Recent grad helps women in Ghana become self sufficient

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.

gillian-perera-cooking-in-Ghana-500I’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.

gillian-perera-Women-in-Ghana-with-crops-500Learning 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

In Japan (Week 3): Friday

Today was our last day at Wayo Women’s University, and with our host families! We said goodbye to our families and ended our session at a farewell lunch with (and some presents from) President Kishida and the faculty/staff of Wayo. It was very sad saying goodbye to everybody, and we thank everyone for all of the hard work and effort that has been put into the planning of this trip. We hope that the Wayo girls enjoy their time in Canada in October, and maybe one day we will be able to return to Japan!

Now we will go our own ways for the weekend. Anthea, Vanessa, Nan, and Stephanie will be going to Kyoto, while Kelsey, Stefania and Dr. Garcia will be staying in Tokyo.


In Japan (Week 3): Thursday

This morning we attended a nutrition education class and learned about the Fujitsu Telework-based Diet Management System. This trial program was developed to better their employee’s overall health and well-being by offering personalized guidance from a dietitian through mobile phone applications. It is amazing learning about all of the future possibilities (e.g., tele-work) for dietitians in the workplace.

In the afternoon we travelled to Tokyo to visit a public health center. We observed the happenings of the day, which was educating parents on proper nutrition and dental hygiene for their children as well as medical check-ups for the children who were three years of age. Japan appears to have a great early childcare system, as this tracks their physical as well as mental health for several years.


In Japan (Week 3): Wednesday

Professor Michael Kiestler invited us to join his English class today to discuss the differences and similarities of Japanese and Canadian cultures. We had a lot of fun talking about pop culture, dating, laws, and the general do’s and dont’s of each country. It was very interesting to learn about customs of the Japanese population, such as what age they begin dating, or what they do in their free time.

Later on we engaged in a soba making class in Tokyo with our “Soba Sensei” as well as our Wayo senseis, Reiko and Ikuko. We all had so much fun, and we learned that it is very difficult to create perfect soba noodles! It is basically an art. Afterward we tasted our soba, in the traditional cold way, except for Dr. Garcia who prefers her soba hot! It was delicious, and one of the highlights of the trip.



In Japan (Week 3): Tuesday

Today we visited the National Centre for Global Health and Medicine in Tokyo, one of the largest hospitals in Japan. Here we observed the food service process for approximately 600 inpatients. The meals were cooked in a large kitchen with approximately 40 staff around the clock. Afterwards we took a look at their counseling offices, which had plenty of food models and resources for clients. We received a copy of their diabetes handout with cute illustrations and explanations.

After visiting the hospital, we all went to Tokyo Disneyland. We saw the castle as soon as we got out of the station and got really excited. After taking a hundred photos in front of the castle, we went off to find the roller coasters. Our first ride was Thunder Mountain, which was a really fun roller coaster that winded through a mountain. We caught a bit of the parade afterwards with lots of brightly lit floats. The highlight of the night was at Splash Mountain, a huge log flume ride that takes a picture at the end. We went on a lot of the other classic rides like ‘it’s a small world’ and the tea cup ride. We had such a good time that Kelsey and Stefania might go back on Sunday!


In Japan (Week 3): Monday

Happy Canada Day from across the globe! When we realized it was Canada Day we all felt a little homesick but we were all excited to embark on our last week of this amazing trip. In the morning we went to the famous Kikkoman soy sauce factory in Noda. As soon as we exited the train station I said “It smells yeasty…” and everyone nodded in unison. The factory was only a five-minute walk away with many fermentation silos spreading the smell of soy sauce. We toured the facility and learned how Kikkoman has modernized their 300-year-old soy sauce production process. Kikkoman even exclusively develops soy sauce for the Emperor of Japan; a year-long process using only domestic raw ingredients. At the café we tried some soy sauce ice cream, which was surprisingly tasty, although Dr. Garcia disagreed saying “it is too salty for ice cream!”

In the afternoon we went back to Wayo University for our final food lab in diet therapy. Half the class made a typical Japanese meal with peanut miso maki, tempura, wintermelon stew, salad and matcha pudding. The other half made a meal designed for renal patients with low sodium and low protein alternatives including agar, low protein rice, and maltose. Stefania loved learning how to make maki and we all enjoyed socializing with the Wayo students in our groups. Many of the therapeutic diet options were tasty and I actually preferred the therapeutic diet tempura because it was crunchier.


In the evening we had an ikebana class, which is the art of Japanese flower arranging. The philosophy behind ikebana is to create harmony with the flowers by balancing the yo (light) and in (shade). The process was very precise and difficult for us beginners to learn. We learned that ikebana is not only aesthetically pleasing but also represents the harmony and balance between man, earth and heaven. After all the flower arranging, we all got to try on some traditional Japanese kimonos and learned a bit of origami, the art of folding paper, for example to make a (bird) crane.


In Japan (Week 2): Sunday

Sunday we all spent the day with our host families doing different activities. Stefania and Kelsey went to Odaiba, a new and trendy area.  Nan went to Kamakura, an area with beautiful temples, flowers and the Great Buddha.  Stephanie went hiking at Mount Takao, and Vanessa and Anthea spent the day shopping with their host families.  We all can not believe how fast the days are flying by and we are looking forward to the last week of this amazing cultural experience.

In Japan (Week 2): Saturday

Saturday Vanessa’s host mom and sister Miu took us to visit an ‘Onsen’ –
a Japanese public bath and hot spring. It was a gorgeous day outside and we got
to really relax.  After trying out the many baths filled with different ingredients such as kiwi and milk, we got to pamper ourselves with the creams and hair products.  We were all truly amazed by how beautiful and spa-like the ‘Onsen’ was.


In Japan (Week 2): Friday

On Friday, we observed their food service management class. In this class, the students learn all of the steps involved in food services.  The students do everything from menu planning, purchasing food, recipe development, cooking food using an industrial sized kitchen and serving the food.  We had a chance to eat the food that they prepared which was a hot soup with ‘udon’ noodles, tempura, a salad with octopus and a lemon desert.  This class was similar to our food production management class at Brescia; however, it is a more a hands-on approach to learning about food services and takes hours to complete.

On Friday afternoon we took a boat across the Edo river to visit a Buddhist temple with Vanessa’s host family.  It was a lovely way to spend the afternoon.  Friday evening we spent the night in Roppongi, an area with an incredible nightlife with lots of restaurants and filled with so many people.



In Japan (Week 2): Thursday

On Thursday morning, we attended a clinical nutrition practice class.  In this class, we saw the students work on case studies similar to the case studies we do at Brescia.  These case studies were on Hypertension and Pregnancy-Induced Hypertension.  During this class we had the opportunity to talk to many of the students who are coming to Brescia.  After the class, we had a seminar by Dr. Sakurai, a surgeon who works as a professor at WAYO teaching clinical nutrition.  He gave an interesting talk on his involvement with Japanese medical societies and his strong desire to educate the medical team on critical nutrition support for patients particularly after surgery.

On Thursday afternoon we visited the Fujitsu clinic.  This is a clinic for 10,000 Fujitsu workers, their families as well as ex-workers.  We spoke with the company dietitian at the clinic and learned about the steps involved for someone to see a dietitian.  She showed us many of the food models she uses when counseling and gave us an excellent tour of the facility where we saw the blood labs, the x-ray and MRI machines. After the tour of the clinic, we had a tour of the Fujitsu museum.  Here we learned about Fujitsu’s history and learned about their new innovations in technology.  One highlight from this visit was driving a train simulator and how we found it difficult to control the speed!

After visiting Fujitsu, we participated in a tea ceremony at Wayo.  This was truly a cultural experience learning about how traditional Japanese green tea ceremonies are conducted. In the ceremony, you are offered Japanese sweets and tea.  There are many procedures when taking the tea such as lifting the tea-cup with your right hand, putting it on the palm of your left hand and rotating the cup twice clockwise before putting it down.

thursday thursday