Saturday, March 15, 2008

Is School Cool?

After my stay in the village, and more specifically speaking so much with Joshua (my 25 year old translator), my brain is struggling with the concept of education for rural farmers. Everyone! E-very-one, who had been to school and completed senior secondary school wanted to get employment. And this is no surprise. Isn’t it the same in Canada?

The reason why it bothered me was because there are only jobs in town. The only employment opportunities available are located away from the rural areas. This made me question what we were trying to accomplish by promoting education. It is obvious that we invest in the rural people because they constitute the majority but as well so that farmers stay farmers. Investing in the agricultural sector and avoiding what Schumacher would call the twin evils of mass migration and mass unemployment in the already over-crowed urban centers.

Urban migration is one of the leading contributing causes of unemployment in cities and thus crime. Governments can hardly keep up with the job creation required for satisfying the demand placed on it by the supply of urban graduates; let alone all the rural poor looking for opportunities. So why are we educating rural farmers so that they can simply leave the rural parts and head to the cities?

Some would argue that a literate farmer is better than an illiterate farmer, and I completely agree. But what I noticed is that you get a growing divide with young adults returning to rural life with urban educations. Not only is there now a tension between traditional beliefs and modern ways of thinking, but also you have educated adults with a bit of a chip on their shoulder. Understandably so, they believe that they deserve more than their uneducated peers, nor do they want to continue doing the labour intensive farming practices their forefathers performed.

A close parallel to this is what happened after the war in Sierra Leone. Within the internally displaced persons (IDP) and refugee camps, education was closely monitored and administered. In fact the UNHCR did quite a good job. But when the war was over, Sierra Leone was in desperate need of infrastructure. The people leaving the camps were educated however, and didn’t want to do labour.

The intuitive response to this undesired outcome is to train farmers in skills and educate them on relevant subject matter to their livelihoods. In essence help farmers become better farmers. I am immediately reminded of a scary scenario illustrated in Alduous Huxley’s Brave New World, where people’s futures are decided for them. Is it right to alter the curriculum for a certain audience in the hopes of providing incentives to take a certain profession?

Which makes me question investing in farming altogether. As I said before, everyone who had been to school was looking to leave the village. It’s because they knew of a city life and wanted it. I ask you, who goes to school and decides they want to be a farmer? In Canada we PAY our farmers subsidies so that they will farm. We provide financial incentives! What incentives are there for rural farmers in Africa? Farming is hard, somewhat risky, and not lucrative whatsoever. So is it so unreasonable for farmers to want their children to have a different life?

Boy Trouble

“A woman speaking to a man, is not the same thing as a woman speaking to a woman”

I was arguing with Joshua about skipping the line at the borehole to fill our buckets when he told me this. That was when it really hit home: that gender equity is a longer and much more complex battle than I thought.

This comes from the following explanation, given by Joshua. When you are a boy, you do as your father tells you to because he is the provider. Though you can argue moderately, ultimately what he says goes because it is his house, and he is the one giving you food. Thus he is your elder. And this is exactly the way the entire village operates. If ever there were a dispute that couldn’t be settled by the chairman, then the oldest man in the community would decide.

Now, men are the providers for women. If a snake comes into a compound, the man will kill it while the women run. The men hunt and farm. The men are the providers for the women. Thus men are "elders" to women, and the same relationship between a boy and his father follows. Because of this, ultimately whatever a man says or requests when speaking to a woman is accepted. If a man walks into a compound or room, a woman must provide him with a seat, just as you would an elder. Men eat first, and women second. Everything follows this hierarchy.

What does this fundamental flaw lead to? An extreme disparity at the village level. Women lead different lives than men. Women look after kids, fetch water by foot, cook, clean, collect firewood, make charcoal, plaster walls, process crops for consumption, carry loads, and help the men with any of their activities. Men are responsible for anything farming related, weaving of grass and building infrastructure, fetching water by bike, and hunting.

The role differentiation is not the problem and is actually required. During a somewhat heated conversation with the men and chairman of the village, the chairman explained to me that if everyone did the same activities then they would not survive. There is too much to do and specialization is paramount to efficiency and success. The problem for me lies when there is a difference between work requirements.

Men work hard. They also pay for school fees and any health related costs. It is not my intention to underrate them. However anytime that a man was sitting in the shade resting during the mid day inferno, women are still working. Always cooking, tending to children, or some other reproductive chore for the household. WOMEN NEVER STOP.

I’ll close this with coming back to the fundamental mental stance on gender equity. Joshua told me that he knew what it was and believed in gender equity. That through school he learned that women can do what men can do, and he is ok with a female president. But at the same time, in everyday activities and interactions with the opposite sex, he still returns to the traditional stance. Though he could regurgitate the rhetoric taught at school, his nature was still inherently gender biased towards men.

One success story I had was when we were harvesting yams. Joshua, his brother and I were harvesting in the field whilst women were peeling yams no more than 30m away in the shade of a tree. After finishing uprooting the last yam, we wiped the sweat from our brows and went to sit with the women. I asked Joshua who would pick up the yams from the field and bring them to the tree where the women were peeling them. “That’s women’s work” he replied. I proceed to grab one of the steel buckets and head back to the field. After two trips of carrying the yams on my head, Joshua through laughter told me to stop and that I had made my point. I looked at him and told him that if he and his brother would help me it would go a lot faster. They proceeded to grab two buckets and help me finish the task.

The women peeling yams were beside themselves in laughter, and smiles had crept across the faces of my co-workers. I know that it is only a drop in the ocean however, for what is a much longer battle. Changing values is something I don’t know how to do.

Nobody Speaks English

One of the first things I noticed in the village was how many kids there were running around all the time. At least 3 kids per adult. But what stuck with me most was why they weren’t in school. It didn’t take long for the community to answer this question for me. The biggest barrier to education right now is distance. The nearest primary school is a 45min walk away. This may not seem far but it is the number one reason why enrolment is so late in this village. No child goes to school before the age of nine, which is when they are old enough to walk there on their own.

The repercussions of this were everywhere. Upon being introduced to the village by the local agriculture extension agent, he singled out the English speaking farmers so that I would know who I could communicate with. Five men, ages 19-26 were the privileged few. English is a good indicator of one’s education level because from primary school, children are taught English (Ghana was a British colony).

Distance was the first barrier, but it went further. As expected, money was also a barrier because as children get older, school fees increase. Junior secondary school and senior secondary school are more expensive. Also if a farmer ever gets hit by any shock, children are pulled out. The example I was given was if someone were to get sick or die, money would be needed and school was an expense worth redirecting. If the rains fail or more help is needed in the field many children are pulled out.

This accounts for most of the low enrolment, but the gender correlation was particularly interesting. There is a fundamental belief among male farmers that is a barrier to female education. Why send a girl to school if when she gets married she will leave the family? Sending a girl to school doesn’t lead to your investment staying in the family. I don’t know the answer to this. I know that ideologically educating a female is good because that knowledge will be transferred to her children and will have a greater impact; but I cannot think of an answer to the question posed above.

Because these types of questions need to be answered before we will see equal enrolment for both boys and girls, getting girls in school goes much further than address the surface causes.

Distance was also tied into gender disparities. Because of the distance, parents were more inclined to send their sons to school instead of their daughters. When girls start hitting the pubic stage in their lives, boys start pursuing them and as a result teen pregnancies occur. Keeping children at home allowed parents to monitor them and more importantly, be their moral compass rather than allowing peer pressure. It makes me think of a similar phenomenon that we are witnessing in Canadian societies, where children are following their peers more and more, as opposed to the teachings of their parents.

“Water Is Life”

I wake up at 4am to start walking to the borehole which is a 45min walk away. I am with my translator Joshua, three women and two 11 year old girls. Walking down a narrow trail and unable to see, there are three flashlights in the group. We get to the borehole and there are already six women waiting there. An hour and a half after arriving at the borehole, a man suddenly arrives with the parts to assemble the handle, and allow the women to start the activity that haunts them daily.

We are lucky today. When I say we, I am referring to the party that I came with to the borehole. We are the last to fill our buckets before the well runs dry. It’s 7am and the well is dry. For the other 12 women and girls here, and the other 30 that are bound to come over the course of the day; this means that they must wait until the water returns to the borehole. Sometimes this takes hours. Sometimes a day. Women will spend an entire day, waiting at the borehole to get just one bucket (25L) of clean water. Think to yourself what you use clean water for and if one bucket would do for your family. Some women don’t even get a bucket in a day. Did I mention that there were girls there as well?

“If I go any farther my neck will snap” is all I can think to myself as I struggle with the 50lb weight I’m carrying on my head. In that 1hr walk back, I took a few breaks, and was only given a glimpse of an activity that is for so many rural women the bane of their existence. In this village, women will make this trip twice a day every second day. On the opposite days it gets worst, they must make a trip that is over twice as far (at least 2.5hrs walking) to the local dam to fetch the dirty water used for bathing and cleaning.

It was the first thing on everyone’s mind. More water. We are at the peak of the dry season right now and this community couldn’t be hit harder. Speaking to the chairman of the village he tells me “Nick . . . water is life, isn’t it? Before our community can pull itself out of poverty we need water”. Men too fetch water daily, using bikes to go to the dam. Sometimes twice.

An inadequate and distant water source has so many repercussions. Women and men are now taking entire days just to sustain the family. This leaves no room for generating or saving income/assets, and leaves them completely vulnerable to any shock. If someone gets sick and needs to be taken to the hospital, how will the rest of the family cope?

I mentioned that there were girls. Optimistic, high-spirited, potentially great, girls are having their futures robbed from them because their entire days are spent perfecting an art that no eleven year old child should be performing flawlessly. A sorrowful smile creeps across my face when I see young girls smiling and laughing as they jump up and down in pairs to drive the pump arm designed for an adult. Because I know that they should be in school investing in their future. It kills me to watch young girls spending entire days waiting for a dry borehole, because I know they are capable of so much more.

I don’t need to be a crystal ball reader to see their future. I simply look at the women in the community and observe their lifestyle and know that their daughters will share the same fate if nothing changes. Everyday that passes is a day that these children are not in school or in someway enhancing their brains or harnessing the potential they are overflowing with. Everyday that this continues only furthers a lost generation.

Kpsani Village

For the last week I was staying in Kpsani Village just outside of Yendi. Because things at my workplace in Saboba were not yet ready, I decided to get out in the field and do a village stay. The point of this village stay was to get a little experience with Ghanaian farmers and start to understand their livelihoods. I went to a Kunkomba village which was perfect because they form the majority of the population in Saboba.

The Kunkomba people are very welcoming. It is just in their culture. One example, is that for a visitor, all households must provide for them, not just the household they are staying in. How this affected me was that every time I visited a compound, I was provided a meal to eat. After 3 days of eating 8 meals a day, I explained to my translator that if all households needed to provide for me, then they could only do so for one meal a day.

After my first full day in the village, my body was aching all over. I had blisters on both hands from my first day of using a hoe to harvest yams, my feet were still burning from the bare foot soccer match I played, and my shoulders were aching after a long day of learning how to weave grass. That was only the first day. After that biking 30km a day became the norm because we were fetching water from the local dam 12km away.

And that was the pace of most of my days. Trying to engage in as many of their activities as possible in order to better understand how they live and why they do what they do. Having as many conversations as possible with people to find out what the constraints around their community’s development were, and what role the government was playing. Finding out what they needed and wanted in terms of government services and gaining a better perspective on farmer realities.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Acknowledgement of Women – Volunteers (part 1)

In my Disclaimer 1 post, I mentioned that I am a man. As I get a better glimpse of the sad, shocking, and significant differences that exist between male and female gender roles, I will write tributes to women. These posts will serve as my acknowledgement of the difficulties and adversity that women face.

The first is for women volunteers. I’ve noticed that even as volunteers there are certain things that limit both sexes. As I highlighted previously, the fact that I am male makes it more difficult to build trust and learn about women in this country. But the limitations affecting women are more difficult to overcome in my opinion.

Depending on the culture (in Mali based on volunteer feedback) women can be seen as incapable of making decisions, might hold less power in the workplace, or can be discriminated against in the workplace. Though none of these thoughts are based on Ghana or female volunteers from Ghana, I’ve heard of instances where female volunteers were only given menial tasks to do, their opinions holding little to no weight in discussions with co-workers, and being given control or leadership over nothing. Office work instead of using a motorbike to go out to the field could be an example, though does not appear to be an issue here in Ghana.

This is a challenge that I think more women might face than men, and for that I acknowledge that I am fortunate to have some of the privileges that might make my work easier.

Also on top of that is the fact that health and safety is somewhat more complicated for females. Some local men pursue my female counterparts in a much different way than they perceive me. With homosexuality being frowned upon in society, I don’t get that many marriage proposals. Men have proposed to many female volunteers I’ve talked to and overall, it takes a bit of firmness to turn men in pursuit away. I know this happens in Canada as well, but I think it is a little more amplified in certain countries. In fact it adds another dimension to deciding who wants to be your friend or who has hidden intentions.

Lastly, safety issues such as travelling alone at night, hitchhiking, and overall situations that put women in vulnerable positions. This might decrease or alter their mobility, and again is a privilege/advantage that male volunteers might have. (Don’t worry mom, I won’t be hitchhiking alone at night and then walking down a back alley to my house).

March 4, 2008

Disclaimer 1

Before getting too far into my reflections and interpretations of Ghanaian life I wanted to put out a disclaimer. Everything I write on my blog is through my eyes and my interpretations. As a western man, I hold many biases and filters into what I take in. I wanted to acknowledge these, as well as outline the corresponding limitations that come with it.

I just wanted to emphasize that the views I share on my blog are mine, and should not be taken as the standard or absolute truth about Ghanaian life. They are solely what I have noticed through my experiences. Also because I am a westerner, I will be exposed to a slightly altered culture of Ghana. I’ll do my best to break down the barriers that my light skin impose, but I’m certain that there’s a level of Ghana I may never get to know. On top of that, I am only seeing a portion of Ghana. I would hate for someone who had been to Calgary to say that they knew all there was to know about Ghana. While Ghana is not as big as Canada, I just want to leave it open that I will not be seeing all of it.

As I am Western, I can never truly be poor. I can try to alter my conditions to reflect what living in poverty might be, in order to gain a better understanding of the people I serve. But the bottom line is that I am not poor. Even if I were living in a grass hut, without electricity or running water . . . I am not poor. If you remember back to my description of poverty, a key theme was vulnerability. And that is exactly what separates me. I’m not vulnerable. Living in a grass hut with no running water or electricity might be close to those I am serving, but if I get sick with malaria, I going to seek health care that they can’t access. For any volunteers, when the going gets tough, we check out. This being said, there will always be aspects of those living in poverty that I will not be able to empathize with.

Also very important is the second word in my description. Man. As a male, I will only be able to see a certain side of Ghana. Already I can tell that those who I interact most with are men, and those most interested to get to know me or take me in are men. There are a few tools I can use to get closer to this large population of Ghana that I am somewhat screened from. One is trust building, and specifically trying to get to know women. Spending time with them, taking on their daily chores, and breaking down gender stereotypes. Through this I will gain small successes and glimpses of their lives.

The other is language. Learning the local language thoroughly will enable me to communicate with an otherwise isolated part of the population. Unfortunately in many rural parts, education is limited, and with that extremely limited for women. So if the only people who can speak English are men, then I need to find another way of communicating with the marginalized majority.

I will try to communicate these realities back to you, but I wanted to say my limitations explicitly. If I’ve missed some, and I know I have, feel free to fill in the blanks on a post.

(Feb 29)

My First Impressions of Ghana

After waking up and making our way to the bus station in Accra, we are now on our way to the Northern Region capital, Tamale. One recognizable feature of Ghana is the red brown earth that gets on absolutely everything. This sandy earth is everywhere and you see women sweeping it as soon as the sun rises. The resulting dust gets on every surface imaginable: cars, houses, trees, your clothes.

One thing I didn’t expect about Ghana, was its lush green foliage. As you pan up from the rust coloured earth, mango trees and palm trees provide a canopy over the relatively short infrastructure. Once out of the city there is tall green grass and dense bush that look like the beginnings of rainforests.

As we travel north through the country, the lush green of the South steps aside for a yellow background. It is much drier and hot in the North and it is illustrated through the natural environment. The green grass and bushes are replaced by rust coloured sand and yellow grass. The mango trees are still around, but the palm trees are no more and trees with only a modest amount of leaves provide the shade.

In country training has been happening over the last three days here in Tamale. This has included going into markets and just talking to random people about anything (day 1). Spending a few hours with a worker in the development sector and learning about development from a local expert (day 2). Last we needed to do some interviews on a specific topic, for me it was education in Ghana.

The first thing that has resonated with me in Ghana has been a culture of welcoming. I see people greeting eachother constantly. Lined on either side of the road are fruit venders to bike repair shops. There is a constant flow of pedestrian traffic and bicycles passing by. But along the way, everyone takes time to greet her neighbour. Here, it is customary to ask how one’s sleep was and how there family is doing. Simple greetings take a few minutes here as neighbours share their state of being with eachother.

In a market the true social dynamics are revealed. A market is the nucleus of activity. The central market in downtown Tamale is analogous to an ant colony. Completely enclosed, very narrow walk ways, and copious amount of people coming and going. You could literally spend a few hours just sitting at a stand and observing the interactions between people.

Tailors chatting as their needles pass over traditional Ghanaian cloth. Three women pounding Foo Foo in a huge mortal and pestle. A butcher is chopping the carcass of a cow as he negotiates with the consumer over a fair price. Meanwhile little girls are walking by carrying a bucket of 500ml water pouches on their head being stopped periodically for the only solution to an intolerable heat. Young boys are passing selling miscellaneous items ranging from food to electrical components. And through this your nostrils are filled with an indescribable smell.

This is only my first impression of Ghana and definitely a skewed one. I will try my best to discover what’s below the surface of this interesting culture, and hopefully immerse myself in it. Thanks for listening.

(Feb 29)

A Warm Welcome

As I get to the bottom of the stairs and take my first steps onto the tarmac, I’m greeted by a warm and familiar air. The air is hot and thick. It goes beyond the smell sensed in my nostrils and the taste left in mouth. It’s an air that you feel on the pores of your face and the hairs on your arms. At first the air is so thick, you feel like you are walking through an invisible curtain.

“It’s good to be back” I say to myself. Though I’ve never been to Ghana before, all tropical countries I’ve travelled to (Trinidad, Dominican Republic, Zambia, and Ghana) have a similar air to them. It’s that sharp and superficial distinction that immediately tells me that training is over, and this is for real. After five weeks of preparing for this highly anticipated moment, it has finally arrived.

We make our way through customs with no problems at all, and exit the airport terminal into a gauntlet of welcoming guests. All I know is that I am meeting a man named Rafik, who will take us to our lodging for the night. “EWB”, written in black felt on a folded piece of cardboard gives way to a sigh of relief. After working our way through a mob of very helpful airport porters, our bags are carried to the cabs that Rafik has waiting for us. Negotiations and bartering follow to reach an agreement with the porters on a suitable price for their services. Five confused Canadians new to Ghana were surely taken advantage of, only to be expected.

After getting some food with Rafik, we all go to bed early following a moderate commute from Toronto of 20hrs. I lay in bed thinking of what’s happened over the last six weeks. How all that built up excitement over training in Toronto has now been given its chance to realize the reality of what were previously manifestations in my mind. Though I am not anxiously anticipating the 12 hour bus ride that awaits us the next day, from Accra on the coast to Tamale in the interior, I am excited to see more of this new place I will soon come to call home.

(February 25)