Sunday, December 09, 2007


In Tamale, I lived in a neighbourhood called Moshizongo. I became friends with some of the young men who lived in this densely populated area in the heart of Tamale. We would often sit together at night, preparing tea. One of my friends was Abass, the Chief of Youth, appointed by the Chief of Tamale to oversee the activities of young people in the neighbourhood.

Abass and the others wanted to “enskin” me as a chief of the neighbourhood. When I decided to transfer to Malawi, this enskinment became the perfect goodbye ceremony.

This blog entry describes how I became Malgunaa: Chief of Settling Disputes.


At about 3:20pm, I head over to Abass’s house. The ceremony is scheduled to start at 3:00pm, but a little buffer time is always in order for this kind of thing. My phone is ringing non-stop with people trying to find out where the event is to occur and at what time.

Abass welcomes me to his room in his family’s compound house, located a 3 minute walk from my own.

Abass’s role of Chief of Youth isn’t a full-time gig: he’s also trying to register with the Ghanaian army, and most days he sports a western-style outfit of t-shirt and pants.

But today, as Chief of Youth, he must dress for the occasion. He is putting on several traditional smocks: large robe-like tops worn by the people of northern Ghana. He places a hat made from a calabash on his head, a belt with horse-hair tassels around his waist and several charmed necklaces around his neck: all designed to grant him powers. (“No one can shoot me,” he once claimed. “The bullet could never strike me.”)

Outside, the drumming starts. Chief and his friends have hired luunsi, local drummers. Five of them start sounding the call to ceremony.

Chief’s friends dress me in a smock, and a handle with tassels of horse hair. I’m told that my name will be Malguuna, the Chief of Settling Disputes. It will be my duty to solve conflicts among the youth of Moshizongo.

The drumming outside is growing louder, more insistent. I ask my friend Lukman how many people he things will come. “Uncountable,” he responds.

As soon as I exit Chief’s room, I’m confronted with a throng of kids and a wailing woman. This is a ceremonial way of greeting me as a soon-to-be chief. They lead me outside to a dusty clearing in our neighbourhood.

I’m seated on a sheep-skin (the ceremony is called an enskinment due to the use of this skin), and Chief sits behind me on a chair. My friend Ishmeal sits to my left: he’s to be my sub-chief.

The crowd is gathering. There are at least a hundred and fifty people standing in a broad circle, mainly children and adolescents. Within the circle the luunsi drum and dance. A ceremonial rifle is fired into the air, startling everyone. The atmosphere, as Sarah Grant describes it, is “intense.”

The heat is also intense, especially while wearing a thick smock and sitting in the afternoon sun. A young girl is assigned to fan me. I’m embarrassed, and Sarah laughs at me.

Finally, when the heat and the energy are at their peak, the enskinment begins. A sub-chief approaches me with another smock. He bends down before me, and places the smock over my head three times. Each time he proclaims something loudly in Dagbani, the local language.

Ishmeal translates: “By the Chief of Men, we proclaim you to be Malgunaa!”

I’m then asked to stand and dance within the centre of the crowd. “You have to walk like an old man,” Ishmeal whispers. “You’re now a chief.”

As I shuffle around, people run up to me, sticking coins to my sweaty forehead. These coins are collected and given to the drummers. Dust is kicked up, the sun beats down, and my Dagomba cap is knocked from my head. After a few short moments, I’m led back to my sheep skin.

It’s now time for more dancing. The luunsi approach people in the crowd, drawing them out one by one to dance. The dancers request collect coins from all the chiefs in attendance. Then they move within the circle, kicking and twirling to the music, pushing or pulling the drummers with them.

Each dance has a particular meaning, Ishmeal explains to me. “This is called Kondoya, a dance for witches,” he says. Another dancer performs a hunting dance.

Sarah Grant and Josephine Tsui are both invited up to dance. The crowd goes crazy for these salimingas, rushing forward with coins for their foreheads.

Finally, over two hours after it began, the ceremony winds down. I’m made to stand, and a procession leads me to my house. I move slowly, as per instructions.

A final loud gunshot marks the end. I push through the crowd of people into my house, and enter the relative silence of my room.


I already miss the intensity and rawness of Dagomba culture. In order to provide some context, I should point out that this kind of event didn’t happen all the time in my neighbourhood. Moshizongo is a generally quiet neighbourhood, filled with large family houses, motorcycle mechanic shops, food sellers and provision stores. People go about their daily business, visiting friends, heading into town to work, welcoming visitors.

But periodically something like this would happen, reminding me of the strong pride that people have in their traditional culture. I was privileged to not only have been given a close window into it, but to actively participate in it.

Chief prepares his jewellery

I'm briefed on the ceremony procedures by Ishmeal.

Chief and his friend, prepared for the ceremony.

Ishmeal and me (Chief in the background).

Chief dancing.

Monday, November 05, 2007

I’ll Alight at the This Thing – Luke in… Malawi?

November 1, 2007

I’m writing this entry from the airport in Nairobi, Kenya. It’s a nice airport – clean, modern. There’s a coffee bar just to my right, a digital display showing flight times to my left. From my experience in Accra and now Nairobi, African international airports seem to be notable only for their “ordinariness” – modern enclaves for global jetsetters, positioned amongst some of the worst poverty in the world.

But I digress. The reason I’m here is that I’m in transit to Lilongwe, Malawi, in central Africa. It’s all happened quite fast, but I’ll be spending the next 5 months there working on a water and sanitation project.

EWBer Brett Stevenson has been volunteering with a British NGO called Concern Universal (CU) since April 2007. She’s now moving into a management role with EWB, and so someone was needed to continue her work with CU.

I had recently completed my diagnostic with CBRDP. I won’t go into the details here on the findings, but basically I recommended several workstreams that an EWB volunteer could pursue. Given the short time I had left (less than 2 months), it made sense to propose that a new volunteer take on these workstreams from start to finish over a 13 months placement, as opposed to me starting the work and leaving it so soon after.

So I agreed to take on a new challenge in Malawi and add on a few months to my time overseas. I’ll be helping to develop and implement a monitoring and evaluation (M&E) system that Brett began.

An M&E system is basically a system used to track the progress of a project as it develops. This is necessary in order to gain the knowledge necessary to tweak (or radically change) the project for the better. It’s often tough for the management in charge to know exactly what’s happening on the ground: a good M&E system should make sure that the people and processes are in place to bring good information from the field, to the decision makers (and vice versa). For example, field staff need to be well trained, and have the right tools (both physical, like bicycles or motorbikes, as well as clear report formats and instructions) to acquire this data and provide the feedback that management needs to improve a project, or to make the changes themselves.

Brett has been working for the past 6 months to help CU build such a system for one of their water and sanitation projects. This project is intended to bring water and sanitation facilities to over 500 communities in Malawi – so it’s a project with a large scope, and thus a comprehensive and strong M&E system is definitely required.

More details to come, of course.

My goodbyes in Ghana were sad, but I’ve left the country with too many fond memories to count, and so many friends I’m glad to have met. In a future blog entry I’ll have to describe my enskinment: to say goodbye, my friends in my neighbourhood made me “Chief of Settling Disputes” (or Malgunaa in Dagbani). The ceremony involved over 150 people, 5 drummers, countless dancers, and a man firing off a ceremonial rifle.

For now, I’d better try to figure out what time it is where I am. I don’t want to miss my flight to Lilongwe.

November 5, 2007

I’ve now on my fifth day in Malawi, and I’m enjoying it quite a bit. There are some obvious (but superficial) differences between here and Ghana. In Malawi: women strap their babies over their shoulders instead of around their chests; mini-bus drivers don’t strap any luggage (or goats) to their roofs; the weather is very pleasant – balmy, almost; the food is quite different, with French fries readily available on the street; the people are much more reserved than Ghana (when stepping off the plane in Malawi, I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t confronted with cries of “Saliminga!”, or extreme but short-lived shouting matches between taxi drivers and airport staff); Ghana expressions aren’t used (“Oh, Charly!” makes no sense here).

In any case, I’ll describe these surface details in more detail in the months to come, and hopefully start getting into some of the deeper issues too: for instance, trying to understand why Malawi is at 166 on the Human Development Index, whereas Ghana is 30 countries higher.

One thing is for sure: Malawi is beautiful. I’ve included a few pictures here to prove it. (The first two are tea fields in the Thyolo district. The third is the view from my guesthouse in Blantyre, the commercial centre of Malawi.)

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Sheriff Ghale on Reggae, Tamale, and Showcasing Ghana to the World

I submitted this article to a reggae magazine. It got rejected. Hopefully it'll find a receptive audience here.

Northern Ghana’s biggest reggae star is not a hard man to find, so long as you know which neighbourhood to look in. All you have to do, picking your way through the crowded and bustling backstreets where vendors sell bread and biscuits from rickety wooden tables and hens meander about, is ask to see Sheriff Ghale.

A passing shoe-shine boy becomes my guide, leading me through the labyrinthine dirt roads of this neighbourhood in Tamale, capital of the Northern Region of Ghana.

Sheriff is certainly well known, a home-grown hero in this dusty urban centre. In 2005 he gained acclaim for winning “Best Ghanaian Reggae Song” at the Ghana Music Awards for the song Sochira. He’s worked diligently since 1995 to put Tamale, and Northern Ghana in general, on the country’s musical map.

We arrive at his house, a modest pink bungalow, and Sheriff stumbles to the front door, bleary eyed. I’ve woken him from a nap – it’s midday, incredibly hot. The power has gone off again in the city, so there’s not an operational fan anywhere. He welcomes me, and then excuses himself for his afternoon prayers: Sheriff is a devout Muslim, as are the majority of people in Tamale.

Ghana, like all African nations, is made up of a diversity of ethnic groups. There exists a divide between the north and the south of the country – cultural, language, and religious. Northerners are often proud of their differences. There’s no doubt that Sheriff is a Tamale man – born and bred, he wears his pride for the city on his sleeve. “It’s a lovely place,” he says, “a social ground.”

When asked to explain the popularity of reggae in this city, Ghale pauses to gather his thoughts. It’s clearly something he’s thought about before.

“Music is a very strong instrument in this community,” he says. “In funerals, during celebrations, during everything – music is a part of it. And music is not just about dance for this community, but (it’s) also a serious intellectual instrument.” He’s referring to the luunsi, a group of musical historians in the Dagomba culture (the dominant tribe in this area). The luunsi keep and transmit the people’s history through song and drumming.

“These luunsi are seriously intellectual people in terms of the traditional set up… so music has been respected so much here, has a high place in terms of what you say in your music.” There’s an overlap, he says, between reggae music and traditional Dagomba music. “Reggae music [also] comes with that: strong musical content, lyrical substance.”

The overlap of traditional Dagomba culture and reggae music is a constant theme for Ghale. Many of his songs are sung in Dagbani, the local language, and address issues that are particularly relevant to the Dagomba people, such as recent chieftaincy disputes and political marginalization of the people of the North.

But this theme is equally a personal struggle. Ghale constantly seeks ways to broaden the appeal of his reggae music while staying true to his roots.

“I love to do reggae music, but at least reggae music has come to light. And yet I have a traditional music I have to develop, I have to keep alive, I have to show to other people.” Ghale leans back and sighs. “It’s been my conflict. I can’t move on and leave this behind because this is part of me.”

He opines on the difficulty of the musician in a developing nation. Access to musical markets is difficult, with no major distributor operating from Ghana. It’s tough enough for him to get his music heard in the capital city of Accra, let alone abroad.

“From our history we come up with something very rich – the rich traditional music. We have some good things that should be shown to the world and should be added to the development of world culture… The world might be losing so much that could have come from here.”

Still, he remains optimistic. “Sometimes I just tell myself that the only way might be that one just keeps doing – stay here… keep developing in our own way until the time that an attention might be turned to us to see what we have here, so we can put it on offer.”

Ghale has been trying to develop the music scene in Northern Ghana by encouraging live band performances. These performances died off in the early nineties, as an influx of computers resulted in what Sheriff calls “sound system shows.” These shows have young men playing cassettes of computer generated tunes and singing – or lip-syncing – on stage. “Sound system shows” are now the norm in Tamale.

Ghale goes against this trend by playing with a full band. “One may call it innovation, but [I] call it a revival because it used to be here before, now it’s gone,” he says.

“I want to perform for the people – I have to perform,” he says. “The joy is not just in having people fill up the venue and sit down so you get some money, and that’s it. No, the joy is in your performance.”

Sheriff Ghale’s next album, entitled Ninidoo, is tentatively scheduled for release in November 2007. His music can be purchased online through

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Extra Reading

This is more of a pseudo-update, but I'm putting together a website listing much of the writing I've done while I've been in Ghana, as well as the other media I've produced (film, photography and audio).

If you're interested, check it out here. I'll pretty it up as I go, but hopefully there will be some interesting stuff in there for you to read/watch/listen.

I also realized that I haven't posted many pictures of urban structures in Ghana – most have been from rural communities or people in Tamale. Here are a few from Bolgatanga.

The first one is a picture from my office, showing a water tower surrounded by farmland. This is where the Regional Government is located -- people still farm the area around the governmental buildings (rumour has it that they weren't satisfied with compensation for lost land when the buildings were constructed, so they've continued to use the remaining land).

The second one is a picture from my room. I'm staying in a 3-storey building in the heart of Bolgatanga. It's unfinished (although my room is finished), so you can climb on the roof and hang your laundry there to dry.

The last one was taken from my office window. It shows a vulture flying by one of the adjacent buildings. Vultures become more and more common the further north you move -- up in Burkina Faso I've seen swarms of them.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Red Cross in Northern Ghana

Some people have asked me about donations to the relief efforts in northern Ghana. I know that the Red Cross/Crescent is active here. Their donation site is You can specify that you want to donate to the relief efforts in northern Ghana.

Friday, September 21, 2007

An Overwhelming Water

Some people in Canada have asked me about the flooding in northern Ghana. I didn’t realize this was getting international coverage, but it’s certainly serious enough to warrant it.

I’m currently working on an article for the Canadian Water Network on this topic. I’ll post it once I’ve submitted it, but here are some of the details.

It’s an amazing contrast: back in June, people were praying that the rains would come. As I’ve described before, the rain was delayed this year – it didn’t arrive when expected, which is a huge problem for rural farmers who rely mainly on rain for crop irrigation. My friend Imoro, who owns a farm in Nantinga (about 1.5 hours from Bolgatanga) just showed me some of this year’s corn: its growth was stunted, and when he peeled back the husk I saw that many of the kernels were simply missing -- the result of poor rainfall.

“Early millet” is normally planted in June and depends on the June rainfall. This is a major crop which farmers rely on for both food and for selling on the market. This year, it simply didn’t grow.

But the rains eventually did come. They started in July, and came with great ferocity.

The expression “when it rains, it pours” has taken on a sinister dimension this year in northern Ghana. The rain has been so severe that low-lying areas have been inundated. Crops have been washed away, fields turned to mud, and houses destroyed.

I spoke with Anderson Anaphor-Nabia, the Regional Co-ordinator for NADMO, the National Disaster Management Organisation in the Upper East Region.

“I don’t think we’ve experienced such a rainfall for 10 years or more,” he said. “The magnitude is huge. It has really overwhelmed us.”

He listed off the damage for me, district by district. Statistics are still being gathered, but Anaphor-Nabia claims that in total, over 5,700 mud houses have been destroyed. He said that over 22,000 people had been displaced by the excessive rain in 6 out of 8 districts (the numbers for the remaining 2 districts are still being added up). The final number will surely top 25,000.

You’d think that, with such a risk of flooding, people would avoid settling or farming in low-lying areas. But Anaphor-Nabia explained that the farmers have little choice. When the rains are poor, the water will collect in low-lying areas: thus yields will be higher there. Farmers want a good harvest, so they’re willing to risk the relatively small chance of severe flooding. This year that strategy has hurt them: next year, it could mean more and better maize than in the areas on higher ground.

What I’ve described is the immediate damage. It still remains to be seen what subsequent damage will be caused by water-borne disease like cholera, or mosquito-borne disease like malaria. And the truly difficult time will come in the lean season next year, as (already limited) food stocks run out.

As I’ve said before, in Canada we have systems in place to buffer against sudden environmental shocks. Can you imagine a food crisis in Canada as a result of erratic rains? (Barring Global Warming, of course.) But one of the major characteristics of poverty is vulnerability. The farmers of northern Ghana are incredibly vulnerable, and don’t have the same kind of social or physical buffers that we take for granted.

I’m currently staying in Nantinga at Imoro’s house, and working at the neighbouring Bawku Municipal Assembly for 3 days. I thought the rain had finished for this year. But last night brought a torrential downpour. I lay in bed at Imoro’s house and listened to the rain pound against the tin roof above.

The sound was overwhelming.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

New Partnership in Bolga

Greetings from Bolgatanga!

Bolgatanga (or Bolga for short) is the capital of the Upper East region of Ghana. It’s a cool little city, known for producing some interesting music and having a bustling night life. It’s quite different from Tamale in many ways – geographically (it’s much hillier), culturally (a different set of ethnic groups and languages), religiously (Christianity is more prevalent than Islam in this city – apparently the result of French Canadian missionaries in the early 1900s, but I’ll write more about that later).

And Bolga is more or less my new home. I’m still keeping my room in Tamale, but I’m spending the bulk of my time here in Bolga, roughly 3 hours by public transport to the north.

I’m now working with an organization called Community-Based Rural Development Project (CBRDP), a tongue twister whether you say the full thing or its abbreviation.

What is CBRDP? It’s a big national project with an overall budget of around $86million, funded by the World Bank, the French Development Agency and the Government of Ghana. Its main goals are essentially:
1) To strengthen the government at the various levels (including Regional, District, Area Councils and rural communities) so that they can do their jobs as well as possible
2) To develop the infrastructure of the districts (e.g. construction of markets, schools, health clinic rehabilitation, boreholes, etc.)
3) To held develop small-scale business in the districts so that jobs are created
4) To encourage good environmental management

This is a pretty ambitious project, obviously, but an important one in the process of decentralization that Ghana is undergoing.

Decentralization is a fairly popular concept in international development right now. The idea is to push decision-making power away from centralized governments, and towards communities.

In Ghana in the past the central government of Accra had a significant degree of influence over development projects throughout the country: the placement of a borehole, for instance, in the northern part of the country could be determined by someone operating from the capital city of Accra, 500km away.

Under decentralization, the need for this borehole would be decided first and foremost by the community, and then its construction would be facilitated by the District level government.

(See the diagram listing the various levels of government in Ghana. Note that I’ve placed “Communities” on top to indicate they’re the most important part of the structure! Ghana has been split into 10 regions, and those 10 regions split into 138 district assemblies, and those 138 district assemblies carved into numerous more area councils.)

But this process of decentralization is incomplete, with District governments and other substructures still not fully able to take on all the responsibility that they’re ultimately responsible for. Problems like lack of facilities and technical know-how still plague the District Assemblies.

CBRDP’s strategy is to train the District Assemblies and Area Councils in project management, provide funding for infrastructure projects, and then coach them along in implementing these projects – a sort of “capacity building by doing” approach.

I was recently in a training workshop for two Area Councils. They were being taught how to plan out and execute projects. It was exciting to see these people – all members of nearby communities – so excited about improving the quality their own little piece of the district. One Area Council wanted to ease congestion in its single school, and was thus planning out the construction of a new school.

One of the Area Council members was donating land for the construction of this school. He told me that, as a child, he’d attended the existing school -- over 30 years ago. The community had grown but the necessary schooling facilities hadn’t, so he wanted to do his part to increase the quality of education in his area.

This is the kind of community engagement that CBRDP – and decentralization in general – is looking to encourage.

So what am I doing for CBRDP?

An excellent question! Right now I’m in what EWB refers to the “diagnostic phase” of this new partnership. Basically I’m learning as much as I possibly can about CBRDP, so that I can then figure out where I can best support their efforts. This is how most EWB placements begin, and the purpose is for us to provide service to our partners that is as highly customized and relevant as possible.

Right now I’m helping CBRDP carry out these Area Council trainings, as well as helping Districts complete Environmental Impact pre-Assessments – both activities are giving me a chance to figure out just what CBRDP is doing. From this knowledge, I’ll be able to choose a specific focus for the rest of my time.

To close off this blog entry, here’s a goodbye picture taken at our final Junior Fellow workshop last week. It’s sad to say bye to our 16 friends, but thanks to Kristy Minor, they’ll have fantastic shirts to remember us by.

Monday, July 30, 2007


Sorry for the delay in posting. I’ve been away from the computer for a while, having switched partner organizations. I’ve wrapped up my work with the Community Water and Sanitation Agency. EWB requested that I open up a partnership with a new organization, and in the spirit of a new challenge and opportunity, I’ve started working with the Community-Based Rural Development Project (CBRDP). I’ll have more details on this shortly, but right now they’ve got me in the field, evaluating some of the myriad of projects they fund.

In the meantime, I thought it might be interesting to offer a pictorial display of my most recent village stay.

I spent 6 days in the community of Nantinga, part of a larger community called Missiga, which is in the Upper East region of Ghana – almost in the extreme north-east corner of the country. I stayed with a man named Imoro, a friend of Junior Fellow Ryan Case, and an employee with the Bureau for National Investigation – Ghana’s equivalent to the CIA.
So below are some pictures from Imoro’s home, and captions describing them. I hope they’ll help paint a bit of a picture of rural life in northern Ghana.

Imoro bikes his son, Raouf, to school in the morning.

This woman is weeding her field. Most weeding is done by hand using a hand hoe, hunched over for hours on end. It isn’t easy – hoeing can start at daybreak and last until the midday sun forces a retreat – but farmers are incredibly tough.

Oxen being used to plough a field for millet.

Here I am trying to control the oxen. It’s not a simple task.

The rows should be straight. I’ll keep practising.

These high-tension power lines skip merrily over Nantinga on their way to Benin (two countries to the east of Ghana). Ghana exports quite a bit of power to the surrounding countries, but not all communities in Ghana have electricity. Nantinga is one such example.

Obligatory cute kid and her sister.

As the sun set and the weather cooled, children would go to the borehole and pump water for their families.

This was taken at a nearby marketplace. This is a sahelian cow, bred for ruggedness in the inhospitable Sahel terrain. Lots of interesting animals get brought down from Burkina Faso and Niger, and are sold in this market.

Missiga gets traffic from Niger, Togo, Burkina Faso, and more.

This is Cool Boy. I’m not clear on how he got this name – all I know is that it involved a mysterious trip to Kumasi, and he came back a new man. In any case, Cool Boy was collecting sand for concrete – he was renovating one of the rooms in his family’s compound. Cool Boy was a bit of a wild man with his donkey cart, racing it throughout the village like a Roman chariot race.

Here, members of the community crack open groundnuts (peanuts). This is quite a communal activity – people will sit around for hours in the dry season talking and cracking open peanuts in order to sell them or cook them in food.

Nantinga is a predominantly Muslim community. Here, two men take a break from cracking peanuts for their three o’clock prayers.

As the sun sets, these children are playing a board game that’s quite popular in Ghana.

This is Imoro’s father. He was out every morning around 5am, weeding his fields. Here, he’s dressed himself up for the picture – normally he wouldn’t wear his nice smock and prayer cap to the field.

Imoro’s father and me, with hoes in hand.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

An Enskinment In Black and White

I’m back from my farm stay in the Upper East. I’ll post pictures and stories from that soon.

For now, here are a few photos from a ceremony I attended in my neighbourhood. I was invited out by my friend Chief. He’s an honorary chief in this part of Tamale, and also a local magician, practising traditional magic.

He invited me to this ceremony, which was part of the preparation for the “enskinment” of another chief. Enskinment refers to the animal skin on which the chiefs will sit. When they come to power, they’re said to be enskinned.

The ceremony consisted of a huge crowd of people, in the open centre of which danced at least 10 or 15 men. They all wore the traditional smocks of Northern Ghana, and danced to tomtom drums.

I decided to experiment with black and white.

My friend Chief, before the ceremony.

My friend, Chief.

The celebration grounds.

Dagomba dancer.

Dagomba dancer.

Dagomba dancer.

Dagomba dancer.

Dagomba dancers. They bang metal rods in time to the music.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

On Water

Here are some pictures of rain – that elusive, destructive, life-giving bundle of hydrogen and oxygen. The south of Ghana has had some serious flooding recently – at least 7 people in Accra died due to it. But the North is now in full bloom, with corn stalks shooting from the ground and trees glowing a vibrant green, providing food and giving life. Rain here can destroy or it can build life – it’s unfortunate that its life-building capacity isn’t more evenly distributed across the year.

I read an interesting article recently claiming that the water needs of every person in the entire continent of Africa could be met if only rain could be fully utilized – that’s how much falls from the sky.

Looking outside during a thunderstorm here, it’s not hard to believe. The rain is an incredible thing here. Drizzles are almost unheard of. The weather is binary here: either there’s not a drop of water, or else there’s a deluge, a painful, violent downpour that crashes to the ground and forces its way like a herd of bulls downhill through the streets.

Northern Ghana gets 950mm/year of rain. Compare that to Toronto, which sees 819mm/year. It’s not a paucity of water that’s affecting Ghana – it’s the distribution. This water all comes to the country over a period of roughly 4 months. The rest of the year, there’s scarcely a drop to bring life from the ground.

So if the water in northern Ghana’s one rainy season could be harvested, stored for use throughout the year, it could solve the people’s water problems.

But, like many development solutions, what sounds like a simple idea has complex implications.

Some of the problems I’ve heard are:
1) Infrastructure cost. It costs money to dig huge pits, line them with concrete and cover them, as well as installation of troughs and piping for rain water harvesting. Generally systems make use of tin roofing to channel the water to the trough – but tin roofing, in the poorest of communities, is also scarce or non-existent (thatch roofing is much more common).
2) Even if the above are all in place, the water still can’t be considered potable without some kind of filtration device – although it could still be used for agriculture and washing. But potable quality means additional money, and (often complicated and costly) maintenance.
3) Communities are most likely to make use of water that is easily accessible. If rain water is being harvested in the rainy season, the community will likely use that instead of having to walk to a distant source. Wouldn’t you do the same, too? But the problem is that the stored water disappears instead of being saved for later (for dry-season farming, for instance), and when the dry season comes, the community members -- generally women and children -- have to make the trek to that distant source.

I hate to present only the problems, at the risk of painting an overly-negative picture of Ghana’s water problems. So let me say that, on the plus side, there’s still a big donor interest in groundwater. For instance, NORWASP (a Canadian-funded water and sanitation project) was supposed to wrap up last year, but had leftover money. They’re now using this money to rehabilitate over 500 old boreholes, which draw water from the earth.

That, coupled with a comprehensive hygiene programme and the formation of community-level groups to maintain the pumps, can mean a huge increase in the community’s health. And this is a solution that’s not dependent on a source as fickle as the rain.


In other news, I’ll be out of contact for the next week, as I’ll be heading up to the Upper East for a village stay. I haven’t done one since coming back in February, so it’s high time I reconnect with rural Ghana.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

New Blood, Big Challenges

We now have 16 new EWB volunteers in Ghana. They’ve arrived, fresh faced and excited, from Canada as part of the Junior Fellowship in International Development program.

Kristy, Gwen and I met them in Accra earlier this month, and we immediately sent them out to town to begin exploration. This was, perhaps, not fair given that none of them is working in Accra, and it really is a world apart from northern Ghana (where 14 of them are based). But they were very keen, and threw themselves enthusiastically into the transport yard near the hotel.

If you imagine any of the chaos I’ve described about Tamale, multiply it by roughly 20 and add in 6-lane roads, massive traffic circles, huge modern buildings, choking pollution, near-constant humidity, hoards of street vendors, beautiful cars, fashionable men and women, sprawling slums – then you’ll have some picture of Accra.

One comment several of our new volunteers mentioned is that they hadn’t realized how “modern” Accra looks – at least, parts of it.

From what I gather, African capitals almost always represent the disparity in wealth that exists in this continent. Huge, modern office buildings coexist alongside shanty towns in Accra. Certain neighbourhoods in Accra are indistinguishable from the nicest areas in Ontario. Others are unfathomable even in our poorest ghettos.

Money that makes its way into this continent (for instance, through foreign investment), and that is generated from within (for instance, in Ghana’s gold industry) proceeds directly along a hugely asymmetrical path, speeding past the poor, jumping over a non-existent middle class, and falling into the hands of a privileged few.

There’s a dual economy driven by these elite, as well as by foreigners: diplomats, business people and aid workers. Even Tamale has this dual economy, with several nice hotels and restaurants catering primarily to the ex-pat crowd.

Those who visit “Africa” and spend their time in the beautiful hotels along Accra’s beaches, who dine in the foreign-owned restaurants, who drive about in air-conditioned vehicles with the windows firmly clamped shut, will certainly not understand that just outside the city limits – indeed, often just outside the neighbourhood limits – the truer face of Ghana lies.

This face of Ghana is the millions living on less than a dollar a day. Of subsistence farmers who can’t get their produce to market because irrational, absurd and often vicious outside forces have conspired against them (e.g. trade barriers, foreign agricultural subsidies). Of the people whose lives are so intricately and delicately tied to the rains.

Too often foreign development workers and diplomats skip over this truer face.

I remember visiting Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkia Faso, last year. New ministerial buildings were being erected: huge, incredible-looking glass structures. This is in a country that is almost at the very bottom of the UN’s Human Development Index. I remember commenting to EWBer Guillaume Simard that I couldn’t imagine anyone governing a country from those buildings, given how disconnected they were from the realities of the country’s poor.

Guillaume responded that his bigger concern was for the children of the elite. At least the current ministers had come from small towns or villages, and had some conception of poverty. The children of these ministers, who would in all likelihood be running the country in a few years, had been largely born into this fantasy world in Ouagadougou. They would likely never truly know what the rural areas are like.
I’ll step down from my soap box now. In short: Accra is intense, and a reminder of the complexity of the system here. Africa is not uniformly poor, despite what World Vision television advertisements might imply. There is wealth; it just exists in incredible disparity.

This is just another one of the complexities that will certainly jump out at our 16 junior fellows over the course of their four months here.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

I think I cause a lot of accidents here

Life here is, from my (Western) perspective, chaotic. Of course, I don’t know anything. Well, almost nothing. As the Canadian journalist Joan Baxter has written quite a bit about, my cultural blinders are strong and ever-present, and I’m in a country, a region, a city with incredibly complex history and social and cultural customs that I know I’ll only ever scrape the surface of understanding.

Any time I feel I’ve got some answers for development, feel like I’ve got it figured out, I just have to open my eyes to the complexity of the country I’m currently calling my home. This always takes me down a few pegs. There are no easy answers, only subtle and complex situations.

For a superficial example, take the main transport yard in Tamale. At its peak hours, it’s packed to bursting with taxis, tro-tros (mini buses), buses, people, goats, sheep, kiosks (selling fried eggs, movies, pop, juice, bananas, local porridge, imported Chinese electronics, biscuits, local cheese), wheeled carts, shouting, heat, exhaust, spit, music, fatigue, etc. There is no room to move. To navigate on foot means to pick your way between bumpers (praying no vehicle starts to move), ducking under kiosks, politely elbowing your way through a crowd.

It looks like bedlam.

Yet somehow it works.

Cars come and go. Passengers debark and embark. Goods are shipped and received, food is purchased and consumed, tickets bought, money exchanged, and the process repeats without end.

It’s amazing to watch a taxi pull out of this chaos. It has to inch its way forward – literally, inches of space are all that’s allowed. Another series of vehicles around it must back up, pull forward, perhaps even slide to one side to allow for enough breathing room for the taxi. As though putting together a complex puzzle, the taxi driver moves his car through impossibly narrow spaces, around every obstacle, until he’s free onto the four-lane road that cuts through the centre of Tamale.

Daily life here often requires much more concentration than back home. I suspect that any driver put on a Canadian street would be supremely bored with the orderliness of it all. Regularly functional streetlights? Roads free of goats, cattle, chickens? Motorcycle riders avoiding sidewalks? Bicyclists without 10 foot metal poles over their shoulders? Where’s the challenge?

So I feel bad when I disrupt people’s concentration, often with negative consequences.

Take, for example, a few days ago, when I was biking home at night. I was enjoying the downhill slope towards my house, and was gazing at the three large stone stoves that are used to bake bread at night by my neighbours. They look like giant demons in the night, their mouths full of fire.

A man was biking in the opposite direction, a huge bag of charcoal perched precariously on his head. I assume that every faculty of his being was focussed on maintaining his balance, of moving forward.

Just as he passed me, I noticed a minute wobble: a terrible omen of events immediately to follow.

Sure enough, the minute wobble turned into a larger shake, which turned into a wild side-to-side motion of the handlebars, which turned into the man falling over, pinned beneath his bicycle, the charcoal bag in front of him.

I stopped, and several men immediately ran up to him. They hoisted him up, and, with their help, he walked off to the side of the road – seemingly not seriously injured.

I can’t help but think that I contributed to this. Despite the fact that Tamale is NGO central (with all the associated foreigners), white people draw a lot of attention here. Walking down the road means near constant greetings from strangers, and many unbroken stares (but very rarely hostile). This means attention is diverted from possibly more important issues – like maintaining balance.

In the few days since the bicycle incident, a man has walked into a low-hanging ceiling beam while staring at me, and a bicyclist collided with another bicyclist while moving around me.

Maybe I’m just bad luck, but it seems more likely that I’m disrupting the fine balance that exists in a city where safety regulations are not as stringent as they are in Canada.

This could be a metaphor for any well-meaning development worker who’s come to Ghana, expecting easy answers, but instead disrupting the existing fragile system. There are too many examples of poor development projects that have actually made the situation much much worse than it was before.

For now I’ll focus on avoiding causing accidents.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

A Recent Night

It’s 6:30pm. I’m at the office, working on my laptop.

The power goes out, the office plunged into darkness. The national load sharing program is sporadic, unpredictable. It’s now dark in my office, and the fan has stopped.

When the fans stop the heat makes itself known. It’s always apparent, below the surface, indicated by the thin layer of moisture that is ever-present on your skin. But when the fans stop, the heat truly emerges from invisible recesses. It descends, sucks your energy in an apparent attempt to generate yet more heat – you feel tired immediately, listless.

I pack up my things, and walk out of the office.

In the dusk light, the night watchman, Sadiq, is praying, his head towards east, towards Mecca. I wait for him to finish, then hand him the keys.

“Do you think that the power will come back on soon?” I ask Sadiq.

Sadiq smiles. He has a warm smile, like a young grandfather. “As for that,” he responds, “I can’t best tell.”

No one can predict the vagaries of the Volta River Authority. It’s another factor that is out of people’s control here: like the weather, although this one is man-made. If the power goes out, the population accepts it. There’s no recourse, especially given the state of energy emergency the country finds itself in.

I jump into a shared taxi, squish in next to two women. “Anawula” I say, and between laughs at my attempts at Dagbani, they respond, “nahh.”

The taxi drops me at my neighbourhood, and I wander through the darkened paths, avoiding sprawling sheep and head-level clotheslines, my eyes squinting in the half-light. “Ti deema!” neighbours call out to me – “let’s eat!” Food is shared here, always – to deny someone the opportunity to partake in your meal is an insult.

In my compound, I’m greeted by one of the old women. This compound is predominantly female – maybe 10 out of the 15 inhabitants is a woman. She takes my arm and, with a flashlight, gestures at the ground in front of my door. Written in charcoal is a message: my friend Sadik (not the watchman) has come to greet me. Greetings are a regular social ritual here, and I’m honoured that Sadik has taken the time to come to my home.

In my room, I open the windows in an attempt to drive some of the heat out into the relatively cooler evening air. I eat my TZ outside, sitting on a low stool. I can’t see the soup into which I dip the maize paste – I have to feel around in the dark with my finger, determine the level of the liquid.

I walk outside for “ataya”, tea. A group of young men is gathered around a small charcoal stove. This neighbourhood is called Moshizongo – meaning the neighbourhood of the Moshi, an ethnic group from neighbouring Burkina Faso. Some of the traditions from this country have made their way into my area, including tea. Men can frequently be seen sitting around such stoves, brewing and re-brewing green tea, passing it around in small cups.

This stove is ingeniously made from old bicycle rims – the spokes are twisted into coils which support the flaming charcoal. A small teapot sits atop it all, and the flames lick the sides of the pot as the liquid inside hisses. The whole contraption looks medieval, like it was forged in hell.

One of the men, Chief, plucks the pot from the flames with his bare hand. I wince, knowing that my uncalloused fingers would never accomplish such a feat. He carefully pours the tea into a separate cup, lifting the pot as high as possible above the cup – this ensures maximum mixing of the tea. Like a good wine, he wants as much oxygen to get into the drink.

Chief isn’t his real name. Someone walks by and greets him, calling him Abass. This is his real name, but he shakes his head and calls out to the person. He’s been granted honorary chieftancy over the neighbourhood, and wears the honour with pride.

We drink our tea, and some of the more curious in the group ask me question after question about life in Canada. I tell them this activity is one of the things I most value about life in Ghana – a communal gathering of friends.

After, I fill a bucket with water, and head to the outdoor open-air concrete stall that serves as a bathroom. I shower under the moonlight and stars, trying to get as cold as possible. As I sleep, I know I’ll be hot. I’ll rotate throughout the night, trying to expose each part of my body to the night’s air, feeling like a pig on a spit.

I use my mosquito net. I hate the feeling of mosquito bites – not for the itchiness, but for the terrible potential they carry. Will that mosquito carry the malaria parasite? Mosquitoes here are like a game of malarial Russian roulette.

So under my net, rotating in my mattress already damp with sweat, I try to catch faint draughts of air through my window. I hope that tomorrow, the Gods at VRA will grant us power.

The sounds of distant drumming (a youth troupe practising for an upcoming demonstration) move through my window slats.

I sleep.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

The rains

The rains have started to fall.

At the first sign of rain, all the children in my compound rushed into the centre courtyard, dancing and clapping their hands. This rainfall signals the gradual transition into the rainy season – that movement from parched, brown landscapes into lush green fields and humidity. And it’s certainly cause to celebrate.

It’s an understatement to say that the rains are significant here. Not only will they provide some respite from the omnipresent heat – more importantly, they’ll provide life to the farmers of Ghana.

The majority of farming here is irrigated by rain. In the dry season, nothing can grow (there are some exceptions – for instance, onion fields can be seen near perennial water sources like rivers). Yams, cassava, groundnuts, hot pepper, tomatoes, corn – they’re all dependent on nature, and if the rains don’t come, the crops won’t grow.

So the fact that the rains have come, and are falling more consistently early in the season, bodes well for the people of northern Ghana. People are happy, then, when the downpours come.

Another issue with rain is Ghana’s power. We’re currently experiencing an energy crisis. The majority (something like 70%) of Ghana’s power is generated through a hydroelectric dam on Lake Akosombo. The problem is that last year’s rains were not sufficient, and left the water level in the dam too low to operate at maximum capacity. Thermal generating plants are being constructed to help bolster the system’s output, but from what I’ve read, this is still a few months away.

As a result, the power company has instituted power rationing. This means that 25% of the time, my neighbourhood has no power – for 12 hours at night, and then a day later, 12 hours during the day, we have no electricity in our house.

I can’t imagine the effect this is having on Ghana’s industry – imagine a factory which normally operates around the clock, not being able to operate 25% of the time because of a lack of power.

And there’s no immediate end in sight. In the south, the rains aren’t expected to start falling until July – until then, the water level in the dam will continue to dip lower and lower.

In urban Canada, we often see rain as a nuisance, preventing us from bike riding or a visit to the park – or at best, we thank the rain for improving the colour of our lawn.

In Ghana, the rain is life: an example of how the vagaries of nature can upset the fragile balance so many people cling to. For many people here life here is precarious and uncertain – this lack of security, I think, is one of the primary characteristics of poverty.

Saturday, March 24, 2007


There are five cows tied up outside my compound house – outside my window, specifically. They just showed up one day, tied to the withering trees which provide a tiny amount of shade – particularly important, given we’re at the height of the dry season, with the sun at its strongest.

I really don’t know why the cows are there. But I’ve gotten used to not knowing what’s going on. Not that I don’t ask questions – that’s the first thing that EWB teaches you to do. But questions inevitably lead to more questions, and in the case of the cows, seeking more information is just going to make me tired. Plus, I like a little mystery in life.

So I know that they (the cows) are owned by the landlord of my house. I also know that they’re being fed old dried cassava that the family has been laying out in the sun. Furthermore, I know that the cows make a terrible racket at random times during the day and night.

However, one time at which they moo like clockwork is 4am. It’s at this time that the mosque, which finds itself right next door to my house (and has always been there – it didn’t just show up) starts its call to prayer over a bellowing sound system. I’m pretty sure that the speaker is pointed directly at my window, as the sound of the muezzin chanting “Allahu Akbar” hammers me from my sleep without fail every morning.

The chanting is really quite beautiful, under most circumstances. I particularly enjoy it at dusk, as the sun is almost gone and the smoke from cooking fires rolls slowly onto the streets.

But at 4am it’s a different story -- especially now that the cows are there to add to the fray. I’ll normally press my pillow over my ears, and fall back asleep. But my co-workers insist I should start praying – I’m awake, anyway, so why not?

I may have to buy some ear plugs.

Clip here to listen to the sounds outside my room (mp3 format).