MEDA Blog - Stories from the Field

Tamale Transpo Part II – Is it safe?

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From Part 1: Last month, after weeks of being frustrated by immobility, I bought a moto, because of Tamale's understandably imperfect public transportation.I wish I knew more about Tamale's public transportation past, but most things I've heard is fuzzy and anecdotal. I do know that in fast-growing cities infrastructure problems like public transportation abound. Cities can't easily accommodate an extra 300,000 people overnight. (Tamale has grown from 200,000 – 500,000+ in the past 12 years).Ineffective public transportation and congested cities produce a number of problems – pollution, higher mortality rates, lack of mobility, and diminishing economic productivity. For example, Bangkok loses a third of its gross city product each year (US$4 million each day) and the U.S. is estimated to lose US$43 billion each year from metropolitan congestion (as cited by this paper, PDF). Traffic affects everybody, but in countries with inadequate government regulation and limited funding it creates larger problems with greater consequences, e.g. higher mortality rates and immobility of the nation's poorest.Personally, I'm not too concerned with diminishing economic productivity day-to-day. Instead, I'm a little more concerned about getting from house to work with my head intact. I checked around and while I couldn't find much Tamale-specific data, I did find a list of countries ranked by road fatalities per 100,000 motor vehicles.You can see the list isn't exactly a who's who of high-income countries. What's slightly unnerving is the strong West African representation. But where's Ghana? A pleasantly middling 69th (with 233 traffic deaths for every 100,000 vehicles).My first thought was that it had to with the fact with that Ghana's a middle-income country – like that of its low-income country neighbors (Togo and Burkina Faso) – but a graph pulled from this WHO report indicates that middle-income is typically more dangerous.The theory here might be that middle-income countries are undergoing intense development – they're forced to deal with the boom of cities without lack the government systems and other infrastructure designed to keep these emerging cities safe. Tamale, the hub of Ghana's developing north, is experiencing this swell of business and infrastructure – and is rapidly joining the South's ranks of middle income. So is it more dangerous compared to other cities in Ghana? Perhaps, but we don't have the data.Other interesting facts from the report:The African Region has the highest road traffic fatality rateHalf of all road traffic deaths are among pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclistsAlmost 60% of road traffic deaths are among 15–44 year oldsSo it seems all of the odds are stacked against me – I live in a middle-income country, in the African region, ride a motorcycle, and am between 15-44.I guess I know my risks now.
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Tamale Transpo Part 1 – How I fixed Tamale's public transportation problem

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I got a scooter.Ok, that's more personal transportation problem fix. Tamale's situation might be a little more difficult than throwing down a fat wad of Cedis at the local used moto dealer. Tamale has the all the transportation issues that you would expect from West Africa's fastest growing city. It's ballooned from 200,000 to a half million plus in about 12 years. It's the hub for northern Ghana and it's changing fast.This has, unsurprisingly, led to less than ideal in-town transportation. During the day, you connect on all the main roads through shared taxis. These cost about $.40 for a 10 minute ride downtown and fares bottom out at around $.25 for the shortest of trips. But, as I noted, you can only get them during the day. "Drop-in" taxis are more expensive – a 10 minute ride might cost you $2.00-$4.00, depending on where you're going. That may not sound like much, but it Tamale, it's really expensive and if you have to do this frequently for work, it can add up. Also, I am a cheapskate.The cost of taxis isn't bad, but the travel times are limited. Evening travel becomes an event with coordination and cost. More than that, taxis aren't an efficient use of road space. At this point, you're probably curious about the buses. Well, dear reader, there are none – at least not for in-town transportation. For public transportation in Tamale it's a taxi or nothing. (Unless you count that one time when a couple of friends hitchhiked on a tractor.)Though Tamale is revered by such sources as Wikipedia and A Man's Life for its "progressive bike lanes" and "bike-friendly" culture, I am skeptical. As a pedestrian I've often seen bikes swerve inches from getting clipped and brake split seconds from being plowed into by overzealous moto riders threading through the bike lane mix of bikes, peds, trikes, and motos. A couple weeks ago, my friend Peter had to get stitches when a moto cut him off him in his bike and ran over his foot... in a bike lane. Anecdotal but unsurprising. I suppose terms like "progressive" and "bike friendly" are relative. It is better than nearby cities such as Bolgatanga and Wa and there are spots of the city where I would feel 100% comfortable riding. It's better than most West African cities.I'd love to encourage a bike culture in northern Ghana. But could it exist in a developing context? In my co-worker's opinion, "it's for people of lower-class," which is what I've heard and observed in most developing countries. If you're interested, this study (PDF) seeks to address that issue (and others), but that's a discussion for another post.The fact is, it's not easy to get around Tamale unless you live and work within a tight area of the city or you have your own private vehicle. As the city expands, more roads will have to be built or public transportation will have to adapt to meet citizen demands.In a conversation with longtime Tamale resident/my co-worker we discussed her disappointment with the current state of Tamale transportation. She then abruptly ended the conversation by dropping a stat: one moto rider was killed each day in Tamale. Hmm.(Don't worry mom, I fact-checked this and it's actually less than that in the whole of Ghana.)
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Climbing Mt. Meru in under two minutes

A benefit of living and working abroad for MEDA is travel. What used to be across an ocean is suddenly a short (or maybe just shorter) distance away. Also, through our network of fellow interns, we have places to crash and people to travel with. Not bad at all.In December, I took advantage of that. Here's a short video that I made from a portion of a Tanzania trip:

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The Finale! – Nutrition Education and Food Demonstrations

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The last week of my internship was possibly the most exciting time in my five months with the GROW project in Ghana. I saw all of my ideas and plans for GROW’s Nutrition Strategy come to life.In case you’re not sure of what my role and responsibilities with GROW are, let me give you a brief summary. As the Nutrition/Food Security Intern, I analyze needs for nutrition training and identify opportunities to stimulate healthy dietary choices within families participating in the project. The ‘analyzed needs for nutrition training’ part means I conducted a needs assessment of GROW’s beneficiaries. I researched their health and nutritional status, community assets, local diet, attitudes and values, use of community resources and services, and perceived barriers to improved nutrition. All of this information gathering entailed desk research of GROW project data and other West African food security projects, focus group discussions with GROW women, as well as key informant interviews with local nutrition stakeholders. The second half of my responsibilities was the ‘identifying opportunities’ part, which is formerly called the GROW Nutrition Strategy. This included nutrition-related program goals, objectives, and recommendations to address identified barriers. Also, I included an assessment of internal and external trends and issues that can pose challenges to the nutrition program as well as an appropriate implementation strategy for my recommendations.I found the needs assessment and strategy development processes very rewarding. Not only did it build my professional skills, I also gained insight into the culture of the communities we work with. Although, my work focuses on food and nutrition, it is astonishing how intimately food is related to families’ lifestyle and beliefs system. I gained an appreciation for the ‘why’ many things are the way they are for GROW women today. But most importantly, never straying far from my health background, I saw the big picture of how hunger, poverty and diseases are all interlinked. And all of these revelations played a part in my recommendations for the nutrition program. Developing and designing the nutrition training and food demonstrations for the program involved working with Women in Agricultural Development (WIAD), a technical directorate of Ministry of Food and Agriculture, and Ghana Health Services (GHS), a public service body formed from the reorganization of the Ministry of Health. Drawing on the technical expertise of each of these agencies, I drafted the agreement for MEDA to enter into a collaborative partnership with WIAD, implementing basic nutrition training and food demonstrations using soybeans, and with GHS, implementing community-based Infant and Young Child Feeding (IYCF) training in GROW communities. The messages and materials used in these training sessions are key as attempting to change food habits is a very complex and lengthy process. Motivating these families to adopt long-term nutritional practices requires increasing their knowledge, skills and environmental supports for the behaviour change. The channels of communication, size of training groups, and even the timing of sessions (we decided on four sessions for each group) play a significant role in how well a new behaviour will be accepted and practiced. Outlining the messages, materials and implementation schedule with WIAD and GHS, led up to the planning of pilot sessions to be conducted during my last week with GROW. I was so excited to see everything I planned actually come together.  Of course, it was very chaotic times as I had to organize my work to be handed over to the future GROW Nutrition Coordinator to be hired in 2014 and some tasks remained to be completed. Nevertheless, I organized two pilot sessions to be hosted in two different communities of Wa West district hosted by two of GROW’s Key Facilitating Partners (KFPs). Community Aid for Rural Development (CARD) hosted the first pilot session in the Wechiau community with WIAD implementing nutrition training and a practical activity. Even though visual materials weren’t available for this pilot session, positive feedback was received from attendees (fourteen women lead farmers) and CARD staff (KFPs hosting these sessions build their capacity in food and nutrition training as well!).  Topics of discussion included:

Food groups and local food varietyBalanced mealsImportance of clean waterBenefits of soybeansWhat and how soybeans can be blended into local dishes

The practical activity taught women how to properly select, wash, dry and cook soybeans to make soy flour or soy paste. This practical activity is introductory as the following session teaches attendees to incorporate soy flour into local dishes like banku, Tom Brown, tubaani and many others.Centre for the Alleviation of Poverty, the Environment and Child Support (CAPECS) hosted the second pilot session in the Poyentanga community with GHS implementing nutrition training. This pilot session went really well and the women were very engaged, sharing their personal experiences and challenges with the group. Topics of discussion included:

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Networking, networking, networking

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Meeting others working in the same field is an encouraging and fun way to share ideas and collaborate efforts. It’s especially interesting when you are based in rural Ghana and the technical areas of the project you work on include agriculture, business, financial services, nutrition and gender. I was lucky enough to represent the GROW project at two different ‘sector events’ in October and November. The first event I attended was the 3rd Annual Northern Ghana Pre-Harvest Agribusiness Forum. The theme was to connect farmers to competitive markets. In attendance were buyers (aggregators, processors, etc.) and sellers (farmers) who intermingled, visited vendor booths and even negotiated deals. A commodity exchange session was scheduled for farmers and buyers to come together and discuss issues of price, quality and supply (I learned that certain crops don’t have maximum value immediately after harvest). For this reason, MEDA invited select famers of the GROW project to attend this one-day event. Four lead farmers were chosen from various GROW communities to get a sneak peek into the industry, its players and meet new buyers. This activity is important in achieving one outcome of the GROW project, which is market linkages and improved bargaining skills for generating income. Many of these women have never sold their crops wholesale. Many believe that selling crops by the bowl in the local market (a bowl of soybeans sells for 2 GHS, equivalent to 1 USD) will generate more income over time than wholesale. However, encouraging the woman to join with others in the community to sell larger amounts at wholesale prices (100 kg bag can sell for 86 GHS) means they receive a larger sum of money with less labour and time invested in the selling process. Also, going home with 86 GHS compared to 6 GHS means that women are more likely to allocate money to priority expenses/savings and less likely to spend it on petty items during their day at the market.On MEDA’s attendance list for the Pre-Harvest Forum were MEDA staff, GROW coordinators from our five Key Facilitating Partners (KFPs = local NGOs), and four lead farmers. There were keynote speakers throughout the day discussing the global market price of grains (i.e. rice, soybean and maize) and how it influences Ghana (i.e. buyer and seller requirements). All organizations attending had a vendor booth to showcase their products, services and interact with others. An agricultural technology transfer project even hosted demonstrations of equipment for post harvest handling such as a thresher machine for soybeans. So you’re probably wondering what was going on at the GROW booth aren’t you? Soymilk of course! Well, not only soymilk… Daniel, the GROW Communication Specialist, worked really hard upon arrival to Ghana (literally his first day of on the job!) to begin preparations for this event. He developed the GROW logo, banners, brochures and a large pictorial map showing MEDA’s approach to provide ‘business solutions to poverty’, specifically related to GROW and food security. Daniel and I also collaborated to create give-away posters highlighting the benefits of soybeans.Weeks leading up the event, Rachel came for one of her usual project visits and brought along a soymilk/tofu maker. It looks like an electric kettle and can make more than 1L of soymilk from less than one cup of raw soybeans soaked in water. It seemed like a fun (and convenient) way to familiarize the local attendees with soymilk. Traditionally, milk and dairy products are not a part of the local diet (although, imported and packaged soymilk has been gaining popularity among those that can afford it). Naturally, I was excited to test out the soymilk machine so I made a trip to the market to buy soybeans, vanilla extract and cane sugar. I followed the manuals instructions to operate the machine and eagerly watched as it vibrated and warmed up. After five minutes, nothing! The machine just turned off and never turned back on again. My disappointment was obvious, but I was determined not to disappoint GROW staff by not serving homemade soymilk as planned. Equipped with a few online recipes, a make shift sieve and a sterilized handkerchief as cheesecloth, I recipe tested in our office kitchen every afternoon for a week (using GROW staff as sensory evaluators a.k.a. taste testers). I used their feedback to adjust accordingly until I had it just right to serve those attending the forum. The evening before the event, Felicia, the GROW office cook in Tamale, assisted me whip up 10 L of soymilk from 8 cups of soybeans in the office kitchen. At the Pre-Harvest Forum, we served over 300 people samples of soymilk! For many people, it was their first time having soymilk but the awesome thing was that others were aware of some its benefits. They eagerly asked questions about the nutritional value of soybeans and gave great feedback on the taste of it. Daniel and I had also developed recipe cards for handouts to those interested. The funniest part was that people started thinking the GROW project were soymilk producers! Serving soymilk at these events successfully introduced soybeans to the local audience, created dialogue about its nutritional value and utilization, and most importantly, educated others about what GROW is doing to help women farmers… all starting with soybeans.

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Fire Festival

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In Northern Ghana there is a legend about a tribal chief who had a son who would become chief after him. One night, the chief noticed the baby was missing. He gathered the whole village to look for the child. They carried torches with them to guide them through the night. Finally, the baby was found under a tree - the villagers believed the tree had stolen the boy. The chief rescued his son, and as a punishment, set the tree on fire. The villagers returned to the chief's palace and celebrated by singing and dancing, maintaining their torches to light up the night. Now, in Tamale and other towns in the northern regions of the country, the fire festival takes place every November to celebrate the return of the chief's son. Daniel, Gillian and I had heard about this fire festival, without really knowing the history behind it. We were told vague details about how it would begin around 8pm and it would involve some sort of parade, taking over the road so that no cars could pass. We waited, sitting on a curbside, looking for clues that this event was about to start. Around us, the excitement grew - children and families gathered, many holding sticks, lighting fireworks, and wearing different traditional outfits. Finally, after an hour, we heard rumblings in the distance. Chanting, singing and drumming filled the air, and those children around us began to stream into the road. The three of us followed suit, walking into the intersection which had become eerily void of cars. Craning our necks to see further down the road, where the noise was originating, we could see a mass of people coming towards us from the direction of the chief's palace, carrying wooden sticks and branches that were ablaze. Once this group merged with ours, which had grown substantially as we waited, the procession began moving towards the center of town. Let me describe exactly what I mean by procession. This involved people of all ages, from babies bagged on their mother's backs to elderly people using walking sticks. Young men, either shirtless or wearing traditional attire, were running through the crowd, firing rifles in the air or dragging machetes on the ground as they ran, creating sparks behind them. Mothers were constantly grabbing their children - those who were getting too far ahead and risked getting lost in the crowd, or those getting too close to one of the many open flames. The air was filled with smoke, song and screams every time an unexpected gun shot went off. Basically, procession can be interchanged with chaos. Or maybe mayhem. A young boy, Rashid, became my personal guide (which was lucky because I lost and found Daniel and Gillian several times during this event) taking my hand and telling me to 'watch out', or 'walk over here,' to avoid particularly excited youth darting through the crowd with various types of weaponry. We got to our meeting place, where crowds of other people had also come to gather, and where unsuspecting trees and vegetation stood. In only a few moments, trees were lit on fire, and branches from trees still standing were vigorously chopped off and brought back into the crowd. We then turned back and started our walk of about 30 minutes, towards our starting place. The chopped tree branches were held by women high in the air, and would be taken back to the chief's palace to be burnt. At times, according to the song that was being sung and the instruments accompanying it, the crowd would turn and run momentarily in the opposite direction. My friend Rashid was particularly helpful in these moments, alerting me to turn and run with the group, instead of being trampled. (Or at least substantially jostled by people running by) When we reached the intersection from which we started, Gillian and I separated from the crowd. They would continue on, returning to the chief's palace where they began, to celebrate with more singing, dancing and fire. Of all the cultural events I have experienced here in Ghana, the fire festival was by far the most exciting and interesting for me. It was a night when everyone left their daily roles behind and became a villager from the legend, truly embracing the celebrations amidst an atmosphere buzzing with excitement. I am so glad I could experience this event and happy that I too, become a villager for the night.

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“Oh shoot, I’m supposed to talk?”

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That is my immediate thought as I am given the go-ahead nod from Yunus, expert technical advisor for GROW and my translator for the day. Twenty women farmers from the village of Gilang are seated in the large village shade tree in front of me, waiting for the meeting to start. Chickens dart through the center of the circle, babes suckle milk from casually exposed breasts, and the cool morning breeze graciously stymies any chance of sweaty armpits.I wasn’t counting on this, meeting all these women, here, under this formal tree in the center of Gilang. I was planning on meeting a few women individually, get an idea of how the program was going, hear their concerns, rejoice in their successes and be gone. But instead, I am meeting with a group of twenty GROW farmers, all of whom were staring at me. right. now.  So I start.Why am I here? Mostly to listen. I tried to ask my questions and get out of the way. I’m in Ghana for six short months (just five now) and I needed to figure out what’s the best use of my time. These women were to provide me with ideas – they’re the reason everything in this project happens, so it seemed like a natural place to look. I head a variety of concerns (consistent credit, rain, tractors) and successes (paying for a child’s education, expanding production).  They talked about how they received information from radio, or how lead farmers worked to disseminate crop price info. Lots of info, all jam-packed into one session.I think Einstein said that if you give him an hour to solve the problem, he’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes solving the problem. So maybe this is part of my 55 minutes. I don’t know the sort of work I’ll have completed in six months time, and to right now, the time seems frustratingly short. And in order to contribute something meaningful come April, I need to spend this time soaking up as much info as possible to get an idea of what’s going on. In order to do that, it involves talking with people. There is a large group of people with valuable experiences and perspectives, from the MEDA staff to our facilitating to the woman talking in front of me. So right now I’m listening.

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How much for a bag of soybeans?

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70-80 cedis (roughly $35-$40).That was the (tentatively) agreed upon price for a 100kg bag of soybeans in Ghana.The Oct. 24th meeting to decide said price was held in the refreshingly air-conditioned PreHarvest Forum’s Conference Room A – a welcome respite from the sunny and sweaty outdoor booths. The PreHarvest Forum was, from my perspective, a mix of information and networking; sessions on improving yields and strengthening local markets were broken up with snacks and the swapping of business cards. The event was attended by farmers, aggregators, processors, ag equipment manufacturers and more… all hoping to connect with the right people and inform themselves. With these thoughts, MEDA arranged for both the local partners and some lead farmers (from the GROW project) to attend, and set up a booth of its own. But let’s go back to the soybean pricing. It was perhaps the most interesting event of the day, and it was definitely the most intense. Determining an acceptable price for soy for both buyers and sellers while trying not to price out local chicken farmers (who use the soy for feed and who will, if the price is too high, import soy from neighboring countries), requires a great deal of consideration: conservation, costs, and markets. “Brothers and sisters, let us remember that we are in a global village,” was one sound bite from a persistent refrain. The meeting attendees understood that all parties (soy farmers, chicken farmers, producers, and aggregators) had to benefit if they wanted to protect this “new and fragile crop” from being swallowed up by the global market.

The debate was one part theatre and two parts substance – “[B]etter than daytime television,” I remember thinking, as the man next to me struck the table to emphasize his point. Several people quickly established themselves as authorities, refuting claims of past prices, commanding a presence, and making comments like “I don’t think I need to introduce myself, everyone here knows me.” The crowd was lively – both murmurs of approval and dissent ran thick. It made sense, I supposed later. Everyone in that room’s livelihood was at stake. They had to make a living… and they had to make sure the market would exist in the future.The 70-80 cedi price didn’t leave many in the room satisfied – some wanted an exact number, others thought it too high or low. But the schedule called for the next event’s use of the room so the meeting ended. It closed with protest, only quelled by the promise of meat pies and Fanta.The price of soy fluctuates, but it follows a somewhat consistent yearly pattern. It reaches its highest just before harvest (October), drops to its lowest at harvest (in late October/early November), and slowly rises until the next harvest. If you’re curious, here’s a handy chart (from this study) that shows the history of grain prices in Ghana: (note that 1000 cedis per MT would convert to 100 cedis per 100 kg bag)For the farmers MEDA works with, getting a good price is important. During the dry season (November – May), it’s difficult to obtain other sources of income, so the money earned from their harvest now needs to sustain them in the leaner months. During the debate many of the farmer’s market worries were expressed – not breaking even, being priced out by international markets, not having sufficient demand locally. The task of farming seemed daunting, even in discussions from an air-conditioned room.

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MEDA, GROW, and Ghana. A summary

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So this is my attempt to give a basic framework for the rest of my posts — a sort of method to the posting madness. Not all the posts will relate specifically to these bolded topics (MEDA, GROW, and Ghana), but I like my frameworks flexible.So.. ahem. Framework.Two weeks and a few mosquito bites ago, I arrived in Tamale, Ghana as a part of the organization MEDA (Mennonite Economic Development Associates) with the project GROW. So what does MEDA do? Well, lots of things, but they focus on creating means to do business for underserved farmers and entrepreneurs around the world. A few examples: they provide access to financial services in Nicaragua, linking farmers to markets and technology in Ukraine, or providing women entrepreneurs with capacity-building training in Libya. If you want to know more, here’s a video I put together for MEDA this past year.So what’s up with this project anyhow? GROW (Greater Rural Opportunities for Women) focuses on women growing soybeans in the Upper West and Northern Regions of Ghana — the ultimate goal is to improve food security in the region. This ideally will happen by making sure they have the right seed, equipment, financial services, technical assistance, and market access to make that happen. Here are these handy graphs to show how MEDA’s work relates to the whole operation of GROW.So what do I do? Communications / Impact Assessment is my title, but that sounds a bit vague. I suppose at the very base, I’ll find out how things are going (impact assessment) and tell about it (communications). So that seems simple enough. I’ll create a variety of media to communicate the work of GROW — video, writing, photos, audio, digital design. This random assortment of noises, pictures, and words will be used to engage the following: farmers, seed aggregators, Ghanians, Global Affairs Canada (GAC), MEDA staff, MEDA members, you, Bono probably). That’s the Communication piece.Impact Assessment is more of a direct task. GROW is in its early stages and not a bean has been harvested. (Year 2 of 6 to be exact… and the first year was dedicated to hiring staff, connecting with the right local partners, etc.) Recently, MEDA and its local implementation partners completed the baseline report, giving us some insight of the pre-project status with the idea that further surveys will provide the metrics we need to fix the wrong things, keep the right things, and accurately measure our progress. I’ll be working with this more as the harvest happens and we start and evaluate the early goings on.If anything piqued your interest don’t hesitate to let me know. Take Twitter for example. Maybe I can even give you some engaging follow-up info.

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Happy Thanksgiving from Ghana

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What do you get when you cross 5 Canadians, 2 British friends, an American, a Danish girl, a Canadian flag and a power outage? Canadian Thanksgiving in Ghana! (I have coined the term Ghanadian Thanksgiving)Last Sunday we celebrated Thanksgiving, hosted by three other Canadian girls also doing CIDA internships here in Tamale. It was a great time and a wonderful meal. None of us have an oven, and turkey isn't that popular a menu item here, so the girls bought chickens and asked the local street meat vendor on the corner to roast them for us which he kindly did. We also had mashed yams (potatoes are a rare commodity), a mountain of eggplant, onion and carrot, cabbage (not such a rare commodity), and a lovely tomato soup with bread to start. Our contribution (us MEDA interns) was a watermelon for dessert, roasted corn, which Gillian very impressively perfected over a homemade charcoal grill, and a Canadian flag from our apartment which we hung proudly over the curtain rod.It was a nice surprise when I was asked to give a toast before the meal. I mentioned how fantastic it was, as we were all so far away from home, to be gathered together to celebrate our holiday – and exciting that others could join us in their first experiences of Canadian Thanksgiving (I was sure to toast to some other Canadian trademarks we could recognize on this occasion like hockey, maple syrup and Celine Dion).At one point we were asked the story behind Canadian Thanksgiving, and unfortunately, I didn't know all the facts at the time. After some quick research I learned that the Canadians started giving thanks for the harvest 43 years before the pilgrims landed in the United States. At first, the national holiday was celebrated on November 6, but in 1957 when Remembrance Day was established on November 11, the date of Thanksgiving was changed to take place in October instead. Now I can be ready to answer that question during the next Thanksgiving I celebrate abroad!Before we started the main course, we were asked to each share with the group the things we were thankful for. As well as being thankful for the health of my friends and family, I also explained how thankful I am for this great experience in Ghana – in the workplace, in the communities, across the country (I have been to all but one Ghanaian region) – together with some amazing people. I really couldn't ask for anything better. It was nice to hear that most of the others had similar things to be thankful for.In the middle of dinner, a thunder storm rolled in and we lost power. This didn't slow us down and, as we've learned to be prepared with candles and flashlights at hand in a moment's notice, we were ready to continue dinner in no time, accompanied by various forms of mood lighting. Luckily the power came back again about 10 minutes later. All in all it was a wonderful evening filled with laughter, food and friends. Although I was thinking of my family back home, I wouldn't change my Ghanadian Thanksgiving experience for anything. It served as a reminder of how grateful I am to be exactly where I want to be, helping provide families here with a harvest they too can celebrate.

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Why I need to make mistakes

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It’s been one week in Tamale, Ghana. (Here are some split seconds of the week. And yes, it has gone that fast.)I’ve been lost (and found… a key part to the story), gotten rained on, tested out my gag reflex, sung karaoke with a very drunk Japanese man, haggled, been bitten by mosquitoes, visited the office a few times, and celebrated Thanksgiving. To which you might say, “wait, isn’t Thanksgiving in November?” To which I respond, “not if you hang out with Canadians.”So I’ve been trying to do a few things — one of them is to accept my current state of cultural inefficacy.When you arrive to a new place, there are things you are not going to know — language, customs, where to purchase eggs at the best price, etc. You can try and act like you’ve eaten Tuo Zaafi and soup with your right hand your whole life (when in fact you’re left-handed and are a big fan of flatware). You smile and nod as your friend/host carries on the conversation. Suddenly, with all of the elegance of a newborn giraffe, you miss your face. Soup drips slowly down your chin. You pause, pretend that nothing is wrong, reach for a napkin casually, glance up at your friend, and notice that he awkwardly looks down at his plate. Errr.*Embarrassing things happen to most people, but with a much greater frequency and certainty in a foreign context (So I’ve found). As the old Polish proverb goes, “a silent fool will always remain a fool.” Or something like that.So if I’m going to learn some phrases in Dagbani (one of Ghana’s 79 local languages), I’m going to have to be ok with a little butchery of the language. If I’m going to learn the layout of the city I’m living in, I need to run that errand even though I’m not 100% sure where the building is. If I’m going to make my experience in Ghana valuable, I’m going to have to ask some obvious questions and make mistakes. To mistakes!* - the following story is not as hypothetical as the author would like to suggest, but rather a fairly accurate account of a recent Saturday outing.

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Donor Visit to Ghana

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One of the highlights of my time in Ghana so far was having the pleasure to meet and  get to know the MEDA delegation that recently came to tour the GROW project.Waiting at the airport in Tamale for the group to arrive, we were all reviewing the plans for the week ahead and crossing our fingers everything would go smoothly. We hoped the days' pouring rain (and their hours-long flight delay from Accra!) would not be too much of an inconvenience for this group who had travelled half-way across the world to support and visit the GROW project first hand. As soon as the 15 tour members walked into the arrivals hall (which also serves as baggage pickup and waiting room), we knew we would have nothing to worry about – everyone was laughing  and joking with one another as though they had known each other for years (I would later find out that many, in fact, HAD known each other for years) and we knew this group would take everything in stride with smiles on their faces. Their happiness to simply be in Ghana and their willingness to be a part of MEDA's initiative, in turn, put bigger smiles on our own faces.Each moment we spent together was memorable in it's own way, although there were a few specific highlights that stand out...Going on safariNo visit to the Northern Region is complete without a stop at Mole National Park. Here it's possible to see a range of animals, from elephants to different types of antelope, baboons and birds. Something just as fun is the experience of riding in, or on the top of, the safari jeeps. It was wonderful to see the excitement of the group as they clambered up the rickety ladder to get a good seat on the top of the vehicle. Watching the cars driving a long the dusty paths of the park, it was really a marvel that everyone made it out in one piece  – some of the angles these jeeps were driving at, going along embankments and navigating the potholes caused by the rain, was unbelievable. At one point, the guide stopped the car and encouraged us all to get out. Leading us into the bush, he took us up close to an elephant enjoying his lunch. It was great to see such a huge animal in this context, instead of inside bars at the zoo. After we all snapped pictures, we piled back into the cars and continued on our safari.Wise words from the chiefLater that same day we paid a visit to Wa West, one of the communities where the GROW project is located. Although there were many villagers waiting for us outside in a group, we first were summoned to the chief's palace, a modest building beside a mosque. We all took our shoes off and entered, finding a space to sit on chairs or crouch on the floor. The chief was waiting for us inside, and shared some insights with us before we went out to interact with the community. One of the most powerful sentiments was his comment: "When you empower a woman, you empower the community." It was so encouraging to hear this support for MEDA. It reinforced how important the project is and the scope of the impact it will have.Sharing resultsVisiting another community on our second day in the field was another meaningful experience for myself as well as the group. After initially greeting the community members, participating in their local dance (I did join in this time like I promised myself, even if it was only for a total of roughly of 2.4 seconds) we were taken to see the soybean fields. The land we looked at was farmed by two women together. They had put their 1 acre plots together to form a plot of 2 acres which they both cared for, making the work less strenuous. The women were so proud to show us their crops, which were growing beautifully. I learned from MEDA donors Sam and Lynn, who have agricultural backgrounds, that the soil is very fertile making the crop (also the maize that grew opposite) grow lush. Having never seen the women's farms before, it was a great visual to me to see the work in progress.Our MEDA president being initiated into the communitiesIt was so wonderful to spend time with Allan, our MEDA president, and his lovely wife Donna. These are two of the most humble and warm people I have ever met. What was even more special was to see them welcomed into the various communities we visited. Allan was the first one to join in the dancing with the women, the last one to get into the car for the drive back. and he always had encouraging words to share with the villagers. In one of the communities Allan was presented with a typical chief's outfit, marking his importance to that community. Similarly, on our last day in the field, he and Donna were both given traditional smocks by one of our partners TUDRIDEP, as thanks for their support and hard work. Seeing this confirmed how grateful the communities are and how influential MEDA is here in Ghana. It was a bittersweet moment as we stood waving and watching the group drive away on our last day together. After spending hours telling (or listening to) puns, playing music and trying not to fall asleep on each other during long car rides, having conversations about our families, sharing travel experiences, and eating meals together every day for a week, I really began to feel as though I had known some of these people for years. As we all hugged each other goodbye, and us interns received comments of encouragement and thanks, I realized that they were the ones who should be acknowledged. Working in the Tamale office, closely with the staff and partners on the ground, it is easy to forget that so much effort also takes place behind the scenes. The groups' visit made me fully understand how important their support is, and how, without their help, the GROW project would not be as successful as it is today.A big thank you to all of MEDA's donors, biggest fans and staff back at home. I hope I'm lucky enough to see you all again in the future (hopefully all wearing the Ghanaian outfits I know many of you have!), so we can reminisce about our time together. I really believe MEDA will continue to connect us all.

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“What if Soy Milk is just Regular Milk… introducing itself in Spanish?”

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Stole that line from one of my favourite memes haha. But in all serious, soy and soy products are vey popular in today’s traditional and trendy diet crazes. Yet, most people continue to debate whether soy is healthful or harmful. As a science geek, I always say ‘show me the research’. If it can’t be scientifically debunked, hypotheses remain to be proven. Ironically, I have done papers and presentations on the benefits and controversies of soy before hearing of the GROW project let alone becoming an intern here.Simply put, I am a huge advocate for soy in pretty much any form. I enjoy edamame, tofu, miso, and soy sauce of course. But most of all, I am a self-proclaimed soymilk junkie. It all started last year. I can admit to having mild allergies to just about everything, which is the cheery on top to my sensitive skin woes. I pondered one day to myself, if as milk is known as one of the most common food allergies (I was drinking about 3 glasses/day), maybe I should wean myself off it and see if it is contributing in anyway to my allergies and sensitivities. So that is exactly what I did. But not without replacing it with something equally as nutritious, packed full of calcium, iron protein, and lactose-free… SOYMILK!!! Needless to say, I haven’t turned back since. From the beginning, I was all about organic and unsweetened types and not so much the sweetly flavoured stuff. It really was a seamless transition. I use it in cereal, oatmeal, smoothies, pancakes, French toast, just to name a few of my go-to breakfast meals. And just about any and every recipe that calls for milk, I substitute with soymilk. When I found out the GROW team would be visiting a small-scale soymilk plant, I was beyond excited. Even though I loved soymilk so much, I had never given much though to how a legume (bean) can be processed into such a smooth, creamy, awesome-tasting beverage. I was ready and eager to further explore the wonderful world of soy.Before heading to Valley View University in Techiman, I did a little research on the soymilk equipment and operation we were going to see. The systems are called VitaGoat and SoyCow. Originally developed by a Canadian company ProSoya, it is now manufactured in India and supplied by Malnutrition Matters, an organization with the mandate to provide sustainable low cost food technology solutions for malnutrition, primarily by using soya, but also cereals, grains, fruits and vegetables. They have been used for projects in developing countries including Myanmar, North Korea, Thailand, India, Belize, Guatemala, Malawi, Liberia, Zambia, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea, Mozambique, Chad, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, South Africa and Ghana. SoyCow and VitaGoat are both well suited for developing countries. They can provide employment for 3-6 unskilled workers while providing nutritious foods for hundreds. There is also the option to have a pedal-powered motor, when electricity is not available.The one we were going to visit is in operation at Valley View University in the Brong-Ahafo region. Adventist Development and Relief Agency Ghana (ADRA) and World Soy Foundation sponsor the project, which launched in 2009. Currently, Valley View University pumps out 200 liters of soymilk/day (the system makes 15L of soymilk in 20 minutes from 2 kg of soya beans). Everyday, just over half of this is delivered to four local primary schools to provide 450 children a daily serving of soymilk free of charge. The remainder of production is bottled and/or prepared as kebabs (tofu) to be sold on campus to students. This is a prime example of how a mixed enterprise can work; some output is donated for social feeding and some is sold to sustain the operation. In addition, the University will be using this project to assess the nutritional impact soymilk has had on school children since the implementation of it’s pilot school feeding program. I personally can’t wait to hear of the results of this research study.We should have metric tons of soya beans coming from GROW women farmers this first harvest. A small-scale soy processing business is of great interest to the project and why it’s being explored further. We visited Valley View with FTF-USAID Agricultural Technology Transfer (ATT). This is a USAID-funded project that specifically focuses on improving public institutions’ and private sector businesses’ capacities to introduce new technologies to Ghana’s agricultural sector. If ATT is willing to cover the costs of equipment and training as a technology demonstration, then MEDA could help identify investors to operate the equipment as a business. But most importantly, the operation will be supplied with soya beans by GROW women. In collaboration like this, both parties, MEDA and ATT, are aligned with their respective project objectives, ultimately, for the benefit of rural farmers in Northern Ghana. It’s like a match made in soy heaven.

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Beads of Hope, Ghana

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It was a late Sunday afternoon when Jess called one of her trusty taxi drivers, Michael, to pick us up at our ‘junction’ (i.e. the intersection by our house). We were invited to a fellow Canadian’s going-away party, although we had never met her before. But as the saying goes: better late than never. As we crossed over the main road into an unknown neighbourhood, Jess began scrolling her phone for the directions to Erin’s compound. Of course she had to scream them out to Michael over the blaring radio. In a few minutes we found ourselves on a street that seemed to have all the described landmarks except for a compound. Jess quickly called Erin to make sure we were in the right place before Michael drove off. Coincidentally, Erin was right behind us walking towards our taxi. We introduced ourselves in the street and began walking with her. While holding an infant on one hip, she followed a line of children carrying plastic chairs above their heads. Erin introduced us to the little girl named Nadia, and mentioned she had to make the difficult decision of bringing back either Nadia or a chair to the compound. As we walked towards her place, Erin spoke of the family she shares the compound with and that Nadia is referred to as Princess Nadia; she’s adored by everyone and can be quite the diva. The kids ahead of us were arranging the chairs they had just brought in. There were benches and tables in the compound’s courtyard in preparation for the anticipated crowd and food. Erin led us into her home. As soon as we walked in we were greeted with a table full of beads and a welcoming smile! Literally, a table full of jewelry made from shiny and glistening beads. Jess and I immediately sat down, letting out gasps of excitement. As I finally tore my eyes away from the bracelets, I met Nafisa sitting across from us. As Jess and I began searching through the piles of bracelets, rings, and necklaces, Nafisa, affectionately called Nafi, began telling us the story behind the beads. She’s from Paga, a village in the Upper East region, and began making jewelry from local beads as a means to get through University. Nafi was so successful and quickly saw the potential that jewelry making had for others in her community. She started a project called Beads of Hope, with the mission to provide local women and girls the opportunity to make a sustainable income. Beads of Hope has gained much popularity through word of mouth and now employ young boys in addition to women and girls from Paga and neighboring towns Navrongo and Bolgatanga. This local business is dedicated to fighting poverty by providing sustainable livelihoods for families in the Upper East Region. Having a warmhearted and friendly organizer like Nafi as it’s driving force has undoubtedly helped Beads of Hope success. Anyone that meets her will agree that, if it isn’t for the beautiful beads and designs, purchasing jewelry solely because of the passion and dedication Nafi exudes is not unusual. Congrats to Nafi and the continuing success of Beads of Hope! Check out Beads of Hope … like their Facebook page or shop their Etsy store.

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Road Trip to Kintampo Falls

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On a cloudy Sunday morning, wanting to explore the Ghanaian countryside, we boarded a tro-tro to Kintampo Falls.Let me begin by explaining our means of transportation. A tro-tro, or 'tro' as it is affectionately called, is a minibus that you can flag down and jump on with other passengers who are travelling in the same direction. Due to their more than rickety conditions and number of passengers riding along side you, the tros are much cheaper than buses or taxis. Another option, which is what we did on this particular Sunday, is get a group together and rent one (equip with a driver) for a day. Kintampo Falls, only three hours away, seemed doable.No experience in Africa, or in other parts of the world, is complete without travelling like the locals do. We managed to squeeze 19 people, including the driver and his assistant, into this tro-tro. The quarter-sized hole in the floor of the vehicle, giving us a view to the pavement below, didn't even deter us. It may not have been the most comfortable 3 hours (6 hours round trip) but it was a great journey. We passed many different landscapes, bought snacks out of the window from local vendors running along side as we slowed down to go through toll gates, and saw how people live outside of Tamale, 'the capital of the north,' the sizeable town we have already grown so accustomed to. Going through a community, one child on the side of the road did a double take and then pointed to the tro-tro saying "Woooowwwww." I like to think she was also impressed at how many people we were able to fit inside. I sure was.After a few hours, we finally made it to Kintampo Falls. Walking through a wooded setting, we could hear rushing water as we got closer. We passed by the various stages of the waterfall, starting at the top where the water raged down over the rocks, and finally descended 152 stairs (not that I was counting) to the base of the waterfall where it was safe to swim. Although it was overcast, the group of us peeled off our layers and jumped in. The brave ones climbed right under the waterfall where the water poured over from above. We had heard that there was another waterfall close by, Fuller Falls, and decided to check that out as well. Drying ourselves off to the extent that it wouldn't be overly gross to be crammed against one another in the tro again, we hit the road. We were confidently driving along, and even saw a signpost for the falls which reaffirmed we were going in the right direction, when we came to a dirt road, jutted and uneven. The driver stopped and asked a shepherd if we were still going in the right direction. To our dismay, he told us to go back the way we came. How our tro-tro driver managed to pull a three point turn on that narrow road, I will never know.After driving for several kilometres we were nearly back where we had started from. Once again, the driver pulled over to ask for directions. The men who assisted us assured us that, no, the waterfall was back the way we came from – we had been previously travelling the right way. Exasperated, we turned around a second time (waved to the shepherd as we passed him again) and finally came to the entrance of Fuller Falls.Instead of swimming here, we walked up the side of the waterfall to the very top where we were able to sit and look down at the rapids below. I was surprised to see how lush and green the surroundings were, especially considering how dry the weather has been, despite it being the rainy season. We spotted a few creepy crawlies in the brush, including two long and fat centipedes. Or were they millipedes? Some sort of insect with a great number of legs.After taking in the scenery from the top of the falls, we decided it was time to head back to Tamale. It was fantastic to get in touch with nature again and escape the busy city life for an afternoon. Getting out and seeing more of the country we are living and working in, setting the context for our work here, really excited me. I'm looking forward to more local travelling in the future, all for research purposes, of course…

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For Generations to Come…

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Field TripOn our way to the Verimpere community of the Wa West district, many things were racing through my mind. I was highly anticipating my first trip to the field, in a community where the GROW (Greater Rural Opportunities for Women) project is active. Days leading up to our journey, MEDA’s Gender Specialists facilitated gender sensitization and analysis training for our staff and partner organizations. Now more than fifteen of us were heading to the field, some to participate and others to observe the gender sensitization pilot activity for women and their husbands. Many things in that hour-long visit were unforgettable; the women gathered under a large tree awaiting our arrival, their singing and dancing to celebrate our presence in the community, and the attentiveness and involvement exhibited by women and men alike. But the enthusiasm and pleasantness of the children were what really captivated me. Family MattersOnce adults of the community broke off into groups, each settling under a tree, children gradually started congregating nearby. Starting with a few, it soon became over a dozen little ones circling our group. Of course, we were a sight to see for them, dressed differently and speaking a foreign language. Yet, they were sincerely engaged in their parent’s discussion, keeping a keen eye on everyone involved and quietly giggling when something unexpected was said. During the activity, gender roles and responsibilities were being discussed or rather, negotiated. I imagine this was the first time these children heard this subject talked about so openly. I was moved by the children’s curiosity and interest, eagerly soaking up every word.Plant a Seed and Watch it GROWAnd then, “Eureka!” (I really had one of those eureka moments). I was already very familiar with MEDA’s values to ensure sustainability in their projects. Most projects truly provide business opportunities, incredible, sustainable solutions to poverty. But I was now seeing with my own eyes the impact these projects have on the next generation! Because many of these children do not attend school, their attitudes and behaviours are modeled after the only leaders they see, i.e. parents and caregivers. GROW is helping to increase food security for women farmers and their families. Importantly, it’s not only the women involved now, but also generations to come, that will benefit from improved health and development, resources and skills to generate and manage income, and the countless education and business opportunities that result from those. I am so proud to be a part of the GROW project and a representative of MEDA, contributing to and witnessing history in the making.

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THIS is why I'm here

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Since arriving here in Tamale, I have been helping to prepare and facilitate workshops focussed on gender sensitization and awareness. Along with Faustina from the Tamale office, and Yasir who has been visiting from Waterloo, we have conducted these trainings for MEDA staff, as well the local partners involved in the GROW project.Admittedly, it was a little daunting to imagine myself training a conference room full of people, some who have more experience than I did in the field of gender. Now that we're nearly done with the training sessions I can say that I am so grateful for having the experience of participating in the planning and execution of these sessions. Sharing thoughts and ideas with others, meeting colleagues whom I will continue to work with during my time here, and listening to different cultural perspectives has taught me so much.However, today's session taught me the most.In the afternoon our group of local partners and facilitators got into a mini bus and drove 30 minutes outside of Wa, where our field office is located, to one of the participating communities. I was excited to finally see the people who were benefitting from the GROW (Greater Rural Opportunities for Women) project, and knew I would enjoy myself. The experience, however, was above and beyond my expectations.When we pulled up we were surrounded by women and children clapping, singing and dancing. (I told myself I would practice my dance moves in order to join in  next time!) We enjoyed this warm welcome for a few minutes before separating into groups in order to lead an activity based on community roles of men and women.This interactive session with the community members was great to see: men and women sharing their views, laughing, listening to differing opinions, coming to the agreement that women are just as capable as men, and acknowledging their support of the project. Our goal of raising gender awareness and making an entry into the community was a huge success.My favourite participants in this activity were the children who had gathered around the tree under which we were holding our meeting, listening in on the conversation, laughing along with their parents, and catching our eye to smile and wave. Although most of them were too young to realize what exactly we were doing there, it was wonderful to have them present – we really felt like we were reaching out to the community as a whole.After our session, as we made our way back to the minibus, the children were fascinated by our digital cameras and seeing their own faces in the pictures we took. I was soon approached by an unsmiling women who began speaking to me in the local language. I couldn't understand a word, but assumed she was telling me to stop taking pictures. As I was putting my camera away, someone came over to translate: "No, no, she wants you to take a picture of HER!" She struck a pose, quickly grabbing a wooden stool to balance on her head for this photo-op.Heading back Wa, I reflected on the experience. There were so many highlights – meeting the community members, seeing where they live, playing with the children, and witnessing, on a small scale, changes beginning to happen for the better. I've enjoyed all my adventures here in Ghana so far, from trying the different foods to seeing local sights and making new friends. But after this trip to the field I realized – THIS is why I'm here.

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6 Dishes from the ‘Gold Coast’ of Africa

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Greetings from Wa, Ghana…This is my first blog post! And not just for MEDA, but in the history of my Generation Y lifetime. I must admit that I brainstormed about this first topic for a while. I’ve been in Ghana for just over 2 weeks and ‘culture shock’ is an understatement to explain my feelings. I do mean that in the most positive way! The people, culture, and landscape have been nothing short of beautiful, intriguing, and unique for me. There are so many things I can talk about in my first post but seeing as I am the Nutrition/Food Security Intern, I think it is most fitting I introduce you to Ghanaian Cuisine.By no means am I a ‘foodie’. I don’t post pictures of my meals on Instagram, nor do I regularly ‘check in’ to restaurants on Yelp (although I do read the reviews ☺). However, I would say I am a food lover. I appreciate dishes from all over the world and always willing to try everything at least once! It is normal for me to eat Indian, Japanese, Korean, Trinidadian and Lebanese dishes all in a week of being home in Toronto. With that being said, I was open and eager to try the traditional foods of Ghana. Below are dishes I’ve already eaten and are very common in Northern Ghana, specifically Tamale and Wa. Depending where you are from or have travelled, some of these ingredients may be familiar:1. ‘Banku’ and Okra Soup – Banku is really a large, doughy ball of fermented maize (aka corn) that is served in a bowl of soup. Traditionally, it’s eaten with your hands; pieces of banku are pinched off and dipped in the soup. Okra is a green pod-like vegetable with many seeds and quite slimy inside. It’s commonly grown in tropical and sub-tropical climates.2. TZ (pronounced tee-zed which stands for ‘Tuo Zaafi’) and Groundnut Soup – TZ looks similar to banku and eaten in the same way. However, it's made from corn flour and has a much milder taste. It can also be made from cassava flour or a mixture of the two. I had it served in groundnut soup. Groundnuts are essentially the same as peanuts, just a bit smaller. TZ can also be served with ‘green green’, a stew of moringa or cassava leaves, mixed into a soup with pieces of goat and/or fish.3. Red Fish with ‘Palaba’ Sauce and Boiled Yam – Most often, all meals are served with fish or chicken (even if only tiny pieces in soups and stews). ‘Red fish’, as Ghanaian’s call it, is the common saltwater red snapper fish. It is fried and served with slices of boiled yam and palaba sauce made from stewed ‘green leaves’.4. ‘Wachey’ with Grilled Tilapia – Wachey is white rice cooked with beans, specifically ‘cowpea’ bean (aka black-eyed pea). It is much like the Caribbean-style of ‘rice and peas’ or ‘rice and beans’. It was served with grilled tilapia and salad but can be paired with any meat. Tilapia is farmed throughout the country and regularly served.5. Jollof Rice with Fried Chicken – Jollof is a popular West African dish. It’s cooked with tomato paste, peppers, seasonings, and pieces of meat among other ingredients. It is spicy and full of flavour! It’s really a go-to dish, especially in fast food restaurants. And fried chicken is pretty much universal of course. 6. Red Red and Fried Plantain – Red Red is a bean stew made with cowpeas. It’s characteristic red colour comes from the palm oil it’s cooked in. Served alongside, are pieces of ripe plantain, fried until golden. Not sure how to traditionally eat this, but I dipped the plantain in the stew and it was great.Side note: Although I didn’t mention many vegetables here, they’re usually cooked and incorporated into soups and stews. Salads and raw vegetables are not always served but if they are it usually consists of shredded lettuce, cabbage, carrots, sliced tomatoes, cucumbers and red onion topped with mayonnaise or salad cream. Second side note: Ghanaians use plenty of seasonings and love their food spicy!Thanks for reading my first blog post EVER! Until next time readers…

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The COLWOD boutique - a hidden gem

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Having just arrived in Tamale, in the Northern Region of Ghana, Gillian and I got a city tour from another Canadian friend living here. We walked through the market and visited stalls selling everything from cows feet to toilet paper and pineapples to insect spray; ate a lunch of 'red red', a typical Ghanian dish of friend plantain and beans; scoped out the nearest grocery stores and bought 'fan ice' - ice cream in a bag – from a boy selling it on his bicycle.Nearing the end of our tour, we were led down an alley, off the main street, to a tiny shop that stood alone – we were introduced to the hidden gem that is the COLWOD boutique.COLWOD, the Collaboration with Women in Distress, is a charitable organization which was started in 1995 to help abandoned and abused women. COLWOD teaches these women skills like sewing, tie-dye and batik in order for them to gain economic independence and support themselves.Not only can you purchase fabric by the yard for 7 cedi, or roughly $3.50 Canadian dollars, there are handcrafts like purses, clothing and home décor for sale. The proceeds go back to the women, providing an income.Since arriving in Ghana, we had noticed the beautiful prints of the women's clothing. Now we know the secret! It's common here to simply buy the fabric of your choice and take it to a local seamstress and have clothing, usually skirts or dresses, made to order. Outside some of the seamstress' shops are photos showing the various designs and styles of dress you can choose from.With this in mind, Gillian and I perused the fabrics, taking some off the rack and holding them up to ourselves, imagining what we'd look like in a dress of that material. What a challenge! There were so many interesting patterns and prints it was hard to finally decide. I walked around the shop with two different materials on my arm thinking they were the ones I was going home with… until I spotted others that I liked even more (repeating this cycle twice). There was even a fabric with Canadian maple leaves printed in red – being eyed by a man in search of something for his wife.The three of us Canadians were browsing alongside other shoppers – another young woman trying on a long robe, and the local man contemplating fabrics. Seeing the others provided a small insight into the reception in Tamale of women's organizations. Knowing that COLWOD has existed since 1995, we can assume there has been enough local support for it to thrive here.The atmosphere in the shop was cheerful and bright, run by a smiling young woman who was quiet but eager to help. In one entertaining scene, the young woman (still wearing the robe she had tried on) asked the man if he would try on a shirt she was hoping to buy for her father back home. She handed it to him, and he struggled to pull it on over his glasses and dress shirt. After he had successfully managed to get into the shirt, he stood awkwardly, waiting for her response. The girl looked him over and said, "You know, you're much more fit than my dad. He has a pretty big belly."It was touching to see how an organization founded to help women in distress could bring people together – both locals and people from abroad – in order to support those in need and help them create a new life for themselves through economic independence.  In exchange, the women's work  serves as a reminder that we can help others in even small ways and adds some colour to our lives.

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