Thursday, March 13, 2008

Why here, why open letter to friends and family

7 am, Tuesday March 11th , the streets of Accra have been awake for a few hours. I am walking to Kwame Nkrumah Circle, the main transport hub of Accra, to catch a tro-tro* to work. Women are selling hot food by the side of the road. School children, adolescents, and adults sit interspersed on benches eagerly eating their fist meal of the day. Ring Road, the main thruway of Accra, is teaming with pedestrians and its lanes filled with taxis and tro-tros. After asking for directions I finally find the right car that will take me to work. I fill the last spot; I get ushered to the front bench between the driver and another passenger. The door shuts and we are off. The Tro-tro joins the stop and go of traffic, the passenger besides me settles in for a snooze, I feel the sweat start to roll down my back, and I laugh to myself “what am I doing here”?

Greetings from Ghana! I arrived the last week of February and I am just about to round out my first week of work. I was really touched by all the support I received in making the decision to take on this new challenge, but I feel I need to offer a short explanation of why I chose to come and what I hope to gain from this experience.

Ever since I returned from Cameroon in late 2002, I have wanted to find a way to combine my passion for international development with my line of work. While we all play a role in improving our communities and the overall welfare of the world (we do this through our work, our choices as consumers and the causes we decide to support), I thoroughly enjoyed working closely with rural communities in Cameroon. So while I am sacrificing some things such as pay, opportunities for promotions, and Montreal summers my choice to come to Africa is also a bit selfish.

I am seeing this position as an investment: Late last year, when I was asking my mentors at work, whether or not I should get an MBA the overwhelming answer was “What do you think you are going to learn at school in 2 years, that you can’t learn here?” Good question…I quickly realized that few schools would actually provide me with the experience I wanted. Understanding the challenges the world faces is a comparative advantage, and there is no better way to understand the world than to go out and experience it! So while I figure out how I am best suited to help the world’s poor I want to learn about the struggles of farmers, of entrepreneurs, and of households as they try to get by. I want to better understand the role of policy, of governments, of donors, of free markets and of large multi-nationals on progress. I promise to share personal stories and pictures along the way as I hope my blog will serve as an on-line learning journal.

I am hoping to be diligent enough to post to my blog twice a month, so for those interested in receiving all the updates you can always subscribe to my RSS feed. If not I will send out abridged notes on a monthly basis. If you would prefer not to receive these monthly updates please let me know and I will remove you from my mailing list (don’t worry I won’t be offended, I know how much mail you receive!)

* a Tro-Tro is a minivan used for public transportation

The return....setting foot in Ghana

It has been 6 years since I’ve stepped foot into Africa and it seems like it was yesterday. The sounds, the smells, the sheer volume of people and the chaos are all the same. One week into my trip overseas and it is starting to feel like home all over again.

Monday Feb 25, 8pm

Coming off the plane I am welcomed by the thick, humid, sea air of Accra. .All attempts at maintaining some form of hair control are now useless! Once we finally get through customs, and get our bags, we step outside of the airport to a throng of people offering their services as porters and taxis. If it were not for the black faces and the fact that all of the yelling is happening in English I would think we were in Lima. I am glad to see the warm smile of Charles, my colleague at KITE. We are also met by Rafik , a friend of another volunteer. Charles is kind enough to store my luggage. Rafik, is in charge of getting us fed, and rested in time for the long voyage North in the morning. With the help of more porters than we have bags we fill up some taxis and head off to the hostel where we will be staying. The streets of Accra are alive! Ladies are selling food by the side of the road and the traffic is thick but flowing. At the hostel, our rooms are spare but clean. There is no top sheet, but it is evident that with this heat, it is not required. With some rice and eggs in our bellies we doze off for a good’s night sleep.

Tuesday Feb 26, 6am

The bus is scheduled to leave at 7 am, but my experience with Africa time suggests we will probably leave a few hours late! I have never traveled with so many white people in Africa: 5 of us in total, all obviously off-the-plane and jet-lagged. The transport company is surprisingly organized: Numbered seats and tickets and a fairly modern luggage tagging system! I am amazed and feel a lot better about putting my day-pack-back, containing all my medications for a year as well as my laptop, in the luggage port. Overland transport in Africa is amazing and always an adventure: travelers take advantage of the passage to transport all kinds of things including a very large big-screen TV, sound systems, produce and other things that can be easily traded in the North. Miraculously the bus leaves on time! We settle in for what is considered a “short” 12 hour trip to Tamale, where we will have one –week of in-country training.

Tuesday 26th, all day

We spend over 1. 5 hours getting out of Accra, the traffic is thick, the potholes here put the ones in Montreal to shame, and there are many vehicles on the road which are a little less than “road worthy”. The bus has 3 scheduled stops, but ends up stopping 5 times along the way: The first rest stop is beautiful: The bathrooms are beyond clean and the water is running, a luxury. It is customary here to pay to use the toilet and to buy toilet paper (T-Roll as they call it here). The second stop is in Kumasi, the industrial capital of Ghana. As a precautionary measure I decide to pay a visit to the washroom. I am very surprised when the cost to use the toilet is only 5 pesewas or 0.05 Cedis (approximately 5 cents CDN). We follow a long line of women into the washroom and I stop dead in my tracks when I realize that this is a female urinal not separate toilets! Jen (another volunteer) and I look at each other, slightly puzzled about the mechanics of using such a thing. After a few seconds a woman screams at us to shut the door and Jen and I agree to hold each other’s bags as we attempt this new sport. In my 6 months in Cameroon I have never seen a female urinal but it seems they are quite common place in Ghana. Imagine a room with a trough running down 2 edges of the room in an L shape. The trough is around 3 inches deep and almost a foot wide. Women stand or squat on the ledge and go. The exit pipe is strategically placed at one end of the trough and the drain at the other, so that every time you wash your hands the gray water cleans the trough. Genius! But difficult to master!