Posted by: mhirdyounger | May 29, 2014

The Village Stay

Can something that I have critiqued so much also be one of my most significant learning experiences in Ghana and where I have made some of my most meaningful personal relationships in Ghana? Yes. That’s The Village Stay.

The Village Stay

A ‘village stay’ is an EWB tradition. It’s part of almost every EWBer’s immersion and integration stage, a critical component of any learning plan and an organizational culture cornerstone. It’s one of the things that sets our organization apart.

A village stay is basically a short term rural placement where you stay with a family in a rural setting for about a week. You shadow the family members, eat their food, sleep where they sleep, sit where they sit and try your best to integrate yourself into their lifestyle.

We use our contacts within our personal spheres and partner organizations to find a family willing and interested in hosting us and learning with us. We stay with that family for at least 3 nights, preferably many more. We have found that the third night is the ‘magic number’ in terms of crossing a threshold of trust. We do not pay them for our stay, but we usually come with some gifts of soap, rice, or bread.

The Reasons Why

In EWB, we go on village stays for different reasons, all of which centre on: respect, empathy and learning.

Respect because we are here and investing in Ghana in order to improve livelihoods, change systems in rural areas and ultimately benefit those living in poverty. Respect because we strive for the humility to understand, make relationships with and work with people living in poverty. Respect because we understand that people living in poverty have complex structures and systems and stories and we want to better understand why they make the choices they make. Farmers are not stupid, they are not making stupid choices. They are making choices based on their contexts and information, so why not go out and strive to understand what that context and information is?

Empathy because we respect those we call partners and beneficiaries. To truly build understanding with those partners, you can’t show up in a pick up truck, ask a few questions and leave. You have to build trust, build relationships and build partnerships. You have to build empathy, true empathy based on shared lived experiences.

Learning because we do not have all the answers. Because the answers to why systems don’t work are found at the national level but also at the level of individual farmers. We spend time in Accra trying to understand national policies. We also spend time on the farm trying to build respect, empathy and understanding of that context and reality.

The Critique

The two main critiques of village stays are 1) we are taking more than we are giving and 2) it is ‘poverty tourism’.  These are genuine concerns and things that I encourage myself and others to think critically about, discuss and take actions around before, during and after going on a village stay.

On the side of taking away more than we are giving back, this is a tough one because I don’t believe in giving financial resources as ‘giving back’. Financial gifts change the relationship away from mutual empathy and to one that is transactional. To be honest, the way that I strive to give back is through authentically building relationships and sincerely trying to understand the realities of the farmers I am staying with. The families that I have stayed with have expressed huge appreciation for the fact that an NGO worker is actually willing to come and live with them, do as they do and understand their lives. Sitting in an office in Washington or Ottawa, this may sound trivial or insincere, but from my experiences, genuinely investing in relationships, trust, empathy and mutual learning is a huge component and a meaningful way of giving back.

In terms of accepting gifts from the family when you leave, I say definitely. It is customary to give a gift, even if the family doesn’t have much. It’ll usually be some food stuffs. It is extremely rude to deny this gift. Rather than feeling guilty for taking away from the family or refusing the gift, you should feel the weight of appreciation that they are showing you with that gift.

On poverty tourism, this is one to watch out for in your personal interactions. Make sure you’re striving to understand the reality and not just take pictures of ‘poverty’ to send home. Show the complexity of poverty in your stories and pictures from the village stay. Moreover, some of the people we stay with on village stays are making more than $2/day. Their poverty is more complex than a single threshold, it’s about choices, trade offs and opportunities. Sometimes we even stay with commercial level farmers to understand their rural livelihoods. These village stays help us to understand poverty, not just see it. My opinion is that if you are being authentic, building trust and truly trying to understand a person’s story or multiple stories, you are not a tourist. You are a fellow human being.

But these are fine lines to walk.

The Personal Relationships

My villages stays in Ghana have been some of the most significant transformation experiences of my time here, mostly because of the personal relationships that have been made. My first one was to stay with Mr. Appiah and his family, a Kuapa Kokoo farmer based three hours outside of Kumasi. I have since become a ‘daughter’ of this family and go back every couple of months to stay with them and I speak with them on the phone weekly. They are my family in Ghana and Bipoa has become my home town. I have learned so much about cocoa, fair trade, extension and family life from Mr. Appiah.

On another village stay I stayed with Alice, a woman extension volunteer in the Upper East Region of Ghana. My time with Alice helped to deepen my understanding of the realities of women extension volunteers in Ghana and their role in their communities. This informed a case study that I published with MEAS.

Learning about and working within the development sector from a classroom, behind a computer screen, from watching the news or behind a desk in an air-conditioned office in a capital anywhere in the world will only teach you so much. Building empathy, trust and relationships that are genuine and meaningful with those living in vulnerable and poor situations will allow you to experientially build your understanding of their multiple stories and the systems in which they live.

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Responses

  1. Awesome post!!!

  2. […] harvesting cassava on one of Mr. Appiah’s farms. Mr. Appiah is a farmer I often visit to learn more about farming and rural livelihoods in Ghana. Mr. Appiah will introduce himself to you as a proud cocoa farmer. He’s a member of […]

  3. […] This program is a community-based, experiential learning program where agricultural college students actually go out and stay, eat, sleep and work with farmers for an extended period of time.It`s simliar to the EWB Village Stay. […]

  4. […] Miriam’s Blog Post […]


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