Friday, February 1, 2013

Cultural Restoration through language

International Support Worker students met with representatives of ODESISCC to discuss holistic approaches to poverty alleviation and human rights development in rural Chiapas.
Often in developing countries, impacts of global modernization weight heavy on traditional ways of life and can persuade communities to new methods of doing things. With rapid advances in technology, this can be used to the communities’ advantage, yet we must still be cautious of what is being taken away.
“We respect the cultures of others, but we also don’t want others to take ours,” says Vice President of ODESISCC Juan Méndez Pérez. “We want to [work together] to make it stronger.”
As communities strive to exist in the constantly expanding ‘global world’ language and the use of traditional dialect is often effected – but is also one of the most valuable tools in restoring culture.
ODESISCC is a Mexican non-profit organization with a strong emphasis on restoration of culture through language, and working with youth on development and use of local dialects. ODESISCC works directly with impoverished communities to improve standards of life, while focusing on preservation of culture and tradition as a means of community establishment.
“We must keep traditional knowledge,” Méndez Pérez says. “Preserve knowledge of the land. [This] is recognition of the richness of this area and of what our people have to offer.”

We're joining Loyalist International Support Workers in Chiapas, Mexico

On January 24th International Support Worker students of Loyalist College will travel to Chiapas, Mexico to engage in four weeks of intense field work. During this time, students will gain skill and experience in safe travel, cultural immersion and critical analyses while working alongside professionals within the field of development and humanitarian aid. 

Visit us at for regular updates, photos and stories. 

Sarah Hawkins records a human rights press conference in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas.  February 2011

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Learning about Ashanti tradition through weaving

Yesterday morning we went down to the market and haggled with some tro tro drivers to guide us around for the day. We wanted to get out of town and explore some new sites and since the 12 of us would fill up a whole vehicle anyways we figured it would be easier, and potentially cheaper, to just hire the driver for the day - plus how super awesome is it to cranking Azonto music in your own tro-tro filled with Obrunis (foreigners/white people). So this is what we did.

We drove about 20 km outside of Kumasi to a village called Adanwomase, which is near the town of Bonwire. The village is home to an eco-tourism hub developed a few years ago by Peace Corp volunteers to teach tourists about the traditions and history of Ashanti Kente weaving. 

The destination is now run by locals and offers a tour of the village - including a visit to the chiefs palace, a shrine and a small cocoa farm as well as a separate tour including the history of Kente weaving, its traditional value, how the clothe is made, spun and actually weaved. We learned the meaning of the different patterns - for example, one represents sympathy, another means 'life is not straight', one represents wealth and superiority - and our group actually got to give the weaving a go. It was completely awesome and so therapeutic! I do have to say, our speed was not anywhere close to par with the locals, our pattern was non existent (we did one solid colour) and the details, well you could tell we were first-timers, but it was an incredible experience. 

We learned that in the Ashanti tradition, woman are the farmers and the men are the weavers which differs from other regions and tribes, like the Ewe in the Volta for example. And we got some incredible information on the importance of cocoa farming for the Ghanaian economy. Once our tours were complete, we got to try on the different kente clothes and dress up like Chiefs and Queen Mothers - clearly we got great photos and we'll share them as soon as we can!

After our goodbyes, our guide Eric, told us about 15 minutes down the road there was a spot where we could go and learn about Adinkra symbols - which are the tradition symbols representing different meanings. Adinkra is composed of two local words put together meaning (trough translation) a message from the past. Originally, Adinkra symbols were used to communicate with the deceased and were stamped onto clothe to be worn at the funeral. Some represent strength, female beauty, going back to your roots, adaptability, wealth, and more - there are over 120 different Adinkra symbols.  Our guide, David, taught us about the cultural value, what some of the different symbols mean and when they would be used. He showed us how they create ink from the bark of a tree by pounding it (it takes him up to 8 hours to do so, he said it would take us the rest of our lives..  He was funny but probably right). Then David showed us the different stamps made out of calabash, which is a type of local gourd, and demonstrated pressing it onto clothe. Jeremy, BB, Andrea and I paid 2 cedis to get a symbol on our clothes, lol, which was super awesome!
The drive was beautiful and it was a great opportunity to learn more about the Ashanti tradition while going through some team building activities. We also got some great participant and trip leader sleeping shots on the drive back to town - we are leaving Kumasi today to head north towards Sandema, it's a 10 hour drive and I can't wait to see what kind of sleeping shots we get out this one!!

Please note: Pictures will come! But will limited time, resources its difficult to get them up right now... but good things come to those who wait so please hang in there! 

Monday, May 21, 2012

At last, the whole WAD is finally together!

The last participants arrived on Friday and we all connected on the sandy shores of beautiful Cape Coast. For some, this was their first time ever seeing the ocean so once we arrived from Accra the afternoon was spent jumping waves, catching rays and building friendships over street food. 

Saturday morning the group woke early, and while BB fetched breakfast (fresh fruit and hard boiled eggs and bread) Michelle and two participants headed to the station to collect a tro-tro to Kakum while Jeremy whisked the others out of bed. Our group of 12 filled the tro-tro and we headed to one of Ghana's most famous parks - Kakum National Park.  

The park is home to a variety of plants and wildlife - as well a suspended canopy walk. The suspension bridge is approximately 100 feet high and is make up of 7 bridges and 6 tree-platforms. It was build in partnership by a team of Ghanaians and Canadians and is a beautiful way to view and experience one of Ghana's protected forests.  And did I mention, the group was awesome - especially those who were afraid of heights! 
After the canopy walk, we went on a hike through the rainforest to see the parks 'tree house' accommodations (no we didn't stay the night, maybe next time!), learned about different medicinal plants and enjoyed from fresh palm wine before heading back to town. 

Next was the heavy hitter - we broke into groups and went for a guided tour of Cape Coast slave castle. The castle has been under different ownership - the Swedes, British, Dutch, back to the British - and is globally known as being used as a holding group during the slave trade. Inside the castle remain dungeons which were used as holding cells to contain enslaved Africans before sailing across the Atlantic. the castle held captive as many as 1000 enslaved Africans, and often held them for more than 3 months without proper food, water and sanitation. 

After our visit, the group met in the center of the courtyard beside our lodge to debrief. We discussed in detail how everyone was feeling and what they were thinking after this experience. The group did a great job putting into words how they thought and how they felt. One participant had shared that they could never have imagined how this could ever had taken a place, another mentioned that while they were walking around, they just wanted to say sorry. 

We agreed as a group that we can't change the past, but what we can do is be informed and understand both sides. When we ignore history, we deny the right that it happened.  With acknowledgement we attempt to pay our respect. This experience is something that opens our eyes to the devastating truth of our past and is a reminder to each of us to never allow this type of atrocity to take place again. On the wall of the castle, beside the doors entering the male dungeon, there is a plaque which serves as a promise to all; it states that we, as human beings, will never allow such an injustice to humanity to take place again.  

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Summer 2012 = OG West Africa Discovery

"OG Represent" - Killing some time stuck at Frankfurt International Airport.
OG West Africa Discovery Program Trip Leader Miss Michelle Newlands.

Shortly after leaving Toronto Pearson International Airport, I landed in Washington. Shortly after that, I boarded a plane intended for Chicago. Unfortunately, due to thunder storms we were not able to leave the runway and sat idle for a total of four hours. After this wonderful four hour delay, we were informed we were on our way. One hour and a half hours later we arrived in Chicago, clearly all having missed our connecting flights; and we know what that means! Slumber party at the airport. Yep, it was now 1:00am - after having left Toronto at 12:00pm noon - our plane wouldn't leave until the next day at 5:00pm.  So, a group of us heading to Accra camped out at the airport enjoying our 20 dollar vouchers for grub until 5:00pm the next day when we headed for Frankfurt.  After this seven hour flight we had a five hour lay over and so, to keep myself awake and because I was filled with pure joy of being an OG trip leader, I snapped a candid while waiting for my next 7 hour flight to board. Ahhh, the thrills of travel.

Back in Ghana!!!

It’s official; all three trip leaders for OG's West Africa Discovery programs have arrived back in beautiful Ghana and it’s incredible to be here.

The sun is shinning, the music playing and we are getting everything ready for our first round of participants to join us next Wednesday! But like any international journey, all of us had some unexpected speed bumps to overcome. For any first time travellers, or returning travellers, sometimes these encounters can be worrisome but don’t worry - rule number one stay calm and all shall be well!

Here is a heads up on some of the regular travel problems we encountered on our journey to Ghana and how optional solutions. Remember, everyone deals with things differently and your own style will work best for you. This is just a note to remind you stuff happens, and its cool! Laugh, relax and enjoy the journey. It’s all part of the travel experience!

Oversized luggage: No matter how often I travel, I can’t help it… my items are always heavier than I think. Make certain you confirm with your airline the number of bags you are allowed and the weight. It should say on your ticket but if not, don’t be afraid to contact either your travel agent or airline directly. If you go over your allowed weight, you will either have to pay big bucks for it or take something out. Both options suck so just try to avoid it in general.

This leads to….

Pack well: Bring what you think you will need, but don’t panic about it. Best thing about travelling with a group is whatever you need and forget to bring, chances are there are 4-5 of them already on the trip. If not, we’ll make time to find it in Accra before we head north; and I assure you, you can find almost anything of everything in Accra!

Delayed Flights: Sometimes flights are delayed; it can be mechanical, weather, whatever! Long story short, there is nothing you or anyone else for that matter can do about it. Sometimes delayed flights can mean you miss your connecting flight (which is what happened with me). Don’t panic. The airline will make sure you and your luggage get to your final destination. Just make sure you know where you are to go next. If the flight attendant on board has not made this clear to you, ask and clarify. Confirmation always helps, such as, “Excuse me, which direction is boarding gate B26?” Or, “Please, my luggage will go all the way to Accra, right? I don’t have to pick it at the transfer flight?” If they know the answer, they will give it to you. If they don’t, request they find someone who does.

Hand luggage: For many reasons it is important to make sure all valuables are left in your hand luggage (being the bag you take on the plane with you and have constant access to).

Number one is lost luggage. You need to make sure things like medication, visas, debit cards, cash, computers, cameras and other irreplaceable and/or required documents are always on your body.
Remember, the airline will always do its best to get your luggage to you as soon as possible but as with all things in love and life, nothing is absolute. This means you could go a few hours to a few days without your luggage. This means it can also be useful to have a change of clothing and toiletries in your hand luggage.

A personal recommendation is to also pack items of comfort in your hand luggage. In case of things like delayed flights or long flights in general, having a travel pillow, blanket/warmer clothes (those planes can get coldddd, I tell ya!) and something to read/keep you occupied sure come in handy! En route I was delayed in Washington and had to spend approximately 20 hours in the airport that I did not plan on. I was overly thankful for my travel pillow, blanket and book. (Not to mention the 14 hour flight with pure AC blasting directly down on you. I was thankful I came prepared).

Note: With all that in mind, don’t over pack. I know its great to be prepared but we are backpacking, and we have to carry our everything with us nearly all the time. Bags get heavy and it sucks to miss out on an adventure because our bags are too heavy and we don’t want to carry them for the walk.

I know, sounds like a contradiction, right? “Bring everything you need, but pack light.” Believe me – balancing the art of packing can be difficult even for experienced travelers. So just do your best and have fun with it. In the end, it’s all going to be awesome!

And finally, my absolute travel tip would be to allow yourself to take your time. Get there early, have your tickets printed, know where your boarding passes are, find your gate before you shop, keep your passport in a safe place.

The unexpected can almost always be expected while travelling and having the additional stress of, “Oh my god, am I going to make it??!!” can drive you mad. So don’t put yourself through that.
Keep calm, be cool and enjoy the process. You’re already half way here!!

See you soon!!

Your OG West Africa Discovery Team Leaders,
Michelle, Jeremy and BB

Friday, May 4, 2012

Filling you in and inviting you to join what's next!

It's been a while and I think its time we catch up!
As some may know, I've spent the last ten months living in Accra, Ghana. I joined Journalists for Human Rights and was sent to work as a Rights Media Educational Officer at the African University College of Communications (AUCC). One of our main projects  resulted in the production of a rights media magazine, video documentary and audio clippings on impacts of mining, to learn more click here

I was asked to stay at the AUCC until end of February to develop and implement a course on Publicity Methods within the Development Communications department at the university. I happily accepted and once finished this arrangement, I spent two more months working on independent projects and touring around Ghana's beautiful country side.

As always one adventure leads to another, and along the way I met a wonderful person named Ben Sampson who introduced me to an awesome organization called Operation Groundswell (OG). The purpose of OG is to provide travel-curious individuals with ... well, a trip of a lifetime!

OG is a non-profit organization that works to provide curious young travellers with safe, affordable, exciting and authentic travel opportunities in countries around the world. OG believes in community living, active participation and among all things, building friendship with those whose countries we explore. OG strives to have a positive impact in the places they travel and view every situation as an opportunity to explore and grow;  OG also makes it easy to do this, because participants are travelling alongside other awesome people in incredible places!

Sooner or later, I think people feel the desire to explore and learn more about themselves, our planet and the people whom inhabit it - colours, sounds and scents - sometimes we're just ready to go! Which is why when I was asked to join two other incredible team leaders in Ghana to co-facilitate two awesome summer programs - I was thrilled!!!

So, after being in Canada for a short 2.3 weeks, I am sitting on the floor of Washington airport on my way back to Ghana. Soon I'll meet my incredible co-facilitators Jeremy and BB and in less than two weeks we'll be meeting with the first round of participants in Ghana's capital city of Accra.

There are two awesome discovery trips this summer and I invite you to follow our journey! We must all be aware internet connection isn't what it is at home, but as long as we have the patience and find the time - we'll find the resources. (But if it isn't regular, don't worry... it isn't that we've been captured or have melted away in the heat... we're just having to much time BEING PRESENT to get online... sorry mums!!)

So please, check in and check up. Ask questions and live vicariously through the youth who have decided to be courageous and explore something new. Join us at OG's blogsite by clicking here or visit my personal blog at Think Glocal by saving the link!

Being a trip leader with OG will allow me to help foster the natural curiosity of our participants and share everything I love about Ghana with people who truly want to experience it.

If you're one of those people who has been bit by the 'travel bug' and/or are looking to 'spread your wings' but don't know where to start... maybe you should grab some friends and check out OG's incredible opportunities.

If you're going to travel - backpack! And if you're going to backpack - backpack with a purpose!
Do it OG style.

Michelle Newlands
Trip Facilitator
West Africa Discovery 2012
Operation Groundswell

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Remembering Visit with Chair of Toronto Star

From left: Michelle Newlands (me!), Mr. John Honderich, Sandra Ferrari and Cheryl Oates.
With high standards, Journalists for Human Rights brought chair of the Toronto Star Mr. John Honderich to Ghana. During his ten day visit, Mr. Honderich lived with us. 

By 'us', I mean three of four jhr trainers in Accra, and all ladies. For the first three months of our stay we didn't have flowing water, which meant everything we did was done by retrieving buckets of water from an outside polytank and filling a smaller tank inside. 

Upon Mr. Honderich's arrival, we had finally negotiated with our landlandy, or Auntie, to let us fix the water pump. Yes, all of this time it was an easy fix but it was convincing our landlady to let us which was a struggle. She says she wanted us to experience 'real Ghana' and not all Ghanaian's have access to running water. 

Fair enough.

So, we managed to fix the tank the day before the grand arrival and we would soon have running water for the first time in three months. But not quite yet!
What this meant, was for the first few days of Mr. Honderich's visit he had to endure the enticing process of bucket showers at the jhr residence. 

In addition, he ate Talapia with his hand, shopped on Oxford Street, met with students at the AUCC, worked with local journalists and editorial staff at Ghana's largest independent newspaper and spend every evening on the front porch catching up on daily events.

It was an incredible opportunity to share an experience with such an acclaimed media professional and show him a little bit about our lives in Ghana.

Thanks for the visit, and thanks for being great!

To read a blog of John Honderich's visit in Ghana visit JHR's Field Notes blog or click here.

To read a column on gay rights written by Mr. Honderich during his visit click here.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Faces of Prestea - Impacts of Mining

 A JHR-AUCC Rights Media Production

Over the course of the past six months, members of the Journalists for Human Rights student chapter at the African University College of Communications have worked tirelessly to organize the production of a multimedia project highlighting impacts of mining in Ghana's Western Region.

The mutltimedia project titled Faces of Prestea, tells the stories of members living within the mining community of Prestea and is meant to serve as an opportunity for those being effected to express themselves to the greater public.

The process was vigorous and included advanced fieldwork, four-weeks of preparatory workshops, endless organization, a seven hour bus ride, four days fieldwork with 30 students, three weeks of post-production and a community launch.

All participants worked extremely hard to successfully complete this project in order to bring to light the experiences and concerns of those living within Prestea. 

As mining continues to be a growing industry within Ghana and around the world, it is important citizens become educated in the development of the industry and participate in dialogue with stakeholders to establish and maintain safe and ethical practice.

Featured above, is the 23 minute video documentary created by JHR chapter members at the AUCC in Accra, Ghana.

For those interested in learning more, I encourage you to check out the JHR-AUCC Rights Media blog at

Nzulezo - the village on stilts


Our guesthouse in Nzulezo.
In early December, I travelled west of Accra for some seven hours in search of a village of stilts. I had seen photos, read articles, heard stories, but nothing compared to the actual experience of sleeping in a remote village held up solely by wooden stilts.

Like all of our weekend getaways, this too was filled with adventure. For the first time we decided to stray away from tro-tro travel and invest in renting a car. Although the price was a steep, we decided to go ahead and spoil ourselves.

Turns out our decision worked in our favour, as we've been told the area is extremely difficult, and expensive, to get to. You have to take approximately three different tro-tros plus a taxi that can cost up to 80 Cedis. Plus we got to come and go as we pleased, stop whenever we wanted to AND sing aloud and be silly.

Based on all instances mentioned above, we didn't reach Beyin, the town closest to Nzulezo on land, until evening. It was already dark and of course, the only accessible accommodations were overpriced resorts. One of which had no vacancy anyhow.

One more thing I love about travelling in Ghana is the ability to make a deal. Although we weren't able to work our way into a cheaper room at the resort, we made friends with the security guy who had friends living alongside the Ocean.

He introduced us, and once we checked out the accommodations, made sure the 'friends' were indeed, trustworthy 'friends', we locked our valuables in the car and walked down a path to the beach where we would be staying.

Our accommodation was a raised, two bedroom structure made of bamboo. There was a bed in each room and surprisingly with electricity. Another raised structure a few yards away held the toilet room.

We walked up and watched two Rastas gather their belongings, plop them into an overnight bag, change the bedsheets, grab a tent, say good-night and head down the beach.

I eagerly admired their simplistic lifestyle and ability to fit everything they own in one bag and proudly relocate themselves along the sandy shoreline in order to offer their accommodations to a stranger.

Thanks, Rastas.

Waking to the sound of the Ocean's crashing waves was a feeling I will never forget. I woke up, and Francis and I strolled along the coast, feet in the sand. I was completely speechless.

As soon as everyone woke up, we gathered the one or two things we brought with us and got ready to go to the stilt village. In order to get there, you have to arrange a canoe ride with the Ghana Wildlife Society.

And so, as we did. We arranged our canoe ride and enjoyed the 45 minute paddle to the stilt village.

Nzulezo is exactly what it is known for being, a village on stilts. Cool right? Yes! Too cool! Incredibly cool.

Main strip of the stilt village. Extending from this lane are the aisles belonging to the individual families.
Paddling in, it looks interesting, original, unique. You pull up, step out of your canoe and walk along the wooden pathways dividing the houses like streets. Usually, tourists will come and go, staying for roughly 20 minutes to an hour. During our time there we didn't see anyone stay longer, or order food, or ask to stay the night.

We did. A colleague was doing a video on the village and so we were required to set up interview appointments with community representatives for the following day. And since we had travelled seven hours from Accra to this incredible community, absolutely we were going to stay the night.

During our visit we spoke with community members, the village maintenance man acting on behalf of the chief and in doing so learned about the history of Nzulezo. Once upon a time, migrants from neighbouring African countries had come to Ghana, for whatever reasons, they were being chased and managed to escape by building themselves a village on stilts.

As rumours have it, as the enemies tried to approach the village by boat, the Gods controlled the water to close in on them. Protecting the inhabitants of Nzulezo from their attackers.

In current day, each of the 24 wooden rows represent a different family, and each time a member gets married or has children they build their own house along the same row as their elders. They have one school and two official church buildins representing two of the four to five religions practiced in the village. 

Although the village has a well constructed school with funding provided by the government for employment of educators, the community struggles to find and especially keep, a teacher for extended periods of time due to the difficult living conditions of the village.

Nzulezo does not yet have electricity although on 13th December 2011 an article was released by the Daily Graphic announcing an extension of power, costing $200,000 would reach Nzulezu with the purpose of boasting tourism in the area. This project is funded under a $16.5 million package given to the Government of Ghana by the World Bank for the purpose of electrification projects in the Jomoro District in the Western Region under the Ghana Energy Distribution Access Project (GEDAP).

For tourists wanting to spend in the stilt village, there is one option for accommodations. Otherwise visitors will stay in the nearby village of Beyin. A two-room lodge, two single beds in each, with access to a public toilet down one of the wooden lanes. We paid for the rooms and pulled the mattresses outside to sleep under the stars in this enchanted stilt village.

Coming for a visit is a must for all travellers touring through Ghana, but I do believe there is something magical about spending the night in this remote place. You experience more than a museum-style walk around and canoe ride. You get to know the community members and witness how they live. You find out what games the kids play, where they gather their food, the locations they canoe to bathe.

Although one night was enough, and we were extremely grateful for remembering to bring a deck of cards, it was an experience I will never forget.

View from our window in Nzulezo, the village on stilts.