the power of the map and other reflections [August 8, 2014]

Gingerly, I took a seat on a rickety wood bench in front of the brightly painted blue and yellow madrasa in the Zongo and eagerly awaited Baba. He had called me yesterday with the exciting news that he had discovered a map of the Zongo community – according to him, it had “bounced” from the Zongo to the Municipal Assembly and then “bounced back” to the Zongo. Pulling up a chair next to me now, Baba explained that the Municipal Assembly must have used the map when they tried to sell the Zongo to the Japanese in 2012. He pulled out a weathered piece of paper protecting the map within. As he opened it, and my eyes focused on its contents and I couldn’t help but gasp. My throat felt clogged with a mixture of feelings – dismay and guilt– but at the same time I shouldn’t have expected anything else. The map was ironically my own. Working with the Zongo residents in 2007, we had developed it together as a way for them to feel ownership of their settlement and to aid me in the production of my thesis. Unfortunately, once wielded by the Municipal assembly, the powers of the map were used against the very community I was trying to help. This is just one example of many throughout the years where I have stopped in my tracks and asked myself to what extent my presence is truly benefiting the community. In what ways are their livelihoods threatened and/or enriched by the initiatives I have developed in the Zongo? So far, I don’t have a good answer and just try to listen as carefully as I can to the needs of the community. Though I bring my own skill sets to the table and provide a framework for orchestration, that at the ends of the day, The Zongo Water Project has to satisfy resident needs and inspire their imagination for the future of their community. The less focused the project could be on me, the better.

Perhaps because of the way the day began - with the re-emergence of a map I had created years ago and its ripple effects on the community – that today I became acutely aware of how my long-term engagement combined with a product (whether it be a children’s book, rainwater collection system, or documentary) affects the way the community operates and the way they see themselves. For example, I’ve communicated with residents that I’m keeping an online journal and they are aware that every phase of the project has resulted in a booklet documenting the process complete with photographs and text. More so than the previous phases, I’ve noticed a change in how a select few of the residents respond to my taking their photograph and even to some extent how they answer questions. It is almost as if they see themselves as part of the product and see the project more as a collection of images of a changing physical environment rather than the physical environment itself. This is certainly very concerning and tells me that perhaps the residents need to be more involved in the project’s photography and contributing to the online journal – perhaps with added voices and perspectives this could fragment and complicate what is now becoming too homogeneous of a representation. A “community-based initiative” therefore, needs to include not only collective actions and diverse voices, but also collective representations of those actions and diverse voices.

Though I’m sure I’ll revisit these reflections, I want to touch briefly on the other activities of the day. Working with the soap-maker, we negotiated an appropriate budget and program for the making of liquid soap. It would be a two-day workshop to be held in the community center (aka: Chief Wangara’s Palace) under its new rainwater collection system. To follow the making of the soap, the water committee is also organizing a business development workshop to teach residents how to begin and sustain a soap-making business.

Later that afternoon, I worked with Awal to measure the existing conditions of the Community Center that included not only the building itself, but also the distances to surrounding buildings and drainage systems. The roofing was in such poor condition, that the entire wood paneled ceiling was mouldy and dipped to such an extent that it looked like it could fall in on us at any moment (detail above).  Later that evening, I briefed Hammad on the day’s activities and we discussed the itinerary for tomorrow. First, we would meet with the stakeholders at the Municipal Assembly about sanitation. He responded fervently, “It is wonderful to have Ghana Heritage Conservation Trust and the Assembly to support us. We need their support for the sustainability of the project. I pray that this project will continue and that we have an office within which to do our work.” We then discussed that second on tomorrow’s agenda would be having conversations with this year’s rainwater collection recipients. “Yes,” he confirmed, “Tomorrow, we will go ‘round to all of the houses. We’ll see if they can support with the extra roofing sheets and also the labor. They need to do their part.”