Thursday, 11 August 2011

All in the Family

Hey my peoples!

Sorry I’ve been M.I.A. but it’s definitely crunch time in my placement. I’ve been wanting to write this post for over a week now. But I digress…

A couple weeks ago when interviews were being conducted at the college for this new top-up program that is going to run over the weekends, there were a tonne of people around the administrative block on campus. One of the applicants was a woman with a toddler, who naturally I befriended right away. On this particular day, I was going to a nearby farm owned by an AWESOME entrepreneur who had graduated from the college 30 years ago, and this little tyke joined me and the driver for the ride. When I returned, walking back towards the office holding this little guy’s hand, one of the lecturer’s exclaimed, “Is that your son?” I shook my head, with some sort of awkward shocked look on my face and said no.

He then went on to explain to me that he meant adoptive son, for in Ghana they really don’t distinguish those types of things. For example, anyone who you meet who comes from the same hometown, or even region as you is automatically your brother. Your aunt can even be your sister, and any women somewhat older then you can be your “antie”.

This got me thinking: why do we find such a need to distinguish who we are in Canada? I mean, I remember once I actually described a relative as my second cousin once removed. What does that even MEAN? Does it matter? Couldn’t I have just said cousin?

It reminded me again of my Italian roots… how you call someone from your town your paisan. If you meet a paisan, you’re automatically friends.

I think this notion of everyone being a family member, or at least termed as such, is a great description of the sense of community here in Ghana. Everybody is friends. So maybe, if we start calling everyone our sisters and brothers, we can get a better sense of community where we live to. To quote Fight Club, “…let that which doesn’t matter, truly slide”. At the end of the day, we’re all part of the homo sapien family right?

Later days brothers and sisters!

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

I'm a Tool

Today while I was riding in a taxi, I saw a sign at the side of the road telling drivers to wear their seatbelts. I laughed to myself because at the moment, I was smushed in the front seat practically sitting on the PRNDL while the driver is trying to drive standard. A.k.a. no possible way to wear a seat belt. This is, of course, because I was in a car made to seat 5 people, and there were 7 people in it; 3 in the front (including the driver) and 4 in the back.        

Looking out the windshield, I see a tro tro zoom by. A tro tro is basically a van that can seat about 15-23 people on the benches, or sometimes other things you can sit on like stool or jugs. I like to think of them as the Ghanaian public bus system: there are stations, where a bunch of tros park and wait for passengers, and there are various routes.

Anyways, these tro tros do not have seat belts at all. And it’s not just tro tros. A lot of taxis don’t have working seat belts, and even people’s personal vehicles tend not to have them either. There is no culture, or enforcement to buckle up. So what’s the point of this sign?

Don’t get me wrong, I think buckling up is important. It’s a safety precaution we learn in Canada before we even know we learn it. But I think I’ve worn a seat belt once (if that) in the past two months.
The sign in itself is a great tool; advertising safety in a clear and concise manner. But throwing this tool into an environment that isn’t able to use it seems like a waste. A joke. That’s why I laughed. Think of it as like being given nails while at the beach and being told to make a structure. Nails don’t do much when you’re using sand.

I think a lot of people working in development are addicted to tools. Tools come in the form of workshops, brochures, donkey carts, and even buildings. People like to train people, and give them stuff to try and make stuff better. And this is good! But if you’re just throwing in a hammer and telling people to build a house, you can’t expect great results if you’re in the middle of a swamp. In order for tools to be effective, the environment needs to be prepared to use it.

Here’s another example related to what I’m doing: Last year, the college did course evaluations for the first time. You know, those things we bubble in at the end of every semester, except these ones aren’t scantron. Course evaluations are awesome! It means that the staff are looking to get students’ opinions and improve their overall education! But if there is no means of analyzing the information, or no incentive for lecturers to take the information to heart, what good does it do? Luckily, the college is on the ball and there are plans to give bonuses to lecturers who have good comments.

How do you shape an environment? Great question. And I don’t have much of an answer. Shaping an environment has A LOT to do with behaviour change, and that is not something we humans do easily or quickly. I know of performance-based incentives, bonuses being an example of that. People are asked to change, and then there is a reward for improvement, meaning that the change becomes a focus and the atmosphere is encouraging of it. But other than that… I’m still pondering.

Later days,

Thursday, 21 July 2011

A is for Apple

When I told people I was going to spending my summer in Ghana, I got a lot of “Are you building a school?”

I’m not going to lie, in high school I thought building schools was the greatest thing ever. One of the Millennium Development Goals in Universal Primary Education, so naturally I was like, “oh, more school buildings means more kids can go to school!”

And youth were and still are being taught this. Volun-tourism has become huge for my generation and those after me. We’ve been exposed to a movement of being globally minded and we all want to do our part, and we’ve been told that that means building a school.

But I’m a little older and wiser now.  I’ve come to understand that education does NOT come from infrastructure. Sure, that’s an aspect, but do you really need a building to learn? Even looking at my education in Canada: every school I went to did not have the best facilities or resources. The public system is strained. That didn’t get in the way of my learning though, no sir.

Frankly, there are school buildings everywhere in Ghana. From where I’m typing right now, there’s a College, Primary School and Junior High School in less than a kilometer radius. When I was on my Village Stay in Bongo, the community I was in had a Primary School and JHS right smack in the middle, and then another Primary, JHS, and SS down the road small.

The problem is not access to school buildings; it’s quality of education.  For Ghana, the poor quality comes from the British style of teaching being copied and pasted here, combined with teacher attendance and motivation. Kids are learning “A is for Apple”, when they haven’t even seen that red shiny fruit before in their lives. That is of course, if the teacher shows up.

Here’s another thing to ponder; why send over students who probably have never picked up a shovel or mixed cement before in their lives? Why not send over construction workers with experience? Or better yet, why not contract local construction workers and promote local businesses?

My inspiration for this post came from reading this blog by a guy who has experience and deep insight into the education system in East Africa:

Later days,

Monday, 18 July 2011

Now that's what I call a coconut!

I never used to like coconut. Those flakes are dry and definitely not very tasty. Even that one time I smashed open a coconut and tried a bit, I was not super impressed. Better than the flakes, but still dry and hard.

Well, as it turns out, the coconut that I used to know is only the inside of one. Yeah, you know when you would draw pictures of a tropical island as a kid and throw in a couple palm trees? Those coconuts you drew were not accurate. Sorry.

A real coconut is this oval of ruggedness that you have to chop with a machete to get to the good stuff. And when you get to that sphere that most resembles what we see in grocery stores, it is not dark brown. It’s a light shade of tan, bordering white. Now with this sphere of goodness, you can either slice it to make a small “lid”, or puncture it to make a hole. It must be done carefully because you wouldn’t want to spill the translucent liquid inside. Coconut milk. Well, it’s more like coconut water. Regardless, peering into my first coconut, all I felt was freshness. It’s like a little oasis inside this rough shell.

Once you drink the water, you are in for the best part; the white, soft flesh that surrounds the inside of the shell. Oh man, it is soooo good. It’s moist, and has a very subtle kind of milky taste. It’s hard to describe. It’s just awesome. (Yeah… fruit part beats out the water by a million… had trouble drinking that stuff)

Anyways, there is more to this post than me describing a coconut to you. Despite how much access to information we have, despite being supposedly connected to the world, I think we don’t know as much as we think we do. It’s a stupid little thing… but it bothers me that I used to think that little brown ball was what grew on a tree. It bothers me that I didn’t realize what I bought at that grocery was not a fresh coconut. It bothers me that I never even questioned it for a second.

I realize that a lot of people probably know that the Canadian version of a coconut is the inside and it’s not fresh. Hey, I may be the only one who didn’t realize. But, it’s just an example. The point is, I think we can all use the access to information and knowledge we have a little better. It starts with questioning things and being observant.

Who knows, maybe you’ll try some fruit you used to not like and realize it’s the most delicious thing ever.

Later days,

Friday, 15 July 2011

Processing Power


Walking through any Ghanaian market, you pretty much see the same thing. Stalls with women selling the same stuff. Farmers have two paths for their crops: either to their stomachs or straight to the market. And since different regions specialize in growing only a small number of crops, you get extreme market saturation. Take Bongo, where I did my village stay. The two big crops are millet and groundnuts. What do you think you see the most of in the market?

Yesterday I talked with my friend who in a post-harvest processing engineer about how processing “adds value”. When you do something to your crop, your profit theoretically is greater. You charge for the work and resources it takes to change the product. What’s more expensive? Fresh tomatoes, or tomato paste? The tomato paste right?

Everywhere you look, Ghana is only selling raw materials. Whether it is on the international level of exporting gold, or the small-scale sale of millet, there are so few industries in Ghana I can probably count them on my fingers. 

Why? Why isn’t there more processing? Well, my friend gave some good insight on that too. It turns out the first president, Kwame Nkrumah, wanted to industrialize Ghana. Capitalize on her resources, and process to the max. So it was all going fine from there until the next head-of-state took over and didn’t continue his work. Industries dwindled because of government policy. And to this day, the policy is still not processing.
I’m not saying processing its resources would be a quick and easy solution for Ghana’s economy, but I think it’s something important to consider. Why did Nkrumah have so much faith in it in the beginning? Why is processing and industrialization not encouraged?


This one has to do with agriculture in Canada. I challenge you to find out how Canadian farmers sell their crops. Is there a market they all go to and sell to retailers? Is there an agency that buys from farmers and sells to grocery stores? First person to find out and get back to me gets a sweet prize and is forever thought of as super cool by anyone who loads this page! My friend asked me about this and I had absolutely no clue. Please, cure my curiosity and get Googling!

Later days,

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Seeing Bongo

**Warning: The following post is an excerpt from my journal and is really sappy. These words are not for the tough at heart.**

July 7th, 2011

As I took my walk to the primary school latrine to free myself this morning, I saw the most beautiful sunrise I’ve ever seen.

As I sat on a rock looking out at the seemingly never-ending millet fields, scattered mud huts and sheet metal, I was overcome by the beauty of this place.

The sun rays bounced of the sides of the school blocks, as two young boys decked out in their classic burnt yellow and brown uniforms guided goats to new grazing grounds.

And now, only a few hours later, with the sun high in the sky, the wind so strong it makes the millet bow, I feel at peace. Sitting under this tree, nothing else seems to matter. were warned. 

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Groundnut Sounds

Hey guys!

Long time no see! Sorry. It’s just the past few weeks were not optimal for blog post writing or computer access for the matter. 3 weeks ago, I had a cold that knocked me out for a few days. Go figure. Then, the next week, all the Ghana Junior Fellows (JFs) and African Programs Staff had a wicked retreat! Us JFs were lucky enough to spend a couple days in Mole National Park, where I was like less than 50 metres from 3 gi-normous African elephants! Soooo cool! And then the next week, I was on my village stay in the Upper East region, in a sweet community in Bongo, super close to the Burkina Faso border. And this is where today’s blog post is from. Don’t worry, a lot went down the past couple weeks so I’ll do my best to make up for me absence.

Rural life is not easy. Especially in northern Ghana, where the Sun bakes the soil and the rains are never frequent or heavy enough. Despite it being difficult, it is incredibly beautiful; both the land and the community of the people.

One morning, I set out with my host mother to the field where we would be sowing groundnuts for the day. The rains had not come to prepare the land, but it is getting late in the season so it was time to take a risk and plant the seeds, hoping the rain would come that night.

I walked behind her, through the millet fields, around mud hut compounds, up and down small variations in the land for a solid amount of time. As we walked, I switched from looking at the uneven ground in front of me to the trees and field in the distance. It was already hot; I pulled my bandana over my ears. Ear sunburns, they’re the worst.

When we made it to the field, I saw that other woman from the group were already there. A woman spoke to me in Fra Fra, the local language, and my host mother translated that she said we were late. I said sorry, realising that my host mother had purposely taken me later because it would be hard for me.

Regardless, my host mother handed me a hoe, I took and handful of groundnut seeds, and she showed me quickly how to plant. I began moving down a row in the field, scraping open a hole and dropping in a single seed. As I moved down, I was told to make various adjustments. It definitely was not easy. Looking around, I saw the women move quickly and smoothly; they shot seeds into the holes like a machine. Half the time I couldn’t even see the seeds leave their hands.

The best part was the way they talked with each other. I couldn’t understand a single thing, but you could tell by the tone that it was a group of friends having a conversation. Anytime you get a bunch of women together, some good chats are going to happen.

But then, out of nowhere, all of their hoes started making a rhythm. The metal blades hit the dry, sand-like soil at the same time. They broke out in song. They moved down the field, sowing seeds in unison, singing together. All of sudden, there was a random scream of throat-singing from a woman, and although it startled me, I didn’t look up from the field and did my best to try and keep up with the rhythm. I was in absolute awe. I felt the song in my bones; I saw the way it helped everyone keep going. It was a moment I will never forget. After some time, the singing dwindled, and after some more chatting, it started up again.

The beauty of people, of humanity. Working together, living together, singing together. Looking back, I should’ve asked what the song meant, but I guess it doesn’t really matter. I think that’s part of the beauty of it, not knowing the words and just embracing the sounds.  I think I’ll keep it a mystery.

Later days,