Friday, 2 April 2010

Day Light Saving and Slimy Fish Stew

Sun 28th March 2010

My alarm goes off and I get straight up, that £30 at least resulted in a good night’s sleep! I said I would be at George and Joyce’s house for 7.45 so I leave at 7.30 and take a leisurely stroll up the road. It’s a lovely lazy Sunday morning; women are brushing their children’s hair by the side of the road and they are dressing in their Sunday best for church. I arrive at the house and I am surprised that no one is around, perhaps they have overslept, I call out Grace’s name quite quietly just in case I wake anyone not going to church! Joyce comes to the door just as I look at my watch and see that I am an hour early. The clocks in the UK went forward last night and my UK phone is also my alarm clock so when it went off this morning at 6.30am it was in actual fact 5.30am Ghana time. I laugh and try to explain this to Joyce, apologise profusely and tell her I will come back in an hour. At least I get to do that walk again.

Back at the hotel I ask if I can have some coffee and I sit down to do some work. My coffee is taking ages so I remind the waitress and am told that it is just coming. I wait for a bit longer and a bit longer and just as I am thinking I will have to leave it as it’s now time to go back to the house, a waitress arrives with a tray of coffee, toast, eggs and fruit! Obviously when I asked for coffee she thought I wanted an entire breakfast. It looks lovely and I don’t want to cause offense so I eat it as quickly as I can without appearing gluttonous and head off to the house, now I’m going to be late! Luckily everyone else in the house is running late, we have more coffee and laugh about the fact that I was an hour early and then 10 minutes late. Jason left early this morning to arrange for the second container and crane to come up from Accra, it’s getting very exciting and I wish I could stick around to see the whole thing come together but Jason has promised to take plenty of photos! Grace, Joyce, George and I talk about where we go from here with the project. I will write a report and have a think about how we can apply a little more strategy to the project, I am sure there will be scope for us to partner some way in the future. I will see Grace when she is in Accra next Tuesday, we agree to have dinner at the posh Sushi place that I have been desperate to try. I have to get to Ho today and Sammy is coming for me at 10am so I say my goodbyes and head off.

Sammy is early so we hit the road and head to Ho. Next stop, Madventurers projects in and around the villages of the Volta region. My good friend and Madventurer Founder, John Lawler has arranged for me to stay at their volunteer house just outside of town. Gideon, Madventurer Ghana Manager, comes to meet Sammy and I in his car and we follow him to the house. When I get there I am introduced to two other members of the MAD team, Courage (who is Gideon’s right hand man) and George (who mainly just helps out when not at Uni in Accra). Gideon tells me there are 3 volunteers here at the moment but 2 of them are out. I introduce myself to the one volunteer in the house and find out that she just arrived and her name is Fuzzy , she is here for 6 weeks, her friend is also volunteering but went to church this morning as it’s Palm Sunday .

Gideon says we will have lunch before Sammy has to head back to Accra. I’m so relived because I am really hungry. Lunch is Banku (fermented corn/cassava dough) with Okra and Fish stew, I hate to say it but for the first time, I really can’t eat it. I try and eat some but there are so many fish heads and scales and tails and it’s so slimy that despite my ravenous hunger I really can’t eat much at all. Because of the fermentation process the banku just tastes like off milk and it’s not really going down very well. I just wash it down with a bag of pure water and try not to let on to the guys that I am not a fan!

We finish eating, I use the internet, update my blog and Gideon, George and I head to Shia village to see the very first Madventurer (MAD) project and meet the man who worked with John back in 1998 when he first lived in Ghana. John is a Chief of this village due to all the work that he and MAD have achieved there. I look at various different school buildings that have been put up by MAD and I am told what the plans are for the summer volunteer group. COCO has worked with MAD in the past mainly on projects in Tanzania and I hope we can do something similar in Ghana. MAD’s speciality is getting buildings up and functioning and we’d like to work alongside on the long term development objectives. This visit gives me a good idea of what they have achieved so far and how they operate in country.

There’s a football match going on in the village, the away team are from across the border in Togo which is very close by, in fact we can see the border from one of the schools. The football match has attracted lots of villagers on this lazy Sunday and there’s a real feel of community in the village. After a thorough examination of all the buildings and getting the low down on development plans for the summer, we head back to Ho.

Gideon tells me he will take me out for dinner as I didn’t like the fish stew (obviously I didn’t hide it very well) but I am so relieved! We get back to the house and all 3 volunteers are there, we have a quick chat and I get a quick much needed bucket shower, there’s no running water at the house at the moment. Gideon, George, Courage and I venture out to town and I order chicken and rice (nice and safe after the adventurous lunch). Gideon quizzes me about COCO and we chat about just about everything!

Back to the house, I talk to the girls about volunteering; I tell them all about COCO and then turn in. I wake up in the middle of the night because there is a huge storm and the rain is spitting at me through the open window! It’s really refreshing in the heat of the night so I don’t bother to close it and just throw the sheet over my head and go back to sleep.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Bikes, Bissap and Big Birds that Bite

Sat 27th March 2010

I had a much needed lie in this morning, and I am now on my 4th coffee chatting to Rupert and his “lodger” Mickey. I am not expected in Dodowa at the bike project until this afternoon so Sammy comes to pick me up at midday. Mickey has led an interesting life, originally from London, he has lived in Ghana for years and in Thailand before then, he is quite a character, unfortunately he smokes like a chimney and at 60 pesewas (28p) a packet, I think he’s unlikely to ever stop. We’ve been out here for an hour and I am sure he’s had about 10 fags! Before I keel over from passive smoking, I polish off my coffee and Sammy and I head for Dodowa.

I am going to Dodowa in the East on my way to Ho, the main reason for this visit is that ex COCO intern Faye, has put me in touch with an organisation called Ezetela. It is a memorial foundation set up in memory of a man who was dedicated to improving education opportunities for children in Ghana. At the moment, 2 volunteers, Grace and Jason are setting up a bicycle workshop in conjunction with an organisation called ReCycle, which has just sent a second shipment of ex Royal Mail bikes over to Ghana. The bikes are perfect for the area as they are hard wearing, they can carry heavy loads and they come equipped with a plastic basket on the front which is great for carrying anything from yams to chickens to children. The bikes are sold to local people and the money raised pays for impoverished families to send their children to school. The reason for the workshop is to train up a mechanic who can fix the Royal Mail bikes as they have a specific mechanism inside them that local mechanics would not be able to fix. The profits from the workshop will also be used for charitable purposes linked to education. It sounds very innovative and better still, sustainable and I am hoping we can learn something from each other about income generation activities.
Getting out of Accra is a real mission but once we make it past the University, the roads are relatively hazard free. Sammy puts his foot down and sticks on one of Rupert’s CD’s we have a bit of a sing-a-long and in no time we reach the bridge over Lake Volta and it’s not far from there.

Sammy and I arrive in Dodowa and I call Grace to find out where I should meet her, she says to stay put and she will come to us. She says “I’ll be the abroni (white person) on a bike”. I like the sound of her already with her Durham accent! Sure enough a few minutes later a petite blonde on a bike appears, I get out of the car say hello and we follow her to the hotel. Sammy has to get back to Accra so I check in and he heads off. The hotel is very nice, the only place to stay in Dodowa apparently, 64 cedis, wow that’s almost £30! Good job Rupert’s place is free to even it out!

I throw my bag in my room and meet Jason and Grace for a fanta fruit punch (not recommended tastes a bit like fairy liquid) in the outdoor gardens. Jason is clearly very passionate about this project and he is itching to show me the workshop and tell me all about the project. He fills me in on the background of the project and suggests that we take a walk to the workshop to explain their current status. The workshop is a 5 minute walk from the hotel, up the main road. We pass numerous market stalls selling everything from pure water (filtered water sold in plastic bags) to boiled eggs and dried fish.

We leave the main road down a dirt track to a clearing where there are a couple of houses, lots of washing hanging on the line and several children playing outside a couple of whom are riding bicycles. This is George and Joyce’s house, they are relatives of the late Ezekiel Lartey (after whom the foundation is named) their home is the location for the bike workshop and the 1st container that arrived sometime ago. Unfortunately George had to go to a funeral this morning so he is not around but I have promised to stay for a couple of hours in the morning to catch up with him before church.

Jason shows me the clearing where the 2nd container will go, the cement foundations, and the bike workshop which is very organised and well kept. We chat about the project and then realise that we are all really hungry, not wanting to impose on Joyce, we venture back to the hotel to eat, non of us have had lunch and it is almost 4pm, Grace’s Mum is visiting so the 4 of us sit in the hotel garden and try to order a very late lunch although most of the popular Ghanaian dishes are not available. I fancy Red Red, (a dish made with ripened plantains and black eyed beans) but there is non, so Grace suggests palava sauce (made with greens mainly spinach and meat), none of that either, eventually I discover they do have Gari (some kind of corned beef and tomato creation made with fresh cassava) and I decide to give that a go! We all order and discuss the project while we wait.

There are peacocks in this garden and they take an unwelcome interest to us when our food arrives. I was chased by a peacock on holiday in Devon when I was very young and as a result I am very frightened of them (in fact I’m not really a fan of any big bird that might bite you, so that includes swans, geese and anything else that has a beak and a ferocious streak). I manage to polish off my Gari without getting attacked by any of the peacocks.

Back to George and Joyce’s, good news George is back already, he seems keen to meet and talk to me about ideas for how Ezestela can progress. We all sit outside (it is very hot inside their house under that corrugated iron roof) we talk about the project, the problems in Dodowa with teenage pregnancies, a lack of understanding about the importance of education, the levels of poverty leading to hunger, the list goes on.

Once the mozzies become too much, we venture inside to the oven that is the living room, Joyce has made the most amazing Bissap (a really refreshing sweet drink made from red hibiscus) and cinnamon pancakes – must remember next time I am making pancakes to put cinnamon in the batter before I cook them! I am still full from the Gari but it’s rude to refuse so I have a little bit of the best pancake I ever ate!

The heat becomes unbearable and we are all tired, even the kids have fallen asleep on the floor, it’s 9pm so Grace and Jason walk me back to the hotel, I set my alarm for 6.30am and I am out for the count in seconds!

Lonely Planet to the Rescue

Fri 26th March 2010

Last night I got back to the hotel to find that I was the only guest there! Not wishing to eat dinner with all the staff staring at me, I choose to go back to my room, take a shower and venture into town by taxi to try out one of the restaurants there. Unfortunately when I get to my room I find the shower is broken so they move me, to a room where the shower head fell off whilst I was using it. Not having much luck with the plumbing, I decide to give in, throw a bucket of water over my head and head out! I have to leave early in the morning and have not really experienced Tamale, cue The Lonely Planet which recommends a place for good goat curry it’s called “Swad’s Fast Food” but according to the travellers bible I should not let that put me off, so that’s where I head! I meet some locals and volunteers and we talk all things developmental over a rather spicy but very tasty goat accompanied by chapattis and naan bread! The evening is really pleasant and definitely worth the 8 cedis (£3.80) return taxi ride to stop me going crazy in the tee total ghost town hotel!

Back at the hotel, I am shown to my 3rd room of the evening, the shower in this one works apparently, but I am so tired I don’t really mind! The receptionist gives me a very uncomfortable and inappropriate hug complete with an attempt to nuzzle his nose into my neck which I obviously pretend didn’t happen whilst pushing him in the direction of the door. I am not letting anything ruin my otherwise lovely evening!

I am up at 6am for my flight back to Accra, still full of goat I skip breakfast and meet Karimu who drives me to the airport, we say our goodbyes and I join the very long queue for check in! I meet a really lovely lady from Johannesburg in the queue, ( I remember how much I love and miss the accent) we both work in development so have a good chat, swap contacts and she gives me some names of NGO’s and useful contacts in South Africa and Uganda. She calls her work “due diligence” which I think sounds a lot important than project assessment!

I land and Rupert sends a message to say Sammy is running late, of course I don’t mind, Rupert has been extremely generous and I am happy to wait. I have a long debate with a Ghanaian airport employee who is trying to get money out of me and I argue that he doesn’t need it because he has a job, is wearing ray bans and Levi jeans! We have a bit of a giggle and he tells me he’d like to marry me to and I inform him I am absolutely definitely not interested. Surprisingly enough this is not enough to get rid of him so I put up with it for another 20 minutes and then feel relieved that Sammy arrives! It’s 10.15 and I have lots to do so we pop to Rupert’s to drop my things off and we head out, I have been without internet for too long so I ask Sammy to drop me at an internet cafe and tell him he can leave me there for most of the day. He leaves me at a place called busy internet, I meet some volunteers who tell me there is a faster broadband connection in Osu so I finish what I am doing and head to the there. The volunteers were right; I get lots done with a much faster internet. Not much to report today, a bit of an admin day. I prep for departure to the East tomorrow and persuade Rupert to let me take him out for a drink, we meet with some of his work colleagues and have a really fun night. I could get used to this!

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Flying Fowl and Financial Failings

25th March 2010 (forget the cuppa, you’re going to need a whole pot for this little essay)

Up at 6am after quite a long sleep! I am just pleased I made it through the night! Only kidding, the VIP accommodation was actually very nice although the bed had a huge dip in it and I have a bit of a tweak in my back this morning. The others aren’t ready yet so I venture up to the hotel for a much needed coffee and the hope that there might be some action at the water hole! The good news is they have plenty of coffee and I get it in less than 10 minutes, bad news, no animals at the water hole.

Karimu told me last night that there are not very many elephants left due to the poachers paying off the park guards to let them hunt and shoot the elephants. It is so sad because a well kept national park could bring a lot more (much needed) wealth through tourism in the North. Karimu’s theory is that the guards are from the South so they don’t care about preserving the North!

We have changed vehicles today because the route we are taking is very sandy and we need a tougher car. This should be interesting, 3 school’s and one VTC, bring it on! The new vehicle is a white pickup truck, there is a new driver and a new guide (there are no road signs and few proper roads so we need a guide to get us to the first village). The guide drove over to meet us last night on his motorbike so we have to put the bike on the back of the pick up along with my backpack a cool box and everyone else’s paraphernalia.

On the way Karimu told me about some of the health issues in the North, one in particular is guinea worm. If you are eating you might want to come back to this later. Guinea worm takes form through a water borne parasite which makes its way into the body through unfiltered water; the parasite grows into a worm. You know nothing about it until the worm breaks through the skin (normally on the leg) and you can’t just pull it out, you have to pull it a centimetre at a time and these things can be very long. The broken skin can then lead to infection and untreated can cause long term damage. He said I shouldn’t worry because I have been drinking mineral water (I hope brushing my teeth with tap water doesn’t count)!

The journey today is very long and the sandy roads mean that we can’t go very fast. It is a little tiresome; I can’t read or work so I just have to look out of the window and do nothing (not easy for me but a skill I should probably learn). Finally we arrive at Bowina Primary School, one of Wulugu’s early projects. This village appears to be much more poor than the previous places we have visited, more children are naked and one little boy is running around with a cardboard box attached to a bit of string, Karimu tells me it is his toy car. One little boy has nasty sores on his tummy, I want to ask Karimu what it is but I am worried he will embarrass the boy so I take a crafty photo and will ask later. Lots of the children have swollen tummies and the classrooms are totally bare, not a poster in site, no pencils or exercise books and in some classrooms there are 1 or 2 out of date government text books.
I’m not sure if it’s the heat, the long journey or the fact that I have been seeing the same issues day after day but I am starting to get a bit frustrated. Wulugu have built these classrooms that should have been built by the government, the district officials say they are grateful for the help Wulugu is giving and the chiefs laden us with gifts but still the children have no text books (which are supposed to be supplied by the government) no exercise books or pencils (because their parents can’t afford them) and despite a national promise to give each child one hot meal per day most of these children have not had breakfast, won’t get lunch at school so will go home to eat what the family can provide and they will often go to bed without dinner. Sometimes it just makes me so angry. The government say the have no money; I have a mock presidential suite district office that says otherwise!

Next to the primary school, Wulugu have built a junior high school (JHS), again the blackboards are illegible (there must be a better way to make them) the floors have holes in them and the door frames have woodworm (Karimu says it’s because they used soft wood from the South). I am reminded of our cultural differences when one of my African colleagues says to one of the JHS classes, “I hope that you are happy that you can come to Junior High in your own village and do not have to travel far to other villages, especially you girls, you know what happens when you have to travel to the other villages...boys take advantage of you and you become pregnant. Now you have no reason to become pregnant, you do not have to travel. If you become pregnant after you have been given this school, we will send you to the bush and feed you to the lions”. Coming from a country and indeed a city where teenage pregnancy is high, I do not want to appear hypocritical but I am not sure that frightening the life out of young girls is not the best way to prevent them from getting pregnant.

I’m having quite a tough day today, perhaps you can tell by my writing tone. So I start asking difficult questions to the teachers like, why have you not tried to fix the door or blackboards, why are there no books, have you contacted the government for text books, have you spoken to your local authority? I hound the teacher s with questions, encourage them to engage with the local education authorities, write to the president, and do whatever it takes to at least say you try to do all you can to create a good learning environment for these children. No wonder they don’t pass exams! Would you if all you did Monday to Friday was sit in the 32 degree heat of a classroom with an empty stomach, no books no papers and a teacher talking at you from an out of date text book because he has no chalk and even if he did the blackboard has eroded so it’s not like he can use it. I think I’d fail, I think I might even stay at home!

I bite my lip as best I can because I don’t want to appear rude and I know they struggle for funds and it’s not their fault. I just wish all teachers were as motivated as those at the VTC in Sawla. We go to the chief, drop of the guide and the motor bike, pick up a lady and her son, they all go in the back of the pickup with the chicken and yams that the chief just gave us. We hear that a pregnant lady needs to go to the clinic so we pick her up too.

We arrive at the next school at Lingbinsi but it appears to be closed, we get closer and a dozen or so children start running back to the school. We get out of the car and I take some photos of the kids, 2 of whom are wearing Barak Obama t shirts. I wonder if I send those pics to the American President, maybe he will up his aid to Africa. Karimu speaks to someone who looks like he might be a teacher. He goes to get back in the car and I ask what’s happening. Karimu says, “They have closed early because the children were hungry, come on we are going”. He is clearly annoyed and embarrassed. Karimu is a proud man and wanted to show me all the good work that has been done and the school has closed early. I tell him it’s OK and not to worry. We pull away and the children scream “teacher teacher”, their teacher is on his way but we don’t wait.
We stop at another VTC, the first one that Wulugu built, it is a bit smaller than the rest and they are in need of more teaching equipment, especially for the hair dressing class. There is a girls dorm here too, we take a quick look, I think Karimu is getting ready to call it a day, perhaps I am not the only one who has had a trying day and maybe my frustrations are affecting him. I try to lighten the atmosphere, suggesting as it is so hot perhaps we should all have a soda and our packed lunches. Karimu says we will as soon as we have seen the chief.

We see another closed school (they do sports on a Thursday afternoon) from a distance and then we head to the centre to meet the chief, he is in his “palace” having a meeting with all the men from the village. As we get out of the pickup, I hear a loud squawk and turn around just to see a frantic chicken trying to fly with its feet tied together, you have to admire its optimism at taking an attempt at freedom despite the odds. It fly’s almost directly at my head, out of the back of the truck and onto the ground, somehow it finds its feet and starts running away, the local children go crazy trying to catch it!

Commotion has well and truly set in! We sit at the Chiefs palace for a while, listening to the men speak, it is all in the local language so I just smile politely. The chief is seated in the corner, wearing a football shirt and a taqiyah (Muslim cap aka a Kufi). There is a man stood up in the centre with a big stick he is repeating everything each of the speakers says. We are given yet more food as a thank you and we leave for Tamale. At last, we have our packed lunches, (warm cheese and tomato sandwiches) I have never been more ready for a cold beer and a good meal, it’s been a tough day but very very worthwhile.

Monday, 29 March 2010

VTC's and VIP's

24th March 2010

When I arrived back at the hotel last night all I wanted was a cold beer a shower and my bed (in that order). I asked the gentleman at reception if there was a bar, he said yes, pointed to a fridge full of soft drinks, to which I said, oh great, can I have a beer please? No, we do not sell alcohol here. Gutted! Too depressed to even eat so got myself a fanta and settled down to do some work and went to bed at 8.30pm!

Anyway, up at 6am today, breakfast 6.30 and departure 7am. I tell Karimu I would really like to stay somewhere with internet next time and he says sorry but I am booked in here again on Thursday! Never mind, will try to remember for next time. I never knew how much I needed the internet to survive (especially if there is no beer and no people to talk to). I want to know what’s happening at work, get the latest gossip on facebook and check my bank balance! Anyway I digress...

The best part of today and the whole trip so far in fact was the visit to Sawla VTC (Vocational Training Centre), this is the furthest West I have been and not very far from the border with the Ivory Coast. The girls at this centre are the friendliest I have ever met, not to mention the most enthusiastic. There is a feel about the place that I have only found at some primary schools in Tanzania and even that is usually brought on by over excitement! There’s a feeling that everyone genuinely wants to be here and they are happy and grateful for their chance at an education. They want to hear what I have to say, what my advice is to them, they smile clap and laugh when I wish them good luck with their exams. I ask the computer class “Are you confident that you will pass your exams in November” and I am met with a loud and resounding “Yes!” What has been created here is so much more than an educational institution; it’s a great big family. The headmistress talks to her girls like they are her own daughters and there is a definite air of respect in her communication, unlike so many teachers who tend to talk down to students and dictate to them. I am approached by a lady with a tape measure who gestures that she would like to take my measurements; I let her and try not to giggle as the tape tickles! I hope they don’t want to make me something and then send it to UK, it will cost a bomb!

Just when I think this centre couldn’t get any better, the headmistress takes me into the back of her office to show me what I can only describe as a handmade printing copier machine for printing textiles. I will have to post photos to explain exactly what it is but this invention made me realise what the difference was between this and most of the other projects I have visited, it is pure and simple initiative. The staff here have it in abundance and their influence is being passed to the students. Wulugu funded the building to start with but since then the teachers themselves have sourced much of what is needed. Karimu was not even aware that they needed a printing machine. Instead of asking for it to be bought for them they used the funds they had to make one.

The girls are learning a variety of skills here including hair dressing, dress making, tie dye, tailoring, catering and information technology. The teachers have teamed this up with life and entrepreneurial skills classes. I think it has all the elements required to be a very successful project, the proof will be seen in the pass rates in November and the number of students that find employment as a result. I am really looking forward to seeing what level of success is achieved here.

The need for this centre is for more classrooms and more dorms, there are just too many students and they desperately need more places. The demand is huge and girls are coming from far afield to try to get a place at this centre. Opportunities for education in the North are scarce but opportunities for quality education are practically nonexistent with the exception of this centre. The fees for a term are 5 cedis which is around £2.30 (£6.90 per year) not all of them can afford to pay this but the teachers help out where they can. We eat courtesy of the catering department again, fabulous food and this time we even get a fizzy drink! Before we leave, I am given a beautiful tie dye dress that the girls have been working on since I arrived; they have also thrown in a batik and a woven blanket! I am touched by their kindness, I thank them and wish them the best of luck with their studies. We leave and I feel very positive that Wulugu have done some great work and I am hopeful of a partnership.

On our way to our overnight accommodation, we stop at the district office to do the official bit the big cheese is not in, so we meet with his next in command! Before we leave, I ask to use the ladies room and I am guided there by one of Karimu’s friends. On the way he opens the door to the office of the presently absent district “big cheese” it looks like a presidential suite! White leather couches in an office the size of most people’s houses. Karimu’s friend is laughing at the decadence of it all but I can’t help feeling a little bit angry that the district commissioners have this and the girls at the VTC are sleeping on the floor in an overcrowded dorm just to get an education.

We (Karimu, his grandson and driver) arrived at Mole Motel in the heart of Mole National Park, although the place is in desperate need of a facelift, we have been invited as guests of the district, and it seems nice enough, there are a few other white people here too, it’s a popular place to take time out from the dry heat of Tamale. It’s quite cruel that in this muggy 30 degree heat, there’s a pool, and I have meetings to attend to!! I was relieved to check into my shabby but comfortable air conditioned room, complete with mini bar and DSTV, but was then told actually there had been a misunderstanding and we were staying in the house down the road which is specifically for VIP guests of the District Coordinator. Normally I would be OK with this but it means I get no time to myself, which for me is not good! I am grateful though, it’s free!
Things are looking up, guinea fowl and ground nut stew with rice balls for dinner (eaten with fingers of course) accompanied by...A BEER!!! Hooray! We eat by the pool and watch as the baboons try to steal the food from the guests, I’m glad we’re sitting a bit further back some of those baboons are the size of Great Danes! I have had my VIP bucket shower (I’m sure half my shampoo is still in my hair), and walk to my room bear foot to find that the VIP floor could do with some TLC because my feet are black!

Sunday, 28 March 2010

Banquet in the boot!

23rd March 2010

My alarm went off at 3.30am, I had asked Sammy if we could leave at 4.30am so I could be at the airport in time to check in for the 6am Antrak Air flight to Tamale, (Northern Ghana). Sammy was sleeping on the sofa when I came out of my room, I woke him and we set off, for once the roads were quiet. I arrived and approached the desk and was told “please take a seat madam we are waiting to hear about the weather conditions”. Ok no problem, a little delay will be OK, sure enough the full flight departs only an hour and a half late.

I arrive at Tamale having enjoyed an hours sleep and traditional breakfast of chicken sandwich and coke courtesy of Antrak Air. I am met by a tall man with white hair, “Lucy?” “Karimu!” (Karimu voluntarily coordinates all of the activities of Wulugu, an NGO that COCO is hoping to partner with). Karimu had told me that I would recognise him due to his white hair and that “not another there that day would have hair that is white” and he was right! We confirm my return flight (didn’t know you still had to do that so it’s a good job he’s here) apparently if you don’t they can just replace you with another passenger! We head into the centre of Tamale to check into my hotel, it’s a lovely place on a quiet street with beautiful gardens and the staff are really attentive but it’s quite far out of town and I can’t see an internet cafe anywhere! Never mind, quick change, stock up on water and we’re off. We leave at 10am destination Buipe, which is out to the West (about 2 hours from Tamale) we have many villages to stop at on the way to see the many school refurbishments and rebuilds that Wulugu have undertaken. I am really looking forward to this. It’s so important that NGO’s strive to help those in the rural areas and from what I can gather so far, it doesn’t get much more rural than this!

I won’t tell you about every school but will point out some highlights including the masses of gifts that we received on our travels. The format of each school visit is very similar, we drive up, the kids hear the engine (there are very few cars around), the kids run out of their classrooms to get a peek, I get out with my white skin and my huge camera and the giggles and sometimes screams (depending on the discipline of the school) follow! As soon as I point my camera, the kids either run away or strike a pose! It’s not necessarily natural for these kids to look at a camera and smile so I spend my entire time pulling faces and blowing raspberries to make sure they don’t look grumpy! Don’t get me wrong, they aren’t miserable children they are just too concerned with who I am, why I am there and what I am doing that they don’t really think to smile! I do my cheesy grin showing all my teeth to explain what I’m getting at and the response is a whole host of brilliant white smiles! It never ceases to amaze me that despite poverty, children always seem to have brilliant white teeth and I doubt they use Colgate!

We visit some traditional schools made of mud where the classrooms are about the size of the 4x4 we are traveling in, they are full of dust and there is little or no light. We visit other schools that have been built by Wulugu, these classrooms are much bigger, have proper windows to let the light in and they have concrete floors so the dust is minimal. Wulugu have also supplied desks and benches but there is a visible lack of resources. In one class only one child has an exercise book, no pencil or pen and there is not a text book inside. One of the teachers tells me that because they have to buy cheap chalk, the blackboards are all scratched and need replacing.

At each village, we have to call to see the chief. I am made to feel very welcome and some of the village elders offer me their wrist to shake out of respect. The chief at Old Buipe gave us a goat, a massive bucket full of yams, about 2 dozen guinea fowl eggs, all of which we added to the collection in the boot which so far had, more eggs, more yams, 2 live guinea fowl one chicken and dove (which is a special gift for me apparently). It’s 2pm and I have been up since 3am and not had anything to eat since my chicken sandwich on the plane and although I am grateful for all the gifts in the boot, I would rather they were in an edible state.

We arrive at Buipe VTC (Vocational Training Centre) at 2.30pm and I am delighted to hear that the catering students have prepared lunch for us! Chicken, rice, coleslaw and MAYO!!! I’m in heaven! The VTC is great, quite quiet at the moment as many of the students have graduated but nevertheless the facilities are impressive and the girls very well mannered. I am spending a whole day at a VTC the day after tomorrow and this blog is getting long so I’ll leave it there for now. On our way back to Tamale I tried to sleep in the car although it wasn’t easy with the boot bleeting and clucking!

Friday, 26 March 2010

TIA (This is Africa)!

22nd March 2010 - might want to make yourself a cuppa, it's a long one!!

Clearly the one thing Ghana does have in common with every other African country I have visited is the fact that nothing happens very quickly! On the plus side I have written a couple of reports this morning that have been somewhat overdue for some time. Despite all efforts to be on time, Sammy and I leave the house at 10am in search for RAM preparatory school in Darkuman. COCO have wanted to look into working with this school for some time since it was brought to our attention after a Durham University student volunteered there in the summer of 2006.

The traffic in Accra is, like most African capital, chaotic! There are no traffic lights, only police men and women waving their hands around with no real sense of order, which translates into traffic jams, congestion and road rage. I am quite pleased to be in the comfort of this posh car as opposed to one of the tro tro’s (Ghanaian busses) packed full of men, women, children, vegetables and livestock, it’s far too hot to be sharing a bus with a farm yard! After a stop at the bank to change some pounds to cedis, we stopped and asked no less than 2 garage attendants, 3 shop owners and 2 builders for directions. I had only an address, a cell phone number that wasn’t working today and a handful of old black and white photos of the school but we found it eventually in the most peculiar of places.

The school is located in a busy residential and shopping area in between various informal shops and businesses. It is made up of several buildings all of which are rented from a private landlord and has a major walkway for the public running straight through it. I can see from first glance the this school is not up to scratch and I a little worried about the set up but I smile politely as I walk into what seems to be a staff room to introduce myself to the headmaster.

Mr Mante and his assistant head Moses greet me and ask why I failed to tell them I was coming (I did, they obviously got the dates mixed up and I have caught them off guard – which is no bad thing) not a great start! The children are beautiful and very friendly, I am met by a chorus of “good morning madam” and have my hand shaken by at least 2 dozen little grubby hands. I explain to the teachers that I am Lucy from COCO in England and I am a friend of Cat’s (the student who volunteered there in 2006). I remind them of the email I sent back in January to ask if I could visit and remind them of our numerous phone calls in 2009 when we were trying to establish a budget. It seems that has sparked off some memories at last! I ask if I can take a look at the school, photograph the buildings and children and speak to some of the teachers. I am given permission and the tour begins.

As in every African school visit, I have to see every class room and meet each teacher, be greeted by the students and speak to them in English, their protocol, not mine. The school is diabolical, it is completely run down, and under resourced. In fact without the children in uniform, it would look nothing like a school. There are no partitions between the classes so each class interrupts the next, the roof has holes in it, the walls are eroding, the blackboards are illegible and there are no books, papers or pencils and no learning resources at all. What’s worse is that this is a school that receives volunteers from all over the “developed world” and no one has thought to bring in posters or books.

The teachers look disinterested and to be honest I can’t really blame them, from what I understand, most of the pupils can’t afford to pay their school fees so the teachers often go without pay. Unfortunately no one is keeping an accurate record of any of the finances so there is no evidence to prove that this is the case. I am told the only support they receive is some money for fees from parents and some donations occasionally. The government give them books sometimes but not enough and not often.

I ask the teachers what it is they need the most and they tell me it is land. They want to buy their own land so that they can build a school that belongs to them so they will have no rent costs each month. The problems lie in the fact that they can’t afford to buy the land because the school has no money and they have no evidence to suggest that they could make the school sustainable if they did get the land. COCO only go into a project if we can genuinely see a way to incorporate community participation and capacity building. I don’t want to add our name to a long list of organisations that hand out money for the sake of it and I honestly feel that if we gave money to this school we would be doing the donors of that funding a disservice.

There are 2 kinds of schools in Ghana, government and private. It would seem that anyone can set up a private school and this is what has happened here, a group of teachers have got together and decided to set up a private school. Whilst that is incredibly noble of them it presents a few issues with accountability. The fact that the school buildings are rented from a private landlord means there is no way that COCO can refurbish them – I am fairly certain that our donors do not want to give to this project to improve the building s for some fat cat landlord on the outskirts of Accra. This is why buying their own land is probably the only feasible option for this school, but this is expensive, it’s a long term investment and we have to be sure it can be sustainable for the children and teachers and that’s before you go into the issue that it should be the government’s responsibility to build schools with their vast aid budgets.

I have learnt from past experience not to invest in these “private schools” unless you can hold someone accountable for the delivery of progress and without an attachment to an NGO or CBO this is an issue for RAM. I asked where they would go if they could buy the land, they say they can take me there, they have already found land. I ask how much it costs and after the three of them (by now the English teacher has joined us) have a conversation in Chi, Moses asks me if I want to know in old cedis or new cedis (which I think quite odd) I ask for the cost in new cedis seeing as that is the currency now. He tells me 80,000 Cedis, I look shocked and he changes his mind, no it is actually 8,000 cedis, then he scratches his head and says ah no maybe it is 800,000 cedis with costs ranging from £4,000 to £400,000 I decide to ask them to do some research, put a budget together and I will come back on Friday.

On the way out, I pop my head into the one class in which there is a volunteer and I introduce myself, her name is Lorraine and she is here for 4 weeks with a volunteer organisation called Travellers Worldwide. I briefly explain why I am here, the situation and ask her if she would answer some questions for me about the school when I return on Friday, she agrees, we swap contact details and I leave.

It’s 13.30, I still need a phone, sim card and airtime, have to pay for my air fare at the Antrak ticket office and get to the internet, lunch would be nice at some point too! Sammy and I talk in the car about his perceptions of the school and he has similar concerns to me, for which I am both disappointed (that helping these children is not going to be as easy as I had hoped) and relived (that my instinct has been seconded by a very bright Ghanaian). The rest of the day is dedicated to the usual day one logistics and planning for my trip North which starts tomorrow at 3am!