Wednesday, September 23, 2009

"Sharing Minds"- Abokobiisi Part 1

I spent 5 days in a village called Abokobiisi, in the Upper East Region of Ghana, and it may have been the most powerful 5 days of my life.

When I returned, I thought to myself, “how can I communicate all of this learning back to Canada?” … I soon realized that just one blog post could never possibly capture it all, so decided to write a short series on Abokobiisi… welcome to Part 1, Sharing Minds.

When you think of a Ghanaian farmer, who do you picture? Previously, I probably would have thought of a middle-aged black man, wrinkled face, family man, working hard every day in the fields.. this isn’t completely false, there are farmers like this.

But I met many others whose profiles are quite different, many women here are farmers (more than 60% of Ghanaian farmers of women- see the women above from Abokobiisi’s Women’s Group) and there are also a lot of young farmers, many who farm because they have no other choice.

I begin the series highlighting the person who most inspired me: Amos. A 19 year old boy: young, lean but muscular, hardworking, kind, and he speaks English (one of the 3 in the whole community that I could communicate with), and did I mention exceptionally bright. He is currently a farmer by default, by unfortunate circumstances, but things are looking up for Amos.

Last year, he graduated from JHS (Junior High School) with excellent grades. He hoped to move on to SS (Secondary School), which is 3 years and requires you to board in another town, and pay steep school fees. When I asked why he didn’t go to SS he said “because of poverty, we are suffering”. Unable to pay the school fees, (hundreds of dollars), he had to stay in Abokobiisi- a village that is an hour bicycle ride to the nearest hospital, an our walk through rivers and streams to the nearest market, no electricity, no formal sanitation… probably the typical “African village” you see in your mind.

So for the past year he has been farming, and extensively helping the community. He is currently hoping that, with community support and help from the Assemblyman, he can go to SS this year. I am really hoping he is able, and am anxiously awaiting him telling me the good news.

Each day I spent with Amos, I learned something new about village life, something new about poverty, and something new about the human spirit.

More surprisingly, I kept finding out different roles he played in the community. It took 3 days for me to discover that every night, Monday to Friday from 8-9pm, he teaches night class (remember- there is no electricity in Abokobiisi). When I asked him why, he said “We don’t want our mothers to be illiterate”.

Then, I attended the Women’s Group Meeting, where he also sat in. After, I looked at his book and realized that the whole time he had been listening to the meeting in Fra Fra, translating to English in his mind, and writing in English- almost word for word- what was discussed at the meeting. In this same book, he records which ladies go to the field each day to weed the soya field, and much much more.

I can definitely say that all of my most fruitful conversations in the village involved Amos. He is so intelligent, would ask me great questions about life in Canada, and some funny ones (Can you open the window when you’re flying on an airplane?).

He really pushed my thinking. I had the mentality that I didn’t want to bring many luxurious items to the village because a) they are unnecessary and b) I don’t want to show people material things that they’ve never seen, have them become fascinated by them, and subsequently want to have their own (it is unlikely they will ever be able to afford them).

So I didn’t bring my laptop and didn’t bring many clothes, etc, but I did bring my MP3 player to listen to music in the morning/at night. I had no intentions of bringing it out. But on the third day, when I was fairly close with Gilbert and Amos, we were sitting out in the early morning- as we always did- and I decided to bring it out. Of course they loved it. They had never seen one or heard of it before- they initially thought it was a different cell phone. They loved the beats, wanted it really loud, and I soon realized they preferred the more upbeat, hip hop type songs so would put those on for them.

I went away and returned, grabbed the MP3 to change the song for them and realized that Amos had already been navigating through the MP3 and had changed things. I was very amazed- (minutes earlier, he didn’t know how to change the volume).

Later in the day, walking to the market, I confessed that I hadn’t intended on showing them the MP3 (for reason B mentioned above). And Amos said “No Robin. It is wonderful for us to see these things. Then, when I see it later, I will know what it is, how it works, and then I won’t just be a villager, again”.

Leaving Abokobiisi was difficult. I was happy to stay longer than intended- due to the rains. The night before I left, Amos said: “I’m praying it will rain again tomorrow so you can stay another day”, I said “I know, it’s very painful. But why do you want me to stay”, he said: “So we can converse. So we can share minds.”

Please stay tuned for more on the beautiful people of Abokobiisi, and how they have enriched my life.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Life in Bongo: motos, marriage and more

I am currently staying in the beautiful town of BONGO, in the Upper East Region of Ghana, with Ryan (another OVS. At one point this was where I was going to be placed, but there has been a shift and now my placement will be in Tamale. So I am here in Bongo for the next week to job shadow and learn from Ryan. Yesterday we attended his MoFA District Office's weekly meeting where all AEA's give updates and they discuss pertinent issues. It was great to see the pride they have in the Agriculture as a Business Curriculum (AAB)- Bongo is seen as an "All Star District" where AAB is really flying, and they were all passionate and proud to tell me about AAB in their district and the successes they are seeing with their farmer groups.

It is so beautiful here. Picture this: dirt roads, and all around you green: 15 foot crop fields of millet, huge rocks, grass, animals all around, beautiful Baobab trees- it is just stunning. I don't miss city life at all. Mountains in the distance, sun shining, blue skies and perfectly white, fluffy clouds; it is truly a sight. Its very funny because I can't speak Fra Fra so without Ryan I would be totally helpless. Everywhere we walk people are staring at us, kids yelling "Salaminga" (white person), and after the normal greetings with all the people we pass, his local friends and acquaintances keep asking Ryan if I am his wife- it's a bit awkward because I know everyone is talking about me but don't know what they are saying and I can't respond. It's not too surprising they have questions about us; you don't often see a guy and a girl very close who are "just friends" here- and considering the fact that we're sleeping in the same room, I can't blame them for calling me his wife.
Still, it is very funny- they are so amazed to see the two of us walking through the market- it's like what Megan said- kids stare at you as if they are seeing a unicorn, and its even more entertaining when they see us riding on his moto! Picture this: its 40 degrees, humid, bright sun, beautiful greenery, crop fields, goats, and kids on either side of you, and 2 salamingas flying by on the moto! It's perfection with the breeze on your face- its like Ghanaian air con, the coolest you'll ever feel!)

Tomorrow I head to Abokobise (a-boko bee-see) for my Village Stay so I am very excited to really experience a life that is different from my own. It has been a very nice series of transitions out of my comfort zone. I moved from a beautiful house with my mom in Pickering, to the EWB house in Toronto (read- 20+ volunteers coming and going, crammed in a house with 1 shower), to a nice guest house in Ghana with running water and mattresses, to Ryans place where we "free range" (go to the bathroom out in the fields) and I sleep on the floor. What a great experience this is.

By next weekend I'll be in Tamale to begin my placement officially and I am very excited to start looking for a place to settle down and call my home.

Hope you are all well and enjoying each day as much, or more, as I am.
Love Robin

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Happily Honeymooning

After a week and a half in Ghana, I can confidently say that I am happily honeymooning.

For those unfamiliar with the typical phases of cultural integration, phase one is often described as the "honeymoon phase", much like a newlywed couple; everything seems perfect, exciting, invigorating; pure joy.
It has been a year since I was in Ghana but it feels like I never left. As I walk through markets, crowded with people and goats, sounds of people yelling, music blaring, sun scorching, sweat dribbling down my forehead, holding a sachet of water while greeting people, I couldn't be happier.

I love Ghana more now than ever and so glad I made this commitment- the food tastes amazing, and after a strangely cool summer in Toronto I am welcoming the heat, and loving every second of my cold bucket showers morning and night. And wearing my African cloth again, and seeing swarms of adorable African children who either excitedly ask me "How ah you?!" or run away scared of me, is just too much fun.

Don't get me wrong: though I am an energetic optimist, I am not disillusioned; I fully realize that this is a phase and that there will be times in the coming year that I may feel crappy, annoyed, frustrated, sick, but for now, I will soak in this time of honeymooning and pour all my love into this relationship between me and Ghana- I can confidently say that I vowed to stay in this marriage for at least 1 year!

(For those of you interested in details, and how an OVS (Overseas Volunteer Staff) placement begins: I am currently in Bolgatanga, in the Upper East Region of Ghana. On a personal note: I am feeling very healthy, have adjusted to the time, and am diligently taking my Larium, sleeping under a mosquito net, applying repellent and wearing long clothes at night! This past weekend I was at WAR- the West Africa Retreat- where all the incredible EWB volunteers working in Burkina Faso and Ghana come together on a quarterly basis to share, learn, relax, bond, and strategize. Tomorrow I'm heading to Bongo where I will be jobshadowing Ryan, and having my Village Stay to gain greater insight into rural life. After that I'm heading to Tamale which I will be calling my home for the next year! I am pretty excited to get started and into action with my placement; after months of independent learning and reflecting, and 4 weeks of pre-departure training in Toronto with the amazing Robin Farnworth, and in-country training with the amazing Alanna Peters, I am rearin' to go and apply some of this knowledge!
I am also motivated and excited because there is a beautiful amount of flexibility, and many opportunities for innovation within my placement- Sarah called it a sort of "choose your own adventure" novel. I will work with her to shape my goals and workplan in order to most effectively and strategically meet the needs of MOFA in Tamale, and utilize the skills I have to offer both MOFA and EWB. And this is an incredibly exciting time to be working with TEAM MOFA in Ghana; our team just doubled in size (!), we have a solid strategy going forward, a great relationship with MOFA staff across districts, regions, and nationally, a fantastic team of dedicated volunteers led by the amazing Sarah Grant, and 3 clear Outcome Areas we are all uniquely and innovatively working towards as we move beyond the Agriculture as a Business Curriculum to experiment how to improve MOFA's agricultural extension services with the incredible Ghanaian farmers we work with and for!)
So, in summary, I am happy, healthy, and HUNGRY for all that is about to land on my beautiful Ghanaian plate as I begin this working/loving/growing relationship!
Without further ado, I'm off to eat some RED RED (Fried plantains and beans!)
Please feel free to reply or call/email me with questions and/or comments: 011 233 279895359 or 011 233 540955865.

Lots of love,