You might be wondering, where has Siera gone this past month? Where has she been hiding? Why hasn’t she called me, sent me an email/text, ranted on about something she read in the news or in the least posted a blog entree?
Truth be told, I have gotten a bit lost: lost in the beautiful, frustrating, resource-scarce, welcoming country of Ghana. I have endured extremely frustrating and stressful staff meetings; relaxed next to sunsets with elephants and monkeys; been in an out of hospitals, labs, and doctors offices; and spent most evenings under stars with the safety of my mosquito net.
As I have mentioned in previous posts I am currently in between jobs. I am transitioning from being a backpacking traveler – going from Ministry office to Ministry office, in and out of tro-tros, maneuvering foreign cultural landscapes and endless guesthouses – to Extension Services Innovations Consultant at the Ministry district level. The transition is still happening as I have had a few enjoyable and also frightening setbacks.
I am interested in settling in the Savelugu-Nanton district located about 40 minutes North of Tamale. It is a rice-farming based area because of its unique valleys, and is the largest district in the Northern Region. The Ministry of Food and Agriculture office is located in a village just North of the district capitol called Pong-Tamale. The majority of the people in the village are Dagomba people, but there is also a Hausa community, which I had the pleasure to be introduced to. The village has a small town feel with one main road, circular hut-like compounds, one tro-yard, some food stands and no main running water pipeline. I was told that most people do not originate from the area, but have arrived throughout the years looking for farm land as urbanization has pushed farmers further away from the city.
The Ministry district office is relatively well resourced and maintained with clean offices, a few working computers, ceiling fans, a larger room for staff meetings and even a working air conditioner in the Director’s office. Not surprisingly, there is no toilet, urinal or running water as the village has pipeline problems. I have yet to actually visit a district Ministry level office that has working toilets. I think most of the staff live in Tamale or their operational areas and commute everyday to work causing the work day to start and end later than usual. To my knowledge, there has never been an EWB volunteer work out of this Ministry office and because of this I foresee unique, yet exciting challenges.
Despite the new job, I have had a few very welcomed and not so welcoming distractions. For one, I recently had the pleasure to travel to Mole National Games Reserves / Park for the EWB Mid-Placement Retreat. The group of newer EWB volunteers who traveled with me in August to begin working in Ghana had the opportunity to meet and share some of their experiences and challenges with each other. The retreat was relaxing, full of laughter, and inspiration. Instead of email, phone calls, staff meetings and field visits there were road trip sing-alongs, safari hikes, sunsets, swimming pool drinks, and much needed reflection time. I really felt that all the troubles I was having just settled. The much needed retreat was a refreshing way to begin a new job.
Immediately after the retreat we dove into a team meeting where I was reunited with my EWB public sector agriculture partners in crime. We discussed team strategy and developed actionable items required for the performance-based measures we will be reviewed on come the New Year. It was all very challenging and frustrating, but allowed us to delve deeper into why and how we are doing what we are doing.
The largest set back to my work so far has been the recent health problems I have been struggling with and is also the inspiration for the title of the post. Working in a developing country has its real setbacks. It is extremely hot, sanitation is low, resources are scarce and poverty is rampant. These factors alone have taken a toll on my physical and mental health.
Living in the Northern part of the country where the positive effects of development trickles up more slowly than to the rest of the country and also where the health care is less than adequate has taken a toll on me. Every test taken, doctor spoken to and advice provided has been uncertain, unidentifiable and in need of confirmation from another test or more reliable source. Even having to find a more comfortable place to recover in and the worry of catching something else while your immune system is low has been difficult to manage. Its not easy-o! But we are managing. The reality is that most EWB volunteers have to live and work in a resource and knowledge scarce context that often contributes to or compromises our health. It takes just one mosquito bite to get malaria, one water sachet to cause a gastro-intestinal infection and one meal with worms or parasites to set you back. Not to mention that the symptoms for these common mishaps are all similar so determining which one you have has been the real challenge. All of these things are real and have been a cause of concern for me over the past month.
Now that I have my health back I can honestly say I have made worthy realizations:
I have serious respect and appreciation for those who choose to go into the field of medicine. The Doctor advising me is a young-Ghanaian man who works seven days a week, 9 – 9 in the main public hospital in Tamale, on a floor with maybe one other doctor, half a desk available to examine patients and no toilets. After visiting him several times I have learnt a lot about the setbacks Ghanaians face due to resource constraints.
Some shocking examples of that reality are written below. Warning! the stories below reflect the reality of what plagues the developing world. It is emotional and difficult to accept, but also not the complete story. If you read these stories, take them as they are – one off examples I experienced and are by no means the entire picture.
During my second visit, the Doctor was distracted with an urgent patient who I was told nonchalantly was going to die within the next hour because he waited too long for treatment. As a friend of mine proceeded to take out a wad of cash, the Doctor laughed and replied, “although I will let the family know that there was an Obruni here willing to help, the issue is not the cost of the drugs, but the accessibility of them. The family is out hunting for the necessary medication, but he will likely be in coma soon.” Those drugs cost 15 cedis (11 dollars). Never have I felt so powerless.
After another few visits, I began asking more and more about the patients. One man breathing heavily in the corner was asking for the oxygen tank. Listening in on their conversation and asking why the tank was taken away from him because clearly he was in need, I was then told that it was given to a more serious patient. The tank had to be shared since there was only one machine available on the floor. As the only naive obruni in the hospital I felt I had to ask how ‘they’ could put a price on oxygen. The Doctor nodded his head and proceeded to explain how they just lost a man because they had to compromise and did not realize how much he needed the tank. So the price was a life.
I tell these stories to demonstrate some of the emotions and realizations I have come across in the past couple of weeks. Because I am Canadian I have access to some of the best medical care in the world. When a Ghanaian gets sick what can she do? She hides inside her uncomfortably hot room and when she can afford to actually go to the hospital or clinic she is left in an unsanitary resource scarce environment, where the tests take several days to show results (if they are correct at all) and the drugs are more difficult to find.
This experience has made me very present and aware of my time in Ghana and it is something I will never forget. I thought it a deserving experience to share with you and hope you will be responsible enough to understand. It also provides hope for the future as there is currently being constructed a brand new hospital next door. When I move to a new place I am going to make sure it is one that I can be happy and healthy in. Do whatever any Ghanaian would do if they had the opportunity.
The second realization I have had from being fairly unwell is that no matter how terrible I felt, how frustrating the situation was and what people I love were telling me to do, I know now that I cannot leave this place – not now. There is just too much to do, so much to see and even more to learn.
I am really looking forward to what lies ahead and will keep you all informed with some more stories.