Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Following Your Curiosity

Following Your Curiosity

Written by: Mamoon Khpal
Photos by: Mamoon Khpal
Edited by: Oliver Sage

Since arriving in Bolgatanga towards the end of April, the stifling heat has begun to give way to the Rainy Season. There is now a spring in the air surrounding the centre of town. Lush green pastures have replaced the sweeping desert sand which consumed us on our arrival, and the trees are blooming in equal measure. The large leaves from roadside trees are useful protection against bouts of heat or heavy rain appearing at the most inconvenient times. A few weeks ago I popped into Rain Inn Supermarket to collect a large pot of delicious Cowbell Coffee, and on the way home torrential rainfall struck me motionless beneath a tree. This was to the amusement of a few Yellow-Yellow drivers who asked between GHc 5-10 for the 10-minute walk home.

This activity in Bolga has been no detriment to my tenacious curiosity. Of the places I discovered during my saunters, the most unique was The Bolgatanga Library. It was created by an award-winning American Architect, J. Max Bond Jr. (1935- 2009). He was awarded a degree in Architecture at Harvard University to pursue a career in the field. In the mid-1960s he moved to Ghana where he designed several government buildings, including the Bolgatanga Regional Library.  The centre contains rich shelves of books, and seating arrangements for bustling children and students. The fans overhead are still because the ventilation system inside the library keeps the occupants perfectly cool. Towards the entrance is a small chapel which stands empty and at the rear is an unusual concrete seating structure in the garden with faded scribbles and scratches vandals had made in the past. Like most good libraries, this one is enchanting and loved by those inside.
After losing track of time inside the empty rooms, I returned to the nave of the building and found the book I would be using for my guided learning session, ‘Faceless’ by Aama Darko.

Bolgatanga Regional Library

              The second outcome of my curious wanderings was discovering the Nongre Crafts and Culture Foundation. I was referred to a smiley gentleman named Matthew who mentioned he knew the place. It was a 20-minute journey to the Foundation along a dirt road into the Nongre region, which my driver, Matthew, explained meant Love. The centre works with young children in the community outside school hours through traditional African dance, drumming, and handcrafts. The children are from families in the local community, and some I was told are orphans. The foundation wants to combat school dropout rates in the Upper East Region, by empowering basket weaving communities struggling to support their children. The open fields inside the area await development by the Foundation, which wants to build a school and library for the community.

Coffee at Nongre Crafts and Culture Foundation
Sat inside the cafeteria at Nongre I recouped as much caffeine as I could afford. At 4 GHc a cup, I did not feel too guilty in gulping 5 portions down my throat. The cafeteria offers guests and volunteers Ghanaian and Ethiopian Coffee handsomely sealed for window display. The children took no hesitation in introducing themselves to me and posing for “snaps”. In their bright African wear they prepared themselves in two rows ready for performance. The procession of dancers led a cohort of boys drumming behind them onto the stage area. The young girls took ownership of the space very quickly breaking mounds of sand with their stomping feet. They moved with confidence and energy throughout the 40-minute performance and asked what I thought after. To say the least, I was swept away by the group. Hopefully, the photo can do it justice.

Nongre Cultural Group

The final discovery I made during my curious rambles around Bolgatanga was at The Crafts Village. The village is surprisingly easy to find located behind the Catholic Church.  Inside are shops selling high quality African Art and Crafts, and to the left of the village is the regional museum. The shop owners and crafts people inside the centre can often be seen busily designing leather, or weaving baskets. Among the treasure trove of items include British War medallions dating from Anglo-Ashanti wars during the 19th century. The shop owner tells me quite briefly that they have traveled to the Northern Region of Ghana for sale inside the shop. Alongside the antiques are coins from different national currencies grouped together inside a bowl reminding shoppers of how much travel has already been completed inside Bolgatanga. The trophies of war also include cowry shells used in West Africa, as currency during the slave trade until the early 19th century. The items are a fitting reminder of the travel and history behind Bolgatanga.
War Medalions found at Bolgatanga Craft Villiage

The passing of time inside Bolgatanga has revealed there is a great deal more to see outside the office. Indeed, the rainy season should not deter any curious urges from more exploring.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Local Celebrities? - Bad Dancers

Week 8 - Becoming local celebrities and questionable dancers…

Mid-term complete and here we are with just over a month left in Bolgatanga. So far we are feeling accomplished with many activities completed but there is still much more to do and we are busy working away in the office. It has been an interesting rainy season; apart from the odd day of rain the temperature is still ridiculously hot and dry (apparently this is abnormal for this time of year). People may say you acclimatise but as I understand it, all that means is you become rather accustomed to consistently damp clothing and a shiny forehead, or in my case a sunburnt one. Tip to any girls – leave your make up at home, it is a waste of luggage weight that could be much better spent on British snacks (We have also come to realise we all have a rather deep obsession with food).

URA Radio Session speaking about BICAF, Fair Trade and the importance to Bolgatanga

On the 10th of May we had our first radio session at URA Radio. Before we went to the studio we prepared and rehearsed topics about BICAF, Fair Trade and the importance of international market, all themes related to the work done here at TradeAid. Our aim was to promote BICAF as a family and social event and get the word out for vendors to sign up as soon as possible so as to get the discounted price. When we arrived at the station the presenter, Sophia, was there to greet us, she has hosted many radio shows with ICS volunteers before and explained the procedure. The group was very excited to be there, not only because the building had air conditioning, but for the majority of us it was our first time featuring on a radio show.

Microphones and headsets on, selfies taken and we were on air. We began introducing ourselves, where we were from and a little bit about our experiences here in Bolgatanga. Throughout the show we spoke about BICAF, the town’s experience last year, and all the vendors that are looking forward to the event this year. We spoke about the importance of the fair for the town of Bolgatanga and promoting the local crafts people. Mid-sentence we unfortunately suffered a power cut and the studio fell into darkness, but fear not it was up and running again in a matter of seconds, oh and then crashed again, but that's not unusal! All in all, the session was relaxed and great fun, as well as being powerful in transcending the message through Bolgatanga and surrounding towns. After such a great success, just call me the next Reggie Yates.

Before the social gossip, a little more about work! We are currently conquering various aspects of the project in our sub teams of marketing, administration and research. As mentioned one of the biggest accomplishments for the marketing team was completing the radio show and getting the word out about BICAF. Nonetheless, we are a hard working team and have also been busy designing leaflets, posters and t-shirts, developing the website and starting to organise the entertainment for BICAF. As far as research is concerned, we have started organising training sessions to develop craft skills for various communities and groups that work with TradeAid. We have also been speaking to Mr Nicolas (TradeAID’s director) to organise data collection for the apprenticeship scheme. We have also been working on proposals for the agriculture of straw and rice. Lone-wolf Mamoon has been a social butterfly in administration and signed up ten vendors for BICAF. This time last year they had five signed up at the end of the three month cohort, you go Captain Mazza.

We also visited the Zorko community, a first for any ICS cohort; we conducted our questionnaire and created our needs assessment. However, as per, we were not to escape without having the classic dance off and every member had to get involved despite dancing ability. It all made for a fantastic ‘go pro moment’ (a phrase the team has taken to pronounce in many questionable Scottish accents).

Basket Weavers at Zorko Community

Now I have detailed our workplace achievements I shall account some of the social activities we have been taking part in, mainly hosted at our local, ‘The Fair and Free’.

We have had two tremendous guided learning sessions in which we have certainly had a taste for the great culture we are living among. Firstly, Mamoon and Mary hosted a ‘streetism’ session, in which they spoke a little about the harsh problems that youth face in Ghana, but then to lift spirits and also as a relevant and useful exercise, we exchanged street slang in English and Ghanaian. I had not heard of lots of the Londoners slang, so I added my own column for ‘Scottish Slang’ #freeeedom. Erasmus led the second guided learning which was on Ghanaian dancing. Firstly we watched youtube videos on famous dances such as Azonto, Agaja and Kpalogo. We were then paired ICV and UKV, had 5 minutes to practise our dance and perform it to the group. Ballet, tap and modern dance lessons were not enough to prepare me for what was next. Christian, my partner, has a natural flare for the ol’ rhythm and movement, so I accepted defeat and of course brought out the drops and the booty pop and shake. As a team we had pains in our sides from laughing so much, I thought that I was actually doing it really well, but on reflection from various snapchat videos I came to the crashing realisation that perhaps I resembled your drunken uncle at a wedding.

Winner and Aman busting some moves at the guided learning

Lastly, how could I forget about the ‘Spar’ obsession that has taken over our cohort and in fact Bolga as a whole. Basically it is a card game that is similar to ‘trumps’. One night Aman and I got some of the UKV boys to teach us how to play, without telling the Ghanaians. Then the next day, cards dished out, and we were on fire, the look on the Ghanaian boys’ faces! Since then we have spent multiple hours at the weekend, after work and any spare moment possible really, playing ‘Spar’. On a slightly less cool note, our shuffling skills are yet to be desired; we discovered the hard way it is a much needed social skill and one of our key goals to learn before our time in Africa comes to an end.

So that is us with only 4 weeks left until we head home and until then we can eat cheese, pizza, burgers… oh and see our family of course. We cannot believe how time flies, see you in another two weeks!

P.S. we have not have wifi in the office for the past 3 weeks so this blog may be very late in reaching you

Friday, April 28, 2017

Banter in Bolga

Mine and Winner's host home/mansion

Firstly we would like to rejoice in the fact that the heat has calmed down – it is now only 35 degrees, basically the North Pole this morning*. In a somewhat Jon Snow-esque manner I will simply say, ‘Rain is Coming’. Despite having developed a permanent musky smell due to the sweat (yes, that is as delightful as it sounds), we remain well and healthy. I am also pleased to inform you that we have all become social butterflies over the past three weeks. This was primarily achieved through the introduction to our host families. We have been living with them for two weeks now, and everyone is very welcoming and friendly; Winner and I love sitting and relaxing with our family in the courtyard section of our house (which has been dubbed the mansion – what else would befit two princesses – no seriously, last week I was referred to as a Ghanaian princess).

Matt and Elle introducing themselves to the Yebongo 
community elders, just before the arrival of the Chief
Step two: introduce ourselves to two new communities and conduct a needs assessment in order for us to assess how exactly they would like us to help them. Unfortunately Big Ol’ was ill so we were down to the single team leader, but Damtal is the height of calm and collected so we had no worries at our slightly off-balanced team. Everything was going swimmingly, our Fra-Fra was so fra so good, and our manners were top notch. Unfortunately our social skills took a slight hit when we went to meet the Chief of Yebongo. We were offered some drinking water from a calabash and Matthew took it upon himself to take the first dip… rather than sip. Matt submerged his hands in the calabash and laughter erupted from all sides. Thankfully no one took offence, and we were soon back on track with making a great impression.
Damtal dominating the dancefloor at our community

We then went off to meet with the Basket Weaving Society of Yebongo. We were greeted with a welcome dance, something we were also expected to participate in. Anyone who has seen me dance can testify to the fact that it is not a sight for the general public. This point was proved when I was ‘invited’ to the centre of the circle to dance. Impulse kicked in and my Monica from ‘Friends’ dancing ensued – I can only apologise to everyone who was involved. Unfortunately mine and Anna’s dancing was considered not good enough and we were invited back to dance some more – someone may have given up at this point but not us, Mama didn’t host no quitter.

Conducting our questionnaire and needs assessment
with the Yebongo Basket Weavers community
After the hilarities we got down to why we were there. We conducted a questionnaire, which asked the ladies about their basket weaving process, and any challenges that they faced. That’s what ICS is all about. It is not up to us to tell communities what they need because what do we know about making baskets? Instead it is up to us to ask the questions so that they can give us the answers. We then made our way to the community of Yikene where we received answers specific to them and their needs. Yikene was a great community to go to because they had many positive things to say about previous cohorts; this just goes to show that this project is definitely working, something that we only hope that are able to further develop.

Haggling for mangoes in the market
Josephine looking for fabric in the market
Finally, step three: the supply run to Bolga for the other three Upper East region volunteer teams. We were their tour guides for the day and oh my goodness what a responsibility. Although we have been living in Bolga for a couple of weeks now there is just so much that we don’t know. Or we think that we’ve nailed it and then we end up getting completely lost in the 40 degree heat and someone yelling “soliminga” (white person) at you… always fun, especially when you’re not actually white. Nonetheless I feel confident in saying that we were successful in our mission. We explored the markets and then popped off to the supermarket where we ran into some of our local friends. For a brief moment I felt like I was at home where I always seem to bump into everyone I know on a trip to Sainsbury’s, and then I felt the sweat globules drip down my back and was suddenly jolted back to reality.

In ‘SWAP’ restaurant having a natter with the
volunteers from other communities
We then headed to ‘SWAP’, a restaurant that serves PIZZA. Although the pizza was tasty, unfortunately it did not live up the exceedingly high expectations we had set for it. Finally, after a jolly good natter (more ‘sistaas who sweat’ than ‘ladies who lunch’), we headed to the main event: the pool. Oh sweet relief. After bidding farewell to the teams for another two weeks we thought about how a day almost didn’t seem enough, but nonetheless it was epic seeing everyone and hearing all about their trials and triumphs while also sharing our own.

And so another blog post comes to end. See you in two weeks!

*After revising this I can say with a broken heart that the heat has gone back up to a consistent 42 degrees, something that my soggy t-shirt will attest to.

Written by Amandeep Turna


Monday, April 24, 2017

Welcome to Bolga

Commercial Street, Bolgatanga. Roots Art Gallery to the right

After completing our three-day training session in Tamale we finally headed up north to Bolgatanga, the capital of the Upper East Region, and our new home for the next three months. Bolgantanga, a sprawling desert metropolis of 729 sq km, plays home to around 133,550 people (2010). Make that 133,562. The bustling environment, populated by a plethora of roadside stalls, “yellow-yellows” and roaming animals has been a novel sight for the majority of our team. Upon alighting from our bus another nuance of our new surroundings became apparent – “it’s hot up here, really hot.” With highs of the 42-43 degrees Bolgatanga quickly made us yearn for the relative cool of Tamale. Learning to cope with the heat will be a testing challenge for the coming months. Fortunately the team was also welcomed not just by the scorching northern sun but also by the cheery TradeAid team. Founding director Nicolas Apokerah and the programme manager, Simon Amoah greeted us with open arms and were quickly amused by our stumbling attempts to greet them in our novice Fra Fra. A continued source of levity for the coming weeks we’re sure.

‘Bi li ka!’ “Naa m baa” – ‘Good Morning’ “To you too”
‘La an wa ni?’ “La an som” – ‘How are you?’ “I am fine”  

TradeAid Integrated offices, Civil Servants Compound 

TradeAid Integrated works to support vibrant rural enterprises based on numerous livelihoods within the upper-east region of Ghana. Its aim is to enable communities to create and sustain viable ventures for poverty reduction and wealth creation, ‘Making Trade Work for The Poor’. While studying at university, Nicolas noticed there was lack of opportunity for sustainable trading in Northern Ghana and therefore decided to found TradeAid. The NGO works in hand with communities in Bolgatanga and the surrounding area aiming to help them provide sustainable income for themselves and their families. Weaving is a traditional skill of the indigenous Gurune people (Fra Fra) around the town inside Northern Ghana. Due to the fact that there is only one rainy season in Northern Ghana, unlike two in the South, many people are dependent on their handicraft trade – such as leatherwork and weaving - to provide a vital source of supplementary income.

A trepid curiosity was present among each of us prior to meeting our new host families. Yet from the moment I was warmly ushered into my new surroundings it was clear that these worries were misplaced. Despite being disheveled and tired from the arduous journey from Tamale, the promise of a meal reassured my counterpart and I that things were looking up. The smell of the food wafting through the compound, which hosted three other families alongside my own, promised what was to come. Lifting the lid off my dish, I was greeted with a steaming hot rice ball; my counterpart explained that the caramel coloured broth that accompanied it was palm nut soup. While Erasmus casually dipped his well-portioned chunks of rice into the bowl I was far more wary of the heat emanating from the broth. Finally, once the soup had cooled and Erasmus had polished off the majority of his dinner, I was able to enjoy my first meal in my new home.

The local food joint used for lunches by the team

Our Fra Fra is far from perfect and the challenges ahead can at times seem daunting. The weather has already proven itself to be a deadly adversary. Our bellies will need some hardening, and our minds must open to really enjoy traditional Ghanaian food. While the Easter weekend was met with much excitement and glee, if not a slight measure of guilt considering we’ve just settled down to work, it provided both exposure, with the presence of the baskets, beads and bags decorating shop fronts, and context to our new venture. Returning to the office after the break the team was egging to get stuck into the thick of it and with our draft budget accepted and the first community entry happening on Friday there is a lot to look forward to. Faded posters and weathered baskets from last years BICAF has really driven home the responsibility that the team faces – ensuring that the 2017 fair is the most successful one yet and the crafts people of Bolga are provided with a chance to sell their goods at an international event. Hopefully, by next year readers may be using the Bolga Basket to share their eggs. Happy Easter! 

Member of Yebongo Basket-weavers community showing the base of her Bolga Basket

Written by Mamoon Khpal and Ellie Straughton
Edited by Oliver Sage
Photos by Mamoon Khpal

Friday, March 10, 2017

Let's see just how far we have come...

We are nearly at the end of our placement here in Bolgatanga and the time continues to fly by. The TradeAid office has stepped up the pace and the to-do list is steadily reducing. This past week has not been without its struggles, but the team has become stronger as a result.
Team TradeAID at Zaare product diversification training. 
On Thursday, the team headed to Sirigu for the mid-term review. We caught up with the other teams and showed the progress we had made. Looking back at our achievements, we were proud; we’ve gotten a surprising amount of work done in these short weeks and felt rather smug when portraying our triumphs to the other teams. One such success is the launch of our sparkling new website (visit it here: http://incometradeaid.wixsite.com/tradeaid-integrated). It still needs a few tweaks here and there, but the media team have worked tirelessly to revamp and reimagine the TradeAid image. We’re rather proud of it.

The team conducting a Needs Assessment. 
Valentine’s Day was amazing! We had written down everyone’s names in the group, and picked one in secret to get a present for. By the morning, everyone was eager to know those who picked their names and the presents they were going to receive. We then visited Bolgatanga Polytechnic, and decided to open the presents in the afternoon.

Our visit to the tertiary institution turned out to be a huge success when they agreed to be part of the Bolgatanga International Craft and Arts Fair (BICAF), offering us 12 marketing students to help re-brand the fair as a family event. The fair celebrates Bolgtatanga’s fair trade town status, giving craft workers a chance to showcase their products on a much wider stage. We were very happy to be developing a long sustainable relationship with Bolgatanga Polytechnic, so our Val’s day just got better.

left to right- Josie TL, Paster (driver) and Doreen (Volunteer)
The secret of who selected my name was revealed and presents were exchanged. I was so happy to receive vitamins and malt from our amazing team leader Josie. I got a cold that week, so it was the perfect gift for me. Alisa gave Rob sweets and chewing gum, thoughtfully wrapped paper. The rest of the team received chocolate amongst airtime, amongst others.

Moving away from the excitement of Valentine’s Day, we completed a report on straw and fabric dye and an apprenticeship scheme in Zaare. We have been researching how to access local dye, so as to cut down the cost of dye for basket weaver and fabric makers. On top of this we have assessed the pilot scheme for the youth and disabled people of Zaare our apprenticeship scheme, so they could learn how to weave baskets as a means of income since they are currently unemployed.

Doreen and Asibi (basket weaver) 
Another accomplishment this week was the completion of our first training session. The Bolgatanga Physically Challenged Women’s Group were trained in product diversification, learning how to make new products such as aprons and cushion covers. After weeks of research, preparation and hard work, it felt great to see the impact of our involvement in the community in front of our eyes. Today marked the first steering committee meeting for BICAF 2017. We assessed the progress of last year’s fair and began to look at continuing its success.

Doreen translating at peer training event. Kwame (TL) right. 
Our trip to Sirigu for the midterm review made our placement better. We uncovered some issues within the team, but continued to work together to find solutions, creating resources such as a respect handbook, which we will be able to pass on to future cohorts. We ran sessions on team-bonding and recognising how much we all have in common. We’ve been planning a movie night on Fridays but never had a perfect choice of movies, so we borrowed Harry Potter from Matthew from the Life team in Sandema. Watching Harry Potter was fun with all my team members around and a “Sobolo” made by Naziba (Rob and Gideon’s host mum).

We had an afternoon at our team leaders house on Saturday. We discussed funny topics and took some pictures, we have found that it is very important to make time for each other outside of work. Placement has really been fun with my perfect team trying to overcome our challenges and working to achieve our set goals.

Author: Atuk  Abasitewon  Doreen