MEDA Blog - Stories from the Field

A Sense of Empowerment

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One of the main objectives of the GROW project is to build the capacities of our Lead Farmers – female farmers who are chosen to represent their women's groups – so that they will have the skills to maintain their practices as entrepreneurs even after the project is completed in their communities.This process can also be very empowering for the women: teaching agricultural practices to ensure their soybean crops produce good yields, providing communities with gender sensitization to avoid stereotypes, demonstrating different ways of using soybean to benefit their families, and promoting group savings accounts so women can manage their own funds.One of the most recent examples of both capacity building and empowerment was last week – a select number of Lead Farmers were brought to Tamale for two days to participate in the Pre-Season Forum, an agricultural event that brings together different actors in the soybean value chain. The Lead Farmers were able to attend discussions, network, and observe demonstrations of farming technology.The following day, the group was taken to meet with a shea processor, and learn about the details of collecting the fruit, making it into butter, packaging it and selling it to buyers. Although the GROW project focusses on soybean production, an important element is maintaining the farmers' businesses throughout the year – this may mean engaging in other income generating activities, especially during the dry season, after soy is cultivated.After these two days of introducing the farmers to different people, as well as new agricultural innovations, MEDA held a small reception at the office. Over biscuits and juice, the women were asked what their most memorable moment was during their stay, or something interesting they had learned. For many women, visiting Tamale was their favourite part – some of them had never travelled from their communities to the town. For others, the highlight was attending an event with different people involved in agriculture. Many Lead Farmers left with contacts of other farmers and links to input suppliers. Another element they enjoyed was meeting each other. Although they are all part of the GROW project, the selected Lead Farmers were from different communities of the Upper West Region. They were happy to meet other women like themselves and share their experiences.Regardless of what their most memorable experience was, the emphasis lies in the fact that the women were chosen to participate because MEDA believes in them – in their skills and capabilities, both as farmers and as women. Providing them this sense of accomplishment is almost more important than providing them with something tangible. It is with this confidence that the Lead Farmers will go forward in their communities and truly embrace their multifaceted identities as mother, business person, farmer and woman, and continue to be the role models MEDA knows they are.
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Easter at the Lake

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As Easter came and went, it marked another holiday, along with Thanksgiving and Halloween (a holiday to me!), I spent in Ghana.I left Tamale by bus – after waking up at 5am, eating crackers for breakfast out of my purse, and getting on a vehicle bound for Accra, but realizing it just in time – and headed for Kumasi, 2nd largest city in Ghana and the closest to Lake Bosomtwe, our final destination for the long weekend. I was travelling to meet former MEDA intern Gillian, who was making the trip from Accra, to have yet another adventure together. The 6 hour bus journey went by quickly as I was distracted by Ghanaian soap operas playing on the overhead screen. I'm not sure what exactly was happening, although I know it involved some type of royal family, black magic and a lot of yelling (perhaps this explains my distraction).The two of us arrived in Kumasi minutes apart and set off in a private taxi towards the lake, about an hour away. It was so different to pass by the lush, green terrain and mountainous landscape that is found in the south, as opposed to the dry and dusty northern region I'm used to. It was especially exciting to finally arrive at Lake Bosomtwe, a circular body of water that was created millions of years ago by a meteorite, surrounded by rolling hills.Before long we were settled into our room at The Green Ranch, a small ecolodge that specializes in horseback riding and vegetarian food – two of my favourite things. Our days were spent lounging on the terrace that overlooked the lake, playing scrabble (my first time to play an entire game), eating homemade ice cream/juice/tofu (delicacies!), walking through the nearby village, or watching thunderstorms from our covered porch.Aside from total relaxation, we did do other activities.On our first full day at the ranch we went horseback riding along the lake. It was a beautiful way to see the scenery. Galaxy (the horse, not my nickname for Gillian) and I took the lead, and led the group through villages full of children giggling as we went past, a cacao farm shaded with trees, and along the beach, the horses splashing themselves to cool down. Although I had ridden for many years growing up, I hadn't experienced anything quite like riding on jungle paths and through tiny fishing communities... or getting sunburned on the back of my hands to the extent that I did.We also went swimming. There were rumours about parasites... leeches... worms and other creepy things that you could catch/have stuck on you from swimming in the lake water. After some contemplation I decided to go for it. It was just too hot, and the Ghanaian family that was swimming looked like they were having too much fun. At its deepest point the lake is about 70 metres. Even though I was relatively close to the shore, I could feel cool currents from underneath which felt so refreshing.All too soon the weekend came to an end and I made the bus trip back to Tamale. It was my last vacation here in Ghana, as I'll be leaving shortly, and I'm so glad I could spend it the way I did. As I travel through the different regions, visit different cities and embark on different adventures, I am amazed at both the diversity of each place, but also the similarities all over the country (not only my chances of sunburn which are the same in all regions) – friendly people, good food, natural beauty, and wonderful memories I take away.
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Catching up with Prudence

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I have met and interacted with so many women farmers – our targeted clients – during my work in Ghana, and am always interested in learning about their experiences and how they are impacted by MEDA. Recently I sat down with Prudence, a Lead Farmer whose participation I began noticing more and more as she became increasingly active within her community. This is her story within the GROW project!I first met Prudence in September. Visitors from headquarters – Wally and his wife Millie, and Marlin – had come to interview farmers. We learned that Prudence was a mother of two girls, a wife of a trader, and had devoted an acre of land (out of the 6 acres her husband owns) to soybean cultivation. In fact, it was her first year planting soybean. The crop looked lush and she was excited to participate in the project. When asked about how she would spend the income earned from her yield, Prudence said she wanted to be a teacher, and would put the money towards that because she felt with MEDA's help, "in the future she would be someone." Some of Prudence's story was then published in The Marketplace.In October I was pleasantly surprised to see Prudence in Tamale at the pre-harvest forum, a conference that links farmers, buyers, input dealers and other actors in the agricultural value chain together to network. We had asked our partners to choose a representative farmer from their communities to attend the event. Prudence had been selected. She came in a beautiful dress which she quickly traded in favour of a GROW t-shirt she received, and her hair had been nicely done. I watched as she participated in a meeting where the price of soybeans was negotiated amongst processors, asked questions after watching threshing equipment being demonstrated, and tasted soy milk – an example of what she could one day do with her own yields. I asked whether or not she liked Tamale (it was her first time visiting) and she responded with a bright smile and said that she "REALLY REALLY enjoyed Tamale." Now, her friends joke with her – if they don't see her around the compound or in the market, they claim, Oh! She must be in Tamale.Rachel, our senior project manager, and Christine, MEDA's women's economic development director, both came to visit at the end of November. We visited some communities to talk with the women about their experiences so far in the project. Prudence's community was one of those selected, and she was present at the meeting. Her confidence and leadership were apparent as she organized the women, fetched drinking water for the guests, and lead the group in a dance to send us off. Likewise, during a nutrition training session in December, Prudence was eager to participate and share her thoughts on infant and young child nutrition with the other farmers and the male facilitator from Ghana Health Service.After returning to Ghana from the Christmas holidays, I thought it would be nice to touch base with Prudence after not seeing her for several weeks. The first opportunity I was in Wa, I arranged to speak with her. The field officer who organized the visit surprised me by taking me, not to the community meeting place where we usually saw the famers, but to Prudence's home. As we arrived there, she came out of the door laughing, "You're early!" She was still wearing a towel after having just bathed. Once she was dressed, she ran out of the compound and returned minutes later with water for me to drink, and offered me a seat on her plastic furniture in the courtyard.I asked her about her experience after nearly one year with the project. She began by saying "I have changed totally!" She elaborated that she had developed so many new relationships with other farmers, she knew more places now (again referencing her trip to Tamale) and that she can cook at least seven dishes that include soy. She told me about the success of her harvest – one bag she kept for family consumption while the other three she sold at the market for a good price. I was sure to ask what she was doing with this income, and she confirmed that it was in her savings account (which she emphatically stated was her very own – separate from her husband's bank account) so she could take classes to become a teacher. Prudence stated that her husband is "proud of me!" and that she will continue to cultivate soybeans because it is now her best crop.These chats with Prudence I've had over the six months that I've now known her really encapsulate what the GROW project is all about: empowering women economically through the cultivation of soybean, educating clients in the nutritional benefits of the legume, and encouraging women's leadership in order to combat food insecurity. Prudence has proven that she is capable of achieving this in her household, and that she embodies the role of Lead Farmer. My time in Ghana is coming to an end, but before it does I will be sure to speak to Prudence a final time. Although, based on how she's grown throughout the project so far, I think I know how her story will continue.
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See Ya Later Alligators

It's the start of the of the goodbyes here in Dar. We all knew at some point it would happen but nothing really prepares you for how fast your time goes by with these amazing people, even knowing that the time is going to fly past you.It started on Thursday night where we would have one last night with our dear friend Laiah from California. Laiah had one of the shorter terms as she was out here writing her thesis, so we knew we would have to make the most of any moment. We spent a lot of time together, enjoying countless dinners together, learning new things at trivia, celebrating Mardi Gras and sharing endless laughs together. Laiah was an extremely intelligent, truly compassionate, hilarious individual who showed show much kindness to whoever she met, even when the conversations never seemed to have an ending. There is so much to learn from Laiah, I could not be happier to have met her.Then with short notice another friend, David from Ireland, was on his way back. I had met David playing ball hockey a little while back. David has a love for sports and although only played field hockey before he found a way to make it work in ball hockey. It was always great to be greeted with David's wonderful smile and genuine care for you with a simple question, "How are you, dear?" (In an Irish accent, I might add). I absolutely love spending time with David whether it was playing ball hockey, camping on bongoyo or sharing stories around a bonfire.As these goodbyes start, it only makes me realize how quickly my time is going to go bye. I try not to think about it so it won't become real but sometimes it just takes over my mind. It frustrates me even more when I waste my time here being homesick because I know that I will be missing these moments as soon as I am back in Canada. In our crew of friends, none of us really like to talk of the fact that it will be soon that we are not sharing every dinner together or spending countless hours reading through the what's app group chat sorting through useless messages trying to find what the plans are for the evening. All the things that may annoy me at the moment seem so useless.I am positive that my path will some day cross all these amazing friends again but until that moment I want to enjoy every single moment the days has to offer. It was terribly sad to see both David and Laiah leave this beautiful city and know that you will both be miss incredibly but all the best on where your journey leads you next. Can't wait to hear all about it the next time we meet!
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Winning Gold from Ghana

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I love the olympics. Nothing makes me more excited than seeing the best athletes in the world participating in different events, hearing motivational stories, seeing examples of sportsmanship, and of course, watching Canadians compete on the world's stage. Trying to watch the olympics in Ghana was a bit of a struggle. That being said, when it comes to hockey, there is no stopping a Canadian from tracking down the game! Three different games, three different means of watching said games, and a various array of Canadian supporters from different countries contributed to one the best olympic experiences.After visiting a number of bars and restaurants that we knew had tv – and finding all of them either broken, without satellite, or not open – some Canadian friends and I ended up at Tamale's newest café which boasts a projector and a large screen. There we were joined by other expats, including several Americans who were supporting for our opponents, the USA, and friends from Ireland, England and Australia who decided to root for the Canadians (hurray for the commonwealth!). Sporting my red and white shirt (unfortunately the only red or white shirt I have is long sleeved, making for a hot and sticky hockey-watching experience) and Canadian flag, I settled down amongst the crowd to watch the game. It started at 5pm in Ghana, and because we were watching a projection outside in the daylight, we couldn't see anything for the first period, and were relying on the commentary alone. This however, didn't bother us too much, as it wasn't until the last period that the tide began to turn. I wish there could have been hidden camera recording our reactions to the game, especially the final Canadian goal – there was always a contingent of people who stood up, cheered, and hugged each other (and others who, before running around the patio waving the flag, jumped up so fast their chair fell over backwards).We thought the procedure for watching the men's semi-final game would be similar because we had found a place that would show the game. This was not the case. Although this café had satellite, the channel was not airing the game. The new found Canadian fans started arriving after us – those who came earlier to stake out the same seats in order to fashion the seating configuration that had proved so lucky the night before – now wearing their red and white (I think they needed to see some proof that Canada could be relied upon to do well before committing to dressing in our colours) only to find that the game wasn't playing. After 2.5 hockey periods, downloading olympic phone apps and radio stations in the hopes of hearing commentary at least, and relentless internet searching, we were able to find a website that was streaming the game and discovered we were about to make our way into the gold medal final. More flag waving ensued.The finale.Before I go into the details, i'll insert my favourite motivational olympic story here. I was amazed to learn that Carey Price, the goalie for Canada, grew up on a reservation located three hours away from where his hockey practice was held. He and his parents made this trek several times a week. When he became a more serious player, they bought a four-seater plane so he could get to practice this way, cutting the commute down to an hour. Stories like these are what make the olympics such a powerful event, inspiring us to fulfill our goals.Back to the game. The owner of the café had, by this time, noticed our dedication and offered us the tv in his (air conditioned) office. The gold medal game deserves only the best viewing conditions! We were ecstatic to be able to see the picture so clearly. All the while, our social media was showing us pictures of friends and family awake at 5am to watch the game and line-ups of hockey-jerseyed fans outside of bars in downtown Toronto. One wall of the owner's office connects to the restaurant with a two-way mirror. Every time we cheered, the guests in the restaurant would all look towards the office, perplexed by what was happening inside. We were told later that they always knew when a goal was scored – they kept track of how many times we'd yell.The principle of the olympics – fair play, sense of community and hard work to achieve our goals as Price reminds us – can be applied to our daily lives. Regardless of where we are in the world, and which countries our colleagues, friends and opponents may be from, there are times when we are unified, making anywhere you find yourself – including Tamale – feel just like home.
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Searching for markets in Ghana's Upper West

Living in rural Africa, it's difficult to connect with sustainable outside markets, especially as a woman. The project that I work on, Greater Rural Opportunities for Women (GROW), looks to link women and their families with markets to develop a lasting income. Here's a brief review of a recent trip in the field. GROW clients are currently at an important stage – it's the first year of harvest and the women farmers are looking for markets to sell their soybeans. Learn about the difficulties of finding markets in Ghana's Upper West – one of poorest and least food secure regions in the country – and what MEDA is doing to help solve this problem...

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Cape Coast and Castles

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In before heading back to Canada for Christmas, I joined Daniel and Gillian on a weekend trip to Cape Coast and Elmina, beach locations known for their beautiful scenery and fascinating history.After taking an overnight bus to Accra, on which we endured hours upon hours of Ghanaian soap operas playing at full blast (regardless of the time of night) and surviving a tight tro-tro journey to Elmina, we made it to a quiet and secluded eco-lodge just in time to see the sunrise over the ocean. Though we were tired, we powered on through the day, enjoying coffees on the beach front property, swimming in the ocean and delicious breakfasts. But it wasn't all relaxation and drinking out of coconuts (though that was one of the highlights). Later in the day we walked through the fishing community to Elmina Castle, one of the fortresses that housed Ghanaians and other West African populations before they were shipped to various parts of the world during the slave trade.Passing through the hands of the Portuguese, Dutch and British, this 17th Century castle imprisoned Ghanaians as well as those from Burkina Faso, Mali, the Ivory Coast and other surrounding areas. These prisoners - who would later become slaves in the Americas and other parts of the world - included men, women and children who were separated and contained in different cells. These small rooms were packed, often with hundreds more people than the capacity allowed. We saw the "door of no return," the only exit these prisoners could leave through, that led them directly out into the waiting ships. It was a chilling experience to be guided through the various rooms and cells, hearing these stories of suffering. Nonetheless, we were all glad we took the tour to learn more about this period.After our stay in Elmina, we packed up and made our way back east, stopping in Cape Coast (staying at a cozy vegetarian-friendly guesthouse) to explore the city and it's UNESCO world heritage site, Cape Coast Castle.Many aspects of fortress were similar to what we saw in Elmina - it was built in the same timeframe, had passed through many different hands of ownership and served the same purpose. However the stories we heard of prisoners who had been held captive were different and told individual tales of suffering. There were chains still intact in the cell walls and iron bars covering the few small pockets of light that were allowed in. Although it was a beautiful and warm day, I was chilled walking though the courtyards thinking of the atrocities that had happened here. I'm so glad we had the opportunity to visit the castle - it is an experience I won't soon forget.Leaving our vacation spot and heading to Tamale, I felt extremely fulfilled. Over the weekend I was able to enjoy extravagant meals, campfires by the beach and the ocean waves - things that may mark a typical beach vacation - but I also learned more about Ghanaian history. I certainly left with a tan, but more importantly, I left with an awareness of the past.
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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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What a long dreadful train ride

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“What a long, dreadful train ride” I heard people shrugging, while I was watching the landscape slip away behind me. We were stopping in the middle of nowhere for long periods of time, in what appeared to be “ghost stations”. I didn’t’ really ask why, I didn’t really care, I was simply enjoying the moment and anticipating my first work related trip. I was heading to Tetouan to assist with a 3 day training session organised and supported by MEDA Maroc, which focalizes on informing credit agents and directors from MFI’s on how to better understand and handle young clients. The train stops yet again, the AC wasn’t working, and some of the windows wouldn’t open, the passengers are all quiet, it was too hot to bother talking. Kids were coming out behind piles of rocks and bushes, running from a distance towards the train, trying to hop on the train for a free ride to the neighboring costal city: Azilal. They were bright eyed boys with big smiles, having the time of their lives while being chased after by the security guards and their dogs. I always enjoy road trips; I lose all concept of time while basking in the images and live portraits surrounding me.After resting in Tangier I hit the road to Tetouan! The development agents I met there were all enthusiastic about the training. Their interest and participation were great, even though the sessions were held during the week-end. We all had a sense of how important it was to provide appropriate financial services to the youth, and countered the multiple stereotypes surrounding young MFI clients. Clients weren’t numbers anymore; they were people from their community that they were eager to help. While I was capturing these moments with my camera, I noticed the same bright eyes and smiles I previously encountered during my train ride. I kept wondering what was so similar between two completely different groups of people. Could it be hope? Hope to reach more clients...hope to reach the beach or hope for improvement...hope for a better future.

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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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