Sunday, June 24, 2007


Greetings and welcome to my little labour of love documenting my life at the University of Ghana and my travels in West Africa and the British Isles from August of 2005 to May of 2006. Within are many stories, travel notes, photos, links and general musings on Ghanaian culture and the experience of a Canadian expat.

After a full year back home, I finally sat down and redesigned the blog and added dozens of new photos to add even more colour to my stories. If you can't see any, it's because I've exceeded my bandwith for the month. Sorry-oh...

If you're new to this blog, there is a general timeline for my travels: I explored the South of Ghana between August and November during my first semester and then on my break in December and January I traveled to Togo, Benin, the UK, Ireland, Burkina Faso and Mali. From February to May, I "settled" more or less in Accra with a few other trips, including to the North of Ghana in March.

Also, I recommend starting at the very beginning (a very good place to start) in August. I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it. You can send your questions, comments and criticisms to peaceloveunderstandingatgmaildotcom.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Decompression: One Month Later

Sitting in my room (at my own computer, with my own internet connection), I am trying to look back upon the month in which I have been home. To be honest, the much-anticipated culture shock never hit me. I probably have my Christmas trip to Ireland and the flight to Amsterdam to thank for this numbness.

That's what it's been: a numbness. It seems like nothing's changed. A few more knick-nacks in the house, an epidemic of new cookie-cutter homes in town and a new government in Ottawa. That's all. To be honest, I feel like I've been warped back to May 2005 and I'm living the summer over again, sans visa applications and expensive vaccinations.

Some things never change. Markham may be growing by thousands per week (I think almost 300,000 people should qualify it as a "city") and more and more farmland is being chewed up to feed the housing boom - but that's always been a constant. What never changes about Markham is that it's ALWAYS growing.

This first month home has been busy: working, reconnecting with family and friends, reconnecting with Maleaha, spoiling my dog, reacquiring my driver's licence and planning for the school year ahead. As it stands, I'll be returning to Ottawa in the fall, living with Lisa and Peter in their swanky apartment and taking co-op work terms in 2007 - thus I'll graduate a year late. Not that I'm sad about it, quite the opposite.

So far it's been just fine and dandy. I'm happy to be back at home, where it's nice and breezy, the sun doesn't beat down on me and the food is fantastic. I'm trying to gain weight, partly to impress Maleaha and partly because she's probably right. I came back from Ghana quite the skinny boy.

The days are flying by. Landscaping for my dad's company is long and difficult work ("oh, but you get so much exercise and fresh air!") and once I'm home, I'm too tired to do anything except read internet news and watch tv. My appetite for books is gone, although I'm pushing through Chukwuemeka Ike's Sunset At Dawn - perhaps Africa's answer to War and Peace.

I'm definitely enjoying being at home and I've taken note of some of the differences between Canadian and Ghanaian life... Toronto has not only blacks, whites and Lebanese, but a bevy of other ethnicities as well. Markham is especially noted for it's giant Asian community. Nobody stares at me when I walk down the street because nobody finds a white person that interesting. Sometimes that's a sad thing. I enjoyed a lot of intangible benefits as a privileged minority. On the other hand, it's nice to have fixed prices and not get screwed by vendors. Sometimes I consider haggling. "Oh Charlay, that guitar is not worth $500. We do 150."

And so life goes on. Everything seems the same, but I've changed so much. I've grown so much over those nine months and have so many wonderful memories. I also made many friends along the way. I may have also lost a few friends and I'm still not sure where I stand with Maleaha. Nine months apart can put a lot of stress on a person and even hurt them. How I wish that it could be easier...

So here I am. A little older, maybe a little wiser. I'm not trying to make my life sound like an epic adventure with a grand finale big-screen ending. As the Eagle's Joe Walsh sang, life's been good to me so far. And with all of the experience I've had over the last 10 months, I'm sure it'll get better.

Man, I could sure go for a FanIce right about now...

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Feels Like Home To Me...

Sadly the 747 flight to Toronto was not nearly as engaging as the one to Amsterdam, however, they did have an awesome Indian veg option for the in-flight meal. I think my generation won't understand the fixation with poor airline food as our ancestors once did.

I also was in a strange dimension in which time passed slowly. Leaving at 1:45PM and arriving at 3:30PM whilst flying half-awake for eight hours really does wonders for one's sanity. Time lost all meaning, with place and distance being my only measure of linear progress.

Soon, through the clouds I could see familiar-looking hills, roads and even snow-capped peaks! We were over Quebec. Mercifully, we arrived in Toronto and I unmercifully, the carousel took forever to dispense my many pieces of luggage. Again mercifully, the customs officer let me pass with my litre-and-a-half of apeteshie and I was home free, legally.

My parents barely recognized me. My father had to point me out to my mother because she couldn't spot me in the crowd. Hilarious. Our reunion was most joyful.

Under threatening skies, we drove home. Soon I was back on the farm and my dog was going nuts seeing me for the first time in nine whole months.

So there I was: finally home in one piece - sun-baked, malaria-ridden, culture-shocked me. Home. We had dinner together (pasta), I wrecked their immaculately-cleaned living room with all of my junk and showed them all of the things I brought back with me, telling random stories off the top of my head in rapid succession.

Being jet-lagged, it was just the three of us and we kept it low-key for the evening. But damn, it's good to be home.

An Unusually Quiet Morning In Amsterdam

The fatal flaw in our plan was that we only allotted about two hours of our overnight flight for sleeping. Thus, we arrived in Amsterdam at 6AM somewhat sleep-deprived. Added to this was my three-hour ordeal at Kotoka, which sapped my energy. But Lisa and I had a morning to kill in Amsterdam and we'd be damned if we were going to spend it sleeping on a bench at the airport.

Our first impressions of Amsterdam at 7AM? Eerily quiet. In fact, until 9, the only people we saw in the entire city were other tourists. It's like the entire downtown core had partied the night before and were all hungover.

We didn't take any pictures because I left my camera in the storage locker in the airport (along with my boarding pass, but that's another story), but here's what the city looks like:

Actually, it was more like this:

So we walked around the eerily-quiet capital of the Netherlands for a few hours, seeing no marijuana cafes, prostitutes or doctors euthanizing people, but we did have a pleasant stroll walking along the canals of the city, passing cyclists (who seem to outnumber car drivers - imagine that!) and generally feeling like crap - albeit crap walking around a world-class city.

What is there really to say? Nothing was open, so we found a small patisserie (or whatever they call them in Dutch, probably a Voortgofligjerny), ate some awesome pastries and drank real, fresh, whole milk. It was spectacular.

We walked around until 11AM, decided not to go to the Sex Museum - although I did argue for it being a form of cultural tourism - and instead took the train back to the airport. Lisa and I had some lunch, said our goodbyes and I got on my flight to Toronto as she waited for hers to Montreal.

Sidenote: Lisa and I had an awesome nine months and became great friends. We boosted each other when times got tough, especially with our respective partners. Along with Meghan, we became the Three's Company of Ghana. Yes, I was Jack. In fact, things went so smoothly that I'll be living next year in Ottawa with Lisa and her husband Peter in their swanky apartment. Let the Ghana experience continue!

Out Of The Frying Pan...

I found my seat, much to Lisa's relief and walked up to her nonchalantly with Akwaaba-stick in hand. I probably said something witty, like they do in the movies when someone arrives unexpectedly. The plane took off promptly.

And what a plane it was! We were flying a brand-spankin' new 777, with spacious cabins (but not seats) and personal tvs embedded in the back of every seat, with the viewer controlling everything by remote - movies, tv shows video games and CDs, all on demand! I was so culture-shocked that I sat there for the first half-hour like a four-year old with my jaw hanging wide open.

It was almost too much, like they had broken the unspoken rule of air travel: you are supposed to be at least somewhat bored. You're supposed to at least have enough time to make you want to read the safety card - you know, just in case. Instead, I had to actually make a plan for what I was going to watch and when I was going to watch it!

And then there was Lisa and my goal: to get totally trashed on free drinks. That didn't take long. We had wine with dinner and Irish creme afterwards and we were sloshed in no time. We made observational humour, laughed at our stupid jokes and probably annoyed our new Chicago-bound friend named Chester. A few hours later, I fell asleep while watching Casablanca. Nice one.

Blinking lights on the airplane wings
Up above the trees
Blinking down a morse code signal
Especially for me

Ain't no rainbow in the sky
In the middle of the night
But the signal's coming through
One day i will be alright again

-The Eels

Friday, May 12, 2006

Escape From Accra

So the final day arrived. To most of us who had been in Ghana since August, it was like Christmas in May. In usual fashion, I awoke to men yelling loudly in Twi outside my door. For the last time. For sure.

My last day in Accra was relaxed. I went to Shiashie market for souvenirs and got out in record time, I packed up all of my worldly belongings (leaving things for Babadoo and Muhammad the tailor) and entertained visitors - probably more than I've had all semester. (But my place was such a bachelor pad...!)

As the countdown neared, the obligatory goodbyes were said and I got kinda somewhat sort of just a bit halfway sad. I didn't get to make as many friends this time around as I did first semester, but that doesn't mean that there weren't awesome people. To name them all would be impossible and I'd be insulting those whom I had forgotten, so let me just say this:

If you were there, you know you were. And if we had good times, you know we did. And that's all that matters.

Jon had left earlier, looking rather snappily-dressed, to try and weasel his way into first-class. Lisa and I, having our seats booked next to each other on the same flight to Amsterdam (thanks to the incredibly lax and probably illegal privacy policies of KLM Accra... they printed off my flight itinerary and gave it to Lisa!) took our final cab ride to Kotoka International Airport. Laura, whose boyfriend was arriving on the plane we would be leaving on, came with. Interesting juxtaposing of us, no?

So we arrived at the airport. After nine months of watching the planes take off and land from my balcony and one flight of my own, I was finally going home. Home. The faded dream that it had been for so long would be the reality that I would trade those last nine months for. Would I let go of Ghana easily, or would I be dragged away from it kicking and screaming? What followed next was probably the least-expected chain of events possible...

In the end, I didn't have the option of either. At check-in, we were made painfully aware of KLM's new baggage policy. Long story short: my giant suitcase that I brought with me was now obsolete because it's contents needed to be split into two to be accepted. But I didn't HAVE an extra bag. I tried to disperse the weight amongst different bags (and since my djembe and guitar's body were stuffed with clothes, I was running low on options). Finally after almost an hour, the security guard helped me buy a crappy bag (at double the market price), filled it and I was let through.

Hurdle #2: Everyone had checked in by this point and there was little time for dawdling. But what's this? Apparently I was not on the passenger list! After watching the ladies talk at each other worriedly in Twi, whilst periodically looking at me with unencouraging looks, I tried to figure out what was happening. Check-in had ended and I was going to be stuck for another day because the print-out that I was given by the KLM office was NOT valid for me to be given my boarding pass (liar!). I was likely screwed and minutes away from tears. When I pulled out my old ticket from before I changed my flight, suddenly everything made sense to them and I was issued my ticket! As we ran with the rest of my luggage to the next point, the security guard laughed and yelled at me...

(in the most lighthearted and comical way possible, of course)

Hurdle #3: By this point, I was passing through customs quickly, due to my plane taking off in less than half an hour. I pushed ahead through the line to the lugubrious customs officers. Eventually, I got my stamp. Lisa was being quite a good sport for not killing me throughout this episode, since she didn't have any of my problems. She made her way to the plane.

Hurdle #4: Though I had checked my bags, apparently my guitar case and djembe (filled with clothes and a bottle of Ghanaian homebrew) were too heavy to be taken to the cabin. This was a pain in the ass, filling out forms and such, but at least I only had one bag remaining (that's right, five bags in total).

Hurdle #5: There was a drunk guy at the gate. He was so not getting on that flight. I however, was getting on that plane if I had to run across the runway (which the transport bus did for me, thankfully).

Finally, with 10 minutes before take-off, I climbed the stairs to the plane, turned around for one last look at Africa, and got on the plane. I was officially no longer on land and had entered a different world: one of modern technology, multicultural society - and free booze.

Let the games begin.

All Things Must Pass... (Last Night in Ghana)

She don’t care what it’s worth
She’s living like it’s the last night on earth

So it’s about 2AM of my last night in Accra, in Ghana, in Africa. Far from home, half a world away. However you put it. By this time tomorrow I will be somewhere over the Sahara en route to Amsterdam, the gateway to the “developed” world, a place far different from this one.

After returning home from a delicious dinner at Minnie’s and drinks at Jazztones, I came home and continued the process of packing, wrapping fragile gifts, trying to find order to things and finding interesting ways of maximizing the space available. Even my guitar is filled with my socks and underwear...

Festus came by my room for a chat as I was removing posters, maps and flags. When I turned around to look at the place I had made as my own space and sanctuary, I was struck by how empty it is now. No signs of life or character, just a bunch of junk on the floor; my life being jammed into a few small pieces of luggage.

This is the life I’ve come to know in the last nine months. And it’s become one that I’ve become rather comfortable with. I know the ins and outs of the university, the city and the country, plus a few others, somewhat. By now, I can dispense advice and wisdom like a human Bradt guide. I can eat almost anything and can sleep almost anywhere. Here, I’m capable, independent and treated as an adult (if not curiously by Ghanaians, like a free range zoo animal). I can make my way across the city, the country and beyond. I can pack a bag and leave anywhere at a moment’s notice. I can haggle.

Alas, I still have a life back home that I had put on pause. I suppose to say that is a bit naive, as if the universe will stay in suspended animation, like Super Mario in mid-leap. The world keeps turning and so has the world I once knew. People are getting lives, getting jobs, getting married.

Tonight, before packing it in my suitcase, I sat and slowly went through the giant scrapbook of home that Maleaha made for me. I realized that it represents another time and place – my “old life”, as it were. Everything looks a bit aged and faded. This is a life I can remember by sight, but not by hearing, smell, taste or touch. It’s all so fuzzy now, this life from so long ago.

The irony of this is that my “old life” is also going to be my “new life” (with some adjustments) by Saturday in the late afternoon. It’ll be back to work this summer, catching up with friends (hopefully, still) and playing some good tunes as well as seeing some great shows, inshallah.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m beyond excited to return home and I’ve been counting the days for almost two months. While I’ve become comfortable with my liberated, jet-set life here, I’m yearning for the one that I spent 20 years building up. Like a sympathetic executioner arriving at an inmate’s cell, I can hear the words calmly echoing in my head, “Okay... it’s time.”

I can see
The need in everyone
A change of season

I have parents to go home to, friends to spend time with, a dog to play with and a woman to build a future with. Beers that need drinking, basements that need jamming, movies that need watching and jokes that need laughing. These are the things that make life the rich tapestry that it has become. Like a fine kente, a Ghanaian would say, it is brightly coloured and intricately woven.

In the last nine months, I’ve done many crazy things, seen many fantastic places, experienced the warmth of human kindness and felt the presence of God throughout. I can’t help but be thankful every day for this experience, even if sometimes it can be too difficult to remember why. I’ve experienced so much and grown likewise. I’ve met so many people and have made so many friends from different places and have made strong friendships that will last for a very long time. I can’t imagine that by tomorrow everything will pass from me and become just a memory, a dream that I will have awoken from in my bed. I shudder to think that these nine months will soon become just a collection of stories that I’ll tell to others who will try to imagine it for themselves...

I’m just a boat on the ocean
I’m just a ship lost at sea

But hey, I’m still Mr. Obruni. And I’ll probably be back someday. Tomorrow never knows...

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Squeezing The Life Out Of Accra

Thank heaven for Joe's moto. We had some "bizness" to attend to in Osu (don't ask why I just put outdated slang in quotations) and ended up getting done in three hours what would normally take me two days by tro-tro. First we assisted our friend Judah set up a bank account for his new bar, then went to the pan-Africanist bookstore that is perpetually waiting for the next shipment of books. If that place was a play, it would be called "Waiting for Nkrumah". On the way, we stopped at one of the famed workshops that makes custom-designed coffins. Options include a giant fish, beer bottle and cocoa pod.

We went all the way across town to Circle (good riddance) to the post office to check on my still-incoming birthday parcels (they weren't there) and pick up some bad Nigerian Films (someone will be receiving "Baby Police 2" as a gift when I return). We stopped at Assase Pa one last time for veggie food, at the Ghanaian designer clothes store MKO.GH and one last coffee at Max Mart.

Lisa and I had one last sunset run on campus. The coffee didn't help.

In the evening, Meghan, Lisa, Laura from Guelph and Alix (pronounced "Aleeks") ate a final dinner at Minnie's. It was delicious, but poor Jacob had malaria.

Finally, we had drinks at Jazztone, an American bar that plays great tunes and has a live band on Thursdays. Oh expats, how I'll miss thee...

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Limping Towards The Finish Line

Every time I think about back home
It's cool and breezy
I wish that I could be there right now
Just passing time

Everybody seems to wonder
What it's like down here
I gotta get away from this day-to-day running around
Everybody knows this is nowhere

-Neil Young

So I finished the dreaded Written Arabic exam. I think it went alright, but it's mostly just nice to have it out of the way, after having it hang over my head like the rainclouds that we should be getting here these days. It's still bloody hot outside.

Being only three days away from departure, one would think that I (and my friends) would be going out every night, trying to fit in all of the fun that I can while I'm in Accra. Instead, somehow I've managed to spend the day siting around the hostel, sleeping, avoiding studying, eating yam chips and watching old concert videos of Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead (Jessee's brother mailed him the Festival Express DVD). Could I possibly think of a more dull way to spend my final days?

Probably not. But at this point, we're all tired and ready to call it a year. We don't feel like experiencing many things Ghanaian, because we're gearing up in "Western" mode and we don't feel like going out to dinner, because the places that we eaet at are mostly substitutes for things that we have at home. Indian, Chinese, Lebanese and even Ethiopian can be found where we will be returning, so what's the point?

Monday, May 08, 2006

Only In Dreams

At this point, I only have a fuzzy feeling of what Canada is like. I can remember in my mind what things look like, but not really about the way things smell (better than open sewers and burning garbage, I hope) or how things taste (save for waffles) or how things feel, like a comfortable bed or my dog's fur.

I had this problem when I first arrived in Ghana. When I woke up, I was so disoriented and thought I had been living in a dreamworld and that when I awoke, I'd be in my bed in Markham, just like always. Soon Markham became the far-off dreamy place. Simon and Garfunkel said it perfectly in America when they sang, "Michigan seems like a dream to me now"...

When I got to London, things were so different (and developed!) and in a few days, it was Ghana that felt like a faraway dreamland thousands of miles away (well, physically, it was).

When I returned, the feeling came back, again, for Ireland as the magical dreamland that I awoke from - on a bus headed towards Mali!

It's going to be especially strange to think that in six days, I won't wake up with people talking loudly outside my door in Twi, eat fresh bananas, mangoes and pineapple for breakfast and go out walking in the scorching sun to the road to squeeze in a packed, sweaty deathtrap tro-tro. That too will become a distant memory...

Far out, man.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

The Fine Art of Tro-Troing

During first semester, I wrote a large piece on tro-tros, the most popular form of transportation in Ghana. When the computer blew up on me, I never got around to re-writing it.

I have a love-hate relationship with them and apparently Coleen Ross of CBC does as well. This article really sums up everything I think about them and comes with pictures, too! There are also a number of features on funerals, police corruption, violence against women and other topics available that any Ghanaphile should totally read.

Some other interesting takes on tro-tro culture include a Ghanaian editorial on tro-tros and a hilarious video of anthropology student moonlighting as a tro-tro mate.

On the darker side of public transit, I was told that an American student was killed when her tro-tro flipped on the Accra-Kumasi highway. She sounded and looked like any of my Ghana travel buddies and the tragedy made me consider my own mortality, like with the close calls I had on the same road. Tro-tro safely, kids. Sometimes it's worth taking the trip the morning after.

Friday, May 05, 2006

I-And-I And Saying Goodbye

As you may know, there are a lot of Rastas in Ghana. But there are very few Jamaicans here (although Rita Marley is an exception to the rule).

Somehow one of our friends last semester found out about this little restaurant in Madina (10 mins North of campus) off the main road that is owned by a Jamaican Rasta named Jacob. His specialty is kick-ass vegetarian Jamaican dishes and drinks. It has to be our favourite place to eat and we're always craving his cooking. Anyone can go to an Indian, Lebanese or American restaurant in Osu, but Jamaican?

In other news, Rochelle, who has been here since the beginning last August, flew back home this evening. There was a big group hanging out in her room and a weird vibe in the air... like everyone wanted to see what it was like for someone to actually go home, especially a veteran like herself. She was a real cool cat and definitely latched on to the laidback Ghanaian lifestyle better than anyone. Ah well, I guess it all goes downhill from here.

One week left. Seven more sleeps. Hey, hey, I guess it hasn't hit me yet...

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Over The Hump

Jeepers... I just finished three exams in two days. Africa and the Global System went swimmingly yesterday morning and Colonialism and the African Response went pretty well this morning also. This afternoon's Societies and Cultures of Africa seemed to go alright, although I don't fancy myself a sociologist...

The point is, I'm over the exam hump and can relax and study until Monday when I face the music with the dreaded Written Arabic exam. Oy vey, I'm not excited for that.

However, it's 8 more sleeps until I'm on my way home, and for that I'm quite stoked.