Project Overview

Engineers Without Borders' work is capable of widespread impact in Ghana. We started off based in only a few of the nation's 107 regional districts; learning the out-in-the-field realities and building tools to address them.
We are now scaling up proven, effective approaches to infrastructure development from a small number of districts, to a national level. Specifically, we are institutionalizing evidence-based infrastructure planning at the district, regional and national levels. To ensure we have an enduring impact, EWB is building the capacity of district staff to manage and execute these evidence based decisions, teaching these skills to the Ghanains who are best able to implement them from their positions as managers and field experts.

December 14, 2010


I fell of the bandwagon in terms of posting to my blog - but I was still writing blog posts. Here is some of what I wrote. (Its much easier to post with high speed internet!)

I’m back to full health and will be in Toronto at EWB national office until December 21st, when I fly home to Vancouver for keeps. Can't wait to see all of you.

with optimism,

A week in the life of Pam:

My Mom combined her donation with a great question – what does a normal day look like? Every day feels wildly non-representative, and I think, oh no, I couldn’t possibly use that day as my ‘normal’ example, so I’ve decided to use a week.

4:30 am. Wake up to the very loud mosques calling for prayer. I decide to catch up on email in the morning while internet is fast.
6:00 am. Water not running, have a bucket bath from a small bucket drawn from our large bucket of ‘spare’ water.
7:00 am: breakfast. The usual Ghanaian breakfast is “egg and bread” , which is fried egg on baguette, and Lipton tea or Nescafe with plenty of milk and sugar. As always, I modify this to two fried eggs and plain tea from Sadia. Sadia has an egg and bread stand with the most delicious eggs in the city. Her secret is adding tomato and onion. Her fire pot and stand are near my house and under the shade of a mango tree.
7:30 am. Take a taxi into town.
8:00 am. Start blood tests at the local medical test clinic.
11:00 am. Head to the local teaching hospital to have the doctor review the results. Yay! I’m certified free of UTI, kidney infection, and typhoid fever.
Chat briefly with the instructing doctor. His MD and PHD are from Europe, but he is back here teaching the next generation of doctors in Northern Ghana because he cares. He can’t even afford a car with his salary here; he could be rich working it in at any number of overseas country’s hospitals.
The instructing MD that I’ve gone to see introduces me to the head of the lab. As a personal project, a couple friends and I are making a private donation to repair the water, electricity, and countertop in the hospital diagnostic lab, as well as a maintenance budget for the next two years until the new lab is ready. Its not really development work because its not a sustainable system, but it felt deeply wrong on a personal level to be treated with so much concern by this doctor and hospital doing their best with very, very limited funding, then be whisked off by plane to a private hospital in the capital, leaving behind Dr. Ziam and his patients. How do I describe leaving behind the cries of people in the night for Jesus to just come and take them, while I look over my shoulder on the way out the door to get well at a clean hospital with all the resources money can buy.
He is teaching the best medicine he can with a desperate lack of resources. One example of this is that the hospital, its learning doctors, and its patients are facing the next two years without a functioning diagnostic lab because it doesn’t have budget for maintenance until a new lab is complete. As a consequence, Doctors will complete their complete practicum without the ability to do tests. 12:00 pm. Chat with Jason briefly on the phone – share the great news that I’m finally clear of the big infections.
Take a taxi to the only high speed internet café in northern Ghana. Ask the manager where/if it is possible to buy a replacement keyboard, someone spilled water on my laptop that I’d leant them at a training last week, and my keyboard is kaput.
Walk to the keyboard store, and buy a keyboard quickly and easily. Amazing. That was much easier than expected
1:00 pm. Meet in an upscale outside garden café with the other three members of the Governance and Rural Infrastructure team. Eat lunch and hash out the details together of an influence paper we are sending to the capital intended to layout the steps needed to create an integrated data management system for the government of Ghana, instead of a tangle of multiple systems that exists now. Mina leaves part way through for a malaria test because he’s feeling really achy; he’s clear of malaria.
6:00pm Head home as night falls and the malarial mosquitoes come out. Rinse off in a much needed bucket bath. Free of sweat for a full thirty blissful seconds after the shower! Cook dinner at my place with the team and my two roommates. Talk EWB and development strategies until 9 pm, which is late here. Fall into bed under my mosquito net.

Tuesday: a National Muslim holiday celebrating Mohammed’s proffered sacrifice of his son.
4:30am – decide to go back to sleep after morning prayers.
6:30 am – wake up, still no water, not even enough for a bucket bath. Work on documents a little, check my email.
8:30 am – Meet the Governance and Rural Infrastructure team at Sadia’s egg and bread. Go over briefing paper again, updating Mina on what he missed while doing his malaria test. Start to plan next briefing paper.
About 9:00 am – head back to my place for a coaching session with Luisa. Break out my laptops, and get down to the business of what I will contribute to the team in the next four weeks. Discuss how to leverage my strengths, specific plans to work on my weaknesses. I’m lucky to have and experienced manager and a great friend in Luisa.
12:00 pm. –still no water. I go over to a friend’s place for a shower. Wow, much better. Sweaty again a minute later. Mina’s had another malaria test from a better lab, and he does have malaria.
12:15 pm – meet the Governance and Rural Infrastructure team again for lunch at a nearby lunch spot.
1:00 pm – buy water for drinking and head home to work on documents for the afternoon.
7:00 pm - done with documents, time to eat!
9:00 pm – Bed time, tucking in under the mosquito net.
Wednesday: The actual holiday celebrating Mohammed’s proffered sacrifice of his son
1:00 am or thereabouts: prayers have started at the nearby mosque. Suprisingly loud prayers.
8:00 Our friend Razak comes over to say happy Sala and bring some rice, noodles, and meat pieces from the Sala sacrificial lamb. I feel lucky and included.
I spend the rest of the morning greeting friends in a ring shaped building of small apartments that I used to live in, greeting people at the shops I frequent, and deciding that I like the theory of eating all of an animal more than I like watching the application of the theory. I also feel lucky that as a vegetarian I don’t have to face the dilemma of accepting or turning down the intestines I’ve just watched cleaned out then wrapped on a stick and roasted. There is plenty of rice for me. Plenty.
1:00 -Oh god, its not actually a holiday today – better get on in to the office!
1:01 – there is one person at the office. She stays about half an hour, then its just me.
5:00 – head home – too much feasting today to be able to eat supper.
Evening: Engineers Without Borders agriculture team has taken over my living room with a strategy session. Interesting to listen to.
Morning: Finish writing some presentations in the morning at home. The internet is not nearly fast enough today to send these presentations out, so I go downtown to the high speed internet café. Buy some veggies and lunch while I’m there.
Afternoon: Spend the afternoon at the office, and have some really quality conversation with Tamale’s Finance Officer regarding what it is that will need to change in the office culture for people to share information freely.
Evening: Make rice and veggies from the market for dinner, the give a powerpoint lunch and learn to BC Hydro over the phone. Mina’s malaria drugs work so well he’s out having a couple beers tonight.
Morning: Sit in my office with local government planners and work with them on proposals that they are putting out for funding. We review data supporting why they are requesting, but don’t manage to get it included in the document. Baby steps.
Afternoon: Meet with the city health service information officer Abdul, and am absolutely blown away by all the graphs on his wall, and his departments handle on using data to make decisions. Could this department lead all the other departments? Abdul has requested some small training in excel on a few easy things that are frustrating him. We can provide that easily with his director’s permission.
Evening: Dinner out with the team goes from a detailed strategy discussion to an apple cider fueled. Mina found apple cider from South Africa, which we’ve never have before and it goes down all too easily.

Daytime: Spend the day with one of EWBs co-directors of overseas programs, showing her the Governance and Rural Infrastructure work, and engage in some really useful reflection on our strategy. Finally meet the city director of health service. He starts the conversation by questioning if donors (including EWB) should even be in Ghana, and making it clear that we can offer suggestions but not make changes without his permission. I am really, really impressed. People will usually do whatever a donor requests without much questioning at all. I like this guy a lot. I like that it feels like if I put forward a bad idea he will throw me out of his office. What will it take to get this leader to connect with the other, really silo-ed departments and lead by example?

Doug's Question - What is the biggest difference you have made or best moment you've had making a difference? Mangoes: cheap, plentiful, delicious?


Thank-you for your donation, it came at the end of a long day and was an awesome shot in the arm of energy that there are people back at home supporting us. By you donating to EWB you are helping to create lasting change, not ongoing charity.

Sweet question too. I immediately have an answer. My favorite moments of impact have been influencing change in team strategy. Namely:
1) Identifying during a team strategy session that co-ordination of existing data systems is a more critical priority than the implementation of a new system.
2) Putting two and two together that google is interested in partnering with EWB, and that the four person team I’m on in Africa is essentially trying to help people use disorganized data to drive better decisions. Google knows how to do that. Could we facilitate a partnership between the government of Ghana and Google?
(We are helping the government officials access their information so that they allocate resources where they are most needed. ie, should they more urgently hire teachers or build more schools)

Mangoes - I sat in the shade of many a mango tree, and watched little flowers for fruits the size of a pinhead, but a long rainy season meant a late mango season and no fresh mangoes for me. :(

November 12, 2010

Why Live in an African Village?

Why integrate? Why do development work living with a Ghanaian family in an African village, instead of staying in expatriate hotels and driving a nice new SUV? Such hotels are available and SUVs are the vehicle of choice for NGOs. What is the purpose of living in a location where malaria is rampant and sanitation is well, bad? One EWBer half-jokingly defined integration as getting malaria 20 times and shitting your pants once. (for the record, I have had malaria twice, and my pants are clean.)

For me, there are three good reasons to integrate into Ghanaian society.

1) I love the family I’m staying with, and I’m so glad we’re getting the chance to know each other. The births, deaths, weddings, and everyday family dinners and breakfasts that I am experiencing with them are an exchange of fellowship beyond the practical application of development work.

2) Actually living in Ghana (the same Ghana that Ghanaians live in) gives me a much more accurate and realistic picture of what work needs to be done now. The patient trust-building of shared experience changes the information I receive about what people’s actual motivations are, what they’re actual problems are, and what solutions might work. People answer questions differently when I show up on a bicycle, after just doing laundry with them or their family, than they would if I pulled up in a shiny SUV, fresh from an expatriate hotel.

3) By living in traditional, rural areas, and simultaneously building influence through capital city meetings with senior government officials to communicate those realities, we bridge information across two very separated realities, and are able to enhance Ghana’s leaders own capacity to create effective solutions themselves.

The first reason may be worthwhile justification in on its own. From a practical perspective, the knowledge gained under the second reason is purchased at a great cost to our efficiency. It is really worth it though, when we are able to communicate what we learn to influence large scale changes and improvements in the system.

October 3, 2010

Kat's question - Women in Ghana

Kat’s question: I'm curious about women in Ghana. You mentioned that your "sister's" daughter is already a mother at 17, but is still going to school. So how long do girls go to school for? And the boys? Do they go to the same schools? What kinds of jobs can women get if they complete their education?

My Answer:
Thank-you so much for your question and donation Kat. Once again there is a long answer and a short answer, but the short answer is long, and the long answer is really really long.

Short answer:

Both boys and girls go to the same schools, but boys do tend to get marginally more schooling. The fees are expensive ($150 CAD per year) and a girl might not continue her schooling if the family has to choose between sending her or her brother to school, or if she is already starting a big family and intends to stay at home. If she does stay at home she will likely do petty trading and sell things like in the market.

There are no restrictions on what jobs woman can hold. Several senior government officials are woman. When I was flying into the capital of Accra, there were several Ghanaian women on the plane in suits clearly flying for business reasons.

Long answer:
Like many things in woman's rights, this comes back to the question of babies. Having children is fundamentally regarded differently in Northern Ghana than Canada. Early in an introductory conversation, people will ask each other how many children they have, and your status is determined by the number much the same way as in Canada your status is confirmed by your job or your neighborhood. Both men and women really hold having many children in their homes as their ultimate reason to be. Societally and personally, a life should be spent bearing and raising children.

Some of the consequences of this are beautiful – women’s body fertility is in many ways respected and revered. When a woman I’m friends with is breastfeeding near me, she will often look at me smiling and say, “A baby will suck at your breast soon.” as an optimistic and loving way of lifting my spirits, assuming that with no baby of my own to feed I would feel saddened. She is apologizing for flaunting her status and happiness of breastfeeding. I think a reasonable analogy would be an executive feeling a little awkward picking up her cheque in front of a close but unemployed friend. My Ghanaian friends don’t really believe that I would use birth control to not have any babies, because in their world that would be insane.

The purpose of marriage is to build a family, and to use birth control before having children is unthinkable. Depending on your tribe, your marriage is void if you don’t bear children within a year or two. When fertility is strong, a man would be considered within his rights to desire many children, and to request his wife stay home to raise the children and manage the household. While the Ghanaian community will help woman raise their children, there is no such thing as daycare.

In the villages there are no electric stoves, no clothes washing machines, dishwashers, or running water inside huts. There are not disposable diapers ,and definitely no microwave dinners or pre-prepared foods. This means that the pure physical labour of running a household with children is staggering. So when your raison d’etre is to bear children, the amount of time you will be spending fulfilling your life’s purpose is large. That makes being an exception to being a woman that raises children while dependent on her husbands income difficult. There are, however, some woman that do it.

There is one woman I work with (she is a gender officer) who separated from her husband after two children, then moved back into his (polygamous) compound again as his wife after she had raised the children and they were done University. If she’d stayed in the compound her husband wanted to have more children with her, and therefore for her to stay at home and have the time needed to take care of a big family. Her incentive to keep her own job (even though she loved her husband and it pained her to be separate from him) was to be able to be financially independent and not have to suffer whatever indignities her financial supporter would put her through. (Husbands can be jerks, spend their money on newer wives, die, or stop supporting you, either way leaving you to depend on someone else for financial support) She limited her number of children, parted a marriage she didn’t want to leave, and lived as a single Mom in a world where you have to fetch your own firewood to cook with, and grow and grind and cook your own corn and stew for dinner. She did it for the assurance of knowing that she could call her own shots because she had her education and a reliable job to support her.

October 1, 2010

New Pictures!

I've just put in a bunch of new pictures on the 'Pictures' Tab. Enjoy!

More posts to come.....

September 13, 2010

Sam's Question

Thanks for the not only large but also numerically mirrored donation Sam!

I was surprised at what I learned in response to your question “What is the going rate for a wife in terms of livestock? Do transactions really go on like TV has led me to believe?”.

The short answer is four cows, the long answer is below.

The long answer requires some context. Before I came to Ghana I didn’t really believe that 52 different local languages could be spoken in such a small country, so I assumed that linguists were just getting a little crazy with naming languages as separate. I’ve found that there really is an enormous # of sub-cultures here. The traditional history of the country is defined by groups of many small tribes.

For example, I live in the district of W. Mamprusi, and the Mampruli people here speak a different language and have very different cultural norms for some things than the next group of tribes 70kms away. For example, men here, and just north of here, will have as many wives as they can afford, but that is not the case a little ways to the west. The Mampruli have only been in the area for a few hundred years, and their language and customs are quite different than from surrounding areas. Each tribal area has distinct traditional customs; which is all to say, each area has different engagement and marriage rites and rules.

The Fulani are a group near here that have a lot of cattle. My neighbor reports that before marriage, a man must give his future father-in-law four cows, no matter the wealth, beauty, education etc. of his bride-to-be. He also said that if the father-in-law likes you a lot, and wants you to marry his daughter, or if you are very poor, the father might agree to receive as little as one fowl (chicken). He reports that when a Fulani father accepts the livestock, the daughter is basically contractually bound to marry.

In W. Mamprusi you would visit your future fiancé’s father’s compound of huts with a group of family and friends and enough soda-pop and kola nuts to share with everyone while generally letting them know you intend to marry their daughter. They might generally agree or disagree, and the parents can direct the daughter on whether or not to get married, but they can’t agree on her behalf. Kola nuts are apparently not very delicious, and not all that expensive, but they are a traditional food to share at any important discussion. The soda-pop is a new addition to the traditional ritual! Coca-cola is the DeBeers of the Mampruli.