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.

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.

An unexpected detour: next stop Ghana

For two people who have a tendency to plan to meticulous excess, our time away has been an exercise in letting things just happen. In Greece, nothing would ever take place in the way, or at the time, we expected. Everything is in constant flux, with projects, camps and activities opening, shutting and changing completely from one day to the next. Can’t move whatever it is you’re doing 10 miles down the road at no notice, you’re not going to be much use when the tents and people suddenly move on!

In Athens, with nobody telling us where we needed to be and when, we embraced the lack of planning. Interesting projects and ways in which we could be useful always turned up just at the point at which we weren’t sure what we might be doing the next day. And it’s in that vein that we wanted to let you know about a pretty unexpected change of plans for the rest of our time away.

Detour sign

As many of you know, we considered a number of options before deciding to spend time volunteering with refugees. One of the alternative plans involved applying for roles with VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) but these didn’t come through… well, until now!

In the last 3 weeks, we have been offered a very big and very sudden change of plans. VSO has found us both roles in Northern Ghana and, after plenty of consideration, we decided to go ahead and take them.

Subject to references, visas, medical checks and a whole lot of admin and training we’ll now be living in Tamale from October for around 7 months, working to support the development and accessibility of education in the region. Tom will be implementing an IT programme in schools to give teachers access to better resources; I will be getting involved in communications, fundraising and research for a different education project focused on maintaining school attendance of adolescent girls and disabled pupils.

ghana-and-ghana-in-africaIt’s with real sadness that we won’t be going back to doing more voluntary work in support of refugees now. It was a tiring and difficult experience at times, but something that we have been so glad to be part of and an area we hope to stay involved in even if we can’t be working on the ground. It’s also with excitement that we now get ourselves ready to head out to Ghana – knowing that for the whole time in Greece, it was the projects we never ever planned to get involved in that turned out to be the best!

For those of you who kindly donated to our fund, there is some remaining money received after we left Athens, which we promise will be spent as soon as possible on projects working with refugees. We hope to make a short aid trip out to France in the coming weeks if we can. We will also pass some donations on to a few of the amazing organisations we were associated with in Greece.

Now (sorry!) we need to ask you for money again. To help VSO to get us trained up, sent out and supported in our new roles, we need your help. We know so many of you have already been incredibly generous in supporting what we’ve been doing so far. But if you can donate to help us reach our target of £1600 for VSO, we would be forever grateful!

A few more blogs on our time in Athens will follow in the next few weeks. After that, we hope you’re looking forward to hearing news from Ghana.