Rebuilding Foundations

An exploration of international development work in Africa

Archive for the month “August, 2014”


Let’s get this post over with since it’s the first thing that anyone asks now when I say I’m going to Africa.  “What about Ebola?”  “Aren’t you scared?”  “What do your parents think?”

To be honest, I’m a teensy little bit scared.  I joke with people that I’m much more likely to get malaria or hit by a minibus than Ebola, but the unknown is always a bit frightening.  That being said, Sierra Leone and Liberia are the only two countries where Ebola is out of control.  Last time I checked, Nigeria had had 10 cases, all caused by one American who visited Liberia.  Although Ghana is also in “western Africa” with these other countries, western Africa is a big place.  It’s sort of like the suspected case of Ebola in Toronto: while scary for Canadians, it did not affect us significantly on the west coast.

Moreover, Engineers Without Borders is an extremely safe organization.  They’re not like Doctors Without Borders who send their volunteers to warring or diseased places.  I think that if any cases of Ebola popped up in Ghana, EWB would pull me out.  Although it is unlikely that I would get it under most circumstances, EWB still wouldn’t want me to get stranded.

I don’t want to sound flippant about it.  Ebola is a serious disease that had affected over 1000 people.  But the chances of me catching it – even if I spend three months in western Africa – are about the same as my plane crashing. 

I think family and friends will always be concerned about a loved one traveling to somewhere far away – especially if it’s full of the unknown.  We channel our love into worry.  If it wasn’t Ebola, though, than I’d be getting advice for other things.  Concerns like malaria or dengue fever or dangerous transportation or black people.  There will always be something.

That being said, I am taking Ebola concerns seriously.  I’ve been following the cases – both proven and suspected.  I know the maps and disease vectors better than most people sending me new stories.  I bought hand sanitizer, even though I hate the stuff.  Thank goodness I’m a vegetarian and won’t be eating any monkey or bat meat!  Nor was I planning swapping bodily fluids with people.

Now that this post is done, though, I hope not to write about Ebola again.


Little Luxuries

The following is an excerpt from a New York Times article called “Broken, Not Bound, by an Intimate Tie” by Mara Gordon.  Her article is actually a love story, but this is the part I found most comparable to my experiences in Africa:

I grouped the expatriates in East Africa into three categories: the ex-colonials, residually racist types who ran exploitative businesses and drank heavily; the religious missionaries; and the aid workers, many of whom also drank heavily but had convinced themselves they were saving the world. I was in the last group.

We aid workers represented an enclave of economic theory in a sea of actual poverty, the kind that led to daily power failures and perpetually flooded roads. But it was unbecoming of our liberal upbringings to acknowledge just how much Africa made us long for first-world conveniences.

First, it’s easy to drink a lot while working in Africa.  Not only is alcohol super cheap, but there also isn’t a lot to do.  Almost everyone drinks, so refusing a beer at lunch makes me the weirdo of the group.

Second, no one wants to admit how much we love our Global North lifestyles… but we do.  I can go for days without showering (yes I’m gross) and don’t mind bucket showers – but I do LOVE toilets.  I also like clean floors, washing machines, and street signs (all of which I may have to live without for the next few months).

On the flip side, I HATE mosquitoes.  I also dislike being reliant on other people for transportation, trying to understand accents over the telephone, and not being able to eat fresh vegetables.

I wish I was better at effectively communicating the ups and downs of development work.  It’s so much fun, but it’s also exhausting.

It took me a couple weeks to find my feet in Joburg.  I spent a lot of time bored and alone before I got a vehicle, learned to drive, established maps in my head, and made friends.

Today, as I walk through the pouring rain, still in dirty sweatpants because my luggage hasn’t arrived yet, I remind myself that the first few days are the hardest.  Soon I’ll have some friends to talk to and places to hang out.  I’ll go for runs in the morning in areas that I recognize.  I’ll even know where to buy groceries so that I can cook my own food.

In Joburg, the other interns and I joked about “little victories.”  Sometimes it only takes something as small as a banana that’s only half brown and mushy to make your day feel wonderful.

Leaving on a jet plane

I wrote the following post last week en route to Ghana.  Little did I know that the adventure was barely beginning.  I still had to land in Accra, wait a couple days for my luggage, and make the 12 hour bus ride north to Tamale.  I debated posting this, but decided to eventually because sometimes traveling isn’t that much fun.  Sometimes it’s a hassle – like when security in Heathrow took my toothpaste or there aren’t any vegetarian options for me to eat on the airplane.  I don’t want everyone back home thinking this is all one big glamorous stint in Ghana.

That being said, the adventure is totally worth it.



I’m so over flying.

I hate it.  I wish I was never getting on a plane again in my entire life.

Unfortunately, however, I’m writing this during my flight from Toronto to London.  I still have another flight to Cairo and a fourth to Accra.

Yesterday, I flew from Vancouver to Toronto and landed at 9pm.  My flight this morning was at 9am.  There is very little public transit in Toronto on Saturday night and Sunday morning.

The experience wasn’t too terrible, though.  Luckily one of my friends is driving around Ontario right now so I stashed my luggage at his hotel and went dancing with him and his boyfriend last night.  Pulled an all-nighter, fell asleep on the cab ride to the airport at 5am, woke up totally disoriented and somehow left my phone in the cab.  (I’m so dumb it makes me ill sometimes.)  Passed out sprawled on the airport chairs and slept most of my flight to London.  Now I’m all refreshed and ready for many more hours of flying and a 5 hour layover.

I lied.  I’m not ready at all.  Flying sucks.

Someone please invent a teleporter.

Beam me up, Scotty.

My role with Amplify Governance


Since I’m a civil engineer studying transportation planning and volunteering with Engineers Without Borders, most people assume I’m in Africa doing something to do with roads and infrastructure.   You know… typical engineering work.


Instead, I’m teaching people how to use a cell phone app – which my friends think is hilarious because I often hang up on people when I try to answer my phone.

But let’s backtrack and talk more about EWB before I laugh at my terrible technology skills.  EWB actually does very little “engineering.”  After a few years of working in Africa*, the organization’s founders quickly realized that Africa’s problems aren’t technology-based.  The technology for clean drinking water has been around for 1000s of years!  The reasons why poor people are often forced to buy their water is instead a problem of politics, law, policy, and education.

Widespread poverty is not only a money problem either.  Billions of dollars are poured into international aid, but with very little results.  Instead, towns have pump after pump built by rich NGOs who want something to show their donors, but don’t coordinate with each other or educate locals on maintenance or use locally available materials or ask communities what they actually want.

Consequently, EWB now works with local organizations to help them help themselves.  They work in the agriculture industry to educate farmers on different farming techniques and crops.  They work with the local government in Malawi to monitor water systems.  The venture I’ll be working with, Amplify Governance, currently has two projects on the go.

The first is a citizen engagement project called All Voices Matter, which is the one I’ll be working on.  Amplify has partnered with another EWB venture called VOTO, which is a mobile technology venture.  In Ghana, the MMDAs, which are the equivalent of Canadian provincial elected MPs, have all the political power.  The federal government’s power is actually only administrative.  As a result, if you’re a citizen and want your opinion known then you need to communicate with your District Assembly.  All Voices Matters is using a cell phone app to target populations that have a more difficult time making the physical journey to talk to their MMDA – particularly women, youth, and people with disabilities.

During my stay in Ghana, I’ll be based in the city of Tamale but traveling around to different areas to teach people about the app.  I’ll teach politicians how to use it to create surveys and I’ll teach communities how to answer.

Amplify’s second project is to create a property taxation system. Ghana doesn’t have loads of natural resources, plus it’s been a peaceful democracy for a long time (partly because of the lack of resources – there’s nothing to fight over).  At the same time, it receives lots of aid from external donors.  I believe its biggest sources of income is actually aid money, but I should really try to check that before publishing it online (but I haven’t)!  Regardless of the proportion, all that aid money means that government officials are often more accountable to external donors instead of their own citizens.  Moreover, it’s hard to plan for long term projects when you never when the money is coming and how much.

By creating an effective property tax system, elected officials will have a stronger social contract with their constituents.  Plus they’ll be able to budget more effectively.

The first step of this program is to create better maps.  How can you tax property when you don’t know what sort of property there is?  EWB is currently training people to use GIS so they can create better maps, especially in rural areas.

Whenever I worry that I won’t be able to teach people to use the cell phone app, I try to be grateful that at least I don’t need to convince them that property taxes will be good for them!


*“Africa” is a super broad term for a large and diverse continent.  My apologies for the simplification.



I was wrong.  The MMDAs (Metropolitan Metro District Assemblies) are comparable to BC’s town and city mayors.  Ghana “Regions” are like our provinces, and they’re the ones who have mostly administrative powers.

I was wrong about something else too.  Ghana actually does have natural resources.  That’s why it used to be called The Gold Coast.  As you can probably guess, this country has gold.  It also has oil and other minerals.  That being said, the Districts still get more money from international sponsors than from internal sources.

EWB’s Organizational Structure

Engineers Without Borders (EWB) has an organizational structure called a venture system.  Each venture is its own semi-independent entity and EWB is the incubator.  The venture’s members are responsible for its direction (under the umbrella of EWB’s goals) and securing funding.  I think it is the hope for each venture to eventually spin-off and become fully independent.

Each venture has its own mandate and countries within which it operates.  For example, Water and Sanitation (WatSan) is in Malawi whereas Business Development Services (BDS) operates in Ghana, Zambia, Burkina Faso, and Kenya.

This decentralized organizational structure allows for more creativity and variety.  However, one criticism (depending on your point of view) is that there is little communication between the ventures.  I recently met someone in Vancouver who works with BDS in the same city as I’ll be based in, but he was a bit hesitant to answer when I said goodbye with a “See you soon!”


This autumn, I’m working with the Amplify Governance venture (formally called Governance and Rural Infrastructure or G&RI).  More on that tomorrow!

New Colonialist

I need to clarify my usage of the term “new colonialist” or “neo-colonialist.” I don’t mean to belittle the term by using it sardonically – even though that’s exactly what I’m doing.

First, let’s talk about colonialism. Colonialism is the term used to describe the process in which European states went out to explore the “new world” and create colonies during the 1500s to 1900s. The colonist states subjugated the colonized people and took their resources. Colonialism was excessively violent. The British invented biological warfare by purposefully giving blankets infected with smallpox to North American First Nations. Africa was carved into countries that didn’t follow any logical topography or tribal boundaries.

Some people argue that colonialism also led to new positive developments. With the added resources, Europe was able to grow and prosper. Plus look at North American now! And Australia! White people have spread knowledge and progress to all corners of the globe.

For a less-biased and more detailed review of colonialism, there’s always  Wikipedia.  According to the internet, colonialism ended in 1914 with WWI, even though many colonized countries didn’t receive independence until much later.

First, that’s not very long ago!

Second, colonialism is a process. It’s about conquering people and uneven power relations. Arguably, colonialism is still happening, but through more subtle means. Thus the term “neo-colonialism.” Consider, for example, resource-rich African states where the majority of citizens are starving but international companies make billions off oil or diamonds.

Moreover, there are also “post-colonial” effects still being felt in many former colonies. For example, ethnic tensions in the Middle East are partly caused by which groups ended up lumped in a country together. I’ll discuss more post-colonial consequences in Africa in a later blog post.

For me, though, when I use the term “neo-colonialist” I’m just being a sarcastic little brat.

It’s partly a reaction against praise. I don’t like people telling me what a wonderful thing I’m doing by going to Africa and saving starving children, etc etc etc. It makes me feel like I’m perpetuating a myth about people in developing countries, that they’re helpless victims unable to take care of themselves. Disempowerment is also a form of subjugation. I do not want to be a neo-colonist who goes overseas to help with my white privilege guilt and make myself feel like a good person. That’s not the type of development worker I want to be.

At the same time, I don’t want to demean the work that other people are doing. Even though I think that Canadian teenagers going to Africa to build schools actually makes the whole messed up world system even worse, it is malicious of me to call that sort of work neo-colonist.

But sometimes I’m a malicious person.

It’s been over a year since I blogged. Looking back, I can see that I’m more cynical and upfront about things now. I’ll try to keep the scepticism and scorn to a minimum over the next four months. If you want to read other super cool blogs by EWBers then I recommend Nadine in Ghana (whose work I’m taking over now) and Franny in Malawi. Both of them are finished their placements now, but they wrote some great stuff over the summer.

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