What Ghanaians think of Canadian foreign aid

Ok, maybe this blog title is a bit of a hyperbole, seeing as I will be sharing a few select conversations that I have had on the topic. Nonetheless, I think these opinions are interesting and valuable enough for even CIDA to hear. These two stories come from my first week living in a rural Ghanaian setting.

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I sat outside with some teammates when we were greeted by Mr. Bawa, a leader in the community who has served as a teacher in a number of villages and now works as a (retired) farmer. After exchanging greetings and introductions, Mr. Bawa asked me where I come from. “Canada”, I replied, curious as to how much he knew of the country. “Canada!” he exclaimed. “We have a good relation with that country. Canada has been helping Ghana a lot. We are very grateful to your country”.  

He went on to explain some of the work that CIDA had been involved in. Apparently the borehole from which our house (and many others in town) fetch their water was a Canadian project! Mr. Bawa spoke other past projects, as well as the ongoing partnership that CIDA was involved in near Nakpayili, related to sanitation.

I was thrilled to hear that Canada had not only a good reputation, but had actually offered a positive contribution. I think it’s important to enforce the point that Canadian aid is valuable and appreciated. Although EWB can be quite critical of some of the way foreign aid is spent, we must also take the time to acknowledge the good that aid has contributed to. In light of Canada’s recent cuts on foreign aid, we ought to reflect on the benefits of our aid, and hearing this man speak so positively of our country and Canadian contributions, I ended the conversation feeling a lot more optimistic about our aid.

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I had just gone that morning to greet the chief in his palace. I had spent the minutes that felt like hours sitting nervously at first in the circular room of imams, elders, and other community leaders. My worries were eased when I noticed how much laughing occurs in a chief’s palace. Although I understood none of the Dagbani spoken, the translated comments allowed me to feel truly welcome in this community. A few of the elders even offered to come for a visit later that day.

I was about to go for a walk that afternoon when I ran into three of the community’s “opinion leaders” on bicycles, motioning for me to walk home as they had come to visit. We sat for some time, and a friend translated for me as they spoke mainly in Dagbani proverbs. One was familiar to me. “Feed a man a fish, and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he will eat for a lifetime”. This was used to thank me for spending time in their community, and he was especially grateful that I was not bringing any goods or money with me, but rather that I was simply spending time in their community and sharing my knowledge and skills.

Another man added “One finger on its own cannot do anything, but with many fingers you can get lots of work done”. He was referring to me joining the CHIPS team, now causing the total of foreign brains to equal 2 (I mentioned my UK counterpart earlier). He was grateful that I was only bringing a mind to share and contribute to the good work that CHIPS was known for in the community. Increased teamwork was a valued addition.

I had only just met these men, and they knew next to nothing about my placement. Offering them no promises of goods, funds, or tangible results, they welcomed me with warm smiles and grateful hearts, even insisting that when my three months was complete I ought to remain at least an additional three.

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I must add a disclaimer or two. While it is amazing that Canadian aid is valued, we must also reflect on the mistakes we have committed and the problems associated with our aid dollars. Yes, there was a successful borehole drilled by Canadian funds that continues to benefit this community, but there were two others built by CIDA at the same time, both of which are now sitting inoperable.

I was thrilled that these Ghanaians valued brainpower, critical thinking, and increased teamwork and did not respond poorly to my lack of deliverables for their community. However, as for teaching a man to fish, we’re not quite doing it. When I consider the majority of Canadian NGOs working in Africa that I know of and many of the existing projects CIDA has been involved in, I have the (albeit largely uninformed) perception that we still seek the glory of saying “I gave this man a fish”. It may sound more like “We handed out x mosquito nets” or “We drilled this many wells” or “We supplied fertilizer and other inputs to x amount of farmers”, but the idea is the same. It is a lot more glorious to get the credit of an output, rather than a community-empowering process which leaves most of the credit to the Ghanaians who largely made it happen, and will be able to sustain it long after the Canadians go home.

Canada, our billions of aid dollars have not all been spent in vain. Positive changes have been made in Africans lives due to our development projects. But we still have a long way to go. As I write about positive change that has occurred, I fear the negative impacts that many of our projects may have also had. I fear the sentiments of dependency we may have perpetuated, the cultural assimilation we may have continued from our Western forefathers, or the unintended consequences of some our poorly thought-out projects. Nonetheless, we press on, certain that there is yet work to be done and confident that Canadians have a role to play in making it happen.

 

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Nakpayli, my new home

I write to you from my beautiful new room: a spacious round structure made primarily from mud and straw. For the Civil Engineers (shout out!) reading this, it is incredible well built and not at all what you would expect when you hear “mud house”. My home for this week is the CHIPS house, well-equipped with a new latrine, large bednets, a handwashing station, and only a 2-minute walk to the local borehole which provides clean drinking water, even during Ghana’s dry seasons.

I am hosted here by the CHIPS team, who not only work together, but also live together in community. CHIPS is my partner non-governmental organization (NGO), originating in the UK (I think) and working also in Uganda. They are a Christian Peacemaking organization, who use development work as part of their peacemaking strategies. They have worked in Ghana for over two years now, and though living in Nakpayili (Google Maps!), they do a lot of work in surrounding villages as well.

 Their programs focus on either Health & Sanitation or Community Animal Health Workers (CAHW). I will be working primarily with the latter, understanding their approach to delivering veterinary services to the 13 communities they have initially selected. The CAHW program is only a few months old so I am eager to see how it grows and impacts farmers lives over the 3 months I am here. That’s it for the work update, I would love to answer specific questions as they arise and share more once I better understand what’s going on and what my role is in it all.

So far, I am blown away by how amazing of a placement this is. I feel undeserving to get to work with such a generous and friendly team of people. Already we can laugh together and share meals from the same pot, a right that usually takes much longer to earn. The whole team is passionate and perseverant, truly standing behind the work that they do and willing to keep at it even when they face discouragements. Their eyes light up as they tell me about their sanitation work, the new natural medicines they are learning to make, or their dreams for communities whose animals are healthy and breeding well in order to supply a greater income for farmers.

 

Nakpayli is the most wonderful town. There are some educated adults (elders and clinic staff, especially) who speak English very well, but for the most part people only communicate in Dagbani. This is proving to be a challenge for me, as I can barely remember the few greetings I have learned so far.

If you’re curious about Dagbani, here’s what I know. Adults will greet me, starting with Dasiba/Antire/Anuwula (good morning/afternoon/evening), to which I respond “Naa”. This is followed by a series of 2-6 questions, such as “how is your home?”, “how is your family?”, “how is your work?”, all to which I merely listen and respond “Naa”. This “Naa” business seems to be enough to impress most of the villagers. Occasionally I break out a “Ngoinya” (sp?) meaning “I am here”, which is the response to “Amaraaba” or “Welcome”. I can also say “I have slept well” and “Goodnight”, but I use those infrequently at best.

 Everyone that I have met in Nakpayli has been welcoming and friendly. Big smiles and laughter all around, especially at my shaky Dagbani or my attempts this morning at carrying water on my head (the ladies were killing themselves laughing, I swear). It takes less that 20 minutes to walk from one end of town to the other along the principal (only) road. There are some schools, a clinic, a pharmacy, a market, and a lot of sitting areas where people in town will gather in the afternoons and evenings.

 I have only gotten a handful of “Salaminga!” (“white person!”) remarks, although I must admit that the colour of my skin has made a few children cry. It’s balanced out with the other children, who seem fascinated, excited, and shy when they see me. I am looking forward to getting to know the kids better, and I plan on busting out my Frisbee (thanks, Mom!) soon.

 I will leave you with my big cultural integration stories thus far. Nakpayli Day 1 involved me eating fried crickets (they were huge!), which surprisingly tasted really good (think potato chips, oddly shaped, with a funny flavour). Nakpayli Day 2 started with a motorcycle ride to the riverside to purchase fish, which we brought home and proceeded to descale and clean (remove greenish black intestines). For a flex-vegetarian who hates fish, I would say not half bad 🙂

 

Ghana: Day 1

As we rise before the sun,

we hear the roosters crow.

The traffic barely flows.

I am an outsider, I know.

 

Accra feels like any other city

Natural beauty

masked by media.

Only the ads are attached

to trees here.

 

We travel north,

Tamale bound.

The landscape is variable,

But the constants remain:

Talented women

With large bowls on their head.

Pure Water being sold,

Not bottles. Sachets instead.

Some chicken and pigs, many goats

And so far, only one dead.

 

Plenty of fried rice

And mangoes

Everywhere.

 

It is already an adventure

First washroom without toilet paper

First squatting latrine

First mishaps.

 

Maybe the other 17 Canadians

Make me feel all the more

A stranger.

Or perhaps my “otherness”

Will only be more evident

When I am the only sore thumb.

 

The best part by far

Admiring the blood red earth,

The cream coloured clouds,

The terrential rains.

 

Still thanking God

For the opportunity

To be here.

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No, I am not volunteering at an orphanage, because..

“Hi! Where are you headed on your journey? Are you with a group of other students?”, I asked the 20-or-so-year-old sitting behind me on the flight from Amsterdam to Accra. I had observed the group of students at the airport and was curious as to the nature of their trip.

“Ghana”, she replied “and yes, we’re a group of students from the same university.”

“Cool! For how long? What are you doing there?”

“We will be here for two weeks, helping out at an orphanage. You?”

“I’m also with a group of students. We are all volunteers with Engineers Without Borders, and will be here for three and a half months.”

We exchanged names and the conversation continued, this friendly young student describing vague details about her trip and my unease steadily growing.

I never used to see the problem with volunteer visits (or voluntourism visits, perhaps) to orphanages. Kids need love, so we should go love them, right? Mother Teresa spent most of her life with an orphanage, for goodness sakes.

More recently, I have become pretty sceptical of the industry. And yes, I do think you can call it an industry. Here are some reasons why:

  1. Orphanages are not the best environments for children to grow up in. In fact, they are perhaps the worst. Kids often don`t develop well emotionally (and perhaps physically or intellectually, either). To make this argument, I would like to point out the fact that we have virtually no orphanages in Canada for a reason.
  2. Visiting orphanages may strengthen a culture of dependency. If an orphanage owner can expect some funds or resources from visiting groups, why would they make the effort to try to get the children into more stable homes? Whether with a parent, relative, or family friend, there are likely some other options for some kids in orphanages.
  3. Visiting groups can spend a lot of time with the children, creating abnormally strong bonds, which leave the volunteer feeling great and the child worse off when the friend who just showed her love abruptly leaves and never returns.
  4. Even if these short term volunteer trips to orphanages had positive impact while they occurred, and did not leave the owners financially (or otherwise) dependent on Westerners, and if the children were not left emotionally scarred or abandoned, I do not think these interventions contribute to any form of sustainable or long-term change. It is a band-aid, not medical treatment, and certainly not preventative health measures.

I heard about most of these, as well as the notion of taking kids from families in order to use them as a source of income for orphanage owners on a website ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­http://www.thinkchildsafe.org/thinkbeforevisiting/. I want to be clear in that I do not think these arguments need to apply to every orphanage and every volunteer group. I have never experienced this form of volunteer trip, nor have I experienced living in an orphanage from the child’s perspective. I merely aim to share my thoughts and get some conversation going.

As we disembarked from the airplane and walked out into the beautiful warm evening, I made sure to find my new friend – this well-intentioned eager volunteer. I struggled to find the words to say to her, wanting to spark curiosity and deeper thinking without bashing on her. After all, who am I to claim to know so much more about this industry than her? (See my first blog post – I don’t know much).

“It was really nice to meet you! I hope you enjoy your stay in Ghana”, I said, offering her a hug. “And try not to break any kids’ hearts”.

She chuckled nervously and I quickly darted away, unsure of my actions and my mind racing with more questions. Despite my uncertainty over my actions, I did gain confidence in this: whether or not I can contribute to any more positive change in Ghana than this young woman can, it is likely that I have a lesser chance of doing harmful damage.

Eating with your hands and smellin’ the flowers: the Culture of EWB

I wake up in a room of 5 girls crammed into two bunkbeds. I head downstairs to wish a “good morning!” to my handful of friends who are up before me, and boil the kettle to make my tea. Eating my toasted raisin bagel (awesome suggestion, Adam) outside enjoying the fresh air, I take some time to compose a rap about health/safety/security/gender-issues/white-privilege/power-structures, to be performed later in front of the group. Walking with Sarah and Nick and Guillaume to the UofT building where our sessions are held, we joke about the day before and take some time to stop and chat with Jay, my new friend who hangs out outside the College&Spadina 7/11.

I have lived in Toronto for over 10 years now, but this week I am experiencing it like never before. The culture of this place is contagious. Allow me to give you some examples.

Last night. 30+ EWBers (some Junior Fellows, some National Office Staff) crammed into the EWB “Akwaaba” House, our fingers dirty as we eat ground nut soup with our hands. We take hours and hours to have an informal Q&A with George, the humble and brilliant CEO and co-founder of the organization.

Informal conversations. Like squeezing on a mattress glancing over the Vision 2020, as we discuss what it actually means to create a world where all of us “truly prosper”. Or this morning, debating how we ought to act towards impoverished in our own country and interract with friends on the street. Or walks home, where we can share our personal belief systems and explain what drove us to being interested in development work.

And the inbetween times. Jimmy leading the group in morning stretches or reminding us about the beauties in life as he detours to smell flowers or buy a harmonica. Sharing a glass of mango juice with David and being excited about getting to eat Ghanaian mangos. Guillaume humbly insisting to wash my breakfast dishes. Emily sharing her excitement about her placement. The list goes on.

I am in the middle of my pre-departure week. There are 20 JFs in total with me either travelling to Ghana or Uganda (Chris and Emily, what whaat). We have a jam packed day of sessions each day, which themselves are absolutely brilliant. I am convicted about needing to take personal safety seriously, I am challenged with how hard it is to define “poverty”, I am enraged at gender inequalities, and I am energized by discussing how we can create real impact, both in Ghana and back in Canada.

I feel truly blessed to take part in an organization with such a vibrant culture. Thanks for making this week what it is, friends!

I haven’t perfected my technique quite yet..

How many people can you cram into one living room?