August 21


Bells and Drums in Ghana

Do you remember when you got your first cell phone? How about your first smart phone? I remember the day I got my first iPhone – I instantly felt cooler! They are so handy for finding things to do, places to eat, maps to find your way, and obviously to keep you in touch with family, friends and work.

I’ve just come back from trips to East and West Africa, visiting Kenya, Rwanda, Ghana and Senegal. My role in the Millennium Villages Project is to enhance accountability and reporting in the Lead Farmer Program (LFP). Communities elect Lead Farmers to receive training from agricultural extension workers that they in turn teach to their neighbors in a systematic and organized way. The ultimate goal is to provide smallholder farmers with the basis to sustainably manage their farms and increase their incomes.

While in Africa, I interviewed Lead Farmers in many villages. Invariably they told me that the program is a success and that they are proud to be involved. Great! Next, I tried to nail down exactly how they communicate with each other, so we can improve the program. In East Africa, I learned that almost every farmer is literate and has a phone. Some enterprising Lead Farmers had started Facebook or What’s App chats to share ideas and help each other with problems. Over in West Africa, I discovered it’s a much different story. Imagine my surprise when I started asking about communication in Northern Ghana and someone said they use “bells and drums”. I assumed this was an app I hadn’t heard of, or a figure of speech. As I continued with my questions, it became clear that they were literally talking about bells and drums. I think the comment went something like this, “When we have news, we wait until dinnertime when most people are home and then we walk around banging a drum and shouting whatever information we want to pass along”.

People in Africa use mobile phones for online activities that others normally perform on computers as a way to overcome weak or non-existent landline infrastructure. In the LFP, people collect data on crop yields, prices, access to credit and fertilizer use in remote villages – all on cell phones. Even in northern Ghana, where phone use is less advanced, neighboring farmers will often share a phone by switching out SIM cards so they can get make calls and their messages. I’ve got many more stories to share from my travels, but this one really made me realize how creative and resourceful people can be.