Tuesday, July 25, 2006

It's More Like Shades of Brown

Four weeks. I can’t believe there are only four weeks left. Looking back on the past two and a half months, I’ve had my ups and downs. There have been moments when I’ve been frustrated with cultural differences, annoyed by the constant attention, disgusted by the sanitation facilities (or lack thereof), and really really homesick. There have been times when I’ve been breath taken by the natural beauty around me, impressed by the genuine care and concern of people I’ve met, mesmerized by the fascinating culture, and savouring every moment I have here.

I keep a list of all the things that I would like to write about. The list is long and I have barely made a dent in it. There are many aspects of my experience that I have yet to mention. Also, my experience is just a very brief glimpse of life in Tamale, never mind life in Ghana or life in Africa.

In project-related news, I completed our final district analysis last week while Luke finally took some time off and trekked up to Mali. So now our mission is to figure out what all this information we’ve been collecting actually means! From the district analyses we hope to identify general areas in which capacity building activities would be beneficial to the District Water and Sanitation Teams (DWSTs). The next step will be to do a more detailed analysis with one pilot district, working alongside the DWSTs to identify district specific areas in which to build capacity, tailoring a program to suit the team’s needs. And then after developing a capacity building program, we will implement it in the pilot district. This work will likely be carried out by Luke, who will be in Ghana until December (at least!). It’s been very rewarding to have completed one phase of the project and beginning to see the shape it might take in the future.

A few weekends ago, we had a mid-summer retreat. We discussed what we’d done so far – the challenges and successes we’d each had, and what we planned to do for the remainder of our placement. These exercises were useful for sharing ideas and approaches, as well as for organizing the hundreds of thoughts zooming around in my head into a realistic work plan. It was also extremely motivating to hear about all the small successes that all the volunteers have had, and realizing the effect of the summation of each of these seemingly tiny contributions.

Out of the three-day retreat we had one day for pure relaxation and fun. We chartered a tro-tro and headed 4 hours south to Kintampo. Kintampo is famous for the Kintampo Falls just outside the town. However, we first headed to the lesser known Fuller Falls. It was like discovering a secret garden – a rocky staircase leading down to a secluded area with low stone walls separating little stone sitting areas, under the canopy of towering trees, with the sounds of rushing water loudening as you approached. The staircase falls look like they were perfectly carved out of the earth. We spent several hours there, swimming at the base, climbing up the rocky steps of the falls, and generally just enjoying the beautiful scenery and each other’s company.

Fuller Falls

The Secret Garden

Kintampo Falls

Two weeks ago, I was in the East Gonja District for another district analysis. I borrowed a bicycle and rode to the neighbouring community to buy some bread. At the small kiosk where they sold the bread, I had an intriguing conversation with a 46 year old man named Mohammed. He asked if I had a husband. I said no. “I will take you as my second wife,” he said. I said I was flattered but not looking for a husband. “You would not marry a black man?” he asked. I replied that I didn’t care what colour he was, I just wasn’t here to look for a husband. I then tried to explain how my parents are different races, but to no avail. “They are both white,” he said. “Oh. How many different races are there?” I asked. “Two,” he replied, “black and white.”

Now this is just Mohammed’s view and the young men around us found it highly amusing, but I have heard similar beliefs before. There are blacks and then there’s everyone else. Africa and the rest of the world. Growing up in a multicultural society, I’ve always been aware of different races but not overly concerned with race. Growing up in a small rural community here, where possibly the only foreigners you see are white people driving by in white SUVs or white people in nice clothes posing for photos with the new hand pump they paid for, your view of other races would likely be significantly different.

Conversations like this really make me think. Who’s right? Why does he think that? Is it my responsibility to rectify misconceptions about “white” people in general? Is it other people’s responsibility to be open-minded?

And my usual answer is, “Is there an answer?”.

Monday, July 17, 2006

In Someone Else's More Practical Shoes

It’s Saturday morning and I finally rouse myself from bed around 7am. The morning prayer from the neighbouring mosque no longer disturbs my sleep. (Well, if it does I don’t have any recollection). The sky is grey and somber; it might saa today. On mornings like this my bucket bath doesn’t quite have the same refreshing relief from the heat. I have goosebumps! Despite the chilly weather and threat of rains, I head out towards town to meet Marka, a JF from MacMaster, and Gwen, a new LTOV, to go fabric shopping.

Clothing here is usually one of two styles: traditional brightly coloured prints made into long skirts and fitted tops for the women, or Western-style clothing, some new and some from thrift stores now for sale in Ghana. (I’ve spotted a boy wearing an Oilers jersey, another wearing a Team Canada jersey, and a man wearing a t-shirt with a picture of a middle-aged white woman with the caption “Look who’s 50!”; so if you’ve ever wondered where the third-hand clothes from home go, my guess is here).

This is a photo of Okaps, a DWST (District Water and Sanitation Team Member) who I have worked with, and me in one of my traditional Ghanaian outfits.

Back to the beautiful fabrics. There are cloth vendors up and down the main street, so we start there. The rain gods have a different idea and the sky now delivers on its threat. We take shelter in one shop, where the woman kindly offers us seats to wait out the rain. We wait and wait, but the rains are not letting up. All I can think of is how much I have been looking forward to browsing the fabric shops along the road and in the market. And now we are stuck in a store, trapped by the rain.

But then I start to think of what the rain means to other people. To me it has delayed a day of shopping. For many others, it means much much more. Although it is the rainy season, we have not seen much rain in the past few weeks. The farmers rely on the rains to water their crops. Here in the Northern Region, there is only one rainy season whereas in the south there are two. So the rains must come or there won’t be any crops to sell or to eat. And not only must the rains come, they must come at the right time. The farmers plant their seeds and pray for the rains to come soon so the seeds will germinate. If the rains come a few days too late, the seeds will be wasted and the farmers must plant again. When farming is your livelihood, the unpredictability of the weather makes you extremely vulnerable.

The rain continued for most of the day, putting a damper on my day of shopping but providing life to both the crops and the people they will feed. Oh well, there's always next weekend to go shopping!

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Canada Day...Ghanaian Style!

Work-wise, this past week has mainly been spent learning more about Ghana’s water and sanitation sector and refining the district analysis tools. This coming week Luke and I will be heading out two districts to complete assessments of current capacities of the DWSTs.

On Thursday, we attended a workshop introducing the new database system that the CWSA will be implementing at the district level to manage water and sanitation coverage and monitoring information. Effectively managing data, such as the number of household latrines in a community and the functionality of borehole pumps, is essential to plan for future development, as well as for striving to achieve the UN Millennium Development Goals. (One of which aims to halve the number of people without access to potable water). The CWSA Head Office has been introducing this system at the Regional Level with the aim of it being used by the DWSTs to manage district data.

As we sat around the table alongside key figures in Ghana’s water and sanitation sector, members of the RWSTs (Regional Water and Sanitation Teams) from the three Northern Regions critiqued the system and suggested changes that should be implemented to make the system more effective. It was quite a significant meeting for the CWSA, with substantial changes being made to the system that will eventually be put into place nationwide. To be in the room where such momentous decisions were being made was quite an experience.

Many other data management systems have been implemented in districts across Ghana. Unfortunately, none of these have proved very effective or long-lasting. Many of them are linked to an externally funded project and collapse after the project concludes and the donor withdraws funding. It seems that effort is being made to learn from past mistakes and incorporate suggestions from levels closer to the ground to help ensure effectiveness and sustainability. From what I have witnessed at the district level so far, the full implementation of this system is a long way off but, hopefully when the times comes, it does its job and doesn’t become another addition to the database graveyard.

As everyone back home was celebrating Canada’s 139th birthday this past weekend, there were 11 Canadians on the other side of the world celebrating just the same! Five JFs came in to Tamale from their districts and along with those of us based in Tamale, we tro-tro-ed it just outside the city to celebrate Canada Day – we went camping!

The trip started Saturday morning when we were to meet up with a guy who was lending us tents. The meeting time was 9am…10 am rolled around and no tents. With the easy-going Ghanaian attitude, we shrugged our shoulders and went to find a tro-tro. Fortunately, three Ghanaians were being honorary Canadians and taking part in our Canada Day festivities. With their help, we located the correct tro-tro and climbed aboard. The blue van was your typical tro-tro. It had a name like “Still Except God” in colourful letters on the back window. The inside was stripped down to the metal shell with extra seats added, including a wooden bench behind the front seats for people to sit on facing backwards. We packed 20 people into a mini-van-sized vehicle, with cargo up on the roof. We lurched forward, backfiring our way down the road.

When we reached our destination, we went into the community to greet the chief, who was allowing us to camp on his land. He was out farming, as we had just had heavy rains the night before, so we greeted another village elder and offered the traditional gift of kola nuts. We camped out near the local school, right by the football pitch. We attracted quite a lot of attention from the village children and soon a football match, Canada vs. Ghana, was underway.

Later on, we started a campfire and roasted some hot dogs. This probably sounds completely normal to everyone back home, but finding hot dogs in Tamale was almost the highlight of the entire weekend! The children were still around and had slowly formed a tight circle around us, with the fire in the centre. Turning around, it was an eerie image of tens of children standing over you illuminated by the fire. We were visitors in their community, intriguing foreign visitors at that, but we had to eventually ask them to step back as the circle was becoming a little suffocating.

We all enjoyed our brief return to almost Canadian life. It’s always refreshing to get together with the other JFs and share our experiences, both good and bad. It’s hard to believe that I’ve only known most of them for barely 2 months! We closed out the night with the patriotic singing of the national anthem. We hit the sack with satisfied tummies, ready to return to our Ghanaian lives the next day.


I have been collecting small anecdotes in my journal. Here are a few:

Being a female Westerner, you attract quite a lot of attention from male Ghanaians. It’s commonplace to be told that you’re beautiful, to receive multiple marriage proposals and even exclamations of love as you walk along the street. This is the best I’ve received so far: When speaking with an older man who expressed interest in having me as his second wife (meaning wife #2 – polygamy is common in rural areas), he exclaimed, “I don’t love you because of your breasts…I love you because you’re white!” Oh…ok.

The currency in Ghana is the cedis. It has been heavily devalued and inflation is a concern. Currently, it’s at about 8000 cedis per $1 CDN. When I withdraw money from the bank machine the wad is so thick it doesn’t fit in my wallet! Also, to demonstrate the dual economy here, you can easily purchase lunch from a street vendor for under 3000 cedis. If you eat at a hotel or “white” restaurant the prices for the same foods will be in the 30 000- 60 000 cedis range!!

Not many foreigners reach Northern Ghana, explaining the attention and excitement when I go anywhere. But for some reason, more people here pick up on my asian heritage than people in Canada. Countless times I’ve heard “China!” been called my way. I’ve even been asked if I know karate. (I said that yes I did know karate, it’s a genetic trait). I had heard that Ghanaians often clump all Westerners together and classify them as “white” no matter if you’re blue, green or purple. But apparently, many Ghanaians are quite adept at identifying subtle racial differences.

The overwhelming majority of people that I interact with everyday are black. My compound doesn’t have a bathroom sink never mind a mirror, so I rarely see my own reflection. So sometimes I forget that I’m not actually black like everyone else. I am quickly reminded though, when my bright white legs peek out from under my skirt, or I’m walking at night and my glowing skin is the only thing I can see!

I have been struck by the caring, maternal nature of everyone here. Children, both boys and girls, look after their baby siblings with such tenderness and skill. Although generally the men don’t participate in many domestic activities (gender roles are a whole other can of worms!), I have seen fathers care for their young children with visible gentleness and emotion. Family is seen as extremely important and having children almost the purpose of life. Whether such large families are responsible when living in or close to poverty I can’t say, but the care that many people display for their children is heartwarming. (This is not meant to be a contrast to family life in Canada, just an observation of Ghanaian culture. )

Not so heartwarming is the reception that I receive from some small children. There seems to be a certain age when Ghanaian children are naturally blood-curdling-ly terrified of “white” people. They will exhibit one of two reactions: petrified shock – fear seizes their joints and they freeze as if someone pressed the pause button, or screaming in absolute terror for someone to hide this ghastly thing. It can be amusing – the game hide-and-seek takes on a whole new dimension! But it’s also heart-breaking for a child to be terrified at the very sight of you. Here is an image of a baby I had just made cry, turning away to avoid looking at me!

This summer my senses have been bombarded with new experiences. My head is full of lessons learned and fresh perspectives. I try to share as much of this experience through my blog, but I realize that there are more things that I am omitting than including. So to fill in these gaps (and for some interactive fun) please post any questions that you would like to ask a Ghanaian. It can be about anything – dating, football, education, whatever! Ben, a fellow JF here in Tamale, tried this on his blog and found it worked really well, involving and engaging people on both sides of the ocean! So start posting and I’ll start asking!!