Thursday, December 28, 2006

A Global Update

After 36 hours of travel, I’m back in Canada. I’ve gorged on nachos and family company. I’ve called my friends in Ghana, and over crackly time delays I’ve told them I’ve arrived safely. I’ve pined for non-existent snow. Reverse culture shock hasn’t knocked me down – yet. But I guess I’m honeymooning on the reverse wave, so ask me how I’m doing in a few weeks.

In any case, I’ve uploaded a bunch of pictures to my photo album – check it out if you’re interested in seeing pictures from the homes where I was staying, from my work, village stay, vacation, the Governor General’s visit, and more.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Not so final farewells

I’m pretty busy running around now – just over 24 hours until I fly out of the country. Tomorrow (Friday) will be spent with a 10-hour drive down from Tamale to Accra, immediately followed by 20 hours of air travel to Toronto, where I’ll have a two-day debrief with EWB’s returning volunteers.

So I find myself running from place to place – buying a few more cassettes, picking up a few more gifts for friends and family, dodging sheep, typing up final reports, laying the groundwork for my return to Ghana in February (I’ll be coming back for a 2nd placement), packing up my room, scaring Ghanaian babies, and most importantly in as social a culture as Ghana, doing my rounds of goodbyes.

I’ve been quite touched by the goodbyes I’ve received so far. In West Mamprusi, the District Chief Executive (the top dog) made me an honorary chief of West Mamprusi District Assembly, and gave me a traditional smock. So now when anyone greets me, I expect them to crouch down and clap their hands (the traditional greeting to a chief in the Mamprusi culture).

Last week, my friend Al Hassan proudly announced to me that his wife had given birth to their first son. He said the “naming ceremony” would be held soon to give the child his name. I jokingly suggested the baby should be named after me. Lo and behold, Al Hassan now has a son named Lukman (my Muslim name).

And the staff of NORWASP (the Canadian-funded water and sanitation project under the CWSA) held a farewell lunch for me yesterday. My good friend Mashood, the office manager for NORWASP, insisted that each person at the table say a few words about me. I wasn’t embarrassed when he ended up talking about the digestive problems (growing pains for any EWB volunteer) I went through when first arriving. Diarrhea is not a taboo topic here, even for the dinner table – I think that, given the lack of sanitation facilities, it’s not possible for bowel movements to be an issue of intense privacy, and thus they’re not off-limits for discussion. In any case, the lunch was excellent, and I truly appreciate everything that Nancy Cosway and her NORWASP staff have done to help me in my work here.

I don’t have time to get into anything more in depth here, but suffice it to say that my 10 months in Ghana has had a profound effect on me. It’s been quite the journey so far, and I want to thank everyone who has been reading my blog and posting comments. I hope that my writing has helped demystify Africa a little bit, and present a side to it not often seen in Western media. I’ll continue writing when I return to Ghana in February 2007, but perhaps throw in a few more entries between then and now.

In short, thank you for reading, and thanks to Ghana for having welcomed me with open arms to this country.

West Mamprusi District Chief Executive, me and Salifu (DWST Team Leader). Latifa, in the family compound where I stayed in Walewale

Wisdom, in my Walewale compound.

The family I stayed with in Walewale.

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Sunday, December 03, 2006

A Royal Visit

The GG has come and gone in a blur of motorcades, dust, singing children, free lunch, important people, overprotective soldiers, dancing, kind words… At the end of it all, I was left impressed by the Governor General’s sincerity and passion, but still unsure of the value of such a large delegation to Africa. The Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean’s visit to Tamale was an impressive whirlwind. She flew in to the Tamale airport from Accra in the late morning, stayed for about 6 hours, and then returned to Accra before nightfall. This was all part of a 5-day visit to Ghana, which in turn is part of a 5-country African tour she’s embarked upon.

Around 60 Canadians took part in the official luncheon at the Gariba Lodge, Tamale’s fanciest hotel. As I left work to bike to the Lodge, my shoes freshly shined and my shirt cleaned of the koko I’d spilled all over it that morning (maize/millet-based porridge wipes off surprisingly well), I could hear a siren sounding the passing of the GG’s parade of cars on the main road. By the time I got to the main road, I could only see the last of the 20-vehicle motorcade moving toward town: they were visiting a charity founded by a Canadian nun, which teaches skills like sewing and tie-dye to at-risk women.

As the sun beat down on me through a cloudless sky, I was thankful to have recovered my Bolga hat (bruised and battered but still fully functional). I met up with fellow EWBer Christian Beaudrie on the road, and we pushed our way through the radiant sun to the Gariba Lodge.

There, we stood around, making idle chit chat with each other and nervously wondering how to properly address the Governor General, as well as worrying that, conditioned by months in Ghana, I’d thrust my hand out in greeting to Her Excellency (she has to offer her hand first).

The air was also thick with the strangeness of it all – who would have thought that here, thousands of kilometres from Canada, volunteering to fight against global poverty, we’d be meeting Canada’s de facto head of state. I never thought that I’d be worrying about royal protocol on the streets of Tamale, but maybe I’m just not imaginative enough (reality once again proves stranger than fiction).

About an hour later, Mme Jean arrived to the sounds of a children’s choir and drums, surrounded by members of her Canadian entourage (mainly people involved in the development sector, including George Roter, our co-CEO for EWB).

The EWB delegation (made of Christian, Kristy Minor, George and me) got to speak with Mme Jean briefly before the lunch began and have our photo taken. She seemed genuinely interested in us, in what we’re doing here in Ghana.

According to Nancy Cosway (who heads the NORWASP project in the Northern Region), an aide approached the Governor General and told her they were running short of time, and that she needed to enter to begin lunch. She responded, “I’m here to learn from these people; that’s the reason I came here,” and continued to converse.

During the lunch, she spoke passionately about what she’d seen and experienced so far on her trip – focussing especially on inspirational women she’d met in Mali. Her sincerity was refreshing, and I was happy to see that, indeed, the GG has a heart, and it’s a big one. She asked further questions of the volunteers at the table, and a healthy discussion on the role of a Western volunteer overseas ensued.

The head of CIDA in Ghana was at our table. I was put on the spot when he said, “Luke, what do you think is the value of Western volunteers overseas is?” I won’t go into my response here, but I think it went over well enough. The lunch ended abruptly with the GG’s handlers whisking her off on a community visit before racing her to the airport to fly back to Accra.

The reaction among my Ghanaian co-workers to the GG’s visit was overwhelmingly positive. People were very happy to have seen Mme Jean on television as she got off the plane and started dancing to local drumming and dancing. They’re also very impressed that she’s black – a question I often get from people here is, “Are there black people in Canada?” It’s been a point of pride for me to be able to say that, yes, there are – indeed, our Governor General herself is black.

Mme Jean definitely projects a very humble, human face to people here – something that is rare in visiting officials, and something that I think is very important to reduce the paternalistic image of donor countries. As one of the secretaries in Walewale said to me, “The relations she had with the people were very good. She made a positive impact. Her human relation was very good.”

But that’s the big question I have – her degree of impact. At EWB we’re always encouraged to maximize the scope and quality of our impact, and I was left wondering if this trip was an effective use of resources. With all the money spent financing this trip, how many development projects could theoretically have been funded? Furthermore, does this trip encourage Canadians to simply pat ourselves on the pack and say “job well done?” with respect to our development projects (see this website for an example of such self-congratulatory feeling) when we should be saying “what MORE can we do?”

Of course, this trip can and will have benefits – bringing to light many of the problems facing the developing world so that we might be encouraged to act; humanizing and presenting a different, more positive side to these countries (by showing the Governor General celebrating many of the accomplishments in Africa); strengthening our official ties to the developing world. It’s just difficult to gauge the degree and effectiveness of this type of impact, and it’s difficult to weigh it against the potential problems.

In any case, the trip is underway. If it has to happen, I’m glad that it’s Michaëlle Jean leading the way.

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Sunday, November 26, 2006

Some more pictures

Me riding a new ZoomLion garbage bike -- part of a new national strategy to clean up Ghana's streets (the bikes are part of the strategy, not me riding them).

Helen, Mary, Me, Asana, Rufai and Salifu -- the DWST team.

Louis and Jean-Luc showing off our new goat, purchased in Burkina Faso to celebrate the end of Ramadan during our EWB retreat.

Me dancing in the sand dunes in northern Burkina Faso. (Forgot I had my camera with me. It no longer works. Photo credit: Kristy Minor.) Posted by Picasa

Winding Up to Wind Down

It occurred to me that I haven’t posted any pictures in a while, so here are a few (descriptions below).

Work is moving along quite well as of late. I’ve been working with the DWST for almost 4 months, delivering workshops on topics like team coordination and communication, proposal writing, and scheduling of monitoring visits. I’ve also been helping them with their database system, so that they can keep track of all the water and sanitation facilities in the district. They’re very keen, and have great ideas to improve their operations, so it’s been a pleasure helping them develop these ideas into an action plan. We also now have two National Service volunteers working in the office (Mary and Asana). These are recent graduates from a college and university in Ghana, who are placed with the DWST for 8 months in order to gain work experience. They’ve been a really great addition to the team, and will hopefully continue my work after I’m gone.

Speaking of leaving, my time is now running very short here. I have only a few more weeks in the district, and about a million things to wrap up. Furthermore, the Governor General, Michaëlle Jean, is coming to Tamale as part of her African tour, and I’ve been invited to a luncheon that she’ll be attending this Thursday. Apparently I’ll be sitting at her table -- stay tuned for pictures and updates from that.

Besides that, I’ll also be travelling all over the country in the next couple weeks for an EWB retreat down south, and then to fly out from Accra. So I suspect I’ll be pretty exhausted by the time I leave in mid-December.

Finally, people have occasionally posted questions for me on my blog. For my last few weeks here, I’d like to invite anyone with questions to email me directly, and I’ll then respond to them in a blog posting. If you’re curious about anything here (e.g. the food, the animals, my host families, my work, the weather, the environment, the music, the transportation, the festivals, the artwork, the water situation, etc.) then please don’t hesitate to let me know.

Mary, Asana and Helen during refresher training for Water and Sanitation Committees.

A child at the refresher training.

Mary at the refresher training.

Obligatory cute kids shot.

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Sunday, November 19, 2006

Dusty cassettes and inspired music

“I’m looking for a cassette by Alhaji K. Frimpong” I say to the shop-keeper. I’ve been biking throughout the city, trying to track down music by an elusive Ghanaian recording artist.

I don’t know much about Frimpong: only that I heard one of his songs on the radio in a taxi cab, and I liked it. It was a strange mix of jazz,
Caribbean and Afro-beats, no vocals, and made me feel like I was sitting in the room with the artists as they laid down the track. I find out later that he was one of the leaders in development of Ghanaian highlife music.

The shop-keeper nods. The store is a small and cluttered – three walls of shelving crammed top to bottom with cassettes, and the fourth wall a plate-glass window, before which sits an elaborate sound system. The power is off in town, the system silent.

“He’s old, right? Just died.” the shop-keeper says. This man looks like an archetypal used record store owner. He has a razor thin beard running below his lower lip, and the wizened look that only dozens of years of careful musical fanaticism can bring.

Crouching down, he begins scouring the lower shelves of tapes, fingers moving quickly from label to label. He moves through Ghanaian gospel, Jamaican reggae, American country, Cote d’Ivoirian hip-hip, Céline Dion (so popular in Ghana she deserves a category to herself). Pulling cassettes from the shelves in stacks, he shuffles and shifts, moving top to bottom, side to side. The place is a maze of music, a heap of tapes so convoluted it’s nearly overwhelming.

After ten minutes of intense searching, he pauses. “I’m going to get my spectacles,” he says to me. As he walks away, I read his t-shirt: “Ask about laser eye surgery!”

Finally, many minutes more, and another cloud of dust detonated from shelves long untouched, he triumphantly hands me a cassette. It’s labelled “Alhaji K. Frimpong: Kyenkyen Bi Adi Mawu.”

After parting with 12,000 cedis (approximately $1.50) I’m on my way, wondering where I’ll find a tape deck.

Having regular access to new music is definitely something I miss from back home. No longer can I head into CHRW and start pulling CDs at random off the library shelves.

However, here in
Ghana I’ve been exposed to a whole other world of music, one that I’d never known before.

While you may not be able to easily track down any Frimpong, you can almost certainly find some excellent West African music in Canadian stores. Keep an eye peeled for the blind Malian recording duo Amadou and Mariam. Their album “Dimanche à Bamako” is a very accessible – and lovely – mix of traditional Malian instruments and styles with Western-style guitar.

Also out of Mali is Ali Farka Touré, who is rumoured to have developed his own style of blues guitar playing independently of any American influences. The album “Talking Timbuktu” is a fantastic collaboration with Ry Cooder. Touré apparently became the mayor of his hometown in 2004. He died earlier this year at the age of 67.

When I get back to Canada, I’ll try to upload a few songs by local reggae star Sheriff Ghale. Based out of Tamale, he sings in the local language, Dagbani, about topical issues like political corruption and the Chieftaincy Crisis (a problem stemming from a debate over the rightful leader of the Dagomba people). He’s also a local school teacher (who taught my Ghanaian sister, Fadilla).

Some other artists worth searching for, both out of Mali, are Afel Bocoum and Toumani Diabaté.

Let me know if anyone can track down any of the music I’ve listed. It’s certainly worth a little searching. A cool blog to check out is here, listing many great African acts.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Mangan Diversity

Another interesting experience I had during my village stay in Manga was getting to meet Dicko Issa. Dicko is a Fulani man, one of only four Fulani families staying in Manga. The Fulani are a distinct ethnic group in West Africa – they’re pretty easily identifiable by their colourful robes, ornate jewellery and unique hairstyles. To most volunteers, the Fulani are a somewhat mysterious people – they’re one of the few “different” groups of people in Northern Ghana (the majority being indigenous Ghanaians), speaking their own language, with their own customs and culture. We don’t get to interact with them very much, as they don’t spend much time in the city, preferring to live and move through the countryside.

Traditionally the Fulani were a nomadic people, moving cattle and other animals across their territory. Today, they’ve mostly settled in communities but still seem to maintain their pastoral practices. For instance, the Fulani in Manga are responsible for caring for the community’s cattle.

Dicko is from Burkina Faso, near the Niger border. He worked in Burkina Faso for the government, helping calculate and collect taxes – he’s pretty skilled at long multiplication, as he demonstrated to me on a scrap of paper. He settled in Manga with his family roughly two years ago.

It was interesting for me to note was that the four Fulani households in Manga were the only ones without latrines – latrines have to be partially paid for, and are often a status symbol. This lack of latrines could have been a sign that the Fulani houses were less prestigious than the Mamprusi houses (the Mamprusis are the predominant tribe in this area). Dicko’s home was certainly the poorest one I saw, with a few crumbling huts containing corn, not wall around his compound, and all-thatch roofs (the wealthier households had tin roofs).

Nicholas, the farmer who I was staying with, told me that the Fulani families were accepted as part of the Manga community. However, they all lived on the outskirts of the town. Furthermore, one day there was an altercation between a Fulani woman and two Mamprusi youths – apparently the woman refused to stop her cattle from cross a footpath so that the boys could continue along the path. The conflict ended in a physical altercation, although I’m unsure how serious it was. This case was brought before the village chief, who ordered the boys to pay a small amount of money to the woman.

But this indicated to me that relations may not be completely problem-
free between these two groups. Indeed, tensions between different ethnic groups can be a major barrier to development. Traditional enemies and allies and alliances have to be carefully analysed – the issues can be incredibly subtle, almost invisible to an outsider. Just one more complication in the field of development.

I appreciated getting to talk with Dicko. We had a long conversation in French – his English wasn’t strong, and French is the official language of Burkina Faso – and he taught me a few sentences in Fula. Definitely an interesting window into a world I hadn’t had much contact with before.

(Pictures -- Above: Dicko Issa's daughter and grandson. Below: Dicko and his family)  Posted by Picasa

Thursday, October 19, 2006

STANDing in Tamale

Engineers Without Borders had our STAND UP Against Poverty event this past Sunday in Tamale. It was a success, with over 300 people coming out as part of a global effort to set a Guinness Record for the most people standing in support of one cause on the same day. But it didn’t go off without a hitch.

The event was coordinated by EWBers Christian, Kristy, Gwen and me, in conjunction with Christian’s Ghanaian brother, Rafik, and some other local cultural informants.

What we’d planned out was basically a cultural show at a local outdoor dance bar, made up of two different dance/drumming troupes. We also invited the Regional Gender Desk Officer (a government officer in charge of gender affairs at the regional level) to deliver a speech.

The show was scheduled to begin at 10:00am. By 11:00am, we could still count on our fingers and toes the number of people (mainly children) in attendance. However, our Ghanaian friends tried to reassure us by reminding us that time moves at a different pace here than in the Western world. Indeed, by around 11:30am the crowd had thickened significantly, although our keynote speaker was still nowhere to be seen.

But we declared that the show must go on.

So as the sun beat down (and I cursed having lost my dear Bolga hat – although I suspect it will yet come back to me. It always does) the performers took the stage.

The dance troupes were a huge success with the crowd, performing traditional Dagomba dances (the Dagombas are the principal ethnic tribe here in Tamale). This included five drummers sporting drums slung from shoulder straps, and about 10 smock-wearing dancers who moved in a circle around the drummers (the smocks are elaborate poncho-style garments used in traditional ceremonies and dances). The dancers also held metal rods, which they could clash to add to the thumping of the drums. I’ll post pictures of this soon.

And finally, as it began to look more and more like us EWB volunteers might have to provide an impromptu speech on the state of poverty in Ghana and the world (not something that I, as an outsider, wanted to attempt), our keynote speaker arrived.

She delivered a thoughtful and moving speech, captivating the crowd with a 15-minute oration that incorporated the theme of gender equality in poverty reduction.

At least, I assume that this was the case. The whole speech was in Dagbani (the local language). But from the expressions on the faces of the crowd, I’m pretty sure she did a bang-up job.

After that was the most important moment of the event: the time for the whole crowd to stand up while a pledge was read out over the sound system. This pledge was designed to send a clear message to the leaders of both the developed and developing worlds that we won’t stand for global poverty. The crowd was primed, ready for the climax of the show.
Then the power went off.

After a brief argument with the manager of the dance bar (complications arose over the use of their generator), she recommended I make a mad dash to the customer complaints office for the electricity company. We had nothing to lose, so I went to the office, just down the street from the venue. Almost immediately after entering the complaints office, the power came back on. I had no idea it was that easy.

So the pledge happened, more dancing ensued, and the event ended around 1:30pm. The organizing committee was exhausted and sunburnt but satisfied. And hopefully the world is one more small step towards the end of poverty.

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Saturday, October 14, 2006

Learn to love the local food -- then stop eating

A brief aside from the village stories.

It’s currently Ramadan across the world, and this is pretty strongly felt in the Northern Region of Ghana (where approximately 60% of the population is Muslim). Ramadan is the holiest month in Islam, and it’s considered the religious duty of all adult Muslims to fast during this month, from sunrise till sundown.

While I had many Muslim friends back home in Canada, it had never occurred to me to give fasting a try during Ramadan. But here in Tamale, I’ve been given the perfect opportunity for a completely different cultural experience. Since I live with a Ghanaian Muslim family, it’s almost expected that I try to fast along with them.

People at work are also pretty adamant that I join in and avoid food or drink during the day. “How’s the fasting?” is a common greeting this month. Or, “Are you fasting?” (asked in a semi-accusatory tone of voice) is also heard.

So while I haven’t maintained a stringent schedule of fasting, I have managed to do 9 days’ worth.

The day usually starts around 3:30am, when a man patrols the neighbourhood with a drum, playing loudly to wake up households to prepare food to be taken before sunrise. It’s not unusual to hear the pounding of fufu shortly thereafter.

I’ll get up at 4am, and bike out with my Ghanaian brother Samed to a food stand that has opened at this (un?)Godly hour to provide sustenance to observant Muslims. There, I have a three-fried-egg sandwich, and drink at least a litre of water. After that, I usually head back to bed, while Samed heads to the mosque for the first round of the days’ prayers.

The next phase of my Ghanaian family’s plan for me is to get me into the mosque. “It’s good that you fast,” my house-father said to me, “but your head also has to touch the ground!” So far I’ve tactfully dodged conversion.

It’s surreal to be awake at 4am and see the city coming to life: people on bicycles or on foot on the streets, lights coming on in houses and the sounds of food preparation drifting across the town. The other day, I was looking at the night’s (early morning’s?) sky and saw the most brilliant shooting star I’ve ever witnessed, burning up in the atmosphere.

Hunger and thirst usually aren’t too bad throughout the day, so long as I’m not sweating excessively. There have been a few days where I’ve had to bike across the city in preparation for our STAND UP! event (see below), which left me pretty thirsty by the end of the day. But I have it really easy compared to people who work outdoors in the sun all day, performing manual labour – I can’t imagine being a Muslim farmer for this month.

At 6:10pm my Ghanaian family breaks their fast, usually with oranges (which are generally not eaten completely here – the flesh is too tough –, but rather sucked through a hole in the rind). Dinner then comes later on, once the stomach has expanded enough to allow for solid food.

On another note, fellow long-term EWBers Christian, Kristy, Gwen and myself are preparing for tomorrow’s STAND UP In Support of the Millennium Development Goals event. This is a global advocacy effort, in an attempt to set a Guiness World Record for the most people across the globe standing in support of a cause. In this case, the cause is the eradication of global poverty.

We’ve lined up traditional dancers and drummers for our event, as well as a few guest speakers and a DJ. We’re hoping to have several hundred people come out in support – stay tuned for pictures and an update.
STAND UP events in your own area can be found by visiting

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Pulling my weight (in weeds)

“Yes, tomorrow we’ll farm,” Nicholas says to me. He’s the farmer with whom I’m staying in the village of Manga, about two hours away from Tamale. I’ve been badgering Nicholas for two days now, trying to get him to let me lend a hand on his farm.

Nicholas is roughly 60 years old, a short man with a gap-toothed grin that reveals his sly intellect. As his guest, he doesn’t want to encourage me to work. Furthermore, I’m white – I’ve clearly come from a different land, a land where its inhabitants don’t know how to manually wield a small hoe to do hours of labour. He’s right, of course, but I still want to try.

Nicholas announces that he has to leave the house with his wife, but will be back shortly. Suspicious, I ask him where he’s going. He hesitates before answering.

“We’re going to the pepper farm. I’m going to weed and my wife is going to harvest them.”

I ask again to come along, and finally my persistence pays off. Nicholas laughs and agrees to let me tag along.

We walk to his pepper farm, roughly 15 minutes from his house. People stare unabashedly and without pause at the outsider who’s carrying a hoe on his shoulder – not a regular occurrence here.

This chilli pepper plot is small – perhaps a tenth of a hectare – and the peppers are starting to turn red on the vine. It’s our job today to weed in between the rows of plants, clearly away shrubbery and other plants that are growing.

Nicholas explains that this is important to allow airflow through the rows of pepper plants, as well as to expose them to sunshine. The other plants could also sap the soil’s nutrients, reducing the chilli pepper plants’ yields.

We get to work, hoes in hand.

The bulk of a farmer’s work in the field is done bent over at a ninety degree angle, slashing away at weeds, sowing seeds, or harvesting. It’s a difficult and tiring position to stand in, as I discover after about ten minutes of scraping across the soil with the hoe, pulling away any non-pepper greenery.

“You should take a rest,” Nicholas says to me. But, perhaps inflamed by the chilli pepper-infused air, my pride rockets and I stubbornly shake my head. Nicholas shrugs, and continues on with his work.

My hands begin to ache as the sun, periodically bursting forth from behind cloud cover, pelts me with its radiation from above.

An hour passes, and Nicholas again suggests I take a break. My face set in grim determination, I force a polite but firm “no thank you” from my parched throat.

Another hour later and I’m exhausted. I worry that my body will forever be locked into this right-angle position, my hands cemented into a mould of the hoe handle and my liquids depleted from the sweat that’s drenched my t-shirt.

I decide to take a break.

Nicholas carries on, and I feel shame. As I walk toward the shade of a nearby mango tree, Nicholas looks up at me.

“Luke!” he says, “I didn’t know you could farm!”

I’m redeemed. A man who’s spent his life at this labour, who at the age of 60 is clearly stronger, more agile and has greater stamina than I do, has acknowledged my effort. I feel like the student who’s been given a nod of approval from the master teacher.

Nicholas continues his weeding, and I look on, admiring a man whose strength and determination have helped him carve out a life here in this remote community in northern Ghana.

Pictures: 1) blistered hands; 2) an old man in Manga; 3) Nicholas and me. Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

To Manga and Back

I’ve just returned from 6 days in the village of Manga. I’ll give a bit of background on the community in this post, and some pictures. Then in a future posts I’ll describe some of my specific experiences.

Manga is a small community of around 450 people, located about a 40-minute motorcycle ride away from Walewale down barely passable dirt roads. Isolation is one major cause of rural deprivation – it makes it a lot harder to get produce to and from the community, it’s tougher to contact the outside world, harder to get electricity in, harder to access health services, schooling, etc.

However, Manga is situated in an area of fertile soil. So long as the rains cooperate, they should be able to produce quite a lot of the local crops: groundnuts, pepper, cotton, yams, millet, shea nuts, cowpeas, soy beans tomatoes, green pepper. If the rains fail, though, the crops won’t grow, and people will be left to scrape by on meagre savings from the past year, and whatever they can coax from the parched ground.

Thankfully, Manga had clean water: two boreholes provide enough potable water for the entire community. They also had latrines, which can have an incredible impact on the health of a village (the number one health enemy to a village is disease passed through fecal matter, so controlling this is pivotal).

I stayed with a farmer named Seini Nicholas. He is respected in the community – he’s literate and has completed secondary school. He’s also travelled outside the community to Kumasi, among other places, and he’s the head of the water and sanitation committee in Manga. He’s also the grandson of Manga’s former chief.

So for 6 days I slept on the floor in Nicholas’ room in his family compound, headed out to the farm to help him weed and collect peppers, carried water on my head, and played barefoot soccer with the local kids.

I was an enriching experience, to say the least. Stay tuned for the details.

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Saturday, September 16, 2006

New article in Free Press

I’ll be going to stay in a small community for about a week, so I won’t be able to update my blog for the next two weeks (when I get back to Tamale). Until then, here’s an article that I co-wrote with fellow EWBer Jason Teixeira on Bill C-293, published in today’s London Free Press. This bill is going for its second reading in parliament at the beginning of this week. I’ve got my fingers crossed that it makes its way through -- Make sure to visit to help it along.


The promise-keepers: Making Canada accountable to the world’s poor
By: Luke Brown and Jason Teixeira

There’s a local bar in the city of Tamale, Ghana, West Africa. Its name is Point 7. To many people here, it’s a place to relax with friends over a local Ghanaian brew. To Canadians in Tamale, it’s a stark reminder of one of our major failures on the international stage.

In 1969, a commission led by Lester B. Pearson recommended a target for international aid: 0.7% of a country’s Gross National Income should go towards development aid. This standard was agreed upon by the United Nations’ General Assembly member countries: including Canada.

Yet Canada never met this obligation. Despite being the nation from which the goal was born--a country (ostensibly) passionately dedicated to the global good--we currently contribute a mediocre 0.34% of our GNI to the world’s poor.

However, it’s not too late for us to partially redeem ourselves by demonstrating a commitment to the world’s developing nations. This can be done through new legislation that is making its way through parliament: legislation that, while not boosting our aid, would at least make it more effective.

Bill C-293 (the Development Assistance Accountability Act) is a private member’s bill put forth by Liberal Member of Parliament John McKay, and will go to its second reading in parliament early this fall. This would mean making a few key changes to the way Canada helps other countries on their path to development.

First of all, the bill would enshrine in law that the raison d’être of our development aid is to help the world’s poor get a leg up on the development ladder.

Second, a petition system would let citizens of beneficiary communities comment on the effectiveness of the money we’re sending overseas. This means that if the aid is not truly geared towards poverty reduction, or if it’s not taking into account the perspectives of the poor, or if it’s not in line with Canada’s human rights obligations, then we’ll be sure to hear about it.

And who better to help keep our government accountable in aid spending than the people who are receiving the aid itself? Who better to let us know whether or not our dollars are actually having an impact?

Development efforts don’t always benefit everyone. As volunteers on the ground in Africa, we’ve seen first-hand the frustrations that people here can have with these projects. For instance, Helen Ayaro, a water and sanitation officer in northern Ghana, describes the effects of a dam project in neighbouring Burkina Faso. The Bagre Dam was constructed to allow farmers in Burkina Faso to irrigate their land when the rains are sparse.

“Authorities (in Burkina Faso) are in charge of opening and closing the dam. When they open the dam it can cause flooding along the White Volta River, which destroys crops and damages communities in northern Ghana.” This dam, designed to help some people work their way out of poverty in Burkina Faso, has had the opposite effect on other people in Ghana.

She laments that Ghanaians have little voice in preventing such problems from happening, whether the problem originates in another country, or in their own backyard. While the Bagre Dam wasn’t funded by Canadian money, we can still take a valuable lesson away from it to apply to the projects that we do fund. As Helen says: “We need to know, was what they brought to your community actually what you needed, or was it against your will? Is it making an impact, or is it violating your rights?”

Bill C-293 is in the spirit of empowerment: it gives a voice to, and ensures opportunity for those who need it, helping to pave the road towards independence.

"We may need some help and inputs to get started but we are doing it for ourselves now,” says Dorothy Kendulo, as she prepares her fields to grow mustard in rural Malawi, in southern Africa. “We can use technical advice and working together we can do things for ourselves - we are working."

We believe Canadians are a benevolent people. Ask your government to represent this on the global stage. Rather than making empty promises and half-hearted commitments, let’s prove to the world that we truly do care.

We may be far from reaching the 0.7% pledge, but we can still demonstrate that our moral duty to the world’s poor isn’t just an empty promise. Let’s make sure that Bill C-293 is passed. For more information, and to encourage your local Member of Parliament to vote for positive change in Canada’s role on the global playing field, visit

Luke Brown and Jason Teixeira are both Londoners and graduates from UWO’s Engineering program, and are now volunteering through Engineers Without Borders in Ghana and Malawi, respectively.

Helen Ayaro, water and sanitation officer Posted by Picasa

Saturday, September 09, 2006

The Lake Volta Lights Out

Ghana is experiencing an energy crunch right now. Akosombo Dam, located in Lake Volta (one of the world’s largest artificial dams) isn’t producing enough energy to meet the country’s needs. Lake levels are just too low this year to generate enough power for Ghana, in addition to its export requirements (some say that contracts with Ghana’s neighbours, like Togo to the east, are given higher priority than supplying its own citizens with electricity).

So as a result we’re in a state of power rationing. That means that every forth night in my neighbourhood in Tamale, the power will be out from 6pm-12midnight. Some days, the power will be cut from 6am-6pm.

Last Saturday night, during the “lights off,” I sat outside with my Ghanaian brother, Samed, and his cousin, Faisal. We made green tea using the method popular in much of French West Africa, and which I learned in Mali. This involves making three separate pots of tea by steeping the tea leaves three times. The first pot, with the strongest flavour, is called “bitter like death.” The second pot is “soft as life”, and the third pot – the weakest – is “sweet as love.”

It was certainly relaxing to sit in the near darkness, with the weather quite cool in the evenings, making tea. Samed’s favourite was the third pot, the sweet one. In fact, he insisted we brew a forth post, christening it “sugary as lust.” At the risk of making a sweeping generalization, I’ll go ahead and make a sweeping generalization. Relative to Canada, Ghana is not a land of moderation. This can be seen in the coffee here (four heaping spoonfuls of sugar, followed by four spoonfuls of condensed milk is the norm). Oil, when used in cooking, is added by the cup-full: my egg sandwiches in the morning are usually 30% oil by mass. Music is played at full volume, even if it means that speakers are vibrating in protest (visitors might be forgiven for thinking that all Ghanaian music contains a level of distortion – this is actually the result of having the volume knob cranked almost to the point of falling off). Friends are visited frequently and with great energy. Criticisms are delivered without hesitancy (I’ve been told that I’m getting fat too many times to count). The maximal number of people will be crammed into any public vehicle, and then three more will be added for good measure. The weather is incredibly hot in the summer time, and cold and incredibly wet in the rainy season.

And it’s all quite refreshing, really. I like being in a country where people are willing to go all out. Where people don’t allow Western-style social norms to prevent them from discussing bodily functions. Where, if you care about someone, you express it unequivocally (“Luke, I’ve missed you so much!” is a common sentence to me). Where you don’t allow such apparent roadblocks as lack of space to prevent an additional bag of yams to be passed deep into the recesses of a public tro-tro – indeed, lack of space isn’t a roadblock: what would cause most Westerners to give up, is merely a minor setback here. And where “lights off” is taken in extreme stride: a fact of life here in a developing nation.

It’s certainly different. And I’m sometimes shocked by the differences (see my last blog entry), but I’m more frequently pleased and impressed, delighted to see a slightly different way of life. These differences aren’t fundamental, to be sure – but they make life interesting.

I’d better go now. It’ll soon be lights off, and I’ve learned not to be terribly bothered.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

The Complexity of an Accident

Ghana has quieted down significantly with the departure of our 23 short-term volunteers. They’re flying out of Accra on Tuesday, back to Canada to continue working on global poverty alleviation from home, through their chapters. I’m sad to see them go, but such is the transient nature of friendships over here – Western volunteers frequently come and go. It’s similar to backpacking, where you meet new friends and lose old ones in every city you visit and depart. The problem over here is that the friends generally stay long enough (several months) to form a close relationship with you, which makes their departure sting a bit more. But there are still lots of great people here – Ghanaians and Westerners alike, so I’m not too worried about loneliness.

Last night I witnessed something that bothered me. I’d just arrived at a bar near my house to meet some friends for a beer, around 9pm. As I was entering the bar, I heard the sound of metal grating against concrete, and turned to see a motorbike lying on the ground roughly 20 metres away from me. I rushed to it to see the rider lying unconscious on the ground, his right arm and leg straddling the concrete divider that separates the road from the bike path. A dark liquid was pooling near him – thankfully just motor oil, I realized.

A crowd of people quickly gathered, and I felt powerless to help. I took a first aid course before coming to Ghana, but in that moment the rules seemed completely different – how do you call an ambulance when there is no ambulance system to be called? How effective are instructions given in English in a high-stress environment when English isn’t the native language?

Several people in the crowd tried waving down one of the many taxis that were passing by. We were on Tamale’s main road, and Tamale has plenty of taxis, so it wasn’t tough to spot one. What was tough, it turned out, was getting one to stop.

At least five taxis went by, some slowing briefly so the driver could survey they scene, some whipping right by.

Finally a tiny taxi pulled up behind the unconscious man. After several frantic hand gestures from the crowd, the taxi hesitantly pulled up closer to the man, and he was loaded into the backseat. I didn’t see any signs of serious cuts on him, but I was pretty worried about head trauma -- he wasn’t wearing a helmet. He regained consciousness in the cab, and ended up sitting upright in the backseat.

However, the taxi didn’t move. The driver refused to leave until someone from the crowd agreed to come with him. Finally, someone climbed into the front seat, and the car left for the hospital.

I asked one of the people in the crowd why it had taken so long for a taxi to stop, and then why it had taken so long for the taxi to leave.

“The drivers don’t want to stop for casualties,” he said. “Too often they drive to the hospital and then don’t get paid. So they won’t stop to help, forgetting that they could be saving a life. That’s why he wouldn’t leave until someone got in to the car. This man guaranteed he would pay for the ride.”

This shocked me. I know I’m using simple stereotypes here, but Ghanaian culture generally puts a huge emphasis on the importance of family and community, and downplays individuality (more so than North America, at least). It can be as simple as the social norm that you must offer to share your dinner with anyone who happens by as you eat it (possessions are to be shared). It can be more complex, like when a well-to-do Ghanaian must support his immediate family, as well as many members of his extended family who need it.

So to see taxi drivers pass by a seriously wounded man -- a shockingly selfish move – was almost incomprehensible to me, not to mention terribly frustrating. I had to stand there as people who could help get the man to the hospital simply moved on.

I’m sure that this kind of callous disregard happens across the world. This was just my first real taste of it in a country that I had, until now, seen as always valuing a sense of community above a sense of individuality.

I know this is a theme that keeps popping up in my blog, but it’s worth noting that I’m still developing an understanding and appreciation for a place that is obviously complex, obviously multi-dimensional. It was a wake-up call to keep me thinking critically, to appreciate the good, but not be afraid to confront the bad. Unfortunately, it’s easy for an optimist like me to focus only on the good.

No place is uniform, homogenous. Such oversimplification can lead to misleading conclusions and conflict. For example, big problems don’t have single root causes (African poverty isn’t simply the result of corrupt politicians – it’s the result of a myriad of interlocking and separate factors, not all of which are understood). Furthermore, Africa isn’t a uniform continent, and its countries are by no means uniform (the cultural and economic differences between northern Ghana and southern Ghana, for instance, are glaring).

I suppose we’re used to polarization, to simplification in the media (“you’re either with us or against us”). It allows us to digest complex issues, to feel some measure of control over them – and it’s easier to report the news this way. But this can be a dangerous tack to take, and it’s certainly not a frame of mind that should be adopted when doing development work.

I needed a wake-up call to remind me – I’m just sorry that it took a man’s injury to accomplish this.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Project Progress (and some elephants)

Things have calmed down significantly here. Two weeks ago we had a visit from Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, the high-level academic and former UN Human Development Report director and co-editor. It was a bit of a hectic time preparing a presentation and handout for her, and scheduling a day’s worth of events, but it went off really well. After her visit, Sakiko said she was impressed by the effort we’d put into our project, and thought we were on the right track. This was validating – nice to hear that a person with over 30 years of experience thinks you’re doing something right.

We also had Sara Erhardt come visit us for over one week. She’s a master’s student at Harvard, and as part of her programme she’s chosen to evaluate Engineers Without Borders: specifically our impact model (how are we making a difference in the world?) and the gender component to our programming. Sara was a big help in going over the structure of our project, and helped us lay out the next few months (essentially until I fly home in December!).

So in project-specific news, Sarah Takaki and I are pretty excited. We just presented our project proposal to the director at the Community Water and Sanitation Agency, and he’s agreed to give the CWSA’s backing to it. This means that next week I’ll be heading out into one specific district (West Mamprusi) to work closely with their District Water and Sanitation Team (DWST) for a period of almost four months. Unfortunately Sarah will be leaving Tamale next week, heading back to Canada. She’s been a huge help in this project, and I’ll miss having her here.

The specific areas we’ve identified as needing strengthening with the DWST are:
1) Data management: this primarily means computer training so that the DWSTs can keep better track of all the information they collect from the field. They collect quite a bit of it (for example, the number of water sources in each community in their district) and this information is important in district planning – they need to know how many people have water, who still needs it, and who needs it most.

2) Monitoring: helping the DWSTs develop effective techniques for monitoring the communities in their districts.

3) Stakeholder coordination: There are a lot of NGOs digging boreholes, and they don’t always communicate all that effectively. As a result, certain areas may get a lot of water, while others are left out in the cold. Helping to develop the channels of communication between NGOs and local government can help make sure that the people who need water and sanitation facilities actually get it.

So these are the potential areas – however, this could all change when we get out to the district. In the interest of sustainability, we’re going to work on the areas that the DWST decides are most pressing.

In non-work related news, last weekend I went to Mole Game Park to check out some elephants. See a few photos below, and click here to see some more.

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Monday, July 31, 2006


If anyone is interested in listening to a podcast that I made for Engineers Without Borders, you can listen to it here.

For those of you unfamiliar with podcasts, it's basically an internet-based radio show. It comes as an mp3 file that you download to your computer -- pretty simple, just download the file and then open it.

The show is called Audio Fields, and the first episode features village songs about soya, tips for a village stay, and running into cows while jogging in Mali. It also has a contest featuring my most despised animal, the sheep.

Here are a few more pictures from my vacation.

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Wednesday, July 26, 2006


Just a quick update to let everyone know that I made it back from vacation. And yes, I got to Mali, although not far enough north to see the beginnings of the Sahara desert. But I did witness the most spectacular natural scenery of my life in Dogon Country, in southern Mali. See below for a few teaser pics; a more detailed account of my trip should come soon.

Right now work is a little bit hectic. We currently have one guest visiting Sarah Takaki and me at the CWSA, and we’re expecting another guest at the end of this week. The first guest is Sara Ehrhardt, who was integral in the formation of EWB way back in 2000 and is now doing a master’s degree at Harvard University. She’s come to Ghana to visit EWB volunteers and evaluate our impact strategy (how are we helping to effect change for the better in the lives of the poor here?) and help determine how to better incorporate gender issues into our work.

The second guest is Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, who’s on EWB’s Advisory Board. She’s a prominent academic in the development world, and is the former director of the United Nations Development Programme Human Development Reports. She’s currently doing a fellowship at Harvard University and is interested in learning more about EWB’s impact model, so she’s also coming to Ghana to meet with some EWB volunteers (including Sarah and me). So I’m a little freaked out about this, but at the very least we should get some excellent feedback on the project that we’re developing.

More updates to come soon.

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