Village meeting

Last week we took a trip to a nearby village to discuss their sanitation action plan with them. This was the village where they’d previously shown up an hour and a half early and gone home and I’d met the guy who claimed to have spent 12 years in Côte d’Ivoire who may be crazy. This time we all appeared to be there at the right time, 7am. The elders were sat discussing things elders discuss, Mr Côte d’Ivoire was shouting about something or other and a little boy was crying so hard he couldn’t brush his teeth properly. A girl was staring so hard at me I think she was analysing the back of my skull.

At 7:35, less than a hundred people had arrived. In a community of a thousand, we need a quorum of at least a hundred to be able to agree decisions taken by the community. The meeting organiser had done a lap of the village banging a gong and announcing the meeting, but fifty people at best had shown. Nicholas leaned forward and quietly informed the meeting organiser that if we didn’t have a hundred people in the next ten minutes, we’d be leaving and the meeting would be over.

He did the rounds with the gong banging twice as hard, and sure enough, about eight minutes later, a large enough group had assembled.

There’s a good reason for taking photos like this, and it’s not just so glorified tourists can blog about it. A photo is a visual record of who was at the meeting, and therefore who wasn’t. There is the potential for penalties for non-attendees. I’m told of a chief at another village who was sat with a notepad throughout a village meeting, writing away, for what reason no-one was quite sure. At the end of the meeting, he announced the names of all the people who had arrived late, and that they were subject to a fine of 5 Cedis. If they didn’t have it, they’d have to send their wives for it, but they weren’t leaving until they paid up. Non-attendees paid 10 Cedis. Those who didn’t pay were reported to the police.

That may seem mean, but if the chief arranges a meeting for 7pm, people will be sat in their seats waiting for it to start at 6:30.

So back to this meeting – it starts at around 7:45am. We stand for a prayer. We get through welcomes, handshakes, and introductions. A hen takes centre stage with three particularly loud chicks, and between them they actually manage to drown out the conversation. They are escorted from the meeting. The meeting organiser offered thanks and apologies for the late arrivals.

There is a request for the community to take sanitation seriously, then a question – why, when households have their own latrines and there is a public latrine, is there still open defacation?

Mr Côte d’Ivoire stands up. A ripple of laughter and the odd moan moves through the village. He suggests, wide-eyed and wide-armed, that he will trap any stray animals on his farmland. He gets a round of applause.

Another hen has gatecrashed the meeting. It flies past the head of the man next to me in a rather undignified fashion having been ejected from the venue.

Someone mentions the dump. The village has a rubbish dump that has grown in size and moved closer to the village – people haven’t bothered walking as far, so the rubbish ends up the distance from the village that it takes to throw it. Not uncommon. It is suggested that the dump is cleared and moved further from the village.

Mr Côte d’Ivoire, for some reason, has got worked up about something. He disappears into his house shouting, and emerges shouting and holding his machete. My sphincter muscle involuntary tightens. The village, as far as I can tell, in one voice tells him to stop being an idiot and put the big knife away. He does as he’s told.

At the end of the meeting, the village has agreed to clear, move and fence off their rubbish dump. They do all this, and other than a short introduction by Nicholas, we have hardly said a thing. This is cool.

I stand up, thank the villagers for their welcome and for their efforts, offer a couple of short remarks that are translated for me, then thank them in Twi and almost get blown backwards by the exclamation and round of applause. Yes, everybody’s feeling good about themselves, but we’ll be checking what happens to the dump and I still need to learn more Twi.