So what was your village stay like?
Before Christmas, I spent a week in a village. It’s something that EWB sets up, and the goal is to connect you to the people you’re ultimately there to serve. It’s easy to lose perspective, especially in Tamale, where there is a lot of infrastructure and amenities, and to forget the pressing need we’re here to help address.
Sanbooli is a beautiful area of a couple thousand people, but it’s by no means a town. There are 12 distinct communities scattered widely around one area, with a school (primary and junior high) and a clinic (operated by the Catholic Church) in the middle. I was told the history of the town is that a man and his wife set off to find some good land of their own, to carve their own path. They founded Sanbooli, and had 11 sons there. As the sons grew older, they took wives and started their own communities, close but not adjacent. These communities have grown to a couple hundred people each – all related, though sometimes distantly – and maintained a very small-town feel despite the population of the area. Almost everybody farms. The staple crops are corn, yams, and guinea corn, with a lot of tobacco, calabash, and vegetables grown by the nearby river as cash-crops. People are extremely friendly and welcoming to strangers, and are surprisingly formal in their interactions even with each other. Greetings are much more elaborate than what I’ve seen elsewhere, and elders are treated with extreme respect – the oldest man in a community is the head of that community, and the oldest man in Sanbooli becomes the chief (his eldest son takes on the duties if he’s unable to do so, as was the case when I visited).
While I was in Sanbooli, I visited a lot of people. Thomas, the man who set up the village stay (who was currently running for Assembly Man) was insistent that, as a visitor, I greet everyone while I was there, so I spent a week going from community to community and having conversations with people. Almost nobody spoke English (a decent indicator of education levels in Ghana, I’ve found) – my host, Solomon, translated.
A school was first built about 20 or 30 years back. When I asked people what the most significant change experience by the people of Sanbooli in living memory, the school was mentioned every single time. Electrification had arrived a few decades back, and the clinic as well – it was being expanded while I was there. In the eyes of the people, these were nothing compared to the school.
Ghanaians are fanatical about education, and the people of Sanbooli, despite being off the beaten track and, as far as I could tell, being quite disconnected from the rest of the country, was no different. They wanted their children to be educated, to go and see some of the world. There was a somewhat sad contradiction that I saw again and again: People love Sanbooli, they love their community and their life-style. Many of them even love to farm – when I asked, the reply was “the people of Sanbooli are farmers, that’s what we do!” said with a good amount of enthusiasm. And yet they hope for a different life for their children. They are trying hard to shift away from this traditional life that is so clearly valued so highly, to secure a more stable future, and greater opportunity, for their children.
They are lobbying to have a market built in their town (rebuilt, actually) with the stated purpose of bringing people in. They loved when strangers visited, and were delighted by my presence. They told me that they need ideas from the outside. I was asked over and over what they should do, after I’d been there for two days, three days, four days. How was I to know?
One of the things I was really trying to home in on in my conversations was their needs, and the role they perceived the government as taking. In fact, Sanbooli has received basically nothing from the government with the exception of electricity (the way it works in Ghana is the government gets electricity to the town, and you pay for the poles to bring it to your house – most of the communities had done this but not all). Some of the teachers were hired by the government, others were untrained volunteers from the community – common in parts of Ghana, especially the more rural parts. The two main things people wanted was, first and foremost, that aforementioned market. They wanted a place to sell their goods, especially their cash-crops, and a place to buy things they want and need without having to travel for three hours. Secondly, they wanted a new and better road to the village. Both of these asks are specifically to improve the economic standing of the community.
I was a little surprised. Only one bore-hole was servicing the community, so most people (including the family I was staying with) fetched water from holes dug down to the water table. The water was always cloudy, and the hole was in the middle of a field widely used as a toilet. Diarrhea was a chronic problem (the causal link was probably not well understood by the community). I was shocked by the number of people who die – be it malaria, typhoid, or even snake-bites – the stories were one after another. And yet still, economic progress was the priority. My theory is that, when comparing the additional risk of having poor access to health-care to the almost certain increase in quality of life that a market or roads would bring, people are willing to take their chances.
I left after only 6 days, after having met hundreds of people in dozens of conversations. The day before I left, the chief organized the local dancing troupe to come together and dance for me, to give me a taste of Sanbooli culture. This was an idea proposed the first day I arrived, and I was initially opposed to it – given how much people were already doing, it seemed outrageous that they should organize a dance for me. I was there purely to learn – I had nothing to offer, and was trying to minimize the inconvenience and time I took from people. By the end of the week, I’d resigned myself to the fact that there was just no way the Chief, my hosts, or anyone else in Sanbooli was going to let me out of this town without having observed this dance. However, when the dance finally took place, it seemed the whole town showed up. I found out that this was at least a weekly occurrence, and it seemed that this week, a guest in town was a great excuse for a party.
It was a pretty intense week, and I’ve given a quick summary of it here. Anything you want to hear more about? Please include questions/comments below!