SARAH'S SUMMER IN GHANA

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Field Work & Football

This past week, Luke and I began our first district analysis. We are planning on analyzing the current capacities of the District Water and Sanitation Team(DWST), and the current methodologies used by the DWST and other people at the district level, such as the District Chief Executive, the District Coordinating Director and the District Planning Officer. From these evaluations, we will determine in which areas it would be beneficial to build capacity and what type of program would be most effective. So, we left Tamale to spend four days in the capital of a nearby district.

On the first day, we spoke with the DWST about the challenges they face, how they collect information about the water sources in their district, and what (if any) database system they use to store and organize this data. After a long and informative conversation with the extremely knowledgeable team leader, two of the DWSTs took us to the District Assembly(DA) guest house. It felt like a five star resort, with a flushing toilet and a shower!

The following day we accompanied two of the DWSTs out to the field to monitor boreholes, household latrines and a small town water system. Sitting on the back of the motorbike with the sunshine warming my skin and the fresh breeze keeping me cool, I was mesmerized by the practically untouched natural beauty of the rolling hills lush with deep green vegetation.

Once we reached the intended small community, we observed as the DWSTs went about a typical monitoring visit. First, they greeted the village chief and explained why we were here. At the borehole, the DWSTs inspected the cleanliness of the concrete pad surrounding the borehole and the tightness of the bolts of the pump. They gave the pump a try to check the flow of the water. We took a tour of one household to monitor hygiene practices – if the drinking water was covered and kept separate from the water for domestic use.


Helen and me with a newly installed borehole hand pump.













Rufia and me inspecting the construction of a household latrine.









Luke “Space Ranger” Brown – to avoid being “grossly negligent” we EWBers wear snazzy head protection when riding motorbikes.







That night neither Luke nor I was hungry so we didn’t venture out until later to find a bite to eat. The guest house was on the main road, but at the edge of town so we had to walk a ways to find some street vendors. There were no street lights (or if there were they weren’t on), so we walked in the dark accompanied by lively music echoing through the darkness. It can be near impossible to see Ghanaians in the dark and so occasionally when a truck would pass, the lights would eerily illuminate dark figures moving slowly in the night. As creepy as that seemed, I can’t imagine how spine-tingling it would be to see two ghostly figures approaching, seemingly glowing in the shadows!

On the third morning, I woke up not feeling so well. My body was achy, which I thought might have been from the bed even though it was better than the one I usually sleep on (mattresses in Ghana are usually pieces of foam). The aches intensified, I had a crushing headache and my stomach was upset…both ways. I stayed in bed the whole day, only venturing out when one of the DWSTs took me to the local hospital to get checked out. The diagnosis was malaria and I started popping the treatment pills that night.

An interesting note about the strong hierarchical influence in Ghana (or I guess it could show the high prevalence of malaria here): I was really not feeling too hot during our journey to and from the hospital. The DWST even told me I looked “rundown” (initially I thought he was talking about the hospital…oops!). But on our way back to the guest house, we stopped twice to have lengthy conversations with two of the higher ups at the District Assembly not only to update them on my condition but also to chat about what they were doing and where they were going. Greeting people is very important here and paying respect to superiors is even more so.

Without a lab test to verify the diagnosis, I’ll never be entirely sure if it was malaria. But malaria is a definite reality here. In Africa, over 2.5 million people die each year because of it. Most of these are children. The heartbreaking part is that malaria is completely treatable. Treatment to cure the disease costs about $5. Seriously. Preventative measures such as sleeping under a mosquito net can also drastically reduce the deaths due to malaria. Bed nets are also ridiculously inexpensive (in our terms). As I was already taking anti-malarial medication, my case was probably a reduced version of what malaria can be. I cannot imagine enduring that discomfort with no hope of affording those twelve little pills and knowing you may not survive.

During the last two days of our visit, Luke spoke with many other stakeholders in the water and sanitation sector at the district level. Our first district analysis was extremely enlightening about issues at the district level that we, working out of the regional office, were not aware of. We also were able to test out our methods of analysis, which try to ensure we are seeing the whole, true picture.

When we returned to Tamale, Ghana’s third match of the World Cup was almost underway. I missed the first game, against Italy, when I was in Manga. Watching the second game, against the Czech Republic, on the streets of Tamale was quite an experience! After each goal, people jumped up, waved flags, picked up chairs and ran around screaming! At the end of the game spontaneous parades were formed, people were dancing in the street, every car was honking its horn (more than usual!) and flags were being flown from motorbikes racing (and swerving dangerously) down the main street!! A constant cheer was audible from across the city. The third game, against the US, I followed from the two cheers and groan that I heard from my bed as the effects of malaria slowly wore off.

So yesterday was the start of the next round for the Black Stars. Here is a before picture of Luke and me decked out in our Ghanaian flags, all ready to cheer on our newly adopted favourite for our newly adopted favourite football team:









And here is an after picture:








Next time, Ghana, next time!

Sunday, June 18, 2006

The Village of Manga

On Monday, I left my homebase of Tamale and headed to a nearby district to experience village life for 3 days. In the district capital, I met a member of the District Water and Sanitation Team (a DWST) who arranged the stay and would be taking me to the small community. When we were ready to go, the DWST handed me a helmet (embarrassing photo included below) – this would be my first motorbike ride! I rode on the back, enjoying the breeze and the natural beauty of rural Ghana.

We turned off the paved road onto a dirt road. We turned off the dirt road onto a dirt path. We weaved our way around rocks and deep grooves. Finally, a cluster of mud huts was visible in the distance. A community of approximately 400, Manga has no running water or electricity, and almost the entire community relies on farming for a living. After dismounting, I must have made a goofy first impression – first of all being “white” made me strange looking, I was still wearing the helmet as I struggled to get it off, and I’m sure the fanny pack didn’t help!


The chief and the men of the village gathered to greet me. We sat on log benches under a thatched canopy, shading us from the unforgiving midday sun. I gave the chief the traditional offering of kola nuts. He accepted them and welcomed me to the village. The village children started to gather to get a glimpse of this “strange creature” that had just arrived. I was introduced to Nicholas, the village's Water and Sanitation Committee (WATSAN) Secretary. Thank goodness Nicholas spoke fairly good English! I’ve been spoiled in Tamale, where most people speak quite a bit of English. Nicholas showed me where I’d be staying – I was displacing one of his sons for a few nights. I was glad to have my own room – after just a brief time in the village I could tell that I would be the village’s main attraction my entire stay!

The first day I wandered around the village and greeted people. Whatever Manga is lacking in modern convenience, it makes up for in natural beauty. It is set amongst rolling hills, green and lush, filled with life. Darkness fell quickly, so much so that it seemingly interrupted people’s day. But everyone carried on. Lanterns were lit and we ate by moonlight.


First thing the next morning, I met with the men of village. There would have to be two separate meetings – one for the men and one for the women, as it’s not customarily appropriate for both genders to be present at a meeting. I said that I was there to learn about life in a village. They commended me on coming to Manga and one man said, “You have come straight from Canada to Manga, but when will a Manga man ever go to Canada!” I asked them some questions about the water and sanitation facilities, as well as about their feelings about their relationship with the district authorities. My village stay was not only a chance for me to live like the majority of Ghanaians, but a valuable opportunity to learn more about the concerns and challenges they face. Hopefully, Luke and I will address some of these concerns through our project, working to improve capacities at the district level.

That afternoon, Nicholas took me to his farm, where his family had been working all day. After having just planted his maize the day before, today they were planting millet. His son would walk down the rows, creating holes. His two daughter would follow with bowls of millet seeds, dropping a pinch into each hole and deftly kicking dirt to cover the seeds. Nicholas also grows yams, pepper and cotton.








Later on, I sat with the old women in the centre of the compound and shelled shea nuts. The women collect the shea fruit from the trees, remove the fruit surrounding the nut. The nut is then boiled and shelled, and sent to the man in the village with the machine to process the nuts into oil and butter. The smell of shea nuts filled the air and we quietly sat there, shelling nut after nut until the pile was gone.


That evening, I met with the women. I again explained my presence in the village and was warmly welcomed and thanked for visiting. I asked them the same questions I had earlier that day to the men. The gender roles here are quite different than at home. It can be a very strange experience here as a “white” female. Generally, white trumps black and man trumps woman. So being a “white” woman is a curious existence. I’m not yet sure where I fit in the social hierarchy.

The men and women shared similar concerns. Without a proper road to Manga, what would they do if someone was ill and needed transport to the hospital? And the nearest hospital was a 6 hour walk away. There were several bicycles in the village, but only 1 motorbike. Manga had just been given its own school a year ago, but without a proper building and adequate resources, it was struggling. Many people expressed interest in learning new skills, but there was nowhere to go to learn and no one to teach them. Some people rented tractors from a neighbouring village, but others ploughed using bullocks or by hand. Tractors would help them prepare the fields for planting much more efficiently. But with the vulnerability of crop failure resulting in a loss of yearly income and a shortage of food, the expense of a tractor was unrealistic.

The 3 days passed quickly and soon I was packing my things and saying farewell to Manga. After I expressed my appreciation for the village’s hospitality, the chief thanked me for coming to Manga and presented me with a goat! (That’s a step up from my chicken!) I wasn’t certain if I was expected to take the goat back with me on the motorbike, but the goat was tied up and secured to the back of the motorbike before I knew it!


Driving into Tamale, I felt like I was returning home. However, it occurred to me that even if I considered Tamale to be my home, the people here would never view it as being my home. There would always be someone who didn’t know me, and would call me “white!” or “saliminga!”. Because of my skin colour, I doubt I could ever be fully Ghanaian. It’s a bizarre feeling being treated differently due to the colour of my skin - a phenomenon I thought was mainly a thing of the past. The attention is generally positive and people want to be your friend simply from your appearance. I forget that Canada is fairly unique in its multiculturalism (although racism still exists as well) and that there are places in the world where people have never seen people who look different than themselves.


The other day, while walking home from work a man on a bike came up beside me. We started with small talk. He said he wanted to be my friend. He said he likes white people. We encountered a language barrier when I said that was not a wise thing to do, not all white people are nice just like all black people aren’t nice. I don’t think he comprehended what I was trying to explain, but it’s comments like that that both surprise and worry me.

Anyways, back to the goat. Back at the office, I decided to give the goat to the driver, who had kindly driven me to and picked me up from the district. But he did not take it home and instead left it to graze just outside the office. The next day, the goat was still there. I wasn’t sure if anyone was going to claim the goat or it was going to become the new office mascot. Before I left that day, I took some photos of my very first goat and made sure it had water.


The following morning, as I approached the office I could hear a commotion at the side of the building. I peeked around the corner to see what was going on. I caught a glimpse of a piece of gleaming metal in someone’s raised hand and I knew. My goat was no more. Purchasing meat from the supermarket, it’s very easy to forget where it comes from. Here, people are not as removed from the land that yields their crops and the animals that are sacrificed.

Please let me know if there’s anything that I’ve been neglecting to describe or write about. It’s difficult to know if I’m painting a full and fair picture of what I’m experiencing. So if you think I’m missing anything, please post a comment!

Sunday, June 11, 2006

A Day in the Life...

Every morning I am woken by the sunrise prayer broadcast over the loudspeaker of the mosque next door. It is quite loud (I am convinced they relocate the loudspeaker and point it directly into my room) and it certainly eliminates the possibility of sleeping in, but this hauntingly melodic prayer is a beautiful daily reminder of this intriguing new culture of which I am now a part.

I then remain in bed for another ho
ur or so, dozing and listening to the daily activities starting up around me. The household awakens and the usual cooking, water fetching and school uniform ironing begins. My compound has two noise levels – silent and loud. The morning prayer breaks the silence of the night and flips the noise switch to loud. Pots clang, children chatter, sheep baa, roosters crow, women bicker. When I don’t manage to go back to sleep, I listen to all this activity and think about how different this is than my usual morning routine in Canada.

Once I decide that it’s now a reasonable time to get out of bed, usually around 6:30am, I emerge from my room and do the morning greetings with my Ghanaian family. “Dasiba!” they all say. “Naa,” I respond. This is followed by other traditional greetings, usually with a response of “Naa,” (when in doubt, respond “Naa,”) . I collect a bucket of water and head to the toilet.

Tamale has not had consistent running water for months. The taps are on in certain areas of the city on certain days. My compound has a large concrete reservoir that is filled when the taps are on. The reservoir has been completely used up only once since I’ve been here and usually women from surrounding areas come to our compound to fetch water. So with no running water, the toilet doesn’t flush. After I’ve done my business, I pour the bucket into the toilet to “flush” it. Some of the volunteers don’t have the luxury of a toilet or even a latrine. So I cherish my toilet, despite my initial recoil from the smell and its crude outhouse appearance. I return to the reservoir for a second bucket – this will be my shower.

I’ve come to enjoy bucket baths. The fan in my room is currently broken (or “spoiled” as they would say here) and it’s quite warm and stuffy in there when I wake up. Pouring cool water over yourself after a sweaty sleep is extremely refreshing. It also uses a minimal amount of water. When you have to fetch the water yourself, you really appreciate the amount that you use. And I am quite fortunate to have a reservoir right in my compound and not have to trek to the local borehole, well or other water source. I am now down to half a bucket to wash myself including my hair. I don’t know whether this means I am becoming a more efficient bucket bather or I’m just not clean!


The next order of business is to find something appropriate to wear to work. Ghanaians take a lot of pride in their attire. The clothes may not be expensive, or even the correct size, but they will be clean, ironed and extremely presentable. So often I have to iron my outfit for that day. When I first asked if there was an iron I could use, they were surprised to discover that I could in fact iron. I have encountered this several times here – people seem surprised or amused when I do anything for myself involving physical activity, such as fetching water, washing my clothes, walking to work. And admittedly, I don’t do many of these things at home – I get water from the taps, use a washing machine, take the bus to school. Apparently, some people here believe that white people, or Westerners (all Westerners are considered white), don’t do any medial task themselves.


I then say goodbye to my family and head to work. I walk the same route everyday, twice a day and yet the children are as excited to see me now as they were when I first arrived. It’s sort of a game, they shout “hello! hello!” until the “saliminga” (white person) responds. It’s quite adorable and the friendliness of the people is really quite welcoming. The neighbourhood children have taken to calling me “Madam Sarah,” which is endearing, even if it makes me feel like a 50-year old school marm. But it also means that you have to be “on” all the time. There are no days when you can walk down the street anonymously, no days when the children will ignore you or the adults won’t greet you. The friendliness of the people helps to keep me open and engaged, but there are days when I long for no one to care how I am, what my name is, where I’m from or where I’m going.

I make my way along the main road of Tamale, greeting people as I go. I am passed by people on bicycles and motorbikes carrying schoolchildren, tables, goats, and almost anything else you can think of! I pass women with their headloads full of the goods they will sell at the market. Along the way, I usually stop to purchase pure water, sachets of filtered water safe for drinking, and a loaf of bread. A typical Ghanaian breakfast is tea with bread, and sometimes a fried egg. I quite enjoy it!


I arrive at the CWSA (Community Water and Sanitation Agency) office at 8am and greet the security man at the front gate. Often there are others around and we go through the greetings, with them throwing in a new phrase here and there that I don’t understand. I cross the CWSA compound to the NORWASP building, where Luke and I have a desk. NORWASP (Northern Region Water and Sanitation Project) is one of the 3 current CWSA projects. NORWASP is funded by CIDA (Canadian International Development Agency) and the other 2 projects are funded by the EU (European Union) and AFD (the French Development Agency). Luke and I are working directly for the CWSA and aren’t specifically assigned to any one project. Because of resource constraints, we work out of the NORWASP office.

The hand-dug well assessments that Luke and I have been performing over the last 4 weeks (longer for Luke) are now complete. We visited a total of 7 districts, over 14 communities and over 20 wells, with Luke visiting even more before my arrival. This was a task we had been asked to complete, and not the main purpose of our placement. Hopefully, the information we have gathered will be useful in improving safe water provision as well as helping to increase the trust between the CWSA and ourselves.

After sitting down with Louis Dorval, Director of West Africa Projects, last week, the goals of my placement and the workplan to achieve these goals have become much more refined and focused. This past week we have been talking with various people at the CWSA and other organizations to gain insight into the capacities and challenges at the district (sub-regional) level, where we hope to focus our efforts. This coming week I will be spending 3 days in a rural village, not only to experience typical rural Ghanaian life, but to also learn more about water and sanitation from the people it affects most and the relationship between community and the governing district.

I have to admit that although village life is something I’m eager to experience (and something I think I should experience), I am nervous about entering a world even more different that the one I’m used to.

This past week I had my first encounter with Ghanaian medical facilities. On Monday night while getting ready for bed I noticed I had an abnormally larger bite on my calf. Upon further examination, I discovered that it was not in fact a bite, but the beginning of the craziest rash I’d ever had. It freaked me out because not only did I have no idea what it was, I had no idea what it was from or if it was a sign of something serious. After phoning a few people, I decided to wait until the morning to seek any type of medical attention. I wouldn’t have known who to contact late on a Monday evening anyways – this scared me, made me feel extremely vulnerable and extremely fortunate to live right next to a high quality healthcare facility at home and having 911 to phone in emergencies. I woke up the next morning and the rash was gone. I breathed a sigh of relief and chided myself for panicking so easily. I’d really lived up to the saying that everything is 10 times scarier in Africa – not because it’s necessarily scarier or more dangerous, but because of the unknown factor that so many of us attach to this continent.

Later that day, my rash returned so I decided to see a doctor, if only to ease my mind. I went to the clinic of a Ghanaian doctor, who had trained in Europe. He examined me briefly and said that I needed to start pills and an IV drip immediately. I was taken aback at the serious nature of my condition. He explained what the pills and IV drip were each for. I asked if I could start with the pills and see how that went. I have never required an IV drip and the thought scared me – not because of the stigma of African needles, but because of the serious condition an IV drip implied. The doctor went on to talk about how “you people” don’t trust African doctors and that he wouldn’t prescribe the pills to me because if my condition worsened I would blame him. He talked about how my embassy would become involved and how he would be penalized. I understand what he was saying and I don’t think it was completely unjust. However, he didn’t give me the opportunity to explain why I was resisting full treatment and I resented being referred to as “you people”. His speech did not inspire confidence in his abilities – no matter how unrelated the two things may be. I made an excuse and left the clinic.

I had heard from another EWB volunteer that a Canadian doctor was in town. With my fingers crossed, I stopped by the guest house where I’d been told he was staying. The receptionist led me to the lounge. The doctor was there and kindly agreed to see me. He took one look and said, “Oh, that’s urticaria…also known as hives.” I recounted my experience with the other doctor. The Canadian doctor said that those measures were unnecessary – the rash was not serious and would go away on its own as long as I wasn’t exposed to the allergen that caused the reaction. I don’t know whether I trusted the Canadian doctor because he was Canadian, because of his calm and reassuring manner, or because he did not go off on a rant about racism. But I felt much more at ease as I thanked the doctor and left the hotel.

Later that day, I reflected on my ordeal and how fortunate we are to have world-class healthcare professionals in Canada. But then again, are we fortunate or is that something everyone should have access to?

So, back to my regular day. I usually finish work a little after 5pm. On my way home, I sometimes stop by the internet café to reconnect with the rest of the world. I retrace my steps from the morning, greeting people along the way. This time it’s “Aniuula”, good evening in Dagbani.

My family always welcomes me home enthusiastically. We eat dinner in the centre of the compound. I am given my own bowls. One contains water for washing your right hand. You eat with your right hand only - as I explained before, you left hand is customarily reserved for another, less appetizing task. The second bowl contains TZ, which is ground maize mixed until it's an almost a gelatinous, dense version of mashed potatoes. We have this every night (and I mean every night!). It’s accompanied by some type of soup, into which you dip a ball of TZ. You sort of scoop it out and into your mouth (no matter how hot and it’s usually fresh off the coals). I haven’t quite perfected the technique and so I don’t get as much soup in my scoops as I should.

I always give it my best shot, but the most I’ve ever finished is half the bowl. I don’t feel guilty leaving uneaten food however, because my leftovers are always consumed by someone else. After dinner, I either sit outside with the family, listening and watching or having them teach me new words and phrased in Dagbani, or I retire to my room to write about my day in my journal, read a book, or if I really need a picker-upper I’ll lay down, close my eyes, turn on some music and think of all the wonderful people and things I miss from home.

As promised, here is a pic of my new and improved (??) look:












Sunday, June 04, 2006

Your Voice, My Hair

When I told people what I would be doing for the summer, I sometimes got the response “Good for you! What a noble thing you’re doing!" But my placement is not as selfless as those people think. Four months is not a long time in which to have significant impact on people's lives. I will be learning much more than I am teaching. In Canada, I think that there is greater opportunity to make a difference. The choices we make in Canada directly affect the people here. Quite a few of the development projects in Ghana are funded by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). The way in which foreign aid is administered directly affects how these projects are run and the resulting impact on the intended benefactors.

While I’m in Ghana, I will use my voice to try and make small changes that may help communities improve their access to clean drinking water. At home, our voices are much louder and can be used to tell our leaders how we think Canada should act on the global stage. I like to think of Canadians as caring and honest people. I appreciate that wherever I travel, people generally accept me willingly simply because I’m Canadian. But we can’t live on reputation forever. I believe that poverty can be eliminated, but we must work together to eradicate it.

On a lighter note...

After complaining that my long hair was too hot, I finally decided to do something about it. Last Wednesday I asked one of the women in my compound if she could show me where she gets her hair cut. We went to one salon. They would not do it. We went to another. They wouldn’t cut my hair either. I don’t know what the reason was and when I inquired the response was “We are going somewhere else.” Oh, ok. So we ended up in this barbershop hut that only seemed to offer male hairstyles. I was a little concerned, but willing to give it a try. The barber got out his scissors, which looked like ones you would use to cut paper or fabric. He bent over and without actually ever touching my hair he went around my head and cut my hair. The only problem was that since the hut was so small and there were five of us in there he had the fan on. The fan was blowing my hair as he was trying so diligently to get it even all the way around. He took his time and ended up doing a very good job…well, maybe you can decide if it was a good job or not! Photo to come soon!!

Rains and Mole Park

The rainy season has arrived, along with slightly cooler temperatures (thank goodness!). The storms that I’ve witnessed so far have not disappointed. On Friday, I was heading out from the office and opened the door to ferocious winds violently blowing sand, dirt and anything else not bolted down. I held down my skirt, covered my eyes and started on my way, hoping to make it home before the skies opened up. I made it about 20 meters before huge drops began to fall. Fortunately, one of the CWSA drivers saw me struggling and kindly offered me a ride home. As we drove down the main road, the sky ahead was black and the road obscured by a dark cloud of sand. I made a run for it from the truck to my house, but was completely drenched halfway there. Upon reaching my compound, I found three boys taking cover outside my room. I invited them in and we camped out there for the remainder of the storm. I offered them biscuits and they showed me what they found in the forest…refer to second photo.


Very early yesterday morning, five other JFs and I met at the Tamale bus station to head to Mole National Park, the largest game reserve in Ghana. We had been told that you could only purchase tickets the morning of, but discovered that tickets had been sold in advance and we would only get on if there was room at the end. So we waited. I wasn’t very optimistic judging by the number of people crowded around the bus. But Ghanaians definitely know how to pack people onto a bus! Only a few were left standing on the pavement…unfortunately that included all us JFs! The first mate (someone who accompanies the driver and collects the money) offered Sabrina and I (the only girls) spots at the front, but we were going all together or not at all. So we left in search of alternate transportation.

We headed to the tro-tro yard. I don’t think I’ve explained what a tro-tro is yet. The common definition is anything that’s not a bus or a car, so usually a van-type vehicle, that packs triple the amount of people that you think it can hold plus giant cargo loads on top and perhaps some live animals as well. We located the one heading to Damongo, a town nearby the park, but it was empty. Tro-tros leave when they are full, so it’s always best to catch an almost full one. It was about 6am by this point. The journey could take up to 4 hours (or even more I guess!) and the sun sets by 6pm. We weren’t sure what to do – there was no point in going all the way to Mole only to arrive in the dark and not being able to see anything. So we made the driver a deal, buying an extra seat and a half each if he would leave right away. He accepted and then we were off!


Mole was beautiful with its wide valley covered with lush, deep green vegetation. We went on a guided safari tour and saw quite a few interesting animals. We didn’t, however, get a good look at the elephants – I was so disappointed! The guide told us that they usually go to the watering hole at 7am. We arrived at 11am and did manage to catch a glimpse of them briefly, but we were leaving the next morning by 5am and wouldn’t get another chance. I don’t know if I’ll get another chance to visit Mole and as the rainy season progresses the chance of seeing animals diminishes. But we did see baboons, antelope, waterbuck, monkeys, warthogs and dung beetles!