Saturday, 24 March 2012

Remarkable Things Can Happen Pt 3

The coming of the rains continues to be vital to the lives of Africans, as we know. At the time the missionaries arrived, nothing was imported and what the people grew was all they had to survive on. Africans have called on their ancestors’ spirits for centuries to send rain. Sometimes the calls are answered and sometimes not. On some occasions the power of prayer to the Christian God reaped dramatic rewards. Huge downpours of rain fell on individual villages. The same happened with a swarm of locusts in terms of the discretionary destruction of crops from one village to another. These events drew villagers to the Mission to hear more and many committed themselves to following Christian learning towards baptism. Just one or two people from a village sought enlightenment at the mission and were followed by others. Each week the group who were prepared to walk for miles to learn more, grew in number. After some time a catechist was installed in their village to help spread the word. This was how Christianity grew in the Upper West.

Education was offered entirely through the Mission and schools were set up initially to learn the scriptures and prepare men for baptism. These were for boys only originally. It was believed that girls were not capable of learning! The first Secondary School for girls, St Francis in Jirapa that thrives today and is highly respected for its standards, opened in 1959. People went along to observe girls in classrooms and were amazed by what they saw and heard. 53 years later and it is still a huge challenge for women to make their mark on society and be taken seriously in a professional capacity in Ghana. Some development moves faster than other aspects are allowed to.

Last week I had cause to visit the Credit Union (bank) in Jirapa. I have since learned that this was set up by the missionaries too and was the first Credit Union to open on the African continent! The idea began when a man buried, for safe keeping, his life saving in notes in a tin. When he recovered it, white ants had eaten almost all of it. Fortunately, a bank in Accra was prepared to replace the notes on the evidence of the few scraps that were left. His experience would be replicated by many and another solution had to be found.
The broad principle around the work of these missionaries was to develop the whole community by enabling and enriching the lives of the people in terms of their welfare and skills as well as their faith in God. Education at all levels developed from here. Basic qualifications were available in a range of skills that allowed people to help each other and for the communities to thrive. You can see this every day now with very small businesses opening in 3 metre square outlets, or smaller, offering vital services.

I have found this book fascinating and it has taught me a great deal about where this area of Ghana has come from and how it has grown in such a short time. I look at life in the Upper West more clearly as a result and admire the people even more and especially for their determination and resilience in making their lives more manageable and successful.

I shall be travelling with friends and family in the south of Ghana and over the border to Togo over the next month. My blog will return with more photos and tales in the second half of April.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Remarkable Things Can Happen Pt 2

In the 1920s women had no rights and their marriages were arranged to suit the needs of families. Dowries were paid to the groom’s family in cowry shells, the currency at that time. They still are, but the cowry shells are now more expensive due to their scarcity. Some families still demand cowries, despite their cost, or their cedi equivalent. Men had as many wives as their status allowed and all the ensuing children belonged to them, not the child’s mother. This also is still the case. Men and women ate separately too. As some men, over time, gradually adopted Christian practices, they had to release all their wives save one before they could be baptised. However, all the children stayed with him! The spare wives returned to their fathers in the hope of marrying again. The emancipation of women is a key issue being addressed by Ghana Education Service and supporting NGOs today. There is a Girl Child Officer in District Education Offices and families are encouraged to recognise the rights of the females in their communities. Girls are still less likely to continue their education past the age of 15 and are at risk of sexual abuse and early pregnancy from a young age. Some VSO volunteers work with groups of women helping them develop skills, including cooperation, so they can make money and develop their self-worth within their communities. Locally that has involved a successful project to grow, harvest and sell ground nuts in village cooperatives.

Life for the missionaries was not easy, as you would imagine. The descriptions of their journey from the Upper East across to the Upper West to set up the Mission are amazing. All types of travel are described, a motorbike being the best of them. The roads were completely washed away which was disastrous in the dark on some occasions. I hasten to add that this same road is in a similar condition today! A missionary with Diphtheria was taken on a moto back to the Upper East for treatment, in torrential rain. The journey took many uncomfortable hours, some in the dark, and the moto careered off the road and steeply down into a swollen riverbed. Miraculously, he survived the journey and the illness!

Medical advice and treatment brought the missionaries closer to the people, initially…….along with football, of course. They were saving lives. Sometimes the treatment of a patient was a simple task and the recovery was immediate. Miracles can happen. Gradually, people were drawn to the Mission for a wide range of reasons, sometimes as a place of safety. Many were baptised as they were dying. The people who steadfastly rejected the words of the missionaries disputed much of the work and evidence of success that resulted from the efforts of these men. They claimed that the people died as a result of the baptism, even though the patients were at death’s door already. It is still common practice for people to return to their home town or village to receive “traditional treatment” from a fetish priest or other. Teachers ask for permission to take leave for this purpose. For some it seems to work, for others the ailment becomes worse and they hope for a late miracle at the nearest hospital. The missionaries managed, with difficulties, to recruit a skeleton staff of a doctor & sisters to nurse patients. Eventually the hospital at Jirapa was built and the permanent church building in the year of my birth, 1954.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Remarkable Things Can Happen - Pt1

I am reading a book that is all about the first US missionaries who came to Upper West, Gold Coast (Ghana) in the late 1930s. I shall post the salient points as a series over the next week for your interest. It is absolutely fascinating as it all takes place in towns and villages I know and all within the last 82 years. If the dates were removed from the text I would imagine the lives described here were lived in the far distant past. It’s not only the transport, or total lack of it, that leads me to feel that, but the fact that there were no schools, health care, nor any infrastructure at all in this region. I can appreciate how much development has taken place here in that relatively short time. I am hoping I shall not be so hasty in making judgements about the things I see and hear following this enlightenment.

The local Chiefs still have considerable influence over their people, but in 1930 it was absolute, bearing in mind the distance from Accra and the transport possibilities. Most people would walk most of that journey. The spirits of their ancestors and the influence of fetish priests were even more revered by the villagers and they believed that these spirits controlled their lives at all levels. Sacrifices to the spirits were a constant necessity and the messages received were acted upon without question. The ways of the ancestors were in opposition to the ways of God and this caused most of the challenge for local people and the missionaries. The early reaction of the Chiefs was anger, even though their feelings were, in fact, fear and desperation for the loss of the “old ways”.  (How often has that been the case through history across the world?) However, in some families all the sons of a chief embraced Christianity with or without their father’s blessing. Where there was opposition, the sons went to great lengths to escape their compound and the clutches of the family guards in order to attend instruction and Mass. One son submerged himself in a river so as not to be found and then ran miles to arrive late for a Mass at the Mission.

Friday, 16 March 2012


There can be no doubt that schools in this part of the world run with almost no funds. It breaks my heart to think of stockrooms in my old school and the angst when we ran short of a specific size of exercise book or colour of paint. Children don’t paint here and they share a set of pencil crayons that are kept in the Head’s office. A few exercise books are being delivered to schools currently and are being signed for.

I have been working on School Performance Improvement Plans (SPIP) this week. These outline how schools are going to spend their termly “Capitation”. In this particular instance we are talking about the spending of GHc 422 (£169) for the benefit of 518 pupils. Everything except teachers’ salaries has to be purchased with these funds, including repairs to the buildings. Some is immediately creamed off for local levies for sport and culture. I have yet to see where that money benefits pupils as during the recent football tournament, no balls were available from the District Sports Officer and they certainly didn’t provide refreshments for the players………those costs had to be born by schools.

Anyway, once we had deducted costs for securing classrooms with padlocks and repairing the head’s office door, we were left with a few Cedis to buy biros, erasers and a few sheets of cardboard. The school drum, a vital piece of equipment here for marking times of the school day as well as its cultural importance, badly needs a new skin at a total cost of around £12. Unfortunately, this will need to wait another term as there is no money left!

By the way, when the SPIP is complete the exhaustive and bureaucratic process of submitting it to the District Office with another plan detailing costings begins. You cannot imagine the number of forms and receipts that need to be produced and the replication of information that is required. It is processes like this that keep officers relatively busy day after day. Whilst they are running around with unnecessary pieces of paper the job of School Improvement still lies there. Everyone is so busy concentrating on keeping time, they cannot address the issue of moving forward. There is so much fear of not having completed the correct paperwork, having the right evidence and following the procedures laid down a long time ago, it is a massive step to consider changing anything. The risk is too great to contemplate.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Just me!

I have been a little tardy concerning Blogging over the past week! I have been busy but that is not a good enough excuse. The internet has been erratic too. Whilst I throw a few words together for the next posting you may like to admire my latest efforts with a needle and thread. I'm thrilled with this and will churn out a few over the next year. Nevertheless, I doubt I shall be in danger of putting the large number of Nadowli seamstresses out of business.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Independence Day

Yesterday marked the 55th Anniversary of Ghana’s Independence.  It was a national public holiday and this year I attended the ceremonies at home in Nadowli. Pupils have been practising their marching for a few weeks and we awake to the sound of the drums keeping them in time.

The morning dawned and most children of all ages arrived wearing brand new uniforms, including girls in white gloves & pure white ankle socks (rarely seen in this dust!) and boys in smart black shoes that many had clearly borrowed from older brothers or fathers! This is a very serious annual competition between schools in the district. Everyone looked so smart and their determination to be the best team was overwhelming.

The dignitaries arrived only one hour late and took to the podium. We sat under awnings as shade from the sun as the teams stood ready in formation with their banners proudly displayed at the front. The band of trumpets, trombone and drums played good marching hymns and tunes in the middle of the parade ground. We were all ready to begin. The patience of the children, some as young as 4, was impressive throughout the preliminary speeches and prayers from all represented denominations, but then their anticipation was very high.

Finally, the first groups from the Kindergartens set off arms swinging high and some very nifty footwork, eyes front and such concentration. They were wonderful! All age groups followed on as they marched around 3 sides of the “park”. A salute for the dignitaries on the podium was expected as the teams passed by them.

 Judges were on hand from the police, District Assembly and the Education Office to award marks for a variety of moves and the level of coordination of each team. There was far more to this than I had appreciated last year 
when I attended the larger regional ceremony in Wa.

It took some time, at least 7 men and a few calculators to work out the winners at the end. The announcements caused major jubilation as the pupils collected their prizes of new books from the invited guests. All in all it was a lovely occasion and not over long. The rest of the day was free and the midday overcast sky brought unexpected heavy rain for a few hours in the afternoon which alleviated the heat for a short while.
Today is a holiday for schools only. These children deserve a rest following their efforts, not only yesterday but through hours of practice over the last month.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Family Grief

Last night we learned that a good friend’s brother had died in hospital. A white pick-up, horns blaring, supported by a line of motos passed where we were sitting as it transported the corpse to his village just outside Nadowli. He was a young man with a family and nobody will really know why he died. Both his parents are still alive but they will have buried all four of their sons and have 2 daughters remaining. The importance of sons in a family cannot be over estimated.

This morning we went to pay our respects at the first stage of the funeral ceremony. Some people set off to walk there last night. Fortunately, it was a very bright, almost full moon that lit their way. The family and friends had seated him in a chair under the most beautiful tree and were processing around it all night wailing in their grief. This was accompanied by soulful, simple tunes on xylophones. A short distance away a group of men were constructing a wooden “stage” where the body would be positioned seated above head height for the remainder of the ceremony.  You don’t manage your own family funerals. This is the responsibility of people from a neighbouring community. Graves are dug near your home and family members are laid to rest near each other.

As we were about to leave, the body was carried inside the house, one of 4 in this family compound, to be formally dressed for burial. Throughout the day, people will have visited the village, women wearing black cloths around their heads in respect. It seems likely that the burial will be tomorrow and the corpse will not be left alone until then. The rate of decomposition of the body is a factor in this decision. It has been very warm recently and the dry season is under way. However, this afternoon we have just had over an hour of torrential rain. I can’t imagine how disruptive that will be to the funeral proceedings.

There seem to be an unprecedented number of funerals lately. We hear gunfire in the early mornings announcing the arrival of mourners. Sometimes in the quiet of the night you can hear the wailing of women greeting the news of another death in the family. Attending funerals is the predominant responsibility of people during weekends and it is rare they are free from that duty in recent weeks.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Fufu Level 1

Cookery lessons began in earnest this week. I can now make a “Light Soup” (I’m still not sure why it is light) and have assisted in the amazing chemistry involved in producing Konkonte which is a poor man’s TZ, also known as “Face the wall” ( and I’m not convinced anyone knows why!) It is made with Corn dough which is white & partly fermented. You heat it with water until boiling and fluid and then the exciting part………….it swells up into a massive ball when you pour in the cassava flour and needs a lot of beating to keep it lump free.

Well you can imagine what a mess mine looked before Louisa gave it some “elbow grease”. No wonder Ghanaian women are so fit. Cooking staple foods is very hard work and involves long periods of pounding, beating and stirring. This is good exercise for me so I shall continue with the training. I’m determined to reach Level 2 before Easter.
Friday saw my first efforts at Fufu pounding! This is small scale at Level 1 but I’m assured by Louisa, my coach, that I shall progress to a standing position with two hands round a much longer pestle and a deeper, wider mortar. (I don’t want any unseemly comments about this, thank you. This is a serious stage in my Ghanaian induction……..better late than never!)

Again, it’s all about getting the lumps out. I was really working hard at this and making virtually no impression on the white mass of cassava and yam in the mortar. When the expert took over it was incredible and much more like a creative art form than cookery.
( I expect a top chef would argue they are the same.) The timing of turning the ball between bashes with the pestle is crucial as you can tell by looking at some people’s permanently damaged finger nails. To do this
                                      in pairs involves massive trust in the teamwork. Hitting your own fingers is one thing but crushing a friends knuckles would be hard to live with.

It tasted wonderful, like very, very smooth elastic mashed potato and we ate pork, not dog, with it this week!

By the way, it was the football tournament this week. These are the winners from Nadowli RC Primary A School in their new kit with their coach, Denis. This is another very serious business! Congratulations to them and good luck in the District Tournament. The ball, which doesn't feature here, was kindly donated by South Cave CE Primary School.  A trophy is on its way here too!