Sunday, October 3, 2010

A Bit of Turkey Before Thanksgiving

We come home from the market in our little town of Gundogan on Turkey’s Bodrum Peninsula, laden with sharp and mild goat cheese, olives, pomegranates, fresh and dried figs, heavy grape vines, sweet peaches in season and freshly picked watermelon. Our knapsacks are filled with garden tomatoes, cucumber, potatoes, beets, spinach, dill, carrots, lettuce and zucchini. We’ve discovered a Mediterranean chicken spice for our kebabs, Turkish homemade tortellini, thick, soft flatbread for our pides (Turkish pizzas) and huge rounds of freshly made filo pastry which Mom uses to make spanikopita pies. One of our favorite stops is the gal with nuts where we get samples, then treat ourselves to the freshest almonds, hazelnuts, and corn nuts we’ve ever tasted. Then it’s a heavy box of fresh Turkish delight. We make sure to sample all flavors so we know which ones to buy from the friendly vendor who gives us drinks of cold apple, cherry and lemon “sweet teas”. We walk back up the mountain to our gorgeous villa which overlooks the Aegean Sea. We bought spanikopita from the same vendor who sold us nuts, which we then eat poolside for lunch along with our other bounty from this weekly market excursion. We also have access to a BBQ which we use to cook up all these fabulous vegetables in the evening. As you can see, a big part of our Turkish experience has been the incredible food.

What a way to live, to heal, to finish our 8 month odyssey. For our first week in Turkey, Terry and I both felt a bit restless, perhaps guilty, not exactly sure what we were going to do here for 30 days. It’s like anywhere we’ve been, it always takes a few days to adjust to the new language, the different currency, routines that revolve around finding a place to get groceries and determining a time table for work and play in this new culture. The kids were more immediately able to jump in and be at home, thrilled to unpack and set up a semi-permanent place to live. Our third day was market day which I think was the catalyst for us being able to finally settle into relax and enjoy mode. We also got into a fairly regular routine of homeschooling in the mornings, then going to the beach or hanging out at our pool in the afternoons. I was in heaven going for early morning runs which alternated between travelling up various mountain roads/trails, or heading down to the sea, or both in one run. On my runs I found a couple of good local hikes to do with the kids, but unfortunately on one of them I carelessly sprained my ankle about half way through our month here. My running wings were clipped, but it has forced me to spend more time in the pool and I’ve finally made a breakthrough: I think I have discovered the relaxing zen of swimming that I ‘ve been envying in others for so long. The kids are all big endurance swimmers now too. Lilianna often swims with me and is faster and more efficient in the water. She is up to 40 nonstop lengths of the front crawl in our little pool.

By the second week we began to break up our homeschooling days with excursions to ancient ruins, a boat trip, a day at the waterslides and even a Turkish bath. The kids are learning so much. They’ve each decided now that they want to be archeologists when they grow up. Dezmond and Riley’s latest make believe game has them working in an office as tour operators in Turkey selling trips to various ruin sites, Kos, Greece and Istanbul. They use air conditioning remote controls for their phones and have arguments about whether or not a one day excursion to Ephesus should cost 50 or 100 Turkish Lira. There are so many images that will stay with me always: Josie’s grin as a young Turkish man in a towel sings and gives her a bubble massage on a warmed marble slab; the boys’ jumping from ancient stone to column to pillar in the 3000 year old Temple of Athena, oblivious to their stirring surroundings, as they chase a grasshopper; finding a family of turtles in a 2000 year old Roman bath, the youngest turtle crying as it knocks his shell against and climbs up onto his Mama’s shell; Dezmond and Riley lying side by side for their massage at the Hamam (Turkish Bath), wide eyed as they get a slap on the bum to indicate it’s over. We’ve been blown away by the ruins here. I get tears in my eyes as I walk over ancient rocks imagining people who labored on these sturdy structures and lived their lives over a thousand years before Christ was born. The temple of Apollo with its huge columns, defines the true meaning of the word awesome. Terry is finally able to see the sights he dreamed of when he worked on the Greek isles picking olives and was unable to see Turkey because of the outbreak of war in Iraq.

It’s our last week in Turkey now and we are savoring every moment of it. The weather in this place couldn’t be more perfect. Every day we wake up and it’s sunny and warm with a slight breeze, about 29 degrees which at night cools to 23 or 24 degrees. I’m going to miss our evenings walking home from town still warm enough for no sleeves, smelling the fragrant pine trees. I’ll miss the moon we see rising each night from our mountain perch in different shades of orange. The Muslim call to prayer here is exotic compared to Ghana as it echoes hauntingly, artistically through the valley between the mountains and the sea. I’ll miss reading or playing “President/Janitor” with the kids outside on our patio before bedtime. Mostly I think I’ll miss our family time together with no pressures, responsibilities or stress. We’re not ruled by work, school, or the clock. It will be wonderful to be home again with family, friends, school, work and a regular routine, but it will be hard to replicate ever again the time we’ve spent here on the Aegean sea. The other night I reminded the kids, “You have no idea how lucky you are to have this”. Riley very innocently yet wisely replied, “Yes we do, cause you keep telling us that”. So now I think I’ll just leave it at that and let them experience it and hold it in their hearts as I do, each in their own individual way.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Moving On

I’m sitting here on the balcony of our little apartment, on the Greek island of Kos. It’s 9:30 PM and still bare shoulders warm with a breeze that keeps it comfortable, and carries the scent of eucalyptus. It’s much dryer here then Ghana, although nothing like Edmonton. Terry and I wondered if perhaps we might have been ready to fly back to Canada on August 29th instead of coming to Greece and Turkey. After getting fever chilled to the bone on transit through London yesterday and overhearing parents talking to their children about starting school this week however, I knew we made the right decision. We got off the plane in Kos, exhausted from our overnight flight (Accra, Ghana to London), and from a day spent in airports, then we let the warm air kiss us as we pulled off layers of clothes, breathing a sigh of relief.

We are going through culture shock of a different sort here as we walk in bare feet on white tiled floors that don’t turn our feet black. Or as I go 2 doors down from our apartment and have a wide choice of breads, cereals, salty snacks, cheeses, granola bars, yogurts and fruit. I can buy grapes, wash them under the tap and eat; no peeling, cutting or salt water soaking required. It makes one want to buy and eat everything in sight. We’re remembering part of what motivated us to volunteer in Africa in the first place, the pit of consumerism and indulgence. We can drink tap water and walk along quiet sidewalks. In London I was struck by how clean, shiny and modern everything was as we made our way between airports so easily (and expensively). We are in a very touristy town filled with large, white Europeans, not unlike our past holiday visits Mexico, filled with large white North Americans. Sadly, our kids get glared at and judged at times rather than welcomed with open arms like everywhere in Ghana. We need to relearn the boundaries of personal space and noise here compared to Ghana where everything and everyone is loud and up close. We’ve become accustomed to it and have taken it on ourselves, but many people here are taking offense. We are discovering all sorts of beach etiquette that we seem to keep messing up. Also we had to explain to the kids about why so many women were without tops on the beach and how we will be seeing many more smokers here in Europe (virtually non-existent in Ghana).

In spite of the culture shock though we are quickly falling in love with Kos and its constant sunshine, breeze and turquoise blue sea which is salty enough to float easily in deep water. Today was spent taking in all the newness and beauty, trying to figure out where we fit in, still carrying the dust and fatigue of Africa on our shoes. Flying is such a strange way to travel because you get thrown instantly into completely different cultures with little time to adjust. There is a big part of me still in Ghana. Riley lost a souvenir necklace which he has been mourning for a few days now and I found myself in London yesterday thinking, “Oh I’ll just go down to the Paloma (a hotel near our apartment in Accra) next time I have a chance and surprise him with another one”.

It was hard leaving Ghana and I had many moments today of not quite believing we’ve left. It went so fast, not just the final days of packing and getting ready to fly, but the entire time we were there feels like it is gone in the blink of an eye. Already I feel it becoming a faded photograph, something distant and getting further each hour we’re away from our African ‘home away from home’. As we drove out of our neighborhood in Kokomlemle, we waved to our neighbors and local acquaintances. As kindly as everyone treated us, we were really just a short and interesting diversion in their lives, like the World Cup on a miniscule scale. We drove past the places that were part of our daily life and which we were likely seeing for the last time. I tried to drink it all in, those final moments and not let my tears spill out as they had been threatening to all weekend as we packed up our apartment and did our final wanders through the neighborhood for provisions. I held back tears saying goodbye to “the fruit lady” (whose name I finally found out was Agnes) as she gave us God’s blessing and an extra pineapple. She was also teary wishing she could see the kids again (they weren’t with me this time). I finally lost it in church as they sang many of our favorite songs and the congregation swayed together, singing loud, smiling and waving their hankies. I was also touched by the readings about humility, the first being last and the last first. One of the women who did laundry and cleaned for us is a mother of 3 young children. As she sits on the ground scrubbing our clothes, her baby is drinking milk from her breast and the other two fend for themselves nearby. When I pay her, she always bows reverently and thanks me. I wanted to tell her it wasn’t necessary to bow (she has no English except thank you), but it seemed to come from a place deep within her, something cultural or ancestral and essential. Before church she helped me with the final cleaning and when I paid her, I also gave her some leftover food and household items. She selflessly and cordially accepted, then later made a point to come back up with a translator (our neighbor), to thank me and give us God’s/Allah’s blessings. I got emotional when she left and in church couldn’t help but think of her in her humility and graciousness. It also made me think of my Auntie Agnes who spent most of her life working as a nurse in Tanzania. She has a similar gentleness about her and has never made a big show of the good work she’s done and continues to do now in Canada. Nor did she ever criticize the overindulgence of our lives in the West when she came to visit. I hope I can emulate, in some small way, these 2 very different and both wonderfully strong, kind, important women who have touched our lives so profoundly. I want to always carry Ghana with me, but not try to elevate myself in any way for having been there.

Our time in Africa was short, but I feel thankful and incredibly lucky to have had those 6 ½ months with my family. We know we are spoiling ourselves with this final leg of the journey, but I think it will help us in our transition to real life in October when it will feel particularly cold, busy and overwhelming as we begin our adjustment. That’s when the biggest culture shock will hit, but then at least we will be home where everything is familiar. Hopefully our lives will be changed as a result of our experiences here so that we don’t simply fall into old patterns and habits, but allow the changes to filter into our old lives and make them new. I pray that each day we may continue to find joy, surprises and peace in the people and situations around us as we fall back into our Canadian routines and identities living in our Holyrood, Forest Heights and Edmonton communities.

Final African Travels

After finally making it back across the border into Ghana, we stayed on the top of a mini mountain above a small village called Biakpa in the Avatime Hills. We drove up a steep, rocky, deep rutted road to get to Mountain Paradise Lodge, which enchantingly lived up to its name. We arrived in time for the first of several “Happy Hours” of beer and Fanta in a large, open, bamboo hut overlooking a magnificent vista of lush green mountains, including Mount Gemi, the second highest in Ghana, which we would climb on our final morning before returning back to Accra. We also did an adventurous hike which started and finished from the lodge in a loop travelling down to Kulugu Canyon and up again. Our kids have become great hikers and this one was particularly fun as we rappelled down ropes to a couple of waterfalls, one of which we swam in. For the full 3.5 hours the boys were singing and humming the theme song to Indiana Jones. We’d watched parts 1&2 of this movie on separate movie nights here and the kids, especially the boys, are pretty enamored of Harrison Ford as Indiana (who happens to have a striking resemblance to our Parish Priest Roger Keeler). Every hike we did became a Jones jungle adventure.

Another adventure was eight kilometres from Biakpa to a village called Tafi Atome which is known for its monkey sanctuary. We half walked, half taxi/motorbiked to this place where we got to see and feed Mona Monkeys. As we made our way towards this village, I took in the beauty around me and thought of Larry Yakimec, a great actor and friend. While heading down the mountain that day, I got a call, from our friend in Ghana, Anna Hughton, who knew Larry from her days in Edmonton when she sat on the board for the Phoenix Theatre. She let me know that he had passed away and I imagined him walking with us in this stunning locale, knowing he would have loved the place.

After Biakpa, we made our way back to Accra where we took two days to heal and celebrate Lilianna’s birthday early with Jim and Sessi from downstairs. Riley had a bad fall on a sharp rock before we began our travels in August, which split his knee wide open sending us to hospital for 7 stitches. It was a parent’s nightmare seeing the deep layers of white flesh exposed to all the city’s germs while trying to keep him calm. Although it didn’t hurt him so much, he saw the exposed sinew and feared the worst: stitches. He screamed all the way to the hospital where Terry met us and it took both of us to hold him down while the doctor did his work. We had a similar ordeal to face each time we had to change his dressing every two or three days while on the road, as he pleaded, cried, thrashed and screamed for us not to do it. We had hoped to take the stitches out ourselves at the appropriate 10-14 days time, but ended up waiting 3 weeks so we could return to the clinic in Accra to have it done. Thank goodness we did, because infections happen so easily in the tropics and his unfortunately lacerated knee was no exception. Poor Riley, not only did he have stitches removed, but the infected pustules around his wound and on other parts of his arms and legs where he’d had several scrapes/falls/itchies, were popped, drained, and dowsed with alcohol. Dezmond struggled with infections of his own: pustules pock marked his legs up and down where he always seems to have “itchies”. Both he and Riley went through the roof with the alcohol in their open wounds and because they were septic, each had to begin a course of anti-biotics. We made a game out of the horrible tasting liquid though, calling them shooters which we let them chase with a piece of chocolate bar (a very special treat in Ghana). After torturing the boys that afternoon in the clinic, we prepared a surprise birthday party for Lilianna in the evening, which included music, dancing, cake, presents, and movie night.

The next day we left for Cape Coast and Elmina to continue our Ghanaian travels. We visited castles where slaves were kept before being hauled onto ships and taken away from their African homeland. Learning about this piece of European history was as disturbing as it was informative. Such a horrific tragedy is hard to understand for adults and children alike. They built churches and worshipped in these same castles which housed unspeakable atrocities. It’s impossible to fathom how they managed to do this work and not see the human suffering and degradation. The European influence did however create 2 beautiful towns (Cape Coast is actually a city). This is a tribute too to the natives of Ghana who survived and whose descendants are full of forgiveness as they continue their lives rising above their dark history. Elmina felt like Venice; its canal filled with colorful pirogues for fishing, which made their way in and out of the harbor under an arched bridge. Cape Coast felt like Florence as we wandered its hilled streets lined with orange and yellow hued European style architecture. The setting sun created an Italian fresco from our vantage point at the top of one of the fort mounts. It was a treat to explore both towns on foot. We stayed at a place called “One Africa” in an ocean side bungalow where the powerful Gulf of Guniea waves crashed against the rocks below us. It was stunning.

From there we headed up to the second biggest city in Ghana, Kumasi. Terry had some final work to do at a volunteer conference, so we got spoiled in a nice hotel and were able to have a final visit with all the VSO volunteers (the kids’ Ghanaian aunts and uncles). We were lucky to be in such a comfortable accommodation too because it was here that Terry’s health deteriorated (he was diagnosed with his second bout of malaria), plus he, myself and the girls became infected with the same pustules which plagued the boys in Accra. My ankle was swelling quite a bit from the infection and it was causing me to limp, which was somewhat alarming. Being a large city we were able to find a good clinic for anti-biotics and a course of malaria treatment for Terry. So while Terry spent most of his time in Kumasi horizontal in the hotel room, the kids and I got to learn about the Ashanti culture of central Ghana at the Cultural Centre, the palace, the museum and the zoo (which had a particularly active and funny performing chimp).

The final leg of our Ghanaian travels was at the surfing beaches of Busua and Ezile Bay. Terry was still on the mend in Busua, but did manage to get up on a surfboard one afternoon. The kids and I boogie boarded to our hearts content. I think the highlight for us all though was Ezile Bay. We stayed in a rough bamboo hut with only beds, no electricity and the odd ant crawling across our clean sheets. We shared a toilet and an outdoor shower which had a view of our little bay with other travelers. The kids were skeptical at first after our last two places which had hot water and air conditioning. This changed quickly however in the evening as dark descended: we were given kerosene lanterns at dinner and torches were lit along a path that led to our hut. We slept beside the ocean and fell asleep to the harmonies of waves crashing and crickets and cicadas singing under a full moon. During the day, we hiked to a couple of other similar eco beach resorts, to nearby villages and to a lighthouse on the southern most point of Ghana. We also had ideal safe, fun waves for swimming and boogie boarding on our private bay which we shared with one other French family from Brussels. It was a woman and her 2 sons aged 8 & 10 and her brother, his Spanish wife and their 11 year old son. It felt like we were in one of those French films where families are holidaying together at some beautiful pastoral place eating great food, drinking wine and getting into all kinds of romantic and silly antics. When not playing on the beach, the kids were catching geckos with their new friends, then grasshoppers and other insects to feed them. On our last night, beside a beach bonfire, we played a simple version of charades in both English and French. We were surrounded by unparalleled loveliness and tranquility at Elzile Bay, the likes of which I doubt will ever be matched in my lifetime. I kept saying to Terry and the kids, as we sat at the breakfast table under palm trees overlooking the beach and bay, “look around you, remember this, we are so lucky, savor it.” We did. Even when I am old and losing my memory, I feel sure I will come back to this place in my heart and mind, a million miles away from the loved ones that I hope are still visiting me, perhaps feeding me and loving me in my frailty.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Safe Journeys

“Safe Journey” is what the Ghanaians say to you as you begin any trip. It gives me comfort as we begin our own travels through Ghana and Togo. Travelling brings out the best in all if us. It didn’t really hit us I think until we were clinking beer and Fanta glasses over lunch at a dockside table beside a swimming lagoon. We were in a gem of a place called “Meet Me There” where we wish all of our friends and family could meet us there. We very quickly fell into a cadence of relaxation in this little piece of paradise where we were treated to the eye candy of white, white sand and palm trees just beyond the warm lagoon, which was just the right size to swim across. Time stood still in the sun as I started a fabulous new novel and we took turns paddling in the canoe and jumping off the high board. The lagoon reminded us a bit of the Myra in Cape Breton where we spent some days with the O’Briens (minus the white sand and palms). We played checkers and cards and admired the pet crocodiles, hamsters, snakes and lizards. It was the perfect start to our travels and from there, we had one of our first very memorable modes of transport. All 6 of us crammed onto ¾ of a bench seat in an SUV, which had to travel over several km of sand because the paved road had been washed out by the ocean.

As we made our way to the Togolese border in our next trotro though, I was completely mesmerized by our surroundings. We clunked along, squished, driving on roads which had lagoon on one side and white sand, palms, farmers, fields of growing vegetables, clay houses and ocean just beyond on the other. I watched out the grimy windows as life moved along as usual in each of the sleepy little villages we passed, where the families work so hard throughout the heat of the day. Then we entered a whole new world as we crossed the border into Togo. Traffic actually moved in the Capital city of Lome (unlike Accra) as the roads buzzed with motorbikes more so then cars and we saw a beautiful white and blue waterfront stretch for miles on the palm tree lined boulevard. We were treated to fabulous French influenced Togolese cuisine which included baguettes, cheese, good ham, creamy sauces, amazing vegetable soups and rich Bordeaux to wash it all down. We stayed one night at a B&B where another couple from Luxembourg lodged. We visited in French and English with them and our host over bottles of red wine, couscous and veggie sauce, baguettes, gruyere and fresh pineapple while the kids got to watch Mr. Bean. What fun to be in a country again where we are forced to communicate in French for everything. Between Lili, Josie and I, we’ve managed very well in our communications for food, travel, lodging, booking excursions and bartering. By the end of our 7 days, we were thinking in French. I’m writing from Ghana now 2 days in and I’m still thinking in French, formulating questions for people we encounter before I remember that we are back in English Ghana. Language is a funny thing though because English in Ghana, like French in Togo is always the second language being spoken. We laugh at some of the English idiosyncrasies (“How are you?” “I am fine.” “How are you?” “I am also fine. And you?”) in Ghana and I’m sure it must be the same with the French, but in our own attempts to speak French, most Togolese speak better then us so it doesn’t sound odd to our ears. You can see how easily a language can get mangled when people are speaking to each other in their 2nd, 3rd, or 4th tongues. It was lovely though listening and speaking in soft French tones. What a gift to hear and speak French all around us.

The second half of our time in Togo was spent up in a mountainous region near the Ghanaian border further north from the capitol. This was a magical place of butterflies, waterfalls, small clean, quiet villages, a monastery/convent, and 20 shades of green creating walls along narrow roads and hiking trails. We also had our first moto taxi experience in the hills. After an overnight trek to a village, the 6 of us returned to our Auberge via 3 motorbikes which wound their way down the safe mountain road. Our most interesting and comical day of transport was yet to come the next day though when we crossed he border back to Ghana. We left the Auberge Nectar at 9:00 AM in an easy taxi which got us to the bus station by 9:45 AM. We knew we would have to wait for a mini-bus to fill up before we could leave and the one we came upon unfortunately was empty when we arrived. It also looked as though it was still on blocks in a junkyard. I asked smiling, “Est-ce que ca marche?” They laughed and said, “Oui, ca marche bien.” We thought it would be a 20-30 minute wait and I was hesitant at first even to go to the nearby market to spend our last Francs on fruit and bread for the road. Passengers slowly came and patiently waited in the shade on benches beside the old rust bucket. Finally after 2 hours of waiting, I knew I had some extra Francs burning a hole in my purse, so I asked how many more people were needed to fill the bus and depart. They said 3 people which meant 3000 Francs (about $6 Canadian). I offered to pay 2250 Francs which was all I had left. He took me up on my offer and suddenly everything moved and scurried into action as they began loading up the bus. Another 2 passengers arrived, so he gave me 1225 Francs back, but when they went to put us all on, the bus was in fact over full. He refused to give me any more money back and we hit the road once again packed like sardines. The mini-bus felt as though it could break down at any moment with it’s insanely heavy load.

The border crossing was a comedy as we stopped and all filed out (24 of us) to walk through customs, then slowly we bent our heads and crammed back in to travel a few more kilometers. At this point we stopped again, squished out at the Togo border where the border police meticulously printed out all our passport info. line by line in his hard cover battered up ledger book using his ruler. Our family takes the longest because we have to deal with Visas in and out. When we finally finish and walk across the line, we find our heap of a van sitting with it’s radiator out on the ground where a small crowd has gathered to watch the driver work on it and offer any advice they can. After about 45 minutes of the driver examining, screwing and banging the radiator into submission, we were given the signal to get back on. Nobody seems angry or frustrated or in awe of the situation; they all just accept this as usual and go with the flow. Then we travel along a red clay dusty goat trail of no mans land between the 2 borders with enclosures of 10 foot green grass and corn stalks on either side. After about 3 kilometres of this, we arrive at the Ghanaian border. Once again the driver stops, gets out on his side, walks around to the other side and opens the sliding door (it can’t be opened from the inside and normally there is a “mate” to do this, but there was no room for him and after trying to get on, a very large woman yelled at him in their local language and the driver beat him soundly so he was not allowed on, poor kid. We liked him too). So 24 people then find their way out between bags and seats that are too close together, being careful not to bang their heads on the way out. All of us show our passports again, this time to the Ghanaian border police who of course take more time with the family of 6 who have to fill out entry/exit cards. We are the last ones to cross the border line again heading back into Ghana. Everyone is waiting for us by the van and by now there is a friendly camaraderie that has developed among the passengers and they are all eating and handing out bananas. I never did find out where they came from, but we gladly accepted our share, then crawl back into the clap trap.

Ah free at last and travelling in Ghana about 20 km/hour with the driver stopping every 10 minutes or so to add water to the steaming radiator which continues to leak onto the road. Then we stop a little too soon after the last radiator fill and the driver gets out to confirm that yes, the front right tire is as flat as a pancake. He opens our door and we each get out 1 by 1 to sit on the road or watch him change the tire. I am again impressed that no one seems bothered or inconvenienced in any way. No aggression is shown towards the driver. It dawns on me that in fact there is a collective sympathy that everyone seems to feel for the poor guy who has to transport us in a vehicle which is falling apart. The driver remains incredibly calm as well. He manages to change the tire in remarkable time which leads me to believe he’s had lots of experience doing it. We get in again starting with people in the back row 1st, then the third row, then the second and finally the first, with the large woman beside Dezmond repeating like at every other stop, “Push. Push.” (the only English she seems to know) till Dez has just 1 butt cheek on the bench and the rest of his body on me. We are off for our final leg of the journey to Ho. I too am not frustrated even though the 35 km journey has taken us 7 hours. In fact I’ve been smiling the whole way as my boys are flapped in an x on my lap, my girls are chatting in French with a shy Togolese teen, we are surrounded by lush greenery on a mostly quiet road passing through small towns with beautiful women in their bright colored sarongs, carrying babies on their backs and any number of things on their heads, children are running, laughing and waving at us and I have the sweet taste of banana on my lips.

I’m so proud of our kids as we go through all the ups and downs of rough travel. Our girls are navigating squat toilets like pros at dirty bus stations, our boys are managing long hikes and bumpy nauseating bus rides, we have become expert players of 20 questions to pass the time when needed and we are all growing wiser together each day as we learn something new, taste something different, or try something exotic. There is not much set routine or itinerary and we take each day as it comes, relishing each novel experience. Every once in a while, I look around not quite believing what I see or where I am and I say to myself, “We’re in Africa”. It’s an absolute wonder, or as Terry likes to say, “This isn’t Forest Heights”.

Saying Goodbye

We spent the final 2 weeks of July saying bye to some of our favorite haunts in Accra. I think we have each developed a sort of love hate relationship with this city which has become our home in Ghana for the past 6 months. We also found a few new sights and activities to fit in before leaving for our travels to Togo and other parts of Ghana. We found the beach again in downtown Accra, but different from our first day in Accra, we stumbled upon a portion near Independence Square which was not so littered or crowded or intimidating. We spent a couple of afternoons there after mornings homeschooling, where we met Terry for “Happy Hour” on the water at days end. We had a particularly beautiful sunset walk on the beach which we dedicated to “Kookum”. Terry’s Grandmother passed away peacefully on Sunday July 18 and although we were very sad not to be home for the final celebration of her life, we managed our own recognition Ghanaian style. We walked along the beach collecting “Kookum Rocks”, (enjoying the double meaning that went along with the title, finding it suitable to Granny) and shared memories and stories about Kookum. Afterwards, we had a lovely dinner to toast this amazing, adventurous woman who has partly inspired the travels we love to do including this trip here in Africa. Terry reminded us that only 20 years ago on his travels in Europe, he met up with her in Edinbourgh where at the age of 80 she had come to trace her Scottish roots.

We’ve had fun buying souvenirs for friends, family and ourselves. The kids had drawing and painting lessons with the Ghanaian artist who lives below us. While they painted, I got to go into town to buy fabric for the seamstress who works across the little lane from our apartment to make matching dresses for me and the girls. The kids had their final “slumber party” with Jim and Sessi, the kids from downstairs, who we know they will miss like mad. They went to their friends’ school awards day/Jim’s grade 6 graduation at De Youngsters, the school we had tried for 1 day back in March. Then we had our own Home School graduation where the kids wrote French poems and stories, then performed and acted them out for their best buds who live below. The day before we travelled (“we are travelling” as they say in Ghana any time they leave town), I got to have my hair braided which is literally a scalp raising and at times painful 3 hour experience done by another neighbor across the lane who works in a metal shack between our seamstress and our tailor. Unfortunately the joy I felt with my new look became overshadowed by the sick feeling in my guts that came with the realization that while I was across the street getting my hair done, our camera was stolen. A case of “coulda, should, woulda” where a stranger came into our place the day before begging for money (actually scoping our place). I gave him a few dollars to get rid of him. The next day he was watching our house and when he saw “the Mom” getting her hair done, he walked into the apartment while poor Lilianna was in charge. She did the right thing and told the boys to get me while she kept an eye on this guy. By the time I came, he had run off and we thought we were safe until I discovered 3 hours later that the camera was missing. All our neighbors felt as sick as we did and said we should have called out the window to them even that first day when he entered our house. They would have all come together to help us get rid of him. It happened so fast though that even if we knew this, we may not have had time to act on it.

So we say goodbye to our camera, to Kookum, to Alliance Francais and their fabulous popcorn, to Accra Mall, and to yoga and all the kind acquaintances I made there. We will have many more goodbyes to come at the end of August which will be bittersweet. The kids spend much time speaking fondly of home and yet when it comes to goodbye, they are not ready to leave. Riley keeps saying, “We’ll come back here before we go right Mom?” I don’t have the heart to tell him “No”.

Friday, July 2, 2010

World Cup!

It is a particularly hot Saturday morning. People are moving slowly under the oppressive, hazy sun. Most are laid out on benches in the shade of their roadside shelters or under trees. There is a sense of anticipation. Not much is being said, all are simply waiting for 2:00 pm to arrive. The vuvuzela blowers start making their noise as early as 8:00 AM, but they get more frequent after noon. I go to the market and it is bustling as usual, but even there, one finds a different kind of excitement in the air. As I head home the vuvuzela blasts are getting more frequent, louder, and a buzz begins to fill the streets more and more. There is a constant hum which comes from television sets locked on to the sports networks - a hum which has become synonymous with the games - the drone of the vuvuzelas in South Africa, which apparently keep the athletes awake at night.

Finally 2:00 PM arrives and small crowds of neighbors are huddled around TV’s in Spots (little local street bars), apartments, houses, local grocers, churches, shanties, and anywhere that someone owns a TV. The 3rd and final group play game, Ghana vs. Australia, finally begins. Early in the game however, Australia scores and there is a sick silence which pervades Accra, the capital city of Ghana. The game continues and Ghana has a good chance at the net. Some fans go hide, some open their doors in readiness, most remain glued to the screen. Finally Ghana scores, everyone screams, jumps up and runs out of their houses, apartments, churches, shanties and street corners blasting horns, waving flags, hugging, kissing and cheering with their neighbors, coming together as a passionate community. The game continues and there is nervous anticipation again, waiting for that next goal, that next break in the game. So many chances, so much good passing and amazing play, but in the end, it is a tie. A very quiet end to this game that we have waited nearly a week to watch since Ghana’s first game where they beat Serbia 1-0, scoring a goal with a penalty kick late in the game. Nothing will ever erase the memory of that win in our little neighborhood of Kokomlemle where large groups of children paraded with huge Ghana flags, blowing horns and whistles. People dressed in banners, flags, football jerseys, hair paraphernalia, crazy hats and jewelry all bearing the Ghana colors of Red, Yellow and Green.

We feel so privileged to be able to experience World Cup in Africa with the tournament being hosted by South Africa. The fact that Ghana is excelling in the World Cup however has been extraordinary and beyond anything we could have hoped for. Historically, I have never followed World Cup too closely, but here you live and breathe it. It brings everyone together, united in a love of something beyond themselves. Their final game of the group play was a loss to Germany, but even that carried a bit of joy as we discovered that we would still go to the elimination round. On Saturday June 26th, we were at the beach in Kokrobite with other VSO volunteers, all cheering for Ghana as they played the USA. I was completely stressed out. You want them to win so badly and they have all been incredibly close games. It was a real party atmosphere at the beach after that win. One of my favorite parts of the USA game though requires an explanation of a certain courtesy people practice here in Ghana. Any time someone trips, bumps their head, falls or experiences any sort of pain or accident here, the person beside them or the people around them say, “ohh, sorry, sorry”. At first we thought they were apologizing for having caused the hurt, but we soon realized they are simply expressing sympathy. They empathize with you in your pain and let you know how sorry they are for you. So, as the game against the Americans was coming to a close and it seemed very likely that Ghana would win, every time the TV cameras panned over or focused on the dejected American fans with their painted faces and drooping flags, the Ghanaians around us said in complete sincerity, “ohh, sorry sorry” to the TV.

Terry and the kids and I really need them to win this Friday July 2nd, against Uruguay, because we will be in our neighborhood of Kokomlemle again watching with our friends who live downstairs, one of whom lost her voice from cheering on the weekend. As everyone says here, “By the grace of God”, please just one more win!!!!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Rhythm of Living

In my last blog I said we were putting our heads down to get through to the end of June. I don’t think that sums it up well enough though. Our first 3 months here were a bit of an adventure. Everything was fresh, exciting, scary, fun and very different from the world we know. Even when we thought we were living, it was more like “playing house”. So what’s happening now is not as bleak as I made it sound; it is simply real living and it just happens to be in Accra, Ghana. We dread Mondays and live for the weekend, which is not so different from home. We have wonderful times at the pool, the beach, playing soccer, visiting friends, going to school functions and birthday parties, movie night, going out for dinner, going to cultural events at Alliance Francais etc. But each weeknight we still have to walk home from school, do homework, make lunches, cook supper, clean up, brush teeth, and go to bed. Essentially, this is not dissimilar to home, even if there are vast differences in the circumstances and amount of time we have to spend. We have fallen into a rhythm where we find ourselves functioning well in our new life, even if it is no longer all fun and games.

We still have our “blue days”, just like at home, but they seem to be different here. I don’t know if it is the heat, the early mornings, or the weekly Larium drugs we take for Malaria, but I have noticed that when I am down, it is profoundly unique in Ghana, almost like a panic attack. It only lasts a day or two and comes and goes along with certain days where I feel overwhelmingly tired and sleepy, accompanied by guts that aren’t quite right and funny little aches and pains. I see the kids and how they respond to various things and I think they must be having similar reactions although they are not always able to express it in words. Terry too has distinct melancholy times, which is unusual for him even to share. Terry and the kids still have horrible “itchies” from the heat as well. All these odd little days and things have become part of the rhythm of life here in Ghana though, which is beginning to feel like the norm. Just as walking in busy traffic and along sewers is nothing now compared to before when after ten minutes we were ready to hit the shower. We used to feel like we needed to jump in a pool every other day, now when Terry and I suggest the pool, the kids often say they don’t feel like it, they’d rather stay home and relax. 2 hours at Church feels only slightly longer then the 1 hour Masses in Canada. Sleeping with a fan is normal now and we are able to wake up to the alarm instead of the roosters, sweepers, crying babies or the Muslim call to prayer. Twenty six degrees Celsius has us putting on sweaters and blankets in the morning, and cool showers actually feel cold sometimes.

We have a rhythm in boiling and filtering water, cooking with 2 propane burners, losing power/water every other week, going to market once a week, then to the farther grocery store on the other day for milk, meat, cheese and a few “Western Treats”. There is something to be said for routines. Once a week, I get to do yoga under the stars doing sun salutations as the sun goes down with a cool breeze gliding over me as I watch the clouds move and I breathe deep. Terry gets to play tennis once a week at the Alisa hotel where he runs his butt off with young Ghanaian pros. Every Friday after school the kids get out early and we go to the pool excited for the weekend and Friday Movie night. It’s funny too how there are beautiful things here in the busy city of Accra that I never noticed before like some incredibly striking plants and flowers, the layers of tall trees, palms and hills in the city scape, some colorful buildings, interesting architecture and nicely landscaped boulevards. It makes me think of coming into Edmonton from Calgary for the first time and only seeing the industrial ugly landscape. Once you get to know Edmonton and become part of its rhythm, then you see the beauty of the river valley, neighborhood yards teeming with gorgeous flower gardens, snow blanketing the city in white and a prolific arts and culture scene.

One realizes that no matter where you live, you will have adventures and fun times, loving family/friends, sad days, boring days, exciting days, times you wonder what is this all for, times you wonder how you can escape and times you wish you could stay in this life you have built for yourself forever. Terry made a good point recently that he always finds joy when people here (friends and strangers) greet you with the biggest smiles to say “hello” or “how are you”, “how is your family”. It sounds trite, but one will always find happiness in the people they are with or connecting with those that surround them. So this is what we are working towards as we make our way over the next 4 weeks in this Rhythm of Living in Accra, Ghana.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Full Circle

There is a Ghanaian proverb I was told yesterday, that every family has a third child, a Mensa. The teachers at Merton where I teach and the kids attend school, see that my shadow boy with the tears is no longer with me and they all ask, “What happened?”, “Where is your other boy?”. Or they see him with me when I pick up the other kids at the end of the day and they ask, “Why isn’t he here anymore?” How to explain: “He couldn’t cope. There were too many kids here and he felt overwhelmed. It was too loud.” I don’t think any of them really understand my attempts to explain, except the vice principal to a certain extent with the proverb he shared. The Mensa can fall into any order within the family unit and this child is always the one who has problems, or causes problems. If I understand his explanation correctly, I believe this child is considered a special child, at least this is how I am going to interpret it, because I know that for all his issues, Riley, our Mensa is a special little boy.

I believe we have nearly come full circle now since my last blog entry and my special boy is finally smiling again. He is back at Scholars International, the school that was always meant to be temporary, but the one which the kids’ are most attracted to. It is small and there is no pressure. Riley will not learn anything here, but he is happy again and that is all I ask for. I spoke with the director of the school, Siham, and she has kindly agreed to let Riley return as a special status student. He is allowed all freedom to come and go from the class and hang out with the 3 older kids at the school. Mainly he is doing art and cursive writing. There is no pressure on him for anything else and it is more like a confidence building child care. He is managing to be there without Lilianna, Josephine and Dezmond thank goodness, which we were not sure he would be able to do. Of course our other 3 kids are jealous of Riley being there, but they have been terrific in their understanding of the difficult situation we were in. Ultimately, they have to trust us too when we say that Merton is a better school for them. They will learn more there in spite of it’s Ghanaian educational imperfections.

Ultimately, it is because of what is lacking in the educational system here in Ghana, that we have decided to come home at the end of Terry’s 6 month contract. The kids are not enjoying school much at all so between now and June 30th, we are all putting our heads down and getting through it. I have to say though that there will be good memories for the kids even from their school days here. Josephine in particular is thriving: she’s doing better in Math then she ever did in Canada, building her confidence with it. She is also our little social butterfly having been to two birthday parties already. The following is a list of other good school memories that will always stay with us:

  • 7:45 AM assembly, singing the Ghana National Anthem, singing the Name Song, the Higher Higher song, the Wandering Song, saying prayers and marching to class.
  • Every Thursday being able to spend .50 pesewa at the school canteen as a special treat.
    Walking to school in the morning with Mom and Dad through the Asylum Down neighborhood, where everyone recognizes us
  • Walking home after school stopping to buy fruit from our fruit lady and popcorn from our popcorn lady on the canal. Also, buying either crepe, popcorn, muffins or peanuts for an after school snack and drinking from cold water sachets
  • Going for a swim at the Alisa pool once or twice a week after school.
  • Having drama class once a week with “Mom”
  • Birthday celebrations in Lilianna’s class in particular, every other day.
  • Big rains during the school day, which are few and far between
  • Hot school uniforms and colorful light PE uniforms

The plan is for all the kids to join Riley at Scholars for 1.5 weeks at the end of June. This is when I hope to be able to finish writing my play finally as my teaching at Merton has taken away any time for writing. Besides the Shakespeare work I am doing with eight level 10 students, I have taken on an ambitious project with over 500 primary students. Each class (2 per grade) is involved in a dramatic presentation of a story called The Talking Eggs, which I have adapted for the school. I have the music teacher putting music to lyrics I have written and the art teacher creating animal masks for the level 3’s. I have no idea whether I can make it work to keep this many kids focused at one time for the presentation, but I am plugging away at it under the assumption it will work and the plan is to present the play in their assembly hall on June 23rd. I call this blog “Full Circle”, but I don’t know if we will actually make it full circle until we get to the end of June and have all survived. Here’s hoping.

The following is a list of more people/places we have come to rely on and appreciate:

  • Emmanuel, the taxi driver we book to take us to Krokrobite beach. His English is limited and we have had the odd communication breakdown, but he always has a little giggle when I speak to him, he is one of the best drivers we have encountered (very important for our car sick kids), and he is a sweet young man who nearly always makes himself available when we need him.
  • Our popcorn lady and fruit lady on the canal.
  • The kids’ surrogate VSO uncles and aunties, Mike, Aidan, Katherine and Emily.
  • Jim and Sessi, the kids’ best buds who live downstairs
  • Madonna, a friend we met through Anna
  • Cynthia, our neighbor who continues to take care of all our sewing and tailoring needs for very little money
  • Rukia who cleans our house and does laundry once a week
  • Rukia’s baby, Rashid who the kids’ play with and “mother” daily
  • Big Milly’s and Krokrobite beach
  • The Alisa hotel pool
  • The soccer pitch and playground at the Swiss German International school
  • The breeze
  • Our balcony

Ghanaian Curves

This newest blog has been a long time coming because we started school and it seems to have thrown us a few curves. The title, Ghanaian Curves though has more then one meaning.

I have discovered that in Ghana, life moves in curves and circles as opposed to straight lines. All of the roads curve here in Accra. The main city road is called the ring road and is a semicircle off of which thousands of smaller roads circle off and around it. To find your way, you must rely on landmarks as the road names carry no weight or meaning for anyone here. I have often gotten lost walking because I think I am on a straight road, but when I come out I seem to be in the opposite direction of where I thought I should be. Rarely does one road lead to the road you think it will lead to. Always the road eventually leads to a familiar sight, a sigh of relief and pride that you have found your way. Along the path, there are times when I feel lost and fearful of whether or not I will find my way. I have learned to trust though that every road eventually gets you where you need to go and will invariably be an interesting journey even if at times very challenging.

Perhaps you see where my metaphor is leading……….
Our issues with school are still not resolved. In particular, Riley simply does not fit into the school system here. The other kids are challenged in their new school, Merton International, but able to cope and even learn. Riley however hit a wall last week; he says the classroom here is like a prison for him. There was nothing I could do for him as he sobbed and sobbed, I had no choice but to bring him home with me and try to decide what to do. The problem is, I am deeply ensconced in my own teaching commitments at Merton now and unable to simply be at home with Riley, plus I believe I would have a mutiny on my hands if he was given the choice not to go to school, while the others each had to continue. Terry and I have weighed all options such as putting the kids back at Scholars (the school where they went temporarily for 2 weeks), however we have spent money on Merton, I have students enjoying my classes and looking forward to their final projects, and Josephine is thriving at this school. We discussed putting only Riley in Scholars, but a big part of his issue is “separation anxiety” and he does not want to be alone at Scholars. In some ways it seems as though Riley has Terry and I wrapped around his finger as we try to do what’s best and make him happy. We worry that we are not being firm enough with him in our decision making. We need to be the parents and make a choice we can stick to in order to give him some security instead of always looking for his input into what is best for him. It is impossible though when you have a boy who is desperately unhappy in school and saying to me, “Mom if you gave me the choice between killing myself and going to school, I would rather kill myself”. This is a difficult statement to brush off. He said it sincerely and I realized that this was not just an issue of bad or spoiled behavior. Riley is miserable in school and becoming miserable in Ghana. I have not been able to get help from his teachers and we need to make some changes as soon as possible.

I was originally going to title this blog entry, “Some Things Are Meant To Be”. After our ordeal trying to find a school, we felt that Merton was finally the perfect fit simply waiting for us: after endless research into many schools here in Accra, we knew the kids would get the best education we could find at Merton and in order to help pay for it, the administration was excited to have me teach Drama at the school. It felt like it was meant to be in every way, especially when I realized that I would be working with grade 10 Literature students on Much Ado About Nothing. Like everything else though in Ghana, this road is curving, taking us in the opposite direction. I feel completely lost……and a little bit afraid for myself and Riley. At this point in time, Terry and I don’t know where this road will lead. I have to trust though that I will find a familiar landmark eventually….. hopefully soon.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Lasting Impressions

There are many incredible images stockpiling in my memory that I want to begin putting into writing. They are powerful, moving and still pictures and feelings from Ghana that will stay with me forever. Some are not so favorable, most are exquisite, all pretty exotic.
• The light glinting off Dezmond as he takes his cold shower just before bed (his new nightly routine). The power is off so he shows me by the light of a small battery operated light how the water splashing off his hands make it look like he is Spiderman shooting out his webs. • Watching Riley perfect his front crawl, a stroke that I have only given him the odd bit of advice on. He swims around the perimeter of the pool slowly turning on his side to breathe, relaxed, kicking, his whole body staying on the surface, powering forward with his muscular upper body and strong kick, moving athletically yet with grace doing all the things I have been trying to do for years. No one told him to do it; I just noticed him trying it one day and encouraged his efforts. He loves it and it seems to come so naturally.

• The ghostly, silent noise the fans make as they come to an ominous stop when the power goes out during the day.
• The view I have walking to the kids’ school along the canal, of the Cathedral steeple in the distance surrounded by palm trees and other tropical greenery against a perfect blue sky & the view I have when I look just a bit lower and see all of the garbage in the open sewer which is what the canal actually is.

The games the kids’ come up with as they play with each other and their friends who live below us, creating kings and queens out of sticks and sarongs, a make believe world of people who live under the shrubs, are made out of rocks and have homes decorated with found objects like single earrings and pieces of glass. The kids playing cross dressing with each other and the friends they have made; Riley, Dezmond and their Ghanaian friend Jim looking like beautiful young girls and Lilianna, Josephine, with their Ghanaian friends Sessi, and Christy-Anna looking like very cool dudes. Playing Drip Drip Drop (Duck Duck Goose with water), Red Light Green Light, Truth or Dare, school and house.

• The girl who cleans/does laundry for me once a week, speaks virtually no English, and often carries her baby on her back as she cleans. This week she stops in the middle of dusting our bookshelf, completely fascinated with one of the kids’ books on Dinosaurs. Her baby is hungry and tired and irritable, but it does not matter, she is completely engrossed.
• Watching my girls grow stronger, wiser, independent and more beautiful every day, while still holding on to their charming youth and innocence.

• Long, lithe, muscular, naked little bodies as they get ready for bed each night.
• Bedtime stories on the balcony.
• The young woman with her baby, who sits in the shade of her wooden table/shelf where she sells fruit near the busy ring road on the sewer canal. Every day we walk past her in the exhaust and heat, but she always has a big smile and hello for us, which never fails to brighten my day.
• Kokrobite: the laid back rastafari beach we hang out at whenever we have the opportunity.

• The cultural performances at Alliance Francais. A highlight last week was a show from Toulouse, France. It was a fascinating dance piece that had a girl and a guy playing off each other physically and emotionally. It was completely mesmerizing for the full hour using dance, song, circus, playing with rhythm and light while telling a very personal story which was different for each person in the audience. I was transported to another world and inspired by the art of it. It was wonderful to watch such innovative Art performed in an intimate outdoor amphitheatre with a cold beer in hand surrounded by Terry, the kids and a large mixed crowd of expats and Ghanaians.
• The kindness of so many people here:
The director of Scholars International who was full of support and understanding when I told her I would pull the kids from her school to go to Merton International. She had done so much for us in letting the kids’ go to her school for 2 weeks at a discounted price. She had begun a renovation of her school which I think was a result of our kids going to the school and possibly with the assumption that more money would be coming as the kids continued in the final term of the year. She also fired a teacher who had been problematic with the girls (see my next blog for more on this). She said she was happy that we were happy.
Who lives across the road from us and charged only $2.75 to braid the girls’ hair with extensions, which took her and another girl together 2 and ½ hours.

Cynthia, Maggie, Eunice & George (photo below, from the right, w/o George)
The landlords who live in our compound: Cynthia is studying to become a seamstress and altered a dress for Josie for free. Eunice has brought over bananas, a flashlight (for when the power goes out), and ground corn and corn flour with which she taught me how to make breakfast cereal. Maggie gave us curtains and Eunice brought them over with a hammer and nails. George has had a stroke but always says hello with a big smile.

Henry (next to Terry)
He is the artist who lives below us and any time we need advice about the neighborhood or how to take a trotro anywhere, where to find a bank, pay a bill or fix my cell phone. He is always there for us and if we need last minute child care we can usually count on him or his family to help.

Anna Hughton
Sight unseen, she invites us to dinner our first Saturday after arriving in Accra. She continues to invite us for meals and to meet her other friends and family. She also has given us a microwave to use, pillow cases, towels, pots, pans, and dishes. She let’s us use her “driver” when needed and we know she is always a phone call away if we need anything. She is extremely kind and friendly with Terry, myself and the kids, a very good friend here in Accra.
Aunty Baby
The local grocer lady who keeps us in cold beer and who helped us when a stranger followed us home from the market one day hoping to get money from us.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Ghana Stories #4: Street Vendors

I promised this for my second blog entry. Sorry it is coming so late.
I want to describe the street culture as roads become parking lots at traffic lights all times of the day here in Accra due to the incredible traffic congestion. Standing in the heat, dust and exhaust at each major intersection are dozens of young men and mostly women, some carrying babies on their backs, most carrying heavy loads in bowls or boxes on their heads. They make their living day-in and day-out selling to motorists often running to catch up and give them their change or make their sale, constantly calling out in nasel voices, “Nice Plantain Chips”, or “Pure Water” or whatever it is they happen to be selling. It is dangerous as they constantly dodge traffic in a city/country where pedestrians have no rights. I will give you the list below of what we have seen for sale in the street so far. I have been writing them down as I see them so I swear to you that they are all truly sold in the street. It is amazing.
I don’t know how they do it, on their feet all day, money in one hand, the product they are selling in both hands, balancing the supply on their heads, some even dressed in tight jeans and long sleeves. It is a legitimate profession and not considered begging. Compared to our world at home, there is so little convenience here in Africa, but I would venture to say that this is one of the top conveniences in Accra. Instead of stopping somewhere on the way home from work, people simply get what they need as they sit in traffic. It is brought right to your window and they always have change. It is a service and they are often treated with the kind of respect or lack there of which servers receive in restaurants, but without the tipping. I don’t know how they are paid but hope it is more then just commission (I know part of it is commission because the are very eager to sell and come to your window simply if you look at them or point out what they are selling). Our very favorite item for sale in the street and the thing we buy from tro tros and taxi trips is the plantain chips. They are to die for. I gave up potato chips in Canada long ago, but I simply cannot resist the plantain chips here.
Here is a list of what we have seen for sale so far:
• 500 ml cold pure water sachets
• Bottles of drinkable yogurt
• Chocolate, strawberry and banana milk
• Trays of menthol mints, gum, etc.
• Baked goods, donuts and muffins
• Pringles
• Grapes
• Apples
• White or brown loaves of bread
• Eggs
• Bananas
• Sugar cane
• Popcorn
• Ice cube trays and dust pans
• Sunglasses
• Binoculars
• Fitted Sheets
• Sleeping pillows
• Watches
• Men’s fancy leather shoes
• Weed feed
• Tooth picks
• Leather wallets and cell phone holders
• Towels, cloths, sweat hankies and rags
• Framed wall hanging pictures
• Globe of the world
• Large maps to put on your wall
• Cell phone cards which buy more time for your cell phone
• Tools and electric drills
• Weigh scales
• Brief cases, knapsacks, computer cases and suitcases
• CD’s and pirated DVD’s
• Cowboy hats
• Toilet paper
• Leather belts
• Cell phone car chargers
• Flannel sheets/blankets
• Laundry brushes
• Brushes and other hair paraphanalia
• Pencil and CD and DVD cases • Calenders
• Decorative pillows
• Paper/document holders and plastic snap closed folders
• Toy airplanes and trucks
• Sling shots
• Blow up penguins
• Boys t-shirts and soccer shirts
• Kids shoes
• Soccer balls
• Cuff links
• Broaches
• Aprons
• Electric hand held massage gadgets
• Head phones and TV top antennas
• Super glue/crazy glue
• Kleenex
• Clothes Hangers
• Hand fans
• Exercise equipment gadgets like a “tummy trimmer”
• Booster cables
• Disposable shavers
• Men’s golf shirts
• Ice cream (it is stored in cardboard sitting on their heads 3 feet high and it miraculously stays frozen – I am stumped by this)
• Books like a popular one called “Chasing Elephants”
• Bike tires and pumps
• Pens and highlighters
• Flags (small on a stick)
• Flags (large for your wall)
• Walking canes
• Clocks
• Luggage tags
• Grab bag of toiletries and sewing kit items
• Air fresheners
• Laundry baskets and wash tubs
• Paint brushes
• “Shino” cleaner

And now for the top 3:
• Passports
• Polio immunization kits for kids
• Of course……..Plantain Chips

Sadly there is also some begging for money. Often it is someone walking with a blind person in the busy traffic going from window to window, sometimes it is children. There are also parapyligic people dragging their legs along with crutches and then worst of all are those pulling themselves along on a large sort of skateboard. We see all these off the streets as well, but it seems particularly sad seeing them in traffic.

So that’s it for now, if I see anything else, I will add it to a future blog.
Bye For Now

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Ghana Stories #3: The Ghanaian Passion in Holy Week

We got to experience Palm Sunday as it was meant to be.
We travelled on Friday March 26th (the kids last day of school in their temporary school called “Scholars International”) to a town in the hills northeast of Accra called Koforidua. It was a beautiful drive up and down a mountain with lush green jungle, beautiful views and peace from the incessant honking of horns in the city.
We stayed at another VSO’s house along with 10 fellow volunteers from north, south, east & west Ghana, sharing floor space, beds and couches. Aiden was our gracious host, letting the six of us use his room with ensuite bath, and telling us what to see and do in town. We did lot’s of walking, explored the market and spent the afternoon at the “Hotel Pool”, while the other volunteers bought supplies for dinner.
We all came together for Happy Hour at the local “Spot” for beers, Fanta and popcorn, then headed to the immense house to prep our feast. The house is normally used by 4 volunteers at a time, but currently only has Aiden. It also has the good karma of all its past volunteers including homey touches like nice curtains and local artwork. Better yet, it has a fabulous mini library with some great Canadian authors, many current titles and even a couple of good books for Lilianna and Josephine (whose voracious reading is impossible to keep up with).
What an amazing feast we had that night!!! Everyone worked together washing and chopping fresh tomato, garlic and avocado (my kids took care of this), plus okra, carrot, cabbage, garden eggs (a mini yellow eggplant), lettuce and scotch bonnet hot peppers. The vision for the meal was devised as we went along collectively with a few choice items already in mind like guacamole to go with the plantain chips and pakora headed up by Vina - a UK volunteer with Indian heritage.
The men mainly did the chicken on Aiden’s half barrel Bar-B-Que, although I am proud to say that Terry deep fried the Pakora, which was divine. It got polished off as we continued to chop and peel. There was lot’s of cold beer, Fanta and good conversation which led to a gourmet meal which was topped off with a fruit salad (papaya, mango, pineapple and banana), then games played in a circle around the living room.
It was a really nice evening, which made me feel all the more thankful for our wee commune of 6 Coyes-Loiselle. These volunteers have only each other for family while working here in Ghana, getting together every few weeks or months on occasions like this. Terry and I feel very fortunate to always have each other and the four kids as we make our way here in this world of riches and poverty, despair and joy.
The next day, Palm Sunday, we arrived at St. Dominics Parrish without palms, expecting to find a table at the back of the church with young lime green palm branches that we pick up sedately and bring to our pews. Instead we arrived in Jerusalem with everyone having brought palms from trees in their backyards or the roadside. Some were big, some small, some braided, some weaved, some with flowers attached like bougainvillea, all festive. Mass began outside upon the arrival of the procession of dancing, singing, palm waving Ghanaians with a loud celebratory brass band accompanied by base and snare drums, which beat out African rhythms to match the joyous trumpet and trombone.
Everyone was laughing and cheering, waving their sweat rags as they danced to the exciting pulse in the music. We did not have to imagine Jesus arriving on a donkey; he was there with us as we eventually made our way into the Church after the opening blessing, sweat dripping from all pores. There was no room in the regular pews, so we went on a balcony that ran the length of the church. It was perfect up there under the fans where we got to see all the action from above. The mass felt a bit like a wedding reception with children young and old socializing, singing, dancing, and praying in and outside of the church throughout mass, wearing their best dresses and dress cloths for boys. Music plays a huge role in the Ghanaian Mass. I don’t know the significance of it yet, but all the masses seem to have specific rows of women wearing matching sarongs, blouses, head scarves and jewelry. Perhaps they are nuns? One group will take up two to three pews on one side of the church and another group in a different matching costume will take up a different set of pews.
On Palm Sunday, we got to witness one particularly lively group of ladies all in blue and white with matching peals and sweat rags. Traditionally the song for the gifts is especially energetic. On Palm Sunday at St. Dominics, we were treated to the brass band and drums again, whose sound echoed throughout the church filling it with thunderous, celebratory music. They played a sort of call and answer between the trumpet and trombone to the constant beat of the drum, very African, as opposed to what you would normally think of a brass or marching band. Then the congregation joined in singing and I would not have believed this could happen, but the people singing actually drowned out the musicians. It was breathtaking and powerful, even Dad had tears in his eyes, not just Mom, as the kids were quick to observe. It was all the more potent because everyone processed to the altar with a donation for the basket dancing forwards, backwards, sideways, circling, clapping with big smiles, playing off each other singing and moved by the music. It was pure sunshine and it still maintained the essence of prayer. It never felt over the top or “Uncatholic” in the worship. Our spirits were raised high in spite of the lows that we relived in the gospel reading.
Holy week progressed. Terry travelled over 12 hours by bus to Tamale, a city in northern Ghana for 2 days of meetings. So the kids and I decided to treat ourselves to a couple of beach days at Big Milly’s, the bungalow at Kokrobite Beach (on the outskirts of Accra) that we had stayed in weeks before. Terry joined us there early Holy Thursday and we got home that evening in time for Terry and I to go on our first date in Ghana. The kids spent the evening with the neighbor kids who live below us, watching TV, which never happens anymore outside of our Friday movie nights with the projector and laptop that we brought along. Interestingly, at the end of the night, they all said it was boring just sitting there watching TV for 2 hours. Terry and I went to the Canadian High Commission for their monthly BBQ/social. The beer was cold, the burgers and free popcorn were amazing, and it was nice to meet some other Canadian expats and find out what everyone does here in Accra.
On Good Friday, we went to the 3:00 PM service arriving at 2:15 PM in order to get a pew. We sat in the front pew in order to follow everything easier. I was wearing a white shirt to stay cool knowing the mass would be very long and hot. Every once in a while we run into Ghanaian culture faux pas and today was one of those days, where we managed 2. We walked in and everyone was wearing black or very dark colors, so not only did we stick out with our white skin, but also our light colored apparel. Then we realized that we were sitting in a pew normally reserved for the readers. They were very subtle in their handling of it, very kind in fact. They did not disturb us, but quietly brought in extra chairs for the readers to sit in front of us.
Once again, we were treated to amazing music. The gospel was particularly moving as the choir sang all the parts in the gospel that are normally spoken by crowds. So we were got to hear “Barrabas! Barrabas!” and “Crucify him! Crucify him” for example sung solemnly in artistically arranged, moving 3 to 5 part harmonies. I find it difficult to decipher the harmonies here because they are so intricate and well blended that sometimes although I know there is harmony, it comes across as unison. The veneration of the cross must have lasted at least 45 minutes as each person spent extended moments praying and meditating with Jesus at the cross. There was moving music throughout and it was very poignant. After over 3 hours at Church on Good Friday, we decided not to do the Easter Vigil and instead watched Franco Zephrelli’s (sp) Jesus of Nazareth with the kids on Friday and Saturday nights on our big white wall. It was a great choice as the kids (the boys in particular) had many questions answered or clarified for them and it made Jesus’ passion so much more real as it closely and dramatically followed the gospels from his birth to his death. It also brought about more questions, which made for some wonderful Easter weekend discussions in our little apartment.
We awoke Sunday morning to discover that, much to our delight, the Easter Bunny found us here in Accra! The kids hunted for FanIce (ice cream/popsicle packs), Fantas, Ghanaian chocolate, suckers, gum and malt balls. We also each got souvenirs from Kokrobite beach (Big Milly’s): dresses for the girls, patchwork shorts for the boys, and local pottery coffee mugs for Mom and Dad. We went to Mass where it was packed out with C&E’s just like in Canada and the choir treated us to Handel’s Alleluia Chorus at the end of Mass. Anna (our Ghanaian friend who lived in Edmonton), invited us for an amazing Easter meal at her house. It brought us to the end of a truly blessed Lenten season and Holy Week in Ghana. She had other guests and family there and when people arrived they all greeted each other with “Happy Easter”, “He is truly risen”, “We are blessed”, which is how we as a family felt; how lucky we were to share Easter so intimately with each other and then with a loving family, kind enough to let us share in their love and fellowship.
Happy Easter and happy spring to all our loved ones back home.
Annette and the Coyes-Loiselle Crew

Friday, March 19, 2010

School Daze

March 9, 2010

Week #2 of our real life in the apartment in Kokomlemle had some ups and downs and some real life learning for all of us. The goal at the start of the week was to finalize our school plans. We decided to go with De Youngsters as the school of choice for several reasons: it is a ten minute walk, they already know some of the kids and they would get a real taste of school life with the local Ghanaian kids. It also happened to start the soonest as they were willing to give us a discount for starting mid-term.

I went early Tuesday morning to have another look and see about a “mid-term” discount. I arrived at 7:20 AM and the headmaster was not there yet so as I waited for him. I hung out in a little courtyard and watched the students arrive fresh for school. Fresh is a good word for mornings here in Accra; 6:00 to 9:00 AM is a wonderful time. It is cool, quiet and feels efficient, like you can accomplish a great deal in a short while. So I was feeling refreshed and enjoyed watching the students arrive. I met one of the grade one teachers who assured me that the boys would be fine with learning to read in English even though they have only read in French up until now. He said they had a student from France once who was in a similar situation and that he was able to catch up. This teacher said they could work with the boys to help them. All of the teachers I met were kind, intelligent and seemed genuinely happy to be at work as they mingled with each other smiling and joking. It was in the outdoors (all classrooms are cinderblock designed, with exterior air flow and they open out to various outdoor spaces), but it could have been any school staffroom in Edmonton during first assembly of the day. Older kids seemed to be assigned to watching the younger ones until official assembly at 7:30 AM. It was cute to see them take this task on until I saw one of these monitors (who looked about 10) with a stick which he used to discipline one of the kids who was not settling down. This was slightly concerning because when I came in the week before, the headmaster assured me (after I asked him) that there are no “canes, sticks or straps” in their school. They don’t believe in hitting children. So to see a stick seemed odd, but I thought perhaps it was like a game with the kids. I continued to sit and watch as kids filed in, many greeting me with “Hello Madame”.

At 7:30 AM official assembly of the kids begins in the largest space near the grade one classroom and Junior High wing. It was so cute to watch as they lined up with their class groups while a sort of cow bell was wrung, just like in “Little House On the Prairie”. I stood beside Jack, the French teacher and was very happy to hear that they would be taking French classes at this school as well. As I stood practicing my French with him, I saw out of the corner of my eye, a teacher using a stick on the hands of a group of lined up older boys. I immediately switched to English and asked what was happening there. He assured me all was fine and that these were students who live very close to school and were late this morning. I told him of my conversation with the Headmaster in this regard and he was completely non-plused again saying it is really nothing and that this is how they will learn for next time. I looked over at them again and saw that the teacher and students were smiling and he was not in fact hitting them very hard. It seemed jovial almost like a game or a tease. There were too many other good things happening so I didn’t dwell on this for very long.

The Head master then arrived. He is like the King of Kensington. The kids seem to love him. When I first met him the week before, he was sitting in a tiny chair watching a kindergarten class. He is a soft spoken, gentle giant of a man who lumbers around slowly always smiling. He said he could give me a discount or scholarship as they call it and we went to the admission office (it is in a different building from his office for some reason). So I met the ladies there once again and they were friendly, excited to have us join, and said the kids could start school as early as Thursday (without their uniforms which they would hopefully have ready by the following week). I went home and met Evelyn from downstairs whose 2 children play with our kids and attend this school. She told me how it is a very “tight” school meaning that it is competitive for marks and that the students are encouraged to and really want to do well. I knew which way I was leaning and was getting more and more excited with the prospect of De Youngsters. I phoned “Christ The King” (the school I wrote a letter of enquiry to) and found out that they do not have space for kids in the Third Term (May to July). I immediately called Terry to update him and we decided to move quickly. *WARNING: this next section is dry with details only to attempt to give you an idea of the Ghanaian style administration* I went with the kids to De Youngsters in the afternoon to pick up 4 admission forms. She said to come back tomorrow “someone is getting them” as they only have 2 right now. Next morning I went with all the kids again and they still only had 2 forms. They said not to worry I could fill them out the next day (Thursday – first day of school) when I bring the kids (I paid about $4 Canadian for each form). I went to see the Headmaster who I knew had some forms in his office, which he produced, but they were only 1 page instead of 4 pages. We all went back to the admin office, they spoke/argued amongst themselves then said I could use the incomplete forms and they gave me $8 back from the original $16 I paid for the forms. They then showed me the Friday Gym uniform set which would cost me about $5 each (I am continuing to use Canadian currency for ease), but I was out of money and they said no problem, I could pay for those tomorrow. I spoke with the Head Master about the stick I saw at assembly the day before and he seemed to play dumb at first, but eventually owned up to the need for some physical discipline to help teach certain students, but that it would never be used on my children. It was said with smiles, kindness and sincerity, so I decided it must have been a fairly isolated incident and I reminded myself that we chose a Ghanaian school where things are different and I have to be accepting of some of those differences. We left with the Head Master saying he would show us around in the morning if we arrive at 7:30 AM and introduce us to all their classrooms and teachers.

The kids and I went home then all excited for the first day of school. After lunch we headed to “The Mall” even though it was the heat of the day and a long trocho ride away. We needed school supplies like lunch coolers, ice packs, a few groceries to make sandwiches and snacks for their lunch etc. We also had to get 2 Five Hundred gram packs of laundry soap, 2 bars of soap and 2 toilet paper rolls per child (8 of each item, which felt like a lot). We were all still giddy though as we made our way to meet Terry at Alliance Francaise to celebrate. We ate outside, drank beer and fanta in the grass and watched as some performers got ready for a huge art installation and some drummers assembled all their gear. We partook in the Opening of the exhibit (which was a fascinating piece where we walked on sand and lit candles to view it), drank some free Guiness and wine to go with a chicken skewer which was also on offer. We decided to leave early, unfortunately missing the drummers, but we needed to get ready for school. We got the kids to bed and stayed up late filling out admission forms, making lunches and organizing backpacks and water bottles.

Thursday morning arrived and all were excited, but nervous for what the day would bring. We arrived at 7:25 AM feeling just a little self conscious with our big cooler of food for lunches, our 2 big shopping bags of soap and toilet paper and our 4 young white kids with no uniforms. “Auntie Lucie”, the kindergarten teacher helped us right away as the Head Master was not in yet. She said she would care for the cooler, so that the kids had a central place to go for their lunches and the toiletries were left in the Head Master’s office. We waited and waited on a bench they set out for us as the other kids arrived and got ready for assembly. Finally, the assistant Head Master came and tried to help. I had not met him before, which is too bad because he seemed to run the place more then anyone else. He was very friendly and began trying to figure out which classroom they would go into. It was all very haphazard and he asked if we had paid the school fees yet. I said no because no one told us we had to on the first day. I only had money for the “Friday Gym Uniforms” (we can only get about $175 out from an ATM at a time and school fees were going to cost us about $675). They said we could come back in the afternoon with the fees.

Terry had to go so kissed the kids goodbye and went off to work. We scrambled around, but got Lilianna into her class, then I went with the boys to their class. Josie had a death grip on me so I left the boys and went to her class. The boys were with the teacher I had met 2 days before, but he had something wrong with his eyes which were irritated and watering. He was sitting at a desk and another teacher was trying to help him. Off I went anyway and met Josephine’s teacher who was extremely kind and had a wonderful way with the students. He saw her eyeing the stick on his desk though, so he explained to her that “the reason it is a black stick is because it is for the black kids only.” He assured her it would not be used on her. This was again a bit worrisome, but I stayed positive as did Josie who was feeling comfortable enough to be left on her own now. I popped in on Lilianna, who was doing fine in a class with the French teacher, Jack. I went back to the boys’ room waiting for the other grade one teacher to arrive so I could meet her and talk to her about their English reading issue. The original teacher was still sitting at his desk wiping his eyes as all the kids were arriving in the class. It was a huge class and another teacher came to help settle the kids. Riley and Dezmond just watched. Finally the female teacher arrived and I introduced myself. She seemed to think all would be fine with the issue of reading English. I told her she should sit the boys at different desks as they were already bugging each other (the desks are shared tables of two). I kissed them goodbye, went back and kissed Josie, then Lilianna. As I was getting ready to leave the Assistant came to check in with me again, friendly as ever and asked if the girls had taken the “placement exam”. I knew nothing of this, but showed him their progress reports from Holyrood in Edmonton. He was surprised the Head Master had not given them the exam, which is their way of determining which class is most suitable for the girls, since their system of grades could be different from ours. I asked if they could take the exam today, but he never really answered. I decided to leave it in his capable hands. I had to go out and buy material from the market for their school Uniforms plus get to a bank for some money. I knew these tasks would take nearly the whole day.

I had about 10 minutes of enjoyable freedom before all hell broke loose with the day. As I walked home, a young girl stopped me who was selling second hand clothes (carried in a bowl on her head) and I tried on a nice blouse. I bartered but she would not go low enough and I knew I did not need it, so I left. It was fun though and I felt free and independent. I went home then and spoke with Evelyn about where to get the material at the market. She offered to have her “house help” girl, Rita accompany me to the market so that I would not be taken advantage of. Also because it is a massive market which is difficult to navigate (Makola Market is in Centra Accra, difficult to get to and huge). I needed money first so went to 5 ATM’s within a 2 KM radius of where we live and was unable to get money at any of them. The one I knew I could get money at was a taxi ride away, so Rita and I went there first, then to market. The ATM ate my card so it took about 10 to 15 minute before I got my money. The taxi driver charged us extra for the wait and the security guard who helped me asked for a tip as well.

The market was insane. It is like a huge octopus with arms that snake out in all directions. Everything looks the same and the place is packed with people all wanting your money. It is dusty, noisy, frenetic and constantly moving. We tried to get the best price, which took a couple of hours going stall to stall and travelling to different parts of the market. In the end I only saved about $0.50 from the original place we went to. We also found a store which had smaller lunch coolers for the kids (more inconspicuous) and some stepping stools which I had been needing for our apartment. Finally, exhausted disheveled and dusty with the city, we took a taxi home. Rita was a sweetheart (just a young girl saving up to go to University), so I dashed her (tipped her) for her help. I tried one more bank in our area with no luck so decided to offer the School Admin $150, which was all I had. I hoped they would let me pay the rest as I was able to get it.

I went back to the school and checked in on Josephine who had been moved to a smaller class and seemed to be doing great. Then I checked on Lilianna who shoulder shrugged me that things were okay. When I went to the boys’ class Riley was there, but not Dez who was apparently in the bathroom. Riley didn’t even see me he was completely engrossed watching the other kids in the class, which appeared fairly chaotic. I went to look for Dezmond and found him washing his hands with “Auntie Lucie” after having used the bathroom. He started crying as I walked him to class and he wanted go home. He was embarrassed having a teacher help him in the bathroom and his stomach was sore from diarrhea. It killed me, but I told him there is only one hour left and that I had a tough day too, but that we had to do our best on this first day which will be the toughest one until we get more settled into the school. He wanted me to stay, but I had to go to the office and pay fees.

The admin ladies accepted my financial situation and said I could pay the rest as I was able to get it. Phew. I had a receipt for the $150 I paid so far. I then went to our closer smaller market and spent whatever money I had left to get some fruit for the kids to eat after school and so that I would have some for their lunches on Friday. I got back to the school with 5 minutes to spare and watched the boys in their class. Dezmond saw me waiting just outside the class and had a huge grin for me (what a relief). Riley was still completely unaware of my presence. I waited and waited, the school bell rang and other kids were getting out, but the grade ones seemed to be having to finish a writing assignment which the boys were not doing because they did not have a notebook. His teacher asked me about notebooks for the boys. I had no idea what was needed and she said I could get them from the admin office for tomorrow. I assumed that school fees would pay for this and provide them. No one had said anything about this before now, although Josephine said her teacher bought a notebook for her at the beginning of the day. I hoped it could all be cleared up in the admin office next day. As I waited for the boys, I focused on Riley as he took in the chaos around him. It was surreal. I felt like I was watching a movie with noise that faded into the background as the action went to slow motion and the camera slowly zoomed in on Riley who was in his own world watching the fighting/playing/noisy kids around him. He was in a trance and it was clear that his whole day had been like this. My heart broke and tears welled up, but I repeated the mantra in my head that I had been saying all the way back from market, “The first day is the hardest. We have to give it our best effort and see it through. We can’t give up.” I was arming myself with these words to tell the kids after school because I knew they each would have had a tough day. Nothing prepared me for what the kids shared with me though. They were such brave little souls.

I finally went into the boys’ class to retrieve them since they were not doing an assignment anyway. There was no order and the poor teacher was completely burnt out with constantly telling kids to sit down, be quiet, do their work etc. I finally counted heads and came up with nearly 60 kids in the class. The girls found us there and we left the trenches together. As we walked home, the kids had story after story of how the stick was used constantly throughout the day. They each witnessed their fellow students being wacked hard on the hands, shoulders and backs with these sticks or canes as they call them. The boys had headaches because it was noisy in their class all day. At one point they said the teacher was gone for about ½ an hour (6 year old time) and the class became a playground, a zoo. Lilianna was careful in her stories knowing that I was armed with telling her not to give up, to see this thing through, give it a chance. She told of being bored to tears in class, especially in French. She told of the Math teacher not showing up so the French teacher supervised them for 1 & ½ hours while all the other students socialized and Lilianna sat quietly watching, waiting. She told of learning a subject called Creative Art where they write fancy letters using a graph and ruler in a mathematical sort of way, then being quizzed on it (acing the quiz after guessing on the multiple choice answers), she had stories of awful bathrooms, and girls in her class leading her to the boys bathroom then laughing at her. She too had a headache from the constant chatter in the classroom. Josephine said Lili cried when they met at lunch. Josephine told of her teacher stepping out of the class and another teacher coming in and thwacking each student hard with a stick on the back because he could hear their noise from his classroom. He set Josephine aside to watch and she said even the students that were sitting quietly got hit. My couragious little soldiers came home though and while snacking Josephine started her homework right away and Lilianna followed suit as their stories continued and I got more and more upset. I hid this from the kids until Terry got home and then I lost it. I took him out onto the balcony to talk privately and figure out what to do. I felt so stupid. How could I not have seen that they would use those sticks? Why didn’t I wait a full day before buying fabric for their uniforms or paying any money to the administration? What are we going to do? Our money is so tight. We count every penny. Do we simply think of it as a donation to this school and pull them out? Do we see this thing through? There are only 15 school days before a 4 week break between the 2nd and third terms. Can my kids handle this school for 15 days? Are we being snobs or overly superior? How do the local kids do it? Maybe we should just suck it up. We kept coming back to the reality though that the kids had headaches and it was the longest day of their lives, Lili and the boys in particular. Also, we kept thinking about the fact that we would be spending about $650 for these 15 days of school instruction where I know Lilianna and the boys would learn nothing. Is the cultural experience enough of a learning adventure? Then I saw Josephine and Dezmond playing a game where she would wack him with a stick and he would scream. That pretty much made up my mind. I can’t have our kids witnessing that kind of violence to their fellow students, exasperated by the fact that they are exempt simply because of the color of their skin. After much discussion and going back and forth, Terry and I decided to pull them. I would go the next morning and try to get our money back.

I had crazy dreams all night and my stomach was in knots as I walked to school for 7:30 AM Friday morning. I spoke to the Assistant (the Head Master never did turn up again), and made 2 points: the headmaster told me there were no sticks or canes and there were. My kids came home very upset because of this. The Head Master also told me there would be 30-40 kids per class, not 60. I asked him if I could get my money back because my husband is a volunteer and that kind of money is a big deal for us. He understood my concerns, tried to talk me into staying then spoke to the admin lady to whom I paid my money the day before. I sat on pins and needles as they spoke softly in Twi back and forth. I heard him say something about volunteer. I waited and waited, then he turned and smiled saying the admin lady would give me back my money. I couldn’t help myself, I started crying I was so relieved. He gently took my shoulders saying “it’s okay, don’t be upset, everything is fine”. I thanked him and her profusely, then asked for all my toiletries back, which they also gave me.

I went home and saw Rita, the young girl from downstairs, and told her how we had pulled the kids out. I apologized for all the work she put in to help me the day before and joked that we need to find a school now that has black and white uniforms after all the time, money and effort that went into them. The kids were relieved not to have to go back and we had a great day at home on Friday. I cleaned the apartment while they played, then we homeschooled with some success in math after lunch. The next day, Saturday was the start of our long weekend and we headed to a beach resort just out of the city where we stayed in a bungalow just off the beach and time stood still in this little piece of paradise away from the noisy city. When we got back last night (Monday evening), it felt good to be home, truly home after a holiday. We are adjusting to the noise, heat and daily routines of our little apartment in Accra. The noises of our neighborhood have become normal, like the pre-dawn rooster calls, the incessant sweeping, the constant hum of our fans, the bells, the knocking of wooden carts, the horns, the arguments, the laughter, the Muslim calls to prayer which don’t even wake us up anymore. And there are many things I have come to enjoy and love:

  • The lady from the market who gives us free mangoes because she loves Josephine who shares a name with her eldest daughter.
  • Our neighbors all around who look out for us, and make sure we feel happy and safe.
  • The bird that sings outside my kitchen window every day and sounds just like the first birds of spring in Edmonton.
  • Cheers from the local soccer pitch (a field of brown dirt), where skilled games are played every evening as I cook dinner. These games attract so many spectators, it sounds like a stadium of people.
  • The sweat that trickles as I cook dinner in our hot sweaty kitchen.
  • The absolute joy, relief and celebration when the electricity and water finally come back on.
  • Our balcony at night after the kids go to bed, just me, my book and the hammock.
  • The breeze, the blessed, blessed, breeze.
  • 6:00 AM
  • Alliance Francaise
  • The hotel, a ten minute walk away which lets us use their pool now for about $7.50 once a week.
  • 2nd hand clothing stalls on every other corner to make up for the clothes we brought which are too clingy.
  • Fresh pinapples, mangoes, bananas, Red Red, and Palava. Ice cold Star Beer from Auntie Baby’s shop
  • The praise, congratulations and God Bless You’s I get whenever people find out that all four kids are mine.
  • The incredible courage of our children as they adapt to this life and thrive while I drag them with me in trochos and to market where they help me carry bags.
  • Seeing Terry at the end of his work day and sitting down to dinner where each has a turn to share their story for the day.

We have our challenges, but we manage them. The power goes out every other day and I fear for the food in our fridge. Out longest outage started in the middle of the night and went until 2:00 PM the next day. The water is shut off every once in a while. We are currently heading into our second day with no water. We keep a barrel filled for these occasions. We filter all our drinking water. All fruits and vegetables must be peeled or cooked or soaked in salted water for 20 minutes then rinsed in filtered water. The bugs, ants in particular, have invaded, and I have to put all food into containers or the fridge. All food spoils very quickly in the heat and ants can get into just about anything that is not sealed in a container. Market (a fifteen minute walk) needs to happen every second or third day and I am still not getting the best deals I am sure. The kids hate going to market with me because it takes so long in the heat. It is quicker if I am by myself, because with the kids everyone wants to stop and talk to them, find out their names, their ages, how many are twins etc. They love twins in Ghana! The kids get bored in the hot afternoons when we take shelter from the heat in our apartment and they bicker and fight. Mom and Dad can get on edge at this time of day too. Then the air cools at 4:00 PM, the breeze comes and all is well.

Overall though it is a life we are getting used to and calling our own. We are all enjoying ourselves. One of the boys asked me the other day as we were walking, “Mom, how come you are always smiling here”, I replied, “Because I’m so happy I guess”. Everyone was silent as they pondered this and I think we each felt the same way.

Next time I write, I hope to have the kids enrolled in a school that we all feel good about. I also want to tell you about the things that are sold in the streets as people commute in Accra. The traffic snarls allow for a huge business selling everything you could imagine in the convenience of your car or trocho. Squeegie guys in Toronto got nothing on Accra.

Bye For Now,