Tuesday, December 15, 2009

“An Evening Walk” with Tammi; 15 November 2009

I think that which I will miss most from my time here in Ghana are my evening walks. When the sun drops down in the sky and its intensity reduces to the somewhat sane mark, I’m willing to venture out of hiding. Today, as is typical on evenings in which I walk up the road, I meet and am greeted by many people returning from farm. (After laboring in the fields all day they are making their arduous way home. After lying under my ceiling fan escaping the heat I am out strolling for pleasure).

As I journey out, the image I see is truly African. I watch the sun dripping down the horizon behind the haze of a pale dusty blue Harmattan sky. Salmon pink, bright orange and amber hues radiate from the sky’s huge glowing disc. A ridge gently rises in the distance carpeted with dry high grass, palms, and the feminine curves of tall autonomous acacia trees.

There is much to see on my little adventures. To my right on the bank of the ditch I catch a glimpse of an impressive skink. His sides mimic the pinks and blues of the sky, and other lizards of the black and yellow-orange “push up” variety scurry in response to my approach. A little further along my walk I step to one side to avoiding a giant millipede cruising along the warm black pavement. And a few steps later skip over the remains of a big black scorpion. As I try to watch my step I also keep an eye above me and on the surrounding trees. You never know when you might catch sight of a green feathered parrot, the comical beak of a hornbill, the brilliant crest of a turaco, or the fantastic elongated flight feathers of a nightjar.

In the center of this evening portrait are silhouettes of the people. The first to pass by me is a man on a bicycle, a twig pen strapped on the back of the frame contains a bewildered young goat. A distance beyond, a woman wrapped in worn but colorful cloth balances a huge aluminum bowl on her head and a baby on her back. The contents of the bowl are uncertain except for a cutlass whose handle protrudes from the top. She is flanked by four children. A medium sized boy is shrouded by an unruly bundle of leafy branches which he wrestles to keep on his head, food for the goats at home. A young girl is topped with a bucket of maize. Another boy is capped by a giant stubby-fingered tuber, (tonight’s dinner will no doubt center on this true yam). And the final young boy is topped with an unwieldy dry branch at least twice as long as he is tall, fuel for his mother’s cooking fire.

Still at a bit of a distance, I notice the small boy with the big branch zigzagging down the road in a rather odd way. A little giggle travels the distance between us, and then I see a big white smile emerge from the shadow of his mother’s face. Now I’m close enough to this little entourage to understand what’s happening and I can’t help but to smile myself. I have seen this family before.

We had crossed paths earlier in the year but that time we were walking in the same direction. As I was returning from my evening stroll I had come up on them as they were setting off after a short break from their walk towards home. They were on one side of the road and I on the other. And so we walked on together (but separate). After the usual greetings, my Twi vocabulary was pretty much exhausted. So we walked along in silence; awkward silence (at least for me). I wasn’t sure how to break free of my uncomfortable social predicament, so I took a lesson I learned from my father. I started acting goofy.

First I voiced that I was tired (a little something I was able to pull from my limited Twi) and I started walking at a slower pace. This did not solve my problem, however. The kids copied my steps and slowed down as well. So then after a little bit I picked up the pace and started walking briskly. This did not go unnoticed by the children either who also picked up their pace. So I gave in and added some animated arm movements as if I were in a fake run which went over quite well. And then something akin to Monte’ Pythons’ silly walks ensued all the way to my driveway where I graciously made my exit. They continued on down the road satisfied with their evening’s entertainment.

As I approach the group tonight the boy has spied me first and is egging me on with his antics. We share a fun little exchange and continue in our separate directions. I am thankful for this evening’s walk and this pleasant encounter especially since I was in a bit of a “mood” for most of the day.

Playing Peace Corps volunteer is not always a walk in the park (or in our case a walk in the bush). Not so long ago I was at a crossroads. Reaching the half-way mark in one’s service is a great mile stone and cause for celebration. But it is also a time for reflection and setting new goals. What have I accomplished in my first year? What do I hope to accomplish in my second? Little questions – big burdens!

There were times during the first year when I thought I would be happy to simply survive! That wasn’t really my mind set when I first started out. Sure, I knew I SHOULD keep my expectations down and I SHOULD focus on the little successes, and yeah it’s great to say “If I have affected just one person in a positive way I can consider my service successful”. Blah, blah, blah…bunk. Those things sound great, and I think they really are great – just maybe not for me. I simply could not resist the temptation to have higher aspirations.

At least I had the sense (or lack of vision) to not assign anything specific to those aspirations. In the general sense my mind was and still is open as to where this journey will take me and as to what I might achieve. But it was tough reaching the half way point and realizing that mostly what I had to show for my efforts was…well…what do I have to show?! Survival – check. Now what?

There is a pretty big gap between survival and saving the world. And I spent most of the day today thinking about that, dwelling on that. I have been riding on a pendulum since I stepped off the plane. First the upswing; a great inspiration comes to mind and I start to work. Then the downswing; Plan A falls through followed by plan B and plan C. And just when I’m about to give up…a breakthrough! Then I’m cruising along with great momentum on the upswing then– WHAM! “Whoa, where did that wall come from”?!

There are times I would like to scream, “That’s it, I’m through, I don’t have the energy to care anymore!” But for some reason I keep on keepin’ on. Maybe it’s the spark in the eye of an 8 year old orphan. Maybe it’s the initiative I see building in my young counterpart. Maybe it’s the fact that every time I’m about to throw in the towel and walk away, someone slips in just under the wire and takes up the charge.

Before arriving and during training I heard variations of the same bit of advice several times; never doubt that the work you are doing is making a difference. Since the advice came with sincerity and from people I know and respect I feel there must be some truth in it. So when one of ‘those days’ comes along I try to remind myself of this and try to believe that my efforts are not in vain.

As I continue on my walk this evening I feel that things are on the upswing again. I break from the road and make a detour on a trail that leads past the borehole, through campus, and then on toward home. As I round the bend to the bore hole I hear the voices of two young ladies and then recognize the neighbor girls as one of them pumps water and the other fills her container.

I greet them first, “Maa Jo”!
They are delighted that I’m speaking Twi and giggle “Yeh niah”!
“Mo ho tu sen”? I continue.
“Eye! No won swe”? they reply testing my toddler level Twi.
“Menso me hoye” I throw back to them.
“Nowo ko he”? They prod testing my vernacular.
“Me ko sukuu ana me ko fia” I reply in stride.
“Oh Madam! Wayah di ye!” (You have done well), they shriek in response to our volley of basic words.

Had I been in a foul mood I may have interpreted their remarks as condescending and taken offense. But I take a bow instead, which spurs their delight and I smile happily all the way down the trail toward home. Life is what we make of it.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

“Reflections of the First Year-RPCV’s” by Tammi; 14 Nov 2009

It might be a stretch to
say that I joined Peace Corps in order to obtain the rank of Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV) and feel like I’ve earned my seat at the monthly social gatherings, but it was a factor.

Long before I ever volunteered for the Peace Corps, I noticed that there was something that all Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) have. I’m not sure where or how they got it. But I like it. And I’d like to have it to. If only I can put my finger on exactly what it is.

I can’t remember when I first heard about Peace Corps or who the first RPCV was that I met, but it left an impression. Maybe it was the work the person had done. Maybe it was the concept and mission of Peace Corps itself. May
be it was the exotic image I had in my head. Maybe it was something I ate. But whatever it was, I noticed that each RPCV I met possessed something. No matter where each person served or how long it had been since they served, they had it. I’m not sure if the RPCV’s are even aware that they have this thing. But to me it’s quite evident albeit ever-so-difficult to get my hands on.

When I first began seriously entertaining the idea of volunteering I started asking a lot of questions to RPCVs I knew. This is when I started to get a better glimpse of the mysterious it. No matter how naïve I may have been with my questions, no RPCV was ever condescending. In fact, I felt they each showed great understanding, respect, and compassion. As I pressed on with my interrogations, the RPCV would patiently answer my questions the be
st they could. But I got the feeling they were leaving something out. Although at the same time I didn’t feel they were trying to hide anything from me. I think maybe the RPCVs responded to my inquiries much like a parent does with a child. It was like a pat on the head. No matter how much you try there are some things in life that cannot simply be explained.

In the end I decided that there must be only one way that I could get it. I volunteered. Now after a year+ in Peace Corps, I don’t believe I necessarily have it, but maybe I’m beginning to grasp it. The slogan says that Peace Corps is “The toughest job you’ll ever love”. While this is proving to be true, there is a lot more to it. It’s not just a job (o
r just an adventure). It’s a level of growth and a mindset.

Peace Corps is kind of like spring cleaning. First you clear out all you have accumulated. Then you knock off the dust, analyze each
thing, and decide what’s worth holding on to, what’s superfluous, and what needs to go. First I did this physically while preparing to leave home. Then upon arriving at my assigned location I started to go through the process again. But this time psychologically. This has led me to believe that it might not be something that RPCVs have, but rather it might be something they have given up or decided to leave behind.

In my mind RPCVs reside on a pedestal. And like a child, I would like to emulate my heroes. As I continue on through the second year of my Peace Corps odyssey, I realize that what I have experienced so far has made an irrevocable
impact on my life. But I can’t know if when I return home I will have acquired what those RPCVs possess. I hope I’m getting closer… still working on it.

Pictured: A few of the latest from Ghana to obtain the rank of RPCV

Sunday, October 25, 2009

“The Ins and Outs of Water” by Tammi; 25 Oct 2009

I dug into my stash of blogspot drafts this week and pulled out this one:

Inside the boys' dorm privy

After my tours of Southeast Asia I was a little concerned that
when I came to Ghana I might be dealing with a potentially tedious “potty” situation for 27 months. I was relieved to learn, however, that a toilet in Ghana very closely resembles our American toilet. Thankfully, my preparations in moving to Ghana did NOT have to include daily workouts of thigh-numbing squat exercises.

Having said this, however, there are certainly differences in the types and availability of facilities. Water is a precious commodity, and most people in Ghana have to haul their daily water supply from the local well or bore hole. The water source may be a 20 minute trek one way. And as you might imagine, carrying a large container of water on one’s head, up a hill, under the African sun, can be a workout. So with the lack of conveniently piped water, there are more urinals and pit toilets in Ghana than flush toilets.

School urinal (with designated areas for boys on one side, girls on the other side, and teachers in the middle)

I have learned some things about water consumption in the time that I have been living here. First, it’s amazing how much water it takes to flush a toilet! Second, it takes much less effort to collect rain water from a roof than it does to pull buckets of water from a well. Third, conservation.

Do you remember when you used to leave the faucet run all the while that you brushed your teeth? (I hope none of you do that anymore). To me it now seems equally ridiculous to do this when you shower! I can take a very respectable bucket bath with less than 1/3 the amount of water it takes to flush just once. And when we have running water for a shower I can use even less. If you are one of those people who are now in shock due to your knowledge of my showering habits in a “former life”, please take this moment to pick your jaw up from the floor. I’m serious! Admittedly it may also be that my new behavior is encouraged by our lack of a hot water heater. But I’m hoping to take my water conserving habits home with me nonetheless.

A great experiment for the American public would be for everyone to haul their own water for just a few days. I’ll bet our water consumption (or water waste) would plummet as a result.

Primary and junior high students hauled water to mix cement for a new building addition. The small stream is over ¼ mile away.

Back to toilets-
  • Pit toilets-common
  • Flush toilets-not necessarily uncommon unless you are traveling and really need to find one
  • Urinals-hmmm
Until I moved to Ghana, I did not know that women use urinals. The urinals here are typically flat cement slabs (or bare ground) with ¾ height partitions around the sides. Some have a men’s side and a women’s side. Some are unisex. But it doesn’t matter because all are constructed the same way – just a cement slab with a hole that opens to the outside at the base of one wall. That’s it. They vary a little bit. Sometimes the “privacy” partitions are cement and sometimes plywood or woven palm fronds. And sometimes the really fancy ones have a shallow trough built into the floor to help guide the yellow river to the drain hole. Regardless, you don’t normally want to be downwind from these “structures” on a hot day and suffice it to say that washing of shoes is a regular chore in Ghana.

Another girls' room on campus

Inside a newer urinal

I’ve learned to fast on travel days and am in awe of myself that I can go all day without a potty stop. On long tro-tro rides, sometimes other passengers will request a pit stop at which point the driver will pull to the side and a few people jump out and relieve themselves roadside. I’ve seen more johnsons in Ghana alone than I thought I’d ever see in a lifetime. And No, it’s NOT because I’m trying to look. In fact it’s hard to avoid catching a glimpse when you are surrounded by so many free-ranging wankies.

Fellow PCV, Toby, steps a few feet away from our table to relieve himself in the "privacy" of the establishment’s urinal.

Of course it’s easy for the men. But I’ve also seen some women that have adapted to the difficult circumstances. I am here to tell you that some Ghanaian women can pee standing up! Once I got over the initial shock of seeing that maneuver, I found it to be enviable. But for so many reasons I’m not about to try it myself.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

"Somehow" by Chris; 10 Oct 2009

A word you hear quite often maybe too often here is “somehow.” It is used during discussions about the progress of something or the hopes of progress; “The computer lab will be finished by God’s grace…somehow.” “The government will by all means get us the monies they owe us…somehow.” I believe it is more of a disclaimer or optimistic version of “or maybe not.” Sadly too often discussions on progress and development end with “somehow.” (By the way neither has happened yet. It may, somehow…someday.)

Our hope for the future

BUT! Yes but I have swung back into the optimist’s camp and I see hope for things here. Why? Well as often as I hear “somehow,” I hear phrases like “I know” and “We want to do it.” And I hear less and less, “Will you do it for us?” and more “how can we help?” This is a small step but very exciting! Far too long I have stewed in anger after watching Ghanaians accept their place and not hoping for better. I was overlooking the ones who were saying, “Enough already, let’s change things, let’s take control of our destinies.”

The major project I am unveiling this year at school is The Campus Pride Initiative. I happened upon its new motto at the first Sunday church service at school this past week. Rev. Kwarteng gave a sermon on making a difference, something the students needed and I really needed. I took a bit of poetic license and have decided the Campus Pride Initiative will have the motto; Effect Positive Change. I hope that it will have an effect on just a few and that effect in turn will go far beyond DASHS. I want these students to have hope, to be the change agents that Ghana so desperately needs.

More hope

Anyway I really want to talk about a couple of stories we heard recently, one on BBC and one on NPR. The BBC story was called “Why is Africa Poor?” and the more Tammi and I listened, the more spot on we felt they were with their observations. As I have said before one of the amazing things about Peace Corps is we are here for over two years which grants us the ability to get a real sense of what is happening in a place though I could never say we can completely understand, our context just does not work here. It is very important to remember this when considering how to “help.” We have seen too often when a well meaning NGO drops in, shells out a bunch of money, maybe puts up a building or two and then leaves without ever spending the time to find out what or where the real need is. I would argue the most important need is “ownership.” People need to be able to say, “I worked for this.” or “I earned that.” These phrases are used far too little here and when they are sadly it is the corrupt politicians and civil servants justifying their chopping (skimming off the top for themselves) of budgets. One of the best lines from the BBC story states, “Africa is not poor, it is poorly managed.” I find this to sadly be so very true. As I see it, we well meaning people and governments of the west have created a continent of aid junkies who believe that someone else will do it for them, and that they will be taken care of no matter what. The heartening thing is that most of the people here we have spoken with realize this and recognize that it isn’t good. But just like drug addiction it isn't that easy to kick the habit especially when western governments and companies continue to profit from the addiction.

Ghana's future military...

We stay in a region called Afram Plains and I would guess it is about the size of two or three counties in Iowa, around 500 square miles. The US Government under the guise of the Millennium Challenge Account has put almost $250 million into the development of Afram Plains via the Ghanaian Government. After everyone is finished dipping their hands in the jar it is hard to see a single change for the better here. One now sees is a new fleet of pickup trucks with the MCA logo on their doors and a nice new half empty building in Donkorkrom which houses a few of their offices complete with air conditioning throughout! Imagine if 250 million dollars was spent on 3 rural counties in Iowa.

Anyway it is very easy to be angry and jaded but I know that there is hope, great hope and I remain angry but not jaded. The folks around here want to see change. They want to see a better future for their children, and they love their country. They simply do not know how to do it or they feel powerless and sadly it breeds complacency. In my humble opinion what they need from us is more Peace Corps or something like it and less throwing of guilt money at the problems. They need assistance, good education and training, and friendship, not more money. We need to oversee/guide not do. We cannot continue to come to the rescue every time someone breaks a nail. Teach them to mend it themselves. For example, I see far too many bits and pieces of perfectly good road machinery lying along the unfinished road from here to Etche because something broke down. And from experience, if something goes wrong the “obruni” (white man) will come and give them a replacement. Why not? After all, we bought the machinery to begin with. If we want to truly help, we need to continue and expand the Peace Corps style model. A model where assistants integrate into the community as much as possible and are make the time to identify what really needs to be done. Then provide assistance. Don’t do it for them.

...or maybe not

I have come to see the people in my community as friends and family, not a project. And I will very much miss them when we leave in some ten months. I have come to truly care. I go as far as saying I have come to really love these people and I pray for only the best for them. If you want to help, encourage our government to not only continue but enlarge the Peace Corps. And when giving money to any development organization, look closely at how those organizations function. The Peace Corps is not perfect and there is plenty of room for improvement. But I think that when JFK and General Shriver conceived of this brilliant idea almost 50 years ago, they were really on to something.

A great challenge for us is that our view of the world is tied to our own context. For instance, how do we define poor? I can say with confidence it is not the same as how Ghanaians would define it. The other night Tammi and I were on a walk and decided to see what was down a trail that went off the main road. We came to a clean attractive little area surrounded by plantain and banana trees and a tidy little mud walled hut with no running water or electricity. There was a friendly woman with her healthy happy children, including one of the more pleasant young ladies I have ever met who attends the JHS just down the road. Are they poor? Why? What more do they need?

Most beautiful smile in the world!

I can’t help to think that there are far worse situations in the world. Shouldn’t the aid go to those situations? Or better yet, be directed to prevention of those situations instead of playing triage. We cannot continue to apply our western sensibilities to the issues over here. We simply must take the time to develop relationships that will help us to gain the understanding needed to make better decisions about international aid.

There are three directives to the Peace Corps mission. One is “to educate the host country’s people about the people of America.” There recently was a group from Scotland visiting and helping at the school. We were told that there was a very negative image of Americans in Scotland and getting to know us they were surprised how different we were from their preconceived perception. I trust I don’t need to go there… Ok I will, “Bush loving war mongers.” I know they weren’t Ghanaians but it really illustrates the point. I hope that we are having the same effect on our Ghanaian friends and colleagues.

Please listen to these podcasts and let me know what you think. It is important for the peoples of Africa that we shift our thinking toward aid. APR’s Speaking of Faith; “Ethics of Aid” http://speakingoffaith.publicradio.org/programs/2009/ethicsofaid-kenya/ BBC: “Why is Africa Poor?” Part 1: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p003zt3q

I feel the most important thing you need to take especially from the BBC series is at the end of the day the people not just here but everywhere need to do for themselves. We all want ownership of something and the pride that goes with it.

So somehow we WILL get it done. We ALL will get it done…somehow.

I look forward to continuing this conversation…

Saturday, September 26, 2009

"Coolest Foot Tan EVER" by Chris; 26 Sept 2009

“Under the Mango Tree “ by Tammi; 24 Sept 2009

Sometimes I wonder how often in the course of African history, peoples’ lives have changed after a meeting of minds under a mango tree. It may seem quite insignificant in the greater scheme of things, but this week our neighborhood women’s group gathered together to learn about family planning.

For the past few months my friend and fellow faculty member, Gifty, and I have been going around visiting the homes of women in our area. We have been learning a little bit about the ladies, their families, what they enjoy in life, and what is difficult for them. We listen for things that make each woman unique and we listen for things that they have in common. The first common issue that bubbled to the surface of our conversations was family planning. The ladies wished to learn more. So with Gifty’s connections at the hospital, our first group meeting was arranged.

Two representatives came from the hospital’s family planning center and provided information regarding the use, benefits, and drawbacks of all types of birth control from implants and IUD’s to the rhythm method and how breast feeding technique can affect fertility. I thought I was fairly knowledgeable on the subject, but even I learned something despite the fact that the whole presentation was in Twi.

Personally, I have really enjoyed this women’s group project and I’ve been hoping that I’m not the only one benefiting. So after the meeting when the group asked with anticipation “Can we have another event like this next month?” my spirits flew to the highest branches of the mango tree.

To be continued...

Sunday, August 23, 2009

“Visiting the Orphanage” by Tammi; 23 Aug 2009

There is an orphanage in town. When we first came to Donkorkrom our headmaster was going to take us there for introductions. But somewhere between the obligatory district assembly, chief’s palace, police station, administrative offices, etc., etc., that particular stop got missed. So Chris and I decided that we should probably go there on our own some day.

The orphanage was established about 5 years ago with the assistance of the Presbyterian Church. I’m not sure what Donkorkrom would look like without the Presby Church. For one thing, the church itself stands quite prominently on one end of town and its congregation is one of the largest in the area. It is flanked on one side by the Presby grade school, and just around the corner and down the street is the Presby hospital and dental clinic. The church is quite progressive and active in the community. In fact the assistant pastor recently invited me to attend a meeting in a nearby village where the Presby’s are helping to set up an agricultural community for women living with HIV/AIDS. The Presbyterians among you should be quite proud.

At first we weren’t sure if visiting the orphanage was a good idea. I know it’s not the same, but I kept thinking back to the time when Chris and I decided to go “just to look” at the Great Pyrenees puppies and came home with Jazper! But armed with a conviction to our child-free lifestyle and a Ghanaian law that forbids adoption to foreigners, we felt it would be safe for us to go. A warm reception by the house mothers and children made us feel immediately welcome and now we make regular stops there every couple of weeks. Thanks to those of you who have sent books, colors, etc., we are able to arrive with some type of planned activity complete with your donations to leave behind. Despite the fact that other white voluntourists occasionally visit the orphanage, Chris and I have become regular enough that as soon as we start up the driveway we here little voices calling “Kwamie Tenten!, Sister Adwoa!”, which of course motivates us to keep going back.

At present there are 17 children, ranging from infant to primary school in age. All of them are from our Afram Plains area. According to the house mothers the children have come from mother’s who died at childbirth, are mentally unstable, and/or from destitute families who cannot or will not provide for their children. Having never been to another orphanage Chris and I have no basis for comparison. But the facility seems clean enough and loving enough and the children are provided with decent education and health care (which are luxuries that not all children here have). I’m sure it’s not all rosy though. We are beginning to know the individual children well enough to identify those who will likely have greater mental and physical obstacles to overcome. But as they say here in Ghana, “They are trying”.

Instead of helping to propagate our species, I’ve made a vow to try and make this world a little better place for those who are already here. I’m not sure if our visits to the orphanage are helping to achieve this goal. But hopefully providing a little exposure to Dr. Seuss can’t hurt!

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

"Obamarama" by Chris; 04 Aug 2009

It was no surprise when calls and texts came flooding into the Peace Corps Ghana office very shortly after it was announced that President Obama would visit the country. Eager volunteers wanted to know when they would get to meet him. The standard response line was “There has been no itinerary given for President Obama’s visit. When we find anything out we will let you know.” We were saddened when we were finally told that Pres. Obama had no plans to meet with PCVs for he would only be here for a day.

Three days before his arrival, however, we all received a text via the PCEBS, Peace Corps Emergency Broadcast System. Ok, so I made up this name. But we do have a communication chain established should something occur that we all needed to be aware of. It is most often dangerous situations but in this case we were informed that all PCVs were invited to Accra for the sending off event for the President and his family. Needless to say the texting became furious; “Are you going” “Wouldn’t miss it for the world!” “What do you think will happen?” “I heard we will be having lunch with him.” And so on. The PC rumor mill manages to spread truths and falsities like wild fire. While we were down at the Obama event I actually even heard that Tammi and I were being transferred to the Upper West Region. Purely rumor, though we do plan to visit at the end of this month.

It just so happened that we were scheduled to be in Accra for mid service medical, or as we fondly call it “Poop in a Cup,” so the Obama visit fit into our schedule perfectly. We likely would have gone one way or another but there would have been doubts as anyone who has visited us can vouch for me when I say that traveling in this country is rarely fun. We were up a 4 am to walk the mile and a half into town to catch the Metro Mass bus that goes just past our house but is always full at that time and will not stop to pick us up.

After a reasonably uneventful trip, save the expected horrible roads and maniac tro-tro drivers, we made it to Accra in time to learn we had only 45 minutes to get to the embassy to pick up our invitations/security passes. I managed to talk a PC driver into taking a group of us over saving us a 30+ minute walk. We arrived thinking that since we were at the American Embassy then we would be on American Time; “When we say 2 pm we mean 2 pm.” I was wrong. We arrived only to stand around in front of the embassy for an hour waiting for something to happen. American Embassy or not we had been reminded that we are still in Ghana. This did give us time to do a little catching up with fellow PCVs many whom we had not seen since December. Everyone received their commemorative tickets suitable for framing and we were hustled onto one of 20 or 30 busses and hauled off to the airport under police escort. We arrived at the airport and the place was swarming with fully outfitted Ghanaian soldiers with automatic weapons (I’m sure these were loaded), Ghanaian police with automatic weapons (maybe or maybe not loaded) and lots of white guys with sunglasses and bulges under their suit jackets. With suit jackets, ties, temps pushing 90° and not a drop of sweat to be seen, these guys were scary cool customers and were more unnerving than the machinegun toting soldiers.

We cued and waited yet again in the equatorial sun (did I mention I did not bring water or a hat) for a good while and were finally allowed in. As we walked toward the gate to the tarmac we were afforded a wonderful view of Air Force One and with a bit of trepidation cameras started clicking. No one was tackled by Secret Service so we figured it was ok. We got up to the gate only to find out we would have to wait a bit longer while the metal detectors, or as one of our Secret Service handlers called them “the magnetometers”, were assembled. Now for the low point; I suddenly realized that I had a pocket knife, which a dear friend had given me, in my left pocket. “Shit! What am I going to do? I’m not giving up the knife. It means a lot to me.” We decided I should just wait and see what was said at the detectors. It was NOT PRETTY. Secret Service are not who they are for their friendly personalities and forgiveness. I was short of thrown out on my ear and said to get rid of it or not to come back. So while the others went on ahead (including my stand-by-your-man wife), I literally ran (expecting to be tackled) back towards the busses where a lot of other PCVs and embassy staff were still waiting in the cool air conditioned comfort of their coaches where I deposited my knife in hopes of seeing it again someday and ran back up toward the gate. Upon my return to the first gate I was immediately informed nicely but assertively that “No one else is permitted in at this time. You have to wait”. So I did.

Scary Secret Service guys

Scary Peace Corps Guy

Finally another group of PCVs & Embassy people started to cue and I also fell into line. At the same time to all of our amazement a group of Ghanaians started to line up, (as is the case in so many developing countries, the act of properly cueing in not something Ghanaians are particularly good at). The handler for our section decided we would go in first and she started to march us toward the gate. The Ghanaians did not like this idea at all and the way I saw it all hell broke loose. It was a scene right out of the evening news typically ending with a body count. I kept involuntarily running through my mind the story about all the soccer fans that had died at the stadium in Cote’ D’Ivoire in a similar situation just a few months before. Being mildly claustrophobic, I spent the next half hour talking myself down and wondering why no one would do anything. It continued to get uglier and uglier so suffice it to say I was WIGGED OUT!! But I finally got through and I swore to myself that next time I have a chance to see the President of the United States on the tarmac of an airport in an African country; I will not carry a pocket knife.

Notice the dress...

During my wait in the mob scene, I had received a few texts from Tammi and other friends wanting to know if the waterboarding was finished and had I broken under the pressure. I responded with similar snide remarks and wondered if anyone was intercepting these cellular exchanges and if I might be getting myself into a whole mess of new trouble. I know; paranoid. Once I had rejoined my original group I told them the whole horrible story and that was that. We were here to see Obama and Air Force One was being moved into place on the tarmac as a back drop for his speech. WAY COOL!! (Bear with me for there are going to be a number of WAY COOL moments from here on).

There we were, all in festive moods, all dressed up in our best Ghana fashions, some in commemorative Barack Obama cloth, including Tammi. We waited, and we waited. We took pictures of the big ass plane, we took pictures of the commandos on the roof tops, we took more pictures of the secret service guys and we took pictures of each other posing in front of the “big ass plane”. Then the helicopters came. Three or four of them swept the landing strip in preparation of Obama’s arrival. Then Marine One (the helicopter you often see sitting on the White House lawn) arrived with Barack and his family. (How cool would it be to be a kid and get to fly around in a helicopter, let alone Marine One)? Then the Obamas were all swiftly swept away… but to where? We later learned that they had gone back to the hotel to shower before their departure and wondered aloud, “Don’t they have a freakin’ shower on the big ass plane?” Finally the moment we had been waiting for was about to arrive and I was thinkin’ “Damn, this camera sucks for taking pictures in the dark”. And it was getting darker.

The presidential limousine arrived and a traditional drum and dance troop was there to greet them as President Obama climbed out with Michelle on his arm (an imposing and beautiful woman by the way). Barack shared the grand stand with Ghana’s President John Atta Mills and it was pretty obvious that Mills was humbled by the experience. When they climbed the steps to the podiums the crowd was going nuts, lots of pictures were being taken, and it was an amazing moment for me when I realized that we are really here in Africa seeing the first African American president standing side by side with an African President for the first time ever. This was far beyond a way cool moment.

President Mills spoke for a few moments and we couldn’t understand a thing he was saying because we were standing so close to the stage that we were in front of the PA speakers (only about 30 feet away). But when we heard the crowd behind us erupt into applause we followed suit. It was then President Obama’s turn and again we could hardly hear anything he said but we did hear the words “Peace Corps” which caused the front rows of all 160+ Peace Corps volunteers to erupt into hysterics. Then we calmed down just long enough to allow him to say those words again and off we went again.

When the speeches were finished the moment that most people were hoping for had come; handshakes with the crowd. Being so dang tall, I was resigned to the back row and wasn’t about to push my way to the front of the crowd to touch him (or get tackled by secret service). Tammi also decided not to push (there are some cultural norms we have chosen not to adopt). But I actually really enjoyed getting to see fellow PCVs shake hands with our President or First Lady and hear how excited they were afterwards.

Now the end, and highlight for me, was near; Barack with Michelle on his arm walked up the steps of Air Force One and in a photogenic moment turned around and waved goodbye- a way cool moment! The door shut and that was it. Except we did get to see the big ass plane take off (even though I didn’t get a picture of it cause as I mentioned before our camera sucks at taking pictures in the dark).

Bye bye Oh...

Recap of the best parts: Being here in Africa for this truly historic moment, knowing that Peace Corps is on the President’s mind, sharing the moment with a group of people whom I love and have profound respect for (even though every one of us is out of our minds). You have to be a little crazy to do what we are doing here but in my humble opinion Peace Corps is the greatest model for development anyone has ever conceived. I know I would not trade any of these experiences for the world, especially this one.

BTW - We learned later that the limos, Marine One & all the other helicopters and other forms of transport were hauled over on giant transport planes ahead of time. The day after the big event, we saw the cargo planes fly over and let me tell you those are really big ass planes!

Oh I almost forgot; the ubiquitous navy blue podium from which you always see the president giving his speeches was also sent. The presidential seal was placed on the front of it just prior to arrival of the President himself (which also received great applause)…Another WAY COOL moment.

Oh and one last thing; after a lot of running up down rows of buses, you will all be relieved to know that I did finally retrieve my knife. All's well that ends well…

Thursday, July 30, 2009

“Reflections of the First Year-We all look alike” by Tammi; 30 July 2009

June 10, 2009. July 6, 2009. While these dates may mean little to most, they have great significance to a small group of Peace Corps volunteers (PCV’s) here in Ghana. June 10th marked 1 year in country and July 6 signified that we had completed 50% of our service commitment. So I thought we should take time for some reflection. Like how have we changed? What have we accomplished? What have we learned? And maybe most significantly how has our view of the world changed?

Chris and I will attempt to answer these questions in a series of blog entries by sharing some of our reflections of the first year. Here is the first one:

When I first arrived here I have to admit (at great risk of sounding like a very un-P.C. PCV) that everyone kind of looked the same.

Now before you judge me too harshly, let me add a few things to my defense. First, everybody, everyplace, and everything was new. I had a lot of mental sorting to do. Next, is a little obvious; everyone it seems has dark skin, dark hair, and brown eyes. Then add to this my primary project as a school teacher. All Ghanaian schools have a uniform code. Not only are the poorly lit classrooms typically packed with 40-60 students, but all of those students must wear the same dress, same color shoes, and the same cropped hair, the last item being regardless of gender. The girls must also even wear the same type of earrings – no identifying accessories are allowed at all! So while I know how bad it sounds, I have to admit that in the beginning to me they all looked the same.

Since then, of course, my perception of things have changed. I still don’t know half of my students’ names, but I at least I now recognize them for the individuals that they are. (And being teenagers, most of them are becoming very individual).

The first time I had to step into the classroom I was terrified! I’m in a foreign land. I stand out like…well like white on black. I’m a woman thrust into a male-dominated society. I have chosen not to have children of my own and I have never claimed “I want to be a teacher when I grow up”. And now the mission at hand was to deliver a lesson on HIV/AIDS to a room packed with over 60 teenagers that I had barely been introduced to and who think I talk funny. Yikes! What was I thinking when I volunteered to do this?!

Well, my first experience actually went fairly well and now I have survived my first full year as a teacher. I have pretty much gotten over the things that scared me then. There are plenty of other things that scare me now but they’re much different, like NOT being able to spend adequate time with the students in the classroom. I hate to admit it, but I even catch myself feeling a bit bored without the students around and almost miss those annoying pains-in-the-arse while we are on break. There are still a few students around right now though. And it seems that our home has become a magnet for some of them. For a couple without any kids, it sure seems like we have kids around a lot of the time.

The other day, one of Chris and my visitors was Victor. Victor is one of the four STARS students who traveled to Kumasi with us for the conference. He is extremely bright and a natural-born leader. He’s respectful and helpful, and a good-hearted kid. As is typical with visits, we sat on the sofa in our hall (living room) and chatted about several different things that were on our minds. We learned that over the school break, Victor planned to take an extra summer class and also help his mother at the little shop she runs in town

The other day Victor showed his mother a photo from STARS in which our group of six was posed together. It took her by surprise. The two teachers in the photo were white! Learning that his mother’s shop was located on a main road in town I commented that surely his mother would have seen Chris and me before. We must have passed by dozens of times during our year here. While there may be an occasional short term volunteer at the hospital or orphanage, or even a rare tourist, we are the only obrunis that live in town. “Yes”, Victor politely explained, “this may be true. But to us you all kind of look alike”.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

“STARS” by Tammi; 07 July 2009

STARS 2009

We might not have gotten off to the best start: First, the STARS students that Chris and I had invited (DASHS’s top students) didn’t show up in time for our school bus to take them to town. We did end up arriving at the conference together though. Upon which Chris and I gave our students a little pocket money and sent them out to find a snack. Twenty minutes later we learned there was a conference rule that no students are to leave the site without an escort. Whoops…

Thankfully everyone showed up prepared for the opening event (and on time) and we were off to a good start after a

Our four shining STARS

It was an active week for us middle-aged curmudgeons. Our daily schedule went from breakfast at 7 am to lights out at 10 pm. Then I slept in the girls’ dorm and Chris in the boys’. Each day was filled with a host of activities:

Monday-Youth Leadership Day

Tuesday-HIV/AIDS Education Day

Wednesday-Careers Day

Thursday-Tertiary Education Day

Friday-Guest Speaker Day

We had small and large group discussions, Ghanaian guest speakers, role playing, counseling, and an assortment of leadership and team building activities. The students got to tour the college campus and visit the computer lab. We also had nightly events including debate, drama, movies, a talent show, music and dancing.

There were 60 STARS students in attendance representing every region in Ghana. For nearly all of the student participants, this conference was a first time experience in many ways: first time to travel outside of their home area, first time to visit a big city complete with multi-story buildings, first time to see a college campus, first time to mix with such a large diverse group of other top students, and most importantly first time to be heard and respected by their adult supervisors.

So how did it all go?

On the last day Chris and I sat down with our four students to summarize the week. We were impressed by the list of clubs and events they plan to implement at our own school: How to plan and study, HIV/AIDS peer education, Leadership seminars, goal setting workshop, workshop on how to develop your potential, and a weekly posting on food for thought.

To assist students with taking ideas and lessons learned back to their individual schools, we were provided with a kit of materials (including a bag of condoms and a wooden penis). Next school year will most certainly be an interesting one.

Chris reports that the highlight of the week for him was pretending to poke students in the eye. Ok, before you jump to any conclusions you must first know that Chris served as the “Activities Man”. He was the guy in charge of organizing those fun, goofy, team-building activities. One of those included blindfolding most of the participants. To make sure there was no cheating, he and some of the other organizers went around to each blindfolded person acting as if they were about to poke, punch, etc. The tactic proved quite affective. It was of great amusement to those who could see and with the way the instructors carried on, nobody with an insufficient blindfold could possibly keep from cracking up at their “threatening” antics.

It's all fun and games...

His other highlight was the last night when people wore the traditional dress of their area to the closing dinner and dance. He says “I was absolutely blown away by the beauty and diversity of the dress. This is in a country smaller that the state of Oregon. I find one of the most profound things I will take home from this entire PC experience is how amazing and inspiring diversity really is”.

For me, the highlight was a break-out session with a group of girls on HIV/AIDS day. This was their opportunity to ask candid questions in a safe environment. And ask they did. It was a positive, productive session. My only regret is that it seemed to end too soon. The off-shoots of that discussion could have kept us busy for weeks. (Periodically throughout the event a voice was popping into my head. It said “Is this really me doing this”? Who would have thought?)!

At the close of the event, our STARS said they wished they could stay. They also eagerly volunteered to return next year as Junior Group Leaders.

Its moments like these that make it all worth it

Yes, we’d say that the event was a success. Thanks to all of you who helped make it possible. And for those who did not get a chance to contribute this year…next year will be here before you know it!

For more about STARS visit http://starsconference.blogspot.com/