Ron Ward's blog

Enterprise and Enterprising

November 26th, 2013 5:23 AM

As you drive around Accra, markets and stalls are everywhere.   Small businesses line every main street and are often found on out of the way side streets as well.  The structures and goods they sell range from a simple fruit or food stand to a used shipping container that’s been converted into an ersatz store that sells car tires (discarded from overseas) to locally made furniture or wrought iron gates.  Hawkers (the local term) are at every intersection, and even brave the space between lanes on busy highways.  They sell everything from cell phone access cards to snacks to self-help books to toilet paper.  I suspect that most everything you might need can be purchased from the comfort of your own car on the drive home.  The slow moving morning and evening rush hour traffic provides an opportunity for these resourceful folks to sell their goods.

On the way to catch the bus to Cape Coast last weekend, we passed through part of the Kaneshie market that sells car parts.  I would say they had virtually any part you might need, or failing that, one that could be adapted to your need.  Our taxi driver informed us that all these parts come from “condemned cars” around Europe.  I think that Ghana is likely the best I’ve ever seen at reviving local cars to full functionality – mostly as taxis.  

Indeed, it seems that a lot of consumer goods deemed to be past their prime come to Africa.  We’ve seen mounds of CRT televisions and computer monitors for sale that were clearly still useable, but had been replaced by flat screens somewhere else in the world. 

This past Saturday, at the Makola market we passed through rows and rows of vendor stalls, often selling the same goods.  As we walked past at least 50 or so stalls next to each other selling virtually the same fabrics, it struck me as incredible to think that everyone was making some level of a living wage with that much duplication.  We saw this time and again for the sale of hair care supplies, bead-work jewellery, shoes, etc.  It also seemed to me that there were more people looking to sell goods than there were consumers, since beside the established stalls, the sidewalks were lined with other sellers.  Most pedestrian traffic was forced onto the streets to dodge the cars trying to make their way through.  Fortunately, we had hired our daily taxi driver, Kojo, to take us around the market.  It was overwhelming as it was, but I think braving that marketplace alone would have been even more daunting without his navigation skills.  Lots of people, but no real pressure to buy.

In contrast, we also had Kojo take us the African Art Market.  At this market there were even fewer consumers and the pressure to buy something was immense.  Again, many vendors selling similar or the same goods.  It made for an uncomfortable experience, because their livelihood relied on the sales from tourists and there were so few present.  This lead to more than a few arguments between vendors competing for our attention.

Yet another contrast was the Accra Mall.  A western style mall with a number of recognizable chains like Sony Store, Puma as well a number of local clothing, department and grocery stores.  Security is much more prevalent both throughout the mall and at the entrance to every store.  Many more ex-pats in this mall and very expensive by comparison.  For example, we purchased a number of packs of cards to play for the staff at the hotel.  We paid about 70 pesewas or about 30 cents (100 pesewas = 1 cedi) for each pack in the local marketplace.  In the department store at the Accra mall, a deck of cards had a price of 25 cedis or about $11.  

It seems to me that in all things commercial; production, sales or service, there is still a human component.  It is almost like going back in time when that was also true in Canada, and the rest of the world.  The incorporation of automation, focus on attaining the highest profit margins through the loss of that human element seems not to be an accepted part of the commercial chain in Ghana.  I would be fearful of the repercussions to these people if that became the norm.

Excursion to Cape Coast

November 22nd, 2013 1:48 PM

I have been staying at the hotel with a fellow Leave for Change (L4C) volunteer, Beth, from Brock University.  Last Saturday, we decided to to visit the castle/fort at Cape Coast and the Kakum Forest Reserve a few hours west of Accra.

This entailed striking out at a little after 6 am in a taxi to the bus departure area at the Kaneshie motor park.  We departed the taxi heading for the area pointed out by our driver.

One thing is true of Ghanaians, if you need to find out how to navigate while here, just ask someone.  They will happily direct you and offer their every assistance, often by committee.  We asked where the bus to Cape Coast was and were pointed in the direction of a couple of Tro-Tros, although all the cool kids now just refer to them as "tros".  Not being the level of comfort we were hoping to experience for the 3 hour tour it would take, we asked whether a larger inter-city bus was available, (Note the foreshadowing using Gilligan’s Island terminology).  It was going past Cape Coast to Takoradi, so we bought tickets from a much harried ticket vendor and climbed aboard.

Almost immediately after our journey started, a man got up from his seat and started a church service.  I had heard that Ghanaians have one of the highest levels of religiosity in the world, and now I believe it.  This gentleman preached and led prayers and sang hymns (which most of the bus joined in) for almost 2 hours.  And then, during a stop, he quietly slipped off the bus.  

About the time the minister got off the bus, we asked the bus mate (driver’s helper) to please inform us when we should get off to go to the Cape Coast castle.  Clearly there was a communication gap, because after almost 4 hours on the bus, we inquired again and he told us that we’d already passed Cape Coast, (town or city signs are not prevalent or apparent).  So, the next stop we got off and had to negotiate a taxi back to Cape Coast (almost an hour’s drive at quite fast speeds).   

The fort/castle at Cape Coast is compelling.  It was one of many embarkation points for the transfer of captured slaves to the ships that brought them to the Americas.  There were a staggering number of slaves transferred from Africa’s various regions between the sixteenth and nineteenth century.  They suggested that it rivaled the current population of Canada (35 million).

The tour of the castle and the details of the processes and outcomes, although sobering, was very interesting.  No punches were pulled and the historical facts were laid out.  Humans were a commodity and the value of a life was cheap because the supply was plentiful.  There was no benefit to humane treatment so the conditions for those housed at the castle was horrific.  You cannot visit and not be moved by the facts.  Some interesting additional facts we learned were that local tribal chiefs were complicit in the capturing of rival tribe members to supply slaves to the Europeans.  These humans for European and New World goods was the barter.  Also interesting was the insight that the assignment of Europeans to this area amounted to a virtual death sentence, usually within a year’s time, due to insect and water-borne diseases like malaria, cholera and typhoid.  

Unfortunately, we did not take any pictures as they wanted an additional $20 US dollars for permission to take pictures.  

We finished up the tour at about 2:30 and inquired how to get to Kakum Forest Reserve which we’d been told was about a 45 minute taxi ride from the coast.  Unfortunately, with our excursion beyond Cape Coast and Kakum closing at 3:30, we were not going to make it in time, so we caught a “Ford” bus (a passenger van with A/C) back to Accra.

We were informed us that there are elephants in Kakum, but they live below the tree canopy and are not easily seen.  Perhaps we’ll get there another time.

Arrival and week one in Ghana

November 18th, 2013 5:14 PM

At the Toronto airport, I met up a fellow Ghana-bound Leave for Change (L4C) traveler, Beth Natale, from Brock University.  The travel to Ghana was uneventful, (thankfully I didn't have to run to my next flight).

The fun all started when we arrived at the Accra airport, extremely sleep deprived.  Dutifully produced our Yellow Fever immunization certificates, went to customs, had our pictures and fingerprints taken and bags inspected.  We met the WUSC driver, Fred, and as we're being taken to the car we were accosted by a series of seemingly friendly but aggressive young men who vigorously insisted on helping us port our luggage.  As we got to the car they demanded money (and did get some money from us, but I was strongly admonished by them for not giving them more), however we got out of the airport safely.  I wish I had known about the potential for this type of situation before hand so as to have avoided it.

We arrived at our hotel and met and were warmly welcomed by the owner and his sister (Eric and Juliana). Clearly they are used to welcoming zombie-like, sleep deprived Canadians.  Finally, some relaxation and much needed sleep.

Our next day involved a meeting at the WUSC Ghana offices.  We met the staff and had an interesting orientation from a ground level and Ghanaian perspective (Daniel) on the organization, the society and social norms.  We also discussed our fears and expectations, which was a very nice touch by WUSC so they could try to address them. The last half of the day was spent doing sundry chores like money exchange, cell phone activation, internet access and groceries/supplies.  

Our second day again involved a meeting with Daniel at WUSC to go over and address our fears.  After traversing around Accra both at night and during the day, Beth and my shared main concern was whether or not we successfully navigate the transportation system.  Accra’s road system is, to a high degree, a spider’s web of secondary roads – mostly unnamed.  It appears to me that the development of the urban areas has been principally ad hoc.  So reigning back what’s occurred in order to apply some measure of official planning would be an enormous task.  However, it appears that there is some effort toward the design and building of artery roads to reduce of daily grid-lock.

One of the key observations is the transportation systems used in Ghana.  It is comprised mostly of innumerable private taxis (2 kinds - dropping and shared) and Tro-Tros (picture an ordinary minivan with 5 rows of seats). Tro-Tros and shared taxis (with 4 passengers) traverse set routes between different major junctions, whereas dropping taxis are the same as we would see in Canada except that you negotiate a price before you embark rather than the use of a meter.  

Clearly, WUSC Ghana heard and addressed our fears as the first three day’s transport was provided by WUSC or GNECC drivers.  But Thursday and Friday we were on our own and successful. I was able to get back to the hotel using a shared taxi to Atomic Junction and then a Tro-Tro to Haatso (pronounced Hatcho) and our hotel.  We have since negotiated with a dropping taxi to take us and pick up at our work places.  

We met our partner organizations and started to identify and flesh out a series of needs/gaps and identified projects that will help them meet those needs.  In my case, I will be working at the Ghana National Education Campaign Coalition, (GNECC).  The role of GNECC is quite unique. It serves as an NGO with a mandate to oversee the progress of the Government toward the realization of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) around universal access to education, but there are facets of other MDG targets that have a relationship to education such as gender equality (equal rights for women and girls to education), and poverty reduction (via a more educated workforce). Within these areas, there are on-going projects to increase access to education for girls and keep them in school by addressing some of the specific barriers they face.  There is also a project to address school violence against girls specifically, but also to broaden that scope by eliminating corporal punishment in schools and replacing it with positive behaviour modification techniques to make school a rewarding and enriching positive environment.  Clearly GNECC intends their reach and impact to be across the spectrum of the education system from teacher training standards to the classroom and school physical environment to student outcomes.  

I was invited to attend an address by Dr. Keith Lewin, a professor at Sussex University who has been studying international education development for many years.  Based on the progress made since the Millennium Development Goals were set in 2000, with continuing support, it can be done.  Professor Lewin suggested that although the goals won't be achieved by the original goal of 2015, but 2030 is not unreasonable given the positive strides taken to date.

Although our time with our partner organization will be short-term, it has been a consistent discussion theme during our L4C volunteer dinnertime conversations as to what types of systems and tools will help keep these organizations functional and effective in the long-term, and how can we add this to the agenda.  But I won’t digress into my discourse on the benefits of the logic model in focusing organizations and developing evaluations.

I think it’s an understatement to say that Ghanaians are friendly, (despite our airport experience).  I can certainly understand why other L4C and NGOs from Canada are eager to stay connected and help from Canada as well as to return.  

Next time: Our Cape Coast adventure

Ghana bound with L4C

November 17th, 2013 6:13 AM

Well, the time is nigh for my departure to Ghana. I leave on Sunday (November 10th) for four weeks in Accra.

Over the past couple weeks I have had my mandate change and the organization I will be associated is now the Ghana National Education Campaign Coalition (GNECC).  The exact terms and details have yet to be ironed out.

A bit of a whirlwind of change, but I am pleased that things have fallen into place to enable me to go as scheduled.

So, like everyone else that's gone before me, there's been a flurry of activity leading up to this point.  Travel clinics and vaccines (5).  I've been putting things aside to pack; ensuring that I've got all the supplies and medications that I will need, although I will undoubtedly forget something.

Things got a little complicated when I injured my knee a few weeks back (torn meniscus and sprained ligaments), but with the assistance of my family doctor and physiotherapist, (and some timely touch therapy from Trish at our last L4C dinner!), I'm back to almost 80%. I just can't move as quickly as I had before - but I hear the pace is a little more leisurely, so that might just work out well. I just hope that all flights are on time so I don't have to run through the airport to make connections.

Those of us that have not yet travelled for our L4C assignment have received a lot of encouragement, indispensable knowledge and sage advice from those that have gone before us.  I have had fantastic conversations with a number of Ghana veterans - Jacqueline Murray at UofG, and another good friend, Jill, who will be going back in the spring of next year.    In addition, the spirit and friendship of my L4C 2013 cohort - those that have already gone or are about to go - has been tremendously invigorating.   To all of those folks, I hope I can live up to the high standards you’ve set.  To the L4C central organizing unit in Ottawa, (Isabelle, Julie, Sonia, et al), thanks for all your effort in keeping us on track and moving forward.

I believe it is also important to thank the University of Guelph’s leadership - from my direct supervisor, Cort, to the President - both for and in these opportunities.  The real power of knowledge is in the sharing.

Finally, I want and need to thank all my family, colleagues, coworkers and friends.  From my parents, siblings and in-laws and their families, to (and especially) my wife, Sandy, and children, Cameron and Emily, everyone has been very encouraging and positive.  Your love and support makes it easier to undertake journeys and commitments such as this.