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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