Viewing Ghana Through A New Pair of Goggles

Trip Start Oct 20, 2005
Trip End Nov 04, 2006

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Flag of Ghana  ,
Friday, June 2, 2006

After four weeks of frustration and disillusionment with our work and home life, the tables seem to be turning. We must briefly recap the negatives so that you will feel the same sense of optimism that we do about the new opportunity that has arisen.

First off, our work with WAAF has been one hair-pulling experience after another. We have been exposed to a work ethic and cultural approach to business that we could never work in for the long term. Their website,, is impressive and gives the impression that WAAF has a lot of projects going. But soon after we began working, we realized things here are like movie sets at Universal Studios - there is nothing behind the beautiful facade; projects here may be concepts on paper and not actually done as claimed.

Justin was charged with setting up a monitoring and evaluation plan for the projects that are in place (we have learned that only two projects are actually being done, one with the support and creativity of a Canadian volunteer). Justin spent quite a bit of time teaching the staff basic project planning & documentation concepts and skills - with mobile phones ringing and being answered in the middle of these meetings. Unfortunately, we're not sure if these skills will actually be used on a long-term basis. He also got the opportunity to work on his human resources skills by advising the management, at their request, on how to best monitor employee work. Hopefully, the management will actually put these suggestions into action.

Jamie's projects setting up management systems also leads to the question about their utility. She thinks the work is more likely to sit on a shelf and collect dust, just as past volunteer projects have done.

The general themes of "not following through on what one promises" and "not taking initiative" seem to be the common problems that all the Europeans/North Americans we talk with face when working in Ghana. Our desire to cast our experiences in sociological terms means that we've asked lots of questions of other Westerners who have been in Africa for twenty-plus years. And we've received some intriguing generalizations.

One long-time Africa hand told Justin that, generally speaking, people in Ghana are hired not for their skills or past work experiences, but for their ethno-linguistic affinity to the manager. In English, that means that I wouldn't be hired because I was the best qualified (of the available job candidates), but because I am distantly related by tribal group or language to the boss. To be sure, this is a damning generalization. But it's an enormous one whose effects we believe we see being played out at WAAF every day.

After spending several days here and interacting with WAAF staff, many of whom are HIV+, we had a realization about HIV/AIDS situation in Ghana, which perhaps holds true for the rest of Africa. That is, when yet another news segment is done on HIV/AIDS in Africa, we are only told half the story. The images and accompanying voice over only seem to tell you about hardships and difficult moments in an HIV+-person's life. News coverage makes them an HIV/AIDS patient first, and a person second, thus obscuring their humanity. You never see them laughing, being a parent or child, or working at a job.

At WAAF, we were introduced to many staff in those first few days, and were told that so-and-so was HIV+ (though not with them present). To be sure, this was a terrible breach of medical privacy, but what was really troubling was the normalcy of not only the disclosure, but also the general situation.

One heartbreaking, yet hopeful thing we saw in our first day was when a five year-old girl came running into the office and wrapped her arms around Justin's legs. Adwoa is from a village in northern Ghana, but now lives with the caretaker at the clinic. In her village, she was accused of being a witch (a sad, but common problem throughout West Africa) - because of her distended stomach and the ravages of the disease. As a result, she was abandoned by her family and left to die. Luckily, she was rescued by an aid worker and brought to the clinic. Since her arrival in Accra, she has been nursed back to better health and has started anti-retroviral therapy soon.(ART is the expensive lifesaving "cocktail" of drugs that has prolonged the lives of millions of people living with HIV, mostly in the West). Adwoa is very small for her age, but very mischievous and always smiling.

We have been really impressed by number of the HIV/AIDS education messages dotting the town. The estimated HIV prevalence in Ghana is low (2.7% of the total population) compared to other parts of Africa, like South Africa, where almost 25% of the population is HIV positive. Despite this low prevalence, there is always the threat of an increase in the number of people who get HIV/AIDS.

In addition to our frustrations with WAAF, the other irritating but somewhat humorous, experience is that we were evicted from our home stay for using the fan too much. Two and a half weeks into our turbulent stay, we get a knock on our door at 6:30 am waking us. It is Mama Nana, our house mother. She tells us to turn off the air-conditioning. We explain that the a-c is not on, just the fan (which is in the same unit). She says it doesn't matter, that we have it on all the time and it uses too much electricity.

Okay, so then why did she agree to have us stay and agree on a price, if she was worried about use of electricity? We also ponder how a bill in Ghana (especially given the pace of life governed by so-called GMT - Ghana Man Time) could come so quickly to show how many units of electricity we have been using in the last 2.5 weeks. Then she says she doesn't want us to stay here any longer - after the time we have paid through, which is the end of May. Then she walked away. We were incredulous! This is a first for us - getting thrown out of the house for using a fan. We've never met anyone else who can add that to their list of accomplishments in life...

One conspiracy theory Justin devised is that were thrown out because we're not Christian enough for our house mother. One somewhat frightening, but telling, episode occurred when she announced to us that she had completed pastor "training" at her church - she needed to collect donations for the event. Out came donation envelopes with "Institute of Spiritual Warfare and School of Reclamation" printed on them. She wanted us to donate money so that she could convert people! In addition to this, we had declined to go to a six hour weekly service at her church!

Also, in the first week, the house keeper asked us to bring her back to the US to employ her in our home. It is hard to explain to someone with limited English that that is not possible, and only do the really wealthy have live in maids. Not to mention that getting a US visa is very difficult, and life in the US may not be the luxury that is seen on TV here, like in the show "OC." This request has made Jamie feel really uncomfortable, around the woman, for the rest of our month at the house.

Turns out that our suspicions that our host mother, Nana, is a bit "crazy" was confirmed by some neighborhood gossip. One of the other volunteers we work with lives down the street. His host sister had met our host brother who proceeded to tell her how crazy Mama Nana is. Don't you love the gossip mill? - it's like being back in the 5th grade. Well, at least we know that it is not us and our Western ways! We can't do anything but shake our heads at that one.

We would be remiss if we didn't relate our more numerous, positive interactions with Ghanaians. We're taken with their incredible politeness and gregariousness. The Ghanaians we know always seem to be laughing and cracking jokes (and because it's in English, we can laugh with them).

Another observation: without a doubt, Ghana is the most fervently Christian country we've ever been in (including parts of our own, which is really saying something!). On public transport, many people seem to be reading the Bible. This devotion is also played out in the names of businesses. For example, on one street in the Pig Farm neighborhood (no kidding), one can find "Christ is the Answer Motorcycle Parts," "Almighty Photo & Video Productions," "Jesus is My Shepherd drink stand," and Justin's favorite - "Redeemers Academy Remedial Tutoring," which is aimed at students who have failed, but are trying to pass the national high school exam.

Through Justin's accurate evaluation skills, he estimates that 70% of ALL businesses in Accra have a name of Biblical origin. It's not all pure, though: on the same street is "Lovers Hotel." In these names, sarcasm or tongue-in-cheek humor is definitely not intended. The Ghanaian Christians we know are quite devout in word and deed. About the only thing they don't joke about is their Christian faith.

We have been meeting many foreign volunteers and have been spending time with them as an outlet to our frustrations at work. They relate working-in-Ghana experiences that are similar to ours. Comparing stories helps keep us all sane.

So, now to the story about the turn of events here:

Jamie's wise mother once said, "Opportunity is not going to come knocking on your door, you have to seek it out yourself." So, if you are unhappy, the best thing to do is to get busy and try to create new opportunities.

Three weeks ago, knowing that she could not endure this frustration, Jamie walked into the Population Council's office to seek out another volunteer opportunity. The "Pop Council" is based out of New York and is a solid, credible public health organization ( After two weeks of waiting, she was called in to meet Jim Phillips, Population Council's country advisor to Ghana. That is when things began to look up.

Jim invited Jamie to travel with him up to the northeast towards the Togo border to the poorest area in Ghana to see how their community-based health centers worked. The trip was also to celebrate with the villagers the opening of a brand new health center. It took about six hours to drive from Accra in a four-wheel drive truck; two of those hours were on unpaved roads. The "town" is an unpaved street made up of a few blocks of businesses. Most "income" is based on subsistence farming of yams and cassava. It is lush and green, and the hills that create the natural boarder between Ghana and Togo hover just beyond the villages.

A donor from Denver gave gobs of money (at least for Ghana) to install a satellite Internet connection. This remote district, which only received electricity with in the last five years, has now been connected to the world. Jim took Jamie out there to see the launch of the internet, and to celebrate the clinic opening at a "durbar" in Alukpatsa.

This was an amazing experience. As soon as we stepped out of the truck, hundreds of colorfully clad locals surrounded us, playing drums and dancing. The durbar serves to unite the community and celebrate a happy occasion. At this event, through many speeches (all in the local language), they welcomed the new public health nurse into their community, and honored the people who made the new clinic possible. The even made Jim an honorary chief. From a tourist perspective, this was a look into true village Africa, without any tourist spin to it. The best part was that she was made to feel comfortable and welcome - not just some voyeuristic outsider.

Population Council has a program which creates community based health clinics with public health nurses in villages in Ghana. From a public health perspective, the work they have done is amazing. They have managed to set these clinics up and their research has shown that the health of the people has quantifiably improved - the number of deaths from preventable reasons like malaria and child birth has decreased.

Nkwanta district has just one doctor, Koku, who serves the entire region - 187,000 people. With Population Council's support, he has expanded the primary health center in Nkwanta town and helped raise funds to build health clinics in most of the zones in his district. They recently acquired an ambulance which is a tractor with a little trailer attached to the back. The tractor is the best means of navigating the "roads" that connect the villages to the main town. It has saved lives by getting people to the doctor in time

Jamie's trip to Nkwanta District in far eastern Ghana turned into an incredible new opportunity for us. We were invited to come live out there for several weeks and work on some important projects. This is our way out of Accra and the opportunity to experience a different side of Ghana.

Justin will be working to conceptualize how pharmaceutical supplies, which come from abroad, can be best distributed to clinics in these remote regions. Jamie will depart from traditional public health and do some creative writing to describe what the successes and pitfalls of implementing a health program in this rural area so that other regions in Ghana can glean from these lessons.

So, it is with excitement, but some guarded skepticism (due to our less-than-thrilling month of exposure to Ghana) that we will embark on this new adventure. First we will travel to the beaches for a little R&R then we will move up to a bungalow in Nkwanta town, or the "bush" as Jamie calls it. We will have our own space and Jamie will be able to cook for the first time in months. They eat a type of rodent called the "grasscutter." If we want protein, Jamie will learn how to cook those guys. She has already tasted it and claims that it is not bad - but doesn't taste like chicken.

So, we only hope that the remaining six weeks in Ghana will be different. It is a shame that in our first month we have been counting down the days until we head to Italy. It is also a shame that our optimism is guarded. This is due to the fact that our expectations for Ghana and WAFF were high, yet only resulted in frustration and disappointment. However, by being proactive and seeking out new experiences, we hope that we have fallen into something good. We'll keep you posted from Nkwanta - as long as the satellite internet keeps working!
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