Singing To Myself – Goodbye

August 16, 2010

This will be my last blog post (at least written from Ghana, perhaps I’ll write one more once on the ground in Canada to talk about what‘re-integration’ feels like).  Thanks to all of you who have read, commented on, questioned, thought, or felt anything from my writing.  I leave Kpandai in a few days, and leave Ghana in just over a week.  This post will be rather vague, but hopefully some conversation can be sparked face to face if I’m lucky.

I was listening to a song the other day and a lyric rang true with me.  Antje Duvekot sang out:

“I gave you my best shot, but you never could tell.  Gonna pack my suitcase, sing to myself, goodbye.”

And that’s how I feel.

I gave you my best shot,

There were highs and lows like I’ve never experienced in my life.  There were days I was in the office until 9pm, and days I stayed home, lying in my bed/running to the toilet, and watching Battlestar Galactica all day (yeah…I never thought I’d see the day, but I see what Dwight Schrute was all about now).  There are so many things here that are out of your hands, and one thing I learned was how to determine what is out of your sphere of influence and how to cope with that and work around it.  I remember a return JF saying to me before I left Canada, “Do your best, that’s all you can do, and if you can say you did, you won’t be disappointed with yourself”.  Of course there were other things I could have done better, other ways I could have leveraged this experience, days I could have pushed myself harder.  I wasn’t that “pro star JF” but what does that even mean?

But you never could tell.

Ghana has not experienced tremendous development since my arrival.  I have not ‘boiled the ocean’.  I’ve done small-small in Kpandai, one tiny District in the nearly forgotten Northern Ghana.  My impact?  Impossible to measure.  But there have been changes that I’ve catalyzed.

My DAO (Extension), Mr. Issah, ran an interactive training workshop for all the AEAs on understanding group dynamics.  He discussed gender issues, good facilitation, group formation, and ‘food for thought’ on how AEAs’ perceptions of farmers and farmers’ perceptions of AEAs affect the relationship.  This workshop was the first part of a new way of training AEAs.  This was all Mr. Issah, but it was also the result of us sitting down together, sparking a conversation about what good training looks like and what is currently lacking in the AEA skill set.

There are farmer groups out there that are learning business concepts from their AEAs to better manage both their own agriculture ventures and group projects.  They’re keeping records, opening bank accounts, analyzing markets, calculating profit, and discussing their alternative options for how they can improve their businesses and ultimately make more money (I hope..!).  At this moment, 11 AEAs have been trained on AAB (in Kpandai), 6 of whom I think will actually continue after I leave.  Approximately 131 farmers are going through the program.

131 doesn’t even come close to the 90,000 farmers that live in Kpandai.  Is it worth the cost of sending me over?  Even if AAB is sustainable, and that 131 turns into 13,100, is it worth it?  Are the poorest of the poor actually benefitting?  What else needs to happen?

I haven’t boiled the ocean, but it’s a drop.  And drops create ripples, right?

Gonna pack my suitcase,

Do I want to go home?  Mostly, it’s about that time – though I’m sure this would feel different if I didn’t have this departure date set from the start and people I love on a different continent.  There are other things that just wear on you, like the complete disregard for timeliness, or the extremely low ICT skills (you can’t save something in ‘Recent Documents!’), or the sometimes passive attitude to domestic violence, or the fact that everyone always has to know where I’m going, or the constant moments you put your life at risk by entering a tro.

I am saying those difficult goodbyes.  I am, literally, packing my things into my giant 70L backpack, but it’s not just material things I’m bringing back with me.  I’m bringing back 4 months of intense, at times ridiculous, experiences, stories, and learnings.  No person is the same from one day to the next.  The personal growth, and understanding of myself in these past four months has been unreal.  Seriously, I have never, ever, been so challenged, and so rewarded, by any other string of experiences in my life.  I have also never felt so confused about so many things.  I came to Ghana with millions of questions in my head.  I’m leaving Ghana with billions.  This continuous questioning, the continuous realization that underneath it all, you still have no idea what’s going on, the pushing yourself to soak up every day, is mentally and physically exhausting.

I hope that I will not forget.  I hope I will not sink back into a life that is solely daily routine and habit.  I hope I can keep this mindset that each day should be more challenging than the last.  It will be a lot tougher in Canada than it has been in Ghana, I’m sure.  I hope I can share this experience to anyone who will listen, and I hope I can learn from that person and gain new perspective from their (your) insights.

Sing to myself.

This one is going to be a bit of a stretch, stick with me.  Here’s a bit of self-reflection.

When I joined EWB a few years ago, I didn’t really care that much about development, and I definitely didn’t know anything about it.  If you told me that in a few years I’d be sitting in northern Ghana typing a blog post about my summer spent there, an ocean away from the world I knew, I’d have snorted in your face and said “shove it” because I used to say that in 2008, which in hindsight is quite rude, sorry.

Even as I learned more and began to understand more about international development, I still wasn’t extremely engaged in the economics and politics of it all.  It wasn’t until May 9, 2010, when I was on a bus from Accra to Tamale, that I realized I wanted to be in Ghana, and I actually do care about, and I actually am interested in development.  It always has, and always will, come down to the people for me.

That first week and a bit, I saw poverty all around me.  I tiptoed through the markets, not wanting to step on fish bones or goat poop, and afraid of the eyes looking, judging, and the foreign tongues that were undoubtedly talking about me.  Children with ripped clothes and bare feet were shouting.  I saw women sitting on the ground, with blankets spread in front of them, selling 6 poor looking tomatoes or some tiny bags of sugar.  I was completely out of my comfort zone as I purchased mango slices, and watched in awe as a woman hacked away at a mango with a machete, always inches from slicing off her hand.  I peed in a smelly, public urinal, facing the other female JFs as we laughed about the experience, but inside I was thinking “how do people live like this?”.

I no longer see poverty.  I see Northern Ghana.  I hear women brag about their daughters’ school marks.  I see men walk, hand-in-hand, down the dirt path to their farms.  I listen to the pounding of fufu into the night, or the beat of a drum at a funeral, or the singing of a woman dressed in colourful African prints as she sways her hips to the music blaring out of one of the shops.  Small children no longer have my pity; most of them are actually quite annoying, just like in Canada. Although mangos are no longer in season, I have no hesitation or thought when I approach a woman, point to a pile of groundnuts sitting on a wooden table, and say “Anoula, 20 pesewas. Enh, nsay cosou.” (Good evening, 20 pesewas. Yep, thank you).  The colours of tomatoes have become a richer shade of red. I think “I love life here”.


Tomatoes in the Market

Quick Update on my Situation

August 10, 2010

A few things have changed in my life here in Kpandai that I want to send a quick update on.

My work is starting to come to a close.  AAB is rolling forward in Kpandai – all the AEAs have been trained, I’ve been going to the field with most of them, and the majority of them are understanding and appreciating the program concepts and valuing how it works with their farmers.  Sorta.  That being said, if the office staff are not on board, the program will not be sustainable.  Therefore, over the past several weeks and for the weeks remaining, I have been developing and implementing a sustainability plan to ensure the program continues in the district.  This means working more with office staff and less with field staff.

In addition, I am working extensively with my District Agric Officer (DAO) of Extension.  He will be championing AAB when I leave.  We are also working together to develop a new training program for all the AEAs, one that includes more than just one-off workshops but also includes monitoring and evaluation and a hands-on approach.   Modules include Understanding Group Dynamics, Facilitation Best Practices, and Quality Reporting.  Will this be sustainable?  Probably not, but I do think getting the ball rolling is important, and identifying new, more effective training strategies with the man responsible for training is valuable.  Finally, I am working with my DDA small to talk about different leadership styles.

Kpandai is also receiving a professional short term EWB volunteer in the fall.  Two districts in the Northern Region have been given this opportunity, and Kpandai made the cut.  Therefore, in the next few weeks I will be trying to prepare for this transition.  The hope is that he will only be monitoring and supporting AAB, bumping up sustainability, but focusing more on management level changes.  I must say I’m jealous.

My home life has changed quite dramatically in this past week.  My goodbyes here have unfortunately already begun.  My Mama Monica left to Accra almost two weeks ago.  She will be spending a month there because her daughter is in her final month of pregnancy.  She left with her son Richard and the chief.  The day after, Sister Fidelia went to a village to farm soybean for a few extra cedis.  I don’t think I’ve introduced you to her – she’s Mama Monica’s daughter, 26, and finished her schooling in Tamale (she’s going to become a teacher), so she’s been in Kpandai for about a month.  Anyway, she left on Friday.

Because Mama Monica left, Rachel left to her village.  Brother Paul also left.  Brother Lazarus is often working his tractor in a village in Kitare.  Since Madam Phina stays at her bar, and cooks there, and doesn’t stay in the house, I am now the oldest female in the house.

Basically, that leaves me, Nana (or Miriam), and Joefere in the house.  Ah, but what about Jessica?  And here is where it gets interesting.  I debated sharing this story, but it’s my life, so here goes.

Jessica’s father is a fairly wealthy man that works for Ghana Education Services.  He lives in Kpandai town.  He is married.  Jessica’s mother lives in her village, Kabonwule.  The mother is not the wife.

Jessica has stayed with Mama Monica for a long time.  The wife and father have their own young children and cannot have Jessica in the house.  Mama Monica and the father do not want Jessica in Kabonwule with the mother.  Apparently the mother will then consistently demand cash from the father – enough not only for Jessica, but also herself, all her children, and her sisters.  Mama Monica felt the mother could not take proper care of Jessica.  SO Jessica was going to go to the grandmother in Kabonwule.  She would be leaving two Thursdays ago at 1pm (I meant to post this a while ago).

I returned from work on that Thursday, prepared for the 415th chapter of my time here in Ghana to begin.  And saw Jessica sitting around the cooking pot with Nana.  Apparently, the father had said that he didn’t want me to be lonely so Jessica should stay with me until I leave.  [Some background:  When Mama Monica left that morning and I learned Jessica and all the others would also go, there were obviously some waterworks, but I remained dignified]

My initial reaction was obvious panic.  Nana would be running Mama’s stationary shop during the day and cooking for me, her and Joefere.   Joefere is in exams.  I am working at MoFA.  The others are all scattered, who would take care of Jessica?

I biked to Jessica’s father’s house (I know him fairly well – he is not negligent, he comes to the house often to see Jessica and ensures her well-being).  Jessica insisted on tagging along on the back of my bicycle.  I also received a flat tire, as icing on the cake.  I wish I didn’t mention cake.

I caught him just as he was leaving to Accra.  He would be gone for a little while but would be back shortly.  I told him that I definitely wouldn’t be lonely and didn’t really need Jessica to keep me company, we can’t really speak the same language anyway, plus she’s 5.  I said that I could take her to Kabonwule to her grandmother if he couldn’t.  He told me he wanted Jessica to stay with me in Kpandai, handed me 10 GhC, and drove away.  This sounds pretty bad, but he has been calling continuously to ensure she’s okay, and I understand she wants to stay in town where the water is readily available and clean, the latrines are many, and the food and treats are plentiful.

She sleeps in my bed (or did until I kicked her to the mat on the floor, don’t ask), I take care of breakfast and lunch and Nana cooks dinner.  She often turns up at my office if she’s bored, sitting outside on the porch with her ‘baby’ (doll).  When she says she has a tummy ache, I’ve discovered that means she wants a pity biscuit.  I have to yell at her if she doesn’t bathe.  I wake up Nana, Edith (Mama Phina’s daughter who works and stays at the bar but sleeps in the compound) and Joefere to help me sweep the compound in the mornings.  I go grocery shopping with Nana and decide what our little, weird dysfunctional family will eat that evening.

I am now amazed how Mama Monica does it.  She’s a teacher, she owns a shop, she has a grown and growing family on the other side of the country, but doesn’t want to live there because she has grown to love Kpandai and there are tons of children like Jessica who have come to depend on her.  When I asked her if she likes cooking, she laughed harder than I’ve ever heard.  “Sarah!” More laughter.  I realize she’s probably never been asked that, and I probe.  Finally, “Me, no, I don’t like to cook, but I do it, because who else will do it?  These children need to eat!”

Mama Monica will be returning to Kpandai two weeks after I leave.  L  My time here is drawing to a close, so this week Jessica will take her 2 bags that hold all her worldly possession out of my room and head to her grandmother until the school break has finished and classes resume in Kpandai again.

¾ of my family leaving has been sad, but it has helped me spread out goodbyes.  I hope it means my last few days here will be a little less tough and I’ll be able to focus mostly on wrapping up work.   Ah who am I kidding…

Less than two weeks in Kpandai!  That means only one or two posts left, and possibly one when I’m in Canada, so let me know what you want to hear!

The Atorsah Family

Much Love,


On Being A Woman

August 4, 2010

I have now been in Ghana for three months.  I haven’t really talked about gender yet, so I thought perhaps it warranted a post.

During pre-departure and in-country training, we talked about gender A LOT.  I had discussions with past volunteers and listened to stories and situations that I knew I’d find myself in.  I am now so used to the way of things are here regarding gender that it didn’t even occur to me that someone reading this from home would want to learn about it.  Keep in mind every experience is different!

There are specific differences that occur when Maclean, the other JF working in Kpandai (at the District Assembly) walks down the street and when I walk down the street.   He is a white male, and therefore on the top of the hierarchy in Ghana.  People don’t grab his hands or yell at him or hiss at him nearly as often as they do to me.  The number of marriage proposals he receives in a day doesn’t even come close to rivaling my tally.  If he is seen having a Ghanaian beer with a white female, he is patted on the back, not chastised.

I am in a very unique position.  I automatically receive (uncomfortable, often undeserved) privilege and respect because I am white – I’m at the top of the totem pole.  Ah, but I’m also a woman, which nudges me closer to the bottom.  I just don’t fit into the hierarchy.  So why is this challenging?  Let me illustrate with a few examples.

The second most important man at the District Assembly refuses to make eye contact with me and doesn’t ask me any questions, or thoroughly answer mine.  I’m pretty sure this is because of my gender due to other comments he’s made.  When he was asked what his siblings did, he only responded about what his brothers did.  After probing, it turned out his sisters were just as successful, if not more, but that didn’t seem to count to him.   The only meaningful conversation we’ve had revolved around the number of children women should bare.

Every time I leave a farmer group meeting, my AEA is forced to explain that I am not looking for a husband.  Usually proposals are just jokes, and they don’t really irk me that often, but there are definitely times they get under my skin.  This one male that works in an office near mine always calls me his wife.  I joked around with him for a bit, explaining that it would take 1,000 sheep for me to marry him.  He said his father owned 10,000 in the Upper East region.  I said it would also take several elephants.  He laughed, and assured me that there were plenty of elephants in Mole Game Park (where I coincidentally spent an amazing week with the other JFs for a mid-placement retreat).  I indicated I had a fiancée at home (boyfriend doesn’t translate well – it means mistress (mister?)).  He said he would be happy being my second husband.  When I indicate that he doesn’t even know me, why would he want to marry me, is it because I’m white?  He lists off personality traits that I don’t have, and even if I did, there’s no way he could know I have them.  Finally, I said it would take 100 horses.  He finally gave up, defeated, and mumbled that I should know there is a serious shortage of horses in the world right now, they’re nearing extinction.  Point Sarah.

Joking aside, it’s exhausting sometimes.

It is always women surrounding the cooking pot or the washing bin.  It is women carrying water on their heads.  When there is a funeral, which can last either 3 days or 7 days in my experience, the women stay up from sunset to sunrise, dancing, as do the men, then the women work from sunrise to sunset cooking while the men rest and drink pito (local brew).

When you’re in the village and they can only afford to send one child to school, it is likely to be a male rather than a female.  In my office, where there are over 15 government MoFA staff, only one is a woman (and she is an unpaid secretary).

I have heard men discuss polygamy, agreeing that if one wife does not have all the characteristics a man wants or if she cannot satisfy all his needs, he will need to find another wife that has those qualities or can fulfill those needs.

I went to a village, Kabonwule, where my host mama and the chief and several of my host brothers and sisters are originally from.   There was a very intense, public quarrel between a husband and wife that required the chief to separate them.  It turned out the woman had sent their son to fetch water while she was cooking because she couldn’t just leave her pot.  The husband was furious.  I was furious that the husband was furious, but my mouth remained shut.  Instead, Madam Delphina spoke up – a very strong, powerful woman.  She told the husband he was being ridiculous – it made sense for the son to fetch water.  The chief also supported the wife.  I couldn’t help but think two things – these are the people effecting change with gender equality, and I wonder what will happen when we leave this village.

There are changes – one of my AEAs from Accra cooks regularly for people, including lunch for me!  My host brothers pound fufu and help us sweep the compound sometimes.  It’s there.   I’ve seen how outspoken and vibrant most women are here in Ghana, how they often unofficially ‘rule the roost’ and command respect, how they’re running restaurants and credit unions.  I  don’t want to project this image of helpless, oppressed women, it’s definitely not like that.  But not all women have equal opportunity.  Ah it’s so hard to explain without causing generalizations!

One thing we didn’t really discuss at length in training is the advantages of being a female in Ghana.  It appears that people feel more comfortable greeting me or talking and laughing with me because I’m seen as more approachable (at least initially) than a white male.  My office staff feels comfortable calling me in on nights and weekends, whereas they’ve indicated they’d have a tougher time doing so if I were a male.  When I indicate I want to learn how to cook, and I want to eat my dinner on the compound floor with my sisters, and when I want to contribute to the cleaning of the compound, I am not met with as much resistance as a male might be.  [Of course, I don’t know what it’s like being a male in Ghana, so this is based on discussions with male volunteers and is not fact, just observation.  ]

My time here is coming to a close and I have a lot more things I want to say.  I hope I don’t become too redundant.  Please continue to let me know what you’d like me to talk about!


July 26, 2010

–          Little pieces of my experiences and thoughts that don’t seem to fit into any one post.  Purely for enjoyment, no hidden meaning. –


When inside your room – Don’t Look Up

You won’t sleep well for a few days.


I’m bent over three buckets.  My back and knees are aching, my hands are peeling, and the sun is relentless.  Sweat pours down my forehead, onto my nose, and into the bucket I’m currently bent over.  With a bar of soap in my hand, I try to use the techniques my mama has taught me to remove the pounds of dirt that accumulate on my clothing.  It’s useless, and even if it wasn’t, my mama washes my clothes once more after I’ve finished anyway.  I feel pretty good about that, because she used to wash twice after I’d finished.

When I was first learning, my family crowded around me as I struggled to wash, my 5 year old sister was laughing – she’s much better at it than I am.  My mama asked “Don’t you wash your clothes in Canada?”  I replied, feeling pretty disconnected from the world I was explaining, that “we put the clothes in a machine, add the soap, then push a button and the machine washes it”.  They laughed some more, and I was also quite dumbfounded yet amazed with the technology I was explaining, and also our laziness at times.  It seemed pretty futuristic.  When my mama exclaimed “You and your machines!  You will not know how to do anything with your hands.  And your machines will soon take over all of Canada!”  – she didn’t need to tell me twice, I’ve seen enough movies to know this is true.

My brother also asked me if the sidewalks/paths moved in Canada.  When I was little and walking to primary school, I always hoped that the future would include moving sidewalks.  I started to say they didn’t, then had to add “except in some airports….”  Crazy.

Stop Weeping

I came out of my room, it was an extremely hot day, and I sat on a “bench” (planks of wood) under the mango tree beside my house.  I linked my hands behind my head, ready to relax and enjoy the moment.  I’ve been trying more often to consciously be in the moment with all my senses instead of focusing on the past/future/other things going on.

“Did your mother or father die?”

My Mama Delfina had appeared beside me and asked a very random question. I replied no, they were fine.  She then told me we only put our hands on our heads when someone dies.  Woops.  She then said that “We Africans only cry when our mother or father dies.  You white people, you weep and weep.  A few weeks ago, you were weeping!  You’re lucky I didn’t see you weeping!”  I explained to her that I had a super high fever, and when I have a high fever, I cry.  That’s just what I do.  When I watch a sad movie, I cry (7 Pounds – saddest movie ever).  When I hear a slow song, I cry.  It’s how I am.  She told me “If you want to become like an African, you have to stop weeping.  It’s taboo here.”  I am going to cut some onions in front of her and then we’ll talk.  They don’t even cry when they cut onions!

This is one thing I refuse to bend on.  I’m an emotional person, I really dig a good cry once in a while.  When I told her this, she said she liked how “free” I am.  Makes you wonder, does this make her feel “not free”?

Scented Deodorant

Before I came here, I packed organic, non-scented deodorant.  I didn’t want any mosquitoes attracted to my armpits.  I picked up some Lady Speed Stick last minute, when I discovered the organic stuff probably wouldn’t last the full 4 months.  This Summer Citrus Lady Speed Stick has been wonderful.  There are some scents I am still not quite used to.  Public toilets, or really full latrines where the users have poor aim.  The fish section of the market.  In these scenarios I can just discretely stick my nose in my armpit for a brief getaway to a tropical garden.

Change isn’t easy – Exhibit A – Balls

I’ve mentioned the game of keep me up I play with my host sisters.  After playing with a dish towel (which wasn’t even rolled into a ball…just a floppy towel thing), I got tired of it and bought a little, cheap soccer ball for the kids in my family.  It was a hit!

Imagine my astonishment when I came out of my room and saw the ball lying idly on the ground, while Awanfene Jessica kicked around the towel.  They do use the ball, but more often, they use the dish towel, or these leaves that they tie into a ball in a game called Kumbi.  The football is reserved for actual games, never for keep me up, and usually my host brothers take it from my sisters anyway.  To me, I’d think you’d always want to play keep me up with a soccer ball instead of a towel or some leaves.  To my host sisters, the dish towel/leaves trumps all – that’s what they’ve always used.  Remember this story if you ever have some fancy equipment that you think people will for sure benefit from.


If you lick the side of your shoulder, and it doesn’t taste like salt, take oral rehydration salts or something.  It means you’ve sweat out all your salt and now are just sweating water.  Or it means you aren’t sweating at all, which is even worse.

Times I’ve Loved with Younguns

Running through the hanging laundry, chasing Jessica, until she breaks down laughing. Afterwards, I sit on the “bench” and she sits beside me, lays her head on my lap and falls asleep.  There’s a circle on my skirt where the sweat from her head was.  She didn’t talk to me and would run when she saw me during my first 2 weeks here.

Watching the four year old, Agogo, skip 5 steps as hard as he possibly could, purposely fall flat on his bum then burst into a fit of giggles, repeatedly.

The first time Agogo saw me, and didn’t say “Brrruuuuuuuni” (white lady) as he always does, but instead said “Boressssssah” (my name in Nawuri).

(I could go on with these forever)

When Cycling

–          Don’t wear long, flowing skirts.  They get caught in the bike then pulled down, and you can’t reach around to free yourself so others have to rescue you and pull the skirt out of the back gears (pronounced jeers here).

–          Wear as much material around your chest/neck area as possible on long journeys.  The amount of bugs that get stuck to the sweat on your chest is pretty annoying.

Attention to People At Home

When talking to me, never, ever mention food.  I’m getting used to, and now actually like the food here.  But as soon as someone mentions nachos and cheese with fresh lettuce grated on top, all the progress I’ve made is lost.  So please, shut it.

FIFA World Cup

INSANITY.  People all over are scrambling to fix broken televisions.  20 people gather around a tiny fuzzball, screaming and shouting.  I had just arrived in Kpandai after spending the day working in Nkanchina, a village a few miles away, and before I could even get on my bicycle to head home, three of my friends ran up to me “Sista Sarah!  You are going to miss the match!  It starts in 6 minutes!” then sprint away. When Ghana scored the first goal against Uruguay, we all jumped up and down and hugged each other, and I got an accidental elbow in the face resulting in a nose bleed.

Likewise, when Ghana lost, I’ve never witnessed so much despair.  My 28 year old brother broke down, and Kpandai became a ghost town for 3 days.

Sound of Music

I won’t say who, but there is a very prominent individual in my office, with a lot of authority and status, who uses his laptop solely to play the Sound of Music soundtrack repeatedly whilst watching the swirling colours that come with Windows Media Player.

I love how music (local and foreign) plays out of speakers on the street.  Women randomly sway and clap.  In the middle of a farmer group meeting with over 20 middle-aged men, all maize farmers, the secretary stopped the meeting for an energizer.  All the men stood up and began singing a local song, clapping and swaying.  Can you imagine a group of 20 middle aged men in Canada, maybe business executives sitting in leather chairs around a glossy mahogany table, stopping their meeting, standing up, and singing?  I wish.

No Grudges on the White Man

My mama was cleaning out our storage room one Saturday morning.  She pulled out pieces of broken, dusty computers that looked as if they were before my time.  I asked her why she had them, and she said they’d been there for almost ten years.  A white man had come and promised computer training to people.  He collected their money, dropped the broken computers off, and disappeared.  My mama said this while laughing.

A Ghanaian man then came and began sorting the broken pieces and weighing them with a scale he brought.  I felt really bad for Mama, thinking she now had to pay a disposal fee for these computer parts the man had left.  I then realized he was paying her for the parts as he would re-sell them.  Hmmm.

Other interesting/uncomfortable moments for me arise whenever I talk about colonization with Ghanaians, or really destructive NGOs.  One of my AEAs was talking to me about colonization, and saying that when the first white men came, they’d never seen black people before.  They thought the dark skin was from dirt, so they scrubbed the skin with dangerous chemicals.  How do I respond to that?  People may act prejudice toward me with some things, assuming because I’m white I’m rich, I know everything about computers, I’ll give them free stuff, etc. but I’ve yet to experience an ounce of anger or distrust toward me.

The Worst Thing I’ve Done

Being a JF isn’t easy.  I mean, sometimes it is, but most of the time, it isn’t, at least for me.

On one hand, you’re here to create change.  That means taking action.  To take action, you need confidence.  To be confident, you need to have some understanding of the situation, both on a small scale and a large scale.  To have some sort of understanding, you really need to try to integrate, you need to ask questions, you need to dig deep.

For some things, I know it will be impossible to gain enough understanding, especially within 4 months, to be 100% confident in the actions you’re taking.  Sometimes you’re in situations where there isn’t much time for analysis – you have to trust your instincts, hold your breath, and leap into action.  Sometimes you have different values, and you’re aware of that, and because of it you go against the grain.  Sometimes you think “who am I to ‘create change’ in this community?”

Sarah – what are you trying to say?

I think I killed a baby chick.

It was a slightly overcast, warm Thursday morning and I had an hour to kill before work.  I was taking my breakfast and noticed one of the brand new yellow fluffballs was in the middle of the compound, all by its lonesome.  The mother was nowhere to be seen.  It was chirping its little heart out, to no avail.

I was having a discussion with my host brother, but all I could think of was how upset I was that this poor chick would be alone all day, and it might even rain, and the mama was out gallivanting with all her other chicks, not ensuring this one was fed or safe.  I told my brother my concerns.  At first he was just amused, but after several of my pleas he finally agreed to take the chick and go find its mother.  So, cute little fluffy chick in hand, chirping its little beak off, we set out to find the mother.  And we did.  And we released the baby chick to be with its mama.

That baby chick has not been seen since.  Word on the street is that the mother rejected it.  And I’m supposed to sleep at night.

I have an entire post ready and waiting entitled ‘Oops’ on all the ways I’ve messed up, including flooding a guest house and insulting every elder in a village.

Cheers 🙂

What Is Poverty…And What Can/Should I Do About It?

July 21, 2010

I thought after spending a few months in Ghana I’d be able to define poverty in a neat little sentence.  I thought when I got off the airplane, it’d smack me neatly in the face.  I thought I’d be able to answer the questions that had been nagging at me the weeks leading up to my departure:

Should I be here?  Should westerners be here?  Should westerners be here working on development?  What does it mean to be in poverty?  What can I do for those who know what it means?

Ha, I wish this post could be filled neatly with answers, but that wouldn’t be nearly as fun, and it definitely wouldn’t be accurate.  The answers don’t exist, and if they do, they’re dynamic, changing for each person and with each experience.  Here are my thoughts for the moment.

What does it mean to be in poverty?

I don’t know.  I will never know, because I’ve never experienced it and I never will.  At the end of the day, there’s a flight to air conditioning, 3 square meals, fast internet and unlimited undergrad options at my disposal if I so desire.

I wish I could explain what I think poverty looks like.  It’s something that isn’t as obvious as I’d expected.  It’s in the details behind the scenes.  It’s something you feel.  Let me share with you an example of when I feel like I’m witnessing poverty:

I’m riding back from a village called Nkanchina, whizzing by on a moto, bumping along with every pothole/giant gap in the dirt road.  There’s just under 5km to go until we reach the town of Kpandai.  It’s mid morning, so the sun is up, and extremely hot. At least it isn’t raining.  Rainy season has come, and when it rains, it pours.

I pass a woman who appears to be in her mid thirties, though I really have no concept of age here.  Let’s call her Abola. She’s carrying a giant load on her head, and I know she will carry that load the 4-something kilometres to town, sweat dripping down her back and arms.  I see she’s laughing and chatting with the woman beside her, who is also making the trek.  If she has a decent day, she’ll make maybe 50 pesewas (~40 cents) from that load on her head, then she’ll pack it all up and make that 4km journey back to her village before night falls, so there’s still enough sunlight to make supper for her family.

I really want to ask Abola “Is it worth it?  What else can you do?  Isn’t there something else you can do??? ” but I know that sometimes, there isn’t.  Or more realistically, there is, but trying something different may mean that you’re risking supper for your family that night, and that’s a risk that can be pretty tough to take when you’re someone who is vulnerable to so many factors outside your sphere of control.  There’s a system I’ve witnessed called ‘0 – 1 – 1’ which means skipping breakfast, but taking lunch and dinner.  There also exists ‘1 – 0 – 1’.  The fact that such a system exists as part of the language, makes me feel extremely uncomfortable, and makes the wheels turn in my naive brain.

So then I ask… what am I doing for those who know what ‘0 – 1 – 1’ means?  What can I do?  Should I even be doing something?

Why should I, an ignorant Canadian, do something when reality is, there are Ghanaians working for that woman every day.  People like my Director, Ahmed, who tromps around the fields to make sure his farmers are planting their yam mounds correctly, to maximize their yield.  This guy has office status, meaning he really doesn’t need to go to the field – he could sit in his comfortable chair with the Sound of Music blaring from his laptop.  But he’s working for Abola’s husband, who is sweating over his yam mounds.

Knowing that I have and will gain at least 657 times more than I have and will give, should I be here?  My answer is simple and probably dissatisfying:  why not?  Why shouldn’t I be here?  I have a different perspective.  I am usually able to think critically about the system, while respecting and valuing the cultural context.  I am working with people like Ahmed so he can do his job of bettering the life of Abola.

Let’s get out of ‘feeling’ mode for all you ‘thinkers’ out there.  I’ve come and worked for the Ministry of Food and Agriculture.  The program I’m working with the staff to implement is called Agriculture As A Business, as I’ve explained.  Essentially, we want farmers to analyze their choices before planting/processing, and we want that analysis to include factors like market options and the cost of inputs.  We want these clusters of farmers who come together to work, to turn their dollar a day farms into serious businesses. And I think it’s working.  Because of the program, and their initiative, the Tilinentob Soybean farmer group opened a group bank account, and will start farming onions together because there’s a market for them.  The Anuwabasai Gari processing group is collecting one Ghc per month per member, which will go to buying a gari processing machine.  So should I be here?  If I wasn’t, these decisions may not have been made.  Now I wonder if it’ll actually help…

Coming from outside the system, I’ve been able to see what needs to happen within the system for MoFA to be more effective.  Within MoFA, certain management changes need to happen and EWB is starting to gear towards that with our sector strategy.  These management changes will enable AEAs to better do their jobs, and ultimately better serve Abola and her family.  Maybe I won’t be able to play a part in those changes, as I only have 4 weeks left, but these are areas I think a good development worker (what does that mean to you?) could have value add.

Changes I hope to see within MoFA include involving performance-based incentives – the current situation is that people aren’t getting fired for poor performance, and they receive promotions and reward based on age, and sometimes education, rather than on hard work and results.  Also, I think it would be amazing if with the decentralization process of the government, feedback began happening upwards, in a constructive way!  And imagine if AEAs reported regularly on the actual results and outcomes of their activities, instead of just giving numbers like # of fields measured, or # of demonstrations conducted.  That way you could document and measure what is actually working!  Ah I think this is all way sexier than some brand spanking new technology that’ll rust away in the hands of someone who needs it the least (and I’m not just speaking from being brainwashed by EWB, I’ve seen it).

It’s not that the people I’ve worked with in my district MoFA office haven’t identified these potentials for change… they’re the ones that have helped me understand it all.  But as they’re trapped in the system, and extremely busy, and 500 other factors, it’s tough for them to catalyze these changes.  That’s where I see potential for EWB and for myself.  That’s something we can do – catalyze those changes that locals want to see, with the locals in the drivers seat.

There’s no doubt that every day I question if I should be here.  If I’m making matters worse as an outsider who really doesn’t understand a lot of what’s going on around me.  If it’s worth the money that the organization paid to send me here.  And maybe what I wrote above is an optimistic answer designed to make me feel better about my decision to come.  But maybe not.

What do you think poverty is?  Should you do something about it?  And if you think so, what can you do, from where you’re sitting at your computer, in your corner of the world?

Oh, and meet Abola.

Madam Abola

Much Love from Kpandai,

Challenged, Confused, and Motivated Sarah

PS:  Thanks to Leah who inspired me to write this post, simply by asking me what I’m asking myself.  🙂  Oh, the power of a question.

Traditional Values and ‘Development’

July 13, 2010

Disclaimer: This is guaranteed to be a sticky post.  I thoroughly encourage some healthy debate and discussion.  Additionally, it is all over the place because I’m not quite sure what the point is I’m trying to get across.  Enjoy 🙂

“We don’t grow millet here.  Our ancestors banned millet as a sacrifice to the gods.”  It was evening and I was in the community of Bladjai, about an hour moto ride from Kpandai.  My AEA and I have a farmer group meeting in Bladjai, but before we can start the meeting, we have to greet the chief of the village.  I squat down in front of him – a sign of respect – and mumble my way through the foreign greetings.  He can speak some English, and we discuss what I’m doing in Ghana, who I am, where my husband is, etc.

I asked him what the role of chief was and he began to explain – he acts as a mediator if there is a problem in the village, he provides sacrifices and blessings to their traditional gods to keep the lands fertile and the river filled with fish, and he represents the community when foreigners come a knocking.  He also owns all the land, so if someone wants some land to farm or build a house, they must first visit the chief.

This event occurred only a few weeks into my placement, and my understanding of traditional beliefs was (and still is) limited.  I asked what type of sacrifice he was referring to and he explained how millet is no longer farmed in the entire district of Kpandai.  Over 90,000 farmers avoid growing one of Ghana’s most common cereal crops.

Since hearing this, I’ve asked several people from different communities what would happen to a person if they grew millet.  Some say that they are likely to become ill, or their children may become ill.  Some say it simply won’t grow.  I’ve also heard that you will be arrested, or banished from your community.  Even those who don’t hold onto those traditional beliefs of the gods refuse to grow millet.  It is not socially accepted.  I’ve asked people – if you could make 5,000 new Ghana cedis (about $6,200 Cdn) from one acre of millet (this is an absurdly large amount), would they do it?  The answer has always been no, even for millions of Ghana cedis, for 20 tractors, they would not grow millet.

Millet is one example of how I’ve noticed a traditional cultural belief can in some ways hinder economic growth.  If you didn’t have to greet every single person you walked by before arriving at the office, you’d probably get there 45 minutes earlier every day, which would add on about 195 additional work hours per person per year.  But the greetings are one of the things I love about Ghana, the interpersonal interactions, the weight on social structures.   I can’t imagine an unfriendly, impersonal version of Ghana.  If annihilating traditional culture is the road to economic growth, that road and what you find at the end will not be pretty.  Then how do you create change if you refuse to go against the grain in some things?

I often think about the effect of cultural values on ‘development’ when I walk down a dirt path and children emerge, yelling “Fadah!  Fadah!” (Father, Father! – which I hope is obviously an impossible biological role for me to take on).  This was the result of missionaries.  “Faith-based foreign aid” is something I strongly encourage you to read up on.  I’ve seen new school and hospitals, and religion has given many people joy and hope, you can’t deny feeling it when you’re in a hot, crowded church surrounded by gospel music.  I’ve also seen the tragedy in how the traditional culture in communities can start to fade, because if that culture remained they wouldn’t be able to receive funding from these religious organizations.  And don’t get me started on what happened during colonialism.  Everyone I have met is either Christian or Muslim – though even the most pious Christians and Muslims do not grow millet.

[A month ago I had a really high fever and went to see the doctor.  It was just after 5pm, so I should have known the laboratory would be closed, but I was new.  The doctor saw me and prayed for me.  It was a really beautiful prayer, but what I really wanted at that time was a malaria test, or perhaps a combination of the two.]

As I sit in a chair outside typing away on my laptop, at the compound of the Nawuri tribe’s chief, I hear noises coming from the ‘courthouse’.  There is an argument between two women, and the chief is here to settle it.  In 1992 there was a conflict between the Gonja tribe and the Nawuri tribe, which essentially one of the main reasons Kpandai split into its own District, separate from East Gonja.  It is also why there is a broken down building beside my office – it was the located where a Gonja man’s house was razed.  In 1998 there was a conflict between the Concombas and the Dagombas.

Gonja Man's Razed Home

These conflicts, however brief, the 12 different tribes and therefore languages in Kpandai alone, the resistance to change, possibly due to traditional values, possibly due to the mess left behind by those who tried to erase traditional values, are they ‘hindering development’?  When Ghana is a developed country, will there still be chiefs and tribes?  Will you still kneel for your elders and snap at the end of a handshake?  Will farmer group meetings still start with a Christian prayer and end in a Muslim prayer?  Will my doctor take my hand and pray for me? Will communities in Kpandai grow millet? Will I still have a 10 minute discussion with the woman who sells me my breakfast in the morning, made right before my eyes?  Or will I be waiting in line at a McDonalds, not saying a word to the person in front of or behind me, taking my order from a 16 year old kid with acne?  In the face of confusion left behind from the western influences, I hope Ghana gets it ‘right’ in places where we got it ‘wrong’.

Something I’ve realized while in Ghana is that development work is generally something that needs to be done working within the traditional culture, not against it.  I say ‘generally’ because if it’s a cultural norm to not wash your hands after using the bathroom because the ancestors have deemed it so, we work against it.  We try to create change.  As a westerner here, there are some things that are not within your ‘sphere of influence’.   There are some things where you have to understand you just don’t know enough about what is going on behind the scenes, and it’s not your place as a westerner to try to do something about it.  I adore the following quote and thought I’d leave you with it:

Go to the people

Live with them

Learn from them

Love them

Start with what they know

Build with what they have

But with the best leaders,

When the work is done

The task accomplished

The people will say

“We have done this ourselves”

Lao Tsu, China, 700BC

A Day in My Ghanaian Life

July 2, 2010

After being bombarded with requests (from one person), I am here to write you about what a typical day here in Ghana looks like for me.  Enjoy, for I plan to get descriptive.

5am – 6:15am – Rise and Shine!

Waking up occurs around the 4th or 5th rooster crow.  I never sleep later than 6:15, and if I do, I can expect my host mama to come knocking.  My first weeks here I used my phone as an alarm clock until I realized how unnecessary it was!  A combination of rooster, the sound of sweeping, and voices in and outside of my room are guaranteed to wake me.  I join my sisters in their sweeping of my room and the compound.  The brooms consist of dried stick things tied together.  It’s actually really effective, though it can be sore on the back because you have to bend over.

7am – Baff

“Go and baff!”

My host mama will yell to me if I’m sweeping for too long.  The ‘th’ noise is pronounced ‘f’ or ‘d’ here.  I grab my bucket and fill it with the pipe water located near our compound (I still have not taken this for granted since my village stay!).  If I’m not feeling well, or it’s particularly cold, my mama or I will heat up some baff watah (bath water – gotta love the Ghanaian accent) on the coals – an amazing feeling.  I get my wash cloth, soap, and watah, and step into the stall that doubles as a urinal.  It’s lined with concrete, and opens up to the sky, making night baths amazing.

7:30 – Breakfast Number 1

My host family will usually eat leftovers from the night before, or go out into the market to get some breakfast ‘to-go’.  The exception is my host mama and I.  We now have a ritual, that I tried to shake because I didn’t like the privilege, but now I’ve accepted because I love it.   I’ll go (or she will) down to the main road and get Kpandai bread (way worse than Tamale bread and known for it) and some milk, if it’s needed.  I come back, and my mama and I will pull our chairs up to the little wooden table and take some tea with too much sugar and too much cream, and some bread.   We chill out in silence, or chat about the day.  I love this relaxed start to my day.

8am – Work Life

No two days in the office are the same!  I’ll either bicycle or walk into work, greeting people along the way.  If I’m feeling particularly friendly, I’ll stop with each greeting and converse with the people, and this usually means it takes an extra 15 minutes instead of the usual 5 minute commute.

At work, I’m usually the second or third person in the office.  When I’m first, I go into the little compound across the path and greet the family there (they don’t speak any English).  I’ll mime until I get the key to the office.  I go through the entire office (two rooms) and greet everyone, which usually takes the first half hour of my day.

My work day will consist of any of the following, and usually all of the following:

– AAB meetings with AEAs and their farmer groups, and the transit to and from their village (this can take a full day)

– AEA ‘coaching’ sessions – these are essentially discussions about how their meetings are going, the needs of their farmer groups, their challenges and successes, business ideas, etc.

– Meetings with the officers and Director – updating on AAB, discussing MoFA and the current projects, etc.

– Random field experiences – meeting farmers, seeing the fields and current projects in action, etc.

– Computer training

– Developing workshops (results-based management, training on AAB, additional AEA training), writing blog posts, e-mailing home, etc.

An excel workshop with Stephen - the MIS Officer

10am – Breakfast No 2

I love second breakfast!  At first I wasn’t taking it, until I noticed everyone else in my office would leave around this time and come back with various breakfast foods.  My stomach would rumble and they’d invite me to eat with them (as everyone does).  I now go and get my second breakfast with them.  This is either coco, porridge, or egg & bread.  Coco is the consistency of thick water, and usually tastes like ginger and some sweet and sour mixture.  Porridge is the same, except with chunks of maize flour.

1pm – Lunch Time

Lunch lasts anywhere from 10 minutes to 3 hours here in Kpandai.  I like to try different things from the women selling their food along roadside, but now that I’ve discovered my favourites, I usually stick to them.  A lovely lady sells jollof rice with delicious chicken down the road.  Watcha (can’t spell it) is rice and beans, and also yummy.  Now that the first round of maize has been harvested, I can almost always find some corn on the cob to munch on.  Fried plantains and beans, boiled yams with a sauce thing, all good stuff.  And if I’m lucky, a woman will walk by yelling/singing “heeeere’s rice watah!” and I’ll get some warm, sugary, creamy, rice porridge for a special treat.  In fact, just as I was writing this, I heard Madam Edith and her rice watah jingle and booked it outside – today is a good day.

Lunch is also a great time to run any errands – pick up some new threads from the seamstress, get your bicycle repaired, grab some phone credits, visit the carpenter to see if your stool is ready, etc.  Also, if it’s market day (every 6 days in Kpandai), the number of goodies available to you increase tenfold. Everyone comes in on their market trucks to sell their wares.  I adore market day.

5pm – Home Time

The office closes around 5pm.  Yes, it’s an 8 to 5 job, by definition, but you’ll rarely be working the full 9 hours.

I head home, greeting along the way, usually feeling either very motivated from a productive day or very demotivated from a day where no one showed up in the office and therefore I spent my day with my laptop at the District Assembly sucking on a bag of groundnut paste (essentially delicious peanut butter). Luckily those days are the exception, not the rule.

Either way, when I start walking home and my little sisters run up to greet me and my mama asks about my work and my brothers are playing football outside the compound, all becomes well.

6pm – The Dinner Experience

Have you ever stirred T-Zed?  No?  Didn’t think so.  Because it’s impossible to stir, so if you’d said you’d done it, I would not have believed you.  I am now resigned to the role of vegetable cutter or fire fanner or soup stirrer, because I am not fit for the role of T-Zed stirrer.  Imagine stirring concrete seconds before it has hardened.  My two host sisters take turns with the giant lump of carbohydrate that will become my dinner.  I actually love T-Zed.  It, along with the other carbohydrate dinners such as Banku, Kenkey, Fufu, are served with a soup or stew.  There is usually fish, or some unidentifiable meat the size of half a finger in the soup.  Light soup is my favourite – it’s essentially watery, semi-spicy, garlicy tomato soup.  I also like groundnut stew, and dry okru (a vegetable soup).  Wet okru soup is like snot.  Not my favourite.

Fufu is also a favourite – this is when boiled yams are pounded with a gigantic mortar and pestle.  I love pounding fufu with my siblings.

Pounding fufu with my sister as Mama Monica and Jessica look on

If dinner has already been prepared by the time I come home, I’ll sit in the yard and watch my brothers play an intense game of football or volleyball – and occasionally I’ll join in, end up falling flat or diving, realizing I’m not on grass, and cutting up my skin on the dirt.

We eat around 7pm, just as it gets dark.  Originally, my family wanted me to eat alone in my room with my chair and plastic table, which is what is shown as a status thing for guests.  I then graduated to being allowed to eat outside, alone, with my table and chair.  Eventually I broke this down to eating outside alone, without my table and chair, and I now eat with my host sisters, sitting on either stools or the concrete part of the compound.  There have been times when I’ve eaten with my brothers as well.  I like to stir things up. You take the ball of starch, use your fingers to ‘cut’ a piece of the starch, and dip it into the soup, then eat it!

Other Night Time Activities

Bucket shower number 2 is in there somewhere – most people here baff twice a day.

After eating, I’ll either watch football  with my family on the grainy TV, help brother Joefere and his mates with their math, chat it up with my host sisters or brothers, or entertain Jessica and Janet as they brush my hair and tie knots in it.  There are days when I need some solid alone time, and I’ll hide in my room with my laptop, my journal, or a book and relax.   Usually Jessica will follow me regardless of my pleas and I’ll end up with a sweet hair do.  “Your hair, it’s talia” says Jessica.  I say thank you, assuming that talia means fine.  It means macaroni.

Football in the Yard

I go to sleep around 8:30 or 9pm, and awake when the rooster crows for the fourth or fifth time.