I love college. [ Village Stay: Part One ]

Let me start with some context. A village stay is an exercise most EWB overseas staff will go through at least once during their placement. It is an important empathy-building exercise in which the staff member stays with a family in a village in an attempt to understand their livelihood and in general to gain a deeper understanding of the reality of the individuals for whom we work.

I’m going to break up this entry into a few posts because it’s so long, but this multi-post post is about a period of my placement I will call my “immersion week”. I can’t quite call it a village stay because I wasn’t in a village the whole time, but the purpose was the same, I promise. My immersion week comprised a stay at another agricultural college, a village stay and a short stay with a colleague in her village. Let’s begin:

PART ONE: DAGRICO

From June 18-21 I stayed at Damongo Agricultural College. I was invited by the college’s Vice Principal, Mahamadu Abdulai, a member of the Gender Action Fellowship. His project for the Fellowship was to reach out to nearby villages and for students to provide basic extension services to female farmers while collecting data about their farming practices. He developed an instrument for the students to use, essentially a set of questions to guide and align each of the student-farmer interactions.

So I traveled with Vice Principal (in Ghana, people are often referred to by their job title) from Tamale to Damongo on June 18. After a noisy, rainy, bumpy, 3-hour ride down one of the worst roads in Ghana, we had arrived! Unfortunately the rain mixed with the red dust that plagues the North and covered my pack with a thick red paste. Needless to say my pack now has that je-ne-sais-quoi of a well-seasoned traveler, despite only being on its first trip. In short, I was welcomed into the girls’ dorm that night and was shown the ropes by some of the first year students.

 

My pack cover, post bus ride

My pack cover, post bus ride

 

The next morning I went with Vice Principal, another lecturer and a student to take care of the formalities that would lead the students’ to success the following day. We hopped on motos and visited three villages in turn: Dapalakura, Yipala and Nabori. Our goal was to speak to the chief of each village to ask his permission to enter his village the following day and then ask him to inform his villagers that we would be arriving the next morning. In Dapalakura we stumbled upon the chief right away. We greeted him, provided some provision for Kola nuts (it is expected that you bring something, usually Kola, to a chief when you enter his village), and explained our purpose. I say “we” but of course I couldn’t communicate with the chief. All I could really do was greet, bow, sit and listen. We were in the Upper West Region, in West Gonja District, where numerous languages are spoken so it was challenging enough to pick the right greeting! The student with us was able to speak the languages spoken in all three villages and therefore did most of the talking. Upon receiving consent from the chief of Dapalakura, we hopped on the bikes and moved to Yipala. We encountered some trouble here, since the chief in fact lives in Damongo town, but managed to get the message to the right people. Similarly, when we arrived in Nabori, the chief was in the field so we instead passed the message along to his son. We finished this work relatively quickly and returned to campus in the early afternoon.

We had a meeting with the students with whom we would be working the following day and I got to spend some time hanging out with students and was, of course, fed very well.

 

My first time having rice porridge! I wasn't sure what the yellow stuff was, but some careful tasting revealed it's just condensed milk

This was my first time having rice porridge! I wasn’t sure what the yellow stuff was, but some careful tasting revealed it’s just condensed milk

 

Boiled Yam & Pepper

Boiled Yam & Pepper

 

The next day was the main event. We left at 7am as to minimize our disruption to the farmers’ day. 9 of us (8 students and me) left on 3 moto bikes, with one bike-full of students going to each village. We had 50 blank questionnaires and returned at the end of the day with 49 filled out! Similar to the previous day, I couldn’t communicate with the farmers but sat in on a few of the meetings and also traveled from village-to-village with Bodai (the multi-lingual student from the day before and somehow leader of the group) to check on the students and coordinate between the villages.

 

Pounding Maize in Nabori

Pounding Maize in Nabori

 

I was amazed at how eager the female farmers were to answer a few questions from students. The students communicated very clearly that we didn’t have any money or goods for the farmers (this was especially important since it is often expected in Ghana AND there was a white girl in the mix) and that all the students could provide was some basic extension services. Agricultural extension services are essentially the sharing of best practices and new technologies, typically delivered by an extension agent working for Ghana’s Ministry of Food and Agriculture or a private company. Unfortunately, due to an insufficient number of extension agents, many farmers miss out on this service. Even worse, though women make up 56% of farmers in Ghana, they receive less than 5% of the country’s extension services. Perhaps this is why the female farmers from the villages were so eager to speak with us. In 1 of the 3 neighboring villages we visited, none of the female farmers we interviewed had received extension services, and in another less than one third had received such services.

Another thing that struck me was the competence and professionalism of the students.  They chosen because of their language abilities and were not promised extra credit or rewards, they even had to skip some of their courses to go to the villages. Each interview was planned to take ~5 minutes, which would mean that 8 students simultaneously working to complete 50 surveys should have taken about 32 minutes. The students were told they would not be gone more than 1.5 hours when in fact we didn’t finish until 1pm! We had all missed breakfast at the college because we left so early and so by 1pm we were hurtin for certain. Even when the rain trapped us on a woman’s porch for almost an hour, I didn’t hear a single complaint from the students.

When we got back to the college we had our lunch, I took a tour around campus and we had a debrief meeting. I mentioned earlier the competence of the students I met at Damongo. After just one year of their program, they were able to provide valuable advice to full time farmers. The students all offered very positive feedback and I took the completed forms to do some information synthesis.

Chickens (duh)

Chickens (duh)

 

Administration Block at the College

Administration Block at the College

 

This dam used to provide water to the college but now just makes for a pretty picture!

This dam used to provide water to the college but now just makes for a pretty picture!

 

The next day (June 21), I left Damongo for the second leg of my immersion week and boarded a bus to Sawla, a casual 3 hour ride away.

There is just one more thing I’d like to talk about from “Part One” of my immersion week, a reflection of sorts.  Two of the girls would bring my meals to my room and would take away my dishes when I was finished, the students asked me to check over their first few surveys while in the field and everyone would call me “Madam Erin”. For reasons such as these, I felt I was given too much privilege at the college and couldn’t decide why. My theories include: (1) I was an invited guest and therefore hold some perceived added value to the activity (2) I am actually competent and there’s no problem at all (3) I am white. Obviously any combination of the three is possible to explain what I was feeling but struggling to discern the answer made me unsure of how to cope with it. Should I accept the “power” and feel like I rock, even if I don’t deserve it? Or try and bring myself down and possibly lose credibility among the students? My answer was to try and engage honestly with people, do what I felt I was qualified to do and graciously accept the hospitality I was given. In addition to the immense amount of knowledge I gained about best farming practices and what it is like to be a student in an agric college, this was one of the really important learnings for me from this experience and one I think is particularly important to share.

Thanks for reading, stay tuned for Part Two and as always, comment away!

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My Work (≠ F x d)

So what’s this chick doing in Ghana? Great question! I had been given documents and job descriptions but it wasn’t until recently that I have really understood what my role here is. I’ll try to articulate that, but please comment with any questions you have! I’d love to hear your thoughts!

I am working as a Junior Fellow for Engineers Without Borders, more formally my title is Gender Action Enabler. More on that later. What is a Junior Fellow (JF)? Being a JF means that I am a staff of EWB for the summer. I am paid while at training and overseas but also have responsibilities to my university EWB chapter in the year following my return. Every JF will work with one of EWBs ventures and have their own responsibilities to that team. Specifically, I am a member of the Agricultural Extensions (AgEx) venture within EWB. It’s a team of 8 individuals (4 JFs and 4 long term staff, called APS) working in the agriculture sector in Ghana. Our mission is to support the development of an innovative, coordinated, inclusive and demand-driven agricultural extension and advisory system in Ghana. As a team, we work to achieve two objectives: to make agricultural colleges centers of inclusive innovation in extension and a sustainable and a high impact and to create a relevant Ghana Country Forum for Extension and Advisory Services. I am based at Kwadaso Agricultural College in Kumasi so as you might guess, my placement is grounded in work at the agricultural colleges in Ghana.

Apart from being a member of this team, I have somewhat of an unconventional placement. Although “Gender” isn’t one of EWBs ventures, the fabulously talented Erin Aylward sought independent funding and began such work with the organization last September and I have the great pleasure of working with her during my placement! One of her biggest projects has been the Gender Action Fellowship. It is a forum for Ghanaian leaders from various sectors and EWB staff to gather and learn from experts, each other and to develop action plans to execute when they leave the fellowship. This group of 18 individuals met in March, in June and will meet for a final time in August. I am working on communications and other assistance for the Gender Action Fellowship (primarily website design) but am based at Kwadaso Agric College. My 3 partners at the college are members of the Fellowship: Madam Saah, home science head and lecturer; Madam Joyce, lecturer; Mr. Antwi, tutor. My work here mostly involves the Health, Gender and Agricultural Development course. Madam Saah and Madam Joyce currently teach this course and wish to update and improve it. One key aspect missing from the course is a practical attachment, an aspect which accompanies all of the students’ other courses. We are working together to test a field project, which will be added to the curriculum for the coming year. Finally, I have responsibilities within the AgEx team. I have found out that female farmers are responsible for 70% of food production in Ghana, yet receive less than 5% of extension services. It is my role to try and understand why this is the case and to share that with the team.

I hope this was somehow clear! Please comment below with questions and let me know if you want more information about anything!

Wanderlust..?

I’ll start with many apologies, for the delay and the length of this post! Though in my defence, the kilometer-to-word-count ratio is probably quite reasonable! Please stick around and give er your once over. In case you don’t want to read the whole post, or if you find yourself getting lost, here’s a wee summary:

May 16: Leave Toronto

May 17: Arrive in Accra, Ghana

May 18: Travel to Tamale

May 19-20: In Country Training

May 21-22: AgEx Training

May 23: Donor Dinner

May 24: Travel to Kumasi

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After a grueling 18 hours of travel from Toronto, through Heathrow to Accra, we finally landed in Ghana! I don’t know if it was my ears that hadn’t popped or the general haze that comes with long plane rides, but I certainly didn’t feel like I was finally here. The signs were certainly there, everything that I was told to expect from pre-dep was right in front of me, but there was so much more. Women carrying baskets of pure water on their heads, the infamous gutters on the side of the road, the dogs which we were forbidden to pet for fear of contracting any number of diseases, and goats and chickens literally everywhere you looked. The short taxi ride to the guesthouse was, for me, spent in silence as I took in the huge billboards for Maggi spices, Milo meal supplement, anti-AIDS campaigns and drivers who [very effectively] use their horns, and use them often (I feared for the lives of moto drivers and my own a few times along the way).

We arrived at the guesthouse around 9pm, broke into pairs and took to our rooms. Still having a bottle full of drinking water from Heathrow and feeling exhausted from essentially three days without a proper “night’s sleep”, Claire and I set up our mosquito nets [yes mom, true story] and went to sleep. It was nice to finally be horizontal for a few hours, but unfortunately we had to be at the bus station for 6am and the snooze button wasn’t an option.  As if our long string of flights and layovers wasn’t exhausting enough, we hopped on the [air conditioned!] STC bus to Tamale, a mere 13 hour journey away. It was pretty smooth sailing, in one sense of the expression. The road had tons of potholes so we did a lot of swerving and bouncing, but there were no major hiccups until Kentampo, the third and final rest stop. We were told stories of the terrible female urinals here, but lucky for us ladies, it started to pour just as we pulled into the stop. So for me, I usually opt for a precautionary pee at each break because really, who knows what could happen? But locals don’t even go out in the rain unless it’s dire…or if they really want to make a sale. Like the kind woman selling mangoes, all the other vendors sought refuge during the rain but she came to the bus window with her bowl of mangoes on her head and did some very fine business.

Finally, it was night time again and we arrived in Tamale! We took taxis from the station to our guesthouse, TICCS (Tamale Institute for Cross Cultural Studies). We all had a very late dinner at the “Jungle Bar” on site and tasted our first Ghanaian beer (I had a Star, still my favorite so far!). Claire and I joined forces again, set up our mosquito nets [telling the truth ma, promise!] and hit the hay.

In country training started early the next morning, but with a much more chill vibe than Pre-dep. Robin Djokoto (EWB In-country HR) led our sessions. She is a Canadian who has been living in Ghana for 5 years so she told us all about some local expressions, how to speak in “Ghanaian English”, health do’s and don’ts and a gender session where we learned how to deal with sexual harassment. After two days of general training, we broke into venture specific training, thus I joined the AgEx squad. AgEx is short for Agricultural Extensions, EWB’s oldest venture and a team currently comprising 4 Jfs (short term staff; I am one of these 4) and 4 APS (long term staff). This training dove into getting to know each other, examining the team’s vision, strategy and values, big questions our placements will work towards and visioning for the ideal placement.

Sorry if this post feels like it will never end, but that’s kind of how I was feeling by now! The other AgEx team members left after training (May 23) but my coach, the wonderful Erin Aylward and I stuck around Tamale to have a dinner with the visiting donors. Aeroplan donates an INCREDIBLE amount to Engineers Without Borders, and also set up a trip for a few of their lucky employees to travel to Ghana for 10 days to see where the money goes. Not wanting to miss an opportunity, Erin A. set up a dinner with the donors and a few of the members from her main project, the Gender Action Fellowship. My next post will explain what the Gender Action Fellowship is, but for now it’s just important to know it’s a kick ass project which Erin A has made a smashing success!

The dinner went over very well, some of the visiting donors even tried Bana (cow skin)! Erin and I (it gets confusing having 2 Erins, but FYI I will avoid speaking in third person for clarity’s sake) then took the bus to Kumasi the following day (a casual 7 hour ride). Arriving on Friday, May 24, we had just enough time to get from the station to the hotel, grab some food and have a meeting with my partners. Madam Saah, Madam Joyce and Mr. Antwi all joined us at La Sab Hotel for an introduction before Erin A returned to Tamale and I was to start work. Even though I was far from settled, it was such a relief to finally be in charge of my own schedule and it felt amazing to finally get a full night’s sleep.

More about Kumasi and my work is coming your way soon!

Thanks for reading, folks! 🙂

Ch-Ch-Changes

Here’s the title track! Please enjoy as you read : )

I finally got my internet modem set up and found time for some catch-up blogging. Sorry for the delay, friends, but I hope to get you all up to speed in the next few days!

This one’s about pre-departure training in Toronto.

I arrived at the EWB house in Toronto (after a laborious 2 hour commute from the airport), sweaty, nervous and late! I was in a unique position because the other JFs had met at conference, but I actually didn’t know I would be going overseas until after I returned home from conference. So I walked into a house in Toronto and pretended I belonged. Luckily I was in the right place, was actually early and my fellow Ghana JFs helped my find a bed and clued me into the schedule (and all their names!).

Pre-departure training was seven days of very tight scheduling. Like think of me trying to fit into my white pleather dance pants from when I was 10, that tight! So obviously we had a ton of sessions all week, which I won’t bore you lovely readers with, I’ll just share the two that were the most important to me.

Day One started with a session run by Lourdès and Marco, co-founders of Le Playground, a company known for “developing leaders with intention”. The very first question they asked us was “Why are you so passionate about going to Africa this summer? Please discuss with your partner”. My thoughts, and consequestly my response went something like this:

“Uhhh….I guess this is a pretty important question, eh? I’m actually really struggling for an answer that isn’t full of  buzz words (shit, I could’ve made up a fancy sounding sentence, using systemic innovations, Dorothy, vulnerability, sustainable development). Why am I honestly here? Think Erin, think….”

So before anyone gets deeply offended, I knew I had an honest reason somewhere inside me for why I wanted to be in Ghana this summer, and why I want to be working with EWB, but I couldn’t pinpoint it. Thus we come to my other favorite session from Pre-Dep, where I uncovered my answer to that fundamental question. Suzanne Fish (EWB National Office Staff Member) led us in almost an entire day of sessions exploring poverty, privilege and oppression. We started in a very scholastic way, defining each word and discussing some typical social categories that exist. Following that, we traveled to the Evergreen Youth Mission in downtown Toronto. I had no idea what this place was for or who attended it. Nonetheless, all 12 of us showed up at 11:30 ready to eat lunch with the youth and then screen a Canadian documentary with them. We were let into the dining hall before the youth and as they were granted access, we awkwardly sat, made conversation and watched them play foosball for an hour or so. Then we rallied 11 individuals with whom to screen “Third World Canada”, a movie about the effect of suicides on 3 families living on a native reserve in Northern Ontario. We discussed the movie with the youth and left, to debrief our day. Strong opinions came out among us on the walk back from Evergreen and as we began our group discussion. I, and most of the JFs felt like we were abusing our privilege by imposing on the youth of Evergreen in their safe place during their meal. Essentially we were the paying customers at a zoo (not that the youth were zoo animal –like, but we did have to pay each individual a stipend in order to watch the movie with us). During out debrief, I found myself speaking up more than I had all week and with very assured opinions which I had never voiced (or though much about) before.

A consensus was reached that this activity was disrespectful to the youth of Evergreen, but I still think of this day as the pivotal point of pre-dep for me. I realized why I want to be working in Ghana this summer, what my inspiration is. Here goes: social categories are a source of misunderstanding and judgement between individuals. They are at the core of oppression and privilege, destructive forces which create immense barriers and further distance people from one another. If we could eliminate social categories, if everyone had an EQUAL OPPORTUNITY to achieve success, then I strongly believe we would have a much more equitable world to live in.

Stay tuned for another post soon, it will be less meta (pinky promise) and about my arrival in Ghana!!!

cout << "Hello World!";

As my debut to the blogging world I’ll start with a brief system test. Working? Great, now’s your chance to add me to to your favorites, bookmark this page or add me to your RSS feed!

I’ll be posting regularly throughout the summer so please keep checking in, posting comments and asking lots of questions! I’ll try to share every aspect of my placement with all you wonderful readers. So welcome, you’re Ghana love it!