Friday, February 20, 2009


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

It was a cold morning in the quiet village of Boagbaln. The mist was slowly subsiding as the warm pink glow from the rising sun was just creeping over the silhouettes of baobab trees. The guinea fowls were clucking, water was splashing as girls returned from fetching water, and men huddled around small bush fires to keep warm. But something was different this morning. Indeed, this morning, was the beginning of a day never seen before in Boagbaln.

Two co-volunteers, Mary Roach and Jen Hiscock, had come into town for the occasion. Just 2 weeks prior was my birthday and this weekend was to be the celebration. We started off by drinking tea and eating bread in my room, because the morning was too cold outside.

You may have remembered little Shaky, my pet goat. He was given to me on Christmas by my office, and today was going to be his day to shine. After three people assisted me in guiding it into our compound, we proceeded to kill it, and prep the meat for a formidable feast. All of Shaky would be cooked, though we kept one half of his rib cage to roast on the fire for a salty delight at lunch.

Finally 11:00am rolled around, and children started to gather outside my compound. For weeks in advance I had been telling all the children in my community that there would be a volleyball tournament on my party, and to start practicing. Jen, Mary, and I had fetched water that morning to fill up a large garbage bin with water, to hydrate all the toned athletes.

The net set at regulation height (2.43m) and a court chalked with ash from a bush fire, we were ready to begin. With music playing in the background, the games continued all afternoon, with both girls and boys playing equally. At one point there was a real nail-biter as the girls team was beating the boys team by a lead of 8.

Once the volleyball was finished, it was time for dinner. My host mother Dana had been cooking all day to prepare a great feast of local rice, tomato stew, and Shaky; which was quite delectable in the end. Friends came from town and almost 60 people were served that day, by the little goat that could.

After dinner was my favourite part of the whole day – the dance party. Playing local music to please the crowd, everybody was dancing within 50 minutes. Boys were two-stepping, girls were shaking what their mama’s gave them, and the little ones ran around clapping to the beat. But even those with the best moves were out done by the stylish ones. In the end, it was all about image.

We finished off the night by watching Matrix 2 and The Incredibles on a projection screen I borrowed from work. Every time Neo would send someone flying through a wall or do a back flip, cheering and applause followed. It was a fantastic day in the end, and for days after people were saying how they enjoyed it. It was a birthday like no other.

Humility Cocktail 2 – “Teach her Small”

I learned an important lesson today: I’m still quick to judge people, and have little tolerance for people who aren’t perfect off the bat. I’ve recently started running a district-wide survey, and have 14 field staff on my team and a secretary.

After a frustrating week with Jessica (secretary) in the office, who I originally pegged for slow, I needed to ask Douglas if something was wrong with her. After seeing that she was incapable of photocopying and putting together packages, reading, and then loading a staple; I seriously thought that she might just be a bit slow.

But when I asked Douglas, he was taken aback by my question. “That’s the problem with the education she receives! In the school they learn nothing, so when she comes on attachment [co-op] here, she is supposed to learn those skills” he defensively explains as though it were him I was calling slow. “In the office she learns nothing because there are 3 secretaries and only 1 computer. So she spends her time doing nothing.”

After hearing this my first reaction was that she IS here to learn. She’s not expected to come in being perfect, the reason why she is here is to be coached and taught how to do office work. I realize that her lack of skills is not a deficiency on her part, but an outcome of the failing education system I so often criticize.

“Can you use her for your work?” Douglas asks.

“I can use her for some work, such as photocopying and printing the packages. But I need somebody who can read the answers on the sheet, and then input that into the computer. Because she has trouble reading, it makes her almost useless to me for that task.”

This is when I get my second slap across the face of shame. Peter proceeds to say one of the simplest yet incredibly profound messages, in a genuine voice that sounded like a mother counseling a child.

“Teach her small. Just teach her small, and she will get better.”

At that moment, Peter transformed into a mirror, and I was staring at a reflection of myself. But my reflection didn’t look like me, instead I was looking at most of the Ghanaian directors I have often criticized for overworking certain staff and leaving others idle.

Finally being put into a leadership role, with the power to choose who to delegate work to, I realized the difficulty that Ghanaian directors face in working with their staff. It’s often the first observation any outsider will make. There are many people who have little to do and seem to just watch the days pass by idly, and there are few people who have too much to do.

I’ve always pegged the cause of this phenomenon as a capacity gap: a few highly skilled people, and many very low-skilled people. The result of which is that the many people who are far too unskilled to keep up with the pace of work, never get delegated work, and thus rarely grow. The highly skilled people get 80% of the work, get more experience and thus develop faster, and the cycle is perpetuated.

So now, in a position to perpetuate or combat this cycle, my first reflex was to fall into the same action as everybody else. My reason was what a micro-manager would normally say: ‘there’s not enough time’.

Thanks to Douglas and Peter, I was able to draw an important reflection out of the experience and avoid falling into a cyclical trap that restricts the growth of so many civil servants in Ghana. A trap that leads to mass underutilization of human resources and slows progress.

But what is almost more important than that reflection are the values that surfaced in Douglas and Peter’s reaction. First, the patience to work with people, even if they aren’t capable for the tasks; instead of rushing to achieve the outcomes of the project. Second, the faith to work with and help everybody, instead of giving up on people who aren’t ready right away.

“Teach her small” - Peter