Yodit Tsegaye in Tamale, Ghana on a Coady International Institute internship
6 April 2011
It’s simply been a refreshing experience, here in Tamale, Ghana.
I wake up every morning around 5:30 a.m. by the laughter and voices of women speaking a language I’m slowly learning. As they begin their morning routine, it takes me back for a moment until I remember I’m half way across the world, far away from home. I’m in Tamale, the capital of Ghana’s Northern region, working with women on a sustainable livelihoods project for Africa 2000 Network Ghana.
I have been here a just over a month, and feel I have already found myself immersed in a community and culture which has taught me the value of taking the time to acknowledge the importance of relationships. And it is challenging my perception of many development norms I have learned over the years.
My job here in Tamale is to work with a group of women who are a part of an association that promotes and produces shea butter as a sustainable livelihood. The Pagsung Shea Butter Processors and Shea Nut Pickers Association are unique from any other shea butter processing groups, in that it is exclusively owned by the women processors themselves.
Women in Northern Ghana are considered especially vulnerable to poverty due to gender inequality. More than half of female-headed households in rural areas are among the poorest 20 percent of the population. My job is to work with these women in capacity building and fund development to promote the sustainability of their association.
As I visit communities, I’m surrounded by women and children excited to gather together and discuss their successes and challenges since joining the association. We sit on rocks or stools under a tree to get away from the blazing afternoon sun. As I look around I’m surrounded by mud huts, open fires, herbs drying on the ground, animals roaming and young girls washing while their younger siblings play soccer.
I’m surrounded by women and men walking around each with their own duties in their communities yet always stopping to greet each other with well wishes. I’m constantly humbled by the simplicity of the communities, each member having their individual role all of which work together in providing for the livelihood of hundreds within their community. Is this the poverty we so often read about? At first glance many westerners like me may assume so, but as I sit under that tree with these women I soon realize the relativity of poverty.
As I work with the women I find myself having gained much more than I feel I have offered. Other than gaining knowledge on the informal agricultural ways of surviving in sub-Saharan Africa, I will leave Ghana with a new mother, sister, grandmother; women who have inspired me by reminding me of the relativity of the meaning of wealth. A woman telling me about her struggles, only to end her story with her thankfulness for her many blessings, is a common example of the relativity of poverty.
I spoke with one of the participants of the association – Sarah, a woman in her late sixties, who joined it to increase her support network among women sharing the same challenges, which was providing for her family after the death of her husband. Sarah spoke about her fight to educate her children so that they did not have to struggle as she did; she spoke about raising young girls who are educated, because she understands the increased challenges faced by women, especially in rural areas. Sarah’s face lit up as she spoke about her blessings, her family, her community and her health; as I fixated on her challenges, she reminded me of the simplicity of happiness and the importance of appreciating what we have.
As I wrap up the first of six months of this internship, I feel my learning has just scratched the surface – the women have taken me in as a member of their family, and have shown me the richness of kinship, even amidst the vast poverty one may automatically see in many of the communities I’m working in. I can only hope the remainder of my time in the rural areas of Tamale will remind me of the opportunities such close knit communities offer each other, as I continue to work with these inspiring women.