Saturday, May 31, 2008

Integrity takes strength

When I first met Salamatu I was a bit frightened. Next to Salamatu I look like a scrawny mite. Salamatu is my host mother and the type of person with a strong presence – her hefty structure and booming voice are both used to communicate confidently. When she talks her children listen, well and so do I!

Last night I left work and traveled to the home that Salamatu has expanded to include me. It was about 5:30 and getting dark. Salamatu had traveled but her children were home and busy preparing supper. As the light faded and the fire cast shadows on our faces Salamatu walked up the path to our house. She looked tired but her face made a smile as her children rushed to welcome her and carry the burdening goods she had collected on her travels. She sat down and we gathered around her to hear about her journey.

I learned she had been away to attend a workshop run by MoFA. Since Salamatu is a successful business-women in her community she had been invited to attend a workshop on entrepreneurial skills. Salamatu has never gone to school, speaks little English but has managed to single-handedly raise 5 well-educated children through this business. As Salamatu began to explain the workshop she opened a notebook that had been provided to all workshop participants. Inside the notebook were crisp white pages with nothing on them. I wasn’t sure what was going on since no one was translating into English for me. She flipped through the pages and came to one that had a few scribbles at the top. Everyone laughed. I turned to my trusty translator Faisa who explained that at some point during the workshop everyone had been commanded to take notes. Salamatu had obediently taken up her pen and scribbled the following: 5 W r S 3 2. The writing looked like a 5 year olds.

In that moment my fear for Salamatu evaporated and my heart swelled with reverence. Some parents choose not to send their children to school. Not having gone themselves they don’t see the worth. Salamatu instead devotes her whole self to raising well-educated children. It doesn’t bother her that she herself is uneducated and is strong enough to joke about it! But don’t be fooled into thinking that Salamatu is entirely unselfish. It is expected that her children will take care of her in her old age. Salamatu just has the foresight and business sense to make sure she will have a comfortable ‘retirement’.

Faiza - her nine year old reads the Berenstein Bears book I brought her from Canada.

Women like Salamatu are integral to Ghana’s development. If only there were more of her. This morning I met with a group of women whose attitude is a stark contrast to Salamatu’s. The women I met run the same business as Salamatu – they grind cassava into a flour-like product for consumption. The women told me how they had been given a grinding mill from a non-government organization. Initially the mill helped them a lot, they were able to grind cassava faster and make more money. Eventually the mill broke down. I asked them what they had done about it. They answered: nothing. I asked them if they had any savings to repair the mill. They replied: We do not. What was I to do? Their main concern was to repair the mill in case the organization were to come back. They told me it was important to look good for this organization so that they would receive more assistance. Ahhh!!! I reeled back in disgust at these women’s attitude. I had met these women to discuss their business. I had planned to help them analyze their profit and see what they could do to improve it. But these women weren’t interested in making money that way through strengthening their business. They were waiting for outsiders to help them. I asked myself: How can I encourage these women to run successful businesses if the development sector provides better incentives?

At this point the MoFA staff I was with gave the group a lengthy lecture on the merits of self-sufficiency. He explained “A person standing at the bottom of a tree can not be helped up. But a person who tries to climb on their own can be boosted up.” Eventually the group conceded to raise money to repair the mill. We’ll be there to watch them through this but they know that we won’t lift a finger. Will the group succeed? These women seem strong so I am hopeful. And if the women can do it then they’ve done it with integrity.

Salamatu cooks our supper with the help of her youngest.