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

Posts tagged “family

When bucket bathing under the stars is normal

“Alanna………wa so quon”

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By now, I have heard my host mother tell me this over sixty times. In Waalii, it means “Come and bath”. Every time she says it I “prepare” and walk out to the bath house in my “slippers” (which in Canada I would call flip flops). As often as possible, I try to take the bucket to the nearby pump and pump the water which is a milky brownish-red colour (perfect for bathing…not so perfect for cooking and drinking). But if I am not on the ball, my host mother fills a bucket half-full with the pure clean borehole water which must be carried a long distance on her or another women’s head to the water barrel in the house.

Throughout my placement, it has been during my morning bath that I think about how much I am going to miss Ghana. Even just after mid-placement retreat, it was the time I was asking myself “What am I doing here? Am I just having fun in the village but not producing anything of value? (after waking up from a dream in which I was back in Toronto and had absolutely nothing to show for my time in Ghana…scary)” In the evening, if I have been busy washing dishes using two basins, a scrubbie, and a solid bar of soap, I bath under the stars. The feeling of standing up after finishing and just reveling in the fact that there is nothing between me and the universe…just raw human life with charcoal fires, tea with way too much sugar (but it actually tastes good), and grinding peppe on a large, flat stone using another smooth stone is somehow comforting and humbling.

Things like riding on the back of a moto on a rough, red dirt road past shea treas, mango trees, maize fields, cassava fields, and gigantic rocks….greeting everyone we pass with “Morning, morning!” “Oh, fine!”, and having to slow down to avoid the speed bumps in villages (which still seem to cause me to get at least six inches of “air” between me and the seat every time we cross one) make me almost tear up when I think about returning to a treeless, commercially farmed landscape where people drive one-ton trucks. Even hearing “Nasalla, how are you? We are fine, Thaaank Youu” and being so happy and comfortable in the town of Wa that I can smile genuinely at them and say “I am fine. How are you too?” or say “Ka dio ja?” (asking them “How is your house”) and being answered with a meek “Abiesong” (meaning “everything is fine”) is something I will be longing for.

And now, with just seven days left in the Upper West, with many exciting deliverables to finish for the market actors I am working with, I am trying to find the best ways to capture these feelings and sharing them with all who have invested so much in me in order to bring me to this place today. I recently woke up from a dream in which I was back on the farm in Canada, but had forgotten to bring back “Maggie” (wrapped cubes of special food seasoning [my host mother usually buys Shrimp flavour] that is used in absolutely every Ghanaian soup ever made in order to get the right taste. Cooking Ghanaian food in Canada just won’t be the same if I don’t bring back Maggie.

Visiting my plot of maize and soyabeans, I am realizing that the chemical I sprayed on the maize did not in fact work well despite paying the unreachably high price for actual smallholder farmers of thirty Ghana Cedis per liter. This means that I somehow need to weed the entire plot, with the hoe I bought two days ago, before I leave (…maybe an all-nighter weeding?). I have a lot of things to do to finish my placement deliverables, but I cannot deny that I committed to farming that half-acre. The hybrid maize is also in desperate need of fertilizer, since it seems not enough was applied in most places during the time of planting. My plot is a harsh demonstration of what happens when hybrid maize is not given enough fertilizer…with a stark contrast between those rows where women were applying a lot of fertilizer (tall, beautiful dark green maize) and where the women were not applying a lot (short, lime green maize). I am still thinking about how I can best use my plot to demonstrate the critical importance of correct fertilization, particularly of hybrid maize, to farmers. In my case, fertilizer simply was not available through the nucleus farmer I was working with until yesterday. In this way, I was bitten by the same harsh reality that many other farmers are experiencing this year.

In 17 days I will be back on my farm in Saskatchewan helping to harvest durum, peas, lentils, and barley with combines, cooking with raw vegetables for the farm crew, driving half-ton trucks around, playing with my dog, and most of all being part of my true true true family again. It is wonderful to know that Ghana will always be in my heart, but that I am returning to the home that has made me most of who I am.

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Busa, I love you too much.

M’bworro. What? I don’t understand what you are saying.

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A week and a half ago, I set off from Wa (the large city in Upper West Region of Ghana) to a “village” only a fifteen minute tro ride away. As I was getting into the tro, someone said “Busa, now that is barely a village. They have lights.” I had been told by my coach to call a guy named Mahmouda as soon as I was on the tro as I would be spending about five days with his family. As I was crammed into the tro I made the call, heard “You’re coming to Busa! and I said something about him meeting me but then realized he had already hung up.” I actually kind of appreciate it when people respect the fact that it is annoying to have to buy cell phone credit and that small talk is expensive. Soon I saw signs that had “Busa” in the title, and got out of the tro behind a nurse I had met during the short ride. Her name was Sarah, and I would become friends with her during my time in Busa. Then I saw a guy who must  be Mahmouda walking towards me wearing a bright yellow Manchester United jersey, then he was helping me carry my bags (which were about three times as many as they should be) towards the village center. At first it was a little awkward. We had never met before, yet I would be staying with his family for five days. I emphasized that I wanted to live just like his family does, and don’t need anything special. While he was finding the key to a “house” in his compound (which I found was basically a room adjoined to the other “houses” in the compound), I tried to connect with some women sitting under a tree on a structure of logs made explicitly for just sitting around together in a group, but soon found that they do not speak a word of English. So far, my Wali vocabulary consisted of “ansuma” (Good morning) and I probably would have had to look it up from my day-minder which has taken on the role of language learning book. I decided to just sit there and smile, and enjoy the fact that they were talking about me and laughing at me and I had no way of knowing what they were saying. They tried sign language, and I tried English, but we weren’t making much progress. This is something I would soon get used to.

I went to meet the Assemblyman of the village under a canopy hut shortly after, and just after I was introduced, a bus full of students from the University of Development Studies in Wa drove up and they filed out. They would be starting their four month village stay and development research projects that day, and they were there to meet the Assemblyman as well. I was told to follow them back on to the bus, so I did. I got chatting with a couple of them and was struck by how similar their situation was to mine, except that they had grown up in Ghana. They were talking about how unreasonable it was for their university to expect them to eat the same food as the villagers, and how sanitation was unacceptable here. It almost made me laugh. I seemed to be better prepared to integrate then they were! I was looking forward to talking about development with these students who have strong opinions about the state of Ghana.

I soon found that I had one quick in, one source of credibility with the big shots in town, including Mahmouda. I was a friend of David, the EWB JF who had spent last summer in Busa. In almost every conversation they would talk about David, how he would do this and that and go to farm and could speak the language very well. It made the fact that I wanted to live exactly as the family does a non-issue, and allowed me to make the most of my time in Busa.

That evening involved a lot of firsts. The first time watching my host sister make TZ (maize flour boiled to a dough that you eat with your fingers with soup) and trying and failing at stirring it myself. Having Mahmouda say, “Will you bath?” knowing this means “You should really go and bath now”, having him re-say “Go and undress and bath, the girl will fetch you water.” then taking a deep breath as I opened the door of my room wearing only a two-yard piece of cloth tied around me like you would tie a towel which is exactly what is expected, walking across the compound area with everyone looking at my white shoulders, and having my sister set the bucket down in the shower area which is at the back of the  goat room. The goat droppings had been swept away in the shower area, which was nice.That evening, I ate from the same bowl as my host sister and host mother. Nice! I was able to completely skip the stage of being served with a separate bowl from that of the family. It was an important and exciting development, which also meant that I could stop eating whenever I liked. It was insisted, however, that I eat the meat in the soup. I suspiciously picked at the meat until Mahmouda said “The meat is from the poultry farm”. Even though I suspected I was eating the head, it was chicken, so I was slightly relieved. I was watching out for my first mouse, but was determined to give it a try when it came.

The next morning I tried carrying water for the first time, with a small basin. I could tell the women didn’t think I could do it, but when I returned after my first trip I was met with clapping and laughing. I went a few more times, and then for the next day or so heard from almost everyone that they had seen me fetching water. Honestly, if you have to carry any amount of water at all, on your head is absolutely the best way (just wrap up a piece of cloth in a circular fashion and put it on your head first). When I was going for a walk with my host sister Adaie, a woman was speaking to me in Wali and I didn’t understand. I asked Adaie what she had been saying and I learned that she had asked if I would help weed her garden. Absolutely! I turned around and Adaie and I followed her to her dry-season garden in the valley. We were weeding Okru (which I now know is called “mani” in Wali) with short hoes. I kept checking with the woman about which plants were the right ones to weed out, and I think she may have gotten nervous because she soon indicated that it was getting hot and we should go.

I was able to attend the “passing out” of the oldest daughter in my host family in Wa. At first, I was a little confused, but as soon as I arrived, it became clear. Graduation, for the Ghana National Tailors and Dressmakers Association, Wa Branch. At first I was having a great time dancing in my seat to the Ghana pop on the loudspeaker system, but as the ceremony stretched on for more than six hours I became less engaged. Also, to be absolutely the only white person in a crowd of about 1000, having people come up to you and just laugh and walk away or asking “Who invited you?” all day was a little wearing. But I can’t expect a whole country to change for me, and I am learning to embrace the attention, privilege and respect I get as a white lady in Ghana.

On the second last day I was in Busa, my host mother sent me to go meet my host sister Adaie at school. I thought that I would just be meeting her at the end of the school day to walk her home, but when I got there she came out and said “Come in, we are just about to start English class!” I was a little (well maybe a lot) hesitant to enter that room, but I sat down in an empty desk and tried to not draw attention to myself (which did not work as I was the only white blonde haired person not wearing a uniform). The students laughed there was minimal whispering before the teacher entered the room wearing a Ghana batik dye shirt and said “I see we have a new student.” I just played along, and we began learning about the difference between compound and complex sentences using student provided sentence examples. Order was very well maintained, and students stood up when they were to contribute to the lesson. The class was JHS 2, which would be grade 7 in Canada, and I could remember taking this lesson in English A10 in Saskatchewan. It was a good review for me, and I was happy to be able to help my host sister with the assignment to construct four compound sentences and four complex sentences.

My time in Busa was very rich with building relationships, trying new things and liking them, and beginning my learning about what it means to integrate. I plan to find a way to bike/ride on someone’s moto/take the trotro back there soon to deliver pictures that I get developed and see my friends/family. Minutes before I left on the trotro for Loggu via Wa I was measured for my first Ghanaian dress (I left on the trotro my tailor came on), which is made from fabric I bought in the Busa market.  I just received it tonight, and it is very nice!

M’bworro = I love you (Wali)


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