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?

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Day Trippin’

Preface: My day is not this artfully structured, but for sake of readability I have tried to generalize some of my typical routines.


Roused by the gentle rays of sunshine smeared on my face, I open my eyes to blue skies and a warm West African sun. I cast off a thin piece of cloth that poses as a blanket, and stretch deeply – nothing like a solid night’s rest under the stars!

I part the mosquito net and jump out from my breezy shelter. Quickly untying the net and storing it away in my room for the following night, I roll up the prayer mat and cloth that serve as my bed. It’s time to start the day.

A new day in Gerold Room and God Room


After a brief bout of chin scratching, I decide on a plan for the morning. This time, until I roll out on the bicycle in around 2 hours, is critical because there is little other time for me to take part in many of the important household activities. During the weekdays I will often return from work at dusk or after the sun has set. All that will be left to do is to try and burn myself while cooking by firelight, herd the goats and cows, or sit and chat small small with some of the people in my 28 member compound.

Grinding sorghum

Gladys prepares TZ

Usually, I’ll pick one of three things to do in the morning:

  • Go for a run with Simon, the 14 year-old uber-athelete. Often, we’ll cruise to the base of a hill or to a nearby forest. This lasts, at best, 30 min in total since he has to go to school and I have the speed and agility of a yam.
  • Fetch some termites. We use these to feed the guinea fowl chicks. Moses, a 27 year-old father of three, and I head out with a bucket and some hoes to try and find some wild nests. Sometimes, though, it can be tricky to find the 2-3 nests required and so we also have a modest rearing operation consisting of a few overturned clay pots with cow dung in them.
  • Help weed. This involves grabbing a small hoe and scraping the ground around all of your plants until your plot is free of weeds. The weeds will grow faster and more ferociously than the crops so it is important to destroy the enemy at all costs.

Gathering termites with Moses


At this point I look at my watch and realize that I should have started to get ready for work between 15 to 20 minutes ago. After a quick bucket shower outside, I throw on my clothes that have been steamrolled by the beast of a charcoal iron (no electricity in my home) that I still need help to tame. With that, I head off to work at the district office of the Ministry of Food and Agriculture. Can’t forget to pick up some delicious cocoa and bowl fruit (fried doughnut) on the way though! Cocoa has a similar appearance and consistency as gravy, but improves considerably in the area of deliciousness by being essentially a starchy drink spiced heavily with ginger and sugar. Cost of breakfast: around 20 cents.

Greeting a neighbour on the way to work


Work time.

Since many of the people I work with will show up closer to 9:00am, I usually take the first hour or so to plan out what I need to do that day, quickly reflect, take some notes on whatever trouble I have gotten myself into, and tackle some independent work.

The Watchman wearing his rain hat


By this time it can often read 38 degrees on the thermometer outside my office door. During my first month or so, I would take that as an opportunity to work on my sun tan by accompanying the "Agricultural Extension Agents" or "AEAs" (those which disseminate good agricultural practices to the farmers in the district) on the motorcycle for a field visit. The visits can vary in number, length, nature and other properties so there is no real fixed time in which I would generally return. Most often, though, in the early afternoon.


About a 5 minute walk from my work reveals a popular "chop-bar." Chop bars are basically to Ghanaian restaurants (there are two in Bawku) what MacDonald’s is to Swiss Chalet. The furnishings are more basic, prices less expensive, with the notable exception of chop bars not actually being anything like an experience at MacDonald’s. Fufu, a fairly renowned West African dish, is not too common in the north of Ghana since the cassava cannot be grown here. But, this place pulls some strings and makes a pretty wicked Fufu so that is what I typically get. Fufu is sort of like mashed potatoes, but mashed beyond any reasonable degree of sanity. That is to say, until they are almost like a gooey, sticky ball of starchy deliciousness far better than any potato product. It is usually served in "Light Soup", which is like a spicy tomato and onion soup. Usually you also buy goat meat for around 15 cents for a portion the size of half of a hockey puck. People generally get 2-4 pieces. Total cost of Fufu-and-Light-Soup-with-Meat-two-thousand: $1.20


The afternoon is the time between lunchtime and the end of my work day. Work is pretty awesome so I will reserve discussion of my work for a forthcoming post entirely devoted to my MoFA (Ministry of Food and Agriculture) activites.

Closing Time (5pm-6,7,8pm)

Previously, I would head out at around 5pm with the rest of the crowd and make it home for dinner before nightfall. But, since the computers are in use by office staff during the day, I have found that I need some computer time to log in and write some reports, answer emails, ensure my trained monkies are writing these blog posts, write stories and parse through whatever other things I may have lying around on my usb drive. I’ll then, usually once a week, head on down to the internet cafe to download and upload things to my usb drive.


Click. My bicycle light spring-snaps to my tire and with the gift of motion, obediently converts some of my kinetic energy into a more useful luminous form. I head back down the dirt road to my village by the light of my bicycle and my good friend the Moon, while humming away the various pop songs I have entrenched in my mind from the office radio, providing a soundtrack for me to contemplate my role in international development.

Upon arrival at the compound, I park my bike and proceed to greet as many of the 27 other people as I can. In true Ghanaian style I take my second bath of the day and then chow down on some TZ, which is served with a variety of soups and stews.

TZ is like a very thick starchy paste served piping hot. It is millet, sorghum or maize flour that is artfully (no joke it’s a tremendously difficult process!) boiled in water until it becomes of a firmness comparable to refrigerated mashed potatoes. You then scoop a golf-ball of TZ, like you would with Fufu, dip it in the stew, and send it down the hatch. Delightful!


I usually take this time to do whatever chores I can before alternately chatting with the women and girls on one night, and the men and boys the following night. The women sit inside the compound, while the men generally hang out outside, and greet others as they pass by or come to join the conversation. People in my family (and I have found Ghanaians in general) are extremely friendly and open to talk about anything, from religion, to education, to continually chastising me for not yet having a wife.

There is a neighbour, one of the uncles of the family, who owns a generator and a television. Quite often people from the surrounding houses will head over there to watch a film on anything from the re-denomination of the Ghanaian Cedi (the currency here which just re-valued this week), to a low-budget Nigerian production, to Rambo. Yes, Rambo.

I also use this time to learn a few more words and phrases of Kusaal, the language spoken in most of the rural areas in the Bawku district.


Goodnight, Ghana. Goodnight, Ryan.

Concluding Remarks

That about sums up a day in the life over here in West Africa at the moment – though surprises are always afoot and adventure lurking around every corner - one day is certainly never too much like the next. Stay tuned for more detailed descriptions of my work and, of course, life in the village!

Time to make like a baby and head-out,


(my Kusaal name)

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Family Matters

After getting his contact information from Gwen Henderson, an EWB Long Term Overseas Volunteer (LTOV) based in Tamale, I arranged a meeting with Francis Azamza.

Francis is a modest success story by Ghanaian standards, having come from a farming village to finish a university degree in Agricultural Science and then using that to secure a job with an NGO (non-governmental organization). While many Ghanaian village children seem to share dreams with Canadian children of similar respected professions - Pilot, Doctor, Lawyer, Football (soccer) Hero - the reality is that most would end up being elated to follow a path like Francis. Fortunately for Francis, he was the eldest son in the family and was able to work hard and pursue this career. Some village families will be fortunate to be able to create the opportunity for four or five sons and daughters like Francis, while others will be lucky just to have the eldest son complete secondary school.

But, the purpose of meeting with Francis was not to do some sort of ad-hoc calculation of his economy - the man came to meet me to help find a family to stay with. After sharing an afternoon and a Guiness or two with him, he abruptly concluded that the best place for me to stay would be with his family, in a village called Zawse. And with that, he left to go tell his wife to prepare for my arrival. (Note that I implored for a democratic process but am confident that it didn’t happen).

He returned the next day to tell me the arrangements had been made, and that his family was excited to have me stay with them. I made a stand when he overwhelmingly abolished what I thought was my right to pay for accommodation, but in the end I caved. I resolved that if he wouldn’t let me shoulder the financial burden of my room and board through a cash transaction, I would just have to do it through gifts and other means. I don’t think this is a unique situation though - accepting guests in Ghana is a very exhaustive ordeal for the host, as they are absolutely expected to always provide the guest with all services and food that the guest could possibly want - the guest being Ghanaian or otherwise.

Fast forward through three fantastic weeks of staying with the Azamzas and doing my best to avoid the imported caviar and manicure movie star treatment that has been pitched at me. Okay, so maybe no villager could sell enough of their cows to provide caviar, but they certainly go to every length possible to provide everything else. I have found that being here in Zawse has made me feel as if I’ve embarked on a career of becoming a pop star: people go to amazing lengths to fawn and dote on me, and even just to greet me, despite the fact that it is universally known that I have a broad absence of both talent and merit.

This means each night I arrive home on my bicycle from work and a small boy will jump to take it into the house for me; the water for my baths and meals magically travels the kilometer or so (on the heads of the women and children) from the borehole to the house; my presence dictates the immediate vacancy of the most comfortable and luxurious sitting arrangement (and protracted squawking from the villagers until the seat is greeted by my posterior); … The list continues.

I mobilized whatever means I could to be certain that I was going to help break down this barrier. I tried to ensure that I would be able to work to prepare my own meals, wash my own dishes and clothes, fetch my own water, and ultimately be a resource and not a drain on the family itself - though so far I have accomplished this with mixed success.

The laundry went well, and although I’m dangerously incompetent at washing by hand compared to the locals, for the most part I can get away with a decent launder on my own. On the other hand, though, Francis had to sit down and talk with me about my adventure to the borehole to fetch water. Suffice to say that I don’t think it is something that I will be able to do again. Ditto washing dishes. Cooking is still a bit up in the air - most people find it pretty funny when I help pound the spices or stir the TZ (initials for a Hausa language word that means "hot TZ") - but it remains to be seen whether or not they will let me do it on a more consistent basis.

My goal is to pave a bidirectional superhighway of respect between the family and myself, and I have come to the conclusion that perhaps the best way to do this is to try and assimilate into the family’s inherent hierarchy. While this may mean that I will spend more time doing manly man farming and less time effeminately pounding chili seeds, I think it may be the only way to attempt to contribute at least as much as I am taking. And who knows, maybe by the time the asphalt of trust on the superhighway of respect has cooled small small, I will be allowed to hop back into the kitchen and wash my own dishes.

So, while I feel as if there has been so much packed into the past three weeks, I know I still have much more to learn and understand. In our pre-departure training, we explored the concept of the "Iceberg Model". As the name implies, imagine the learning experience as an iceberg. So far, I have been able to readily and quickly observe the parts of the family’s culture that stick clear out above the surface of the water. But, I need to keep in mind that there is so much that goes on in the family, like the remaining 90% of the iceberg, that hides away from immediate view. And, after all, it will only be when I understand some of these underlying challenges and goals within the family, that I will be able to truly understand their livelihoods. So, as I pause to ponder that fateful phone call to Gwen, I also take a deep breath and prepare to dive in and explore below the cultural surface!

Stay tuned!


Ps- pictures!

Nobody pounds like Amina pounds.

A few of the children.

Emmanuel hits the books.

Michael explains how to brood a fowl.

Farming with Lidiya.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Grave Implications

From what I can deduce, music seems to be a way of life in some African countries: consumed daily like some sort of staple grain in one’s diet. But in Ghana, the rhythmic artform is like a jaguar – lurking away from the naked eye then suddenly exploding marvelously into view when the time is right.

As I rode into my home village for the first time on a thin, dusty red dirt path which snakes its way through forests, parched farmers’ fields and mud & clay homes with thatched roves, I was astonished to see the serene beauty of what would be my home for the next three and a half months. Rolling green hills in the distance set against deep azure blue skies, the landscape checkered with boulders and rocks, clusters of trees shining an emerald green, and the fields of ridged brown dirt which lay idle, expiring into dust under the searing 40-degree sun.

But the bucolic bliss was torn from my mind by the shrieking and pulsing rhythm of a chaotic, tumultuous crowd. Gathered in a large, open space between two homes, the blur of colours and hues danced, stomped and clapped, narrated by the blistering pace of half a dozen drums and a howling crescendo of cries. As I drew closer, I noticed that there was the main throng of close to 100 people which had initially demonically captured my conscience, but there were also just as many in small groups: sitting under trees, chatting on rocks and complacently wandering about.

And like a visit to any hospital here it was immediately clear that everyone was decked out in their finest attire. Men wore billowing striped smocks which soared wildly in their spinning dances, and women glowed and sparkled with dazzling colours and patterns. But as my eyes wandered, a sobering wave of humility shivered down my spine; the reason for the gathering became clear. Two men, stationed between the large crowd and one of the houses, were labouriously shoveling away – waist deep in a grave.

I felt that I had been so excited to learn about the passionate artform that is African music – but now I had to appreciate it at the cost of someone’s life. Raw deal. Fortunately, my guilty conscience needn’t have lasted long. It was quickly explained to me that the funeral taking place was quite clearly a celebration, and for good reason. The woman who had passed away had lived to nearly a century, and thus the community was now simply celebrating her fantastic achievement.

But funerals in Ghana are relatively complex and diverse ordeals, and are not always such a performance. Sometimes, the body may wait many weeks at a mortuary while the necessary arrangements and preparations are made. But, depending on the amount of tragedy surrounding the death, sometimes the body is quickly buried so that the family can mourn their loss – with this sort of extravagant celebration being unspeakable.

Melancholic thoughts aside, I was appreciative to be able to observe the funerary ritual, especially in such a positive context. My first experience with drumming, dancing and howling was something I would have to drink an awful lot of Pito (local brew) to forget. I didn’t take part in the dancing this time – but I’ll leave that as a story for later!

Po'semyin (Please greet your family on my behalf)


Thursday, May 17, 2007

Extra Resources

For all the keeners in the house, here are some links which might be interesting for context and additional information:

From the World Wide Web:

photo tour of bawku west (zebilla):

weather in bawku

Other blogs:

Current Waterloo Short term volunteers:

Wayne's Blog

Cristina's Blog

Past Waterloo Short term Volunteers:

Ghana Long Term Volunteers:

Sarah (with whom I am working)


Some radical stuff from BBC Africa:

Ghanaians describe who they are

BBC Ghana Country profile

Enjoy! Next post to come as soon as I can locate a computer that will let me upload some pictures...


Settling In

After two weeks of making so many new friends, loving and hating the world's transit systems, mastering the art of "free range" colonic liberation, farming and sowing, and myriad other sorts of hustling and bustling, I have finally found my way to my new home for the next 3 months - Bawku, Ghana!

Pronounced "beaucoup", as if to reflect the imminent proximity of french speaking burkina and togo, this city excels in many ways, not least in diversity and super friendly people. On my way up to Bawku over the last week, I have tried to pick up some Twi, Dagbani and Gruni (which are spoken in the South, Tamale and Bolgatanga, respectively), only to find that there are upwards of six other languages used in the markets of this small city alone! My boss's son, with whom I am temporarily staying, is only in grade six but can already speak 3 or 4 languages, and now he's learning french - intense!

Though while the rainbow of fluencies has been quite a surprise, the overwhelming generosity of the Ghanaians has been beyond belief. My boss found out that I am looking for a rural family to stay with over the summer, and in the meantime would have to stay in some sort of guesthouse during my search for accomodation. Immediately, she generously offered to let me stay in her own home until I decide where I would like to go. The first night in her house, I asked if I could help wash the dishes - she had prepared and provided dinner. I had no idea she was capable of laughing so hard!

Filled with all sorts of surprises, the past two weeks have above all given me so much time for smiles, laughter and learning. With the transit said and done, I can pause to say Enkenge Gewana to life on the road and Zamason to life here in Bawku!

As they say here in Ghana, Be Free!


Monday, April 23, 2007

An Introduction

Who is this guy?

I'm a 19 year old second year systems design engineering student from the University of Waterloo, Ontario. I'll be spending a summer in Northern Ghana working with the Ghanaian Ministry of Food and Agriculture (MoFA), a volunteer placement which was organized through Engineers Without Borders Canada. This trip is a way for me to begin to understand why there seems to be so much inequality in the world, and to determine what I can do to help those who seem to have found themselves on the short end of the fiscal stick. I think I have many preconceptions about what poverty is, and what it is not. For example, Steve Young, a past overseas volunteer from Waterloo (spent summer '05 in Tanzania), once explained that an activity like fetching water, typically done by women and children, could be seen by a Canadian as an unnecessary hardship. The reality, though, might be that fetching water could be the best part of a person's day since it often becomes a very social event where people have the chance to spend time with friends they wouldn't otherwise be able to see. I feel that there is so much that I have come to subconsciously assume, and I hope that in the months to come I can gain some insight into the livelihoods of the rural poor and those working to help them.

He needs your help!

My ultimate goal for this trip is to experience the realities of the rural poor and share them, and the stories of the people I meet, with as many people as I can get to listen. But to do this, I'll need your help! In order to make this blog as fantastic and insightful as I can, I need you, dear reader, to post comments and send me emails with your questions, thoughts, misconceptions or any other things that pops into your mind! I apologize if I am slow in replying, but I would love to hear from you - send me an email at rjcase at gmail dot com. I hope to hear from you soon!

Why is he going with "Engineers Without Borders"?

Good old Steve once suggested the following analogy: You give a man a fish, he eats for a day. You teach a man to fish, and he will eat for a lifetime. But EWB would go the step further - into a rural community and work with the local technology sector to enable the community to create, sell and distribute fishing rods - making the whole process much more sustainable and thus realistic. Essentially, the key (apart from the fishing rods) is in the approach that EWB takes. It asks the tough questions, it constantly re-evaluates its role in development, and always answers to the bottom line - those overseas who are asking for help.

Tom Owen, a past long term overseas volunteer with EWB and creator of the fantastic
Niger Currents website (documenting his experiences travelling down the Niger River in West Africa), offers a more precise definition of EWB,

Engineers Without Borders Canada is a young non-profit organization with more than 15,000 members organized in 27 student and professional chapters. In Canada, EWB raises awareness among Canadians about the impact of their daily actions on developing communities and aims to make Canada a model global citizen in the fight against poverty. Overseas, EWB's volunteers promote human development in some of the world's most impoverished communities. They help build knowledge and capacity among local entrepreneurs and organizations so they can spread innovative and appropriate solutions to the challenges of poverty.

To learn more about Engineers Without Borders, please visit

What's to come?

I hope to share the stories of the people I meet and my thoughts and experiences with you, dear reader! But hopefully this will be a dialogue, and I get a chance to hear your thoughts and comments too! I will try to update my blog as often as my circumstances permit - to get email updates please check out the "join group" tab on the google group I have created for this blog. Let the journey begin!