Tuesday, 22 March 2011

The Difference A Smile Can Make

21 March 2011
I was conducting a meeting with a women's co-operative in Bongo district. The co-operative is engaged in processing of Shea butter. The discussions were centered on hardships associated with collection and processing of Shea nuts. The discussions were lively and what I liked the most, while interacting with the women, was that the usual tone for asking some funds for helping them was not there at all. These hard working women expressed their need for capital however. Since I am not engaged in any kind of project but conducting the value chain study, I could not promise them anything. When I asked for a group picture they happily agreed and immediately organized themselves for it. That was real cohesive Asungtaaba. Asungtaaba means let's work together. It is a traditional association of women where they come together in a group and help each other in various tasks which include farming, collection of firewood, Shea nut collection and processing etc.
After seeing them organized for the snap, I just clicked it. One of the women told me afterwards that they were ready then. I told them that I have already clicked the photo. She argued, “But you did not tell us to smile. How can that be a good picture?” I said, “Okay. Let me take one more snap again.” I said this thinking that it was going to cost me nothing to take that extra picture on my digital camera and there was no point in argument. This time before clicking the picture, I said loudly, “all smile please!” and everybody became ready in their best smiles.
Afterwards while looking at both the pictures; I realized how much difference does a smile makes. In the first picture, all the hardships in the life can be seen on those serious faces. The second picture with all smiling shows that these hardships can be overcome and very small moments can be really enjoyed to bring the happiness in life.

Monday, 21 March 2011

Moving On

20 March 2011
Today is the day when my actual stay here is mostly over by 75%. It is also the day, where I realize that many of the fellow VSO volunteers in the country with whom I have become friends, would be gone home in the coming one and half months. I shall be following them in approximately 3 months from today.
The period of three months is short for a long term volunteer placement but equals to a short term volunteer placement. I am very much looking forward to the remaining period which I am going to spend here. There are many things in terms of work to be completed, some more capacities of myself to be developed, some more places around to be visited and some events to be experienced. It is the time to move on. I am also very much looking forward to the start of life back in India. Finding a suitable job, a small tour with the family and spending quality time with them is my high priority agenda after going back.
It was very tough for me to taking the decision to go for volunteering and actually come here in Ghana. It was a great challenge for me getting through the hurdles of getting passport, leaving the country for the first time and going through the experience of living in a remote corner of a country. More than whatever it can add to my career, I think that it is the social skills, new friends and a highly broadened outlook that has changed me and I am sure after going back to India, I shall not be the same person again.

Beating the Heat

4 -19 March 2011
It is the peak hot season and today I took a ride on the back of an open truck. It gave me a kind of adrenaline rush, as I was standing on the back of a speeding truck seeing the passing slow moving pedestrians, overtaking cars and taking the hot air blowing straight on the face. I don't know how I long would have been able to stand that but I had a feeling that I was really enjoying that adventure in the peak hot season of northern Ghana. That's when I thought that I should write something about the hot season.
Wait till the hot season comes. You'll have a real experience of the northern part of Ghana.” I have been hearing this from various people who range from VSO staff, volunteers and locals who have spent some considerable time here in this part of the world. For me, the seasonal change seemed very natural and similar to India. When I arrived in the month of July, it was raining here. I had escaped from the four and half month torrential Mumbai monsoon to the mild but erratic six month West African monsoon. The monsoonal rains stopped somewhere in the month of November. Somewhere in the month of December started Harmattan which brought coolness and lots of dust in the air. Similar to the rains, Harmattan winds were erratic. Sometimes they blew and sometimes they did not. In the mid of February the weather suddenly changed and while everybody back in India, was still enjoying the cool winter, it started to become hot.
I did not realize that weather has changed till one day, when I found myself buying two more water sachets than my usual one water sachet during the day. After about a week, I started to hear people discussing the weather. “Oh, my goodness, it is too hot these days, isn't it?”, I heard volunteers from UK saying in their typical British accent. Whenever I asked any local person, “hello, how are you?” I found him wiping sweat on his head and answering, “I am hot.” Suddenly there was an outbreak of Facebook status updates by the volunteers in the northern part of Ghana, in which the daily temperatures and the uneasiness brought to the people by the heat was being fervently discussed.
One afternoon, I was returning back to Bongo from Bolgatanga in an open passenger carrier vehicle and when tro left Bolgatanga town and hot air started to blow directly on my face. My eyes became dry suddenly and I felt for the first time that the heat is for real. Back in India, I am used to the hot and humid weather during summers which gets to a maximum of 350 Celsius. I have not yet seen the temperatures measured by the thermometers but they say that they are always above 420 Celsius during the day these days. Internet search about temperatures in Bolgatanga shows such varied figures that it is best not to believe any of them. Unlike India, there are no weather reports anywhere on television and radio and no authentic figure is announced for the public use.
My typical day in March starts here at around 6:00 am with relative coolness in the air (it is relative) making it possible to do exercise or other physical activities like sweeping, washing clothes etc. I usually see women doing their threshing and pounding outside their houses during this time of the day. There are also some old men hanging out outside their houses and doing nothing. After having a bath, I make breakfast and eat it till about 8:30. By the time I finish my breakfast, I find myself wiping the sweat off the body. When I look outside during this time, the women doing their work are no longer there. The old men are vanished. The tree which I can see from my house is completely defoliated at this time of the year and it is full with beautiful white coloured inflorescence. But that means that there are no children there playing under its shade these days. The open fields in front of my house are now completely vacant with no people around.
When I reach the office by 9:30 am, the scene is as usual and people are seen carrying their usual businesses and moving around, since most of them are working inside their offices and not labouring like those threshing women. One can see more number of people hanging out under the mango tree, which really provides cool shade than the concrete ceilings of the buildings. When it turns to 12:00 in the noon, it gets really very hot. I am lucky to get myself placed in the office of the District Planning Unit which has an air conditioner. There have been number of days with either power failures or problems with the air conditioner and I have found myself sitting in the office, wiping sweat off my face and trying my best to concentrate on my work.
In the noon when the temperatures are at their peak, people find their brains becoming slow. Many people place their heads on the desks and take rest. Instead of sitting under the fans which can circulate only hot air, it is better to go outside in the balcony and see if one can get some sporadic breeze. When I had gone for my meeting with the Shea Butter Processing Centre in this month, the women had arranged their meeting in the veranda instead of their main hall as they wanted to take advantage of the breeze.
By the time I finish my day and return to the house in the evening, I find my bedroom in the preheated condition, because two of the walls of my bedroom receive the direct heat from the sun on its northerly move. It remains hot and it is impossible to get uninterrupted sleep until 3:00 am, when it really cools down and I find myself getting into real sleep. It is just three hours more and my alarm buzzes at 6:00 am. I feel a bit tired for a while because of lack of proper sleep but as I see morning light, the women threshing and small girls fetching water, I find myself ready for the day.
Overcoming the problems of hot weather was not as difficult for me as I observed how local people have been managing it and trying to find really localized solutions. I heard that people sleep outside during hot season and I started keeping all the windows open. This helped to cool down the bedroom rapidly. I was told that Shea butter helps to avoid skin problems arising in the summer due to excess heat, sweating and lack of water for cleaning oneself frequently. I used it on my skin and it has helped to clear and check skin rashes.
I remembered vaguely reading somewhere while back in India that sherbet made from Ambadi (Hibiscus cannabinus) flowers is taken in some parts of India during the summers. I found that local Bito is nothing but the same plant and its dried flowers are sold in the market. Local people boil those petals in the water so that sourness of the petals goes away and the boiled cooked petals can be used as a vegetable. I use the extract instead and throw the petals away to make my Ambadi flower sherbet. After coming from outside, all tired and sweating, there is nothing more refreshing than a glass of cool Ambadi flower sherbet. My local friends have also liked the taste of it and they have spread the word around about it.
The one important effect of this heat is that I have become darker in complexion. This added with with my short machine cut hair and shirts made from local cloths make me look more African. That's what was told to me by many people. One important lesson I have learned in this hot season is that nature requires us not to adopt but to adapt to the situation.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Navrongo and Tongo

3 March 2011
Here in the Upper East Region of Ghana, there many villages which end with the letters ‘go’, e.g. Bongo, Kongo, Tongo, Navrongo, Gorogo, Yorogo and so on. In the last month we visited two places on two different weekends. First was Navrongo and the other was Tongo.
I went to Navrongo with one of my new friend, Rogier, whom I had met in one of the gatherings of the volunteers. Rogier works in one NGO in Bolgatanga and is from the Netherlands. This was my first time finding some non Indian travel buddy, about whom I had not known much before. In my first meeting with Rogier, I found him to be cool and much down to earth, so I thought that I might ask him if he was interested in joining me for the trip. He said that he was very much interested in it. It turned out that he was a really laid back person and we got along with each other very well.
Me and Rogier
Navrongo is a town in the Upper East Region of Ghana and situated about 20 km from Bolgatanga, the regional capital. Navrongo is the head quarters for the district called Kassena Nankana West. Once Government of Ghana had planned to make it the regional capital but then it was dropped after a while. One of the advantages of that plan however, is that the town has some nice tree lined streets which is a rarity in this part of the world. Navrongo is also the headquarters for the catholic diocese and first Christian mission in northern part of Ghana was started here in the year 1906, when British had newly occupied this territory. It was lead by a Canadian missionary called Oscar Morin.
There is a cathedral is known as Cathedral of Our Lady of Seven Sorrows. It is built by using elements of traditional and western architecture. There is also a small museum in the area, where various traditional artefacts and models of traditional houses and paintings are displayed.
Cathedral of Our Lady of Seven Sorrows
It was a completely hassle free trip and nothing exciting happened. We had a good time, which I think, is the most important.
My other tour was to a place called Tengzug. I had been planning for this tour for a long time. Tengzug is a small community near a district town called Tongo and there is no public transport that goes all the way to Tengzug and one has to walk from Tongo to Tengzug. There are only two options to reach Tengzug, either hire a taxi from Bolgatanga or walk from Tongo. I had preferred first option and that required the taxi to get full so that it would cost less per person. There were always some and other problems in getting four people willing to go to Tengzug at one time. One weekend when Tom and Nicki, a VSO volunteer couple based in Accra travelled up in the North and showed there interest in going to Tongo. It was a lucky day as I found Sadat, who works at Agriculture Department office in Bongo and drives taxi on the weekends. He took us to Tengzug while entertaining us with his wits and impressing us with the information he had about various places he had been in Ghana.
Tongo and Tenzug are important places for the people of Talensi tribe who inhabit the area. Talensi is one of few tribe in the northern part of Ghana, who offered some resistance to the British acquisition. Tengzug is developed as a community led tourism site with the help of Peace Corps. They have developed a conducted tour of the community which includes various sites such as the first school in the area, chief's palace, and its compound, various shrines, tombs of the chiefs, sacrificial caves and the most important shrine called Baar Tonnab Ya shrine. The sites are very near to each other and it took us about two hours to visit all these in the conducted tour of the place. There was a visitor centre, where we entered our names and paid our fees. The heavily built guide was trying to hurry up the things and was not allowing us enough time to really appreciate the things and take snaps of the places that were being showed to us.
For a person like me who has seen plenty of villages and slums in India, the first site of chief's compound was nothing remarkable as it was only a big area closed by a wall and inside the compound were very small houses built close to each other. There was one multi-storied structure which was called chief's palace. The area was not connected to the main electricity grid. The information about the whole community was something which made the site very interesting. The chief has 18 wives and 110 children. Each wife has a separate house within the compound and many of the sons have built their own houses within the compound. So it is a small village. Of course there are not much of resources in the area to live by and many of his sons have migrated.
Chief’s Palace
Chief’s compound

The community of Tengzug is famous as an important site for people who follow local beliefs. The people go there to seek solutions to their problems, which range from medical to financial. Sacrifices are offered and various rituals are performed almost every day. The community is full of so called shrines which are nothing but the sacrificial alters. The site is also popular in the people from southern part of Ghana. We were told that many pastors in the local churches, who claim to have powers to drive evil spirits, also visit the place to seek power.
A shrine or Sacrificial Alter

There was one cave which was full of donkey skulls offered by the devotees. By the way, the donkeys are not wasted here when they become old. They are eaten and it is considered as a good meat. Here they believe that donkeys work very hard and if one eats donkey meat, one can become as tough and hard working as donkey. We visited the main shrine called Baar Tonnab Ya shrine. It was nothing more than a small cave with a pile of feathers of chicken and smears of Shea butter on the rock. It is famous with the tourists as topless shrine as people of both the sexes have to visit the shrine by keeping their body naked above waist and below knees. We boys went to shrine whereas the girls chose to remain behind.

Donkey Skull

After finishing our visit to Tengzug, on our way back we stopped in Tongo for soft drinks at a place called Super Natural Drinking Spot. The name sounded very funny but it was in line with the local beliefs in the place for which it is famous.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Exploring Food (and Drink) IV

12 February to 2 March 2011
If one is really open to various types of foods, then Ghana offers a wide variety of foods. Many of this variety of foods is available on the streets and restaurants. In rural parts of India variety of food items available on streets or restaurants is limited. E.g. in rural areas of Maharashtra one has to limit himself to the usual affair of Misal and Wada Pav and usual Thali meals at the lunch and supper times. The comparative cheapness of street food and almost no excessive use of spices and artificial colours in the street food makes any average person to engage in eating out very easily. An interesting fact which I found here was that the cost which I am incurring on preparing my own food is more than what I would have spent by depending on the local food available outside at the vendors. Of course there are various factors involved in it e.g. my cooking involves use of various exotic ingredients and relatively expensive vegetables like carrots and cabbage.
In this post I am including some more local food preparations I tasted between my last post on foods and drinks and this one.
Fried balls of Mashed Plantains with Ginger: This was once randomly on sale on the eatery opposite to my office. These were ripe plantains mashed with ginger and then fried. The taste was really good.
Rice Balls in Groundnut Soup: This is something very commonly available and suits to my Indian taste buds. They prepare very soft and sticky rice, which is then formed into big balls by pressing with hands. While serving, it is put in a big bowl of groundnut soup. This soup is made by using groundnut paste, meat stock and various spices.
Tubaani: These are steamed cakes made from of soy bean flour. While serving, it is dressed with Shea oil, red chilli powder and salt.
Flour Water: It is not available on streets but it is the regular diet of the poor people in the northern part of Ghana. It has similarity with Ambil (Ambalee in the southern parts of India). It is made by adding Shea butter, red chilli powder and salt to the millet flour. This mixture is kneaded well and then water is added to it. It is stirred thoroughly and the mixture is served in bowls made from Calabash fruit rinds.
Dog Meat: It is considered as a delicacy in the Northern part of Ghana. Certainly majority of Indians will frown upon the fact that dog is eaten here and a person like me who has been born in Brahmin caste has eaten it. The meat is generally served in the steamed form and it is eaten with red chili powder and salt mixture. It has less fat and the taste is bland. The people here keep two types of dogs, one is a pet dog which has less chances of getting chopped and the other is meat dog which has more chances of getting chopped. However both the types of dogs have some chances of getting chopped.
Ice creams: Fan Ice is a local brand of ice creams which is sold by vendors moving on cycles provided to them by the company. It comes in sachets and you can eat really when it has melted to some extent so that you can suck it out from them. There are a number of flavours including one with yogurt.
Now some information about the drinks available here,
Malt: It is a non alcoholic drink made from beer mash. It is slightly bitter in taste and smells of beer. Many people take it as a health drink since it contains malt extracts and also has some vitamins in it.
Alvaro: It is also a malt based drink but it is clear, carbonated, sweetened and flavoured. It does not smells of any fermentation.
Beer: I tasted it first time in my life after coming to Ghana. All my knowledge about beers comes from the two local brands of beer found here. Star brand of beer has 7% alcohol and has slightly bitter taste. The another brand of beer called Shandy has lesser alcohol content i.e. only 2% and it is mixed with lemonade and has slightly sweeter taste. Since I have taken it only a number of times, the only thing that I can tell about these alcoholic drinks is that they loosen you a bit and you can enjoy that looseness only if you drink slowly.
Quinine: It is local brand of soda mixed with a bitter substance called quinine and lemon flavor. Since quinine is a drug for curing malaria, people claim that drinking quinine can cure your malaria. The taste is bitter and not so great at all.
Fresh Taste: This is common name for frozen, flavoured, coloured and sweetened water that is sold in plastic sachets. It is similar to the so called Pepsi in India. The name Fresh Taste is derived from a brand so ordering a Fresh Taste can end you in getting a frozen liquid of any other brand or sometimes even without a brand. The taste is sometimes really bad if the chemicals added to the water are not in the right proportion.
Other Soft drinks: Numerous local brands of soft drinks,with a variety of flavours, are available in the market. Their presence in the market and the fact that people are buying them means that they are popular. Many of them do not taste good to me. Coca Cola has dominant presence here over Pepsi. Their soft drinks like Coke, Fanta, and Sprite are commonly available in glass as well as plastic bottles.