Jacqueline Murray's Ghana blog

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Updated: 6 years 10 months ago

Traffic patterns

July 21st, 2013 8:23 AM
That amazing semi-public semi-private transportation provided by the ubiquitous tro tros never cease to amaze. They reflect the chaotic driving of Ghana better than anything. They drive down the narrow shoulder, honking madly. They are the first to enter the crazy dance that occurs at intersections. Four-way stops are for amateurs. Here everyone rushes into the intersection, honking their horns. Then each driver noses their vehicle around and tries to intimidate the other drivers to give way and somehow or other everyone manages to make it through.

Tro tro drivers are by far the most aggressive drivers, followed by taxis and then by anyone with an SUV. What amazes me is the fearlessness of civilian drivers with gleaming new Mercedes or Camrays. These cars rarely have a mark on them but are right in there, metaphorically elbowing their way through the traffic. Some, however, definitely provide a visual lesson on the perils of the road. 

One difference in the tro tros since 2010 is the very worst of them, those held together with masking tape and bobby pins, appear to have disintegrated or been consigned to a tro tro graveyard (sorry, the taxi was driving too quickly for a picture). They have been replaced by almost respectable vans.
The slogans painted on the back windows give pause. There are the usual biblical references to a chapter and verse of a Psalm. Many of the slogans strike me as a little militant. Among the “God is Love” and “Live in His Peace”, are “Angels on Guard” and “God Fights for Us”, although these are counteracted by “No Weapon”.  Most interesting, perhaps, are “Fine Boy” and “Good Husband.” It is unclear whether this is the driver’s aspiration or an advertisement for a wife. It seems scarcely credible that it is his wife’s endorsement. 
Incidentally, it appears that there are no female taxi or tro tro drivers in all of Ghana, although a lot of the SUVs are piloted by women.

There is a new fleet of tro tros as well. At first, it seemed that the same black vehicle was here and there and everywhere but then matching white ones appeared indicating this must be a single fleet, united in their slogan: Allahu Akbar, a sign of how much more visible the Muslim community is in Accra.

One final note is the occasional tro tro or taxi that deviates from the usual slogans. Occasionally there is one with a football slogan or a decal of the beloved Black Stars, Ghana’s football (soccer) team. One tro tro had a clenched black fist emerging from the Ghanaian flag. Most unusually, are the taxis and tro tros that do not signal their affiliations and beliefs and have clean, blank back windows. These are the hardest to read.

The frightening truth of being a Ghanaian woman

July 12th, 2013 10:56 AM
The frightening truth of being a Ghanaian woman
Or a woman anywhere in the developing world for that matter. Today my office mate was talking about doctors and medical care in Ghana. He and his family live in the North Eastern Region and are a three hour drive from a hospital and anything like formal healthcare… Except his story makes you wonder. His wife was in labour 4 days and it was clear that there was a serious problem. The attending doctor (I don’t know if he was a specialist of any kind but it seems not) refused to call in the surgeon to do a Caesarian. The child ended up dying in utero and only then did they perform a Caesarian section to remove the little corpse. Then, to add insult to injury, the grieving parents were expected by custom to provide a “gift” to the physician that was responsible for this untold suffering. This is the story of educated people (lawyer and teacher) with the financial means to pay for health care.
The paper made much recently, of the Minister of Health who has agreed to provide funding for 100 women to have their fistulas repaired. A hundred women, who suffer from the unnecessary ripping and tearing that is too frequently the result of giving birth without appropriate healthcare. I’m not being critical of traditional midwifery here. There are hundreds of villages without midwives either, especially in the north of Ghana. And the results for women who are maimed in childbirth? Not sympathy. Rather they are frequently ostracized  by neighbours and driven out of their homes but relatives revolted by their oozing, stinking bodies.

Any wonder there is a television show to inform women that they don’t have to die in childbirth? Too bad it isn’t available in the north where the majority of deaths and fistulas from unattended births occur. 

From Road to Infrastructure

June 25th, 2013 3:45 PM
What a difference a couple of years can make. When I first came to Accra in 2010, I regularly travelled through a highway construction zone. It was a fascinating mess. Huge piles of red dirt, scaffolding made from wood, construction workers wandering up and down without safety harnesses, the only concession to the dangers of such work being the occasional hard hat. This was a highway to nowhere that abruptly stopped. But there was, towering over the construction site, an enormous billboard acknowledging the wonderful US Millennium Challenge Fund that was helping to pay for the highway construction. Last year, I passed through the same intersection, with the construction finished and the highway filled with hurtling traffic and honking horns. Still towering over was the Millennium Challenge sign. Today, on the way to work, crossing that very intersection, lo and behold, there was the sign, this time just a hulking empty skeleton of a billboard, providing the ghost of a memory of previous gratitude, while oblivious drivers speed off in all directions. But…  maybe memory and gratitude are more enduring and just a little twisted. Suddenly, I noticed another sign, small, at the side of the highway, informing me that this is now the George Walker Bush Motorway. 

So, from the highway to nowhere in 2010, the Millennium debt is now paid in perpetuity. George Walker Bush Motorway.

Random Accra

June 14th, 2013 2:47 PM
My new roommate. I’ll say no more.
Don’t let them get wind of this in Canada
Ladies Kitchen Insurance. That’s right. Apparently there are a host of special hazards and accidents in Ghanaian kitchens but no fear. Ladies Kitchen Insurance can be bundled with home and auto. It is so indicative of the gendered nature of household labour here. Except at Suma Court where we have a new chef. An excellent man from Burkina Faso who only speaks French. I knew all that time pouring over the menus and snooty French restaurants would come in handy. I am hoping for crème caramel again! An unexpected treat!

Sartorial HawkerSeen on the road, and me without my camera …. An elegant young man, sunglasses, gleaming white shirt, pinstriped pants and natty, astonishingly bright chartreuse bowtie. What was he selling? He was holding three or four pairs of polished and gleaming men’s dress shoes. More remarkable is that fact that his own dress shoes were also gleaming in defiance of Accra’s ubiquitous red dust.
This young hawker stands in contrast to another, a middle aged woman walking with a red plastic laundry basket on her head. The basket was over flowing with brassieres, hanging from the sides, threatening to tumble from the basket: red lace, utilitarian white, sexy black, purple with astonishing padding, bras of all shapes and sizes…. But how you get a good fit at the intersection is beyond me….. and the driver won’t engage in conversation so it must be a little risqué.
Signs of the timesThey ride ponies, too! As an addendum to Animals of Accra, another creature to add to the list, although not personally sighted, must be the polo pony…. unless I am misled by the sign for the Accra Polo Club. Incidentally, this has surpassed the “Golfers Crossing” sign in Achimota Forest as the most incongruous site in Accra in my estimation.

And then try this do not trespass … a little different from our Canadian custom of closing the campus roads one day a year!

Finally, there is the sign that captures the historian’s eye. The intersection of three eras captured on one traffic sign: colonial; traditional and generic modern.

This little piggie goes to market
So immediately upon lamenting the absence of a pig sighting, what is ahead of us in the traffic but a pickup truck (they ride lower that ours and are not nearly as intrusive on the road as a result) stuffed full of half a dozen pigs clearly on their last journey. These were not happy pigs. There was one teenage boy in the back with trying to keep them all lying down but really, six swine against one boy… you know the rest. The pigs weren’t tied down or on leashes or in cages or anything like that. He just had to keep grabbing whichever one was trying to make a run for it and stuff it back into the truck. It was like a life size game of wack-a-mole with a lot more wriggling and a lot more screaming and better odds for the wackees. I do mean screaming:  not the boy but the pigs. I had never heard a sound like really unhappy pigs being led to slaughter. 

Animals of Accra

June 8th, 2013 7:31 AM
Animals are found everywhere in the heart of this busy city; packed in side by side with shelters of varying sturdiness, commercial stalls, chop bars selling meals, often cooked over a wood fire by the side of the road, there are animals. On my way to work there are two places where enormous majestic cattle forage by the side of the road or wander along in search of better (I cannot say greener in this red landscape) pastures. These aren’t nice little Jersey dairy cows but rather big African cattle with long horns, wandering at will, with no apparent keepers. They just know where they are going and how to get there.
Goats roam at will as well, nibbling grass by the roadsides or running into the fields and woods that crop up now and then. They travel in small little groups of three or four nannies, occasionally with a little kid. The billie goats are in evidence nowhere. Clearly, they are deemed too cantankerous to roam through the markets and along the sidewalks without supervision.

Chickens are definitely free range and literally everywhere: mother hens with broods of chicks scratching around for bits and pieces of grain by the chop bars. Sometimes there are two or three hens, scrawny and scraggy, keeping each other company as they dart back and forth through the traffic, proving Darwinianism is at work in Accra. Most chickens and roosters are thin, with saggy feathers, clearly not the best of foragers. Some, however, like the ones that live across the street, are lush with shiny plummage. The rooster has a grand cockscomb and tail feathers and chases the girls all over like a randy bachelor. Meanwhile, the girls seek refuge in our compound, coming across the street to forage in peace. Occasionally, however, they are too bold and self-assured and they round the corner into the territory of the dogs that bark and chase, and sometimes catch one of them. But the survivors keep coming back utterly unperturbed.
Unlike the animals that run free, I saw bunnies in corrals, clearly well cared for because they ran straight to the fence expecting a treat or a meal. They, alas, like all animals here, are not family pets but rather will eventually end up as rabbit stew.

No sightings of pigs, although I’m told that people do raise them in the city. We drove past a sign for a pig farm one day on the way to work but there was no evidence of swine of any age, shape or size.

This little lizard, well, not actually so little, lives in the courtyard among the plants and trees that provide a little shade. It is curious and comes remarkable close if one is quiet and still. There are other little lizards scampering here and there – the size of domestic chameleons. Sometimes I see them in my room but they scurry off. I don’t mind too much because they catch mosquitos, which I don’t find much of a problem, perhaps because of these little reptilian friends.

Dogs are everywhere in evidence though none will make it into the Westminster Dog Show. They tend to wander at will like all the other animals of Accra, which is curious because there are always one or two street hawkers with arms full of leashes and dog collars. Once there was a man walking what looked to be a pit bull on a leash along the road. And there are frequently cages of puppies for sale along the cool shady section of the road that goes through Achimota Forest, the largest greenspace in Accra. We have two dogs at Suma Court: Jeep and Spike. Jeep
SpikeThey are not pets but guard dogs. They mostly live around the other side of the building but occasionally saunter through the front yard amongst the parked cars and generator and random people coming and going. They stop in their tracks at the entrance, never putting so much as a whisker across the threshold but their big brown eyes yearn for a little pat. One night, I happened to look through the front doors and there was Spike, notoriously lazy, sleeping on the little table near the door, with Jeep lolling on the porch. They scarcely raised an eyelid when I took their pictures.
I am assured that despite their laid back ways, one wouldn’t want to wander in uninvited and unannounced in the middle of the night. They are, after all “Friendly Guard Dogs.”

The only creature that I might have expected to see and have not are cats. They are nowhere to be found. I’ve asked about cats to no avail. One person just doesn’t like them. Another murmurs ominous things about the dietary preferences of a particular Ghanaian tribe. 
It’s all troubling and traumatic as I think of little Jerome and Ambrose tucked safely in Guelph, with the heads on my pillow, napping without a feline care in the world. That is a good thing.
Ambrose    Jerome

Music that transforms lives

May 31st, 2013 6:23 AM
One of the most important things that I have started trying to do in Ghana is to make a personal difference in addition to fulfilling my mandate. With the generous help of colleagues in Guelph, we shipped some computers to the Non-Formal Education Division. Those were a clear contribution to the administrative activities.

Now, I am trying to help out Theatre for Development. These remarkable musicians really do incredible work, and they do it in 15 local languages as well as english.
Songs to enhance agriculture or combat deforestation and encourage environmentalism. Songs that help mothers care for their children or improve the health of whole communities. But they are doing so with decrepit instruments.

In other words, nothing a little money can't help. So I've set up a crowd sourcing project on Indiegogo: Music that Transforms Lives. Funds will help to replace 20 year old equipment: amplifies, speakers, drums, pianos.

So if you're enjoying the blogs, past and present, or think Ghana is a great place and want to make a difference, give this a whirl and get involved in supporting this initiative.

You'll be glad you did!

Music that transforms lives!

Behind the walls

May 29th, 2013 5:31 AM
On my first trip to Ghana, I was fascinated by the walls of this city. Tall walls, short walls, elegant walls, shabby walls, new walls, derelict walls. Every type of wall surrounding who knows what (See City of Walls, August 10, 2010). Well, I’ve now been behind a wall.

A coworker invited me to spend time with her family given today is a holiday: African Union Day. So Suzy and her two daughters and my old friend Kwesi who drove me on the Cape Coast site visit last year, picked me up and we drove not too far from Suma Court. The roads though, were the tough unpaved country tracks with bumps and puddles and wandering goats, very different from Atomic Road and Video Junction -- my home turf -- with pavement invisible beneath the traffic speeding in all directions at once. But there was that same mix of housing that takes one by surprise: little shanties nestled beside mansions, as if protected by the embrace of their walls. At least we might assume they are mansions given the presence of imposing walls and iron gates. But all is not as it seems.

When we arrived at Auntie BeBe’s house we go through imposing gates and find a regular house. Comfortable but not a mansion despite the fact that the wall is topped both by large strands of barbed wire, like a jaw-toothed slinky gliding along the top but, lest that not be sufficient deterrent, jagged ugly glass shards are cemented the whole length of the wall, bristling and glinting in the sun. So these walls, worthy of Hollywood legends and Wall Street robber-barons, guard a modest house of modest people. The house only gradually reveals itself to me. The formal lounge/living room was comfortable but ultimately we repair to the yard to sit under a blueberry tree, moving lawn chairs along with the shifting shade. 

The yard is totally covered over with cement, except for the spaces left for trees to thrust through: guava, mango, banana, plantain and others with no English names.  We pick avocados, 12 at least (here called pear), from trees with trunks as thick, that grow high as maples. I think of the spindly little saplings we grow from avocado pits at home: can they even be the same species. Ghanaians, I am told, would rather eat the fruits of their gardens than mow grass, which seems eminently sensible.

Although there is a gas cooker in the kitchen, we cook and eat outside: a bbq by any other name. Tilapia on the grill. Banku (millet and fermented corn porridge) stirred over the coals. Rice, fried chicken, and a stew of fish and palm oil and vegetables, all served with spicy red chili sauce. We drink corn wine and ginger wine (neither alcoholic)  traditional to the Ebe tribe in the Eastern Region, but also red wine and Bailey's. The corn wine has a bit of a sour fermented taste to it (not unlike the sour of banku) while the ginger wine has pepper in it that really peps you up if you can stop coughing from surprise. These aren't soda pop for the faint of heart. A course of fresh fruits tops off the meal. When it is time to do the dishes, the house reveals another of its secrets; there is no running water, just that carried in by buckets from the big holding tanks that dot the yard.
What a glorious afternoon. Many generations of sisters and daughters and cousins. 

Great stories, much laughter and a privileged glimpse into Ghanaian life. 

NOTE to Readers: if anyone can tell me how to wrap text around the pictures I would be grateful!

Stranger in a familiar land

May 26th, 2013 10:26 AM

I’ve been in Ghana a week now and it is a strange experience in many ways. There is a sense of familiarity. The startling red dirt of the roads and hills and dust continues to astonish. This is the wet season and as I write I am watching a deluge that turns the roads into giant red mud puddles. The rain is load on the clay tile roof and it gushes through the drain pipes with force. All of this accompanied by thunder and lightning. I think of those folks who live in the shanties and make their living on the streets.

I am an “old timer” in so many ways. No orientation the first morning but a chat later in the week. “Everyone knows Jacqueline is fine going into work.” So there I am, Monday morning, as if I’d never been away. Samuel from the Non-Formal Education Division arrived to take me to the office: Same office, same desk: same flock of junior staff fluttering in the outer office. The Deputy Director greets me: How shall I start? What do I need? And within an hour or so, there I am, once again a fixture at NFED.
The route to the office is familiar: the street hawkers who provide the amazing bofuit (sorry everyone, phonetic spelling) and the Daily Graphic and telephone cards along the road, between the cars. The long stretch of road through untended wasteland is now walled on one side for a greenspace, with the other bristling with signs: Keep Off!! Property of University of Ghana. The enormous anthill at the end of this road has disappeared, to be replace further in by multiple huge anthills, reaching red dirt fingers up into the tree canopy. 7? 8 feet tall? One is so large that it has its own good size tree emerging from it. I shudder to think what kind of monstrous ants live in those skyscraper hills. I am told red earth is particularly attractive to ants.
One difference that is highly noticeable is the power outages. I experienced a power outage in 2010 that went on long enough that I left work early. Otherwise, if there were any in the evenings, the Suma Court generator kicked in and that was it. Even from the plane I knew this time it would be different. As we approached, I could see different areas of Accra lose and gain electricity. It was a bizarre light show, but I didn’t really take it too seriously….. until we arrived and Suma Court and an hour later the power went out….. and the generator didn’t kick in. Poor Eric. The generator is need of parts and that takes time….. But the power outages are everywhere: already the better part of a day lost at work. A number of evening and nights for 20 minutes to 8 or more hours.
Apparently, the power outages started when there was some kind of accident last year, in which an oil pipeline which brought oil to the generating stations was broken. Since then ubiquitous black outs for the past 10-11 months. In April the President announced the power crisis was over. This week the Minister announced it would take $1 billion US to fix the national power distribution system. The situation is exacerbated in Accra where last week a substation  caught fire so there are promises blackouts for some time to come.
It has been eye-opening to experience the inconveniences that are part of daily life in the developing world. I realize that I have been insulated from alot of these when I swoop in, do my job, and swoop out again in less that a month.  In the past, I have been more aware of how Ghana fits into our 21st-century global community, how is dynamic and in touch and moving forward. Now, I have a little bit more of an understanding of the impediments and even more respect for the people who are determined to surmount them and ensure Ghana develops and moves forward along its own path.
So week one: definitely an education as well as a home coming.

Ghana 3.0

May 14th, 2013 8:09 PM
Well here we go again! Three days to departure and I'm once again weighing my luggage at the bus station. This time, though, it may be understandable since I'm packing for two and a half months.  That's correct, I have a ten week mandate in Accra with the Non-formal Education Division and I cannot wait to return.

So stay tuned. There will no doubt be the usual airport shenanigans and who knows what at customs: last year everyone was being photographed and finger printed. I anticipate reporting on a lovely reunion with beloved Juliana, Nicholas and Eric at Suma Court.  

For those of you who missed my Leave for Change blog on the University of Guelph site, I'll bring you up to date as we go.

Three days to take off. Let the packing and re-packing games begin.

Leaving Accra

August 8th, 2010 4:41 AM

Sitting in the lounge in the Amsterdam Airport, I am still groggy from the overnight flight, not quite long enough to get a good night’s sleep but long enough and late enough to engender traveller’s disassociation, that strange, not-quite-fully conscious state where everything is seen through a lens of fatigue and yawns come unbidden in an attempt to find sufficient oxygen after airplane air.

The waning days of my sojourn in Ghana were eccentric and confused. I couldn’t get my departure date clear in my mind and kept telling everyone – the Child’s Rights folks, WUSC, Suma and my friends – that I was leaving Friday. I wasn’t; Saturday had always been d-day. The funny thing is that this confusion wasn’t some weird subconscious desire to leave early. Rather, it really was more about not yet being ready to leave.

There is a tradition, in Accra, amongst the WUSC volunteers that, prior to returning home, a volunteer’s WUSC friends and colleagues gather for a farewell dinner at Suma Court, as if to close the circle that begins when the tired excited curious nervous new volunteer steps off the plane and into the embrace of Suma Court. Juliana and I conferred about the menu, how best to accommodate various likes and dislikes and a vegetarian. We had chicken, fried plantains (my favourite: any day with fried plantains is a good day), jollof rice, red and spicy, and the most exquisite spaghetti (not something I expected to find in Africa), and french fries (comfort food for Canadians here for a long time). There are bottles of Stone beer and then, the real surprise: strawberry ice cream.

I wonder about departures, about saying good bye, about promising to return.... and I do promise. When the time comes all the Suma denizens gather in front. Nicholas runs up to me and I carry him outside (can that really be me with a two-year old clinging to her?) Hugs all around,.... even Peace and Daniel hug me and Juliana and I hug like sisters. Patrick is there with his taxi, the really new one, and the bags are loaded. Somehow, I still have all the suitcases and yet one more package, as well. And as we leave the Suma courtyard everyone waves until the taxi turns out of sight. Patrick comes into the airport with me just on the off chance that I cannot finesse my oversized, bizarrely wrapped (in a tightly tapped, psychedelic purple bag) onto the plane. But the amazingly accommodating attitude of Ghanians continues through the KLM check-in and right through security. No one seems to think my purple plastic bag is the least bit unusual. (It contains two old carved window shutters for traditional huts, one from Mali, one from Burkina Faso. They would be closed during times of war and are carved with warriors and other figures including rats, that would protect the inhabitants of the huts. They speak to me in a way that souvenirs cannot).

So, leaving Accra is decidedly different from arriving. Anticipation has been replaced by wistfulness. I am so pleased to have made a contribution to the work of Child’s Rights International but I am definitely not ready to leave Ghana. Here in Amsterdam airport, in this artificial liminal environment, time and place do not exist, and it is thus that slowly, slowly my shoes turn and like a compass needle finding to true north, start to point towards home....

City of Walls

August 3rd, 2010 8:44 AM

Initially, Accra appears to be a walled city. There are walls everywhere, keeping something out or keeping something in, guarding, hiding, protecting, sheltering. There are tall walls and small walls, sturdy walls, impregnable fortress walls, mud walls, brick walls, cement walls, wooden walls, walls of leaves. There are smug walls, painted soft pastels of yellow and green and pink. There are walls with lovingly wrought iron gates proudly sporting gilded finials of faux gold. There are shabby walls, nothing more that sheets of corrugated iron propped up, standing against the odds, the gate no more than one iron sheet loose enough to pull back and squeeze through. Not unusually these spectacularly different walls stand side by side: for the most part, rich and poor are not separated in Accra’s urban geography, impoverished Christian Village, privileged Achimota and the egregious embassy enclave notwithstanding.

Relying on neither sheer height nor great width, many walls sport nasty dangerous toppers which, in the right light can twinkle like tinsel, outlining the shape of the land they bind. Some are familiar – pointed bricks or broken glass and bottles. Other bristle brutally: barbed wire and electrified wire are prominent. Increasing popular, too, is razor wire, inexplicably favoured by the ubiquitous evangelical non-denominational, conspicuously wealthy churches that serve the poor. Razor wire is a more recent innovation, mandated to surround the dwelling of every employee of the US Embassy, rendering these overly cautious Americans visible to all: vandals, kidnappers or terrorists alike. In Accra’s ongoing Were’s Waldo, in which direction signs, street names and addresses are all eschewed, these razor wire bedecked walls are as effective as searchlights to identify their American inhabitants.

These walls of protection are easily comprehensible but what of the flimsy walls, the walls to low to even cause a tumbling Humpty to break? Walls that are propped up. Walls without any gates at all, wide openings that invite in the world. There are pristine walls and walls that serve as billboards. There are, among the hundreds and thousands of walls, a few with spray-painted messages that at last hold the key to understand the walls, especially that do not enclose or protect. The painted messages: “Family owned land.” “Land not for sale.” “Stop work. Produce permit.” “Remove immediately by order.”

Land ownership in Ghana is not clear. Title offices, deeds, registered mortgages are for the most part inefficient, inconsistent or nonexistent. One of the only ways to prove and enforce ownership is to erect a wall and literally defend it: “Keep off. Family land. Not for sale.” What happens is that unscrupulous people pretend ownership of a parcel of land that does not belong to them and sells it to someone who thinks it is a legitimate sale, but of course it isn’t. But who knows? And when does a person find out that the dream plot of land they have saved their whole life to purchase is not theirs at all and they have been defrauded. This is also why people start to build even the most rickety partial structures: to prove the land is occupied.

Building reveals the astonishing disparity between new Ghana and old. There is an enormous, multi-story Novatel dominating the skyline hitherto limited to about 3-5 stories. And the churches, these are the other big construction projects, immense, elaborate, with detailing, columns, cornices and balconies. They stand in stark contrast to the surrounding neighbourhood echoing the same dissonance that characterized medieval town and medieval cathedral, absent only the gargoyles. But large or small, multinational or evangelical, commercial or domestic, there is one thing that unites in Accra: they are all made of cement, poured cement, moulded cement or towering stacks of cement blocks held together with cement. The roads are lined with cement brick works, where the workers make standard rectangular cement blocks, or coloured decorative blocks, all by hand. Vendors show varied styles and sizes of decorative columns to grace the entrance or hold up the ceiling.

Construction sites dot the roads as owners rush to build some structure that will reify their claim to the plot of land. Workplace safety standards appear to be unknown: the workers don’t wear hard hats; one assumes that steel-toed boots are equally absent. But absent also are safety harnesses as the construction workers stand of frail wooden scaffolding, devoid of railings, presumably too unstable to support a worker in full safety gear. The drop might only be a storey or three and the ground is soft but how many construction workers and cement workers are injured, disabled, killed every year? Occasionally, the walls of the construction sites bear a spray-painted notice “Stop work immediately. Produce permit.” This is how the building inspectors try to impose order on an essentially uncontrolled and uncontrollable industry. There are too few inspectors to return to a site where there is never anyone really in charge or responsible, so they leave their calling card. Wily owners and construction crews, however, not infrequently paint these signs themselves, to trick inspectors into thinking a colleague has already put the site on notice.

If construction sites dot the landscape so, too, do the skeletons of half built structures. Sometimes it seems possible to read the ebb and flow of Ghana’s economy by the age of the building and when construction stopped. This may be fantasy but certainly when the owner runs out of money construction does stop, only to resume when there are again sufficient cedis for a roof or another storey or the external stucco and painting. Suma Court has been under construction for 20 years and there are still plans for additional rooms and amenities as funds become available. It gives one pause the consider that no one in Ghana has a mortgage: but with interest rates having just gone down to 24.9% perhaps therein lies explanation. Certainly, though, some of the skeletons are the result of downward mobility. Across from the WUSC office is a house, grand and walled and crumbling. The window glass is broken or gone completely and an enormous satellite dish, surely the size of the whole roof, has fallen. But even in these hard circumstances, the owner is seeking to enforce his rights; spray painted on a vendor’s booth that has tried to encroach on his wall space is a notice to remove immediately.

So, the booths of the vendors huddle under the walls of the wealthy (though not in the embassy enclave which could blend into Rosedale or Shaughnessy or any similar neighbourhood) who become all the more wealthy for the presence of the vendors who rent their squalid square of boulevard from those behind the walls. The vendors, dependent though they are for their land, are nevertheless independent merchants; they not only own their skills and stock but also their shop that rest on the land of the bourgeoisie.There is something in all this that compels the language of Marx, a radical call to social justice: workers of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your chains. Except some of the poorest vendors and the hawkers don’t even have their own chains, no doubt melted down with the global economy.

Random Accra

July 29th, 2010 11:33 AM

There are so many things that one encounters here that are worth mentioning, random though they are. So here goes a digest of random reflections. No logic. No chronological order.

Slow Down. Golfers Crossing: About halfway in my commute there is a lush green swath that provides cool shade and a respite from the endless red dust of Accra. It comes upon one almost out of nowhere and suggests that once Accra may have been the site of farmers’ fields and rich wild vegetation. It is as surprising as when one suddenly is enveloped by Stanley Park or High Park or even Central Park, more appreciated because more unexpected in the surrounding urban chaos. It took some time to ascertain what those verdant hedges are hiding from the endless stream of cars and taxis and tro-tros. It is the Achimota Golf Course. The tip off was finally noticing, in the chorus line of signage that forms the boundaries of the street, a sign: Slow Down. Golfers Crossing. Such a sign can only reveal one of two world views: the hubris of the privileged or the triumph of hope over experience, because there is no way, absolutely no possibility, under any circumstances, that Accra drivers will slow down for anybody ever.

Another utterly baffling aspect of this golf course – if anything can be more baffling than golfers crossing this road to move from one hole to the next – is a form of hazzard never before encountered in my experience. Each tee box and each green that I can see through the trees from my taxi window, is surrounded by enormous advertising bill boards, standing on all sides except the direction that one hopes to hit the ball. They positively loom over tee or green, at least twenty-five feet high. Certainly, Ghanian golfers must have prodigious powers of concentration to come anywhere near to par.

Fridays: Canadian workplaces used to have Casual Fridays, a practice that has morphed into perpetual sloppiness in too many contexts. In Ghana, people dress far more smartly for work: it reminds me of the 80s or 90s. Ties, skirts, and so on. But here there is also a change to the dress code on Fridays: people wear either traditional dress or organizational dress. Last Friday I was fully inducted into CRI by receiving two polo shirts with the CRI and EU logos and, emblazoned on the back, Justice for Juveniles. Very smart. In two shades of blue (light and royal). Now I’m a full-fledged member of the team.

Signs, signs, everywhere there’s signs:

Sand and stone for sale: why in a place with a superabundance of both?

The President of the Republic of Ghana, holding a stylized World Cup: Let us rally round the flag and support the Black Stars.” The newspapers report that the Revenue Agency is now about to go after all the bonuses the soccer players received for doing so well. In the World Cup. What if they had won, I wonder?

In the Dzowrulu section, where I work: House to let. Nice 4 bedroom and boys. Some things cannot be glossed.

Hotel Obama

Seamstress and...?

Ghana is renowned for its cloth. The best known is kente, the heavily woven and extremely bright cloth worn by men of standing in the south. Less is said of the amazing fabrics and prints of women’s clothing, and of the fact that cloth can be bought virtually anywhere from a swish boutique to a craft market to the mall to the ubiquitous vendors. I even noticed one hawker with cloth one day walking through the traffic (surely too dusty to sew?) Every block seems also to have one or two free lance seamstresses who will whip up anything you wish. If they don’t have a pattern, just describe what you’d like.

I purchased some cloth, not inexpensive by Ghanian standards, at the African Queen boutique, which has the distinct advantage of being conveniently located around the corner from the office. She took me to her friend the seamstress, hidden behind an enormous wall and corrugated iron gate. Without a sign she was invisible. Going inside the gate was astonishing. On the front porch were a mother and three or four younger women, sewing like mad on hand driven sewing machines. Not one foot pedal machine, let alone an electric sewing machine. Some of the women were daughters, others seemed to be young apprentices. As I stood on the porch being measured, I watched the family’s other business in action: a small cat, with a loader, moving what looked to be dead car transmissions from one pile to another. I don’t know what they do with them. Scrap them? Refurbish them. Or just collect them? This also is the only place I have seen a kitten: a pet certainly, but so mangy and scraggly and thin that only an irrational fear of rabies kept me from scooping it up and carrying it off.

One last thought: will my jackets smell of transmission fluid?

Lounge at Suma Court

July 29th, 2010 10:11 AM

Justice for Juveniles

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

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?

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

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

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........


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......