Saturday, October 10, 2009

"Somehow" by Chris; 10 Oct 2009

A word you hear quite often maybe too often here is “somehow.” It is used during discussions about the progress of something or the hopes of progress; “The computer lab will be finished by God’s grace…somehow.” “The government will by all means get us the monies they owe us…somehow.” I believe it is more of a disclaimer or optimistic version of “or maybe not.” Sadly too often discussions on progress and development end with “somehow.” (By the way neither has happened yet. It may, somehow…someday.)

Our hope for the future

BUT! Yes but I have swung back into the optimist’s camp and I see hope for things here. Why? Well as often as I hear “somehow,” I hear phrases like “I know” and “We want to do it.” And I hear less and less, “Will you do it for us?” and more “how can we help?” This is a small step but very exciting! Far too long I have stewed in anger after watching Ghanaians accept their place and not hoping for better. I was overlooking the ones who were saying, “Enough already, let’s change things, let’s take control of our destinies.”

The major project I am unveiling this year at school is The Campus Pride Initiative. I happened upon its new motto at the first Sunday church service at school this past week. Rev. Kwarteng gave a sermon on making a difference, something the students needed and I really needed. I took a bit of poetic license and have decided the Campus Pride Initiative will have the motto; Effect Positive Change. I hope that it will have an effect on just a few and that effect in turn will go far beyond DASHS. I want these students to have hope, to be the change agents that Ghana so desperately needs.

More hope

Anyway I really want to talk about a couple of stories we heard recently, one on BBC and one on NPR. The BBC story was called “Why is Africa Poor?” and the more Tammi and I listened, the more spot on we felt they were with their observations. As I have said before one of the amazing things about Peace Corps is we are here for over two years which grants us the ability to get a real sense of what is happening in a place though I could never say we can completely understand, our context just does not work here. It is very important to remember this when considering how to “help.” We have seen too often when a well meaning NGO drops in, shells out a bunch of money, maybe puts up a building or two and then leaves without ever spending the time to find out what or where the real need is. I would argue the most important need is “ownership.” People need to be able to say, “I worked for this.” or “I earned that.” These phrases are used far too little here and when they are sadly it is the corrupt politicians and civil servants justifying their chopping (skimming off the top for themselves) of budgets. One of the best lines from the BBC story states, “Africa is not poor, it is poorly managed.” I find this to sadly be so very true. As I see it, we well meaning people and governments of the west have created a continent of aid junkies who believe that someone else will do it for them, and that they will be taken care of no matter what. The heartening thing is that most of the people here we have spoken with realize this and recognize that it isn’t good. But just like drug addiction it isn't that easy to kick the habit especially when western governments and companies continue to profit from the addiction.

Ghana's future military...

We stay in a region called Afram Plains and I would guess it is about the size of two or three counties in Iowa, around 500 square miles. The US Government under the guise of the Millennium Challenge Account has put almost $250 million into the development of Afram Plains via the Ghanaian Government. After everyone is finished dipping their hands in the jar it is hard to see a single change for the better here. One now sees is a new fleet of pickup trucks with the MCA logo on their doors and a nice new half empty building in Donkorkrom which houses a few of their offices complete with air conditioning throughout! Imagine if 250 million dollars was spent on 3 rural counties in Iowa.

Anyway it is very easy to be angry and jaded but I know that there is hope, great hope and I remain angry but not jaded. The folks around here want to see change. They want to see a better future for their children, and they love their country. They simply do not know how to do it or they feel powerless and sadly it breeds complacency. In my humble opinion what they need from us is more Peace Corps or something like it and less throwing of guilt money at the problems. They need assistance, good education and training, and friendship, not more money. We need to oversee/guide not do. We cannot continue to come to the rescue every time someone breaks a nail. Teach them to mend it themselves. For example, I see far too many bits and pieces of perfectly good road machinery lying along the unfinished road from here to Etche because something broke down. And from experience, if something goes wrong the “obruni” (white man) will come and give them a replacement. Why not? After all, we bought the machinery to begin with. If we want to truly help, we need to continue and expand the Peace Corps style model. A model where assistants integrate into the community as much as possible and are make the time to identify what really needs to be done. Then provide assistance. Don’t do it for them.

...or maybe not

I have come to see the people in my community as friends and family, not a project. And I will very much miss them when we leave in some ten months. I have come to truly care. I go as far as saying I have come to really love these people and I pray for only the best for them. If you want to help, encourage our government to not only continue but enlarge the Peace Corps. And when giving money to any development organization, look closely at how those organizations function. The Peace Corps is not perfect and there is plenty of room for improvement. But I think that when JFK and General Shriver conceived of this brilliant idea almost 50 years ago, they were really on to something.

A great challenge for us is that our view of the world is tied to our own context. For instance, how do we define poor? I can say with confidence it is not the same as how Ghanaians would define it. The other night Tammi and I were on a walk and decided to see what was down a trail that went off the main road. We came to a clean attractive little area surrounded by plantain and banana trees and a tidy little mud walled hut with no running water or electricity. There was a friendly woman with her healthy happy children, including one of the more pleasant young ladies I have ever met who attends the JHS just down the road. Are they poor? Why? What more do they need?

Most beautiful smile in the world!

I can’t help to think that there are far worse situations in the world. Shouldn’t the aid go to those situations? Or better yet, be directed to prevention of those situations instead of playing triage. We cannot continue to apply our western sensibilities to the issues over here. We simply must take the time to develop relationships that will help us to gain the understanding needed to make better decisions about international aid.

There are three directives to the Peace Corps mission. One is “to educate the host country’s people about the people of America.” There recently was a group from Scotland visiting and helping at the school. We were told that there was a very negative image of Americans in Scotland and getting to know us they were surprised how different we were from their preconceived perception. I trust I don’t need to go there… Ok I will, “Bush loving war mongers.” I know they weren’t Ghanaians but it really illustrates the point. I hope that we are having the same effect on our Ghanaian friends and colleagues.

Please listen to these podcasts and let me know what you think. It is important for the peoples of Africa that we shift our thinking toward aid. APR’s Speaking of Faith; “Ethics of Aid” BBC: “Why is Africa Poor?” Part 1:

I feel the most important thing you need to take especially from the BBC series is at the end of the day the people not just here but everywhere need to do for themselves. We all want ownership of something and the pride that goes with it.

So somehow we WILL get it done. We ALL will get it done…somehow.

I look forward to continuing this conversation…


John said...

Wow, Chris and Tammi - this is excellent reading and well worthy of attention. I'm going to post it on my FaceBook. It's fascinating to read what it's like from the perspective of someone with skin in the game. Although I would never have imagined that too much money would not be a good thing, your argument makes perfect sense. Give a man a fish and he eats for a day; teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime. Sounds like we've been handing out a lot of fish lately. Time to send some fishing poles!

I look forward to listening to the poscasts. Keep posting! Smick

ObviousJack said...

Hey Chris! You are doing some incredible things! It's a long way from where we came from! Keep up the great work! Hope we can catch up and talk soon, I need help with Smick... he's non-stop on Facebook!

Take care!
Jack Medley