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