Monday, March 31, 2008

“How can I come to Canada?”

One of the things that have come up in conversation with local Ghanaians is “how can you help me…will you help me get to Canada?”

I spent the afternoon with my new friend, Pricilla. While I was enjoying her generous hospitality, a TV program came on showing typical streets of America. Many shots were of people asking for change, living under bridges, and working low wage jobs. She began to translate for me and I discovered that the program was talking about the lives of many immigrants living in the US. It featured Ghanaian Diaspora, talking about how hard it is to get started and make a life in America. It explained that after emigrating many people find themselves struggling with low-skill jobs that pay low wages. People talked about working long hours to make ends meet to send a little money home, only to find that everyone in the village thinks you’re rich now, so instead of using the money to build a house, they just spend it all, thinking there’s plenty more where that came from. A woman living in Texas explained that she is afraid to return to her home in Accra because during previous visits she has been followed, and she is afraid that she will be robbed.

This program seemed to want to do 2 things:

  • dispel the myth that America is all milk and honey and that everyone is living well, and
  • encourage Ghanaians to stay in Ghana and make a living contributing to the development of their country.

Priscilla and I in her home

Hmm. I can see why Ghana is spreading this message, not only is it dispelling many misconceptions about life in America, but keeping skilled, educated people in Ghana is good for development! Yet, I also see competing messages when I look at Canada’s immigration site where it reports welcoming record numbers of immigrants to satisfy its demand for skilled labour. (

I asked Pricilla her opinion of this program and she said that it is common for people to believe that just by living in Canada or the US you will have so much more. She said that is silly, and that she is happy to be Ghanaian and living in Ghana. Pricilla has finished university, and is looking to find a job now – she is talented and a hard worker, and from what she tells me of her mother, she comes from a stock of strong women. I have no doubt that Pricilla is happy living in Ghana, and will work to create the life that she wants. She’s not afraid to dream, and she’s got the determination to see them come true. I wonder what percentage of her classmates from primary school she represents.

Our discussion made me think of many that I have had in Canada with my friends and colleagues about the “brain drain” that flows to urban centres and western countries. It is a pattern that evolves among educated young adults who are looking for more opportunities for a better life – and deservedly so – that leaves the communities with a lack of professionals with higher educations. Nick Jimenez, who is from the same EWB sending group as myself, just spent a week in a rural village. There, he had his whole stay interpreted through the only person who could speak fluent English. Nick shared stories of several evenings spent talking with Joshua (his interpreter) where the conversation would turn to Joshua asking him how he could help him get to Canada. Nick struggled to explain that getting to Canada is very difficult, and just getting there doesn’t solve his problems of poverty.

In many ways, comfort and affluence still seem to be a birthright; in that it is easier for some to secure that hard earned reward than others. Because I was born in Canada, the system was setup to help me. New Canadians still have a difficult time getting professionally certified and trained to enter the workforce. From my friends in school it seems that in many ways, it is only through children growing up in Canada that they begin to fully take advantage of the benefits of a western society. But who am I to question people where they live? And why should people settle somewhere, and not move? A study of international migration at Georgetown University( states that migratory living was the way of many African tribes before colonization. So this idea of settling in one area and making things work there as opposed to moving somewhere for more opportunities is a bit of a construct in itself. Is migration a natural evolution of society? Is regarding the “brain drain” as negative only because we’re using a short term perspective rather than a long-term one?

So many questions. I hope to learn more about this during my time in the rural Districts.

Sunday, March 9, 2008


Dad: “It’s about -20 degC here and there are still 5 foot snow banks.”
Jen: “I have a monkey tied to a tree in my back yard.”

Things sure are different here.

Our first week was spent in Tamale, which is the capital of the Northern Region in Ghana. It gave us time to get used to the heat, the food, the new environment, and talking to strangers. This way when we actually start working with our partners it’s not everything at once that we’re dealing with. Assignments for the week included a scavenger hunt that had me searching the market for fabric, someone who had been affected or known someone affected by Juju (black magic), maggi (an all-in-one spice, kind of like oxo), and much more. I have to say that I was much more comfortable in my surroundings in Tamale (~300 000 people) than when we first arrived to Ghana in Accra (~2.5 million people). Maybe when things are so new the small town girl inside me comes back and I’m much more comfortable when the world around me is just a bit smaller.

Greetings, how did you sleep?

Dagbane is the language spoken in the Northern Region. All exchanges begin first with a series of 3 or 4 standard greetings. They start with either good morning, good afternoon, or good evening, then proceed to asking how is the heat, how are your travels, how is work, how is your family. In most all cases the answer is “Naa!” which means “fine” except for “A gbihira” which means “how did you sleep” to which the answer is “Gom beni” which means “slept fine” They’ll get you rolling on a series of Naa’s and try to trip you up with that last one, testing to see if you’re really paying attention. A fail results in eruption of laughter, a pass results in cheers and laughter. I’d have to say everyone is really quite friendly! For someone like me, who tends to try to launch into things pretty quickly, it’s taken some adjustment to observe the pace and proper exchanges before getting to the purpose of the conversation. I am learning to slow down, take my time, and pay more attention to how I am doing and how others are doing. It’s surprising how simple conversational shifts can lead to a change in mindset.

Things aren’t that different after all.

After a week of acclimatizing I’m back in Accra to meet with the main UNICEF office here and set things up for my year working in the Northern Region with the office there. It’s been good to spend some more time in the city and get to know the people in the office here. As I’ve begun to learn about the challenges faced by the government in the districts, I’m quickly learning that these departments face many of the same fiscal, political, and managerial challenges that we face in the Canadian government especially in the northern rural areas of the provinces.

Some background: Ghana is continuing through the process of decentralizing all of its decision making power from Accra. This means more power to the regional governments (similar to provincial) and district governments (almost like a constituency, with around 250 000 people). The farther north you go the more rural it gets and the less infrastructure there is. This means there is a huge lack of access to basic services and an equally large demand. The district level of elected government is more directly in contact with the actual communities, thus UNICEF supports several programs that the districts are running in effort to build the capacity of the government to meet the needs of its constituents.

Where I fit in.

The plan is that I will stay with one of the District Assemblies for a few months, working along side the public servants there, learning first hand about the difficulties faced, and hoping to find ways that I can assist in further developing their programs. Special attention will be paid to the UNICEF supported programs, in order to share particular lessons learned and best practices that can be replicated to the other districts where UNICEF is supporting similar programs.

I don’t know exactly what this means yet, and I expect it will change somewhat as we go along and learn more about the needs and where I can best fit. I excited by the opportunities I see, and I hope to get started soon. (And part of me can’t WAIT to unpack somewhere and stop living out of a backpack!)


PS. The troubles with everyone posting to the newsgroup should be solved now! Thank you for your patience!