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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
“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?”.
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!
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 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.
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.
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.
My flip flops slap against the ground as I call out “Desiba” (“Good morning”) to the women walking past on the narrow dirt path. Ahead of me, Rashida balances two giant metal containers on her head, while Zewera follows behind. We come over a small ridge and I find myself looking at a large pond. Rashida and Zewera continue down the slope to the water, where they hike up their skirts and wade in. They fill the two buckets with the milky-looking water and help each other hoist the containers back up onto their heads. They are strong – those buckets must weigh at least 100 lbs. As we walk the 8 minutes back to the compound, other women call out, laughing and asking me where my water is. I tried carrying a small bucket yesterday, but my head-balancing skills are definitely not up to par. Today I’ve elected to bring my camera instead (it’s one or the other – I spill too much water when I’m carrying it on my head to bring a camera!).
We arrive back at the compound and Rashida and Zewera skillfully pour the water from the tops of their heads into the giant clay pots that are fixed to the ground. Inside, the new water mixes with the old, left over from last night’s trip to the pond. Rashida takes an old tomato can from beside the pots, scoops up some water and takes a long drink. She refills it, then takes it over to where her 7-month-old daughter Failatu is sitting on a reed mat and holds the can for her to drink. Zewera does the same for her 2-year-old son, Mohammed Awa. Then the two women pick up their containers and head back to the pond for another load.
This scene, from the village of Gbabshie, is unfortunately common in northern Ghana. These two women will make the trip to the pond 4-5 times per day to supply this 11-person household with water. Luckily for them, it’s not a long walk – some women walk over 2 km to access water in the dry season. They will use this water for all of their household needs: cooking, bathing, drinking and washing. They know the water is not good, but they have no other choice. Mr. Iddirisu, the sole member of the household who can speak any English, says “we see the goats defecating near the water and we know it’s not safe. We need a borehole but no NGO has yet come.”
Iddirisu’s statement is indicative of the development culture in Ghana. Though they may try, the government of Ghana has not been successful at meeting the needs of its population. This is both an issue of resources and of capacity (more on that in later posts). As a result, the doors have been thrown open to NGOs, foreign development agencies and multilateral institutions to fill the gap. Ghana in particular has become a “development darling” thanks to its relative stability and support for foreign projects. Now there are literally thousands of projects operating here on all scales, from small local NGOs doing agroforestry projects, to multinational UN-funded campaigns to eradicate guinea worm. In many cases, NGOs are playing a role that would traditionally be filled by the government – hardly a sustainable model.
Let’s get back to the water problem in Gbabshie: the community needs a safe water source. It would be easy to come into the community, see the women and children drinking from this filthy pond, make a quick video appealing for donations from friends in Canada, and pay a local NGO to install a borehole. Bam! problem solved. But is it really solved? Let’s take a closer look.
Have you ever been given something for free? Maybe it was a bicycle, a phone, a book, just something that someone else didn’t want anymore. How much value did you place on this discarded item from your friend? Probably not much – it wasn’t worth much to him/her, so why should it be worth so much to you?
What about this: have you ever shared a resource with a large group of people? Maybe it was a common kitchen in your house, or supply of toilet paper in an outhouse at camp. What was the state of this shared resource after some time passed? Did you have to put some structure in place to manage the resource well? What incentives did you have to care for the resource, and how did you react to other people using it in different ways?
These two issues both come into play when discussing a village borehole: you’re giving something away for free to a group of people. Of course they will appreciate it – clean water! But how will they treat the borehole? Who will take care of it? Who will be responsible for paying for repairs? Who has priority over the water? It is common to come back to one of these villages a year later and still see women walking to the pond to get water. The borehole has broken down, and no one is responsible for paying for repairs, so they haven’t been done. Besides, why pay for repairs when any day an NGO might come along and repair it for free?
In the middle of the village of Gbabshie lies a testament to these issues. The women’s group here received a grinding mill several years ago. Now it lies in disrepair, covered in cobwebs. No one is willing to pay to have it fixed, so all the money the NGO put into buying and installing the machine in the first place has gone to waste.
These issues of sustainability are always prevalent in development projects. It is easy to fill an immediate need; it is much more difficult to change the institutional environment around that resource so that the change will be sustained. For a borehole, several conditions need to be in place. Someone needs to be responsible for managing that borehole, whether it is one person or a committee of people. Users need to contribute money for maintenance and repairs. For this to happen, people need to see value in having a working borehole, which means they need to be educated on water and health issues. When the borehole breaks down, skilled technicians need to be accessible to the community at an affordable price. Replacement parts must be locally available in a timely manner. People must know their rights and how to address the authorities if they are being taken advantage of. And NGOs must not continue to offer new things for free which undermine the existing system.
This example demonstrates the complexity of poverty and development. There are simple solutions, but there are no simple problems, so the simple solutions will inevitably fail. To address the complex problem of poverty, we need complex solutions that change the operating environment of development in Ghana. Institutional changes take time to produce, but the effect is long-lasting and the impact is much greater.