In Transit

I pass a 3rd intense advertisement for a competitive British university as the 300th smartly dressed university student passes me. Quickly. Speed walking must be a popular sport around here. The iPod headphones dance and flow in contrast to the black overcoats, helping that advertisement come off the wall and walk right past me. I’m overwhelmed. Overstimulated. Swarmed with faces of Ghanaian friends and strangers, smiling with hope and frowning with frustration – telling the same story of “no money for school fees”. At every level of education really, but university/college in particular. It’s firmly out of reach for so many smart people with so much potential. And it’s so blatantly within the palm of my own hand if I just want to wrap my fingers around it…

Today I’m gliding peacefully out of England’s massive capital city, London, towards the southern coast of England. It will take almost 2 hours if you include my subway ride too. To travel 85 km. Having checked the automatically updating board to get the correct train (It’s only 2 mins away), people step on board as the doors glide open for them, and within the seconds the train is back to full speed, riding a single track to its end destination. It’s strangely similar to my own experience applying to university and getting the student loans and scholarships I needed to fly through without even much debt even to speak of…

On Friday I was leaving Doboro, a very small town 40 km outside of Ghana’s massive capital city, Accra. I was on the roadside by 7am, and my stomach tightened to see the crowd of 30 Ghanaians who were already there. Spread across the highway strategically to position for any potential passing bus. The tro-tros cut across 3 lanes of traffic as the “mate” sticks his head out of the sliding door window shouting the name of the destination. Most of the tros were full or almost full, so each one that stopped created a mini wrestling match as people shove each other to get inside. The fray is compounded by women and small children weaving through traffic with giant bowls of food or water on their head. Running alongside the tro as it pulls away to risk their lives for a 3 cent transaction – and sometimes the driver accelerates too quickly, and the payment doesn’t make it back.

I’m drinking up the leg room as I slowly sip my freshly squeezed orange juice from a vending machine. Something about the transaction is less alive – sure I can see my own reflection in the freshly polished glass, and the mechanical rotating arm will guarantee me the juice I wanted. But I mourn the death of that small spark, the eye contact I make with the pure water seller who’s 3 lanes over. That glance turned gunshot that sends her off to the races, hurdling cars and competitors to sell me a plastic bag of water – and the smoothness of right-hand-only transfer of money and product leaves us both a little happier.

The train I’m on today has left with only half the seats filled. Imagine! The quietness is good for this blog post, but means I’m quickly slipping back into that bubble of public transport in the West – where I expect the trains on time, the heating or AC working and the other passengers to be passive. Where I spend more energy than I’d like to admit looking at anything but another person – eye contact is different here.

The colours are changing on the trees now. We’re well clear of London, and a little further from Accra and Tamale now. Maybe there’s an elastic band around my waist, because the further I get, the more I’m pulled to remember.


I leisurely stroll into the tro park in Bolga in the Upper East Region of Ghana on Monday morning, heading towards the Tamale loading area. After a weekend of sleep, rest, malaria recovery, and amazing conversations with that one person who can bring me back to life, I’m dreading this moment. When I eye up the tro-tro and learn how many of the 35 seats have filled, so I can exercise my expert subtraction skills (5 people on, means 30 seats to fill). This is followed by my more shaky estimation and multiplication techniques: if we average one passenger arriving every 3 minutes, that’s 90 minutes to wait…

I don’t like the look on the ticket-sellers face as he pressures me to purchase my ticket before I can explore other options… He’s angry. I step away to look for some breakfast, and something magical happens. A taxi pulls up beside the tro and calls the ticket-seller over. 1 minute later he’s advertising slightly more expensive tickets for a more comfortable ride in the taxi, and there are only 4 seats to fill. 10 minutes later my hair is being blown straight back by the wind as the taxi dodges pot holes and picks up speed. I sit beside a fascinating middle-aged Ghanaian woman named Doris. She’s negotiating a meeting time on the phone, and a plastic folder of certificates sits on her lap – I feel totally comfortable glancing through them as she looks for one in particular, and it’s only natural to ask about the PMTCT course – Prevention of Mother To Child Transmission (of HIV/AIDS). An inspiring conversation ensues about her profession as midwife in a rural hospital, captured well by her line:

“This job is about life. It is an honour – to be given that chance to save two lives at once. I can only try my best, every single day.”

Back in Accra on Friday, and something is wrong here. It’s been 40 minutes on the side of the road by the shiny fancy mall where my meeting recently finished, and not a single tro-tro back to the central station has even passed. I’ve made friends with an older man beside me whose ear is infinitely sharper than mine when it comes to hearing the tro-tro mate yelling (read: mumbling) the destination of the bus. We started this wait by talking about the need to exercise patience, but I’m fresh out at this point. I signal a taxi to go about 10 blocks to a much more central hub. I invite my new friend and another old woman to join me and take the free ride to a better loading spot, and immediately they both light up like Christmas trees – “God Bless You.”

It proves to be an effective strategy for finding the tro-tro I need: less than 10 minutes later me and Aziiba (I know now his name and the huge length of his journey home – at least 3 hours) are jammed into a sweaty tro that’s creeping and crawling it’s way through traffic. I’m sitting on the row behind him and can see him holding a few coins in his hand waiting for the mate to ask him to pay.

As I try and shift my body to get my hand into my own pocket, the mate taps Aziiba on the shoulder, while yelling “FRONT”. Aziiba spins around with a glint in his eye. “Circle” is the first word out of his mouth, indicating our final destination. As he reaches his hand to pay the fare he can’t help but smile as he adds “for Two!”. Aziiba then turns immediately back around to face forward. As if he’s a bit out of his comfort zone paying the bus fare for a stranger, but still confident that he’d made the right move.

The English clouds are getting dark, and my only sweater isn’t nearly enough to keep myself warm in this strange, bright, cold and organized environment. But the fire’s in the hearth of my heart, and I draw more happiness than could be rationally expected from the memory of watching that old man’s body language in the front seat of a tro-tro.

There is something so real about Ghanaians that teaches me a new dimension of what it means to be human each and every day that I let it. Stepping out of that context feels like it’s opening me up to go back to being a student and learning life’s lessons… like a recent grad who has just hit the groove of 9-5 in the office and is yearning to be back in university again. It’s easy to romanticize the glory days, but the potential to experience that awe at the mystery of life is like an airplane lifejacket – it’s right under your seat. Just get out of your chair and look from a different angle.

It’s time to take a different approach to the office, not just daydream about the sleep-ins and flexible days of being a care-free student. It’s a chance to dissolve this self-constructed barrier between Westerners and Africans that I reinforce with each comparison – to chat with strangers even if half of them are going to give me the evil eye. To listen, to pay attention and value the parts of Western culture that make me want to get straight back on the plane.

Train’s arrived, already. That was fast. Feels good to travel, inside and out.

Thank You Too

You’re welcome.

One of the many ingrained phrases I took for granted my whole life in Canada. I remember distinctly the frustration of not finding its equivalent while living in Zambia over 2 years ago. “Twalumba” was the chiTonga phrase meaning thank you. And the response was simply another “Twalumba”. I got over it, and got used to it.

Then I came to Ghana and was impressed by the frequency of the phrase “Amaraaba” – meaning you are welcome. But it’s not an acknowledgement of thanks, but rather the greeting when someone enters your compound. Flashback: I’m getting off the back of a moto having been away from my village Jana for a number of weeks back in February or March. Like the snap of a finger, I see the eyes of the women in my compound shift focus from the bowl in front of them to look directly at me.

“AMARAABA-O!” This was new. Why were they adding “O” on the end? I decided to add the mysterious suffix to my response.

“N-goya-O?” Shouts of laughter and clapping. I must have guessed right.

“AMARAABA-OOOO” comes the same greeting twice in a row! I dive into the moment, and respond equally loud and drawn out… The meaning of “you are welcome” has transcended the direct translation and is swirling around me in the tone, volume and sheer delight of my family.


I’m relaxing on my bed, drinking some cold water from my new fridge and enjoying the breeze from the ceiling fan and the music creeping out of my laptop’s speakers.

“Mike – I have returned your bicycle” says Isaac, my quiet and somehow shy neighbor as he tucks the bicycle back inside the veranda.


“Thank You Too.”

I love this phrase, and it’s worth a moment of reflection to decide that it needs to become engrained in my own vocabulary. A small significant measurable indicator of cross-cultural exchange. It captures so much of what has been incredible in the last 2 weeks of my life. I am deeply blessed to live and work with some phenomenal human beings, who deserve thanks just for being. Who they are.

I took the stage twice in a single weekend at the EWB West Africa Retreat to perform my first TED Talk and my first spoken word poetry in front of an audience. And I’m still holding crystal clear in my memory the attention, the eye contact, the paradox of silence: when people’s voices are resting but their hearts and minds are shouting out to the roof and off the walls. I hear that when I listen with my whole person, and it’s pure music.

I had this unbelievable flashback to being 9 years old, stomping up the steps onto the giant ugly stage of my elementary school gymnasium. I could feel and hear the hollow space below the stage that echoed with each step as I walked to the middle and turned to face the room. I noticed the grimy orange carpet that covered it, and then gulped as I saw the eyes of 300 people sitting on the floor looking up at me.

Now there’s certainly a difference in content from that speech on Patrick Roy’s goaltending style to my recent attempt at articulating my ideas on leadership inflection points and the role of self-beliefs in that process. But the adrenaline and the nerves and the challenge of holding the attention and interest of a large group of people who you care about was pretty much the same.


I ate two amazing meals in that weekend – one was food for thought, belief and action, and the other was food itself.

The thanksgiving dinner was an unreal performance by an orchestra of chefs –a huge pig, a giant turkey wrapped in bacon, mashed potatoes/yams, stuffing, gravy, coleslaw and an encore of more desserts than I could count. It was so different than my Christmas in Ghana almost a year ago – the sadness and loneliness, the distance, the uncertainty, the self-doubt were nowhere to be found. Maybe it’s the knowledge that I’ll get to visit Canada in just over a month, but that’s only part of the picture. The people around that long table of goodness are connected to me in a way I can’t easily describe. They are peers, friends, mentors, sounding boards, inspiration, brothers and sisters. They’re a forest of redwoods and saplings, beckoning the sun and the rain to nourish the potential within. Thank You.

The other food came the night before, and in contrast to the hours of preparation and cooking of thanksgiving, this feast appeared from nowhere like the flames hiding in matchbox, waiting to be sparked with the right angle and friction. Let’s put it this way, the session title was “Policies” and it was the 9th hour of the day. But as computers and USB keys failed to find the most updated version, the session took a life of its own and moved in a different direction. As people squinted at the projected screen and peered over each other’s shoulders to read a written articulation of EWB’s Vision, a crescendo of questions and responses grew to fill the room. People stood up to share their piece of the puzzle, asking piercing questions, sharing stories, and ultimately explaining exactly why they’re living and working in Ghana or Burkina Faso. It’s beautifully simple and intricately complex. And it scares and motivates me beyond belief to have the opportunity to shape and drive the way we work towards it.

Unlocking unrealized human potential.

This came through very strongly in our most recent AVC team meeting where we collectively decided to explain and frame our specific work with businesses in the agriculture sector – not around Problem Statements but instead around Unlock Statements: whether we’re seeing a barrier that’s blocking someone or a pathway that could lead them to prosperity, we’re searching first for the right keyholes before spending all our time molding shiny gold keys that we can hold up to the light and feel proud of.

As my work, life and love all start to find the rhythm and learn to dance together, I’m filled with gratitude for this life and all the people in it.

Thank You Too.



Gearing Down…

What happens when you jump off the treadmill, out the window of the speeding bullet train? Does the  brick stay on the accelerator and crash your bus into a brick wall? What happens to the people on board?

Not really. Your assumptions shatter, your stress melts and you breathe. You wake up to the sound of the Atlantic Ocean massaging the shoreline. You watch the beauty of someone sleeping beside you who is dreaming of the beach and the waves, and you breathe.

When I breathe so deeply that it draws unwanted attention, I can sometimes get this feeling like my chest is winning a separatist referendum. Sometimes the stomach butterflies flap their wings at a pace that is in resonance with my heart, and my ribcage unexpectedly becomes the source of hurricanes.

I tend to write here when an external experience triggers a reflection that I filter to be worth sharing with the world. Unconsciously, my filter tended to have a strong preference for village stories that I assumed would meet your expectation of my life in Africa.

Well SURPRISE! I’m in a very different space than the compound in Jana in rural Northern Ghana – physically, mentally, emotionally – but it doesn’t make this blog and this post and these words any less of a Doorway to the Universe. I created this blog to tell personal stories to describe systemic issues, and I’m feeling great about the stories, but ready to push the boundaries on capturing my constant thinking, reflection and learning about what it means to probe, push and try my best to change systems!

I just returned from a week in Sierra Leone with my “wife” (more easily understood label than girlfriend), and I’m loving the 3 ceiling fans in the main room of my new home. My burnt skin may be peeling and falling to the ground, but the freshness of a step away from the daily grind remains.

I’m in a new job – leading EWB’s work in Agriculture Value Chains in Ghana, and part of a 7-person team here spanning businesses small-and-big as well as a range of different donor-funded interventions to try and spark a deeper shift in agriculture that changes the game for farmers. I’m doing more of the things that I love and that I have to contribute to the world: framing, questioning, coaching, encouraging, searching, probing and amplifying! I want to end this post with a quote from my journal (first of its kind since coming to Ghana -it’s been sacrasanct!)) but commit to sharing more systemic issues and more personal stories on a weekly basis, without my village filter.

“How can I capture more of my ongoing reflections and thought evaluations to share with a wider audience? There’s a cool personal goal from now until CAnada: throw down a short blog post each week with a CONCEPT and a STORY that I’m thinking about: What does it feel like to practically manage the tension between strategic planning and emergent change? How do you predcit when an innovation is actually going to work? Change Agent training grounds are unsteady and that’s the point: there are benefits and shortfalls of having your outcomes and actions pre-defined for you. Searching for leverage points on an individual level builds a deep capacity for change that is powerful beyond words…I believe in myself that having a post written and ready to launch upon my landing in Ghana would be enough of a boost to kick things into high GEAR!”

No visual today, but a quote from a book that got my mind gearing up…

“Developmental evaluators can be the storytellers, and that is one important role. But we also contribute by helping those who believe they can make a difference test that belief. Success breeds success. And the ineffective may learn to become effective. But those who do not learn to be effective need the hard-to-hear feedback that they are not effective. Indeed, in some cases they do harm, if in no other way than by diverting resources from more effective alternatives… we also have an obligation to capture and tell the stories of failure. Harder still can be capturing and telling the stories of uncertainty, where the outcomes remain in doubt.”

One of the subtle and fantastic aspects of living in the village Jana for the past 8 months has been a strong sense of the moon’s monthly cycle around the earth. The contrast between full moon and no moon is drastic when you’re in a community without electricity. Yet the change is slow, and not something I think about everyday. I find it a great reminder that while our mind may be going a mile a minute, there are deeper patterns of change occurirng all around us.

Last week I witnessed a truly magical moment. Husain was off at a meeting somewhere, so I was king of the dinner mat, and having fun joking with everyone in the compound by saying “Zungo, n nye landlord” (today I am the landlord). Even though my Dagbani vocabularly has all but plateaued, it is really rewarding to be able to piece a few sentences together and joke around with the Ghanaians who I share my evenings and mornings with.

As the laughter slowly dissolved into nothing, I looked into the hot soup in front of me and realized I could see my own reflection from the moonlight. It caught me off guard, and as I lifted my head to take in the sky I almost fell over sideways. I find the African sky to be MASSIVE. It can pull you in sneakily and then explode you out into nothingness as you open the cage to your stomach’s secret stash of butterflies. And as they fly so far away that they disappear you’re left pondering your own size in the bigger system. It feels like swimming in a deep dark upside down lake of humility. And when my head comes up for air, I can see the immense potential in this sky. On this land, in this country, with these people, in every mind and heart I encounter.


My ear perks, and I pull myself back down to earth. That’s weird – you never hear someone’s voice crack and sound uncertain when they say Naa. It’s by far the most common greeting, and gives Dagbani newcomers a false sense of confidence for 3 or 4 sentences, when they have to come up with a different response and they just keep pressing play on the Naa button. Naa is the bread-and-butter of this language that comes bursting out of everyone you nod your head at.


There it is again! And this time without a capital n even. I go back to eating my T-Zed and watch the soup ripple to the edge and back as I quickly pull my fingers away from it’s scalding essence. CLICK!

The key fits the lock, and my mind is opened to another baffling reality of human growth and potential. Nesara the baby is learning to speak. I wash my hand and follow my ears to the far corner of the compound, where she’s holding on to her father’s leg and standing on her own two feet, trumpeting Naa to the universe. The perfect storm of bright moonlight plus her father’s giant smile are blinding. I can feel my heart grow 1/2 a size as I watch the glow from her parents – both giddy with love for this pure bundle of joy.

I wonder if Ryan’s on the verge of saying naa….

Learning to Crawl

The last two mornings I’ve taken my breakfast in “the hall” – the biggest hut in the compound used for sleeping, storage and cooking during the rain. And the last two mornings the heat of the porridge has kicked my sweat glands into a full body glisten. So I decide to take breakfast in the middle of the compound today. I hang my green towel on a nail, I place my green bucket of soap and sponge to the side, and take a wide legged stance on the rickety wooden stool, donning my basketball shorts and dirty shirt.

The whisper of a breeze has the desired effect, and I breathe deeply as I lick the spoon clean and prepare to get dressed and start my bike journey to work. But then suddenly I notice, out of the corner of my eye, a small mobile unit on the ground. Is it a chicken or chick you ask? A pregnant goat? A guinea fowl, a dog, a sheep? Well I’ll give you a hint, she’d probably eat green eggs and ham if given the chance, because she’s heading into a teething phase.

I let go of my need to get to rush to work, and reel my mind back in with a hand-tied fishing line. It was already back at my room, unlocking the room and packing up things, too many steps ahead. With the second breath I find myself pleasantly present. And as my eyes come to focus, so too does a wave of amazement rush through my body. The baby Nesara (Wadudatu) is crawling. My worlds are instantly fused: only 3 days ago my brother described my nephew Ryan really starting to motor on all fours. This amazing little human in front of me who has been a fixed point of laughter, tears and everything in between is now moving. And she’s gunning for her 2 year old brother, Sohini, and oh! She is grabbing his shorts and pulling them to his ankles, and he’s not so happy to be embarrassed by a baby. He turns around and pulls his pants back up. Nesara starts to cry.

“She wants to be picked.” Mustapha’s commentary fits the moment like Morgan Freeman narrating penguins. 5 year old Aminatu understands this even though she doesn’t hear his English and pulls the baby onto her lap, bumping her forwards and backwards, bringing a green eggs eating grin to the ball of wonder. Suddenly Aminatu has got Nesara on her hip and she’s running laps around the compound, and shrieks of joy are emitted at regular intervals. It calms into a steady “Ayy-ayyy-ayy-ayy-ayyy” with the syllables marking each big running step that Aminatu is taking.

Aminatu in baby-holding position

“She’s got the smile face. Oh, she’s really smiling now.” Morgan’s going have to keep an eye on this Ghanaian prodigy, because Mustapha couldn’t have said it any better. He could have well been describing me too, especially given that Dagbani doesn’t distinguish gender in her pronouns.

Nesara at Christmas

People change. Even when it’s as dramatic as the change in a baby’s first year on the planet, you can miss the changes if you’re not awake. I arrived intentionally late at work today, having meandered my way there, pondering this question of how people change, and how we notice. How often do we take the time to hold back what we think we know about someone to notice who they really are? Someone wrote that “you can only truly know someone in the present moment” which is frightening in its echoes of truth. Our drive to know, to understand, to be certain, can so easily blind us to the changes in people all around us. And I shudder to realize how much it dictates how I interact.

My beliefs profoundly shape my experience, like when I take a deep breath to pre-relax myself for a phone call with a certain manager who I often talk about as “a difficult character.” I’m infinitely more likely to notice what makes him difficult when I start every interaction with that image in mind.

It’s easier with Nesara because the change is so physical, so obvious. I started my porridge imaging her as a baby lying on the floor, and finished with a new picture of her as a smiling terrier, capable of exploring the compound on her own.

What stories do you tell yourself about people around you? Why are you holding on so tightly? I dare you to let go, and meet them only in the present.

Every night in Jana, I eat T-Zed. This is the staple food, which consists of finely ground maize boiled in water to a medium consistency. You scoop with your fingers and dip your hand in boiling hot soup, then swallow.

A Ghanaian colleague today noticed me eating Waakye (rice and beans) for lunch and said “Mike! You like the waakye too much! Then, when you return to Canada, you will tll them all about waakye.”  Behind the scenes he was conveying his surprise but happiness to see a foreigner enjoying Ghanaian food. I told him I’d been eating T-Zed (heavier, blander) nearly every night for 6 months and his jaw dropped.

I could smell guinea fowl as soon as I opened the rickety gate to the compound. As I neared the mat where Husain was doing his manly duties of carefully splitting the cooked bird into portions for all 16 or so meat eaters in the household, my eyes widened. Oh yeah, this is a big one. I must have been really expressing my delight for both this treat (I’ve eaten meat maybe 6 or 7 times in 6 months living this this family) and the delicious soup that came with it in the T-Zed, because Husain asked me an amazing question:

“So should we clap for her?”

“We have to!”

We finished the dinner chatting from our honed sitting stances on the well worn prayer mat, crouched over the soup bowl and careful not to slop any hot soup on ourselves. I poked fun at Husain for always washing his hands with soap AFTER eating and he tells me an elaborate explanation: “After you have eaten plenty, then you are likely to meet many other people along your way. But you know your hands might be smelling of food if you don’t wash with soap. And some people, they don’t like this thing, you know – when the women are using this fish to cook the soup. And others they just don’t like the smell of certain ingredients. So we wash our hands with soap!”

But the moment I was waiting for was about to come. “Alhassan, kamna!” (come here). We practice the clap thank you carefully as a threesome before calling his wife Ayi (and the chef tonight) over. Clap, clap, clap-clap-clap, whoosh! The whoosh is basically blowing a kiss with your hands from the final clap – in a sending gesture towards the one who you are clapping for. Roars of laughter erupt from the far reaches of the dark compound, and I can hear Husains eldest sister who I can hear Npuriba (my aunty) clapping, smiling, cheering and talking about me, somehow.

Ayi in the Kitchen

Women work unbelievably hard, and 99% of the time it can go unmentioned. Assumed, expected, demanded, scoffed at, yelled at, dismissed. But this evening my heart danced into the dark starry night, riding the goodnight kiss of our collective palms, reminded again of the love and respect that people have for each other, even if on the surface it’s hidden. When we suspend our assumptions like the stars on a young child’s ceiling, you know the ones with glow in the dark tape on them that fades over time. When we do that, we open our eyes under water and find some deeper currents of life flowing. Showing us a different story, another side. I know this when I listen, and tonight I am all ears.

I was describing my condition on Monday as a gold medal triathalon performance: High jump fever, sprinting (runnning) stomach and brass band crescendo headache. I got smoked by malaria for the 2nd time in less than 2 months, and felt like sharing a few anecdotes.

My phone is ringing. My head is ringing. The room is spinning. Ayi’s name shows up – that’s Husain’s second wife. Al-Hassan always calls me from her phone when there’s something urgent – phone credit is rationed carefully, and even after living with them 6 months the kids ask very shyly if they can use my phone to make a 40 second call.

“Mista Mike where are you! You have to get to Jana now. The men are here doing the Indoor Residual Spraying (IRS) of all the rooms. We need your key right now.”

I feel my shoulder get damp as a little more of my brain leaks out of my ear. I have not nearly enough mind functioning to deal with the challenge of getting my key 15 km across town and then out to Jana in the next 30 minutes. How Ironic will it be when my room is the only one that doesn’t get sprayed, BECAUSE I have malaria.

I decide it’s a matter for USAID to handle (they fund the IRS project and they also fund the market facilitation project that I’m working on), and at this exact moment I’m missing a key meeting with USAID officials from Accra and Washington. With a little arm twisting I convince a driver to leave the meeting and speed to do the key-drop for me, and I smile at the hope of a decreased chance of getting malaria a 3rd time in my first year in Ghana…

Even though I’ve been taking the treatment for a day and a half, my stomach is like an assembly line on overdrive, sending anything and everything straight out of my body without much mercy for the toilet at the end of the line. So I take the plunge to go get tested for malaria AND typhoid, just in case. As I’m holding my right arm in mid air, with fist clenched and eyes squeezed tightly, the lab tech tells me to release my fist, and simultaneously as he starts to pull blood from me, my gut starts to bubble like a kettle, and it’s all I can do to hold back the high pitched shriek that usually signals time to steep the tea. 30 seconds later I’m stumbling outside with strong dizziness and a primal search for a toilet. I find the place, and there’s a urinal on the right and a latched door on the left. Stupidest mistake was to use my last ounce of energy to try and jiggle the latch rather than clench my stomach… At least some got in the urinal.

I stand uncomfortably outside the clinic waiting for the results (malaria positive), praying to someone that they come quickly so I can rush my embarrassed and soiled self back to my guest house. The lab tech gives me a funny look as he shares the stapled verdict, and when I say that I’m going to start taking cipro for the diarrhea he warns me to avoid the greasy and oily foods.

Ghanaians really care about people. I think you feel this the most when you are feeling sick. The number of “May good bring your health” greetings shoots up exponentially, and people will check up on you for days after the fact. My favourite of this recent bout was my good friend Selase, who profusly apologized for 20 minutes on Tuesday morning, because he’d forgotten to check up on me Monday. “Mike, how could I forget? I am not doing well as your friend. Sorry, sorry soorrrrryyyy. I should have been calling you twice yesterday to see how you were doing. I wish you a speedy recovery.”

His magic worked. By Wednesday I was feeling strong enough to join friends for some Banku and groundnut soup. I was standing by the main road trying to hail a shared taxi, when I hear a shout from behind me – “Ndo! Ya a chena?” (My man, where are you going?) A friendly man on a moto offers me a ride to the area I’m headed, but I have to refuse on the grounds of my contract with EWB – I can not ride a moto without a helmet, no exceptions. He laughs and takes off his helmet, passing it to me: “Well I have no contract! Except to drive safe. So let’s go” It’s one of those funny broken conversations between the one driving and the one hanging on behind, made more amusing by the fact that the chin strap was literally clamping my jaw shut. We arrive, and I jump down, smiling at the pure generosity and love of this “stranger” turned friend. I won’t forget his farewell greeting:

“In fact, I won’t take your contact info. If God wants us to meet again, it will happen. And you know, I think we will both be surprised!”

It left me pondering the concept of strangers… I myself am a stranger a lot of the time when I am in  public spaces. How often do I take the leap that my new Ghanaian friend did to shatter the stereotypes of my facelessness, my unknowability, my strangeness? He certainly taught me a lot in those 10 minutes of friendship.

I don’t have a contract moto ride.

Energy Overload

The to-do list is long, the email is in overflow, the scheduling situation is like a 3-D puzzle strapped to the back of a baby goat – you can’t pin it down…

Yet I have so much energy I can barely sit still. I need to chill out my fingers enough so they can land on the right keys on the keyboard. I thrive on the energy from working with people, I am a proud member of Extraverts Anonymous, but I realized that it could be exciting to capture some of that energy and share it with the world. So let me throw down!!!

Selase is a rock star. Here’s the problem: many input dealers lack (a) the human capacity to properly manage their inventory and transactions with farmers and retailers and (b) the IT systems to automate, simplify and professionalize this process. Selase, my close colleague and “Financial Services Facilitator” on the ADVANCE project, attended a workshop and learned about a simple, effective program called QuickBooks. 3 days later he found an auditing firm in Tamale, and convinced them to let him have a copy for free to learn and understand it – with the caveat that he could possibly bring them business by linking them to people who want it. He stayed up until 4am that first day learning the ins and outs of the software.

He sat down the next day with an input dealer who had recently paid 3000 GHC for a system that wasn’t meeting the business needs – Selase knew this because he had spent 3 days walking through every aspect of the program and testing the staff (accountant, cashier, salesperson) understanding of it and mapping the “system” of who was lacking what knowledge. Selase then convinced the business to scrap that 3000 GHC program and invest 1000 GHC in QuickBooks – a pretty tough decision to make. They did it. 7 days later Selase has convinced 3 other major inputs distributors in Northern Ghana to pay full cost for the program and training, and for 2 of those 3 he has convinced them to hire a new accounts officer to be in charge – a major action step in building their financial management capacity. I got a rough comparison of Selase’s colleagues in the same role in different parts of Ghana – most are searching for a firm with QuickBooks still. Three cheers to smart, quick thinking, dedication and most of all TEXTBOOK market facilitation. Sometimes I just have to watch with awe when this guy gets to working.

Big Ajar’s thinking is off the charts. Big Ajar is a nucleus farmer, meaning he has 60 acres of his own maize and soya, and he supports 200-300 smaller farmers by giving them tractor services, fertilizer and seed at the planting season and collects an equivalent amount of produce at harvest time. In discussing the Junior Fellow who will work with him, we landed on the topic of aligning his own incentives with farmer success. I have thought about this in the theoretical, but the conversation made it real. He had 80% recovery last year, meaning that 80% of the services he delivered to farmers on credit was paid back in-kind (bags of maize/soya). That’s a big loss for his business. Some can be attributed low farmer yields (Sorry I only got 3 bags, so I can’t pay you back 2). Some can be farmers lying about their yield to avoid paying him back. What can he do as a nucleus farmer to change this situation for the benefit of all parties? Have a YIELD COMPETITION: It immediately encourages farmers to disclose their yields to him and decrease the number of farmers who lie to avoid repayment. It also brings energy to the question of “What leads to good yields?” among his outgrowers and creates a social energy/space to improve agric practices, whether it’s planting in rows with the right spacing, weeding on time before the weeds steal nutrients from the plants, or harvesting on time to avoid “shattering” and big post-harvest losses. His anecdote was a community where immediately farmers started saying: “I will be number 1”, “I will be number 2”. Given the time lag (a whole growing season), the JF working with him is going to test this approach on a specific agric practice like plant spacing: The top 3 farmers will receive awards for having the best planting methods, so that within 1-2 weeks Big Ajar can tell whether the contest is having an effect or not.

How Junior Fellows (JFs) are gonna kick our AVC team into HIGH GEAR. We’ve gotta test our ideas, we need to ask “What exactly is the impact of market facilitation?” We need to get the qualitative, dynamic, tacit information and beliefs that drive decisions within agribusinesses into the projects trying to influence them. Shatter the simple mental models of those in charge of project design and start increasing the flexibility and sophistication of interventions to match the dynamism of the system they’re trying to influence. JF’s can demonstrate new ways of interacting, discover new business models, look at which changes produce which results. Observe the interactions between firms and farmers – even share with the firms deeper insights on how farmers make decisions and what is driving their behavior. On many leels, I see it as demonstrate the value of understanding and investing people – and here it’s making the business case for hiring and developing high caliber staff to give you an advantage in the long term.

So there’s an imperfect and unpolished jolt of energy for ya! It’s light on context so ask whatever questions you want so you can also be bouncing off the walls  🙂

Don't worry we were just posing.

At Second Glance

Two weeks ago I took the bus from Accra to Tamale, which is a long but fascinating journey roughly 600km from the booming capital on the coast through the lush green hills and fields of Southern Ghana to the heart of the North. It was coming on the tail end of 3 weeks working and travelling all over the South, and was the first chance in a while for me to have almost 12 hours of relatively peaceful thinking.

I noticed a lot of things about myself,  changes in my attitude and emotions, which when I compared to arriving here 6 months ago in fact seemed quite contrasting. In particular I realized how much I had tried to “figure everything out” and quickly learn about my surroundings to be able to adapt and make sense of things. At first glance, it matches well the training I received and a big part of my own and to some extent EWB’s self image of “asking lots of questions and learning extremely quickly.”

What I noticed differently about myself now is less inner tension and stress – partly because I have learned the ropes of Ghana in some areas, partly because I’ve relaxed a bit. Three concrete examples come to mind from my first 2 weeks in Ghana: The first is trying to catch a tro-tro during rush-hour in Accra in my first few weeks – I was bent on figuring out which approaching tro was in fact going to Madina and succeeding in grabbing one of the few available seats, and determined to not look stupid. The second relates to bus stations in general – their chaos had the effect on instilling a sense of panic when I really wanted to quickly find the bus I needed without looking lost or confused. Finally I think of the inner emotional roller coaster of almost a week in a nice guest house in Tamale trying to find a home – feeling unhappy, disappointed in myself for not integrating and learning the language fast enough.

“It’s the only thing in the world that it is very sure it doesn’t know what is going on. In innocence, there is no idea about what’s going on, and this is the wonderment.”

I read this quote from Emptiness Dancing while on the bus ride and realized some of the beauty of letting yourself be overwhelmed by the unknown and not feeling the need to hide it with a sense of competence. It was a bit of an unlearning of my first village stay in Zambia almost 2 years ago when I wrote:

 “By now I’m faking confidence well, so I pick a direction and start walking that way swiftly. Once I’m out of the full view of everyone, I ask which direction to the hospital, and head there to meet Petros.”

It brings me to the second quote from Emptiness Dancing that cuts a little closer to home for me in understanding why I developed this pattern for adapting to new situations:

“We see that we are not who we thought we were, and the world is not what we thought it was. Everything is new and open and unpredictable, which makes the ego feel insecure.”

The first line of the quote rings so true to me, and yet it’s the ability to let go of what we think that practically is so difficult. I see this challenge pervading so many layers of the complex system of agriculture – where everyone’s actions are guided by a certain mental model they have of other players: Banks don’t want to lend to farmers because they hold an image of the “unreliable farmer”. Farmers are hesitant to sell to aggregators because they believe “traders are always going to cheat me”. Input dealers don’t want to hire staff to better manage their business because “people will just steal from me”. Tractor owners chase their operators all across the country  because they believe “if I don’t monitor them like that, they will chop all my money”

On a more personal level, it’s a real gut check on some of the big ambitious proclamations I made when flying over here about believing in the potential of every Ghanaian. When I’m really honest with myself, I notice that there are people who I’ve started to believe “they don’t get it. They’re stuck in their pattern of thinking.” Which is pretty ironic, because it stops me from asking questions or taking approaches to maybe shift their (and my own) thinking.

My nephew Ryan

“An infant who has just learned to hold his head up has a frank and forthright way of gazing about him in bewilderment. He hasn’t the faintest clue where he is, and he aims to learn. In a couple of years, what he will have learned instead is how to fake it: he’ll have the cocksure air of a squatter who has come to feel he owns the place. Some unwonted, taught pride diverts us from our original intent, which is to explore the neighborhood, view the landscape, to discover at least where it is that we have been so startlingly set down, if we can’t learn why.” – Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

The photo is my nephew Ryan, who beams with light and steals my heart and is a magnet pulling me back to Canada, growing stronger as he gains pounds and inches. I actually believe that if there are any parents in the world who will challenge and support him to not just “fake it”, then it’s the two that brought him into the world.

For me, seeing the image of this growing boy starting to hold himself up and look around coupled with the longer quote from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek ignited in me a desire to live my own life here with that same curiosity and awe. It gave me a different perspective on the daily routine of waking up in Jana, my morning ritual and bike ride, and the evening conversations with everyone in the compound. It was a bit of a spark to dive back into learning Dagbani. Even my first day back at home (after the bus ride) my second glances at my life opened up so many new things that I learned with curiosity, rather than anxiety:


Abdul-Rahman has the biggest smile in the whole compound – his teeth shine, his eyes bulge and every muscle in his face participates. He speaks zero English and laughs heartily at every new phrase I greet him with. He is an adopted son to Husain, who is probably in his 30’s with a wife and 3 children, including baby Nesara. But when I opened my mind and ears to listen to Al-Hassan telling stories about him, I got a picture (from a 13 year old’s perspective) of a “very wicked man”. Who forces children to work hard in the fields, and will yell and beat them for making any mistake, even if they have never planted a yam in their life.

Plucking guinea fowl (on Christmas morning)

I decided to move around rather than just chat on one of the wooden benches, and was shocked to find Al-Hassan and Mustapha plucking two guinea fowls on a Tuesday night. Meat (other than rats) is very rare, and besides the Christmas dinner which I sponsored I’d never seen two guinea fowls slaughtered. I was fascinated to learn that they’d been hit by a speeding pickup truck (in part because when the government re-graded the dirt road to Jana they destroyed the speed bump and no one has rebuilt it yet). What ensued was a debate between the two young Muslim brothers about when it was acceptable to eat an animal without praying while cutting its throat, and when it wasn’t. Turns out that speeding pick-ups are legitimate, and I ate meat for breakfast for the first time the next morning.

Mustafa sharpening a sickle to harvest rice with

There is a fairly steady stream of people shouting (or talking loudly to each other) and usually I just stay in my bubble, keeping quiet and maybe trying to pick out the words I know if I’m really motivated. But this time I decided to ask what all the commotion was about – and learned that Mustapha had taken a piece of the guinea fowl that simply “wasn’t for him”. Going a little deeper, I heard the explanation first that “small children, those ones are needing the protein, so it’s for them”. Next came a more realistic reason: “but in fact, it’s the elders like my father and my aunty who get to take those pieces of meat”.

I am living in an amazing country filled with people and ideas and interactions that I don’t understand, and fully embracing that brings a whole different quality of energy to my days. It’s easy for our egos to get caught up in knowing what’s going on – we see our credibility tied up in being knowledgeable, and close a lot of doors for learning and changing along the way.

Peaks and Valleys

Women fetching water in Jana

NOTE: photo credit to Colleen Duncan. Second NOTE: The dam has gone dry, so now it’s a 3km walk to water rather than 1+km.

These days my life is full. It’s a lot like the massive bin of water balanced on the head of an elderly woman in Jana, with the surface of the water changing angles with every step, held steady by a sprinkling of leaves and twigs floating on top. One moment she’s having a wonderful conversation with her elder daughter, and the next she’s slipping down the slope of the road as a bus with more people on the roof than in the seats comes flying down the dirt road, kicking up a cloud of dust akin to tear gas. I feel pushed to the limit, and likely to spill.

My house

The whole bike ride home my mind replays the unanswered emails and unfinished tasks so frequently I hardly notice all the faces I pass. As I back my bike into my sauna of a room, my sweat valves are cranked fully open, racing each other to drench every last dry spot of my clothes. The flustration snapps when I drop a sachet of water on the floor, and the explosion transforms the layer of dust into a moving pool of mud. Just at that moment my phone rings. My mom can instantly detect that I’m in a rut from the tension in my voice.

Later I am setting up shop in the bathing shelter as the sun goes down. This will be my first attempt at shaving in the dark. The bucket of cold water sits in front of me, and I set up the shaving soap and brush to my right, with the lid from the soap dish serving as my razor rinsing station. The trick is to not contaminate the big bucket of water with the razor stubble released during rinsing, so that I can still enjoy the bucket bath after I shave. I manage to hold a flashlight and a mirror in my left hand, and twist my neck at an impossible angle to be able to see what I’m shaving. At that moment I hear incredible bursts of laughter coming from Aminatu as she is playing with other children in the compound. My heart is lifted to hear the joy in it – and I want to capture the soundtrack just to spite every full colour print ad of a naked dirty African child doctored to pull your heartstrings. These kids know how to have fun, and it’s a more complex story than just that image of abject poverty.

My self-dialogue is cut short by a loud smack, shrieks of crying, and angry voices of parents being raised. It was like a knife cutting through the atmosphere, as whatever joke or game got Aminatu laughing suddenly went too far and was now getting her beaten. It splashed a handprint of bright paint over my “counter image” – teaching me the same lesson about oversimplifying a story just to make a point.

It’s the next day and I’m in Yendi town with fellow EWBer Ben Best. We are both sitting in the shop that sells both agri-inputs and veterinary medicines, completely captivated by the owner, Adam. He is a smaller, older man with a wistful look in his eye, wearing a jean vest with a broken zipper, and he reminds me a bit of the master from the Karate Kid. As he describes the dynamic different aspects of his business, his eyes grow brighter and larger, and we’re drawn in further. We learn about how he learned a secret best practice for applying a pre-emergence herbicide to rice fields by having a  close relationship with a farmer who experimented, and how fast the method has been taken up by other farmers. He brought in an employee of his whose sole job is to move around to farmer’s fields giving advice and getting feedback on products – a perfect counterpart for the Junior Fellow coming to work with input dealers in the area! I leave the meeting bouncing off the walls with energy – inspired and motivated by the potential of businesses to drive forward change in farming here in Ghana.

My excitement carries over into a dinner discussion with Husain. We now eat outside the compound due to the heat, but on the same trusty mat as before. We’re discussing his plans for different crops this year – rice, soybean and maize, when he suddenly changes the subject: “Did you know that our First Lady died today?” I didn’t, and as my mind tried to figure out who the First Lady was, he gave me the answer – it is the first wife of the chief. I lost my appetite quickly, reflecting on the fact that she was living only a few hundred meters from where we were sitting. Then Husain made the connection that further knocked the wind out of me – she was also the mother of the man whose wife had died suddenly only 2 weeks prior. Stunned, I asked Husain how that man was managing – having lost his mother and his wife in the same month. He almost looked that I would ask such a question: “Of course he is managing. He knows it could have been any one of us. He knows that God had a reason to take them both in the same month. We all have to trust in his judgement. Am I right?”

This morning my alarm beats the mosque call to prayer, and I pack my dirty clothes by flashlight, rushing to go wake up Fatawu in the compound so he can take me to the bus station by 4:30am. I’ve got a big day ahead, and I need to get on the first bus if I want to make it to Techiman for morning meetings. I call his phone once, and he doesn’t pick up. I call again and it’s gone off. I meekly enter the compound and bodies start to stir – turns out Fatawu slept somewhere else last night and now his phone is dead. Mustapha comes to the rescue, grabbing my flash light and sprinting out into the village to find him. I’m left with nothing to do but brush my teeth and sit and wait.

Fatawu on moto

We set off late on the moto, and get to the station after the bus has left. My heart sinks… and the story starts to write itself in my own head of me showing up late in dirty clothes to the scorn of everyone in the office… Fatawu is so apologetic that he takes me around to 3 or 4 dead-end attempts at another bus. I’m just about to line up for a ticket for a 7:00am bus when a suspicious looking man smoking a cigarette butt and sporting a very unkept beard asks us to wait outside – he’s got a private vehicle going to Techiman in the next 5 minutes. Even though my skepticism made no attempt to hide itself, I was shocked and amazed when I was on the road 10 minute later having paid less than the regular fare to an NGO driver who was trying to add something small to his salary by filling an empty truck on its way to Techiman. The light of the rising sun can’t help but reflect off my freshly brushed teeth, exposed by a big smile.

…It’s a day later, and the smile is still there – I always underestimate how much I enjoy writing. I’ve got an idea for a themed series of posts on leadership in Ghana: from the compound to the roadside to the NGO meeting room to the shop floor of a mechanic and the store room of a chemical seller. What do you think?