Monday, June 25, 2012

Full of Surprises

Sometimes I trick myself into thinking that two years of living and working in this country has made me an expert, that nothing can surprise me, and that I’ve basically got it all figured out. I’ve realized recently that those sentiments are probably not reflective of the whole truth. Sure, I’ve learned, integrated, grown, and become more comfortable here, but recently, I’ve encountered more than a few surprises about the place that I call home. Maybe more importantly, though, I’ve surprised myself with my reactions to recent events. I want to share a few examples of what I’m talking about with you today, and interestingly enough, they both deal with different understandings of time and the value that is placed on it. Although anecdotal, I think they further cement in my mind the idea that there are some ways in which my own culture and upbringing is bred very deeply within me, and there are some ways of life that I might never fully understand :).

After waiting on probably hundreds of buses/tros/taxis/cars to take me on various trips around the entire country over the past two years, I found my mouth gaping last week in my most recent adventure away from the village. A friend and I decided on a whim to finally visit another volunteer who lived about 2 hours away in a big fishing village. We had been talking about visiting his site for a long time, so after finally picking the day, we set off on a Saturday morning to the bus station to get on the second (and last) bus of the day heading out to his place. It was around 10:30am when we got to the station, and we figured we’d have to wait about an hour or so for the bus to fill up and leave. As a huge storm rolled in about an hour later, we watched as everyone got on the bus where we were already sitting and were hopeful that a bus full of passengers meant that we’d be leaving shortly. To our dismay, we were still sitting at the bus station 3 HOURS later, at 2:30pm, having watched as the storm passed and all of the passengers got OFF the bus again to do various tasks such as going to buy supplies, chatting with friends, and eating food. We finally started asking the driver why we had been waiting for 4 hours for a full bus to leave, and he replied, without quite answering our inquiries, “oh you just wait a little, we’ll be leaving very soon!” Now, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to wait hours and hours for a bus to fill up or for some form of transportation to leave the station, so this type of thing shouldn’t bother me. But as we quickly passed the four hour mark of waiting for the bus to pull out of the station, I found myself very frustrated. These frustrations became even more pronounced when I watched as a mechanic, who had been sitting around for a few hours eating food and chatting with his friends, got to work fixing the starter on the bus. In my mind, this problem could have been addressed, oh, I don’t know, 4 HOURS AGO when the driver realized that the bus needed some fixing and called the mechanic over, but clearly me and the driver (and every other, uncomplaining soul on the bus) were on different pages. Finally, at the 5 hour mark, I watched as they finished fixing the bus and STARTED to load the supplies onto the back of the bus. The driver had apparently been waiting for everyone to physically get on the bus before loading all of their things. The tricky part is, everyone had been waiting for all of their things to get loaded on the bus before physically getting in. Now, you might laugh at this bit of circular logic, but the amazing part is, it happens EVERY SINGLE TIME a bus goes anywhere in my region. Which is why I was slightly horrified at my outburst of frustration when I saw it happening, yet again, on this trip. I guess after a couple of years of seeing how inefficient (in my mind) this system is, and how much time/money is wasted while people stand around and nothing happens, I couldn’t take it anymore. My loud protests to the driver about my utter disbelief at the amount of time (namely, almost 6 hours) I had wasted waiting for a bus that could have left within 30 minutes of my arrival were greeted with a lot of belly laughing and a statement that went something along the lines of, “oh white woman! You don’t understand our culture! Haha! We will leave soon! Don’t worry yourself! We will leave at any time now! This is our way!” I felt a little offended at his accusations that I didn’t know the “Ghanaian way,” but also realized that my behavior proved exactly his point. As my frustration and surprise illustrated, I clearly DIDN’T understand the culture, or at least temporarily forgot, considering my American friend and I were the only two people complaining in a bus of over 100 people…

My next set of surprises came just a few days ago, when my colleagues and I had finally planned to hold a malaria workshop we’d been planning for several months. We had invited 12 villagers representing 5 communities to a workshop to train them on malaria prevention/treatment and how to conduct educational outreaches that would benefit their respective communities. I was excited about this project and we had put many hours into the planning and prep for the workshop to fit in as much education and hands-on activities as possible in a day’s worth of training. We planned for the workshop to start at 7:30am and go for the entire day, though we told the representatives to report to our office at 7am, anticipating that they’d be late. As 7:30 rolled around, I sat with two other volunteers and waited for not only the participants to arrive, but also our supervisor to arrive, who was bringing all of the supplies for the workshop and acting as our translator. 8:00am came and went, and when I called my supervisor to ask where he was, I found out that he was still in a large city about an hour away getting breakfast and had to pick up a few things before he made his way over. I was shocked. He was unfazed. “Don’t worry,” he said, “No one will show up before 9:30am anyway.” I think the only thing I said to him out loud was, “What?! Okay, whatever you say…” Though in my mind, I thought, “They were told to come at 7 o’clock! Surely all twelve Ghanaians wouldn’t show up to a conference more than 2 hours later than they’re supposed to! A few, sure, but ALL TWELVE, and YOU, my supervisor?!”

I sat and sulked and even started loudly questioning what would happen if no one showed up to the workshop at all. All of that money down the drain, all of the wasted time and effort, and the embarrassment of planning a project that utterly failed were just a few of the dramatic consequences that I found myself conjuring up. I don’t know if I’ve ever had a project go exactly as planned or ever had a meeting start on time during my service, but I still found myself in doubt over how this program could possibly be anything but a total wash. Sure enough, as the time neared 10am, villagers started to stream in, and my supervisor arrived shortly afterward. The workshop ended up being very successful, with EXTRA people showing up for the training and every one of the participants walking away with new knowledge and skills that they can now share with their communities. At the end of the day, I found myself shaking my head in awe at how successful it had been after all of my worries and doubts.

I share these stories with you both to release some of my own frustrations and to illustrate how my understanding of the value of time, the success of a project, and the importance of having a schedule STILL differ from a lot of my Ghanaian counterparts. I have certainly learned a lot and changed the way that I do things since coming here, but there are still so many differences that amaze me on a day-to-day basis. I think maybe I’d amend that popular old adage to say something like, “You can take the girl out of her culture, but you can’t ever, fully, take the culture out of that girl.” Yeah, that sounds about right.

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Stranger

For more than a week, there has been a mysterious woman living on the porch of my compound. I first noticed her sitting on our front step when I came back to the village from my Close of Service Conference last week. She was a small woman, probably in her later 30s, wearing a typical outfit with a cloth wrapped around her waist and a headscarf. I didn’t recognize her as a woman from my village, but we have had a lot of visitors around the community for the recently held chief’s funeral, so I automatically assumed that she was someone’s relative and was simply resting on our porch.

I thought it was strange that when I greeted her in Dagbani, she didn’t say anything back or even make much effort to look at me. Her lack of response indicated that she was either being incredibly rude to me, or she didn’t speak the local language, so I tried to say hello in English. Again, she simply stared straight ahead and gave no acknowledgement of my greeting. Oh well, I thought, maybe she’s just quiet, and I brought my things into the house to unpack.

A while later, I came out of my house to greet people in the community, and the woman was still sitting on the step in front of my place, quietly staring out at the road. This time, however, I noticed that she had tucked two large bundles of items in the corner of our porch, where they would be protected by the awning above. By the evening, when I returned home, she was in the same position, and I realized that she must, for some reason or another, have temporarily set up a “home” on our front porch. A few hours later, I walked outside to talk to a friend on the phone, and while I was sitting on the other side of the compound, the unknown woman approached me with a small ball of TZ and a plastic pail full of a thick soup. She didn’t say anything, but simply left the food with me and walked back to the corner of the porch and sat down again. I ate some of the food, which was cold and had clearly been sitting out for a while, and returned the rest to the woman and tried to thank her. She only nodded her head quietly and looked away.

After two days of seeing this woman in the same position on the stoop, I finally asked a couple of my friends in the village if they knew who she was. They all shook their heads, and some answered that she was crazy. They explained that she stepped off of a vehicle one day with her two bundles of clothes and other items and parked herself on our porch, not having said a word to anyone since she arrived. Apparently she has been given food by various neighbors, but doesn’t eat much and generally just stays to herself. Because of this, several people have speculated that she is from a neighboring village, but is “sick.” They say her mind has gotten to the point where she has forgotten language and doesn’t know where she is. Others think she’s a woman from another region of Ghana who ran away from her family and is quiet only because she doesn’t speak our local language and doesn’t want people to know who she is.

Regardless of her reasons for staying in our village, her presence has made me think a lot about the way people fit into society here, and a typical community response to people like this woman. I find it interesting that the people of my compound and surrounding compounds have brought her food and allowed her to sleep inside of the building on rainy nights. For the most part, besides their musings about the circumstances that led to her staying with us, haven’t made much fuss about her presence. Certainly no one has called the police or demanded that she leave our porch, though I have no idea how long they’ll entertain her here.

I have no idea what the mental state of this woman is. I’m inclined to think that she is struggling with some sort of mental issue, considering her behavior and circumstances. In my experience, it seems quite common that people in my area who are mentally disabled end up in one of two situations. When they are young, they are generally looked after in the village. Though possibly treated slightly more harshly than the average child (ie: yelled at more frequently and often made fun of by other children and even sometimes adults), these children are usually well-fed and cared for by both their family and other families in the village. As they get older, these individuals are generally well taken care of, but often tucked away in their compounds or slightly ostracized from the community as a whole.

There are others, however, that I would put in a different camp. These people are the type that you tend to see on street corners in larger towns and cities, dressed in rags, scratching at open sores, sometimes wandering aimlessly and muttering, often begging. I don’t say these things to perpetuate stereotypes, but rather to describe what I’ve seen in countless towns in Northern Ghana. My heart breaks for these people, as many sleep on the streets with little more than a piece of cardboard among their possessions and have almost no ability to communicate. I’ve seen people walking around in sweltering heat with their bodies covered from head to toe, including face masks and gloves, men wandering around naked at the intersections of large cities, and a woman whom we affectionately refer to as the “Tamale Bag Lady,” who lays in the same spot every day next to the road, crumpled amongst what looks like piles of garbage bags. This particular woman is infamous for collecting a coin from one of my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers and promptly putting it into her mouth, swallowing, and laying back down on her pile.

So, in the end, I suppose the mysterious woman in my village is somewhat lucky. She has a place to sleep that consists of more than a tarp on concrete, and she has people who are willing to feed her and who have a relative interest in her well-being. I hope, for her sake, that she is a runaway who has a family waiting back in a distant village, and that someday soon she will reunite with them. But if not, at least for now, she has a home on our front porch.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Funeral or Festival?

I've had an incredibly busy past few weeks, most of which have been spent away from "home" (my village) helping out with the training for the new health volunteers. Being away from my community and spending a lot of my time talking about various aspects of my Peace Corps service to soon-to-be volunteers has made me realize (once again) the wild range of emotions I've experienced over the past 21 months, and just exactly how torn I am about facing my future away from this place and the people who have become something of a second family to me. I won't go on and on about this, but I think I've certainly reached a point where I am starting to feel how heartbreaking and exciting this next chapter is going to be...

A little over a week ago, a few hours before I was set to leave the village for a few weeks for various trainings, I made my way over to one of my friend's compounds to attend a funeral there. My friend is a man named Adams his late 20s who cuts hair in what I call a "barber hut" in my village and is one of the few people around who speaks truly good English (probably why we became such fast friends at the beginning of my service). The funeral was being held for Adams' mother, who had, somewhat surprisingly, died the week before. This funeral made me reflect on the tradition of funerals here in Northern Ghana and the differences between the way Ghanaians display their emotions and the way that Americans are typically expected to react in such circumstances.

I can't remember if I've talked about the way funerals are held here before, so please excuse me if I'm repeating myself a little. Basically, I arrived to the area around Adams' family's compound, and there traditional drummers meandering their way around a crowd of men, who were sitting down on plastic chairs under a large mango tree, mostly talking quietly amongst themselves. As these drummers came around from person to person, the men were expected to pay small coins to the drummers and traditional singers as a token of payment for their "entertainment." I hung around with the men for a few minutes, but when it comes to funerals (in my opinion), hanging out inside of the compound with the women is the best place to be. I wandered inside to find more than 50 women packed inside the large, circular compound comprised of several round huts clustered around a central, open-air cooking area. Some women were shucking ground nuts out of their shells, some were stirring soups or forming millet-based starch balls (called TZ) to be handed for funeral goers to eat, and some of the older women were merely sitting off to the side of the compound holding babies in their laps (it is very common for the oldest women in the village to hold the tiny infants while their mothers do physical tasks). Loud music was coming from inside one of the huts, so nearly every woman was swaying her hips to the beat as she did her various tasks. After going around to greet all of the women (with a special "funeral greeting," of course), I settled in next to the peanut-shucking women and got to work. Within 10 minutes, one of the older women who was aware of my penchant for very small babies (after all, who isn't?), handed me a 2 week old baby (without any inquiry about whether or not I'd like to hold said newborn), and promptly walked out of the compound to go do something at her house next door (have I mentioned how much I love it that women hand me their children and then just walk away? I'm apparently a very dependable sitter...).

The best way I could describe the atmosphere of this funeral (and every other funeral I've attended here), was the overwhelming sense of community. Women line up to help stir pots of TZ and dole out the food in large, communal bowls and men cluster together in small groups to discuss happenings in the village, while children flit around dancing and helping with small tasks when needed. I suppose there is a certain degree of this back in the states too when someone dies-friends and family often bring meals to family members, offer their support, and attend the funeral in solidarity with those remaining, but here you truly get the sense of the village as a whole coming together during funeral festivities in a way that I just don't think happens back home.

One huge difference that I sometimes take for granted here is the way Ghanaians express their emotions at events like funerals compared to the ways that I'm used to people in states handling their grief. When I first walked up to my friend Adams to offer my condolences, he looked away and quickly changed the subject to a joke about my recent travels and whether or not I had bought anything for him while I was away. I fully expected his response to be something like this, since I've seen many similar situations where other Ghanaian friends reacted in the same way after similar comments. There was no crying at the funeral-in fact, if anything, there was a light spirit throughout the day, which I'm sure ended in a long night of community dancing to incredibly loud Ghanaian hiplife music. I've heard from Ghanaians in my village that mourners are encouraged to dance if they start displaying their grief in an attempt to brighten their spirits and help them forget about their loss. Because funerals in the states are generally all about remembering those we have lost and often results in a public griefing process, adjusting to the Ghanaian way of funerals has been a strange (but not entirely unwelcome) change of pace for me.

I'd love to say more about funerals and many many other topics, but my eyes are too tired to allow me to continue. Thanks for keeping up with me and caring about the things that I say. It means so much to me that any of you take the time to listen to my thoughts and observations about my life here. Cheers.

Monday, March 19, 2012

A Brief Tour of the Past 3 Months...

Oh my, sorry about this. I know it’s been a long time, so I’ll try to update you all on what’s been going on and maybe throw in a few of my thoughts while I’m at it.
Well, since it’s been over 2 months since I’ve updated, I’ll start with my December-February updates in rapid-fire fashion, since I have no intention of sitting in front of this computer all day long…

Late December
-Christmas came and went, and actually ended up being a whole lot more fun that I thought it might be. Not to say I was dreading the day, but so many of my Peace Corps friends had plans to visit their friends and families back in the states that I was not particularly looking forward to reading Facebook updates and getting calls from people stuffing their faces with treats and spending quality time with their families singing Christmas carols while the snow fell gently outside… But to my surprise, Christmas ended up being one of the better memories I have from recent months, thanks in part to the used Christmas hats of all shapes in sizes that me and my friend Kristina had been collecting from the local market for months and forced everyone to wear on Christmas Eve (I was especially proud of the hat that I wore, which was a Santa hat with something akin to Viking braids coming out of the sides). A wonderful group of volunteers assembled for the Christmas Eve party and we all donned our Christmas hats while we wandered around the town of Tamale singing rousing renditions of our favorite Christmas carols and wishing our (mostly Muslim) Ghanaian brothers and sisters a very happy holiday.
-Hoping to top last year’s painfully boring New Year’s Eve, which consisted of me reading in my bed and falling asleep around 7pm, I met up with three other volunteers at one of my friend’s houses and we all planned to go to a spot in her town for a New Year’s toast and plenty of dancing. Unfortunately, my body had other plans. While my friends had a grand time drinking Stars and mingling with our Ghanaian friends, I was stuck on the guest bed to celebrate New Years by throwing up and burning up with a 102 degree fever. Don’t worry, everything cleared up a few days later and I was back in the village, wondering why illness generally strikes on the times right before I want to have a good time. Here’s to hoping that next year’s transition into 2013 is a little more fun…
-I spent most of the rest of January in or near my village, working with my health committee and spending a lot of time hanging out with the kids in my village (I can never get enough of those babies…). I did leave the village for a week to go to “Training of Trainers,” which consisted of training sessions, planning the training for the group that was to come in February, and creating lesson plans. This was a total departure from the usual work that I’ve grown accustomed to doing here, and it both reminded me of how lazy I’ve gotten when it comes to paperwork and how much I’ve missed the school-style atmosphere of writing, planning, and working under a deadline.
-Toward the end of January, after a significant amount of thought and prayer, I basically decided that I was not going to pursue grad school in the fall, like I had originally planned on doing, and I really settled into the idea that I want to return to Grand Rapids after Peace Corps and push on school for a little while. This decision had a little to do with the fact that I dragged my feet when it came to school deadlines and had missed my major window of opportunity, but it had more to do with the fact that I felt a strong leading toward going back to GR, despite the fact that I had no idea where I might live or what I might do (more on this later).
-The beginning of February was tough for me. After returning from the training of trainers conference, I came back to the village expecting my dear friend Sanatu to be the first one greeting me when I arrived home. To my surprise, she was nowhere to be found that first night back, and the next day I went to her house, thinking that she just hadn’t heard the news that I was back. I came to understand through my broken Dagbani (and later through my counterpart’s translations) that Sanatu had gone on Kayayo. I’m pretty sure I’ve explained this word before in a previous post, but Kayayo is basically the migration of northerners (mostly young women) to southern Ghana to be porters (ie: carry/sell things on their heads) during the dry season, when farming gets slow and money gets tight in the north. Because of the health risks of the work that these girls do, their sub-standard living conditions, and the prospect of prostitution as a way to make more money, I was devastated to hear that one of my best friends had left to go to the capitol city, Accra, for Kayayo in order to make money. I was both upset at her, for leaving while I was away for the training and not telling me where she was going, and her parents, for allowing their daughter, who they took out of school after the 5th grade to work on the farm, to go down to this strange city and potentially put herself at risk in order to make a little money. After getting over my initial reaction, I’ve since come to peace with the fact that she did what she thought was best and may ultimately even benefit from the experience through learning better English and seeing life outside of the village. However, I am still distraught at the fact that she has been gone since the end of January and may not return to the village until late next year. By that time, I will have left Ghana, and I hate to think about the fact that I might not have gotten the chance to say goodbye and tell her what she meant to me…
-The rest of February kept me busy, working with the Children to School Project on expanding their school feeding program in my village, and going to fulfil my duties as a trainer for the new health/water, and sanitation trainees (soon to be full-fledged Peace Corps Volunteers). I had a fantastic time in the south for two weeks, helping to run their training and enjoying the entirely different geography and culture of southern Ghana. I managed to eat a whole lot of local food (delicious!), learn a few more words in Twi (the local language of the town in which I was staying), and hopefully was able to impart a little bit of knowledge and experience to help the newbies make a smooth transition into life here.
-March has been a whirlwind, as I finished out my stint at the training site, had a great reunion with my Peace Corps friends in the northern region upon my return, and have since been writing lesson plans for the upcoming “intense technical training” for the new volunteers-in-training (my duties are far from finished haha), dipping my hand into various projects around my community, and have been prepping my village for the arrival of the new volunteer (my replacement) next month. Despite being busy and coming to the realization that I have only a few short weeks left alone in my village before a new “siliminga” comes to work with me, I have also made sure to carve out time to soak up my “village” experiences while I have them. I’ve been quick to say yes when kids come knocking on my door to color, or to accept invitations to things like the Tamale chief’s funeral (absolutely incredible, pictures and videos to come). Time is passing so unbelievably quickly that I just want to hold on to these moments as long as I can. Meanwhile, many many things have come together in my life for my return home around August. I will be moving into a beautiful house with 4 girls in Grand Rapids as soon as I get back, and I have incredible job opportunities lined up for me. The knowledge that things have come together with God’s incredible timing has made me appreciate my time here so much more. I’m not stressed about the future, which has totally helped me seize the present in a way that I don’t think I’ve been able to do in a long time.
So those are my updates for now. I just realized that I totally forgot to mention the beggars who rode in on camels from Burkina Faso to my village (you better believe I rode a camel!) and so many other things, so I’m sure another update will be in order very soon. Cheers!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Out of the Mouths of Babes...

If you know me at all (and I think most of you do), you know that I like children and babies. A LOT. I think that they also have a special affinity for me as well, because I’m something of a kid magnet (I once described babies as being drawn to me because they can “sense my love for them.” I stand by that statement).
I say all of this as a sort of introduction to the topic of this post. Like most volunteers I know, I tend to have a lot of small children constantly hovering around my house, trying to talk to me, play with me, or ask for things (or should I say DEMAND things: “Madam, give me a pencil!”). Unlike many other volunteers, however, I probably indulge these children too much. I’m quick to give them a drink of water from the novelty that is the water spicket in my kitchen or invite them to sit on my porch and draw using my endless supply of crayons and paper, and sometimes I pay for this kindness by having 30 kids rush my house and continue to bother me until I threaten them with something along the lines of, “I will BEAT YOU ALL unless you leave right now!” (it’s actually a very common threat that adults utter to children here, I never actually resort to violence…) . Anyway, when I’m not feeling grumpy due to the number of children who are rattling the screens on my windows and demanding things from me, I’m actually quite amused by their hilarious ways of manipulating the English language to try to express themselves.

Now, while I would never go as far as to say I’ve grasped the language of Dagbani, I do have enough confidence in my language skills to hold basic conversations with children in their local language. I often DO converse with the kids in Dagbani, but they also like to practice their English with me, so I encourage kids to speak to me in English if they can. After all, their grasp of my native tongue will probably prove to be far more helpful in the long run than my grasp of theirs (Call me crazy, but I just don’t envision a future employer saying, “Oh perfect! We’ve been searching for an applicant who can speak Dagbani and we’ve finally found you… The job is yours!”). After a couple of humorous episodes with the children over the last couple of weeks, I thought I’d share a few of the funny things that village kids have said and done recently. Overall, I’m really proud of these kids and their grasp of English. It is, after all, their second language, and I know from personal experience that many American kids make similar mistakes when they’re young, but I’m sure you’ll agree with me that there are few things cuter than a kid screwing up a basic sentence with atrocious grammar…

“Good morning Madam. How are you? I are fine. Thank you.”
-This used to be FAR more amusing than it is now, but I still get a kick out of the way kids say this greeting. They learn to greet adults this way in school, but a lot of them don’t understand what they’re saying at all so it basically comes out as one long run-on sentence that leaves no room for any sort of response from the person they’re greeting. It’s very difficult to get kids to understand the difference between verb and noun agreement, thus the “I ARE fine” portion of the greeting. Also, it doesn’t matter if it’s 7pm, the greeting will always be “good MORNING Madam.”

-Kids often come to my house, greet me, and then yell this. It’s never preceded by anything but the aforementioned “Good morning Madam” greeting, and it is never followed by any other words. It is, however, ALWAYS accompanied by frantic jumping around and karate chopping. It isn’t related to anything that I’m doing or have done, because I’ve seen kids in other villages randomly yell it out too with the accompanying hand motions. I’m not positive about the origins of this behavior, but I’m pretty sure they are trying to act out scenes from Kung Fu movies, which are, believe it or not, VERY popular in the village. No, the villagers do not understand Chinese (nor can they read the occasional English subtitles). No matter. They LOVE Kung Fu. I’ve also heard stories of both male and female Asian volunteers (and sometimes just white people with dark hair) being called “Jackie Chan” by Ghanaians who didn’t know their actual names.

“Madam, I eat you.”
-A 5 year old kid said this to me the other day and I nearly spit out my rice. He was either asking to eat some of my food or pointing out the fact that I was eating. Either way, I think an error was made somewhere in his internal translation…

“Madam, your cat is be here here.”
-They always feel a need to point out when my kittens are roaming outside. Notice the emphasis on the “here here” to prove that my kitten is literally right next to the child who is speaking. In essence, they’re saying, “seriously, right now your cat is RIGHT NEXT TO ME.”

“ I am go to drink water,” “I am go to bread,” or “I am go to drawing.”
-Sadly, this grammatical error is not limited to children. If they’re about to leave the village to travel, an adult will often say, “I am go to ( insert their destination). I am come back tomorrow.”

- They say this word with a very strong accent, so it took me a while to figure out that every time a child misses a Frisbee catch or accidentally tears their coloring sheet, they are indeed uttering that 4-letter word that was not intended for children. They also occasionally say some other swear words that I won’t mention here, but I’m pretty sure they have no idea that what they’re saying is almost universally deemed “inappropriate language” for 7 year olds. They probably learned it from their parents. Incidentally, adult villagers who barely speak more than a few words of English usually know how to cuss in English, a practice that they may or may not have learned from the beloved music of Akon and Snoop Dogg.

“You have is done well.”
-A kid said this to me the other day after I spoke to him in Dagbani. “You have done well” is actually a common phrase here which is basically equivalent to telling someone “good job,” but this kid took it to a totally new level of poor grammar. I still gladly accepted the compliment though :)

Tuesday, November 29, 2011


If I’m being honest, I’ve been avoiding the blog lately. I guess it’s the feeling that I haven’t been keeping up well with the blog since I came back from my visit to America, so it seems daunting to get back on here and share stories when I don’t even know where to begin. But here I am, with a little time on my hands and a few thoughts that you might enjoy…
This post will probably seem more like an exercise in stream of consciousness rather than an update with a coherent theme, but instead of giving information on what has been happening in my life and work, I thought I’d share some observations instead- observations about the culture here, my friends, and my life in general. That’s more interesting anyway, right?

First of all, after having once again spent a couple of days in the capitol of Ghana (Accra) enjoying my Thanksgiving in the sweet excess of the American-esque lifestyles that Embassy workers enjoy, I realized just how lacking the food is up here where I live. Even as I type these words, I understand that the when I start talking about food shortages or a lack of nutritional variety, I’m jumping into a hot topic that could be discussed, debated, and defended endlessly. I’m going to go ahead and avoid a lecture on food security and instead talk about the basic fact that there just isn’t a lot of variety when it comes to food around here. When I say “around here,” I mean my village, and more broadly, the northern region of Ghana in which I live. The main crops in my village are maize (corn), rice, millet, soybeans, groundnuts (peanuts), and yams. Although this leaves us with a lot of starch to consume, we’re lacking in the area of fruits and vegetables, which doesn’t provide us with a lot of nutritional variety in our everyday diet.

To give you an idea of just how difficult it is to find fresh fruits and vegetables where I live, let me take a moment to talk about markets. My village, being less than 1,000 people, has no market. This means that any food that we want to buy must either come from our farms directly or from another local market. This also means that it is nearly impossible to buy ANY food in my village, besides some packaged spaghetti, tomato paste, a few loaves of bread (if you can make it to the bread maker’s house before 7:30am, at which time she runs out of bread), local rice and stew (watch out for stones!), and fried yams. The variety in my village changes slightly at the onset of mango season, in which we forgo the yams and bread for piles and piles of fresh mangoes (thank God!). Take a minute and think about the food that I just mentioned. Tomatoes in a can. Spaghetti noodles. Rice. Bread. Not a lot of variety there to work with, eh? Notice that I mentioned virtually NO PRODUCE? That was not a mistake, we simply don’t have it. Well, if you leave my village and go about 15 miles down the road, you come to a significantly larger village that has a market every 6 days, in which you can get all of the aforementioned food plus tomatoes, onions, oranges, cabbage, bananas, and a few other treats like fried wagashi (a locally produced cheese) and “Soya,” which is basically fried tofu. Yup, that’s as far as the variety goes within about 35 miles, and we’re still in a harvest season. Once you get to Tamale, the regional capitol and one of the largest cities in Ghana, your produce choices expand to include peppers, pineapple, apples, potatoes, and beyond… which is why my cravings often send me 50 kilometers down the road for special treats that I just couldn’t get otherwise. We Peace Corps Volunteers often joke around about the need for a cookbook with recipes that utilize only rice, tomato paste, and onions as ingredients, because those are the foods that we’re most often left with, particularly those of us without a refrigerator to even keep other foods if we could buy them. Do me a huge favor and eat a big head of broccoli or reach into your cupboard for some canned fruit in my honor. Those are luxuries I dream about…

The next observation that I’ll share with you is the ability of Ghanaians to act surprised and horrified by situations that, in my opinion, are downright predictable in their frequency. Let me explain by offering a recent example. The other day I was preparing to come home from the market in a local town (the one I mentioned before that’s about 15 miles away), and there was a large bus waiting for those of us who were going back to my village and the village beyond mine, since there were a lot of us shopping/selling at the market. As most of us know, the sooner a bus can fill with people, the sooner it can leave, or at least that’s what logic would tell us. In my area, the idea is a bit more complicated than that. Being the Siliminga (white person) that I am, I hop on the bus, take a seat, and wait for the bus to fill with people so that we can leave. Being the northern Ghanaian women that they are, me fellow bus mates also hop on the bus, throw their things in a seat near the back of the bus, and walk off the bus, waiting for it to fill. The only problem is, it’s nearly impossible to tell when a bus is full when it’s passengers are waiting outside of the bus rather than taking their seats. This also inevitably creates a problem when people finally do decide the bus is full, only to then create a huge traffic jam of people cramming into the bus in no particular order, leaving some people having to get in and out of their seats several times while others step over them or loudly complain because “their seat” has been taken by another passenger who actually sat down instead of throwing their scarf on a seat and hoping it would be enough to save the place. This would be interesting enough to watch, except that it happens every single time a bus tries to leave anywhere, which just makes it habit. The thing that’s really interesting to watch is the reaction of Ghanaian women to the amount of time that it takes for a bus to fill up, or the fact that their seat has been taken by somebody else. It’s as though this is the first time something like this has ever happened, although I’ve personally never seen a transportation situation that DIDN’T play out exactly this way in Northern Ghana. There is loud complaining and often yelling (“Why didn’t the driver tell us this bus was full?!” “Why is this bus taking so long to leave?!” “Why did Rafia set down her bags and walk off the bus when it was about to leave the station?!”), there is finger pointing (“I saw Sanatu looking at fabric over there! This is why the bus hasn’t left yet! ”), and there is my favourite reaction, which is the utter shock and horror on the looks of the women’s faces when they realize that the bus is about to leave and they need to get on it if they want to go. You’d think that after literally years of the exact same scenario playing out at every single station on every single market day that maybe, once in a while, my fellow villagers would lose their ability to be surprised, but so far, I haven’t seen it happen. 

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Oh Baby!

Whew, it’s been a while! Sorry that I don’t blog with the frequency that I used to-it just seems that every time I’m at a computer I have about 15 other things to do and updating the blog somehow always ends up near the bottom of the list and subsequently forgotten about until I’m back in the village with no internet access… But luckily for you, today I have a few minutes of internet time to share some thoughts on life lately.

Some updates since the last post: we held our quarterly HIV testing and education event at ITFC, in which around 150 workers were tested for HIV. This is always a fun time to catch up with a lot of the company employees and encourage them to keep themselves safe and healthy. I also had the chance to help out at “Health Day” at both the primary school in my village and in another school at a nearby village called Tuniyilli. I was in charge of weighing and measuring all of the kids, which, if you know anything about my love for children, was the perfect job for me . Besides that, I’ve been hanging out in the village, mourning the loss of my broken iPod, and playing with my kittens, who are kind enough to wake me up at 5am every morning by pouncing on head.

After over a year of being in the village (is that possible?!), I finally got a language tutor! Actually, some of the newly sworn-in volunteers who live near me asked if my counterpart (the Ghanaian who Peace Corps recognizes as my liaison in the village) could lead a weekly language tutoring session in which we gathered for an hour or so and learned helpful phrases and improved our language skills. When was first approached to start the weekly meetings, I thought that I might not even participate, since I wasn’t sure if I would gain much useful information studying Dagbani with people who had only lived in their villages for about a month and don’t speak the language nearly as well as I do after one year (well, that’s what I told myself…). Yet after our first meeting, I realized how incredibly helpful and useful the lessons would be for me, maybe even more so than for the new volunteers. After a few weeks of lessons, I’m really amazed at how much my language skills have improved and how much more I comprehend in day-to-day life now that I’m actually dedicating time to “learning” the language in a classroom-type setting again. This has been really refreshing for me, and I know my language skills are only going to continue to improve as we continue our lessons.

As I was thinking about what to write in this post, I realized that there are so many things about Ghana (festivals, customs, cultural practices, etc…) that I haven’t talked about on here. Last week, I attended an “outdooring” (aka: baby naming) ceremony for a family in Gushie. The way they celebrate a newborn baby here puts us Westerners to shame, to say the least. First of all, when a baby is born in my village, they are usually delivered by a traditional birth assistant, who happens to be one of the oldest women in the village in our case. It’s far more preferable (and safer) to have a baby at a clinic or hospital, but since we don’t have either in our village, women usually use the services of the birth assistant. This woman is not medically trained in any way, although the job is usually passed down through families and a girl will “shadow” a birth assistant and become quite familiar with the process before delivering babies. So when a woman goes into labor, the birth assistant is brought into the hut and helps her deliver the baby, which is where the mother and baby stay for seven days afterwards. This is related to a particular local belief that has something to do with the baby’s soul is not necessarily attached to the baby for the first few days of its life, so it remains unnamed and unpresented to the world until it is certain that the baby will survive its first week. On the day of the Outdooring, the mother dresses in a brand new outfit with plenty of sparkling jewelery and the women of the compound start making food first thing in the morning (most families have multiple wives, or at least sisters-in-law, mothers, cousins, etc… to do the work). The mother stays in (or near) her hut with the baby all day to greet visitors, collect gifts, and take care of the newborn, and the father generally stays outside of the compound. Because our village doesn’t have electricity, a family will usually pay for a generator to be brought in and hire a DJ to start playing music early in the morning, as the food is being prepared. Huge pots of TZ (the local starchy substance made from ground millet) and soup are prepared by the women in the hosting compound as villagers slowly trickle in to congratulate the family, meet the new baby, and take home some food. Women in the village bring empty bowls with them to the ceremony, which are then filled with TZ and soup prepared by the hosts and brought back to their own families. Women tend to congregate inside the compound, helping to prepare the food, filling bowls to bring back to their families, chatting with each other, and (of course) dancing. Men, on the other hand, can usually be found just outside of the compound sitting in chairs, listening to the music, chatting, or dancing. Massive speakers blare music throughout the day, and people are welcome to go and come as their daily duties allow. As the day continues, the baby is either circumcised (if it’s a boy) or has its ears pierced (if it’s a girl) and both boys and girls have their heads shaved, which is done by a particular man in the village (I can’t remember what they call him haha) while the baby is being held by the oldest women in the village (kind of a cool tribute to the birth/death cycle). For the rest of the day (and often well into the night), it’s PARTY TIME. Kids usually lead the pack by swarming the dance floor, but adults soon gather around and you can find people of all ages busting a move well into the early hours of the morning. Since the women are usually pretty busy cooking inside the compound, the music is kept loud enough to facilitate all of their dancing needs, which they indulge in quite often while stirring a pot of TZ or ladling soup into a bowl. In my opinion, there are few things more amusing than a bunch of 70 year old village women shaking their booties as they sashay around the compound putting goat meat in people’s bowls.

If this sounds like a fun way to celebrate the birth of a baby, I wholeheartedly agree. I love that this culture values the process of giving birth as a community-wide event worth celebrating with a giant party in which the entire village is invited. Rather than being coddled with great care and protected from danger in a quiet, calm, and serene environment (the way, I would argue, we treat our babies when they first emerge from the womb), newborns here are celebrated with loud music, tons of visitors passing them around, and hardly any acknowledgment of their fragility (a word that has practically become a synonym to “newborn” for us in America… Here in Ghana, you hand over a baby by grabbing it by both arms and letting its neck loll around-none of this “protect the neck!” business we’re so used to in the states…)

So that’s how we welcome our babies into the world over here. It’s one of many opportunities that Ghanaians use as an excuse to throw a party, eat lots of food, and dance. It’s also one of the many cultural traditions that I’ll probably bring back with me to America. Yup, you should fully expect my future children to be introduced to the world with a big potluck and massive dance party, and no matter what people say, I know they’ll all enjoy it 

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Happy Rain Day!

Well hi everyone!
Things have been a little on the busy side for me lately, which is a nice departure from the laid-back lifestyle that I've grown pretty accustomed to... I'd like to share with you some stories of a project that we were able to complete this week, and then a few thoughts about rain.

First of all, we officially kicked off the construction of our soak-away pit project this week and were able to complete all of the pits that we intended to do (and more!). This was the sanitation project that I mentioned a few posts ago, but never shared the details of, so here we go ( I'll try to be brief). Soak away pits are basically a simple waste management system to deal with excess water left after bathing, washing, etc... Many of the compounds in my community simply have a pipe (if they're lucky) leading from their bathing areas to the outside ground. As you might imagine, when 10 or more people are using the same room to bathe in, there is a lot of excess water waste that flows outside, creating stagnant pools of dirty water. These areas, which in the case of my village often intersect with walking paths, are a prime breeding ground for flies and other insects, and negatively affect the overall health of our village. In order to improve the drainage and reduce the existence of standing water, we built 12 soak away pits in the community, which are waist-deep pits dug into the ground and filled with stones where the extra water can flow and eventually be absorbed into the ground. In many cases, we had to install new pipes or re-route old ones, which left us plenty of work to do. I implemented this project alongside a youth group in the community, and I was amazed at their enthusiasm and commitment even in the scorching heat of long days. These young men dug all of the pits, gathered the rocks, and patiently taught community members the process of pit construction so they could build more in the future. I was so proud when I walked around the village the day after finishing the project and saw that a few families had actually begun constructing more pits behind their houses, having been inspired by the what we had accomplished and eager to start their own work. I could not be more proud of my community for the way they embraced this project and all of the many hours of hard work that they put in for the betterment of their future health and well-being.

Enough of the bragging about my awesome village; it's time to talk about rain. Here in West Africa, it's the rainy season. Or so they say. Here in the north of Ghana, things have been pretty dry lately. Considering that most families in the north make their living through farming, the lack of rain this season has meant that crops have been disappointing, which in turn affects the overall livelihood of entire villages. Whenever we'd get a much-needed rainstorm after a period of dryness back at home, my mom would always say, "I bet the farmers are dancing in the fields!" I always laughed and agreed, although until moving here, I never truly understood WHY the farmers would be dancing in their fields. In fact, I always viewed rain as more of an inconvenience rather than something to celebrate, complaining when I had to walk through it to go to class or clean the mud off my shoes on a spring day. A good, long rainstorm after several dry weeks here, however, is a downright exciting event. The other day, I woke up around midnight to the sound of pouring rain, which ended up continuing until well into the morning. When the rain finally let up and I made my way outside, I was greeted with an uncharacteristic enthusiasm from my friends in the village. They greeted me using the greeting that we usually reserve for holidays, and I wondered why, considering I hadn't been aware of any upcoming holidays on the calendar. After a few people greeted me this way, I turned to one of my friends and asked which holiday it was that I was missing. He laughed and said, "Oh Mandeiya, it RAINED last night!" And then I really started to understand. In our village, rain IS a reason to celebrate. When your life is directly affected by the whims of weather, things like a good rainstorm are worth celebrating. When your life is intertwined with earth's beautiful rhythms, then it merely seems like a natural reaction to give thanks that you've made it through another completion of the cycles. It is such a different way of understanding the seasons when your life literally depends on the way that they change. For me, it has been a unique lesson in living in harmony with the changes around you. Even when the weather changes once again, the thermometer rises above 100 degrees, and we see barely a drop of rain for months, I want to try to be thankful for that change. After all, our lives will depend on that season too.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Happy Birthday, Peace Corps!

Last week, we celebrated the Swearing-In Ceremony of 70 new Peace Corps Ghana volunteers. During this event, we also celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps, which, as some of you may already know, was launched (so close to home!) on the steps of the University of Michigan in a speech by President Kennedy. The exciting part about being a volunteer in Ghana is that this was the destination of that very first group of Peace Corps volunteers way back in 1961, and since stepping onto Ghanaian soil, Peace Corps has maintained a continuous presence in this country for fifty years straight. The newest group of volunteers was sworn-in on the same day as the first batch of Ghana volunteers back in the 60s, so last week's event was an amazing culmination of the challenging and rewarding development work that has taken place over the past five decades.
At the ceremony last week, the Ghanaian Secretary of Foreign Affairs and other dignitaries addressed the audience and shared with us some of their personal interactions with Peace Corps volunteers, some of them having been taught by teachers in the first group of volunteers in Ghana. It was absolutely beautiful and touching to hear the stories about how these young Ghanaians were challenged and inspired by their American teachers (in the beginning, the programs in Peace Corps Ghana mostly centered around the education sector). It was also fascinating to hear about the experiences of those first volunteers who boarded planes in the early 1960s in their three-piece suits and high heels with no idea what they might face ahead of them. Those first volunteers were not awarded the luxury of researching their destination before they departed, or receiving any intense cultural or technical training to prepare themselves, or having access to cell phones or the internet. They were truly committed to embarking on an adventure and offering themselves as tools in the work of international diplomacy and development. After having asked themselves what THEY could do for their country, they found an answer that lied halfway across the world. Generations after them have continued to ask the same question of themselves, and have found the answer by following in the footsteps of those first Peace Corps volunteers. I consider myself lucky to be named among those who have taken those steps and found themselves here, even though I'm becoming convinced that my life has been more impacted by my service than any Ghanaian that I've worked with.
As I've been reflecting on the existence of Peace Corps in a country like Ghana for 50 continuous years, I've thought a lot about a question that I've been asked many times: "Why isn't the country developed yet? Is Peace Corps really doing its job if they still need volunteers after this long?" To put it bluntly, I'm really starting to hate these questions. Sure, I understand where they originate, but I think that asking these types of questions illustrates a limited understanding of the scope of Peace Corps and its mission. For me, personally, my job as a volunteer is less about bringing this country to a higher level of development and more about cultural exchanges and mutual learning experiences. Certainly, we as volunteers can help by bringing our education, technology, and experience to areas where these services are needed to improve the basic health and well-being of our international neighbors, but I believe that the work of a volunteer ought to focus more on the exchange of beliefs, culture, and ways of life than it should about bringing the "third world" lifestyle up to "first world" standards. This is why I think that the work of an organization like Peace Corps is something that ought to be encouraged to EXPAND, rather than diminish over time. Leaving your own way of life, even if it's for a short period of time, to experience a new way of thinking, acting, or living, is a powerful challenge to the mind and spirit. Entertaining or even EMBRACING new perspectives is one of the most effective ways we grow and develop personally, and I feel like like my experiences here are the daily illustrating that point.
Maybe I'm making volunteerism sound more glamorous or impactful than it really is, but I truly feel that a life dedicated to opening up oneself to new experiences is a powerful inspiration to the world around you. I have certainly been inspired by the example of that first group of volunteers who took President Kennedy's challenge seriously and allowed themselves and their communities to be changed, and I hope that my service here, in some small way, will become a part of that cultural legacy of the USA.
So thanks for everything, Peace Corps, and happy birthday! My hope for you is that many generations to come will have the chance to reap the rewards of this beautiful experience.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

My First Visitor!

On July 29th, my first visitor arrived! My friend Robin Dykema, who is currently working as an English teacher in Taiwan, came to visit me for just under two weeks, and we had a blast! Since being a Peace Corps voluntter has made me slightly more laid back and less organized (this is actually a good thing for me, I think), Robin's trip was certainly under-planned and required her to be quite flexible at times, but trips like that tend to lead to great stories and fun experiences, so I was glad that she handled whatever was thrown at her so well.

We spent our first few days in Accra, mostly just eating and spending money. I often get caught up in my "village budget" (as I like to call it), and forget that things are waaaayyyy more expensive when you're in a big city. This combined with the fact that I can get things in the capitol that I can't get anywhere else in the country (a girl has to splurge sometimes...) and the fact that taxi driver and goods-sellers see white skin in the city and automatically assume that you're a tourist and must have oodles of money to spend (and no idea what things should cost) make travelling so much more expensive for volunteers like me.

After blowing all of our money, we left for the village. This was the part of Robin's trip that I was most excited about, since the village is really where my life is.  From the start, Robin was thrown into village life, as everyone wanted to see the new stranger in town. We moved from hut to hut and greeted people, held babies, and helped with daily activities (like carrying water on our heads). It was not only fun for Robin to see this completely different culture and experience what life is like for me, but it was also extremely satisfying to be able to share this aspect of my life with someone and see the reaction of the villagers to my visitor. They all loved Robin and were very sad when we left to do more sightseeeing.

After a few days of village life, we departed for our whirlwind tour of touristy sites in Ghana, starting with the Kintampo Waterfalls and the Techiman Monastary. The waterfalls were beautiful, of course, but the best part about being there was the many Ghanaians who wanted to have their picture taken with us. It happens sometimes that a Ghanaian will decide that the presence of Americans (especially females) is something worthy of capturing in a photo, and once one person starts, the domino effect kicks in and every single person around you also wants to take a picture with you. Robin and I probably posed for pictures with 10 Ghanaians (men, women, and children), and would have had to pose for more if we weren't in a hurry to move along to our next destination. You've got to just take situations like these in stride and soak up the attention, because otherwise you might start to feel like an angry celebrity who lashes out at the paparazzi, and that certainly wouldn't do much for representing a good image of Americans to host country nationals :)

After the waterfalls, we moved on to a monastary, where we stayed for two days. The guest house is run by the monks who live there, and is a beautiful and cozy (and cheap!) place to relax. Everything was so quiet there and we had the opportunity to climb some rocks that look out over a beautiful expanse of untamed

land, which was a perfect place to take a deep breath and allow ourselves to get lost in the beauty. I sometimes forget that I live in such a unique and beautiful place, and there were so many moments during Robin's visit that I was able to experience things in this country that renewed my feelings of being blessed and so thankful. The picture to the left is of me standing on some of the rocks outside of the monastary. Of course a camera doesn't truly capture how epic the scene was, but I think you get the idea :)

After rock climbing, we left the next day to go see some monkeys! Monkey sanctuaries are always fun, and you usually have the opportunity to feed them bananas or peanuts, so you get to spend a lot of time seeing them up close and playing with them... I fed several monkeys out of my hand and the longer we stayed in the bush, the more monkeys emerged to check us out and play with us. This was a blast and definitely one of the highlights of Robin's trip.

Our next stop was a trip to Kakum National Park, which boasts a rainforest canopy walk that is one of four existing in the world. I have historically had a tenuous relationship with heights, particularly when I'm not being supported by much more than a few ropes and a wooden plank, but I sucked it up, pushed my fear to the back of my brain, and tried to soak up the incredible views and amazing experience that this walk presented to me. There are seven "bridges" that rise above the rainforest canopy and allow you the chance to see the flora and fauna from a totally unique perspective, and it was worth every penny we spent simply to say that you've walked above a rainforest in Ghana.
The picture to the right gives you a little snapshot of the rope bridge and the surroundings, which were spectacular. As you can see, the bridge only allowed for once person to walk at a time, so the experience was very personal and about a million times more terrifying for people like me who have a hard time walking over grates in the sidewalk, let alone 40 meters above the forest floor.

The final stop on our tour was Cape Coast, which, as the name implies, is one of the many beaches on the coast. The biggest attraction, if you can call it that, is the Cape Coast castle, which is an old slave castle right on the shore where thousands of West Africans were trafficked through before being sent out via ships (mostly to the Americas). This was both a sobering and amazing place to visit, because as you walk around the massive whitewashed structure and stand in the small, dark dungeons, there is such a strong dichotomy between the beauty of the place and the suffering that was experienced there. I could just imagine the European generals strolling along the verandas and looking out over the ocean, while at the same time prisoners were chained in nearly complete darkness in the tunnels below their feet. I learned a lot about the history of the slave trade in West Africa, which is where the majority of slaves were "purchased and exported" at the height of the Atlantic slave trade, and it was incredible to be able to walk around and imagine what life might have been like back then. The pictures below were both taken at the Cape Coast Castle, the first one looking out from the castle toward the ocean, and the second one looking from the ocean side toward the front of the castle.

Overall, Robin's trip was fantastic, and offered me a rare opportunity to see some sights in Ghana that I haven't yet gotten to see. I wish you all could come here and experience the culture, history, and atmosphere of this place, but all I can do for now is give you a little taste of the beauty that Ghana has to offer.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Have It Your Way

The past few weeks have been an incredibly rewarding and exciting time for me as a volunteer. A youth group in the community approached me about starting a small sanitation project, for which we submitted the grant application last week, and the two girls who attended our tie and dye workshop were able to use money from some of my generous friends and family in America to buy more supplies and get a head start on growing their fabric-dying business. In the midst of this, I have been helping to plan and execute another HIV education and testing event that took place during the past week. On top of this, I am picking up my friend Robin (who is visiting from Taiwan!) today at the Accra airport, and the health, water, and sanitation technical training is being hosted in my village for the next two weeks. Needless to say, things are pretty busy around here.

Next month, a new batch of volunteers will be swearing in, and last week I had the opportunity to meet several of them as they were passing through the Peace Corps office on their way to visit their future sites. This was both an exciting time for them and a refreshing time for those of us who have been here for a while, because there is nothing like the perspective of a trainee who has only been in the country for a little over a month. It really reminded me of everything that I’ve learned over the past year and how far I’ve come, as well as just how much work we’ve been able to accomplish, because sometimes these things are hard to see unless you’re looking in from the outside. Things that used to seem foreign and daunting, like figuring out the best means of public transportation or haggling with street vendors, have now become a way of life. It’s normal to share a taxi with a goat, or ask the bus driver to pull over to the side of the road so I can use the tall grass as a makeshift rest stop. I say all of this because I’ve been reminded of the ways in which my perspective has changed, and I think a change in your way of life can be a very powerful (and good) thing.

One of my Peace Corps friends is currently hosting her older sister, who is visiting from America. I got to hang out with both of them last week and we were comparing notes about the social and cultural differences between Ghana and America. I mentioned that since coming back from my visit to America, I realized how much of a customer-driven culture that America has developed compared to Ghana. We were sitting at an upscale restaurant at the time, and my friend’s sister pointed out that all of the wait staff were just sitting at a nearby table rather than actually waiting on customers. The thing about customer service in Ghana is that it often doesn’t exist, or at least not our notion of what customer service ought to be. We joked around about the fact that in America, waiters and waitresses would never be allowed to sit around at an empty table and wait for customers to tell them when they needed something, or call them over when they were ready to order. In our culture, behavior like that merits a strong complaint to the manager, or at the very least, a lower tip. Here, it is standard procedure to have to summon a server over to you several times to ask for a beverage or place your order. If you ask for a special order at a food joint in the states, the staff are expected to honor your requests to the best of their ability, and apologize profusely if they can’t. Here in Ghana , your request for a variation on a menu item is likely to be greeted with a blank stare or the declaration that the item you are asking for is not on the menu, therefore is not served. It doesn’t matter if the server is being asked to hold the onion or add extra rice on the side, the concept of “what the customer wants, the customer gets” is completely foreign to most food establishments here. This extends beyond just the food industry as well. At many hotels I’ve stayed in here, I’ve had to approach the staff to ask if they had any towels and sometimes even if they had bed sheets (“oh, you want a pillow? Sure, I can find one somewhere...”). I recently put a bag in the back of a taxi only to find out that my driver had put an extra can of petrol on top of my bag, therefore turning my backpack in to a soggy, smelly mess. Imagine your response in America if your bag ended up soaked and utterly ruined because a taxi driver had knowingly put an open can of gas on top of it. Imagine the response of the driver, or the apology you would probably be issued by the cab company for whom the driver was employed. Well, after my driver opened up the back and handed me my wet bag, my response was “Whoa, what happened?” to which my taxi driver responded by simply holding out his hand and tapping his foot on the ground, the universal sign for “anytime you want to pay my fare would be great. I’ve got other things to do here...” I let it go and paid my money, knowing that trying to argue with the driver or claiming that he somehow owed me, the customer, the basic right to a dry bag, was fruitless and likely to end in an argument on the side of the road.

I say all of this not to criticize the Ghanaian way, but to point out the ways that different societies put priorities on different things. In American culture, we have put a high value on customer service, no matter what good or service is being provided. In Ghana, the idea of tailoring your business to the customer’s every whim or going out of your way to please said customer is ludicrous, and frankly, a waste of time and energy. I must say, there are days when I wish I was back in the states, where the supermarket attendant doesn’t scoff when you hand her a $20 bill and require $15 in change because a store is expected to carry cash (If you try this in Ghana you’re likely to get turned down flat –“Madam, we don’t have any change!” or have to wait 10 minutes while your driver/waitress/gas attendant/market vendor tracks down someone, anyone, who might be able to break your bill). But I can also appreciate the fact that there is less of a “face” put on for customers here than there is in the states. A high priority on customer service often ends up manifesting in a plastered-on smile and a front that fulfilling the customer’s every desire is a pleasure. This fake and forced sweetness can get old pretty fast, and it is refreshing to know you’re being served by people who aren’t being nice to you simply because they want a good tip.

Monday, July 4, 2011

I'm Baaaaack!

Hello everyone!
Well, this has certainly been the longest time between posts, but if I know you at all, I'm sure you'll forgive me :)

First of all, I'd like to quickly say that my recent trip to America was absolutely wonderful! I enjoyed every minute of it, though it certainly didn't seem long enough to see everyone or do everything I wanted to do. I was so blessed by everyone's words of support and encouragement, and I left feeling refreshed and excited for the next chapter of this journey.
As soon as I got on the plane heading for Ghana, I felt a surge of excitement that still hasn't quite let up. It was even better than the first time I came to this country, because instead of coming to an all new, unknown place with a bunch of strangers, I felt like I was coming "home" to a place where I have friends, family, and a job that is both challenging and so meaningful. Yet when I stepped off the plane in Accra last week, I still felt a pang of the anxiousness that I felt when I first arrived here. It took me a few days to get from America back to my site (4 days of traveling, to be exact. YIKES), and during that time, I kept having the "first day of school" dreams, where everything goes wrong and you wake up laughing at yourself for actually believing in your dream, like I did, that everyone in the village has forgotten who you are when you return.

Anyway, I've discovered a few things about this country and about myself since I've come back. First of all, things can have a tendancy to seem much better when you've created some distance between yourself and those things. Let me clarify this: when I was in America, I tried to be as honest as possible about my experiences, struggles, and challenges in Ghana over the past year, yet I still found myself sharing mostly good memories, talking about how amazing this country is, and making light of my experiences with ornery taxi drivers and over-aggressive street sellers. By the end of my trip, I had forgotten most of the "difficult" parts of living here on a day-to-day basis, and could hardly remember how I'd ever gotten mad at a child for peering through my window. After all, they're just kids, and they just want to be loved, right? Well, it didn't take too long for my rosy picture of Ghana to fade slightly around the edges. In fact, as soon as I dragged my massive suitcase (with a broken wheel) out of the Accra airport and into the burning heat, I was jolted into a world of taxi drivers yelling incessantly and refusing to accept the fact that I did NOT want to pay an absurd amount of money to ride in their cars to a place I could walk to (or trudge to, in the case of my broken luggage) in less than 20 minutes. Then, once I did finally find the car I was looking for, I was once again thrown into reality when the driver charged me about twice as much as the normal taxi fare, demanding that I also add more for "luggage fees." The reality checks only continued when I got to my site: after about 10 minutes of being back home, I had children running up to my house demanding candy and adults coming to my place to greet me (and conveniently ask what I had brought for them from America). I say this with an air of lightness, because in the grand scheme of things, these are not truly terrible problems to have, but I also share this because I have realized that things tend to look a little shinier from a distance (like a nice, big American ice cream cone. Sounding pretty darn good right now).

The next thing I realized since coming back is the way that I live my life so differently here than in America. I knew before that I had a different lifestyle here, but going to America and coming back only reinforced my thoughts that I actually like myself much better here than I do in the US. I realize this sounds a little funny, but I think it's true: the lack of stimulation like television, the internet, and people always around to talk to makes me so much more self-reflective and aware of myself. Communication becomes so much more meaningful here, because I'm not constantly inundated with technology and the ability to vent whenever I want. Problems must be faced and resolved head on here, whereas in America I find myself zoning out in front of the tv, hiding behind a computer screen, or calling up someone to complain, which in reality, are all forms of diversion from reality. Don't get me wrong, I LOVE spending time with people. Technology can be so great, and it's fun to be able to sit down with friends and watch a movie sometimes, but all of that constant STIMULATION can also be exhausting and actually quite counterproductive. I already feel more connected to myself, to God, and to my community in the week that I've been back than I ever did in America, probably because with so much alone time and so few distractions, I don't have anything to hide behind. I am much more "me" here, and I look forward to discovering over the next year how I might take this version of myself and what I've learned here and apply it to my life when I come back to the states.

Okay, that was a lot of heavy stuff. I didn't mean for this post to be filled with ramblings about my inner self, but I think it's important to share what I've learned and continue to learn here, with the hopes that you will be able to relate in some way.

Now, for a few amusing stories since I've come back to the village. First of all, everyone has LOVED all of the gifts I brought back to them, and I have YOU to thank for those gifts. Whether you gave me money, small trinkets, or M&Ms (Aunt Sharon, that has been the biggest hit BY FAR haha), you allowed me to come back to my village with an answer to the question "what did you bring from America for me?" (the standard response being, of course, CANDY!) I have tried to avoid handing out things and allowing people to get in the habit of automatically coming to me to see what I've brought for them over the past year, but I have used the time since coming back as a big thank you to so many people in the village who have done so much for me over the past year. When I shared with the two girls in my village that I would be helping them buy some more supplies for the cloth-selling business that I have been mentoring them with, they both had tears in there eyes and said, "Madam, we don't know what to say. We don't know how to thank you, because 'thank you' is not enough..." Moments like those make me truly thankful that I do have the resources to help people who truly deserve it and show my love to them, even in a small way. I have been so amused by the reactions of Ghanaians to my American candy, especially when they taste Pop Rocks. I took a short video of some of the kids when they first tasted them, but their reaction was more confusion than anything haha. The best reaction came from several of my adult male friends, who jumped around, yelled, and pointed to their mouths when the candy cracked and popped in their mouths. Truly a priceless moment.

I have had many of these moments since coming back, and I have been overwhelmed by everyone's reactions to my return. People have invited me over, fed me, excitedly asked me tons of questions about America, and have sent their greetings along to all of you. They feel connected to you through me, and I hope you feel the same way about them. Thank you again for making my trip to America so special by encouraging me and inspiring me to make this year even better than the last.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Why you'll never see me on a "People" magazine cover...

I know I've touched on this in previous blog posts, but I've been thinking a lot about concepts of "privacy" lately and thought it might make for an interesting post...

The other day one of my fellow volunteers came to visit me, and we were talking about the fact that we feel like we understand the lives of celebrities a little better since moving to this continent. My friend told me about the lack of privacy at his site being exacerbated by the fact that he lives inside of a compound with several nurses who are always acutely aware of where he's going, what he's doing, and how late he sleeps in ("you've finally woken up!"). Because I don't live inside of a compound, I don't quite face the same scrutiny that he does from his housemates, but I still understand the feeling that accompanies it. For instance, even though I live on the outside of a cement compound, the latrine that I use is located inside the compound, where several Ghanaians live. These are mostly men who work for ITFC, and I get along great with these guys. They've helped me on numerous occasions, chasing bats out of my house late at night, finding my lost cat, and just being there with a smile and good conversation. But at the same time, it is rare that I enter the compound and don't see at least a couple of them, which makes trips to the bathroom quite a public affair. This was particularly troublesome at the beginning of my service, when I first got to my site. I was still getting used to local food and my body was adjusting to a new place, and let's just say I got to know my latrine pretty well in those first few months. And nearly ever time that I entered the compound, particularly if I did it multiple times in a day, my housemates would get very concerned. "Madam," they would say, "It seems as though your stomach is running. You must be feeling sick since you are coming here plenty." In other words, even the condition of my stomach (not something we Americans are used to freely sharing about) was a topic of general interest and concern.

Now, those are just a few examples of the type of public display that we and our bodies face quite often. In many ways, I have simply accepted the fact that I, being a white foreigner, am a rarity in this area. The daily life of villagers can get a little old (as it occasionally does, I suppose, for every other type of person everywhere on the planet), so having a person around who hilariously butchers your language, looks very different than all of your friends and family, and has the ability to send your children screaming and running into the bush at the mere sight of her makes for great conversation around town. I have become used to a new "normal," which is one that includes greeting every person I pass and answering any questions they might (and usually do) ask, such as "where are you going?" "where are you coming from?" and "what are you doing?" It also includes being the center of a lot of conversations, whether or not I realize that I am. I've heard my name mentioned in countless rapid exchanges in Dagbani, and people always seem to want to chat about my language abilities (or, more accurately, my lack thereof). Never before in my life have I felt so many eyes on me at once, especially when we have festivals, celebrations, and "jams." Since drummng and dancing is such an important part of this culture, I often find myself on the outskirts of a massive circle of people with a makeshift dance floor in the middle and my friends pushing me into the center to dance. I always oblige (these things just don't embarrass me much anymore...), to the delight of the crowd. Yelling, cheering, and laughing always ensue, which encourages me to further make a fool out of myself :)

Probably the most significant change in my life as far as privacy is concerned is the lack of privacy when I am in my home. Sure, I live alone, and I do have frosted windows that, when closed, make it difficult to snoop, but there are almost always children around who are greeting me, asking me for things, or just trying to get a peek inside at the siliminga. Some days this can be very precious, like when I hear the little 2 and 3 year olds squeaking out "Madam Kate! Madame Kate!" Sometimes, it's fun to have a big group of kids run over to my place and just want to spend time with me, whether it's coloring or playing frisbee or doing relay races (they looove the wheelbarrow). There are many times when I certainly don't mind giving up a little bit of privacy to play with the kids and cuddle with the babies. Other times, however, the children can be relentless. When I am cooking, eating, sleeping, reading, working... you name the activity and the time of day, and there are probably some children around peeping into my windows and calling my name. They seem to know when I've had a particularly trying day, and just can't resist the urge to yell a little louder and nag me a little more than usual (but then again, maybe my ears are just a little more sensitive on those days...). Those are the moments when I wish I could just lock myself in a sound-proof room for an hour, but that would be nearly impossible to do here, obviously. (come to think of it, learning to deal with this aspect of my life is, I suppose, is good prep for the future if I plan on having kids of my own someday...)

Anyway, as the title of this post suggests, I have something of a new appreciation for the lives of "celebrities." Sure, they make enough money to hire full-time security and the lack of privacy is what most people think of as an occupational hazard, but I'm now far less likely to roll my eyes when they complain about the constant "airing out" of their dirty laundry. Sometimes it's hard to put on a smile when you've got a fever of 102 degrees. You don't always want to greet every person you pass, and sometimes you just want to bust a move on the dancefloor without one hundred pairs of eyes staring at you. But even though it's hard, I wouldn't give up my lack of privacy for all the rewards I gain. Sure, those little kids are screaming out my name for a mile as I walk down the road, but they're just so darn cute when they do it, I always arrive at my destination with a smile on my face...

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Vacation, Which Means Lots of Time With Just Me and My Thoughts...

If it seems like my blog posts are getting few and far between, it's because they are! haha
The longer I stay here, the harder it is to find new, exciting, and funny stories to share because life is just becoming a new "normal" for me. The more I settle into things, the less of a need I feel to give updates. But with that being said, I hope this post will make up for my infrequency over the past few months.

This week, I traveled down to the Volta Region of Ghana to attend the Kente Festival in Tafi Abuife, where my friend Chris is stationed as a PC volunteer. I left Tamale on Thursday afternoon, spent the night in the city of Kumasi, and finally made it to my friend's village on late Friday afternoon. I traveled down with 3 other PC friends from the North, and needless to say, we had a great trip! I never look forward to extremely long, hot, and cramped tro rides, but we somehow found a way to enjoy ourselves. Between perusing hilarious books about suggestions for "the best new text messages to send to friends" and singing in the back of buses, the time passed quickly (it didn't hurt that the scenery was fantastic). We met up with about 20 other volunteers at the festival, which was great because I hadn't seen many of them since Thanksgiving when we all celebrated at the Ambassador's house. We danced, drank some cold cokes, and caught up on our lives over the past few months, which was exactly the vacation that I needed.

The next day brought more festivities, as everyone gathered for a durbar in which "big men" like the Minister of Tourism and the Peace Corps Country Director spoke and we all celebrated the history and production of kente cloth. Kente is a type of traditional woven cloth made in Ghana. I took some pictures on my camera, but I left my cord at home so I can't upload any, but I have pasted a photo to the right that shows what some typical kente strips look like. They are bright and beautiful and each of the designs has its own story and meaning. Besides hanging out at the kente festival, a few of us found some time to visit a nearby monkey sanctuary. I have never seen monkeys in the wild before, so this was a really fun experience for me. The guide gave us bananas and the monkeys ate them right out of our hands, which was slightly scary (I didn't want to get bitten!) but also awesome. The monkeys just chilled in the trees and wandered down when they saw the food. It's clear that this was a tourist location so the animals were quite comfortable with letting you get close to them, but it was still fun to see them suddenly jump from trees and run out toward you. I will post some pictures later.

One of the best parts about my trip was the incredible scenery. Since I live in the northern region of the country, I am not used to seeing many mountains or lush greenery. The further north you go, the more the terrain becomes flatter and less tropical. I don't mind that I live in the "high plains" area, especially because there are such drastic differences between the rainy season and the hot season in terms of what the scenery looks like. In the rainy season, things get far more lush, and we have a lot of tall grass and beautiful trees. In the dry season (which we are in the middle of right now), everything dies, so you have long stretches of what looks sort of like desert and very few green grass or leafy trees. The southern part of the country, however, is much closer to the equator and doesn't have as much of a "dry" season, so it rains year-round and is much more humid. This means that the landscapes are very tropical and they stay green throughout the year, so traveling down there was a nice treat for all of us "notherners." It made me really appreciate the beauty of this country and reminded me that there are so many differences between my experience at my site and the experience of others at their posts.

On our long trip down to the festival, I was talking with one of my fellow volunteers about the frustrations of some of our work. Specifically, I shared a story with her about a recent event that I helped out at with another volunteer. We taught a lesson on HIV to about 120 men who do road work. The lesson was great-the men where very attentive and asked good questions. We were excited about the lesson until we got to the end, where we decided to hand out some free condoms that we had been given to encourage them to protect themselves. As soon as we got out the boxes of condoms, the men who had been so calmly sitting in their seats and listening to the lesson became an uncontrollable mob. They were pushing, shoving, yelling, grabbing, and doing absolutely anything necessary to grab the condoms we were trying to pass out. There were plenty of condoms to go around, but there was a frantic feeling that seemed to pass over the crowd and each man wanted to be sure that he was getting his share. After many frustrating and fruitless attempts to make the men form lines, we ended up just throwing the condoms on the ground and allowing them to have a free-for-all because things were absolutely crazy. I shared this story with my friend, and noted that the men at that event reminded me of the children who come to my house and go crazy when I have any extra candy or trinkets to give out. Even the most docile of children will start yelling, pushing, and clawing their way to me in order to get as much as they can of whatever I'm giving. She agreed that she has witnessed the same behavior in her village and we discussed the reasons behind why this might be. I have been in crowds like this in America, where people are pushing and shoving their way to the front of a line or trying to grab the last of something that is being passed out. But I think one of the big differences here is a sort of "hoarding" mentality. It is not just that everyone is trying to get their fair share, but that every person is trying to get as much of the item as possible. The men at the event were shoving condoms down their pockets and grabbing for more, even though I know that many of these men don't even really care about the condoms and probably will not use them. The point is that they were being given something for free, and they wanted to get their hands on as many of these free items as possible. I am reminded of the way that many people growing up during the Great Depression have/had a tendancy to hold on to things for a long time and hoard items when the received them. I think this comes out of a fear that there will not be enough to "go around." It is something of a self-preservation technique for you and your family, and I am learning that in areas like the one in which I live, you must have a certain degree of this in your life. You have to be tenacious. It is better to take advantage of every opportunity, particulary when you don't have to work for it. Especially when the thing offered is being given to you for free. Now, I have MANY more thoughts on this subject, including the ways in which I think the West has amplified this mentality of chaotic "grabbing" in the developing world and how I believe that the traditional approach to "development" has actually magnified problems and encouraged societies of dependency in the developing world and societies of guilt in the developed world.... But I will save those thoughts for another blog post (or several). I look forward to engaging in some good conversations about these things when I visit home this summer! Until the next post, an ice cream cone for my sake-I have a major craving :)