Thoughts from an agricultural development gal in Ghana

Posts tagged “home

Dancin’ up a Storm!

We currently have the best neighbours on the planet. Everyone is super-friendly, and the kids are plentiful, cute and speak enough English to get along with. They are tons of fun! Ben recently revealed that he has a guitar, so that’s the current favourite thing to do. They love listening to Ben play, and the love dancing along to the music! This one little guy, Wuntira, is particularly energetic in his dance moves. He knows how to get down! He was making me laugh hysterically the other day, so I decided to film his dancing and post it on the internet. What else? You can also see his little sister, Nasara, trying to copy his sweet moves. Just another day in Tamale!

Also, if you haven’t had time yet to check out my Perspective for EWB’s holiday fundraising campaign, please take a look. I would really appreciate your support!

Enjoy!


Days Like These

There are some days when it’s obvious that you’re working in a developing country. Today was one of them.

It rained again today. It started in the morning, when I was still in bed. Despite the soothing rain-drumming-on-the-roof sound tempting me to stay there, I forced myself to get up, work out, shower and get ready to go to the office. During a brief lull in the rain, Ben and I headed off to the egg-and-bread stand for breakfast. We found several of our colleagues there, hiding out in a veranda to escape the drizzle-turned-downpour. And then, it REALLY started to rain. It rained and poured for over an hour, creating massive floods of water overflowing the storm gutters and running through yards and along the road. Once the downpour subsided, we still had to wait almost another hour to escape the aforementioned veranda, which had become an island in the middle of a river. Mina and Romy’s motos were our water-mark measures, showing that at least 8 inches of water were flowing along the dirt road to join the deluge of the overflowed gutters. We finally escaped and tip-toed home through puddles full of dirt, worms, garbage and, invariably, shit. Gross.

Drowning motos on the road (yep, that's a road)

We arrived back at our house to find something out of a disaster scene on a news broadcast. Our place was fine, as our veranda and door are raised up, but our landlord’s house next door had flooded for the first time in almost 20 years. Water had entered every room, and we went in to find books stacked on tables stacked on chairs in an effort to get everything up off the floor that could be damaged. The dirty water was everywhere, including the maize storage room, where it had ruined several bags of maize before someone remembered to look in there. That is part of this 15-member household’s food supply for the year, gone in a few short minutes. We spent the next couple hours helping them to scoop, sweep and propel water out of the house, pulling up carpets and emptying the furniture along the way. We emptied the house of its contents in order to bring them out in the sun to dry. There was a mattress on the roof, clothes hanging in the tree and chairs scattered around the lawn. It looked like a tornado had hit. One boy had 2 netbooks on the floor of his room that had both been soaked, so we put them in rice to try to save them.

Working together to push water out of the hall

At one point during the effort, one of the women asked me, “Does this happen in Canada?” I replied that yes, floods often happen, and in fact there had been some serious flooding in the US this summer where people’s houses were even washed away. She was surprised to hear this, and accepted that these freak natural disasters can happen even in profitable places.

But the problem is that this wasn’t a freak natural disaster; it’s the result of poor planning. Tamale is a huge and ever-growing city, made mostly of concrete, with insufficient storm gutters to take all of the water safely out of the city limits without dropping it on people’s homes. Apparently the extra water came today because one of the dams in town overflowed, sending a wave of water our way. But this wouldn’t happen if the engineers who designed the roads, gutters and storm drains did their work properly! The fact is, a flood of this nature would make the news in Canada. Here in Tamale, it’s just an everyday occurrence during the rainy season.

My landlord, Alhassan Mousah, in his ruined living room after we cleared most of the water out

I never did make it to the office today. In fact, this is the first time I’m turning on my computer today. I had big plans for the work I was going to get done, but none of it happened. And that’s the reality of life in a country like Ghana. You can make big plans, but you just have to take things as they come.

Sure, today the rain spoiled my plans and some of my neighbours’ stuff. But it also gave me a chance to connect with people – first with my EWB colleagues, as we huddled out for 2 hours on a 4’x8′ square of covered concrete, then with my neighbours as we worked together. I was impressed, as I so often am, by their cheerful and resilient spirit, laughing and joking together even in the face of this disaster. Ghana has taught me so much about what is important in life – not your expensive carpet, but family, friends, togetherness, your ability to survive and to enjoy life!

Here are a few videos to show you the extent of the rain and how we feel about it:


Update

Hi everyone,

Again, it’s been quite a while since I posted. Sorry about that! Life has been crazy busy lately, so I just wanted to post a short update about what life has been like lately.

August was an INSANELY busy month, with 6 summer students leaving (we miss you!), 5 new volunteers arriving, 2 weeks of meetings for EWB’s African Programs Leaders and… my 2-week Canadian vacation!

Lake Bosumtwe

The 2 weeks of Team Leader meetings were held at the beautiful Lake Point Guesthouse on Lake Bosumtwe, near Kumasi, Ghana with ~10 super-inspiring leaders from EWB. The beautiful lakeside location provided an ideal place to step back from the day-to-day business of running an EWB team to think about our long-term strategy as an organization. Here are a few of the questions we discussed during the meetings:

  • What are our theories of change within each team? How can we learn from each others’ experience?
  • What are the investment criteria for EWB as an organization to invest in new or ongoing initiatives? What combination of results, potential and leadership needs to be in place?
  • How can we invest more in EWB’s leadership pipeline, so great people continue to flow into our African Programs?
  • How can we hire and use local staff effectively?
  • What are various pathways to scale our change, either theoretical or from experience?
  • What are the teams’ strategies for influencing the “big players” in their sectors?
  • What is EWB’s overall vision? (We are currently undergoing a visioning process as an organization, pretty exciting to participate in!)

Team Leaders... meeting!

It was amazing to discuss these questions and to get/give feedback on our strategies. My brain was hurting! It was pretty intense – we even had a random woman buy us a round of drinks when she saw us working until 7pm on a Sunday, haha. Here are a few of my main take-aways from the meetings:

  • Our team has come a long way! We were in a pretty rough spot last February, but we have really turned around and come back strong. I’m excited about the things we’re currently working on and can’t wait to see where another 6 months takes us!
  • That said, I feel we have a long way to go in developing and articulating our strategy. These meetings were an AMAZING opportunity to push my strategic thinking and articulation further, so it’s something I’m passionate about pushing forward over the next 4 months. More to come on this blog!
  • I think we need to invest a LOT more in understanding influence pathways for the agric sector (specifically public sector) in Accra. We’ve been trying to find out how to leverage our relationships, but there’s actually a lot of ground work that still needs to be done before we can do that.
  • I’m also excited to build on more of the strong synergies between the 3 agric teams in Ghana – our public sector team, the Agric Value Chains team and Business Development Services. We’re all doing similar exciting things, and I hope we can find systematic ways of sharing and learning from each other.
  • We really need to plan ahead, but it’s really HARD to plan ahead. Yeah, big learning, right? I’m being asked to project how many African Programs Staff we’re going to need in the next year, but it’s so hard to tell – will we still be searching? prototyping? scaling something up? doing a pilot in 2 districts, or 20 districts? At least I’m really happy to work for an organization that is so flexible and will allow us to adapt (to a certain degree) as things change. Pretty cool!
  • EWB is exciting! We are developing a really inspiring model and I feel the African Programs vision is pretty inspiring as well. It makes me proud to work for such an organization and to be invested in the leadership of EWB 🙂

    Kids fishing in Lake Bosumtwe

After the last day of meetings, I headed to Accra to fly to Canada. I arrived on a Saturday morning, was greeted by my lovely family, and whisked away to the cottage. It was spectacular!

Flying over Niagara Falls

After an exhausting month, 10 days at the cottage of eating, sleeping, drinking and dock-sitting was just what I needed. It was super-relaxing and we had beautiful weather (most of the time!).

I convinced the whole family to try P90X Ab Ripper - on the deck at the cottage!

After that, I returned home for a few days of errands, catching up with friends and visiting with my Gramma. It wasn’t long, and before I knew it (2 weeks to the day) I was back on a plane to Ghana! But I’ve arrived back feeling refreshed and rejuvenated, ready to dive into the “fall semester” – our busiest time of the year!

Enjoying the cottage - near Parry Sound, Ontario

Of course this first week back in Ghana has been a bit nuts, trying to get caught up with everyone and everything. I’m working on the budget and “strategic plan” for our team for next year, which is difficult to say the least. But it’s been amazing to get home, unwind and unpack. Ben and I just moved to a new place right before I left for Kumasi. We’re still settling in, but so far it’s wonderful – both the house and the family we’re living beside. All in all, I’m getting ready for a great few months until Christmas!

It’s rainy season here in the north, and we were hit with a monster rainstorm yesterday afternoon. Don and I had a fun bike ride home from the office to discover that not only were all the dirt roads flooded, but the paved ones too! A few pics to tell the tale:

Old Gumani Road under water

Our front yard under water

That’s all for now. Just a quick update! I hope I’ll be back to some more regular blogging soon – I’ve got a few in the pipeline that I’m looking forward to writing, so stick around!


Happy Thanksgiving!

It’s that wonderful time of year when Canadians stuff themselves with turkey and pumpkin pie: Thanksgiving. Even though I won’t be home to celebrate this year, I wanted to take a few moments to give thanks for the things in my life.

10 Things I’m Thankful for in Canada:

  1. My family
  2. Vegetables
  3. Access to clean water & food, sanitation, infrastructure, etc.
  4. Racial anonymity
  5. Some semblance of gender equality
  6. Really good internet
  7. A developed economy and strong governance
  8. Access to education
  9. Healthcare
  10. Cheesecake

    Thanksgiving last year...

10 Things I’m Thankful for in Ghana:

  1. My Zuo family
  2. Ghanaian hospitality (which is unrivaled around the world, I’m sure!)
  3. My usually-stable health
  4. Having Ben here to work with and support one another
  5. Strong communities
  6. The amazing, dedicated MoFA staff I work with every day
  7. Living life outdoors
  8. Stone lager
  9. The best job in the world
  10. My amazing EWB team-mates!

...and Thanksgiving this year!

I’m so lucky to have loving people in my life, both back in Canada and here in Ghana. This morning I went for the first time in 3 weeks to visit my family in Zuo. I was welcomed by huge smiles and cries of “Pumaaya!” (my Ghanaian name) as I pulled my moto into their yard. It’s such a wonderful feeling to be welcomed into their home, which feels like my home too. A lot happened in those 3 weeks, including the welcoming of a beautiful new baby girl, Anifa, into the family (photo below).

Mariama and baby Anifa

Later today I will be surrounded by different people, my Canadian friends, as we gather at a local restaurant for a Ghanaian Thanksgiving dinner. I am so grateful for all of these people who are here to love and support me, through good times and bad, while I find my way through this Ghanaian life.


Beauty

This probably sounds weird, but it’s amazing how often I’m reminded of my cottage in Ghana.

Lately I can close my eyes, feel the sun on my face and cool breeze in my hair, and picture Georgian Bay stretching out in front of me. And sometimes when I’m riding my moto, it sounds like a motorboat bouncing across the waves (luckily I don’t close my eyes for that one).

Beautiful Georgian Bay

But when I open my eyes, I’m back in Ghana – and I’m happy for this. Ghana has really grown on me in the last 5 months. I think I complained at first: “Ghana is an ugly country, there’s no physical beauty in this land”. But as the dry season gives way to rain, I’ve discovered that it’s actually a beautiful landscape – green vegetation, blue skies dotted with clouds, sunrises and sunsets to die for, and the craziest storm clouds and lightning in the world.

I’m starting to see beauty everywhere I look, beyond the physical landscape to the gentle sway of women’s hips as they carry firewood along the road, past the chaos of the market to the brightly-coloured clothing of the market vendors, underneath the dirt on childrens’ faces to the smiles in their eyes as they run to greet me when I get home.

My work is busy and every day is full of purpose. I have a wonderful team of inspiring people to work with, both in EWB and MoFA. Every day I go home to a simple family who welcomes me without a second thought.

Team MoFA

And I realize why it feels like the cottage: I’m happy here.


Engineering Ghana

Dear Readers:

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,
Erin
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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.

My untrusty moto

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.

Bucket engineering

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.

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The view from the road

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

The bent school roof

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.


Why aren’t you staying in Tamale?

“But why aren’t you staying in town??” This is almost always the second question, following my answer to the first question, “Where are you staying?”.

New electricity lines in Zuo

I have decided to live in a village called Zuo, about 10 minutes moto-ride outside of the city limits of Tamale. It’s a small village of about 400 people located on the Yendi road heading east out of Tamale. There are Primary and Junior Secondary schools, a mosque, a health clinic, a nutrition centre and about 30 household compounds. Most of the houses are simple mud-brick affairs with thatched roofs, though some of the more affluent families have cement buildings with tin roofs as part of their compounds. The village just got electricity a few months ago and lightbulb sellers in the area must have made a killing! Each room is now furnished with a bulb, plus one for each compound courtyard where the women do the cooking and families gather in the evening. The electricity also powers a grinding mill which seems to run at all hours of the day – it’s a very popular place!

Borehole pump

Back on the water theme, the village is equipped with a borehole, but most people still fetch their water from a pond a 10-minute walk away. Apparently they don’t like the taste of the borehole water and the soap “doesn’t lather properly” when washing with this water. They use the borehole water occasionally for cooking and cleaning, but use the pond water for drinking and bathing. This baffles me, since the borehole water is clear and clean-looking, whereas the pond water is cloudy and full of algae. Seems like a no-brainer!

My bedroom

My room is located in the health clinic. This large building was built very recently and has 3 bedrooms, 3 bathrooms and a kitchen to house the community health nurses who are supposed to be living here. It also has a storage room, a treatment room and a waiting area. There are supposed to be three health workers living here, but one stays in Tamale because she doesn’t like the water and the other two, who are part of Ghana’s Youth Employment Program, haven’t been paid in 6 months so they come and go as they please. I spent my first couple days with one of these girls, named Nimatu, and we became good friends. I enjoy her company when she’s here, which is about half the time. The clinic is designed to be a drop-in centre for the surrounding communities for first aid treatment, malaria testing and access to drugs. However, when there’s no one here, people are just out of luck! It’s a shame that this nice new building is not serving its intended purpose as an easily-accessible clinic for people in the area. However, as I discussed in my previous post, the issues are much larger than just this one clinic.

Fuseini family compound

Though I stay in a room in the health clinic, I am hosted in the village by a man named Fuseini Salifo who stays in a compound with his family just across the road. Salifo’s household also contains his two brothers, Zachariah and Adam, each of their wives, Azara, Fatima and Mariama, and a host of children, including Salifo’s own Wikaya and baby Hussain. It’s a lively household, with children and goats running all over the place. I come in the morning to take tea and a maize porridge called “koko” for breakfast, then head to work. At the end of the day, I return and greet everyone in the compound and take my supper with them. People are always coming in and out to say hello and catch up, so I’ve met most of the village this way.

My host, Salifo

Salifo, like most of the people in this village, is a farmer. Right now it’s the dry season, so he is resting and taking part in the many construction activities that happen at this time of year. When the rains come, he will go to his fields and begin to farm. With his brothers, he farms maize, yams, rice, soya beans and many other small crops. They also raise livestock, including sheep, fowl and even a herd of cattle. They are assisted by their local MoFA Agricultural Extension Agent, a man named Tahiru who I work closely with. He brings them new technical information, helps them access loans and farming equipment and answers their questions.

When I describe my home to my colleagues, I always get the question above: why am I not living in Tamale? To most educated Ghanaians, it’s completely backwards to reject the modern city lifestyle and choose to live in a village. But by living in this village, I come one step closer to understanding the lives of those I’m trying to reach through my work. I can see firsthand the challenges and opportunities for rural Ghanaian farmers and connect with them on a personal level. Unfortunately, this perspective is easily lost when working in the development industry, with its focus on budgets and timelines and impact. By coming home to this reality every night, I will make sure my experiences will directly inform my work with MoFA and with EWB and keep me focused on what’s really important: getting people out of poverty.

Hussain

Wikaya