Friday, December 10, 2010

ABANTU @ 10: Celebrating 10 years of ABANTU!

On November 18th, ABANTU for Development's West African Regional Office (otherwise known as my workplace) celebrated a decade of amazing work in the struggle for women's equal rights in Africa. And in true Ghanaian style, they held their celebration just a tiny bit late... like a year late...their tenth year anniversary was last year. But the delay just granted the planners of this event more time to make it a jam-packed 9 - 5 day of engaging presentations, celebratory activities, food and, of course, dancing!

As a volunteer for ABANTU, the day provided me with a window into the history of the organization and enlightened me on just how much ABANTU has accomplished in a mere decade. I'll give you a summary of the day in pictures. It will read just like a children's storybook only without the condescending tone.

No anniversary in Ghana would be complete without some branded collectors items.

Stylish bracelets available in black and yellow, ABANTU's colours. All the staff were advised to wear these colours to the event. Most of us looked gorgeous, others, myself included, bordered on looking like honeybees.

Gertrude, my post-Ellen supervisor, pins an ABANTU pin on an attendee.

ABANTU's donation box. The organization must have made a great impression over the years as this box was pretty full at the end of the day.

Adusei and Auntie Grace waiting for the crowds to show at registration.

Ms. Hilary Gbedemah, an absolute natural on the mic, was the emcee for the day. She has chaired and hosted many of ABANTU's conferences and events throughout my time at the organization. Definitely the funniest Ghanaian in town. Here, she has just finished asking the attendees to look at the conference agenda, look at the person to your left, and say to them: "we are here for the whooooooollleee day." Whenever energy was low in the room, Gbedemah was sure to remind us that we can't lose steam now, 'cause we're here for the whooooooolllllleeee day.

Meet Ms. Hamida Harrison, Programme Manager of ABANTU and one of the strongest women I have ever met. She's nicknamed "International Woman" by staff both because her work has taken her all around the globe but also because of her tendency to interrupt meetings to answer long-distance calls. The nickname sounds a lot better when my coworker, Joan, says it in a zealous cheering voice -"EEN TA NA SHIONAL WO MAN!"

Professor Takiywaa Manuh, the Chairperson of ABANTU's Board of Directors, acted as chairperson for the event. Expressed her deep sense of pride in ABANTU's work and commended Dr. Rose for her leadership.

Dr. Rose Mensah-Kutin, Director of ABANTU's West African Regional Office, welcoming participants. Everyone was so proud of her work with ABANTU and was sure to let her know at the event.

Mr. Kwasi Gyan Apenteng, the Programme Coordinator for Cultural Initiatives Suppose Programme, was invited to speak about the changes in Ghana with regards to gender equity and women's rights over the past ten years.

Dr. Angie Dawa, Regional Director of ABANT, Eastern and Southern Africa Regional Office in Nairobi, Kenya. Dawa delivered her speech on "Ten years of ABANTU: perspectives from Kenya." Though ABANTU's ROESA office adheres to the same mission and vision as ABANTU's ROWA, their areas of operation are different. ROESA seemed to focus more on women's health and economic development (wealth creation). However, they also focus on gender and governance like the ROWA office.

Ms. Grace Yeaney, Exec. Director of Women's Movement for Sustainable Development. She is based in Liberia and thus offered a her own narrative of what Liberia has seen over the past ten years with regards to women's rights and equality. She assured us that even though Liberia is the first African country to have a democratically-elected female president, women are still at a large disadvantage given that the country is still recovering from a civil war.

Professor Takiywaa Manuh chairing a panel discussion on the presentations.

Attendee who obviously got the "yellow" memo.

Celebration!! ABANTU and its supporters cheer Ghandi's famous saying "be the change you wish to see."

ABANTU and their supporters. Everyone's so happy!! And not just because lunch is about to be served...Though that may have something to do with it.

Lots of hugs and smiles that day.

Dr. Rose interviewed by the press. 

Attendees watching a photo slideshow of ABANTU over the years.

Attendee that sat next to me. Every time an obroni would appear in the slideshow her and her friend would point and asked if I can see myself in the photo. "You are there!" she would say. And I would tell her it wasn't me... until the time finally came that I was in a picture. 

Lizzy and Rafkatu, the lovely National Service Students working at ABANTU who put up with every Ghana-related question I have. In exchange, I try to explain a few things about white people. Hard to speak for all of them though...

Priscilla, another National Service Student, giving a sneaky smile. Priscilla also doubles as my Twi teacher and cultural guide. Again, in exchange I provide a bit of insight into the odd ways of the west.

Alfreida, one of the student interns at ABANTU this summer. She's handing out the ABANTU @ 10 souvenir book which was used to raise money for the organization. Student interns who come back to volunteer for ABANTU's programs or just to visit are so common that the organization has given them the nickname "Abantulettes" 

Afua holding the money-bag, as an auctioneer auctions off ABANTU's souvenir book for generous donations. The highest bid? 1000 GHC!! Not bloody bad.

Gracie, another Abantulette (and this one is full of personality, let me tell you) hands out the souvenir book to the highest bidders. 

Hilary and a woman from an organization that works closely with ABANTU dance to encourage people to donate.

Awards ready to be handed out

Hajia Bilkisu Yussif, Board Member for ABANTU's country office in Kaduna, Nigeria, accepts an award for her commitment to advancing gender equity in Nigeria.

Veronica Mba, an amazing woman - the first ever blind woman to be elected to the District Assembly in Ghana. She has participated in ABANTU's capacity-building programs for women running for district assembly positions.

     Jacob, ABANTU's Security Officer, is awarded for his hard work in protecting us at the ABANTU office!

Adusei, Support Services Officer for ABANTU, humbly accepts an award for his hard work.

Auntie Grace gets an award for her amazing work as ABANTU's Administrative Assistant. The place couldn't run without her.

Auntie Hamida, a.k.a. "International Woman", also receives an award for her hard work at ABANTU.

ABANTU Staff: Joan, Follie, Afua and Gertrude

Dancing ensues after the WHOOOLLEEE day has come to and end. National Service Students join the party.

Back home, it might take a bit of effort to get a guy on the dancefloor (well, maybe not the guys I hang out with), but here in Ghana - men are the first to leap at the opportunity to show off their moves. Here Marfo and Jacob, usually very shy and quiet, come alive with some Hi life beats.

Musician, Gonje and his band, provide live music for the crowd. 

Adusei and Mabel get down.

Obroni finally makes it on the other side of the camera.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

A Final Visit to Sefwi Wiawso... for now

Last weekend was my last opportunity to squeeze in a quick weekend visit to Sefwi Wiawso before my return to Canada. When I called Joseph to make arrangements for my stay, I was delivered the unfortunate news that Joseph will be travelling to attend a funeral for the weekend. I was truly disappointed to hear this as Joseph is one of my favourite things about Sefwi Wiawso!

Joseph is a naturally paternal figure. He's very in tune with people's needs, particularly the needs of his community. It's difficult to explain how I know this about Joseph, but I suppose it's from noticing a lot of little things he does. Like making sure you have a seat in the shade or that you've had time to rest; making sure that everyone is looked after, well fed, healthy and comfortable. In synagogue, when people appear to have zoned out or lost interest, Joseph is the first to notice. He jumps to his feet and tries to liven up the services, engaging people either in a conversation or a song.

He's a natural leader and I can tell that people not only respect him, but they really like him. Every Shabbat I've noticed that people like to gather on his compound, as opposed to anyone else's, to relax and enjoy each other's company and conversation. Even if Joseph isn't involved in the conversation, it seems that people just enjoy his presence.

A few times when I have found myself lost in Dwumasi (pronounced Junasee), when people ask where I am heading, I mention Joseph's name. People immediately react with smiles and tell me that he is a good friend of theirs - a "bosom" friend, is often what they say.

So, needless to say, I was a bit sad that I wouldn't get to see Joseph before leaving Ghana. However, I was happy that at least I would get to see his wife, Gladys and some of his older children - Partick and Anthony, whom I felt close to as well.

Much to my surprise, however, when I arrived at the compound around 4:00pm on a Friday - the place was remarkably empty. As I exited the taxi, I recognized a tiny smiling face - it was Frank, one of the youngest sons on the compound. He smiled, giggled, and ran into the kitchen (a concrete room with a corrugated tin roof, separated from the rest of the compound). I followed him into the kitchen where I found about 12 children all gathered together preparing dinner - pounding fufu, boiling plantain and cooking some stew. I greeted each of them, gave them hugs and asked where all the adults were.

"It is only us children here." Said Joshua, who was crowned the oldest sibling in the absence of his older brothers and sisters.

The situation made me laugh. There wasn't an adult in sight! I felt like I had walked on to the set of Annie... in Africa. I wondered what kind of trouble we could get into. What would Kevin from "Home Alone" do in this situation?

The scenario I imagined in my head was what my brother and I would likely have looked forward to with our parents out of town - a weekend of kraft dinner, pizza, candy, tv and playing games that involved hopping all over the furniture and handling the objects in the house we were advised not to play with like delicate statues and vases. However, that scenario didn't translate too well in Sefwi Wiawso. Especially since the key ingredients, Kraft Dinner and Pizza, were unavailable.

But another idea came to mind. How about a movie? We had about a half an hour left before sundown, the welcoming of Shabbat, so I quickly grabbed Joshua and we went to the main street in town and I had him pick out a movie that everyone would enjoy. Without thinking twice, he grabbed a Jet Li flick called "The Defender." I said I wasn't such a fan of action movies, but our selection of pirated DVDs was limited. So I picked out "You Got Served", a self-titled "dance-drama", in case I found The Defender too unbearable. We would watch the movies on Saturday night, when Shabbat ended.

The weekend went very well. I was amazed at how incredibly self-sufficient and responsible the children were. At the crack of dawn, each of them followed their household duties as they would if their parents were around - meticulously sweeping the compound, washing their clothes, bathing, cooking breakfast by the fire. Other than a minor mishap involving two fighting brothers and a machete, the children were on their best behaviour! (don't worry, no one was hurt...)

Synagogue was quite interesting as well. Services were said to be held at 8 and every showed up about 9:30 as usual. Alex, the community leader, decided to teach the congregation a new prayer. For about an hour and a half, we practiced reciting this prayer - each of us being selected at random to say a line or two as a test. People were encountering significant difficulty in pronouncing the guttural "ch" sound of the Hebrew language and it was pretty amusing to watch Alex and I try to explain how to make this sound.

After Havdalah, the ritual ending of Shabbat, a small audience gathered in my room in front of an old computer to watch "The Defender." The fact that it was an action flick worked out in our favour, as the  audio wasn't working too well.

Whereas I normally find myself ready to pass out around 7:30pm when I visit Sefwi Wiawso, this past Saturday night was different. I didn't want the night to end because I knew it would be a very long time before I see my friends in the community again. After The Defenders ended, I asked the kids to stick around and watch the second movie... but for the first time ever, they were the ones who wanted to go to bed and not me!
Front row seats to Jet Li's "The Defender"
Havdalah services in front of the synagogue.

Havdalah Services in front of the synagogue.

Mr. Samuel, a dear friend from the community.

Early the next morning, Alex, Joshua and Mata's oldest son, Kwame, escorted me to the junction to catch a taxi to the bus stop. I would catch the 5:30am bus to Kumasi and then make my way back to Accra. As promised, I left Joshua about 15 self-addressed envelopes and money to buy stamps so we could write each other while I'm in Canada.

As the bus took off for Kumasi, I watched as the sun rise poured its pink and orange hue over the gorgeous green mountains that harbour some of the tallest trees I have ever seen. The site is absolutely beautiful and I remember thinking to myself: this better not be my last time seeing it.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Accraventures of November: Premiere of "Sinking Sands"

Yet another Saturday night was spent at the theATAH this month. Only this time, I was attending the fancy premiere of "Sinking Sands" - the hottest new movie on the Ghanaian film scene. Please don't fact check that statement.

I found out about Sinking Sands from a billboard I happen to pass on my trotro ride to work. The film's professional-looking poster definitely stood out amidst the usual Ghanaian film posters that one finds crookedly shellacked against stone walls. I did a little google searching on the film and found out that Sinking Sands is the highest budget movie to have ever been produced in Ghana!

Interestingly enough, the producer/writer/director, Leila Djansi secured this $1 million (US) budget through fundraising and corporate sponsorship. Pretty darn impressive if you ask me... but not as impressive as the film itself! (hey-o! lazy segue...)

I have to admit, I had... expectations... walking into the theatre. I will not call them low expectations, because I have definitely enjoyed a few Ghanaian movies, particularly when they play on the STC buses on long journeys. However, the Ghanaian films I've seen follow in the tradition of "Nollywood" films (Nollywood is the booming film industry in Nigeria) which can sometimes be... well.. a bit silly. Oh... and loud. VERY VERY loud.

So, I walked into the National Theatre expecting to see a dramatic love story with the usual key ingredients: betrayal, cheating, shouting, some kind of witchcraft and a romantic scene where the two conflicting parties make up. However, I was shocked when I saw this:

Sinking Sands has definitely "pull[ed] some firsts for the industry" as claimed in the film's program, just one item in our press bag of goodies! The film was shot on Red Camera Technology, one of the highest quality video cameras available today, and according to the program, "the first feature film in some years to go back to using set design [in Ghana]." The film also cast an American actor, Jimmy Jean Louis, in one of the main roles. The crew itself was also a mix of Ghanaians and foreigners.

But it wasn't just the technology that appealed to me, the whole movie carried a Hollywood aesthetic - from the intimate performances by the actors, to the soundtrack, to the cinematography. It was really impressive! And this is not to say that Ghanaian films that aren't modelled on a more Western, Hollywood style aren't impressive. Rather, what I find impressive is that this director was able to go outside the norm of her native industry and adopt an artistic style that's pretty darn hard to pull off without prior training!

Here is a synopsis of Sinking Sands from the program:

"Jimah and Pabi are a match made in heaven until an accident leaves Jimah with a scar that alters his physical appearance and turns him into a monster - figuratively"

Pause... I like that they clarified that Jimah turns in a "figurative" monster. Continue...

"Endless days of wife battery become a part of their relationship. Pabi has a chance to flee but her guilt makes her stay, hoping and praying that Jimah will change and life will go back to normal. Her fear of living alone without a family is a weakness Jimah knows she has and he makes every effort to capitalize on it. But how long will Pabi endure? At what cost will she buy her freedom?"

The synopsis doesn't sell the movie very effectively. So again, I walked in with... expectations. However, the narrative unfolded really nicely, the acting was believable and honest, we could empathize with the characters (even the figurative monster) and well, most importantly, the movie kept your interest. You really couldn't tell what was going to happen next.

Another thing that Djansi should be proud of is that she addressed taboo issues head on and didn't censor anything. In fact, one of the strangest things I have ever experience in Ghana happened while I was watching Sinking Sands. At one point in the film, there is a brutal rape scene - it was quite graphic and realistic. The audience reaction? roaring laughter!! And believe me, this wasn't uncomfortable or nervous laughter. This was like knee-slapping, belly-aching laughter. Needless to say, the eight of us foreigners in the crowd looked at each other completely dumbstruck by what was going on... and eventually the laughter became contagious.

Seeking an explanation from a Ghanaian, I asked a coworker about the reaction of this rape scene. She said that the laughter was likely due to the fact that sex is not really something Ghanaians talk about openly, so when it appears on the big screen, in front of a crowd, people get very embarrassed.

Okay, so maybe it was nervous laughter. But it really didn't appear that way!

My coworker tried to explain it a little bit more. If any of these people were watching the movie alone, they wouldn't laugh at the rape scene. But once you add a few more people to the mix, people start to get self-conscious and embarrassed about the presence of sex on screen.

"That's kind of like the reaction I had when I watched a few episodes of Sex and the City with my father."

Thankfully, I kept this analogy in my head.

So, once again, Ghanaian audiences have added some spice to the experience of watching a film or a play. All in all, the movie was great - a huge leap for the Ghanaian Film Industry. Not sure when the film's set to hit theatres or DVD but if it comes out before I return to Canada, I'll be sure to grab a copy.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

And We're Back! Theatre Review: Terms of Divorce

My apologies for the blogging hiatus... I know my absence has thoroughly disappointed millions.
And November has been such an eventful month! So I will slowly catch everyone up on the action packed Accra adventures, or “accraventures” as I like to call them... or rather, as I will call them from this point on.
Alas, the accraventures have been carried out at an increasingly slower pace this month as the heat and the sun become much more intense. The HEAT - it’s all expats can talk about these days. I hardly have anything else to say to people other than “geeze, it’s getting a lot hotter these days, huh?” To which they eagerly agree and we then enter our awkward quest for something else to talk about. If the conversation turns to sports, I plan my escape route - “is that an injured goat I hear in the distance?” - Otherwise, I generally welcome any other topic quite happily.
Commentary about the heat is not limited to expats, though. Ghanaians share their two cents about the weather. 
Example 1: “This African sun, it is too hot! How can we do anything? Ah!”
- My host mother on a scorcher of a day during a blackout.
Example 2: “It is raaiiiining today! Can you imagine what it will be like during the rainy season?!"
- My soaked coworker, upon entering the office during a rain storm that caused floods all over Accra.
So those may be the only two interesting comments that come to mind right now but I swear I hear more complaints! It’s the equivalent of hearing Canadians complain about the winter year after year after year as though every time November rolls around we’re surprised that fall still turns into winter. Every year. Leaves to snow... I don’t understand.  
Okay, enough about the cold, I can delay having to think about it for another month. Back to our eventful November!
Well the most important event of November was of course, my birthday. Birthday celebrations were slightly muted by the impending deadlines for the funding proposals I was working on. However, I did manage to celebrate the occasion with a visit to the theatre... which I choose to pronounce “TheATAH” for no particular reason other than it simply feels right.
I was accompanied by two lovely gents - one Neil, from England, and one Hafen, from the US. We stopped briefly at Koala, one of the few grocery stores where westerns can pay insulting prices for their comfort foods. We dished out the equivalent of the mean household income of an American middle class family for a bag of Doritos and a can of Pringles. What a steal!
We hopped in a taxi and made our way to the National Theatre to watch the hit theatrical romantic comedy “Terms of Divorce” by renowned Ghanaian playwright James Ebo Whyte. 
The house was packed! This was pretty shocking as the play wasn’t cheap... 25 Cedis a ticket. However, after having seen a few Ghanaian plays, I knew that the audience reactions alone are worth the price of admission. The best part about the audiences? No dirty looks whilst rustling our chip bags and crunching away on our snacks.

Terms of Divorce tells the story of Ralph and Ethel, a couple in the final stages of a messy divorce. At the opening of the play, we learn that Ralph and Ethel have been in a vicious tug-of-war over the divorce settlement for close to two years now. The process has been made that much more difficult because the couple have enlisted lawyers Michael and Baaba, who are themselves, bitter divorcees! 
We quickly learn that a court date is soon approaching where Ralph and Ethel will be able to sign off a final agreement, once and for all - authorizing their divorce before a judge. But before they do this, they must visit some kind of marriage counsellor who will rubber stamp the agreement.
The counsellor is an older, cheerful man married to a mad woman whom he adores passionately. He warns Ralph, Ethel and their lawyers that his wife will frequently interrupt their proceedings with odd hallucinations. He tells them that his wife becomes very upset at the mere suggestion that she is mad, so if everyone could be so kind as to accommodate her hallucinations and play along with her madness, that would be greatly appreciated. So as the counseling proceeds, we are met with bizarre and often hilarious intervals where the counsellor’s cooky wife serves invisible tea and snacks or alerts everyone about murderers surrounding the house. In an effort to appease both the counsellor and his wife, the group plays along and drinks from their make believe tea cups and kills the murderers with their pretend guns.
The counsellor’s devotion and love for his wife, who proves to be quite a handful, eventually inspires Ralph to re-consider the divorce with Ethel. And after about 10 more argument scenes between the couple. they finally decide that they shouldn’t throw away their 20 year relationship over a couple of mishaps. I must say it was a bit of a shock to hear the couple had been married 20 years as the actors looked like they were in their early thirties... but who am I to deny two 12 year olds from making a lifelong commitment to each other?
Eventually, Baaba and Michael, follow suit, clarify the misunderstanding that let to their marriage’s dissolution and decide to re-marry.
The moral of the story: divorce is for quitters. 
The play was definitely entertaining but went in some strange directions. For example, about two-thirds of the way through, the play suddenly turned into musical and introduced fantastical theatrical elements like smoke machines and angels (who doubled as backup dancers). Some of the numbers performed would be familiar to anyone who has seen a movie trailer for a romantic comedy in the last century like James Blunt’s “Goodbye My Lover” or Shania Twain’s “You’re Still the One I Want.” Just a WEEE bit cliché.
Another drawback, and a complaint I have about most Ghanaian theatre I’ve seen thus far, is the length of the play - nearly 3 hours. I mean, if I were watching a staged rendition of War and Peace translated into Twi, this length might be acceptable. But the play was marred with repetition and redundancies that lengthened scenes unnecessarily. The pace of the play also could have been tightened by eliminating actions and dialogue that detracted from the narrative train. 
Other than these details, (oh, and the audio levels for the mics... let’s refrain from using max volume when your actors are screaming at each other for the majority of the play, thanks)  I was quite pleased with the show! And as expected, the audience played their role just as well as the actors - contributing their “oh!”s and “ah!”s with conviction and enthusiasm. One moment in particular sparked roaring laughter and heckling from the audience. Ralph and Ethel, now googly-eyed and lusting after each other, are dressed in their “make-up sex” costumes - towels. They flirt with each other, indicating that they are ready for another round in the bedroom and eagerly ascend the stairs to their love chamber. Just as they reach the final step, Ralph’s towel falls off!! Fortunately for Ralph, he was wearing boxers under his towel. But believe me, the presence of underpants did not hinder the audience’s riotous reaction.

The best part about that moment? I GOT IT ON VIDEO!! Too bad the internet just ain't strong enough for me to upload it.
All in all, a great night at the theATAH topped off by pizza and wine at my favourite joint. Yay birthday in Ghana! 

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Building critical mass: Empowering young women in Ghana to lead the women’s movement

The following article I wrote was published in CCI's November E-bulletin! You can go directly to the E-bulletin by following this link: Special thanks to Candice O'Grady from CCI for her editing wisdom.

Building critical mass: Empowering young women in Ghana to lead the women’s movement  

It was my first week in Accra. I was just getting settled and didn’t know too many people (read: none). I thought it would be good idea to get out of the house for a night. Luckily, a popular bar and restaurant was located just down the street from my host family. I grabbed my book, sat at the bar and ordered my very first Ghanaian beer. No sooner did I open my book when a stylish young man in his mid-twenties (about my age) sat next to me, ordered a Heineken and initiated conversation.
We began with the usual formalities. 

Where you from? 
How long are you here? 
Five months. 
Are you a student? 
Nope, volunteer. 
Do you like it here? 
Are you married? yes. Married yes. 
Are you sure?
What is your name? 
Gabrielle, what is your name? 
No Steve. What kind of a name is Teve?
I was going to ask you the same thing.
After some friendly chatter, we got to discussing the purpose of my volunteer work in Ghana.
I told Steve (not Teve) that I was working for ABANTU for Development, a women’s rights non-profit dedicated to advancing gender equality in Africa. The organization focuses much of its efforts on influencing policy and building the capacity of women to become leaders and decision-makers at all levels of public life. My particular role at ABANTU is to assist in the development of their Young Women’s Mentorship Programme, which cultivates leadership skills in young women.

Crossroads has worked with ABANTU for several years now. Recent initiatives, focusing on young women’s empowerment have led the two organizations and Canadian partner YWCA Canada, to work together closely. The exchange of ideas and practices among the three organizations has fed richly into the mentorship programme.
Why young women’s empowerment? Why now? The program was launched three years ago with the recognition that long-term and lasting change depends on building confidence, skills, knowledge and capacities in young women. Since then its graduates have surpassed the organization’s expectations. Many participants entered the program as timid young women with little confidence and political knowledge. These same women are now amongst the first females to hold leadership positions in Ghana’s national student unions and other governing bodies in various universities and trade schools.
“We think that incorporating the vigor and enthusiasm of young people will be good for the women’s movement in Ghana,” explained Hamidah Harrison, Programme Manager at ABANTU for Development’s West-African Regional Office. Harrison added that aside from developing a pool of young women with the skills to be leaders in their communities, the mentorship programme also aims to address the apathetic political attitude she sees in young Ghanaians today.
“We hope that we can excite these young people, introduce them to the processes of governance whereby their capacities will be built,” she said.
This isn’t what I told Steve, though. I gave him the abridged version of my volunteer mission, highlighting ABANTU’s mandate to increase women’s participation in governance and political life. 
“Oh! Women do not belong in politics!” Steve interjected with a laugh, shaking his head before taking a sip from his beer. 
For the feminist in me, Steve’s comment was like the ringing bell one hears at the start of a boxing match. 
“Ding!” Alright dukes up, Steve! I’ve got four years of Women’s Studies parlance to unleash on you!
The cautious foreigner in me, however, chose to exercise a little tact. So I laughed along with Steve and through a smile asked:
“What?! Why do women not belong in politics?” Hold your smile Gabrielle.
I was met with the expected remarks - women are too emotional and unstable for the politics. They can’t think beyond their own needs or the needs of other women. They aren’t natural leaders. They can’t make decisions etc. etc.
Despite the popular travel advice to avoid discussions on politics or religion, I challenged Steve on his patriarchal views. Luckily, he accepted and enjoyed the challenge and the conversation was quite engaging. The gloves never did come off, so to speak.
I realize now that when I left the bar that night, I really should have thanked Steve. I couldn’t have asked for a better affirmation of the relevancy of both my volunteer mandate and the organization I was to be working with for five months.
I have to admit, I wasn’t so much surprised by Steve’s opinion but at how comfortable he was expressing it. Many Canadians still cling desperately to patriarchal views but good luck trying to get any of them to admit it! “Politically incorrect” views are hard to tease out of Canadians. However, I wasn’t in Canada anymore and it was high time I started learning about what women’s rights looked like on the ground in Ghana. 
Fifteen years have passed since Ghana joined the world in accepting the United Nations’ forward-looking action plan on women’s rights, adopted at the Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing, China in 1995. The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action sought to accelerate equality across the globe. However, gender activists in Ghana remain deeply unimpressed. Women in the country occupy a paltry 8.6 per cent of Parliamentary seats — a far reach from the 30 per cent target set at Beijing, and quite a distance from the 18.4 per cent African average. 
Fortunately, this disheartening progress has failed to curb the dedication and passion exhibited by Ghana’s women’s movement. To the contrary, the past 15 years have seen the rapid development of an unforgiving, sophisticated and highly visible national campaign for gender equality. 
Though their optimism is unyielding, advocates remain realistic about the progress they expect to see in the near future. Meeting the Beijing targets will not only require policy reforms and strong political will, but also a national shift in mindset, away from the patriarchal status quo that excludes women from public life. 
The realization of this grander mission will not take place in a mere finger snap, or in a conversation over beers at the local bar. Progress will only reveal itself over the course of generations. However, the time to invest in the young women who will lead this ideological rewriting is now. And no one realizes this more than ABANTU.
“We will no longer have the excuse from male-dominated governments that Ghana can’t find the women,” said Harrison, addressing the often-cited excuse that there aren’t women capable or willing to vie for leadership positions.
“They will be there in critical mass.” 
Sorry Steve, but it looks like women aren’t exiting the ring any time soon.

Where's Waldo? You can find Obroni hidden in the back row on the right. 

Thursday, October 28, 2010

I'm Coming...

When Ghanaians are leaving your presence and want to inform you that they will be right back, they say "I'm coming" as they walk away in the opposite direction. To the foreigner, this is counter-intuitive, as it appears they are not "coming" they are indeed "going."

Well, I wanted to tell readers of my blog that "I'm coming."

I have been working like crazy on funding applications for the documentary I wish to do with the Sefwi Wiawso Jewish community. The deadline for these funding proposals are Nov 9 and Nov 15 so my blog entries will remain slow until then. However, I do plan on doing a special little post tomorrow to mark my 100th day in Ghana! I don't know exactly when it was but it was sometime this week.

In the meantime, if anyone knows of organizations or people that could support my effort to do a documentary about the Jewish community in Sefwi Wiawso, please do contact me! The project would go into production next fall, in time for the high holidays.

Thanks and see you soon!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Menstruation and Peace-Building: Yes, There is a Link.

A major focus of development efforts here in West Africa is peace-building and security. The West African sub-region has been plagued with a number of violent civil wars including those in Sierra Leone, Cote D’Ivoire, Liberia and Guinea. Though Ghana has witnessed four major military coups since its independence in 1957, when compared to the conflicts of its neighbouring countries, Ghana’s post-independence coups appear quite localized and brief with few civilian casualties. 
Indeed, Ghana prides itself on a reputation of peace, steady growth and security - a reputation that shines brightly against the backdrop of an historically unstable West Africa. Ghana is the child in the family who made it through adolescence unscathed, earning scholastic praise form teachers and coaches while its rebellious siblings were stuck in the principal’s office every other week for smoking pot in the schoolyard. Ok - this is an exaggeration but to my credit, much of Ghana’s tourism branding does label it the “golden child of Africa.” (However, if you google the term “the golden child of Africa” apparently the title is generously handed out to nearly every county on the continent).
Because of its peaceful reputation, Ghana has become the home to many West African refugees who are forced out of their native countries because of violence and corruption. As such, Ghana plays a huge role in peace-building efforts and post-conflict rehabilitation even within its own borders. This is evident by the significant number of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society organizations (CSOs) here who include peace-building amongst their organizations’ core activities. 
Though these organizations should be lauded for their efforts to help refugees and contribute to peace-building processes, I have found that, at times, it is difficult to identify the precise activities that can be considered “peace-building.” This can be a problem with humanitarian organizations around the globe - their missions and mandates are noble but extremely broad, leaving those outside the organization a little confused as to what strategy the organization is using, if any, to “fight AIDS” or “end child poverty” or “end world hunger.” The problem is not necessarily to do with strategy (though I’m sure in some cases it is) as much as communication. 
Given the breadth of work involved in peace-building and indeed, the broad interpretation of the term “peace-building”, I have found myself becoming increasingly critical of the missions and mandates of NGOs and CSOs that identify peace-building as an area of focus but can’t seem to really articulate how they are carrying out peace-building efforts. At times, it seems like peace-building efforts only manifest themselves within the walls of conferences, forums and academic institutions. Where is the ground work? How are these conversations translating into action?
Well, recently I was introduced to a strategy in peace-building that took me by surprise. 
ABANTU for Development, the organization I work for here in Ghana, recently made a presentation at an NGO Fair for students enrolled in Trent University’s “Trent-in-Ghana” program offered through the University’s Department of International Development Studies. From what I understand, the program is jointly run by Trent and the University of Ghana and enrolls students from both these institutions.
I was invited to help ABANTU with their presentation, an offer which I accepted wholeheartedly. I couldn’t very well pass on the opportunity to mingle with fellow Canadians! Why we could talk incessantly about everything Canadian like ... I don’t know... Stephen Harper? Bagels? The Alberta tar sands? VIA Rail? Tim Horton’s? I guess it’s not that exciting. Based on previous experience, conversations with fellow Canadian expats are always super refreshing until the person brings up sports and then I gradually liquify into a puddle of boredom and disinterest. But I digress...
So we arrive at the NGO Fair and ABANTU makes its presentation, discussing its thematic areas - gender and governance, climate change and, you guessed it, peace-building and security. Now this of course wasn’t a surprise for me as I have been working at the organization for nearly three months now. But I never really investigated what activities fall under ABANTU’s peace-building theme. I know they attend a ton of conferences on the topic and have recently published a research booklet on the subject of women and peace-building. But I was beginning to worry that I actually had no idea what kind of ground work was being done on the issue. 
After all the NGOs made their presentations, we broke out into groups where students, in search of organizations for their volunteer placements, were afforded the opportunity to discuss the NGOs’ work in greater depth.
Eventually the question came to ABANTU, “what sort of work does your organization do under its peace-building theme?” My colleague Gertrude responded that ABANTU is involved with peace-building initiatives on two fronts: through advocacy and on the ground with the women in the Budaburam Liberian Refugee Camp located in Accra. Their advocacy work focuses on implementing UN Resolutions 1325 and 1820 which call for greater inclusion of women in peace-building and security efforts in post-conflict areas (ABANTU does this through policy influencing, research and awareness campaigns). On the ground, ABANTU is involved with capacity-building projects for women in the Budaburam camp. Some of these capacity-building initiatives focus on providing women with the skills and seed money to engage in small businesses, while other initiatives focus on building women’s leadership capacity so they can organize themselves as a political body.
But then my colleague mentioned a third project that really took me aback. She casually added “we also provide sanitary towels for women in the camps.” Confusion took hold of the group. “Like for times when they are menstruating?” Yes, we understood that part... but the part about sanitary pads as a peace-building tool was a little... confusing.
The response was like a blow to the head for me. It had never occurred to me that something so simple, so practical and yet so necessary, could fall under “peace-building efforts.” Until that point, my focus was stuck on the larger picture. Peace-building to me was about finding ways to rebuild nations ravaged by violence to become secure and democratic. It was about finding ways to bring war criminals, terrorists and corrupt politicians to justice. It was about rebuilding infrastructure and social welfare. It was about rehabilitating child soldiers and healing the damaged psyche of a nation. Never had it even crossed my mind that the distribution of sanitary napkins could contribute to peace-building and security.
And yet, somehow I innately understood how this initiative was a peace-building effort. Here I had been problem-solving from a top-down approach - thinking of what it would take to implement and maintain peaceful democracy. But the donation of such a basic sanitary item represented a truly bottom-up approach. The initiative focused on the basic need for human dignity and wellbeing, the need for comfort and control. 
I noticed goosebumps on my arms after Gertrude made mention of this initiative. Though a seemingly small step in an overwhelmingly large post-war strategy, thinking about the donation of sanitary pads to women in the camps dragged me from the theoretical to the personal. From the cerebral to the emotional. Of course peace-building necessitates the political and physical rebuilding of a nation, but this begins with the rebuilding of people. I realized that the women in the Budaburum camp were not only victims of violence and subsequent displacement, they have also been stripped of their basic right to human dignity and wellbeing. Their ability to live a healthy and self-sufficient life was taken from them and no policy or legislation alone could ever return these basic needs. Efforts can be made to develop a nation’s democracy and promote good governance, but at the end of the day, if your people are unable to take care of their basic needs, progress will fall flat.
I guess it is fair to say that this was one of many “ah ha” moments I have experienced while working in Ghana, particularly in the area of international development. It is very difficult to grasp the complexities of the issues facing developing countries until you witness them manifesting in the lives of people right in front of you. I should add that it is just as difficult to fully grasp the issues facing “developed” countries. In fact, in developed countries it can be even more difficult to grasp ugly realities because we seem to have become experts at hiding them. 
For example, Canada has been at war for nearly a decade now and had a camera been documenting my life or the lives of those close to me since 2002, nowhere would you find evidence of a country at war (save for a few protests or class presentations). And yet, when the camera shifts to the life of a fallen soldier Canada experiences its own “ah ha” moment. Suddenly, the goosebumps emerge as the political manifests itself as the personal, shinning light on a harsh reality that was comfortably hidden overseas. 
I guess we have to take these epiphanic moments as reminders that action is urgently needed. But in doing so, we should be mindful that all we can do for now is take the first step, however small that step may be.