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Opinions and views of local, national and international EWB people

08 Apr


Borderless Music

April 8, 2010 | By |

Sharing a few fantastic African and World Music video clips

Since the launch of our newly redesigned EWB-Grand River website, I’ve been ferreting through useful resources to share here, both with our own chapter members and other interested folk who drop by.  Due to the serious nature of much of the work in which EWB is involved, a lot of the information I’ll be sharing is indeed serious.  However, I think it might encourage people to pop by these posts, if I mix it up a bit and occasionally share some resources that are a bit more entertaining.  For example, I’d like to use some African music and art as an enjoyable and educational component in our ongoing efforts to reinforce and celebrate our connection to Africa. 

I had started looking through some of my African music CDs last week, thinking about putting together a few tracks to play before and after a member learning workshop or a group meeting, to pep things up a little.  Sharing a little African and international music could energize and loosen-up a meeting, while also fostering our sense of connection across the geographical and cultural distances.  It would also be useful to have handy the web links or DVDs of a couple relevant music videos, in case someone in our chapter wants to play some intriguing and inspiring images during those useable but unstructured minutes between the first person arriving and the last person getting seated and our meeting finally getting underway, 

But why wait?  Let me share a couple of my favourite new African music videos with you here.  These are by two internationally popular and acclaimed musicians from Mali.  Please turn up your computer speakers and click each video’s full screen icon “plein écran”.  With some of the Alloclips videos, the toolbar at the bottom of the video window might not be accessible until you are about 10 seconds into the clip.  By the way, when you go to the Alloclips site, the video you play might be preceded by a brief commercial for one of the other albums on the website.

From the incredible Salif Keita‘s album  La Différence, this is the title track video.

The visuals may look a little utilitarian at the beginning of the video, but hang in there, you will soon see where it is going and some of these images are wonderful.   A little background from Wikipedia: 

Keita’s latest album, La Différence is dedicated to the struggle of the world albino community (Keita is an albino) … In one of the album’s tracks, the singer calls others to understand that “difference” does not mean “bad” and to show love and compassion towards albinos like everyone else:  “I am black/ my skin is white/ so I am white and my blood is black/… I love that because it is a difference that’s beautiful … some of us are beautiful some are not/ some are black some are white/ all that difference was on purpose… for us to complete each other/ let everyone get his love and dignity/ the world will be beautiful.”  This phrase “the world (life) will be beautiful” is the repeated refrain “La vie sera belle”.

From Rokia Traoré we have the lovely song “Dounia“, from her 2009 album Tchamantché.

I have quite a few fabulous African music CDs, ranging from very traditional to thoroughly modern, sung in various languages, and from almost every country on the continent.  However, as far as African music videos go, I mostly have only low resolution fan-filmed YouTube-type concert clips.  What I’m a little short of are professionally filmed African music videos with the high resolution images that would stand up to being shown on a large screen using a projector.  If you know of any good ones, whether available online or on a DVD for purchase, do let me know by posting a comment.

Briefly getting a tad off topic, here’s an Alloclips music video for any of you football (soccer) fans eagerly looking forward to the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa starting in June – Akon’s “Oh Africa“.   And for hip hop fans, check out this video of the song by Salif Keita and the French rap group L’Skadrille about postcolonial immigration policy in France:  “Nou Pas Bouger” (“You Can’t Move Us”).  

I’m closing this post with an interesting video from Rachid Taha, “Indie (1+1+1)“, that in its own way echoes the message:  though it’s a big, diverse world out there, we are all joined together on the journey!  And remember, please feel free to recommend your own favourite African or “borderless” music videos.   Throughout the year. I’ll occasionally be sharing some more music or art links on the themes of connecting to Africa and uniting across borders.

06 Apr


Why It’s Hard To Be An Innovative Farmer in Africa

April 6, 2010 | By |

“When you’re from the city, two days on a farm can teach you a lot.” exclaims Ben Best in his latest blog post from Ghana. Ben, EWB-Grand River’s Learning Partner, has been working in Africa for the past few months with the Ghanaian Ministry of Food and Agriculture and recently received an invite to stay for a couple of days with one particularly innovative farmer, Musah, who taught him a thing or two about agrarian life in that Sub-Saharan country.
When most farmers are taking a break prior to the busy rainy season, Musah is busy. A quick list of activities, noted below, has been keeping him, and Ben, on their toes:
  • Palm nut cultivation (harvesting and nursing seedlings)
  • Mango grafting and cultivation
  • Orange grafting
  • Cashew cultivation
  • Irrigated tomato and garden egg (eggplant) cultivation
  • Animal husbandry (cattle, sheep, goats, chickens, guinea fowl)
  • Training bullocks
“Needless to say I learned a lot of practicals about farming over the two days.” notes Best. “Besides being an insanely hard worker, Musah is an innovator and an experimenter. Farmers don’t have a lot of insulation from risk here, and even common farming activities such as growing maize and yams are highly dependent on external factors, most notably rain. To invest in new, unproven activities when your family’s livelihood is at stake takes a lot of foresight and guts.”
“Innovation is something we like to talk a lot about in EWB and at [the University of] Waterloo.” remarks Best. “When I think of innovation I think of fast-moving exciting projects, pushing the boundaries and learning quickly. I think of shortening feedback cycles, “failing fast” and constant iteration. Two days with Musah taught me that innovation in farming is a bit different. Watching him meticulously check each of his palm nut trees and grafted mangoes showed me another type of innovation. Innovation where you invest in a seedling and wait three years …before you reap any rewards, before you learn if your experiment worked. This innovation requires patience, doing the small things each and every day with the hope that it might pay off in the end.”
“Being an innovative farmer is hard.” states Best. “Not only do you have to work hard, you need to be willing to experiment, to take risks, and to be patient.”
To read Ben’s complete blog post on his education with Musah, more about the Musah’s experiments or see more photos, visit (and bookmark) Ben’s blog: Ben In Ghana. Although he routinely works in remote parts of the country Ben will be updating the site as often as he can.

15 Mar


Water Complex

March 15, 2010 | By |

My flip flops slap against the ground as I call out “Desiba” (“Good morning”) to the women walking past on the narrow dirt path. Ahead of me, Rashida balances two giant metal containers on her head, while Zewera follows behind. We come over a small ridge and I find myself looking at a large pond. Rashida and Zewera continue down the slope to the water, where they hike up their skirts and wade in. They fill the two buckets with the milky-looking water and help each other hoist the containers back up onto their heads. They are strong – those buckets must weigh at least 100 lbs. As we walk the 8 minutes back to the compound, other women call out, laughing and asking me where my water is. I tried carrying a small bucket yesterday, but my head-balancing skills are definitely not up to par. Today I’ve elected to bring my camera instead (it’s one or the other – I spill too much water when I’m carrying it on my head to bring a camera!).

We arrive back at the compound and Rashida and Zewera skillfully pour the water from the tops of their heads into the giant clay pots that are fixed to the ground. Inside, the new water mixes with the old, left over from last night’s trip to the pond. Rashida takes an old tomato can from beside the pots, scoops up some water and takes a long drink. She refills it, then takes it over to where her 7-month-old daughter Failatu is sitting on a reed mat and holds the can for her to drink. Zewera does the same for her 2-year-old son, Mohammed Awa. Then the two women pick up their containers and head back to the pond for another load.

This scene, from the village of Gbabshie, is unfortunately common in northern Ghana. These two women will make the trip to the pond 4-5 times per day to supply this 11-person household with water. Luckily for them, it’s not a long walk – some women walk over 2 km to access water in the dry season. They will use this water for all of their household needs: cooking, bathing, drinking and washing. They know the water is not good, but they have no other choice. Mr. Iddirisu, the sole member of the household who can speak any English, says “we see the goats defecating near the water and we know it’s not safe. We need a borehole but no NGO has yet come.”

Iddirisu’s statement is indicative of the development culture in Ghana. Though they may try, the government of Ghana has not been successful at meeting the needs of its population. This is both an issue of resources and of capacity (more on that in later posts). As a result, the doors have been thrown open to NGOs, foreign development agencies and multilateral institutions to fill the gap. Ghana in particular has become a “development darling” thanks to its relative stability and support for foreign projects. Now there are literally thousands of projects operating here on all scales, from small local NGOs doing agroforestry projects, to multinational UN-funded campaigns to eradicate guinea worm. In many cases, NGOs are playing a role that would traditionally be filled by the government – hardly a sustainable model.

Let’s get back to the water problem in Gbabshie: the community needs a safe water source. It would be easy to come into the community, see the women and children drinking from this filthy pond, make a quick video appealing for donations from friends in Canada, and pay a local NGO to install a borehole. Bam! problem solved. But is it really solved? Let’s take a closer look.

Have you ever been given something for free? Maybe it was a bicycle, a phone, a book, just something that someone else didn’t want anymore. How much value did you place on this discarded item from your friend? Probably not much – it wasn’t worth much to him/her, so why should it be worth so much to you?

What about this: have you ever shared a resource with a large group of people? Maybe it was a common kitchen in your house, or supply of toilet paper in an outhouse at camp. What was the state of this shared resource after some time passed? Did you have to put some structure in place to manage the resource well? What incentives did you have to care for the resource, and how did you react to other people using it in different ways?

These two issues both come into play when discussing a village borehole: you’re giving something away for free to a group of people. Of course they will appreciate it – clean water! But how will they treat the borehole? Who will take care of it? Who will be responsible for paying for repairs? Who has priority over the water? It is common to come back to one of these villages a year later and still see women walking to the pond to get water. The borehole has broken down, and no one is responsible for paying for repairs, so they haven’t been done. Besides, why pay for repairs when any day an NGO might come along and repair it for free?

In the middle of the village of Gbabshie lies a testament to these issues. The women’s group here received a grinding mill several years ago. Now it lies in disrepair, covered in cobwebs (photo above). No one is willing to pay to have it fixed, so all the money the NGO put into buying and installing the machine in the first place has gone to waste.

These issues of sustainability are always prevalent in development projects. It is easy to fill an immediate need; it is much more difficult to change the institutional environment around that resource so that the change will be sustained. For a borehole, several conditions need to be in place. Someone needs to be responsible for managing that borehole, whether it is one person or a committee of people. Users need to contribute money for maintenance and repairs. For this to happen, people need to see value in having a working borehole, which means they need to be educated on water and health issues. When the borehole breaks down, skilled technicians need to be accessible to the community at an affordable price. Replacement parts must be locally available in a timely manner. People must know their rights and how to address the authorities if they are being taken advantage of. And NGOs must not continue to offer new things for free which undermine the existing system.

This example demonstrates the complexity of poverty and development. There are simple solutions, but there are no simple problems, so the simple solutions will inevitably fail. To address the complex problem of poverty, we need complex solutions that change the operating environment of development in Ghana. Institutional changes take time to produce, but the effect is long-lasting and the impact is much greater.

28 Feb


2010 Olympics: A Canadian rallying point for social change

February 28, 2010 | By |

I have to admit, I was a little skeptical leading up to these Olympics.   It’s not that I was set against them, more that I just didn’t really care.  Surely there were more important things to devote time and energy to, than to watch people from (the rich) half of the world pushing themselves to their physical limits.  What difference could really be made by these Games?  It pretty much all boiled down to a big party, political fanfare and corporate sponsorship, right?  And don’t get me started on nationalism – stereotyping at its finest – it fosters prejudice, creates division, and alienates others, doesn’t it?

Now, before I start getting hate mail – the past 17 days have actually drawn me in more than I ever imagined.  I cheered, I cried, I held my breath with the best of them, and as I sit watching the closing ceremonies, it’s with a sense of optimism instead of indifference.

It’s true that a majority of the world is severely under-represented in the Winter Olympics.  But unknown to most, there were actually athletes from seven African nations who participated.  The athletes were predominantly self-funded, most had lived and trained outside of the continent at some point, and none of them won a medal, but their presence does make this a global event in every sense of the word.

Kwame Nkrumah-AcheampongMost well known of these athletes by far, was Kwame Nkrumah-Acheampong, “The Snow Leopard,” from Ghana who found his way into the hearts of many, and was supported by the entire communities of Comox and Mount Washington on Vancouver Island.    Although not as big of a headline as the 14 gold medals, I think it’s something to be equally, if not more, proud of.  These communities directly contributed to this skier achieving his goals.  It was one of the many reminders that the Games are about more than partying, politics and purchasing power.  This story was about what people can do to support one another to create opportunity and achieve their best. Sounds suspiciously similar to human development, doesn’t it?

My optimism is rooted not directly in this story per se; supporting one lone skier is a far cry from solving the challenges of the world.   What I am most excited about is the taste that Canadians have had experiencing how powerful it is to be part of a common goal. This is the secret ingredient I had forgotten about regarding national pride: people pulling together, uniting and taking action for a common objective.

In a timely manner, the Canada’s World Initiative, a three year project of intense cross-country dialogue and debate focused on Canada’s role in the World, is currently coming to a conclusion.  Through this dialogue Canadians from all backgrounds and locations have identified that we want to see our country lead by example in five areas:

  1. Fostering innovation
  2. Advancing a green economy
  3. Championing good governance
  4. Promoting human development and gender equality
  5. Embracing diversity

With Canadian pride running at an all time high, many would read that list and suggest those are the things that for which Canadians are renowned. As illustrated in this Canada’s World video, the reality is we have a strong history in these areas but are not currently living up to our reputation. In fact, we have a long way to go in order to meet our expectations.

I’m not trying to rain on anyone’s parade here.  Despite the fact that we’ve fallen short of a number of goals in recent years and we’re not actually living up to the perception that many Canadians have of our current role in the world, the Canada’s World dialogue has shown that the will and desire for change is there.

More importantly, Canada’s World has also identified that coherence, collaboration and community are what it will take to make these goals a reality, and I feel that all three of those received a huge vote of support throughout the 2010 Olympics.  Whether it’s celebrating in the streets after the gold medal hockey game or the vast gathering of people at torch ceremonies across the nation, our communities have come together in ways I have not seen in the past.  The media is saying that the coherence of our nation has never been stronger.  Without collaboration, the games would not have attained the level of success being attributed to them.

Based on this experience, my hope is that the spirit of the Games witnessed over the past 17 days doesn’t end with the closing ceremonies.  Let’s not just unite in being Canadian, but in the role Canada can play in the World.   I hope this new sense of collectivism and collaboration ignites action to make the changes we, as Canadians, want to see for our country and our global community.   Now’s the time Canada!  Let’s not make the 2010 Winter Games just our legacy, but the starting point for things to come.

10 Dec


Ethical Travel Destinations: Ghana Ranks #4

December 10, 2009 | By |

On December 3rd, 2009, California-based released their 2010 annual report detailing the “world’s best ethical destinations” for travellers who want to have a great experience but also feel good about where their travel dollars are being spent. The report identifies the countries in the developing world that are “best protecting their natural environments, promoting responsible travel, and building a tourism industry which provides real benefits to local communities”.

“There’s no doubt that worldwide interest in mindful, responsible travel is growing – not only among travellers, but within the countries that host us,” says Jeff Greenwald, executive director of Ethical Traveler and co-author of the report. “Now is the perfect time for savvy travellers and well-intentioned governments to evolve together, each encouraging the other. This is especially true in the developing world, where travel and tourism can be developed as lucrative, low-impact alternatives to forestry, mining, and the destruction of ocean habitats.”

The report utilizes data from a variety of sources including the UN, Human Rights Watch, Reporters Without Borders and the Millenium Development Corporation to develop indices for environmental protection, human rights and social welfare for each country.

The full report can be found here, but to spoil the surprise, the developing world’s Top 10 destinations include:

  1. Argentina
  2. Belize
  3. Chile
  4. Ghana
  5. Lithuania
  6. Namibia
  7. Poland
  8. Seychelles
  9. South Africa
  10. Suriname

Eligibility for ranking was determined by economic data from the World Bank. For example, in 2009, Croatia and Estonia made the Top 10 but are now considered “high income economies” and therefore became ineligible for this year’s ranking.

Most interestingly, 40% of the list is occupied by African nations, with Ghana reaching as high as #4.

Ghana joins the list for the first time due to an “impressive commitment to genuine democracy, as well as a growing culture of sustainability, environmental consciousness and grassroots efforts towards responsibly improving Ghana for Ghanaians and tourists alike.”

Similarly, South Africa landed in the #9 spot for “supporting eco-friendly, community-based tourism ventures, as well as for sustainable coastal development and environmental management.” Disparity between the rich and the poor and high crime rates in certain areas prevented the country from reaching a loftier rank.

Conversely, “irresponsible development, human rights abuses, and  lack of strong environmental [policies]” have prevented any Asian nations from making an appearance at all – a trend consistent in previous year’s rankings.

However, before African pride grows too much, the report also notes that none of the ranked countries are perfect. Notably, homosexuality in Namibia and Seychelles remains criminalized – generally a “deal-breaker” for the study. But as Greenwald and report co-author, Christy Hoover, note “the laws do not appear to be zealously enforced [and] we sincerely hope that our vote of confidence will persuade these country’s leaders to repeal these backward laws.”

With Ghana leading the African charge on this list and, as Erin Antcliffe notes in her post Water Complex, also being a “development darling due to its stability and support for [development] projects”, it appears development in Ghana is projected in the right direction. Hopefully it can act as an example for the other African nations in which EWB works and the continent as a whole.