Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Conflicting Feelings

So it's been 5 weeks since I've been back in Canada. I've decided to continue writing in this blog, because it is a constructive form of reflection for me. I'm able to process thoughts, and think critically from experiences, learning things I wouldn't normally learn. Some of these posts might not be interesting at all. You may think that I am over analyzing a simple situation, the result of a hyperactive imagination, lol. Alas, the blog should be changed to A Window Into Nick's Brain.

Since being back, everybody is asking "what's it like to be back". This isn't an easy question to answer quickly, because a whole mess of emotions arise whenever I think about Ghana and now the polar opposite that is Canada. Ghana was a world of extremes. Distractions were minimal, and one was able to focus on everything in their environment. There were highs, when I would work 80hr weeks and wake up excited for the next week. There were lows, when I cried for the first time in 8 years. Ghana pushed me to my limits, in a way no other experience has.

But being back is confusing. I'm so happy to be back seeing friends and family. It's amazing to engage in intellectual conversations with so many of you. Get up to speed on global issues. Have fun. Eat amazing food.

When I really sit down and think about it, I think about what my host family back in Ghana is doing. What my co-worker is doing. I think about the fact that 6 weeks ago that used to be me. And it makes me amazed that two places so different could exist on the same planet.

But when people ask "how's it to be back?". Sometimes I don't want to answer "great". Sometimes I'm damn frustrated, and want to say how aggravating it can be to see people so . . . content . . .oblivious . . . apathetic.

Though my experience is limited, I feel that the life I led in Ghana was closer to the majority than the world than we live here. The life we live in Canada, or at least Vancouver, seems so . . . artificial. People work hard for what they have, but there is just so much excess. People are able to have hobbies, walk around the sea wall, go out for coffee, sushi, or drinks. Our children dress like their supermodels, have elementary schools that are better than most secondary schools in developing countries, and participate in all sorts of extracurricular activities. We live life as though we are inside a bubble of sheltered utopian reality.

Now some of you may be saying “Nick, people are being laid off and we are in the midst of an economic crisis”. This is true, and for those people I am sorry. It’s not my intention to downplay or understate the plight of many Canadians. But I look at our society, with the social programs such as Employment Insurance and Welfare, and can see that we are still getting along quite well.

If you are somebody who has your struggles and that occupies your energy, efforts, and time, then my frustrations are not with you. If you are somebody who doesn’t know about the global crises of today, then my argument is not with you . . . although today we should all know what is happening in the world.

My frustrations are with those that know the great global challenges of our time, and choose not to do anything. The people who say “it’s too depressing, it’s too daunting”. That wearing the world’s problems on one’s shoulders isn’t going to make them go away.

There are issues in this world that are not permissible. They are unacceptable. We all know this but for some reasons are sometimes struck into a state of apathy. Ignorance of these issues is no longer an adequate excuse. Most people know of the global conflicts/plights of today, and those that choose ‘not to know more’ consciously, are guilty of inaction. Because it is depressing or too daunting, does not justify inaction. This is the same as saying: “that’s really sad, but I can’t deal with it right now, at least it’s not me on that side of the world”.

It is our obligation, as human beings, to attempt to remedy these issues, in whatever capacity we choose to.

No one should be able to say, you are doing enough or not doing enough. It is only a moral question that you need to ask yourself. “Can I do more?” If you get a guilty or queasy stomach feeling, then you know your answer. YES.

It’s true, that thinking of all global issues can be suffocating at times. One cannot know their place, what they can do, or what problem to address. Just pick something that motivates you to take action. Pick one cause that you can devote some of your effort to, and follow through on it. Start off small, take the small steps, and reward yourself for your small successes.

Just make sure that you are continuing to increase commitment. Don’t kid yourself that throwing pop bottles in the recycling or using a travel mug is really going to stop global warming. Just ask that simple question: “Can I do more?” and let yourself be the judge.

What makes me saddest is thinking about the upcoming generation. A generation that has a sense of entitlement, without the need for work ethic. A generation that’s occupied with the new bells and whistles being put out by Apple and Microsoft, instead of world news. I’ll leave that for another post however . . .

Friday, April 3, 2009


It’s probably around 11:00pm in Gbong, a rural village when I’m violently woken from my deep sleep. I’ve been staying in this village for the last 3 days, to get a final feel of rural life, and reconnect with the reason and passion that has been driving me for the last year.

Under my mosquito net, outside in the compound on the concrete floor, I’m violently ripped from dreaming about Canada by a sharp pain on my right baby toe. Something has stung me. In Gbong there are many bees, and so immediately I start slapping at my foot in the dark to try and kill the stealth bomber attacking my baby toe.

After 10 blind strikes and yelling “Son of a bitch” repeatedly, I grab my headlight to investigate the kill. Nothing is there. I’ve been stung by bees before, so I search for the black stinger likely to be stuck in my baby toe. I don’t see it, and a fleeting thought that maybe something else stung me passes through my mind. The pain throbbing in my foot is far more than any bee sting I’ve had before, so I start wondering what else it could be.

I leave the mosquito net, a little disappointed at the mirage of safety it has deceived me with, allowing my body to be penetrated by this mysterious night bandit.

“I’m sleeping inside. Something’s bitten me, and I’m sleeping on the bed no matter how hot it is” I say to one of my hosts.

60 seconds has passed since my rude awakening, as I enter my room. Immediately, a sharp pain strikes my inner thigh on my right leg, close to a ‘particularly sensitive spot’ on my body. Naturally freaking out, I immediately think that the bee has managed to crawl up my pant leg close to my crotch and is now attacking for a second round.

One swift pull of the draw string at the waist of my Thai Fishing pants, and they drop to the floor. I search through my boxers for the ninja bee, but to no avail. And again, no signature bee stinger left inside. By this time my foot is throbbing more than ever, and the sharp pain in my thigh is matching the beat.

I return outside when my host says: “if it hurts right here, then you’ve been stung by a scorpion” as he motions to his inner thigh. “Son of a bitch” I think to myself, as revenge becomes my primary objective.

Limping, I check with him around the area to confirm if his diagnosis is correct. After a minute or so, we see the scorpion heading towards my bedroom. It’s small, about half a pinky finger in length. I grab my sandal off my foot, and with ‘great vengeance and furious anger’, strike down upon the black menace.

After we kill it, I sit nursing my throbbing foot, with my two hosts. The man brings me some ointment to rub on my foot and I start to read the label:

{“CURES: All skin disease, boils, waist pains, sexual weakness, body pains, cartha, piles, white, cold, women use, infant disable, cholera, eye troubles, ear pains, breast problems . . . .”}

I laugh as I read the first few words, thinking that all of this must be ridiculous. I recall a bus ride, when a man boarded and started preaching some miracle cream to all the passengers as we hurtled down the highway at 90km/hr. He went on for about 45min about local treatment combined with clinical trials and real doctor approval. After he finishes, people start raising there hands and forking out cash as he sends out small containers of skin cream. At the time I could only think of how easy this con man could have filled some bottles with shea butter made from local women, printed a false label at an internet cafĂ©; and be ripping off trustworthy Ghanaians. “I’m not using this crap” I think to myself.

Finally I reach the end of the label: {“. . . good for farmers, scorpion bites”}.

“Why not?” I reach in and spread it on my throbbing foot. I sit with my hosts for a while longer, as they all recall stories of when they’ve been stung by scorpions before. Suddenly I don’t feel so sorry for myself, as it seems like quite a common place occurrence in this rural village.

I crawl into bed and try to will myself to fall asleep. As I’m lying, the pain in my toe has spread to my entire foot, and I imagine the scorpion injecting micro razors into my toe that cut my blood vessels with every pulse of my heart. 30min after dreaming of things I’m going to do when I get back to Canada, I manage to fall into a deep slumber.

A first, and hopefully a last, in Ghana.

Friday, February 20, 2009


This was part of my February newsletter (Feb 14). If you don't receive them and wish to, email me at

For the last month I’ve been planning this district-wide survey around the clock. As I mentioned in my last post, it started with talking to the communities to influence the planning process of the government. Since those community visits, it has been a logistical thunderstorm, filled with spontaneous planning meetings, designing the community approach and questionnaires, and pre-testing that process in the field.

The first success was getting the government to cut a check for 3660Gh¢ (~3660 CDN) to fund the survey. After a week of hassling with cumbersome processes, the check was in the bank and I had one less problem to deal with. What was once an idea in December was now one step closer to reality!

The second success was the assembly the team. After sitting down on two separate occasions with all department heads (a once in a blue moon occurrence), we finally managed to draw a roster of 12 names that would form my team. After writing letters to inform the officers of the project, confirmation phone calls slowly started coming in. There were times when I would be driving through town and a man I didn’t know would stop me. After stopping the motorcycle and greeting the anonymous man good morning, he would say:

“Good morning Nicholas. I received your letter, and I want you to know . . . I’m in. By the way, my colleague John, he wants me to tell you that he is also in.”

The way these mysterious strangers would stop me in town and confirm their commitment in a secretive fashion, made me feel like we were planning a bank robbery. After two weeks of phone calls and personal visits, and 12 letters; The Fellowship of Saboba was assembled. The journey ahead would be long and intense, but if done well could serve the district in a profound way.

With personnel and cash in the bag, it was just a matter of having the community approach fine tuned. With my right hand man, Tanku, we headed off to a few communities to test our approach. After ironing out some glitches in the survey, we were ready to train the team and start spreading throughout the district .

Finally training started. I ran an intense program: 1 classroom day to introduce the team, 3 field days for practical experience, and a final day in the classroom to discuss protocol and get feedback. On the first day, people were excited and we quickly got to planning the evaluation.

Half of my team are elected community representatives. This is done so that when we enter communities, they see someone they trust, and thus share views more openly. The first activity we did was to start mapping out the district. This is where one huge problem with development in Africa was revealed.

The district is divided into four zones. What we quickly realized was that our list of communities was very inaccurate. Communities were in the wrong zones, there were duplicate communities, and some communities that did exist weren’t even on our list! Imagine that you lived in a community that the government does not even have on its radar. How would you ever receive public services!?

The other challenge is that communities change their names constantly. Sometimes communities will just decide after a chief dies, that they will change their name to the name of the new chief. So the records that we had five years ago, might be completely different from the records we have now. To compound this, villages fragment. When land becomes scarce, a family might decide to move a few kilometres away and start their own settlement. A decade later you have a new community to serve.

During this activity, there were vibrant discussions over the names of communities and what should be deleted and added. Once we made it visual, we were finally able to draw a comprehensive list of all the communities in the district. It’s hard to put into words just how instrumental this will be for the district in terms of planning! With this complete, we can now reach out to all citizens in the district. Once the survey is complete, we will actually have vital data on all communities in the district. Moving from not knowing the exact number of communities in the district, to knowing crucial data on all communities in the district, is the first step in empowering the government to evenly develop the district.

The next day was into the field where things really got interesting. All 14 of us went as a team to a community, where I demonstrated how the survey is supposed to work. Following that we split into two groups, where each team of two surveyors would get a chance to administer the survey, while being evaluated by their peers.

There are two objectives to each community visit. First, we split the women apart from the men, and speak to both groups in isolation. This is to create a more conducive environment for women to participate, since rarely will women speak up in front of men in a rural community. We probe into issues such as: drinking water, education, agriculture, health, and gender. Second, we bring the community back together and explain to them the new ranking process in the government. Through this we can hopefully empower communities to start taking development into their own hands and advocate needs to the government.

These days were no picnic. We would leave the office at 8:30am to meet the first community, and three communities later we would return to the office at 7:00pm . . . without taking lunch. After a 10hr day in the field and only drinking 1L of water, my partner and I kid about how nice it would have been if farmers had offered us some groundnuts to snack on. After the first day, my team told me that we would need to revisit the allowance I was planning to pay them each day.

“Now that we have had a taste for the work, we will need to have a long discussion about the money we are getting paid each day!” Salifu Dramani tells me with a grin after day one in the field.

By the last day of training I was exhausted, having to work two hours on both ends of each field day just to take care of the logistics for the survey. We closed the training by opening up the floor for reflections and feedback on the survey. Within minutes we were on the topic of allowances, and my team seemed ready to go on strike. After some tinkering with the budget, everybody was able to get a 100% increase in allowances brining it to 10GH¢/day. My staff sat smiling, as I cringed at the fact that for the following four weeks we would be operating the project with a contingency hardly over 200GH¢.With the tip of the iceberg finished, we’ll now begin ‘full swing surveys’. 14 communities down, 240 to go!