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.