Great blog ‘Evolution in a Toxic World: How life responds to chemical threats’

“We are chemical addicts. Returning to Nature is like going back to the future, with an opportunity to change the timeline. Adjust our course. In the near future perhaps we can rely less on our synthetic chemistry and more on Nature’s capacity to manage her own.”

Emily Monosson is an independent toxicologist, writer, consultant, and college instructor, adjunct faculty member in the Department of Natural Resource and Conservation at the University of Massachusetts.


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Starving you back to work: Why Tory policy of cutting benefits if you refuse treatment is vile


“The incentive for recovering from a mental health problem or addiction should be recovery itself, not starvation from benefit cuts. This policy needs to be scrapped, and quickly.”

Starving you back to work: Why Tory policy of cutting benefits if you refuse treatment is vile.

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Dr Johnny – guiding light for 15 years of community agriculture in Sandwell

Dr Johnny – the man responsible for enabling 15 years of community agriculture in Sandwell, and defining the second half of my working life. Retirement? Retirement from Sandwell, perhaps….

Dr Johnny

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Subsidiarity, food banks and Big Society: what is the problem?

Better Health For All

There has been recent concern in public heath circles with the media reporting that the UK has opted out of the new EU Social Welfare Fund scheme, which began in January 2014. This replaced the ‘Food Aid Programme to the Most Deprived Persons in the Community’, commonly known as the MDP programme ran from 1987 to December 2013. The reporting has focussed on the issue that by opting out of the new scheme that food banks in the UK cannot access food or funds from the new scheme for those in need. While this is true and a consequence of the opting out (Hansard 2012), there are deeper – and maybe hidden – issues to be addressed.

These relate to the role of food banks in our society and the right to food for citizens as well as questioning why such a need exists? While food banks have captured the…

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Home, almost

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It has been almost exactly a month since I arrived back from my volunteering post, and I have been reluctant, or not found the time, energy or right thinking space to post about my homecoming. I am not sure why. I think perhaps I have been very future focused with finding a job (no luck yet), and also have yet to move back into my own place – I’m currently staying with a friend until mid-May. So I have not had the right time and space to think things through, unlike when I was in placement, living alone, when I had plenty of quiet space to think.

I looked back at the previous post but one, at the re-entry ‘curve’ and stages from a volunteering manual, and I think I am just beginning to get the inklings of the beginning of the pining phase, having gone through the initial euphoria at being back home. It was a high, landing at Heathrow at 5.30am on a brilliantly sunny day with the temperature at 3 degrees C, in a light cotton frock, having lost my coat somewhere on the way to the airport. The following days were sunny, and everywhere the first signs of spring could be seen. Ghana has no seasons as such, it is just more or less hot and rainy, and I had missed the distinctness of seasonal climate patterns. I was glad to have missed the winter though.

It was uplifting to see the green shoots of trees and plants, the early season wildflowers, and ecstatic to hear the familiar birdsong of blackbirds, robins, and to see the first skylark. Then there were the family reunions with my gorgeous grandson, son, and mother, and my dog, which had undergone emergency cancer surgery just before my return (successful, though with cancer you can never tell if it will appear again). Now I am working furiously on my allotment (a rented parcel of land where I grow fruits, vegetables and flowers) to cultivate, sow and plant the new season’s produce. I walk miles as I sold my car before leaving, which is doing great things for my fitness levels.

Browsing my photographs, I found some taken in the last few days of my placement, never posted here, which made me feel regrets for having to leave my West African life, and my friends and colleagues there. I feel sad even writing this part. So I think perhaps the pining stage is beginning, for the wonderful, happy life I left behind. It was one of the happiest years of my life, and had a truly restorative effect on my health (i.e. the symptoms of my long-term illness, fibromyalgia), and other aspects of my well being. I was able to resolve the deep grieving process I was going through for the loss of my father in 2012. I was able to reassess my priorities for the last years of my working life.

Packing up your life and going volunteering is both challenging and empowering. You strip away all the habits, behaviour patterns, and relationships of your home life. You have to live, cope and thrive in a completely new situation, with new places, people, and cultural behaviours. It is empowering to realise that, despite illness and bereavement, I was more than able to rise to the challenges. When all that was familiar was stripped away, and I was alone with myself in a new situation, I found I was happy just being myself. I found that I was not weighed down by a lot of emotional or psychological ‘baggage’. To find that out about yourself is both liberating and empowering. I hope it lasts, and is not drowned out as I am reabsorbed into life at home. I do know that I will put my happiness and well being first more often in life than I used to.

I intend to keep this blog going for a few weeks at least, to post about life as a returning volunteer, and recollections and insights into the experience, and of the project I was working on. I have a lot to say about that, reprising thoughts expressed in a previous post “Can global corporations ‘do’ international development?’. I have much to think about and share. I do know one thing for sure, which is that had it not been for my 89yr old mother, and my about to be 5yrs grandson, I would not have come back. I would have applied for another posting and just carried on volunteering. I don’t care if I never have another job again, and would happily volunteer until I really am too old to continue. One of the things that my professional partners said before I left was that I had ‘the spirit of volunteerism’ in abundant amount. I will do it again at the first opportunity, but for now my priority is to be there as much as I can for Mum, for as long as it takes. She is in fine form for a woman of her age, but I noticed the difference a year has made in her form, which has become more frail.

I also brought home a whole case full of wonderful Ghanaian cloth, which I intend to use for making up some prototype designs and commissions for wonderful frocks, with an eye to the possibility to setting up a small business that I can continue into my retirement. Gardening, dressmaking, being with family and friends…who needs a job? Well, sadly I do, as I still am paying off a mortgage on my small but lovely new build ‘eco’ flat.

The photos this time are a selection of the last days of my time in West Africa, and some of life since my return.  What a contrast! But being the happy person I discovered myself to be, it is the positives that I dwell on rather than the negatives.  Having said that the amount of complete rubbish on TV is staggering (I have not owned one for some years), and the tendency of my fellow citizens to whinge and moan and get short tempered and arsy in public is something of a reverse culture shock.  I’d rather listen to the birdsong and enjoy the flowers, and feel happy and grateful for my life.  Volunteering and Ghanaian culture taught me something of fundamental importance about a good life, which I hope I never lose sight of.

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Will the new G8 alliance end food insecurity in Ghana – unlikely, but it will facilitate land grabs

“Ghana’s current pattern of agricultural investment and growth is clearly not succeeding in addressing food and nutrition insecurity … The New Alliance document manifestly emphasises private investment, but there is little corporate profit to be made in the type of agriculture that can address these issues.”

Seth Dankyi Boateng of the University of Ghana’s agriculture college said public-private partnerships were welcomed by the country’s small-scale farmers, as long as they retain control. “For the peasant farmers in Ghana, land is life. If multinational producers are given the ability to buy large quantities of land, then naturally the farmers who depend on those facilities may be deprived of their livelihood. And so most people would have serious concerns about that.”

Will new GB alliance end food insecurity in Ghana – unlikely, but it will facilitate land grabs

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Preparing for change: reverse culture shock, and a picture book of impressions of Africa to last a lifetime

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 My preparations for leaving are now developing a life of their own, and I feel englufed in small whirlwind that is carrying me forwards too fast.  My flight has been identified and is being booked.  It will set my feet down at Heathrow at 5.30am on Sunday 23rd March. I will be home in time for two important events, my Mum’s 89th birthday, and the last conference and farewell party of one of my most important mentors, funders and fellow travellers of the second part of my working life.  In amongst all this maybe job interviews.  I will be rushing around the country, and I will have no car!


The first week or two will be a mad rush, and this is probably a good thing, as I don’t doubt I will be prone to reverse culture shock.  My volunteer agency leave no stone unturned in preparing you for every aspect of the volunteer experience, and this includes leaving and returning home.  I am working my way through their manual, and I am definitely on the excitement/anxiety stage.  I am excited about surprising my Mum on her birthday, about seeing my young family and gorgeous Grandson, being reunited with my dog, and getting stuck in to my allotment.

 the curve

I have no doubt I will pine for Ghana, for Africa and the volunteering experience. I have no doubt that being forced to see and listen to the Bullingdon bully boys (Cameron, Osbourne etc,) and their fellow travellers (Gove, Ian Duncan Smith etc.) will depress me horribly, as will the cultural tendencies of my people to be uptight, intolerant and miserable. Oh and traffic, rush, push, no time no time no time.  Plus I will be homeless for a few weeks as my flat is let until mid May. Plus I have to get a job.  Oh.  Mixed feelings.  I can feel my emotions churning just thinking about it all.  Am I prepared? Sort of.  Will I cry? Most definitely.


We have to complete various reports and have meetings and exit interviews before departure, and over the last few days I have been working on my final report.  It’s a mixed picture, some good, some not so good.  The last question in the final report template is, “What have you gained personally from your experience as a volunteer?”  This prompted a very positive narrative, which I am including below:


“I have gained an immense amount both personally and professionally.  I have absolutely loved my time in Ghana and being a part of society here, and learning and gaining insights into Ghanaian culture.  I am most impressed by what I have seen and experienced and it has made me reevaluate what makes a society ‘civil’.  To me, Ghana is extremely civilized, in some ways more so that Britain, especially with regard to people’s peace loving natures.  I met and came to respect a group of professional partners. I have also learned about some of the downsides of life in Ghana, such as the problems faced by its deprived farming communities, and how corruption at all levels acts as a brake on development. 


I have also gained insight into cultural practices I find much harder to explain, they are incredibly deep rooted.  One example is the apparent lack of willingness of people to think and plan strategically and for the longer-term.  It appears to be true that the African lives very much in the moment, and is fatalistic about change.  This is God’s will.  This means in practice that people do not see the importance of certain key actions and tasks, which once accomplished, will open doors in the future.  A good example is people not seeing the benefit of registering their FBO, or developing a project/business/action plan.  This effectively disqualifies them from accessing funding and investment, as nearly all funders and investors require evidence that a group is genuine by seeing that it is registered (often for some years), and that it has a credible project/business plan.  This means that really good opportunities are lost.


Professionally, my experience as a volunteer has strengthened my confidence in my abilities.  I have learned that I can rise to any challenge.  I have learned that the fears I held before I came, for example about returning to front line facilitation after a long absence, were not founded. I found that I thrived in situations that before I came would have scared me, like facilitating very large groups of people (98 was the record), using simple participative tools and signs, in churches, palaces and under the shade of trees, and working through interpreters.  These became the highlight of my experience here. I was really happy doing this work. I wish I could have done more of it.  I delighted in working with my professional partners here.


Also, my health benefited enormously from this placement.  I have a long-term illness, fibromyalgia, and it was a risk taking on this placement.  I manage my condition with medication and a ‘can do’ attitude. I had no idea whether my health would stand it.  I am grateful to the London medical experts for clearing me for placement.  I have had some minor spells of illness, but overall I have made a significant recovery, given the state of my health up to the time of my departure. I have been able to cut one of my medication doses by half and maintain a reasonable stable level of health.  One of the most debilitating symptoms of my illness, chronic pain, has almost completely disappeared.


I will be returning to the UK refreshed and recovered, and with a restored and invigorated self-confidence, which I will carry into my future work and relationships.”

This blog has played a really critical role as part of my placement.  It is a record, a testimony, a narrative, in words and pictures, of my time and experiences here.  At this point over 2,300 people have visited my pages, many have left comments. Old friends have re-emerged.  It is my book of my time here, and I intend to keep it going at least during the early part of my repatriation, as my experiences might be interesting to others.  And the cloth!  I have been shopping!  The sewing machine will get fixed, and I will make beautiful things, and grow wonderful produce on my allotment. 

How I will find time to have a job is a worry.  I’d really like to work locally and part time, but living costs in my city, Oxford, are very high, and of course jobs are scarce, but I have a knack for winkling out the interesting stuff, and am busy sending out applications.  But that is all ahead of me.  For now, I am trying to etch impressions of Africa, of the people and the places, into my memory, my visual cortex, so that I can return to and bask in the images, the sounds, the feelings.  It will be my secret place that I can go to when I need to.

The pictures accompanying this post are part of this journey, capturing the faces and the colours, the song and the dance of this wonderful country and its lovely, peaceful people.  I feel quite emotional at the thought of leaving it all, not knowing when or if I can return.

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