Ghanarama

Friday, May 26, 2006

Homeward Bound

It makes me sad to say that this will be my final entry in Ghanarama. I have had a great time writing this blog and also got a great deal out of doing it. Apart from now framing most of my experiences in song titles (I wonder how many readers noticed that every title was a song name?), writing about what I have been doing has forced me to put a little more thought into what I’m doing and I think I have got more out of my time here since I forced myself to analyze what I’ve done.

For a while now, the thought of leaving Sandema has been terrifying. Before I came to Ghana, I remember people telling me that leaving Canada for so long and adjusting to life in Africa would be one of the hardest things I would ever do. Although this has proven to be true, leaving Sandema will be infinitely more difficult. I still see Toronto as my home, but Sandema has come to share that role. This is definitely a positive thing as it has surely enriched my experience, it just makes leaving much more difficult. When I left Toronto I knew I was going to be away for a finite period of time and for a specific reason. Leaving Sandema, a place that has come to have such a special place in my heart, I don’t know when, or even if I will come back.

Life in Africa moves a great deal slower than it does back in Canada. One of the results of this is that I have had lots of time to think. I have spent hours thinking about almost every aspect of my life and countless external things as well. It turns out that after a while my thoughts can get a little boring! Not surprisingly, I have spent a lot of time thinking about the topic of international development, particularly in Africa. I like to think that my experience here over the past nine months (complemented by a giant stack of books about international politics, history and development) has taught me a lot about this, although for every answer I have found I have been hit with a list of new questions. The degree to which any given issue is intertwined with another makes any possible solutions to the problems faced in Africa seem almost hopeless. A good example is the HIV/AIDS epidemic. It is primarily a health issue, but after that it starts to get a little fuzzy. It quickly becomes a problem of education teaching people how to avoid becoming infected. At the same time, it is a government issue since it is their role to begin implementing these educational programs. While the case in Ghana is much better than most places in Africa, the government role is often slowed by corruption and a lot of the money earmarked for HIV education never makes it to the final destination. Another problem in society is the perceived role of women as being inferior to men. Thus, they are rarely in a position to ask for any precautions (ie. Using a condom). This then brings us back to the education problem as there are far fewer young girls than boys in school. And back to the government, on the occasions that budgeted money is properly used many programs will not target the ‘inferior’ women. This brief discussion doesn’t even come close to fully describing the issue, and this is only looking at the prevention side, not the care and treatment aspect which is equally, if not more, complex.

At first this complexity was pretty overwhelming and I felt hopeless trying to do my part, however small that may be. But there is good news. I have learned that individuals can make a real difference despite the odds being stacked against us. I like to think of myself as one of those individuals, although I am really referring to the amazing girls that started Horizons and continue to run it from Canada. Heather, Jeanette, and Andrea Menezes, collectively known in my family as the ‘Ghana Girls’, started with a simple vision that has turned into something truly extraordinary. If not for Horizons, all of the children, so inspiring to me, would have been begging on the streets. Now they have every opportunity in the world to do what they want with their lives. Hopefully, inspired by the volunteers who founded their home, they will go and do something beneficial to others in their country. This domino effect will lead to another intertwined web, one with a much more positive result.

Outside of Horizons, I have found myself wondering how people in Africa survive despite the overwhelming odds against them. I can’t help but wonder how I would fare if I were brought up in these conditions. What has truly amazed me is that so many people here are not only surviving, but thriving in these conditions. For example, my friend Hippo, who is close to my age, started a small shop a few years ago. With careful savings and planning it has evolved into a bar/computer supplies shop/photocopy shop and will soon have a phone line to become a communication centre. He also just finished building a huge outdoor roof to increase the floor space of the outdoor part of his bar for the upcoming rainy season. Another good example is my friend Jane who runs a shop in town. About a month after I got here Jane had a whole new shop built, giving her much more space than she used to have. Jane makes monthly trips to Accra and Lome (the capital of Togo) to buy loads of new inventory that routinely sells out. Going forward, Jane wants to start offering small loans to local women to start small businesses so that they can become more independent. I am convinced that the creativity and entrepreneurship of local people like Hippo and Jane will have a far greater impact than anything foreign volunteers will ever be able to do. One of the most important things that any volunteer or NGO can do is to find people like them support them with the resources they need, because ultimately they understand their society, culture, and how to improve it, much better than we will ever be able to.

Unfortunately, there is a flip side to this story. The best example I have come across to prove this point has been with many of the NGOs that I have tried to work with. In Canada if you work with an NGO, it is generally assumed (often correctly) that you have taken a pay cut in order to work on a cause that is important to you. The case here is almost the exact opposite. There are too many people here that want to work for an NGO because of what is seen as the ‘deep foreign pockets’. Relatively speaking, most NGOs here do have deep pockets, but in too many cases that is being abused by inefficient programs and extravagant spending. Thankfully, Horizons is a refreshing exception to this trend, as is Mr. Paul (who I’m working with for the HIV/AIDS testing campaign) who is working on this entirely for free and even spends some of his own money when needed. This is not to say that NGOs don’t benefit the local communities, but the benefits are not as significant as they could be, which makes people like Hippo and Jane even more important in improving the standard of living here.

I have also spent a fair bit of time lately thinking (worrying) about what to do with myself when I get back to Canada. Apart from the first week and a half, of which the details will be discussed later, I have come up with more questions than answers. While I have been here I have discovered a new passion for reading and writing. I have also been introduced to many new topics of which I would love to have more education on. These will have to somehow be included in my future plans, although I haven’t yet figured out how. It is also extremely important to me to continue development work in some form or another. This will most likely come in two ways. First, I want to stay involved with Horizons in whatever capacity is possible. Second, I want to keep working on HIV/AIDS related topics, probably through raising awareness at home and fundraising to support testing and treatment back in Ghana. However, I am certainly not going to limit my involvement to these areas, and I am looking forward to finding new ways to make a difference. On top of education and charity work, as much as it pains me to say, I will have to find myself some sort of job, or even a career. But I realize that I am still young and have plenty of time to figure this out.

The last week at Horizons has been a very interesting one because as I am wrapping up my time here, I have also been helping Richard, the new volunteer at Horizons, get adjusted to life in Sandema. After a few months here I stopped noticing many things that stood out in my day to day life when I first arrived. I didn’t notice that happening at the time, but showing Richard around Sandema and Horizons, being able to answer his questions and help quell some of his fears, has showed me how much I have adapted to life here. Being able to consciously look back at it now has been extremely rewarding and I’m really glad to have had this chance in my last week here. For my last night in Sandema, Horizons had a beautiful sendoff party. It was an evening filled with drumming, dancing, thank yous, goodbyes, and plenty of tears (mostly mine). At times it was tough emotionally, but I couldn’t have asked for a better last night.

While I have been here, and even before I left, people have been asking me how I thought this experience would change me. Undoubtedly, my time in Ghana has had a tremendous impact on who I am and what I want to do. It is likely that at this point I don’t even realize most of how I have changed, and that it will only be revealed to me over time back in Canada. Discovering these changes is one of the things I’m looking forward to most about coming home. I have learned far too much in my time here to try and sum everything up into this posting. A few of the key things that will have an ongoing impact on me will be the people closest to me in my life and my communication and interaction with them, which has admittedly be strained while I have been away. In Ghana I have constantly been thinking about the impact I am making here and how I can make that impact unique to me. The more I think about it, the most unique things I have done always comes back to the relationships I have formed in some way or another.

In many ways I have also become more mature in the past nine months here. To some that will be a welcome change, but to others it may be less than ideal. If you are in the second group, don’t worry too much – I plan on being a beer-drinking, guitar playing guy living in my parents basement for at least the foreseeable future. There are lots of other changes that I have noticed, mainly in my general perspective, which has certainly shifted a great deal. I’m not sure how to explain that shift, but I think it is something that anyone who knows me well will notice and will be present in most of the ways that I choose to live my life.

Despite all of the great aspects of life in Sandema, there were some downsides. Being away from home for this long has resulted in me, at times, being homesick for the first time since I was a 10-year old at summer camp. Getting through some of the tougher times was only possible with all the support I got from my family and friends at home. For everyone that sent me letters and packages, emails, called me on the phone, or even just read this blog, I want to thank you. You have no idea how happy that contact with home has made me while I’ve been here. I really can’t thank you all enough for this.

Apart from the sadness of leaving Sandema, there are some things that I am really excited about in the first few weeks at home. I am landing back in Toronto on Monday afternoon, and anyone reading this is invited to Golden Star on Monday night for a long awaited burger, and of course Duffs for wings the next evening. Even more than all the wonderful food that I’m going to be getting and the freezing cold air condition in my house, I am excited to see everyone at home and hear about what has been going on in your lives for the past nine months, which says a lot for you since I’m really excited for the food and A/C. I know it has been difficult keeping in touch and I am a little out of the loop in what has been happening with everyone, but I promise that I’ll do everything I can to catch up in the next few weeks.

In my writing, as in my eating, I have saved the most important part for last. Without doubt, leaving Horizons will be one of the most painful parts of leaving, and it will be the part of Sandema that I miss the most. I’m going to miss being called ‘Mister Ben’ instead of just ‘Ben’. I’m going to miss their huge smiles. I’m going to miss how they looked up to me and asked me questions as though I’m an encyclopedia. I’m going to miss how they laughed at me as I practiced the Buile that I learned and how they laughed at me when I would dance with them. I’m going to miss them welcoming me every time I returned to Sandema, even if I was only gone for one night. I wish there was one big thing that I would miss so I could finish this by saying ‘But most of all I’m going to miss…’ but it would impossible to try and pinpoint just one thing. Most of all I’m going to miss all the little things that make Horizons so special. I’m going to miss each child in a different way and for different reasons. Throughout my time here I have grown closer to some of the kids than others, and I certainly have my favourites, but I think at some point in time every single child at the centre has had a turn being my favourite. One of the most amazing things about Horizons is how every child has something about them that is both amazing and unique. In the past nine months I have become so emotionally attached to these children and it pains me that I won’t be around to see them continue growing up, although I can take comfort knowing that the Ghana Girls will do everything possible to make sure each and every one of these kids reaches their full potential. I wish that I could see the oldest boys as they start going off to post secondary school or entering the working force. I wish I could see the youngest boys enter primary school and get a better grasp of English so that I could have more in depth conversations with them. I wish I could see the other boys as they work their way into their teenager years and experience all the emotional and behavioural changes that that entails. These kids really have been the best part of my time here. They are the most fun, the most interesting, and the most inspiring all at the same time and I’m going to miss them more than I could ever express in words.

Thank for to anyone and everyone who has read this and got a small taste of what has been the best nine months of my life.

Homeward Bound

It makes me sad to say that this will be my final entry in Ghanarama. I have had a great time writing this blog and also got a great deal out of doing it. Apart from now framing most of my experiences in song titles (I wonder how many readers noticed that every title was a song name?), writing about what I have been doing has forced me to put a little more thought into what I’m doing and I think I have got more out of my time here since I forced myself to analyze what I’ve done.

For a while now, the thought of leaving Sandema has been terrifying. Before I came to Ghana, I remember people telling me that leaving Canada for so long and adjusting to life in Africa would be one of the hardest things I would ever do. Although this has proven to be true, leaving Sandema will be infinitely more difficult. I still see Toronto as my home, but Sandema has come to share that role. This is definitely a positive thing as it has surely enriched my experience, it just makes leaving much more difficult. When I left Toronto I knew I was going to be away for a finite period of time and for a specific reason. Leaving Sandema, a place that has come to have such a special place in my heart, I don’t know when, or even if I will come back.

Life in Africa moves a great deal slower than it does back in Canada. One of the results of this is that I have had lots of time to think. I have spent hours thinking about almost every aspect of my life and countless external things as well. It turns out that after a while my thoughts can get a little boring! Not surprisingly, I have spent a lot of time thinking about the topic of international development, particularly in Africa. I like to think that my experience here over the past nine months (complemented by a giant stack of books about international politics, history and development) has taught me a lot about this, although for every answer I have found I have been hit with a list of new questions. The degree to which any given issue is intertwined with another makes any possible solutions to the problems faced in Africa seem almost hopeless. A good example is the HIV/AIDS epidemic. It is primarily a health issue, but after that it starts to get a little fuzzy. It quickly becomes a problem of education teaching people how to avoid becoming infected. At the same time, it is a government issue since it is their role to begin implementing these educational programs. While the case in Ghana is much better than most places in Africa, the government role is often slowed by corruption and a lot of the money earmarked for HIV education never makes it to the final destination. Another problem in society is the perceived role of women as being inferior to men. Thus, they are rarely in a position to ask for any precautions (ie. Using a condom). This then brings us back to the education problem as there are far fewer young girls than boys in school. And back to the government, on the occasions that budgeted money is properly used many programs will not target the ‘inferior’ women. This brief discussion doesn’t even come close to fully describing the issue, and this is only looking at the prevention side, not the care and treatment aspect which is equally, if not more, complex.

At first this complexity was pretty overwhelming and I felt hopeless trying to do my part, however small that may be. But there is good news. I have learned that individuals can make a real difference despite the odds being stacked against us. I like to think of myself as one of those individuals, although I am really referring to the amazing girls that started Horizons and continue to run it from Canada. Heather, Jeanette, and Andrea Menezes, collectively known in my family as the ‘Ghana Girls’, started with a simple vision that has turned into something truly extraordinary. If not for Horizons, all of the children, so inspiring to me, would have been begging on the streets. Now they have every opportunity in the world to do what they want with their lives. Hopefully, inspired by the volunteers who founded their home, they will go and do something beneficial to others in their country. This domino effect will lead to another intertwined web, one with a much more positive result.

Outside of Horizons, I have found myself wondering how people in Africa survive despite the overwhelming odds against them. I can’t help but wonder how I would fare if I were brought up in these conditions. What has truly amazed me is that so many people here are not only surviving, but thriving in these conditions. For example, my friend Hippo, who is close to my age, started a small shop a few years ago. With careful savings and planning it has evolved into a bar/computer supplies shop/photocopy shop and will soon have a phone line to become a communication centre. He also just finished building a huge outdoor roof to increase the floor space of the outdoor part of his bar for the upcoming rainy season. Another good example is my friend Jane who runs a shop in town. About a month after I got here Jane had a whole new shop built, giving her much more space than she used to have. Jane makes monthly trips to Accra and Lome (the capital of Togo) to buy loads of new inventory that routinely sells out. Going forward, Jane wants to start offering small loans to local women to start small businesses so that they can become more independent. I am convinced that the creativity and entrepreneurship of local people like Hippo and Jane will have a far greater impact than anything foreign volunteers will ever be able to do. One of the most important things that any volunteer or NGO can do is to find people like them support them with the resources they need, because ultimately they understand their society, culture, and how to improve it, much better than we will ever be able to.

Unfortunately, there is a flip side to this story. The best example I have come across to prove this point has been with many of the NGOs that I have tried to work with. In Canada if you work with an NGO, it is generally assumed (often correctly) that you have taken a pay cut in order to work on a cause that is important to you. The case here is almost the exact opposite. There are too many people here that want to work for an NGO because of what is seen as the ‘deep foreign pockets’. Relatively speaking, most NGOs here do have deep pockets, but in too many cases that is being abused by inefficient programs and extravagant spending. Thankfully, Horizons is a refreshing exception to this trend, as is Mr. Paul (who I’m working with for the HIV/AIDS testing campaign) who is working on this entirely for free and even spends some of his own money when needed. This is not to say that NGOs don’t benefit the local communities, but the benefits are not as significant as they could be, which makes people like Hippo and Jane even more important in improving the standard of living here.

I have also spent a fair bit of time lately thinking (worrying) about what to do with myself when I get back to Canada. Apart from the first week and a half, of which the details will be discussed later, I have come up with more questions than answers. While I have been here I have discovered a new passion for reading and writing. I have also been introduced to many new topics of which I would love to have more education on. These will have to somehow be included in my future plans, although I haven’t yet figured out how. It is also extremely important to me to continue development work in some form or another. This will most likely come in two ways. First, I want to stay involved with Horizons in whatever capacity is possible. Second, I want to keep working on HIV/AIDS related topics, probably through raising awareness at home and fundraising to support testing and treatment back in Ghana. However, I am certainly not going to limit my involvement to these areas, and I am looking forward to finding new ways to make a difference. On top of education and charity work, as much as it pains me to say, I will have to find myself some sort of job, or even a career. But I realize that I am still young and have plenty of time to figure this out.

The last week at Horizons has been a very interesting one because as I am wrapping up my time here, I have also been helping Richard, the new volunteer at Horizons, get adjusted to life in Sandema. After a few months here I stopped noticing many things that stood out in my day to day life when I first arrived. I didn’t notice that happening at the time, but showing Richard around Sandema and Horizons, being able to answer his questions and help quell some of his fears, has showed me how much I have adapted to life here. Being able to consciously look back at it now has been extremely rewarding and I’m really glad to have had this chance in my last week here. For my last night in Sandema, Horizons had a beautiful sendoff party. It was an evening filled with drumming, dancing, thank yous, goodbyes, and plenty of tears (mostly mine). At times it was tough emotionally, but I couldn’t have asked for a better last night.

While I have been here, and even before I left, people have been asking me how I thought this experience would change me. Undoubtedly, my time in Ghana has had a tremendous impact on who I am and what I want to do. It is likely that at this point I don’t even realize most of how I have changed, and that it will only be revealed to me over time back in Canada. Discovering these changes is one of the things I’m looking forward to most about coming home. I have learned far too much in my time here to try and sum everything up into this posting. A few of the key things that will have an ongoing impact on me will be the people closest to me in my life and my communication and interaction with them, which has admittedly be strained while I have been away. In Ghana I have constantly been thinking about the impact I am making here and how I can make that impact unique to me. The more I think about it, the most unique things I have done always comes back to the relationships I have formed in some way or another.

In many ways I have also become more mature in the past nine months here. To some that will be a welcome change, but to others it may be less than ideal. If you are in the second group, don’t worry too much – I plan on being a beer-drinking, guitar playing guy living in my parents basement for at least the foreseeable future. There are lots of other changes that I have noticed, mainly in my general perspective, which has certainly shifted a great deal. I’m not sure how to explain that shift, but I think it is something that anyone who knows me well will notice and will be present in most of the ways that I choose to live my life.

Despite all of the great aspects of life in Sandema, there were some downsides. Being away from home for this long has resulted in me, at times, being homesick for the first time since I was a 10-year old at summer camp. Getting through some of the tougher times was only possible with all the support I got from my family and friends at home. For everyone that sent me letters and packages, emails, called me on the phone, or even just read this blog, I want to thank you. You have no idea how happy that contact with home has made me while I’ve been here. I really can’t thank you all enough for this.

Apart from the sadness of leaving Sandema, there are some things that I am really excited about in the first few weeks at home. I am landing back in Toronto on Monday afternoon, and anyone reading this is invited to Golden Star on Monday night for a long awaited burger, and of course Duffs for wings the next evening. Even more than all the wonderful food that I’m going to be getting and the freezing cold air condition in my house, I am excited to see everyone at home and hear about what has been going on in your lives for the past nine months, which says a lot for you since I’m really excited for the food and A/C. I know it has been difficult keeping in touch and I am a little out of the loop in what has been happening with everyone, but I promise that I’ll do everything I can to catch up in the next few weeks.

In my writing, as in my eating, I have saved the most important part for last. Without doubt, leaving Horizons will be one of the most painful parts of leaving, and it will be the part of Sandema that I miss the most. I’m going to miss being called ‘Mister Ben’ instead of just ‘Ben’. I’m going to miss their huge smiles. I’m going to miss how they looked up to me and asked me questions as though I’m an encyclopedia. I’m going to miss how they laughed at me as I practiced the Buile that I learned and how they laughed at me when I would dance with them. I’m going to miss them welcoming me every time I returned to Sandema, even if I was only gone for one night. I wish there was one big thing that I would miss so I could finish this by saying ‘But most of all I’m going to miss…’ but it would impossible to try and pinpoint just one thing. Most of all I’m going to miss all the little things that make Horizons so special. I’m going to miss each child in a different way and for different reasons. Throughout my time here I have grown closer to some of the kids than others, and I certainly have my favourites, but I think at some point in time every single child at the centre has had a turn being my favourite. One of the most amazing things about Horizons is how every child has something about them that is both amazing and unique. In the past nine months I have become so emotionally attached to these children and it pains me that I won’t be around to see them continue growing up, although I can take comfort knowing that the Ghana Girls will do everything possible to make sure each and every one of these kids reaches their full potential. I wish that I could see the oldest boys as they start going off to post secondary school or entering the working force. I wish I could see the youngest boys enter primary school and get a better grasp of English so that I could have more in depth conversations with them. I wish I could see the other boys as they work their way into their teenager years and experience all the emotional and behavioural changes that that entails. These kids really have been the best part of my time here. They are the most fun, the most interesting, and the most inspiring all at the same time and I’m going to miss them more than I could ever express in words.

Thank for to anyone and everyone who has read this and got a small taste of what has been the best nine months of my life.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Pledging My Time

I am in Tamale right now with four of the oldest kids from the centre. We have been here since Sunday volunteering at the Shekhinah medical clinic. The clinic was founded by Dr. David Abdulai when he gave up his lucrative government position to provide free health care to the poor and mentally disabled. Part of the clinic is a food program that prepares bagged meals and takes them to homeless people around town. The kids and I have been working in the food program, helping to prepare the food in the morning and then going around town all afternoon to distribute it.

Apart from the satisfaction I got from volunteering at the food program, there are other aspects of the week that have been far more memorable. There are two things specifically that really stick out in my mind that will stay with me for much longer. The first is Dr. Abdulai. It isn’t often that you get to meet such an amazing man. The clinics he runs have a tremendous impact on the northern part of Ghana and he is able to attract volunteers and doctors from around the world to come and work with him. Despite all of his accomplishments he is still unbelievably humble and down to earth. Dr. Abdulai has been tremendously inspiring, and I am grateful to have had the chance to work with him, no matter how brief it may have been.

The second aspect that touched me was watching the four kids from the centre working here. I think it takes a certain level of maturity to get something from volunteering like this and actually want to help, so it was especially rewarding seeing the kids so anxious to help out. At first they were a little shy and hesitant, but they quickly got comfortable and were keen to do as much as they could no matter what the task was. I’m glad that I was able to help these kids have an experience like this. When we get back to Sandema they each have to write me a one-page report on the week here, and I can’t wait to see what they have to say.

Tonight I am picking up Richard from the bus station. He has come to volunteer at Horizons for several months so it will be exciting having a new face around. Tomorrow we will all go back to Sandema for my last week there before I return home.

All the best.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Under Africa Skies

Last Sunday I got back to Sandema from my trip to Burkina Faso and Mali, and let me say what an amazing trip it was. I will start the tale of this journey by telling you that one of the best parts of the trip was my travel companions. Traveling with Ros was a delight. She was always relaxed, even in tough situations, and proved to be great company. We also met up with a couple from Australia on our first day and ended up traveling with them for most of the way. Whenever one person was getting frustrated, which is bound to happen while traveling in Africa, the others were there to keep them sane, which was invaluable. The Australians have since visited us in Sandema for a small reunion and a couple relaxing days here.

Our trip started with a few days in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. In terms of sights to see the city doesn’t have much to offer, but I’m convinced that the atmosphere and food are unmatched elsewhere in West Africa. From Ouagadougou we traveled west to a town called Bobo-Dioulaso where we stayed for a couple of nights. The main reason we went to Bobo was because we were told it was easier to travel onward to Mali from there, but it ended up having some pretty cool sites, most notably their main market and mud mosque.

Contrary to what we had heard, leaving Bobo turned out to be a little tricky. After asking every bus company in town, we ended up on an overnight ride to Mopti, a large city in Mali. Our bus left the station about 15 minutes early, which was impressive but ultimately just gave us false hope. From the station we only drove a few minutes to a nearby gas station where we waited four hours for the bus to fill up. The first part of our drive was fairly easy and we got through the Malian border with little trouble. After driving another hour or so, we stopped in a town called Koury at close to 1 am. At this point the driver told us that we were going to sleep there and then leave again for the rest of the journey at 6 am. We all grabbed some towels and slept on the closest piece of concrete we could find (which was actually the bit of concrete that covers the open sewer). At 6 am, instead of leaving as we were told, we moved our bags to a different bus, where we waited another few hours for it to fill up. The new bus station was located in the middle of the biggest fish market I have ever seen, and as the wait continued and the temperature steadily climbed, it became one of the smelliest places I have been to. We finally left Koury close to 11 am, getting us to Mopti around 5 pm. The total journey took close to 24 hours, with only a third of that actually driving! That morning was the peak of my frustration for the trip, and I think I only got through it because Ros was so calm the entire time. But now that it is over, I can look back at the experience and laugh, so I guess it was worth it to have this story.

The town of Mopti is a popular tourist destination not so much for the city itself, but as a starting point to Mali’s main tourist attractions. That being said, I did really enjoy Mopti which had a really nice mud mosque and a relaxed atmosphere. We also took a nice boat ride along the Bani and Niger rivers, which intersect close to the town main port. I think that my favourite memory from Mopti will be seeing numerous satellite dishes mounted on the top of mud houses – not something you see everyday.

Our first trip out from Mopti was to Timbuktu and the Sahara desert. The ride to Timbuktu was an adventure in itself. It was a nine hour ride in a 4x4 stuffed with up to 10 people. The first half of the journey, in terms of distance, only took two hours. The second half, although much slower, was definitely much more fun as it seemed like an extended roller coaster ride, often veering off the main road to small sand paths for up to a few kilometers at a time. We arrived in Timbuktu at night and were pretty tired so we stayed at the first place we could find, which had us sleeping on mattresses on the roof. Waking up to the sunrise over the endless maze of mud homes was quite an amazing site. The town itself is an endless labyrinth of dusty roads and paths of all shapes and sizes rendering our map fairly useless. There isn’t much to do in Timbuktu so we spent most our time just getting lost and trying to avoid the sun. Wherever we went Tuareg people (desert nomads) would come up and talk to us and inevitably take out some souvenirs that they would try to sell to us. It was impressive how extensive of a collection they could keep in their pockets. Most of the stuff they were selling was small, but one person actually pulled a full size sword out from their shirt. The next night we took a two hour camel ride out into the desert and spent the night under the stars with a Tuareg family. My camel’s name was ‘Ajua’, which I think is the Tuareg word for ‘Snarf’. Saying that the desert was a never ending sea of sand and small shrubs doesn’t truly do justice to its overwhelming size, but until I come home with pictures I guess you will have to settle for that description.

After another fun roller coaster ride to get back to Mopti, we headed to the ancient town of Djenne. Historically, Djenne had a similar role as Timbuktu in cross-Saharan trade, but while Timbuktu has declined steadily, Djenne maintains some of its former glory in the form of the largest mud building in the world (their mosque) and a huge, vibrant market that comes to life every Monday directly in front of the mosque. We only had one night in Djenne, but traveling there was definitely worth it to see the towering mosque.

We traveled from Djenne back to Mopti for one night then headed south to Dogon Country where we enjoyed a three day trek. Dogon Country is characterized by a 200 km escarpment that ranges from 300 to 600 m in height. As though the escarpment itself wasn’t amazing enough, the whole escarpment is littered with small villages, many of which are built directly into the side of the cliffs. People only started moving down from the cliffs in the 1960s to settle on the flat plains right next to them. They used to live there to protect themselves from attacks and to avoid the slave trade. It was really remarkable to see how similar the new villages are to the former cliff side ones, both of which are entirely built from mud. Despite the somewhat primitive state of these villages, they are used to having tourists and all the villages have a few guesthouses with rooftop mattresses and a fridge (powered by a car battery) stocked with mineral water and ice-cold beer. One unique feature of the Dogon people is that they eat as a group, so the four of us and our guide would all share one giant bowl of food. Needless to say, I ate considerably more than any of the others and I’m hoping to pioneer the group eating concept back in Canada. We were pretty lucky with the weather when we were trekking. Instead of the intense heat we were starting to get used to, we had a couple of overcast days which made the walking much more comfortable. The downside of this was that both nights we awoke to light rain and had to quickly relocate our beds to underneath a shelter. Overall, Dogon Country was definitely one of the best parts of the entire trip.

From Dogon, Ros and I made our way back to Ouagadougou, taking a different route than we had on the way there, and planned a night at a guesthouse along the way, although we did see some nice concrete sewer coverings that looked quite tempting! After being on the move constantly for a few weeks, we were happy to return to Ouagadougou and just relax for a couple of days. We had budgeted carefully so we had enough money left for a night in a fancy air conditioned room, and a steak dinner at an upscale restaurant. The steak, my first since coming to Africa, is also on my list of highlights from the trip.

Now that I am back in Sandema, it is starting to hit just how soon I’ll be leaving. For now, I’m trying to ignore the sadness and fear that comes along with leaving, and finish up as much as I can. Unfortunately, we were unable to get funding for the HIV/AIDS testing campaign, but I plan on fundraising for this when I get back to Canada then sending the money back to Sandema so it can still run. I also find myself strangely busy putting together everything I want to bring home as I’ve accumulated my fair share of new belongings here, ranging from little souvenirs to big African drums to half of a new wardrobe. While I was traveling, something truly amazing happened in Sandema. There were a few heavy rains and now there is grass growing everywhere! The green is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen.

At this point I am gong to ask that people something that saddens me greatly - stop sending any more mail or packages. I am extremely thankful for everything that I have received, but anything that is sent now probably won’t make it here before I leave.

I guess that is all for now. I know that this has been long so thank you to everyone that made it through the entire thing.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Round Here

This is going to be a short message right now. I'm in Timbuktu on the internet, which I thought was pretty cool so I decided to share that with anyone who may be reading this. I will give full details of this trip once I get back to Sandema.

Take care.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Total Eclipse of the Heart

I recently returned from a 10 day trip to the south coast of the country. I won’t bore you with all the details, but I will share the highlights of the trip, the most obvious one being the solar eclipse on March 29th. We were lucky enough to find the special glasses in Accra so we were able to see the whole thing from the beach we were staying at that was about 4 hours west of Accra. The first chunk of the sun was gone by about 8:15 am, but if we didn’t know what was happening, we wouldn’t have noticed the change in light until at least half of the sun was gone. The coolest part of the eclipse was, not surprisingly, the few minutes of totality. It looked almost exactly the same as all the pictures I have seen of eclipses over the years, but seeing it happen was somehow different, although I’m not sure how to explain the difference. Once the whole sun was covered people were running around saying ‘good evening’ and ‘happy eclipse’. At this point the sky go dark enough that you could see a star in the sky. Although it was about as dark as it is during shortly after the sun sets, the bit of light that creeped around the moon was different. It was almost like looking at a world that was frozen (figuratively, not literally).

The other highlight of the trip was a small town called Nzulezo. The town of Nzulezo, which has a population of about 500, is unique because it is entirely built on stilts raising everything above the edge of a small lake. I asked a few people, but was unable to discover why they chose to build their whole town on stilts. While this is the only stilt village in the country, I have read about other stilt villages in West Africa so there must be some benefit to living a few feet above the water. There isn’t much to do in the town in the way of activities, but after a few days traveling on buses and tro-tros, we were happy to just relax and enjoy the extremely unique atmosphere.

As I write this I’m back in Sandema for about a week before Ros and I head north to Burkina Faso and Mali. As I have mentioned in a previous posting, it is hard to accomplish much in such a short time, but this week is slightly different. As soon as I got back from down south, I was on an intense mission to do something to my hair. I have been keeping my head shaved since my last few days in Canada and decided it was time for a drastic change. I will be the first person to admit that I have had my fair share of bad haircuts in my lifetime, but my current hairstyle is by far the most ridiculous thing I have ever done. After three painful hours at the hairdresser I am now sporting a head full of dreadlocks! Since my natural hair is only about an inch long, they had to add something. But it turns out that for dreads, they don’t add fake hair. Instead, they attach yarn to my head – the same stuff that my grandmother uses to knit socks. As if the idea of me with dreads wasn’t bad enough, the only available yarn was black or red (I chose black) so it doesn’t even match the little bit of hair that I do have. Most Ghanaians have said that they like the new style and a few kids at the centre now call me Bob (as in Bob Marley), although I think most people are just being nice. The three other volunteers have been slightly more honest about how silly I look and have taken to calling me Medusa. Despite all the jokes, I do really like it, although there is absolutely no logic to why I did this or why I like it. I am taking the yarn out before I go to Burkina Faso, but I’ll have plenty of pictures for your entertainment when I come home.

A few days before I left Sandema, the kids all went back to spend their school break with their extended families and I was able to visit a few of them in their own homes. It was really cool being able to meet some of the kids’ families and see where they lived. All of the houses I saw were traditional mud houses just a short walk from the main road. I haven’t ever walked far off the main road, but even a 15 minute walk brings you to a place completely different from where I live. Before I came here me preconception of Africa came from pictures in National Geographic and World Vision commercials, and I was amazed how close this was to what I saw on TV. The land is now barren, although it will be full of rice or millet once the rain starts. Occasionally you will come across mud houses of varying sizes, with a couple of odd trees in between and a water pump occasionally. I was amazed at how sparse the houses were and how open the land was. I hope that when I get back from my trip I will have the chance to visit a few more of the kids’ homes.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Ordinary Day

Last week I traveled to Kumasi with Ambrose, the program coordinator, on some Horizons related business. One of the first things I noticed that was when you travel with a Ghanaian you get hassled much less, which was nice, especially in a city known to be a little difficult for tourists. We had a bit of spare time while we were there and were able to get to the bigger tourist sites. The Cultural Centre had some great little craft shops and I was suckered into buying a few new beaded bracelets – as if I haven’t already bought enough of them. We also went to the zoo, which was a little depressing since the animals are kept pretty poorly. Although the trees in the zoo were full of bats, which were pretty cool to see, so long as they kept their distance from me.

Ambrose has a cousin named Baba who lives in Kumasi, so we were able to stay with him the whole time. Baba works as a tailor in the main market, which is the biggest market in West Africa. This thing really is enormous – possibly bigger than all of Sandema. Left alone in it, I would probably get lost. We used Baba’s stall as a home base so he could give us directions before heading out each day. One of the coolest parts of being in Kumasi was just hanging out at his stall in the market and chatting with people that would come by. As well, staying with Baba was a pretty unique experience. It was much more authentic than a guesthouse, even if slightly less comfortable. At one point I found myself thinking how I would have coped with this accommodation back in September and I noticed a lot of things that would have bothered me a few months ago, but now seem completely ordinary. This occurred to me when I went to a public washroom and they handed me a piece of newspaper (instead of toiled paper) and that didn’t strike me as unusual.

The last highlight of Kumasi, and something that was totally unexpected, was a wonderful rainstorm. Back in Canada rain is generally unwelcome, but since I haven’t seen rain since sometime in October, it was really a spectacular event for me.

Since Kumasi, I have had a rather uneventful week of hanging (and some work too) at the centre. It is hard getting much done in a short time, so apart from a few conversations with people about things I want to do, not much else can be done. I am now headed down to Accra for about a week to go see the solar eclipse and some other sites on the coast.

That’s all for now. Take care.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

God Fearing Man

One of my newest projects is a free HIV testing campaign that I’m trying to organize in Sandema. The motivation for this was when I read that in Ghana it is estimated that only 30% of people infected with HIV are actually aware of it, and thus don’t seek any treatment or take any precautions to prevent transmitting the virus to others. I have started working with a gentleman named Paul, who is the local counselor for people living with HIV/AIDS. It has been a pleasure working with Paul so far, as even though we don’t always agree on the best course of action, he is extremely dedicated to the cause. He can also provide me with all of the culturally specific knowledge that I don’t know, to help me avoid making a complete fool of myself. Our big marketing push to spread the word of the free testing is through churches and mosques. So for the last two Sundays, Paul and I have headed to various churches around town to share our message. We are not simply attending church, but actually get up in front of the whole congregation during the service to talk to people. I can certainly say that speaking to an audience in church is something I never thought that I would do, but I guess I can add it to the long list of firsts I’ve encountered here. Our first week we went to the Catholic church, which is the largest in Sandema, and last week we went to ‘church-hopping’ and made it to three different churches. Despite the heavy stigma towards the disease we seem to be getting a good response as people are actively listening, and even asking us questions to get more information. I’m told that there has been a free testing day before, but only one person attended it. We are hoping for a significant improvement from that!

Things at the centre are still going well. The carpenter should be coming to the centre this week to start building the library shelves so I can finally get to work on that. In the meantime I have been finding others ways to keep busy. Last week I had all of the kids over to my house for an art afternoon. I was a lot of fun seeing them all packed into my living room enjoying the art supplies I was able to get my hands on. It was amazing how all I had to do was really make a pile of supplies and paper, and then they were all busy with their heads down in their work for almost two hours. I think I would be hard pressed to get a group of Canadian kids to put that much focus and effort into something for that long.

Last Monday was the 6th of March which is Ghana’s independence day. To celebrate, the whole town gathers at the main field where all of the school and various other groups each had turns doing their own military style marching routine. After about two hours of group after group marching, it did get a little boring, although there are a few groups that deserve special mention. A bunch of the Horizons kids marched with their school group, and Horizons was also able to march as their own group, something that they all really enjoyed. Apart from my boys, my favourite group was the beautician school who all had made belts, necklaces, and other accessories from hair curlers.

A new activity I have come to enjoy in Sandema is going to a local ‘Pito’ bar. Pito is a local alcoholic drink make from fermented millet, and the pito bars are generally pretty packed on market day. Logically if there are a bunch of women in town selling food, it is a good reason for everyone in town to get drunk in the middle of the day! (Please note that I only go after I am done for the day with the kids) I always go to the same bar so I’m becoming good friend with the ‘bartender’ there. The word ‘bartender’ is in quotes because the ‘bar’ is really more a corner of the room where there are a few big pots, more accurately described as cauldrons, full of the homemade pito. The drink itself isn’t great, and definitely takes some time to get used to it, but it is a lot of fun hanging out there with people from town and practicing my Buile with them.

Before I go, I have a quick update on the wonderful hot season here. I’ve been leaving my alarm clock/thermometer outside in the middle of the day to see how hot it actually is and here are the results: on an overcast day last week it was a cool 42 degrees, while a sunny day pushed it up to 48 degrees.

All the best.