Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Buzz Computer Centre

The students earnestly writing notes on the different parts of the computer.This is a Primary 4 class, quite a small class even though there are 3 to 4 students per computer - the bigger classes get a bit crowded.

Though I told the kids to "don't mind me" with my camera, one girl couldn't resist a smile!

"Teacher, teacher!" Every student wants to answer the question "what is the mouse?

The amazing miracle of Windows ...

For a while now I have been helping out a friend called Kwabena who is running a small computer school, Buzz Computer Centre, which gives free computer classes to local school children, and I recently took the above pix of the place (see below for descriptions of the photos). When I visited I was very impressed with the attention of the kids while they were in the '"computer lab"! From my teaching experience I expected a bit of larking about, but they were all focused on the computers with the utmost seriousness.

The place was started by an American volunteer, Andrew, who was in Tamale the same time as me last year, and took on the Herculean (and possibly slightly insane) task of setting up his own NGO during the 2 months he was here - as you do! I don't think he realised beforehand how much time is required just to register as an organisation, open a bank account, get electricity connected, get a PO box, etc.... (Actually some of these took even longer as he didn't understand The System in Ghana.. e.g. when people said that the guy he had to see to connect the power was 'not in' - all the time - this slight problem would only be rectified by some cash exchanging hands!)

Anyway, now Kwabena runs the place on a shoestring (well, non-existent!) budget. The Centre is in Fuo, a village in Tamale, which despite being close to town is just like a rural village. Most families in the village are very poor and try to make a living from one crop a year and the petty trading that the women carry out (like selling groundnuts, snacks, provisions, etc). Most kids are in school now that basic education is free, and they work after school selling or working small jobs here and there. But the local schools can't teach computers as they have no computers at the school (they don't have text books so computers is out of the question!). But some of the kids are very bright and most of them are mad about computers and would love to learn to use them, so the Centre has six computers, and four local primary schools and Junior secondary send some of the classes there to get computer classes. It's a very effective way to teach, because each week one teacher, Ernest, gives classes to about 200 children.

They have also just started running classes for adults in the afternoons when school is out, which the adults pay for, and that subsidises the children's free classes a bit. Some of the kids are especially bright and very good at computers, but they won't be able to go any further in school once they finish Junior Secondary because then the fees begin. For that reason Kwabena wants to start sponsoring "brilliant but needy" students (that's the technical term here!) to help pay for the costs associated with their education, and hopefully sponsor them as far as they can go in education. If they gain admission to university, they can then get a scholarship or a loan.

We have also been writing some proposals to try and get some funding from donors but so far have had no luck. If anyone knows any organisations we can try to apply, do let me know! As it is a small organisation, it seems the bigger donors are not so interested, so medium to small organisations would be better - I am open to all suggestions!!

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Introducing Simli Pong

I thought you might like to meet some of my lovely colleagues, so here they are in action...
At the top we have Mr Iddrisu, the Loan superviser, together with the leaders of one of the loan groups. The group is made of men from a nearby village who took a loan in order to gather sand from the river bed nearby and stockpile it until they will sell it in the rainy season for a higher price. At that point they will repay the loan in a lump sum, unlike the loans for small businesses who pay monthly. Sand from the river bed is big business, and all through the dry season tipper trucks speed back and forth from the river to Tamale loaded with sand. (They are also a handy way for locals to get to town and back: for 5,000 cedis you can sit on top of the sand, which apparently cushions the bumpiness of the road. You'll often see the tipper trucks completely overloaded with so many people on top, which is really dangerous too - the other day I guy actually died in an accident when the truck's tire burst.) In the rainy season, the trucks can no longer reach the river bed as it is all too wet, so the men's group has used the loan to hire a tipper truck and stockpile the sand until the rainy season, making a profit.
Next pic is Zuwera, the admin. assistant, and Suale the accountant.
Then we have one of our loan recipients, who has taken one of the agricultural loans to help with her rice crop: the group receives money for inputs for their dry season farming, in this case fertiliser, and they will pay it back in a lump sum at harvest time. Usually there's only one crop each year, but these farmers are renting plots near to an irrigation dam so that they can farm in the dry season too.
Next we have (left to right) the Scheme Manager, Mr Isaah, the lady from the loan group, then Mr Iddrisu and then the leader of the group.
Next we have Suale again, and then Mr Issah with the piles of cash collected in one day by the Loan Officers (because of inflation, you have to carry round such huge amounts of cash!)
Thats all for now... more to come in future...
bye for now!

Ladies getting loans

Greetings, or as they would say here, antiri! (Good afternoon) To that you would reply: Naaa! I have had trouble updating this site the last couple of times I went to town, as the internet was excruciatingly slow, but now let me give you guys a short update.

This week I was happy to take the chance to go with one of the Loan Officers, Alidu, to give a second loan to some women’s groups which have a very good repayment history. Naturally the ladies were very happy to see us! We all sat on benches in a big circle under a tree, in the usual fashion for any community meeting here. One at a time Alidu gave each lady a packet of notes the size of small brick, totalling two million cedis per person(about 117 UK pounds or $AUS 282), which everyone then painstakingly counted (a good thing actually as the bank had miscounted and 5 women were short 20,000 cedis!). Each lady had to sign or thumbprint that she had received the loan, with all except the group secretary, a younger lady, thumb printing as they cannot read or write. (The literacy rate is very low for women in the Northern Region (4%) so the group secretary is often a man, as they are the ones who can read and write.)

The group is usually 20 - 30 women, and the group leaders sign on behalf of the group that they will pay back the loan: they are now responsible for collecting the repayments from members and giving them to the Loan Officer each month. Most loans have to be paid back over six months at 15% interest (i.e.; 30% per -annum, a bit more than the banks charge I think – but they would be unlikely to lend to our clients anyway).

Alidu then had to explain to the ladies that they had to hand back 200,000 cedis from the loan as savings, Simli Pong is finally introducing compulsory savings of 10%. Some weren't very happy about it and all asked why, and Ali gave the background: Simli Pong has just become independent from the organization it was previously with, and has also stopped receiving funding from our donors (the Danish government). Therefore we have to make sure that we receive all the loans back from our clients: if not, the capital we have will slowly run down and sooner or later Simli Pong will collapse. It also means that all our running costs (ie; staff salaries, utilities, fuel, etc) must be paid from the interest generated on the loans, or we will start eating into the capital and again threaten our existence.

For the organization, this is a significant shift from the past, where loans were often given to the rural women who attended training at our ‘mother NGO’, regardless of their ability to repay, and it wasn't even considered to be very important whether or not the loan was repaid. This has been the downfall of many a small NGO giving micro-finance, but hopefully Simli Pong will successfully navigate the change to self-sustainability.So now the whole system has to be tightened up, including starting compulsory savings, and once all this was explained the ladies understood. Compulsory savings is an essential micro-finance practice anyway, and savings are used as a sort of collateral if the women experience some kind of serious problems or the group falls behind on its repayments.

I was along just to watch, but I ended up cross-checking the compulsory savings and the loans of the ladies who were short and I believe my counting technique for wads of cash is coming along nicely. I was also to take a couple of pictures for the annual report, so I began by snapping the Magazia (women's leader) as she received her loan. After this every single lady wanted to be snapped receiving their loan, so I became the Official Photographer, snapping each lady as she received the cash from Alidu, all in that pose reminiscent of politicians where both parties freeze and look at the camera as they shake hands. The ladies of the second group also decided that I should have a Dagbani name and therefore named me Suyini - which luckily I quite like! It means One Heart, and sounds kinda Bob Marley don't you think?

Pics of the ladies will follow soon (once I can find a camera cable that works), but meanwhile, I'll sign off, hoping you are all well and happy!

Love Suyini

Saturday, March 10, 2007


I keep coming across other pictures from months ago, so imagine that this is a bulletin baord and I am just pinning new pics up fro you as I find them.

At the top is my 'Accra family', the picture taken when I first arrived. I was trying to explain that white people's hair can also be frizzy, so I used the same bouffiness-creation technique I used to use to entertain Michael and Nina when we were kids (put your head down and brush ahr wildly) and the ladies were duly impressed. Mary is on the left (Kwame's sister), with her daughter Namao and their cousin.

Below that is me in braids (with Ruth making a business call on the phone). I actually took the braids out after 1 week, to the disappointment of my host family, as they were sooo hot and itched the back of my neck terribly.

Next we have the little cloth sellers in the market, followed by some pictures from Maltiti Vocational Centre, my first position here. The girls had done their own personal profiles (eg: whether they are from, their favourite food, their favourite animal etc) and each had to read it out to the class. Faiza was a little shy and was being encouraged by Kirsten, another volunteer, and next all the girls posed proudly with their profiles. Usually they just wrote boring sentences from the blackboard, so they were really pleased to create something colourful and about themselves that they could take home.

Snap me!

'Madam, snap me!' This is what the kids say if you go anywhere outside of Tamale and the two cuties you were about to snap will be joined by 15 other kids all piling into the photo so they can also be snapped. (I think the kids in Tamale are no longer so impressed by white people with cameras now, as there are now lots of volunteers walking round town.)

But as for photgraphing adults, one mystery I have yet to uncover is why Ghanaian people, usually to be found laughing and joking around, suddenly become extremely stern and serious as soon as a picture is about to be taken. The pics below (taken by legendary photographer Marit Dewhurst) show this perfectly. She was talking to a lady who sells biscuits on our road, and agreed to snap her and her friends, but Marit actually started snapping right away. You can see the difference between the first 3 photos, full of joking around, and the final Official Photo, where everyone looks stern and sombre (except the baby peeking curiously round to see what's happening!).

In the very beginning...

Yes, I am indeed going back in time here, to when I first arrived in fact. When I got here last June, I didn't have a web log, so bit by bit I am putting on photos from all the months in between. So forgive me for jumping around in time...

The first pic is my farewell drinks in London:I asked my friends to pull a silly face for the camera, and everyone performed to their utmost. (Looking beautiful are: Nino, Leon and me, and bottom row: Jay, Celia and Ella. Please note this is not representative of how we look on any night out on the town...).

Next is my host family minus Mum (she was working that day): Mr Ayabah with my 'sisters' Naomi and Ruth. Next is a pic of the family decked out in their finery for a wedding, with 2 friends. Sister Mary, my host mum, is centre in the green and yellow dress.

Then we have me with Ruth, the baby of the family, and then Auntie Sharon (who I shared a room with) doing the washing. It's really unusual for people to have washing machine here, so hours are spent every week washing clothes. I am constantly amazed at how white and shining people get their clothes, especially with all the dust that's around this time of year, and I was always teased by my host family for the fact that I take 2 hours to wash clothes they would wash in half an hour. I never did work out the secret.

Saturday, March 3, 2007

Pics of Tamale

They say a picture tells a thousand words, so I thought that rather than try and describe Tamale, I may as well go through my photo album form last July and just show you what it looks like.
OK so first off is the house I stayed at in Jisonayili from Sept 06 til a few weeks ago. I know, it's quite luxurious! And with running water (mostly) and power, I do realise it severely undermines my street cred as a volunteer! How can I claim that while in Ghana, I am living as Ghanaians do? But after having bucket showers for a while, I am just grateful that i was so lucky (and I still am pretty lukcy at my new place too).
Next is a photo from the archives of the wonderful Marit and Mara, 2 American volunteers who stayed for a month doing a photo exchange project. I just wanted you to see how lots of young girls go around selling various things on their heads, from tomatoes to biscuits. In my experience, it's these junior sellers who will never cheat you or quote outrageous prices!
Next we have a lady selling biscuits and a snap of Tamale market (actually quite a scenic view, not necessarily very representative of the whole market! most parts are way more hectic, and if you saw the meat section, with whole cow heads sitting there beside piles of entrails... you would probably turn vegetarian!).
Then we have Asia (caretaker of the house) and her friend Amata, both trainee semastresses, carrying their machines over to Asia's house.
I'm afraid that is all for now as my time on the computer is running out! Will down load more during the week, as it Ghana Independence Day on Tuesday, celebrating 50 years of Ghana's independence, so we also have Wednesday off too! Why have just one holiday if you could have two? Everyone is getting really excited here, buying T shirts and caps, practising marches and dnacing. it's gonna be great!
Bye for now. Happy Ghana Independence Day!

Saturday, February 24, 2007

A few more pics...

OK, so these photos are a little random I admit, but I just wanted to upload as many as I could while I am at the internet cafe, so consider them as three photos that happened to fall out of the album by chance...

First is the wedding of the daughter of my colleague, Madam Azara. The bride is the one in the huge head gear! Also there were Catherine and our colleague Baraka. It is the only first Muslim wedding I've been to and it seemed kind of casual... loads of guests kept coming and going all day and ate some food, then you go to greet the bride.. some people happen to be dancing.. and that seemed to be it!

Next is Asia sewing some clothes for her nephews and nieces, with Ifatu looking at her (Ifatu is my favourite of our neighbourhood kids!)

Last is a pic of m former colleagues at RAINS dancing... this wasn't something that happened all the time, but it was that sort of office. The only problem was not being dragged up so the can laugh at how bad white people are at dancing!!

Loaning all over the countryside

I'm happy to report that my new placement is great! Micro-finance promises to be a very interesting area to work in and the staff at Simli Pong and at the sister NGOs are lovely and very welcoming.

Simli Pong is part of Ghanaian Danish Community Programme (GDCP) which runs some excellent programmes here, including adult education, a radio station, a school, water and sanitation programmes and more. This week I went out with Ziblim, one of the loans officers, for loan recovery. It was great! The loans officers are legends and they work so hard: they are pretty understaffed, so each has a caseload of about 1,500 clients!! 95% are women, and all are are organised in groups, so every day the loans officers go all over the countryside on their motorbikes to all the villages, some close to town and some in very remote areas. They visit several groups each day, meeting the head of the group to collect the group's total monthly repayment. By the time they have visited all the groups, it's close to the end of the month, so they have a couple of days to sort out paperwork - and then they have to start all over again with the next month's payments!

Because the roads are so bad (very corrugated and frequented by huge trucks that force you to the sand on the side of the road and cover you with dust!) we went along these small winding paths across country, winding around rocks and tree roots and descending into gullies so that I felt like I was in a dirt biking rally! All the women we met were really pleased to meet me, and Ziblim made me greet them and introduce myself in Dagbani, which just cracked them up immediately, so much so that they would call their friends over and then ask me again 'What's your name? Where are you from?' so that i would do my spiel over again. I was also introduced to the chiefs of two of the villages, after Ziblim made sure I knew the protocol (it's always respectful to greet people older than you by bending down, but for the chief you get right down to the ground).

The place where I stay is so lovely: it's a guesthouse for visitors built in the traditional style, so there is a very cute little compound with 3 round huts with thatched roofs, a kitchen and a bathroom. Yet again I have landed on my feet accommodation-wise! Actually the office is pretty remote, so much so that they provide accommodation for the staff to live in during the week unless they happen to be from Dalun. Dalun the town is tiny, you drive through it in about 2 minutes, and it's the kind of place where there are hardly any little shops, there is no market day (they go to the next town, Kumbungu) and if you wanted to buy some takeaway food, the choice would be maybe fried yam chips (which can be pretty amazing if the yams are fresh!) or these little deep-fried bean cakes they make here. Apparently they chose this location because that's one of the few places where you will always have power and running water (it's right next to the dam that supplies Tamale with water).

(Speaking of water, the Jisonayili pipe-line dispute caused more fighting this morning, because people from Kanvili came over to Jisonayili and actually attacked some of the traders who sell by the road, burning their stalls and scaring them away! I went to see my dressmaker to find that she had shut and there were a few charred tables and stalls by the roads, so the whole area is up in arms.)

That's all for now, as I have to get home with my huge box of provisions for the week (including lots of fruit and veg which i can't get in Dalun!). My other reason to get home is drama: I am staying in Tamale for the weekend in my old house and we have all managed to become hooked, in the absence of anything else, to an absolutely ridiculous Venezuelan tele-novela called Secreto de Amor. Actually my subtle research, most of the women and some of the men in Tamale are also addicted. This is interesting because it's amazing that quite traditional Muslim women from northern Ghana really identify with these over-the-top glamorous people living in Miami... but then I also love the show! So if the tv station has no power at 8pm on a Saturday or a Sunday night, women in Tamale experience anguish on a level similar to what the nation felt when Brazil scored their winning goal in the World Cup! (Meanwhile the tv station needs to get a generator, I mean please!) So I must now head off to find out whether Carlos-Raul will actually track down Maria-Clara - his one true love who he has not seen since she was shocked to see him marrying another woman!

Monday, February 19, 2007

Visit to Botongli

A few weeks ago we went to visit the village of Botongli, about an hour away from Tamale. We went to stay with Teacher John who I first worked with at Maltiti Girls Vocational Training Centre (OK, his name is John but I can't stop calling him by his official title, and he always calls me 'Madam B' - my official title at Maltiti). He was the all-faithful teaching assistant who basically kept the place running almost single-handedly in times of chaos and he had always invited me to come and stay at his village. When Mara and Marit came to stay in our house for a month (two lovely Americans doing an amazing student-photo-exchange project) they decided to come with me, and the village gave a warm welcome to the 'three white ladies'.

The first picture is two friends walking along: mates are the same all over the world. Over here, men and women would hardly ever be seen walking along holding hands, but you will often see 2 guys walking along holding hands as a sign of friendship. (Ghana is very anti-gay so it is definitely not a sign of romance.) Men and women kissing in public is completely not done here, and is quite shocking to most people in the north. Some of my colleagues who have been to Denmark for training (the NGO receives funded from Denmark) described how they just did not know where to look when they saw boys and girls kissing in public.
The second picture is the compound house where we stayed. We discovered that the round rooms are for women and the square ones are for men, and on asking why it's that why, we were told that it's because 'women like round things and men like square things'! To the left of the picture in the foreground is the toilet: That's right, just by these green shrubs. I admit it was pretty, shall we say, open and each time I used it I was hoping no one would walk along the road at that moment and wondering how much more visible white people's backsides are on a moonlit night!
Next picture is me and our neighbourhood kids hanging out - I was doing 'Gimme 5' and they love it! Do you remember it from school? Gimme 5, on the side, up high, down low, too slow! (they love 'too slow') We were actually racking our brains for games and songs to entertain them, cause we were kind of a main attraction when we arrived so thought we should try and keep the audience interested. As a result a whole lot of our childhood games got dragged out!

Then we have the Little Water Carriers who also wanted to be 'snapped', then Teacher John me and Mara and our little gang. Below that is our groovy mosquito-net-covered bed in the compound (goats kept galloping around the compound during the night - quite a hilarious sound to fall asleep to!) and also a photo of Gafaru and Rebecca (with Gafaru looking ridiculously serious - he was usually laughing and clowning about the rest of the time.

Moving out of town..

Last week was the last week of my time at RAINS, so tomorrow morning I will be heading off to my new placement with Simli Pong, a micro-credit organisation based in Dalun out in the bush! Well, it's not really the bush, but that is how everyone I talk to is reacting: as if I am leaving the big city to go and live in a village. I'm looking forward to the change! The time with RAINS has been fantastic and I have learnt so much, especially about how NGOs operate and about girls' access to education and child labour. It also didn't hurt that the staff there are like a big family and were lots of fun to work with. I will really miss them but I know I want to learn some more while I am here, and I have been interested in micro-credit for a while now.

I was meant to leave for Dalun this morning, but my new boss told me that he had travelled, so was too tired to go in to work today. This sounds slack but is actually sensible: over here if you have to travel for a long distance one day you are kind of expected to take the next day off. After months of working like a white person I have realised that when in Ghana, you may as well do as the Ghanaians do, and slow down a bit...

So I took the chance to use my day off to do my washing, cause we had no water most of the weekend. This turned out to be due to protests by the local community that a neighbouring community was trying to join our water pipe line! I could hear lots of drumming on Saturday morning and I saw loads of men with picks and shovels who looked were laying a pipe. I was told that they were from Kanvili (the area next to my area, Jisonayili) where there is no water at all, so you always see them cycling over to our area to buy water. Because of a long-standing dispute over the pipe, the Jisonayili people didn't want them to access the pipe - so dismantled the pipe they had laid! The water came on for a few hours that night but was really dirty. I have yet to hear how the conflict will be resolved...

About my new placement, so far I know that Simli Pong (the name means Friendship Fund) gives small loans to people in the rural areas, mainly women, so that they can either start up a small business or expand their existing one. This is necessary because the banks won't lend such small amounts, and apparently the bank's interest rate is around 30% - too steep for a small business. They get together in groups and are jointly responsible for repayments: this increases the repayment rate and the group members can support each other. The loan is paid back in instalments over 6 to 12 months. It may sound unfair to loan mostly to women, but this is common practice in micro-credit. Experience has shown that women's repayment rate is higher than men and more important, loaning to women means the whole family benefits, whereas sadly the same is not always true of men. (Sorry guys!) If women get more income, a range of things improves for the whole family, for example the family's diet improves, their health improves, when they get sick they can access better treatment, the children's access to education improves, the family has some savings etc.

I'm very curious as to how the whole process works, so hopefully this week my education in micro-credit will begin in earnest..