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.