Goodbye travels (part 2)

24 06 2009

You’ll have to forgive me if this post sounds a bit like it was written by the Ghana tourist board, but I’m writing this sitting inside a huge meteorite crater on the edge of a lake where it’s taboo to fish from boats so the local fishermen are paddling out perched on planks of wood. There’s no internet access so it won’t get published until I get back to Kumasi.

Lake Bosumtwi is an incredibly peaceful place, with the sound of the water lapping and insects chirping while the crater rim is swathed in tropical jungle. It’s nearly the end of my goodbye tour, tomorrow (Thursday) we go to Accra and we fly out on Friday, and I’ve been really impressed by how much there is to do and see in Ghana. Travelling has been reasonably easy, if not always totally comfortable, and the Ghanaians on the whole have been eager to help and direct. We have been hassled, but nowhere near as much as a pair of white people travelling in other poor countries might be. After four weeks of fairly continuous travelling I’m as much amazed by how much I’ve missed as how much I’ve seen.

This isn’t the first beautiful and peaceful spot we’ve found on our travels; there was Ada Foah on the mouth of the river Volta – a retreat for rich Accra residents (Accraians? Accraites?) with a Mediterranean feel sandwiched between a mangrove swamp lined lagoon and the palm fringed Atlantic bursting with bird and insect* life. A place where the wealthy water-skied while locals paddled dugout canoes. There was also Atimpoku, a small town clinging to the Volta river just below the Akisombo dam, where the river flows through a forested valley and under a fairly impressive bridge. I mentioned hans cottage, Kakum and Boti falls in my last post and there is a beauty (especially in the rainy season) to a lot of the other places we’ve been to.

We got to see a fair bit of lake Volta (apparently the largest man made lake in the world) from the ferry we caught that travelled the several hundred kilometres from the dam at Akisombo to the northern township of Yeji. The 26 hours took us through a remote area of Ghana and an incredibly spectacular lightning display. The lightning was followed by the predictable rain, but fortunately for us we’d got one of the very few cabins available. The rain showed how well our fellow travellers had chosen their patch on the deck to sleep. The small band of white people who’d chosen to sleep on the top deck to get the best view regretted their decision (and understood why the locals let them). The next day was hot and sunny so everyone dried off while the ferry stopped at tiny mud hut villages to load and unload.

Yeji was probably the smallest town we stayed in, but also possibly he noisiest. We arrived on the evening a local radio station was holding a dance competition in the main square, so hip-life music was being played at a deafening volume. To describe Yeji as a one horse town is probably overestimating the number of horses. It seemed to consist of just three streets and Rhona described the precarious dugout canoe out as the best thing about Yeji. The trip from Yeji to Tamale (via Salaga) was punctuated by the bus breaking down near a pretty little town that happened to be having it’s market day, complete with visiting Fulani tribesmen. The exoticism of the local market impressed the 3 Canadians and 3 Germans who’d also been on the ferry but may have given them a false idea of northern Ghana. It was probably the only time I’ve actually appreciated the bus breaking down here though.

The week or so we spent in the north gave me a chance to say some final farewells and for Rhona (a friend visiting from the UK) the chance to see some of what my life has been like here. Hopefully she was impressed by the pottery and arts centre in the little village of Sirigu and the beautiful decorated cathedral in Navrongo. Rhona loved Bolga’s colourful, noisy, busy (and searingly hot) market and in the evening we joined several volunteers on a “spot crawl” through Bolga that included a chance to drink the local brew “pito” in a traditional pito base.

I’ll admit there was a tear in my eye as I said goodbye to Tamale, Fred and my VSO life, and as I struggled with the various pieces of luggage I’m manhandling home (one because I’ll miss them and the other because the strap was hurting my shoulder). An early morning bus ride to Kumasi would have shown more of Ghana had I stayed awake (up late trying to get my suitcase to close) and was followed by a chaotic wander around Ghana’s busiest feeling city and the obligatory meal in Vic Baboo’s. On Saturday morning I’ll be back in Britain, with all this as fading memories.


*Sadly the insect life in Ada Foah included the most aggressive and numerous mosquitoes we encountered on our trip as well as stunning dragonflies and butterflies.


Goodbye travels (part 1)

10 06 2009

The thing that has struck the most about our travels is just how much there is to do and see in Southern Ghana.  So far we’ve spent a few days acclimatizing in Accra (and visited Mekola market, Osu, James town, sat on La beach as well as meeting various other volunteers).

From Accra we travelled to Cape Co. Cape Coast and its sister town of Elmina are little gems with hideous pasts. Each has a stunning colonial castle, shining white perched on palm fringed shores that were the scenes of the industrialised evil of the slave trade, 10s of millions suffering immense cruelty and injustice that resulted in most of their deaths and exile and slavery for those that survived. Both castles are well worth visiting and Cape Coast and Elmina have various hidden treasures scattered around that reward the intrepid explorer.

Outside Cape Coast is Kakum national park. This is a fantastic place that offers a walkway though the rainforest canopy, 45m high in places with stunning views. We stayed in the nearby Hans Cottage Botel I’m still not sure what a botel is). This is great with tame crocodiles that can be stroked and a huge variety of bird life incude a huge colony of bright yellow weaver birds (the males build an elaborate nest that the female destroys if it isn’t up to scratch) as well as kingfishers and other avian delights.

From Hans Cottage Botel we traveled to Koforidua, where my friend Richard lives. This is a lovely little town nestling in jungle covered hills. Yesterday we went to Ghana’s original cocoa plantation and a great botanical gardens in Aburi. Today was spent visiting local waterfals and walking in the countryside.

Reasonable weather and travel so far. Tomorrow we’re off to the Volta Region coast. I’ll post photos when I get a chance.

Leaving ISODEC

1 06 2009

My actual final day was a bit of an anticlimax, but these things often are. Most of my colleagues were “travelling”, a word that can be used to describe almost any reason for absence from the office. In this case they spent the last two weeks of my time with ISODEC visiting partner local NGOs scattered around northern Ghana. Their absence meant that my last fortnight was, to say the least, slow. But I did get to mark my departure in a few ways, and as a result I feel a bit better about going. I’m proud of the two main things I made happen, although in both cases other people did the actual difficult bits. I’m either getting better at delegation or just lazier.

The penultimate weekend was mildly frenetic. I had my grand leaving party on Saturday – a staggered event (if that’s an appropriate word) starting with the my Ghanaian friends and colleagues arriving bang on time and the non-Ghanaians arriving fashionably late (and me flapping that no one would arrive). I persuaded our spot opposite to lend us most of their chairs as well as a couple of cooks for the afternoon so I was able to meet the Ghanaian expectation of something to eat and a bottle of something (soft mostly) to drink. There were the mandatory speeches and presentation and I was given a beautiful hand stitched white smock with a black felt, floppy hat as well as a signed photo of my colleagues. I was genuinely touched. As the evening progressed the Ghanaians tended to leave (on the whole they aren’t night birds) and more westerners arrived. A surprising and flattering number of my fellow VSOs travelled down from the Upper East Region and at about 10.30 a mixed group of expats arrived to give the party that little boost it needed to last till about 3am. Personally I had a great time, although at points it felt like I was jumping from group to group without doing anyone justice. In true VSO spirit the cleaning up had been done by the time I woke up.

The Monday was a public holiday (African Union day) but I’d cajoled and bullied other departing vols into attending a self organised “leavers’ conference” in Bolga. VSO are supposed to organise a workshop for volunteers before they depart to consider “reverse culture shock” as well as other practical aspects of leaving the volunteer life. For budgetary reasons VSO Ghana decided not to organise one this year so I decided that northern vols would have one of their own. I spent a few weeks emailing and negotiating then dumped the task of actually organising the day onto people I knew would make a far better job of it, which they did. It did mean though that the day after my big party I had to jump onto a trotro to Bolga and then rush down Tuesday morning to be in work for the afternoon.

Despite, or maybe because of, the rushing around I felt a weight had been lifted from me for the rest of the week. One of the VSO programme officers did my leaving interview Friday morning and left me feeling more positive about my achievements and now I’m no longer a volunteer, NGO worker or general well meaning do gooder. For the next 4 weeks I’m a plain honest, tourist bringing plain, honest tourist dollars to Ghana.

The party:
Evening Party

The leavers conference:
Leaver Conf

Tim’s leaving Tamale

30 05 2009

Yesterday was my last day with ISODEC, tomorrow morning I’m heading down to Accra to start a 4 week trip exploring a bit more of Ghana. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to describe my last week and a half as a volunteer as well as my travels. Right now I ought to be packing instead of sitting in an internet cafe.

On Religion

26 05 2009

Storm cloudsA striking difference between the UK and Ghana is the pervasiveness of faith and religion. Almost everyone here believes in an active way; churches and mosques are full and traditional worshippers follow the traditional rites. And people take it seriously, I’ve met individuals who’ve converted from Christianity to Islam and vice-versa. Most taxis and lorries will have a religious slogan on the rear window and often will have a crucifix or Koranic texts glued to the dashboard. I see colleagues writing up church notes in their spare time and my Islamic colleagues break for prayers three times during the working day. Gospel songs are routinely played on the radio and television and on Sunday evenings local spots may have their radios tuned to sermons. Churches even advertise on the radio. Throughout the day the call to prayer sounds across the town and on Sundays church bells can be heard, often followed by the sound of enthusiastic worship. “God willing” or “Thank God” are habitually added (with conviction) to explanations or plans. It is assumed that you’ll have some belief, and as long as you do that’s OK. A great thing here is the acceptance of other faiths, when we have a meeting if the opening prayer is made by a Muslim the closing will be made by a Christian, and there are almost always opening and closing prayers. The only system of thought that isn’t really acceptable is probably atheism. The contrast with apathetic, agnostic Britain could hardly be more stark.

My personal response to this is complex. I grew up in a strongly evangelical Christian family and my mother and other close members of my family are still actively involved in their faith. While I respect their choices I no longer feel able to answer with an honest yes to the question “Do you believe?”, and I have too much respect for the principles of my upbringing to lie. I’m extremely grateful for the values I learnt, but after much thought and consideration I’ve come to a place where I feel that the balance of probabilities is that there is no God, and what is more I realise that I don’t actually believe. For a long time I wanted there to be a loving God and I wished I could believe, but I felt a fraud and a liar attending church and mouthing things I wasn’t convinced of, so being in a deeply religious country is a bit of a challenge. Not a challenge to my lack of faith – I don’t feel the need to defend it and in fact am open to evidence that would change my mind – but a challenge to know how to treat my colleagues with respect without lying, upsetting them or being drawn into pointless debates. Some volunteers treat attending a church here as a cultural outing, equivalent to the enstooling of a chief or even a perhaps a traditional dance, something to be watched and enjoyed. I’m deeply uncomfortable with this response, people’s faith isn’t entertainment but something core to them and to be respected.

My impression (and it is only an impression and after a relatively short while) is that the effect of all this faith is mixed. There are some very positive results, some negative and some which are neutral. Faith and the ecumenicism here provide something of a social glue and identity to a country that has incredible linguistic and cultural diversity. Denominational structures can be more effective ways of disseminating social messages than the state bureaucracy. Churches and mosques provide social venues for their members and organised activities for youth in a country largely without things like television, cinema or theatre. Religious groups (foreign and domestic) are active in work to alleviate poverty. Religion provides a strong moral framework and sense of identity and for people with little control over many aspects of their lives. The panglossian idea that since God is in charge whatever happens must be for the best in the long run is comforting. Faith brings comfort, hope and social interaction.

The most obviously negative aspect of all this spirituality is the belief in witchcraft. People (including children) are murdered here and women are expelled from their communities as a result of accusations of witchcraft. Often women accused of witchcraft are left destitute and a charity has established a community near Bolga where about 200 “witches” are able to live. Many unexplained misfortunes are blamed on witchcraft and I’ve talked to graduates who firmly believe that it can be used to kill. The mentally ill can be unfortunate victims of this type of belief (this is not a nice place to suffer from mental illness).

Other negative aspects include an inappropriate level of faith; students who think attending prayer meetings will be more effective than revising or motorcyclists who think religious texts or charms will provide better protection than crash helmets. There can be a frustrating fatalism where people say “it’s in God’s hands” or “God’s will” when they’re capable of using the skills and talents that they’ve been given to take control of their own future. The willingness to attribute misfortune to spiritual causes rather than look for more mundane reasons may prevent people finding practical solutions.

There is also the issue of the poor being asked to donate part of their wealth to the church or mosque. I realise this is a complex issue, that the act of giving is in itself an act of worship and important to the individual. I also realise that if the religious institutions are going to continue performing their function they need funding. What concerns me are the stories of people being bullied to give, with promises of wealth in return for giving. Even worse is the radio advert I heard today urging people to buy a pastor’s “blessed” oil on the grounds it could save your marriage or business. While the majority of religious leaders aredecent, caring people I fear it’s too easy here for charlatans to exploit the desperation of the poorest for their own ends.

[This post has been a difficult one to write for many reasons, but I felt it was an important issue. I hope that I haven’t said anything to offend anyone, it isn’t my intention to attack legitimate faith, and I apologise if I have]

Community television

21 05 2009

There’s a workshop near where I live (next to the spot actually) that owns a TV. In the evenings, after they’ve finished welding, grinding and doing whatever else they do, they bring the TV out, with rows of benches in front, and local people can come and spend an evening watching either a Nigerian movie or a football match (depending on what’s on) in the open air. Most evenings there’s at least a small crowd watching, unless it’s raining, but when Ghana play or there’s a premier league match on the crowd swells to 30 or 40 – all cheering and shouting. The TV’s owner doesn’t gain in any material way, and I think this communal act of watching is a rather positive thing.

Advice for new volunteers

17 05 2009

In the unlikely event I got asked I’ve been thinking about what advice I’d give to a prospective volunteer. Here is my distilled wisdom

1)Don’t take any advice too seriously, come with an open mind and make your own judgements

2)”Flexible and Adaptable” – VSO weren’t kidding, these really are crucial attributes

3)It’s all about people. This probably should be #1, I can’t stress it enough

4)Don’t be negative, look for the positive. Negative thoughts and people drag you down. Avoid both

5)When you’re frustrated with inefficiency, incompetence, lack of resources or infrastructure remember that that is rather the point for your being there. Switzerland doesn’t need too many volunteers

6)Remember you made the decision to go. It’s your responsibility so you need to make it work

7)There will be rotten times. There will be great times. There will be dull, mundane times. Ratios vary.

8)You will (almost certainly) get ill, but over 2 years it’s unlikely you’d have never got ill if you’d stayed at home

9) Be willing to ask for help

10)Have fun, enjoy yourself, explore your host country

Anything other VSOs would like to add?

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