Monday, July 30, 2007

not just the good part 2.

I've had a week to think about this blog post, and what stories I wanted tell to show some of the harder parts of my stay here, and some of the challenges that Ghana faces. In thinking about what I wanted to write, I also thought about what I have already written and I want to make a small amendment.

I gave the image that I thought that all NGOs are evil. I've volunteering for an NGO that I think is pretty awesome. There's a lot of good people doing a lot of good things. I'm even coming around on the NGOs that use development practices that I don't agree with (like going to a community, drilling a well, and then leaving without any kind of hygiene education or teaching the community how to use the well, or who to contact if it breaks down etc) because I can still identify the good that comes out of it (another NGO or the goverment will train WATSAN committees and pick up the slack, and the community has another source of safe drinking water). It's a HUGE conversation and thought process to try to figure out what is good development, and I still have no idea. The best lesson that I've ever learned from EWB is that "development is complex." I'm not going to pretend I know everything or anything. These are all just my opinions based on what I see. To add to that, I'm really excited to hear from anyone that wants to challenge me on these opinions and ask me questions. I'm even more excited to see that people I don't know are reading my blog and hopefully enjoying my stories.

Now, onto today's stories.

Health Care
Ghana has a kind of health care insurance system. I don't know too much about it, but from what I gather people can pay about 82 000 cedies (about $10) a year and have their basic health needs covered. This means that if you think you have Malaria it will pay for the doctor's consult and for the doctor to write you a perscription, but if need buy the drugs then you have to pay for those yourself (about $7). If I'm wrong, please correct me.

The problem with this health care system is that the hospitals are usually only in the district capitals, so if you live in one of the villages then you have to travel to get the health card, which give an added expense. Also, it's a gamble. If you don't get sick that year, then you wasted a lot of good money, and getting that much money together at one time can be hard, especially if you come from a large family.

What happens instead? Instead of going to doctors, people go to see their local herbalist, medicine man, or juju man. This isn't always the worst thing; pharmaceutical companies have made billions (and more) stealing the secrets from these local medicine men, packaging them and placing them on supermarket shelves. In a lot of cases, what we buy are what these people are giving their patients raw. Sometimes it works.

Sometimes it doesn't. A few weeks ago a man and his five year old boy came to the local goverment to seek help. He was talking in Dagbani to start so I wasn't really paying attention until my eyes looked at the boy. He was serious and his right arm hung stiff and lifeless beside his body, his fingers stuck at a weird angle and the skin on his arm looked blackened. My coworker told me after that the kid had fallen and broken his arm on the football field, but instead of going to a doctor for x-rays and to get it set properly, they went to the local juju man instead. They were applying a mixture of herbs and chemicals to his arm and instead of fixing it, it instead had a weird reaction with the flesh and the bones were allowed to start heeling in the wrong position. Now he was asking for help to see a bone specialist in Kumasi or the boy would not be able to use his arm properly again.

This is just one story, but it's not all. I see so many people that are crippled because they didn't get the proper care, or that have injuries that could have been properly fixed. People that have problems that are fixed with a small surgery early in Canada, but here they are allowed to grow and worsen. I suspect it's the same with most developing countries, that a lot of things are overlooked, but the thing that I am frustrated with the most is someone willingly choosing NOT to go to a doctor. NOT to give their children the best that there is... but then I can also understand that sometimes the hospitals are too far and the cost of travel and time you are taking to go is too much.

I just keep thinking to the small boy. How his life will be changed because one day he decided to play football and fell badly. That he won't be able to do so much because of a bad decision from his parents and a juju man that didn't know how to set a broken bone.

Behaviour Change
Washing your hands is something that is ingrained into our culture, and yet, people in the western world still don't do it. Why? Now, what if washing your hands after you go to the toilet and before you eat could save your life? In a world where diarrhea kills and parasites and worms are passed from person to person like colds are in Canada, you'd think that washing your hands would be common sense.

Yet, somehow it's not. Somehow, despite all the education and workshops, people don't wash their hands. People are still getting sick and diseases are still being spread. The people here are not stupid -- they're incredibly hard working and smart and they're good people. There's still people in North America that don't wash their hands when the flowing water is right there! How are all the people in Ghana supposed to do it when water's not readily available and usually quite far away? Why should they be using so much water cleaning when during the dry season, sometimes there's barely enough to drink?

Guinea worm is one of the most awful things I've seen so far, and I live in an area where Guinea worm is at its worst. The flea that hosts the worm larvae is only just visible to the naked eye lives in the water. Once the flea is swallowed the worm travels to the intestines and mates. The female worm, now impregnated with thousands of larvae herself, travels through the body for anywhere between 9 and 18 months feeding on the host's tissues and bones. Now here's the really painful part: it has come out of the body somehow to recontaminate the water source and ensure the survival of the species, so it comes to the surface of the skin (usually in the legs or feet) and creates a large boil, which it will burst through when it feels water on the outer part of the skin. It will usually come out quite soon after the boil appears because the most soothing thing the host can do for the painful boil is to immerse it in water. The worm at this point is usually about a meter long (3 feet) and looks like a piece of angel hair pasta. Each time the female feels water, it will continue to release thousands of the larvae into the water source.

If you think what I'm describing is bad, the words on the page are nothing as compared to the pain and agony felt by the host when the worm is coming out, and it's not an easy process. It usually take ten to fourteen days for the worm to come out completely, and multiple infections are common. It's pulled out a little bit at a time each day and you have to be careful not to break it, theres' the risk of infection, or if broken right at the start, it can go back into the body and reemerge a week later.

It's a horrible parasite. It can take people out of work and school because of the severe pain. If you're a farmer and it comes at harvest time, your crop could be lost.

Want to know what can stop you from getting it? Filtering your water. If you get your water from a dam, stream, or other uncovered source, chances are that it's infected. There are a tonne of NGOs that are giving away filters to anyone that says they need one, and if you're not around those NGOs you can make your own. If you're out in the bush and are thirsty and come across a water hole without your official filter? You can drink the water through a handkerchief or your own shirt. If you have a boil or a worm coming out the actions you take should be simple: don't go in the water and continue to recontaminate the water source.

Yet, people continue to get infected. People don't filter their water. Despite hiring guards to keep people from going into the dams, people still find a way. How, with all the education sessions and posters and radio spots, do people still get this parasite? Is it that don't see the connection between their water and the worm? If it's growing inside you for over a year it's hard to make the connection, especially if some people get it and some people don't. You need to swallow both a male and female worm, so if the combination isn't right than you'll be okay...

The topic of behaviour change is one that I've seen before. How do you get people to drink fair trade coffee? How do you get people to stop smoking, especially when they know that it's dangerous? Why do people still drink and drive? Why are people not filtering their water?

I think that changing people's behaviour is one of the hardest and most complex things that anyone will try to do, but I also think that it's of paramount importance for development.

And I'm at a loss on how to do it.

In conclusion
This has been hard for me to write, but even harder for me to see. I hope that it gave you a small insight into some of the challenges that Ghana faces. It's really a wonderful country with fantastic people, and I'm having the time of my life here, but I didn't want to just portray the shiny happy moments. It is a struggle being here and seeing these things. I hope that I gave you a window into some of the harder parts of life here without it being too much like the commercials you see with the flies on the children's faces. I that you can see some of the real struggles here and some of the real people struggling.

Monday, July 23, 2007

not just the good.

For the past few months I've been telling everyone wonderful stories about my time here. I've been giving the image that everything is wonderful here in Ghana, but in reality, I've been leaving a lot out. I think it's time to share some of the challenges that Ghana faces and some of the heavier thoughts that I've been having.

I'm only sharing two stories with you today, and hopefully two more next weekend. I hope that you think about them.

Please, take me with you?
I get many, many proposals in a day. Usually they come from the people that I have breakfast with, people that I see almost every day that I've become friends with, and are said in a joking manner, but realistically they are also secretly hoping that I will say yes.

Why do I get these marriage proposals? The people see the colour of my skin and believe that I can give them a better life. That they won't have to work any more. That they won't suffer. That I can give them fancy cars and a big house and take them to Canada with me so they won't have to suffer. Clearly they don't think of the -40C winters, but it's more than that. They would happily leave their country and families for a "better" life.

It doesn't stop at marriage proposals. I've had women try to give me their babies. They are willing to give away their children because they hope that they will get a better education and be healthier. For this one, I really don't blame them. In Ghana, there's a one in eleven chance you won't reach your fifth birthday.

I try to explain to them that not everything is great in Canada, that we have our troubles too, but how can I tell someone, right to her face that her child won't get better health care in Canada? That out of 1000 births in Canada, only six will die before their fifth birthday instead of 112 as it is in Ghana.

But what else are they to believe? NGOs come to Ghana with handouts, boreholes and schools, and then leave again just as quickly as they came. They take pictures at all the cute children to show back home, sometimes leaving behind a football or some toffees, but not taking the time to listen to everyone's stories.

When I travel through Tamale, at every intersection in the road there are signs pointing the way to an NGO office. There's one charity in particular whose slogan sends shivers up my spine: "Giving hope to a world in need." How would you feel as a Ghanaian if you saw that sign every day? How would deal if the message that every NGO sends to you is, "You can't do it on your own. You need us."

On my recent trip to Laribanga, I saw what tourism could do to a developing country at its worst. The town has two famous attractions: the mosque and a "magical" stone. Because of the close proximity to Mole National Park, it gets quite a few white people coming through to see these two "attractions." While I praise the community's action to use these pieces of history to generate some income for the community, I cannot praise the attitude that comes with it.

Upon arriving in the town you are required to register at the "tourism office," a small room that doesn't even have a desk or a chair. When I arrived there with my two companions, it was empty, so we continued walking into town hoping to see the magical stone. On our way someone stopped us and said, "are you going to see the mosque?" We said no, and continued on our way. A VERY short time later a man on bicycle stopped us and told us that the stone was too far away to walk to, so we should pay him to take us on his bike (riding double in turns) and then pay him to tell us the history of the stone. We had heard about the people from Laribanga being aggressive in asking for money, but we didn't think it was going to be that bad. But, we had a short time frame and we decided that if the stone was too far to walk, then we should at least still try to see the mosque.

Instead of travelling straight there we meandered through the mud huts, talking to people as went. Small children were swarming around us, grabbing at our bags and tugging at our hands while looking up at us and asking, "thousand? thousand?" We were shocked... two year olds were begging for money! The older ones were pushing the little ones closer while also asking for "toffee", or the small hard candies that white people so often give. I knew better than to give candies to anyone other than the children that I knew well -- I had seen a woman be swarmed a year an a half ago in the Dominican Republic, shocked at how fast the children ripped the bag out of her hands and at the fight that erupted between the kids when they realized she didn't have enough for everyone.

But we wound our way towards the mosque anyway, and stopped very close to it. Two of us started talking to some people (they were actually pretty funny and interesting) and the other turned the corner, realized we were at the mosque, snapped a picture, then came back to join us.

Suddenly we were surrounded. About 10 men came racing towards us making a racquet and creating a commotion, giving us even more unwanted attention. One grabbed me and started pulling me away from the mosque but I threw his arm down. There was one in particular that was yelling at us, telling us that we were liars. That we didn't follow the proper procedure. That we were trying to cheat them from their money and that we were breaking the laws of Ghana. That we were stealing from the community. That we need to each pay them 20 000 to see the mosque... and we weren't even allowed inside due to the rules of Islam (women under the age of 50 are not allowed inside). Even when we tried to interject -- that no one was at the tourism office, that we didn't know the procedure (even though we had been told by some of the other Junior Fellows that had visited earlier), that we didn't lie to them (we really were going to see the stone first), they didn't listen. The leader didn't even want to hear our side, he just wanted to yell.

Is that any way to treat a visitor? I can imagine people in the past getting flustered and afraid and then just giving them the money to make them stop yelling. I can understand people not wanting to be the centre of attention as a large part of the community gather around them and wanting to get out... but we had been here for more than two months already. We weren't going to take it.

We tried to leave but they wouldn't let us. We told them that we didn't even want to see the mosque anymore. Someone demanded one our cameras so they could prove that we did, in fact, break the rules (which we never did deny), and when we said that they couldn't just demand someone's personal property, the accusations of "liar!" just intensified. Finally we said, "Is this any way to treat a guest? We're going to go back and tell all our other white friends not to visit Laribanga because the people are cruel and only want to take advantage of white people!" It was the only thing that shut them up. We were then escorted around the mosque -- for free -- and were told to take all the pictures we wanted.

It was one of the toughest moments I had since I arrived, and brought all kinds of questions to my mind. Is this what tourism can do to a town? That they look at white people and just see dollar signs? Yet, at the same time, the image that they have of white people can't be completely wrong... people who gave the kids "toffees" like I saw in the Dominican Republic, people who gave the 20 000 to see the mosque, and then donated three times that amount for general upkeep (another group of friends demanded to see a recent repair they made on the mosque, but the guides came up empty), these are realities of white people going to developing countries as tourists. There are many people that go to a cultural centre and pay full price for a painting that is WAY overpriced instead of bartering. Then, the people who sell these things start to expect it from you.

There are two brothers that live in Laribanga, that are honest and good guides that we met later that agreed with us. They said they couldn't believe how some of their neighbours treat us, and that we did nothing to deserve that kind of treatment. In their words the only thing that white people do wrong is "give money that is unwarrented."

I can't imagine being the farmer in Laribanga, working all day under the scorching sun trying to make enough food so his family can eat during the dry season, and seeing the white people throw money around. What does that say about the work that you do? How can you find pride in your work when you keep seeing how much better everyone else is living?

How have places like Cuba, Jamaica, Mexico, Thailand, and South Africa been changed by tourists? How can I travel so that I don't do so much harm to the people?

I can't give you a really accurate picture with just a few words, but I hope that I can open your eyes to a few of the things that I don't want or like to show about the country that I've grown to love so much. Yet, I'm allowing this blog to be a small window from Canada to my life here in Ghana, and what kind of window only shows the good? And what kind of person would that make me?

Sunday, July 15, 2007

rain revisited

It had been three weeks since it rained. The dust was choking and the heat was unbearable. The fine red dirt that is supposed to provide nutrients for the crops and give us hard roads instead was thrusted upwards in the air and carried by the wind, somehow always finding rest on my bags, clothes, and all flat surfaces in my room. On my recent travels to and from Damongo I watched outside the window of my trotro at the fields of maize at their crucial stage of budding -- they either need a lot of water at this point or they will wither and die. Indeed, the farmers that planted early are being punished for being proactive; their maize is turning brown.

Then on Thursday night, with a glorious crack of thunder, the skies opened up and rain came down like a solid sheet of water from above. Dinner has just ended and we ran outside both wanting to cool our hot bodies and wash the dust from our skin, all while grabbing the buckets we normally use for washing and placing them under the roof overhang.

The roofs are not immune to the red dust, and the water pouring thick from the corners of the roofs into the compound ran rusty brown for a few minutes. We emptied the buckets a few times until the water ran clean and the pounding of the raindrops was enough to dislodge all the dirt that had accumulated above.

When the small buckets had been filled with the clear water, we brought them over to our 3 large water barrels and filled those to the top, spilling all the while and not caring because we were soaked already. It was only about fifteen minutes from the start of the rain until we finished filling all the buckets, and the rain was still coming hard. "Lydia," I half-whispered to my 11 year old host sister, still trying to be heard above the echo of the raindrops on the tin roof, "let's get Dennis!" We picked up the small washing buckets we were playing with and ran over to where her older brother was playing and we called his name. He stopped playing and looked at us with wide open eyes before trying to turn and run... but we were faster than him. Two full tubs were splashed over his head and he stood there blinking for a few seconds before laughing hard and picking up the bucket at his feet. We ran but it made no matter... we were already as wet as we could be.

The three of kept splashing about, laughing and dancing as the thick raindrops beat us with their strength when I felt a full tub being released over my head. I blubber in surprise, turn around quickly wiping the hair from my face, and see my host mother (that I prefer to call sister) laughing with an empty bucket in her hands, wiping away the tears from laughing so hard. War was waged, and we all came out of the rain, what seemed like hours later, breathless, smiling, and exhausted.

The rain lasted for a long time, and while my family's most basic needs were met for the week, I also know that it was not enough to revive all the crops. Instead, the rain probably came too much -- instead of giving the soil the nutrients it needed, the rain probably washed many of them away, leaching the soil of what it gives to help plants grow.

It's officially the rainy season, but it hasn't rained much at all in the north. I'm afraid of what that means for the farmers, for the families that rely on that water and food for survival, and what will happen in the dry season if the rains don't come this year.

Luke, the long term volunteer with EWB that has been working on my project at the regional level (vs. the district level) recently made his own blog post on the rain with a link to a very interesting article, and he has pictures. I decided that I didn't want to take my camera out for fear of it getting wet... though it didn't make much difference. I forgot that despite the roof overhang I have over my window, the wind was blowing hard and was also blowing a lot of water into my room. Luckily, I always keep my drum, camera, and computer on the "uphill" part of my room, but I was scared anyway walking into my room with a few cms of water on the floor! It all dried and nothing was ruined, but I had to smack myself in the head all the same.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Playing tourist for just one day

This weekend was the mid-summer retreat for all the JFs, a time for reflection of what we've done so far and things we still want to accomplish before we leave. I was startled to find that I only have six weeks left in my placement, and then a few days after that for a final workshop / report day and travel back to Accra. While I knew that we had just past the half way mark, I was startled to find that we have so little time left. I'm only starting to really feel like I have a handle on the way things work here, and I have such a short time left. Don't get me wrong, I'm REALLY excited to go back home and see all my friends and family, but I know that I have so much still to accomplish here. It was a really good weekend to refocus and plan the remaining weeks here.

Yet, somewhere in between the storytelling, sharing of experiences, and really intellegent conversations about development on Friday, and the really intense interregation of our plans for the rest of the summer (in a fun mock-court style) and planning on Sunday, we managed to play tourist for the first time on Saturday.

We had travelled to Damongo from Tamale early Friday morning for the workshop in the town where Sarah from the McGill is staying. She's working with the Ministry of Food and Agriculture (MOFA) there, and set up most of the arrangements for hotels and buses. At this point, I have to mention the ride to Damongo. The road was bad. There's really no way to describe the bumping and shaking of a tro-tro on one of the worst roads in the Northern Region, but we finally made it there after about one hour on a paved (but still bumpy) road, and then two more on an almost unpassible road by tro-tro.

The state of the road really made me upset, not because of the headache that came about because of the shaking (though it sucked as well), but because this is the road to the main tourist attraction in the Northern Region. This tourist attraction is Mole National Park (said molay), a game reserve for the animals of West Africa to protect them from hungry hunters and the transformation of forest to farmland. It's really, really beautiful, peaceful, and rejuvinating... something I guess it might not have been if there was a large hotel and many tourists around, but I just kept thinking about how much wealth could be brought to the area if the road was paved and the area more developed for tourism (a gift shop, more hotel rooms, other activities). But then, it really wouldn't have the rustic charm and feeling of going back to nature, and the way things were 50 years ago when the park was established.

When asking the other Junior Fellows what we wanted to see at the game reserve, the unvarying answer was "elephants!" and within the first half hour of being there, we got our wish. The only way you can go into the main area of the reserve is with an armed guide, so for the first hour we sat at the viewing platform looking through binoculars to see many different kinds of antelope and birds, and enjoying each other's company. I hear a squeal of excitment coming from one of the volunteers and the rest of us turn to see what she's looking at; a heard of elephants is making its way to the water hole. We all jumped to our feet, pointing and snapping pictures as they crossed a more open area and slowly entered the water, swimming to the middle to meet some more elephants passing around the other way. We all willed them to stay there for a long time, so that when our tour started we could see them up close and personal.

They stayed for a short time into our tour, but more interesting was when they started to retreat and we followed them, getting even closer than before. They are truly magnificent creatures, and I enjoyed it so much. The funniest part was when we were watching the elephants, and our guide started to get a little worried. "Step back," he whispered and forced us back with movements of his hand. "You see how that little one is looking at you?" He's thinking about charging." Of course, we scrambled back in a hurry, and in doing so we saw another few elephants on the other side of us, but much farther away. Also truly beautiful, but now some were worried about being surrounded by the elephants with no way of escape. It was okay, our guide knew exactly what to do and we were safe, but there was a brief moment of panic.

We continued around the park for about two hours, seeing all three of the different kinds of antelope that lives in the park, as well as monkeys, warthogs (which are REALLY ugly, the Disney character was much cuter) and many different kinds of birds and trees.

When finished we relaxed for some time at the lodge still looking from high atop the ridge that gazes over the water hole and a large part of the park, ate some lunch, and some of us decided to walk to the nearby town of Larabanga. The town is known for two things; the oldest mosque in Ghana, and a stone that was not able to be removed from the ground when they tried to build the road (the story is that they kept removing it, but each morning it would back in the middle of where they were trying to build) and so the road curves around it.

Gill, Sarah and I visited the mosque only, but had a nice walk from Mole to Larabanga (about six kilometers) having some great conversations about development and tourism. All in all, it was a very good and refreshing day.

We also celebrated it being 07-07-07 by making the numbers with our bodies, and hands and took some pictures... at this point we were so tired from the day that everything was funny! We returned back to Damongo for dinner, and were told to meet back in the guest house for 8:00 PM for a special activity. After much confusion and silliness, Liz (a long term volunteer based in Tamale) tells us that we're now celebrating all the summer birthdays of the Junior Fellows and Long Term Volunteers, and they bring out something covered in candles as we all sing "Happy Birthday". My stomach flips... did they somehow find a way to get a cake? No, I realize as they get closer, it's really just a loaf of bread with the candles on top, but we all blew out the candles and had slice anyway.

It was a great start to my own birthday, as we then stayed up late playing charades and telling stories before finally turning in, knowing that we had a big day ahead of us on the Sunday. We worked really hard on Sunday, but I also got lots of birthday wishes (including a call from Folk Fest at 4:00 AM) and I got to talk to my family and some friends from home. I also got a bunch of emails and comments with birthday messages, so I thank each one of you for that.

The retreat was a lot of work and a lot of fun, and I know that I still have a tonne of work to do before I can go back to Canada. I'm so glad that we had the opportunity to refocus and share our plans for the coming weeks, as well as share some of our experiences from weeks past. I'm excited to see what I can accomplish.