Sunday, March 26, 2006

Article in London Free Press

Here is the text and pictures from an article I wrote that appeared in the Forum section of the London Free Press on Saturday, March 25, 2006. Not sure what the headline was -- perhaps someone in London can let me know!

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Eight months after graduating from Engineering at the University of Western Ontario, I found myself leaving a country beset by rashes of criminal violence on its city streets, where charges of corruption were running to the highest levels of government, and worries about the outbreaks of killer diseases were weighing on the minds of many. This country was Canada, and I was leaving for another continent, for Africa.

I’ve been in Ghana, West Africa, for over a month now, having been sent by the Canadian organization Engineers Without Borders to work on a water and sanitation project. While I’ve barely started to scratch the surface in terms of understanding the challenges and opportunities this country faces, I have learned a great deal in my first month in Ghana. Perhaps the greatest lesson learned thus far is the destructive and misleading power of generalizations.

Just as my opening paragraph presented only negative imagery of the Canadian political and social landscape, painting a rough picture of a land that is plagued by innumerable problems, so does, I believe, the western media present a portrait of African countries as being without opportunity, without potential, and most saddening, without hope. We frequently see articles on corruption, on war, on human displacement, on death. We see television ads begging us for our financial support to help end hunger in Africa. We hear of the deepening cycle of despair in this continent.

Of course, it would be foolish of me to claim that the African continent, by and large, does not face massive challenges. I will not argue that the opportunities available to the average Canadian citizen are of the same quality or quantity as those available to the average Ghanaian. However, to focus entirely on the negative is to do a great disservice to the millions of Africans who are working towards a better and brighter future. This negative focus paints an image that is vastly distorting, and encourages inaction on our parts.

March 6 was Ghana’s Independence Day, marking the 49th anniversary of their secession from the British Empire – the first sub-Saharan African nation to break away. To celebrate, I went to a large park in Tamale, northern Ghana, where huge crowds gathered to watch students march and reaffirm their faith in their country. I spoke to some of these children and was struck by how similar their outlook on life was to that of Canadian youth.

I asked one boy, Joseph, what is good about Ghana. “Ghana produces a lot of things,” he said, “like gold, silver, cocoa, cotton. The gold and the silver, we use them to make money, and then the cotton to make t-shirts.” Joseph is only about 12-years-old, but has learned a lot about his country from school and the radio. I pressed further to find out what else he likes about Ghana. “There is peace in Ghana,” Joseph responded. “We don’t like fighting in Ghana.”

Then a large group of children gathered around to examine the strange “saliminga” (white person). I asked them what songs they sing in school. One small girl began singing ‘God bless our homeland Ghana,’ and almost immediately the entire group chimed in, singing in unison. After the song, they then launched into their pledge of allegiance. This, I realized, is the same patriotism I’ve seen back home. It’s the same sentiment I experience when a Canadian hockey team takes gold and every patron in a bar explodes in feverish pride.

I spoke to another young man, Sadik Yakubu Osman, who is studying agricultural technology at the University for Development Studies in northern Ghana. After graduating, he hopes to work with farmers in Ghana – agriculture employs almost two thirds of the Ghanaian work force – to help increase their crop yields. “I’m fascinated by the challenges of agriculture,” Sadik tells me. Many of these challenges are clearly defined – degrading soil quality, a short rainy season in the north, lack of access to markets (an underdeveloped infrastructure being a big culprit). “For example,” Sadik says, “micro-irrigation projects are needed.” These projects help farmers bring water to their farms when the rains fail, and Sadik is learning how best to apply such technology. People such as Sadik are training themselves to be able to effectively address some of the factors that lead to poverty. These people are beacons of light, and deserve our attention, support, and respect.

After visiting the Independence Day celebrations, I knew that people here are proud of their home. They’re proud of its exports and its peace, and the children have hopes for future careers as pilots and soldiers and nurses. This is not the same land I’ve seen on television commercials back in Canada, one in which a child without hope for any sort of future stares plaintively out of the screen. To be sure, those people are just as real; the extreme poor should never fall off our radar screen. However, this is not a representative cross section of Africa. Ghana has a diversity of people who play a diversity of roles. To create an archetypal African out of stereotypes of poverty is to misrepresent millions of people.

Furthermore, focusing only on negatives encourages a culture of defeatism in the West, a culture unprepared to support those working themselves out of poverty. While the greatest strides towards development will be initiated and carried out by the citizens of the developing world themselves, the West still has a role to play. This is a role we should play with optimism, not with dubious hesitancy. For instance, up until the late nineties, Ghana spent more on external debt repayment than on health care. Thankfully, this debt should be extensively reduced this year under the IMF’s Multilateral Debt Relief Initiative. Actions such as debt cancellation should be approached by the western nations as necessary steps forward, and not as futile attempts at improving the world.

Another example is in restructuring our own farming system, for instance in eliminating massive agricultural subsidies that lead to “dumping” of western products on the international market, which can suffocate the farmers of developing countries. The western nations continue to drag their feet on the international stage, most recently in the Doha World Trade Organization talks. I’m sure that if the citizens of Canada had faith in the developing world’s ability to work their way out of poverty, to empathise with their common human goal of moving forward, then we would put more pressure on our government to act in their favour. As it stands, it’s easy for Canadians to shrug off responsibility to the South, since the situation can seem so hopeless, and the people so distant and different.

I have found here a more subtle understanding of a country that I knew very little about before arriving. I hope that the decision makers in the West will always strive towards a subtle understanding of the world’s poorest countries – towards empathy and compassion, and away from the trap of destructive generalizations. The Canadian public can also do its part, by pressuring our government to act on the international stage in as pro-poor a manner as possible. By playing our part to the best of our abilities, and recognizing and encouraging the efforts of the citizens of developing nations, we will help them bring about the complicated solutions needed to end the complicated problems of development.

Our country has its problems, to be sure – worries about gun violence and corruption and Avian flu are perfectly valid. But we don’t define ourselves by our problems – we’re proud of our strengths. Here’s hoping that we’ll port this mindset to the world stage, and use our privileged position to help minimize the world’s problems, and -- more importantly -- amplify its strengths. Posted by Picasa

A message from the intergalactic overlord for World Water Day 2006

Well, World Water Day has come and gone in a flash of blinding glory, and I’m left to deal with the fallout – creditors demanding their bills be settled, random Ghanaians haranguing me for free t-shirts (apparently Ghanaians absolutely LOVE free t-shirts, and unfortunately we did not have the budget to supply one for every person in the country), and children who need their paintings returned to them. But the day was a good one, and the experience valuable.

WWD started with a parade through town, which started approximately an hour and a half late. This parade consisted of several pickup trucks carrying placard-waving people (the placards read “Water is Culture!” and “Protect our water bodies!” among other things), and a flatbed truck carrying a brass band. As I’ve mentioned before, Tamale doesn’t technically have water. As a result, we had a few people on the street angrily fist-waving at us, and I was left wishing that our police escort has shown up. I slunk down into my seat and avoided eye contact with the crowd. However, violence did not manifest itself, and the parade proceeded to the small town of Savelugu, north of Tamale. It was quite the spectacle to see the truck careening down the highway at 80km/h, with the drummer of the brass band still going at full tilt.

We’d also hired a few buses to transport the pressmen and children from the various schools participating in the painting competition. The day before, we’d gone to the schools to collect the children’s paintings. I was given a lesson in participatory development when I was told that painting is not actually a part of the curriculum at most schools here – I assume that the cost of materials is just too high. Too many development projects haven’t relied on the input of the beneficiaries – these bad projects are based on the knowledge and expectations of the development worker and his/her NGO. This has resulted in, for example, “graveyards” of broken down pumps and agricultural equipment that just weren’t suited to the community into which they were introduced.

So in my case, had I had enough time, I would have been able to speak with the teachers and students to establish their skills and abilities, and then plan accordingly. But, like a bad development worker, I simply forced my preconceived notion of a good project on these people, and dropped off the paints and bristle board. Anyway, my experience has a happy ending – the kids worked their butts off and taught themselves to paint, and produced some pretty awesome pictures.

I also had a lesson in how free-flowing life is here in Ghana, when we asked if we could take the kids away from school for the activities in Savelugu the next day. The response from the headmaster at each school was the same in every case: “No problem” (this is a really common expression here). In Canada, I can’t imagine how many permission forms would have to be sent home, not to mention insurance problems worked out.

In total, there were probably about 500 people at the festivities in Savelugu. This included several hundred school children from Savelugu, as well as dignitaries and random people from the public. The event was pretty packed, and included a cultural dance/drum show, a song by a local singer named Kaeba, a drama presentation by a local acting troupe, a quiz on water and sanitation for several high schools and several speeches.

I didn’t have much time to watch the events, since I was running around the whole time, but the crowd seemed to enjoy it. One funny thing was the song by Kaeba. Some background info: Concerts here are often lip-synched. Apparently people like to hear the songs they love exactly as they know them; i.e. straight off the CD. So Kaeba lip-synched a song he’d written about water and culture. The problem is that we’d made him include passages in Dagbani, the local language. Kaeba doesn’t speak Dagbani (he’s from the south) so I think he had someone write the lyrics for him. So his lip-synching the Dagbani lyrics was decidedly not Milli Vanilli quality. But the song was really good, and the crowd liked it.

After the public symposium was a lunch for about 300 people, which happened an hour and a half late, but was delicious when it finally came.

So that was World Water Day in Tamale. Definitely an interesting experience, and one that taught me many things about Ghana (for example, my co-organizers specifically factored in “African time” to their event planning), and allowed me to meet many people who could be quite useful for the future of my project.

Just hope that no t-shirt crazed person gets violent with me.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

What the hell do I do?

So people are curious about my job. I’m pretty curious about it too, and am still in the learning process – when that’s complete, I’ll be better able to define the role I’ll be playing for the next while. But I’ll provide some background here.

I’m working for the Community Water and Sanitation Agency (CWSA), which is a governmental body dedicated to providing safe drinking water to rural towns and communities throughout Ghana. Ghana is split up into regions, similar to our provinces, and I am based in the largest of these, the “Northern Region.” In the Northern Region, there are three main water projects going on that are overseen by the CWSA: one is funded by CIDA (this is the largest project), another by the European Union, and the last one by the AFD (the French development agency).

Basically, the idea behind the projects is to provide these communities with access to safe drinking water, and to couple this with education on health and sanitation, and the installation of latrines. The overall goal is to improve the health of these communities.

The water comes in a few forms: it can be from boreholes (which are deep and narrow holes dug by a machine), from hand-dug wells, or from mechanized systems that use boreholes to distribute water to small towns. Ground water is generally very safe and free of contaminants, although high fluoride has been a problem is certain regions. Without point sources, communities will often seek their water from sources that are at high risk for contamination (e.g. bacterial, Guinea Worm), such as rivers or ponds. The members of the community (notably women) also must often walk huge distances to collect this water, which is a pretty massive drain on time that could be used in other ways.

The education component seeks to teach proper sanitation techniques: such as hand-washing after going to the washroom, keeping borehole sites clean, good kitchen cleanliness, etc.

This is a very brief overview of what the CWSA is aiming to do. Their role is basically that of a facilitator in this process – they make sure that all of the stakeholders are working together and communicating effectively. They also help to ensure that standards (e.g. water quality, latrine construction quality) are set and maintained. The projects themselves are implemented by many different levels of people, from the grassroots to the private sector to the district level to the CWSA.

My role thus far has been primarily doing monitoring and evaluation of the performance of one of these stakeholders – local non-governmental organizations called “Partner Organizations.” They’re responsible for helping communities set up accounts to pay for operation and maintenance of their water point, as well as for some hygiene education. I’ve been travelling to meet with various PO’s in order to determine how effective they’ve been, and what problems they’ve encountered that need to be addressed.

I know, doesn’t sound too technical, but EWB volunteers are more often than not involved in improving the deliverables of a given project, instead of tinkering with pumps and motors. I’ll keep everyone posted on the direction I take in my project!

In other random news, I visited a village yesterday and ended up carrying a large bucket of water on my head back to the village from their borehole, just to see what it was like. I’m not going to lie – it was ridiculously hard work, and I was made to feel pretty emasculated when I saw children as young as seven carrying comparable buckets on their heads without even breaking a sweat. I don’t think my neck is used to this type of work. I was also given a gift by the chief of the village: two live birds (kind of looked like pigeons). I probably won’t eat them.

Oh, and I’ve moved into a family compound. One of the sons, Samed, runs a little movie rental place out of the house. Him and his friends like sitting around their shop listening to music. Today I came home from work to find them listening to Dolly Parton and some 90s-era boybands. I was pretty horrified, so I went to my room and got a CD by the Scottish indie pop band “Ballboy” (A Guide for the Daylight Hours – one of my favourites!), and had them put it on. So they were blaring this Scottish pop music onto the streets of Tamale, and seemed to like it. I kind of felt like an indie cultural imperialist, but I figured that I was battling the much more nefarious foe of American Corporate Rock, so I’ll sleep soundly tonight.