4 final papers in 1 lovely package

I should have just handed this in:

The grizzly bear and Mexican migrant population are both facing increasingly restricted movement due to increased human activity through roads and border patrols. While bears are attracted to roads due to increased food availability, their mortality is primarily through being hit by vehicles. This illuminates an additional lack of access to euthanasia for this population, due to their systemic marginalization. While the Anopheles mosquito exhibits an opposite correlation for human activity, where increased human activity allows for greater access to resources such as blood, there is an interesting parallel with increased death rate, also pointing to an unfulfilled need in their requests for assisted suicide. Though Mexican migrants, grizzly bears, and mosquitoes when analysed together are all affected by human activity and political policy, the factors of mobility and access to euthanasia help tease apart these marginalized groups and their behaviour patterns.

We are always encouraged to draw upon multiple resources for a more cohesive approach to synthesis, right?

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Let’s talk about the trees and the stars

5 weeks in, a lifeline of linguistic ability arrives to pull me from gulping the occasional mouthful of water as I struggle to remain afloat in my communication with my family, to being solidly installed on a sturdy log resting above the water level (although occasionally it rolls and flips me under without warning). With the entrance of 5 high school students into my life with my family, boarders while they attend the high school across the road, I suddenly have a wealth of knowledge open up to me because they speak both Dagbani and English. What a goldmine. As I learn things I’ve been wondering for the past month and more, such as “whose kid is that actually? and wait they’re not married? and what is in this food that I’ve been eating?” I heave a sigh of relief as my daily life now includes many translators and conversation partners that extend beyond the basic acknowledgement of existence.

Two of my newfound student roommates, Sali and Mutallah

But as I’ve gotten more and more daring with mixing and repeating my patchwork-learned Dagbani like an overenthusiastic parrot, I have coaxed a hidden cache of English words and concepts from various members of the family. Rouieya, my young housemate, talks to me about where I got my shirt sewed, and while our conversation consists of stilted sentences which alternate English and Dagbani words, the roadblocks to mutual understanding become mere speedbumps, and though it is at times a rough ride, we start to actually talk to each other, ask and respond, think and consider.

Rouieya, my housemate

And Gani, my (pretty obvious) favourite of the household, is telling me about the names of the trees and the stars, as we are walking down the road to deliver a radio to the newly opened neighbouring girls’ school. I am asking him about his plans to travel to Accra if he has the money, and he is talking about his cousins and friends who have made the trip before him, and what is holding him back. Though it’s maybe 30-odd words that he makes the effort to share with me, I am understanding some of his halting hesitancy. This is the uncertainty and potential for embarrassment that I have battled with over the past months. A part of me grins inwardly about this heroic show of trust that Gani is giving me with every word. A part of me loves that we are talking about things that are actually meaningful for him. And a part of me is annoyed that we still hit walls every few minutes, where he is trying to say something or I am trying to ask something and no matter what effort we expend, we cannot find a path through this thicket of words that are unintelligible between the pair of us.

One of the many self-portaits of Gani I discovered on my camera

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Build myself up, cut myself down

I ride up to Arimiyaw’s shop, jump off my bike and take off my helmet. I proudly greet him  “Antire”, and “Na tuma?” both which warrant a “Naaa” and a smile. I am feeling pretty great, having conquered the 6 or so central greetings that have earned me glowing praise from my coworkers and street cred with the people that greet me in town every day.

As I retell my family’s glee as I ask them about their day, and respond correctly to their inquiries, Arimiyaw’s head tilts and his smile tilts, and I ask, “What?”. He says “Nothing” but I push, as I am in the habit of doing, and re-iterate that I’m excited that I’ve finally learned all the greetings. And he yields “Ah, but you do not know all of the greetings. How do you greet someone at a funeral, when someone has just died?”. I scrunch up my face, puzzling for a second, and as I do a few of Arimiyaw’s friends walk in and I am treated to some hopelessly fast conversation apparently about football, school plans, and a number of other things. As I am leaving his shop to ride home for the day, I mention “Wow, I barely understood any words or what you were saying, with your friends”. Which warrants the reply, “Well, you only know the greetings, and nothing else”.

Ouch. While I know I’ve made some progression in other areas over the past two weeks, this indictment from a friend makes me re-evaluate my pride over these good, but relatively feeble inroads, mere paths through a complex language that I have barely begun to learn. As I ride home in the gathering dusk, I think about my next strategies for piecing together a more robust ability to communicate beyond the admittedly weak “How are you” that is my current standard.

Arimiyaw gives me the goods, straight up. While he minces his words sometimes, my inquisitive and open attitude pushes him to say what he thinks.

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Language as the ultimate tool

That timid tremble of my tongue as I try to force those vowels and consonants out of my unyielding pie-hole is a familiar feeling no matter what language I am currently spinning or butchering. With practice comes perfection the old adage tells us, but how do you become perfect when your language changes with every audience, between the words that create the meaning to the listeners that re-create their own meaning? Mastering language is probably one of those unappreciated skills that only occurs to you when you witness proficients or personal face-plants.

As I am officially handed over from my co-worker to this tall man in a hat who is apparently the head of this tin-roofed household, I am reassured by the smile and welcoming body posture. I am quickly realising that this body language is going to be my best tether to a semblance of communication, as I meet my roommates for the next 4 months. With a hint of english offered up by one of kids, Baako, I am learning that this is going to be my room, and that I need to eat. As much as I am heartened by these proffered syllables in a language I can clearly understand, it is also clear that Baako has a basic limit to his grasp of english, and that many of my questions are going to be hanging in the air unanswered as our eyes speak rueful apology to each other.

Yeah family. Baako, who is about 14, is my primary resource for English-Dagbani translation for my first month of living with my family. Shouts of "Baako!" follow many of my attempts at speaking directly with family members as I struggle to mangle and meld Dagbani and English over the next few weeks.

Learning their language, Dagbani, becomes solidified in my mind for the first time as absolutely imperative, and as I pathetically attempt to mime that I have already eaten for the night, and that yes, I do like their food but I am stuffed and tired and no I don’t need some eggs I really am unable to eat another bite and yes please can you help me put up a line for my mosquito net and yes I’d like a bath where is the water am I supposed to bathe here do you have a flashlight yes I’d like to eat again in the morning but please not now I’m tired and could you please get your kids to leave my room now, and lay down for the night, I vow to begin learning in earnest one of the most important tools for my placement over the next 4 months.

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California dreamin’

It’s sometimes hard to believe that California’s info-tech heaven in the Silicon Valley and the wonder I see on my people’s faces as they see pictures of themselves on my netbook exist on the same planet.

I’ve been showing my hosts videos and photos on the netbook most nights, and we’ve progressed from soccer highlights to movies, and have now gone through about 4 hours of top football goals, Persepolis, Robin Hood (new version), and Slumdog Millionaire. It’s incredible to see how everyone is completely in tears laughing at certain parts of these movies, but the nuance is often lost due to low volume/nonexistent English skills. Sense of humour changes depending on your understanding of the situation.

I’ve been speaking to a group of twenty-somethings, and we’ve progressed from the ideas that diagnosing Torontonian homelessness isn’t that simple to the smart design of excel to solve government data management issues. These first year mechatronics students readily oblige with laughter to my cheesy jokes about signing up for engineering for the sex appeal, and the pretend shame as I hang my head for not being an engineer. But they sit up straighter when I mention that Africa is exploding with telecommunications potential, and cell phone penetration is 65%, just ten people per 100 fewer than China and Canada. Sense of potential changes depending on your understanding of the situation.

This bridge is being built, slowly and steadily, as evidenced by international uproar when Blackberry’s service was interrupted a few months ago. It was considered one of those “first world problems”, yet Nigerians were particularly vocal about the ridiculousness of the situation, where a global service provider failed their clients miserably. That’s why it’s time to stop thinking of an “us” and “them”, where we of the developed, Western, “first” world have incredible access to technology and opportunity and everyone else doesn’t. We have our 1% and 99 just as Nigeria does.

There’s a lot there that gets reduced in our debate of have and have-nots, where potential is waiting to develop. Where someone has two cell phones but no health insurance, like my host-father Chairman in Northern Ghana. Where engineering students are highly trained in technical expertise but have to brutally compete for co-op opportunities in Canada. How do we assess opportunity, and untapped potential?

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My friends have stopped calling

As I think about these words, my eyes begin to heat and throat constricts. Regardless of place, the people that I interact with are the primary source of value in my life, and to slowly see the distance lengthening between myself and those sources is difficult to take. I say to myself, “it’s difficult to make time right now” and as I’m interacting with my friends after work, stopping at Talhatu’s to chat and touch the fabrics, chilling with Arimiyaw and listening to music off of our cell phones, or playing that crazy motorcycle video game with Rafik, I, in the back of my mind, hate that I am not simultaneously making time for those equivalent people in other places.

a bit bedraggled

Or when I sit in Convo Mall talking about perceptions of First Nations’ with Renato and eating beef stew on a brisk spring day with Emily, or make chocolate chip banana bread on a school night with Grace, the time zone stretches in front of me and the school work pans out around me and reaching out of these confines is like trying to blow feathers through molasses, where it seems so futile at the outset that my efforts are stifled from the start.

And so my friends call, on occasion, but with no adequate response I’m left wondering how to maintain and mend relationships from either side of a phone line where explaining the conception of my life as it currently stands seems impossible and inadequate.

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Who needs the money?

A list of such magnitude it is hard to capture in the headspace I have to work with. When the arguments get down to which is more expressive of initiative and commitment, national athletics medals, RCM grade 8 piano, or directing the school musical 3 years running? When things begin to look “unimpressive” where really it’s a relative term comparing students who all achieve a 95% average in classes and add superior extracurriculars. When overcoming adversity is an exercise in judging others’ personal journeys in a long list of deserving recipients, selection for scholarship winners for 17 and 18 year-olds entering SFU is a mind-numbing exercise in rewarding deserving potential.

A list of such magnitude is hard to capture in the headspace that I have to work with. Living with an unfamiliar family as you’re going to school, spending money is scarce and scraping together money to go home for the holiday week is seemingly impossible when the friend that was supposed to bring it on the bus from your hometown gets in a traffic accident and can’t make it. When studying happens minimum several hours per day, in addition to the 7 hours you attend school. And the amount of time spent on schoolwork begins to look unimpressive because relative to their classmates they are on par, and differentiating between each student is only helpful if you take into account the absence of teachers in classrooms, the prevalence of self-directed study, and the shaky foundations of knowledge each grade provides. Yet when the private exams for post-secondary eligibility come along, the test which rewards deserving potential, an even playing field is impossible despite the standardized format. Because can you really compare the self-taught politics and econ major that is the top of his class and the chemical and agriculture student who is struggling with orbital hybridization because electrons were never explained properly?

How do we qualify someone to be deserving of investment?

How does investment in systems to evaluate students based on holistic criteria strengthen the SFU scholarship offers?

What would the $24,000 Shrum Major Entrance Scholarship do if disbursed to deserving high school candidates in Ghana?

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Following the international news

I’m browsing online, having discovered the power of the internet to deliver news and ideas halfway across the world, to places where I’m missing the usual dialogue of the people I go to in order to obtain my news, my sense of what is globally important.

Which brings me into a very close relationship with procrastination, and my laptop. I love being able to learn at breakneck speed accessing myriad resources enabled by this electronic device, but I don’t feel fulfilled by my new relationship with electronics, and discourse around articles that move me makes me frustrated; it’s hard to find well-reasoned responses on an internet comment list. Yet my natural repositories of wisdom are not easily available so I settle for the far second best.


cute, right?And because of this yearning for knowledge, I’m neglecting the work sitting waiting for me. Whether it is reading about recent Canadian drug policy and the plans for an omnibus crime bill as I’m sitting in my office space in Ghana, or considering the implications of negative media imaging of Africa and the (alleged) death of Malawi’s president ensconced in an SFU study space, somehow the theoretical models that I’m supposed to be grappling with can do no more but serve as a source of guilt, as technology adoption and grizzly bear translocation lie limply on the backburner of my mind.

Where does the value tradeoff balance this long-term theory that I’ve generally ascribed to vs. my apparent addiction to the present? Where do I regain my relevance where I creatively interact with the abstract learning and inject my current knowledge and connections?

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Those moments of feelings

Ever get that sick to your stomach feeling when you remember something you never should have forgotten?

Ever get that warm fuzzy feeling from the look of someone who you know will love you unconditionally?

Ever get that sharp needle of adrenaline when you debate with someone who thinks the opposite opinion?

Ever get that feeling of rightness, and righteousness, of sitting in your comfortable place?

Ever get that gnawing anxiety over a decision that can’t come too soon?

Ever feel so much in one moment that it’s hard to explain?

Moments, as fleeting as they can be, are an important piece of the woven fabric of life, and paying attention to them is important, to draw insight into the situation at hand, but also to tug the threads of trends together.

For the next while I’m going to try to pay attention to the moments I encounter and pair them with similar ones that I experienced in Ghana. We’ll see how this experiment turns out…

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Opportunity Costs in Canada

“life’s like an hourglass glued to the table”

As time is slipping away under me, I’m remembering to breathe as I think of all the missed opportunities I’ve had this past semester, not due to negligence, but merely to a surplus of opportunities I access.

I want to have had the chance to call my family in Karaga, more than the few times I’ve managed.

I want to have called back my friend Rafik each time he’s called me.

I want to have kept tabs and support on the innovative work my office in Karaga has been doing this past harvesting season.

I want to have called the few good friends that I have in Karaga that I haven’t connected with yet.

Yet where did that time go?

Into essays for classes I’ve vowed to put all effort into. Into cobbling together a study pattern that leaves me disappointed in my performances. Into a fantastic set of original theory about how mosquitoes make feeding decisions when threatened with danger. How could I not focus on school when I’ve seen my housemates put mammoth efforts into their high school studies?

Into my chapter at SFU, which arguably has had more stories and African programs info to absorb than is possible in the past few months. How could I not when it was their investment in me that’s allowed these opportunities I’m missing?

Into my friends and family here in Canada, which deserve my love and attention. How could I not?

Opportunity cost is a fickle thing, making a life seem unbalanced, potential seem unfulfilled, and an urge to deliver on things that may be undeliverable.Image

bet you wouldn’t be able to identify this skull by species…well I can.

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