Waking Up in the Village on Your Birthday

August 26, 2011

It is 6:00AM and Lansa, my host mother, wakes me unintentionally to begin her morning prayers. I wake up in the dark because there is no electricity in the village and no windows in the gravel and straw hut where I sleep. I adjust my hips carefully as the sheet beneath has moved during the night leaving my back on the ground exposed. I turn on my headlamp, see the granddaughter soundly asleep and think to myself, today I will spend my birthday in a rural northern Ghanaian village. I continue to lie there, but am eventually distracted by the cool morning breeze on my moist skin. Lansa has opened the door to begin her morning preparations: sweeping, heating bath water and cooking breakfast. I awake, wrap my clothe around me, stretch and walk outside to greet her. She hands me a quarter bucket of hot water, I grab my soap and toothbrush & paste and step into the bathing area to enjoy the warm water and cool air on my skin. Taking a bucket shower is my favourite and I do not mind living without running water. I then dress and greet the landlord who lives across the compound in another hut. I return and am brought my favourite meal of the day, a big thermos of milo (hot chocolate) and half a stick of what looks like French bread. By this time I am greeted by several children and am joined by John, one of the men in the village who speaks English. We chat for a bit and I realize how much effort he has put into my stay. Ghanaians believe that no one should ever be alone and because I do not speak the language, he sits with me virtually at all times of day. We then go around greeting the chiefs and sub-chiefs to say goodbye as this is my final day in the village. I am served way too much food before the women in the community come to say farewell. They hand me my departing, birthday gift: half a bag of African yams and eight guinea fowl eggs. I then strap my things to the back of the moto and ride to the city where I will spend the rest of my birthday with other EWB volunteers.

A few people have asked me what has been the most shocking thing you have experienced in the village. This is a tough question because I do not have the answer people are expecting. Living without running water, electricity or a latrine is not too uncomfortable; it is just more time consuming. Although people are poor, I did not perceive them this way. Despite images of children sleeping on the ground all dirty, with flies everywhere and the women fetching water and pounding maize, there is a lot of laughter and good conversation. People are managing, but they are happy. I am not shocked by the farm animals running around or cooking every meal outside with charcoal, and sleeping on the ground, but embrace it.

One thing I was particularly shocked by was the responsibility children are expected to take. I anticipated that women do a lot of work, and know that the majority of men are farmers, but had no idea that the hardest working people are the little girls (at least in this community). Children taking care of children shocked every cultural norm I have ever been exposed to. In Canada children are on strict routines, with strict diets and strict confinements to where they can or cannot go and what they can or cannot do. The children in this village had no one specifically watching them except each other. The granddaughter who slept in my hut constantly had a toddler strapped to her back because it was her responsibility as her older sister (age 7 maybe). She fed her, bathed her, gave her medicine and even made sure she was pooping properly. I think raising a child is one of the greatest responsibilities, and little girls are doing it, along with sweeping, fetching water and cooking.

Another thing that took time to get used to was the initial marriage proposals. Every man in the village asked me to pick him as a husband (at least I had a choice right?). In this culture, random proposals are a joke (funny humour), but having a ‘husband’ really helps you diffuse the situation, along with joking back. When I was asked to give one man 15 children I replied with, “What you don’t want 20? You aim too small!” and we had a good laugh. However, it is still annoying to have a 20 minute conversation diffusing a marriage proposal situation.

The last thing that shocked me was how little people knew about what was outside the northern region in Ghana. I discovered this when explaining Canadian farming and landscape – what snow is. Of course they would not know what snow is, this is Africa! But people did not even know about their own country’s history. Outside of colonialism there is little to no knowledge about the slave trade, and even the geography of West Africa. Technically, I know more about the continent than they do. People were also under the impression that all white people speak English and that all black people come from Africa. So when trying to explain that there are black people in Canada who are Canadian they would simply ask how? They were not aware of countries like those in the Caribbean, which are comprised of a majority of black people.

Based on conversations, I made the assumption that this lack of awareness of other cultures, language and knowledge of basic geography was a fault of the education system. The people I was speaking to about this completed senior high school and they are still not aware of these things. Later my assumption was somewhat confirmed when I was told that all the students in the local high schools failed this year’s exams, which are designed by the national level school board, miles away.

Overall, Ghanaians are extremely friendly and the village is very safe. Since people really want you to have a good impression of their community they try really hard to provide a welcoming and pleasant stay. Although I was bored sometimes because of language barriers, I learned a lot. I was able to ask many difficult questions about the women’s rice processing group and business plan, as well as cultural norms. I was able to attend meetings, visit the grinding mill and help the group sell rice in the market. They took me to the farm to show me their good agricultural practices and I was proud to see such hard working, smart people who are working with what they know.

Maybe in the near future I will choose to live for a longer period in the village. Decision makers and development projects are not usually familiar with village realities, despite them working towards improving life in the village. That is why I am proud to be working for an organization like EWB who is respected in the field as an organization that understands the realities of the rural areas (as we choose to work with district level government when no one else will). We take this knowledge and influence upper levels of decision making so it is more focused to change the lives of the people they are trying to help.

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