Always Arrive Early

Part 2 of my globe-trotting, “I don’t know what I’m doing here” experience.

Last Monday, I ventured from Tamale to Damongo, where I would meet another EWB volunteer – a Junior Fellow by the name of Ryan Voon. I would be job shadowing him to get a good indication of how a District Assembly operates. But before I could start learning, I needed to travel across the Ghanaian countryside.

Early in the morning, I got to the tro station and waited patiently. A tro tro is a smaller bus or van that takes people from town to town at an affordable rate; in this case it cost me 5 cedis. I got there around 6:30 am, but it didn`t depart until around 10. The downside of the affordable ticket is that you have to wait until the whole vehicle fills. If I had taken the MetroMass instead (a more luxurious Greyhound-like bus), I could have bought my ticket in advance and left at a predetermined time.

We started out of the station and on our way to Damongo. Due to some unfortunately antics that took place (kicking a passenger off the tro midway into our trip due to some arguments), we got stuck at a roadblock for 2 hours. After he joined our party and we got going again, we arrived at our final stop around 4. So, all in all, I waited for 3 hours before travelling for another 6 before getting to my stop. Keep these figures in mind for later.

Since my Monday became a wash, I could only share dinner with Ryan before retiring to my third guesthouse of the week.

At the Damongo DA, I met most of the senior officers and other staff. At lunch, we had some great discussions on the project that Ryan was working on – revenue mobilisation. Unfortunately, one day was all I had before I needed to hop on another bus to get to my own district.

So Wednesday morning rolled around and I was all packed and ready to go. Based of my previous travel experience, I was thinking that the bus that my EWB African Program Staff (APS) and coach Binnu was riding on from Tamale would take about 4 hours to get here. Boy was I wrong!

She had left at 6:30 so I was planning on leaving around 9:30 and tour the market for an hour or so. Unfortunately, my guess was way off. The MetroMass bus got to town around 9:00 making it incredibly efficient in comparison to the tro I was on. I called my local taxi driver, but no answer on the other line. (In Ghana, having the personal phone number of a few taxi drivers is very critical, especially if you go off the main road and are out late at night.)

Luckily, Ryan saved the day and had a local government employee pick me up at the guesthouse and drive me to the station. Just in time too. The bus was just rolling out as we got there.

So, moral of the story: I should have followed my own motto of `Hope for the best, plan for the worst.` The worst case in this story was a really fast bus.

Sometimes other countries can have really slow transportation systems. But other times they can be even faster than those we have at home. It is far better to be too early and wait a little extra then to be a few minutes late and completely ruin one`s plans for the day. Luckily for me, my karma was still doing a pretty good job.

Safe travels.


Always Pay Attention

I was only in Tamale for 4 days, but what a jam-packed adventure those few days were. So much to learn, so many sights and sounds to experience, and so much to gather before I arrive in Bole for my actual work to begin. For the first couple of days, I was mainly living in automatic mode – getting supplies and enjoying my surroundings.

On Thursday, I went to the market in Tamale (first time by myself) and it was going fine. Got phone credit, some juice for our Fufu pounding party later in the evening, and some very crucial TP. Then I had to share a cab ride with some locals. Still going good as this point. Shared taxis or “Drop-Ins” only cost 60 pesewas, which is approx. 30 cents CAD.

But then I got a little too confident on the ride home, thought I was at the right stop and decided to get out with the other passengers. Big mistake. I was lost!

Such an saliminga (“white person” in Dagbani) move.

I walked and walked but nothing looked familiar. The dirt road I was on wasn’t turning into a paved one like I hoped. None of the shops matched my mind’s eye. Luckily, I trusted my gut and asked for directions. After turning around, I found a mosque where some elderly gentlemen were gathered. Tried to chat but their Dagbani was much better than their English. Turns out I was just a few feet away from the road I was looking for – Old Gumani Road.

With the help of a young man – Isaac – I was able to find my way to more familiar shops. Unfortunately, I hit a second snag. I forgot what my house looked like, as I arrived only the night before in the dark and wasn’t paying enough attention.

Luckily, I asked the local kids where the other people who looked like me stayed and they were happy to tour me to the right destination. I’m sure they found it quite funny to have me rely on them. Only a short walk up the side road and I was met with the familiar sight of a large mango tree and one of the many, many goats of the area. Home!

Moral of the story: When travelling to a new country and an unfamiliar city, pay extra crucial attention to any and all landmarks. Especially when the slightest difference can get you lost in a hurry. 


First Week in Ghana

After an 11 hour plane flight to Accra and a 4 hour time zone change, my body’s normal sleep pattern sure did take a wallop. For the first week in country, I was involved in a lot of activities, including logistics, travel, and training for my placement.

I only stayed in Accra for 2 days (July 30-31) whereby I went on a scavenger hunt to experience the sights and sounds of the city and learn the local customs of Ghana. While at the market, I picked up some traditional African cloth (2 yards) that can be taken to a tailor to make a shirt and some small souvenirs. Thanks to the people I went there with, 2 staff from the guesthouse and 2 other Professional Fellows, I was able to experience the beauty of the Atlantic Ocean which was effortlessly tucked behind the market.

One amazing thing about Accra is the wide variety of shopping options. It has the big shopping malls common to most Westerners. But there is also a whole gambit of roadside vendors selling tons of amazing food. These are amazing examples of entrepreneurship in action.

One final form of retail, which it sometimes crazy, is the inter-traffic, car-to-car salesmen. These are people who walk through traffic carrying their goods (water, cell phone credits, electronics, bath essential, or anything else you may need) and sell through your car’s rolled down windows. It can be quite hectic when you combine the fact you may have to barter on the price and that traffic isn’t at a standstill forever, causing a lot of running on their part.

Next stop: Tamale. 

Bus company: STC. 

Duration: 13 hours.

Along the bus ride from Accra to Tamale, with a stop in Kumasi, I saw some amazing villages and the beauty of Ghana that I`ve been hearing for a long time. It was quite refreshing to get away from the traffic congestion of the big city and see what lies beyond.

I also experienced some cultural differences while on the road. Like the road side urinals (10 peswas) or toilets (30 peswas). Running water is sometimes a problem, so make sure to bring a bucket of water before you hit the john.

There is also a swarm of vendors trying to sell you food every time you stop in a community. Fish, fried yams, apples, ground nuts, and the ever important bagged water.

Note: the Ghana cedi is trading at approximately 2 GHC to 1 CAD. And their are 100 peswas per cedi.

To give you some context of my travels, I’ve included the map below of Ghana. It is colored coded by the 10 different government regions. These regions are further broken up into districts, totaling 212 overall. The bulk of my team’s work involves the Northern Region, so it is no surprise that the district I am slowly making my way to is located. Have a little bit of fun and try to find Bole – my final resting place.

Peace out.


Hopes, Fears, and Other Thoughts

Tomorrow is the day that I start a new path in my life – working in international development.

I will be working with the organisation Engineers without Borders in Ghana (a country along the southern coast of Western Africa) and will be assisting the Governance and Rural Infrastructure (G&RI) team for four and a half months. I will leave the technical descriptions of my work to latter posts.

But before I leave the Great White North, I will stay in Toronto for a few days, starting this Saturday, for my pre-departure training. I’m looking forward to some intense learning sessions, meeting my fellow Profession Fellow (PF) volunteers and all the great staff at the EWB National Office. It may become daunting, but the important things always are.

Throughout the last few months, I’ve grown considerably in preparation for this adventure. From my re-engagement of EWB, through the Edmonton City Chapter; to my swift application for the PF program in February; and continuing with months of Foundation Learning, mentorship meetings and early morning phone call overseas; I’ve slowly began to get my head around working in a foreign country in Africa and what my work will involve.

As a result of all this learning, I’ve had many assumptions changed and my eyes opened. Growing up in a farming background and then residing in the relatively small (in terms of population, anyways) city of Edmonton, I was content with going to Africa, living in an isolated town, sleeping under a tin-roof, and being exposed to a region in desperate need of assistance. This is the picture that many people have of Africa and it’s hard to blame them for thinking this way. There are far too many infomercials and fundraising events which focus their cameras on scenes like this. But this is the exceptions to the rule. The rule being a growing, bustling Africa, full of enthusiastic, hard-working people, no different from any Canadian you may have met. They have cities like us, are addicted to cell phones like us, and enjoy life like us. They are our distant neighbours.

Another presumption I had was the inevitability of getting sick, even having malaria. This was very short-sighted. With the proper attention to my surroundings and use of the correct medicine, it is entirely possible to end my placement in no worse shape than when I began. All you need to do is follow the Boy Scouts solemn motto: Be Prepared! Consequently, I’ve been receiving vaccinations for everything from yellow fever to HepA to rabies. I’ve got my malaria medicine, antibiotics, and a whole slew of other pharmaceuticals. All of these measures have eased my fears and hopefully keep me healthy. I will strive to stay vigilant to any dangers around me and hope not to get a false sense of security.

I’ve also been introduced with the challenges of working in a new society (Africa/Ghana), a new work environment (government), and a new lifestyle (dependent on others for information and help). These 3 areas will be my main areas of personal learning and growth over the next few months. I hope to expose myself to as many people as possible and learn as much as I can. I hope that I can bring some new ideas to the G&RI staff and leave a lasting impression on the people I interact with.

I hope that anyone reading this blog will muster the courage to challenge me. No matter how much I learn, I still have misconceptions and biases about the world around us.

So. Ask questions. Leave comments. Start a discussion outside the confines of the internetz. Leave no stone unturned and no mind unopened.

Well, I’m off.