Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Ghana Unplugged

Well, as you can see I have been a bit lax in my blog updates. I've been pretty busy with paperwork, which isn't really newsworthy, so I've held off on posting. So here it is, complete with photos from my recent trip to Mole National Park (went on a few wicked safari walks and met some great people).....

It’s Friday afternoon and I’m holed up in a dark office on the third floor of the MoFA regional office. I’m using the last bit of battery life on my borrowed laptop to put together a few final things before the weekend. An intense storm has finally arrived from the east – a fierce one that began brewing up over Togo recently and overtook Tamale with hardly a warning. One minute I’m working on my laptop enjoying the late afternoon sunshine on the veranda, the next I’m scrambling to get my things inside before they blow away into the big black sky. So why am I sitting in a dark office, running my computer’s battery dry, and smiling as I gaze at the rain coursing down the window in rivulets? It’s a long story…….

It has been a very dry season. A friend who is studying climate in Ghana with the World Food Program has confirmed that this was the driest summer in many years. Only a fraction of last year’s rain has fallen so far, and it has been concentrated into just a handful of wet days. Back in Canada such a drought might mean local wildfires, crop damage, and extra days at the beach for some. But here in Ghana, the impact is widespread and dire. Not only are the farmers suffering with sun scorched maize and poor yields this year, everyone is struggling because of falling water levels in the lakes. Why? Because without water, you have no hydro electricity! The government of the Republic of Ghana has recently announced that we are undergoing an ‘energy crisis’. The water levels at the Akosombo dam are dangerously low. So low in fact that if we don’t get more than our normal share of fall rains, Ghana will have no electricity in the dry season. To mitigate the effects of this crisis, the government has initiated a ‘lights out’ schedule for the whole of the country. The power is out in Tamale every other day, alternating between days (6am-6pm) and evenings (6pm-6am). Right now I’m working on battery power because today is ‘lights out’ day again in Tamale.

Working without electricity is difficult in an office setting. You can’t type, print, copy, or fax. That’s pretty frustrating for bureaucrats and report writing development workers like me! Most of my work at MoFA so far has been writing reports, helping to put together a handbook for agric extension agents, and working on computer skills with my colleagues. So things are at a near standstill for us when the lights are out. Luckily with a few hours of battery life, I’m still in the game for a while. And while I should be working given the short battery life I have left, I’m typing for my blog. Priorities, eh?! ;)

One of the charming sides of work at MoFA is that few of the activities here have been ‘computerized’. Most reports are still submitted in paper format, and compiled and filed on paper. That work can still be done without electricity. Agric workers can still go into the fields, and the fortunate few with laptops can travel to the other side of the city where the electricity still flows. Others in Tamale are not so lucky. You cannot mill grain when the lights are out. You cannot sell goods at your indoors shop if the lights are out. Hairdressers, internet cafes and business centers, restaurants – all suffer on lights out days.

On days like today you can clearly see some of the challenges that keep places like Ghana poor for too long. In this case, an ‘energy crisis’ occurs because of poor climate conditions that do not allow for electricity generation at the dam. A lack of energy infrastructure keeps Ghana from buying needed power from neighbouring countries in such a crisis. The electricity is shut off on a regular basis to conserve water, so businesses suffer, and surely the whole economy begins to decline. The poor economy (and insufficient aid from Developed countries like CANADA!) ensures that the infrastructure will continue to be inadequate for energy distribution, and Ghanaians will therefore continue to be at the mercy of the climate. It is one of many vicious cycles that keep Ghana and other developing countries in sub-Saharan Africa from breaking free from poverty.

I am smiling today because this rain is a blessing. In fact, things are looking up as there is much rain in the forecast. In another month there may be enough water left in the reservoir to pull us through to the next rainy season (8 months from now!). I’m also smiling because I know that this pile of paperwork is coming to an end! I am on my way to Savelugu this week to begin a diagnostic of the MoFA district office there, and to find ways to help the staff, most notably the agric extension agents, to be more effective in providing aid services to poor rural farmers. I love it here in Tamale, but I’m looking forward to the change in pace, and the opportunity to work in the field.

I have to admit, I am a bit frustrated today because I was just about to hit the road before it rained. I’ve somehow managed to make the Ghanaian diet work for me and my energy is waaaaaay up, which means I’m back to running full time! It has been great! It definitely is an interesting experience running here in Tamale. Unlike dealing with apathetic Sunday Strollers in Montreal who would hardly look my way as I squeezed past on Mont Royal, its hard to go a minute without children screaming from all directions ‘Saminga! Saminga!’ (meaning ‘white guy’ of course) or ‘Zidane! Zidane!’ (yes, its getting pretty old by now). Holy! And its not just the children – all kinds of people are hollering and cheering me on. Some invite me for a bite of their dinner. Taxi drivers ask if I need a ride. Older people just stare in disbelief. When I stopped to stretch the other day a man rushed to my aid – “Are you wounded??” he asked! Too funny. Most people will just yell something at me, but some have jumped off of their chairs and began to run with me for a few minutes, often in flip flops, long pants, and long sleeve shirts! Wow. Don’t forget, its 30-35 C everyday, and the searing sun will burn the clothes off of you when standing still. I had one young man run up to me, grab my hand tight and run with me for at least 10 minutes. He did not speak English, and I could not think of the universal sign for ‘you’re crushing my hand, please let go’. So I ran with him. Hand in hand. At some point I guess he got tired, let go, and just started walking the other way. Definitely one of the more interesting experiences I’ve had in a while!

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