The 4×4 trundles along the dirt path strewn with rocks, the odd shoe or tyre lining the route underneath blossoming orange flowered trees. Austere mud houses, primitive graffiti, the obscure parliament benches where locals hang and the obligatory ‘spot’ where beer is sold, this community typifies the north of Ghana. This was the usual morning pick up in Bolgatanga, Upper East Region of Ghana – a red striped land of dusty fields devoid of moisture, blooming with possibility.

The UK Government International Citizen Service (ICS) development project brought me and fourteen other volunteers here to West Africa for three months. We witnessed the immense beauty of Africa, the debilitating poverty and the beneficial development work being done.

AN AFRICAN NATION

Situated between Cote d’Ivoire and Togo, Ghana sits underneath the desert sands in Sub-Saharan Africa with a stretch of coast nicknamed the Gold Coast by the Portuguese. There are still remains of the colonial European forts and architecture dotted along the south coast however Ghana, the first African nation to gain independence from colonial Britain, is a country very much standing on its own feet.

That is not to say it doesn’t have its fair share of problems. It has two seasons, a rainy and a dry and most of the economy is based around agriculture during the wet season. Much of the population in the north of the country depend on the rains for their year round livelihood, and if there is a poor harvest then that is simply tough luck. The poverty is noticeable everywhere you turn, from the state of the roads to the mud built houses to the blind beggars defying the intense sun.

Yet, there are gems amongst the dust.

Three hours from Tamale, capital of the Northern Region is Mole National Park, the biggest nature reserve and safari park in Ghana. All around the central Mole Motel – a pleasant hotel enjoying monopoly inside the park – are acres of lush vegetation stretching to the horizon. African elephants would stroll past the veranda in the morning and baboons would make off with your salt shaker. The idyllic scene captures an essence of Ghana, a country working its way out of poverty using the most obvious resources.

Oases like Mole gave us respite from working on difficult and often frustrating tasks. We were not giving aid or working on infrastructure; we were attempting to facilitate economic growth without outside intervention. It proved an arduous task, and one that only time will tell whether was successful or not.

WORKING IN DEVELOPMENT  

The various ICS Projects were split between organisations in three towns – the municipality of Tamale, sleepy Sandema and the bustling but quaint Bolgatanga – where myself and four others were to be based. Bolga, as it’s known locally, is the capital of the Upper East Region, where over 70% of people were unemployed in 2010. Incomes in the Upper East are traditionally based in and around agriculture; however varying environmental factors mean that this is an increasingly unreliable source of money. TradeAID Integrated, our partner organisation where we worked on the INCOME Project, seeks to address this by promoting alternative revenue streams by facilitating the trade of the local craftspeople – which includes anything from the famed basket weaving to leather work to traditional ‘smocks’ – great woven garments worn usually for special occasions.

Working with smock makers, fabric and basket weavers and craftswomen with disabilities it’s easy to see the benefit of these development projects on people’s lives. In the couple of months we were there, we saw the craftswomen with disabilities profits grow week on week because of business planning and monitoring training we had introduced.

The basket weaving groups working with TradeAID also enjoy 265% more profit compared with selling at local market. Poverty reduction can be sustainable, and development organisations like TradeAID are making it happen.

QUESTIONING CONFIDENCE

As volunteers on a three month placement, we were continuing two years of previous work conducted by other volunteer groups. We found ourselves at the ‘implementation stage’ of the project, where a lot of the prior research and groundwork had already been done. Luckily for us this meant our specific skills were easily transferable to the project and so we were able to make a strong impact – something that was worrying us before setting off.

CAN MUCH BE ACHIEVED IN THREE MONTHS?

We continually asked ourselves this, and it became clear as the project progressed that yes, it can.

Our project centred around obtaining Bolgatanga Fair Trade Town status. A Fair Trade Town in the developing world is one that is dedicated to the principles of fair trade such as non-discriminatory practices, support for cooperatives and decent prices for producers. When Bolga becomes a Fair Trade Town they will join a network of over 1,400 other towns across the globe, opening up international markets that they weren’t previously exposed to.

None of us volunteers had much experience in fair trade before starting our placement, but we soon settled into what needed to be done and how we could achieve our goals.

This led to a huge list of ‘actions’ that needed to be taken like organising a craft fair, involving influential people and creating and piloting an education pack in schools, as well as revamping the organisations social media strategy and applying for funding continually. As a team we brought a wealth of experience to the organisation, without which the project wouldn’t have progressed as far as it did.

More importantly than our individual skills and experience however was our drive and tenacity, ambitiously pushing forward the idea of Fair Trade Town Status. At one bleak stage three of our five man team were ill at home with various stages of malaria and typhoid fever yet they continued to work from home when possible and the rest of the team swiftly adapted to work as volunteer and nurse!

For anyone thinking about the ICS Programme or similar I implore you, be ambitious and don’t be discouraged by a short time-frame, things can be done well in a short time.

BEACH BREAK MUSINGS

Although there is still much development work being undertaken, Ghana is one of the most developed of the West African nations in terms of political stability and wealth. The south of the country enjoys relative prosperity and has reduced unemployment figures drastically over the past twenty years. It is definitely a country moving forwards and with increased tourism will continue to do so.

One such tourist destination is Busua Beach on the south coast, further east than its larger and more hectic counterpart Cape Coast. Busua is an arching bay with one strip of five to ten establishments and one tiny high street, a calming paradise set amongst the forests on the headland. The arduous fifteen hour journey from Bolgatanga was worth it as the water is warm and the tide barely changes, topaz ocean under the African sun.

These visits to incredible destinations are much needed and well-deserved as the projects demand a lot from each volunteer. The biggest drain on our project came with illness, as despite all precautions being taken people started to get very sick. Malaria is still the world’s number one killer and typhoid disease is another nasty virus – not something you expect to get on such a project.

Fortunately I was of the minority who didn’t fall ill, but witnessing my friends and colleagues crippled by illness was not a pleasurable past-time. To those thinking about an extended stay, voluntary or otherwise, in a region with the threat of malaria and typhoid, please, think very carefully about your previous health issues.

Think about whether you have any conditions that may be effected adversely – such as acid reflux disease which one volunteer had, making it difficult for her immune system to recover from malaria – and if you’re able to reach adequate medical care quickly.

NO HANDOUTS

Whilst Ghana certainly doesn’t evoke the images of starving children in WaterAid or Comic Relief advertisements, there is still a need for development. The silver lining is that there is much being done, and not by huge organisations bearing down on Africans, instructing them what to do.

The majority of the projects we encountered were from local people, building local enterprises to assist their communities. Take Samuel for example, a nurse at Afrikids Medical Centre who uses this income to fund his own orphanage. Or Nicholas, the Executive of TradeAID, who began his work with craftspeople in Bolga over fourteen years ago and is now one of the most revered and respected men in the community.

Ghana is not a country in need of handouts, it’s a place to be admired and cherished – with lessons to be learnt from the locals’ laissez-faire attitude to life. Even with over 70% poverty in the Upper East the people are more than happy to go out of their way to help you, traversing vast markets to find the things on your list, chasing half a kilometre through town to give you your change and the simple, constant smiles and shouts of “You are Welcome!”

That is the over arching memory to be taken from the northern region – the wide smiles and giddy laughs. Even when times are hard its all the more reason to smile, laugh and look to the sky – that is why Ghana is definitely a country on the up.