Meet Dorothy

Dorothy Okwae

It’s been a while since I’ve introduced you to someone, so today I would like you to meet Dorothy; the Ghana YMCA Accountant and my French practice buddy.  Dorothy is always very vocal in my gender sessions, and in general when gender is being discussed in the office.  Here are a some of her thoughts on Gender:

What are your thoughts on the Ghana YMCA’s efforts to increase gender equality within the organization?

I think it’s in the right direction; and we as the YMCA need it because of where it’s (the organization) is coming from and because of the name*.  We actually need a gender desk here.

*YMCA stands for Young Men’s Christian Organization

What has been your experience as a woman working for the Ghana YMCA?

They haven’t had a lot of women working here (In the secretariat office).  There was one woman staff who resigned, and then myself and Vero came in.  I don’t find anything difficult about working with only men; in my family I’m used to being around men, I’m the only woman.  (Dorothy has two sons: three-and-a-half year old Pistis and Basil who is one-and-a-half).

 Sometimes the challenge is when we have (executive) meetings.  Because it’s all men, if you are not so loud you might not be heard.  Here as a woman you have to be extra loud.

Have you noticed any changes in relations between men and women in Ghana between now and when you were a student?

In the family men didn’t used to help so much.  They thought it was the sole responsibility of the woman to keep the house.  Now I see a number of career-women and the husbands help at home. They (men) change diapers, where before that would be seen as an abomination.

Now men like women to contribute financially; they are actually looking for career women because they know she will be able to help out financially which wasn’t a priority before.

You are raising two young boys; what kinds of values are you trying to instill in them with regards to gender?

I would want them to grow up respecting women.  Some men think all that a woman is good for is to be in the kitchen. They don’t like it when their partner is rising up, especially when it’s above them, like in education.  I would not want them to be like that.

 If you had a daughter, what kinds of values would you want her to have?

I would want her to be virtuous and I would like her to stand up for what she believes in.  She should not be intimidated by men or the things around her.  I am aspiring to be a good person, so I would want her to see that, if not do better than me.

Favourite Dorothy Quote: In everything that you do, you should not do away with love.

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Half Way There

This weekend marked the halfway point of my time in Ghana.  It’s going by so quickly and I’m already thinking about how sad and difficult it is going to be to leave.  Every day I think about something that I’m going to miss here when I leave; but in honour of Canada Day, here are some things I’m missing about being at home right now:

  1. Vegetables
  2. Public transportation that doesn’t (generally) cause bodily harm.  I sustain a new Trotro injury every week.
  3. HGTV
  4. Not inhaling exhaust daily
  5. Not having to say “Sorry, I don’t speak Twi”; and understanding most of the conversations taking place around me
  6. Not running out of credit on my cell phone
  7. A washing machine.  And a dryer during the rainy season
  8. The abundance of coffee shops and the ability to get any kind of food I want
  9. Composting and recycling
  10. Reliable internet, especially at work

I intentionally didn’t put any people on this list, but if you’re reading and I know you, it’s safe to assume I miss you!

This is a Trotro; my main mode of transport in Ghana. Ghanaians are such a polite people, except when it comes to getting on trotros during rush hour. I’ve been pushed aside by old women and seen grown men push women with children to get on before it even stops. I have: jumped off of a (slowly) moving trotro, traveled in on with a floor so rusted I could see the road and experienced two trotro fender benders.

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Gender Workshops and Religion in Kumasi

My workshop participants

I spent the past two weeks outside of Accra for work and I didn’t miss the big city one bit.  I was in Kumasi to start a project that will see one woman recruited in each of the five Ghana YMCA regions as advocates for Women and Gender issues.  Eventually, they will lay the ground work for a National Gender Committee of the Ghana YMCA.

While I was in Kumasi I led my first gender workshop, which was an incredible amount of fun, but not without stress.  The workshop was supposed to start at 10am; anticipating African time we told everyone that it started at 9am.  At 10am there was one person there.  At 10:30 there were two.  At this point, I was a little worried.  But just before 11:00 a steady stream of people trickled in and we got started.  I love working with people and this was a pleasant departure from sitting in an office all day. On top of that improving my facilitation skills was one of the goals I set for myself during my internship; and my ability to keep us on track and maintain order was definitely tested.

There was some pretty heated debate about gender (in)equality, at the height of which there was an assertion made that men and women are not meant to be equal because the bible says so.  Followed by asking me a) if I’m a Christian – because if I am, then I have to follow everything the bible says; and b) how I define sin – because if the bible says that men and women aren’t equal and we go against that, we’re sinning.

This was not my first time hearing this argument, I had a conversation with a pastor who shared the same views about the bible and gender equality:

Me: Well if Ghana as a country is trying to progress, how do you suppose it does that when half of the population isn’t seen as being equal and denied certain rights?

Him: The men will work to progress the country and the women are supposed to support the men.  You know the saying “Behind every successful man is a successful woman”.

Me: Actually, I think it’s BESIDE every successful man is a successful woman.  But if women are behind successful men then who is behind successful women?

Him: God

Me: Then why can’t God be behind the men too?

He then calls into question my faith, and I, sensing that this conversation is going nowhere fast and not wanting to get disrespectful, tell him that I hear what he is saying, but I disagree. End of conversation.

I am not usually one to shy away from a good fight debate, but as a facilitator I can’t get caught up in those things.  Instead of the back and forth I engaged in with the pastor, in my

Some of the descriptions the group came up with for men and women

session I said that we weren’t there to debate religion and needed to get back on track.  As frustrating as these experiences are, I’ve learned not to focus on the one or two people trying to dominate the conversation with their views, but rather on the majority of people who are there to listen, share and learn.  My efforts are better spent encouraging them to share their views and not indulging the attention seekers.

The workshop went very well with both men and women in the group challenging gender roles and stereotypes. I was so proud when I heard people talking about what they learned and when the men acknowledged how gender roles are harmful to everyone.  One of the participants talked about how he thinks there is something wonderful about being able to prepare a meal for your family and wished that it was acceptable for him as a man to do the cooking.

While I was in Kumasi I stayed with a host family and it was so nice to be around family, even if they weren’t my own.  It was also nice to have my male co-worker (whose family I was staying with), Iron my work clothes and bring me hot water for my morning tea every day while I was still in bed.  See, I’m making progress on this gender role stuff already!

My co-worker Gabriel and I

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What Does Poverty Look Like? Part 2 – Poverty Tours

I read an article the other day about this new thing called “Poverty Tourism” which was inspired by this article about poverty tours in India. Poverty tourism is exactly what it sounds like: people from ‘developed’ countries take tours of slums in ‘developing’ countries; some involve walking through the areas while others take place from tour busses.  The main arguments in favor of poverty tourism are that the money from tourists goes back into the community thereby helping them to fund services like health care and education; and that the tourists are so transformed by the ability to witness poverty first-hand that they are likely to return home and do good.

If you know me, you probably know that I wrote my MA thesis about volunteer tourism so I feel strongly about this type of thing.  So here are my thoughts about poverty tourism:

  • Poverty tours don’t lend themselves to increased compassion.  How different is looking at poor people through a bus window from watching a world vision infomercial on TV? We see images of poverty all the time, through media and in our own communities. I would argue that any increased awareness and desire to do good that comes from these tours is short lived.  You can’t expect to gain some deep insight into another person’s life in a few hours and the novelty of the experience is bound to wear off.
  • Just because the tour is run by a local and not a foreigner does not mean the money is going back into the community.  When I was doing my MA research I worked with a community organization that provided free healthcare to people in rural Guatemala.  The organization relied on a community leader to help spread the word to community members, until they learned that the community leader had been charging people to access the free clinic services.   You can’t assume that just because someone lives in a community that he/she has their neighbours best interests in mind.  People will do what they feel is necessary to survive.
  • In the cases where poverty tours do give money back to the community, why should poor people have to be put on display and have their privacy invaded in order to receive money for schools, health care etc.? Especially when the rest of us are afforded these luxuries basic human rights without being treated like attractions in a zoo? If you really want to give money, then do it without requiring something in return.

I feel like these arguments are things people use to justify exploiting others to satisfy a personal curiosity.  If it’s run by a local person, if the money goes back into the community, then it’s ok.

I thought about all of the things that make me angry about poverty tours, and then I remembered something that made me feel like a complete hypocrite.  A few weeks ago my roommate was invited to visit a project that the organization she works for supports in one of Accra’s slums.  She came home and told me about the experience which left her feeling shaken, and invited me to come along the next time.  My immediate reaction was yes! I want to go and see this side of Accra that is generally hidden.  I’m a naturally curious person and I want to experience the beautiful and easy parts of living in Ghana, but also the parts that are not so easy.

But is that any different from a poverty tour?  I console myself with the knowledge that my presence in this community would be the result of an invitation and not reliant on paying to gain access.  That the visit wouldn’t occur in a vacuum where I show up and take some pictures from a distance then leave, but contribute to the larger experience of living in Ghana. That I have an understanding that people are generally not tourist attractions and treat everyone I meet anywhere accordingly.  Still, I’m not entirely convinced that my motivations are all that different from someone who would want to take a poverty tour.

My main issue with poverty tours is that they do nothing to increase compassion or a real understanding of the tour subjects lives but both rely on, and perpetuate the cycle of pity.  They uphold this image of “the other” for us t gawk at and feel sorry for; stressing the differences instead of the similarities between human experiences.  Maybe I would feel better about the tours if they included educating tourists about how their (our) privileged lives are directly connected to the suffering of others.

I would still like to take that visit to the slum with my roommate though, am I a hypocrite? Is there a difference?

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What Does Poverty Look Like? Part 1

One morning about two months ago I opened my front door to leave for work, and to my surprise one of the girls from the neighbourhood was standing on my doorstep.  I knew who she was because she had been hanging around the house when I first moved in.  She told me she was going to school, as I guessed from her uniform and as we left my front gate she said to me “please some money for school”.  She caught me off guard, and thinking that maybe she needed the money for transportation I asked her how she got to school.  She said that she walked.  I told her that I only had enough money with me to pay my own transportation so I couldn’t give her any.

Every day on my way to work I pass children begging in the heavily populated commuter areas.  They are not Ghanaian children, as is obvious by their physical appearance, but come from Mauritania (I’m told).  They are young; I would guess most are between 4 and 12 years old.  Their mothers, and occasionally fathers, sit off to the side keeping an eye on their working children.  And what they do is work; they hold out hands for spare change while signaling that they need food; call me sister and put on big smiles, which quickly turn to frowns when their efforts are not rewarded, and often grab a hold of the arms, legs and even wrap their arms around my waist as I try to walk.  People say that they are nomads, refugees, their parents lazy.

I didn’t give money to the well dressed school girl from across the street and I don’t give money to the street children and their families, who more closely resemble the stereotypes of poverty, either.

I have a list of justifications for not giving money.  I see the same people daily, and if I give money one day it will become an expectation that every time I pass I will give something; I don’t want to contribute to the thinking that begging is the way to make a living, especially to children; what does it say to the women who walk around all day selling water sachets on their heads for 10 pesewas each (less than $0.10) if others are making more money sitting off to the side while their children beg?

But to be honest, saying no is my default.  Knowing that my answer is always going to be “no”, makes facing those interactions easier.  It’s easier because I don’t have to try and be the judge of who is deserving, whose story most compelling, who tugs at my heart strings most to get my spare change, which I don’t feel equipped to do.  It’s a way of distancing myself from the moment while I’m in it.

I’m not bothered by the children themselves, but I often feel angry when I see parents sitting under trees eating while the children are out begging.  So I judge.  I also judged my 12-year-old neighbour when she came over, looking well taken care of wearing a stylish pair of Converse sneakers, not looking like she needed money.  I learned that she had a close relationship with the last foreign family who lived in my house, helping them out with the cooking and their young child, but also spending time playing.  I don’t know the exact nature of the relationship or if she was paid for the help she provided; but I would imagine she received something, maybe help with school fees.  I also imagine that young girls from financially secure families don’t work in the homes of foreigners; especially considering the unpaid work that is expected of them in their own homes.

Both situations raise so many questions.  In one, I was targeted specifically as a foreigner, which makes me ask whether there is a genuine need or simply the expectation that because I am foreign I have money to spare? Maybe both.

The other asks a set of more complex questions that I have been trying to find answers to:  Is begging a choice for these families when there are other options? Or is it the only option?  Why did they leave their homes? Are there tensions between them and Ghanaians?  What kinds of barriers do they face in trying to integrate into Ghanaian culture and access resources? Do they want to integrate into Ghanaian culture? Is the presence of these families on the street considered a problem and if so, are resources being put towards addressing it?

Seeing people living on the street isn’t foreign to me, we have our share of homeless and poor people in Canada; the difference being that at home I am armed with a decent understanding of homelessness and all of its dimensions.   If I chose not to give directly to individuals on the street there are organizations I can support which serve individuals and communities in need.

Not knowing whether those same options are available here makes me feel a little damned if I do (give money) and damned if I don’t.  It also makes me wonder what the long term prospects are for the communities of nomads/refugees/displaced people living on the streets in Accra, as well as the overall social implications if these communities continue to grow.

**Edit 6/26/2012 **

A few follow up conversations after this post have informed me that at least some of the street children and their families come from Mali.  Also, if you want to read about another expat’s encounters with beggars in Accra, read my friend Carol’s post here.

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Fashion Friday

A few weeks ago, I attended a fashion show at Alliance Francaise, Accra. The dresses were beautiful, but only one example of Ghanaian style.  I’m hoping to capture some pictures of day-to-day Ghanaian fashion to share here in the next few weeks. For now enjoy the pictures from the show:

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And here I am in my new blazer, purchased from the designer of the Ankara Rebel line:

It’s not every day that I get to buy clothes directly from a designer

You can see the spring 2012 line of Ankara Rebel blazers and clutch purses here.

 And follow on twitter

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Where did May go?

I was on an unintentional blog hiatus – really, I just got busy and didn’t get around to new posts.  I can’t believe it’s already June.  What was I busy with you ask? Well…

Working on collecting those passport stamps

I spent an extended weekend in the neighbouring country of Togo.  The trip was supposed to be to Togo and Benin, but when I my fiend Julianne and I arrived at the Beninese border, we were refused visas.  The immigration agent was obviously not in a good mood and had us escorted out of the country – the ultimate walk of shame.  But on the bright side, we were able to spend more time in Togo, which is beautiful.  If you’re interested in my pictures from the trip, you can see them here.

Overheard while passing through customs on the way back to Ghana: “Oh, you’re with the white man”

The customs agents stopped me to check my bag so I called out to Julianne, who was a few steps ahead of me, to let her know.  All of a sudden they changed their minds and I was being waived through without being checked.  Lesson of the day, always cross the border into Ghana with a white person. In the words of my good friend Fayola “My people, my people”.

New bogging gig

I am now a guest Blogger for Verge magazine!  Verge is an online publication for people interested in traveling and volunteering abroad.  I will be writing about what it’s like to live and intern in Ghana, while offering tips for people interested in working or living abroad.  My posts will appear twice a month and will be different from what I write about here.  Click here to read my first post about what it’s like being constantly mistaken for a Ghanaian person. And bookmark my profile page to check back for new posts.

Learning Twi!

I’ve been picking up bits and pieces of the language since I’ve been here, but I have decided that it’s time to put some real effort into learning.  Besides, if I’m going to look Ghanaian, I might as well speak one of the local languages.

My study aid

I’m going to need a local person to help me with these pronunciations


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Meet Vero!

Meet Vero!

Meet Vero

I think it’s time I introduced you to some of the people who are a part of my life in Ghana; starting with Veronica (aka Vero). Vero works in the administrative department of the YMCA and she is one of my favourite people in the office! Every work day starts with a hug from her and she introduced me to the fact that we can send students from the YMCA boys’ trade school to bring us lunch; thereby avoiding the walk down the road in midday Ghanaian sun.

A few weeks ago I went to her house for lunch and we made a traditional Ghanaian dish – Fufu and light soup. Fufu is pounded green plantains and cassava (though you can also use yams), and light soup is a tomato based soup with fish.

I asked Vero if I could ask her some questions for my blog; I told her that she should accept her impending fame. She wasn’t buying it but humored me anyway.

Name: Veronica Ama Ampofoah Nanor

Where in Ghana did you grow up: Accra, Tema. But I went to school in Eastern Region for three years.

What is it like being a woman in Ghana?

It’s interesting and comfortable, it’s not so challenging because not so much is expected from us. Especially when you get to the traditional setting; most women look up to the men. Even when you can go the extra mile, you are appreciated for the little you have done. To some extent it’s not good for us because you are not challenged. You are seen as the weaker one. But today to be a woman, it’s good because you have so many opportunities, especially now that they are trying to welcome women into bigger settings, like I businesses and politics. The few women who find themselves in these positions really enjoy them because they are taught the way to be successful.

What are your personal goals and aspirations?

The level I would reach where I would think “I’m ok”, would be to be a legal practitioner. I will be content with that. I want to own my own home and educate my children to a level higher than I reached.

What level did you reach?

Bachelor of arts, but for legal practitioner I would need a post-graduate degree in Law

What are your hopes for your daughter, when she grows up?

I would want her to be a learned person; as in get to the level of professor or even the director of a school. So I’ve even started calling her Vice Chancellor. But there are no fasten rules about it, because once she grows up she may have different ideas of what she wants to be, but the main idea is for her to get to the top.

What is your day typically like?

A typical day starts at 4am for me. I prepare breakfast and lunch for VC (Adom), and then get ready and get her ready and then send her to her caretaker who takes her to school. I leave the house by 6:10, and get in the office by 7:10. Normal day in the office is paperwork and checking mails, (and giving me hugs). After work I pick her from the caretaker’s home to the house and prepare supper. By 9:00 we are in bed. I call my mom almost every day because she doesn’t live around here.

What do you like to do for fun?

I like going out, to the accra mall, visiting friends. I sing,(but) I’m not a bathroom singer, I’m a kitchen singer.

How did I really do pounding the fufu?

I want to be fair. You see, because you don’t have that kind of food it’s understandable how you pounded it. Because I’m sure if there was a third person there, the person would have been laughing as to how you were pounding it. But I understood how you were pounding it; I’m sure you haven’t seen that kind of equipment before, and you haven’t seen anyone doing it before, so you did well.

My 60 seconds of pounding didn’t contribute much to the preparation of our meal

Would you like to say anything to my blog readers? (Family, friends)

They did well, with your upbringing. The tolerance and the change of environment you have been able to adapt to in such a short time. You don’t even look like a foreigner. I would also be glad to see them if I get the chance.

I showed Vero a picture of my dad that I have on my computer, her response: He looks Ghanaian! Even his hair, the men here have the same hair. He will pass for someone from the Volta region here.

My Ghanaian-looking daddy

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Hands off the merchandise!

Before I left for Ghana, I went through a pretty thorough week of training which included charting where I thought my ups and down would be over the seven months.  If I recall correctly, I put my first low at the one month mark, after I thought the novelty of being in a new place would have worn off and the real adjustment would begin.  Well, I made it through that point with no problems, but at just about two months, I’m definitely suffering some culture fatigue.  There is nothing big that I’m having trouble adjusting to, but small differences that over time started to wear on me.  The main thing is feeling like my personal space is constantly being invaded.  This isn’t a Ghana thing, so much as it’s an Accra thing, and more specifically a: commuting through one of the busiest transportation hubs in the country, thing.

My commute to work deserves, and will get, its own blog post.  But for now, I’ll say that people don’t hesitate to touch me on a daily basis; whether it’s the street children latching on to me and asking for money, a vendor to trying and sell me something, a stranger reprimanding me with a slap for using my left hand*, one or just an overly friendly man grabbing my hand to get my attention.   Sometimes it feels like I have to make it through a gauntlet of attention just to make it to work and back, and having to constantly keep my guard up and shrug off attention is exhausting.

So I decided to run away from the city.  I left Accra for the weekend and headed to the Volta region in the East, where I spent two days by myself doing nothing but reading a book and eating fresh seafood while the breeze from the ocean cooled me off.

I’m back in the city and committed to preserving my sanity amidst the constant rush.  The thing is, although Accra has its fair share of hustle and bustle; there are also good places to escape that feel more like home.  I recently spent an afternoon in a local coffee shop that could have easily been a Starbucks – but with much better food and a liquor license – amidst expats and Ghanaians on catching up with friends and on break from office jobs.  Although being around those people made me miss my friends back home immensely, it also reminded me that just because I’m far away from home, doesn’t mean I have to abandon all the things I find comforting.

*It’s considered bad manners to use your left hand to give or take anything because the left hand is supposed to be the “bathroom” hand.

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Allow me to veer off topic for a moment

While I was slacking on new posts for my own blog, I was blogging for someone else.  For those of you who don’t know, before I left for Ghana I was doing a volunteer internship at UNICEF in Toronto. It was a fantastic experience for me and working for UNICEF has always been one of my dreams,  so I felt really honoured and excited when I was asked to write a blog post for them.  Check out my post about volunteerism in honour of National Volunteer week here!

Rocking my UNICEF T-shirt and new hair extensions in Ghana


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