Monday, October 25, 2010

From the diamond mine to the classroom.. an update on Amos

Amos continues to be an inspiration to me. Even now.

As you may remember, around this time last year I stayed in Abokobiisi and spent time with an amazing boy, Amos. When I came back from Canada, this August, I was setting myself up for the next year ahead.. what did I want to do differently in my second year in Ghana? How have I changed? What and who did I need to reconnect with?

This led me to take some time away from the office and get back to Abokobiisi. In the past year Amos and I continued to speak, mostly through the phone, just 1 visit in person, but I was eager to actually get back to where it all began for me, when I came here a year ago and started my placement with EWB. I wanted to see what had changed. Have those deep conversations with Amos again.. the kind that can't happen on 5 minute phone calls, text messages, but always happen as you sit together for hours each day in Abokobiisi.

So this experience began when I picked him up in Kumasi and we took at 7 hour bus to Tamale. From there, we spent the night in Wamale- and for the first time, my "Dagomba family" met a member of my "Fra Fra family" (they still eagerly await the arrival of my CANADIAN FAMILY!). We rose up early the next day and took a bus to Bolga, then a taxi to Sirigu, then a 90 minute walk to Abokobiisi.

I could write for days on my time there, the conversations we had, my reflections as I left them once again.. but instead, for now, I'll just narrow in on Amos. What has happened in the past year that has brought him to where he is now- what I consider to be a much better place.

When I left Abokobiisi September 2009, Amos had been out of school for nearly 2 years. Not because he wasn't brilliant; because of money. (In Ghana, though there are technically no "school fees" for primary school anymore, there still are for JSS and SSS). He was home, helping people farm, in attempts to save for his own school fees. He had nearly given up, but I encouraged him to keep preparing, hoping, and praying, and maybe he would get to go back to school. He was just too bright to be out of school.

There were several communication gaps in the past year, due to the fact that he didn't have a cell phone so every so often he would borrow someones phone to call me- but I could never reach him. At one point he called and said he was no longer in Abokobiisi- that he had gone South to make money..

This, for better or for worse, is very common for Northerners. At first, he was weeding. Whenever he could get work, he would weed for some money- and he said he was still saving for school, hoping that this year, 2010, he could finally go to Secondary School (SS).

He then called me and asked where I was. I said Kumasi.. before we knew it, we were both in Kumasi, having lunch together face to face. I learned that he was no longer weeding because it was less profitable (about 5 GHC per day), than Galamsey.

I have come to understand that Galamsey refers to mining in Ghana, often gold or diamonds, and is illegal.

Now, I see him face to face in October, and the first thing I notice about him is a wound on his face, and the stunningly swollen nature of his hands. He too, like many others, was injured during the job, in addition to the normal physical effects of the work. And his mine is the one where several Northerners just died. It is widely known that this work is dangerous, and yet many young, rural Ghanaians (often Northerners) willingly go into this work.

Amos explained the painstakingly laborious nature of the job, and that he saw diamonds almost daily.

He said the average working day was 7am to 5pm, and that on a good day they would get 9GHC, but depending on the amount of diamonds found, they could receive as little as 4GHC, or even nothing at all for the whole day's labour.

Through his work, he came in contact with a Pastor who was amazed by Amos' English fluency. He asked to see Amos' school results, and was shocked to see how a boy so brilliant could be stuck in a mine.

Though Amos' story continues to haunt me. Though his challenges and continued hardships always pull on my heart strings.. I am still, more than anything else, amazed by him. Despite the fact that I am sad that he is orphaned, with no parents alive, and the extended family members he has are unable to send their own children to school, let alone him. Though I experience waves of discomfort to think of how I was, how my days were, when I was his age. Still- more amazing than anything else is his heart, his wisdom, his perseverance, his kindness and gentleness, and his intolerance of failure, his refusal to give up. We are both so similar. And yet, there are vast differences.. though both our hands have touched diamonds and school books, the contexts have been completely and entirely different...

I am glad to say that as I write to you, Amos is not mining, but is in school.. in Accra- learning and expanding his knowledge. Putting his hands and his head to the books, not the mines.

(To find out more about Amos, or to offer any support to him, please feel free to contact me:

Friday, October 15, 2010

BABIES: books, breasts, bums and bias..

This blog is in response to the documentary BABIES. (,

For those who haven't seen it, I guess it's worth seeing... if only so that you can make your own judgments and see whether or not you agree with my perspective. And to be fair, there were some interesting moments, and hilarious clips... yet...

The problem with pictures of Africa is that they show a 1 dimensional image of the poor, rural, hopeless African.

This image is often disempowering, if not outright offensive and inaccurate. This documentary unfortunately is no exception. Through my time in Ghana, I have come to realize, time and again, that there is no one- type of Ghanaian, or African for that matter. There is no one generalization or stereotype that can apply to all. Just as in Canada, you have people who are shy and loud, fair and dark, rude and compassionate, I have seen the same spectrum of diversity in Ghana.

I have experienced first-hand that many Ghanaians are poor. Many live in mud huts, without electricity, without cars or even bicycles, without running water or even accessible clean water, without sanitary latrines, toilets, or any bathroom facility at all. This is probably the image of Ghana that you already had in your mind as soon as you learned that it was in fact a country in Africa.

But what many do not know, and what this documentary didn't show, was that there are also Ghanaians who are educated, and some who are quite wealthy. They live in houses, some even in mansions. Send their children to private schools. Eat icecream, burgers, fries. Dress in suits and high heels. Not only have televisions, but iphones, and blackberries, and SUVs and personal drivers and househelps.
Not to mention the vast number of Ghanaians who live in between these two extremes I've mentioned.

[This is a hot topic for me (quite obviously) and one I may have to beat like a dead horse before I feel I've expressed myself. Earlier you may have seen I posted several pictures showing these different sides of Ghana, the people and places I interact with here. Those pictures were trying to capture my rant above. ]

Watching Babies, a so called documentary about babies all around the world, was supposed to be a nice afternoon. Take my mind off work and stress and enjoy a movie about babies. Who doesn't like babies? I love cross-cultural documentaries! Well.. It wasn't long before I realized that, in my view, the thesis of the movie was actually more about wealth and poverty than anything else and incredibly biased (pro-rich white America). Not a bad idea entirely. More people will probably go to the theatre to watch babies, than if you called the movie POVERTY. But I wish, oh how I wish, that they used this opportunity to reach the general public and show them a different side of Africa, even a different side of America.

Throughout the movie, they go back and forth between 4 families from America to Namibia. But the essence of the documentary was showing how the rich, white, American family cares so attentively for the child, reading from her bookshelf with countless books.. All the while, showing the poor African baby who rolls around in the dirt, mother walking around half naked, smearing his dirty bum on her leg and using a piece of maize to wipe it clean.

I do not purport that some Africans do live in such conditions- incredibly remote, illiterate, impoverished.

I also do not purport that we should show rich, potentially corrupt and selfish, Africans so that viewers walk away thinking that Africa is just fine and we can all rest comfortably at night because poverty is gone.

What I would have loved to see would be a documentary that flips our presumptions about poverty on our heads, while still highlighting the commonalities of childhood worldwide. Instead of showing the wealthy, white American family, show the impoverished, underprivileged Mexican or African American family living in the slums of New York. Show Natives living on reserves in Canada. And show a Ghanaian family that has two working parents, 2 cars, children that go to school, come home and do their homework with the assistance of their attentive mother by the laptop with wireless internet, eat nutritious food, cry for more candy, and sleep in a comfortable bed at night. The same message of the universality of babies could have been portrayed, but without reinforcing cultural stereotypes.

My guess is that people went away from watching BABIES feeling grateful for their upbringing, because it was likely on the wealthy end of the scale. This is not a bad thing. Let people be grateful, see that things are quite different around the world, that materialism has become excessive in the West. But my guess is that people may also have went away thinking that "Africans are backwards" and that there is no hope investing in them, at best-give them aid.

Until Westerners see pictures of Africa that exemplify potential, not hopeless tragedy, Africa will always be seen as a patient not a partner, weak not strong, backwards not advanced. My prayer is that more and more, people will have exposure- either through personal travel experience, family or friends' experiences, or authentic media- to an Africa that makes them think twice about what social change needs to take place so that deserving Africans can fulfill the vast potential available inside themselves, and be respected and given the dignity they deserve. Then maybe the bridge of compassion and commitment will be formed across the Atlantic and we can intelligently work at solving world problems of inequality and injustice.