Monday, 15 August 2011

Engineering with Beza-lel

So first of all, apologies for being so absent from blogging this past month. I have found myself travelling around the Northern Region researching the water and sanitation teams in two other districts. I also spent time in Tamale meeting with NGO's involved in watsan. I have now traveled to Accra and I am spending three days at a Ghanaian consulting firm which specializes in water and sanitation projects. This firm is called Beza-lel and you can take a look at their website here:

Today felt like the first day of a new job - woke up feeling excited and a little nervous about what the day would bring. I started off with directions in hand and embarked on a crazy journey through Accra to find the office located in a place called Adenta. Stage one of this journey involved asking many many strangers "Do you know where I find the tro-tro* to Adenta?" Stage two was a scenic tro-tro ride through a very rich area of Accra. I passed a golf course on the way to the office - cue culture shock for that one. Finally, I made it to Adenta, and embarked on Stage Three. This was the sketchiest of all stages as this was the part where I had no idea where to go. The plan was "Just call, and we will direct the taxi driver how to get here". Luckily the mobile network gods were smiling today and this plan worked flawlessly.

I arrived at the office and met the staff. The director of the firm has been working in water and sanitation for nearly 20 years. He started out by researching water and sanitation in the early 90's after finishing a master's degree in hydrogeology. He then went on to start Beza-lel about 9 years ago out of his home and just last year moved into their current office. Today there were four other employees in the office and one geological engineering student who is here as an intern. Additionally, there are a number of people who are placed around Ghana focusing on different projects.

Things here are serious.

I spent today reading project proposals and reports and learning more about the firms work. It has been super interesting to read projects that have been contracted to Beza-lel by district assemblies. I feel like I am getting a very interesting perspective of what happens on the ground with the implementation of these projects. Up to this point, the actual process of contracting out projects and the people involved in this process have been a mystery as it seems that the district assemblies take a huge step back once the consultant/contractors have been chosen for a project.

Tomorrow I am going out to the field to see how a borehole is sited. Everyone at the office is looking forward going out into the am I. They have been saying that the field work is the better part of the job - and you know the firm is busy when they have a lot of field work to do. It is pretty crazy to compare this to the district level where field work is known to be absolutely crucial, but not often done due to a lack of resources.

Yet another piece of this complicated puzzle known as the water sector in Ghana.

**Tro-tro's are wonderful little mini-buses/vans which are one of the main forms of transportation in Ghana. Tro-tros are usually very crowded and, if you are in a rural area, prone to goats on the roof. You will undoubtedly question your tro-tro's ability to make it to its final destination...though in my experience it will get there, even if your driver need to stop the tro in order to hitch-hike in search of more fuel.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Bye Bye Buipe

As I mentioned in my last post, the focus of my work here is now changing. I have now moved out of Buipe and will be living in Tamale (sort of). My plans involve a fair amount of travelling so I will be a bit of a nomad for the next few weeks. Here is how things are looking and what I will be up to...

Next week: I am going to be meeting with some organizations that are working in water and sanitation in Tamale. My goal for these meetings is to get an idea of how different organizations approach working with the district governments and how this can possibly be improved. From what I saw in Buipe, organizations were taking care of water and sanitation work and the district water and sanitation team was completely non-functional (and there was no incentive for them to be more functional).

I will be spending the second part of next week and next weekend visiting a place called Fulfoso. This town was given a water system by UNICEF. I visited this town a few weeks ago and although I was told the system is working the water was not flowing (curious, very curious). I was told later that there were not only issues with the system, but that the committee formed to manage the system was also not functional...also not what was told to me when I visited the town. I am interested to live in this place for a few days and try to get a better sense of what is/isn't working and try to better understand the reasons why.

From there I will be spending two weeks visiting two other districts. The goal of these visits is to be able to compare the situation in these two districts with what I observed in Buipe. Both of these districts were a part of the same UNICEF project that was in Buipe. I am going to research how well their water and sanitation teams are functioning and try to learn how UNICEF has affected these teams.

Then it is time for report writing and final meetings. It is really crazy as I sit here to think that in a few weeks I will be thinking about wrapping up my placement. I am certain that the next month is going to fly by and it is looking like things are going to get busy. I am really looking forward to the next month and will be sure to keep you posted on my travels!

Monday, 4 July 2011

Baboons Bamboozle the Bewildered Borderless

Last week was our mid-placement retreat in Mole National Park followed by a weekend of country meetings with the other EWB volunteers. It has been really great this past week to reconnect with other JF's and to hear all about what other people are working on as well as to reconnect with motivations and reasons for coming to Ghana. This past week has allowed me to think about what I want to bring back to Canada from my experience here and what I am going to focus on for the rest of my placement.

I am currently in the process of figuring out how I will be spending the rest of my time here in Ghana. I have been experiencing a number of challenges learning about the water sector in Buipe as the water and sanitation team that I was going to work with at the District Assembly is not functioning. I have been able to learn a lot about reasons for why this team is non-functional and have gained some insight into some of the structural problems that exist with the district water and sanitation teams (DWST's). 

One of the reasons for this situation is a reliance on donors to "take care of" water and sanitation in the district and because of this attitude there is a lack of incentive for the DWST's to function. UNICEF has been active in my district for the past 3 years implementing a project called I-WASH with the goal of Guinea Worm eradication. Through this project UNICEF has been responsible for all water and sanitation work in the district for the past few years. As a part of this project DWST`s were supposed to play an active role in the project delivery teams at districts. However, in the case of Central Gonja, where there was not a functional DWST to begin with, instead of building DWST capacity, the I-WASH team has replaced the DWST. So now that UNICEF`s funding is up and the project has ended there is a significant gap left that the DWST should be filling...key word is "should".

Long story short, I am planning on visiting some other I-WASH districts and learning more about how functional different DWST`s are and how other districts are managing UNICEF leaving. I will keep you posted on my travels and further details on what I will be working on for the next six weeks. 

Finally, as you were perhaps somewhat intrigued by the mention of baboons in the title of this post which has been so far completely without baboon reference...

The first day that we were in Mole we saw a baboon pass by with a baby on her back as we were having a retreat session. This was a very exciting moment - cameras were taken out to appreciate this wonderful little nature experience. This was prior to learning that baboons are the sandwich-stealing peacocks (circa the Calgary zoo) of Mole Park. I now have a fear of baboons coming flying out of nowhere to steal juice/food/anything/everything. I feel somewhat mislead by Disney to believe that baboons are wise creatures who help to being baby lions into the world, and not the crafty aggressive critters that I have encountered.

And in other animals news from Mole...

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Just a bit of Malaria

Prior to coming to Ghana, one of my fears was being sick here. I was definitely nervous and scared about getting malaria - okay, clearly no one wants to have malaria, so I suppose that is just stating the obvious. But as of last weekend I can now check having and recovering from malaria off of my Ghanaian "to do" list. While this was an experience that I certainly do not want to repeat while I am here, there were a number of things that have come out of it that I want to share.

When I first became sick I thought that it was food poisoning, or simply my digestive system rebelling against something that I had eaten that day. I had stomach pain that came on quite quickly and then a night full of hourly trips to the latrine. Nighttime latrine trips are unpleasant at the best of times, as at this time the cockroaches and spiders claim the latrine for their own. I do not think that the latrine creatures were that stoked on me being sick either as they were sent into an hourly panic as I fumbled into the latrine, headlamp in full force, hoping that I would finally be done and able to sleep until the morning. No such luck.

When the morning came my stomach was still not well. At this point vomitting was added to my list of symptoms - another really awful activity to undertake in a latrine. I thought that maybe now I was done being sick - I mean, whatever it was that I ate had to be gone right? Wrong again. Then my fever really kicked in and I started to feel really achy - here is the part when I started to think...perhaps I should be getting a malaria test. This is where things got a little interesting.

I realized that I had no idea what sort of health care was available in Buipe. I knew there was a clinic, but at this point all I was thinking is: is it safe? is it clean? do they have well-trained staff? I felt nervous without the comfort of knowing that I can walk into a clinic and receive quality medical care. I am fully aware that this is the reality for many people, not only in Ghana, but in so many other parts of the world, and was a scary reality to be faced with. I called Dan, another EWB-er and my coach, to ask his opinion. He said that malaria tests are so common here that any rural clinic should be good to go for malaria off I went, the clinic is only a 5 minute walk from my house.

Upon arrival to the clinic I was told that they were out of malaria tests. Great. Still not sure how a clinic can be "out of malaria tests" but alas, that was the situation. They said that there was a private laboratory in Buipe that could maybe do the test so off I went in search of this laboratory. My western mind was thinking "a private laboratory, it must be good". Yeah, about that. I arrived at a building with no doors. Just a curtain. I walked in to the "lab" which was lit with a blue light. There were empty shelves (no medical supplies on them) and a table covered in garbage, what appeared to be used medical "stuff" and a microscope in the corner. To top it off, there was a women sitting there and all she kept saying to me was "go and come, you go and come", meaning "come back later". Or never, I was thinking.

I had the drugs already to take to treat malaria as they are sold at every "chemical store" (pharmacy here) for under 5 GHc. We were told to get them on arrival "just in case". Now my options were to self medicate for malaria or to find a way into Tamale to get tested. I talked to some of my co-workers and found a ride into Tamale. Upon arrival into Tamale I went to a legit lab (they even entered my information into a computer system!) to get tested. The test itself required a drop of blood from my thumb which was put on a slide and looked at under a microscope. I received the results in about 20 minutes. Now aren't you curious as to how the Buipe clinic could be out of tests?

Long story short, I tested positive for malaria, and started taking pills for it immediately. I took advantage the luxury of being able to stay in a guesthouse in Tamale with running water and air conditioning. Three days later I was back on my feet and back at work. Malaria story ended. However, this is the start of another story - healthcare in Ghana. What do Ghanaians do when they are sick? The majority of people in Buipe are not able to get to Tamale when they get sick and certainly cannot afford to get well in a place with running water. I ended up being at the guesthouse with another EWB-er, Jenn, who was also sick and had just had a much more intimate experience with rural health care in her village Tolon,  which she wrote about on her blog (

Places like Buipe and Tolon have clinics so on paper they have "health care". At some point in time either the government, or more likely some NGO, came and built a clinic so then suddenly these places are considered to be covered in terms of medical care. Where are the doctors to staff these clinics? There is certainly not a doctor here in Buipe. Where are the medical supplies needed to perform the most basic of tests and procedures? Where is the access to running water - something that seems absolutely essential to provide sanitary medical care. What happens when the power is out? You see where I am going with this.

Unfortunately, many more clinics are being, and will be built, because these things are not being considered. There is an intense focus on infrastructure building in development as for some reason it is important to be able to say "we gave this community a clinic" and then many people feel great about it because they can picture a well functioning "western" clinic and think "that is going to benefit so many people". As I have recently experienced firsthand this is simply not this case, and this way of thinking is benefiting no one, unless you have a strong affinity for empty buildings with "clinic" written on them. There needs to be a shift in thinking, thinking needs to extend past the building of infrastructure and goals need to change. I want to know what is inside of a clinic and who has access to these services, not whether or not the building is there.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Good Morning Buipe!

Mornings are my favourite part of my weekdays here in Buipe. This is partially because I love the cool temperature and partially because of my morning routine which has been a couple of weeks in the making.

I wake up here sometime between 5:30 and 6:00 with no alarm necessary - unheard of for my life in Canada, where every morning I start my day with a face-off with the snooze button. I think the solution may be to acquire a large amount of chickens, goats, children, and a mosque to place outside my window in Vancouver. These are the sounds that I wake up to here - fun fact: goats and small children make very similar crying noises.

My host sister who is in high school gets up before 5 am as she needs to leave around 6 to make it to school (about a half-hour walk away). Today I said goodbye to her as she walked off to school with a full sized cooler on her head. At the time I just accepted that she was taking the cooler (as this made perfect sense to my 6 am self), but now I am dreadfully curious why she was doing this. For all those interested, I will keep you posted.

Mornings are wonderfully chaotic as my other host siblings are all bathing, eating breakfast, and putting on school uniforms. The other children leave for school around 7 am. Paul, who is 12 walks to school, but the other three kids all get a ride to their school (a different school) on a motorcycle driven by a family friend. I am still not entirely sure how so many people are able to fit on a motorbike - a reoccurring question here.

I start my day off with a bucket shower and then I have tea with my host mother and father. They are shocked that I do not add sugar or milk to my tea and any other Ghanaian that happens upon my plain tea shares their disbelief. Apparently unsweetened tea is unheard of here. Tea is accompanied by bread. Today I put groundnut paste (aka peanut butter) on my bread and I officially have a brand new addiction. Monday is market day here = me buying groundnut paste.

Then it is off to work. My bike ride to my office is about 15 minutes. I stop on the way to get Nescafe and Milo - a wonderful coffee-flavoured beverage. I have been going to the same stand to get this for the past week and the woman still laughs at my strange drink request (Nescafe and Milo together???). Some mornings I also get egg and bread (my other Ghanaian food addiction). I usually arrive at my office before 8 - things are very quiet at my office first thing so I am able to ease into my workdays here as my co-workers arrive.

And there you have it, in Buipe I am officially a morning person - certainly didn't see that one coming.

Monday, 30 May 2011

Of Weddings, Church, and FanMilk

After spending a week in Tamale I finally arrived in Buipe last Tuesday. I spent a few nights in staff accommodation prior to finding a permanent place to live. I am now living with a pastor and his family. There are four kids in my host family aged 4, 10, 12, and 17. I am sharing a room (which is also the living room) with the two girls (aged 10 and 17). It is definitely cozy living quarters! I will try and post some pictures of my home and family soon.

Unfortunately I have yet to have a good sleep at my host families home as my neighbours have been having a wedding. This wedding has been a three day (nearly 24 hours a day) event and has put any Canadian wedding that I have seen to shame in terms of music volume - you should see the size of speakers that got busted out for this event - dancing, food, and colourful clothing. I am been lulled to sleep by crazy loud base, and Saturday was extra special when Aqua's Barbie Girl was blasting at 2 am. Last night the wedding dance party migrated to be right in front of my current home. I spent about 30 seconds dancing before a huge crowd of children gathered and stopped to stare at me, the obroni (white person) dancing. Cell phones were pulled out to photo-document the white girl dancing - a truly hilarious and awkward experience for me.

I also had the experience of going to church yesterday. This was much less positive for me than the dance party. I was lectured on the proper role of women in a family in a strange little event called "Sunday School". This was incredibly tough to sit through especially because the man leading this discussion kept directing the lecture at me and was making sure that I was understanding the submissive, obedient role that he was insisting I am to fill. Church was definitely challenging for me. I think that religion and gender roles (that seem to be based in religion) are both things that I will struggle with while I am here.

Post church I went on a mission to locate FanMilk. This is an amazing Ghanaian ice cream creation which upon consumption makes everything in the world (ie. post church stress syndrome) seem okay. On that note, if anyone out there wants to start importing FanMilk to Canada you will have one loyal customer starting in September.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Thoughts on a Plane

I have not had internet access for the past week, so this post is long long overdue. Take a minute, remember what you did last Monday night, imagine you are there again. It IS last Monday.

Now you may continue reading.

I have just finished an intense week of pre-departure learning in Toronto. The past week was full of workshops, debates, and discussions with the other Junior Fellows. We were all living in the EWB house in Toronto - it was a house full of talking, laughter, music, and very little sleep. I went into pre-dep feeling very excited but somewhat unprepared for the next three months. I am leaving pre-dep feeling even more excited and much more comfortable with the unexpected.

As our final activity in pre-dep we all made a commitment for our placements. I have committed to staying present throughout my placement. This is something that I struggle with as I am forever planning/writing to-do lists/thinking about what I need to do next.  I am in Ghana for such a short amount of time and I really want to commit to being present in order to take in as much as I can over the next few months. I want to experience Ghanaian culture, learn more about what development actually looks like, and ultimately by being present I hope to be able to recognize opportunities so that I can have some sort of impact during my placement, or at least I hope to fail gracefully.

So you may be wondering to yourself: where am I now. Well, there is an interesting answer to that question. Our original flight plan involved us flying to Newark, then Washington, and finally Accra. Here is what actually happened…we ended up being very delayed in Newark and missing our connecting flight to Accra, though we tried dreadfully hard to catch that Accra flight. Picture 18 people sprinting through Dulles airport carrying multiple laptops and many motorcycle helmets hanging from backpacks…a truly ridiculous experience. After our epic journey through the Dulles airport, we were given the news that our plane had already left. Although incredibly disappointed we set up camp on the floor of the airport, hanging out, singing, snack eating and awaiting news of where we were going next. Eventually we received the news that we were staying in a hotel for the night and then flying through Frankfurt the following day.

The group of us were split into 3 flights in Frankfurt. My flight was not until 10 pm so a few of us went to check out DC today. We only had a couple of hours in DC so we hit a few of the touristy spots and wandered by some of the government buildings. There are some very incredible buildings which house the (apparently infinite) branches of the US government. Personal side note: I have now added going to the Smithsonian on my life to do list. After that it was back to the airport for our second attempt at going to Accra.

That brings me to right now, so far so good with Operation Accra Part Two. I am currently on the flight to Frankfurt. Pretty soon I will be able to stop imagining what Ghana will be like and replace those thoughts with experiences. This just in: I can now express the countdown to Ghana in terms of hours.