Home Away from Home

The farewells have begun. I travelled back to Mr. Iddrisu’s village (Sahakpaligu) to say goodbye to him and his family last weekend, and spent my second last night in my host community (Nyankpala) the night before last. It’s a strange feeling, saying goodbye to these people and places. They’ve become familiar — good friends, family — over the last four months. It’s hard to imagine not having them around in a week’s time.

I realized – as I sat in the compound watching my host mother make dinner the other evening – that I had yet to blog about the place I’ve called “home” over the last four months. So I took out the camera (forever a hit with the kids) and “took a few snaps” of the compound. Let the tour begin! 

The first few shots are of my room. Here you see the bed I slept on, and the mosquito net that kept me (for the most part) safe from malarious mosquitos. You also see the fan I invested in mid-way through my stay. As the weather got hotter, the need for a fan became imperative.

 

My room was attached to Pastor Baba’s community chapel. The door to the room has “Office” written on it in permanent marker – though it has also served the purpose of ‘guest room’ for visiting missionaries and other guests (like myself). The books are mostly religious in subject matter, but there were also some pretty interesting finds in there about international governance circa 1980…! To the left of the bookshelf is a small table I stacked all my clothes on, and my moto helmet tucked safely beneath them.

Many hours were spent at this tiny table. Covered in the same fabric the kids wear for their school uniforms, the somehow rickety table was my work desk, my breakfast nook, and my bathroom vanity. The map on the wall is of the Tamale Metro district — Nyankpala falls just at the edge of the map, because it’s actually part of Tolon-Kumbugu district. The door to the room is just to the left of the desk — this photo gives a pretty good idea of how tiny the space actually was!

Here’s a shot of the inside of the Chapel my room was attached to. Pastor Baba received World Vision funding to build the chapel about five years ago. The funding has since run out. The chapel was quiet during the week, but would come to life from Friday afternoon to Sunday evening. Prayer meetings, youth group gatherings, Bible studies… you name it! Sunday services weren’t always held here, though, because Pastor Baba serves communities with their own chapels in nine other villages.  
One of my favourite parts of living in Nyankpala was coming home from work and sitting with Mellicent and the kids as supper was prepared. Although the food wasn’t always my favourite, it was pretty incredible to watch being made. In the photo above, Mellicent is stirring Banku, and Gifty (a girl from the community who has been living with the family since the baby arrived) is helping prepare the soup. Sammy (Pastor and Mellicent’s nephew who also lives with them) and Priscilla (the eldest daughter) are also in the photo — probably mid-story about something that happened at school that day.
 
The big tin cube in the middle of the compound is a container the family sometimes used to store pipe water for cooking and drinking. It wasn’t always full, because it’s remarkably expensive to have water transported from the pipe at the edge of the community to the container, and once it’s there it quickly gets contaminated by bugs, larvae, and other creepy-crawlies. Most often, Mellicent would cook using rain or well water.
 
Twice a day – no less – I showered inside these mud walls, using a bucket and a strip of plastic mesh. The bucket bathing process took some getting used to (especially washing my hair), but it grew on me over time. There’s something refreshing about the experience, especially at night under the stars!

Water for said bucket baths is fetched from this well behind the family’s compound. At first, water was fetched for me by Sammy or Priscilla — but when I finally argued my way into giving it a shot myself, I earned the privilege of fetching my own. It’s not easy!

Here’s Pastor Baba with his newest son, Prince. The baby, Mellicent and Gifty sleep in a separate room from Pastor Baba and the next youngest son, Hans-Carl. The two girls and their grandmother sleep in a third room, and Sammy sleeps in the living room. It’s a full house! Gifty and Pastor Baba’s mother will likely stay until the baby is 4 or 6 months old, to help Mellicent adjust to life with the little one, by helping out with the cooking and cleaning.

This is the front of the compound. Mellicent’s provision shop is the door at the far left of the building. It’s been closed since the week before she gave birth. The next two doors are store spaces the family rents to a mobile credit salesman, and a moto fitter.

The car parked (with incredibly low tires) out front is Pastor Baba’s pride and joy. He bought it using some of the World Vision funds and a loan from the University of Development studies. His hope was that having the car would help him visit more of his mission communities each week; as it turns out, the expense of running and maintaining a car is prohibitive. It only runs now on VERY special occasions.

Nyankpala’s main street is usually bustling. The family’s compound is located about halfway down the main street, so there were always visitors dropping in to say hello. This is the dirt road I’d walk down to get to work, greeting my friends along the way. I’ll miss seeing some of those faces!

More than anything, I think I’ll miss the kids. There’s something pretty cool about coming home to cheers of “Auntie Lyndsey! You are welcome!” Plus, they’re pretty darned cute.

Nyankpala was an interesting, challenging, sometimes frustrating place to live. But it’s a place that will have a special piece of my heart forever. I’ll remember these people and the conversations we shared for my lifetime. I’ll be forever grateful for the lessons they taught me about appreciating simplicity and sufficiency. About pride and courage. About life and love! It’s a strange, but beautiful place, and I’ll be somehow sad to say goodbye.

Giving Thanks for Change (and Presence)

I had an intense call with my manager and friend – Mike – earlier this afternoon. With less than two weeks of productive office time left in Ghana, there were lots of “action items” on my list of things to discuss with him. In preparing for our conversation, I was confronted by a frighteningly long list of things that need to be done before I leave; before I close the book on this placement and say farewell to this place.

Over the course of our hour-long conversation, Mike and I talked about where I’m at with my last few deliverables, how the preparation is going for my final reports, and about the sorts of things we should consider when defining future EWB placements with my partner organization. It was a good conversation with lots of ideas exchanged and new perspectives considered, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t feeling the heat a bit. So much to do, so little time to do it all.

At one point near to the end of our chat, Mike stopped me mid-thought and asked, “Hey, Lyndsey — how present are you feeling right now?”

His question caught me off guard. Presence — and my search for it — has underpinned so much of this experience for me. Reminding myself to focus on the ‘now’ instead of the ‘tomorrow’ has been a constant challenge. Finding ways to appreciate how my future is shaped by every failure and every success along the way has changed how I’ve thought about my time in Ghana. For the better.

I didn’t have a good answer for Mike. I told him I wasn’t sure whether it was presence or the lack thereof that was making me feel stressed. Is it because I’m so aware of the demands of today that I’m feeling the heat? Or is that I am looking ahead to the deadlines flanking my departure, in a way that is pulling me away from the present? In either case, I thanked Mike for giving me a “call to presence” – a much-needed reminder from someone I trust to step back and reflect on where I am in body, mind and spirit. To think about what I need to do to make these last few weeks the best they can be.

A few minutes after I hung up with Mike, a message popped up on Skype from a soul sister of mine in the beautiful town of Edgewater, Maryland. She is celebrating American Thanksgiving today, and wanted to send her love and thanks for our friendship. A beautiful message, reminding me of the things that make me feel most whole — most present.

In her message she talked about the changes I’m about to face with my impending return to Canada and the period of unemployment that will follow. Having recently gone through a major intercontinental move and experienced the job search herself, I trust her insights. She wrote,

“Maybe we should consider ourselves lucky to have our lives rearranged… It’s giving us the chance to grow, to know ourselves better, and to feel challenged and alive. We have to believe in the power of CHANGE to bring us closer to knowing who we truly are.”

Her musings made me wonder — is the pressure I felt on my phone call today a reflection of my fear of how much life is about to change again very soon? Her comments made me think about how my notions of ‘remaining present’ and ‘welcoming change’ might compliment or contradict one another. I’m left wondering — is there a way for me to make space for both in my heart and my head over the next few weeks?

In the spirit of American Thanksgiving, I’ll close this post by saying how thankful I am to have had this experience, to have worked with teammates who aren’t afraid of personal growth, to have been given this opportunity to stretch in more ways than one, and to know that I’ll be closer to my friends and family (soul sisters included) VERY soon.

Traveling South with the Dream Team

Mina, Lauren and I at the post-harvest networking event last week

With just four weeks left in Ghana it feels like time is speeding up. Work at my partner organization has ramped up as the days tick past — job offers have been made to the Project Manager and Field Coordinator candidates we recruited and interviewed in September and October, and I’m busy planning an Orientation Retreat for the newly-formed team. EWB activities are just as busy — retreats and meetings have been the platform for exciting conversations about EWB’s vision, the AVC team ‘Theory of Change’, and preparations for the 2012 National Conference. With all these (and other) balls in the air, I have trouble imagining what will have to happen in my world to get everything put to rest before I get on a plane on December 13th.

The last pic ‘snapped’ of the whole team. A great-looking bunch of people! From left to right — Mina, Lauren, David, Mark, Ben, Me, and Mike.

This past weekend our team met in its current configuration for the last time. Our southern-most team member, Mark, finishes his placement on Monday, and our team leader, Mike, will be on the same flight as him to Canada for the holidays. I leave shortly after they do, and Mina and Ben after me. Lauren and David will be the lone  soldiers in Ghana over the holidays (though they will be in all our hearts!), holding down the fort until the others return in late January.

Morning mist over Aburi

We met in the absolutely breathtaking area of Aburi, just over 30 minutes from Accra (the nation’s capital in the southern part of the country). Aburi is a tourist’s paradise — lovely hotels, nice restaurants, incredible views. It’s also home to Rita Marley’s (Bob Marley’s widow) recording studio — “Studio 1”. The rolling hills are covered in vegetation, and over the farthest ones you can see the sprawl of Accra in the distance. It is an especially beautiful view at night.

Coffee and Convos in the Gazebo? Yes, Please.

We stayed at a guest house with spectacular views and had our meetings by the pool at a hotel we definitely couldn’t afford to stay at. It was a touch of luxury that felt at once both awkward and amazing. It was the perfect setting for our team to really buckle down on  sharpening our ‘unlock statements’ and to prepare for the next phase of hypothesis testing and strategy definition. I think the fresh air did us good.

Guest House View

After two days of team meetings in Aburi, we packed up and moved the crew to Accra for meetings with our partner organizations and other potential influence partners. It was my first “real” trip to Accra (aside from the night we spent there upon our arrival in August). It was something else. I experienced culture shock for a second time when we set foot in the Accra Mall — a real mall with shops, a food court, ATMs, and even a movie theater! I couldn’t believe that this was the same Ghana I’d lived in for the last three months. It finally started to make sense during our time in Accra why Ghana is now considered a ‘middle income’ nation.

KPMG Development Advisory Services

Somehow ironically, one of the meetings I participated in during our time in Accra was at KPMG. My old stompin’ grounds! We met with a partner there who is managing the African Enterprise Challenge Fund. I was excited to see what KPMG Ghana looked liked, and somehow surprised with the similarities I found. The building has a circular staircase — just like the one in the Vancouver office — and is decked out with the same banners and posters that adorn the walls in the Canadian offices. Even the boardroom table was a smaller version of the one I used to sit around on occasion (by chance or by design, I’m not sure). I couldn’t resist the urge to snap a photo afterwards as proof…

We wrapped up the last of our meetings late on Tuesday and spent all day Wednesday on the bus headed north back to Tamale. The journey was long — over 12 hours — but gave me plenty of time to reflect on the weekend that had passed. I’ve learned a lot from this experience already, but know that a lot of my lessons will emerge when I get home and start looking for my next job. I will have succeeded in my search if I find a job in Canada that echoes the parts of the job and team that I loved most in Ghana, and which challenges me in ways I’ve yet to be challenged.

In the chaos of the last few weeks, but especially over the last 10 days, I’ve realized how deeply I appreciate the team around me. Their insight, advice, challenges, and laughter have shaped my experience in Ghana for the better, and I feel deeply fortunate to have been part of their rank over the last few months. As far as teams go, I’m certain they’re amongst the best I’ll ever have the privilege of working with. I’m sad that this last team meeting will be the last time we’re all together in Ghana, but I’m already looking forward to our next reunion on Canadian soil!

Thief! Thief! Thief!

Every Sunday afternoon, the expat community in Tamale gets together for a friendly game of Ultimate Frisbee. Usually I’m in Nyankpala or travelling somewhere else and miss the game – but seeing as I’ve recently relocated to Tamale, I was finally able to join in the fun this past Sunday. After the sun set and it got too dark to see the disc, the whole group of us went for dinner together at a restaurant nearby that serves an extensive menu of somehow western food. I loved every minute of sitting around the table with the ‘team’, sharing stories and laughs over cool beers and a delicious meal. It was brilliant.

With a full belly and a contented spirit, I hopped back on the push bike I had ridden to the game earlier that afternoon. My friend and colleague, Mina, lives in the same area I was staying in, so we had decided to ride home together. It was still relatively early (just after 8pm) but the streetlights were out on the main road and it was quite dark. By the dim light of our headlights, Mina and I moved along the shoulder and kept close together to make ourselves more visible to any traffic coming up behind us.

Mina says he spotted a suspicious-looking character sitting on his motorbike on the side of the road, looking at us strangely and pretending to be occupied with something on his bike. I didn’t think twice about him and continued chattering away as we approached the junction we’d turn at to head into our neighbourhood.

The man on his motorbike cruised up behind me, made eye contact with me, and — almost in slow motion — reached into the basket of my bike and snatched my bag from me. As he sped away, adrenaline coursed through my veins and I screamed something I now forget (or perhaps think would be inappropriate to write in a blog post…). Mina turned back in time to see everything unfold and snapped into action. Mina (who was on a push bike) did a remarkable job of keeping close on the guy’s tail (who was on a motorbike), all the while shouting, “Thief! Thief! Thief!” hoping to draw attention from anyone who might be able to help.

Not surprisingly, the man on the moto managed to turn down a dark, dirt road before we could catch him and get my bag back. Mina was livid. I was shaking like a leaf. We told the people we passed on the street (including the security guards at the banks and guesthouses along the way) about what had just happened, and they all seemed equally concerned, but no one called the police. It makes sense now — with no license plate number, description of the person who made off with my purse, or other information that would be useful to the cops, it would inevitably be a waste of our time and of theirs.

We stopped to tell one of Mina’s Ghanaian friends, Razak, who operates a mobile credit stand outside of a small bike shop. As Mina was explaining what happened, another man on a motorbike sped up next to us and said something urgent-sounding in Dagbani. Razak explained, “They think they know who this guy is! We are going to go find him.” The other man on the moto had heard Mina shouting “Thief” and had chased the man (and my bag) some distance before he lost sight of him. Apparently there’s a system of community justice in the area where the “Chief’s Boys” take matters into their own hands when things like this happen. Razak would pack up his stand for the night, and they’d take off together to try and find the thief and ‘bring him to justice.’ A scary, but also somehow impressive, display of community action.

After the initial shock dissipated (in large part thanks to the hugs and reassuring words I got when I reached my place of sanctuary at Erin and Ben’s house), I found myself feeling angry for being stupid enough to leave my bag in the front basket (rather than on my person), for being out at night in an area we know is prime for robbery, and for having as much money on me as I did. I knew that my credit/bank cards, my drivers’ license, my cash, my cute little leather wallet, and my phone were never coming back.

Eventually, I made it back to the EWB house (where I had been staying for the past few nights), used Skype to call the banks and cancel my cards, had a shower, and tucked in for a restless night’s sleep. I woke up the next morning feeling annoyed and grouchy, but knew I had plenty of things to do in order to get back to square 1 — chief priority, replacing my cell phone and finding a way to get money out of the bank sans access card. Once those problems were solved, I could focus my energy on reflecting and processing the robbery in a way that wouldn’t tarnish this incredible experience I’m having in Ghana.

I’ve done a lot of thinking since Monday. Thankfully, the thoughts I had about wanting to pack my bags and head home immediately were fleeting. I’ve reflected a lot on the lessons to be learned from the robbery, and on what I can do to make sure it doesn’t happen to me or to any of the other EWB volunteers again. Before I continue, though, I want to address what Mina refered to as “the unintended consequences” of blogging about bad things that happen overseas. What if people read that I was robbed and are turned off the idea of volunteering with EWB? What if people read that robberies happen often in Tamale and affirm their assumptions that Ghana is unsafe for foreigners? What if my story instills fear in other volunteers or expats in Ghana, forever changing their experience of this place?

This entry is not meant to do any of these things. It’s meant to be a story of something that happened to me unexpectedly and unfortunately. A story that turned out relatively well, in the grand scheme of things. Yes, I am substantially ‘poorer’ right now than I was on Sunday, but I’m richer in other ways, too. This experience has shown me that crime is a reality in Ghana (as it is everywhere) but that there is a real sense of community in the justice system (informal justice, that is) that springs up afterwards. It’s shown me that there is a community of EWB volunteers in Ghana who understand the realities of being a visitor in a place like this, and who are able to support one another when those realities manifest themselves in negative ways. It’s shown me that I’m not invincible, but that not being invincible doesn’t mean I have to be vulnerable, either.

Having had a bag ‘snatched’ from me while on a bicycle has left me feeling somehow thankful that the experience wasn’t worse — thankful that there was no physical contact between me and the thief, that there was no weapon involved, and that Mina or anyone else wasn’t hurt or threatened because of my foolishness. Having a bag ‘snatched’ from me is something that can and does happen in Canada — as my Grandma told my mom, “It happens all the time at Safeway. Women leave their bags unattended in their shopping carts, and someone snatches it up. You can never be too careful!” (awesome!).

So yes – crime is everywhere. It’s too bad it happened when and how it did, but I’ve walked away unharmed and aware of some new realities. In the end, I think my biggest take away is that crime happens — it’s how you prepare yourself to avoid it and/or deal with it when it strikes that makes the difference.

Reflections After a Day at School

This blog entry is taken from the journal I kept during my village stay in Sahakpaligu. After spending the day observing a P5 Mathematics class, I returned to Mr. Iddrisu’s compound and wrote this entry sitting on the cool concrete floor of my bedroom. I’ve chosen not to revise it from its original state, because I think there’s something interesting in the ‘rawness’ of my observations and the reflections. I’m sure there are several other layers and perspectives that could (and should) be explored on the topic of primary education in Ghana, but this post will reflect where I was in heart and mind that day.

I’ve just returned from a day at Sahakpaligu Upper Primary School. For the first time in the village I feel SAD. I’m sure it probably has something to do with how great I was feeling yesterday after Iddrisu took me on a ‘tour of the town’, and how quickly and roughly I was brought back to reality this morning at the school.

Mr. Iddrisu had to travel to Savalugu [a nearby District Capital] this morning for meetings with the District Director of Agriculture. Rather than leave the village, I asked Mr. Iddrisu if I could go back to the school this morning and observe. Iddrisu is the chairman of the PTA at the school, so was able to quickly arrange to have a teacher collect me and take me to meet the headmaster early this morning.

The teacher who came to fetch me was young and well-dressed. He told me that he is the only teacher at Sahakpaligu Upper Primary who actually stays in the community, which is somehow interesting. He walked me to the school and introduced me to the headmaster and other teachers — several of whom I’d met yesterday. The headmaster told me that he and one of the other teachers had just been re-assigned to Sahakpaligu last week because of a shuffle mandated by the Ministry of Education. No one seemed to be able to tell me why the shuffle had happened. I was left wondering if they had been shuffled into a better or worse position and why.

The teachers and headmaster, who were gathered around their motorbikes under the big mango tree, didn’t seem to be in any real hurry to begin their classes. I asked the headmaster what he was working on, and he showed me the “computations” record he was building for the school— essentially a spending plan for the year. Line items included things like stationary, teachers’ desks, chalk, transportation, marching band instruments (?!), first-aid supplies, and text books. He explained that the Government of Ghana gives schools 5 Ghana Cedis per student each year to put towards these expenses, but that the disbursements come staggered three times a year and are not delivered in a lump sum at the start of the academic year. It’s obvious that making the money stretch requires careful planning and prioritization skills — not an easy job.

As the headmaster showed me his work, the other teachers continued to socialize under the shade of the mango tree. Interesting, I thought, considering the boys in my compound left the house just after 7am for school and they had yet to start class still at 8am. I asked what was keeping them from opening the classrooms, and got yet another evasive answer. A few minutes later, the headmaster closed his leger book and suggested I sit in on the P5 mathematics class that was to be taught by the other new teacher at the school.

Mr. Iddrisu’s son Jamaldeen, and nephew Mumuni, are both in P5, so I was glad that I’d get to observe their lesson. Seconds after sitting down on the plastic patio chair that they’d brought into the classroom for me, I realized that my presence was going to be more of a distraction than anything else. Not just for the P5 pupils, but for the other children who had gathered at the doors and windows to catch a glimpse of the stranger in their midst. The teacher shooed them away, and I did the best I could to blend into the background so not to attract any additional attention.

Before class could begin, the teacher had all the children stand and “dress well”. Dressing well, it seems, involves tucking your orange shirt into your brown bermuda shorts, buttoning any undone buttons, and awaiting inspection from the teacher. A quick headcount told me that in the class of 21 students, only 2 female pupils had turned up for class that day. 

Once everyone was properly dressed, the lesson began. In big letters across the board, Mr. Mohammed wrote: “Mathematics: Data Collection and Handling.” I wanted to groan FOR the students.

P5 Classroom - Frequency Tables on the Blackboard...

The focus of the lesson was on collecting and recording data sets, and the example the teacher used was ‘the age of pupils in the class’. After collecting the ages of all the students in the class and writing them on the board, the teacher tallied the number of students in each age group, and put that information into a frequency table. I watched in amazement as he did the work on the board without explaining why or how he was doing it. Watching him work, I was surprised by his broken English and the students’ poor oral comprehension skills.

After the teacher finished putting the data into his frequency table, he turned around and asked his students “Which number is the highest in the class?”. One brave student raised his hand, “15, sir.” “Incorrect!” the teacher shouted, angrily. He walked up and down the aisles holding a long stick, which he would use to cane the next student who didn’t give the correct response.

“Hah? I’ve asked you. Which number is the highest in the class? Which number is the most? Give me an answer!” 

Blank stares.

Even I was confused by his question — what was he looking for? Did he want to know who was the oldest in the class, or did he want to know which age was most frequently occurring? I couldn’t blame the kids for not wanting to try again — who would want to take a chance when they don’t have the first clue what he’s asking and knew they’d be caned if they didn’t get it right?

Eventually, the teacher switched into Dagbani and asked the class again for an answer in the local language. A hand belonging to a boy in the front row shot into the air, “10, sir!”

“Good. Clap for him,” Mr. Mohammed barked. The kids clapped back a rhythm. Wow — this does NOT happen in Canada, I thought.

The lesson carried on, painstakingly, as the teacher had the students read from the mathematics textbook and copy the examples from the text into their exercise books. At one point, I had to fight back tears when a boy in the back got caught making notes in his notebook as the teacher was drawing something on the board. He got 3 lashes on his hand and 2 “extra” on the top of his head as punishment. As he caned him, the teacher shouted, “how can you learn what I am teaching you if you’re busy writing down what you see on the board??” He’d have hated having me as a student… I’m a compulsive note taker.

At one point, the teacher left the room for a few minutes and the exact opposite of what I expected to happen, happened. In Canada, students left unsupervised generally seize the opportunity to be rebellious and rambunctious. In the classroom in Sahakpaligu, I watched the unsupervised students furiously scribble down what was on the board into their notebooks, presumably so they wouldn’t be punished for having not taken the notes down at a future lesson. Their focus and intensity was amazing. No one made a peep, and for the first time all morning, I felt like they’d forgotten I was even there.

The lesson came to an abrupt halt just before 11am, when the headmaster entered the classroom and informed the teacher that the children needed to help move the World Food Programme-donated foodstuffs from their current location (in a nearby compound) to the school’s office. WFP representatives had visited the school earlier that week and found that the sacs of beans and rice, and boxes of other supplies, had been spoiled by moisture and pests.

When I asked why everyone (all 130 primary students) had been let out to help, rather than just a few of the older, stronger students, the teacher explained that “it would be cheating the students for me to carry on teaching if not all the students who WANT to be here could be here.” Interesting theory, I thought. Seems to me that giving your students less than 2-hours of instruction in what could be a 7.5 hour day is a bigger cheat…

I sat under the mango tree with the teachers and headmaster as the students hauled massive 50 kg bags of rice and beans stamped with the World Food Program logo onto the school property. As they got closer, I noticed something else — a line under the WFP logo that read – “A generous gift from Canada.” My heart sunk and the all-too-familiar lump in my throat returned. Our “gift” of foodstuffs, which is intended to enable more students to attend school, was actually to blame for taking 130-odd children away from class for the remainder of the day.

The students laid out tarpaulins and spread the beans and rice out across them to dry. At first, it seemed like every student wanted a ‘piece of the action’, but soon the novelty of the activity wore off and the boys left to play football and most of the others loitered around the school yard. Many sat close to me and the teachers, watching us intently. By the time lunch was served (rice and beans, courtesy of Canada and the WFP…), only two female students were left to clean and re-package the beans.

Watching the girls work was a ‘push the pause button’ moment of presence for me. There I was, sitting under the cool shade of a mango tree, next to four teachers who I thought were doing a pretty shameful job of educating the next generation, watching two of the older female students (probably 15 or 16 years old, but still in upper primary school) do the impossibly difficult job of separating the dust and bugs from the critical food source which would feed the primary school’s 130 students. If I had been born in a different place and time, I could have been the one doing what they were doing, in the blistering sun, without thanks, because I’m a girl.

I am trying to reflect on why I feel so pained by this experience. What am I being asked to learn from how I’m feeling right now? What should I take away from this morning of observing injustice, firsthand? What role is my own government playing in sustaining a broken system? How can we incentivize Ghanaian teachers to provide quality education to all boys AND girls if food security still dominates the priority list? How can the Government of Ghana possibly enforce their “primary education for all” policies if the schools aren’t properly equipped and the quality of education is so abysmal that you can’t help but sympathize with parents who see more value in having their children on the farm than in the classroom? How can Ghana foster the growth of its future leaders if students are ‘in school’ from 7-1:30, but only learning between 9 and 11?

My mind and heart are aching for the students who are so hungry to learn, but also so caged by the system that they are learning within. I am thinking today about my friends who have chosen teaching as their career — who are truly passionate about education. Who are incredible teachers, able to convey their own excitement about learning to the young minds in their classroom, each and every day.

I am thinking about Gill Cooper. About how her energy, enthusiasm, and bright laughter must light up her classroom and spark new ideas and connections with her students. I am thinking about Gina Wilson and her absolutely GIANT heart. About how she undoubtedly creates a safe space for learning in her classroom, making each of her students feel so deeply cared for and respected as they learn. I am thinking about Sarah McArthur, who arrives at school early and stays late several nights a week to coordinate countless extra-curricular activities for her students. About how her passion for educating inside and outside of the classroom must ignite a love for learning in each of her special kids.

What will it take to bring that love and enthusiasm into education in Ghana? Shouldn’t all students, regardless of geography, be entitled to that kind of nurturing space for learning? It’s a weight on my heart today. Presence is sometimes painful.

7 Days in a Rural Village and Other October Highlights

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!

October Highlights:

  • Had an amazing week at the West Africa Retreat in Bolgatanga, Upper East Region

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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).

  • I survived Malaria!!

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.

War and October Team Meeting 157Mark 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?”

Beautiful.

  • 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.

IMG_0482The 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.

IMG_0561 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.

IMG_0426Early 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.

IMG_0447 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.

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Crazy Moment of Presence #5: Empty Classrooms

IMG_0465Before 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

IMG_0480A 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.

IMG_0526 IMG_0527 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.

IMG_0537 IMG_0544 IMG_0553 IMG_0478

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).

IMG_0557 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.

IMG_0558 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.

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On Being Present

The universe has a funny way of repeating messages it wants you to hear. A few weeks ago, an EWB colleague lent me a book called “Presence: Human Purpose and the Field of the Future.” I devoured it. Since then, I’ve had several different conversations with friends, family, and my coach about how I’ve struggled with my own attempts to be fully present  in Ghana. Presence (and the things that get in the way of it) became a focal point of our free-flow ‘life chat’ with the EWB team in Tamale on Monday. Just this morning, I opened my email to see a Coaching Tip of the Week from Laura McGrath (guest written by Jen Degen) about — you guessed it — presence.

Jen’s piece reminds us of the clarity we gain when we choose to be present in the world around us. She talks about tuning in to what’s happening at this very moment and reminds us that this is the space in which where we learn what truly matters most. Jen included one quote that I think is worth sharing here:

Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the whole earth revolves – slowly, evenly, without rushing towards the future. Live the actual moment.            ~ Thich Nhat Hahn

I suppose I should explain what I mean when I say that I’ve struggled with remaining present during my placement in Ghana. I’m certainly ‘present’ in the physical sense — I’m sitting in an NGO office in Nyankpala town, very much present in this place. Where I feel I often fall short is in staying present mentally and emotionally.

I’ve blogged before about feeling like I’m an ‘extrovert turned introvert’ in Ghana — at times feeling a pull towards reclusiveness instead of integration. Choosing to do just a few more hours of work or send just a few more emails after dinner instead of sitting out front of the compound with the family is a choice that does not value the present. I’m not taking full advantage of the chance I’ve been given to truly embed myself in a culture and place that is phenomenally different from the one I know best. A colleague of mine, Erin Antcliffe, said it well when she said, “really, being present should be part of the EWB job description.”

Now that I’ve reached the half-way point of my time overseas (scary thought) I’m experiencing a different sense of conflict that also calls to mind this issue of presence. I want to make the most of my last few months, but am also starting to feel the pressure of deciding what will come next. Rather than focusing on the now, the today, the present, I’m looking ahead towards January, and the scary world of (f)unemployment. What will I do when I get home? Where will I put all this energy and knowledge I’ve gained in Ghana to work in Canada? What’s next? How can I possibly remain present in my Professional Fellowship if my energy is focused on planning my next step?

Jen’s Coaching Tip this morning was important for me because it reaffirmed the fact that ‘being present’ is weighing heavily on me now. It also gave me a few things to reflect on, and two activities to experiment with which might help me find the ‘presence’ i’m searching for. She asks us to think about what might be waiting for us if we slow down and focus on being present in this moment alone, and to think about what we want to savour in this very moment. Worthwhile reflections for someone who is clearly distracted by things happening outside the “now”.

For me, slowing down and being present will mean pushing the “pause button” on these panicked thoughts about what’s next. It will mean paying attention to the “physical [and social] geography” of this place — what it’s like, what sort of energy I’ve getting from it and giving back to it, and what I feel most intrigued by in it. It will mean making a conscious effort to add “presence” to my job description, and keep it at the forefront of my mind over the next 9 weeks.

We’re about to leave for the EWB West Africa Retreat (WAR) in Bolga, Ghana. There, the Public Sector Agriculture, AVC, and ERA teams from across Ghana and Burkina Faso will meet to exchange ideas, learn from one another, and hopefully relax together. We’ll even be celebrating Thanksgiving together — with turkey and all the fixins’! It’s my personal goal to use the WAR (and the AVC team meeting immediately afterwards) to really focus my reflections and appreciate the importance of presence in this experience.

I hope to come back to Nyankpala with a determination for be present at every twist and turn. I want to choose interaction over solitude, new experiences over familiar ones, and the now over the tomorrow. If I can manage to do that successfully, I know I’ll be able to make the second half of my placement even more rich and personally fulfilling than this first half has been.

Mass Chaos on the Metro Mass

Metro Massacre 008I had – hands down – the best week of my placement so far this past week. Monday and Tuesday were spent preparing for and facilitating a workshop with the project team at my partner organization. In an 8-hour marathon session, we covered the fundamentals of market facilitation including the role of the intervening organization (and its field staff), and talked about the importance of learning from failure (see photo to the right of the workshop in progress!). It was motivating and inspiring to hear those same concepts echoed by the team again on Wednesday and Thursday, as we interviewed candidates for an open Project Manager position and had a critical meeting with another project’s implementation partners.

To make the week even more exciting, I was also looking forward to my very first village stay — an experience EWB  volunteers are encouraged to have in order to better understand the realities of the rural farmers we’re working for. My friend and colleague, Mina, had arranged for us to travel to Chereponi (a District Capital about 5-7 hours away by terrible roads) to meet a friend of his named Ernest who created and now coordinates a Women’s’ Soybean Farming Collective in the region. We were planning to meet with him on Saturday to talk about his relationship with the aggregating station in the district and to investigate other potential buying/selling relationships with him. Mina had arranged for me to part ways with himself and Ernest on Saturday evening, to go and stay for 3 nights with the Chairwoman of the soybean collective in a nearby village. I would spend the weekend and early part of next week living with her and her family, experiencing the farm and truly “rural living” for the first time in my life.

Needless to say, I’m NOT writing this post from Chereponi. As the title of this blog post suggests, some serious chaos got in the way of our plans. We’ve taken to calling yesterday’s events the “METRO MASSacre” — and here’s why:

Participating in Corruption

Ghana has two forms of state transport. STC is the nicer of the two options and is what I took from Accra to Tamale when I first arrived in Ghana. STC buses only run to regional capitals (Tamale, Kumasi, Accra…), and tickets are substantially more expensive (approximately 35 GHC from Tamale to Accra). MetroMass is the second of the two options, which services some (but not all) regional capitals at a far lower cost (5 GHC from Tamale to Chereponi). Tickets cannot be purchased in advance, so you need to either a) arrive ridiculously early or b) work the system if you plan to travel on any given day.

Mina and I chose option b. Through the connections of another EWB colleague, we were able to get the name and phone number of the bus driver who would be behind the wheel for yesterday’s service. The driver agreed to save us two tickets, and our colleague told us that we’d be able to arrive at the station around 1pm, pick up the tickets and wait for the bus to arrive. Perfect arrangement, right? Wrong.

Metro Massacre 012When we got to the MetroMass station shortly after 1, we went to the ticket sales booth to pick up the tickets that had apparently been set aside for us. The woman behind the counter (who, sidebar, had the CRAZIEST drawn-on eyebrows I’ve seen in my entire life) told us there were no tickets left. Mina explained the arrangement with the driver, and suggested that she call him to confirm. Somehow, that wasn’t necessary. Instead, she said “give me your money, I will give you tickets.” Magically, the sold-out bus had two available seats. Corruption prevailed and we made our way out into the ridiculously hot bus yard (see photo to the left).

Waiting. Melting.

Metro Massacre 016I honestly think yesterday was the hottest day I’ve experienced in Ghana. It was certainly the longest I’ve spent outside in the sun (there’s no shade whatsoever in the MetroMass yard) or without air conditioning since I arrived. Mina and I found a Metro Massacre 014spot in the back of the yard on some old plastic chairs, made ourselves comfortable, and spent the next 2.5 hours sweating from every pore. It was ridiculously, outrageously, unbelievably hot.

Over those 2.5 hours, we drank about 3 liters of water, devoured a fair bit of street food and FanIce, and fended off a few too many perfume/cologne salesmen. We also watched a crew of Ghanaian construction workers go to work on a storm sewer being built at the back of the yard. 

Loading and Overloading

Metro Massacre 025 It was almost 4pm when the bus finally arrived. After a few celebratory fist pumps, Mina and I gathered our things and moved towards the big, orange, rickety bus. The passengers loitered around the bus as MetroMass staff and others loaded the bus full of completely random cargo. Boxes of pesticide and herbicide, 100kg sacks of imported rice, giant bags of Okra, satellite dishes, and cases of drink were packed under the seats and in the aisles. By the time we actually boarded the bus, the boxes were stacked 2 feet high in the aisles and we had to camber over all kinds of goodies to get to our seats.

As luck would have it, the skies opened up and rain poured down in torrents just as the last passengers were trying to board. People pushed and shoved and crammed themselves into the front of the bus, drenched and panicked. It was at this point that Mina and I realized that the bus had been over-sold and/or there were 20-odd people trying to hitch a ride without a legally-procured ticket. The height of my own discomfort came when I had been forced up against the window — seriously invading Mina’s personal space — because a Ghanaian woman had decided to make herself comfortable by sitting ON my back. Less than ideal. “Madam. Do you have a seat?” I asked, several times. She categorically ignored me.

The Quadfecta of Danger

It quickly became clear that this bus ride had the potential for disaster. Passengers with a seat were frustrated by the over-crowding caused by those who didn’t, and those who didn’t were making no attempt whatsoever for find a safer seat. With 1) at least 20 more passengers than there were available seats, 2) flammable chemicals packed into every free space down the aisle, 3) the sun setting rapidly, and the rain not seeming to lighten up, 4) Mina and I decided that it was a perfect quadfecta of danger. We had to get off.

“We’d like to get off. This bus is TOO dangerous,” Mina said. No one moved. “This is unsafe! Look at this! This is how people die. Look at the goods in the aisles. There are too many people on this bus. Please. Let us off.” A few people shouted in agreement, but still, no one moved. I pulled out my camera and Mina took a few shots of the overcrowding, much to the dismay of one man who absolutely did not want his photo taken. “Don’t delete it! Send it to Accra!” a few people shouted from a few seats behind us. We’d talked earlier that day about how Ghanaians LOVE a good argument, and will always have something to add to one that’s in progress, even if they have no idea what’s being discussed. Case and point. Others looked at us incredulously — why on earth would two salimingas WITH seats want to get off the bus?

Metro Massacre 026 Metro Massacre 027

Mina Gets SERIOUS-Oh

We finally squeezed our way off the bus, and had the woman who had previously gotten comfy on my back pass us our bags and moto helmets through the open window. As I celebrated my first few breaths of fresh air, Mina went on a mission to find the bus’s conductor (the guy who takes the tickets/handles the money, but not the guy who physically drives the bus). “We’re getting our money back,” he said. I’d never seen Mina so riled up. The conductor and Mina met in front of the bus, and the argument continued. I stood beside Mina, impressed by his conviction and somehow also worried about how the conductor would react.

“Who runs this bus?” Mina demanded. “The Government of Ghana runs this bus. This is terrible!! MetroMass should be setting an example. The Government of Ghana sets the road laws, but then doesn’t even follow it itself. What is that? This is how people die.” The conductor shouted back, “This is how it is in Ghana. This isn’t Europe.” Yikes… “The problem is that the road is a one-way road and we only have one bus.”

“Yes, and that’s why it breaks down all the time. You should add more buses if the route is popular. How can you possibly think you’re providing good customer service when people are packed into there like animals?”

“The people like it!” (yes, that’s a verbatim quote from the Conductor). “Your idea of adding more buses is a good one, but it is not possible.”

“This is impossible. We want our money back. We are going home. We’ll take a Benz Bus tomorrow instead – they’re better than MetroMass at following the Government’s rules. Please. Give us our 10 GHCs.” Mina said, frustrated.

The conductor gave us a 10 GHC note and we left, feeling somehow vindicated and most definitely ready for a beer. The trip to Chereponi would have to wait for another day.

Some Few Lessons

Over beers later, we tried to come up with a new plan. Do we try for a trotro in the morning? Or try and hitch a ride with the District Chief Executive who we heard was in town from Chereponi for some reason or another… Or, do we postpone the trip all together, perhaps for some time after West Africa Retreat / the AVC Team Meeting, when we’d have been able to put more thought into and hopefully find more clarity around the hypotheses we’d be testing in the field whenever we did end up going.

We also talked about the lessons that we’d be taking away from this MetroMassacre. Should we suggest that travel on MetroMass be off limits to EWB volunteers, based on the safety issues that we’d just experienced? Mina reflected on what situations like this one mean for international development —- how transportation challenges like this are significant barriers to investors who might otherwise come to Northern Ghana and do business in the area. I reflected on the importance of trusting your instincts when you’re in a new culture, particularly when your personal safety is involved. It didn’t feel okay in my gut to be on that bus, so getting off of it in the end was actually a feeling of liberation, not frustration.

Being safe and sound (and blogging) in Tamale today is a good feeling. Looking forward to a big week ahead, even if it’s not exactly what I’d had in mind. Here’s to going with the flow!

What I “Chop” in Ghana (Chop = Eat)

When people ask me “what’s the hardest part about living in rural Ghana?”, I usually give a two part answer: 1) being different (I’ll write more on this in a future post), and 2) the food. The temperature is manageable, the work is surprisingly comfortable, the people are wonderful, and the language is a welcome challenge. But the food… oh my. It’s not so cruisey.
 
Don’t get me wrong — I’m eating, and sometimes even enjoying, the food I’m served. I’m absolutely not missing meals, and it seems that at every meal I get served more than I could possibly dream of consuming. But still, I daydream about Canadian food. I can’t count the number of times this week alone that bowls of crunchy cereal covered with ice-cold milk, stir-frys chock full of fresh vegetables, or plates of lovely cheeses have crossed my mind. Maybe it’s my body telling me it is missing some key nutrients (Ghanaian food isn’t really the best example of a balanced diet…), or maybe it’s just my stomach already anticipating a Christmas-time return to the land of plenty. All I know is that I’ve already planned my first few meals on Canadian soil in my head — and they’re going to be CRAZY delicious.

I’ve been promising many of you a “Food in Ghana” showcase for some time now, so figured I’d make the blog more of a photographic journey this week. I tried to snap a picture of every meal I had for the past few days, with the exception of ‘repeats’ and lunches at the office canteen. It would have been awkward to pull out my camera and snap a pic at the table with my colleagues. You understand, I’m sure.

So without further adieu, here it comes…

My favourite meal of the day. Breakfast.

I typically fix breakfast for myself in my room. I boil water using the metal jug and electric coil contraption in the background, then make myself a coffee and some oatmeal. My lovely Mom sent me some proper coffee grinds as a treat, so lately I’ve been making myself a steaming hot cup of proper drip coffee (using a calabash and paper filter as a makeshift Braun!). I’ve also been adding some cut up bananas and outrageously expensive sultana raisins to the oats lately, just to keep things interesting. Not surprisingly, breakfast is by far my favourite meal of the day.

 

Probably my second favourite Ghanaian dish — Joloff Rice.

What’s that you see? Could it be vegetables!? Yes. green peppers, cabbage, and onions cooked together with rice, tomatoes and dried fish (I pretend the last bit isn’t actually in it). It’s pretty delicious, and because my host mother knows I like it she cooks it more often than usual. I look forward to joloff nights.

Boiled yams and stew, with a boiled egg

Yams are a staple of the Ghanaian diet, but they’re not the same sweet, orange-colored yams we eat at home. These look more similar to boiled white potatoes, only much larger and starchier. In this dish, they’ve been boiled to ‘al dente’, and served with a tomato, mackerel, and palm oil stew. Another treat I’ve come to love is the farm-fresh eggs they have in Ghana — this one was fresh that morning!

(Note the fly in the bottom left corner… it takes some serious mind-over-matter not to think too hard about what it was resting on before it decided to get comfy on my yam).

Rice Balls with Goat Meat in Groundnut Soup

Rice is deceptively filling. I learned this lesson from eating sushi in Canada, but have had to re-learn it from eating rice balls in Ghana. I foolishly use the rice to soak up the groundnut soup (essentially spicy peanut broth, plus the tang of palm oil and “perfume” of goat meat — their word, not mine), but always find I fill up on rice before I get to my meat… bad choice. I’m fairly confident that goat is not my protein of choice, in any way, shape or form. It’s just not delicious.

A restaurant portion of banku and chicken...

I don’t mind banku. It’s essentially maize flour (or cassava, I believe) and water, which has been brought to a rapid boil then stirred vigorously to create a thick goo. More and more dry flour is added to the gooey mixture until it becomes virtually unstirrable. Then they form hunks of the batter into balls, and cover them in soup — in this case, a spicy ‘light soup’ or broth with a quarter of a chicken (bone in, skin on). I ordered this from a restaurant, so obviously it isn’t half bad…  but it’s just not the same as the boneless, skinless, bbq chicken breast and veggie risotto I’ve been dreaming of…!

Fufu. The most labour intensive of all the Ghanaian dishes, and possibly one of my least favourite.

I mentioned in an earlier post that fufu is a very common dish in Ghana’s yam-growing regions, which demands an incredible outlay of energy to prepare. The yams are boiled, then pounded in a giant mortar and pestle, until they are the consistency of ghost gum (the messy treat us Canadian kids make using marshmallows while we sit around a campfire). It’s not slimy, but it’s definitely strangely smooth and very starchy. It’s usually served with meat and fish in a light broth, and I usually ask for some hot pepe (like chili pepper) in mine to make it more exciting. Fufu is an experience — we’ll leave it at that.

Sadly, I don’t have photos of my absolute favourite dish —Red Red (fried plantains and a spicy bean stew) or another goodie, Wache (rice and beans). Because these are typically ‘southern Ghanaian’ dishes, we don’t eat them often at home, so I get my fill at the office canteen or at restaurants in the city. I also don’t have photos of what is probably the most common Ghanaian dish in this region — a porridge-like dish called TZ. My (heavily pregnant) host mother has an aversion to it at the present moment, so we’ve been lucky to have more variety of late.

I know I’m fortunate to be living with a family that can afford some degree of variety in their diet. I am also thankful to have the relative financial freedom to be able to treat myself to meals I enjoy a whole lot more often than most. I have been able to find lots of little ways to jazz up my diet with the occasional ice cream treat (okay, maybe more than occasional), yummy crackers and biscuits, and plenty of fresh fruit. I’m never hungry, and am certainly not losing weight (in fact, I seem to be gaining it… note to self, dial back to cookie/ice cream intake…), so I’m doing well. I’ll dream about my next Canadian meal for the next 10 weeks, and will savour every bite when I finally get to indulge.

In the meantime, have a salad for me.

Getting Into the Swing of Things

 

I spent the first few weeks of work in Ghana feeling like a hamster trapped in an exercise wheel. I was in a race against myself, trying to learn as much as possible about my partner organization, the agriculture sector in Ghana, and the many players in the aggregation game. There’s no shortage of information out there on all three subjects, so as you can imagine, I was reading — a lot. One interesting article led to another fascinating briefing paper, and one set of meeting notes led to another “all-your-questions-shall-be-answered-inside-this-document” instruction manual. Like a hamster in a wheel, I was trapped in the information overload cycle.

I couldn’t help but feel like wasn’t making a whole ton of progress towards identifying root causes of key problems or helping innovate solutions in the field. With only 4 months to deliver everything I wanted / needed to, I was beginning to fear that if I hadn’t yet made progress on that front, then I wouldn’t ever fulfill my job description. I wasn’t doing what I came to do. In addition to processing the culture shock I described in my earlier post, I was struggling with some pretty big questions. “How can I ever possibly read and learn everything I need to in order to be effective?” “Will I ever be prepared to take action?” “Was coming to Ghana the right choice?”

Over the past two weeks, I’ve (thankfully) started to find my way off the wheel and onto a more productive and hopefully impactful path. Thanks to some incredible conversations, plenty of good advice, and remembering to breathe (or as another dear friend has reminded me, “don’t panic!”), I’m feeling more prepared than I have been since pre-departure to take on my role in Ghana. This shift in attitude and mindset didn’t happen overnight – so I’d like to describe a few things that happened over the last two weeks to help get me to this point.

1. Learn by Doing

It’s hardly shocking that my coach and team lead, Mike Klassen, had picked up on the pressure I’d been putting on myself before I had even fully realized it on my own. I had asked for — and he’d willingly provided — more reading materials than I could reasonably read and retain in several months of devoted study. He saw the panic in my eyes when he asked how things were progressing, and I tried to explain that I was “almost through the first big document, but had definitely started reading and making notes on a couple of the others, and would tackle the biggest ones before heading into the field, but that there were still a few others that I wanted to look for before I could really start to map out the ideas that…” you get the point.

Being the excellent coach that he is, Mike asked me to reflect on the (im)possibility of reading everything there was to read. How will I use the information I take from them to advance my learning? How do I “kick my sector learning into high-gear” without subjecting myself to thousands more pages of someone else’s thoughts or critiques? The answer? Learn by doing.

Together, Mike and I came up with a strategy to move me and my work forward in a hurry. He asked me to identify (based on what I had already read / learned) the top 10 questions I wanted to answer in the next week. Following on from that, he asked me to make my 10 ‘best guess’ hypotheses (again, based on the info I had already gathered). The assignment, then, was to use my interactions the following week to test those hypotheses in real time. A win-win situation, if you look at it as an opportunity for learning regardless of whether you prove yourself right or wrong! It was a great exercise, and certainly pushed me in the direction of action and critical thought. Much appreciated.

2. (Twenty)Two Minds are Better than One

Long before I left for Ghana, I suspected that my professional network back in Vancouver would be something I’d lean on for support during my time overseas. I hypothesized that the challenges I was about to face in Ghana would be similar to many of those faced by my colleagues in Canada, only in an incredibly different context. One of my first assignments at my partner organization proved that correct.

A few weeks ago, I received an email from the Country Director of my partner organization, asking me to help with the recruitment, selection, and induction of a Project Manager for the organization’s newest market facilitation project. He asked me to take the lead on defining the hiring criteria and designing the interview format for the short-listed candidates. It was at once an exciting opportunity to influence the leadership mindset of the organization in a new direction, and an amazing challenge to start questioning old patterns or shifting current trajectories. I knew that the EWB team had heaps of resources on what makes a good market facilitator (I had uncovered several amazing documents whilst I was still on the hamster wheel), but needed help with what made a good project manager.

What an amazing opportunity to reach into my “Pro Fellow Backpack” and pull out a resource or two with project management experience? That was, after all, the purpose of the pre-departure salon that Mark Ware and I had hosted in Vancouver back in early July. Even better, I thought, what an opportunity to engage an ENTIRE chapter in the activity! I had already arranged to call into a monthly meeting of the BC Hydro EWB Chapter, so I figured I’d issue the challenge to the project managers amongst them and see if anyone was up to the challenge.

Less than 10 days later, I had in-hand an comprehensive list of KSA’s (knowledge, skills and attitudes) for a good project manager, sent to me by the coordinator of BC Hydro’s Project Management Community of Practice, Linda Remillard. What better example could there be of tapping into a deep and information-wealthy group of Canadians to solve a problem on the ground in Africa? I integrated their recommendations into the interview questions I’d drafted, sent them on to our Country Director, and received glowing feedback from him on the quality of what we’d produced.

By reaching out to my network of professionals at home, I was able to deliver a product that was far more advanced than what I’d have produced alone. BC Hydro should feel proud knowing that their contribution will help us select an individual who will go on to become an invaluable agent of change for this organization and for people it serves.

3. Seize Emergent Opportunities

The third element that helped me close my books and move towards action came about somewhat unexpectedly. Last week, a number of internal issues at my partner organization came to a boiling point, creating an emergent opportunity for me to engage and make change happen quickly.

Personnel problems, ‘mistakes’ in the field, and negative / reactionary push-back from higher leadership created just the right environment to initiate conversations about learning from failure, understanding of roles and responsibilities, and taking action to address gaps in strategy. How can we use the momentum created by panic to carry us towards a fresh way of thinking about market facilitation and the role of the intervening organization?

The change management dork in me was fired up about the opportunity this ‘crisis’ offered to start creating behavioural change in the team members and higher leadership. The new-found market facilitation nerd in me couldn’t wait to go back to some of the resources I’d explored in my first month to draw out some tangible lessons that I could share with the team in this critical time.

Seizing this opportunity gave rise to some of the most amazing conversations I’ve had with the project team since I arrived, particularly around what needs to change (both internally and externally) for the project to be a success. It’s also given me the change to develop a full-day workshop for the project team next week — something that was not in the original work plan, but which certainly has me feeling excited about the contributions I’ll be making to longer-term, institutional change.

What’s next?

It will be a busy week ahead, filled with planning for next week’s workshop and the Project Manager interviews that will follow. I think it’s fair to say I’m finally “getting into the swing of things”, and that I am feeling good about where things are at. I’ve still got more that I want to learn (a lifetime of things, really), but I’m feeling motivated, energized and inspired about taking things one unexpected step at a time.