Another Day in Tamale

A short word on Intangibles
August 19, 2007, 10:29 pm
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Development often seems like it is simply a big money business littered with big money international players who have no real intent to bring change. It becomes very easy to forget that development is about people. Development is about communities. Development is endogenously defined and is a PROCESS people go through, not simply something that happens to them. While many people fully recognize the fact that development is not simply restricted to the ‘transfer of technical skills’, this month it became clear to me how important the intangible is in development. Imagine growing up in a place where the majority assume that life will always be the same and that they will never be ‘whatever they’d like to be’ when they grow up. As well as providing people with the means to improve their lives, it is also important to provide people with inspiration and hope that their lives can change if they want them to. To bring change, people need to believe in themselves, but first they need someone else to believe in them.
The NGO I am working with, Africa 2000 (A2N), does an excellent job of valuing people as people. A2N staff become part of the communities’ they work in, always treat ‘beneficiaries’ as equals and even recognize they become enriched, challenged and ‘assisted’ by those they work with. Showing an inspirational video to a group of women in a Shea butter processing group in rural Northern Ghana may not have the same ‘impact’ as providing a school to the community, but I would argue, might even have greater value. Getting women to role model how they would walk if they were managers of a prosperous Shea butter producing factory, is not the type of activity UNICEF would undertake, but nonetheless remains extremely beneficial.
With so many development organizations assuming a ‘service delivery’ role, I worry that the true goal of development becomes obscured behind all the jargon and the value of the intangible becomes lost.

I have to make four confessions…
July 25, 2007, 12:51 pm
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First, I’m not sure exactly what this statement implies about my dance skills….but I have to admit that the majority of my dance lessons have been given by a blind, seventy year old Dagomba woman. Does it help that she has really rad tattoos? In fact, Mama Adisa is one of the most interesting women I have met so far. For at least two months I didn’t realize she was blind. She moves around our compound with the confidence and ease of any person with two good working eyes. Her eyes twinkle and her face creases into a grin when you speak to her. She laughs and dances when she feels the need, yet oozes a sort of caring that only a grandma can. While she only speaks Dagbani and my Dagbani remains less than perfect we share more jokes together than anyone else in the household. Just the other day, I was rummaging in my bag inside the women’s hut and had forgotten to greet Mama Adisa, so she started waving a stick at me and saying “sheee shee” because she thought I was one of the family hens. We had a good chuckle over that one. Another time, when she was patiently teaching me words in Dagbani I confused the word for bread (panu) with the word for vagina (pani). This became a hilarious joke for a good month. Every time there was a lull in conversation, Mama Adisa would say ‘Wunnam, Pani!’ and laugh her big belly laugh (Wunnam is my local name). One way or another this joke managed to spread to all the households in the village due to the mischievous work of Mama Adisa.

Second, I have recently placed termites at the top of the list of my most desired foods.
Seriously. Greasy, salty, crunchy and delicious, termites are the potato chips of the Dagbani village. Scarce enough to make themselves a much sought after delicacy, these small winged insects only come out a few times during the rains (at which time they are trying to mate, I do believe). If you are lucky enough to have a light source close by when this mating is taking place, forget the camera, run for the nearest bucket of water and start catching! In fact, several days after first trying the delicious termite snack, one of my sisters in the compound told me to hurry up and get a bucket because the termites had come again. With a full bucket of water in hand, and all excited with anticipation I rushed to the light source only to realize that she had simply been pulling my leg. I thought I left jokes about my gullibility in Canada, but clearly not. There’s nothing like being told your going to eat termites, and then realizing that the dream will never come true.

Third, last week after my morning bath I reached back to scratch my neck and found none other than a piece of slimy TZ.
TZ is the local food here made from a mixture of maize flour, cassava flour, water and lots of elbow grease. After vigorous stirring over hot coals this concoction turns into a semi-solid cream colored paste that provides the starchy backdrop to various soups that are then poured overtop. TZ is referred to as ‘sam’ in the local language, which literally translates into ‘food’. You haven’t eaten if you haven’t taken your TZ. Sorry, for the short cultural interlude. Anyways, while the discovery of a lonesome piece of TZ on my neck might say something about my bathing technique it also made me feel like I could now, at least partly feel like a true Dagomba. Dagomba people eat so much TZ, I believe they do in fact to find it in unusual places. It’s even used as a local substitute for glue!

Fourth, somehow there is so much relief in the fact that life and work are so tied. Sorry for the abrupt change of pace, readers. This blog post is far from perfect, but, as I’m slowly coming to accept, Ghana is a place that does not foster perfection. After spending another week in the village, this time planting my maize farm, I found so much comfort in farming. It’s not often that you can look up after an hour of work and see the tangible outcomes of your hard labor. While physically demanding, farming is somehow intellectually calming. Its simplicity is grounding. You farm to live and live to farm. You wake up every morning with your family, farm your crops and experience the exact same ‘daily life dramas’ that any other person does, the world over. People gossip, laugh, have spoilt children, are crazy and have babies out of wedlock. Babies are born; people are married; things die. You eat when there’s food and somehow manage when there isn’t. You share with your neighbor and dance in your compound. Just like the extreme weather here, life seems to pulse and thump with vigor and slack in strength at the flip of the coin. There are no cushions here, there are no fall back plans: this is simply life.

In the end, this is the case for everyone, but so many remain adamant in trying to convince themselves otherwise. They make up 10 year plans, marry their first love and go into the profession their parents chose. With all this planning and detailing of their lives, I worry sometimes that people forget to live and never let themselves feel the bumps, dips and experience the peaks. This week my body re-inflated with the new confidence that comes with a reminder of what life is about.

Why I am here and what the heck have I been doing?
June 4, 2007, 11:13 am
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Many apologies for the extremely long delay in communicating! New adjustments have left my head swimming and my pen poised but unable to articulate well what I am thinking or how I am feeling.
Why I am here:

Most commonly poverty is described using numbers and statistics like “the majority of the population lives on less than $1/day” or “the average adult life expectancy is 36 years”. Indeed, these values emphasize just how great the disparity is between the Northern hemisphere and our Southern neighbor. But what, in fact, do these numbers look like on the ground and what does poverty mean for those whom it has simply become a backdrop for their life?

First of all, I dislike the term ‘poverty’ because this word has too often been used in conjunction with the fateful descriptor ‘helplessness’. Likely the very first lesson someone learns when traveling to a developing country is that the poor are most certainly NOT helpless. Vulnerable, yes, hardworking, yes but helpless, I’m afraid not. As I’ve heard so many times here in Ghana “you can’t simply sit down and let poverty beat you…you must struggle for yourself and stand up”. In fact, I’ve most often heard this phrase from my roommate Rahimatu who lives her everyday life according to this saying. Despite many odds, Rahimatu was able to attend secondary school, but, like many others she did not pass her final exams. For many, this outcome ends a quest for higher level education; however, for the determined few this merely provides one more challenge along their road to success. In order to re-take your final exams you must first pay a very high fee to re-write, then you must study hard to cover the large amount of material, that, more than likely has not been adequately taught by a teacher. Usually, the studying student must support themselves while they study. In Rahimatu’s case, she runs a small candy stand is a phone call provider. I’m not sure exactly how much she makes in a days work, but considering that one phone call averages around 25 cents and candies cost 1.25 cents each, the grand total cannot be enormous. Even when Rahimatu passes her exams it will be difficult for her to be admitted into a tertiary institution because entrance is competitive for those without ‘plenty money’.

While Rahimatu’s situation remains precarious and her future holds many challenges, the inspiring part of the story is her optimistic attitude. She is thankful for what she has and while she aspires to have more for herself and her children, she does not covet what others have and compare it to what she has not. I think this is the reason I am in Ghana. I am here because there are so many people like Rahimatu who work hard every single day to provide a better life for themselves and their families.

What the heck have I been doing?

Similar to many places in the ‘majority world’, the livelihoods of people in Northern Ghana’s rural communities are dictated largely by their relationship with the environment. In such communities, farming, and therefore food production depends on the seasonal rains, fuel for cooking comes from firewood gathered from the surrounding area, water is collected in rain-filled dams and houses are constructed using locally available materials. While these communities have survived for thousands of years using established systems, changes in environmental conditions are creating new challenges. Soil infertility, soil erosion, sporadic and unpredictable rains and the increasing force of seasonal storms are making it more difficult for households to sustain their livelihoods.

As many of you already know, I am volunteering for Engineers Without Borders (EWB) Canada and am working in partnership with a local NGO, Africa 2000. Africa 2000 uses a unique asset-based approach to community development (ABCD) in order to help communities counter some of the challenges they are facing. Unlike many development initiatives that focus on community needs and weaknesses and often further an attitude of dependency within communities, ABCD capitalizes on and emphasizes the strengths of communities in order to improve their ability to help themselves. In this way, the work undertaken by Africa 2000 is very integrative and not easily defined. Their work focuses on rural communities with special emphasis on alternative income generating activities for women and children, but their projects can have a variety of forms.

At this point in my placement, however, I continue to keep this Dagbani (the local language) proverb close to my heart:

“He who knows not and knows not that he knows not is a fool”

As a foreigner working in a new place with an unknown language and culture, I have a lot of things to learn! Essentially, my mission for the first few months of my placement has been to learn and figure out how I can make a unique and beneficial contribution to Africa 2000. While it may seem obvious to you, my ‘beneficial contribution’ is defined in terms of its affects on the beneficiaries or the people affected by the project. In order to really understand this perspective I have been spending a lot of my time working in one community, Kukpehi, and helping and observing their community based agroforestry project. I am hoping to take the lessons learnt from my time there and apply it to another larger scale project that is currently in its second year. The Sustainable Livelihoods project seeks to introduce the asset-based framework for community mobilization to government field workers in an attempt to encourage more community driven development. This project has the potential to have impact both within many marginalized communities and within the public sector. However, just like development itself, things are never certain, always changing and require patience.

Note: I’m still trying to figure out how to work this blog and having some troubles with internet speed etc. in uploading pictures. Be patient! I’ll try and figure it out soon. Also, i wanted to add that while this post (and many of the pervious) are sounding on the super serious side I have also been having a tonne of fun. From playing random games with fruit sellers on the street to drinking ‘ataya’, a strong tea, with groups of old men…i have been having a ball. In fact, I’ve even been promised to be made Chief of a village! So…more fun stories to come soon.

Sensory Overload….
April 4, 2007, 2:28 pm
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It is difficult for me to summarize this last month I’ve spent in Ghana. The input of sensory stimulus has been so large it’s been a bit paralyzing. There have just been too many things to observe, too many people to speak with and not nearly enough hours in the day. For the sake of time and interest, I will include a few brief excerpts of experiences from my week-long stay in Kukpehi, a small rural village outside of Tamale (pronounced Ta-Ma-Lay), and a few pictures of my life in Tamale.

Fetching Water:

As beads of sweat trickled down my face, I did my best to concentrate, keep my head steady and prevent any more of the water contained within the bucket perched on my head from splashing out. With both hands clutched onto the sides of my bucket I became a source of much amusement for the women of the community, to whom fetching water is quite routine. These women were able to lift and place on their heads buckets that weighed around 40 pounds and were then able to carry this water for about 1 km back to their village. The women normally made this trip four times a day. Even after a week of practice, I was barely able to make two consecutive trips to fetch water with a bucket half the size normally used.

Now, while it is true that it is difficult work carrying water, it is certainly not an unpleasant chore. During this time all the women in the community have a chance to greet each other and exchange small pieces of information. I felt a large sense of companionship while I was collecting water, and if I was looking tired or my load was looking unsteady the passing women would offer me food or rearrange my bucket for me. However, most people would agree that walking a kilometre or two four times daily to collect water is not an optimal situation. Water availability is probably one of the biggest challenges facing many rural communities in the Northern part of Ghana. In light of this, there are many organizations and projects looking to provide alternate sources of drinking water. This experience made me wonder if these organizations are considering how they might be changing patterns of social interaction and the flow of information.

‘The Storm’:

One of the evenings that I was in Kukpehi, the rains and the wind came. I’ve never quite experienced anything similar to that brief but extremely intense storm. One minute the rain was flooding down in sheets and the air was thick with dust and the next minute the air was calm and dry. As a result of the storm, many of the houses in the village had their roofs damaged. In some cases, the entire woven grass structure had been removed. To me this was such a clear example of how directly linked people, especially the marginalized, are to their surrounding environment.

After the storm had subsided and I had surveyed the damage that Kukpehi had sustained, I thought it might take weeks for all the structures to be repaired. However, the next day when I wandered around the village I was surprised to see that almost all the houses had been repaired. In less than a day, the men of the village had worked together co-operatively to repair all of the roofs. Clearly, this community had established a highly effective strategy that enabled them to cope in such a harsh environment.

It is times like these when the relevance and importance of asset-based community development asserts itself. There are a multitude of highly effective, locally adapted strategies that communities use and have been using as a means to survive for hundreds of years. These strategies are often ignored or overlooked when a development organization enters a community looking to ‘fix problems’ with short-term projects and ‘magic bullet’ solutions. Instead of being overlooked, established locally adapted systems are just the sorts of assets that communities should be encouraged to mobilize and use a means of solving their own challenges.

My humble abode!

On Saturday I moved into my new place of residence in an area of Tamale called Tishigu. While I have only spent three nights in my new place, it already feels like home. My rent is about $8/month, my room has its own bath and I only have to walk a short distance to use the closest public toilet.

My Ghanaian Reality: Yet to be determined
March 10, 2007, 2:27 pm
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After several amusing misadventures, I am at last seated comfortably on the plane heading to Accra, Ghana; however, the reality of what is to come for the next year remains difficult to grasp. During the last few months I have been frustrated that I could hardly picture myself in Ghana, let alone fathom living there for 13 months. I kept rationalizing that the actual situation would surely sink in once I went to training in Toronto, or when I was in the throes of packing my 28 kg bag (what? there are kilogram restrictions on baggage?) and, if not then, at the very least I hoped that once I was seated on the airplane, reality would find me.

However, right at this instant, as I bite into a salt covered almond and wash down that familiar taste with a sip of water, I remain unable to picture my destination. Perhaps my imagination or creative abilities leave a little to be desired, or perhaps this is simply normal. In my experience, I have found that I can only imagine and picture what I see, hear, feel and experience. If you’ve never read a book or heard a story about a foreign place – how would you imagine it?

Of course, there are endless ways of imaging a place as well as perceiving it. I simply want to emphasize that the way I perceive and relay information back to you from Ghana will not necessarily be the way Ghanaians would perceive it or the way you might perceive it if you were here. Also keep in mind that many subtleties and nuance present in verbal language are lost when communicating in writing, reducing their clarity. So, if you have questions, ask, and with all this said, I am excited to share a bit of my Ghanaian reality with you. Akwaaba (Welcome)!

Hope everything is well wherever you are.