Rebuilding Foundations

An exploration of international development work in Africa

Exit Stage Left

Hello interwebs,

This is it.

It might be awhile before I return to Africa and/or blogging.

I hope you enjoyed reading my thoughts and ideas over the past few months.  Maybe some things from my “Ways to Help from Home” list struck a chord or now you want to visit Ghana yourself.

Regarding international development, I still don’t think money is the best answer.  If you want to donate, however, I recommend Engineers Without Borders and PeaceGeeks.

If you want to continue reading more about EWB, you can check out their blog page.

For me, it’s back to school to finish my master’s degree.  After that, who knows what adventures await?

Much love,

Failure Report

EWB is a unique organization for a variety of reasons, one of which is their annual Failure Report.  Every year, different EWBers writes about their struggles, challenges, and fiascoes.

This is huge!  In the international development world, no one wants to admit that their projects don’t work.  They’ve taken money from donors and implemented a new idea on the ground; afterwards they need convince everyone why it was worth the money.

In reality, however, many projects fail.  Or, at the very least, need to be adapted.

EWB celebrates its achievements, but also admit their failures.

Sometimes, though, the Failure Report seems a little watered down since we can’t say anything insulting to our partners.  There are a few aspects of All Voices Matter that would make a good Failure Blog Post, but I won’t publish anything disparaging online.  For the most part, however, All Voices Matter has been an impressive, successful project.

But I can write a Failure Report about myself.  Or a Failure List, since that’s easier.  Reflecting on my experience here, I can’t tell if I would categorize it as a success or failure.  My gut feeling leans towards the fiasco/shit show side, but my coworkers say I’m a “good JF” so maybe my time hasn’t been a complete disaster.

Consequently, in true nerdy fashion, below is the Con/Pro (Failure/Success) aspects from my placement.


  • Sick 1/3 of the time (typhoid, malaria, food poisoning, flu. Best response from another EWBer last week: “You’re sick again?  It’s not like Pokemon.  You don’t have to catch them all!”)
  • Robbed twice (in 2 weeks)
  • Didn’t make many Ghanaian friends
  • Instead of befriending the neighbourhood children, stopped responding when they yelled  “Salaminga, hello!”
  • Never baked a cake or pie with my host-sister
  • Didn’t clean my room as thoroughly as I should have because I was afraid of the spiders in the corners
  • Low number of applications for next year’s UBC JFs (I should never have written about the bugs)
  • Angered by host-family by leaving without enough notice
  • Cried a lot


  • Healthy 2/3 of the time
  • Completed all my work
  • At the end, the Tamale Planning Officer phoned me to confirm a meeting time instead of completely missing it
  • Made really close expat friends
  • Kept in touch my friends and family
  • Maintained my sense of humour
  • Blogged almost every day

Because I tend to be a happy-go-lucky puppy, I want to view this placement as a success.  Furthermore, I want to think that these past three months contributed positively to my life experience.  Maybe it’ll take more time and reflection back home before I can put this experience in enough context to evaluate it.

‘Cause my heart has found its home

In the past, when I thought of traveling I listened to Dido’s song “Sand in my Shoes.

I’ve still got sand in my shoes
And I can’t shake the thought of you

Now, though, I find myself listening to Dido’s “Look No Further” instead.

I might have been a singer
Who sailed around the world
A gambler who wins millions
And spent it all on girls

I might have been a poet
Who walked upon the moon
A scientist who would tell the world
I discovered something new

I might have loved a king
And been the one to end a war
A criminal who drinks champagne
And never could be caught

But among your books
Among your clothes
Among the noise and fuss
I’ve let it go

I can stop and catch my breath
And look no further for happiness
And I will not turn again
‘Cause my heart has found its home

Everyone I’ll never meet
And the friends I won’t now make
The adventures that they could have been
And the risks I’ll never take

But among your books
Among your clothes
Among your noise and fuss
I’ve let it go

I can stop and catch my breath
And look no further for happiness
And I will not turn again
‘Cause my heart has found its home

Home is home and I don’t want to end up anywhere else.

4/4: Thank You

As much as I wanted to tell people back home about the moto incident, I resisted until I was leaving Ghana.  The worry would have been too awful for my family and friends.

That being said, I still want to thank everyone back home for your love and support.  I cried a lot during the first 24 hours after the mugging – feeling scared and desperately incapable.  I lay in bed, tears leaking out of my eyes, and imagined that you were all here with me.  I pretended that I was hugging my mum and dad and sister.  I imagined that the wall against my back was my boyfriend’s body.  I invented conversations with friends back home, giggling and gossiping.

Even if none of these were real, they saved me.  So did my colleague, H.  I don’t know how I would have managed without her.

But you were all wonderful too.  Every email from home helped me pretend to be strong (“fake it ‘til you make it”).  Each EWB chapter letter reminded me to be optimistic.  Every Skype call was like a soothing bath at the end of a rough day.

Even though I couldn’t tell you at the time, your love still carried me through everything.

Thank you.

3/4: The Aftermath

During the rest of my placement, I fought against my anxiety.  Reports of crime were increasing.  The taxi driver who brought H to me on that awful night told us that a similar thing had happened to his friend in the area a few weeks earlier.  We heard stories of men in motos (motorcycles) following cars and waiting to rob them or men waiting outside certain restaurants to follow patrons home.  A friend of my host-sister had someone with a moto drive in front of her so she thought that she hit him.  She got out of the car to ask if he was ok, and he pulled out a gun and made her give him everything in her car. Some of my expat friends still drove motos at night and said things like, “I don’t carry much money anyways so there’s nothing to steal.”  But when someone is holding a huge knife and demanding your money, the worst part isn’t what you lose.  It’s how you feel.  Often a friend in a truck would follow a friend’s moto home, since thieves usually only strike if no one else is around.  If someone did jump the moto, though, what would we in the truck do?  Try to run over the robber?  Honk the horn?  It’s unlikely we would have gotten out, even if we had time. The danger felt worse than in Joburg, where everything is set up against crime.  In Jozi, there are private security guards everywhere and we all had automatic garage gates so we didn’t have to get out of our cars.  Here, though, crime was evolving as the value of the cedi (Ghanaian currency) fell and most people weren’t ready for it.  For instance, thieves are now cutting holes in the roofs of homes to enter because windows are barred. We have lots of theories about that night and what could have prevented it.  Everyone thinks the thieves are “local boys” – guys who live in the area and hang around, waiting for an opportunity.  S thought that they’d been watching me for a while because they didn’t even ask for his phone or wallet.  All they wanted was my backpack.  Maybe, but a backpack is also a quick thing to steal.  Even if I’d taken a taxi, they usually made me get out and walk those last 10m to the gate anyways because of the muddy road.  We decided that the only safe option would have been to stay overnight at Heather’s, but it never occurred to me that Tamale would be this dangerous. I don’t like feeling scared.  For weeks after being mugged, my heart jumped every time a young man drove by on a moto or groups of men greeted me.  I tried to laugh at myself: even at night, the two men on the moto wearing neon green and bright pink were unlikely to be thieves.  But it was hard.  This has been an emotionally exhausting trip. When she picked me up after the incident, my coworker probably thought it was silly of me to be so fixated on work. “How am I going to get anything done without a computer?” I sobbed. “I have one you can borrow,” she soothed.  “We’ll get it from Accra at our team meeting next weekend.” “That’s another whole week of doing nothing!” Maybe I should have focused more on appreciating that no one was hurt – but work is the only measure of success I have here (and, perhaps, surviving).  I only had 3 months to accomplish what I can.  On slow days I read my transportation texts, but the hours crawled by.  With no work, I would quickly become depressed.  I have friends, but not traveling after 6:30pm put a damper on my social life. These past three months have been a struggle, but they’ve also been wonderful.  I have made some wonderful friends and had lots of fun times.  Although this incident definitely affected me, it wasn’t the defining moment of my placement.  To be honest, I’d rather not talk about it so please don’t ask me.  Instead, ask me about the work I ended up accomplishing (despite my slow start).

2/4: What Happened

It was about 8pm on a Thursday when we finished dinner at my colleague’s place, who I’ll call H in these posts.  My Ghanaian friend (called S) had ridden his motorcycle over so we asked if he’d give me a ride home.  It was dark, but not very late.  I considered called a taxi because we’re not supposed to travel at night, but I’d already had one taxi driver steal my backpack and another yell at me because the road to my host family’s was gutted from the rain.  An exciting motorcycle side with a friend seemed like much more fun.

We were almost at my host family’s place, less than 10m from the gate, when I felt something pull on my back.  I turned and saw someone on a motorcycle beside us, holding my backpack.

I wish this was a story of my bravery or quick thinking, but it isn’t.  It just illustrates how terrible I am in crisis situations.

I screamed and jumped off the motorcycle.  I fell in the mud and scrambled up and turned around.  I could see one man with a machete standing next to my friend and S’s motorcycle was pushed over into the bushes.  The other man was about 2m away, facing me and also holding a machete.

I kept screaming.  We paused, looking at each other while I screamed.  Even though my family’s compound’s gate was only 5m or so behind me, I didn’t think about running.  He took a step toward me and all I could think was that I didn’t want him any closer.  I took off my backpack and threw it at him, still screaming.  He picked it ud, climbed back on his motorcycle with his friend, and they drove away.

I took off my bulky motorcycle helmet and threw it on the ground, sinking onto my knees in the mud while wailing, “NOOOOOOOOO!”

Poor S.  He must have been shaken too but I didn’t even ask how he was.  I stood in the middle of the street, sobbing, while he said “I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry” and neighbours began filtering out of their houses to see what the commotion was.

“I. Need. To. Phone. H.” I gasped.  S gave me his phone and I called my colleague.  As soon as she picked up I wailed, “They took everything!”  She didn’t know who I was or what I was talking about so I tried to explain about the two men with machetes, my backpack with my (second) computer, (third) smart phone, and camera – but quickly had to give the phone back to S to explain.

Poor S.  I can’t say that enough.  My host father came out and accused him of working with the thieves and putting me at risk on purpose.  I feebly said, “It wasn’t his fault” but most of the conversation was in the local dialect and I too distraught to do or say anything useful or rational.  Instead, I just stood there and cried.

Poor S left soon after.  If I’d just gone through what he went through, the last thing I’d want to do is get back on my motorcycle and ride into the dark.  But I didn’t think to insist that he stay.  I was useless.

H and our other friend came in a taxi to bring me back to her place.  We stayed up past midnight, discussing some of the other terrible things that have recently happened in Ghana and being thankful that no one got hurt.  I babbled incoherently about things back home and we laughed at whatever we could.

1/4: Introduction

Warning: the next few blog posts are a bit more emotional than usual.

During my second week in Ghana, I was mugged while returning to my host family’s home after having dinner with my colleague.  I didn’t blog about it then because I didn’t want to worry anyone back home.  Furthermore, there are enough fearful stories of Africa: if I tell people about this, it will be the one thing out of all these posts that they fixate on.  At the same time, though, the mugging (and dealing with it afterwards) was part of my experience over here.

I wrote the following posts right afterwards, so they’re overly melodramatic.  As time moved forward, however, I relaxed about the experience.  I decided to leave posts in their original dramatic words because that’s what people like, right?  The exciting stories.

These posts will become live as I leave this country and start the long journey back home.  Everyone, please don’t worry!  There is nothing to worry about and I’ll see your beautiful faces soon.


Until the lion learns to write, the narrative will favour the hunter.

My little sister is almost 13-years-old.  It feels as though she is blossoming into an adult before my eyes.  Almost overnight, she started asking teenager-type questions and doing young woman-type things.  I find myself telling her stories about my childhood that I haven’t thought of for over a decade.  I try to relate her emotionally and find that I’m surprisingly close to her level.  I would like to think that with the 14 year age gap, I am significantly more mature.  But I’m not.

I especially notice the same mannerisms in the way we talk about our accomplishments.  She admits to me the things she’s proud of – like finishing her math homework or learning her theatre lines – but the sentences come out unfamiliar.  When she exclaims, “Guess what, Bebe!” I can tell that she’s only telling a few people these triumphs, such as my parents and her grandma.

In North America, we’re taught to be humble.  We’re taught not to brag about our accomplishments.  But sometimes humility goes too far.  I often find myself arguing, “Oh I’m not that smart” or “I haven’t accomplished anything.”  I try to turn conversations so that they’re about anything other than me.

But maybe it’s ok to talk about myself.  I blog about myself, after all.

Blogging often feels like a self-centred activity.  “Who wants to read my words?” I think.  “I don’t have anything important to say.”

I justify it by reminding myself that no one has to read this.  Every person on this page can shut it down whenever they want.

But maybe I need to be more radical.  It’s time for a new argument: “Beth, you do have things to say.  Your ideas are worthwhile and people should listen.”

That’s the sort of pep talk I give my sister all the time because she – like all teenagers – should grow up to believe that her thoughts are valuable.

I know a lot of women who don’t inherently believe this.  They need constant validation from other people, primarily men.  Probably a lot of men feel this way too (except maybe they need validation from women), although my guy friends rarely discuss these sorts of thoughts with me.

On a related note, here’s a little story:

A few years ago I was flying on a trip that would eventually go from Vancouver to Cancun, but my cheap airline tickets had me crossing through the U.S. along the way.  On one of the flights I happened to be sitting beside an older American man.  He was a retired farmer who liked to race cars and was on his way home from a race.  He was the stereotypical southern gentleman: kept calling me a “peach” and told me about his wife who had loved since high school.

He asked me what book I was reading.  I gushed that Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert is one of my favourite novels and told him the basic premise.  He showed me the book of poetry he had that was written by one of his neighbours.

He must have been intrigued by my synopsis of Eat, Pray, Love because he asked if I wanted to switch books.  We would also exchange addresses and mail the books back when we were finished.

Even though I liked the idea a lot, I hesitated.  “You might not like this story,” I said.  “It’s a really girly book.”

He insisted that he wanted to read it, however, so we exchanged.

Months later I got my copy of Eat, Pray, Love back in the mail with a lovely note that explained that he didn’t find it a “girly” book it all.  He felt that it explored emotions and actions that most people struggle with – just because it was about a woman didn’t make it any less valuable.

He was right.

In our culture, woman’s stories aren’t as valued as men’s, which are seen as normal.  Stories about women are characterized as “Chick lit” or romantic comedies.  They are classified by the fact that they’re about women.

Stories about men, however, get to be everything.  They can be dramas or comedies or action or sci fi.  It’s true that some of these stores can be about women (like Alien), but they’re few and far between.  Furthermore, men often think it’s embarrassing to watch or read one of these.

In contrast, most of the stories I read are about men, but that doesn’t seem weird to me.  That’s how the world is.

Sometimes I wonder that if I was a man, would I feel more justified about blogging?  Would I worry about coming across as self-centred by writing so much?

Regardless, I keep writing.  I enjoy it, which by itself is a good enough reason to continue.

I never want my sister to think, “I like writing a lot but I don’t have anything to say.”

So I give myself the same pep talks that I give her.

Dream a little dream

Last weekend at the EWB fall planning retreat, we talked about interests, passions, and dreams.  For a short introduction on our dreams, I was paired with Miles who is one of the Kumvana delegates.  He told me that his life dream is to make Ghana agriculturally self-sufficient.  He wants to end his country’s reliance on maize, cassava, and soy imports.  Moreover, he believes that this can accomplished by small famers: improving agriculture can vast amounts of people get themselves out of poverty.  Somehow, Miles wove into his descriptions how much he loves children and that increasing women’s rights will also help Ghana become a stronger country.

He is an amazing human being.  You can donate to his Kumvana placement here.

In comparison, my life goal of “I want to stop the BC Ferries 10 minute cut-off rule to Bowen from the Horseshoe Bay ferry terminal” seemed a little uninspired and boring.

So I forced myself to think big.  What do I really want to do with my life?  Besides get a dog.

I want to give people freedom.

In transportation theory, transportation is seen as a means to give people mobility and accessibility.  It’s important to be mobile so that you can move from place to place.  More importantly, it’s important to be able to access different services.

For example, say you live on a bus route that takes you to the airport.  You’re relatively mobile.  But what if you never fly?  What if there are no services along that bus route that you need?  Stuff like employment, health services, recreation, groceries.  In that case, you don’t have adequate accessibility.

In much of the developing world, transportation provides mobility without accessibility.  It’s easy to get to some places, but they’re not always the places you want to go.

Moreover, cultural considerations, safety concerns, and environmental issues are all related to personal transportation.

Personally, I value my freedom.  I like my freedom so much that it makes dating difficult: I hate feeling caged in and will break up as soon as it feels like my opportunities are starting to shrink (which usually happens around the second date.  Yep, I can be crazy).  In Tamale, it’s been emotionally difficult to have a curfew imposed by my host-family.

My dream is for people to feel safe and secure in their freedom.  I don’t want people to be afraid of traveling at night, for women to fear certain routes, or children to get sick because the hospital is too far away.

No one should die because roads curve dangerously or traffic signals are timed incorrectly.  A little bit of data collection, design and citizen engagement can go a long way in improving transportation systems – especially in developing countries.

As my transportation expert friend Patrick says, transportation alone can’t solve society’s problems.  But the system can either exacerbate or alleviate them.

It’s time to design better systems.

3 Words

Don’t worry – this post isn’t about the big three words.  It’s about less important words.  Or maybe more important, since knowing yourself is arguably better than someone else claiming to know you.  Before I get too derailed on cynicism about love, however, let’s get back to business.

When I first arrived in Ghana, my coach asked me to describe myself in 3 words.

Try it for yourself.  Now.


Tough, isn’t it?

In the end I decided on these: generous, driven, and silly

I don’t know if they’re the most accurate choices.  After all, my best traits are just the opposite side of the same coin for my worst traits.  Where I like to say “driven,” other people might call the same characteristic “obstinate,” “impulsive,” or “inflexible.”  Likewise “silly” could be interpreted as “optimistic” and “fun-loving” or “trivial” and “offensive.”

It’s all about the spin, right?

Reflecting on my JF placement, though, I can see some of my traits have been helpful while some definitely have not.

I think the most useful have been self-motivation and optimism.  First, my work assignment was not enough for a fulltime job and it would have been easy to get bored.  I like to keep busy, however, I worked on other things like my master’s thesis and blog writing.  Plus, luckily I was sick so often that I when I was healthy, I had lots to do!  And there’s the second trait.  Some aspects of this trip have been less-than-ideal, but I’ve still had tons of fun here.  It always feels good to laugh, even when things are awful.

My biggest hindrance has been my short-temper.  Lots things here annoy me, like children constantly shouting, “SALAMINGA! SALAMINGA! HELLO! BUY ME A TOFFEE!” even while they’re pooing in the bushes on the side of the road.  Or men making the “PSSST” noise (which is how Ghanaians get each other’s attention and calling “White lady, come here! I want to marry you!” Or the lack of traffic rules.  Or how impossible it is to get a straight answer.  I’m usually good at laughing at things, but I can also be too irritable – mostly when I’m being closed-minded or self-centred.

All in all, I don’t believe my words have changed.  But I’ve also seen some uglier sides of my personality that I have to come to terms with.

Ugh.  I hate self-reflection, maturity, and personal growth.

Another hindrance.

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