To state the obvious, it’s been forever since I’ve posted to this blog. Adding a few more bytes of binary code to the bloated digital world we call the Internet seemed futile and I moved on to other things. It didn’t help I stopped travelling the ancient streets and monuments of inspiring Europe, settling into a steady Canadian journalism job.
I’ve since come to realize a few eyes and changed perspectives is all it takes to make a web post worthwhile. Some things are too meaningful not to share. It also helps that I now live in Montreal, a city bursting with culture and history.
The other day I visited Montreal’s Museé des Beaux Arts, hosting a collection of sculpture, painting, photography and artifacts going back to the Middle Ages. Having recently read War and Peace, I naturally gravitated to the Napoleon exhibit, a collection of items from his era and the person himself. You can see the Emperor’s famous bicorne hat, complete with the tricolour cockade emblematic of the French Revolution. Napoleon wore his hat in this distinctive fashion to distinguish himself from his generals; it was certainly a success, as nothing else in the exhibit was as symbolic of Napoleon as this piece of felt.
At the end of the long hallway was a small room with circular windows on three sides looking out over Sherbrooke Street. Inside this room was a bust of Napoleon staring blankly as you approached, held up by an eagle of state. The sculpture was lit from above by warm light, a striking contrast to the dark grey sky and buildings outside.
What got me was the reflection of Napoleon in the windows. It was as if he was floating ghost-like over the street.
The ghost of Napoleon in many ways still haunts the western world. Long after his lonely life ended on the little African island of St. Helena in 1821, the earth shattering changes he and his wars imposed on Europe continue to be seen in national borders, law and government.
This is perhaps more true in Montreal and Quebec than the rest of Canada. The emperor-general’s Code became the basis for the Quebec Civil Code, manifestly different from civil law in other provinces where they are based more on British Common Law.
As a living man Napoleon already had his mind on what legacy his name would leave behind. I am sure this tyrant-saint would approve of his grave face leering over a city still under the influence of his ethos, two centuries after the Battle of Waterloo.
One Canadian musician has used his talents to raise money and set up a school building in sub-Saharan Africa. Last fall I visited the village to see how music has made it possible for more children to escape poverty.
I sat eating my food while watching two women pound cassava beans into a fine pulp. One turned the white lump over just before the other woman brought down a wooden pole with a force that could easily break fingers. They worked with perfect rhythm, the woman’s hand pulling back just before the pole comes down.
This was my first meal in the Volta Region of Ghana, a land of grassy savannah transforming into dense tropical forest, beautiful sandy beaches, and tiny villages. I’ve taken a mini bus here to stay in one of them, Dzogadze, a settlement of about 1,000 people north of the main road between Ghana’s capital, Accra, and the neighboring country of Togo.
The roads here are unpaved and recent rains have turned the red earth into a soup streaked with tire ruts and dotted with pot holes. In this mess the fastest way to reach the village is by motorcycle, and it’s on a motorcycle that my contact in Dzogadze, Ledzi Agudzemegah, arrived to take me there.
Rhythm is a part of life in this place known for its strong tradition of music and dancing. It’s that tradition that brought Newfoundlander Curtis Andrews here for the first time in 1999, and it’s because of his work that I’m here now: to see what the efforts of Newfoundlanders have done for this tiny village in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Ledzi is an old friend of Curtis Andrews. The two met during Andrews’ first visit to Dzogadze and they quickly became buddies thanks to their common interest in drumming and dance.
With a kick to the starter we took off down the dirt path spraying red mud behind us. As the motorcycle rumbles along I see over Ledzi’s shoulder women walking with vases of water on their heads, men plowing soil and children playing in the grass. Everyone is surprised to see a white man burn past them down the road, but they smile and wave as we near Dzogadze.
The village is a collection of red clay huts with thatched roofs interspersed with more modern concrete structures roofed with corrugated metal. There is no real plan to the layout of this place, but it’s centred on the soccer field and Dzogadze Basic School Complex, my first stop in the village.
Class was over when I arrived and the teachers were sitting around a table under the shade of a huge tree. Ledzi introduced me and, as is tradition in the area, I shook hands with each person, moving in a counter clockwise direction.
I explained what brought me to Dzogadze and our conversation turned to Curtis Andrews. When I asked junior high school teacher Jacob Lekpor to show me what the donations from Newfoundland and Labrador have accomplished, he pointed across the soccer field to a yellow building.
“That’s where our beloved brother Curtis Andrews has put up a school for our children,” he said to me.
Lekpor came to Dzogadze four years ago when there was no kindergarten classroom. The young children were forced to learn under a tree and write in the sand. Class was cancelled when it rained and the wind blew away their writing. Then in 2008 they completed the Curtis Kordzo Andrews Block, a concrete building that now gives the kindergarteners a sheltered place to learn. Kordzo is the name traditionally given to male babies born on a Monday, and was Curtis’ nickname in the village.
“It was like a part of us,” said Ledzi, who has lived in Dzogadze all his life. “We were not used to writing and sitting in the classroom. We didn’t know it is done better; not until we saw other schools in the big towns writing in books. Then we realized what we were lacking.”
We left the teachers and I dropped my backpack off at Ledzi’s place where I’d be staying the night. It was a simple two bedroom place with a bathroom outside around the corner.
After a brief nap to recover from my long journey we went off to meet Treve Dorvlo, an elder of the village and head of the PTA. He and another older man were sitting in a cramped hut and we had to crouch just to get inside. Ledzi said a few words in Ewe, the local language, introducing me and explaining what I was doing there.
“After the building of the classroom for the small ones, the number of children has increased, almost doubled,” Treve said with Ledzi acting as translator. “The support of the Canadians has improved our reputation and is bringing others in.”
Dzogadze Basic School Complex encompasses kindergarten, primary, and junior high school levels. Treve explained that the influx of money the school has been able to attract more dedicated teachers, resulting in better grades for the children and a higher pass rate.
Before the Canadian aid conditions at the school were so poor that almost none of the children graduated to the senior high school level. Now they have a graduation rate of 60 per cent.
Our interview was interrupted by a ring on Treve’s cell phone indicating he got a text message. He fiddled with the keys in a way that made it obvious he hadn’t owned it for long. Ledzi explained that Curtis gave the phone to Treve in the spring; one of the many artifacts left by Canadians in Dzogadze.
The African sun was strong to the eyes as we left Treve’s hut and walked to the soccer field. Ledzi wanted me to see Dzogadze’s teenage team, the pride of this community in soccer-mad Ghana.
The team had just started their drills when we arrived. They were wearing red and white uniforms that had Ottawa International Soccer Club written across the front. The team badly needed uniforms and Curtis managed to hook them up with Robert Tarrant, a teacher in All Hallows Elementary in North River. He raised 350 to cover the cost of the new threads and other expenses.
Ledzi helps coach the team and hopes that one of them might one day become a professional. He said talent scouts don’t visit the Volta Region because it’s a less populated place than the rest of Ghana. He wants to get scouts paying more attention to Dzogadze and has spent hundreds of his own cedis (the Ghanaian currency) to cover the team’s transportation to and from matches.
“We wanted to help the youth,” he said. “You can always help somebody improve his own skill. There are lots of them in the villages who can play good football, but they’re not known by the Ghana Football Association.”
Food was waiting for me when we returned to Ledzi’s home. Banku is the staple dish there; it’s mashed cassava and maise, eaten by hand and dipped in soup or stew. It’s a heavy meal and I quickly fell asleep, only to be woken an hour later by torrential rain that sounded like it was soon going to collapse the thin metal roof. The next day was going to be an important one and somehow I slept through the noise only to find a giant spider looking at me in my bed.
With the sight of the spider came the smell of porridge and the sound of school bells. Class had already begun and we ate breakfast quickly so we could catch the the first period of the day.
The junior high school classrooms are part of a compound that includes the library and computer clinic. The students were out for recess so Ledzi, Jacob and I visited the computer lab where some students were practicing their typing.
The lab built by donations from Newfoundland and Labrador includes two desktop and two laptop computers. They’re older models but it’s enough to teach students the skills they need to pass their information technology course, a mandatory part of Ghana’s public school curriculum.
“It will enable the children to have access to information,” Jacob told me. “The country is developing, and information technology is very important. I’m happy that even at this age they will be able to improve their computer skills.”
We left the computer lab to see the library, a building that was originally built by a charitable group from the United States, but Canadian donations filled the room and it wasn’t hard to figure out where the items came from. Classic Canadian novels like Anne of Green Gables filled the library shelves and a map of Canada hung on the wall next to a chart of the different fish species of Newfoundland and Labrador.
The kindergarten block was our next stop and the children greeted me warmly like they do all visitors from away with drumming and a traditional dance routine. When I pulled out my camera they crowded in front of the building fighting to be in the front row. A digital camera was a strange thing in this village that only got electricity in 2009 and everyone wanted the rare luxury of being in a photograph.
The number of kindergarteners has ballooned since the block opened in 2009, partly because of the new building, but also just because foreigners have shown interest in the children of Dzogadze and emphasized the importance of education.
“Some parents didn’t even think of sending their children to school, now they do because someone else has expressed this care in the education of their children,” Ledzi said. “It’s changed our own perception of our culture [as well]. At first we thought it as archaic, old news. but now people are once again backing our culture. They’re proud about their culture. More united.”
“[Curtis’] presence has helped a lot of children,” Lekpor added. “Those that did not know the importance of education, they are now getting it.”
With photos taken and interviews completed we left the kindergarten block to meet Treve, who wanted me to taste something before I left. We met him at a tiny stand that served as the village’s only pub and the bartender poured me a shot of akpeteshie, the local name for strong homemade liquor. It smelled like gasoline and tasted like it smelled.
Treve wished me a safe trip home and I thanked him for having me in his village. The sun was going down and I wanted to reach Accra before nightfall. Ledzi studies in Accra so we boarded the same minibus bound for the big city. With an orange sky shining through the big windshield I asked him how people inherit land in Dzogadze.
He said that the father’s land is divided up among his surviving children. Each generation receives a smaller portion of land than the one before it, until the children barely have enough farmland to survive.
“You have to divide everything among your children,” he told me. “People have to become teachers, bankers, lawyers. Then the amount of people on the farm will be small and the land will be adequate. That’s why we need education.”
Tropical forest transformed back into dusty savannah outside my window as the minibus sped westward. The akpeteshie made my trip back to Accra seem like a hazy dream now, but I remember thinking what an experience it had been, to see a village changing, improving, moving forward from a future condemned to poverty to one filled with the chance of something better.
A month later
Curtis’ voice came and went over my shaky African internet connection. I was at an internet cafe with fans whirring around me, trying to hear his words about the town I had visited one month before.
He told me how he discovered Dzogadze. Curtis had met a Ghanaian musician named Frederick Kwasi Dumo at the Sound Symposium in St. John’s and that was where he got the idea to study music and dance in Ghana. Frederick had family in Dzogadze and invited Curtis to visit in 1999.
Curtis returned in 2002 and spent two months in the village where he stayed with Ledzi and they became good friends.
“People interact with each other differently,” Curtis said in his thick Carbonear accent. “The environment, people, food, drink, music, it all made me want to stay there for awhile.”
He returned to Newfoundland with the idea of building a kindergarten block for the children. Through a series of concerts and other fundraising he was able to raise $12,000 for the school.
Ledzi has an essential part of the project, acting as Curtis’ man on the ground in Ghana while he was in Canada raising money.
“Without him none of this would have happened,” he told me. “He’s honest and transparent, does more than he needs to do, spends his own money to get things going. It’s only through him that the money doesn’t get spent in the wrong way. He’s the only reason that this could happen effectively.”
Dzogadze is still no paradise. The water pump fails often and the villagers have to fetch buckets water from a stagnant pond every day. Many children can’t afford to buy school uniforms. The medical clinic hasn’t had a nurse in two years and an elder says at least two people have died in the village because they couldn’t get to the nearest hospital in time.
Life is hard in Dzogadze. Curtis compared it to Newfoundland and Labrador 60 years ago. People raise their own chickens, grow their own crops and catch their own fish. Most young people leave Dzogadze to work in the larger cities.
Like Newfoundland and Labrador, however, many of the children return during Christmas to visit their families.
There is no snow and there are no Christmas trees during the holiday season, but people eat lots of food and have drinks. Christianity is widespread in the region and even some of those who follow native religion go to church on Christmas Eve.
Curtis will miss Christmas in Dzogadze, but he’ll return to the village in the spring with a group of students from Canada as part of an annual study trip he organizes.
“A lot of people have life changing experiences,” I heard him murmur via our weak Skype connection. “For a lot of them it’s their first experience with the Third World, Africa, or a rural village. It gives them more humility and respect for what they have.”