At the beginning of this year Gillian Perera, with a BSc in Foods and Nutrition under her belt began to look for internships where she knew she could make a difference. She eventually applied to Mennonite Economic Development Associates (MEDA), a Canadian organization that helps women in rural communities gain access and use appropriate and nutritious food and, to her great joy, she was offered a five-month internship in Ghana. She tells us about her exciting experiences so far from home.
I’ve been in Ghana for over two months now and the time has been flying by. I still can’t believe how comfortable I am here. Yet it really was and still is a learning experience. Greater Rural Opportunities for Women (GROW), organized through MEDA, specializes in the development of the economically viable all over the world. They don’t provide aid or handouts but rather believe in providing “business solutions to poverty.” The project in Ghana focuses on the northern half of the country, which has significantly higher levels of poverty, malnutrition, and drought compared to the south. And it also focuses on women farmers because there is a huge cultural/traditional gender disparity here. Men generally have control over all income and assets even though the women are expected to work on their farms, care for the children, and find some other income-generating activity. Our project helps women gain access to larger plots of land, to financial services such as micro-loans, to agricultural services including tractors and seeds, and to nutrition education to prepare food for their family and children. That’s where I come in!
I must say I expected nothing coming here. I thought I would be living in a village, backpacking around and pretty much living an extremely modest lifestyle. But it has been nothing like that. The organization really takes care of us and we have drivers and a great office with local Ghanaian staff. I share a nice, two-bedroom, second-storey home that has air conditioning and hot water with one other intern. And I get to travel a lot both for work and for pleasure. We have donors who visit from Canada and the U.S. so I get to take them on tours, work permitting. And our vacation time is amazing. I’ve travelled to the coast in Southern Ghana. I’m going to Burkina Faso soon, and will visit Togo and Tanzania before I come back home in December.
However, my greatest satisfaction and excitement comes from meeting the communities and women of our project. When we go into the villages, they are so grateful for our assistance. While some of them are used to handouts because of other NGOs, they recognize that we’re providing them with a business opportunity to last a lifetime that will really change their lives. The women are gaining more independence and husbands are supporting them in this project because their economic situation is so hard. Many kids just can’t go to school because they can’t afford the school fees or they’re too sick or they have to work on the fields. Their lives are so simple. Imagine no technology! They have radios and some have cell phones but they don’t read newspapers or watch TV or have the internet. I live in the capital of the northern region, which is a city of maybe 400,000 but the project is four hours west of my city and very rural, with terrible infrastructure and dirt roads that are flooded in the rain. Yet the people there are so happy and grateful. With very few material things they are very spiritual and family-oriented and tradition means a lot to them. I’ve met beautiful people with wonderful stories. Sometimes I find it hard to believe my own eyes and ears. I’m truly grateful for every moment of my time here and the humbling and enriching experience it has been.
I recently submitted a huge nutrition needs assessment of the communities we are working in (we have registered 4,000 women so far) with my recommendations and implementation strategy for designing and developing the nutrition education/food demonstrations sessions. I’m acquiring the perfect skills for a career in community nutrition. I could never have imagined the experience I was going to have once I arrived. I was scared before leaving home but it has been a blessing given to me by God and has set me on the path I’ve dreamed of.
When we go into communities, we are welcomes with traditional song and/or dance. On this occasion, I accompanied staff members who were going to gender-sensitization activities with women and men.
Learning to cook local dishes with Pasculina, the cook, for one of our offices. While conducting my nutrition needs assessment, I took it upon myself to really understand the local dishes and traditional food preparation.
We periodically go to see women enrolled in the project and how their soya fields are growing. These women are all farmers.
Grains sold in the market in Tamale, Ghana. Shopping for food without labels or packaging was a serious learning curve.
By Gillian Perera