Tuesday, 26 October 2010

A local cold

As if it were nothing more troublesome than a mere cold, people in Ghana often casually mention that they have recently had a little malaria, and before long go about their daily tasks regardless. Well I've just probably had malaria, and no daily tasks were being conducted.

It hits you like a hammer, or more accurately a fire extinguisher, blow to the entire body. Sudden and total exhaustion, burning and then freezing sweats, intense headaches, aching bones, failing muscles, confused thoughts.

Fortunately the symptoms were relatively mild, possibly suppressed by the anti-malarial drugs I've been taking religiously every morning. Lucy morphed into a magnificent nurse, ultimately resorting to a visit to the local Seventh Day Adventist medical clinic to confirm the symptoms with the doc. The clinic was packed with people, including children slumped on benches with similar symptoms to mine, but worked remarkably efficiently.

For these people and I, medication is affordable. Four days' daily intake of 22 pills and pirated Arnie Swarzenegger movies and I was back on my feet. Many can't afford insurance and have to suffer without help, with either a loss of working income or worse (it accounts for a quarter of all deaths of children under 5 in Ghana (20,000 children pa)).



Wise man in Glasgow say: 'See man with machete, run mile'.
Wise man in Koforidua say: 'See man with machete, ask him 'where coconuts?''.

Monday, 18 October 2010


It's not so much that things are unknown here and that we don't speak the language, but there is generally an assumption that we will know what is happening - including the why and the when. Meetings are scheduled without anyone being told. Events are planned without prior notice. We follow blindly and willingly and generally the destination involves interesting new interactions. The local buses (the tro tros) leave when full so there is no timetable and the destination may bear little relevance to the sign some of them carry on their roofs. But people's kindness and unnerving interest in what we (the obruni) are doing means we are passed from one to the next with as little fuss as unloading the goats from the boot and roof. No mention is made of the fact that the side door is lying in the boot, no-one talks about the destination but ultimately we always seem to arrive in the right place.

This morning I followed my colleague to the seventh day celebration of the death of a local businessman. The details of where we are going and what we will do when we arrive are not discussed. Funerals are far bigger than weddings here. This is just the first part when family, friends and strangers sit from 6am to 6pm (wearing ornate black or red ceremonial clothes) to remember the person who has died. Libations are poured, messages are blasted from microphones and enormous speakers and music dominates the whole street. The older the person the bigger the celebration. It is not until the 40th day that the proper funeral takes place. I did not know the man who died but I am asked to greet everyone, including the son of the man who died and the local sub-chief who is introduced as a king. It is traditional that the close family should not left alone during this time so their mourning and celebrating and living is very much a group event. No-one should be lonely, I'm told. It's an incredible contrast to how we treat death in the UK. They say this is the most important journey, that the soul of the person will be present and for them to pass over properly everything must be done to honour them.

Monday, 4 October 2010

The things I miss (food)

Quite a few people have asked what we miss and it is tempting to reel off a long list of foodstuffs, shops, bars and restaurants and make each line rhyme – like a song from The Sound of Music.
Obviously we miss people the most. Speaking to friends and family in the very public internet cafĂ© in Koforidua is no replacement. We’re incredibly lucky though in that the other VSO volunteers in Eastern Region are great fun and the area itself is beautiful. It makes the other challenges more palatable.
However, that’s no counterpoint to the lack of tasty, recognisable food. Sandwiches, cheese, milk (and variety of any kind) are missed as if they were old friends.
The local market here is made up of a maze of tiny streets and alleyways. Rickety handmade stalls selling tomato puree, sachets of pure water, cream crackers (soft and from China) and Jack and Jill wafer biscuits (a new favourite) are crammed together next to women selling oranges from huge metal bowls balanced on their heads, scratch cards to top up mobile phones and huge cauldrons of bean stew and rice. Taxis and people compete for space on the road – the pavements are split and crumbling and every few metres a huge gaping hole emerges with a black hole dropping some four feet to the litter and unknown gutter below. Precariously balanced barbeques on metal tins covered in offal churn smoke into the air next to men preaching with loudspeakers about redemption and women roasting plantain over charcoal. Watermelons, coconuts and pineapples are split and or peeled on request. Tomatoes are piled into pyramids ready to be haggled over and argued for. Second hand clothes and shoes are piled up and advertised with loudspeakers and loud voices. In the core of this maze is a covered area where more specialist products wriggle, squawk and stare. This is where the live chickens scratch in cages to be sold on for their eggs; snails bigger than a giant’s fist ooze and creep over each other in a pile (ready to be boiled for soup) and dead bats hang motionless from the poles where they were barbequed. (We have not yet tried such delicacies but just seeing them is more than enough to bring on emotional and physical pangs for Marks and Spencer’s foodhall).
So for those asking what we miss, I would say food. I would say crisp salad (without the taint and rumours of typhoid), meals cooked without buckets of red palm oil, and clean white foodhalls with baskets and too much to choose from.
More than anything I miss being able to walk the streets anonymously without every child and stranger calling obruni, obruni (white man). That is what I miss today, but in a year’s time I imagine I will be back in the UK missing the greetings of strangers, the catcalls of tiny, cute children, the adventure of stepping out of the front door, the immediacy of fried yam and hot pepper sauce sold on streets corners. I will no doubt miss the stifling heat and the overly familiar strangers, the brilliantly complex handshakes, the laughter and music and uninhibited dancing. That just seems to be how missing things goes.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Big trip to Tamale

My first government junket took place this week in the form of a trip to the northern city of Tamale. The purpose was for my colleagues in local government, the district parliament and some community leaders working on the Cadbury Cocoa Partnership (CCP) project in the Eastern Region to share experiences with their counterparts working on a similar project in the Northern Region.

Spending 12 hours on a bus in Ghana can be a tad sweaty and significantly increases ones risk of being involved in a traffic accident – some particularly tasty examples of which are evidenced in most roadside ditches. Fortunately some decent driving from Kwekoo and some intensive praying at the start and end of each leg helped us complete the journey safely. Unfortunately I cannot confirm whether anyone prayed for the 72 yams, 100 bananas, thousands of beans, 6 guineau fowl or the goat all tied on the roof for the bumpy 12 hour trip back.

Tamale’s population is 80% Islamic and so the culture is very different to that in the south. Women are dressed much more colourfully, most people (men, women and children) get around on scooters and bicycles, people speak a different language and food markets are more plentiful (at least during the wet season, which this still is). I took on the role of observer as my colleagues negotiated their yam and guinea fowl purchases.

Tamale is also known for having something of a white elephant of a football stadium built by the Chinese for the 2008 African Nations Cup. The majestically named Real Tamale United currently prop up the Ghanaian Premier Division and attract crowds that fill one in every ten seats. Judging by the number of football tops being worn around town, the remaining 9 people support Chelsea.

We had a really interesting visit to a small farming community about an hour from the city. The project we learned about helped communities develop their own action plans to address their own priorities and then find ways to deliver them. The theory is that this is far more sustainable than NGOs imposing their own priorities.
Our CCP project in the Eastern Region is very similar.

It is designed to try to empower similar communities so that they are sufficiently organised and knowledgable about the instruments of local government that they can deliver improvements themselves, campaign for funding in specific priority areas, get their needs included in local government plans and pester their politicians. It was clear from our visit that breaking people out of a mindset of dependency will be a significant challenge.


Random football tops

Most Ghanaians support one of the devilsome duo of Chelsea or Man Utd. However, my heart leapt with joy at the sight of a bicycling local man in a circa 2006 Jambos top. Unfortunately I have no photographic evidence of this yet.
Lovers of Gaelic football will be dismayed by this photo of kenti weaver Kofi of Cape Coast, clearly led astray by a bogman from south-west Ireland. I informed him of the error of his ways. Evin – a consignment of Dubs tops would be a worthwhile investment…