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Kuala Lumpur: The Early Days

At this point I have been in Malaysia for 4 days.  The conference activities are just getting started, but I had a few days to explore the city (ie. shop) before the madness.  More on the madness to follow in another post, but I will say that my blogging about this trip is going to be in the form of photo blogs, because time to write in full sentences is tough to come by.  A recap of my pre-conference days:

The Market:  Justine and I went in with the intention of browsing for an hour then moving on. It swallowed us up for nearly 5 hours and when we escaped we had purchased many wonderful things…including furniture. We each bought a beautifully hand crafted wooden table (it collapses for transport).

Chinatown: All fake everything.  Louis, Gucci, Chanel, Prada, Ray Bands, Tiffany. Stalls upon stalls of less than authentic name brands.   That’s all I’ll say about that.  Chinatown is also home to the $20 massage.  I plan to indulge later this week.

The Vibe: The part of KL that our hostel was in was busy, it seemed to be a working class neighbourhood and people were friendly – protecting the foreigners from oncoming traffic.  Nobody really pays any attention to me (except when I get too close to oncoming traffic) which is a pleasant departure from what usually happens when I travel.

Other stuff: Malaysians are nowhere near as aggressive as people in markets in other parts of the world.  Most of the time they don’t even acknowledge you, and if you decide that you don’t want to buy anything, they simply wish you well and send you on your way.  A far cry from being grabbed in Ghana or even the Philippines where they were more aggressive.  The exception is Chinatown where every vendor wants to make sure you know that they have what you want to buy.

I also don’t quite know who is Malaysian who who is foreign.  There seem to be a lot of people from other parts of South-East Asia living and working here.

The food & weather: Delicious and hot.  Malaysians love them some 7/11.  There is one every 20 feet.  A few random American chains and of course McDonalds.

So, those were the days before the conference started.  I’m pretty sure that I’m still a little jet lagged, but confident that I’ll adjust just in time to come home.

 

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Justine and I on the top of a double-decker bus in Hong Kong

Justine and I on the top of a double-decker bus in Hong Kong

The stamp collecting journey continues; this time it’s off to Asia. I’m headed to Kuala Lumpur, Malyasia for the Women Deliver conference with a few other Bloggers on the Girls Globe team. The journey began at the airport in Toronto at 10:30pm on Wednesday night with Justine. Plane wings up at 1:40am and touched down in Hong Kong 14.5 hours later at 4am on Friday. Yea, Thursday just didn’t happen. 14.5 hours on a plane wasn’t too bad, good food, some sleep, plenty of breaks to walk around and a Project Runway marathon all helped.

Then there was the 12 hour layover in Hong Kong. Nothing was open at 4am when we landed, so after a couple of hours in the airport we went out into the city. Hong Kong would definitely get a second date. It was such an easy city to navigate. Busy, one of the greenest cities I’ve ever seen, and such friendly people! As Justine and I were struggling to navigate their high-tech subway entry system (ie. Tap your card in the place where it says “tap card here” to get past the barrier), a woman walked up to us and asked if there was anything she could do to help. Then she went out of her way to ask the transit attendant how we would get to where we needed to go.

We did a little sightseeing and a little shopping before catching our flight to Kuala Lumpur.

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A little YouTube Cantonese lesson on the way in to Hong Kong

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Largest Rubber Ducky in the World!

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Goodbye Hong Kong, Hello Malaysia!

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Ghana: 1 Year Reflection & New Adventures

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This month marks one year since I left for Ghana. I’ve been missing it a lot – the place, the people, the weather. Thinking back and remembering where I was at this time last year, when everything was so new. I’ve sat down a few times to write a retrospective, looking back on my time in Ghana and I can’t seem to find the words. I’m confident that they will come, they’re just not here yet, or at least they aren’t organized. I know that the experience was life changing – as cliché as that sounds. I came home older, more sure of myself and more patient than I was when I left.

It has also opened up many new doors. I started this blog as a way to keep family and friends updated about what and how I was doing in Ghana. But I was absolutely blown away when I realised that people I don’t even know from places I’ve never been were reading. For someone who never liked anyone else reading her writing – this was huge. In a lot of ways, I think that Ghana helped me to find my voice and encouraged me to use it.

Near the end of my internship I heard about a blog called Girls’ Globe through Twitter. Their aim was to raise awareness about issues impacting women and girls across the world and they were looking for bloggers. I contacted Julia the founder and soon joined the team. If you’ve been followed this blog, you know that I’m particularly passionate about gender issues; being the gender advisor for the Ghana YMCA and all. I was so excited by Julia’s vision for the blog and couldn’t see myself not being a part of the movement she was trying to start.

But there was something else that compelled me to add my voice to this women’s rights advocacy platform. Being in the field of development I find that the voices of the very women we are trying to advocate for are not given the same platform to tell their own stories as we give to others trying to tell the story for them.

As a woman of colour born in a developing country and raised in a community of strong women of colour, I feel compelled to throw my hat in the ring and contribute to this discourse on behalf of my mother, my aunts, sisters, my cousins and especially my grandmothers. I find that the struggles of girls and women in our communities aren’t given the same attention as others. So as a blogger for Girls’ Globe, I try to use our platform to talk about things that are close to my heart. I haven’t quite figured out what my physical presence as a woman of colour in this movement means, but I know that it’s significant, at least to me.

And so begins my next adventure. And as with most of my adventures, there is the possibility of travel. The Girls’ Globe team has a fantastic opportunity to attend the Women Deliver conference in Malaysia this May. It will give us (the 12 blogger team) the chance to meet each other, to network with others working to promote the rights of women and girls around the world, and to listen to some pretty high profile guest speakers. I am amazed at how life seems to always lay these fantastic opportunities along my path. I’m just doing my best to recognize and take advantage of them.

In order to go to Women Deliver, Girls’ Globe launched a fundraising campaign and we only have three days left to reach our goal of $12,000USD. Your support would mean the world to me, you can check out the campaign here.

Thank you’s & some Girls’ Globe supporters

This blog is called Collecting Stamps because I set a goal for myself to fill my passport with stamps before it expires in 2014. So far I’ve already surpassed the pages filled in my previous passport with just under a year to go. I am looking forward to the adventures that will accompany the new stamps.

I will leave you with this quote from my twitter friend Amina (aka @sheRoxLox), which is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read:

I write for all of you nomad traveller women. My Grandmama. My Mama. Me. I write for you – women who travel fearlessly with *home* on their backs. The one’s who traverse all corners of the globe meeting, touching, learning, sharing, living, loving, breathing, being. I write for all of you nomad traveller women who have given me the courage, bravery (and ability) to get up and go…to see the world. To see its colours. To taste its fruit. To breathe its air. To touch its people…because the world is much too much to be ignored by women like us, too beautiful, too big, too much for women like us. I write for all of you nomad traveller women journeying far and wide but also finding comfort and solace within. I write as much for you as I write for me. I write because I am slowly beginning to understand that *for a woman to travel can be a feminist act.* I write for the strength of our backs and for the weight of our feet. I write for global communities, movements and love spaces. I write for us all. I write for love.

You can read about her journey here

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For the Love of Custom Made Clothes

My co-worker Ben and I

I took a lot away from my time in Ghana and much of it I’m now trying to find space in my closet for.  As it turns out, I came home with a whole new wardrobe.

Traditional fashion in Ghana was one of my favourite things.  Ghanaian people have serious style and it’s easy to see why when the process of having clothes made allows for such creativity.

I would go to the market and peruse until I found 1, 2, or 5 fabric patterns that I liked (on average GHC 5.00 per yard).  Fabric shopping was at times overwhelming, but always so much fun.  By the time I left Ghana the vendors at my usual spot in the market knew me far too well…one told me that if she had a son she would offer him to me for marriage.  Then I would take the fabric to my seamstress along with a drawing or picture of what I wanted made.  In all, I had three seamstresses and a tailor. I almost had a shoe-maker but restrained myself.

This is how I justified my new wardrobe:

  1. I was supporting the local textile industry
  2. I know where my clothes were made, by whom and under what conditions.  My tailor and two of my seamstresses had small shops, and one seamstress was my neighbour who sewed in her home.  I bargained a lot in Ghana, but never on clothes.  The clothes were so beautifully made that I was happy to pay whatever they asked, which as it turns out, wasn’t much.
  3. It was far cheaper than clothes at home. On average a top or skirt was 10 Cedis, dresses and pants were from 20 Cedis to 30 Cedis. ($1 CAD = GHC1.9)
  4. Everything looks good on if it’s custom tailored!

One thing that getting clothes custom-made does is make you aware of your body.  Ghanaians like to comment on physical appearance in general, and nothing encourages commentary more than someone holding a tape measure up against you.  Actual quotes from two of my seamstresses:

“Your shape is nice oo” (Ghanaians use “oo” for emphasis similar to how Canadians use “eh”)

“Your breasts, they are very small. If they were bigger it would look so nice”

Gotta love the honesty!

Other fun exchanges with the seamstresses occurred when having short dresses or skirts made.  In Ghana showing your thighs is a little taboo.  I say a little because short skirts and dresses are common at clubs, just not for day-to-day wear.   Seamstresses tend to err on the more conservative side, so I felt a little awkward asking them to make me short things.

The quality of the clothes I had made was excellent, and for the most part I loved everything.  There was however, an unfortunate bedazzling incident with what was supposed to be a basic a dress.  In an effort to make it extra special for me; because it was too plain; my seamstress took some creative liberties with a glue gun and some silver stars.  That dress didn’t make it home with me.

I think that the outfit I’m happiest with is something that I had made for my mom.  Without seeing my mom, one of my seamstresses made her a traditional outfit just using her measurements.  Mommy loves it and so do I!

Mama in her Kaba and Slit

I am also in love with the clothes I had made for myself and thought it appropriate to share pictures.  I started a fashion show for my family at home of everything I had made, but then I got tired of all the wardrobe changes – a model, I am not – so the pictures are of most, but not all of my new clothes.  Note that I chose pictures based on what showed the clothes best, not how I look.

Photography credit to Junior West, the best little brother ever.

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Tearful Goodbyes

This morning, I greeted the woman who comes into my compound to sell bread and teared up at the thought that there will be no woman with a basket of bread on top of her head coming to my door in Canada (If you know where I can sign up for such a service, please let me know).  My days in Ghana are numbered and I’m a bit of a mess.  In general I’m in denial about leaving on Friday; I don’t want to think about it, but I kind of have to. For the past few weeks, every time I walk down my street and stop to talk to my neighbours I feel such sadness at having to leave them.  If you know me, you know that whenever I travel, I get attached.  Some people are attached to things, I get attached to places and people with beautiful spirits.

For all the things that drive me nuts about Ghana, Ghanaians are making this goodbye very difficult.  On my way to work, I stopped to buy waakye for breakfast and a man at the street stall recognized me from my morning jogs: “You’re the woman who runs every morning, I see you and I’m the one always here waving you on.  One morning I will come run with you small”. When I told him that I’m leaving on Friday, without hesitation he said that he would host a going away party for me tomorrow.  Then my taxi driver, who is an usher at his church, pulled out two wedding invitations and extended invites to me.

And that has been my experience with Ghanaians, so welcoming.  I don’t know if the impromptu going away party will happen, but the offer really touched me.  The same way that my co-workers’ plans for a big send-off party on Friday before my flight is incredibly touching.  Though I shouldn’t be surprised at either offer – Ghanaians love a good party.

I will write another post about reflections on leaving soon, but in the meantime, I think I have some explaining to do for not posting more often. I can only blame so much on the load shedding and lack of electricity.  Here is what I have been up to while neglecting my blog for the past few weeks (months?):

  • Still blogging! In addition to writing for Verge Magazine, I’ve started a new blogging gig for Girls’ Globe, a website dedicated to advocating for the rights of Women and Girls around the world.  I’m super excited about it and I will continue to write for them when I’m home. If you’re on Twitter, follow us @girlsglobe and like the page on facebook: facebook.com/girlsglobe.  Click here to see my profile on the website, and here to read my first post.
  • I’ve made a couple of videos since I’ve been here. Go to my YouTube channel! One is connected to my post for Girls’ Globe and the other is of two Ghanaian youth talking about what a typical day is like for them.  Quite different from how most North American teens spend their days.
  • Finishing up my work for the YMCA. I’ve accepted that this isn’t going to happen while I’m here. Things have just started really moving forward on my project in the last few weeks.  There is so much I want to get done and not enough time, so I’ve decided that some things (like a gender mainstreaming manual I’m working on) I will finish back in Canada.  Since I don’t have a job lined up, I will have the time to properly tie up loose ends.
  • On that note – I’m looking for a job! Hire me. Please. I’m fabulous; I promise 🙂 Seriously, I have been job hunting, which is a job in and of itself.  I’m hoping that my next project/adventure is just around the corner.
  • Lastly, I’ve been enjoying my time in Ghana. Seeing as much as I can, attending weddings and funerals and getting my fill of trotro rides.  I also had a photographer friend take some pictures for me to remember my time in Ghana by. Check out some of them here.

Though I’m leaving Ghana, my blog isn’t going to die just yet.  I still have a lot to write about my time here and have a few unfinished posts that I started and will post when I’m at home.

With Mexico, the former YMCA Technical School principal, just before heading to the wedding of one of the YMCA members

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Castles – The Unromantic Kind

Today is the International Day of Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition as designated by UNESCO.  Ghana is well known for two former slave trading castles that were built on its shores centuries ago, both UNESCO World Heritage Sites.  I’ve had the chance to visit both the Cape Coast and Elmina castles since I’ve been here and it seems most appropriate to share my experiences today.

I went to Cape Coast first, a few weeks ago and I didn’t know what to expect.  My only other experience with a slave trading port was James Island in The Gambia, which I visited in 2009.  James Island was small, isolated (I had to take a boat to get there), and more like ruins than an actual structure.  It was nothing like Cape Coast. The castle was built by the Swedes in the 16th century and changed hands between European settlers before it was conquered by the British in the 17th century and used for the slave trade.

I expected that I would have time to mentally prepare to see the castle, but instead felt like I almost stumbled onto it.  I went into town with friends to get breakfast and there it was with restaurants and shops all around, tourists filing into and spilling out of the entrance, and Ghanaians just going about their business as if this large reminder of the slave trade wasn’t looming over town.  I was instantly more emotionally impacted by it than I thought I would be.  Just seeing it from the outside made me uneasy.  Inside the castle we took a guided tour through the courtyard, dungeons, living quarters of colonialists, and out through the “Door of No Return” where we were assured that unlike those who walked through the same doors towards boats destined for the Americas, we would be able to return.  The guide was great and I wondered if they ever get tired of telling the same horrific stories and if they become numb to the awfulness.

I met a woman from Cote d’Ivoire in our tour group who, upon learning that I am from the Caribbean held my hand and commented on how difficult it must be for me.  And it was difficult.  It felt so real.  The most appropriate word I can think of to describe the experience is “eerie”.  It was eerie to stand in the dungeons and know that hundreds of people were crammed in there, that you can’t see the bricks on the floor because of the buildup of human waste now hardened to the floor, and that people died in the place where I stood.  Even when I was on the beach afterwards, I couldn’t help but look up at it.  That castle got to me, it felt like a ghost.

This past weekend I went to the Elmina castle which is just down the coast from Cape Coast.  It’s a much older castle, built in the 1400s by the Portuguese.  The tour was similar, though the castle is much larger and the architecture very different.  It’s strange to find a structure that is the manifestation of such ugliness so beautiful, but it is.  Emotionally Elmina was a different experience; I’m not sure if it was because I had been to Cape Coast so it wasn’t as much of a shock or that the group dynamic was different, but I felt less deeply troubled for the most part.  One part of both tours that got to me were the stories of rape.  At Elmina I stood on the balcony where European colonialists would call the women slaves into a courtyard below and make their selection.

An interesting part of the tours for me was seeing who the other tourists were and how they reacted.  In Elmina there was a group of Europeans in my tour group; I think they were Dutch – the Dutch also ran Elmina for a period.  I found myself on one hand curious about how the experience would affect them, while on the other wishing that I didn’t have to share my experience with them.  That experience being of someone descended from slaves, with ancestry mixed with British and Portuguese a few generations back, unsure of how that mixing came to be; and feeling deeply connected to the history of the place in a pretty troubling way.  I know that the Dutch people on the tour (or contemporary Europeans in general) weren’t personally responsible for slavery; but if I feel so connected to and impacted by those enslaved people who are my people, it’s difficult for me to completely separate others from their history. Our history.

 

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Sources:

http://www.ghanamuseums.org/forts/cape-coast-castle.php

http://www.ghanamuseums.org/forts/fort-st-george-castle.php

If you are ever in Ghana, I would definitely recommend visiting the castles. But the admission charges listed in the above links are wrong!

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Fashion Friday – Vintage Ghana

In honour and memory of Teodora Beatrice Aisiedu

This post was inspired by some sad news.  My supervisor at work (Samuel) lost his mom this week, she passed away on Tuesday at the age of 77.  Today Samuel asked me for help editing some pictures he has of her and as I was going through them I couldn’t help but notice how beautiful and stylish she was.  I asked if I could share the pictures on my blog and he graciously gave me permission to do so.  I also asked if he could tell me a bit about his mom.

Teodora Beatrice Aisiedu was born in 1935 in the village of Apesokubi, in the Volta region of Ghana.  She worked as a nurse and midwife from 1968 until she retired in 2001;  and was known as an especially skillful midwife sought out by many people in rural areas.  She had three children of her own, Samuel and his two sisters.  Teodora loved singing, which she taught in church and also had a passion for cooking.

When I asked Samuel to tell me something he will always remember about his mom, he told me that she was incredibly loving and generous.  She always wanted to give him the best she could.  She also used to tell him that he didn’t dress well; but when she bought or made him clothes he wouldn’t wear them (he describes his style as simple).

Keep Samuel and his family in your thoughts and prayers, and enjoy these pictures of Ghanaian style from back in the day.

That’s Samuel in the middle

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My Love Affair with Kente

I have been super busy and not blogging much lately, but I thought I’d share some pictures and of what I was up to this weekend.

While I was in the Volta region of Ghana (East of Accra), I went to a town called Kpetoe Agotime, known for its Kente weavers.  Kente cloth is traditional Ghanaian woven fabric usually worn for special occasions.  I had purchased Kente when I was in Kumasi, but the cloth in Kpetoe was so beautiful that I had to buy more.  I shopped on Friday but didn’t have enough money with me to buy all I wanted, so one of the weavers gave me his phone number and told me if I called him he would come in on Sunday so I could shop more – and shop I did!

I bought fabric from a store and also directly from the weavers.  The money from the items I purchased at the weaving center will go directly to the weaver who made them – that’s how I justified all the purchases.  I promised myself that I’m done buying Kente, but you never know!

Here are some pictures, and below the links to video I took of the weavers at work:

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Videos:

http://youtu.be/ci2cTWS-ZSY

http://youtu.be/mC5GkSucl0M

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Never a Dull Moment

Yesterday morning I woke up, got dressed, arrived to work ready for an uneventful day in the office and by 10:30am I was sitting in the maternity ward at the hospital.  Long story short, I received a phone call from a friend whose friend (I’ll call her “A”) was about to have a C section and needed someone there, but there was no one else.  The hospital is down the street from the YMCA so she called me and asked if I could go.  And so there I was sitting in the hallway with my laptop doing work while A waited for the doctor to come.

 It took me a good while to find A; navigating the hospital’s maze of indoor and outdoor hallways, asking a whole lot of questions, being told “she’s not here” multiple times, and almost getting yelled at for trying to walk through a door I needed permission to enter.  I was spared the yelling when the guard – who wasn’t in uniform so I didn’t know he was a guard – realized that I’m not local.

I finally found myself in the right place and as I sat there I noticed that pretty much all of the women, including those in rooms, were alone.  The exception was one man sitting next to me with his wife, causing me to wonder why there weren’t more men with their partners or support people in general.  My answer came when a security guard asked the lone man to leave and wait outside of the ward.

I’m not sure how the labour and maternity wards are set up here, but I was sitting in what they call the “Female Ward”, and it seemed the only men allowed were hospital staff.   I asked one of the pregnant women next to me if her husband will be able be with her as she gives birth and she said no, not until the baby is here.   There seem to be strict rules around support people here.  When I went in to see A, I was promptly told not to sit on the bed and to make my conversation with her quick.  But on the flip side, I asked Dorothy what her experience was like when she was pregnant and she said the nurses encouraged her husband to be in the room.  She was at a private hospital though and said that government run hospitals like the one I was at may have different rules.

In general, I do not like hospitals in developing countries.  I find them clinical, depressing and there are no attempts to make them seem less so (I know that they’re not all the same).  They also remind me of my own experiences with the hospital in St Kitts, especially being admitted when I was small and how scared I was.  Yesterday there was also a particular “hospital smell” that I couldn’t identify, but it made me feel nauseous.  It wasn’t all bad though; my urge to get out of there was temporarily suspended and replaced by complete happiness when I saw a nurse walk by with a newborn, or as I like to call them, brand new babies!  I actually got teary-eyed at the sight of the little bundle.

 In the end I didn’t get to see A’s baby, because like most things in Ghana, nothing happened on time.  When I went to check with the nurse about how long it would be, she told me “it will be a while to go and come”.  I got news today that the new baby girl was born this morning though; I wish I got to meet her.

I can’t get enough of Ghanaian babies…or babies in general. Vero’s daughter Adom and I.

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Safety in Accra

Sun setting over Accra

I can’t think of a time, since arriving in Ghana, when I truly felt unsafe.  As a matter of fact, with all of the violence going on in Toronto, I thought better here than there right now.  But it’s amazing how quickly that can change.  On Friday night, one of my friends here (and fellow Canadian intern) was mugged.  She and another friend were walking home late at night when someone came up behind them and grabbed her purse.  In the struggle, my friend was cut and needed stitches on her hands.

You can’t help but feel shaken when these things happen so close to home.  I was actually out with them that night, but went home early.  I never walk home at night, but that’s because it would be too far for me to walk; and as a rule I generally avoid Tro tro’s after dark.  I’m grateful that I have friends here who always make sure I get into a taxi and then check that I arrive home safely.

It’s so easy to get lulled into a false sense of security once you get comfortable in a new place, but this has been a reminder to always be extra careful because even in the safest places, there are individuals who threaten that safety.

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