Rebuilding Foundations

An exploration of international development work in Africa

Archive for the category “Canada”

‘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.



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.


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.

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.

Beads of Hope – PLEASE DONATE

“Nafisa Rafiatu Adams is a social entrepreneur. Her business, Beads of Hope, started with ten women and girls in the community and now has nearly 50 women, who consist of rescued child brides, teenage mothers and girls engaged in child prostitution. She is proud of the fact that she have been able to provide an alternative source of income to these women through beaded jewelry and they are in turn able to cater for their children.”

Please donate to Nafisa so she can come to Canada as part of EWB’s Kumvana’s Program.

More information can be found here.

This is exactly what I was talking about in #1 from my Ways to Help from Home list: Support overseas education.  C’mon, do it.  You know you want to!

Care Bear Countdown!

Two more weeks left in Ghana.  One month until I’m home.

There’s so much to be excited for.  My mum’s shortbread!  Mandarin oranges!  Holiday parties!  Watching The Muppet’s Christmas Carol!  Snuggling beside the fireplace!  Mulled wine!  Friends!  Family!  My sister’s dog!  Even her cat, whom I’m allergic to!

I’m trying hard to live in the present and appreciate every moment in Ghana, but it’s hard not to fantasize about the future – especially since it’s going to be so much better than whatever my limited imagination comes up with.

Christmas baking.  Enough said.


Distance Dating

“You have a boyfriend?” he asked, pointing at the ring on my wedding finger.


We were sitting at a restaurant on plastic chairs, outside on the dirt patio.  It was around 4pm.  The sun was no longer scorching and the shadows grew longer as we talked.  I had arrived last of the group and everyone else was already one bottle of beer into the conversation.  My Savanna cider arrived as one of the other expats squinted across the table at me.

“What’s that like?” he asked.

I took a sip of my Savanna.  It tasted like dancing in Cape Town.  “Well,” I hesitated.  “It’s like having a friend except sometimes we –.”

“No,” he interrupted.  “You’re here and he’s in Canada.  How’s it going?”

“I’m only here for 3 months, not 3 years,” I laughed.

“So you’re not going to tell me,” he obviously didn’t think I was funny.

“It’s going good.”

“Of course.” He seemed skeptical.

His doubt made sense because – as everyone knows – long-distance dating is difficult.  The internet is full of blog posts and articles by better writers than me who fully explore every aspect of long-distance relationships.  My attitude is that if you can’t survive 3 months apart, then you won’t survive a lifetime together.  Breaking up right now is not a tragedy.  Breaking up in 7 years when we have 2 children is much worse.  So if our relationship ends, I’ll cut my losses and think “At least it happened now.”

Despite my attitude, every now and then people still ask me for relationship advice.  Sometimes they’re not even joking, which is silly on their part.

But this is what I will say: I was single when I left for South Africa and it awesome.  My friends and I had tons of fun dancing and flirting as only single girls can.  I also casually dated a South African, we had a good time, it was a messy breakup, but that’s the way dating goes sometimes.

Now, though, I’m in a “serious” relationship so I don’t flirt anymore.  But I’m also getting older, so flirting with 22-year-olds has less appeal (unless it’s with my boss, Lindsay.  As the only person I’m officially forbidden to get involved with, she’s obviously the most attractive person in Ghana).

That being said, I had one request before leaving.  I made my boyfriend promise that if he wanted to break up, he would tell me right away.  No waiting until I’m back to do it in person.  Why?  Because I can be a little crazy.  I’m relatively sane for 95% of the time, but for that remaining 5% it’s like my brain disappears.  My insecurities grow to gigantic proportions.  I convince myself of thoughts like, “He’s fallen for someone else!  He doesn’t love me!  NO ONE WILL EVER LOVE ME AGAIN!”

But I also know that most EWB Junior Fellows that are in relationships don’t end them while they’re overseas, but once the JF returns. Couples find it hard to reconnect.  Plus, most JFs are in their early 20s which is the prime time for breakups.

I hope that doesn’t happen to us.

Being apart is difficult, but my boyfriend is wonderful, supportive, and rational (a quality that seems increasingly rare as the news spreads lies about Ebola).  He has never once suggested that I come home.  Every time someone emails me one of those messages, it’s like being told “I don’t believe in you.”

Being with him makes me a stronger, better person.  My first two weeks in Ghana were challenging and it really helped knowing that my boyfriend, bestie, and family support my decisions – even though they’re geographically far away.

This has been a shocking revelation, because I used to think that being single is way easier than being a girlfriend.  But this man has changed my opinion: being with him is actually much better than standing alone.

So what do I tell people who ask my advice?

Don’t worry.

Be happy.

Don’t worry about dating because it all depends on your life stage, regardless of where you are in the world.  If you’re happy being single, be single and don’t let others stress you out about it.  Your friends can provide way more love in your life than most men anyways.

However, if you’re in a healthy and happy relationship, then you can make it work while apart.  You’ll miss each other, but there’s beauty in the pain because it shows how much you both care.

If you break up, it’ll be tough.  But you’ll get through it.

As Shakespeare said, “All’s well that ends well.”

And you’ll end up well.

10. Be compassionate

The Dalai Lama said, “Compassion is a verb.”  It’s an action, not a sentiment.

So don’t feel compassionate; be compassionate.  Be kind and generous and respectful.

Every action is an opportunity to improve the world.

At the end of the day, most of us only have power over the people we personally interact with.  Most of these interactions are neutral, but sometimes your words will make someone feel infinitely better or infinitely worse.

Aim for better.

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