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.

 Posted by Picasa

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 www.playyourpart.ca 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’ĂȘtre 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 www.playyourpart.ca.

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.