Wednesday, 3 June 2009

WABER Seminar - West African Built Environment Research

The two day seminar in Accra was at the British Council. After a brief welcome from the Deputy Director of the British Council in Accra, and an opening address by myself about the nature of research in our field, and what we are looking for, the event was formally opened with a welcoming speech from Professor Kwasi Kwafo Adarkwa, the Vice-Chancellor of Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology. We also presented KNUST with a hard copy of the entire back-catalogue of Construction Management and Economics, as a gift to the library. We hired the British Council for the venue, and arranged the refreshments and food, so that the delegates had only to turn up and take part. We did not charge them for attendance, this being the first time we had tried anything like this. The turnout was excellent, and there was a lot of enthusiasm for the event. It soon became clear that there had not been an event focused on the built environment in this region before.

Over the course of two day, 32 PhD students and prospective PhD students presented their work to the audience. Each presented for ten minutes, and then there was a ten minute critique and discussion, lead by the panel. We paired up presentations, so that the discussions could have the space to develop into something interesting. The sessions were all chaired by distinguished academics from the region, and this helped to keep the pace moving along. In many cases, the work being reported was at such a preliminary stage there was not much to discuss, so suggestions were made instead. What was intriguing was that although some of the criticism was quite harsh in some cases, the speakers took it on the chin in good spirit, and saw the experience as an opportunity to learn and develop. It was indeed refreshing to be among people who valued criticism, and did not see it as an affront to their dignity, as can happen in some parts of the world.

The range of work that was presented was broad. Despite our efforts to keep the focus on construction management, there were some presentations on materials science, some on property valuation, and even one from an artist on the representational aesthetics of palaces in Nigeria, or something along those lines. The quality, as well, was extremely variable, and so when one delegate presented a piece of work that was coherent, clear, well connected to what had gone before, and likely to produce something worth knowing, we decided to implement a prize for the best presentation. This was awarded to Mrs Kulomri Jaule Adogbo of Ahmadu Bello University in Nigeria. It was a pleasure to see such good work. Some of the other presenters were just setting out with their research, and so we had a huge range of quality, from clearly enunciated, well-paced and easy to understand through to garbled and incoherent embarrassment. But everybody's got to start somewhere. Whatever was presented, there was a good discussion and in each case, constructive advice emerged from the various contributions to the debate. Here is a short list of some of the topics that are being researched in this region:

  • Energy efficiency
  • Construction costs
  • Contract management
  • Construction finance
  • Construction procurement
  • Supply chain management
  • Building maintenance
  • Human relations
  • Productivity
  • Economic development
  • Marketing
  • Decision support systems
  • Information technology
  • Urban development
  • Materials science

A couple of themes came up in many of the presentations. First, there was clearly some confusion as to what constituted academic research. Many presenters were clearly setting up a piece of consultancy work. When it was pointed out to them that this was not research and would not satisfy the requirements for a PhD, there was some confusion. In the end, we simplified the message down to "if you are doing what practitioners do, you are doing consultancy. If you are examining or analysing what practitioners do, it is research". This was something that had to be hammered home, but is also a regular problem in CM research the world over. Second, few presenters had come across the idea of research methodology. As usual, the word was bandied around a lot as a heading, but as usual, it heralded a discussion of methods. The distinction between methods and methodology was as difficult to get across here as anywhere. One metaphor that seemed to work was cooking - a recipe is a list of steps that are to be used in preparing a dish, but the recipe does not tell you why these steps work. Such is the difference between explaining what steps were involved (research methods) and explaining why they were chosen and how they generate data and information that will usefully address the questions (research methodology). Another frustration with research methods was the preoccupation with survey questionnaires and the notion of preparing some kind of model. It is a common feature among new researchers to assume that social science research requires a questionnaire survey. It doesn't. There are so many research methods that might be used, and the lack of variety in approaches to hugely varying questions indicated that few of these researchers were aware of the literature on research methods. So we frequently pushed people to carry out some review of research methods before they did their fieldwork, and in many cases we told them that a questionnaire survey would simply not answer the questions they were asking. However, some of the research studies were well designed with appropriate methods, and over the two days we saw the full range from expert to novice.

There was a strong sense of occasion to the event. On the second day we were featured on the radio, Ghana Broadcasting Corporation, at breakfast and on the six o'clock news. Sadly we were too busy to find a radio and listen, but a journalist from the GBC was with us a lot of the time, and this hammered home to us just how unusual it was to have a workshop/seminar of this kind in West Africa. And although it was based on Accra, Ghana, the vast majority of the delegates had travelled from Nigeria. They had a meeting among themselves after the seminar was over, because, it seems, this was the first opportunity they had had to meet as a group.

Overall, then, this seminar was a resounding success. Something like 80 people spend two days sharing views and knowledge about the research process and how academic research can be applied to the practical problems of management in this particular industry sector. We all learned a great deal, and there is a genuine commitment to running this again in the not-too-distant future. There is now increased interest in the journal, Construction Management and Economics, and we have opened up a huge range of networking opportunities for collaborative work in the future. The next step is to set up a website for WABER, to record what we achieved at this inaugural seminar, and provide a space for discussion and development. This was an excellent venture in every respect.

Monday, 1 June 2009

St Bernadette of Soubirou's School

Because Roine is involved in research around the UK's Building Schools for the Future programme, we arranged a visit to a local primary school in Accra. St Bernadette of Soubirou's is a private sector catholic school in the district of Dansoman. We chose this School, because Sammie's mum works there as a teacher, teaching class six. The head teacher, Mrs Mary Aquiline Cato, has been Head for 22 years, and she and her colleagues were very welcoming indeed, giving us a guided tour of all the facilities. Despite the heat and humidity being so enervating, there was no air-conditioning. Indeed, there was no mains electricity at the time we visited, due to a power cut, which seems a regular feature here. Instead, a noisy generator throbbed away on the sports field, which also doubled as their assembly hall. We talked in the Head's office for a while, and met some of the teachers and admin staff, then went for a tour of the classrooms. The first one was for very young infants, and they were just about to have their mid-morning snack. Those who could afford to buy a little meat pie had one, some kids had brought a snack from home, and some had only a drink. They were sat patiently, quietly and politely, waiting to be told when to start eating, when we walked in. Whenever the Head walks into a classroom, the kids all speak in perfect unison "Good morning Mrs Cato", to which she response "good morning, how are you". The united response is "Fine, thanks, and you?", to which Mrs Cato does not respond, as far as I could tell. This little catechism happened in every room we entered, except one, where they little poppets called here "Madam" instead of her name, and she pulled them on that. Every step of the way, we were accompanied by a photographer with a still camera and a video camera, recording the visit for posterity, especially as this was an anniversary year for the school, and they wanted to include our visit as part of the annals of the anniversary.

Sam's mum was delighted to see
us again. We spent a bit of time in her classroom, and after the kids gave us the usual welcome, Sam asked them what they were doing. They had been reading about animals, so he got them to tell hi what they had been working on, and they were enthusiastic about raising their hands and answering his questions, shouting out the names of animals. It suddenly struck me that they might not have any idea who he was, or who we were, so I asked them, pointing at him, "Do you know who this is?" They went quiet, and shifted uncomfortably on their seats, clearly not sure what to say when this was a question for which they had not been prepared. I put them out of their misery by telling them he was Mrs Laryea's son, and their mouths dropped open and their eyes widened - they were nicely impressed with her brilliant offspring!

After our sweltering tour we returned to Mrs Cato's office for cold beer and sandwiches, and a chat about our mutual interests. On the way back across the school, we cam across a game of football in full swing. Some of the boys had already been given one of the footballs we had brought for the school, and the hi-vis football shirts. They were so pleased with this stuff that they put it to good use immediately. Even Sam tried to join in the kick-about, but he was not up to their standard. Back in the office, we cooled down and discussed the books we'd brought as gifts for their library, and other things we'd donated. We learned about the Ghana education system, and shared our thoughts on how it compares to the UK, particularly with regard to the interplay between people and their buildings. Apparently, the idea that the building plays an important role in the quality of education is knocked into a cocked hat by places like this! Clearly, you don't need multi-million pound facilities to teach well.

Sunday, 31 May 2009

Aburi Botanic Gardens

Sunday morning, and we accept the invitation of Nada, one of Sammie's many pals, who offered to drive us to Aburi Botanic Gardens. She is the project manager of the refurbishment works in the hotel where we are staying. Why don't hotels tell you at the time of booking that they are busy refurbishing, banging, hollering, sealing off parts of the hotel for weeks on end? This is a big project, so they knew about it when we booked. Anyway, Nada likes to chat, and is one of Ghana's resident Lebanese population. She took us through miles of short-cuts through several districts of Ghana, and we were entertained with scenes of folks going about their business, buying and selling things at every possible opportunity. There were no beggars, just people selling things, and they did not pester, quickly turning to the next person if you made clear you were not interested. Road junctions were fascinating, because every time the heavy traffic slowed to a halt, dozens of traders, often with their merchandise on their heads, walked between the lines of stationary traffic selling things to the vehicle occupants. Chilled water and plantain chips seemed to be the most popular commodities, but we could have bought mirrors, exercise machines, sweets of all kinds, bread, eggs, yams, tampons, pies, furniture, anything. Apart from the furniture which stayed on the sidewalk, the rest of it was on people's heads. And the urban landscape tended to be low-rise, a never ending sprawl of huts that had been made into shops, often with religious names, like the "God is able provisions store" and the "Blessing hair cut" and so on. Although the road was tarmac, it was dreadfully potholed, sometimes with huge trenches and holes that had to be driven around. The edges of the road had no kerbs, so were breaking up, and the side roads tended to be red earth, rather than tarmac. Everywhere was buzzing with life, and there was a real friendly feel to the place, with no sense of threat or danger. A huge proportion of the buildings were unfinished, although occupied. It seems that people just run out of funds mid-way through a project, and have to suspend building operations until they can get enough money together to complete. If they don't live in the half-complete building themselves, then squatters move in immediately work stops.

When we got to Aburi, the notices at the gate were very entertaining. One warned that there was to be no passing through the gardens. It took us a while to figure that one out. Another announced a complex price list. Different prices for Ghanaians and non-Ghanaians, and for various types of children. 50 GHP was half a Cedi, and there are about two Cedis to a pound. Adult Ghanains, 1 Cedi, Foreigners, 3 Cedis. Little Ghanaian kids were charged 0.2 Cedis. They even wanted to charge anyone who wanted to take videos, up to 100 Cedis if the video-maker was commercial. Some hope! Nada had to argue and show her identity card to get the Ghanaian price, but then she gave them the difference back again as a tip "because that is how we do things here".

The gardens were clearly well past their best. Nada told us that there used to be clear labels showing which tree was which, and what all the different species were. The place was clearly past its former glory, and they even had a crashed helicopter. It smelled bad, probably urine, and had been stripped of everything that could be moved. It was hard to tell how long it had been here. Was it an exhibit, or had no one got the resources to tidy up? It was hard to tell. In a corner, near a house, one little solitary girl was gently swinging on a makeshift swing.

A little further on, we came across a tree that had a fence around it. Roine asked Sam why that particular tree might be fenced in, and two little kids appeared out of nowhere, carrying a small bag that contained fresh nutmeg. That was what the fence was for, they said, to prevent them from picking the nutmegs. They were beautiful, a black hard shell covered in a delicate tracery of a red wax-like substance. The kids wanted a lot of money for half a dozen nutmegs, and they knew the value of them so Sammie could not negotiate them down. After chatting to them for a few moments, we went on our way. It was insufferably hot and humid. After walking around the gardens and taking in the sights, we jumped back into Nada's truck and headed for a restaurant where we had a nice lunch with plenty of cold beer. They didn't really cater for vegetarians, but they were able to make a meal from an egg sandwich, some fries and some salad. At least it was all freshly cooked and nicely prepared. That evening, we went to another hotel on the beach, Labardi Beach Hotel, which was rather swish and had a brilliant buffet, and very effective air-con. Sam's brother turned up with his mum, who wanted to meet us before we went to her school tomorrow, and it was really nice to meet her at last. She only stayed an hour, though, as she had to get back home. After the meal, we wanted to go to the beach, because we could hear music. The gate from the hotel to the beach was manned, and since we were not residents, we were not really allowed through, although Sam charmed the guard and eventually he agreed we could go through. The music was not live, but recorded, and was coming from a beach bar. But it was all over. So we sat down anyway and watched the waves roll in, in the dark, while drinking more cold beer. That was Sunday.

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Reading, Berkshire, United Kingdom

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