Saturday, 31 July 2010

Beating Loneliness

27 July 2010
I remember the first day when I was dropped in Bongo and Issa, the kind man who drove me from Bolgatanga, cautioned me that, I shall feel lonely for first two-three days. He was true as he must have had experience with so many VSO volunteers. In my case however that feeling of loneliness came after a week instead of first 2-3 days. I, always being a reserved person, don't socialise easily but simultaneously I have a big social network of friends about whom I am very selective. This must have been reason for the feeling of loneliness starting not immediately but after a few days.
In the first week everything was new. There was an excitement about it and a kind of distrust on everything that was coming in front of me. It kept me busy thinking about all those new things. In the last week however the feeling of that loneliness started to creep in when I started to know some people better and was capable of finding my way out through some of the things. I started to feel that I don't have any friends around here except Rose. Back in India, one could call on a person very easily once we start to know them. Most of the volunteers residing in Bolgatanga are Westerners (British, Dutch, Canadians etc.). I thought that it was not easy to call on them any time as I had heard a lot about westerners valuing their privacy etc.
I started to realise that I would be away from my homeland and my people for almost an year. The way back was not easy and I have been getting some crazy experiences with the local people. Simultaneously when I saw that there are many things to which I could easily adjust being from a developing country like India and there was nothing to worry about much. Some of the volunteers in spite of coming from the developed countries have been able to adjust very well to the local situation and are doing fantastic work in the most backward parts of the country. At a deeper level I think that this is a problem of typical Indian middle class where one is raised in a very protected environment and always surrounded by so strong a social fence that people just do not get mentally tough enough even after attaining physical maturity and getting into adulthood. But I have been able to get over with it to a large extent after some days. I shall share my ways of achieving it.
  1. I have been doing regular exercise not missing a single day since I arrived in Ghana. This has helped to always keep the energy levels high.
  2. I pro-actively sought to meet or contact people. They include locals who helped me with many small things and also westerners, about whom I had prejudices which disappeared after meeting them or contacting them in person.
  3. I made proper plans for some of the things which I wanted to do and wanted to achieve during the day. It helped to move away the bits and pieces of anxiety that may come in the way.
  4. Listening to the music and reading helped me a lot.
  5. Writing a regular diary which I am now publishing in the form a blog. It helps to come out of the situation which I had been into and think about the circumstances as a third person in an objective way.

Exploring Food

26 July 2010
Today I thought I should write some small description of the traditional Ghanaian foods which I have tasted till date.
Generally what I have observed in the Upper East Region of Ghana that all the jobs in the restaurants are done by women. Majority of the small restaurants in Bolgatanga offer only meals and that too for a limited time. The restaurants are known by various names. They are called as spots, bars and chop bars. Generally spots are the places where mainly drinks are served. Bars are the places where drink and some times food is also served and chop bars are the places where only food is served. But it is not a rule and usage of these terms is not strictly followed. The snacks are mainly sold at some roadside stalls or by moving vendors.
One is expected to wash the hands thoroughly before eating and they serve washing bowls, water and soap before they serve the food. Another rule which is similar to the one in India is that one is expected to use only his right hand for eating and use of left hands for eating is considered bad manners.
I shall start with the meals. General Ghanaian affair for a typical meal is a ball of some starchy substance served with a soup. One is expected to take small piece of the ball with all of their fingers, dip into the gravy and take it into the mouth. No chewing is expected and one is supposed to gulp them down. I found that if you keep on chewing it, it is so sticky that you have a feeling of vomiting I am yet to acquire the skill of eating the way the locals do. It seems that the principle of gulping those starchy and sticky substances is actually logical as all these dishes are cooked in such a way that process of partial breaking of starch which happens in mouth when we chew it is already completed during the process of preparation of these dishes.
I have eaten following types of starch balls till date,
Fufu- It is made with cooked tubers such as yams, cassava or some times plantains. Some oil is added and then it is pounded in big wooden mortar and pestle to make a thick gooey ball. It is so sticky that we non Ghanaian VSO volunteers jokingly say here that if one wants to kill a person then just choke him with Fufu.
Banku- It is a ball of partially cooked fermented maize dough. Some times they also add some cassava flour in it. It is less sticky brother of Fufu.
Kenke- It is a ball of cooked maize dough and foreigners like me who are not used to gulping those starchy balls find it better than Banku. It is commonly sold on the streets by the women vendors. It is cooked in banana leaf and has longer shelf life.
(There are some other variants in this but since I have not tasted them personally, I shall write about them some time later.)
Now information about the soups,
Okru soup- It is made from Okra (also known as ladies fingers). Since it is not fried and just cooked in the gravy, the dish is very slimy. So if one eats Okru soup with Fufu, it becomes a doubly difficult task because Fufu is sticky and okru is slimy. Actually if you try okru with plain rice, it goes very well. But my Ghanaian friends disagree with it and they are not even ready to try it.
Bito soup- This is made from leaves of Indian Hemp plant (मराठी: अंबाडी) locally known as Bito. Unlike India, the leaves are cut and soaked in water to remove sourness of the leaves and cooked. They do not eat with rice but I do like it with rice.
Light soup- This is a spicy soup made from meat stock, onions and tomato paste.
Goat/ chicken/ fish soup- This is a gravy dish made from meat of these animals.
Groundnut soup- Light spicy soup made from groundnut paste and meat stock.
Two types of rice are served in the restaurants,
Fried rice- It is similar to Chinese style fried rice and I suspect that it is not an original Ghanaian dish. It is fried rice added with some carrots, cabbage and eggs.
Jollof rice- It is a rice cooked with tomato paste with addition of shredded meat or mashed fish. They praise it a lot as national dish of Ghana but I found it just okay.
These rice dishes are served with some plain cooked noodles (again non Ghanaian) and two equivalents of chutneys. One is called Pepe and made by grinding tomato, chillies and onions together. There is no cooking involved. It is very tasty. Second is darker in colour and made by grinding together shrimp paste, fish sauce, fried onions etc. It is known as
Red Red- This is an all oily dish served as a meal. These are fried chips of half ripe plantains served with cow peas cooked in lot of red coloured unrefined palm oil, tomatoes, meat or fish and spices. Tasty but too oily!
Now something about snacks,
Corn- It is the corn season and every where on the busy roads, ladies are selling corn cobs roasted on charcoal fire as it is common in India. But these are not soft and some of the grains have started to mature so there is a chance that you get popped corns on the cobs. They don't even apply salt on it. But it is something which is safe to eat and one can find easily on the street when one is hungry.
Gmebsa- Try pronouncing it first if you can. I have not been successful in doing it as Gurunes do it. These are made from coarsely ground soaked cowpeas. Small elongated balls of Gmebsa are steamed and then served with a dash of oil and a mixture of salt and chilli. It is heavy to digest and one should not eat too many at once.
Kose- These are deep fried fritters of cowpea bean curd. Taste is just delicious and similar to Udid Dal Vada (deep fried fermented Black gram flour balls made in Konkan region.) They sale it on the street side but I have not found them being freshly prepared and sold so I have avoided it buying them on the street till date. I have eaten them only twice in restaurants.
Guinea fowl eggs- Cooked guinea fowl eggs are commonly sold on the streets. They taste just like chicken eggs but the size is smaller and shell is harder. The membrane and white of the egg keeps loosely attached to the egg shell. Eating it is time consuming, but they say it is a healthy option as guinea fowls are free range animals and not fed on commercially prepared poultry feed.
Kelewele- These are fried half ripe plantain chips. I have found them in Accra but yet to see them in Bolgatanga. It is my most favourite of the Ghanaian food which I have tasted till date.
More updates on my food exploration of Ghana after I taste some more things.

Unexpected Indians

24-25 July 2010
After spending the Saturday cleaning the house I decided to spend Sunday by exploring Bolgatanga on my own. Till date I always had somebody accompanying me while I went around Bolgatanga or even while I was in Accra. Cherith (from UK) helped us as she accompanied us from Accra to Bolgatanga. Jason (from Canada) accompanied me and took me to the VSO office in Bolgatanga when I first decided to go there from Bongo. Rose (from India) along with Aidan and Better (from Ghana) helped me to do shopping. Richard (from Uganda) helped me to find a taxi back to Bongo when I got stuck up in Bolgatanga. I mentioned their names because I am really grateful to all of them. Being a first timer in another country and culture, they helped me a lot. I am mentioning the countries which they come from, because it strikes to me and really touches me, that there is a representation of four different continents here and they do it out of the same intention and compassion of helping somebody.
In spite of all of the help, I thought I had started to feel that it was like becoming a small child so that every time somebody was guiding me around. I strongly felt that it was high time that I become an adolescent in this area and start doing my own exploration and start developing the skill of getting through unknown area and people.
While I was walking on the road in Bolgatanga, a vehicle on the opposite side of the road started honking trying to catch my attention. The people were showing some signs which I could not understand. The two of the people in the vehicle were Indians. I did not expect to find any Indian here as by that time I had made an assumption that there is nothing of commercial or trade interest in Bolgatanga which can attract a typical Indian worker or trader. (I have to mention here that there is a large number of Indians in most of the major cities in Ghana. Most of them are either working as skilled personnel or managers in Indian owned companies or own small businesses mainly shops and trading firms. Majority of the Indians in Ghana, who are in business are Tamils, Sindhis and Gujaratis. Notably some of the Indian run firms are being run in the country since last 100 years.)
I crossed the road and met them. These two guys, Mani and Pradeep, work for an Indian company which is in the business of timber and scrap. Then there was brief introduction and they asked me whether I was busy. I said "no." Then they asked me whether I could come with them. I said "yes, I would like." I had an afterthought that this was not what I had planned for today and that I wanted to do everything on my own. But I had to drive the thought away as something was happening which I did not expect to happen and I had got into this experience without anybody's introduction or help.
We went to an area on the fringe of forest few kilometres outside of the town. There were many teak logs lying there on the ground. It was obvious that they were into logging activity. Their company obtains logging permits from the local forest departments. The logs are processed in a timber factory near port city of Tema and then exported to India. I was told that company also operates in scrap metal especially lead. They import dead car batteries from around the world in Tema, process the lead in it and export it to India. Presently the company is exploring and has started exploiting forest reserves in the Northern parts of the country.
Afterwards they took me to their house where I spent the day chatting with them on various subjects and viewing three Hindi movies one after the other. They had found this CD of the movie in Bolgatanga. All the movies were south Indian and were dubbed in Hindi. All the movies had single pattern, a clean uncorrupted police officer fighting the corrupt politicians by revolting against the system and then appraised by the court for doing good work before being released. (I hope somebody in India will make a movie sometime on changing the system and making it more transparent and people friendly.) There was no way I could like the movies but what I liked was the food. They have this maid servant Dora, who had prepared delicious Indian food. Mani has trained her. It was simple affair but it was a surprise to get it cooked by a local person.
They came to drop me at Bongo. While driving back, Mani told some stories about the chiefs which they have to manage. Here I shall first explain the system of rule of Chiefs present in Ghana and which called as chieftaincy. There are chiefs (and in many areas sub chiefs) who still have lot of control over the issues in the area. They control the ownership of the land and the forests in the area which falls under their control. All the people are permanent tenants of the chiefs. But interesting thing is the chiefs are selected from the community and it is not passed down from one generation to the other.
So for obtaining logging permits in the forest, Mani's company has to obtain permissions from chiefs in addition to the permissions from forest departments. Here comes the most interesting parts of the story. It is the managing of the chiefs that is important. Most of the chiefs first of all do not speak with foreigners directly and there is always a middle man in between a foreigner and the chief. Then while interacting with the chief sometimes you can't address the chief directly (these days at many places you can.) and you have to follow some manners. These manners may include that you can't sit in front of the chief or you have to gift them some Schnapps (an alcoholic drinks) and Kola nuts. After getting it correctly done you can start your discussion i.e. the sum which one has to pay to the chief for his signature on the letter giving the permission. So due to such powers, chiefs are able to provide very big houses for all of their wives. In the areas where mining operations take place, chiefs have become very rich due to such powers. But in many areas which are poor in natural resources very few people bother about chiefs and the chiefs themselves are poor living in traditional mud and thatch houses like the other people do. It seems Ghana has not been able to get rid of this feudal system even if it is making progress on many fronts especially political and economic reforms. In fact there is a central government department which deals with the chieftaincy issues.
I remember my first day in the office when I was introduced to the chief who had to come to the office for some work. I did not know how I should have behaved with the chief. But I bowed down bit more as we do in India when we meet a person with higher authority or age and then greeted him. It worked perfectly fine with him and in fact he had held my hand in his hand for quite a long time from which I could sense that he had approved of my greetings. But the main problem is I was introduced to so many people during the day. After some point they started to look all the same to me as all the men had very little hair on their heads and all were dark and wearing bright colourful clothes. Here one can't make any difference about the people, there is so much of variety in the way people dress and one can't identify a high official or a person of high traditional class or rank from the general class. So today if anybody asks me if I would be able to recognise that chief my answer would be "I am sorry but no."
Coming back to the happenings of the day, I have to say that I came back to Bongo without achieving a single outcome from my original plan but making two friends on the way. Or may be, I have achieved the outcome without following my plan fully, as had I gone there with somebody, I would not have made those friends.

Silent No's

22-23 July 2010
These are some encounters with people in the last two days where I had to say no silently.
Last Sunday when I was standing near the Lorry Station of Bolgatanga waiting for Rose, a bulky man came near me and asked me whether I was an Indian and started telling me a story how he had met an Indian who had given him an Indian currency note and blah blah blah. From his ragged clothes which surely had not been washed for many days and his way of speaking, it was clear that this man had some mental problem. Fortunately I could get away from him in a short time as Rose came.
Yesterday I had gone to Bolgatanga for accessing internet and searching information relating to my assignment. I wanted to start for Bongo as early as possible because all the public transport to Bongo just ends by 5:00 pm. It started raining heavily and I had to wait till the rain receded. That meant I was most likely to miss the last shared taxi going to Bongo. Heavy drizzle receded at about 5:00 and I walked to the Lorry Station. While I was searching for the shared taxis, this man caught me again and started asking me where I wanted to go. As I was desperately searching for taxi to Bongo, I just told him so. He took me to the correct location and fortunately I got the last Tro Tro going to Bongo. Now Tro Tro is the name for a small mini bus or Jeep like passenger carrier going. This was a specially arranged one as the taxis could not go to Bongo due to muddy roads which had become unsafe for small taxis.
This man opened the door of the drivers compartment and told me to sit there. I just sat. Then again he started to tell me the stories of how he works hard and gets very little money. Then he asked me if he could give me a cigarette to smoke. When I told him that I don't smoke, he started the story of Rupee note again and whether I could exchange it with him. When I told that I don't have any use of that note, he started asking me at least if I could give him a one. I said I would give him that next time. After realising that I am not giving in to his indirect pleas for giving something to him, he left.
Even though he had helped me and I had an urge to give him something, I did not give him anything. Why? I shall be passing via Bolgatanga Lorry Station at least two times a day, once a week, 52 weeks a year. That means I shall be making 104 visits to Lorry Station and the probability of this man catching me is at least 50% as he is always hanging around the place. Can you imagine poor me giving in to his pleas and repeatedly hearing his story meeting an Indian man for 52 times?
Here is another encounter, though small, but again making me say no by remaining silent. Today in the morning a lady came in the office and started speaking with my boss. She was very loud and vocal and was wearing fashionable clothes and ornaments. My boss went outside for some work and she kept on sitting on the sofa. She asked me what I was doing there in the office. I tried to explain her about pro poor programmes and their designs and management etc. She told me that she was poor and needed a loan badly for the modernisation of her restaurant and further told me to give her a loan. I had to suppress my laugh and explained her how helpless I was in doing so.
After a while I asked her if she uses Shea Butter. Now Shea Butter is an indigenous product of Northern Ghana and is one of the intervention on which I shall be working. Shea Butter is used as cosmetic and food. She started explaining me how she uses it by adding some herbs to the butter and applying it daily to the skin. She repeatedly showed her palms and arms and how smooth they were and how nicely they smell. She further wanted me to go near her and smell her hand. I could perceive that it was all done innocently with the natural boldness in her but I had my own limits. This was all happening when actually I meant to ask her how she uses Shea Butter as a food ingredient. I had to remain silent and just let the subject end their.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

No Hurry Please!!!

20-21 July 2010
Bongo is small place and like most of the places which are small, the pace of life here is slow. People call it as a laid back attitude to life.
I was told that I shall be part of the the meeting which is going to be held at 10:00 am today. Now while I am writing this it is 10:21 and still it is not clear where (or whether) meeting is going to be held today. I have been able to just sit here in laid back Ghanaian way and type this post on my laptop. Ghana lies on the time zone which is called Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) which is same as United Kingdom but here they call it jokingly that it is 'Ghana May be Time'.
The District Assembly office theoretically starts working at 8:00 am and closes at 5:00. I see people roaming around and engaging in their lengthy process of greetings till 9:30 and leaving for their homes by 4:15. Disappearing in between for long breaks for lunch. I am not including the long chats on the subjects such as football, international relations, politics etc. which occur frequently while sitting on the office desks. In restaurants they tell the dish will be ready within 3 minutes when you have to assume that it is one zero added to that figure and you don't become angry when it comes after 30 minutes.
Don't expect quick service or answers. Be prepared for long discussions leading to nothing. Still life runs on and makes some progress as well. It seems it is more to do with catching the pace of it than splitting hairs over it. Yes I have to tell you as I write now that meeting was held at around 11:00 am as my efficient boss got everything in place while managing everybody with his strong sense of humour and it was quite useful for making some progress in my work plan.
They could not pronounce my name Sachin very well on the first day when I arrived in Bongo and then they were asking me for my surname so that they could address me with that. I was worried if I tell them that it is Patwardhan they will be just stuck up and won't be able to call me at all. Therefore I told that they should call me by my first name only. After a week I have started hearing my name pronounced in Ghanaian way as Saa-shin which is very sweet to hear. The day before, a lady who works in the office, came to my boss complaining that I don't greet her. My boss tried to explain her that he comes from a different culture and it will take some time for him to get used to the things here. But I heard some continued arguments over the issue. Of course I could not understand the whole discussion as it was in Gurune. The next day she started to greet me and teach me phrases in Gurune. It really takes time to get used to it.
They say Ghana lies on the verge of change, as economic development is pretty fast here. European people can buy their treasured cheeses and Champaign made all the way in Europe in the far off town of Bolgatanga. I get many Indian brands of commonly used items in the small general shop in Bongo. There are Super Max shaving blades, match boxes made in Sivakasi, incense sticks from Bangalore. Mobile phones have started reaching distant corners of the country. Computers and internet is spreading fast. One can be in touch with the distant corners of the world while sitting in the small village of Bongo. These days people are talking about local entrepreneurship for a new era of proud Africa instead of foreign investments and aid. But I think what Ghanaians will always say in addition to it is, "No hurry please!".

Getting to the Right Side

18-19 July 2010
Being a British colony, Ghana used to drive from left side of the road in the past. Ghana got it to the right approximately 10 years after independence because it is surrounded by French speaking neighbours who run their traffic from the right side and it was difficult for Ghanaian vehicles after going to those countries and vice a versa. It has been a problem for me and for most of the volunteers who are from East Africa and UK to adjust to it. While crossing the road, the automatic reflex is to see towards right when the vehicles are actually coming from the left. I still have problem suppressing this automatic reflex as I have to make conscious efforts to do the opposite. At every curve there is rush of fear that the vehicle coming from the front might bump on your vehicle but it settles down when it just takes the right side and your vehicle as well takes the right side. It happens while walking as well sometimes. I am walking on the road and somebody walking from the opposite direction comes in front of me. I get to the left to give that person a side and that person goes to his right to give me side to go ahead and we end up in stand still for a moment. It is my mistake of failure of remembering that I am in country that walks and drives from the right side of the road.
In this post I shall go to the right side but not in the context of traffic. These are some of the very positive aspects of Ghana in comparison to India.
I found most of the European and Americans complaining about the disobedience of traffic rule. Compared to India, traffic sense of Ghanaians is better. Accra is a very small city compared to Mumbai, Delhi or even to Pune for that matter but majority of Accra residents have to spend a large time of their life in traffic jams and still I did not find unnecessary honking, lane breaking and overtaking. The Ghanaian traffic police are better in showing their signs and controlling traffic than Indian traffic police.
Ghana produces more electricity than it requires and sells the excess to the neighbouring countries. That means there are less power cuts than the ones experienced in rural parts of Maharashtra state. While many part of India, they have not yet been able to control electricity theft and to introduce prepaid electric supply, they have made it possible in the remotest part of Ghana.
We were told that north of Ghana is more traditional and women are deprived in that part of the country. When I reached Bongo which is a small town in this conservative part of the country, I found many women working in the offices and riding motorcycles. Certainly one won't find this picture in the small towns and villages of conservative north and central India.
Ghana could make to the quarter finals of the world cup football in spite of the fact that most of their opponents had better resources than Ghana. Whereas India which has a population 50 times that of Ghana have not been able to even qualify for any of the sports which are played world wide. (By this I mean athletics, football, swimming etc. And not Cricket and Hockey which are played by just handful of countries.)
One of the most striking thing, which I found here, is respect of the individual regardless of the community from which one comes from and the position which is held by them. On my first day when I was sitting in the office, the lady, who cleans the office, approached me, greeted me, asked my whereabouts and what would I be doing. She then proudly introduced her as well. Certainly this would not have happened in India where people are evaluated commonly and mainly by their caste, occupation and positions. The society in India is too hierarchical.
I am writing this post particularly for those who expressed their serious concerns about my plan of living in a country of blacks. Brown coloured Indians were looked down upon by our white rulers in the past. The relatively darker shade of the skin of Africans is still sometimes looked down upon by the brown coloured Indians. I thought I should take the side which is right, in this world of Relative Racism.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Experiencing People

16-17 July 2010
Yesterday on 16th I went to Bolgatanga for the sector meeting which basically involved meeting of volunteers working in Secured Livelihood goal area and in the Upper East Region. This meeting like majority of the meetings did not result into any great decision or anything. But some of the things related to work, problems at the placement and the goal area were discussed and it proved useful to some extent.
One man came near me when I was walking from my office at Bongo towards the circle where one catches bus for Bolgatanga. He told me his name and started asking me whether I want some lady to clean my house. The previous volunteer living at my place had recruited one. He told that he was a teacher. He looked very ragged and certainly did not look like a teacher. I told him that I can do the job myself and I did not want his help. This is true because I have a lot of free time as they work five days a week, I don't have to commute to the place and I don't mind doing that job. But the first thought was to just get rid of that person as he had came offering some unwanted help without any reference.
While I was waiting for bus or some shared taxi at the circle, I asked one guy near me about the timings of the bus and had some small discussion on the scene around us. When bus arrived, there were not many people around, but they all started to stand in a queue to enter into the bus. The conductor lady gave ticket to everybody. Very disciplined for a rural area like Bongo! This guy offered me a place in queue before him. I accepted his gesture. He sat besides me in the bus. He asked my name and then he wanted my address and number etc. I was not sure about whether I should give him or not. I did not give it though he kept on asking me about it and where could he meet me. I told him to meet me at the district assembly office. Poor lad knew it will be difficult for him to catch me there. I had to maintain that because I did not know whether I could trust him or not.
I spent the next day reading Ghana travel guides and deciding on places which can be visited during the period I am going to be here. In the morning, two boys came to the house and told me that they could clean the weeds near the house. I looked out side. All the neighbours had clean yards. I thought why not to get it cleared. I told them to proceed. Besides, it was good to have somebody around the house. They finished the job and started to look at me. I gave them one cedi note. They took it happily. I asked them about the school and their teacher and what will they do with the money. One of the boys told me that they will buy some soap for the house. They added further that they could plant some flowers around the house if I wanted it. Really smart boys! I thanked them and they ran away laughing out loud. Surely they were not going to buy the soap.
While I was giving the note to the boys, my neighbours' small boy was watching it. He came to the house and knocked on the door. I saw him standing with his eyes closed and palms spread as if begging. The way, he was behaving, was just sickening . The same boy had came the day before when his mother had sent him to tell me that the water supply had started and I could fetch the water. I had liked his round eyes filled with innocence then. I told him to go home but he came again. I told him that I can only give him a biscuit. He looked happy and then went away with it. I heard his mother scolding him afterwards.

Friday, 16 July 2010

Trying to settle myself in Bongo

13-15 July 2010
I have been given an accommodation in the staff quarters in the district assembly and though not luxurious, it has all the basic amenities which are required for a person to live comfortably. The water comes every alternate day and I have to stock it in the big water storage bin. It is perfectly OK with me. Bongo is a very little town having population of around 7000 and has little to offer. Although it is called as town, it is just a bigger village if you measure with Indian standards. Fortunately there is very good connectivity with the mobile phone services and one can also access internet using USB modem, though both are expensive.
One more speciality of Bongo is its rocks. There are many granite rocks spread all across the area of the village. There is a small hillock which has some special rock formations. The colour of the rocks is pink. The scene is somewhat similar to the one which we find in India near the border areas of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, which one can see while travelling by train from Mumbai to Bangalore. The only difference is the colour. Here in Bongo, it is pink and there in the Deccan, it is black. The soils are sandy and it is drought prone area receiving rainfall ranging between 700-1000 mm of rainfall. There is only one rainy season. The major crop which one can see everywhere nowadays is a millet similar to Bajra (Pennisetum sp.). As the crop is in its flowering stage, there is huge number of small plant hoppers which always struggle to come in the room. On the second day after coming here, I made the mistake of keeping the door open and found myself surrounded by these hoppers. Fortunately there are not many mosquitoes around as the place is relatively free of stagnant water.
I have not yet started socialising in the village much as I know very few people and am not really sure about the people who try to unnecessarily come around just by looking at my foreign features. A major change has happened in my behaviour and that is with the way I am approaching people. As opposed to India (especially Maharashtra,), where we don't start speaking with anybody who just comes across and always very stingy on the greetings, here in Ghana, no conversation starts without the greetings. Even if a person is dissatisfied with another, conversation always starts with the usual Good Mornings, Afternoons or Evenings. They have all the greetings in the local language but most of the people around understand those in English as well. An old lady in the office smilingly always makes me answer the greetings in the local Gurune language and she has become a sort of my unofficial Gurune teacher.
My boss with whom I shall be working had to go to Accra and would not return at least till tomorrow. I ended up having nothing to do. I read some old reports and manuals in the office while seating on the comfortable sofa set in my boss's office and taking little snoozes during the reading sessions.
I met one man named Peter who is an ex VSO volunteer. He is a teacher from Scotland and has lived in Bongo for two years from 2006-2008. His wife was also a short term volunteer for some time. Recently she died of cancer and made a wish to spend some of her money as a charity in Bongo. He is organising to promote some water resource development work in Bongo in addition to supporting a blind girl through education. From him I heard a strange hilarious story of one person named Ian. He is a white person who lived in Bongo a few years back as a volunteer for some NGO. He mixed with local people so well that within a couple of months the chief (traditional village head) of Bongo made him a sub chief. He was supposed to work as a sort of ambassador or leader for all the whites coming to the village. The village had organised some ceremony to mark his becoming a sub chief. Within six months he left the country and nobody has even heard from him. Some say that he is somewhere in China.
I shall like to tell you one more change which has happened in me. I get up at 05:00 am in the morning and sleep at 10:00 pm. The way Yoga expects a man to follow. It is not because I want to change myself but because there is simply nothing which I can do about it. No TV, no body to chat with, it is just me alone during the evenings. That’s the perfect condition to try transcendental mediation!

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

First Day in Bongo and Bolga

12 July 2010
Because of the long journey from Accra to Bolgatanga, I could not get enough sleep and I spent the whole of yesterday catching up my sleep. Today was my first day in the office. Rose had came to see me. She introduced me to many people in the department where she is working. Of course it was difficult to remember all those names. I met my boss Mr. Damma Mumuni who is District Planning Officer. Mumuni was busy with many other things so actually I did nothing at the office. In fact his assistant did the TV on for me and I saw the re telecast of the football world cup final between the Netherlands and Spain. The victory of Spain was being intensely discussed everywhere.
I went for the lunch with Rose and her friends. She has made many friends at this place. I was not sure whether I shall like all those dishes they were serving. I asked whether they had some eggs but they did not have. One of the Rose's friends told them to buy some cooked eggs which were being sold by the street side vendor. The eggs were of Guinea Fowl and tasted just like those chicken. I planned to mix those eggs and rice together but by the time I asked them they had no rice left. Rose had ordered Banku with soup. Banku is a ball of cooked fermented maize dough. It was served with some soup which was supposed to be that of goat. But I found no meat in it and it was just the stock which was heavily spiced with chillies and had some tomatoes crushed in it. I tasted it, felt that it was not bad and also ordered it for me. Rose's friends were laughing at me the way I was trying to eat it. Africans eat Banku by scooping the dough with all of their fingers and with my Indian way I was scooping by using only three of the fingers. Then the scooped ball was supposed to be dipped in the soup along with fingers and then taking some of the soup along with it. There is not much of chewing is expected and one is supposed to gulp it down. I ate with spoon afterwards.
Rose's friends had gathered a lot of information about India and were talking more about the similarities in African and Indian culture and the dissimilarities between European and African culture. Both of them were having lot of fun with my tries to use the local language Gurune, some words of which have been picked by us during the local language lessons in the in country training.
Many of the Ghanaian names sound very funny. They are named after some characteristics or qualities in humans. Though in India, we have those types of names, since most of them are in Sanskrit, they are just fine with the present day Indian languages. But these Ghanaian names just make themselves funny with the use of English. If somebody asks me, "Where can I find comfort?", I might answer "in VSO office at Accra", as there is one girl named Comfort working there. One of the friend of Rose is Better. Now when I meet her, I shall be saying, "How are you better?", asking the questions and giving the answer as well. Another friend of her is Miranda.
I did not remember their names and asked her again. She asked me whether I could remember the name. But then she instantly said loudly "Sweetie Pie" and then she told me that her name is Miranda. I, having very less knowledge of Christian and western names innocently told her that I had thought that her name is Sweetie Pie. I had thought that if the other lady is Better then this lady can have this name. Actually she had called a passing friend of hers and it is some way of affectionately calling a girl. Then she started laughing loudly and told me that she would like it if I would call her by that name.
Since there was nothing to do in the office we went for shopping in Bolgatanga as I needed to buy some things. It is a market day after every three days in Bolgatanga and the main market in Bolgatanga is full of small shops selling dry fish, dried tomatoes, meat, grains, vegetables etc. Most of the shops except those of meat are run by the women. The market is dirty and smells of dry fish. Still it is exciting to watch the variety of produce which was never seen before such as types of beans, rice, various utensils etc. Hope I shall be able to try some of those ingredients in preparing my food.
Better and her brother Aidan took us around the market and we did buy many things. I could also get incense sticks which I wanted to burn in the room for some refreshing fragrance in the air and I could get those made in India and with the fragrance of Sandalwood.
We had to stop at Better's home for some time as Aidan had gone to give his motorbike for repairing. I greeted some people around in the local language and one woman instantly asked me if she could have the broom which I was holding in my hand. This was something which I certainly did not expect. I told her that if I gave the broom to her I would not be able to clean my own house. But she openly told me that I could buy a new one and give the one in my hand to her. I had to suppress my strong feelings of dislike of the whole incidence and had to keep the face smiling.
I strongly felt that this is a type begging, which I try never to encourage, and I just refused. I strongly feel that it is all due to charity programmes where African black poor people are helped by the organisations in Europe and America. Majority of the help is of charity type and does not promote self help. They must have started to associate white people with money which they can easily ask any time. As these people consider that Indians are whites, it was natural for the woman to ask for it but not natural for me to hear it. Even though poor people tend to ask for such small things because they are really necessary and they sometimes can not afford them, there was not a single hint of borrowing in it. I still think that it was just plain begging which I just hate.

Reaching Bongo

10-11 July 2010
On 10th we started for Bolgatanga. Cherith, a volunteer from the Upper East Region accompanied us during the journey. She is based in Zebilla a district town near
Bolgatanga. Sometimes Bolgatanga is also called just Bolga. The journey from Accra to Bolgatanga covers the entire span from South to North of the country, since Accra is on the south on the coast and Bolgatanga is near the Northern boundary of Ghana with Burkina Faso. Cherith had booked our tickets for the STC a state run transport company. The bus was air conditioned but the seats were not at all comfortable. We started at 9:00 am. The bus took us through many small towns and bigger cities viz. Kumasi and Tamale. The road was good in many locations but was also very bad for some long patches. In each of the town there was traffic jam. The driver was driving it slow. It was raining. All of these conditions lead to the result of us reaching Bolgatanga at 3:00 am on the next day. The journey was uneventful and with the enormous delay, it was very boring.
I noticed that names of some of the shops were very funny. Somewhere I spotted the board Battery Doctor for a shop which was engaged in repairing car batteries. There were this Humble Lady Beauty Salon and Fresh Girl Beauty Salon. With the standards of traditional Indian society, ladies going to beauty parlour are certainly not considered humble. Can a Jain or devout Brahmin person digest the idea of Grace of Lord Meat Shop, but it was here in Ghana. There was one Fair Play Construction company. Where this play does come in the construction and I worry what will happen to the structures which they are building if they are playing though fairly.
After reaching Bolgatanga, in the morning on 11th we went to an International Travellers Inn. It sounds very high end but it is a small highly budget place serving omelets and tea but it is international as it is frequented by tourists mostly backpackers. We could meet many volunteers who are based in Bolgatanga. I don't remember names of all of them frankly speaking, as the interaction was loose and more limited to hi and hello. It will take some time to know them all. But I could meet Jillian and Jason Hess with whom I had done some interaction via emails regarding the placement. Most importantly it was nice to meet my friend Rose from India.
Today, first time after coming to Ghana, I came across some non Indian people, who know the name Sachin. It was Anthony, a British volunteer, who likes Sachin Tendulkar and likes Cricket more than football. Being not much into the sports, I am not much fan of cricket In spite of these facts, it was comforting to hear all this admiration of cricket and Sachin Tendulkar as it was something from my homeland. Anthony had visited Mumbai in the December 2008 and lucky enough to escape the terrorist attacks as he left the city just two days before that. He told me that he used to visit Leopold Café which was one of the targets of the terrorists.
Another surprise awaited me when I was getting dropped by the VSO vehicle to the place of my placement Bongo. We were coming back by dropping Cherith and Douglas at Zebilla and this wonderful driver Issa asked me about the actor Sachin from Bollywood. He had watched one of his movie Geet Gata Chal. Both the actor and the film are somewhat lower in the popularity ranks but are really good.
What followed were just intense discussions about Bollywood. He told me how he likes the Indian culture displayed in the Hindi films and the values in Joint families and respect towards the elders etc. He told me detailed stories of two old Hindi movies, recited a Hindi poem from one of Amitabh Bachchan's film, knew many Hindi words and phrases, knew names of most of the actors and actresses of old times and also their sons and daughters who have entered into the film world. He told that they run a phone in radio programme in Tamale, where people ask questions to the host, an Indian. The questions are about the meanings of words and sentences used in the films; the parts of films which they could not understand and about the social life and whose who in Bollywood. I felt that it took less time from Zebilla to Bolgatanga than it had taken from Bolgatanga to Zebilla though the distance was same.

A round around Accra!!!

If you want to catch them all along with the driver take a photograph of the mirror, your camera will also get photographed.

The Group


Independance Memorial

women fish vendors

Great musical evening at Alliance Francaise

Traffic jams, hope there are some big cities in the world without them

In Country Training and First Experience of Accra

6-9 July 2010
We went through an in country training training from 5-9 July. After arrival of the volunteers VSO arranges an in country training to familiarise them with the VSO programmes in the country and also the culture of the country. Generally they make it a point that volunteers arrive in the country of their placements at a certain date so that the training can take place in groups. Sometimes if a volunteer does not arrive in a country as per the schedule he may miss that opportunity and will be put directly in the place of his placement. As I came as per the scheduled date, I could attend the in country training and everything was properly organised from arrival into the country up to the travel to the base of placement. We were total seven volunteers in the batch. Speaking nationality wise there are 2 Indians, 1 British, 1 Filipino, 2 Kenyans and 1 Ugandan. Speaking gender wise there are 2 women and 5 men. They had also invited volunteer representatives from various regions in which the volunteers were going to be placed. This interaction with the volunteers helped to learn a lot because of their first hand experiences.
The first day was sort of getting acclimatised to the conditions, which were actually good because of the nice hotel. We were taken on a two hour city tour in which we moved around the Accra city. Getting to know all these new people and VSO Ghana was the main part of the day. Various sessions on VSO programme areas and approaches followed in the remaining days. There were sessions on how to keep oneself healthy and avoid diseases. A special session on HIV and AIDS and new VSO goal area called inclusion where the issues with the disadvantaged sections of the society are mainly dealt. A session on socio economic situation of Ghana was also taken. It helped a lot to learn a lot about approaches in the programme areas and needs of development of the country. VSO has given us loads of material to read. (which is also a large weight to carry ;)
Evenings were great part of this period. On 6th, on suggestion of some Dutch volunteers, we went to a café run by a Dutch person and their was this big screen on which they played the football match between the Netherlands and Uruguay live. All the Dutch community in Accra had gathered and the café was full with them. Two Dutch volunteer representatives Krista and Danielle had suggested this event to us. Although not interested in football much, it was interesting to have a glimpse of life outside the hotel. On 7th we went to Alliance Francaise where every Wednesday they have some musical programme. It was a lively evening with some music from northern part of Ghana. Friday was the last day of the training and we had a lunch organised at VSO office where we visited people working at the office, collected our in country allowances and had a delicious lunch. They served a dessert which was made from rice flour and milk which was really sweet part of the lunch. I don't remember the name of the dessert. But the interesting part is recipe. They soak the rice and then grind it to a paste to which they add sugar and milk and then boil it to a gooey consistency.

We went for shopping afterwards. The market area of Osu is very near to the VSO office. We visited a shopping mall and roamed around the area. A person selling hats on the street came after us calling Bhai Bhai (brother brother) by recognising that we were Indians. The area is touristy and there were many shops selling clothes with African designs and beads. The beads were just ordinary similar to those which are commonly seen in touristy areas of India. We came across two Indians and their was some waving of hands towards each other. Back in India, Indians are very serious on streets with the strangers but here all of them (including me) seem to have changed. There is a shop called Sagar in Osu area which is run by a Sindhi person. It was full of Indian goods. Most of them were food items such as spices, pickles, ready to cook vegetables, pulses etc. I could also find Pohe (rice flakes) which are so loved by Maharashtrians. The prices of all those things was just huge compared to India as most of these things were imported.
Later in the evening we also visited the biggest shopping mall in Accra called Accra Mall Most of the goods were imported and prices were very high. Hearing my constant comparison with Indian prices, Rahul suggested me strongly not to compare them with what one has in India. I think I should stop thinking in terms of Indian rupees now and just concentrate getting to know the pricing based on Ghanaian conditions.
To my surprise I found Kokum which is used as a souring agent by the Konkani people in place of tamarind which is used in rest of India. They were imported and packed by an enterprise in Ghana. I don't think there are so many Konkanis in Ghana so that an enterprise can do this all importing, packing and selling it. The packing was simple and from the information it was clear that it was not meant of Konkanis. But it was clear that it is being used by some other communities abroad. While producing these in Konkan, very few of the natives are aware that their Kokum is being exported.

Saturday, 10 July 2010

In Country Training

Relaxing between sessions

Presenting radio jingle on HIV and AIDS

Sexy energisers ;)

Me at the VSO office

Our vibrant group!!!

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Relatively Speaking!!!

5 July 2010
The entire day went by openly or secretly comparing the conditions between Ghana (and sometimes Africa) with India.
Today I met a nice person with whom I am sharing my room. His name is Samuel and he is from Kenya. He is currently placed in the northern part of Ghana and has spent almost 18 months in the country. I learnt many things about volunteering, living at the remote locations, managing the expenses etc. He has come as a volunteer representative and shall be helping during the training. From each region they have invited some volunteers who have spent considerable amount of time in the country. Through the day we got to know about many intricacies of our lives as volunteers through them. There are two Dutch, two British and one Filipino woman in this group of experienced volunteer representatives.
During the day I found that I could relate more to the experiences of African volunteers than the European volunteers. Conditions through which most of the African volunteers are coming from are poorer or middle class background. Similar to them, standards of living in the Indian middle class are certainly nowhere near to the European middle class standards.
Today when everybody was enjoying their meat at the time of lunch and dinner, I ate only vegetarian things which were available on the menu. I just got fed up of seeing those big pieces of meat after eating my breakfast today. Probably the real Indian vegetarian inside me came out today. On the food front, one preparation which I liked a lot was Kelewele. These are fried half ripe banana chips. They are just delicious and I am going to learn some day how to make them.
Another striking thing to me was a subject about which I know very little and most of the Africans and Europeans just loved to discuss it. This subject is Football. In India, Cricket just dominates the entire sport scenario and football is just some fun to watch and nothing to be seriously discussed. We are here at the time when Ghana had to leave the World Cup in the quarter finals and every where, international volunteers not being the exception, the subject of football is being hotly discussed. Sometimes I found out that I could not understand parts of discussions many sentences just because of lack of knowledge about the game.
After finishing the training part of the day, I and Raj went for a stroll. We walked for about an hour and ended up in a large street market. I wanted to buy a shorts for the purpose of swimming. Although being sold on the street, it was priced at 5 G. cedis (160 Rs.), which should have costed only Rs.60 in the Indian streets, and thus feeling that I was being cheated being a foreigner, I dropped my plan of buying it. Of course I may buy it tomorrow as I desperately want to take a dip in the swimming pool in the hotel and I don't have any shorts with me right now.
Most of the market was filled with all types of old things. Two wheelers, clothes, mobile phones, furniture, TV sets, refrigerators etc. Strangely not much of buying was on and although there were many people in the market, many of them seemed to be just stray. Sellers were not busy dealing with the customers. We saw two quite young girls standing at a side of the road and openly eyeing us. I had a feeling that they were prostitutes trying to lure some customers. The overall market scene was surely depressing for the first day out on the streets of Ghana.
An interesting incidence happened during our stroll. We were curiously looking towards things which were on sale on the sides of the street. One old lady was selling something and we were looking at those items. The women started shouting "Obruni Obruni". We could not understand it and told her "thanks, we don't want to buy anything." The youth, who was passing by, told us that by Obruni she means White Man. So, that black woman perceived our brown Indian colour as White. It was very funny and we had a good laugh over it. Most of us after all do think in relative terms it seems.

Reaching Ghana

4 July 2010
I started my journey from home in Mumbai at 23:00 on 3rd July. My family and my friends Mickey and Sujeet had came to drop me at the airport. With tearful eyes of my wife Tejaswini and mother, I said bye to them and entered the first security gate of Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport of Mumbai.
I had taken and also received without asking a lot of suggestions from friends and relatives who had some experience abroad. There was a bit of anxiety since I was going to set foot on a foreign land for the first time. I was lucky that just immediately after passing through the first security gate, I met my old classmate, Vallabh, who works in the airport. He guided me about how to proceed through various checks and counters. There were very long queues at almost all the counters. One security person told that it is always like that on weekends, when majority of the people try make their travel.
The Kenya Airways flight taking me up to Nairobi first was bit delayed so I ended up spending 2 hours at the airport. It was nice experience to explore this glossy place  but everything was very expensive. It was interesting to watch passengers of various nationalities. At last the flight took off at 4:15 am. With last call from my Indian sim card I said bye to my family members and switched the cell phone off.
After some time the journey became boring. There was nothing to see outside the window since it was very dark and I started to feel heaviness in my head. I could not sleep properly as I had to keep my bag near the seat and being economy class there was not enough of space near the seat. The food they served on the plain was almost tasteless except the pieces of fruits which were really very fresh. Most of the passengers were Indians, mostly Gujaratis and to my surprise there was an option of Jain food available in the flight by prior notice.
The plane reached Jomo Kenyatta airport at Nairobi at 10:30 am Indian Time (IST). I did not change any time settings of my cell phone because I wanted to keep track of how much time I was spending on the flight. The airport in Nairobi was nice experience even though it was small and less glossy. The staff was very helpful and guided me correctly towards the proper gates. The toilets were clean. Here everybody had a smiling face. The shops were not very glossy but seemed customer friendly although I did not purchase anything. I wanted to make a call home but they started security check for the next flight for Accra which was to leave Nairobi at 12:00 (again IST) so I had to hurry towards the queue. Kenya is 2.5 hours behind India.
The flight was delayed by an hour. Here I forgot to collect my cell phone which I had to put in the tray as part of the security checking procedure. The security personnel had taken it for checking and I did not see it while collecting my luggage. Fortunately the lady at the counter came in the seating area and asked about the cell phone which nobody had collected and I got it back. I met one Pakistani guy called Imran in the waiting area. After seeing each other, we smiled at each other, I feeling that he will be Indian. He had all the updates about India and asked me questions about Bal and Raj Thackeray. He seemed to be more updated about Hindi films than I am. He was going to Freetown in Sierra Leone where the next destination of the flight. This was smaller plain but this time despite the feeling of spinning of insides of my head, the experience was good. The food they served was great. I again purposefully made the option of non vegetarian food to make myself used to it.  I peeked in the neighbours dish to see what they had served in the vegetarian option and to my surprise there was pulao and curry.
The aeroplane reached Accra at 18:00 hours IST and 12:30 Ghana time. There was nothing special in the airport except the welcoming messages for the returning World Cup Football team of Ghana. I had no hassles clearing through the immigration and customs. One lady just checked my passport and that was all. The drivers from the hotel Sun lodge where we are going to stay for next week, were already there to receive us. There were in all six volunteers who arrived at the same time. Four of them were in the same flight as mine but of course we did not each other during the flight. There is one Indian volunteer Raj who is from Jamshedpur and came via Delhi and Dubai. There is one Filipino lady and two Kenyans and one Ugandan. It must be a big task to co-ordinate these travels of all these volunteers coming from difference locations in the world. But somehow every thing was nicely in place. At the airport, as one finds in India, many people came forward and started to render unwanted help with the luggage. The driver who was receiving us had to bark at them to tell to go away.
The hotel is good and the staff is also very helpful, but it is very difficult to understand their accent and I have to ask repeatedly what they want to say. While in the restaurant, I did not know what to order as everything on the menu seemed foreign to me. Seeing my confused face, the waitress asked whether I shall like to have what my other friends have ordered. I said yes and found a big heap of potato chips and big peace of chicken. I really wanted some light snack, a Vada or an Idli would have been proper but that was the moment of realisation that I am going to miss them for an year.
Rahul Chakraborty who was with me at my batch at the time of selection and PfC (Preparing for Change) training had came to meet me. It was great to meet him in person although we had been in touch via emails and online chats. I also spoke with Rose another Indian volunteer from Patna who is based near the same place where I shall be based i.e. Bongo in the Upper East Region. There is one couple Nandhini and Mani who are from Tamilnadu and been in Ghana for last three years. They had also come to meet us. There are many other volunteers who have come here to assist us new volunteers. There seems to be very big and closely knit group of them and everybody is very friendly. I shall get to know more about this community of volunteers, who number almost 80 in the whole of Ghana and spread across different regions of the country, tomorrow when in-country training starts.

Blog Starts!!!

3 July 2010
When I accepted the placement offered to me by Volunteer Service Overseas (VSO), there was a flood of questions and concerns directed towards me. They were coming from my family members, friends and relatives and also other people who came to know that I shall be living in a remote location in a country like Ghana which is an underdeveloped country with unknown culture on an another continent. I tried to answer many of those questions and tried to give explanations about the concerns raised, but what I realised that it will be the best thing to share the experiences instead of discussing them on the basis of assumptions and speculations.
So here I am sharing my experience through my blog shared with you. It is meant for keeping everybody updated about what I am doing, what do I feel about it and what is the experience. Please do keep in mind while reading this blog, that it is not for proving anything!