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VSO | Voluntary Service Overseas

The Sunday Times

Travelling white

It's a Thursday morning and we are parked under a tree near a mud-brick village called Busa. The location, maybe 200km north-west of Tamale, is picturesque enough for Harrison to get out and expose a couple of rolls of film. To a pale, shallow lake, stream a procession of women to scoop and carry off basins of water. They are dressed in maroon, blue, green and black, and they soften their loads with turbans of coiled cloth. In the distance are more, hauling bundles of firewood. Yet others scrub clothes on rocks. They gossip in Wali, one of Ghana's 72 languages. Today's topic, I suspect, is us.

Busa is home to around 3,000 people, living in extended families of mostly a man, wife or wives, plus children and maybe siblings, in mud-walled, thatched-roofed huts. All the classical indicators reveal absolute poverty, which you find throughout Ghana's north. One doctor serves 54,000 people, compared with 20,000 in the more prosperous south (and 1,900 in England). One fifth can read - half the average for the south. One child in five dies in infancy.

We are here to see the work of a British civil engineer, nominated by VSO as a boutique example for its anniversary media coverage. His name is Krish Seewraj. He's aged 30. And like the 1968 nominee (she of the hot baths and houseboy), hails from the county of Hampshire. He holds a master's degree from Coventry University and, before arriving in Africa 18 months ago, worked at a consultancy to London Underground. His mother is a housewife and his father an optician. He's slim, youthful, handsome and articulate. To permit myself a style note, he looks as good in khaki shirt and shorts as he does barechested in a sarong.

He's one of around eighty volunteers in Ghana. Nineteen are in the Upper West region. Among them are Chris Bryant, an electrical installation instructor, who teaches at a vocational school. There's Sarah Richards, a pharmacist, and her partner Malcolm, who work at a health facility. And there's Peter Glenfield, a horticultural adviser, working on vegetable patches.

VSO's idea for my time in west Africa was a kind of royal progress, speeding us by Land Rover from one to the next before darting back to Accra for the fashion show. But although this might have given me a sense of the organisation's breadth, it wouldn't do much for the necessary depth, to see if their work did any good. So again I changed the plan kindly offered by my hosts, and zeroed-in on Engineer Seewraj.

Getting to meet him meant a nightmare journey from the landing strip at Tamale. After bidding adios to the church-planters, we bounced, swerved and skidded for five hours on dirt tracks, most of which we braved after sunset. It was a bizarre introduction to rural sociology, with the vehicles' headlamps picking out huddles of natives squatting in pitch dark beside the road. On a lonely stretch, far from law enforcement agencies, we edged into the bush to get past a burning tree, set light at its roots by scavengers.

Seewraj's job is deceptively simple: to help design irrigation schemes, such as at the 600-metre lake where the brightly-dressed women scooped water. At Busa, the centrepiece is an embankment of heaped orange clay which dams a fragile wet-season river. It was thrown-up in 1956 -a small thank you from the retreating British - and marked a last colonial bequest before the Duchess of Kent came in great silver bird to grant the old Gold Coast independence. There are crude dams like this one all over the Upper West, and many are scheduled for improvement.

The lake is the villagers' most precious resource. Without it Busa couldn't survive. Each day is like today, with its ceaseless procession of women. They come to the shore, wade out 10 metres, fill basins and load them on their heads. Each typically carries 35 litres (nearly 8 gallons) an average of two kilometres in distance, approximately seven times every day. Sometimes children help in this extraordinary back-and-forth, but you are more likely to see a female on a bicycle (which is never) than a man lending a hand to this chore.

These are among the world's 1.3 billion people whose water supplies aren't healthy or secure. "There can sometimes be a big difficulty with diseases, like guinea-worm and bilharzia," explains Seewraj, who, like other volunteers, is not actually employed by VSO, but, in his case by Ghana's Ministry of Food and Agriculture. "Then, as well, the water is used very badly."

Seewraj and his boss, a European-educated Ghanaian, also with a master's degree, named Sin Tim, are leading a team which is working at six sites to make better use of this critical resource. At Busa, the plan is to install a valve in the dam and construct a network of irrigation ditches, allowing vegetables to be grown in the dry season. The same is happening at another village we visited, Karni, three hours north by Land Rover.

The Busa project is rudimentary, the technology appropriate. Nothing, in theory, can go wrong. A grid of cement trenches, two-thirds of a metre wide, are being laid in front of the dam. Every 200 metres or so there is a wooden block and a hole opening onto the earth. The idea is that by manipulating water through this system, tomatoes, carrots and lettuces can be grown to complement yams, cassava and corn.

Similar work is going on throughout the region, which is at risk of ecological crisis. Although many parts of west Africa are experiencing increased rainfall as a result of global warming, in northern Ghana, which is mostly arid savanna, it's diminishing or becoming unpredictable. Satellites, meanwhile, reveal what look like blisters, as each year more than 1,000 square kilometres of trees are burnt or cut.

But if I'm getting to sound like I'm puffing VSO, there's a snag with Seewraj's project. According to his calculations, the lake's wet season catchment area is so small that there's unlikely to be enough captured rainfall for the scheme to be viable in summer. The number of hectares under vegetables will not actually increase, he says; the area slopes uncomfortably steeply, so water may run off too fast; and when the men open the dam's valve for dry-season cultivation, the women who come to carry away their basins may find themselves wading in mud.

"You have to draw a line in your own conscience," he tells me, explaining that an international aid organisation got together with a local politician and decided to implement the project. "Busa is a bad scheme. I've said this all along. I prefer to put my energies into those projects that are beneficial."

The scheme at Karni is one of his favourites, but when we bounced, swerved and skidded up there I had to wonder whether VSO would make the village happier. Dry-season irrigation schemes are notoriously tricky in much of Africa because they tend to attract previously untroublesome pests and can make the soil too salty or alkaline. And as we sat one afternoon under Karni's acting chief's tree, one of the community elders stood and sought our advice, assuming we understood such things.

"We are not technical people," he said. "Do you think what they are doing is good?"

Since our word would apparently be trusted by the natives, Seewraj whispered: "Say 'yes', for god's sake.... Please."


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