Thursday, November 12, 2009

Smiling in Ghana

So I'm back in Ghana and am going through a bit of a honeymoon stage. Over the past 5 months much of my time has been spent away from Ghana and most definitely away from Tamale, the city where I currently call home.

As a result, I've been more observant and appreciative of some few things. I want to share them...

Tonight I bought phone credit from someone. He was just getting ready to pray. It was 6 pm and as a devout Muslim he was doing the ritualistic hand, feet and face washing that is necessary. Despite this he rushed over and sold me phone credit. I apologized for interrupting his prayer preparations.

He responded: "It's okay but I hope you are a Muslim.".

I replied: "No I am a Christian."

He said: "Oh that's also good."

In Ghana, Christians and Muslims are able to live side by side with none of that fighting we hear of in other countries. When a meeting is held it is typically opened by a Muslim prayer and closed by a Christian prayer (or vica-versa). I appreciate this acceptance of differences!

Second experience that brought a smile to my face. I went running yesterday morning. It has been so long that I've been able to run around my house that the landscape had drastically changed. In the past 6 months the rains have come. And apparently they haven't left the path I normally take along a large part of my run. So, I hiked up my running pants and tread lightly along the narrow ridge that separated me from a murky pool of old rain water. As I finished this tight-tope dance I saw two men preparing to walk the gauntlet. They were rolling up their pants. They looked up to me and smiled.

I smiled back. What else can you do when water blocks your path but roll up your pants and enter? In Ghana I appreciate that they do it not with grumbles but with smiles.

Last appreciation. When I'm gone for a long time at work and return, people always ask me where I've been. Actually first they say: "How's our two days?" Which means how have things been in this long time you've been away. (Note: If you want to make a joke you ask how's our three days!)

The second question people ask is: "What did you bring me from your trip?" This question initially bothered me as I felt offended that people would ask me for something and then guilty for not bringing anything. However, it is quite unrealistic to bring something for all 50 people at my office every time I travel. I learned though that you can respond with: "I brought my health." And people actually appreciate hearing this answer! So today as I approached my office and saw the countless vehicle drivers resting on benches under the tree I knew what was coming.

"Welcome Sarah!"

"How's your two days?"

"Fine and how are you?"

"Fine and what did you bring me?"

"My health."

laughter from all...

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Use what you have to secure what you have not

This will be my last post under this thread. The conference ended Friday evening with a bunch of my new friends and I heading to a progressive restaurant in downtown Halifax. In just 3 short days I had made numerous friends, one who took me into her home that night (the hostels were all full because Paul McCartney was playing) and the other who spent the Saturday showing me the province's beautiful country-side. This experience could have come from the EWB conference. But instead it came from a gathering of other social entrepreneurs from around the world through the Coady Institute. For me personally, this conference has been an interesting experience of exposure to a network that is not so unlike EWB's. It is a testament to the Coady Institute that they were able to bring 100 intelligent, thoughtful and passionate individuals. I think we, in EWB, could benefit from staying connected to this network.

At the end of the conference I was part of a small-group that discussed how we could better engage youth in the ABCD concept. This was in part because the average age of attendees was around 45.

From the network who was gathered, EWB is one of the leading organisations in Canada that is engaging youth in social justice. We are doing it through an asset-based approach. We start by recognizing the talents in everyone - from a chapter level where individual members are encouraged to find their place in EWB, to EWB's role in development which is built on the analytical skills of engineers but humbly recognizes the limitations that an engineering approach brings to development.

We are also big advocates of the strength and talents of individuals and communities in developing countries. We specifically talk about these people by their abilities to combat the relentless propagation that people in developing countries have tons of NEEDS and that we can help. One participant at the meeting, a baptist minister told a story of getting the people receiving the food to go behind the counter and go the giving. People grow more when they are on the giving side. So if we want individuals in Africa to grow, why to we keep on giving? Does that only help our growth? What I love about our overseas program is that it provides people in Ghana an opportunity to give. We send volunteers to live with families. I often hear volunteers say 'I feel I took more than I received'. This is great! We are swimming up-current when the majority of the development industry encourages people to 'communicate what you don't have - your needs, problems and deficiencies - to secure help from the outside.'

For the second half of ABCD, the citizen-led development, I think EWB understands this. With our new distributed model of an organisation, we strive to embody pushing as much power as possible down. Or rather, not taking the power away from those who are closest to the ground. This concept comes through Robert Chamber's books quite strongly - Who's Reality Counts, Putting the Last First, Putting the First Last.

Around the 'CD' there seems to be two definitions. One: citizen-led development, the other community development. I do think that EWB differs from the latter in that we don't see communities as homogeneous entities. We see them as having power disparities. We see that jealousy can sometimes prevent a community from cooperating.

My biggest recommendation for us within EWB, is to look at our work with a stronger asset-based lens. For example, with new members, we need to leverage their strengths better. With our work in Africa, we need to learn how to encourage our partners and us to start with what communities are able to do and move from there. This is a shift that I'm increasingly seeing is important to make with MoFA. One of the MoFA volunteers, Suzanne Fish, worked with 20 field staff in Upper West Region of Ghana to develop new ways of working with field staff that recognize that technologies don't need to come from research institutions but that farmers are able to innovate.

A life lesson I took away from this conference: label people more by what they are able to do than what they are disabled to do and they'll accomplish a lot more.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

From clients to citizens - a paradigm shift

From Clients to Citizens
Day two of the workshop. I’m starting to gain a better appreciation for what ABCD means. It’s yet another approach with another set of terminologies and paradigm shifts. The subtle differences between asset based citizen-led development and participatory approaches (PRA) and appreciative inquire (AI) have yet to really hit me. The most significant difference seems to be the network which gathers around these various acronyms.
All of them emphasize the difference between solving problems and appreciating the positive. The positive (asset based) approach has been practiced in communities for hundreds of years – it can be seen in First Nation Reserves, it can be seen in villages in Northern Ghana. Unfortunately these communities have developed a dependency towards outsider support due to years of outsiders coming to them and asking ‘what are your challenges?’ ‘what do you need?’. We’re lucky that in society we are treated as the haves, people see us as able, not dis-abled, gifted, not poor, this view can have a lot of impact on how a person sees themselves and acts in the world.
If asset-based and community driven development is a good thing, then what is the role of the outsider?
A couple of lively conversations ensured today around the role of a field worker, a non-government organisation, the government. The discussion began with a reflection around the term outsider. Some figured the term visitor is more appropriate to the role. Implying that being invited into a community is key. Others figured the role is non-outsider, facilitating between the community and other institutions. The role brings with it inherent challenges and opportunities but in the end we agreed that it’s necessary to be honest about the value one brings as an outsider and to be clear about that to the community. In doing this, you remove the outsider/insider dichotomy and become a contributor.
A major benefit to being an outsider is that critical perspective you bring. Sometimes it can be under the guise of ignorance that allows you to ask the ‘unaskable question’ such as: why are only some members of the community at this meeting? This role is important and should not be discounted for the sake of chasing after a romantic idea that an outsider does not intervene in community activities. In some ways I have been an outsider during this conference, not really feeling like I’m part of the ABCD community I’ve asked some risky and controversial questions. I don’t often end up mustering up the courage to ask my question.
A couple of good readings that I’ve been skimming between breaks at this conference:

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

What's in a name

For a change, this post comes from Canada. I am writing from Antigonish, a town 180 km north of Halifax, Nova Scotia. The air is a bit cold here for mid-summer but the environment is warm. I’m standing in the corner of a beautiful room that is full of people dressed in vibrantly colourful outfits and lively conversation. We’re having our coffee break and I’m standing like a wallflower taking some time away to share this experience.
I’m celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Coady Institute. Coady Institute is part of the St. Francis Xavier University. It’s an internationally renowned development institute.
I am privileged to be here on behalf of Engineers Without Borders. Due to a generous grant I am eating, sleeping and travelling to this prestigious event. Because of this privilege I feel compelled to share what is happening so that the benefits can be shared.
This event is quite unique. I expected the typical workshop, a gathering of the minds where people have the opportunity to network and listen to speeches. However, the event is much more ambitious and creative, we as participants are expected to create something. We are expected to create ideas around a concept called Asset Based Citizen-Led Development, or ABCD.
Coming into this workshop I have very little idea about ABCD, and I still do. However after only 4 hours of sessions I am beginning to understand that ABCD is not an exclusive concept that has been branded by the development community and sold as the latest thing to learn in a workshop or in a book. It is a concept which we are able to explore, debate and attach numerous terminologies and language to. For those of you who are newer to the development industry, branding concepts and training people on them is an incredibly common activity. For those of you who are not new to the development industry, in a group of intelligent people you can understand how words are chosen very carefully.
These first 4 hours have brought up the question: How much value can be placed on a name?
A story related to this, I have met numerous people at this conference and had to explain over and over why engineers are not doing engineering work in development. Our name doesn’t actually explain much. However, it allows engineers within Canada to engage in EWB. It allows us to stimulate a community of engineers who are more globally conscious. It also misleads people as to what we are doing overseas. Below is a video which speaks more accurately about the work EWB is doing overseas!

As part of the creation of ideas, below is a poem written by Mam Adisa who works for the Africa 2000 Network, an NGO which EWB has worked with.

A dream come true Moses Coady
Yes that dream you dreamt
You dreamt when walking almost
Not noticing little details of
A normal walk
Because you were always deep
In thoughts for ‘how’ of
Better life for all
A life of the individual
In their own hands.

Yes a dream come true
Others after you with like minds
Are on your dream of ‘how’ for all
Communities over all parts of
The world are dreaming your dream
The dream you started.

Yes a dream come true.
Governments are changing all
Over the world for the
Dream of ‘how’ by all
‘How by all’ the dream of Moses Coady
A dream come true Moses Coady

We are here for the 50th year
Of your dream baby
Baby of ideas of ‘how’
The how school of development
By all
Moses Coady, Moses Coady, I saw Moses Coady your dream come true.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

**Video** Accountability and Staying Longer in Ghana

Check out the video above. It's a small story of some vegetable farmers I started working with a year ago. Their attitude towards farming and hard work continues to impress me!

The video was put together for a gala that the EWB chapters in Saskatoon are putting on tonight.


Monday, March 2, 2009

Observation in the dry season

The dry season brings with it spectacular views.
Look closely and you will understand what these people are all about. Observation is key.

It’s the dry season right now. The break between the last two rains was about 100 days. This is not unusual. Just the seasonality of the weather. And with the changing of the seasons comes a change in what people in Ghana do. The rainy season was an intense period where people worked long hours often sleeping on their farmland. It seemed there was nothing else on people’s minds except ploughing – planting – weeding – harvesting (a lucky few who have the resources and good access also thought of fertilizing and applying pesticides). During the dry season everything changes. People resort to other sources of income.

Making thatch is a popular past time for men.

What do they do? Answer: Anything they can. Some are more remote so their options are limited. The most common activity is collecting wood and making charcoal. This is evident from the dozens of bags that are stacked along the roadsides waiting to be purchased. The women in my household are a bit luckier – they live next to an urban centre so their options are more varied.

Preparing massive pots of food for one of the many celebrations which are had during the dry season. This takes advantage of the surge of income people have post-harvest and a bit more time.

The celebration: The head of my household becomes the 'chief of the young men' for Kanvilli community.
Memunatu and I pose during the chieftancy celebration.

This is why every week I’m surprised by what the women in my household are up to! There doesn’t seem to be an end to the small businesses they run. First it was selling boiled sweet potato at the school near my house, then it was processing a local seed into a paste that women use for soup (dawadawa), next processing peanuts to separate the oil. Both the oil and the by product are sold. Last week I joined in on processing shea nuts into butter. The process is long and complicated. I’m privileged to join in as the trade is mostly passed on from mother to daughter. I stepped in and joined the other young apprentices at the most enjoyable part – when water and air are added to the butter and it is stirred vigorously until a white creamy butter seemingly emerges from the brown fudge like substance I’d been stirring for the past half hour. My master took her job seriously and made sure I learned the proper stirring technique, even it meant embarrassingly highlighting my poor technique in front of the group.

The shea butter packaging centre located near my house.

Profile of another women during the dry season. Her name is Victoria Anamo. She is a widowed mother of 7. Four of the children are not hers but are from her late husband’s first wife. Victoria spends the dry season building her home. This season she is adding a wall – total cost $300 or one month’s salary. As the head of the household and single income earner the responsibilities to provide for the children all rest on her. Yet Vic doesn’t give up. She’s a strong and intelligent women who has even become a leader and role model in her community. Other women come to her for advice and help in times of need. And Vic’s generous nature provides.

Vic prepares a meal for myself and Shea Loewen, the volunteer who stays with Vic.

I got to know Vic because she is a MoFA field staff. Although she’s not trained in agriculture technologies, her natural ability to guide people and facilitate discussions makes her a talented field staff. She, like the women of my household are hosting a Canadian. It is because of this that I am able to understand Vic as a human being.

Vic and Shea hanging out at Vic's palace.