International Women’s Day: Lessons learned and stories told

It’s International Women’s Day today – only one day of many over the last year when I’ve thought about all the opportunities and ‘easy rides’ that I’ve had compared to some of the women and girls I’ve met during my time in both Greece and Ghana.

The amazingly defiant-looking Jamila, one of the girls I met when visiting Primary Schools in northern Ghana.

Just living in Ghana was a lesson in the history of women’s emancipation from the home. I always knew that the mass availability of appliances like washing machines and vacuum cleaners played a significant part in women gaining more rights and more employment opportunities. But it was only when I found myself in an environment where these amenities weren’t available that I started to really understand.

If you’ve spoken to me since I’ve been back in London, I’m sure one of the first things I’ve talked about is the time spent on chores out there. Washing clothes outside in the heat – filling buckets with cold water and soap, and scrubbing and wringing out everything including sheets and towels – is difficult and time consuming. Thankfully Tom and I split the work (much to the neighbour’s kids’ amusement – they’d come to watch us over the wall, never seeming to get bored of the sight) but that’s not normally the case.

And then there’s the fact that for the first time in my life, I was working in a totally male dominated environment. Having spent the last 5+ years in an organisation with a workforce that’s almost 70% women, delivering training in interviewing skills and storytelling to a room full of Ghanaian men – who, much to my dismay, took to calling me ‘Madam Faye’ – was a shock to the system. I felt like I had to state my credentials, remind them of my experience and explain why I was stood there in front of them. In a society as stratified as Ghana’s, where everything from age to education, wealth to tribal allegiances are factored into people’s perceptions of your influence, my gender was just one of the many reasons why my trainees may or may not have felt it was worth listening to me.

But, whatever I’ve considered different or difficult to deal with has been temporary. When working on a project focused on gathering the views and experiences of girls in schools supported by a VSO education project, it really struck me how a lack of certain basic rights (things we’d all take for granted) can have a long-term, negative impact. For example, limited or no toilets at many schools will mean girls drop out or are frequently absent once they start their period. And the expectations that girls will take on the majority of chores at home can leave them tired before they even start the school day – reducing their chances of learning to read.

Abiba, age 17, lives in the village of Bugiya – visit the VSO blog linked below to read about her experiences in school.

There are still a lot of fights to fight in Britain for true equality this International Women’s Day. But I feel like ‘people like me’ (white, middle class, etc., etc.) don’t necessarily have the stories that need to be heard. Instead, I ask you to follow this link to read a second blog, this time by a colleague from VSO. It features excerpts from interviews with 3 girls I met during my time in Ghana – Rita, Abiba and Maciana.

A quick update

This blog isn’t one of our usuals. I am in fact just posting this to let you know that I am currently back in London and will be for a little while. Tom is still in Ghana.

After having some infections that proved a bit difficult to treat, VSO’s medical team decided I should come home for now. It’s nothing serious, just a case of getting access to tests and investigation that aren’t available in Ghana. VSO erred on the side of caution rather than letting me wait until our planned return date in May.

With any luck, I’ll be back out there before too long. In the meantime, I will be leaving the blog in Tom’s capable hands. Over to him…

The less said the better

Last time I posted a blog, we were heading off traveling around the southwest of Ghana for the Christmas break and had promised pictures. Unfortunately, things didn’t quite go to plan…

  • You have to carry a lot of cash for a holiday here – you can’t really pay by card and, outside of the cities, you don’t know where or whether you’ll find a reliable cash machine. On our first night, our money was stolen along with a few other things from our hotel room. Someone waited until the few hours that we left our room (and our stuff) unattended and cut a small mosquito-netting window from its frame to climb in.
  • We spent Christmas Eve at the police station.
  • Christmas Day afternoon, I was struck down with food poisoning.
  • After a slight improvement allowed us to travel to our next destination, an infection combined with the food poisoning to knock me out – bringing us back to Accra early where I spent New Year’s Eve in bed.

Illness is a part of life here, with malaria and typhoid the go-to diagnoses in clinics rather than common coughs and colds. Theft is much less so though – we were just unlucky. Ghana is normally a really safe place where, even in city centres, people will leave their cars unlocked with the keys inside while they pop into a shop.

Anyway, in the midst of all that, we did manage a few holiday-like things:

We canoed to Nzulezo, a village that has been built on stilts on a lake, supposedly originally by a group of Malian refugees who wanted to find a place to live in peace. The interesting thing is in fact how similar this village is to every other village in Ghana – it just happens to be on water, an hour’s canoe ride from a town.

A peaceful canoe ride to the stilt village

A peaceful canoe ride to the stilt village

The village built on stilts - children enjoying the relatively clean water

Children enjoying the relatively clean water of the stilt village

We rested on a beautiful beach near Axim where locals fished and tourists surfed.

Locals on the beach

Locals on the beach

Christmas Day on the beach

Us on the beach

We were an attraction for lots of kids on the beach who were extremely shocked by how white my skin was, were unimpressed by my This American Life podcast, and somehow ended up having a discussion with Tom about science, the universe, and big questions like ‘why is the sea here not blue?’.

Friendly children being entertained by my phone

Friendly children being entertained by my phone

We visited a famous fort in Cape Coast used for many years to imprison slaves before they were transported across the Atlantic. The underground rooms, with little light and space for the estimated 1,400 slaves kept there at any one time, were haunting – a stark reminder of the terrible mistreatment of so many people during the slave trade.

Returning from the female slave dungeon

Returning from the female slave dungeon in a sobre and reflective mood

Cannons pointing out to sea in defence of the fort

Cannons pointing out to sea in defence of the fort

Hope you all had a more successful Christmas and New Year than us. Oh well, we’ll file it away as ‘a story to tell’…

Not your typical Christmas

Today is our final day at work before we take a holiday. With no mulled wine and mince pies available, and temperatures over 30°C in the south of Ghana (this week we’ve been working from the VSO office in Accra) and soaring close to 40°C back in Tamale, it doesn’t feel exactly Christmassy. So in non-traditional style, we’re heading to the southwest coast of the country to spend the holiday on the beach.

As I think back to last Christmas, it feels like an understatement to say that a lot has happened in a year. We’ve gone from hectic jobs in London, to incredibly hectic volunteering in Greece, and then to Ghana where we’re having to learn how to slow down!

I realised recently that we haven’t written about our work so much since we’ve been in Ghana. I promise that’s not because we haven’t been working. It’s just that the pace here is a little different from what we’re used to. We were warned in our pre-departure training (over and over again) that nothing would happen fast and that changes would be small. But even if we knew what to expect, it has still been an experience to adapt to the environment – working out how we can be useful and make an impact in the time that we’ll be here.

The tiring part is in fact how we motivate ourselves to keep finding new ways to get things done. The education projects that we’re working on both have big, long-term aims for change. These aspirational aims are needed as there are huge challenges facing the education system. But when you visit a school and see just how far away they are from functioning well, it can be hard to know how much one project can change. Common problems that can undermine the impact of more complex NGO initiatives include absent or demotivated teachers who might not have been paid for months, regular caning that’s putting children off from attending classes, limited or no sanitary facilities, water supply, furniture or books, and parents pulling children out of school to work on the farm or sell goods in the market.

With not enough furniture, many children at this school had to sit on the floor. The kids didn't seem too unhappy about it but the teachers found it difficult!

With not enough furniture, many children at this school that I visited had to sit on the floor.

The work in Greece was tough but we were never trying to change the system – just fill the gaps in the best way we could. Considering such a sea change needed here and asking ourselves what changes can even be tackled by NGOs in this context has been a whole different world. But that’s not to say we’re anywhere close to giving up and we’re definitely learning a lot in the process.

By now in London, I’d have worn myself out (and typically lost my voice) in the midst of pre-Christmas deadlines and Christmas parties and would be in serious need of some sleep! This break will be less about sleep and more of a rest from thinking about all of this stuff. We’ll be back in Tamale in the New Year, ready to keep learning and keep trying ever more options to get our work done.

We’ll share some pictures from our travels to Axim and Cape Coast soon. In the meantime, we wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Thank you for following what we’ve been up to in 2016!

One election, seven days of house arrest

Last week two things happened: firstly, the Ghanaian elections; secondly, we were under what I can only describe as house arrest. The latter is because of VSO’s security policies for volunteers. Just in case of any pockets of problems or violence, we were given supplies (I have never seen so many tins of sardines or packets of instant noodles in one kitchen!) and told to hole ourselves up in our house for the week.

Notice of poll

Ghana is viewed as a leading light in African democracy, with power being handed over pretty smoothly between the two main parties since the country’s current multi-party system began in 1992. It’s clearly a legacy that Ghanaians want to maintain. From the police, the political candidates and even companies advertising their products on the radio or posters around town, the unifying message throughout has been a call for a peaceful election. Thankfully, other than a few very isolated incidents, things were peaceful and our house arrest ended up being a precaution rather than a necessity.

Polling took place last Wednesday. After some delays due to concerns of over-voting, results were announced on Friday night. The opposition party won with 53% of the vote for the presidential candidate. And unlike in The Gambia, the current Ghanaian president quickly conceded (weirdly before the official results were even out). A handover of power to new president Nana Akufo-Addo is due early in the New Year meaning that for the first time since the start of the millennium Ghana’s president-elect is not called John!

I don’t claim to know the details of the parties and their policies but throughout the build up, it has been interesting to see just how visible politics is here. I was travelling a lot for work in the second half of November – visiting schools in the Upper West, Upper East and Northern regions of the country – and the election was everywhere.

Rallies were taking over towns: my breakfast in Wa was with the opposition party’s rally organisers whilst in Yagaba my hotel doubled up as the local serving MP’s residence, so I sat down to eat my omelette and bread with him and his campaign team. We even passed the President’s motorcade en route – a huge number of SUVs flying past on their way north.

With high rates of illiteracy, a physical presence in the community and face-to-face communication is clearly so important for parties to get their message across. As we drove from school to school, tiny villages with as few as 30 homes in remote parts of the savannah had election notices pasted on the walls of houses, party flags on pylons, campaign posters everywhere and typically two wooden shelters serving as meeting points and painted in one or other of main parties’ colours.

So many things I saw suggested that people get behind their party and see the personal relevance of politics in a way that you just don’t find in the UK. Can you imagine your friends and family donning hats, t-shirts and scarves in their political party’s colours and parading down the street to show their support? Better yet, what about cycling backwards through your village completely decked out in party memorabilia? Or dancing behind a pickup truck blaring out music whilst wearing a t-shirt with your favourite presidential candidate’s face emblazoned on it?

Politics escapes the confines of print, radio and TV here. It affects whether or not a community is connected with a road made of dirt or tar, or whether they have a regular water supply – real, visible, everyday things!

Friday’s results announcement was followed by some terrible horn playing by one of our neighbours and sporadic, noisy fireworks. And that’s it. Election season is over. Happily, we can at least leave our house again!

Our guest arrived, our water didn’t

Last weekend, we had a guest to stay. A new VSO volunteer has arrived to start a placement. He’ll be based a couple of hours north of Tamale but stayed with us for three days to meet some of the VSO team and have an induction at our office.

The first time we’ve had any visitors to our home here, we unfortunately failed at a few rudimentary elements of hospitality.

Basic amenities

A water supply is a pretty essential part of a comfortable stay. But on the Sunday morning of his arrival we woke up to find we had none.

In Ghana, water supply is erratic or in some places non-existent. Many rural communities don’t have easy access to clean water, and those that do have to fetch and carry water from a community borehole.

In Tamale, we are lucky to have running water in our house but we typically only have a supply from the mains for a short part of the day, if at all – often overnight and first thing in the morning. With no communal boreholes in this part of the city, the solution is to have a big poly-tank in our garden. The tank fills when the mains are on and serves as a back-up supply to the house when they aren’t. So far this system had kept us going.

Our troublesome poly tank

Our troublesome poly-tank

The problem is that our tank is broken – it overflows when full and attempts made to fix it haven’t worked yet. We’ve been having to make a choice: keep the tank on overnight to (hopefully) fill, get woken up at around 3 or 4am to the sound of a waterfall and have to get up and go outside to turn it off; or leave it turned off most of the time, get our sleep, but have to guess when it’s running low and hope there’s a water supply then.

We spent the last few weeks opting for the latter, only turning the tank’s tap on occasionally. Unfortunately we guessed wrong. The tank emptied the morning our guest arrived, leaving us without working showers, sinks or toilets. The mains water didn’t come back on until the morning our guest left, over 3 days later.

An offer of a drink

The supply of water isn’t the only problem. What we do get is also not that clean. In particular, the water that’s been sitting in the poly-tank for days being heated up by the sun is a breeding ground for bugs.

To prepare our drinking water, we boil, cool and then filter the water from the tap. In the current heat (most days, it’s 37-39 degrees here), this means leaving the boiled water to sit for at least 10 hours before it even gets close to room temperature, ready for filtering. Preparing a cool drink requires some forethought!

The water filter

Our water filter – an essential piece of kitchen equipment

On the Sunday morning, we had enough drinking water to keep us going for a while, having planned for an extra guest. We could at least offer him a cold drink when he arrived. But with no new water to boil, we ran low pretty quickly.

We managed

We begged some jerry cans of water from a colleague who kindly kept us going with just about enough to be able to have a wash and flush the toilets occasionally. We bought lots of bottled water to drink and cook with. And at least the power cuts during his stay were only a few hours long! We might not have had much else, but we could keep the fans on to cool us down most of the time.

We have heard that power and water supplies are much better than normal right now. A few sceptics have told us that services are more reliable in the run up to an election, but predict a sharp decline as soon as the polling day is over. No mains water at all for weeks – meaning a regularly empty poly-tank – could be the reality from December onwards. Whether we have more guests to stay or not, I’m not sure I’m ready for that!

Work: Same but different

Here, I am working as a Communications Advisor for VSO Ghana. In many ways, it’s a normal job – most days, Monday to Friday, 8am to 4pm, you can find me getting on with relatively normal tasks, working at my laptop in an office (somewhere I have come to appreciate for being the only place we go that has wifi and air conditioning!).

Over the next 6 months, I’m mainly going to be training small, local NGOs, gathering case studies and stories, and conducting research. Some long field trips on bumpy roads to visit school projects are coming up, and will definitely be a change from my previous tame travels to Birmingham or Nottingham for work meetings. The logistics of working on rural school projects aside though, I hadn’t really been able to picture the reality of ‘doing’ communications in another country until we got here.

There’s the language barrier – English is an official language here but a second language for most –, the different social and political context, and the fact that the issues that are the most interesting and important to people here are alien to me. And then there’s the way the Ghanaian media works…

There aren’t expectations for me to be making any kind of media splash in my role. But it’d be an added bonus if the opportunity came up. After days spent refining press releases, quotes and headlines in the UK to create campaigns that have everything you need to get a charity in the news – the unique position, the big statistic, the perfect spokespeople, the personal stories… – I wanted to know what makes it in print here.

I found this:

(Although bear in mind this is a completely unscientific review and I still haven’t seen a copy of the apparently most highly circulated state-owned paper anywhere!)

Man builds school


Tooth extraction is bad says an unnamed dentist, on the front page

News Tooth Extraction is Bad


And (surely news), an actor (who has nothing to do with juice or politics) saying he does not care about a short-lived craze for people to take photos of themselves with a juice carton to show support for a certain politician.

News Kalypo

Of course, we have silly news in the UK too – the last story would’ve probably made it in some alternative way if the person were famous enough. Nonetheless the style, content and type of news seem worlds apart:

  • I’ve never seen headlines so simple!
  • Religious leaders or famous ‘prophets’ are key spokespeople on all issues and events.
  • And who said you have to give a story balance? Or provide evidence to back up a claim? In this case (a view from the opposition political party), no need to even to add quotation marks.

One thing stays constant whatever country you’re in though – elections obscure everything else! Following hot on the heels of the US, it’s election season here. That means that’s all there is to news until polling day on 7 December, and probably for a good while after. Even if I did get my head around the inner workings of Ghanaian media, I’m pretty certain that press coverage for any of the VSO education programmes won’t be happening just yet.

Friday night plans? Not much, just burning some rubbish.

There are quite a lot of simple things that we never thought much about until they weren’t there. One of these is rubbish collection. It’s so easy – you put rubbish and recycling in bins and it gets taken away every week or two.

Here we have found that to be a bit more complicated. Tamale is strewn with litter, particularly on dusty paths behind houses or uninhabited stretches of land. Mainly it’s the empty plastic bags that everything from water to bean stew and fried yam are served in, but occasionally they’re joined by smashed up toilets or piles of filled bin bags.

When we first arrived we asked our neighbour about local rubbish collection only to hear that the company that used to collect doesn’t really come round anymore. The other options: burn it, or take it ‘over that way’ (an unofficial dumping ground between some houses and a school).

We took our time to do anything about it. Neither option felt quite right for people used to recycling bins and food waste collection. But after 3+ weeks here, we couldn’t leave it any longer. Friday evening was rubbish burning time!

Not the nicest of bonfires

Not the nicest of bonfires

Turns out when you don’t have any matches, only a stove and some old candles left by a former volunteer, it’s not so quick to get a fire to light and stay lit. And when your rubbish includes everything from onion peel to glass bottles and tuna tins, it’s not so easy to get it to burn. But we got there, pretty much – luckily without accidentally setting fire to our house or overgrown garden, only creating some strange fumes in the process.

Rubbish burning outfit

An ‘interesting’ rubbish burning outfit

We’re still trying to avoid rubbish burning being added to our weekly list of chores if we can. The hand washing, ironing and constant sweeping up of dust and dead bugs is enough to keep us busy. We’ve got a new lead on a potential rubbish collection company from a shopkeeper on our road now. It’d be considered a luxury – the company’s monthly charge costing the equivalent of a day and a half of our volunteer allowance – but with any luck we might not have to dedicate future Friday nights to this kind of fun.

“Good morning! You are welcome.”

We arrived in Ghana on Sunday 2nd October, stepping off the plane into a humid Accra airport. It’s been just over 2 weeks since then and we’ve started to settle in, get our heads around our jobs, understand some of the quirks or our new life here, and (sort of) get used to/accept the heat!

Our first few days were spent at an induction in Accra at VSO Ghana’s head office, learning about everything from how we’ll receive our monthly volunteer living allowance of around £135 each, to which beaches are most common for muggings, to how marriages and funerals work here. With a driver taking us everywhere we needed to go, it was hard to get a sense of the city, but we were quick to learn about the capital’s traffic congestion problems! And our medical session at the local clinic provided a quick introduction to one of the very common questions asked of foreigners – our conversation with the doctor covered the perils of malaria, typhoid and cholera, and whether or not we go to church, of course.

After just a few days in the south, we flew up to Tamale in the Northern Region of Ghana where we will be living. Being joined on the plane by the entire Ghanaian national football team made for an interesting welcome to our new home town – our drive from the airport to our house was as part of a procession of fans celebrating the team’s (and of course our…?) arrival in the city.

We will have plenty of time, and blogs, to tell you about our work, the city of Tamale and the lifestyle here – Tom, just a week after arriving, said that “the word ‘luxury’ has already been totally redefined.” But for now, I wanted to share a little about our new home. (More photos to be added to this post soon.)

Our house

Our house

Our accommodation has been provided for us by VSO, and the thing that’s definitely not lacking is space. For the first (and possibly last, if we keep choosing not to get normal, paying jobs) time, we are living in a 3 bedroom, 2 sitting room, 2 bathroom, detached house with lots of outdoor space. We have power – mostly – and running water – so far, our back up tank has kept us going when the mains are off. But it’s hard to describe the place as anything other than basic.

The high perimeter wall spiked with broken glass bottles, concrete floors and bars on the windows give the place a somewhat prison-like feel, while the ‘back garden’ is more of a wasteland with a burnt patch where you can set fire to rubbish. We have a mismatched array of old furniture and kitchen utensils, and plenty of open water waste pipes and gaps in the roof and windows to let in all the insects and geckos. All of that aside, it is quickly becoming home, with much of our weekends so far spent in our front sitting room – the one with the fan!

Our street

Our walk to work, along the main road out of town

We’re based 30 minutes’ walk or a quick, 20-pence-each shared taxi ride from the centre of Tamale. And luckily, with just a 15 minute walk to our new workplace at VSO Ghana’s regional office, we don’t have anything like the lengthy Accra commute to navigate and can set off for work each morning at 7:45. Greetings (a huge part of Ghanaian culture) are expected from almost everyone you pass, so our walk is accompanied by a regular “Good morning! You are welcome.” from the people on our route.

Life here will still take quite a bit of getting used to. Being told that we are welcome here every single day will definitely help that along though.

It’s not about us

The most common question I’ve been asked since our time volunteering with refugees ended has been something along the lines of: Was it difficult for you? How did you deal with it emotionally? Wasn’t it hard to see all the things you saw?

I completely understand why people are asking, and it’s really, really nice of everyone to care about our wellbeing. But it keeps surprising me that that question comes up first, rather than a question about the people we were there to support.

Volunteers do visibly struggle with burnout and the challenging environment in which they are working. It’s not easy and the work is never done, so everyone (myself and Tom included) has a tendency to skip that break or that weekend rest and keep going. As the crisis continues and donor fatigue sets in, while the living conditions and health of refugees deteriorate, that pressure is only getting worse for volunteers on the ground.

That said, Tom and I managed pretty well and, even if we worked like crazy at times, we kept each other in check. It’s surprising how quickly a situation becomes normal to you. The sights, smells and bad conditions in camps or unofficial settlements were all relative after a while – one place has a few portaloos and a tap so it’s better than the other with no sanitation; yes, this camp has wild boar but at least it doesn’t have a snake infestation or forest fires threatening to burn down the tents.

The things that got me most were not the conditions, but those off-hand comments that remind you how things could have been if your passport had a different country name written on its front cover. When I was asked how I got to Greece and explained that we drove there, the frustration of a refugee that she was treated so differently – that I’d been easily let through so many countries that denied her passage – was clear. And the young girl at the port who asked me where I lived and when I replied “an apartment in Athens”, triple-checked that I had a real roof not a tent before making a roof shape with her arms above her head just in case she’d misunderstood my English.

Before we left Greece, families that we’d got to know well treated us to coffee or dinners in their basic ‘homes’ – we sat cross-legged on the floor and were offered so much more food than we could eat. And then we were gone, travelling (freely and with only a cursory glance at our passports by staff at the ferry port) through Italy, leaving behind everything that they were forced to keep dealing with for many more months.

It's very easy for us to get away

It’s very easy for us to get away! Photograph by John O’Nolan, Flickr.

We kept an eye on what was going on – checking posts on the Athens Facebook group, worrying about whether the medication we’d left for a young boy with kidney failure would be enough, or if anyone would keep taking fruit and vegetables to the Hotel Oniro squat when we were gone – and we still keep in touch with those we can. But we could rest and distance ourselves from it after a time, in a way that refugees just can’t.

We are really grateful for everyone who has read about our time as volunteers and asked questions to understand more. There is one final important lesson that I’d like to pass on. I heard it repeated regularly by volunteers and it helps explain my surprise at your most common question to us:

For many volunteers, the mantra is ‘it’s not about us’ – whatever we are feeling, however tired we are, however difficult it might be to hear another story of suffering and separation, it is nowhere near as hard on us as those who’ve fled their homes because of war or insecurity.

We’ll stop writing about the refugee crisis for a while, and will focus future blogs on our time in Ghana (we’ve been here almost two weeks now). But wherever we are, we definitely won’t forget our experiences and the challenges that refugees continue to face in Athens, Calais and elsewhere. We know that other long-term volunteers will keep doing what they can to provide support and improve conditions. But it is only with a significant political change that I can see any end in sight for this crisis – it’s time Governments learnt that mantra too and got on with providing practical solutions to these problems!

If you’re interested in continuing to follow what’s happening on the ground, we recommend these pages and groups on Facebook: Care4Calais1, One Human Race2, and Athens Immigrant and Refugee Support Group3. If you’re thinking about volunteering yourself and want to ask us any questions about it, please do get in touch.