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Field of Dreams

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ALONGSIDE THE ROWS OF WATERMELON PLANTS AND THE CASHEW TREES, HOPE GROWS IN GHANA


Deborah at her home in Ghana.
Deborah at her home in Ghana.

I’M A HORTICULTURIST’S DAUGHTER. I can smell the difference between hydrangeas and lilacs blindfolded (lilacs are more lush and heady), and I can taste-test my way through an Okanagan, B.C., orchard and come back with a bucket full of fruit. Born and raised in Calgary, Alta., digging in dirt, planting seeds and bulbs, and growing tomatoes, sweet peas, chives, tulips and radishes were a huge part of my childhood—I have the green thumb to prove it. It’s in the family DNA. Well, maybe not my older sister’s. She’s like Deborah, who has weeded enough rows of fruits and vegetables to last her a lifetime.

“I don’t want to be a farmer,” says Deborah, with a shake of her head. Deborah is a farmer’s daughter in rural Ghana and totally reminds me of the girls I raced through hayfields with when I was a kid accompanying my dad when he visited his favourite farmers. “No, I want to be a teacher,” she says, smiling.

Deborah and I are standing in the shade of a tall, leafy tree in the middle of her father’s watermelon field. Seemingly oblivious to the blistering hot African sun, her sisters Tina, Dorcas, Esther and Sika Lois laugh as they stand in the sunshine, passing around thick, juicy slices of the freshly cut fruit, while her four-year-old brother, Kwasi—the only boy and the baby of the family—rests on his father’s bent knee. Tall and slim, Deborah is beautiful, with big brown eyes that belie a wisdom way beyond her 14 years. But her voice is quiet and youthful and resonates with hope as she talks about her future.

“I want to make sure that every child in Ghana has the opportunity to learn,” she says. “I’ll be 20 years old when I get my teacher’s degree—it takes three years. But I will study hard to pass my exams, because my dad is working so hard to grow crops and he will pay for
my schooling with the money from the harvests.”

James at his farm with watermelons he’s sliced up.
James at his farm with watermelons he’s sliced up.

Like most parents in their West African village, Deborah’s father, James,and her mother, Monica, take an active role helping shape their children’s futures. James has even picked out the careers and job titles for each one, and all five of the girls and Kwasi not only agree with his decision, they like it. This kind of parental involvement is the rule in Ghana, but James is also an anomaly. A successful watermelon, corn, cashew, yam, tomato and garden egg (a small, round, lightweight, pale green version of the eggplant) farmer, James—who’s only 44 years old—can actually afford to send his six children to school, now and tomorrow.

“Five years ago, World Vision came to our district and selected me to enhance my farming skills and products,” explains James. “Now, I can feed my children three meals a day, buy their school supplies, provide medical insurance and care—everything!”

It’s a huge accomplishment too, considering it costs about 100 Ghana chivas, the equivalent of US$50, to feed his family of eight for two weeks—the same amount of money it takes to buy one child’s requisite four school uniforms per year. To earn the 100 chivas, James has to grow and sell approximately 60 kg (132 lb.) of garden eggs.

James holds a bucket of garden eggs.
James holds a bucket of garden eggs.

“Life is not easy,” says James. “But I don’t give up and I work hard. If you let trouble discourage you, you will die. In the Bible, Matthew says ask and it shall be given; knock and it shall open. So I find strength. I think about this a lot when I envision my future.”

Hand-picked as equally for his family’s need as he was for his tenacity, James—who owns his own land and was then only growing corn, hot peppers and yams on it—was identified as an ideal candidate to participate in the country’s Ministry of Food and Agriculture (MOFA) food security program. In the years since then, James says his take-home income has increased by 65 per cent.

“When we first started working with James, he was only farming at 20 per cent of his capacity,” says Stephen Tetteh Matey, the development facilitator for World Vision Ghana’s Kintampo South area. “Now, he’s farming at 85 per cent capacity and that will continue to grow.”

All are not chosen to expand their farms and their livelihood through the government-funded and World Vision supported program. Only those, like James, who demonstrate an aptitude for agriculture, authentic interest in their vocation, a strong work ethic and a definitive long-term plan are offered the opportunity to improve.

“Our first step is to interact with the families to see how the children are doing, physically and emotionally,” explains Kennedy Adjei Gyan, the manager of World Vision Ghana’s Kintampo South community. “Then we talk to the parents to determine what they are currently reaping from their harvests are what their farming interests are, and assess their level of technical knowledge. We identify the gaps and give them the training they need. After all, these families have to be able to stand alone tomorrow.”

Financial independence is the ultimate goal. In fact, World Vision predicts that James’ community—consisting of 2,000 farmers and 3,000 children—will be financially stable by 2021. And James wants to be a part of the community’s success. “In five more years I want to farm more land and add mangoes, oranges and cabbage to my list,” he says. It’s entirely realistic too.

Along with the educational knowhow,he and the other local farmers engaged in the MOFA program are encouraged to collaborate with and to support each other. Ghana’s red soil is rich and fertile; they are taught how to manipulate the land to grow a variety of produce so that everyone isn’t trying to sell just tomatoes or only watermelons at the local markets. And they are provided with the savvy to access bank loans as a group.

“We try to cut out the middle man, so that the farmers can sell their goods and make the money directly for themselves,” says Matey. “People in Ghana need help, because too many are living below the poverty line.”

From left: Dorcas, Monica, Sika Lois, James Kwasi, Tina, Deborah, Esther.
Deborah's family (from left): Dorcas, Monica, Sika Lois, James Kwasi, Tina, Deborah, Esther.

Seven years ago, James’ family was one of them and Deborah remembers as if it were yesterday.

She and three of her sisters, Tina, now 22; Dorcas, now 18; and Esther, now 11; and her parents lived in a small one room cement row house in the village’s poorest neighbourhood. There was no electricity. The bathroom was a hole in the ground and served multiple families. And a blackened log lying 12 steps from their front porch in a sooty circle served as the communal kitchen.

“We would wait for my father to come home from the farm,” says Deborah. “Sometimes he put yams on the fire to eat. But if he didn’t, we would be hungry. And if it started raining and we were cooking, we couldn’t eat because our kitchen was outside.”

Living in these cramped quarters also guaranteed there was no privacy, either at home or from the neighbours. Late at night, loud music would blare throughout the compound, scaring Deborah and her sisters and robbing them of their sleep. For eight years the girls went to school exhausted. Deborah felt humiliated, too. “I couldn’t finish my homework because we had no electricity, so the teacher would beat me,” she says, bowing her head. “And the other kids would insult me because I didn’t have a uniform to wear and they thought I was stupid. I didn’t have any friends. The other girls’ mothers and fathers would give them money for food and they never shared with me.”

Low self-esteem and depression crept in, wrapping around Deborah’s shoulders like a shawl she says she felt as though she could never shake off. Her energy plummeted. She stopped playing ampe, her favourite jumping and clapping game with her sisters. And she even became too lethargic swat mosquitos away, which could be why she has been sick with malaria.

“I never felt well,” says Deborah. “I cried a lot because I was so hungry. And my heart would beat fast and I felt so much pity for my parents. I was so sorry we were in this condition and I couldn’t fix it. I felt like it was my fault. But my dad kept saying that we would move one day.”

They did—seven years ago, into a sprawling, salmon-pink, one-level cement house that took James nine years to build bit by bit. Windows with pretty dusty blue wooden shutters frame each of the four bedrooms and the family room. A sheltered kitchen resides at the back of the house beside the concrete patio where fresh, clean laundry hangs on a clothesline. Mere steps away is the family’s bathroom, complete with a door and privacy walls. Back out front, a grove of tall trees nestle the right-hand side of the house, while the wide and expansive front yard is dotted with a few more trees, a massive tractor, James’ motorcycle, the family’s 18 goats, 17 chickens, four sheep and sleeping black-and-golden-brown dog.

Deborah pours water into a bin at her home.
Deborah pours water into a bin at her home.

“I’m 10 times happier living here,” says Deborah, a huge smile lighting her face. “At night, when we lie in our beds, I tell Dorcas all of my secrets. She can keep a secret. And Esther, she’s so funny. She always makes me laugh when she makes jokes with her clever use of word play.”

Signs of Deborah’s joy and the girls’ sisterly harmony can be spotted in every nook and cranny of the room. Clean school uniforms hang on hooks along the walls, while large, decorative storage bags containing folded T-shirts, leggings, skirts and more are neatly tucked off to the side. Deborah’s clothes bag is pink, but her favourite colour is yellow. A small table with rows of little perfume bottles, a hairbrush and a hand mirror sits at the end of Deborah’s mosquito-net-covered bed. Dorcas’ bed lies within arm’s reach. This is a girl’s room. Flooded with electricity at night, Deborah says that she and her sisters gather here to study, read, laugh and, of course, whisper about boys.

“In 10 years, I want to marry a strong man,” says Deborah, shyly, reaching for my hand. I take it and give it a warm squeeze. “We will live in a big house and I will cook with nutritious vegetables for my children. I don’t want my children to suffer from money problems and not have enough food, like I did,” she says. “And I will thank God every day to bless them, and to bless my parents and my siblings, because, now, I feel good. I want to have a very long life.”

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2013/14 issue of Childview.

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VIDEO | 3:45
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