Monday, July 17, 2006

Water in Kitoe: Bring on the cutlasses matey!

It’s Monday at the office – but not just ANY Monday – but the special ‘first Monday of the month’. That’s when the reports are due from the field staff, so our office is teeming with life – at least 10 people! Dusty to-do lists that I’ve made weeks before have sprung to life now that for once, there are people to help me with my plans, or answer my questions. However, as Gonja culture decrees, we have to greet first.

So we are are all sitting on the wooden bench outside my office, greeting everybody who comes in; Gonja for the old school field staff who’ve been here many years, Hausa for the Upper West and Upper East region field staff, Dagbani for the Tamale people, and English for some. Different languages, different but equally musical greetings. How are you? How is your health? Your children? Your wife? Your farm?

While we’re greeting, some strangers arrive on a motorbike – ‘small boys’ (so here, that means under 25) who have Konkomba tribal marks on their faces. They get off their motorbike and ask to see Mr. Issah, the boss. Clearly they don’t know who Mr. Issah is, and have been recommended by someone, and they look angry… So Mr. Issah, who is sitting right alongside us and greeting decides to take them aside and have a discussion.
“No! We want to talk here!” The discussion pursues, in English (Mr. Issah doesn’t speak Konkomba, and the boys don’t speak Hausa or Gonja..).
Rapid fire you hear the words thrown out; “…… Spoiling our drinking water! Who do they think they are?! Last time they were here……”, “…… It’s the only water we have – and they who have pipe water in the cities……”, “……It’s the only water we have! Have they concern? No decency? They didn’t ask permission……”. Wow, its getting heated. I’m trying to discern what exactly is going on.

Eventually, the boys leave. My friend Thomas, the veterinary officer, tells me the story. They are from Kitoe village. Kitoe has a “dam”, which is like a large shallow lake, which is the source of their drinking water. Kitoe also has boreholes, but for the surrounding villages that have no source of drinking water, they have to ask the Kitoe people to let them use the dam. The ministry of fisheries has decided to trawl for fish in the dam: they will then sell the fish and relay most of the profits back to the community. Its also a ‘routine maintenance’ of the dam, as if there are too many fish, the water begins to smell. What is the fuss about?

We don’t know, but after a few calls from the fisheries people, and the district assembly (like the regional government office), we decide to go and check out the situation. By “we” I mean the Director, Mr. Issah, Mr. Abdulai the secretary – who also is one of the only people in the office fluent in Konkomba, and Mr. Sahmed the driver. Me – eager to get to the field anyhow, especially Kitoe which is not exactly a nice bicycle ride – insisted on going along. Rather reluctantly they asked me to climb in. Off we went in our ubiquitous “white pickup truck” that all NGOs and government offices own.

We arrive at the Kitoe dam. The fisheries people are untangling their net and preparing their wooden boats. [Here I noted – wooden boats, so its not like they will pollute the water with fuel]. Some ladies were about 100 metres away, drawing water in large metal pots for drinking, cooking, bathing. The usual. Nothing seemed extraordinary. Then – the sound of clashing metal and shouting: from around the corner, across the dam, came a large group of ‘small boys’, shouting, and running – holding ‘cutlasses’. Here farming is done mainly with two implements – the ‘hoe’ and the ‘cutlass’. The hoe is a regular (if not slightly larger) garden hoe. The cutlass is a really long knife. Its not ultra sharp, but they use it hack away weeds and cut branches. Sort of an all purpose machete type thing. Anyway, here were these cutlass wielding boys, shouting and advancing towards us. At their front, a particularly angry looking boy wearing a red shirt, shouting in Konkomba.

Suddenly we are in their midst. Its all too fast to really make sense, everybody around me is shouting and Mr. Sahmed is fighting with some boys and Mr. Abdulai is rapidly arguing and Director (who doesn’t know really any local languages) is saying “Eh! Tell me what they’re saying! Eh!”. I quickly gather the gist of the situation: Last year, some Mossi and Hausa tribesman, fisherman, came to fish in the Kitoe dam. They trawled the bottom and stirred up all the mud and gunk etc., and highly polluted the water. They also used motorboats. This year, while the fisheries people will not be doing that, the Kitoe villagers feared that it may happen again. Apparently (according to the fisheries guys) permission was asked from the Kitoe chief and elders, but no villagers had been informed of anything. (Major oops? Yes!)

Somebody is threatening Mr. Sahmed with a cutlass and the boy in red has not even bothered with us, going straight to the fisherman and attempting to remove their net from them and prevent their boat from entering the water. Meanwhile, I’ve decided to at least TRY to undo the mess that these fisheries people have made; I’ve sat some people down and explained the difference between the fishing today and the Hausa fisherman last year. Its working, slowly – but its too slow for today. The atmosphere is thick and the boys are angry. They’ve decided to come for a fight and it’s a fight they want. Most of them are 16 – 19, finished school but jobless and unable to afford university. They hang around the villages, or Salaga sometimes; ripe with anticipation for something – anything – to happen so that they can put their motivation and need to do something (anything) to use. These are the youth of East Gonja, frustrated, motivated, but with no outlets. I see this quickly, because I remember being one of them. A crusader for every cause. I even remember when I used to think that vandalism and violence were a justifiable answer to certain ‘evils’. (Plans to put bricks through McDonalds windows; to spraypaint the GAP and the Hummer dealership – they never took to fruition, but these are the things we furiously scribbled in our notebooks in the high school cafeteria). I saw in these boys, my friends and I – our generation. Motivated but with no outlet for action.

Finally, everything gets too heated. The fisheries people pack up – having been unable to complete any fishing – and we pack up and leave. I begin to explain to Director and Mr. Issah about community participation. About how the community means involving everyone; how even if its not ‘local culture’ to ask permission, even if they’ve done the ‘appropriate’ by consulting the chief and the elders, they HAVE TO make things like this clear to the regular people. If only to avoid conflicts like this. They’re not listening however; they’re disgusted at the cheek of the small boys. How dare they? Who are they to even say anything? They just want to fight, they’re just stupid. Clearly they don’t know anything. I try to argue, but realise they won’t hear it from me. Back in the office, Thomas echoes my thoughts to Director – really, when they undertake community level initiatives – even simple ones, they have to consult the whole community. Or at least inform them… Nope. Nobody is listening.

That is a problem here – the ministry of fisheries, MoFA – they are government bodies. They are not ‘development organizations’ or NGOs. They have not read reports and documents on participatory development, or community involvement, or anything. They just do agriculture, fisheries, whatever. What they don’t realise is that they too are doing “development work” and if they don’t take these approaches.. nothing will work. But then these ‘development organizations’, the NGOs – they don’t have the reach or resources of the government bodies. And they are impermanent – their work depends on funding, or donors, or what the donors want. Ultimately, to promote sustainability, we want the government to incorporate these practices. The lack of communication between these groups is appalling! Maybe (I hope) the food security network I’m trying to initiate will help address some of these concerns…?

Just when I think the random comments have finished, somebody mentions the obvious (to them anyway – I am as of yet unaware..) – “Oh – they are just Konkombas! That is what Konkombas DO! Why are we bothering?”. Okay… what?

To be continued……

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