MEDA Blog - Stories from the Field

My MEDA Internship Reflection: "I really felt fulfilled"

I was looking for an internship in a developing country, and knew that GAC partnered with various international organizations in order to provide opportunities for young people. After focusing on human rights and gender issues, I was looking for something in that field. MEDA's listing caught my eye as the position and project really spoke to me. Not only was the role exactly what I was looking for – a gender position in Ghana – but what I read about MEDA's work inspired me to apply. The idea of finding 'business solutions to poverty,' empowering those most vulnerable to create their own change, and working on sustainable projects made me excited to be a part of the team.

Working in international development has really opened my eyes to the process of implementing an intervention. Although I had prior experience traveling and volunteering abroad, nothing can compare to living and working somewhere for an extended period of time. Visiting local communities, meeting clients and their families and seeing the positive results of the project were so rewarding. Something I didn't expect was the extent to which cultural differences played a role in the project. This required an awareness of who I was working with at different times and an understanding that practices I might consider normal may come across as inappropriate to others. I learned a lot about working in different contexts that has been extremely valuable.

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A Sense of Empowerment

b2ap3_thumbnail_Meeting-with-processors.gifOne of the main objectives of the GROW project is to build the capacities of our Lead Farmers – female farmers who are chosen to represent their women's groups – so that they will have the skills to maintain their practices as entrepreneurs even after the project is completed in their communities.

This process can also be very empowering for the women: teaching agricultural practices to ensure their soybean crops produce good yields, providing communities with gender sensitization to avoid stereotypes, demonstrating different ways of using soybean to benefit their families, and promoting group savings accounts so women can manage their own funds.

One of the most recent examples of both capacity building and empowerment was last week – a select number of Lead Farmers were brought to Tamale for two days to participate in the Pre-Season Forum, an agricultural event that brings together different actors in the soybean value chain. The Lead Farmers were able to attend discussions, network, and observe demonstrations of farming technology.
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The following day, the group was taken to meet with a shea processor, and learn about the details of collecting the fruit, making it into butter, packaging it and selling it to buyers. Although the GROW project focusses on soybean production, an important element is maintaining the farmers' businesses throughout the year – this may mean engaging in other income generating activities, especially during the dry season, after soy is cultivated.

After these two days of introducing the farmers to different people, as well as new agricultural innovations, MEDA held a small reception at the office. Over biscuits and juice, the women were asked what their most memorable moment was during their stay, or something interesting they had learned. For many women, visiting Tamale was their favourite part – some of them had never travelled from their communities to the town. For others, the highlight was attending an event with different people involved in agriculture. Many Lead Farmers left with contacts of other farmers and links to input suppliers. Another element they enjoyed was meeting each other. Although they are all part of the GROW project, the selected Lead Farmers were from different communities of the Upper West Region. They were happy to meet other women like themselves b2ap3_thumbnail_At-the-reception-at-the-MEDA-office-talking-about-their-experiences.gifand share their experiences.

Regardless of what their most memorable experience was, the emphasis lies in the fact that the women were chosen to participate because MEDA believes in them – in their skills and capabilities, both as farmers and as women. Providing them this sense of accomplishment is almost more important than providing them with something tangible. It is with this confidence that the Lead Farmers will go forward in their communities and truly embrace their multifaceted identities as mother, business person, farmer and woman, and continue to be the role models MEDA knows they are.
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Easter at the Lake

b2ap3_thumbnail_View-from-the-terrace-at-the-ranch.gifAs Easter came and went, it marked another holiday, along with Thanksgiving and Halloween (a holiday to me!), I spent in Ghana.

I left Tamale by bus – after waking up at 5am, eating crackers for breakfast out of my purse, and getting on a vehicle bound for Accra, but realizing it just in time – and headed for Kumasi, 2nd largest city in Ghana and the closest to Lake Bosomtwe, our final destination for the long weekend. I was travelling to meet former MEDA intern Gillian, who was making the trip from Accra, to have yet another adventure together. The 6 hour bus journey went by quickly as I was distracted by Ghanaian soap operas playing on the overhead screen. I'm not sure what exactly was happening, although I know it involved some type of royal family, black magic and a lot of yelling (perhaps this explains my distraction).

The two of us arrived in Kumasi minutes apart and set off in a private taxi towards the lake, about an hour away. It was so different to pass by the lush, green terrain and mountainous landscape that is found in the south, as opposed to the dry and dusty northern region I'm used to. b2ap3_thumbnail_Scrabble-Easter-message.gifIt was especially exciting to finally arrive at Lake Bosomtwe, a circular body of water that was created millions of years ago by a meteorite, surrounded by rolling hills.

Before long we were settled into our room at The Green Ranch, a small ecolodge that specializes in horseback riding and vegetarian food – two of my favourite things. Our days were spent lounging on the terrace that overlooked the lake, playing scrabble (my first time to play an entire game), eating homemade ice cream/juice/tofu (delicacies!), walking through the nearby village, or watching thunderstorms from our covered porch.

Aside from total relaxation, we did do other activities.

On our first full day at the ranch we went horseback riding along the lake. It was a beautiful way to see the scenery. Galaxy (the horse, not my nickname for Gillian) and I took the lead, and led the group through villages full of children giggling as we went past, a cacao farm shaded with trees, and along the beach, the horses splashing themselves to cool down. Although I had ridden for many years growing up, I hadn't experienced anything quite like riding on jungle paths and b2ap3_thumbnail_Horses-grazing.gifthrough tiny fishing communities... or getting sunburned on the back of my hands to the extent that I did.

We also went swimming. There were rumours about parasites... leeches... worms and other creepy things that you could catch/have stuck on you from swimming in the lake water. After some contemplation I decided to go for it. It was just too hot, and the Ghanaian family that was swimming looked like they were having too much fun. At its deepest point the lake is about 70 metres. Even though I was relatively close to the shore, I could feel cool currents from underneath which felt so refreshing.

All too soon the weekend came to an end and I made the bus trip back to Tamale. It was my last vacation here in Ghana, as I'll be leaving shortly, and I'm so glad I could spend it the way I did. As I travel through the different regions, visit different cities and embark on different adventures, I am amazed at both the diversity of each place, but also the similarities all over the country (not only my chances of sunburn which are the same in all regions) – friendly people, good food, natural beauty, and wonderful memories I take away.
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Catching up with Prudence

b2ap3_thumbnail_Prudence-watching-a-demonstration.gifI have met and interacted with so many women farmers – our targeted clients – during my work in Ghana, and am always interested in learning about their experiences and how they are impacted by MEDA. Recently I sat down with Prudence, a Lead Farmer whose participation I began noticing more and more as she became increasingly active within her community. This is her story within the GROW project!

I first met Prudence in September. Visitors from headquarters – Wally and his wife Millie, and Marlin – had come to interview farmers. We learned that Prudence was a mother of two girls, a wife of a trader, and had devoted an acre of land (out of the 6 acres her husband owns) to soybean cultivation. In fact, it was her first year planting soybean. The crop looked lush and she was excited to participate in the project. When asked about how she would spend the income earned from her yield, Prudence said she wanted to be a teacher, and would put the money towards that because she felt with MEDA's help, "in the future she would be someone." Some of Prudence's story was then published in The Marketplace.

In October I was pleasantly surprised to see Prudence in Tamale at the pre-harvest forum, a conference that links farmers, buyers, input dealers and other actors in the agricultural value chain together to network. We had asked our partners to choose a representative farmer from their communities to attend the event. Prudence had been selected. She came in a beautiful dress which she quickly traded in favour of a GROW t-shirt she received, and her hair had been nicely done. I watched as she participated in a meeting where the price of soybeans was negotiated amongst processors, asked questions after watching threshing equipment being demonstrated, and tasted soy milk – an example of what she could one day do with her own yields. I asked whether or not she liked Tamale (it was her first time visiting) and she responded with a bright smile and said that she "REALLY REALLY enjoyed Tamale." Now, her friends joke with her – if they don't see her around the compound or in the market, they claim, Oh! She must be in Tamale.

b2ap3_thumbnail_Prudence-leading-a-dance-as-we-finish-our-community-meeting.gifRachel, our senior project manager, and Christine, MEDA's women's economic development director, both came to visit at the end of November. We visited some communities to talk with the women about their experiences so far in the project. Prudence's community was one of those selected, and she was present at the meeting. Her confidence and leadership were apparent as she organized the women, fetched drinking water for the guests, and lead the group in a dance to send us off. Likewise, during a nutrition training session in December, Prudence was eager to participate and share her thoughts on infant and young child nutrition with the other farmers and the male facilitator from Ghana Health Service.

After returning to Ghana from the Christmas holidays, I thought it would be nice to touch base with Prudence after not seeing her for several weeks. The first opportunity I was in Wa, I arranged to speak with her. The field officer who organized the visit surprised me by taking me, not to the community meeting place where we usually saw the famers, but to Prudence's home. As we arrived there, she came out of the door laughing, "You're early!" She was still wearing a towel after having just bathed. Once she was dressed, she ran out of the compound and returned minutes later with water for me to drink, and offered me a seat on her plastic furniture in the courtyard.

b2ap3_thumbnail_Prudence-outside-her-home-after-our-interview.gifI asked her about her experience after nearly one year with the project. She began by saying "I have changed totally!" She elaborated that she had developed so many new relationships with other farmers, she knew more places now (again referencing her trip to Tamale) and that she can cook at least seven dishes that include soy. She told me about the success of her harvest – one bag she kept for family consumption while the other three she sold at the market for a good price. I was sure to ask what she was doing with this income, and she confirmed that it was in her savings account (which she emphatically stated was her very own – separate from her husband's bank account) so she could take classes to become a teacher. Prudence stated that her husband is "proud of me!" and that she will continue to cultivate soybeans because it is now her best crop.

These chats with Prudence I've had over the six months that I've now known her really encapsulate what the GROW project is all about: empowering women economically through the cultivation of soybean, educating clients in the nutritional benefits of the legume, and encouraging women's leadership in order to combat food insecurity. Prudence has proven that she is capable of achieving this in her household, and that she embodies the role of Lead Farmer. My time in Ghana is coming to an end, but before it does I will be sure to speak to Prudence a final time. Although, based on how she's grown throughout the project so far, I think I know how her story will continue.

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Winning Gold from Ghana

b2ap3_thumbnail_The-projector-and-flag-after-womens-gold.gifI love the olympics. Nothing makes me more excited than seeing the best athletes in the world participating in different events, hearing motivational stories, seeing examples of sportsmanship, and of course, watching Canadians compete on the world's stage. Trying to watch the olympics in Ghana was a bit of a struggle. That being said, when it comes to hockey, there is no stopping a Canadian from tracking down the game! Three different games, three different means of watching said games, and a various array of Canadian supporters from different countries contributed to one the best olympic experiences.

After visiting a number of bars and restaurants that we knew had tv – and finding all of them either broken, without satellite, or not open – some Canadian friends and I ended up at Tamale's newest café which boasts a projector and a large screen. There we were joined by other expats, including several Americans who were supporting for our opponents, the USA, and friends from Ireland, England and Australia who decided to root for the Canadians (hurray for the commonwealth!).

Sporting my red and white shirt (unfortunately the only red or white shirt I have is long sleeved, making for a hot and sticky hockey-watching experience) and Canadian flag, I settled down amongst the crowd to watch the game. It started at 5pm in Ghana, and because we were watching a projection outside in the daylight, we couldn't see anything for the first period, and were relying on the commentary alone. This however, didn't bother us too much, as it wasn't until the last period that the tide began to turn. I wish there could have been hidden camera recording our reactions to the game, especially the final Canadian goal – there was always a contingent of people who stood up, cheered, and hugged each other (and others who, before running around the patio waving the flag, jumped up so fast their chair fell over backwards).

b2ap3_thumbnail_Streaming-the-game-on-a-laptop.gifWe thought the procedure for watching the men's semi-final game would be similar because we had found a place that would show the game. This was not the case. Although this café had satellite, the channel was not airing the game. The new found Canadian fans started arriving after us – those who came earlier to stake out the same seats in order to fashion the seating configuration that had proved so lucky the night before – now wearing their red and white (I think they needed to see some proof that Canada could be relied upon to do well before committing to dressing in our colours) only to find that the game wasn't playing. After 2.5 hockey periods, downloading olympic phone apps and radio stations in the hopes of hearing commentary at least, and relentless internet searching, we were able to find a website that was streaming the game and discovered we were about to make our way into the gold medal final. More flag waving ensued.

The finale.

Before I go into the details, i'll insert my favourite motivational olympic story here. I was amazed to learn that Carey Price, the goalie for Canada, grew up on a reservation located three hours away from where his hockey practice was held. He and his parents made this trek several times a week. When he became a more serious player, they bought a four-seater plane so he could get to practice this way, cutting the commute down to an hour. Stories like these are what make the olympics such a powerful event, inspiring us to fulfill our goals.

b2ap3_thumbnail_Finally-watching-it-on-a-tv.gifBack to the game. The owner of the café had, by this time, noticed our dedication and offered us the tv in his (air conditioned) office. The gold medal game deserves only the best viewing conditions! We were ecstatic to be able to see the picture so clearly. All the while, our social media was showing us pictures of friends and family awake at 5am to watch the game and line-ups of hockey-jerseyed fans outside of bars in downtown Toronto. One wall of the owner's office connects to the restaurant with a two-way mirror. Every time we cheered, the guests in the restaurant would all look towards the office, perplexed by what was happening inside. We were told later that they always knew when a goal was scored – they kept track of how many times we'd yell.

The principle of the olympics – fair play, sense of community and hard work to achieve our goals as Price reminds us – can be applied to our daily lives. Regardless of where we are in the world, and which countries our colleagues, friends and opponents may be from, there are times when we are unified, making anywhere you find yourself – including Tamale – feel just like home.

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Cape Coast and Castles

b2ap3_thumbnail_Me-on-the-beach.gifIn before heading back to Canada for Christmas, I joined Daniel and Gillian on a weekend trip to Cape Coast and Elmina, beach locations known for their beautiful scenery and fascinating history.
After taking an overnight bus to Accra, on which we endured hours upon hours of Ghanaian soap operas playing at full blast (regardless of the time of night) and surviving a tight tro-tro journey to Elmina, we made it to a quiet and secluded eco-lodge just in time to see the sunrise over the ocean. Though we were tired, we powered on through the day, enjoying coffees on the beach front property, swimming in the ocean and delicious breakfasts. But it wasn't all relaxation and drinking out of coconuts (though that was one of the highlights). Later in the day we walked through the fishing community to Elmina Castle, one of the fortresses that housed Ghanaians and other West African populations before they were shipped to various parts of the world during the slave trade.

b2ap3_thumbnail_The-view-overlooking-the-castle-courtyard.gifPassing through the hands of the Portuguese, Dutch and British, this 17th Century castle imprisoned Ghanaians as well as those from Burkina Faso, Mali, the Ivory Coast and other surrounding areas. These prisoners - who would later become slaves in the Americas and other parts of the world - included men, women and children who were separated and contained in different cells. These small rooms were packed, often with hundreds more people than the capacity allowed. We saw the "door of no return," the only exit these prisoners could leave through, that led them directly out into the waiting ships. It was a chilling experience to be guided through the various rooms and cells, hearing these stories of suffering. Nonetheless, we were all glad we took the tour to learn more about this period.

After our stay in Elmina, we packed up and made our way back east, stopping in Cape Coast (staying at a cozy vegetarian-friendly guesthouse) to explore the city and it's UNESCO world heritage site, Cape Coast Castle.

Many aspects of fortress were similar to what we saw in Elminab2ap3_thumbnail_A-view-of-Cape-Coast-from-our-guesthouse.gif - it was built in the same timeframe, had passed through many different hands of ownership and served the same purpose. However the stories we heard of prisoners who had been held captive were different and told individual tales of suffering. There were chains still intact in the cell walls and iron bars covering the few small pockets of light that were allowed in. Although it was a beautiful and warm day, I was chilled walking though the courtyards thinking of the atrocities that had happened here. I'm so glad we had the opportunity to visit the castle - it is an experience I won't soon forget.

Leaving our vacation spot and heading to Tamale, I felt extremely fulfilled. Over the weekend I was able to enjoy extravagant meals, campfires by the beach and the ocean waves - things that may mark a typical beach vacation - but I also learned more about Ghanaian history. I certainly left with a tan, but more importantly, I left with an awareness of the past.

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The Finale! – Nutrition Education and Food Demonstrations

b2ap3_thumbnail_Nutrition-training-facilitated-in-a-group-discussion-to-engage-women-PS.gifThe last week of my internship was possibly the most exciting time in my five months with the GROW project in Ghana. I saw all of my ideas and plans for GROW’s Nutrition Strategy come to life.

In case you’re not sure of what my role and responsibilities with GROW are, let me give you a brief summary. As the Nutrition/Food Security Intern, I analyze needs for nutrition training and identify opportunities to stimulate healthy dietary choices within families participating in the project. The ‘analyzed needs for nutrition training’ part means I conducted a needs assessment of GROW’s beneficiaries. I researched their health and nutritional status, community assets, local diet, attitudes and values, use of community resources and services, and perceived barriers to improved nutrition. All of this information gathering entailed desk research of GROW project data and other West African food security projects, focus group discussions with GROW women, as well as key informant interviews with local nutrition stakeholders.

The second half of my responsibilities was the ‘identifying opportunities’ part, which is formerly called the GROW Nutrition Strategy. This included nutrition-related program goals, objectives, and recommendations to address identified barriers. Also, I included an assessment of internal and external trends and issues that can pose challenges to the nutrition program as well as an appropriate implementation strategy for my recommendations.

I found the needs assessment and strategy development processes very rewarding. Not only did it build my professional skills, I also gained insight into the culture of the communities we work with. Although, my work focuses on food and nutrition, it is astonishing how intimately food is related to families’ lifestyle and beliefs system. I gained an appreciation for the ‘why’ many things are the way they are for GROW women today. But most importantly, never straying far from my health background, I saw the big picture of how hunger, poverty and diseases are all interlinked. And all of these revelations played a part in my recommendations for the nutrition program.

b2ap3_thumbnail_KFP-staff-with-women-lead-farmers-learning-how-to-dry-fry-soybeans-to-send-for-milling-PS.gifDeveloping and designing the nutrition training and food demonstrations for the program involved working with Women in Agricultural Development (WIAD), a technical directorate of Ministry of Food and Agriculture, and Ghana Health Services (GHS), a public service body formed from the reorganization of the Ministry of Health. Drawing on the technical expertise of each of these agencies, I drafted the agreement for MEDA to enter into a collaborative partnership with WIAD, implementing basic nutrition training and food demonstrations using soybeans, and with GHS, implementing community-based Infant and Young Child Feeding (IYCF) training in GROW communities.

The messages and materials used in these training sessions are key as attempting to change food habits is a very complex and lengthy process. Motivating these families to adopt long-term nutritional practices requires increasing their knowledge, skills and environmental supports for the behaviour change. The channels of communication, size of training groups, and even the timing of sessions (we decided on four sessions for each group) play a significant role in how well a new behaviour will be accepted and practiced.

Outlining the messages, materials and implementation schedule with WIAD and GHS, led up to the planning of pilot sessions to be conducted during my last week with GROW. I was so excited to see everything I planned actually come together.  Of course, it was very chaotic times as I had to organize my work to be handed over to the future GROW Nutrition Coordinator to be hired in 2014 and some tasks remained to be completed. Nevertheless, I organized two pilot sessions to be hosted in two different communities of Wa West district hosted by two of GROW’s Key Facilitating Partners (KFPs).

b2ap3_thumbnail_WIAD-staff-showing-women-how-to-remove-husk-from-soaked-soybeans-before-milling-into-soy-paste-PS.gifCommunity Aid for Rural Development (CARD) hosted the first pilot session in the Wechiau community with WIAD implementing nutrition training and a practical activity. Even though visual materials weren’t available for this pilot session, positive feedback was received from attendees (fourteen women lead farmers) and CARD staff (KFPs hosting these sessions build their capacity in food and nutrition training as well!).  Topics of discussion included:

  • Food groups and local food variety
  • Balanced meals
  • Importance of clean water
  • Benefits of soybeans
  • What and how soybeans can be blended into local dishes

The practical activity taught women how to properly select, wash, dry and cook soybeans to make soy flour or soy paste. This practical activity is introductory as the following session teaches attendees to incorporate soy flour into local dishes like banku, Tom Brown, tubaani and many others.

b2ap3_thumbnail_GHS-staff-stimulating-discussion-with-the-use-of-counselling-cards-PS.gifCentre for the Alleviation of Poverty, the Environment and Child Support (CAPECS) hosted the second pilot session in the Poyentanga community with GHS implementing nutrition training. This pilot session went really well and the women were very engaged, sharing their personal experiences and challenges with the group. Topics of discussion included:

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Networking, networking, networking

b2ap3_thumbnail_GROW-Coordinators-and-myself-at-the-ATT-Launch-PS.gifMeeting others working in the same field is an encouraging and fun way to share ideas and collaborate efforts. It’s especially interesting when you are based in rural Ghana and the technical areas of the project you work on include agriculture, business, financial services, nutrition and gender. I was lucky enough to represent the GROW project at two different ‘sector events’ in October and November.

The first event I attended was the 3rd Annual Northern Ghana Pre-Harvest Agribusiness Forum. The theme was to connect farmers to competitive markets. In attendance were buyers (aggregators, processors, etc.) and sellers (farmers) who intermingled, visited vendor booths and even negotiated deals. A commodity exchange session was scheduled for farmers and buyers to come together and discuss issues of price, quality and supply (I learned that certain crops don’t have maximum value immediately after harvest).

For this reason, MEDA invited select famers of the GROW project to attend this one-day event. Four lead farmers were chosen from various GROW communities to get a sneak peek into the industry, its players and meet new buyers. This activity is important in achieving one outcome of the GROW project, which is market linkages and improved bargaining skills for generating income. Many of these women have never sold their crops wholesale. Many believe that selling crops by the bowl in the local market (a bowl of soybeans sells for 2 GHS, equivalent to 1 USD) will generate more income over time than wholesale. However, encouraging the woman to join with others in the community to sell larger amounts at wholesale prices (100 kg bag can sell for 86 GHS) means they receive a larger sum of money with less labour and time invested in the selling process. Also, going home with 86 GHS compared to 6 GHS means that women are more likely to allocate money to priority expenses/savings and less likely to spend it on petty items during their day at the market.

On MEDA’s attendance list for the Pre-Harvest Forum were MEDA staff, GROW coordinators from our five Key Facilitating Partners (KFPs = local NGOs), and four lead farmers. There were keynote speakers throughout the day discussing the global market price of grains (i.e. rice, soybean and maize) and how it influences Ghana (i.e. buyer and seller requirements). All organizations attending had a vendor booth to showcase their products, services and interact with others. An agricultural technology transfer project even hosted demonstrations of equipment for post harvest handling such as a thresher machine for soybeans. So you’re probably wondering what was going on at the GROW booth aren’t you? Soymilk of course! Well, not only soymilk…

Daniel, the GROW Communication Specialist, worked really hard upon arrival to Ghana (literally his first day of on the job!) to begin preparations for this event. He developed the GROW logo, banners, brochures and a large pictorial map showing MEDA’s approach to provide ‘business solutions to poverty’, specifically related to GROW and food security. Daniel and I also collaborated to create give-away posters highlighting the benefits of soybeans.

b2ap3_thumbnail_Soymilk-is-a-great-complementary-food-to-continued-breastfeeding-PS.gifb2ap3_thumbnail_MEDA-staff-serving-soy-milk-from-GROW-soybeans-PS.gifWeeks leading up the event, Rachel came for one of her usual project visits and brought along a soymilk/tofu maker. It looks like an electric kettle and can make more than 1L of soymilk from less than one cup of raw soybeans soaked in water. It seemed like a fun (and convenient) way to familiarize the local attendees with soymilk. Traditionally, milk and dairy products are not a part of the local diet (although, imported and packaged soymilk has been gaining popularity among those that can afford it). Naturally, I was excited to test out the soymilk machine so I made a trip to the market to buy soybeans, vanilla extract and cane sugar. I followed the manuals instructions to operate the machine and eagerly watched as it vibrated and warmed up. After five minutes, nothing! The machine just turned off and never turned back on again. My disappointment was obvious, but I was determined not to disappoint GROW staff by not serving homemade soymilk as planned.

Equipped with a few online recipes, a make shift sieve and a sterilized handkerchief as cheesecloth, I recipe tested in our office kitchen every afternoon for a week (using GROW staff as sensory evaluators a.k.a. taste testers). I used their feedback to adjust accordingly until I had it just right to serve those attending the forum. The evening before the event, Felicia, the GROW office cook in Tamale, assisted me whip up 10 L of soymilk from 8 cups of soybeans in the office kitchen. At the Pre-Harvest Forum, we served over 300 people samples of soymilk! For many people, it was their first time having soymilk but the awesome thing was that others were aware of some its benefits. They eagerly asked questions about the nutritional value of soybeans and gave great feedback on the taste of it. Daniel and I had also developed recipe cards for handouts to those interested. The funniest part was that people started thinking the GROW project were soymilk producers! Serving soymilk at these events successfully introduced soybeans to the local audience, created dialogue about its nutritional value and utilization, and most importantly, educated others about what GROW is doing to help women farmers… all starting with soybeans.

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Fire Festival

b2ap3_thumbnail_Gill-and-I-walking-in-the-procession.gifIn Northern Ghana there is a legend about a tribal chief who had a son who would become chief after him. One night, the chief noticed the baby was missing. He gathered the whole village to look for the child. They carried torches with them to guide them through the night. Finally, the baby was found under a tree - the villagers believed the tree had stolen the boy. The chief rescued his son, and as a punishment, set the tree on fire. The villagers returned to the chief's palace and celebrated by singing and dancing, maintaining their torches to light up the night.
 
Now, in Tamale and other towns in the northern regions of the country, the fire festival takes place every November to celebrate the return of the chief's son.
 
Daniel, Gillian and I had heard about this fire festival, without really knowing the history behind it. We were told vague details about how it would begin around 8pm and it would involve some sort of parade, taking over the road so that no cars could pass. We waited, sitting on a curbside, looking for clues that this event was about to start. Around us, the excitement grew - children and families gathered, many holding sticks, lighting fireworks, and wearing different traditional outfits.
 
Finally, after an hour, we heard rumblings in the distance. Chanting, singing and drumming filled the air, and those children around us began to stream into the road. The three of us followed suit, walking into the intersection which had become eerily void of cars. Craning our necks to see further down the road, where the noise was originating, we could see a mass of people coming towards us from the direction of the chief's palace, carrying wooden sticks and branches that were ablaze. Once this group merged with ours, which had grown substantially as we waited, the procession began moving towards the center of town.
 
Let me describe exactly what I mean by procession. This involved people of all ages, from babies bagged on their mother's backs to elderly people using walking sticks. Young men, either shirtless or wearing traditional attire, were running through the crowd, firing rifles in the air or dragging machetes on the ground as they ran, creating sparks behind them. Mothers were constantly grabbing their children - those who were getting too far ahead and risked getting lost in the crowd, or those getting too close to one of the many open flames. The air was filled with smoke, song and screams every time an unexpected gun shot went off.
 
Basically, procession can be interchanged with chaos. Or maybe mayhem.
 
A young boy, Rashid, became my personal guide (which was lucky because I lost and found Daniel and Gillian several times during this event) taking my hand and telling me to 'watch out', or 'walk over here,' to avoid particularly excited youth darting through the crowd with various types of weaponry.
 
b2ap3_thumbnail_Women-holding-tree-branches-to-take-back-to-the-chiefs-palace.PNGWe got to our meeting place, where crowds of other people had also come to gather, and where unsuspecting trees and vegetation stood. In only a few moments, trees were lit on fire, and branches from trees still standing were vigorously chopped off and brought back into the crowd. We then turned back and started our walk of about 30 minutes, towards our starting place. The chopped tree branches were held by women high in the air, and would be taken back to the chief's palace to be burnt. At times, according to the song that was being sung and the instruments accompanying it, the crowd would turn and run momentarily in the opposite direction. My friend Rashid was particularly helpful in these moments, alerting me to turn and run with the group, instead of being trampled. (Or at least substantially jostled by people running by)
 
When we reached the intersection from which we started, Gillian and I separated from the crowd. They would continue on, returning to the chief's palace where they began, to celebrate with more singing, dancing and fire.
 
Of all the cultural events I have experienced here in Ghana, the fire festival was by far the most exciting and interesting for me. It was a night when everyone left their daily roles behind and became a villager from the legend, truly embracing the celebrations amidst an atmosphere buzzing with excitement. I am so glad I could experience this event and happy that I too, become a villager for the night.

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Happy Thanksgiving from Ghana

b2ap3_thumbnail_Eating-dinner-with-the-Canadian-flag.gifWhat do you get when you cross 5 Canadians, 2 British friends, an American, a Danish girl, a Canadian flag and a power outage?
Canadian Thanksgiving in Ghana! (I have coined the term Ghanadian Thanksgiving)

Last Sunday we celebrated Thanksgiving, hosted by three other Canadian girls also doing CIDA internships here in Tamale. It was a great time and a wonderful meal. None of us have an oven, and turkey isn't that popular a menu item here, so the girls bought chickens and asked the local street meat vendor on the corner to roast them for us which he kindly did. We also had mashed yams (potatoes are a rare commodity), a mountain of eggplant, onion and carrot, cabbage (not such a rare commodity), and a lovely tomato soup with bread to start. Our contribution (us MEDA interns) was a watermelon for dessert, roasted corn, which Gillian very impressively perfected over a homemade charcoal grill, and a Canadian flag from our apartment which we hung proudly over the curtain rod.

It was a nice surprise when I was asked to give a toast before the meal. I mentioned how fantastic it was, as we were all so far away from home, to be gathered together to celebrate our holiday – and exciting that others could join us in their first experiences of Canadian Thanksgiving (I was sure to toast to some other Canadian trademarks we could recognize on this occasion like hockey, maple syrup and Celine Dion).

b2ap3_thumbnail_Eating-during-the-power-outage.gifAt one point we were asked the story behind Canadian Thanksgiving, and unfortunately, I didn't know all the facts at the time. After some quick research I learned that the Canadians started giving thanks for the harvest 43 years before the pilgrims landed in the United States. At first, the national holiday was celebrated on November 6, but in 1957 when Remembrance Day was established on November 11, the date of Thanksgiving was changed to take place in October instead. Now I can be ready to answer that question during the next Thanksgiving I celebrate abroad!

Before we started the main course, we were asked to each share with the group the things we were thankful for. As well as being thankful for the health of my friends and family, I also explained how thankful I am for this great experience in Ghana – in the workplace, in the communities, across the country (I have been to all but one Ghanaian region) – together with some amazing people. I really couldn't ask for anything better. It was nice to hear that most of the others had similar things to be thankful for.
In the middle of dinner, a thunder storm rolled in and we lost power. This didn't slow us down and, as we've learned to be prepared with candles and flashlights at hand in a moment's notice, we were ready to continue dinner in no time, accompanied by various forms of mood lighting. Luckily the power came back again about 10 minutes later.

All in all it was a wonderful evening filled with laughter, food and friends. Although I was thinking of my family back home, I wouldn't change my Ghanadian Thanksgiving experience for anything. It served as a reminder of how grateful I am to be exactly where I want to be, helping provide families here with a harvest they too can celebrate.

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Donor Visit to Ghana

One of the highlights of my time in Ghana so far was having the pleasure to meet and  get to know the MEDA delegation that recently came to tour the GROW project.

Waiting at the airport in Tamale for the group to arrive, we were all reviewing the plans for the week ahead and crossing our fingers everything would go smoothly. We hoped the days' pouring rain (and their hours-long flight delay from Accra!) would not be too much of an inconvenience for this group who had travelled half-way across the world to support and visit the GROW project first hand. As soon as the 15 tour members walked into the arrivals hall (which also serves as baggage pickup and waiting room), we knew we would have nothing to worry about – everyone was laughing  and joking with one another as though they had known each other for years (I would later find out that many, in fact, HAD known each other for years) and we knew this group would take everything in stride with smiles on their faces. Their happiness to simply be in Ghana and their willingness to be a part of MEDA's initiative, in turn, put bigger smiles on our own faces.

Each moment we spent together was memorable in it's own way, although there were a few specific highlights that stand out...

b2ap3_thumbnail_Donors-on-safari-in-Mole-National-Park.gifGoing on safari
No visit to the Northern Region is complete without a stop at Mole National Park. Here it's possible to see a range of animals, from elephants to different types of antelope, baboons and birds. Something just as fun is the experience of riding in, or on the top of, the safari jeeps. It was wonderful to see the excitement of the group as they clambered up the rickety ladder to get a good seat on the top of the vehicle. Watching the cars driving a long the dusty paths of the park, it was really a marvel that everyone made it out in one piece  – some of the angles these jeeps were driving at, going along embankments and navigating the potholes caused by the rain, was unbelievable. At one point, the guide stopped the car and encouraged us all to get out. Leading us into the bush, he took us up close to an elephant enjoying his lunch. It was great to see such a huge animal in this context, instead of inside bars at the zoo. After we all snapped pictures, we piled back into the cars and continued on our safari.


Wise words from the chief

Later that same day we paid a visit to Wa West, one of the communities where the GROW project is located. Although there were many villagers waiting for us outside in a group, we first were summoned to the chief's palace, a modest building beside a mosque. We all took our shoes off and entered, finding a space to sit on chairs or crouch on the floor. The chief was waiting for us inside, and shared some insights with us before we went out to interact with the community. One of the most powerful sentiments was his comment: "When you empower a woman, you empower the community." It was so encouraging to hear this support for MEDA. It reinforced how important the project is and the scope of the impact it will have.

b2ap3_thumbnail_The-female-farmers-showing-us-their-soybean-crops.gifSharing results
Visiting another community on our second day in the field was another meaningful experience for myself as well as the group. After initially greeting the community members, participating in their local dance (I did join in this time like I promised myself, even if it was only for a total of roughly of 2.4 seconds) we were taken to see the soybean fields. The land we looked at was farmed by two women together. They had put their 1 acre plots together to form a plot of 2 acres which they both cared for, making the work less strenuous. The women were so proud to show us their crops, which were growing beautifully. I learned from MEDA donors Sam and Lynn, who have agricultural backgrounds, that the soil is very fertile making the crop (also the maize that grew opposite) grow lush. Having never seen the women's farms before, it was a great visual to me to see the work in progress.

b2ap3_thumbnail_Allan-dancing-in-one-of-our-communities.gifOur MEDA president being initiated into the communities
It was so wonderful to spend time with Allan, our MEDA president, and his lovely wife Donna. These are two of the most humble and warm people I have ever met. What was even more special was to see them welcomed into the various communities we visited. Allan was the first one to join in the dancing with the women, the last one to get into the car for the drive back. and he always had encouraging words to share with the villagers. In one of the communities Allan was presented with a typical chief's outfit, marking his importance to that community. Similarly, on our last day in the field, he and Donna were both given traditional smocks by one of our partners TUDRIDEP, as thanks for their support and hard work. Seeing this confirmed how grateful the communities are and how influential MEDA is here in Ghana.

It was a bittersweet moment as we stood waving and watching the group drive away on our last day together. After spending hours telling (or listening to) puns, playing music and trying not to fall asleep on each other during long car rides, having conversations about our families, sharing travel experiences, and eating meals together every day for a week, I really began to feel as though I had known some of these people for years. As we all hugged each other goodbye, and us interns received comments of encouragement and thanks, I realized that they were the ones who should be acknowledged. Working in the Tamale office, closely with the staff and partners on the ground, it is easy to forget that so much effort also takes place behind the scenes. The groups' visit made me fully understand how important their support is, and how, without their help, the GROW project would not be as successful as it is today.

A big thank you to all of MEDA's donors, biggest fans and staff back at home. I hope I'm lucky enough to see you all again in the future (hopefully all wearing the Ghanaian outfits I know many of you have!), so we can reminisce about our time together. I really believe MEDA will continue to connect us all.

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Road Trip to Kintampo Falls

b2ap3_thumbnail_Tro--tro-in-Ghana.JPGOn a cloudy Sunday morning, wanting to explore the Ghanaian countryside, we boarded a tro-tro to Kintampo Falls.

Let me begin by explaining our means of transportation. A tro-tro, or 'tro' as it is affectionately called, is a minibus that you can flag down and jump on with other passengers who are travelling in the same direction. Due to their more than rickety conditions and number of passengers riding along side you, the tros are much cheaper than buses or taxis. Another option, which is what we did on this particular Sunday, is get a group together and rent one (equip with a driver) for a day. Kintampo Falls, only three hours away, seemed doable.

No experience in Africa, or in other parts of the world, is complete without travelling like the locals do. We managed to squeeze 19 people, including the driver and his assistant, into this tro-tro. The quarter-sized hole in the floor of the vehicle, giving us a view to the pavement below, didn't even deter us. It may not have been the most comfortable 3 hours (6 hours round trip) but it was a great journey. We passed many different landscapes, bought snacks out of the window from local b2ap3_thumbnail_Driving-to-Kintampo-Falls.JPGvendors running along side as we slowed down to go through toll gates, and saw how people live outside of Tamale, 'the capital of the north,' the sizeable town we have already grown so accustomed to.

Going through a community, one child on the side of the road did a double take and then pointed to the tro-tro saying "Woooowwwww." I like to think she was also impressed at how many people we were able to fit inside. I sure was.

After a few hours, we finally made it to Kintampo Falls. Walking through a wooded setting, we could hear rushing water as we got closer. We passed by the various stages of the waterfall, starting at the top where the water raged down over the rocks, and finally descended 152 stairs (not that I was counting) to the base of the waterfall where it was safe to swim. Although it was overcast, the group of us peeled off our layers and jumped in. The brave ones climbed right under the waterfall where the water poured over from above. b2ap3_thumbnail_Kintampo-Falls.jpg

We had heard that there was another waterfall close by, Fuller Falls, and decided to check that out as well. Drying ourselves off to the extent that it wouldn't be overly gross to be crammed against one another in the tro again, we hit the road.

We were confidently driving along, and even saw a signpost for the falls which reaffirmed we were going in the right direction, when we came to a dirt road, jutted and uneven. The driver stopped and asked a shepherd if we were still going in the right direction. To our dismay, he told us to go back the way we came. How our tro-tro driver managed to pull a three point turn on that narrow road, I will never know.

After driving for several kilometres we were nearly back where we had started from. Once again, the driver pulled over to ask for directions. The men who assisted us assured us that, no, the waterfall was back the way we came from – we had been previously travelling the right way. Exasperated, we turned around a second time (waved to the shepherd as we passed him again) and finally came to the entrance of Fuller Falls.

Instead of swimming here, we walked up the side of the waterfall to the very top where we were able to sit and look down at the rapids below. I was surprised to see how lush and green the surroundings were, especially considering how dry the weather has been, despite it being the rainy season. We spotted a few creepy crawlies in the brush, including two long and fat centipedes. Or were they millipedes? Some sort of insect with a great number of legs.

After taking in the scenery from the top of the falls, we decided it was time to head back to Tamale. It was fantastic to get in touch with nature again and escape the busy city life for an afternoon. Getting out and seeing more of the country we are living and working in, setting the context for our work here, really excited me. I'm looking forward to more local travelling in the future, all for research purposes, of course…

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THIS is why I'm here

b2ap3_thumbnail_Staff-facilitating-meeting.JPGSince arriving here in Tamale, I have been helping to prepare and facilitate workshops focussed on gender sensitization and awareness. Along with Faustina from the Tamale office, and Yasir who has been visiting from Waterloo, we have conducted these trainings for MEDA staff, as well the local partners involved in the GROW project.

Admittedly, it was a little daunting to imagine myself training a conference room full of people, some who have more experience than I did in the field of gender. Now that we're nearly done with the training sessions I can say that I am so grateful for having the experience of participating in the planning and execution of these sessions. Sharing thoughts and ideas with others, meeting colleagues whom I will continue to work with during my time here, and listening to different cultural perspectives has taught me so much.

However, today's session taught me the most.

In the afternoon our group of local partners and facilitators got into a mini bus and drove 30 minutes outside of Wa, where our field office is located, to one of the participating communities. I was excited to finally see the people who were benefitting from the GROW (Greater Rural Opportunities for Women) project, and knew I would enjoy myself. The experience, however, was above and beyond my expectations.

When we pulled up we were surrounded by women and children clapping, singing and dancing. (I told myself I would practice my dance moves in order to join in  next time!) We enjoyed this warm welcome for a few minutes before separating into groups in order to lead an activity based on community roles of men and women.

This interactive session with the community members was great to see: men and women sharing their views, laughing, listening to differing opinions, coming to the agreement that women are just as capable as men, and acknowledging their support of the project. Our goal of raising gender awareness and making an entry into the community was a huge success.

My favourite participants in this activity were the children who had gathered around the tree under which we were holding our meeting, listening in on the conversation, laughing along with their parents, and catching our eye to smile and wave. Although most of them were too young to realize what exactly we were doing there, it was wonderful to have them present – we really felt like we were reaching out to the community as a whole.

b2ap3_thumbnail_Woman-balancing-wooden-stool.JPGAfter our session, as we made our way back to the minibus, the children were fascinated by our digital cameras and seeing their own faces in the pictures we took. I was soon approached by an unsmiling women who began speaking to me in the local language. I couldn't understand a word, but assumed she was telling me to stop taking pictures. As I was putting my camera away, someone came over to translate: "No, no, she wants you to take a picture of HER!" She struck a pose, quickly grabbing a wooden stool to balance on her head for this photo-op.

Heading back Wa, I reflected on the experience. There were so many highlights – meeting the community members, seeing where they live, playing with the children, and witnessing, on a small scale, changes beginning to happen for the better. I've enjoyed all my adventures here in Ghana so far, from trying the different foods to seeing local sights and making new friends. But after this trip to the field I realized – THIS is why I'm here.

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The COLWOD boutique - a hidden gem

b2ap3_thumbnail_Colwod-Boutique-in-Ghana.JPGHaving just arrived in Tamale, in the Northern Region of Ghana, Gillian and I got a city tour from another Canadian friend living here. We walked through the market and visited stalls selling everything from cows feet to toilet paper and pineapples to insect spray; ate a lunch of 'red red', a typical Ghanian dish of friend plantain and beans; scoped out the nearest grocery stores and bought 'fan ice' - ice cream in a bag – from a boy selling it on his bicycle.

Nearing the end of our tour, we were led down an alley, off the main street, to a tiny shop that stood alone – we were introduced to the hidden gem that is the COLWOD boutique.

COLWOD, the Collaboration with Women in Distress, is a charitable organization which was started in 1995 to help abandoned and abused women. COLWOD teaches these women skills like sewing, tie-dye and batik in order for them to gain economic independence and support themselves.

Not only can you purchase fabric by the yard for 7 cedi, or roughly $3.50 Canadian dollars, there are handcrafts like purses, clothing and home décor for sale. The proceeds go back to the women, providing an income.

Since arriving in Ghana, we had noticed the beautiful prints of the women's clothing. Now we know the secret! It's common here to simply buy the fabric of your choice and take it to a local seamstress and have clothing, usually skirts or dresses, made to order. Outside some of the seamstress' shops are photos showing the various designs and styles of dress you can choose from.

With this in mind, Gillian and I perused the fabrics, taking some off the rack and holding them up to ourselves, imagining what we'db2ap3_thumbnail_Jessica-at-Colwod.jpg look like in a dress of that material. What a challenge! There were so many interesting patterns and prints it was hard to finally decide. I walked around the shop with two different materials on my arm thinking they were the ones I was going home with… until I spotted others that I liked even more (repeating this cycle twice). There was even a fabric with Canadian maple leaves printed in red – being eyed by a man in search of something for his wife.

The three of us Canadians were browsing alongside other shoppers – another young woman trying on a long robe, and the local man contemplating fabrics. Seeing the others provided a small insight into the reception in Tamale of women's organizations. Knowing that COLWOD has existed since 1995, we can assume there has been enough local support for it to thrive here.

The atmosphere in the shop was cheerful and bright, run by a smiling young woman who was quiet but eager to help. In one entertaining scene, the young woman (still wearing the robe she had tried on) asked the man if he would try on a shirt she was hoping to buy for her father back home. She handed it to him, and he struggled to pull it on over his glasses and dress shirt. After he had successfully managed to get into the shirt, he stood awkwardly, waiting for her response. The girl looked him over and said, "You know, you're much more fit than my dad. He has a pretty big belly."

It was touching to see how an organization founded to help women in distress could bring people together – both locals and people from abroad – in order to support those in need and help them create a new life for themselves through economic independence.  In exchange, the women's work  serves as a reminder that we can help others in even small ways and adds some colour to our lives.

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