The Pre-grad School Jitters

You could say life since acceptance into grad school has been a bit of a wild ride for me. These days (and nights), I struggle for breath throughout my routine, steady myself to ride out my irregular heartbeat, and wake up at all hours of the night in pools of cool sweat.

So how did we get here? Back track to a few months ago…

On a very rainy day I find myself in my office on a long weekend, alone. I am trying to teach myself python a-la-Massive Open Online Course, however, I have reached my point of saturation and am jamming out, singing aloud to my favorite tunes.

While serenading myself some low-key Drake, I receive the email that would change my life.

Congratulations [Kathleen Jack] you have been admitted to the Dual Degree Programme at Sciences Po (Paris) and the London School of Economics. Welcome to the class of 2019.

 Blood rushed to my head, my stomach was set a flame with joyous butterflies and I instantly started joy-crying (this is not unusual for me, when emotions happen, bring out the waterworks). Tearfully, I call a small handful of family and friends to share my utter-joy. This is it, I think to myself.

My unbridled joy an enthusiasm carries me through the next week on a cloud as I consult my closest allies as to what I should do in this situation. Consultation after consultation with my trusted undergraduate professors, colleagues at work, other mentors, and loved friends, my choice is validated with all of positive enforcement that I needed. No deferrals. No doubts. I am going.

Then the dream ended.

I was forced to deeply recognize what I would be truly committing to over the course of the next 2 years: potentially over $130,000 CND of debt, moving to a country for my first year where I do not know the language, and facing my greatest fear in absence of knowing a single soul in my soon-to-be new home: being lonely. I am plunging into a new ambiguity, filled with jarring uncertainty and unknown hurdles.

The relentlessness of the Paris housing market left me triggered and anxious in every moment of my every day. I was hit by what felt like insurmountable walls of paper work in a language I don’t speak. I ran endless debt repayment scenarios and felt the sting of guilt that can only be described as child-like when I asked my mom if she could help me. (Of course she said yes, love you to the ends of the earth, Mama). Doubt invaded my psyche, coursing through my veins and with every thought and I wondered deep down in my soul: do I truly deserve this?

The past few months have been a blur.

Any instance of a flinch or expression of doubt appears to be arrogant owing to reputation of these incredible schools; however, the truth is I feel trapped and freed, desperately hopeless and unwittingly hopeful all at the same time in advance of my next move. I deflect questions about my new program and delay purchasing my flight. This whole process has been very humbling and utterly terrifying for me.

Gradually, however, I am adjusting to the exciting shock of the unknown. I have used my spare time to pick up some books about French and have been greeted by the warm embrace of my new program’s Facebook page. These things give me small comforts and I look so earnestly forward to meeting the incredible people who will be a part of my cohort. Until my departure I will be hopeful, breathe, smile, live and embrace the calm before the adventure into an unknown future that, I’m confident, will be the ride of a lifetime!

With love from an anxious soon-to-be grad student,

Kat

This Is Enough

Here is a refection by my lovely friend Alycia. Yup. This pretty much captures it. I am so blessed to have seen, heard, smelled, tasted and experience all that I have.

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Close your eyes
Settle into the space that receives you
Let your edges vibrate
Allow your energy to resonate beyond your borders
Melt into the realm of here

What do you hear
What shimmers in the far reaches of sound
The layers dancing
Woven and overlaid
A fluid array of existence
Without judgement or desire

Sound is not subordinate to sight
Not a mere hypothesis or confirmation
Reality is composed of vibrant oscillations
Dynamic oceans of beautiful noise

There is no hierarchy in perception
Sight is not absolute
Sound is enough

Release reliance on constraints
Deem not the infinite unimportant to render it digestible
There is so much that we numb
That we dismiss as inconsequential
Ornamental
Supplementary
When truly it is everything
No small signal is superfluous

We position ourselves in one dimension
Considering more we flounder
Clinging to our physicality
Our uniqueness
Our rock
Our island
Why remain a…

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Once Upon a Tro Tro

Traffic doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t care if you are rich or poor, what nationality or race you belong to, if you are in a rush or not. You get stuck in it…

It is a major problem with any urban center that is growing faster then it can develop. The limitations in infrastructure and a growing amount of vehicles along the road in combination with gentrification that pushes people out of the city are some of the reasons that influence congestion in the major roadways of Accra.

A key means of public transportation are local buses called tro tros.

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My daily chariot

 

These somewhat precarious chariots carry the majority of urbanites to and from work on a daily basis. They run on demand and when the seats have filled (this usually takes about 16 people), they set off on their journey, darting in and out of the tight spaces left between the road and the gutter. Tro tros are also very affordable. For a mere 2 Ghana cedis (about 60 cents) one be on a tro tro for hours. This bring me to traffic aspect of Ghana life.

Traffic has a profound effect on people’s lives.

I will use my own typical daily commute as an example:

5:00 am: My alarm sounds. I know I should get up. The longer I delay leaving the cool breeze of the fan facing my bed, the more ominous the traffic will become.

5:10 am: Drag myself out of bed. Mind over matter, besides I know that I must rush now to get to my tro tro stop and board the early car to ensure that I don’t get left behind. Traffic, traffic, traffic.

5:15 am: Leap to action. Pack my bag for work, find business attire and iron it so as to look put together in the office. Looking fresh is of key importance to Ghanaians- one my simply look sharp despite early rising. I am barely functional at this hour, but I persevere, for if I do not, my commute could take up to three hours.

5:30 am: I am starving. Margaret (my host mother) helps me scavenge the kitchen for some local bananas and bread with fresh savanna honey. Delicious. But I’d better eat fast because I know my tro tro is waiting.

5:45 am: Lace up my oxford business shoes and make haste. I carry a banana for the road and speed walk to the stop (about 5 mins). I see my tro tro loading and break into a sprint. I never knew I could move with such speed, though the situation is desperate. I see myself sweating in a 3 hour tro tro ride, work mounding on my desk. This pushes me into top speed and I leap onto the tro tro seconds before it leaves from my suburb, Ashalley Botwe, to where I work in central Accra.

5:45 am: I sit on the tro tro with my fellow commuters. The first half an hour runs smoothly, though as we approach the city, I can see the back up of cars that await us.

6:15 am: We are now stuck. Motionless. No one is worried, panicked or stressed. Instead people sleep, make small conversation or listen to some music. Ghainains are accustomed to this daily struggle. This makes me feel much more at ease then if I were caught in traffic in Canada. The solidarity of those on the tro tro with me keeps my emotions under control and stress to a minimum. I take some deep, meditative breaths and settle in for the long haul.

7:15 am: After an hour of being almost motionless in the traffic I have fallen asleep on the lady next to me. She politely taps me and asks me if I need help getting to the next stage of my commute. I say that I am alright but thank her by saying ‘Medasi’ (thank you in Twi). On foot, I submerge deep into the ’37’ station bus stop to find the share taxi that will take me on the next stage of my journey.

7:20 am: Hop in a share taxi to my office in Labone. These cars fill quickly and leave frequently so I am in good shape. I make small conversation with the man sitting next to me.

7:30 am: The share taxi drops me off a block from my office. I take a deep breath and bask in the opportunity to stretch my legs before beginning my day at the office.

My morning commute has taken me an 1 hour and 45 minutes. This is not uncommon for Accra locals.

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A strange commuter on the tro tro today

It should also be noted that the way home takes even longer as the roads are more jam packed with those eager to get back to their families in the evening. The private costs of traffic are high. One can spend many precious hours of their life sitting in a packed tro tro en route to their home or their work. How can we even put a price on the precious moments with family that one loses by sitting in traffic?

While traffic has a large impact on the lives of individuals, the costs to society are also high.

Calculating the cost of traffic to society is a difficult task. At the most basic level, let’s examine the average length of a commute to and from work, the average hourly earnings Ghanaians and the size of the urban labour force in Ghana:

If an individual spends 3 hours in a tro tro daily, the average 2.35 cedis per hour (my wage. org, 2016) and the formal labour force in urban areas is comprised of about 11,048,371 people (World Bank, 2013) the average cost to society could be up to 77,891,015.60 Ghana cedis.

Assuming that every individual in the formal labour force commutes, at the current exchange rate, that is a cost of about $33,145,113.00 CND per day.

*Note: this calculation is imperfect calculation, though serves as a general idea of the largest possible cost.

There are different initiatives that aim to ease the effects of traffic in Ghana.

In asking locals, I found that there are a two key issues that have caused congestion in urban areas:

1. As the larger tail of the income distribution grows, so does ownership of private vehicles. Personal cars increase the volume of traffic on the road and cause congestion.

2. Road networks are simply not large enough to allow for traffic to move quickly

Locally, citizens have started groups on social media and whatsapp called ‘the tro tro diaries’. This is a community-based initiative that facilitates community engagement with tro tro drivers to understand how the two parties can support one another.

Ultimately, however, government intervention is merited to secure both top down and bottom up approached are being used to solve the traffic problem. It will take time and dedication on the part of policy to create systemic interventions that aim to change attitudes of commuters, the tro tro system it self and address the road networks.

Traffic is a complex problem for Ghanaian urbanites, however, present the opportunity for dynamic solutions. While I don’t have all of those today, I am pleased to share my perspective with you!

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Vero and I on our daily commute- always an adventure!

Anything but the Global Truth: missing links in Canadian media and lessons from Ghana

The most consistent thing about my existence living with my local family in Ghana is that at precisely 7:00 pm the television is on and we watch global news together.

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We all sit in one another’s company while a series of headlines from around the world flash on the screen. Some times we are so invested in the story that the blaring television is overwritten by discussion on any topic from IS activity in Mali, the upcoming decision on whether the UK will remain in the European Union, or the American electoral race between Clinton and Trump.

*As a side note, in my experience, Ghanaians are invested in the outcome of the American election and share the strong distaste for Trump’s hateful rhetoric that I do!

One thing is certain; this is the most holistic new experience that I have had in my life.

Before leaving from Canada, the general disenchantment with our national news platforms was in full strength. Criticism of western-centric news flooded social media outlets. Questions were asked over again about the fragmented coverage of global news:

When there are terrorist attacks, why do we only hear about the ones that have occurred in the Western World? What about Kenya? What about Turkey? What about Nigeria, Mali, Burkina Faso or Cote I’dvoire?

 These questions, using only one example of such gaps in Canadian media, posed an even greater question for me:

Suffering, regardless of socio-demographics, is tragic. Why do those who have procured national wealth have the right to tell their story?

It is true that our proximity to the United States, Europe and Asia puts us out of geographical touch with the other regions of the World. Our media outlets are packed to the brim with stories that are seemingly exclusive to these proximate regions, albeit, an extreme occurrence in a periphery region (though even these news stories are infrequent).

Meanwhile, as I sit on the couch with my family, headlines from seemingly every corner of the world fill the news program.

One headline that was particularly striking to me told the story of rising housing process in Vancouver. I was gob smacked. If Ghanaians know and can reflect upon a story that has a profound effect on Canadians, why on Earth are Canadian media groups not providing any coverage on issues in countries like Ghana? If my Ghanaian family can sympathize with the plight of though being affected by gentrification in Vancouver, why does Canadians media limit our ability to reciprocate this feeling for those in Accra?

What can be done to fill the void of missing stories?

 Upon this experience, I am left feeling heavy with the burden of how to fill the gaps in my own knowledge to fill the void of unheard global stories. My Ghanaian family has taught me so much and has illuminated the need to be better informed about the planet that we share.

While I actively encourage Canadian media outlets to take a more global approach to broadcasting the narratives of the World, I realize that this is a complex problem that will take time and effort to fix. This systemic change within Canadian media outlets is warranted, however, the responsibility of rounding my exposure to global news, for the time being, is a personal responsibility. Seeking out alternative media sources through the avenue provided by the Internet and encouraging global conversation are a place to start in my opinion.

With love from a self-declared global citizen,

Kat

Obroni! Obroni!

Obroni’ is a term in Twi, one of the many Ghanaian dialects, that translates literally to ‘white person’.

In my short time in Ghana I have come to have a love hate relationship with this term. It can be used in a loving way; my host mother, Margaret, affectionately calls me her ‘Obroni baby’. This I very much enjoy as an acknowledgement that while I may not be the same as the other members of her family, I still belong and she treats me like a daughter.

On the other hand the term changes in nature when I am taking a tro tro (a Ghanaian public bus) to and from my place of work. At crowded bus stops I hear adults and children shout Obroni! Obroni! Sometimes it is a clear attempt to get my attention if I have taken a wrong turn or dropped my water bottle on the ground. In other cases it can feel more aggressive; a ruthless acknowledgement of my clear difference from the community. In these cases I find the term isolating and I feel profoundly alone in the ever-crowded markets that house the bus stations in Accra.

 The paradoxical and complex perceptions around calling an individual by their race is difficult to navigate for Ghanaians and foreigners alike.

In my short time here I have spoken to locals who endorse the call outs as an expression of excitement to see an Obroni. It is simply the word that is used to describe a foreigner and intends no harm. Additionally, I have had discussions with those who fundamentally disagree with calling out an individual based on the colour of their skin.

Similarly to the local perspective, foreigners themselves are also undecided on the term. I know many Obronis who identify with the term and have fully accepted it as a part of their identity here in Ghana. At the same time, I have met others who distain being called out impersonally by a physical trait that is bestowed upon them at birth.

 In my life I have been fortunate that this is one of the first times I have grappled with being called out by the colour of my skin.

 I am privileged to be an individual who does not have any remarkable visible differences in my own society at home. That is I am a straight, white, able-bodied female. Despite challenges around my gender and the complex role of feminism in Canadian society, I blend in at the bus stop. I am not called out for my race. I never feel separate from those I share my daily commute with.

From my perspective, working to understand the perspectives about the term Obroni is an opportunity to grow my own understanding of how to people perceive physical differences globally. In many ways I am thankful and will continue to be for all of the complex reckonings to come.

 With love from the Obroni at the bus stop,

 Kat

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An Obroni waiting for a tro tro

 

Microfinance: Ghana’s Challenge

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Lending markets are a key problem that discourages the growth of local businesses.

Finance for small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in Ghana that are seeking scale-ability is a challenge. There are loans from established banks for wealthy companies. There are also seed loans for the very poor. For the group in between, however, accessibility of loans is a key obstacle that stifles growth and entrepreneurship. A typical loan can have up to 48% interest and often times the lending institutions for growing businesses ask for unreasonable collateral in exchange for funding. Hence, economic prosperity for SMEs is shut down before it is allowed the chance to flourish. This is a key problem that discourages the growth of local businesses as entrepreneurs have been cited as the heart of the Ghanaian economy.

The “missing middle” in the lending market has greater societal impacts.

The lack of funding options for SMEs is a significant barrier for middle-income business. As a result, the complexities of the financial market serve as a megaphone that amplified income inequality Ghana. Based on the Gini index (a measure of income inequality between 0 and 1, where 0 is perfect equality and 1 is perfect inequality), Ghana ranks as a 0.66 in 2013 (Index Mundi, 2016). A shrinking middle class and a lack of financial support are a dangerous feedback loop.

Moreover, my local source of knowledge has made me aware that often times loans are granted to those with connections to financial institutions or the government- a cycle that also perpetuates inequality. This condition in ensures that social mobility is fixed and that opportunities are to be had for those who are already embedded in an exclusive network of wealth. This is certainly an additional disincentive to entrepreneurship that could have the overwhelming potential to repress growth in Ghana’s economy at a high level.

Adaptability is fundamental to success of local entrepreneurs and the businesses they run.

Despite challenges and inefficiencies of the middle lending market, many people have sought out other options such a borrowing from the community, creating co-ops or seeking foreign direct investment where possible. These options represent key opportunities for locals who must rely on external systems to support the growth of their businesses and the pursuit of scale.  The adaptability and resilience of Ghanaian entrepreneurs is outstanding, though it is not an excuse for lack-luster financial institutions.

With love from a frustrated economics graduate,

Kat

Why I am in Ghana?

For some time now, Ghana has intrigued me. As the first African country to achieve independence from colonization in 1957, the spirit of the people is one that changed the face of the continent. Ghana has rich mix of people and a culture based on the pillars of sharing and acceptance, something that I feel a great draw to discover more about in life. I have fallen in love with Ghana from a far, and now, ignorance and curiosity in tow, I embark upon my next adventure.

Over the course of the next few months I will be working with the Mobile Business Clinic out of their office in Ghana’s capital city, Accra.

Mobile Business Clinic

The Mobile Business Clinic (MBC) aims to foster growth in the small and medium sized agri-businesses in Ghana by supporting local entrepreneurs. This support is extended via two key programs; the MBC accelerator program and the Young Fellow program. The former is a program that seeks to improve business and technical skills of established entrepreneurs; the latter provides early career placements for individuals seeking to establish themselves in agri-business. In addition to these programs, MBC offers technical assistance on the ground to help local business reach their full potential. The technical assistance offered by MBC aims to assess the supply chain of a local business in a holistic fashion and streamline business efforts. These programs aim to empower local businesses to achieve scale and attract funding to grow sustainable agri-businesses.

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Engineers Without Borders Canada

Engineers Without Borders (EWB) is an organization that partners with MBC to help catalyze successful programs. The mission of the organization is to solve complex problems of development using a systemic approach.

That is, EWB aims to understand all of factors that reinforce economic and social disparity. In the case of MBC, the EWB approach is to ask difficult questions about why the success of small and medium agri-businesses are being squandered in the Ghanaian context.

What are the financing options for local entrepreneurs?

Are there policies that adequately assist agri-businesses succeed?

 How can entrepreneurs in agriculture be empowered despite the challenges they face?

 -this is by no means an exhaustive list-

After understanding the system, EWB connects with ventures like MBC that work within the system to promote change and provides necessary funding and resources.

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My Role

So where do I fit in space of the Mobile Business Clinic and Engineers Without Borders?

A key means for Engineers Without Border to promote change is by investing in people. As such, EWB provides a pipeline of passionate individuals that can be used by ventures to staff their operations. So here I am!

My role with MBC is to assist the monitoring and evaluation team to create a series of robust metrics that measure the impact of MBC’s programs. Understanding how the programs influence economic, social, environmental and gendered outcomes of small and medium sized agri-business is fundamental to the success and sustainability of the venture.

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The operations of a growing agri-business

For further exploring please visit the following;

Mobile Business Clinic here

Engineers Without Borders here