Mette Fog Olwig – University of Copenhagen

Waterworlds > Letters from the Field > Mette Fog Olwig

A compound partially destroyed by the 2007 flooding in Northern Ghana 

Mette Fog Olwig 

Most days I am a PhD student doing fieldwork in northern Ghana, but today I am a reporter for a local NGO.

The executive director of the NGO told me about a forum on gender and disaster risk management/reduction and suggested that I attend. In order to do so, I was told to sign in as the NGO's reporter and then send her my notes. I am therefore standing in a big room in the "SSNIT building," one of the few multi-story buildings in Bolgatanga, trying to figure out where to sit. The forum is organized jointly by a government organization and an NGO based in southern Ghana, in Accra. The representative of the Accra NGO - a man - is leading the event. The executive director of the NGO, for which I am reporting, walks tall and proud into the room in a traditional outfit and tells me: "oh, you can sit anywhere, sweetheart" in a strong British accent, which keeps taking me by surprise. She has explained to me that she cannot attend the forum herself as she has some donors visiting. She is not the only one wearing traditional clothes. I have tried to dress up for the occasion, but feel once again that it is difficult to match the smartly dressed Ghanaian women. The staff of the government organizations are wearing t-shirts bearing the name of their organization and the two chiefs who are present are wearing traditional smocks.

When I arrived, I did not have to explain who I was, being the only white person there. It strikes me that I will be that random white person I often see in the pictures I have been shown by local development practitioners from these kinds of events. My "status" as white person is established again a few seconds later when everyone around me have been told to move closer to the stage, but I simply have been asked "are you comfortable?"

Someone walks in and we all stand up. He must be important. Someone even more important then shows up, because he is escorted to the stage. At first, I thought that he might be blind and therefore not able to find his way up there, but then I realize that he is so important that he cannot enter alone. A strong spotlight and a microphone are turned on and the program can begin.

We start with a prayer. It mentions Jesus. I have been told that at these kinds of events, if the opening prayer is Christian, the closing prayer will be Muslim. Every time somebody is introduced, or a few words have been uttered, we are urged several times to applaud as loudly as possible. The microphone is screeching and I sigh relieved every time the electricity goes out.

The chair person begins his opening remarks by commenting that the high table of speakers is not gender sensitive. Only one person is female. He then comments that more often than not, when disaster strikes, it is mostly women and children who suffer the most. He exclaims: "The one who wears the shoe with the thorn, will know where it pricks most and can easily remove it, but if that person is not involved in solving the problem, how will it be solved?"

The male representative of the Accra NGO begins his speech by thanking all the proper people and then explains why we are here today: "My NGO is a regional women's rights advocacy organization. We work collaboratively with other organizations to empower women and men to address gender inequalities and to promote transformational leadership and development for a just and democratic society. Women are the most vulnerable. This collaboration is an expression of commitment to the promotion of gender awareness in climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction. Women should play an active role. This workshop is bringing together women's groups, security groups, etc. At the end of this workshop, the goal is to have an increased understanding of gender concerns and needs. To be able to address gender issues in disaster risk reduction and strengthen our ability to urge the government to take action."

A high ranking politician is the next speaker: "Since Ghana is not an island and therefore part of the world community, we should be interested in what is happening at the global level with regards to disaster risk reduction, so that we can translate it to our local level. To enable us to respond properly to gender concerns in relation to gender and disaster risk reduction. We are all aware of the extent women and children are affected. The most recent flood in this region, 2007, showed how vulnerable we are. We have to harness the knowledge and talents of the 51% of our population who hereto have been relegated to the background, which is the kitchen." He continues by explaining how the current president has done a lot for gender mainstreaming. The chairperson agrees, but adds: "We should not wait for something to happen at the international level to integrate it, we can also initiate!"

A representative of the government organization then provides some background information on disasters in Ghana and refers to the work by global donors while thanking them. A chief is now speaking and tells a story to underscore his point: "two chaps are playing around the bush. These children catch an insect and decide to keep the insect alive and ask the wise man whether it is alive or dead: ‘If he says it is alive, we will kill it, if he says it is dead, we will let it fly.' The wise man's answer is, ‘the life of the insect is in your hands. You can decide to kill it or let it live.' So what the organizers today are going to tell us is that whatever our future would look like is in our hands and that it is for us to act."

The only woman at the high table finally speaks: "When we say gender we are not talking of women alone. We are talking of men and women. But the problem is that women were left behind for a long time. Just like the North [of Ghana] was left behind a long time compared to the South in terms of education - about 400 years. But women are left even further behind, even before Jesus came we were left behind." She is an engaging speaker and people start laughing and shouting supportive comments. She continues, "We just mentioned the 2007 floods. Widows were affected. Some were sleeping in the market stalls. [...] We picked up a woman sleeping in a pile of rocks, have you heard of a man lying in rocks? So when disaster strikes women are really more affected. Anything we are going to do, from planning to response, include the women. We are very intelligent, are we not?" The crowd responds with a loud yes and laughter. Then she starts lamenting the local widow rites: "When a woman dies, it's normal. When a man dies, we have to find out from a soothsayer why the man has died, and it is always the woman who has killed him. You are told you killed the person you chose to be with and who you chose to have children with. Who is going to help you? So most widows are witches, maybe I am the chief witch, praise the Lord!" The crowd starts laughing. "Women are already disaster managers. Women can now speak, you'll be surprised, our illiterate women can speak. Even in front of chiefs. Before they would be shy, but they can now speak. Women can contribute a lot if they are included in planning. Women are practical workers, we don't only talk, but we do it. Give us the tools, we can prevent certain disasters, some we cannot. If you can't prevent the bird from flying, you can prevent the bird from laying eggs on our heads. As for women, we are ready, are we not?" They all laugh and shout, "yes!" She is given a lot of applause.

After the introductory speeches, the Accra NGO representative teaches us a song: "No longer men in front, And women at the back, Together we will walk, Side by side by side by side." We stand up and sing it several times while swaying back and forth. The women love it. The chief then explains to us that he did not participate in the singing, because it would be inappropriate for a chief. Now there is time for questions. Some men feel the women are being viewed a bit too much as victims and argue that they are to blame for the situation also. To this, the Accra NGO representative counters: "Why is it that women don't have a say in decision making? Why aren't they on committees? For example, excuse me, prostitution, can a woman alone go and do it?" The crowd yells: "No!" He repeats: "Can a woman alone go and do it?" They yell again: "No!" He continues: "We go after the women, we destroy them, they don't destroy themselves, and then eventually when they are destroyed, we say they are useless." There are some more reluctant comments from the men; they are arguing that things have always been this way. The woman at the high table responds by asking the crowd: "Can things not be changed?" The crowd roars "Yes!" She continues: "We used to walk around naked, are we not wearing clothes now?" "Yes!" "Things can be changed," she concludes.

The high ranking politician, we are told, has to leave and he gives his thanks to the appropriate people and a few concluding remarks. Now we are told to break into groups, we are given boards to draw on and snacks. We are asked to think about one of three questions: 1. How do we manage disaster risk from a gender perspective? 2. How do we engage policy makers to include women in decision making processes in managing disaster/risk reduction? 3. How do we reduce disaster risk? I join a group and notice that except for one man who joins our group, the men go to the side and watch. We have to present our results, and my group wants me to be one of the presenters. Tree planting, it is argued, will address question 1 and 2. Forming women's groups and sensitization and education of the general public, especially women, are also suggested as solutions to question 1. Including women in decision making and appointing women in local governance or assemblies as well as sensitizing policy makers, are mentioned as solutions to question 2. Waste management, bushfire belts, anti-corruption and infrastructure are mentioned as ways to address question 3.

We have now come to the end of the forum and we are asked how the forum has helped us (as women). One woman responds: "The workshop revealed a lot of things to all of us: disaster management is not only limited to men or any particular person, it involves everybody, in particular women." Another woman explains: "I am really encouraged by this forum, I believe I cannot change my sex, but I can change my gender." The forum is over and we are given dinner in take-away boxes. I have been told earlier that snacks and food are very important at this kind of event. While eating my chicken and rice, I grab one of the hand-outs on disaster risk management in Ghana and see the Danish Embassy mentioned as part of the mission to prepare the country disaster risk management plan for Ghana, along with UNDP, World Bank, WFP and UNICEF, among others. I leave feeling that I have had an interesting and exciting experience, but that making sense of disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation in northern Ghana is quite a challenge. A host of donors, local development practitioners as well as local "recipients" with varying agendas and voices are all important actors shaping this field.