Hakim is six years old. He was born in a village. He is the youngest of 4 siblings – his mother was pregnant 7 times, but had two stillbirths and one child who died after 2 years. Hakim wears old, worn-out hand-me-down clothes most days, only donning a formal smock for special occasions. He gets so dirty playing outside every day that it’s probably good he doesn’t wear nice clothes. He doesn’t like to wear shoes, preferring instead to run around the village barefoot. He is talented at entertaining himself, as are most village children. He plays with old plastic containers, a ball held together with twine, a few plastic trinkets that were gifts from a visiting Japanese aid worker. Hakim is usually an incredibly happy kid, smiling and laughing like there is a joke only he knows. But sometimes he hits his cousin and gets in trouble, then he sulks around the compound with his head down. He only knows a few English phrases – “Good morning” “How are you? I am fine, thank you” and “Photo!” – along with the numbers and alphabet that we’ve been practicing. Still, Hakim and I can sit and talk for hours, he jabbering away in Dagbani, me responding in English. He started going to the village school this year, but the teacher is often absent and the quality of education is very low. His family can’t afford to send him to a better school in Tamale, so he will have few opportunities to learn beyond what this local primary school can offer. There is a health clinic in the village, but the health workers are often absent and besides, his family can’t afford regular healthcare. Hakim will grow up going to the farm with his father and uncles. He probably won’t move away from his village, and if he does it will be to another village close by. Hakim will get older, marry a village girl, have children of his own. One day he will have his own farm. The fact that he could be something other than a farmer will probably never occur to him. Don’t get me wrong, he will have a happy life, full of family and community and food and love. But he will have very few opportunities to change his future from the path he’s currently on.
Theo is six years old. He is the son of a former employee at my MoFA office. I met him when his mother came in one day to visit. Theo was born in Tamale, but spent the last 2 years in England while his father completed his Masters degree. He has a younger sister, but no other siblings. Theo is immaculately dressed in cute little-kid overalls and lace-up running shoes. He and his sister are running around the office playing with those toy microphones that make your voice echo. He is a sneaky little brat, stealing his sister’s toy and making her cry. When I ask if he stole it because he doesn’t have toys of his own, Theo straightens and proudly replies, “I have hundreds of toys!” Then he gives the toy back and he and his sister are friends again, smiling and running off together. He speaks perfect English with a British accent. He went to a good school while he was living in England, and will attend private school now that he’s back in Tamale. His family can afford it, as well as good healthcare, travel, sports and other opportunities. Theo will finish primary school, junior secondary school, secondary school, then probably get one or two university degrees. He will grow up knowing that he can be anything he wants to be – doctor, lawyer, accountant, astronaut. There are no limits to his future, he will decide his own path and determine his own happiness. Who knows where he will end up?
This is the Ghana that I’m living in. There are rich people and poor people, farmers and doctors and NGO workers. The people from the south rarely see the north, and the people from the north don’t often go down south. People take life as it comes, and seize every opportunity that comes their way. But in Ghana, as in the rest of the world, the circumstances of one’s birth are the highest determinant of one’s future, give or take a little luck.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
When people hear the name Engineers Without Borders, they think of building bridges and roads and wells. Of course, these are important elements of any country’s infrastructure and many people suffer when they’re not in place. But building is only one piece of the puzzle. We must ask ourselves: what is the purpose of a well? The answer: to provide people with safe drinking water. Now, what elements need to be in place to fulfill this purpose? Yes, we must build it – that is the most obvious answer. But who will test the water to make sure it’s safe? Who will fix the well if it gets broken? How will spare parts be delivered to the village? Who will make sure the pump is properly maintained? And who will pay for this maintenance? Who will pay for the well in the first place? If a donor pays for it this time, who will pay for it next time? Will money ever be allocated from the government to build new wells, or will they always just rely on donor aid to pay for it? Who manages the distribution of water sources in this area? Does the government know about the well? Do other NGOs operating in the area? What it someone comes to the same village and wants to build another well, who is in charge??
Building a well is simple. Providing people with safe drinking water is complex.
There is a round of applause and self-congratulations by the members of this farmer group – they have just completed training in Agriculture As a Business. Over the past 9 weeks, they have explored topics such as business planning, marketing, record-keeping and loan preparation. The AEA, Mustapha, has done a great job of facilitating their learning and has high hopes for the group. I am sitting beside him in my yellow rain pants, sticking out like a sore thumb in these village surroundings. Suddenly, a man turns to me and says something quickly in Dagbani. I turn to Mustapha for him to interpret: “They want to know if now that they have completed the program you will provide some financial assistance.” My heart sinks. I respond forcefully “No!” and the man looks down. “If you are still asking me for financial assistance, then you haven’t understood the program at all. This program is all about doing more with what you already have. The question shouldn’t be ‘what will you do for us?’, but ‘what can we do for ourselves?'” Mustapha translates, then another man speaks up: “he says they have already started doing more research to figure out the best time to sell their vegetables at the market, and they are already benefiting from the results.”
I work for Engineers Without Borders in Ghana. I don’t build wells, or roads, or bridges. I believe the Ghanaian government should be doing that. In fact, I don’t do anything for farmers that couldn’t be (or isn’t being) done by a Ghanaian. I don’t give loans, or laptops, or even snacks. Instead, I build knowledge, skills and motivation in these Ghanaian government employees that are in it for the long haul. And as their capacity to help farmers grows, so too do the farmers’ incomes, leading to more opportunities for farmers and their children. And that’s what development is all about.
I met John while at a meeting in the garden of a local guesthouse. “Hey, Wayne, how is it?” he greeted us. “Hey, John, long time! How is Accra?” replied Wayne. Wayne, our team leader, introduced John as an employee in the M&E department for MoFA in Accra. He sat down to join us and his animated personality soon made us forget our meeting.
John had come to “the north” on a data collection assignment for MoFA National. Apparently all districts had been asked to submit some data on the farmers in their area, but hadn’t been doing so. John came to find out why, and to assist the districts in submitting the data.
He is young, maybe 30 years old, born and bred in Accra. This was only his second time traveling north of Kumasi. Last time he got very sick on his second day, so this time he had packed his white pick-up full of bottled water and food from Accra. “But John, they sell bottled water in Tamale.” “Yes, but it’s not the same quality as what we have in Accra. You never know what you’re getting.”
As his driver chauffeured him north, out of the lush green forests of the south and into the savannah of the north, he marveled at what he saw. “People actually live in mud huts here! Some don’t even have electricity! Me, I can’t imagine living without a microwave.”
He stopped the driver a few times in villages to talk to people as they passed, but they couldn’t understand each other. “You mean there are people in Ghana who don’t speak Twi??” Twi is one of Ghana’s major languages, spoken by many people as a common language even if their local language is different. But is mostly found in the south.
Through an interpreter, he had a conversation with an old woman in a village. “I asked her how old she was, and you know what she said? Ten! I mean, I didn’t expect her to know her exact age, but ten? She doesn’t even understand the concept of numbers!” The fact that someone in Ghana can live her whole life with no formal education is unfathomable to John.
“How can you live here? I don’t know how you EWB people do it.” “But John, this is your own country. You don’t think you could live here, in the north of Ghana?” “No no, I wouldn’t be able to do it. I could go to your country, Canada, and live in the north there. It would be an adventure! For you people, living in Ghana is an adventure. But I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t live here.”