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 40ºC 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.