Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Working with few in a community of two thousand people: some practical lessons

By Reuben Garang, 2nd year MDP student

I had ten weeks of field placement in Ghana. One was spent in Accra and another week settling in before the actual work began in Kperisi, which is a small rural community of two thousand people located about ten miles away from Wa in the Upper West Region of Ghana.

Cattle drinking from reservoir
My experiences in Kperisi were highly rewarding, and gave me insights into some of the practical challenges of community organization and development. However, before going into that, let me summarize what we (two other MDP students and I) did during the field placement. In the eight week time frame, we held focus groups and conducted needs assessments where different groups within the community identified and prioritized intervention plans. The plans dealt with projects such as building a storage facility for a women’s group, rehabilitation of community's dugout ( lack of water is a big problem  in the Upper West Region in  Ghana) and Senior High School plan. Senior High School's students from this community and nearby communities study in boarding schools in Wa. The community sees this as separation of children from parents and families.  We consulted with different development agencies and government departments to gather information needed to facilitate the community development interventions. Finally, we wrote two project proposals and together with the community built a small storage facility for a women’s group. It was incredible! We enjoyed working with the people from this community.

Still, the processes which led to the above achievements were full of surprises as well as learning opportunities. It was our initial expectation that many people would show up for community meetings and work projects. However, we soon learned that our expectations and assumptions did not match up with people’s every day realities.

The first meeting held in the community was poorly attended, although the date and time for meeting were agreed to a few days earlier. In the morning of that day, my colleagues and I arrived exactly at the time communicated by the leadership. To our surprise, we were the first people in the venue. We looked around and saw people sitting down under trees and others were moving back and forth in the village. We began to speculate on why people were not coming, but community leaders were not worried. They were optimistic that people would still come. A few minutes later we were told about a group of people who were sitting under another mango tree. They were remembering a woman who died in the past year. We also noticed people were leaving the village to go and clear lands as they were waiting for rain to sow seeds. Parents, particularly women, were busy preparing food for family members. A lot of activities were going on in the community. In the end, people still managed to come for the meeting, and we found that quite remarkable.

The reality is that people in the community have their own lives besides planned communal goals (meetings in this case). For this reason, people may not show up in big numbers for community meetings or work projects. They have other priorities in life. You may see people sitting under trees while a community meeting is going on but that does not mean they are free. Some might be resting after work or are mentality and/or emotionally engaged with other matters. From this insight, I learned that I have the opportunity to acknowledge the numerous issues and challenges facing the community only when my mind is free from trying to blame people for not participating in community affairs. I learned to work with the few people who attend, and take steps to bring new faces to subsequent meetings. I learned it is easy for those who come to the meetings to disseminate information in the community. People will come and go and share the information at the same time as they pass by people in their homes. Sometimes, as I learned, people do not attend community meetings not because they are opposed to communal plans, but because they are aware of them  and perceive them to be in the interests of all. Also they have trust in the community leaders and the decisions that they will take on behalf of their community. In case of Kperisi, most of the people in the community supported the need of the dugout rehabilitation and for the community to have a senior high school.

MDP students with community leaders in Kperisi

My time in Kperisi also taught me about development fatigue. Rural communities across Upper West Region in Ghana frequently receive students doing development work. Some people in these communities have development fatigue from working with students on projects which are rarely implemented, and Kperisi is not an exception. People see no benefits and are keen not to waste their precious time. This reality might have contributed to poor attendance in our case. Another factor might have been community politics, which can divide people and thereby pose an obstacle to participation.

Although attendance for all the meetings we held in the community was not as high as we had initially expected, numerous people participated in the building of the storage facility for the women’s group. Youth, women, school children and elders did incredible work on this particular project. These experiences and the realization that the community has a myriad of social challenges and commitments governing each and every individual's life helped me learn how resilient the people of Kperisi are and how vigilant they are in maintaining collective pride and preserving their communal values.

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