Sunday, 8 August 2010

Justifying a Life of Luxury

It is Saturday night in Tamale and it is pelting down with rain. Our tin roof is amplfying the sound so much it seems as though there is an African drum contest being played out upon each of my ear drums.
What better thing to do then than to sit and ponder over Peter Singer's "The Singer Solution to World Poverty"?... Yes our Saturday nights in Ghana are rocking!

Essentially, what Singer states is that rather than allow ourselves to sit back and bathe in the luxurious lives we may well have worked laborously to accumulate, we should instead use this money for more philanthropic ventures.
Can we justify flaunting our new ipods, convertables and plasma TVs, when that same amount of money could have been used to save one or even many lives?

Perhaps we are able to flaunt these material goods so easily, without feeling the need to justify our behaviour, because human beings lack the ability to conceive suffering apart from when it presents right in front of our very eyes. Without visualising someone elses distress, we can quite easily put such far off thoughts to the back of our minds. Perhaps this is an in built mechanism to prevent potentially devastating psychological torment. A survival mechanism to priotise our own wellbeing over anyone elses... Survival of the fittest.

"If I am not for myself, who will be for me?" Pirke Avot 1.14.

"But if I am only for myself then who am I?". Just because we can't see devastating suffering through our rose tinted glasses, doesn't mean it doesn't exist. It just means we are fortunate enough not to experience it. So how best to we appreciate and endeavor to rectify this mismatched worldly equilibrium of suffering?
Singer suggests that we take our justly earnt savings and use them to help those most in need. He says that we should do away with our material goods in favour of readjustng the imbalance. He also says that we should categorise what we spend as that which is neccessay for our survival and that which is spent on luxury items. That which is not neccessary we should give to charity.

Some of us disagreed with this comment. Why should we have to sacrifice all that we have worked hard to build for ourselves and our families? If we give, as the Torah states, 10-20% of our earnings away then surely that is enough? The Torah even states that you should not give so much as to impoverish yourself. Self preservation is key, "If I am ot for myself than who am I?" If I am not for myself, how can I be there for anyone else?

I don't agree whole-heartedly with Singer. Yet neither do I think we can justify our lives, flaunting our luxury items and remainig blissfully ignorant about the world and the people around us. I think that we should spend what is necessary for our own and our families' survival. However I think that the term "neccessary" is intrinsically subjective.

Considering cultural relativity, "suffering" differs according to the society one finds themselves in. Whilst one may conceive the inability to buy one's child an ipod touch for their next birthday completely incongruent to the inability to access clean drinking water, if one considers that family or individual in their specific context, it becomes easieR to see that the same or similar amounts of distress can be felt by persons in very different situations.

If our ipods and cars and plasma TVs make us comfortable and satisfied and genuinely happy, then I see no reason that we can't justify owning these items. However, when we find ourselves reaching into our pockets for the latest craze, knowing full well that it will make little difference to our own, our family's or our friends lives; maybe we should pause for a moment and think about what is more of a neccessity; our luxury item of short-lived pleasure, or the potential to save a life.

Dan's first entry!

Hi to all! I just wanted to write a short entry about a few of the events over the last month and hope you all enjoy it.

I have been working for an NGO called NDA (Nfasimdi Development Association) with the Programs Manager Sulley Mohammed. They set up sustainable development projects using funding from worldwide charities to improve the standard of living of poor communities. We get on really well and there is rarely a dull moment in his presence. The most noticeable difference with working life here and the very very limited experience I have of working back at home (and I’m sure you have heard this a lot by now) is the speed of it. Some 8-5 days comprise of about the same amount of work we would get done in a morning, or even a couple of hours, at home. This is not a criticism. In fact, after my first few days here I immediately felt a sense of admiration towards their relaxed lifestyle; whether it is because they have bigger things to worry about in their day to day lives than work so that, when put in perspective, they don’t worry about getting a funding proposal submitted as early as possible, or that they simply have an innate laid-back attitude. In terms of what I have been doing there, my time has been split between visiting the communities within which their projects are being implemented, speaking to them individually and collectively and office work (writing funding proposals to potential donors, NOT TO TZEDEK!, writing letters, post-project reports and often editing the English on any other kind of document). The types of projects cover things like water and sanitation, micro-credit schemes, vocational training programs and education. Once I adapted to the slowness (my attempts at speeding things up with a subtle push here and there almost always fail with the response generally being things like “What’s the hurry?”), the most frustrating thing about work are the virus-ridden computers which decide randomly to pretend that the memory is full and stop you saving work. Somebody actually came in to fix them one day apparently. I don’t know what he was doing other than playing Solitaire or Freecell but there has been absolutely no difference… I think he did change the background though!

Me and Josh have been playing football at 6 a.m. every Sunday with the local lads. Their physical and athletic ability is unbelievable and keeping up with them is as difficult for us as Tom trying to keep up with Jerry. This morning I became the first silly-minger to score. Josh wasn’t there to see it unfortunately but let me tell you I beat 8 men and then hit a 45 yard overhead kick lob into the top corner… well not quite. The reality was that it was pretty much an 8 yard tap-in but don’t tell him that! A funny anecdote from our first football experience was when one of them showed up wearing a Man City shirt with a red shirt underneath. I got excited and complimented him on supporting the mighty blues. He then informed me that I had misinterpreted his attire. The City shirt was representing that he liked Manchester... the red underneath was symbolising that he was actually a United fan. Whilst it was clear that he didn't quite understand football team supporting in Manchester as a concept, he made it clear that he was actually a dirty red.

As I have been here for over a month now, I feel relatively well-adapted to Ghanaian culture… and whenever I feel that or say that, something new comes up which brings me right back down to earth with a bump. An example is with regards to marriage proposals. I have been on the receiving end of a few. As a guy, it had always been a parent or other family member speaking about the girl that they wanted to “give to me”. Now, I can say I am pretty good at handling those situations. BUT, the other day, I was confronted by a girl’s brother… but she was there with him. Now this was worse. Explaining to her face was something I never really wanted to do and it was so difficult and I can honestly say that I failed… because at the end of our encounter he was under the impression that when I was 27, I would marry her. I just hope they don’t take that too seriously.

I can’t believe how much I have had to edit out so that this wasn’t ridiculously long but I will get it all in next time! To conclude I just wanted to say what my biggest lesson has been so far. I came here with, what I now realise was, the most ridiculous assumption – that life in Ghana was, without exception “worse” than life in the UK. After only about 3 days, Josh T and I discussed for ages about all the wonderful things we had noticed about their lifestyle that we were in utter admiration of. Of course we have to remember that these things I am about to mention could be inaccurate and that this is just our perception. Everybody seems stress-free! (Or relatively stress-free considering the hardships they suffer). Their communities seem so so so close. People are always sat outside with their neighbours laughing and chatting. And the most impressive and admirable thing of all, is how welcoming and friendly and genuine most of the people are and this is also the fundamental reason to why I felt so settled so quickly.

I have enjoyed writing this a lot and hopefully will get to write again soon.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Anna's pontification

As a participant on the Tzedek overseas volunteering project, I expected to have many thought provoking moments but I did not expect my experience to pan out how it has done. There are 22 days left of this Ghana trip and I still find myself questioning my daily experiences. Yesterday, a simple shopping trip to a western supermakret got me thinking. Cocoa plantations in Ghana are the main source of cocoa beans for Cadbury's (Kraft) chocolate. So I expected and looked forward to seeing an abundance of chocolate, locally produced. Yet, I was struck by the complete absence of this product. I heard on the grapevine that one shop in Tamale sold mars and bounty. A group of us went to find the chocolate and when we saw it on the shelf we all reacted with excitement and glee. The woman at the checkout started laughing. We asked her why she was laughing and she replied I thought you must be happy that the chocolate was cheap. That made me feel uncomfortable. We had all rushed into buying the chocolate with no particular thought about the fact that the chocolate was overpriced and a complete luxury item. In the UK, chocolate has doubled in price over the past 10 years and yet the cocoa farmers' salary has halved. There seems to be a real injustice, especially finding out that a farmer's salary for one month is approximately the same as one chocolate bar. How should I react to this? Should I give up eating chocolate in support of those farmers that never get to taste chocolate. Should I make it my life goal to ensure that every farmer gets to taste chocolate in their life? This would be unrealistic and unsustainable. But these simple occurences make me think twice about day to day life. Where are my products coming from. In terms of importing and exporting, the teacher I work with at a school for Orphan children in Tamale informed me that tooth picks are imported into Ghana. I was amazed by this. At face value there is something very odd about this trading. Its not as if Ghana lacks the resources to produce its own. But in importing this item, it immediately increases the price.
During my time spent in Tamale, living in a village on the outskirts of the city called Fuo, I have come across an amazing family. I have made a real connection with 1 particular member of the family. The family consisters of a mother, her children (from 2 husbands, both of which have died) and spouses and grandchildren all live together in the village. Most of them are found outside under a tree where they live. The women of the family can be found washing clothes, cooking porridge to sell, cooking meals for the family members and looking after their children. One of the younger sonz, Ibrahim, 19 yrs keeps his sister-in-laws company as they do all the chores of the household. For me the real gem of the house is Alima, 25 yrs old. She is married to the eldest brother. They are a farming family. The men traditionally go out to farm. Alima's husband is an exception and is currently enrolled in university in Waa studying economics, aged 34. Alima spends most of the time without her husband as he stays in the city of his university and only returns during the holidays. She is living with her in laws and her family live far away. Her one daughter habsa recently got Malaria. When I visited them after 2 days at hospital I could see in Alima's eyes the shear exhaustion and strain she felt. In essence she is a single mother. She copes like the stereotypically strong African woman. But when we talk I hear the story behind the scenes. She is highly intelligent and speaks 6 languages. She spends her time carrying her baby on her back, and walking far to fetch water from the tank of a rich Ghanaian family's home and carrying it on her head. She slaves away at the hot fire, looking after the whole family as the elder mother is too weak to feed the extended family. Ibrahim rarely helps. There is this gender bias that exists and you rarely hear the women complain outwardly. Alima always asks if I will become her husbands second wife so that she can have help with the chores. She resents that role of a woman and wants to work. But she is a happy smiley woman by nature and adores her child. It was heart wrenching to see her suffer from the strain of potentially losing her child. On top of this, she found out that her husband has falied a year at university and will need to be away from home another year. But Alima is a strong woman. One cant help but question whether the poeple here are innately tought or if they have to be. Their coping mechanisms are developed from a young age. I see at school that children are beaten and caned. They are commanded not to cry. If hit by another child they are told to just hit them back. There is no space for feeling sorry for oneself. This is something that I became very aware of from day one. Yet, people are very kind and visiting the sick is a huge element of Ghanaian culutre.

On another note, I recently visited Mole National Park witht the group, we were 10 in total. After amazing safari trips, taking thousands of photos of elephants form every possible angle, we went to visit Larbanga. This is said to be the site of the oldest Mosque in West Africa. It is claimed that the Mosque as built in 1421. A random figure especially as many older Ghanaians cannot quantify their age! On this visit, I was struck by architectural magnificence of the building, the styles that seemed to resonate those that I am familiar with from watching documentaries of Ethiopian building styles. This visit was disturbed by the residents of the village which surrounds the mosque. The inhabitants were very pushy and kept physically prodding me, asking for money and water. These beggers were very different from the stanard collector. In fact in Ghana, you rarely come across people just begging. They tend to be selling things and pushing you into buying things you dont actually want. BUt these beggers were much more in your face. it was difficult to ignore. The policy of Tzedek is to not give handouts so I could just say with confidence that i am with an organisation and it is our policy not give out money as it is unsustainable. However, I still felt and continue to feel guility. The children at school often ask for water. How long can one hide behind this excuse of 'its noy my polcy'? should I feel guilty and uncomfortable?? In many cases these people were born into poverty and I happen to have been born in London where there are more opportunities for healthcare and education and employment. But what have I done to earn this? Nothing more than the beggar. It does not sit comportably with me to drink and enjoy life whilst I see people suffer. Ruth Messenger says of poverty, ' The numbers are overwhelming. But we cannot retreat to the convenience of being overwhelmed'. I am seriously considering these thought. Perhaps I should shape my career into a more development focused path that I had orginally thought.
We were discussing yesterday at our weekly Torah L'am group learning session whether you can return to the UK with the knowledge of suffering in the world having seen it first hand and be any less guilty of not acting than a person that has not been exposed. I cannot help but argue that I as a witness to injustice I must try my best to act in a way that will encourage postive change towards a more equal, just future. I expect that there wil be countless more occasions in which I will experience injustices. Only time will tell how this impacts on my life.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Morning star

Having come to Morning star school later than everyone else (I was initially at another school which was much bigger and better equipped) i was quite shocked at first by my surroundings. I was initially assisting a teacher in p1 (children aged about 6-10). My first lesson was maths and the teacher told me that they knew times tables 1 to 7. I quickly realised that they were learning numbers by rote and had no real concept of what they were doing, so my lesson became about getting them to understand what a 'group' was, and asking them to draw 3 groups of 2, and so on. After about an hour, some of them began to grasp it and by the end of the lesson, i think most of them did. What struck me during the lesson was the eagerness that the children had to learn. During the lesson, the only interruption was when one of the wooden desks which 4 children were sitting at, collapsed and trapped one of the boys inside it. It took myself and two of the other children to free him, but as soon as he was free and sitting on the bench again, everyone continued working as though nothing had happened!!! Some of the other children had no desk at all and seemed to be sitting on the sandy floor. No complaints from them though. When we tried to practice reading English, i discovered that they have no books or reading scheme and we ended up using a random book that one of the children had brought from home.

The following day, i watched the teacher conducting a maths lesson and noticed she was using the exact method i had used the previous day to revise it with them. I was ecstatic, and it was a sign that perhaps what we are doing here is relevant and necessary. After chatting with a few of the teachers, i decided to move to a different class, whose teacher has a young child that she brings to school and therefore needed an extra pair of hands.

So i moved to kg1 (children were about 5 or 6 but some were as old as 9). This was different to my first class in many ways. The children were much noisier, and had a much shorter attention span. This teacher also used caning as her main method to keep them under control, whereas the p1 teacher didnt seem to use a cane. I found this quite shocking and difficult, especially because she seemed to cane them harder when they cried more. Their tears were a sign of weakness and weakness is not really tolerated here. The teacher and i had several conversations about the disciplinary methods used in England. The teacher seemed interested in what we do and i was honest about it, although i tried to show respect for her culture. She then decided that she wouldnt cane them in front of me, although she threatened them many times, saying she would cane them when i wasnt there. This made me feel incredibly uncomfortable.

However now a few weeks have gone by and i feel like i have really bonded with the children in my class and with the teacher. I think she is beginning to see that although my methods take longer to work, ultimately they do achieve the same as the cane does. She has not made any threats in about a week and i see that as an achievement - she doesnt NEED to threaten them as much anymore because what i am doing is perhaps working to her satisfaction. I expect the caning will continue after i have gone, but i am (perhaps naively) hoping that something i said or did will sink in.

It does make me feel a bit helpless though. We can't change a culture while we are here, but maybe there is something more long term we can do when we get back to England. I hope so. Caning has definately been one of the hardest things i have witnessed since i got here and i don't think i will ever get used to seeing it.

Despite the hardships that i see the children facing, there is something wonderful about them that i will never forget. They have such an eagerness and willingness to learn (my class requested homework today!), a desire to please and an amazing respect for us. They battle ill health so frequently (a day doesnt go by when my of my children is off school with malaria) and yet never seem to complain. They gain so much pleasure from even the tiniest bit of praise, and always seem so appreciative. It really makes me realise how important it is for us to not only consider issues going on England, but to think about other countries and other religions and try and do what we can.

Hannah X

A shocking moment at Gigdev.

This blog post is dedicated to a woman who walked in to Gigdev (Girls Growth and Development) off the street today. She came in because she saw the girls sewing on their machines. Madam Selina greeted her. The woman looked presentable with clean clothes. We noticed however that one of her arms had been amputated, and she had burns on her body. She is young, perhaps 18 or 19 years old and was carrying a baby with her on her back. After a short discussion in dagbani, Madam Selina told me she was horrified at what she was hearing. The woman agreed to be filmed for Tzedek as we had the camera with us, and so there will be a video coming soon of what I will be writing but for now I will try and explain her story here.

The woman's mother passed away when she was young, and for an unexplicable reason someone amputated her arm in her village. She then ran away alone and lived homeless. A man professed to help her but got her pregnant, leaving her to take care of the child. Since then, the woman came to central Tamale without any relatives and was helped by a lady who let her sleep on the floor of her bar at night. However, during the day she had to beg for food. Her baby is not yet on solids, but she has to care for her too.

Additionally, when asked about her burns, the woman stated that she was an uncontrolled epileptic (not on medication) and had fallen into a fire during a fit. This is especially dangerous because the women carry their babies on their backs here, and the baby could have been burnt too. Not to mention the potential death that could have occurred.

This woman through her own courage came to Gigdev to ask for help. Luckily, Gigdev should be able to help her, to look after her child at the nursery, give her shelter and teach her a skill/literacy. I was overwhelmed today by the benevolence of the Gigdev staff and the organisation as a whole.

For anyone reading please visit the new facebook group set up to publicise this amazing organisation.!/group.php?gid=141801535848044&ref=mf


Thursday, 29 July 2010

Hot, dusty streets and smiling faces.

We arrived here in Tamale, Northern Ghana three weeks ago and so much has happened since we have been here so I will try to write a little of what we have been up too.

Myself and the other seven volunteers are staying in a house in the little village of Fuo, next to SSNIT, a suburb of Tamale. It is quite far from the majority of our placements which are past the centre of town, and we have to get two taxis to get to work every day. The taxis often leave much to be desired as should be expected in a developing country, but we all cram into them every day. To get to the taxis we walk past the mud huts and goats of our village, the villagers calling out to us 'sillyminger' (white person) or desba ('good morning) with smiles and waves. The culture here is to greet everyone who approaches you and so it is a very warm feeling walking through the village smiling at people and having conversations. The old man at the side of the road tending his crops, the young school boy riding his bicycle on his way to school, a group of girls giggling because theyve seen a white person in their village for perhaps the first time, the woman at the side of the road selling egg bread or cooked maize. All while dodging the dust, goat poo, motorcycles and potential muddy puddles that come our way!

Tamale is a welcoming and friendly place. There have been many challenges, lack of cooking gas in the first week which was resolved, trying to build a fire when it randomly pours with torrential rain, the feeling of being in a westernised house (albeit built by a ghanaian) while some of those around us live in mud huts, with straw and their animals roaming free. It didnt feel right at first but what was pointed out was that we couldnt have successfully got through our experience without certain facilities. I feel privileged to be living in this village and seeing another way of life- even though it can feel uncomfortable. A volunteer in a previous year mentioned that one feels like a celebrity as a white person here and this is true. Children in particular get very excited to see you, and you are highly visible, however adapted you feel to the culture around you.

We began our placements after touring central Tamale and acquainting ourselves with the area and a couple of NGOs. I am working at Gigdev 'Girls Growth and Development', which takes impoverished girls, some who have had to drop out of school because of teen pregnancy, some who went to the South of the country looking for work but ended up doing menial tasks, known here as 'Kayaye' and others who come from difficult backgrounds. Gigdev is a sustainable development organisation promoting self-help, education and women and child rights. It focuses on the marginalised in society, providing them with vocational skills such as dressmaking and hairdressing, so they can start their own businesses and get out of poverty. The hope for the 'Kayaye' girls is that they will stay in the Northern region and give back to their local communities rather than go off for a fruitless search for work down South in Accra.

I am working at Gigdev as a literacy, numeracy and IT teacher for women aged between 15 and 25. I also worked in the nursery for the womens children 'Kiddicare' for three weeks until it closed for the summer, assisting the teachers and looking after the children. This was an eye opening experience because I came into contact with the first usage of the cane here. It shocked me that children so young were being caned but this is the disciplinary system here, and it was the same in the UK up to 50 years ago. One cannot intervene but I did feel the teacher caning felt that they had to justify it to me continously, as they know the cane is now banned in England. The teachers were lovely women however and we shared some interesting and amusing moments, singing African songs while the three year olds come up to dance one by one, swaying from side to side, teaching the children maths (more difficult than it sounds with poor resources), and playing with the children in the playground and sorting out their fights and scrapes! Not to mention becoming known as the 'hello' girls because Rachel Franklin (who is also working at Gigdev) and I were shouted at with 'hello, hello hello' and jumped on by the children as soon as we entered! This again brought home the novelty of being a white, new person here but the children genuinely grew to like us and I will miss them!

I am finding teaching the women at Gigdev so rewarding, and I hope they are benefiting even on a small level. To be able to teach and build relationships with women around my age (i am 22!) and of a different culture, is very special and something I will treasure for the rest of my life. It is so interesting to see their reaction to what I teach them, whether that be a song as it was today, or reading, english verbs, to fractions.... which confused them at first but they soon picked up. I wish however I had more time to teach them and not only one hour a day!

I have also been taking part in an after school club at Morning Star school, a school for orphans and poorer children in the community. This has been an amazing experience and also a wake up call. Morning Star is a school in little shacks, with no electric lighting, blackboards and small wooden desks. There are incredibly basic resources. The after school club has been wonderful, we run it for an hour and a half every afternoon on a week day and the children can choose between sport, drama, art, reading, maths or whatever we decide to run on the day. I have been largely involved with playing drama games with the children and they are currently working on two plays- 'Teen Pregnancy' (which warns about the dangers of it- this is a big problem amongst the poor in the North, and was suggested by the children themselves!) and 'The Wicked Stepmother', a more traditional fairy story with african elements. It has been great building a relationship with the children, seeing them get so excited when we teach them a new game or when I see how much a child loves to act, it makes me happy- we have found genuine acting talent! :).

However, despite the good side, there have been wake up calls as stated. For example, the children asking me for water throughout the club because they don't have any and they become dehydrated (temperatures get up to 40 degrees here) and one child becoming so hungry they started eating a plant leaf. I felt so torn... on the one hand, your heart wants to give the child food and on the other you know that if you do, the expectation will always be there.. and the 40 or so other children will want food too. A difficult conundrum, one that some of us face on a daily basis and I'm sure will write more about on the blog here.

Ghana is eyeopening, enriching, challenging, difficult and amazing all in one. There is so much to write about- the boys playing football in the village, going to an African wedding, our excursion to a Tamale nightclub for our friends birthdays.... and the list goes on....

Love to all back at home.


Thursday, 1 July 2010


This is the first blog post!! 6 of us are leaving England on sunday for Ghana, and Rachel and Rachel are already there, buying yams and making the house lovely.. haha, and hopefully not surprising us too much! Its going to be so much fun and yet an incredibly challenging and empowering much to think about, do and buy. The start of a summer adventure that will have an impact on us for years to come.

Eleanor x