Guest Work: A Graduate in Ghana

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I apologize if I'm bombarding everyone with too much rich content at once, but I know if I hold off on these guest works any longer I'll just forget to post them. 

Kia Alexander, originally from Oakland, CA, is a good friend of mine from college.  Instead of following the herd of undergraduates that go into finance, she decided to go her own way and has ended up in Ghana.  She sent me an email update from there and I asked her if I could publish it on Citizen Orange. The only way to solve the problems associated with is through a global perspective and Kia certainly provides that.  Below is the email.
Hello, to everyone I think might be interested in my Ghana adventures...

It has taken me forever to write something, because I have had no idea what to write.  So I decided to just write something and see what happens...

I have been here for about a month and a half now, but I just landed an internship-type thing last week, so I am only now getting into a regular schedule.

My regular schedule is like this:  I wake up in the mornings and rush to take a shower because all of last week I managed to oversleep.  I have breakfast: tea and two slices of toast with jam (not really a Ghanaian breakfast at all, more on that later...).  Then I leave the house and walk through the swamp behind it to get to the main road (it's shorter than walking on the normal street in front of it), catch a tro-tro - a minivan turned bus - to the station and catch another one to my workplace.

I'm working at a waste management company called Zoomlion.  It is one of a few wm companies in Ghana and has only been in existence for about two years, but has completely taken over the sector, and seems to be the only one in Ghana at all.  Why?  It was started in Ghana through its Chinese parent company (also Zoomlion), which had the funds to open it on a large and ready-to-operate scale.  I'm pretty sure there aren't any automobiles that are assembled in Ghana, and so the hardest part of running a waste management company here is getting trucks from overseas.  The trucks themselves are expensive, and transporting them and then paying import taxes on them make it prohibitively expensive.  Zoomlion Gh's parent company provides almost all of the equipment, so all the trucks it uses are Chinese.  I don't exactly know how independent the Ghana company is, or what their financial relationship is, but I know that the company here exceeds all other wm companies in its capacity.  The way it's growing is frightening!  Beyond cleaning up trash/cesspits it offers fumigation services and rents out its equipment to private companies and individuals.  So in short, it's makin bank!  Because whatever it does, it does so much more efficiently than other providers.

My first project is to help with the Free Bin Program, where households and businesses are offered free trash bins when they sign up for regular trash collection by Zoomlion.  Because there aren't really street addresses here, it's hard for the drivers to know exactly where the trash needs to be picked up, so I'm trying to help reorganize that system, because some customers just end up never getting their trash collected. 

Other than that, I'll get to go around with the managers to see their different operations, their engineered and non-engineered landfills, and to see technologies that have started in Ghana but that Zoomlion doesn't yet use (like wastewater reuse plants, where human wastewater is converted into fertilizer for farming).  That should be exciting, and relevant to my trying to learn about sanitation technology.  I'll also get to work on my Twi, because English is spoken less than half the time in my office.  My desk is in the Accountant's Office, so I get to watch all the inquiries he fields.  Basically every 10 seconds someone is coming in and out of the office.  It is mostly guys, and apart from Twi guys mostly speak pidgin, so uh, I'll also get to work on that.  Also, the Ghanaian office environment is sooo different from an office environment at home, especially for this kind of company.  It's very much like a government office, where there is often not enough room for all the people who need office space, and because it is the office of a trash company there are also a lot of ordinary workers coming in and out of the place, so I get to meet everybody and it's actually a lot of fun.

In other news, there is an election coming up.  You would think everyone here is American, the way they are excited about Barack!  There is a song:  And everyone I meet asks me who I support.  Sometimes I say McCain, and people just look really sad and disappointed.  But what's weird is last time I was here everybody assumed I was white American.  This time, I dunno if it's because of Obama, but people say, "You are black American.  You must be supporting Obama."  Last week I saw a bar that had changed its name to Obama Spot.  That was funny.  I wonder what it's like in Kenya.. But as far as the election here, the party that's been in power for 8 years has been the National Patriotic Party, having taken over in the country's first Democratic/peaceful hand over in 2001 from the NDC/JJ Rawlings.  NPP supporters will tell you that NPP is going to win, no problem.  NDC supporters will say that the poverty in the country is too much and people are going to come out to vote who have never voted before just to get the NPP out of power.  I don't know..  I am working parttime for a Harvard prof whose project is on the elections, and she is observing the registration and voting process.  I do know that there is a huge problem with the efficacy of elections because of corruption at the voter-level.  At registration centers it is hard to determine who is 18 because so many people don't have a birth certificate.  Parties will bring out children to vote and use their muscle at registration and voting sites to push their votes through.  People are bused in from Togo by parties and paid to vote.   People vote using the names of dead people who haven't been removed from the registration rolls.  Party people also use different means of voter intimidation to send people away at reg. centers,etc etc etc.  It seems that Ghana is far more fair and experiences far fewer problems than other countries in terms of elections, but there is still a far way to go.  Poverty is of course an integral part of election corruption, because people just don't have money, and buying votes can be very easy.

A more funny story.. A week and a half ago I went with James, a Ghanaian grad student from MIT, to the northern part of the country.  He was finishing up research for his urban planning thesis, where he's looking at the social ramifications of a dam being constructed up there by a Chinese company.  Like Zoomlion, Bui Dam is an example of this trend of Chinese investment in Africa.  The trip was incredible.  Just the major work that has to be done to manipulate the land in order to construct a dam is crazy to see.  Traveling by land over about 350 mi here is also something else... One part of the trip:  James and I left Sunyani (where we stayed) for Bui at noon, having waited for the rain to die down before we left.  We arrived at the Wenchi (another, yet smaller, city) station in the next two hours, and there waited for a tro-tro to Bui.  The thing about tro-tros is that they don't leave until they're full.  So we had to wait for others who wanted to go to Bui.  The thing about Bui is that it's a village, and on the way there is nothing but smaller villages.  These are places that a whole lot of people don't leave from or go to very often.  So the Bui tro-tro only leaves Wenchi about twice a day.  The other thing about tro-tros is that they are beat up second-hand minivans, sometimes on their last legs, that someone has gotten a license to drive and painted bright colors on.  Maybe also words on the back like "Jesus Lives" and "Still Black," etc.  But they aren't always safe.  At that time we didn't know why, but the taxis were asking for over $100.  We sat in this car for about 2 hours and there were three seats left.  We decided to pay for the empty seats and just go.  I think the mate's (he collects the money for the driver) girlfriend got on for free after we paid, because this girl came and jumped in right as we were taking off.  A group of guys at the station pushed the car onto the road as the driver ran the ignition, and we were off!  In the car with us were a few old people, a screaming chicken and a crying baby.  Because of the rain the seats were wet and because it was old the radio kept falling onto my lap.   We found out why the taxis didn't want to go.  Especially because it had rained, the road was awful.  I think we traveled over gravel for about thirty minutes, and then we turned onto a dirt trail.  There was really only room for one car on this road, and there were potholes all over the place!  If the road had been decent, it would have taken thirty minutes to pass over, tops.  But the way it was, and with our old car, it took over two hours.  At one point the driver wanted to take the tape out of the casette player but he couldn't get it, so he used the car key to do it, and held the key in his hand for the rest of the ride... James: "The car is still moving.  There is no key in it."  At another point a truck was passing in our direction, and instead of moving to the side to let it pass like most drivers do, the tro-tro driver decided to keep going.  The road was too small, and the right half of the car ended up in a ditch, where we got stuck, and the car slowly started to tip over.  Everybody leaned towards the left, and people started getting out and holding the car up as they got out.  Then all the guys went to push it out of the ditch and get it started again.  That was kind of scary.  What was more scary was that it was getting dark, and that truck was the only other car we'd seen on the road.  If you are traveling on a road like that at night, by tro-tro, you better know that there is no other car coming back until the next day.  So I'm thinking, what if work closes at 5, and everybody's gone home???? I asked James and he said well, he hopes there's someone there.  At this point we had no choice but to hope.  So we continued, dropping people off at their various villages.  Thank God the chicken finally left.  And eventually the only people left in the car were me and james, the driver, the mate, the mate's girlfriend, and one old lady.  I didn't know where they were going to go after the old lady left, and I didn't know how far we had to go.  James didn't know the language they were speaking either.  No comfort there.  We passed a village with a few lights and stopped as a huge truck pulled up beside us.  James looked and said, "Hey, 'Syno-Hydro,' they are building the dam!"  And then just continued to sit silently.  I said James, if you don't talk to them... So he asked the driver and found out that the guys on the truck were going for their night shift.  Thank goodness.  We got onto the truck with the workers and continued.  I had never felt so relieved.  When we got there, the rest is history because we ended up having a place to stay, and the engineers were all actually just a little bit older than me, with their first degree, so we actually had a lot of fun. 

The next day we went around the entire worksite, and found that the head engineer spoke Chinese.  He showed us around and I learned a bit about how dams are built.  The building of a dam brings with it a lot of problems.  The first, a problem of the Ghanaian government, is the issue of resettlement.  Wherever a dam is built, part of the area that was once river becomes a catchment area of still-water.  The banks on either side of the former river are completely flooded, and so animals and any people are permanently displaced.  The Akosombo dam, built in 1965 in the southern region of Ghana, created resettlement issues that have still yet to be resolved.  People were given land to replace the land they lived on, but there are issues of the quality and amount of land.  Apparently many of the people displaced by the first dam were resettled along the Volta river up north to be able to maintain their fishing and farming economy.  These same people are being moved again, however, for this dam, and there must be very careful negotiations made to avoid the types of lawsuits that have arisen from the first one.  Additionally, the way the dam is being paid for is raising some eyebrows.  It is being paid for in cocoa.  Ghana is (i think) the world's third largest producer of cocoa, but has a problem with its tertiary production. There is only one Ghanaian company that sells cocoa products, primarily chocolate, and the rest of the cocoa is purchased at the mercy of outside buyers.  Using cocoa to pay for the dam (including the promise of cocoa that has not yet been produced), raises questions about the future of Ghanaian ownership of its cocoa.

There are labor issues, though these are not really considered problematic in Ghana, because there are labor issues in every industry here.  At the dam the issues are pay and safety, and interestingly, communication!  There is a small group of Ghanaian engineers who oversee the work of the Chinese staff, just for measures of quality control (they kept telling me that the Chinese are not known for their care of quality).  The Chinese, however, are actually heading the project and it is Chinese engineers who lead the teams of Ghanaian laborers.  However, a lot of the Chinese engineers don't speak English!  So communication is sparse.  That situation was being worked on as we left...

Overall, if the dam is completed Ghana will no longer sit in an energy crisis.  That is the hope.  Without energy you can't have development, so that is a very good thing.  However, it will be interesting to see how China plays out its role as the new superpower on the African continent... University of Ghana at Legon is building a new Chinese Studies Department.  Whoa..

I don't have a lot more stories, okay maybe one or two but I don't want you to get too bored.  So I will write more in the next... month and a half. : )

For now I am just going to sit in the house with my great-Auntie and drink tea.  I feel transported to the UK when I'm in this house.  It's like you come in the door and you're no longer in Ghana.  I'm eating fruit tarts and have learned to hold my cutlery properly.  Yesterday I went to the overpriced Lebanese-owned grocery store to buy $20/lb grapes for my Aunt.  That's not inflation, that's what happens when you want to buy imported things from the Lebanese.  The weird things rich people do here.  If you have spent most of/ all of your life in the U.S., the contrast between the rich and the poor in this country would turn your head inside-out.

More adventures to come.

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yave begnet said:

Wow, sounds like an awesome experience. I am envious. Thanks for the insights to things that are going on in other parts of the world.

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This page contains a single entry by kyledeb published on September 11, 2008 3:15 AM.

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