Sunday, April 29, 2007
Before I moved to West Africa, I was bombarded with warnings about the hazards I would face living here. Wild animals. Bugs. Malaria. Especially malaria.
Three months later I remain healthy and free of bite marks from large carnivorous animals. However that's not to say that I haven't had any interaction with Ghana's creepy crawlies.
I've had the odd tussle with the hard-as-rock Ghana chocolate millipede. These big bugs have hundreds of legs and curl into something resembling a fiddlehead when harassed. They seem docile enough, though I can't say I enjoy stepping on them in the middle of the night or finding them napping amongst my dirty clothes.
I also share my home with a collection of spiders that would make a natural history museum proud. The small ones I don't bother with, but those bigger than my hand I toss outside with a with an emphatic "Eeeew!"
There are other interesting critters too: Snakes that choose to die outside my bedroom window and the odd definitely-not-dead scorpion. I once found one in the kitchen, and after a healthy scream, squashed it with a cinderblock. I was amazed to see that that its tail continued to flick back and forth for about 30 seconds after the stoning.
I don't worry about the snakes and spiders and scorpions too much. What concerns me more is malaria and trying to avoid it.
Health experts will tell you that avoiding malaria is easy: don't get bitten by mosquitoes. What they fail to tell you is how to avoid getting bitten without living in a sealed bunker beneath the South Pole.
There are steps that you can take to reduce the risk. I take an anti-malarial pill daily which, hopefully, will shut down the disease should it enter my system. However this isn't a vaccine -- it only reduces the risk of infection.
Each day I do what I can to avoid being bitten by the little bloodsuckers. I keep the door to my bedroom closed at all times. My windows are covered with good screens and the room smells like an old tavern thanks to the daily burning of mosquito coils.
Every night before going to bed I cover myself with enough DEET-laced bug spray to ward off small animals and evil spirits. And still I get bitten!
The only thing I don't use on a regular basis is a mosquito net, although I have a good reason: there is a ceiling fan directly over my king-size bed.
The fan prevents me from hanging a net from the ceiling and the bed is so big that even if I could hang a net, it wouldn't cover the bed. Believe me, I've tried.
When I first moved into my house I decided that I could live without a ceiling fan (ha!) and tried to hang my fancy $50 mosquito net that I brought from Canada. Several temper tantrums later, the net was suspended directly over the bed. I accomplished this by tying it to one of the fan blades. Brilliant, until I accidentally switched on the fan.
After a few more tantrums, the net was again suspended over the bed. That night I burned my coil offering to the malaria gods, sprayed myself down with poison, and slipped under the safety of the somewhat tattered mosquito net.
I awoke several hours later, floating in a pool of my own sweat. While sleeping I had flopped about so much that half of me was resting outside the protection of the net, providing a tasty buffet for the little bastards.
I weighed the value of getting a good sleep with the ceiling fan against the health risks of contracting malaria. Sleep won.
I thought I could find another solution, but it seems that no matter what I do, I wake up each morning with bites. Some mornings there are only a few. Other days I look like I've got measles.
Here's the weird part: My two roommates, both Ghanaians, use no protection whatsoever and never get bitten. They think this is funny.
It occurred to me that maybe something else was snacking on me. Perhaps bed bugs -- or worse. I followed my roommate's instructions and hauled my mattress outside to give it a good spray of Raid (kills Dougs dead). Then I let it bake in the sun all day, hoping this would fry any remaining insect squatters.
In the evening I put the mattress back in the bed frame and gave it another spray of Raid. As an extra precaution, I used a treated mosquito net as a barrier between the mattress and the bottom sheet.
Later I repeated my drill with the coils and spray. I wore a t-shirt tucked into my underpants (a nice sight). Then I sprayed even more bug dope around my shirtsleeves and collar and re-treated my legs. I switched off the light, covered myself with a sheet and took the slumber train to Sleepyville.
The next morning I stumbled into the bathroom, peeled off my chemical soaked shirt and discovered at least a dozen big bug bites. I shook my head.
My next step is to call Michael Jackson to see if I can get a deal on his hyperbaric chamber. Failing that I may have to move to the South Pole and put up with a hell of a commute.
Saturday, April 28, 2007
I am now in the process of downloading Open Office, as my MS Office is now asking for my install disks all the time. Like I have those! And the rate is decent: about 20 kb/s. I'm also trying to download a couple of episodes of My Name is Earl. Not much luck there, though.
While I wait for Open Office to finish downloading, I thought I'd write a short update on life here.
Last week I travelled with Christian, one of SKYY's reporters, to several small towns and villages outside of Takoradi in search of news stories. We found four. They were:
1. After a rash of thefts from their boats, fishermen in one community have started to store their fuel in their homes. Traditional leaders are worried that this is an accident waiting to happen as many fishermen smoke their catch at their homes. Given that most homes in the village are made of wood, the leaders issued an edict telling fishermen that they had to keep their fuel with their boats. The fishermen are upset because they fear their fuel will be stolen and are either ignoring the order or trying to get it reversed.
2. In the same village there is a problem with sewage. A public toilet (an 8-holer!) that was set up in the community is plugged and no one will clean the septic tank. Lots of finger pointing surrounding this story. In the meantime, the toilet has been offline for more than a year forcing some residents to relieve themselves outdoors.
Just down the road from the toilet is a sewer canal project. Construction on the project stopped several years ago for no known reason. The old part of the canal is little more than a ditch filled with stinky standing water. In addition to being a physical hazard, mosquitoes are breeding in the water. Erosion of the canals banks during heavy rains is also threatening nearby buildings.
3. Visitors to another community must now register with the village's traditional authorities. The reason given was so that the authorities could contact the visitors in case of an emergency. Most people feel this is an invasion of privacy.
4. Our final story comes from Christian's home village. It focused on how traditional beliefs are beginning to fade with time. In this case: dogs.
It seems in the old days dogs were not welcome in town because the God that protects the community was not a dog lover. Today, things have changed considerably. Dogs are now welcome in town as pets and also as food. Dog meat is a delicacy and is often used to make what I'm told is a delicious soup. And while I don't doubt it, I decided to take a pass.
I took the opportunity to ask about the feeling towards cats. Christian laughed and told me that cat meat is also a delicacy -- lots of people eat cat and raise them to either sell or eat. Hmmm.
Meanwhile, life continues to be good here in Takoradi, though occasionally frustrating.
I ran out of mosquito spray and it took several visits to town and many, many shops to find more. The good stuff with 48% DEET used to be available everywhere. Then it suddenly disappeared and was replaced by a lame cream containing only 12% DEET.
I tried the cream and was eaten alive. Thus began my mission to find the old stuff. After much searching I finally discovered four dusty bottles of Equatorial Body Spray at a chemist near Market Circle. I nabbed them all. My booty should last for at least a month, giving me time to find more with out the threat of contracting malaria.
I didn't do so well in trying to find a book -- any book. I've tried searching in vain for a bookstore. Most shops labeled bookstores actually sell schoolbooks and stationary. I specifically wanted a book on Ghana's former president Jerry Rawlings. I came up empty.
It seems there is no bookstore in the entire metropolis -- or if there is, it is well hidden. On my next trip to Accra I plan to load up on books as I've finished the three I brought back from my last visit.
I finally picked up some cloth to have shirts custom made. I'm tired of wearing the same old Old Navy crap. Last week I found fabric with two cool patterns for about $15. There are hundreds and hundreds of patterns available -- and it was difficult to pick only two.
On Thursday I handed the material over to Kojo, SKYY's driver, who said he knew a good tailor. I also gave him one of my Old Navy shirts as a sample of my girth -- this high-carb diet is not helping my waistline!
This morning, Kojo dropped off the finished shirts at my home and apologized for taking so long. I was shocked! I was even more shocked when I discovered the price: about $15.
To sum up: two cool custom made shirts, ready with in 48 hours for only $30. I love Ghana! I also love my cool new shirts!
One final note: as I type this, SKYY TV is running a Bollywood movie. For a second I felt like I was back in Vancouver. Sniff!
That's it for now. Apologies for the grammar and spelling errors!
And Go Canucks!
Thursday, April 26, 2007
hours. My head hurts because I've accomplished almost nothing.
But, today is my birthday and I get to tick of yet another one in a
You'll recall that I turned 40 in Guatemala and 35 in Malta.
Whilst I didn't turn 30 abroad (although Halifax could be considered
foreign!), I did buy an expensive mountain bike which I road across
Spain and Portugal in the same year.
No big plans for the night. We should have power this evening (it was
cut at 6am this morning), which will be a nice gift.
I'll probably hang out with Gloria and Kewku, my roommates, on the roof.
In Ghana, it is tradition for someone having a birthday to hold their
own party and supply all the snax and refreshments. I may do that on
Until the next time....
this via email because I cannot open webpages.
If the power outages (12 hours out of every 36) weren't enough, it seems
as though the internet has pretty much stopped working in Takoradi. In
won't even mention the water or the total lack of mosquito spray for sale.
Last weekend I was getting ok speed at the office -- slow, but it was
free so I didn't care so much.
Monday morning it was down. And it is still down as I write this on
The local internet cafe is slower than slow. I have been here for more
than three hours and downloaded a total of 17 emails, opened one web
page (Google) and had two chats.
I've never been so frustrated. It's worse when I come to the cafe by
taxi only to find it closed because of power cuts.
I've pretty much given up on downloading or uploading anything. It just
doesn't work and I am sick of wasting so much time.
I'll try to post to Roadspill, but even that is becoming more grief than
I need a beer.
Saturday, April 21, 2007
I'm at work, on a sunny Saturday, putting some images of Friday's visit to a stilt village online.
Rather than trying to post from Flickr (which takes up to 90 minutes to even open), I'll see if I can link to a couple of the images here. If this doesn't work, click here to be taken to flickr.
On Friday, April 20, 2007, I traveled with officials from the Bank of Ghana to the small village of Nzulezo, about 90 km west of Takoradi, Ghana. About 500 people live in the stilt village built over Lake Tadane. The only way to access the community is by flat bottomed and surprisingly leaky canoes. Bank officials were holding educational seminars to ready the village for the introduction of new currency this summer.
Taking a canoe to the stilt village.
Nzulezo's main drag.
An educational seminar for the introduction of the new Cedi.
The group after we completed our journey. All of my recording and photo gear survived -- thanks to the dry bags I brought from Canada. They were even put to the test when one of them, containing my $500 audio recorder, fell into the drink. The pricy electronics remained dry as a bone. Phew!
More on the trip in the coming days.
I have discovered what might be the source of some of my interNOT frustrations -- I noticed Firefox (my browser of choice) had been configured to use a proxy. Long story short, I reset how the browser connects to the interNOT and... it seems to work much better.
I'm off to celebrate with a rum and mango!
Thursday, April 19, 2007
We've got internet back at work and in the last six hours I've uploaded a couple of pictures, posted this (I hope), sent 5 emails, pulled all my remaining hair out and... that's it.
But an ultra-slow connection beats the internet cafe: I went there hoping to use the interNOT and, after dropping the cash on a cab, arrived to discovered the cafe was closed: no power.
I cabbed it back to work and found things running here -- though very, very slowly.
I've put some pictures on Flickr from a visit this week to a stone cracking quarry. It'll be part of a human rights story on child labour. Unfortunately I can't edit the titles or add descriptions, but the images should speak for themselves.
I'm heading to the wilds of western Ghana this weekend for another story - about a stilt village. Next week I hope to get to Accra...
The heat continues, but the rains have held off. Good for us, bad for the power supply. We now lose it daily - sometimes for an hour, sometimes for 12. I've given up trying to figure out when the "official" blackouts are. But we have water 80% of the time these days.
Keep the comments and emails coming... I love 'em.
Tuesday, April 17, 2007
This is going to be a busy week:
Wednesday - I am working on a child labour story.
Thursday - ... a story on abortion.
Friday - ... a visit to a village built on stilts over the water.
More to come this weekend, I hope. Additionally, I've posted some of the pictures from a SKYY football match held last week on flickr. I will put a sample or two up here.
That's it... life is good, but the clock is running...
Sunday, April 15, 2007
Originally uploaded by borderfilms (Doug).
This is Gato (actually mini-Gato)... a little feral kitten who hangs out at our house. Since Gato is a boy, I wasn't able to name him Miss Kitty, in honour of Lisa's cat... so you can call him Mr. Gato instead.
Wednesday, April 11, 2007
I think, because with Easter holidays and my nutty schedule, I find it difficult to keep tabs on which day is which.
That said, I must admit that it's been a slow week at the plant. No earth shattering human rights stories, although I did shoot a story on the filth left behind at a local beach following the long weekend.
I thought for a short time this morning that my video camera had been stolen. Because it operates on North American standards, we have to use it to input all the Freedom Flame video into the editing computer at work. I've let Asamoah (the Flame reporter) hold on to the camera as he's been doing most of the capturing.
After using the camera yesterday, I put it back in his bag. This morning he asks me if I still have the camera.
No, I say, fearing the worst.
Long story short, another staffer "found" it and took it home. Though this was only admitted after Asamoah talked about visiting a Fetish Priest about putting a curse on the thief.
It all seems sketchy, but at least I have my camera back. And I'll not leave anything around the newsroom ever again!
Elsewhere... I'm preparing for my workshop this Friday. It's a general sort of workshop - about the reporters wants and needs plus general human rights topics. This will allow me to better plan future workshops.
Other than that, life is normal. I go to work. I eat dinner. I curse the power cuts.
I am also thankful that a free-to-air TV station is airing the last season of the Sopranos (Mondays at 8!).
In the weather: It also remains hot and humid. Though it has been cooling off nicely at night.
That's it for now...
Saturday, April 07, 2007
Or, as I like to call it, battle of the church P.A.s!
I'm back online for a short time only -- sitting at the Nalex interNOT cafe, uploading this, downloading that.
Little headway was made this week in getting dedicated interNOT access. It IS coming, believe me, but not tomorrow. Or the day after that.
As a measuring stuck, the interNOT has been down at work for more than two weeks.
Another typical week... lots of work. But with Easter, things have slowed considerably and I have about 3 days off. Next Friday I have a workshop... and then (I hope) we're finally heading to the refugee camp.
Below is my posing for the JHR website this week... enjoy!
Week of April 6 2007 submission
TALES FROM MY ROAD
I often climb to the roof of my home, a two-story building consisting of three flats and noisy feral kitten named Gato, to relax in the cool evening breeze. It gives me a chance to unwind and survey my neighbourhood of Christian Hills, just outside of Takroadi, Ghana.
The neighbourhood is aptly named. It is hilly and sprinkled with churches. In addition to the requisite pews and altars, each church also owns a nuclear-powered public address system. The immense speaker and amplifier set-ups are used in a "Most Powerful P.A. in Ghana" contest every weekend. The fun begins shortly after 6 a.m., immediately following the "Loudest Preacher" event.
To passers-by, I resemble a large middle-aged white man suspiciously sitting on a roof. More than once, presidential security helicopters have buzzed me in order to get a closer look and assess my threat factor. Usually I don't rate a second pass.
Neighbourhood children react to my presence in two ways. Some will look up, wave and say, "Good evening, my friend." Others will recoil in horror, shrieking, as they turn tail and run for the safety of their mother's arms.
In addition to assorted houses of worship, Christian Hills is also dotted with partially completed homes, mobile phone transmission towers and hydro-electric pylons all set atop a lush carpet of tropical vegetation that stretches as far as the eye can see.
Cutting through the spectacular scenery is a jagged red scar that, upon closer inspection, is actually the main road past my home.
It has a name: The Mapee's Bypass Road, although in the interest of saving letters, let's call it the MBR. It has a purpose: It connects two busy parallel roads that terminate in the centre of Takoradi. And it had a problem: It's in terrible shape.
You see, the MBR is little more than two lanes wide and hideously deformed by the erosion powers of heavy rain. It's as crooked as a Florida mobile home salesman, the colour of lobster bisque, and named for an imported car parts shop (great deals on genuine Opel parts!).
All types of vehicles travel the MBR, from giant MAN lorries to bicycles. Size is usually the determining factor of who gets the right-of-way. A fair number of humans, goats, sheep and assorted poultry use the road as a thoroughfare, grazing ground, toilet and mating area. On the hilly parts, the road looks like an aerial photograph of Mars, deep gullies evidence of intense ancient water flows.
As we'd just entered the rainy season I thought it a good time to ask my neighbours what the MBR was like when mixed with water. Those that didn't run away shrieking for their mothers just laughed.
My biggest worry was navigating the MBR during or after a heavy rain, which, according to local experts, could potentially last several weeks. Like the poultry, I walk to work. Unlike the poultry, I wear shoes and socks and pants, all of which would become mud splattered and not dissimilar to a Jackson Pollock, if he'd designed business casual clothing for a living.
In the short time I have been in Ghana, I have come to know most of the shopkeepers on the MBR between my home and work. They're all quite friendly and we have short, but informative chats whenever I stop by.
Mary, who sells me bread and toilet paper from a wee shack of a shop, painted horrible, apocalyptic images of a wet MBR that seemed drawn from the Book of Revelation. Appropriate, given that this is Easter.
Beer Man, who sells me mostly liquids, just shook his head -- although this may have been more from his genuine concern over the negative health aspects of my daily beer intake.
One morning I was given a hint of what was to come when the heavens unleashed barely a thimble-full of rain. The dusty road was instantly transformed into a chunky red stew garnished with little balls of goat dung. It would not look out of place on the cover of Gourmet magazine.
Thankfully, the sun made short work of the earthen stew. It congealed into something that resembled the Grand Canyon from 30,000 feet.
A few days later the first big rain storm of the season hit. What happened to the MBR was remarkable. From the safety of my rooftop perch, the road looked like a lava flow, sweeping away everything in its path, including fat hens that squawked in confusion as they floated towards town.
The sight of bobbing poultry failed to scare off those behind the wheel. Taxi drivers simply floored it and, without the slightest regard to life and property (nothing new there), somehow made it through the crimson gunk. School bus drivers adopted a more cautious approach only to wind up mired in the slop. Petrified students pressed against the windows, silently praying they wouldn't be asked to get out and push.
It made for great entertainment.
The following day, city officials responded to the transportation nightmare not with gravel and graders but with dirt. Piles and piles of dirt. A seemingly endless line of trucks dumped loads of soil containing a surprisingly high percentage of tree roots. The fill wobbled like Jell-O because the roadbed, thanks to cooking power of the sun, was now the consistency of cake batter.
The dumping of the dirt had the unintended (?) result of blocking half of the road and completely plugging the roadside ditch originally intended to handle runoff.
Neither Beer Man nor Mary were quite sure of what to make of the project.
Beer Man: "There must be a method to their madness."
Mary: "This is hell!"
Another of my entrepreneurial neighbours, Tie-and-Dye Woman, creates colourful fabric using the same technique that the hippies borrowed back in the 60s. She laughed and told me that the actions by city officials were nothing new.
"They've done it before and it only makes things worse," she said before asking if I was interested in seeing some of her latest prints. "Are you familiar with Jackson Pollock?"
Foolishly, I had assumed that large yellow graders would travel the length of the MBR packing the dirt into something resembling a garden or -- best-case scenario -- a road.
But after many days, the piles of dirt are still there, effectively turning the MBR into a one-lane death strip. Pedestrians, goats, sheep and poultry all attempting to travel the road unscathed, performing amazing aerobatics to dodge impatient taxis and overloaded lorries.
Perhaps one day in the future someone will write a book on the mysterious piles of Ghana's Western Region. A more likely scenario is that the excitement of watching vehicular, pedestrian and animal traffic navigate the MBR during the rainy season will draw tourists from far and wide. Enterprising landowners will add bleachers and charge admission. It'll make Lonely Planet as a "don't miss" attraction. Beer Man will make a killing.
Eventually I can see a massive entertainment and retail complex on the spot. Resorts and tourist villages will pop up with names like Sheep River Falls and Lake Poulet, built on man-made lakes featuring church sponsored swamp buggy races. Progress!
Until then, I'll be wearing my Pollocks to work and working to perfect my tuck and roll maneuvers, lest I join the insects on the front of a speeding MAN lorry.
Thursday, April 05, 2007
[Written offline Thursday April 5, 2007 - apologies for formatting
issues... it's something that happens when I email my postings -- if you
know how to fix this, email me!]
I'm writing this from the confines of my humid kitchen/dining
room/hallway because the internet is still down at work. This will not
last. I am ordering service for my home. I don't care how much it costs.
It certainly will be no more expensive than dropping 60,000+ cedis on
taxi and cafe fees every few days. Not to mention the long hours spent
watching a tiny hourglass preform a never ending sequence of somersaults.
My thinking is this: I will be able to access the net easily (provided
it works) and at any time (provided it works). I'll be able to download
updates and the New York Times overnight (provided it works). And maybe,
just maybe, I can listen to the 20k stream of Radio Paradise (provided
it works). All this for about US $70 a month. Definitely worth it! And I
won't be disappointed because I've already lowered my expectations!
Elsewhere: My French press is no more!
All I did was set it on the tile counter and the bottom fell out. That
means a return to the labour intensive method of using funnels, coffee
filters and slow pours. I'm certain I can find a replacement in town...
otherwise I might have to switch to Nescafe during busy weekday mornings.
This week's JHR post (which will appear here) is about the road I walk
to work on each day. It's gone from bad to worse. But it's also kind of
The rainy season is definitely underway, but that has made no difference
to the nearly daily water and power outages. Some of the power outages
are due to the load-shedding exercises the electric company conducting.
As mentioned previously, they now occur in 12 hour windows every three
days. There are also bonus outages that make it hard to determine when
the real outages are taking place.
Life remains good. Work is going well, though the editing of the Flame
documentary is always being delayed due to more important concerns like
daily news and commercials. Not sure when it will ever get done. I just
wish it would!
Easter is almost here, and that means 3 or 4 days off, depending on what
industry you work in. Less if you're a journalist. But I intend to spend
at least a couple of days on the roof, with some fresh mango and rum
concoctions... heck, what better way to celebrate Easter? I'd hide
chocolate eggs, but they'd melt. Or the ants would carry them off.
Although maybe the ants would drown in the melting chocolate? Hmmm.
And with that...
Tuesday, April 03, 2007
I've just returned from five days at the Green Turtle Lodge, near Akwidaa, Ghana.
Why? To hang out and exchange ideas and experiences with several other JHR folks (Kat & Hicham) and to chill by the sea. And that's certainly what we did.
Well, until the storms of Sunday.
Storm one began Sunday at dinner time. A rumbly tumbly. Profuse sweating (even for me). Chills. Headache. Aches. Pains. CHRIST! MALARIA!
But there were a few clues that this wasn't malaria.
Earlier in our trip, we had met Dan Arsenault, a vacationing crime reporter and beer drinker from the Halifax (Canada) Chronicle-Herald. Only hours before he had taken ill. Same symptoms, same amateur diagnosis: malaria.
In another odd twist of fate, the day before, Dan, Hicham and I walked a couple of kilometres to a small fishing village in search of some fresh fish. We had asked the Green Turtle folks if we could do this, and cook it ourselves. They had no problem with the idea as long as they cooked the chips. Deal.
So we picked up several small unknown fish and a big tuna. We walked back to the lodge with our bounty. We cleaned it, cooked it, and devoured it. Yum!
I was barely through my plate of red-red Sunday when my internal warning systems sounded General Quarters. By the time I reached my cabin (with it's own private toilet, thank God), I knew I didn't have malaria. I had food poisoning, this being my third time.
I prepared for a war of the innards and the winds outside began to howl, announcing the arrival of the second storm. I shivered from my chills while sweating from my rising temperature. Coconuts fell on my roof as I managed to make #2 AND vomit simultaneously.
The storms continued for about 12 hours when, in unison, the rain outside stopped and the pain in my gut subsided. I heard angels sing. I felt like I was in a Midol commercial.
Neither Hicham nor Kat suffered from the fish, which we still don't understand, but I harbour no real grudge. And the illness did have the somewhat positive result of keeping us at the lodge for an extra night. A damn fine idea.
This morning Kat, Dan and I hitched a bumpy ride to Takoradi from Green Turtle staff. Dan and Kat both continued on to Accra while I went to work and found no internet.
Which brings us up to date!
I am now at an internet cafe downloading a few hundred emails. More work follows for the remainder of the week. Some catching up to do. Some projects to get rolling. Some workshops to prepare for.
I apologise for the lack of pictures, and I plan to purchase a replacement point-and-shoot camera as soon as I can. The SLR is too expensive and bulky to drag everywhere, but I find I am missing so many great opportunities by not carrying a camera.
That's it for now.