Halla Ahmad : Ghana

My parents moved to the United States from Pakistan in 1983 in order to escape religious persecution in Pakistan of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community. In 1990, I was born in Queens, New York. When I was just two years old, my family moved to Washington State and this is where I have been raised. We lived in Lynnwood for a while, but then moved to Snohomish, where I spent most of my childhood. I attended Snohomish High School, and really enjoyed getting involved in extracurricular activities such ASB, Newspaper Club, Teens against Tobacco Use Club, Key Club and others. I was really involved in school, but in my free time, I spent a lot of time with family.  Much of my extended family had moved to Washington as well, so I grew up having large family gatherings. Also, I am an active member of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, so my family went to the mosque often. Through my frequent visits to the mosque and our large family gatherings, I was able to immerse myself in Pakistani culture. I learned a lot about the cultural values, cultural traditions, cultural food and dress. After I graduated from high school, I enrolled into the University of Washington for my bachelor’s degree. I started off as a pre-medical major, but soon realized that it was not for me. I took a class in international studies, and I really enjoyed the subject so I switched my major. At the University of Washington, I had to adjust to large classes, which sometimes included about five hundred students.  I realized that I would achieve greater success in a smaller classroom environment. This led me to my decision of transferring to Seattle University, where I would have smaller classes and more personal engagement. For my sophomore year, I attended Seattle University, which enabled me to excel academically as well as socially. I was able to get involved indifferent activities that catered to my interests such as volunteering at the International Dinner, becoming an orientation leader for international students, and getting involved in the Global Awareness Program.  In the future, I wish to attend law school and further my studies in the realm of international studies. In the meantime, I look forward to exploring what else Seattle University has to offer.

Reflection # 1 (Country- Ghana)

A little over two weeks ago, I landed in Accra, Ghana’s capital city. I was pretty nervous, because this was my first time going to live away from my family and on top of that it was in Africa. It was a long three hour ride in a crowded tro tro (a van, bus-like transportation system)to get to the village of Anloga, where I am now staying as well as doing my internship for the microfinance organization, Lumana. The first few days were pretty hard for me because I did miss home, but I’ve adjusted to my new environment and I am really enjoying being immersed in a new culture and a completely different society. I’ve gotten used to the staring and people constantly referring and calling out to me as a Yavu (white person). It’s really strange being referred to as a white person since I have never considered myself to be white as I’m ethnically Pakistani. They even have a little song about white people that children love singing every time they see a light skinned person. The Ghanaians are one of the friendliest and welcoming people I have ever met though, and they love it when you attempt to say anything in Ewe, it gets them laughing every time. While walking on the street, or buying something at a store, I’ve been stopped to chat with people many times, because people truly enjoy getting to know you. My name is impossibly hard for people to say, because they’ve never heard such a name before. I’ve gotten an Ewe name; it depends on the day of the week you were born. After looking up that I was born on a Sunday, I was given the name Acos. The atmosphere seems very relaxed here, sometimes, when passing shops, you see people just lying down and resting. I was surprised by the house that the Lumana staff lives in too, it is much nicer than what I had imagined and I have a room to myself.

I’ve started on my major project for Lumana, and on the side I’ve been given other projects to work on as well. My main project is to establish a system to track the goals of Lumana’s clients. There are two Lumana offices that I usually go to, one that is just a two minute walk from the house and one that is in Atorkor, which is about a seven minute drive in a taxi.  The office in Atorkor is open from10:30am to 5:30pm from Monday through Wednesday and then the Anloga office is open during the same hours, but on Thursdays and Fridays just to give people living in both areas a chance for repayments. I can’t say I have a routine, because everyday seems to vary. Sometimes, we end up going to the client’s houses in order to do meetings with them and sometimes I’m just at the office. The local staff is great; they are a very energetic group who are always making me laugh. They love to have a good time and they make the office an enjoyable place to be. I really like working with them and answering their many questions. As I started my project, I realized that currently, most of Lumana’s clients don’t have savings goals that they have recorded or officially established so there is no way to track them. However, as new clients come in, they are required to establish their goals as they receive their first loan. Also, as old clients renew their loan cycles, they will be establishing goals as well. It is a slow process that will have to be gradually implemented, but it’s interesting to see it gain momentum already. Recently, I sat in on a cooperative meeting where a new group of clients were creating their goals. Eric, the lead loan officer, led the meeting, and he explained to the clients what a goal was and then he assisted them in calculating how much they would be saving in order for them to create a goal pertaining to their savings amount. I realized that it is essential to help the clients step by step in making a goal, because often times they are unrealistic about a goal when making it on their own or they don’t know how to calculate their savings in order to know how much money they can use towards their goal. Eric has been very helpful in this process, and he has helped the clients very patiently to make their goals. He held the meeting in the local language, Ewe, but translated what was going on for me as the meeting went on. Most of the clients usually want to save some money for their children’s school fees, or otherwise expand their business. I will continue to work with Eric to establish a goal tracking system, which hopefully can get implemented successfully over the next few months. I’m excited to be a part of getting such a system in place. I am also going to be researching a new Savings Only Program that Lumana is looking into. Basically, the program would offer people a secure savings service, where people who are not interested in loans can still get help in saving their money and know that it is in a secure location. I will be finding more information on this soon.

The days go by pretty fast here, and before you know it, its dinner time. The food choices are pretty limited here, but the food is pretty good and I like the spiciness of it. Usually for lunch, I get this rice and beans dish with a spicy pepe sauce on it or sweet potatoes with pepe sauce on it. It’s given to you in a small plastic bag. You get everything in a bag here and people selling things to you make sure you have a bag for it; they even have little packets of filtered water. There are a lot of stews that are made here that are usually eaten with different doughs, so far I’ve tried bonku and abolo. People eat this dough and stew with their hands, and it gets really messy, but I have to admit, it is a fun experience. We’ve only gotten meat from the city, because the meat here is just sitting out all day long and not very appetizing or good quality either. I love the fruit though, especially the mangos and the pineapples which are delicious. I see coconut trees everywhere as well. It’s a very beautiful place, with all the palm trees and red sand on the ground. Last weekend, we went on a boat ride that took us to a beach side corner. It was really beautiful, the sand was so white, soft and fine and the water was a pretty greenish color. The Ghanaians played the drums and sang songs along the way, it was quite an experience. I hope to see make the most out of my trip here and see more of Ghana and its culture.

Reflection # 2

As my fifth week comes to an end, I realize how fast time passes here even with the relaxed atmosphere. I’ve accumulated enough good stories to tell when I get back to the US. I’ve had some interesting experiences, one of them being malaria. I recently just recovered from it after finding out last week that I had malaria. It was thankfully only just a mild case, and mostly I just felt weak and tired, so it wasn’t too bad. There was a clinic nearby too and they gave me the necessary medications. I got plenty of rest last week and I am happy to be well again and ready to get back to work.  The week before we took a trip to the city of Accra, this was a nice change from the village life. I finally got to sit in some air conditioned rooms for the first time during my trip and eat something besides rice, beans and stew. It was very interesting seeing how different the city is from the village. The mall had a nice grocery store, with food items that were actually recognizable to me. The streets were much busier. I think I prefer the village life where everything is a bit calmer and cleaner except for the amenities which are better in the city.

Recently I’ve been continuing my work on the goal tracking system, but I’ve gotten a few other projects to work on as well. As for the goal tracking system, we’ve basically have gotten the process of goal setting well established and going. When clients reapply for loans during the reapplication meetings, one of the local staff members conducts the meeting in Ewe and tells the clients about the importance of goals and how they need to establish either a business goal or a personal goal. The clients are told their savings and then sent home to think about what they might want to record as their goal. When they come to pick up their next loan that is when their goals are recorded. The goals are going to be updated every three months and each update is entered into the Lumana data manager. I helped make a sheet, which will be hung in both the offices, that would record the date of when each cooperative recorded their goals and when they are due for an update, which will make it easier for Eric, the lead loan officer, to check when a group’s progress should be checked. This process is only for previous clients, but as new clients come in, we hope to get the process even smoother and establish goals sooner. During the three day mandatory business class that is required for clients to take before receiving a loan, there is going to be a goal’s portion where clients will undergo the same goal setting process. I am working with the Lumana staff to get a written process down for the goal setting portion of this business curriculum. Meanwhile, another one of my projects is to make media collection easier. Currently, Chris, who is in charge of interviewing clients and getting their stories and pictures recorded, has to track down each client by either going to their house or calling them to the office to get their interview and picture. In order to make this process easier in the future, we hope to get the interviews done when the clients take their business readiness survey when they first apply for the loan. I have been working on getting a series of questions written down for an appendix that will be added to the end of the business readiness survey which would cover all the interview questions and eliminate the need for an additional media interview. Chris and I have to finalize the process and make sure the Ghanaian staff members know exactly how to implement this new process. My newest project is on the savings only program that Lumana wants to get involved with. As of now, my job is to research how interested people might be in getting involved with such a program. I will be working with the Ghanaian staff and asking their opinion about the program to see the level of interest that locals might have in such a program. We will be working with some community members who are in charge of the business classes to research this information as well.  Eventually, the Lumana staff will start interviewing clients about the new savings only program. Everything here is a gradual process, so it will take some time to get things moving, but I am looking forward to working on this new project.

Reflection # 3

After being back in the US for a couple weeks now, I’m really starting to miss Ghana, especially my village of Anloga. Leaving was a very bitter sweet moment for me, because I was very excited to go home and reconnect with my family, but I felt extremely sad saying goodbye to everyone I had met in Ghana and leaving the easygoing simple lifestyle I had grown to appreciate. I had a very nice last day at the Atorkor office where I had spent a lot of my time working on my project. I got to spend some quality time with the staff. One of the local staff members I worked with, Richard, got me a very nice kente cloth, which is an intricately woven cloth worn on special occasions, as a going away present. He also got me another strip of kente that said “Truly Treasured Goodbye Halla.” I was very touched. As I was leaving, Godwin, another local staff member, gave me some homemade spicy dough as a going away present. Bridget, a local staff member who also shared my home prepared a nice last dinner of groundnut soup with boiled plantains the night before I was leaving. I truly loved working with the staff and creating great relationships with them. They put a smile on my face every day at the office and were a very enthusiastic bunch. It was also an awesome experience living with Chris, Justine, David, and Bridget, who had become my substitute family while I was in Ghana. We’ve had some fun times together, going to the beach on Sundays, watching movies together at night, traveling through Ghana, and sharing many laughs. The past two months flew by and I know that I will remember those memorable times forever.

Working in Ghana has been a great experience for me and taught me many things. It was a way for me to be completely emerged in a new environment. I was able to learn how to adjust and become accustomed to living in a new place where things are done differently. I definitely learned how to leave my comfort zone and try new things. I truly appreciate the opportunity of working with Lumana, which was great for a student like me who is trying to get a better understanding of international development. Lumana is relatively small so it allowed me to get involved with many small important projects and left them very open ended. I learned how to observe and work with my surroundings in order to get projects initiated and implemented. I learned that working with an NGO in an environment where things are run differently involved a lot of patience and a lot of tolerance in order to get work done efficiently. I think Ghana was the perfect place for me to learn many essential lessons about living and working abroad and it will definitely prepare me for my future travels.