Before I jump into my adventure this far I just wanted to mention how incredible the WUSC team has been. They have done everything possible to make sure that every aspect of my Leave for Change experience; getting me to Hanoi, into a great place to stay in the heart of the city, and to my placement at North Thang Long College has run as smooth as clockwork. My sincere thanks especially to Sonia in Canada and Ngoc here in Vietnam.
It was about 28 hours of travel from the time I left home in Guelph until I was in my hotel in Hanoi at 1 AM (11 hours ahead of Guelph time) slightly disoriented as my head finally hit a real pillow. The first day of my placement was spent at the WUSC office where I finally got to put faces to names after a spectacularly thrilling ride through the city weaving in and out of thousands of motorcycles, trucks and cars, never stopping (stop lights or signs are almost non-existent) or ceasing the constant bleating of horns as each driver announces their position in the swarm. Ngoc and I went through the logistics of WUSC's programmes, procedures and reporting. Everyone at the offices shared lunch together prepared in the staff kitchen which was a wonderful introduction to Vietnamese cuisine. But, just as exciting, after lunch we took a short walk to a cafe for my first iced coffee ... legendary.
Today, Ngoc escorted me out to the college, along with a special guest, Dr. Can Viet Anh, Head of Division for the Hanoi People Committee with the Department of Foreign Affairs. He was very interested to see how the Leave for Change program works. Today's meeting was essentially for introductions and for me to learn, in more specific terms, how I might be of assistance. More about that later, after I have developed a work plan.
« If life gives you lemons, have your maid make some lemonade ». This is just one of the many ironic lines spoken by the main character in 'Ilustrado', an absolutely brilliant novel by the Philippino writer, Miguel Syjuco. Just finished reading it. It’s the story of a conflicted writer who abandons his well-to-do family in Manila to live in the US. He reflects obsessively about what it means to be an ex-patriate. His « survivor story » made me think of my Philippino friends and family in Toronto, some of whom did have maids who could make lemonade if things got tough, but most didn’t. The novel is a meticulously crafted and cruelly judgmental portrait of Philippino society, where hard-working people learn early that life is full of unexpected trials. You better have a « Plan B » ready at all times, and you better get used to competition. As the novel’s protagonist says : « We’re all crabs pulling each other into the pot ».
The teachers and students here in Phan Thiet have told me many stories of their trials and tribulatons. One teacher, moved to tears, told me she had trouble conceiving a child but did so, with medical support, prayer, and the support of friends. Students tell me of their struggles to stay in school, while holding down part-time jobs. Some parents tell me that two salaries are an absolute must, if a family is going to make ends meet. A few teachers tell me they need to have two jobs, one at the college and another where they give private lessons to high school students who are trying to pass the competitive university or college entrance exams. I recently met some enterprising teachers who have set up a private language school, with evening English classes for elementary and secondary students. I can’t help mentioning other hard-working people, like the mostly elderly women I see cooking and selling shellfish or corn on the cob, at small stands on street corners. From early morning till late evening, in pouring rain and burning sun, they sit on the curb, often looking after small children while doing business.
In spite of the harsh realities depicted in their fictions, both Miguel Syjuco in 'Ilustrado' and Kim Thuy in 'Ru' end up, surprisingly, by emphasizing how important it is to dream. Thuy : « Je me suis avancée dans leurs pas (‘ceux qui ont marché devant moi’) comme dans un rêve éveillé où le parfun d’une pivoine éclose n’est plus une odeur, mais un épanouissment ». And Syjuco finishes his story with this : « All of life is a dream. To attain the impossible we must attempt the absurd ».
I've been back from Ghana for a couple of weeks and settled back into Guelph and home and work. It is interesting how easy it is to move between worlds. I have never experienced so-called "reverse culture shock". I am unsure how common it really is.
Before disappearing into a new semester and the hurry and scurry of students and classes and meetings, I did manage one public engagement activity: a brief article about my trip published in the Guelph Mercury. The online version is plain, but the newspaper included a photograph, that I paste here, along with the url.
Theatre for Development musicians
So this is the end of my blog but not the end of Ghana 2.0 which will always stay in my heart. Leave for Change lets people do amazing and transformative things to make the world a little better..... and it transforms all of us who participate.
Try it sometime. Jacqueline
I’m sitting under a tree in the college courtyard talking to some students. It’s a big day for these students. They’ve just successfully finished all their courses and are waiting to collect their diplomas.
Me : « What programs of study did you do ? ».
Them : « Agriculture, Economics, English, Tourism ».
Me : « Do you have a job to go to now ? ».
Them : « It’s hard to get a job. Our courses are too theoretical, not practical enough ».
Me : « How many of you worked part-time while you studied ? What kind of part-time jobs did you have ? ».
Them : « Most students work part-time, in restaurants, as waiters, or in stores ».
Me : « Do you live in the college dormitory while you’re a student ? ».
Them : « Some do. We all rented rooms in the city ».
Me : « What does it cost ? And tuition ? ».
Them : « About 750,000 dongs ($36) a month for a room, and food is extra. Tuition is 700,000 a month. It’s very expensive to be a student ».
Students here have heavy course loads – from 8 to 11 am, and from 1 to 5 pm, Monday to Friday. Some classes, like Accounting, have over 100 students, or like English, usually with over 60 students. Each class chooses one student to be course leader, and two other students to be the course leader’s assistants. The responsibilities of the course leader and assistants are to help the teachers keep track of attendance and report regularly about students who might be having financial or other problems. A student who needs to be absent for a day has to get a permission form signed by the Student Affairs Department. If a student has to be away for more than three days, a different permission form has to be signed. Student leaders and teachers work together to sort out a situation when a student breaks the strict college rules of behaviour. Students caught playing cards in class are punished.
All students take a compulsory course about Marx and Lenin, given by the teachers from the Faculty of Political Education, with tests and a final exam.
« We have to memorize two thick books to pass that exam. It’s difficult and boring. We also have to take a course on military training. We learn how to fight, how to protect the country », the students tell me.
One of the student’s cell phones rings. Me : « How many of you have cell phones ? »
Them, laughing : « Every student has a cell phone. We can’t live without one ».
Where have I heard that before?
The young boy, anxious to practice his English, asks me a question.
« Three weeks », I reply. The boy and his older teenage brother almost fall on the floor laughing at me.
« My brother asked how are you ? », says the older brother, in perfect English.
« Sorry, I thought he asked me how long I’m staying in Vietnam ». Not my first experience of miscommunication since I arrived. The nice thing is my ineptness invariably provokes peels of laughter.
The two brothers are waiting for their parents who are checking in at the hotel reception.
« Where did you learn to speak such good English ? », I ask.
The teenage son, with pride : « We have good English teachers at our school, a private school. They come from the US or the UK, and we’ve been learning English for a long time. And our parents pay for private lessons at home ».
The kids’ story is consistent with what several parents have told me and with an article I read in the ‘Vietnam Times’ yesterday. If they can afford it, some families send their children to private schools. Others think the public schools are better. Whatever the choice, the parents who have the means often feel private lessons at home are essential for success.
When students go to college, there are scholarships.
« What grades do you need to get a scholarship ? », I ask the Director of Student Affairs this morning in our meeting.
« We give about 300 shcolarships each month to students whose grades are between 7.0 and 7.9. Another 150 scholarships go to students with grades between 8.0 and 8.9 », he replies.
I ask the obvious question : « How many scholarships for students who get the top marks, between 9.0 and 10 ? ».
« None. Such grades are impossible here ».
Now I think I understand the private lessons.
Conversation over lunch with the teachers:
« Try this, it’s dangerous », says one teacher. The others burst into laughter.
« She meant to say it’s delicious », says another teacher. They’re referring to the stinky durian fruit, known in some parts of Asia as the ‘king of fruits’. It turns out to be very tasty, a combination of citrus, peach, and cherries, even though the smell is pretty disgusting. Even more delicious is the dragon fruit that the students also offer me. It’s a refreshing mix of plums, oranges, and apples.
A third student adds : « The durian fruit might affect my beauty ».
« You mean it might make you more beautiful ? » I asked. More hysterical giggling.
« No, Vietnamese women think the durian is bad for their complexions », she answered.
« We don’t know anything about you. Do you have any grandchildren ? » That’s a question I’ve never been asked before. I guess it makes sense, and was bound to happen sooner or later. The question is, of course, a clever way of trying to determine my marital status. And the question fits with my sense of how discrete, modest, and respectful these teachers are, in their attitude toward me.
The teachers then start telling me stories about themselves : how old they were when they got married (most were in their mid-twenties), how many children they have (all have at least two), who does the cooking and housework (the women), who looks after the children (the women).
« Do you know how to cook ? », I ask one of the men. He replies: "I can cook rice with a rice cooker, and make instant noodles." The good-natured laughter continues.
The conversation turns back to the more serious topic we spent the morning discussing – what are the most important personal and family problems that students in the college experience ?
A teacher says : « One of my students got pregnant and her boyfriend decided he didn’t want to marry her. Her family and the boyfriend’s family didn’t want anything to do with her, but she wanted to continue her studies. Can you tell us what a student counselor in a Canadian university would say to such a student ? »
I reply : « We’d probably try to find some community services to support the student, and maybe help the student access financial aid through the government, and then offer the student some individual or group counseling at the counseling centre. » My comments are met with empty looks.
It’s not the first time, since I arrived, that the conversation between me and the teachers grinds to a halt. Totally perplexing questions that I haven’t the slightest idea about how to answer.
Another student, probably sensing my discomfort, adds : « It’s a different culture here ».
It took me four days to learn the lesson here. When my partner Ramon and I were in Manila in March, it took only two days before we noticed we were walking too fast. I described the way people in the street in Manila walk as the « Philippino saunter ». It’s because of the heat and humidity. Here in Phan Thiet where the climate is identical, everyone looks as though they’re walking in slow motion. I should have clued in yesterday when I kept thinking, as I walked to the market, with my usual quick step and purposeful gait – how come I never perspire like this or feel faint when I’m on the street in Toronto ? There’s a saying in French : « I learn quickly, as long as you explain things slowly ».
In my conversations since Tuesday with the psychology teachers (who already feel like good friends) at the college, there’s no need to explain things slowly. They quickly get what I say, and vice versa. We’ve covered a lot of ground in a short time. It’s both because the teachers are really smart and we have Nguyen, a very talented translator who acts as our go-between. The teachers are convinced there is a need for a student counselling service, and they have some clear ideas about what it should look like. The job ahead of us is to craft a report that will propose the centre’s mission, organizational structure, training requirements for counsellors, and, most importantly, an action plan with specific deadlines. I showed the teachers the mission statement on the website for the University of Guelph Counselling Services. « It’s too long, too wordy, and hard to understand », according to the teachers. Yes, really smart, these teachers – with a few good lessons to teach the rest of us.
I am a little under 2 weeks until departure for Vietnam. What I can tell you so far is this- I am becoming totally pre-occupied with the whole adventure. It's probably a good thing I'm leaving soon, I'm sure my family will heave a sigh of relief. Speaking of family though, they have been able to supply me with all manner of help. I'm going to help set up a library system and I have a sister in law who just happens to have a Masters degree in Library Science and has provided some very useful information. My father in law just happens to have a friend who spends 6 months of the year in Vietnam and has a number of acquaintances who work at the University in Hanoi. I also shared a coffee break with Kian, a past U of G participant who was placed at the same college I will be going to. Kian was able to provide some valuable insight into the logistics of staying in Vietnam..Thanks Kian.
I have one shot left...2 days before I go. I have my flight itinerary and my e-ticket. The folks in Vietnam have my profile. Staring to work on the essentials I need to take with me. It's almost like I know what I'm doing!
I arrived in Phan Thiet City on Monday afternoon and had the pleasure yesterday of having breakfast and dinner with Dr Hung Nguyen Phan, President of Binh Thuan Community College and with Hanh Phan Thi Minh, Director of International Relations at the college. The college was created in 2008, an amalgamation of three educational institutions, and plans to attain university status by 2020. I was accompanied to Phan Thiet City by Ngoc Minh Vu who is Sector Program Officer at the Uniterra office in Hanoi. Her orientations sessions in Ho Chi Minh City were wonderful and yesterday she played a determining role in helping to give a realistic and manageable shape to the mandate I will pursue for the next three weeks.
My first working session, yesterday afternoon, was a meeting with five psychology teachers who described their current project - to create a student counselling centre. I listened carefully to the way the teachers talked about their students and was struck by their serious concern for the students’ academic and personal challenges. Vietnamese students were described as shy and hesitant to confide in their teachers. A first challenging question soon emerged from our conversation. How do you communicate to students that the counselling centre is a place they can trust? It was a privilege for me to be part of this conversation in which my colleagues showed they know how to listen – which means they already posses the most important skill of a good counsellor. I will continue meeting with the psychology teachers for the rest of this week.
The last ten days in Ghana were hectic to say the least. Nine of those days (including the weekend) were given over to crafting my Organizational Development report. It was actually a lot like Integrated Planning at the University of Guelph, so it felt natural and the words flowed easily. The report, all 31 pages and 37 recommendations, has been received with enthusiasm. I also led a workshop on participatory decision-Managers Workshopmaking, transparency and empowerment. I used this as background preparation for the management team before they received my report. It looks like there is already activity around the issues I raised, so this was a great mandate all around. The Non-Formal Education Division and I were a good fit in both skills and personalities.
On my last day at the NFED we had scheduled what I took to be an open staff meeting where staff could come and hear a few words from me and from the Executive Director and close the circle for everyone, since I had spoken to basically all 241 people who work at the National Headquarters. I had no idea what was hidden beneath the term durbar. Suffice it to say, it is much more than a large Division meeting. Everyone crowded into the meeting place. Things began with a prayer, since Ghana is formally and enthusiastically Christian. A few Muslims work at NFED and I did wonder what they thought about the overt religion but they were present and didn’t seem uncomfortable. Then things really got going. The Executive Director gave a few highlights from my report, including a suggestion that rigid hierarchical structures were hampering team-building and collaboration. Then he ended by saying, please no longer refer to me as Director; I want you all to call me Charles. The room exploded, mostly with people saying that would be impossible. [We’ll see. My money is on Charles changing the culture!] Then I said a few words about what aCharles and Me fantastic group of people make up NFED and because of their individual and collective talents, the organization was going to flourish again. Then, before I knew it, everyone was up, singing and dancing and clapping their hands. And there were all kinds of testimonials and thanks for me coming. Then there were more presents than any volunteer would dream about. Then there was more singing and dancing. I found it all utterly amazing and very humbling.
In one short month, we forged strong bonds and a shared commitment. I left a group who had renewed hope and determination for the future. I left part of my heart at NFED. So, here ends Ghana 2.0
The NFED and Me
No Ghana blog of mine would be complete without a report from the roads. They are an endless source of fascination which is a good thing if one is spending an average of 3 hours a day driving to and from work. Thankfully, the streets of Accra are far more interesting than the 401. My route to work takes me into a completely different area of the city, through one of the poorest, primarily Muslim, areas of the city and into the remarkably well off. I thought the office was near the Canadian Embassy, but have gradually identified the Dutch, Swiss, French, German and Czech missions as well. The other signs of privilege include boulevards without booths and vendors and new gated communities with houses for sale, priced far above what a Ghanaian can afford.
The roads are crazier than ever. The taxis no longer look like they are held together by dust alone, and there are some trotros that similarly look road worthy, although the majority appear ready to collapse into a pile of rusting metal at any moment. Classic TrotroThere are many more cars on the road; new model Corollas and various Toyota SUVs and minivans. There are Mercedes that would be vintage in Canada. No longer are the nice cars and SUVs driven only by embassy, UN and NGO staff. Many Ghanaians are commuting back and forth in cars, one driver with no passengers, exacerbating the already bursting single-lane roads.
Intersections are a spectacular experience. There are very few traffic lights: only at major intersections of four-lane highways. The other network of commuting roads is single-lane, usually with a small pedestrian lane not unlike our bike lanes. The concept of three or four-way stops is unknown in Accra. Upon reaching an intersection all the traffic hurtles in at once in a high stakes game of chicken. Trotros and taxis appear to be the most aggressive, but trucks and cars and SUVs hold their own. It is the nimble motorbikes and the handcarts, shabby and pushed by two labourers with little to lose in collisions, that weave through fastest. What is fascinating is that those driving the expensive and unblemished American and Japanese cars are by no means the first to give ground.
Drivers are an impatient lot and drivers of all types of vehicles regularly try to pass on the right, turning theGutters to the right pedestrian lane into a very very narrow second lane. The edges of the roads are lines by open rain gutters, about 18 inches to 2 feet wide and about three feet deep. This means those impatient drivers need to have excellent judgment of exactly how much room there is between the vehicle in the proper lane and the treacherous gutters. There are instances of the drivers of trotros, taxis and fancy cars misjudging the distance finding themselves with their right wheels in the gutter, the undercarriage shot. With luck no one is injured. Is it worth it? Apparently so, since even with a vehicle permanently disabled in the cement gutters, the crazy drivers simply pass them by and jump back into the unofficial right hand lane.
So, too, the roads are noisier than noisy but there is a sense to it. Given their penchant to weave in and out of traffic without signally, horns are a vital means of communication. They not only warn off the wayward and careless, but signal passing and turning and stopping in a cacophony that adds to the utter charm of being driven in Accra, a town in which "leave the driving to us" sounds sensible.
Both my flight from Toronto to Newark, New Jersey and from Newark to Hong Kong, where I am in transit to Ho Chi Minh City right now, were delayed because of the pouring rain in Newark. It had been raining non-stop for two days. I'm told that in Vietnam, when it rains, it's usually not for long, and then the sun comes out right away. It will be great to feel the Vietnam sun on my skin.
It's always hard to know what to read when I travel to new places. in order to prepare myself. I'm usually tempted to read nothing, in hopes that I arrive without memory or desire or preconceptions about the culture that I have never experienced before. Of course, a zero-degree state of mind is impossible, since we always have some ideas about what to expect. I made the mistake of buying the "Lonely Planet Guide" for Vietnam, but didn't get past the first few pages. It doesn't work for me when someone tells me, in predigested form, what it's important for me to see. The "Lonely Planet Guide" does that, as well as telling me how to see. What no guidebook ever seems to be able to do is tell us what to tell the people we meet when they ask us why we're there. In other words, most guidebooks assume that I, the tourist, am in charge of the looking. When you assume you're in charge of the looking, you risk missing what matters.
A more interesting choice of reading for this trip turns out to be "Ru", by Kim Thuy, who fled Vietnam at age ten in the 1970's and ended up in Montréal where she has been a restaurant owner, lawyer, and now writer. Her gripping narrative gives an account of how her family lost everything and had to start a new life, in very difficult circumstances, in Canada. She describes in detail her relationship with her mother who was the driving force behind the family's escape from Saigon. Her mother often repeated the following proverb: "La vie est un combat où la tristesse entraîne la défaite". It means: "Life is a struggle in which sadness leads to defeat". It sounds like something my mother would say. The proverb suggests a lack of tolerance or sympathy for those who complain and moan about life, but its flip side is a solid optimism and an unshakeable conviction that defeat is not an option.
The Non Formal Education Unit delivers literacy programs to every region and district in Ghana. Consequently, “going out to the field” is critical for me to gain a full understanding of the organization and how it works. It was decided that I’d go to the Central region, the capital of which is Cape Coast. So, it was arranged that Hope, the driver assigned for this journey, would pick me up at 6:00 am so we could miss the worst of the morning traffic jam that is a daily feature of life in Accra. Moreover, Hope grew up in the region so he is familiar with the back roads we needed to travel so I could interview the district managers and zonal staff. This would allow me to speak to the people who are actually in the villages delivering programs.
We arrived at Cape Coast in good time and I was finished with my various interviews by 11:30. So, Gideon, the regional coordinator and George (IT) and we three from Accra (Hope and the omnipresent Chris) had lunch and then went through Elmina Castle.Elmina Castle: Chris, George, me, Gideon Hope This is the largest and earliest (1480) European structure in sub-Saharan Africa. It is impressive, standing on the end of an isthmus, its white walls gleaming in the sun. The whole thing is jarring, however, even having toured Cape Coast castle in 2010 and having an good idea what to expect. Somehow, knowing about the slave trade isn’t preparation for seeing its context. Elmina was founded by the Portuguese, fell to the Dutch who expanded it, until the British conquered it in the late 18th century. But anyway you cut it, there is blood on the hands of most of Europe when you look at Elmina. We entered and left in a fairly festive mood but the tour itself was sobering, …. And Elmina does not have a Door of Return to leave the visitor with a sense of hope in the future.
In the regions outside Accra, poverty appears less hidden. I was told that Central Region is one of the poorest areas of the country. Even Cape Coast itself, long the capital when Ghana was called the Gold Coast and the seat of colonial authority until the British finally left in the 1950s, is a place that seems to crumble before your eyes. Rundown buildings are ubiquitous. The Regional Headquarters building which houses the staff of various ministries, is a graceful highrise with the offices clustered, floor upon floor, around what must once have been a garden with a fountain. Now, the trees are dead and the fountain decrepit, as suits the ill-furnished offices that probably haven’t been painted since the building was erected. There is poignancy to this because the hope in the future is so evident in the architecture and the disappointment lies all around.
As we move out of the city, to visit the office of one of the poorest districts of all, we pass through perplexing countryside. Nature’s beauty surrounds many areas, lush green because this is the rainy season and things are not yet parched. I wonder about rainwater collection: I don’t see any rain barrels. There are astonishing palm groves, thick with different varieties of palm and mountains rising green against the sky. As we move through Abura-Asebu district, the poverty juts out. Crazy quilt villages of ancient, decaying thatched huts and palm frond lean-tos replace the corrugated iron sheds and hovels of the city. The children here are not in the uniforms of schools they don’t attend. Then, we turn a corner and come to another village characterized by an orderly configuration of houses, made from plaster, painted with solid roofs. Here there is a decided absence of debris and garbage and smoldering wood fires: the common ground here, between the village houses is obviously swept daily. There are no children about since we pass by during school hours.
There is no evident explanation for the changing panoply of poverty and prosperity that alternates throughout the drive. Why do some communities thrive while others linger hopelessly?
My mandate is with the Non Formal Education Division of Ghana’s Ministry of Education. This Division was founded about twenty years ago to address the widespread illiteracy that has hampered Ghana’s development. Almost 50% of adults are illiterate and only 14% of Ghanaians complete secondary school or university. Illiteracy is most widespread among women and rural dwellers. Since it was founded, NFED has provided programs leading to 2.5 million people becoming literate and numerate, however, a great deal remains to be done if Ghana is to reach its Millennium Development Goal of universal literacy.
The people who work at NFED are amazing. From the Executive Director throughout the organization there is a clear and passionate sense of purpose. Imagine sitting in a room with twenty drivers from the Fleet who, in response to a question about what work they did, replied by talking about how they help people become literate. It was the same with every single group. The accountants don’t balance budgets, they work to increase literacy. The experience was breathtaking. Every person, from top to bottom, is devoted to a shared task. Sadly, every single one of them is also equally frustrated because their programs have been cut and curtailed since the World Bank did not renew their funding about 4 years ago. The Government of Ghana and the Ministry of Education has been slow to take up the task despite official pronouncements about the critical importance of literacy and the excellent work done by NFED.
Literacy HouseWe all work out of Literacy House, a building given over to Non Formal Education and few kindred spirits like the Girls Education Unit. Having worked in this building, I will be hard pressed to complain about conditions at Guelph. For example, there is one office out of which 8 professional staff work. In another, 7 data analysts share a single computer. Here if you don’t get to work early enough you might not get a computer, a desk or even a chair for the whole day. Yet, people carry on, spurred by devotion to making Ghana literate.
I have the immense privilege to be ferried back and forth to work in an NFED truck, the kind that takes materials and so forth out into the field, in even the most remote parts of Ghana. These are not fancy trucks and they’ve certainly seen better days. The fuel gauge doesn’t work in the one I ride in and twice in we’ve run out of gas.NFED truck
IssahTwo different people are responsible for me in various ways. I drive back and forth with Issah, the manager of Human Resources, and have a desk in his office. I am so grateful for this because it is one of the few offices with an air conditioner. Without it I would not be able to think clearly or recover after roaming around the building. Note the Guelph cup on the edge of my desk!
My other handler is Chris who is like an executive assistant. He can get me information such as annual reports, appointments with people high (Executive Director) or otherwise. Chris is very patient with the fact I sometimes think out loud and that I have an unorthodox style. For example, I asked to meet with staff members without their Directors present, a request which caused some consternation (but it happened). He’s arranged for site vsits to every nook and cranny in the building, some Chrisof which were heart rending. The musicians who compose songs that teach rural dwellers things like how and when to spread a new fertilizer on their fields work in such cramped quarters that when they played for me, the neck of one of the guitars was virtually resting on the drummers leg.
So Chris takes me everywhere. Our next place will be out to "the field" to see the operations on the ground at Cape Coast.
It is a lesson we all learn at one time or another, and it is especially telling for an historian: the past cannot be recreated. And fundamentally, that is a good thing.
This is not the Ghana of 2010, something immediately apparent despite the same smiling faces. First show your Yellow Fever certificate (was that required last time? Can’t remember) then join the queue for passport control. And what a long, slow-moving queue it is. The point is no longer to stamp a passport and ask why you’re here. Rather the passport is scanned and then each person who has not been previously registered is photographed and finger-printed. It actually only need take a minute or two but, as the apologetic officer explains, not everyone’s passport is electronic and she had to enter the information by hand, individually and then take photos and prints of the family of five in front of me. That explained it. A mere question of volume and meanwhile the whole line had been anxiously awaiting some harsh interrogation because of the length of time people spent at her booth.
But to compensate, my luggage was right there and customs was a breeze. Nonetheless, bursting out into the madness that characterizes Arrivals was a relief. As usual, helpful strangers surge around wanting to take your bags for a cedi or 5 but no one is cross when you brush by them. The only trouble is it is impossible to distinguish pressing freelancers from airport staff – especially the ones who want to check baggage claims to make sure you only have your own. It has been so long since any Canadian airport or airline has cared one whit about who seizes which bags that I was completely nonplussed.
Pushing along: No thank you. No thank you. Hand on my bags and my cart, I press on further to see the happy welcome WUSC sign and smiling driver. Arrival as it should be. The drive from the airport to Haatcho is just as long as ever but now it is familiar. We don’t need to careen through the darkened university campus because it took so long to get through the formalities of entering the country that the traffic is lighter.
Suma Court, is the same and different. Juliana is here and Eric and impish Nicholas but the staff has all changed. There are many more guests. I am told that sometimes there is no room for WUSC volunteers if the reservation is not made far enough in advance. It was good that I had alerted Julilana to when I was arriving so my special Room 4 was waiting for me. Business is booming at Suma but WUSC corner has vanished and additional breakfast tables attest to the incursions of American tour groups. This weekend, though, is quieter, more like the Suma of old.
One thing that hasn’t changed is the traffic! The highway to nowhere, a red slash through one of the major arteries of Accra (see photo for 29 July 2010 in JacquelineinGhana @ blogspot) is finished. It took me a few days to realize where it had been. The huge signs proclaiming it was funded by the USA and EU have disappeared.MDG Highway Ironically, it should have been immediately recognizable, with its multi-lane concrete interchanges, and the traffic just as snarled and creeping as ever it had been. CORRECTION: I NOW COME AT THE HIGHWAY FROM A DIFFERENT ANGLE. THE SIGN IS STILL THERE, REMINDING DRIVERS TO THANK USAID FOR THEIR IMPROVED TRAFFIC SYSTEM. HA!
My route to the government compound that houses the Non Formal Education Division of the Ministry of Education is new and different. It takes us closer to the Parliament Buildings and we go past a number of embassies: Swiss and French are the only ones I can identify. And the Canadian Embassy is almost across the street from where I work. These are the posh areas of Accra, but we also traverse some very poor areas, goats and chickens and even cows wander at will but stay out of the busy traffic. The houses are little more than huts of leaning corrugated iron. But, as inexplicably as ever, each person on the street walks straight and tall in clean pressed clothes. There are children in their school uniforms, women doing marketing and men off to work somewhere or other. This is one of Accra’s enigmas.
Sleep was elusive on the flight from Amsterdam to Accra. There were clouds hiding the Dutch coastline and the endless ranks of windmills that float off shore were not to be seen. France and Spain were green, followed by the grey waters of the Mediterranean. And then, suddenly, the North African coast dominates the horizon. It comes into view suddenly and definitively. At first, towns fill the landscape with texture and colour and movement. Then, without warning, all is transformed into the endless beige sand of the Sahara. This is not the soft, smooth, rolling sand of travel photos or some kind of Lawrence of Arabia desert extravaganza. The harshness is clear and brutal, even from 35,000 feet. There are twists and turns and undulations and the hopeful and hopeless highway bisects the desert, going to nowhere from nowhere. No beginning and no end, and ultimately a failed human attempt to tame an impossible desert. Equally hopeless, though surely once hopeful, are the serpentine dark lines snaking across the landscape, futile evidence that once there were rivers and water. When did the water disappear? Did the Romans see these rivers? Is it the current drought and these parched riverbeds the evidence of climates changing? Or is it a primordial drought that blights the land? Desert in every direction as far as the eye can see. How can such desolation exist? Surely this environment wounds the earth’s soul, a place where even Gaia cannot survive.
It is a relief when thin clouds obscure the ground below. At first, the clouds are familiar grey-white wisps We fly in the clouds for hours, and gradually, without warning, there is a realization that the clouds have transformed to a dirty brown, cause unknown. Desert sand at this elevation? Pollution from somewhere hundreds of thousands of miles from this depopulated place, in which life is so meager that pollution itself would evidence of fertility rather than this pervasive futility?
Then night and still nothing to see below. Does the desert endure? Have we reached the scrubland of the Sahel? Is the coastal green encroaching yet and challenging the heartless beige of a heartless land?
Finally, there is an occasional twinkle and then, bursting out of the dark sky, the lights of Accra, blazing out a welcoming greeting. It is good to be back.
So I’m packed: 3 suitcases and a carry-on. This is so different from the trip to Botswana when I was limited to 11 kg and ended up weighing my socks so as not to go over. Then, of course, packing was a big issue for my first Leave for Change placement in Ghana. There weren’t the same restrictions but there was an incident with missing flip-flops that occupied much of my blog. This time there have been no packing issues. Why would there be when I’ve pretty much packed everything I own? Also, leaving on Sunday rather than Friday means I’ve had days to tuck in one more thing “just in case.” I’ve never quite understood light packing as my cases attest. But remember! These are only medium size cases, not the truly giant ones.How much luggage does one person need
So three hours before I leave for the airport, seven and a half hours until take off, and I am ready to go and, somewhat ominously, have no nagging need to repack. Hmmm. Is this familiar? Not exactly. Now, what to do for 7.5 hours? Well there is that novel I’ve been saving………
But don’t be misled. I am hopping with anticipation.
I can’t wait to be circling over Accra in the night sky.
I've just had a first exchange of messages with my main contact in Vietnam and have received a more detailed version of my mandate. My experience and background are looking like a very good fit for the posting I've been given. Next step is to get my vaccinations and I'll be all set to go! Clive
Being part of Leave for Change and going to Ghana in 2010 was a tremendous privilege, and not one I ever expected to be fortunate enough to repeat. It is scarcely possible to convey how humbled I am to have this opportunity once again. There is a sense of wonder that surrounds this opportunity -- like lightening striking twice. At the pre-departure orientation, there were eight of us from Guelph, by far the largest contingent. It was a diverse group, though, ranging from one person about to embark on a two-year placement in Botswana to a number of Students Without Borders going for various postings. By far, though, the greatest number were those of us going on Leave for Change.
It was a real honour to be asked to speak a bit about my previous posting in Accra with Child's Rights International. Proudly wearing my Justice for Juveniles shirt, with all the logos of the project's sponsors, the presentation wove my experiences volunteering in Ghana with a more generalized view of volunteering that would be relevant to those going to Nepal or Peru or Burkina Faso or Malawi. There are unifying features going with Leave for Change, but in the end each experience will be unique and personal and dependent upon what each of us makes of this opportunity.
The presentation brought back the excitement of being in Ghana and the kaleidoscope of experiences. The presentation ended with a picture of "The Door of Return" at Cape Coast, Ghana. That was always my wish upon leaving Ghana and now it has come true.
Pre-Departure Orientation Presentation: "The Door of Return" Cape Coast, Ghana
I’m gave a talk today at the University of Guelph for the Better Planet Project. Welcome to those coming from that event. I hope you find some interesting information and pictures about my two International Volunteer trips, to Nepal and Indonesia.
I have a showing of photos from my Nepal trip at the University Library if you’d like to drop by.
If you have any questions, please get in touch. I’d love to talk. email@example.com or @seanyo on twitter.