Tuesday, 15 December 2015

A Journey of No Regrets, my ICS Journey – Latif, In-Country Team Leader (TL), LIFE Project (Sandema), Ghana

Many (over 100 applicants)applied for Team Leader Positions, some (15) were called for arguably one of the best and most robust assessment processes I’ve ever seen and a few (4) were selected in the end as Ghanaian Team Leaders (TLs) to work with UK counterpart TLs and partner projects to challenge ourselves to change our worlds.“Challenge yourself to change your world” actually means challenging yourself to eventually change the world as the world is made up of individuals like you and I.  Summarizing 6 months’ experience in such a limited space is a herculean task but I will be objectively selective to touch on every aspect of my experience. It has been a top notch experience (2 cohorts, from June – August and September - December 2015) interspersed with unforgettable moments right from the assessment and training, host home/community, partner/counterpart relations, team dynamics, health to volunteer development on placement. This does not mean everything has been perfect and I will make some suggestions/feedback/comments which in my considerate view will help improve the International Citizen Service (ICS) programme.
The tiny village of Sandema (host community) and the Local Integration For Empowerment (LIFE) project (disability awareness/integration) was my final destination – two new areas of endeavour for me but I was up and ready for the challenge. Going to a new place and project for the first time, one is bound to have some perceptions or information about the place before arriving and the experiences in the place will either confirm or deny/defy your perceptions. I must say my experience in Sandema  (the capital of the Builsa North District of the Upper East region of Ghana, about an hour and half drive from the regional capital, Bolgatanga) has changed me a lot and will have a life-long impact. Sandema is such a beautiful small city in the heart of the savannah, with average daily temperatures of between 36-40 degrees, a short rainy season and a prolonged dry season as the rest of northern Ghana, inhabited by really friendly people who speak the local Buili language. Sandema is ruled traditionally by the paramount chief of the Builsa Traditional area, a very powerful, enigmatic chief, supported by a number of sub-chiefs and the people pride themselves in their annual Feok festival (Late December) to celebrate their bravery against slavery and give thanks to their gods.  
International Service works with the Presbyterian Community Based Rehabilitation (CBR), a local faith based NGO which was established in 1991, and funded by the Presbyterian Church among others. The focus of the organisation is to improve the living conditions and status of persons with disabilities (PWDs) in their operational areas though the implementation of five key interventions (education, health, livelihoods, social inclusion & empowerment and advocacy).  ICS volunteers work on the LIFE project (which metamorphosed from the Local Inclusive Festival into Local Integration for Empowerment project) under CBR with the overall goal of improving the living conditions and recognition of the rights of People living With Disabilities (PWDs) and mainstreaming them into society and the local education system. We do this through Training (Inclusive ICT Workshops, Inclusive Sports programme, Disabled Peoples’ Organisation training), Peer education (Inclusive Girls Clubs in Sandema and Wiaga), Action Research and Awareness raising/sensitisations in schools, communities and on radio.
Girls run the world, Wiaga Girls Club

I had a tale of two host homes over my two cohorts, both families were lovely and caring, awesome foods, decent accommodation and treated me like their son. I did not feel like I was away from home as everything I needed in a home was provided. My host families surprised me by showing me love, so much attention and kindness which re-emphasises the fact that it is not only one’s biological parents that can show love and kindness to you. I am glad to have stayed with them alongside my counterparts but sad at the moment to leaving them, what I do take solace in is the fact that I have homes and families to stay with in Sandema.  It was fantastic staying with local families, the sumptuous food (not totally different though)and being fully integrated into the local Builsa community, it is great avenue for cross-cultural learning and sharing, for both volunteers and host families alike. The bond is so strong between host families and volunteers to the extent that it has been become a crying ritual at the end of every cohort. The strong rapport, professional and personal relationships with individuals and organisations in Sandema especially and Wiaga, Kadema, Chuchuliga and Siniensi to some extent built over the period will be long-lasting.

Team LIFE 13 with Paramount Chief of Builsa Traditional Area, Sandema
Being a Team Leader for 2 cohorts, I had the opportunity to work with two wonderful groups of volunteers from Ghana and UK, and built lasting relationships with them. From the exuberant batch of volunteers of cohort 13 (made up of my hard working iron lady counterpart TL Carlyn, adventurous physicists and photo-wizard Raafay, action man/show boy Alhassan, professor and my “huffing and puffing” brother Muhib, barrister Benny, energetically no nonsense Sumaya, ever humorous Carly,  shrewd Ailis, reserved and romantically ruthless Ruth, and of course the enthusiastic fun loving sisters Nyasha and Godiva) to the matured/resourceful group of cohort 14 (comprising , my vivacious counterpart TL Alice, unrelenting and energetic Niamh, affable Abdullah, impact craving Angela, professor and peacemaker Naeem,  all-rounder Lydia, philosophical Erin, nascent Victoria, reticent Josephine, and caring/compassionate Shannon) I couldn’t imagine working with a better mix of volunteers than this.  They made LIFE worth living and gave energy when spirits sagged, an impeccable and dependable pair of teams anyone else would savour working with.

These two teams together have achieved considerable results in our quest to see an inclusive society of dignified life for people of all abilities. These include but not limited to:
  1. Educating over 400 young girls in Wiaga and Sandema on topical issues through our weekly inclusive peer education girls clubs
  2. Over 200 children (both with and without disabilities) and 20 teachers given practical knowledge/skills in basic ICT
  3. Sensitized 21,387 people (students/pupils, men, women, teachers, parents and children) through school sensitisations,  community  sensitisations, and via radio on disability awareness issues such as what is disability, the types, causes, myths and stigmas, rights of people with disability, early detection and prevention, etc. and the most important message imbibed in the minds of people is that “disability is not inability”
  4.  DPO members trained (to at least run sensitisations on their own) and empowered through business skills and networking opportunities (e.g. participating in the Bolgatanga International Craft and Art Fair (BICAF) where they networked and sold their products)
  5. 20 P.E Teachers and 50 pupils trained on inclusive sports
  6. Comprehensive report on feasibility of mainstreaming people with disability into the mainstream society and education in the Builsa North district, and 8 baselines completed to serve as a basis for future cohort
With Counterpart Alice @ Home

For me, one of the best parts of my ICS journey has been piloting the Chartered Management Institute (CMI)’s Consultancy Intervention Project Management course, it’s really challenged me to change my world and I am really excited and better placed to unleash my potential to the world. Thank you a zillion times and over!!!Invaluable skills I honed/improved through this course include but not limited to how to better work in a  cross cultural environment/setting, team building basics, people and conflict management and negotiation skills, Self-management in times of crisis, planning,monitoring and evaluation, budgeting and quality assurance.
It has not been all rosy living in Sandema though, fair to say that riding a bicycle from home to the office every day had a positive impact on my fitness level, however doing this in consistent temperatures of over 36 degrees in an exceptionally erratic “dumsor/power cuts” laden place is a no go area for the faint hearted. However, to me, there is nothing more heart-warming/rewarding than to be called “a little young messiah for leaving Tamale to go and work in Sandema for half a year” by no mean a person than the founder of FISTRAD (a local NGO which combines livelihood and Radio for development in Sandema).Bringing young people of varied backgrounds to work together, there is the likelihood of difference in opinion, difficulty in bonding or even clashes, but I think how you manage them is the key, for these are bound to happen along the way. The sometimes heated arguments in especially group reflections were all learning grounds which I do not consider as totally bad. There were also times I had health issues but was thankful to have great teams, project partner and host families to continue keeping the flames burning
Mr. Charles, Sandema DPO member weaving a chair

Based on my experience over the last 6 months on the ICS programmes, I would recommend;
ü  Area specific solutions to problems and conditions. The principle of equality does not apply to all sectors of life at all places, some terrains or areas are more tough and demanding to work in than others and there should be commensurate conditions to this, for instance it’s hard for some volunteers to understand the fact that they use bicycles without any compensation for it whereas others in other places use taxis/cars and get allowance for that.
ü  In as much as ICS encourages youth participation and given young people the opportunity to learn and work, it must be noted that the question of "youth" is not the same across all countries, the age limit for youth vary across nations, in our case, youth in Ghana refers to people between the ages of 18-35 (and if you like to stretch the argument further, you could even have people as old as 80years being considered youth in Ghana) and there is good reason for this which must be appreciated. And what is the point limiting people’s opportunity to learn by virtue of the fact that they are above a certain age range when in fact they might need the experience so much? From experience, some volunteers (both UK and Ghanaian) exhibited some behaviour on the program which nearly mar the beauty and essence of the program. There is at the moment no emphasis on qualification but I think it is something that should not be overlooked, there should be a minimum qualification to have before joining the program, otherwise it becomes free for all and quality is lost in the end, giving way to mediocrity and poor results.
ü  A training for in country volunteers or a compulsory requirement in ICT skills, as some of them lacked this which had an effect on teams’ outputs, for some of them needed to be mentored by other volunteers hence putting extra pressure on their already busy schedule. This may not be applicable to all areas though.
ü  There should be strong and clear cut instructions/communications and partnership agreements with partner organisations. At some point it looked like an expert or consultant and client relationship in my first cohort when it is supposed to be a partnership or process. A lot more could have been done if there was strong cordial relationship with the partner organisation. I must admit and acknowledge improvement in partner relationships in the second cohort even though a lot can still be done.
All set for Tour de Sandema/World Disability Day

 Change is one of the constants in life but as in the words of Arnold Bennett “change hurts; it makes people insecure, confused and angry. People want things to be the same as they’ve always been because that makes life easier. But if you are a leader, you can’t let your people hang on to the past”.Change involves movement and every movement is made possible by the force of friction, it is the abrasive force of friction that brings change which might not happen overnight, however it is an open secret that you cannot do today’s business with yesterday’s methods and still be in business tomorrow.In 2pac’s words, “Things'll never be the same” for me and “that's just the way it is” after being on ICS. Let’s be the change we want to see in the world! Fijiam (thank you)!


Friday, 4 December 2015

A Story on Disability is not Inability

A Story on Disability is not Inability
By Josephine Jafooklaar

As  I was walking down life is high way many years ago, I came  upon a sight that read  "world disability day" when I got a little closer I found myself living in the midst of disabled people in Sandema, l could like  to share with their life experiences. Disability is part of human condition, almost everyone will be temporarily or permanently impaired  at some point of life. Although we live with disabled people in our communities people do not recognize  people with disability to work on equal basis with others and do not have a decent  job. On the world disability day companies have found out that persons  with disability make good , dependable employees they are loyal and more likely to remain on the job. Disability is not charity, just good sense, lets stress that they have equal rights and are valuable resources that are good for the bottom line. Do not despise disable people anyhow because no one knows tomorrow. Above all let's spread the word that "disability is not inability". 

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Sensitising Santech

Fantastic disability awareness sensitization in Sandema Technical Senior High School carried out by  International service LIFE project volunteers.
The purpose of this sensitization was to educate students on  disability rights ,causes of disability,and the need to integrate persons with disability in to the mainstream society.
We  arrived in the school around 3pm but the students were still taking their lunch in the dinning hall that was supposed to be used for the sensitization,as a result of this we started the programmed around 4pm.

With support of the hardworking staff of the school, the students attend the programmed massively.
We started by introducing our selves to the students and staff present.The Ghanaian In-Country Team Leader Mr Alhassan Abdul Latif gave a short debrief of International Service Ghana and the reason why the LIFE project volunteers visit the school
We planned to  deliver topics like definitions of disability, causes of disability, differences between physical and mental disability, disability is not inability and the need to integrate persons with disability in to the mainstream society but due to energy crises in Ghana we couldn't complete all.
Fortunately, the school's cultural group were able to perform without electricity which was a source of great enjoyment and cultural cohesion for all.

The sensitization that did occur was a huge success and many of the students and staff  (over 1,200) provided volunteers with positive feedback about the session.

Friday, 6 November 2015

Cycling and Chieftancy

On the way to our office, there is a hill. To be perfectly honest, hill is an overstatement. It is an incline with a corner at the top which prevents you seeing what is further along the road. This incline, as small as it may seem, causes us some problems. Even the fittest among us, tired on a Friday morning from a week of hard work, struggle up it sometimes. When your bike tyres are a bit flat, sometimes you might even need to get off and walk. But we all make it to work every day. We overcome this obstacle, just as we overcome obstacles in implementing our services.

Sometimes, the barriers can be quite obvious. For example, when we were conducting community research, I headed out with my work partner Abdullah only to encounter families who do not speak English, when neither of us can speak enough Buli to effectively communicate... a slight issue, I would say. But we find ways to work around these obstacles (in this case, one lady who spoke English accompanied us to the next three houses because she knew we would have trouble communicating). We pump up the tyres and make it over the crest of the hill.

Occasionally, an obstacle can open new doors. A few weeks ago, we were summoned to meet the Paramount Chief of Sandema. His messenger said that the Chief wanted us to go into the local schools and run ICT lessons. This sent us all into a bit of a panic. How can we find time to do this in our already overfull schedule? Would this be sustainable? Is this within our project boundaries? Would International Service be happy with us to use our time in this manner?

We came to the conclusion that we would not be able to appease the Chief, but this posed its own challenge. You cannot just say no to the Chief. It is difficult to explain how influential and important this gentleman is to UK readers, but everything we do is done by his grace. If he took a dislike to us, it would seriously impact on our work. So we had to find a positive way to contribute to the community to please the Chief, whilst keeping to our project brief.

Fortunately, we already had an inclusive ICT workshop for children designed, which has to date held three sessions each of which has been hugely successful with between 30 and 40 children attending. (Check out the last blog post for a bit more information). We made the decision to offer a teacher training in ICT, in order to have maximum impact in the community. By teaching teachers, we would be influencing all of their students and future students in a much more beneficial and effective way than individually intervening at each school.

Meeting the Chief was an experience that I will not be quick to forget. After the formalities, including being made to wait to demonstrate the Chief’s importance, the Chief was able to explain exactly what he wanted us to do. He had recently toured some of the schools in Sandema, and claimed that they had laptops packed away in boxes rather than in use because no-one knew how to turn them on. This brought home the reality to us that effective aid is not just in donating items, but in training people. This technology was useless without people who knew how to use it. The Chief was impressed with our description of the inclusive ICT workshops, (he stated that we must have been telepathic to have already planned his wishes) and greatly facilitated the organisation of the teacher training day by arranging a meeting for us with the director of the Ghana Education Service in Sandema, immediately!

So something that we saw as an obstacle actually brought us to an incredibly positive day, which took place yesterday. 15 teachers attended, who were introduced to computers, key skills in using Word, Excel, the internet and e-mails, and we discussed ways of integrating ICT into other subjects. On the back of this, and the continuing success of the inclusive ICT workshops, the volunteers are really pleased with the positive impact we have already had. With seven weeks gone, we are well on our way up the hill, but it will require all of our energy, teamwork, and problem solving skills to reach the crest and appreciate the full view of LIFE in Sandema.


Thursday, 5 November 2015

The LIFE Project Unloaded

Hello from Sandema! Cohort 14, the project well on its way to sustainable greatness, is officially half way through its time in Ghana. The weeks are flying in but we have achieved a tremendous amount. We run an inclusive girls club in a rural community called Wiaga. This club focuses on many issues that impact young girls around the world. So far we have covered puberty, sexual health, disability awareness and female genital mutilation. Our purpose is not only to plan these sessions but to find and integrate girls with disabilities in them. This project is crucial to our development mission but the lack of girls with disabilities living in Wiaga has prevented us from integrating them into the club. In order to make this project sustainable we aim to train local Ghanaian women and provide them with a curriculum to ensure the continuation of girls club sessions without the future assistance of International Service.

The team has also revived Sandema’s girls club, a massive success! Its first session saw over 100 girls pile in, two of which were girls with disabilities and another two who were young carers. We hope to run interviews to find a girls club president in the next week and institute sustainability from the offset. We have also started an inclusive ICT club in Sandema, which is co- run by LIFE team members and Daniel and Paul two members of Sandema’s Disabled People’s Organisation (DPO). The ICT club has been a triumph for cohort 14. People with disabilities have been involved at every stage, from the planning to the presenting. Moreover, our first session attracted a number of children with disabilities making it a fully integrated program.
Further, we have run two extremely powerful senior high school sensitisations, which raise awareness of disability, its causes and its impact. The first sensitisation was wicked! We took a PA system and a DJ (the BEST decision we have made), Ghanaians love to dance and senior high school students are no exception to the rule. We had Mr Bob a Wiaga DPO member do a question and answer section and tell the students his story as a person with a disability. Whilst in general the students had positive attitudes to disability, they were utterly shocked that people with disabilities could do the same as people without and sometimes more. This speech had a very strong impact on the students and challenged their pre-conceived ideas of disability.

Our second sensitisation was completely different but equally successful. It was beautifully chaotic- we presented to over 1000 students which led to a very interactive delivery. Our session was accompanied by the school’s cultural group, which was a fantastic experience. Sadly, ‘dumsor’ (lights out) occurred half way through our sensitisation and prevented us from continuing due to the large audience. However, the aspects we did cover had an immediate impact, educating the students on the definitions of disability and its causes.

It has been a very busy 6 weeks for the LIFE team and the pace is ever increasing! We will have a number of exciting developments to share in the upcoming weeks. 

Friday, 9 October 2015

Surveying Sandema

Blog entry 1 by Lydia

As the news informed me this morning, Ghana is a country struggling with registering its population. There is no official or enforced system of identity cards, no national structure for registering births or deaths, many of the homes do not have addresses, all of which ultimately contribute to problems with the voters’ register. A bumper sticker the other day sums up this issue: vote early, vote once, vote peacefully. Although the idea that you could vote more than once is alien to the political apathy that has seeped into British culture, it is something our Ghanaian counterparts seemed to joke off as a normal problem in their electoral system.
Image result for vote once vote early vote peacefully

This national problem of registering the population has local consequences for our LIFE project (Local Integration For Empowerment), as we have no access to a register of people, and in particular children, living with disabilities in the community. So our first plan of action has been to undertake active field research to try and find those who are unknown to our partner project, CBR (Community Based Rehabilitation) or the local DPOs (Disabled People’s Organisations).

Before my arrival (I rocked up a bit late due to a coup in Burkina Faso which redirected my voluntary work to this fantastic project here in Ghana) the team has designed a questionnaire, and the plan was to go door to door asking everyone these questions and hopefully reveal people living with disabilities who were normally kept in their homes through a culture which still judges disability as a stigmatisation, a shame that should be kept private. At the end of the day, that attitude was prevalent in the UK even just 60 years ago, and is still being improved upon.

We first went to Wiaga, a neighbouring village where previous cohorts had established a successful girls’ club which even runs whilst volunteers are not here, the aim of all our projects is to establish sustainability so this is fantastic for us. We began by meeting the local DPO, who then were helpful in taking us to homes of people they knew who have disabilities. However, this wasn’t the exact purpose of our research, but we made the decision to prioritise not damaging the relationship with the DPO, who were quite offended that we wanted to talk to people they were not aware of. I remained with the DPO leaders, and as such was introduced to a variety of families who often had an elderly disabled person within their midst, but I didn’t meet any children with disabilities. That was only my personal experience, but the group as a whole actually made contact with around ten CWDs (children with disabilities) in the Wiaga community, which resulted in the first girls’ club of this cohort featuring three people with disabilities attending, but that will have its own blog post up soon!

We also undertook to survey Sandema, which our local in-country volunteer Victoria divided into six communities for us to take as pairs. We elected not to directly involve the DPO in our search of Sandema for CWDs and PWDs, because of the way our results had been strongly influenced in Wiaga. Each working pair, eg Abdullah and I, took one community, and also used the opportunity to drop off a questionnaire to the local schools’ head-teachers.

The community I visited was called Fiisa, and it was incredibly rural. I’m from Devon, but this was a whole other level. We cycled through maize fields, along the edges of fields planted with low growing crops or rice fields on paths that were the thickness of the bicycle tire. We crossed rivers and waded through marshy sections where I was up to my knees in water, squelch squelch mud. I was slightly worried about snakes in the long grass, but the worst thing that bit me was an ant so no worries there!

This data collection has been two very laborious days out in the heat, and we often came across language barriers where not accompanied by Buli speakers (the local language), but it is a fantastic achievement to have discovered people living in these communities with disabilities who we can now hope to incorporate in our projects.

We are feeling energetic and hopeful about our work, and looking forward to processing all this data to reveal our results!