Posted by: devonhamilton | December 5, 2010

World AIDS Day, Shai Hills, and Mama Augusta


Our World AIDS Day event on Wednesday had a good turn-out: three schools sent buses of students and teachers to attend. There was some confusion about scheduling, and last minute changes, but I think overall it was a successful event. One problem that we faced (and continually face) is start time, as our event was scheduled to start at 9am. While I understand the concept of “Ghanaian time” and didn’t really expect the event to start at 9am, it was unfortunate because one busload of students did in fact arrive for 9am – but we needed to wait for more people to arrive before we could begin (including our guest speakers!)

Jenna introduced YCI to the audience, and I spoke briefly about the importance of health to development and the MDGs, while Lisa talked about the history of World AIDS Day and introduced the day’s program. One of our guest speakers was a nurse, and she spoke to the students about the importance of being tested for HIV regularly. We also provided the opportunity for those in attendance to be tested (via mouth swab) and around half of those present did so.

We also conducted a handshake exercise to demonstrate how quickly HIV/AIDS can spread. We gathered all the students in the courtyard of the YMCA and distributed cards with the following symbols: a square, a circle, a triangle, and a card that said “do not shake hands.” The instructions are to greet other people in the courtyard with a handshake, unless your card says not to shake hands. There is one different handshake in the crowd (a finger scratching the palm of your hand) and you copy whichever handshake you receive to the next person you greet. At the conclusion of the exercise, we explain that the handshake represents sexual intercourse and the scratching represents HIV.  We then tell everyone who had “do not shake hands” on their card that they were abstinent. Then we ask everyone who had their hand scratched to stand up – these are all people who were at risk of contracting HIV in this exercise. We then explained that those with a square could sit down because they used a condom. However, the students with a circle either used a condom improperly or had the condom break, and those with a triangle didn’t use a condom at all; so all these students would be at risk for HIV. At the conclusion a large number of people are still standing: we then go on to explain that only three people started the handshake and were able to spread HIV that quickly to so many people. In terms of stigma reduction, we also emphasized that you cannot tell who has HIV based on appearances.

Afterwards we had a talk from a person living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA). Although this was conducted in Twi, we were able to have Fred translate for us. The students were very engaged with this speaker and had tons of questions for him. He explained that you can’t get HIV by shaking hands or by kissing or from mosquitoes, and noted that he looks like everyone else and that you can’t tell that he has HIV by looking at him. He also spoke extensively on stigma reduction, and said that stigma kills faster than HIV. It was a really good talk and if students only took away one thing from World AIDS Day, I hope it was something from this speaker.

This past weekend was the weekend we had been talking about going to Mole. Unfortunately, under the best of circumstances the trip there would take 10-12 hours, and we only had a few days available, so it wasn’t possible. I do hope to go on a safari in Eastern Africa someday though! Instead, on Friday, Jenna, Kelly and I ventured to Shai Hills Resource Reserve, which is a protected park about 50km from Accra. Shai Hills doesn’t have elephants like Mole, but other wildlife such as baboons and antelope live there. Our first tour was a 2 hour walk to see the Adwuku Cave. This walk wasn’t particularly strenuous but I did get tired from the climb to the top, and I definitely didn’t bring enough water! We saw antelope tracks and snake tracks and then saw one of the many groups of baboons that lives in this area. They were very friendly and not shy at all about coming right up to us! Someone threw some groundnuts on the ground and they all backed off while the alpha male ate what he wanted. Apparently they can’t go near the food until he is done. On Saturday, we bought a 3 hour tour and walked to the “bat cave” or Sayu Cave, which is where one of the Shai chiefs used to live. The Shai people lived in this area until they were kicked out by the British in 1892. The cave is now full of bats, apparently three different species. The Shai people continue to return to this area to perform certain ceremonies, but our guide told us that they haven’t been back to the Sayu Cave in a few years.

We were disappointed not to see any antelope, but the savannah scenery was absolutely beautiful. We also saw a lot of ants, and were surprised to hear from our guide that ants will eat a snake if they cross paths, so snakes avoid them! Jenna and I took some pictures of the ants and before we knew it they were all over her shoes and trying to get up her legs. We saw some snake skin that had been shed, but no actual snake sightings, although Jenna very much wanted to see a python!  We left for our walk early in the morning (before 7am) but the sun is very powerful here and I drank 2 litres of water, and probably would have had more if I had it.

The ride back was a bit of an adventure. It only took one tro-tro to get to Shai Hills but we needed to take two back and transfer. One problem was that we couldn’t actually pronounce the village where the tro-tro station was, so we had to spell it out to tro-tros that pulled over to ask if they were going there (its Kpong, but the pronounciation sounded more like “Bon”). When we finally got to the tro-tro station in Kpong, one was just pulling out for Koforidua. This meant that we were the first people waiting for the next tro-tro, and as you may remember from previous blogs, tro-tros don’t leave until they are full. This surprisingly didn’t take too long (we had some Fan Ice – ice cream in a bag – during the wait which probably helped) and to my delight a man with a goat on a rope walked up to the ticket booth to buy a ticket for my tro-tro (you might remember that I am quite taken by the goats here!). The only empty seat was the one beside me, so I was hoping the goat would be my travelling companion but he ended up going in the trunk while his owner sat beside me. About ten minutes in the goat started to make some noise and I think the rest of the tro-tro was surprised with how happy this made me. A little while later everyone started talking about the aponkye (“aponchie” – goat in Twi) and we pulled over. So I guess there was some sort of problem with the goat, we never really figured out what it was, but the man got out, opened the trunk, and I guess adjusted the goat!

On a different topic, I referred several times to Mama Augusta so I figured it was time to devote some more time to talking about her and her amazing cooking! Let me preface by saying that we didn’t have homecooked meals in Takoradi; the only meal we had cooked for us there was breakfast, which usually consisted of toast, and sometimes oats or an omelet. Eating our meals out every night was tiring for a few reasons: it involves a lot of time because we would need to walk into town and then wait an hour or more for our meal; its more expensive because meals were usually 5 cedis or more; and we only had five restaurants that we frequented. Since we were only eating breakfast and then one other meal we tended to make “safe” food choices rather than trying local food. However, with Mama Augusta we have tried every local food! Plus it has been super convenient to be able to eat food on-site, rather than having to venture into town and eat a restaurant, which usually takes up a couple of hours. Here is a sampling of some of the delicious Ghanaian food we have been eating:

Groundnut soup: Groundnut=peanut, so its basically a peanut soup. Mama Augusta has served it to us with cabbage and other vegetables in it, which was delicious. There is also a big rice ball in the middle, or “omo tuo.” This literally translates as “rice guns” so I call them rice guns.

Palava sauce and yam or plantain: Palava sauce is made from the leaves of the cocoyam plant. We asked Mama Augusta if its similar to spinach, and she asked us “what is spinach?”. So you’ll have to take it from us that its more or less a spinachy sauce that you eat with yam and plantain – yum!

Fufu: Personally I wasn’t the biggest fan of fufu, which is a big dough ball made of pounded cassava and yam. You eat it without chewing so it just slides down your throat, with a light soup. The soup was really good but something about the dough ball didn’t really do it for me. I think I mentioned previously that we were told by several Ghanaians that fufu often doesn’t sit well in Western stomachs, so I think I was a little paranoid of that, although I was fine.

Jollof rice: Slightly spicy rice made with vegetables and tomato paste. We usually eat it with chicken.

Waatche: Rice with beans! Very good.

Banku and okro stew: Banku is also a dough ball, like fufu, but made of maize. The okro stew had a bit of a kick to it.

Red-red: Fred’s favourite! This is fried plantain served with beans, with or without meat in it. We’ve had chicken and meatless. I am not a huge fish person so I have been avoiding that.

We had tried some of these dishes before our arrival in Koforidua but always at restaurants, and home cooking is just so much better! We have all written about Mama Augusta in our midterm reports and have told YCI that they absolutely have to get a Cooking Mama for Takoradi as well! We have made plans with Mama Augusta to have her teach us a few Ghanaian recipes, and I believe today we are going to make groundnut soup – so hopefully I will be making that for some of you in Toronto sometime soon!

This may be the last time I am able to post pictures until I arrive in Amsterdam because I don’t know if I will be back at the Internet café. Hopefully I will be able to post once or twice more before we leave. We officially finished workshops and the programming portion of our project on Friday. We have the next few days to write our final report before conducting our official debrief and goodbye lunch with the YMCA mentors on Wednesday. Thursday morning we are off to Accra, where we will have our group debrief before I depart for Amsterdam on Monday the 13th.

I will be giving an alumni talk to the next group of Ghana volunteers on December 17th – the day after I get back from Amsterdam! This group will be heading to Takoradi for 8 weeks beginning in January. I found the alumni talk I received extremely useful in helping me prepare for Ghana, so I am looking forward to talking about my own experiences. I also hope that future volunteers find this blog to be helpful, as I said my goal with this blog was to create the resource that I was looking for when I was preparing to come to Ghana.

Looking forward to my return to Canada, but of course I am getting sad about leaving Ghana as well!

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