Updated: Jan 31, 2021
This post summarizes the work performed, goals accomplished, and lessons learned by the Stern International Volunteers of 2017 during their four days in the village of Woadze Tsatoe (Days 5-8 of the entire trip). The next post will offer a reflection on the course and this entrepreneurial trip as a whole.
After a 6:30 A.M. wake-up call and a quick breakfast at the Chances Hotel in Ho, our group boards the charter bus, beginning the first of many hour-and-a-half long drives through local towns and rubbled mountain roads to the village of Woadze Tsatoe. On the way there, we talk about our hopes, fears, goals, anxieties, and anything else we can to ground ourselves in who we were about to see and what we were about to do.
Upon our arrival, we are greeted by clusters of clay huts and metal-sheathed sheds, large fields and a single tan, concrete building in the center that we later discover is the recently-constructed school. Children in yellow and brown school uniforms come running towards us with eyes wide and arms outstretched, and adults sitting in plastic chairs under a grass-thatched hut wave enthusiastically.
We unload our supplies quickly and find ourselves greeting these strangers with a strange sense of familiarity as they envelop us with hugs and warm handshakes. Robert, our guide from the partnering nonprofit organization Adanu, translates a brief welcome from the village elders and explains the day’s plans before splitting us up to work on different tasks.
In the morning, half of us worked on the construction of a new batik shed, carrying wooden boards and balancing tin bowls of water, sand, and gravel on their scarf-wrapped heads to the base of the shed. The other half of the class split up in pairs of two and three to teach K-1, 2nd, 3rd-4th, and 5th-6th graders in the school compound, working with the teachers to coordinate various English, science, math, computer, and world geography lessons. Because classes up until the 3rd grade were all taught primarily in Ewe, the local Ghanaian language, the teachers helped translate for the students working with K-2nd graders.
During break, we played soccer, “Duck, Duck, Goose,” and “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” with the children on a large field next to the school, communicating through a combination of hand gestures, shared facial expressions, and English phrases mixed with basic Ewe words.
After a quick lunch of fried chicken, rice, and fish with fresh pineapples, we headed back to our original gathering spot to attend an opening ceremony. The elders formally introduced themselves, and after speaking a few words, presented us with beaded bracelets coated in white powder as a symbol of friendship and harmony. “In our culture, white signifies unity and peace. Now that you have this bracelet, you are officially a part of this community,” Robert explained. The other adults of the village began to play the drums and shekere (dried gourds covered in a woven net of beads), encouraging us to join them as they sang and danced to traditional tunes.
We finished off the afternoon with a tour of the village. We visited the batik shed—one of the two business SIV students helped set up last year—where women were printing various patterns onto white fabric before dying them and hanging them up to dry. We also stopped by the clean water business, where Robert explained how water was filtered, stored, and then sold from a pump to the families. As we walked through the village, he told us about the villagers’ agriculture- and fishing-based lifestyle, stopping by one family’s home to let us watch a woman skin, gut, and smoke her husband’s most recent catch. “Everything that the villagers do not eat themselves is sold at the marketplace by the women,” Robert explained, pointing out that it was always the women, not the men, who ran the village’s “business matters.” For example, the women purchase fish from their husbands to sell them for a personal profit later on; whatever they earn can be used at their own discretion for family matters, community funding, or other activities. “In fact, the entire informal economy here is dominated by women. They are the ones bartering and selling at the marketplace while the men stay at home. They are the ones making all the external decisions.”
After chatting with a few other families and stopping to watch two men weave kente cloth across from the batik shed, we headed back to the school compound to say goodbye to the villagers and conclude our first day in the village.
Over a dinner of beef and vegetable stew, rice and corn cakes, and ripe papaya, we began the first of many nighttime reflection sessions, where we discussed our feelings of privilege disconnect, the meaning of relative happiness, and the responsibility that social entrepreneurs have in a space where disadvantaged groups are often neglected, even exploited, by the same groups who claim to be “saving the unfortunate.” The deeply introspective, rightfully uncomfortable conversation left us feeling anxious to return the next day and begin the work we had originally set out to do in the “right” way—whatever that meant.
The second day began with a trip to the market place, where we were greeted by an endless maze of stalls offering fresh produce, meat, grains, clothing, toiletries, and other basic necessities. Before we left the bus, Robert split us into pairs and handed us 15-25 cedis (about $4-6) each along with a list of ingredients. Each list contained items the families needed to cook dinner in the village that night, and it was our responsibility to obtain everything on our own list for as low a price as possible. And so for the next hour, each pair walked from stall to stall, bargaining for chicken thighs and smoked fish, small green bell peppers and tomatoes, cassava dough and corn flour, and other items. Back on the bus, we handed Robert any change we had left before heading to the village, where we began our day’s work.
The second morning continued like the first except with roles reversed: those who taught K-6th grade on the first day went to work on construction, and those who helped build the shed taught in the classrooms. A few others of us left both groups to begin a third project: painting the school.
In the afternoon, after a lunch of fried chicken, fried fish, kontombre stew (spinach and onion stew), papayas, and mangos, we all gathered in the 3rd grade classroom with the professors for our first official “business meeting.” We discussed the current structure of the batik and water businesses and debated how we could most effectively teach their board members the basic accounting, operational, and marketing techniques they would need to improve their enterprises. We considered the challenges each business faced—from inefficient wage distribution at the batik shed to consumer distaste for “salty water” during dry seasons—and devised preliminary solutions for each, including a simplified revenue stream and more streamlined management system, key marketing strategies to increase consumer outreach, and profit/loss statements for basic bookkeeping.
We finished off the day with a hands-on experience at the batik shed itself, learning how to batik various patterns and colors onto our own cotton shirts and fabric sheets from the women who had mastered the craft a year ago.
Later that evening, half of us stayed behind in the village to spend the night with host families, while the rest headed back to Ho (they would stay with their respective host families on Day 3). After dinner, those spending the night were introduced to their host parents and given a chance to tour their homes and chat with them before all convening around a community bonfire. Under a clear night sky, illuminated by the warm flames of the bonfire, the students and villagers shared their moment as a family, exchanging old fables, riddles, and history lessons; singing traditional songs; and dancing to a mix of folk tunes, Ghanaian pop, and American pop music for hours into nightfall.
Days 3 and 4
The last two days were certainly the most rewarding and productive in terms of our class’s initial social entrepreneurship goals. Each of the four teams—education, business training, governance and process, and business development—had settled into a morning routine of teaching and construction and an afternoon routine of business work. More importantly, we finally felt the sense of mutual friendship, trust, and respect we needed to guide our work in a collaborative, non-exploitative way.
“Only through cultural immersion can you build a relationship on trust. Only with trust can your business succeed. You cannot simply march into a foreign place and expect people to blindly accept the concepts you wish to teach them. You cannot expect them to listen to you without giving them a reason as to why they should listen. And that is why you are doing all of this—tours, ceremonies, teaching, construction work, overnight stays, storytelling, singing, and dancing. You are learning about the village, and the villagers are simultaneously learning about, accepting, and ultimately trusting you.” – Robert
On Day 3, the education team began setting up the new computer lab and cataloguing children’s books for the library initiative. The business training and development teams worked one-on-one with Vida, the head of the batik business, and Bright, a board member on the water business, to discuss internal restructuring, additional skills training, and new marketing initiatives (for example, additional batik product lines, potential partnerships, and introduction to the four P’s of the marketing mix: price, product, promotion, and place). The governance and training team tied everything together, entering all past transactions into Excel sheets and training board members on market strategy and revenue/expense implementation.
On Day 4, the education team finished constructing both the computer lab—complete with new tables, over ten working computers connected to wi-fi, and a printing station—and the library, which included 550 individually labeled books and an accompanying Excel file designed to function as a checkout system. The three business teams continued working with the board members to develop the skills they had just learned and collected research on concerns that still needed to be addressed (for example, the fact that young men aged 18-24 had nothing to do in the afternoons during fishing breaks but wanted to help with selling batik products, or the fact that getting products to and from the marketplace was a significant expense itself).
By the end of the day, each team had made substantial progress in terms of their initial goals for the trip. Professor Taparia summed up much our work during the closing ceremony: “While we were here, we had four main teams. One helped beautify the school, open a computer lab, and catalogue over 500 books for a new library. One worked on business training, where they helped answer the question: How do you manage the accounts and market the products, and how do you make sure that all those things are done as best possible? One worked on key processes, helping determine how to run the board, how to input the transactions, how to manage the supplies, and more. One focused on sales and marketing, working jointly with Vida to develop the best products, training her team to sew, and taking a stall at the market for the batik center so that it can now sell directly to the consumer and avoid a middleman.”
Yet, while we had accomplished many of our goals during our time in the village, our class, our professors, and the villagers all knew there was still much to be done. Having spent only four days in Woadze Tsatoe, we came back to New York with as many unaddressed problems as implemented solutions for the trip we just finished. Fortunately, because this year’s trip was moved from summer to spring break, our class now has the remainder of the semester to brainstorm 2017 and 2018 deliverables and draft pilot plans for future Stern International Volunteers. Some of us will even be returning to the village this summer to further develop our social ventures and collect additional data so that, as the village elders stated during the closing ceremony, “what we have begun will always continue.”
To sum up the 2017 SIV Ghana experience in Professor Taparia’s words, “Our work here is not done. And your work is just beginning.”
Stern International Volunteers – Ghana 2017
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