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The joys of aiding Ghana

One of the best things you can see while you're overseas./ Nadine Janzen
One of the best things you can see while you’re overseas./ Nadine Janzen

Hear about what you can learn by going far overseas.

Author: Nadine Janzen

I spent this past summer as a Junior Fellow with Amplify Governance, one of Engineers Without Borders’ seed ventures in Tamale, Ghana. Whenever I travel, I always leave with a new perspective on development, aid or whatever else you call helping those I have often misguidedly seen as less fortunate. I don’t know what it means to live as a global citizen, but one lesson I’ve learned over the past decade is that I am there to learn and to teach as an equal, not to ‘fix’ or ‘help’ in a way that enforces the north/south divide.

I gazed out bus windows at the oft-familiar sights of women pounding fufu or laying out their wash, the children playing outside with only the occasional glance from a parent, the men playing cards or visiting. I wondered if they know something we have forgotten in our journey toward progress and efficiency. I wonder sometimes if it’s my life that needs fixing and not theirs.

In Ghana, I spent the majority of my time living and working in Tamale, the capital of the northern region. The Junior Fellowship program has three main components: personal development, professional development, and community contribution upon return. Most pertains to the second. I was able to achieve this by taking advantage of travel opportunities and time. Often, cross-cultural differences in the definition of ‘on time’ allowed me to self-reflect, read, and process. I had the privilege of living with a local Ghanaian couple in their late 50s, James & Janet.. They were retired and had six daughters, two sons, and five grandchildren, the oldest of whom was 11. While there were obvious cultural differences, we still became family. Knowing I have pockets of family scattered across this planet is what I always appreciate most about returning here. As per usual, I return knowing I was enriched and invested in far more than just the regular work.

So, what exactly was I doing there? I worked with All Voices Matter (AVM), a pilot project created by four NGOs and facilitated by Amplify and me directly. Amplify was launching a property taxation pilot program, which consumed their staff’s time. AVM targeted women, youth, and disabled people in Wa, Yendi, Savelugu, and Tamale. The initiative sought to increase citizen engagement, awareness and involvement in local assemblies through recorded surveys sent to mobile phones. A typical question is “would you prefer money for education be spent on additional classrooms, training workshops for teachers, computers for schools, or sponsor needy but brilliant students?”  The Assembly officer would then record responses into the local language.  As a Canadian, it was often difficult to identify and solve the issues related to low response rates. Aspects of these difficulties included: mobile network reliability, finding accurate information on vulnerable populations, and the difficulty Assembly officers experienced in prioritizing goals. On top of this, the people this initiative was trying to help were not well educated, which made interactions difficult. It was easy to see why people had a hard time forming an opinion or knowing how to respond using this technology. Due to these obstacles, it is hard to see AVM being a sustainable resource, though ideally, it seems to have obvious benefits.

Ghana is a small beautiful country with mountains, waterfalls, coastline, wildlife, and forestry. I felt privileged to take advantage of the opportunity: I spent time at Lake Bosumtwi, a crater lake created by a meteorite, and climbed mountains near the Togo border. I also reflected on the capacity of humans to inflict suffering on each other as well as the resiliency of the human spirit. Seeing the history, culture, and nature of Ghana easily destroyed my preconceptions of the single story of African poverty. There is a huge amount of privilege and opportunity I have access to, which my Ghanaian counterparts will never have. This experience inspired in me the desire to create development policy.

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