MEDA Blog - Stories from the Field

A new way of living

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I spent the two-week Christmas/New Years break in Lomé, the capital of Togo. I couchsurfed while I was there – a website that connects travellers to locals who open up their homes and allow that person to crash or "surf" on their couch or any sleeping surface. There is no expectation of payment, and depending on the host, lifelong friends can be made in a matter of a few days.I had done this many times before but all in Europe and North America, pretty much all were great and memorable, but all were in situations and cultures that were at least vaguely familiar to me as a middle-class Canadian. This was certainly not the case in Togo. For two weeks I got the full experience of living like a typical Togolese with my Togolese peers. I slept on the floor sometimes, had bucket showers, didn't go on the internet, ate what my hosts ate, drank what my hosts drank, hung out with their friends, went to their spots, and lived life at their pace.Sometimes there were long periods where nothing really happened, we lazed about and didn't really do anything. No electronic devices to distract, or appointments, or things coming at you. Constant stimuli are a luxury of developed countries or of the wealthy. In underdeveloped parts of the world, you have to just pass the time with nothing but the people around you. I came to appreciate these moments; this is when you just need to chill out, and be centered in yourself. It builds trust in those around you. I really had to learn how to just "be", and hang out with your friends doing nothing. You have to lose that nagging flighty-ness, not think about what others are doing or thinking, not think about what you should be doing, and not worry about the future.These were contrasted by periods of fast action and intense stimulation of the senses: Fast nights jumping from place to place, all on the back of motorcycles weaving in and out of traffic. Walking through jam-packed markets where every sight, sound, and smell is new. The constant bartering over prices, and everyday tasks that require so much more than this North American could ever have thought.All this reinforced a few things...1. You have to take life it as it comes; planning and the future are luxuries. Live in the present. Eat when there is food in front of you, drink when you have drink, and sleep when you have a bed.2. You have to be capable. For example, fetching water from the well for the first time, I felt so helpless; I couldn't get the technique to fill the bucket and could only retrieve a small amount each time. If you can't do something, learn fast, because as a grown person, you don't want to be a burden on others.3. Saving doesn't happen. If you have money, spend it. If you have food or water, you consume it now, because if you wait, there is a good chance it won't be there in the future, just due to the uncertainties and precariousness of life.4. Reciprocation and sharing are hugely important and reinforce bonds in a powerful way. Because the typical Togolese (or African for that matter) won't always have money or food, you have to rely on others. Sometimes you pay, other times your friends pay. That way you won't ever go hungry when others are eating.5. When the good times roll, jump in with both feet because there's no guarantee tomorrow will offer you the same opportunity that you have now.It really was a life-changing experience. It changed me by showing me a different way of living, with new rules, new social norms, new burdens and new rewards. I gained broader perspective on what life is for a large part of humanity and will carry those lessons and experiences with me. I loved it all.
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Sunny Holidays in Togo and Ghana

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This year, I spent my holidays at a beautiful beach surrounded by good friends in Lome, Togo. Although of course I missed celebrating Christmas with my family, the alternative wasn't too shabby.Four friends and I flew from Tamale to Accra on the early morning flight, then took a car for about three hours to reach the boarder, and then ended up at our bungalow on the beach by late afternoon. We spent our time on an almost empty beach- swimming, playing Frisbee, listening to music, eating delicious food and playing lots of card games in the evenings. It was the perfect antidote to the busy pre-holiday stress we had left behind.On Christmas, we played and relaxed on the beach all day, and then met Kevin, the other GROW MEDA intern who was also traveling in Lome, for dinner at a little Bavarian and French restaurant. Taking me back to my Bavarian roots, I was beyond excited to have discovered a German restaurant in Lome. The six of us shared a delightful Christmas feast that reminded me of celebrating the holidays as a child in Germany. We had a truly wonderful time and it was great alternative way to celebrate the holidays.One of the perks of returning to Tamale was that everyone else was traveling, so I had been asked to house and dog-sit for two adorable puppies at a friend's nice house with a pool. In a way my vacation continued with lots of dog walking and pool time. And I also looked after a friend's horses, so I got to go horseback riding a few times, which made my break even better. It was a really great holiday break and I was happy to ring in the New Year's in Tamale celebrating here with friends and fireworks.The last year brought many new firsts and special memories for me. Moving to Ghana and being part of the GROW team has been such an incredible experience so far. I feel very privileged to be able to travel to the villages to meet our women farmers, continue learning from our skillful staff here and be part of this meaningful work to help make a difference for these women and their families in Ghana. The GROW team is really a family and after three short months it feels like home here. I'm truly grateful for an amazing 2014 and I can't wait to see what 2015 has in store.
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Christmas in Ethiopia

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Merry Christmas from Ethiopia! Without the snow and festivities, it was definitely a different kind of Christmas for me this year. But I'm thankful to have had a new experience celebrating Christmas in a different country. I learned how to make the best of my circumstances and enjoyed the two days off to rest and celebrate. I'm thankful for the Christmas season because I'm always reminded and humbled by the birth of Jesus and all the blessings I have in my life.Back at home, the month of December is usually filled with reflection, travel, and celebration. I usually travel to the US to visit family and friends or attend a church retreat to conclude the year. My family usually doesn't have extravagant Christmas traditions, we just enjoy each other's presence.Over the month of December, Steph and I decorated our house with lights, paper trees, and ornaments. And this past Tuesday, I had some friends over for a Christmas dinner party. I made pork chops, sausages, mashed potatoes, and roasted vegetables. It was nice having company over for the first time. Some of my friends said that they felt like they weren't in Ethiopia with the food, decorations, and Christmas music. The next day, Christmas Eve, Steph and I were off work. We got two days off to celebrate our holiday, but technically Christmas in Ethiopia is in January. We had a nice Christmas Eve dinner and watched the Hobbit at home. Waking up on Christmas morning, I had a nice post-it note stuck on my door from Steph, reading, "Merry Christmas!" with a cute reindeer doodled on it. We had pancakes and fruit for brunch, exchanged gifts, and watched Home Alone – a classic. In the afternoon we went to the office for a nice Christmas coffee ceremony our staff had put together for us. We had coffee, cake, and received a nice gift from our staff. I really appreciate their thoughtfulness and for celebrating Christmas with us, even though they celebrate in January. Our evening was spent calling home to say Merry Christmas. We also watched the Hobbit at the movie theatre and had a nice Christmas dinner in Bole.I'm really thankful to be in country with Steph – we made Christmas the best we could, even though we're both far from our families. There's just a few months left of this internship, and I don't think I would have made it this far without her support and friendship. As we near the end of 2014, a new year is just around the corner. I'm always excited for a new year, because it's a fresh start and I gather together hopes and dreams for another year. The year 2014 has had its ups and downs, and at the beginning of the year I never would've thought I'd be in Ethiopia working with MEDA. Now that it's the end of the year, I can say that despite this year's challenges, all of the obstacles and experiences have helped me grow as a person – and being on this internship has contributed much to this growth.
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A Canadian Thanksgiving in Ghana

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This past weekend was thanksgiving back home in Canada. One might think that this would make a wayward Canuck passing the holiday thousands of miles away in Northern Ghana a little homesick; missing a nice home-cooked meal, enjoying the company of family and friends, fall leaves crunching under foot. But nothing could be further from the truth.This past weekend was filled with all of those things – minus the crunchy fall leaves part. The expat community here in Tamale rolled up their sleeves and cooked, baked and basted their way to faithfully recreating a North American holiday tradition in the heart of West Africa.There was squash, mashed potatoes, carrot, rice and eggplant dishes, tilapia, salad, couscous, green beans, and of course turkey and stuffing. Dessert included 4 pumpkin pies (made with local squash I am told, although surprisingly indistinguishable from the pumpkin version) apple crisp, chocolate cake, and lots of ice cream.The celebration wasn't confined to Canadians, but included Ghanaians, Danes, French, British, Americans, Nigerians, Dutch, Swedes and others - around 50 or 60 people in total. For some – probably a majority there – this was their first experience with this holiday, and I am sure it left an indelible and positive impression.Sitting along two long tables in the still hot and humid evening, people from all over the world sat and talked, shared their backgrounds, their aspirations, their stories. I met people from everywhere, but was able to connect quickly and meaningfully to all of them. Indeed Tamale seems to attract similarly outward looking, engaged, and thoughtful people.For me the most beautiful aspect of this is that we Canadians were able to share a part of our culture with people from across the globe, and that everyone took part with enthusiasm and zeal and came out with stronger ties to one another. It is my hope that I will be able to take part in many things that are uniquely Ghanaian during my stay, and similarly strengthen my ties with people in the communities I will be working with here.
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I Am Thankful for Canadian Healthcare!

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Thanksgiving weekend...usually a time I would get together with family and stuff my face with way to much turkey, resulting in a comatose state for the next 24 hours. However, this year's Canadian Thanksgiving was a little different and ended up being two polar extremes – as you can probably figure out, it concluded in a not so festive fashion.It started out great, and rather unexpected. As many of my fellow Waterlooers and German friends know, around this time of year, Oktoberfest happens. Oktoberfest is basically a German event focused celebrating German food, music and culture. Being in Waterloo for my undergrad years, which has a huge population of Germans, allowed me to become quite acquainted with this annual celebration.It did not even cross our minds that Oktoberfest would be celebrated here, in Addis of all places! But low and behold, we found out that the Hilton Hotel was organizing an Oktoberfest event on the weekend! Who would have thought?After running around trying to find last minute tickets, we made it. I was ecstatic – it reminded me of being back in Waterloo again. The Hilton set up at tent in the back of the hotel and had different types of vendors, a huge Oktoberfest themed buffet (sausages, pretzels, the works!) and even had a German Polka band! We met up with some friends, enjoyed the event and even danced with some Austrian diplomats till the early hours.Sunday was pretty uneventful, but I cannot say the same for Thanksgiving Monday. My roommate Clara had been pretty weak and out of sorts for a couple days so when she started having pain and could barely stand up, we got worried. On Monday, I left work early to take her to the hospital with Ferkadu. First we went to a Swedish clinic specifically for expats and after several lab tests and hundreds of US dollars later, they still could not figure out what was wrong. To rule out appendix, they sent us to an imaging centre all the way across town to get an ultrasound as they are a very small clinic. After a couple hours, we found out it was not appendix but they still could not figure out what was wrong so we went back to the clinic for further tests. Due to some questionable blood results, the doctors sent us to the Korean Hospital for further investigation. The Korean Hospital is known to be a relatively reputable hospital that many people go to, but it was in the next town over, just outside of Addis. Keep in mind we had been on this quest for already 4 hours and poor Clara was barely surviving.This is where I want to talk a bit about the underdevelopments of Ethiopia's transportation system. There is road construction everywhere and no traffic lights. This can easily make a 30-minute commute a couple of hours, especially at night. After being in bumper to bumper traffic for an hour and a half, we get to the hospital. The Korean Hospital is a large hospital that was built by the South Koreans around 20 or so years ago. Even though it is considered one of the better ones, we were not impressed. Not only had the doctor we were supposed to see already left for the day, but poor Clara had to go through all the lab tests again and then we waited for the results for another 4 or so hours. I was terrified that Clara had to do a procedure there. I tried to keep in mind that this is a developing country, but when I saw ill people waiting around for hours and in less than acceptable sanitary conditions, I was terrified.Several hours later we got the test results (finally!). It was just a bad infection and they sent Clara home with antibiotics. I was thankful that it was nothing serious and Ferkadu drove us home (he stayed with for the entire time!). It was 11 pm by the time we got home, making it 8 hours and countless miles just to find a diagnosis.I have waited longer for medical assistance in a Canadian hospital but just seeing the conditions of the medical facilities, spending hundreds of dollars and driving around Addis for different tests, makes me NEVER want to get sick here. I never thought I would say this but thank goodness for Canadian healthcare.Regardless, Clara got the help she needed. I know it could have been much, much worse. Even though this Thanksgiving turned out to be less than ideal, I am thankful. I am thankful for the amazing friends we met and had a great time with them weekend. I am also eternally grateful for all our amazing MEDA colleagues that helped us make sure that Clara got help on Monday. Ethiopia has its ups and downs, just like any other country (healthcare being a major downfall), but having a support system definitely softens the blow.
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Exploring Addis

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When we arrived in Ethiopia, it was the day before the Ethiopian New Year so the city was in full swing. Ethiopian New Year is celebrated on September 11th. This is because Ethiopia traditionally follows the Coptic calendar that is 7 years and eight months behind the Western Gregorian Calendar, making this year 2007! I know, a little strange to think about, just because it's different. I was taken back when I saw "Happy 2007" flash across the screen!Ethiopian New Year is a national holiday and basically the entire country shuts down for it. It is considered a private event, spent with family and lots of food. Even though this is considered a quite affair, the MEDA staff still wanted us to experience it and introduce us to what this celebration was all about. So my supervisor, Balay, invited Clara and I to his home on New Years to celebrate with his family. Here we experienced an array of different types of traditional Ethiopian food eaten more so on special occasions. It was incredibly special that he invited us to such a private event and his family was so friendly, sharing with us all they love about Ethiopia. We will be forever grateful for being able to be a part of such an eye-opening and wonderful event.On the Saturday, our country director, Doris, invited us for another Ethiopian celebration at her home. It felt like Thanksgiving to me because we had turkey (they call it soft chicken), stuffing and even cranberry sauce. I could not believe it! We were so incredibly spoiled with so much food that weekend – I'm not complaining! This celebration made me feel like I took a piece of home with me, which was very comforting.Skip ahead a week, we experienced our first week working in the MEDA office, getting to know the projects and being introduced to all the staff. It has been information overload! Learning all about the projects, the process of how things are done and actually working an 8-5 job will definitely take getting used to. I know it will certainly take some time to adjust and besides being completely exhausted and ready to crash as soon as we get home, I am enjoying it so far!This past weekend has been low key, which I think we both appreciated. This past Saturday, Fekadu who is one of MEDA's amazing drivers, took us on a tour of the city. I did not realize Addis was as big as it is; granted, we have only really travelled a few blocks around the office and our house. I was just amazed! Addis, which is considered one of the hot spots in Africa for political and economic conversation and development (the African Union headquarters is also station here), also manages to maintain a lot of beauty, history and culture. Probably my highlight of the tour was driving up Mount Entoto, the mountain surrounding the city. Addis is a busy and rapidly developing country but when looking down on it from on top of the mountain provided a different view and pictures just do not do it justice. Addis is beautiful!
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Easter at the Lake

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As Easter came and went, it marked another holiday, along with Thanksgiving and Halloween (a holiday to me!), I spent in Ghana.I left Tamale by bus – after waking up at 5am, eating crackers for breakfast out of my purse, and getting on a vehicle bound for Accra, but realizing it just in time – and headed for Kumasi, 2nd largest city in Ghana and the closest to Lake Bosomtwe, our final destination for the long weekend. I was travelling to meet former MEDA intern Gillian, who was making the trip from Accra, to have yet another adventure together. The 6 hour bus journey went by quickly as I was distracted by Ghanaian soap operas playing on the overhead screen. I'm not sure what exactly was happening, although I know it involved some type of royal family, black magic and a lot of yelling (perhaps this explains my distraction).The two of us arrived in Kumasi minutes apart and set off in a private taxi towards the lake, about an hour away. It was so different to pass by the lush, green terrain and mountainous landscape that is found in the south, as opposed to the dry and dusty northern region I'm used to. It was especially exciting to finally arrive at Lake Bosomtwe, a circular body of water that was created millions of years ago by a meteorite, surrounded by rolling hills.Before long we were settled into our room at The Green Ranch, a small ecolodge that specializes in horseback riding and vegetarian food – two of my favourite things. Our days were spent lounging on the terrace that overlooked the lake, playing scrabble (my first time to play an entire game), eating homemade ice cream/juice/tofu (delicacies!), walking through the nearby village, or watching thunderstorms from our covered porch.Aside from total relaxation, we did do other activities.On our first full day at the ranch we went horseback riding along the lake. It was a beautiful way to see the scenery. Galaxy (the horse, not my nickname for Gillian) and I took the lead, and led the group through villages full of children giggling as we went past, a cacao farm shaded with trees, and along the beach, the horses splashing themselves to cool down. Although I had ridden for many years growing up, I hadn't experienced anything quite like riding on jungle paths and through tiny fishing communities... or getting sunburned on the back of my hands to the extent that I did.We also went swimming. There were rumours about parasites... leeches... worms and other creepy things that you could catch/have stuck on you from swimming in the lake water. After some contemplation I decided to go for it. It was just too hot, and the Ghanaian family that was swimming looked like they were having too much fun. At its deepest point the lake is about 70 metres. Even though I was relatively close to the shore, I could feel cool currents from underneath which felt so refreshing.All too soon the weekend came to an end and I made the bus trip back to Tamale. It was my last vacation here in Ghana, as I'll be leaving shortly, and I'm so glad I could spend it the way I did. As I travel through the different regions, visit different cities and embark on different adventures, I am amazed at both the diversity of each place, but also the similarities all over the country (not only my chances of sunburn which are the same in all regions) – friendly people, good food, natural beauty, and wonderful memories I take away.
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Winning Gold from Ghana

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I love the olympics. Nothing makes me more excited than seeing the best athletes in the world participating in different events, hearing motivational stories, seeing examples of sportsmanship, and of course, watching Canadians compete on the world's stage. Trying to watch the olympics in Ghana was a bit of a struggle. That being said, when it comes to hockey, there is no stopping a Canadian from tracking down the game! Three different games, three different means of watching said games, and a various array of Canadian supporters from different countries contributed to one the best olympic experiences.After visiting a number of bars and restaurants that we knew had tv – and finding all of them either broken, without satellite, or not open – some Canadian friends and I ended up at Tamale's newest café which boasts a projector and a large screen. There we were joined by other expats, including several Americans who were supporting for our opponents, the USA, and friends from Ireland, England and Australia who decided to root for the Canadians (hurray for the commonwealth!). Sporting my red and white shirt (unfortunately the only red or white shirt I have is long sleeved, making for a hot and sticky hockey-watching experience) and Canadian flag, I settled down amongst the crowd to watch the game. It started at 5pm in Ghana, and because we were watching a projection outside in the daylight, we couldn't see anything for the first period, and were relying on the commentary alone. This however, didn't bother us too much, as it wasn't until the last period that the tide began to turn. I wish there could have been hidden camera recording our reactions to the game, especially the final Canadian goal – there was always a contingent of people who stood up, cheered, and hugged each other (and others who, before running around the patio waving the flag, jumped up so fast their chair fell over backwards).We thought the procedure for watching the men's semi-final game would be similar because we had found a place that would show the game. This was not the case. Although this café had satellite, the channel was not airing the game. The new found Canadian fans started arriving after us – those who came earlier to stake out the same seats in order to fashion the seating configuration that had proved so lucky the night before – now wearing their red and white (I think they needed to see some proof that Canada could be relied upon to do well before committing to dressing in our colours) only to find that the game wasn't playing. After 2.5 hockey periods, downloading olympic phone apps and radio stations in the hopes of hearing commentary at least, and relentless internet searching, we were able to find a website that was streaming the game and discovered we were about to make our way into the gold medal final. More flag waving ensued.The finale.Before I go into the details, i'll insert my favourite motivational olympic story here. I was amazed to learn that Carey Price, the goalie for Canada, grew up on a reservation located three hours away from where his hockey practice was held. He and his parents made this trek several times a week. When he became a more serious player, they bought a four-seater plane so he could get to practice this way, cutting the commute down to an hour. Stories like these are what make the olympics such a powerful event, inspiring us to fulfill our goals.Back to the game. The owner of the café had, by this time, noticed our dedication and offered us the tv in his (air conditioned) office. The gold medal game deserves only the best viewing conditions! We were ecstatic to be able to see the picture so clearly. All the while, our social media was showing us pictures of friends and family awake at 5am to watch the game and line-ups of hockey-jerseyed fans outside of bars in downtown Toronto. One wall of the owner's office connects to the restaurant with a two-way mirror. Every time we cheered, the guests in the restaurant would all look towards the office, perplexed by what was happening inside. We were told later that they always knew when a goal was scored – they kept track of how many times we'd yell.The principle of the olympics – fair play, sense of community and hard work to achieve our goals as Price reminds us – can be applied to our daily lives. Regardless of where we are in the world, and which countries our colleagues, friends and opponents may be from, there are times when we are unified, making anywhere you find yourself – including Tamale – feel just like home.
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Christmastime in Nicaragua

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I have lived abroad twice before, but I have always returned to Canada for Christmas. This year, with my internship ending in February, it didn’t really make sense to make the trip home to Canada for the holidays so I decided to spend Christmas in Nicaragua. I was extremely lucky that my little brother William decided to come and visit me so that we could spend the holidays together. It has been amazing to have him here with me and to get to show him the country that has been my home for the last 5 months. He also brought presents with him from home which was another major benefit.

I was lucky enough to get to do some travelling over the holidays, spending Christmas in Corn Islands, the beautiful Caribbean islands off the coast of Nicaragua. These islands are full of beautiful white beaches and delicious seafood. I also got to return to the island of Ometepe to bike and climb a waterfall as well as relax on the beach and do some boogie boarding in San Juan del Sur.

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The Christmas that wasn’t?

Normally around this time of year, I am battling snowy driveways, piling on the layers of clothing, and cursing the wind chill. I am also sipping on hot chocolate, pulling out the downhill skis, and decorating a Christmas tree. Despite the odd winter-related inconvenience, I really do love this time of year. But what happens when “this” time of year no longer exists?

Being in the middle of Africa in December, it doesn’t really feel like Christmas. While I complain about the “frigid” morning temperatures (of 5 degrees – I’ve become weak), it’s usually close to 30 degrees here in the afternoon. Even though I don’t have to worry about frost bite, I can honestly admit I miss the snow.

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Fire Festival

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In Northern Ghana there is a legend about a tribal chief who had a son who would become chief after him. One night, the chief noticed the baby was missing. He gathered the whole village to look for the child. They carried torches with them to guide them through the night. Finally, the baby was found under a tree - the villagers believed the tree had stolen the boy. The chief rescued his son, and as a punishment, set the tree on fire. The villagers returned to the chief's palace and celebrated by singing and dancing, maintaining their torches to light up the night. Now, in Tamale and other towns in the northern regions of the country, the fire festival takes place every November to celebrate the return of the chief's son. Daniel, Gillian and I had heard about this fire festival, without really knowing the history behind it. We were told vague details about how it would begin around 8pm and it would involve some sort of parade, taking over the road so that no cars could pass. We waited, sitting on a curbside, looking for clues that this event was about to start. Around us, the excitement grew - children and families gathered, many holding sticks, lighting fireworks, and wearing different traditional outfits. Finally, after an hour, we heard rumblings in the distance. Chanting, singing and drumming filled the air, and those children around us began to stream into the road. The three of us followed suit, walking into the intersection which had become eerily void of cars. Craning our necks to see further down the road, where the noise was originating, we could see a mass of people coming towards us from the direction of the chief's palace, carrying wooden sticks and branches that were ablaze. Once this group merged with ours, which had grown substantially as we waited, the procession began moving towards the center of town. Let me describe exactly what I mean by procession. This involved people of all ages, from babies bagged on their mother's backs to elderly people using walking sticks. Young men, either shirtless or wearing traditional attire, were running through the crowd, firing rifles in the air or dragging machetes on the ground as they ran, creating sparks behind them. Mothers were constantly grabbing their children - those who were getting too far ahead and risked getting lost in the crowd, or those getting too close to one of the many open flames. The air was filled with smoke, song and screams every time an unexpected gun shot went off. Basically, procession can be interchanged with chaos. Or maybe mayhem. A young boy, Rashid, became my personal guide (which was lucky because I lost and found Daniel and Gillian several times during this event) taking my hand and telling me to 'watch out', or 'walk over here,' to avoid particularly excited youth darting through the crowd with various types of weaponry. We got to our meeting place, where crowds of other people had also come to gather, and where unsuspecting trees and vegetation stood. In only a few moments, trees were lit on fire, and branches from trees still standing were vigorously chopped off and brought back into the crowd. We then turned back and started our walk of about 30 minutes, towards our starting place. The chopped tree branches were held by women high in the air, and would be taken back to the chief's palace to be burnt. At times, according to the song that was being sung and the instruments accompanying it, the crowd would turn and run momentarily in the opposite direction. My friend Rashid was particularly helpful in these moments, alerting me to turn and run with the group, instead of being trampled. (Or at least substantially jostled by people running by) When we reached the intersection from which we started, Gillian and I separated from the crowd. They would continue on, returning to the chief's palace where they began, to celebrate with more singing, dancing and fire. Of all the cultural events I have experienced here in Ghana, the fire festival was by far the most exciting and interesting for me. It was a night when everyone left their daily roles behind and became a villager from the legend, truly embracing the celebrations amidst an atmosphere buzzing with excitement. I am so glad I could experience this event and happy that I too, become a villager for the night.

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Happy Thanksgiving from Ghana

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What do you get when you cross 5 Canadians, 2 British friends, an American, a Danish girl, a Canadian flag and a power outage? Canadian Thanksgiving in Ghana! (I have coined the term Ghanadian Thanksgiving)Last Sunday we celebrated Thanksgiving, hosted by three other Canadian girls also doing CIDA internships here in Tamale. It was a great time and a wonderful meal. None of us have an oven, and turkey isn't that popular a menu item here, so the girls bought chickens and asked the local street meat vendor on the corner to roast them for us which he kindly did. We also had mashed yams (potatoes are a rare commodity), a mountain of eggplant, onion and carrot, cabbage (not such a rare commodity), and a lovely tomato soup with bread to start. Our contribution (us MEDA interns) was a watermelon for dessert, roasted corn, which Gillian very impressively perfected over a homemade charcoal grill, and a Canadian flag from our apartment which we hung proudly over the curtain rod.It was a nice surprise when I was asked to give a toast before the meal. I mentioned how fantastic it was, as we were all so far away from home, to be gathered together to celebrate our holiday – and exciting that others could join us in their first experiences of Canadian Thanksgiving (I was sure to toast to some other Canadian trademarks we could recognize on this occasion like hockey, maple syrup and Celine Dion).At one point we were asked the story behind Canadian Thanksgiving, and unfortunately, I didn't know all the facts at the time. After some quick research I learned that the Canadians started giving thanks for the harvest 43 years before the pilgrims landed in the United States. At first, the national holiday was celebrated on November 6, but in 1957 when Remembrance Day was established on November 11, the date of Thanksgiving was changed to take place in October instead. Now I can be ready to answer that question during the next Thanksgiving I celebrate abroad!Before we started the main course, we were asked to each share with the group the things we were thankful for. As well as being thankful for the health of my friends and family, I also explained how thankful I am for this great experience in Ghana – in the workplace, in the communities, across the country (I have been to all but one Ghanaian region) – together with some amazing people. I really couldn't ask for anything better. It was nice to hear that most of the others had similar things to be thankful for.In the middle of dinner, a thunder storm rolled in and we lost power. This didn't slow us down and, as we've learned to be prepared with candles and flashlights at hand in a moment's notice, we were ready to continue dinner in no time, accompanied by various forms of mood lighting. Luckily the power came back again about 10 minutes later. All in all it was a wonderful evening filled with laughter, food and friends. Although I was thinking of my family back home, I wouldn't change my Ghanadian Thanksgiving experience for anything. It served as a reminder of how grateful I am to be exactly where I want to be, helping provide families here with a harvest they too can celebrate.

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Giving Thanks

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I had a different topic in mind for today, but I’m opting to postpone it in favour of a themed post to honor today’s Canadian holiday – Thanksgiving! In my house, celebrating Thanksgiving would involve church, lots of time spent with family, friends, and loved ones, and an excessive amount of food - most likely a turkey, green beans, sweet potato, baked potato, and a tasty pumpkin pie or two. My grandma always made an incredible sweet potato casserole. I am missing her AND her sweet potato casserole today.While I am not ‘celebrating’ in the traditional sense, I am still incredibly thankful for where I am today, both figuratively and literally. I have moved into my new home, and have basically been adopted by my landlady as her “white daughter”. Really, I saw the house on Wednesday, moved in on Thursday, and when I returned from work on Friday she had mountains of gifts for me: new bedding, cutlery, pots, pans… anything I could ever need, and everything I would have had to buy with my own money. The housing director said that in all his years of work, he has never known a landlady like her. While this move has been a bit overwhelming at times, finding a home is what I needed to start feeling a lot more settled here. I will post pictures soon!I’m so thankful for my new life in Africa. It is changing me, in ways that I like. During a conversation with someone from home the other day, I mentioned I try and keep to myself while walking to work. Now I can’t make the 10 minute trek without stopping to talk to a stranger, or at least receiving a “hello!” from a passerby. The locals and I exchange smiles, waves, and “good mornings!” multiple times. This is quite different from North America, where we try to avoid eye contact with anyone we don’t recognize.Case in point: today I asked to take a photo of a group of boys supporting their local team for today’s soccer match (soccer is life here). Not only were they thrilled to do so, they were ecstatic that this “forenji” (foreigner) could speak limited Amharic. We ended up having a brief conversation is support of the soccer match; my Amharic is broken (to say the least), but they were more than happy to put up with it. In the end, they requested a picture together.While I may be missing some sweet potato casserole, there’s no other place I’d rather be spending today… HAPPY THANKSGIVING! Whether you’re in Canada or not!

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С Новым Годом!

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Happy New Year!Wow! Is it 2013?  Did we survive the 2012 doomsday fears? Looks like we did!  Well, from what I understood of the Mayan prophecy anyway, it wasn’t supposed to be the end of the world, but rather the end of the world as we know it.  I heard December 21 corresponded with a shift to a new “world”; one characterized by a greater common consciousness.  I believe that we are experiencing such a shift, whether we realize it or not. I know that, I, personally, feel much more aware of my self and my body, the people around me and our connections to one another,  and also of our connections to what is greater.  Although this could be a result of me growing older and wiser, I like to think it has more to do with something grander!So how did I celebrate this New Year?  Introspectively, as per my tradition.  This year, I welcomed the new and said goodbye to the old at a Russian Banya.  And what is a Russian Banya you ask?  It is a Russian Suana.  And what can I tell you about a Russian Banya?  It is a Russian tradition that has been enjoyed by people in Eastern Europe and Russia for centuries.  For me, it was a little piece of heaven for my body and soul, and I am so grateful for such an amazing experience…..I started my day with an athletic massage, this is not really a part of the tradition, but it felt so good and it got all the knots out of my body before heading to the sauna floor.  The reason I say sauna floor, is because it was a whole level of different types of saunas.  There were dry saunas, and steam rooms, saunas with therapeutic herbs smouldering, different steam rooms with steam coming from all directions, different temperatures, and of course cold pools to jump into!  By far my favourite was the Russian Sauna.  I decided to pay extra and receive a treatment from the therapist, and I am so glad I did…..My ‘ritual’, as Edick (the therapist called it), involved lying on a large ceremonial/offering type bed of wood, in front of a wood-burning stove, inside a large oak sauna.  Edick, who was interestingly, a former military officer, put fresh oak logs into the stove and threw water over the stove.  The smell of the steam this created was woody and wonderful.  By my face, he placed a small towel of crushed ice; which made it nice to feel some coolness in the midst of the hot steamy room. Then came the ‘massage’.  This was done with large oak branches.  The massage involved various techniques, like beating, hitting and scratching my entire body with them.  In between the beating, he would let the braches hug my body, which felt so comforting- it was like being hugged by Mother Earth Herself! It was so hot and the branches stung, but then being embraced by the branches felt so comforting. Next, it was time to go into the freezing cold pool. This first time, I was allowed to ease myself in slowly. After a few moments in the freezing water, it was back in the sauna.  The branches came out again, and I got the beatings and the embraces from the oak branches. This time after the beatings, Edick threw crushed ice all over my body and scrubbed my skin with the ice.  It was amazing, it was like hot and cold and pain and pleasure all at once.  Once the ice melted, it was back into the cold pool, but this time I had to jump in!  Then, it was back to the sauna.  Another beating, more hugs from mother earth, another crushed ice exfoliation massage and a few minutes to relax in the heat.  I could have stayed in there all day, but obviously this is not possible and my prescription was to dry off and rehydrate with green tea with lemon and honey!  Like I said, absolutely heavenly!This was such a great New Year’s experience for me.  It felt good to do something so nice for my body.  After the banya, my body was begging for rest, and I gladly took it!  During the next couple days, I spent time to focus on my mind and my soul and I set the goals I would like to achieve in the coming years.  This year, however, I did my goal-setting in a very different way from what I am used to.  Based on the advice of a friend, I changed my goals from being mostly concrete, to being mostly abstract.  In the past, my goals have all been very definite attainable things ie) I want to do a master’s degree, I want to work in foreign affairs, I want to buy a house, I want to get married, ect, ect.  The problem with this is that now that I am close to achieving  of these concrete goals, I still felt unsatisfied.  My friend recommended that I change my goals to feelings rather than to accomplishments, which is pretty much the best advice I have ever received!  Now instead of saying: ‘I want to this kind of job’,  I say: ‘I want to feel successful, challenged and appreciated in my work’.  Not only have I applied this way of thinking to my career goals, but I have done it for physical, emotional, financial and spiritual goals as well.  So far it has proved to beneficial to my overall well-being and I look forward to a great year, professionally and personally!It has definitely been a learning experience here in Ukraine, both on the job and off.  It seems that I get very self-reflexive living in another place amongst a different culture. It is like you are given a different lens from which to view yourself.  My experience here in Ukraine has provided me with a very different lens from which to view myself and the society I grew up in.  I have come up with some interesting observations that I would like to share with you… but in the next post! I will leave with this for now, and some photos from Simferopol and around Crimea.  Wishing you all a very Happy New Year! С Новым Годом!

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A (Non) Christmas Special

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Before you start calling me a Grinch, hear me out! Christmas, and holiday spirit does exist in Ukraine, and even in the humble town of Melitopol, but it is somewhat different than what I'm used to. In fact, I'm grateful for the absence of crazed shoppers, repetitive holiday soundtracks, did I mention crazed shoppers?? Ukraine is rich with holiday traditions. The timing is just a little different. The 25th is just another day here (except for the Canadians here, who will be roasting up a beast and caroling!). Orthodox Christmas is celebrated January 7th. This is because the majority of the Orthodox churches worldwide use the Julian calendar, created under the reign of Julius Caesar in 45 BC, and have not adopted the Gregorian calendar, proposed by Latin Pope Gregory of Rome in 1582, and adopted by the West!There are 13 days in difference between the two calendars, so December 25th on the Julian calendar actually falls on January 7 on the Gregorian calendar. So really, everyone agrees! Christmas is still kept on December 25, which just happens to fall 13 days later on the Julian calendar. Some interesting traditions that parallel ours back home:

Caroling – done on Orthodox Christmas too… but with a twist. It is an adoption of the good ol' trick or treating model (I got a little worried when Halloween came and went). By the sounds of it there is a bit more of give and take here compared to how it works back home.. kids sing songs, recite poems, wish good health, and scatter grains and seeds around (in? eek what a mess) the houses of their neighbours for good fortune to feed on.Santa (Ded Moroz) – Comes on New Year's, is usually quite svelte in stature, and his lady friend "Snegurochka" (Snow maiden). In case you are aching for a visual, someone in the e-world got wonderfully technical about the comparison.Presents are naturally done on New Year's, since this is when Santa comes! Guess it makes good sense that the poor chap gets a holiday after unloading all the k-nex, and polly-pockets in Canada. On a personal note, I really lucked out since Santa came to my house twice!A final tradition that I've noticed here, and wish existed in Canada, is a city tree! From what I have heard, no matter how small the city, there is always a budget for a big tree!When it comes down to it, I must confess, I wrote about the beauty and joy during the holiday season here because I really miss my own traditions, and doing them with the family and friends that I love so much! Whether your Santa is in red or blue, slim or plump, I hope he is good to you and your loved ones! Wishing you a Merry Christmas and happy holidays (whenever you celebrate them!) from across the globe!- Ded Moroz, Snegurochka and Yours truly!

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Memorable Meskel

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Here are my brightest memories of Meskel...

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Diwali

Yesterday, Marie (my colleague, housemate, and honorary little sister) and I traveled to the city centre, home of Dar’s skyscrapers.Diwali, the festival of lights, has enticed us downtown with the promise of fireworks.We were on an adventure to find “the courtyard beside the Indian temple”.And although we have become quite talented at using creative landmarks to find our way through Dar’s unlabeled streets, there are still other challenges which can confront us on our journey.

For instance, this evening one of the streets we need to travel is unlit…pitch black unlit.But seeing that the darkness only lasts 100 feet, we decide to brave the abyss.A mistake.About 50 feet into the blackness, my left foot disappears into the pavement.Of course it has to be the unlit street which is missing a storm sewer cover. My entire left leg was swallowed by the sewer.My right leg and both hands hit pavement."Pole!" Marie hands me a sock and wetnap to help clean the dirty water off…then we continue on our way.

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Happy New Year!

Fresh cut grass
Coffee Ceremony Preparation
Pouring Coffee
Dabo Bread
Injera with national wat

The Ethiopian New Year is marked on September 11. Ethiopians follow a calendar that is slightly different so the year is now 2005. Melkam Addis Amet!

I was fortunate enough to arrive at such an opportune time and experienced a few of the special customs they celebrate.

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Another taste of Morocco

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Camel for Lunch

Three Saturdays ago, I went to explore Habbous, the new Medina area created by the French during the Protectorate in the 1920's, with my friend and her boyfriend who was visiting from Canada. We walked through Maarif in the general direction of Habbous, then up through a very local neighbourhood that included several butcher shops with huge chunks of raw meat (or indeed most of a cow) hanging in front of the shops. We also passed numerous flocks of 20 or so sheep every few streets. These had arrived all over the city about 10 days before Eid (October 26th), including a flock that was installed in the garage next to my apartment building.

This is because Eid-al-Adha is the Festival of Sacrifice - to commemorate Ibrahim (Abraham)'s willingness to sacrifice his son (with the son's permission) to God. As a reward for his faith, God switched out Abraham's son for a ram, so Muslims celebrate this event by sacrificing a sheep, goat or cow, and share the meat with neighbours, family, and supposedly the homeless as well (I didn't observe this but I did read about this). So this means, going out and selecting a ram for your family ahead of time from one of the flocks shepherds bring in to the city, and bringing it home a day or so before Eid. We're talking millions of sheep being sacrificed on a single day in Morocco, let alone across the Muslim world. In fact, half of the sheep in Morocco are slaughtered on this single day (according to the daily newspaper).

Back to Habbous - we finally took a taxi to get the rest of the way to Habbous as we were turned around from exploring this small Moroccan neighbourhood, and we promptly arrived about 10 minutes later. The walled area is clearly newer, and is next to a royal palace (always closed to the public), a park and a mosque. We browsed the shops, the olive souk (barrels and barrels of numerous varieties of olives), and continued to the area past the walls that is the only market where you can buy camel meat in Casablanca.  We bought it some ground camel meat (it is unclear whether it is mixed with beef or not) straight from one of a street of butchers - while we stood next to the furry head of said camel hanging from the awning, which was flanked by the camel's bare hump. Sorry - no photos of that! Then we walked around the corner, to a row of small "restaurants" that cook your meat for you, and serve it to you with cooked onions and tomatoes and bread. We had a couple pots of mint tea too. The meat was surprisingly good! You sit practically in the street, with the smoke from all these little restaurants blowing in your face. We then headed back through the market area and had a look at the carpets and clothing stalls before walking back to Twin Centre (a good 25 minute walk at least), through a nice neighbourhood and park.  Eid-al-AdhaSo, seeing all these sheep chilling out (AKA unknowingly awaiting their imminent deaths) on every second street, I figured the actual sacrifice on the feast day would be equally visual, possibly in the street (my street is filled with apartment buildings - where else would you do the act itself? I thought). Especially since entrepreneurial folks started selling charcoal, rope and knives, or knife-sharpening services, all over the place suddenly. Friday morning, Eid, was a holiday, so I woke up a bit later than usual, but to a much quieter street than usual. The "bah"ing I'd heard all week was gradually silenced, over the course of the morning, but not in an obvious way. It was raining as well. There were virtually no cars driving by on the busy road behind the building - I think it was the quietest I have ever heard Casablanca - even at night.  From my balcony I could see a couple sets of families up on the rooftop larger balconies off their apartments who were obviously going about the sacrifice business, although I couldn't see much looking up, but there were few people in the streets.  A co-worker invited me to come to her family's place in the late afternoon for the holiday, so I left my apartment just after 1:45 pm to try and locate a rare taxi. As I went past my building I saw families working on cutting up their sheep carcasses in the basement/parking garage of my building - aha, this is where they must be doing it! I also saw the carts of sheepskins that men were collecting, most people don't tan their own sheep skins anymore, they give them away. The taxi ride through Casa was eerie - very few people and very very few cars. The smoke from the charcoal fires used to cook the sheep heads on street corners wafted down the empty streets, making me think of an abandoned city in a war zone perhaps. The meal at my co-worker's was much more informal than I expected - I had visualized something akin to Thanksgiving or Easter - lots of family, lots of food. But we ate a late lunch of tripe, bread, onion-tomato salad and french fries, with tea and homemade cookies accompanied by fruit to round it off. I had to leave before supper was served in order to get back to my apartment on one of the last trains (within Casa) and I was a bit worried about the number of taxis that would be available. Perhaps supper is the larger meal with more dishes.  Those who know me well know that I'm a picky eater - I don't like or eat fish, seafood, sushi, hardly like eggs, and rarely eat weird things. There was even a year or so when the only meat I would eat was chicken. So I would like to congratulate myself for trying both camel meat and sheep tripe, within a week. I only managed one mouthful of tripe, and did not find it my liking, but I think it is likely something you have to grow up on to enjoy.
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Carb overload



Last night I had dinner with E., the other intern currently here (C. will be joining us in September!). It was iftar, the traditional meal breaking the fast at the end of each day of Ramadan. The food was delicious, but one thing that was different was the number of bread-based food items served to us in this enormous meal! Here's a picture of courses 3 and 4:

Pictured left: Course 3: Savory bread; course 4: dessert bread

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