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Crossroads

Cape Coast, Ghana

There is nothing quite like the sound of the ocean. I stand at the shore, legs sinking further and further into the soft sand as wave after wave – over 1 m high – crashes down on the beach. Intermittent sun coupled with cool breeze off the open Atlantic hits a perfect balance. The sea is vast, extending out all around me. My mind goes blank, as a particular big wave drenches me head-to-toe; only for a moment though, as it recedes quickly with awful force. White foamy water remains, rapidly flowing across my feet. I taste salt in my mouth, sparking memories of countless summers on the beach. I turn around and walk back to shore where some of my EWB colleagues are spread out on the sand. Large, jagged rock faces can be seen not far from where I stand, in both directions. There are old remains of castles embedded in the rocks, in stark contrast to the lodge ahead of me. Castles that are remnants of the busy slave trade this very shore used to harbour. One of North America’s gateways to West African labor. This is definitely one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen.

It has been 24 hours since a bus sped us out of the Northern Region of Ghana. An expansive plethora of thoughts and feelings have been spinning through my head over the last 3 days. My mind and heart now all feel like mush. Homogenous. It feels like nothing. Yet to be sorted out.

I stand here, beach sand crusting every part of my body, and a mix of betrayal, relief, sadness, and excitement surround one thought in particular that reverberates through me:

It’s over.

“You did not keep long.”

It was Friday. Both literally, and figuratively: it was the Friday of my placement.

Pictures. A meeting with the heads of the district assembly. Running through files and reports with various people. The district chief executive putting a traditional Ghanaian smock on me, the customary send-off. Goodbyes. Goodbyes. Goodbyes.

I put my laptop and a host of other papers into my backpack. I walked around the planning office, doing one last survey for any leftover possessions. Heart in my throat, music playing from the computer one of the interns was using, Patience and I slowly walked out of the complex. It was around 11:30. Perfect timing.

I hopped on my bike, looked around at the district assembly for the last time, and slowly pedalled away.

Over to the Ghana Education office, to tie up another loose end: helping Ben change the classifications of Technical and Secondary schools. And of course, yet another goodbye. Work has not ended; EWB will continue to work in Saboba; it’s only my time that has elapsed.

The sun was pleasantly warm as I biked back towards town, knowing this was the last time I was doing so. I had goosebumps. It was market day in Saboba, ideal for some last gifts: some shirts for Elijah, a watch, lots of goodies for the kids. I had already bought cloth for Dana and Hanna.

Suddenly the sky became dark. The temperature plummeted. A storm was coming. A mass exodus began, with people rushing home or rushing for cover. Knowing the drill, I ran back to my bike and started speeding home. Through the throngs of people, light drizzling whipped at my face, and earth-shattering thunder echoed in all directions.

I got home, biking all the way into the compound successfully navigating the narrow entrance. Janet ran to me as usual, excited and playful. Elijah was sheltering from the storm in one of the huts, and I joined him for my last plate of T-Zed. Everything was so… normal. An aura of anticipation and anxiety hung in the air though, as we sunk our fingers into the fiery hot maize. Dana hadn’t said anything to me that day. She broke her silence with one heart-leaping statement: “Don’t go.”

3:45 am. Duncan and I waded through the sewage water that had flooded Saboba because of the rainy season. We slowly walked away, just having said very difficult goodbye to our families.

“It would just be so easy to turn back. Go back to bed. Wake up in the morning, drink tea, bike in to work. It would just be so easy…”

It would be easy. There is so much work to do. We finally have hit a stride and know how to work in the Ghanaian system. We have friends, who we spent 4 hours saying goodbye to the previous day. We have homes…

But there is also lots left to be done in Canada. We have school, families, and a life waiting for us. I’m excited about going back, but I’m not happy to be leaving Ghana.

The conflicting feelings are brutal. Add to all of this the ridiculous level of personal development, pushing for change, questioning, working, and learning… I wont lie: I’m exhausted.

How does all of this apply to Canada? How do I take from this experience and internalize the learnings? What will be my role with EWB going back? How do I avoid reversing some of the changes in me, knowing that familiar environments are a breeding ground for reverting to familiar habits?

Duncan and I loaded our backpacks and plastic bags into the bus, and sat silently and we looked out at the dark outlines of Old Market Square. Normally I itch for the bus to start moving, but this time I didn’t really care. Ironically, it started moving pretty much immediately after we got on. It gained speed, zooming past the small stalls and shops, turned the corner… past the police station and the district assembly… the small stretch of paved road that is Saboba town ended with a bounce, and the unkempt red dirt road began rattling the bus.

I looked back, through the dust clouds our bus was forming. I watched the cell phone tower in Saboba shrink. Then we turned, and with a swoop, Saboba was gone.

That was 5 days ago. I got to Tamale, and was thrust into immediate debrief meetings with the Governance and Rural Infrastructure team. 6 of us were leaving, so as much as possible our experiences and knowledge had to be sucked out of us. It felt like someone had opened a dam.

I had one more loose end to tie up: Yousif. Yousif and I hopped on a bus, and headed to Buipe, a city in the Central Gonja district, where his family lives. Spent Sunday in Buipe, returned Monday morning. I spent all Monday running like a mad man around Tamale, finishing all the last minute things I had to do. I met with my director to discuss the way forward for Saboba.

Early morning on Tuesday, after a sleepless night, all 15 of us loaded our luggage into taxis and began our journey home. Dirt roads became paved highways. Mud huts became concrete, square complexes. Frocks and gowns became jeans and t-shirts. Buildings became higher and higher. Road markings appeared. More cars were visible. There was no more maize growing on the side of the road. At 5 am on Wednesday morning, we arrived: in the harbour city of Cape Coast.

I can picture Saboba in my mind. I can picture Elijah going to the farm in the morning, the women fetching water, the smiles everyone gives you in the morning. I can picture my co-workers at the office, chugging through their regular days. A reality I’m no longer a part of.

Now I’m sitting here, in a much more developed city. Southern Ghana. Running water, widespread education, shopping malls, supermarkets, beaches, industry, traffic jams, and expensive restaurants. I have trouble believing I’m still in the same country. There are elements that remain though, small things that assure me: this is most definitely still Ghana.

What is it going to be like when I return to Canada? Do I go back to just living my life as before? So many things seem so unnecessary now; so excessive. I suppose I will have to. It feels wrong. Many things just feel off to me right now. Something is missing inside of me; I think it’s understanding. Maybe clarity.

And what about school? Sitting in a classroom learning about theoretical engineering concepts… Will I just forget about the last four months? Will it just become a memory as I fall back into my routine ways? I can’t let that happen… how will I find a balance?

I started this blog – in March – with a post called “Crossroads.” This was because at that time I felt I was at a crossroads, ready to dive deep into an experience that would supposedly have lifelong impacts for me. But I have had no choice to come back to where I started: I’m now at a crossroads.

What’s next?

I commit to investing in people at my EWB chapter at U of T. I commit to honestly sharing my thoughts, including letting everyone know when I don’t have answers. I commit to staying up as long as needed, making myself available whenever I can, if someone wants to talk. I commit to searching for ways to improve what we’re doing, and continuing to question our goals and approaches. I commit to questioning and learning from everyone at the chapter, who have life experiences and knowledge that I may not.

I commit to striving for humility. I commit to continue learning, and know the limitations of my own experiences. I commit to provide constructive feedback and critical opinions in the face of uncertainty, and to be okay with being wrong.

I do have a fear. The fear is that people in Canada that I talk to will take what I say at face value. It immediately scares me into not even say anything. Development is complex. People who have worked in this field for their entire lives haven’t figured it out.

This experience is a snapshot of one example of one approach to one sector of development. I am not coming back with answers. I’m not coming back with expertise. I am coming back with a perspective. I am willing to share it, but most of that is my interpretation of that one example of an experience. Feel free to challenge me. Feel free to disagree.

I don’t know what the future holds. I do know, though, that this is only the beginning for me in the field of development. I don’t think I can turn back anymore. One thing is for certain, though: this is not over yet. I don’t know how, I don’t know when; but what I do know is this: I’m coming back.

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Flashes Before My Eyes

Written on Tuesday, August 17th.

I was shivering, as I stood just a few meters from my compound and stared out at the sky. I had just woken up, as usual, around 5 am, and the sun was just about to rise. Everyday over the past week I’ve walked out of my compound upon waking up, and experienced the sunrise as completely as possible. In the direction of the river, East towards Togo, I’ve watched the dancing shades of orange and blue on the horizon: sometimes coming through clouds, sometimes not. I’ve stood there, in the crisp morning breeze of the full-blown rainy season, and focused on everything: the cooing of the roosters, the guck on my feet as my slippers sink into the rained-on red soil, the freshness of the air in my lungs as a take a deep breath, the smell of fires as people start to heat up water, the women pumping the borehole I can just make out in the distant field, and vast, expansive farmland – maize and corn growing at rapid pace now.

I’ve absorbed the atmosphere. Lapped it all up. Throughout this week I have pushed to really live in the moment. To soak in every ounce of my everyday life in Saboba. Every so often my heart leaps, jumps in my throat, and I get goosebumps: I’m leaving Saturday morning. And now, sitting in my compound in the dark using the laptop screen’s own light to see the keyboard, I let something else flood through me: memories. Disconnected, random, incomplete flashes of the last 3 1/2 months:

Sweat. Lock-step. Running on the dirt path, morning after morning. To the river, and back. Children joining me for 50 m just for kicks.

“psss. ay! salaminga!”

“obruni, help me move this table!”

“okalanja byebye!!!”

Sweat. Early in the morning, empty office, every day, just off a bike ride from the village and my morning bath is rendered useless.

Speeding across the savanna on a motorbike. Wind in my hair, beautiful sunrises and sunsets. Waves and greetings.

Running through a forested area, slightly lost, in the dark, looking for the main road before the rain hits.

Sitting with Thomas’s kids: Bright, Vincent, and Prince, on the road under a streetlamp, showing them pictures of Canada.

Smiles. Laughter. Gretchen. Janet. Lufka. Jethro. Dana. Elijah. Phillip. Mainsa. Hanna. My Ghanaian family that makes me laugh after even the toughest day of work.

Yousif. Bad Nigerian films, egg-and-bread, long discussions. Sacrifice. Family. Brotherhood. Reliance. Trust.

Frustrations. Anger. Confusion. Reflection. Gut-wrenching decisions that tear me between values I never thought I’d compromise. Remorse at bad decisions, where the learning is just not enough to justify them.

Markets. Trucks. Busses. Fertilizer bags and coal. Questions. Laughter. Then answers.

Learning. Learning. Learning. Pushing. Striving. Being wrong. Being wrong again. Pummeled by reality, defeated by circumstance, aided by people. Getting up, stronger than before.

Beating hot sun. Beating hard rains. Thunderstorms like movies. Sheltering under a tree, a yam storage made from elephant grass.

Silence. Serenity.

Smiles.

Hardship.

Compassion.

“We’re managing…”

Images and events, emotions and thoughts, smells and feelings and sounds from the last 3.5 months spin through my head. I let my mind wander in reflection…

Over 13 Years Ago.
Karachi, Pakistan.

Our white Suzuki sedan rolled through a narrow, crowded alley. The sun had just set, but the darkness had taken hold already and the strip of street food-sellers we were driving through were swamped with business from the dinner crowd. This part of Karachi, called Commercial Area, is home to shops and eats of every variety. The evening prayer call rang in the distance, and the perpetual heat mixed with the smell of fresh naan hung heavy in the humid air.

I was a kid. Sitting in the back of the white car, our driver was driving with my mother and me in the back seats. I don’t remember if anyone else was there. I remember peering over the edge of the car window. On the side of the street I was facing, opposite to that of the vendors, was a short brick wall that ran the length of the alley. I remember peering over the window to a then-familiar sight: hundreds of people, sprawled on the tar road leaning against the wall. Men and women in tattered clothes with their naked, emaciated, malnourished children running around or lying on the rapidly-cooling ground next to their beggar parents.

I remember my asking my mother why they are there.

I remember her telling me they’re hoping for people to buy them food, or for the food vendors to give them remainders at the end of the night. Like a charity line. Absolute, decrepit, widespread urban poverty.

I remember asking her why we didn’t buy them food.

I don’t really remember what she said.

I remember thinking about it for a second, and then shrugging. It was an everyday sight, after all. I remember sitting back while we bought tons of delicious food for the house, unaffected by our surroundings.

6 Weeks ago. Ghana.
Somewhere between Tamale and Damongo.

“In the south, at least, it’s a stigma. It means you’re from the ‘village.’ That you’re ‘unclean.'” Erin and I sat on a rented trotro, along with about 20 other EWB volunteers heading from our two-day mid-placement retreat to a big country meeting between all volunteers in Ghana.

“Really? I’ve never heard that, even though I’ve asked people about it,” I replied.

We were talking about the large, protruded bellybuttons on a group of children a few meters from our van. It’s a common sight in rural Ghana, the mark of babies delivered by unskilled health personnel. Babies delivered in the home, without any perinatal or antenatal care. Often, in cases such as these, the umbilical cord is cut further from the body to avoid infection. I don’t know if it’s only this or a combination of another factor, but it results in a swollen bulge of liquid or air – which can be fairly large – where the bellybutton should be. This bulge reduces as a child grows into an adult, but doesn’t completely go away.

Marking you as a ‘uncivilized villager’.

Over 11 Years Ago.
Karachi, Pakistan.

I don’t remember specific instances. But I do remember countless times when me or younger my brother would be either wearing shoddy clothes, or dirty, or refusing to do something related to hygiene. I remember my parents used to tell us off:

“Gaaoon wale ke tarhan laag rahe ho!”

Translated: “You’re looking like someone from a village!”

It was a degrading term. Looked down on. I wonder now… Are there some children in wealthier families, in the developed south of Ghana, maybe in Accra, who are told this by their parents? Pakistan’s geographical wealth distribution is fairly similar to Ghana’s; Karachi, an industrial 17-million-people hub, is on the Southern coast of the country. The north is much less developed, mostly farmland and rural areas… like Ghana.

Was I just so shielded from these realities when I was a kid? How do these attitudes towards rural life translate to perpetuating poverty and hindering development? Now, looking from where I am now… my head spins at my past.

4 Weeks Ago.
Office of the District Chief Executive. Saboba.

The room was pretty crowded, but the air conditioner helped us fight what would otherwise be stifling heat. Some of us were seated around a long, oval wooden table while others sat on assorted couches and chairs that had been moved into the room. We were half-way through a meeting with a team from a consulting company. One of the functions of this consulting company, based out of Accra, is to provide a service to district assemblies who don’t have a Planning Officer and help them assemble/write their Medium-Term Development Plan (MTDP).

It’s a long story, but these consultants have been a dent in my placement and I’ve had less-than-favorable dealings with their headstrong leader, Eva. Consultation with the district has been minimal, if that, and Eva’s team has been patching together pre-written MTDP templates for Saboba’s four-year development plan that don’t at all correlate to what the district needs. In this particular meeting, where the consultants presented the work done so far and wanted “input” from the different departments of the district, Eva was sitting across from me with the district director of agriculture. She was asking him about an issue identified by his department as one to focus on, using a summarized print-out I’d given her. I noticed information was missing in her question around objectives, and pointed out that the second package I’d printed and given to her contained those details. While the director was replying, Eva shot me a look, a small flick of her hand… subtle gestures that, based on my previous experience with her, clearly said: “shut up. he won’t understand. don’t confuse him.”

This repeated when we discussed financial projections outside of the meeting, and she was clearly treating me as an “equal” vs. the other district officers. Obviously these Northerners won’t understand, they’re uneducated and unsophisticated! They need us Southerners to hold their hand, tell them what to do, baby steps for the rural people. Development plans with fill-in-the-blanks.

It disgusts me. And Eva is not alone in this attitude. So, because of misconceptions and generalizations present only in the heads of an entire country, government development projects in a rural district such as Saboba may not reflect what staff here know is needed. And if these power dynamics are present within the country, can you imagine what they are like between donors/NGOs and locals?

Five Days Ago.
District Agricultural Development Unit. (DADU)

“Saboba is a dumping ground. It is a punishment ground.” This depressing statement rings in my head again and again like a tuning fork struck with just the right force. It’s not because of it’s power, it’s not because I heard it this once; it’s because it consolidates attitudes and behaviors I’ve observed across the board in the public sector. The speaker: a man named Cosmos, one of the few workers at the understaffed DADU office.

Cosmos and the typist in his office have been working at the DADU in Saboba for 9 years. It is a quiet office, where all the staff play more than one role and two extension agents manage a district meant for 32. It’s absurd. How is this “department” supposed to implement or plan or evaluate anything?

“Tamale. Talon. Savlugu. All three of those districts are overstaffed!” Cosmos and his colleagues said that the workers in those districts have a close relationship with the regional minister, and refuse to be reassigned further from the metropolis that is Tamale. They are government workers, why should they move their children and families to areas with low health care and education, and work in extremely under-resourced conditions?

So the society – and the government – as much as they want change, spit on rural districts like Saboba because of the conditions here; and because of that, conditions here don’t improve either.

6 Weeks Ago.

Old Market Square in Saboba. 4 am. I was leaving Saboba for a few days for the EWB mid-placement retreat and team meetings in Tamale. I helped Yousif and his girlfriend Helen load their stuff into the bottom cargo space of the bus to Tamale: a few essential possessions, household pots and pans, some clothes, a tank of gas for a stove, and a rolled up mattress still damp from being washed. A growing balloon of foreboding grew between the three of us, and there were butterflies in my stomach: Yousif was leaving Saboba. Helen would take the bus with me, and Yousif would make his way to Tamale on a motorbike.

It so happened that I was heading to Tamale at the same time, so we would see each other at least once before I came back to the district. Regardless, that moment in Old Market Square was a turning point.

Over the past seven years, since he finished high school, Yousif has been held back by one issue: Math. Math hasn’t been his strongest subject, but it wasn’t his math teacher’s either! So through school he struggled without support from any teachers or staff, and there was no way to get additional help in Saboba, not to mention that he was being solely supported by his increasingly-aging mother.

For six years Yousif opened an egg-and-bread selling business on the street in Saboba, where he sells/serves (amazing) egg-and-bread, Nescafe, Lipton, and Milo. He built a customer base that fetches him regular sales, and found a economical egg supplier he must travel 8 hours to meet every couple of months. Through this egg-and-bread business, he has saved and saved and saved. During this time, he had two kids. Wanting the best education from them, and learning from his past, he enrolled them in private schools for kindergarten and primary. This again set him back for what he wanted to do: rewrite his math exam. He did manage to rewrite it twice; and failed. For he has now been forced to work his egg-and-bread business, 4 am – 9 am and 5 pm – 11 pm every day, to support his mother, his kids, and save for rewriting that exam.

Every time he has to rewrite the exam, he also registers to rewrite 3 other subjects. Yousif claims that if he doesn’t do that, the exams board would fail him anyway because they’d identify math as his weakness. I don’t know how true that is, but regardless, it is a system of either corruption or distrust, it is still bad.

So this night, next to the soon-departing metro bus we stood, butterflies in my stomach. Yousif was leaving Saboba. Yousif had decided, after a burst of saving-up from his egg and bread stand, that he needed to try something else. Yousif and Helen would move to Tamale for five months, use the savings to register for tutorials and extra classes, eat sparsely, live in the slums, and beat those exams once and forever come October. Helen has also yet to write some exams to finish high school. Yousif’s younger brother – who Yousif supports – would continue to run the egg-and-bread stand back in Saboba, while being in school himself.

So Yousif left Saboba. I have every hope and faith that this time, he will not fail. On a personal note, at this point the rug was pulled from under my feet as my support-network in Saboba took a huge hit.

Yousif wants to have a business one day. And eventually, after university, with his skills in mastering languages, he wants to be an ambassador for Ghana. Helen wants to be a nurse. She hopes that after the exams she will enroll in nursing school and come back to Saboba, where health workers are desperately needed.

Brema is a man. At birth, due to bad birthing procedures and lack of delivery personnel, he was brain-damaged as a baby and now roams the streets of Saboba. He is friendly, but can barely communicate or understand everyday happenings. People beat him when he “irritates” them, they hiss him away. Ostracized and without support, Brema moves from street-corner to street-corner, whiling away his time.

Elijah is a farmer. He has done very well for himself, and is supporting his sisters and children through school. He continues to support both his family and me, but he is 53 and physical labor is taking it’s toll on him. “I’m tired too much today!” he says to me after days on the farm, when we sit and chat at night.

Phillip is a friend. An 18-year-old student in my compound. When he was 10, he rebelled against the nomadic ways of his family’s tribe (ask me about the Fulani when I get back) and left his home. His parents moved away, but Phillip wanted to stay in school. He wanted something different for his life. He has stayed in my village since, supported by Elijah, as he completes junior school in Saboba next year.

Hanna is a stranger. Her family, part of a village deep in Saboba district, wanted to trade her to another family in exchange for a wife for her brother. She refused. She pushed back, and ran. This was four months ago. Now she stays with Elijah, and has to tip-toe around town because her “rightful owners” are still looking for her and will capture her if she is encountered. With her chance to marry depleted because of social status, without education or a permanent family, and without money, Hanna stays in my compound trying to scrape her life together. Never sad, always playful.

Yousif is a brother. He is my friend and an inspiration. “I will defeat poverty in my family forever” he says with scathing commitment and determination. “My sons will never see poverty.”

All these people are snapshots; biased snapshots of the few people with the courage to push against ever-mounting constraints. Ever-mounting challenges. The ones who clench their fist and squint, look failure in the eye and spit on it’s face. There are others like them; some struggling, some have given-up, some are not even aware.

My friends.

Something is holding them back. Something that is a tight mesh and fabric of social, personal, cultural, societal, geographical, and resource constraints; not mutually exclusive, and not clear-cut. No rights, no wrongs.

Something is holding many back. I choose to call this something “poverty.” An opportunistic infection. A state of being. It lies low in the anatomy of society, flowing through the bloodstream of its existence. The symptoms are invisible at first sight, but the feeling of fatigue and weaknesses still presents. It’s difficult to identify a cause. But then, anytime someone’s immune system is down, as soon as someone is vulnerable, symptoms strike hard and strike fast. That person falls back against the society; will the society be able to absorb the damage? And for how long?

In Canada, we have not defeated poverty. We have, to a degree, suppressed it. Suppressed it by building check-points into our system. In our mesh of society. We have cushioning. Social programs, government programs, infrastructure, education, financial programs, advocacy initiatives and campaigns for equality, justice, and tolerance. I could name hundreds of ways that we have ironed away kinks in the system that create opportunity for people to live their lives as they see fit. There are still problems. Some kinks remain, and every so often Canadians slip through this protective fabric and get caught in the mesh of poverty again.

These are my thoughts as of now, on poverty, as I end this roller-coaster thrill-ride of my placement. I’m excited for the work we’re doing. I’m also excited for Canada. I’m excited for the possibilities, which for me are endless. But for someone like Yousif, they are not there. I’m thankful for the opportunities I have, and I tear up in appreciation at their injustice. There is a lot of processing to be done, a lot of work ahead, and my thoughts are ever-changing.

I look up from my laptop. The thatched mud huts of my compound form dark silhouettes against the inky blue sky, lit by the half moon. It’s cool, and my legs are itching from mosquito bites. I might as well embrace and enjoy that also. Most of the family is asleep, but Elijah is sitting up talking to a friend from a nearby compound.

It’s quiet. A surreal feeling of foreboding rises in me. There is an insane amount of work to do, I’m stressed and exhausted. From learning and working. But I can’t make sense, at all, of my feelings of leaving Saboba right now, let alone Ghana. I can’t even think about it.

And I don’t have to. For another 79 hours.

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Rules of Engagement

8 Weeks Ago.

“AHK!! She’s not serious!” Anger, confusion, and frustration reeked from the crowd as they complained to each other. They approached the conductor as a group, once again, to demand their money furiously.

It was pitch black, and the sole source of illumination was a yellow light on a nearby building. It was about 4 am, and malaria-ridden mosquitoes attacked our arms and neck perpetually, getting their last few hours fill of blood before they retired for the day. We were in a small dirt field surrounded by some buildings, trees, and market stalls which hadn’t yet opened for business. This field, just off the roadside in the town of Saboba, is called the Old Market Square.  Among many things, it serves the purpose of being the bus/transit station. Private minivans (“trotros”), market trucks, and the official Ghana Metro Mass would all depart from this field anytime between 3 am and 6 am each day.

This particular day, the Metro Mass had broken down; a common occurrence, but the bus hadn’t even made it out of the station today. At least 50 travelers, including myself, were trying to get to Tamale and now were severely delayed (or potentially stranded). Many had connecting buses to catch in Tamale that went to far areas of the country. The problem, the reason people were angry, was because the Metro Mass conductor – a hefty, strong-willed Ghanaian woman – was refusing to refund the money for the tickets. Thus, people wanted to join one of the trotros and trucks heading to Tamale but couldn’t.

“She’s not serious! How can she take our money like that! AKH!!” People bickered and yelled and shouted… no avail. The woman said that another bus would come, and the tickets would be valid for that one. End of story. But that wouldn’t do, since the other bus wouldn’t come until at least 9 am, 5 hours later than the usual departure time.

I stood by, irritated yes but a little curious at the woman’s attitude. Suspending assumptions, I walked over the the police inspector – a funny man I’ve had some experience dealing with – who had recently arrived. “Why won’t she just return the money?” I asked him.

“Her job is to bring back money. They’ll sack her if she does not.”

“Even if the bus is broken? I mean, we know the bus is broken!” I reasoned.

The inspector laughed. “No, the more money she brings the better it is.” And this is how a public transit system operates?!

I felt bad for the woman. Here she is getting harassed and making enemies, but she probably has a family to support and would lose her (difficult-to-come-by) job if she did otherwise. Trapped by a ridiculous system. I stood there, watching the scene unfold as the woman – forced to be arrogant and mean – continued to struggle between a rock and a hard place.

Business. It operates with an entirely different set of rules here. Concepts that were quite literally alien to me before I came. In stark contrast to the family and community relationships, business tends to lean a lot more towards an “every man for himself” model (sorry for the gendered term). It’s cutthroat, intense, and (from a Canadian perspective) disorganized and unreliable.

But I have faith. This faith has grown in me over my time here; and it’s the faith that in the end things will just work. And they do. I trust Ghana to work, because it does. Quite effectively. Once you understand the (often ridiculous) unwritten rules and codes-of-conduct, you can do anything. So just sit back, relax, and enjoy the bumpy ride.

7 Weeks Ago.

I was having a bitter morning. See, I’m not normally a morning person; but that had to change really quickly when I came to Ghana. Regardless, old habits die hard and I was seriously wanting a coffee this morning after a few nights of sparse sleep. I biked into town, accepting the fact that I’d have to have an overly sweet and overly evaporated-milk-loaded Nescafe, which is the closest I can get to coffee. Yousif is no longer in Saboba, so I had to go to the other egg-and-bread dealer in the middle of town to buy my “coffee.”

“No Nescafe.” Dammit. Bitterness, and to-do lists already forming in my mind of work to do. 7:30 already.

“Okay, I’ll go buy some and bring it,” I said.

“Over there!” The seller pointed to a nearby store. Every seller had their own store that they buy supplies from. I went over to the store. A heavyset woman – in her mid forties I’d guess – was sitting outside it. I went over and asked for some Nescafe.

“Two-point-five two-point-five” she quoted the price per sachet.

“No madame, I know it’s one-point-five.” Stop messing with me. Seriously, I’m not in the mood. It was a safe assumption that she was overcharging, since prices for these things are pretty standardized. I still wasn’t sure though.

“No, two-point-five.” The woman insisted. I felt a little uncertain…

“Fine, then I’ll go to my friend who’ll not try to charge me more!” Furious, I got on my bike and drove across town – through a network of overhanging steel roofs and back alleys of houses arranged in haphazard lines – to Ibrahim. This man is awesome; probably in his mid-fifties, I’ve had excellent conversations about business in Ghana and private-sector development with him.

Ibrahim was sitting inside his shop/stall, listening to the news on his radio. “Boss! Good morning!” I greeted him, and we chatted for a few minutes. “Ah, I want to buy Nescafe. I’ll take two.” I think a double-dose was in order. Success! 3000 for two, therefore one-point-five thousand each.

I biked back, past the egg-and-bread dealer to the woman outside the store. I shook the two sachets of Nescafe at her and exclaimed “one-point-five!” Seriously, I’ve been living here for more than a month. You see me everyday. Don’t try and rip me off. She shrugged.

Conflicted over my stupid behavior over 7 cents (yes, that’s the conversion) I took my Nescafe to the egg-and-bread man and then to the office. What am I trying to prove?!

Duncan and I disagreed over this particular incident. He is a lot more willing to not-bargain, while I lean more towards the “don’t mess with me” angle. Duncan said difference in wealth effects how much he bargains both here and in Canada, and that here he doesn’t feel comfortable pushing back hard. I tend to oscillate in how much I bargain; it really depends on the item, the person’s conduct, and my own mood. This is in fact exactly how most locals will also work. You just have to get a feel for it.

“It’s the principle, Duncan.” I was explaining. “She’s overcharging because she thinks we’ll pay. She thinks we’ll pay because we have money.” This is not necessarily because we’re foreigners. Even richer locals are charged extra, and have to bargain down. Being a foreigner simply highlights us as “rich” more often than not. “But this is how business works. This is how this system works. Competition is a necessary component, man.” I kind of sounded obnoxious, and desperately wanted to concede to Duncan’s ideals.

“It’s just, I don’t want her to think she can get away with it. Especially because we’re foreigners. If we are going to live in this town, if we are going to integrate… this has to be part of it.” That was my argument. I pay extra sometimes if it’s a tailor, or if it’s someone who is doing really good work. I believe in supporting the local economy, but I also believe that if you’re not tough in the face of business here you get walked all over. Yes, as foreigners we can afford it. But should we?

10 Weeks Ago.

“The Mangoes, who will buy them?” Elijah and I were planting Mango trees.

“Ah, town people will buy. Togo people will buy.”

“Togo people?!” I asked, surprised. But I didn’t know at that time…

In fact, (illegal?) trade between people from Togo, Burkina Faso, the Ivory Coast and Ghana is rampant. Saboba is riddled with Togolese and Nigerian people, who are selling and buying goods such as tractor parts, crops and grain of various kinds, fruits and vegetables, and more. Hausa, Linkpapa & Twi & Degbani, French, and English can all be heard on the streets of Saboba. The borders are not policed and no trade laws are enforced. I myself have crossed to Elijah’s yam farm in Togo, and I wouldn’t have known I was in another country unless I was told.

Networks and old ties between communities and tribes remain strong in rural areas, undaunted by colonial border lines imposed on Africa when the Europeans took over (see the About Ghana page). In fact the village I live in continues across the border into Togo. It’s a strange concept, but also an ebbing reminder of the injustice and damage the West has done to Africa in the past.

People in Ghana don’t have land lines. No one I know does. Even in the most remote areas of the country, you can see Red, Blue, and Yellow buildings plastered with advertisements from Africa’s three cell-phone giants: Vodafone, MTN, and Tigo. Fierce competition and reckless innovation is rampant in the mobile industry, with new players and new deals jumping into the fray all the time. Everyone from the richest businessman to the most hard-up farmer has a cellphone, and new deals come through text messages that make service delivery extremely streamlined.

I bought a cell phone first-thing when I came to Ghana. It cost me 45 cedis ($31) and it holds two SIM cards. One MTN, one Tigo. I also have a Vodafone SIM card I use that belongs to the district assembly, to access the internet through a USB modem. BBC sends text messages to all Vodafone SIMs with recent news.

These are some ways in which Ghana and other African countries have “skipped” steps in infrastructural development. Piggy-backing off of newly developed technologies, some services are available openly here that we have barely started using in Canada and the US.

I’m told that just a few years ago Saboba had no cell phone coverage; now, I get close to 3G speeds on an EDGE internet connection. The industry is booming, and the customers get served. How does such rapid development occur in one aspect of society, while other aspects are stagnant and suffering?

My fellow volunteer in Zambia wrote about cell phones a few weeks ago: check out Amanda’s blog post! Also, check out this great globe and mail article.

Cell phone coverage is high. Some industries are booming. Small scale markets in rural towns attract people from surrounding countries, districts, and villages. Market trucks, dilapidated flatbeds, trotros and broken buses bring yams from Kpandai, cloth from Togo and Cheriponi, and farmed goods from hundreds of villages. Strong, smiling market women with amazing stories and fascinating resourcefulness travel to far-off places, while young guys running the show crawl around the vehicles like giant spiders.

You can go anywhere. Just stand by the side of the dirt road. No one has all the information, nothing is certain, nothing is predictable, everything works. People have farms in far-away districts and somehow the maize gets grown, harvested, and sold. Everything can be found, everyone is connected, and there are few strict rules. Pressures are high, reliability is low, and you just have to have a little faith.

This is the reality of business in Ghana. This is my reality. I love it. I’ve grown to love life here, with it’s unpredictable practicality. And it makes me sad to think of reintegrating into structured, law-abiding Canadian society less-than three weeks from now. I don’t look forward to the cold, clear-cut business rules and the unnecessary loop holes. Or the lack of relationships and friendliness, where nothing is new and everything is standardized. Where is the fun in that?

Snakes and Ladders

She usually wakes up before everyone. Around 4:30 am. It’s cool in the morning, especially on rainy days, and it’s still pitch black around that time. The moon, bright and powerful, acts in place of a flashlight and thick mist lies low across the vast fields around our compound. She wraps a cloth around herself, walks across the compound and grabs large branches of firewood to start a fire. Water in a big metal cauldron, and on the fire it goes, held up from the flame by three solid pieces of rock. The water will heat, and will be used for bathing, tea, cooking, and more. Grabbing a small piece of cloth, a sheet of thick plastic wrap, and a large (I’d say 14 L) metal bucket with no handle, she walks out of the compound and 5-10 minutes to the borehole. There are others like her at the borehole.

The sky is lightning now, but very slightly. The moon still dominates. Manual pumping, full-body motion, and 14 L of water later, she takes a plastic sheet and submerges it in the bucket. The sheet naturally floats to the top to protect the water from mosquitoes and other insects. She takes the small piece of cloth and wraps it around her hand to form a spiral, much like a curled up snail. She places the cloth on her head, bends her knees a little, and with the help of the others lifts the bucket on her head.

5-10 minute walk back, duck under the overhang, and back in the compound. Others are waking now, gathering by the fire with their own cloths to protect themselves against the cold. She puts the water down, and repeats the process, with others from the compound joining her. Broken but continual, this process repeats a few times over the next hour.

The water has come to a boil. It’s market day in Saboba. She helps cook Boakulu, a fermented-maize-based fried snack, which will be sold in the market. It’s not her turn to sell, so the 9-year-old Gretchen will miss school to sell Boakulu today.

She takes care of the baby Jethro, who is always craving attention. Then, around 6:15, she bathes, puts on her school uniform, grabs her notebooks, and joins her friends – who’ve come to the compound to meet her – on the long walk to school. Off she goes, joking and laughing.

Her name is Lufka. She is 13.

After school, Lufka will come home. Around 2:30. If it’s market day, she’ll go help her mother – Dana – and Gretchen sell goods in the market. If not, she’ll join Dana on the farm. Sowing corn and processing Nairi is usually the womens’ job this time of year. Machetes, large spear-shaped rods, beating hot sun, vast open fields. Hours slip by in work and conversations. Gossiping much like people do in Canada and other places. Nairi is sliced, one by one. Corn is dropped and covered in soil using bare feet, two grains at a time; one foot apart.

7 pm. The women will come home. Lufka will join Hanna in fetching more water. Same process. Water is boiling. This time in two pots. One for T-zed. Sometimes Hanna will cook it, and sometimes Lufka. Large (about 4-5 ft long) wooden stirring rod/spoon, Lufka would rotate it with force using her arms flipping the gooey uncooked mixture of maize, cassava, and water. Stir, stir, pound slightly, flip. T-zed would stick to the edge of the pot. Lufka wets her hand slightly, clenches the fiery hot edge of the metal cauldron, and drags her hand around the edge, forcing the T-zed back into the pot. She wets her hand again quickly, to dissipate the heat.

We all eat. Regular night in the compound, we all talk about our day. Janet and Jethro are falling asleep at this point, and doze on the compound floor or the reed mat. Lufka and Gretchen will clean the pots, the dishes; our pots, our dishes. Lufka sweeps the mud huts, except mine; that one is reserved for Dana, and (despite my insistence) I’ll never be allowed.

Then, as everyone sits, exhausted from the day’s work, chatting, dozing, under the stars… As I sit and finish some work on my laptop, or reflect in my notebook, or talk to Elijah and Dana… Lufka slips away into the other hut, sometimes joined by Gretchen or other friends. Her responsibilities have been fulfilled for the day. As I continue working or talking, I can hear, slowly, in the background, words in English coming from the ajar door of the hut. Lufka is reading. Using her finger, she is pointing to words as she reads so that Gretchen follows. Notebooks open, she copies in the definitions of words or methods of solving addition and subtraction problems.

“When does her school vacate?” I ask Phillip.

“Next week.”

“Is she writing, then?” I ask if she’s having exams these days.

“Yes, she’ll write.”

“When?”

“Tomorrow, she’ll write.”

I, tired and exhausted from my completely not-physically-intense day, retreat to my hut around 9 pm. I continue working a little bit, or I listen to some music as I lay on my foam mattress under my bed net. It’s hot, and I lay as spread out and still as possible on the thin swath that is my bed, slowing my breathing so that I don’t feel hot. By 10, as I put my music away and allow sleep to engulf me, I hear sounds faintly from the next hut over that remind me… Lufka is still studying for the next day’s exams.

Lufka, the oldest daughter in Elijah’s family, is one of the most hard-working and inspirational people I have met since I came. I have never heard her complain, never seen her daunted or upset. I honestly don’t know how she does it. She’s never in the spotlight, and I probably wouldn’t think twice about her work if I was just staying in that compound for a few days. It’s not like she’s shy; quite the contrary. But, over time, I’ve noticed… and been blown away.

She is not alone though. Though being a girl (and the oldest) puts a lot more on her shoulders, her example speaks hugely to children here in general.

I can tell you about the time I saw farmers paying teachers to bring their classes of students as labor on the farm.

I can tell you about Mainsa, another 12-13 year-old in our compound, who spends most of his time weeding, working farms, using machetes to scrape wooden blocks, with school thrown in there somewhere. He is so exhausted at the end of some days that he lays on the cement, on his back, sprawled out and asleep before food is ready.

I can tell you about how when anyone wants something in town, it’s common to point and hiss over the closest child, who’ll come and you can give him/her money to bring what you need. Not money as in extra, you just give them money for what you need.

I can tell you about flinging small children across gutters using just their arms, since they can’t make the jump.

I can tell you about the fact that once the adults finish fresh food, they give the remnants to the children.

“Age works differently here,” I said on the phone to my mom a few weeks back. It’s almost as if children are at the bottom of the hierarchy, and as you grow up you earn the right to better things. Better food, better sitting spots, lesser chores, the right to command the younger children… But what does that look like? It looks like children that grow up and mature much faster. Remarkably fast. It results in strong and hardy adults, who are tough and able to power through the laborious life here.

“Your body becomes tired!” Isaac said to me once. Isaac is a friend of mine in town, who is building latrines as part of a World Vision project. “Everything is physical here! Too physical! We are not having machines, and your body gets tired!” I can’t imagine.

But as always, I want to make sure I’m not sending an incomplete message. Parents love their children, and take care of them. They want the best for them, and they are motivated to earn and work more so that their children have more in the future. Children are not unhappy; they play and enjoy themselves as you’d expect children to. They are, however, strictly disciplined, and don’t disobey or argue. Responsibilities increase with age a lot faster than they do in Canada, though.

In part, I wanted to write this post because after re-reading my last one I felt that this context was unavailable to you, the reader, and thus what I wrote about Elijah may be taken as bad and terrible, while the practice is just normal across many families I’ve met here. I’m guessing that after writing this one, I’ll realize more things that I haven’t written about that would add another dimension to even this post. But that’s exactly what I want to communicate, that is what complexity looks like.

“What do you want to do after you finish school?” I asked Lufka one day.

“I don’t know!” Lufka grinned and shrugged, carefree. It kind of bothered me. I felt with a pang that when I was 13, I wanted to be a neurosurgeon. I wanted to learn about so many things. And I could. I could do whatever I wanted, and still can. But that mass expanse of possibility, of exposure to what can be, the opportunity… it’s not even a dream here. I don’t even know if people know what that looks like. The freedom to pursue whatever you want, unbound by societal, financial, familial, and circumstantial constraints. I really don’t know.

I wish that people knew. I wish that they had the ability to know. It doesn’t have to change what people do, it doesn’t have to change the choices that they make; but I just wish they knew what was possible. The core, original reason for my passion in international development resurfaces finally. But here, in the unheard-of corner of the world that is Saboba, the world is often out of earshot as well.

Sleepless in Saboba

Rickety wooden bench. Back against the cement-and-mud surface outside of my hut. Light breeze. Smell of firewood that reminds me of camping in Toffino years ago. Expanse of stars and a full moon above me. Kids around me, enjoying the Nigerian music coming from my laptop. Dana and Hanna sifting maize on the floor in front of me. Elijah prepares tea for Dana, him, and I, since the night is “cool.” Ah, the contentedness. Life is beautiful.

As I sit here, happily exhausted from 16 days working without a break, I contemplate the writer’s block that has plagued my blog-writing in the recent weeks. There is no shortage of things to talk about… but for some reason I don’t feel motivated to write about Saboba’s water system, or the amazing meeting I had with World Vision’s manager, or the hyper-roll that work is on now. Why? I think it’s because what I want to communicate is deeper than that. There are things I just can’t put into words. The messiness and gray areas. But I think you all, as my readers, have earned a lot of respect in my mind.

So I’m not going to try to put into words what I can’t. Instead I’ll give you honest food-for-thought and put the onus on you to be critical and understanding. And to not judge me too harshly.

Engineers Without Borders, as an organization, has a brand. Over the past few years, this brand has grown stronger and more powerful. It depicts it’s members as critically thinking problem solvers. True. It depicts an Africa where there is opportunity and happiness. True. It empowers an individual’s capacity to create change. Also true. It shows that African farmers and families aren’t looking for handouts, and can manage their own lives. True. It’s all true. Among many things, EWB promotes strong values and ethics, respect for cultural differences, humility, and courage in the face of ambiguity. These are things I respect most about this organization, and values that align strongly with my own.

But like every brand, we veer dangerously close to misrepresentation. I’m not talking about misrepresentation in terms of saying things that are false. The danger is in what is not said. Not all of EWB’s members are “critically thinking problem solvers.” Africa has opportunity, but not everyone has access to that. Not everyone is happy. One person can change things, in a big way; but one person is never enough. African farmers are not all innovative. And sometimes… values have to be compromised. I can say, with shame and confidence, that in the past two months I’ve played the race card, the religion card, the information-concealing card, the ulterior motive card, and many others that directly go against some of my core values. I’ve remained conscious of it, I’ve reflected on it, and I’ve done it anyway because I believed in the end goal.

Having been working with EWB for 2 years, my first few weeks in Ghana subjected me to SHOCK. It was not culture shock, it was “EWB vs. reality” shock. 7 weeks ago I remember talking to Robin Stratas, an (AMAZING!) overseas volunteer who has been here for 1 year now. I was telling her how, after being hammered at by EWB about how innovative, amazing, smart, and driven people in rural communities are, all I was seeing was a culture of complacency. Of grim acceptance. Of antagonism to change.

I beat myself up over this fact. The first six weeks of my placement, I pushed myself to find that model EWB representation of Africa. I shot myself down into exhaustion: I’m not being open enough. I’m not looking hard enough. I’m not being compassionate enough. I’m not asking enough questions. I’m not integrating enough. I’m looking at things from a too-Western point-of-view. Some of this was true. But as time went on, some realizations dawned on me. On one of the large pieces of flipchart paper taped to my mud-hut wall, I wrote the following and read it every morning:

“1) This is your experience. Don’t try and make it fit a preset idea. 2) Practice honesty. 3) Live in the moment.”

So I started experiencing what was, not what I wanted there to be. Just like people in EWB do not represent all the people in Canada, people EWB promotes don’t represent all of Africa. Or rural Ghana. Like in Canada, people are people here. There are bad people, good people, strong people, weak people, smart people, not-so-smart people… People with different strengths and weaknesses that weave the tapestry of any society.

And yes, there is a culture of complacency. People want change, people want “development.” But people don’t want to step outside whats already there. And why would they? In a culture that punishes mistakes, disallows experimentation, and where knowledge is not power, why would someone put their lives on the line? And look at the risk: if you fail, you let your whole family down. There is no cushioning, unemployment is widespread, there are  no systems that will allow people to innovate and be creative. At school, there is a rote, top-down education system where failure is not a learning opportunity, but a death sentence.

Now what is our role, as development workers? How ethical is what we do? Is it our right to push for change people aren’t completely receptive to, but that leads to change that they desperately want? And herein lies the rub.

Swirl these things in your mind, think about them. But I really want you to think about this as well: amongst all this ambiguity, I have never believed as STRONGLY as I do now in the work I’m doing. I’ve never felt as connected to people here as I do now. I have so much love for this place and this work, all of it. I believe and support the necessity for EWB’s brand, the purpose of which is to dismantle the negative and inaccurate misrepresentation of Africa pushed by other organizations. Ghana is just a place. It’s people are just human. Like Canada. There are problems, there are systemic issues, and there IS potential. As an organization, we have and will make mistakes. We’ll learn. As people, in Canada, EWB, and Ghana, we’ll all make mistakes. And we’ll learn. We just have to remain humble & critical.

Four days ago.

“How do you explain this to them?” I was talking to Duncan, a fellow EWB volunteer. You see, there are actually two EWB volunteers in Saboba. Saboba is one of two districts where both our Governance and Agriculture programs are being run. But for work and cultural integration’s sake, Duncan and I have been careful to see each other in moderation. Nonetheless, our conversations are some of the most high-yielding in realizations.

I had gone over to Duncan’s family’s compound, a less-than-five minute walk from where I’m living. We were talking about the experience of being here. Of working in development. Of struggling to understand realities, and especially of finding the balance between what you accept as cultural difference and what you don’t.

I was telling Duncan: “The Dagomba man on the trotro, while I was coming from Tamale, was adamant that ‘villagers don’t like to spend money. Even if they make it, they won’t spend it!'” At the time I had taken that statement with a grain of salt, because there are many social-stature complexities and perceptions between town people and village people, let alone city people. After hearing it many times since then, however, and after seeing evidence of it myself, I’ve started to attach a little bit of weight to what that man said to me nearly 2 months ago.

But even if it’s true; even if it’s common for people to not spend money to improve their lifestyle; why? Well, the family support network and peoples’ willingness to help each other always strikes me here in rural Ghana as something amazing. But like everything, there is a down side to it. If you are seen to be rich; hell, not even rich, but just slightly better off than another… people will ask you for money. For support. Extended family, very extended, will turn to you for school fees. Fellow villagers will ask you to help them pay for tractor rentals. As soon as you become slightly successful, you have to choose between giving your wealth away or being ostracized. Why? Because wealth and success is not widespread, and because people expect much more from each other than they can give. And people would rather see their family starve, than put their support network at risk.

“I know Elijah can afford to feed his family. I know that he’s doing not-bad. He’s paying for his sisters’ schooling as well. But then why are his children not getting enough food? They barely eat, unless at night.” This is what Duncan and I were talking about. “It’s not that they don’t want it.” You’re just going to have to trust my observations on this.

“But I, as the guest, get a wholesome breakfast and dinner (I’m at work during lunch time).” I can’t share my breakfast with the kids, which I really want to do everyday, since it’ll be taken as an insult to hospitality. And I’ve broken enough hospitality rules in the name of cultural integration. So every morning, as I eat my delicious Guinea Fowl eggs, I watch Elijah’s children go hungry with a smile on their face. It becomes difficult to swallow.

“How do I explain that this is not cruel? How do I explain the complexities?” I was asking Duncan.

“You’re right,” Duncan said. “Canadians would not understand this. They would think Elijah is a bad man, they wouldn’t understand.” I nodded in agreement, “they would not understand.”

“How were the communities chosen?” I asked the man from Accra, who was driving the pick-up as we sped along dirt roads. I had joined the two scouts from the Government of Ghana’s National Electrification Program who were tagging GPS coordinates for communities set to get electricity over the next year or so. The air-conditioned pick-up was a stark contrast to the sweat that I could see on women’s faces as they walked miles beside us on the same road, carrying loads on their heads I probably couldn’t lift. I felt uncomfortable. I had become too used to the more common form of transport into the field, motorbikes.

Fred replied “MPs and the District Chief Executive (DCE). They were told by parliament to propose 20 communities to receive power.” No rigor, no data, no process. Just the opinions and whims of two politicians. It makes sense; in my (fairly uninformed) opinion, the National Electrification Program is a political maneuver, a tactic the current government is using to win over voters. Everyone wants electricity. I know from talking to people that the power lines won’t be extended immediately. It’ll be sometime next year. Of course; it’s perfect: choose strategic communities whose votes need to be won over, and just months before the 2012 election give them electricity.

We passed by the DCE’s community: it’s on the list. MP’s community: on the list. We passed a community that had been granted power in the past: it was the previous minister’s community. “Politicians are wicked people!” Fred winked at me.

“Maybe” I thought. But I know, from spending some time with him, that the DCE is a genuine and good man. He works 7 days a week, is out campaigning at communities early in the morning (6 am), is very down-to-earth, and wants good for his people. But his activities, while they are politically inclined, are just symptoms of a larger problem. He has a lot of pressure on his head; he is the current government’s representative in Saboba, and is reporting directly to the President. And the political competition is fierce.

But does that warrant decisions that affect thousands of lives? Electricity doesn’t just mean light for a village; it means granaries, access to a phone, lower birthrates (ask me about this later)… it means teachers and medical personnel are more inclined to work in the area, which means better education and health care. So are the whims of political powers justified? No. But are good intentions good enough?

I can’t help wondering… if the data was there, if the attitudes to use it were there, would the DCE choose some communities more objectively?

Today, I was leaving the office around 6:30. The DCE and I, as usual, were the only people in the District Assembly structure on a Sunday. I went to see him in his office, where he had just finished a long and unsuccessful land-conflict resolution meeting. He looked exhausted. I grinned, and he replied “our people… they can’t keep doing this!”

“Yeah,” I said, “there are bigger problems to worry about.”

“Exactly.” His phone rang; he answered, and quickly finished. “I have malaria,” he said. “And he’s still working,” I thought.

Not wanting to bother him now, and knowing he leaves for Accra tomorrow, I said “sometime before I leave, lets go grab a beer and talk.” I was walking on egg shells here, not knowing how he’d react to such casualness. But if my observations of him are correct, he is just as tired of people treating him like a king because he is the DCE, as I am because I’m a foreigner. I looked tentatively, a split second of quietness, and his face broke into a large grin.

“Okay! That sounds great!” I sighed with relief. Apart from just getting to know an interesting person: Strategically, and importantly, there are some tough questions and issues I’ve been wanting to explore with the DCE, not to mention buy-in on the work I’m doing. It’s time that I tackle these things.

With less than four weeks left in Saboba, I need your help! I have too much to say and limited time, so what do you want to hear about for the next two blog posts?