Thursday, November 8, 2007

Different Worlds

To get a better idea of rural livelihoods, all EWB volunteers spend some time during their placement living with a family in a village, far from electricity, paved roads and running water. I recently finished staying for 5 days with a family in Kuliya, a small village on the border between Ghana and Burkina Faso. The difference in lifestyles between Navrongo and Kuliya seemed just as great as the difference I felt when I arrived here from Canada.

I should probably start by giving an introduction to life in Navrongo. For the past two months, I’ve been living with a family in a community just outside of Navrongo (you might call it a “semi-urban” area). Officially, the name of the community is “ICOUR Township #2”, one of three townships on the outskirts of Navrongo dedicated to housing employees of the Irrigation Company of Upper Region. Every house in the community was built by the government and has exactly the same layout, and each has room for 2 families. Each side has six rooms (including a kitchen and water-closet/shower).

Felix and Celestine Abaah, along with three of their four kids, a niece, and myself, occupy one of these houses. Felix is a maintenance engineer for ICOUR, and works nearby at Tono Dam. Celestine works for the National Institute of Culture, and teaches young girls to weave as a career.

Their eldest daughter is married and lives in Navrongo, but stops by with her 1-year-old son often. The next oldest, Iven, 23, just finished studying science at training college in Kumasi, and is now teaching at a nearby JSS (Junior Secondary School). Felicity, 20, also attended school for training in computer skills. Helen, 16, is boarding in Bolgatanga while she attends SSS (Senior Secondary School) there. The Abaah’s niece, Emmaculate, 11, was taken in by the family when she was 6 months old and her mother passed away. She is attending primary school in Navrongo.

The Abaah house has electricity, and luxuries such as a television, a fridge, and a VCD player (which we use to watch Nigerian movies). The household has several bicycles and a motorcycle for transportation. Cooking is done on a portable gas stove, and supper consists of traditional Ghanaian dishes: Banku with groundnut soup and fish, TZ with okru soup, waakye with pepe, or rice balls. Water is pumped at a nearby borehole, and carried to the house to be stored in the fridge (for drinking), a container in the kitchen (for cooking), or a container in the bathroom (for bucket showers and flushing the toilet).

The Abaahs are devout Catholics; both Felix and Celestine are active in church organizations, and Iven is a former alter boy. In fact, Celestine almost became a nun – but that’s a story for another time.

Compared to most other families in northern Ghana, rural and urban, the Abaahs are doing extremely well. However, they’ve faced their own challenges. The kids have struggled to find jobs, in a region where there just isn’t enough employment to go around. As well, Felix and Celestine have worked hard to ensure that they can pay their children’s school fees (only primary school is free in Ghana). In the past, Celestine moonlighted as a pito woman – brewing and serving the lightly alcoholic beer from sorghum outside the house (it tastes great).

In Kuliya, I lived with Ali, his two wives, and their five children. Before moving into the compound for the week, I greeted the village chief to inform him of my presence. Traditionally, one is expected to greet the chief with a gift of kola nuts; I was advised to greet him with a few bottles of his favourite beer (a sign of changing times?).

Ali’s family lives in a clay-walled compound, along with his brother’s family and his mother. One portion of the compound has metal roofing – the rest was built in the traditional way for the region, with flat clay roofs. One part of the compound had been destroyed by the floods. With the rainy season practically at an end, we slept outside at night, on clay palettes and roofs.

Kuliya is not connected to the electrical grid. As in Navrongo, water is fetched from a nearby borehole, and stored in a shaded container in the corner of the compound. Cooking is done over coals. Protein wasn’t common, especially as the season’s groundnuts (peanuts) had yet to be harvested, due to a short drought that had left the ground too hard for pulling groundnuts. On my third protein-less day in the compound, Ali decided to kill a chicken for me, and a neighbour offered several eggs as a gift. The resulting fried chicken and eggs with pepe must have been one of the best meals I’ve ever tasted.

Ali and his family are Muslims, a religion which allows a man to have up to four wives, according to his wealth. Muslim or Christian, all men are required to pay a dowry to the bride’s family in order to marry. The traditional dowry varies from region to region (from 1 cow up to 3 cows and 25 sheep or more), but virtually all dowries are required to be paid in livestock.

Language was a big difficulty in Kuliya. Unlike Navrongo, where my family speaks English as well as 2-3 local languages, many people in Kuliya spoke only Kasem. In particular, very few women could speak English. Ali and his oldest son, Anthony, knew some English. Communication combined English, a little Kasem, and a lot of pointing and gesturing.

Apart from the rainy season subsistence crops, farmers in Kuliya were also dry season gardeners. Men, women and children gathered in the gardens from morning until night, in 40ÂșC sun, tending the tomatoes, peppers, onions and watermelon that represent their primary source of monetary income. Unlike gardeners in some other villages, Kuliya has no dam; crops are watered by the small wells scattered throughout the gardens. Irrigation with wells is hard work: the bucket must be lowered manually, swung expertly so that it will land upside-down on the water, and heaved back up hand-over-hand, all while straddling the well. Additionally, only some of the wells have been drilled and lined with brick, the product of a development project many years ago. The remaining wells have been dug by the farmers.

Dug wells require a lot of maintenance; when one of the wells stopped producing water, Ali climbed down to the bottom and spent the entire day loading mud and rock into the bucket, which was hoisted up and emptied beside the well. That giant pile of dirt will come in handy in April, when the rains begin again; to prevent the well from collapsing under the downpour, it will be filled in, only to be dug-out again for the next dry season.

While some farmers were tending the gardens, many other women were cutting and de-husking rice for dry season storage, or harvesting sweet potatoes, or cooking the next meal of millet TZ. Meanwhile, small children might watch the cattle, goats, and sheep as they grazed in the fields.

In many ways, livestock represents the farmers’ bank account. For instance, gardening profits might be used to purchase a cow, which can produce a calf about once a year. When housing needs to be repaired, or a child’s school fees need to be paid, a cow can be taken to market and sold (for about 200 Ghana Cedis, or $200). The “interest” on this bank account is determined by the farmer’s access to veterinary services and medicine.

Schooling is a much bigger problem in the village. One day, I attended a PTA meeting at Kuliya primary school. The topic of the meeting was the poor test results achieved by the students, due primarily to poor attendance. Instead of going to primary school, many children help in the gardens or watch the livestock, either by choice or pressure from parents. Attending JSS is a rarity; school fees must be paid, and a bicycle is generally required to travel the long distance to town every day. SSS is even more costly and distant. Ali’s kids were all in school, and his son Anthony attended JSS; however, Ali was also one of the richer men in the village, so this didn’t represent the norm.

My stay in Kuliya left me with a fresh appreciation for just how distant I can be sometimes from the farmers that MoFA works to help. Living with the Abaahs, I’ve been able to learn a lot about life in Ghana, but I often have trouble determining the issues faced by farmers. Even living with Ali in the village, I had to remind myself constantly that Ali’s family was in the richest segment of the community.

On my last day in the village, I wandered out in a direction I hadn’t taken before, to find a collection of gardens that I didn’t know existed. One garden in particular was tended almost entirely by kids. The well in the middle of the garden had been dug too wide; two branches had been laid across the drop, which the kids straddled as they hauled water up out of the well. I stopped talking to one boy as he stood over the well, worried that he might slip and fall in if I sidetracked him, but he’d been done it too many times to be distracted.

Another boy showed me around the garden, ending at the tomato plants. They were dying; exactly what was wrong with them, no one was sure. The plants were the polar opposite of the strong, healthy ones I had seen in the main garden.

I was reminded of something another Waterloo JF, Ryan Case, had said when I first arrived in the country. I’d mentioned that I was surprised by how bad the urban poverty was on the bus ride up from Accra. Ryan replied that, yes, the urban poverty was bad, but the worst of it was in full view. The worst of rural poverty, however, was always a little farther out than you could see.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Different in Chuchuliga

Anonymity has been hard to come by in Ghana. Whether it's the neighbours laughing when I try to wash my clothes, being stared at on the street, or having children yell "fella, fella, good morning! [white man, white man, good morning!]" whenever I bike by, it's hard to blend into the background. Novel at first, it can get tiring after a while; there are times when I just want to be ignored.

Two weekends ago, a fact-finding mission took me outside of Navrongo. I've been having trouble with the numbers in my report on crop profitability, and a friend suggested I visit a commercial farmer named Janet in Chuchuliga, to ask about her crop budgets.

Chuchuliga is maybe only 10 km from Navrongo, so it wasn't hard to find a shared cab in the taxi run lot waiting for passengers to the village. The cab driver seemed to think I'd just rolled into town (it didn't help when I admitted that I'd never been to Chuchuliga), and offered to take me there on my own for 20,000 cedis (according to him, the cost was really 40,000, but he was doing me a favour). The deal turned to 10,000 cedis for the front seat to myself (normally, on this particular run, two people would cram into the front). I said that I was fine with the usual set up and sat down to wait for passengers to arrive; unfortunately, when it came time to get in, the cab driver was under the impression that I'd taken the "10,000 for the front seat" deal.

I can't say for sure, but I think it was the combination of 'being treated differently' and 'being ripped off' that annoyed me. I started into a yelling match with the cab driver, before realizing that there were 4 people crammed into the back of the cab that would probably rather that I just let it go. So I got in.

When we got to Chuchuliga, the driver seemed happy to help out. After paying the fare, he launched into an explanation of how to get to Janet's bar (as a bar proprietor, commercial farmer, and community leader, Janet was fairly well known by anyone who had ever been to Chuchuliga). I didn't hear much of the cab driver's explanation before I got out and slammed the door.

Deciding to figure out the way myself, I greeted a nearby woman and asked her how to get to Janet's bar. She led me farther down the path away from the road, pointed at a maize field, and walked away. I briefly considered the possibility that Janet had built her bar in the middle of the field (maybe she heard voices saying "if you build it, they will come"), before returning to ask the woman for clarification. I asked for Janet several times, attempting to perfect my pronunciation, before she replied "oh, Madam Janet! I thought you were asking for a place to urinate!"

The woman explained that I was standing right beside Janet’s bar, which is probably what the cab driver was trying to tell me when I slammed the door. I walked in, greeted the patrons and asked about Janet’s whereabouts; luckily, a man decided to lead me to her (when I ask how to get somewhere, people are often determined to lead me right there, so I try not to ask anyone who looks too busy).

He led me back towards the center of town, where a giant circle of hundreds of women had gathered. In the middle was a drum crew, and the more outgoing women were dancing to the beat and wiping the sweat off the drummers’ foreheads with their shawls.

I was an hour early for our meeting, and based on what I knew about Janet, I had a feeling that she was probably busy here. I told my guide that I would sit down and try to find Janet later; unfortunately, my English didn’t seem to count for much in Chuchuliga, and he went into the circle to find the woman in the middle of it all and point her in my direction.

It was easy to see why Janet was so highly respected; she greeted me as though we’d been friends for years, and it felt like we had. We talked for a few seconds before she decided to grab me a chair to sit down and watch what was going on. I felt a twinge of guilt here; an older woman went to the back of the circle to supply me with a chair, but I didn’t want reject their hospitality.

For some reason, Janet picked up the chair and set it down in another part of the circle. I sat down. Before long, the drummers had moved across the circle and were drumming right in front of me. Some women occasionally pulled out coins and bills and stuck them to the drummers’ and dancers’ foreheads; I wondered if they were looking for a tip from me, but I felt a little too disoriented to start sticking currency to anybody’s forehead.

Janet found a few minutes to come over, sit down and explain what was going on. The MP of the area, who was also the Deputy Regional Minister of the Upper East, was coming to the town to hand out cloth (I'm guessing it was a form of aid after the floods). The cloth was for all the women of the village, but would only be handed to the leaders. Janet explained that she had organized the event so that the hand-over could be done in full view of all the women in the village.

As Janet got up to leave, I noticed a line of empty chairs to her left, beside my own. It slowly dawned on me that I had just become the newest member of the government’s delegation.

My fears were confirmed when the MP arrived in an escorted SUV a few minutes later, along with her bodyguard and several female staff members. I shook hands with the MP and her staff as they sat down, wondering what I was doing there. I was aware of the fact that I hadn’t shaved in a few days and was wearing the some clothes as the day before, although I tried to flatten my hair down.

The MP started her address, speaking in Buli (the language of Chuchuliga and the Builsa District). After a few minutes, she began gesturing to the members of her staff, while the crowd clapped intermittently (introductions, apparently). As she progressed down the line, I tried to move my chair farther away, unsuccessfully attempting to blend in with the hundreds of middle-aged Ghanaian women forming the circle.

The MP reached me and began speaking. I was uncertain of how best to react to an introduction by a person I’d just met in a language I’d just heard for the first time. A few words in, I heard the word "fella" ("white man" in Buli as well as Kasem, apparently). Realizing that she was making a joke, I grinned as sheepishly as possible and waved to the crowd, who laughed.

She finished handing out the cloth and left for another engagement as quickly as she arrived. When Janet came over to sit down again, I asked her what the MP had said.

"Wherever she goes, she makes a new son. She said, ‘this is my son, the white man, although I do not yet know his name’."

I might feel different here sometimes, but it’s good to be reminded of just how quickly I’ve been accepted as well.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Dam Nation

If there's one thing Ghana seems to love, it would have to be dams (...and football). Akosombo, the giant hydroelectric dam in the south, supplies the entire country with electricity, and restrains the world's largest artificial lake (Lake Volta). A new hydroelectric dam is being built, and will hopefully address the recent rolling blackouts.

Here in Kassena-Nankana, though, it's all about irrigation. The district has over 40 small-scale dams, and two large ones, which supply irrigation canals allowing farmers to grow crops during the dry season. The dams are also used for livestock and fishing. Dams have been in use here for a long time, and with good reason; the climate is defined by erratic rainfall and a very long dry season (about to begin in October).

One important way of looking at reducing poverty in northern Ghana is by promoting "Agriculture as a Business". By assisting farmers in moving from subsistence farming (keeping most of what you grow for your family's meals) to income-based farming (selling more crops on the market), the extreme vulnerability of subsistence farming can be reduced.

Farmers primarily grow staple cereal crops (maize, millet, sorghum, rice) during the rainy season, often for sustenance. In the dry season, however, vegetables can be grown on the irrigated land, and sold on the market. Every time a farmer can turn a profit growing vegetable crops in the dry season, that extra cash makes him or her a little less vulnerable to how the next rainy season plays out. It also affords more opportunities, such as sending children to higher levels of education.

I'm currently working on a report assessing the profitability and risks of three of the main dry season vegetable crops: tomatoes, onions and hot peppers (or "peypey" as they're called here). To get some data, I visited Tono Dam, the largest dam in the district (and the biggest of its kind in West Africa, from some accounts).

I was struck by just how massive Tono is; not having seen a decent-sized body of water since leaving Canada, the lake seemed to stretch out forever. Tono Dam spans a distance of 2 kilometres, and irrigates a total area of 2500 hectares. The irrigation canal winds its way through 9 villages. The spillway has been flowing for almost a month due to the rains; luckily, the water level is far below what it was at the height of the floods, when the spillway threatened to overflow (a situation which would have been disastrous for the surrounding villages).

The flowing spillway might be evidence of a harsh rainy season, but it's good news for fishermen. Anyone can pay for a seasonal contract to fish with nets on the lake. When the spillway's flowing, though, all you have to do is wait for the fish to come to you. There's been a lot of good tilapia in Navrongo market lately.

This was also the first day I took out my camera since I got to Ghana. On top of the fact that I'm not exactly a star photographer, snapping pictures can be difficult here. It can send the wrong impression, and when you ask strangers if you can take their pictures, they'll often refuse. One picture I took of some recently caught fish set off a minor incident when the woman cleaning the fish thought that I wanted to include her in the photograph. Luckily, Felix (the father of my Ghanaian family and my guide to the dam) was able to explain the situation.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Water, Water Everywhere

I've been working in Navrongo for about two and a half weeks now. The people here are incredibly hospitable, and it seems like I've gotten to know half the town. They're all testing me on my knowledge of Kassem, too (the local language).

Unfortunately, the district has been experiencing incredibly bad rains lately as well. There has been a downpour almost every day since I came. While the rest of Ghana is doing well with the weather, huge areas of the Upper-East Region are experiencing the worst floods in 15 years. Crops and livestock have been adversely affected, and one of the duties of the Ministry of Food and Agriculture now is to go out into the district and determine the losses that farmers have experienced. In addition, throughout the Kassena-Nankana district, houses are crashing down one by one.

Traditionally, houses in Kassena-Nankana (of which Navrongo is the capital) are built from clay. The roofs are nearly flat, with a slight slope towards one side, with a ridge of clay around all four ends. At the lowest end, a single pipe allows the water to drain off. This relatively flat roof allows a family to sleep on top during the hot months, and inside when it is cold. In normal years, the design withstands the weather well. However, with the rains as they are now, the houses cannot hold up under the onslaught. It is difficult to find a traditional house left standing.

Closer to town, the people who can afford more modern aluminum-roofed houses have made it through the rainy season. When the rains stop, in October, those with clay houses will have a chance to rebuild and recover as much as possible. In the mean time, however, the destruction across the countryside is a reminder of how much vulnerability (to weather, to markets, or to other factors) shapes and defines what poverty is.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

On a Mission

After a trip out to meet the District Director at the office where I will be working in Navrongo, I have come to Bolgatanga for a few days, while the director asks a family if they'd be willing to have me stay with them. With a full day in Bolgatanga to myself, I half-expected to sleep, read, and wander around town for a few hours. Sarah Lewis has other plans.

Sarah is a Long-Term Volunteer with EWB in Ghana, and has been here for seven months. She also works with the Ministry of Food and Agriculture, and developed and organized my placement in Navrongo. I will be working with and reporting to her for the next 3 months. Sarah is also the former president of the EWB chapter at Waterloo, so we go way back.

Sarah's 'mission' for me was this: go out into Bolgatanga, and ask people why they thought that fewer girls than boys attend school in Ghana.

I found this to be a fairly scary proposition. Asking strangers for their opinions on complicated issues probably isn't something that comes naturally to me (or most people, I expect). But with the added cultural and linguistic barriers of being new to the country, it becomes even more difficult.

I put off the mission until late in the afternoon, and then wandered around town for a while as I thought of a strategy. Eventually, I decided to buy things from people selling on the road, and ask the question while they got the change.

I began by purchasing some biscuits from a young girl down the street from the guesthouse. Ironically, I interrupted her while she was doing her homework. After paying for the biscuits, I said, "Please, I also have a question for you. Do you know why is that more boys than girls attend school in Ghana?"

She shook her head and said "no". From my later experience, I expect that I phrased the question in the wrong way. At the time, however, I had the uncomfortable feeling that she expected that I was about to tell her why I thought that more boys than girls attended school here. I wished her a good day and moved on.

I tried again soon after, with two women selling groundnuts. After paying, I explained that my "senior sister" had sent me out to ask the question, and phrased it as "why do you think" rather than "do you know why". I had to rearrange the question a few times before they got my meaning (Ghanaian english can take some getting used to). The women replied that men used to attend school more often than women, but now, everything was fine.

I bought some bananas from a young woman farther down the road (my pockets were starting to get very full by this time), and asked the question again. When I finally got the question right, she responded by stating that girls often did not value education as much.

I soon realized that my strategy of speaking only to street vendors didn't exactly give a balanced sample, since the majority of them were women. To get some male representation, I had to work up the courage to approach somebody on the street.

I asked the question to a young man named Justin next, who I think was about my age. His response was that education was still not considered as important for girls. I found it interesting how the answer differed slightly from the woman I had spoken to just before, although you probably can't read much into talking to just two people.

Finally, having worked up a lot of courage, I approached a group of men sitting down on some benches, and posed the question my "senior sister" had sent me out to find.

Immediately, one of the men pulled out a bench for me to sit on in the shade. I sat down in the middle of the group. The eldest man in the group said "first, you have not greeted us. What is your name?"

I felt completely embarassed by my rookie mistake. In many cases, it would be in bad form to ask a question like that in Canada without introducing yourself. In Ghana, where greeting is considered to be very important, the misstep is more important. I apologized and introduced myself as Dane.

The man introduced himself to me as Issah. He then told a story about a foreigner getting off a plane and asking a question to a Ghanaian in the airport without introducing himself. I wondered if being reprimanded in story form is better or worse than the direct style.

I sat and talked to the men for about 15 minutes; about the question, but also life in Ghana in general. They were happy to sit and talk to a complete stranger, and to get to know each other better. I realized that, although I was sure to make similar mistakes in the future, it was necessary to "dive in" if I was ever going to speak to anybody, and learn as I go along.

Mission Accomplished.

Saturday, August 18, 2007


My plane touched down in Accra, the capital of Ghana, on Wednesday evening. My introduction to Ghana was the wave of humidity that hit me on walking out of the plane; after making my way through customs and out into the greeting area, the flurry of activity and voices were my introduction to Accra.

Shawn, a fellow Engineers Without Borders Junior Fellow, met me coming off the plane. It was my first time seeing one of the other JF's since training, and I wondered about all the experiences he must have had since our training week back in May. JF's are university students from across Canada, who spend 4 months on volunteer placements in developing countries through EWB. This year, I am the only JF to work in the fall rather than the summer, owing to the unique schedule of being in a co-op program.

We met Mel, another JF, later in the night, and the two of them saw me off on the bus to Tamale the next morning. As with many EWB volunteers before me, the city of Tamale is my starting point for learning more about the north, and eventually travelling to the district I'll be working in. The bus ride to Tamale lasted a total of 13 hours, with stops at several rest stations, including one in the major city of Kumasi. I learned later that this is considered a very successful ride (no hold-ups or breakdowns, and a fast driver).

The day after arriving in Tamale, I was able to sit in on a wrap-up retreat for the Ghana JF's. Every Junior Fellow travelling to Ghana that I trained with was at the retreat (except for Shawn and Mel, who were already in the south). This was a very lucky situation for me, to be able to catch up with everyone and hear about all of their stories and the different districts that they had worked in.

A friend of Kristy Minor, one of EWB's Long-Term Overseas Volunteers, invited us to her house for supper that night, where I had my very first Ghanaian TZ (a meal made from maize flour, with a consistency like porridge in jello form, drenched in soup and eaten by hand). As the JF's reminisced around me, I felt incredibly inexperienced. I knew that I was just starting out, as they once had, but somehow comparing myself to everyone I had gone through training with just 3 months before left me feeling somewhat lacking. I wondered how it had been different for them, to learn some of the basics together at a group, but I also somehow enjoy the challenge of 'going it alone'.

We learned about the culture shock cycle in training; entering a new culture, you can often expect to feel invigorated by all the new and different things around you, then eventually have an emotional crash as you realize how little you know. This levels off with experience. In my first few days, I think that I've oscillated between the first few stages several times already. The knowledge of the LTOV's and JF's definitely brings reality home, but I also can't wait to get out to the district I'll be working in, to discover another new culture and language.

Tomorrow, I head for Navrongo.