The thoughts, sights, and sounds of my summer as an EWB Junior Fellow

Archive for May, 2012

Welcome to Ghana. Expect Surprises.

I am writing this as I sit on the floor of the fanciest room I have been in since I arrived in Accra that rainy night a week and a half ago. In the room there are two single beds, a fan, two plug-ins, a desk, a sink and shower, and a closet. Hmm, isn’t that exactly opposite to the progression a JF should be making in terms of integration?

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I am in the city of Wa, located in the Upper West region of Ghana, at the In-Service Training Centre hotel. I originally thought I would be spending the summer working in the Upper East, but found out during in-country training that I would be working in Upper West with an inputs dealer in Wa, a nucleus farmer and his outgrowers in a nearby village to Wa called Loggu , and a local agricultural development program office. A nucleus farmer is a wealthier farmer in a village who provides tractor services, inputs, and agricultural expertise to hundreds of farmers. As far as I currently understand it, the goal of my placement is to understand the ways in which the services of the inputs dealer, the nucleus farmer’s model, the programs run by the agriculture development organization, and the realities for the nucleus farmer’s outgrowers all relate. I get to be the eyes and ears that no one else has time to be, and in so doing can share insights with various market actors and suggest areas for innovation.

Getting to Wa was interesting. The plan was for Tom (blog on sidebar), Louise (my coach), and I to leave Tamale on the metro mass (non-fancy [not like STC Ghana]) transit bus for Wa on Monday, however tickets were sold out when Louise (my coach) went to purchase them on Sunday. We thought we would just go early the next morning to buy tickets for Tuesday’s bus, and find a way to contribute to our placements on our extra day in Tamale. Monday morning, however, when Ben (AVC Ghana APS, blog on sidebar) went to purchase the tickets at 7 am, he found that the tickets were again sold out for Tuesday. The reason was found to be that students attending university in Wa need to be present and registered by Wednesday, or face penalties. The decision was made to take the tro tro (see picture in previous post) to Bolgatanga in the extreme Upper East in the early afternoon on Monday, stay overnight in Bolgatanga, then catch the 6 am bus to Wa and get there before noon so that I could meet with the inputs dealer and nucleus farmer that afternoon as scheduled. Taking the tro to Bolga went well, and we enjoyed a nice relaxed supper with Don (AgEx APS who is the Usask ChAPSter Buddy!) and Jimmy (blog on sidebar) at a restaurant. I tried banku, which is a fermented maize dough, for the first time, and I think that taste will definitely grow on me.

We took a taxi at 4 am to the bus station in Bolga, and waited for an hour and a half in line to get tickets to ride the metro mass to Wa. Eventually we were told that we could only buy two tickets, not three, as the line was overflowing with university students needing to get to Wa. It was decided that Tom and I just go on to Wa without Louise, meaning that I would have to meet with all of the market actors myself without the support of Louise who set up the placement. I was feeling a little nervous at the thought of this, but then I just remembered Comfort Zone vs. Learning Zone and the great growth opportunity this presented. Finally Tom and I got on the bus, waited around all ready to go for a long time, and then were eventually told that we had to switch all our luggage and ourselves to another bus due to equipment problems with the bus we were seated in.

In the new bus, all of the seats were filled and large pieces of luggage were stored under the seats. Then passengers kept filing onto the bus until the entire aisle was crammed full with people standing and sitting for the entire journey. People were animated and raucous, and I couldn’t help laughing when I compared it in my head to an intercity bus I had been on in Saskatchewan, where half of the seats were empty, no one talked to each other, and no stop was longer than about a minute.

Tom and I amused ourselves by having me learn some new knots so I could tie up my mosquito net in any situation. The bus stopped every hour or so, allowing women and children to thrust “pure atah” (which is how I have finally assimilated to say pure water) through the window in exchange for ten pesawas. At one stop, people on the bus cried out “something’s burning!” and sure enough the tire right under our window was smoking considerably due to a combination of the scorching heat of the day and the friction of travel. The fix was to wait about ten minutes and continue on, having to stop every so often after that to allow it time to cool down.

Finally, at 4:30 pm, the bus finally rolled in to Wa. As I was too late for the meetings that had been scheduled, I took a taxi to a guest house that Louise recommended, and checked in. At this point, I was becoming uncomfortably aware of how I seemed to be met with reactions of intimidation, nervousness, fascination, enrapture, spectacle, and expectation as a young white woman in the Upper West. I decided to explore the community and walked up one of the main streets, trying to learn how to say “good evening” in Wali, and eventually met three outgoing little girls who showed me to their house and let me meet their family. They asked if I had a camera, and I realized I had forgotten it in the guest house. They escorted me back there and I was able to get some pictures with them with help of the guest house manager and friend (who also sneakily took pictures of me with his own camera despite me saying I was shy).

The next morning, I called the agricultural development organization and was eventually picked up. I was pleased to find that they were going straight to a farmer training session about application of inoculants on soyabean. Inoculant consists of rhizobium bacteria that encourages nitrogen-fixing bacteria to populate the plant roots even before the natural bacteria nodules develop. It greatly increases plant vigour and yields, and we use it on all of our peas and lentils on the farm in Saskatchewan. I found the workshop extremely engaging. It was very participatory, and involved a live demonstration of how to properly apply inoculant to a 1 kg batch of seed. Farmers asked many questions, and contributed experience as testimony to the value of inoculant use. I was impressed. Most of the workshop was translated to/from Wali/English. All the farmers spoke Wali but the main presenter (from the South) spoke Twi natively and did not understand Wali at all. Of the few people I had talked to that morning, a good number of them could not speak Wali because they were originally from a different city in Ghana, and were just as lost with the local language as I was. I was not expecting this, but it illustrates a fundamental challenge throughout Ghana which further incentivizes going to school and speaking English.

In the afternoon, I was taken to meet the nucleus farmer in the village of Loggu. Through a miscommunication/misunderstanding of the goals of my placement/misalignment of values between myself and the agricultural development office, I did not stay in the village as had been planned. I sat in the back of the fancy SUV feeling like some privileged white person (which, yeah, I guess I am) travelling back to the office, and then was dropped off at the hotel. I had to insist that a 30 Cedis per night room with a shared toilet was more than fine for me, rather than a 50 or 85 Cedi self-contained room. So here I am.

As staying in a village and understanding village life is integral to this stage of my placement, tomorrow I will be taking the tro-tro to another nearby village called Busa to spend five days with a new nucleus farmer and hopefully meet the friends of last year’s JF in the Upper West. A definite change of plans, but I have made a commitment to welcoming adventure. It is only fitting, in this land of surprises.

P.S. Another surprise….many Ghanaians love country music! Every once in a while I feel like I am back in Saskatchewan.

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First Impressions of Ghana

I am writing this as I sit underneath my mosquito net in the room Gaelan (JF on the G&RI team, blog to come soon!) and I share in the guest house at Vitting village. Today we saw the conclusion of our two days of in-country training in Tamale as an entire Team Ghana JF group. I have enjoyed the relaxed pace of in-country training. It has allowed time to begin to adjust to the entirely different way of life here that is far from what I have grown up with in Canada. Let me share a few of my first impressions of what is different from Canada:

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  1. It is hot and humid here. I have spent my entire life thus far living in Southwest Saskatchewan in Canada, where the the wind whips through the dry prairie landscape in the summer, and the where the wind chill in the depths of winter can make temperatures feel as low as -40 degrees Celsius. When I stepped off the plane, I was struck by how heavy and tropical the air feels. I like the climate, and it feels good to sweat. My skin has never felt so hydrated!
  1. There are goats, chickens, guinea fowl, dogs, and sheep everywhere! Surrounding our compound there are many animals who are free to roam around. It is common to hear a rooster calling at 3 am, and to hear the bleeting of sheep throughout the day. It was quite jolting and sad when our fancy STC bus from Accra to Tamale hit a goat which was crossing the road.
  1. When people smile, they are truly smiling. The people here are so genuine, and I can’t help but to be filled with joy when I say “Desiba” in the morning and am greeted with “Naa” and a smile. I still don’t exactly know what to say in Dagbani after that, so I just smile back. Biela biela (literally small small, meaning gradually) I will learn.
  1. The market is thrilling. The market is full of many vendors selling a great assortment of things ranging from Ghanaian wax print cloth to giant slabs of raw meat to cell phones and internet credit. As a foreigner, it takes some attention to make sure I am not going to be in the path of an oncoming moto or taxi, and I am still trying to figure out which things are good to try and barter on (which I am really not used to) and which I just take the stated price.
  1. Food is good and our water is from satchets. Food is tasty and filling here, and I am completely surprising myself with how I so far have eaten almost every bit of meat, eggs, and fish that I have been given. You may remember from a previous post how I was talking about how I have eaten a vegan diet until this week, and couldn’t possibly imagine eating meat. Well, somehow it doesn’t seem like a big deal here and I am tying into chicken, guinea fowl, and fish like nobody’s business! I have a sneaking suspicion that we are being fed more meat than anyone else right now as we stay at the guesthouse, so our meat intake will likely decrease when we are living with families. For ten Ghanaian pesawas (about 6 cents Canadian) I can buy 500 mL of “pure watah” in a bag that I bite the corner off of and either empty into my water bottle or drink straight from the bag. It tastes great and is very necessary to avoid heat exhaustion.

These are a few of my first impressions of Ghana. I feel like we are still quite sheltered living at the guesthouse, so my impressions of Ghana are likely to change as I experience life with a family in a smaller village. The next couple of days will be filled with AVC team meetings, and then I will be heading up to my village on Monday (more details on my actual placement when I find them out in the next couple of days!)

Ghana Love!

Alanna


A Glimpse of Life on a (Larger-Scale) SW Saskatchewan Grain Farm

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Perhaps one of the things about myself which I hold most dear is my upbringing as part of my family’s grain farming operation. I believe I am in an extremely lucky and unique situation, to have been given the grounding perspective of being a member of a true family farm, yet given the opportunity to study engineering and spend an entire summer away as an Engineers Without Borders Junior Fellow. I recognize that my focusing on school and taking this summer away from the farm impacts my family significantly. It places an additional strain on my mom Laurel and dad Allan, older brother Sean, younger sister Angela, and younger brother Ian. They continue to plunge into another growing season with all drive, hope, and determination that is mustered every year, despite many mental, emotional, and physical strains. It is by their sacrifice that I am able to make these lifelong friends, be a part of the almost surreal atmosphere of intensity that is pre-dep, try to integrate into a completely new Ghanaian culture, connect with Ghanaian farmers, and potentially have impact in the agriculture sector in Ghana. For every thing I experience and learn, I ask you to understand that it is only made possible by the hard work, support, and selflessness of my family back home.

I would like to share with you a few glimpses of what I experienced when I was home the week before I came to pre-dep on Sunday. I hope this can provide a jumping off point for all of the insights I am soon to gain about what agriculture in Ghana can entail.

Amidst my preparations for leaving for the summer, I tried my best to help with the seeding preparations. The task I was set to was washing the windows, inside and out, on as many key farm implements as possible. I know. Washing windows? Is that really farm work? This struck me as ironic. In Ghana, my prediction is that this job is not likely to exist, due to absence of closed cabs on farm machinery, or rather due to the relative absence of self-propelled farm machinery.

Another day I got the chance to help my older brother move BIG rocks from a strip of land we are breaking for the first time this year. That job would be considerably more difficult without access to a front-end loader tractor.

Rather than packing the night before I had to leave for Saskatoon, I enjoyed a beautiful evening in the field with my family. The sheer size and technology of our implements allow us to farm over 9,000 acres spread over 120 miles. Concepts such as economies of scale greatly influence farm investment decisions. Larger, newer equipment is needed to be able to seed and harvest on time with unpredictable weather, but then an increase in land farmed is needed to be able to justify the new equipment investment. Large farms expand in this way, and smaller, less progressive farmers retire, often selling their land to investors or large local farms.

This is the reality that is a part of me back home. I am hoping to draw on my agricultural background over the summer, but also to not allow it to get in the way of being open to new ideas and appreciating the many nuances of agriculture in Ghana


“Oh no, I was way too intentional”

This is what I want to say on August 28th, 2012.

Perhaps the greatest thing I can take away from today is the need for me to more mindfully bring intention to everything I do for the next four months, if not for the rest of my life. Yesterday I arrived at EWB house in Toronto, and today was our first full day of pre-departure learning. George Roter, CEO of Engineers Without Borders Canada and an all-around fantastic guy (look him up on YouTube if you want to be inspired), briefly mentioned the importance of intention in shaping our JF placements. He posed three key questions which will define my entire summer, and which will serve as guidance when things get rough. Tonight I will share the second question with you.

“What am I doing to own my own learning?”

In a typical university class, the syllabus is handed out on the first day, and from that moment I know the books that I will need to read and understand, even the pages that I need to specifically focus on, the assignments which I will need to complete, and the date of critical exams. The road to success is quite clear, if I only put in enough time and energy.

The JF program and my placement, however, is not quite like that. There is a syllabus of sorts, but we are advised to not allow the syllabus to get in the way. Instead, we are advised to treat it like an open research project in which we use the African Program Staff (APS) we are working with, our chapters and support networks back in Canada, a plethora of print resources, previous Junior Fellows, and co-workers in Ghana like a library. The outcome of the project is ambiguous and the path is ambiguous. As George said, we will be joining our teams in doing some of the hardest work in the world, at least as far as having the ability to produce a “successful” or “complete” end product.

So where does that put me now? Today was full of so many new connections, thought-provoking conversations, and questioning of who I am as a person and how I am in relationship with others. What I thought I knew about poverty and development is suddenly a miniscule part of something almost impossible to define and measure. My plan for influence at the USask chapter during and after my placement now has a rough timeline and a strategy for accountability (if you are from USask, expect it in your mailboxes soon!) and I continue to be more conscious of the ways in which my learning can be transformed from something offered by another into something vitally important to my being.

It is my intention to push myself this week.