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Making a difference in Ghana
by Karl Schuler

Samuel Kweku Clement coordinates the national youth programme of the Ghana Red Cross.

 

On a continent often described in the most dire and pessimistic of terms, national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies are striving to give people a little more dignity. The Ghana Red Cross is a case in point. With financial help from other National Societies, it has launched a multi-pronged development programme, focusing on improving the lives and livelihoods of women and young people.

At a quick glance, it resembles a tapestry of bright and vibrant colour. In fact it is the fruit of a successful programme begun in Ghana. The dykes and vegetable gardens started in the village of Loggo, in northern Ghana, have made the food situation here considerably better than in the rest of the Upper West region. "The climate of the Sahel is best suited to the cultivation of millet, maize and groundnut," says Idriss Maa, a member of the local Red Cross. "But the people of Loggo can vary the routine by growing vegetables and fruit to make up for the inevitable deficiencies that arise from sticking to only one traditional dish."

He should know. Idriss is a farmer with a degreee in agricultural engineering. He shares his expertise with the young people and women in charge of cultivating and caring for the plots. Since horticulture relies on a regular water supply, a large reservoir to catch rainwater has been built enabling fields to be watered even through the dry season. As he takes us on a tour of the area, Idriss shows the dykes and vegetable gardens which are part of an extensive development programme of the Ghana Red Cross, jointly financed by a consortium administered by the Swiss Red Cross.

Mothers' Clubs

In the village square, a group of women proudly display hand-made woven baskets, colourful fabric and shea butter, used both in food preparation and in cosmetics, which they sell on the local market in order to boost their income. The women are members of the local Red Cross Mothers' Club, which runs a cottage industry programme. It gives women access to some basic business training, and modest loans, to start small-scale enterprises.

The Mothers' Clubs in Ghana boast some 7,500 members in 340 villages and districts. The clubs' national coordinator, Theresa Babero Nobiya, underlines the importance of their commitment to the organization: "The women are the mainstay of our development work: they increase their families' revenue, improve the standard of nutrition and hygiene and contribute more tangibly to bringing dignity to the lives of the poorest sector of the rural population." Interestingly, the women rarely come from the circle of dignitaries, as is often the case. Instead, the women who get together to form mutual aid groups are usually young or older mothers, often from families of peasant farmers. Volunteer facilitators help with a wide range of issues, going well beyond traditional courses which once dealt exclusively with first aid. The courses have been extended to include aspects of community health, which correspond to people's real needs. The emphasis is often on disease prevention. But the range of issues also covers the basics of running a small craft business. In the ten regions where the national Red Cross is present in Ghana, women regularly follow training and improvement courses.

 

Loggo, Upper West region: Red Cross members cultivate vegetables and discover a wider range of foods to add to their diet.

Proof of progress

Over the last five years, the Ghana Red Cross Society has seen its membership rise significantly throughout the country: from 22,000 in 1996 to 55,000 today. The biggest proportion of volunteers are women and young people. They are also the most active of the new recruits, and they make a vital contribution to the improvement of social and health conditions in the villages and the town districts. The Ghana Red Cross has also stepped up the professionalization of its management, both at its headquarters in Accra and in the regions and districts. Worthy of note among its activities are disaster prevention and institutional development. The National Society has succeeded in significantly improving its local fund-raising in recent years. All of these activities form part of its long-term development strategy.

The Ghana Red Cross is supported by the International Federation, the Canadian and German Red Cross Societies and the Swiss Red Cross which acts as coordinator on behalf of the consortium.

 

In order to guarantee a continuous food supply, the Ghana National Society has set up rainwater reservoirs.

Young people for young people

Following an internal reform process begun a few years ago, the Ghana Red Cross is concentrating on the quality and training of its leadership. Samuel Kweku Clement is a specialist in modern management methods and electronic communications, and an example of the new generation of managerial staff. As national coordinator of youth programmes, he is in charge of a wide array of activities aimed at the largest Red Cross group in Ghana: young people. Indeed, young people make up two-thirds of the 55,000 membership countrywide. Besides working closely with the Mothers' Clubs in the health sphere, the youth section offers courses in batik and sewing to some 200 young people a year. They even offer the possibility of doing a six-month course in a photo laboratory.

Most effective of all has been the creation of a network of 450 peer educators - young people who carry out AIDS prevention campaigns. "If sex education in schools and in youth groups comes from their peers, the results are often much more convincing," says Samuel. "A relationship of trust is established from the outset, because everyone is speaking the same language. UNICEF is supporting this programme, which was the fruit of our experiences in the north and in Accra, the capital. We're now introducing peer educators to Kumasi, our second largest city, as well," he says.

The Ghana Red Cross is also leading the struggle to stop the stigmatization of people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA) which, sadly, is commonplace. Since the peer educators have a direct and easy contact with people, they are better placed to encourage people to care for their stricken family members. Cultural prejudice and ignorance about the virus normally means PLWHA are treated as outcasts.

Young volunteers are also making a difference in the Upper West where they play an important role in spreading the word on care. At the Wa regional hospital's ophthalmic clinic, cataract operations are performed and trachoma, an infectious eye disease, is treated, thus preventing many cases of blindness. The volunteers let people know about the hospital's services and explain what hygiene and preventive measures should be taken to avoid a number of eye
diseases.

In another programme where peers talk and try to influence their peers, the Red Cross runs a centre for young street girls in the capital, Accra. The centre, located in the heart of the busy Agbogbloshie market, offers 25 homeless girls bed and breakfast. Dependent on little jobs in the market to survive, they are at risk of falling into prostitution. For them, the Red Cross provides a safe haven and someone willing to listen.

The varied undertakings of the Ghana Red Cross reflect the host of social problems which trouble this African country. Creating a strong link between a professional structure and the mobilization of volunteers has been one of the greatest challenges facing this West African National Society.

Karl Schuler
Karl Schuler is information officer for the Swiss Red Cross's international cooperation department.



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