Eric Chalmers : Ghana

Eric Chalmers is a Junior Economics and History major originally from Tempe, Arizona.  At Seattle University he has played for the varsity men’s tennis team, been the Vice President of Game Day Operations for Redzone, the At-Large Representative on Student Government, and an active participant in the Chapel Choir.  Eric is also a Sullivan Scholar who is a part of the Global Awareness Program and the Law Scholars.  He first became interested in global affairs and international development when he had the chance to travel to El Salvador in the summer before his senior year of high school.  On this trip he saw the effects of globalization on underdeveloped rural communities and realized that international development is not only an issue of economics but one of human dignity.  This past summer he worked in the U.S. Senate in Washington D.C. for Senator Patty Murray.  Through this experience he got to see U.S. international development be crated at the highest level and realized, as an aspiring politician, that this is an issue that will only continue to expand. 

 Reflection #1 

“Ghana make you sweat.” 

Wow, did I find out the truth of this statement the minute I stepped off of my comfortable, air-conditioned Emirates flight into the thick heat of Accra, Ghana.  I remember thinking that the country that was going to be my home for the next 3 months greeted me with a warm, friendly slap in the face.  As I walked through the airport I couldn’t help but be a wide-eyed American, wondering what exactly awaited me when I walked through the doors saying “International Arrivals.”  In the past month I have found that the country that was through those doors is an incredible place filled with a diverse population possessing a rich history and a huge income gap, a culture that has evolved over thousands of years, and a tradition of peace that has made Ghana one of Africa’s most stable nations.  In Ghana there are two places where I will be spending the majority of my time: Ofankor which is a suburb of Accra and Anloga which is a town in the southeastern corner of the Volta region (this area is also one of the world’s largest lagoons).

Lumana, the organization I am working with, was started in 2008 by two University of Washington students at the request of the chief of Atorkor, a village near Anloga.  Since then, Lumana has expanded to serve over 200 clients in our village network in the Volta region and over 100 clients in our Ofankor network.  Thus far in my fellowship I have spent the majority of my time serving Lumana’s villages by Anloga which include Atorkor (Ah-Tow-Co), Dzita (Gee-Tah), Whuti (Woo-Tee), Srogbe (Shrog-buh), and Savia-Tula.  The Volta region is home to the Ewe (Ay-Way) people who have lived here for hundreds of years and possess their own language (Ewe) and distinctive physical features.  The Ewe are traditionally master fishermen, who are also known for their ability to farm sand very successfully. 

The primary work that I have been doing so far in Ghana has been sitting down with as many of Lumana’s clients as possible and doing “cash flow analyses” with them to find out how exactly they manage their money and whether the loan is benefiting or harming them.  Along with Louise Gappa, my fellow fellow, I developed and am in the process of implementing a methodology to do these analyses.  However, every single interview so far has proven to be far more than just a simple “How much do you make per month?” question and answer session.  Rather, to my great frustration and interest, I have found Every. Single. Cash flow analyses to produce new knowledge about how this network of villages’ micro-economy functions.  Usually this results in the realization that something in the cash flow methodology must be changed and tried again.  Trial and error.   More than anything, I have been grateful to have the ability to learn so much, so quickly on how an individual rural Ghanaian makes decisions and manages their money.  They have shown me that, once again, the “Western educated” pedagogy only educates to certain part of the world.  For example, any supply and demand or price economic models that I have attempted to apply to this micro-economy do not even come close to fitting the contours of what I need.  I have been forced to adapt.  To re-learn micro-economics as it applies to the southeastern part of the Volta region.  This has led me to really think about micro-finance in a new light.  In the beginning I was frustrated hearing about all of our clients who have become delinquent because they misused their loan for this or their business isn’t working because of that.  But, thanks in large part to my Jesuit education, I had to ask why.  This led to me learning that farmers’ incomes are so sporadic making regular installments is near impossible, fishermen never know how many or what quality of fish they will catch making price and estimated profit impossible to project, and tailors and seamstresses face such a roller-coaster of holiday and funeral based incomes that asking them to calculate their monthly revenue is like asking a Starbucks barista in Seattle how many different kinds of drinks he or she made that month. 

All of this may have you thinking… “Wow, micro-finance is impossible.” Yeah, it is pretty hard.  But the more I think about the more I am convinced that it offers us the perfect window we the “Western learned” need to expand our worldviews and understand what it truly means to be poor.  Micro-finance allows the world’s poor, if we let them, to teach US about their lives, struggles, triumphs, economic models... all of it.  I do not yet have an answer as to what I have exactly learned during my time here in Ghana but I definitely know one thing, there is A LOT I do not know. 

So yes it is true, Ghana makes you sweat but in more ways than just physically (although lying in bed with the power off, meaning no fan, is pretty miserable).  It pushes you to sweat culturally, intellectually, and spiritually (did I mention this is one of the most religiously charged nations in the world?!).  But always the Ghanaians have been kind and welcoming, open to answering my questions and teaching me Ewe whether I asked for help or not.  I love these people and this country and cannot wait to see what the next two months here holds.

Reflection #2

I distinctly remember people telling me in the months leading up to my departure for Ghana that by the time I had fully acclimatized to Ghana it would almost be time to go.  Of course I thought, nah I’ll be able to immerse myself fully in the culture after about two weeks and be feeling right at home.  Fortunately and unfortunately this has not been the case.  It is only now, after taking the amazing opportunity to travel to Malawi and having lived in Ghana for two months, I have come to feel like I have even attained a semblance of understanding of how to interact with the country I am working and living in.  For example here are four simple customs I finally feel like I am properly observing thanks to the help of my Ghanaian co-workers: 1) You always always always ask someone to come eat with you if you have any food whatsoever- they usually politely decline but it’s far more rude not to even ask 2) “Where are you going?!” –this question is the equivalent to what’s up or hello and sometimes it is shouted at you.  No offense is meant, people just really want to know where you’re going… 3) Always be sure you know what time of day it is so you can greet properly: 5AM-12PM= “Good Morning”, 12PM-2PM= “Good Day”, 2PM-5PM (moves around to 4:30 or 5:30 sometimes)= “Good Afternoon”, and 5PM-On= “Good Evening”.  4) The handshake. Very much like a normal handshake except you snap using the other person’s finger.  I unfortunately can’t snap with my right hand and you only do handshakes with your right hand so this has been an ongoing struggle for me…
Bottom line is this: a country’s culture is made to make the people who live within it feel comfortable. Not me, it is my job to adapt to my surroundings not make my surroundings adapt to me.  People have asked me plenty of times what am I doing here in Ghana and at first I was answering that I worked in micro-finance.  Now, I answer that I am here to learn.
Several weeks ago I had the amazing opportunity to travel to Malawi to learn about the micro-finance and social investment work that my uncle’s mining company has been supporting.  While there, I had the opportunity to speak with the local community leaders about the effects of micro-finance and social investment in their community of Karonga (which is not unlike Lumana’s communities).  What I found was that micro-finance work in Malawi faces almost the exact same challenges that micro-finance in Ghana faces.  With the mining company’s social responsibility officers and local leaders I had the chance to receive excellent feedback on the cash flow analyses project and we worked to develop new approaches that we hope to one day make universally applicable to all micro-finance operations.
From the first day I started my project of creating sets of interview questions and excel spreadsheets to evaluate the cash flows of Lumana’s clients I have been learning.  Like I said in my last post, economics and business relationships just do not function the same way here as they do in the US.  I have learned that our clients were often afraid of our interviews as they thought I had come to force them to pay back, not to act as a business consultant.  Yes, part of the cash flow interviews’ purpose is to help some clients plan to start repaying Lumana if they haven’t started doing so, but the main point is to get our clients really thinking about the future of their business.  What are their hopes and dreams for their business and how do they plan to get there? The issue, I have found, when asking these questions is not that the poor are not thinking about the future (a common misconception) but that their present situation does not allow them the luxury of planning the future of their business.  How can you be expected to plan the future of your business when your husband has disappeared and you have four dependents?  This is where we come in.  Micro-finance loans were not created to keep the poor alive, to be treated as a handout, or to spread capitalism.  They were created to help the world’s poor carve out the financial breathing room they need to plan.  
I have now started all of my interviews by asking how the interviewee defines profit, revenue, and expenses.  How do they keep records? Do they even keep records?  From that starting point I move into the interview having set a tone with the client that is first and foremost about making their business function more efficiently.  After I have asked the necessary questions about revenue, expenses, and profit (while using their definitions to guide me) I usually let the client take over the discussion.  We brainstorm about their business: what does their competition look like? Who are their clients? How can they market themselves better? At the end of the interview the excitement of the client is obvious.  They are excited to work on their business! No longer is their business simply a means to the end of food and water but it is now an end in itself.  
It will be extremely difficult to leave Ghana as I think and feel that my work and learning here has just begun.  The key to this entire experience and something I will remember for the rest of my life is to always approach life with the attitude of a student.  Any opportunity presents the chance to learn.