À travers des yeux d’enfant… [Session #1]

In Komoyaili, in my small community, there are ten students from the University of Development Studies. These students are conducting a research project. They will be spending two months in my rural community this summer, and another two next year. It’s nice to spend time with them and hear their perspective on the world. They are well-educated, speak fluent English, and have many opinions.
In Komoyaili there are many village children. Most, but not all, of these children go to the local primary school. They are able to learn when the teachers attend. A portion of them will go to junior high school, some will make it to senior high school, and a lucky selected few will be able to have access to post-secondary education. Some might even do a research project in a community like Komoayili. These children are curious, resourceful, and love-learning. Especially if it’s learning about how to use a slick, shiny, and outlandish camera…

Look at this wonderful kid, he's just done eating!

The University of Development Studies student shared a very interesting part of their research with me. More than 60% of the population in Komoayili is 17 years old or younger. As comparison, in Canada only 24% of the population is in the under 20 age group. Think about it. That’s a whole lot of cute, big-eyed children.
Life is hard in rural Ghana. Life is filled with physical labour, poor sanitation, and food lacking adequate nutrients. People laugh a lot in rural Ghana. People smile when they fall of their bicycles, get intercepted by a goat, or have been washing laundry by hand for three hours.
I think there might be a connection between the kids and the attitude.

Isn't that a wicked smile?

Hence, every Monday I’ll upload a few pictures of a child taken by another child over the weekend! Might as well share a pretty great source of happiness with you, and showcase the talent of these young photographers!
Bon début de semaine!

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C’est la saison des semences…

I woke up one morning to a new sound in the village. I was not woken up by a prideful rooster singing at full lung capacity. I wasn’t hearing the famous mix of laughing and crying that is constantly produced by the mass of children in the community. Nope, I was awoken by a constant, soft, and relaxing sound. I was awoken by rain.

The rain had finally come. Farmers could start planting. The few tractors in Komoayili could be started again. Ploughing. Sowing. Weeding. Lunch at the farm. Hoes on the shoulder. Men on bicycles, wearing hats to protect themselves against the harsh Ghanaian sun. Everyone yelling Na pooné? (how is the farm?), to which people invariably answer Naaa! (fine!). Life had taken a new turn, a new twist. The rain had come.

On the way to the farm!

This gave me an opportunity. Since it was the weekend, after convincing my new friends that I was strong enough to work the land, I was able to go to the farm. There I was able to witness firsthand the elusive technology adoption process that I will be trying to understand, and possibly even influence, over the next three months in my small corner of Northern Ghana.

On Saturday I was able to witness broadcasting of groundnuts seeds. Broadcasting consists of taking handful of seeds and throwing them in various directions while walking the full area of the field. Then, the field is ploughed by a tractor to sow the fields into the ground. It’s fast, it’s satisfying, and you get a big farm. You also waste a lot of seeds since most of them won’t germinate from the planting at uneven depths and the damage from the tractor, and the seeds that aren’t planted deep enough suffer from the attacks of various animals and pests.

We planted many bowls of seeds like this!

On Sunday I row planted groundnut seeds. The process is simple. The head farmer walks around with a stick and makes holes at constant spacing and depth in his field along straight lines. Then children, myself, and the occasional adult follows and drops a seed in a hole, kicks soil on top of it with bare feet, and repeat. Repeat, repeat, repeat. For many hours. It’s hard work and you feel like you’ve planted less seeds then the farmer who is broadcasting. You also use less seeds, have an easier field to maintain for the rest of the season which will need less chemical inputs since they can be applied appropriately on rows, you plant more densely, and more seeds will germinate.

Why do farmers still use broadcasting you ask? I don’t know, why do people eat junk food, start school projects at the last minute, or don’t exercise and wait to get sick in Canada?

Back at the office and armed with my new farming experience, I still asked the question to my coworkers. I had very meaningful talks with intelligent, articulate, and passionate Agricultural Extension Agents.

Une photo de moi, à la requête de ma chère maman!

Some said that farmers don’t see their farming activities as a business. Hence, it’s very difficult for them to do a cost-benefit analysis and analyze the final profit of their farm. Even if the bigger broadcasted farm has more yields the profit is much lower. Others said that farmers prefer to have a bigger farm instead of reducing the land size since it’s more satisfying and brings more social status. Finally some mentioned that with appropriate technology like tractors to sow or money to hire more labour, everyone would row plant. All mentioned that educating and training illiterate farmers on these issues is a challenge and that they were understaffed.

I had a long conversation with Mr. Abanga, an Extension Agent, about tech adoption, Ghana, my purpose, and life in general. Pointing at the primary school in the distance, he mentioned that technology adoption should start at that level, to educate the next generation of Ghanaians. The idea, the seed, the dream to always learn more and doing things better should be sowed in these young minds. I also realized that I’m only in Ghana for a very short time. I’ll be gone before the groundnuts I planted will be harvested. I’m not here forever. Earlier in the week I was a little frustrated that I wouldn’t be able to drastically change the Ministry of Food and Agriculture in my short stay. I won’t be able to make the myriad of NGO projects always distracting the staff more efficient and have a more holistic approach. But I will plant seeds. I will plant seeds of change, ideas, and I will row-plant them to give them the best opportunity to germinate.

And finally... my small friends at the farm!

Many ideas have been planted in my mind from very brilliant, caring, and passionate Ghanaians at work and in my community Komoyaili who have very generously invested in me. I’ll try my best to take care of these precious gifts and make them create the most beautiful garden possible in Canada. I guess a farming season can last a lifetime….

L’étrange étranger est ici pour rester.

Komoayili, Karaga District, Northern Region, Ghana

The sun is setting and the sound of a motto disturbs the impromptu football game played by children on the road. Then, the silhouette of a motto appears and the driver can be seen. It is Mr. Abdulai, a well-known and respected man from Karaga with an unknown passenger. Upon further observation this unknown passenger is… a WHITE DUDE wearing a ridiculously big black shiny helmet?

WELCOMING VILLAGER: Anulla (how is the night? I hope it is fine, in Dagbani)

WHITE DUDE: Naaah (It is fine, in Dagbani)

WELCOMING VILLAGER: Akbiera (How is your sleeping place?, in Dagbani)

WHITE DUDE: Gom bièné (My sleeping place is good, P.S. my Dagbani is simply written phonetically… I don’t think that they use French accents.)

WELCOMING VILLAGER: Some more advanced Dagbani that I don’t understand (in Dagbani, of course)

WHITE DUDE: Naah?

The WELCOMING VILLAGER laughs joyfully with his surrounding friends and shakes the WHITE DUDE’s hand. The WHITE DUDE is also laughing, but appears moderately confused.

Welcome to my new life my friend, welcome. Or as we say in Northern Ghana, a marraba, to which you should answer, ngugna.

A week ago, a Monday afternoon, I moved to Komoayili. In Accra and Tamale, l realized that Ghana was different than Canada. Taxis need to avoid many farm animals on the highway, people greet each other profusely, the sun is warm, and as mentioned before… the mangoes are delicious! But, living in the guest house and then at Ben and Erin’s place (two African Program Staff), I did not feel any “culture-shock”, je n’étais pas vraiment dépaysé.

The view, as you approach the village on a motto...

Cependant, en arrivant à Komoayili, tout ça a changé. Je ne peux plus communiquer adéquatement avec les gens qui m’entourent. I cannot communicate effectively with people around me… and I make babies cry. Yup, you’ve read right, I’m so strange that I make little babies cry. (Update: I’ve figured out a way to establish common ground with these young ones. It is called the “exploding fist handshake”. Basically your traditional “pound it” with an added twist. You open your hand at the end and make the sound pewwwwwww. Winner. Every-single-time.)

See? Told you we were friends!

Even though a Martian might fit in better than me, people are really nice and I’m making friends. The welcoming (and English-speaking!) Assembly Man gave me a few rides to town on his motto before Abanga, a great co-worker gave me his bicycle for the summer. Swaélé, the Assembly Man’s son (and many other amazing village children) have been teaching me some Dgabani words that I’ve diligently been written in my notebook and reviewing every morning. Some village men have promised to bring me to the farm on Saturday. I’ve spent hours simply sitting outside with the other men under a beautiful star canopy. I’ve also showed them pictures of a dairy farm in Earlton, my family, and we’ve surfed Facebook together so that they could see more of my life.

Part of my big host family, and a glare from the hot Ghanaian sun!

Life is good. Life is slow, since we are waiting for the rain to start planting*, but life is good.

Thanks for reading and I’ll try to write more soon!

Marc-André

*Second Edit (I wish I could’ve posted this earlier, but I was waiting to have a few pictures and then internet!): Since I wrote this last Tuesday, it has started raining in Komoayili, therefore I had the chance to plant groundnuts on Saturday AND Sunday!

Des mangues, des ananas, la malaria et un Rasta!

What’s the common thread between these four things?  Well I had a direct interaction with all of them during my last week in Tamale!

Let’s start with mangoes and pineapples. 

These two fruits are del-iiiii-cious in Ghana!  Imagine this. You are walking on the side of a busy street.  Motos and taxis are whirling by, the red dirt from the ground is sticking to your legs, you are saying good afternoon (or Antarre, pronounced Ant, like the bug – Array, like the data structure) to people everywhere, and the sun is hot.  Then you walk a few steps and there are about five women selling delicious mangoes and pineapples.  Trust me, it rocks.

Don't they look great?

Why are there five women selling the same pineapples and mangoes at the same spot you ask?  I had the same question.  I talked about this with Umair, the other JF from Waterloo, and we realized that the answer might simply be, why not?  Even though they are all competing for the same customers, it does not matter if there are at the same spot or not.  The truth is, if I had continued another few steps, I would have probably met another stand with four or five women selling more delicious fruits.  This again rocks for me, since the fruits (as mentioned before) are delicious, but plainly shows how oversaturated the informal sector is here.  From my limited experience, the market is full of people who want to sell the same things, and probably not enough people to buy them.  A taxi driver once told Umair that there were three things you could do in Ghana, if you weren’t a farmer: “you can drive a taxi for someone, sell small things at the market, or if you’re lucky, work in government or for an NGO”.

Next, we can chat about malaria.

Turns out I’m somewhat of a trailblazer.  This summer, I’m officially the first JF to test positive for malaria!  There’s nothing to worry about though.  I’ve already finished a three-day medication treatment, continued taking my anti-malarial medication, and had access to great food, care, and a place to rest at Ben and Erin’s house, two Engineers Without Borders African Program Staff in Ghana.  I felt better in a few days and now I’m 100% in shape!  It basically just felt like a cold, with muscle pain, puking, stomach aches and the rest.  More annoying than painful, ya know?  Also, probably due to my anti-malarial medication, I only had one ‘+’ on a scale of one to three ‘+’ for the strength of malaria.

Bustling Tamale, street view

If I was able to feel better from malaria in a couple of days due to a test and a treatment that cost 10 Ghana Cedis in total (less than 7 C$ each), why do thousands of people die of malaria in Ghana each year?  I don’t know.  It sucks and I don’t know.  I really don’t know, but it might have something to do with everyone selling mangoes and pineapples at the market…

Finally, let’s talk about my friend the Rasta!

I have the worst sense of orientation.  Ask my friends.  Ask my family.  Actually, ask anyone who’s ever been in a car with me.  I’ve lived in Sudbury, a pretty small Northern Ontario town for about 18 years, and I still use my GPS to find places when I’m back.   So in Tamale, I tend to ask people directions when I’m trying to get somewhere.

When I was looking for the clinic to get my malaria test done, I had all of my bags, since I was going to move from the guesthouse I used to live in when all the JFs were in Tamale for In-Country training before heading off to our placements, to Ben and Erin’s house.  I looked like a tourist.

This ended up being a pretty great opportunity though.  Apparently Umair’s taxi driver was wrong.  There is a fourth thing you can do in Tamale if you speak good English and dress-well.  You can be a Rasta.

These people tend to make friends with (white) tourists, show them around town, act very pleasantly, craft you a story that you want to hear, and then ask for money at the end of the day.  Even if you tell them, politely, that they can leave, they tell you that they’ll stay with you.  Together, we ended up on the roof of a restaurant, writing songs about girls in far-away cities.  When I told him my girlfriend was in Berlin for the summer, he told me about his girlfriend in Holland.  I blame my small malaria fever for my adventure.

Splendid Tamale, from the rooftop

I’m not sure what the conclusion of the story is here other than the fact that Tamale is a city full of dimensions and resourceful, brilliant people.  Even though my friend the Rasta made me feel pretty weird and slightly uncomfortable, his directions were useful, his company pleasant, and his way to make money cunning.  Plus, he probably would have money for anti-malarials…

Why so many posts lately?

Because I finally got internet via a wonderful modem that uses a mobile network called Vodafone. The mobile industry, as it is called here, is pretty intense and my mobile even has two SIM cards to take advantage of the leading rates between two phones of the same provider.  Houses are painted with MTN, Tigo, or Vodafone logos and colors.  I’ll try to snap (here people say snapping a picture or taking a snap, not taking a picture… I will keep this in mind my friends) a picture of one of them tomorrow.

Now I’ll go sleep under my bug net, bonne nuit tout le monde!

Marc-André

Dans le resto, la musique joue fort.

The bus is 7 hours late.

Imagine being in a Greyhound station in Sudbury, Toronto, Ottawa, or Kitchener.  The bus is late.  Very late.  People are  fidgety.  Most are standing in line and nervously glance at their watch.  All the time.   Time passes some more. Some people chat, some are angry, and others read.  Overall though, the mood is not especially happy.

Having spent the last 7 hours waiting for a bus in Accra, direction Tamale (a city about 300 kms or 12 hours from Accra), I have to say that a good way to try to capture my initial reaction to Ghana is to contrast what I felt during these few hours (which, I have to admit, is also equal to about half of the time I’ve spent in Ghana, so my experience is limited) with my past experiences with Greyhound back home.

Superficial Differences:

Greyhound  vs.  TSN  (the bus company in Ghana that will transport us today)

GH: Buses are often a little late
GH:  Baggage cost is based on #
GH: Seats are chosen on a first come, first serve basis
GH: Your name is not on your ticket
TSN: This bus was really, really late
TSN: Baggage cost is based on weight
TSN: Seats are assigned on ticket
TSN: Any name is added to your ticket, but this does not matter (ex. another Junior Fellow, Kaitlynn had a ticket that said Mark)
STC station in Accra - photo cred: Spencer Bain

STC station in Accra - photo cred: Spencer Bain

More importantly though, the reaction of the people was the most interesting to me.  This 7 hours gave me the opportunity to talk to many Ghanaians , who seemed very understanding of the situation.  Even though buses are usually not this late, people where enjoying sitting in the shade, talking to each other, and possibly even enjoying groundnuts boiled in salty water (delicious!) transported by a lady with a platter on her head.  An outdoors shop owner also showed me a few words. When I asked her about which language these where in, she said that “everybody in Ghana understands”. Akwaaba– meaning welcome was the first word she decided to show me.  This genuine welcoming attitude is something that I felt throughout the day in the bus station in Accra.

Beautiful Accra, from the guest house on the first night.

I’m writing this post from a small restaurant that is part of the bus station.  Here I chatted with Kofi the bricklayer with whom I exchanged a few words and a few Ghanaian handshakes (basically your typical traditional Western handshake, with an added twist: fingers are snapped against each other before disengaging contact.  I highly recommend trying this.  A few times during a conversation.  It’s fun.)

Another Junior Fellow, Tania, has just grabbed Spencer and I from the restaurant since our bus is here.  I’ll reread this post on the bus, and then upload it to the blog as soon as I have access to internet. (Note: Which ended up being about a week later…)

À la prochaine!

Marc-André

J’ai la tête dans les nuages…

And I’m over the Atlantic. Thanks to a pretty cool option on my personal mini-tv screen , I can see a mini-map, with a mini-plane that confirms this fact. I can also read that we’re going at about 975 km per hour. We’re going fast.

Even though I haven’t actually spent the last two weeks at Mach 0.8, sitting on my rainbow coloured airplane seat and chewing on a bite size pretzel I realize that time did indeed fly…

First there was shopping for a motorcycle helmet, sunscreen, and bug spray. There was also a lot of reading about Ghana, the Northern Region, and my district Bole. (Edit: When I go to Tamale, I learnt that I was going to a different district, Karaga, instead.)  There were goodbyes to friends and family in Sudbury, and then a ride to Toronto with my sister and my mother. Merci encore pour le tour!

Karaga is in the Northern Region, about two hours North-East of Tamale.

Then I had the opportunity to be in Toronto with all of the other Junior Fellow with Engineers Without Borders that are going to be in Ghana for the summer. It was really nice to get the opportunity to get to know these pretty amazing people. I’d suggest clicking on the links at the bottom of this blog to learn more about what they are posting, it sure is interesting! We had a busy week, acquiring new knowledge about rural livelihoods and farming in Ghana, about health and safety, about coaching, goal-setting, and emotions, and also… about my placement!

A few details:

Partner Organization: Ministry of Food and Agriculture (MoFA)
Employment Period: May 9th  to August 25rd
Main Project: Understanding and Evaluating Technology Adoption of Farmers
Sub- Project: Supporting the District Director of Agriculture in the Implementation of a Change Project

From my understanding, there are offices of the Ministry of Food and Agriculture in every district. Each of these offices provides services to the surrounding farmers, including extension work. This is carried out (by appropriately named) Agricultural Extension Agents (AEA). These people are trained agricultural college graduates who provide expertise to farmers, hence extending services to the field. My main project will be to assess the current barriers to technology adoption of farmers and the relationship between this adoption and the work done by the Ministry of Food and Agriculture.
My actual placement might end up being quite different than my current understanding of it. I’ll be learning more about it later this week during in-country training in Ghana and then I’ll jump right into it!
Thanks for reading, I’ll keep you updated, and comments about what I’m writing about or stories about you would are always appreciated!
À la prochaine mes amis!

Marc-André

The farming boy.

He was a farming boy.  He was the fourth of ten children, and would wake up early in the morning to help milk the cows before school.   He had several rabbits that he would breed, trade, raise, and sell.  With the extra money earned, he was able to buy basic school supplies like pencils and paper.   He was a resourceful boy.  He was a hard-working boy.

One day the boy woke up with a stomach ache.  This persisted and even though he was a tough boy, he was unable to go to school.  The four mile walk was too far, and not worth it.  Even though this set him back, after a season or two, the boy felt better and decided to go back to school.  He continued attending classes until grade 10 and then stopped for good to work on the farm.  He was not able to access post-secondary education, and besides, there was too much work to do.

The boy grew up, married a beautiful woman who used to be in his class, and had two children.  He worked several jobs including farming his own land, baker waking up before the sun, construction worker building several houses, small store owner selling to the local community, and even foreman managing and leading other workers.  His wife was a teacher and both of them worked hard to have the best for their children.

They had one girl and one boy, and they both went to elementary school, then to high school, and both finished university degrees.

The girl, a wonderful woman, had two children.  My sister and I.

This hard-working boy was my grandfather.  This hard-working boy, who is the funny, generous, and loving man that I know, was not born with the countless opportunities that I have today.

But, thanks to the shared perseverance, long-term vision, and hard-work of both my grandparents coupled with changing times, they were able to succeed and offer even more opportunities to their children.  Thanks to their passionate work and the systematic changes happening in their blooming country, Canada, they were able to create an environment where I now have the blessing of being able to pursue whichever dreams I desire.

And I dream to be a systems design engineer.  I dream to solve problems, which matter to me, which matter to us, which matter to the world.  I dream that I will use my skills and my privileges to make a positive difference.

This summer, I’ll be working in Ghana with the Ministry of Food and Agriculture.  More specifically, I’ll be doing research on technology adoption and how that translates to the daily lives of rural farmers in Bole, a small region in North West Ghana.  I’ll be working with resourceful, hard-working Ghanaian farmers, like my grandfather.  I want to contribute to creating an environment that will enable them to have the opportunity to offer the same head-spinning freedoms to their children and grandchildren that I have.

I decided to call this blog yams & scribbles for many reasons.  First, I like the ring to it.  Second, from my research, yams are a staple crop in Ghana.  It is a root vegetable.  Likewise, I will try to explore the root of my ideas, through many scribbles typed-up on this blog this summer. They might not be coherent, they might be in French, English or a mixture of both, they might lack depth, or be too idealistic, but I promise that they will be honest.  I’m looking forward to embarking on this adventure with you.

To finish, I’ll let you go with a quote from Antoine de St-Exupéry given to me by my mother years ago: “Le pire des génocides, c’est des mozarts assassinées”.  It’s about the incredible potential in every individual and the tragedy when it is not made to blossom.  Terre des hommes is well worth a read.

Good night friends et à bientôt,

Marc-André

Friends, thanks for visiting!

Hey you!

Thanks a lot for checking if I’ve finally started blogging for the summer, about my experience as a Junior Fellow in Ghana with Engineers Without Borders.  I agree that it’s taking me a while to get started… but I promise to deliver a full-length post and an organized blog design as soon as I’m done writing exams (and say hi to my family after getting home)!

For now…  good luck with your projects and I’m excited to start chatting with you!

Marc-André