Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Alumni Update: Sarah Brabeck, PCV in Ghana

Here is a report from Sarah Brabeck, IPE 2005. Thanks, Sarah, for sharing your experiences with us!

In 2005, I graduated from UPS with an IPE degree was eagerly anticipating my leave to Ghana with the Peace Corps to put my class room learning to the real world test. I am embarrassed to say I immediately found myself paging through and atlas find exactly where Ghana was located and the official language spoken- french, english? English! The only thing I had really known about West Africa came from fragmented and dismally framed articles and excerpts that I approached with a challenged but limited understanding of the realities, good and bad, that surrounds African life in general. But I was interested in learning more beyond this, understanding development issues and their impact on a personal and community level and more specifically, on women, as coincidentally my senior thesis looked at how certain development policies and loan programs affected women in developing countries.

I left on the good advice many had shared with me: Have few expectations of what’s to come because those expectations will be combated and redefined daily, and remain open minded with an open heart. Also, be as resourceful, creative and innovative as humanly possible. Indeed, that advice held very true at every trying point in my service. A year after returning from my service, my biggest challenge has been defining a successful way to transfer that experience back here, where it can find a place and meaningful existence in my life and the part of the world where I belong.

I was assigned, as an environment volunteer, to a new site in the far northwest of the country with a traditional healer’s clinic, a small CBO (community based organization) that had a similar interest in managing their forests properly to protect their medical sources and other forest products that could generate income for the primarily agrarian society.

The day after I had arrived, my host agency had organized a elaborate welcome meeting with several members of the community, all eager to hear what I would bring to them and do to improve the quality of their lives. Yikes! I hadn’t come with money, or even technical knowledge about how to graft trees or raise rabbits. I had never farmed in my life. I had a loose three month training before I went to site where we skimmed over some basic environmental issues facing Ghana and West Africa- the 3 D’s- deforestation, declining fertility of the soils, and decrease the dependency of farming for income. All of which helped but proved vague and sometimes irrelevant to the specific issues and natural environment I found at my savannah site. Mostly, I learned to eat with my right hand with a forgiving family who has hosted new Americans several times. I am left handed. I did, however, have an eagerness to learn how and where to source out resources that could teach the technical stuff and a willingness to share the things I was proud of about America while better informing myself of a different way of life.

At first, I muddled around a bit holding meetings with unpredictable attendance, trying to better understand the specific needs, community dynamics and some viable solutions. After some time of observing and learning more about what worked and what didn’t while continuously strengthening my relationship with the community, I let the situation speak to me. It became more apparent to me who was more serious and motivated and I put more of my energies there. I finally got a solid group of women representing different parts of the community together who eventually started to self organize and collect dues to initiate certain endeavors.

We received some small loan assistance and started a bee-keeping project and a small tree nursery (which, unfortunately, I had learned recently collapsed because of some money mishandling). Our primary project was working with shea butter, a locally used cooking fat that is harvested from a nut on a tree, and learning about ways to improve the quality of the butter and identify markets for their product. The groups had registered for cooperative status enjoying more access to support from local government funds and donor agencies, and were trying to acquire machinery that would help with the arduous production process of the butter. Unfortunately, I was not there to see through the machinery acquisition but my replacement at site picked up where I left off (sometimes continuity can be a difficult thing for PC volunteers, so I am grateful that there was some crossover in our work!).

Upon returning two years later to the land of washing machines and iPods, I quickly became frustrated with what to do with myself and how to find an outlet for what I had experienced in Ghana. I was interested in maintaining the relationship I had made with my community but became frustrated that it wasn’t immediately available and concerned it was also too idealistic. I had shared stories about my work with shea with my parents and was impressed to see that my father was especially curious about the fat and began making a few products from it while I was overseas! Interested in learning more about what one could do with the product, I piggybacked on his work and began developing some body care products using shea I had taken back from my community. It occurred to me that this activity could turn into a business idea and I have been taking it more seriously since.

Recently, I went to a conference on shea butter and the market that linked me up with players of every level on the industry and learned more about the shea sector and market dynamics on this side of the world. Several members of the conference, including myself, are now working to start a regulatory council for shea that is being registered as a non-profit to encourage a grading system and certification process for shea butter. We feel this is critical as the American shea sector is still trying to define and realize its immense potentials for both the body care industry and the African women that produce it.

Although I don’t know how successful my ambitions will be, I finally feel as though I’ve identified a worthy outlet to share a part of Ghana that spoke to me, and in some way, honor the very women that make this possible.

No comments: