Another Day in Tamale

Why I am here and what the heck have I been doing?
June 4, 2007, 11:13 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

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.


1 Comment so far
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With all I have read and heard from your Mom, I am very much in awe of what you are doing. I know it can’t be easy. Take care and keep up the good work. Love, Betty

Comment by Betty McIntyre

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