I only wanted a simple answer to a simple question. The women in the farming groups I work with have been asking me how to make tofu, or ‘soya kebabs’ as they are called here (it’s always sold cut, fried, and on a stick). After we finished a large soap making project where my counterpart and I trained the eight farming groups, this was their new request. It turns out making tofu is similar to making soap; send a raw crop to the grinding mill, add heat and some mystery ingredient (in the case of soap it’s caustic soda and in the case of tofu, well, that was my question), and voila, a chemical change takes place and you’ve got something new and marketable—value addition. To make the long and tedious story of simply trying to find the woman that makes tofu in the nearby village short, several back-and-forth phone calls and a few hours of waiting, my counterpart and I made the trip to a woman’s house in the nearby village, one that makes tofu. After a day of learning how to do it, I left with a plastic bag of tofu, less money in my pocket, and the simple skill of how to make tofu. (It’s really easy, just takes forever for the water to boil thanks to the use of inefficient firewood. The secret ingredient here is the left-over water from the last time you make it, if you let it sit for at least a day it becomes fermented.)
But tofu making comes at a price. The woman making it has three small-girls that miss school every third day to help her (small girl/boy is a term used because the culture demands that young people be laborers, but there is usually a mutual benefit for the kid, in this case, they are ‘apprentices’). They were probably about 14 years old, and would be in 7th grade. The process takes all day only because it takes so long for the soy milk to boil; firewood is inefficient. For a few minutes during the four hours of waiting, we tallied up her costs and revenues, she makes about 2-4 cedis (1-2 USD) per day of making tofu, and spends another day selling it. And it turns out that an NGO came a few years ago to do the training. It’s great that something like that worked, usually getting traction with an income generating activity where the market isn’t provided by a source outside the village is difficult, as any volunteer will tell you. But for her to actually start making tofu, the NGO gave each woman 100 cedis, soap, and the material to start. All of the resources she uses to make it, she already has (for example, she uses a mosquito net for a strainer). That money was exorbitant. Cross-culturally what this means is that she’ll now rely on an NGO to provide for her if she ever wants to do something new, she won’t start on her own. Two years in Peace Corps has taught me that.
The point of the story is that learning technical skills here in Ghana is no easy feat. Everything is more difficult than it ‘should be’ and learning and experiencing that has helped tremendously with integrating culturally. In America, I would get this done with research skills, with the help of google or human resources that make themselves available with technical skills, but those are not available here for the most part. Everything I have learned how to do as a Peace Corps Volunteer fits into two categories, cross-cultural and technical. And these sit comfortably on a foundation of the analytical skills I developed while at Bard, providing a larger context for the implications a project has for expansion and for what the success or failure of a project is resultant of. I’ve learned how to plant trees, the basics of farming, and how to make mosquito-repellent lotion using local material. I’ve learned how to teach science to a class of 8th graders, which I had the pleasure of doing for a year, how to hold a meeting using a translator, and how to get 100 farmers to come to a workshop. I have acquired more skills as a Peace Corps Volunteer than I ever could have hoped for. The needs of the community have been diverse and I’ve been lucky enough to work with a host of project partners ranging from clinic staff to women’s groups to local government officials to students. While they’ve been useful and I appreciate having developed and used these skills, as my end of service approaches, I’m becoming more and more aware of what I will come away with—the lasting impressions the people and life here have left on me. The new light discussions on development and the world have taken. I’ve found out why poverty exists, the vast array of things that are contributing to it, the most eye-opening of those being the local community members that play a large and disheartening role. From this experience, I’ve gotten past the images that pull at my heart strings. The whole thing has been a bit like finding out the tooth fairy doesn’t exist (upsetting and interesting) but I’m a better person for it.