The Problem of Access

Sometimes we talk about access to technology, to education, to a strong job market, to a number of complex ideas that require substantial institutions and planning and cultural integration to succeed.

Yes, I’ve seen some of these things at play in Karaga, and heard extensively about them from friends and colleagues.

But what about basic physical access?

Twice I have frequented this road that is just abominable. Imagine being subjected to a mountain-biking trail against your will, on a moto (rbike) which has the gear shifter lever that keeps falling off, maybe with a bawling goat and a second passenger on the back, in the rain with lakes in the way or in the dark, and… you get the idea.

The first time I travelled on this road, I was coming to Karaga for the first time in a tro-tro (minibus) and I guess I was really prepared for the worst of everything at that point, I had my game face on, so I was thinking “this is just how it is”.

The second time was last Friday, to go to the field to visit a farm with an extension agent by the name of Red. We took his moto and honestly I was shocked, because all of the other roads I’ve been on in the Karaga area are pretty decent, at least mostly flat and sometimes with a bit of rain damage or a few rocks. I really felt like life would be precarious if I were trying to ride this road in the dusk as I frequently do to my home in Nangong-ayeli. This road leads to Tong, a sizeable community with electricity, and about 3 hours later, to Tamale. Looking at the road last week, I honestly do not know how the tro-tro driver on my first trip to Karaga managed to haul the bus over all of those rocks, over ditches and through what can honestly be called ponds. And the people in these communities have to use this road every day to get to Karaga or their farms or the clinic or anything.

One of the better looking sections of the road to Tong. On the worse ones I was holding on rather than attempting pictures.9

So it ends up being that farmers can be severely hampered by the road that they travel. The AEA that services these communities arrives exhausted and harried, which may affect their extension services. The tro-tros do not pass through here often, because the other road to Tamale is a far cry flatter and faster. To get to town with your bulging bag of maize is a lot harder when you’re mountain-biking with a bike that has no shocks, gears, or brakes that work (a common phenomenon here).

So let me ask you a (slightly controversial) question. Why in the world should we invest in building better school structures and systems when the public service cannot provide adequate roads even to communities close to the district capital? What’s the point if the kids can’t get to the school in a safe and timely fashion? If their parents can’t easily access the market in town to sell their crops in order to pay for school uniforms? Why should we invest in better farming practices when access to farms and available markets are so broken?

The access we have in terms of being able to physically move from place to place is, in my mind, a significant determinant of someone’s ability to access their potential. Something I did not really appreciate until my Ghanaian mountain-biking experience last week.


Me in my dashing moto helmet, looking horribly impressed.


About Janine Reid

What is Janine? -board game enthusiast -political observer -Vancouverite -questioner -listener -health provider
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5 Responses to The Problem of Access

  1. Mike says:

    I can fully sympathise with what you are saying, and that terrible roads can be a huge impediment to development. But I think if the roads were good and there were no clinics you may be saying the opposite: “Why are we spending money on roads if there are no healthy people to use them?”

    Maybe we need more of an overall approach to development, where there is a balance in the focus areas we have, since the different areas are so interconnected. Once you improve one thing even slightly, it seems the marginal benefits of further improvement are low until the other areas are strong also.

    I’m loving the pictures! Keep it up Janine 🙂

    • Janine Reid says:

      Great comment Mike. I think you hit the nail on the head when you talk about a balanced approach to development. It’s very easy however to get stuck in an idea that certain things need to come in a certain order to work, and so it seems that we are perhaps hamstringing our future by artificially boosting certain areas. For example focusing on primary school education for all, while neglecting the promotion of tertiary education. I have some friends here that are my age, and their biggest struggle was firstly to get any sort of respectable grades in the final exams when you finish secondary school, and then to actually gain admission to a college or university, despite their intelligence.
      And thanks for the tempered comment on my less-balanced post.
      It’s a challenge to be sure to take photos! While mostly people love it, I still can’t automatically put another lens in between myself and what I’m experiencing. It’s always a conscious choice to pull out the camera and snap. I love the photos I’ve taken though, and it’s almost a nightly activity for everyone I’m living with to gather around and look at them. That’s going to be one of my gifts when I leave, is pictures of them (and me) for them to keep. They have a few photos of their own and I can see they treasure them and take pride in them.

      • Grace says:

        My initial response to your post was quite similar to Mike’s, but seeing as he already said all that, my next question (for both of you) is: what does an overall approach to development look like? It would be ideal to improve all aspects of human development at the same time, but that would take a lot of resources. Even in a developed country like Canada, the government is not able to fund all the programs it would like to. So, in a country like Ghana, how would you coordinate and fund a multifaceted approach to development? And is spending a small amount on a lot of smaller projects a more effective use of resources than spending a larger amount on a few bigger projects?

        • Janine Reid says:

          Interesting question. I’m not going to bite on your first question, because “What should development look like?” is far far out of my grasp to comprehend, yet alone answer.
          I like the Millennium Villages idea, where you focus on delivering or even over-delivering on a very small community. The problem here is how to spread the new behaviours external to a highly pricey replication of the process. If there were some mechanism where word of mouth, learning from people could transfer the knowledge and conviction that different ways of living are beneficial, then I believe that there are small resources that individuals can mobilize to make baby steps towards practicing them. But how small of a step can we quantify as progress?

  2. Kay Ochiai says:

    I guess what you asked is very crucial questions Janine. We often focus about ends like school, infrastructure, and competitive markets. But also we blind ourselves from means such as having adequate transportations, or having farmer’s union that you can trust. I know that some schools in Africa have “breakfast” program. That is, feed children every morning before classes starts and make children stays not to “dine and dash” 😛 I guess we have to find the root cause and in order to do that we need to be objective. I think what you are doing – living there and actually experience what people there have to deal with – is the first step, Janine!!

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