Saturday, September 15, 2007

Baby Steps in Ghana

I write this from Accra City (capital city of Ghana). It’s been almost one week since I set out from Toronto for Ghana. I arrived in Accra, Ghana on Friday evening and have been biding my time in Accra waiting for my mis-placed bag to arrive. Even though the waiting has been an exercise of patience and some anxiety, it’s also allowed (*cough* forced) me to pace myself in Ghana. Despite a huge amount of eagerness to start doing something, I won’t be showing up to work until a month from now. During that time, all I do will be centered on learning. I will learn about how the Sarah Grant I know will fit with Ghana and live here for a year. I will learn from Ghanaians about rural livelihoods and focus on agriculture and agricultural markets. I will try to speak as many languages as possible or at least learn the greetings (I think there are about 70 languages in Ghana). Last, I will learn how to make friends in a new country – and hopefully succeed!

My first day in Ghana, feels like miles ago – even though the steps I took were quite small. I remember how nervous I was just to walk on the street to take out some money! Today, I decided to make a bit of a leap and make the most of my time in Accra. I figured that as long as I’m in the capital city – which is the economic hub – I should try to capitalise on this.

I decided that it would be interesting to learn as much as possible about the tomato market in Ghana. It was through this that I met Maggi. This afternoon I spent sitting in a crowded market behind a table stacked high with tomatoes that Maggi sells. Every day except Sunday Maggi spends about 12 hours selling tomatoes in the Makola market. Maggi has been doing this since she was a child. She is very intelligent about the tomato market in Ghana and was able to share information about price variations, different varieties and how she runs her business. For even though it may look like a make-shift set-up of stacked tomatoes on a rotting wood crate, this set-up keeps a family of five happy and healthy.

Maggi and her Tomato Stall

Across from Maggi’s stall was a stand of canned goods. Piled high were a variety of tomato paste in cans. Most people cook with both canned and fresh tomatoes to make a sort of stew. While the fresh tomatoes are mostly grown in Ghana, canned tomatoes in Ghana have a tumultuous history. In the 1960s, three processing plans were established in the newly independent Ghana. Currently there is one processing factory in Ghana which is operating at only 10% capacity. Due to subsidies in Europe, the tomato market in Ghana can’t compete. Ghana is the second largest importer of tomato paste in the world, second to Germany. This seems ridiculous considering the abundance of fresh tomatoes I saw at the market!

With no cannery business to sell tomatoes to, farmers in Ghana have no bargaining power while people like Maggi are left with little options but to operate a small and highly volatile business. Maggie purchases crates of tomatoes at a time from a transporters that deliver the crates to the market. Some days the crates are 200,000 ($20), other days the price is double this. It all depends how many tomatoes the transporters were able to purchase from northern Ghana. The quality of the tomatoes varies. Sometimes entire batches will spoil in only a day. At the end of each day Maggi sifts through each batch removing the rotting ones to slow down the decay process.

Today I set out to learn broadly about the tomato market. I started by purchasing tomatoes from vendors and asking them questions. I was generally unsuccessful. By the time I met Maggi, I had accepted the fact that I would not be able to learn very much without language abilities and a more formal context. As I passed the rest of the afternoon at Maggi’s stall I started noticing little things that outline how complex her business is! Initially, Maggi’s business seemed quite simple – buying tomatoes and selling them at a higher price – but really it is quite involved. She needs to rent a stall in the market, pay the guard to watch her produce at night, establish a solid customer base, get along with her neighbouring competitors, bargain with transporters to purchase tomatoes, decide which variety of tomatoes to sell, and set the price of the tomatoes. Quite a business!

At 5:30, the market vendors started packing up. I was escorted to a taxi by Maggi and 4 of her friends with promises of visiting again. I left reflecting on the ambitious learning goal I had set out for myself that afternoon. I realized that I actually learned a great deal. As for the tomato market, I learned that there are opportunities to help the rural farmers in Northern Ghana. The government has just passed a bill which puts a temporary ban on the importation of tomato paste and concentrates into the country with effect from November 1, 2007. The government is trying to develop the tomato market by revitalizing a tomato processing factory. But efforts can not just come nationally, with a strengthened tomato market comes the need for more and better tomatoes. Farmers need to be engaged in a process that develops their ability to produce what this more fair market will demand. Happily, this is exactly the role that my organization in Ghana – the Ministry of Food and Agriculture (MoFA) – plays with rural farmers! I look forward to learning more about MoFA’s work in the coming months.

Today I was reminded that this next year will be a beautiful journey and I must be patient with tiny steps but I must also remember to sit down to embrace the frustrations of change in plans and the deeper learning and friendships that will result.

Me with my friends from the Market

(most of them are wearing red to honour their friend who recently passed away)

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Temporary Break

I am writing this post in the Toronto airport, poised to leave for Ghana. I leave 5 weeks later than planned. At the end of June I fractured my collarbone. Don’t worry though, no surgery was required and I travel to Ghana with the blessing of a legitimate Toronto medical doctor. Below is a picture of my x-ray, if you squint you can see a small fracture just at the outside tip of the collarbone.

As I leave for a one-year placement in Ghana where my parent’s biggest fear is that I’ll return in one piece, I am leaving with a healed collarbone and the proof that it’s possible to hurt yourself even in the wonderful city of Saskatoon. The decision to play rugby – as a much need spare with team Saskatchewan – has reinforces that rugby’s reputation as being a dangerous sport isn’t true, except when you haven’t played for 3 years and go up against a 180 lb 18-year-old – man was I out of my league!

Sometimes I feel like I’m out of my league when I think about the upcoming journey. For the next 12 months I’ve committed to a placement with Engineers Without Borders. I’ll be travelling for the second time outsides of Canada to a place where I’m not quite sure what to expect – will I like it in my new home? Have I brought the right things? Will I make friends? How easily will I learn a new language? How will I deal with the frustration of working in a climate that is limited in resources but where foreigners are expected to provide?

Already I can feel my whole body opening up in anticipation of this experience. My eyes are eager to observe new and fascinating sights. My stomach gurgles to try some new grub and my mind is teaming with thoughts and worries.

Today I learned that you can’t break your bone in the same place twice because your body repairs the bone to be even stronger. I look forward to stepping off the plane for the first time, probably tripping and falling a few times along the way but knowing that I am stronger for it.

A shot of the nine of us looking strong. We shared a month-long session of learning and preparation for our overseas placements in Burkina Faso, Ghana, Malawi and Zambia.