Ghana happens to be the most religious country in the world, so Christian holidays have been long celebrated. And, like many religious traditions and holidays, over time these days often become more a reason to gather family and friends and the festivities have evolved to reflect the community and it’s micro-culture. Our beloved colleague, Cleo, is from a small mountain community in the Volta Region, and she was kind enough to invite us to meet her family and participate in the town’s weekend long celebration of Easter. Here are some photos of Amedzofe, you can click any image and it’ll take you to the slide show view where you can scroll through with the full captions.
“What do you call this?”
“Yes, but what’s it called in the local language- Dagbanli?”
“No, that’s the English name. What’s the Dagbanli name?”
“Huh, this is called soya bean,” said with lots of conviction.
“Oh, okay.” (You don’t know that soya bean is not Dagbanli.)
Learning: There is always some foreign influence that locals are not aware has a foreign origin.
Context: Shared taxi- driver picks up as full a carload as possible, each passenger is a set fare. If the driver does not fill his car or drops off a passenger before his last stop, the driver will pick up along the way if he can.
So, three of us get out on the dirt road (that is currently under construction for asphalt) so we can grab a shared taxi to town. Before we cross the road to be on the side of traffic we want, a taxi with one passenger stops. We tell the driver we want to go the other direction and he has a passenger, so, oh well and we cross the road. The driver tells the passenger to get out. She does and stands on the side of the road to try and catch a different taxi and the driver flips a U to pick us up. The deed has been done, so we get in the taxi, I feel guilty.
Re-learning: Rudeness is cultural, sometimes first come first serve does not best serve the majority. A three-person fare is worth ejecting the one remaining passenger you have in your taxi. Though it seems rude for Americans, it’s generally accepted that it’s easier to find a taxi with space for one than for three or four, so single passengers will get out, willingly and without grudge, to wait for another taxi to come along.
Context needed for this snapshot: Dumpsters, trash pickup and disposal is not widely practiced in Ghana. Burning your own trash is the usual method of disposal.
We have a pit located beside the house where we dump our trash and burn weekly. Most of our trash is food waste and plastic. I know, you are thinking, you burn plastic! I feel the same and I try to minimize my plastic use, but it’s how everything is served here. Maybe I”ll take pictures to show you how hard it is to avoid plastic use.
So back to the food waste. That consists of leftovers, fruit and vegetable peels and pits and of course produce that are in various stages of rotting.
We are in the bathroom, talking, the window faces our trash pit and we hear the kids rummaging through out trash. Conor looks out the window and says, “I’m pretty sure I just saw Wallace reach into the fire to get the banana I threw out and eat it.” I raise my eyebrows in acknowledgement and we continue our conversation about vaginas, naturally, and I wonder if the kids know what we are talking about. So Conor yellow out the window, “Vagina!” Nothing. “Vagina!” Nothing. “Yeah, they don’t know it.”
What happened next pierced my heart. Wallace pulled something out of our trash- a piece of fried fish that one of our housemates had for her cat, and asks, “Conor, can I have this?” He replies to Wallace, “Yeah, you can have it.” And then to me says, “Obviously, it was in our trash.”
That moment made my heart stop and I’m sure my face went through a series of sad and pained expressions. This child politely and earnestly asked if he could have something he considered valuable enough that he should ask the owner- food that was thrown out in a medley of other rubbish.
Learning: I have much and can be just as happy with less. My definition of used up can be broadened and I need to constantly check my needs versus wants. In Dagbanli (and in some Ethiopian languages), there is no word for need, only want. I suspect that the history of the language reflects that there was no need to differentiate the two meanings because wanting was only for needs.
I’ve been in Ghana for two months now and have been volunteering with a women and vulnerable groups’ rights advocacy organization called Songtaba (song- to help + taba- each other = we help each other) in the Northern Region. I particularly like the focus on women because it’s a smart investment- she’ll invest in her children who will make smart decisions, grow her income potential, and contribute to the local community- don’t take my word for it, check out this recent research based article. So, while searching for partners to collaborate with and possible grants to apply for, I’ve looked over the most recent census, reviewed past project outcomes, visited the closest village that accepts women fleeing from violence as a result of witchcraft accusations, and observed a basic education class held off farm hours to help kids who are needed by their family to farm catch up for re-entry into schools.
Things I have learned through analysis of Ghana’s most recent census:
- In the Northern Region, where I live and volunteer, there were 690,597 recorded births from mothers aged 12-54 years
- 10.8% (75,230) births came from mothers 12-14 years of age
- 17.8% (123,016) births came from 15-19 year of age
- 16.2% (112,3640) births came from 20-24 years of age
- Almost 30% of all the births in the Northern Region occurred in school age females. So, were these girls in school to begin with and if so did they return to school after giving birth? Part of me is glad I don’t have access to that data.
- 27,223 of the 317,160 married persons were between the ages of 12-17 years- 8.5%. It is illegal to be married before 16 without parental consent.
The following data hurt my educator soul:
- In the Northern Region, persons 15 years and above who have never attended school number 923,095 out of 1,368,848 – 67.4% of the region’s population
- 59.8% of the males, 394,624 out of 659,866 have never attended school
- 74.5% of the females 528,471 out of 708,982 have never attended school
- In comparable regional populations and even for the entire nation, the percentage of those who have never attended school is around 30%
- Making the Northern Region’s prevalence twice as high as the rest of the nation.
My Conclusion: I don’t know why things are so disproportionate in the Northern Region, I’ve looked at factors like urban versus rural population and the availability of jobs and so far the circumstances are similar, so I haven’t been able to come to any inferences to investigate. What I do know is that in my small town, there are 4 girls that are pregnant in the high school; I know that every time I go to town with a man, the local men ask the man I am with to give me to them, like I’m property that can be given away. I know that in the North, there are 674 women living in rural witch camps because they have been accused of witchcraft and fear violence if they do not leave. These women are usually without familial or social support, little to no income generating activities, and little or no access to potable water.
More on Songtaba: They know that they are up against tradition, culture and beliefs. So they are smart, they confront the issues through a human rights lens. What are the rights of all people? Over the years they have been working on sustainable solutions some examples being:
- Building classrooms and bathroom facilities in schools
- Starting capacity building groups for women small-holder farmers to improve their practice
- Supporting alleged witches in starting income generating activities
- Bringing together key members of the community to meet regularly on matters of the community
- Facilitating the return of alleged witches to their hometown
- Starting girls’ clubs in schools for students to have a safe forum to talk about issues like forced marriage and teen pregnancy and tell and adult
Currently Songtaba’s efforts have been ramping up their work in supporting the human rights of the women who are accused of witchcraft. While they have helped improved the living conditions in the witch camps through water access projects, in-home medical screenings, free medical insurance registration, and shea butter production for income, Songtaba’s ultimate goal is to eliminate the need for having witch camps in the first place. And Songtaba is doing it, they are tackling each tier simultaneously- national policy, town officials and community leaders, community education, and facilitating the return of alleged witches to a town of their choice. So far they have helped 159 women leave the witch camp to live in a community of their choice, 650ish more to go…
But of course, with all necessary social services, they are not funded adequately by the government/community which is why I am searching for grants to apply to and why Songtaba has participated in Global Giving’s open challenge to earn a permanent spot to fundraise on (they are the first and largest online global crowdfunding community). Songtaba’s goals and methods to achieve those goals are sound, but the process of creating a system or structure and providing training to maintain the system or structure for sustainability takes people power and more years than I want to admit. If you’ve ever worked with me then you know my pitfall is expediency- everything should have been done two weeks ago, right? Well, so far, we have raised about $11,000 on Global Giving with many people opting to donate $140 because it covers all the costs like the “cleansing ceremony”, building a hut, and such for a woman to leave the witch camp. If you are interested in some pictures and knowing the costs with changing the life of a woman accused of witchcraft in Ghana, you can go to the page here. If you are are interested in learning other work Songtaba has been doing, you can check out their partnering org, the Humanist Service Corps Facebook page.
My tiny reflection: In my younger years of being an idealist, I thought everyone needed to care about what I cared about, how could they not? Then I was tempered through the process of learning about the complexity of injustice and inequity. And now, I see the value in learning about others’ experiences and how those came to be. It has helped me practice gratitude, compassion and kindness. So now, I think I know how to be a more responsible citizen, a good neighbor and a kind stranger.
So, I came to Ghana on vacation. What intended to be 2 weeks of vacation to spend time with the love of my life and get a glimpse what his life has been the past 6 months has become home.
It’s been about a month now living in Ghana and my body, particularly my GI tract, is still adjusting. It’s been humid and hot, dry and hot, wake me up in the middle of the night for the first time in my life hot- basically it’s hot. I don’t know if I’ve gotten less resilient since Ethiopia, but I am feeling the heat.
Professionally, I’ll be spending my time writing grants and going on school visits to gather data on the effectiveness of the current interventions to reduce gender based violence. Girls are dropping out of school at disproportionate rates. Some common reasons being forced or early marriage, pregnancy, and need for domestic and farm labor. There have been interventions taking place to address this gender based violence in education:
- Encouraging families to break away from traditional gender roles for domestic labor so that sons and daughters share the household duties to allow both boys and girls to attend school.
- Offering basic education classes during off farm labor hours in hopes that dropouts will be able to catch up and re-enter traditional school.
- Health clinics to have policies that provide services and contraceptive to girls.
- Girls clubs at schools where students have trusted advocates to bring their issues and concerns to.
Personally, I’ll be learning another super uncommon language poorly (again, Tigrinya being the first), eating local food, drinking home brews, getting better at crossword puzzles, and beginning forever with the love of my life sooner than I thought.
So, who’s the love of my life? Conor Robinson. We met 5 years ago when I was in LA waiting for my departure for Peace Corps Ethiopia, reconnected a year and a half ago on the topic of volunteer training and we have been a we since then.
What brought Conor to Ghana in the first place? The launch of the Humanist Service Corps after three years of preparations. The first two years was spent preparing and traveling to 10 countries to vet various organizations in hopes to identify a partner. The year after that was spent designing the program scope, fundraising, and selecting volunteers to support the women’s rights advocacy partner organization. And now, it’s year four, projects are in progress and volunteers for next year are being selected. You can stay in the loop via their Facebook page as well.
Anyhow, my time is running out at the internet cafe, I’ll upload pictures of Ghana next time. Lots of love.
I have taken some time to think about the idea of volunteer service in another country. Being a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, you may think, well, she’s going to say of course go serve in another country. But, I have also volunteered rather consistently, domestically, since 1997 and worked three years for an organization that mobilizes full-time AmeriCorps volunteers. Many AmeriCorps volunteers would ask me if I recommend the Peace Corps, and I used to share how my PC experience gave me a greater heart for domestic service because I felt I had less barriers to being effective. But now, almost four years later, I realize the series of questions that I would pose to get those interested in international service some perspective, applies to domestic service as well.
Usually, I would start with something broad (I’ll include the domestic adaptations in parenthesis): Why do you want to serve? What do you want to do?
- Be immersed in a new culture (environment) and learn a new language (perspective)?
- Meet people who are different from you?
- Work hard, but not necessarily do the work you were expecting to do?
If those bullets sound good, then okay, cool, let’s get a bit deeper. What do you want to gain or learn? What do you want to give or provide? What is it that you care to accomplish?
- Gain a better understanding of international (local) politics and policy in regards to foreign aid (social services)
- To be humbled by learning your perspective and expertise will more often than not be inefficient, ineffective, not applicable, or culturally inappropriate (uninformed) in the context of the country (institution/system/community)
- Earnestly learn about the culture (history of the institution/system/community) and language (values)
- Build relationships with colleagues and community members because you recognize this is the most critical part of your service and work
- Gain a better understanding of yourself and your small role in the bigger picture
If those sound good to you, great! Here’s the catch, I’d suggest you think carefully about serving if you are dead-set on accomplishing any of the following:
- Your skills being utilized immediately
- Your skills being utilized often and to full capacity
- Building capacity at more than the individual level
Being a foreigner, an outsider (a guest), you MUST spend a great deal of time learning about the culture, the context of the work you hope you engage in, and most importantly build your credibility with the locals who have been living and working in the current conditions that you want to come and support. I really do think it takes at least a year to get to the point where you might be able to start some systematic and strategic work (maybe less if you are domestic). You can probably be helpful, but you won’t be most helpful until you have learned about and from the community. If you think that you need to fix or save, I’d like to share with you that from my experience and observations of others, that mentality doesn’t work for anyone- foreign or domestic. You may also want to consider what it will take for your work to be sustainable. Is their a clear end date and outcome or is it ongoing that will require continued human and financial capital? Will someone need to take over the responsibilities or tasks you will be performing when you leave? Who’s idea is it- yours or the community you are supporting? Who’s funding you and how does that influence your effectiveness?
So, in the end- international or domestic, I believe that good work is good work, whatever it is, wherever you decide to do it, however you decide to do it. Don’t wait for the perfect org or the perfect fit for you, be the perfect fit for the need that you can support. Go do something good. Learn and do that something good better than when you started. Your one day service project matters. Your short-term contribution matters. Your daily decisions matter. How you live your life matters.