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

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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!



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.

“Stewart Valley, don’t get that one very often…”

…said the STC (Saskatchewan Transportation Company) bus driver as I showed him my ticket. I smiled cheerfully and boarded the bus. I was only three hours away from getting to see my family again, getting to live for a week in the comfort of our farm, and I felt a mixture of relief and extreme happiness.  Stewart Valley, SK is the population:100 town located seven miles north of our farm that I was bussed to every school morning until the end of eighth grade, and I still feel some fondness for its small-town quaintness. The day had been gloomy and drizzly all day, but I didn’t really mind. Rain has always held some intrigue for me, because throughout my growing up it has meant many things. It has created the excitement that we were going to have a fantastic crop that year, and even just something as simple as that mom and dad would be home in the house because it was too wet to seed, spray, or haul grain was a cause for happy thoughts when I got off the bus. Right now, it is a mixed blessing because it is delaying the start of seeding but providing the fields with much needed moisture. I don’t usually bother with umbrellas, because there is something so connecting about becoming drenched in water straight from the sky.

I settled into my seat on the bus, and noticed that there was free WiFi on board. This was new, and I had both my laptop and a borrowed netbook from our EWB chapter with me. I thought about it for a minute, and decided that I had spent enough time on the Internet. I wanted to use this time to do absolutely nothing, for the first time in about a year.  I thought about the term I had just finished the day before, about the six exams I had written, the friends that I had just said good-bye to at res,  the five school outreach workshops I had helped to facilitate at a neighboring town that day on two hours of sleep because I was packing the night before. I thought about the other people on the bus. Where are they going? What are they worried about? What are they looking forward to? I thought about the week ahead in preparation for a whole summer in Ghana…

I was suddenly a little anxious. I had made a whole list of things that I need to do, want to do, and should do in the week before I leave for Toronto, but I hadn’t really had time to think about what this all really means. I am going to be living and working in the Upper East region of Ghana, but am I really prepared? Have I had to take enough responsibility in my life to be able to handle it? Deep down I know that it will be fine, and I will grow immensely, but sometimes it just hits me. I am on the brink of something more powerful and definitive than I have ever encountered before, and to carry that around with me this week is a feeling like I have never experienced.

Before long, the bus was climbing out of the Saskatchewan Landing valley, rounding the curve and signaling to let me off on the side of the road by the “Stewart Valley Junction” where my brother was waiting in our little black “running around” car. I thanked the bus driver and stepped onto the wet pavement in the headlights. Only five more minutes ’till I see my wet dog!

Agricultural Value Chains and Market Facilitation – What we are doing and why it matters

When I walk into a grocery store, I am met with an almost overwhelming assortment of products. Boxed cereal, oranges, kale, peanut butter, milk, bread, meat, gummy candies, pickles, [insert random food item here]. I shop around, usually spending 95 percent of my time in the produce section (just ’cause that’s me) , grabbing whatever seems appealing and hopefully on sale. But the oranges I end up going home with are in my bag because of a long series of market interactions which lined up precisely right. There is an entire value chain, beginning with market actors such as fertilizer and chemical dealers, water pump manufacturers, and seed companies and ending with warehouses, transport companies, and the final retailer that was dependent on strong links between each of the market actors to result in a high quality end product delivered on time to the right place. As I am sure you have realized, the farmer(s)  played an integral role in that value chain to actually produce the food.

Shift focus from developed world grocery store to a rural village in Ghana. Sam is a Ghanaian who runs a small agricultural input business that sells seed, fertilizer, and chemicals to local farmers. His income relies on farmers having enough money to buy the crop inputs which increase crop yields and quality. His hybrid seed produces much stronger, healthier plants than those grown from seeds the farmers saved from the previous year, but if farmers are short on money at the beginning of planting season they are less likely to spend money on fertilizer and chemicals and to instead used saved seeds.  Looking further up the value chain, farmers rely on *the weather* but also their ability to access markets. Their ability to access markets may be constrained by their ability to transport their product to the trading center, their knowledge of current market prices, and the overall demand for the product they are selling. In many cases, the next step in the value chain is the processor, who adds value to the raw produce of the farmer. The processor relies on the presence of a steady supply of high quality raw product as well as the existence of demand for the value-added product in consumer markets and the availability of reliable transport.

From examining the value chain described, it becomes clear that each market actor is very dependent on all of the others. If the processing plant in a rural region is shut down, farmers are not able to sell their product and the input dealer suffers because farmers do not have enough money to buy inputs. Similarly, if there is not adequate provision of inputs, farmers are unable to produce large volumes of high quality product, and the processing plant is unable to operate at capacity.

In the event of a drought, where farmers are simply not able to make enough money to buy inputs at the beginning of planting season, a typical charity-driven market intervention approach would be to provide farmers with free or heavily subsidized inputs for a year or two to help them get re-established. However, in this time, Sam is put out of business. After the funding for the subsidized input project becomes depleted, farmers are left with no practical way for procuring inputs.

A market facilitation approach to this project would be to facilitate more effective interactions between the various market actors, without becoming a part of the value chain itself. This could be done by helping the input dealer implement a system of pre-payment for inputs at a reduced rate immediately following harvest, or helping the input dealer develop a feasible plan to expand the region he services so that inputs could be sold to a greater number of farmers.

Using a market facilitation approach, rather than a market intervention approach, results in a value chain that will continue to function sustainably after the market facilitation project has exited. The relationships and interconnections between various market actors are strengthened in a way that provides a substantial benefit for all actors. A modification of the workings of a value chain will only continue if there is a good reason for market actors to want to continue the new interaction.

I will be working with the Agricultural Value Chains (AVC) team in Ghana with Engineers Without Borders Canada this summer. The team works in market facilitation as described above to make markets work in the most productive way possible for all actors involved. In the Food for Thought school outreach workshop I have oft presented with the USask EWB chapter, we present the fact that 80% of all people living in poverty in rural Africa rely on agriculture as their sole source of income. To me, this indicates that we have found a leverage point with which to slowly improve the livelihood of people living in rural Africa.

As I live primarily on a grain farm in Saskatchewan, when I am in arriving in Ghana I will be missing seeding back home, and harvest will already be underway by the time I return to Canada. I hope to use this blog to parallel the activities, challenges, successes, and incongruities of agriculture in Saskatchewan and agriculture in Ghana, and perhaps develop some insights into how the two systems might contribute to each other.

Making nsima, the Malawian way

Note: This post is a reflection on some of the pre-departure cultural learning I am doing in Canada, and is based solely on the things I have interpreted from others’ experience in Malawi and Zambia. If anyone from one of the countries mentioned (or anywhere else, for that matter) happens to be reading this blog, please comment! I would love to get feedback during my in-Canada learning and throughout my placement in Ghana. My goal is to start a conversation and to have my assumptions challenged.

Nsima. Pronounced shee-ma (in Zambia at least). It is the staple food in many African countries, including Zambia and Malawi where all of the current Return Junior Fellows (RJFs) at the University of Saskatchewan chapter worked when they were overseas. Consisting solely of finely ground maize flour, it provides a filling and easily digested meal when topped with one of many possible relishes. Two weeks ago, Erin (my fellow USask 2012 JF, check out her blog here)  and I had the privilege of learning the art of making nsima. The procedure is as follows (as remembered after my limited instruction):

Get a big pot and fill it about 3/4 full with water

Put it on the stove to “a temperature” (it doesn’t really matter because what is the “temperature of fire”, anyway?) Nsima is normally cooked over a fire as that is the source of cooking heat available in many cases in sub-Saharan Africa.

Once the water has started boiling, dump some maize flour in, just until the water looks milky. Don’t put too much in at this point.

Stir with a big wooden spoon for a few minutes, until the boiling becomes so vigorous that water splashes on you and you jump back in surprise.

Pour more maize flour in now, such that the mixture is the consistency of heavy cream.

Now stir, with both hands, being careful to scrape from the bottom of the pot as well as mixing everything together well.

When the mixture becomes too thick to stir any more, you’re done! Now put the pot on a mat on the floor (or ground!) and take your nsima spoon (I am holding one in the picture) to shape the nsima into convenient disk-shaped patties, wetting the spoon with water periodically to prevent the nsima from sticking.

Now I should mention that during this time you should have also been making your relishes. The relish(es) (depending on the wealth of the family there may be one or many different relishes at a meal) can consist of vegetables such as tomatoes, cabbage (my favourite so far), okra, beans, meat, fish, or really anything. Let your imagination run wild.

To eat the nsima, you take a small portion it in your right hand (NEVER your left hand, this is reserved for other business), shape it into a convenient scoop for the relish, load up with relish, and transport it to your mouth. Repeat. You have had a small taste of Africa.

Before meals, everyone washes their hands. A family member, usually the youngest/lowest in rank, pours water over each person’s hands into a bowl. Don’t bother drying your hands.

We spent the evening happily eating nsima and relish, listening to Tamara (the Malawi RJF who so graciously invited us to her house for the meal) read from her diary from her time overseas. Stephanie (one of last summer’s JFs from Zambia and a great mentor for me throughout this school year) also shared some of her memories from Zambia, and I soaked up as much as I could, asking way too many questions like “What would be my host family’s reaction if I accidentally took something with meat in it (like I did that evening) and had to leave it?” I am a vegetarian with very strong vegan tendancies, and I have worried about this a little bit even before my interview for the JF program. Luckily, from the feedback I have gotten from asking incessantly about this particular inflexibility of mine, I will likely be accepted as just being a strange azungu (white person) and my family will be glad to not have to expend valuable meat on me!

Incidentally, that day was the first day that the KONY 2012 youtube video/campaign went viral, so we had a good discussion about the motivations behind the campaign and the potential effects it may have. What are your thoughts about KONY 2012?

Erin (left) and Alanna (right) making nsima at Tamara's house as part of our in-Canada introduction to African culture