Saturday, May 27, 2006

Stranger in a Strange Land

I’ve finished reading what is likely to be the first of many books this summer. First on the list was Robert A. Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land,” which was a fantastic book with a very appropriate title for my current situation.

The book is about a man, Valentine Michael Smith who is born on Mars, educated by an extremely advanced Martian race, and then brought back ‘home’ to Earth. In light of the story and my experiences on the ground, I can’t help but draw parallels between the mentality of the fictional Martian society and actual Ghanaian society.

For one, Smith believed that all the religions on earth were correct and not contradictory; all of them were different ways to look at the same problem, in which all religions are united to a common purpose. Ghanaians are very similar in their fusion of beliefs. They incorporate Christian or Muslim beliefs into the traditional tribal beliefs without any problem. Highly educated Ghanaians, some with one or more university degrees in science, believe as readily in ghosts and witchcraft as they do in hydrogen bonding. As far as they’re concerned, nothing in science and religion contradict. Life can be studied or it can be left as it is and shrouded in mysticism. But above all else, it is beautiful. To Ghanaians, everything is Grace.

I’m amazed at how Ghanaians are such unbelievably happy, trusting, and peaceful people. I actually can’t quite get over it. Almost every element of their society is founded on such a deep trust that I almost feel guilty just thinking about it. Two quick examples:

1. When a woman with a baby wants to board a lorry or tro-tro, she passes her baby through the window to complete strangers, packs her bags, pays the driver, climbs on and finds her seat, and then has the baby passed back to her. She usually doesn’t know any of the people who hold and play with her baby during this process, and, equally, doesn’t care. No-one I’ve talked to finds anything odd about, save for other visiting volunteers like myself… I can’t possibly this practice being adopted back home.

2. While traveling to my work I passed through the capital of the Upper West Region, Wa. Upon arriving there I tried to take a taxi to the station, where I would bus up to Jirapa. I knew the taxi ride should only cost about 5000 cedis, but the man I asked insisted on trying to charge 10 000. After a few minutes of debating juxtaposed with small talk I got him to bring his price down to 8000. At the end of our trip we got out, unpacked all my bags and he led me to where my bus would arrive. As I went to pay him I realised that I only had a 10 000 cedis bill and that he had no change. He smiles at me, takes the bill, and hurries off into the chaos towards his taxi. I see him go through a mass of people, come out on the other side, get in the taxi and drive away. Figuring that I had been had, I gave up and started chatting with the man next to me. About ten minutes later a gentleman walks up to me with 2000 cedis and says “your change, sir.” I have no idea how many hands the money passed through but somehow, without either myself or the taxi driver looking, I got my change. Again, no-one blinked at this casual exchange; you always make sure that everyone gets their due change in Ghana… just amazing.

Situations like this, which usually happen every day, really lead me to question my being here. Morally and spiritually these people seem infinitely more advanced than home; and the sense of community is so strong here. So how, exactly, is the West trying to ‘develop’ these people? By trying to ‘raise their standard of living,’ dragging them into our crazy consumerist/capitalist system? What good will that really cause? Am I really just ruining a beautiful society by trying to bring them fancy machines; by trying to boost their economy with a consumerist mindset?

Maybe we should start flying Ghanaians to Canada so that they can ‘develop’ us…

Tuesday, May 23, 2006


Today I was able to go the field and experience more REFLECT community meetings. So, as promised, here’s a proper entry about the most rich and beneficial experience of my placement thus far.

I woke up at 6:30am this morning and, after a quick refreshing bucket shower, was ready when Jude picked me up at 7am, relatively late in the morning by African standards. After a brief stop at the office to gas up, we raced off on his motorbike down a dirt road that would have made an insurance agent cry.

Throughout the drive I can hear the kids screaming “Nansaalah! Nansaalah! HowareYOU!!” as we passed. Sometimes they even turn it into a song (with no appropriate pauses for you to respond) “Nansaalah. How are you. We are fine. Thank you!” I can’t really do much else but smile and wave back as we continue down the road. The adults are equally as friendly, though they don’t waste their energy shouting at a motorbike. As we drive I can’t help but wonder (for the thousandth time) if everybody is only so friendly because I am white, or if they’re actually this friendly thanks to a culture that is inherently kinder than our own. I think both factor in...

We arrived at the site to find 50 people already gathered, most of them women; the men had already left to farm and the women all stayed in town because in was Kaani’s market day (once every 6 days a town hosts a market, where all the surrounding community members come and sell their goods). Before Jude and I had come to a stop Raphael, who was the other RAAP worker with us, had already started to lead the group in a big sing-along.

He starts with what looks to be the chief, and then one by one he works his way around the circle, with each person singing a couple lines and the entire group responding. The lyrics are the same for each person, with the exception of the last line, which they seemed to make up for themselves (or at least I could hear no pattern to it). As Raphael came around to me I sang the main part, which I had already been repeated enough to be memorized, and then quickly mumbled something at the end for the last line while shooting the crowd my best sheepish grin. It worked; they had to stop the song while everyone ran around laughing, shouting, clapping and high-fiving me for my attempt. I couldn’t help but grin—from the first community visit we did it was apparent that no village would let me simply stand off to the side and observe; and so there’s usually no choice but to throw yourself into the singing and dancing and try to get as many laughs as you can. I’ve found that people accept your presence much faster if you goof around during the ‘fun time’ of the meeting, as goofing around is an inherent part of almost all social life here. The fact is that the villages usually want to see the white guy sing/dance, and once you show them you’re able to have a good time they more easily accept your presence for the remainder of the meeting, allowing you to step off to the side and observe the meeting while being relatively unnoticed.

I found it interesting that, by the time the song and dance finished, over 100 people had gathered—all of those originally “too busy” to join the meeting suddenly wanted to join in the fun. A very effective way to start off a meeting (I told you RAAP was good)! As the meeting got underway I quickly scanned the crowd. Most were traditionally dressed, but some had obviously Western clothing: ripped jeans, baseball caps, and t-shirts reading “Nike,” “Madonna,” “50 Cent” and, my favourite, “I Love My Attitude Problem." Scanning the crowd I realized that I had no idea how old most of the women in the crowd were; their faces were hardened by the sheer volume of hard work they did, sometimes making them seem decades older than they probably were. (If there’s one thing I’ve learned so far, it’s that women here do at least 80% of the work and get 0% of the thanks/respect.)

After introductions finished I became almost completely lost, since I’m not exactly fluent in Dagaare. In other meetings it was better for me, as the facilitators always used REFLECT tools which are easy to interpret and require little verbal explanation. This meeting, however, was the first REFLECT meeting run in this community, so it was an introduction to the program, tools, and songs—with an emphasis on speech rather than symbols. I had no choice but to sit back, relax, and watch the meeting progress; observing how people spoke and reacted to the speakers.

As I was sitting there I thought back to the first community visit we did, in which they created a “Health Calendar.” The facilitators had drawn a grid in the sand and the community used random materials lying around to represent diseases, placing them in the seasons in which they were a problem. The community members themselves decided what objects to use and what diseases they represented. As each person stood to pick an item, they had to describe why they made their choice and how the object related to the disease. Most of the items chosen held a very obvious link to the disease associated with them. Except one; a gentleman picked up a hard quarter-shell of one of their local fruits and announced to the crowd that it represented malaria (to which several people snickered). Even our NGO director could hardly keep a straight face when he asked what on earth an old piece of shell had to do with malaria. The man’s response, however, silenced the crowd. I found out later what he said: “This shell, if left face up, will collect rainwater. This still pool of water can then breed mosquitoes. These mosquitoes, in turn, will bite us and give us malaria.”

I should note here that ever since hearing this I’ve made a point of running around LEADEC emptying any and everything that could possibly collect water after each rainfall. (The villagers aren’t the only ones learning during these meetings!)

Anyway, the Kaani meeting ended after almost two and a half hours. Immediately a few kids came running up to me to shake hands and to invite me to join the football game that they were about to start. I declined, saying we had to go. After a very brief moment of sadness one of them kicked the ball towards the field and the rest of them went screamed on after it. I turned to see that a couple women had been watching me; they smiled and waved.I'm not quite sure how to end this so I'll take this opportunity to post my mailing address and phone number:

Bryn Ferris
PO Box 32
Jirapa, NWR

Phone Number: 011 233 20 924 9952

I'm three hours ahead of Atlantic time right now. Feel free to call at any time -- it's nice to hear voices from home. :-)

One last thing -- I've added links to a glossary and to other volunteer blogs. Check them out!

Sunday, May 21, 2006


For the past four days the entire office has been involved in a ‘voluntary’ workshop. Despite the fact that everyone had to give up their weekends for the work, I have not heard a single complaint about it. The workshop has been a great introduction to RAAP for me, showing me just how passionate and talented these people are at what they do.

REFLECT is a community development tool to help communities identify their development opportunities/issues and act on them. REFLECT stands for REgenerated Freirean Literacy through Empowering Community Techniques. It was started by Paulo Freire, a Brazilian Educator who spent two years researching how adult literacy could be promoted while increasing community participation in the development process. The result is a widely used methodology that is endorsed by major international NGOs such as OXFAM and ActionAid International.

There are two major components to RAAP’s use of REFLECT:

  1. Community Dialogue, Action, and Development
    • Community members meet regularly for participatory analysis of community issues to identify concerns and to raise awareness using PRA/PLA Tools.
    • REFLECT Committee meet to develop action plans for the development/implementation of development activities identify in REFLECT meetings.
  2. Literacy
    • “Night Circle” literacy classes are held for all interested adults, in which reading, writing, and numeracy are taught in Dagaare (the local language). Advanced classes may progress to a secondary language (usually English)
The entire process is driven by facilitators, though REFLECT stresses that they do nothing other than simply facilitate. It’s meant to be a completely participatory process in which the community is empowered, having full ownership of the issues. The graphics that are developed to identify issues must be completely made at the site using materials available at the site (ie: no primers). This allows a creative and active involvement of all participants, building on their knowledge while still respecting all local oral traditions, making it relevant to the local context.

The graphics I mentioned are all part of the “REFLECT Tool Box.” They include maps (household, agricultural, community, etc), calendars (agricultural, health, gender workload, hunger & abundance, etc), matrices (crop, credit, household decisions, etc) and other tools such as guided/transect walks, problem trees, pairwise ranking, and cause/effect analysis. There’s over fifty different ‘tools’ that a facilitator can use to try and bring to light issues and to encourage discussion on how to address issues.

I found it interesting to note that my NGO director often quotes Robert Chambers’ thoughts on the process and is known to say sentences like “you remember in the video when Chambers said...” (Robert Chambers spoke at the EWB National Conference in Ottawa in January and is now on EWB’s advisory board.) Also, for anyone who is interested in the methodology, I have a copy of the workshop notes that one of my co-workers typed up. If you want a copy just email me at

The most valuable part of the training to me was the field practice. During the four days of training we visited five different communities and facilitated the activities that they were running. Not only did I get to see the methodology in action, but the experience of traveling to these remote villages and experiencing the people and culture was indescribably awesome. I didn’t take my camera with me as I was afraid of cultural inappropriateness; I apologize for the lack of pictures to compliment the most interesting part. However, more field visits will be underway next week, where I hope to bring a camera and write a proper entry about one of these amazing communities.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

So I am finally settled in at work and ready to go. I just hooked up my laptop and set up my stuff around what is to become my desk. I’m fairly lucky in that there’s actually electricity at work (not the case at home). Mr. Sinkari told me to set up and start working while he figures out whether or not they need to head to Wa to fix up some equipment. Needless to say, I find it difficult to start working when I have not been given anything to work on…

The office is a small, three room office with few plugs, hardly adequate for a staff of 15+. My desk is surprisingly nice (which is not, of course, to say it’s amazing—simply that it has no defects and is both clean and smooth). Already I regret leaving my mouse at home, especially if I will be working a lot on my laptop, as it seems I will.

RAAP is starting to run a “Leadership Training Centre,” which, in addition to being where I’m living for the summer, will eventually train RAAP staff, directors, and local NGOs on leadership techniques and skills. They want me to start designing programs and modules for this training; a direct way to build capacity in a sustainable way. I’m encouraged by RAAP’s approach, especially since I’ve heard some horror stories of others NGOs who simply don’t “get it.” It seems like everywhere I go random people are singing high praise for RAAP, despite the fact that it’s a relatively new organisation that has only been around for a few years.

At the moment RAAP is not running any “engineering” development projects in the communities it works with, though the Peace Corps volunteer and myself are looking into the feasibility of a multi-function platform project in the region. RAAP is an amazingly flexible organisation and refuses to implement any program in any village where they do not feel it’s appropriate. At the moment they work in three main fields: education, health, and livelihoods (with gender equity running throughout). They run micro-credit programs, where small grants are given to business owners to help get them started or to expand their operations. They also run livestock initiatives, where farm animals and equipment are supplied to areas that have identified these things as their primary need. Above all else though, they run a program called REFLECT, which I’m sure I’ll have a lot to say about after this weekend, since the entire staff is having “REFLECT Training” all weekend long.

Ok, well I just got my first assignment, which is a stack of papers and write-ups concerning the Leadership Centre… time to get to work!

Monday, May 15, 2006

Arrived at last!

This Monday marks both my first complete week in the country and the day that I move into my home for the summer. My director, Mr. Evans Sinkari, has put me up in some new buildings that RAAP is renovating and hopes to turn into their training centre. The buildings are about 4km outside the nearest village, Hain, where the RAAP offices are located. I’m disappointed that I am not able to live with a family and experience the culture further, but all the people at RAAP have already gone to such great lengths to set this up that I don’t want to offend them.

Two of the employees stayed with me when I got in this morning, helping me roll out some mat/floors for my room, and cutting and hanging some curtains. They also fetched some water and cleaned out some buckets that I can use to shower from. They’re also making a list of everything I could possibly need and are trying to get it for me. It all seems like a bit too much for me (and I’ve told them this), but they’re confident that the more material things they can provide for me the happier I’ll be. It’s probably a half-truth, but this precedent set for Westerners troubles me a bit. I didn’t come here to be pampered; I came here to try and help, all the while experiencing life the way these wonderful people live it. While room service is nice, I’m not sure it’s such a great growth opportunity.

I’m told I will have a neighbour soon. His name is Mike, and he’s an American Peace Corps volunteer who has been here since December and will remain here for two years. He went traveling somewhere last week and was supposed to be back last Friday. They don’t know where he’s to, but they’ve mentioned that he often leaves and is not, in their eyes, very committed to helping them. Seeing as I haven’t met the guy yet, he definitely has the benefit of the doubt in my mind, especially since I know that there’s weekends in which I’ll have to peel out to meet EWB people and submit reports, etc.

Right now I really have to use the washroom, but there are no latrines or anything set up. I was told that the whole office will come construct some simple pit latrines for the centre in a week or so as a team building activity. Sounds great, but until then I assume I’m just to walk as far away from the buildings as I can into the bush and have a nice squat.

It’s hard to describe what I feel right now, as so much is unknown or simply unfolding as the day goes on. I’m getting quite thirsty and have fetched some water from the borehole, though I’m not sure if it’s safe to drink or not. I tried to pristine it in my Nalgene bottle, but I found it hard to get exactly 4 drops of each solution, and consequently loaded too many chemicals in it. It tastes quite funny and already my stomach seems to be reacting to it. I could kill for some sachet water right now.

Scratch that. Most of the office staff just showed up with drinks and food. These people are too good to me! :)

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Accra, Part Two

As we exited the tro-tro in Jamestown (on the coast), a well dressed man offers to take us down to the beach area and show us around. He said his name was James, and that he teaches math and science in a senior high school in the city (which is quite a ways from Jamestown). He leads us down past an old slave fort that has now been converted into a prison, with huge walls lined with barbed wire and broken glass; we can hear the prisoners shouting inside.

After winding our way down a dusty path to the beach we are greeted by the sight of significant poverty. We walk around goats, chickens, and kids playing football while the men watch us from shacks that can, miraculously, still stand up. There are hundreds of boats along the shore, but none in the water; James explains that there is no fishing on Tuesday because of the Creationist belief that the waters were created on Tuesday. As we walked out onto the pier I couldn’t help but be struck by the view along the shore, with big fancy government buildings being only one come away; an interesting visual that we quickly sneaked a picture of.

As James continues to take us around the village we can’t help but all feel like we’re simply taking a guided tour of people’s poverty. Though I feared they might resent a group of Westerners being led around, as if their lives and livelihoods are a spectacle to see, these people still greeted us with a friendly wave and smile. We still can’t help but feel like intruders. When leaving the area, the sight of a toddler following a man dragging a rusty saw nearly as big as he is only reinforces the fact that we’re simply sight-seeing poverty—with real people. Reminding ourselves that this is what half of our placement is about, we leave the beach with James and head towards his house.

On the way to James’ house, two small children throw themselves at Ben and myself, giving our legs an eager, sincere hug. As we continue walking, James explains to me that most of the children I meet will think that I am Jesus; they will often shout out “Sunday born!” to me because I am white. At the time I considered his comments interesting, but I brushed them aside as we entered his neighbourhood to meet his wife and son. After a short chat we make our way back to the tro-tro stop, passing through an alley past a elementary/middle school. As luck would have it, classes ended as we entered the alley, and the children came pouring out while our group was passing by… chaos ensued. They came screaming towards us; shaking hands, high five-ing, and screaming “howareYOU” at the top of their lungs, as if we were rock-stars or royalty. Those of us at the front of the group were able to avoid most of the mob, but those at the back got cut off from the rest by the wave of kids. Marka, who was in the middle, somehow managed to take a quick, blind picture over her shoulder without anyone noticing. Even though the picture is off to the side, I’m still quite fond of it; though I promised myself that I wouldn’t post it without first talking about the whole situation.

The main reason that I was initially hesitant to post the picture is because of the dangerous message that it portrays. There are few things that I hate more than “the white Westerner coming to safe Africa.” As I have always believed (and as has been confirmed on the ground), these people are capable and hard-working—they do not need us to come ‘rescue’ them. It’s extremely easy to overstate the importance and impact that I, as a Westerner, can and will have here, particularly through images like the one above. My single biggest issue with organisations such as World Vision is that they always portray African children as helpless and Westerners as their saviours; and I made a vow to myself that I would not perpetuate this image of Africa. As I’ve found already, it’s unbelievably easy to get self-congratulatory images such as this one; but the attitudes of children should not be exploited and used to show how ‘great’ some people can be.

So because of this I ask that you don’t look at that image as proof that we’re doing great work overseas, or even that myself or anyone else there is a great person because the kids are so happy. I post this picture as a reminder to myself, as well as anyone reading it, to always be conscious of how you act while doing development work overseas and how you want to bring messages back home. I didn’t realize until I got here just how easy it can be to skew your message to home and degrade people who deserve far better.

The best image to send back is one that lets the viewer know that Westerners can see and experience Ghana’s overwhelming optimism; but that they do not cause it. (I’ll let you know if I find/take one.)

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Market in Accra

Our last day in Accra with nothing short of phenomenal; we took full advantage of what would be our last day in ‘tourist’ mode before we were to head up north and begin work.

Mid-way through the day we went to what one of the larger markets in Accra, which spanned a couple city blocks and whose centre was a three story building that was as big as a city block itself. The market was busy with foods, cloths, various trinkets, and smiling faces; and we got a lot of waves and people saying “ete sen?” (“how are you?”), to which we reply “eh yeh!”

There were nine of us at the market, so we broke up into smaller groups. I headed off with Ben, Luke, and Samina to find oranges, mangos and fried yams. After getting our food we stood around eating them in a small, unoccupied spot near the middle of the market. Not two minutes after we get there a woman calls us over to her stall as those around her scurry to find chairs for us. We’re all a little more than uneasy at this display of white privilege, but Luke assures us that it’d be worse to decline and we sit down anyway. As we ate, a small (and incredibly cute) girl summons the courage to come up to us. Ben says hello and asks her what her name is in Twi (“Ya fre we sen?”), to which she whispered something inaudible. One of the women sitting at the counter eventually shoos the girl away, despite our protests.

After saying thank you to the women (“madasi”), we make out way to the top floor of the market, where clothes and fabric are being sold. We stop and see a finished pinkish traditional shirt that is priced at 60 000 cedis. I tried to barter with the woman to bring down the price but she wouldn’t budge. After wandering away for a bit, surrounded by bright colours and the sounds of sewing machines, we head back to the first lady. The lady still won’t budge on the price and brings out another shirt with the same pattern, but in blue/purple, likely thinking that I didn’t like the colour of the pink one. Eventually I gave in and bought the pink shirt for 60 000. Not long after putting on my new shirt Ben ran back to the lady in order to buy the second one—which was rather funny considering we had already been mistaken as twins several times early in the day. After excitedly taking a picture with the woman, we make our way out of the market and down to the tro-tros.

Many people were enthusiastic to see our attempts to fit in, but I couldn’t help but feel slightly nervous about it. We couldn’t be sure whether or not it looked like we were trying to buy our acceptance into their culture ($6+ for a shirt is a lot here). Ben mused that we might be perceived as mocking them by thinking that we’re any closer to belonging here by simply purchasing a shirt; an interesting thought that I was left to mull over as we boarded the tro-tro and headed for the beach.

I’ll have to continue this story tomorrow. Time is precious in these (unreliable) internet cafés, and the bulk of my time is spent uploading pictures (speaking of which, I managed to get most of the pictures for my past couple entries up... pictures for this one will come next time).

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Sweet delicious African sunset...

There are few things more beautiful than Accra from above at sunset.

From the moment we stepped out of the back of the plane it was more than apparent that we were on a different continent. What I immediately assumed was hot steamy air from the jet’s engines soon proved to be nothing more than typical evening air in Accra. After taking a ten second bus ride (no joke) to the airport terminal, we entered the customs lines. As was the case in Amsterdam, all the dignitaries just glanced at our Canadian passports and waved us through without asking any questions. When the 23 of us got outside we found 4 long term EWB volunteers waiting to help us get cabs to the hostel/hotel thing they found us.

I take a lot of things for granted, and from the moment we met the volunteers I found one of what is sure to be a long sequence. In trying to secure us cabs all four of the long term volunteers had to bargain/yell at the drivers for a good ten or twenty minutes before they finally got a decent rate (which was then upped from 40,000 to 45,000 cedis as we got in the car, but they were tired of fighting by then). The drive itself was crazy; the driver was calmly whipping around cars and pedestrians (despite having no working speedometer), honking at almost everything that moved. He was a very nice man who was working long into what should have been his retirement in order to ensure that his son and daughter can go to university in Accra.

I spent most of the drive staring open-mouthed at the window. Not a single thing in the city seemed familiar—cars, buildings, clothes, vendors, advertisements… everything was very obviously unique. After several minutes of silence in the back of the cab Kyle looks over at me and says: “Ever have those moments that you know you’ll remember for the rest of your life?” To which I replied
“You mean like that comment?”

After checking into the hotel we went down to what they call “circle,” which is a seemingly endless series of street vendors, stands and tro-tro stations. As we were told in training, we were always the centre of attention, to the point that most every car honked and people constantly came up to us to shake our hands and talk. The excessive pleasantries were nice, but put me ill-at-ease, as I sensed that many of them were looking for a chance to take advantage of us. A few kilometres later on, I was proved right when a lady overcharged me for my meal (11 000 for a 5000 meal…but I successfully told her off to get my money back). I was especially glad because Jon, who had ordered and paid before my and was seated when I ordered/paid, was actually overcharged even more than I was and never realized it until I told him about my adventures with the lady at the cash.

It’s hard to articulate just how different everything is here, and how it feels overwhelmingly alien yet almost comfortable. From ordering food, to the smell of the air, to the greetings and interactions, everything is so markedly different from what I’ve known from now. And though I tried to visualize what everything could possibly be like here before coming, I am awestruck at how beautifully unique everything is; it is proving to truly be beyond my wildest dreams.

Man, that’s three entries in three days. Don’t expect this trend to continue though; we’re bussing up north tomorrow, at which point electricity and internet will be a huge question mark. I’ll try to update as much as possible after that—we’ll see how it goes.

Take care,

Monday, May 08, 2006

Amsterdam to Accra

I just looked out the window right now; desert as far as the eye can see (which is a heck of a lot at 10,668m above the ground). I can’t possibly fathom the Sahara Desert. Not even now that I’m staring wide-eyed out a window at it. There’s something about a parching hot sun in a seemingly eternally dry land that is just beyond my imagination right now. Perhaps it won’t be for long.

Everyone from EWB who was passed out around the aircraft for the first half of the flight is wide awake now, staring out any available window and/or writing furiously in their journals. For all of us this is suddenly all very real; it’s really happening—we’re going to Africa! I can hear Elisa a few rows behind me talking to a Ghanaian about farming in Canada. The guy she’s talking to is hilarious and sounds so happy about everything. All I can think about is how often I’ll be having similar conversations over the next few months...

Apoorva and I just spent the last ten minutes with our faces glued to two windows at the back on either side of the plane. On the right side it’s ridiculously dry, with tall sand dunes that you can actually see shifting in the winds. In the distance was a random oasis in the middle of the desert, with a small town around it. The farms around the town were interesting in that they were actually circular instead of the typical rectangular fields that I’m used to seeing. They’re massive circles too—at least a kilometre in diameter from what we could guess. Meanwhile on the left side of the plane there are visible signs of rainfall across the land, and apparently Kyle and Jamaal just spotted a football stadium in what looked like a major city. Judging by the plane’s tracking on the monitors it’s most likely El Menia, which is in Algeria.

Soon we'll be over Mali, Burkina Faso, then finally Ghana as the sun is setting. My battery is dieing, so I'll end this and continue enjoying the fantastic view.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Toronto to Amsterdam

Yet again, I’m typing in mid-air; we’re somewhere over the Atlantic at this point. We’ll “briefly” stop in Amsterdam for 6 hours before continuing on to Accra in what will be tomorrow. All 23 volunteers bound for Ghana are together on the same flights the whole way through, which has made my sitting in a middle seat much more bearable.

In walking around the Toronto airport and even sitting here on the plane I feel nothing. It almost feels wrong that I’m not going crazy thinking of what lies before me. After spending a week where every single emotion—excited, overwhelmed, terrified—was completely maxed out, I think my body has finally had enough and is in “numb” mode until further notice. I suppose it’s best, seeing as there’s a long trip ahead, but it almost feels like I’m a bad person for not being permanently ecstatic throughout my travels.

It feels like I’ve learned more in a week of training than I would a semester of school. The sheer volume of information that we covered is pretty impressive, especially considering the amount of sleep we got each night. All the discussions people had fostered a huge amount of critical thought and introspection, pushing me in ways that I’ve never been pushed before. I was especially grateful that so many past volunteers were around to talk about their thoughts, emotions, and struggles in previous summers, when the placements were much more uncertain with much less support. The fact that every one of them came out of their experience alive and smiling is extremely reassuring.

This whole experience has been fantastic so far—and it’s hardly even beginning! I’m unbelievably glad to have had the opportunity to go through training with such amazing people before going overseas. These people are so full of hope, passion and ability; and I couldn’t have asked for a better support group.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

How much information can you cram into a week?

Somehow I managed to successfully arrive at the EWB Training House in downtown Toronto with no directions and no house number. Now, like most other proud east coast folk I hate Toronto; but I must admit that everyone I met was very helpful, pointing me in the right direction and being generally more pleasant than Torontonians are known to be. So the people are nice... however, the endless concrete would still be too much for me if I ever tried to move here.

The EWB Training House is, to say the least, absolutely crazy. It's a small three floor, three bedroom duplex in a Portugese and Chinese neighbourhood in the heart of Toronto. This week it is hosting myself, 22 other short term volunteers, and 4 national office staff. Needless to say, sleep, let alone a nice bed, is almost impossible to come by. I'm not complaining though, because it's more than worth the trade-off to be in a house with so many fantastically inspiring people with such amazing life experiences. I don't think twice about late night conversations as their sharp minds often provide fantastic insights for me. Besides, sleep is for the weak anyway.

Training itself is even more intense than what our packed schedule suggests. We usually run for at least 12 hours a day covering a wide variety of topics to a remarkable amount of depth. We're divided into two groups of 11/12 people in order to maximize the effectiveness of the sessions--an important decision as it helps us stay involved (and awake) during the long days. It's not that the modules are boring; it's just that it's hard to digest so much information so quickly without your mind wandering or trying to shut off.

Our modules have included:
  • Hopes and Fears
  • What is Poverty?
  • Introduction to Rural Livelihoods
  • EWB's Vision
  • Health with Dr. Wise (EWB's doctor)
  • Nutrition
  • Peer to Peer Learning
  • Cross-Cultural Communication
  • Integration
  • Culture Shock
  • Sector Focus Groups (Water and Sanitation)
  • Gender Roles and Issues
  • Understanding the Development Sector
  • EWB's Impact Model
  • Safety and Security
  • Photography
We're at about the halfway point of training right now, so that list will more than double by the end of it. I'm amazed at just how useful all my RC courses have been so far, and how some of the topics are my upcoming classes this year (such as Cross-Cultural Communications). Yay for useful university programs!

Right now everyone's frantically working on presentations we have to make tomorrow morning. That reminds me: I should start working on the presentation I have tomorrow morning! It's fairly basic, but I should give it a quick look over before I collapse... look for another update for me soon, as I (finally) got my specific project details and hope to go over them tomorrow sometime. Until then take care and thanks for checking up on me!

Take care,