Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Ten Days in Ghana

Right now, I’m traveling back from Ghana.  Four students from my research group – Amanda, Diana, Valerie, and me – have spent the past ten days there.  One of the projects my advisor (Jeremy) is involved with focuses on something called the Soybean Innovation Lab (SIL), funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).  I can’t say that I know all the details (it’s a large project with many different parts), but, basically, it is geared toward promoting and improving soybean cultivation, since soybeans are a protein-rich crop that can help reduce hunger and malnutrition.  Some of the different pieces of the project focus on improving agricultural techniques, developing downstream processing operations, creating demand for soybean products, and ensuring gender equity.  Jeremy’s piece focuses on ensuring that aspects of this project are not going to be harmful to environmental and/or human health.  For me and the three other students involved, SIL isn’t directly related to any of our main projects, but we all have a general interest in this kind of work, so Jeremy brought us in.  The environmental piece of the project is relatively small, so we have somewhat limited resources and can’t do everything that Jeremy had wanted to do initially.  But, for the past several months, we’ve been trying to come up with a relatively simple way to at least partially investigate some relevant issues, and this trip was designed to get the ball rolling on that front.

Going into this trip, we had essentially two goals.  First (and probably most important), we wanted to provide some training for two partner organizations working on the ground in northern Ghana, within and near Tamale (the third-largest city in the country).  Second, we wanted to collect some initial data (using surveys and lab analyses) from multiple villages in two nearby districts, trying to see if we could begin to assess relative health risks from exposure to waterborne pathogens, nitrate and/or nitrite (from fertilizers), and pesticides.  Basically, we’re hoping to estimate whether increased use of fertilizers and/or pesticides, or exposure to pathogens (typically through fecal contamination), might undercut any health improvements from the better nutrition that might be a result of greater access to soybean products.  Getting some clear results could allow us to make some recommendations regarding how the greatest risks might be lowered.

Our two partner organizations are Catholic Relief Services (CRS) and the Savannah Agricultural Research Institute (SARI).  CRS, which has an office in Tamale, helps with much of the on-the-ground implementation and deployment of SIL’s work, interacting with local village leaders, distributing seed kits to farmers, and conducting surveys.  SARI is in Tolon District, about 20-30 minutes from the center of Tamale, has a number of agricultural test plots that have been used to demonstrate improved growing practices to local farmers, and also includes a soil chemistry lab.

Now that the stage is set with a little background information, I can start talking about the actual trip.  But first, I’ll include a little poem I finished just before leaving:

To Wander in Wonder
What right to go roaming
Has the wanderer got?
To run far afield from this fair, friendly spot,
To wade through the long grass she's ne'er before seen,
Or the whispering waters that still flow pristine?
Perhaps, in the foaming
Of the waves against rock,
She sees, in that moment, a white-crested flock
Lift off toward the glittering sunbeams above,
Transform to a cloud with the air of a dove.
And now, as her journey
Circles back to the start,
She maintains all the wonders she's seen in her heart:
The living and giving immersed in the loam
Wherever her wandering footsteps could roam,
And so, she returns with new eyes to her home.


As it turned out, the day before we left, we found out that Jeremy wouldn’t be able to go with us, at least for the first several days of the trip.  He had a very good reason for not being able to go, but it definitely increased our level of uncertainty about the trip.  Jeremy had been to Ghana before and had interacted with staff from CRS and SARI, so he had all the connections.  None of us had been there before or knew anyone.  But, we went ahead with it, and I think things turned out okay, although the added responsibilities that the four of us needed to share did make it a bit more daunting.  And unfortunately, I made a few mistakes during the first couple of days that ended up costing us some money.  No one else thought it was a big deal, but I felt terrible about it.  I definitely think I better understand the pressure that trip leaders must feel to get everything right and to create a good experience for everyone.  Beyond that, I noticed that needing to “lead” from time to time can make it more difficult to allow the experience to happen, to remember how fortunate I am to have this opportunity to see a new place, meet new people, and broaden the boundaries of my life.

Anyway, our first flight left from Chicago on Saturday evening, January 7th.  We spent a few hours in London before the second leg to Accra, the capital city in Ghana, which lies on the southern coast of West Africa.  We only spent one night there, arriving late Sunday evening and leaving early the next morning, so I did not get a good feel for the city.  Although, it seemed fairly typical of major cities in sub-Saharan Africa – at least relatively similar to the few where I’ve spent time.  Monday morning, we returned to the airport for a short flight to Tamale.  Apparently, the drive from the southern coast to the north takes eight to ten hours, so, while it would have been nice to spend a day driving and seeing more of the country, I think a quick one-hour flight was much preferred.

It was a hazy morning, and I couldn’t see the ground until we were well into our descent toward the Tamale airport.  As a little aside, I find it very interesting how clouds look so solid from above.  They look like a very distinct layer in the atmosphere, but as you start to move through them, they become much less well-defined – the interface becomes much fuzzier, with the areas above, within, and below seeming to bleed into one another.  I feel like there’s a lesson here, perhaps about the boundaries we put up, and how they are less definite than we might think.

In any case, as we moved down through the clouds, I began to make out a very flat landscape – maybe not quite on the level of Illinois, but close.  The ground was painted with varying shades of pale yellow, gold, and green, with dark green patches of one or two trees spaced across the plain.  At that point, I could see only thin dirt roads and paths snaking through the fields, and every so often a cluster of houses and/or farmland would come into view.  As we approached the airport, I caught a glimpse of one very turbid, gray-green pond, and I saw a single paved road.  Within a few minutes, we landed.

Arriving in Tamale with all our luggage and equipment, Joe, a wonderful driver from CRS, met us at the airport.  He drove us to a pretty nice hotel in town, got us checked in, and then drove us to the CRS office.  After a brief initial discussion, Joe took us to a nice local restaurant where we had lunch together, and then we moved on to SARI.  We dropped off our lab equipment, had an obligatory meeting with the highest-ranking person there (the deputy director, I believe), and met the staff in the soil chemistry lab where we would be working.  Going back to CRS, we had what I would probably call our first “real” planning meeting with some of their agriculture program staff – Mawuli (the director of the agriculture program), Philip (a senior program officer), and Emmanuel (a monitoring and evaluation officer who helped put the household surveys together).  These three guys are great, and we all loved working with them, but this was a tough meeting.  At this point, we had had very little sleep over the past two or three days, and it was a struggle to keep out eyes open.  But, we made it through, went back to the hotel, had a small dinner, and went to bed.

Tuesday and Wednesday were training days.  The four of us split into two groups, with two people spending each day at the hotel with CRS and the ten enumerators who would be conducting the household surveys we had designed, and two people spending each day at the SARI lab, training the staff there.  Diana and Valerie, stayed with CRS to do the enumerator training, while Joe drove Amanda and I to SARI.  Over the course of those two days, we showed the SARI lab technicians one method for determining the level of bacterial contamination in water samples (Amanda took the lead for most of this part) and how to use a field meter we brought along, which can be taken into the field to measure pH, temperature, dissolved oxygen levels, and conductivity in water (I handled most of this section).  On top of that, we went through some of the procedures that Jeremy’s lab typically uses to measure nitrogen and phosphorus levels, comparing SARI’s procedures to ours, and Prosper (who runs the soil chemistry lab) had one of the technicians (Asanti) run through the procedure they use to measure total ammonia.  At the end, Amanda and I offered some minor suggestions for improving efficiency and accuracy, but overall we thought that they did a great job.  The staff picked up on everything very quickly, and Amanda and I enjoyed our time there very much.  I think both of us agree that anything we can do to improve what they do and how they do it would be a worthwhile outcome of this trip.

Once we moved into this phase of the trip, when we got into the work itself and away from all the logistics, I think it became much easier to be in the moment, to reflect and be grateful for this opportunity.  The car rides to and from SARI were especially good for this purpose, as the fields, trees, and shops passed by.  It was very peaceful, watching the landscape rush past.  On almost every car ride, there was a moment when I marveled at the beauty surrounding us.  It is early in the dry season now, and the dry season is very long in this part of the country, so flourishing vegetation is relatively limited.  But, the earth is covered in a rainbow of yellow, gold, green, red, and brown, and the colors seem to leap out at my eyes.  Maybe I’ve just grown used to the white, sterile dormancy of winter in Illinois.

I didn’t really go in expecting to have any deep revelations, but I couldn’t help thinking, “This is real.”  Of course, so is my life and work in Illinois, and I enjoy that very much.  But there’s something about feeling the heat on your back and the dust on your face, interacting with people all day – it feels more whole.  I may not always be the best at it, and it certainly has its difficulties, but there’s something about it that’s extremely life-filling.  Obviously, though, how I feel is not the most important thing. Perhaps appropriately, at this point in the trip, we transitioned from training to field work in some local villages.

Before coming to Ghana, we had identified two nearby districts we wanted to look at (using a previous survey conducted for another part of SIL).  Each district had a fairly distinctive makeup of drinking water sources, with people in Tolon District collecting water predominantly from surface water sources (lakes, ponds, etc.) and most people in Karaga District using groundwater pumped from boreholes.  Our thought was that, by comparing data from water sources and household drinking water in these two districts, we might be able to see how these different sources are affected by people’s agricultural practices.  In each district, we and the enumerators went to three villages.  The enumerators performed the household surveys, while two of us collected samples of drinking water kept in some of those households, soil from outside the house, and samples collected by rinsing one of the resident’s hands with water.  The idea here was to see if and where bacterial contamination is occurring in these households.

Actually, “house” doesn’t quite describe the typical residence in these villages.  I was not one of the two collecting samples in the households, but I did go into the places where several village chiefs lived, so I got some idea.  In many cases, I think that one complete residential unit is referred to as a compound, which contains multiple small, circular huts, close together and arranged in a circular pattern.  The typical household size (including all the huts in a compound) is somewhere around ten people, and this number might include more than one family.  Like I said, though, I didn’t go into many residences, so my conception of them may not be completely accurate.

The remaining two of us would be guided around each village, either by someone living there or an enumerator who knew the area well, finding different water sources, collecting samples, and using our field meter to measure pH and other parameters.  Amanda and I played this role every day during the four days we were in the field, Amanda typically collecting the sample while I worked with the meter.  In Tolon, we were usually sampling from ponds created by earthen dams and shallow wells, while deeper boreholes were more common in Karaga.  On the last day, Amanda also trained Emmanuel (from CRS), showing him how to collect one of these water samples, so that CRS could continue taking samples after we’ve left.

On each day, after collecting our samples, Valerie and Diana would give us the household samples they had collected so far, and Joe would take the two of us to the SARI lab, so that we could start the bacterial analyses with the staff there.  With the earlier training and the practice they were getting, it didn’t take the technicians long to get quite good at the procedure, and with lots of help we were able to move through the process fairly quickly.  Valerie and Diana would get there a bit later, usually when we were pretty well into the procedure for the samples we had brought first, and then we would all work on the new batch.  Just to really drive the point home, the SARI staff were great, and we really appreciated their help.  They were all very excited about the new equipment and techniques they were learning.  Now that we’ve finished collecting samples, they will also be conducting analyses to measure the nitrogen and phosphorus concentrations in our samples from water sources, so that we can try to see if fertilizers applied to crops are making their way into the villages’ water supplies.

On Saturday, Jeremy finally made it.  While we were out collecting data in the field, he went to SARI and spent time talking to Prosper, and we saw him once we got to the lab.  While I think we had gotten into a pretty good groove by this point and were doing a pretty good job on our own, it was certainly very nice to see him and let him take care of some things.

Sunday fell between our third and fourth days in the field.  Because CRS does not work on Sunday, it was a fairly relaxing day.  Up until this point, we had been going pretty hard, but we could sleep in a bit on Sunday morning and spend some time just hanging out at the hotel and in town.  Two of us (Valerie and I) did go to SARI in the afternoon for about half an hour, to finish up the analysis from the day before.  Prosper was kind enough to come along and open the lab for us.  On the way back, we met Jeremy, Diana, and Amanda at a craft market in Tamale.  I ended up buying a small painting from a friend of the driver we had hired for the day (Daniel). 

On Monday, we finished our work in the field, visiting the last village in Karaga.  We moved even a little faster this time, because we needed to get back to CRS by 4:00 PM for a final meeting.  So, we got all our samples, moved through the lab analyses very quickly (with a lot of help from the SARI staff), and drove back to CRS.  The meeting went well – we talked mostly about the plan for the next several months.  Once a month, Philip and/or Emmanuel would be going to the villages we visited, along with a few others, to collect samples from two different sources – in Tolon, one surface water source and one shallow well from each village, and in Karaga, one borehole and one surface water source from each village, if possible.  They will be taking these samples to SARI for analysis.  The idea here is that we’ll be able to get data from a series of time points throughout the year, which will hopefully show us how things change in different seasons.  Because it is the dry season right now, little agricultural activity is going on (besides harvesting the previous growing season’s crops), and it is possible that the levels of nitrogen and phosphorus in the water could be very different when agricultural production is in full swing.

Tuesday was our last day in Ghana.  Joe drove us for the last time, taking us to the airport in the morning, where we flew from Tamale to Accra.  We then had almost a full day in the city – we spent most of our time at a hotel near the airport, and walked to a shopping center for lunch.  In the evening, we headed back to the airport for a late-night flight that brought us to London, where we are now, waiting for the final leg of our journey.

So, overall, did we accomplish what we wanted to accomplish during this trip?  For the most part, I think we did.  Sure, we could have done some things better.  Things weren’t always quite what we expected, and, personally, I was confused about how the field visits would work before we went to the villages.  But, I think that was mostly because I had spent most of my time in the first few days with the SARI staff, and not with the CRS staff, who were helping to plan the field work.  In general, I think the field work ended up going well, due in large part to the obvious fact that CRS has spent quite a bit of time interacting with these communities and forming good relationships.  We collected a pretty good amount of data, although we don’t have the complete results yet, and what we collected on the trip will only constitute an initial dataset.  Hopefully, the monthly data CRS and SARI will send us can help to fill out the picture over almost an entire year.

I think all of us feel that the most immediately useful and meaningful thing we did during this trip was the training we provided.  Having spent so much of my time with the staff at SARI, I saw how excited the technicians were to be learning some new techniques and to possibly improve some techniques they already knew.  I think it would be great if we could keep working with them, perhaps providing more training further on down the road.  And personally, as I’ve mentioned in previous trip summaries, I’ve really come to enjoy the teaching aspects of what we’ve been doing.  It’s been a lot of fun interacting with the SARI staff and teaching them some new things.  I hope I am able to continue along this teaching path in some capacity.

More holistically, I have a very high opinion of Ghana after this brief trip – our time there was great.  We worked with very capable and passionate people, and the overall atmosphere felt very peaceful and laid back to me.  It’s possible I just didn’t notice it in this short amount of time, but I didn’t feel so much like the center of attention – certainly not in the same way I often did when I was in Uganda – and I liked that about the experience.  Generally, the people were very polite and friendly, and we definitely liked all of the people we worked with closely very much.

But, at the same time, I am sure that this initial impression does not provide a complete picture, with all its intricacies and complexities, and I certainly cannot now claim to be an expert on life in Ghana.  We spent about ten days in the country, but we really only spent seven or eight in Tamale.  That is not nearly enough time to truly begin to understand people’s lives.  I find myself hoping to return at some point, perhaps to do some more training at SARI, but I also find that I would like to simply spend more time in the place – to be able to move more slowly, to have more time to soak in the experience, and to feel a bit more grounded there.  The still somewhat common model of “fly in, take data or do a project for a week, and leave” is not what I consider to be the best kind of work in these settings, unless it’s connected to something longer term and sustained.  This trip was just a piece of a larger framework that is more holistic and, hopefully, sustainable in the long run.  But, for myself, one week is not enough – I just need more time to connect.  Is it possible to feel like I’m at home somewhere without spending years in that place?  I’m not sure, but, regardless, there’s something to be said for finding a good place and remaining connected to it for a long time.  Personally, I find myself hoping that this work, the partnerships that support it, and the relationships we have created will continue and grow.

Seven Days to Learn a Life

Lifting off from fields of harvest,
Climbing through the dusty haze,
Leaving one new land behind me,
Chasing after western rays,

No more seeing earthy rainbows
Ranging ‘cross an endless plain,
Noticing a searching feeling
Growing like a fertile grain.

What a life I have been given,
Seeing others’ lives anew.
Leaving now, though, makes we wonder
Whether what I think is true.

Seven days to learn a life –
Not enough; no, not enough.
Someday, maybe, I’ll return
To smooth the sketch that’s now too rough.

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