Tuesday, 7 December 2010

You are the bumbling tourist (3)

You are attending the final day of the funeral/ commemoration festival for the deceased Queen Mother of the Kwahu Tribe. Having visited the local tailor, you are dressed just the thing and think you fit in wonderfully while watching the crazed dancing and wailing of around a dozen fetish priests and priestesses who are possessed by occasionally violent Lower Gods. A flamboyantly dressed lady dances towards you.
She rubs her hand on your crotch, squeezes her ample breast towards you and motions with her hands that she is interested in getting to know you in a carnal fashion. Not knowing how to react to a being of the otherworld, you just smile politely. As she grinds her bottom against your nether regions, an argument in Twi language ensues between her and another woman beside you. Your wife is nowhere to be seen. What action do you take?

Answer: A tricky one. The key here is preparation. Befriend the people near you who then will automatically take your side when something kicks off. When the argument balloons out of control, quietly shuffle out of sight. The priestess is issued a straight red by the mob and the game continues. You may be cautioned following the examination of video evidence, but you’ll be long gone by the time the review board gets round to meeting in this part of the world.

You are the bumbling tourist (2)

It is 10am. As you are finishing your late breakfast, you receive an urgent invite to the palace of the powerful local Chief for some local chop (food). Although you are full to the point of bursting, you are aware that to turn down such a kind offer would be seen as a slight. Besides which, the Chief has already provided exceptional hospitality recently. At the palace, you carefully select a modest portion of recognisable foodstuffs and accept the offer of a large beer. However just as you are squeezing in the last mouthful of chop, two things happen simultaneously: a) your wife slides a large and unidentfiable lump of something from her plate onto yours; and b) the Chief himself comes over to offer you more chop from the bowls. You are aware that finishing all this food and the beer will make you sick, however to refuse would be rude and offensive to your host. The history of visitor sacrifices has already been mentioned in conversation. What do you do?

Answer: There is no easy answer to this, but the main thing is that you come out smelling of roses. Accept the chop and engage the Chief in conversation. You discover that the he has to attend an appointment relatively soon. Time waste by picking at the food and speaking a lot. The Chief soon makes his excuses and leaves, and you insist that you must stay to finish your beautiful meal. Once he has departed in a flurry of ceremonial cloth, quickly guzzle the main staple (the beer), push the plate to the side, offer the remains to the servants and head off with the wife. The time-wasting risks a yellow, but the Chief now thinks you enjoy his company and his food and the wife has no choice but to award brownie points for digging her out of a hole. Nice one.

You are the bumbling tourist (1)

You are cycling to the funeral/ commemoration festival for the deceased Queen Mother of the Kwahu Tribe. You and your wife are happily tootling along on a flat stretch of uncharacteristically good road, enjoying the dawn chorus and the phenomenal views across to the surrounding hills. Suddenly she accelerates at breakneck speed, screaming like a maniac and shouting RAKE!! RAKE!! RAKE!! When you eventually catch her up, she is crying her eyes out. What do you say to her?

Answer: This is a time for a calm head. Take a soft line and ask what is up. It turns out, as correctly guessed by one reader, that she is claiming a large black snake was lying a few inches from her pedal as she cycled past. However, having not seen it yourself, immediately issue a yellow for play acting, but bear in mind it is also best this early in the day to keep the flair players motivated. Stop play, allow medical attention to be administered on the sidelines (groundnut paste sandwich and energy drink), and wave play on.

Monday, 15 November 2010

The Field

For the last few weeks I’ve been visiting “the field”. Leaving the confines of the car honking, ear splitting, speaker booming towns and cities to visit communities. This, I'm told is by definition, “visiting the field”. Asking questions about “the field” before arrival is frowned upon. Questioning how we will arrive and depart from said remote communities is also reminiscent of the first rule of “Fight Club”. The command is simply co bra. Go and come. Don’t ask questions.
My colleague Gifti and I are visiting women’s co-operatives who have come together with the help of the Community Development Department to make their businesses and lives more viable. We travel by tro-tro generally – the main local public transport and the way in which goats and chickens, people and farm products move from one place to another on the crumbling bumpy roads. On the most remote trip recently the regular crunching of gears and loud music was punctuated with a loud clanking. The driver stopped and slid under the car with tools.
The passengers waited for about an hour and then – without discussion – all set off walking to the nearest town in the mid-day sun. There is no fuss. This is what happens. For the more remote communities if we’re lucky there are motorbikes. Or we just walk – like everyone else. Most of the groups make palm oil. Strong arms separate the bright orange-red kernels from the spiky, rough husk of the trees, grind the sun-dried kernels, squeeze and press the kernels and chaff and then boil them in huge roasting cauldrons above pits filled with charcoal and acrid smoking chaff.
The paths are waterlogged and slippery in the rains, the smell is overpowering, the sun above unrelenting and the profits minimal. If they work from 5am to nightfall and they are lucky, this is how they can perhaps afford to send some of their children to school and pay for their hospital bills. By the time they have walked miles into the bush to buy the palm fruit or kernels the whole process will take one to three weeks. It varies but spending £15 on the kernels could reap a profit of about £2.50 (excluding time and labour). It is difficult to understand their single-mindedness but for these women this is currently one of the only ways of making any profit at all. They have no or little access to land, no access to loans or investors and most of them have had no formal education. They are expected to farm, collect water, sell produce, cook, clean, look after the children and provide the money for their education.
It is these women I hope to help during my placement here.


Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Down in the Jungle...

...people, particularly the obruni, are aliens.

Our 20km trek through the rainforest of Ankasa in the Western Region felt like running two marathons. The heat and humidity makes every step a gargantuan effort. The cacophany of noise is at first raw, exciting and awe-inspiring, setting the senses on high alert. Gradually the relentless noise, and dense, living, breathing greenery that the human eye cannot penetrate, is disorientating. Ultimately the feeling of being totally out of your depth is a constant

Of course, in classic Mulholland-Adams fashion, we had not waited around for the guide who was late (we could have missed seeing the monkeys at dawn after all) and had set off into this foreign environment alone.

Armies of red and black ants form motorways of unstoppable movement across the track. Spiders form giant web traps across the path. Dozens of species of stunning butterfly float inquisitively alongside.
Giant dragonfly swoop backwards and forwards, seemingly without purpose unless hovering to collect water from brown puddles. Lizards scuttle away from your feet.
Monkeys call out to each other and stay just out of sight while smashing through tree branches. Crazed, taunting bird calls echo through the wilderness (See Useful Link to Mulholland Tube videos (right)). A 3ft green snake spots us and slithers across our path and out of sight into the undergrowth. I heroically jump in front of Lucy and scream SH - I - I - I - T as an unidentified beast (probably a huge panther) makes it's noisy getaway.

The seven hour journey is broken by a packed lunch at a village of one hut. With one adult and a child. Following Lucy's impression of an elephant eating bamboo, they lead gracefully to the only place of rest from this exhausting assault on the senses. The dense undergrowth makes way for a magnificent bamboo cathedral.
Space, silence and stillness. It feels like reaching an oasis in the desert, or some sort of Eden. It looks like the land of the giants. We can almost see the forest elephants that come here to eat for three months of the year.


Tuesday, 26 October 2010

A local cold

As if it were nothing more troublesome than a mere cold, people in Ghana often casually mention that they have recently had a little malaria, and before long go about their daily tasks regardless. Well I've just probably had malaria, and no daily tasks were being conducted.

It hits you like a hammer, or more accurately a fire extinguisher, blow to the entire body. Sudden and total exhaustion, burning and then freezing sweats, intense headaches, aching bones, failing muscles, confused thoughts.

Fortunately the symptoms were relatively mild, possibly suppressed by the anti-malarial drugs I've been taking religiously every morning. Lucy morphed into a magnificent nurse, ultimately resorting to a visit to the local Seventh Day Adventist medical clinic to confirm the symptoms with the doc. The clinic was packed with people, including children slumped on benches with similar symptoms to mine, but worked remarkably efficiently.

For these people and I, medication is affordable. Four days' daily intake of 22 pills and pirated Arnie Swarzenegger movies and I was back on my feet. Many can't afford insurance and have to suffer without help, with either a loss of working income or worse (it accounts for a quarter of all deaths of children under 5 in Ghana (20,000 children pa)).



Wise man in Glasgow say: 'See man with machete, run mile'.
Wise man in Koforidua say: 'See man with machete, ask him 'where coconuts?''.

Monday, 18 October 2010


It's not so much that things are unknown here and that we don't speak the language, but there is generally an assumption that we will know what is happening - including the why and the when. Meetings are scheduled without anyone being told. Events are planned without prior notice. We follow blindly and willingly and generally the destination involves interesting new interactions. The local buses (the tro tros) leave when full so there is no timetable and the destination may bear little relevance to the sign some of them carry on their roofs. But people's kindness and unnerving interest in what we (the obruni) are doing means we are passed from one to the next with as little fuss as unloading the goats from the boot and roof. No mention is made of the fact that the side door is lying in the boot, no-one talks about the destination but ultimately we always seem to arrive in the right place.

This morning I followed my colleague to the seventh day celebration of the death of a local businessman. The details of where we are going and what we will do when we arrive are not discussed. Funerals are far bigger than weddings here. This is just the first part when family, friends and strangers sit from 6am to 6pm (wearing ornate black or red ceremonial clothes) to remember the person who has died. Libations are poured, messages are blasted from microphones and enormous speakers and music dominates the whole street. The older the person the bigger the celebration. It is not until the 40th day that the proper funeral takes place. I did not know the man who died but I am asked to greet everyone, including the son of the man who died and the local sub-chief who is introduced as a king. It is traditional that the close family should not left alone during this time so their mourning and celebrating and living is very much a group event. No-one should be lonely, I'm told. It's an incredible contrast to how we treat death in the UK. They say this is the most important journey, that the soul of the person will be present and for them to pass over properly everything must be done to honour them.

Monday, 4 October 2010

The things I miss (food)

Quite a few people have asked what we miss and it is tempting to reel off a long list of foodstuffs, shops, bars and restaurants and make each line rhyme – like a song from The Sound of Music.
Obviously we miss people the most. Speaking to friends and family in the very public internet cafĂ© in Koforidua is no replacement. We’re incredibly lucky though in that the other VSO volunteers in Eastern Region are great fun and the area itself is beautiful. It makes the other challenges more palatable.
However, that’s no counterpoint to the lack of tasty, recognisable food. Sandwiches, cheese, milk (and variety of any kind) are missed as if they were old friends.
The local market here is made up of a maze of tiny streets and alleyways. Rickety handmade stalls selling tomato puree, sachets of pure water, cream crackers (soft and from China) and Jack and Jill wafer biscuits (a new favourite) are crammed together next to women selling oranges from huge metal bowls balanced on their heads, scratch cards to top up mobile phones and huge cauldrons of bean stew and rice. Taxis and people compete for space on the road – the pavements are split and crumbling and every few metres a huge gaping hole emerges with a black hole dropping some four feet to the litter and unknown gutter below. Precariously balanced barbeques on metal tins covered in offal churn smoke into the air next to men preaching with loudspeakers about redemption and women roasting plantain over charcoal. Watermelons, coconuts and pineapples are split and or peeled on request. Tomatoes are piled into pyramids ready to be haggled over and argued for. Second hand clothes and shoes are piled up and advertised with loudspeakers and loud voices. In the core of this maze is a covered area where more specialist products wriggle, squawk and stare. This is where the live chickens scratch in cages to be sold on for their eggs; snails bigger than a giant’s fist ooze and creep over each other in a pile (ready to be boiled for soup) and dead bats hang motionless from the poles where they were barbequed. (We have not yet tried such delicacies but just seeing them is more than enough to bring on emotional and physical pangs for Marks and Spencer’s foodhall).
So for those asking what we miss, I would say food. I would say crisp salad (without the taint and rumours of typhoid), meals cooked without buckets of red palm oil, and clean white foodhalls with baskets and too much to choose from.
More than anything I miss being able to walk the streets anonymously without every child and stranger calling obruni, obruni (white man). That is what I miss today, but in a year’s time I imagine I will be back in the UK missing the greetings of strangers, the catcalls of tiny, cute children, the adventure of stepping out of the front door, the immediacy of fried yam and hot pepper sauce sold on streets corners. I will no doubt miss the stifling heat and the overly familiar strangers, the brilliantly complex handshakes, the laughter and music and uninhibited dancing. That just seems to be how missing things goes.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Big trip to Tamale

My first government junket took place this week in the form of a trip to the northern city of Tamale. The purpose was for my colleagues in local government, the district parliament and some community leaders working on the Cadbury Cocoa Partnership (CCP) project in the Eastern Region to share experiences with their counterparts working on a similar project in the Northern Region.

Spending 12 hours on a bus in Ghana can be a tad sweaty and significantly increases ones risk of being involved in a traffic accident – some particularly tasty examples of which are evidenced in most roadside ditches. Fortunately some decent driving from Kwekoo and some intensive praying at the start and end of each leg helped us complete the journey safely. Unfortunately I cannot confirm whether anyone prayed for the 72 yams, 100 bananas, thousands of beans, 6 guineau fowl or the goat all tied on the roof for the bumpy 12 hour trip back.

Tamale’s population is 80% Islamic and so the culture is very different to that in the south. Women are dressed much more colourfully, most people (men, women and children) get around on scooters and bicycles, people speak a different language and food markets are more plentiful (at least during the wet season, which this still is). I took on the role of observer as my colleagues negotiated their yam and guinea fowl purchases.

Tamale is also known for having something of a white elephant of a football stadium built by the Chinese for the 2008 African Nations Cup. The majestically named Real Tamale United currently prop up the Ghanaian Premier Division and attract crowds that fill one in every ten seats. Judging by the number of football tops being worn around town, the remaining 9 people support Chelsea.

We had a really interesting visit to a small farming community about an hour from the city. The project we learned about helped communities develop their own action plans to address their own priorities and then find ways to deliver them. The theory is that this is far more sustainable than NGOs imposing their own priorities.
Our CCP project in the Eastern Region is very similar.

It is designed to try to empower similar communities so that they are sufficiently organised and knowledgable about the instruments of local government that they can deliver improvements themselves, campaign for funding in specific priority areas, get their needs included in local government plans and pester their politicians. It was clear from our visit that breaking people out of a mindset of dependency will be a significant challenge.


Random football tops

Most Ghanaians support one of the devilsome duo of Chelsea or Man Utd. However, my heart leapt with joy at the sight of a bicycling local man in a circa 2006 Jambos top. Unfortunately I have no photographic evidence of this yet.
Lovers of Gaelic football will be dismayed by this photo of kenti weaver Kofi of Cape Coast, clearly led astray by a bogman from south-west Ireland. I informed him of the error of his ways. Evin – a consignment of Dubs tops would be a worthwhile investment…

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Things are always more complicated than they seem

I imagine that the pace of life in Ghana is some kind of karma for my years of impatience and rushing about. I have tried walking faster but it is self defeating in the incredible humidity and unrepenting heat. People walk slower for a reason. Many of the women glide past and overtake as I melt in the sun, most carrying enormous loads on their heads. Poise beyond our comprehension. The boxes and bowls often take three people to lift. Only one to carry.
I'm told there is a Ghanian proverb which suggests you can not rush a guinea fowl when he is drinking. It is sage advice for work. Even learning roles and goals is proving difficult.
We share the compound with the inclusion and disability office. There is a young girl with learning difficulties who sits outside my office from 8am until 4pm yet I'm told the inclusion office can not help her and that her parents have disappeared. When we speak to her auntie we're told that if she goes to school there will no-one to look after the granny in the village and that the granny will die. Nothing is simple to address. It is difficult enough to know how to cause a ripple, far harder to understand how to ensure its ramifications are positive rather than negative.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Hair and hospitality

Greeting strangers is an art form here. The handshake - which involves shaking and clicking fingers almost simultaneously - is no easy feat. The fact that we repeatedly try and - as with our Twi language skils - so often fail seems appreciated to a point beyond our understanding. In the UK we would not consider stopping to meet people we don't know. Here every walk is the start of a conversation.
The hairdresser Atta has spent two hours trying to teach me Twi and taken me as friend. She cut my hair and eyebrows with a razorblade - laughing hysterically at my every attempt to explain or retort in Twi. Friendliness doesn't quite cover it.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Home from home

The rain's hammering an audible trail across the hills. Thunder, like a child kick-starting a motorbike, signals another deluge. It's hard to believe we've travelled so far, to a place so different, only to find that it rains here more than in Glasgow.

Thursday, 16 September 2010


Our first week in Ghana was spent travelling on coaches, cars and Tro-tros and wandering round Accra, Cape Coast, Beyin, Ankasa and Elubo, often in wonderment at the myriad activities before us.
The sheer number of people interacting on the streets from 5am throughout the day is the first thing that hits you. Women and children carrying on their heads 10m long planks of wood, enormous bowls containing goats, chickens, water, fruit and vegetables. Children playing with home-made toys. Hawkers hanging around vehicles at traffic jams trying to sell Fu Fu, Yams, plantain crisps, water sachets. Men in suits, others fixing machines, selling railings, motorbike parts, mobile phones, sitting at wooden shacks playing board games or drinking at wooden shack spots (bars). Women at stalls selling fruit, shoes, clothes, fish heads, pigs trotters, nuts, mending clothes, pounding yam and cassava, mending clothes… The road verges and makeshift footways are teeming.

Upon first meeting, Ghanaians display a warmth of feeling that is difficult to do justice in words. Sometimes this is quite overwhelming, for as an Obruni, you receive this warm welcome from almost every single person you pass in the street. Ma achi! (Good morning!) Akwaaba! (Welcome) Wo ho te sen? (How are you?) Often followed by a hearty handshake and a bear hug. Or from children chants of ‘Ob-ru-ni, ob-ru-ni..’ combined with much dancing, clapping, laughter and pointing or a chase down the street. I haven’t checked whether other white people experience this or there is some other aspect of my physical appearance that prompts such mirth.

When you have an actual reason to meet someone, the welcome is perhaps less animated but just as genuinely interested and joyful. Normally an infectious broad, beaming smile is combined with a handshake so lengthy it would wear out Mr Shake-Hands-Man, and complex enough to baffle Stephen Hawkins. At least two finger clicks and five hand positions are required as a minimum to avoid ridcule. I intend to write a book with diagrams on this some time.



The aspects of life in Ghana which it seems easier to adjust to are not what I'd expected. The aptly named "bucket showers" are surprisingly good. The small minibuses crammed with human and animal cargo are remarkably invigorating, cheap and (so far) quite good fun (although we were particularly disappointed when the live cow they were trying to fit in the boot could not be caught). Doing without running water and electricity for a few days in the Ankasa wildlife reserve near the coast with Cote D'Ivoire meant we could see the flashes of fireflies drawing electricity in bursts across the night.
Less easy to get used to is the idea that as "obruni" we are (in some areas at least) something of a freak show - particularly for the children. A friendly chap on the bus pointed out that Andy's skin was not just white but "fresh white".
Most people have gone out of their way to be helpful as we have blundered about. Some have been indifferent and others have bowled us over with their generosity. Our clumsy meandering meant that we also got caught up in festival parade made up of chiefs bearing crowns, the President of the country and a reality television show about how to be a good couple. We offered our best advice and casually sauntered off.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010


You can now add comments by clicking on the word 'comments' underneath each post. Andy

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Ready for the off

After a whistlestop farewell tour of the UK (possibly more Happy Mondays than Abba in its profitability) we now reach the eve of our departure. A lot of people have rightly suggested we must be incredibly excited. However to be honest it has been such a mad rush getting everything sorted, we've barely had time to think beyond moving flats, finishing work and getting forms and innoculations all signed off.

Speaking of which, after receiving an elephant-sized cold from the ever thoughtful Colin Gordon, I was unable to get my final rabies vaccine in the usual clinical environment at my local GP. So after transporting the drug between five different fridges via Dad's cool bag, here (in the photo) is my good friend and doctor Richard Woods administering the necessary in the Pitcher and Piano in London during lunch on Monday. An odd side effect not mentioned on the box was waking in the middle of the night to find my self biting Lucy's hand. Fortunately I wasn't foaming at the mouth.
See you all in a year. Andy

Sunday, 22 August 2010


11 days to go and the reality is hitting. Insomnia has set in (Andy is sleeping like a baby) and motivations are being questioned. Without sounding glib or ludicrous, it's difficult to explain why we're leaving the relative comfort of home, friends, family and good jobs to go somewhere completely lacking in proximity to these things. Our fancy dress leaving party threw up some great quotes from Mallory (Watson dressed as the exploring legend) which are barely relevant but stick in the mind. "Why climb Everest?". "Because it is there," he said several times before losing his fake beard. That's not why we're doing it but maybe one part of going to Ghana is because it's not Glasgow and doesn't offer the comforts we've grown to love. Lucy

Tuesday, 17 August 2010


We left the flat with a bit of a bang. Our fancy dress leaving party on Saturday night followed by 10 hours of packing and moving on Sunday. No point doing things the easy way. Cheerio Pollokshields. It feels so real and incredibly exciting now that we've moved out.
Seeing everyone on Saturday was fantastic, and good to see you've not forgotten the joy of fancy dress. Indiana Jones being chased by a giant inflatable boulder - incredible special effects. Marty McFly explaining the Delorean's flux capacitor to Phileas Fogg is a sight that no one should miss.
We'll definitely miss friends and family.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Packing up

After a year of saving and planning, it's hard to believe that we're leaving in just a few weeks. Our flat looks like a fancy dress emporium that's been burgled. Packing for the actual trip hasn't even begun... The thought of having to buy padded cycle short isn't helping.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Our office

We've now completed our final VSO UK training course. A very tough 4 days of self-analysis, and spongeing informaton. The courses have covered health, security, relationships, culture and working environment, dealing with your own and others' preconceptions, and negotiation and facilitation skills in some detail. VSO is pretty thorough in preparing people. Exhausting, but really worthwhile and quite inspiring to meet some of the amazing people who are heading off to some very tough placements.

We have one final training course in Accra starting on 12th September. The above photo shows the office in Koforidua that we'll both be based from.

Monday, 5 July 2010

Flights booked London to Accra on 2nd of September

Less than 2 months left in Glasgow and it's all starting to feel a bit real now. So in a bid to maintain a high degree of procrastination, I've set up this blog site.