New Experiences in Ghana

As I sit in my room listening to the crashing waves and feeling the light, warm breeze through the curtains, it seems the ideal time to review. My fever from last night has subsided (yes, as you’ll see in the list – it wasn’t malaria), and tonight I get on a plane bound for Amsterdam. But my trip to Ghana has included so many new experiences for me, so here are at least some of them.  I :

  • lived in a different country (and in the tropics at that)
  • counselled 61 “vulnerable” Ghanaian women one-on-one
  • collected pottery shards (for jewellery-making) at low-tide
  • saw the facial scars and facial tattoos on many people, marking successful requests of the ‘traditionalist’ religion’s fetish shrines
  • bought snacks and other stuff from head porters (who carry things on their heads through traffic)
  • walked teetering rope bridges high up in the rainforest canopy
  • learned half-decent basic conversation in a language I’d never even heard of before planning the trip (Ewe)
  • saw the silvery skeletons of baobab trees, leaves dropped for the dry season, against a stormy slate-grey sky
  • was called an “artisan” and taught crafts
  • lived in a rural environment complete with sheep, goats, chickens, and crops
  • successfully quoted the Bible several times, especially when arguing against groups of men maligning homosexuality (“judge not lest ye be judged”, etc., etc.)
  • saw a 4-foot long water monitor (lizard)
  • swam in the Atlantic Ocean. . . from the ‘other’ side
  • picked and ate mangoes straight from the tree
  • met village chiefs who were decked out in full ceremonial outfits
  • received quite a few immediate proposals of marriage (or other suggestions) from male passersby; accepted none
  • saw the Sahara Desert from the air
  • learned and did the traditional Ewe dancing, if somewhat poorly
  • was called “yevu” (Ewe) and “obruni” (Twi) and treated almost like a celebrity for my skin colour
  • began thinking of water as a finite resource
  • visited the last place many Africans saw before being shipping across the ocean into slavery
  • taught English in an organized classroom setting
  • saw the real poverty in some areas of Accra, like the slums Nima and ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’, which in the worst of it, actually sits on a stinking mountain of garbage
  • tried most Ghanaian cuisine; liked some of it
  • had geckos as roommates
  • added career counselling to my roster of counselling skills
  • got tested for malaria while feverish (it was negative)
  • drank handmade palm wine out of a reused water bottle, purchased from a roadside vendor
  • participated in community events raising awareness of women’s rights
  • bought jewellery from Rastas with lit joints hanging out of their mouths
  • had plenty of bucket showers
  • checked another continent off my list
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Handicrafts of the Volta Region

Ghana is a world of difference from those places where you might get “handicrafts” that end up being mass-produced and sold only to tourists. No, in Ghana, artisans are still common, the diversity of handcrafted items is broad, and locals are the main customers. Since spending the last few months at a school that teaches women to be artisans and other sorts of creators, I have developed even more of an appreciation for the gorgeous handicrafts that are made and sold around the region.

The way I see it, the Volta Region is the home of two main things: waterways and Ewes. The region itself is a tall strip at the edge of Ghana, with the country of Togo to the East and the Atlantic Ocean to the south. The Volta River, mightier before the building of the Akosombo Dam in the 1960’s to create Lake Volta (the largest reservoir in the world) , wends its way through this traditional area of the Ewe people. Both the river and the Ewe culture contribute to the handicrafts.

Ghana’s most famous handicraft is likely the distinctive, colourful, hand-woven kente cloth. Though kente is most associated with the Akan people (Twi-speakers, the largest Ghanaian group), the Ewe people also weave their own. This seems to be primarily a men’s occupation, though women in the area weave and other things regularly, such as mats. Kente cloth is mostly used for ceremonial and special outfits, though knockoffs of the Akan kente patterns – printed fabric, not woven – are everywhere, and used for anything at all.


Batik takes fabric designing a different route. It’s all about plain fabric being transformed with hot wax, wooden stamps, dye baths, and steady hands. It seems to be more of a women’s art and is taught right here at the school. The finished products are used for many things: women’s dresses and men’s shirts, tablecloths, curtains, housewares of all sorts, etc.


Wood carving is another traditional craft that seems to be mostly done by men. The  woodcraft here may take the form of things such as: useful household items like bowls and spoons, life-size artsy statues from tree trunks, or decor like wooden animals and wall masks.


The no-longer-as-mighty Volta River contributes its clay banks to the local production of pottery. Natural, clay-coloured vessels of all sizes are used to store things in the everyday home. The distinctive black, ridged bowls seen for sale at markets and carried in teetering stacks on women’s heads are used for grinding spices. Then there is the fancy, painted clayware – it’s for times when you want something a bit more special. The town of Vume, not too far from where I’ve been staying, is well-renowned for its pottery. 


Beading is another traditional craft that uses the river’s clay, and is taught here at the school. It’s quite a process. The women take chunks of hard clay from the river, crush it to dust, wet it so it’s workable, and form beads out of it, rolling it between their hands carefully and using thin branches to poke holes. The beads sit to dry for a couple weeks before its time to bake them, then paint them, then string them into jewellery. And the beading isn’t limited to clay beads either. Glass beads are for sale in the markets along with the fish and veggies, and those beads, as well as tiny seed beads, also make their way into the many beaded items created locally.


Beyond these handicrafts, I know there are more. I’ve seen drums and the maraca-like percussion instruments, woven hats, and other curious items as we whipped past tiny shops on the roadsides. The region’s artisans make both what the people need, and what the people want, so it ends up covering a great deal of ground. The handicrafts of the Volta Region range from the strictly useful to the specifically ceremonial to the simply beautiful, and everywhere in between. 


* Note: all photos are my own except the Ewe-style kente cloth photo, which comes from here:,_Ghana.jpg

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Kakum Canopy Walk & Cape Coast Castle

The Canopy Walk at Kakum National Park and Cape Coast’s Castle might be two of the most touristed sites in Ghana, but for good reason. A few weeks ago, when I had the opportunity to hop on a bus for  a daytrip out there with the British contingent of visitors to Adidome, you can bet I took it.

Kakum National Forest

West of Accra, past the heavy traffic, the coastal road passes palm trees dancing on beaches, then plunges into dense green. Thicker palm trees, stands of tall and tangled bamboo, and street vendors selling big yellowed cocoa pods and bottles of palm wine line the roads. When it rains, it really rains. Orangey mud sloshes down the edges of the streets in near-rivers, “like in Jurassic Park,” says one of the Brits. People walking alongside grab giant palm leaves to use as makeshift umbrellas. The ever-present goats huddle miserably under any shelter they can find. (Who knew goats hated rain?)


Then you reach Kakum National Park. The Rainforest. I hadn’t realized how accurate those zoo exhibits were. The trail is edged by thick, tangled greenery. The humming and chirping of bugs is loud in your ears. But the trail is rocky, slippery, and uphill. I kept wanting to slow down so I could take it all in. Given more time, I would have taken a slow amble through the trails. But this time there was a destination: the rope-bridges of the Canopy Walk.


We climbed up and up, until we were at the tops of the tall trees. Seven somewhat-rickety wooden, net-lined bridges span the gaps. The views are amazing. Mist and green as far across the gently rolling hills that the eye can see. It really feels like African forest. Tarzan kept coming up in conversation, because this was the sort of place you could picture him swinging on the vines. The rope-bridge adventure itself was a bit nerve-wracking, but very worth it.


Cape Coast Castle


I love castles and coastlines and history. But I found this white-washed, 400+ year old castle quite disturbing. This castle was one of the major slave trade ports of Western Africa. The last place on the continent that many Africans were held before being sent across the oceans into slavery. I was glad to visit, but found this experience of such a dark story in history quite dark indeed – in more ways than one.


The sun was beginning to set as we arrived. Though the sunset over the coast was beautiful, it took the light with it. I’ve never been a fan of closed-in places or places that there have been a lot of death, and that is, of course, exactly what Cape Coast Castle contains. The slave dungeons are awful, especially at dusk, and gave me a creeping feeling down my back. The church that sits above one dungeon is disturbing in a different way. And even the governor’s fancy home above it all, such a contrast to the living situations below, is creepy in the darkness.


The Door of No Return, that very last place the slaves would see, could have been the worst of it. But through the door, colourful fishing boats were beached for the night, and fishermen were mending their nets. And the opposite side of the door is now marked Door of Return, since the remains of two former slaves were brought through the door again about five years ago. Cape Coast Castle comes with a message: a clear ‘never again’, but also a somewhat out-of-place reminder of hope, and that things can change.


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Aha! Drinks in Ghana

I have a post on food, so it is high time for drinks. There are some interesting ones. And yes, aha means “drink” in Ewe.

No surprise, water is vital. The tap water isn’t drinkable, nor even always running. Most of the locals don’t use bottles though; they use bags: approximately hand-sized baggies of water. They’re mostly made and factory sealed by the same companies as the bottles, just cheaper and easier to find. You’ll see head porters everywhere selling it, often crying “PURE WATAH!”

I’ve been sticking to bottled water. I haven’t quite mastered the art of nipping the edge of the bag so it makes only a small hole, and doesn’t get all over you and into the dirt. Plus, I don’t trust carrying a stack of bags in my purse for the day like I do with my bottles. It’s make for a lot of water-bottle-case-buying, but it’s also helping out! Right? Since, you see, everyone reuses bottles to sell other things (I’ve seen juices, motor oil, tomato sauce…), someone always shows up to take away my empties.

Image“Tea” is super common. But the word seems to refer to anything you mix or steep into boiling water, and to which you usually add sugar and/or milk – which is tinned, evaporated milk (unless you happen to have gone to the big supermarket in Accra to get shelf-stable milk cartons imported from Europe. . . ahem). So that could be:

– Instant Coffee – AKA Nescafe (and there doesn’t seem to be any non-instant coffee – fine by me, I don’t drink any!)

– Milo – a choco-malty energy drink like Ovaltine with a boost

– Tea – Lipton’s or imitation Lipton’s is most common, but I’ve also found (bagged) Earl Grey and Rooibos (non drink-related, but I’ve also got some tasty South African imported rooibos, rooibos-honey, and rooibos-lemon yogurt right now – yum!)

The juices are delightful. The INVTC Catering class makes some great fresh pineapple and orange juice for quite cheap, and I’ve also had mango elsewhere. There’s also “sobolu”, a dark red, almost-berry-like drink with a surprise – ultra spicy ginger. Pineapple juice also sometimes gets the spicy ginger treatment. And then there’s that corn drink I haven’t been brave enough to try. It’s made from dried corn (“maize”), and looks like slightly yellow milk. Hm. Some day?

All the juices can be made into “ice cream”, which is basically frozen juice in a baggie. I really haven’t mastered nipping a hole in the bag to get ICE out. But I was great entertainment for everyone around when I tried and ended up with bright orange mango fingers. At least one woman recorded me with her cell phone while I made a big mess. So that’s out there.

There are also “minerals” (which I’d call pop). Coca-Cola is everywhere, plus its siblings Sprite, Fanta Orange, and Fanta Lemon. And the semi-fizzy Malta drinks are all over too. They are somewhat sweet and malty, with a reputedly higher nutritional content than the usual soft drinks. Someone described it as “non-alcoholic Guinness”, but I’m not sold on that description. They’re quite nice!

Speaking of Guinness, much of Accra seems to be sponsored by them with billboards, bar signs, and painted walls everywhere. Guinness Foreign Extra is served in pretty much every bar or spot. Then there’s the Ghanaian beers which all have names that seem like they should be shouted (or at least written in capitals): CLUB!, STAR!, STONE!, EAGLE!! The first three I’ve tried  – all quite similar pilsners, a la Steamwhistle – but Club is my favourite so far. I have yet to try Eagle, which is newer (the signs all say “Eagle has landed!” – heh), and it’s made of cassava, which sounds interesting.

Bitters seem to be hip by the number of signs advertising different types, but I haven’t seen what they’re used in. Schnapps is apparently the traditional gift for a local chief or for a traditional religious shrine. West of Accra, I tried some handmade palm wine off the side of the road (in a reused water bottle, of course). Quite tasty. Even tastier when mixed with Guinness, as recommended by a local. I also know a few people whose employment here in the Volta region was distilling sugar cane – perhaps like rum? – but I have yet to see any of that handmade liquor. Perhaps it’s time for another road trip. . .


A drink out of a BIG bottle of palm wine on a rainy rainforest day.

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Me Vebe Srom

“I’m learning Ewe.” Though I’m sure an Ewe-speaker would correct my spelling of the post’s title). I’m still working on my Ewe even though I’m in the capital of Accra this week where Twi is the main language, with Ga spoken in some areas too. One language per trip is already enough!

I’m learning by collecting words and phrases directly from people and anywhere else I can get them. I’ve created an Excel doc called “Jessica’s Ultimate Ewe-English Language Guide” that has over 300 entries now. I sometimes make it into pseudo-flashcards, by blacking out one column. So far, I’m doing pretty well with the language thing. But there’s still a long way to go.


Ewe Learning Story #1

You know that “DUDE”/”SWEET” tattoo scene in the movie Dude, Where’s My Car? (if not, YouTube is your friend) – well I had a similar moment.

One Woman: [unintelligible word]

Me: What does that mean? Nya ma se egomeo [I don’t understand]

Another Woman: Well done!

Me: Akpe [thanks] but what does [unintelligible] mean. Nya ma se egomeo.

Other Women: Well done!

Me: THANKS but what does [unintelligible] mean?

(And yep, it meant “well done”)


I read somewhere that Ewe is a tonal language – intimidating! But I’m not sure I would actually agree. Sure, for example, the words for 3 and river, and the words for 4 and coconut are the same but pronounced slightly differently. BUT I think that if written with all the proper Ewe letters/accents, you’d be able to see a difference. Does that still make it tonal? Hm. . .


Somewhat disturbing example of written Ewe, but I DO work in social services after all. This says “Domestic Violence is a Crime: STOP IT!” 

People seem to write Ewe two different ways: a) using only letters we have in English; or b) using all the extra Ewe letters. I’ve stumbled across at least 4 extra letters:

1) An “o” with a gap on the left – it makes kind of an “ohn” sound (but using English letters it seems to be just written as an “o”, which isn’t quite right)

2) A fancy “f” that looks like cursive writing or the forte symbol in music, and makes a “p” sound (using English letters it might be written as “f” or “p”, so you sometimes see the same word spelled differently)

3) A swirl, that looks like the top of a tornado (yep) or like the @ symbol without the “a” in it – pronounced a bit like a “w” (maybe…)

4) A vertical… er… fish. Like a Jesus fish, but without the final line closing the tail. This seems to make an “hl” sound.


Ewe Learning Story #2

I was practicing body part words with the Beading class, and they introduced one to me that I just could not pronounce. I think it’s written “a-swirl-swirl-a”. So I kept trying and trying, and pronouncing it terribly, and everyone was giggling (from my bad pronunciation, I thought). So finally I say: “Hey, what does this word even mean?” And like 4 women shout “Penis!”. Great.


Then there’s pronunciation. A “kp” in the middle of a word is the bane of my word-saying. Unfortunately, it’s in the middle of one of my most-said words, “thanks” (akpe). It’s kind of like “ack-buh”. Except not quite. That “p” sounds like a hard “b” mixed with a slight hint of “f” and almost a mouth pop. I read it described somewhere as explosive. Hm. Even more thrilling is ekpekpem, or “it’s heavy”. This one sounds like “eh-bug-bum” with double mouth pop action. Super tricky.

Being in an “English speaking country” in a place where most people aren’t fluent in English is somewhat strange. Odd that I, as a foreigner, can understand all the signs and government-workings and such, but the locals might not be able to! One boon for language learning though, is that for certain things, the Ewe-speakers mostly use the English. Things like numbers, days, and colours (which may not seem as useful, but keep in mind I work with beading, dyeing/fabric, and soap-making). It also makes market shopping and community meeting-planning, among other things, much simpler.

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Naming Things in Ghana

One Ghanaian quirk that I’ve come across everywhere is the religious (Christian) naming of many businesses. The names are usually totally unrelated to the business itself, and often quite amusing when taken with what the shops actually sell (at least to my foreign eyes). I’ve been keeping a list of some of my favourites: 


  • God is God Fashion
  • Jesus Never Fails Hair Salon
  • Pray Without Ceasing Mini-Mart
  • They Go Shame Spot (keep in mind that a “spot” is a bar, which makes this one even more amusing)
  • Father Forgive Them Chemical Store
  • Sweet Jesus Supreme Hair Clinic (Hm, would that be Sweet Jesus Supreme? Or a Supreme Hair Clinic? I couldn’t tell). 
  • Righteous Metal Works
  • Jehovah is My Friend Food Shop
  • Christ My Saviour Fashion Design
  • With God All Things Are Possible Jewellery
  • Jesus Over Do Metal and Aluminum (Jesus over do what?) 
  • Migthy [sic] Jesus Cement and Building Supply

 ImageBeyond religious names, it must be kind of hip to name your business after faraway places. Whether or not you are entirely familiar with things like how those places are spelled, that is. In Adidome town, there is the Califonia Spot and the Holywood Night Club (an outdoor club surrounded only by a brightly painted wooden fence, though currently defunct and full of baby goats). And I saw the “Norway” Drinks Shop in Accra. Yes, the quotation marks were part of the name. 

The names of the people I’ve met are also different from back home. The women’s names mostly seem to fall into three broad categories:  

1) Traditional Ghanaian Names – I won’t attempt typing these, because, well, I’m not really sure which ones are traditional and Ghanaian, which are regional or tribe-based, . . etc., etc., etc. 

2) Old-Fashioned English Names (that at home, might belong to your grandmother). I was surprised how many vibrant and often young women I’ve met named things like Agatha, Vera, Margaret, Gladys, and Millicent. But perhaps it all ties into the fact that Ghana got their independence from Britain in the 1950’s. . .

3) Vaguely (or Overtly) Religious English Word Names – like Comfort, Rejoice, Favour, Bless, Peace, and Grace.


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Day By Day in Adidome

So what does my week look like? As mentioned, I’m at the International Needs Vocational Training Centre (INVTC) on the outskirts of Adidome, primarily working with their Women’s Empowerment Project (WEP). The placement involves varying social work-y tasks, like: counselling, community development, crafts. . . and a healthy dose of creativity.

Counselling is my main focus. I do a single session with every woman who speaks enough English (alas, my Ewe isn’t quite up to counselling standards). So far, there’s 39 (of 77 women)  on my list. The idea is getting their whole story, assessing their vulnerabilities, and doing what’s basically career counselling:  talking about any strengths, barriers, etc. that might help or hinder their new vocation.

Then I’m out in the community too. We follow-up with previous INVTC students and see how their new businesses are going. And there’s outreach to whole communities, usually on weekends. This is mainly education on women’s and children’s rights and the laws that protect them (with topics like succession laws, domestic violence, reproductive health, and HIV/AIDS) – the Ghanaian Criminal Code seems quite similar to Canada’s, though not always as broadly known by the public. We sometimes have big Ghanaian partners along too, like the Commission for Human Rights, Department of Social Welfare, and the Domestic Violence unit of the police.

Then. . .crafts! The vocational training that the WEP teaches is a choice of: beading, soap-making, batik/textiles, or catering. Two other campus programs teach dressmaking and hairdressing. I have free reign on joining, buying from, or teaching to the classes that appeal. I’ve already taught hemp-like knotwork to the beading class and I will likely teach tote bags to the dressmaking class next week, plus I’m brainstorming other ideas.

After my work days are done, I retire to my home on campus – one of the guesthouses. I read, write, relax, etc. I get my lunch brought over from the main kitchen, but I make my own breakfast and dinners (with as much “Western” food as I can find for dinner).

Getting beyond campus isn’t that easy. I can take a moto (ride on the back of a motorcycle) into the small town of Adidome for market day or at other times. . . but not after dark (which is 6pm), and not into the larger town of Sogakope 20 minutes away, since the motos can’t always be trusted – from both a road safety and potential threat perspective. I don’t have a helmet, after all. I have explored a bit beyond, with the transportation assistance of my supervisor or others. And I do hope to do some further weekend exploration around the region in the coming months, after some thoughtful planning on how to get there.

Mango Tree

And I do enjoy the campus itself. I like wandering the grounds; hanging out by the Volta River; sitting under shady trees and practicing Ewe with the women; spotting birds, lizards, butterflies, and small furry creatures; watching the goats (and failing at trying to touch them); and hoping the mangoes will ripen soon.

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Nududu and Nudada

Hello from a too-long Internet dry spell! ANYWAY, it’s time for nududu and nudada! That’d be “food” and “cooking” for those unversed in Ewe. And they also happen to be a couple of the things people have been curious about. . .

So, what am I eating? Depends where I am. Street food in the Ghanaian capital of Accra is plentiful and tasty. My personal favourites have been from either the jollof or rice & beans stands. You start with either jollof rice (red from a tomato-based sauce) or plain white rice with beans, then go for toppings. Those are fun:

            – hot pepper paste – spicy! But a bit is necessary, since it’s flavourful. And sacrilege to Ghanaians if you go without.

            – gari – almost like breadcrumbs, though it apparently comes from the inside of the cassava plant

            – red (palm?) oil

            – stew – also red, tomato based, could contain anything in regards to meat

            – fried plaintains (yum yum)  

            – pasta salad – just like at home

            – “sausages” – hot dogs, for the most part nicely pan-fried

            – chicken drumsticks

            – a whole dried-out fish (still haven’t figured out quite how this is eaten)

And you order everything but the condiments by monetary value. Such as: “I’ll get 50 pesewas rice, 50 pesawas beans, a little pepper, gari, oil, 1 Cedi fried plantains, 50 pesawas pasta salad, 1 Cedi sausages, please”. Tons of food for C3.50, or about $1.75.

What am I not eating? Well, I can’t get into the staple of banku, or its relative kenkey. From what I understand, they are both made with corn (maize) mashed into flour, and then wetted into a dough. From here kenkey gets wrapped in leaves, banku stays bare, and they both get dropped in water and boiled. To me, either tastes a bit like uncooked dough with a slight tang of corn. It’s eaten as an alternative carb to rice. I can’t help thinking it would be much nicer if they put it in the oven for a while (corn bread anyone?).

That said, there is some very tasty bread out here. The Catering class at the Centre out here in Adidome regularly bakes up “butter bread” – like our white bread, and “sweet bread” – like our white bread, but, yep, it’s sweet. Very nice with tea. At my last-Thursday visit to catering, I stayed with the bread crew from start to finish and rolled some dough myself.

Anyway, the Centre provides 3 meals a day to the students, and also to me. If I want. But I do my own breakfast with simple items so I don’t have to deal with anybody bringing my meal over in the mornings. My favourite meals at the centre have been when the stew (see below) came with eggs in it instead of meat, and also the surprisingly flavourful beans with gari. But still, with the removal of banku or kenkey from my personal menu, I was mainly left with rice. And stew. Lots of stew.

ImageIt might be a regional thing, but there sure is a lot of it here by the Volta River. It’s usually a chunky tomato-based stew (photo above!) with large hunks of a thick grey meat that I couldn’t recognize for quite some time. It’s fish, of course! I was told “We call it tuna”. Which is a bit… fishy? (Sorry, couldn’t help myself #fishjokeoftheday). But regardless, I’m not sure if it’s the same tuna I know or not. But it’s… not what I really want for two meals a day. SO: I’m making my own dinners from here on out.

For breakfast I do either butter bread or sweet bread, plus tea or Milo (a hot choco-malty drink like Ovaltine, but with more oomph to get me through a snackless morning), and either yogurt collected from a bigger supermarket in the capital or fresh local fruit. Dairy is a rarity out here, and it seems to be more common to use a tin of condensed milk for your tea. I got a carton of shelf-stable German imported milk and I am carefully hoarding a chunk of cheese. The local fruit is primarily bananas, oranges, and pineapples, with papayas (paw-paws here, even in English) and mangoes coming into season. In December, the heavily laden mango trees all over campus will be ripe!

 The main veggies at the local market now seem to be: tomatoes, little red onions, okra, plantains, and huge woody yams with white insides. And if you’re lucky some carrots, cabbages, and sweet potatoes. (An aside: cauliflower at the Accra supermarket was about $12 for a small piece!). Plus there’s tons of whole dried-out fish (still don’t get how they’re eaten), and live crabs and shellfish. And vendors with little cans/bottles/bags of things like spices, tomato paste, cooking oil, and noodles. I also have seemingly unlimited access to fresh eggs, as there is a henhouse on the Centre grounds. Hm…

I also have one use-able burner and a microwave. So far on my dinner menu, most of which are eaten with fresh fruit:

            – macaroni and cheese

            – macaroni and ketchup (yep…)

            – spaghetti and tomato paste

            – toad in the hole (fried eggs & bread – my favourite right now, and oh-so-local)          

            – meatless “Irish stew” (okay, carrots, potatoes, and onions, cooked in a stew-like fashion)        

            – oatmeal 

            – grilled cheese sandwich

 And… that’s about it. Limited menu. But creative dinner suggestions welcome! 

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Woeso to Mama School

Greetings from the rural Volta region, the Eastern-most region of Ghana which borders the country of Togo. I am just outside Adidome (“addi-doh-may”), a town perched on the edge of the Volta River. 


The town is regarded as small, but seems pretty bustling to me, with many roadside huts that make up shops, eateries, and bars (called “spots” in Ghana, often with a blue and white picket fence), plus the ubiquitous tro-tros and motos (motorbikes) zipping around. To get into the centre of town, it’s about an hour walk or 1 Cedi (~50 cents) to ride on the back of a moto. You can guess my choice! Kind of weird holding onto a strange guy though. Cats, chickens, and goats freely wander the town, though the many boys with herds of long-horned, bushy cattle stick to the countryside. 

Ewe is the language of the Volta region. So, me vebe srom – I’m learning Ewe. Intensely. It’s the first language of all the women at my centre, some of whom speak no English at all. My supervisor has challenged me to become conversant in Ewe in a month and a half! The language has some nice quirks, like a hello to a newcomer (to the country, region, or even just to the bench you happen to be sitting on) is always woeso, welcome. It also translates for those who speak English, so almost everyone I come upon tells me “You are welcome.” Quite lovely.  

As Volta/Ewe/Adidome Jess, I even have a new name. My white-person name is tricky for some folks to remember/pronounce (understandable from my POV), so they gave me the traditional name for girls born on Fridays: Afi. Women also seem to refer to each other with a familial term too, depending on age and status (?) – Sister, Auntie, Mama, or Madame. And yes, there are some Ewe words that seem to be French. If I hear calls for “Sistuh Afi, Sistuh Afi”, I have to remember to turn and look -because that’s me! 

And where am I exactly? I’m at the International Needs Vocational Training Centre (INVTC), or “Mama School” as they call it in town. It’s a place for women to train in, yes, new vocations. I’m specifically working with the Women’s Empowerment Program (WEP) for impoverished women, which has four possible fields: textile design (batiks), beading, soap-making, or catering. Lots of exciting crafty opportunities there. There are also courses in hairdressing and dressmaking, but I won’t be involved in those to the same degree.  

I spent today with the textile design/batik crew. Totally delightful fabric designed, and all electricity-free. Heating water for dyes and melting the wax used with the big wooden stamps was all done over fires. E hodzo (it’s hot) though! Image

This week will be especially fun because I spend a day with each of the four vocations before choosing which will ultimately be my group to focus on. I’ll be keeping up with those women, attending community meetings, following up with their new businesses when they return to their hometowns in December, and writing reports. I’m also the official “photojournalist” for the project, taking all the photos to use in reports and documentation. Plus, I’ll soon have a roster of about 10 women from across the WEP for one-on-one counselling. Seems like a great possibility for a multi-layered social work experience. 

Other minor stories and oddities?

  • Ghana’s lightswitches go the opposite way: down is on and up is off. What!
  • The toilet paper is absurdly thick! I have to separate the ply and use half the amount. 
  • I got stung by an anyi (a bee) – painful –  during the Saturday evening “entertainment”: singing and dancing and silly/embarrassing/fun things like musical chairs and an eating contest. And bees, apparently. In some ways the school reminds me of a summer camp…  
  • Everyone’s mentioning my amu (mosquito) bites. I didn’t even notice the mosquitoes getting me. Very sneaky. But don’t worry, I’m taking my anti-malarials. And apparently malaria isn’t considered such a big thing here. As my supervisor said about the on-campus clinic, “It’s just for small things, like a headache or malaria”. Huh. 

Later this week: a day each with soap-making, beading, and catering; a visit to Adidome’s Tuesday or Friday market; my first community meeting on Saturday. Goal: Ewe practice to the extreme. 


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Jess Gets a Warm “Akwaaba” to Accra

First off the bat, flying KLM was smart. Warm face cloths, edible food, free newspapers, friendly service, and a pillow and blanket for everyone. Very decent. I slept pretty much the entire first overnighter to Amsterdam, roused myself to wander the A’dam airport (with its stereotypical Dutch everything – table-sized Delft teacups to sit in, giant clogs, big wheels of gouda, etc., etc.), and made it onto Flight #2. Between my entertainment overload mid-flight, I squeezed in a glance over the wing. . . where great mountains and valleys of golden-brown sand lay for seemingly ever. The Sahara Desert. Wow. [Side note to self: must get in a desert trip someday]. 

I landed in Accra, the capital of Ghana, and was picked up by some contacts (with a sign that said: ‘JESSICA PETER’), and brought to . . . a homestay? That was a surprise, since I had booked a hostel, but I rolled with it, right into Dzowulu (think “Joe Lou”), a suburb of Accra. The tropical-fruit-tree-lined courtyard with two buildings and multiple extended family members (plus two dogs) was bounded by a heavy wall and barbed wire. B&E’s are apparently quite a worry here. It seemed quite a nice area, but the water didn’t always agree to run. I had the first bucket shower of my life, and emerged feeling both refreshed and victorious. 

To paraphrase my host, Ghana is the centre of the earth. Geographically speaking. It’s the only country that sits on the intersection of the Greenwich Mean Line and the Equator. So yes, that means it’s hot! But a lot of the heat is humidity, and there always seems to be a nice breeze and a respite in the shade. So it’s also manageable. Especially with the surprisingly pleasant prospect of dumping a bucket of water on my head at the end of the day. 

The capital, Accra, is hectic, intense, exciting, and still developing. There’s old tropical (often colonial) architecture, dirty slums with stinking open sewers, ultra-modern highrises, green space at the large schools, and seemingly everything in between. But it all has the little ramshackle huts or tables with umbrellas that make up shops of all sorts, the “head porters”, and the tro-tros (shared vans, halfway between and a taxi and a bus), taxis, and traffic. With honking. Oh, so much honking. Honking is the way to say “I’m coming up beside you”, “Wait, I’ll go,” “No, you go,” “Hey, we are both driving a tro-tro!“, “Do you want this taxi? I bet you want this taxi. This taxi is available. Are you sure you don’t want a ride?”. And, again, everything else in between. 

ImageAnd then the head porters. Picture sitting in rush hour traffic on a busy 6 lane highway. QEW perhaps? Now picture hundreds of people wandering between cars selling anything you might want. Off their heads, of course. Fanta? Mentos? Dried plantain chips? Cell phone minutes? Car mats?? Pants?? Novels from the African Writers Series??? Canes??? Vibrating massagers?? Ukuleles???? (I did regret not getting that one book by Chinua Achebe. It’s been on my to-read list for a while).

Though Ghana is technically an English speaking country, it isn’t English that’s primarily spoken on Accra’s streets. It’s (mostly) Twi, the majority language of the country. My host family was speaking (mostly) Ewe, and I’m expecting more  Ewe in the Volta region. There are between 45-60 language groups in Ghana, so it’s really not that much of a surprise that they took a middle route and chose to use their old colonial master’s language as the official one. 

The only really exciting animals I’ve seen have been the larger lizards, often brightly coloured. Though as the 8-year-old at my homestay said when I marvelled at them, “I don’t like how those big one stare at you all the time. Like you’ve done something wrong.” Huh. To each her own, I suppose. There was also a nice morning-singing-bird with a long tail that I briefly saw, but another resident of my homestay said she didn’t like that one because it eats all the guavas from their tree. Understandable, I suppose. On both her part and the bird’s. 


Also, I have found myself very much in the minority. Apparently white people, when few and far between, see fit to nod at each other like people with the same car sometimes do. I first figured this out when two Mormon boys saw me and waved like we were BFFs. Interesting phenomenon.

And hey, aren’t I doing a social work placement here? 

MONDAY was my first day with International Needs (IN) Ghana, and the opening ceremonies of the International Congress they were hosting! Lots of folk from all over the world to chat with. Lots of excitement about Ghana and IN. Lots of dancing and drumming. Lots of prayers. . . 

TUESDAY was orientation at the head office in Accra, with an in-depth look at IN Ghana’s main intervention areas (child rights, health, education, and gender empowerment – which will be my primary area) 

WEDNESDAY was a trip with some global partners to see some project communities in Accra and the work IN Ghana has been doing there to combat CSEC (commercial sexual exploitation of children). Lots of contacts with the people served, lots of on-the-ground showings of results that I had spent all the day before learning about. Quite exciting. 

THURSDAY was this and that with IN folk in Accra, and then a ride out to the very rural Vocational Training Centre (for women) in Adidome, part of the Volta region of Ghana, which borders the country of Togo, where I currently sit in my cottage guest house by the banks of the Volta River. A full tour of the grounds tomorrow!

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