It has been almost a month since I arrived home from Ghana and almost the same amount of time that the one hundred year flood of Southern Alberta occurred. This past week, I was given the opportunity to participate in the flood cleanup at the Siksika Nation Reserve.

Siksika Nation from the parking lot

Siksika Nation from the parking lot

Sportsplex where disaster relief is administered

Sportsplex where disaster relief is administered

The Nation's one high school where volunteer efforts are deployed

The Nation’s one high school where volunteer efforts are deployed

It was an eye-opening experience. The cleanup itself was a lot of fun. I was able to dress up like a Ghostbuster and I gave up my girly notions of being prim and proper as I was covered in head to toe with mud. It also gave a sense of the realities that Aboriginals face in this country and how difficult disaster relief is, particularly in this area with limited infrastructure.

The family that we helped was in a fairly good circumstance compared to other houses in the community as water was contained mainly in the basement. However, their entire livelihood was in this house and their family heritage (3-4 generations) was contained in this community. In one night, this was completely washed away.

What the community looks like after water has subsided.

What the community looks like after water has subsided.

Picture immediately after the flood of the community

Picture immediately after the flood of the community

Listening to the family’s story was heartbreaking. They were given forty minutes to evacuate and even then, all they could hear was water gushing closer to them like a faucet. They were not able to leave using the main road but had to climb up the side of a hill of which they are currently camped upon to keep watch of the community. The only thing they escaped with was a couple sewing machines and materials for their Teepee making business. I could not even begin to imagine the emotional trauma that this family has gone through. It is unknown when they will have a home to go home to. It will likely be years or if ever. Despite it all, they remained grateful.

It is hard to imagine that a story like this surfaced in a place so close to home. A wise friend once told me before heading to Ghana that real change and impact starts at a local level. For me, I did not fully understand this as I was leaving, as I tended to think about capacity building mainly from an international perspective. I never stopped to think about this as a native Canadian and furthermore, a Calgarian.

To a certain degree, with globalization, it is easy to forget about what’s going on in our own country as we focus on the pictures of famine and strife happening around the world. At times, it can seem overwhelming, unbearable and hopeless. The international work performed abroad is imperative and warranted in its own right. However, it is also important to consider development in our own local communities as a basis for making an impact. The truth is that the same issues with poverty, homelessness and people living month to month and not being heard occur in the developed world as well. The difference I have found with working internationally versus being home is that it is phenomenally empowering knowing that I understand the culture, have the ability to form/have the network and resources to make a real difference in the community that I live, work and breathe. Without my experience in Ghana, I would have never made these connections and seen exactly what local capacity building entails.

After being away, I’ve realized that the concept of humanity and providing those without a voice appears in all walks of life in all places of the world. The only thing I can do and hope is that I make a small dent in that piece to make the world a better place. For any contribution we choose to make, no matter how small it may seem at the time, is in our control. It is just a matter of rolling up our sleeves, getting down and dirty and making the commitment to do it.

A distant figure in my last trip in Cape Coast.

A distant figure in my last trip in Cape Coast.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” ~ Margaret Mead

NOTE: If you are interested in getting involved with volunteering at Siksika Nation, there are daily initiatives heading to the reserve. The organization with the most on the ground information is Bridges Social Development or “Bridges”. Refer to their website here for more details.

View of Jamestown

View of Jamestown

Over the past month, I have been reading a book called “Daring Greatly” by Brene Brown (if you want to see her outstanding TEDtalk on vulnerability and compassion refer to the following link) who uses grounded theory to derive her research on shame, wholeheartedness and worthiness. When she talks about her experience, she mentions that the biggest challenges to being a grounded theory researcher is the following:

  1. Acknowledging that it is virtually impossible to understand grounded theory methodology prior to using it,
  2. Develop the courage to let the research participants define the research problem and,
  3. Letting go of your own interests and preconceived ideas to “trust in emergence”.

Ending my experience in Ghana, these points stick out profoundly to my time here. If you go back to my initial post before coming (see here) on the misconceptions of Africa, I had the intention from readings to form a theory on why Africa is the way it is. However, I’ve come to realize that my experience here has been similar to being a grounded theory researcher. I have been an observer, trying to process all the facts, understanding why things are confusing and why things on the surface are not as they appear. If I were to relate my experience back to the challenges noted above, here are my thoughts:

  1. Until you are here, it is impossible to understand how you should “research” the way life is in a developing country. It is unpredictable, there are many variables, and there isn’t one solution. The system has been here for decades with many underlying problems grounded in culture, history and the concept of being human and imperfect.
  2. I’ve learned more from the people here than the majority of my years on this planet. They are the storytellers and they are the change agents. The more you try to implement a solution without taking in all the facts and listening, the more you will feel like an outsider fiddling with the problem from a distance. This takes me to the next point…
  3. Before I came here, I knew there were certain themes that I wanted to tackle (i.e. funding structures, why are there problems and what are the main contributors to these issues?). As these interests are based on my preconceived notions of what to expect, it held me back from taking in exactly what was in front of me, to “trust in emergence”. You cannot force the learning when it comes to a subject as grand as Africa and in life. It is like putting blinders on and you will never see the entire picture.

So if you take me back to my initial entry of trying to understand Africa I’ve learned that there is no such thing as one answer or one solution. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. I have taken more from this experience than I could ever give in a lifetime. It has taught me about myself, learning to value the things that truly matter in life (see my previous blog entry here on relationships here). It has brought me back to what I have been running away from for so long. So if that’s the case, does Africa really need “saving”? Or is it the other way around that as humans we should just be learning from each other? Are we all as humans not capable of fending for ourselves but with a small helping hand?

The question now for me is what my small helping hand will be when I leave this beautiful continent. How will I give back to Ghana and society? I think I have an idea of the role I will play in this while staying true to myself but it is still a moving piece. I understand that this is my own contribution; my own will and it will not solve the entire problem. That is something that the masses and time will need to contend with and it is a huge burden to bear for one individual.

In the end, there is hope. What I love about being here is that you realize the dignity of human compassion and how similar we are in every aspect. We are all living our own lives, trying to do what’s right and just showing up. Maybe at the end of the day, that is enough.

“Perhaps travel can not prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all people cry, laugh, eat, worry and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try to understand each other, we may even become friends.” ~ Maya Angelo

Last view of Calgary for 3 months.

Last view of Calgary for 3 months.

Important event in Ghana: my first Club beer. Ah, how I will miss thee!

Important event in Ghana: my first Club beer. Ah, how I will miss thee!

Washing clothes by hand. As fun as it was, I will never take my washing machine for granted ever again.

Washing clothes by hand. As fun as it was, I will never take my washing machine for granted ever again.

Instance of my limited physical activity in Ghana.

Rare instance of my limited physical activity in Ghana.

Pic with a living African-American legend responsible for shaping a generation: Angela Davis. Read about her contributions to feminism, politics and human rights here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angela_Davis#Teaching

Pic with a living African-American legend responsible for shaping a generation: Angela Davis. Read about her contributions to feminism, politics and human rights here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angela_Davis#Teaching

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When I was preparing for my journey here, the most common question people asked me was: “what is it about in Ghana that you are looking forward to the most?” My answer was that I wanted to see what family and relationships meant on this side of the world. When speaking to others that came to Ghana, the trend was linking it to a place of honesty, genuineness and knowing the value and necessity of forming relationships. There is sincere truth in this depiction because one of the most valuable lessons I have learned is intricately related to this subject.

Even from day one, my time at this host family has been eye opening. Never would I have thought in my wildest dreams that I could gain another family on the other side of the world in a place that formerly seemed so foreign and distant. The truth of the matter is that Ghana and this family has forever changed the way I view priorities and where I place importance in my life.

In the first two weeks I was here, I remember having a conversation with my host aunt about Western culture and our idea of the family unit. With all the development, technology, opportunities and modernization, I think many of us at some point have lost sight of it. Note that this is a generalized statement and I am speaking from personal experience. However, I am sure many of my other accounting colleagues can attest to this whilst hiding in a dark and dank audit room over the busy season months. In many cases, we have become an incredibly individualistic culture. In gaining all the ego and power, we have forgotten what connection and togetherness means.

I think about my life in 5-10 years from now and the path I could continue on in the quest for career and self-discovery. Who will I have around me? How will it look? Where will I live or do with all the money in the world? Then I reflect on the times I’ve had here and what I remember. It’s not about those moments that will forever “save” humanity or the ideas that will “make” my career. It’s the small things, watching my baby host nephew make his first words and dance the Azunto when a Coke commercial come on, sitting by the pool with the family during power outages listening to my other host nephew rap a Ghanaian tune, watching my host brother and future sister-in-law plan the layout of their wedding, waking up to my host mom preparing breakfast for me and saying good morning with a glorious smile on her face thanking God for this new day. THESE are the moments that really make life worth living: the relationships, the ever-lasting friendships and most of all, the family unit.

Before I came here I was searching for something – a way for me to find the “best” strategy for international development and to find the answer “out there”. What I’ve come to realize is that it was never “out there”. The world is too big a place to seek an answer that isn’t from the heart or from the home. Although I have been blessed to gain a new family, it will never replace the people that I have known my entire life including my parents who brought me into this world and have been there for me through the thick and thin and my friends who have stuck it out for me even through my crazy self-discovery adventures. At the end of the day, I’ve learned that real change comes from the heart and the people that you trust and surround yourself with. I hope that someday when I have my own family I am able to give them everything I can, give them my all. Teach them the love and values that I have learned here and at the end of the day as my host aunt always says “that is it”.

“One of the greatest barriers to connection is the cultural importance we place on “going it alone”. Somehow we’ve come to equate success with not needing anyone. Many of us are willing to extend a helping hand, but we’re very reluctant to reach out for help when we need it ourselves. It’s as if we’ve divided the world into “those who offer help” and “those who need help”. The truth is that we are both.” ~ Brene Brown

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250px-Gatsby_1925_jacketLast night, I had the privilege of watching my second movie in Ghana, the Great Gatsby with some good friends. I did not realize how disconnected I was from American pop culture as it did not even register in my mind that I had wanted to see this movie before. In fact, going to the theatre I did not even have an inkling of what we were going to watch, just that I was to show up at 7:30 and eat the most delicious sugary movie popcorn ever but I digress…

Firstly, I want to warn those that have yet to see this movie and do not want to know the outcome to wait until you have seen it to read this post. For those that know the story or don’t really care how it ends, this hopefully will speak more to you.

The Great Gatsby takes place in a fictitious town off Long Island called West Egg. In this town lies a character named Jay Gatsby (Leo DiCaprio) who throws elaborate parties in his mansion/palace and everyone shows up for a grand time. Everyone has ideas of where he is from, they make up urban legends but at the end of the day, no one really knows who this man is. The other main character is Nick Carraway (Toby Macguire) who is the storyteller and the cousin of Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) who turns out to be Gatsby’s long time love interest.

As the movie goes on, it reveals Gatsby’s humble upbringings from a poor family and his constant ambitions to be “great” as God intended. Sadly, as a result of this idealism, he ends up forgoing his love with Daisy (she ends up marrying another man) to pursue this dream until he was “good enough” to give her everything. His home is strategically situated across the lake from Daisy and every day he looks across longer for her, hoping that his elaborate parties will draw her towards him one day. The symbol for this is a green light that shines across the lake from her house that he reaches towards constantly.

After being away from Daisy, Gatsby returns expecting the past to be the same forgetting that five years has passed and that you cannot erase it and start over. His underlying downfall is the inability to embrace reality and cope with change. It’s similar to when you have that one “shot” at something, you take it or leave it, close your eyes, hope for the best and allow time to pass and take its course. It’s that decision that you take which can forever change the direction of your life.

IMG_0775Being here in Ghana, I can see many parallels of this story in my time here in a much less dramatic way. Coming here, I had such ideals of what international development meant and thought that I could somehow radically change the system. It was my ambition. After learning and experiencing more, I have been beaten with the reality that things are the way they are for a reason. You can shout, scream, be upset, be angry and shocked at how things play out but that does not change the way things work. Does it mean that it is right or wrong? No. It may adversely affect your core beliefs and values but it does not change that things are out of your control and you are just a figment of an elaborate system.

I’ve also realized that time is short and you cannot chase an ideal reality that will likely never surface from one person’s actions. Throughout history, there are tipping points for radical movement, which are the result of the masses and a lot of luck but it happens at a moment in time when conditions are right. So you need to be happy with what is in your control to change and you do your best with it.

The greatest tragedy for me that came out of this story is that Gatsby chased a dream for so long and forgot that time was passing him by. Once he reached that goal, he thought that he could rewind back to the past and go on as things were. Even to his death, he still thought that it was within his reach when that was far from the truth. Therefore, he held onto the past, forgot the present and sprung right to the future. It left him incapacitated to embrace reality and step into his potential bright future.

For me, I’ve learned that I cannot forgo the life I have back home to chase a dream in a place and a space that will likely never be mine. In order for me to do good, I need to be surrounded by love, constancy and a steady life. I have valued every single moment that I have spent here. I have become more comfortable with who I am and my decisions. I have made mistakes. I have had my share of ups and downs. I can only be me and I need to wake up to reality at some point at the end of the day.

Here is the ending quote from the movie that is haunting and sad but beautiful at the same time:

IMG_0776“And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him; somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgasmic future that year by year recedes before us. It eludes us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther… and one find morning –

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” ~ F. Scott Fitzgerald

A couple days ago, I went on a tour of the city. It was not my intention, but that is what it turned out to be. The premise of the trip was to go to a bookstore in the Central Accra region to pick up something but it turns out that books are not always in stores for purchasing, only two times a year. So, after a 2 hour journey down and 1.5 hour journey back, I did not even get what I wanted. I should also point out that it was scorching hot the entire day whilst being stuck in a Tro Tro in unwavering traffic.

Back home, this excavation probably would have pushed me to my patience limit (I’m sure most of you back home could agree with this). However, here, oddly enough it was an awakening experience. Without taking the trip I would not have discovered the following:

I am strangely ok with the uncertainty of direction. I called the store in the morning and what I heard was that I was supposed to let the mate know that I would like to alight at the “Accra Police Tech” building. I ended up reaching the main station instead and tried to find my way to the building. Turns out it is “Accra Polytechnic” which is probably the reason that I didn’t get to my destination in the first place. In Ghana, a street name is pretty irrelevant. It is based more on landmarks and junctions. In addition, it is sometimes hard to gauge whether a place is close or far because Ghanaians will take a cab for 5 minutes rather than walk for 10 minutes.

A soccer field that is close to my house which also doubles as an informal road. Love it..

A soccer field that is close to my house which also doubles as an informal road. Love it..

You are in safe hands with Ghanaians. The best way of finding out where to go is simple, just ask. As soon as I got off the Tro Tro I started asking questions every couple steps of where I was supposed to go. Once I found the Accra Polytechnic building, I kept asking people as I was walking where the next landmark was. There was a point that I called the store to confirm the direction and the person helping me ran back across the street to talk with the person on the phone so he could lead me directly to the store. In what world does this hospitality happen? In Ghana of course 😀

A couple beloved Ghanaians on my walk home from church

A couple beloved Ghanaians on my walk home from church

One thing that I took for granted in Canada was that my Google Maps was my best friend. In Ghana, not only do I not have a smart phone but having a map won’t do you that much good. It is moreso based on the old-fashioned notion of human connection and relying on complete strangers to show you around. What I learned from this experience is that it is necessary and ok to place trust in those that you do not know (of course you do need to be street smart about it). I am also grateful to have gotten lost because I learned that I know Accra better than I thought, no matter what, you will be taken care of in the face of Ghanaians and things work out fine in the end. Although my travel wasn’t picture perfect, it was the imperfectness that made me learn a new fact of life here. In the end, isn’t that the point of traveling?

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“When you travel, remember that a foreign country is not designed to make you comfortable. It is designed to make its own people comfortable.” ~ Clifton Fadiman

A couple weekends ago, I braved my first road trip to the Tafi-Atome Monkey Sanctuary in the Volta Region which started with a 3 hour Tro Tro ride from Accra. Being in the front seat gave me a glimpse of the full magnitude of the road infrastructure in Ghana. There are huge potholes in which vehicles are required to dodge along with speed bumps that run through most towns. Therefore, at times it feels like a game of leapfrog. It amazed me how well the driver was able to maneuver such an archaic vehicle.

Tafi is a community of about 1,500 people with farming and eco-tourism as their main economic activities. The Monkey Sanctuary is their primary eco-tourism attraction. We stayed in the guesthouse and the experience felt like camping as there was no running water and there were bugs everywhere. However, it was a great experience because we woke up to monkeys running along the roof of our building. We didn’t realize that we were sleeping right in the monkey’s territory. In the morning, the staff gave us bananas to feed to them. You hold up a banana and the monkeys come up to you and eat it right out of your hand. I’ll admit at first I was really scared, probably from my lifelong childhood fear of the movie “Outbreak” where the bite of a monkey was the endemic plague for mankind. Thankfully, they are very friendly. They sit on your shoulder politely eating the banana one handful at a time until another one comes from beneath to snatch the other side (all in good fun though).

Eek! So many of them. March of the monkeys... :)

Eek! So many of them. March of the monkeys… 🙂
Our makeshift water pipe

Our makeshift water pipe

After dawn, we took a tour into the woods of the sanctuary. The guide told us that prior to the 1980s, there was an indigenous idol in the forest in which the monkeys were worshiped, as they were the protectors of the forest. In the 1980s, the Catholic Church came which resulted in mutiny in an attempt to eliminate the monkey idol. As a result, the entire area was destroyed. It wasn’t until recently that there have been conservation efforts in the area mainly by a group of Canadians. There are roughly about 400 monkeys in the area.

In the afternoon, from Tafi, we decided to explore Adidome which is a village situated at the top of the mountain. I cannot begin to explain how exhilarating it is to climb the back of a mountain, watching the view of the valley expand on the back of a motorbike with clean, moist wind blowing at your face in the middle of Ghana. It was definitely a moment in time that I will remember. When we got to Adidome, we did a short hike to the very top of the mountain where there was a giant cross with exquisite views.

On our way up to the Cross

On our way up to the Cross

It was a great first weekend trip in Ghana. The lush greenness of the Volta Region reminds me a lot of home and it was nice escaping the busyness of the city. One thing I was contemplating while enjoying the views was the importance of gratitude and its on effect in living in the moment. Often times, we are in the process of planning the next place we are going, or what there is to look forward to in the future. We often do not sit, think and just be ok with how things are and give thanks. On this trip, I remember the euphoria of being in these zones which I have not felt in a long time. It is not easy to stay in this frame of mind but when you get there, it feels so worth it and pure bliss. I am praying for more experiences like this.

One of my favourite snapshots to date on the back of the moto

One of my favourite snapshots to date on the back of the moto

“In dwelling, live close to the ground. In thinking, keep to the simple. In conflict, be fair and generous. In governing, don’t try to control. In work, do what you enjoy. In family life, be completely present. When you are content to be simply yourself and don’t compare or compete, everybody will respect you.” ~Lao Tzu

This past Saturday, I had the luxury of going to the Makola market with my host sister to explore the confusion of what is Accra’s biggest outdoor market.

The market is a bright, busy, gigantic, chaotic place with an assortment of everything imaginable… clothes, food, household goods… pretty much anything you would need at home at a fraction of the cost. I was so grateful to have gone with my host sister because it is hard to gauge on the fly what something would be worth without sounding like a spoiled naïve tourist or on the flip side, being completely ripped off. My host sister is also an uber fashionista and it amazed me how she could look at a piece of clothing and know that it would look good on me and that it would fit.

Outdoor view of Makola Market

Outdoor view of Makola Market

Indoor view of Makola Market

Indoor view of Makola Market

In terms of bargaining, this is what I have learned thus far:

1)   Always try to engage in friendly random chat with the vendor to establish rapport. Typically a good way is saying how are you in Twi (“et a seng”).

2)   You ask “eh a hey” which means how much is it and the vendor will quote you a price.

3)   You go into the buy with a price that you yourself would purchase it for and you typically start at about half (or ¾ if you are in a tourist district like Osu because they will try to rip you off profusely) and you start at 5 cedi’s below that price.

4)   The vendor will offer you a price above and you whittle it down until you get to your original asking price or close to.

5)   If the vendor is completely unwilling to budge, you walk away. A lot of times if they see you coming back they will give it to you at that price (take exhibit A for my sandals – score!)

Rule number 1: never be set on getting that item. There are a billion others around. If the vendor can sense any desperation or hesitation you will not get it at the price you want. Rule number 2: a bargaining buddy (especially a Ghanaian) is key so you can bounce prices off each other.

After we exhausted the market, we went to get our hair done which was my first time in Ghana. They call the salon the saloon here (I don’t know if it’s a difference in pronunciation or it’s actually called the saloon).

Ghanaian hair (and I guess African hair) is difficult to manage. Women typically get their hair done once a week for washing, treatment, blow-drying and straightening. They wear a cap at night so it preserves the styling during the week. I am fascinated with how their hair can curl up without any pins (see picture below)!

My host sister's super swiffy hair. I wish I didn't need to use pins to hold up my hair.

My host sister’s super swiffy hair. I wish I didn’t need to use pins to hold up my hair.

I never realized what a commodity having straight hair would be in Ghana. After washing, it took three hair stylists to figure out how to blow-dry Chinese hair as I may have been their first client. The heat from the blow-drying also felt like it was giving me a slight first-degree burn but I sucked it up and breathed through the pain. They were also amazed at how little effort it was to straighten my hair although the brunt force of the straightener did not show it at times. At times, I felt like all my hair was going to be pulled out with the straightener.

Despite the temporary pain of the experience, I cannot underestimate the glory of getting your hair washed and blow-dried after a day in the exhaustive heat. I felt like a brand new person.

All in all, another gorgeous day to learn about daily life in Ghana.

“Being happy doesn’t mean you’re perfect. It just means you’ve decided to look beyond the imperfections.” ~ K.B Indiana (age 14)

Feeling fresh and shiny!

Feeling fresh and shiny!

As a foreigner living in a developing country, you come across many instances that seemingly do not make sense.

My everyday inside a tro tro. The person in front of me is the Mate who collects the cash and lets customers on and off the Tro Tro.

My everyday inside a tro tro. The person in front of me is the Mate who collects the cash and lets customers on and off the Tro Tro.

For example, when I first got here, the Tro Tro system was one of the most chaotic and confusing systems I’ve ever seen. You have these half-broken down vehicles (complete with doors that are hanging off their hinges) coming from every which way that can stop at a moment’s notice. There is no specified price, no specified stop and no specified signs. You wonder at times whether the van will give out halfway taking you down the unpaved, dusty road. Being here for a month and knowing the routes better (at least by my work), taking the Tro Tro is becoming second nature. When I look more closely, although it isn’t necessarily fancy, there is a system and it works for what the people need.

The vehicles function and they take you from point A to B. They do not meet quality or safety standards by a landfall but they run. There are makeshift terminals that house all the Tro Tros and use an honor system where each one is put in a cue on a first come first serve basis. They take you to all the main areas of town and a shared taxi is within walking distance. You even have vendors right next to you offering tasty snacks and refreshments. There is also no need for a fare meter because the Mate will automatically quote you a price. A whole van of people will also be there to verify so that you don’t get ripped off. The beauty of not having to rely on a bureaucratic process is that if there is a new demand for a route, the Tro Tros are there and they do not need to ask permission. It is all up to the customer.

Vendors who provide refreshments to riders. Especially appreciated during a traffic jam.

Vendors who provide refreshments to riders. Especially appreciated during a traffic jam.

Tro Tro station

Tro Tro station

When I was coming here, I think I had this romanticized notion that my mission was to “fix” something. Initially, every problem or inconsistency I found, I had this belief that it needed to be changed and that it could be done better. However, I’m slowly realizing that although it is different from what I am used to seeing, does it necessarily mean that it needs to be changed? If I take it back to the Tro Tro, it is functioning for what the people need. Is there a need to do an overhaul of the transportation system because it’s not clean, chic and seamlessly systematic? With every conversation, I am learning the importance of understanding the whole story because every time, my initial thoughts are completely off base from the truth. Even “truth” is a flakey term at this point. It is human nature to make the first judgment about a place or circumstance but in the end, I am realizing that I am a visitor here and it is not in my place to make any calls. The people here know the best for them and their situation and they have the ability to identify what is needed. They absolutely have the passion and will power to do so. My job here is to listen to their request, learn each day and help out in the best way that I can. I guess that’s the heart of experiencing. No judgments, no ideas and no fixing.

A view of the sunrise in Accra

A view of the sunrise in Accra

“A good traveler has no fixed plan and is not intent on arriving.” ~ Lao Tsu

IMG_0369I attended a session last week courtesy of my host sister, which talked about the cultural identity of African-Americans and its associations with hair (and in a larger role, with appearance). You find in Ghana that the majority of women use weaves or perms to manage their hair. Although a lot of the times, it is for necessity, the question she asks is whether Westernization in countries such as Ghana are bringing the African people further away from their roots and their core identity – are they being true to themselves?

For me, being in Ghana has tested the perception I have of myself. I had a discussion with a co-worker this week where we talked about how Asians are seen in Ghana. There is the one coveted word that every visible foreigner must know before coming here which is “Obruni” or “white man”. The question I asked my co-worker is why it must be WHITE and to a lesser degree MAN (that is a whole other gender issue that I will not open up here though). Why is it that there is no word that forms a middle ground for those that are not white?

In a way, growing up as a first generation Chinese-Canadian immigrant, you are confronted with the mingling of the old and new. As we were brought up in this culture, it probably seems second nature for the most part. However, living in Ghana, you are often questioned on a daily basis of what you are. It starts with “are you Chinese or Japanese?”. It seems like an obvious answer but I tend to lean towards “I am Canadian”. After a chuckle, the follow-up response is “ah, so you are Canadian? Where are your parents from?” I then proceed to tell them the immigration story of my parents from China, etc, etc. Therefore, I sometimes feel at a bind because at my core I am Canadian, but I am also Chinese. In essence, I wonder if being brought up in the two worlds is bringing me away from my cultural roots.

IMG_0372Being here has also allowed me to become more comfortable in my own skin. Having yellow skin is not something that you can physically change like a pair of pants. It is apparent and it is daily. Especially in the less well off areas, almost every person will look at you and shout out “Obruni” or “nee how”. It has taken some time but I have learned to embrace it, smile and try to engage in some form of dialog, often with a greeting in Twi which they absolutely adore. I think what makes it an easier atmosphere to embrace is that people are looking or shouting out of curiosity, not because they are trying to be offensive, but because you aren’t the stereotypical Obruni.

I think in the end, I will always identify as being Canadian (how can you ignore the unforgettable “I am Canadian” commercials that unite our country within 45 seconds?). However, for me, it is also important to remember and embrace the values that I was brought up with in the life my parents carried across the world for me. In my conversations so far with the Ghanaian people, they are immensely proud to be Ghanaian and their beloved country. Although I am blend and I still have a lot of answers to seek, I am proud to be both.

IMG_1121“If you want to change the world, who do you begin with, yourself or others? I believe if we begin with ourselves and do the things that we need to do and become the best person we can be, we have a much better chance of changing the world for the better.” ~ Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Last week, I had the opportunity to accompany my Deputy Director to a stakeholders meeting in the Volta Region’s capital city of Ho. It is about 2 hours east of Accra. Although it was a long day, I was glad to see other parts of Ghana aside from the city and learn more about Pro-Link’s projects. Meeting the key personnel involved in the project on the ground gave a fresh perspective on Pro-Link’s operations.

A view of Ho from our lunch spot. It's great to see the greenery as you don't get much of it in Accra.

A view of Ho from our lunch spot. It’s great to see the greenery as you don’t get much of it in Accra.

A highlight of Ho, trying Fufu for the first time! It was fantastic with palm nut soup and fresh tilapia. You eat this dish with your hands and it comes complete with soap and a tub of water for you to wash your hands.

A highlight of Ho, trying Fufu for the first time! It was fantastic with palm nut soup and fresh tilapia. You eat this dish with your hands and it comes complete with soap and a tub of water for you to wash your hands.

Similar to my previous entry with my host family, I would like to introduce THE reason that I am here which is the NGO I am working with in Ghana, Pro-Link.

Pro-Link's logo

Pro-Link’s logo

The following are a couple quick facts that I learned about Pro-Link during the stakeholder meeting and from my orientation readings:

  • Vision:  A world in which all people are given equal access to the opportunities of life.
  • Mission: to empower and advocate with disadvantaged people to improve their human rights, health education and socio-economic status.
  • Meaning of Pro-Link’s logo: rural populations are also professionals. Ideas are not imposed on them but there is collaboration with them to undertake projects and together we develop communities and improve lives.
  • Pro-Link’s network is extensive and they have five offices in three of Ghana’s regions (Ashanti, Volta and Central) including their head office in Accra where I will be based for my project.
The office compound

The office compound

One of Pro-Link’s big projects involves their prevention program among most at risk populations (MARPS) which includes female sex workers (FSW) and men having sex with men (MSM). This was the project the stakeholder meeting I attended was addressing. Here are some facts that stood out to me:

  • The prevalence among MARPs in Ghana is 11.1% amongst FSW’s and 22.2% of the partners of sex workers (also called NPP’s or non-paying partners). I found this statistic to be interesting because in terms of outreach programs, I would usually think more about the FSW’s than the NPP’s. The prevalence within NPP’s is high because there is a sense of love and trust amongst these relationships which provides the rationale for not using protection. The issue is that partners will have 4-5 regular partners which increases the likelihood of infection and what’s more, reinfection. Therefore, the use of protection within FSW’s with their clients is proving to be effective but it is figuring out how to target the environment in which NPP’s operate.
  • MSM’s are a higher prevalence then FSW’s (17.5% vs. 11.1% in FSW’s) and a lot of this is linked to stigma within societal norms as gay marriages are not even close to being legalized in Ghana. The concept of HIV/AIDS testing itself is already a very sticky issue but when you combine it with the MSM aspect, it leads to even more silence.

The work involving MARP’s is not an easy feat and I admire the peer educators and Pro-Link staff that find the strength each day to be there on the field. It is interesting to learn about the work that goes behind community outreach which is entirely different from what I’m used to in a business setting.

In terms of my mandate, my role as the Accounting Systems Developer was officially launched this week. In this, I have 18 weeks to get a system up and running for the accounting team in the Accra office in the hopes of making their lives easier for keeping track of their records. It seems like a long time but I will have a lot of work to do.

I am looking forward to seeing this project to completion and in the process getting involved in some of Pro-Link’s other initiatives to maximize my short time here. Even within the short time that I have been here, I have been exposed to some topics that I may have forgotten about over the years and its importance (more to come on that though). I am excited to see what opportunities will surface.

“One’s destination is never a place, but rather a new way of looking at things.” ~ Henry Miller