Category Archives: Ruminations

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.



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?”


On Monday morning I woke up feeling, well, really crappy.

No, I wasn’t sick. I didn’t have malaria, parasites, or even just katah*. Something just wasn’t sitting right in my being. As I lay under my mosquito net, a thin sheet protecting me from the cold of the night and muted sounds coming from the compound, Cat’s words from pre-dep about mental health came rushing back to me. I had an immediate self-diagnosis: demotivation.

I know I’m a hypochondriac, so I did a little check-in to make sure that I wasn’t exaggerating with myself. Low appetite? I’d been blaming it on my experience at Tamasco, but I had been having difficulty with food recently. Low energy? I’d even complained to Tania about that the night before. Changes in sleep habits? I checked my phone to see that it was 5 a.m. Neither the Call to Prayer nor my own alarm had awakened me at such a strange hour.

Dammit Chris, I cursed myself, way to ignore every warning sign for the past two weeks. Looks like it’s time for a mental health day. I wondered if talking to myself was a further sign of deteriorating mental health, before realizing that that was the hypochondriac part of my brain speaking up. I silenced the nonsense and fell back asleep.

When I woke up at 8, I immediately called one of my coworkers to tell him that I’d be working from home that day. Thankfully my office is awesome and even encourages working from home, so it was no big deal that I wouldn’t be coming in. After all, Alhassan told me on day one that “you’ll be more productive if you vary your work environment every now and then” (seriously, who is this guy?) So I pushed all fragments of guilt from my brain and set up a make-shift mud-hut office in my room. I spent the morning working on some stuff before heading to town in the afternoon. I had to get some pictures developed to give to my classmates at Tamasco and I had some other small errands to run as well.

However, when I arrived in Tamale I found myself wandering about the shops aimlessly, thinking about the source of my current melancholy. Education in Ghana is just really demotivating. There are so many big changes that are required to fix it and even though everyone working in the sector knows what those changes are, nothing gets any better. I think it was the one-two punch of sitting in a teacher-less classroom one week then immediately hearing teachers tell me that they’re powerless to impact their students the next that led to the KO of my motivation.

“Hey Tamasco! Comena.”**

The voice broke my reverie. I was wearing my Tamasco cloth shirt because it was the only clean one I had left. The man calling me looked young and was flapping his fingers in the very Ghanaian “get over here” motion. He didn’t shake my hand when I reached him, but instead demanded to know about the source of my shirt. My answer of “me, I’m a Tamascan” didn’t satisfy him, so I told him my whole story.

It turns out that the guy’s a teacher getting his degree at the University of Cape Coast. He asked me if I like to read and when I told him that I do, he started prattling off a list of African and Ghanaian authors and their novels. I didn’t have a notepad to write any of them down (because, you know, it’s not often that I have to rapidly record African names and book titles), so I took his number instead. He finally shook my hand.

As I turned to go, he caught my attention.

“You know,” he said, “Education, good education, is the only way, the only way that Africa will get out of poverty. That’s between you and me. Ignore what the rest of them say, it’s the only way.”

I wasn’t sure how to respond to that and thankfully I didn’t really have to, because he had disappeared into the crowd of his friends. As I stood on the street, the sun beating down on me and people pushing past me, something clicked. The stranger’s words played back in my head slowly. As they did, I squeezed out every drop of significance I could from them.

What a strange coincidence. This stranger had put to words the exact thoughts that I needed to hear in that moment. Sure, the interaction would have taken place regardless of my mental state and it’s likely that I attached more meaning to it than was reasonable or real. However, I can’t ignore that the message I needed was delivered to me right then and there.

Ask and ye shall receive? The power of The Secret? A random event?

I don’t know. Regardless, my drive is back.


* – katah = rhinovirus infection

** – comena = come here



16 And Pregnant: Sagnarigu Style

A few weeks ago, a young girl and her two children appeared at my compound. I’d seen the girl before, but now it was obvious that she was staying at the house. Family structures are quite fluid among the Dagomba, it seems, so I didn’t think twice about it.

A few nights later, Yaku and I were eating dinner when a young man showed up. He greeted Yaku and the girl before taking her and her children out of the compound. Yaku seemed a bit bristly after the encounter. I didn’t have to ask why, because he was eager to tell me the story. Apparently, the girl is his sister. She’d gotten pregnant in high school with the young man who’d just been by. They’d since been married, but because she’s young, she is staying with her mother to learn the ways of raising a child. Again, a Dagomba thing.

Yaku was not pleased with the man, that much was clear from the tone in his voice when he told me who he is. We continued eating, though, and moved on to other conversation topics. I didn’t really think about the situation after that.

Last week, Yaku asked me if I remember the guy. He told me that the husband gave the mother 2 cedis (~1.33 CAD, but more like 4-5 CAD when you factor in the buying power) and then disappeared. Yaku’s voice was shaking; it was the first time I’d seen anything remotely close to anger in the man. “What can you do with two cedis?” he asked me.

“Nothing,” I quietly responded. Yaku went on to tell me that he wanted to go the man’s family to give them a piece of his mind, but that his own family had prevented him from doing so. “I know it’s not the right thing to do,” he said, “but what else is there to do?” I had already answered that question: nothing.

“I bet this wouldn’t have happened in Canada,” continued Yaku. Ha! Little did he know. I told him that teenage pregnancy happens all too often in Canada and that some high schools even have day care centres in them to support teenaged mothers. I went on to explain that the girl and her family usually have little power in influencing the boy to deal with the situation in a manner befitting of a man and that if they’re lucky, they’ll be able to get regular child support money from him.

Yaku wasn’t surprised by this and after my explanation I realized that he was just venting his frustrations. Personally, I hate it when people burst my frustration bubble, so I felt as though I’d ruined his opportunity to articulate his feelings.

I think it was fellow JF Kevin in Malawi who wrote about witnessing the end of a marriage. He pointed out that even in Malawi, life still happens. The story of Yaku’s sister highlights the fact that there are certain things that cut across cultures. No matter where you are in the world, there are always people experiencing conflict, hurting each other, or drastically and negatively changing the course of each other’s lives.

Of course, there are also always people working together, finding love in one another, and drastically changing each other’s lives for the better. I think that there’s something to be said about the uniting force of either; in that one conversation with Yaku, I was able to really understand his frustration and exasperation.

I’m never going to be able to change the situation for teenaged mothers in Ghana, but at least I can take something positive away from this garbage dump of a situation.



Day 0 – Speaking in Tongues

JFs are encouraged to stay with a rural farmer for a week of their placement in order to get an understanding of the realities faced by Dorothy–the peoplewho make up EWB’s bottom line. Since I’m working in Education, I chose to be a student for a week instead. This post is the first in a day-by-day review of my adventures. 

Tamale Senior Secondary School, or Tamasco, is just outside of Tamale proper and has been in existence since before Ghana gained independence. It is known as the “Shining Light of the North” and has educated some very important Ghanaians. I chose to go there for my school stay last week because the data show that the quality of education at Tamasco is declining rapidly. What better a place then to understand some of the barriers to good education that are currently plaguing Ghana’s system? I was slightly concerned that the close proximity of Tamasco to Sagnarigu would mean that I wouldn’t be pushing outside of my bubble enough, but I soon found out that this concern was wholly unfounded.

I arrived at the assistant headmaster’s house at around 1 p.m. on Sunday. The headmaster grabbed the attention of a passing prefect named Jacob and told him to give me a quick tour of campus. After introductions, Jacob said to me in a serious voice, “so, are you Christian or Muslim?” This has been a really common question posed of me by Ghanaians immediately upon introduction, but I’m still somewhat taken aback when I hear it. Religion is certainly more of a private matter in Canada than it is in Ghana, and no matter what answer I give, the follow-up questions are always more difficult.

“Uh, I’m a Christian,” I told him. “What church?” He probed. I knew that was coming. “Uh, as for me, I don’t go to a church,” I told him. “Then we’ll go to the PenSA service tonight,” he commanded. (I later found out that Jacob is the commander of the Tamasco Cadets). I had no idea what PenSA is, but I decided that I was game. Saying yes to (contractually-allowed) new experiences has been my default in Ghana anyway.

We continued our tour of campus to Jacob’s dormitory, Hayfron House. As we passed by the rooms of the other students living there I received many stares and calls of “obruni, obruni, how are you?” At first, I was taken aback by their use of that word; it’s an expression for a white person in the south of Ghana. In the north, they use “souleminga” instead. Besides that everyone in Jacob’s dorm spoke in Twi, a language of the south. As a Dagomba man myself, I immediately felt out of place. And I loved it.

The high school system in Ghana is such that a student’s performance on the BECE dictates which bracket of schools they can attend. Better score = better school opportunities. A random computer system places students at schools based on their score and the bracket accepted by schools. This is something I hadn’t considered before coming to Tamasco, but I realized then that it meant I would be living with many southerners for the week.

I missed dinner that night because the students were intensely interested in me and they kept me busy with all their questions. Thankfully, Jacob shared his garri and shito with me. Shito is a wonderful, fish-based sauce that adds flavour and spice to whatever you want. I actually love it. Garri is a sort-of edible sand made of fermented, dried, ground cassava. It’s basically the equivalent of ramen for students in Ghana, because it’s super cheap and can be easily prepared in about a gazillion different ways with simple ingredients (read: water). It was my saviour that night, but now I can’t even type the word without my stomach turning (why? You’ll just have to keep reading to find out!)

Jacob wanted help with some Maths work, so after dinner we went to one of the classrooms and talked about… high school girl crushes! We didn’t end up doing any math at taallll. Instead, Jacob told me about this girl he likes–his first crush, actually–and the troubles he was having with approaching her. It seemed really familiar a topic to be discussing, but at the same time there were some strange differences that made advice-giving difficult. The most notable of these was Jacob’s guilt caused by his feelings. This is something I’ve never encountered in any previous infatuations and seems unnatural to me. Still, I answered his questions as neutrally as I could.

From there, things got a whole lot different. We went straight to the PenSA service from the class. It turns out that PenSA means Pentecostal Students’ Association. I was immediately worried that the service might end up being somewhat intense for my first religious service of any kind. I couldn’t back out once I was already seated in the auditorium, though. Yay for learning experiences!

The service started out as I expected it to: sit, stand, “hallelujah! Praise the Lord!”, sing, sit, repeat. However, after about two rounds of this, the preacher (a student) began to get very fervent and started riling the entire congregation to follow him in his passion. Then they all started speaking/yelling/chanting in tongues and pacing about the room randomly while the preacher interjected wildly. I just stood there, unsure of what to do as I have little to no experience in speaking in tongues. I’m sure the scene would have looked comical to an outside viewer, but I was just scared, to be honest. Thankfully that part didn’t last too long and soon a different preacher took to the podium to talk about the importance of studying hard. I heartily approved of his message (and Jesus does, too).

After the service, I went back to my room which I would be sharing with 5 other guys. I lay down on the thin mattress of my bottom bunk, exhausted and excited at the same time. My brain raced, but my body desperately wanted sleep after the intellectually exhausting day.

It’s like all of Tamasco is speaking in tongues, I thought before passing out, whether inspired by God, high school crushes, or their upbringing. And I’ve got one week to translate their message. 


3.6 Million

My placement is halfway through and just over 6 weeks remain. Time to get serious. 

That was the thought that went through my brain as I fell asleep on Monday morning at around 3 a.m. after some really great discussion with some of the other JFs. In many ways, it feels like the six weeks I’ve spent in Ghana have gone very slowly, because I’ve learned a ridiculous amount, been challenged plenty, and had a head full of thoughts the whole time. But in other ways, the last six weeks seem to have slipped by while I’ve been racing to put one foot in front of the other. It feels like I’m running a change marathon at a pace reserved for a sprint.

3 months is simply not enough time.

I spent the last week with the other JFs travelling on bumpy roads in crowded tros, hunting for elephants, fending off crazy baboons, swimming (which every summer ought to include), casting magic spells, writing love letters, creating team strategy, dancing like a fool with a bunch of fools, laughing a lot, and talking about Development with a pair of Danish men.

So coy.

Hunting for elephants turned out to be fruitful.

The mid-placement retreat and subsequent country meeting in which the JFs took part was perfectly timed for centering and self-reflection. It felt like a little pit stop in the marathon we’re all running, the goal of which was to look both back at where we started, and forward to the finish line. When I look at my progress critically, I see some successes and some failures and some unexplored avenues. In each of these are lessons for the second half of the marathon and the things that I’ve learned will carry me through to the finish line.

I’m going to have to shift my focus to get there. Change must rapidly form the core of my approach(es) and I think the key to creating that change is to become focused on people, to truly understand the realities they face and the perspectives they have, no matter how difficult I find that process. It’s about feeling what it means to be a JHS student awaiting BECE results, a highly demotivated teacher, a rural farmer struggling to get an education, a dropout who was failed by the system, a teenage mother, a well-educated Ghanaian; the list goes on.

These perspectives will drive me to keep up the sprinting pace and motivate me to push even harder.

There’s so much to do, so much to experience, and so much to feel in the next month and a half. It’s overwhelming to think about, but also somehow exciting. Six weeks means that I have 3.6 million seconds left for this race. That’s 3.6 million tiny spaces in which to live, however fleetingly, in the moments of Ghana. To be challenged and to challenge and to learn and maybe even to dream. The second half of my placement will be full of amazing opportunities to live all of the things that I want to and to make every small change that I can.

3.6 million changes?

I hope I have the grace to handle that.




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.