Evenings in Kuga

One of the true joys that I get on a daily basis is to sit beside Zatu, my host mom, as she cooks the evening meal. When I get home from work around 5:30, I jump off my bike, and great her as I pass. I set my bike in front of my room, and greet the lady who rents the room next to mine as I unlock the door and through my bag inside. I change into some comfortable clothes, put on my challe-wattes (flip flops, otherwise known as “slippers” in Ghana) and walk over to the cooking area.

 I sit on a small bench, and can feel the heat of the fire on my toes and up my leg.  Zatu’s phone is playing some tunes, either some lively Dagbani music or a sermon/speech by a man who always sounds like he is screaming into the mike. When the music is playing, she is singing and humming along. When the sermon is playing, she is nodding from time to time, with the occasional “ennhh”. Rama is on the bench behind me, playing with my hair. She takes it out of the ponytail and makes the ponytail again, over and over. Sulyene is sitting on the floor, usually getting into some kind of trouble, as his mother converses with him and laughs at the things he replies with a decided voice. She will translate what he says from time to time and we will laugh all over again. I ask Zatu questions about her day, we talk about the weather and the fasting, but mostly I ask her about her cooking techniques. Slowly, I am learning how to cook Zatu’s exquisite meals by observation and questions. The usual meal is TZ and ayoyo soup, but from time to time she will make rice and beans, dawadawa jollof rice, or banku.

-Side note: last week, Zatu let me do the banku stirring. I got the motions down! And I am also very excited to have gained some trust in her kitchen!

Every few minutes, a neighbor or two will come into the compound and greet us with an “Aniwula”. We answer “Naaa, Na guaram, Natuma Bewula, Adbehira?”. After those official greetings, the conversation that ensues will be over my head. The ladies will smile at me and we will gesture at each other, attempting to get some message across. Zatu will enjoy the confusion for a bit, then translate a few words for both sides, clarifying the message. Zara and Candy will come by to say hello, and lately Zara has also been helping out with the cooking. I will help her to wash the dishes as the cooking comes to a close.  The cooking will usually be done around 6:45, when Zatu places all the meals into their respective dishes, covers them, and places them near the fire.

At this time, I will usually take a quick walk around the block, and read in my room until 7:30, when the men return from the mosque and the 7:00 prayers are done. Solomon will come knock on my door, with a catchy phrase such as “Let’s fight the hunger!” or “It is time to go to battle with the cassava”, being pretty hilarious every time. I will walk out into a space in the middle of the compound, and help “set the table”, which includes fetching 4 benches, and placing the big bowl of TZ and the smaller bowl or soup and a big mug of water in the middle. Latif, Awal, Solomon and I will sit, and take turns rinsing our right hands as we prepare to eat. We will all dig into the food, usually in a clockwise motion – everyone takes their turn to pick up a piece or TZ, then everyone takes their turn dipping into some soup. We discuss a little, but not much, as they tell me that still half hold onto the belief that talking while eating brings bad luck, but now follow this mostly out of habit. As we finish the bowl, we stay seated, and this is where conversations happen; either a short 5 minute conversation, or a very long one, like that time when I learnt the history of Islam until 10:30.

As we part ways, I look up at the sky. On a cloudless night, the stars are incredible. I may choose to stay up a little later, or go straight to one of the barrels in the compound to collect my water and prepare to go to sleep. I’ll fall asleep to loud sound of crickets and frogs croaking, after setting my alarm for a new day.

Kpabilongni, learning to speak all over again

I just spent the past three and a half days on a very brief village stay in Kpabilongni, living in my friend Thomas’s family home. Thomas’s father had 6 wives, and so he is one of 27 children. Those children have since had children, and there are even some great-grandchildren. Needless to say, the place is huge! The compound has 2 main living areas, with 18 rooms. Around holidays, the number of people in the compound will always exceed 100. The house is the hang out hub in the village; at night, you have many neighbors sitting together within the compound walls as well as a guaranteed Oware tournament outside.

And yes, the language was once again new. Kpabilongni is a Konkomba village, an ethnic group that holds its own unique traditions and language. So “Gi jio poa, alafee be, naaaaa!!!!” was about all I got. Lucky enough that the women I spent time with would probably be sherades experts; communicating through actions became hilarious!!

This short village stay also marked my two months in Ghana, on July 14th. Here are some firsts that happened to me on that day:

First…

– Day on the farm in Ghana

-Time playing Oware.. and winning Oware!  (though mostly losing by a long shot)

-Time watching an animal get slaughtered (I was supposed to be the one doing it.. wasn’t quite ready for that step yet) and helping to chop it up

– Time eating intestines on a stick, and dog meat (Sorry Mom!!.. it was actually pretty delicious)

My intent on living with Thomas’s family in particular was the fact that his mother is the chairwoman of a women’s shea nut processing committee. I was hoping to spend some more quality time with women, experiencing their activities and some of what they do on a daily basis. My time so far in Ghana has been mostly alongside men. This is due to a few circumstances: the gender bias in the workplace, as well as the fact that more men speak English as men tend to have easier access to education.

This particular shea nut processing committee was set up by a Canadian NGO in 1999 to support girl child education. The idea behind the committee was to have every woman in the community work together in processing shea butter and soap to sell at the two local markets. Proceeds from their products would go directly into school fees for girls who otherwise would not make it to school.

As I sat with the group on Friday and spoke to them through Thomas’s translation, I got a feel for the numerous challenges that have pretty well stunted the entire initiative:

– About 70 women ended up joining the group, and even then many others in the village had chosen not to join.  Over time, most of them stopped participating in the group activity, leaving an increasing burden on the executive committee and a few other core members, amounting to about 20 people. This caused a significant drop in production.

– As women dropped out of the group’s activities, those who remained felt the pressure being too much, as they still had to fulfill their many other responsibilities such as farming, housework, cooking, taking care of children, and so on.

– The group received training from an individual of Dagomba descent, while the community is a Konkomba village. 1999 marked the end of a 7 year war between the Konkombas and the Dagombas; tensions were sure to exist then, as they still do now.  The women claim that they were intentionally trained poorly so that their products would be unable to compete with shea butter and soap produced from Dagomba groups in the market.

– They were not provided with any professional cutting instruments; the soaps would look less appealing as they were shaped by hand; making it once again hard to compete with Dagomba soaps that were well shaped.

– There is no grinding mill in Kpabilongni, which is essential to producing quality shea butter. The nearest grinding mill is 7 miles away, which is a very long walk to be carrying heavy bags of shea nuts. Although the community has applied through local government for a grinding mill, they are yet to have one (A grinding mill is useful for much processing on top of shea nuts, including all the staple flours).

The group even began to spend what funds they were making on other items rather than using the proceeds for girl child education. They were selling their product in the market then using that amount to buy and resell other items, so as to gain capital. After this process, they were using the funds to pay for other items in the community, such as broken windows and doors on the existing school, borehole repairs, and so on.

The particular NGO made its evaluation visit very early after the group’s inauguration, when these challenges had not yet had the time to mature and manifest themselves. Since that time, no one in the community has heard from them. I wonder how many other communities this same initiative was started in, and how many of the groups survived the various challenges?

I also learnt a ton about Konkomba dynamics and traditions during my stay, as well as a history of the 26 year and ongoing fight for education in the community that Thomas has been determinately heading (I will have a post on this one soon!). Feel free to call me about it any time – my phone number is still +233 54 683 8273!

Change Champion

I would like to quickly share the quick profile that I wrote about the Municipal Coordinating Director here at the Yendi Assembly for the G&RI Quarterly Report. Director is getting transferred to Tamale Metropolitan Assembly next week, and he will be sorely missed! He has been a really great mentor to me; he can always lift my motivation sky high, and he’s always laughing and in a good mood. This guy has been in this field for a while now, and still holds a powerful passion for local governance that is really inspiring!

Change Champion: Alhaji Shehu A. Kadiri, Municipal Coordinating Director, Yendi Municipal Assembly

Yendi Municipal Assembly is a growing district of over 180,000 people in the Northern Region of Ghana. The unique challenges that Yendi presents have not stopped M. Kadri from letting his passion and optimism for development shine through. M. Kadri has worked in several Assemblies since 1990, yet still takes a personal approach at each one as his empathy for people leads his work. Recently, the Coordinating Director has completed a Masters in Philosophy in Development Studies, all while holding his leadership position in Yendi. M. Kadri finds his passion born from the challenges that arise in his work. He explains how the local government is involved in every aspect of human life, from birth until old age. The ultimate objective to bettering human life is one with which he highly identifies. M. Kadri will soon be moving once again to work as the Coordinating Director at Tamale Metro; the Assembly will certainly be in good hands!

Mangoes make a good lunch

As more time goes by, the harder it gets to write. 😛 Over the past few weeks, the shape of my placement and the specific areas I am investigating have been rearranged several times, to (hopefully) be more relevant to the Assembly and to the knowledge the G&RI team could use to move towards a consultancy model.

I could take you on a guided journey through this, but that might end up being a little long. So I will present a brief of my placement as it is today! As I mentioned a few posts back, I am working to establish a Client Service Unit (CSU) at the Yendi Municipal Assembly. One of the biggest challenges when the CSU idea started was figuring out how not to be redundant, or even step over responsibilities that already lie in various Assembly areas. Some general intentions of the unit are to:

– Increase importance of regularly sharing information in both the greater Assembly’s eyes and the public eye;
– Make is less intimidating/confusing to deal with the Assembly, and therefore more encouraging
– Create a buffer for difficult situations; much of the animosity that happens is due to some form of misunderstanding, which could be mitigated by offering information and having an open question line much in advance of the event in question.

Two of the main investigations I have been looking into is how information is brought to and from the Assembly, and what information is brought to and from the Assembly. As far as how, here is a general diagram:

How:

The main information link for the Assembly is the Assembly Members (AMs). I know, it’s confusing, the word “Assembly” is everywhere. Basically, Assembly Members are classified into two categories: elected and appointed. Most AMs are elected, each by their own electoral areas, where they reside and represent their constituents. Those who are government appointees are part of the Assembly’s executive committee, without a specific electoral area. Yendi has 50 elected Members and 20 appointed Members. AMs are not paid, and go by the surname “Honourable”. Some AMs have a paid job within the Assembly on top of their role, such as the Community Development Officer at the YMA. The whole of AMs is headed by one elected group member, who becomes the Presiding Member (PM). The PM holds certain extra responsibilities, such as chairing the Public Relations and Complaints committee.

All Assemblies in Ghana are mandated to hold a General Assembly Meetings. All AMs from the district gather, and there sits a panel consisting of the Director, Municipal Chief Executive and Presiding Member. In the week or so leading to this meeting, the 7 sub-committees in the Assembly must also meet to bring their issues to the executive committee. All AMs sit on one of the sub-committees, and therefore should also be present at this meeting; granted the invitation makes it to them on time.

At the General Assembly Meeting, AMs get the chance to express their concerns, and submit requests pertaining to their electoral area. AMs can also do this if they wish at their Sub-Committee meeting; however during the meetings I have seen so far, these inquiries were almost made in passing and were left in the hands of the chairman who may or may not end up following through.

What challenge is here? Assembly Meetings, as well as the associated Sub-Committee meetings, only happen 4 time per year. So what happens in between? Some AMs may have a closer relationship with the Municipal Chief Executive (MCE), and feel at ease to go and talk to him when they want to know the status of their request. My guess is that this is more the case with appointed members than it is with elected members, as this group generally has the similar favour with the central government as the MCE.

In Ghana, messages of any importance beyond asking how the day is going and what did you eat for breakfast are done face to face; especially when it comes to meeting the MCE. Luckily enough, Yendi District was able to provide motorbikes to all its AMs; this is not the case in all Districts. However this is still a challenge for many AMs living further out in the District, who may not be able to pay for fuel out of his or her pocket.

The issue is not that the Assembly is not prepared to share its information; as much as possible, the Assembly will be transparent when specifically asked. The issue is that it is unclear as to whom to approach for those who are not familiar with District functions or who do not have a particular relationship with someone who works there. This way, either Assembly Members or other public leaders may not feel comfortable putting fuel in their motorbikes, hitting the road and showing up to a big building with some 30 offices, trying to figure out whom to best approach.

This is one aspect that the CSU may be able to take a stab at. The unit will be a physical space in the Assembly, and will also have a full time reception line. The person working the unit, whose official name has been chosen as the Public Relations Officer, will be equipped to answer certain questions upfront and know how to redirect calls that come in based on their nature. This space is meant to make it easy for people to interact with the Assembly.

What information?

…. Good question. It is especially hard make to predictions on what people would mostly value the in the CSU when you are a 20 year old Canadian who has only been immersed in the District for two months. It is even hard for most people at the Assembly, as they usually can give the most expertise in their given area. Beyond that, how can you predict the reactions of opening a service to over 110,000 people? I think you are getting me.
So far, possible inquiries have been classed into 3 categories; questions, requests and complaints/feedback.

Questions: This one is hard to predict. The current plan is to have the PRO well trained in the functions of each department, and therefore be capable of making a good guess as to where the question should be redirected.

Some general question predictions right now include Internally Generated Funds (IGF) use, project planning, financial reports, information on by-laws, and service provision such as renting the Assembly’s grader, tipper trucks, and other road equipment.

Another possibility for questions is to have a records database. This would keep track of every question that comes into the Assembly, so that the CSU and support staff can look at trends and evaluate whether some sort of action should be taken, such as a mass public outreach or equipping the unit with specific documents.

Requests: Requests are usually made around physical development around the district or funding, in which case some flow is already in place at the Assembly for processing. Some requests however may be around financial statements, requests for documents, etc. Most likely, the CSU will be advertising that people are able to check the status of their requests, explaining the typical flow and relaying phone calls to the Registry.
At the moment, requests follow a certain process when they enter the Assembly- if you are interested in this, I would be glad to explain it over a phone call 🙂

Complaints: The current structure handles complaints based on their nature. Certain complaints are handled by specific people, such as a complaint about construction would go to the Engineer. However, complaints about actions or specific Assembly staff go to the Public Relations and Complaints Committee. The CSU will provide an easy way to submit those complaints, and the staff will have the knowledge on where it should be redirected.

What else? The bigger question right now is what functions can the CSU have purely in information dissemination. There is talk of purchasing a flier printer to produce quarterly compilations of what is happening at various district departments. An AM even suggested to me that the CSU take video records of decision making in executive meetings, and screen them in public using the information van. This exploration area has a ton of potential to support community relations at the Assembly. I would love to hear any of your ideas on what role the CSU could play!!

Another important mission for the CSU is to determine how it can be a self-improving body. There is an understanding pretty well across the board right not that the best functions of the CSU are hard to predict without having tested it. It is hard to guess what the public and targeted leaders will use the unit for; what questions will they ask? Or will they only be concerned with checking the status of their requests? What is really the best form of information dissemination outside of Assembly Members?

Sooo many questions. Well, this is where I am at; the questions just keep rolling in, and at this point, will remain unanswered until the unit actually gets functioning. Just today, the PRO job posting was officially set out, as well as the budgeted items needed for the unit’s space. Heeeeeerrrre we go!

PS: About the title, I didn’t know what to put. But I just had a massive mango for lunch, and it was pretty darn good.