Leaving Ghana

I’m preparing to leave Ghana. The plane will take off in a few hours and I will be home with my family and friends this week. There will be a few more posts on the blog about the closing up of work on the Agriculture As A Business program we’ve run with the Ministry of Food and Agriculture.

In the meantime… I am simply sad to be leaving my friends and host family here. Justa bought a card for me with the following message. I think it speaks fairly well for itself. Goodbyes are difficult for me so I will just leave you with her words. Thanks Justa.

Fare Well


Be assured that you are

always thought of,

though we may not

hear from each other

often, but out of sight

is not out of mind

I will always be with you

in thoughts and in spirit

more than you could imagine.

May God protect, and bless


& all that belongs to you.

Fare well &

See you soon!



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Visit Sarah’s Blog Days….


From February 29th to March 2nd, I celebrated one year in Ghana by inviting everyone I could manage to reach through email and facebook to visit my blog. With 301 views over the three days, it was truly a great party! The aim is to share this experience with my social network (you) while generating discussion and actions that challenge Canada’s slothfulness on international poverty issues.

Remember to check out “What you can DO!” on the top menu bar, and consider taking action by buying Fair Trade products, considering international poverty when you vote, and getting involved in Engineers Without Borders Canada.

Oh, and also consider donating – EWB does good work. (I had to write this or they would probably fire me 😛 )


Much Love from Ghana,

Sarah Lewis


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The Details of a Monday Morning



Terimba sweeping the courtyard

I wake up around 6 am under a mosquito net. The cloud of white screens the room away. I stretch and avoid my laptop while rolling the netting up to hang out of the way. My stomach is still feeling full. The fullness is normal since I ate a heavy meal of Tuo Zafi last night. It was with my favorite soup, bierse, leafy green vegetables with groundnuts (peanuts). Still, I feel a bit lazy, like a bike ride is in order.


Everyday in my home we eat a stiff porridge made of whole grain millet that was grown in the field a few months ago. Part of the millet is fermented overnight and then added to the large silver cauldron full of more millet and water. An arm length big wooden ladle is used to stir the thick boiling mixture and beat it until it is stiff. This is a difficult job and one that I myself can only do for a few minutes before my arms are burning and slowing down. Charity, daughter in law and new mother, prepares the food. We have a big family so the pot is always full. The porridge is spooned with a wet calabash into silver bowls of various sizes and shapes to cool and solidify. The stew varies from a base of gooey okru to leafy vegetables, seasoned with hot pepper, dawadawa (made from seed of a tree fruit), small fry fish and salt. Sometimes fish or meat are added to the stew. Two ladles are carefully doled out into a separate smaller bowl allocated to individuals. If the kids don’t get their fair share, you really hear about it.




Everyone eats individually, spread around the courtyard on stools and chairs, unlike many other houses where bowls are shared. It’s common to have conversation, but it is taboo to talk while you are eating (chewing). Sound familiar? A 2L empty tomato can full of water is there to rinse hands and the two bowls. One is of TZ, now thick enough to stand a spoon (although not eaten with cutlery), a glob is grasped in the right hand, generally with the first three fingers and thumb. It’s dipped in stew before being eaten. Eating with your hands is an art and takes a bit of practice to perfect. In terms of taste, I love TZ now and miss it if I’m away for a few days. I didn’t dislike it on the first trial although it is different than most foods I was familiar with.



Sharing a bowl of TZ at a funeral, with soup and Guinea Fowl



I grab my bicycle and head out for a quick ride up the hills, which are beautiful in the early morning, a couple of goats are disturbed on the way out the door. They bleat and cry as they bounce and run in front of me.


On the way out of my house I greet people energetically with variations of the following: “beige” (good morning), “namba” (fine), “la’awalla?” (how are you) “la’asoma” (fine), Variations include: “’nigbina” (your body), “inya‘awalla?” (how is your home), “ig be soma” (your sleep), “tuma” (the work). A friend once told me that it doesn’t make any sense to talk with someone until you know that they are fine and that their mind is clear physically and in their home life. Otherwise, they may not be able to hear (understand) you well.


I know that I don’t pronounce words properly sometimes, although with greetings I’m almost perfect. There are three distinct languages in the district, and we work with farmers in each area, so I tend to get the subtleties mixed up. My house people have recently begun correcting me, and I’m grateful for that.


There is a valley and a road leading up towards the village of Tengzug, with boulders everywhere. They look like they have been piled by giants, piled and balanced impossibly on each other. The air is dry and burns my throat a bit. A haze covers the horizon, and the rising sun, spreads the red yellow light over over the sky. The hills cover and uncover the sun as I move, making the sun rise and set over and over. My mind drifts as the road unwinds slowly uphill.


I know that by taking this time for myself in the morning I am missing Terimba and Florence washing dishes and pots and sweeping the courtyard. I try and help with washing bowls and preparing food in the morning, if we have a morning meal. I get a funny number of compliments on that, people think it is strange that white girl wants to wash bowls, like a good daughter would do. In my own opinion I don’t do it often enough to deserve much praise.

South side of the Tongo hills in May



Once I was washing dishes at my friend Justa’s, down at the health clinic quarters, when another aide from the clinic came in to see her. I caught a critical sounding comment from the girl about Justa bathing while I washed her dishes. Why would she punish a foreigner like that? The culture of privilege given to people from ‘developed’ countries is very deeply engrained in most of Ghana. In the North, an ethic of treating visitors well is a reinforcing element of the culture. This sometimes creates the sense that foreigners are helpless and babyish, unable to do anything for themselves.


It’s true that we visitors are generally are sorely lacking in understanding how to act, what to do and what not to do. Ghanaians forgive me the faults and rudeness of foreigners very freely – Well… at least until you become ‘part of here’, as they say. Now my friends and family rarely let me off the hook without advising me to change my behaviour. In other words, I WAS forgiven silently during my first few months, but now expectations are higher and I am forgiven loudly instead. I’m much happier this way.


After the girl left, Justa said, “you know that when you [plural] do things like carry water and wash dishes it becomes hard for other foreigners, because people will talk and say that they knew a white person who eats spicy food, washes her own clothes and dishes, gives gifts and learns Taleni. They will say that these other foreigners are ‘just bluffing’ ”. I laughed – bluffing is an insult that describes when someone pretends to be bigger than they are. It is a foolish and embarrassing thing to be accused of.


The actions on my part seem so small – I can’t say that I have even done them well or consistently, particularly compared to other EWB volnteers who insist on carrying water and taking part in chores every morning. I’m afraid I still ‘bluff’ myself a good deal of the time, and avoid my responsibilities here, but Justa’s sentiment is still appreciated.


Riding down the hills the stones rise up dramatically – making me feel like I should be able to stand up on my toes to see over them. The perspective is deceptive because the boulders are so big and the road curves and turns so much. I remember a story I wrote, in a creative writing class at the age of 12 or so, about a girl who can talk to the wind when she is on her bike riding down hills. The wind is her very good friend. I tried to listen to what the wind in the hills is saying today.


I stop at a house across the street on my way to my own home. There are lawn chairs set up outside and a few men in traditional smocks sit sharing a drink in front of the door. A large cauldron sits on a smoking fire. Three women, one elderly, sit near it, idle for the moment. Beside the doorway there is an array of arrows, bows, a woven hat with cattle horns fixed, and a stack of suitcases, all with their own meanings and part of the history of the clan, and family. It reminds me of our Christmas tree at home, particularly because of the balls with my birthday inscribed. I imagine that this is how my house people would feel standing in my living room at Christmas.


David comes out of the doorway to greet me. He is the watchman at our district office, about 38 or so, wearing a polo collared red t-shirt and slacks. David’s family is celebrating the funeral of his father, who died in 2002. The events began on Friday, but Monday is a day of rest. Tuesday, the final day, there will be drumming, feasting and dancing. I have just stopped by to say good morning and to make him aware that I will come tomorrow and celebrate with the family. And assure him that I will, of course, take pictures.


On the way home, I continue greeting, including one of the old ladies of the main compound house. There are four old women, called “our mothers”, by the people in the house. These elderly women are highly respected and consulted for advice by the extended family. They have reached an age of wisdom, and transcended the limitations that being a widow may cause for younger women. In the evenings, people come and sit with them to discuss the events of the day and hear stories about the past.



As I step back into the yard. I hear the pigs squealing in the pen in the back, there were 5 of them I think. I saw them castrated with the razor blade over Christmas, the process looked the same as when I saw a horse being gelded working on a farm in the Okanagan when I was 18. The Pigs’ wounds were packed with ash, and healed in a few days. Roland told me that they will grow now that they don’t think of women. He was joking, but it’s undeniably true that the pigs have now more than doubled in size.


(I sit down and write this blog post…. it is 8:24 am as I finish.)


Time to bath. I wrap myself in my simple two yard cloth, a bold print of aqua blue with gold fruit splashed across it. I pick up a sponge, which is a long sash of plastic netting that can be bunched in the wand and used to scrub off dirt and dry skin very effectively with a bit of soap. Don’t forget soap. Bath sandals, or flip flops are also a necessity. I take conditioner but not shampoo: its so dry that shampoo to remove the oil from my hair is rarely necessary. Dodging Lauratia and Donald playing, I grab a plastic bucket in the courtyard and fill it from the clay pot by the kitchen, using an old tomato can. The pot contains the same borehole water that we drink. The water is very high quality and located about a three minute walk from our doorway. Lariba, Terimba and Mme Lardi normally fill it in the early morning, they carry the water in a large basin balanced on their heads. I’m a big suck and so if I help it’s normally just with a bucket. All of the water containers in the yard are clean and covered. I haven’t been sick from water-borne for one single day living here.




The bath is a small walled area with a concrete floor and a small drain (hole in the base of one wall). There is a rope hanging across the doorway, on wich I hang the cloth as a screen. It is multi purpose a sort of wash room that can be used as a urinal. There is no toilet, which means that I normally wake up in the early morning before sunrise to use the field. During the day, our home is quite exposed, which stresses me, but I am normally at work where there is a KVIP latrine anyhow. I have to say that I really don’t notice the inconvenience anymore. I understood the challenges of encouraging the construction of latrines from working in Cameroon, people often don’t feel that they are necessary. However, the experience of living here has helped me to really ‘get’ how free range sanitation practices feel relatively normal for my host family.


I love bathing like this, but it took a long time before I could bath properly. At first I used a small cup to scoop water, until I found out that it is only small children who wash themselves with a cup. Embarrassed, I started trying to go without. Now I struggled to splash water all over myself with my hands. This resulted in my bucket emptying before I stopped being soapy a few times. All concerns of the past! I can crouch and splash the small of my back like a pro these days. Its funny how we pick our battles – bathing was mine for a while.


Ghanaians are extremely clean and very careful about their health, and although the understanding of hygiene is different than my past experience, my family members have taught me how to take good care of myself in Ghana.


Living in this house is extraordinarily comfortable for me. We human beings are SO adaptable, despite that we love to resist change. I’ve found it takes patience to adopt new visions and ideas of ourselves, but we are alsoalways striving to know how to meet the expectations that surround us. It has been extremely stressful to be in a new environment where the expectations on me are suddenly unknown. Over time, the rewards of sticking with this experience, continuing to ask questions and learning a new wayto live have been, well, a feeling of having a place in Ghana I could always come…. home.



The terrible two: Donald and Lauratia

As I finish writing this, the screen door swings open and Donald stands shyly in the doorway. “ta dit su’palm?” he says, holding his pants pocket open. I repeat the phrase so that he knows I understand. He boldy pours a small handful of groundnuts onto the arm of my chair. Lauratia follows him, announcing “tad it su’palm!”. Then, like any kid she repeats “tad it su’palm!” over and over with increasing volume, just for the fun of bugging me.

I’m mildly annoyed and not sure what to say. Mme. Lardi is standing nearby and mentions, “deysa’ia”. It means ‘I am satisfied’, or simply ‘enough’. I repeat the phrase, even though I’m not sure if Lardi was giving me a hint about how to say ‘enough groundnuts, thanks’ or telling my little sister to back off directly. Mme laughs, Lauratia smiles and the two of them trample out the door for new adventures.

Time for work.

– — – — – — – — – — – — – — – — – — – — – — – — – — – — – — – —

For the record – when i said that Ghanaians value cleanliness – I didn’t mean that they know how to keep four year olds from running around and playing in dirt. No one alive could keep Lauratia clean for more than five minutes.


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National Health Insurance Scheme

Charity, Mme Lardi (Second Wife) and Lauretia, her youngest daughter

Ghana has a national health insurance scheme and soon my hosts, of the Tikaha Family, are going to be registered members. My host father Patrick, as a civil servant, is entitled to a discounted rate with NHIS. A fact that he was not aware of until very recently. He feels that as a teacher and a civil servant, at least, he should make the effort to ensure that his family is covered under NHIS.

My observations on NHIS from a Canadian perspective are that more wealthy Ghanaians are much more aware of the scheme than those in rural communities. It seems that Ghana could do more to make sure that those in Northern rural areas patronize the program. The lack of accessible information for illiterate persons, NHIS fee, and additional travel expenses make rural families much less likely to register.

Charity (First Wife, Augustine’s, Daughter in Law) and her daughter Emmanuela (10 weeks, 1 day)

Here is a brief description of NHIS from an online article:
“The idea was to replace the old cost-recovery health system in operation since 1985 and known infamously as “cash-and-carry,” under which patients were required to pay up-front for health services at government clinics and hospitals.

The new bid to provide care for even the poor and the vulnerable among Ghana’s 19 million people was described just this week by one editorialist as “perhaps the biggest social development project undertaken by any government since (Kwame) Nkrumah after Ghana’s independence.”

NHIS, which is not yet fully in effect across the country and still has a number of glitches to be smoothed, is supposed to make health care affordable for ordinary Ghanaians. ” (article 2 below)

See the following two critical articles for details:

1) Ghana: Three Years On, Whither the NHIS?


2) GHANA: Despite new health scheme, newborn babies detained in hospital pending payment


Donald in the dooway (First Wife, Augustine’s, Grandson by her daughter Lariba), Florence, Lauretia in front and Terimba (Second Wife’s Daughter) holding Emmanuel.

Since Patrick is a civil servant, all of his children can be covered for basic health service for one year quite cheaply, at 1GHC (0.99CAD). He was not aware of this until recently. Each of his two wives will be covered for the regular fee of 10GHC (9.87CAD)/year, which has recently been increased from the original charge of 6.60CAD. Unfortunately, there only clinic for them to register is in Bolgatanga, and the lorry fare is 0.50GHC per person. For Patrick the cost will total 26GHC.

Florence (First Wife, Augustine’s, youngest daughter) poses with new shoes and her mother’s purse

The fee itself is prohibitively expensive for the average rural family even though all of the children of an insured mother will be covered by her insurance.

The normal cost of NHIS for a family this size would be 35GHC or an estimated 8% of annual income. Another challenge is that rural families do not hold this amount in cash at any one time due to irregular household cash flow. The International Fund for Agricultural Development’s LACOSREP project found the average net family income of a project participant to be 437.88 GHC (432.31CAD)…somewhat questionably inflation adjusted from 17.6 GHC/annum (17.38CAD) in 1990 -online reference footnoted.

Today everyone is traveling to Bolgatanga to have their pictures taken for ID cards. Therefore, the whole family was looking bright this morning, dressed in their best. As you can see we took a few pictures even though everyone had not yet assembled…

Linus and Donald are the children of Lariba, Augustine’s daughter

footnote IFAD reference for income of LACOSREP project participants, see Project Achievements section: http://www.ifad.int/evaluation/public_html/eksyst/doc/prj/region/pa/ghana/s026ghbe.htm


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At home in Tongo

This photo show can hopefully convey that there are a bunch of great things going for me at home at the moment.

This is my home from afar at dusk. It’s the house under the tree with the tin roofing and the Baobab tree to its right. There is a thatch roof house in front that belongs to Patrick’s brother, also a school teacher. My bedroom is actually the bit of roofing to the far left. It’s pretty luxurious actually. The main family compound is to the left of this picture.


This is Madame Lardi, my host mother and Patrick’s second wife.

And Madam Augustine, holding new baby Emanuella, is Patrick’s first wife.

Kids playing in the courtyard. Lauratia (popem tshirt), and Donald(grey shirt wrestling) are from my family compound.

In the night, this is the crowd watching movies and news on the TV in our courtyard. The night I took this picture I counted 55 people. (There are a bunch more to the right of this picture). It is the only TV in the whole extended family, which is quite big.


mmmmm… yeah and I really like the motorbike – forgive me for obsessing for the next three photos…


Every evening I come home and park my moto at Justa’s on my way home. It was beautiful on Friday, if a little dusty from Harmattan, and I took some I love my motorbike pictures… with a fowl for accent.

A dear neighbour was also around.


I talked with my aunt Corrine tonite and she told me I need to take pictures of me on the motorbike. So this one is dedicated to her! With much love!


Here is a stealthy picture of Justa as she walks towards me at the end of the row of government housing for health workers. She is a Nurse’s Aide at the health centre.


Justa catching the setting sun.


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A snapshot for the holidays


 (this message was written for the EWB message board at http://www.myewb.ca as usual I chose to post it here as well for your interest!)


This Christmas snapshot is a gift for EWB… from the children in my family here in Tongo, the Upper East Region of Ghana. (I was really luck to be the EWB member on scene and available to receive it on our behalf DESPITE being on holiday at the time!)


XMAS in Tongo …


Family and food are the same, gifts and New Years are different.


On Christmas in Tongo, my family members spent the day visiting and greeting each other as well as extended family who live near the main compound house. Small gifts such as coule-coule (fried peanut snacks) and roasted meat were exchanged. In my family house, all sixteen of us enjoyed a rich dinner of rice and stew, along with some fresh watermelon. I fit right in so far as family visits go, because ‘sister’ Sarah Grant, EWB OVS working in Damongo, Northern Region, came to visit! She even brought pineapple, a very rare treat around here!


In keeping with Canadian tradition I secretly bought three yards of material for each of the women in the house, and provided (local) rice for the household meal. I also proudly visited my landlord, Ilaho Tikaha, with the gift of a big guinea fowl on boxing day. He is the senior of four brothers who live in and around the main compound house, called Tikaha Iyre, with their families. My host father, Patrick Tikaha, is his junior and built one of the smaller houses that has branched off from the main compound.


I was a little disappointed to learn that my timing was a bit off on the gift giving. Apparently, in local tradition, most annual gift giving happens at the Daal festival, which is New Years around here. It was a few months ago, in October.


Although my host mother was visibly confused when I presented her with the gift of material, everyone eventually understood that I was following tradition and seemed to appreciate my desire to include the house. It made for an extra special Christmas anyway!


Best WISHES for a happy holiday and prosperous (Canadian) New Year!


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Zanliergu Gardeners


The Gardeners surrounded by a healthy onion crop.




The first farmers I met in Ghana were a group of 9 men gardening about 2 acres of land during the dry season. In the shadow of a half completed dam, they produced two crops of onion. It was March 2007, during my first weeks in Bolgatanga. We have continued working together, and it is in their gardens that the results of the Agriculture As A Business program that we have been developing with the ministry will be seen.

Lawrence, a technical officer pictured here in the green uniform of MoFA’s Field Agents, was my guide as I toured the gardens last March. I had a million questions – he and the farmers were very patient in answering them. At the end of our brief meeting, Tindoog stood and said that I was welcome to return. The group told me that they had decided that they would listen to what we had to say.
As at Dec 2008 I have long accepted the groups invitation. However is certainly they who have always been my teachers. The Agriculture As A Business Program provided the group an initial loan of 300 GHC that allowed them to hire labour and buy insecticide and fertilizer for the first crop of the dry season.

Lawrence and I have designed a record book for them together and measured the size of the onion beds. We will sit with each member and calculate their profit, followed by a group discussion of the techniques that led some group members to excel. The group is curious and engaged in the process – before our next meeting they will be estimating their production level and costs… something that is not normally a habit for the group members.

Our aim is that the exercise of measuring profitability will continue next year and lead to more decisions being made based on record keeping among group members. Plus we have a few other ideas for activities in the bag that may also contribute to their success. Like a visit from a local NGO’s technical expert on growing a new crop.
The group has also agreed to take a loan from MoFA for 15 bags of fertilizer and a small diesel water pump for their second crop. The loans allow them to maximize the return on the money they invest in their plots because they know they have the fertilizer that makes the difference for big bulbs that the market women prefer. As a result, they have taken small risks like expanding the area cropped in the gardens over last year.

Our concern is that this credit opportunity is limited to when the Ministry offers it, and that it is not offered in a way that will substantially increase the group’s production in the long term.

Onion a small time away from harvest

Onion is a labour intensive crop that requires 24 hour attention . Each farmer may only have 4 beds, but they can bring revenue of up to 1.4 million (140GHC). It pays as long as farmers are smart about the timing of the planting and are technically competant enough to grow their own seed. In one other farmer group that we are working with, the women seeded but lost the young plants due to poor germination and lack of care of the young plants.

I was surprised that when the Zanliergu group was offered financing for seed they refused. They said that they don’t know where the seed comes from, and poor quality onion seed is abundant on the market. Even when we told them the source Lawrence had identified, they still refused because they know their seed is of better quality.

In Bawku, where the women’s group struggled to nurse healthy plants, we passed on the recommendations from Zanliergu.

Each visit to the group begins with a walk around the gardens with the farmers. They show Lawrence any problems they have with insects or fungus and he makes recommendations.

We also check the progress of past problems.The onion we are inspecting here is recovering from a fungus.

The Zanliergu community was chosen for a small scale dam in the recent LACOSREP II project. Unfortunately, the contractor did not finish their work and the irrigation canals were not completed. This limits the group to the use of hand dug wells and hand irrigation.

The contractor also left a large hill of dirt in the resevoir. The responsibility for the completion of the work was handed over to district assembly, or local government. The Water Users Association, which is an umbrella organization that includes the Zanliergu Farmers, has formally requested for the dam to be completed, but no action has been taken to date.

IFAD, the main donor for LACOSREP, is planning a new project in the three northern regions. The group is hopeful that work on their dam will be completed, whether by the District Assembly or the new project, or the Irrigation Development Authority, so that their entire community will be better able to make use of the water for gardening.

The struggle to complete small dams completed is a common challenge that bring up challenges of long term accountability for infrastructure. In other nearby communities, there are similar dams, built by NGO’s, that are either incomplete or in poor condition.  On the other hand, I have also seen dams built more than 20 years ago, that have been well maintained and are being used every year for gardening in the lean season.

It’s very difficult to understand the reasons why such projects have fallen through the cracks. Communities have complex internal systems that govern land and resources . Often the construction of a dam by a well-intentioned outsider can ‘step on’ the toes of influential groups, or give power to groups that may not have the freedom to wield it effectively and in the best interests of the community.

The Zanliergu group is working with their extension agent to improve their farming, and doing what they can to try and complete the dam. We will continue to try and see how to support their work.


A big thanks to Sarah Grant, fellow EWB OVS – left below – who took many of these pics during recent visit.


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