Saturday, June 30, 2012

Lakeside Paradise, Epidemy, Hospital (Week 4)

You find your way to Tech junction or Anloga junction. There, you ask your way into a tro-tro headed for Atonsu, from where you may or may not stay in the same car to get to Kuntanase. From here, a six cedi taxi ride (divided among six passengers: four in the back and two in the front) will take you there.

Lake Bosomtwe is a crater lake created by a meteor quite some time ago. It is an almost perfectly round, 49 km², pool of muddy water situated about 30 km or one hour southeast of Kumasi. In short, it is a naturally beautiful and different place in the region. The lake is surrounded by steep, 600 m high, forested walls in every direction and when I first visited the place, there was a cloud cover that even accentuated the weird light in the place. All this gives it a very isolated atmosphere, which probably explains why the Ashanti consider the place, not surprisingly, sacred. According to Wikipedia, from where all accurate information presented here is acquired (Yes I’m feeling lazy and know I’m being very lame), there are 70 000 people living in 30 villages around the lake. This seems a very high estimate since the shores, when inspected from one point, seem like one dense tropical forest dotted by buildings every here and there.

On a spot on the western shore of the lake, a cluster of activities targeted for tourism has emerged. You can find accommodation of different levels, bars, restaurants, an information centre etc… When arriving to the lake you will be asked to register (write your name in the guestbook) and pay a voluntary (compulsory) nominal fee (One or two cedis) to support activities for conserving the unique surrounding. What raised most excitement in our fellowship was, however, the existence of one Hotel Paradise (What a name, huh?) that serves also European style meals. This being our first chance in three weeks to be touristic and avoid local flavors, we took it regardless of the high price.

The lake is supposed to be free of danger, which makes a swim in it an appealing way of refreshing yourself. A bit disappointingly, however, the lake is very warm regardless of its respectable maximum depth of over 80 meters. What I find most interesting would be to visit to the surrounding villages instead of the tourism center. They seem very isolated and surely exhibit a relatively traditional way of life, including fishing activities which are limited by a range of superstitions.

I’m sure to return there and write more on the place, but in short Lake Bosomtwe (Or is it Lake Bosumtwi?) is the first place here that you really don’t want to not visit when travelling in the Ashanti region.

I’ve also come by another peculiar place. If you get out of a tro-tro at the Amakom roundabout and walk north, you will find a curious cluster of funeral industries and businesses. Here, the sidewalks are on a stretch of hundreds of meters covered with coffins, one more prestigious than the other, almost as inviting you to test-drive them. Amidst them, there is the normal cocktail of fruit and vegetable vendors, small pubs (called spots) and other small enterprises. I don’t think there is a better (or crueler?) way of showcasing the fact that death is a part of everyday life.

Robert, our new project manager, is proving to be quite the engine for the project. The other day, he decided that the fee we were about to pay for using the auditorium at KTI (200 cedis, equivalent to about 87 €) was way too much. So, he brought me, Alima and Daniel along with him as he marched to the principal of KTI for a bargaining session. Luckily, Mr. Apree appeared pretty stressed and was running from one emergency meeting to another and in about 90 seconds caved in not only to give us a considerable discount but provide the venue for free! In Europe, I don’t think a man in his position would even have agreed to see us… Next on his agenda is getting the KNUST Press to print out certificates for everyone attending the seminar. For free, of course. Also, he wants to use his contacts to get us on air on the local radio. In addition to speed, he’s brought to the project a fair amount of dynamism, drive and enthusiasm. Through a great part of this, his been suffering from ”light” malaria. Naturally.

Robert’s case of malaria provided an amusing (If anything involving malaria can be amusing) look on differences in Saturday-night culture. Last Saturday night, we had a house party. After the party Robert was too tired to go home. This is understandable, since tro-tros aren’t really reliable in night time and everyone is advised to avoid moving alone late in the night. So he slept in our big hall of a living room. Now, in summer-time Europe (certainly Finland), this would involve getting bit by a lot of mosquitoes and probably having a hangover in the morning. Here, it involves getting bit by a lot of mosquitoes and most certainly having malaria by morning. There’s some motivation to find your way home every night.

This post is getting a bit melancholic… There seems to be a quite rough epidemic going on in The House. It involves diarrhea, noxiousness, fever and so on. For some reason I got off by throwing up instead of sleeping for one night, but quite a lot of the non-Africans here have had to visit the hospital. None of them has been right away diagnosed with malaria, and even though it is here quite expensive, the Local Committee has taken steps to disinfect The House of any transmittable germs.

Because Belinda was one of the people in need of a brief trip to the hospital, also I got to know to the Ghanaian hospital life. The Ejisu Government Hospital was, from a western point of view, an experience. The interior is not as well lit as you might expect and the combination of light bulbs and fans in the ceiling result in a scary blinking of everything and gives the place an atmosphere representing that of horror movies or video games from the 90’s. When entering the hospital, everything seems a bit closed. There’s a small opening in the wall through which you get to register yourself. The next checkpoint is a table in the opposite end of the hall, surrounded by three or four nurses that always measure your temperature, weight and blood pressure. The laboratory is another booth in the same hall. The doctor will talk to you by a table set in another hall, next to the dormitories. In short the place is, as Jasmine put it, “kind of sketchy.”

On the other hand, the staff of the hospital is quite friendly, as almost anyone in Kumasi (Save for speaking an incomprehensible language and either laughing or shaking their head when taking the tests or getting your results). In a way not representing other places here, they are also sufficiently efficient and possess a routine that enables them to take care of their task so that the visit doesn’t take any longer than in Finland. After an initial shock, you will notice that people are even here, where I suppose you would see more suffering due to malaria and HIV/AIDS than in any hospital in Europe, quite cheerful!

Some additional notions about basic services in Ghana follow. First of all, there are hospitals, as well as schools, everywhere. Having a very young population, the widespread existence of these institutions would according to most development theories promise a bright future for Ghana. An educated and healthy population is after all, the basis for almost any general progress in a society. This also hints that all government or aid spending is not lost due to corruption and that the government in general has an interest in developing the people after all. Also, medicines are in Ghana outrageously cheap. Belinda was provided with a set of three or four different drugs filling a small plastic bag, and the total price was 7 cedis, which translates to about three Euros. These facts of course have to be seen in the local context. For instance, in addition to drugs being cheap the general level of income isn’t that high either. When it comes to the high supply of schools, one has to keep in mind that a considerable share of them does not offer free education.

Friday morning, I had one more entertaining discussion. My laptop is giving me a hard time. Most of time, instead of starting properly, it turns into a fire alarm. Every now and then, as when trying to demonstrate the problem to anyone who knows anything about computers, it works properly. So I decided to have an efficient Friday to earn my weekend and started it by getting up really early and going to campus to find a computer shop to repair the laptop. I found two, neither of which were of course open. So I found my way to a small booth displaying eggs and decided to have the sweet lady inside make me a nice omelet sandwich for a real mans breakfast. While I was waiting for the sandwich, the lady got into a clear dispute with a well dressed man on the same errand as me. Having good manners, the man soon explained the issue to me in a shared language:

“Let’s say you pass here every day, and every morning you great a man who’s keeping a shop. But he never greets you back. What do you do? Do you stop greeting him or do you keep greeting him?”

Not the most important issue in one’s life, but apparently it was connected to a wider debate about Christian behavior (In this case never lowering yourself to the opponents level.), religion and without doubt state of the society. After answering that I would stop greeting the rude man, the lady got quite upset and maintained that I am “not a mature Christian” and need to grow up. I tried to explain that in my culture we avoid greeting anyone anywhere, in vain I understood quickly. The encounter taught me once again that no matter how upset or mad the Ghanaians seem, they most probably are not. When paying for my breakfast (not more than 40 cents), the lady showed off her Christianity. When trying to pay in coins (a price half of that in Tech, as I also told her), she insisted on giving exchange for a five-cedi note she saw in my hand, telling me that: “If you give this to someone else, they might tell you that they do not have change and cheat you!”

Ten days, ten regions, two neighboring countries. That’s pretty much our itinerary for the All-Ghana tour we will start on Monday at the break of dawn. According to Stephen, the trip will be long, tiring and adventurous (He later told me that he didn’t want to use the word “dangerous”). A hell of a ride, in other words. Most probably, this means that my posts during the next couple of weeks will be short and sporadic, if any. I’m sure there will be al lot to write about after our safe return to Kumasi…

Monday, June 25, 2012

Conductors and Cadets (Week 3)

I would like to take some time to present a remarkable profession that I have gotten to follow closely, even a bit more than I would’ve liked: the tro-tro conductors (By the way, I managed to enter the one named “I’m Hustler”). Every car’s personnel consist of two men: the driver and the conductor (Actually, right after writing the previous sentence I got into a tro-tro with the first female conductor I’ve seen). The driver drives, whereas the conductor, usually a youngster, takes care of all other imaginable tasks. On the chaotic “stations” (randomly chosen roadside stretches, it seems to an outsider), they get out and start shouting out the direction of that particular tro-tro. When a lost westerner appears, looking for the car that will bring one safely home, these are the ones to, with 100 per cent accuracy, direct you to the right one. When on the road, the conductor charges you, according to the distance you will be riding. I have not seen a document stating any fixed rates, but the conductors always know the price and I have not heard of them charging foreigners higher prices. Often, you won’t get your change right away. The conductors prefer to charge all the passenger present in the car and later provide change, again out of memory and without mistakes.

Before the rain
The fact that westerners and locals most often pay the same price in tro-tros and for other services (which reportedly isn’t the case elsewhere in Africa) reflects the overall Ghanaian mentality, hospitality, honesty and sense of just. I think Guy wrapped out our feelings very well when he, after a couple of beers at the Hotel Paradise at Lake Bosomtwe, again astounded by the cheap taxi ride back, stated that “we like it here because these people don’t know how to exploit tourists.” There are exceptions, of course. One of the museums that we did not enter at Kumasi Cultural Center charges with no shame substantially higher prices for non-Ghanaians compared to natives of Ghana. I don’t want to make too big a deal of it, though, before I hear some kind of an explanation.

What potentially can make living here as a European more expensive that the Ghanaian lifestyle is that imported products are hard to come by and generally cost a lot. European beer costs about double the price of local beer, which by the way is very good. A liter of soy milk (not that good) will cost you about as much as a liter of dairy milk in Finland, which is a lot in this setting. A package of Nutella costs around seven Ghana cedis, over three times the price of my average lunch meal (I rarely eat Nutella in Finland but have a craving for it here. Why?). I am yet to even try buying European cheese but have already found out where to get it. To get these products you also need to take at least two tro-tro rides to get to Adom which can take over an hour to one direction and of course cost more money.

The tro-tro conductors also take care of spotting new customers when moving at a fairly high speed in relation to the condition of the roads and cars. This practically involves dangling out of the side door of the minibus, waving and shouting your heart out and eventually banging your fist on the outside of the hull of the vehicle to make the driver aware of the need to stop. The same will take place whenever a passenger wants to disembark. At this point, you simply loudly call out something like “mate” and gesture as clearly as possible that you want out. When imported to Ghana, the minibuses are rearranged and stuffed with more seats for the obvious economic reason of fitting as many paying customers as possible. This often means that if I, seated on the row of seats furthest back, need to get out, four or five people seated in between me and my relief from fear of crashing to my death also need to get out. Again, what would in Finland be seen as a shameful inconvenience and bad for the business (and what I like to call first world problem) is here simply an everyday necessity that really doesn’t do much harm to anyone.

It almost goes without saying that the conductors also take care of technical problems. A tro-tro I entered at Tech junction refused to start and the problem was quickly localized in the battery, which was to be found under my seat, between my legs. The conductor insisted that there was no need for me to get up and took care of the operation in what looked like a very uncomfortable position. I have to add that also the battery itself didn’t appear very reliable or secure. This time around the problem could not be solved without professional help and an electrician was called upon and arrived in about 40 seconds. He is called, believe it or not, Sparky. Another tro-tro died when picking up passengers. I swear to god, the conductor got out and single handedly pushed, in a very slight downhill, the minibus, full of customers, to a rolling speed high enough to kick-start the engine, after this catching the moving car and jumping in.

The rain
As for the YES Project, we have now gotten a local project manager, Robert, halfway through the planned first phase of the project. He seems very dynamic and resourceful and I’m confident that he will help us a lot in maintaining contacts to local enterprises and schools as well as simply in knowing his way around the town. We are now struggling, for many reasons which include national holidays, summer vacations, and our upcoming tour around Ghana, to find a convenient date for the seminar. I have to say the project is a bit stuck, which is frustrating since two of my longest lasting teammates, Jasmine and Carter, will be leaving Ghana in virtually no time.

When again visiting the Methodist Vocational Institute (many schools here carry religious names) in Kwadaso, I came upon an interesting habit. A bunch of what seemed to be older students, wearing uniforms, were practicing marching to the beat of a drum on the central plaza of the campus. Actually this reminded me of my service time in the Finnish Defense Force. My local guide, Cosmas, informed me that these people are called cadets and are found in every school. If I have understood correctly, all students have to do an amount of time serving as a cadet. They are responsible for the order and security in the school. What I find great about this practice is that, according to Cosmas, being trained as a cadet gives one good chances of employing herself/himself as a security guard later in life.

I am sorry to inform you that I have suffered my first loss in betting for games in the Euro 2012. I did make it through the group stage with a clean record though… My demise was a consciously risky, one-to-two-ratio, bet with a Portuguese girl, Joanna, for the Czech Republic to beat the Lusitanian in the quarter-final.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Chinese presence, being European and a security guard (Week 3)

The Chinese presence in The House is beginning to show. Now, I count eight of them. And they’re noisy. All of them are basically nice guys, at least when talked to in a small group. But the thing is that they like to empower their cultural identity a lot. This means that they will stick a lot together and communicate in a language that no-one else understands. They also spend a large portion of their time searching for good enough Chinese food. So they come here and they do a lot of stuff their way. I guess all this parallels the general situation in Kumasi, Ghana and Africa, where the Chinese are overtaking many roles formerly kept by westerners. These include aid and trade, as is already well acknowledged in most development discussion. In Kumasi, for example, it is a lot easier to find a Chinese restaurant or supermarket than a European one. Also the Chinese are known for doing whatever they do cheaply, effectively, in their own way and without asking many questions. In short, they are easier to deal with than westerners and don’t intervene in local dynamics precisely because they like to keep to themselves.

On something like the same topic, it’s fun to notice how well I identify myself as a European here. When travelling in Europe, I feel there is a strong feeling of differences between nations, people and different groupings sticking together. But in a pretty global setting like The House (the only continents not represented so far are South America, Australia and Antarctica), it actually feels like you’ve known every new European that arrives for a long time. It makes me see stuff in a new perspective. Being a European also attracts a fair amount of interest and even respect, but it seems that this is nothing compared to looking Asian. For instance, Guy, my roommate, likes to bring anyone Chinese along to any important meeting because “it gives him some credit.”

I think in the last post I wrote something about local politics and the power of the local Asantehene (the Ashanti king) Osei Tutu II versus that of the national, modern style government. Interestingly enough, I found a blog post online ( about the following day, stating that overlapping traditional and “modern” governance systems often seem to lead to urban violence. The comments are based on a new, wide research project conducted around the third world. This, obviously, is not the case in Kumasi, however. Why? I still need to get some locals to talk about this and will try to follow up on the issue (if no-one opposes). Is the Asantehene an exception who is especially willing to co-operate with the government (they still strongly maintain that he has a lot of power and does use it)? Or is this one more example of how Ghanaians seem to be able to avoid violence and conflict better than most nations in West Africa? This stability has, in fact, lasted through the reign of several Asantehenes.

The YES Project is growing in personnel. It now consists of me, Carter from China, Jasmine from NYC and to new, silent Ivorians, Daniel and Alima, of which the former one is a new roommate of mine and a tremendous footballer. The new guys are very active and eager to participate. The two last mornings, they’ve been up hours before me and sat on the veranda waiting for the faintest possibility to follow one of us (“The veterans”, a respectable two weeks into the project…) to any meeting or other activity. I have great expectations of them! As for the project itself, we are closing in on a date and a venue for the Big Thing. On Tuesday, I visited Kumasi Technical Institute (KTI) with Daniel. KTI is a huge technical school with education lines for almost every imaginable hands-on profession. Without hesitating, the headmaster first introduced us to a vast emptiness called the main auditorium that would easily seat a thousand persons (which we will never be able to lure there) and then immediately called in a meeting including all the heads of the different departments in the school, just to present us and our project! I have to say I felt very embarrased but also flattered by the attention. The result was that KTI will basically do half of the organizing work for us through their capabilities and facilities.

Overall it has been reassuring to see how easily people are to be gotten behind the project; fortunately, they recognize youth unemployment as a key issue in Ghana just as well as any of us. If only this would translate to provision of hard funding in addition to equipment, human resources etc. for the project…
A comment for anyone thinking about travelling to Ghana: you might find extensive photographing a bit uncomfortable. Whenever I produce a camera (an inconveniently large one, I’ve now understood), I’m surrounded by either by kids wanting to get in the picture (which is ok and even fun by me) or people asking for me to pay for the pictures. I’ve managed to ignore (which is the advice given to me) or escape all but one of them. Anyway, not much taking pictures in peace when in populated environments!

The character of the week has to be security guard at the CAL Bank office at the KNUST Campus, which you find right at one of the entrances to the campus. Initially I found him as a strict and dull looking man, even dangerous and a bit scary. A security guard, in other words. One recent Sunday I tried to get out quite a lot of cash from the adjacent ATM, of which the machine failed to deliver a single pesewa. The machine from hell was however successful in diminishing the amount of money on my account and even gave me a receipt on the supposed transaction. Embarrassingly, I may have lost my temper a bit, which caught the guards’ attention. After politely offering help, he directed me to the bank office, from where they directed me to my own, Finnish bank, who told me I cannot deal with the problem online but instead have to send a bunch of signed papers back to Finland by mail… It is weird how much work some banks do in order for you to not get your money when you need it and/or something goes wrong. Anyway, now, whenever I enter the campus and walk past the guard and his office, he wants, to an moving extent, to know whether I have gotten my money back yet. So I’m providing him with updates on the situation almost every day. If anyone knows a good way of letting him know that I appreciate his concern (over a problem that actually has nothing to do with him), let me know!

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Politics, Ivory Coast, France, Sarkozy, Haircuts... (Week 2)

When asked about local politics, most Ghanaians seem to be set on fire. Parties and their popularity are here more based on ethnicity than on ideology. This is because “you rarely can trust someone from that other group to think of your best.” This builds up to a simple vicious circle: People vote for their own ethnicity and politicians prioritize their own ethnic group to secure future votes. In contrast to many other African countries, however, there is a striking atmosphere of unity in Ghana (e.g. the people I live with refer to themselves rather as Ghanaian than Ashanti or anything else). As was pointed out to me, this kind of ethnic-political dynamics easily result in violence, except for in Ghana!

One example of that is neighboring Ivory Coast, from where a bunch of my new friends have come to Kumasi. Even in Europe, few will have been able to avoid hearing about the violent power struggle between Alassane Ouattara and Laurent Gbagbo that took place pretty recently. It is striking how differently the events have been perceived in Europe (with great help from our “objective” media) compared to West Africa. In Finland, Gbagbo was depicted as more or less a classical, corrupt depot, clinching to his power by the means of corruption, civil unrest and ultimately near civil war. On the other side of the dichotomy was Ouattara, fresh champion of democracy, open to development and western modernization.

Talking to Ivorians turns the situation upside down. According to them, Gbagbo is a strong leader who successfully resisted neocolonialism and had his interests more in developing the Ivory Coast instead of maintaining good relations to the west. Ouattara, on the other hand, is merely a Muppet controlled mainly from Paris and put into office with French military support. In the big picture, the Ivorians are very frustrated of the way in which their country is still controlled by the former colonial power, compared to for instance Ghana.  They do strongly believe that things are improving, though. I regret that I wasn’t here in time for the French presidential election which, I’ve been told, resulted in a big party at The House…

What has most surprised me in the political life of Ghana is that the Ashanti Kingdom is still, as an institution, alive and well, although it in Finland is mentioned mostly in history books. Last Saturday, we visited the King’s Palace in Kumasi (The capital of Ashanti region). According to the locals, nothing big takes place in Kumasi or the Ashanti region (Population ) without the knowledge and blessing of Otumfuo Osei Tutu II. The first thing president John Atta Mills does when visiting Kumasi is pay homage to the king. He rides around town in a British Racing Green, brand new Jaguar without plates and is still highly respected. Would this be a good example of combining western-style democracy and traditional governing systems for a balanced political life in developing countries? After all, Europeans are here frequently told that Africans, for cultural reasons, need strong, benevolent leaders (even something we would call dictators) rather than complete democracy. That’s the like of Gaddafi and Castro.

And now to completely different matters… Finally, I had my hear cut! My former hairstyle represented more a helmet and carried in this climate a constant chance of a heatstroke. The operation cost me 1,5 Ghanaian cedis, about 65 European cents. Keep in mind that a large beer here costs 2,5 cedis. When using the same ratio, a beer should in Helsinki cost over 40 €! The comments regarding my new style range from something unprintable via prisoner of war and skinhead to the genuine Ghanaian look and I wouldn’t post a picture in this blog if my life depended on it!

The rains are getting harder. I’m told it means that it’s going to keep raining long into July. I don’t really mind: I’m taking the same stance as, Guy, the British guy in my room (By the way, I provide a link to his blog on our shared stay here below. In particular, he talks more about the discussions regarding local politics we’ve had). Ginger and vulnerable in the sun as he is, he maintains that clouds here mean nothing less than life itself. But this Sunday, the rain was something quite different. It’s not just the violent rain that drowns everything. The ground will actually become alive. If you’ve ever had problems understanding the concept of water erosion, this is the place to educate yourself. In these conditions, we had a bloody, muddy, life-or-death-deciding football game. Great fun!

My initial contact in Ghana, Sampson, also came down with and recovered from malaria. It is stopping to see how the locals handle a deadly and at least back home much demonized disease as if it was just the flu:

-                 - Hi man, haven’t seen you around!
-                 - Yeah, I’ve been home a couple of days… I got malaria in Côte d’Ivoire, you know…
-                 - Wow, are you ok?
-                 - Yes yes, I just had to get some rest…

And everyone here has got it at least once or twice!

Because you are surely getting tired of me going on and on, here’s some other stuff written by other foreigners spending periods in Kumasi (one in English and one in Swedish). Both happen to be living in the same house as me, but will provide different ideas and points of view for anyone interested:

     And by the way... I've been asked for more pictures on the blog. I will keep adding some to the old posts, but that can only be done when I'm bothered to go to the super-fast Vodafone-sponsored internet café at campus. Patience, you'll g´have to check out the posts later for imagery.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Tro-tros and other findings (Week 2)

I’ve been here for two weeks now and would say that I’m starting to learn how to live in Kumasi. I manage to feed myself on fried rice, a dish of which anyone will get tired of half-way through the first portion and that really isn’t the most convenient for a sensitive stomach. I know where I can see the football games I want to see. I can find my way to the most basic services in the town. More importantly, I’m learning to behave like the locals when things happen slowly; I’m learning to wait! I can proudly say that I do not instantly start snapping at people and behaving badly once something takes a longer time than planned. In addition, I’m adjusting to the heat: yesterday, for the first time, I sat myself by free will in the sun without any fear of dying on the spot! Of great help in adjusting to the local lifestyle is the basic set of stuff one should always carry with himself: a camera, water, sunscreen and a good book.

Our small development project is starting to take shape. I’ve been running around town talking to headmasters of vocational and technical schools in order to make sure that someone will actually attend the seminar we’re organizing. What is different from organizing an event like this in for example Finland is that here, things are still very much done by the means of face-to-face interaction. For me, that means a lot of sitting in tro-tros. That’s one way of seeing a new city, isn’t it?

Standing still in traffic has made me realize a couple of pieces of ingenuity of the tro-tro system. When in a traffic jam, you actually find yourself at a small supermarket. As soon as the car slows down to about walking speed, there will be a line of vendors wandering around the car. They sell water, spring rolls, doughnuts, fried bananas, Menthos, soap… You name it! I’ve had some satisfying lunches just sitting on my behind, shopping through the window. You can also get more credit for your prepaid calling card. There also seems to be an informal system for a kind of buss lane on the roads. At rush hour, it is perfectly ok for the tro-tros to use the roadside for getting forward. What is beautiful is that, despite the absence of much control by authorities, no other cars use this method! It’s one of those unspoken rules. Basically, that’s the notorious, inefficient informal sector for you!

The banking sector, on the other hand, seems to have gone nuts in Ghana. Due to some unfortunate events, I’ve had to be in some contact with them. There is a spot in the KNUST campus where I counted the offices of five different banks (Barclay’s, Standard Chartered, Ghana Commercial Bank, HFC Bank and EcoBank) within a few steps from each other. Just around the corner, I found two more (CAL Bank and United Bank of Africa). Amongst poor university students! I don’t know much about the rest of the world, but coming from Finland this seems like a bit of exaggeration (or lack of regulation?). And  I was worried about getting cash here…

My good deed of the week was to help out in the ASK Project, another project driven by AIESEC that targets local youth for raising awareness about HIV/AIDS. The project is lacking personnel, so I jumped in to give a lecture at a junior high school in Ejisu. This is one of those small, iconic development projects that don’t seem to bring much new substance to the community development arena, but obviously addresses a very important issue. Moreover, it was actually great fun to go talk with local teenagers about… well, sex.

I’ve had one more interesting encounter. Outside PPAG, a NGO that provided us with some HIV/AIDS schooling, there is a tiny booth. In the tiny booth, there’s a small man selling water and a sweet, non-alcoholic malt beverage called Schweppes Malt (I respect Ghanaians for not calling it non-alcoholic beer, which happens in Finland). I wasn’t able to catch his name, so I will call him Ron for now. Ron has built himself a high throne of stacked plastic garden chairs. So he sits there on his throne all day, feet dangling in the air, selling the two products he has. Having a bottle of water here, I experienced my first tropical rain. You don’t want to be outside then, so Ron invited me over to his booth. Nice gesture of him, but he refused to give me a chair from his pile of about fifteen but rather made me sit on the floor. He doesn’t speak a lot of English but has two huge books on his fridge: one on chemistry and one on microbiology. I have yet to find out whether he has read them. Curious character, anyway.

Monday, June 11, 2012

More impressions / Getting started (Week 1)

Ok, so there’s a swimming pool at the KNUST Campus. Actually, there’s an Olympic-size swimming center and a pool bar serving pizza. And beers and cocktails. If only these people knew under what conditions we have to study in Finland! Seriously, with its locally measured very high price level and security guards, it’s quite a striking contrast to the life outside. Apparently, it was build with money from the sponsors of the university. This raises a question: Really, didn’t they find anything smarter to do with the money targeted for higher education in Kumasi and Ghana?
The House

Regardless of whether such a poolside setting at a university campus is a form of corruption (by attracting students and prestige with completely extra-curricular features), the people I’ve talked to seem to a very large extent recognize corruption as the greatest obstacle to wider development in Ghana, which amusingly resonates from stories heard from e.g. Greece. This is best illustrated by a story one of the guys (let’s call him Gunnar) told me. Gunnar happened to be visiting a friend at the foreign ministry. In a waiting room, he met some high level western decision-makers in aid and got into discussion. Gunnar asked the big shots what they think the development aid they are providing is doing for Ghana. Both of them (naturally) replied with the standard “bullshit bingo”- statements of benefiting the poor, generating sustainable growth, promoting education, empowering women etc. Gunnar had one question to ask them: “In what car did they pick you up from the airport?” And one of them answered, after hesitation: “A convoy of eight Jaguars.”

The project I’m working on, called the YES (Young african EntrepreneurS) Project, is slowly starting to take shape. Most basically it strives to promote young entrepreneurship and start-up companies, thereby diminishing youth unemployment in the city and the surrounding region. We are going to organize a set of seminars where company representatives, NGO members etc. give presentations on various aspects of entrepreneurship for students in vocational and technical colleges in Kumasi. The idea is that this should inspire the future graduates to set up new their new companies. Of course, as of now we’ve only just started contacting schools and companies we would like to be a part of the project. I will try to give updates on how we are doing later in the blog. More information about the YES and other projects AIESEC KNUST is working on can be found here:

On the lighter side (and of interest to geographers) I am starting to get a grip of the physical structure of the city. This is no simple task: Once I actually did ask for a map and everyone laughed at me! The way I’ve understood it, the city consists of junctions, such as Agriculture junction, Bebre junction, Tech junction and Kwamo junction. The latter one is where I live. It is interesting how, in the absence of nearly any city planning, urban life gathers around traffic nods. This includes bus stops, petty retailers and the actual geography of place names. The knowledge one has of these junctions is crucial in getting one around; since the minibuses that are the backbone of anything called a transit system use them as reference of where you want to go. These minibuses, probably seen everywhere in Sub-Saharan Africa (and here called Tros-tros) are everywhere and work without any plan or system, you simply have to know where you’re going and ask your way through. The tro-tros have an interesting way of distinguishing themselves: Almost all of them have a large tag on the rear window. One says “The lord is great” or “God is the provider” and has a picture of Jesus on it. The next one simply says “Jimmy’s” and the next one “I’m hustler”. I’m considering making a list.

Saturday was a day filled with a delighting set of culture. At 6.30 a.m., when ”the air was still cool and fresh” (everything is relative), we got up to play a game of football. At 2 p.m. there was the African Qualifying game for the World up 2014 between Zambia and Ghana (1-0 to everyone’s disappointment after Ghana just a week earlier beet Lesotho 7-0) and the day was crowned by the Euro 2012 group stage game between Germany and Portugal (Which earned me a free beer!) 

My abnormally quiet and phlegmatic room-mate from Burkina Faso is cheering up. Actually, I found out that he’s recovering from malaria, which also encourages me since I’m wasting time worrying about catching the disease when he’s already up and running like everyone else. Also it turns out that he’s doing a PhD in philosophy and carries in his head a very clear picture of everything (development issues, the welfare states of northern Europe, literature, personal development, life in general…). I’ve already had some very interesting discussions at night and I am looking forward for some more. The most striking comment he provided was that “charity doesn’t work in aid”. Think about the context, where I’m coming from, where he’s coming from… Not something you often hear from a guy living, working and studying in one of the poorest countries on the planet. 

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Getting there / First impressions (Week 1)

Coming from rainy, dark and cold Helsinki to rainy, dark and hot Accra, getting out of the plane feels like walking into a wall. The heat and humidity is overwhelming you in a very different way to say, the Finnish summer “heat”. You almost start looking for a big knife to cut your way through. This is in addition to the shock of having some nice, cold pints on Heathrow and, later on, in a few minutes moving from a luxurious BA flight filled with drunken Britons and happy Ghanaians to a long, static and sweaty queue of drunken Britons and not so happy Ghanaians. The first thing I hear is that just moments earlier, a cargo plane has crashed into a bus and some homes close to the same airport, killing ten people. Just in case I send some signs of life back to Europe.
After surprisingly easily finding our contact person and getting to a bus-station (Don’t ask which, it’s dark and I feel ignorant as a newborn), I have my first lesson on differences between African and European everyday culture. As has been written by probably every possible foreign commentator of Africa, the African concept of time differs greatly from the European one. A bus set to leave at a certain time does not have to actually do so, because there might still be things to be taken care of. This, it seems, has made the Ghanaians masters of waiting. No anxiety, no swearing, no walking nervously around. Mostly, not even reading a magazine. Just sitting and waiting. I admire this local form of patience and intend (and have to) learn it myself! Getting used to waiting and forgetting about time might very well make the difference between insanity and personal stability here. As for the bus ride, make no mistake: the bus is better than those long range buses I’ve been using in Europe. It’s air conditioned and the seats are at least half wider than in Finland (Usually, I’m never able to catch any sleep on them; here, I slept like a baby almost the whole trip.)
When finally in Kumasi, we stumble down a dark alley surrounded by low houses and enter a single-storey house. The neighborhood, possibly the whole city, is having a blackout. The house seems ascetic but more than enough right now since it contains a free bed.

My morning is filled with new faces and names I forget in a minute. I take a walk with a local around the neighborhood and feel like a little child, asking questions like: “Where can I get water and food?”, “How do I use a toilet?” or “How does stuff in the kitchen work?” There’s not really anything here representing something from back home (Like a supermarket or a grocery store…). Luckily, my sense of being lost and handicapped is eased by joining a small, short and very sweaty football game on the backyard. I’m reminded of the heat once again.

Later we visit the campus of the local university, KNUST (Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology). It is nothing like my home campus in Helsinki. You enter the campus through a gate resembling a traditional Ashanti throne under the gentle stare of two handsomely uniformed guards. Inside, the campus looks more like a wide, deeply green garden than a university complex. Wild parks, dense with trees are everywhere, buildings are scarce. I don’t even try to estimate how large the whole campus is. What these guys don’t spend time on is letting new people settle down. After a couple of hours of sleep, I’m already busy planning the big picture of the development project we’re supposed to manage. Back in The House I have to move to a new room and learn that I’m sharing it with two men from the Ivory Coast and one from Burkina Faso. That’s one multicultural encounter from my point of view, not least because I don’t speak much French… Before going to sleep I get to taste my first Ghanaian dish, which (to the disgust of the Chinese interns) is eaten completely by hand, from one big shared plate. A bar has appeared just around the corner, and nothing is going to hold me back from a large, cold beer.

In the end, what has helped me the most in getting over the huge, initial shock of coming here has been the fact that I have found it astoundingly easy to talk to and come along with the people in The House and at AIESEC KNUST. We laugh to the same jokes and have the same problems, both small and big. This is in addition to the (quite obviuos) immense helpfulness and hospitality everyone here has so far shown. The atmosphere is best described by a quote from our manager: “Africans are communists by heart.” This leads to sharing everything, most importantly food and water, especially with new, ignorant and helpless Europeans. These people have kept me alive for the first couple of days! But then again, that’s just one more aspect of the culture I will gladly learn and get used to.

Introduction / Before leaving (Week -1)

This blog is written and updated by me, a Finnish fourth-year-student in development geography, fresh BSc (You just have to put it everywhere when it’s a new thing!) and football fan. I am spending the summer in Kumasi, Ghana doing an internship that also is my first “real” job in that it actually has something to do with what I have been studying for quite some time.

In the blog I will, over the following three months or so, try to present and comment on life in Ghana, football, maybe some community development practice, and anything else I can think of from the point of view of a young guy from a northern welfare state without much experience of life in what back home is called the third world (My only earlier trip to Africa consisted of what I now realize was a very protective cruise in Gambia, Senegal and Cape Verde a few years back).

About Ghana and Kumasi, I know practically nothing. A leading star of Sub-Saharan Africa, a remarkably stable and secure country in its region, the home of Michael Essien, Asamoah Gyan, John Paintsil and many more great footballers. The country is also a big exporter also of cocoa and coffee. But the few people that I’ve heard of that have actually been there tell only of beauty, nice people, security and all god things, so I am expecting much! Oh yeah, Kofi Annan is from the place where I am going! Has to be a good place to grow up… Regarding the whole region, my main source of actual understanding is some literature (not academic!) by the kinds of Ryszard Kapuscinski and Juha Vakkuri.

The posts in this blog will also be published in the AIESEC HY Exchange blog (, where you may or may not read posts also by other relatively young people doing other stuff somewhere else in the world. This is also why I am writing in English (Not my native language, excuse me…): Someone not Swedish or Finnish might actually read this!

Finally: If anyone out there is reading my blog, please do comment. Especially if the stuff I am writing is unbelievably uninteresting, I would like to know in order to make changes. Of course, I can draw some conclusions if no-one is reading or commenting…

So that is just something I felt I had to write down in order to provide a background for what I should be writing this summer. I promise to try to make my future posts more interesting and shorter.
All in all, this should be a fun ride. Before I left Finland, I asked my contact in Ghana if there’s anything special I should pack with me. He didn’t tell me anything but to bring a football.