Ben In Ghana has moved!

And transformed into The Borrowed Bicycle. You should be automatically redirected in 6 seconds. If not, visit
and update your bookmarks. Thanks for helping make this as painless a transition as possible!

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Last Call - Head over to

Hey Everyone,

One last notice to all my subscribers that this blog has now moved over to Brand new post up comparing tech entrepreneurship and development here:



Friday, October 22, 2010

Ben In Ghana is Now The Borrowed Bicycle

Hey Everyone,

This is a quick note to say that Ben in Ghana is moving onwards and upwards to its own domain! All of my old writing has been moved over to the The Borrowed Bicycle and anything new will be posted there as well.

For anyone who is still hanging around on my blogger feed - please update your feed link to where I'll be blogging about Human, Personal and Software development. For those that aren't interested in the software side you can use to skip out on the software related posts.

Thanks so much for all of the interest and reading and I hope you'll enjoy The Borrowed Bicycle just as much!



Thursday, August 12, 2010

Positive Results

Last Saturday started in typical fashion. After a 4:30am wake up and quick trip to Wakawaka so Dery could get some local 'performances' done (read: local medicine/magic/whatever) we pulled back into the market square around 9:30am to sit down at the market side. After taking the requisite pot of pito, a couple of health workers pulled up and organized a meeting just beside the road. Dery said we should sit and join, so I downed the last couple of drops out of my calabash. I sat down and the nurse started speaking in Dagarre. I am still nowhere near conversational in Dagarre but the topic of conversation was obvious about two minutes in with the mention of three English letters: HIV.

I tried my best to hear what was being said, lots of references to 'do' and 'po' (man and woman), some questions that various people volunteered to answer, some talk of food for some reason, koko (porridge), fufu (pounded yams), zevarre (soup ingredients) and fairly regular chuckles from the growing crowd. After fifteen or twenty minutes, the talk wrapped up.

Dery asked if I had understood, and I said small small. He explained they were talking about HIV/AIDS (yes, caught that part) and the different ways it is transmitted, from unprotected sex to blood transfusions. Turns out the part about the food was trying to encourage healthier eating so that the risk of needing a blood transfusion is decreased. Last but not least, the most important part of the talk:

“She said they've brought HIV tests and they are giving them free of charge.”

“So will you get tested?”

“Oh yes, I will do.”

Wow. For some reason I wasn't expecting that. I don't know why I expected there to be more resistance to the idea, but from Dery's perspective it was definitely something to get done. I was impressed. Dery is usually ahead of the curve, and I was glad he was leading on this too.

If that impressed me, the next two minutes were almost astounding. Not only was there a significant interest in the tests, there was a rush! I A couple of men fought about who got to go first, with Dery managing to secure second place. Very soon there was a lengthy line up for the test as people registered their names and ages in the log book.

It wasn't long before the inevitable happened:

“Nasado! (White man) (a bunch of Dagarre that I can't remember)?”

“They want to know if you'll also get tested.” Dery chuckled a bit.

I thought about it for a minute, but it was pretty clear I would have to. And why not? I suppose I was taking up some donor's money that wasn't intended for me, and I would be an additional person in the line, but other than that, there wasn't a good reason. I should set a good example too.

I said yes, and signed my name. Despite signing 16th, I got the usual bump to the beginning of the line. The man in front of me finished up and I sat down with the nurse. She asked if I had understood the meeting, I told her not really, so she gave me a quick recap of the general ideas before asking:

“Are you ready to know your status?”

I responded in the positive and took a deep breath. As most people know, I'm not a big fan of anything medical related. I guess you would call it squeamish. Luckily for me, this test didn't involve a needle and it was over in a minute. The nurse pricked my left ring finger, pipetted up some blood and squirted it onto a piece of plastic with three labels: “HIV 1; HIV 2; CONTROL”.

“Alright, come back in five minutes and I'll tell you the result.”

I stood off to the side, holding the alcohol swab to my slightly sore finger. A couple of women waiting in line looked at me, and giggled a bit. I smiled nervously, pacing a bit. It was a long five minutes. The women laughed some more. Finally the nurse called me back to sit down and receive my result. To my relief only one dark red line cut across the white test material.

Dery and I headed back to the house. We sat down.

“So what did they tell you?” he asked.

We exchanged results, and I asked him if he had ever been tested before. To my surprise, he said yes, this was his third time. He had gone to the clinic himself the past two times. He knows that the nurses recommend getting tested every six months but he says he doesn't always get time, so aims for once a year. I asked him if he thought other people also have been tested before and he said no, this was likely the first time for most.

I don't hear HIV/AIDS talked about much here in Ghana. There are certainly billboards and radio ads, but I've rarely heard anyone talk about it. I have no idea what prevalence rates are in Bole Region, or how many people tested positive that day. For some reason I assumed the relative silence would mean there would be resistance to getting tested, to knowing the the answer to a scary question. But at least on the Dagaarte side of Seripe, I was impressed by the way people reacted. I'm certainly no HIV/AIDS or health expert, and testing is certainly only a small part of effectively managing HIV/AIDS, but to my uneducated eyes it looked like some pretty positive results.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Good Enough

I would be lying if I didn't say that the past five months have been a struggle for me. In many ways this blog has been a reflection of those challenges. I'm not sure how noticeable it has been for others, but one thing I've struggled with, and struggled to write about is the actual work I'm supposed to be doing here. I have a great family life where I learn something new every day, and I'm having a lot of fun sharing that with people. Work has been a different story.

My commute is almost a passage between worlds. The freedom of the road turns quickly transitions to the stagnation of my seat behind my computer at my desk. I've had a lot of trouble getting out of this mode. Things move pretty slow here in general, but by the end of a day I often feel stuck. Some days I know I'm not bringing what it takes to move things along in a district and I wonder if maybe this isn't the place for me. And most days that all melts away again with those fifteen kilometers of asphalt and wind in my hair that lead back to Seripe.

One of the reasons I've struggled is insisting on perfection before I start implementing. It has been easy for me think of ways things will fail, why they aren't perfect and to delay pushing forward based on that. I'm learning that I won't be able to get very far if I keep up that strategy. Instead of perfection I need to do a better job of recognizing 'good enough', at least for the first implementation of an idea. There are a lot of roadblocks in development, and I need to admit that I'll never be smart enough to think my way through them.

The same goes for my blog. Thank you all so much for the extremely positive feedback you've given me on my first few posts – I really enjoy writing and putting something together that makes people think. That said, I've found myself looking for ways to one-up myself. I want every post to be the new 'best' post. Unfortunately this isn't exactly a sustainable solution, nor does it work well for anyone reading – I'm certainly writing less and posting even less than that!

At the end of the day I still want to create excellent work. I don't want the pendulum to swing too far to the side of poorly thought out ideas that I'm rushing to implement for quantitative numbers of prototypes created, or pieces posted on this blog. I see enough of that here to know it isn't the way forward either.

I hope this post is a start along that path – it certainly isn't my best post, but as I read it over I think it qualifies as 'good enough', something I'm happy with. I'm not sure I'm 100% satisfied with the ending, but that's ok. I've been applying that lens to all of my work over the past week or so and my motivation has been going up, I'm feeling busier, more productive, and happier to be at work. And based on that, expect to see a lot more 'good enough' from me in the future.

Monday, July 26, 2010

This Week on the Farm - Episode 2

Hey Everyone!

Thank you so much for all of the great feedback from last week's video. It was definitely a boost to my week!

And no, I don't just do that Ghanaian accent for fun. I remember giving a fairly good closing remark (I thought at least) to a workshop only to be met by a circle of blank stares and unenthusiastic claps when I finished. I asked my boss why and she told me - "Everyone thinks you're very nice - they just can't understand anything you say!" Dery's a bit deaf in the left ear which only compounds the problem. Hence, the thick (da tick) Ghanaian accent.

Episode 2 is now here - delayed due to very slow Internet on Friday. You can watch it or below!

Also, if anyone is interested in sending a video message or asking some questions that I can share with Dery and the rest of the family they would be very appreciative. He's interested in what is going on in Canada as well!


Friday, July 16, 2010

This Week on the Farm - Video Blog

Hey Everyone,

After a long hiatus I'm excited to announce a series of videos about life on the farm in Seripe. I'll be filming a few short clips each week and uploading them to youtube (yes it's possible, it just takes about a day).

You'll have to bear with me - the first episode was completely impromptu and my video editing skills are poor, but I hope you enjoy it! Check it out at or below.

Also, if you have any questions or suggestions of things to film for an episode, I'm taking requests! This episode doesn't do a very good job of introducing Dery, the farmer I'm staying with, so I'll work on a quick intro piece so you get to know him and a bit about where he's at.

I also took off to Tamale for a week of team meetings and left the camera with Dery, so expect an episode about ploughing as soon as I can get the editing done.

Thanks for reading/watching!

Saturday, May 29, 2010


After a few weeks of arrangements I've moved into the village of Seripe, just over 15km from Bole, south on the main road. I live with the a farmer named Dery Torwel along with his wife, his three daughters Anita, Winnie and Amelia, and Anita's son Vitalis. Two of his sons, Philip and Matthew, are attending school in the Upper West and his third son Sulupule lives with his wife in Sunyani, a city in the Brong-Ahafo region, a few hours south. The compound is about a ten minute walk from the road and the borehole, and Dery's brother's compound is just next to his.

As the rains begin to fall, the area between compounds is growing green. The stars are fantastic. Leo is spread out across the top of the sky; the familiar Big Dipper is in the north and the brilliant Southern Cross opposite it. Women walk gracefully with wood or water on their heads; they laugh at my greetings in Dagarre, the local language, not worrying for a second about spilling a drop. Amelia and her cousins dance and sing in the open space just outside of the compound door. Dery and I have conversations into the darkness about life in Canada and Ghana, often punctuated by his very Ghanaian expression of surprise, “So!” People are constantly dropping in to the compound to say hi and chat, to test my Dagarre and hopefully be the one to teach me a new phrase. In short, the place and the people have been easy to fall in love with.

It's easy to see life in an African village as romantic – and it certainly can be, especially as an Westerner. I remember having a conversation with some of my fellow volunteers into 2006, all of us wondering if we had seen “real” poverty yet. Life in Ghana as I've experienced it isn't a World Vision commercial, and it is easy to wonder if Amelia's smiling face is really that of “real” poverty. Shouldn't poverty have a face that is miserable and destitute?

This illusion has been broken for me several times over the past few weeks in ways that it hadn't been before. The day I arrived in Seripe, a man died in his house two weeks after stomach surgery. After his death I learned I had met him the week before – he was a member of one of the farmer groups and good friends with the Agric Extension Agent. I remember walking down the path to his house, but hard as I try, I can't recall his face. A week after I arrived, Dery fell off the back of a motorbike. Even though it wasn't going fast he dislocated two of his toes and hit his knee. He wasn't able to farm for a month, and the fact that the rains are late so far this year is both a blessing and a curse. He is struggling to find labourers to help clear five acres of land for a maize field in time to plough; gold was recently discovered nearby Seripe and many of the young men who used to be available as labour for hire now mine illegally instead. Philip used to attend school in Seripe but the quality of education is poor and so Dery now pays to send him and Matthew to the Upper West, losing two much needed weekend farm hands.

More than ever, life in Seripe has shown me that poverty isn't something you can always see on the surface. I have certainly been one of those guilty of expecting that it should be. Instead it's something much more complex, much more difficult to articulate. The lack of opportunity, the vulnerabilities to shocks and stresses, the lack of access to or trust in basic services like health and education, poorly functioning markets and dependence on the weather. I have seen all of these factors at play in Seripe, but I haven't seen abject misery. The past month has been a sharp reminder that Dery's strong, proud smile as he stands with his family can still be the smile of poverty.

Picture Legend from top (and apologies as I still struggle to get pictures put into exactly the right spot!):

  1. Anita and Winnie, Dery's two oldest daughters
  2. Dery's wife carrying pito (the local drink, brewed from sorghum) to the market
  3. Dery, his sister and two of his sons, Philip and Matthew
  4. A view over the compound wall
  5. Amelia, Dery's youngest daughter
  6. Vitalis, Anita's son
  7. My usual sleeping place when it isn't raining (plus mosquito net).
  8. Freshly brewed pito, before heading to the market
  9. Dery