VOTO, Part 1

Hey everyone!

In this entry, I’ll talk about the venture I spent the summer working for: VOTO Mobile. Just what is VOTO, you ask? Well, taken directly from the website:

VOTO amplifies the voice of the under-heard. Our mobile phone notification and survey platform removes the barriers to insightful mobile communication between citizens worldwide and the organizations that serve them.

VOTO is a social enterprise that started as one of EWB’s ventures in 2013, and although it has since graduated from EWB’s venture pathway, it remains closely associated with EWB. It started from a conversation that the two founders, both EWB alumni, had about the difficulties of practicing data-driven decision making in international development with no data. After some months of field research, they hired their first development team member to develop the software for the platform, and set up headquarters in Kumasi, Ghana.

VOTO functions as a platform-as-a-service company, and offers end-to-end consultancy services from survey design to report writing based on the results. Organizations that want to reach people who might be difficult to contact in person or otherwise can use the platform to send them surveys or messages over cellular phones. Clients range from NGOs, to governments, to businesses.

My role

So where do I fit into this? I’m glad that you asked I posed this rhetorical question. My placement had me serving as an intern in VOTO’s operations team. Specifically, I was responsible for writing release notes that keep clients updated about the new features of VOTO’s platform. Every two weeks, the technical team releases a set of updates to the platform, and the release notes assist clients in making the most of them so that they can have the greatest possible impact on their clients.

This task involved working closely with the technical and support teams to best understand the new features, and then communicate them in a way that would be of the greatest possible use to clients. VOTO is a strongly client-focused organization, and writing these documents required me to think about what information and presentation style added the most value for users every step of the way.

I also assisted members of the operations team in running preliminary analysis of survey data on some projects, and creating graphs based on the results.

Work and Life in the VOTO House

VOTO’s headquarters also serves as home for many of its team members, myself included this summer. During my time at the house, I was very lucky to get to know some of VOTO’s amazing team members. The one thing that all of VOTO’s team members have in common more than anything else is without a doubt their passion for the work that VOTO is doing, and the mission that it serves. Coupled with clients in time zones around the world, this can lead to long work hours, and its not uncommon to find people working at all hours.

With that being said, we tried to make time for fun and relaxation as well. I would play badminton most afternoons with the tech team interns and the other Junior Fellow, and occasionally the team would go out to dinner to celebrate major milestones. When there were birthdays among the team, we would buy a cake from a grocery store in town, and sing Happy Birthday, and celebrate. Movies were another popular social activity, and we would gather at nights to watch films like The Intern, The Jungle Book (2016), and The Lion King, as well as TV shows like Scorpio.

Another pillar of life in the house was our housekeeper’s amazing cooking. Every weekday, she would prepare lunch for the team. I was very grateful for the delicious food and large portions, as otherwise I was limited by time/competency constraints to making myself cereal for breakfast and ramen for dinner. Some of my favourite foods were red red, a dish consisting of a bean stew served over rice alongside fried plantains, and jollof rice. Jollof rice is a savoury dish of rice and diced vegetables, typically served with fried fish or chicken; it is popular in a number of West African countries, and it is a matter of ongoing rivalry about which country’s variation on Jollof rice is superior. While I’ve only tasted Ghanaian jollof, so I can’t weigh in on the relative merits of each country’s style, I will say that Ghanaian jollof is fantastic. Red red gets its name because the bean stew is red, as are the plantains, due to the palm oil they are fried in. I bought a Ghanaian cookbook, so I’ll try and make these some time soon!

For now, I’ve made myself hungry, so I gotta go snag some breakfast.

Cheers,

Alex

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Akwaaba

Akwaaba means “welcome” in Twi, one of Ghana’s most commonly spoken languages, and I thought it would be a fitting title for a blog entry that deals with my first days in Ghana.

We landed at Kotoka International Airport in Accra at roughly 8 pm on May 17th, after roughly 30 hours of travel that took us through Zurich and Istanbul. It was a relief to finally be there, but we were also absolutely dog-tired. After about a half hour to rest in our room at the hostel we went out to get pizza at a restaurant close by, accompanied by our coach, an EWB staff member working in Ghana.

Pizza seem a bit surprising? Yeah, it was for me too. In hindsight, though, maybe it shouldn’t have been—Accra is a city of over 2.2 million, home to people from all over Ghana, Africa, and the world. The world becomes more connected, and more complex, with each passing moment.

The next day, we went to Kaneshie market, the second largest outdoor market in Accra, to (attempt to) buy some ingredients for lunch, after being tasked to do so by our coach.

We were actually fairly successful in getting what we needed. The stall owners were friendly and helpful, and we were even able to fulfill some of the extra challenges our coach issued, including learning various Ghanaian dance moves—I had to demonstrate the moves we learned, to the uproarious laughter of everyone in the market, myself included.

Our task was made easier by what, in my observation, appears to be that Ghanaian society generally primes people to be more open to conversation and helpful in interaction with strangers than Canadian society. People you don’t know will call out to you as you walk to start a conversation, whereas in Canada, even close friends might only receive a head nod as you pass them in the hallway.

Obroni

At the same time, I also attracted attention because of my white skin. In addition to simply standing out, the colonial history of Ghana and continuing neo-colonial influences unjustly and undeservedly marked me as somehow more deserving of attention because of my skin color.

“Obroni” is the Twi word for “foreigner” (typically referring to non-black foreigners), and it was the name I would be greeted or called with very often over the summer. It carries with it some implicit assumptions of wealth or influence. Over time, I got used to hearing and answering to it, but on an underlying level I still felt some discomfort over being marked as the “other”, even if (and perhaps in some way because) it was an otherness that carried ostensibly positive implications.

Taxis

There are a number of salient differences between the taxi experience in Ghana vs Canada. The first difference is a consequence of the fact that (with some exceptions for major thoroughfares) many roads are either unnamed, or that the names aren’t well known. Rather than specifying a street address for a destination, you typically ask the driver if they are familiar with the vicinity of your destination and how to get to the area. It is then often your responsibility to guide them to your specific destination (again, excepting major landmarks). This can be difficult if you are not familiar with the area yourself, but most people in a given area are happy to point you in the right direction.

Making sure that your driver is familiar with the area before entering their cab is important, as we learned when we went to get our foreigner identification cards at a government registry office in Accra. We took two taxis, and while my group arrived at the office as scheduled, the other half of the party was nowhere to be found. We hadn’t gotten Ghanaian SIM cards for our phones yet, so we couldn’t contact them either. After a worry-filled half-hour, and numerous reassurances from my coach, they finally arrived; their driver had gotten lost, and they had to stop a couple times to ask for directions.

Once matters of navigation have been settled, the time comes to negotiate a price for the trip. As there is no regulated metering system, you have to haggle for a reasonable fare. As a white person, the first price (a.k.a. the “obroni price”) I was offered for almost any taxi trip was 2 to 3 times what I had been informed was reasonable for said trip. For example, a reasonable price for a ride from VOTO’s Accra office to where I would stay when I visited Accra was 12 cedis (roughly $4 CAD). On some occasions, I was offered prices of up to 40 cedis. For comparison, the VIP Bus ticket from Accra to Kumasi (a ~250km trip) also costs 40 cedis, and VIP is both the name of the company, and an accurate description of the buses, which are considerably comfier than any bus I’ve ridden in Canada (more on these later). As the summer progressed, I would mention this fact in my negotiations, with some success, e.g., “Ey, boss, you’re giving me the obroni price! I could get halfway to Kumasi for that much.” With that being said, I understand the incentive to try and get a higher fare, and drivers were uniformly civil about whatever fare we ended up agreeing on.

Lessons

One afternoon in our first week, our coach took us to meet with a friend and mentor of hers, who taught us basic phrases in Twi, as well as basic aspects of the Ashanti culture, both topics that I will touch on in greater detail later, but for the time, there was one aspect that I found particularly salient to everyday life.

In many cultures around the globe, including Western and Ashanti cultures, the left hand has traditionally been associated with unclean, unhygienic, or otherwise malign aspects. Fun fact: the word ‘sinister’ comes from a Latin root that originally means ‘left-handed’. In fact, using the left hand for anything involving food, or social interactions (eating, waving, passing objects or money), is considered disrespectful in Ashanti culture.

This was a problem for me because, unlike Inigo Montoya and the Man in Black in The Princess Bride, I am indeed left-handed. People were pretty forgiving about it, given that I was a foreigner. If I screwed up and used my left hand to pass a bill to a market vendor, I could either switch the money to my right hand last-second, or mumble a “Sorryforleft”, flush with embarrassment, and make my exit as soon as possible, for example.

I feel I should also clarify at this time that my colleagues at VOTO were all aware that I was left-handed, and were completely understanding, although I still tried to keep my left-hand-use to a minimum out of respect.

It was kind of rough having to suppress this part of my personality, though. It may seem a bit weird, and maybe it’s only an Alex thing, but I feel like a lot of lefties take a certain small pride in being left-handed, and all its associated traits. What’s more, is that this habit of suppression came back with me from Ghana. As recently as late September, I’ve caught myself passing someone something with my left hand, yanked it back out of their reach to put it in my right hand, and then stared kind of stupidly at both my hands for a) still doing this to myself and b) inexplicably making a fool of myself in front of unsuspecting people.

Anyways, let me know if you have any questions about anything in this post, or if you have things you want me to discuss in upcoming posts!

Cheers,

Alex

 

 

 

Beginning, again

Hey everyone,

It’s good to speak with you again. I’ve been out of touch for too long, but I’m back—back to begin the task of beginning, again.

Piñata

If this post (and every subsequent post) feels like a dizzying blur of thoughts, mixed metaphors, and emotions, think of a piñata full to bursting. We have waited long enough for candy: let the flogging commence. In all seriousness (and less comic morbidity), finding the right tone has been a challenge this whole summer. I want to be funny in my writing, to share laughter, and to showcase everything that is wonderful, fun and exciting about Ghana, but I’m also cognizant of the fact that there is much to discuss that is serious and somber, with all the weight of consideration that it requires.

Further complicating matters is that the good and the bad are both ever-present. In some moments, in some places, one outweighs the other, but both persist. To only focus on either good or bad is to oversimplify, but so would it be to insist both exist in equal measure, and somehow less useful still to attempt some kind of overall net assessment, e.g. (“4 good and 3 bad makes 1 good”).

Point of view

Even the words “good” and “bad” are oversimplifications, borne out of the fact that I’m a) speaking in the broadest sense possible b) speaking from my own limited perspective, shaped by my cultural, political, racial and social background, and the accompanying privilege, as a white, western person, foreign to the country that I’ve been so lucky to live in during these past three months.

I said in my first post that I would do my best to showcase and reflect all the unique perspectives and thoughts I have heard during my placement. I would like to, but I fear that statement came somewhat out of naiveté. In a continent of over a billion people, a country of 27 million, a city of 2 million, even in a venture of 50 colleagues, there are too many people, too many lives so full of rich experience for me to represent accurately and completely. I uphold my promise to relate what I experience to you, as accurately as I am capable, but to describe it completely exceeds the boundaries of my ability.

The only story I have to tell is my own, but I’ve come to realize over the years that the most interesting parts of stories happen when they intersect with other stories, when the characters of each interact, when each learns from and changes because of the other. Those are the moments that stick with me, and those are the moments I hope to share.

I’ve learned a lot, grown a lot, during my time here in Ghana. My biggest worry at this point is that I haven’t done the best job at fulfilling my promise of sharing my learning with you, but I hope to remedy that now—here’s to failing forward.

Yours faithfully,

Alex

–Very nifty post-credits scene–

long_story
long_story.jpg

*record scratch; freeze frame* Yep, that’s me. You may be wondering how I got h—*loud clang as author is hit with frying pan and reprimanded for tired and unfunny narrative meme*

–End of very nifty post-credits scene–

 

On Foundations and Chapters

In my last blog post, written in the airport, I talked about beginnings and stories, and I promised I would go into deeper detail regarding the week that preceded my departure. It’s time that I provided the context for my in media res introduction, and that this blog began in earnest.

Google will tell you that the word “foundation” means, among other things, “an underlying basis or principle” with synonyms like base, point of departure, and beginning. Perhaps more importantly, it also means cornerstone, core, and heart.

Heart

Pre-departure training was essential in laying a foundation for my placement, and I’m excited to share some of the highlights with you. Our very first morning, we were asked two questions: “Why are you here?” and “What inspires you?”

In a fundamental sense, the answer to both questions is, “People”. I am here serving with VOTO because I believe in human potential, and I share in Engineers Without Borders Canada’s belief that poverty is caused by broken systems that limit the potential of people living within them. I am here because I believe in VOTO Mobile’s mission to amplify the voices of under-heard people to promote their agency to participate in decisions that affect their lives. I am here because no matter where you go in the world, everyone has hopes and fears, dreams for the future, friends and family; we all laugh in happiness and cry when sad, and I hope to offer my full effort in service to play a part in creating a world where everyone has the opportunity to live the life they want for themselves. It is this possibility that inspires me, too.

Coming at it the other way, I am here because of the people who inspire me. I am here because of family, friends and mentors who share the ups and downs of life with me, who believe in me (even when I don’t) and push me to be better. I am here because of the members of the EWB Western chapter, who dream big and work hard, who aren’t afraid to ask tough questions and address root causes, and who invest in people so deeply. I hope that through this blog I can provide tangible context for the amazing work that EWB and the Western chapter do, and that I can share what I learn over the course of my placement with you all, who have given me so much. I cannot thank you enough, and I couldn’t ask for a better foundation.

Cornerstone

Beyond those questions, there was still a lot to learn during pre-departure training, and I’ll share some of the highlights here. If you’re interested in hearing more, feel free to contact me.

Shortly after, we played a game called Sockball, in which one person was blindfolded, and attempted to throw a sock through the arms of another person, while the rest of the team watched. In the first round of the game, the hoop-person could move to “catch” the sock, but none of the observers could say anything to guide the thrower. In the second round, the hoop couldn’t move, but the observers could cheer or boo to indicate “getting warmer” or “getting colder” for each throw. In the final round, the hoop was still stationary, but the observers could given full spoken instruction to the thrower. Each team had the best results in the speaking final round, followed by the silent first round where the hoop was free to move. The worst round for every team, was the second round, where we were restricted to either cheering or booing. When we could communicate fully, the sock-thrower could make precise adjustments to their aim, but when we could only cheer or boo, it was hard for them to interpret our meaning. This led to the throwers overcompensating and missing more often that not. To me, this exercise was an important demonstration of the dangers inherent in partial or unclear communication.

We also had a session on gender and development, where we learned about how gender-neutral is actually gender-blind, especially in decision making in the development sector. One case we learned about was an instance in which an agricultural project was implemented to make plowing fields easier for farmers. What the project organizers failed to account for was that plowing was traditionally a male-dominated task in that community, whereas sowing the seeds afterwards was more typically performed by women. By making it easier to plow more land, the project team inadvertently increased the amount of land the women had to sow seeds on, making their work more difficult. We were introduced to a framework for analyzing barriers that keep women in poverty, which consists of two axes: one ranges from individual to systemic factors, and the other goes from informal to formal factors.

barriers keeping women in poverty

There was another very interesting session run by a group called Spoke’N’Heard, where we were introduced to the concept of deep listening, which is explained really well in this video here (the video is only 3 minutes long, but if you don’t want to watch the whole thing, watching until the 1:10 mark gives a pretty good summary).

This concept is something that has really stuck with me, and I think it has implications for both interpersonal and development spheres. With regards to the interpersonal aspect of things, I know from my own experience that it can be very tempting to go right to asking questions or offering advice when someone is sharing something that is upsetting them, or that they are having difficulty with. It can be difficult to sit quietly and listen, and provide an outlet for them to speak freely, even more so when that person is someone you care about so deeply you feel you can’t sit and wait while they are hurting. In a broader societal sense, this is also an important method to create understanding between people whose experiences and outlooks on life may differ substantially from one another. In the development sphere, too, a project can only truly be successful if it first and foremost listens to and respects the desires of the people it is intended to serve. The project organizers must put away pre-conceived notions of what they think is “best” and work together with the community in which they operate.

Le Playground ran a session on how to coach a person to foster their personal development, and it’s best explained in person, or maybe through video chat, but I’d love to bring it back to the chapter. In the meantime, I’ll share a video that they showed during the session. This one is a bit longer (7:35), but it’s worth a watch if you have some spare time. If you’ve attended one of Le Playground’s sessions at an EWB conference, you may have seen part of it.

Another very important concept we learned was the difference between helping, and serving. You may have noticed that I’ve tried to use the term “serve” instead of “help” where possible. Let me explain.

“Helping” implies that the person receiving assistance is weaker than you, cannot handle the situation they are faced with on their own, and requires your support and/or direction. “Serving”, however, means that the other person is equal to you, and that you are offering your abilities to further their goal.

One more thing that really left an impression on me was the Q and A session we had in the EWB House. The 21 JFs, as well as staff from National Office—including the CEO—all sat on the floor of the house while we ate dinner, and we had a chance to ask about advice on our placements and questions about EWB and development in general. The openness and candor was really invigorating, and it felt like a microcosm of the whole week’s experience.

There were a lot of other sessions, whose contents will likely come up in some future blog posts—although I’m happy to send a list of topics and discuss them with anyone who’s interested in hearing more!

Lastly, I would be remiss to end my post on pre-departure training without thanking my wonderful fellow JFs for being so brilliant, supportive and friendly, and challenging me to question my thinking and adopt new perspectives, as well as the amazing staff at National Office who work so hard behind the scenes to make our placements realities. You inspire me so much, and my foundation for this placement is that much stronger for knowing you. It’s been a pleasure getting to know you all!

I figured I’d end this post with a quote, too, and perhaps make a trend of it for the summer. The rest might be more sophisticated, or insightful, but this one’s going to be real sappy, just to warn you.

What do you mean, “going to be real sappy”?

What do you mean, “What do you mean, “going to be real sappy”?“? You do know whose blog you’re reading, right? I try to hold it back most of the time, but, goodness gracious, friend, come on

That being said, I can’t think of any that would be better for an entry dealing with learning, friendship, and departures (even if a certain blog author—who will remain nameless—published it several weeks after said departure).

Anyways (and thank you for tolerating my attempt at jocularity, just now),

“If ever there is tomorrow when we’re not together… there is something you must always remember. You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. But the most important thing is, even if we’re apart… I’ll always be with you.”

-from Winnie the Pooh, by A.A. Milne

Thank you for your support, friendship, and patience.

Yours constantly,

Alex

On Beginnings and Stories

Hey everyone!

As part of Engineers Without Borders Canada’s Junior Fellow program, I am incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to travel to Ghana to work with an amazing company called VOTO Mobile this summer. I’m excited to share more about my experiences with EWB, VOTO, and in Ghana in general with you!

I hope to share what I’ve learned, what made me laugh, what challenged me to grow and change, my bad puns, and the complexities involved in development. To be clear, this is one story—namely, mine—but I will do my best to honor and to share the stories of all the people I meet. Africa is a vast continent of over one billion people, with just as many or more stories, perspectives, and experiences. I cannot provide the answer to the question, “What’s Africa like?” because I am only one person, working with one social enterprise, in one city, in one country. With that said, I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to take part in one particular story, to share it with you, and to answer any questions I can. I hope through sharing this, that you can learn, laugh and grow along with me.

Perspectives

view of the 6ix.jpg

Right now, I’m sitting in the airport, waiting to board the first of three flights that will take me to Accra, Ghana’s capital city. After a week of pre-departure training (more on that later; I can’t quite do it justice in the time before I board), I’m excited, but also pretty nervous. Suffice it to say, this week has been one of tremendous learning and growth. In a way, getting mentally prepared for my placement has been a lot like packing my suitcase—equipping myself with the essentials, and emptying my head of what is familiar and easy, so that I have room to bring back that which I learn.

Time is running short, so I’ll leave you with this:

“The journey of discovery lies not in seeing new places, but in having new eyes.”

-Marcel Proust

I hope this post finds you in good cheer and good health!

Yours sincerely,
Alex