Sunday, November 23, 2008

"Other Thoughts on Perspective" by Chris 23 Nov 2008

What do we mean when we talk about perspective? I would define it as how I view things around me in relation to what I am accustomed to. Will I see and react to things in the same way when I return to my life in the states? Absolutely! How could I not? But to what extent I don’t know. Tammi & I had a conversation about just this recently and we came to a couple of conclusions.

First, as you all have ascertained from our blog entries, we do live a much “simpler” life in many ways and we are surrounded by people living even more simply then what we are use to. The phrase “hand to mouth” takes on its true meaning here. I can never deny that we live much better than most the people around us but our lives are quite different/ simpler than what we had in the states. Much of the change I see as for the better; No credit cards to deal with, no house or car payments to worry about, no car to fuel or drive, no crazy meeting schedules (we are informed of most meetings we have here about 2 hours ahead), and no need to keep up with the Joneses. Sadly, we are the Joneses. There are so fewer trappings here and the people here, as with the rest of the developing world, equate trappings with wealth which they in turn equate with happiness. I would agree with them on the first two points but I beg to differ on the happiness issue. But that is a discussion for a different time. I have had numerous conversations about this issue with my students and I hope to get through to them at least a little. Then again, who am I to deny them what I already have in abundance?

Chris teaching his students graphic Design

It is true that the whole conversation is
hypocritical on a lot of levels. And that leads into what I really want to discuss: how will we choose to live upon our return to the states? I find it hard to believe that I won’t be affected by what I experienced after living two years in Africa when I am making decisions on which bottle of wine to buy, the $15 or the $25 one, both extravagant. Or do I really need that new pair of shoes even though the pair I have is fine?

A quiet day at Kumasi's central market

Will we live more simply? I would love to say yes. In many ways I am sure we will, but in other ways…it’s just too easy not to and admittedly I’m weak. We all have become overly comfortable with our positions in society and the world and it is really easy to remain that way. Presently Tammi & I live in West Africa, our access to the conveniences and comforts we have grown accustomed to have been greatly reduced. I really miss air conditioning. But we still do very well in perspective. Peace Corps gives us a monthly stipend and expects us to live at the same level as the people around us but they are realistic and know that most Americans couldn’t do that. We stick to the stipend and it is plenty enough to feed, cloth, and house us, but it allots us very little latitude for luxury. This is where Tammi & I are different from most of our fellow PCVs, and believe me there is no small amount of guilt attached. I am on sabbatical from university, and with that is the comfort in knowing that my salary is there just in case we “need” a bit of luxury (even though the money is difficult to get and the luxury is hard to come by here).

We will live more simply in many ways but... I see a couple of scenarios; the first, we return and book trips to Vegas, Disney World, and any other place that is a cliché example of American over indulgence while eating a McDonalds quarter pounder or a piece of pizza. The second scenario is we return and deny all the luxuries, ride the bus
or bike and become completely altruistic giving our time and money to various causes while living a very simple life. I think what will really happen is somewhere in between. The first scenario is possible after being denied luxuries for 2 years I will feel compelled to indulge to the extreme. The question is; how much self discipline have I gained? Eventually I will work it out of my system and settle into a simpler life. The second scenario will happen, but again perhaps not to the extreme. I do expect to return and take a more active role in causes I strongly believe in. If nothing else, what I have gotten with my PC experience so far is an understanding of what is really important and what’s BS. I am coming to realize how much BS we proliferate in the states and how little of it is really necessary. I might complain about the system here but the one thing it has going for is that it is straight forward. They seem to run into problems when they try to be more western (try to complicate things) and it just doesn’t work.

One thing I hope happens upon our return is that we are far less dependent on all the trappings we have become accustomed to. Do we really need two vehicles or a bigger house? What about all those kitchen appliances? We don’t have
a toaster, a blender, food processor, or coffee maker here. We don’t even have a can opener! The Leatherman becomes very necessary here. We have no appliances and we are making some of the best tomato sauces I have ever tasted (trust me it is not due to the “fresh” produce acquired here). The lack of kitchen gadgets and preprocessed foods has forced us to improvise and be creative with our cooking. We strained coffee through a bandana before we got our French press. We grind various things in an iowa; grinding bowl (see automatic coffee grinder picture in 1st blog). It serves as a perfectly adequate food processor/blender though it would be difficult to make a margarita in it. I have taken to making chunky peanut butter; I buy raw ground nuts roast them on the stove add a bit of salt & sugar and grind away. It is the best peanut butter we’ve ever had. I have come to thoroughly enjoy chopping onions & garlic which we seem to use in practically every meal. I do miss a quality chef’s knife though.

All sorts of critters

We have been told numerous times that readjusting to the US is often more difficult than adjusting to your host country. It has everything to do with perspective. Those who have traveled and spent a goodly amount of time in another culture especially one very different than ours, see that there are different ways to live. There are different customs, different ways of doing things, different ways of looking at things, and no single way is
always the right one. We cooked what we felt a very “American” meal of hotdogs and mac &cheez for our home stay family. They loved the hotdogs but hated the mac & cheez. In most parts of Ghana, the idea of drawing milk from an animal’s mammary glands is strange enough, let alone letting it ferment to be turned into cheese. At the same time I can’t understand why they would let corn meal ferment in water so it is sour and stinky, but they love it. The phrase “To each their own” seems pertinent here.

It has been said many times before that if everyone in the world could walk in the shoes of their enemies for just a day… Especially at this point in our history it is so important for everyone to better understand how others live, to gain a broader perspective. We can get a feel for what it is like to live in Ghana but we can never ever TRULY understand what it is like to live AS a Ghanaian. With the profoundly spoiled status I have been given as a white American male, I simply and knowingly couldn’t hack living as most do here
. I understand that and it humbles me. It also gives me profound respect for the people here. In the end, I pray it helps me to be less selfish and I hope to be more sympathetic and understanding of the people and things around me.

Finally, on a bit of a lighter note, I thought I would give you a few anecdotes on perspective. They come in 3 categories;
1) What, doesn’t that happen everywhere?
2) Geese I wished I’d taken a picture, &
3) Haven’t you had to
I do hope this will become a regular feature.

A month or so back we were walking through our local market when we passed a woman topless with her breasts & face painted white. She proceeded to throw everything she was carrying into the air and ran off screaming. We were later told she’s a priestess and she was taken by a spirit… Doesn’t that happen everywhere? Just tonight I had a
pack of small children run with me for a good 200-300 yards while out on an evening run. I know it was the highlight of their day and it made my day much brighter also.

A drummer taken by the spirit
Ohum festival in Old Tafo

A couple of weeks ago they shut the school down for 2 days of intramural sports. Imagine the star player of the schools’ football (soccer) team, a 20 year old man standing on the sideline in the best macho pose he can muster, sweat glistening on the ripped muscles of his shirtless back (Terri, that one’s for you) and a powder blue diaper bag slung over his shoulder. I wished I had a camera. Another of the other players wore Christmas themed woman’s socks pulled up over the knees. I wished I had a camera. We were in Koforidua a while back where we saw a guy in quite an attractive pair of zebra striped bright pink hot pants. They looked very nice on him but I don’t think they quite achieved the look he was after. Again,
I wished I had a camera. They have no clue what theses clothing items are for, to them they’re western and that simply means they’re cool. It is quite common to see children wearing tee-shirts as skirts which I think are genius. There is a big market here in second hand western cloths which they call “obruni wawo” literally translates as dead white man’s cloths. In the beginning I guess they literally thought that these cloths were from dead westerners because why would someone just get rid of perfectly usable cloths?

Public Transportation

Have you ever had to help to push-start your taxi or had your taxi stop to pick up a piece that fell off? Better yet have you had to wander down a road looking for the part that fell off? Have you ever had to have a stranger’s child sit in your lap on public transportation or simply have a stranger hand you their infant?

A few of the neighbor kids

Lastly in the “what’s up with that?” category; We have a cobra, yes a cobra in our back yard! What’s up with that?

Friday, November 14, 2008

“A Change in Perspective” by Tammi; 14 Nov 2008

Chris blending in with the locals

Sometimes I get to thinking that I should update the blog. Then I try to think of what I have to say that might be interesting to others. Sadly good ideas do not always come easily. As we are getting used to our routine here, life seems busy, tedious, and boring all at once. While my original intention was for the blog to kind of serve as my personal journal, I don’t want to bore the crap out my friends and family. But I have also recently come to realize that I really must consider perspective. We all need to take a step back now and then and self-reflect from an outside perspective the best we can. It hit me just the other day, “OMG my perspective has really changed over the past few months!” So here is a little window into our lives that may (or may not) be of interest:

Market lady (NOT possessed) with her husband

Every Thursday is market day in Donkorkrom. It’s the kind of day where one might be able to find really rare, exotic things like honey or a plastic dish drain rack (neither of which I was successful at finding this day). So anyway, Chris and I went to town to the market. We visited a few of the stalls and were crossing the main drag when we happened to notice a bare breasted woman. While it’s not uncommon to see an exposed breast here and there, Ghanaian women typically venture out fully and nicely dressed. So it was not the dangling boobs that drew our attention so much as the fact that the woman’s dark arms and torso were whitewashed with a floury looking substance. Ok, fine to each her own. It’s not like I’m making any great fashion statements either. Then just as we were passing by, the woman hurled the basket of things she was carrying down onto the street, screamed, and with arms (and breasts) flailing about, went running in the direction that she had just come. Well, that’s different Chris and I each thought to ourselves. Apparently noticing our slightly perplexed looks, the Ghanaian coworker with whom we were walking offered the simple explanation, “That woman is a priestess and she was taken by the spirit”. Duhh! Of course! That it explains it…priestess, temporarily possessed. We should have realized that. So no big deal, nothing to write home about…Or is it?!

Buying beef from the butcher shop

Monday morning I went to school to teach my ICT class and found that 2 of the 3 sockets that we have in the lab had almost entirely melted. There were little brown burn marks around the receptacles so I guess I should be glad that the lab was at least still standing. Such is the way of life (and electricity) in Ghana.

Speaking of electricity, on Sunday we were on our way home from Kumasi, about to reach the ferry crossing to Afram Plains when we noticed that there had been brush fires since we had passed this way two days ago. Brush fires are often set this time of year to clear an area for planting or to flush out animals making them easier targets for bush meat. Despite the forestry service pleas and education sessions, these fires continue to be set during the dry season and often burn beyond the control of those who set them. This time, we observed that the fire took out 5 power poles while it burned. When we finally arrived at the house after 11 ½ grueling hours of travel under the African sun, we found that we had no electricity. Hmmm…I wonder. At least we have running water. No, make that “HAD” running water. No problem, though. The assistant headmaster says that the piped water will return - sometime around March. (Thank goodness for water barrels and able-bodied students)!

Junior high and grade school students hauling water to their school

One last tidbit for now - Earlier this week a cow was slaughtered, butchered, and roasted just outside my kitchen window. I must admit that I do not recall that ever happening in our back yard in Ames. One might even think it unusual here in Donkorkrom. At least I have not seen that happen. Well, not since the goat was butchered and roasted in our yard a few weeks ago anyway.

No goats were harmed in the taking of this photo

P.S. Today the electricity is on and the water is flowing through the pipes. You would hardly know we're in the Peace Corps!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

"Proud to be an American" by Chris & Tammi; 05 Nov 2008

We woke very early this morning to text messages from fellow PCVs who along with us were overwhelmed and filled with a feeling of great pride and joy! Barack Obama will be our next president. We do not say this as a sound bite. There is genuine hope. We have regained some of the confidence that we had lost with our fellow Americans. The fact that we awoke on the continent of Africa gives this historic event special significance to us. Our local colleagues, who follow the news, have questioned us about the status of blacks in America and how our racial views might play into U.S. politics. As white Americans living in Ghana, describing prejudice to our African friends is a bit unsettling. We hope that this victory speaks for itself. We now feel that we can hold our heads high and once again proclaim that we are proud to be American!

Monday, November 3, 2008

"Speaking of Politics..." by Chris; 3 Nov. 2008

One-man campaign rally

So I figured with the U.S. election just moments away (GO BARACK!!!) and Ghana’s just over a month away, I should try and give you all a primer on Ghanaian politics.

I am absolutely NOT an expert on politics let alone Ghanaian politics so what follows is merely my observations combined with a bit of light research.

Ghana’s as with all other African countries pre-colonial political history was based on clan and tribal groups. The colonizers came in and established arbitrary national boarders based on nothing more than how large an area they could claim and possibly the occasional natural boundary i.e. river or mountain ridge. Tribal boundaries were never considered which arguably doesn’t help with the alleviation of strife across the African continent. On March 6th 1957 Ghana declared its independence from England becoming the first African country to free itself from colonial rule.

Between then and now Ghana has had its fair share of coups. One of the more prominent and “popular” political figures that even to this day influences Ghanaian politics is Jerry Rawlings who came to power via a coup in 1981 and ruled until 1992 when he was then elected president by popular vote. He was reelected again in 1996 and gave up the presidency in 2001 due to term limits. There was concern that Rawlings would be reluctant to give up power after having led Ghana for so long. Yet to his credit free and fair elections were held and in 2000 John Kufour was elected as Ghana’s new president.

Campaign band in Accra

President Kufour’s term has run out and now for the first time in 8 years Ghana will elect a new president. There are (from what I understand) 7 or 8 parties vying for the presidency; the NDC, CPP, PNC, (sorry, Ghanaians love their acronyms) the DFP DPP, RPD, and the NPP. Another party, the NRP is not fielding a presidential candidate this year. I suppose you’d like to know what these all stand for. Well, so would I. The ones I am sure of are the NPP-New Patriotic Party, the NDC- National Democratic Congress, the PNC- People’s National Convention, CPP- Convention People’s Party, the DFP-Democratic Freedom Party, and the NRP- National Reform Party. The rest I would love to tell you but I am not confident I would correctly identify them correctly.

I am sure that soon you will all start to hear about the elections over here. Ghanaians will not only elect a new president but also an all new parliament and Regional heads (like our governors). The reason you will hear about these elections first of all is because Ghana stands on the brink of a very important event. They have operated with relative peace longer than any other African country and the world is hoping that it will remain that way. Secondly, due to the violent events that have taken place on the continent during recent elections, i.e. Kenya and Zimbabwe, everyone is holding their breath. Thirdly in recent months a number of violent outbreaks have occurred related directly to political campaigning.

Why the violence? It would be a huge understatement to say “it’s complicated”. First of all, and again from what I understand, all the political party’s’ platforms are relatively similar. By our standards they all resemble the democrats with strong social programs and education taking priority. Also, as with all of Ghanaian life, all the parties have very strong Christian leanings. So I have a hard time seeing how such violence could erupt based on disputes over party platforms that are so similar. The people here are very passionate about their politics and they love to discuss/argue about it endlessly and I suspect often it gets out of hand and sometimes completely out of control. What I have heard and concluded is a good deal of the violence is largely based on clan and tribal disputes that go way, way back. Many of these parties by default have tribal roots simply because their candidates were born of one tribe or another and this makes some people like or hate this or that candidate. There is also a strong concern by many that if the NDC which is the party John Rawlings created should win, it is a back door way of putting him back into power and there is no love lost for Rawlings by many Ghanaians who were persecuted during his 18 year tenure.

They are doing a lot of PSAs (public service announcements) on the importance of a peaceful election. They talk about avoiding the use of inflammatory speech aimed at opponents, American politicians should take note. I really wished we could record some of these PSA’s. But let’s just say that the production quality is… well. They are darned entertaining though. We heard that they are even taking a little film festival around to all the villages showing the movie Hotel Rwanda, which I assume is to scare people into behaving themselves.

campaign revelers at a rally in Donkorkrom

I have heard our PC Country Director, Bob Golledge, speak of his concern about violence during the elections on a number of occasions and felt he was overly concerned. Then a month or so ago two different parties planned rallies in the town of Gushegu on the same day, violence erupted and several people were killed and a great deal of property was burned and destroyed. I no longer feel he is being overly concerned.

From December 5th to the 10th Peace Corps will hold an “All Volunteer Conference”. The Ghanaian elections are to be held on December 7th. This is not a coincidence. The Peace Corps and US government want all the PCV’s in one place at election time so that if God forbid there are problems we will be more easily evacuated. In order for a party to win the election, it must take a majority of the votes (over 50%). Well since there are seven parties vying for the presidency, the chances of one party getting the majority is not good. This means a run-off and if that happens there is an even greater concern for unrest. The plan for us PCVs is that we will be put on what they call “stand fast” mode which means that we must stay in a designated location until the elections are over and a winner has been declared. The run-off would probably be held just after Christmas.

So some final thoughts on politics over here; The other day Tammi and I were talking and I had goose bumps when I came to the realization that we are living in a country that could possibly erupt into civil war over an election. The goose bumps were for a couple of reasons, first the obvious, fear. It is a very scary thought that at any moment large scale violence could break out (I do truthfully doubt it though). I also know that all the PCVs will be well taken care of and kept out of harm’s way, but I worry for the Ghanaians that can’t simply be evacuated. Secondly what might be harder to explain is that I truly realize how delicate, profound, and fleeting democracy really is. I am saddened at the apathy of my fellow Americans toward politics and government but I will save that rant for some other time. I am impressed that over 70% (it may be higher) of eligible Ghanaians will cast a vote, and often the voter will have to overcome serious adversity in order to perform their duty. I was speaking to a fellow teacher about the number of people that will vote. He gave me the 70% number but he was upset that not more would vote. He was shocked when I told him that in America we would be lucky to get 50%. I would say violence not withstanding America could take a lesson from Ghana about the preciousness and importance of participatory democracy.

More Later on campaigning in Ghana…