Sunday, July 22, 2007

Living with Royalty...

With just one month left in Ghana, I’ve realized how much there is still to do and so little time! This weekend, I’ve been lucky to have some excellent family bonding time.

Aye yo eloto! (Let’s go to farm!)

This morning was definitely the highlight of my week. As the heading suggests, we went to farm! Luckily it rained last night so the sky was cloudy and the weather quite cool.

Around 9 a.m., I hopped on the back of my bicycle and Somah peddled us the 2 miles to today’s task – bean planting!

Here, unlike Canada where farms look like the solid-colour building blocks you find in a kindergarten classroom, it’s often hard to distinguish between a farm and the bush. My family farms a number of crops on separate chunks of land sprinkled along the road leading to Kafaba. On the way to our destination (the yam and cassava farm), we passed their teak tree/mango/cashew farm, their ground nut (peanut) farm, their maize farm, and the place where their cattle are kept. It seemed like every two minutes of the ride I’d hear “this one is ours” coming from the front of the bicycle. I’m excited to sit down with Zet and draw out a map of all their farms to get a clear picture of all of it! Hopefully I'll be able to share that next time with a few more thoughts about all these different crops...

The bean planting process is fairly straight-forward: make a hole in the mound with a big stick, throw in two beans, cover the hole. “Make a hole in the ‘mound’?” I hear some people asking. Yep, yams and cassava are planted in mounds to give more room to the roots and, consequently, get bigger yams and cassavas. The yams plants produce one yam per mound, but the cassava plants (which look like little trees) can get as many as five cassavas per mound. The mounds are often home to more than just a yam or cassava plant and also host one or two maize plants, okra, ground nut, or… beans!

With many helping hands, the work didn’t take too long to complete and we were back home by 12:30. Photos posted here:


Today was also snippets of a family history lesson. Apparently, my family’s ancestors were originally from Kafaba (the place where I did my village stay) and were the first people to settle in Salaga. They’re also royalty… Zet is the son of the former Somahwura and I’ve been told that the Somahwura is second in rank after the Kafabawura, one of the bigger chiefs in Gonja land.

Traditional authorities (chiefs and queen mothers) are still an integral part of society in Ghana. When spending time in a village, it’s always a good idea to greet the wura (the chief) and present a gift of kola nuts or bread. In addition to many other responsibilities, the chiefs hold control of the land so if you want to start a farm or build a house, you must ask for land from the chief before anything else.

The Yagbonwura, King of Gonja land, stays in Damongo, West Gonja. Endawura Jakpa (sp?) was the fierce warrior who led the Gonjas from Mali to Ghana… kind of like the George Washington of Gonja land. It’s been said that every time he conquered an area and got that extra bit of land, he left one of his sons to be chief of that area. The chieftaincy system of the Gonjas is quite complex. I don’t know all the details but the seat of the Yagbonwura basically rotates through four or five gates, the gates being the main chiefs of Gonja land based on where Endawura Jakpa’s sons settled. Each of these gates has its own system of rotating between clans and, within those clans, there’s a ranking system that people must climb to reach any significant chieftaincy.

One of these gates is in Kpembe, a village just a quick bike ride from Salaga, and the current Yagbonwura is actually from the Kpembe gate. One of my good friends, Braimah, is the grandson of Yagbonwura Timu I, the Kpembe Yagbonwura from 1983 to 1987. Timu I had nine wives and 47 children! Talk about family connections everywhere you go!

Another family bonding activity this weekend has been some mini computer lessons I’m doing with my siblings. Apparently the government wants to open an IT training centre/internet cafĂ© in all the district capitals. Hopefully the next blog entry will feature some guest writers with a story or two…

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Tourist for a Day

Last weekend we had our midterm retreat for all the Ghana JFs in Damongo, West Gonja district. An excellent time was had by all and sufficient amounts of sleep was experienced by very few. On Saturday, we took a day off and did a tourist-y trip to Mole National Park and Larabanga, a small community between Damongo and Mole that boasts the oldest mosque in Ghana.


To start our day, we did a “safari hike” with our tour guide PK and were fortunate to get a glimpse of several different animals – elephants, kobs, water bucks, bush bucks, baboons, monkeys, and a crocodile… well, the eyes and nostrils of a crocodile floating on the surface of a watering hole. There’s not much more to say so I’ll just direct you to a few photos from the hike:

After the hike and a quick lunch, we relaxed for a short time, enjoyed the beautiful view, and narrowly missed getting run over by a warthog. Lesson of the day: don’t find yourself caught between a bag of delicious mangoes and a pack of hungry warthogs.

Getting over the excitement of the warthog chase, the majority of the group decided to trek over the Larabanga while the rest chilled out by the pool at Mole.


After a peaceful 6 km walk from Mole to Larabanga, we were ready to dive into some history and see the mosque. Our group was quite large so we split off into smaller packs to tour the town. Having been told that the town is quite accustomed to tourists and the fake tour guides are aplenty, my group decided to bypass everyone and head straight over to the mosque. Gwen used her excellent Dagbani to greet the Chief Imam and we understood that a gift would be expected of us – normally something like kola nuts should be given but cash would do since we didn’t have any kola nuts handy. We strolled towards the mosque and were instantly surrounded by people. Some were children telling stories about how they want to go to school but can’t afford books while others were reciting the history of the mosque in hopes that we would compensate for their efforts. Non-Muslims aren’t allowed to enter the mosque, but our group didn’t even tour around the building because of a misunderstanding with some men demanding 20,000 cedis from each of us. A donation for upkeep of the mosque and development of the community is understandable, but they couldn’t show us one example of how past contributions had been used. While we went to discuss the situation with the Chief Imam, a few other JFs encountered some very hostile community members yelling at them for taking a picture and, presumably, also demanding money.

After all this excitement, we waited outside a guesthouse for the rest of the group to come with the rented bus from Mole. The guesthouse is owned by the Salia brothers, twins that have apparently done wonders for Larabanga in terms of tourism and also having a hand in the establishment of a junior secondary school. We told Al-hassan, one of the brothers, about our experience at the mosque and apologized on behalf of the community, although he had no place in the apology. He was nothing but gracious and had some interesting things to say about how tourism has affected Larabanga. There’s no doubt that people in the community have benefited from all the tourists coming into the town, but “money that is given where unwarranted” has brought out the worst in some community members, including the ones we met.

With the Ministry of Tourism trying to capitalize on Salaga’s historical role in the slave trade and turn the town into a mecca for tourists, I worry that the same thing will start to happen to people in this town I’ve grown to love. The town's economy would certainly get a boost with lots of people and money coming through, but will it be worth it if people start seeing nothing but dollar signs? I have faith in my fellow Salagarians to keep their values in check, but there's no denying that new Ghana cedi bills will have a strong pull on many in this town.

"The value is the same!"

Speaking of "new Ghana cedi bills", another big event that’s happened in recent times is the currency change from cedis to Ghanaian cedis that started on July 1. “The value is the same!” claim all the posters and commercials put out by the government to inform the public. With the old currency, the largest bill you could find was 20,000 cedis ($2.50!), so taking out money from the bank produces big stacks that couldn’t possibly fit in a wallet. One new Ghanaian cedi is worth 10,000 cedis, i.e., GHc 1 = 10,000 cedis, and they come in the standard bill amounts up to GHc 50. It’s supposed to be “faster and easier transactions,” but the ATM machines are all distributing GHc 1 bills which is a smaller denomination than the previous 20,000 cedi bills. Now we’ve got twice the amount of bills for the same amount of money! Hopefully the Bank of Ghana will start producing more GHc 5 bills (50,000 cedis) to lighten the load. I am quite curious about how many GHc 50 bills (500,000 cedis or $63) they’ll be producing… it’s hard to imagine how many people will be using that bill on a daily basis. GHc 50 is enough to buy a bicycle and is about half the monthly salary of a teacher fresh out of training college.

Yep, a teacher earns anywhere from $100 (for those with nothing higher than a secondary school certificate, which happens to be the majority) to $300, depending how long he or she has been teaching. It may be easy to say that this type of salary is plenty when I’m paying 50 cents for a big loaf of bread and $6.25 a month for rent, but I don’t need to worry about getting clothes on my children and food in their bellies.

Note: I just checked and found that the exchange rate is sitting at about $1 CAN to 9045 cedis. I’ve been using $1 = 8000 cedis since I got here (and will continue to do so in order to stay consistent and save brain power) so any dollar values I give will be a bit off base but not enough to really distort anything. I mention this now to quell a burning (anal) desire to put “ish” after every value in this post and those to come… did I just say “burning anal desire”?! One can just imagine the strange medication ads – or worse – Google’s AdBot will link to this post!

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Gari, Batik and Politics...

Apologies to all for the longer-than-usual silence – surprise power outages, village stays, and course registration have prevented some good blogging, but hopefully I’ll make up for it this week.

So last week I did a village stay in Kafaba, a biggish village about 40 minutes south east of Salaga with a population around 1500. I stayed with the family of a big contractor in the district who proposed to me and offered his family home for the visit. I said no to the first offer and yes to the second, although I was a bit concerned that they would think it was a “meet the parents” type of situation. Funny enough, when we went to check out the village, the contractor’s father and my landlord for a week (nickname: Boga) also proposed to me. As much as I would love to be the fourth wife of an 85 year old man, I had to decline on that one when thinking about my grandmother having a heart attack upon receipt of my bride price ;)

With a fairly low level of education in the village, the majority don’t speak English. My Gonja being quite limited to greetings and a few simple questions and nouns, I needed some help in getting around and asking questions. My favourite tour guide was Mutaru, just a few days older than me and waiting for his JSS results to start Senior Secondary School in the coming months. I really enjoyed our conversations and he has become a very good friend who will hopefully visit me in Salaga. Unfortunately, he wasn’t available to show me around as often as we would have liked so I spent quite a bit of time with Dramain, one of Boga’s sons. He stopped schooling at Form 3 of JSS and is now working as a farmer. He showed me around his farm, took me to Okusu, and introduced me to Adisa and Atawu (keep reading for details). I didn’t get to actually do work on the farm with Dramain so I was going to do some with Mutaru but our plans got interrupted (big surprise!) when he was sent to do an errand. I'm hoping to go with Soma and Z (my host brother and father here in Salaga) next time they go to farm.

Village Politics

When it was first confirmed that I’d be going to Kafaba for my village stay, everyone I talked to in Salaga would say “your friends, they are there.” I really didn’t know what to expect when first meeting “my friends,” an American family learning Gonja in Kafaba. What I found was a really lovely and welcoming family in Tanner and Rebecca Leibee, who have lived there for almost two years now and had two adorable sons in that time-span, Dale and Camden. Rebecca’s sister Grace is also staying there for a few months to help out with the young boys. I am so grateful to have met the Leibees because, having lived in Kafaba for quite a while, they are very integrated in the community and have an excellent understanding of the community issues. I learned buckets about village politics and Gonja culture from them and certainly wouldn’t have been able to get so much information from just any community member. I visited with them quite a lot during my stay (often their friends from Kafaba) and we discussed many topics ranging from Ghanaian politics to our families to the ridiculous amounts of MSG found in Chinese restaurants.

One story they told me is about a recent Assemblyman election. The Assembly is kind of like city council, 70% of the Assembly members are Assembly men or women elected from all the areas of the district and 30% are government appointed members. (I believe our district’s Assembly is about 48 people in total and our Presiding Member (someone elected by the Assembly to represent them) is Paulina, a strong and well-read woman from just outside Salaga.)

While Kafaba is made up of many different tribes, the bulk of the community belongs to one of two Gonja clans, we’ll call them Imam’s and Boga’s. Imam’s clan was the first one in Kafaba so the Chief will always be someone from Imam’s clan. The Assembly member for Kafaba, however, is a very different story – he or she is supposed to be chosen in an election open for anyone to run. Since both clans wanted one of their people to represent the village, the Chief gathered everyone and they decided that the clans would take turns in the chair. In the last two rounds the Assembly member has been someone from Boga’s clan so this time around, it was certainly time for Imam’s clan. One person came forward and everyone in the village agreed to vote for him (democracy at its best…). Just days before the election, a man from Boga’s clan got his family together and said he would put in his name since it should be a free election. They all agreed to vote for him since he’s their clansman and it got quite dirty from here. There was money being thrown around everywhere with people trying to buy votes. In the end, Imam’s guy won by something like 12 votes out of 800. The two clans wouldn’t even look at each other for a month after this whole charade! These days, they’re all civilized with each other and can even be found throwing around some jokes but they still don’t really “hang out”… although I don’t think they ever did, even before the whole election thing. It’s hard to say who is in the “right” in this situation. The guy from Boga’s clan was right – anyone should be free to run in the election and be chosen if voted for by the people. Then again, they had all agreed to rotate and it was certainly time for Imam’s clan to be in the chair. The Assembly member has a lot of clout so whoever’s clan is “in power” is actually… in power. For example, all the people chosen from Kafaba to take part in the Youth Employment Program belong to Imam’s clan. Something like 6 or 7 of Imam’s family members (which is pretty much anyone in the clan since they’re all related somehow) started government jobs a month after the program was introduced.


Being right on Volta Lake, fishing is a big income generator in Kafaba. Many fishermen have moved to Kafaba from other areas, most notably the Volta Region. With the low rains last year, the water level of the lake is extremely low and the size of the lake has decreased significantly, causing many problems (including the energy crisis I mentioned in the last blog entry). Many fishermen have moved out to where the edge of the water is now - an “island” called Okusu - -and set up temporary homes there. This was the first time I walked to an island, the only obstacle being a 25-feet patch of knee-deep water to wade through. It’s easy for me to say since we were just taking a leisurely stroll with no time limit or end goal. If I were a student living in Okusu, trekking in a few kilometres through swampy marsh to get to the nearest school would not be the most appealing prospect, especially when my parents are struggling to catch enough food to eat and a little more to sell in the market. I tried and tried to find some fish to bring back to family and friends in Salaga but even the fishermen couldn’t help me! The biggest fish they’ve been catching these days are 4-5 inches long. When the rains come and the lake goes back to its normal size, the fishermen will have to move back to their homes in Kafaba and surrounding villages.

Gari Processing

Since cassava is one of the main crops in the district, gari processing is a popular activity in many areas. I met Adisa and Atawu who were processing in front of their compound and was quite happy to learn about one of the big income generators for women in the district.

The whole thing starts with the cassava, which is grown on their family farm. They pay to have the cassava grinded down to little chunks by a machine not far from the compound. The grinded cassava is then put through a mesh to sift out the chunks and stringy bits to produce an almost powder. This part is pretty straight-forward and not difficult but can get tiring if you’re doing it all day. After the sifting, the gari is roasted in a big… wok? This is the tough part because the roaster must sit next to the fire constantly mixing the gari. If the powder sits for just a second too long, it’ll burn. Apparently gari that is roasted properly can keep for up to three years. Adisa said they can produce up to 20 pans of gari a day, each pan holding about 12 bowls. I sat with Adisa and some other women at the market where they were trying to sell their gari, maize, groundnuts, and other assorted goods. Adisa was selling her gari for 8000 cedis (about $1) a bowl so if she sold everything she produced on a regular day, that would total 1,920,000 cedis (about $240). It sounds like a lot for one day’s work, but keep in mind they’re not processing gari every day and can’t always sell everything they produce. Abiba, one of Boga’s nieces, was also selling gari in the market and I didn’t see her sell a single bowl the entire two hours I was there.

After watching for some time, they finally let me give it a try. My roasting skills produced some nice burnt gari that they put aside in another dish, probably to feed to the chickens ;) I was much better at the sifting and actually did it for quite some time while Atawu went to prepare lunch. That said, the fact that they will roast and sell the gari I sifted isn’t saying much about any future as a gari processor since the sifting is like playing in a sandbox. As payment for our not-so-hard work (and probably more for the entertainment I provided), Adisa and Atawu gave us a handsome gift of three fried fish. I can’t say I’ve ever tasted a fish so delicious. It was delivered fresh in a bucket when we arrived at their compound (probably not long after it was caught), fried with some salt and oil, and hot from the pan into my mouth.

This eating food straight from the source is one thing I could get really used to. Dramain’s cousin has a small maize farm beside his house. We went to visit and he chopped a few off the stalk for us to take back to Boga’s. We threw them on the fire and, minutes later, enjoyed some delicious corn on the cob.

I’ve always thought it was neat to be able to grow your own food and I don’t think I’ve fully appreciated the concept of depending on your own hard work for the daily meal until now. Then again, it’s easy for me to say because if my vegetables don’t grow, I can easily run down to the market and buy some substitutes with no problems. We read a lot about diversification and not putting all your eggs in one basket but it’s certainly something else to see first-hand how important it is to depend on more than just the weather for your basic needs. Dramain showed me a hay-weaved storage shed on their farm that got blown down by strong winds and took a bunch of yams with it.

So those are just a few experiences from my first village stay and I’ll hopefully be doing another in August. I took a few photos - - and even a video of the maize pounding (but you’ll have to wait to see the video because there’s no way it’ll load on this connection!).

I’ll end off with a quick recap of my day yesterday. It started with a trip to the slaughterhouse down the road from my house with Soma. We watched three cows get slaughtered and, surprisingly enough, my stomach didn’t even think of doing a flip and I still have no hesitation in digging into a nice juicy steak. The most impressive thing was the speed with which these butchers can work. In about 20 minutes, a cow went from bucking and fighting for his life to having his stomach poured out and hide washed off as a second cow was pulled into the little building. (Don’t worry to all my vegetarian friends and those of you with easily disturbed stomachs; you won’t be seeing any pictures of this in my photo album.)

After that eventful start to the day, Mel and I got a crash course in batik material and even got to make some of our own! Our lesson came from Madame Janet, Apoorva’s host mother last year and a Rural Enterprise Projects (REP) client who does batik, tie-dye material, and soap making. (REP is the organization that Kathryn, Carleton’s first long-term overseas volunteer, worked with from August 2006 until just a few weeks ago.) We started at 8 a.m. and left just after 4, all satisfied with a day of work and quite ready for a good nap. I documented the day with photos, which you can find here: (see captions for explanations). It’s a pretty straight-forward process and would be a super fun activity to do at home if we could figure out where to get all the chemicals and whatnot.

So we’ll leave it at that for now. All the Ghanaian JFs, long-terms and support staff will be gathering next weekend for our mid-summer retreat and I’m ridiculously pumped for that! We’ll have a day off on Saturday to be tourists and visit Mole National Park. Hopefully I’ll have some sweet wildlife photos to share for the next update :)