Tuesday, 22 January 2013

From Agony to Enlightenment: Extracting West Africa

I step out of the airplane and am immediately greeted by a violent wave of heat that begins to permeate every inch of my body; I am overdressed, heavily unprepared and immediately turn into a puddle of sweat on top of skin rashes on top of more sweat. I fight the overwhelming urge to make an about face and retract to the safety of the plane interior; it seemed too harsh the transition between the modernity of food carts and tray tables to…well…..this. My new cruel (yet totally self-subjected) reality: Ghana, West Africa.

Welcome to paradise.
It is dark when I arrive and there are no fancy elevated walkways to the main building at Kotoka International Airport in the capitol of Accra, just a narrow staircase leading me onto the invisible tarmac that steams from the aftermath of a disappeared African sun. On the other side of customs I am swarmed by locals looking to make a fast buck – I am an easy target: white, inexperienced and confused (to use a rather understated term). Finding a cab to a hotel costs me dearly after the posse of Ghanaians demand an honorarium for assisting me and my ridiculous amount of luggage across a parking lot. I hand out my only currency, a wad of American twenties, and feel instantly stupid for being so explicitly taken advantage of. Never mind, I am alone and I am scared shitless. I Vulcan Grip the strap of my hiking bag and stare out the window of the cab for the remainder of my night’s travels.

The Intercity STC was one of many such questionable
modes of transportation I encountered.
Nothing could be more terrifying than your first few steps into a third world country - unless, of course, you’re also doing this totally alone and unguarded. Such was my plight after an 18 hour overseas multi-flight trip from my hometown of Toronto, Canada to one of the poorest places in the world. After arriving, of course, I still had to make my way into the interior of Ghana – hours on buses that would eventually make their way into the Upper East District – and finally, my god finally, one last cab ride into the tiny village of Zwarungu where I was to set up camp for the next four months. If Africa is never what you think it is, I was certain I had found the perfect antithesis for every imaginable conception I had garnered previous.

I was thrown into the deep end without a paddle and had to navigate my way around what was an intensely new place to me. The NGO that had funded me worked under a philosophy of strict cultural assimilation via travelling alone while investing oneself completely into the community and, while the theory ultimately made sense, I still debate to myself whether or not the lack of support actually helped or hindered my experience. What I saw in fact turned me into a hard-wired pessimist.

Posing with the Bukere Women's Farmers Association
(I am the white guy, center stage). 
We had already partnered with the Ministry of Food and Agriculture in Ghana and it was my job to assess Zwarungu for its viability of adopting the “Agriculture as a Business” program, aimed at incorporating business models into the practice of growing and extracting food (this is, after all, West Africa’s largest industry). The goal, ultimately, was to intensify agriculture through microfinance programs and the forming of farmers groups – with the end result a transition from sustenance farming to revenue generating models. I ended up working exclusively with women’s groups (women account for close to 85% of the labour involved in farming in Ghana while the men dominate managerial and/or political positions) that produced everything from shea butter to various types of maize, ground nuts and even straw baskets.

At the end of my four month term, to be painfully honest, I accomplished quite little externally. We still had no idea whether or not Zwarungu could profit from the program, thanks in part to the fact that I think I was sick with Malaria or some other kind of parasite for close to half the time (and if you’re interested in learning more about extraction, this would be a completely new and kind of gross example). I walked away, however, not really caring about this. Instead, a rather unusual epiphany had actually changed my entire perspective of the experience: I was in Africa to help me. Yes, to risk sounding rather self-centered, the most important part of my trip became how much I could benefit from understanding true poverty, forming relationships with my host family or business partnering with the director of my office. If I was to actually make difference anywhere, it would be in Canada, after all of this was over.

And after every single kid received a  photo of themselves. 
I’m not afraid of admitting how happy I was to be back in North America after this trip, nor am I hesitant to tell you that I probably won’t ever do something like that again. But if you asked about regrets, I have none. West Africa is an incredibly beautiful place full of incredibly beautiful people who are happier than most of my friends and peers in Toronto, despite the fact that they account for one of the poorest demographics in the world. The word extraction takes on so many meanings in this context; extracting knowledge from endlessly meaningful experiences, extracting self-understanding through doing things I thought I never had the capability of doing, and extracting a new perspective of just how messy the world actually is but, conversely, extracting pure truth and hope and beauty from its center….All you have to do is tilt your head a little. 

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