My apologies for the radio silence over the last couple of weeks. I’ve been travelling and/or without consistent access to power and internet for most of October, and my blogging has suffered as a result. October has been packed with activity, though, so this blog is a long one… my apologies again… feel free to skim!
- Had an amazing week at the West Africa Retreat in Bolgatanga, Upper East Region
Engineers Without Borders retreats always seem to refresh my mind and spirit. The quality of conversation, the depth of perspectives shared, and the honest reflections encouraged serve as important reminders of why I feel so privileged to be working for this organization.
One session that especially inspired me was around the ‘visioning process’ currently being driven by EWB’s National Office and chapters across the country. After being presented with the draft statement, we spent close to two hours talking about our individual motivations as African Programs Staff and Fellows, and our personal reasons for believing in EWB as an organization.
(Picture at Left: the AVC Ghana Team at the WAR. From back left – David Taylor, Ben Best, Mark Brown, me, Mike Klassen, Lauren Dodds and Mina Shahid).
After feeling ‘under the weather’ for a couple weeks (generally tired, a bit achy, and experiencing some pretty intense headaches), I decided to go and get tested for Malaria. I wasn’t entirely sure that I had it, but wanted to be certain before I got on the trotro to go to WAR. Despite the fact that I’ve been taking a Malaria prophylaxis (doxycycline) religiously since arriving in Ghana, the little buggers managed to get me, and I was diagnosed with +1 Malaria (a mild case).
I was told that it’s very likely I had been infected by the Malaria parasite weeks earlier, but that the doxycycline had been treating the symptoms and keeping the parasite at a static level in my blood stream — thereby explaining my prolonged fatigue and general malaise. I took the course of drugs they prescribe for Malaria and was feeling almost 100% better two days later. Oh, the wonders of western medicine.
- Discovering “Unlock Statements” at the AVC Monthly Team Meeting in Tamale
Piggy-backing on the WAR, we took advantage of the whole AVC Team being in the same place to have our monthly team meeting. The overall focus of the two action-packed days was to make progress on the definition of our team’s ‘problem statements’ and to map our individual hypotheses onto an“AVC Theory of Change” framework. I had been feeling really tentative and intimidated by the exercise, possibly because I felt like I was being asked to put our change efforts (which I tend to see as less of a ‘science’ and more of an ‘art’) into a very structured IF/THEN format — an exercise not entirely aligned with the way my mind works.
Mark and Ben white-boarding in true EWB fashion at the AVC Team Meeting.
Thankfully, the light bulb switched on for me mid-way through Day 1. One of our colleagues, Ben, stopped the slow-moving conversation we were having and said, “Why are we spending so much time trying to define problem statements? We talked at the WAR about EWB being driven by people passionate about ‘unlocking human potential’, not about imposing our own solutions or ‘solving’ problems. Wouldn’t it make sense for us to re-frame and think about these ‘problem statements’ as unlock statements instead?”
- Frustrating power outages and welcoming a new family member to our household in Nyankpala
The lights have been off in my host village of Nyankpala for the last ten days. I’m told the town transformer is broken and that VRA (the Ghanaian power utility) has been unable to repair or replace the broken parts. A few reliable sources have told me not to get my hopes up that the power will be restored any time soon. Transformer parts are expensive and hard to come by, and VRA has a less than stellar record for restoring rural outages with any expediency. I hadn’t hoped for or expected to live without electricity for half my placement, but perhaps this is a good reminder that Ghana is indeed a developing country and that I’ve been lucky to have power at home for this long.
In other news, my host mother gave birth early this morning to a bouncing baby boy. I’ve yet to meet the little fellow, but am looking forward to giving him some snuggles when I head back to the compound tonight. Some of you may remember that I had said she was pregnant with twins – my host father tells me the ultrasound was wrong and everyone was surprised when she brought forth a single (4kg!) baby. There will be a traditional Ghanaian ‘outdooring’ ceremony next weekend, so I’ll be sure to update the blog with pictures and the chosen name! Congratulations, Pastor Baba and Mellicent!
- And finally, I spent a full week living in the rural village of Sahakpaligu, Northern Region.
All EWB African Programs Staff and Junior/Professional Fellows are encouraged to spend a chunk of their placement fully immersed in a rural village, living and learning from the people our initiatives seek to benefit. The intention of this immersion period is to help us better understand and appreciate the culture and livelihoods of the people we are working for – to live and work WITH our Dorothy(s). I chose to do my village stay at the mid-point of my placement, and am so glad I did. I was able to focus my energy on improving my Dagbani language skills, appreciating the rejuvenating disconnection that comes with living ‘off the grid’, and finally getting my hands dirty on the farm.
The village I stayed in is called Sahakpaligu, located just outside the Tamale metropolis. It has a population of 597, in 64 households (which works out to just over 9 people / house, on average). I was hosted by a farmer in the community named Mr. Iddrisu – a friend of my colleague Mike’s host-father, Mr. Hussein from a nearby community.
Mr. Iddrisu is a Muslim man with two wives and seven children, ranging in age from 3 years to 25 years old. He farms rice and maize predominantly (his wife also grows groundnuts, okru, pepe, sweet potato and beans), and is the chairman of the local Rice Growers’ Association, the community’s Maize Farmers’ Group, and the Parent-Teacher Association at the local primary school. He’s clearly a well-respected leader in the community and blew me away with his kindness and generosity. I felt really lucky to get to stay with his family for the week.
This is sure to be the meatiest bit of my mega-blog post, so I’ll stop using bullet points and instead try to distill the incredible experience I just had into what I will call my ‘10 Crazy Moments of Presence’ from the week in Sahakpaligu.
Crazy Moment of Presence #1: Chiefly Encounters
When a visitor comes to stay in a rural community, it is an expectation that their host will inform the community’s influential people of their presence. This typically means greeting the village chief, elders, and police chief (if there is one). As per tradition, Mr. Iddrisu took me – almost immediately — to meet the village Chief and his sub-chiefs.
We traveled on Mr. Iddrisu’s motorbike to the Chief’s Palace, where he and his sub-chiefs were relaxing in the biggest circular hut I’ve seen so far in Ghana. We entered and crouched in front of the Chief, who was reclined in a wooden lounger chair on a raised platform in the back of the hut. He greeted us nonchalantly, and we took our seats below him and to the left of the sub-chiefs. Mr. Iddrisu introduced me, explained why I was in the village and told him how long I’d be staying for. Then I presented the Chief with some Kola Nuts I’d brought as a gift. He shared them with his sub-chiefs and with Mr. Iddrisu (I declined the offer…), and gave me his blessing for a safe stay in Sahakpaligu. It was surreal.
Crazy Moment of Presence #2: Where Your ‘Body Butter’ Comes From
One of the most amazing things I got to witness in Sahakpaligu was the process of making Shea Butter – the key ingredient in body lotions or body butters we use at home in Canada. From start to finish, the multi-step process takes two full days, and is almost exclusively the work of the local women.
Early one morning, Mr. Iddrisu and I walked to a nearby compound where three wives of a village man were hard at work stirring vats of shea product. They had travelled to the mill earlier that morning to have a large batch of shea nuts (which they had roasted the night before) ground into a fine powder, and were now hand-mixing the powder with water to get the oils to separate. They’d later take the separated oils and boil them to refine it even further. It was like torture for me — the ‘work in progress’ smells and looks almost exactly like Chocolate Cake Batter.
We returned the next morning to see the final product. The creamy, white shea butter had been piled high into bowls, which the women told me they would sell at the Tamale market for 50 Ghana Cedis each. Production costs considered, they expected to generate a profit of about 4 Ghana Cedis a bowl. I did some quick mental math — the women had produced five bowls of butter in this batch, at a total market value of 250 Ghana Cedis and a potential profit of 20 Ghana Cedis shared between the three of them. When I asked Mr. Iddrisu if he thought 20 Cedis profit was a good return on their investment, he said he wasn’t sure but that he was sure they’d generate more profit if they had access to a local mill rather than relying on one in a neighbouring village where raw-product transportation costs drastically increased the cost of production.
Crazy Moment of Presence #3: Reality Check
Mr. Iddrisu also took me to meet a woman named Mme. Barkisu, who he described as the only woman in Sahakpaligu that spoke good English. Her warm smile and enthusiastic welcome were immediately reassuring for me as someone new to the community. Within seconds of meeting her, I was excited to get to know her. She invited me in to her compound and Mr. Iddrisu left to take care of a couple errands as she and I visited.
She told me when Mr. Iddrisu had left that she is married to a white man and that she’d like me to meet him. I was somewhat confused by this (interracial marriages are rare in Ghana, but especially strange to see in a rural village like Sahakpaligu). I followed her inside and was shocked to see an elderly white man, lying in a bed covered only partially by a thin sheet. He looked close to death. The room reeked of antiseptic and stale air. I tried not to show my surprise on my face and maintain a sense of calm to preserve his dignity.
Mme. Barkisu’s husband, as it turns out, is a Dutch man who came to Ghana two years ago on a volunteer mission with a Dutch aid organization. He stayed in Sahakpaligu during the first few months of his time here, where he met Mme. Barkisu (who he speaks to in English and calls ‘Ernestine’). He told me that 6 months into his stay, he fell sick with severe Malaria and was hospitalized. He suffered some serious complications during his time in the hospital, one of which was a stroke that left him permanently paralyzed on one side of his body. He was told he would never walk again. As they told me his story, Mme. Barkisu bustled around tidying the room and making sure he had food, water, and toilet paper to clean up after his no-longer-controllable bowels. He told me that he’d never return to the Netherlands — that there was nothing left for him there, and that he had everything he could possibly need or want in Ghana.
I was completely uncomfortable and left entirely humbled by my short encounter with the two of them. Having just had Malaria myself, seeing him crippled and fully dependent on around-the-clock-care was a important reminder that Malaria is a very serious disease with potentially life-altering complications. Getting sick with Malaria not only changed his life forever, but also the lives of his family in the Netherlands and the life of Mme. Barkisu who became his care-giver and sole provider. Intense.
Crazy Moment of Presence #4: Stunning Savannahs
Late one morning, Mr. Iddrisu took me on his moto to visit the village dam. It is an expansion of the old dam, which they hope will serve as an irrigation source for 20+ rice farmers in the region next season. There are also plans to use the water to plant community garden plots in the run-off area as a dry-season garden for okru, pepe, and groundnuts, each of which are highly-marketable goods usually impossible to grow outside of the rainy season without irrigation. The dam itself is incredibly gorgeous — hands down the most beautiful landscape I’ve seen in Ghana so far.
Crazy Moment of Presence #5: Empty Classrooms
Before dinner that evening, Mr. Iddrisu took me to see the new school block that had been built earlier last school year to replace the old block which had been destroyed by a windstorm a few years earlier. As chair of the PTA, Mr. Iddrisu had the key to let us into the building. It was in absolutely perfect condition — very clearly not yet used by the 130-odd students of Sahakpaligu Upper Primary School. Instead, they were cramming themselves into three almost identical (but older) rooms in an adjacent building.
I asked Mr. Iddrisu why this beautiful new space wasn’t being used by the students yet. “We must wait for the contractor to come and perform the official hand-over ceremony,” he explained. Until the official hand-over takes place, the rooms will remain locked and the students will continue to use only the one building. As I stood in the empty classroom, I couldn’t help but feel angry about the ridiculousness of the situation and annoyed by the politics of donor/contractor relationships that give completely irrational importance to the ribbon cutting “photo op”.
Crazy Moment of Presence #6: Cultures Colliding
It’s mid-afternoon and I’ve just woken up from a nap (mandatory mid-day activity in the village). I make my way to the thatch roof hut across the compound where Mr. Iddrisu is relaxing. He’s promised to help me with my Dagbani for a few hours this afternoon so I’ve got my book and learning guide with me. We start the lesson and almost immediately have an audience of 5 or 6 kids from the community, each of whom are taking great pleasure in watching me struggle with the pronunciation of simple words and phrases. As we work, Mr. Iddrisu has the radio on — powered by an old car battery (Sahakpaligu has yet to get electricity) – and we’re listening to Snoop Dogg. I lost focus entirely when I realized how hilarious the collision of cultures was at that exact moment in time. I couldn’t help but laugh and think to myself – this is the definition of a CRAZY MOMENT OF PRESENCE.
Crazy Moment of Presence #7: Tour of the Town
A special highlight of my time in the village was an impromptu ‘tour of the town’ that Mr. Iddrisu took me on one evening. We visited the village butcher and carpenter, greeted many of the village women, and took ‘ataya’ (a traditional Arab tea, served in tiny glasses) with a gathering of men.
We attracted a huge crowd of children along the way, which made my heart smile. They were enthralled with the camera and put on quite a show for me. I managed to capture some video of them dancing at one of the compounds, and they were over the moon when I showed it to them. It was awesome.
Crazy Moment of Presence #8: Pride and Friendship
One of the primary goals of my village stay was to spend a significant amount of time in the fields. To this point in my placement, I’ve spent the vast majority of my working time in an air-conditioned office, far removed from the fields and the farmers we’re meant to be working for. I made sure Mr. Iddrisu knew how badly I wanted to see his farms and was elated when he finally grabbed his cutlass and suggested we head out to see if his maize was ready for harvest yet.
I couldn’t help but smile as we stood under the hot Ghanaian sun in the middle of his maize plants (healthy looking, but not quite dry enough for harvest just yet). We stayed long enough for me to ask him a million questions about how he farms, then decided to head home. As we made our way back to the main road, he stopped and turned around to face me. “I’m afraid to tell you that I want to be your friend,” he said somewhat bashfully. “Why are you afraid, Mr. Iddrisu?!” I exclaimed, “Of course we’re friends!” “Because you’re a stranger,” he said, “I’m not feeling okay to be telling you I want to be friends with you,” he explained. “Mr. Iddrisu, I’m glad to be your friend. Please don’t be afraid – it’s great,” I assured him. Smiling, he turned around and continued the walk. Amazing moment.
Crazy Moment of Presence #9: Women’s Work
Mr. Iddrisu also took plenty of time to introduce me to the activities or chores that are typically the woman’s domain in a village like Sahakpaligu. As he showed me how to beat rice, fetch water, process doa doa and harvest okru and groundnuts, I was amazed at his empathy towards women and the amount of work they do to make their households function. On the 1.3 km walk to the only village borehole/potable water source, Mr. Iddrus and I talked about the appreciation he has for his own wives who do the cooking, cleaning, and tending of the children, yet still manage to grow and harvest significant amounts of produce on their own plots of land. He spoke about his hopes and dreams for his two daughters, and talked about the importance of their education in breaking the cycle of poverty. I felt at once lucky to have been a woman born and raised in the time and place I was, and moved by Mr. Iddrisu’s empathy and understanding of the plight of women in his own community. It was really amazing.
Crazy Moment of Presence #10: Getting My Hands Dirty
“M-chanla puni!” – I’m going to farm!! The ultimate highlight of my time in the village was the afternoon Mr. Iddrisu and I spent harvesting a section of his rice fields. The weather was swelteringly hot – easily above 35 degrees Celsius. I layered on the sunscreen and wore the lightest clothes I had packed, and headed to the field. We trudged through the mud and grass and finally arrived at his plot of land. Like his maize, it was healthy looking and becoming dry enough for harvest (though some patches were still too green).
Mr. Iddrisu showed me the technique. You gather a small handful of stems in your left hand, then use a sharpened sickle to swiftly slide through the bunch just below your other hand. When you’re holding more than you can manage, you add that bunch to a pile of cuttings behind you which will be gathered and beat by the women later. I took a photo of him demonstrating, and he took one of me making my first attempts. It’s not easy work — incredibly hard on the back, hands, and arms – so i wasn’t at all surprised when he suggested I be done after the photo op was over.
I protested, “Mr. Iddrisu, if I’m doing it correctly I’d really like to continue. If I’m tired afterwards, it’s a good thing! It will mean I’ve worked hard, and that will make me feel happy.” He smiled and we continued. At one point, Mr. Iddrisu straightened up from a few meters away and said, “I’ve never seen a stranger (his term for a white person) working in the fields like this. Thank you!” I was overcome with emotion. My throat got tight and I thought I was going to cry. I knew I wanted to thank HIM for letting me finally get my hands dirty. For finally letting me experience the brutal realities of being a rural farmer. For helping me understand first-hand how important our work is if we’re going to make any difference for ‘Dorothy’ in the long run. The list goes on.
We left the field that afternoon absolutely drenched in sweat, filthy from the mud and dust, and grinning from ear to ear. Both of us had taken something different from the experience but were filled with the same joy as we walked back to the compound. My highlight of the week, for sure.