Ghana is very different from any other place we have been in Africa. To begin with, the south central region we are in is hot and humid. From the airport in Accra to the Cape Coast (where the Elmina Bay resort was) to Kumasi city to the Millennium Village cluster in Bonsaaso is incredibly lush tropical rain forest. Much of it is under cultivation, with many small family farms growing palm fruit (for palm oil), cocoa, plaintain and citrus trees. Everywhere you look, you see green. The color is such a treat for my eyes, which have been so hungry for green.
This part of Ghana is primarily Christian, while the other countries we have visited this trip are predominantly Muslim. There are many churches and only the occasional mosque. Vehicles and businesses have religious slogans. For example, one mini bus sported "psalm 23," another "psalm 91"; on a dump truck "God is one"; Christ the King Computer Services, El Shaddai Car Parts. I am not making this up.
This country has plenty of water for cash and food crops, although poor people generally don't have access to clean drinking water. The roads into the rural areas are terrible, so the rural poor have not had access to market for their valuable cocoa (or less valuable other) crops. Ghana has natural resources, including gold (near Bonsaaso) and oil recently discovered offshore. In addition, Ghana has a more progressive and stable government than we have seen elsewhere. They have held elections where power was transferred peacefully. The government has organized a system which guarantees that the Ghanaian farmer can sell every cocoa bean he can grow, at a price that can lift him out of extreme poverty.
The government is building roads and schools, and pays young people for a year of national service. It also pays for a network of community health workers. These networks exist in other countries we have visited, but have traditionally been staffed by volunteers. Ghana also has laws which empower women. Women are able to inherit land, and do not lose it to their husband when they marry.
However, the country's roads are still a major obstacle to development. Villages are spread out and the roads are terrible It takes forever to go any distance, and in the rainy season villagea can be cut off for months at a time. Now, in the dry season, roads are just dry red dust, so thick that sometimes you can't see and have to stop driving until the dust settles. Car windows are thick with dust. Many people smile and wave as we pass, but I feel bad about the enormous cloud of dust we have kicked up that they are breathing.
Our group has expanded by two: Charlotte from UBI, a potential MVP partner, and Rafael a wonderful young man (have you noticed how so many people get labeled "young" in these letters? Is it me or is it the people I'm meeting?) from Ecuador who works for MVP as agriculture and business development specialist for West and Central Africa.
According to Rafael, Ghana is probably going to be the only sub-Saharan country to meet most of the Millennium Development Goals by 2015. Last year it met goal #1- halving the number of people living in extreme poverty (less than $1/day). And in the village cluster we saw so many examples of other mdg's achieved or nearly achieved by the Millennium Villages Project.
We visited one of the health centers built by the Millennium Village Project. Here's an amazing statistic: there have been no maternal deaths in the cluster during childbirth since the project started 3 years ago! Paid community health workers register each pregnancy. They make sure each pregnant mother gets all prenatal care, vitamins, etc. Higher risk pregnancies are identified ahead of time and - before their due date - are sent to the clinic where the doctor is. A midwife attends the majority of women in the village clinic, but goes to the home if a woman cannot get to her. The project has brought in two ambulances, and its partnership with Ericsson and Zain (a local cell network) has made cell service generally available. So people can call or get to a clinic if there are problems. And the average birthweight is 8.4 lbs!
We visited a grain storage building built by the project and spoke with 4 women farmers. They told us the money they earn will go for their children's education. Actually, they probably meant their grandchildren's education. All are grandmothers, all in their 40's.
We met the area chief at an elaborate ceremony in his palace, a cement home built around a central courtyard. First, we went through a receiving line, shaking hands with the chief and the leaders he had assembled (they were all seated). Then we sat and they walked past us and shook our hands. After some speeches and a prayer, gifts were exchanged. Actually, they gave us 2 bottles of schnapps, and then they took them back. One of the leaders (the official taster?) opened the schnapps, poured some into a glass, and then poured it on the ground. An offering, we think. Finally, the glass was passed for us all to partake if we chose. Isn't that a nice way to start a meeting?
We saw cocoa growing - very cool. The tree is taller than I expected - about the size of a medium-sized apple tree. The cocoa pods, which look sort of like large papayas, sprout off the trunk of the tree.
Palm fruit is the other major crop here. We watched a truck being loaded with the large clusters studded with palmfruit. The project had helped the village get access to this truck, which picks up palmfruit every 2 weeks and carries it to market in Kumasi, eliminating the middlemen who would strip the farmers of nearly all their profit.
Then a dynamic village woman joined our discussion. Most people here do not seem to be uncomfortable in the very high heat and humidity. But this woman was sweating profusely. Turns out she had made two trips to her palmfruit field that morning, to pick fruit to be sent on the morning's truck. Her field is 4 miles away! She had walked 16 miles that morning, 8 with large baskets of palmfruit on her head. No wonder she was sweating.
But even though villagers pick as much as they can, at a terrible toll on their bodies, they are only able to pick half the palmfruit by hand. Half will be left in the field. Rustom suggested that the project help the village acquire carts to carry larger quantities back from the fields. The woman responded that the villagers would be quick to widen the footpaths to accommodate such carts.
Later we visited a computer lab in one of the villages. About 40 4th graders crowded into the room (two to a seat with some standing) and waited their turn to get to use the 6 computers. The computers are available to the adults at night.
Our last stop was the school feeding center. Eight thousand children have their largest meal of the day at school, which has had an enormous impact on school attendance and children's ability to learn.
In all the villages we visited, we found people's lives greatly improved by the interventions of the MVP. But the pace of change is not nearly fast enough, and often it is difficult to visualize how the gap will be bridged between what the project shows is possible and the facts on the ground.
Ghana gives me so much hope. With its plentiful water, natural resources and its responsible governance, it is so much easier to see how the achievements in the Millennium Village cluster here can show the way to real change.