#12 Working in Tough Times

Lying awake in my bed, I was silently planning the activities of the day in my head. The dry north-easterly winds of the harmattan whistled through the mosquito netting. My thoughts were rudely interrupted by a siren from the town centre of Tamale. I jumped out and got dressed up very quickly before even washing my mouth. My wife asked me why I was out of bed at 5:00 AM. The siren was actually to mark the end of the curfew of the night. I told her that I was going to the NRDC (Northern Regional Development Corporation) to buy bread. She wished me good luck. I am not sure whether this was a sceptical sarcastic wish or a genuine wish based on faith.

I drove to the compound of the NRDC. The buildup of the queue to buy bread could be likened to a movie with the fast dispersal of soldiers in line played in reverse. I got out of the car and joined the queue. There were at least 30 people in front of me and less than five minutes later, there were over 30 people behind me. We waited patiently, chatting among ourselves about the difficulties of the time until 6:00 AM when the window for the sale of bread opened. I realized that some people were buying up to five or six loaves of bread. I kept checking in my pocket to make sure my money was there. As I got closer to the window I became a bit anxious. At the point when I had only three people between me and the window the lady selling the bread stuck out her face and announced that the bread was finished. We all stood there trying to make sense of this situation. Standing there and wondering did not change anything. I drove slowly back home. My wife came out to ask where the bread was, I tried to explain that I was only a few steps to the window when the bread got finished. But this was irrelevant information, whether I was the 3rd person to the window or the 50th person to the window, it did not make any difference. I tried to stop the tears coming to my eyes. I remembered the piles of different brands of bread on the shelf in Preston in the UK in 1980. Here was I, without bread after over an hour of standing in a queue. This was in the cold dry season of 1983.

The period from 1982 to 1984 can easily be described as the toughest time in the history of Ghana. A brutal combination of natural, economic and political calamities mercilessly struck the people of Ghana with devastating effects. The first was the dry, long, devastating drought that swept across Africa from Senegal, in the extreme west all the way to the horn of Africa in the east. This drought did not leave Ghana out. Then there was an outbreak of bush fires that swept through the country all the way from the north through the thick green forest belt to the coast. The implementation of the Structural Adjustment Program (SAP) proposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to respond to the economic crisis in Ghana was in full swing. This program resulted in the devaluation of the Ghanaian currency. At the beginning of 1982, one US dollar was equivalent to 2.75 Ghanaian cedis. By the beginning of 1983, one US dollar was more than 135 cedis. The IMF program resulted in the privatization of state-owned enterprises such as factories under the Ghana Industrial Holding Corporation (GIHOC) and hotels under the State Hotels Corporation (SHC). The rationalization of the number of staff under the public services resulted in the layoff thousands of public servants. To add to all the above, 1.5 million Ghanaians were forcefully sent back home from Nigeria. These “returnees” arrived back in Ghana through all the entry points on the eastern border of the country by road while some arrived by air through the Kotoka International airport and more arrived by sea on ships at the Tema Harbour. 1983 will never be forgotten in the history of Ghana.

The deportation of Ghanaians from Nigeria was an effort of the Nigerian government to reverse the influx of Ghanaians into Nigeria during the oil boom period of the 1970s. The Nigerian currency (Naira) was so strong that it was worth 1 British Pound to a Naira. It is claimed that businesses in the UK accepted the Naira as legal tender. Professionals from Ghana including doctors, engineers, teachers and nurses flocked to Nigeria to work and earn salaries that were two to five times the salaries of their counterparts in Ghana. Non-skilled Ghanaians found themselves on the streets of Lagos doing menial jobs for monies they would never have had in Ghana. Agege, was a suburb of Lagos and the expression “going to Agege” meant going to Nigeria. By the beginning of the 1980s, the economy of Nigeria began to deteriorate. This led to the implementation of austerity measures including the deportation of thousands of Ghanaians. Some have interpreted it as a retaliation for the expulsion of Nigerians from Ghana in 1969.

The impact of the drought and bushfires was massive shortages of food in the market in the latter part of 1983 and into 1984. I know a farmer in Tamale who harvested 1600 bags of paddy rice in 1982. In 1983 on the same area of land and using the same inputs and implements he realized that he was going to harvest less than 100 bags of rice. He, therefore, abandoned the field for nearby community members to glean for whatever they could get. The cost of using a combined harvester in the farm was going to exceed the income from the quantity of rice that he would harvest. The food shortages were countrywide and affected everybody in the social spectrum of the country. People worked hard, ate little, lost weight and ended up with visible clavicle bones that became known as “Rawling’s chains”. A name derived from the Head of State at the time. Men punched new holes in their belts to compensate for the diminishing circumferences of their waistlines.

The leadership of World Vision International in Ghana designed multiple solutions to respond to the interrelated problems created by the events above.
The different problems dealt with included communication, the food shortages in the country, the fuel crisis that affected transportation, the return of Ghanaians from Nigeria and how to deal with the shortage of goods in general in the country.
Concerning the devaluation of the local currency, staff were required to come back to the office and rewrite budgets for projects that had already been submitted. This meant that the project staff had to find out prices of supplies and use these to rewrite and submit revised budgets. This had to be repeated more than once to cope with the constantly changing exchange rate of the cedi to the dollar and it took away precious time required by staff to supervise projects in the community.

With the food shortages, the organization had to respond to strategies in communities where they were projects and also respond to the food needs of staff. With the food needs of staff, a caterer was engaged to bring lunch to the office every day. This enabled staff to buy food for lunch in the office and add a spend a short time eating during a lunch break, instead of wasting precious time looking for nonexistent food in Accra that could cost a fortune. Discussing the food situation across the country will be difficult to explain without illustrations. I remember trying to get dinner by going into the house of a staff whose mother sold kenkey, the staple food in Accra. By the time we got to the house, the kenkey was finished. This was unusual but we found out that customers preferred to buy the kenkey raw and take it home to cook. This was most unusual but became the norm in Accra. I remember driving around Accra trying to buy any type of food I could get on the street. The only available food was fried cassava.

In response to the shortage of food in communities where World Vision was working, there was a massive importation of rice and biscuits which were distributed to project communities. The interesting thing about this distribution was the fact that World Vision staff who did not have anything to eat at home were not first included in the distribution of this food. This meant that staff supervised and distributed food to project communities and came back home with little to eat. This situation was resolved when the leadership took a second look at the situation and made provision for staff. With the provision of lunch in the office, some staff bought food during the lunch break but dared not eat it in the office and rather carried it home to their children.

The fuel crisis, that was a manifestation of the economic crisis, hit World Vision very hard. This is because field staff needed fuel to travel to project communities and project staff from the communities depended on public transport to come to the field office. The organization had to resort to several strategies of getting fuel and travelling to project communities. I remember some staff driving cars to various fuel stations around Accra and packing them in queues in anticipation of the arrival of fuel. There were times when cars had to stay in the queue in anticipation of fuel for several days and sometimes the week. During one of these situations when a car was parked in a queue for several days, a chicken entered into the open space between the engine and a metal plate below the engine and laid eggs. At this time every car had a jerrycan in it to carry fuel as well as a 2.5 to 3 m rubber hose to transfer the fuel into the car in case the need arose.

Back in Tamale, I had my own coping mechanisms. Apart from the public fuel stations where one could go to struggle for fuel, I was supported by collaborators such as the Ghana Institute of Linguistics, Literacy and Bible Translation (GILLBT) and the Northern Regional Administration (NRA). I had six jerrycans and a rubber hose. In the worst-case scenario, I could get fuel in Burkina Faso. This meant driving nearly 200 km to the border, filling the car and buying six jerrycans of petrol. On one particular occasion, I was in the queue at the regional office to buy fuel and all of a sudden there was an explosion in the room where the fuel attendant was working. He managed to break a window and jumped out with burns all over his body. For the first time, it was more convenient to be further away from the selling point. Customers who were near the selling point scrambled to get their cars out of the way. It is a miracle that throughout these times no World Vision staff was caught in a fire. There were actually incidents of domestic fires from people keeping containers of petrol in their houses.

The communication challenge was very daunting. The fastest means of communication at the time was by landline telephone. However, International Direct Dialling (IDD) telephone facilities were difficult to come by. The next fastest means of communication was by telex. However, to send a telex out of Accra one had to go to the International Communications Office of the Post and Telecommunications Corporation that was located off High Street towards the sea. The sad fact was that one could go there at about 9 AM and join the queue and still be unable to send a telex by 4 PM. At one point it was faster to drive to Lome in Togo to send a fax and be back in Accra before 3 PM. The extra advantage of going to Lome was that the person could buy very basic items such as sugar, milk, tea, coffee, soap, and the numerous things which were not very easy to find in Accra. This difficulty in communication seriously affected the work of World Vision International. The situation was so bad that the director of World Vision in Germany at the time called Manfred Kohl, travelled to Accra with a telex machine as hand baggage to rescue the Ghana office. It took several weeks before this machine could be installed and be functional in Accra but we finally had our own telex machine and did not need to go all the way to Lome to send telex messages.

World Vision bought bicycles for volunteer workers in project communities. The organization made provision for bicycles in the field office. These bicycles became a means by which staff compensated for the difficulties in transportation due to the shortage of fuel in the country. I remember one dramatic situation when a project worker in a community called Wawasi, rode a bicycle from the community to the Accra – Kumasi road at a junction near Suhum and then rode the bicycle all the way to Accra to submit a project report. And he had to ride all the way back to his community. He said he did this because he could not get public transport on the Kumasi Road to come to Accra due to the persistent fuel shortages.

The food crisis swept across Africa. In 1984 I travelled with Kofi Hagan and Akwesi Agyeman-Dua together with a staff of the World Vision Australia office to Burkina Faso to assess the relief needs in that country. This was to enable us to provide support to our partners, Federation des Eglise et Mission Evanlique (FEME) in Ouagadougou. During this trip, we had to fly on a light aircraft from Ouagadougou to Dori and then to Djibo before returning to Ouagadougou. When we got to the airport I noticed that the light aircraft was held to the ground by ropes tied to blocks on both sides. It was a four-seater, single-engine plane but we could squeeze in a fifth person. Kofi Hagan and I plus our Australian visitor and the pilot were all the plane could take. We managed to squeeze our counterpart called Jacque into the back of the craft but he could not sit up straight. Kofi Hagan called Akwesi Agyeman-Dua and told him that in case anything happened and we did not return, he should tell our families that we perished in pursuit of helping the poor.

In Dori, we came across a group of children numbering about 15 to 20 between the ages of 3 and 15 sitting very quietly at the edge of a gutter. It is very unusual to see children of this age bracket sitting quietly and not playing. These children were simply so hungry that they could not play. We were told that some of them had not eaten anything for nearly a week. The signs of hunger were written all over their lean faces. One could easily count the ribs of those who did not have clothes on. Back in Ouagadougou (we survived!!!) that evening we went for dinner in the restaurant of the hotel where we resided. We looked at the menu and Kofi Hagan said after all that he had seen of the day it did not make psychological sense to eat. We drank a bottle of soft drinks and went back to our rooms without eating dinner. The sight of those children in Dori has remained in my mind over the years. When I see little children running all over the place and parents trying to stop them from running I remember the scene and tell the parents that children running around is a sign of good health and nutrition.

In the same year in 1984, I drove a photographer called David Ward to photograph the situation in project communities in northern Ghana and in Burkina Faso. Sometimes we worked all day without food. In Burkina Faso, we visited one community near Koudougou. In this community, we had the privilege of being served with roasted rural community chicken for lunch. This meant that we could not eat the sandwiches that we carried along from Ouagadougou. The following day we travelled to another community near Yako in the north of the country. This time we did not take any packed lunch. The community did not think that we needed lunch and so we worked until 5 PM, being sustained by the breakfast we took in Ouagadougou.

When we finished our work and wanted to leave we noticed that one of the tyres of the Peugeot pickup that we borrowed from Christian Services Committee in Tamale was flat. We did not have a spare tyre. When the community members noticed our predicament, they came up with a pump that is usually used to pump the tyres of a Mobilette. Every effort to pump air into the tyre with this device failed. Somebody then had an idea. The chief of the next village about 5 km away had a similar car. Two people were therefore sent to the village to go and plead with the chief to give us his spare tyre that would be returned the following day. David Ward and I sat down and waited and waited and waited. Our host came up with hot millet meal (TZ) and vegetable soup. David and I ate hungrily even though there was no trace of any form of protein in the soup. A hungry man will eat anything. This was not the time for nutritional lessons. Finally, the spare tyre arrived, carried on a Mobilette. We changed the tyre and headed for Ouagadougou. By 10 o’clock in the night, we were back in our hotel. These experiences of 1983 and 1984 remind me that when one is committed to development, one can work in the toughest of conditions.

One of my coping mechanisms in Tamale was to learn a new trade and earn an income through that trade. I found an experienced photographer called Samuel Boadu. I took my time in his library to learn the basics of photography. I read several chapters on the combination of aperture and shutter speed at different light strengths that can produce a good photograph. I learned how to offload a used film in the camera in a dark room and to develop, fix, wash, and dry the film. I then learned how to load the film in an enlarger under “safe” light and then develop, fix, wash, and dry photographs. I bought and prepared the chemicals myself for the development and fixing of photographs. My background in chemistry came handy in this new trade and I used this to show my photography trainer how to read volumes correctly in a measuring cylinder. With this new skill, I created a darkroom in my house and then used the fixed focus Konica camera, given to me by Sam Boadu to pursue my new photography trade in the villages around Tamale during my spare time. This new trade became a major income earner throughout most of my career. And I upgraded my camera to a Nikon FM2 by 1992. The advent of cameras on every mobile phone has rendered this skill irrelevant in the 21st century.

One interesting scenario all around the country was the phenomenon of queues to buy what became known as “essential commodities” such as sugar, milk, soap, mackerel etc. While driving through town in Tamale, when I see a queue of people in front of a shop, I would stop my car, join the queue and then ask the person in front of me to tell me what was being sold at the end of the queue. “Conditional sales” became the order of the day. This term may be unfamiliar to readers who did not live through the tough times in Ghana. One would go out to buy 1 or 2 kg of sugar. And then one finds a queue in front of a shop. At the end of the queue, they will be presented with a sachet containing about 5 different items in it. The items could be half a bar of soap, 4 tins of milk, 2 kg of sugar, a can of VIM, and a packet of Typhoo tea. All that I need would be the sugar and the milk and probably the soap but you are compelled to buy the VIM and the tea as a condition for buying what you want. I ended up with several tins of VIM in the house that I did not really need.

In response to the sudden influx of returning Ghanaians from Nigeria, World Vision imported a large number of medicines and made these available at the 3 major entry points i.e: the Kotoka International Airport, the Ghana – Togo border at Aflao and the Tema Harbour. This also required calling field staff back to the headquarters to prepare the necessary proposal and budget for exercise. Efforts were made to identify Ghanaians returning from Nigeria who arrived in project communities and to help them resettle.
Former staff of World Vision International and indeed any organization should be proud that they were able to hold the organisation together during these tough times. The staff of World Vision International who never experienced these tough times should always remember that they’re building on a foundation that was laid in hardships and toil. Anybody wishing to be a development worker in Africa must be prepared for tough times. The context and the severity may be different but the need to be tough would remain the same.

My next post is entitled “The Impetus to Grow” and chronicles the evolving needs that informed decisions taken in the early ‘80s to grow the organisation. Please keep your comments coming, I really appreciate them very much.

4 thoughts on “#12 Working in Tough Times

  1. I am wondering why a guy from Manga would not look for kose, massa or, kulikuli for breakfast; rather you went looking for bread when wheat is grown in the western world. The problem with our taste has led to the vanishing of Ghanaian cuisine and loss of income to peasant farmers


  2. Sammy, reading this block something came to mind. Do you remember the term “ayayoa” in Kusaal? During the difficult times traders in grain were not filling the” bito kuriba” as was done in normal times. They filled it flat and not heeped. The food that was distributed freely to the population was also measurd like that. So that period was described as “ayayoa” period referring to the hunger time


  3. Sammy, reading this block something came to mind. Do you remember the term “ayayoa” in Kusaal? During the difficult times traders in grain were not filling the” bito kuriba” as was done in normal times. They filled it flat and not heeped. The food that was distributed freely to the population was also measurd like that. So that period was described as “ayayoa” period referring to the hunger time


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