Junior Fellowship 2010

I Believe in Yesterday

In complexity, Ghana, reflection on August 27, 2010 at 10:20 am

Friday August 27th 2010

My time in Ghana has come to an end—I can say it aloud but my brain still won’t compute it. Although the logical side of my head understands that this experience was never going to become longer than 4 months, I’m still struggling to understand how this is all wrapping up so quickly. These past few months have at once felt as brief as a two-week whirlwind and as long and spanning as my entire lifetime.

The goodbyes I experienced in Hohoe were both beautiful and painful. As we parted ways, I was touched by the love sent to me from the families I connected with in the Volta region. I tried to justly communicate the magnitude of my thanks to them, but often had trouble finding the words. I’ve realized that there’s no easy, clean cut way to say goodbye to this experience. It’s bittersweet: you do what you can to tie up loose ends, make trade-off decisions when necessary, and try to remember to breathe and smile along the way. My goodbyes in Hohoe already feel like a lifetime ago—a beautiful memory tucked safely in my pocket as I follow a partly confusing, partly exciting, but absolutely certain path back to Canada.

It seems like now more than ever I’m looking back and thinking about what I could have done, should have done, or would have done differently with my experience. I could have invested more time in my family. I should have worried less about the timeline of my experience and more readily embraced the pace of progress here. I think that I would have felt more at peace with my leaving had I done so. I’ve come to realize that you can spend all of your energy thinking about the things you could have done better, the things you should have done but didn’t, and the things that would have altered the course of your placement for the better. I’ve thought about it, but have come to see that going through that process isn’t the point of these concluding days and hours. I think it’s natural to have regrets; it’s indicative of my inexperience making decisions in the ambiguous environments so often encountered here, but not of my lack of trying.

In retrospect things could have gone different. I could have chosen a million and one different forks in the road. But, I think that’s okay. Realizing things could have turned out differently and learning in hindsight from past decisions can cloud your sense of accomplishment quickly, but only if you allow it. Right now I’m concentrating on coming to terms with what I’ve accomplished in these few short months and keeping an open mind as familiar life in Canada barrels towards me like a freight train. Although there are areas in which I could have done more, I’m proud to be going home feeling like I’ve been successful with my time in Ghana.

This week, on the first day of in-country debrief in Cape Coast, the JFs were challenged to depict the story of our placements. I’ll share with you now a stream of consciousness style story I wrote in response to the challenge. There have been many monumental realizations along the course of my junior fellowship placement this summer, and certainly this does not describe all of the events in which I encountered, but it does hit on many of the big peaks and valleys.

Arriving was a rush, and I was surprised by how quickly I became independent. I can see now that Medina market scared me into believing in my own abilities. I remember meeting Ben on my first day in Hohoe and thinking that he was someone so different from anyone I’d ever known before in my life. I asked myself how I’d ever honestly get to know this person and I couldn’t come up with an answer. Days in Hohoe turned into weeks. My networks expanded, I found my footing, and I started feeling like I was functioning well on my own. Not long into my placement I began hitting walls I had never anticipated or had even known existed. I was trying to take off full speed ahead, but was continually brought back down to earth by a big heavy blanket called complexity. I started questioning my abilities and losing hope in my work. I teetered back and forth between being stagnated by scale, and seeking venues for optimism. I began investing a lot of time in my family. I found their acceptance and happiness comforting. I ran myself into the ground trying to explore opportunities in too many conflicting directions. I became a little jaded and had a chip on my shoulder at mid-placement retreat. I left and regretted it. I struggled for a period of time without a clear direction when what I really wanted was a tangible win. I eventually recognized that my contributions to the project’s direction would not be earth shattering. I travelled to many different areas around Ghana, learned an incredible amount about agriculture, and fell in love with the beauty of farming over and over again. I started feeling happy with the pace of my personal development. I recognized how powerful my personal relationships were on my perception of the progress of my placement. I started regretting not making more of myself available to my community. I spent my last week re-investing in my relationships in Hohoe and learning as much as possible from my individual connections there. I finished strong with work, but left realizing the personal impact I want to measure is not found in the bureaucratic side of development.

Right now, with my last few hours in Accra, I want to table my big questions, let myself simply enjoy being in this place, and come back to Canada brave, without answers, and looking forward to the incredible potential the future holds.

Thanks for reading,

Erin

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Listmania

In random on August 13, 2010 at 9:17 am

Friday August 13th 2010

10 Things I’m Surprised to Say…

1) I’ve made more solid friendships in 4 months overseas than I have in my entire time thus far at UNB
2) I’m more excited by thoughts of returning overseas than by thoughts of going home
3) I think that I’ll miss the taste of palm oil in all of my food
4) In only 4 months I’ve learned an incredible amount about management and organizational change
5) I’m more empathetic than ever to Ghanaian individuals who ask me for money
6) Cheesy R&B music now has a whole new meaning to me and I love it
7) Coming to Ghana has made me a more patriotic Canadian
8 ) Hohoe and its vibrant character feels more like home than ever I thought possible
9) Coming to Ghana has made me a (slightly) more relaxed person
10) I’ll miss Hohoe market, even if it does smell simultaneously of smoked fish, fermented maize, and urine

10 Things I’m looking forward to in Canada…

1) Choices
2) Re-connecting with the Canadian side of EWB, especially my chapter
3) Drinking delicious real coffee and tea without truckloads of sugar and condensed milk
4) Having access to multiple sources of credible information 24/7
5) Watching all of the EWBBC episodes I’ve missed
6) Spending time in New Brunswick with people and things I love
7) Recalibrating my healthy food meter
8 ) The crispness of the Fall season and all of its beautiful colors
9) Fast internet, tabbed browsing, regular email access
10) Living life with a relative level of anonymity

10 Things I won’t miss about Ghana..

1) The stink of sewers, open defecation, and street butchers often within a few meters of each other
2) The lack decent of customer service everywhere you go
3) Eating and drinking so many preservatives and artificial colorants
4) The more-often-than-not sketchiness of trotro travel
5) The general disregard for punctuality and time management
6) Disrespectful male Ghanaians who heckle me because I’m a young white female
7) Travelling on dusty roads for long enough that you arrive at your final destination covered in red dirt
8 ) The fact that the lights always seem to go off when I’m in a rush and quickly need to find something
9) Being an anomaly 24/7 and attracting ridiculous amounts of attention everywhere I go
10) Bathing with cold water day in and day out

10 Things I’m Thankful for..

1) My Ghanaian family and their openness to sharing, concern for my safety, and willingness to accept me for who I am
2) My coach/friend/mentor/ right hip, Colleen
3) The opportunity to work with so many different types of crops across Ghana
4) My miraculously good health over the past few months
5) Helpful Ghanaians. From navigating trotro stations, to getting a bike lift from a complete stranger, I’ve been incredibly blessed to meet SO many honest and helpful people
6) People back in Canada who have kept me grounded throughout this process
7) Foundation Learning and pre-departure training. Looking back these were both incredibly useful
8 ) My awesome counterpart Ben: at once a teacher, guide, role model, and friend
9) The opportunity to visit so many diverse communities across Ghana
10) Amazingly supportive friends

Thanks for reading,

Erin

Networks and Needs

In Culture, question of the week, reflection on August 12, 2010 at 11:05 am

Wednesday August 11th 2010

Q: If you had to pick one thing about Ghanaian life, culture etc. to bring back to Canada what would it be? In other words what can Canada learn from Ghana?

I’d like to start by saying that this was a really tough question for me to answer, for a multitude of reasons for that I’d prefer not to raise online. If you want to explore this question further, simply find me and ask when I’m back in Canada and I’ll be thrilled to continue the discussion. Also, hat tip to Duncan and Kaitlyn, both of whom helped me sort my thoughts out on this topic prior to posting.

A: Social networking: a phenomenon millions of Canadians think they know a lot about. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn— those places online where “friend” is more of a verb than a noun. In this post I want to talk about a different kind of social networking. One in which the friends are live and animated, the networks encompass entire communities, and the purpose of the network is multifaceted.

In Ghana, social dynamics are extremely important, and community member’s lives are often highly intertwined. Extended family networks are much more integrated into one unit than in Canada– it’s as fundamental as the physical layout of compound households. Multiple families live in the same place, so right away you have many people relying on each other every day to accomplish tasks. Kids grow up fast here, and are given responsibility at a much younger age than in Canada. On any given Saturday at my compound, you can find every member of this multi-family household sharing the burden of weekend chores. Young children will be fetching water and fanning charcoal stoves for the women who are making lunch, teenage girls will be washing everyone’s clothing from the past week. Often, 1 year old baby Akwa runs around, largely unattended, giggling and playing. When she gets into trouble or starts crying, it’s never her mother who rushes over– it’s Jessica, her 7 year old cousin. Jessica spends a disproportionate amount of time taking care of Akwa because both her mother and grandmother are too busy tending to other aspects of the household to do it themselves.

Social networking here is like weaving fabric. The more people you involve in your network, the more threads you weave into your social fabric and thus the more resilient and reliable that fabric becomes. One of the most prominent driving forces behind social networking here is financial security. Most people don’t have bank accounts with savings to draw on when someone dies, when someone is sick, or when a big purchase needs to be made. More often than not, you visit members of your community and they help you deal with these types of situations. People generally feel that what goes around comes around. They’re obliged to help their community members out now, so that when they need help down the line they’ll be able to receive it. Playing into the needs of your social network doesn’t always have to be in the form of leading money. It’s just as equally when a store owner hires his nephew instead of hiring whomever has the skills bests suited for the position, or when church members choose to patronize fellow church-members shops, regardless of the fact that those shops may have poor selection or low quality goods. People here depend on each other for success, and for better or for worse, that isn’t perceived as a weakness.

Most of the Ghanaian’s I’ve met have an inborn sense that values community, whereas in Canada I think we put limited emphasis on social fabric. It’s more like social patchwork, where the patches generally only encompass our immediate family. Someone in Canada is largely free to act however they wish in response to risks and shocks, taking into account the needs and wants of only their immediate family. This provides a greater amount of space in which the individual can realistically act without repercussion— people can change professions, move to far away places for school, or take time off from work to focus on other areas of personal development with their actions only directly affecting their immediate family.

I’m not trying to say that in Canada we should learn to let 7 year old children babysit toddlers or that we should start distributing our personal wealth to extended family members. However, I do think that there are lessons we can learn from communal living. People here don’t try to do it all, to be everything to everyone, to control each and every aspect of their lives. Social networks share burdens– be it a weeks worth of washing, school fees, child rearing, or funeral costs. In Canada, we’re quick to try to do it all– in our own personal cars, with personally hired babysitters and nannies, with pre-made dinners and individually wrapped lunches. Maybe if we slowed down enough to really know our neighbours, colleagues, and community members we’d find that we can improve each other’s lives by sharing the weight of our commitments. Maybe efficiency doesn’t always have to mean doing things on your own.

Thanks for reading,

Erin