When I talk to people at home and tell them what I do these days, a lot of them comment on the sacrifice that I’m making. I often think to myself, am I really making a big sacrifice? Yes, I live far from my family and friends, but I live with the guy I love. Yes, I’m not making much money, but I’m not spending much either. Yes, I’m not building my career as an engineer, but was I ever goig to do that anyway? I’m 25 years old, managing a team of 9 people, determining the strategic direction of our work, building credible partnerships and interacting with major players in my industry. In what alternate world could I say all that 2 years after graduation from an undergraduate degree?
The truth is, I’m pretty lucky. This is a sweet job. I love my work, my colleagues, my hometown of Tamale. Of course I miss Canada sometimes, but for now I’m pretty happy where I am. And most importantly, I’m working at a job that is in line with my values, improving the lives of people living in poverty.
I have a lot of colleagues here in Ghana who are with me in the poverty-fighting business. In fact, NGOs are probably the largest industry in Tamale. I have more than a few friends with Bachelor’s degrees from the University of Development Studies in Ghana, and Master’s degrees in development-related studies from universities in Ghana and abroad. They are smart, well-educated and determined to help their fellow countrypeople. So are they making a sacrifice too?
The truth is, being a development worker in Ghana is also a pretty sweet job, in the more conventional sense. The pay is much better than any kind of government work, and tends to be more stable than business. It’s also a pretty safe career choice – in the job market, there are more positions for development workers than many other professions. I would compare the career path of a development worker in Ghana to that of an engineer in Canada in terms of prestige and compensation. In my opinion, these people are not making significant sacrifices in order to pursue their values. In fact, they’re pursuing a pretty stable and lucrative career path. But is this a bad thing?
On one hand, it makes me uncomfortable to see an industry that thrives solely on donated dollars. The basis of this business is people living in poverty; if this disappears, the entire industry disappears. But isn’t that what the industry is trying to do, eliminate poverty? This is a bit of a conflict of interest.
On the other hand, I think it’s wonderful that a career devoted to bettering the lives of others is so highly valued in this society. If I think about those careers back home – social work, non-profit sector, etc. – they aren’t valued nearly as much. Why is it that people who devote their lives to others are seen to be making a sacrifice? And why are they compensated accordingly? Shouldn’t we value more highly those who commit their lives to the service of others?
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 haven’t posted for a long time. I know. I didn’t mean to leave you all in the dark. But as time continues to pass, I find myself digging deeper and deeper into Ghanaian life, farming, MoFA, etc. and getting farther and farther away from life in Canada. I was always frustrated as an EWB chapter member in Canada when volunteers in Africa would say they “couldn’t relate” to us in Canada anymore. But now I see what they mean. Have I forgotten what it’s like to live in Canada? To work tirelessly on the other side of the ocean to raise public awareness about development and lobby our government to improve aid? To go to the grocery store and buy food from all over the world? Well honestly… yeah, I kind of have. I mean, if I think hard about it, I can remember what it was like. But the problem is that I have to think hard – it doesn’t just come naturally anymore. I have to actually TRY to relate my experience to what it’s like in Canada. And that mental effort has prevented me several times from writing on my blog.
But no more. I don’t think it’s an adequate excuse. My job isn’t to get lost in Ghana, it’s to experience Ghana and bring those realities to you in Canada and the rest of the world. It’s to see good development, and bad, and be able to share the difference. It’s to evaluate the impact of our work on Ghanaians and to see where we can make improvements.
So I’m back on the blog train. I am aiming to go back to posting at minimum every 2 weeks. I will also try harder to make short snappy posts on things I’m thinking, seeing or reading about – they don’t all have to be epic. I will remember that just because I’m used to seeing women carry 5-ft. tall things on their heads and discussing agric. development projects with district directors doesn’t mean it’s not new to you! And so I’m making an effort to share more of those things with you again.
As always, if you have any questions, comments, feedback or requests, please PLEASE let me know! You can comment on a post or contact me directly through email or the Contact form on this blog. I’m always happy to hear from you and would love to be given more direction on what you want me to write about!
Thanks for reading,
Though I’m working with Engineers Without Borders, I don’t do much “traditional” engineering. I hope most of you reading this know that already, but if you’re wondering why, check here. However, I have found the opportunity to flex my engineering muscles in a few cases, which I wanted to share with you below.
This is my moto. It’s a piece of junk. It’s 3 years old and it’s been ridden into the ground by the previous 3 owners. I have had so many problems with it – spark plugs not sparking, horn not honking, tires going flat, brakes squealing, lights breaking. I’ve had to replace the engine block, connector rod, chain & sprocket, rear tire, clutch handle and headlight. It’s a pain in the ass. But on the bright side, I’ve developed an intimate knowledge of this rudimentary two-stroke machine. Ghanaians (especially men) are always surprised when they see me sigh after a failed attempt to start the moto and pull out my tools. They still rush to help, and I’m always grateful, but I’ve learned a lot about fixing my own moto and regularly do it myself. Just give me some coveralls and call me a mechanic!
As I mentioned previously on this blog, I live in a village called Zuo which is about 5 km outside of Tamale. While we’re lucky enough to have lights (electricity), we’re too far away from the city to have flowing water. It’s amazing how much you take this for granted in Canada, where you don’t have to walk far and carry water back every day. As I also previously mentioned, the women here carry amazing amounts of water from the dam every day, neglecting the broken borehole in the middle of the village. Though I try to fetch my own water, I am not nearly as strong as a Ghanaian woman and I am constantly being assisted, which makes me constantly feel guilty.
Luckily, the rainy season has provided a way to assuage my guilt in the form of – you guessed it – rain! Pure water, falling from the sky – it’s an amazing thing for which I have a new appreciation. I am also lucky enough to live in a place with a Polytank, the huge black plastic water storage tanks which are ubiquitous in Ghana (and you would have seen Kingson, the goaltender for the Black Stars, promoting these monstrosities on TV during the World Cup if you were watching in Ghana!). A rainwater collection system is set up so that the water streams from the roof to the eavestrough and falls into the Polytank. Ingenious! Except it doesn’t work. The Polytank is placed just a bit too close to the house and against a cement something so that it can’t be moved further away (I haven’t identified the purpose of this weird cement structure yet, it’s a mystery). When there is a light rain, it falls gently into the open mouth of the Polytank. But when there is a windy downpour (ie. a LOT of water to fill my tank), the water races off the end of the eavestrough, overshooting the Polytank. It took a few rains and a pitifully low water level in the tank for me to figure this out.
Sooooo last time we had a huge downpour, instead of running inside away from the rain, I ran outside! I was moving buckets here and there to catch the rain, and even standing up on the cement-mystery to catch the water pouring past the Polytank in my bucket and dump it in. Finally, after standing there for a while, wearing only a Ghanaian cloth wrapped around me, soaked to the skin and freezing cold (yum!), I used my engineering skills: I found some rocks and propped my bucket up so it would be stable, but on an angle, where it would catch the water and overflow into the Polytank. Ta-da! In this way I FILLED the tank – I’m set for life! (Or at least until I move out.)
Bonus: I also washed my hair outside in the rain that day, which made me very happy.
This last one is not so much about using my engineering skills as it is about pointing out someone else’s lack thereof. After a particularly bad storm last week, I went for a run and noticed something odd flashing at me from the roadside. It looked like a giant sheet of metal was caught in a tree. What??
Upon closer inspection, I realized that it was the roof of the local primary school, folded and bent and leaning up against a tree. It had blown off in the storm like a big aluminum parachute. Whoever built this school did not account for the
pressure that builds up from the incredible winds that come in the rainy season. It made me wonder: who had built this school? A donor that didn’t know the weather conditions? A local NGO without enough budget to securely fasten the roof? Or a government employee that didn’t have the capacity to design it properly? I have no idea, but with all the people building schools around here, it must be a common problem.