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Water fountains are a miracle…

Aug. 27, 2012

It’s been exactly 1 month since I stepped down at the Toronto Island Airport in this magnificent city. Along the journey home, from Kampala to Cairo to Accra to Washington and finally to Toronto, there was plenty of time for reflecting on the past 2 years of working in Africa with Engineers Without Borders.

Coming “home” this time around has been less of a shock then my reintegration into Western society has been like in the past. Within a week I had a cell phone, a bicycle, and felt pretty comfortable cruising around the streets of Toronto.

But, my reflections have made me realize that I think one thing that will forever shock me is the accessibility of clean water in the West. The fact that I can walk into any public building in Toronto and will likely find a water fountain, or that I can request a cup of water from any restaurant, and NOT pay anything is absolutely amazing. I can also turn a tap in my office, and drink clean water for free allllll day.

Sometimes we need to just stop, and smile at the amazing little simple things that make our lives fantastic! Water fountains are actually a miracle. Turning the tap and filling my cup with clean water puts a smile on my face every time, and constantly reminds me of the reason why I’m in the business of social change. Why I’ve decided to come back to Toronto, and instead of working for an engineering company (for a lot of money), I’m continuing to work with EWB, this time as a staff member managing the short term volunteer program.

So in this final blog post about this incredible journey I’ve been on, all I’m asking you to do today is grab a cup, turn the tap, and drink some water!

Take care, and thanks for following!

Mina

Acronyms!

The development industry is known for it’s abundant use of acronyms. Some donors may put more thought into what their project’s acronym should be rather than their project’s design.

Some of the many I’ve come across in my experience working in the industry;

PROFIT
ADVANCE
LEAD
SPEAR
ENGENDER
LOGIC
IDEA
NUDEIL
SUSTAIN
RESPOND

Because all of these acronyms look great on project signs, and documentation perhaps they are symbolic of the often misaligned incentives of the industry…

The Sun sets over the hill

April 14, 2012

I arrived in Ghana 20 months ago. It’s hard to believe that I’ve been working in Africa with EWB for almost two years now. Memories of my first week in Buagbaln Village in Saboba District are so vivid. I remember sitting under a mango tree in the middle of Elijah’s field 3 months into my time questioning what the purpose of life was…for me and Elijah. I remember my first long motorcycle ride from Saboba to Chereponi along dirt roads, and Savannah landscape that only paintbrushes can describe. I remember meeting my good friend Moses on a regular afternoon at the Saboba District Assembly, and immediately recognizing that he was full of leadership potential. I’ve learned so much from him about perseverance since then. I remember spending my first Christmas away from home in the village with my good friend and colleague Dan Boland. I remember moving from Saboba to Tamale to work at the Regional Coordinating Council alongside a great Ghanaian leader in Gregory Addah. I remember jumping into the Atlantic Ocean and drinking Ghanaian coconut milk for the first time. I remember coming back to Canada for the first time in 17 months in December 2011 and how strange it was. Oh the memories, they are many!

I now find myself building more, this time in Uganda, this time with the AVC team, and this time working in a market facilitation project called LEAD (Livelihoods and Enterprises for Agricultural Development). I’ll be in Uganda until July when my time as an APS with EWB will officially come to a close. That is only 3 months away, it’s really hard to believe.

I’ve equated my remaining time in this role with EWB to the last 2 weeks of 3.5 month Junior Fellow placement. I’m in the implementing stage, I gotta get stuff done, and it feels really good but is also quite stressful! Moving to a whole new country for this final push also isn’t the easiest thing. I find myself thinking of the comfort of my “home” in Ghana, the familiar faces and food, my friends and colleagues in Tamale, our daily breakfast ritual under the mango tree on Gumani road. I think I might be a little homesick and Ghana is the home I’m missing!

Sunset from my balcony

I was sitting out on my balcony this evening watching the sunset over one of the many hills in Kampala. It made me think about how the sun is slowly setting over the many challenges (hills) I’ve faced during my time as an APS. It’s hard to believe how close I am to the end of this crazy journey.

But for now, life continues in Kampala. I’ve got 3 months to get a solid chunk of work done on this project. Let’s just hope that the hills I have to climb are few!

Reconciling Life

Jan. 26th, 2012

I’m currently sitting in the Washington Airport, eating a bag of Doritos Cool Ranch chips, watching the Florida Republican primary debate, waiting for my flight back to Ghana. Since being back in Canada during the holidays I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to reconcile the two lives that I seem to be living. There’s my life in Ghana, and my life in Canada and although I’m living both, they are quite different. In Canada I take long hot showers, in Ghana I take bucket baths. In Canada I may drive a car, in Ghana it’s more likely that I’ll ride a motorcycle. In Canada I spend a lot of my time with friends from church. In Ghana I spend a lot of my time with friends from work. In Canada I would eat a bag of Doritos. In Ghana, it’s likely a bag of plantain chips!

What makes this reconciliation difficult is that the people who know me likely only know one half of my life – either the Canada half or the Ghana half, and not the other. So I find myself jumping back and forth between the two depending on where I am and who I’m talking to. This double-life creates quite a bit of personal stress as I’m constantly questioning who am I? I often struggle to explain one half of my life to those who are part of the other half and as such, they probably only know half of me (unless of course they read this blog).

Being back in Canada and reconnecting with old friends was great, but I couldn’t stop thinking about how different the lives we’re living are. My experience back “home” led me to start questioning whether or not I should just go back to Canada and live a more “traditional” life. All I know is at the end of the day, happiness is the ultimate indicator of success so we’ll see what happens in the next 6 months!

Just some thoughts for y’all!

The New Egypt

Dec. 22nd, 2011

The following post is a summary of conversations and reflections I’ve had over my 5-day stay in Cairo, and everything written herein is my own opinion. I’m electing to present this dialogue in its honest, raw form, free from political correctness. You’ll likely find that this post is more emotional than usually, and this is one goal. I hope these emotions will spark dialogue and I hope that people will take what I’ve written, think about it, and challenge it. 

Dec. 16th, 2011. The last time I was in Egypt was in May 2010. At that time there wasn’t a hint of revolt in the making. Life in Egypt was for the most part the way it had always been – busy, lively, and free from the weight of the possibility of freedom from oppression. The depth of my political debates with my cousins went as far as cracking jokes at the corruption of the Mubarak regime. There was never a thought that his existence would soon be eliminated from Egyptian society.

Al Shohadaa (meaning the Martyr's) Subway Station was previously named Mubarak Station

As I landed in Cairo’s new terminal 3 last week, I wondered whether or not my entry would be any more difficult than in the past. This time I was coming from Accra, not Toronto and this time, there was no “Government” of Egypt. Only a military, that on the day I arrived killed 10 people near Tahrir square and beat several others unconscious. As I entered my grandmother’s apartment in the Cairo district of Shoubra, the television flashed between a political debate showcasing 2 Christian leaders and 2 Muslim politicians, and images of a historical building in downtown Cairo up in flames. Both of these images were unseen in Mubarak’s Egypt.

Hero of none, ruler of all. 

Since the fall of Mubarak in February 2011 the Egyptian Military (referred to as the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces – SCAF) has been responsible for maintaining stability in the transition period towards democracy. Their downfall has been a failure to set a reasonable deadline for this transition and as such many Egyptians believe political history is again repeating itself. The military has ruled Egypt since the overthrow of King Farouk in 1952 and they’ve repeated the same messages to the people of Egypt today. The military wants to return to its barracks. The military will protect the constitution. The military wants a civilian government.

However, their actions don’t align with their words. What happened in 1952 and what is happening today is that the military is not showing any signs of actually handing power to a civilian government, they are delaying the process and being ambiguous about the election of a new president, and the writing of a new constitution and many Egyptians I’ve spoken with can see right through the insincerity of the SCAF in this respect. The deaths of countless Egyptians at the hands of the military since January, have done little to build trust with Egyptian society. This has led to continuous uprisings since the fall of Mubarak.

The military is Egypt’s largest employer with its hand in every industry from food production, to gold mining, to tourism. It is foolish to think that they would hand over power to a democratically elected government that may challenge their economic legitimacy. No integral government agency would kill its own people, and when questioned about their role in the murders of approximately 100 Egyptian civilians since the fall of Mubarak the military always blames “hidden hands.” In fact the countless youtube videos and testimonials from protestors do not suffice as evidence for the military. They have yet to admit the responsibility of a single Egyptian death in Tahrir. When I’ve asked Egyptians who’s hidden hands the military is talking about, they obviously have no idea. Just like the Islamic parties I’ve described below, the military is using the ignorance of the common Egyptian to justify its unlawful and disgusting behavior.

What we can assume is that the military’s hidden hands are actually those of collusion between themselves and the Muslim Brotherhood. It should not be surprising that if in June 2012, the new President of Egypt is a former military officer. Many believe that there is a deal between the Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt’s military, where the brotherhood will maintain control of the Egyptian Parliament and the military will provide a President. If you ask an Egyptian who believes in a secular government, they’ll say they want Mohamed El Baradei to be the President of Egypt. My cousin once said to me “You know, this man, is too good for Egypt. The military hates him.” He is referring to the fact that El Baradei is a rational critic of the military, and the military in return will not allow him to govern Egypt due to fear that he would challenge the institution in order to serve the best interests of all Egyptians. As such, we cannot rely on a corrupt military to lead Egypt to a substantial democracy. This is as true as the deaths of countless self-sacrificing Egyptians in the past 10 months.

No Freedom or Justice 

When I arrived in Cairo last week, it was with a heavy heart. Two of the three parliamentary election stages were complete and preliminary results were showing a strong majority Islamic parliament with between 60-80% of seats shared by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom & Justice party and the extremist Salafist’s El Noor party. The remaining seats went to a coalition of more Liberal, secular parties led by the Free Egyptians Party.

Let me be frank here. Neither the Muslim Brotherhood nor the Salafists will secure a bright future for Egypt. Neither of them will provide freedom or justice for all Egyptian people. Neither of them will respect the rights and dignity of all Egyptians. Neither of them will actually implement a substantial democracy.

Both parties will tell you that Egypt is an Islamic country and as such should be ruled by Islamic Sharia Law. Both of these groups have differing definitions of what this looks like but suffice it to say that it will not serve the interests of all Egyptians. Both parties clearly state that the beneficiaries of their policies will be the Muslim People of Egypt, not the People of Egypt as a whole. Moderate muslims, and the Christian population will suffer from oppressive policies that will not recognize their right to freedom, justice, or equality. The Salafists have already claimed that they will charge Christians higher taxes simply because they are Christian, and the Muslim Brotherhood has said that they will make Christians pay a fee to avoid military duty if they are inscribed (there is still mandatory inscription for men in Egypt) because they don’t believe that they will defend their country.

What is sad about this reality is that the world has read this story before. The Iranian revolution in the 70s led to a government under the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini that has oppressed secularists and liberal Iranians. Iran is just one example of the future of an Islamic governed Egypt. Other examples include Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia neither of which are positive.  This is all to say that there is not a single well-functioning − where I define well-functioning simply as free from religious oppression – Islamic Sharia state. For those who believe Qatar and Turkey are Islamic states, they are not. They govern liberally with a heavy focus on economic growth, although morally they may use Islam as a reference and Sharia is only used in limited circumstances while civil law is the standard. Although, the revolution in Egypt was led by Egyptian youth who believed in liberation from the economic oppression created by Mubarak and his cronies in January 2011, Islamic religious parties have hijacked this process of liberation replacing Mubarak’s oppression with what will certainly become religious oppression.

In a conversation with an educated, liberal (in action), muslim friend I asked what he thought about the Muslim Brotherhood and their rise to power. He mentioned that he actually voted for them because he believes that Egypt is 1) an Islamic country and 2) it is his duty to vote for an Islamic government because Islam is his life’s curriculum. When I challenged him on both these issues, he couldn’t provide any thoughtful explanation but rather repeated propaganda that the Islamic parties have spread through Egypt’s Mosques. That is, if you don’t vote for an Islamic party you have poor faith and as such won’t go to heaven. I initially, believed that this argument would only work against illiterate, uneducated, poor Egyptians but here I was hearing it from an educated, wealthy, and relatively liberal muslim Egyptian. I was shocked. Because 1) Egypt is NOT a homogeneous Islamic country, there are at least 12 million Christians in Egypt – this is not a small minority and 2) nobody’s religious curriculum should be forced on anybody.

What the youth in Tahrir were protesting for were their rights to live a socially just life, free from any form of oppression, whether economic, social, or religious. What we are beginning to realize is that these forms of oppression are being replaced by a new form of systematic religious oppression. The Islamic parties in Egypt only believe in freedom and justice for Muslims who vote for them.

Religious Governance and its foolishness

Quite frankly, anybody who believes that politics and religion can work together is truly ignorant of the fact that we live in the year 2011. We live in a world that has done whatever it can to increase human rights and freedom from oppression. And religious governance seeks to eliminate this progress. Forcing one’s beliefs on another is oppression in its most explicit form.

The oppressors are the ones who act upon the people to indoctrinate them and adjust them to a reality which must remain untouched. [Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed pg. 94]

The primary problem with religious political institutions is that most people vote for them not for the Governmental policies they will implement but because they share religious beliefs. There is NO rational thought when it comes to religious governance, and there is absolutely no tolerance for opposition. This has been clearly illustrated by the Islamic parties’ response to challenges from Egypt’s liberal parties on how they will govern. Instead of rationally debating Egypt’s political future, the Islamic party’s de facto response to any challenge is those people (ie. the liberals) are unholy, and don’t believe in God. In a country with 45% illiteracy and large poverty this argument is all it takes to secure a majority government. We begin to realize that creating any positive social change is very difficult when the parties involved cannot sustain productive dialogue.

Walking through the streets of El Zamalak, a district in Cairo, one can be reminded of Egypt’s very liberal history. Coffeeshops, bookshops, pastry shops, high fashion, and legitimate political dialogue are the norm. The people in this part of Egypt can rationally separate religion from politics, they can act in the best interests of the country. Driving through the Cairo traffic with my cousin, I nearly broke down into tears as he described the direness of the political situation. He lacked any hope of a bright future for his 4 year old daughter under an Islamic government. He spoke with passion, and love for the liberal and secular Egypt of the past, and boasted about Egypt’s many Nobel Price winners, the rich history, the freedom fighters in Tahrir, but he spoke with such fatalism. He spoke as a historian already recalling a fallen empire.

What has transcribed in Egypt’s parliamentary elections thus far is illustrative of the strength of the Islamic party network in Egypt. The million people in Tahrir on January 25th were truly a minority, and this is a very sad reality to face. The hijacking of a revolution that was inherently free from religious discrimination by the interests of Islamic religious institutions is a new form of post-Mubarak oppression.

The revolution was about freedom not religion! Images of solidarity between Christians and Muslims were common

Paulo Freire describes the phenomenon of politicking and its promotion of oppression in this excerpt from Pedagogy of the Oppressed; 

They [the revolutionaries] forget that their fundamental objective is to fight alongside the people for the recovery of the people’s stolen humanity, not to “win the people over” to their side. Such a phrase does not belong in the vocabulary of revolutionary leaders, but in that of the oppressor. The revolutionary’s role is to liberate, and be liberated, with the people  – not to win them over. [Pedagogy of the Oppressed, pg. 95] 

The Islamic political parties have done little since the fall of Mubarak to liberate the masses of Egypt, but have rather preyed upon Egypt’s most vulnerable people “winning them over” to a false religious guarantee (that is, heaven in exchange for a vote). We can blame Mubarak for the massive income inequality, the 45% illiteracy rate, and the millions living in poverty in Egypt but exploitation of this situation for political gain must not be tolerated.

When the youth took to Tahrir square they dreamt of a future Egypt that represented everyone in Egyptian society. An Egyptian society that believed in peace and equality. An Egyptian society that believed in justice. An Egyptian society that respected all Egyptians. And, ultimately an Egyptian society founded on true Egyptian values of love and tolerance. Unfortunately, their dreams are quickly fading. Their eyes have been blinded from the freedom they once dreamt of.

The Eyes of Freedom: Protesters were targeted by the military in Nov. 2011, shot in the eye by pellet guns, and blinded. This wall near Tahrir commemorates their struggle for freedom.

They aren’t dedicated! Ghana’s failing education system

Wednesday November 2, 2011

“They aren’t dedicated!”
“Who?”
“The teachers.”

I’m sitting around a plastic lawn table with my good friend and EWB colleague Dan, and my former boss, the new Director of Planning, Budgeting and Monitoring and Evaluation for the entire country. Inevitably, during these meet-ups, over beer and guinea fowl we end up talking about Ghana’s (failing) education system.

The responses above were given by my former boss when I asked him how 53% of Ghanaian youth failed the Basic Education Certificate Examination (BECE) in 2011, and hence did not enter secondary school this past September. “They aren’t dedicated.” You see he grew up in a time when education quality in Ghana was decent. He grew up in a time, when as a kid from the village, he could dream of a bright future. And because of his education he’s traveled the world, always returning to serve Ghana.

His words ring loud and clear every time I look into the eyes of a Ghanaian kid who’s walking to school. All she’s hoping for is that her teacher shows up for class, actually prepared, and committed to teaching. You’d imagine that this is not much to ask for from a teacher.  Unfortunately, in Ghana it is.

I’ve written before about Ghana’s failing education system, in a post analyzing BECE results from the Saboba District over the past 5 years.

And in recent weeks, my observations and those of others around me are converging. We are all witnessing injustice in its most blatant form. We are all witnessing a crisis in the making. It often looks like this.

A kid who’s desperate to learn, but who’s country is failing him.

It’s the same story over and over again. “They aren’t dedicated!”

It’s truly remarkable how desperate children in Ghana are for learning. They know that the easiest way out of poverty is through education. They are taught to believe that if they work hard in school, their life will improve. Their often uneducated parents believe this too, and also believe that their kids are actually learning something at school. Which in the majority of cases is simply not true!

However, the truth is in the data. 53%! FIFTY-THREE PERCENT! What would Toronto, or Ontario, or Canada look like if 53% of people never went to high school? This is the reality of the education system in Ghana. It makes me wonder if formal education here is simply a waste of time, a cruel joke, setting up kids for failure. In fact, I sometimes question whether learning how to farm properly would be a better use of a child’s time in Ghana.

There are so many systemic problems with Ghana’s education system that have been exacerbated by Millenium Development Goal #2 – Universal Primary Education. Let me pose a question, what is the point of universal basic education that sets up kids for failure? In the rush to get every kid in school, nobody thought about education quality. All the policy makers cared about was education quantity and that means physical infrastructure. This is why you can visit a fancy new donor sponsored school in a village and find a hundred kids waiting patiently in empty classrooms! No teachers, no chalk or chalkboards, no textbooks.

To be bold, I’d say that Ghana’s education system is actually hindering development rather than enabling it, by producing so many youth with a desire for something more but without any means to achieve it. It’s like showing a hungry person food, but not giving it to them. It’s really terrible. With more uneducated youth, bigger problems are bound to emerge. The largest crisis facing Ghana is not food security, it’s not corruption, it’s not disease. It is education.

All of this makes me wonder; who is running the Ministry of Education in this country? And why are they failing miserably? Part of the answer might be due to external pressures to get every kid in school  before upgrading the education infrastructure to handle such an influx. Or maybe it’s because of Ghana’s lack of accountability in governance that let’s this stuff happen?

Whatever the reasons, they need to be addressed. Teachers and education administrators need to be held accountable. And people need to start understanding that education is a system, not just a school building! Kids in Ghana deserve better!

20.146% – Investing in EWB is investing in Ghana!

**Below is my holiday perspective on why I think EWBs work in Ghana is important. If you agree with it, please visit https://perspectives.ewb.ca/mina-shahid to donate! Thanks so much!

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20.146% is Ghana’s expected GDP growth by the close of 2011. That makes Ghana the fastest growing economy in the world! Yes, you read that correctly. And yes, Ghana is in Africa. To put this into perspective, Canada’s GDP growth for 2011 is forecasted to be 2.5%.

By investing in EWB, you are investing in Ghana. EWB’s approach to development is unique. We are unlocking the potential of the top Ghanaian leaders from the public and private sectors, and we are investing in them to accelerate Ghana’s development. These are the people pushing that GDP growth rate ever so higher year after year. These are the people eliminating poverty here.

——–

I’m sitting in a meeting with my EWB colleague Mike Klassen, and 2 of my Ghanaian counterparts, Dr. Mathias Fosu and Dr. Benjamin Ahiabor who work at the Savannah Agricultural Research Institute (SARI). They are managing a project in the three Northern Regions of Ghana aimed at promoting better agricultural technologies to increase food production and improve the poor soil health of the area, ultimately ensuring food security and economic growth.

Dr. Fosu and Dr. Ahiabor are two of the many Ghanaian leaders EWB is investing in. They came to EWB asking us to help them create a strategy for improving the projects engagement with private sector agribusinesses, by facilitating market linkages. The end goal is to ensure sustainable results for good agricultural practices and increased production. By investing in EWB, you are investing in Dr. Fosu and Dr. Ahiabor. And through their work, you are helping small-scale farmers gain access to markets for their produce.

——–

I’ve been in Ghana for about 16 months now, and it’s probably the most exciting place on Earth! Ghana is booming, not because of external development interventions but because of the strength of leadership in this country. EWB recognizes this, and this is why we choose to only work in partnership with Ghanaians, never implementing our own projects. Your investment to my perspectives campaign, is an investment into Ghana – its people, its economy, its governance. With it I promise that the EWB staff here will continue to work tirelessly to turn these investments into high social returns. 

If you believe in me, and the work that I’m doing in Ghana to address systemic issues in the agricultural industry, please be generous. I promise that your generosity will go a long way in helping EWB reduce poverty here!

Thank you!

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