Do You Want Fries With That?

Customer service in Ghana, in my experience, doesn’t exist. Last week was one big example of that.

I had dropped off some cloth at my usually very quick tailor two and a half weeks prior. In those two and a half weeks, I’d returned to the tailor at a cost of one cedi per trip four times. The first two times, Master Aziz wasn’t there. Finally, at visit numero trois, he decided to make an appearance. Imagine that: a business owner actually at his business during regularly-accepted business hours! He told me that some finishing touches had to be done, but that the shirt would be complete the following day. At this point, it had been a full two weeks since I had dropped off the cloth; I was so tired of being exasperated that I decided to just be happy that my garment would be done in one small sleep.

I returned the next day to find that (surprise, surprise) Master Aziz wasn’t there. His army of apprentices couldn’t do the shirt, either, because it was somehow complicated. They told me to come back after I was done work. I returned after work to find them lazing about under a tree near the shop. One of them—their ringleader, I’m guessing—told me that they had lights out during the afternoon. Cue rage.

“Did you have lights out for the past two weeks?” I asked angrily, “show me the shirt.” In that instant I had decided to take the unfinished shirt to a tailor who could get the job done. The apprentice pulled out a rolled-up bunch of cut cloth that clearly wasn’t even close to requiring “finishing touches”.

A tug-of-war, some yelling, accusations of thievery, and a hasty phone call to Aziz ensued. I’ll spare you the details, but suffice to say that I didn’t get my cloth that day. I’m not proud of my actions, but, you know, hindsight is 20/20 and all that. Not even FanMilk could quench my burning fury so I returned to Sagnarigu in a state of frustration.

This was not the best state for me to be in when I arrived. You see, I was to meet another tailor in my village at a specific time at his shop to drop off cloth for something even more complicated. Naturally, he wasn’t there. When I asked his apprentices where he was, they could give me no further insight about his whereabouts. Great.

I got his senior apprentice to call the tailor. “He’s coming,” the apprentice told me. We waited about twenty minutes for the guy to arrive and when he did, he sat down to eat his dinner before serving me. At this point, I had already been broken, so his blatant disregard for his customers really didn’t bother me.

The next day, I went back to Aziz’s shop. The shirt was ready, but the Master wouldn’t give it to me until I paid. What a tricksy guy. Then he charged me eighteen cedis for it! That’s right, after two and a half weeks, six trips to and from town, and one night of holding my cloth hostage, the guy still had the balls to rip me off. I got a consolation prize, though: he assured me that the next one would be free.

In an attempt to salvage my emotional response, I looked at the situation economically. I’d be paying eighteen cedis for two shirts, or nine cedis per shirt. That’s one cedi less per shirt than what I’d pay for his usual services and the one he had just completed for me was very complicated. I hadn’t really wasted any of the trips to town because I ran other errands while I was there. All-in-all, the whole thing was manageable. So, I paid him to avoid confrontation.

The next day was Friday, or Milo and Masa Day as I like to call it. Milo is an amazing nectar made with malt, chocolate, artificial colouring(s), and artificial thickeners. Imagine hot chocolate, but with a thick, caramel flavour. It’s friggin’ awesome. Masa are basically these wonderful, little timbits made with maize flour and sugar then fried in shea butter. Apparently they represent little prayers. Because Friday is the holy day in Islam, my host grandmother makes masa for the children and I always buy some from her for breakfast and pair them with Milo prepared by my egg and bread lady.

On that day, I waited fifteen minutes for my Milo. Fifteen minutes for hot chocolate!? I grabbed my packet of Milo and tried to leave. Another tug-of-war, many quick apologies, and rapid Milo preparation ensued. With my bag of hot liquid in hand, I turned to leave without paying. She made a typical Ghanaian hissing sound to get my attention. Oh no you din’nt, I thought. There was no way I’d pay for hot chocolate that was, in my opinion, fourteen minutes late. I turned around, ready to argue with her.

“Nawuna lab sona,” she said with a smile. That means “may God grant you a safe return” in Dagbani and is a suitable way to bid someone adieu if they are on their way somewhere.

Okay, so there’s at least one person in the country who cares about customer service.



16 And Pregnant: Sagnarigu Style

A few weeks ago, a young girl and her two children appeared at my compound. I’d seen the girl before, but now it was obvious that she was staying at the house. Family structures are quite fluid among the Dagomba, it seems, so I didn’t think twice about it.

A few nights later, Yaku and I were eating dinner when a young man showed up. He greeted Yaku and the girl before taking her and her children out of the compound. Yaku seemed a bit bristly after the encounter. I didn’t have to ask why, because he was eager to tell me the story. Apparently, the girl is his sister. She’d gotten pregnant in high school with the young man who’d just been by. They’d since been married, but because she’s young, she is staying with her mother to learn the ways of raising a child. Again, a Dagomba thing.

Yaku was not pleased with the man, that much was clear from the tone in his voice when he told me who he is. We continued eating, though, and moved on to other conversation topics. I didn’t really think about the situation after that.

Last week, Yaku asked me if I remember the guy. He told me that the husband gave the mother 2 cedis (~1.33 CAD, but more like 4-5 CAD when you factor in the buying power) and then disappeared. Yaku’s voice was shaking; it was the first time I’d seen anything remotely close to anger in the man. “What can you do with two cedis?” he asked me.

“Nothing,” I quietly responded. Yaku went on to tell me that he wanted to go the man’s family to give them a piece of his mind, but that his own family had prevented him from doing so. “I know it’s not the right thing to do,” he said, “but what else is there to do?” I had already answered that question: nothing.

“I bet this wouldn’t have happened in Canada,” continued Yaku. Ha! Little did he know. I told him that teenage pregnancy happens all too often in Canada and that some high schools even have day care centres in them to support teenaged mothers. I went on to explain that the girl and her family usually have little power in influencing the boy to deal with the situation in a manner befitting of a man and that if they’re lucky, they’ll be able to get regular child support money from him.

Yaku wasn’t surprised by this and after my explanation I realized that he was just venting his frustrations. Personally, I hate it when people burst my frustration bubble, so I felt as though I’d ruined his opportunity to articulate his feelings.

I think it was fellow JF Kevin in Malawi who wrote about witnessing the end of a marriage. He pointed out that even in Malawi, life still happens. The story of Yaku’s sister highlights the fact that there are certain things that cut across cultures. No matter where you are in the world, there are always people experiencing conflict, hurting each other, or drastically and negatively changing the course of each other’s lives.

Of course, there are also always people working together, finding love in one another, and drastically changing each other’s lives for the better. I think that there’s something to be said about the uniting force of either; in that one conversation with Yaku, I was able to really understand his frustration and exasperation.

I’m never going to be able to change the situation for teenaged mothers in Ghana, but at least I can take something positive away from this garbage dump of a situation.



Day 6 – A Tamascan

As I mentioned in my previous post, I cut my stay at Tamasco short by one day due to illness. Doing so meant missing out on the Dagomba Students’ Assocation (DSA)–of which I was made an honourary member–meeting, not being able to perform in the dance routine introduction to the gospel rock show that I had been rehearsing for diligently, and missing out on the usual Saturday Tamasco dance party.

I actually had fully planned to rest up during the day, eat a bunch of saltine crackers and drink some tonic water, and go to all of these things, but I really was not feeling up to it. Plus, I had to remain close to a toilet at all times. Instead, I went to town to get tested for various bowel-related illnesses, then rested in my hut.

While I was resting, I got about 7 different calls from unknown numbers. Each time I answered, it was a different Tamascan I had met asking about how I was doing and wondering if I’d be able to make my commitment for the day, or if they should come and visit me. Before I left, I had given my number to 2 close friends that I had made at Tamasco.

Their concern for me and desire to include me in the student life made me feel absolutely awesome. The students that I met at Tamasco were phenomenal! They were so hard-working, welcoming, interested, and interesting. I really wish I could’ve spent a month there, instead of just a week. Still, in that week, I made at least 2 good friends who I will continue to communicate with for a long time.

The people I met were so fantastic that I want to introduce them all to you:

Helena. She was one of three no-nonsense girls in my class.

Emmanuel a.k.a. E-Man a.k.a. Tom. He's my best friend at Tamasco! It's too bad he closed his during this picture, though.

My buddy Francis. He helped me out around campus and looked surprisingly similar to Fiddy Cent. It doesn't really show in this picture, though.

Francis and I. My uniform is somehow big, I know. I didn't have time to get it fixed before I started school.

Me with Emmanuel and Oliver, a.k.a. Tom and Jerry. These two were inseparable.

(Most of) Agric Form 3 Class E! These guys and girls were awesome! So bright and funny.

Something that Emmanuel told me when he was calling to check up on my health really stuck with me. He said, “you’ll have to come back tomorrow to get some Tamasco cloth, because you’re a Tamascan, after all.”

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Ghanaians are the most welcoming people I’ve ever met. These students were no exception and I truly do feel like a Tamascan because of their hospitality.


Day 5 – Sex and Shit

Warning: this post is not for the lighthearted or weak-stomached. 


“So, have you ever-teehee-done it?” asks Emmanuel, his mouth blocked by his hand for the last two words of his question. I’m sitting in a teacher-less classroom (surprise, surprise), with all of the students’ attention directed at me. We’re talking about the Mystical Land of Canada.

I had fully expected this topic to be broached over the course of the week and I’d been dreading it. How do I talk about sex with a bunch of potentially very hormonal teenagers living in a puritanical society?

“You know,” I begin, ladling a thick sauce of diplomacy over my words, “in Canada, relationships are very different. Many people have pre-marital sex there.”

Some of the students are surprised by this information, while others nod their heads sagely (or gravely? I’m not sure).

“I’m not saying it’s right or wrong,” I continue, maintaining my level of neutrality, “because, you know, the Bible and Quran both say that it’s wrong. We just have a different culture there. A different context.” They seem to accept this explanation.

“It’s not so here,” says Daniel, “if you have pre-marital sex, they’ll beatchu!” Some of the guys laugh along with him. I sense that the main reasons behind remaining chaste have escaped them and wonder if it’s due to their lack of sex-ed.

“We have a saying at Tamasco,” explains Oliver, “that a girl should arrive and leave alone, never as part of a pair.” I’m immediately confused, as is often the case when I hear Ghanaian proverbs. He tells me that it means that girls shouldn’t leave the school pregnant. This disturbs me, but I wonder how far I can push them.

“It takes two to get pregnant, though,” I remind the group, “I think the expression should be: If a boy enters Tamasco, he should leave as a boy, and not a man.” The guys laugh, but when I probe them, they agree.

“And if you’re thinking of abandoning the values you grew up with,” I continue sternly, “you need to really consider if it’s worth abandoning everything you’ve known to be true since you could speak. Also, you should wear a condom.” I’m not sure if it’s my place to add the last part, but to give abstinence-only advice is diametrically opposed to many values I hold dear.

“Abstinence is the only method that’s 100%” Emmanuel reminds me smugly. Oliver nods and, pen in hand, says, “it’s like this. If I don’t remove the lid from this pen, then I can’t write with it.”

This kid is confusing. I ask him again what he means. He explains that if a girl keeps her legs closed, she can’t get pregnant. Once again, this man-centered view worries me. I tell them that God gave women and men self-control for many reasons and that unwanted pregnancy is one of them. They accept this and we move on to discuss Canadian weather after some closing remarks by the class prefect about the duties of Tamascans t0 stay pure.


When I first arrived at Wemah house, one of my initial questions was “Where’s the toilet?” The answer came from Jacob and was somehow cryptic. “Oh, you’ll find out about Morocco soon enough,” he told me with a grin. As far as I know, Morocco is a country in West Africa that I’d like to visit at some point in my life. I decided to put the question to rest and take a wait-and-see approach.

Un/Fortunately, the food at Tamasco is, in a word, disgusting. I was so backed up from it that I didn’t require a place to relieve myself until Friday. That’s right, I didn’t poop for almost 5 days. I’m fairly certain that that’s a new record for me, not that I’m keeping track. The last 2 of those 5 days were awful. My stomach hurt terribly and I was super nauseous at any strong scent.

This is why I can never eat garri again. We had garri and beans on Wednesday for dinner, so it was the last thing I ate before my horrid two-day, gut-busting experience. Even just writing about the meal now is literally making my dry-heave. It was bad.

Worse, though, was the fact that on Friday when things finally did loosen up, oh boy did they EVER loosen up. I think “release” is a better word. I had an immediate and absolute need to visit Morocco. I’d heard from Emmanuel that it was located “behind the headmaster’s house”. I found this hilariously ironic, but I also hoped that it would be enough information for me to find it on my own, for I was too embarrassed to ask anyone to direct me.

So, like an old elephant ready to die, I discreetly separated myself from the herd and went my own way. It turns out that Morocco was easy to find; I just had to search for the place infested with flies and littered with human turds and various butt-wiping implements. It was, in fact, behind the headmaster’s house.

I know I didn’t overtly mention it before, so I’ll do so now: Tamasco, the Shining Light of the North, doesn’t have any toilets for the students. They have to shit in the woods. That’s what Morocco is–their shitting place. I have to commend them for at the very least localizing their bowel movements. In some small way, I’m sure this is a way to prevent the spread of contamination.

Okay, so I arrived at Morocco and chose a place to do my business. In all honesty, this was the first time I’d ever shat in the woods. Sure, I’ve emptied my bowels in the bush before, but there was always an outhouse or at least one of those boxes that they build for campers. Yay for learning experiences!

I squatted, pushed, and promptly ruined my Tamasco uniform. I really tried to stay out of the splash radius, but no fluid mechanics class could help me predict the splatter pattern of liquid feces leaving my body at a seemingly very high flowrate. At least it was just a few drops that got on my shorts. After about 20 sweaty, thigh-busting minutes, I decided to call it quits. I wiped my butt, and my pride, and walked back to Wemah house.

The only thing is, having a BM didn’t make me feel any better. In fact it made me feel worse. My stomach went from a dull ache to feeling like it was about to explode within me. I lay down for an hour or two, but it was obvious that there was more to come and I just couldn’t stay in that environment, so I called it quits and ended my school stay early. The close proximity to Sagnarigu made it easy for me to get home to my VIP latrine quickly.

I spent Saturday resting and getting tested for Typhoid and Parasites. To be honest I think it was just the Tamasco food, but it’s never a bad idea to get tested in case treatment is required. By the time this post goes up, I will have found out what it was and will have taken the appropriate course of action.

Like I warned, this post was not written for the weak-stomached.


Day 4 – Attempts at Goal

This is what my Thursday looked like at Tamasco:


...but no teacher

We sat in class from 7:00 a.m. until 2:00 p.m.  and not a single Master showed up. I asked some of the students if this was unusual and they told me that, in fact, they hadn’t had an ICT (Information and Computer Technologies) Master in their three years at the school. So, it’s not like the Master was lazy, there just wasn’t one. I was astounded; Ive heard that teacher absenteeism is a big problem in Ghana, but to experience it firsthand was eye-opening. I guess that’s the value in a school-stay.

When I told my classmates that in Canada, or the US (and probably parts of Europe, although I have no way of knowing), a teacher would be immediately queried and disciplined, if not sacked (fired) for such behaviour, they laughed. “Welcome to Africa,” said Daniel, a Dagomba brothah of mine, “feel free to put that in your report.”

I couldn’t help but feel frustrated. Literally one week prior, a classroom full of teachers had told me that their students “weren’t serious”. I wonder: were they talking about the same students who were faithfully in class, studying from their textbooks and practice question sets while their Masters did who knows what? The same students who get up for the 4:30 a.m. prayer, even if they are Christians, so that they can get in extra study time before class? The same students who study for 2+ hours every night in the empty classrooms on campus?

After “class” (a.k.a. free study time), Emmanuel told me that he wanted to show me something. We hopped on his bike and he directed me to a seemingly secret location whose purpose he wouldn’t disclose. He stopped us under a tree close to a nearby JHS where many bikes were parked. “See that?” he asked me. “Yeah, but what am I looking at?” I responded, confused. He went on to explain that the Masters who had not been present during the day were holding extra classes and charging students 4 Ghana cedis for entrance. He told me that usually 80-90 students would show up to these extra classes and that if you don’t show up early, you won’t get a seat.

The whole thing was abominable to me. The teachers know they won’t be fired for missing classes, because there is little to no accountability for them to actually do their jobs. For them to create a demand for extra classes and take students’ hard-earned and sparse money through their inaction is just disgusting, in my opinion. I know that not all teachers do this, but that it happens at all just astounds me. I wanted to weep under that tree right then and there.

We had to leave the extra class quickly, because there was a football match between the two Agric classes. All of my classmates wanted me to play, so I pushed out of my comfort zone and laced up. I’d like to point out that I haven’t played a real football match in maybe 10 years, and that back then football didn’t involve three different languages (Twi, Dagbani, and English), a bunch of grown Ghanaian men who have been playing since they could walk, herds of goats on the pitch, and the occasional moto driving across the field. Even without these things, I still had a penchant for scoring on my own team’s net back when I did play. I figured this match would be interesting.

The whole time, I felt like I was just running to keep up with the other guys, let alone actually play. I got the ball a total of four times. Once was a good block that received some cheers from my team, another was during a collision with one of my own players (no injuries sustained), and the last two were attempts at goal. The first attempt was laughable: the net was wide open and the ball was right in front of it. My foot never actually made contact with the ball and I ended up on my ass. The second attempt was a little better, but the ball rolled off the top of my foot and ended up going over the net instead of into it.

The whole game made me truly feel like a Ghanaian student. I was always running, working so hard just to keep up. When I did have a chance to attempt a goal, I didn’t have the skills to follow-through to success, because I was horribly out of practice.

As I high-fived my teammates after the 3-2 win, a mix of happiness at our success and raw desperation at the reality of these students hit me.

I had become part of the missing bottom line.


Day 3 – Different Perspectives

I sat down gingerly in my desk on Wednesday morning. By now, the flat and hard desk had taken its toll on my rear-end and I found just sitting quite painful. When I told my classmates why I was having difficulties, they laughed and told me, “it’s because your buttocks isn’t round-round like ours!”* This is probably true.

Still, I sat. The Master for that day was late, as usual. I’d come to the hypothesis that Masters being late for class was just a part of the culturally-driven phenomenon of Ghana Time. When he did arrive, he sat right in front of me, at a student’s desk. I thought this was curious, but what happened next was even more astounding.

“Okay, group 4,” he announced, reading from his notebook, “it seems as though it’s your turn to present.” Group presentations? Awesome! It got even better from there, though. The group who was doing the presentation had set it up as a mock episode of “Good Morning Ghana”, complete with a moderator and several panelists to discuss the topic at hand: How to Upgrade Oneself at Work. After a brief discussion, the panel opened up for “listeners to call in”–i.e. for the class to have a group discussion.

Students asked challenging questions of the group, both in attempts to catch them off-guard and with genuine interest in the subject. Afterwards, the Master told the students that they need to work together outside of class, too, in order to be successful. He also told them that next term he’d be incentavizing group presentations with prizes for the best group. Then he announced that he’d be forming a student parliament to “give the students a voice” on key issues and that he was looking for motivated students. I was honestly dying of excitement/curiousity/nerdiness. Who was this teacher? Where did his excess of awesome come from? I had to know.

I grabbed his attention after class, introduced myself, and set up a time to talk with him afterwards.

Immediately after class had finished for the day, my good friend Emmanuel found me and told me that he was going to take me on a tour of the campus. Even though I’d already had one tour, I figured another couldn’t hurt. After all, I’ve been at the U of O for three years now and I’m sure there are still parts I haven’t visited. We got on his bike–me riding and him on the back, armed with a camera–and rode around for maybe an hour and a half. Some highlights:

View of Tamakloe House. This guy (I forget his name) rode alongside us for a bit.

The Tamasco campus is beautiful.

The class farm. Each Agric class has their own farm where they learn practical skills as part of the General Agric class. I JUST missed the planting of maize 😦

The main auditorium. You'd probably never guess that this is a building in rural Ghana, right?

The Indomitable Nkrumah house. Ever Forward, Never Backward.

The dining hall, a.k.a. my worst enemy at Tamasco.

We ended at the house of the Master from the morning in time for my meeting with him. We talked for about an hour and a half about his experience with teaching, the issues he sees with education and what he thinks a solution looks like. His passion was phenomenal. He told me that he goes to every in-service training they offer, because he values dynamism in his teaching and sees the benefits it has on the students. His devotion to the students was really amazing, especially in such a demotivating environment (we talked about that, too).

Our conversation had to be cut short because it was time to dine, but he invited me back to talk with him any time. His last message to me was a piece of advice: he told me that any solution to the issue of quality in Ghanaian education must be holistic. He told me that the issue is complex, and many things have to change before teachers will be motivated and driven in their work.

I think he’s right, and I can’t wait to pick his brain for more insights.


*Sidenote: in Ghana, if you want to show that there are multiple things, you just repeat the name. Ex. “one-one” refers to multiples of an individually-packed item.

Day 2 – Career Options

“What will you do after Tamasco?” I asked Suli on my second day there. Classes had finished for the day, but it wasn’t yet time for dinner. The boys of Wemah House, Compound 4, room 3–myself and Suli included–were all resting in the afternoon heat.

“As for me,” began Suli, “after I have finished at Tamasco, I should involve myself in the teaching profession. By His grace.” Teaching? He had my interest. I had to warn myself not to pepper him with questions, but to move slowly with my inquiries instead.

“Why?” I continued. Suli smiled.

“You know, for humans, it’s important not to be greedy,” he explained, “and to keep your knowledge to yourself, well, that’s greedy. I think it’s important to share to help the next generation be as wealthy as we are.”

I was very impressed with the thoughtful answer such a young man (age 16) could provide. Clearly, Suli had thought this one out and that made me really happy. I couldn’t help but hope that he would do well enough on the WASSCEs to get into University or a teacher training college. The chances are slim, but Suli is very serious about his studies.

Immediately before leaving for pre-dep in Toronto, I was having a bit of a life direction crisis. Nothing serious; just what I would consider normal musings on the subject of the world and my contribution therein. Basically, Science isn’t cutting it for me anymore. When I was choosing what I’d study in university, it seemed like it would fulfill me, but now I’m not so sure. Science really is just about the pursuit of knowledge, without any real consideration for the end uses of that knowledge. For me, this distinct lack of people focus won’t do. (For my scientist friends reading this, please understand that this is just my take on the field).

Thankfully, I’m also doing Engineering, right? It’s true that Engineering is all about end uses of knowledge and that it is people-centric. Or at least that it ought to be. I would be able to take solace in this fact, if I was at all satisfied in any way with the Engineering education I’m getting. Frankly, I’m not. Two years in and I’ve yet to do any design work, group projects, or anything really intellectually stimulating. I have a big fear that the Engineering education I’m getting is adequate preparation for entry into the profession.

Okay, so maybe this time around, the crisis was a little more serious. I told myself not to worry, though; I’d just escape to Ghana and things would sort themselves out.

Suli’s words on my second day of my school stay probably held a lot more significance than he thought. The work I’ve been doing this summer has really highlighted the importance of good teachers and the impact those teachers can have on students’ lives. This was highlighted in the classroom on that day with a stark contrast between two classes. One Master was absent and had given her notes to a student to dictate to the class. The Master immediately following, on the other hand, taught a kick-ass, stimulating class. The difference in the engagement of the students was huge.

I’ve always told myself that I’ll retire into Teaching. I had amazing teachers throughout Elementary and High School who inspired me to choose that path. But I always wanted a “real” career first. Teaching, I felt, didn’t wield enough potential for impact to interest me. Now I’m not so sure if I was right.

During my coaching chat that night, I realized that I wouldn’t be where I am without good teachers. Reader, I beg–really think about that. I can count the number of teachers who have significantly influenced my life on both hands. I wonder how many Engineers it would take to have a similar impact? My guess is that the answer is many, many more than 10. Maybe, just maybe, Teaching is a good way for me to create a lot of positive change in the world.

I’m not saying I’m set on teaching. Who knows what will happen in the next couple of years of my degree? But the crisis has ended, that’s for sure.