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