Odd consequences of my time abroad (plus, co-op updates!)


Living and working abroad comes with a lot of change, of course. Some of this – like being away from family – is fully anticipated but some of it¬†isn’t… In fact, there are some strange, funny, and even useful¬†consequences that I’ve experienced while on my co-op placement that I had no idea would happen. Here’s a list of some of them I’ve noticed in myself.

1. I’ve become exceptionally good at jaywalking. The driving in Ghana was hectic due to mass volume of people, especially in the cities, so walking across the road was always a struggle outside of the village and the drivers in Botswana just don’t care about pedestrians at all. On the roads, it’s a dog-eat-dog world, especially when the traffic lights (called ‘robots’ here in Southern Africa) aren’t working. Remember that it’s all about timing and, if you’re worried, just sneak across behind a more experienced jay-walker because they know what they’re doing.

2.¬†I’ve become slightly addicted to Masterchef. In Ghana, of course, I didn’t have a television (I sometimes didn’t even have electricity) but in Botswana, I rent a room in a house and my housemum happens to love television so we have a rather fancy flatscreen plus the best access to all the good channels with¬†DSTV Premium. One day when it was so, so hot and I didn’t¬†want to do anything more than lie¬†in front of the fan and not move a muscle, I searched through the channels and found Masterchef… And I’ve been addicted ever since.

3. I text message far less than I do at home. The main system here in Botswana and in most of the developing world is prepaid. You can buy credit (or ”airtime”) whenever you need it at gas stations or from street kiosks. You buy a code then punch in the code on your phone to load¬†the credit. Because of this system, you pay for every text message. Back home, I had an unlimited texting plan so I never worried about sending a friend a ”What’s up with you?” message but nowadays a conversation over text would burn through my credit fast. So, like most people here, I buy small data bundles to have text conversations via Facebook Messenger and Whatsapp instead.

4. I always have about five pounds of¬†change on me. In Ghana, this wasn’t a problem since there are far fewer coins than there are in the currency in Botswana. Since moving to Gaborone, though, I’ve noticed that my wallet is always heavy with coins because there are coins up to five pula here! I use public transit as my way of getting around so it’s useful to carry all this coinage but sometimes even I’ll admit it gets a little ridiculous… Like the day I counted it out and realized I had over fifty pula in my change purse. Oops!

5. Even though I told myself I would stick with it, I haven’t had a proper workout in over four months. I stretch and do some little moves in my room everyday before my shower (… my bath, actually because we don’t have a showerhead!) but I haven’t put on my runners to go for a jog in far, far too long. In Ghana, I got a lot of attention anytime I left the house, which made it embarrassing to workout outside, especially if the neighbour kids decided to chase after me as they liked to. And here in Botswana, it’s summer so it’s just far too hot during the day to even consider going outside. With these excuses, I’m just waiting until I go home to get back to it. These are just a few of the unexpected consequences – good, bad, funny, and odd – that I’ve experienced as a result of living and working abroad over the past eight or so months. Maybe if I find more, I’ll draw up another list.¬†In the meantime, I’ll give you a quick update on my co-op placement in Botswana. I’ve only got about a week and a half left of my placement. Time sure flies and I’ve got so much to do before I leave! Continue reading

Coming home


As many of you likely know, there is an outbreak of ebola both west¬†of me – in Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia – and east¬†of me – only confirmed in Nigeria but patients are being tested in Benin, as well. It’s the worst outbreak of ebola the world has ever seen. As such, the WHO recently made the decision to describe this outbreak as an international public health emergency. And, with the threat of ebola spreading to Ghana quite near, I made the decision to come home from my co-op placement¬†early, a decision made with full support from my host organization WUSC and my university.

While I am devastated by this, I must acknowledge the privilege I have in being able to get myself out of a situation before it becomes dangerous for my health or for my ability to leave the country (if borders are closed to contain the virus). I am a Canadian citizen with the support from the Canadian government, a wonderful NGO, and a massive university institution behind me. Unlike so many in the affected countries, I am able to leave and keep myself safe, while they must stay and fight the outbreak with too few resources as a result of a lack of development that comes from colonial history.

This is the adinkra symbol of the wawa tree. Its seeds are firm and strong, so their depiction represent hardiness, a lesson I'll need to be reminded of  as I persevere through this bump-in-the-road.

This is the adinkra symbol of the wawa tree. Its seeds are firm and strong, so their depiction represent hardiness, a lesson I’ll need to be reminded of as I persevere through this bump-in-the-road.

In the coming weeks, I will be working with my co-op coordinator to figure out what my next steps are. As a University of Toronto student, I will not receive any academic penalty for my decision. When I return to Canada, I will soon work to develop options for me to complete my IDS co-op degree all the same, despite this situation.

This past week has been quite rough, as I monitored the spread of ebola and went through several stages of grief, I’m sure, as I realized it was time to go home. I’ve received an immense amount of support from my friends and my family and I’m incredibly grateful to have all of them in my life. Without them, I would have been a little lost this week, I think.

Moving forward, I’d like for this to not be a ‘big deal’. Instead, I want coming home early to be an unfortunate hiccup in a successful co-op experience. I am not quite at the point where I’m looking forward beyond my flight home this evening, but, when I am ready, I know that I will look optimistically ahead to new adventures, keeping Ghana always close to my heart.

Moving On & Starting Over


While I have had a marvellous time in Ghana so far, the experience has not been without challenges. Thankfully, these challenges haven’t come up while I’m travelling – in fact, travel here is so easy and fun! Instead, the challenges have mostly been related to my co-op placement mandate at the Girls Education Unit in Bibiani. Due to severe funding limitations, I’ve struggled to keep busy at the¬†Ghana Education Service office. So, after ten weeks in there, I’m moving on to a new mandate.

This morning I traveled from Bibiani to Accra, where I’ll be staying while WUSC Ghana and I work with my new host organization to develop a new mandate. We’ll also be looking for accommodations for me in my new location, which is¬†Nsawam.¬†Nsawam is quite close to Ghana’s capital, Accra – only about a half hour’s drive – but is actually part of the Eastern Region in Ghana. I’ll move there once everything is settled with my new job – probably this weekend or early next week.

For the next few months, I’ll be partnered with Ghana’s branch of the Forum for African Women Educationalists (FAWE). FAWE is a pan-african organization that works to promote girls’¬†education around the continent. So I’ll still be working within the context of Ghana and on the issues of gender in¬†education.¬†I’m very excited for this change and to get to work with such a great institution. That said, I am nervous about getting to know a new office and a new town but I’ve done this kind of transition before so I know I can do it again!

Everyday Encounters


Many conversations happen in passing in Ghana because people are always greeting one another. And I get greeted a lot, because I stick a little and because Ghanaians are always concerned with making strangers feel welcome.

Most of these encounters are pretty usual, nothing to write home about. And then some of them are straight-up hilarious. So here¬†I’ve written a few of them down. (These conversations happen in a mix of English and Twi, usually, but I’ve written everything in English below to make things easier.)

The most common conversation:

Me: Good morning!

Them: Good morning! How are you?

Me: I’m well. Thank you. And how are you?

Them: I am also fine.

Pretty typical conversation in Canada, too.

But, just like in Canada, sometimes people aren’t paying attention to this passing conversation so you end up with situations like this:

Me: Good morning!

Them: Fine.

… We haven’t arrived at that part of the conversation yet.

When¬†I first arrived and didn’t yet understand the importance of greeting people, I had several embarrassing conversations like this:

Context: I walk past a person.

Them: HEY OBRUNI. Why don’t you greet?

Me: Oh, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to cause offence.¬†Good afternoon! How are you?

Them: I am fine.

Thankfully, I’m getting much, much better at greeting so these kinds of encounters are much less common.

As a white person, I also get a lot of this:

Children: OBRUNI! OBRUNI!!

Me: Hi! How are you?

Children: *laughter*

And, frustratingly, this happens quite a lot, too:

Children: OBRUNI!

Me: Hi! How are you?

Children: GIVE ME MONEY.

Sigh. I still don’t know what to do in this situation.

I also have some pretty strange and funny encounters, like this:

Context: I’m walking along the main road on my way home in the evening after watching a World Cup match at the local restaurant. A taxi pulls up.

Me: No, thank you. I don’t need a taxi.

Taxi driver points to the back seat. There’s a man there, who rolls down his window.

Man: I need your contact.

Me: Um… Hi, I’m Katherine.

Man: I need your contact.

Me: How about we just say ‘Hi’ when we see each other around?

Man: I need your contact.

Me: Sorry, no. Have a good night.

This man actually pulled over his taxi on the main road (people had to drive around them!) to demand my phone number without evening introducing himself! So awkward. Continue reading

Just another white volunteer in Africa?


I’m sitting on the patio of my favourite restaurant in Bibiani, thinking about how unbelievable it is that I am in Ghana right now. I mean, I’ve been here for over two months so it’s not like I’ve had a sudden realization about my current location. What I mean to say is that I’m beginning to understand that I’m here not just for a few days or weeks; instead I’m measuring my time here in months. I’m away from my home, my country, my family, and my friends. It’s been the hardest thing I’ve done so far in my life. (I’ve had challenging things happen to me but this is the hardest thing I’ve chosen to experience.) But I’ve gone through the worst of the culture shock and now I feel quite settled. I walk through the streets of Bibiani and they are familiar, something I could hardly imagine even a month ago. Though it’s been a classic roller coaster experience – full of ups and downs – I know that I’m incredibly privileged to be here.

That’s just the thing, though: I’m privileged. As a Canadian citizen and a white woman from an educated background and a middle-class family, I am privileged. I remember, vividly, the moment that I began to learn just what that means. I was in my first year of university – my first term, even – and I was participating in an anti-oppression workshop, which was another first for me. The facilitator handed us each a piece of paper and a pen and told us to take ten minutes to write on a timeline the moments in our lives when we realized that we are different from other people. These differences could be physical, cultural, lingual, socio-economic; anything at all. It took me a long time to even think about anything and, by the end of the allotted time, I had written down a few things, but my timeline was not nearly as filled as other participants.

I’m grateful for those who chose to share their experiences with the group that day because it helped me grow. One young woman had been in daycare told that she had strange hair because she’s black. Another had faced fear from peers when she chose to start wearing a hijab in high school. As they spoke and others chimed in, I realized that the things I had written on my timeline were mostly moments when I learned that there are others in the world who, unlike me, face complicated struggles in their lives such as poverty, oppression, and injustice. For example, I wrote down the time in Baltimore when I was very young when I saw a homeless person living under a war memorial. I also wrote down the pain and confusion I felt when I read a book in grade school about the history of HIV/ AIDS. The timeline I’d drawn up during this workshop was mostly –¬†except for a couple of times when I’d experienced sexism –¬†evidence of my privilege. This was something I’d never been faced with so bluntly before.

It hit me hard and I remember being afraid of what all this meant for me. Was my degree in international development completely inappropriate? Does my privilege mean that I am condoning and even participating in neocolonialism as a development student? As a co-op student spending time abroad? Thankfully, as a result of some wake-up call conversations with some amazing people who’ve taught me a lot about anti-oppression, anti-racism, feminism, and social justice, I have learned to move past ‘white guilt’. And I’m learning when I need to sit down, shut up, and instead¬†listen to¬†the experiences of others and also when I simply should not be in a space because my presence would be disruptive to an open atmosphere. Despite this growth, the questions I first asked myself back in first year, in that workshop, are questions I still grapple with today. Continue reading

Culture Shock Is So Real


I’ve been hesitant to write this post because, well, admitting to struggles makes you vulnerable and I like to avoid that in public spaces like a blog. That said, I think it’s vitally important that we share our experiences so that others going through the same thing can read, relate, and not feel as unusual. I’ve been lucky enough to have access to blogs by people in my program at my university who have also completed their co-op placements in Ghana. Reading through their experiences as I experience similar things has been so helpful, reminding me that adaptation is a process and that this process is completely normal. So, to start things off, many thanks to Becky and¬†Heather¬†(whose new blog you can find here)¬†for not being creeped out by the fact I’ve read every single one of your old blog posts from your time in Ghana.

When I stepped off the plane almost six weeks ago, I of course assumed I would experience culture shock to some degree. I’ve experienced it before for example when I was in Italy with my family, in Scotland on exchange in high school, and I would say even when I moved from my hometown in rural Ontario to Scarborough for university. But my time in Ghana so far has definitely been the strongest culture shock I’ve experienced. I expected that, but expecting something and being prepared for it are two very different things.

People ask me here all the time what the differences between Canada and Ghana are and I haven’t come up with a better answer than, “Pretty much everything.” When I first arrived, I felt so visually overstimulated. I remember looking out the window of the WUSC Ghana truck at Accra, mesmerized by all this new visual information. It took me almost a week to bring out my camera because I wanted to digest my environment with just my eyes before I began to document it through a lens. Continue reading

Snippets of World Cup 2014


Ghana is most definitely a soccer nation. Everyone plays from a young age and when they don’t have a soccer ball available they kick around anything that remotely resembles a sphere. Ghana’s love of the ‘beautiful game’ has become especially obvious to me over the past couple of weeks during the World Cup finals in Brazil. All televisions and radios are tuned into the games and the replays and the analyses of the games and the replays at all times. You can buy a World Cup soccer ball or a knock-off Black Star jersey pretty much anywhere in the cities. And the government has urged industry to conserve electricity on days when Ghana is playing so the lights don’t go out. Since the World Cup started, I’ve watched a game or two (or three…) almost every day so far and every time it’s a fun and exciting experience.

In the cities, most bars and restaurants show the World Cup matches projected onto walls and screens outside. In Bibiani, there are only a couple of places that do this and there is only one close to me. Biggie’s is a restaurant that serves local and continental food but, most importantly, they have a generator so even when there’s no power, everyone can still watch the soccer match. During this year’s World Cup, I’ve been there almost everyday, except for when I’m travelling, often drinking water or a Coke and yelling at the players and the referees like the rest of the audience.

Often, the commentators from a local radio station are there, too, shouting what’s happening in the game into their cellphones in Twi to be broadcasted all around. These commentators amaze me with all the statistics, dates, and facts about the players they have memorized, tidbits that they use to fill the time when the ball isn’t in play. During the Netherlands vs. Spain game, they interviewed me, which was¬†hilarious to me since I am definitely not a soccer aficionado, nor was I the most die-hard fan in the crowd. But I must’ve said the right things since I’m now a fairly regular half-time contributor. Everyone listening in the district gets to hear my thoughts on the latest goals, fouls, and even the jersey designs. Strange and surreal to think about, but fun, too!

During the first game of the Ghana national team against the United States, there were almost a hundred people at Biggie’s cheering on the Black Stars. It was complete pandemonium from the beginning, especially after that very quick goal from the United States. When the Ghanaians finally responded late in the game, the roar of the crowd was intense. Fans not only jumped out of their chairs but also jumped around the whole restaurant patio. Some broke into song, some danced, and many praised God.

But this celebration was nothing compared to the ecstasy and intensity of the celebration after¬†Ghana’s goals against Germany last weekend. I was in Kumasi with some friends at the time¬†and we decided to go to the beautiful Golden Tulip hotel to watch the game. We hurriedly ate dinner at the (surprisingly mediocre) restaurant and raced over to the outdoor pavilion where the game was being projected onto a massive screen on the stage. We watched the entire game on our feet, yelling and cheering with at least three hundred Black Star fans. A camera crew from a¬†local television station was there and they seemed quite amused by the¬†obrunis getting so into the game. I’m sure there’s footage of us dancing and celebrating somewhere out there…

The game that night was brilliant and thrilling so the atmosphere of the crowd was electric. Each Ghanaian goal was met with a party and each near-miss (and there were many!) was met with fans dramatically throwing themselves on the ground in desperation. No one expected the team to play so well against the Germans but they played marvellously and neutralized their powerhouse opponents with much better playing than in their game against the United States. Though they tied, everyone here considers it a win, since the game seemed to be a sign of better things to come, perhaps a stepping stone for a win over Portugal in their last game of the group stages this evening. I’ll be at Biggie’s watching and cheering on my adopted team, with my Ghanaian flag draped around my shoulders.