Sunday, 5 August 2018

Early days as an EUAV

The beginning of my EUAV assignment in Kongo, Ghana

My arrival time in Accra should have been 5pm, a good time to arrive, just in time to reach the hostel before nightfall and shake out tired legs. Instead, I arrived at 2 am, 8 hours late with swollen legs and to sleepy immigration officers. My journey to Ghana was everything but smooth. The day before at the airport in Paris, we were stuck at the gate in an overheated airplane for 3 hours due to a technical malfunction and strict immigration laws that prohibited us from disembarking the aircraft. After the pilot deemed the vessel unsuitable for flying, we were told to change planes and finally allowed to disembark- luggage, crying babies and duty-free shopping bags in tow. Once at the new gate, aircrew personnel informed us that our flight had been unexpectedly re-routed to Lome. Later that night in Lome, our onward journey was again delayed by another two hours. You would think that passengers by then would have been raging mad, but most of them were West African and one passenger next to me just chuckled and said “welcome to Africa”. I fell to bed exhausted that morning and woke up a couple of hours later to chirping birds and Nigerian pop music.

Being German has been an easy conversation-starter here, particularly because my arrival coincided with the knock-out round of the FIFA World Cup. Germany, the former World Champion, had just been defeated by South Korea, a country more known for its 10-step skin care routine than world-class football. As a response to my nationality, I keep hearing “ah, it really pains me about Germany” or simply, “what happened?!”. But Ghanaians can relate as they share a shameful story with their national team, the Black All Stars, who lost the qualifying match due to a corruption scandal within the team.

The distance from Accra to my assigned village, Kongo, in Ghana’s Upper East Region is a 15-hour bus journey. The borders of Ghana and much of Africa were carved in artificial lines by the colonizing powers, which came to be known as the ‘Scramble for Africa’ and culminated with the Berlin Conference in 1884. After World War I Ghana’s northern border was again rewritten when the Upper East and West regions were added to the northern region. The Upper East Region borders Togo to the east and Burkina Faso to the north. It lies below the Sahel belt, which is characteristic for dry and arid lands. It is the least urbanized region in Ghana with approx. 79% of the population living in rural settlements. Families who can afford it, send their children south to cities like Kumasi or Accra for better chances at education and a promising government job. Historically, this region was exploited by the more affluent southern tribes (central Ashanti and coastal Fante) who sold northerners to European colonizers that would ship them overseas as slaves. Far from the rich soil of cocoa plantations in the Ashanti region and the newly discovered oil fields, the Upper East region has been overseen by economic development that has shot up the rest of the country to be a contender for the fastest growing African economy in 2018.

From Accra, I took a one-hour plane to Tamale in Ghana’s Northern region and from there a shared taxi for two hours to Bolgatanga, and then finally after another 45min. arrived in Kongo village. When I finally reached Kongo, I had nearly missed it-that’s how small it is. Even my taxi driver after we drove through the village tried to convince me to move to Bolga instead. Kongo is a dusty village on the highway that leads northeast to the Togolese border, frequented by tro tros (Ghana’s notorious minibuses) and noisy cargo trucks that speed by frequently. On any given day, you will see motorcycles parked along the roadside because transportation is vital to Kongo’s residents for buying food, clothes and household supplies that are not readily available in the village and simply just for that 'city (town) feeling'. 

Market day, which takes place twice a week, is a lively event in Kongo. The main staples in this area are millet, corn, groundnuts (peanuts), beans, hot peppers and rice. Ghanaians like their food spicy and “peppe”, red hot peppers, are widely used for seasoning as are peanuts to make a peanut sauce/stew that they eat with mashed millet, rice or yams. The only fruit in this area are mango and shea nuts, which are both seasonal. So, if you find yourself to be here out of season, then the locals joke that “groundnuts are our fruit”. This is due to the lack of rainfall here, which makes for unfertile soil. The other day I wanted to buy a banana in the biggest town of the region, which is a 45min ride away. The whole journey took me 5 hours, door to door. One reason was because tro tro’s cannot leave until they are full, and many times I wait up to two hours for this. Honestly, not having fruit and a wide variety of vegetables to my disposal has been the biggest challenge for me, especially as a vegetarian. Nevertheless, I can get beans with plantains and jollof rice, both which I love. 
My home here is at the Catholic Mission’s Spiritual Renewal Center, a center on top of a hill reserved for retreats for fathers from the diocese. In fact, it was a former priest from this diocese that gave this village its name after he had been posted here from the Democratic Republic of Congo. My hosts are Father Martin and Father Cletus, both priests from Kochi, Kerala in India. Whereas Father Martin arrived two years ago, Father Cletus has been here over ten years, knows the community well and is currently testing growing wheat on their plot. Because they are hosting me, I attend Sunday mass at 6:30 am every week. Although its Catholic, the lively choir gives it an ‘African touch’. Sunday is THE day here for villagers. You will see them dressed to impress attending church, in order to be seen and to see. What you wear is really important in Ghanaian and most African cultures. You will receive a lot more respect as a foreigner if you dress up “proper” (for boys that means button-down shirts and for girls dresses) and the more colors, the better!

As for work, I have been warmly taken under the wing of Victor More, the Executive Director of my host organization, Kongo Community Development Association (KoCDA). My arrival in Kongo coincided with the first rains of the season, and so every time it rains, Victor jokingly thanks me for bringing the village good fortune. It was through the observations of his son, Kingsley, who was writing a thesis on the treatment of widows in his community, that the two founded KoCDA back in 2009. Both were determined to engage widows as an active part of the community and to provide women with economic opportunities to take care of themselves and their children. Three years later with support from Mondo, two women’s cooperatives were born; one in basket weaving (Yen Pang) and the other in shea butter making (Nongtaaba). Some people like to tell the story of how “8 women and one volunteer met under a mango tree” and the rest is history. Most recently, a Tree nursery cooperative was added to reverse the effects of deforestation, as both cooperatives use a lot of firewood to fuel their businesses. 
My assignment is to support these cooperatives in capacity training and organizational development, more specifically in skills training, client base expansion and product marketing. What that means in practice is observing how their internal systems work, identifying where it needs improvement, engaging with the women to ask about their challenges, their goals and how we can get there. I spend a lot of time either at the weaver’s house or the shea butter house just learning what their day to day activities are. Although we received good briefings prior to our departure, you really only get a sense of the work once you’re on the ground. The pieces have slowly come together and I have managed to connect the dots and complete the mosaic of info that started during my briefing at the Tallinn training.

The first week was especially exhausting, both mentally and physically! My body was acclimatizing, I was figuring out what and where I could eat, adjusting to waking up and going to sleep with the sunlight - all while my mind was on turbo-speed trying to soak in as much info: remembering as many names, and local phrases as I possibly could.

The women and the villagers are extremely welcoming, friendly and chatty and they have made my start here really pleasant. After a couple of weeks, I finally have the local greeting down, especially since everyone is curious to know how the only foreigner in the village is doing. Strength seems to be a very highly deemed attribute here because the response to the local ‘how are you’ is a local fine that is accompanied with two raised fists and flexed arms. People in the village seem to think that white people are feeble and not very strong. And unfortunately, I couldn’t prove them wrong. Once I tried to join the shea ladies (average age 65+) carry 25 kg boxes of shea butter on top of their heads, down a slope and across a river, and miserably failed.

Greetings are another really highly esteemed custom among Ghanaians, as in most African countries. Whereas, at home we might ask “how are you”, we don’t really expect a substantial answer, but rather get straight to the point. Here, on the other hand, greetings are relished! The more questions, and the longer the handshake or the silence, the better. After a “how are you”, you should also at least ask “how is the home/family” or “how is work”, depending on how well you know the person. Your counterpart will most likely hold onto your hand for the duration, even once moments of (awkward) silence settle in, but hold that handshake, stick it out and you'll be rewarded for it😉

I think much of my assignment is immersing myself in the community, understanding the situation of the women and seeing it from their eyes. It is a learning opportunity to spend so much time with these women and experience their day-to-day lives. It is a chance that not many foreigners get and I am grateful for it!