Saturday, January 31, 2009

“Going to See The Kids” by Tammi's Mom; 29 Jan 2009

GOING TO SEE THE KIDS—that’s what geezers and geezerettes do, but our kids have made it an eXtreme sport. First our eldest daughter, Terri, and her family moved to Budapest for three years so it was off to Europe. As they were packing to return to the U.S., Tammi and Chris took off for Ghana. We’re starting to feel like Amazing Race contestants.

“Going To See The Kids” involves certain things. You’re installed in the guest room, you go out to eat together, take in the local sights and maybe meet the neighbors. Same in Ghana…well, sort of.

Ghana Gothic

Tammi and Chris’s new digs are pleasant enough—a two-bedroom apartment attached to the high school headmaster’s home, a nic
e yard…except the yard is surrounded by a high fence with a built-in guardhouse manned 24 hours a day to remind them that, though they make about $5 per day on Peace Corps salary, they’re among the elite in Donkorkrom and their possessions may be coveted. There’s a goat pen in the corner of the yard where table scraps are disposed of and cashew and lime trees, not exactly common in Ames, Iowa.

Don helping out with the chores

The house has electricity and running water—at least most of the time. The electricity cut out only twice momentarily during our stay but when Tammi and
Chris returned home bearing sausages after seeing us off they had an anxious two days trying to preserve their rare treat without refrigeration. The electricity is also really nice to have because it runs the ceiling fans, providing cooling in this sweltering climate.

Our stay was during the dry season so I quickly learned to shower first thing in the morning, when the water was most likely to be
running. When it wasn’t you could still shower and flush the toilet by getting a bucketful of water from a barrel in the kitchen or shower.

In tourist areas of Ghana r
estaurant dining can be pretty ordinary if you order off the continental menu—you just have to remember that chips are fries. In Donkorkrom there ARE no tourists, hence no tourist menu, but there are several places to eat out.

The first thing I noticed when we were seated at one of the local establishments is that there was a squeeze bottle resembling dishwashing liquid on the table. The waitress brought individual wash basins and towels, substituting for the lack of restroom facilities. The menu for the day consisted of rice, light soup and chicken. We each ordered all three. The chicken went in the light soup, a spicy, tomato-flavored broth, and the rice came alongside.

The next day we tried p
atio dining at a spiffy new restaurant/bar/guest house. This time instead of the chicken we each ordered grass-cutter, the most popular bush meat (probably because it’s about the only one available). The Ghanaians can’t afford to be finicky so our serving of grass-cutter (otherwise known as cane rat) included skin (remarkably thick and chewy) and tail (toothpick-size bones). It’s never going to earn a place on the menu at Hickory Park. To add insult to injury the kids made us try fufu which is basically a large goo ball made of cooked cassava and plantain served at the bottom of the bowl of soup.

After that, the kids seemed to realize that the geezers wouldn’t survive long on restaurant fare and, besides, their Peace Corps salary doesn’t allow such extravagance on a regular basis. They’ve adjusted local specialties to the western palate and their home cooking suited us better but it’s not like whipping up a bite in a hurry.

Chris grinds the coffee with a pestle (only Nescafe is available locally). He also roasts ground nuts (peanuts) and makes their own peanut butter. An all-purpose condiment is shitto, a spicy homemade red sauce. My personal favorite and the dish I’ll attempt to fix at home is kelewele, which is made with plan
tains flavored with lime juice, fresh ginger and pepe, Ghana’s version of cayenne.

Although we saw beautiful vegetables and fresh fruit in markets as we traveled around the country, Donkorkrom’s dry climate apparently doesn’t produce them in abundance. Carrots were more expensive than in our super markets and not nearly as nice. Tomatoes were tasty but small. Greens aren’t much in evidence. Meat is a luxury Tammi and Chris can’t often afford and when they do splurge choices are limited. The meat shop butchers one animal a day so if you’re hungry for goat on a beef day, you’re out of luck. Signs which say “cold store” mean they have freezer food. The kids went all out and bought four chicken fryer quarters. After two hours of cooking, Chris’s and my chicken fell off the bones. Don and Tammi couldn’t gnaw theirs off. After another two hours on the stove it made a flavorful addition to the next day’s pasta salad.

One of those "special" mother-daughter experiences

Clothes are washed in tubs, wrung out by hand and hung on the clothesline to dry. A broom with no handle substitutes for a vacuum cleaner. For entertainment there’s a small TV and one government channel with poor reception. Entertainment is provided by the ipod or pirated DVDs, which are available locally. Without labor-saving devices, entertainment isn’t such a priority.

The Martins see lots more of their neighbors now. Instead of waving as your cars pass, you have time to visit as you meet on the road. Greetings are more prolonged. Though Tammi and Chris’s knowledge of Twi doesn’t allow for involved conversations, the locals seem to get a kick out of exchanging pleasantries.

Neighborly gestures seem more meaningful in a subsistence economy. When
we were introduced to a shopkeeper he gave Don and I each a one-liter bottle of water. We stopped to admire the yams a neighbor was bringing in from his farm plot to sell in the local market and he gave us one big enough for a meal. We went to visit a member of the school’s art department faculty and were accompanied home by his daughters carrying a picnic basket with our dinner already prepared. When the paw paws (papaya) ripened, quantities appeared at the door, lots like zucchini does in Iowa.

We’re glad we went to see the kids. It costs lots more and it’s way more uncomfortable than going from Colorado to Iowa and back but you can’t put a value on time together. We’re glad we got to see where and how they lived and to go road tripping together to see Ghana up close and personal.

We’re going to be happy too when they’re back home in Iowa. Waiter, make mine a saucy southerner and a peppermint patty sundae.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

"An Interview with Chris & Tammi"; 20 Dec 2008

Happy New Year!

A lot has been going on and as a result we have fallen behind on the blog. We have many topics in the works though. You can look for "About Food", “About Bathrooms”, “About Transportation”, “The Truth about the Ghana Education System”, “A Baboon Soiled my Panties” and others in the near future. In the mean time you will find questions and answers from a recent interview with a writer from the Ames Tribune. The resulting article "ISU couple serving Peace Corp in Ghana" by Kathy Hanson was printed in Special to The Tribune on 28 December 2008.

Exploring Ghana with Mom & Dad over Christmas break

The interview:

Q: I read Teddi Barron's story, written before you left. Now I wonder if some of the ideas you had for re-integrating this experience with your life and careers are gelling in a different way, or has the experience reinforced them?

Tammi’s Response: For the most part I think my ideas are being reinforced, but probably not in the same way(s) that I might have imagined they would be. However, I think it’s probably too soon to tell.

Chris’s Response: I would agree with Tammi I think it is too early to tell but; I was just thinking tonight as we were out for an evening walk how my concept of poverty has changed. The people here who seem to be doing “ok” in the states would be considered to be living in abject poverty. While the ones that are barely getting by are so far beyond anything I could have conceived 6 months ago. Again even with such insurmountable obstacles to simply live they still find joy in life. Another thought; We were talking about working with farmers to plant more sustainable crops & how difficult it is to convince them to think long term instead of just for tomorrow. I realized that for them to take a chance on a new idea and have it fail can literally be the difference between life & death.

Q: Do you feel connected to the news here, or does it feel abstract and far away?

Chris’s Response: A lot of it does feel quite far away. The financial thing especially because the people in Afram Plains are so far removed from any effects here and I don’t think that is a bad thing. In a way it supports the concept of return to the commons which is the system that we pretty much live in where we are. There is the baker, the butcher & the farmers raising various crops & they greatly depend on each other. Everyone is needed to make the community run. With that, we have seen the prices of a lot of the food go up at the market, though I don’t know if they are related. I think that Accra has been affected at a higher level because it is more closely connected to the western world.

Tammi’s Response: I think that it depends on the type of news item and the filters it sifts through. I am referring to both my own filters and those filters that are imposed by our distant location. For instance, I am aware of the financial crisis, but am happy to mentally keep it at arm’s length. On the other hand I felt starved for news when election time drew near.

It’s absolutely amazing how much media we have at our disposal in America! Here in Ghana we can only regularly view one (struggling to appear professional) television channel, and rarely attempt tuning in to one of the two radio stations with semi-ok reception. There are two Ghanaian national newspapers that reach our area almost daily and once they have arrived here they are already about a day old. But they do offer a few of the international headlines.

Print materials are incredibly expensive here. I’m not what one would call an avid reader but I am a big fan of book stores. Before moving here I never could have fathomed how beautiful and incredible American book stores and libraries are! There are more print materials available in Ames than there is an all of Ghana! Seriously! You can probably count the number of book stores in this country on your own fingers. And not even one of those stores offers the quality of content you can find in your typical chain store in Ames. Print materials are simply out of reach financially for most people here. The daily newspaper costs about 70 cents (a splurge for most Ghanaians) and one issue of National Geographic goes for over $20.00!

Unlike your typical Peace Corps volunteer (or Ghanaian), Chris and I have the luxury of internet access. We’re not talking about high-speed broadband here, but at least we HAVE it! It feels like a lifeline for our connection with the outside world. Via our cell phone GPRS connection we can catch most of the BBC headlines (as our reception blips in and out). We are even able listen to WOI streaming fairly regularly which is a real treat.

Q: Being conscientious in terms of supporting fair trade, personally adopting sustainable practices, etc, can seem like lofty ideas suitable for satire on blogs like "Things White People Like." How do you feel about these things now that you're among people who live at a subsistence level?

Tammi’s Response: More than ever, I feel that the principles of fair trade are attainable. During my 5 year tenure as store manager at Worldly Goods, I felt it was my duty to test the validity of fair trade. I was very fortunate to have had the opportunity to participate in two learning tours where I traveled to 4 different developing countries to meet fair trade artisans and see first-hand if the work that we were doing was worthwhile. Those experiences reaffirmed my notion but my current situation really drives the point home! Maybe it’s because I tend to look at things from a logistical point of view. Being here at the grass roots level helps me to better visualize how the process should and can work from this standpoint. I truly believe that fair trade is sustainable. But those who live life at the subsistence level are most vulnerable (and susceptible) to practices that are short-sighted. I think the biggest pie in the sky hurdle to overcome is Man’s tendency to fall into the greed trap, (which I believe is also one of the big reasons behind the current financial crisis in the U.S.).

Chris’s Response: One of the bigger problems on Afram Plains is the production of charcoal. Many of the farmers in addition to sustenance farming will cut trees down to make charcoal. They will sell a large sack (50lbs+ or -) to a middle man for 1 or 2 cedis and he will in turn sell that sack for 8+ cedis. This is exactly why fair trade is not only good but a necessary system. The people here are seeing their environment slowly destroyed as they continue to work very hard for such a pittance. Many of the rural farmers see little other choice and they need to be presented alternatives, support, training, and follow-up. Often they will get one of these but rarely all of them. Sustainability in all phases is the important thing.

Q: Are you celebrating the holidays? If so, how?

Tammi’s Response: It has felt so strange approaching the holidays this year. Catching the tune of an occasional Christmas song, or seeing a glimpse of a holiday decoration, makes me think “That’s odd”, as I wipe the sweat from my brow. “The holidays are so far away”. And then I realize the date and think “yikes”, it sure doesn’t feel like that time of year!

We attended dinner at the U.S. Ambassador’s house for Thanksgiving. That was a real treat. As far as Christmas, there is a group of ISU Ag students coming to Ghana over the break and we plan to meet up with them on Christmas Eve or day to share a meal or something. The big treat is that my mom and dad are flying in Christmas night. Maybe it will actually seem like Christmas when mom unpacks a few homemade Christmas cookies! We plan to show my parents around our home area and then travel and explore Ghana together, see the sights, and learn what we can from the tourist perspective.

We feel quite bad for many of our fellow Peace Corps volunteers. Due to the run-off elections to be held in Ghana on Dec 28, we are being put on “stand fast” for security reasons. This means that we are not allowed to leave our sites and most volunteers will have to be alone on both Christmas and New Years, which will make being away from home even more difficult.

Chris’s Response: As far as how they do it here; there are not Christmas trees and it seems like it will be celebratory but on a more somber level. Christmas has not been commercialized here yet, but I’m sure in the near future… We were in town shopping the other day and say a few of the typical trappings for sale in one of the shops. We were in Accra over Thanksgiving and saw a great deal of the Christmas schlock. As I understand it families will not exchange gifts on Christmas but rather on Boxing Day (the 26th) they may exchange one or two small gifts with the children getting the lion’s share.

We attended our school’s Christmas ceremony on Wednesday. It lasted almost 3 hours and included many bible readings which I wondered how many of them related to the Christmas story. It also included songs from various choirs and many instances of spontaneous and spirited song and dance by the student body and faculty.

Q: Are loved ones and friends staying in touch with you?

Tammi’s Response: We are able to keep in touch fairly well with many of our friends and family due to our access to email. We feel very fortunate to be Peace Corps volunteers in this place at this time. Those volunteers that came before us as well as many who are out there right now do not have the luxuries of communication that we do. Phone reception can be touch and go and can also get expensive, but the occasional text message can brighten one’s day. Who would have thought that it would take moving to a developing country for Chris and me to finally break down and get our own cell phones and wireless internet access?!

Chris’s Response: They are staying in touch and to be honest it is pretty important to me. We are in a very “alien” place to what we are use to and it is so nice to be able to “touch base” with what & who is familiar or comfortable to us. It is always good to hear from anyone. I have just recently been realizing how different Ames, Iowa, and America is going to be upon our return. Not just because of how we will look at things after our experience here but also with all the changes on all levels, many for the good & some for the not so good. The university will physically be quite different & I’m sure that it will be a very interesting readjustment to teaching there again.

Q: What's the most surprising thing you've learned about teaching in a different culture?

Tammi’s Response: Unlike Chris, this is my first time “formally” teaching. A few years ago if someone would have told me that I would be teaching Information and Communications Technology in Africa to classrooms packed with high school students, I would have brushed them off and laughed hysterically in disbelief! Now I’m not quite sure what to think!

Chris’s Response: Well the first thing I would say is that we don’t have it near as bad as we think in the states. The system here (how can I say this tactfully) could stand some reworking. There are a LOT of issues that I could rant about but I don’t want to do that on the record. As far as teaching, I hear this from all the other education volunteers and I concur; I love my students but the system drives me nuts. They are much like students in the states, one day you think they are great the next you’re ready to strangle them.

There are also the obvious things, we have to talk slower (difficult for me) and constantly making sure they are understand you. We also continue to develop our Ghanaian English; English with the accents placed differently than what we are use to. It also involves a bit of an accent. We have adopted some Ghanaian phrases such as “I am coming” which translates as “I’ll be right back” and instead of saying “fetch that for me” you would say “fetch dis ting” or one of my favorites; instead of “little” you would say “small small.” There are also several hand gestures (only one rude one and you would never want to use it) that we have acquired. Most importantly I would say is we have learned to annunciate far better than what we are use to. You can’t be lazy with your speech.