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Up at 6am, at the bus station by 8am, on the bus leaving the station around 1230pm. Normally waiting at a bus station for four and a half hours for the bus to come would be pretty frustrating, annoying and leave me in a bad mood (especially when it leaves over 2 hours behind schedule. But this time I had one of my favourite books to keep me company The Alchemist as well as national newspaper The Daily Graphic.


As I sit back her in Tamale the morning after I arrived at 11pm in the night, thinking back: if all this delaying and waiting and things not going according to schedule, if it didn’t happen then I wouldn’t have been able to have experiences that I did. I’m not just referring to sitting around waiting a bus stop or sitting around waiting on the side of the road when the bus broke down for 2-3 hours, but rather what happened in between.


At the bus station I read some interesting articles: one that was promoting the need to for rights and services to women confined in “witch camps” as well as pushing for the practice to be abolished; one written by the minister of finance arguing that GDP is one aspect of measuring economic growth and should not be the sole mechanism, esp. since GDP can increase without jobs being created and without most people benefitting; one arguing that Western style democracy (referring to the US) is not democratic and should not be blindly adapted in Africa but rather African nations should find their own path to development and develop their own form of democracy.


And in addition to the newspaper, The Alchemist always encourages me to live in the present, treat people with dignity, respect, and love, and pay attention to ‘coincidences’ for they are often significant – in general I’m reminded to keep a positive outlook on life.


Nothing eventful or significant happened while on the bus, I listened to my IPod and slept. When we stopped in Kintampo I bought some fresh huge mangos, avocados, and a pineapple for pretty cheap to share with my friends back in Tamale, and we picked up 3 Norwegian young ladies. Then our bus broke down outside of Kintampo, which turned out to be a good thing since I met and talked with the Norwegians and a German named Daniel. I talked with 2 of the ladies (one named Frida) about what they were doing in Ghana – some exchange at a university for environmental studies and writing a paper on climate change and the adaptability of farmers, unfortunately the program didn’t really include filed work or face time with farmers so they were asking me if I had any insights. They also asked about what I was doing and I then explained.


But what stood out for me was talking about politics. We discussed how Norway isn’t an EU member and it’s a very heated divided issue in politics there, with half the people for and against. I also learned first hand that Norway ‘s economy is driven by oil which one of the ladies expressed wasn’t a good thing. Frida also explained that she was on the list to become a municipal representative for a community, I still don’t understand their political system but it was interesting to here how she supports the socialist type party and the mere fact that a socialist party had support there – I mentioned that back in Canada a socialist party would be condemned like Stalin. So I was thankful for learning about Norway and hearing different perspectives.


The bus was finally fixed and we continued to Tamale. It’s a different dynamic in the city at night, I see young people and wonder if their parents are neglectful like the 2 young boys dancing at the drinking spot in Navrongo late one night. The gang of us white folk set off to find a guest house, but realized this would be difficult since the president is in town – who woulda thought? Luckily the first place we went to had a room for 2 people so Daniel and I stayed there while the 3 Norwegians took a taxi and searched for another place. Daniel is pretty cool, has traveled a lot and is really friendly. I thought to myself, “only in Ghana would you meet someone a matter of hours ago and trust them enough to be sleep in the same room. This would never/rarely happen in Canada.”


While visiting the agric college a few days ago in Kumasi, I was talking with a lecturer EWB has been working with named Ishak and he said “Every challenge or problem is an opportunity”. Thinking back to yesterday I feel thankful that I was able to take advantage of the opportunities instead of indulge in the negativity of the challenges.




Some people have asked me “so what’s an average day like over there?”, and I often reply that it’s difficult to summarize and explain since so many ‘different’ things seem to happen. I’m not sure if this is an average day, maybe it was an abnormal day, but regardless these were the events, sites, thoughts of one of my day’s here in Navrongo.


I awoke sweating profusely as the heat that my zinc roof absorbed throughout the day didn’t leave my room throughout the night. I began to get ready and boiled some water to cook my Quaker oats (bought in town) and add my local unpasteurized honey, along with some chai tea given as gift from back home. I then walked about 100m to the nearby borehole and pumped my bucket full of water in order to wash myself and wash some clothes – I needed to make 3-4 round trips. Since I ride my motorcycle everywhere it was good exercise as the sun was just beginning to appear over the trees (not too hot yet, but enough to get a sunburn if you’re out long enough).


On the way to work, down the road I travel every morning, I saw some smoke at a small road side kiosk that looked like the type pig roasting mud oven (hard to describe, it’s the place where they cook and sell grilled pork). It was a bit early seeing as how most people prepare and sell pork late in the afternoon. As I approached I noticed he wasn’t preparing pig, he was preparing dog.


I debated whether I should post about this or whether I should censor myself. I’ve noticed in the past that many people back home tend to remember the “strange” events or stories I tell more so than my work, people I interacted with, etcetera. So I feel that some detailed explanation is in order to hopefully prevent anyone reading this to walk away thinking that Ghanaians are “savage” dog eaters.


First off, the consumption of dogs is not all that common across the country, especially in most Muslim areas and also in the south. Here in Navrongo dogs are mainly used for watchdogs since they bark at night if someone is approaching, but many people see them as pets too. They are mostly fed human scraps of whatever was left over from dinner. One of the main differences is that they are not treated as pets like in Canada, no one up would let their dog sleep in the same bed or pay for their dog to have its nails clipped and fur trimmed (when I mention these things to people they are shocked and burst out into laughter at times). Some dogs are pretty thin and skittish looking while other are chubby, relatively clean and happy. They name them like Fate (the dog in our compound), Patience and so on. Like back home some are treated better than others.


Some of the main reasons why people sell their dogs are: when a dog isn’t performing well as a night watchdog, or it’s getting old, or they simply need money for basic necessities. Most people won’t eat their family dog, they’ll send it to the market to be sold, and some people are emotionally attached to their dogs and have to get someone else to take the dog away since it would be emotionally distressing to bring your dog to the market.


Personally, I just look at it as a cultural difference; people eat dogs, so what? What’s the difference between eating a dog and a pig? They’re both domesticated animals with emotions, we just don’t dominate and look over pigs as a master or view pigs as loving companions, and pigs are far more intelligent, we just don’t view or treat them as pets or companions. That said, I would be pretty upset if the dog at our compound was sent to the market. Treating animals like humans just isn’t near the top of the priority list here; maybe it is in some developing countries for different reasons (like cows in India maybe?) but not in this area of northern Ghana.


So back on my motorcycle driving to work I passed the ‘chef’ preparing a meal with his machete making his small daily earnings, and then a little bit down the road I saw a sheep tethered inside an old station wagon frame with no interior or windows and literally laughed aloud at the strange site. “It’s going to be one of those days” I thought to myself.


I went to the office and it was an uneventful day at work, I sat in my office on my laptop working on developing questions to ask a farmer group I was to meet with next week. Did I mention it was Saturday? My good friend Kofi who I met in 2009 called me and we were off to find some Kenke for lunch (you can google Kenke). I was proud of myself today for it was the first time since I’ve been in Ghana that I ate a whole fish, head to fin (with the exception of the thick spinal type bones). It wasn’t very big, about the size of my hand, but they deep fry it to crispy perfection so the bones and head are nice and crunchy..mmmmm…..


Since there wasn’t an open table we ended sitting at a table where an old man seemed to be relaxing with a cold beer. I thought about how this would never happen in Canada, can you imagine going to restaurant or bar and having to share a table with a person you didn’t know? I think people would outright refuse and leave the place. Anyways the man was pretty old, but wore a friendly smile and kind eyes upon his face that seemed to be there for years. He wore one a tilly style hat that read “Florida” on it. I immediately thought of my 96 year old grandfather who often wore the same style hat, and went to Florida every winter to play tennis even into his early 90’s. The old man was also having a single drink by himself, which again reminded me of how ‘Gramps’ had his 1 rum and coke every night. I continuously find it amazing at how on the other side of the world across the ocean on a different continent I experience these types’ connections with people.


That was the highlight of my day, but there were a few other notable experiences like chasing a chicken out of my office on the 2nd floor, eating a big fresh ripe pineapple and bundle of small sweet bananas costing me under 2$ in total, sitting outside in the compound watching the little bundle of joy, 5 month old Ajigeway explore life with such curiosity, and then finishing the day with a big bowl of maize TZ and some great Ghanaian reggae beats of Rocky Dawuni.


Come to think of it, this day was anything but average.

I awoke to the sun rising, a cool breeze, chicks chirping all huddled together under their mother’s wings, and the death of an orphan goat that Teacher (my landlord/host father) had been nursing with baby milk solution since its mother died of what was thought to be malnutrition. The goat lost its mother about 3 weeks ago and at first Teacher expected it to die without its mother’s milk, but after a week on its own it was still alive so he decided to start feeding it milk that he bought from town.


Every day I would awake to see this goat (and its sibling) resisting death and surviving against all odds – it gave me a little hope. One thing about living around so many free roaming animals is that you see the beauty of birth and the small young ones playing around innocently, but at the same time you see the harsh realities of nature for death is always around the corner. I still remember how a few months ago I woke up to a dead baby goat in the middle of the compound floor. I asked Teacher about it and he said something like “I have to throw this away like a piece of trash, a living thing” while holding the lifeless animal by its hind leg. To be honest I haven’t seen much compassion or affection for animals here, but I could sense that he was morally troubled by the look on his face and the tone of his voice.


So while death is often present, so too is the breath of life. Walking back into the compound after seeing the orphaned goat’s rigor mortised body, I saw the smiling face of Ajigeway learning to eat porridge as her mother spoon fed her chubby face. By now she’s 6 months old or so, and I just found out that she was born the same day I moved to this compound house. To me she’s the brightest symbol of life I encounter on a regular basis. No matter how I’m feeling or what kind of day I had, Ajigeway’s big wide eyes absorbing all that surrounds her, and her little smile always brighten my day.




It’s pretty common normal for sons and daughters to stay in their parent’s house up to their early 30’s until they finish school, save enough to buy their own house, or rent a place (more common for men as women move to the man’s side of the family when they marry). It’s also common from what I’ve seen and heard to have your elderly parents live in your house, as well as other extended family like cousins, aunts, uncles and their children. Extended family is much more valued and important here than I’ve seen in Canada. Here if you’re my 3rd cousin then we are “from the same house” and I’ll refer to you as my sister or brother. The point I’m making is that because of how family is organized and how the living arrangements are, this small girl Ajigeway is surrounded by a number of people besides her parents who show her daily love and affection – I think this is an area back home where we tend to be underdeveloped.

Sitting at farmer group meeting for 2 hours with little translation, an older man (60+) stood up and was talking in the local language Kasem, I started to think about an old friend of mine who volunteered at an old folks home simply playing cards with them. How I admired my friend for building relationships and bringing some happiness to their lives before they die, while learning from their wealth of knowledge and experience. It made me reflect about how lucky I’ve been to still have my grandmother and grandfather in my life, and the times we’ve spent together.


Later that night I met this guy while waiting for my guinea fowl to be cooked. At first he seemed to just be someone that might have been tipsy who likes to meet and talk with whites (some of this not far off), and although he was Muslim by his name and he identified as one, I suspected he had been boozing because of his glossy looking eyes. He asked me to buy him a guinea fowl which lead to some joking back and forth, then he eventually said something like “you people there live in heaven” (referencing Canada) which I came back with saying not all people, some live and die in poverty which he argued wasn’t true and we jokingly argued about him never being to Canada so how could he know.


Anyways after all the joking his tone changed to a more serious one, and he told me that he laboured all day for 5GHc (about 3-4$). He said, “Look at me. Do I look like I have money?” By the looks of him he didn’t. He also said how he has to pay for his kids school feels, and how he’s paying for his daughter to attend a private school because the public schools aren’t very good – I agreed based on what most Ghanaians in the North say. Under the street light I could see the honesty in his eyes; he continued saying how he doesn’t want his kids to have to live like him, to go through what he went through (little education, a working class labouring job in construction since he mentioned digging with a pick axe). We had been joking the majority of the time and his face still had the remnants of a faded smile. But, by this time he wasn’t trying to get me to buy him anything and I could feel the sincerity in the face to face, no B.S., connection between two people from different worlds going different directions – I was buying a grilled 2 fowl that each cost double his hard earned daily wage, simply because I enjoy the luxurious taste and want to share it with the out of town visitors I’ve been with all day; he was heading home after a long day of work to eat and rest. We parted ways shaking hands and he said with a smile, “I hope we meet again” and also asked/said that god should bless us all. I agreed with him, returned the smile and wished him a good night. There are no strangers in Ghana, only people you haven’t met yet.

Sharing a bottle

This is an expression some people here use that mean’s going out for a beer. “Sharing a bottle” is a very common social activity for men here in Navrongo (this is reflected in the high alcoholism rates) – I’ve shared a few bottles during my time here in Navrongo.


Some days after work I’ll get together with one of my Ghanaian coworkers or friends at a “spot” (read small bar) and we’ll relax, cool off and wind down the day with a couple beers and often some lamb/goat kebobs or roasted guinea fowl. I have to admit that I’ve done so much learning about Ghana and her people by ‘sharing a bottle at the spot’. It’s the place where the cool evening air, chilled beer, and relaxed atmosphere create a setting where my coworker friends and I can be open and free with each other and share experiences from our different cultures and countries as well as ask questions that might not be appropriate for a formal office setting.


I’d like to share one of several conversations we had one evening. I don’t feel comfortable mentioning his name since I haven’t asked if he’s comfortable with me doing so. From here on I’ll just refer to him as ‘my friend’.


Like most people I know in Navrongo my friend grew up in rural village outside of town, and like most boys he had to herd cattle at a very young age. Boys in the village would wander for hours and kilometers following cattle around occasionally throwing small rocks at them or hitting their behinds with a stick to keep them together and guide their direction. As you can imagine walking for hours in the equatorial heat is both boring and tiresome. But my friend was lucky.


His father understood the importance of education and wanted his boy to get an education. In order to do so, his father argued and fought with my friend’s grandfather to allow him to attend school instead of tending to the old man’s cattle. Here cattle are a symbol of prestige and wealth (I also suspect there is some other cultural significance) so even when the grandfather allowed him to attend school, he wouldn’t sell one of several cattle to pay for the year’s school feels. Somehow my friend’s father managed to come up with the money to pay.


As we relaxed after a long day my friend then told me that very few of his school mates from primary continued on to junior or senior high school – most had to herd cattle instead. Then he mentioned something that just seemed to stick with me: he’s one of the only people who went to university from his junior high.


Later that night we saw 2 boys around 8-10 years of age I’d guess who were dancing to the music at the bar. At first I was amazed at how talented these boys were! They had synchronized moves and caught everyone’s attention. In exchange for their entertainment for the patrons, the boys were each given a bottle of coke (and some coins from me). I didn’t stop to think about what these boys were doing here at this time of night until my friend said “those are armed robbers”. It caught me completely off guard, but then he helped me understand that boys like this grow up with little or no guidance and neglect from their parents which can lead to crime and other limited choices. A night of relaxing and sharing a bottle seemed to yield some stark insights in the importance of education in Ghana.


What’s the good word?


A friend of mine asked me this in an email not too long ago so I thought I’d share what came to mind.


Well first thing that comes to mind is people taking care of people. Here it’s a social/cultural norm that if you’re making good or ok money you are supposed to share it with your family, and it’s not just the nucleus family like back home (mother, father, 2.5 kids) but rather the extended family that can amount to a large amount of people. It’s interesting, and has its pros and cons. The pros are fairly obviously like a social security/welfare system built into society, where money gets redistributed within families/clans/tribes/ethnic groups. Linked to this is the expectation that your kids will take care of you when you get old. I find this drastically different from back home where you have nursing homes full old lonely people whose kids just dropped them off and pay the bill. When I talk to people in Ghana about this they are often shocked and appalled in disbelief – this would never happen here. For example, I have a coworker who’s about the same age as my father man and every morning he goes to his parents place (right next to his own) and fixes them breakfast while his brother takes care of their dinner every evening. Most people even house their parents when they get old.

I guess one down side is that you get lazy people mooching of their hard working relatives, and those hard workers sometimes complain because if they make money they’re expected to share with the family – but we’re not talking about loads of money here. One of my friends is a field staff with the Ministry but currently he’s in university upgrading. He’s hoping to buy a laptop for himself but will have a hard time saving while his family members back in the village call and ask for money (mostly for legitimate reasons but not always). This also applies to farmers because if they get a good yield and have lots of crops harvested people will notice and be asking you to share, some of those people are in need of it and work hard themselves but are struggling, while others are lazy and mooching in order to buy some gin.

So long story short, the good word is that in northern Ghana people take care of people. It’s not ‘every man for himself’ like back home where people are left out in the street or in a nursing home to die alone. I’m reminded of a saying that was painted on a small kiosk selling food, it read “Poor man will never eat grass”. I asked a few people here what it meant and was told that if you’re hungry and ask someone for food they will feed you, you won’t have to starve (or eat grass like a cow, goat or sheep). Some argue that this social norm is preventing development, while I would argue it’s keeping people from hitting rock bottom…the verdict is still out I suppose.

Someone’s Grandfather

The other day I was eating lunch at my regular spot enjoying some plain rice with tomato stew and fresh vegetables and chicken, but was interrupted by an old man. He appeared abnormal; something about him was off, and I could tell by his shoddy looking appearance and through his face – in particular his eyes. He greeted me (which is quite normal here) as he slowly approached and I reciprocated. He looked as though he was selling some small clothing items like shorts or underwear or something of the like. I felt no threat whatsoever neither did he cause me discomfort, for it is quite easy to distinguish the mentally ill (such as schizophrenics) by their exceptionally unclean appearance. So I continued to eat.

As the old man was walking away a young motorcycle electrician nearby called out to the old man in the local language and him and his friends starting laughing – I assume it was some sort of joke at the old man’s expense and rather insulting based on the proceeding events. The old man came back and walked right over to the guy and started talking in a stern voice with vivid hand gestures, at times he spoke in broken English saying something like “I will slap you small boy!” Some of the things the old man said caused most of the adult observers to burst out laughing at the old man who wasn’t all there upstairs.

In any other situation a younger person would rarely ever say anything remotely insulting to an older person as hierarchy is very strictly socially engrained and enforced, however when someone is considered “mad”, that is, mentally ill, the rules don’t seem to apply. In similar cases, like at the office with a distant Ministry staff that comes in once in a while, I found myself laughing along with all the others at the “crazy” man’s random and comical comments. This time I wasn’t laughing I was rather disturbed, and I don’t write this from a high horse – a few other witnesses showed all but smiles on their faces. I remember a few people gazed in my direction to see my reactions and upon seeing my disappointed face their smile receded a bit almost like being reminded that it really isn’t funny. I’ve been on the other side before, in Canada and in Ghana as I’ve just mentioned; had it been a different day and had I been in a different mood I might well have been laughing along.

But this time I was upset, the dignity of the old man was publicly being attacked by a young guy who was getting a laugh off someone less fortunate. I was happy to see the young man’s face turn from a smile to a look of concern when the old man stood up for himself and threatened to slap the ‘small boy’ – which he has every right to do here in this instance. I highly doubt anyone would oppose this sort of action; if a young person insults an old person you can expect conflict.

The whole time this was happening I could not stop thinking and hearing in my head: “what if that was your grandfather?” The fact of the matter is this man is someone’s grandfather (whether they are proud of it, ashamed of it or somewhere in the middle). It made me think about the mentally ill people here who, in my opinion, are the worst off wandering the streets without shoes, wearing filthy ripped clothing, looking so alone, or the homeless mentally ill men and women in Canada with no social assistance due to 30 years (and counting) of cutbacks. These are people and they need to be treated as such; they are someone’s mother, brother, daughter, father, sister, son, grandmother, or grandfather.

I thought to myself in between bites, “good on you old man, put that boy in his place“. After the old man made his point and had enough arguing, he slowly walked away and his frustrated frown turned to a kind, friendly and innocent smile as his greeted me again while leaving.


Development projects often come with handouts, “free stuff for people who can’t afford it on their own”. This one is a bit complicated and gray. From one side it makes sense (morally, ethically, and I guess rationally) to give to those who don’t have and most of whom can’t get even if they try, like giving a poor subsistence farmer free fertilizer, materials to build a structure to store crops, or a pumping machine to farm in the dry season. From a different angle, giving handouts reinforces the external and internal perception that “you are poor and need help” and I would even argue further that it can lead to “you can’t help yourself”. After years of reinforcing this (unknowingly I’m sure and with the best moral intentions) it seems embedded in people at times – from my perspective and from the majority of people I work with. Why would someone struggle and work hard to innovate and take risks when there’s probably an NGO that will come by to give you something you might need? But this has lead to people waiting for the next NGO handout rather than taking action.


One example someone here once told me was a farmer who worked extra hard, saved money, tried new things and found new ways to make some extra money, and was finally able to buy their own donkey and cart (a common way to transport goods in the rural areas) without any support. Then an NGO came in shortly after and gave away donkeys and carts for free. So next time around when the farmer needs something to improve their livelihood why not wait for an NGO project to come along? I see this as an empowerment issue. What I mean is that after years of colonialism and social Darwinism (theory that Africans are biologically and genetically inferior, which persists in more subtle ways to this day), development projects giving handouts, and hearing and learning about the outside world as a paradise I think have all lead to a reinforcing mentality that ‘you are poor and need help’ which decreases dignity and motivation. But how can you empower people? How can you instill the drive, motivation, confidence, possibility, and determination for people to believe that they can overcome great challenges and take charge of their own development?


This leads to another interesting relevant aspect that I recalled from one of my essays in university: the use of the term “empowerment” can lead to individualizing the responsibility and effectively blaming the poor for their own plight leaving it up to them to deal with their own problems. This overlooks and obscures how external intervention (colonialism, slavery, trade policies, etc.) contributed and contribute to the problem. Also, putting all the focus on individuals leaves the government off the hook. For instance, if we only focus on empowering people to overcome their challenges then what’s the role of the government? Should a poor widow and her 4 children be responsible to pay for the hydro pole if she wants electricity in her home (which is the reality here right now)? Should farming families or communities be responsible for securing their own safety? Should they have to pay 10,000$ to drill a well so they can all have access to clean water? Should they have to pave a road so they can actually travel to the market to buy the bare necessities when it rains instead of getting stuck in the mud? Should they have to pay for basic medical treatment or life saving malaria drugs? Sure we can debate the role of the private or public sector ideologically or practically, and some might argue that privatization of some things is good (at least on paper) but I doubt they could go to the village and tell the widow and her kids that she is responsible for her own plight and if she can’t afford it then tough luck. And wealth doesn’t trickle down, there’s people here driving Mercedes Benz with giant houses, and their spending isn’t bringing up the small industries nor is it trickling down to the rural village. “Trickle down” is argument wealthy people make to justify inequality and a lack of distribution of wealth, thereby justifying their own wealth (poor people work just as hard or even harder than rich people, so the ‘I worked hard to get where I am’ argument can be throw out with the bath water as well).


In terms of education, Governments, NGOs and development organizations can build all the schools they want and everyone will feel warm and fuzzy, but if the Ghana Education Service Ministry can’t afford to pay teachers a decent salary to teach on regular basis, or if there are no accountability measures to ensure teachers show up regularly to teach, or if teachers have to travel far to get to the school and their salary isn’t enough to cover travel costs then the next generation will continue to get a less than ideal quality of education and illiteracy will persist – and all the problems linked to an uneducated population. And, if the education system methods (i.e. pedagogy) are based off the West’s model of teaching obedience and reinforcing hierarchy, competition, and memorization rather than analytical/critical thinking skills, group work, and how to think on your own and question why things are they way they are, then schools will just be nice buildings for kids to play in. And the cycle will continue.


Let’s not forget about external factors, I haven’t mentioned how Ghana, a rice producing country, imports the majority of its rice. Not a bad thing in of itself but when industrialized countries subsidize their agriculture sector then dump cheap produce on developing countries with such low prices that domestic farmers can’t even compete, it’s a problem – especially when the majority of your population is depending on farming for their livelihood. Without getting into this point too much, through international trade agreements and policies industrial countries heavily subsidize their agriculture sector while at the same time push developing countries to open up their markets and reduce tariffs, which hurts local farmers.


It’s pretty complicated, so much that it’s hard to understand and especially to try and describe. Like people living in the rural areas, subsistence farming, living hand to mouth, how much power do they even have? What can they accomplish under the conditions they face with little to no access to opportunities or chances to improve? How empowered would you or I be to stand up and spend time and energy to make changes in our community or individual lives when our daily living is a constant struggle to make ends meet, where politicians come and go preaching messages that rarely turn into actions or that often benefit only certain classes of people, and when NGOs and development projects come and give out free stuff that you need. These are some of the struggles I have contemplating what development is and what the role of different actors is – meager compared to the daily struggles of many Ghanaians here. I’ve listed off a lot of problems and challenges here, so what needs to be done? Well that’s the simple question, I have plenty of ideas as do the people here I work with and live with, as do people who have spent years even their lives trying to solve problems of development. It’s not about answering the question “what needs to happen?” that’s not all that difficult, the difficulty is when you have a good idea of what needs to happen but then have to answer the question “how can we make this happen?”. Think about the challenges listed above, I’m sure you can come up with some ideas or potential solutions as to what needs to happen. But, figuring out what needs to happen isn’t the challenge of development, it’s figuring out how.


Unfortunately, I don’t have the answers, it’s much easier to criticize and pick things apart than actually develop creative solutions – I suppose this post is more of a venting exercise than a strategy for action. I’ll make the next post more constructive.


Across the country the government, through the Ministry of Food and Agriculture, has implemented a project called Block Farms. Basically each regional and district office was given instructions from above to seek out large tracks of land to develop certain staple crops like maize, rice, soy bean, etc. Districts were given targets (# of hectares) which they must meet, and the plan was for the Ministry to give out the inputs needed (plowing services, seeds, and fertilizer) to farmers on credit. Once they harvested farmers would have to pay back the monetary value of the inputs or a certain amount of their harvest based on the amount of inputs they received.


On paper this is a good idea. Many farmers cannot afford the initial capital/start up costs to expand their small scale farms so giving them an interest free loan should help – especially considering how difficult it is to obtain a loan from the bank, and the high interest rates (25-30%) which make it difficult to turn a profit. However, like many development projects I’ve seen, heard of, and read about good ideas, intentions and designs aren’t necessarily implemented properly. In other words, the problem lies in how you do it not what it is you do.


I want to share this because it’s been the main priority at the office lately, passed down along the chain and from my perspective it’s difficult to do work outside the realm of Block Farms right now since it’s the district’s main priority. Aside from my perspectives based on the district realities I work within daily, I’m also backing this up with anecdotes, discussions, and opinions/perspectives from Ministry and EWB staff in other districts across this region and the neighbouring Northern region – to make the point that my experience in this district isn’t an isolated case.


So what happened? Farmers were given interest free loans and were only asked to pay back a (relatively small) portion of their harvest, thereby leading to more food being produced and hence improved food security. But the main challenges came about through inputs arriving late and dispersed late and I would also argue farmers perception of the government’s role in agriculture.


A classic yet tragic development implementation problem happened with the Block Farms: seeds and fertilizer came late. Rain-fed farming is dependent on timing and basically determines a poor or rich yield (among other factors of course). So when fertilizer arrives late and is applied late the crops miss out on essential nutrients at vital stages of their growth leading to stunting and poor yields1. And this is precisely what happened: late fertilizer = poor yields. Why the fertilizer came late I cannot say, I haven’t had much of a window into that aspect of the input supply chain, my guess is it has something to do with planning.


Thinking back to my time in Toronto during our pre-departure training we read a case study on a development project. We were given the context and in-depth information about the project design and purpose and were asked to analyze it critically. Since it was a real life practical example our group was surprised at how many problems we accurately predicted before hearing the results of what happened during implementation, however we didn’t foresee a significant problem: inputs arrived late. Let’s take a step back for a moment. Four semi-recent non-development graduates from university in their mid 20’s spent about 2-3 hours analyzing a 3 page case study and predicted the majority of the problems except for late delivery of inputs.

Again, I don’t have the answers as to why inputs came late and I don’t intend to look into it, so it’s likely I’m overlooking some important factors or unexpected challenges. Also, coming from Canada, I cannot remove my perceptions from my own context and background. What I mean here is that coming from a country where it seems like every industry is based on ‘just in time’ practices and worships clock time it’s difficult to understand why the project heads, designers, industry or whoever was responsible couldn’t coordinate the inputs to arrive on time.


Now it’s time to recover the bags of produce/ or money owed by farmers – “recovery season” as it’s referred to here at work. This is where all the problems accumulate and cause conflict. One factor that staff talks about is that farmers see the support given by the Ministry as help from the government rather than a legal or official contract (which all farmers who participated signed and therefore agreed to). I interpret this as how farmers perceive the government’s role in agriculture: one based on support and assistance such as technical knowledge, linking to NGO projects, and giving out inputs or other free services. That’s at least a partial reason why farmers aren’t paying back what they were given and why the Ministry is scrambling to recover its costs/loans. A major reason as I’m sure you guessed by now is that because late inputs lead to poor yields and farmers didn’t get enough bags of produce to get by on, let alone pay back to the Ministry. So now field staff forced to collect repayments from farmers. In some cases farmers with poor yields were asked for the only bags of produce they harvested. This can potentially damaging the vital relationship between farmers and Ministry field staff (sometimes seen as a personal attack rather than following orders and doing their job.


What’s also frustrating is that districts are spending the majority of their time on this project when they could be helping farmers in other ways. There are talented, smart, hard working people working at my district and districts across the country and if only they were given the freedom to develop their districts based on its needs (aka decentralization), I’m sure there would be some more progress on the ground.



1I haven’t studied agronomy or crop science; this statement is based on what educated technical field staff have told me

2After last year’s Block Farms there was a joint sector review where essentially all development partners pointed out the flaws of the project and recommended against continuing and scaling it nationally, the Ministry, or rather the politically appointed Minister decided to go ahead with it, demonstrating that Block Farms is a political project


I’ve decided that this year because of thousands of miles away from family and friends in Canada, I’ll try and give a different type of gift this year.

I want to share a short story about my good friend Vitus.

Vitus was born in 1988 and raised in Kajelo, a village just outside of Navrongo where I currently work. When he was younger, around 8-10 years old he wasn’t interested in education, but his mother and teachers encouraged him and he eventually became one of the top students in his class. His mother cooked good food for him and encouraged him; from then on he never missed class. In Junior High he was the class prefect and taking care of students in class and being the link between masters and students – essentially he was a student leader. In Senior High he was also the class prefect and even the assistant prefect of the entire school.


During his teens he cut firewood and sold it in the market having to walk 20 or more kilometers with a donkey cart, making only the equivalent of about $1 CAD. He did this work before and after school (and weekends and holidays) yet never missed classes. “It’s not easy growing up in the village” Vitus told me. His mother passed away in 2005 when Vitus was 17 years old; he was with his mother until she died. Vitus then took over her household duties and cooked, washed, took care of his younger sister, and other domestic work. People in the village laughed at him doing what is considered “women’s work”, but he didn’t mind because he knew what needed to be done in order to help his family.


Vitus also volunteered teaching primary students in the afternoon after they finished their regular classes, and he also taught 2 subjects at junior high school (also for free). In addition to this, on one old computer he organized a computer class at his home where 15 students would come and learn basic computer skills. He volunteered his time because he didn’t want to sit and do nothing, and he wants everyone to be educated and learn skills and knowledge.



Vitus is the type of person who takes actions into his own hands rather than sitting around feeling sorry for himself and waiting for handouts. Somehow, through side jobs like taking photos and printing posters of Assembly candidates for the upcoming election, printing/typing for university students and faculty, making wedding cards/invitations for someone in Accra and other side jobs, Vitus has managed to pay for his college school fees for this semester. He has also managed to pay 2 years rent on a small one room store where he’s in the process of opening his own business! He managed to accomplish this all while getting admission to school 2 weeks before exams, and passing the 3 exams that he just wrote!


I went with him to see the place and it’s coming along just fine. The steel door was just about finished and ready to be put in, the carpenter was late with making the desk for the computers which is on its way, and Vitus is in communication with someone who is willing to loan him a photo copier until he pays it off.


(Vitus standing proud with his Tamale Polytechnic College shirt in front of his newly established business)


So, Vitus and his good childhood friend will be running a computer training centre here in Navrongo. Vitus, being the charming customer service expert that he is, already has people calling him (teachers, students, business men, etc.) asking for his services, that is, asking for basic computer training. He’s created quite a following of customers from his previous work at Globaltech (an internet café/computer centre), people would even turn away if they found that Vitus wasn’t working that day. He’s made contacts at the junior and senior high schools as well as the university in town. I’m feeling pretty confident (as is Vitus) that this will work. But it’s a risk that he was willing to take, entrepreneurship is a difficult game to play but I have faith in Vitus, and Vitus is a man of faith.


He has worked hard, I mean long hours and long weeks. He would wake very early and take his old motorcycle to work, but there were plenty of times when it broke down and he had to ride his bike for about an hour to and from work. Some nights he’d even close at 11pm or 12am and be back at it the next day for 7 or 8am. So when I mean work hard, I’m talking 12+ hours a day 6 days a week, and the hardest part in my opinion is that he wouldn’t get paid sometimes for up to 3 months. But he still came to work every day, still was friendly as he helped customers, and worked hard even though he wasn’t getting paid.



So this is my Xmas/Christmas/Holiday gift for all of you reading this:


Good news about someone, who has had a tough life and never gave up hope, someone who never sat back and said it was too hard, someone who struggled to help his family when times were tough. With determination, perseverance, a positive attitude, hard work, and the passion to serve and teach people, Vitus finally seems to be reaping the good deeds he’s been sowing since childhood.


Vitus, I know you’ll be reading this online, you’ve done well my friend “Nkwaane”

(Ghanaians usually want to look serious in photos, that’s why we didn’t smile until after the photo was taken)

Happy Holidays from Ghana

– Brian