Dialogical Action and Participatory Effort in Rural Development Education at Tsawenu, Ghana

by Dr. P. K. Fordjor
Institute of Adult Education
University of Ghana
Legon-Accra, Ghana


This article discusses an aspect of the practical work undertaken on the Awudome Residential Adult College (ARAC) demonstration farm at Tsawenu near Tsito/Eastern Ghana between the period 1988-1993. This work which was undertaken by a group of some local individuals and staff of the college derived its theoretical framework from Paulo Freire’s exposition on dialogue. The activities at Tsawenu may be used as an example to discuss conditions for success and failure of the extension work of an adult education activity against the background of Paulo Freire’s concept of dialogue and participatory approach within an African rural context. At the same time the article intends to contribute to the question of the potential role of Adult Education in rural development and the particular value of the dialogical action and participatory approach.

1. Adult Education and Development at the Grassroots Level

It is estimated that about two-thirds of the Ghanaian population of about 18 million people reside in rural areas, i.e. settlements with less than 5000 people. The main kind of employment is still peasant farming. In the middle forest-belt with equatorial vegetation cocoa production and timber constitute the main export trade activity, while in the coastal and northern savannah several food crops like rice, cocoyams, plantain and banana, cattle and poultry thrive.

If, for the purpose of this analysis, rural development is defined as the attempts made by the government departments, NGOs and other agencies as well as the rural dwellers themselves to transform their living and working conditions qualitatively and quantitatively through self help, then the participation of the rural dwellers themselves may be very crucial and the approach to facilitate this participation may be equally vital in determining the success or failure of any project in the target area. Before focussing on the dialogical approach it is necessary to take a short look at the basic economic and political background of certain features of rural development in Ghana.

The cocoa boom in the 1950s and 1960s and the subsequent affluence of the state coffers enabled Ghana, soon after achieving independence in 1957, to embark on a rural development programme concentrating on provision of housing, educational and health facilities as well as potable water. Due to lack of funds this programme had to be abandoned in 1966 with the declining cocoa price on the world market culminating in the collapse of the Nkrumah-government. Several attempts were made by various military and civilian governments to revive rural development, each regime taking on a specific approach. The series of unsuccessful attempts combined with the simple neglect of the rural areas contributed finally to an economic crisis, which, on the one hand, brought the deterioration of former achievements like rural educational or health facilities, and, on the other hand, culminated in an unprecedented food shortage in the late 70s and early 80s in an otherwise fertile tropical country. Attempts to arrest the situation by programmes such as “Operation Feed Yourself” (1972) failed partly by its lack of an effective adult educational component.

In the past many of the attempts made to develop the rural areas in Ghana had lacked realism as they did not seriously take into consideration the value of individual community need assessment. It was assumed that all rural areas had the same problems. Such assumption contributed to several projects coming to a standstill or even when completed, becoming conspicuously dysfunctional. Another handicap was that very often in the past the people for whom the projects were designed were themselves obviously left out of the planning and implementation stages. Consequently, they did not sufficiently relate to the projects and were, as should be expected, socially and psychologically alienated and detached from such projects from the very beginning.

Due to the multifaceted nature of the problem any meaningful rural development calls for an integrated approach in which the adult educational component should not be found wanting. Nevertheless, when as far back as 1951 the government sought to combine rural development policy with adult education at least verbally the slogan “eradicate illiteracy form Ghana once and for all”, was never translated into any meaningful programme.

In 1969 the government again adopted a rural development policy, which sought to “educate rural people and bring their outlook opportunities and standards nearer to those of city dwellers” (Dovlo,1980:12). Apart from the highly questionable approach, namely, to take the city dweller as yardstick for rural development, the lack of a coherent approach and the short life-span of each government before being overthrown led to the failure of the programme. The subsequent military government realising an acute food shortage, especially in the urban areas, launched a new policy under the already mentioned name: “Operation Feed Yourself”. Again, the slogans were not backed by any systematic programme to address rural problems. An adult education component was virtually missing, which at least partly contributed to the apparent failure of the programme. It was only during the last ten years that attempts were made to tackle the multifaceted nature of the problem with an integrated approach which shows a marked departure from the previous experiments in three significant ways:

  • Firstly, it gave an institutional framework for democratic participation of the rural population through the establishment of District Assemblies based on democratic elections throughout the country.
  • Secondly, rural development was backed by infrastructural development measures, especially, access roads for remote areas and the rural electrification programme under which the electrification of at least all district capitals throughout the country was invisaged (Agble, 1990:1).
  • Thirdly, the programme had an adult educational component as it sought to embark on a massive functional literacy programme, executed by the newly established Nonformal Education Division (NFED) of the Ministry of Education, enjoying financial and technical assistance from the World Bank.

2. Paulo Freire's participatory approach and African tradition

The name of Paulo Freire, the Brazilian adult educationist and philosopher, is well known in Ghanaian adult education and literary circles. Just as Frank Laubach’s name and method of “each one teach one” became very popular in Ghana in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, so has Paulo Freire’s name and literacy method of conscientization become popular in Ghana in the 1970’s and 1980’s to the extent that the Ghanaian national literacy campaign officially adopted an adapted form of Paolo Freire’s literacy method. This is not the place to discuss the outcome of the governmental literacy campaign which has only recently begun. The intention here is rather to point out some of the properties of Freire’s Philosophy and its usefulness and relevance within the African rural context. It might lead, however, at a later stage, to a critical appraisal of the national literacy campaign.

It may be necessary, however, to briefly state that in 1989 the Ghanaian government officially launched a national literacy campaign with financial and technical support of the World Bank. According to the 15th December, 1999 issue of the Daily Graphic, the leading Ghanaian newspaper, the government of Ghana and the World Bank were providing 46 million United States Dollars in support of the National Functional Literacy Programme for the next ten years. No doubt this literacy educational venture became possible largely because of the democratization process going on in the country.It was a situation, whereby a revolutionary military government after consolidating its political power base and having fairly successfully restructured the economy with the support of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), was able to peacefully transform itself into a democratically elected civilian government. Indeed, it is to the credit the government that , despite the initial social and economic difficulties, it has been able to enjoy prolonged popular support. This might partly be attributed to good governance and effective management of the IMF supported Economic Recovery Programme.

With this background the government adopted an adapted form of the Paulo Freirean Technique to solve its mass illiteracy problem. As the official document stated, the aim of the literacy campaign was „to conscientize the people and stimulate a change in their social attitudes through a strategy of functional literacy which is Freirean in approach“ (Dorvlo, 1993: 19).

The implementation of the Freirean technique in Ghana was linguistically not difficult , because like the original Portuguese or Spanish, most of the West African languages like Akan , Ewe, and Ga are known to be syllabic. Besides, experience with the application of the Laubach technique in the 1950‘s enabled the Ghanaians to quickly grasp and appreciate the relative strengths and advantages of the Freirean technique, namely, that it should aim at improving the social, political and economic system of the particular country concerned.

With this background, the government found Paulo Freire’s philosophy of conscientisation as the best strategy to combat the country’s mass illiteracy problem. The propagation of Paulo Freire’s ideas by UNESCO and academic institutions worldwide including the Institute of Adult Education of the University of Ghana no doubt also contributed to the adoption of the Freirean approach in Ghana.

The Freirean approach and philosophy itself could be observed in the method and content of the programme used to train the trainers of the Ghanaian literacy facilitators. Initially, an Ewe Picture-Word Chart was developed, using the Freirean, participatory, learner-centered technique. This technique, which is basically dialogical, is similar to the technique employed by Paulo Freire in searching for the generative themes in Latin America.In Ghana the generative themes identified in mid – 1978 were (Dorvlo, 1993: 81):

dowuame - hunger
kododo - lack of money
ahedada - poverty
howu - overpricing of goods
kudidi - drought

The above generative themes adequately described the existential problems of the illiterate masses in one of the most difficult periods in Ghana’s history, namely, a period of political and economic malaise similar to the situation in Brazil in the 1960‘s when similar existential generative themes like: favela – slum, arado – plough, chuva – rain, toreno – plot of land, etc. were compiled (Stueckrath, 1975: 26).

The success of the initial experiment in the Ewe language in Ghana encouraged the researchers to apply the same technique to other Ghanaian languages.Today, the chart has been developed in fifteen Ghanaian languages ,which are being used for literacy learning and teaching throughout the country.

According to Freire’s philosophy the “dialogue approach“ as enunciated in his book: “The Pedagogy of the Oppressed” (1972) and “Education for Critical Conscientiousness” (1985) should establish a horizontal and not a vertical relationship between the persons involved. In a dialogical action the horizontal relationship based on “empathy” between the two parties enables them to engage in joint research in a loving, humble, hopeful, trusting and critical way. If the relationship is vertical, that is characterised by arrogance, hopelessness, mistrust and missing love and critic, “empathy” is broken and instead of inter-communication it leads to a one-sided “Communique” (Freire: 1984:4).

The dialogue approach therefore postulates that political leaders as well as adult educators should establish a personal union, a kind of passionate commitment between them and the target group, between the executives, the animators, the extension officers and adult educators on the one hand and the community, on the other hand. Fulfilling that condition, this approach will not only help to determine the real needs of the adults, but will also help to facilitate the process of satisfying these needs. That means that initiating any adult educational programme the policy making and execution processes should as far as possible be considered as a unified activity. To achieve maximum success in the implementation of a policy, those carrying out the policy do not have to see themselves as detached from the policy. On the contrary, they should identify themselves as much as possible with the aims and objectives of the policy itself. This helps to avoid a situation whereby obviously sound policies become perverted or completely neutralised through un-co-operative bureaucrats and executives.

The whole process referred to as dialogical approach is fundamentally not new but has been found to be extensively operational in the traditional African education in Ghana. A chief, the traditional ruler in an area, may be considered the embodiment of the community. He is, however, not to be compared to an autocratic ruler. There is a manifold network of influences executed by individuals and groups which determine the final outcome of the question under discussion. Such processes of arriving at a decision may be formalised in a way of prescribed consultations to be held. It may also consist of a number of non-formalised contacts and discussions among individuals and opinion leaders. When finally the problem is discussed at an official sitting of the chief and his elders, investigations and discussions have already gone on for a long time and have come to a certain stage at least to the extent that the parties concerned had an opportunity to get their arguments across. No matter the outcome of a discussion, in a traditional framework participation of all people concerned is the natural by-product of the system.

In many rural areas where the traditional system is still, in essence, functioning, any attempt to enter into a dialogue has to work along these traditional lines. In practical terms that means the involvement of chiefs, council of elders, opinion leaders and age-groups. The initial meeting with the real actors, the rural farmers, then takes place in the relaxed atmosphere of a social event, amidst drumming, dancing and often with pouring of libation to the ancestors and palm wine drinking. The demonstration on the farm belongs to a later stage, after principal questions have been discussed and agreed upon. For the early stages a dialogical approach which in Ghana traditionally could be associated with the English word “respect”,is crucial. While people who live in the community for a longer period or are part of the same ethnic group will automatically follow the traditionally prescribed order of “respect”, an outsider may unwittingly fall from one mistake to another. Given that precondition of dialogue in the form of establishing a “traditional respect relation” the work on the content-level of the dialogue can start.

In the following Paulo Freire’s idea of dialogical action and participatory approach will be used as the framework for discussing the extension activity of the Awudome Residential College, which took place in Tsawenu, near Tsito-Awudome in the V.R. of Ghana in the late 80’s and early 90’s.

3. Rural development at Tsawenu and agricultural innovations of the College

The Awudome Residential College (ARAC) has from its very beginning grown out of a community effort. It was built in 1950 as one of the regional centres of university-based adult education in Ghana under the Department of Extra-Mural-Studies, now the Institute of Adult Education, University of Ghana. However, unlike other Extra-Mural Centres in the Country, the college is unique in several respects. Firstly, it was built largely by the Awudome Community led by some eminent opinion leaders and the Chief, who saw the necessity for the establishment of such educational facilities. Secondly, it was inspired by the ideals of the Scandinavian Folk High School system and the British Residential Adult Colleges, notably Fircroft College in Birmingham (Bertelsen 1957).

The Folk high schools are traditionally noted for their promotion of dialogue and democratic ideals in the communities in which they operate, although the extent of such dialogue and interaction remains different from one school to another (Eichberg 1992). Like a typical Folk High School, ARAC was not built directly by government or the Institute of Adult Education but through a joint effort of the local Tsito Community, the Institute of Adult Education, the Government of Ghana and voluntary contributions in cash and kind from a host of several organisations, commercial houses and private individuals.

A monument depicting the founders’ contributions has recently been erected in front of the College’s Open Air Terrace to commemorate the efforts of all, who made substantial contributions towards the building of the college. Funds for the erection of the monument were generously donated by Prof. Lalage Bown, the first Resident Tutor for Volta Region and Principal of the College. From its inception the College’s programmes have mainly taken the form of seminars, lecture series, as well as short and long courses in Liberal Studies, Literacy and Community Development issues. The following is an example for the Programmes of Awudome Residential Adult College 1991/92 (see table 1).

Table 1: Awudome Residential Adult College: Program 1991/92
TopicType of ActivityResource Persons
1. Education for Democracy: The Folk High School ConceptSeminarResident Tutor, ARAC & Leader of Folk High School Group from Denmark
2. Vocational Adult Education in Togo and GhanaSeminarResident Tutor, ARAC & Leader of Crasse Kuma Dunyo Togo
3. Environmental Protection: ARAC Tree PlantingProject WorkshopResident Tutor, ARAC & Chief of Anyirawase
4. Teenage Pregnancy:What is to be done?WorkshopSenior Nursing Sister, Community Health Dept., Ho
5. IDS and its PreventionLecture/DiscussionRegional Medical Officer, Ho
6. Decentralization and its Implementation for Rural DevelopmentLecture/DiscussionLecturer from School of Administration, Legon
7. Cultural Heritage and Modernization in AwudomeSymposiumAssemblyman, Tsito & Principal of ARAC
8. NCD Report and Multiparty Constitutional Rule in GhanaLecture/DiscussionSecretary, Ghana Bar Association, Ho

Source: Compiled from College Records for the academic year 1991/92 by the author

Peasant farming being the main occupation of the people in the catchment area of the college, Liberal Studies topics as indicated in the table were found to be somewhat deficient in responding adequately to the needs of the people at a time, when Ghana was suffering from unprecedented economic hardship including severe hunger and food shortages nation-wide. Consequently, the college acquired in 1972 a 35 acre land at Tsawenu to serve as a demonstration farm. This was a move designed to respond directly to the immediate needs of the local community.

Tsawenu is a settler community in Awudome with a population of about 500 people. It is situated on the Tsito - Ho road only a few kilometres from the college and a walking distance from other Awudome towns like Anyirawase and Kwanta. Being more or less centrally placed, it was expected that the farm,with full participation of the local Tsawenu community and participants from the adjoining Awudome towns could boost up and revitalize the farming activities of the area and gradually move the farmers on from the hitherto subsistence economy to fairly reasonable substantial income generating economic ventures. To facilitate this process a trained agriculturist was assigned to the college farm, who together with the Resident Tutor and his staff organised periodic workshops and demonstrations for the farmers on the farm. The agriculturist also made periodic visits to selected individual farms of the local community to assist them in their adoption of the innovative ideas acquired at the workshops and demonstrations. With such pedagogical guidance and technical advice, the college has over the years been able to bring about in the area appreciable improvement in the cultivation of oil palm, soya beans, cow peas, special varieties of maize and vegetables. Above all, the college has established the culture of adult and permanent education with regard to demonstration and dissemination of innovative farming ideas and activities like planting in lines, snail farming, mushroom farming and bee keeping.

One of the early activities of the College demonstration farm is the introduction of a four acre high-breed oil palm mini-plantation some 25 years ago.The College has until recently derived maximum continuous yields from this plantation, thus proving many local farmers wrong, especially those who believed an oil-palm plantation could not thrive in that part of the Volta Region as it does in the forest areas of Central, Eastern, Ashanti and Brong-Ahafo Regions of Ghana. Indeed, the recent yield from the plantation was so impressive that the College received several orders from farmers for the particular breed. Consequently, in 1992, the College Agriculturist, at the time a National Service Personal, was sent to the University of Ghana Agricultural Research Station at Kade to purchase the high-breed oil-palm seed nuts for dissemination among local farmers. At the same time two acres of young seedlings were transplanted on the College farm to augment the College stock now growing old. According to a recent interview with the farm supervisor, while before the demonstration activities of the college farm there were no commercial oil-palm farmers in the locality, there were at the time of the interview as many as about 30 local farmers engaged in small scale commercial oil-palm plantation activities. This indicates some improvement in the subsistence farming and income level of the villagers (see table 2).

Table 2: College Demonstration Farm Activities at Tsawenu (1988-93)
Type of Activity No. of subsistence farmers engaged in small scale commercial farming. Activities after participating in College demonstration farm activities.
Oil-Palm Plantation 30
Vegetables (Tomatoes, Okro, Pepper) 50
Mushroom Farming 15
Snail farming 20
Bee-keeping 7
Total 122

As the figures show, the palm oil plantation (30 farmers) was not the only agricultural extension activity initiated through the demonstration farm. The number of farmers engaged in small scale commercial vegetable farming is as high as 50, while those engaged in snail farming and mushroom farming are 20 and 15 respectively. The figure for bee keeping is rather low (7), but this may be explained by the fact that the area is noted for wild honey-harvest from the forest, which enterprise is far cheaper to undertake than the modern bee keeping.

4. The role of dialogical action: the example of introducing the bullock plough or a mini-tractor

An illustration of what may happen if the people at the project level are not sufficiently involved in decision making, is the experience made when two bullocks were acquired together with a plough and a simple tilling and harrowing machine. The idea was to expose the local farmers to bullock ploughing as appropriate technology to lessen the arduous and expensive traditional method of cultivating by means of the cutlass and the hoe. One College Farm assistant was specially trained at Yendi, Northern Ghana, in the correct use and maintenance of the plough, which is widely used in Northern Ghana. Unfortunately, the two bullocks died within a year after arrival under rather mysterious circumstances. However, the story was narrated that the death did not come as a surprise to the local people, who knew from their accumulated traditional knowledge and experience that the area has never been conductive to cattle breeding of any sort. It is said that when the bullocks arrived at Tsawenu, one old man mockingly asked the college Agricultural Officer, whether he had ever seen any cattle being kept in the area. Apparently, the area is not only partly too hilly and stony for the plough, but is worse still infested with the Tse-tse fly and other dangerous insects which attack cattle. Although the course of the death of the bullocks is not conclusively known, investigations revealed that difficulties in adapting to the new environment, poor feeding and inadequate handling coupled with lack of constant veterinary care were responsible for the death of the bullocks. In any case, the bullock experiment also revealed the relative importance of enlisting the participation through dialogue of the target group right from the planning and need assessment stages of the project. It is believed that a previous dialogical action with the local people would have achieved better results. As it were, the farm reverted to the use of the cutlass and the hoe until the late 1980’s, when, with the improvement in the general Ghanaian economic situation, the local farmers realized they could increase their acreage for production through the use of a tractor.

Following an appeal of the local farmers to the College to assist them in acquiring a tractor, the college took a cue from the Bullock Plough episode and decided to enter into a dialogue with the farmers on the seeming advantages and problems to be expected from the introduction of a commercial tractor in the area.

Even though there had been a long standing series of non-formal educational activities between the College team of adult educators and the Tsawenu farmers, for the purpose of dialogical action and participatory approach a more structured meeting schedule was planned between the college team of adult educators on the one hand, and the Tsawenu group of farmers as the target group, on the other hand. The period for the meetings was the 1992/93 academic year and the time was every Wednesday from 10.00 a.m. to 12.00 noon. Wednesday was chosen because it is the traditional non-working day for all farmers in the whole of Awudome. It is also a day set aside for communal activities. Minutes were carefully recorded at each meeting and interpreted to the illiterate participants by the more literate members of the group. The topics for discussion were chosen according to a priority list based mainly on the existential and economic relevance of the subject arrived at collectively after a lengthy discussion and interaction with the farmers. Below is the first two of the topics finally decided upon to be the most immediate preoccupation for the session:

  1. The need for a tractor,
  2. the need for “nnoboa” or a co-operative society.

The meeting point was the open air discussion place under the mango tree at the College Demonstration Farm at Tsawenu. Twenty four dialogue sessions were held on the demonstration farm. The arguments of the farmers could be summarised as follows: The farmers argued that, with the increasingly favourable marketability of agricultural produce in Ghana in the 1980’s they could easily increase their income level, if they would be assisted by the College to increase their acreage for production through the purchase of a tractor. The few tractors operating in the area were charging exorbitant fees. Therefore, the need to have their own tractor became very obvious. Since the College has so far been acting like a powerhouse for spearheading almost all the innovative and development-oriented projects in the community, they wanted the College to assist them in the acquisition of the tractor, the use of which was becoming increasingly lucrative in the area.

The college was from its own perspective not very sympathetic to the demand, not only because of the high cost of a tractor, but also because of the long-term environmentally damaging effect of a tractor as was already being experienced in the Northern part of the country. Another worry was the College’s misgivings about the long-term economic viability and sustainability of a tractor in the village. Much of the land is stony and hilly and the experience of the dead bullocks was fresh in memory. Therefore, through dialogue, the farmers were persuaded first to form the traditional “Nnoboa”, a form of indigenous Ghanaian co-operative system, and work collectively not with a tractor but with the cutlass and the hoe on individual members farms in rotation. It may be explained that “Nnoboa”, as a traditional co-operative system was used extensively in the hey days of the cocoa production in Ghana in the 1940’s and 1950’s. For various reasons which cannot be recounted here the “Nnoboa” system is no longer operating in many farming communities in Ghana including the Awudome community. As it were, the dialogue on the acquisition of the tractor continued until a compromise position was reached, whereby the farmers agreed to acquire a mini-tractor, a much more affordable and environmentally less hazardous Korean made power-tiller, which is locally assembled. The experience with the power-tiller in the first couple of years has been found to be positive to the extent that a few more people in the area are beginning to acquire their own power-tiller to engage in small scale commercial farming.

Comparing the two episodes, we find two marked differences. First the question who took the initiative and secondly the persistence as well as balanced nature of the dialogue. With regard to the initiative in the bullock story the College had initiated the project out of the conviction that it was necessary to find ecological acceptable ways to help the deprived subsistence farmers of the area to improve their agricultural methods in order to improve their living standard. After taking the initiative the bullocks were purchased by the college without an intensive dialogue or involvement of the local farmers. This brought about two negative results: Traditional knowledge of environmental conditions (locally not suitable for cattle rearing/Tsetse fly) was not tapped on by the initiators of the project. In addition the farmers’ impression that something was imposed on them from outside, could not be counteracted by the belated pedagogical action in form of some few demonstration sessions on the college’s farm. As a result the farmers might have been scarcely able to relate to the animals and therefore the project had no local support. With regard of the power-tiller, the project grew out of the awareness of the local farmers. The initiative came from the farmers themselves while the college was rather compelled to engage in a dialogue due to the obvious obstacles in the way to fulfil the farmers demand for assistance towards the acquisition of a tractor. This led to a sustained dialogue, both sides exchanging arguments until a compromise was found. It may be interesting to observe that the power-tiller was treated with tender care, unlike the bullocks which were to a large extent neglected.


In pursuance of the policy of democratization and development at the grassroots level, the dialogical action and participatory approach seems to offer an effective tool for reaching out to the rural folk. By such pedagogical intervention, it is possible, for example, that the rural folk would become increasingly aware of questionable practices of modern agriculture, like the uncontrolled use of high technology tractors and chemical fertilizers. Furthermore, the approach could result in conscientizising the rural farmers to the extent that the widespread prevalent magico-religious beliefs and superstition, which often empede development, would give way to the creation of critical consciousness and a more scientific approach towards rural development issues. The dialogical action and participatory approach effort at Tsawenu has not only been beneficial to the social and economic development of many people in the area, but has also demonstrated the immense value and importance of the philosophy of dialogue and participation in working among predominantly illiterate rural population in Africa.


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