Saturday, March 28, 2009


I woke up in a different place. After 23 hours of travel you can completely change your environment; your accent; your approach; your diet; your clothing; your expectations; your feelings. You can change all of these things and fit right in to your surroundings such that nobody notices anything out of the ordinary. It somehow seems foreign to not be in a foreign environment. I can hear Canadian accents all around me from people I don’t know, and won’t make the effort to know. I can’t believe how much stuff women carry with them when they travel with infants. The stroller is a like a vehicle with a glove box, cup holder, and cruise control. Their arms are overloaded with goods that could neatly sit on their heads if they just coiled up one of those little blankets they have stuffed into the side compartment. Such an inefficient use of transportation surfaces.

Leaving Ghana was relatively easy. I bought a ticket. I packed some things, including a multitude of gifts from my friends and neighbours. I gave gifts to my friends and neighbours. We talked about how relatively easy it will be to keep in touch – especially if they can sign up for an email account. We talked about the time-zones and how calling me when they first get up in the morning won’t be well received. I boarded a bus that in true Ghanaian style took 5 additional hours and 1 additional bus than it required to get to Accra. I left Tamale, the dust, the sun, the heat, the rowdy children instinctively calling to me when they see me pass. I left Stephen, Esther, Alice, and their soon to arrive little son. I left my sisters Patience, Grace, Maggie, Amashetu and a compound full of activity, laughing, worries, song. I left Greg, Habib, Eric, Timothy, Zulfawu, Bertha and Yvonne to continue everything we had started in a year of assessing and planning for a stronger more deliberate approach to managing development in the Northern Region. I left Vida, Mahmud, Peter, Priscilla, Lydia, Amshawu, Stephen, Ibrahim, Matthew, Adam, Kobiru, and so many other faces that accompanied along my paths through Tamale, through 13 months of knowing that there was so much more to understand everything around me. I laughed, I cried.

Sleep Walking

I came back to an unfamiliar familiarity. Box stores, box restaurants, and recycled ideas that appear “out of the box.” It’s easy to see only what you want to see. I can stare at houses, furniture, flatware, and imagine making a completely comfortable home. I can imagine adopting a life like so many people, doing the same things everyday without much awareness of the majority of the world around them. Who would want to crush themselves by carrying the weight of the world when you don’t have to and you can’t solve it all anyway?

So much seems the same, yet of course I can’t see it that way. While I was away from Canada America elected its first visibly black president; Canadian politics had a temper tantrum and prorogued itself. Gas prices skyrocketed; the world briefly recognized a food crisis, the stock market crashed. Canada decided to “focus” its aid efforts on countries with easier markets to access and natural resources to mine. China went into space, and hosted a fabulously flashy and controversial Olympic Games. A lot happened, and so much didn’t. I can be angry and disappointed, but I can’t let it overwhelm me. Canada is no more a single attitude, a single background or a single outlook than Africa is a single country, a single culture, or a single destiny. There’s hope all around me in the hearts and minds of those swimming through all of the distractions, determined to do something.


I’ve really come to appreciate that the bigger picture always seems to present more problems than solutions. Digging deeper only complicates it all, and it’s easy to fall prey to cynicism or worse, apathy. But I’ve also come to appreciate that worrying about macro scales is only helpful if I recognize that all I can ever hope to do is make a difference in the sphere of people right around me. If I can do that well, and in a way that helps them to do the same, then despite not being able to truly attribute any change to myself, I believe I can still do more than anybody who from a distance tried to apply a far reaching policy or formula to stimulate change. For me it’s only about people, and it only ever has to be.

Real People

Sister Maggie: my next door neighbour
Mahmud: my tailor made friend
Yvonne, Zulfawu, Bertha independent women from the RPCU
Stephen and Esther: my Ghana family
Esther: my princess
The EWB Governance & Rural Infrastructure Team in Ghana
Timothy: friend and colleague from the RPCU
Greg: boss, mentor and inspiration & friend
Zulfawu: friend and sister on the move
Habib: friend, colleague and new father
Yvonne, Zeblim, new smock: memories of northern Ghana
Peter: friend and confidant for life
Sister Amashetu, Sister Patience: warmth for my soul

I left the work in Ghana in the very capable hands of my Ghanaian colleagues and another EWB volunteer, Dan, along with the 3 other team members working with the districts in Northern Region, to support them in implementing everything we’ve aspired to do. I’ve come back determined to support the work in any way I can from Canada.

The faces of the RPCU and development in Northern Region

I don’t know exactly what’s next. I expect this will be my last post on this blog as it is. At least until I have another story to write. My truly supportive father commented to me on my last day in Ghana that he was happy to have me coming home, yet feeling sadness that this part of my life was closing; that neither he nor I would be hearing about Ghanaians in the same way anymore.

Thank you for joining me in this incredible year. Thank you for supporting me, for filling me in on news at home. Thank you for asking questions, for reflecting on thoughts and ideas. Thank you, for believing in me and everyone you’ve come to know through my writing. I don’t know if any of this will inspire you to think or do anything different. It doesn’t have to. It’s changed me, as I knew it would.


Thursday, March 12, 2009

Happy Anniversary Vida – the story of an entrepreneur

Vida was born into a family with five children; two boys, three girls. Her mother and father were both educated, her father had 2 scholarships to study in USA, her mother went to teachers college but stopped before she graduated to get married and raise a family. Vida attended middle school in Bolgatanga, northern Ghana. When she reached Senior Secondary School she knew that she didn’t like taking notes, and she liked to be creative. Upon this realization she quickly shifted her courses to home economics where she scored good grades.

With a supportive family, and determined to become more than proficient in a kitchen, Vida studied at Domestic Sciences and Catering in Accra, a top quality school. "If you go to La Palm or Labodi Hotel in Accra, and you ask in the kitchens who went to Domestic Science and Catering at least three people will raise their hands,” she told me proudly one day. She studied two years there, and then furthered her education at Tamale Polytechnic, and then at Kumasi Polytechnic for her higher degree in catering.

During that time she started to think about what she wanted to do, where should she get a job? Accra? Kumasi? Tamale? Bolga? She realized she had a vision. Throughout this period her friends would worry about her because oftentimes, while they were all out talking and enjoying themselves, Vida would be staring off somewhere else—her mind adrift with ideas and aspirations.

Of her own volition, Vida prepared a traditional Thanks Giving dinner for all of the Canadians in town!

After graduating Tamale Polytechnic, Vida needed a job. She applied at the largest hotels in town, but they weren’t looking for anybody. Finally a friend told her about GILLBT, a Christian guesthouse and conference centre that was looking for a catering supervisor. Vida went for the interview and before she could even leave the property she was offered the job! Even though the salary was far too small (60GH¢/mo) she knew she had to start somewhere, so she readily accepted.

It was tough to save money, even when she needed to find a place to live and GILLBT allowed her to stay in one of their rooms, Vida still struggled to put anything in her savings. She knew she needed her own space, to experiment and react to everything she was learning, so in her evenings she would walk around and look for a place that she might be able to set up for her own. Some evenings she would get in a shared taxi—not going anywhere—to look around for a good place to call her own.

Most businesses here start with a container. An iron freight container like the kind you see rail cars made from. One of these containers would cost her 7000GH¢ at the time. On her small salary it would take forever for her to save that amount. So she talked to her employer and they agreed to guarantee her on a bank loan for 7000Gh¢. Now she had her restaurant – she just needed a place to put it!

Then one day she found a place she liked near a washing bay. She found out that to get this land she would have to talk to the chief and the elders of that area. Following a discussion with them they agreed that they would like to develop that area, and that a restaurant would employ local people, so if she could pay them 30GH¢ she could use the place.

Finally things started to look like they were happening and Vida placed her little container looking toward the road with a small patio in front. She bought 4 little tables and 12 chairs. It was enough to start. She made a banner for the road that read “Luxury Catering, Now Open!” and began to serve her first customers. By this time she was making more money at GILLBT, but working the two jobs was getting a bit tough. She needed to take the risk and invest more. But before she could expand her shop she needed electricity. To get connected to the electricity network she would have to buy a pole, and get the lines extended to her place. That would be another 2000GH¢. She’d maxed out her loan at the bank and her savings were now going to her restaurant… they wouldn’t have been enough anyway. So like so many Ghanaians, she turned to family friends.

A lawyer in Bolgatanga got a call one morning from Vida, she apologized for her situation and what she was about to do, but also felt that she couldn’t stop now. After she finished her story she waited to see what he would think. To her great relief he laughed at her anxiety and told her that of course he would help her, and he asked her when she needed the money by. 2 weeks later on a trip to Tamale he met Vida in the parking lot of GILLBT. She jumped in his vehicle and asked him to take her straight to the electric company. “Vida! You really are serious about this!” he exclaimed. And she was.

Feeling that the time was right, Vida said goodbye to the friends and support at GILLBT and set out on her own. Her restaurant is in the area where a lot of NGOs have their offices. She started by selling the typical fare: plan rice, fried rice and jollof rice, with some other traditional dishes. But Vida’s approach was a bit different. One of the Canadian volunteers in the area started coming to Luxury Catering, and instead of just repeating the menu Vida asked her “What would you like?” To which she was told “Beef stroganoff.” “Okay, I can make that,” she responded and she hurried off to the kitchen. One tasty continental meal later, her customer was thoroughly impressed! “Vida! You can make these things?!” And that’s how it started. The expat community is fairly connected in Tamale, and soon enough the word started to spread that Vida could make special orders of traditional and continental food.

Things started to take off from there. Yam balls – a traditional food, but not commonly offered – were next to feature on Vida’s menu, again they were a hit! That’s when I got the call – “Jen you have to taste these yam balls and pasta salad! It’s amazing!” It was then that I met this dynamic woman, and soon to become close friend. It wasn’t just that her dedication to customers and service were unparalleled from everything I’d experienced so far in Ghana, but it was that she was genuine; one of those people who always leave you feeling in a better mood.

Next came apple pie, chocolate cake, brownies!! Pizza, hamburgers, salads!! And it didn’t stop there. When Vida was back in Bolga visiting her family she saw the traditional painted walls and knew she had to bring this back to her restaurant. She asked around for local artists and soon her little container had a face-lift! Then came a deep-freezer, a glass fronted fridge, wines, a display case, lounge chairs, fancy table cloths. As Vida’s popularity started to grow, her busy kitchen needed to expand, so she built a brick walled kitchen attached to the back of the restaurant, added another gas range, a pantry.

Every time I came to the restaurant I found something new. Vida’s dreams are being realized one component at a time, and it’s obvious from each culinary experience that Luxury Catering is more than an income; more than a restaurant. It’s Vida’s. When I asked her about her ideas for the future she didn’t hesitate to talk about her next ambition. She’d like to open a training school in Tamale for school dropouts that would teach cooking hygiene and nutrition, and the art of catering. I probed her a bit to see how serious she was. After a quick mental calculation she told me that she should be in a position to start her school around 2012-2013. It’s not often that I run into people who can so readily express their 3-5 year plan in Canada, never mind in Ghana where opportunities are fewer and farther between. For women like Vida, life doesn’t just happen, she drives it, makes it her own.

Looking around Tamale you see so many of the same chop bars, the same kenke sellers, tailors selling the same clothes, the same provision stores offering the same goods. What makes Vida different? It would be short-sighted to point to one or two few things, but it’s obvious that Vida has an internal drive that fuels her entrepreneurialism and creates opportunity in a world that offers so few lucky breaks.

I’ll be leaving Ghana soon, likes so many other “development workers” who come and go from Tamale, I’m sad to be leaving friends like Vida, but also inspired, and I can’t help but be excited for the future of Ghana built upon the efforts of women and men like Vida. In her elemental way, she’s more of a development worker here than I could ever be. To me she embodies the restless spirit that refuses to give in, the tenacity that will find a way despite obstacles at every turn, and the genuineness to make it enduring.

Cheers to you Vida! To your first anniversary: celebrating everything you are and to everything you are sure to become!

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Generation X-Y

In response to my last post I had a friend ask me “What do the men do? I've hardly ever read about the work the men do.”

It’s a good point. Being immersed in this culture I’ve been struck by “old fashioned thinking” and at times outraged by downright sexist behaviour. Development projects are always looking for gender disaggregated data, and focusing on gender issues, and gender equity. Obviously this means a lot of focus on women and their traditional roles in society. It’s easy to become so taken by the plight of women; one that is so visible in my work, home and social life here.

Well obviously it goes both ways. As much as women are discouraged from taking on more productive roles (building things, growing staple crops, earning an income, etc.), men are also discouraged from taking on more reproductive roles (cleaning, cooking, fetching water, fetching firewood, rearing children, etc.). I’ve heard men talk about how they stay in the house to cook instead of cooking out in the compound because he and his wife would be ridiculed if he was seen cooking for them both. I’ve heard of other men threatening to beat men who are seen to let their wife have too much power in the relationship, because she may start causing trouble by encouraging other women to rise up and disrespect their husbands.

Despite the social pressures against change and gender equity, I am inspired by men and women who are pushing against the norm. The last post was about a young woman. In this post I want to tell you about a 68-year-old man. Mr. John Nachomwa isn’t campaigning against gender inequity, or protesting against women’s injustices – or at least that’s not what I saw when I visited him in Gbaln. Yet what I recognized came closer to mainstreaming gender (a term that features prominently in development conversation) than a good number of manuals, guidelines, reports and strategies from various authors that I’ve seen floating across the desks of regional and district government.

John used to be an Agricultural Extension Agent, which means that he was employed by the government to visit farmers and support them in best practices for farming. John learned a lot during that time about different farming techniques, and he also learned a lot about people. In a village setting where school is often seen as the pathway to professional jobs in other towns and cities, he recognized how critical it was that farmers have an education. He saw that it enabled them to better calculate risk, and to make educated decisions. Those who weren’t used to critically assessing options were much more risk averse and less willing to change their practices. He himself was the first of his family to be educated so he is fulfilling a duty he feels to give back to the village and people that gave to his future.

John and his family

Because of John’s education and past career in the public service, he is now the community liaison with local government. When he first came to the community to begin building his home and his farm, none of the children were in school. The only school at that time was about 8km away – a difficult walk, especially during the rainy season (now there is a school 3km away, which is still a fair distance for a 6 year old). So he found support to build a church that also serves as a primary school. Not a formal primary school, but an informal school supported through the School For Life programme which teaches the local language, and prepares them to learn in a formal school environment once they are old enough to walk to the formal school. To supply this informal school with the necessary items like chalk, books and soap. Going to the district capital and back to petition for programmes and services on a bicycle can take anywhere from 2 to 4 hours depending on your stamina. Waiting for the coordinators to see you and provide you with what you are seeking can take another 2-4 hours depending on your patience. John said in the last couple of years he had to give up making the ride to town and pass it off to his son. At 68 he’s getting just a bit tired.

Home-school blackboards are created by rubbing spent lead batteries on the wall.

Besides promoting and supporting basic education in his community, John also works with the farmers by trying new things and demonstrating their viability. John showed me his farm and we saw cashews, palm nuts, plantains, pineapples, teak trees, and beans in addition to his staple cassava, maize, and yams. What I was really excited to see, however, was his dry season farming. We walked through the fields of dry grass and gradually began to see more green as we descended toward the river. This is where we found John’s tomato farm on the dried river bed that he cultivated after the rainy season banks receded into the dry season. This means that John can grow crops to sustain his family and even earn a little income all year round. Yet despite his successes, not many farmers are following his example. Instead they chide him for wasting his time; working so hard when he is so old. To that he answers that he is not working for himself, but for his grandchildren.

John's small cashew plantation

“I see so many men sitting under a tree playing owari during the dry season,” John lamented. It’s not that male farmers don’t work hard – digging yam mounds and farming cassava is back-breaking work, but when the season is over, much of their work ends too.

John's tomato crop

Why do I say that the work John is doing can be recognized as gender mainstreaming? Let’s look at productive and reproductive roles a little more. Productive roles tend to look a little more like projects with beginnings and ends. They are often seasonal. Reproductive roles are so named because they must be done all year round indefinitely. Both are critical to a balanced society. To me, gender mainstreaming doesn’t get captured in gender disaggregated data or in talking to women and finding out their needs (while they are both important). To me mainstreaming gender means men are enabled to take on more reproductive roles and women are enabled to take on more productive roles. Vegetable growing is typically the responsibility of women, and when John started growing tomatoes in the dry season he was adopting a reproductive role. Naturally, in addition to approaching the men he approached the women to encourage them engage in similar farming practices. “Somehow the women prefer to make charcoal as they have always done,” he told me. But making charcoal is a much more labour intensive activity that everyone else is doing so the price for it isn’t high, and it doesn’t add to the nutritional content of meals like vegetables do.

Why do his ideas and efforts not spread? It’s my theory that gender issues are at the core of every culture, and as such gender disparity is at the core of every inequity that encumbers development. Because gender issues are at the core of it all, it means that we can never really directly influence them. I think the best we can do is to indirectly influence them by creating an enabling environment for change. For results-driven donors this is unacceptable, but for sustainability I think this approach is essential.

So when I see a 68 year old man adopting new behaviours and demonstrating to those around him a more equitable lifestyle, I see a start. I see opportunity. I see change.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Generation "Why?"

Young women like Elizabeth inspire me more than any rhetoric about “working ourselves out of a job” or other platitudes can.

Elizabeth is 19 years old. She’s living with her aunt and uncle, a life she says is better than it was with her parents in Volta Region. Elizabeth accompanied me throughout my stay with her family in Gbaln. I cooked with her, fetched water, swept the compound, cut guinea corn, sat up late talking with her, and slept alongside her at the end of a long day. She came to Gbaln about 6 months previous. Her parents sent her to live with her aunt and uncle because it would be easier for them to support her to finish senior secondary school (SSS) in Saboba than it would in Volta Region. She’s the only girl in Gbaln to have completed SSS so far, but she wasn’t happy with her marks so she’s going to attend another year to bring them up and grant her entrance into what she hopes will be a nursing school in Tamale.

The steep river bank that women have to climb while carrying water.

She recalled her first day in Gbaln. May was just the start of the rainy season, so the natural and hand-dug wells were still dry near the village. This meant that women had to walk 40 minutes each way to the River Oti to fetch water. The river banks are extremely steep during the dry season, and soon become slippery after the streams of women begin fetching water and clamouring up the slope with their load perched expertly on their heads. Elizabeth said she only fetched water twice that first day, and still her legs were so sore she could barely walk the next day. “How could I say anything? So I just kept to myself… all the other women did this everyday.” she told me. Although the work is harder, she says she likes it with her family in the village, and most importantly, they help her to go to school in Saboba. Each day I was there Elizabeth took the lead in preparing the meals, and serving the family: men first, then male children, followed by young women, and lastly her aunt (the matron of the home) would eat what was left from other people’s portions. She said she was happy to do this during her break from school to show her appreciation for her uncle and aunt’s generosity.

Elizabeth threshing guinea corn with her sister Wapu

“How many children do families have in Canada?” she asked me one day on our way to fetch water (thankfully from the natural well only an 8 minute walk away).

“Two” I said, “though sometimes three.”

“That’s what I’d like,” she said confidently “three, but two would be okay. If you have more than that, you’re not being fair to your children. There would be no way to pay for them all to go to school, and the girls would be the first to be told that there was no money to send them.”

“Do you have many girl friends in SSS?” I asked.

“Many of them had to stop attending; their fathers said there was no money. Most girls still stop after JSS [junior secondary school].” She paused “But if there is trouble sending a son to school the fathers will somehow find a way for them to continue. They don’t sacrifice like that for the girls; they feel they would be just sacrificing for their future in-laws to benefit.”

Elizabeth gets her hair straightened by the traveling hairdresser.

It’s such a shame, and carries such a consequence on the next generation when a girl is kept from school. The next generation starts from where their parents started, which reinforces a sort of your time will come justice, but also devastatingly reinforces the cycle of poverty that grips so many families in Ghana. I believe gender issues are at the heart of every obstacle to development, but the fact that it’s so deeply rooted in tradition and culture makes it only able to affect indirectly. Young women like Elizabeth, and the men that join them to create new norms and challenge old ideas will be the greatest pioneers of change that help countries like Ghana live up to their full potential.

These girls fetch water at least 6 times a day. They're happy because right now the well still has water so it's only an 8 minute walk away.