Chasing the light North

I had a rather settling (is there a better word for the opposite of unsettling?) experience on a particular drive home this summer, in the waning hours of the night where light is usually hard to come by. Not so in the north, as I’ve come to realise, and despite the passing hours, I was treated to a light road until the very end. Kind of like an eternal sunset, chasing the last colour in the sky for a long time. Noticing this got me thinking about the place I was in, and the place I was geographically moving towards. Being in the northern half of BC has been immensely gratifying, and educational. There is a particular sense of place here, that centers people in a way that the geography of the southern coast, including Vancouver, doesn’t seem to be aware of. Here, people are acutely aware of how their geography affects their access to services, and creates their sense of community. With so much contrast to my native Vancouver, and so much resonance with my worldview, embracing our surroundings and the systems which shape them has been interesting and motivating. 

I couldn’t help but wonder how my friends in another northern place were getting on, as they’d be just waking up at the time I was driving. Northern Ghana, with a timezone 7-8 hours ahead of us, from my experience was also steeped in social structure related to geography, and with an understanding of systems barriers and benefits that we could learn from. Likewise, I also learned a veritable ton from my experiences and interactions there.

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Highway 97 North

All I can say is I’m immensely grateful for the growth I owe to these less-than-appreciated Northern communities.

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No fat people shirts

Now, to be honest, I have never considered myself fat. Maybe on the heavier side, sometimes happier than others about my weight, but not fat. Was I ever wrong. At least in a Ghanaian sense. Besides the frequent observations of my fatness (detailed here and here), I discovered early on how difficult it might be procuring additional western-style clothing for someone of my bulk.

I’d landed in my placement with an assortment of decent t-shirts, some black work pants, and couple of long, flowy skirts, and not much else in the way of clothing. I soon came to realise that I’d fallen into the assumption that “hippy clothes” as our EWB program managers affectionately term them, are not quite acceptable when you’re working in any profession in Ghana, let alone within the government. I was assured by the casual attire of my district colleagues that the majority of my clothing would be sufficient, however within a week of arriving we were going off to the DDA Fellowship, one of the EWB programs situated in Tamale which gathers relatively important local officials. I quickly realised that I would need a respectable shirt to wear, and considering I hadn’t yet found a tailor (and wouldn’t have wanted to force a short order on one), I set out one afternoon to procure something a bit more formal than my EWB chapter t-shirts.

Within seconds of my inquiry, my then newly-formed friend Arimiyaw was shaking his head, and telling me that it would be difficult to find a button-down collared shirt for someone as fat as me, and that perhaps if I wanted clothes I could notify the vendor so they could procure something specially for me during their next trip to Togo. I insisted that it was important, and was potentially in denial that I was going to be too fat to fit whatever the town of Karaga had to offer. Half an hour and five vendors later, I’d tried on several shirts and definitely had serious problems with all of them. Firstly, they were menswear, which don’t compensate well for certain womanly curves, and secondly, I really was too fat for many of them! I was surprised, and a little embarrassed, and Arimiyaw got one of his first chances to say “I told you so.” I eventually settled on a short-sleeve that I could wear overtop of one of my t-shirts, and that actually fit my arms if I unbuttoned the cuffs. What an ordeal.

Thankfully I never had to find any other clothing on short notice, and by the next DDA Fellowship meeting I had some lovely full Ghanaian dresses to wear, which fit me perfectly due to the excellent skills of my tailor Talhatu. However I never forgot that seemingly fruitless journey to find that first shirt, and I hope you will keep in mind if you ever travel that in some places, there truly will be no fat people shirts available, no matter how hard it is to accept.

Gani inherited my shirt when I left Karaga. I was content that it fit him much better than it ever did me.

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The Definition of Productivity

I’ve realised lately, and frequently, that a significant portion of any stress that I have is closely related to my perception of productivity and how it matches up with both external expectations and my own understanding of what I “should” be doing. Depending on my level of intention, this drastically changes how a I feel on a minute-to-minute basis in my daily life. If I feel that I haven’t delivered on something by someone else’s standards, and I feel I should live up to those standards, I end up laden with anxiety, procrastination abounds, and it ends up being somewhat of a downward spiral.

As I wake up at 5am to the movements outside, I lay for a minute thinking about what my day is going to be like, what I expect to do and achieve. My morning is studded with a bath, teeth-brushing, and picking an outfit to wear (whatever I feel like, generally). Sitting for half an hour in the courtyard, watching as Siboro plays with the dog, or Fatimata is processing some food for the day, or joining in a conversation with Chairman or Gani, or just reading, I don’t worry about the time passing.

Siboro, generally whiny but somewhat intelligent for a 4-year-old. Not my favourite member of the household to be sure. He and his sister put nail polish on his face here?

Fatimata soaking and scrubbing the skins off of soya beans.

My 15 min bikeride to work means a plethora of “Good mornings” to the high school students going the other direction to school, and little time to think for myself as I pedal, something I tend to miss but am willing to compromise in order to get to work on time. 10 mins to talk with Arimiyaw and buy water for the day, 3 quick stops to say hello to Talhatu, Rafik, and another Arimiyaw, and I’m stopping to eat for 30 mins at THE egg and bread place on the side of the road. This is my favourite place to plan the day’s action at work, and enjoy the onion-pepper-omelette sandwich with a steaming mug of Milo. Knowing that I am more effective when I’ve eaten well, and understanding that planning for a day can make or break my flow of productivity, I generally start the clock for my day’s work as I sit with breakfast. Coasting to the office, I put in a good four hours until lunch time, during which I pick one of four places to get food, and bring it to whichever friend I feel like hanging out with for an hour. Back to work, and when I get off at 5pm, I have a precious hour until the sun sets, which I once again tend to devote to shooting the breeze. Biking home in the gloaming I think about the day, say hello to various people around the village, and roll my bike into my room where it will rest until the next morning. Bath, food, and bed all come before 9pm, but somewhere in there I will get some time to talk with my high school friends living with me, re-watch one of the movies on my netbook, read, and journal about the day.

Disarmingly simple, yet highly productive. Why? My measurement of productivity was how happy I was, which tends to be directly tied to the face-to-face interactions I get in a day.

A Canadian version could possibly have involved over 25kms of travel by bus, a coffee downtown and a beer at SFU and a group meeting for EWB followed with a good hour of reading the latest novel on my list or the tabs and tabs of internet articles. It would be one of greater movement and distance, more commuting time, and little space for the output version of productivity like going to classes, contributing to EWB content development and planning, or furthering my research. However strongly the achiever in me strains to live up to what tend to be externally evaluated forms of productiveness, the balance of time tends to land with the meeting of friends, having conversations, and hanging out with cool people.  So why do I feel like I need to live up to being productive on multiple dimensions? I commit to many projects, and that commitment is not something I easily relinquish. Once I’m in, I can’t let it go, even if I’m not delivering.

SFU, the institution that for me frames the vast majority of either type of productivity

A friend recently proposed that we tend to  live in “a self-imposed hell”, where we do have choices to increase or decrease workload and commitment, however workload tends to be better correlated to achievement and a life of meaning. But I’m seeing it slightly differently.  I think in my case it may be simply a problem of definition, where because of the invigorating people that tend to populate all of my areas of commitment, I have confused the achievement in those areas with my true definition of a life of meaning, which is instead the human interaction. And while my commitment may remain, the people may have changed or moved on, or there are new incredible people to meet and know, and somehow my productivities are no longer tied to one another. Thus the ensuing guilt of being “unproductive” in the external sense, while downplaying what really makes me happy and should be my main measure of productivity.

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Of Textbooks and Tamale

“that city of perennial anonymity amid the crowd, that place of relentless haste where eyes met only by accident and the smile on the lips of a stranger was a build-up for some kind of proposition.” – The Lost Steps, by Alejo Carpentier.

As I was reading this assigned novel, these words jumped out of the page like overenthusiastic puppies, licking my ears with the recognition of a concept so pervasive yet elusive, and neatly summed up in the latter half of a sentence. An angst-ridden journal entry sits beside me and echoes this description of a disconnectedness that I almost was not allowed to feel as I biked the roads and walked the alleys of Karaga. And here it is commonplace, though my tread across campus is interrupted by smiles and nods to people I know, the majority of them do not even recieve an acknowledgement of existence, and do not offer theirs.

But before I can go on about how everyone is so interconnected in Ghana, I rein myself in by remembering that this disconnectedness was my experience in Tamale also, where vast swarms of people still overwhelm our urges to connect with each other. While Tamale had its perks of ice cream and cheddar, and I felt more accustomed to its rapidity and clutter because of my Vancouver upbringing, I noticed its impersonality, unless I stopped to have that conversation with the egg and bread patrons, or made a joke with the shopkeeper, or sought out that acquaintance of the day before, or planned te be met at the bus station by my good friend. The cement halls and impassive puddles at SFU remind me that I need to keep stopping to have those conversations. Otherwise I may indeed fall in step with that restless anonymity where everyone is only ever on their way to somewhere else, and making new connections can never be an end in itself, regardless of whether it occurred by accident.

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The importance of graphing calculators (and technological literacy, among other things)

Well, my experience with these wonderful pieces of technology extends from grade 12 math, where they were alternately used for complex calculations of probability and as vessels for basic space alien video games. Little did I know I would encounter them as a key tool for the function of predicting crop yields in districts across Ghana. And my short experience with them fully demonstrated how little I know about them as one trip to the field was plunged into potential disaster.

One of the functions of the government office I worked with was to inform the centralised government how crops in each region were doing, on average. A few extension agents from each district were trained on the use of the few graphing calculators assigned to the district office, and were then responsible for collecting the data and shipping it off. We arrived one morning at a field of soya beans with the intention of taking a “yield cut”, firstly measuring the acreage of a field, then randomly selecting a 10 X 10 ft square and counting the number of plants.

These are soya beans.

Where the calculator machinery comes in is when fields are not square, which is always. To measure the area, we take bearings on a compass, measure the length of each side, and enter it all in order into the lovely machine which spits out the area. Especially useful for farms with more than 4 sides (many) and where the borders with the next farm are on an angle. Simple, but tedious work. Mr. Abanga, whom I was working with that day, had understood how the program in the calculator worked, and figured that we could do the same function pacing the farm clockwise instead of counterclockwise. However, the calculator didn’t like this idea, and kept spitting out garbage numbers.

My limited knowledge of these beasties did not allow me to troubleshoot much, besides suggesting that if it was a software problem there was a reset button on the back. Sadly, I didn’t have any understanding of what the hardware contained, and Mr. Abanga thought that the program wasn’t something that was added by the office, but came with the calculator. As the reset button was pushed, the program that calculated area was efficiently erased from the memory of the device.

This effectively meant that instead of Mr. Abanga having one of two working graphing calculators to conduct crop surveys with, we were now left with a glorified adding machine (that could draw graphs of our impotence f(x)=x^2). Wow, I thought. One simple button and a lack of understanding of the technology renders a situation less than ideal. And I vowed the recopy, line by line, the code contained by the other graphing calculator, in order to remedy the mistake that I felt significantly responsible for. Luckily we were visited by officials from Accra and Tamale just a few days later, which returned the calculator to headquarters for reprogramming, which Mr. Abanga picked up on the weekend while he was visiting his family. Disaster averted, however I learned my lesson about the power of misinterpreted information.

Sadly, I learned this lesson again, however luckily for my conscience I didn’t feel any direct responsibility. We visited a farmer who about halfway through the growing season wanted to apply a particular pesticide. However, he had to go travelling for a short time and entrusted some of his neighbours to purchase the particular chemical and apply it to his fields. As the story goes, when they went to the chemical dealer the seller didn’t have the chemical by that name, however offered a substitute that he believed would do the job. The chemical was bought, and applied to the field before the farmer got back from his trip.

And approximately two weeks later, one of the extension agents Red, was called in to witness the fact that this man’s field had withered and died, producing dried-up maize cobs and a most-certain disastrous yield for the 3 acres of maize.

Chairman’s healthy maize field

The farmer’s shriveled and brown, chemically destroyed field.

And this guy was devastated. He was a good farmer, had known what to do, but through a combination of poor knowledge of agricultural chemicals, and lack of literacy on the part of his friends (and potentially the dealer), and a need to be out of town meant that his biggest source of income and food wasn’t going to produce that year. Red said that at least he would have his soya bean field, which is a good cash crop, but regardless, it was a true tragedy that this farmer had lost a good chunk of his livelihood in one fell swoop. Apparently he was telling Red that he was going to give up farming, and whether that was melodrama or a sincere wish, I never found out.

Once again, a lack of understanding of the technology being used (in this case chemicals) has dire consequences in a situation with few safety mechanisms and contingency plans.

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What does complexity mean?

As funny as this is, it’s simple for us to recognise that it’s also a bit ridiculous.

As much as you (as a Canadian) are not a beer and beaver-toting voyageur conquering the polar bear infested snowscape with a hockey stick in your hand, it is foolish to reduce anyone else, anywhere, to the mere pieces of basic perceptions about their representative culture or region.

But we do this, unknowingly, and it is the not knowing that makes it dangerous. Because as we consume these tantalising “insights” about cultures and people, we then make judgments based on unrecognised assumptions, making them that much more difficult to dig out of their trenches when the time comes.

But we have to get a handle on our thoughts. Challenge them, prod them, get them to explore and march not in line with the status quo, but tramp their boots all over our most cherished stereotypes of “peoples” which we do not know. Because a person is a person, no less dynamic or static or ravishing or dull as us, our friends, our coworkers and family. Making anyone into any more or less than this is to do them a disservice. And to buy into this consumption of other cultures, whether it is vacationing in Cuba with the sun and the revolution or Vancouver with the mountains and the whales or Montreal with the festivals and the french or Kenya with the lion king safaris, we voraciously consume the people as destinations, not as distinct individuals but a homogenous vision of their “culture”.

This is how I feel when I show pictures of the cloth my tailor, Talhatu, fashioned into clothing for me. Yes, she was a tailor, and yes, she sews well and with popular Ghanaian and Togolese textiles, but that is not her entire identity, and Ghanaian fashion cannot be summed up with a picture of the vibrant cloth she works with. When you get to know her you see that she actually doesn’t care for yams, the dominant starch food in her region, she’s a mother of two bright but shy kids, she’s the granddaughter of the local chief and she’s being divorced by her husband. Ghanaians are not all like this, but neither are they simply comprised of their profession as farmer or tailor or shopkeeper, or their skin colour or the fact that they live on the African continent.

Ghana is a place where this hand-powered sewing machine works alongside stunning runway-quality Ghanaian fashion (pictures from Alex Fox’s Poia di Zorra).

This is some of the nuance and complexity I try to explain when I talk about Ghana, but it becomes difficult when I honestly cannot express the levels of detail I saw in people and situations, and the mountains of it I undoubtedly missed in the 4 short months I was there.

Something underlined when I start learning again with fresh eyes of a completely different region of the world. In this case, Latin America, which I had the absolute pleasure of exploring in my class at SFU, History 209. With a professor that understood this critical idea of simplifying people into unintelligble and meaningless stereotypes, the course was based around taking this romantic, impoverished, revolutionary vision of Latin America as a homogenous region and breaking it down by country, by class, by race, by gender, by political cant. And still we miss the breathtaking detail that creates the excitement and banality of everyday life. Until I saw the video below, I hadn’t realised that I was just replacing my broader, uninformed stereotypes with more polished, well-reasoned generalisations about groups of people. No less presumptuous, or incomplete, no matter how much more “educated” I am about the history of this complex region compared to the start of the semester.

And if you ever need to interact with these people, whether it is through travel, work, or let’s say international development, you are doing no favours by presenting yourself as someone so ignorant as to assume that you know their favourite cultural reference, or their views on their government, or their hopes and aspirations without asking them first.

Because really, how ridiculous would it be if someone came up to you and asked how your igloo lifestyle was being affected by global warming, or if you ever keep your pet beaver on a leash?

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Somehow I’m terrified

Somehow I’m terrified. I think about my experiences and long for a repeat, long to return to those comfortable haunts, to that place that I called home for a short time. Home, for me, is always where the people are. those people whom I enjoy and who enjoy me. There’s always the fear that I’ m forgetting, quite rapidly, a time and place and set of people that I really cherish.

But what if I return, and they are not there? What if, upon endeavouring to remember every detail about a place, I go back and it is changed? What about that gnawing anxiety of remembering too much, too accurately, the snapshot that I experienced, and in doing so forget that people change, lives change, and that going back cannot be something to be repeated, on endless loop, with romantic naivety? This is a new fear that clenches at my heart, that somehow, I could go back to Karaga, to Nangong-ayili, and that instead of facing old friends and acquaintances, facing disappointment and bitterness that the world does not revolve around my presence.

And yet, I’ve told myself time and again that I couldn’t, or shouldn’t go back without a good reason, some meaningful employment, otherwise I could become just any other tourist, uninvested in what is really going on in a place because they have no stake in it. But as the clock ticks on and I’m planning all sorts of meaningful employment in schooling and life, I feel that I am treading farther away from the people I knew, and closer to what I fear. The terror of being left behind, forgotten, and not knowing how to move on and make new friends and experiences.

Gani wants to go to Accra. Arimiyaw will be done studying in two short years. Mampreges is so old. Emelia will finish secondary school. Talhatu might finish her divorce. Abanga may get a promotion to another district. Emma could marry. So many unknowns, and with little way to update my living memory of these people, how do I balance resilience of reminisces with the reality that I learn over and over again: people are not static, and these ones are no exception.

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Everyday I’m studyin’

Wow, I’m feeling great. I get to choose a different set and subset of friends to study with each day, and sit in the bright sunshine streaming through the windows of Madge, West Mall, Chem, or another nook or cranny of SFU’s campus currently basking in the (finally) seasonal weather. Studying feels good with the company of occasional entertainment through conversations and good music, and I have medium expectations for these exams so my stress level is solidly under control (though sometimes spikes when I realise I’ve forgotten to review something, like fermentation in the midgut of a moose for example). Studying is something I’ve always had a dismissive relationship of, preferring to learn concepts properly the first time and have sustained retention. This changes with more classes, and more other commitments during the school year, and I’m thinking about the quality of my education because of these diversions and responsibilities. And how this relates to my ultimate educational goal? Pretty high competition for my level of academic effort, I’d say. (As seen here)

How does this relate to Ghana, you ask? Well, I had the opportunity to befriend students in multiple stages of their education, and witness some interesting differences and similarities between our studying styles. Firstly, my high school friends like Basit, Mutallah, Yusif, and Sali all studied A LOT. Now this isn’t necessarily the average, but they were doing about 5 times as much as I study, if not more. Partly I think this is due to the poor in-class instruction, and the focus on information organised in categories rather than concepts. These guys were smart, but it’s ridiculous trying to memorize how to do calculus if you don’t understand the meaning behind the functions. The other part has to do with opportunity, where getting into a specific subset of colleges in Ghana seems to be the only real guarantee to get a job after graduation. If you’re enrolled in any other post-secondary, it’s up to fate and good connections whether you’ll be able to find related work within the next 5 years. But they study for that slim chance of either, and that is something that I’ll never have to face.

Though we both study to varying volumes of popular music, sit for hours poring over biology texts and notes, and are subject to the emotional dynamics due to weather, that chance that I will move on from this degree to a meaningful job are almost exponentially higher. Not because I’m smarter, work harder, or have any other particular intrinsic merit. SFU and Ghana have very different levels of opportunity, creating interesting incentives for work ethic.

What relationships do you see? (In Canada or elsewhere)

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Garbled and unintelligible, again.

I’m talking in the car with my family as we drive over the Alex Fraser bridge on our way to Christmas dinner. We’ve been talking about this outrageous accent that I can’t help using in most of my basic conversation, and my phone rings. I register the +233 number in the caller id and answer, “Hello!”. As I hang up a few minutes later, I explain to my mother in the next seat that it was Rafik, my good friend from Ghana.

Rafik and I on my last day in Karaga

And by the laughter, I surmise that she could tell without me letting her in on the secret. Apparently, besides my accent deepening into obscurity, I raised my voice several decibels and reverted to my Ghanenglish grammar peppered with Dagbani, something that is significantly different from the speech my Canadian-raised family is used to. And now I’m laughing and blushing, and internally cringing because I feel proud to retain vestiges of my Ghanaian communication skills, but wondering how to balance this maintenance of my slightly shifted identity while re-learning how to connect with Canadians. Especially because I need to sound polished and professional at my upcoming interviews for medicine.

And sitting here, 3 months later, I think in my mind of conversations I would have with my housemates, coworkers, and friends if I could have a running commentary of my day. And switching to that once-natural accent is more and more staged. And those words that used to be at the tips of my fingers are slowly slipping away like they were greased with butter as soon as I stepped off the plane. And weirdly enough, my French and Dagbani vocabulary are ridiculously intermingled, and it’s like I’ve progressed only in some weird language that is a garbled mixture that only makes sense in my head. And speaking seems once again, embarrassingly out of reach.

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Sunset affirmation

More and more I am able to deftly search through the face-up pieces of this language and fit together interlocking phrases to express responses, questions, musings and exclamations which I share with relative accuracy with the people I’m interacting with in Karaga. My tires are being consistently pumped by both my EWB coach Don, and my coworkers at the Ministry of Food and Agriculture office, but I still strain to learn new words and sentences to mix and match. How unfair does it seem that just as I am getting the hang of this newly-cherished language I am also getting ready to leave? Very.  My work and life is pushed and shoved in order as I slowly trim the edges and wrap up my placement. There are still countless conversations I have not had with my family, but our mutual facility for communication has increased so much you would not have recognised us as the same awkward mimes from 4 months previous. But I yearn for a true sign that I have progressed, and it’s hard to get a straight answer from people when they are comparing you to the other foreigners they have met, who usually stopped right before or after learning how to say “good morning”. Considering my high standards, I’m pleased but not content.

As I am spending the last hours of one last glorious day in the sun with Arimiyaw, who is now in Tamale and studying in his marketing courses, we are talking with shop owners and college students and each other, and suddenly, he turns to me and mentions, “You’ve really improved. Your Dagbani would not have allowed this some few months ago.” And suddenly, the hot sun is just that much more friendly, and the fluttering leaves dance patterns on our footsteps and as the sun sets on my time in Ghana, I internally glow, and externally say “Mpaaya”, thank you.

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