Being brought up in a very loosely Christian family the church has always been in the background but not part of daily life. St Cuthbert’s at Sessay served as a place for the family to celebrate rites of passage and mark the various seasons. I was christened there, as a child it played host to my school concerts whilst in the last two years I have attended two of my sibling’s marriages and a solitary harvest festival. In short attending church for me has been part of observing tradition rather than signalling any deeper religious conviction. With the exception of a few years of atheisms in my adolescence I have never been too sure, or particularly bothered, if god exists or not.
 
In Ghana (and in much of Africa as a whole) this position just does not compute. Unlike the unassuming St Cuthbert’s with its gentle woman vicar religion here is brash and all encompassing. Everyone believes in either God or Allah and they want you to know all about it. Whilst there is a large Muslim population in the unfortunately named Pig Farm (a neighbourhood due north of where I live), the population in Accra is overtly Christian.
 
Christianity has a firm presence in everyday life in the city. Billboards adorned by sharply dressed “Apostles” line the Nkrumah ring road whilst passing Tro-Tros are often branded with religious slogans like “Thank You Jesus”. Many shop names also make reference to God. Ali, one half of a British couple interning at CHRI, saw a shop called “Jesus loves fashion” whilst I have spotted a place called “The Blood of Christ Beauty Parlour”. I was disappointed to walk past and see a solitary woman having her hair braided rather than been dowsed by buckets of holy blood.
 
In this religious atmosphere it easy to feel a little lost as an agnostic. Conversations in Ghana quickly turn to religion and any attempts to explain my lack of religious conviction is met by either suspicion or attempts at conversion. This routine can get tiresome and I now prefer to just avoid the conversation or claim that I am a practising Christian.
 
I don’t have a problem with Christianity per se but I do resent seeing rich preachers and poor congregations. In Swaziland I was amazed that the pastor of Mhlanbanyatsi church was flying out to Zambia for a conference just at a time when the local community were facing the closure of the pulp mill, the one major source of regular employment in the country’s Western Highlands. Last Sunday’s trip to the Holy Hill Chapel with Eric and George further cemented my negative stance towards the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements in Africa.
 
The Holy Hill Chapel is not a chapel in the traditional sense but rather an open sided marquee in a yard close to work. It holds services every Tuesday evening and Sunday morning. The Sunday morning service is a three hour marathon of singing, dancing and a long and energetic sermon. Unlike back in Sessay the service is very interactive and the congregation regularly get up to dance to the music and shout in response to the pastor. Throughout his address, which made passing references to trips to London, there were regular interjects of “amen!”, “powerful” or, my favourite, “push it!” from the crowd.
 
“Push it!” in a thick Ghanaian accent sounds awfully like “bullshit!” which meant I spent a lot of the time holding back childish sniggers. However it was a word that came to mind a few times. Three times within the service the congregation were asked to dip into their pockets for the “good of the church” and on each occasion they dutifully did.
 
The first collection was as we just arrived. The pastor, turned out in a sharp suit, came up to the microphone and pulled out a ten cedi note (lunch money for a week and half) held it in the air, placed it in a basket and encouraged everyone else to follow. One by one the congregation dutifully followed and crumpled notes were extracted from pockets, held aloft and placed into the collection basket.
 
Half an hour later we were then directed to the envelopes sitting on the chairs. In these we were instructed to place out tithe money. Again, everyone did as they asked.
 
At the end of the service the pastor then went on to introduce why he really really needed our money this time. In July the church was due to go out onto the streets of Accra and hand out pamphlets about the light of the lord. I am not exactly sure why this was strictly necessary as it seems that I am the only non believer in the city and I was right in front of him. Nonetheless the congregation seemed excited and all too happy to fund it. The pastor held up a new bunch of envelopes and instructed people to come and collect them at the front before filling them at home. Donors were called up in batches. First he asked for those who would give 50 cedis (a 1/3 of a monthly wage for a low level Ghanaian office worker). A few came up to a ripple of applause and the pastor gave out the envelope, named the individual and thanked them. Later he called on those to give 20 Cedis, again the applause and the naming, then 10, then 5. By now the majority of the congregation had been to the front and been named. Just to make sure that no one had escaped, the pastor again waved his envelope and everyone followed. As the envelopes went back and forth the pastor animatedly talked about the importance of this divine mission. I looked around to see that I was the only one with my arms still folded. As he reached a crescendo a thick “Push it!” went out from behind me. Push it indeed.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Farmer Boy

I am back. Monday lunchtime and I have half a post wedding workday under my belt. Not exactly sure what I feel about it. Since I landed on Saturday night I have been in various states of excitement to see my friends, confusion of where my life is going and deep depression that I have a long stretch of work in front of me.
 
The wedding was amazing and it was good to see some of the old Manchester crew at Parklife Festival. It appears that sometime whilst I had been away an edict had been given in Manchester declaring that all girls, regardless of shape or size must convene on Plattfield’s Park wearing hot pants. I was treated to a two day to a jamboree of thighs and bums set to a soundtrack of drum and bass. Having been largely deprived of the site of white flesh in Ghana I couldn’t decide whether to be attracted or repulsed.
 
Despite the flesh fest and the copious amounts of food and alcohol consumed I have returned to Ghana refreshed but with a slightly heavy heart.
 
Coming out to Ghana at the end of March was not a difficult decision. I was good at my conference sales job but it was a dead end job in a dead end company. I spent much of my day speculating with Tricia about what would come first; the bankruptcy of the company or the getting together of my boss, a bleakly cynical bully, and his right hand woman who I will call “Geraldine”. Geraldine was a fairly attractive hardnosed divorcee entering into her late forties and for some reason had fallen for our bespectacled short arsed boss. They would often disappear to “business meetings” or “business lunches” at odd hours and would ensure that their hotel rooms were on a different floor to mine at international conferences.
 
Ghana offered me an adventure and escape from the car crash of my last job. It represented a new working environment, an escape from London’s dank and depressing weather and, I hoped, a new position would help to me launch my career.
 
Having been in my new position for a few months and seeing whether the grass was really greener on the other side, returning on Saturday was somewhat harder. Even the not particularly keen eyed amongst you will have noticed that I was perhaps a little dis-chuffed about my working life and the atmosphere in Accra. I had come to Accra convinced that having done a MA in Conflict, Governance and Development I should be doing something to “save the world”. I thought that an exciting life in hot and exotic locations with an NGO was for me. I thought that the human rights initiative would be a good stepping stone. Now I am not so sure about what I want to do.
 
The England I left in March was also a very different England to the one I left on the weekend. In March I left a spare room in my sister’s house, a morning commute, grey skies and naked trees. In June I left the farm, which even if I am not involved in agriculture will always be my spiritual home, in the bloom of summer and just on the cusp of harvest season. Harvest is and will always be my favourite time of the year. I love the smell of hot dusty air, the whirring of the combine into the evening twilight and the conversion of a year’s hard work into a saleable produce. Yet, like the past three summers I have forsaken the simple pleasures of this time of year and buggered off to Africa.
 
Maybe I am more of a farm boy than I realised?

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Ghana: Africa for Beginners

I fly home tonight. I will miss my friends but I am really excited to go back and have a change of pace. I am not homesick (I don’t really seem to get it too bad) I am just bored and I am looking forward to a bit of farm labour. I will be back in Ghana on the 18th of June.
One of the pull factors that drew me back to Africa was reading Six Months in Sudan by Dr James Maskaylk. It is an account of life in a hospital in Abyei run by Medicine Sans Frontiers. Especially as Abyei is back in the headlines it is a book well worth reading although the detailed accounts of surgery, death and dying are not for the squeamish. Nonetheless Maskaylk’s description of everyday life reminded me of what was so great about the other places in Africa I have been to. Africa is a diverse continent of 53 very different countries which allows a visitor to challenge themselves, question their standpoint on so many issues and experience so many surreal moments. (they often seem to take place in buses I find) I was particularly moved by a quote on the first page...



“I’m not telling you to make the world better, because I don’t think that progress is necessarily part of the package. I’m just telling you to live in it. Not just to endure it, not just to suffer it, not just to pass through it, but to live in it. To look at it. To try to get the picture. To live recklessly. To take chances. To make your own work and take pride in it. To seize the moment…”
 
Joan Didion, 1975
 
 
 
My three other trips to Africa were so fantastic because they got me out of myself. The problem with my two months here is that I am so far within my comfort zone that I am bored. I am sat behind a desk, making up my own work and in an office which has had five western interns appear in the last two weeks. We now outnumber the domestic staff. The interns are all very nice etc, but I didn’t come here to hang out with the same people I met on my two lefty university courses back home.
Outside of the office the neighbourhoods of Osu and Labadi are inhabited by hordes of eighteen year olds on their “gap yaah”. You can spot them a mile off because they try and fail to go native; braided hair, shirts and skirts made from local fabric, lots and lots of “ethnic” jewellery and a self satisfied smile that the two grand they pay for 8 weeks working in an orphanage is “making a difference”.
 
I have met gap year students elsewhere I have gone but they are far more concentrated in Ghana than elsewhere. It is not hard to see why. Ghana is “Africa for beginners”; it is largely free of violent crime and ethnic and cultural divisions. In Accra you can walk the streets at night without undue concern.  

 Whilst I didn’t expect Abyei when I stepped off the plane, without wishing a mugging on myself, I can’t help feeling I need something a little more edgy! I came to Ghana to see if I am cut out for life in an NGO but also "to get the picture" about life in the region. I love Ghana but I feel I am not currently in the right place to achieve this.

Monday, 16 May 2011

Man Love

Monday lunch time. The office’s electricity has gone off in one of the city’s frequent “brown outs” and everyone is counting down the hours until they can bunk off. I am sat on a plastic chair in the meeting room as my usual back office feels like a greenhouse without the ceiling fans. The meeting room has two veranda doors which have been flung open to let in a welcome breeze. The weather outside seems changeable and the blue skies have given way to a dark and foreboding sky. I am praying for rain.
 
On Saturday I spent two hours outside in a thunderstorm whilst playing rugby in East Legon. Whilst most of the Ghanaians couldn’t wait to get out of the rain I savoured every last drop!!
 
As one of the few in the office to have a laptop I am still typing away (on this blog) whilst the others are staring at blank desktop screens. I am listening into a misinformed debate between Emma, the Australian intern and Stephen a Ghanaian trainee lawyer. Like so many conversations in Ghana, the discussion has shifted towards religion. Emma, an impeccable western liberal, is sticking up for the rights of homosexuals and those from other religions whilst Stephen, a bible thumping evangelist, is explaining the evils of both.
 
Gay rights is a taboo subject in super religious Africa. Even in human rights organisations gay rights are largely ignored or even criticised. Homosexuality here is still seen very much as a devious choice. I have slowly tried to push for us to cover LGBT issues by making passing references to the anti- homosexuality law in Uganda but my probing (for want of a better word) meets universal disapproval.
 
It is amusing that so many Ghanaian men who shudder at the mere thought of homosexuality are incredibly touchy feely with their friends. Interactions between male friends is very tactile and it is not uncommon to see them walking hand in hand down the street. Razaqh, one of my best friends from Accra Sharks is constantly grabbing at me when trying to explain something. A casual resting of his hand on my legs or those of teammates is not uncommon and I am learning not to show hardwired unease. As a farmer’s son with old school parents I am not even so good at hugging my sisters let alone a casual brush of the thigh by one of my mates!
 
As I am getting used to affectionate embraces from my friends I am also becoming more Ghanaian in my interactions with others. The handshake in southern Africa has a change of grip between the two participants whilst in Ghana the shake is finished by a slide and clicking of the index fingers. Throughout my life I have never been able to gauge when to hug, kiss, hand shake or wave at people I meet. After my time in Africa things have only got worse. Whilst all Ghanaians slide and click, expats are less clear-cut. Generally expats my age will click whilst the older ones tend to keep their conventional handshake. I have had several awkward moments attempting to click thin air, especially with the snooty Frenchmen who take the rugby sessions at East Legon.
 
Another habit that I am picking up is the simplifications of my language and instructions. Half of the stuff I say on the street would land me in considerable trouble in the UK. For instance to get people’s attention everyone in Accra will “TTTSSSSSSSSSSS” at people. Initially I tried “excuse me” when trying to hail a cab or ask the tro-tro mate (bus conductor) how much the fare was. However my polite English appeals would go unheard and so, in true Ghanian fashion, I now “TTSSSSSSSSSS” at waiters, street vendors and taxi drivers.
 
I have also taken to calling everyone “boss” and cutting out any unnecessary vowels. So for example if instead of,
 
“hello Mr bus driver, sorry to bother you. Please could you tell me how much a bus fare from Kaneshi to Krokobite junction is please?”
 
“TTSSSSSSSS” Boss! ““TTSSSSSSSS” Krokobite. How much?

Let see how my new manners go down at the wedding!

Monday, 9 May 2011

Ghana Rugby

I have been searching around for something to write about for a while. I have spent a number of evenings typing away, getting frustrated, pressing save, closing the laptop lid and putting on my headphones for a bit of Pink Floyd. I am currently overplaying the Division Bell. The album reminds me of dad and long trips wedged in between suitcases in the boot of the old Land Rover Discovery on childhood holidays. It is now my self-reflection soundtrack.
 
I have been in Ghana enough long enough to not actually know how long I have been here (I think five weeks). In this five weeks (?) I have spent two nights alone; one lucky night in the hostel when I was the only one booked into the dorm rooms and another night at Green turtle Lodge in Takoradi when I left the sweat box tent that I was sharing with Andrew in the middle of the night in search of somewhere less claustrophobic. I found a unclaimed four man tent on the sand dunes which later turned out to be a four man swimming pool as the humid atmosphere at last yielded its first rainstorm. By morning the only dry area of the mattress was an outline of me in a foetal slumber.
 
It seems these may be the only solitary nights that I will spend until I return back to the UK in June for Fran and Gary’s wedding as Eric and George’s house has fallen through. They are free to stay in the room until the end of their contract in late June, so it still seems to be the floor and itchy duvet-come- mattress for me. Rather impractically the king sized duvet that I double over and sleep on has a floral pattern made out of small golden plastic disks. These patterns haven’t been so well attached and my sweaty torso seems to be like a magnet to them. Every day at work I take great pleasure pulling them out of my hair and off my arms.
 
Despite being condemned to the floor and the gold disks for a few more weeks, I am secretly glad that Eric and George. I get longer living rent free before I take over the lease and they are good guys. Besides, it has been so long that I have slept alone that I probably can’t get to sleep without the soundtrack of snoring!
 
I am writing now because after a rough week or so I think I have gotten over the hump, or at the very least I have had one of those moments of clarity. When I was with Tenteleni we used to show volunteers a line graph which mapped volunteer’s moods when on placement. Initially the line shoots upwards as volunteers are excited about the new culture around them. However, soon after, the line crashes as excitement and optimism is replaced by homesickness and anxiety that the cultural divide is just so large. In the end the line recovers to a nice steady plateau as volunteers learn to cope with and adjust to their surroundings. I had to demonstrate this to volunteers as a project coordinator but I had never experienced it myself. In all honesty I found my placement in South Africa surprisingly easy and my mood in Swaziland was only dampened by my cowardly inability to bring a toxic relationship with a then girlfriend to an end. Ghana, I think because I put pressure on myself to “live” here, is the first time that I have felt a genuine yearning for home. However the graph seems like it might be coming to pass. After highs and lows of the past few weeks I am beginning to feel on a more even keel.
 
So what was my moment of clarity? Strangely enough it was my first games of rugby in Ghana. On Saturday the six teams in the league met at the University field in Legon for their second round of matches. The university was just the tonic I needed from a busy week at work. It is a palatial and green campus dating from either the late colonial or early independence era. Unlike downtown Accra which is a sea of concrete, the university is made up of grand white buildings with pan tile roofs, ornamental gardens and shade giving tree thickets.
 
I am currently on an economy drive so I got up early and took a tro-tro with Razaqh, the captain, to the campus rather than opting for a taxi. We were the first to arrive before the rest of the Accra Sharks met up. We played two games of sevens against Accra Spartans and another team whose name escaped me. None of the teams can source or afford proper rugby kit so whilst one team from the Volta region had a hand me down kit from a team in England, the rest of us wore plain coloured t-shirts or knock off football tops to create a team kit. Accra Sharks play in Manchester Untied 2010 away kit. We played Inter Milan and Liverpool. (Chelsea were also in attendance, but I guess we will play them in the next round of matches). 
 
The day was rather ridiculous. Before the start of our first game we lined up in our football kits to be presented to some minor dignitary, perhaps the president of Ghana rugby. We were also filmed and interviewed by three national TV stations after the games (both of which we won). Anyone would be forgiven for thinking that we were some elite league rather than an odd mix of passing western interns and Ghanaians picking the sport as they go on. The standard of kicking, the number of knock ons and forward passes was something to behold, as was the “refereeing”. One particular highlight was a game between Chelsea and a team in white. Both fly halves were unable to drop kick which meant that the ball never reached ten metres from the re-start (although if they connected with the kick, that was a bonus). The referee rather than giving the option to kick again or have a scrum decided that a penalty would be given well away from the half way line.
 
Nonetheless the day summarised why I was here: To be part of something. The league has only started this year and there is a small but growing core of players and followers. There was obvious excitement from all those involved that something new was taking shape. It was a real pleasure to take part in this new movement. I am also pleased to note that I have met so many genuine Ghanaians through training and playing with the Sharks. I enjoy a sense of parity and genuine friendship with my team mates, this is something is quite often sadly lacking when you meet other Ghanaians who seem to see obruni’s as a source of money or contacts to a supposed better life in Europe. I am not in Ghana just to pass the time with others like me but to meet and experience something new.

Saturday, 30 April 2011

Friends

Writing this post on my balcony after Saturday rugby training and a few chapters of my book. Just to give you a context of where I am, here are a few photos.

Up Samora Machel, towards work which is just to the left of the tower block. Click...






Directly ahead, my usual evening perch, facing north and down onto Asylum Down circle. Click...





My tan lines (and rugby bruises)... and the next door “room” (mine is finished and quite pleaseant)






So it’s been a while since I last posted. I have been writing a lot of stuff for work and I can’t seem to muster the enthusiasm or the energy to write for myself in the evenings, which is a shame. Unlike my other trips to Africa, I haven’t kept a diary this time and so this blog has served a dual purpose; giving friends and family an insight into Ghanaian life whilst providing an electronic record for personal posterity.
 
So what‘s new? Well, firstly I am not making quite so many sojourns to the bathroom and my body seems to finally adjusting to Ghana. Secondly, I am a published journalist in a national newspaper having got a full page spread in the Ghanaian Times on the royal wedding, it’s dubious guest list and the point of the Commonwealth today (again please look for it at the other blog). Lastly, I have started to explore greater Ghana. A couple of weekends ago I went to the slave castle at Cape Coast and last weekend I went to The Green Turtle Lodge, a remote private beach and hostel an hour out of Takoradi (a city close to the Ivory Coast border).
 
Weekends provide my escape route from Accra and a vital ray of light on tough days at work (I sometimes question what the hell is the point, and if anyone is taking note of anything I write). I have fallen quite nicely into a little obruni clique who provide my weekend travel companions and link back to the west. All in all, there are about seven of us; me, Yasmine (German), Jasmine (naturalised German), Andrew (US), Rob (Dutch), Miriam (German) and Emma (Australian). Emma and I make up the CHRI contingent whilst the rest are from The German government’s international development organisation.
 
Our group is a fluid amalgamation of interns and low ranking NGO employees and there is a constant turnover of members as people come and go. The typical intern is in Ghana for 3-6 months so, in theory, I will see most of the group leave and be superseded with new interns before I make my way back to Europe. Every so often I hear tales from some of the others about crazy weekends with people who have long since left Ghana. Jasmine is the first of my new friends to leave and tonight is her leaving drinks do - we have already started to joke that we will only be mentioning her in passing to her “replacement”.
 
I hope everyone has a pleasant long weekend. I get May Day off but had to work on Friday. As a republic Ghana wasn’t quite as keen on the royal wedding as the rest of the world. Although I am not a royalist I still felt I was missing out on something so I listened to most of the ceremony on BBC world service. It was rather surreal mouthing along to Jerusalem and God Save Our Queen in a sweltering office with Kingham, the miserable git who sits opposite, wondering what all the fuss was all about.
 
Tomorrow I have been roped into a labour day march by the others in the office and on Monday I will choose between going to a Ghanaian Premier League game with Eric (one of the brothers with whom I share a room) or going to Krokobite (the nearest nice beach- about 40 mins out of downtown Accra)
 
Love to all.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

White Man's Grave

In the 17th and 18th centuries Gold Coast was known as the “white man’s grave”. Colonial administrators saw a posting to the area as a virtual death sentence. Cholera, malaria, heat and a whole plethora of tropical diseases laid waste to swathes of Portuguese, British, Dutch and Swedes who came to the tropics to trade in ivory, gold, spices and slaves. Today modern day Ghana, an amalgamation of Gold Coast and British Togoland, is a far safer place to be for an obruni. I don’t think I will be returning to blighty in a coffin like many of my predecessors 300 years ago; nonetheless it is hard not to think that the bugs and bacteria here haven’t got it in for me.

Rainy season is due to start in a couple of weeks time and mosquitoes are yet to really materialise en masse, yet I still mysteriously find bites dotted all over my torso. Last week I had the tell tale signs of early stage malaria, stiff neck, headache and achy limbs. Yes, flu perhaps, but after a combination of prudence and paranoia, I found myself in a chemist buying some delightful yellow tablets to blitz my system.

This week, courtesy of fly blown street food, I have had the pleasure of trying to contend with 30 degree heat and Delhi belly (the politest way to put). I spent Tuesday ill; sleeping, feeling sorry for myself and drinking disgusting electrolytes. With work being extremely frustrating at the moment I don’t think I have felt more miserable than the last few days!!

On the bright side I am not living in Pink Hostel anymore, nor am I hanging out with prostitutes (see previous blog). I am typing in my future room in a tenement building half way between work and the hostel. Why future room? – well , the current tenants haven’t actually moved out yet! I am staying on their floor rent free until they make the move to Danquah Circle next week.


My new room mates are two brothers from Kumasi; George and Eric. They moved to Accra from Ghana’s second city six months ago to work in a phone shop. Both work long days from eight to half seven. After work they spend their time sat in their pants engrossed in conversations with their fiancées back home. They seem remarkably relaxed about having a random obruni imposed upon them by their landlord and even maintain a sense of decorum when I manage to lock myself in on my frequent sojourns to the bathroom.

My room is on the third floor of the tenant building next to the Asylum Down’s centre. It appears that the building was originally two storeys and that the flat in which I am staying has been built on the block’s concrete roof. The walls are inset from the original balustrades and a door from the hall takes you out onto a thin strip of the original roof which now serves as a balcony. This balcony is now my designated evening hangout and I sit on a plastic chair watching and listening to the world go by as sunset falls. Already I have noticed a few regulars. On a two story flat about 100 metres away I see the same guy jogging up and down a flight stairs for twenty minutes before embarking on sets of sit and push ups. A little later, down on Samora Machel Street I see the same “fan-ice” guy who wanders past selling sachets of ice cream and frozen “yoghurt” (it can be described as yoghurt only at a stretch). 

Fan Ice is sold by guys either on bikes with a cool box or from a pushed buggy. The Samora Machel St Fan ice guy sells from a buggy and you can hear him before you see him. He drums up trade with an old fashioned horn, the type with a trumpet cone with a squeezable rubber bladder. It makes a delightful “argha-ha” noise, which reminds me of a 15 year old Arnie Stephenson who would make a similar squeak when squeezing an imaginary pair of comedy breasts.

Anyway, thanks to everyone for the kind comments about the blog. I hope everyone has a great Easter. I am going to the beach but will have to pass on the Easter egg. I went to a western supermarket to price one up. A bog standard Cadbury egg would cost me about £15. Chocolate here is rare and is generally imported at great expense from Europe. Ironic, considering Ghana is the second biggest cocoa exporter in the world!

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Middle Class Anger

Contrary to my last post, it appears I haven’t made too much progress on my house hunt. I am still blogging from the hostel’s dining room.
 
Ghana is typical of many developing countries; It is a place of “haves” and “have nots”. There seems to be a genuine dichotomy between those walking between lanes of traffic selling drinks, posters, tv aerials (and everything in between) and the elite driving past in an imported Mercedes.
 
As a low ranking, young white NGO worker I fall into an odd no man’s land in Ghana. I am middle class and middle income but there are very few like me. This means Accra is not geared up to my price range. In the evening when I go out to eat I can go out to the local shack for fried goat and a subsequent stomach ache at 2 cedis a pop (about £1). Alternatively, I can go to Oxford Street in Osu and sit in an air-conditioned Italian restaurant for ten times the price. There is, however, nothing in between which means I have a daily debate on the merits of potential food poisoning vs imminent bankruptcy. Food poisoning wins during the week and the weekends I revert to being a westerner.
 
I have encountered similar problems in my housing search. So far I have been presented with either luxury apartments whose rental is twice my monthly wage or complete holes. The last three budget options have been...
 
Option number one, Danquah Circle. 200 Cedis a month (£120 ish)- House full of western people, but next to a huge evangelical church which has weekend services (with lots of lovely loud alleluia’s and expelling of the devil)at 6 am. As an added bonus it is also a red light area and favourite haunt of Accra’s prostitutes.
 
Option number two, somewhere north of Nkrumah circle (not exactly sure where). Only 60 cedis a month (£30). What is the catch you ask? – no furniture or bed, no working plug sockets plus a communal kitchen with no stove or sin.
 
Option number three, Nkrumah Circle. Again, only 60 cedis a month , in a central location and with my own bedroom, bathroom and kitchen. However I currently will be unable to use the kitchen or bathroom as both are filled with squatters (who the landlord proudly told me he is “beating around” in order to get rid of them.
 
It the moment I am warming to the idea of evangelists and prostitutes. Any suggestions warmly received!!

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Daily Routine

First week of work successfully negotiated and Accra is beginning to feel a little more manageable. I am even making some progress in my search for a place to call “home”.
 
When I do finally leave the Pink Hostel I am going to miss the place. The characters in it and my daily regime have been my only constants since arriving in Ghana eleven days ago.
 
My typical day starts with my first shower at 6.30. I am always the first up in the room. To my left is a snoring Pakistani UN peacekeeper, on leave from his tour of duty in Liberia. Perched up to my right is George (also snoring), a 27 year old Mormon beefcake from Washington state. He is in Ghana to buy and sell mining concessions in the Ashanti goldfields a few hours to the north. Despite his Christian credentials he seems to be involved in some fairly shady deals and seems unwilling to discuss any details. A soldier, an NGO worker and a miner is quite an odd combo but we seem to tolerate each other well enough. If we get a missionary and a doctor checking in tomorrow, room 2 will represent the history of foreign intervention in Africa.
 
Breakfast is at seven. I am always the first down before being joined by a bunch of gap year volunteers who have paid several grand for two months volunteering in a nearby orphanage. Breakfast constitutes chunks of fresh pineapple, which is AMAZING in Ghana, followed by a two slices of bread washed down by black tea. (There is no dairy industry in Ghana so it is UHT or no milk at all- I choose none at all)
 
Work is a ten minute walk away from the hostel. Asylum Down is pretty quiet even at rush hour and with the exception of cars beeping at me as they pass, it is quite a pleasant start to the day. I am greeted by the same women selling fruit on the side of the road and then the traffic wardens on the corner of Samora Machel Street. “Hey, white. How are you?” or “obruni, how are you obruni?” You are never allowed to forgot that you an obruni (white man) in Acccra. “I am fine black, how are you?”-mmm maybe not...
 
Work officially starts at eight but I tend to get in before that. The office is still cool and it gives me a good opportunity to socialise with my new work colleagues. Theresa , Raymond and Kingham are already in as they always aim to beat the rush hour from Teshi. The rest of the staff slink in and the working day starts at about ten past eight. I am based in a side office with Kingham and Anastasia. I am tasked with researching human rights issues in the other four Commonwealth countries of West Africa. I am currently looking into the conduct of elections in the Gambia and I am hoping to cover the plight of the five presidential contests which will be taking place in The Gambia, Ghana, Cameroon, Nigeria and Sierra Leone over the next two years. Hopefully I might be able to get a work blog going on the topic- watch this space!
 
Lunch is at twelve and Emma and I go to “Champions” a nearby food shack. Street food in Ghana is pretty good. My favourite meal is beans and rice topped with a chilli sauce, although others are trying to get me into “red red”- beans and plantain. You order food by quantity. I usually go for 75 Peswas (about 40p) rice and 75 Peswas beans. The scowling ladies decide how much they judge 75 Peswas to be, and reluctantly ladle my meal into a small black plastic bag. The quantity of my meal seems to fluctuate daily, depending on just how inconvenient I am being for buying their food. We stop for a coke form the lady on the corner with the unnaturally large bust and go back to the office to stuff our faces on the balcony overlooking the north of the city.
 
The evening is all too brief. I knock off from work at half four and go straight back to shower and into the comfort of an air conditioned room. I venture out again after dark for a quick beer and snack. Unlike elsewhere I have been in Africa, the streets of Accra are still alive after sunset. On every corner there is a little shack either showing premier league games or playing afro beats. I usually settle in for half an hour with some “Star” beer and fried goat.
 
Love to all back home. Happy birthday Nicky Strong and good luck travelling Will.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

First impressions of Accra

I am loathed to start a description of life in an African country with old clichés. There are too many books on Africa that start with descriptions of an unforgiving sun scorching the earth below. Nonetheless this is where I start... Accra in April is too bloody hot!! I flew in on Thursday night and was welcomed off the plane by a brick wall of hot humid air. It was eight o’clock at night, it had been dark two hours but it was still 31 degrees. Ever since I have been drinking (and sweating out) litres of Voltic water and scuttling between strips of shade before retiring to a bucket shower and the a/c in the hostel.
 
I am staying in The Pink Hostel, a tourist trap in Asylum Down, a sleepy, leafy triangle sandwiched between the city’s main semi circular trunk way and downtown Accra. Accra from what I can tell, has no defined CBD but just a number of neighbourhoods with their own shops and markets. This morning I caught a Tro-tro (minibus) to Teshi, a fishing village on a rocky outcrop that has been subsumed into Accra’s urban sprawl. Unlike Maputo, the only other African coastal capital I have been too, the city seems to be unaware that it is on the coast. The Atlantic appears to be a city boundary rather than a focal point. On the east of the city the seafront is virtually bereft of any buildings, let alone hotels, whilst most roads run parallel to the Atlantic rather than to it.
 
I am holding up pretty well. The fact that I am meant to be here for a year has only began to sink in and it can be overwhelming at times. I have to keep myself busy otherwise I have too long to think about things! Fortunately, because I am here for so long, I have a big incentive to get a social life kick started. On Friday I had a crash course on the Accra nightspots when I went out for drinks with Emma, an intern who will be with me at work for a couple of months. We were out to say goodbye to some of her friends who were leaving to go back to their studies in Ottawa. It was a bit of headf*ck to be with people who were looking forward to going back to the west as soon as I had arrived. On Saturday I went out to East Legon, to a sport centre set up by Marcel Dessaily for rugby training with Ingo, a rugby playing German gap year student who I had met on Friday night. Three of Accra’s seven rugby clubs were holding a joint day, which meant that I was chucked in the deep end with a bunch of Ghanaian’s who had picked up rugby whilst they were in Britain, some middle aged French men, a Belgium, German and a bunch of younger locals who were learning as they were going on. I have never felt so slow or unfit in that hour and half and I came back with grazes and sunburn for my trouble!
 
Start work tomorrow. Wish me luck! Love to all, Henry xx