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Justice for Juveniles

Jacqueline Murray's Ghana blog - July 28th, 2010 6:20 AM
My volunteer placement is at a Ghanian NGO devoted to the implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Millennium Goals, aimed at improving the plight of children by 2015. Sadly, the Millennium Goals are one of those instances when the whole world signed up and then promptly forgot to show up. There is a great public service announcement on TV in Canada, with a bunch of cool ten year old children discussing how they were born when the Millennium Goals were being set and here’s what they are and will the goals be reached by the time we’re fifteen. I find the ad impactful, although I suspect there are too many people who haven’t a clue and just think “cute kids”. I wonder what they ‘d think if the cute kids were starving and covered in scabies and scavenging for food in a dump.....oh, wait; that PSA is already on TV.

The Executive Director of Child’s Rights International is Bright (no pun at all and, yes, he really is) who left a career as a teacher to run CRI. He is a soft-spoken man who comes across as gentle and caring. I suspect that is why kids trust him. As part of he current project on justice, Bright was filmed interviewing children in jail about their experiences. The children are so forthcoming about their misdemeanours – certainly not crimes – and matter of fact way in how they describe parental neglect, judicial indifference, unreasonable sentences and unspeakable conditions in the detention facilities. It is a rivetting documentary and throughout the interviews Bright’s eyes do not break the gaze that holds the child and lets him or her speak their truth. Nor does he flicker an eyelash as the children reveal the most egregious breaches of their legal and civil rights.

CRI works on various projects that include lobbying the government for legislative reform or working with the government to promote issues to enhance the well being of children in Ghana. This is a complex issue for Ghanians. There is real appreciation of children as the vulnerable foundations of the country’s future and well-being. Ghana was the first country to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. But Ghana is also among the poorest of the developing countries (in the bottom 18%) so money for programmes and improvements is scarce and there are always multiple competing needs. So every two or three years CRI devotes its energy on a specific issue, looks for partnerships and launches major projects to have maximum impact.

The current focus – I believer this is year two of three – is on Juvenile Justice, in partnership with Plan and UNICEF. The project was awarded over 800,000 euros by the European Union. CRI has gone to five regions of Ghana to establish Rights Clubs in which children learn about and discuss their rights. Some of the focus group posters show that children fear the law and police officers, not much of it misplaced. My contribution has been to write an accessible, child-friendly version of the Juvenile Justice Act. This will be tested in the field with children and they will also be asked to draw pictures of key points. Their drawings will then illustrate the printed version. I have also written a brief overview that tells kids what to expect if they are arrested. This is intended to reinforce their knowledge of their rights and also dispel some of the fear of the unknown and what will happen to them. There will also be a pocket version with cartoon illustrations that will be widely disseminated to children.

My current projects include assessing a call for researchers and advising on whether CRI should apply for a contract. The call is to do country-based research in one or more of 6 countries, to assess their legislation as it pertains to children and the extent to which the country is moving into compliance with the UN CRC and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child. CRI has already done this brilliantly for Ghana so will be well-placed to apply its expertise in other counties.

On the horizon, an application for funding to assess child labour, a topic far too closely related to juvenile justice, as are poverty and illiteracy. Sadly no surprises there but much energy around to address these challenges. CRI is a great partner organization and one that is making a real difference.

Taxis and tro-tros

Jacqueline Murray's Ghana blog - July 25th, 2010 5:15 PM
In Accra, the traffic defines much of life and how one lives. Privileged volunteers going to work, and needing to be there on time, tend to take taxis. Less expensive modes of transportation are also less reliable and take longer. My trip to the office costs about 7 cedis and 8 back at the end of the day when the traffic is worse. I always try to negotiate down to 7 and some days I am successful. One day I had to walk away from three taxis before I could get the price I wanted. Frankly, being white means the taxi drivers think you a) don’t know the right amount and b) don’t know how to negotiate. Ha! These guys have no idea! I love negotiating and remember being told ago that I was turning the process of buying my first computer into a trip to a Moroccan bazaar. Anyway, I can be ruthless and can reduce taxi drivers to the brink of tears. Nevertheless, going by taxi, despite heat, road dust, gas fumes and honking and shrieking drivers (yes shrieking) is still a luxury. I also seem to be just a little entrepreneurial. I got a good driver last week whom I liked, even though I paid him 8 cedis to get to work. The drivers always want to give you their phone number and have you call them if you need a ride. So I’ve made an agreement with him that he can take me to work every morning, no negotiation, flat 7 cedis. Juliana tells me no one who has stayed long term at Suma Court, to her knowledge, has done this. So, stay tuned to see if this works out.

Most Ghanians take tro-tros, a far less reliable, less efficient and less expensive mode of quasi-public transportation. Tro-tros are basically like vans except very old, verging on falling apart. They have four rows of seating (at least the ones I’ve ridden) with anywhere between four and six passengers per row. On Saturday I rode one with 21 passengers plus conductor plus driver. The last seat at the right hand end of each row is folding, so the back can be pulled forward and then the whole thing flipped sideways to make an aisle-like space. To move in and out of the back rows everyone on the end seats has to get off and flip their seat up; so, too, anyone in the row blocking the person wanting to exit. This makes for considerable chaos at every stop. Most African countries have a similar form of this transportation, it is not specific to Ghana.

Tro-tros seem to be private operations but are a recognized part of the city transportation system. There are regular stops and routes and specific beginning and end points but there is no schedule or timetable. They sit until they are full and then they leave, dropping off and picking up people at the stops and also randomly. People can simply stand at the side of the road until a tro-tro comes by, which they will certainly do eventually. The conductor shouts something utterly incomprehensible, rather like hecklers at a ball game or drill sergeants who can’t really be understood. He also waves his arms in specific ways which indicates the route and so people can flag down the correct tro-tro. Everyone just jumps on and at some point or other the conductor asks for the fare. Not that the fare is ever really clear or set, as this weekend’s adventures demonstrate.

On Saturday, I went with Daniel, one of the Suma Court staff, to an amazing craft market clear across greater Accra, right on the edge of the ocean. We went by tro-tro which was cool. Daniel had been a tro-tro conductor and after all, Accra is his town. We jumped on, did the requisite shuffling and jumping on and off as necessary, folding up our seats and gradually moving up to better seats as old riders descended and we were able to outwit the new riders and get better seats before they got on. Our ride took an hour. It was pretty rough between the crowded benches, the dust and fumes etc etc see above. It cost us each 65 peshwas, about 50 cents.

Flushed with success, today I ended up taking a tro-tro with a group of Australian volunteers who have just arrived. They were keen on tro-tros and wanted to go to the mall, as did I. I was unsuccessful getting the first taxi at a decent rate, and a tro-tro stopped in front of us. Because I was speaking to the obdurate taxi driver, I didn’t see how the conductor was waving so I asked if he were going to Accra Mall and he said yes, get on. So we did. The only trouble was his English was negligible and the tro-tro was not headed to the mall. After a bit they drove off the route to the mall which I know well enough to realize something is up. So, after a lot of discussion between me some of the Ghanian women, and then they with him, it was settled that the tro-tro would take us to Atomic Junction where we could get a taxi to the mall. Cool. When we got to Atomic Junction, however, another tro-tro was there going to the mall and the conductors arranged a transfer. Except conductor #1 wanted 3 cedis for taking six of us out of our way. In the end, I paid him 2 cedis. Then we carried on a straightforward route, paid 1 cedi 80 peshwas and the lovely conductor even showed us where and how to cross the three-lane divided highway to get to the mall, a not self-evident challenge.

The nice thing about this story: Daniel tells me I paid the first conductor the right amount and didn’t get over charged.

How hot is it?

Jacqueline Murray's Ghana blog - July 25th, 2010 1:07 PM
People always think it’s funny to ask me how I am doing in the heat.... and just how hot is it anyway. Well, given I have no way of knowing the temperature, I can only answer comparatively. It is as hot as it was in Guelph during that heat wave in July. Also as humid. So that puts it over 40 degrees on the humidex. Of course this is the cool rainy season. It rained the evening I arrived and every evening around 5 o’clock or maybe 6:00 the sky gets cloudy and the wind comes up a bit. The combination of unusual light and shadows that marks daylight’s rush into darkness makes it appear that a storm is brewing. But it isn’t and it hasn’t rained but that one night of arrival ... a portent perhaps? But of what since the sun shines here in so many different ways, real and metaphorically.

How hot is it? It is breathtakingly hotter than it was in Botswana and walking through the endless sand of the Kalahari, proving what they (whoever they are) always say about “but it’s a dry heat!”

How hot is it? It is so hot that the back of the cheap Sears watch I bought to bring on this trip ($19.95 and some swirly writing suggesting it might actually have a make but who can read the little swirls?) is rusting from the sweat of my wrist. I kid you not.

How hot is it? It is so hot that when I walk into an office where normal people are working quite comfortably, they take one look at me, are overcome with compassion and rush to turn on the air conditioning. It seems rivulets of sweat running down one’s face is undignified.

How hot is it? It is so hot that I haven’t even bothered to complain about the heat.

Hawkers and Multitasking

Jacqueline Murray's Ghana blog - July 24th, 2010 3:58 PM
I am fascinated by the intersection of shopping and commuting that is everywhere in Accra. Yes, the roads are lined with vendors with their mostly stable booths, each specializing in something: drinks, tinned goods or beans and grains; cold goods; vegetables or fruits (sometimes so specialized as to stock only cabbage or avocado or pineapples or plantains); shoes; bedroom furniture, bricks, car stuff (somewhat incongruously, there are huge displays of covers that envelop the whole car, no doubt part of the losing battle against the red dust of Accra). To purchase something from one of the booth vendors, it is easy enough to pull over, onto the shoulder if there is one, or simply block traffic and elicit a cacophony of honking horns and the shouts of taxi drivers and the passengers in the crowded tro-tros, run up to the proprietor and effect a fast transaction. In and out probably 2 minutes.

The other intersection of shopping and travelling is found on the streets themselves. Hawkers are found in every direction, fanning out from an intersection or junction or even in the middle of the ubiquitous construction sites which cause traffic to grind to a halt. These hawkers are not at the side of the road. Sometimes they are on the medians separating lanes, more commonly they wander through the traffic between the moving cars. The best place seems to be between the two northbound/southbound/whichever direction, lanes, ones going in the same direction, that is. Then the hawkers have twice the opportunity to sell their wares, compared to those that stay more safely on the median or on the side of the road. The hawkers are male and female and range in age from young – maybe 11 or 12 – to adults, mostly in their 20s and early 30s I’d guess, but some much older hawkers are also evident from time to time. At least half of those I’ve seen do not wear shoes, a scary thought on pavement or concrete sitting all day everyday under the burning sun. The men mostly turn themselves into ambulatory display racks with items hanging off them in every direction, looped around their necks, hanging down their backs and swinging from their long arms. Except for those who sell lottery tickets or newspapers: their wares seem more controlled, smaller, less like they’ve exploded from the body in all directions. The women, and some of the men, carry their wares balanced on their heads, weaving in and out of the traffic, graceful and unperturbed. Nothing every falls off. None of the towers of goods seems to totter or swerve. Some of the women balance towers of items that are at least two feet high, not tall bins filled with things but rather towers of small items stacked somehow more securely than seems possible. The women walk as they would have in the villages of the past, tall, with perfectly straight backs and exuding utter confidence. But it isn’t only the hawkers who carry on their heads: I’ve seen housewives carrying the laundry home in this way too. There is such elegance and gracefulness involved in this dance of incredible balance: it is easy to understand why the colonialists romanticized what is, at its most fundamental, a form of human labour.

The hawkers walk up and down between the cars, looking inside, calling out their wares. It is easy enough in the slow traffic of Accra to call someone over and dig out a cedi or two and buy something, anything, well, truth to tell, everything. It seems that one could almost do a household’s marketing from the back seat of a taxi, en route to and from work. So, I’ve decided to see if this is true. What follows is a list of what the hawkers offered as I came home from work. Note: the goods are only from the street hawkers and do not include the even greater diversity offered by the booth merchants. And the list is necessarily incomplete: I don’t always know or recognize what is for sale and can’t gawk too long or I’ll have to buy something. So, here goes: remember, each individual item (unless otherwise noted) has a specific hawker (the lottery guy doesn’t sell newspapers). Items are grouped roughly by type for the reader’s convenience.

– lottery tickets, newspapers, magazines, Barney the dragon children’s books, phonecards for pay-as -you- go cellphones, DVDs (mostly recent Hollywood releases, probably pirated), CDs, poster size maps of Africa and Ghana, evangelical/religious books, crucifixes

– car floor mats, steering wheel covers, cell phone chargers for car lighters, superglue

– toilet paper, kleenex, rolls of elastic bandages, make-up & nail polish, toiletries & similar drug store items like aspirin. In this case, the hawker had a variety of items it a tower on his head that must have been two feet tall. How did he even know what he had?

– tea towels, bath towels, table clothes, hangers, sheets (assume with pillow cases), strange bedspreads (wall hangings?) that appear to be giant velvet animals, plastic Tupperware style containers

– Coke,& Sprite & local soft drinks, yogurt drinks (chocolate, vanilla, strawberry), hot chocolate mix, sachets of water (the kind Ghanians drink by foreigners shouldn’t; not in bottles but in plastic bubbles)

– plantains, bananas, pineapples, yellow apples, corn (on the cob), sugar cane, loaves of bread, pita bread

– bofru (sp?), a mix of corn meal cooked in a banana leaf, donuts, crackers, roasted nuts, banana chips, popcorn, donuts (more about those another time), cookies & biscuits (homemade & packaged), chocolate (in this heat?), Mentos & various mints & gum

– T-shirts, stockings, shoes (adult & children), sandals, jewellery, children’s clothing, scarves, flip flops (yes, I know, there’s a whole flip flop theme going on), wallets (leather), briefcases, baby bibs, shoe polish & brushes

– exercise equipment, soccer balls, stuffed animal backpacks (bears & raccoons), luggage, beachballs

– black and gold carved side tables, electrical cords, international converters for plugs, regular light bulbs, strobe-style lights to hook up to a music system, wall clocks in various styles, pictures (large for living room walls), electric fans

So, my highly unscientific survey suggests that a house could be partially furnished, dinner made, everyone clothed and entertained all from the back seat of a taxi: multitasking at its best..... but pity the poor hawker who makes it all happen.

On the Roads Again

Jacqueline Murray's Ghana blog - July 21st, 2010 11:18 AM
So, even after only a single day of working, I have a sense of the shape of the days to come. Up early, around 6:00 am. Breakfast at 7:00. Flag down a taxi by 7:30 and spend an hour to an hour and a half on the commute, missing Matt Galloway like mad. Work by 8:30 or 9:00, an hour or so for lunch and then on the road again at 5:00, hoping to be back at Suma Court for dinner by 7:00. It makes for a long if interesting day.

Flagging a cab is more complicated than it sounds. It isn’t hard to get the attention of half a dozen taxis just by appearing on the side of the road. But that is only the first step. Next comes the negotiation. There are no metres in Ghanian taxis although they do have little yellow taxi signs on their roofs. The fare is a matter of negotiation: how much can the driver charge versus how little to you want to pay. Settling on an agreeable fare is like the dance of a Turkish bazaar, but infinitely more uncomfortable as the taxi idles on the shoulder of the road and the usual crazy traffic whizzes by with honking horns and belching smoke.

Where do you want to go? Dzorulou.10 cedis. Hahahaha. It should be 5 cedis. But today the traffic is bad. 5 cedis. Where in Dzorulou? (pronounced Jurulu) Inside. (I have no idea exactly what that means). 8 cedis. What about 6 cedis? Okay. Jump in.

The critical issue is to know what the fare should be and then negotiate according to traffic and whether it is rush hour. The flat rate means that here the driver bears the brunt of gridlock rather than the passenger. I did my first negotiation today, but it scarcely counted since my co-worker, who is shepherding me to work this week, was standing there with Eric, the hotel owner, the two of them scarcely able to keep a straight face as I launched into negotiations with the taxi driver. Nevertheless, by pointing out to the driver that he had already earned one fare bringing Brianna to Suma Court, I did manage to get the price down to 6 cedis. I think a Ghanian would have got it down to 5, a complete tourist would have been stuck with 8 or 9.

Spending so much time on the road probably gives me an unbalanced perspective on life in Accra but it also provides a window onto a variety of areas of the city. I work at one end and basically cross the town to go from Suma Court to the offices of Child’s Rights International. Part of the route is on a four lane divided highway which abruptly stops and turns into a two lane gravel road snaking through a construction site. Eventually, there will be a lot of highway, but for now there is only congestion that rivals the 401 at rush hour. A really good driver knows all sorts of back roads that let you detour around gridlock. Back roads in Accra means careening down the shoulder of the roadway, passing those unimaginative drivers who remain in their lane. No self-respecting taxi driver would stay on the paved road clogged with stopped vehicles. From the shoulder we enter a sort of alleyway, except that alley implies a certain breadth, possibly a straightway and a surface characterized by flatness. If the area never presumes to be flat, potholes are an irrelevant concept. The only thing that distinguishes the “alley” from a cow path is that it is narrower and in the midst of a city. The field we go through would be a farmer’s field except it is too uneven to plow and is littered with cars in various states of repair pushed there by the men who work out of a very shabby mechanic’s booth. We have to dodge around a fire burning garbage and blocking the egress, jumping instead over a ditch, more narrow than most, and ending up on a road of sorts. At this point, we enter Christian Village which appears no more Christian than anywhere else in Accra but is distinguished by considerably more poverty. The streets aren’t streets but winding donkey paths up hill and down, punctuated by enormous holes and dips (they can’t be potholes; there is again no pretense of flatness). The booths that everywhere look shabby are even more rickety here. Rather than the corrugated steel or railway box cars of Video Junction, these are little more than some weathered timber thrown together. For all that these booths look like they would not withstand a good huff and a puff from a predatory wolf, they are intended to be permanent. We are so early this morning that some are still locked with big steel locks that look to be more weight than the door can bear. And they have their names, of course: God’s Vineyard for wines and liquors, Manna for snacks. And then, as suddenly as we entered, we leave Christian Village and are surrounded by the large elegant homes of Achimota. This area is so unabashedly wealthy that there are no booths lining the streets, the only area of Accra I have seen without vendors everywhere. It is an enclave that could be anywhere and so desolate in its finery that it appears to be nowhere at all.

In no time we are in the crowded streets of Dzorulou, looking for the UBA Bank and the compound with the royal blue gates behind which is the office, florescent lime green and a hive of activity by Canadian volunteers from across the country.

Today’s challenge, like Gretel’s, to find my way home........


Jacqueline Murray's Ghana blog - July 19th, 2010 1:26 PM
Today was like the first day of school. Dress up nice, pack your books and papers. Try to make a good impression. Meet the other kids. Go through orientation.

The WUSC office is not far from Suma Court, so Annette, assistant to Patience, arrived on foot to walk me to the office. She showed me a convenient back route that doesn’t take us along the busy Atomic Road filled with morning traffic of honking taxis, careening tro-tros (mini vans that function somewhere between a taxi and an informal bus system) and myriad other vehicles of all shapes and sizes, from scooters to 18-wheel transports, with engines in varying states of repair, many spewing noxious and nauseating black smoke the likes of which I haven’t seen since an unfortunate walk in Oxford that ended with dry heaves on Madgelan Bridge, but that is another story.

Patience. What can I say except I’d do almost anything to have her on any team I was assembling. She is truly wonderful. Very smart. Very efficient. Warm and welcoming. Organized and flexible. We did the business of orientation. She asked me to draw a picture of myself on my sheet of expectations so she would know who it was. This was, of course, a big mistake and the funny egghead with Harry Potter glassed and spiky red hair was unexpectedly startling. She gave me information and advice. I asked questions. But mostly we laughed. Patience epitomizes old and new Ghana: a woman in traditional dress (the most amazing blue with pineapples) coordinating an army of volunteers from her laptop. This is someone who gets things done with an iron will and a smile. We ate fried plantains, chicken and red-red (a sort of bean stew) at her desk, and then we make the trek into Accra proper to the offices of Child’s Rights International, to meet the executive director and staff and other volunteers.

I am keenly aware that I have now gone up and down that road 5 times, from the airport, to the mall and back and now to CRI and back..... and yet I yearn for a landmark, for something vaguely recognizable from one trip to the next. Part of this is that the kind of stable markers we Canadians use are irrelevant on roadsides with an ever changing vista. Some vendors go home and others take their place. Some places seem to have more stable booths, while others clearly change from day to day as someone acquires a stack of tires to sell or comes from the country with trays of freshly baked bread or plantains or chickens (live) or a crate of puppies. These vendors come and go so they offer the stranger no point of reference.

One might think that billboards offer a stable landmark but even these seem to be in perpetual motion. This illusion is caused by the astonishing overabundance of signs of all shapes and sizes that line the roads and positively congregate and somehow add to the aura of chaos and congestion of the junctions. There are so many billboards and signs that one’s attention is constantly shifting. On the way from the airport it was Vodofone signs; today’s themes were different. First, at the junction by the Achimota School and Police Station, there was an astonishing trinity of giant billboards: the centre on roared, “Repent. Jesus is Coming Soon” while, like the two thieves on either side at Calvary, hung equally large “Castle Milk Stout. Smoothness Inside You” and “Guiness Foreign Extra. One Nation. One Game. One Beer.”

There are multiple advertising disjunctions that knock one off balance. There is a lingerie shop in the mall, much like La Senza or Victoria’s Secret, with the same skimpy, diaphanous underwear that wasn’t designed for more than 20 minutes of uncomfortable wear. The store mannequins are all white women in this very black culture. The same fascinating intersection of race and gender is mirrored on the numerous lingerie billboards but, from what I can see so far, these are virtually the only white faces in advertising.

There is another set of advertising signs and fliers that appear with overwhelming frequency and are in startling parallel. There are religious signs everywhere, some urging repentance, others advertising evangelical meetings or Christian conferences. Religion is reflected in more mundane signage, as well, the By His Grace Fitting Shop (tailor), the Black Jesus Barber Shop, With God Furniture or the God’s Time is Best cell phone booth. Equally evident, however, are the exhortations of educational institutions: come and upgrade your marks, gain foreign accreditation, TOEFL scores improved, study by distance, placements in universities abroad guaranteed, American curriculum, British curriculum and even Canadian curriculum offered. These dubious purveyors of one the most highly prized acquisitions in Ghana – a good education – promise people salvation and success akin to the evangelical promises.

So, with such distractions, I have yet to learn my way to the office..... maybe tomorrow......

Introductory shopping, of course ...

Jacqueline Murray's Ghana blog - July 18th, 2010 11:25 AM
Saturday was a crash course on how to live in Ghana. I was kindly introduced to two styles of shopping by Judi, another Guelph volunteer. Alas we barely overlapped for 24 hours and as I write she almost landing back in Canada. It was great to have a day with an old hand who knows the ropes. So, many things accomplished including finding the WUSC office, walking along the highway noting which little booths sell milk or phone cards or reliable water. Every step of the way, taxis honk and wave hoping to pick up a fare. People offer rides and wares but there is not stress or pressure. Everyone has a greeting and, as is customary in Ghana, spends a minute or two exchanging pleasantries. I’ve fumbled a few times in the matter of not using my left hand when handing people money or doing pretty much anything Although I am profoundly right dominant apparently I take money out of my wallet with my left hand. That is one to work on! I’m working on trying to switch which side I carry my bag on to see if I can counteract that evil left hand grubbing for money.

The booths that line the roads, staffed by people selling whatever one likes, are a puzzle to me. I use the term booth to harken back to the medieval world which was familiar with such structures at their fairs. These, however, are permanent, at least as permanent as rickety structures can be. They seem to be placed on boulevards in front of the walls that hide lavish houses or church compounds or other things that I can’t imagine because these walled and gated fortresses – missing only moats and moat monsters – are also anonymous, unsigned and in stark contrast to all that clusters outside their gates. One does not enter the booth but asks one of the various women and children and occasionally men sitting in front. Peering in, though, there is a great disparity, some booths well and neatly stocked, others sparse and haphazard. It is clear some have sleeping quarters attached to the back, others do not. I have no idea whether these shop keepers are hardy entrepreneurs or squatters or whether at some point some one (police, Better Business Bureau, the people behind the walls?) will make them move on. For now, they are my stores and my shopkeepers.

And then, for abject culture shock, we went to Accra Mall, the western-style shopping mall a reasonably short but completely chaotic drive away. Getting the taxi is easy. Negotiating the price isn’t too bad but we did have to walk away from one gaggle of drivers at the mall who wanted more than twice the appropriate fare to bring us back – and tried to convince us it was a set rate. Ha! The trick is confidence based on knowing what the fare should be and knowing where you are going, not always easy in a city that basically doesn’t bother with street names and numbers. I simply need to know that I am staying past Atomic Junction and then past Video Junction and then past the last brickmaker turn left. As for the mall? It was a mall, leaning towards glitzy North American, but having the decided advantage of being where you can get things like milk and jam and internet cards and, not to disappoint those still fascinated by the flip flop saga, $250 Birkenstocks. Ha! The mall is heavily patronized by ex-pats: accents of the UK, Australia, USA and Canada all heard in the grocery store. This is where one comes for comfort food and familiar surroundings. I expect I’ll need another hit in a couple of weeks.

Arrival in Accra

Jacqueline Murray's Ghana blog - July 17th, 2010 1:04 PM
Our plane approached Accra in the same kind of clear dark sky that I left in Toronto. I had been particularly enthralled by the interplay of lights; white lights and yellow lights forming an intricate abstract design. The view of Accra first appears to be same incandescent kaleidoscope until we are directly overhead. Then the infrequency of the lights becomes apparent and the gleaming snaking highway below proves to be four lanes compared to the twelve and sixteen lanes that surround Pearson.

Customs, immigration, baggage are sheer delight: smooth, fast, efficient and all personnel, civilian and military, warm and happy to see you. “You’re volunteering? Well go right on through,” with no awkward questions about just how much luggage one woman needs for three weeks.

WUSC’s driver met me and then we joined what appeared to be a weekend, going-to-the-village, traffic jam. Then suddenly we pulled off the highway and started taking semi-paved roads through the darkened campus of the University of Ghana: the famed Legon. When we left the campus and drove along with local traffic through who knows where: most certainly places I’ll never find again. Quickly, something of the nature of Ghana becomes apparent. Dynamic, entrepreneurial and globalized Ghana with ads for Vodaphone on every single lamp standard for miles incongruously juxtaposed with street vendors, walking through the traffic hawking toilet paper, yogurt drinks and BIC razors.. The other side of Ghana is revivalist: we followed a van with “Sing to the Lord” emblazoned on the back, and a particularly fearsome non-indigenous (American) eagle lending emphasis. The compound of the Love God ministry is topped by rolls of razor wire: is that to keep out sinners or prevent the saved from escaping?

Hotel Suma is an oasis of calm from the chaos of Accra’s streets. Owners Eric and Juliana and their astonishingly precocious two-year-old son Nelson have created a cozy haven that is something of a mainstay for WUSC volunteers. This is the home away from home, the place where new arrivals land and the last stop for departing veterans. It will be my base for the next three weeks. The common area is lovely, with couches and ceiling fans and Ghanian music videos on the TV/sound system. Sitting and letting the fatigue of travel drain out, Patience, the shy kitchen worker, asked if I were hungry. Excellent chicken and fried plantains appear almost magically, and an icy cold beer added to the refreshment.

Thus were my first three hours in Ghana. Oh, and I found the flip flops!

Half way - Amsterdam

Jacqueline Murray's Ghana blog - July 16th, 2010 6:23 AM
What is it about July that I find myself traipsing back and forth to the bus station with large pieces of luggage and then weighing improbable things like socks on my kitchen scale? Getting two pieces of luggage under 23 kg each was as challenging as packing an 11 kg backpack. last year. Maybe more. But, kitchen scales aside, my bags were accepted in without embarrassing repacking at check-in or groveling for special consideration.

The Amsterdam Airport is a nice shiny place to transfer planes. My stay this morning is brief: only one hour. Just enough time to load up on latte before I spend three weeks in a country that apparently does not have a Starbucks on every corner. Perhaps this belies global corporatism.

I shall soon find out. 7 hours and counting......

Two Days and Counting

Jacqueline Murray's Ghana blog - July 13th, 2010 10:15 PM
Forty-eight hours from now I will be on the plane and preparing for take-off. Meanwhile the pace is quickening, the lists are getting longer, there's still some research to finish and I never did find the flip flops.

What I have found, however, is how wonderfully generous people are. I have broken down and got an extra duffle bag to hold all the "swag" that people have contributed. Lanyards, whistles, pins, pens and pencils. Even beach balls and most remarkable of all, backpacks. This is incredible and I am in awe of the kindness I see everywhere.

Pre-departure Prep:

Jacqueline Murray's Ghana blog - July 12th, 2010 9:20 PM
Three days until I leave for Ghana. The preparations are a funny mixture of my usual methodical organization broken by occasional flurries of last minute craziness. And whatever happened to those flipflops I got on the weekend.

I’ve learned a little bit more about the partner organization that I will be working with in Accra. It is Child’s Rights International. In 2007 oil was discovered in Ghana and CRI is concerned that oil companies develop child-centred sustainable Corporate Social Responsibility programs. This could address issues as disparate as building schools and establishing scholarships to developing appropriate regulations regarding child labour and other ways that children are exploited. So I am going to help CRI to develop recommendations to the Ghanian government. I am thrilled to be involved with such a terrific project. I spent today searching for and downloading relevant policy documents and academic analyses of similar policies in other African countries.

And then I spent the other part of my day assembling some necessities like packages of instant coffee. Apparently, drinking coffee is not central to Ghanian culture and while I’m all for adapting, I can’t quite imagine 24 days without a sip of java. The other thing I’ve been warned about is the longish nights/days. Accra is almost on the equator with 12-hour days and 12-hour nights...... and one needs some distractions for those nights when endless hours on Facebook are curtailed by intermittent access to the internet.

So, more preparations await, ........ including figuring out how much more I can stuff into my half-packed suitcase........ when in doubt, overpack has long been my motto. That, and a feeling of excited well-being as this new adventure begins..... Hope you’ll stay with me.........

7 Airports in 36 Hours…

Vicki Hodgkinson's blog - June 29th, 2009 8:23 AM

My ‘body alarm’ woke me at my usual 6 am waking time even though…after the late night and the drinks, I probably could have managed with a bit more sleep!

Patricia, Annie, Ben and Chris kindly woke early to be sure they could join me for breakfast. I have really enjoyed having their company — people to share stories of our Malawi experiences and reflect on them together. It helped to keep perspective and patience with the things that felt so different and with the worries about whether and how best to be of help to our Malawian partners within the limited time.

I said my farewells also to the wonderful Malawians who worked at the Lodge – Sherrington, Loveless, Ella, Sinia and….most especially, Ruth. Ruth was there for me when I was sick….I don’t know what I would have done without her….she was my ‘angel’ when I needed one!! And we have discovered a special connection, too, because her youngest daughter was born on exactly the same date as my son! Ruth and her team at the Lodge made me feel at home.

Sherrington and Ella:


Ruth and Loveless:


I finished packing …thinking I had time to spare….but the driver from WUSC arrived early. The driver was Parco – “Gift” in Chichewa – the same driver who had come in the night to take me to the clinic when I was ill. He waited while I went and gave Patricia, Annie and Ben big hugs before leaving.

My flight from Lilongwe (airport 1) – through Lusaka (Zambia) (airport 2) — went off just as planned. This is not too be taken for granted in Africa, I’m told! I sat beside a very interesting young man, Brian, who works for a coppermine in Zambia as a community development officer. He is employed by the mine to help those in the communities nearby become self-sufficient and he was going on a course to help learn marketing skills that he could share when he comes back. He explained, as an example, that they have helped one community acquire and breed goats. Now they have enough to feed themselves with extras they could sell. They need some help, though, in learning how to move into marketing their excess meat supply. The course he is taking will help him, help them.

We landed at Addis Ababa (airport 3) in the evening and had a 4 hour lay-over…until 1:30 a.m. I re-read one of my favourite books, “Solving Tough Problems” by Adam Kahane. My Malawi experience has convinced me that his approach to an open way of talking, listening and creating new realities can be a critically useful way to addressing the intractable challenges burdening the country. Reading was about all you could do at this airport, with internet at $2 US per minute!

I finally left Addis Ababa and — after many hours — landed briefly in Rome (airport 4) where most of the passengers left the plane. I moved over to a set of middle seats that were empty where I could stretch out and get some good sleep time! Wonderful!!

I landed at Frankfurt at about 9:10 a.m. (airport 5), prepared for a layover until 5 pm. I had been told by a number of people that it was easy to take the train into the city, so I thought this would be a good way to spend my time. I headed through customs and ‘entered’ Germany. The Frankfurt airport is easy to find your way and I saw where I could change some money to Euros and find the train. Before I left, however, I thought I would find the Air Canada desk and make sure everything was ‘good to go’ for my flight later in the day.

That’s when all the smooth travel plans went to hell in a handbasket!! Unbeknownst to me, my ticket had been changed (when?? by whom? Why hadn’t I been advised when I checked-in with Ethopian Airlines in Malawi!!) As I stood at the Air Canada desk to check-in for my 5 pm flight home to Toronto, the plane I was “supposed” to be on was taking off!! To say that I was feeling stress was an understatement. I managed to stay calm, however….perhaps a gift from my time in Malawi, where things don’t go as planned most of the time…. and began an elaborate process of getting myself out of Germany and home to Canada.

The 5 pm flight to Toronto was overbooked and they could not promise me a seat! I was told only Ethiopian Airlines could help me fix the problem so that I could get on another flight/airline to get home…but the Ethopian Airline ‘desk’ was not scheduled to open until 2:00 p.m…..later than all but one of my other flight options to get home. The Air Canada agent reached someone with the airline by phone but they would not deal with the situation until their desk opened at 2:00 p.m.

Thank God….due to some crazy whim, I had taken with me the after hours number for the travel agency WUSC had used to book my travel arrangements. So, I got on my Blackberry and called. A woman named Jenny (…I love her!!….) at the travel agent and a couple of Air Canada ticket agents at the Frankfurt airport somehow got me onto a flight leaving Frankfurt for Ottawa at 1:45 pm and then, from there, a flight through to Toronto. The only other option was to spend a night in Frankfurt and leave on an Air Canada flight the next day at 5:00 pm!!! So I was incredibly relieved.

The stress was intense, however. I was not even booked onto the Ottawa flight until AFTER 1:00 p.m. and I had to run through the Frankfurt airport, get through the long queue at Customs, find and get to the gate in less than a half hour. The only thing I can say is that I was tremendously grateful for the kindnesses of those who helped me get on this flight, extremely happy to have my Blackberry and thrilled that I had kept my carry-on luggage very minimal! I came close….but didn’t cry!

So, I left Frankfurt for Ottawa. I had a couple of glasses of wine on the plane and watched a couple of movies. Thankfully I had slept relatively well from Addis Ababa to Frankfurt….this helped keep me sane!

The transfer at Ottawa (airport 6) was a bit crazy because I had less than an hour to make my connection. I had to wait to come through customs….a very, very long line…..and thankfully this went smoothly. Then I ran to find and then get to “Gate 13″…..a lucky, not an unlucky gate as far as I was concerned!!!

Little did I know that, in the background, my brother (who works for Air Canada) was ‘creeping’ on me through channels he had with the Air Canada. I had left a phone message to let him know my travel plans were changing and that my pick up would be different than originally planned….but through his contacts he had come to realize that something very odd was going on with my ticket changes. I think some of this ended up working to my advantage….as I did not have any ticket to show anyone….or ticket number. Thankfully, everything fell into place!!!

Finally, I arrived in Toronto (airport 7)!!! I was never so happy. My brother and neice were there to greet me!! Not surprisingly, there was no evidence of my luggage. A very good humoured Air Canada employee helped me put arrangements in place to track them down and get them delivered to me in Guelph. I suppose I’ll see them in a couple of days.

The drive home to Guelph went smoothly. I was greeted by Justin with a big hug….and the house looked pretty good, too!!! Not much food around, but — hey!!….this we can fix!!

I left Malawi for home around 7 am Saturday Guelph time and walked through the door around 8 pm. Sunday. So…about 36 hours and 7 airports later, I was home. There is really no place like it!

The Farewell Begins

Vicki Hodgkinson's blog - June 29th, 2009 7:50 AM

Last night there was another random power failure that lasted over 2 hours. Guided by the light cast from my flashlight, I used the time to begin organizing my things to go home. I took over to Annie and Ben a bunch of things they could use for their remaining months in Malawi – and some things for the children in the village where they work. Being it was June 25th, we deemed it to be Malawian Christmas!! (After all, there were pointsettas blooming in the garden!)

I also took Patricia the soccer balls & hand pump I brought (for the youth group where she is volunteering) and a few things that she might be able to use for her final weeks in Malawi.

Later the group of us walked over to the Capital Hotel (in the pitch dark – with the benefit of Ben’s and Patricia’s head lamps !!) to do some internet in the lobby. We were joined there by two RCMP officers – Galib (from Vancouver) and Bud (from Halifax) – who Ben and Annie had met. They are in Malawi for 3 weeks to train Malawian police officers who wish to participate in UN missions, probably to Darfur. These RCMP officers were very interesting company….lots of stories about their missions and training assignments around the world. We were invited to join them for dinner on Friday night and we’ve agreed to go and make it a celebration of my last night in Malawi.

Friday morning I left the Lodge and walked to the WUSC office to meet up with Jacob. I brought thank you notes and small tokens of my appreciation for the WUSC staff – all of whom had been helpful during my time in Malawi. Jacob, Lawrence, Grace and Tamara were particularly wonderful to me.

Jacob and I drove over to the COWLHA office for our ‘wrap-up’ meeting with Daphne. The meeting was a chance to review the main outcomes and ‘next steps’ from my assignment. Daphne was very complementary about my time at COWLHA. Jacob seemed pleased and invited Daphne to submit a further proposal to WUSC for a person who could stay for 4 months or more. He also suggested that WUSC might be able to get some bikes for COWLHA members later in the summer. (This would be a big help for the women in the small village so they could meet for support groups, COWLHA advocacy and go to health appointments.) Daphne was very happy with this outcome.

Daphne presented me with a gift from her and Victoria/COWLHA ….it is my very own chitenje!!! I was so thrilled. It is beautifully coloured with peacocks!! (Those at my office will appreciate the peacocks….knowing that I have, on occasion, gone into “full peacock” to get something done!!)

I gave Daphne and Victoria some things to express my thanks, and also left a little package of things to pass along to Agnes.

We went to the nearby restaurant for lunch and shared a farewell meal of Nsima and beef ‘relish’. I’m afraid that while I enjoyed the meal at the time of eating, it did not sit well. Thankfully, given all the things that Daphne and Victoria needed to do to prepare for departure for Blantyre early in the morning, I was able to leave early. I helped them with a bit of paper work for the per diems to be given to the 100 COWLHA women who had been invited to join the President at the official government Candlelight Memorial Service in Blantyre. They had arranged a bus for the women going from Lilongwe and it was scheduled to leave very early on Saturday morning. The ceremony wasn’t until Sunday, but all of the President’s guests had to arrive in Blantyre by early Saturday afternoon in order to be provided security clearance.

I said ‘farewell’ to Daphne and Victoria. They felt badly that they would not be able to take me to the airport on Saturday, but I assured them it was all okay. They were off to do some important advocacy work…..and all I asked was that they make the best of the opportunity to gain the President’s ear while they were at the Candlelight Memorial Service!

When I got back to the Lodge, I rested for a while until my stomach settled down from the lunch. I then dropped in to see Ben; Annie was out with the RCMP officers – Galib and Bud – to participate in their training workshop for the day.

Ben joined me for a walk over to “People’s” (…or, as the sign out front suggests, the Metro) to pick up some Malawian food items to bring home as gifts. When we returned, Annie was back and Patricia returned soon after. We were joined by Chris – an architect from New York who had recently arrived for a 3 month work assignment. All of us got ready to go out for dinner and walked over to the Capital Hotel to meet Bud and Galib. We then walked for about 30 minutes over to the “Al Fresco” … a really nice little coffee shop with a brick oven. We ate dinner on the patio and enjoyed their really yummy thin-crust pizzas ….accompanied by a few Carlsbergs.

There was plenty of story-telling and lots of laughs as we shared our various impressions of Malawi and some of our other travel adventures. We got to know Bud, Galib and Chris – each of whom were interesting individuals with unique life stories to share. It was amazing as I came to realize the breadth of experiences and backgrounds that was captured by the group around the dinner table. And, there we were 6 Canadians and 1 American, finding each other’s friendship in Malawi!!

After dinner, we walked back to the Capital Hotel and met up with Hannings. Hannings is teaching the course with Galib and Bud…and will join up with Bud again later in the coming months to teach it again in Namibia. Hannings is the Assistant Commissioner for Training for the Malawi police department. He arranged for us to have a driver to take us out on the next part of our evening’s adventures – a visit to the “Diplomat”.

The Diplomat is a bar in Old Town. I’ve never seen anything quite like it in my travels!! There’s a BBQ out front and a few ‘patio’ tables and inside it was packed. The ceiling was hung with bamboo rods with mens’ ties looped over as part of the ‘décor’!! There were ‘booths’ styled like huts on the one wall of the room and the floor was tiled….sort of…and a Malawian band was playing in the back. We found a table at the front window of the bar and squeezed around it. There were 6 bullet holes in the front window….a bit ominous!! But as we were there with Hannings plus 2 RCMPs….and Hannings wasn’t worried in the least ….I just relaxed and enjoyed the experience. This was my last night in Malawi and the place was hopping!!

Here’s a photo of Ben, Annie, Galib and Hannings at the Diplomat:


Can you see the ties hanging from the poles above the bar?:


The people-watching was absolutely ‘prime time’. We saw several remarkable things….including one patron who was literally dragged out the front door and pulled down the street where he would not be in the way. He seemed totally unaware of what was happening to him!!! We shared several beers together….and some Malawian vodka….and then got a ride back to the Lodge with some of Hannings’ men who came to pick us up in unmarked cars!

Wrapping up my reports

Vicki Hodgkinson's blog - June 25th, 2009 2:18 PM

This morning I arrived at work around 9:00 a.m. and spent the morning finishing my report overviewing the COWLHA advocacy program and bringing my final report to WUSC close to completion. Victoria and Agnes – with Steve the driver – headed out for another visit to the ‘field’ and Daphne and I spent most of the day office together alone.

Daphne is trying to get a report together for her Board and also to put the final arrangements in place for the COWLHA delegation going to Blantyre this weekend to be special guests of the President at the Candlelight Memorial Service. This is an annual event to commemorate those Malawians who have lost their lives to HIV/AIDS.

There were a few drop-in visitors to the office – including the consultant James – but otherwise fairly uneventful. Daphne indicated that she was planning to leave early and encouraged me to do the same. I gave her a copy of the materials I prepared – and copies of the photos from the workshop and Wednesday’s visit to the village. Then I headed out.

I stopped by the wood carvers market to buy a few things to take home with me – an adventure in bargaining if there ever was one. I think I didn’t do very well ….!!

I then headed home, stopping at the Capital Hotel for a tea and some time on the internet.

Going out to the “field”- Visiting the village of Chisamba

Vicki Hodgkinson's blog - June 25th, 2009 2:16 PM

Wednesday was a wild day!! I spent the morning working on my advocacy overview report for COWLHA and refining my final report for WUSC. Daphne and Victoria had left me alone in the office to go and run errands. They would be back, with the driver, in time for us to go to the village by 1:00 p.m. Agnes would be joining us.

In the late morning, Agnes arrived in the office. I closed up my computer and just spent time talking with her. She is such a terrific person…so bright and full of positive energy. She told me about her life as a teacher, her mother who lives in Selima and her two daughters….one of whom wants to study mechanics in Canada.

Around 2:00 p.m. Daphne and Victoria returned. There had been problems with some of the financial transactions needed to get all the pieces in place for the visit to the “field” ….to the village to visit with a Chief. So, we gathered ourselves together, got into cab of the 4-wheel-drive truck – driven by Steven – and headed off for….??? I had no idea!! We grabbed some lunch – chicken and chips – to eat on the way.

Daphne passed me a chitenje….as I would need to wear one over my dress when we arrived at the village.

Off we went. At first we drove on paved roads. We stopped at one point to pick up 3 cases of bottled pop and some other provisions. Then our drive continued. Here the land was much flatter than I saw on the way to Selima. The horizon was dotted with unexpected hills or small mountains. They appeared randomly on the skyline as surprises for the eye. As we drove, we got closer to several but, oddly, they always seemed just out of distance.

As our travels progressed, the roads became more and more rough until they were not much more than wide, dirt pathways. We saw people, goats, donkeys, bikes, more people…..all along the way. The roads are busy, but not always with vehicles.

Eventually Daphne yelled out to stop. Two women in matching head scarves and chitenje jumped into the back of the truck. As we went along we picked up others. As their numbers grew, they started to sing…..and then we approached the village, and their voices were joined by others who ran towards the truck. We got out and were welcomed by the women thronging around us, singing and dancing. They were so very happy to see Daphne and Victoria. I was a quirky little bonus….a “mazoonga”….a white person. The women hugged me and the children came up to get a closer look at me. It was a totally unexpected and somewhat overwhelming experience!!


We walked and danced and sang our way over to a space under a grove of trees. All the village was gathered there. Under a reed canopy punctuated with bouquets of hanging flowers sat the chief and the other leaders of the community…all men.

Daphne, Agnes, Victoria and I were directed to sit at the front under the canopy with the Chief. The women who had been dancing, I learned, were all “positive’ and they sat together on a reed mat in front of the Chief. As we approached the Chief to sit in the chairs beside him, I followed Daphne’s lead. We each got down on our knees and shook hands with the Chief and then scuttled along on our knees to shake the hands of the other leaders sitting beside him.

After we were seated there was more singing and dancing – and a prayer. We were expected to stand and dance & sing along with the women….which we did. I think it must have been quite a sight to see me in my chitenje trying to move with this African women’s dance moves. Believe me, I didn’t even try to sing in Chichewa!!!

There was a poem read by a young man in Chichewa; I understand it was a call for people to help those with HIV/AIDS. There was a drama done by the youth about the importance of getting tested for HIV/AIDS and of having safe sex, etc. Then Daphne gave a rousing talk and the Chief responded. At the end, there was more singing and dancing and a closing prayer. The whole proceedings were in Chichewa. As she could, Victoria would lean in and whisper in my ear about the general gist of what was happening.

As I listened to all that was going on, I did my best to drink in the whole surroundings. The children were all there sitting and listening…very well behaved in light of the topic that was under discussion – which must have been a bit boring for them. I enjoyed looking at them and exchanging ‘eyes’ with some of those who would bravely respond to my smile or discreet wave.

At one point, one of the toddlers – being carried by an older sibling – came up close to me. The look of my white face caused him to burst into frantic tears! I fear he had nightmares from seeing me!!

After the ceremony was over we were walked – accompanied by more dancing and singing by the women – over to a mud building where Daphne and I were invited to sit with the Chief and the other leaders. I think we were in the Chief’s house….it was very nice as compared to the others in the village and appointed with upholstered furniture.

The pop was brought in and served to us. Then a loaf of bread was opened and we were invited to take some. Everyone drank and ate heartily. There was some further conversation in Chichewa and some business was transacted. The Chief spoke to me in English and made me feel very welcome.

Afterwards, I took a picture of the Chief and other leaders with Daphne, Victoria and Agnes. I also took a picture of a group of children gathered to watch — which very nearly created bedlam beyond all imagining!!!! Many of the women who had been singing and dancing got into the back of the truck so that they could get a ride back to their part of the village. (It is very widely spread out and they have to walk quite a distance to get to the place where the ceremony was held.) I got a photo of the women in the back of the truck and then we started the journey home. Dark was beginning to come upon us as we left.



The women in the truck sang all the way along our route, with the volume only decreasing slightly as we dropped one or another off at the place where they lived. It was an experience like any other I have had, watching the sun set on the Malawian horizon – dotted by the unusual ‘mountains’ – with the sound of these wonderful voices coming from behind me as we made our way along the dirt road.


I think we left shortly before 6 pm. We stopped just as the light was fading so Daphne and Victoria could by some pork; they saw a man with a freshly butchered pig at the side of the road. Later, in the deep dark as we made our way over the very rough dirt ‘roads’, we stopped again because we were about to pass two young men with their bikes loaded high with firewood. It is much cheaper to buy the wood from them (for cooking fires) than to buy it in the city. So, Daphne and Victoria negotiated a price with them for one of the bike loads of wood. They put the wood in the back of the truck and we continued on our way.

I was laughing and teasing Daphne that I never dreamed we could end up on a shopping spree in the middle of rural Malawi, in the pitch dark on this small dirt road! We also stopped on the way home to return the pop bottles and the other ladies I was with took the chance to pick up a few groceries. Of course….as is common in the way of random Malawian things….the power went out while they were in the store. No big deal if you are Malawian….just get out the candles and take your time to get everything sorted through!

The driver took each person home – I got a peek (in the pitch dark!!) of where Victoria, Daphne and Agnes lived. I got to have a quick introduction to both of Agnes’ daughters and to see Daphne’s daughter, Tamara, again. I got home around 8:00 p.m. I was so tired from all the day’s excitement and the stimulation of my brain by so many different things. I fell asleep only moments after my head hit the pillow.

The last week of work in Malawi

Vicki Hodgkinson's blog - June 25th, 2009 2:14 PM

It is very hard to believe that it is already the last week for my work in Malawi. The time has passed by quickly.

Monday I focussed on the final preparation of my powerpoint presentation for the advocacy workshop on Tuesday. I dropped into the WUSC office on the way to the COWLHA office and was able to get confirmation that the budget proposed for the workshop had been approved. We called Daphne right away so that the money could be transferred to the COWLHA account and plans could be put in place for all the logistics. I was also able to borrow WUSC’s computer projector.

Grace, the receptionist at the WUSC office – who is an incredibly kind person and a life-line for so many different things – arrived to the office sick with malaria. She looked awful and had a terrible night’s sleep. Grace was going to head to the hospital to get medication and then head home to see if she could rest. I was quite concerned about her. By Wednesday, when I saw her again, the medication had already taken effect and she was doing so much better!

Tuesday was the day of the workshop. There were 12 participants, including Daphne and Victoria. All of them are “positive”….they have tested positive for HIV. Two of them came from outside Lilongwe and had to travel by bus for many hours to be able to attend. Overall, I think it went well. If only I could have spoken Chichewa, it would have been better. While everyone could understand English, mine is weighed by a heavy Canadian accent (…at least to Malawian ears), and they can speak more readily in Chichewa. We managed, however, and Daphne helped with translation – “my” English to Chichewa and Chichewa to English.

One of the best parts of the workshop was a little ice-breaker exercise I did with them. I asked them to draw the design they would like to have on their chitenje (skirt wrap worn by all Malawian women, particularly for ceremonies and official events). The women all participated and then got up and explained their design. Through their descriptions I learned a lot about their feelings towards being “positive”, their dreams for themselves and for others with HIV/AIDS and their commitment to building better conditions for Malawian women.

Later during the workshop, I was able to sit and talk with some of the women. They shared some of their stories. They told me about the struggle of coming to terms with having HIV, the challenges brought by the stigma it carries, the positive things they are doing in their lives to live fully, and the feelings of empowerment they have gained through membership in COWLHA. It was tremendously moving….but I dared not let a tear come to my eye. The last thing they want is for someone to feel sorry for them……they are busy living and seeking to be respected as human beings first, as mothers, daughters, friends, co-workers….and only subsequently, as victims of HIV.

The status of women in Malawi leaves a lot……a whole lot…..to be desired. It is a huge obstacle for women living with AIDS/HIV – it is probably the most serious underlying challenge to getting an appropriate response to their needs and circumstances. As a Canadian woman, I ache to see what they must contend with and the basic assumptions about my way of living that cannot be applied to life as a Malawian woman. There seems to be a mood for change among the leadership….but there are signs that the support may be somewhat more superficial in its application. One senses there is also a strong resistance to upsetting any circumstances that allow men to remain firmly in control of leadership in most of the critical aspects of Malawian society. There is so much work to be done……

Weekend Malawi-Style

Vicki Hodgkinson's blog - June 25th, 2009 2:11 PM

Friday was my ‘work at home day’. I got quite a bit done in the morning…although my workshop presentation did not progress as much as I intended.

Around lunch time, Ben and Annie arrived at my room. They had just returned from the village where they volunteered. We agreed to meet over in their ‘lounge’ area to share lunch time. Lunch was a bit of this and a bit of that. I still wasn’t back to my regular appetite, but I managed to have a bit of fruit, some juice and my soya nuts. I really enjoy hearing Ben’s and Annie’s tales of life in the village working with the children.

Ben had discovered that there is a wireless signal in their living area that is available for free from time to time. So, I brought my lap top down to their lounge area and Annie and I discovered that we could get a connection. So, I did some emails and checked on the blog. Then I worked on my COWLHA materials for a while.

Around 2:30 p.m. a call came through about some money I had been trying to get wired to me by VISA. (The lack of a PIN number on my VISA card continued to be a problem and this, as it turned out, was the only way to get around the problem.) This was the outcome of a rather tortured process….that required intervention by my good friend and colleague, Kate Revington, from the Canadian end. For those who may travel to Malawi in future – be sure to have a PIN on your credit card AND make a note that it is impossible to call collect from Malawi!!!

With the 2:30 p.m. call, I received information on how to pick up the money at a Western Union office in Lilongwe. The offices close at 4:00 p.m. and the money had to be picked up within 3 days (…not 3 business days)…..so the race was on. I had to pick it up on Friday as we were planning to leave for Senga Bay at 8:00 a.m. on Saturday morning and wouldn’t be back until some unknown time on Sunday.

Patricia was great….she came along with me to try and track down the closest Western Union office and get there before 4:00 p.m.! Remember….we are in Malawi….and people can’t really explain how to get from here to there without depending on landmarks….which you may or may not know. There are very few street signs. There are no addresses in the phone book or in other tourist pamphlets advertising banks, money transfer locations, etc. We were told that the Western Union office nearest to us was located inside the “People’s” store. What they didn’t tell us is that the People’s store was formerly called the “Metro” …..and that’s the big sign on the front of it. No “People’s” signs anywhere!!!

In any event, after asking a lot of questions and taking a route that was more than just a little circuitous, Patricia and I arrived at Western Union….just in the nick of time!! I got my money transfer making me feel much more at ease going into my final week in Malawi.

On Friday night, Ben, Annie, another WUSC student, Kristen, Patricia and I all went to Mama Mia’s for dinner. My appetite was beginning to re-emerge and I order a fairly plain pizza. It was a lovely thin crust pizza and I managed to get about half of it into me and took the other half home to tuck in my wee fridge in my room. (It will be lunch or dinner one day this week.)

Adventure to Senga Bay

Around 8:30 a.m. on Saturday morning, Kathy Stiles, the Regional Director for WUSC, came to pick us up to go to Salima/Senga Bay. Kathy is based in Botswana but has been in Malawi most of this week for meetings and to have a chance to visit with various WUSC volunteers. She kindly offered to drive a group of us to Senga Bay …..which makes it so very nice. We don’t have to take the bus…meaning we can stop along the way and come and go as we please.

Joining us were Kaitlin and Christine – two longer-term WUSC volunteers based in Blantyre.

The drive to Senga Bay was so very interesting. One can really get a much better sense of how the average person is living. Along the road, you see clutches of thatched roof houses – often round – that represent a family living together in community. There were goats everywhere….some pigs. You see things being carried along with help from a bicycle….everything from bales of reeds used to make thatched walls, fences, etc., bales of reeds used to make wicker (baskets, furniture, hats, toys), pigs (dead & ready to be butchered), bags of corn, bags of charcoal (used for cooking fires), bales of sugar cane, multiple people (!!)…..

You will see billboards carrying key messages from government.  For example, Malawians need their nurses but they are hard to find and keep. The President has named them “angels”:

Malawians need their nurses but they are hard to find and keep.  The President has named them "angels"

The land is rolling hills. It’s quite dry right now and the trees are losing their leaves. It is the end of harvest time and the thatched bins are loaded with ears of corn. They remain husked and the bins are emptied as the corn is needed. Rice and other grains are spread on the ground in neat squares (on cloth) to dry.

We saw boys with mice skewered on sticks. They are selling the mice to eat. We saw communities which were part of agricultural initiatives to use irrigation. They had stands with neat rows of tomatoes and cabbages for sale. There were all kinds of people, goats, cows, dogs, sheep walking along the road as we drove through to Senga Bay.

It’s Saturday, but there are still lots of people walking to church. The women are all wearing the same head scarf for their church. As you pass the churches, you see groups of men and groups of women gathered under the trees for bible studies. There are Muslim men and women, too, recognizable by their head wear and clothes.

As we got closer to Lake Malawi, there are more and more roadside stands selling wicker. This is a product that the area is well known for. Wicker mats, wicker baskets and plant stands, wicker furniture – chairs, couches, shelves, beds, wicker hats….you name it!! We stop to buy a few things, bargaining to bring their initial prices down to something a bit more reasonable!

We arrived at the “Livingstonia” and enjoyed the first little while on the beach. It wasn’t very hot and it was windy, but it was a very pleasant place to spend a Saturday. A local band came down to the beach to play Malawian tunes for people. The band was made up of musicians playing some typical instruments (guitars, for example) but also some not-so-typical instruments – a wire looped with bottle caps was a percussion instrument that the drummer used. There was a stand-up bass, too. It was not like the ones we see ….an African drum at the bottom with a single string attached on a long flat board. It made a wonderfully distinct bass sound!

Here’s the view from our room:

The view from our room of Lake Malawi when we stayed at Senga Bay.

We were joined by Halid and his wife Rhoda. Halid is a veterinarian from Tanzania on a south-to-south exchange facilitated by WUSC and involving Vets without Borders. He is one of the few – if not the only – veterinarians in Malawi. He is working with dairy farmers in the Mzuzu area….but he gets involved in all sorts of veterinary activity. Once people know he is around, they flock to him to get his help and advice.

The whole group of us ate lunch together on the patio, overlooking the vista offered by Lake Malawi! We lounged for the afternoon, walked over to a nearby curio market to do some bargaining, and just enjoyed the chance to be at the beach.

A fisherman in a dug-out canoe on Lake Malawi

Dinner on the patio was another time for us all to visit and share stories. It gets dark so quickly and early in Malawi, that we all found ourselves tucking into bed in good time. Patricia and I shared a room together. It was quite comfortable and very posh by Malawian standards.

Back to Lilongwe

Sunday we spent the morning on the beach. It was a little less windy and the sun was very pleasant.

We left in good time so we could get the two young women who are based in Blantyre back in time to catch their bus. The trip by bus to Blantyre is a good 4 hours…assuming no delays…from just various, random Malawian factors!!

The drive back to Lilongwe provided another opportunity to drink in the views and scenery typical of rural life in Malawi.

Sunday night Kathy took Patricia and I for dinner. We picked up another WUSC volunteer, Kristen, who is living and working at the refugee camp on the edge of Lilongwe. Kristen is teaching in the school at the camp and it was quite interesting to hear her accounts of life there. She and Kathy were talking about the 5 young people from the camp who have been selected to go to Canada to live and study under the WUSC refugee-sponsorship program. There is such excitement for the 5 who will be leaving for Canada in August. While I will not have time to visit the camp, Kathy has promised Patricia that she will instruct the WUSC office to make sure she has a chance to go and visit before leaving Malawi. (Patricia’s assignment is a week longer than mine.)

Dinner was at an Indian restaurant in Lilongwe. The food was fantastic! I had curried cashews…so yummy. Cashews, peanuts (ground nuts) and macadamia nuts are all readily available in Malawi.

All in all….it was a wonderful weekend that – thanks to the generous hospitality of Kathy Stiles – was full of great new opportunities to see and experience Malawi.

LAST Sunday afternoon in Lilongwe

Vicki Hodgkinson's blog - June 21st, 2009 9:55 AM

Somehow I have lost track of posting a note about Patricia’s and my adventures last Sunday afternoon (June 14) when we went to visit the Mausoleum for Banda (Malawi’s first President) and the Lilongwe Nature Sancturary.

We were able to walk to both of these places.

At the mausoleum, we learned some interesting things about Malawian history and politics:

The literal meaning of Malawi is “flames of fire”. The fire started burning with Malawi’s independence. The flag depicts dawn. Coming from the dark (under British rule) going into day. Malawi thinks of itself as “the warm heart of Africa”

The four fundamental principles upon which Malawi as a nation was built are depicted by the four pillars at the mausoleum for Kumuzu: unity, loyalty, obedience and discipline. These were the principles that Kamuzu used most to advocate most to Malawians: to be loyal to him and the government of the day. He was a strict disciplinarian.

Kamuzu was never married and had no children. He lived with a personal hostess, a personal assistant, Mama Cecilia Kadzamira. She is a medical nurse by profession and she is still alive. According to her, the picture of Kamuzu placed by the replica of his tomb at the mausoleum was taken when he was in his 20s. In the picture, he is holding a ‘fly whisk’, made of a lion’s or horse’s tale. It was his trademark and a symbol of authority. You never saw him in public without it. He had several of them. He has one in his grave and the others have been set aside for display in the museum to be built near the mausoleum as part of the parliament centre.

He was a Christian, a Presbyterian, and his favourite biblical verse (recorded on his tomb stone) is part of Psalm 23 (Lord is my Shepard). According to his hostess, he used to recite the verse every morning when he woke up. He was a doctor of medicine who studied in the U.K.

Mausoleum to Banda iii

He is embalmed to last for 100 years. Originally, the intention was that he would be on view but the family members (nephews and nieces) refused.

He was also connected with the symbol of the lion. At a meeting of the African Union in Egypt around 1970-71 they were discussing the situation of apartheid in South Africa. Most of the northern and western African states wanted the members of the AU to unite to fight the white South Africans. But of all the people at that meeting, Kamuzu stood up and said, “Oh, gentleman, I do not agree to that position. Our people down south will suffer most. Why don’t we use contact and dialogue. Then the Chairman of the meeting praised Kamuzu saying, “This gentleman has patience like that of a lion.” That’s where the title came from.

A few months before he died, he apologized to the Malawi nation. “I had my time. I ruled Malawi for 20 years and there might have been some other things that were not going fine…maybe some other atrocities. You never know some were done by my followers. But one thing for sure, I am saying sorry for everything bad that happened during my tenure of office.”

Malawi changed from a one-party state to multi-party in 1994. It came out on the national radio … at that time Malawi did not have television …even before the official election results had been announced, Kumuzu came on the radio and said, “I have seen, I think, my rival has won. So, for the winners, I want you to rejoice peacefully and, as for the losers, that’s what life is all about.”. Most Malawians were used to a single-party state and they were wondering what would happen. So, people were very happy and comforted when he went on air and said everything is okay, “This one can take over; I have lost.” So we will never forget him.

“He had his weaknesses but, nevertheless, he was Malawi’s founding father.”

These notes come from the information provided by our tour guide (and caretaker) at the mausoleum, Frederick. Here’s a photo of Frederick:

Mausoleum to Banda ii

As we walked to the nature sanctuary, we walked past the site where the new Malawian parliamentary buildings are being constructed

New Malawian Parliament Building Billboard Depiction

The Nature Sanctuary is a place where they take in injured animals or animals that for any number of reasons need to be rehabilitated and supported to re-enter life in the wild. We saw a crocodile, many different types of monkeys, a lionness (who will not be able to return to the wild due to her injuries), a hyena, a boa constrictor….and, while he was too shy to be seen by us, the lair of a leopard. The area was a pretty walk in itself.

Lilongwe Nature Sanctuary x

Lilongwe Nature Sanctuary xiv

We made it home in time — before dark! — but only to find that the water was not on. We sure could have used a good long shower after the dusty walking. But…..c’est la vie Malawian!!

New Cabinet, Workshops and other sorts of ‘carpentry’??

Vicki Hodgkinson's blog - June 18th, 2009 10:47 AM

Thursday morning arrived with me feeling at 90% and having had an excellent night’s sleep. I grabbed a ride with Patricia’s colleague from YECE again and got dropped off in Old Town. I walked to the COWLHA office and ran into Solomon, the young boy who sells papers among the Ministry of Agriculture offices around us. I was eager to buy the paper because it had coverage of the new Malawian cabinet appointments.

Malawi had a general election in May (the 19th, I believe) and this is only the second such election with multi-party participation. The whole business of multi-party democracy is a learning experience for Malawians. They have had to come to grips with the idea that it’s okay to be a “loser” in the elections. (It doesn’t mean you are out to topple the government and need to be ‘managed’ by the ‘winners.) They are also growing to understand the idea of a ‘loyal opposition’….because in the past if you didn’t agree with the President/party of the day, then you were on risky ground. Interestingly, this past election campaign featured supporting civic education programs and initiatives designed to keep polling activities orderly. They also ran special initiatives to increase the number of women in the Malawian parliament and their numbers were increased such that women are around one-quarter of the elected representatives. One gathers that these various initiatives went very well.

In any event, Malawi had previously ‘enjoyed’ a minority government but, with this May election, it has provided a majority government with a president who appears to have considerable general support among the populace. He has acquired a reputation for standing up for Malawi in dealings with international financial institutions. He’s an advocate for women – 11 women are in his 42 member Cabinet (26% of Cabinet as compared to the last one with only 17% women) – and is giving strong leadership in addressing the challenges of HIV/AIDS. It’s so interesting to see how they are grappling with regional, party and economic politics as the work of the new government is unfolding.

And, like any good multi-party democratic system, many promises have been made by those elected to government. The honeymoon period is still in place, but soon the expectations will begin to call this new marriage with the Malawian people to reality. I suspect the ride ahead will not be easy; clearly the needs are huge and the resources are extremely constrained and often come with ties. (For my colleagues at the University, this storyline may sound a bit familiar!!) Truly, though…..the basic social and economic needs of this country are breathtaking.

So….getting back to my day….I arrived at the COWLA office just before 8:30. Daphne and Victoria arrived around 9:30 a.m. They had gone to an internet café on the way to the office. I took the opportunity to read the paper and some other materials I had with me.

The first thing Daphne wanted to do was prepare a budget for the workshop I am to offer next week. WUSC has offered to cover the cost. So, Daphne sat with me as I pulled out my rusty Excel skills and pulled together a spreadsheet that reflect the budget categories and costs she felt needed to be covered.

I suggested to Daphne that she might like to write to some of the relevant new Cabinet ministers to offer congratulations and offer help from COWLHA, etc.   She seemed to like the idea, so I drafted a template letter to the Ministers for her to tailor to suit each minister’s situation and also one she might send to the President.   She took the drafts to look over.

I then prepared an outline for the workshop program and shared it with Daphne for her input. She agreed with the approach, so this gave me a basis for continuing to work ahead on a set of powerpoint slides. (WUSC will lend a computer projector so we can use it for the workshop. This saves on paper, which is also expensive.)

As I started working, Agnes arrived. I think she was briefing Daphne and Victoria on some of the planning activities for the Candlelight Memorial program that will take place shortly after I leave. They spoke Chichewa and the conversation was quite animated – with lots of howls of agreement and laughter. Not the easiest conditions to work in, but I plowed through.

I didn’t really stop for lunch. My system is still only inching forward to normal eating routines (…but I ate eggs this morning!!). I just snacked on my soya nuts and cranberries which I brought from home (…great move…). I was just about to ask Daphne to sit and chat with me about some of the information we would cover in the workshop, when she and Victoria advised that they needed to be out of the office for the balance of the afternoon. Victoria was going off to a meeting for the Candlelight service and Daphne had to head to Blantyre (..about a 4 hour drive from Lilongwe..) for an important government meeting. Furthermore, neither of them would be in the office tomorrow. They offered to give me the keys to open the office so I could come in on Friday….but only if I wanted to come and work there.

“Go with the flow”, ….I said to myself. Okay. Well. I guess I will take our budget to the WUSC office this afternoon and then head back to the Lodge. I can work there just as easily as I can at the COWLHA office. (Thank goodness I brought my notebook computer!) So, we just agreed to see each other again on Monday morning….that would be the day before the workshop…..! Okay, I’ll just do the best I can with what I’ve got.

I dropped into the WUSC office and provided them with a soft copy of the budget. Tamara thought it looked okay, but she wanted Lawrence to look it over before it is submitted to Jacob for a decision. I left it in her hands.

I also had the opportunity to meet Cathy Stiles who is in Lilongwe. Cathy is the Regional Co-ordinator for WUSC and is based in Botswana. She is here meeting with all the current WUSC volunteers in Malawi and, wonderfully, in order to meet with Patricia and me, she has agreed to go with us to Senga Bay this weekend. Better yet, she has offered to drive….and we are bringing along some other WUSC volunteers. It should be great fun. I look forward to getting to know her a bit and chatting with her about my experience.

As is becoming my habit, I’ve dropped into the Capital Hotel to do my emails and post information on my blog. I enjoyed a cup of yummy Malawian coffee while working.  I’ll then head back to the Lodge. Tonight and tomorrow, I’ll focus all my energy on getting the workshop slides done. If I can make further progress on the complementary advocacy report I’m working on for COWLA, I’ll do this as well. With the workshop on Tuesday, I’ll need Monday to refine details with Daphne. Tuesday will be gone….leaving Wednesday and Thursday to finish up my advocacy report and project report for WUSC. I’ll also have to work in a wrap-up meeting with Jacob. Saturday, I go home. I can’t believe how quickly the time is flying by.

I plan on posting photos tomorrow!

Cabinets, workshops….am I in carpentry???  Yikes.

Random Malawian Things

Vicki Hodgkinson's blog - June 18th, 2009 10:40 AM

Wednesday night, Patricia and I enjoyed a very nice evening in the company of Ben and Annie from New Brunswick. They showed us photos of their experience working in a village on the outskirts of Lilongwe where they are volunteering with a school. The village is about a one hour walk from the Lodge. They take the mini bus there, leaving by 7:30 in the morning. After school finishes in the early afternoon, they walk back to the Lodge giving them time to reflect on the day.

The pictures of the children are wonderful. Ben has introduced them to ‘frisbee’ which has been quite a hit. They also shared photos of their trip to Lake Malawi (near Mzuzu) last weekend. It looks beautiful.

It was particularly good to have their company last night because we were subject to one of the periodic power outages. Randomly, the power will go out. Sometimes for just a couple of minutes, other times 15 or 20 minutes…and other times several hours. Last night it was out for about 2 hours. This is no small consideration when you consider that it is pitch black by shortly after 6:00 p.m…..just a bit too early to head to bed….and it sure can run through the batteries if you try and read by flashlight!

Power outages are just one of the little random Malawian things. The water also goes off – without notice – for periods of time. When we return from the hot afternoon at the Lilongwe Nature Sanctuary on Sunday, for example, the water was out and did not come back on until the early hours of the morning ….at least not before bedtime. This was not ideal as both Patricia and I were in need of a good shower after having walked around outside most of the day.

Which leads to the next little random Malawian thing….actually, more of a Lilongwe thing. It is blessed with rich, red coloured soil. It almost puts you in mind of PEI with its red hue. However, it’s currently quite dry. We were told it hasn’t really rained since April. So, Lilongwe is currently blessed with red coloured dust. It’s everywhere….! Whether you are wearing shoes or sandals….its all over your feet. At the end of a day of walking, it’s like a film all over you. People with cars (i.e., rich people) are constantly having their vehicles washed to get the dust off.

There are other little random Malawian things….like

- men wearing short-sleeved business suits

- men wearing short ties

- ladies with piles of things on their heads, a baby tied with a wrap to her back and her arms full of other items

- bill boards calling for men to have vasectomies or for people to get tested for HIV

- bill boards calling for national action to protect food self-sufficiency

- little stands EVERYWHERE selling pre-paid cards for cell phones (Zain and TNM are the big companies in Malawi)

- people selling pan roasted peanuts ….usually standing right beside the stands selling pre-paid cell phone cards!

- people wandering with flat baskets filled with bananas for sale

- hot milk…for ‘food safety’ more than anything else. (No one is seen drinking milk as a beverage, just a bit with cereal or coffee. It’s very expensive.)

-….and the minibus.  Here’s a couple of mini bus photos (per my neice’s request!).  One is of the “Shoprite” waiting area where I get dropped off in the morning and pick up a bus on my way home from work.  It was taken at noon on a Friday….when it wasn’t yet too busy.  The other is a photo from inside a mini bus.

Mini buses waiting for passengers near Shopite in Old Town Lilongwe

Minibus to Old Town