Sunday, February 25, 2007

something old and something new

Aaaarrrggghhhhh!!!! My fingers were numb, my toes frozen and my eyes were watering from the frigid winds that whipped my face and chilled my core. It was one of those winter days in Toronto when the thermometer read minus 15 but it felt at least twice as cold. Up until that day, I had been in heaven in Toronto; I was there for an intensive four week crash course on international development as part of my preparation for my work with Engineers Without Borders (EWB) in Zambia. Despite all of the wonderful learning and the excitement for my upcoming placement, at that very moment I hated Toronto, I hated the snow, I hated the world, but most of all, I hated whoever thought it was a brilliant idea to settle along the 49th parallel in the dead of winter.

To remain sane enough to make it home, I retreated back to a moment in time that I knew would provide me some reprieve from the abuse of old man winter. I found myself thinking back three years to my experience in Ghana. I could feel the warmth of the sun and I could hear my Ghanaian mother’s sharp voice. She was saying how it was absolutely unbelievable that Canada could get colder than the Harmattan (about +13 deg C at its coldest point) and when it does, we Canadians “must indeed suffer”. As I fought the blustery winds at the corner of Dundas and Bathurst, I could not have agreed with her more, and a tiny smile crept across my frozen face.

I have often traveled back to the first time I volunteered with EWB in Ghana. Those moments have often been triggered by various events like Live 8 and Make Poverty History campaigns, when $50B of debt is written off for the poorest countries, when Ghana plays in the World Cup, when Canadian government looks at aid accountability through Bill C-293, or more generally, when media decides that it’s worthy of the evening’s news. But the truth is that Ghana and my time there, is never far from my mind.

I suppose that is how it is; an experience that opens your perspective and seeps newness into your soul never wanders far from you. Ghana was one such experience for me. In 2004 I had left Vancouver for the West African country as an impressionable engineering graduate, unsure about what development involved, but ready to learn and willing to take a leap. Over 7 months, I fell in love with the country, its people, and the spirit of humanity that seemed to exist around every corner, glow with every kerosene lamp, and accompany every generous smile. I saw a sense of community that I had never known before; everyone was your brother, your sister, your auntie. I saw a joy for life that was contagious, infectious, wrapping its arms around you and pulling you close. Of course, juxtaposed against these beautiful and romantic dimensions, I also saw the ever present vulnerability of people who lived within the confines of extreme poverty. Children who attended school only until they were needed in the fields, around the house or when the school fees ran dry; women who worked from 3 in the morning until midnight every day until their bodies broke down; families whose survival depended on when the next rains would fall and people dying from preventable and treatable illnesses. I came to understand a little better what poverty looks like and what it what it doesn’t look like. And within that, I saw how hard everyone was working to lift themselves out of poverty.

People like Irene, who lived in Kpedze along the Togo border. She was a mother, head of Mille Novisi – a women’s cooperative, processed kernel oil for about $1.67/day, worked the fields, raised her children, and took her crops to market to sell—all in the course of one day. Or people like Mr. Andrews, a palm wine producer, a bee keeper, and a natural born entrepreneur. They, like so many others, were incredibly proud of their work and progress, and their commitment to building a better life for themselves and their children was evident in every hour they were awake. I was always humbled by the drive and ambition of people like them who were able to carve out a livelihood despite lacking access to much of the resources I had been gifted by simply having been born in Canada.

And so, when I boarded the plane back home in January 2004, I carried with me their stories and questions. Questions of how it could be that we had such disparity in the world, how is it that much depended on where you were born and what can be done to support the work that was already happening within communities? I didn’t have a clear answer but I made a simple commitment to myself that I would work in Canada to gain professional experience, I would work from within Canada to bring about change, and that I would one day, come back to Africa and work alongside people like Irene and Mr. Andrews.

It is three years later. After some hard work, Vancouver now has an EWB chapter that engages working professionals to learn more about the issues surrounding international development. This is the new generation of professionals who are interested in a life-long commitment to development by reaching out to their workplace and community to raise awareness about the issues. It is exciting, inspiring, and a mark that something is changing.

And then today, I am writing this from Pearson Airport in Toronto, waiting for a flight to Lusaka, Zambia. I have taken a sabbatical from my work as an advisor in corporate social responsibility with CBSR to develop a better understanding of how business intersects with international development. I again have the fortunate opportunity to volunteer with EWB. This time, I will be working to support private sector development in Zambia. I have been partnered with an organisation called PROFIT. Its mandate is to develop sustainable businesses as a means to lift people out of poverty. I am excited, nervous, and all other emotions that comes with having the opportunity to follow your passion.

I will be doing my best to connect my experience with Canadians back home. My intention is not tell you what you should do or guilt you into action; it is not my role nor place. However, in all of the people that I have met over the years, I do see that so many of us share a common interest in creating a future and we all care about those around us. And so, over the next 13 months, I simply want to be your window into this part of the world and give voice to those who do not have one. I hope that you will join me in this journey. If ever you have questions or doubts, do challenge me. It will be this type of dialogue that will increase our understanding of core issues in development and take us one step closer to the better world that we all believe can exist.

So as I begin my Zambian experience, I will leave you with one last bit of Ghana. In Ghana, when two friends are heading to the same destination, but one decides to leave first, the first will say to the second, ‘Me Di Kan’ – ‘I will take the lead’.

I look forward to sharing with you my next 13 months. Me Di Kan,