Friday, January 16, 2009

Humility Cocktail – 1 part observation, 2 parts reflection

Sometimes in my less happy days here in Ghana, I can’t help but think that Ghanaian’s are a little rude by Canadian standards. NOT ALL GHANAIANS!! And I don’t actually think that. But there are instances where I can’t help but feel a little offended by the small insignificant things.

Staring is for starters. Walking through town sometimes, or most often when I am doing something out of the ordinary for a white person in Ghana, I get some stone cold stares. Not the friendly ones with hints of smiles at the edges of people’s lips. The blank expressionless stares, or worst, the ones that suggest disapproval or unhappiness.

Another thing that makes me frustrated sometimes is being called ‘O Kran Ja’, the local word for white man. While I realize that it is a simple way of referring to me out of a crowd of people, I can’t ignore my conditioning and feel somewhat offended by it. The worst is when someone will sit but a few feet away from me, have a conversation in the local language with one of my friends, co-workers, or family members; and say the word ‘O Kran Ja’ repeatedly throughout. “I know you’re talking about me, the least you could do is ask me my name or speak directly to me!!”

But after I have these gut reactions immediately follows a sense of regret and guilt. Nobody is trying to be rude to me, and I know this. The people who may stare don’t mean to be intimidating and will often bare their huge white smile when I break the tension with a greeting or a smile of my own. To be honest, they are only staring because they are interested or because I am doing something that is uncommon for someone like myself to be doing or shouldn’t be doing at all.

The ones who refer to me as ‘O Kran Ja’ also don’t mean to be derogatory in anyway. Sadly because of the past in North America, I am conditioned to see any labeling of skin color as being rude. However, nobody here will say “White Man!!” with a hint of racism. They are simply attaching an accurate adjective to what I happen to be – a man.

What I realize through all this is that I get that incorrect feeling of rudeness only because of my perspective. My Canadian standards make me feel that way. But what happens when I look at things from a Ghanaian standard.

Put bluntly – I’m RUDE!! EXTREMELY RUDE!! Ghanaian culture is one that is so friendly and open, that more often than not I don’t even recognize how rude I am being. Example: it is a given, that when you are eating or drinking anything, and somebody enters; you are to offer them what you are consuming. Saying “you are invited” is the proper way to do it.

I can’t count the number of times that I forget to say it, or worst, consciously don’t say it. Yes sometimes I feel selfish. I make sure to buy snacks on the way to work, so why should I have to share with people who never take the time to think ahead. Well Nick, that’s not very Ghanaian of you.

Another is when people are sick. Here in Ghana, when somebody you know is sick, you go and visit them. I know that we do the same in Canada, but here I guess it is a little harder because 1) you know everybody and 2) everybody is sick more often. So when my co-worker falls ill for a few days, and misses work for a day or two; I’m extremely rude by not going to see them. That’s right, frequently people will leave the office to go and visit so-and-so because they are sick in the hospital or in the house. My phone calls with good wishes are pitiful attempts at keeping up.

The last and most obvious is one I commit daily. When you are friends you talk to eachother. Most ex-pats will complain (and I’m not exempt) about how when you give out your phone number people will call you lots. Well that’s what friends do. When your friend travels, you call them to see how their journey was. When you haven’t talked to them in a week or so, you call them to see how they are doing.

The other aspect is just human interaction. When I’m walking through town to work and I see a friend, a wave of the hand and a greeting yelled does not suffice. Take the time to do a proper greeting. I can’t count the number of times when people come into my office at work and after a few minutes of exchanging niceties, I am back to my work. But then I am shamed when I look at my co-workers accepting their guests and hosting them accordingly. Walking through town with a co-worker takes twice as long, because they actually take the time to greet everybody they know properly.

There are countless other cultural faux-pas that I commit everyday. The fact of the matter is that we as ex-pats are lucky to have such understanding hosts. Often I’m sure I’m let off the hook because ‘I’m from Canada’. The way I rush through town to get to work, or force kind people to awkwardly ask: “Am I invited??”; get’s let go because local people are understanding.

The Ghanaians I interact with are sensitive enough to respect my cultural norms, and they don’t hold them against me. If they were as judgmental as I am about those superficial cultural inconsistencies, then I’m sure I wouldn’t have any friends by now. I have nothing but thanks for my extremely welcoming hosts, who make living in this country, away from loved ones, an easier transition.


This was a special political edition of my newsletters. If you don't receive them and wish to, email me at

It’s been a bit of a privilege being in Ghana during the election year. Today the 3rd president of Ghana was sworn into office. After 8 months of competitive campaigning, Ghana has peacefully transitioned into a new party in office, and Ghanaians are excited for change. The New Patriotic Party (NPP) had been in power for the last eight years, while the New Democratic Congress (NDC) is the leading opponent and has now won the 2008, presidential elections.

As I arrived in Ghana, billboards and posters were going up for the 2008 election campaign. Only a few months later, flag bearers and presidential candidates commenced campaigning across the country. Every time there is a rally in town, you know by 9:00am in the morning. Party supporters will remove the mufflers from their motorcycles and be ceaselessly driving up and down the main streets. The goal of this activity is to make as much noise as possible. Motorcycles equipped with party flags, dressed up in party colors and sometimes even dragging cans will buzz through town like a frenzy of bees swarming honeycomb. Anyone without a motorcycle will surely be wearing a party T-shirt and be blowing whistles or chanting through the streets.

The first political rally I went to was for the ruling party, the NPP, right in Saboba itself. That day it was busier than Christmas, as party supporters were driving around on motorcycles throughout town. Traditional cultural dancers were paid to put on a spectacle, as a good portion of the population waited anxiously in the town’s main soccer field. In the afternoon the convoy of 9-12 SUVs and trucks sped into town holding the flag bearer and other important political figures. After a very motivational speech promising free education, roads, and well . . . pretty much everything else that can be considered development; the convoy was off in a cloud of dust, leaving only an riled up crowd.

Most rallies I try to avoid. Apart from the fact that I am a civil servant, and not supposed to be seen supporting either party, it is also in my opinion, dangerous. Often those riding motorcycles do so recklessly to attract more attention and create more of a scene. Getting to the later part of the afternoon, many become more under the influence of alcohol, only heightening the tension. Most of my co-workers and friends just try to avoid town when political rallies happen, and political leaders will even plead with party supporters to be safe and keep the peace.

As the year drew to a close and the elections grew nearer, both parties began campaigning more aggressively. For the ruling party, holes were being dug in the ground for electricity poles, school sites were being laid out, and communities were given small gifts. It was impossible to notice the difference in campaigning budgets, as the ruling party would have almost all billboards covered in party propaganda, majority coverage over the local television stations; and their distribution of party T-shirts could only be compared in magnitude with the distribution of candy on Halloween.

In Saboba, our Member of Parliament (MP) has largely been criticized for his inaction in office. Getting close to the elections, communities were given anything from T-shirts to grinding mills (a large diesel engine used to grind corn and other crops into flour). Chiefs and opinion leaders were receiving motorcycles and in some cases cash, in order to sway the votes of their communities in favour of the ruling party, and specifically the MP.

Sitting inside a farmers hut eating TZ (local dish), I noticed some bran new soccer jerseys and leather balls, still inside their packaging. I couldn’t restrain myself from asking where they had stumbled upon such items. “Charles, [Saboba MP], gave them to us” he replied with a smile.

This is done because in some areas where literacy is lower, communities will still vote as a whole. A chief or community leader will dictate the way an entire community votes. With uneducated populations, who are often financially poor, monetary gifts can be quite influential in shaping one’s opinion. In this case, it is easy to convince, or bribe, the local opinion leader.

After campaign rallies, televised debates, an ALL-NIGHT PARTY, and other campaigning tactics, the election-day closed in on Ghana. Leading up to December 7th, peaceful elections were the mantra of the day, and precautions were put in place to ensure peace. Even in small-town Saboba, military personnel were dispatched the night before to create a presence and maintain the peace.

Finally the big day arrived, and most people were quick to go and vote and then return to their homes. At the polling stations it was nothing but calm line ups and quiet voting as citizens took to the ballot boxes. One thing I loved about the elections was the amount of people out to vote. Anybody and everybody who was of age was out to vote, and had the black index finger to show for it later in the day (in Ghana they thumbprint ballots, and mark the index finger with ink so you can’t vote again). Prior to the elections, people waited in anticipation for December 7th, because this was their chance to have a say in the direction of their country. Children not of age also knew the different parties and candidates and could tell you part ant parcel their manifestos.

It made me reflect on Canadian society and wonder why in Canada we don’t take elections as seriously. Maybe it is because we are democratically older, and thus the importance of a citizen’s vote has faded among our young adults. The attitude in Ghana is a polar opposite to that of many Canadians, as for Ghanaians, December 7th was a day to look forward to. People would rise at 4:00am to queue at the polling station before it opened at 6:00am.

As the day continued on, I was surprised at the transparency of the entire elections. Though I have no idea, and thus no basis for comparison, of the way in which Canada counts their votes; Ghana’s system was quite interesting. After the last person had voted, anyone is allowed to just sit in the open area in which the voting ballot stands. From there, the box is opened, and aloud each ballot is read to the crowd and marked down by several recorders.

After the polling stations finish their counting, the ballot boxes and results are shipped over to the District Assembly for collation. When I arrived at the Assembly by 8:00pm, the scene was breathtaking. Crowds of people were outside, chanting and laughing as the results of all polling stations were being collated. Inside the District Assembly, anyone was welcome to observe the collation, as at least 8 members of the Electoral Commission were gathered around a table recording results as one person read them aloud.

Meanwhile in town, anybody who had a television set would play it loud for all those without to come and watch. I parked myself at a local drinking spot with a Coke, as a crowd formed around this small shop to watch the results come in on television. And if you weren’t in a crowd watching the television, or at District Assembly, then you were in a small mob of people roaming up and down the streets to one of these two locations.

To be continued . . . .

DEMOCRATIC ELECTIONS IN GHANA- PART II- The next morning was a scene to be remembered. Parades of people were marching up and down the street celebrating. For those of you from Vancouver, it was equivalent to a night at the fireworks down on Denman Street. Though the national results were still being collated, the Parliamentary Candidate results had come in. NPP MP Charles Bintin lost, to NDC MP Joseph Nikpe. The citizens of Saboba had voted with their consciences, not with their pockets.

The NDC MP won by a large margin and even in the rural areas. After attempts at bribery, citizens looked at the previous 8 years of government performance and decided that a change was needed. Just six months before the elections, Charles had gone to a community and told them to start collecting sand and rocks, to clear a site for a school; for he was going to build them one. After, 4 months of not seeing him, the opponent came to their village and simply told them to look at the heaps of sand that they had collected in anticipation, instead of going to farm. Let them judge Charles on those grounds.

After finding out from those community members about the soccer jerseys, I couldn’t help but ask who they voted for.

“Joseph of course!” they said in between chuckles and mouthfuls of TZ. “Charles also gave 60 GH¢ [~60CDN] to our village headman”.

“So you took the jerseys and the money, and then you voted for the opposition?” I curiously reaffirmed.

“Yes! We look at it as Charles paying us back for the last 8 years of inactivity!” he replies with a smile. And that was the order of the day. Throughout the district, citizens graciously received gifts of all sorts, wore T-shirts, and then voted for the opposition.

But what was even more entertaining, and borderline mean, was the amount of mockery that happened the morning of the 8th. What I forgot to mention was that most of the parties have their own slogans and their own hand gestures. Though NDC had won, you would have thought it were an NPP rally had you not heard the results the day before.

All NDC supporters who had been gaily celebrating after their MP won were all wearing NPP T-shirts. They were also chanting the NPP slogan and making the party hand gestures, to mock the loss of the ruling party.

Three days later however, it was announced that neither party had won a majority (50%, plus one vote). This meant that there would be a run-off for the two leading parties, 21 days later. Ghanaians would again go back to the polls.

For many this was not an ideal situation, because it meant voting would occur just 3 days after Christmas. Indeed, the religious holiday had lost a bit of its zeal, as most were preoccupied on the upcoming election.

Alas, after the final run-off election, NDC had been declared the winner. The final results were approximately 50.23% NDC, and 49.77% NPP - very close indeed. Ghana would have itself a new president and ruling party.

I happened to be travelling through Tamale (regional capital) on the day that the results were announced. My previous opinion of a night at the fireworks in Saboba, was dwarfed by the mass exodus of people all throughout Tamale.

Tamale has long been a supporter of NDC, and it couldn’t have showed more on this historical day. Citizens took to the streets in party T-shirts – be it NPP or NDC. Whistles were being blown, drums beaten, pots and pans clanged, calabashes with beads shook, and voices sang loud as people took to the streets.

On this day in Tamale, you were in one of two places. In town small crowds of people formed around sound systems playing loud music, where either dancing or signing ensued. Indeed, these pockets of people resembled and entire sideline of spectators at a major sporting event, chanting and even dancing for their favourite team.

And if you weren’t celebrating in one of these spontaneously formed dance parties, you were in a parade of people gravitating towards one of these nuclei. As if choreographed by a marching band conductor, platoons of people marched down the street, signing, clapping, and making noise in unison.

The heart of downtown was complete gridlock or pedestrian mob. Nothing moved except people on foot. Although for the first time in Ghana, I saw somebody trotting along horseback, painted in NDC colors.

In the heart of downtown were 4 tanks in a row, with army personal armed to the teeth standing on top; to extinguish even the faintest thought of conflict among anybody. At intersections, army personnel were directing traffic in collaboration with the local law enforcement.

Ironically however, out of all the places for conflict to break out, Saboba was the only place in Northern Region. Though conflict is probably an exaggeration, disputes broke out two days after the results were released, because NPP were getting a little tired of the celebration style of the NDC supporters. In town there were some heated arguments, a couple of thrown bikes, and a couple of fights I think . . . but nothing too serious.

Today was the swearing in of the new president, and with that this rollercoaster of a ride is over. The only thing left on the horizon, is to see what positive change this new government can bring. Whether you support NPP or NDC, all eyes will be on Atta Mills (new president) to see what prosperity he can bring to Ghanaians.

Though he said many things in his acceptance speech, one thing stood out for me that I admire, and hope he will stick to.

“I am not a man for NPP or NDC. I am a man for all Ghanaians. I am a man for Ghana!”

- His Excellency, Professor John Evans Atta Mills


This was an entry in my December Newsletter. If you don't receive them and wish to, email me at

“We need water!! We drink from the same water as our animals. People bath and wash clothes in our water, cows will pass and urinate inside it,” exclaims Faustina on the way to the stream! When February and March come the water will start to dry up and will become green. You should come back during that time and you will see that no human should drink that water!”

Two days earlier I arrived in Nalindo - a very small village about 50km from Saboba. I came to this village to find out more about the people I have come to Ghana to work for, as well as to get their perspective on what the government needs to do better. Through having conversations with them and living as they do, I hoped to gain a better perspective of the majority of people living in Saboba District.

On my first morning in Nalindo, I awoke at about 5:30am as the mist was still lifting from the stark landscape. The rainy season ended three months ago and has given way to the cold winter months of harmattan. In the mornings it is cold. Almost all of the women and small girls in the village start their days by going to fetch water from the local stream 2.5km away, while the men usually start a small fire and huddle around it wearily.

I chose to get a bucket and fetch some water with the women. After a 35min walk I arrive at the stream which I hesitate entering up to my knees. As the women take lead I also take off my sandals and enter to fill my bucket.

By the time I return back to the village with my meagre 20 litres I’m thirsty. I ask my host for some water and she enters a hut and pours me some water. Looking down at it, mildly brown in color, I drink the cup dry. As though the water had undergone some magical transformation in the 35min it took me to walk back to the village, I feel completely indifferent to drinking the same water I hesitated entering barefoot into. For the rest of the three days I stayed in the village I continued to drink and bath with the same water as there is no alternative for this community.

After having the conversation with Faustina two days later, I decided to also ask the men in the community about what they wanted from the government. The same answer came up. They explained to me the problems with the water they are drinking and how they only want a borehole from the government so that they can avoid the problems Faustina already told me about.

“Why?” I asked them after hearing about people bathing in the water. “Why do some people bath in that water when they know you drink from it”

“Years ago those same people drank from the stream themselves,” Faustina tells me in front of the men gathered. “After they received a borehole from an NGO, they now bath and wash in the same water that we drink. We took this matter to the [locally elected] Assembly Person to settle. But after they were instructed to stop bathing and defecating near the stream, they still continue to do so.”

Lacking a response, I switch to the matter of animals. “So why don’t you take your cattle to drink somewhere else instead of from the same stream you fetch your water?” I naively suggest.

“During the dry season all the other water sources dry up. Because of that, the Fulani- [a local tribe who take care of the cattle]- have nowhere else to water the cattle. The problem gets worst however.” At this, they called a small boy forward to show me the magnitude of the implications.

They slowly undress the bandage around his left shin, revealing two large open sores. They are the exit wounds of guinea worm, a horrible parasite that afflicts many rural people in Northern Ghana. Faustina then points to two scars on her legs left from guinea worm she had years ago. “It causes pain that makes you want to die!” she says after telling the boy to redress the wound.

As I’m listening to this I just take in everything they are saying trying to comprehend what living in this village would really feel like. I keep thinking to myself ‘wow! These people need water badly! How could anybody drink that?’ An hour later when I am reflecting on the conversation, I laugh when my mind finally connects two dots: ‘You’ve been drinking that water for the last 2 days!’

For the rest of the meeting I try to move past what the community needs, to what we can do about it. Part of my reasons for coming here was to also get community involvement and advice on the work that I am doing. In terms of what communities need, the answer is pretty easy. Generally people will tell you flat out, and sadly because most people lack access to the three primary public services – education, clean water, and health care – they are the most common answers communities will give.

My work is looking at how to get communities what they want, and more specifically, how to distribute the limited resources there are from the government. I fully understand that they need water, but I try to bring this community to the level of the government. I explain to them that every community I go to, they will all tell me that they need water, and many will describe a similar situation. “How does the government chose who should be first to get the boreholes they can drill this year?” I ask them.

We proceed to discuss different criteria that the government could use to assess who needs the borehole the most. But what I’m most interested in is what the community can control. “What can the community do to show that they want the borehole the most, and are most prepared to maintain one?”

“We can collect money and put it in a bank account,” is what Kunde, chairman of the Water & Sanitation committee in the community says. “We can also request to the District Assembly so they know in paper, that we want a borehole. Following that we can give yams and guinea fowl to the officers at the District Assembly!”

“Now that last one is what we are trying to move away from,” I say in between chuckles. The first two responses were golden because they touch on a community’s readiness to maintain the borehole once it is put in place. The last suggestion touches on favouritism and is something we are trying to reduce. We want the communities that show commitment and need, to get the infrastructure. Not the ones who can be most convincing to a certain government official.

In the end, we generated some great ideas for what criteria could be used to guide community selection. The community closed by saying the following and it has stuck with me. “We need water and are prepared to do anything to get water. Because we have felt the pain of not having water, we will maintain it. What is holding us back is that we don’t know what we have to do to show this commitment. If the government tells us, we will do it.”


This was an entry in my December Newsletter. If you don't receive them and wish to, email me at

Funerals are quite different in Ghana. Though there is mourning that occurs and a burial process, on the fourth day after the death, are large celebration is planned. All day women will brew Pito (local beer), and drums will be carved to provide the music. Anybody who knew the deceased (and often many others that didn’t know them) will arrive for the celebration.

People from all the surrounding villages will come to attend the jubilation. Each community will send a group of dancers, who will dress up in traditional dress or even soccer uniforms. The music has already started and everyone dances in a large circle around the center stage which provides the ground shaking beat. At the center of the clearing, are two large drums carved out of tree trunks. A third man holds a typical ‘talking drum’ which allows you to alter the pitch of the drum by squeezing the tension strings.

The girls then form a circle around the musicians and perform a square dance with considerable hip movement. Their hips shake quickly and their footwork is complex. On the outside of that circle is a larger one that the men form. Dressed in traditional wear, they perform a choreographed dance including stomping and lose arm movement. They usually attach metal rings to the backs of their ankles to make a percussion-like tambourine sound when they stomp the ground. I saw that the same rules apply in Africa that do in Canada. Women can dance better than men!

I began by watching this spectacle of advanced square dancing, from the side lines. After studying what seemed like a basic step, I joined the circle. Within moments, I was handed a small tree branch with leaves on it, to swing with my left hand. After that I was handed a child’s cap gun to wield with my right hand. Fully loaded I started waving and shooting to the beat.

After 20minutes of dancing, two small boys were going around to the dancers on the outside with a 15L bucket of what seemed to be water. What tipped me off as odd was that they were serving it with a small cup. Suspecting something other than water, I passed, and so did my co-dancer. The boy poured out half of the small cup, leaving and ounce or two and gave it to a small girl beside him. I later found out it was alcohol! One last aspect I loved was that babies learn to dance before they walk. Ladies with their newborns strapped to their backs didn’t hold back, joining the dancing while their child’s legs dangled.


This was an entry in my December Newsletter. If you don't receive them and wish to, email me at

My morning started off great as I started to make some French toast for the occasion. I rarely make French toast, but a fellow volunteer - Jen Hiscock - had given me some syrup for Christmas. Other than that everything was shaping up to be a regular morning in my community.

Then my co-worker Douglas came by and gave me my second present of the day. The office was doing something small for all the workers, and I had been given a goat. I called him Shaky, because it was very scared. I knew that it would only be about 12 hours until I ate him.

Douglas explained to me that before Christmas, parents will buy their children a very nice outfit. Then on Christmas people would dress their best and go to church. Following church, children would go door to door and visit their neighbours. Everybody is responsible for preparing a large meal – rice and some meat. Then it turns into an activity similar to ‘trick or treating’, where going door to door, everybody must provide food or some money to their guests.

So following church with my family, we went round to greet some of my friends (and of course to eat some rice and meat). The last friend I was to visit was Douglas, and he had told me that this year his church had planned some games and a small party for the children. When Jen and I arrived the music was playing and the kids were playing games. It wasn’t long before we too joined in the dancing.

The whole experience was quite interesting and I drew a few comparisons. The biggest difference I saw was in the amount of purchasing people did before the holiday. Because people don’t exchange an excessive amount of gifts, there is not as big a push to buy presents for everybody before the big day. The emphasis is on the day itself, and more people will worry about the drinks they serve and the meat they prepare.

As for going door to door, it’s similar to the evening meals we prepare for our families. The only difference is, here because the town is so small and weather so hot, everybody can just walk to their relatives. What I like about this Ghanaian style of Christmas, is that the emphasis is entirely on the whole spirit of the day. The focus changes from the objects you give to others, to the company you share with loved ones. Once evening set in, the day pretty much finished. I ended the day by eating a 5th meal, which would end up making me sick the next morning.