24 November 2007

On The Twins

October 1

Note: Essel is in a blue shirt, Felix in white, when we went to visit Miss Lilian. Not our typical night out to eat.

My hosts in Accra, Essel and Felix, are twins. The traditional Ewe names are Etse and Atsu/Atchu (in Gambia it's Adama and Awa, or Assan and Ousainou if both are boys). Both worked as "anyworks" -- young boys who made a little money by running errands and cleaning for students on campus. Essel worked for the Gambians on upper A (Dollar) Block, then for some of my American friends there, so that's how I got to know him. Felix worked for a friend of mine in another hall, among others.

After Junior Secondary School, Essel went to a Senior Secondary School east of Accra, while Felix went to the national vocational school to study electrical work. Both have now finished school and are looking for regular work.

Essel finished at Old Ningo S.S.S. last year, and has gotten a bit discouraged. Having been convinced that he cannot go far without further education (in IT or his personal favourite, business), he has not been proactive in seeking work opportunities. In a country with limited job prospects this leaves him with no chance of getting anywhere. So we are working on strategies that could help him make headway in this environment.

Felix has more prospects thanks to his electrician qualifications, but so far he has only had short-term odd jobs through word of mouth. With construction booming, there should be ample opportunities for Felix to get consistent work.

The twins are not lacking in work ethic. As "anyworks" they put themselves through J.S.S./middle school, when their father and uncles were unable and/or unwilling to help with their fees. They remain in the family compound, which has fallen into neglect. Some of the better-off uncles have moved out, leaving tenants in their place. Although by and large wonderful people (they are taking great care of me), the tenants cannot be expected to help out the twins and attend to the compound the way an owner might. Their father and the remaining uncle spend on alcohol what little money they earn. The few times I've run into the twins' father, he has stunk of booze. On the one occasion he didn't, he was on his way to the bar and was visibly shaking. Essel and Felix are not on speaking terms with their father.

Essel and Felix never knew their mother. But a few months ago she came to visit them in Kisseman. She had remarried and lives with her Malian husband in Bamako. Essel and Felix now have a brother (12 years old) and sister (6) in Bamako, and two more sisters in their early 20s living in Lome, Togo. It was a happy reunion, and their mother and step-father now call from time to time.

Essel is the more serious of the two, and more reserved. He is conservative in his spending and manner. Although I was pleased with this discipline, I think his modesty and reticence stifles his search for employment.

Felix, by contrast, is a fun-loving individual. He is happy to spend on a spot of drink, although he is not as nihilistic as his father. While Essel would prefer we just have some water with dinner, Felix encourages us to get some minerals or beer. But on our big night out, to my former study abroad director Doc's wife's restaurant in East Legon, Felix just went for banku with pepper soup. Our visit to Essel's congregation two Sundays ago was the first service Felix or I had attended in quite some time. But it was good to stop in as the pastor is a friend and mentor of Essel's.

We have been working on resumes/CVs and approach/cover letters so that Essel and Felix can leave a more lasting impression than saying "I need a job" and leaving only a phone number. They seemed quite pleased with the results, which should give them a little more confidence on the job search. We shall see what has come of it once I return from a week in the north.

We have been looking at some IT (well, typing and MS Office) courses for Essel. The understanding is that Essel will find work to occupy him along with the coursework. Even if the work is very low-paying or voluntary, it will get him out of the house and meeting people, and give him more work experience. Essel's aspiration is to attend the national polytechnical school in Koforidua to study business, perhaps next year. But that qualification won't provide him a livelihood without initiative and motivation. Hopefully this year will be a more productive one.

A few things Essel has said shed light on his outlook, which I am trying to change. Once, Essel mused about how much more money he might have if he'd been an "anywork" in America. I told him there was no point in wondering, as it wasn't so, plus his laundry skills (far superior to my own) would be of little use in America, anyway. His wistful attitude tends to substitute for going out and finding better options.

Another night, we visited a former teacher of Essel's who I once had a parent-teacher conference with many years ago. Her husband seemed to think we had come to beg or steal; we had to wait outside the big gate until Miss Lilian welcomed us in (any compound that has to have a gate opened by someone is a nice place). Anyway, during our conversation Miss Lilian related the tale of her stay in the UK. Her husband worked as a petrol station attendant while he pursued his master's degree and Lilian (a qualified teacher) worked as a cleaner to help with the bills. Miss Lilian, and I, clearly hoped the moral of this story for Essel and Felix would be that you cannot be too proud to take any work that is available, and to do whatever you can to better your situation. Shit, I probably would have settled for Essel wondering how Lilian's husband could forget his humble, but admirable, work and look askance at two random young men and their obruni friend. Instead, Essel remarked after we left, "Imagine what you could do with a little money earned overseas!" I retorted with what I deemed worth gleaning from Miss Lilian's experience, and again thought about how difficult it is to change people's attitudes.

ADDENDUM: It should be noted that Lilian's husband Francis was a great host when we came on an announced visit to their home. Also, my purpose in this article is to give a little idea of the situation in Ghana, and my hopes for a great friend of mine.


The 50th anniversary of Ghana's independence is also Commonwealth Hall's 50th year. The Vandal City, as Commonwealth is dubbed, is renowned for the spirit and enthusiasm of its residents. I experienced this during my year at the University of Ghana. My hallmates (V-Mates) had initiations for freshmen (and foreign students), pre-dawn route marches around campus, weekly debates on the hall steps, and an annual hall week replete with school boy, traditional wear and crossdressing days.

For all the shenanigans, the Vandals are by and large excellent students. The hall is held in such regard that their Jubilee Durbar was attended by John Kufuor, the president of Ghana, among other luminaries.

While visiting an old friend (and Old Vandal) in Winneba, we came across a television programme on the history of Commonwealth and the ethos of Vandalism. Although not a very incisive look (it was funded by an Old Vandal), the show had some fun reminders, such as that the other residence halls are referred to as "the colonies." When I visited there I was uniformly greeted with shouts of V-Mate! and got to see that the spirit is still strong. The hall is actually in fairly good condition, although the old problems remain (the water wasn't on that day). It was fun to get back and reminisce about the days there, the closest I got to fraternity living.

Sankofa! Extreme Makeover of Accra

28 September 2007

It has been great to be back in Ghana, although a little strange after such a long absence (since July 1999). There have been a lot of changes that have made parts of Accra unrecognizable, and the population has ballooned too. My friend Essel's home, Kisseman, used to be a dusty village between Achimota and the university in Legon, but when I arrived it was an unfamiliar jumble of storey buildings, makeshift compounds and street-stalls, with the paths through compounds or gutter-ways the only way to get around.

Downtown Accra is even more crowded and congested than before, with many new roadways and overpasses trying to keep up with the city's growth. These photos are from the old lighthouse in Jamestown, in downtown Accra.

One problem of such quick, unplanned growth is an unreliable water supply. Most of the compounds (households) lack running water; even the trusted public toilet ($0.05 a go, $0.06 if you don't have paper) is not a self-flushing facility. So Essel and his family, and their tenants, have to fetch water from one of the compounds that can afford a tap. In Kisseman a 20 Liter bidong/jerry can costs five pesewas, or $0.05, to fill. In other areas where piped water is an even greater problem (such as parts of Madina), 20L is as much as $0.20.

Essel asked me if I had seen Extreme Makeover, which is shown on TV here, and if deserving people really could enter and win the chance to have their home revamped. The show and the money and energy people put into their home decorating and improvement is a little, well, extreme to me -- consider that Essel's compound with some 25 people does not have a single toilet. That I find these home aesthetics programs a bit bizarre when just thought of abstractly may not bode well for my upcoming return to this milieu. To me, more practical concerns, such as a compound of two dozen people lacking even a long-drop toilet (and with one bathing area for the residents to share) are of greater concern than the extra touches that make a house nicer.

The State of Cote d'Ivoire

With yet more photos from the largest church in the world...

Since 2002, Cote d'Ivoire has been divided between northern rebels (uprising against discrimination and marginalization) and a national government led by Laurent Gbagbo (who won a 2002 election over a general who overthrew Houphouet-Boigny's successor Henri Konan Bedie, but which excluded a key northern politician), with a "Zone of Confidence" monitored by French and U.N. troops. Although there have been several attempts to reach peace accords, conditions haven't improved markedly over the last several years, with the north falling even further behind the south in terms of economic development, education, and so on.

I travelled through the government-held portion of Cote d'Ivoire, so I cannot comment on the situation in the north, aside from hearing that there is no more running water, sporadic electricity, and little infrastructural development.

As for the south, government services do seem to be working. In all of the towns I stayed in (including the smallish Tolepleu) there was constant electricity, and there was work on installing a lot of streetlights on the road from Tolepleu to Yamousoukro (perhaps a branching out of the 20,000 or so H-B installed in that ghost town).

There were lots of military checkpoints, but only occasionally was I asked for money (with their only take, $2, coming on the border where I was magnanimous since I didn't have to pay for a visa). Given the security situation, these checkpoints and stops (all near the Zone of Confidence) made some sense, as opposed to those in Liberia (becoming more stable, with the only checkpoints serving as shakedown points) and Gambia (perfectly peaceful, just corrupt). A disturbing aspect of these checks, though, was the fact that people who seemed to be of northern origin (i.e. were clearly Muslims) were most likely to be told to come down from the vehicles and have their luggage searched. Coming from the sahel, it was sad to see some elderly men who should be treated with respect shown such little regard.

Francis, my host in Yamousoukro, used to work in Bouake, the largest northern city -- that's where his Eglise du Christ school was based before the war. Francis said that he sympathises with the northerners, as they were long discriminated against and neglected economically (most African colonial development took place on the coast, exacerbating regional and cultural divisions). With the war, they are even more cut off.

13 November 2007

Cote d'Ivoire (more than just churches)

The last time I visited Cote d'Ivoire it was for a long weekend from Ghana in late 1998. The trip was done with my Council exchange group chaperoned by the inimitable Doc.

Then, Abidjan seemed from another planet - a cosmopolitan metropolis of skyscrapers, large streets and grand hotels, quite a contrast with the squat organic chaos of Accra. It was full of patisseries and nice restaurants, an impressive cathedral, immaculately dressed Ivoiriens (please bear in mind that all West Africans do their best to keep up appearances), and the Hotel Ivoire, a monstrous complex that seemed not of this time and region.

As for this visit, I took a decidedly less-travelled route than the coastal highway (see my Liberian travels for more). I spent the night in Tolepleu, then headed for Yamoussoukro. This day's travel was probably the worst of my trip. The fatigue from the Monrovia-Tolepleu journey caught up with me, leaving me ill-humoured and mentally not at my best. Ivoirien transport practices confused me, as a couple of times I was dropped and put in a new vehicle to complete the leg -- the first time I thought I'd already reached Guiglo and was being led to a vehicle for my next destination. My confusion over the route also had me get off a van heading for a town I would pass through anyway -- only several hours later now.

In my final vehicle, one of my fellow passengers, Francis, offered to put me up for the night. He did mention that it was a religious school, and asked me if I was a Christian but, approaching midnight and an unfamiliar city, you can't be picky about free accommodation.

The next day I followed one of my usual city itineraries, walking close to 10kms and getting the lay of the land. Constructed on the whim of first President Felix Houphouet-Boigny (who grew up nearby), it features large, mainly empty highways in all directions, an impressive hotel, a large presidential compound (the perimeter wall is 5kms long), and a massive campus of technical institute south of town. All this is in the middle of what was essentially bush thirty years ago.

The most amazing structure, though, is the Basilique de Notre Dame de la Paix. This church is the largest in the world, a fact none-too-subtly pointed out in diagrams showing Notre Dame in Paris and St. Peter's in the Vatican fitting inside it. An elevator we rode to a pavilion 34 metres up (about 10 storeys) is only 2/3 of the way to the top. Stained glass windows feature the apostles and biblical scenes, including Houphouet-Boigny in the Jerusalem crowd on Palm Sunday. The basilica is truly magnificent, although the main thoughts it stoked in me were wonder at how H-B (whose name always reminds me of Humphrey Bogart) could get away with this, and the better causes the $300 million could have gone towards.

The remainder of my stay with Francis and the Church of Christ was pleasant. My inadequate French kept me from being invited to join the religious seminars (among the boarders were students from Mali and even Cameroun), but I too was expected to turn in around 8PM to study (in my case, West African novels). Still my hosts took very good care of me, and Francis's English was sufficiently superior to my French to allow for some passable conversations.

From Yamoussoukro I headed via Abidjan to Grand Bassam, an old colonial capital. It was similarly run down like Janjanbureh (in Gambia) and Bonthe, but some of the former administrative buildings have been nicely restored. Tourist hangers-on and vendors were a bit annoying, but there was a nice costume museum (in one old photograph a French colonial officer can be seen in the background inspecting a local girl's breasts) with Wolof woodcarvers hawking masks (which Cote d'Ivoire is known for). The tranquility was interrupted one day, when a couple of busloads of Ivoiriens arrived for a "spectacle" of live music and an overlong dance contest. The whole thing reminded me of a warped facsimile of Spring Breaks as portrayed on American tv. Once the outcome was resolved (the proceedings took place in front of my room's window), I went for a walk along the beach. Unfortunately, Grand Bassam's status as a holiday spot near Abidjan meant the beach was full of trash (flotsam dumped in the water and returned by the tide), plus the site of the always embarrassing meeting with someone taking advantage of the ocean's natural flushing action...

In my return to Abidjan I lodged at a rather decent hotel in Treichville. Across the lagoon from the ritzier Plateau, it's regarded as unsafe by Lonely Planet, particularly at night. I was pleasantly surprised to find Treichville perfectly safe, albeit a bit rundown. It's an overgrown residential area teeming with migrants, and there's lot of activity at night (street food, drinking spots, etc.) so it was nice.

The next couple of days were spent riding bateau-buses across the lagoon, taking in the architecture, and bargaining for Cote d'Ivoire jerseys and Coupe de Calle CDs. I visited St. Paul's cathedral (impressive but a better fit for the surrounding's Ya'kro's church) and the Musee Municipal d'Art Contemporain, where some art school students had an exhibition hopefully titled "Reconciliation." The themes were a bit derivative (showing dances and ethnic group scenes you may meet at a tourist stall) but some of the paintings, using bark as canvas and incorporating found objects, were quite good. Benjamin gave a talkative tour which was mostly lost on me, but the unifying theme helped me follow most paintings. I had two of my trip's most delicious meals in Abidjan -- a rice and sauce dish from a vendor inside the cathedral grounds (where I somehow managed to prompt a discussion of the merits of waist beads), and a Paysanne pizza (with mushrooms and onions).

05 November 2007


My only upcountry trip (excepting the journey to Cote d'Ivoire) was to Buchanan, Liberia's second city. This was in early September.

We had a slow but fun ride, with two tire changes, a tire purchase, and plenty of teasing of our driver about the tires and other vehicular defects - non-functioning windscreen wipers, unopenable windows, a long-suffering muffler (the prevailing theory became that Toga the driver was hitting potholes on purpose to check if it was still there), and the rear window hanging on for dear life. The good humour of Liberian passengers was something I enjoyed a lot.

On the way, we passed through a Firestone concession area - a rubber plantation. Firestone has been in Liberia for ages, further cementing America's long-standing ties here. It was interesting to me that the concession area is like a country unto itself, complete with police checkpoints at entries and exits.

Buchanan is a low-key place with a nice little grid of streets at the centre, which may have been bestowed on it when another large extractive industry multinational arrived in Liberia. Lamco brought iron ore down by train to be picked up at the port. The massive plant outside town, now owned by Mittal but still closed, current houses a Bangladeshi peacekeeping unit. After a tour of the grounds I headed for an empty beach, where I read, swam, and woefully overestimated the sun-blocking powers of my umbrella. This is where some of the hope of Liberia lies, with extractive industries that also include diamonds and timber, but we've seen how that's turned out in some places.

For all the difficulties Liberians face, they are a friendly, welcoming people. There is a lot of interest in and cultural connections to the U.S. Given the large role America played in Liberia's founding and their strong relations through the Cold War, I hope we will be forthcoming with assistance. At the same time, Liberian governance and civic attitudes need improvement. The president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (universally referred to as Ellen) is highly regarded, but is often let down by others in her administration. In one recent example, Ellen was obliged to withdraw her nominee for maritime commissioner after it came to light that he was facing fraud charges and disbarment in the U.S. Apparently her staff knew about the charges but said nothing. As for civic-mindedness, Monrovia is awash in garbage. Sometimes it is piled together (at a street corner or road median), otherwise it is thrown all over the place. It is never taken away, aside from by a few people foraging for a useful object or two. Cleaning it up would be a good activity for some of the droves of idle and unemployed. They seem unlikely to attempt any hauling/sorting/burning without pay, and neighbourhoods and businesses don't pool resources to address the filth in their sections of town.

Another interesting thing I noticed was the apparent presence of Pakistanis on both ends of the Liberian spectrum. You may recall my post on migrants riding the ore train en route to Europe from South Asia. Well, around West Africa one occasionally sees Mauritanian migrants begging for assistance. I asked a taxi driver about one boy at Red Light motor park, and the driver said he was Pakistani. So there are Pakistani peacekeepers helping Liberians rebuild their country, and perhaps others that got stranded on their way to greener pastures.

Would I recommend visiting Liberia? Although there is a dearth of sights (and infrastructure), I think it is worth a look. Liberians are very friendly, and I experienced very little hassle while getting around (the police near the border focused their extortion efforts on non-Liberian ECOWAS citizens). They have a great sense of humour, which I may be highlighting as I surely missed a lot of commentary in Francophone countries. There are nice beaches, and away from expat-heavy Monrovia they are likely to be empty. The countryside is beautiful and still heavily forested, although a lot of this is rubber plantation.

So, worth visiting, but probably as part of a larger trip. It seems fairly accessible from Guinea, and from Cote d'Ivoire's north, if/when peace and stability return to the latter. The north of C.I. sounds really interesting too. The Monrovia-Ganta-Toe Town-Tolepleu rote I took was passable, but not for the faint of heart (it should be a little better in the dry season).