Monday, December 7, 2009

Idl Adda

“Good morning, and to all my muslim brothers and sisters, a happy Idl Adda”.

In true Ghanaian style, the radio announcer from a popular radio station - a Christian – passed on well wishes to everyone celebrating the Muslim holiday.

Forgive my theological ignorance – and please don’t hold what I say here to be fact. My understanding of the holiday is all based on conversations and not extensive reading of the Koran. The celebration of Idl Adda was explained to me like this: God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his own son. Abraham spoke to his son and told him God’s wishes. Together they decided that if this was God’s wish, then Abraham should sacrifice his son. His son was tied to a tree and as Abraham raised his knife to conduct the sacrifice, God ordered him to stop – that he was happy Abraham was willing to obey, but it was not necessary to sacrifice his son. Then, immediately, a ram appeared in the place of his son and was sacrificed to God.

The Muslims celebrate this holiday by fasting in the morning and going for communal prayers. Following prayers, a ram is slaughtered by whoever can afford it (or a larger animal if can be afforded), and the fast is broken by eating pieces of the ram’s liver breaded in flour and fried. Then the meat is prepared for eating. Half is distributed to the poor – as charity is one of the pillars of Islam - and the other half is eaten in various dishes by extended family.

At our house, everyone began preparing to go to the town center for prayers. The central mosque is not large enough to hold everyone, so for events like this the prayers are said in a big field (see pic). I put on a long dress and donned a veil over my head and went with the children to town. There's a photo of three of the girls - getting Ghanaians to smile in photos is not easy! The men go separately because the men and women are segregated during prayers. The prayers were over quickly, and we went back to the house.

The rams were not slaughtered that day, because the celebration conflicted with normal Friday prayers, so there was not enough time to prepare the food.

The next day, two rams were slaughtered at my house (pics of rams before and after). I sampled the fried liver but turned down the intestines and slices of stomach that were in our soup for lunch. The ‘meat’ in the sense that we’re used to, came that night at dinner with a special treat of rice instead of the usual daily TZ. The big meals continued throughout the weekend, and everywhere you went, both Christians and Muslims greeted with “Barka la saala”.

The peaceful co-existence of Christians and Muslims seems to come easy to Ghanaians. The next big holiday will be Christmas, and my Muslim office mate has already started playing his favorite Christmas songs over his computer speakers. I know that everyone in town, regardless of their religion, will be in the Christmas spirit come December 25. Too bad the people of Northern Ghana can’t be more of a model to people in other parts of the world.


Although the air was gradually loosing the humidity from the rains and the leaves were drying and dropping, the Harmattan - the winds from the north carrying the sand from the Sahara - seemed to arrive overnight.

One day the skies were blue and alive with the kind of big dynamic clouds that I’ve only seen in the part of the world. The next day it looked as though the whole town was shrouded in a thick cloud of smoke.

Every morning and evening, the sun appears as a warm orange disk veiled by the dust. The days are hot but dry, and the air smells of smoke from the small grass fires that burn all around town (deliberately set as a control against big fires later in the year when things become really dry). The dry air sucks all the moisture from your skin and the dust and smoke sting your eyes. Fine dust settles on everything, and if you take a bus or motorbike anywhere on a road that isn’t paved (most roads), you arrive covered in red dust.

But with these conditions comes the sweet relief of cool air arriving late in the evening and lingering until morning. I sleep better at night and can even start my workday free from sweat. The Ghanaians cover up and go home early because they are too cold, but I feel right at home since the temperature is similar to the evening / morning temperatures that we would experience during our Calgary summer.

I’ve been told that as the months go on, it will become drier, dustier, hotter in the day, and cooler at night. The rainy season will start again in April / May. I think I prefer snow to living in the desert.

The British High Commission comes to Bole

“Because Ghana has a good government, we give the money to the government so they can spend it on their priorities”, says Nicolas Wescott, representative of the British High Commission. He’s addressing the BoleWura (Bole Chief) and other significant players in Bole and discussing the approximate 60 million pounds given to the Ghana government each year.

I like his statement for two reasons.
1. I appreciate the efforts to let the Ghanaian government decide what the priorities are for the use of the money. The government, through its decentralized arms, is also in a better position to deliver the services to the various communities – rather than a bunch of pale British representatives in Land Cruisers.

2. His statement makes me feel like my work is important. I feel that saying “Ghana has a good government” is only partially true. Ghana has a lot to be proud of, including a peaceful democracy and relatively low levels of corruption in their government. But their local governments are still not functioning as designed. The local governments should be the agencies using the British funds to deliver services to the communities, but they need to start performing first. EWB is trying to help them do that. It’s slow, but so is development. And if we can make small steps to improving how the local governments operate, it means that the local governments can use the British funding more effectively, and more people can benefit from the aid as intended.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Saturday Morning in the Village

“It’s in the bush! You want to go to the bush?!” One of the young English speaking girls replied when I told her that I wanted to accompany the women on their morning fire wood gathering mission.
“Yes – is that okay? Can I go with them?” I replied. I was standing in a small circle of short and wiry Ghanaian women holding hand made axes and cutlasses (machetes). They looked me up and down.
“But you don’t even have long sleeves!” I looked at the women who were going. They were dressed in their standard attire of a baggy long dress with short sleeves and flip flops. One of the younger girls didn’t even have shoes on. Nonetheless, I was sure that it was probably in my best interest to cover as much skin as possible if I was heading out with them. I went and changed into long pants, rubber boots, and a long sleeved shirt. We were off.

After 30 minutes walking down the red dirt road and another 15 minutes of bushwhacking, I found myself sitting in 12 foot tall grass and shielding my eyes from the hot sun as I watched one of the women, in a satin finish pink dress with flowers, climbing a large dead shea nut tree with a cutlass in one hand. About halfway up the tree, she stopped and steadied herself on a branch before beginning to hack away at the other branches with her cutlass. The heavy branches flattened the tall grass as they fell around the tree.

The firewood was further chopped into smaller pieces and tied on u-shaped basket frames to be carried back. I helped a few of the ladies hoist their incredibly heavy loads on top of their heads, and then asked if I could try carrying the load that was earmarked for the youngest girl (who appeared to be about 10 years old). I tried to lift the load, but needed assistance to make it up above my head. I put the firewood on my head for maybe 10 wobbly seconds before the women insisted on taking it from me. I didn’t complain – it was far too heavy for me to carry even 10 feet, let alone the long journey back.

I learned many things that Saturday morning in the village. One of them was that collecting firewood is really not my forte. I probably didn’t need to come to Ghana to figure that out.

Going to School

It was a Friday morning and I found myself surrounded by about 50 children dressed in dark green uniforms, singing and animatedly performing the actions to their song. I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face if I tried – really not a bad way to start a day.

Three of my host sisters are school teachers at the same school and they invited me to see their school and the children. They teach at a nursery school – similar to our pre-school or kindergarten. Kids start here when they are four years old, and will move on to the primary school around the age of six, or when they have proven they can pass the requisite test of reading and arranging numbers 0 through 50, and writing and sounding out the alphabet.

Dark clouds settle in
As happy as the kids’ songs make me, I can’t suppress a deeper sadness that is growing as I take in their reality. Uniforms are ratty and torn. There are hundreds of children in this three room classroom block – many of them take their class under a tree outside. This means that if it rains, the kids either go home, or go and join their classmates inside where the deafening sound of the rain hitting the tin roof is only matched by the voices of the hundreds of children crammed into a few tiny rooms. “We can’t teach again” I’m told by my host sister, as she describes what happens when the rains come.

There is a blackboard in each room (and one set up under the tree), and some benches with small tables for the children to sit at, but no other teaching aids to speak of. I’m introduced to the headmaster – a welcoming woman with a baby tied to her back. The motivation amongst the teachers appears to be quite low. First period is an hour and it’s scheduled as music (thus the singing). But after 20 minutes the teachers run out of songs to sing with the children and sit on some benches as the kids run around and play. Then when the hour of the first period is up, one of the teachers rings a bell and yells “Break!” Break from what? I wonder. The kids have already been playing in the playground for the last half an hour.

Missing motivation: a key piece of the puzzle
I know the teachers care for the kids, but there are very few incentives in place to motivate performance in teaching. Their only goal is simply to teach the kids the numbers to 50 and the alphabet – over a period of about two years. They’re poorly paid, have no resources to do their jobs, and no one holds them accountable. Many of the parents of the children are illiterate and so long as their children are away in the morning, they assume they’re at school learning.

A story of one family
During the break, I sat on the bench with the teachers, watching the children. The teachers spotted a small boy sleeping on the side of the field amongst children playing. They called him over to see if he was sick. The boy, wearing torn and dirty clothes instead of the required uniform, made his way over to the teachers. His slightly older sister (also in dirty clothes) accompanied him. My host sister, Amelia, felt his forehead. “Is he sick?” she asked his sister. “No madam. Hungry” the small girl answered. “Mmm. You are hungry too?” “Yes madam”. Amelia called over to the lady on the side of the playground selling rice and ordered a small portion for each of the two children. She took some money from her own purse and gave it to them. They took it to exchange for the rice. I watched them as they sat and ate. Life was breathed back into them both and they joined the other kids on the playground.

My other host sister, Alijatu, told me their story. “Their father was a teacher here at this school. March 6 of this year he was teaching. That night he was even at a meeting with some other people in the community. March 7 he passed away. The mother is just sitting down, not doing anything (to make money). When she brought the kids here for enrollment, she didn’t have the GHc2.00 for the school fees for each child ($1.40 each) but we had to take them because their father was a teacher here. Still, up to today, no uniforms for the children.” My smile from the children’s songs earlier had long faded – this was heavy stuff for a Friday morning.

The bigger picture
I sat a while longer and contemplated how many more children at the school went hungry every day. How many of the girls I saw would be pulled from school as soon as they were old enough to carry water? How many students’ potential was lost without an education system that could engage them? And what was the reality for the children in the other outlying communities if this was all happening in Bole, the district capital, where the schools are significantly better than those in the other communities in the districts?

The gift of opportunity
I thought about the District Coordinating Director at my district. He was a well educated man and a strong leader at our office. He had only transferred to our district about six months ago, but he wasted no time putting procedures in place that were supposed to be there and encouraging better work practices. He told me that he attended a secondary school that was fully funded by a Dutch Catholic Church. Fully funded to the extent that the students even ate cheese (cheese is non existent in northern Ghana now, let alone 40 years ago). Most of his classmates went on to become top government officials, consultants for big NGOs, and leaders of their sectors. A glaring example of how powerful a good education can be.

Education is a system, not a school
My visit to the school was a clear demonstration that education does not come with the delivery of a school. Education comes from a system of engaging students and transferring knowledge from teachers who are resourced and motivated. A system that allows kids to explore curiosities and pushes them to develop their potential. And education really is absolutely necessary to bring a country out of extreme poverty. My story sounds bleak, but I know that there are also a few examples of effective education delivery around the country – both government run and donor funded.

Beyond building schools
The reason I share this information with you is not so that you will feel pity for the children in Ghana. I share so that if you ever hear about someone going to a developing country to build a school – you can ask them some questions. Who will be teaching and how will they be resourced? Will the children in the community be able to attend, or have their guardians decided that helping on the farm is more important? Will the children need a school feeding program to ensure they are able to learn? Do they have books and pencils to use? Will anyone be checking on the quality of education they receive? It’s not easy, but these are important questions to ask. Those of us who want to do development work need to hold each other accountable to ensure that what we are doing is actually having the intended impact for the intended beneficiaries. A structure won’t educate a population alone, and it’s not enough to sit around and pat each other on the back for thinking about the ‘poor kids in Africa’.

Optimism remains
Educating the population of a country is slow – but so is change and development. But I know that the rewards will be great as education for the majority of the world’s population can unlock the human potential of Ghana, of Africa, and of developing communities around the world. Let’s see what amazing things people can do when they are given the opportunity.

Village Dance Party

Some photos from a village that I visted one afternoon to dance to some xylophone music and drumming on plastic gerry cans.

Friday, October 30, 2009

A day I won’t forget: Gold mining in Ghana, and my advocacy for Bill C-300

October 19, 2009

The cab of our pickup was packed with four grown men and myself. There were another four men in the box of the pickup, and another pickup following us with the same arrangement (less the Canadian girl). It took us nearly two hours to make our way down the 20km of horrible road filled with giant mudholes and other hazards. We were going to Kui.

Kui is a place I’ve heard lots about around the District Assembly. It’s a settlement about 100 km from my town of Bole and it’s home to a small scale illegal gold surface mining operation. Everyone’s been spreading stories about the place – how the population is that of a city and isn’t just Ghanaian, but also people from nearby Togo, Benin, Cote D’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, and Nigeria; how the money flows more than water; how you can buy anything you want; and how the place is overrun with social problems like prostitution, HIV/AIDS, and robbery.

I was going to Kui in a small convoy. We had Immigration Officers, the District Police Chief, some District Assembly staff, some elected Assembly Members, and the Chief of a nearby town who used to be the acting chief of Kui itself. And the random white Canadian girl. The purpose of our trip was to go and visit the people in Kui and tell them that the District Assembly wasn’t interested in shutting down their illegal operations, but instead wanted to help them legalize and obtain licenses for their activities. And that the assembly wanted to begin collecting taxes from the massive amount of money being made there.

A Sore Sight
We finally arrived in Kui after a truck ride that gave me bruises. Most days in Ghana I see sights that tug at my heartstrings, but this day was overwhelming. The settlement looked like a refugee camp. All the shelters were made from thatched grass held up by broken branches. Some had plastic sheets covering them to provide a bit of protection from the rain. There was garbage everywhere and no latrines or sanitation facilities to speak of. A lack of sanitation isn’t uncommon in Ghana, but perhaps here it was magnified because all the grass and trees had been removed to make houses or to dig through the sand for gold.

Most of the other stories I had heard about Kui seemed to be true. The place was huge and I don’t doubt that the population was larger than the 10,000 or so that are in Bole. The shelters were all arranged haphazardly and were crammed between large piles of sand or deep cuts through the earth – all results of the surface mining. The main path through the shelters was lined with makeshift stands selling all kinds of things that you can only buy in larger Ghanaian cities – even the food we were served for lunch can’t be bought in Bole. There were hundreds of crates stacked up with empty beer bottles, and even a chalkboard outside a drinking area that advertised the times of upcoming football matches they were showing on TV (there’s no electricity to Kui, but apparently no shortage of generators).

We arrived at the Chief’s Palace (a thatched grass roof held up with sticks and no walls), and were all seated in a giant circle of about 20 people. As the white girl, I was seated beside the Chief. Another 50 or 60 people gathered around our circle to listen to our meeting.

Forced Participation
The meeting was conducted with the formalities of a typical Ghanaian meeting, and there was a translator in the middle broadcasting everything which was said to the rest of the crowd in one of the local languages. The message was delivered to the people, and no complaints were heard. After most people in the meeting had spoken, the meeting chair turned to me and asked for my contribution.
“Sister, do you have anything you would like to say?”
“No – thank you sir, I am here to listen and learn”
“But you must say something”. Oh crap.
Nothing like being put on the spot. I’ve come to understand that the fact that I’m white means that people expect me to have answers when I come to meetings, and that they also expect me to make contributions whether I like it or not. So I did my best to provide an analogy of Fort McMurray, and how when a community is formed of people from many different places that no one will treat it as their home and the result is a place which no one wants to live. I urged them to come together as a community and work with the District Assembly to make it a better place to live whilst they are there trying to earn a living. Big and vague words with little tangible meaning – the best I could do while trying to think on my feet in front of the huge crowd. Who knows what the translator told everyone I said. Insert polite clapping for the white girl here.

An Interruption
At one point, our meeting was broken by a large and very muscle bound man sprinting into our circle and diving to take cover at the feet of the Chief (right next to me, while I silently freaked out in my chair). A couple of other men chased him into the circle and stopped when they saw the man was sitting at the feet of the Chief. In a couple of minutes there were five men in total, all angry and cut on their faces from fighting. The police chief and immigration officers got them all up and made them carry giant logs around town in the dead heat of the day. They all returned about 15 minutes later, sweating and collapsing from exhaustion. The police chief gave them a lecture:
“You have no jobs so you come here looking for something small to eat. And now look what you are doing to each other. None of you are sober enough to say anything of value to the people gathered here so go and sleep. If you continue this, we will come and take you to Bole [to the prison].”

I am still haunted by the face of one of the men sitting on the ground. Bleeding, sweating, he looked like he was about to cry. He glanced at me and I swear I had met him in Bole but I couldn’t place exactly where. And now here he was, drawn to this terrible place in hopes of earning some money but just ending up in trouble.

Private Sector vs. Public Sector in Development
I firmly believe that Ghana needs private sector development to move out of poverty. But it also struck me that this town is the result of breakneck speed private sector development without any government intervention. Any service that can generate a profit for someone has been catered for, as evidenced by the luxuries like ice cream being sold from generator powered freezers. But the less glamorous services, or those that require a community effort such as fixing roads, providing sanitation, education, or basic health care have been neglected.

The private sector – a small mining company from Malta - has provided a single borehole for water and they make around GHc1,000 ($720 CAN) per day from selling water - a good sum of money in Ghana. At first I was angry that the people were being charged for the water. But I quickly realized that before this well was drilled, the only water available to drink was dirty ditch water. I also realized that the local government wasn’t in the position to provide these types of services to Kui because:
1. The borehole at that location reportedly cost GHc25,000 (around $18,000 CAN - although I question this amt, it's very high). They simply don’t have this type of money.
2. Even if they had the money, the bureaucracy is slow and it would take several months to mobilize resources to drill a well, and
3. I’m not convinced that people in a very temporary mining town should be prioritized for government spending over those who live in permanent settlements and still don’t benefit from public services.

Kui’s Contribution to Development
Nothing operates in isolation, and Kui definitely contributes to the bigger picture of development in Ghana. Kui is providing jobs for the thousands of people without jobs. This is great if they take the opportunity to go and work, earn an income, save some money, and support themselves into school or other business after they leave Kui. But unfortunately I think this will be the exception rather than the standard.

I’ve heard stories of women’s groups being educated in local programs in their communities to produce shea butter and use it as an income generating activity. When the trainer went to deliver the certificates to the women, they had all gone to Kui. School aged children leave school to go there and carry water, or are even forced to go because their parents take them there. They’re often swept into the sex trade. People diagnosed with HIV leave their home communities because of the social stigma attached to the positive diagnosis, so they go to Kui where no one knows they are positive and they continue to spread the disease there. Any diseases contracted at Kui will also be multiplied throughout the home communities of the workers when they return. People also become accustomed to earning mining salaries and then when they leave the mine, they turn to robbery or crime to support their lifestyles.

Importance of Corporate Social Responsibility
I don’t know a lot about mining communities or boom and bust cycles, but the importance of the private sector providing services to the people who live in these communities and conduct the mining is evident. Communities like these in Canada, such as Fort McMurray (where I spent a total of three cold, dark, and depressing months), are stigmatized as unpleasant places to be. But here in Ghana and in other developing countries, these places are a collection of desperation. There really are no other job options as there is such a lack of private sector development throughout the nation and public sector employment is saturated. For the first time in many people’s lives they have a chance to collect something that resembles a steady income – and a significant income at that. Their governments can’t respond quickly with infrastructure and necessary services do things like prevent disease, provide safe water, or security for the citizens of the settlement. Even our rich Albertan government can’t keep up with Fort Mac, so how can we expect governments of developing countries to be equipped to respond?

Unfortunately for Kui, with the exception of the one man Maltese company mentioned above, there are no companies who are mining there. The operations are an ad-hoc free for all, loosely organized by individuals in some sort of power structure I have yet to figure out. I don’t know why there are no companies there – maybe the deposits are not big enough to warrant significant private investment. I’m not sure why, but they just aren’t there.

Since Kui is a surface mine, the operation will continue whether a private company is investing or not because it’s easy for individuals to find the gold on their own. But with most mines, the resources are not accessible for extraction without massive front end capital investments – and therefore will lie untouched without private sector intervention. Social services for the community and the workers must accompany these companies and their extraction investments because the consequences of not providing them will contribute to the decline in development of the surrounding area and even the country as a whole.

What’s Next for Kui?
The District Assembly is very focused on collecting revenue from this literal gold mine. Not just the mining, but all of the buying and selling will provide a needed push to their pool of Internally Generated Funds (IGF). Fortunately there are also some people within the assembly who are advocating for service provision for the people there. It seems like mobile services such as toilets and clinics are a start, and are investments the government feels comfortable with in such a transient atmosphere. Now to see how quickly they will be mobilized is another matter. For the sake of the people of Kui, I’m hoping these interventions won’t be delivered in ‘Africa time’.