Sunday, June 11, 2006

A Day in the Life...

Every morning I am woken by the sunrise prayer broadcast over the loudspeaker of the mosque next door. It is quite loud (I am convinced they relocate the loudspeaker and point it directly into my room) and it certainly eliminates the possibility of sleeping in, but this hauntingly melodic prayer is a beautiful daily reminder of this intriguing new culture of which I am now a part.

I then remain in bed for another ho
ur or so, dozing and listening to the daily activities starting up around me. The household awakens and the usual cooking, water fetching and school uniform ironing begins. My compound has two noise levels – silent and loud. The morning prayer breaks the silence of the night and flips the noise switch to loud. Pots clang, children chatter, sheep baa, roosters crow, women bicker. When I don’t manage to go back to sleep, I listen to all this activity and think about how different this is than my usual morning routine in Canada.

Once I decide that it’s now a reasonable time to get out of bed, usually around 6:30am, I emerge from my room and do the morning greetings with my Ghanaian family. “Dasiba!” they all say. “Naa,” I respond. This is followed by other traditional greetings, usually with a response of “Naa,” (when in doubt, respond “Naa,”) . I collect a bucket of water and head to the toilet.

Tamale has not had consistent running water for months. The taps are on in certain areas of the city on certain days. My compound has a large concrete reservoir that is filled when the taps are on. The reservoir has been completely used up only once since I’ve been here and usually women from surrounding areas come to our compound to fetch water. So with no running water, the toilet doesn’t flush. After I’ve done my business, I pour the bucket into the toilet to “flush” it. Some of the volunteers don’t have the luxury of a toilet or even a latrine. So I cherish my toilet, despite my initial recoil from the smell and its crude outhouse appearance. I return to the reservoir for a second bucket – this will be my shower.

I’ve come to enjoy bucket baths. The fan in my room is currently broken (or “spoiled” as they would say here) and it’s quite warm and stuffy in there when I wake up. Pouring cool water over yourself after a sweaty sleep is extremely refreshing. It also uses a minimal amount of water. When you have to fetch the water yourself, you really appreciate the amount that you use. And I am quite fortunate to have a reservoir right in my compound and not have to trek to the local borehole, well or other water source. I am now down to half a bucket to wash myself including my hair. I don’t know whether this means I am becoming a more efficient bucket bather or I’m just not clean!

The next order of business is to find something appropriate to wear to work. Ghanaians take a lot of pride in their attire. The clothes may not be expensive, or even the correct size, but they will be clean, ironed and extremely presentable. So often I have to iron my outfit for that day. When I first asked if there was an iron I could use, they were surprised to discover that I could in fact iron. I have encountered this several times here – people seem surprised or amused when I do anything for myself involving physical activity, such as fetching water, washing my clothes, walking to work. And admittedly, I don’t do many of these things at home – I get water from the taps, use a washing machine, take the bus to school. Apparently, some people here believe that white people, or Westerners (all Westerners are considered white), don’t do any medial task themselves.

I then say goodbye to my family and head to work. I walk the same route everyday, twice a day and yet the children are as excited to see me now as they were when I first arrived. It’s sort of a game, they shout “hello! hello!” until the “saliminga” (white person) responds. It’s quite adorable and the friendliness of the people is really quite welcoming. The neighbourhood children have taken to calling me “Madam Sarah,” which is endearing, even if it makes me feel like a 50-year old school marm. But it also means that you have to be “on” all the time. There are no days when you can walk down the street anonymously, no days when the children will ignore you or the adults won’t greet you. The friendliness of the people helps to keep me open and engaged, but there are days when I long for no one to care how I am, what my name is, where I’m from or where I’m going.

I make my way along the main road of Tamale, greeting people as I go. I am passed by people on bicycles and motorbikes carrying schoolchildren, tables, goats, and almost anything else you can think of! I pass women with their headloads full of the goods they will sell at the market. Along the way, I usually stop to purchase pure water, sachets of filtered water safe for drinking, and a loaf of bread. A typical Ghanaian breakfast is tea with bread, and sometimes a fried egg. I quite enjoy it!

I arrive at the CWSA (Community Water and Sanitation Agency) office at 8am and greet the security man at the front gate. Often there are others around and we go through the greetings, with them throwing in a new phrase here and there that I don’t understand. I cross the CWSA compound to the NORWASP building, where Luke and I have a desk. NORWASP (Northern Region Water and Sanitation Project) is one of the 3 current CWSA projects. NORWASP is funded by CIDA (Canadian International Development Agency) and the other 2 projects are funded by the EU (European Union) and AFD (the French Development Agency). Luke and I are working directly for the CWSA and aren’t specifically assigned to any one project. Because of resource constraints, we work out of the NORWASP office.

The hand-dug well assessments that Luke and I have been performing over the last 4 weeks (longer for Luke) are now complete. We visited a total of 7 districts, over 14 communities and over 20 wells, with Luke visiting even more before my arrival. This was a task we had been asked to complete, and not the main purpose of our placement. Hopefully, the information we have gathered will be useful in improving safe water provision as well as helping to increase the trust between the CWSA and ourselves.

After sitting down with Louis Dorval, Director of West Africa Projects, last week, the goals of my placement and the workplan to achieve these goals have become much more refined and focused. This past week we have been talking with various people at the CWSA and other organizations to gain insight into the capacities and challenges at the district (sub-regional) level, where we hope to focus our efforts. This coming week I will be spending 3 days in a rural village, not only to experience typical rural Ghanaian life, but to also learn more about water and sanitation from the people it affects most and the relationship between community and the governing district.

I have to admit that although village life is something I’m eager to experience (and something I think I should experience), I am nervous about entering a world even more different that the one I’m used to.

This past week I had my first encounter with Ghanaian medical facilities. On Monday night while getting ready for bed I noticed I had an abnormally larger bite on my calf. Upon further examination, I discovered that it was not in fact a bite, but the beginning of the craziest rash I’d ever had. It freaked me out because not only did I have no idea what it was, I had no idea what it was from or if it was a sign of something serious. After phoning a few people, I decided to wait until the morning to seek any type of medical attention. I wouldn’t have known who to contact late on a Monday evening anyways – this scared me, made me feel extremely vulnerable and extremely fortunate to live right next to a high quality healthcare facility at home and having 911 to phone in emergencies. I woke up the next morning and the rash was gone. I breathed a sigh of relief and chided myself for panicking so easily. I’d really lived up to the saying that everything is 10 times scarier in Africa – not because it’s necessarily scarier or more dangerous, but because of the unknown factor that so many of us attach to this continent.

Later that day, my rash returned so I decided to see a doctor, if only to ease my mind. I went to the clinic of a Ghanaian doctor, who had trained in Europe. He examined me briefly and said that I needed to start pills and an IV drip immediately. I was taken aback at the serious nature of my condition. He explained what the pills and IV drip were each for. I asked if I could start with the pills and see how that went. I have never required an IV drip and the thought scared me – not because of the stigma of African needles, but because of the serious condition an IV drip implied. The doctor went on to talk about how “you people” don’t trust African doctors and that he wouldn’t prescribe the pills to me because if my condition worsened I would blame him. He talked about how my embassy would become involved and how he would be penalized. I understand what he was saying and I don’t think it was completely unjust. However, he didn’t give me the opportunity to explain why I was resisting full treatment and I resented being referred to as “you people”. His speech did not inspire confidence in his abilities – no matter how unrelated the two things may be. I made an excuse and left the clinic.

I had heard from another EWB volunteer that a Canadian doctor was in town. With my fingers crossed, I stopped by the guest house where I’d been told he was staying. The receptionist led me to the lounge. The doctor was there and kindly agreed to see me. He took one look and said, “Oh, that’s urticaria…also known as hives.” I recounted my experience with the other doctor. The Canadian doctor said that those measures were unnecessary – the rash was not serious and would go away on its own as long as I wasn’t exposed to the allergen that caused the reaction. I don’t know whether I trusted the Canadian doctor because he was Canadian, because of his calm and reassuring manner, or because he did not go off on a rant about racism. But I felt much more at ease as I thanked the doctor and left the hotel.

Later that day, I reflected on my ordeal and how fortunate we are to have world-class healthcare professionals in Canada. But then again, are we fortunate or is that something everyone should have access to?

So, back to my regular day. I usually finish work a little after 5pm. On my way home, I sometimes stop by the internet café to reconnect with the rest of the world. I retrace my steps from the morning, greeting people along the way. This time it’s “Aniuula”, good evening in Dagbani.

My family always welcomes me home enthusiastically. We eat dinner in the centre of the compound. I am given my own bowls. One contains water for washing your right hand. You eat with your right hand only - as I explained before, you left hand is customarily reserved for another, less appetizing task. The second bowl contains TZ, which is ground maize mixed until it's an almost a gelatinous, dense version of mashed potatoes. We have this every night (and I mean every night!). It’s accompanied by some type of soup, into which you dip a ball of TZ. You sort of scoop it out and into your mouth (no matter how hot and it’s usually fresh off the coals). I haven’t quite perfected the technique and so I don’t get as much soup in my scoops as I should.

I always give it my best shot, but the most I’ve ever finished is half the bowl. I don’t feel guilty leaving uneaten food however, because my leftovers are always consumed by someone else. After dinner, I either sit outside with the family, listening and watching or having them teach me new words and phrased in Dagbani, or I retire to my room to write about my day in my journal, read a book, or if I really need a picker-upper I’ll lay down, close my eyes, turn on some music and think of all the wonderful people and things I miss from home.

As promised, here is a pic of my new and improved (??) look:


Anonymous Channifer said...

Hi Sarah! I really enjoyed reading about your 'typical' day!! Thank goodness your rash turned out to be hives only... Imagine if you had taken those mysterious pills and had an IV. Yeesh. Anyways, your haircut looks good! It's kinda hard to see in the picture, but it looks cute! I didn't recognize you in your picture at first... I hope you're eating well!!! When you come home, we're definitely taking you out to eat anything you want (milk, fresh veggies, chocolate... anything!). Take care!! ;)

7:15 p.m.  
Anonymous Matt said...

Funny how "you people", never really just means 'you people"

12:40 a.m.  
Anonymous Doreen & Reiner said...

Really enjoyed details of your daily routine and so glad your rash was nothing serious.Cute haircut!

1:41 a.m.  
Anonymous Vega said...

Hey Sarah!
Thanks for telling us about your experiences, sounds (and looks!) like you are taking it all in stride. I'm glad you got a second opinion about the rash, you can never be too sure, and you can always trust your instincts!
I'm kinda curious about what other foods you've been eating, any different fruits? Anything you're enjoying or not enjoying?
Keep us posted!

10:29 a.m.  
Anonymous Inga said...

Hello Sarah Darling!

First off: I would start eating the rest of your soup! You are fading away my dear! Make sure you are getting the nutrients you need to stay healthy! haha

Thanks for sharing the day in the life of Sarah! Sounds as if you are quite the celebrity there. I am also thankful you had the opportunity to seek a second opinion, however, its unfortunate the first Doctor was so unprofessional in the first place. Every Sunday I enjoy looking forward to your posts ;) Keep in touch! A big "I miss you" from Oakville!

11:13 a.m.  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


We miss you! I second Jen's motion to feed you when you come home... maybe a Mandarin buffet???


12:57 a.m.  

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