Wednesday, January 29, 2014

My 'ah ha' moment

When we met in Ottawa before venturing out on this grand adventure, the people from the Canadian Cooperative Association told us "there will be a moment when you are out there that you will have an 'ah ha' moment.  It will be different for everyone, but watch for it and please when it happens, because it will, share it."

So today I will share with you my 'ah ha' moment. 

Helina and Joan
The day started normally enough.  We were on our way to our third and final credit union.  I was very excited to get to this credit union as this is where Helina works.  Helina participated in the Woman's Mentorship program in June of this 2013 and stayed with me in Canada for two weeks.  This would be my chance to see where she lives and works and how life was treating her.  We arrived early and I was thrilled to be able to reconnect with Helina.  Unfortunately she has malaria and while she still had a quick smile and a laugh for us we could tell she was not feeling well. 

We  settled into work, but not for long.  There was an AGM in a town about an hour and half drive from here and we had been invited to attend.  This was clearly for the 'white factor' however whether you agree or not the reality is that parading us out at the AGM would improve the status of the credit union so off we went.  Now AGM's in Ghana are not like AGM's in Canada.  First off they last like 5 hours!  Moses promised us that we could try and sneak out after an hour...yah because we really blend in one will notice us at all.  But he was true to his word and after about 90 minutes we were on the move again.  As we left our hosts graciously provided us with lunch to go.  Chicken and rice.  Now when I first met my partner Heidi she told me that if in doubt we could always eat the chicken and rice and I went yah okay.  I didn't understand that I would be literally be eating a piece of fried chicken with a mound of rice for one at least one meal every single day that we were here. It is a staple.

All the schools have uniforms included in their fees

Armed with our chicken and rice we all piled into the truck.  We had picked up a couple of CUA reps for the trip and one of them needed to stop and check out some work that was suppose to be getting done on a building along the way.  We turned off of the highway and entered into what was clearly a poorer area.  Instead of huts or block buildings these people were living in shacks, and there were children playing in the dirt that were not dressed in their school uniforms. 

Mom taking her kids to school, look close to see the baby
There are a lot of children in Ghana and in the morning we see them streaming by in their various school uniforms.  But school is expensive, for a young child school fees are about 50 GH CD a month, and it increases as they get older.  This includes a feeding fee, so kids that go to school also get at least one meal a day. The average income for a teller is 500 GH CD's a month.  So for someone with 4 children it can be almost impossible to send all of the kids to school.  For the kids living in this slum there was clearly no hope of school. 

Heidi and I were waiting in the truck with our lunches on our laps thinking what are we going to do with this food.  It is too hot to keep it and eat it later.  We looked up and saw four little kids dressed only in rags sitting in the shade of a building.  We looked at each other and then called the children over and handed over our lunches to them.  We didn't say anything to each other we just looked at the smiles on those little face and looked at each other, sometimes there are just no words that can express how you feel.

As we drove away we could still hear the squeals of delight from one of the little girls and see her jumping up and down in the rear view mirror.  This was both heartwarming and heart breaking at the same time.  It felt good to have been able to actually do something.  But the knowledge that what we had handed out of our truck window so carelessly was of such value to another human being was gut reaching.  As we drove back to the credit u
nion I was torn, was the work that we are doing here really adding any value at all, or where there other things that we could be doing that would add more value for these poor little lost children.

I settled back into work but my heart wasn't in it.  I was reviewing loan files and flicked through a couple of files before I finally focused on what I was looking at.  The application in front of me was for 300 GH CD's approximately $150 Canadian dollars. For school fees. The next application was for the same, this one to a single mom with 5 kids, 300 CD's to be paid back over the quarter so that she could send her children to school, I starting flipping through the pile and was faced with another and another and another. 

There is a great need in Ghana, and I know that other than a full belly tonight, what I am doing today will not help those four small children that I shared my lunch with today.  But it will help the ones that can now go to school because someone could get a loan to pay their school fees.  And this is what I can do, I CAN help these credit unions survive so that they can help families send their kids to school. 

There will be others that come and make a much bigger immediate  impact in the lives of these amazing people than I. Doctors and nurses volunteering their skills and time.  Aid workers with food and clothing. But this program has offered me the chance to share my skills, while not as impressive as some, still enough to make a difference. Together we are stronger.  If we all do what we can, be that what it may, we can help this nation move from poverty to prosperity.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Board meeting under an African shade tree

I awoke this morning as I have many other days to low resonance of morning prayer being called.  The days start early in Ghana to take advantage of the cooler  temperatures.  Morning prayer is called around 4:30 and the school children are on the road not long after.  School starts at 7am and for some it is a long walk to and fro. 

We are heading back to Mim Community Credit Union today to wrap up our interviews, finalize  our report...which is already 12 pages long, and then present our findings to the management and board for their consideration. I have LOVED working with this credit union, they have been engaged and very open and honest with us from the start.  Both Heidi and I feel that we have some very strong recommendations that they will be able to work with in the short, medium and long term.

The road less traveled
We decided to take a short cut to the branch as it should take about 45 min off of our travel time.  The general manager Mr. Menseh has advised us that the side roads are ok if you trust your vehicle otherwise you may get 'hot'.  However this day our morning drive was perfect. Well almost, unfortunately a chicken sacrifice its life to our travels.  The animals here seem to have an exceptional amount of road sense and will run pell mell to the side of the road as soon as a vehicle approaches, well usually...

A mobile banker returning after completing his rounds
Our work with this credit union has resulted in some great findings.  One area that we reviewed was mobile banking.  No not banking on a mobile device like your phone, but mobile bankers, staff who go out into the community and collect members savings from them and then take the funds back to the credit union for deposit.  This ensures that members who are too far away or are working are still able to keep their savings safe and create a habit of savings.  Our role is not to 'audit' the branch but to review the day to day operations and see if there are any areas of risk that the credit union can mitigate, or any potential areas that they can explore to help them stabilize their base and build trust with their membership. With mobile banking our recommendations are simple, currently the member does not get a receipt for the deposit, the mobile banker simply updates their passbook.  The recommendation, duplicate numbered receipts that can be reconciled to ensure all funds are being credited to the members account.
We have been getting spoilt at this credit union and they insist that we take a lunch break.  We have found that it is much more productive to skip lunch as often the places that our hosts feel it is okay for us to eat are quite a ways away from the branch and it cuts into the day significantly.  However today this is no escaping it.  Good decision.  We are served plantain, yams and a delicious spicy meat stew.  The plantain and yams are both very similar in taste and texture to a boiled russet potato.  I'm enjoying the local foods but we are really quite cautious about what we eat.  With out access to washrooms until we return the hotel at the end of the day (usually about 12 hours) getting sick is really not an option.
We returned to the branch with full bellies but there would be no napping today. The entire board
plus the loans committee, the supervisory committee and the education committee were all in attendance to hear our report.  The offices were far to small to host 3 people let alone 15, so we gathered in a circle under a tree in the church yard.  I must say this was by far my favorite setting for a meeting that I have ever had the pleasure to attend.  We talked for over two hours, about lending policies, cash management, security and more.  The board was so engaged we were peppered with questions.  One of the things that made this such a great experience was that we knew the idea's that were able to share with them will be able to improve their credit union.  And this board will do it.  They are very committed to the advancement of their credit union for the benefit of all.
Today we made a difference.

Monday, January 27, 2014

African Safari

Some days it's all about the picture and today was one of those days.  Mole (Moe-lay) National Park is located in Northern Ghana.  For us that meant that we spent our weekend off driving, an 8 hour return drive through more villages than I could count.  It's funny, a couple of weeks ago if you told me I would be sitting in the car with two people I have known for less than a week for 16 hours I'm not sure I would have said excellent lets go!  But by jove, that would have been the correct response.

 There are so many things to look at that the time just fly's past and before you know it you have arrived. The villages are close together so you are always moving out of one and into the other.  The villages are all very different.  Some have grass huts, others have mud huts or cement and cinderblock construction.  All of them will have chickens, goats, ginny hens, and perhaps a few dogs wandering around.

Grass hut village on the way to Mole

Road side market
A quick stop at the market and we were ready for our trip with fresh banana's, watermelon and homemade bread.  You can purchase bread just about everywhere.  Vendors will even run out into the street with it as you drive past. It takes convenience to a whole new level, here if you are waiting in traffic you can purchase, bread, water, bags of nuts, boiled eggs, and numerous other items.  The bread is a while, a little bit heaver than Canadian bread and slightly sweater.  Very good.

Elephants at Mole National Park
Finally we arrived at the park.  The main attraction at Mole are the elephants and they did not disappoint.  Heidi and I saw our first ones on the way to our room.  Four elephants were on the other side of the road.  There was a guide near by and so we were able to approach quite closely.  The park is over 4500 sq km so there is no guarantee that the elephants will be in the area that you visit, but as with the rest our trip Africa did not disappoint. 

This part of Ghana is quite a bit dryer than we have experienced so far.  When the rainy season comes the valley will flood and all the trees will spring back to life.  But for now there is a barren feel to the land.  We chose a driving safari in the afternoon and a walking safari for the morning when it was cooler.  Price of the walking safari, $5.00 each for a guide to take us out for two hours.
Tomorrow it is back to work but today it was all about creating memories.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Night driving is only for the brave of heart, and those who have absolutely no sense what so ever!!

We are headed to Mole National Park.  This is very exciting for a couple of reasons.  First we will probably get to see elephants and seriously how cool is that, second we will be meeting up with 4 other coaches.  We are excited to be able to exchange stories, compare notes and brainstorm around common issues.  Okay and maybe share a beer :)

Road side foliage coated in red dust
However to get there from here is quite a long drive...and that means we will need to drive at dark.  Now to understand the significance of that statement let me set the scene for you.  First picture a very narrow two lane road, or to be more accurate a wide single land road, add alternating pavement and dirt sections.  In the pavement sections include massive potholes that cause the drivers to weave and swerve between them.  Now make the dirt very fine with a rich red color the billows up around you obliterating anyone that may be behind.  Okay so you have your road, lets add some traffic, anything that you can get to run can go on the road.  From three wheeled trikes with small boxes to massive freight trucks and everything in between.  Now lets add people, lots and lots of people.  People walking with buckets of water, people biking with piles of wood, groups of people, people pushing wheelbarrows, small people and big people, people everywhere. 

taking a load of yarrow to market
Now in the day time this is tricky but manageable, well usually.  But at night a couple of extra factors come into play.  First not all of those vehicles actually have lights, second that dust that was billowing up around you all day has settled into a thick layer on your window and any head lights that approach create a bright reflective glare.  However by far the scariest thing is the people they loom up out of the night on the side of the road, barely visible.  Now don't think that this will slow anyone down, that would be silly. There is a system now that you should know about, when driving at night and another vehicle approaches you put your left turn signal on, not to signal a left turn, although it can mean that as well.  No you put your turn signal on to show that you are owning your side of the road and the approaching vehicle should try and stay on the other side. Additionally it indicates to any vehicles behind you that someone is coming so they shouldn't pass right now. 

 We are very lucky as we have an excellent driver, Moses, however I think I will make Heidi ride in the front so that don't put a whole in the floor of Moses's truck from trying to hit the breaks.
As we drove I was reminded of the Sowchea school kids 'be safe be seen' campaign.  I think I will bring up the idea of the credit union providing reflectors to the kids in the youth savings program as a reward for setting such a good example for their peers and well frankly to help keep them alive.

Moses our driver with a load of plantain


Youth savings

Wow where is the time going. Friday already!  Part of me feels like I have just arrived while another part of me is starting to feel like I belong.  The sight, sounds and smells that were so unfamiliar just a few days ago now appear normal. Well some of them do, others still boggle my mind.  Like how is it possible for someone to pack an entire load of firewood balanced on their head with a baby strapped to their back and still be able to wave at you as you drive past.  I have to say that I have been blown away with how welcoming everyone is. 

We arrived at our second credit union last night, after a quick round of introductions we were advised that we would be taken out to supper and then picked up and taken for breakfast.  When we arrived at breakfast this morning there was a bit of a difficulty.  The organization that they had made the arrangements with had not paid the bills and had run out of food.  The General Manager was very disappointed but quickly rectified the situation and found an alternative for us.  The delay made us late for our meeting with the board, however instead of accepting our apologies for being late the board apologized to us for the company not been able to serve us. We truly do feel that we have been hosted by the Ghanaian people.

MIM Credit Union
I loved the credit union that we were at today.  They were so open and honest with us that both Heidi and I feel that we will be able to make some very sound recommendations that will be able to help them immediately.  In fact even though we will not report back to the board until Monday we have already seen some of the staff starting to implement some of our suggestions. Another reason that I really enjoyed meeting with this credit union was that we were able to talk with some of their youth savers. 

In order to build a culture of savings, the credit union has started a youth savings program.  The program is very successful.  It is a very simple savings account by our standards.  The youth can open an account and make small deposits to it for their future education. When they get to junior high they can withdraw the funds but not before.  The appeal is that the money can not be withdrawn without the consent of the parents and it is kept in a safe location so that they will have something when they head off for school.  The manager and general manager go into the elementary schools and talk to the youth about why it is important to save.  The once a year they have a party for the kids who have saved money that year.  While we were waiting outside of the branch we started chatting with some youth that were also standing outside.  It turned out that they were participating in the youth savings program.  It is impossible not to see the typical stereotypes fall to the wayside after these types of interactions with the youth of Ghana.  Time they are a changing and it will be these young people who will set the direction for Ghana in the years to come.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Ghana Credit Union Association

The plaque on the door reads
and so we have arrived at the Ghanaian Credit Union Association training centre. 
 In Ghana when you meet with a credit union the following will occur, first introductions - my Ghanaian name is Yah Joan.  This means that I am female and born on a Thursday, truth is I was born on a Wednesday but then so was my partner Heidi.  Our Canadian names are hard to pronounce so sometimes we are called by our Ghanaian names and having both of us called the same thing doesn't help with communication, so I have moved to Thursday. Besides its pronounced yahhhhhh Joan and it makes me feel like everyone thinks I'm kind of cool :)
Next you will share a drink usually water but maybe some tea or milo, this is followed by the question 'and what is your mission here today'.  Its a good question.  If forces you to stop and think about what you goals are for the day and then verbally communicate that to a group of people.  Today our mission is to work with the staff and regional directors of CUA to delve into some of the key similarities between the Irish, Canadian and Ghanaian credit union systems.
Representatives from the Irish, Ghanaian and Canadian Credit Union Associations sharing a laugh together

It is very clean on early in the day that we all appear to be on the same track.  The Ghanaian and Irish system have both been struggling over the last couple of years, the Ghanaian system do to the lack of  laws and regulations, the Irish system do the global financial crisis that hit them hard.  That been said there are more similarities than difficulties. 
Samuel Adu-Panin of CUA explains the Ghanaian Credit Union system 
In Ghana there is still a large gap between the formal and the informal financial markets.  The banks are not utilised by the vast majority of the people.  The informal sector (money lenders and Susu collectors) is very exploitative and risky, and can carry prohibitively high interest rates.  Credit unions are filling that gap. 
Today proves to me once again that together we are stronger.
We ended the day with a briefing from the regional managers from the area that we are traveling to.  Heidi and I were informed that we will be traveling to a remote CU that has been asking for coaches for some time.  However they were not willing to send anyone because it was to rough.  But we were assured that new tire have been purchased for the truck and they had it serviced so we should be good to go.  We will see what tomorrow will bring :)

Show me the picture

Our first full day in Ghana was spent roaming the street and getting the feel of being here.  I saw so many interesting things that it is hard to know where to start.  So lets start with the kids.  It is my practice to ask if I can take someone's picture and try and get their name.  It turns out that the kids love having their picture taken.  In exchange they want to see the picture and will gather around quickly poking at the camera to try and get the picture to enlarge as it will on an iphone.

In the video you will hear a young child start to cry, this was because one of our male coaches make the mistake of speaking to him and scared the poor thing.  But within a couple of minutes of being comforted by the other children he was back with crowd looking for his picture. 

The kids know how to operate an iphone because almost everyone here as a cell phone of some sort.  We picked up a basic one from a street vendor for about $20 with a SIM card and enough minute to call home for about a week.  They are usually refurbished used phones that are sold on the street.  This young man was selling phones and liked my camera so asked me to take his picture.
The other thing that we have seen piles and piles shoes for sale.  They are sold in the markets on the side of the street.  From what we have been able to gather it sounds like these are shoes that have been donated and shipped to Africa.  Entrepreneurs then purchase the shoes and sell them for a small profit. There are many gently used items available for sale in the markets.  Our driver told us that they are usually better quality than the new items that are available for sale in Ghana and cost half the price so are affordable to more people. 

Well I could go on for hours but its up at 4am tomorrow to get on the road to our first credit union so its off to bed for me.  Oh and Brian if you are reading this THANK YOU!  We are flying to Sunyani instead of driving :)