Rebuilding Foundations

An exploration of international development work in Africa

Archive for the month “November, 2014”

Roar

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.

—BREAK TIME—

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.

Bumpkin

In December, I have to attend 2 days of EWB “debriefing” before going back home.  Or, as I like to call it, “reintegration training,” because I can be snarky and ungrateful sometimes.

I thought to myself, Why would we need reintegration training?  None of us were living in villages.  Tamale isn’t that big, but it’s that different either.

Last weekend, however, EWB had their Ghana Fall training session at Lake Bosumtwi an hour outside of Kumasi, which is the second largest city in Ghana.  As my fancy air-conditioned bus rolled into Kumasi around 11pm, I was shocked at all the multi-story structures.  “The buildings here are huge!” I exclaimed.  I felt like a little country bumpkin being in the big city for the first time.

So maybe I will need some help to “reintegrate” into Canadian society.

Christmas Carols

My coworker started playing Christmas carols in the office today.  It’s hard to believe that it’s only a month away.

This year, please don’t support the new Band Aid 30 version of “Do They Know It’s Christmas.”  Phone your local radio stations and tell them not to play it.  It’s patronizing, racist, and factually wrong.  Read more about how stupid it is here and here.

If you want to fight Ebola, donate to Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) instead.

Sirigu Paintings

Some paintings from the women’s art centre in Sirigu.

Guinea fowl

Guinea fowl

Cow with bird

Cow with bird

More cows?  With lizards?

More cows? With lizards?

More EWB-UBC Questions

Here are some more questions from my awesome UBC Chapter back home.

In your blog post, Fight Patriarchy, you mentioned that many charities are aimed at helping men. In what ways do NGO programs benefit men more than women?

To begin, my apologies.  I often make sweeping generalizations in my blog posts that I don’t back up.  To answer this question, I’m going to narrow my scope and focus on Tamale.

In this city, there are a lot of different NGO projects with different agendas.  There are a lot of different NGO projects with different agendas.  Many of them specifically target women as recipients of aid or education.  Unfortunately, however, it is extremely difficult for foreigners to understand the local cultural implications of their work

For example, I’m currently working with a group that is educating women on obstetric fistula.  Since this a medical problem that occurs from prolonged childbirth, it first appeared to be a “woman’s issue.”  Consequently, they started their project by focusing on women.

They soon discovered, however, that the problems surround obstetric fistula are much more complex.  Early marriages, teen pregnancies, malnutrition, and poverty all contribute to the high rates of obstetric fistula.  Moreover, it often doesn’t matter how educated a woman is on the subject because ultimately she needs permission from her husband to go to the hospital – either to give birth or get treated afterwards.

We exist in a patriarchal society, so all these small patch-up solutions ultimately help to uphold patriarchy.

Here’s another example.  For the GIFTS project, Amplify hired Ghanaians to work as field workers.  They record housing information, GPS coordinates, and paint numbers on the houses.  Out of 10 data collectors, only one is a woman.

This isn’t because Amplify is biased: they actually aimed to hire more women.  But many women can’t work a full-time job here.  Instead, they need something that they can organize around household chores and childcare responsibilities.  For instance, my seamstress’ 1-year-old son usually hangs out in her stall with her.

As a Canadian, I view my job life and home life as separate entities.  Women here, however, often don’t have that luxury.

Does that make sense?  Have I answered your question?  I wanted to delve into counterrevolutionary theory, but that would have started a long “end patriarchy!!!!!” rant so I tried to give examples instead.  Let me know if I haven’t been clear.

If people are using pay-as-you-go cards, then would they be paying to answer the surveys you’ve sent out?

With pay-as-you-go, you only pay when you make the outgoing call.  Receiving calls doesn’t cost anything.

In what other ways can we/NGOs help if we don’t build infrastructure directly? How do we help improve infrastructure indirectly?

By helping countries improve their government’s accountability, which leads to your next question:

You suggested improving the tax system, however, how could developed countries help developing countries improve their governments as whole?

I wish I had concise answers for you.  Honestly you’re asking me things way outside my depth of knowledge, so please take everything here with a grain of salt.  Actually, take it with a mountain of salt.

I think we need to focus on our own governments and lead by example.

In South Africa, I got to meet the Governor General because my friend’s boss was receiving an award.  As a fellow Canadian, I was invited to the party.  We went to the Canadian Diplomat’s house in Pretoria, which was huge.  I met Craig Kielburger, the guy who started Feed the Children.  A large group of important Canadians were traveling around southern Africa to meet state leaders and see the countries for themselves.

It was outrageous.  Besides the lavish food spread, they had also brought in Canadian beer and maple cookies.

Most African governments are disgustingly corrupt, but we’re not shining ideals either.  As Canadians, I think we need to demand more from our politicians.  Advocacy is key.

I know that’s not a great answer.  I’m basically saying that we can help African governments by ignoring them and letting them fend for themselves.

More than that, though, we also need to recognize that many of our actions in Canada undermine sovereignty in African states – like our electronics that often contain minerals from conflict zones.  We need to consume less stuff.  If oil, gold, diamonds, and other resources weren’t so precious, then people wouldn’t fight over it.

These are tough issues.  It’s so complicated that I have no idea how to tackle them.

That being said, things change quickly.  Look at how quickly China and India created a new middle class!  Nothing is hopeless.

If anyone else has more ideas, you’re invited to share.

Hee-Haw

After reading yesterday’s post, you can probably guess that I haven’t made very many Ghanaian friends here.  I chat with my coworkers and host-family, but that’s it.

Is this a failure on my part?  I could be more outgoing and tolerant of the cultural differences, but it’s especially difficult in Tamale because women don’t go out at night.

I don’t only mean to bars and clubs, but just out.  They’re expected to stay home.  One of my host-sisters often doesn’t come home at night or arrives after 9pm and her father yells about it to the rest of the family.

After work, I always try to be home by 6pm before it gets dark.  After that, my choices are to hang out with my host-family or hang out with other expats.  Not only is it dangerous to travel in the dark, but women live with their families so they have responsibilities in the evening besides hosting their new friends.

This sounds horrible, but I don’t want to be too friendly with Ghanaian men.  The culture is so different here: if I “hang out” with a man, it’s basically seen as “courting.”

Other EWBers in different cities have been more successful at making friends.  Southern Ghana is much more liberal than northern Ghana.

Princess Leia

Street harassment is probably my biggest issue with Ghana.  I just want to walk around without men yelling at me.  The constant onslaught is exhausting.

Luckily Hollaback Street Harassment recently made a great video to illustrate what a huge problem this is, even in North America.

Even luckier, a fantastic parody was made!  This video is excellent.

Sometimes, you just have to laugh.

Moreover, it makes sense that so many men here have no idea how to relate to me.  They probably get most of their information from TV.  Can you imagine if you judged women from beer ads?  No matter they think I’m going to have sex with them just because they say hello.

Compared to here, Canadians are way more sexually active.  Ghana is relatively conservative, especially in Tamale with its high proportion of Muslim population.  Most people probably have a friend of a friend who dated an expat and they had sex without any thoughts of marriage.  So weird!

So I try to be more understanding.  Look at how Canadians view Africa, after all.  We generalize “Africa” as if it’s one big country.  We listen to songs like the new Band Aid 30 version of “Do they know it’s Christmas,” which is full of lies, racism, and bad rhymes.  We see Africans as lazy, dependent, and vulnerable.

Which is wrong.

Sometimes I feel like an alien from a galaxy far, far away – but I’m not.  I’m not going to say something stupid like “we’re all human so we should be able to empathize” because I don’t think that we can.  More and more during conversations, I realize “I have absolutely no idea where this guy is coming from.”  I can’t dig down deep to his fears, desires, and motivations.  Our cultures are too different to understand each other.

But I think that’s ok.  I think it’s ok to accept our differences as long as I realize that it’s not a black/white thing or men/women thing.

Mole

I’ve been told that if you only do one thing in Ghana, you need to visit Mole (pronounced “mōl-ay”).  Although I haven’t gone to any of the other tourist attractions (like Cape Coast), I agree.

Last weekend, a group of us finally went to Mole National Park.  It’s best to go in the dry season because then the elephants have to come out from the forest to visit the water sources.

From Tamale, it’s worth hiring a taxi driver.  We hired two cars and drivers for ₡380 each.  One car took 4 people and one took 5 people (luckily it was a hatchback so one person sat in the trunk instead of 4 people squishing in the back).  ₡380 includes the drivers’ food and accommodation fees as well.  Public transit, however, costs ₡30 each way and only leaves at inconvenient times, like 4am.

Once we arrived at Mole, we had to pay to get into the park.  It’s ₡30 for a normal expat, ₡15 for students (unfortunately I didn’t have my student card so had to pay full price), ₡15 for Ghanaians (like our 2 taxi drivers), and ₡5 cedi at car.

This means that our private taxis actually cost ₡400 each, plus a ₡5 bribe we paid to the police on the way to Mole.

The restaurant in Mole has Ghanaian food and some western food.  Most meals are under ₡20 each.  There’s also a gift store and snack store.  We should have brought our own crackers and cookies because they were overpriced, but that’s to be expected.

Behind the Information building, there’s another small restaurant with cheap Ghanaian food.  It’s open 6am-2pm.   When I checked it out, though, they only had wakye (rice and beans).

All rooms include breakfast of a small tomato omelet and toast, which comes with Blue Band spread (sort of like margarine, except gross) and jam.  The jam was super exciting.

One of my friends can’t eat gluten so the restaurant gave her beans instead of toast.  I asked if I could have the beans replacement as well and the server told me no, so make sure you’re the first to ask!

Every day, my friend asked for fruit but the restaurant was out.  If you bring your own, though, they’ll cut it up for you.  Considering that watermelon are in season and only ₡2 cedi, we should have brought a couple.

The hotel has a beautiful swimming pool.  We spent hours paddling around and lounging on the beach chairs.  Warning: African sun is stronger than Canadian sun.   Always wear sunscreen!  I saw many lobsters walking around.  There were lots of lobsters walking around.

It was weird to see tourists walking around in bathing suits.  In Tamale, I feel self-conscious if I show too much knee!  My bikini felt almost a little scandalous.

A Ghanaian high school class visited the park on Saturday and seemed more interested in us tourists than the elephants.  When they first arrived at the hotel, they gathered around my chair and asked if they could take my picture.

“Why?”

“Because of the way you’re sitting with your book.”

I guess I did look like the typical tourist: reclining beach chair, bright orange bikini, book in my hand, one leg up.  If only I had sunglasses.  It felt weird, though, to be such a fascination.  I told them that I didn’t want to pose for photos.

“Why not?”

“Because, you know, I’m not part of the park.  I’m not a tourist attraction.”

“Oh…ok.”

But I think they still took photos from a distance anyways.

We stayed in the dorm rooms, which were clean but nothing special.  You have to make sure to shut the door tightly, otherwise baboons get in and destroy everything in their search for food.  The beds didn’t have mozzie nets, which disappointed me.  I don’t think many places in Ghana include bed nets, though.

The best part, of course, was the elephants!  We went on a walking safari Saturday morning for 2 hours, which cost ₡20 each.  We saw elephants, but they were in the water most of the time.

Bathing

Bathing

We did a driving safari on Saturday evening for ₡40 cedi each for 2 hours.  It was fun to drive around gossip, but we didn’t seen much.

Warthogs

Warthogs

On Sunday morning, we talked to one of the guides and asked if he would bring us directly to the elephants for a “donation.”  For ₡5 each, we got up close and personal with some elephants hanging out in the forest!  It was super cool.

Key points from our adventure:

  • Hire a car and driver
  • Bring your student card
  • Bring your own snacks and fruit and pure water sachets
  • Ask a guide to take you around outside of the official tour times
Up close and personal

Up close and personal

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