Blog Post – “You are returning sister, welcome”
By Rebecca Burgess, Country Director of The Hunger Project UK
Just 20 days into my new role as Country Director of The Hunger Project UK and I was fortunate enough to go to Ghana to meet twenty of my fellow Country Leaders from around the world. Counterparts from twelve Programme Countries*, three Partner Countries** and our Global CEO & President and his leadership team. Four intensive days of strategy development, connecting with colleagues, improving processes and visiting the inspirational Taido epicentre, to hear from our village partners directly.
Hosted by the Country Director of THP-Ghana Samuel Afrane and his brilliant team, the conference kicked off with the most amazing display of Ghanian music and dancing. However, like most conferences the agenda was filled to the brim and three full days of my trip were spent in the hotel. I’ll therefore start with when we finally escaped to visit our village partners at Taido.
Taido Epicentre visit
On day three we all crammed into a tiny minibus and started our 4-hour trip to the Taido ‘epicentre’.
An epicentre is a dynamic centre where communities are mobilized for action to meet their basic needs. Taido was the first epicentre in THP-Ghana, mobilized in 1996 and constructed in 2004, on a 4-acre land donated by the community. It’s made up of 19 communities with a total population of nearly 9,000 people.
On arrival we received the warmest welcome from hundreds of people and were seated in a square formation, ready for the ceremony to start. We greeted visiting dignitaries and epicentre leaders. We heard from the epicentre chief, chairperson and Queen Mother and we graduated 17 vocational trainees following the most amazing fashion show of their final projects. Music and dance interplayed throughout our visit and showed the vibrancy of their community spirit and passion for self-reliance and celebration.
The epicentre is a hub for community mobilization, crop improvement, maternal and child improvement health, microfinance and women empowerment through education and training. It’s home to a conference room, clinic, bank, vocational training centre, agro-input shop and nurses’ quarters. We split into four groups to learn more about each offering and I opted to hear more about their food security and nutrition programmes.
During the session, I met some of the trained volunteers who showed us the food processing units, including the maize mill and casava grater. The maize grinder is available to the community to use for a cost. I also learnt about their cassava processes, including the drying process and how they sell the products made at the epicentre to local shops to make money. All monies raised go back into the epicentre to support operational costs, helping the epicentre become self-reliant.
Yet, it was the agro-input shop where the positive impact of the epicentre to local communities really shone for me. Here I met mother of two, Christiana Essel, who told us about the three-fold increase in fertiliser costs, in large part due to the war in Ukraine. With the establishment of the agro-input store, the epicentre is able to remove many middlemen and women across the market chain, helping to keep costs down, in particular their fertiliser prices. This ensures local farmers can still afford to buy fertiliser to cultivate crops and local communities can still afford to eat. However, keeping prices low means a dramatic reduction in profits for the store, restricting their ability for self-reliance and long-term sustainability.
When asked what volunteering at the shop means to her, Christiana opened up about how hard it was to manage the shop, alongside her own business and taking care of her young family. But she does it to build a better future for her family. The vibrancy and determination of our village partners, like Christiana, was inspirational and truly affirms our approach here at The Hunger Project. Simply, people living in hunger are themselves the key to ending hunger.
As we drove back to the hotel, the local radio presenter talked about how the cost of yams are now at an all-time high across Ghana. Food prices in Ghana are rising mostly because of transportation costs due to fuel increases; excessive exportation of certain foodstuffs and fertiliser increases. Nationally, the government has now placed an embargo on the export of yams and other grains. Yet, I couldn’t help but reflect on how much worse the crisis will get, before it gets better. The World Food Programme now estimates a further 323 million people will be forced into food insecurity in 2022 alone. This is on top of the 811 million women, men and children already surviving each day with not enough food to eat.
Cape Coast Castle
Following the epicentre visit, we headed to the UNESCO World Heritage Site Cape Coast Castle. The Castle is one of forty “slave castles” built on the Gold Coast of West Africa (now Ghana) by European traders. It’s estimated 3 million people were bought and sold at Cape Coast Castle over its 200-year period.
I went through the tour with a lump in my throat, watery eyes and a paralysing guilt, that made my every move prologued. The shame and disgust I felt was insurmountable. Having lived in Bristol for the last 6 years and witnessed the toppling of the 17th-century slave trader Edward Colston statue, I thought I understood the atrocities committed. Yet nothing can compare to the physicality of being there. Standing on the imported bricks from England where 1,000 men and 300 women were held at any one time in dank, dark, tiny dungeons, defecating where they stood. Walking through the “gate of no return”, the last stop for millions of people before crossing the Atlantic Ocean. Their boat journeys could last several months, and an estimated 15% of enslaved people died onboard.
And then, as we made our way back through the “door of no return”, the tour guide looked me straight in the eyes and said “You are returning sister, welcome.” This will be a moment I will never forget. The gracious humility he showed, shocked me. As a white, British woman I see my privilege every day and as such, I found this interaction even more raw and unsettling. Having just come from Taido only an hour before, my head was alive with thoughts on colonialisation and white saviour thinking. Am I helping being here?
Back on the bus, I looked out to the horizon, trying to piece together everything I had witnessed. Shedding silent tears, I sat for hours with a heaviness I’d never felt before. Then came the most beautiful lightning display of chaos. Mother nature’s way of reminding me of the fragile climate we’re now living in. How once again it’s those who are free from guilt, that are sentenced to live with the impacts of climate destruction.
Uniting as ‘one THP’
There’s no doubt that the conference united us as ‘one THP’. We were able to understand what The Hunger Project’s Imperatives (Conflict, Gender, Technology, Food Security & Nutrition and Climate) meant in reality for our programme countries. We explored the challenges and opportunities of measuring our success openly and honestly. And we welcomed hearing from our newly launched Youth Advisory Council on how they see the organisation adapting in the future.
We were able to take a critical look at Programme Country strategic plans and how we should align with them as Partner countries. We collaboratively identified opportunities to fund the Strategic Plan and engage with the Global Funding Framework, both in-Country and globally. And critically, we aligned as a group on global compliance and financial management, uniting all Country Leaders under a common goal of transparency and efficiency.
The trip was life-changing and yet, all too brief. I now understand more deeply how and why our work is driven by the people living in hunger and poverty, not on behalf of. What we do at The Hunger Project is truly unique and special. I’m now more committed than ever to ensure our focus on empowerment and community-led mobilisation remains central to our strategy here in the UK and globally.
I have learnt so much in such a short space of time and I can’t wait to continue learning. I want to understand and respect the lives our village partners are living and to listen and hear their passions more. And I hope you’re able to join me on this wild, wonderful and enriching journey.
With love and gratitude to you all,
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