One Thousand Two Hundred Eighty-Eight

One Thousand Two Hundred Eighty-Eight. The number of days between leaving Ghana in 2006 and arriving in 2010. In some ways it feels like I never left. It was almost deja vu, leaving Toronto, boarding the plane to Amsterdam, spending way too much on a croissant on the layover before finally landing in the heat, humidity and darkness of Accra. After making it through customs I took a taxi with the three other EWB staff arriving with me to Madam Adisa’s house, the last place I stayed in Accra before leaving last time. Adisa greeted us with her usual openness and hospitality – and a large meal of boiled yams and jollof rice. A welcome back that made it feel like I was returning to a place I knew.

I just looked back on my first month of blog posts from 2006 and it has been an interesting reflection. I managed to write about 5000 words describing my first three days or so. I can’t say I’d be able to do the same this time around – the sights and sounds that were so new and exciting three years ago seem almost familiar (although the public toilets are still less than appealing and my first bowl of TZ didn’t go down quite as easy as I’d hoped).

At the same time I’ve had the pleasure of watching Reynaldo, a new friend from my training group, go through all of those new experiences. Sitting in the back of a taxi while the driver and the person in the front seat argue at full volume in another language, learning to eat an orange like a Ghanaian, trying to get red dirt out of a white shirt. Venturing into the market is a great metaphor for the whole experience; it is colourful, dirty, crowded, loud, full of smells (good and bad) and almost certainly overwhelming. How much should things cost? Is that person yelling at me or just yelling? Am I in the way? At some point you learn to accept the chaos as normal and go on about your day as if it is.

The two of us were walking with some of the other EWB staff just by the market when Reynaldo asked a simple question. “What is that???”It was a white vehicle with its doors wide open, full of butchered cows. Halves of cows were strewn about the inside next to two cardboard boxes holding piles of folds that jiggled with the sputtering diesel engine. Upon closer inspection the consensus was that is was beef hide, something I had eaten once before. The smell of the meat made the lack of refrigeration conspicuous, just as the loud buzzing made obvious the abundance of flies. As it pulled away two simple words written in large red block letters gave Reynaldo his answer. Meat Van.

I’m sure if I’d seen such a thing on my third day in Ghana in 2006 I would have written an essay on it, but this time it hardly seemed out of the ordinary, and certainly not a shocking discovery. Later, I was sitting listening to the woman who had just cooked us some fried egg sandwiches talk about how she was expecting it to take her three years to save up the 600 GHC (or $480) to buy a container for her tailoring business when a green SUV pulled up with spotless chrome rims and the logo of an NGO painted on the door. Across the street a monkey is chained to the wall. I start to wonder what out of anything in this city should be normal. It reminds me of a story that Tahidu, my old boss and host father once told me. He spoke of an educated teacher that moved to the remote community he was assigned to, determined to do a better job by being closer, missing less of days of work and spending more time on his community. It didn’t help, as the teacher became just like the community and nothing changed.

You have to adapt and learn to survive and be happy in another culture, but how far do you go? What do you stay grounded in when so many of your assumptions about what is right are challenged? I’ve been struggling with this question and wondering if I have too easily accepted the realities of Ghana as normal. What values do I hold on to in order to be an effective catalyst of change? It is hard enough to make change and push boundaries in your own culture, never mind the complications of being a Canadian in Ghana.

Although this question has been especially apparent to me over the past couple of weeks it is not new; it’s certainly one I thought about in 2006 and since then. These are the challenges I have been looking forward to coming back to and tackling again, with a little more time and a little more depth. It’s a reminder that after one thousand two hundred and eighty-eight days I’m not just coming back to familiar people, places and sensations, but familiar challenges and unanswered questions as well.

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9 Responses to One Thousand Two Hundred Eighty-Eight

  1. Jack and Marion says:

    Dear Ben,
    So glad to see your blogspot up again. As before, we applaud your insights and awareness.
    Jack and Marion

  2. Kyle says:

    I'm elated that one of my favourite blogs from 2006 is active again. Reading through your past posts from Ghana reminded me of how thoughtful and reflective you are, and how your writing articulated so well the challenges we faced but I was unable to communicate. And reading your current post makes me feel like I'm back there in Ghana again, right beside you.

    Thank you.

    What has been the biggest surprise for you upon your return?

  3. Olivia says:

    Great post Ben! It's got me thinking…This sounds like a challenge that people have when they return to Canada after living abroad: They get a new perspective on Canada and realize how they want it to change, but once they return they struggle between being complacent with things not changing vs. having to work really hard at changing things.

    For you, does acceptance of Ghanaian realities mean you're risking becoming complacent?

    Thanks again! I'm looking forward to more posts :)

  4. Kevin says:

    Dear Ben,

    I enjoyed Tahidu's story:

    "He spoke of an educated teacher that moved to the remote community he was assigned to, determined to do a better job by being closer […] It didn't help, as the teacher became just like the community and nothing changed."

    Do you think that every leader needs to maintain a certain distance from the community they wish to change? Do you think that it is exactly this "distance" which allows it to be clear who is the follower and who is the leader? What kind of leader are you, presently, in the situation you are in? What do you aspire to be? How? I'm intrigued.

    "Best" of luck,

  5. Scott Kemp says:

    Hey Ben!
    What a great read. I look forward to your thought-provoking posts throughout the year.

  6. Mike Klassen says:

    Ben, you are asking some powerful questions my friend. I think it's such a slippery slope, but so important to try and climb. In some ways I feel like shifting from "adapting and learning" to "changing and influencing" implies that on some level, we know better.

    I've reflected on being in Zambia and why I didn't ask more questions or push back on issues related to hygiene (water but not soap, latrine usage, food prep/storage). I guess it's maybe less about what you do, than how you do it.

    It's kind of like the difference between working "with people in poverty" vs. "for people in poverty".

    So excited for more posts man… it's already got my brain and heart spinning. Peace!

  7. Dave says:

    Thanks for including me Ben. Happy to hear you're following your heart.

  8. majd says:

    Exciting! looking forward to more posts!

    Did you see this?

  9. Yodit's off to Ghana! says:

    Your Blog is inspiring and very thought provoking, I admire your ambition and interest in taking on obvious challenges!! Great job keep posting and if ever you’re in Tamale office I’m also interning for A2N and will be here till February 2011!

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