Rebuilding Foundations

An exploration of international development work in Africa

Archive for the month “October, 2014”

4. Don’t support infrastructure projects

I’m skipping to #4 on the How to Help from Home list because I haven’t written #3 yet.

Don’t support infrastructure projects.  Why?  Because you don’t want to be like this little white girl.

Developing countries don’t need infrastructure projects.  As much as it may seem like, “Oh, this community would be so much better if it only had clean water.  Wait, we could build them a borehole well.” – that’s not true.  Moreover, that sort of attitude is actually detrimental in the long run.

First, governments need to be accountable to their citizens to provide basic amenities.  Citizens need to demand these essentials from their governments.  Countries can’t be run by individual, uncoordinated charity organizations.  At the very least, communities should develop their own forms of local government and community groups (as in common in Latin America).

Building a borehole well or school or road decreases a country’s sovereignty.

Second, why are western teenagers building stuff in Africa anyways?  Are they qualified?  Probably not.  Are they taking away construction jobs from local workers?  Probably yes.

Third, few issues in developing countries are as simple as they appear on the surface.  It might appear that a paved road would solve a lot of problems in an isolated community (better transportation to cities, improved access to medical supplies), but there always spinoff effects.  For example, as transportation improves the rates of HIV/AIDS usually increases as well.  Sometimes women start having sore feet because it’s harder on the human body to walk long distances on pavement than dirt.  Is there community ready to deal with those consequences?

The unfortunate truth is that most charity organizations who build infrastructure projects don’t think about the long-term picture.  They want something tangible that’s easy to fundraise for.  They want to provide youth groups the chance to “make a difference” and feel great about themselves.  A new school building is much more photogenic than an improved tax system.

This is an especially hard task on my Ways to Help from Home list because a lot of great people work on these sorts of projects.  Whenever I talk about Africa, someone will say something like, “My friend went to a rural village to build houses for the poor.  He said it was a life-changing experience.”  I have never once replied, “Actually, I don’t believe that’s the best use of resources” or “In the long run, you’re doing more harm than good.”


2. Protest War

Number two on the Ways to Help from Home list.

This should be obvious.  Violence generates more violence.  Hate creates more hate.  Consequently, Obama’s drone program is wrong.  Manufacturing weapons and selling them overseas is wrong.  Killing the “bad guys” is wrong.

End of story.

There are terrible people in the world.  When I read about a woman being gang-raped and beaten, part of me thinks that all the perpetrators deserve to die.  Ultimately, though, mercy is more important than justice.

Don’t support violence.  Killing terrorists doesn’t make anyone safer in the long run.

What does this mean for Canadians at home?

  • Don’t vote for politicians who support war (like Harper. How is he still our PM?)
  • Don’t buy from companies that also manufacture weapons (feck I love Kraft Dinner. This is difficult)
  • Write letter to a politicians
  • Sign petitions

1. Support overseas education

The first one from my Ways to Help from Home list:

From my limited knowledge of the “African” education system (which is a HUGE generalization), much of the teaching is done through memorization instead of critical reasoning.  For example, one of my friends volunteering at South African schools told me she was surprised that the kindergartners already knew their alphabet.  Then she switched the letters around and realized they knew how to list their ABCs, but didn’t know the individual letters.

She said that she saw a teacher get mad because she asked a student, “What do you eat for breakfast” and he answered, “I eat Jungle Oats.”

“No,” the teacher chastised.  “The correct answer is ‘I eat bread for breakfast.’”

They were encouraged to memorize answers, but not analyze the answers.

Here’s another story.

I recently taught one of my coworkers how to use the Voto platform for All Voices Matter project.  Voto has done a great job making their website super easy to use – even I can figure it out!  But maybe I should have prepared a little better because when we looked at our survey questions, I told my colleague to take out the “If” because the platform rewrites the questions.

Why have you not registered for health insurance?
If the reason is lack of money
If you are not interested
If the registration process is too difficult
If you don’t know where to register

At the end we checked it, though, and the questions didn’t make sense.  For the reason lack of money, press 1. For you are not interested, press 2.

“Actually, I think we should leave in the ‘if’,” I said.

He looked at me like I was a total idiot for getting the process wrong.  Like, since I’ve uploaded surveys before, I should know how to word the questions correctly the first time through.

I might be reading my interactions wrong, but it appears that iterative thinking isn’t encouraged here.  I doubt that math teachers tell their students to look at their answer at the end and think, “Does this make sense?”  Instead, if they follow all the steps correctly then they should get the final answer right.

Teachers everywhere should value creativity.  Students need to be taught that it’s ok to experiment and how to critically analyse their thoughts.

I don’t know how to change overseas school curriculums.  Maybe every country should have a television network that plays The Magic School Bus.

From home, though, I think it’s important to encourage learning and teaching as best as we can.  In the development worker crowd, people who volunteer to teach and work at orphanages are at the bottom of the totem pole.  I recently met a young couple who looked like they were 16 (but are probably closer to 20) who came to Ghana to teach at a school for 2 months.  As they told their story, the rest of the development workers smirked.  First, they’re a couple.  Working with your boyfriend/girlfriend is soooo lame.  Second, they’re only here for 2 months (being here for 3 months, I also don’t warrant much respect either).  Third, they’re teaching.  Basically they’re just playing with kids and taking photos.  That’s not producing any lasting change.

But we development workers need to stop thinking that like.  More specifically, I need to stop.  Most westerners can probably look back to their childhoods and remember one or two teachers who made a big difference in their life – hopefully positive.

Consequently, I have decided to be more supportive of development workers who teach.

On another note, I believe that it’s usually more useful to bring African delegates to North America than send North American delegates to Africa.  Again, sorry for using huge generalizations.  Unfortunately, people are less willing to donate to bring a black person to Canada than send a cute blonde girl to Africa, even though that’s often a more worthwhile cause.

There are already enough Tinder photos of white people surrounded by black children.

(Seriously, people, stop it.)

Ways to Help from Home

I love getting mail!  Nowadays, though, a full email and/or Facebook inbox is the equivalent of real mail.  Lately there has been a common subject among my messages: what are my thoughts about international development?

Some of the past EWB Junior Fellows are now back in school and trying to put their experiences in context with what they’re learning.

[A side story: some of them also say that it’s been difficult to reintegrate into Canadian society because they find it superficial and they’re having a hard time reconnecting with friends.  I don’t share these concerns because, straight up honest, I’m superficial and shallow.  While other people have deep wells of emotion and experience, it doesn’t bother me to be about 2” deep.  Even here in Tamale, development workers say things like “Saving the world…blah blah… development jargon… blah blah… buzz words” and I think “Actually, I don’t care about the differences between micro-finance and micro-loans.  Let’s laugh about who’s kissing who instead.”  Because if you put together a bunch of 20-somethings and mix in alcohol, there are always new snogging stories.  Don’t read this blog if you’re looking for brilliant insights.]

People often ask me, “What are your thoughts about international development?” so I guess I need to string together an opinion.  What I really need is concise 20 second elevator pitch that makes me appear thoughtful and intelligent.  Instead, here’s my honest answer:

International development is largely a money making industry that funds projects that would never work in the developed world, but people want to feel good about themselves so they test new ideas in an environment where you can propose anything as long as you bring along money.  Having white skin helps too.  In the “aid versus trade” debate, I don’t agree with either side – although that’s probably because I’m not an economist and don’t understand the details.  That being said, there are still extremely worthwhile projects overseas.  For instance, Amplify Governance’s GIFTS project.  If you really want to make a difference, I don’t suggest donating money to charities.*  Instead, here’s my list of “Ways to Help from Home.”

Ways to Help from Home

  1. Support overseas education
  2. Protest war
  3. Support access to cheap medical drugs
  4. Don’t support infrastructure projects
  5. Buy less
  6. Fight patriarchy
  7. Acknowledge and fight racism
  8. Fight homophobia
  9. Listen to all sides of the story, even if you think someone is ignorant or hateful
  10. Be compassionate

Over the next 10 days, I’ll expand upon each point.

*If you really want to donate money, then give it to Engineers Without Borders Canada or PeaceGeeks.  I fully support both those organizations in their approach to international development.

Other Days

What do we do for fun?

I like buying different types of cookies from the western stores to which are the best.  As you can probably guess, I eat a lot of gross cookies.  Unfortunately, by the time I stumble on a good brand there usually aren’t any left when I try to buy more.  The turn-over rate is high.

My colleague Lindsay and I love buying cloth and getting clothes made.  Her room looks like a cloth store – but she has great taste so it’s all gorgeous cloth.  It’s fun to go to a seamstress, get your measurements taken, explain what you want, and see what you get in the end.  Often the clothes don’t fit well (which fixable when they’re loose and frustrating when they’re too tight) or match your description.  This takes off some of the pressure.  I’m not a creative person and designing clothes will never be one of my skill-sets, so I explain the basics and let the seamstress create what she wants.  SPOILER ALERT: Everyone back home is getting African-print clothes for their Christmas gifts.

Thursday is a casual Poker Night at one of the western restaurants.  It’s a 5 cedi buy-in, but my colleague and I never stay to end because of our early mornings.  By 10pm, we’re exhausted.

On Friday and Saturday nights we go drinking and dancing.  I recently found out that the club “Guinea Pass” is actually called “Giddy Pass,” which makes more sense but doesn’t conjure up images of guinea fowl.  I’m disappointed.  We dance on the Giddy Pass rooftop until it closes around midnight, then head to Mike’s.  At Mike’s we usually sit around and drink outside because it’s too packed and sweaty inside to dance.  Personally, I made conversation for a couple hours then try to convince the people in my neighbourhood that it’s time to go home.  I only like drinking if I’m dancing, and even then the dancing part is still by far my favourite!

On Saturday and Sunday mornings, sometimes Lindsay and I make brunch.  Either eggs and hashbrowns or pancakes with fruit and maple syrup (Linds brought all the necessities from home).  Then, depending on our hangovers, we laze around the house and watch movies on her computer or go to town to run errands (like visit the seamstress).

On Sundays, people gather in the afternoon to play football (soccer) and ultimate frisbee.  Football starts at 4pm and it switches to ultimate at 5pm.  It’s a good way to run off our hangovers.

A Typical Day in Tamale


Wake up and go for a run.  Or, as they say here, go jogging.  “Run” is used as a verb for diarrhea, as in:

“How are you doing?”

“I’m running.” = I have diarrhea, please be nice to me.

As you can imagine, my host-family gave me a weird look the first time they asked me where I was going and I responded, “Just going running! Be back soon.”


Attempt to meet with the Tamale PRO.  He’s a slippery fish who doesn’t often make our meetings.


Call the Tamale PRO and set up a new meeting time.  Tell him that I understand that he had a last minute meeting in Accra/he’s sick/he’s busy, but that I would really, really appreciate it if he could let me know so I don’t go to the Assembly and wait for him.


Go to town.  Use the internet cafe.  Do some errands.

On these days, I’m usually home by noon.  Once at home, I clean my room or wash my clothes or read or lie on the floor under my ceiling fan.  Tamale days tend to be less productive than Savelugu days.

A Typical Day in Savelugu


Wake up.  Normally I’m the first one in my house that’s awake.  For breakfast I cut up an apple and eat it with crackers and groundnut paste (sort of like peanut butter).


Unlock my family’s gate and walk to the roadside to meet my colleague and get a ride to Savelugu.

0700 – 1700

Work at the Amplify Governance desk at the Savelegu Assembly.  We have aircon and I can use Lindsay’s computer.  Right now I’m working on a summary of all the surveys we’ve done so far as well as a “Lessons Learned” document.

For lunch, we have 3 options: watkkye (rice and beans), fried yams and plantains, and fried chicken.  As a vegetarian, I only have two options.  Sometimes I bring tomatoes and eat them with crackers instead.

Lindsay has to work long days because she drives her employees to and from the field.  Normally I stay at the office all day and get a ride back with her, although sometimes I have errands in town or need the internet and go back early.


Eat dinner with my host-family.  The mother and father watch TV in the main room while the “kids” (who are my age) watch TV in one of the bedrooms.  Now that two of the daughters and two of the sons are away at school, there are only two host-sisters left.  One often doesn’t get home until late so now it’s just me, Gifty, and her 2-year-old son.  We watch badly-dubbed Spanish soap operas while we eat TZ and soup.  If the two-year-old isn’t being too bratty, I stay to watch the news.  Otherwise I go to my room and read a novel or write in my journal.  By 8pm, I usually get ready for bed.

Tongo Hills and Sirigu

Another of Lindsay’s wonderful posts!  Because I’m too lazy to write about it myself when she already did such a fabulous job.

The Topless Shrine at Tongo Hills

The Topless Shrine at Tongo Hills

Authenticity, Part III

This post actually has nothing to do with “authenticity” – except, perhaps, addressing my own anger and guilt.

“You’re a free spirit.”

My friend said that to me before I left for South Africa and he said it again this time around.

“You’re such a free spirit.  You just go wherever you want.”

That’s not true.  Although I don’t have any major commitments like children or a mortgage, I still have a life back home.  I still have to rearrange my life and get my ducks in a row to leave for 4-10 months.  Ugh, as much as I hate to say it, I have to make sacrifices for this life.

Arguably, nothing major.  As much as I joke about TZ, the food situation isn’t that terrible.  Nothing about my living situation is awful.  It’ll take me a little longer to graduate from my masters program, but I didn’t have to give up any major dreams to spend time volunteering with EWB.

But that doesn’t make it easy.  I miss my family and friends.  My relationships weaken.  My heart hurts.

Before I left, my sister cried to me, “You can’t go.  It was horrible when you went to Africa before.  After Skyping, Mum always cried.  Do you know what that was like for me?”

The separation is tougher than any financial or employment commitments.  It’s disparaging to be called a “free spirit.”  It belittles my love for people back home.

Authenticity, Part II

When I first arrived in Ghana, an established Canadian and I had a conversation about grocery shopping.  He said something along the lines of, “I’m terribly western.  I buy my groceries from the supermarket.”

“I don’t think that’s a western thing,” I replied.  “In South Africa, I used to buy fruits and vegetables from the women selling them on the side of the road, but my coworkers made fun of me.  They’d say, ‘Don’t you know those are dirty?’ They always bought the more expensive things from a proper store.

I think it’s awful (and unfortunately quite “western”) to assume that poverty is somehow “local” and “authentic.”  Why pretend to be poor when you aren’t?

A girl back home has millionaire parents who bought her an apartment, yet she complains of being broke all the time.  The capitalist in me wants her to get a job, but mostly I think, “Don’t construct an image of yourself based on other people’s suffering.  There is nothing inherently noble about poverty.”

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