Friday, August 3, 2007

Wa-ta from Bore Holes

The bore hole and hand-powered pump make-up one of the most valued assets in my neighbourhood. The pump embodies, in several ways, an ‘appropriate technology’. It directly addresses the very important need for water (in almost all cases, the water can be consumed right out of the ground). Its operation is easy and intuitive so it can be used by almost anyone. Its mechanical design is straightforward and thoughtful, which makes it very reliable. In the rare event that something breaks, there are locals who can repair the damage with their existing knowledge and resources. Although there are organizations that completely subsidize installation of the pump, many require that the local people financially contribute. This helps instil a sense of ownership, which is why I rarely see the equipment being misused. I’m not suggesting that the bore-hole/ hand-pump combination is a perfect solution in all cases, but it seems to be a success in my area.

At the moment, I’m living in a room that’s close to the neighbourhood’s pump. I’ve come to realize that it’s more than just a means to get water (by the way, Ghanaians generally pronounce water as ‘wa-ta’, and they find the Canadian pronunciation hilarious). It greatly contributes to a sense of community. From 4:30 am to midnight, there’s activity around the bore hole. It’s usually busiest shortly before and after dinner. The wait to use the pump turns into a social event, particularly for women and children. They’re constantly laughing, debating, discussing…sometimes, the kids will break into song and dance to pass the time.

Shortly after the school day ends, the bore hole's a little bit chaotic

Even walking to the pump strengthens the sense of community. Ghanaians generally value greetings. If someone's in plain sight, it can be considered rude to walk by without greeting them unless they’re complete strangers. During the stroll towards the pump, they have the opportunity to check-in with their neighbours on a daily basis. If someone is ill, everyone hears the news, and shortly thereafter, the community is there to provide support.

From a Canadian perspective, plumbing that delivers water directly into homes is perhaps a superior approach, one that is undeniably more convenient, less labour intensive, and less time consuming. However, if plumbing is introduced to my community, social changes may take place. Automatically, getting water will no longer be an important means of social interaction. What will happen to the sense of community, and existing social support network? Although the sense of community is not rooted exclusively in the bore hole, I feel that the hypothetical plumbing scenario raises questions regarding technological ‘advancement’. Is the appropriateness of a technological solution only in the characteristics of the technology itself (ease of operation, reliability, ease of repair etc.)? How does social appropriateness fit into the picture?

One last thing…I have a new found appreciation for water conservation. Using one bucket of water a day has put my water-indulgence back home into perspective.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

It's a Beautiful Day

It's 5 a.m. I wake up suddenly, and it takes me a moment to remember that I'm in a small farming community 40 minutes away from Tumu. Outside, it's still dark, but I can hear the village coming to life...the roosters, pigs, goats, sheep, dogs, ducks, and donkeys all contribute to the strangely musical ruckus. Inside, the light from a kerosene lantern casts a warm glow on the contents of the room. Along one wall, the few sacks of corn and groundnuts that remain from last season are stacked on top of one another, alongside two colourful prayer mats. Behind me, there are two chairs and a small, cluttered table, the only furniture in the house. The house itself consists of only one other room that's just as bare.

In the dim light, I can see Muhammed's outline as he prepares for the farm. He's making an effort to be quiet to avoid disturbing my sleep. I greet him in the local language to let him know I'm awake, and he responds cheerfully, switching occasionally from English to Sissali. If I react with a blank expression, he chuckles heartily, and takes the time to explain himself. He tells me that we'll be traveling to the farm by bull-cart, and that I'll be driving. I try unsuccessfully to mask the child-like grin on my face.

The African sun has made its appearance, but for the time being, we're spared from its forceful heat. The morning breeze is refreshing, a nice change from the warm, stagnant air inside the room. The scents carried by the breeze tell the story of the village's morning activities...the smoke from the burning wood that heats makeshift stoves; the sweet aroma of shea nuts laid-out to dry, soon to be processed into shea butter; and the distinct and ever-present smell of corn rising from massive mortars. For much of the day, the pounding of corn serves as the village's heartbeat, the pronounced thud of wood on wood. The rhythm provided by the mortars and pestles complements the melody provided by children's laughter. Some are dressed in their school uniforms, ready for a day of classes. Others are dressed in their dirty farm clothes, ready for a day of physical labour. Both the school uniforms and farm clothes are dull and earthy in colour, greatly misrepresenting the villagers' everyday dress. Some wear traditional fabrics with extravagant, vibrant, and colourful designs. Others wear Western second-hand clothing, and show little regard for wardrobe coordination, which makes for some fantastic combinations of colours and patterns.

On our way to the bulls, I greet many people who still seem intrigued by my presence in their neighbourhood. Most are amused and pleased by my effort to learn their language. Whenever I greet someone eating, I'm invariably asked to join them. Whenever I meet children, they excitedly practice any English that they know. Whenever I greet the elderly, I bend down, as a sign of respect.

We load the cart behind the bulls with farm tools, a few gallons of drinking water, and a bag of cotton seeds. Issah, one of Muhammed's younger brothers, bends a branch off of a nearby tree, and hands it to me. Abudu, one of Muhammed’s older brothers, hands me the rope that's used to control the bulls' direction. Somehow, six people manage to squeeze onto the heavily loaded cart, including Muhammed, Issah, Abudu, and I. Within seconds, a small crowd forms, whispering, gawking, and chuckling as the two bulls and cart jolt into motion. We follow a dirt path, leaving the village behind us. Ahead, the lush, green forest awaits us, contrasting brilliantly against the rusty-red soil and pale blue sky. The journey is long, one that takes an hour and a half on foot, and only slightly less with an amateur driving the bull-cart.

Muhammed tries to teach me how to communicate with the bulls. He explains that, to command them to slow down, I should make a kissing sound. He demonstrates, and the bulls react almost instantaneously. I attempt to duplicate the sound, and the bulls continue as if I’m speaking a foreign language. After a few tries, they still don’t fully understand what I’m asking of them, so they stutter-step out of confusion. Eventually, I learn the subtlety of the sound, and my message becomes clear. Next, Muhammed demonstrates how to command them to speed up. I try over and over again, but with little success. Initially, the bulls decide to slow down rather than speed up. Soon, my speed up sound becomes meaningless to them (a sure sign of progress), but try as I may, I do not progress any further. To encourage the bulls to walk faster, I resort to threatening them with my cane, and yelling English words like ‘Go!’, hoping that they hear the urgency in my voice. I hesitate to actually use the cane, seeing no need to resort to physical abuse. However, the bulls leave me with no choice. While sitting directly behind them, a bowel movement comes my way, splattering my shirt, arms, and face. To add injury to insult, the more rebellious of the two bulls then attempts to kick me repeatedly. One of the attempts makes contact with my shin. Almost as a reflex, my cane comes down hard on its back, and the cart lurches forward at a brisk pace.

Heading to the farm in style

Muhammed is content to let me learn by making mistakes. His patience is greatly appreciated as I ask the many questions racing through my mind. He shares his wealth of knowledge enthusiastically, teaching me about the realities of farming. Instead of getting irritated by my curiosity, he encourages me to ask more questions whenever there’s a lull in our conversation. Besides any noise that we make, the forest surrounding us amplifies only the calls, whistles, and songs of birds. Every once in a while, farmers on their bicycles pass us, greeting on their way by. Their run-down, single-speed vehicles complain loudly as they bounce along the rough trail.

We finally reach our destination, a massive plot of land, surrounded by a tree-line that creates a great sense of isolation. On one side of the trail, there’s a hut built entirely of straw. We unload most of the bull-cart into the hut, and Muhammed starts a fire whose smoke signals our arrival.

Our morning is uneventful by the standards of everyone but myself. With little to no training, I’m handed control of the bull-drawn plough. Issah has a special connection with the bulls, so he walks beside me to make sure they behave. I focus on travelling along a straight path as I plough my first line across the field. Instead, my path resembles that of a drunkard making his way home at closing time. After a few passes, my lines gradually straighten. Although the bulls do much of the work in dragging the heavy plough through the soil, controlling the plough proves to be more tiring than expected. The rains have not been falling, so the solid ground resists the plough’s every move. Underground rocks and tree roots add to the resistance. My arms fatigue from forcing the plough to keep to its course, and my legs feel the effects of walking for several hours on end through deep soil.

I think the plough suits me...Issah's examining an interesting insect

At noon, the farm work becomes a family affair. Muhammed’s wife, Safiratu, arrives on foot along with his daughter, Zulfawu. Abudu’s wife and child also join us. The wives are both carrying basins on their heads containing lunch. They get to work right away, wasting little time. With the tasks distributed amongst many, farming several acres of land manually becomes less daunting. Muhammed, Issah, and I plough and ridge the soil; Abudu weeds the ridged soil and creates equally spaced holes for the seeds; the wives then sow cotton at an alarming rate.

Abudu with a winning pose

The wives taking a well deserved break

The kids vowed not to smile for the camera, but I made sure that they did

This made for a good laugh (a few seconds after the photo was taken, I spilled half the contents of the basin)

The bulls start to get sluggish, in need of water and nourishment. We release them from their harness to allow them to drink and graze. Muhammed, Issah, and I take the opportunity to do the same. We enjoy a delicious meal of Banku with groundnut soup. The Banku is starchy and flavourful (with time, I’ve learned to appreciate the taste of the fermented corn flour used in making it), and the soup is full of garlic and spice. Banku is served in balls that are jokingly called sleeping pills…they’re dense, served hot, and fermented, all of which induce drowsiness. Luckily, part of Muhammed’s routine is a post-lunch nap in the hut that serves three main purposes: digesting lunch, avoiding the intense mid-day heat, and restoring energy for the afternoon work.

As we step inside the hut, the difference in temperature is pleasantly striking. I suddenly feel exhausted, hot, and dehydrated. I take a few gulps of water from a rusty tin, disregarding the particles that I see inside. I’m feeling severely parched, and satisfying my thirst is my main concern. I then discover that, due to a slight miscommunication, I now have water from a nearby stream in my stomach (rather than the clean water that we carried from the village). The thought of parasites and worms crosses my mind, but I’m distracted by the satisfaction of feeling hydrated.

Muhammed lays an old coat on the ground to serve as a blanket. The inside of the hut is a perfect place for some rest, except for the fact that it’s teeming with insects, including potentially malarial mosquitoes. I expect to wake-up with many types of bites covering my body, but it’s worth the risk. As I lie down, I feel compelled to take one last look behind me, for one reason or another. I’m becoming more and more convinced that humans have more than five senses…seated upon the coat, perfectly in-line with my spine, there’s a scorpion the size of my palm, tail raised and ready to do some damage. I feel somewhat alarmed, but more annoyed that this creature is interfering with my rest. We manage to kill it with a rock. Muhammed explains that a scorpion once stung him, and it was potentially the most painful three days of his life. We take the precaution of replacing the coat with an empty corn sack, and hope for the best. It takes me some time to fall asleep, my imagination running wild, but I wake up an hour later feeling refreshed.

Once the field is fully ploughed, I spend some time sowing seeds. The seeds are light and easily carried away by the wind. To avoid this problem, the women with whom I’m sowing bend down at the waist so that they place (rather than throw) the seeds in the seed-holes. I try to do the same, but it’s not long before my lower back protests. I experiment with my sowing method, and I manage to make do, although not nearly as fast as those around me.

To prepare the next field for ridging, Muhammed explains that we’ll use the hand-held hoes to remove small trees, shrubs, and weeds. I start with no instruction, hacking at the roots of any plant in sight. Muhammed points out that my hoe-swinging technique is questionable since there’s a high likelihood that the blade will shatter my shin. I take his advice, make some corrections, and continue. While we work, Muhammed teaches me about the plants that we’re uprooting, most of which are unfamiliar to me. It turns into a fascinating lesson in traditional medicine, including taste-testing and smelling various types of tree bark, leaves, and roots. Some of the tastes and smells closely resemble those of common, store-bought drugs.

Muhammed putting a hand-made hoe to good use

As the sun begins to set, we decide to return to the village. I feel like I’ve worked-out every muscle in my body, but the fatigue is satisfying. We reload the bull-cart with objects and people as if we’re assembling a jigsaw puzzle, and make our way back. The cart seems to hit every pothole, rut, and boulder along the path, making the ride fairly uncomfortable. Nevertheless, I’m overcome by a sense of calm and contentment…maybe it’s the beautiful simplicity of the day, challenging but very different from my life in Canada…the kindness of the people surrounding me …the magnificent sunset, a perfect finale to a memorable day.

A beautiful day

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

I Think That Jad Guy Was Abducted by Aliens...

Hello everyone…I know it’s been some time since I’ve been in touch with most of you. In case you've stumbled upon this Blog and you have no idea who I am, I'll do a quick intro. My name is Jad, and I'm an engineering student at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. This summer, I’m in Ghana, West Africa on a placement with Engineers without Borders (EWB). EWB is an international development organisation that promotes poverty alleviation through access to appropriate technologies. Most members get involved with EWB through chapters at universities across the country (like the one at UBC,, or as part of professional chapters for those in the workforce. The organisation’s name may suggest that their work is technical in nature, but that’s not necessarily the case (in fact, membership is not exclusive to people in technical fields). Although some of EWB’s overseas projects have technical elements, many of them focus on working with people. I could say more about EWB, but I lot of the information is available at

A bit of a disclaimer: I wanted to start-off the Blog by describing the work aspect of my placement, something that can seem kinda dry when out of context. If you find this post boring, it's not necessarily representative of future posts.

I’ve been partnered with an organisation called Rural Enterprises Project (REP). REP ( aims to reduce poverty and improve living conditions in rural areas primarily through small businesses, often referred to as Micro and Small Enterprises (MSE). Explaining REP is tricky because there are many stakeholders involved, but I’ll try my best to share only the important details. To do that, I have to start with how the country’s organised geographically. Ghana is divided into regions (10 of them), and the regions are composed of districts (138 in total), and the districts are composed of various towns and villages. A Canadian equivalent may be Ontario (region), Greater Toronto Area (district), and Scarborough ('town').

REP has offices at the national, zonal (a zone is a clump of regions), and district levels. Management of the project happens at the national and zonal offices. Project implementation happens at the district level (by project implementation, I mean interacting directly with the people who are called 'clients' of REP). Ideally, these clients are female ‘rural poor’…women living in poverty in rural communities. I’ll explain the focus on women later in this post. I’m working at the district level (in Sissala East District), and I’m living in a town called Tumu (the location of Tumu is shown in the picture below).

So, what types of things does REP do in the districts? Well, there are 4 main categories…I’ll summarise them in a list (a fair bit of detail has been left out):

1) Business Development Services (BDS): This category is best discussed in three sub-categories.

  • Skills Training (education in a new trade/skill): the first step is visiting villages in the district to inform them of the services offered by REP. Once a village has expressed interest, the second step is to find out what they consider to be their assets and needs, and then to identify their interest in a new trade/skill. The third step is organising training in the selected trade/skill, facilitated by an expert in the trade/skill. By the end of the training, the participants have the knowledge to produce a new product (e.g. soap, tie and die clothing, and beads for jewellery, to mention a few), or to deliver a new service.
  • Business Counselling (advice on business related challenges): usually, a client comes into the office for one-on-one discussion. Check out a picture of the office (also known as the Business Advisory Centre, or BAC) below.
  • Management Training (education in management of a business): training in records keeping, training in customer care etc.

2) Rural Financial Services (support for business start-up and expansion through financial resources and awareness): access to credit/small loans with reduced interest rates based on some criteria, training in banking culture, training in credit management etc.

3) Soft Skills in Business (focus on the people side of business): training in group dynamics, training in leadership skills etc.

4) Support to Apprentices (support that is specific to those educated through apprenticeship): Access to a fund for newly graduated apprentices; help in acquiring tools and equipment to get started etc.

I’ll wrap-up with a summary of the intended benefits of REP’s services:

1) Employment: Generating additional income, diversifying sources of income through non-farming activities that help reduce vulnerability to low-yielding harvests etc.

2) Environmental Management: Relieving pressure on the land and forests (e.g. reduced deforestation) etc.

3) Economic Empowerment: Acquiring new skills, receiving small loans etc.

4) Social Impact: Improving the income of rural women to increase expenditure on family education and health etc.

5) Policy Goals: Encouraging policy that supports MSEs etc.

One of the posts that I have planned in the near future will demonstrate some of the services in practice, using photos and stories . For now though, the internet cafĂ© is about to close…more to come soon.