Saturday, July 29, 2006

Life as a Ghanaian Farmer and my Dorothy

I spend my third week in Ghana farming in a very small village called Dimanzugu. The idea behind living in a remote, rural community (i.e. preferably no running water or electricity) and attempting to live like a typical Ghanaian farmer, is to try get a feel for what it is to be a Ghanaian farmer and get a better understanding of poverty.

Well, let’s just say that the experience really opened my eyes. And although it’s taken me a while to post this blog, I think it was important to spend that week in Dimanzugu at the beginning of my placement – to begin to understand the farmer: the primary MOFA beneficiary, or as EWB says “Dorothy”. Without comprehending the difficulties, challenges and way of living of the people I’m essentially working towards helping, how can I expect my work to have the desired impact?

Engineers with Borders, as far as I know, came up with this concept of Dorothy – she is the person you keep in the forefront of your mind when you are considering any development. For my project, I’m working directly with the MOFA office staff of my district: the District Director, Agricultural Officers and Extension Agents. But who am I working for? I’m working for Dorothy – the impoverished Ghanaian farmer who will hopefully benefit from my 4 months spent here. Many volunteers encounter individuals in the communities they visit or live in, who to them represent the person they are working for. For me, my Dorothy was my mother when I stayed in Dimanzugu: Mary Sumani.

She’s an illiterate, married mother of 5 who endlessly toils from dawn til dusk to provide for her family. And yet, she has these dreams: to learn English, to learn to write, and to produce a CD of her music (she sings beautifully!). However, between waking at 4:30 in the morning to collect shea nuts to begin the tedious and extensive process of producing shea butter (which sells for very little in the market relative to the energy required to produce it), fetching water from a borehole 5 km away (because the one in her village is broken), preparing coco (porridge made from maize flour), preparing fufu or tz for lunch and dinner with the soup of that day, caring for her babies…there is little time left for other endeavours. Not to mention costs – her family is living a hand to mouth existence. If they have a bad yield, they entirely rely on her small income generating activities to pull them through: the shea butter, frying fish, etc.

So when I consider my activities and my objectives, I think about Mary and the countless other Ghanaians, Africans, or impoverished individuals throughout the world who are living a similar life. People who work hard for very little profit; who cannot save because every cent made is needed almost immediately; who are given few opportunities and are somehow restrained from taking those that are provided. And that is poverty. To lack basic human needs – clean water, sanitation, education, adequate and nutritious food; but also to lack the capacity to improve your own life.

Now MoFA is responsible for helping the communities and farmers in the area: disseminating information, holdings trainings in communities to teach new concepts/skills/technologies, help organize farmers in cooperatives/groups in order to access credit, etc. But all their activities are aimed at improving the lives of the people in the community – decreasing the level of poverty and increasing food security: educating, providing technologies and approaches to ease the workload (make activities more efficient) and to provide access to otherwise unattainable resources. So, if I can have impact within the District office – more effective trainings, a more efficiently run DADU – then ideally I am helping MoFA to help Dorothy.

But I diverge…according to the title, I should be talking about my stay in the community. Dimanzugu is a very small community of approximately 15 compound houses. I believe everyone there is somehow related to each other – it seems like it was once a very large family that split off from the neighbouring (larger) village of Gbullung to establish their own community. I was only there for 6 days and each day I attempted to try new things. When I first arrived, I met a woman from my compound house named Niziha (the ‘z’ pronounced like a ‘j’). After some confusing miscommunications (three weeks in, I knew next to no Dagbani), I found myself walking with her to collect water. Although extremely pregnant, she was carrying a very large cylindrical container to hold the water, while I was presented with a metal bucket about 1/3 the size of her container. Pumping the water in of itself is a full body workout, not to mention then hauling it back on your head. Well, after I had very embarrassingly sloshed water all over myself, we removed about 2 inches of water from my bucket before continuing on the long walk back. And of course, she was kind enough to stop a few times with me along the way.

The women here, well actually everyone here, are so strong – I mean, they have to be. Pumping that water every day. Carrying everything on their heads. My neck muscles took a few days to recover from just that one time of carrying a bucket of water. Although I must admit that over the course of the week, my balance dramatically improved.

While in Dimanzugu, I also had a chance to witness the entire process of producing shea butter. Every morning at the crack of dawn, a few of the women would walk around the surrounding fields collecting the shea nuts that had fallen off the trees. (Here’s where I got in most of my practice balancing bowls of shea nuts on my head). The nuts are about the size of large walnuts, and very hard. Once the thin layer of fruit covering the nuts has been removed (usually eaten – very sickly sweet), hundreds of them are boiled in a gigantic pot for most of the day. They are then left to bake in the sun, on the floor of the compound house for a day or two, before they are violently struck in order to break off the husk from the softer interior core. Once all the husks are removed (which is a very tedious, time-consuming task) the soft cores are mashed together to form a very thick brown paste. This paste is added to water and heated to form oil. Once it has solidified (over the course of a night or so), voíla! You have shea butter. Now it takes a few hundred of these shea nuts to produce 1 calabash of shea butter – which at the time was selling for a grand total of maybe 30 000 cedis at the market (it is 500 cedis per ‘fist’ of shea butter). That roughly translates to 3.75 Canadian dollars. Besides this, I also helped prepare food – everything from collecting the braa leaves for the soup to pounding yams for fufu. I made tz (stirring the tz was a great indication of my complete lack of upper body strength – when you initially add the maize flour to the water, the mixture become extremely thick).

Apart from working with the women, I also wanted to get a feel from the work done by the men (and children): farming. My father, Yakubu Sumani, took me to a village nearby so that I could see how the farmers were making yam mounds. It was particularly difficult to do at this time because we had not had rain in a while so the ground was hard. Building a yam mound consists of chopping up the earth with a hoe, piling and packing it together. These mounds are about a foot high and a foot in diameter at the base – and they are made mound upon mound, row upon row, to cover the entire field (1 yam to be planted per mound) spanning an acre or two or four…as much as I’d love to be able to say that I helped with an entire row of yams mounds, unfortunately I only helped with a few. Apparently I work too slowly to warrant the use of one the hoes (which were in short supply). I also helped my father plant groundnuts in one of his field. They had already dibbled the holes, so all that remained to be done was drop 1 groundnut into the hole before covering it with earth. After a while you get into a routine: drop, step and cover with your left foot, drop, step and cover with your right foot…etc. I must have planted over 200 groundnuts in one afternoon. While tedious, that isn’t exactly hard work – and many of the farmers I’ve met have their children do it for them.

The worst for me was weeding. Granted, if I’d spent more time with the yam mounds my opinion might have been different. My father had intercropped groundnuts and maize on a 4 acre field, so by the time I arrived, the field was ready to be weeded. It was still early in the rainy season, so the air was hot – and even though we were weeding in the late afternoon (digging up the earth with small hoes around the plants), I was soaked through with sweat within 15 minutes from a combination of the heat and intense labour. By the end, my lower back was throbbing, my arms sore and my hands callused. Although, these I could deal with. It wasn’t until 2 hours later when I looked up to see how little we’d accomplished that I really felt the ache of the work – just a small fraction of this immense field was completed. When asked, he informed me that it would take a month to complete weeding the entire 4 acres. And once completed, he would have to begin weeding again from the place he started. 2 months of weeding.

The days I spent shadowing my father resulted in my experiencing two almost opposite feelings: utter exhaustion from the hard work, and shear boredom from sitting around and doing nothing. The men would farm in the early morning or very late afternoon, but during the day when the sun was at its peak, they would sit around and do nothing. The odd man would be weaving rope to make mats (he used his feet as well, and would roll the strands between his calf and the palm of his hand to tightly twist them into rope – I learned a little, but could never get my rope as tight as his). On one of the days, I biked to the neighbouring village of Gbullung and sat in on some primary and secondary school classes. I also took the opportunity to visit the village library, reading some nursery rhymes and children’s stories to some of the kids whose classes had been cancelled that day (i.e. the teacher didn’t show up). They enjoyed the gestures, intonation and sound effects, but surprisingly few of them actually understood the English. Which is something else I encountered back at my home in Dimanzugu. Fuzia, my one sister in form 2 of Junior Secondary school, came to me one evening to explain something she had learned in class. Fuzia barely spoke English, and while she could read the text, her comprehension was next to nil. She took out a biology book and opened to the Human Circulatory System. She read the words, but had absolutely no idea what it was talking about – and this was after having learned it in class. How do you explain to someone who doesn’t speak English what an artery is? the aorta? It’s not only an inability to retain the information, but simply to learn it in the first place. And if she cannot learn because of the language barrier, then how effective can the education possibly be?

My last visit in Gbullung was with my father to attend the market there. It was a very small market where you could buy ready-made meals (such as “shincafa di wachi” - rice and beans), seeds to plant, spices, farm utensils, cloth, and vegetables. Sumani also took me to the Gbullung ‘hospital’. It had one employed doctor, many empty rooms, no electricity, a single bed with an attached IV, and some storage space. It seemed barren, abandoned…and when we arrived the doctor was treating a patient on the bench outside the front door. It really galls me how an organization can go into a community, build this building to be used at a hospital, and then leave without providing adequate supplies or personnel to man it. And yet, the people of this community at least have a doctor present to provide treatment.

All in all, I had a wonderful time with me family there, and I will never forget that experience. It really helped me shape my work for the rest of the summer (hopefully for the better).

Oh, and Niziha had a beautiful baby boy before I left – his name is Mohammed.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

An Asylum of Cashews, Part II

Amid cries of protest at continuing this project in light of the concerns, the deputy took it upon himself to explain the system - explain why they should still carry it out.
[1] It's a top-down system. They are given policy directorates from the people responsible for their salaries, and as government workers they have an obligation to carry out those projects. He specifically said that they need to justify why they are getting paid. And
[2] 55% donor funded, means that the funds are from donors for specific projects. To retain those sources of funding, they should comply.

After the explanation of needing to comply with policy directorates, I heard one of the AEAs express the greatest analogy to development that I've ever heard! With his arms clasped tightly around his body in emphasis, he expresses that knowing what to do, but being restrained by "policy directorates" is like being in a straightjacket! At this, the entire room of 24 AEAs erupted into spirited agreement. He went on to explain the inabilities of the AEAs to do their jobs with these policies. However, the deputy calmed the group and mentioned that the purpose of the reporting system is to bring to light these concerns! The AEAs report weekly/monthly and should include all the above issues. That way, those who decide on the programs can take into consideration the concerns of each individual district.

Which brings me to my next point: there is so much bureaucracy within GOs! A quick example: the Director went into town to purchase some supplies, including new whiteboard markers. The next day, I asked him if I could use one of the markers, and he said that they hadn't arrived yet. "I'm sorry, but I thought we brought them to the office yesterday?" "Yes, they are in the office. But the storekeeper isn't here, so we cannot use them." At this point, I was thoroughly confused and in need of some clarification. Which I promptly requested. Apparently, he pays for supplies, and then has to have the purchases approved and sent to the 'store' in the office - from which he has to requisition the supplies from the storekeeper before being able to use them. Not only was she not in that day, but we hadn't even received approval for the purchase yet! Which makes no sense to me, because once it's paid for, the store wasn't going to take them back if the purchase wasn't approved!!

But back to my previous topic. Bureaucracy: particularly concerning reporting, from the AEAs to the DAOs to the Director to the Regional Office to the National Office. I don't know exactly on what levels most of the activities are decided, but from every way the info is passed up in the district level, there is a lack of consistency with the Deputy's words. Many concerns in the AEAs reports don't make it into the presentations given to the regional office. If you want to have and efficient and effective top-down approach, you need a good system to carry info from the bottom up! How else to ascertain and meet the needs of the people who are the primary beneficiaries?? This bureaucracy/efficiency issue is also so different to what I've been hearing from fellow volunteers working with NGOs. For some of them, when activities are decided on, they are then somewhat easily implemented - and if not, at least ideas are discussed amongst people who can choose to implement them. However, I probably shouldn't be going on about NGOs and GOs as though every one is the same as the other - there is such a variety amongst them that it would be wrong to categorize in such a way. I suppose I'm just speaking specifically about my office and from experience of a few NGO volunteers.

So, the whole concept of report writing. Government organizations in Ghana are moving more and more towards decentralization, and thus policy keeps changing quite frequently. And as I've previously mentioned, the newest policy being adopted by MoFA is RBM: Results-Based Management. While the concept is fairly easy to grasp, the most difficult part of this system is implementing it: basically, changing the focus from ACTIVITIES to the RESULTS (the change you want to see). As of right now, everything done is activities based - including proposal and report writing, activity planning, etc. The organization will choose the activities they will do and only then pick outputs/outcomes/impact that could be a result of those activities. RBM, however, is the exact reverse.

Hopefully I didn't bore you with the brief RBM details above, but it's just to give an idea before tying it back into the whole reporting system, bureaucracy mess! The results of everything done by MoFA should benefit the farmers - and who better to know what they need than the frontline workers, the AEAs? And yet, they are given policy directorates from above. So if the AEAs can effectively convey to higher-up officials what it is that is truly needed and which activates do not work or are inappropriate for their particular districts, the farmers will eventually benefit. Even proper reports to the fenders could merge the donor-driven objectives with the needs of the beneficiaries.

So I suppose in a way I'm lucky that one of my tasks at MoFA this summer allows me to have an impact in this area, where I've noticed a definite need for change. My second workshop focuses on RBM, and I can choose to incorporate aspects of planning or report writing if they seem like important applications to focus on. While RBM isn’t perfect, using the system properly could do a world of good for the farmers. Aside: however, this still leaves the issue o MoFA and donors not following through with promises (resulting in a decrease in trust). Firstly, there is the example of the maize project that was previously mentioned. As well, there is another called Nerica Rice (New Rice for Africa) - it is a new upland, short-term variety of rice that is very conducive to the soil and climate in the Northern Region. It has better yields than most varieties currently used.

The project is to organize farmers into groups in order to receive the inputs (the seed) as a loan from the seed manufacturers. The cost of the loan is to be repaid after harvest. The AEAs were promised a certain amount of seed each, and then formed the groups and notified the DAOs about the number of groups, names, etc. After this was done, they were informed by the company supplying the seed that they could only provide a fraction of the promised amount. This left every AEA with too many groups for the given seed to support, and therefore disappointing quite a number of farmers. These farmers were told to maintain the groups for the following year. At least with this project, they were all informed early enough for the farmers to plant other crops in their field. However, it still will affect the trust relationship between the AEAs and their farmers. And yet, I don’t feel there’s much I can do to influence that particular issue. Perhaps add donor/upper-level accountability in my list of recommendations at the end of the placement, but once I’m back in Canada there’s no way to monitor that.

So that is a taste of what working with MoFA is like. Not all as frustrating as it may seem from this blog, but at times… I came in with the misconception that most government workers wouldn’t care at all for ‘development’ and only regard their work as a job. But I’ve seen such variation among the employees here! While for a few this is true, all the AEAs and most of the DAOs genuinely want to improve the situation in the Northern Region. However, even with the true concern for providing food security, it IS a job. And their work costs (i.e. fuel to travel to communities, money for visual aids, handouts, etc.) need to be thought about. Even if they understand what needs to be done to be effective and ensure the new ideas/skills/techniques are being adopted by the farmers, they are restrained once again by a straightjacket of insufficient funds. As I very soon came to learn in Ghana, every activity that fails and even some that succeed suffer from insufficient funding!

An Asylum of Cashews, Part I

Disclaimer: This entry is a bit long…well, truthfully it’s ridiculously long due to my newfound tendency to ramble. It’s about the work I’ve been doing and challenges faced. So if you are only interested in the thrills of Ghanaian culture and lifestyle, READ NO FURTHER!!

Working with a government organization has both its advantages and disadvantages - compared to working with an NGO, that is. The two types of organizations can be contrasted on a number of levels, pertaining to: the availability of funds, sources of funds (and therefore responsibility of the organization to that source), bureaucracy, flexibility of policies, etc. Not to mention, of course, the motivation of the employees!

Let's start with funding. Because realistically, as much as I hate to admit it, so much boils down to MONEY. Money allows activities to happen, people to be paid, progress to occur. One of the phrases I've become most accustomed to hearing is "if we had the money...", or "we would do..., but we cannot due to insufficient funds." The favorite excuse: insufficient funds. Granted, one must objectively distinguish between a situation where funds are available but simply allocated elsewhere, and a situation where genuine efforts would be made if the money was present.

But I diverge. I was speaking of GOs vs. NGOs, and specifically about my preconceptions regarding the two, as opposed to the reality of what I've experienced working at a GO in a developing country.

So concerning funds, not being a keen economist myself (most definitely not my forté), I've somewhat limited myself in understanding how organizations work before departing for Ghana. In my naiveté I'd assumed that similar to Canada (where the government runs off taxpayer's dollars, there is theoretically enough for public services and government workers are considered to be fairly well paid), government organizations are not severely short of funds and their actions are therefore not donor driven. My subconscious logic went as follows: if an organizations has no donors (i.e. uses tax dollars), then the activities undertaken are done in the best interest of the citizens who are providing the funding. Granted, I'm excluding any situations where there is no policy transparency and corruption occurs. Point being: no donors = projects are beneficiary driven. But alas, if the basic premise is faulty...

For instance, MoFA holds monthly AEA meetings where the entire office ~ District Agricultural Officers (DAOs), Agricultural Extension Agents (AEAs) and the Director all come together to plan activities, decide where to focus energies (i.e. proposal writing), etc. Besides these regular meetings, when an "emergency" arises, they hold impromptu meetings. It was at one of these that the AEAs were discussing projects proposed by he higher up officials. Particularly, they were complaining about projects in which promises were made to the farmers and then not carried out. The topic was brought up by the DAO Crops, Mr. Isahaku, who reminded the AEAs to promote the "package": this package was a conditional provision of inputs for maize productions (seeds, fertilizer, etc.). However, the condition was that the farmers must first purchase a certain amount of cashew seeds to be intercropped with the maize. The whole point of the project was to promote this particular type of intercropping. Anyway, I don't know the project specifics like the logistics involving repaying the loans after harvesting (the inputs about being given as loans).

Apparently, what Mr. Isahaku was now saying, is that while the maize was originally promised, now the package is that if the farmers buy the cashew seeds, there is a chance of receiving the maize inputs...nothing is assured! So here the AEAs are in a position where many of them have already promoted the project to the farmers, many of whom have purchased the cashew seeds, planted, and are waiting on the maize inputs! These farmers are waiting for promised seeds that may never arrive! And by setting aside that land to grow maize (I believe it was a full acre), they may be forfeiting use of that land for this year. This meeting was held when it was reaching a point that it was already too late to grow a number of crop varieties with longer growing periods. At least, there were only a few varieties left that could be planted now and expect a good yield! And to add insult to injury, the AEAs all agreed that in the Tolon Kumbungu district, there is no market for cashews! They themselves wouldn't invest in them. So now we have farmers with cashews planted to intercrop with maize seeds that might not be available, and then cannot sell the cashews once harvested!

Problem #1: the AEAs have just entirely lost the trust of all the farmers who chose to invest in this project and don't receive the maize. Which farmers would listen to an AEA and take a gamble to go into co-ops, accept projects or adopt new technology after being so brutally let down? Without a solid trust basis, the AEAs can become virtually ineffective for some farmers and even communities.

Problem #2: the role of MoFA is primarily to work towards Food Security in the district/region/country...etc. Those few tens of thousands of cedis (just a few Canadian dollars) is a substantial loss to impoverished subsistence farmers, and greater still is the loss from idle land that was meant to be used (or land used too late to produce a good yield). While letting the land fallow for a year will improve soil fertility in the future, what if the farmer's family does not have enough to eat this year?? To use EWB/Russ' wonderful term, isn't it "grossly negligent" of a GO, or any organization for that matter, to go back on a promise like this which could have possible significant repercussions for the individual involved?

Problem #3: my largest issue with the whole affair (and you think, larger than #2??). Yes, my biggest problem is that even after a general concern was raised by the AEAs, the DAO Crops (supported by the other district officers), said to continue to promote the project. However, instead of promising maize, only mention that it is a possibility that if the farmer buys the cashew seeds, they might receive maize inputs. Continue to promote a project that may cause a loss for the farmer? (i.e. no cashew demand in district). When a project is so inapplicable to the district and those implementing it realize that fact, why do you ask would they continue to promote it?!

So thus my whole intro above GOs vs. NGOs: I learned at this meeting that MoFA is apparently 55% donor funded. That's right! 55%!! I couldn't believe that initially - of course, being a developing country with few taxes in place, it makes sense that the funding has to come from somewhere. But due to my lack of economic interest, I hadn't really stopped to think about where the funds came from. While I knew there were some donor projects, I'd thought it would be less than 55%. Consequently, MoFA is somewhat donor driven. An organization whose aim is to benefit the people, to be working for the people, are using some projects designed to please the donors!


Sunday, June 25, 2006

Congratulations! Mazel Tov! Nitizurusung!

[Naturally, "Nitizurusung" means congratulations in Dagbani...just to clarify]

Since arriving in Ghana, I've had the pleasure of attending 2 weddings and 2 adorés, with more to come! Adorés are baby-naming celebrations, and are obviously not spelt that way here - however, having been unable to find a spelling that looks anything like the way it's pronounced, I improvised. There have been a few funerals held in the community, but none of which have been connected to the family I'm staying with so I have yet to be invited. I suppose that sounds a bit morbid - to be awaiting a funeral invitation. However, having heard that they are wonderful celebrations, complete with traditional music and dancing, I am extremely interested in attending one.

The weddings were not at all what I'd expected. Truth be told, I'd anticipated some sort of traditional orchestra - complete with a variety of local drums, wind instruments...etc. And of course, the traditional dancing that would naturally accompany such music. So, I suppose in that respect I was somewhat disappointed. Although, perhaps "disappointed" is the wrong word to use - but I'm getting ahead of myself, talking about the music and dancing!

Both the weddings I attended were Muslim weddings - firstly, this means that they begin on the Friday, and go on through til Sunday night! On the two different occasions, I had a chance to partake in the various stages of the wedding. The first wedding was in Tamale, the bride being a good friend of Sadia, one of the secretaries at my office. Incidentally, Sadia is getting married in August so I have another wedding to look forward to!! We went only on the Sunday to pay our respects to both parties - and I emphasize both parties, because the bride and groom celebrate and entire different locations! (in this case, it was a 15 minute cab ride between the two places).

We began at the groom's home: in the interior of most compound houses that I've seen, there are stones set into the cement floor - these are used to prop up pots of various sizes over fires when cooking. In the interior of the groom's compound house was an assortment of foods being prepared in gigantic pots by the women, with a number of people sitting around, conversing, already eating the steaming food. Children were walking all around, offering minerals (by this I mean bottles of Coke, Fanta, Sour Lemon spritzers, etc.) Of course, no alcohol was served seeing as this was a Muslim event.

Outside, there were 2 separate seating areas. The first was under a canopy that appears to have been erected for this wedding. The second was a large gathering of chairs under a nearby tree. And between the two, an entire sound system was hooked up - a boom-box (complete with the necessary cassette player) was connected to two very, very large speakers and the music was simply booming across the entire area! While once in a while there were more traditional, Ghanaian songs, the majority was old music that I was familiar with. Some was even music that you could presently hear in any club in Toronto or Montreal. It was interesting hearing some old tunes that I could sing along to! It was a very relaxed environment - everyone just sitting around, some food being served or sold (mainly some women came by selling fruit for the occassion), and enjoying the music.

The atmosphere at the bride's was very similar, although consisted of a smaller crowd. And there, unlike at the groom's where only children were dancing, I had the opportunity to dance with some of the women. Once again, very familiar music and nothing traditional whatsoever! Except the clothing, that is. Some of the women had the most beautiful locally taylored outfits on - while walking around Tamale one can often see men and women adopting foreign styles of dress, traditional wear (and extravagent, elegant traditional wear at that!) is usually worn to these occassions.

But nothing was to compare with bride! She had on a stunning ensemble in cream, dotted with gold - and a rich, crimson and gold head-dress on to match. She looked positively radiant!

The second wedding I attended here, in Tolon with my sister Khadijah. We went on both the Saturday night and the Sunday - the Saturday night was such an occassion!! When we arrived, they were setting up a sound system (a whole DJ hook up, complete with two huge speakers). They also had 2 fluorescent lights arranged to illuminate the "dance floor'', which was indicated by a ring of plastic lawn chairs (already occupied by children of various ages). We entered the compound house to greet the bride and her family. I then had the pleasure of seeing the ritual washing of the bride. The married women in her family washed her thoroughly, while all the female visitors gathered around - and then the singing! One would start up a traditional song, and the entire group would chorus together. The washing process and accompanying sing along ended, and everyone exited the compound in time for the dancing to start.

As opposed to any occassions I've ever attended in the past, the dancing was done only by one group of people at a time with everyone else just standing around watching. Each group would approach the DJ and request a song, and then go on to dance as the song began. The dancers ranged from some religious groups, with a more traditional style - to young women, whose style I just couldn't imitate (they have a way of moving that my body just hasn't been able to pick up) - to some young men and adolescents in their ghetto dress, dancing the way a guy might in a Montreal club. Naturally, being the only Saliminpaga ("white lady") at the celebration, I was asked to join almost all of the dancers. The DJ approached me a few times to go dance alone and teach them my styles - but I didn't want to be in too much of a spotlight (with well over a hundred people watching me), so I gratefully declined any group less than 5 or so people. It was a great time, and definately one of the later nights I've had here. While I turned in late at 12:30, the dancing continued on until the morning!

From dancing at the weddings, to knocking hips with Mariama (my second mother) in the house - I've come to really appreciate what a great tool dancing is to bonding with other people. Khadijah has become such a close friend since that first night at the wedding when we really had a chance to bond, and has been an invaluable cultural informant!

Just a quick note on adorés, the baby-naming celebrations that take place 7 days after the baby is born: the first I attended was a lot of fun - food and drink served; the men sitting separately, talking and playing Owari (it's a game with stones, played in a carved wooden box of 12 shallow, semi-circular depressions - it is a game that I once played as a child, having a set that I believe was brought over from South Africa; surprisingly, it's played on this end of the continent as well!). The women are all together, some crooning over the new child and all congratulating the mother. This is the celebration part; as to the actual naming of the baby, I don't know if there is any ritual associated with it, but if so I did not have a chance to see it. At one of the adorés, I didn't even actually get a chance to see the baby!

Monday, June 19, 2006

This little sheep went to market...

Having attended university in Montreal, I've encountered some absolutely horrendous potholes. Montreal brought new meaning to the joke that Canada has only 2 seasons: winter and construction. Although, try as they might - with endless work being done to improve the roads - the potholes persist! For those of you who have had the pleasure of driving in Montreal, I'm sure you understand what I mean.

And yet, the roads are paved. End of story. The Montreal potholes cannot even begin to compare to the road conditions I've seen here. Particularly when travelling outside the city, where I'm sure you can understand, the roads are most definately not paved. Imagine a compacted dirt road, just big enough for 2 tro-tros to squeeze by one another (I can vouch, having seen it happen. However, one did have to slightly drop into the ditch on the side...). But anyway, we are imagining this dirt road: in the north the earth is a rich reddy-brown, but although compacted, the road is still susceptible to physical erosion. Seeing as the rainy season has begun, torrents of rain cut through the soft earth, leaving crevices and small craters that are devestating to a small vehicle passing through. Even without the rain, the sporatic flow of traffic raises the dust and causes it to settle in almost perfectly spaced ridges along the centre of the road. So now picture the red-dirt road, dropping off to shallow ditches on either side - with ridges along the centre and potholes dotting the edges.

And then, unless you happen to own a motorbike, the only real way to get around (I'm speaking about distances that are generally too long to bike on a daily basis) is the tro-tro, or lorry as it's called here as well. I have possibily alluded to tro-tro rides in a previous blog, but for the purpose of this story (yes, it is a story!), I will reiterate the experience. Tro-tros are about the size of small vans (but with more windows...usually). In the back, there are normally 4-6 rows of seats, and on each row up to 6 or so people can be squashed in. The busiest tro-tro I've been on, carried a grand total of 40 or so people. This number is extremely surprising considering the state that the vehicles are in. Having gone through many a winter in Canada, I've witnessed the deterioration and inevitable rust that awaits any vehicle where snow and salt are concerned. However, not a single one of the tro-tros I've seen would be permitted to operate in Canada. The seats on the interior are of a rusted, metal framework - complete with jagged edges and squeaky hinges. The exterior is no better - the same rusty, jagged edges lining the windows and door openings, and many a time with a U-shaped metal rod used to secure the door in place when closed.

So, now combine the above images of these dilapidated vehicles upon weathered dirt roads. Granted the entire vehicle shakes quite violently (particularly over those central ridges), and despite the heat of so many people packed in close quarters with little ventiliation, the passengers are kept in their respective seats due to the sardine-like arrangement. Even so, every metal part rattles in unison, creating an almost deafening din - not unlike what I imagine it would sound like to be in one of those food processors I've seen around. At times it is entirely impossible to converse with the person beside you!

This is my transportation to and from Tamale. Although it sounds like a terrible experience, I've met some of the most interesting people on tro-tros, and have come to appreciate their undeniable rustic charm (and since your entire body bounces along uniformly it is possible, even if not necessarily easy, to read a book en route). But I'm diverging. This story is about one of my first tro-tro rides in Ghana. I was on my way into Tamale for a wedding, and since it was a market day, the tro-tro was packed. And I mean packed - with both people and cargo; the roof of the vehicle was heaped with wares to be sold in town.

We had been driving for maybe five minutes, rattling along until we hit one particularly nasty pothole. Duly, the driver adeptly swerved around it. It was at this point that I saw a streak of white sailing past the window to my right, followed by the loud *thud* of a sheep hitting the ground! One of the men had tied the legs of his sheep, and I'm assuming it was on the way to the market to be sold. Naturally, we stopped to retreive the now slightly bruised goods before continuing. Since the sheep appeared to have undergone no further damage than a simple bump on the head (I'm surprised it was still alive, to tell you the truth), the entire tro-tro burst into peals of laughter! An eventful ride already...

But alas, this same sheep was to be yet again the centre of our next disturbance! Perhaps ten minutes after making its remarkable escape attempt in hurtling itself off the moving tro-tro, the sheep was once again brought to our attention (granted, the failed escape attempt is my own personal speculation and it's entirely possible that the sheep simply fell). While everyone had a good laugh at this next occurance, it was the man directly to my right who was the most affected. You see, there was suddenly a curious liquid dripping down from the battered roof, that was sagging under the weight of its load. As it turned out, the unfortunate sheep had chosen to relieve itself on the tro-tro roof, and its urine was subsequently leaking into the tro-tro and onto the aforementioned man. Needless to say, the entire mess was cleaned up, seats were shifted slightly, and the sheep went on unnoticed for the remainder of the journey.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Working with MoFA

Working with the office here for the past...almost 2 weeks now, has been a bit of a rollercoaster ride. I've experience days of inefficiency and frustration, but at times found myself to have been more productive in one hour than in the previous few days. It's all about timing - who's around, and if they're available when you need to speak to them; but mostly, it's been about fitting myself into existing schedules and having everything planned out for myself well in advance! This is mostly because I've noticed that not everyone comes into work everyday. Even in the time I've been here, there are still some co-workers that I haven't had the pleasure to meet, let alone relax with and chat for a while.

I've had a chance to get to know a few key members of the MoFA staff: the Director, Dr. Sallah; the Deputy Director, Mr. Ahmed Adam (who under the new structure is actual the DAO of Extension - that's District Agricultural Officer of Extension); Mr. Mills, the DAO of MIS (Management Information Systems); and Mr. S.K. Fiatuho, the Veterinary DAO. We've discussed
- Their backgrounds: what kind of schooling they've received, how long they've been with MoFa
- Their work: what projects they focus on, who reports back to them, their day to day responsibilities
- and personal information as well.

I find that I learn the most when we just have an informal discussion. I was thoroughly impressed at the extent of knowledge they each possess about agriculture and their respective positions. For instance, Mr. Ahmed Adam (who is also my counterpart while I am working here), received his education in Agriculture, focusing on Extension. This means he has a background in adult education, facilitation skills, etc. Seeing as he is also responsible for training most of the AEA's, these skills are also passed on to the frontline workers!

Since adult education and facilitation was one of the things I'm here to work on, I'm extremely excited to be working with Mr. Ahmed throughout the summer. And his contagious enthusiasm for learning, and working with me every step of the way makes me confident that my efforts will be continued on even after I've left. It's so thrilling to know that my actions are being taken seriously, and that with Mr. Ahmed's help, I'll be able to have a real impact here at the office. And not only that, with all the training I've had in AE (adult education) and whatnot, I'm sure that in some respects I'll be the one learning from Mr. Ahmed!

I've been a bit out of touch lately - sorry! So the above was actually written a while back and saved as a draft. Since then, I've had more opportunities to see how the staff at the office interact with each other, and gotten a better grasp on the structure and dynamic of the DADU (District Agricultural Development Unit). Much of this knowledge has been gained from just speaking with individuals, attending meetings on all levels, and going through the many reports compiled monthly, quarterly or annually.

The project, as outlined by Robin (our long term volunteer) for the pilot project done in Yendi a few months ago, focuses on 3 main areas that I discussed in the MoFA blog entry. In a nutshell, there is in-office consulting, re-activating the District Food Security Network (DFSN) and facilitating workshops on adult education and RBM (results-based management) to help build capacity. While I've done a bit of consulting - and identified which areas consulting would be the most sustainable - I've mostly been focusing my time lately on the DFSN. This would be because the first meeting is being held this coming Wed., June 21. I can't tell you how excited I am!! Mostly, I've been visiting a number of GOs, NGOs, FBOs, CBOs...etc. to invite them, and discuss food security issues. There will be a whole food security blog after the meeting, so stay tuned!

Saturday, May 20, 2006

My Wonderful Family

As I've possibly already mentioned, I'm staying in Tolon with a family. The villages here are made up of compound houses. These are comprised of a number of separate rooms, joined by a wall on the perimeter, and the rooms exit into the central courtyard area that has a single entrance to the exterior. The walls are all made of clay/mud/cement, covered in plaster and then painted. The ceilings have corrugated metal paneling on top of raftes, covered by straw and mud - I'm not sure if that is for aesthetics or practical purposes; but either way, the rain clangs horribly when it pours. Seeing as the rainy season is starting, it's been raining quite a bit here.

The head of the household is Alhaji Mahama Asumah; he used to have the title Afa-Asumah, which many people still know him by. However, since he has travelled to Mecca, the title has changed from "Afa" to "Alhaji". It took me the longest time to get that straight! Alhaji used to be an Agricultural Extension Agent at MoFA, which is how I came to stay with his family. He is a very well-educated man and we have interesting discussions about Ghanaian politics, the challenges that the district farmers face, the local culture...well, practically everything! He is very open to questions, and seems to genuinely enjoy teaching me about Ghanaian life. Also, he is my Dagbani teacher. We have spent quite a few hours with him teaching me new words, and me struggling with the proper pronunciation of them. Slowly but surely...

Alhaji is married to three wonderful women! Amama, Mariama and Ayi (in that order, Amama being the senior wife). Then there are the children and other relatives - of whom there are too many to even recount! I've learned about 85% of their names and family connections. Amama has 4 children, 3 of whom no longer reside in the household. Her youngest, Nana, turns 20 on May 20th (there are no birthday celebrations here, but I supposed that's only practical with the amount of people to a household!). While I'm totally thrilled to have begun to understand the family structure, I'm sure it will be quite boring to read.

More interesting, is the family dynamic. The wives cook dinner (I'm never around for lunch except on the weekends, but I think it mostly consists of heated leftovers from the night before). They have a rotation where each wife cooks 2 evenings - I believe that the woman who cooked dinner, has the opportunity to spend the night with the husband in his room. The women each have their own rooms that they sleep in with their children and any cousins. For instance, Amama's brother's daughter, Karima, was attending school in Tolon and therefore she stays in Amama's room. Similarly, Mariama's sister, Sahada, and her baby, Rahma, stay in Mariama's room.

Which brings up another interesting custom. For the first 1 or 2 children born to a woman, she returns to her family's house without her husband. There she remains until the child is 2 or 3 years old and the husband calls for her to return. However, for the 3rd child and any child afterwards, she will remain with her husband. Alhaji had a first wife who he divorced; however, the second-born of that marriage is Amadu, and he lives in the compound as well with his wife, Fusina (she's pregnant and due any day!!) and their 2 daughters, Rehana and Rahima. For both her first children, Fusina returned home but for the child on the way, she will stay in the Asumah household. (And I know it is terrible to favour children, but I must confess that 4-year-old Rahima is possibly my favourite).

Alhaji understands the importance of education, so although he married 3 illiterate wives, he sends all of his children to school. They are adorable strolling off together in the morning with their matching uniforms (which cost a good 25-30 000 cedis apiece - so much for "free" primary education. With all the associated fees for uniforms, shoes and books, there is still a fairly high percentage of families who cannot afford to send their children to primary school, let alone secondary school! And from Senior Secondary school, maximum 10% go on to higher education of any kind). Haha, so there's my little rant concerning the utter impossibility of reaching the development millenium goal of free primary education, especially by 2015 - and Ghana is considered to be one of the developing countries making the best progress.

I've heard it is not uncommon for literate men to marry illiterate women here; which makes sense owing to the slight discrepency in the percentage of men and women who have received an education. If a family can only afford to send one child to school, it is more likely to be a son. However, I think this causes some issues within the marriage- mostly because the illiterate wives do not necessarily understand the importance of receiving an education. Whereas we put such an emphasis on schoolwork and learning, the daughters are at the beck-and-call of their mother's until they are older (learning to cook, wash, etc.); and the sons spend much time in the field, particularly during the rainy season. I think Alhaji would prefer to make studying a top priority for the children, but that would interfere with the wives' responsibilities to oversee the upbringing of the children. Although, that's just an opinion. And some of the children do make a lot of time to devote to their studies, so it could purely be on an individual basis.

There are still so many customs and traditions that seem so contrary to everything I've grown up with. For instance, the women do all the cooking and washing...but they believe it is their responsibility. It is not that the men force them to do it, but it seems almost like they are born to believe they are inferior to men (taught by the community, both men and women). Coming for a world riddled with feminism and equal rights, it is quite an adjustment to now live in a community where women are inferior. I suppose it is only fortunate that being a "Saliminga", a foreigner, I don't fit in with the natural heirarchy of the community - while I am still a women (the constant marriage proposals can attest to the fact), I am seen first as a Westerner.

Beyond simply trying to understand the family dynamic, I've also been trying to find my place in the family. I've been making an effort to bond with the women, but it's sometimes just easier to sit and talk with Alhaji. Seeing as Amama, Mariama and Ayi are illiterate, they've never really learned English. They speak a bit, but much of the time we find it difficult to communicate our exact meanings. Although, I must say that my gestures have become much more creative! Most of the time though, some of the children are around and they can always translate for me. So besides having Alhaji as a teacher, I've been learning Dagbani from the entire family! Sometimes I learn so much that it becomes too difficult to remember all the phrases - so each day I've been trying out new ones. We all have a good laugh at my initial attempts at pronouncing the words. However, I've found this to be one of the most accomodating places to learn a new language - everyone is so impressed with the little I speak and are very excited that I am even trying to speak the language in the first place.

I've managed to bond a bit with the women by having them teach me to cook (mostly TZ and braa). But I find that they've been cooking all their lives and their hands are much less susceptible to heat - so some of the things they do, I just physically can't. Such as, Mariama will just pick up a metal pot that's been sitting on burning coals for over an hour, with her bare hands and not even flinch. I, on the other hand, still get burned when I touch the end of the ladle that was sitting in the pot for 10 minutes. It's slow slow learning. I also insist on doing my own wash, and Khadija (one of the daughters) has been showing me the proper way to do it. Everything the women do standing (sometime they sit); but mostly, they stand and bend at the waist. Just cooking and washing are a work-out! Although, that might just be a testament to how out of shape I am. Well, not for long!

Showering is an adventure - I enter the little stall equipped with my brush, soap and half a bucket of water. When it's been raining, the air gets quite cool (relative to the intense heat, that is), and the water is cold. So we've been heating our water over the coals a bit before washing. In less than 2 weeks I've already become somewhat acclimatized to the heat!

But back to family-bonding. So above is how I've been spending time with the women. I also dance with Mariama as she sings. It consists of some bouncing around, and bumping hips at regular intervals. Everyone got so excited the first time the Saliminga danced! But now, we'll dance a few times a day. I've been spending some time drawing with the young children. They love the varieties of pencils I've brought with, and we all sit down around my sketchbook and draw together on one page. The women around my age and I just talk, cook, buy cloth. I've spent quite a bit of time with Khadija, Karima and Nana, and they really are such delightful company!

I've also been spending some time with the boys around my age, and a bit younger - Jina (nickname for Mohammed) is 18, and we play volleyball with the local boys. I'm really impressed with how well they play! But I've definately managed to hold my own in the games, and I'm proud to say that I'm one of the few who can successfully serve overhand. I think it makes the whole game more enjoyable because I know that they aren't just letting me play because I'm a foreigner (well, I suppose to some extent they are because I've never seen any of the local girls join in the games). I've also played football (aka. soccer) with some of the men of the community, and Ahamed who stays in our house (he's one of the sons of the neighbouring chiefs, and I believe that I'm staying in the room that used to belong to him; he now sleeps with 2 of the other boys). Wow, are they ever FAST! I have some issues just keeping up with the pace, especially since I'm definately not used to exerting myself in this kind of heat. But it could have been worse, and I've been invited to play in future games. I'm really looking forward to watching the World Cup with them, especially when Ghana plays Italy on the 12th! (Everyone reading this should watch the game!!)

But my favourite bonding experiences are in the evenings. Everything is very quiet and mellow; looking up you can see a magnificent display of stars, despite the horrid glow of the fluorescent lighting (electricity being both a blessing and a curse). But much of the time, we'll sit around a giant tub of ground nuts and converse for hours while shelling them by hand (you should see the calluses I've developed just from shelling nuts!). It's extremely relaxing to just absorb yourself in the conversation and monotonous activity. Oh, but the stars are just so beautiful! Sometimes I'll even just lie on a bench and stare up at them, and the kids will come and play with my hair (they really seem to love it, and I can't wait for it to grow longer - I've heard that hair grows very quickly here). Within the scarce time that I've been here, I already feel like part of the family and I think that they've begun to accept me as such, as opposed to a temporary guest.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Accra to Tamale to Tolon

Accra is the capital city, located in the Southern Region and where we spent literally one night. From there we took a state bus up to Tamale - a ride that takes on average 12 hours. So just to give you a taste of Ghanaian time, it took us about 14.5 hours (not to mention leaving 3 hours late, although that was due to some maintenance issues). The ride was quite enjoyable, with A/C and entertainment in the form of Nigerian movies - which are hilarious! Somewhat overly dramatic, but with very vibrant colours!

We also made a few pit stops along the way, most having booths set up with women selling everything including fried yams, meat pies, an assortment of fruit, kabobs (although I don't think that's what they're called here), and bread. There are quite a few kinds of bread: butter bread (which is so delicious!), sugar bread, tea bread, brown bread, bagel bread.....etc. That's been one of the strangest things to have to adjust to! There is so much starch in the diet here, in the forms of bread, rice, cassava...and I need to make a concious effort to ensure that I'm getting enough protein and leafy greens.

The landscape we drove by was absolutely stunning! While some of it was farmland, where we could see fields upon fields of maize, much of the view was of a lush, thriving tropical rainforest. I had been under the misconception that most of Ghana was a fairly barren desert type of climate. Even though it is much hotter in the north, there is still a lot of growth and the land is much greener than I'd initially anticipated. However, I have arrived at the beginning of the rainy season, so I cannot say what it is like at the peak of the dry season. On route, we also bought some fresh maize from women passing by the bus - it tasted a lot different to the corn we get back home (much starchier, of course!).

Tamale is the capital of the Northern Region, with a population of approx. 100 000 people. During the day there is a constant flow of people, either on the sideway areas that are partitioned off from the road or just the mass amounts of cabs, tro-tros, motorbikes. And everywhere on the side of the road are vendors selling food, water, units for mobile phones. My overall impression was that that city is perpetually bustling - but not at the rapid pace that is so common in North America. Everyone finds the time to greet each other. It is such a refreshing change from the feeling I would get walking downtown Toronto or Montreal, of everyone being in a rush, racing to make a meeting or appt.

In the morning, we met with the RADU (Regional Agricutural Development Unit), who collaborates the efforts of the various district offices in the Northern Region. It was interesting seeing how the RADU operates, their projects, their mission statement and objectives, and especially to hear what they thought of our placements. It is extremely encouraging to know that we are welcomed here and that our efforts are invited; I hate to think of how much more difficult it would be trying to work with people who are unreceptive - not that I've met a single unreceptive individual so far! I also got the feeling that everyone would be extremely open to sharing their knowledge with us, since there is still so much to be learned, about MoFA and agriculture in this region.

Walking around the town afterwards, I met some newfound friendst that I very much hope to keep in touch with - apparently when you ask for directions, someone will go out of their way to escort you to where you need to be (no matter how long it takes). But asking how to find the tro-tro station, I accidentally picked up a guide for the afternoon! Seidu was kind enough to show me around - we passed the Central Mosque in the middle of the town. I've heard from other volunteers that if you ever get lost, just to find the central mosque and you can get your bearings. It's beautiful! Three storeys high, pink with green turrets topped with onion-domes and a large central white onion-dome, supporting the muslim moon and star. We also perused some of the market areas, took a walk through the tro-tro station and visited the centre of national culture.

The tro-tro station, called Abaobu station, is packed with tro-tros leaving for various destinations. Throughout are men, women and children selling food, weaved mats, and cloth ("chin chini") to make clothing. And the centre for national culture is comprised of a large building that can be rented out for plays, celebrations, weddings, etc.; it is surrounded by a variety of shops selling local paintings, jewelry, cards. The paintings were absolutely gorgeous, capturing various aspects of Ghanaian life, from farming and processing, to celebrations and dancing. There were some other beautiful depictions of the Baobab tree - which can be extremely old an grow to a size such that 30 people could link arms around it.

After spending the night in the Christian Guest house, the 12 MoFA volunteers that I'd travelled up to Tamale with dispersed to their respective districts, in order to meet their families and co-workers. I hopped on a tro-tro heading to Tolon, for the 40 or so minute drive. The ride costs 5000 cedis (approximately $0.70 CA) - it's strange paying for anything in the thousands, but here the smallest coin is 50 cedis, and the conversion rateis 7000 cedis to $1.00.

It was interesting to see the urban giving way to the rural landscape (which coincided with the road going from paved to unpaved). Finally, we were passing small villages and fields. We arrived at the Tolon "station", somewhat like a market area in the village. When I asked for directions to the Agric. office, I was taken to the home of the family I would be living with (I originally thought that everyone in the village knew where I'd be staying; but I later found out from Alhaji Asumah, the head of the household, that his home is sometimes referred to as the Agric. house. Next time I'll have to remember to be more clear about my destination!). However, everything worked out for the best and the District Director (Dr. Edmund Sallah) came to meet me at the house.

I spent my first day at work with the Director. I briefly met the office staff, before being whisked away to accompany Director Sallah to Kumbungu (the other largest village in the district- hence the name Tolon/Kumbungu District). There we met with a number of the Agricultural Extension Agents who were experiencing difficulties accessing loans for the farmer groups - it's part of one of the programs, called FABS (Food and Agriculture Budgetary Support), where the AEA's help organize these farmer groups, establish an executive and constitution, arrange for them to get credit from the bank, and then monitor the progress to ensure that the loans can be repaid. It was extremely educating to speak with the AEA's about their opinions on the major challenges facing the farmers in their communities and the projects that they've been working on. I'm really looking forward to spending more time with them on an individual basis and getting a chance to see the work they do in the field!

The evening I had my first opportunity to meet with my family!