Post-Village Stay: memories of an amazing experience

11 Oct

I just retuned this afternoon from my village stay and it is an experience I will never forget, not because of what I learnt, although I certainly learnt a lot, but because of the amazing people I met.


I stayed with Paul Asunke (on the right in the picture on the left above) and his family in Nchanchina #1, a village about 6 or 7 kilometers from Kpandai on a bumpy red dirt road.  In his compound are his wife Alia and 9 month year old son Eric, his mother, niece Abigail (on the left), and his youngest brother Reuben (standing in the back).   But that’s just in his compound.  Paul is one of 11 children and three more of his six brothers live in Nchanchina along with one of his two surviving sisters.  When we toured around meeting people, it seemed as if he was related to the entire village of 240 people.

Paul’s mother is the matriarch of the whole village and, despite her age and hunched posture, she never stopped working away at something the entire time I was there, whether it was processing gari (shredded and dried cassava), sweeping, cutting calabashes to make bowls, bathing the baby, etc, etc…  Despite her many many years of hard work, she had a warm smile and a humorous twinkle in her eye.


Paul and I are the exact same age (34), although he does not know exactly when his birthday is.  Because his parents had such a large family, they could not afford to send all of their children to school, so Paul did not start school until he was 14 when a catholic missionary began teaching some classes in the evenings (which allowed kids who were working in the fields to attend).  Paul showed good promise, so one of his uncles arranged for him to enroll in primary school in Kpandai – a one hour walk each way.

Paul had just entered Junior High School when the conflict between the Gonja and Nawuri tribes began in 1991 and his family had to flee in the bush.  A couple of years later they were able to return to their village and Paul resumed his schooling in 1993 (the same year I graduated from high school and headed to University).

From 1993 to 2000, Paul managed go to school most years and make it into high school in 2000, but his father was getting old and they needed to build a new home, so he deferred his education and stayed home to help the family  (the sheets of tin for the roof of their home cost almost exactly the same as high school fees and he could only afford one or the other).

Above is a clip showing Paul’s family compound.


Paul’s father died in 2003 and he decided to go back to school the next year and managed to complete high school in 2006, but they lost the mark for his final English exam (I’m a bit fuzzy on the details), so he did not receive final credit.  At that point, he decided he needed to work on the farm a bit and save up enough money before going back to school.  He hasn’t made it back yet, but he plans to and he eventually wants to be a teacher or an agric officer.

Above on the left is the slab where Paul’s father is buried in the family compound.  His grandfather,  great grandfather and as many generations as anyone can remember were all from Nchanchina.  On the right are clay pots that are made when twins were born into the family, which is some sort of local ritual that I believe generations ago replaced a much less innocuous West African local tradition relating to twins….  Anyway, nine pots in Paul’s compound represent 3 sets of twins and perhaps 1 set of triplets (?) who were born into the family over who knows how many generations (Paul only knew directly of one of the sets of twins).


So what is life in Ncanchina like?  Well everyone is a farmer.  Paul has 5 acres of yams and cassava, which puts him him exactly on the average for a farmer in Northern Ghana.  There is no electricity in the town.  The cell coverage is spotty.  Until 2004 when the bore hole on the left above was built, the women in the community used to have to walk 5 miles to the Oti river everyday when they could not collect rainwater (all dry season).  With the help of Unicef over the past couple of years,  most families have squat toilets like the one on the right above.


While I was there, I had the opportunity to try out many of the Livelihood activities that Paul and his family engage in.  On the left above, I am frying gari that the family will eat in dry season or sell in the market.  On the right, I am helping Reuben to weave a matt out of strips from a palm tree that they will sell in the market.  It takes about 3 partial days (after returning from a morning working on the farm) to make and they will sell it for 3 GHC (~$2.50).


In the picture on the left are Reuben (beside me) and two of his cousins.  Behind us is the field that we had cleared that day.  It was perhaps the hardest day of work I’ve ever done and I have the blisters to prove it.  I guess technically it was a half day, as we started at 7am and finished at noon.  After enjoying the best shower I have ever had in the open air bathing area at Paul’s house, I rested on a matt under a mango tree for the afternoon.  From now on I will pause before judging the men I see resting under a tree in the afternoon while their women work away, as quite probably they spent the morning on the farm and are resting before perhaps even going back again in the late afternoon (as Reuben did that day while I continued to rest).

Above is a clip of me showing off my farming skills.


Both Paul and Reuben are leaders in their village and, despite the many demands of their farms and household, they volunteer considerable amounts of their time to help their community.  Paul keeps records for the town, is the secretary for the gari processing group, and is the point contact for many NGO and government projects like malaria control, water/sanitation, etc…  As the catholic church in the village does not have a priest, Reuben volunteers as prayer leader.  He also teaches the small village children during the week to help prepare them for school in Kpandai (picture on the left above).

Above is a video clip of me teaching an impromptu music lesson to Reuben’s students.

As I have experienced elsewhere, most children in town where very excited to see me, but the really small children are generally scared of Obruni (white people).  This included Paul’s son Eric, who spent most of the week trying to figure out what to make of me.  This picture of him bathing in a calabash shell was at the very end of my stay.  I think I’m starting to win him over and luckily Nchanchina is close to Kpandai, so I will be able to visit him several more times before I leave so I can finish winning him over. 🙂

Life is not easy for the Asunke family, but they all had smiles on their faces for pretty much the entire time I was there.  Based strictly on their financial situation, they are very near to the poorest people I have ever met, but if you also consider the strength of their family and their community, they are certainly amongst the wealthiest.

2 Responses to “Post-Village Stay: memories of an amazing experience”

  1. Cat October 16, 2010 at 10:48 pm #

    A wonderful account of real life, Mark. Thanks especially for the pictures of people carrying their kids. This is my favourite post so far. Big hugs from England.

  2. Mark Sewell October 19, 2010 at 1:55 am #

    Sophie sat on my knee to watch Uncle Mark in this vid. She loved it!

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