Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Book Deal

I signed a deal with Free Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, to publish a book about Ghana's witch camps in 2010.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

“In your country…”

I had just dropped my passport at the sleepy Tamale branch of Ghana Immigration so I could get my 60-day visa extended to the end of my trip (“Why do you want to stay in Ghana?” Oh, um, stammer, stammer. Jeez, who knew these questions would be so difficult…) when a police officer stepped into traffic, stopped the motorbike I was riding, confiscated it and arrested the driver.

It all happened so suddenly, and so strangely, that it took me a while to realize what was going on.

“Do they do this like this in your country?” the police officer shouted at me, gesturing wildly. “Are you able to do this like this in your country?”

I had no idea what he was talking about. Do what? Do men on motorbikes ferry me around while I run errands? (No, they do not, but sometimes I wish they would.)

He was looking at me as though he expected an answer, so I said, “Do you know my country?” (Sometimes I get mistaken for being Dutch, and you know, they have some pretty interesting ideas about what’s legal and what’s not over there in Holland.)

It then became clear that the cause of this Oscar-worthy performance of law-and-order fury was the fact that Daniel, the motorbike driver, was not wearing a helmet. Daniel, looking sheepish, pushed his bike into the police station – conveniently located a mere 12 steps away – where it was parked and the keys were locked away in a cabinet.

Whether it is a law in Ghana that a motorbike driver must wear a helmet is unclear to me. I’m not really sure that the laws are written anywhere easily accessible. I really wanted to ask – “May I see the article of the Traffic Act to which you are referring? I’d like to see the proscribed punishment” – but my job was clearly to just stand there, quietly.

The arresting officer made a small speech about how this was all for Daniel’s safety. Does he want to have an accident, have his brains spread all over the street, then be taken to the hospital there and have the doctor write, “serious brain injury” on the paper?

No sir, he does not.

You see all these bikes? (There were dozens upon dozens of them, including some old bicycles. Now, I know for a fact it’s not a law in Ghana that a cyclist must wear a helmet…) Then the message became garbled. I thought he was trying to say these bikes were all from people who were not wearing helmets and therefore had their brains spread on the street, but it turned out they were from people who were not wearing helmets as they passed the police station, were also conveniently arrested and then were unable to pay the, um, fine.

Daniel, who is a government employee, a civil engineer in the department of public works, just stood at the counter. I leaned against it and eyed up the prisoners. Every so often I would sigh. Especially when the “massa” would break from writing his report to study the latest in wrestling videos (“Me, I’m growing tired. Tired of these wrestlers,” he said) or talk on his mobile phone or yell at the prisoners.

He told Daniel he would be sending him to court on Friday. Daniel continued to stand by the counter. He asked him to give his mobile phone number and Daniel dutifully gave 10 digits. He told him to sign a paper, so he signed.

I continued to lean.

“What is your explanation?” the officer said.

“I forgot my helmet. I forgot it at the office,” Daniel said.

Several minutes went by as this was scratched down on the paper.

“What else?” the office asked.

“That is all,” Daniel said.

“You have nothing else to say?”

“Um, no.”

“Where is your license?”

“In my car.”

“And where is that?”

“At the mechanics.”

“Well, you go and collect it and bring it here.”

So we left. Ghanaians do not need a license to drive a motorbike – just a helmet, apparently – so when the officer asked “where is your license,” what he meant was, “where is your wallet?”

I talked it over with Daniel and he suggested it would be better if I continued to the Internet café. (I am somehow a bad luck charm for him – the day before, when we were riding out to Gambaga – in his Benz, no less – we hit a sheep. The only casualty was his tail light.)

But the officer’s question -- “can you do like this in your country?” -- got me wondering. Since we enjoy public health care, helmets are mandatory for the driver and all passengers of any kind of two-wheeled vehicle, so, no, I could not be ferried around helmetless in Toronto.

But can the police “do like this” in Canada?

My dealings with Canadian police have been rather limited. I was once in the truck when Dad got a ticket for driving around with an overloaded, um, load. And, in a humiliation to end all humiliations, I was once busted for running a red light. On my bike. By a cop on a bike. The earth did not open up and swallow me, as I’d begged for it to do, so instead I got off with a warning. It took weeks for the flush in my cheeks to fade.

Otherwise, my dealings with Canadian cops have been of the Can-I-speak-to-the-duty-sergeant/anything-to-report/lady-you-gotta-be-on-the-other-side-of-the-yellow-tape variety. I am fairly certain, though, that the police cannot seize your car if you, say, fail to wear a seatbelt.

Of course, they can’t set up random roadblocks, stop every commercial vehicle and taxi and collect their own wages from the drivers in the form of folded 5,000 cedi notes tucked into driver’s permits either.

Are you able to do this in your country? Why, no, Mr. Officer. If this happened in my country, one of us would end up in a lot of hot water.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Through the Looking Glass

The new Casa del Karen -- without the groovy terrace or the excellent washing machine -- but with a little TV and air conditioning and a flush-toilet and bathtub. There's a lizard in the closet and I've killed three cockroaches so far. I am cooking on a charcoal stove (once a day is about all I can muster, usually pasta or rice. The market has mangoes, tomatoes, garlic and onion, plus all the ingredients for jollof rice.)

Napoa, above, firmly believes she is still practicing.

Assiba, above, has no sons and was accused by her rival's son's wife -- she treated the boy as a son when he was growing up, bringing him candies and new clothing.

Just arrived back in Accra after my first two weeks at the witch camp and I feel mentally exhausted. It feels like I fell through the looking glass...

I arrived in Gambaga with 50kgs of luggage in tow, most of it electronics and food items, to snag the last room at the NORRIP guesthouse, which has been empty each time I've stayed there in the past. This time it was full to capacity with Afrikaner miners flying helicopter surveys of northern Ghana in search of minerals. (How bizarre. They work five hour shifts
and spend the rest of the time drinking. The first time we met, it was because one of them had been trying to light a brandy bottle (why?) and burned his hand. They suspected I might be a nurse and could help them out. Much harrassment ensued until I finally gave up and left. They are tolerable when sober, but slightly frightening drunk. The Ghanaian staff are all
keeping a very wary eye on them, especially as relates to pure little me.)

I made my initial visit to my contact, Simon, who helped me sort out a list of who I need to speak to, where and by when. He came up with a list of women and worked out a guy who could translate, then took off for the remainder of my time. The translator turned out to be a total peach. He's doing his teacher training in Tamale, so I only get one week with him, but he was so fantastic I said, "Gee, Carlos (a weird first name for a Ghanaian kid) I wish you had a twin brother." And, of course, Carlos does have a twin brother, so he'll be my translator from here on in.

The only thing I need to sort out is transportation. I thought I'd be able to make it by scamming motor bike rides and hiring taxis, but the road is so incredibly intolerable that it's kinda not feasible. It's like driving on a corrogated roof. We did a 40-km journey on the Tuesday and I could feel it for two days afterward. (Poor Simon had the earliest symptoms of giardia at the time; I don't know how he did it.)

The women themselves are real mind benders. Lots of sad stories of jealousy, or outbreaks, or just old ladies outliving their usefulness. I'd walk away a true believer, then consult Carlos who invariably said, "Oh Madam!" in a real disappointed,
what-a-gullible-dunce sort of way. He firmly believes every one of the women is a witch and we had all sorts of trippy conversations about what makes a witch and how to identify a witch. The theme: trust no one.

I feel more confused than ever and have hardly commited a word to paper.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007


The first bird with the slit neck landed rather gracefully in the middle of the semi-circle, jumping and flopping like a popcorn kernel in a hot kettle before landing on its back at the edge of the crowd. It was the semi-annual sacrifice in Yong-duuni, a small village on the outskirts of Tamale and the village and their neighbours were honouring the ancestors in hopes of peace, good crops and fertility.

A procession of chiefs and chiefs' wives made their way to raucous drum beats down to the "earth shrine," a spot in a clearing that was protected by a pile of ancient-looking wood. The chief moved slowly -- the "cold" was hurting his bones -- and a man twirled a brilliant red and green umbrella over him the whole way. His wives were collecting coins for the drummers, who were keeping up a steady, chest-shaking rhythm and shouting out the history of the Dagomba as they walked.

We were not allowed to take pictures of the actual sacrifice, which involved a calabash of pinkish liquid scooped over the ground and the ritual killing of a dozen chickens and one very unhappy goat. ("Make the lambs stop screaming...") The way the chicken lands as it dies determines the answer of the ancestors -- whether they'll honour the request for peace and prosperity -- and the first chicken landed well, on its back, to the relief of the crowd. The second, a speckled brown hen, landed on its feet, trying in vain to squawk with its slit throat, blood pouring with the effort. It flipped and flopped into the crowd. Throats were being split like an assembly line and there were flipping and flopping chickens everywhere and everyone wanted them to land without interference, so they could interpret the ancestors' answer.

I was trying to get out of the way of one bird when another landed at my feet. My skirt had already been sprayed with blood and there was a droplet on my minidisc recorder. Something warm slid down my foot and I looked down expecting to see cherry red blood. Instead, it was white and mucusy: chicken shit.

The process was repeated again at the house of the ancestors, although this time the chickens were simply slit and shoved into the circular mud hut. The ground where the libations had been poured was mashed into round, sticky balls of mud and everyone tore off a piece and smeared it on their forehead. It was protection from evil spirits.

More drumming followed and coins were tossed by the jubiliant crowd, which by this time was worked into a frenzy. We made our goodbyes -- the chief gave us a guinea fowl and three yams in thanks for our coming, and offered me a bed for the night -- before slipping back to the main road, feeling exhausted from the chaos.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Freelancing 101

In the past few weeks, I've had a couple emails from people asking for advice about freelancing. Most of the emails go something like this: "I stumbled across your blog (hope you got your fridge issues sorted) and thought I would ask your advice about freelancing from Africa." Then the person either says he is moving to Africa in about three days and would appreciate any advice or contacts (meaning he would like my contacts, please) or, the person says he is thinking about moving to Africa in about three months and would appreciate any advice or contacts (meaning he would like my contacts, please).

And so, in the name of efficiency:

How to be a Freelance Journalist in Africa in 12 Easy Steps

1. Don't send emails asking for another freelancer's contacts. This shows you have never freelanced, have no contacts and have no idea how difficult it is to establish contacts. Once you've spent a few months combing the Internet for the *actual* address of the foreign editor for a freelance-friendly paper in Dallas, you'll understand why freelancers can be so territorial about their contacts.

2. Buy "The World on a String." It's an excellent guide, particularly for people with limited journalism experience, covering everything from scouting markets to cold calling editors to sending pitch letters to writing invoices.

3. Buy the Writer's Guide or Writer's Market or Similar. Nothing makes me angrier than Canadians who decide to freelance from African and can think of no other outlets for their articles but the Globe and the Star. The world is a big place and there are tons of markets in it.

Don't forget about trade mags, specialty publications and websites. Some of them pay big bucks.

Look at where other freelancers working outside your intended area are working -- many keep blogs or websites with clipping files -- and take some clues from it.

Decide where you'd like to pitch and then start sending out emails introducing yourself, your credentials, your intended destination, your date of departure and a line or two about story ideas. Be realistic. If you have no writing experience, you might want to save the New York Times for a few months.

Whatever you do, keep it short. This is good advice for all of your contact with editors. They fancy themselves busy people and get annoyed at any emails that go beyond a page. If they respond to your email -- many editors don't bother if they don't take freelance or aren't impressed by your letter -- make sure you ask for the contributor's guidelines and freelance agreement. It'll be easier to sign and fax when you're in a place rife with telephones, Internet access and fax machines. Get an email for their assistant and another for their deputy.

4. If it's at all possible, get a newsroom job before you leave home, even if it's sorting mail and answering telephones. Even if it's only for a couple months, you'll learn so much about the pace of a news organization, what gets them excited, what makes them angry, what causes their eyes to glaze over. You'll meet lots of people with plenty of advice and a few war stories and you'll make great contacts. You'll see your potential list of editors to contact blossom and they'll be more likely to respond to an email from someone they know. And you'll get a chance to look at the "sked" of stories. You'll have a sense of what makes it into the paper, what the writing style is and how best to summarize your story into a nutgraph.

5. Practice pitching. It's the key to your success. If you can't pitch, you can't freelance.

Pitches, generally, should mirror the top five or six paragraphs of your actual story. If you send in a boring skedline, it shows you're a boring writer. If you send in a scattershot pitch, shotgunning all the elements of your story, it shows you're an unfocused writer who lacks a good sense of news.

Generally, a pitch should borrow from the top of your story, give the word length, reveal whether there's photos and offer a date by which the story can be delivered. You want to include your contact information. And again, keep it short.

6. Read about Africa. There are amazing books out there by Africans and non-Africans, as well as some real crap. Try Achebe, Robert Guest, Beryl Markham, Emma's War, They Poured Fire, the Purple Hibiscus, The Village of Waiting, Blue Clay People, The Beautyful Ones are Not Yet Born, The Fate of Africa and Soldiers of Light.

7. Finding a suitable market is like peering into a crystal ball. You need to know where the news is going to be and whether you're equipped to handle it. Be realistic: most editors don't know anything about Africa and have no interest in it. You need a place with good, interesting stories and a reliable communications system and a good transport system. You don't necessarily need to be in a newsy place, like Lagos or Nairobi or Jo'burg; lots of editors are looking for quirky stories about culture or trend pieces about science or technology or innovation in Africa. It may come as a shock, but lots are looking for "good news" stories that don't involve famine or drought or AIDS.

Once you decide where you're going, contact a local journalist or a foreign journalist working in the area and ask them specific questions. "Any advice and contacts" is a phrase to be avoided. One thing you need to know is who else is there and who they're working for. You don't want to arrive in Kampala only to discover that the city is flooded with freelancers who have a lock on the market.

And please, don't be one of those assholes -- pardon my French -- who decides to move to Africa and work at an African news outlet, whether paid or unpaid. You're actually *not* more qualified than African journalists and you're just stealing a job from someone who needs it.

8. Google everyone. Contacts you make may not have your best interests at heart. A case in point: a young man just turned up here in Ghana with the idea to go to Zimbabwe and do some stuff for the New York Times. He contacted a local journalist who offered to act as his fixer. The Reuters correspondent recommended checking into the local journalists' background and turns out he works at a government paper where some pretty rough stuff has happened. Who knows what he might have walked into if he hadn't done his homework.

9. Be safe! If you're a freelance journalist, no one has your back. No one.

10. Resell, resell, resell. Read those contributor contracts carefully, because the way you make money is by reselling your pieces, so if they require exclusivity, you need to weigh whether the pay is worth it.

11. Visit Africa. Seems obvious, but if you're going to relocate here, you should probably try it out first.

12. If you're a print journalist, get some radio equipment and a decent digital camera. If you're a radio reporter, get a decent digital camera. Turning your pieces into print stories and radio pieces and online pieces triples your income. Easy.

Hope that helps.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Your Tax Dollars at Work

Came back from the desert to a series of emails from my father, a scanned copy of a 5-pg letter from the Canadian Arts Council informing me that they will be giving me a huge pile of free money in order to do research on witches in Ghana.

Free money! And witches!

The only hitch is that I have decided to leave Ghana, as I feel a level of hostility here that is not good for a person. I've started scouting for jobs, mostly in Asia. (I'm not particularly ready to go back to Canada, where the elusive balance between fresh and jiggy and boring and stodgy has yet to be reached.) But I am a vain person and I wanna have my name on a book.

So I'm moving north, to the witch camps. I'll divide my time between Gambaga and Nakpanduri, where there is no cell reception, no Internet and no pizza. Perhaps I will get a car. And maybe a pet goat.

Into the Tenere...

After a week of sinful living, we got up before the sun and headed all groggy and dehydrated to the bus station for our trip to Niger. A former Peace Corps from Niger now living in Ghana, told us it would be four to six hours to go from one capital to the other. She must ride on a magic carpet, because it took us 10 hours.

Crossing the border was painless and the differences between Niger and Burkina were subtle but important: Niger is at the bottom of the UN Human Development Index while Burkina is a couple spots above it. Still, at Burkina there was no hassle. At Niger, there was a huge gaggle of dusty, dirty, scraggly boys, all with tomato tins around their necks, all looking for "cent francs" or "un cadeau" or something.

Niamey was wonderful. Hot and dusty, but really laid back, yet really vibrant. We made a second home of GG's, a bar with rotisserie chicken and chips and cold bottles of Flag beer and basically wandered and explored and finally figured out that to get a cab, one has to shout their destination at any cars that pass. If the driver speeds away, he's not going in your direction. But if he nods, you get in and wait for him to drop you and the other passengers in order of destination.

We spent a morning with the last herd of wild giraffes in the region, loading into two cars with three other backpackers and finally -- FINALLY -- getting away from the city after more than an hour of dithering and dickering. There was the usual annoyance at the gate: the fee for entry, the fee for guide, the fee for the vehicle, the fee for a blue sky and an intense sun, the fee for simply breathing. And a drive with the guide up on top of the car, looking for what have to be the tallest giraffes I've ever seen, camoflaged brilliantly in the sandy terrain.

A day later, we were sardined into another bus, this time pointed north in the direction of the fabled salt-trading city of Agadez, the gateway to the Tenere desert. The same expat told us expeditions into the desert could be expensive -- around $1,000 for a week -- and we scoffed. We'd only be gone a couple days (who needs to see a week's worth of sand?) and so it might be a couple hundred bucks. Of course, we only discovered that there are no ATMs in Niger after we'd already set off for Niger, so we'd already sent off a request for a Western Union transfer. We were counting our pennies the whole way and annoying the artisans in the process. But after a morning of to-ing and fro-ing with Dan the Man and Trevor Whatever, our traveling companions for the following eight days, we'd bargained the cost down to $500.

Emily and I, dry and dusty and exhausted from the bus ride, flopped back to the concrete cell that was our hotel room and discussed the choices we've made in life. "This is going to be the hardest traveling I've done," I remarked, at which Emily blanched and said, "Seriously?!" We were spending eight days camping in the desert, with a driver and a 4WD and a cook that would make us mutton stew with couscous, mutton stew with rice, mutton stew with potatoes. Still, I've never had to poop outside before.

Our first night was came with a brilliant salt-and-pepper spray of stars, but was brutally, brutally cold. I woke Emily up with my shivering. We were sharing a blanket, huddled in our little tent, trying to ignore the ridges of sand digging into our backs. The next day I bought two pairs of socks and that night I wore everything in my backpack, including silk long underwear and two pairs of pants, with a pair of pants wrapped around my neck like a scarf. I'm considering writing to Gap about this, as it's the perfect thing to do with gauchos, which are likely long out of style. I wore them around my neck most days until well after noon, when I had finally thawed, and I looked smashing.

Overall, Niger was gorgeous. Lots of rocks and rock art, including some amazingly detailed giraffes carved into a rock face some 8,000 years ago. The people were gentle and generous and I learned a new card game, Huit, which demands to be played in French and is an even funner version of Uno. Yes, funner than Uno.

Boo'd Diamond

Two years ago, I stumbled upon the FESPACO festival, arriving in Ouaga just as the festival opened, purely by coincidence. I was oblivious in the way that most tourists are -- there was a stampede at the opening ceremonies and two people were trampled to death; I only learned this at this year's festival -- and really enjoyed the event, having no expectations of it. I thought it was romantic to sit under the stars, watching African films in Africa surrounded by Africans.

This year, we waited two hours in line just to drop off our accreditation forms. Schedules and catalogues became as scarce as cold water, the festival hadn't printed enough and ran out only a day into the seven-day event. Some film-goers picked up their $25 passes for free. A couple times we made it to the theatre before the film, which would arrive in the arms of an usher riding on the back of a moped. We missed the opening few minutes of "Africa Paradis" because there guy with the keys to the box office hadn't shown up and there was no one to sell tickets.

Still, we saw some amazing films and had a very decadent week of sleeping in air conditioning, washing in hot water, swanning about watching movies and eating pizza at every opportunity.

The winner, Ezra, was a picture about child soldiers, shot in Rwanda but ostensibly about Sierra Leone. My favourite, Juju Factory, was about Congolese living in Belgium. I cried like a baby at the end of Tsotsi -- man, that kid can act! We both loved "Shoot the Messenger," a highly controversial BBC film about black stereotypes, and a documentary about the Jonestown massacre, the "don't drink the Kool-aid" cult of the 1970s. We had long discussions over "The Mother's House," a documentary following an 11-year-old girl and her HIV-positive mother while they lived for four years in the grandmother's house. The girl spirals downward under the eye of the camera, cutting herself and getting hooked on drugs.

But, secretly, I think we were most looking forward to Blood Diamond and Last King of Scotland, the Hollywood contributions to Africa's Cannes. To be considered for competition, a film must have a director with an African passport, so neither of these films were fighting for the Golden Stallion. But they were undoubtedly the most popular films of the festival, with line-ups that started an hour before the film and stretched around the block.

Unfortunately, both were dubbed in French, so we didn't stay for Last King. Still, I caught enough of Blood Diamond -- mislabelled as Bood Diamond in the program -- to know that I didn't like it.

In truth, I was bound to hate it. I've got that uppity self-righteous thing going on about Africa and of course, feel very strongly that no film with Leonardo DiCaprio in it could ever capture the complexities of an African issue. And there's the smokin' Jennifer Connolly as journalist character, that was bound to raise the hackles, what with the blouse unbuttoned to here and the "what wouldn't I do for a story?" arc to the storyline. (And the god-awful dialogue, perhaps made worse by the French translation, I dunno, but who says with a straight face: "I prefer complex situations.") There is a moment where, confronted by supposed Karamajor fighters armed to the teeth and looking like fierce little Dogon trolls covered in fetishes, Connolly brashly pushes forward and asks for a picture. She squeezes them together and frames them up as one of them claims her for his wife. I was immediately annoyed. But upon further reflection, I decided this is actually an interesting tactic and may have to try it out, should I ever be in the presence of angry Keebler elves.

Still, there is the siege of Freetown, which is as exhilarating as the first 20 minutes of Ezra, three times as bloody and probably not far off. And the right-on moment at a rebel checkpoint, when two little 10-year-olds shoot a patronizing social worker in the head when he tries to rationalize with them as though they were children.

But there is also a moment where they drive on the LEFT, which is just stupid Edward Zwick, and a moment where, looking wistfully out the window, Connolly spies a cheetah running alongside the media bus. A media bus? A cheetah? People, please. And the shot of Jack Dawson at the end -- I pretty sure he was channeling Jack Dawson -- with the elephants munching on the savannah below. Elephants? Savannah? Man, Mozambique is pretty, but Sierra Leone is gorgeous in its own right (that's right, Zwick. RIGHT!) and it doesn't look like Mozambique. There are few elephants and hardly any savannah.

Boo'd Diamond wasn't much of a misprint afterall.

Border Cross-ing

Filled with a spirit of discontent towards Ghana, my roommate, Emily, and me decided to skip the 50th anniversary celebrations and instead head north to Ouagadougou for the FESPACO film festival and then to Niger from there.

We caught the dreaded STC, which I'm increasingly convinced stands for "shite transportation company," and were nattering away about how, for all the frustrations I feel lately, the great thing about Ghana is the fact that there are no touts when you travel. It's all very systemmatic. You want to put your bags in the bus, then you get a baggage ticket and then you get on the bus. You don't want to put your bag on the bus, then you just get on the bus.

Seventeen hours later, the bus deposited us in Bolgatanga in the dead of night and we made our way to a little hotel on the edge of town. It's humid in the south but so dry in the north that our skin dried out pretty quickly and we were clamouring for lip gloss and moisturizer. A leisurely breakfast and then we were in a shared cab heading to the tro-tro station, where we caught a shared cab to Paga, the border city that's better known for the sacred crocodiles that are hand-fed sacrificial chickens by tourists looking for ghoulish photos.

We handed over 20,000 cedis each, expecting 10,000 in return. Instead, we were told it would cost us each 5,000 for our bags, which had ridden in the empty boot of the car. There are 8,000 cedis in a Cdn dollar, so that means we were being charged less than a dollar each, but more than a dollar in total. And it didn't matter anyway, because I will fight on principle and this, to me, was a principle worth fighting for.

So we fought. Much hand waving. Much clucking of tongues and indignant "ehs!"

But the driver had our money and therefore all the power and he just walked away. In the end, the boss told us that if we didn't like it, we could go complain at Customs. He underestimated my willingness to embarrass myself over 10,000 cedis. A principle is a principle.

So we went to Customs and they probably watched in disbelief. Small talk about the journey and how long we'd been in Ghana and where we were from and where we were going. And then the pitch: "We are having a problem and we're hoping you can help." And then the ace card: "This is not how Ghanaians treat their visitors." And then the save: Snap, snap and a small boy is sent to find the driver.

We trot out our Twi (Emily's is soooo much better than mine) and joke about my two words of Ga, "thank you" and "goat's ass," which are pretty much all I need, I've found.

And within minutes, the boy is back with a 10,000 cedi note. "In fact, they were talking about this issue when I arrived," he said.

And we were off to the border, where the guards noticed that Emily's entry stamp had run out about a month before. A month and three days to be precise. It costs a 200,000 cedi fine per month that the stamp is expired, but I've found that it's much easier to pay the fine than try to deal with Ghana Immigration in Accra. When I left at Christmas, I paid 600,000 cedis and it seemed a wise investment. I just nodded and tried to look innocent when the man asked whether I understood that a leave to stay for 60 days was, in fact, a leave to stay for 60 days.

But these guards were going to charge us an extra month for the three days. The pitch: "Oh my friend, isn't there anything we could do?" The ace card: the silent stare, the idea that we have lots of time to think it over and maybe negotiate. And again, the save: Emily's Twi. A small lecture followed up with a "Have you heard?" in Twi, to which she replied, in Twi, "Yes, I have heard."

And then we walked to Burkina Faso.

Monday, March 26, 2007


Some pictures of Niger. A write-up to follow when I'm not so scattered or, um, bus-lagged.

This is one of our campsites, just to get a sense of the dunes. That red speck is our jeep.

Hidden in the middle of this photo is a small block school, the only boarding school for Tuareg children.


This is the headline that ran in the Statesman...

And this is me, working my contacts, at the baseball game.