Thoughts from Week 2 in Ghana

— Stephanie Miceli, WE 

An old German ambulance transporting people to work. A morning jog through the tail end of a Saharan dust storm. A week’s worth of shopping completed – quite literally in rush hour traffic.

These are just some of the things that have made me scratch my head and say, “huh.” In Ghana, the pace and rhythm of life seems frenetic, then seems to halt. Some might find that juxtaposition frustrating, but I’ve quickly taken to it. Things have a way of coming together on their own accord.

Stephanie Miceli in GhanaOur first meal with our clients is a perfect example. “We put bits of spaghetti in our rice,” she said. Why? “Rice is a staple. We just wanted to try something a bit different, and it stuck.” It has become a metaphor for the work we’re doing here in Ghana. Sometimes “the way we’ve always done it” isn’t enough. Sometimes we need fresh perspectives to re-imagine our work. But we must never lose sight of the root of the problem. It’s astounding what you learn when you simply shut up and listen.

For the next few weeks, I’ll be embedded with an NGO, Nneka Youth Foundation, or simply “Nneka”. Nneka has become a lifeline for rural, resource-strapped communities in Ghana, many which have been plagued by the consequences of teen pregnancy, substance abuse and school dropouts. The organization brings youth development camps, teacher trainings, mentoring sessions, and other enrichment opportunities, giving young people avenues to harness their creativity and potential that may not have otherwise existed.

Last weekend, my team traveled three hours away from our home base in Accra to Ghana’s Volta Region with Nneka’s founder, Madame Cecilia Fiaka. There, she hosted leadership development sessions and jewelry making courses for 40 girls. Out of the 40 girls, only seven were in school. There were several teen mothers who showed up with their babies nestled in slings on their backs, freeing up their hands to make earrings and beaded sandals – craftsmanship skills that will translate to essential sources of income for them.

I’m in awe of the remarkable warmth and hospitality Ghanaians extend toward foreigners, and each other. Madame Cecilia hosted these girls (and some babies) in her guest house. It was all hands on deck moving mattresses, and making way for the beading projects they were determined to finish well into the night (and only a 4 AM power outage could convince some to put down the beads and go to bed)!

It’s easy to ask, “why aren’t they in school?” But investments in education and enrichment must also address the social context, including economic status, access to health services, and the role of faith and family. Coming from the Bay Area, the culture of “creating the problem” – highlighting an “unknown” problem before actually solving it – is palpable. The create-the-problem approach might work for a laundry app (though having to do your laundry is not a problem, it’s a basic chore! The three million Ghanaians who lack access to safe water – now that’s a problem).

Women in GhanaIn all our conversations with Nneka’s stakeholders, it was clear that poverty was the root of the obstacles that prevented kids from staying in school. A district director of education whom we met remarked, “Some parents will say, ‘we can’t send our child to school because we’re poor.’ Poverty has become a state of mind, and it shouldn’t be.” As communicators, the essence of our work is capturing hearts and changing minds, and meeting audiences where they are to achieve that. Nneka’s quest to ensure every child in school remains in school is a laudable one. But we soon realized Nneka needed a narrative to communicate how they’re empowering entire communities through lifelong learning, not just basic education. Much of Nneka’s work happens outside the classroom so they can more effectively reach kids who dropped out of school, tackle issues they face, and support them toward reengagement in school and life opportunities. We’ve already held a presentation for our client on the new narrative, in preparation for a conference in Nairobi next week. It’s rewarding to see our work implemented so quickly, in startup environment fashion!

These two weeks have reaffirmed that there is absolutely no substitute for interacting with the people you’re serving. There’s so much to be learned from emerging nations like Ghana, for healthcare delivery and communications – building empathy, doing more with less, getting to the root of the most pressing social challenges.

This post is part of a series about WE’s first Global Pro Bono Experience. For the first blog, by Hugh Adams, please click here. Stay tuned for next week's blog.


To connect with the author, Stephanie Miceli, on Twitter, please click here.