Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Food Aid

I’m finally back in front of a computer screen; I spent the past week in the remote farming village of Zingpen, farming and generally trying to mimic a rural farmer’s life the best I could. I’m not sure that I succeeded as a farmer, but I can confidently say that I learned and saw more in that single week than I have in most of my placement. There's so much that happened that it's hard to know what to write about.

The one moment I'll definitely never forget was when I had the great fortune of witnessing the arrival of the infamous US Food Aid.
Each term the Catholic Relief Services and USAID supply the village’s primary school with two metric tons of imported US Sorghum to help feed the students at lunches.This food takes a lot of pressures off of the families; since the kids are in school they can’t help their families farm, and so a reliable source of food is essential.

This community is completely made up of farmers—even the teachers go farm once their classes end.

They are good farmers too, especially given what inputs and conditions they have to work with. Yet they’re seemingly caught in perpetual poverty. Throughout the week my probing about the farmer’s difficulties almost always resulted in the same answer: lack of market access.How much money does it cost to ship two metric tons of food from North America to the middle of nowhere in the upper corner of Ghana?

Would the money be better spent buying the abundant (and slowly rotting) crops of local farmers, instead of just dumping our produce on villages?

I don’t have the answers; just scattered thoughts.

What do you think?

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

One Month Left

With only a month left this placement has suddenly gone from unbearably long to ridiculously short. My return to Hain has been really great for my spirits, and I’ve been able to eat and drink much more enjoyably this time around. I’m realizing that there are a lot of people and little things that I will really miss about this place when I leave. This will undoubtedly make for a bittersweet last month; I’m very excited to return home and see everyone but the fact that I will never again be here or see these people again is slowly starting to sink in.

In other news I’m leaving for another village, Zingpen, to go farm for a week. The plan is to spend the week living “exactly” like (as close as possible) a farmer in the village. I’ve told them I don’t want any special treatment with foods, beds, or workload; I’m sure my requests will largely be ignored but I’m going to try and emulate their lifestyle as much as possible. I approached my NGO with the idea a few weeks ago, but now that the time has drawn near I’m both excited and terrified to go. There are so many doubts I have about my health, strength, the food and water, whether I will behave appropriately… On the flipside, though, it goes without saying that I will learn a hell of a lot and likely develop a true appreciation for the lives of rural farmers. I’ll try to journal on paper while in the village, but I don’t know how privacy or time will work, so I may never get the chance to write out my thoughts. We’ll see I guess….

Friday, July 14, 2006

The Big Man

Thanks to a few surprising (and fast) responses and requests, I've decided to post a letter I sent home to the chapter a few days ago. Enjoy!

There is a culture and an attitude here that often sends me into rants with fellow volunteers; I call this phenomenon that of the “Big Man.

The culture of the “Big Man” stands in the way of development. It is a culture of arrogance, greed, and cronyism; in the States they call it the “Good Ol’ Boys Club.” This culture is the fertile ground for corruption and can no doubt be traced back to the Colonial days and the slave trade. From village leaders to classroom teachers, those in power believe that they are absolute authority and that questioning them is near treasonous. Likely strengthened or driven by a huge unemployment rate, they punish their underlings with no regard for justice or reason; punishment is simply a reminder of the balance of powers to all those involved.

Obviously, this attitude, which dominates almost all facets of Ghanaian life, retards the development of Ghana’s marginalized and vulnerable people. In order to run activities with the “lowest” on the chain you need to first run plans through the appropriate hierarchical structure. The plan you began with, however good it may be, is never the plan you finish with since you have to appease so many levels in between. Furthermore, this bureaucratic nightmare limits communication with those who need the most help, dooming most projects to failure since the people’s needs are not fully known or understood. As history has shown, those in power are not great at identifying ways to help those which they have oppressed.

In Ghana’s development sector many NGOs are actively working to encourage gender equality and equal opportunity across all facets of life. In achieving this, one of the main goals is to help develop and promote women leaders. While being an admirable goal, this is wholly ineffective—replace the Big Men with Big Women and not much will change. The importance lies in challenging the Big Man culture itself; in creating a system that can promote leaders who lead by compassion, encouragement, and care. Only through these leaders can gender equity and equal opportunity become a reality.

Across the country there is an unbelievably strong attitude that educating ones children is the most important thing a parent can do. While I find this attitude remarkable and extremely admirable, it may be prove to be destructive if there is not a close examination of the quality and atmosphere of that education. Ghanaians need to challenge the disciplinarian aspects of schooling, from blind obedience to caning. In the current system creativity is routinely stifled since it usually doesn’t fit within the rigid curriculum of the schools. But the fact is that no good comes from forcing the students to accept discipline unflinchingly. Children need to be offered a better way of relating to authority. Open learning exchanges inspire critical thought; compassionate interactions will create conscientious and humble leaders.

Thankfully, the NGO that Engineers Without Borders Canada placed me with realizes this. The Rural Aid Action Programme (RAAP), founded and staffed by local Ghanaians, has a culture that directly clashes with that of the “Big Man. Regardless of positions within the organization, everyone refers to each other by their first names—a huge deal in a country where all people referred to in the third person are “Madame” or “Sir.” All RAAP workshops and meetings conclude with critical feedback for the facilitator and everything they do is viewed as a “learning opportunity.” In our last staff meeting our director told us all that “if you are too big to be criticized you are equally too small to be praised,” which I found particularly poignant. Slowly but surely RAAP is challenging and changing the attitudes of villagers and educators, creating an environment in which real, meaningful progress can be made.

Admittedly, shifting Ghana’s culture from that of the “Big Man” to that which RAAP endorses will be a very lengthy process that requires a lot of investment, care, and critical thought. However, it is an essential shift needed for Ghana’s continued development; while the speed of the process may not make it feel as rewarding as building a treadle pump for a village, the investment will produce much greater results. The process will be slow in the beginning, but as each person influences those around them, showing them the importance of open, compassionate interactions, the number of people involved will grow exponentially. In time, the shift will begin to take hold across the country, with local champions existing in all facets of life. When this happens Ghana will have won; no Big Man can withstand the strength of an entire nation.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Where is the Love?

Tonight I had one of the moments I was told to expect. Jude and I were walking through Hain waiting for our TZ (edible millet-based PlayDoh) to be ready. We were stepping over muddy patches on the winding dirt path through the houses; a series of mud and straw huts to our left, remains of a mud-brick house surrounding a crop field to the right. It was almost pitch black since none of the houses around us could afford the electricity offered by the nearby power lines, but even through the darkness I could make out the unmistakable shape of a child rolling an old tire with a stick further down the path. Jude was telling stories and laughing about how life was great and, despite the ‘terrible’ conditions I saw, everyone we passed was invariably in a good mood as they gathered around their fires and rested after the day’s work. I was just considering to myself how cliché of a Hollywood scene it all was when suddenly the Black Eyed Peas’ “Where Is the Love?” came booming through the night from a (very nice) speaker system in one of the houses near the main road.

Now it wasn’t that the sound was unfamiliar or necessarily bad; and certainly no-one around me seemed to notice the music (except Jude, who sang along with me with a mock falsetto that rivals my own). But even while goofing around I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something wrong with this picture. The village is so rich with tradition and the musical culture is such a fundamental part of everyone’s lives.
I mean, I always question the development work we’re doing; I think it’s necessary to constantly be doing so. And yes, sometimes overanalyzing means that I can get worked up over perfectly harmless things. But, as I was warned by former volunteers, there are those moments that just feel unmistakable; those times when you realize that something is going terribly awry in this noble pursuit of justice. And I’m sure that it’s a moment that I won’t ever forget.

What purpose does this all serve? Yes, these people suffer from a lot of disease, malnutrition, and chronic unemployment. Yes, they are actively looking for ways to better the conditions they live in. Yes their complete lack of infrastructure is the result of centuries of oppression by white colonials. And yes we should try to help them, whether driven by good intentions or simple “white guilt.”

But how is this type of development helping to alleviate these oppressive conditions? Pop music hardly cures sickness, and it certainly doesn’t put food on their table. It does, however, undermine the local culture only to promote a more empty and glamorous one. How much culture are we going to bulldoze until we feel these communities are ‘developed’ enough?

Sickness = Suck

After my ‘New Beginning’ update I spent almost two weeks doing various things that resulted in me not writing, save for after World Cup games. It was a nice and needed break. Then, after finally deciding I had taken enough quiet time to be content, I started writing an entry only to end it less than 50 words later to run off for what was to be the first of a long sequence of trips to the washroom. I’ll spare everyone the details, but I can confidently say it’s the sickest I have ever felt and the hellishness of those few days didn’t lend well to journaling my thoughts. I’m fairly sure that it wasn’t malaria, though, as I recovered without using anti-malarials and didn’t have the trademark chills (however, I did have the trademark “I just want to die” feeling...). I guess that will teach me for getting careless about what street meat I eat!

In a brilliant proof of Murphy’s Law, my puking in open sewers was closely followed by my cellphone dieing on the night of June 30th. For the past few days I hadn’t been able to get it charged and working again, so if anybody called or text-messaged me, particularly on Canada Day, I didn’t get anything. Sorry!