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!

It’s going to be a hot one!

21st March 2010

I stepped off the plane last night and was hit by a wall of solid humid heat. It was 8.30pm. I was picked up by Sammy an employee of a friend of a friend (Rupert) who has agreed to give me a base in Accra whilst I’m in Ghana. We like to beg and borrow accommodation and transport where possible! Rupert is Managing Director of a transport logistics business so I am picked up in a 4x4 Honda with blacked out windows, quite a step up from the usual battered old taxi with a hole in the floor. I feel a little underdressed for the occasion. The temperature gauge in the car says 28 degrees. Sammy takes me to Rupert’s house where I am given the warmest of welcomes accompanied by a local beer called “Club”, a slice of very cheesy pizza and Michael McIntyre on DVD (not very African so far). I have an early start tomorrow so turn in, very tired but looking forward to unfolding the mysteries of several new destinations over the next 10 days.

Africa time

Well so much for blogging every day! I landed Sunday night, it is now Friday! Needless to say so far nothing has gone according to plan, things keep breaking and everything is just a little bit chaotic! Anyway...I have finally found an internet cafe that has internet so I will post a couple of things that I have written over the past few days. These posts started short and sweet but as you know, this is not characteristic of the author so apologies in advance for the length of the rest! I will post Sundays blog then Monday's etc etc. I only have 4 followers so not too concerned that I'm letting anyone down!


Friday, 19 March 2010

Off to Ghana on Sunday

I'm off to Ghana for the first time on Sunday and thought it might be nice to share the experience with those of you who are interested in COCO and the way we select and evaluate our projects! I will try to be honest and interesting and would appreciate any feedback you have! I also have no idea as to the accessability of internet but I hope to update as much as possible! Happy reading! Lucy :-)