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.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

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


Kumasi - Cape Coast - Beku

Bouncing in a pitch dark bus, I must have dosed of for a moment since there suddenly was light. Then again, that's just one more feature that characterizes tropical regions more than is generally noted. The day arrives, as well as leaves, in a hurry. The time between is one of impenetrable darkness of a much more intense kind than the Scandinavian night, thanks to the absence of an exaggerated electricity supply that is replaced by a widespread presence of dark, dense vegetation that seems to swallow all light. 

I woke up to the sunrise about an hour into an eight-hour bumpy bus ride southward that was to begin our tour around the country. The route took us through rarely changing views of dense tropical forest dotted by small townships and villages, one being very similar to the next (As probably is the case with small rural settlements anywhere in the world). Here the houses consist of walls made of big mud bricks, grey or rusty roofs of corrugated iron and an occasional Mama pottering around outside. You will also find the standard hawkers, vendors and stands selling agricultural produce, pastries and other small meals as well as pre-paid credit for cell phone subscriptions.
Beyin Beach

Several weeks of time spent in the inland city of Kumasi had had an effect on all of us. When we finally reached the ocean on the outskirts of Cape Coast at 9.30 am, the bus exploded in applauds, exclamations and other displays of joy. Suddenly everyone seemed awake and very much alive. Regardless of cultural background, it seems to be an almost universal aspect of human nature to appreciate the proximity of the sea and other bodies of water. The beaches on the Ghanaian coast will, when it comes to natural beauty, stand comparison to most places in the world. They stretch as far as one can see and are bordered just some steps in, by a towering forest of coconut palms. In Beyin, our target and final stop for the day, they are also in a relatively pristine condition, not ravaged by western, "modern" facilities such as restrooms and showers. Tearing down on the perfect image of a tropical-beach-experience was also the fact of the rainy season which provided us with that ever-important cloud cover and in fact probably saved us from a lot of sunburns.

Beyin does however have the most basic tourism-related infrastructure in place. In addition to the actual beach, there are western style hotels offering western-style food, pool tables, swimming pools etc. Also the basic plan of the township follows that of some more established beach resorts I've visited. This includes a road (a potential boulevard) parallel to the beach, supported by several narrow roads or mere alleys leading to the beach. All in all Beyin has some notable potential for developing at least a small scale tourism industry. I will not here touch upon whether that's a good or a bad idea because everyone can surely make up her/his own mind about exclusive tourism development in the third world.

This is the point where Joan joined our fellowship. He is from Barcelona, the uncontested Mecca of the contemporary football-world and arrived the day after Spain ravaged Italy in the Euro 2012 final. He doesn’t follow football.


Beku - Nzulezo - Takoradi - Cape Coast 

None of the above is an actual reason to bother coming to Beyin particularly. The following morning, we again got up at sunrise, ready for an hour-long paddle along a short canal and on Lake Amansuri. On the way we came upon a weird embodiment of the interplay between local culture and the colonial experience in the form of local schoolgirls canoeing to school in traditional canoes but wearing perfectly European, identical school uniforms.

Our goal was to reach Nzulezo (meaning "surface of water"), the village on stilts, constructed entirely on water by Malian immigrants in the 14th and 15th centuries. These were people escaping conflict and violence over scarce resources back home, a classical example of migration caused by population pressure. When they reached the coast of the Gulf of Guinea, they again ran into conflict with locals. This is when the wondrous human creativity, evident in Ghana in many minor and major examples, kicked in. The immigrants decided that if there was no land for them, they need to live on the water. According to the legend this order was given to them by one of their gods, a snail. Today the population of the village lies around 500, and contains shops, small joints, a community house and an elementary school. No teachers have yet agreed to teach at the school, though.


Elmina - Cape Coast - Accra  

I have to admit I was secretly embarrassed for how much I felt at home in and enjoyed the cities of Elmina and Cape Coast. Naturally, a big reason to come to Ghana is to see something different from Europe and appreciate all things African. But honestly, what makes Elmina and Cape Coast so pleasant is that they were mostly designed and built by Europeans, more specifically the Portuguese who seem to have been the first to arrive everywhere. Both cities are characterized by narrow streets and in the Ghanaian context relatively high-rise and clear architecture. Most dominating buildings are painted in white. This gives the old central spaces a sense of unity. There are certain spots where you can almost imagine being in Lissabon, Mindelo or some other city with a Portuguese past. Both cities also supply a number of western-style beach resorts which is one more reason why you will find a lot of westerners here. Maybe me enjoying myself there is an expression of some home-sickness…

Cape Coast
Of course, both Elmina and Cape Coast have a strong African touch regardless of the architecture. This touch is provided by the population. Physical treats of the people aside, both cities are cramped with hawkers, vendors, tro-tros and other distinct parts of African culture. In short, Elmina and Cape Coast are today two of the places in the world where connections between different cultures have created something out of the ordinary (apart from both of these cultures), something worth a visit.

Elmina Castle
The vibrant atmosphere of today is however shadowed by a darker history of the very same connections. The Elmina castle and the Cape Coast castle were built by the Portuguese and the British respectively. Elmina was first used mainly for trade in other products, but both forts soon became important centers of slave trade. Both had a door of no return. Today the castles are sites of reflection of the darker side of humanity. Similar sites can be found anywhere in the world, and the message seems to be the same in Elmina, Ile de Gorée, Tarrafal, Treblinka, Sachsenhausen, Ravensbrück, Auschwitz-Birkenau and so on: Never again.

Knowing I would have an interest in it, Robert mentioned that whereas the British built the Cape Coast castle as we now know it, there was a fort at the site even earlier. That one was built by a not well known colonial power: the Swedes. It turns out that quite a part of the little known Swedish colonial history took place in Ghana, back then obviously called the Swedish Gold Coast. The fort was called Fort Carlsborg and was just one out of six Swedish forts on the Gold Coast.

The Swedish theme continued in Accra, where we used our small window of time for gathering first impressions on the capital at a reggae party on something called, very suspiciously, Pleasure Beach. There I met Jermaine, a Ghanaian who got abnormally excited when I told him where I'm from. It turns out he visited Helsinki when he was studying in Sweden. Where in Sweden? Lund? Stockholm? Uppsala? No, Blekinge.

Cape Coast Castle
Where the effects of an infant tourism industry are most pronounced, in a negative sense, would be the cultural center in Accra. The name promises a lot, such as a possibility to get to know Ghanaian cultural handicrafts and traditional products. First, you will notice that there's no quietly getting to know. You are violently pulled in to a whirlwind of shopkeepers that force you into one shop after the other in the narrow paths criss-crossing the area. Most of them sell the same wooden masks and decorations, t-shirts, jewelry and so on. Everyone knows you're from England or Germany. Everyone has a cousin or a good friend in Finland, the country of Nokia. The forbidding aggressive marketing of the vendors is understandable in that westerners without a doubt possess the money to make purchases (nothing there can be described as expensive) and the competition is intense. This, I think is the main problem of the cultural center and other corresponding places. I swear there were more vendors than customers in the place. Moreover, they sell a surprisingly narrow range of standard souvenir products. This drives the vendors to vicious competition over the few foreign customers, which in fact works to repel the customers. Even our dinner, in a closed restaurant area, was disturbed by hawkers constantly sneaking in and hanging over the law stone wall, forcing products upon us in the middle of eating. Credit has to be given to the waiter who persistently kept the bloodthirsty salesmen away. Behavior forced upon them by circumstances or not, it is probable that the activities of the vendors in the cultural center work to harm more than benefit the wider selling community.


Accra -  Akosombo

The first thing we did when arriving at the Volta Lake was to visit the Akosombo dam. A bit worn down from the previous night's Reggea Nite gone late, everyone was happy to get off the bus, air conditioned or not.

The dam was built under the rule of Kwame Nkrumah in only (!) four years and finished in 1965 mostly by the means of foreign aid. Supplying none less than 60% of the nation's electricity, and given the problematic international structures and relationships of trade in energy, it is today of immense importance for the general development of Ghana. This is very much evident in the rigorously regimented, jealous and even paranoid prohibition of taking any photographs anywhere near the dam, were they to present the dam or the nature around it.

The all-important relative energy-independence did not come without costs. Damming up the river Volta created, in a very quick manner, this largest artificial lake in the world. This forced some 80 000 people inhibiting around 700 villages to move to higher ground. This fact is not being covered up by the authorities and claims are made that the evacuates received substantial compensation.  Some personal energy will be required to make deeper investigations into these issues, but I'm skeptical about the amount of real compensation that an African government in the  1960’s have had the resources to meet.

The main thought that comes to mind when talking about the Akosombo dam is however that huge scale infrastructure projects like this always come with costs and sacrifices. Regardless of how big a supporter of human rights and rights to choose residence one is, you have to admit that in the long run at least this particular project has been of immeasurable value to Ghana as a whole in the long run. Beyond doubt, this includes the communities that initially suffered from the undertaking.
River Volta

Aside from, economical, social and other aspects of the lake, the river, the dam and the energy they produce, the Volta region is astoundingly beautiful. The area seems to be relatively densely populated, which is evident in the high number of small wooden canoes calmly gliding on the lake and the river. This adds an important human touch to the environment of calm waters surrounded in every direction by dark green hills. The lake itself is a maze of small, narrow inlets and spits, which gives it a wide presence in the region similar to that of the Saimaa Lake back in Finland.

The natural beauty has not avoided being picked up by the radar of the tourism industry. The riverside around Atimpoku is dotted by beach resorts small and big, one claiming to be more luxurious that the other. They offer swimming pools, sports facilities and activities both on land and in water, bars, restaurants etc. In the beginning of July, all of them seemed to be virtually empty, save for the staff.

What is a bit amusing is that the locals seemed to be very suspicious about swimming in the river or the lake. One of my local friends, a smart university student, commented that it is not safe to swim because the water is too deep. A security guard told us that swimming was not culturally accepted and would offend the local population, which later turned out to be nothing more than a white lie. Part of this surely is a result of the fact that most people here, quite surprisingly, simply cannot swim and therefore fear immersing themselves in water.