Hear my voice

Market area in Wa

Market area in Wa

Last Thursday Mulcaila, who works with SEND, took us to the Resource Centre for People Living with Disabilities. The centre was in the vibrant, bustling market area of  to the Wa. Walking in this area was like stepping into a wall of sound. The streets were bristling with life – men welding, goats bleating, women chatting as they filled up their baskets to place on their heads, children weaving in and out, motorbikes growling past and bicycle bells ringing. 

Everywhere I looked there was such vibrant colour, from the piled up displays of tomatoes and bananas to the  eclectic colour combinations of the women’s clothes. Colour combinations and patterns that really shouldn’t go together but somehow on these ladies, they work brilliantly.  

But as I walked further into these streets towards the Centre, it wasn’t just the sights and sounds that grabbed my attention but the smell too. It’s a smell that I’ve come across before on other overseas visits. It is hard to describe, it is a dense, clinging, sour odour that I cannot help but think of now when I hear the word poverty. It is a combination of the smell from the open sewers in the street, from the rubbish lying around and simply from the fact that a lot of people are living and working in a tight space in very difficult conditions.

SewingThe Resource Centre for People Living with Disabilities was at the very heart of this market area. The people working in it had spilled out on to the streets. I saw women and men with various disabilities sitting at rows of old Singer sewing machines, stitching those wonderfully bright pieces of cloth. Inside there was a group of young people signing to each other and several more ladies weaving and sewing.

Christiane Omoh, the Resource Centre’s manager, welcomed us. She explained how Ghanian society, including parents and family, view disabled people as useless and therefore unimportant. They are ostracised and not even referred to by their own name just by their disability eg the woman with the deformed foot, the deaf boy.

Christiane and many of the others told us that until Christian Aid’s partner SEND started helping them, many of these people were unaware that they were entitled to free health care and also a share of Ghana’s Common Fund. Most people living with disabilities are uneducated, some are blind and some are deaf making it very difficult for them to hear what is being broadcast on the radio or to understand what is being written in the papers about entitlements. Because of the stigma attached to disability in Ghana, their families tend not to help or support them.

Christiane told us about the particular difficulties that blind and deaf people have. One deaf person was sitting in A&E for 24 hours because she could not hear her name being called and was continually put back to the end of the queue.IMG_6156

My heart went out to that woman, invisible and isolated, unable to communicate in a hospital full of people. The afternoon could have ended there with that story, but that wasn’t how Christiane and the others wanted it to be. Instead they told us that through SEND, they now have a voice and are being listened to. As one man explained to me ‘It’s not just about getting what we are entitled to, it’s about dignity and respect. Life will never exactly be easy, but we want people to see that we are not useless.’

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Dancing in the Aisles

I’ve just been to my first ever African church services and I still can’t stop smiling. Mind you I wasn’t smiling when we had to leave at 6.30am to get to the first service which started at 7. It was an English service held in St John Methodist Church in Accra where Rev Dr Heather Morris gave the sermon.

The second was in St Peter Methodist Church and it was in the local language. Neil and I had to sit at the front in both services, so it was hard to tell when we were meant to be standing or sitting as we couldn’t really see anyone else. It didn’t really matter though as the whole atmosphere was warm and welcoming.

The singing was fantastic. No slowmoving hymns here, it was all passion and rhythm. And as for the dancing –  what can I say? I think we should all dance up to the front of the church to give our offering. I think I may have even been caught on camera getting into the spirit of it too.

There were 7 offering boxes  at the front, labelled for each day of the week. I panicked because I thought it meant there were going to be 7 offerings and I didn’t have enough money with me. The Rev John Acheampong explained that you only put your offering into the box for the day of the week that you were born on. 

Ghanians talk a lot about this and I was only here a day when someone asked me what day of the week I was born on. I didn’t know then but I have since found out it was Monday.  People also get a name which reflects their birth day as well so apparently you can tell that Kofi Annan was born on a Friday – I think it is do with the ‘ko’ part of his name.

The whole church experience was a feast for the eyes, the ears and the soul. The women here in Ghana dress so beautifully, it was dazzling to watch them all dance past as they gave up their offering. It wass as if this was God’s own carnival and I felt really blessed to be part of it.




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Empty bowls

I haven’t blogged in the last couple of few days because I didn’t have an internet connection. I also didn’t have any lights for a while and for a time I didn’t have a working toilet, electricity or water either so not having wifi wasn’t really a priority. What I did have though or should I say what we all had was a great big puncture.

In the last few days we have flown to Sunyani, driven to Wenchi then on to Wa and Tamale. This morning we flew back to Accra and wifi!

 In Wa we met up with our Christian Aid partner, SEND. The first thing that caught my attention in their office was a poster that said ‘you may not like your wife but you have no right to beat her up’.  I am sad to say I did laugh when I read it simply because it was so unexpected. It also reminded me of the type of message you used to see on those old fashioned cartoon postcards, typically found in seaside towns.  Then I saw another poster which said ‘do not beat up women accused of witchcraft. It could be your mother.’ 

I was struck by the simplicity of the messaging and brutality of the subject. I wasn’t actually visiting SEND to talk about any of these particular issues but it did bring home to me the fact that violence against women is everywhere in this world, regardless of economic climate. But in countries like Ghana there can be additional burdens to bear.

The team in SEND was brilliant, full of passion about their work. They took Heather, Neil and I to see a local primary school to watch the School Feeding Programme in action.

This was set up to encourage children to go to school and at the same time reduce hunger and malnutrition. It is a government scheme but our partner SEND has been monitoring the scheme, ensuring that it is implemented fairly and accountably. Before they started doing this they found that the scheme tended to be mostly implemented in regions that were less in need of it. Now it is being implemented in the 3 northern regions where 8 out of 10 people are living in poverty.  

It was the last day of term and all the children were lining up to get fed. The head teacher, Insah Habiba, explained that normally they start with the youngest class, feed them and then bring out the next class but today everyone was being fed at the same time. It was noisy and often quite violent as children shoved and whacked each other in the queue – this was probably their only meal of the day and no one wanted to lose their place. Today’s meal was a substantial bowl of rice with a spoonful or two of vegetable broth on top.

Insah explained that these children didn’t get anything to eat before they arrived at school – normally between 7 and 7.30. At that point the cook counted the number of children who were there (anything up to 700) and then cooked the exact amount needed, no such thing as throwing a bit extra in the pot. 

There was no kitchen, all the cooking was done outside in 2 massive pots, in the traditional way using charcoal. The children check that there’s food in the pots when they arrive, if there isn’t then they’ll not stay in school.  It is a very simple scheme, but like any scheme, the success is in the implementation. SEND monitors the effectiveness of it and ensures that the schools in the poorest regions, are able to participate in it.

Insah said that her numbers were continually increasing meaning that not only were more children being educated but they were also getting more nourishing food. The community was benefiting too as the food for the meIals was  all bought locally.

I know that many children at home would turn their nose up at the school dinner here but it was really obvious that these children loved it.  Every bowl was empty. These children are a tough bunch, they have already learnt the lesson that food is precious and getting good food is a priority.

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Walk tall

 It all started with David Attenborough. He was the one who made me aware of a world far beyond County Down, where wildebeest roamed and lions prowled.  As a child I dreamt about going to Africa. To me it seemed the most exotic place imaginable, the name conjured up images of vast plains, torrential rains and dusty red earth. It was about survival of the fittest in the animal kingdom.

Looking back on it it’s strange to think that I knew more about the difficulties faced by animals in Africa than I did about the people living there. The documentaries I watched focused on food shortages, droughts, changeable weather conditions and territorial disputes – of animals.

Now I am actually here in Accra, Ghana but I’m more concerned with the issues facing the Ghanian people, especially those living in poverty.

I wasn’t thinking poverty when I first arrived though. Having worked in communications for a bank in my former life, I do have an unfortunate tendency to notice billboard advertising and bank advertising in particular. I didn’t think that my first impression of Africa was going to be the 7 bank billboards that I saw when I got off the plane. In that respect Accra is no different to any other international airport.

As my Ghanian colleagues explained to me today, Ghana may be a lower middle income country but there are many people living in poverty and in very difficult circumstances. Over the next 9 days I will get the opportunity to see some of them when I visit our partners and talk to the communities that we are working with. You can be guaranteed that these are not the type of customers that the banks in Accra are targetting.

I have the pleasure of visiting these communities along with Rev Heather Morris, President of the Methodist Church in Ireland and her husband Neil (my official photographer!).

I think Heather would agree when I say that the women of Ghana have made a big impression on us both already, in the few hours that we have been here. Our posture has improved. We are now standing taller and sitting up straighter. We have seen women  strolling nonchalantly along the road carrying huge baskets and trays on their head filled with all sorts of things. They simply roll up a piece of cloth and place it on their head for balance and then they pile everything on top of it. They look so strong and yet graceful and elegant. It would appear that you could drive to work in Accra and do a full grocery shop on the way without having to get out of your car. We even saw someone selling bathroom scales and kitchen clocks.

Tomorrow we fly to Sunyani. I don’t think I need to wheel my case anymore, I can just pop it on my head.

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Food for thought

You know I thought that going to India would be difficult, but I never thought that coming back would be so hard. I am suffering from culture shock in reverse – which apparently is quite common when you come back from an overseas trip.
Things that didn’t annoy me too much before now really grate on me. We just have far too much food – in our cupboards, on our plates and in our bins. We have access to all the food we could ever want or need and to be honest up until now I have pretty much eaten what I wanted rather than eat what I need.
We have so much choice as well. This morning for breakfast I could have had porridge, or cereal, or toast or fruit and yogurt or eggs. The list goes on. In our cupboard there must be at least 7-8 different boxes of cereal and yet I have heard my children moan ‘there’s nothing to eat’. I have now seen children who literally have nothing to eat and I’m afraid my tolerance levels are rather low where this is concerned – beware little Bennetts.
I have a stack of diet books on my shelves, I have tried them all over the years. I know the nutritional value of loads of foods and yet it really hasn’t made much of a dent on me – increasing knowledge has not meant decreasing weight. But something changed in India. I saw people struggling to get food and I also saw very healthy people growing and eating all their own food – food that they have chosen to grow based on its nutritional value. I’ve also seen their portion sizes. These people were slim and healthy and full of vitality. They have a really good understanding of what their body needs, what fuel it needs to make it perform and they cook everything from scratch, so they know exactly what they’re eating.
Now I can’t say I’ve transformed into a great cook since I come back but I can say that I’m now very aware of what I need and don’t need. And unlike before it’s not based upon what I read in a book but what I’ve seen. What it boils down to is that I’m ashamed of how much I ate before, how I took it all for granted. It took a trip to India to make me appreciate the value of food. So this Christmas there won’t be mountains of food in our house – just enough to do us.

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Homeward bound

The Indian Garden Lizard – see point 9 below. Pic: Wikipedia

In half an hour I’ll face the madness of Hyderabad traffic and head to the airport for a flight to Dubai. Here are a few lighthearted observations of my time in India:

  1. Always carry toilet roll or tissues with you (less said the better)
  2. IWC means Indian toilet, EWC means European toilet. You rarely get a choice so when you see EWC, go for it my friend
  3. You’re best not asking what the food is, some of the descriptions might put you off. Just eat and enjoy.
  4. Curry is wonderful but not always for breakfast, lunch and dinner
  5. Always carry Immodium (relates to several points above)
  6. Be prepared for cows wandering along in cities as well as in the country
  7. If you have a seatbelt and it works, use it
  8. It is possible to fit a family of four plus shopping on to a motorbike
  9. It’s hard to sleep when there are lizards above your bed and beside it
  10. No matter how hard you try, a mosquito will sneak through your mosquito net. Plasters are great at covering up holes in your net
  11. Finally – if you ever get the opportunity to go to India, take it.
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You can take a girl from the country…

I have just spent the last two days with women farmers near Zaheerabad, a couple of hours drive outside Hyderabad. Or  Hyderamad as my colleague Deborah now calls it.

It was the most wonderful and uplifting experience being with these women. They are illiterate, they never went to school or if they did it was only for a year or two. And yet these women are incredibly knowledgeable about agriculture and have natural business ability.

I can’t really give much more away as I’m committed to writing a piece in Farming Life about these women and how they farm. But I will say that that the success of these farmers is down to their own ability and attitude to make things work and also down to our partner, Deccan Development Society, which through the support of Christian Aid, helped get these farming businesses started.

I would love to invite some of these women to visit us to see how we farm and to share their knowledge. I guess one of the big surprises from this trip is realising that there is so much we can learn from people here in terms of their ability to work together to solve their problems and to secure their own livelihood.

If I had visited these farmers at the start of my trip I would have thought they were extremely poor. Now having seen how other communities live, I can see that they are prospering. They have built sturdier, more weather resistant houses, they have enough food to eat and they are happy being their own bosses. They don’t have much in terms of material possessions but what they do have is a sense of pride, self respect and confidence in their own abilities and that’s not something money can buy.

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Culture mix

Hyderabad: A hi-tech city that shows how India is becoming the office of the world. Pic: wiki

Last night we flew from Madurai to Hyderabad. As soon as we arrived I could tell that Hyderabad was different to the other towns and cities we had been in. It appeared a lot more westernised and all the billboards were in English. We drove over a 12km flyover, our partner told us it had been the longest flyover in the world until China built one at 30km length. He seemed rather put out by this but then laughed and said China might be the factory of the world but India is the office of the world. It certainly looked that way last night as we drove past some very high tech businesses.

This morning we saw a very different aspect to the city as we headed into the old part of town to meet with our partner organisation COVA. We saw brightly decorated temples close to beautifully ornate mosques. There were women in burkhas contrasting starkly against the colourful saris of Hindu women.

COVA (Confederation of Voluntary Associations) explained that Hyderabad is a mix of communities – about 53% Hindu, 40% Muslim and the remainder Christians and Sikhs. COVA was formed in the early  nineties in response to the conflict between these communities  in the old city of Hyderabad .

In Hyderabad, there is more of a racial mix compared to the cities we visited earlier. Pic: 123rf.com

Their aim is to bring communities together to campaign for their rights as citizens regardless of their faith. Today they took us to meet groups of young women , all of whom are change activists.

They are a mix of of Hindus and Muslims and they are working closely together to campaign for better access to healthcare and to stop child labour. In one area alone they identified 2000 children working as child labourers. Now 800 of these are attending school but the target is for all of them to attend school.

That is not their only recent success. They have just stopped the illegal sale of alcohol in their area after campaigning and lobbying the Police Commissioner. These young women said they are very happy doing this  volunteer work, it improves their society and their area. They are changing the mindset of local people,  helping them to realise that they can achieve more if they work together.

We met with other activist groups throughout the day, some of them children. These groups not only show that different faiths can live  side by side but they can also lobby for change that will benefit them all. There is still tension within areas but COVA explained that now the police let the local groups resolve issues and resolution is achieved more quickly.

I’ve met several volunteer and activist groups during my trip to India and I’ve been blown away by their tenacity, dedication and spirit. I am now convinced that these groups are the way forward to achieve sustainable change.

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Living positively

Tackling the HIV epidemic in India. Pic: Instablogs.com

Today I sat in a room of 25 people or more where I was in the minority not because of my race or religion but because of my health status. I am not HIV positive.

You might think the mood would have been serious and pessimistic but it was far from it.

Over the years there have been a lot of schemes helping those diagnosed with HIV but not everyone was getting the help they needed.

Dalit women in particular were often forgotten about or ignored – another example of discrimination.

Christian Aid’s goals were to reach the unreached and create a sustainable community project. And so with the help of partners, the HIV Volunteer Project was developed. These volunteers are mostly women and each is responsible for several districts.

Sex worker educating others about safe sex. Pic: f06.classes.colgate.edu

One of the ways HIV can be transmitted is from mother to child at birth. however not all pregnant women know their HIV status. One of the volunteers’ jobs is to make sure that every pregnant woman in their districts is tested. If the woman is discovered to be HIV+ then the volunteer ensures that she goes to her check ups and gets the necessary medication.

The volunteer also provides on-going counselling as this is a very traumatic time for the mother-to-be. Some women are newly weds and have had no idea that their husband was infected. Others do know but have been pressured into marriage by their family.

I met a wonderful volunteer today and one of the mothers she helped. This volunteer persuaded the mother to get tested and was there at the birth of her children when her family would not support her.

But the work these volunteers do goes beyond that. They help and advise mothers on nutrition. They also work with the existing health system to make sure that the government works with poorer communities and treats them respectfully.

Before this project started only 7% of pregnant women here went for testing, now it is 98%.

The volunteers we met today were enthusiastic and committed to their role. One woman said that the service was not available when she had her children, who are all HIV+, so she decided to become a volunteer to help prevent other children from becoming infected. Another woman said she was helped by a volunteer herself and because of that her daughter was HIV  negative.

Hugely dedicated volunteers. Pic: Asianscientist.com

When Dean John Mann spoke to Arogya Aram’s director about the dedication of the volunteers, he replied that they were emotionally bonded to their work. They know by helping other women in their districts, they can make a positive difference to their lives and those of their children. It is all about helping each other and providing advice and support without judgement  – I think there are many of us who could learn from these volunteers.

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Be grateful for what you’ve got

Madurai, the City of Temples. Pic: wiki.org

Last night we flew from Chennai to Madurai, which is more inland towards the west. The car that I travelled in to the hotel wasn’t air conditioned so we drove along with the windows down. A  warm, balmy breeze blew in our faces and the air was full of strange, exotic smells. I have only been here 4 days but it feels much longer as we have seen so much.

The India that I have seen so far is not a peaceful, tranquil place. It is noisy and crammed with people. We drove through villages that just seemed to run into one another, all of them heaving as the locals went about their business. It doesn’t seem to matter what time of day it is or what day it is, everyone seems to be going somewhere.

The driving was as chaotic in Madurai as it was in Delhi and Chennai – a constant barrage of horns and flashing lights. There must be some sort of driving code but I’ve no idea what it is. Who dares wins perhaps. Every street was littered with rubbish, there are no street cleaners in India and it is truly shocking to see how much filth and waste is lying about.

Madurai Cow Pic:www.willandloulou.blogspot.co.uk

Cows wandered down the road, some were tied up at the side. I have seen more cows in the city than in the country.

At one point we drove past a field where a body was burning on a funeral pyre with just one lone man standing beside it.

At 5am this morning I was woken by the sound of devotional music being blasted in the corridors of the hotel.

The horn blasting started up then too so 5am is obviously getting up time here.

We spent the day with our partner Arogya Agam, meaning Place of Health.

AA works with marginalized and excluded people on human rights issues and community health projects.

These marginalized people tend to be from lower castes such as Dalits and can also be subgroups within these castes.

We went to visit some  Dalit families – there is a type of caste system within the Dalit caste and the families we visited were one of the lowest in the system. I have seen poverty before on TV but I still wasn’t prepared for the shock of seeing how these people live.

They live in either one roomed shacks or one roomed houses. The shacks are basically bits of wood tied together with a roof of dried branches and leaves. Most of the one roomed houses have suffered storm damage and are unsafe to live in. Those that are lived in are shared by 4 families.  All the houses leak so when it rains the families sleep outside in case the roof caves in.

We asked the woman’s representative what their biggest issues were and she said they had no burial ground. As they are Dalits and are considered ‘untouchable’, they cannot bury their dead alongside any other community . If anyone dies they have to find a ditch or a bit of unidentified land to bury them in.

Madurai: a bustling city but work is hard to find if you’re a Dalit. Pic: 123rf.com

They told us that they get about 60 days of work a year as agricultural labourers for dominant castes.

The men earn 250 rupees a day (just over 3 pounds) and the women 100 rupees a day (about 80p).

This money has to last them all year – it has to feed and clothe them and pay for everything else they might need.

They mostly live on a diet of rice porridge. All of them were thin and we could see signs of malnutrition among some of the women. There is no primary health care in the village.

They have a few scrawny cows and goats which they rely on for milk.  All the animals live alongside them. There is no electricity and their homes are dark even during the day. They get water from a common tap but there are no toilet facilities, they have to go into the trees. I can only imagine how difficult it must be to live day after day in these conditions.

Arogya Agam is working with this community and others to help them campaign for their rights. These communities are being discriminated against – they do not get access to the same services as higher castes, they cannot get work because of their caste and they are excluded from most basic amenities because of their caste. The self help groups and Federations that have been set up as a result of AA’s work, show that this is the best way forward to create lasting change. These groups not only make change happen they also help the Dalit community feel better about themselves.

It was difficult to see how those families lived  but it has made me and my team even more determined to support these communities and it has also made me very grateful for the things I take for granted.

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