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?