Like a Breeze

My first morning here I woke to red earth, yellow hibiscus and a massive, waxy banana tree outside my window. Be present, I told myself. These six weeks will blow in and out like a breeze. Today I mark the half-way point with this blog entry. It has been three weeks since I left the snow and chapped skin of an inhospitable Canadian winter, since the airplane landed and immediately filled with steam when cabin doors clicked open to a humid Accra night.

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Bananas growing outside my bedroom window in Accra

I feel most at ease in the early mornings, when the temperature has not yet begun its ascent, when after a cool shower I feel momentarily refreshed and ready to press start on my work day. Following a simple breakfast of fresh bread and instant coffee, I begin my commute with a ten-minute walk along a meandering dirt road. Strewn with garbage and fallen bougainvillea blossoms it is a striking contrast of rot and beauty.


Bougainvillea along the dirt road

I head towards Asylum Down Circle, a bustling traffic circle where city dwellers converge to catch taxis. All around, vendors sell phone credit and coconuts, toiletries and water sashes. Pots of oil sizzle with deep frying fish and bofrot, (sweet gooey balls of dough). In the distance I watch as the taxi I hoped to join putt putts away. Another will be along shortly to fill with passengers.

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Along my path from the home stay in Nima to Asylum Down Circle

Back in Toronto I often shut out the city soundscape by listening to a news podcast. But here, I want to hear all that I can. The shouts of “obroni” (white) from street children, requisite Bob Marley layered over chart topping dance hits and the morning call to prayer, wonky horns and ringing bells warning me to get out of the way.

A few minutes later I hand the driver one cedi thirty pesewas (approximately 65 cents Cdn) and wait to alight at the cathedral. Landmarks, rather than numbered addresses are used here to navigate the city. From the cathedral I walk a few more minutes, past Accra’s psychiatric hospital (hence the area name, “Asylum”) and past Paulina, a local merchant who has befriended me. She is stoking a fire in preparation for roasting yams, plantains and groundnuts.

Once at the YMCA I greet the staff and settle at my desk. The six of us will gather shortly for prayer and morning announcements. Today, in addition to updating the Facebook and Twitter accounts, I must finalize a press release for the upcoming Inter-Cultural Youth Festival. The festival will be held in Cape Coast, July 19-29, 2014. I was fortunate to visit Cape Coast my first weekend in Ghana. I remember lingering on the castle balcony, lost in the long stretch of sand, crashing waves and a fat, pink lollipop sunset…

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The sun sets on Cape Coast, Ghana

Yes, these final weeks will blow in and out quickly and before I know it I’ll be back in Toronto, riding the subway to work, ordering a grande extra hot soy misto from Starbucks, wishing for the breeze that as I type this last sentence, I presently savour.


Andrea Paolini, Youth Innovator, Ghana 2014

To read more about YCI’s programs in Ghana, click hereTo read more blogs from our volunteers in Ghana, click here.

YCI is currently recruiting for a 4-week project in Ghana this July 29th to August 26th to work with our partners on entrepreneurship initiatives. 


What? Tanzania isn’t poor at all!

“Do you want paintings? Very cheap price for you!” He said. I was volunteering in Stone Town in Zanzibar in Tanzania, East Africa.

This is the gazillionth time I’ve been approached by touters trying to make a quick buck at unsuspecting tourists. Who knows the actual prices of these paintings?

“How much is cheap?” He offered a price. I couldn’t remember what it is now. Nor does it matter. “And what is it painted on?” After all, my degree was in Art History, big help that was in landing a career.

“Banana leaves!” He exclaimed. Ok. That’s pretty interesting. Trying to get out of the tout, I humoured him.

“Do you have the big 5? And a big painting of it on banana leaves?” He explained that he could search for it. With sincerity. He also explained that his grandfather painted them, who knows if that was true.

“All right, I’ll be around for 5 more weeks. I’ll find you here at Shangani Park!” Which wasn’t a lie. I was interested to see if he could get “The Big 5” referring to the 5 biggest animals in Africa: lion, elephant, hippo, leopard and the buffalo. He told me his name was Joseph.

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The artist

A few weeks later I bumped into him again with him touting the same thing. He clearly doesn’t remember me but was shocked when I called him by name. Again, I told him I’d be around for a few more weeks and not to worry.

I had forgotten about Joseph for 3 weeks since. I did want a painting before I left though, of something from Zanzibar. I decided I was going to find this Joseph, but hadn’t spotted him hunting for tourists. Finally after New Years, I had wandered with a group of friends into the depths of Stone Town got lost

“Hey! My friend! How are you?!” Joseph pops out from the side street. He was as excited to see me as I was to him. Our brief encounters before were quite jovial, despite the obvious hard sells. I told him I never see him around anymore.

“I’m learning to paint now!” That got my attention. This young man, probably just hovering around late teens went from a street peddler to a painter over night. I wondered what his game was.

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His associate doing other paintings

“I just have a few paintings now, but later I will have more! I have a teacher!” I suddenly felt I had to support this man in his endeavors. We traded numbers and discussed how I could find him later on. After all I had 2 more weeks here.

I’ve known and seen several people in my travels just give up in life in poor economic conditions and resort to the drink or whatever cop-out drugs they can find. Economically ranking in the 2012 UN census, Tanzania sits 177th out of 194 countries. There are only 17 more countries poorer than Tanzania where Somalia stands in last place.

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Coral bricks and metal sheets for houses

In Zanzibar, a tropical paradise, economically devastated, where resorts for the rich Westerners, mzungu’s, are juxtaposed beside the poor shanty shacks made of coral rock and metal sheets, where locals have very little hope in achieving the wealth of a tourist, this man had pulled his life together and is going to make the best of his situation.

A few days later I had made a specific run down to see Joseph to get art and he took me to another store where he was painting. These paintings were all done with a palette knife and also negative spaced lines where the paint is scraped off. Humanoid figures depict the Masai people from Arusha closer inland to Mount Kilimanjaro. Bulbous stomachs, nose, and breasts make up the gist of the references of the body and the negative spaced depicted the jewelry they often wear.

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Me and the artist

“I know you wanted to support me and my art rafiki. I’m really giving you a good price now.”

After shopping around for art, I knew his prices weren’t bad and he had already reduced them. I could be a nasty haggler when I know I’m being ripped off. Whatever price he named I was willing to give. With my buddy, Christine, we had bought pretty much the 3 paintings that he had available to encourage him to continue on the path that he is going to pursue.

With that, he packed it into a cardboard tube, we shook hands and departed. This artist is already rich and he doesn’t even know it yet. (And I don’t mean money).

– Ian Chow Youth Ambassador, Tanzania, 2013. Originally posted in Ian Chow’s blog

To read more about YCI’s programs in Tanzania, click hereTo read more blogs from our volunteers in Tanzania, click here.

A Taste of Ghana

Akwaabah! Welcome to Ghana. In the ten days that we’ve been here, we have learned a lot about Ghanaian culture, yet there is still plenty to uncover and experience. Our initial impressions told us that everyone is very hospitable and welcoming, and everyone is reaching out to support you, as it is a communal culture here. No one gets left behind. Settling into our new lives here in Takoradi we have only touched on the tip of the iceberg, tasting the local flavors, commuting by taxis, tro-tros and buses and witnessing the devotion to faith in daily life.

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The delicious local dish ‘jollof’ with the fried rice, beans, chicken and plantains!

While on project we are spoiled with amazing breakfast and dinner meals by our host mom/family. Lunches, we fare for ourselves, discovering the hot, freshly made to order from the vendors, street foods of waayche, deep fried plaintains (in fresh form and as chip form) to air-conditioned comfortable restaurants featuring a menu of fufu, banku, chicken, fish and goat dishes, jollof, red-red, and fried rice.

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Take dip with ‘fufu’ – a plantain based dough ball and tomato-based dipping sauce flavoured with goat meat!

The staple ingredients of beans and rice are featured in many of the local dishes are seasoned on the light side, going on the less salty side of the spectrum. Whereas the black sauce coating the waayche is a spicy-lover’s dream come true. It’s not for the weak, so be warned! For the sweet-tooth, track down mobile refreshments on the pedal bicycles to experience Ghana’s best kept secret of FanIce. Under the hot Ghanaian sun, FanIce is the perfect cure to cool you down. Vanilla, Chocolate and Strawberry Yoghurt flavours to satisfy all. Looking for more natural flavours?

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Fresh fruit sold and cut on the spot with local street vendors! Buttery avocados and more for sale!

Look no further than the bustling fresh fruit stands which are prominent throughout the city’s bustling streets. Try the sweetest, juiciest mangoes (ripe off a tree), a variety of white flesh pineapple, bursting with flavor despite its deceiving green exterior, and buttery avocados that melt in your mouth. Local flavours, local dishes, offering great options for the adventures of the taste-buds. When seeking international flavours, Takoradi delivers on Chinese and Western dishes in and around the beach resorts, located a short taxi ride out of the city centre.

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Stay hydrated with the best in fresh, refreshing water sachets!

Once daily traffic builds up, the streets become your shopping centre. Anything and everything is available from street vendors approaching you at your window of your taxi or tro-tro ride. Common items for sale range from food & water, apparel, footwear to electronics. Taxis, tro-tros and air-conditioned buses. Moving within Takoradi is a breeze since almost every third car is a taxi. Spot taxis easily by their golden-yellow-marked sides. Negotiate your taxi fare before boarding with the knowledgeable drivers who navigate the city streets like NASCAR drivers. Be sure to buckle up for security, some roads come with unfilled potholes (navigated expertly by these pro-drivers)! Grab a shared taxi for fixed rates, and a communal route, shared with other riders along the way. Or a drop taxi for door to door service. Tro-tros are the connecting buses between the other destinations inside and outside of Takoradi. Like a shared taxi, but much bigger capacity, and travels longer distances.

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Identify your taxi with the tell-tale yellow panels on the vehicles

With only two and a half weeks left on project, we hope to let the rest of the culture soak in, digging deeper for more of what the Ghana has to offer!

– Rachel Ouellette & Edna Quan, Youth Ambassadors, Ghana 2014

To read more about YCI’s programs in Ghana, click hereTo read more blogs from our volunteers in Ghana, click here.

My Tanzania Family

I recently travelled to Mwanza, Tanzania  with Youth Challenge International, to volunteer with a local NGO, Kivulini Women’s Rights Organization as a Monitoring and Evaluation Innovator. While I was there, I lived in a rural village with a host family who had 13 children.

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“My host family’s home in Mwanza, Tanzania.”

Before I left for Tanzania, I was told that my host Mama (mother) had 6 children living at home. Imagine my surprise as I pulled up in the middle of the night to my host family’s home to discover my host Mama leaving for a party and a small sized classroom of children waiting for me. That first night the oldest sibling was the only one to speak to me: “Karibu (welcome), feel free,” she mentioned many times. During my first few days whenever I was approaching the children ran away laughing, and hid behind the doorways or potted plants. I quickly came to understand that the majority of the children living on the family compound had lost their parents due to illness. My Tanzanian Mama and Baba (father) had taken the children in to become a part of their family.

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“Visiting my host dada’s (sister’s) pre-school.”

Everything was different in Mwanza. I walked to work on dirt – and often flooded – roads, past farmers and free roaming cows and goats. I took cold showers and slept under a bug net. There were daily power outages and we only had access to an unsanitary water supply. The ants bit, and my host sisters and brothers ate their meals with their hands while sitting on the kitchen floor. It was easy in those first few days to feel isolated and a bit misunderstood.

lunch time

“Lunch time! Our meal consists of ugali (cornmeal cooked with water), maharagwe (beans), mboga (a vegetable) and mayai (eggs).”

After a few days, the children became less shy around me. As I did not speak Kiswahili and many of the children did not speak English, we had to find ways to begin to communicate with one another. One night during a power failure, I was wearing my headlamp and began to make shadow puppets on the kitchen wall. As the children and I played, I continued to ask them for the Kiswahili names of the projected animals. After this, the children took every opportunity to point to objects, tell me the word in Kiswahili and to ask for the English word. We began to learn from, and about, each other.

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“Playing a game with my new sisters.”

The village I was living in consisted only of other family homes and I initially believed that the nearest store was in town, a 40-minute dala dala (a minibus share taxi) ride away. However, as time went on, the community structure began to reveal itself to me. I soon learned that the little straw hut where two women cooked over an open fire was a restaurant serving the best chapati and ginger tea around; the house a small ways down the dirt path also doubled as the local general shop where you could purchase soda, maji baridi (cold water), phone credit and even toothbrushes; and the farmer I passed on my way to work was the man who sold my host Mama the vegetables that I ate every night for dinner. Everything I needed existed around me – I just hadn’t learned how to look properly. In Canada, stores, streets and even bus stops are clearly marked, but where I lived in Mwanza, you are only privy to this type of knowledge when you are a member of the community.

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“A restaurant hut in Mwanza.”

My host sisters and brothers work incredibly hard everyday to complete their household chores. They start their day at 6 a.m. with a prayer and have the house cleaned before breakfast. They are the ones responsible for the majority of the cooking, cleaning and often, taking care of each other.

I wanted to be included in all aspects of a Tanzanian family life. I helped to prepare meals, went to the market and played games with my host sisters. I helped my host sisters and brothers with their homework and went to church with my host family. I even learned how to braid my host sisters’ hair! I found myself becoming a member of the household.

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“Preparing dagaa (small fish) for lunch.”

By the end of my six-week stay, I had realized that regardless of differences in language, culture or religious beliefs, when you take the time to understand, live with and care for someone, they become a part of your family. I’ve heard it said that once you have travelled to far away lands you will never again feel at home; your heart is split between the family you were born into and the one you create for yourself. It was hard to leave my new family behind, but I know I will always be welcome back home.


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“My host family in Mwanza! ”

-Stephanie Hanson, Youth Innovator, Tanzania, 2013

To read more about YCI’s programs in Tanzania, click hereTo read more blogs from our volunteers in Tanzania, click here

YCI is currently recruiting for an 8-week project in Tanzania this May 6 to July 1st to work with our partners on leadership, health and education initiatives. 

Cultivating Leadership Among Girls in Ghana

How quickly two weeks flies by when its packed full of meeting new people, going to new places, meeting with businesses, preparing workshops, developing resources, adjusting to a new culture that completely consumes us, and trying to get a few hours of sleep in after absorbing it all.

Our first big workshop, as part of the All Girls Leadership Summit, approached quickly without us really noticing. We ran around the day before getting hand-outs printed, putting together participant packages, and putting some final touches on the presentation; we finally felt ready. We arrived early to the YMCA Vocational Training Institute Thursday morning to set up our workshop venue before the participants began to arrive.


A cross section picture during a workshop leading to the All Girls Summit.

Slowly, the girls from the YMCA school trickled in, helping where they can for us to prepare for the rest. Finally, everything was set up and ready to go.  We awaited the young women. Keeping in mind “Ghana time”, we patiently waited and waited. Eventually, all the expected participants (plus some) arrived from Golden Gate Secondary High School, Nana Brempong Yaw Primary High School, and local church groups and we began our first Girls Leadership workshop with around 50 girls between the ages of 12 and 30.

Like everywhere we’ve been in Ghana, we were welcomed by our hosts with smiling faces, kindness, and attentiveness. We started the day with an activity to boost self-esteem amongst ourselves by writing compliments on pieces of paper for fellow participants. This activity highlighted the importance of self-esteem and confidence in leaders, especially female leaders, and led to each girl signing a personal commitment to loving themselves and paying it forward.


During a workshop leading to the All Girls Summit

In this workshop, we proceeded to talk about important qualities of leaders and used reflective practices to look at our own leadership traits. Once we covered the basics of leadership, the Millennium Development goals (MDGs) were discussed, a new topic for many. We ended the workshop with 8 groups of participants who each presented everything related to each particular MDG and then highlighted the trends that extended across them all, showing their interconnectedness.

After assigning homework to each participant to boost the self-esteem of girls in their family, school, or community, and to consider what Millennium Development Goal they wanted to develop a community project for, there was a sense of positivity and accomplishment in the room with each person leaving with a little bit more knowledge and a little bit more confidence.

Overall, the workshop received positive feedback from all of the participants with suggestions on how the next one can be even better.

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Erica and the participants of the All Girls Summit

As I sit (on the floor) in the living room of my homestay with my host brothers all around (wondering why I’m sitting on the floor and not the couch), I ready myself for the next workshop, which is just around the corner, through the creation of more resources, more activities, and hopefully a little inspiration that each girl can carry with them as they move forward as leaders in their communities.

Erica Downes, Youth Ambassador, Ghana, 2014

To read more about YCI’s programs in Ghana, click hereTo read more blogs from our volunteers in Ghana, click here.

I was sent to volunteer in Africa…

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My students at it again!

  • Malaria
  • Women empowerment
  • HIV/Aids
  • Child marriage
  • Street kids
  • Corruption in government
  • Drug abuse

Encompasses a small list of what my students are interested about. Their average age is mid-twenties and they’re all interested in tackling issues of this size. They want to volunteer at their placements and on top of that, observe other class members who have gone into at-risk communities to do their research on community assessments to identify problems and try to find solutions for those communities.

To complete a year long course of “Emerging Leaders” program, they are to complete two grant proposals from the research they have done from the previous course in how to assess communities. They find the weakest links of the communities and address those issues. As part of this, I have given them the opportunity to also be placed in another NGO that best matches their interests and to begin working on the issues at hand.

Not one friend I know back home actively pursue the interests of these likes, of course to each their own, but the idea of contributing time to make real changes in the world, especially with all the harsh criticism that’s vocalized almost everyday and spewing onto Facebook. The only thing I see back home are people complaining about what’s wrong with the world. Few take charge to write to their MPs. Even fewer still goes out to protests. And still, even less – and at this point I’m scratching the bottom of the barrel to say anyone I know – goes out to volunteer time, effort and commitment to try and change anything that they’ve complained passionately about in hot debates while we were hanging out.

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Working away!

Why do I feel like we carry this huge misconception in the “West” that everyone else in the world is lazy if they’re not “rich”. It seems the “West” is even lazier and all we know how to do is complain.

It’s not that the people in the country don’t want change. Everyone I’ve come across is adamant about it. They want change in the biggest way.

Even more so in the less developed world. I see the most enthusiasm for change here than at home. In fact, they are working toward it starting with the community level. Changes there influence key decision makers that eventually gather momentum. Most approaches and methods include contacting politicians and key decision makers to accomplish change.

I was not prepared for the amount of enthusiasm and energy my students want this change. They crave it. They are so hungry to do something about it. They are so motivated to make the world a better place. If we soak up even just 1% of their motivation and apply it to ourselves in Canada, the impact from that would ripple a thousand times and create change in the direction that all Canadians want.

My students are doing it, how are we as a more “developed” country so far behind?

Ian Chow Youth Ambassador, Tanzania, 2013. Originally posted in Ian Chow’s blog,

To read more about YCI’s programs in Tanzania, click hereTo read more blogs from our volunteers in Tanzania, click here.

Think. Eat. Save: Reduce Your Footprint – World Environment Day

 Happy World Environment Day! WED 2013

In case you hadn’t heard, yesterday was World Environment Day! Here is a recap of what it’s all about and how you can get involved.

“Think.Eat.Save: Reduce Your Foodprint”

World Environment Day is a yearly event aimed at being the most widely celebrated day for positive environmental action around the globe. The celebration began in 1972 and is used as a tool by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to create worldwide awareness of the environment, and encourage political attention as well as positive action. Activities in support of this day occur globally throughout the year, and climax on June 5th.

Through World Environment Day, the UNEP seeks to “personalize environmental issues and enable everyone to realize not only their responsibility, but also their power to become agents for change in support of sustainable and equitable development.” World Environment Day provides a chance “for people from all walks of life to come together to work toward a cleaner, greener and brighter outlook for themselves and future generations.”


This year’s theme focuses on food waste and food loss. Think.Eat.Save. Reduce Your Foodprint is the new campaign launched by the UNEP and the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), in collaboration with a growing list of partners from both the public and private sectors, to give attention to, and create solutions relevant to developed and developing countries alike.

According to the FAO, every year 1.3 billion tonnes of food is wasted – this is equivalent to the amount of food produced in the whole of sub-Saharan Africa. Similarly, 1 in every 7 people go to bed hungry and more than 20,000 children under the age of 5 die from hunger every day.

Food Waste: A Shame for Humankind and the Environment

We cannot ignore the challenge of food waste. Approximately one third of all food production fails to make it from the farm to the table. According to the UNEP, global food production occupies 25% of all habitable land and is responsible for 70% of fresh water consumption, 80% of deforestation, and 30% of greenhouse gas emissions, therefore making food production the largest single driver of biodiversity loss and land-use change. This is not only a massive hunger problem; this is a massive environmental problem. Food waste is a tremendous drain on natural resources, causing severe negative environmental impacts. When food is wasted, so are all the resources and inputs used in the production of that food.

In developing countries, food loss can be attributed to inadequate storage facilities and lack of information on proper storing techniques, low investment in food production systems and poor infrastructure, pests, and inefficient supply chains. In developed countries, a substantial amount of food is wasted at the consumption level. For example, food is thrown away by households as well as by retailers in the food and beverage industry and subsequently rots in landfills, releasing large, unnecessary quantities of methane – a powerful greenhouse gas – causing detrimental effects to the environment. Significant amounts of food are also lost as a result of buyers being insistent on cosmetic perfection for retail.

Think.Eat.Save encourages you to increase your awareness of the environmental impact related to your food choices and guides you to make informed decisions that will allow you to witness the power of collective decisions {that you and others make} to reduce food waste, save money, and minimize the environmental impact of food production in order to force food production processes to become more efficient. Making informed decision can mean selecting foods that have less of an environmental impact such as organic foods, and buying locally so that foods are not flown halfway across the world thereby reducing emissions. Similarly, choosing fair trade products helps to support sustainable production with higher social and environmental standards.

Addressing the enormous waste in today’s food systems will not only curb the hunger gap, but will also improve the wellbeing of those who are most vulnerable. As actors in the global food chain, we must act to promote environmental sustainability and socially equitable food systems, which will reduce our environmental footprint and help to ensure that everyone has enough to eat.

Change the Way You Think About Food

So, what are you doing for World Environment Day?

For more information:

 ~ Lisa Gaudry

Youth Challenge International Alumni of the  Costa Rica 2007 program and an active member of the Young Writers/Speakers Program