Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Gender Roles Blatantly Exposed

It’s 4pm and I decide to take off from work. As I arrive at home, I see from afar a soccer ball bouncing up and down just above the thatched roofs that make up my community. As I get closer, I hear a sound that is music to my ears. The screams, shouts, and laughter that make up a good volleyball game for a bunch of neighborhood kids.

After parking my bike, I exit my compound to watch the action. The first thing I notice is that out of 12 kids playing, none are girls. 12 boys, aged 10-24 are engaged in a jovial game of volleyball. The spectators are made up of 2 girls and about 8 other younger boys. This scene was very similar when I returned yesterday from Togo.

I ask Evelyn my host sister if she has played at all today. “No” she says with a smile. “I have too much work to do”.

I call over my host brother Philip and ask him if any girls have played today. He tells me no, they haven’t come. “Maybe they aren’t interested in volleyball”.

I decide to investigate. What are all the girls doing right now that is keeping them from this game? So I start to take a walk through my community to check out the scene. Oddly enough I didn’t come across that many girls in the households or in the other parts of the community. I look at the sun hanging just above the horizon and it hits me. Evening time.

Upon arriving at the community well, I see the answer to my mystery. All the girls are playing that other game that boys can’t play! 15 girls sit and chat while fetching water to either cook with, or likely provide drinking and bath water for the family.

Now I’m pissed. At first I was angry because I assumed that the boys weren’t giving a chance to the girls to play. I’ve encountered too many instances where males dominate and suppress females to retain control. My first instinct was to remove the net. If the boys can’t learn to share, then they won’t be able to play.

After having investigated a little, I see that it goes deeper.

It all comes back to the gender roles. What in society has condoned the fact that women must work throughout the day while men and boys have little work to do? What bothers me more than the fact that women always work while men enjoy more rest time, is the fact that these are children! The gender roles are engrained from birth, so the likelihood of reversing this in the future is minimal, as this will become all the young boys ever know.

The boys ask me if I’ll come and play. “No!” I say sharply. “I have water to fetch”.

My host sisters are now starting to fetch three buckets of water each, so I figure by adding me in the equation we can at least reduce that down to 2 trips. Sitting with the girls at the borehole, I feel powerless to truly pry and find out what is holding them back from playing. Once again language has prevented me from engaging over half the population here in Ghana.

I’ll have to work within my means on this one. My heart can’t help but feel a considerable amount of tension towards the boys; though my head tells me to stop taking out my frustrations caused by a male-dominated culture, on these young boys who are not to blame. Ideas flash through my head: allocating certain parts of the day for just girls, removing the net entirely, allowing my host sister to be in control of the net instead of my host brother. None land me at a comfortable feeling.

I call my host brother Philip into my room later that night.

“I’m not happy” I start. “Yesterday I came home and saw that only boys were playing. Again tonight I see the same thing. Why is this happening?”

He goes onto explain the same thing I already know. That the girls just have more work. They go to water the garden in the morning and in the evening. They also have to collect and sell firewood, fetch water, and go to study at night. This is why they don’t play.

“But why do girls have more work than boys? Why do boys have so much time?” I ask hoping for the answer.

Philip shrugs his shoulders. How could he know, I ask myself? This is the way it has always been. The only answer one can muster for why a woman carries water and a man does not is: ‘it is their work, men can’t do that’.

And this is one of the cruxes of gender equity and therefore development as a whole. No one can explain, or justify why gender roles are the way they are. Some men will say that there are certain tasks that a man can do that a woman cannot. I will concede on the fact that certain more labourious tasks are better suited to men. However, using four months of hard work during the year to justify resting for the remaining eight months is hardly acceptable.

The volleyball net is hardly the point of contention here. Replace the volleyball net with studying, starting a business, going to school, or for Christ’s sake just having fun as a child. All this volleyball net has done is uncovered what I have sadly allowed to become the order of the day, and what I have ceased to notice. The blatant fact that rural gender roles that were carved out by whosoever are preventing over half the population of Ghana from developing at the same rate as the other.

The change begins with the individuals. If a system is to change, individuals must change.

“There’s a problem” I begin slowly. “I bought the net so that everybody could play, but right now only boys are playing.” Philip nods along. “We have to find a way to fix this problem.”

I put it to Philip. This upcoming week I will be travelling to a retreat with my co-volunteers. I will take the volleyball net with me. His task, is to sit down with the boys and figure out how they can get both girls and boys to participate. They can explore why the problem exists, and ask girls as well. But in the end, I want to come back to an answer, or something having been done to rectify the situation.

Philip agrees with me and says that he likes the suggestion. He will sit with the boys to figure it out.

I know that this isn’t a solution to the overarching problem. What I want is that initiative to come from the boys themselves; not because a white man has taken away the net and now in order to play again they need to include girls. But to be perfectly honest, I’ve got no better ideas.

This is where I ask you. Tell me what you think of the situation and what I should do. If you think I’m blowing things out of proportion (and I likely am, I’ve got my own issues with gender inequity), then tell me. I just feel that this is a great chance to use as a learning opportunity for these boys. Who knows?

A Great Week at Work

Lately there have been some great leaps and bounds at work. As I said in my last post, my evaluation/educational proposal went up for approval. The first step was convincing the executive committee (all the decision makers) to approve it and put it before the house. This went off smoothly, and most of the members of the committee were very excited about it.

Three days later was a general assembly meeting. This is where any large projects get put before elected representatives within the district, to be approved. I was called upon to go to the front of the room at the podium and explain briefly my proposal. Alas, the house approved the proposal and it looks like funds will come in the next couple of weeks for the project.

What this means for me, is that I now have to design this whole evaluation down to the tee, so that it can run as smoothly as possible and be effective. This was a huge step for the District Assembly because it is extremely rare that they finance their own evaluations. One of this size has never been conducted with their own funds. Only when donors have come in has the Assembly gone out to do field evaluations.

So the opportunity for great changes has come. There’s a chance that if this evaluation is conducted well and the findings are proven to be very useful, then perhaps the District Assembly might value and budget for monitoring and evaluation in the future.

Taking all this into account, I’m just working feverishly to make sure that it is as great as possible, so as to have the most impact on the beneficiaries. Done well, I believe that the information gathered, and the participation instilled and taken by the communities will really move the district forward.

Other exciting news is that I’m learning how to ride a motorcycle. Lately the works department guys and I have been going out to the field more to monitor contractors and make sure that they are building quality infrastructure. With my co-workers, we created a field monitoring form to fill out, that way we can start to keep track of the work that different contractors do. Through this, better infrastructure can be built, as well as ensuring that certain contractors don’t receive projects in the future.

For now it’s back to the drawing board for designing this evaluation. I’ve got one month to clearly design all of the logistics as well as our approach in the communities and what exactly we will be doing. Once I’ve got that figured out, I will train the 21 people doing the evaluation. In January, it looks like I will be spending the majority of my time in the field visiting 40 communities or so and monitoring the evaluator teams. The whole evaluation is targeted at visiting all 281 communities in the district, by using 8 evaluator teams. It should be a jammed packed two months, filled with a lot of learning and interacting with the primary beneficiaries.

If You Weave it, They Will Come

It all started with wanting to get more in touch with my community. I thought to myself: “what’s a game that I could play with my community that everybody will be able to participate in”. Volleyball!

I went to my local fish net weaver, and explained my situation. He said that he could weave me a volleyball net for 10$. Sure I thought to myself. A soccer ball and few tree branches later, almost all the kids in the community were outside MY compound playing volleyball.

First the bigger children took to the court, with the little ones as anxious onlookers keeping score. Apparently, being off the court is just as exciting as playing, as all of the young children look up with bright eyes at the competitive game. Every time the ball hits the ground, at least three different versions of the score are shouted from the children, followed by a vivid discussion over whose right. No need for a chalk board, at least 2 small children are keeping score with their hands in the sand.

Following the first game, all the young children got to give it a chance. The older kids reluctantly give leave as I push them off the court so that everybody can have a chance. The small kids have a great time throwing the ball over the net and hitting it anyhow. Sadly, the bigger kids are less accurate in their ability to keep score. One point turns into five, and within 15minutes, the small halftime timbit game is over.

By the end of the day, the volleyball net resembles a badminton net. It has sagged so much that now most of the older kids are at eye level with the top of the net. Thankfully nobody knows how to spike.

The game ends as the sun starts to approach the horizon and the mosquitoes emerge to take over the air. That night I hear my host siblings talking about how they will play the following day (Saturday). I think to myself how this had to be the best 13$ I’ve spent in Ghana so far.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Poisoning Education

Imagine your son or your brother or yourself when you were just graduating grade 12. Now imagine that same person teaching your son or daughter elementary school. Don’t skim over those words. Imagine a grade 11 or grade 12 student, being responsible, for the education of your son or daughter when they are in elementary school.

Crazy? I know. Why am I asking you to imagine this scenario? Because that is the situation for 25% of the children in primary school, here in Saboba.

“They are poisoning the education system!” Isaac exclaims as he unveils the reality of the public education system in a rural district in Ghana. My pen hurriedly scribbles down notes as Isaac, the education department administrator in charge of statistics, and long term teacher for 18 years, breaks down the complexities of public education in Northern Ghana.

3 Problems:

Problem 1: Not enough teachers. A school that gets built and is not filled with a teacher and students is called a white elephant, and it’s the last thing you want in development. But right now there are simply not enough teachers in the pipeline to fill the growing demand for education. The national pupil teacher ratio is 35:1 for primary schools. Right now in one of the biggest primary schools in Saboba town, enrolment is approaching 900 hundred, and there are 11 teachers. That’s 81 kids per teacher.

The reason for this is two-fold. First off there are simply not enough people graduating teacher training colleges every year, to fill the growing need for education. Second, there is a constant outflow from the district, because teachers are using it only as a stepping ground to greener pastures. After 3 years service in a rural district, you are eligible to go back to school and upgrade. For those of you who have just finished your PDP program, think of whether or not at this point you would want to go live in a rural village without electricity or running water, potentially 45min away from the nearest town. The incentives just aren’t there to keep teachers at their posts for longer than the minimum service.

Problem 2: to solve problem one, supplementary untrained teachers have been sent into schools. Ghana has a program called National Youth Employment. This is an initiative aimed at curbing the unemployment rate, by providing high school drop outs, or graduates who were unable to continue onto a tertiary institution; with employment. They get paid pennies (70$ a month) but at least get employment and are not idle people loitering.

It is exactly these people that have been thrown into the education system to relieve the pressure (not to be deceived, the numbers quoted in problem 1 are with this “relieved pressure”). Some of the people who are accepted for youth employment have not even graduated middle school (equivalent of grade 8). They receive no initial training, and are put to teach young children the primary grades. That’s right ladies and gentlemen, in June you could drop out of grade 10, and in September be teaching primary school level 2.

Problem 3: Most of you have guessed it now, but the third problem is quality. The quality is unbelievably low. Isaac has just returned from a meeting where the education management was discussing with head teachers the low grades seen this past year in the middle schools, and to address it.

“Only 35% of students passed their finals” he sadly explains as my jaw hits the ground. “The reason is because they come in from primary school completely unprepared.”

He goes onto explain that the problem is so complex. First off those youth employment are paid closed to nothing, and often they don’t get paid for periods of up to 3 months. Think to yourself how motivated you would be to teach in the school when you haven’t collected your measly salary in 3 months. So alas, these teachers sometimes don’t show up for class, and often cut the days short. Also, those teachers that do complete formal training, only start off at 150$ a month, hardly something to write home about.

Why aren’t they monitored? The management is responsible for that, and they don’t receive any funds for monitoring teachers. The district is cut up into zones, and one person might have to monitor 15 to 25 schools, but there is no budget for fuel to get to the classrooms.

Now upon driving out in the district and to the rural communities you can see teachers riding their bikes to school around 10 or 11, and starting to ride home around 1 or 2. Why would a teacher for a rural school be cutting the day so short? Though accommodation is provided for a teacher when they are posted to a rural village, they often don’t want to stay where there is no electricity and no amenities. So they will commute to and from the main town, which in many cases can be up to 20km away.

If that’s not bad enough, this is just the surface. Everytime I think I am starting to figure it out, more issues become uncovered. To find out just how deep the rabbit hole goes, email me. Education has recently become a deep passion of mine, and I’d love to share with you some of the challenges faced here in Ghana.

The Ball is Rolling

Work is now moving faster than I can keep up with, which beats the slow pace of the Government in Ghana. How did such a scenario arise where I am working more than I can handle? Well once my work started to show some benefits, more people became excited, and so it has expanded and started to snowball.

As I said in my previous newsletter, I am working with decision makers and implementers, and in some cases some of the beneficiaries, to create evidence based decisions.

Take boreholes for example. What sort of factors do you need to consider when selecting a community for a water project? What factors are more important than the others? How do you prioritize all 281 communities when the water need is so much?

So I have captured that decision making process, and with my co-workers we have developed an excel file to store all that information and analyze it. I know that this may not excite some of you, because it sounds like we have just worked on a computer for a few weeks. But what this has done is it has created a more transparent, and unbiased way of considering which communities benefit from water projects.

What this can do is reduce the amount of political influence that interferes with development. When a sound, unbiased way of ranking communities is adopted, then favouritism is reduced (hopefully).

So now where I am at, is doing a similar thing with the education department so that schools can also be properly sited.

But siting infrastructure is only a means to so many great ends. Now that all of this data is stored and available to planners, government staff are now in a better position to truly strategize and develop the district. It is unbelievably difficult to know everything about the district at a given moment. But these tools store all this information, and can aid in providing planners with the exact needs of the district to guide development.

What makes me even more excited however, is community participation. The biggest factor used in deciding whether a community benefits from a borehole or not, is whether the community is ready and has shown ownership. The sad thing is that there are so many communities that don’t know about this process.

This is where part 2 of my work comes in. I am designing an evaluation/educational campaign to all the communities in the district. It will be put up for approval in 3 days. This evaluation will collect all the necessary information (community needs, community status), in order to fuel the government with the necessary evidence to make sound decisions in planning. It will actually provide the government with an exact picture of the district, which is something that is difficult to obtain and rarely done.

The second component will be to educate all these communities on this new transparent way of siting infrastructure. So now communities will know exactly how projects are sited in the district – which is something that few communities know. But more exciting than that, is that they will be told all the steps that they can make in order to better their chances to receive a project. The ball will be thrown in their court. They will have the knowledge, of what steps they must complete, and are thus put in the driver seat of their own development.

Lastly, on this district wide education campaign, the government will be the student also. After communities learn, and are given a chance to give feedback, on this new decision making process; they get a go at the government. Indeed, through a meeting and several interviews, the government will ask communities:

“How can we serve you better? What do you not like about us right now, and what can we do better?”

Then we will brainstorm with the communities, how both parties can reach the overall vision of a better Ghana.

That’s the short of things right now, but I also have other things that I am working on in my work. If you are at all curious about the details of my work just email me. I would love to discuss further. If you want a copy of the proposal I have prepared, or a copy of the tool we have created, just ask.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Little Things

Get out a piece of paper and write down the last time you just did something small to help somebody out.

If your page is blank, this is for you. Hell, even if your page has something on it this is for you. While you’re settling down to read this grab some wine and crackers because it is going to be damn cheesy. And it’s already started J.

I’ve had a sudden life revelation during this trip. Perhaps it was during my search or who I want to be in this world, or what I want to do. But the revelation is not all that original, though perhaps something we all need to be reminded of.

The little tings count. That’s it. Working feverishly on my placement to achieve the greater goal I realized something. If I fail, what is left? What has been left, if the ‘Big Change’ you were shooting for doesn’t get done?

And after asking myself this I realized two truths. Big ideas come and go. You work hard and maybe the culmination of all your efforts yields some great change that can positively influence many. That’s the whole reason we get out of bed in the morning isn’t it? For whatever the ‘Big Change’ is for you. For whatever ‘the catch’ is. And if you achieve that change it’s marvelous. But soon after, you move onto the next catch.

For me that catch is what I’m working on in my job right now. Big potential for great change, but long return on investment. But what if I don’t get it? What if I miss . . . and believe me, over here it’s easy to miss. What am I left with doing?

The second truth is that nothing takes away the little things. The little things make up life, and they last forever. If I train somebody at my work in computers so that they are that much more efficient and capable as an individual; well that’s a life long incremental change. That person might not be related in anyway to my ‘Big Change’, but it’s a small step in the right direction for them. All of the little things are what really count because those are the changes that stick with people.

The sad thing is somehow we’ve misaligned the value. So often we’re focused on the ‘Big Change’, the big catch. So often we measure people and reward them based on those big catches, but rarely do we recognize the value in all the little steps. In our endless pursuit for the big catch, we most often miss the little things. So focused on the means to the end, we don’t take time to do those little things.

To speak frankly, it’s the little things that make us human beings, and compassionate to other human beings. Those little things are what will change the world.

For me this meant stepping back. From bringing work home in pursuit of the big change, to investing in the people in my immediate surroundings. Whether it be computer training with co-workers, to tutoring math and English to my host siblings at night; both need to be done daily.

And for you the small things are whatever you make them to be.

A good friend of mine (John Gattey), once quoted (4 months ago), a much smarter man (Albert Einstein). This is what he said, and I think John for sharing his (Albert Einstein’s) wisdom with me.

“I wish to do something great and wonderful, but I must start by doing the little things like they were great and wonderful”

On your road to wherever you’re going, in your pursuit of that big catch; don’t forget to lift those around you. If you look closely enough, most probably in the recent past, someone has lifted you.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Fresh from the Drawing Board

So my work has now been broken into four different sections. I apologize for the lack of communication on my work. It’s not that I am trying to be secretive, simply that some things I chose not to put on the blog. I will try to get better at that.

1) Computer Training- I won’t spend too long explaining this because it is obvious. This breaks down into training co-workers in MS Word, Excel, Powerpoint, and just general skills. This is important because the change I am shooting for and much of the development industry, will eventually require some computerized form of reporting. Imagine doing all finances with a paper & pen and calculator instead of excel. Imagine simple reporting taking 5x longer than it should. Through computer training the efficiency of the office can hopefully be improved and workers will be equipped with the proper skills to use manage large amounts of data. (This one I have been working on since the beginning of my placement)

2) Training local contractors. One problem of development is the construction of infrastructure. Usually contracts will run far late of their expected date of completion. For the rural citizen, this means waiting way longer for their school, well, or particular infrastructure project. Also, the quality of these projects is in question. Roads that get washed away the year after they are constructed, or schools that quickly fall into disrepair. In response, the district works department have come up with a way to address this through workshops and increased monitoring. This doesn’t address all the causes of this problem, but more importantly it enables implementing staff to execute a plan of their own, and hopefully prove to decision makers that it is worth it to invest in implementing staff.

3) More Rigorous planning based on reliable information. This is the main focus of my effort right now. Working with the district planner and other departments such as education, water & sanitation, and health; we will be working on creating a more transparent and rigorous way of selecting communities for infrastructure. This will include using monitoring and evaluation to acquire essential data, and developing a ranking system for deciding which projects go where. What this means for the rural people is that the communities that need services the most will be next in line, as opposed to select communities accessing service upon service. Essentially it is a fair way to select communities for infrastructure

4) Last I will be working on a better monitoring and evaluation system and increased commitment to M&E by government staff. This means that the link between the people accessing public services and the government will be stronger. Not only will there be a better system for learning from implementation and being in tune with community needs, but also the accurate information will be made available to decision makers to make better decisions.

In a nutshell that’s what I’ll be working on for the next 6 months. Feel free to email me questions or post comments.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

One Hell of a Day

I wake up and immediately feel that something’s off. I glance at my cell phone to see how much I overslept. It’s 4:45am, the time I was supposed to be leaving my house to catch the bus. Little did I realize at the time that this was a blessing in disguise, that my determination inconveniently inhibited me from recognizing.

There is one main bus that leaves Saboba every morning at 5:00am and goes to Tamale. I wake up, quickly packing my bag, and not even brushing my teeth. I check the boxer briefs I have hanging in my room from yesterday’s laundry. Still damp. Ah well, I decide to go commando for the ride and buy some in Tamale. I throw on my bran new pair of dress pants, without grabbing a belt; confident my tailor measured me to size.

Bad idea #1: Going commando without a belt in new pants. I realize this 10min into the bike ride from my community to town.

To my immediate relief, but later demise, the bus is running late. I buy a ticket, and because today is Sunday, the bus is only half full. In my mind, things are going alright: bus was late as I was, and now I get two seats to myself.

30min into our trip, the bus suddenly starts to tip to my side just a little too much. Things happen so fast in life you hardly have time to react. Before we know it, the bus is suddenly stopped, and in a precarious position-tipping 45 degrees to my side. We all abandon the bus only to realize that the driver drove on the shoulder in order to avoid some deep mud in the middle of the road. Unfortunately for us, the shoulder was also soft, and gave out under the weight of the greyhound-sized bus; narrowly escaping a roll onto its side.

This is where the journey really begins. On the side of the road, we try at all lengths to free the vehicle. 15 of us pushing from behind, only to see the bus slip deeper into the mud.

Bad idea #2: taking pictures while everybody is pushing the buss. WHAT!!! Like you wouldn’t. I wanted to capture the moment, and especially when everybody started pushing because I was convinced the thing would tip. It only took an annoyed bus driver saying “white man come push, stop taking pictures”, to make me retire the camera for the rest of the efforts.

An hour passed before the first truck leaving Saboba half empty of passengers passed us by. At this moment, I don’t know what compelled me to stay. Maybe it was a sense of commitment . . of not leaving when the going got tough . . . of not abandoning ship and swimming for shore. A few passengers of the bus hopped onto this rescue vessel leaving our sinking ship, but to my surprise not many.

Our first attempts were collective. “EVERYBODY GETS ROCKS” yells one of the alphas in the group, as we try to provide some stability for the wheels. I am initially passive just taking orders, seeing as the bus conductor and two drivers (the heroes of this story) had taken the lead.

After a few failed attempts, I start to get frustrated. Not because I was working, because I wasn’t, but because no other bus was coming. I had some weird misconception that upon a bus breaking down or getting stuck, another would be sent to pick the customers who had paid for their ride. This was not the case.

And then something clicked! “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem”. I was no longer going to criticize failed attempts from the comfort of my armchair (really a patch of soil under a tree).

If there’s one way to get your idea adopted, it’s by championing it. Lost the sandals, rolled up the dress pants, rolled up the sleeves and started to dig with my hands. Nothing like digging through mud and rocks with your bare hands to help some freshly popped blisters from the previous day’s farming work.

By this time a tractor had come to our aid from a nearby village, along with some members with shovels. I decide that we need to brace the back tire, and we start to dig it out with vigour. Adding stones and branches where we can, we hope that with the help of the tractor, the thrust from the bus, and our measly push from behind, we can free this behemoth of a bus and carry on to Saboba.

6 hours I spent on the side of the road. All to no avail. Using a jack to raise the bus. Pulling forward with the tractor. Pulling backwards. Laying branches and rocks. Only marginal progress.

After a few other vehicles drove by and picked the remaining vehicles, I made a decision that I would go on the next way out. A cargo truck pulls up with some market ladies in it. I hope into the back of the truck only to have one of the bumpiest trips ever, and in the wrong direction. That’s right, back to Saboba to see if I could get my co-worker to give me a ride to a bigger town.

When you’re riding in the back of a truck and you can’t see what’s coming, it’s a bit of a love-hate relationship with speed. This driver was in a rush, or so it seemed, which is scary because knowing that at any point an unsuspecting cow herd, pot hole, or deep stream could cross our path, it would send all of us flying up off our seats. And it did. Buckets, bags of crops, spare tires, and people would hop up off the truck everytime it hit a bump at full speed.

Slowing down didn’t offer much reassurance either, because whenever the vehicle slowed, it meant that one of those obstacles was approaching, and probably too fast for the driver slow enough. Everytime he let off the gas, I held on for dear life.

I get back to Saboba, and hop on the back of a motorcycle to go to Yendi, the next biggest town. After an hour and a half of leaving the bus, it is still there, but with re-inforcements. There is another MetroMass bus, with a mechanic, pulling the first bus out of the ditch. They break free as I am passing, so I decide to get back on the bus.

Like a rugby team coming from a championship match, everybody’s higher than life. Dehydrated, sweating profusely, exhausted and muddy, a sense of triumph fills us all after persevering through seven hours of blood sweat and tears. (ok so I wasn’t there for the whole thing, and there were no tears)

The rest of the ride is alright, though when we get to Yendi, the driver adds insult to injury when we end up stopping for 45min to pick up more passengers. By this time we had all been travelling for 10.5 hrs. A passenger convinces the driver to take off, and reach Tamale 12hrs after departure, a trip that normally takes 2.5hrs.

The first thing I do is find a vendor on the side of the road, and buy some underwear. Exhausted and not thinking straight (I haven’t eaten anything), I’m unable to see that I am buying tighty whiteys instead of my usual boxer briefs. I find a secluded corner somewhere in town, and drop my pants, only to squeeze on what feels like a cotton speedo the size of one I wore when I was 8.

I write this post to you now, after having eaten, still sitting in the same clothes, in my new speedo.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Living Green 2 – Can Development Be Green?

What does development really mean? For those that read my development posts earlier on, I mentioned reducing vulnerabilities and promoting agency. In short, enabling people to be able to respond to shocks and mitigate the effects of those shocks (drought, sickness, floods, etc.); and ensuring that people are healthy enough, educated, and have the political will and freedom to make their own choices.

The most intuitive response that comes to mind when thinking about reducing vulnerabilities is often economic development. Hold the tomatoes and lettuce fellow volunteers, let me finish my point.

Micro-enterprise is obvious, so let’s choose agriculture. Typically we try to encourage farmers to start farming as a business. Producing more than subsistence and selling the surplus, so that with the capital saved up, it can be re-invested in more farming, education, or just soften the blow of different shocks (drought, sickness, floods, etc).

But whether it is a carpenter or tailor expanding their business, or a farmer making the switch from subsistence to business person, it all requires a greater exploitation of resources. Perhaps equally important as the environmental stress, is the corresponding need for consumers. Finding more consumers to pay you for the service or good you are producing.

Even development in the sense of getting an education, will eventually lead to somebody getting a high paying job, so they can consumer more; or a more educated farmer, who can produce more.

I look at our consumerist lifestyle, where the amount of packaging and disposable material alone is a burden on the environment, I think of the population of Saboba, ~7,000 people, and think to myself that the same amount of people living in Canada would have a landfill the size of the town used to house these people here.

I can’t help but wonder if developing countries are following the same path. In many ways Ghana captures a past lifestyle and a modern one. Just travelling 12 hours south to Accra the capital, you can see many of the trends you see in Canada.

I would be a hypocrite to criticize the direction of development, chanting a concern for the environment; if after this experience I am going to hop on a PLANE, and fly back to my consumer driven lifestyle in Canada. To be perfectly honest, the ecological footprint of most rural Ghanaians is so low, that I find thinking of these types of issues far misplaced.

It makes me smile to see environment as a cross-cutting theme on so many development projects here. In some cases it is donor driven, but often the Government of Ghana is also pushing for environmental sustainability. Agricultural extension agents training farmers on how to preserve soil fertility, reduce erosion, and conserve their natural environment is inspiring.

Maybe the question is how to move forward with development but at the same time not replicate an ever growing ecological foot print, that we now know the earth cannot sustain. Is sustainable development just an oxymoron we all refuse to recognize? I guess this is just another clear example that our society is not the definition of good development, and that the “endpoint” of being developed (if there is one), is less defined that ever.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Living Green 1: What does it look like?

In Canada society is constantly looking for ways to reduce its ecological foot print, and appropriately so. Prior to this trip, I would try my hand at the typical daily choices we can make to help conserve the environment: use public transport, ride a bike, use a travel mug, turn off appliances, turning off the tap when brushing my teeth, etc.

Maybe this is an unfair comparison, but living here in Saboba, sustainable living has taken on a new meaning. Apart from the somewhat appalling solid waste disposal system here (garbage just finds it way somewhere), life is quite low impact. Here I fetch my own water, along with the majority of the population, reducing our need for electrical pumps like those in Vancouver pumping to our homes.

Here at least 95% of the population rides a bike to work or walks, probably not out of choice but nevertheless. Because of the climate, no heating is required, and air conditioning is restricted to the upper class or office buildings. Since everybody lives on such a small income, consumption of frivolous items is quite minimal, and mending is a survival tactic all its own. If Toyota and Nissan saw the mileage that Ghanaians get out of their vehicles, they’d surely send them free trucks just for the publicity.

Everything here is repaired until it literally disintegrates or radioactive decay starts to depreciate its value. This is contrasted by Canada’s way of abandoning many automobiles as soon as they start to wear down, just a general sense of “spending over mending”. Urban sprawl? Not quite. Markets just spontaneously appear to keep people commuting relatively short distances.

For those of you who have heard of the 100mile diet, I don’t think it could be more honoured here, where 70% of Northern Region is engaged in agriculture as a livelihood. This also includes the urban dwellers. Indeed, most of my co-workers and bosses, still have farms of their own that they may pay people to work on or tend to themselves, just so that they can produce their own food.

What this made me think of was how committed we are to living green in Canada. In Vancouver we have it lucky that our climate is so mild, but for those that have traveled east of our lovely west coast, it gets colder in the winter. With that comes the ecological foot print of increased heating for accommodation. Another result is that we need to use electricity (240V) to dry our clothes 6 months of the year, for those of us that actually use a line during the summer.

Let’s ignore urban sprawl and using cars for transport, just to give us a step up. Our food consumption is anything from within 100 miles of where it was produced. For those that buy locally grown food, again, the diet becomes quite limited when the weather gets cold. Switching from fruits, veggies, and grains to meats; our meat industry happens to be the second largest contributor to greenhouse gasses after energy production. Here most of the meat I consume walked around grazing in natural fields for at least a few years before I ate it.

To wrap things up, I just wonder about all the initiatives we have to live green, such as recycling and green energy, when already our lifestyle seems to completely contradict the notion of living green. This is nothing new, but should we be living the way we are if it is not sustainable? How many of us are prepared to make the true sacrifices needed to actually switch to a sustainable lifestlye?

Friday, July 4, 2008

The “Cost” of Collective Living

Before coming here I had a typical development oriented state of mind. Idealistic, socialist, thinking that the government should manage all to prevent such a stratified class system. I believed that a capitalist society was one that was selfish by nature, based on a dog-eat-dog world. Competition to get the top.

I’ve realized with my short stay a bit of the “cost” of my idealistic dream of a world - where there would be no disparity and everyone would live equally. I call it “cost” because depending on what stance you look at it from, it might not be a cost.

What I’m referring to is the collective lifestyle that I see being lived by the majority of Ghanaians I interact with. It’s inspiring to me, because there is such a sense of community here that people do truly help out their neighbours, and welcome each other. Generosity here is exemplified in so many actions, it gives the word new meaning.

It’s painted all over the cultural subtleties I see everyday. When someone you know is sick in the hospital, despite the faint connection you have to them, Ghanaians will go to visit. When people come to randomly visit you, maybe at work or at home; you make time no matter what you are doing, welcome them in, offer them food, and converse for a short while. Anytime somebody is eating and a friend is walking by, even an acquaintance, “you are invited” is the phrase to indicate that the food should be shared.

This culture of sharing and taking time for others, completely contrasts North American living. What I’ve come to notice though, is while this same sharing provides the safety net that so many vulnerable people rely on, it also stifles the advancement of any one individual in society.

Steven is the name of a friend I have in Tamale who has started his own business of selling cell phones and cell phone accessories. He also owns a taxi that he has a driver operate to generate some extra income. Steven’s story provides hope, because a hard working individual has become an entrepreneur, which is such a popular sequence of events here in Ghana.

Though as soon as Steven starts to advance, as soon as he starts to save some money, siblings, family, and friends come knocking. The reasons are great, from somebody needing money for medication to school fees for a child. This makes saving for an entrepreneur like Steven difficult, because there is such a need to supply coming from close friends and family.

The same can be seen even more in rural communities. Farmers are constantly knocking on each other’s door, and sharing when somebody’s harvest comes in small. This makes it so hard for any one person to advance their livelihood. Just yesterday I went farming with my host father Elijia, and after losing the majority of his cassava plantation to indiscriminate goat grazing, he was re-stocked by a neighbouring farmer. Amazing that a subsistence farmer would so readily share his crops with a fellow farmer, but it doesn’t bode well for the generous farmer ever escaping subsistence.

What this shows to me is a collective mentality to get through. In both these cases, there is a sense of others over self. Perhaps it is a no-brainer for farmers because they can empathize with eachother, and share a common hardship. Initiatives such as communal labour (see 10 things I love about Ghana No.8) and acts of complete generosity such as these really hit home in terms of giving.

So the result is that community development is somewhat stagnant in most cases, or at least very slow. It is a realization that I’ve had, that with a collective lifestyle, development interventions are diluted among the masses, and from a short-time frame it would seem that development is static.

The question I’m left with is how collective can you be before it is a bad thing? At what point should somebody say no to a friend or a friendly member so that the individual can advance their livelihood and provide for their children? How effective can micro-enterprise initiatives be when loan repayment is so unlikely with this collective system? I constantly see what I would naturally call bad business men, who will continually sell below production or give out freebies to their friends, and here people have a lot of friends.

I’m not sure of the income distribution in Canada, but how does our society compare? Do we sometimes close our doors to family members and friends, in order to invest in our own future? Is that a possible explanation for our “success” in accumulating wealth? And in most cases, I think that the disparity of incomes is not as bad in most developed countries compared to that of most developing nations. How can that be explained?

Sunday, May 25, 2008


The numbering has no relevance for preference. Simply the order I wrote the post in.

Solidarity among rural communities. Communal labour is an initiative that I admire about Buagbaln village. Communal labour is the reinforcement call when you have too much work to do on your own. If a farmer is ploughing their field and cannot complete it on their own, they can call for communal labour. “Children” aged 15-24 will answer the call and report to whatever the task is after they get back from school at 2pm. My host brother Philip (23) is always reporting to communal labour.

Apart form the example I gave of tilling your field, others could be construction of a house. As most huts here are made from mud bricks and mud mortar, it involves an immense amount work. Mixing dry mud with water to make mortar is extremely tiring (I’ve tried), which needs to be done to mould bricks, and for the mortar for the hut. A common call for communal labour is exactly this task, mixing of mortar and constructing the walls.

One that my family recently used was that they were re-flooring their entire compound courtyard. This involved breaking up the old concrete with pick ax, followed by laying new gravel, and concrete, and ending with compacting. For a family to do this entire task on their own would take too long for one day, which is the time frame it needs to be done in.

Another communal initiative are grain banks which I have seen in certain communities. Essentially a large community food storage is built by all members of the community, and upon harvest everyone donates a portion of their crops to this bank. It serves as a safety net for the community when shocks occur to individuals or the entire community. Should someone lose their entire harvest to pests, or perhaps fire, the grain bank would serve to pick that person up. It is also used to supplement the community food intake during the lean season (see blog post Back to the Field)

I don’t quite understand how, but it works on the honour system, and apparently nobody abuses it. The reason why I love these initiatives is because all the farmers are in the same situation and recognize the need for cooperation. There are conditions about their lives that make certain tasks too great for an individual to do on their own. Seeing this type of communal solidarity in overcoming the difficulties surviving off the land can throw at you, makes me wonder if something was lost when civilizations progressed to big cities and lost their connection with the land they depend on for survival. Nonetheless, I admire the sense of brotherhood that joins this community together.


The numbering has no relevance for preference. Simply the order I wrote the post in.

Shopping for clothes. Yes I know it doesn’t sound like me, a long time beneficiary of hand-me-downs. Due to a well fashioned two older brothers, ever since grade 9 I’ve been benefiting from an at-home shopping mall (sorry Sean and Barry).

Here the textile industry is fantastic. In the market there are textile vendors. You’ll go and buy material from local tie & die, to elaborate linen with embroidery (very popular among the Muslims). Then you take it to a tailor in town who will size you up and allow you to chose the style of whatever article clothing fits your fancy. Four days later you return to pick up your custom made clothing.

The great thing about this system is that here the consumer has the choice, and there is way more personal interaction. Speaking to textile vendors, they guide me on what will look good with my skin tone, lol, and what I should buy (mostly they just steer me away from the female fabric because I have trouble distinguishing). Since arriving in Saboba, I have become particular yclose with one tailor and he prepares all of my clothes. I’ve gotten to know his wife and child, and visit him regularly.

What I love about all this is the personal interaction. What is one industry in Canada, has been segregated into two in Ghana, where the consumer makes the choice. In Canada, retailers produce the finish product from beginning to end. In Ghana almost all of the “finished product” articles of clothing you can buy are simply donated clothing from developed countries. The task of going to the market, choosing a fabric I’m uncertain of, and then working with my tailor to make a shirt for me is definitely something I’m going to miss.


The numbering has no relevance for preference. Simply the order I wrote the post in.

Food comes to you. As I sit in my office the time is nearing 10 o’clock. I look forward to this time because I know that soon one of two ladies will be at my office. It is around this time that they usually make their rounds. I don’t know where these ladies walk from, maybe from town, maybe the market; but they always come to the offices around ten o’clock. They carry either: bananas, avocados, groundnuts, or now that mango season is in, huge ripe mangos.

I guess they come to the offices from wherever they are coming from because the business is better, but regardless it is a service that I never saw in Canada. At work in Canada, I would either have to pack my snacks or go out and get them on a break. Inconvenient for the vendor but a service no consumer could turn away.

From the raised seat of a greyhound-like bus, I reach down to give a young girl some money for some of the food she is selling. Holding the platter as high as she can with her arms stretched above her head, I lean out the window and reach down to .grab some food off the platter. In other transactions that aren’t as smooth, the bus starts off before you can finish getting your food. A chase sets in as a small girl runs after the moving bus to give me my bundle of bananas.

Buses travel regularly from city to city, and they make the regular stops. Vendors stakeout these stops, that way as soon as the bus stops to drop off a passenger women spring from their perch and rush the bus. Windows are crowded with all sorts of tasty treats: fried yams, roasted chicken, pure water, fried cheese, bananas. Passengers stock up for the next stretch of the trip with whatever fills their heart content.

Back to the Fields

To my saving grace, the rains have come. At least three times a week Saboba has a thunder and lightning storm with high winds and heavy rains. Though these random showers almost always seem to coincidentally occur just hours after I have done laundry and left my clothes out to dry, it is a blessing none the less.

Living in my host community has really allowed me to observe, and participate, in farmer’s livelihoods. Now that the rains have come a lot is changing in Saboba and my village. In Saboba the tractor traffic has increased five fold, and diesel sales have soared. As for my village, men have sprung into action. Every morning at 6am, men and boys leave for the fields to farm yams, maize, and many other crops I can’t remember. The days of sitting in the shade weaving grass or playing Oware are finished for men. Now backbreaking labour has become the focus of everyday.

But to the men of this community, they’re happy to be at work. The longer the rains delay, the higher the likelihood the lean season will extend. The rainy season is sometimes called the lean season because it is this season that is furthest away from their last harvest. It’s around this time that food stocks start to deplete and rations decrease in size. So the faster farmers can get the crops in the ground the better, because it means an earlier harvest.

The reason why I call it backbreaking labour is because that is exactly what it is. For those that can afford it, tractors are used plough fields. Sitting in my room at night I can hear the roar of the tractors as they pass right by my compound to return to town after a day in the field.

But for the majority of farmers, hand tilling is still the way to prepare the field. What a tractor does in 10seconds would take an individual farmer 1 hour. Some of you may have wondered why farmers would delay in preparing their fields if the rains didn’t come. The reason why is because after the long dry season, the earth becomes similar to concrete and hand tilling is extremely difficult. Thus farmers wait until the first rains have come and soften the ground, to till. Also, I’m not sure why, but you only sow seeds after the first rains. Anyone who has that answer, please help out.

The only thing we now have to watch out for, is that the rains don’t continue too long. For the mean time the rains are a great blessing, but too much rain means huge consequences for farmers. Seeing as Ghana suffered flooding last year, a second year in a row would be really sad.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Down For The Count

Well I don’t know if I am glad to say that I got malaria two weekends ago, but now that I’ve experienced it I don’t need to go through that again. Some of you that know me better than others may be thinking that I got what was coming to me seeing as I refuse to take anti-malaria pills, and to that argument, another volunteer that came over with me has gotten malaria twice while being on anti-malaria pills.

It started on Friday. I was going to a workshop, had a blistering headache and was starting to heat up. I had lost my appetite and did not eat much lunch, and later that night went to bed early, exhausted and skipping dinner.

Oddly enough the next morning I didn’t feel that bad. I woke up and decided to take it easy and read a bit of my book. 30 min later I was down for the count lying on my thin foamy in my room. Running a fever I decided not to chance it and took my malaria treatment, before being diagnosed. For the rest of the day I was inside, sleeping, skipping meals, chugging water.

Around 2 o’clock the fever got worst. I was extremely hot to the touch and not sweating a bit, which made me think back to the good old NLS days and learning about heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Fond memories of that not so long ago Saturday, lying in my room pouring water on my head for it to run off and cool me down for only seconds.

At the time of the peak of my fever, my host siblings were watching a movie on my laptop that I had put on to take my mind off the fever, though to no avail because I just passed out and resulted to my futile drizzling of water.

Around 3 o’clock my host brother said, Nick you need to go to the hospital. I agreed completely, though only to take a test and confirm that I had malaria. I would have gone earlier in the morning, but in my state of exhaustion I wanted my co-worker to pick me up on his motorbike to take me. Thanks to the unreliable service that MTN provides its clients with, I could not communicate by phone with anyone.

Conjuring up all of my remaining energy, I waited until 5:00pm for the sun to start its approach to the horizon. Soaking my tee-shirt and hat, I geared up for one of the most exhausting rides into town ever. Stopping for a Fanta Orange, the high sugar content provided me with a shot of adrenaline.

Took a test at the hospital to confirm that it was malaria I was suffering from, and returned home to pass out. The next day was less dramatic, though still entirely unproductive. Water, rest, juice, and Ocean’s Thirteen got me through the day.

The morale of this story, is at night wear long-sleeve shirts and long pants if you are going to be hanging out outside. To the more cautious, maybe anti-malaria pills might help. I am feeling 100% now. Though I have to give it to malaria, it knocked me on my ass.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Urbanization Part 2 – Indigenous People

Upon further thought of the difference between Canada’s settlement trends and Ghana’s, I asked myself why? Why did Canadians form more predominant urban centers and leave the rural landscapes? Why did people stay in the rural parts of Ghana?

Mom, close your ears to this next part as it will become evident that Social Studies 9-11 were not my strongest subjects. I’m now going to take a stab at why settlement occurred differently between these two places. This is my version and best guess at possibly explaining why Canadians developed in clusters as opposed to scattered settlements across our country.

In Ghana, among the rural population there is a strong sense of culture, tradition, and home. People are well aware of their tribe as well as the area their tribe has occupied for past centuries. And it is the latter point that I believe is the root cause of a person’s attachment to their environment. Some of the communities that I have been to, have been there for hundreds of years. It has given rise to ancestral burial grounds which is a term most Canadians would be foreign to if not for anthropology books and horror movies. Generations of experiences, teachings, and investment have gone into the same land over and over. The same land that once bore fruit to the great-great grandparents of today’s generation, continue to, and will continue to bear fruit for following generations.

Through this tradition and sense of “belonging” to the land few of us can relate or empathize with, rural people and indigenous tribes have remained in their settlements while development may have flowed to other areas within their reach. Maybe this accounts for the fact that still, so many communities stay where they are, persist and persevere through the monumental challenges they are faced with, and chose to live where their ancestors had once lived.

Bringing it back to Canada, how many of us can say that we have been in the same area for the past four generations? How many of us know where our ancestors once dwelt and what they did, let alone where they were buried? I think it might be because when the European settlers first came, though they were farmers, they formed small settlements, forts, or communities. Some of those early forts continued to develop into today’s oldest cities.

As for our indigenous people, because of the conflict that existed between European settlers and the First Nations people, much of that same tradition and attachment to the land that is exhibited in Ghana’s rural people; was lost when our Natives were booted off their land and retro-actively compensated for it generations later.

This is a very simplistic explanation and view on a matter that includes many more factors. It was more of a reflection upon an observation that I made. In Canada people are not tied to the land and moving away from one’s roots is not that uncommon. In Ghana, people seem to be more tied to the land, at least among rural people, which might continue to feed the problem of low population density.

Urbanization Part 1 - Evil or the Way Forward?

This post I expect to furrow some brows. Similar to the post “Is School Cool?” this post is aimed at making us question something that we have forever thought was bad. I’ll lay down the most abbreviated summary of the typical and well-established argument in favour of rural-urban migration being bad. Those who know otherwise, PLEASE correct me.

In the 70s, when development really started to take off, much of development was aimed at urban centers in hopes that their would be a corresponding trickle-effect. That by developing urban centers, those centers would then follow by providing services for the rural population. In many cases what happened was what E.F.Schumacher called “the twin evils of mass migration and mass unemployment”.

Large populations of rural people would migrate to the urban centers (typically the young, strong, and perhaps educated men) leaving the elderly, young children, and women behind to mind the harsh conditions that rural livelihoods can often entail. Because the urban centers were not set up for this huge influx of people, mass unemployment followed along with its close companion mass homelessness. Your shantytowns and slum dwellings are the result, coupled with an ever increasing informal sector (people engaged in informal income generating activities).

Then I started to look at the differences between Canada and Ghana, and try to figure out some of the obvious differences that might account for the differing development challenges. Though there are MANY, ONE came up when I was having this conversation with a co-worker of mine. Immediately I thought of the low population density of the Northern Region of Ghana in particular. I know that Canada is one of the global leaders in low population densities (~30million people in the 2nd largest country in the world), but it seems that most of our people have somehow gravitated towards towns or cities. When I drive from Hope to Manning Park, there aren’t too many rural settlements along the way.

Ghana is a polar opposite. There are small settlements everywhere, scattered throughout the country. The difficulty that arises from this phenomenon is that suddenly to provide electricity to all these people, you need ten times the amount of electricity lines. Water = 10 times the amount of pipe. Market access = 10 times the length of roads. If the same energy and resources that went into spreading such little butter over too much bread went into capital start up of industries, would it be possible to provide for the masses?

BIG BARK . . . little bite!!

I want to make sure that I am not coming off as a development professional, because as you already know . . . I AM NOT. In fact it’s quite the opposite, I am in the beginning of my career, and with regards to this particular placement, in the heart of my learning phase. Right now I am still trying to understand how things work in the development industry, Ghana, and in particular my district.

Because of this, my greatest asset is the ability to ask questions, inquire, and tag along on projects with the objective of learning as much as possible. I want to reassure everyone, that I am not in a position where I am telling people what to do or changing MOs left right and center, when I am only 2 months old in Ghana. I know that when we typically think of a consultant, we think of an expert in a particular field who is going to teach/coach an organization on how they can improve themselves. Allow me to respond to your initial gag reflexes upon reading that I would be a “consultant”, with what I actually meant with that label.

One skill that will pay off is effective questioning. Through my learning and persistent questioning, my co-workers reflect on the current practice to provide me with an answer. The value in effective questioning is that I provide an outside perspective, but I am also able to reveal some of the gaps that typically are overlooked because of the nature of repeating a job for a number of years. Through learning about the why and the how things are done, together my co-workers and I are evaluating the current practice.

On top of that, areas of improvement and different practices are easier for me to see because of my outside perspective. In some cases, by learning by doing (such as I am in the gap filling area), I am able to offer suggestions that I have seen in other cases or countries. If not providing a direct suggestion for improving a process, through effective questioning you initiate a dialogue of current practices, which is an added value on its own.

In light of all this, let me finish by saying that 80% of what I do will be in cooperation with co-workers and truly the ideas will be generated from both parties. I am but a facilitator of a motion to improve, where the ideas and action will come from the local development workers/experts.

As I learn more about the workings of the District Assembly and the development industry, I will increasingly move towards more facilitation and doing. Let it be known, that the credit does not belong entirely to me (or even close to it). This placement is truly a partnership and a collaboration of minds.