Posted by: devonhamilton | February 11, 2011

Government of Canada website

A short write-up on our project in Ghana has been posted on the Government of Canada website. You can read it here.

Interested in volunteering in Ghana with Youth Challenge International? Check out their volunteer opportunities (for Ghana and more!) on their website here.

Posted by: devonhamilton | January 9, 2011

Back in Canada

I have been back in Canada for about three weeks now. Coming back over the holidays meant that I was insanely busy, especially since I was only in Toronto for a couple of days before I flew out to Thunder Bay for Christmas. I enjoyed being busy, and I think it made my adjustment easier!

One thing we talked about during our debriefing sessions in Koforidua and Accra was re-entry shock or reverse culture shock. This refers to the shock one may experience when returning back to their home country, with feelings similar to the original culture shock.

Some ways of handling re-entry shock include talking about your experiences, especially with like-minded people. A major factor of re-entry shock is the fact that no matter how much you want to talk about your experience, either people don’t want to hear about it, or it seems that they don’t want to hear about it. I think being home during the holidays made this a little easier on me, since there were tons of get-togethers and people did ask questions. However, the most popular question is “how was it?” which can be difficult to answer. I felt that I didn’t really know where to begin with this question (although I still appreciated people asking)! I usually said it was good, and a big learning experience, but I didn’t feel that I could summarize everything I had experienced. It’s hard when you have so much to say about one particular topic, but don’t want to bore people!

I found that keeping this blog was really helpful, because those who have read it have questions about specific things which makes it easier to talk about. To some extent, I think all my friends know more or less what I have been up to the past couple of months.

Stopping in Amsterdam was also a great idea! I found it very valuable to have a few days to myself to relax and digest my trip to Ghana. I think it also helped me adjust to the weather change I was about to experience! I found Amsterdam to be fairly cold, although it is warmer than Canada. Once I came home to Canada I didn’t have any problems adjusting to the weather (although to be fair, I like winter, and it was unseasonably warm when I arrived back in December!).

I made a presentation online to the next group of volunteers that I hope they found helpful! They depart for Takoradi in just over a week I believe, which is pretty incredible! I tried to answer their questions as best as I could but I think the best advice I could give is to expect the unexpected; no matter how prepared you think you are, there are times when you will feel completely lost. Learn as you go, I guess! You can find the presentation by clicking on this link: Tadi. Since the next group of volunteers are going to spend their entire time in Takoradi, the presentation mostly focuses on Takoradi, but some of the lessons learned can be tied to the whole experience.

Besides what is included in the presentation, there are a few other points I would like to highlight for future YCI volunteers or anyone going to Ghana.

  • In terms of fundraising, I found creating a blog incredibly helpful. Compiling information on what this trip was all about and allowing people to look through it at their own leisure really worked for me. I think it kept my donors updated on what I was doing, and was also an easy way to share pictures and stories with friends and family
  • Although I found the Bradt Guide to Ghana extremely useful,  I think that finding travel blogs on Ghana helped me the most. There are a ton of blogs out there, and in particular I read blogs by volunteers in the US Peace Corps. They gave me insight into Ghanaian culture as well as to things they were struggling with as North Americans that I might struggle with as well
  • I met with or wrote to friends and friends-of-friends that I knew had been to Ghana. At the time I didn’t have specific questions, but it was still valuable to hear about their experiences and get any advice that they had!
  • I would recommend looking into the languages spoken before you depart, I wish I had done this because trying to speak Fante and Twi was one of my favourite parts!

I have really enjoyed writing this blog and I hope that whoever is reading this has found it interesting! I will be embarking on a job search now, but perhaps I will start a new blog in the future (the other volunteers suggested – we’ll see!). I might continue updating this blog as well, we’ll have to see what happens. In the meantime, if you have any questions please do not hesitate to contact me.

Posted by: devonhamilton | December 14, 2010

Goodbye, Ghana!

I’m sitting in my hotel room in Amsterdam and I still can’t believe my Ghanaian adventure is over! November and December really flew by. Our last week in Koforidua was fairly busy, since we had to write our final report and wrap up our project with the mentors. Afterwards, we spent the weekend in Accra.

One thing I made sure to do while we were still in Koforidua was visit the local fire station. I had passed it a few times so I wanted to take some pictures for my dad, who is a Fire Chief in Toronto. Jenna and I approached some of the firefighters and asked if we could take some pictures, and they were kind enough to show us all of their equipment!

Our debrief session with the mentors was informative and I hope that both sides took away some lessons from this experience. The big theme continues to be communication! One suggestion from both us and the mentors was that the mentors be given advance notice of what topics YCI Ambassadors will be covering. This way, the mentors could do some research on the topics in question prior to our arrival. We also felt that we covered too many topics (MDGs, Proposal Writing, Fundraising, Project Management) and that we should have put a larger focus on the MDGs, as that was the theme of the workshops we had the mentors run. We then presented the First Annual “Boafo” Awards. Boafo means “helper” and boafo pa means “good helper”. I came upon this word randomly one day when I was asking Fred to translate some store signs for me, and we came across one called “God is my Helper”. This resulted in me constantly telling people they were “good helpers” (boafo pa). The mentors seemed to really enjoy this (as much as we did, haha) so we decided to give Boafo Awards. We awarded categories such as Most Dedicated Boafo, Most Improved Boafo, Most Knowledgeable Boafo, etc. It was really important to us to acknowledge the work the YMCA Mentors have done because they have been so helpful to us in every way – above and beyond the call of duty. We could always count on a mentor to run a workshop on short notice, or take us to a good tailor in Koforidua. They are a really good group and they made our stay in Koforidua so enjoyable. Thanks, Mentors!

The day after the debrief we took a tro-tro to Accra and stayed for the weekend. Accra seemed very busy after being in Koforidua for so long, but I was able to do a lot of shopping there so I can’t complain! I spent the majority of my money at a store called “Global Mamas”, which sells goods made by local women. I couldn’t resist buying a colourful quilt made from batik fabric there. We also visited the Kwame Nkrumah Memorial Park. This park is dedicated to Nkrumah, the first President of Ghana, and contains a mausoleum and a museum.

Monday we completed more debrief before I left for the airport at 6pm. I was so sad to be the first one to leave! I know I will reunite with the girls in Toronto over the next couple of months, but saying goodbye to Fred wasn’t easy – I’m trying to convince him to visit Canada ASAP! I thought we would get some time to hang out at the airport, but apparently all KLM flights were leaving at the same time (they handed out a memo saying this) so all passengers were encouraged to go through security immediately.

I wasn’t thrilled about the overnight flight but it ended up being great – since the flight was not full at all, they let us change our seats after takeoff. This meant that instead of sitting with two other people I had a row to myself, so I took advantage and stretched across three seats and slept. The food was good too, and I enjoyed some red wine; no complaints about KLM!

As soon as I exited the plane I felt the deep chill of winter! The temperature in Amsterdam has been hovering around – 2 (much warmer than Toronto, I hear!) and it was still dark when I was trying to find my way around the city. I had both my credit card and debit card rejected, which worried me since I didn’t convert any cash into Euros beforehand (lesson learned), but once I changed machines they both started working again. I eventually found the train to Centraal Station and didn’t have to wander very far to find my hotel since it is right across the street from the station (best present ever – thanks, Erin!).

After a nap and a hot, hot shower, I was ready to walk around Amsterdam. The city is so beautiful and all decked out for Christmas. So far I have just been kind of wandering, but tomorrow Jenna and Kelly fly in before they take off for Thailand, so we are hoping to meet up and tour the Anne Frank house and Red Light District together.

I am currently putting together my presentation for the next set of volunteers leaving in January, so I will post some final thoughts in the next few days (or weeks) after I have had some time to reflect on this whole experience. I have learned so much and I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to work with such an incredible group of people!

Posted by: devonhamilton | December 6, 2010

Cooking Lesson with Mama Augusta

I am surprisingly back at the Internet cafe today so I thought I would write a quick blog post! Yesterday, Mama Augusta visited us a little earlier than usual and taught us how to make groundnut soup with chicken. We wrote down the instructions as carefully as possible and estimated measurements as best that we could – we’ll see how this recipe turns out for me when I try to make it in Toronto!

We ate the groundnut soup with rice balls (“rice guns”) and it was delicious – although I admit we mostly just watched Mama Augusta make it. Hopefully I can duplicate the recipe (we’ll see). We only have a few more meals with Mama Augusta so we are trying to be strategic about which meals we choose! Today we are having egg stew because that is a big favourite among our group… except poor Steph, who doesn’t like eggs.

My Internet time is running out so I can’t write too much, but I wanted to include this picture because I posted it on Facebook and it was well-received. I saw this man walk into a restaurant I was eating at and couldn’t believe that he was wearing a t-shirt from Newmarket High School, my high school! Second hand clothes markets are big here but this is still blew me away!

Off to finish our final report for YCI on Koforidua – hopefully I will be in touch soon!

Posted by: devonhamilton | December 5, 2010

World AIDS Day, Shai Hills, and Mama Augusta


Our World AIDS Day event on Wednesday had a good turn-out: three schools sent buses of students and teachers to attend. There was some confusion about scheduling, and last minute changes, but I think overall it was a successful event. One problem that we faced (and continually face) is start time, as our event was scheduled to start at 9am. While I understand the concept of “Ghanaian time” and didn’t really expect the event to start at 9am, it was unfortunate because one busload of students did in fact arrive for 9am – but we needed to wait for more people to arrive before we could begin (including our guest speakers!)

Jenna introduced YCI to the audience, and I spoke briefly about the importance of health to development and the MDGs, while Lisa talked about the history of World AIDS Day and introduced the day’s program. One of our guest speakers was a nurse, and she spoke to the students about the importance of being tested for HIV regularly. We also provided the opportunity for those in attendance to be tested (via mouth swab) and around half of those present did so.

We also conducted a handshake exercise to demonstrate how quickly HIV/AIDS can spread. We gathered all the students in the courtyard of the YMCA and distributed cards with the following symbols: a square, a circle, a triangle, and a card that said “do not shake hands.” The instructions are to greet other people in the courtyard with a handshake, unless your card says not to shake hands. There is one different handshake in the crowd (a finger scratching the palm of your hand) and you copy whichever handshake you receive to the next person you greet. At the conclusion of the exercise, we explain that the handshake represents sexual intercourse and the scratching represents HIV.  We then tell everyone who had “do not shake hands” on their card that they were abstinent. Then we ask everyone who had their hand scratched to stand up – these are all people who were at risk of contracting HIV in this exercise. We then explained that those with a square could sit down because they used a condom. However, the students with a circle either used a condom improperly or had the condom break, and those with a triangle didn’t use a condom at all; so all these students would be at risk for HIV. At the conclusion a large number of people are still standing: we then go on to explain that only three people started the handshake and were able to spread HIV that quickly to so many people. In terms of stigma reduction, we also emphasized that you cannot tell who has HIV based on appearances.

Afterwards we had a talk from a person living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA). Although this was conducted in Twi, we were able to have Fred translate for us. The students were very engaged with this speaker and had tons of questions for him. He explained that you can’t get HIV by shaking hands or by kissing or from mosquitoes, and noted that he looks like everyone else and that you can’t tell that he has HIV by looking at him. He also spoke extensively on stigma reduction, and said that stigma kills faster than HIV. It was a really good talk and if students only took away one thing from World AIDS Day, I hope it was something from this speaker.

This past weekend was the weekend we had been talking about going to Mole. Unfortunately, under the best of circumstances the trip there would take 10-12 hours, and we only had a few days available, so it wasn’t possible. I do hope to go on a safari in Eastern Africa someday though! Instead, on Friday, Jenna, Kelly and I ventured to Shai Hills Resource Reserve, which is a protected park about 50km from Accra. Shai Hills doesn’t have elephants like Mole, but other wildlife such as baboons and antelope live there. Our first tour was a 2 hour walk to see the Adwuku Cave. This walk wasn’t particularly strenuous but I did get tired from the climb to the top, and I definitely didn’t bring enough water! We saw antelope tracks and snake tracks and then saw one of the many groups of baboons that lives in this area. They were very friendly and not shy at all about coming right up to us! Someone threw some groundnuts on the ground and they all backed off while the alpha male ate what he wanted. Apparently they can’t go near the food until he is done. On Saturday, we bought a 3 hour tour and walked to the “bat cave” or Sayu Cave, which is where one of the Shai chiefs used to live. The Shai people lived in this area until they were kicked out by the British in 1892. The cave is now full of bats, apparently three different species. The Shai people continue to return to this area to perform certain ceremonies, but our guide told us that they haven’t been back to the Sayu Cave in a few years.

We were disappointed not to see any antelope, but the savannah scenery was absolutely beautiful. We also saw a lot of ants, and were surprised to hear from our guide that ants will eat a snake if they cross paths, so snakes avoid them! Jenna and I took some pictures of the ants and before we knew it they were all over her shoes and trying to get up her legs. We saw some snake skin that had been shed, but no actual snake sightings, although Jenna very much wanted to see a python!  We left for our walk early in the morning (before 7am) but the sun is very powerful here and I drank 2 litres of water, and probably would have had more if I had it.

The ride back was a bit of an adventure. It only took one tro-tro to get to Shai Hills but we needed to take two back and transfer. One problem was that we couldn’t actually pronounce the village where the tro-tro station was, so we had to spell it out to tro-tros that pulled over to ask if they were going there (its Kpong, but the pronounciation sounded more like “Bon”). When we finally got to the tro-tro station in Kpong, one was just pulling out for Koforidua. This meant that we were the first people waiting for the next tro-tro, and as you may remember from previous blogs, tro-tros don’t leave until they are full. This surprisingly didn’t take too long (we had some Fan Ice – ice cream in a bag – during the wait which probably helped) and to my delight a man with a goat on a rope walked up to the ticket booth to buy a ticket for my tro-tro (you might remember that I am quite taken by the goats here!). The only empty seat was the one beside me, so I was hoping the goat would be my travelling companion but he ended up going in the trunk while his owner sat beside me. About ten minutes in the goat started to make some noise and I think the rest of the tro-tro was surprised with how happy this made me. A little while later everyone started talking about the aponkye (“aponchie” – goat in Twi) and we pulled over. So I guess there was some sort of problem with the goat, we never really figured out what it was, but the man got out, opened the trunk, and I guess adjusted the goat!

On a different topic, I referred several times to Mama Augusta so I figured it was time to devote some more time to talking about her and her amazing cooking! Let me preface by saying that we didn’t have homecooked meals in Takoradi; the only meal we had cooked for us there was breakfast, which usually consisted of toast, and sometimes oats or an omelet. Eating our meals out every night was tiring for a few reasons: it involves a lot of time because we would need to walk into town and then wait an hour or more for our meal; its more expensive because meals were usually 5 cedis or more; and we only had five restaurants that we frequented. Since we were only eating breakfast and then one other meal we tended to make “safe” food choices rather than trying local food. However, with Mama Augusta we have tried every local food! Plus it has been super convenient to be able to eat food on-site, rather than having to venture into town and eat a restaurant, which usually takes up a couple of hours. Here is a sampling of some of the delicious Ghanaian food we have been eating:

Groundnut soup: Groundnut=peanut, so its basically a peanut soup. Mama Augusta has served it to us with cabbage and other vegetables in it, which was delicious. There is also a big rice ball in the middle, or “omo tuo.” This literally translates as “rice guns” so I call them rice guns.

Palava sauce and yam or plantain: Palava sauce is made from the leaves of the cocoyam plant. We asked Mama Augusta if its similar to spinach, and she asked us “what is spinach?”. So you’ll have to take it from us that its more or less a spinachy sauce that you eat with yam and plantain – yum!

Fufu: Personally I wasn’t the biggest fan of fufu, which is a big dough ball made of pounded cassava and yam. You eat it without chewing so it just slides down your throat, with a light soup. The soup was really good but something about the dough ball didn’t really do it for me. I think I mentioned previously that we were told by several Ghanaians that fufu often doesn’t sit well in Western stomachs, so I think I was a little paranoid of that, although I was fine.

Jollof rice: Slightly spicy rice made with vegetables and tomato paste. We usually eat it with chicken.

Waatche: Rice with beans! Very good.

Banku and okro stew: Banku is also a dough ball, like fufu, but made of maize. The okro stew had a bit of a kick to it.

Red-red: Fred’s favourite! This is fried plantain served with beans, with or without meat in it. We’ve had chicken and meatless. I am not a huge fish person so I have been avoiding that.

We had tried some of these dishes before our arrival in Koforidua but always at restaurants, and home cooking is just so much better! We have all written about Mama Augusta in our midterm reports and have told YCI that they absolutely have to get a Cooking Mama for Takoradi as well! We have made plans with Mama Augusta to have her teach us a few Ghanaian recipes, and I believe today we are going to make groundnut soup – so hopefully I will be making that for some of you in Toronto sometime soon!

This may be the last time I am able to post pictures until I arrive in Amsterdam because I don’t know if I will be back at the Internet café. Hopefully I will be able to post once or twice more before we leave. We officially finished workshops and the programming portion of our project on Friday. We have the next few days to write our final report before conducting our official debrief and goodbye lunch with the YMCA mentors on Wednesday. Thursday morning we are off to Accra, where we will have our group debrief before I depart for Amsterdam on Monday the 13th.

I will be giving an alumni talk to the next group of Ghana volunteers on December 17th – the day after I get back from Amsterdam! This group will be heading to Takoradi for 8 weeks beginning in January. I found the alumni talk I received extremely useful in helping me prepare for Ghana, so I am looking forward to talking about my own experiences. I also hope that future volunteers find this blog to be helpful, as I said my goal with this blog was to create the resource that I was looking for when I was preparing to come to Ghana.

Looking forward to my return to Canada, but of course I am getting sad about leaving Ghana as well!

Posted by: devonhamilton | November 29, 2010

Boti Falls Adventure

I am proud to say I have conquered Boti Falls. We ventured there on Saturday with about eight or nine mentors. We hired a tro-tro and all piled in for the 20-minute drive. Once there we started with a hike to Umbrella Rock. It’s only a 40-minute hike, but from what I read, pretty challenging. There were some very steep downhill parts (which made me dread the walk back) and a fairly steep uphill climb at the very end. I needed a few breaks, to say the least! I was actually a bit stressed going into this hike, and worried that I wouldn’t be able to complete it, so I am proud of myself – but also aware that I need to get into better shape! The funniest thing about this is that all the YCI volunteers brought backpacks, and wore hiking clothes while the mentors were wearing their regular clothes, ie. Jeans and a t-shirt.


The views from Umbrella Rock were pretty amazing. Once we got there I drank two sachets of water and dumped one over my head. There are a few vendors there selling water and coconuts, and there is also a bamboo ladder which you can climb to stand on the top of the Umbrella Rock. Since the fee was only 50 pesewas, we all opted to do this. It was very picturesque but the ladder wasn’t the sturdiest I’ve ever climbed and I got nervous on the way down.

After Umbrella Rock we continued to see the palm tree with three trunks. This was a fairly short hike from Umbrella Rock and mostly flat, although we had to walk through a small cemetery to get there! Here they also had a ladder to climb some of the tree but Teddy, one of the mentors, is the only one who did.

I found the hike back a bit tiring but I think I was feeling pretty accomplished by that point. The last thing for us to see was Boti Falls. This required descending 250 stairs. There were two falls, and it was nice to cool off, although there were signs everywhere stating that swimming was not advisable. Along with a couple of others I did a short walk to stand behind the waterfall, which resulted in me becoming absolutely soaking wet. This walk was over large rocks which were quite slippery, and I was worried about falling into the water the entire time. Afterwards we had to climb back up the 250 steps, but this was actually easier than I anticipated!

After climbing the 250 steps we rested in a gazebo at the top, and it started pouring rain! As thankful as I was not to be caught in the downpour myself, I was worried about some people we ran into who were climbing to Umbrella Rock as we were descending – I hope they didn’t get stuck there because the descent would be very dangerous under slippery conditions!

On the work front: besides our regular workshops, our other project this week is putting an event together for World AIDS Day, on Wednesday, December 1. YCI, along with the YMCA, have decided to hold an event at the YMCA in order to mark this occasion. This fits in with our project focus of the MDGs, as MDG 6 is: “Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases.” As previously mentioned, the Peer Mentors have been thoroughly trained in HIV/AIDS so they have a strong interest in this area.

We formed a committee of four YMCA Peer Mentors, and one YCI volunteer, Lisa, to organize what we would be doing on World AIDS Day. The Committee decided to plan an event at the YMCA from 9am-12pm and to invite 150 students from 6 of the schools that we have run MDG workshops with. Working with a budget provided by YCI, we commissioned two banners to be made and placed them in town; we ordered food and refreshments for our guests; 4H generously provided us with a nurse; and we had a few guest speakers, including a person living with HIV/AIDS (PLWA).

The theme for our event at the YMCA is “Kick HIV/AIDS out of Koforidua.” It is particularly significant to have an event in the Eastern Region because of all ten regions in Ghana, the HIV/AIDS prevalence rate is highest here. I have also heard that Koforidua has the highest HIV/AIDS prevalence in the Eastern Region, but I have not been able to find this information online so I’m not sure if it is still accurate. The national prevalence rate in Ghana had been falling steadily until 2008, but has been increasing again in the last few years.

One challenge in planning this event has been the distribution of the invitation itself; we are working with around ten schools so we chose the ones that either had a school bus available or were within walking distance of the YMCA. Another challenge is making sure that only 150 people attend the event. When we offered our MDG workshops we requested groups of 30-40 students, and we are almost always greeted with a lot more than that, in one case around 120 students for one workshop!

Other YCI volunteers currently on project are also planning events to mark World AIDS Day, so I would suggest you check the YCI website or blog to find out more.  I’m sure there are events happening in your community (especially since I know a large number of readers of this blog are in Toronto!) so I would encourage you to become involved!

Posted by: devonhamilton | November 23, 2010

Aburi: Shopping and Botanical Gardens

Last week we began our workshops in the schools with the YMCA mentors taking a bigger role – eventually they will be running the workshops completely independently. Unfortunately I did not attend any of the workshops last week; the first workshop was at a church and was “rained out” (when it rains everything stops, and this was a fairly big storm!); and the second one was on Friday at one of the high schools here in Koforidua. In this case, we had spoken with the principal and given him our letter of offer with a request to run a workshop for 30-40 students. This suited the principal and a time was booked. However, when we arrived at the school not only was the principal now on vacation but the message hadn’t been passed along that we were coming. Another staff member suggested that we run the workshop for the first year students, which we agreed to until we were informed that this would be a class of 500. I am happy to report that we did run three successful workshops; I was just not a sitting YCI volunteer on any of them as we have divided them up between us. At the moment we have five workshops scheduled for this week (Week 8!), and we have a lot of follow-up phone calls to make in order to secure more.

On Saturday we did not end up going to Boti Falls, we have rescheduled it to this upcoming Saturday and are going to bring some of the mentors with us. Instead, on Saturday we went to a town called Aburi where there is a large botanical garden. We took a taxi there – its maybe an hour or so away – and a very scenic drive. We tried to book a guide for our tour once we arrived but we were told that one of the guides had passed away so no one was around to give us a tour. The trees all have labels and sometimes an information board nearby, but I really would have liked to have a guide since there are signs at certain points warning visitors not to go any further in the garden without a guide. The temperature was cool inside the gardens and some of the trees were absolutely massive.

Yesterday, Kelly, Jenna and I returned to Aburi to do some shopping there, as there is a large market which we evidently missed when we visited on the weekend. We all used our bargaining skills and managed to get lower than quoted prices, although the quoted price given to us was most likely largely inflated. I picked up a purse for myself along with a wood carving map of Africa – the Ghana one would have been more meaningful but wasn’t as visually appealing – and a few gifts as well. I was looking to get more oware sets but I just couldn’t find one that was as nice as the one I already have!

At night, we had two workshops at two separate Churches. My group presented to a crowd of around 30 people, who were very engaged and had a lot of thought provoking questions for us, particularly around the issue of women’s empowerment. The men in the audience argued that Ghanaian women are already empowered, while the women in the audience argued that they are not! We had two YMCA mentors present with us and they both did a great job. The entire workshop was translated into Twi but the majority of the discussion afterwards was conducted in English. This group was eager to learn more so we left them with a list of resources, since we only had an hour to give a very basic introduction to the MDGs.

I have two more weekends in Koforidua so I have been consulting the Bradt guide to see what things I should see while I am here. I previously mentioned going to Mole but apparently its 10 hours or so away, and we would only be able to spend two days there at most. Right now a couple of us are thinking that it might be easier to go to the Volta region as there are some nature sanctuaries there (although no elephants like Mole) and some traditional kente-weaving villages. Any advice is welcome!

Posted by: devonhamilton | November 19, 2010

Week 7

Sorry for the lack of updates, the internet has been down in Koforidua for the past few days! Here is what we have been up to since my last post –

Last week we ran three comprehensive workshops for the peer mentors. We focused on the MDGs; proposal writing; and fundraising. It was interesting to work with the mentors because they asked a lot of questions and were eager to participate, unlike some of the schools we had previously visited, so it was nice to have a bit of a discussion around Ghana’s progress towards the MDGs.

During the presentations I have been focusing on MDG 1 (eradicate extreme poverty and hunger) and MDG 2 (achieve universal primary education). MDG 1 refers to providing people with basic needs, or the things they need to live a decent life: food, water, clothing, shelter, and medicine. Ghana was the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to achieve the specified target of halving the proportion of the population in extreme poverty; this was achieved in 2006 (well ahead of the 2015 target). At the national level, poverty has been decreasing, but there are huge disparities between regions. For instance, poverty has increased in the Upper West and Upper East regions (Northern Ghana). According to the United Nations, over 70% of people whose incomes are below the poverty line in Ghana live in these regions.

In terms of MDG 2, there have been policy interventions carried out in Ghana to help attain this goal, such as the construction and rehabilitation of classrooms; school feeding programs; and the abolishment of primary school enrollment fees. While I was presenting I emphasized the school feeding program, since it had come up again and again in my research. However, I was challenged on this point by a mentor who said that the food being served through the feeding programs wasn’t nutritious, good quality food, which was something they had seen first-hand but something I obviously did not come across in my research. It was so interesting to hear their perspective on Ghana’s progress towards the MDGs versus what we had been reading online and in the UN reports.

We also spent a day last week handing out letters to schools and churches to offer to run our MDG workshop for them sometime within the next three weeks of programming. I only expected this process to take a couple of hours but it took up our entire day! Needless to say this involved a fair bit of walking, taxi-ing, and waiting. This week we conducted an MDG review session with the mentors on Wednesday, and then we began our workshops at various schools on Thursday. Right now we are assisting with the workshops but by next week we are hoping to take on a more supervisory role. I think we are all looking forward to seeing the mentors take the lead with this project – they are very ambitious in how many youths and schools they want to target and I think we are all confident in the sustainability of our project.

On Saturday, we took a tro-tro to Kumasi, the capital of the Ashanti region (for those keeping track, I have now visited five of Ghana’s ten regions: the Ashanti region, the Western region, the Eastern region, the Central region and the Greater Accra region). A tro-tro is a minibus that holds about 13 people, and is fairly cheap. The unfortunate part is that they don’t run on any sort of schedule, you just board the tro-tro and it doesn’t leave until its full! On Saturday this meant sitting in the tro-tro for an hour before it filled up. On top of that, a man decided to preach at us from outside for the duration of this time. After we finally departed, it took us about four hours to get to Kumasi and then we spent awhile trying to find a hotel – many of the hotels we looked at wouldn’t allow two women to share a room (and we clearly didn’t want to pay for five separate rooms) but we lucked out and found decent accommodations for around 18 cedis per night. I know I previously mentioned that we were going to attend a funeral in Kumasi, but there was some confusion with the dates and it was the previous weekend!

Kumasi was massive and overwhelming. The Bradt guide (highly recommended for anyone looking to travel to Ghana) insisted that it was one of the most hectic cities in Africa, and I think I was still surprised at how busy it was. The market was absolutely crazy. I took a few pictures but I don’t think I quite captured its essence. We laughed about the fact that we thought the Market Circle in Takoradi was busy the first time we walked through it, because this was about a hundred times more chaotic. We met up with one of Fred’s friends in Kumasi and went out for dinner and dancing in the evening. On Sunday, we did some walking through the city, so I saw the Chief’s palace and the Kumasi zoo (from the outside, we didn’t go in). I also had the opportunity to do a bit of shopping in Kumasi – I bought a couple of paintings and a game called oware. I don’t know how to play yet but Fred told me that he would teach me – it’s supposed to be similar to backgammon. In the afternoon we attended a soccer game between the Kotoko Warriors (Kumasi’s team: the porcupine warriors) and New Edubiase. A ticket was just 3 cedis! The Kotoko Warriors lost 2-0.

We didn’t leave Kumasi until Monday morning. For the return trip, we took the Metro Mass Transit bus instead of a tro-tro, which was perhaps a mistake. We just missed the first bus to Koforidua (remember, they leave as soon as they are full), so we had to wait an hour for the next one to arrive. Once it arrived, we boarded, but we waited two and a half hours for the bus to fill (every single seat!). Afterwards, we still had a four hour ride to Koforidua, which seemed to take forever, especially since I had two chickens seated beside me. We left our hotel in Koforidua before 8am and somehow didn’t get home until after 4pm. Frustrating, to say the least!

The good news is that we came home to some of Mama Augusta’s delicious cooking. I think I will probably dedicate an entire post to her food in the future, but I need to mention her here because I think that picturing her cooking helped us to survive the bus ordeal from Kumasi. I can’t emphasize enough how wonderful it has been to try traditional Ghanaian food this way, especially since we were all becoming very tired of constantly eating in restaurants in Takoradi. Typically Mama Augusta brings us breakfast in the morning: either an omelet, rice porridge, or oats with coffee, tea, or milo (a kind of hot chocolate energy drink – yum!). Everything she has made us for lunch/dinner has been amazing, including: groundnut (peanut) soup, yams with palava sauce (I’m not sure how to describe palava sauce, its kind of like a spinach sauce), jollof rice, and this week we finally tried fufu. Fufu is kind of a starchy dough ball made from pounding cassava and plantain, and served in a light soup. We were warned about how fufu might sit in our stomachs (its recommended that you eat it before 4pm and go for a walk or something afterwards!) but Mama Augusta worked her magic and I think it sat fine with all of us!

This week we were informed that 100 children were going to be staying at the YMCA for a couple of nights, which was noisy but fun. They were very curious about us and created some sort of game where the bravest one would run by where we were sitting, which was pretty funny for us. A few local boys stopped by one night and gave us a surprisingly thorough Twi lesson, so my vocabulary has moved beyond animals – I can now also count to five! It is easier to learn now that we have some works written down, but the differences in pronunciation seem so subtle to me that I am having trouble differentiating some words.

Yesterday we visited the Bead Market in Koforidua, which is held every Thursday. Needless to say, I was in heaven and made many purchases! I felt like I could have spent my entire day there. The market had a vast selection of necklaces, earrings, bracelets, and loose beads. I am looking forward to attending again next Thursday and adding to my collection!

At the moment we have four workshops booked for next week and we are in the process of calling schools and churches to add more. We are also going to visit Boti Falls this weekend, which is about half an hour away from Koforidua. The climb is 2-3 hours and apparently the views from the top are amazing, so stay tuned! We are also thinking about travelling to Mole the weekend of December 3, it is a far journey though (I think around 10 hours?) so if anyone has feedback as to whether or not it is worth the trip I would appreciate it!

Posted by: devonhamilton | November 8, 2010

Koforidua Programming Begins

First off, thanks to everyone who took the time to message me or e-mail and wish me a happy birthday on Wednesday – I checked my e-mail today and had over 50 e-mails, so I haven’t been able to get back to everyone, to say the least. I know some people tried to call and there was a problem with the network, just bad luck I guess! But I appreciate it!

My birthday was great. We visited the YMCA and OIC to say goodbye to the staff and students, and I had “Happy Birthday” sung to me by the student body, which was amazing – I wish I had captured it on video. There was a lot of dancing and drumming, which was fun! We also had debriefs that day but our partners were kind enough to include birthday cake in the refreshments. The YMCA surprised us with skirts, dresses, and shirts – all in the same matching fabric. So we of course had a great time using my self-timer and having a photoshoot in our new matching outfits. I was really pushing for us to go out for some drinks as a co-ordinated group of seven, but we all ended up changing. Afterwards the seven of us (our group of five plus Jane and Fred) went out for dinner and a couple of drinks. The weather was absolutely gorgeous! We didn’t end up visiting a pool, but still a great day all around!

On Thursday we drove to Accra, which took about four hours. It was strange to be at the YMCA hostel there again! The Canadian Embassy had their Canadian night so we went over to that. They were showing the movie “Passchendaele” but we decided to watch some live music provided by the American military instead. It was fun to see some other Canadians, although we don’t dance as well as Ghanaians!

Friday morning we drove to Koforidua. I am now in the Eastern Region (we were in the Western Region before) and it is totally different. Koforidua is surrounded by huge hills (I think they might call them mountains) covered in trees and other vegetation. This is a random observation but I’ve noticed that the palm trees are also twice as tall here. It’s a little cooler, too – we’re higher up – and I actually turned off my fan last night! Kelly and Steph are sharing a double room with an ensuite bathroom (and are hilariously also sharing a double bed and mosquito net) while the rest of us are in single rooms at the other end of the compound. We decided the rooms by drawing names.

I’m excited to start our programming here because we are facilitating the training of trainers (ToT). The YMCA have a group of peer mentors who have previously been trained by YCI volunteers (most recently in the summer on HIV/AIDS). The mentors are interested in conducting more outreaches in the community, and they are looking to us to run workshops on proposal writing and project design so that they can seek funding for various projects. We will also be training them on the MDGs, but in this case we will be training them to run workshops themselves. Instead of the five of us going into schools and teaching the MDGs like we were in Takoradi, we will instead be training the mentors as facilitators, and accompanying them to various schools to run the workshops. This way of transferring knowledge is more sustainable and impact is more noticeable.

We have met some of the mentors and they all seemed very nice. We even had a dance lesson with some of them yesterday!  Tomorrow we are going to visit various schools to see if they are interested in having us come in to facilitate workshops along with the mentors. We will be running workshops for the mentors on Wednesday (MDGs), Thursday (Proposal Writing and Project Design) and Friday (Fundraising and Social Media). Our plan is to go to Kumasi this weekend, so we will see what happens!

PS: We have been receiving delicious meals from our “cooking mama”, Mama Augusta, a local woman who is making some of our breakfasts and dinners for us. I will devote an entire post to this in the future!

Posted by: devonhamilton | November 2, 2010

Last days in Takoradi

On Friday, we wrapped up our Takoradi workshops. In the morning, Steph, Lisa and I ran a workshop on fundraising, and in the afternoon Jenna and Kelly covered event planning. It feels so strange to be done the workshop portion of our time in Takoradi!

Our final report is due tomorrow, November 3rd. The plan after that is to leave for Accra on the 4th, and we are actually going to be staying there overnight, which is exciting! The first Thursday of every month there is a get-together at the Canadian Embassy, so we are looking forward to attending. It sounds like we’ll be able to watch a movie and network with other Canadian expats working in Ghana. I haven’t met any other Canadians so far! I didn’t think I would be in Accra again until the end of December (we will be there for a few days at the end of project) so it will be nice to be back there now that we have adjusted to life in Ghana. On the morning of the 5th we will leave for Koforidua, where we will have a couple of days of orientation before beginning workshops with peer mentors on Monday, November 8th.

Some things I have learned while in Takoradi:

–          Always clarify and define what your workshop is about. We ran an entire workshop on Millennium Development Goals and at the end had students asking about the meaning of “Millennium” – we also experienced this (again) when we ran our high risk/medium risk/low risk activity (“what is risk??”)

–          Always ask a restaurant what they have before you look at the menu. Many times they are out of things on the menu and instead of telling you this they will bring you whatever they have

–          Aside from prices at restaurants, every price is pretty much negotiable

–          At restaurants, food is not brought out at the same time and sometimes not even close to the same time. Sometimes  a couple of us are done eating completely before the others have even received their food

–          If you ask students if they understand something you have said, they will always say yes. It works better to ask them to re-explain what you just said to see if they were listening/absorbed it

–          Learning the local language is very important. I have had fun learning random Fante vocabulary and local people are thrilled when you try to use it (and if they ask you “how are you” in Fante and you reply “I’m fine” in Fante they are overjoyed)

–          There is a shortage of small bills and change; everyone has 10s but no one has change for it which can make shopping difficult (especially when trying to negotiate a lower price)

–          The thing I take the most for granted in Canada is running water, and being able to drink and brush my teeth from the tap (as a side note to that – when the running water is out, which is often, the thing I miss the most is not showers or flushing the toilet, but washing my hands)

–          Miscommunication is common: we were unaware that we committed to teaching English; we have “stood people up” when we didn’t know we had plans; Steph and I waited for 1.5 hours for food because by “two burgers” they thought we meant we weren’t hungry

–          The best way to handle any uncomfortable situation is to laugh

–          The dance floor is dominated by men who openly dance with each other, with just a handful of females

On Friday we picked up our clothes from our tailor, Sammy, and we are all thrilled with how our outfits turned out! For four yards of fabric and a custom-made shirt and top, I only spent 16 cedis – which is less than $16 CAD (maybe around $12 CAD). I hope we can find a tailor in Koforidua because I would like to have more clothing made if possible. All the outfits are so different, and we are all happy with our fabric and design choices!

On Saturday we were invited to a wedding that was set to begin at noon. Anyone can attend weddings but it still felt to us like we were crashing it. We of course wore our custom-made outfits. Our connection to the wedding was the maid of honour, Mensima. Mensima is the vice-president of the Rotaract, and we have been running workshops for them on Sunday evenings. Fred told us to arrive at least an hour later than the stated start time, since there was no possible way this wedding would start at noon – they would of course be running on “Ghanaian time.” I don’t know if we were just too excited to wait or what, but we ended up leaving our hotel around noon and heading to the wedding, which was about ten minutes away. Not surprisingly, we waited for two and a half hours before the wedding started… that’s right, it started at 2:30pm. We weren’t the first people there, but when we arrived around noon they were still setting up the church for the ceremony. It seems that no matter how many anecdotes you hear about “African time”, you need to experience these things for yourself in order to actually take them seriously!

The wedding itself was lovely, with a fairly long ceremony, probably an hour and a half. A few hymns were sung and much of it was similar to a North American wedding, but with a lot more dancing inside the church. Many of the guests were wearing traditional clothes and kente cloth, so I made sure to take a lot of pictures and tried not to look too creepy while doing so. After the wedding refreshments were provided, which included drinks as well as some snacks. The official wedding photography was wrapped up quickly, probably in less than 20 minutes, in comparison to Canada where an entire afternoon can be spent on wedding pictures! When they called up friends of the bride to have their picture taken with her, we were waved to come join, so it is nice to know that I am in someone’s official wedding pictures.

We have been having bad luck with viruses lately (and technology in general as a few of the girls have been having major camera issues). I have officially abandoned my USB key after it became riddled with 30 viruses, and I actually ended up getting a virus on the memory card of my camera, which I didn’t even know was possible. I have thrown those things to the bottom of my knapsack and am using a different memory card that I packed, so hopefully this will be the end of my problems. Right now it looks like everything is safely quarantined… but I wish I was more of a tech person. Keep your fingers crossed for me, I would be upset if I lost the ability to upload pictures to this blog!

Hope you all had a Happy Halloween, and for everyone who inquired: no, we do not celebrate Halloween in Ghana – but we did wish each other a Happy Halloween over breakfast. As far as I know the only Ghanaian holiday I will be here for is Farmer’s Day, which falls on the first Friday in December.

Older Posts »