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!