Sharing minds

We bring greetings from across the sea! We are Engineers Without Borders, and this week we are spotlighting one of our wonderful long-term volunteers working in Africa. Robin Stratas is currently living and working in Tamale, Ghana, and in this piece she speaks of her journey to the small village of Abokobiisi, and the inspiration she finds waiting for her.

I spent five days in a village called Abokobiisi, in the upper-East Region of Ghana, and it may have been the most powerful five days of my life.

When you think of a Ghanaian farmer, whom do you picture? Previously, I probably would have thought of a middle-aged black man, wrinkled face, family man, working hard every day in the fields. This isn’t completely false — there are farmers like this, but I met many others whose profiles are quite different. Many farmers here are women (more than 60 per cent of Ghanaian farmers are women), and there are also a lot of young farmers, many who farm because they have no other choice.

I will begin by highlighting the person who most inspired me: Amos, a 19-year-old boy. Young, lean but muscular, hardworking and kind. He is one of only three people in the community that speaks English, and he’s exceptionally bright. He is currently a farmer by default, by unfortunate circumstance, but things are looking up for Amos.

Last year, he graduated from junior high school with excellent grades. He hoped to move on to secondary school, which is three years in duration and requires the student to live in another town and pay steep school fees. When I asked why he didn’t go to secondary school, he said, “because of poverty. We are suffering.” Unable to pay the school fees (hundreds of dollars), he had to stay in Abokobiisi — a village that is an hour’s bicycle ride to the nearest hospital, an hour’s walk through rivers and streams to the nearest market, has no electricity, no formal sanitation — probably the typical “African village” you see in your mind.

For the past year he has been farming and extensively helping the community. He is
currently hoping that, with support from the community and help from the local assemblyman, he can go to secondary school this year. I am really hoping he is able, and anxiously awaiting him to tell me the good news.
Each day I spent with Amos I learned something new about village life, something new about poverty and something new about the human spirit. Most surprisingly, I kept finding out the different roles he plays in the community. It took me three days to discover that every night, Monday to Friday from eight to nine o’clock, he teaches night classes (remember — there is no electricity in Abokobiisi). When I
asked him why, he said, “We don’t want our mothers to be illiterate.”

Then, I attended the Women’s Group Meeting, where he also sat in. Afterwards, I looked at his book and realized that the whole time he had been listening to the meeting in Fra Fra, translating and writing in English almost word for word what was discussed at the meeting. In this same book, he records which women go to the field each day to weed the soya, and much more.

I can definitely say that all of my most fruitful conversations in the village involved Amos. He is so intelligent and asked me great questions about life in Canada, and some funny ones (“Can you open the window when you’re flying on an airplane?”).

He really pushed my thinking. Before I came, I decided I didn’t want to bring many luxurious items to the village because a) they are unnecessary and b) I didn’t want to expose people to material things that they’ve never seen or experienced and, in so doing, make them want to have one of their own (it is unlikely they will ever be able to afford them).

So I didn’t bring my laptop or many clothes, but I did bring my MP3 player to listen to music in the morning and at night. I had no intentions of bringing it out. But on the third day, when I was fairly close with Amos, we were sitting out in the early morning — as we always did — and I decided to show it to him and Gilbert. They were fascinated by it, of course. They had never seen or heard of one before — they initially thought it was a different cell phone. They loved the beats, wanted it really loud, and I soon realized they preferred the upbeat, hip-hop songs, so I put those on for them.

I went away and returned, grabbed the MP3 player to change the song for them, and realized that Amos had already been navigating through the player menus and had changed things himself. I was amazed. Minutes earlier, he didn’t know how to change the volume.

Later in the day, walking to the market, I confessed that I hadn’t intended on showing them the MP3 player (for the second reason mentioned above). And Amos said, “No, Robin. It is wonderful for us to see these things. Then, when I see it later, I will know what it is, how it works, and then I won’t just be a villager again.”

Leaving Abokobiisi was difficult. I had already stayed longer than intended due to the rains. The night before I left, Amos said, “I’m praying it will rain again tomorrow so you can stay another day.” I said, “I know, it’s very painful. But why do you want me to stay?”

“So we can converse. So we can share minds.”

Thanks for reading our first correspondence from the continent of Africa.

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