Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Running Free

On my second day at work, I showed up, was ushered onto the back of a motorbike and promptly sent off into the bush. Piloting the motorbike was Janet, a wonderfully kindhearted mother and extension agent/WIAD (Women In Agricultural Development) officer, and taking the lead in another motorbike was Zack, the district's extension officer.

I had “chopped” (Ghanaian for “ate”) some food that morning that made me feel a bit queasy. This was strange because I had been in Ghana for about two weeks and up to that point I had stayed in a village, drank the water, and was feeling quite good. Fortunately, the queasiness quickly settled and by the time we sat down to visit the first farming group, it was a distant memory. The farmers assembled in front of us – thirty or so. They crowded onto two benches, tree roots and dirt, and encouraged us to sit on their best plastic chairs they had assembled, in true Ghanaian fashion, specially for our visit.

Then, they brought out a cup of water, source unknown. The farmers sat, watching me with the cup in my hands. I looked at my stomach. It looked at me.

I took a small sip from the cup and drew a big smile, and passed the cup down the line for the next person to drink. The meeting continued, and although it was in Kusaal of which at the time I knew extremely little, Zack patiently translated the conversation and encouraged me to ask a lot of questions. The knowledge I gained from these field visits, which would certainly have been different without such patient and knowledgeable co-workers, formed the basis for the work that I did in assisting the Agricultural Extension Agents (AEAs) on the latter portion of my placement.

Janet, meanwhile, was very interested in peeling some seeds. She offered me one and I nearly choked - it was so bitter! She asserted they had wonderful nutritional value and was popping them like candy, so I downed another one and we headed out off visit the next farming group.

As we pulled up under a tree where the farmers were gathered, I could still taste the bitter after-taste from the seeds. I looked up to possibly grab some low-lying leaves I could chew on.

I was standing under a tree full of ripe mangoes! I had heard stories from the long-term EWB volunteers, warning about being sick from unwashed mangoes (people here eat the mangoes skins and all, like apples) – but hey, when in Rome. So, I accepted a few mangoes graciously offered from the farming group, and by golly were they good!

Fast forward to the next morning: Fortunately, I was staying in a house in town (Bawku) at the time and when I woke up the following morning, I was only a brief jaunt from my bed to washroom. The short distance meant I was able to catapult myself out of bed and over to the defecation station without, marvelously, soiling myself. I laughed pretty hard and wondered, was it the water I sipped? Was it that food from the morning? Was it the mango I ate?

I made it in to work, albeit an hour or so late. The district director, Lucy, with whom I was staying, had noticed me running to the washroom in the morning and surmised that I had been a bit sick. Interestingly enough, apparently the previous day Janet didn’t even make it until the morning before she found herself running to the washroom. As soon as we had we arrived back to the office the rest of her day had been a bit, er, explosive.

I explained to Lucy my surprise at having my first bout of liquid lightning; I found that these situations are made even funnier by the fact that you can rarely deduce what actually caused all the fun. Lucy, the district director, laughed pretty hard. She looked me square in the eyes and explained that it was the seeds Janet and I had been eating. While they did probably have a high nutritional value, they are also a laxative!

By the end of the day the seeds finished flushing themselves out of my system, and I was back at full speed in no time. This time though, a couple pounds lighter and with a much better understanding of what Ghanaians mean when they ask you “Sir, are you running?”

Wednesday, July 18, 2007


Their huge forms lumber in the dust, pacing idly. The ground murmurs and softly trembles beneath their incredible mass. Monoliths, they dominate the landscape.

Suddenly excited and impatient, one pulls forward from the herd and bellows a shrill blast. Ears ringing, the ground seems to whimper in response. Growling like thunder, the bus begins to lumber through the station.

Speakers scream like monkeys and horns howl with territorial lust. Outside, a jungle of steel, rubber and exhaust refuses to be tamed.

Rolling through the station, tents and tarpaulins appear in huddled hegemony; foliage amidst a concrete savanna. Weary vans and beaten busses collapse beside, as if in an attempt to rest in the modest shade. But, in this challenging environment, the sun is as relentless as the constant demand to find one’s next meal. The wheezing herd is already beginning to weep under new loads – soon they will be beaten mercilessly back onto the roads.

Stomping farther through the station still, bicycles bound and dirtbikes dart like gazelles and waterbuck. Street traders are lizards: their mouths opening and closing as if to taste the air for their next potential customer. Their products perched on their heads, pacing, they search for the passengers droning away like flies – their next meal. And yet although their cries are pitched and penetrating, the shouting is lost as a mere note buried deep in the cacophony.

In Bawku, the landscapes are changing. The forests are being cut and sold, and the fear of desertification is substantial. Initiatives to plant trees do exist and are being implemented, but face a difficult struggle against the increasing population density in the Upper East Region of Ghana.

In Bawku, farmers should be harvesting their hunger-fighting crop, early millet, so named because it yields an early harvest and boosts local food supplies. Because of poor rains, however, the first millet crop has had very poor yields. As I am writing this, the rains seem to have finally begun their return to Bawku – but not without re-enforcing the vulnerability of food supply. If the rains stay consistent for the rest of the season, the farmers will be able to still have a good harvest of corn, peanuts, soyabean and other crops that are planted later in the season.

As my bus lumbers out of the Bolgatanga bus station and grumbles back towards Bawku, I am reminded of the elephants at Ghana’s Mole National Park, and how the landscapes in Ghana seem to be changing so quickly. What can farmers do to find security in their livelihoods, when the threat of desertification seems to be so real?