Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Prayer Mountain and The Magazine (Week 10)

Abesua Prayer Mountain

View on Abesua Mt.
I have earlier presented bits of the lively and from the point of view of European Protestants commercialized and rather aggressive religious life in Ghana. A deeper look on religion in Ghana was provided by a trip to the Abesua Prayer Mountain, rising from the village of Abesua about an hour north-east from Kumasi. To get there you have to suffer a long and dusty journey that left most of our companionship coughing, wiping our eyes and looking like the results of a horrible spray-tanning accident. It was the first time I’ve cursed the fact that most tro-tros in Kumasi are missing a window or two. In Abasi you will have to pay the offensive fee of 20 cents to get access to the trail leading to the top. Being a Ghanaian mountain, the hike up is actually very nice, done in the shade of dense tropical forest and takes only about an hour.

Village on Abesua Mt.
The Abesua Prayer Mountain is more an escarpment than a mountain which makes it accessible and suitable for human activity. The top of the mountain is actually a flat, rocky plateau that contains several small villages. The inhabited area on the top can be divided into two distinct sacred sites. Both of them offer a good view of the likewise green and flat, low-lying surroundings that challenges the general understanding of this part of the world as being notoriously densely populated.

One of the sites on the top includes a small church surrounded by some supporting services, such as food stalls, bible salesmen and a mini-market, for tourists and pilgrims alike. The second site is more interesting. It can best be described as a camp for pious pilgrims that climb the mountain to pray in peace. Here one can rent a mattress in small, simple cottages. Not other services can be found. The area is dotted by individuals or groups connecting with higher powers in various ways. Members of a group, apparently praying for a recently deceased member, were praying, shouting, crying, rolling on the ground and shaking. Others were of course (us being in the most musical of the worlds regions) singing and dancing. I talked to a man who claimed he had spent already a week alone on the top, fasting and praying and I don’t see a reason not to believe him. According to him, god is definitely closer at the top, especially in the hours before dawn. As we were talking, a lone woman kept on loudly reciting prayers just a few meters from us, as if being in another world.

View on Abesua Mt.
It is curious that the sites at Abesua are not treated as in any way sacred or mystical by the people actually living there. Apparently it is the relative inaccessibility and the need for hiking a distance for strangers that gives the mountain its religious touch.

A blog post such as this will not do justice to the intensity of the atmosphere and the religious life of these people. There is something way more serious, more real and alien in African Christianity, as seen at Abesua. However, at the same time reverends and other preachers are treated as rock-stars in the cities and people keep contesting over me to join the services of their specific church. I have yet not attended a single one and probably won’t. But still, why does it matter in which church I would pray to the same god? Discussions with T-Bone in his T-Mobile (A 30-year old, perfectly kept, navy blue Mercedes-Benz 230CE) revealed that not everyone sees the churches as anything but commercial and hypocritical entities.

The Magazine

North of the city, close to Suame (almost feels like asking the tro-tro to take me home), there's one of the largest business agglomerations I’ve ever seen or heard of. Mr. T, our guide for the day, picked us up at the GOIL (Ghana Oil Company Limited) station at Suame Roundabout in a car with a Polo tag in the rear that definitely was not a Volkswagen Polo (Why on earth would someone want to falsely define their car as one?). Soon, the landscape turned to rust and fumes replacing everything else. So this is The Magazine.

Waste management in The Magazine
The Kumasi Central Market is said to be the largest of its kind in West-Africa. The Magazine is the Central Market of car and metal workshops. This is where the thousands of tro-tros in the city are born and come to die. The size of a decent central European town and hosting thousands and thousands of workshops, this is where anything can be rebuilt or taken apart. We walked for more than an hour in the maze of car-part shops, tool workshops, welding workshops, painting workshops, metal workshops and the like. The small current flowing through the area has to be the most toxic in the world, with paint, oil and other waste flowing amongst millions of plastic bags, cans and barrels. Still a whole family of pigs was happily roaming in the mud. Also inhaling the air feels a bit suicidal with all the fumes of oil, rust, welding gases and gasoline hanging in the air.

Stephen told me not to underestimate the people in The Magazine. They might seem to be mere blue-collar artisans with dirty hands and really resent anything approaching theory, books or academic education, but many of them have made fortunes with their business. This is the only place in the world where I've seen one of those brand new Dodge Vipers driving by.

Waiting to be recycled
The people at The Magazine can be seen to make their fortunes thanks to global production patterns. Raw materials are extracted in Africa, cars and other products are produced and used elsewhere and shipped back to Africa when deemed useless. This could be described as exporting pollution in addition to out-of-date technology, thereby fine tuning the balance between carbon footprints to be just a bit less embarrassing for industrialized countries. In places like The Magazine around Africa these machines get repaired, reused and recycled over and over again. In the middle of an alleyway there's an apartment-size ship cylinder waiting to be melted and transformed to whatever you can imagine.

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Kidnapping and The shooting (Week 10)

The kidnapper struck after sunset. We were riding a tro-tro back home from our workshop at KTI, when the outlaw, probably lured by the sight of a dozen obrunis cramped in to a minibus, decided to make a move. I was sitting on the front seat. Robert had spotted a friend waiting for a car on the stop at Tech junction. Robert leant over me to call the friend, and was crawling past me down from the car as the driver’s door violently flew open, and there was a man in green hanging at the door and by the drivers arm. The petrified driver naturally put the pedal through the medal, leading the would-be assassin to half run, half be dragged along the car for twenty meters or so. Once accelerated, we left the Mate (the tro-tro-conductor), Robert and the Kidnapper standing, shouting, at the tro-tro-station. The driver turned down to the right, towards Campus, passed under the great gate, drove three quarters around the first roundabout and stopped, silent. A small Japanese car did a small turn the wrong way around the roundabout and stopped in front of us, headlights blinding me and our driver. A figure got out a rapidly walked over to us.

This is when I noticed the signs on his uniform. The soldier walked up to the driver and immediately threw a punch at him. Then another one.  After some and some more shouting, the army-guy walked over to my side. Calm as ice as I was, I must have hidden it well since he right away told me to relax and not panic. Then followed a show of military decisiveness: the soldier decided to ride with us, only to hop back down before the driver touched the throttle. Then he ordered everyone to get out until he realized that everyone were foreigners. Whatever the reason of this entire lottery, an officer finally emerged from the small car to break up the discussion and with a few chosen words send the soldier back to the back-seat and us away.

When everyone had calmed down, I got to ask the driver what actually happened. Apparently all the drama was that the soldier had gotten frustrated by us blocking traffic, and came over to speak his mind.  Because he failed to show any warning of wanting to speak before ripping the door open, the first thought in the drivers head was that he has a car full of foreigners and a nutcase hanging by his arm, probably looking for some clandestine financial benefits, so he ran. Overreaction, one could say in hindsight, but also the idiot soldier could have dealt with the situation calmly, for instance knocking on the door instead of resort to violence. Of course it is also understandable that the soldier got so upset, dragged as he was along a moving car for a considerable distance… So thoughtless stopping of traffic and thoughtless reacting (twice, once by both sides) resulted in a short, Hollywood-style car chase, some heartbeats and some dubious evening entertainment.

The next day, our evening meeting (What's wrong in The House, general suggestions and remarks etc.) with chilled beers on the veranda was abruptly called to a halt when Stephen stubbornly decided that the meeting should be moved to inside. Unhappy, everyone moved inside, mumbling about people always breaking things up and making decisions without reason or explanation. Things got more serious tone when Stephen quickly locked the front door and the kitchen door. When told that the meeting could not go on without an explanation, Stephen told us that a gunshot had ringed in the neighborhood and that someone has been taken to the hospital. The planned and normal night at the bar was unanimously cancelled and we stayed inside, drinking what a couple of the guys courageously went to buy and solving riddles. Of course, Kwamo suffered one more blackout with a perfect timing.

The following morning it dawned to us that there had been a failed robbery in a house occupied by a rich lone woman close by. As she refused to open the gate, the villains panicked and took a shot at an assistant of hers. He was hit in the leg. Apparently it's one of the guys playing football with us on Saturday mornings, but I never found out which one.

Even though this is something that many in Finland might even expect to happen in Africa, it has to be said that the locals were at least as shocked and confused as the rest of us. Both Stephen and Sammy were quick to state that they have never heard of anything like this in Kwamo. Also the picture I've gotten so far of Kumasi and my home township is not exactly one of anarchy and warfare.

However rare, the incident is serious because it obviously targeted someone known to be well endowed moneywise, and we have a house full of westerners perceived to be fantastically rich living just blocks away. There is clearly some anxiousness in the air and it is not advisable to move around a lot alone until we've reached some more clearness about what's going on. Most natural is though that the criminals will not return to the scene of crime, as they were seen by numerous people.

These two cases, taken place just a day apart are more than surprising to me, having heard of no such things in the city before. On the other hand it is not unbelievable for these things to happen in a city with more than a million inhabitants and we will surely not gain anything by locking ourselves inside. He did target a house last time also.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Oil, Energy, Aid, Education (Week 9)

The death of President (Here even on national TV presented in the rap form: Prez) John Atta Mills is not the only thing causing heated discussions over the future of Ghana. In 2007 sizeable amounts of oil was found of the coast. This has of course sparked a lot of enthusiasm in all layers of society and it is not rare to hear someone assume that oil exports are finally and sustainably going to lift Ghana to the group of middle income countries. I’ve seen the high-end residential area rising in Takoradi myself, without a doubt for people making their money from the oil industry. It seems that especially the ruling class is obsessed with working on oil issues and oil revenues on the expanse of other governmental tasks (Does it sound familiar?). There are however just as much people disillusioned with the oil hype. After all, in very few countries in the world have the benefits from oil exports spread out even nearly across the society as a whole. In Sub-Saharan Africa successful management of the oil industry is so far a mission not accomplished. Not surprisingly, skeptics in Ghana quickly point to the example of Nigeria, where oil production after decades of activity has produced little more than upheaval, conflicts and tremendous profits for MNCs and a few selected local individuals. Ghana is not Nigeria, though, and there are many examples of Ghana doing better than Nigeria or any other West-African country in many aspects.

To get some local views on oil I turned to Boris (name changed), a friend and now an expert source on many issues in the country. He was quick to make it very clear that the general public, the “people”, is yet, after five years, to see (apart from newspapers) any positive effects generated by the black gold. Optimism is generally balanced by rising doubt, not least by a horrible (the general public perception) deal done by the government with Chinese investors (a firm called UNIPEC Asia Company Limited). This deal sees all Ghanaian oil exports for the next 15 years be handled by (in effect sold to) foreigners for the outrageously low price of $3 billion.

Ghana is also unfortunate in that the oil, naturally, has drawn the attention of the US military and energy security policy makers, who see Ghana as a part of the ‘New Gulf’, the oil-wise well endowed stretch of coast all the way from Morocco to Angola. One can only imagine the discontent amongst these policymakers over the deal between Ghana and China presented above!

So while politicians from all parties and ranks are racing to claim credit for discovering oil and fatten their wallets, there is a sober, rising skepticism (as for development work, for that matter) amongst “the people” that are well aware of the blessing/curse- dichotomy related to oil.

Suitably, Joseph Stiglitz happened the other day to touch upon the subject in the Guardian (I recommended that those interested read it!), asking whether natural resources will “be a blessing that brings prosperity and hope, or a political and economic curse, as has been the case in so many countries?” His conclusion is that the countries in question, in this case Ghana, have all the time in the world compared to the MNCs running after the resources. The simple advice is that of patience, unfortunately not shown by Ghana in the deal done with the Chinese.

What is a pity regarding the strive to make the best of the oil in the ocean is the attention, (already scarce) resources, activities and investment kept away from other classical issues, such as infrastructure development, education and health. One such issue is the universal wanting to develop renewable resources, of which one Ghana definitely has no shortage of: the sun. As technology both in the west and in China are rapidly developing and reduced in price, it would make sense for African countries to start substantially planning and working for a future where they would be very much self-sufficient when it comes to energy (There are already examples of villages across West-Africa that have reached this point). After all, oil is finite while sun, in Africa in an especially ironical and even poetical way, is not.

The misuse of oil-driven opportunities by affluent people is easy to see as parallel to the grab-and-hide behavior of many Ghanaian politicians. Insufficient social benefits and safety nets mean that people coming from humble backgrounds will possibly not have their and their families' futures secured by one term in office. Failing to being re-elected can lead to a plunge back into relative poverty instead of good employment opportunities. This explains, if not justifies, the reason why anyone in power will be hurried to make the best of his limited time on the top. Without a doubt, this is exacerbated when it comes to that one not renewable, high-value natural resource.

Politics, in turn, affect the efficiency of aid, a defining aspect of development geography. Whereas international aid obviously never is a sustainable solution and is often very artificial, there are many aspects in Ghanaian politics and society that make sure that aid is not going to reach its goal, irrelevance. A lot of aid money disappears mysteriously in what unfortunately can be described as natural in Africa. Boris (whose father used to work in aid and development for the EEC) pointed out some roads leading north from our neighborhood, Jachie junction, to the Airport Roundabout, for which plans and funding for paving were provided years if not decades ago. A good road here would make driving around the congested city a lot easier. Any sign of paving activities is yet to be seen.

I’ve also talked about the subject with M, a European living in Ghana. She has been living in Ghana for two decades and ran earlier a NGO. She put across a surprising view that a root cause to a lot of problems met by development work in Ghana is that people are even more often than in Europe driven by self-interest. This obviously causes distress to NGOs trying to gain support for projects without having much benefits to offer to the partners. This selfishness frustrated M to the degree that she had to let go of the NGO. Of course we have to keep in mind the other side of the story. What is quickly seen by Europeans as selfishness might simply stem from the general lack of resources and opportunities. Without proper safety nets people will always grasp every possible rope to stay high, a phenomenon above also connected to African politics.

Through M I have been put in touch with T-Bone (This is actually what he introduces himself as!). I went with Sander (one of two relatively new Belgians on the YES Project) to visit his company. A guy in a tank-top and dreadlocks with a machete the size of a young crocodile in his hand opened the looming, black, huge iron gate. Before we knew it the same guy had turned to be T-Bone himself and was rambling on about how vocational education is not taken seriously by anyone (Authorities, parents, students…) in Ghana. Technical and vocational education is, according to him, neglected and theoretical education overemphasized and glorified (Because of western influences?). This has quickly lead to a very real problem. As a lot of important technology in Ghana is either second-hand (in the west deemed useless) or cheap and Chinese, there is a large lack of maintenance in everything and everywhere, due to a lack of skilled hands-on professionals. A very illustrative example of this is that KNUST, which has departments for both industrial and art design has had to outsource the production of nice, brand new handrails in the main auditorium to none else than T-Bones company.

One more story, about a recurring theme in this blog: the security in Ghana. The other night I climbed with Robert and Bookie, a new Nigerian girl in The House, to central Kwamo to meet a new intern. Him being from India, we were looking forward to hearing that iconic Indian accent for a few weeks. When he arrived, it dawned to us that he is not from India but from Sri Lanka. Moreover he has lived all his life in London and speaks a disappointingly perfect Queen's English. Anyway, on the night-time Kwamo roadside we found a truck driver with his assistant blissfully sleeping on the sidewalk next to their tool. Bookie was shocked and explained, in a clear, naive tone of the 18-year-old she is, that in Nigeria the cute couple would swiftly have been chopped to pieces and had their limbs, heads and other parts used for witchcraft.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The President is dead (In Accra again) (Week 8)

Prologue (July 20th)

Having spent just one short and wild night in the capital the last time, we are heading to Accra again, only nine days after returning from our all-covering trip around Ghana.

The reasons for us to go to Accra again are multiple. First of all, there’s kind of a change of “generation” going on in The House. A lot of the people that arrived during the beginning of my stay are already leaving. They obviously want to experience the biggest city in the country and have some fresh experiences before returning, in most cases, to the first world. And I want to join them in it. There is a bunch of new guys, all seemingly nice in our group, but I’ll have time to hang-out with them. Five more weeks of it. Secondly, there’s a friend of a friend I want to meet in Accra, mostly for fun and maybe some insights on the YES Project, since he works for a big development agency at the department of sustainable economic development. Turns out he’s in the Philippines for the next couple of weeks, but that’s no reason to call the trip off. Also we are going to try to make some use of the bus fares by trying to meet up with some other potential sponsors in Accra. The third thing is that it seems impossible to get your visa right here. In Europe, we applied for a three-month visa and got a one-month visa, for reasons that were never made clear to us. After two weeks in Kumasi, we sent our passports, with cash, to the immigration service in Accra for an extension. We applied to have our allowed time of stay extended until the 2nd of September, and the visas returned extended until only the 2nd of August. The plan now is to go to the immigration service in person first thing Monday morning to sort it all out once and for all. An ambitious plan, considering my experience in sorting anything out quickly here…

The President is dead

On Tuesday the 24th of July the president of Ghana, John “Prof” Atta Mills, passed away. The vice president, John Dramani Mahama, was sworn in immediately. This is the first time in the short history of Ghana that the sitting president has died. Therefore there is no predicting of outcomes.

The perceived immediate seriousness of the blow to everyday life from the death of a relatively strong and affluent leader seemed immediately clear to me. I was in the company of Henry and Lim from the YES Project when I heard the news outside Mr. Jonathan Annan’s office. We had to wait for an appointment with the big force driving our project for half an hour, a blink of an eye in Ghana. We could hear him going on in heated discussions with his assistants and the office being flooded by short, intensive phone calls. Apparently, the demise of the president has lead to a pressing need for an emergency meeting. Mr. Annan only told us there is a need to quickly decide how to handle the situation, how to assess the future. The future of whom? Does the change in powers instantly affect the university that much? Is there going to be some movement amongst the students, already being fairly active politically? Are there some political goals to be found amongst the university authorities?

When returning to Ghana, we walked with Belinda straight into our corner bar where we met Joe. There were definitely more people at the bar than on a regular Tuesday night. The TV was broadcasting the national news, very loud. Joe pointed out that even if the death of “Prof” Atta Mills really doesn’t affect everyday life that much, there is definitely some tension in the air since the presidential election, in which Atta Mills was running for another term, are coming up in five months, in December. According to Joe, there is a habit, well documented all over Africa, to vote along ethnic divisions. It is not hard to imagine this being even more the case after Atta Mills leaving something of a vacuum among the choices of candidates. The urgency of decisions and changes was emphasized by a big black car, apparently the regional minister, racing by The Bar with alarm-lights, sounds and all, towards the capital. What was fun to notice is that the locals, especially Joe, use without hesitation the term tribes for ethnic groups, something that is strictly seen as colonialist and racist in the northern development discussion.

Some unrest is not impossible, and there are genuine concerns that instability caused by Mills’ death together with the upcoming elections will have a negative impact on progress. You can read more in this article by the Guardian, both assessing the situation now and giving a good comprehensive picture of developments in “the success story of Africa.”  For anyone interested in what happened during the last elections, there’s apparently (I’m still to see it) a very good documentary done on it, called “An AfricanElection.”.

I’m just hoping the upheavals won’t affect my application for a visa extension, still under revision in Accra…


Cozy beach life in Accra
Accra is a big city. We spent three whole days there without really seeing anything new. As the meetings I was supposed to have during the weekend didn’t work out the trip was pretty much turned into a weekend on the beach. Obviously, this was something everyone needed after some hectic times around Ghana, mostly away from the sea. Because of some miscommunication when trying to find our way to a National Park north of Accra, Belinda, Guy and me ended up in Tema on Sunday. Tema is a small town east of Accra. The largest harbor in Ghana, and the largest manmade harbor in Africa, is there, and that’s it. The city itself can well be described as a classical port town as it does not offer much more to see.

Our visit to the immigration service can best be described as a complete disaster. The annoyed official in a stylish, dark green suite seemed to know one sentence of English: “Fill in this form.” Note the absence of the word please, here representing the general feeling of us not being welcome. There was no chance of getting to see the paperwork, for instance the forms we sent in earlier, on our case. There was no chance of getting an explanation to only having gotten a one-month-extension instead of one for two months. Also we were informed of the need for a letter from the organization we are working for, AIESEC, to move the matter forward. This effectively moved the matter out of our hands, so it all comes down to the one personal trait you definitely need when working with authorities in Ghana: patience. I’m sure we will be told to provide another $20 or so for whatever operational expenses. Did someone say institutional corruption?

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Religion, homosexuality, lottery (Week 8)

Religion is always one of the (if not the) basic aspects that shapes a society and therefore guiding any development. This is among the things that are often emphasized in young, developing nations. In Ghana the Christian community is very active and almost ever-present. The churches do without doubt a lot of good on the grass-roots and community levels and have also helped out on some projects driven by AIESEC KNUST (at least the ASK Project, combating the spread of HIV/AIDS).
St. Paul's Cathedral, Amakom, Kumasi

There’s no question of the Ghanaians as a lot being very religious. Contrary to what I had expected, even most of the younger, educated generation has no problems expressing and discussing their faith. A lot of them go to church early every Sunday morning, which involves playing some loud religious music around The House to get also the less religious of us up and going. A question heard almost as often as “You are from Germany, right?” is “What church do you attend?” Tro-tro’s and other vehicles are equipped with religious tags and decorations more often than anything else.

It is tempting to conclude, however, that the wide public presence of the churches is a result of intense competition over followers. Differences between churches (Pentecostal, protestant, catholic etc.) are made very clear. The aggressive marketing of seminars, group fasting, “prophetic encounters” and other events featuring star speakers from all over the world gives religion in Ghana a much commercialized touch. It does not stop here. Quite often you run into even oppressive discussions over personal religious views. Active marketing is also done when any opportunity appears. I spent the first hour of a bus ride from Accra to Kumasi listening to a Methodist preacher going very loudly on in Twi (or some other local language) about at least America, Barack Obama, promises and future plans for what I could understand. To target a group that has no possibility of ignoring the preacher was treated as something normal by our fellow passengers. All this marketing and attrirtion is a bit of a shock from the point of view of a not so pious, quiet Lutheran.

I can’t avoid thinking that the active and charismatic presence of various Christian churches is in part done to target a relatively poor and uneducated people in need of strong leadership and guidance for not only faith-related reasons. Surely this can, from a cynical stance, be seen as a form of business, selling services and solutions to people in need. Another explanation I’ve heard by a foreigner in the country is the general paranoia exported from America concerning the expansion of Islam (around 16% of the population in Ghana) spreading in West Africa. It is not hard to find American youngsters probably supported by communities or even the government back home spending some time “spreading their faith” in Kumasi. Again I want to point to the remarkable peaceful symbiosis between religions in Ghana. It would be a shame to see tensions rise because of issues completely outside the country.

The theme of religion brings us to one stark contrast in attitudes between here and home clearly motivated by religion. If there’s a lively debate going on in Europe regarding gay rights, there is no discussion in Ghana: It is not accepted. This conservatism is a bit surprising in a society where fairly liberal attitudes prevail when discussing for instance alcohol, business life or sex (Again it has to be remembered that I spend most of my time with university students). Then again it could be seen as simply the general view on the whole continent. Nevertheless, coming from Finland, where gay rights are relatively well established and there is some high-quality, high-level debate over them, it is odd to hear university students studying human rights, microbiology or economics describe homosexuality as simply evil. The reasoning seldom go beyond it being “forbidden by the bible” and “disgusting.”

Like I said, the harsh attitudes do not confine to Ghana alone. Same-sex sexual activity is illegal virtually everywhere in Africa (With South Africa being the main, not surprising, exception), somewhere even by threat of death penalty. Debates in Malawi and Uganda, over LGBT (Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) rights, for and against respectively, have gotten attention all over the world. In Sierra Leone the rumor has it a university student was beaten up by colleagues during a presentation not connected to the issue.

Of course, every country has its right to set and oversee laws based on the public opinion, which clearly is the case here. This turning into violent persecution (not a big issue in Ghana, by the way) is a bigger problem since it surely does not set a good example of how to handle not-very-well accepted minorities around the continent. The issue got a whole lot bigger when David Cameron in October 2011 announced that his country will cut off all aid from countries that do not make homosexuality illegal. A respectable, very European, attempt to influence human rights issues via development aid. Or is this one more example of western powers trying to control African society and development? Obviously, this has not been met with expressions of joy anywhere in Africa. John Atta Mills of Ghana decidedly refused.

I have referred a few times to the honesty and the remarkable degree to which a lot of things work based simply on trust and respect amongst men (the tro-tro system, sending passports to Accra for visa extension, paying the "correct" price and getting change as well as many more unspoken rules), which also might be an expression of the role of religious authorities. A great expression of the universal trust is the National Lottery system, the Ghanaian version of a global phenomenon. I have shared some bottles with a man I call Joe (because he told me to). He works as a lottery official. This involves sitting days on end in a small, green, yellow and red, booth in Kwamo, our home township just east of Kumasi. There he registers the combination of numbers anyone wants to bet their money on. His life gets interesting when one of his customers wins actually wins something. Instead of the winner, possibly even unaware of the result, claiming his/hers profit at a central office, Joe gets going, fetches the prize, in cash, and delivers. Naturally this involves knowing, acknowledging that one of Joe's customers has won in the first place (documentation might be lacking...), being trusted by supervisors with big amounts of cash and not keeping any amount of money for himself. I doubt a system like this would work in some parts of Europe.

By the way, for anyone interested, here’s the official but edited overview of what is planned to happen during the second phase of the YES Project:

The second phase of the YES Project will consist primarily in establishing entrepreneurship ventures for young Ghanaian vocational students. This will be done through establishing workshops at the Kumasi Elite College for the students. During these workshops, YES Project team members will work in small groups with interested students to develop their business plans.
The business plans developed during the workshops will be placed under review by a board consisting of academics, finance directors and appropriate professionals. From this review process, the best business plans will be selected to receive sponsorships from a number of companies to provide working capital.
This part of the project will also consist of contact with a number of companies, NGOs and micro-financing organizations to examine the way in which the scope of the project can be broadened to ensure maximum effectiveness.
Schools will be contacted at this stage of the project to examine whether any students would be willing to establish their own enterprises and attend workshops for entrepreneurial support.
A number of students from KTI have already expressed interest in having further information provided to them with regard to entrepreneurship and how they should proceed to establish their own businesses.
The primary purpose of approaching professional financial and commercial institutions in this phase of the project is to secure starting capital for prospective entrepreneurs. The young students who wish to begin their entrepreneurial ventures will obviously be provided a certain amount of capital overlay to begin their operations. By approaching a number of specialists in micro-financing, the team should be able to secure a reasonable amount of working capital, at minimal cost, to be invested in the new ventures. For example: the companies can consider this sponsorship as an initial investment, with the money to be paid back to the companies once the new business ventures become profitable. Essentially, the initial investment will act as an interest-free loan to the young entrepreneurs.
Also an external review board, consisting of a number of financial officers from the target companies, as well as academics, will be established. The duty of this board will be to review the proposals, business plans and organization of the startup enterprises.
The potential ways in which the companies provide sponsorships will have to be determined through negotiation. However one potential option would be to bundle the business plans in a portfolio to make them more attractive to prospective sponsors. This would limit the risks that the sponsors are exposed to by providing capital for these entrepreneurs.
Business Professionals:
A number of business professionals must be contacted to form part of the business plan review board.
Professor Annan has already been contacted and has agreed to participate as a member of the board. However other businesses need to be contacted to secure executives from their finance and marketing departments to review all aspects of the student business plans.
The primary aim of the workshops is to have a developed, reviewed and financed business plan within 6 weeks.
The workshops will provide a platform for the students to work together to develop their business ideas and plans. These workshops will be conducted in small groups, with one to two interns working with these student teams. These workshops will take place at Kumasi Elite College, and will be attended by students from KTI, Kumasi Elite College, and St Paul’s.
Project Goals and Objectives:
A.       Short-Term Objectives (6 week time frame):
                                             i.            Establish work shops for young entrepreneurs at Kumasi Elite College
                                            ii.            Receive sponsorship from organizations
                                          iii.            Place respective business plans under review
                                         iv.            Have business plans reviewed, developed and financed by sponsor organizations

B.      Long-Term Objectives
                                             i.            Create a consistent program for the AIESEC interns, to provide a solid framework which they can use to establish the above mentioned workshops and provide support for students
Improve reporting and structure of YES Project

Thursday, July 19, 2012

A disordered report of an epic tour, Part II (Week 5-6)


Akosombo -  Asougyaman - Atimapoku

Banana farm
The fruit I definitely consume the most of at home is and has always been the banana. I am sure this also applies to many of my friends. I want to see myself as a relatively conscious consumer (no fundamentalist though, even a bit failed), but I have to plead guilty to not always giving too much thought to the flows, structures and processes responsible for providing to me this particular after-work-out snack that is fun to eat, costs virtually nothing and tastes delicious. In Asougyaman, we got to get to know the grass-roots level production of some everyday products of ours. Honestly, a banana farm offers few surprises for a visitor. Bananas grow in banana trees and are collected at a predetermined point in time. They are washed in big pools of water, stored in a cool space, packaged and exported.

Exported… A striking 99% of the production on the farm we visited is exported, mainly to Europe. The remaining per cent is what is deemed below standards. This is sold locally to be consumed as it is instead of processed in any way (A lot of fruit juice is imported to Ghana). The obvious reason for the perverse ratio is the huge differences in prices that will be paid for the bananas in Europe compared to in Atimpoku or elsewhere in Ghana. This is an embodiment of the neocolonial relationships based on near-complete extraction of raw material to be processed elsewhere that is so often the object of complaint in development discussion. Surprisingly and a bit disappointingly, I heard no criticism of those relations either from the guides or workers on the farm or the smart and educated locals I’m travelling with (who often like to criticize the west, France, Sarkozy of just that: trying to controlling progress and development in Africa).

Mango farm
Our visit to the banana farm (Which, yes, was in sphere of the fair trade program and where, no, the workers did not seem to work under subhuman conditions or be particularly unhappy) was followed by, naturally, a visit to a mango farm. What was notable here was the impressive level of organization, a feature not often heard in descriptions of African agricultural activity. The owner and director of the farm very much emphasized the importance of applying for and receiving certificates of appropriate conduct. He further maintained that the whole system is very much characterized by transparency and accountability, concepts usually met only in plans and advice concerning Africa. In short, I got the impression of the mango farming community in Asougyaman as being very professional and well organized. Be this an exception in the big picture or not, it seems to be a more genuine way of developing the agricultural sector than the top-down structures of, for instance, the fair-trade movement.

Party Boat
The day was rounded up by a boat ride on the Volta. In Finland, the only word to describe the experience would be yuppie. The boat ride was organized on shiny new boats by a shiny, expensive high-class beach resort owned and led by the prototype of a Dutch businessman (Which was very evident in everything in the resort). Ironically, those most excited about the boat ride were the Africans, who insisted that everybody dance and shake it to the R&B playing of big loudspeakers on board, just like on MTV… I guess this is one of the places where rich Europeans could come to behave like rich Europeans in a non-European climate and environment. The resort, like all in the region, was virtually deserted apart from the staff and the Dutchman working hard to make us stay and enjoy for some more time. Some did, some didn’t.


Asougyaman - Mt. Afadjato - Wli Agumatsa 

View from Mt. Afadjato
View from Mt. Afadjato
The day was dedicated to hiking. Naturally, this was in addition to the normal hours spent on the bus. The plan was to climb the highest mountain in Ghana, Mt. Afadjato. A staggering 885 meters high, we had to prepare to an exhausting half-hour climb. The hike represented nothing of what is generally perceived to be climbing a mountain. The climb doesn’t offer breathtaking views or steep cliffs to fall off. The path is all the way more like a tunnel in the impenetrable forest, and you will have more use of a torch rather than sunglasses, regardless of the time of the day. Reaching the top of the mountain is actually a nice experience, though. After all, the climb is fairly rough and you will be sweaty and out of breath when emerging from the bush on a small deforested flat area. The view is dominated by the deep green, flat plateau on one side, dotted by nameless small villages that look like brown and red islands in a green ocean. On one side, there are a few more mountains and you can spot a rare birds-eye view of a high waterfall to the east. The top is pretty crowded, and you will be left longing for some silence. You will be a bit disappointed by one of the neighboring summits, which may or may not actually within the borders of Ghana, being clearly higher than the one you’re standing on. Beyond that is Togo.

Wli Agumatsa
The next walk was a half-hour one through more forest, this time on a flat path criss-crossing with a minimal river and leading to a truly spectacular place. It starts raining. It gets cold. It gets noisy. After bending one more corner, you find yourself at the feet of an 80-meter pillar of white roar, the lower one of the Wli Agumatsa twin waterfalls, the highest in West Africa. It is the first place in Sub-Saharan Africa where I’ve honestly felt cold. For one reason or another, the water in the small pool created by the waterfall and hanging in the air is very cold. Getting into the water is a breathtaking, refreshing and in the long run not a very pleasant experience. The closer you get to the waterfall, the more the air feels like being full of invisible, flying, cold needles. I almost expected to be ripped into microscopic pieces and simply disappearing. You have to approach the waterfall backwards, not for any traditional or religious reason. Turn your look at it and I assume you will go blind. Turn your look upwards and you will find thousands of huge fruit bats circling high above you, adding to the supernatural and a bit scary experience. Take out the flocking tourists and stands serving everything to them and the place would have been somewhere to stay for a while.


Atimpoku - Kumasi - Tamale – Paga

The following day consisted of the longest bus ride of our trip, taking us all the way from the southern end of the Volta Lake past Kumasi and Tamale to the northernmost region of Ghana. Analogous of the general north-south division of all of West Africa, the ride saw the vegetation gradually change from tropical forest to savannah; the mosques get more common and the simple brick houses be substituted by the iconic mud huts depicted in older books I’ve read. Beyond here is Sahel and the notorious famine, the closets I’ve gotten so far to the miserable Africa covered with some exaggeration by our media. This transition parallels very much the dichotomy between a moist, Christian and developed south on the one hand and a dry, Islamic and developing north on the other, often presented in simplified (geography) literature discussing West Africa, from Senegal to Sudan, as a singular region.

On the road, more specifically somewhere on the main road between Accra and Kumasi, I got a taste of the Ghanaian version of fast food. Similarly to McDonalds, you have a queue, at the end of which you get to make your order (out of one or two options, in this case jollof rice with fried chicken or fish or banku with fried chicken or fish) and pay. But in this case, you won’t get your meal yet. Instead, you get a coupon indicating what you have ordered and paid for. You continue to another queue (one for rice, one for banku), where you present your coupon in exchange of the food. A third queue will take you to the counter where drinks are served. I had a weird, short (ending to a) conversation with the man (Let’s call him Jarkko) at the end of the first of these queues:

-          Me: Some jollof rice [rice with a touch of tomato, chili etc)], please.
-          Jarkko: With chicken?
-          M: Yeah… Actually, what are the options?
-          J: Chicken or tilapia [a local fish].
-          M: Ok, with tilapia.
-          J: Sir, that will be seven cedis instead of three…
-          M: Oh, then let’s go with chicken, I’m not that rich [as if it was really that expensive]…
-          J: [Laughter] I hear you… You’re a very handsome man!
-          M: Thank you, you too!

It only struck me right after the conversation that this might be a very odd exchange of words in a country (and a continent for that matter) where homosexuality is illegal. Or is this just a way where Ghanaians are a bit more confident than Finns in expressing their thoughts and opinions about other people, without too much thought on what you’re saying to whom?

Tamale is the main city of the Northern Region of Ghana. It is evident everywhere that you are getting closer to the Sahel and the Sahara. The city (Population 350 000) can concisely (and based on an extremely short time spent there) be described as dry, flat and dusty, populated more visibly by goats than human beings. It can’t be said to be especially beautiful. As was already noted, you will cross upon mosques (which can be found anywhere in Ghana) a lot more frequently than in Kumasi or the coast, so Islam must be prevailing to a relatively large extent in Tamale. What I can’t find an obvious explanation (Bad roads? Shortage of money? Less rain?) to, however, is the popularity of motorbikes in this part of the country. Those are almost non-existent in the south.

After some time spent lost in the next town (Maybe name Bolgatanga...) and finally finding the hostel, we celebrated the birthday of Claire, a French lady in our company and some of us tried to get some sleep before an early morning of heading further up north, towards Burkina Faso.


Paga - Dakoma – Mole

Ryszard Kapuściński writes in Imprium about the impact of borders on human beings. Borders between land and water are where human populations have always thrived, but otherwise borderlands seem to have a negative impact on man. Like Kapuściński says, borderlands (especially those decided and imposed by man himself!) make men restless, anxious and paranoid. They are places characterized by weaponry, fences, walls, barbed wire… They are often the reason and result of conflict and misery. This applies also to some natural borders, a good example being Sahel, the borderland between lush tropical forest and savannah on the one hand and forbidding desert on the other. People seem to be very much on the edge at borders. Even crossing borders in the Schengen area, where borders are being made more or less irrelevant, there is always some excitement in the air. It is easy to presume that the problems and conflicts are intensified when borders are imposed somewhere from above without much consideration of local physical features, ethnic composition or the perceptions of the people affected by the border. That has certainly in many cases in African history been very true.

With the above in mind, the crossing place between Paga and Dakoma, between Ghana and Burkina Faso, is a controversial place. On the one hand the restlessness, anxiety and paranoia are evident. There are weapons, fence and barbed wire. Pull out your camera, and someone will pull out a gun, almost. We stopped and got out of the bus. After just minutes of the normal waiting and standing around, a security guard called me over to question me about our reasons for being there. Smiles get fewer or less genuine and the need for explaining yourself grows.

On the other hand, there is a remarkable strive to live as if there is no border. On the Burkina Faso- side, a normal village of mud huts is virtually leaning on the wall marking the beginning of a narrow slice of no-man’s land. The small towns of Paga and Dakoma have basically grown together. I can imagine the people (known to be generally mobile in these regions) crossing the border several times a day. As in many other national borders in Africa imposed by colonial rule, not much changes (besides the European language spoken) when crossing the border. After all the formal rigidity and rules, I had (with the help of Kwakye’s negotiation skills) not much problems crossing the border even though my passport was still in Accra waiting for a visa extension.

Earlier that day we had visited the Crocodile Park in Paga. It is a remnant of an old, traditional community that basically lived (lives?) in symbiosis with the crocodiles. They believe that the crocs are reincarnations of the forefathers and should and will therefore not be harmed for they are a vital part of the community. Also the legend goes that the crocodiles will not attack fishers or children from that particular community in and around the water. Today this has been tuned to be a tourism attraction. The crocodiles (in a fenced area) are actually pretty tame and even phlegmatic. You can photograph them, sit on them and lift their tail without a reason to be afraid. There is a beautiful history but a sad present. Of course this is necessitated by the need for incomes and the limited presence of tourists.


Mole National Park - Monkey Sanctuary – Kumasi

In Mole National Park, the guide asked us a simple question: From where did democracy come? Greece. No!

Father of democracy?
One of the most common animals in the park, the baboon, has according to the local wisdom in many ways set an example for humans. Humans learned to carry their infants on the back from baboons. More importantly, we learned democracy from then. When there is a big argument within a baboon community (Just imagine the sticks and stones flying, the jumping and screaming…), they resolve it as follows: The leaders of the two (or more) sides of the argument settle in two different big trees. Thereafter all individuals in the group choose their side by choosing which tree to climb up in. When done, I would expect the groups to go their different ways. But no, the smaller group(s) will follow the bigger one whatever it chooses to do. Does this sound like the western voting system? Does this sound like western democracy?

As a travel destination, Mole National Park is definitely worth a visit or even a stay of a couple of days, regardless of being pretty remote and not well accessible (The road itself can be classified as an experience). It is a classical African national park with great surroundings and views where you can easily spot lots of elephants, baboons, warthogs and a species of antelope. You can choose between walking safaris or jeep safaris with smart, informative and armed guides. A stay both educating and refreshing!

After an in African standards short stop in a monkey sanctuary (Village in symbiosis with, this time around, cute monkeys eating from your hand, photos, monkey graveyard…) on the way, we finally returned to Kwamo and to routine.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Half-way through, project assessment and catch-up (Week 7)

Having spent six out of my twelve weeks in Kumasi, I feel that I now need to dedicate some time to a deeper description of the excuse reason I am here for, the YES Project. Also we managed conveniently to finalize the first phase of the project last Friday.

The YES (A pretty clumsy abbreviation of Young EntrepreneurS) Project is a Global Community Development Program run by AIESEC in all its African Member Countries which has the most basic idea of through promoting entrepreneurship creating employment and bringing more life to the economy. Youth unemployment (ranging in Ghana from 11,5% in rural areas to 30,8% in Accra with the average standing at 25,6%) is obviously an issue that needs no introduction in development discussion. Given the highly towards the young biased demographic structure and a relatively limited job market as provided by both the private and the public sector, the thought of employing oneself seems like the obvious thing to foster in developing African countries. Here’s an edited version of the official brief overview of the project:

The YES (Young Entrepreneurs Seminar) Project strives to promote entrepreneurship amongst the African youth. Entrepreneurship is a vital tool in fighting unemployment, in this context especially youth unemployment. In addition, the benefits will spread more widely as new enterprises eventually grow to make an impact in the community.
AIESEC KNUST is through the YES project organizing an entrepreneurial seminar for selected vocational and technical institutions in Kumasi. The project in large and the seminar particularly will go a long way in inculcating entrepreneurial skills in the students and thereby help curb the unemployment situation in the country.
·         Organize a well-prepared seminar for the students of selected technical and vocational schools in the main auditorium of the Kumasi Technical Institute on July 13th.
·         The presentation will touch on the various aspects on entrepreneurship and start-ups, including the following topics:
o   The need to become an entrepreneur
o   Come out with a good business plan
o   Founding/funding your business
o   Legal aspects
o   Partnership in business
o   Sustaining your business
o   Marketing your products and business
o   Cooperate social responsibilities
o   Segmenting your market
o   Advertising your business
·         After each presentation, all students should have a more concrete picture after their graduation on future plans with an expanded network and deeper understanding of the local industry through partnerships.

The effort and drama that goes into the background work of just one such seminar could make a good book. It took six weeks of running around town to meet with school officials, company managers and potential speakers, trying to persuade people to take part in the seminar, cooperate in the project and support it. This all in addition to the fact that there were only three of us working on the project for a considerable part of the time (The ever-important beginning of the project.) and we were all thrown into a new city without any possibility of using a map as well as to a very different culture of time-keeping, personal interaction and so on…

It is easy to point out three things that most frustrates anyone with a western background working in Ghana. The first one is the African notion of time. You can book appointments and settle on time-schedules, but they will virtually never be realized. Like I’ve mentioned before, waiting is a considerable aspect of any activities here. Getting used to this has, however been easier than expected, probably because there simply is no choice if you want to get anything done. The second thing is keeping contacts after actually initiating them. Because of wider developmental problems, electronic communication is neither appreciated nor recommended. Having found out a phone number (a task to consider by its own) does not mean the call will reach the person you’re hoping to reach. When you do have the right number, you will get an answer about one time out if four, if the phone is even on. And if someone promises to call you back, they will most certainly not. This adds to the need of actually harassing people with numerous calls a day whenever you need any information about anything.

The third thing is indecision and uncertainty, which is well illustrated by an (just one) example. From the very beginning, we managed to establish contact with a professor at the National Vocational Training Institute, the main authority in technical education and therefore a vital backbone of our project. All along, Professor Jerome seemed very solid and determined to do the most of the lecturing at the seminar. He was one of the few to answer all calls and show considerable cooperation. For the first six weeks, that is. Two days before the seminar, he kindly informed us that he has to go to Accra and thus cannot be present at the seminar. In panic, we ran to the office of the Business School at KNUST, using a shotgun-shooting-tactic to find anyone with even basic understanding of entrepreneurship to replace Professor Jerome. This is how we found Mr. Jonathan Annan, who turned out to be a godsend as he agreed to work with us despite the extremely short notice. So we got him to replace Professor Jerome. All the time we had also been in contact with a local farmer to provide the inspirational part of the seminar, a young entrepreneur himself that the audience could easily relate to. The day before the event Professor Jerome contacted us again, this time to tell us that he is coming to the seminar anyway, and wants his part of the lecturing back! Reluctant to shut Mr. Annan down after the trouble he went through for us, we allowed Jerome to touch upon just some of the topics and placing him as the second speaker instead of the first, a surprisingly big deal in itself. He wasn’t too happy about it, but was forced to understand. So, in two days, we went from having one speaker to no speakers to one speaker to two speakers to finally three speakers (The last night before the seminar the farmer also agreed).

Mr. Jonathan Annan
In addition to being a lecturer at the West African Institute for supply Chain Leadership (WAISCL) at KNUST, Jonathan Annan is also the director and owner of a private, highly rated college (Proudly named Elite College) of about 3000 students as well as an enterprise dealing in stationary. All in all, he was in the end the perfect man to start our seminar by bridging the divide between formal considerations and the practices of business life. Our last speaker, Mr. Ekow Paul Awuah, is a young firecracker of a farmer producing and exporting dairy-products and different crops. He is a very intensive man that can go on about his businesses for days if given a chance. Honestly I did not understand a whole lot of what he was saying, but judged from an excited audience he did a good job in presenting entrepreneurship on the grass-roots level, starting from little or nothing.

What has added some excitement and public value to our work is a surprising media coverage that the project  has received. Robert managed to get us an interview at Focus FM, a radio station based at the KNUST Campus and obviously targeting the youth. Also there was a reported presence a journalist from the same station as of other representatives of the press in the seminar.

Despite all the hardships and stress, the seminar turned out to be a relative success with all the speakers and four out of five schools showing up, adding to an audience of 500. What was most encouraging is that we had students coming up to us after the seminar looking for the contact information of Mr. Annan, in order to contact him for more information and support. So maybe someone did catch the idea…

I have no illusions of the project instantly changing the lives of the attendants, though. First of all it is clear that education is a prerequisite before considering successful entrepreneurship. Although the level of education is in Ghana high in comparison within West Africa, the quality of that education and in this case of the technical education in particular will really be tested when the students try out their skills on the job market and in everyday business-life. I am still looking for ways to follow up on the results of the YES Project, to in the future know whether what we did has an impact at all.

A bigger issue, and one that unfortunately was not touched upon too much in the presentations, is funding. Talking to local university students, it seems that most of them are very frustrated with the economic situation. Ghana was not the country that was to be hit the hardest by the global economic turmoil, but still there’s no excess money (and has never been) lying around. Robert pointed out that whereas banks a few years back had door-to-door salesmen offering loans to student near graduations, it is today virtually impossible to land a substantial loan for start-ups. The speakers at the seminar presented sources of funding such as “personal savings” and “friends and family.” I doubt the widespread existence of those resources amongst youth in a secondary, crowded city in Africa. So however skilled the students are and however enthusiastic and full of ideas about entrepreneurship they are, there is a need for stronger institutional support for entrepreneurship in Ghana. Those forces are of course very much out of the influence of the YES Project, run as it is by a non-profit student organization. Frustrating.

Today is a day full of enthusiasm, the day to start drawing up the next phase of the project, whatever that is. Most probably, we will try to do some following up on our audience by organizing a workshop or a competition for the business ideas of young people. This would require the involvement of, in addition to already established partnerships, larger sponsors and financial institutions. Updates will follow! But first, up to the most pleasant task so far: Distributing Thank You- letters and presents to the most important actors in organizing the seminar.