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.
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.
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.
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.
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!