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Friday, January 12, 2007

Sweet Friday Reflections of...

It's the end of another newsweek, Saturday's paper headed to print and Monday's laid out. Ahhh.

The highlight of the week for me was visiting Miia's volunteer placement, People's Dialogue, and interviewing the legendary (in our household) Farouk, who hurtled his reputation. He is a tall, imposing figure, but his determinedness is gentle. Above all he is brilliant and bold in his insistence on doing things differently than everyone else in Ghana and most of the world, and not just for kicks. He has bought into a model that he has seen work eslewhere; he is determined to let the urban poor run their own show, with him in the background. When I met with him, he repeated time and again that the focus should be the community, not the NGO; I've tried to respect that in the story.

He is one of those people who can speak so articulately on a subject, can draw from so many sources and put it all together effortlessly. I spoke with him for two hours with him doing most of the talking (as is implied by the term interview), educating me about urban development, telling me things I'd never thought of before. While others had complained that too much focus goes into cities, he pointed out that most 'development' dollars and anti-poverty work happens in rural areas, partially in the mistaken belief that rural development will halt urban migration.

"It doesn't work," he told me, and the evidence supports this view - no matter what is done on the farms people keep moving to cities, which are where most people seem to want to live (except maybe the people who are already there and dreaming about trees and lakes). In Farouk's view development needs to happen in country and in town, and the only thing that matters in terms of measuring success is people's lives. What portion live where is irrelevant if they are all miserable everywhere.

This conversation was greatly enriched by my visit to Old Fadama, the largest slum in which People's Dialogue works. It is known locally as "Sodom and Gomorrah." Farouk argues that such insulting terms do nothing to build the pride of the people there, they just put them down and keep them there. Seeing the place, I think the term is unearned. Given the choice no one would choose to live there, but the people who had no choice have managed to turn it into home. Dirty yes, but a home with hundreds of businesses and a real sense of community, something many people with far more money lack.

The meetings were as Miia has described them. We jammed around 40 people into a shack with a tin roof and no fan in the middle of the day at the equator and listened. The facilitator would shout out "Information!" and everyone would answer "Power!" Then "Homeless!" and "But not hopeless!" Before we had arrived people had already begun the weekly process of depositing money into the micro-finance program. Volunteers collect money for savers, who keep a bankbook, identified by name and photo, tracking their dealings. A Ghanaian housing consultant was there to evaluate the work of People's Dialogue, which worked out perfectly for the story because he did nothing but ask questions. At two separate meetings two separate groups of people enumerated all the good changes the NGO (enjio). While People's Dialogue shifts the credit to the people they shift it right back, and the truth seems to be that the two work well together.

Most of the benefits mentioned had to do with the microfinance savings program, how it had put them into a situation of sharing risk and gain and thus tightened the community. Now they help each other when in need, call each other brother and sister, share what they learn in the process, and collectively negotiate with government for their rights, including housing, which has been promised starting later this year [an interview with a very open government official later in the week revealed that government is planning on handing this off to the private sector, which will charge a marginal, by most standards, price to buy, lease or rent. How the folks in Old Fadama will pay remains to be seen, but the people at People's Dialogue feel that things are on track with the relocation of these 35,000 people], drinking water, sanitation, all of which will be available in the new location, if and when it is available to them. The frustration right now is waiting, unsure whether to invest in roof repairs that may be a waste should the move come tomorrow. Despite the continued frustrations, the people in the meetings say they are walking taller, prouder and stronger since they learned how to work together for a common need, and since they gained the ear of the government, an ear which finally sees (quite a feat for an ear) them as human beings.

Alas, back at office Bossman, who says he was involved in the proccess of securing 10 mil Euros from Belgium to pay for infrastructure at the new site, raves that they are there illegally and shouldn't be rewarded. Still, he is interested in my story, tells me to write what I find, so you have to respect that.

The story, a long feature, should be the second lead in Monday's paper.

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