Some time in Sanbooli

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.

Kinda terrifying, actually.

Dancers finishing in Sanbooli as the sun sets.

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!

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5 Responses to Some time in Sanbooli

  1. mikeklassen says:

    Thanks for sharing brother! It’s really interesting to hear about people’s perceptions of the school as such a big change. Were they seeing tangible benefits? Any sense of the graduation rates and whether it meant more people were going to college or getting jobs outside of the village?

    The photo of the dance looks like it was killer! Were you a spectator or did you bust a few moves yourself?

    • The dance was super impressive! At one point two guys would come straight at you, taking little hops to move around. They could really get moving this way, and with their ankle bracelets ringing, the ground drumming under their feet, their horns towering above them, and their faces set in fierce concentration, they made for a super intimidating sight as they come towards you!

      I didn’t bust-a-move myself…. maybe next time 😀

  2. Belinda says:

    “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.”
    I’d like to know if you mean that by shifting away from traditional life, they would like to shift away from farming to secure a more stable future? Or, does it mean moving away from only farming traditional crops and using traditional methods?

    Also, I’d like to know your thoughts on gaining opportunity and having stable income as a farmer. Is it possible to strike a balance so that farming becomes an attractive means to improving quality of life?

    • The two questions you have are definitely related. With respect to moving from traditional farming methods to more modern methods, they are definitely keen to move to the adoption of technology. The fact is, farming is really really hard work, and if they can get a job that takes them weeks done in a matter of hours (tilling the land with a tractor is the best example – they have access to tractors through the Ministry of Food and Agriculture), they will definitely do so! They’re always looking for a way to reduce their inputs (labor and seeds, fertilizers, etc.) and increase their outputs (either in quantity or value, as in moving to cash crops). That’s the reason people are farming tobacco and vegetables by the river.

      The reason they are shifting away from the traditional farming life-style is the vulnerability, the uncertainty, and the low rewards. If the rains don’t come, people go hungry. If you don’t sell enough cash crops, you can’t afford to bring electricity to your house. Ideally, farming would be a profitable enough venture that they can continue to do it while reducing their vulnerability and increasing their quality of life. The problem is that right now the two seem somewhat like an oxymoron. When we talk about reducing subsidies in Canada, THIS is what we’re talking about. When governments subsidize the cost of inputs, THIS is what we’re talking about. That’s why people want roads and a market – they want to be able to live their life and not have to be constantly living right… on… the… edge…

      There’s opportunity to do so, as well. There’s talk of growing mangoes, for instance, or rolling cigarettes. These can increase income while maintaining the same life-style, but they’re still uncertain and still subject to the guiles of nature. School offers that chance of certainty, of maybe getting a government job and getting that pay cheque every month (at least theoretically… but that’s a whole other post).

  3. Dan Olsen says:

    My assumption would be that if a village is generally passionate about education, they want their kids to move out of the village to make more money. It’s interesting that you also note that the village is passionate about farming. I wonder why this is?

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