Category Archives: Personal Development

See No Evil

So, how was Ghana?

That was the question everyone was asking when I’d returned from Toronto. We’d had a session at debrief which aimed to generate answers of varying levels of engagement to The Question and it helped for sure. I found myself easily sizing up the true interest of askers to determine which of my predetermined conversation-generating answers I’d use. Some obviously cared a lot and wanted to hear the whole story, while others were alright with my disengaged “it was great! Really life-changing!” I certainly had the tools to deal with The Question itself.

did not have the tools, however, to deal with the fact that it would be asked of me nearly every time I reunited with anyone. It became exhausting almost immediately. I’m so thankful for my close friends and family who know me well enough to know that the answer to the question was one which would take a long time–years, maybe–to unravel. They didn’t ask; no, they waited.

Beyond the exasperation of hearing the same question over and over again, I was tired of being asked because I really didn’t know the answer. In fact, I had no fucking clue how Ghana was. I was still processing and, I realize now, beginning to deny the whole experience. In the weeks that immediately followed my return, I steadily withdrew, burying myself in my schoolwork and relationships and ignoring any idea of the red dust country I’d brought back to Canada with me. I focused on the new me and understanding the skills and perspectives I’d acquired through my experience instead of on the experience itself.

And the sense of denial stretched out from there. To this day, I haven’t called any of the people I met in Ghana. At first I had the excuse of having lost contact information due to a virus on my computer. But, as time passed, I realized that I didn’t want to call Yaku, or Emmanuel, or Illy. I didn’t want to be reminded of Ghana. Of course, I wanted to see how Yaku’s new job was and how Emmanuel did on his WASSCEs, but something was–and still is–stopping me from reaching out to them. It’s a complicated head space about which I’ll probably write in a later post.

I finally understood the underlying cause of my deep-seated denial when I was forced to talk about my experience at a chapter meeting. I went in relatively unprepared, with only a vague idea of what I’d be discussing (this is how I typically approach presentations) and I fumbled. I said the wrong things. I gave the wrong impressions. I stood in front of some very impressionable and naive first-year students and, in my mind, completely botched the idea of “Africa” I wanted to convey to their plastic minds.

That experience (and many others to come) made me realize the power that my narrative holds. I mean this in no self-aggrandizing way; it’s not like I have some incredibly powerful story to tell that will revolutionize the world. In fact, I have a very small story that is relatively short. However, I came to understand that even something so little could become something very dangerous, or something very good, depending on how I wielded it. I’ve learned since then that all narratives involving more vulnerable individuals or groups hold this power, especially when delivered from a privileged individual. In the end,  It all depended on how I was able to connect with others around me and how well I was able to articulate some incredibly complex ideas.

The revelation was, like my story, very powerful. All of a sudden, I was forced to really think about my experience, to piece it all together into something which exposed nuances, was self-critical and-above all-was viscerally honest all at once.

I’d opened a Pandora’s Box.

-C

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A Summer Well Spent

“So, do you think you’ve had positive impact here?”

That was the question posed of me by my good friend and classmate Emmanuel on my last day in Tamale immediately after I had wrapped up my work at the REO.  After four months of working to create a data system and process for data use in decision-making there, I wasn’t sure how to answer Emmanuel’s question.

“I think so,” I told him, mentally reminding myself of the successes and failures I experienced in my work. I explained more about what I did at my office, what I thought I got right, and what I thought I got wrong over the course of the summer.

“Then I think you’ve made a change,” he said after I finished. “You’ve done well,” he told me, adding so much meaning to a Ghanaian phrase I’d heard many times over the summer.

You see, I’d gotten feedback from many people on my work up until then, but nothing compared to the sense of validation I got from Emmanuel’s words and bright smile on that sunny afternoon in the empty classroom at Tamasco. In that moment, I wanted to stay in that red dust country for at least another four months. After all, while I had some small positive impact on the lives of students like Emmanuel there are still many opportunities to improve the realities of Ghanaians.

Later that day, I said goodbye to Emmanuel and all my other amazing classmates from Tamasco who were still around to study for the upcoming WASSCEs. I made sure that it wasn’t the forever kind of goodbye, though, but more of a “see you later” with a promise to return someday attached. I left Sagnarigu the following morning before the sun had risen and while the night’s rain was still falling. From Tamale, I went to Kumasi, then Elmina, then Accra, then home. Even though it’s been less than a month since I left, it feels like I was in Ghana a very long time ago (especially with the effects of reverse culture shock hitting me on a daily basis).

Now that my life has reached an approximate steady-state, I can finally take a moment to reflect on my summer experience as a whole and begin to answer the often-asked question, “How was Ghana?” and the not-as-often-asked-but-much-more-important one, “Did I have any positive impact and what was it?”

Like I said before, I’m confident that I had some positive impact on my office’s ability to deliver good education to Ghanaian students through my work this summer. What that impact was is a whole other question, though, and one that I’m slowly answering. I’m sure I’ll have more thoughts in the near future.

Which brings me to my next point: it’s not over. There are still these reflections (and others) to be mulled over, analyses to be done, and important messages to be delivered. I’ll be using this space to do so in the next little while, and I hope you’ll continue to follow my journey here.

Oh, and as Emmanuel might say, “Ghana was fine. How was Canada?”

Day 5 – Sex and Shit

Warning: this post is not for the lighthearted or weak-stomached. 

Sex

“So, have you ever-teehee-done it?” asks Emmanuel, his mouth blocked by his hand for the last two words of his question. I’m sitting in a teacher-less classroom (surprise, surprise), with all of the students’ attention directed at me. We’re talking about the Mystical Land of Canada.

I had fully expected this topic to be broached over the course of the week and I’d been dreading it. How do I talk about sex with a bunch of potentially very hormonal teenagers living in a puritanical society?

“You know,” I begin, ladling a thick sauce of diplomacy over my words, “in Canada, relationships are very different. Many people have pre-marital sex there.”

Some of the students are surprised by this information, while others nod their heads sagely (or gravely? I’m not sure).

“I’m not saying it’s right or wrong,” I continue, maintaining my level of neutrality, “because, you know, the Bible and Quran both say that it’s wrong. We just have a different culture there. A different context.” They seem to accept this explanation.

“It’s not so here,” says Daniel, “if you have pre-marital sex, they’ll beatchu!” Some of the guys laugh along with him. I sense that the main reasons behind remaining chaste have escaped them and wonder if it’s due to their lack of sex-ed.

“We have a saying at Tamasco,” explains Oliver, “that a girl should arrive and leave alone, never as part of a pair.” I’m immediately confused, as is often the case when I hear Ghanaian proverbs. He tells me that it means that girls shouldn’t leave the school pregnant. This disturbs me, but I wonder how far I can push them.

“It takes two to get pregnant, though,” I remind the group, “I think the expression should be: If a boy enters Tamasco, he should leave as a boy, and not a man.” The guys laugh, but when I probe them, they agree.

“And if you’re thinking of abandoning the values you grew up with,” I continue sternly, “you need to really consider if it’s worth abandoning everything you’ve known to be true since you could speak. Also, you should wear a condom.” I’m not sure if it’s my place to add the last part, but to give abstinence-only advice is diametrically opposed to many values I hold dear.

“Abstinence is the only method that’s 100%” Emmanuel reminds me smugly. Oliver nods and, pen in hand, says, “it’s like this. If I don’t remove the lid from this pen, then I can’t write with it.”

This kid is confusing. I ask him again what he means. He explains that if a girl keeps her legs closed, she can’t get pregnant. Once again, this man-centered view worries me. I tell them that God gave women and men self-control for many reasons and that unwanted pregnancy is one of them. They accept this and we move on to discuss Canadian weather after some closing remarks by the class prefect about the duties of Tamascans t0 stay pure.

Shit

When I first arrived at Wemah house, one of my initial questions was “Where’s the toilet?” The answer came from Jacob and was somehow cryptic. “Oh, you’ll find out about Morocco soon enough,” he told me with a grin. As far as I know, Morocco is a country in West Africa that I’d like to visit at some point in my life. I decided to put the question to rest and take a wait-and-see approach.

Un/Fortunately, the food at Tamasco is, in a word, disgusting. I was so backed up from it that I didn’t require a place to relieve myself until Friday. That’s right, I didn’t poop for almost 5 days. I’m fairly certain that that’s a new record for me, not that I’m keeping track. The last 2 of those 5 days were awful. My stomach hurt terribly and I was super nauseous at any strong scent.

This is why I can never eat garri again. We had garri and beans on Wednesday for dinner, so it was the last thing I ate before my horrid two-day, gut-busting experience. Even just writing about the meal now is literally making my dry-heave. It was bad.

Worse, though, was the fact that on Friday when things finally did loosen up, oh boy did they EVER loosen up. I think “release” is a better word. I had an immediate and absolute need to visit Morocco. I’d heard from Emmanuel that it was located “behind the headmaster’s house”. I found this hilariously ironic, but I also hoped that it would be enough information for me to find it on my own, for I was too embarrassed to ask anyone to direct me.

So, like an old elephant ready to die, I discreetly separated myself from the herd and went my own way. It turns out that Morocco was easy to find; I just had to search for the place infested with flies and littered with human turds and various butt-wiping implements. It was, in fact, behind the headmaster’s house.

I know I didn’t overtly mention it before, so I’ll do so now: Tamasco, the Shining Light of the North, doesn’t have any toilets for the students. They have to shit in the woods. That’s what Morocco is–their shitting place. I have to commend them for at the very least localizing their bowel movements. In some small way, I’m sure this is a way to prevent the spread of contamination.

Okay, so I arrived at Morocco and chose a place to do my business. In all honesty, this was the first time I’d ever shat in the woods. Sure, I’ve emptied my bowels in the bush before, but there was always an outhouse or at least one of those boxes that they build for campers. Yay for learning experiences!

I squatted, pushed, and promptly ruined my Tamasco uniform. I really tried to stay out of the splash radius, but no fluid mechanics class could help me predict the splatter pattern of liquid feces leaving my body at a seemingly very high flowrate. At least it was just a few drops that got on my shorts. After about 20 sweaty, thigh-busting minutes, I decided to call it quits. I wiped my butt, and my pride, and walked back to Wemah house.

The only thing is, having a BM didn’t make me feel any better. In fact it made me feel worse. My stomach went from a dull ache to feeling like it was about to explode within me. I lay down for an hour or two, but it was obvious that there was more to come and I just couldn’t stay in that environment, so I called it quits and ended my school stay early. The close proximity to Sagnarigu made it easy for me to get home to my VIP latrine quickly.

I spent Saturday resting and getting tested for Typhoid and Parasites. To be honest I think it was just the Tamasco food, but it’s never a bad idea to get tested in case treatment is required. By the time this post goes up, I will have found out what it was and will have taken the appropriate course of action.

Like I warned, this post was not written for the weak-stomached.

-C

Day 2 – Career Options

“What will you do after Tamasco?” I asked Suli on my second day there. Classes had finished for the day, but it wasn’t yet time for dinner. The boys of Wemah House, Compound 4, room 3–myself and Suli included–were all resting in the afternoon heat.

“As for me,” began Suli, “after I have finished at Tamasco, I should involve myself in the teaching profession. By His grace.” Teaching? He had my interest. I had to warn myself not to pepper him with questions, but to move slowly with my inquiries instead.

“Why?” I continued. Suli smiled.

“You know, for humans, it’s important not to be greedy,” he explained, “and to keep your knowledge to yourself, well, that’s greedy. I think it’s important to share to help the next generation be as wealthy as we are.”

I was very impressed with the thoughtful answer such a young man (age 16) could provide. Clearly, Suli had thought this one out and that made me really happy. I couldn’t help but hope that he would do well enough on the WASSCEs to get into University or a teacher training college. The chances are slim, but Suli is very serious about his studies.

Immediately before leaving for pre-dep in Toronto, I was having a bit of a life direction crisis. Nothing serious; just what I would consider normal musings on the subject of the world and my contribution therein. Basically, Science isn’t cutting it for me anymore. When I was choosing what I’d study in university, it seemed like it would fulfill me, but now I’m not so sure. Science really is just about the pursuit of knowledge, without any real consideration for the end uses of that knowledge. For me, this distinct lack of people focus won’t do. (For my scientist friends reading this, please understand that this is just my take on the field).

Thankfully, I’m also doing Engineering, right? It’s true that Engineering is all about end uses of knowledge and that it is people-centric. Or at least that it ought to be. I would be able to take solace in this fact, if I was at all satisfied in any way with the Engineering education I’m getting. Frankly, I’m not. Two years in and I’ve yet to do any design work, group projects, or anything really intellectually stimulating. I have a big fear that the Engineering education I’m getting is adequate preparation for entry into the profession.

Okay, so maybe this time around, the crisis was a little more serious. I told myself not to worry, though; I’d just escape to Ghana and things would sort themselves out.

Suli’s words on my second day of my school stay probably held a lot more significance than he thought. The work I’ve been doing this summer has really highlighted the importance of good teachers and the impact those teachers can have on students’ lives. This was highlighted in the classroom on that day with a stark contrast between two classes. One Master was absent and had given her notes to a student to dictate to the class. The Master immediately following, on the other hand, taught a kick-ass, stimulating class. The difference in the engagement of the students was huge.

I’ve always told myself that I’ll retire into Teaching. I had amazing teachers throughout Elementary and High School who inspired me to choose that path. But I always wanted a “real” career first. Teaching, I felt, didn’t wield enough potential for impact to interest me. Now I’m not so sure if I was right.

During my coaching chat that night, I realized that I wouldn’t be where I am without good teachers. Reader, I beg–really think about that. I can count the number of teachers who have significantly influenced my life on both hands. I wonder how many Engineers it would take to have a similar impact? My guess is that the answer is many, many more than 10. Maybe, just maybe, Teaching is a good way for me to create a lot of positive change in the world.

I’m not saying I’m set on teaching. Who knows what will happen in the next couple of years of my degree? But the crisis has ended, that’s for sure.

-C

Day 1 – The First Lesson

They told me that we’d have an assembly at 6:30, but when I wake up on Monday morning I can hear rain pounding the zinc roof of our hut in the Wemah House compound, so I assume that it will be cancelled. It seems that most things in Ghana are cancelled when it rains and rightly so. The rain is serious here. So I roll over and fall back asleep, hoping that my roomies will wake me when the time is right.

The rain stops in time for breakfast, which consists of bread and tea with lots of milk and sugar. Afterwards, I head with my room-and classmate Francis to General Agriculture. I’m excited for it, because I know nothing about agriculture, and because it’s my first class as a Ghanaian high school student. Francis shows me my desk, a misshapen contraption made of very hard, flat wood, and I sit down as students start to arrive.

The teacher, or Master (“Mastah” in Ghanenglish), is late. When he shows up, he doesn’t notice me and I wonder if it is unusual. It seems as though he doesn’t know any of the students’ names, so I guess that it’s probably not out of the ordinary for him not to realize that a new, and decidedly different, student is in his class. In any case, I learn plenty about market structure and function during the class which seems comprehensive.

The Mastah for the next class–Core Maths–is also late. When he does arrive, he wants to know what I’m doing in the class. He accepts that I’m a new student from Canada here to see what it’s like to be a Ghanaian student and we continue with the lesson. A student gives him a vector question that he reads to the class. It goes like this:

Given triangle PQR such that PR = u, PQ = v, the midpoint of PR = M, and the midpoint of RQ = L, show that PL = 1/2(u+v). Now, given that PX = 1/3(u+v) and PY = 2/3(u+v), express MX, RY, and XQ in terms of u and v. 

(If you’re vector-illiterate, have no fear. Please, continue reading.)

The Mastah goes through the first part of the question with no problem, but when we get to the second part he reads the question again and tells the class that there must be a typo which has rendered the question unsolvable. I’m shocked; in the time it has taken him to consider the problem, I’ve come to a complete solution. That the teacher hasn’t even attempted it surprises me. I raise my hand.

Before I know it, I’m at the blackboard, demonstrating that MX = -1/6u + 1/3v. Mastah considers my solution. “Ah, I understand,” he says after about a minute, “okay, let’s find RY then.” He reproduces the diagram sloppily, misplacing the point R then proceeds for a good ten minutes to mumble incoherently away from the students while he scratches away at the board with the chalk.

I feel bad. I’ve put the teacher on the spot and if I were in his position, I’d probably be equally challenged. I look back at the students from my desk at the front of the class and see a bunch of very confused faces. Now I’m torn; the students need to understand this, but I’m not a teacher. It’s not officially within my role to be the one to help them understand. Screw it, I think, the students are more important.

I get the Mastah’s attention and ask if I can show the solution. In two minutes, I’ve written the complete answer on the board and get many understanding nods from students. I’m still conflicted, but I tell myself that the students’ understanding rationalizes my not-so-humble behaviour. Mastah sits at the teacher’s desk at the front and stares at the solution wordlessly for the rest of the period.

After the class is over, Mastah calls me to speak with him. He tells me that the problem with the Ghanaian education system–the one in which he was educated–is a lack of practical use of the theory. He tells me that there is knowledge, but no skills.

He didn’t show up for his classes for the rest of the week.

This is why Striving for Humility is one of EWB’s core values. The actions I took in that class were not within my role to take, and taking such actions has likely had a bigger effect than what happened in the class that I cannot predict. Sure, maybe that effect will be positive. The important part, though, is that I don’t know whether it will be or not. The ripple effects are out of my hands and unmeasurable from where I stand. I didn’t correct a Master for the rest of the week, even when the errors they made were glaringly obvious.

It’s not surprising that my first lesson as a Ghanaian high school student had little to do with what was written on the blackboard. Funny, Isn’t that the case with most lessons in life?

-C

Fail Fast, Reiterate

EWB loves failure. And so do I, to be honest. I love getting in there, making mistakes, doing things wrong, and generally screwing things up. You probably think I’m crazy right about now, but bear with me. Failing gives you something concrete to grab onto and run with; to analyze, accept, and change. It gives you a basis for learning, once you get past the psychological barrier that tells you that to fail is to do wrong. It’s not.

What are the actual tangible results of failure? If you strip away all the aspects about it that are socially constructed and search for the core of the negative effects of failure, you’ll find that at the very worst, failing leads to some degree of damage. Of this you must be conscious, but before you partake in some activity, realize the long-term effects of the potential damage you could cause. They’re probably less than you expect (unless you’re a colonialist), and realizing this is the key to accessing failure constructively.

At the National Conference in St. John’s in 2009, I took part in a really cool workshop about idea generation in which the mantra “Fail fast, reiterate” was introduced to me. It has stuck since. The philosophy behind this expression is the idea that to fail is really only worthwhile if you’re willing to come back with a new idea, a new iteration with which to tackle the problem. The “fast” bit forces creativity and innovation (two of my favourite things), because it says that you need to get back to the problem immediately. The only way to do so is to generate ideas that look at how you’ll do it differently the next time.

Enough about failure theory; let’s get to the important stuff. I’ve failed in my work. Okay, sure, I fail on a daily basis. In greeting my elders with greetings reserved for younger people, for example. Or telling the acting chief of Sagnarigu that I don’t think he’s really the chief (that didn’t go over well). No, I’m talking about a bigger failure. You may remember a post I wrote previously entitled “EMIS and Data Sovereignty”. Spoiler alert: I basically said that EMIS steals District education data and returns it literally months later, after it is no longer useful.

I wrote this post when I was actually quite angry. I had just spoken to 5 different District Education Statistics Officers who all told me that they didn’t have access to raw EMIS data. I was fired up (I tend to get that way about data) and wrote a list of suggestions for the National EMIS Team right then and there, along with the aforementioned blog post.

Fortunately, I had the chance to attend training for EMIS officers on data access and analysis. I went into this training full of preconceived notions of misplaced data sovereignty and ready to ask some very tough questions of the EMIS Rep running the session. That same rep proceeded to type “EMIS” into an Excel dialog box and BOOM–data, all up in that spreadsheet. Right before my very eyes. It turns out that districts have all of their raw EMIS data stored on their computers in an SQL database that is very easily accessed through Excel.

I was turbo-wrong. I had nothing to be fired up about anymore; cue deflation. In the few moments after I saw all that data appear gloriously projected on the wall of the computer lab, I realized that I had failed. I had gotten too emotionally involved, and had limited my scope of sources of information. Beyond that, I hadn’t questioned my assumptions. To me, the last one is a serious failure, and one that a wise person warned me about before I left for Ghana.

In those few moments, I remember thinking, Okay, time to reiterate. I put my game face on, pulled out my orange EWB notebook and found out what went wrong. The answer? Well, I don’t know if I have the complete picture just yet, but I do have some new leads. I don’t want to take the same path as I did before, so I’m not going to write my thoughts here just yet.

After all, I’ve still got some assumptions to test.

-C

21

One of my coaching questions for the past week was around how I’m keeping my heartspace connected to my work. I have to applaud Mina for his ability to be incredibly topical with his coaching questions every week, because so far he’s managed to ask questions that have been turbo relevant to my own thoughts and also to the learning opportunities that have arisen through my placement. Well, this week’s learning opportunity came in a very surprising form. I like to think of personal development from an entrepreneurial perspective, though, so I jumped at the opportunity for learning when I recognized it.

My friend Aziz asked me earlier in the week if I’d like to go to Tamale’s (in)famous Royal Nite Club with him. “Plenty white people will be there,” he assured me with a smile. I told him that in fact, I’m somehow avoiding other Soulemingas, but that I’d go. I figured this would be a good chance to experience one more aspect of Ghanaian culture that might contrast with my experiences in Canada. I convinced my other friend Danjuma to come with us and of course my partner in crime Bailey was down as well.

So on Saturday night after a power nap, the four of us headed out of Sagnarigu towards town. “This feels a lot like first year,” Bailey remarked, carefully choosing her next step on the red dirt road–heels were not made for village life. Her words were a good frame for the rest of the evening. We walked to the first taxi stand and caught a taxi into town. Then, we caught another taxi to Royal. The whole trip took about twenty five minutes. We made our way to the side door of a sketchy building past a guy selling kebab. The doorman greeted us without checking our IDs, so we continued into the building and down a hallway smelling of bleach (oddly comforting) and through a pair of big scary double doors.

…Into an empty club. It was about 10 p.m. at this point. Not to worry, though! There was pool to be played and beer or malta to be had. We hung out, laughed, and played pool until things picked up and people started to arrive, at which point we hit the dance floor. We stayed until just after midnight, when exhaustion got the best of us. Then we trekked home in a similar manner to how we arrived (although with a little more haggling of the taxi driver).

Before falling asleep, I couldn’t help but think how normal the experience was. Bailey’s words could not have been more correct; my Saturday night in Sagnarigu was almost exactly the same as a Saturday night could have gone in Ottawa in first year, when bussing to Hull to party was no big deal. I had jumped at the opportunity to see what differences exist between my Tamale and Ottawa experiences and I had been warned that there would be plenty by past JFs and current APS. But I didn’t really see that many.

Sure, the club itself was a bit dilapidated. Okay, the beer was extra awful. Yes, there was an odd excess of mirrors in the club, and the music was 10-15 years old. Still, it didn’t feel all that different. There was still pool. Things still didn’t pick up until way too late. There were still groups of women dancing and solitary men looking for some lovin’. I had gone in with all these expectations of differences, only to be disappointed.

I think it’s better this way, though, because I immediately had an answer to Mina’s question. I can keep my heartspace connected to my work by living the life of a Tamalean 21 year-old and, in doing so realize that it’s not all that different from the life of an Ottawan 21 year-old. There are so many things that cut across culture and socioeconomic status and these things are what bind us all together. These are the things that make what I’m doing relevant and they’ll keep my heart in it.

-C