Joey Anchondo :: Ghana
After my first two weeks in the Catholic Relief Services office in Tamale, Ghana, I was re-energized with opportunity to go out into the field and visit some of the project sites. So far most of my time in the office had been spent reading reports about the current projects and their progress, re-writing and organizing pieces of writing to create newsletters and other publications, and letting the staff members use me for my slightly superior knowledge of Windows and Microsoft.
A major reason for the slow start is the fact that the vast majority of CRS Ghana’s funding, which came from the United States Agency for International Development (correct me if I am getting the USAID acronym wrong), was cut. This forced them to cut their biggest program, as well as the lay off of the majority of staff. With the remaining staff trying to save their own projects while simultaneously reorganizing the newly opened office space, CRS Ghana is in a literal and figurative state of transition.
So, on Tuesday, January 27, I was leaving Tamale, the third biggest city in Ghana; the dusty, red, bustling capital of the Northern Region. With the level of poverty, dry landscape and a predominantly Muslim population, it is a world away from the southern half of Ghana, where I had spent my first two weeks in the country.
I left with Osei, the driver, and Ishaque, the Monitoring and Evaluation Officer, to head into the upper west region to visit rural communities taking part in the CRS’s Global Water Initiative, a multi-faceted project that includes the drilling of boreholes (water-pumps), digging of latrines, and planting of trees, as well as education in sanitation. We would be gone for about 6 days.
Within minutes of departing we were out of Tamale. A few more minutes later and we had left the comfort of the paved road, and were barreling down a deep-red dirt road. At times it was washboard, at times it was deep and soft. The style of home changed from village to village. Round and square mud huts with thatched roofs at first, and the farther we moved north, the more they looked like angular adobe settlements like we frequently associate with the American southwest. Occasional concrete buildings were built for projects set up by NGO’s, or religious building: the churches rectangular with sharply-sloped roofs, the Mosques with minarets adorned with a crescent and star. English on one, Arabic on the other.
After the four-hour drive, through which I was unable to read project reports due to the condition of the road as well as my fascination with what was going on outside, we arrived in Wa, the capital of the Upper West Region, which shares a border with Burkina Faso and Cote d’Ivoire.
We arrived later than expected, and were unable to meet with our partner NGO as planned. We checked into our guesthouse, a small building within a large compound of dorms and classrooms at the local school for the blind. For dinner we had some fufu (boiled cassava, pounded by 5 women with logs until it makes a big gooey ball), with groundnut (peanut) soup and guinea fowl (a local bird).
The next morning we had that meeting with that NGO, ProNets, who oversees the drilling of the boreholes and training of those who build and maintain the pumps. Apparently there had been miscommunication, certain documents had not been looked over, and other things forced us to reschedule the meeting for a couple days later, when we would be passing through the town again.
Then we headed north and had another meeting in Nadowli. This time it was with the District Water and Sanitation Team (DWST), the government agency that CRS partners with to implement this program. Again, it seemed that we would need to meet on the way back to take care of more issues. It seemed as if a lack of communication (whether it was poor facilities, or a failure of the people to effectively communicate, I don’t know) was a significant obstacle that this project was facing.
Some more driving north and we arrived in Lawra, a tiny district very close to the northwesternmost corner of Ghana. We had a meeting with the DWST and proceeded to head out with them to two of the ten rural communities that this project is working with. Their mission was to conduct interviews with individuals in the community as well as have a group community discussion. I hoped that I could figure out a way to be of service. My scope of work here is to use my journalism skills to write human-interest stories and take photos for CRS publications. I knew this would be difficult as there was a very limited amount of time for me to work, as well as a lack of translators.
When we arrived in the first community, Pavuu Yegartenga, I followed one of the two men from the DWST to conduct an interview with a head of household, a hobbling middle-aged man with a cane in a relatively large mud complex. My “photo ops” were of his surviving mango saplings, contributed by the GWI project. I quickly fulfilled that requirement and asked about the condition of their water source. The drilling for the borehole had yielded almost no water, so the village was still getting all their water from a nearby “river”. I asked if I could see it, while they conducted their interviews, I followed the man’s son there. Now, it was not one of those dramatic 3-hour walks you hear of some people making in parts of Africa, but we went probably a kilometer before we arrived at the watering hole. I couldn’t imagine having to walk that far any time my water ran out, and return with about 5 gallons in a metal bowl atop my head. Worse yet was the condition of the water. It was not a flowing river, but a tiny, still pond that I assume becomes part of a river during the rainy season. What’s more, this was also the watering hole, and therefore defecation spot, for livestock and other animals. As I watched and took photos, women and children from both sides of the pond came down to get water, giggle at the pale guy, and helpfully point out the 5-foot crocodile hanging out on the edge of the water.
The next community that we visited, Koro Bagangu, was noticeably free of an crosses or crescents, which I confirmed later meant that it was of the 10% of Ghana that maintains traditional animist beliefs. This had little significance for the moment, though, as in the hour we spent there we were mostly concerned with the quality of water in the village. Luckily the borehole here was drilled and successfully found water, however the pump was yet to be in place (within the next two weeks I heard) and they were still using next village’s pump for drinking water, and the closer “dugout” for washing. I was taken for a look, this time by a small entourage of children and a couple adolescents. The dugout was a small ditch dug under a cluster of trees that holds water. It was predictable filthy, and was told that it would dry up within a month, making me, and I am sure the village more so, hope that the pump was in place in time.
Due to an extremely well-fortified language barrier, communication with community members, for me, was impossible. I would have liked to get one of the local translators to help me, but they were all helping with the interviews, which dealt with a fairly narrow view of their life: latrines and water sanitation, and we had a limited amount of time to work. I think I took some nice images, though, that could help to pretty-up some of the CRS publications and compliment any stories dealing with water that I may write. After finishing up in the second village the sun was about to set and we had to get back to town.
Back in Lawra we had tea and bread for dinner, as food options in this little town were limited to non-existent. Afterward I noticed that due to the lack of power in the town, the stars were extremely bright, and, just like I always can back home, I noticed Orion the Hunter directly above us. I asked Ishaque and Osei if they knew about constellations. I then had to explain what they were, to which Ishaque replied sternly, “We do not have time for such things.” Good point. I laughed sheepishly and went on with my evening.
Our second day in the Lawra District consisted of visiting the two communities of blind farmers. The first one was about 30 minutes outside of the main town. When we arrived I saw a blind man retrieving water from a small dug-out, and carry it back to the 100’x100’ fenced farming area. The farming community was made up of all the blind, deaf, and disabled people in the surrounding villages. They were also assisted by a few people without disabilities.
Their borehole, located at the center of the garden, was not producing water. Some said that the dry season had caused the water table to lower. However, it had worked a year ago, during Ishaque’s last visit, and there had been extra-heavy rains since then. This lead me to be pretty sure that it was some sort of mechanical failure with the pump. Ishaque suggested that some of the pipes deep inside had collapsed. Either way, their backup dugout did not look like it would be producing water for the crops for much longer.
The people working in the garden seemed excited by our presence, which always makes my job easier. A few days earlier, in Tamale, a fellow foreign NGO volunteer seemed skeptical that the rural Ghanaians would be the least bit interested in having some guy with a big camera coming in to take photos of them working. I tried to be optimistic, offering that they would understand that I was there to tell their story, because people really are interested in their struggle. Whether that was true or not, the people in all the villages seemed happy to have their picture taken, although quite bashful at times.
After observing for a while, the team gathered the community of about 20 farmers under the mango tree for a group interview. They expressed a need for a new borehole (this one had been built several years ago by a different NGO) and money for more water cans and seeds. Around the time that the discussion was wrapping up, one of the women approached us with a dirty yellow 5-gallon jug with foam creeping out of the opening. She poured a brownish liquid into a large, dried and hollowed gourd bowl, handing it to one of the men helping to translate. Then she poured a bowl for me. It was “pito”, the locally made millet brew. I knew that it was rude to refuse it, unless you strictly do not drink alcohol, like Ishaque a Muslim, and Osei, a very devout Christian. I watched as the guy next to me downed his in one large gulp (and this was not a small pour), and I hoped it was not too strong as I planned on working effectively for the rest of the day. I poured out a splash into the dirt, a tradition to pay respect to the dead, which amused everyone. When I giggled at their giggling, we all erupted in laughter. Everyone delighted in me finishing the pito (in several drinks though) with a smile on my face. It was tasty, sweet, and not too strong, allowing me to complete my work without stumbling. After this, the community broke out into a loud song in their local language, everyone clapping their hands, some of the elderly women getting up to dance, others breaking out into a shrill cry of “ayayayayayayay!” We thanked them for their time and we were sent away with another song, this time a charming tune consisting of a makeshift English word, “Byah, byah!” Most of them followed us halfway back to the car waving. It was exciting, but I was still discouraged by their lack of a quality borehole. In fact, I noticed that this was the third community in a row we had visited without improved water facilities.
The next blind and disabled community was much larger and actually had a well-hydrated well in the middle of their crops, though they seemed to have a problem with their fences, as cows getting inside seemed to be a constant problem. At one point, kids trying to chase one out caused the cow to stumble over the fence, making the crops even more susceptible to bovine invasions. It seemed that this would be a common issue with development work. As soon as one problem seems to be solved, more, unforeseen problems would come to take their place.
I met the village shaman, a blind man who did most of the talking during the destruction. He seemed to hold the highest social status among them, though he still wore a shredded orange t-shirt that exposed most of his aged torso. He said that even though he could not see it, he was glad I had taken his picture.
We tried visiting another village, but when we arrived, it was mostly empty. We were informed that there was a funeral, and nobody was available for interviews. We drove further through the labyrinth of dirt roads and paths that pass as roads to two more villages that were unavailable due to funerals. We had had the same problem the day before in another village. We were unable to visit the total of 6 communities as planned, making the trip less efficient as I saw it.
What was the point of the Global Water Initiative and the Water and Sanitation team? To improve the quality of water resources so that people do not fall victim to waterborne diseases and to improve food security so that starvation was not a problem. However, we could not even evaluate the conditions of communities participating in the projects because people were dying all around us!
Ishaque seemed frustrated as well, pointing out that this excursion into the field could have been planned much better. We were finished in the Lawra District and headed back to Wa, which we used as a home base to visit project sites in the Nadowli District.
Our first visit in Nadowli was to a community that was having their borehole rehabilitated. The previous one, built by another NGO, had quit working and their nearby well had also run dry. They were one of 5 communities whose boreholes would be reconstructed through this project. When we arrived, a local construction crew that had been hired to create the concrete foundation was just getting started. While they worked diligently under the beating sun, the community met with Ishaque and one of the DWST members under the shade of a large mango tree. They seemed happy about the new borehole, but I wondered how optimistic they really were. When I get a chance to conduct some of my own interviews, I hope that these types of questions will be answered.
The next community, Sankana, was fairly substantial compared to the other communities we had been to. Their pump was not functioning and was due to be rehabilitated soon as well. We paid a visit to the school where they had been given about 8 mango seedlings and several dozen acacia seedlings. The headmaster welcomed us, and Ishaque asked to see the progress on the trees. A couple of the mango seedlings looked like they might make it, but most looked like the stick fences were inadequate protection from animals, bugs were getting at the leaves, or were dry from lack of water. Then we saw the acacia, about 100 feet from a developing acacia forest. Almost everyone looked like a dry twig in the ground. Ishaque scolded the headmaster for not bothering to water them, especially with a large body of water close enough to see. He said he had watered them once, but still looked very embarrassed. Irregular rains (flooding in the rainy season, draught in the dry season) are partially due to the heavy logging and lack of vegetation in the region. This is a big problem, though. I think this tree-planting idea is a good step in the right direction, but without some sort of immediate return, the community will find little incentive to take the long hike down to the river to water dozens of seedlings.
The next project seemed like a very interesting one. It was down by the afore-mentioned body of water, a flooded river behind a dam, and worked with the local fishermen to help them use the large amount of water to grow crops. When we first arrived, the plot of land next to the river seemed abandoned. One man, who I am still not sure if he was a fisherman or not, was hanging out around several dozen dry teak seedlings. At this point Ishaque was fuming. He kept asking the man why they had not been watered, especially with plenty of water a mere 20 feet away. I felt bad for the guy, but it was true. It seemed difficult to understand why the group of fishermen would start a crop of teak trees, funded by CRS, and just not water them. We moved on to the other side of the river, which looked in much better condition. They were growing onions, tomatoes and other crops on this side. A couple of men were tending to them. I asked the man from the DWST if the fact that growing onions and tomatoes produced an immediate reward had led them to only focus on side of the river. Teak can be very useful and valuable lumber, but at this point they were just twigs, while the onions were already onions. He thought it sounded logical, but it also did not hurt that they had constructed some concrete aqueducts to irrigate the fields, which had not been done with the teak. We came across another obstacle of course. The section of aqueduct that crossed a creek was destroyed during the floods this past year, leading to about half of this side’s crops to be left thirsty. There were so many good ideas with marginal results. As frustrating as it was, I was glad that I was beginning to learn how projects worked and didn’t work, and how to ask questions.
The last community we visited was fairly standard. They had drilled a borehole that led to no water, and were waiting for a new drilling. Interviews were conducted with the community and the elderly men were excited about my facial hair, saying that we were the same, as they had prominent white beards.
That night Osei managed to get the air conditioning in the Land Cruiser to work, as it had not been functioning since the day we departed. I had not really minded, as this was still far and away the most luxurious transportation I had ever had outside the U.S. including nearly a dozen developing countries. The next day, though, the reward came not so much through cooler air, but the luxury of having windows rolled up. At the end of the day I was not completely caked in red dirt. Just lightly coated.
Our first visit was to another community that was getting their borehole rehabilitated. The construction crew I had seen the day before was already at work, dismantling the old slab of concrete, preparing to start from scratch.
We were unable to meet with the second community on the list, as they were having a funeral that day, so we went on to the third community, which was scheduled to get their first pump installed today. Unfortunately, the construction crew had gone to the wrong site. They did not seem disappointed or even surprised. Either they did not have much faith in the reliability of NGO’s or after countless generations walking long distances to unclean water sources, one more day was not too long to wait. Either way, the neighboring communities had working boreholes, and when they asked if they could use them because their water source had run dry, they were regularly refused.
The final community visited on the trip was by far the most remote. It took a solid hour to get there from the previous village. It was located on a game reserve and they had been told recently that they were no longer allowed to hunt. This demand seemed fairly ridiculous, as it seemed impossible to enforce this far away from any legitimate road. The people in the village seemed to think so too, as most of the boys and young men had slingshots either in their hands or in some pocket. They all laughed when they were asked if they hunt. “Well, they came and told us not to anymore! Haha!” an elderly man replied with a grin. I couldn’t blame them. If anything, if I was told that I lived on the only land in the area that still had certain species, I would feel that I had failed as a hunter. The people in this village were extra jovial, and especially curious. I felt very relaxed and cheerful in their presence. When we left, they were so grateful for our visit (which really just consisted of a few interviews, viewing their future borehole site, and a few casual photos) they gave us six huge yams as we left. I felt that accepting gifts like this from the communities we were working with might complicate things ethically, but I knew this was a better issue to handle later. This might have been my journalism ethics kicking in, but I feel that the same logic could work with development work. If a particular community regularly rewards the representatives from the NGO working with them, it could taint the relationship, and let the communities in the most need get looked over. Later, however, I asked an independent about this etiquette and was informed that turning down such a gift would have been extremely rude.
That night, I realized I had been in Ghana an entire month. Unlike previous trips of this length, the time had flown by, and I could not believe that I would have to leave in only two more months. I was also glad. I have already seen so much of this country. In the past week I have taken in almost as much of northern Ghana as I have of northern Idaho. I have learned a lot, but as always, the more I know, the more I realize I know nothing. The troubles here in Ghana, and even more so in the rest of Africa, are a complicated riddle, of which the answer seems far from understood. If anything, I am coming to terms with the fact that African problems require African solutions, and figuring out my place in that is proving difficult.
I am almost done with my internship working with CRS in northern Ghana. I am in my ninth week, and contrary to what might be expected, not that shocked that it will be over soon. Usually when abroad, the time slows down dramatically, or rushes past you so fast that when it’s over it feels like nothing happened. I am sad, though, that it is the end. I adapted quite easily to most aspects of living in Ghana,that are different than life in Seattle. The heat, the traffic, the food, etc. I established a small social life with the Ghanaians that I live with and near, and I will be sad to leave them, and I can already tell they will be feel the same way.
My last month of work has been a mix of office boredom and long hours in the field. Due to the nature of my scope of work, going into the field is essential before I am able to accomplish anything in the office, a circumstance that left me with several days with short to-do lists.
My first trip into the field, early on in my internship, left me generally frustrated with a lot of aspects of the project as well as the community members themselves. One of the projects that I worked with more recently, however, was like a beaming, technicolor light at the end of the tunnel. I spent three days with a program officer visiting villages participating in the Savings and Internal Lending Community (SILC) project. A SILC is a group of about 10 to 20 people (the emphasis is on women) that meet, usually weekly, and contribute a standard amount of money to a communal fund. After a certain number of meetings, the members are able to apply for loans, which they can use for small business ventures. There is also a “social fund” that people can withdraw from for emergencies. The purpose of this project is to create informal financial institutions in areas where people have no form of banking. Women are especially vulnerable, as they generally have much less access to any form of credit or financial support than men.
I liked the idea of the project from the start because of how little it relied on outside aid. Basically CRS provides the cash box, the idea, and the plan, which the communities are free to adjust according to their needs. However, I was still skeptical if saving a dollar a week could really pull these women out of poverty.
The district we were working in, Wa East, was about 2 hours away from our base for the trip. This is probably one of the most remote places I have ever been in terms of Western influence. Even though the villages were all road accessible, their lack of proximity to a major town left them in the dust as other parts of Ghana developed at a rapid rate. Based on details like the prevalence of tribal scarring, absence of Christianity, and architecture of homes it was obvious that these villages were a world away from even the moderately sized cities and towns of Ghana. It was quite common that I was the first white person that the younger generation of the villages had ever seen. That in itself was quite an experience for me.
We were visiting the villages to conduct research as the communities were five months into their project. The program officer as well as a couple of other local young men that spoke the language, conducted interviews with several SILCs from each village. I ended up being extremely impressed with the success of some of the SILCs. Many women were quite good at conducting small business ventures. For instance, several women would buy raw groundnuts (peanuts) in large amounts, fry them, bag them, and turn a 50% profit. The earnings themselves were extremely small, but it must be understood that these are populations of subsistence farmers, where currency is not as widely used. Earning an extra couple of dollars per week is extremely helpful when you need to pay school fees for your half dozen children. One man that I met had been very successful running his chemical shop, or pharmacy. He had tried to start it about three months prior to the beginning of the SILC, but had struggled. He told me that with the SILC, he was able to take a loan of about 50 Ghana Cedis (around $40), quite large for this type of project, and get his business on its feet. He was now making a good profit to support his 8 kids and two wives. He is also the first and only person to sell pharmaceuticals in his village. Before he started his business, people in the community had to go to the district capital, about 15 km. away.
One of the most common, though unforeseen, ways that this project helped was when children were sick. Quite often people do not have the extra cash to buy medicine for their children or take them to the hospital. Many community members were able to take out small loans when their kids were sick. One man spoke of how he took his daughter to the hospital in Wa (about 2 hours from his village) where she stayed for three days. When he got back he had to sell a goat to repay the loan, but without the loan he would not have been able to take his daughter to the hospital at all.
The days in the field were long, consisting of about 6 hours of driving and almost as much time conducting interviews. As far as acting as a journalist for CRS, the tight schedule limited me. I was not able to develop any human-interest stories (the potential was huge) as we usually spent no more than an hour in each community, and I was not able to have my own interpreter. Any investigating I did had to be done quickly after interviews, and I would have almost been left behind if I took more than a minute or two. This was frustrating because there were so many interesting success stories that could have been developed into great photo stories for CRS publications if I was able to spend even a day or two in the communities with an interpreter. I was able to get a couple of portraits of people that had benefited from the loans, but nothing groundbreaking as far as storytelling.
By the end of the trip, I was thoroughly impressed with the SILC project. In other projects visits that I have participated in, where a community is given something of monetary value (like a borehole to provide water, or gardening supplies) the people, when asked what they would like to see from the project, generally ask for more. More money for supplies, more seedlings, etc. With the SILC this request came up a couple times, but for the most part people really liked the project as it was, and the fact that they were so self-supportive.
While I did not participate much in the actual interviewing process, I learned a lot about how it works, and about rural life in Ghana. If the journalism career does not pan out (and it won’t, as we continue to see newspapers shrink or fold) I could see myself doing the kind of work that my colleagues are involved in, especially the research aspect of it. However, I do like the fact that NGOs seem to be moving away from hiring foreign staff. It makes much more sense to have Ghanaians addressing the problems in Ghana, and that is what I have seen happening here for the last two months.