Hoes & Weed(s): En perspective…

“Ooooo my hoe’s real’ dirty, what about yours?” says the young man to the closest boy.
“Oh yeah, real dirty!   Yo just pass me your hoe, I’ll bang her with mine and it should be better.” responds the boy, as if this was a normal activity, while trying to catch his breath.
The young man passes the hoe, sighs ,stares off into the distance, and shares his new insight with the closest boy, “Man ok, but, I’m starting to feel light-headed… but we still have all’ this weed to go through.”
“Yeah, I know… soooooooo muuuuuuuuuch weeeeeeeeeed!” knowingly answers the boy.     

It’s easy to have misconceptions about agriculture.  Right?

If young Dagbani boys would speak like gangsters, this is exactly the conversation I would’ve had this weekend, on many, many occasions.  We weeded a field of peanuts and corn for over 10 hours.  It was hard, repetitive work.  It was rewarding to see the work we had done, the ache in my muscles felt good, but I’m happy to be at the Minstry of Food and Agriculture office today writing blog posts, planning randomized testing of a communication tool, and designing workshops instead of weeding for the nth consecutive day.  It’s much more stimulating.  Yup, it’s easy to have misconceptions about agriculture from an outsider’s perspective.   Personally, I’ve been guilty of this before.

One of my fellow workers, weeding with energy!

“I hate exams.  I hate, I hate, I hate exams.  Why do we even need to go through this?” says the same young man to his friend.
“I don’t know man, we really should just get a small farm, you know?” dreamily answers his friend.
“Yeah, we totally should.  We would spend time outside, breath fresh air, and it certainly wouldn’t be this stressful!  Having a farm would be amazing!” naïvely answers the young man.

It’s easy to romanticize working with the earth.  Small-scale rural farming is incredibly rewarding, but it’s also a lot of hard, repetitive work.  From a comfortable desk in a stimulating university setting, it’s easy to see past the incredible opportunities we have to follow our passions, be it agriculture or something else, here in Canada.  Many people in Ghana dream of being able to pursue secondary or tertiary education.   And many adults have never even had the chance to go to school at all.

This weekend I went farming with my landlord and his children.  Midday, we took a break to eat a mixture of corn, soybeans, and flour to give us energy for the rest of the day.  Before going back to work, my landlord takes out a shiny aluminum pack from his pocket and proceeds to swallow a few pills.  Since we can’t really communicate verbally, he proceeds to tell me “Chinese” while pointing at the pills, and then holding his back.  As a generous Ghanaian, he then offers them to me so that I can take some too.  I politely decline.

Kids joining us to eat at the farm, soon they'll be weeding too!

In the field, there’s no worker’s compensation.  Your social insurance is your family, but when you have over twenty young children, working has to seem like the best option.  Instead of worker’s compensation, you have small, white Chinese pills and you have your hard-work ethic.  Farming is hard, and the repetition leads to injuries.

Nothing beats sitting on a wooden structure under a straw roof after a hard day at the farm.   Simply sitting under a blanket of beautiful stars with other men who have done the same work as you with a filled stomach thanks to a shared collective meal, well, that’s powerful.

Foreign development organizations and other institutions seem to be focused on changing Ghana.  It’s true that more freedom must be given to people.  It’s true that it’s important to provide basic necessities like potable water.  It’s true.  It’s also true though that this starts by changing things like agricultural subsidies or foreign aid policies at home, so that my hard working landlord can have a fair price for his maize on a so-called free trade global market.

There's nothin' more beautiful than a weeded field...!

I think that true worldwide development will only come when we can incorporate the best from Ghana to Canada as much as we try to “Canadify” Ghana.  If every Canadian and other so called “privileged” individual ate from the same bowl of maize paste, dipped into collectively shared bowls of vegetable soup, power dynamics would be set up so that my landlord could have a fair profit for his maize.  Together, we would be powerful.  It would be amazing.


Manquer ses proches… c’est loin d’être facile!

In the last few weeks, I’ve been travelling a lot around the Northern Region of Ghana.  I’ve met a lot of amazing Ghanaians and spent some time with wicked fellow EWB volunteers.  I also left all of these people and I miss them.  This has reminded me that soon I’ll be leaving Ghana and going back home for real.  The reaction?  Some homesickness and being excited to see everyone back home combined with a jumble of other emotions.  Why am I posting this here?  To take full advantage of the title of this blog.  Yams and more importantly, scribbles. 

I’m feeling much better now, but missing loved ones is definitely part of working overseas!  

C’est proche de la fin et je suis loin de mes proches.  Aujourd’hui ma blonde se promène en avion, en direction de la maison.  Elle revient en conquérante de l’Allemagne où elle a apprit à dompter cette langue gutturale, qui est pour elle familiale.  À travers des messages SMS je suis son voyage mais je suis stationnaire, pris au sol, solitaire.

Je suis au bureau, mon ordi est un bourreau qui me fait écrire des articles de blog, des documents de stratégie et il m’envoit aussi sur des tangentes Facebook.  It’s a picture of someone at home, jeez… I just have to look!  Je clique sur des photos de ma sœur, qui me mettent de bonne humeur et de ma blonde, mon petit cœur.

Il faut dire que je suis un peu jaloux.
Il faut dire que j’aimerais être saoul.

J’aimerais me saouler de sourires familiers, de regards déjà vue, de conversations continuées et de maintes poignées de main, des caresses j’en veux pleins.

Je veux voir mes grands-parents, ma chère maman, ma petite sœur – qui à presque la permission officielle du gouvernement de conduire, elle vieillie je dois l’écrire!, mon Oncle Marc, et Ali la demoiselle qui a laissé sur mon cœur une marque.  Je veux voir des amis du secondaire, c’est un besoin élémentaire.

À quatre heures dans l’avenir de Sudbury.  Je suis ici à vider mon cœur, à taper.

Toujours en route... on fait son petit boutte.

Il faut dire que je vis une expérience incroyable, surréelle.  Que j’apprends énormément, que la vie est belle.  Que je me sens stimuler, que je bâtis des amitiés (au quatre coin du pays, que je dois parfois quitter), que j’ai l’opportunité de voyager, de créer, de rêver, de pensées et de réfléchir (et parfois j’apprends même à fléchir, réflexions qui me ressemblent, qui s’assemblent comme mon ami l’Assembly Man, et qui me changent).

Il me reste seulement un mois au Ghana.  Then I’m Ghana be gone from Ghana (du moins pour les prochains quelques temps).  I don’t want to go.  Je veux rentrez à la maison, mais on doit toujours quitter une certaine maison pour en rejoindre une autre…

Bientôt, je serai proche de mes proches et loin des gens auquel à chaque jour je deviens plus proche. Bientôt je retourne à la maison.

J’approche de la fin mais je savoure chaque moment restant comme un enfant gourmand, sans penser aux conséquences du gâteau sur la balance.

En étant proche du monde, le monde devient la maison…

À bientôt!


Crédit et crédibilité

Farmers should be able to farm.  That’s obvious.

This is not as simple as it looks though.  Many small-scale farmers in Northern Ghana do not have the capital to buy all of the necessary inputs, like renting a tractor for ploughing or buying seeds, to start farming when the rainy season comes. Money from last year’s harvest is usually used up by that time, to manage during the dry season.

Farmers don’t have enough economic freedom.  That’s obvious.

Hence, the government of Ghana has decided to start a project called Block Farming Program  in 2009.  The concept is simple: the government provides all of the necessary inputs to farmer groups to start farming and then collects payments in-kind at harvest time to cover the costs of the given inputs. In theory, this should fix the credit problem, be sustainable, and enable farmers to farm.

Mr. Abanga (green pants), a skilled Extension Agent working with farmers.

Theory doesn’t always translate well into practice.  That should’ve been obvious.

Turns out that corruption, late inputs, poor information flows, and lack of staff and staff capacity are all problems affecting the project negatively.  Every year.  This results in poor repayment rates, for example only about 45% of costs were recovered last year in my district, and hence directly threatens the sustainability of the program.  Unfortunately, my district is not an anomaly, but rather the norm.

Just yesterday, my landlord in Komoayili, who is also a tractor owner, came to the district office in Karaga to get paid for the ploughing he did for various Block Farm plots.  But the money was not there.  He wasted a full day under a tree and didn’t get paid, according to a pre-agreed deal.

A few bags of seeds left... but no money.

Last night, I had a conversation with my landlord, via a teacher who translated, initiated when he asked me about the money.  By chatting more, I realized the extent of the issue.  Farmers hire him to plough fields with credit from the Block Farm project.  My landlord then buys fuel on credit to be able to do the work.  He buys this fuel from businessmen who are also selling fuel on credit from people in Tamale, who are probably selling on credit from Accra, the capital city.

Yesterday when I sat at the office, it wasn’t just my landlord sitting under that tree.  More than twenty people and their families were actually sitting under different trees, roofs, or the hot burning sun waiting for that payment.

That’s big, and it’s not good for business.  Networks of informal relationships hold people together in Ghana.  If the money doesn’t come, credibility will be lost.  Instead of strengthening markets and lifting people out of poverty, the Block Farming Program runs the risk of deteriorate the long-term business environment.  Instead of fixing the credit problem, it’s eroding trust.

You see these people? These are our farmers.

Farmers are real people.  That’s obvious.

When big projects are dreamt up though, this seems to be easily forgotten.  The magic and big plans of projects with budgets of seven-digit numbers tend to make us lose the story of individual people…

La liberté de voyager.

All my belongings fit nicely in one big, red backpack.

Over the last two weeks and a half, I have had the opportunity to take full advantage of this fun fact.  I’ve been to Mole national park to connect with fellow Engineers Without Borders (EWB) Junior Fellows, see elephants, eat good food and talk in rants, and brainstorm on further ideas for our placements.  Then I went to Tamale, the metropolitan of the Northern Region, to attend an in-Country meeting with all of the EWB staff working in West Africa.  We talked strategy, passion and poetry, agriculture and our collective future, we talked about values, the news, and on Canada Day/ Ghana Republic Day I saw a few rap crews (possibly influencing the above rhymes…).   I also spent a week in the Upper East region of Ghana to be exposed to different realities and assess the impact of a program that EWB delivered to a few farmer groups in the community two years ago.  I went back to my home in Komoayili, spent a few days in my district in Karaga, and then came back to Tamale to help facilitate a leadership session for District Directors of Agriculture, well educated and travelled, influential, and impressive guys.  It’s been a whirlwind of emotions and both my heart and camera are loaded with beautiful memories.

Indeed, my big, red backpack has proven to be a good investment.

Some of my fellow EWB staff. Good friends, amazing people.

I’ve been welcomed in the home of very special and friendly people for whom I have immense respect.  I’m gaining confidence walking in crowded Ghanaian markets and in mostly empty millet fields.   I’ve had conversations about love and living a meaningful life under a canopy of stars completely free of any trace of light pollution.

I’ve seen how alcoholism can cause problems in families, anywhere.  I’ve realized that development is a complicated process with fuzzy end goals.  I’ve talked about hunger with farmers who faced this ugly bitch before, I’ve talked about the lack of rain, tractors and employment, and how electricity cables had been set up in a community eight years ago, but that the houses beside electric poles had not been yet electrified.

Electric lines, wired houses, political promises, and a lack of results.... maybe next election?

Travelling has expanded the ways I view the world.  It has helped me gain a better picture of Ghana, meet thought-provoking people, and spend some time reflecting on crowded and sweaty bus rides.

Going back to my community in Karaga, I’ve had the opportunity to bring a few simple gifts and share my adventures.  By naming the cities and communities I had visited combined with elaborate hand gestures and most importantly the help of young students who know some English, I was able to explain the amount of travelling I had done in the last few weeks.  That night, I sat again on the now familiar wooden, roofed platform with the other men of Komoayili.   A teacher at the primary school asked me to see pictures of my adventures.  I took out my laptop, and showcased the huge dose of privilege I have, simply due to the fact that I come from Canada.


My young friend Sylvester, showing me a beautiful view of Dua, my community in the Upper East.

I was showing snapshots of another region to people who had never had the opportunity to travel outside of the closest neighbouring cities.  For most of the people crowding around my laptop, it was the first time that they saw the rocky landscape of the Upper Eastern Region, only a about 150 kilometres north of where they are established.  I felt deeply humbled by the privilege I’ve had all of my life.  It makes you think, ya know?

I only have about five weeks left in Ghana before returning to Canada. Soon, I will be packing my big, red backpack.  I’ll miss the harvest and won’t be able to see the impact of projects I’m currently initiating.  I won’t see the worst of the dry season and I’ll go back to finish post-secondary education.  This summer, I’ve had the opportunity to travel halfway across the world, work and live with incredible people, and grow immensely.

My Upper East host mother, teaching me new skillzzz!

I can’t say that I truly understand rural livelihoods or my place in the bigger picture of creating a more just world.  I don’t understand how to build vibrant communities where people lend money to each other in times of need in Canada.  I don’t know how to create a system that enables a better, and more fulfilling job market in Ghana.  Rather I only have snapshots of inspiring people, enlightening conversations, moments of laughter, joy, and understanding, and… well cute Ghanaian children.  I have a few nice African shirts, a bit of Dagbani vocabulary, and an ignited passion to create more freedom for people.

I hope that my big, red backpack is big enough to bring all of this home.

Because my friends, we’ve got work to do.

J’ai entrevu en entrevues…

Hey everyone!  Here in Ghana I’m at the mid-placement retreat of Engineers Without Borders, to reconnect with all the Junior Fellows and some African Program Staff and plan the second half of my placement. It seemed appropriate to post this piece that I had in my drafts for a while, to talk about work and have an excuse to wish you Happy Canada Day and that I saw an elephant at Mole National Park yesterday (pictures to come!)!  Thanks for reading!

The wind is loud in my ears and is further amplified by my big, black helmet.   I’m hanging on to the back of a motto speeding on a red, rocky dirt road and it’s early in the morning.  The scenery is beautiful and I see a few early rising farmers already working in their fields.

“That’s my farmer!” proudly yells the Agricultural Extension Officer (AEA), Mr Emmanuel, for the hundredth time.  I barely hear him, but I’ve figured out what he’s been saying.  I like this guy.

I spent every morning of last week doing interviews with different AEAs to better understand the process which leads to farmers adopting new technologies.  I stayed in Karaga and lived in officer quarters, kneeled and greeted chiefs, walked around hand in hand with grown men, asked many questions, and received my fair share of guinea fowl eggs as presents from the various communities.  I learned a lot about behaviour changes of farmers, the topic I was researching and even more about the work and challenges of the extension staff, simply by immersing myself in their daily lives.

Greeting some swell farmers, before an interview!

The office where I work is full of inefficiencies.  This is supposedly common of many offices of the Ministry of Food and Agriculture, at least in Northern Ghana.   Computers, provided by NGOs, are few and people trained to use them competently are even fewer.  Information flow from the national level, where most decisions are made, is not clear.  AEAs are understaffed, under-resourced, and undervalued.   This leads to sub-par performance in certain cases.

The office where I work is full of passionate people.  This also appears to be a common thread across offices.  Agricultural Extension Agents spend some of their own money to buy fuel to do field visits, live far from their families and only see them on weekends, and always talk about how to improve the Ministry, farming, and the livelihood of their beloved farmers.  They do great work and when you visit the communities under their responsibilities, often farther than an hour motto ride from their living quarters, you see the impact that they are having directly on the ground.  They contribute directly to real development.  They are currently distributing seeds on a Sunday, here at the office. These people are changing rural Ghana.  Fo’ real.

Documenting farmer visit, on the way back from interviews!

Millions and millions of dollars are spent every year in agriculture in Northern Ghana.  Foreign and local staff is trained to give workshops on chemical application, post-harvest technologies, bookkeeping (practiced often taught to illiterate farmers… weird and in most cases ineffective),  or any other topic that is the current trendy in the donor country.  AEAs are sometimes enlisted to help, further diverting their resources from their own work, and other times not even informed of the interventions, making it nearly impossible for them to keep track of the future needs of their communities.

The money exists and trained, passionate Ghanaian government workers are also already present in the field.  I don’t have millions of dollars, a position as a distinguished policy analyst in a rich Western country, or years of field experience.  I don’t have a C.V. full of development experience, and heck I’m studying engineering not even development.  I can clearly see a possible solution to at least part of this problem though.  Why not invest in long-term change-agents who made a life-long commitment to changing farmers’ lives for the better?

These are my people, my passionate people!

In Canada, we have a state-funded, free education system up to the secondary level and government subsidies for post-secondary institutions.  This is a great accomplishment, and even though some improvements could always be made, this is directly contributing to the knowledge economy of our country.   Do we have private foreign projects, passing as government approved curriculum, teaching our children basket-weaving, witchcraft, or hen raising during school hours or do we have a well-funded, independent education system?  That’s what I thought.