Tracing my steps

I apologize for the silences in my blog postings. After September 4th, my access to deplorably slow and cumbersome internet has been sporadic. As tribute to my month plus anniversary in Ghana, I will retrace my travels in Ghana. Due to the dismal internet connection, I will not be able to supplement my post with pictures.

Accra: I landed in Accra on August 14th, and I spent six days navigating the chaotic capital with fellow travelers. Entirely by chance, another Watson Fellow was visiting the same city, staying at the same hostel when I arrived. Just to put this into perspective, the Watson Fellowship is awarded to 40 students in the US, and the Walker Fellowship awards a fellowship to a Hendrix student who was nominated but did not receive the national fellowship. Of all the people in the world, I ran into one of forty fellows on the first day of my fellowship. In Accra, I adjusted to life in Ghana: I learned how to take trotros to different parts of the city; I slowly sampled my way through Ghanaian food and produce; I shopped at the bustling markets that sprawl over city blocks; and most of all, I enjoyed meeting friendly Ghanaians and other travelers.

Techiman: Then, I left the coastline capital and traveled 8 hours northwest to Techiman where I spent two weeks visiting Bemcom Youth Enterprises/Association. I received a nontraditional introduction to agriculture in Ghana (horrible pun, BYEA works with nontraditional agriculture), and because of this, I gained a novel perspective of life in Ghana. There, I learned how entrepreneurship and innovation provide some of the only opportunities for individuals faced with a contracting economy. I also witnessed how much work, coordination and foresight it takes to create and manage an organization.

When I was not spawning mushroom bags at the training centre, attending training sessions or visiting farmers, I was meeting Bernard’s extensive network of family and friends, trying desperately  to learn Twi (the main language spoken in southern Ghana) and enjoying time with the nuns at the convent where I was staying. In following Bernard around for two weeks, I quickly learned the importance of social ties in Ghana. I met Bernard’s family and his auntie and her family (close family friend), and when we were around town, I was constantly being introduced to Bernard’s aunties and uncles. For my Catholic family, you will be delighted to hear that during my stay at the convent and my attendance at a Catholic Youth Forum in Kumasi with Bernard, I had the opportunity to meet countless priests, several nuns, several monks, two archbishops, and a nuncio.

Sunyani and Berekum: On the third day of my visit to BYEA, Bernard and I traveled eastward to the cities of Sunyani and Berekum where we met different farmers who were trained by BYEA and who were having problems with their mushroom production. My time in these cities were so brief that I could not even form an impression of them. Mostly, I remember driving on dirt roads full of mounds and abruptly broken by ditches or streams on our way to visit the farmers. I also remember the views of the lush, green forest that characterizes the forest belt in the central part of Ghana.

Tamale: To break up the distance between Techiman and Bolgatanga, I traveled 6 and a half hours northeast to a major city in northern Ghana. On the way to Tamale, the landscape changes: tropical forests turn into savannah, and tiny settlements of round mud houses with grass roofs appear along the roadside. I only stayed in Tamale 4 days, but I wish I could have visited longer. There, I stayed and made friends with people on couchsurfing. Many of the young people I met rented out rooms in a compound house where they lived by themselves. This living arrangement struck me as unique because in Techiman many of the young workers at Bemcom live with their families (immediate and extended). As my friends took me around Tamale, I saw a naming ceremony with traditional drumming and dancing (in Ghana, a week after a baby is born, there is a huge celebration in which the baby receives its name), I played a game of draft (similar to checkers but a little more complicated), I rode everywhere on the back of motorbikes, I baked brownies (sweets are incredibly scarce in Ghana, as are ovens), and I watched many, if not too many, African and American rap/hip hop music videos.

Chereponi: One of the people I contacted on couchsurfing invited me to visit his brother in Chereponi where they manage the Anoshe Women Organization. This women’s organization arranges for women to cultivate an acre of soy beans to gain a source of personal income. In this part of Ghana, women do not own land, except by gaining access to their husbands’ plots. Since farming is the main livelihood strategy in Chereponi, women often work on their husbands’ farms, but the money generated from agriculture is controlled by the husbands. Women are dependent on their husbands for capital. As part of my visit, I participated in a meeting of all the women involved in the community of Chere, I visited soy bean fields, I met individuals from partner organizations (Ministry of Agriculture, USAID, ADVANCE, ACDIVOCA) and I watched two focus group meetings conducted by a student from the University of Hohenheim in Germany. Fortunately for me, three students from the University of Hohenheim were conducting research for their master’s theses. They focused on crops, livestock, soil and socioeconomic conditions of the women. I am so grateful for the opportunity to learn from their extensive agricultural knowledge, to gain insights into their research techniques and methodologies and to enjoy life with such great people. I will miss the scenic motorbike rides to the villages, the ridiculous Nigerian titles that Christian and Baffor (students) assigned to everyone, chopping (snacking on) boiled peanuts and the ensuing peanut wars between Elli and Christian, and most of all, the friends that I made in Chereponi.

Bolgatanga, Zebilla and Kamega: After leaving Chereponi at 2:30a, I arrived in Bolgatanga, a city near the northern and eastern borders of Ghana, at 2p. There I prepared for the most recent leg of my journey to the village of Kamega where I will work with the Afaataba Multipurpose Co-operative Society, a community based organization of small farmers. I will not have consistent access to electricity or internet, so bear with me for the coming weeks.


The First Stop: BYEA

For the past two weeks, I have witnessed the ins and outs of Bemcom Youth Enterprises/Association (BYEA) in Techiman, Brong-Ahafo region. BYEA uses non-traditional agriculture to alleviate rural poverty. The organization serves as a training, resource and research centre that provides farmers with the essentials to start their own non-traditional agricultural venture.


BYEA trains farmers to raise small livestock (rabbit and grasscutter), snails and bees and to grow mushrooms.


Rabbit training meeting in Jema


Rabbit at Bemcom training centre 




Mushroom fruiting house at training centre














BYEA employs around 15 workers from the community to produce oyster mushroom bags. Farmers trained by BYEA purchase these mushroom bags, grow the mushrooms in their own fruiting house, and sell these mushrooms at their local market. The production of mushroom bags involves several stages.


1. The spores from mushrooms are used to create spawn that will be added to the mushroom bags. This task is delegated to a trained employee who works in a room with laboratory equipment.

2. Compost of sawdust, rice bran, and lime is prepared. This process takes several weeks of watering and turning.

On Saturday, Stephen, Eric and Salis invited me to turn compost with them, and just as I was about to dig in with the shovel, they stopped me. Turning compost is much more than shoveling sawdust around; it is an art of meticulous technique and order. Luckily, they showed me the ropes before I destroyed all of the compost piles.




3. When the compost is ready, the workers pack the polyurethane bags full of sawdust and top the bags with a piece of plastic tubing and a rubber band.

4. The bags are put in metal barrels and a huge container to be sterilized with steam.




5. Once the bags have been sterilized and cooled, they are inoculated with spawn. When spawning, everything needs to be clean and sterile so that the bags do not get contaminated. The bags are lined up on tables; the tops of the bags are filled with cotton; the bottles full of spawn are broken up and placed around every 15-20 bags.

Mushroom bags ready to be spawned

Mushroom bags ready to be spawned

To prevent contamination, the workers spray their hands, the spawn bottles and the bags with alcohol. Then, the top of the spawn bottle (cotton, newspaper secured with a rubber band) is removed; the cotton in the mushroom bag is removed; spawn is added to the bag; and then the bag is topped with cotton. Once all the bags have been spawned, the bags are topped with newspaper.



Amwah spawning the mushroom bags

Because I lack the strength of many of the workers, I spent most of the time in the spawning room that demands less heavy lifting

6. The spawned mushroom bags are shelved for several weeks while the mycelium grows.



7. Once the mycelium has grown throughout the bag, they are sold to customers, and mushrooms will start growing from the bags within 8-10 days.


Fruiting mushroom bags

This brief description of the mushroom bag production and of the trainings do not do justice to the immense amount of work, communication and coordination that go on everyday at Bemcom Youth Enterprises/Association.