Wednesday, May 8, 2013

So Other than Teaching....

I am currently on a school vacation.  I haven't taught since the last week of March and will be getting back in the classroom in about two weeks.  I thought I was going to have some serious boring down time.  That was most definitely not the case.

Shortly after school let out we had our annual 'All Vol' conference.  All Ghana volunteers get together for a few days, learn about what other sectors are doing, get all kinds of administrative updates, and get pretty drunk together at things like "Prom" and "Date Auction".  Basically this happened:

Shortly thereafter, Peace Corps hosted a surf competition to raise awareness of malaria protection the weekend following World Malaria Day.  The surf competition was just a platform to get people there and have fun.  We had nurses come and talk to the kids, we made mosquito shaped pinatas which the kids LOVED cause they love beating things and they love candy even more than beating things, and they've never been able to combine those two loves before.  We had a quiz game and gave out bednets as prizes, and of course watched some surfing.  It was a blast and educational, and basically this happened:
 We gave out mustaches to all the kids.  They were a hit for kids and adults alike.  I am still not sure who provided the wig but I am glad they did.  It was also in heavy rotation.
The video is the chaos that ignited after the mosquito pinata was obliterated.  :-D

Shortly after that, all the volunteers gathered in Accra as the malaria event ended with the sad news of Danni's death.  We all helped organize the memorial and gave support to those closest to her.

I'm now back at site.  Relaxing isn't exactly an option. We are organizing a youth leadership camp to be held at the university in Kumasi on May 20th.  I have been running in and out of Kumasi getting the last few details in line.  Next week I will travel again for 'Training of Trainers' for about one week, followed then by the leadership camp, followed by getting back to teaching.  Whew!!  But I like being busy.  It keeps my mind off of being a little lonely and missing everyone back home.  Which I do!! I love you guys.  A lot.  Can't wait to see you.

Till next time!

It's Not So Easy

I feel very lucky to have been placed in Ghana.  When I hear of safety and security issued faced by volunteers in other countries I can't imagine how they stick it out.  I remember being on an online forum discussing what I should expect as a Peace Corps volunteer.  One person said I "won the Peace Corps lottery" with my placement to Ghana.  It's peaceful, welcoming, generally tolerable weather, and the people are very friendly (too friendly, at times).  I have definitely adjusted well and feel at home.  Sometimes I think about getting visitors from the states and what a terrible tour guide I would be.  Things that seemed strange and unreal when I first arrived are just part of the day-to-day now.  I wouldn't share the same excitement that a first time visitor would feel. 

But as comfortable as it is the past few weeks have brought some unsettling reality checks.  I am a foreigner, I am a target, and I am definitely far from 'home'.  I just recieved news of a volunteer that has chosen to quit service early due to 'not feeling safe at site'.  I definitely felt that at first after two early incidents of theft shortly after arriving but my community rallied behind me and feel more than safe now.  Another volunteer was recently a victim of a sexual assault, something that has never happened in Peace Corps Ghana.  Five volunteers I know were recently medically evacuated to the US or to Morocco for treatment.  And the worst and scariest of all was the death of a fellow volunteer, Danielle 'Dani' Dunlap.

Danielle's story is, as much as I hate to say it, every Peace Corps parents' worst fear.  Danielle was less than one month away from closing service and heading home for good.  She was only 24.  She was an only child.  She had a scholarship to Emory and would start graduate school soon after arriving home.  She was also the ideal volunteer.  Many volunteers, especially in health and agriculture sectors struggle to keep busy or find projects.  Danielle was not that person.  She always had something, or several things working.  She was starting a clinic in her village, she was a trainer to new volunteers, and she was attached and involved in her community.  Everyone saw her as a leader and her death hit volunteers and Peace Corps staff very hard.  It is still unclear what actually happened to Danielle.  All we were told officially is that she became ill on a Friday and passed away Sunday.

As foreigners, our immune system is weaker than an infant's to endemic diseases.  Infants get some antibodies from their mothers breast-milk.  We are essentially naked when it comes to protection from tropical diseases.  

As much as Danni's death has brought tears to our eyes, and questions about our own well being here in Ghana, it also brought us all together and gave many of us a refreshing approach to our peace corps service.  We want to honor Danni by going out with guns blazing and making our service as meaningful as possible to ourselves and especially our communities.

The service was really beautiful.  I knew Danni but you couldn't say we were close.  I loved hearing everyone's stories about the impact she was making.  It was also amazing to see how willing Ghanaians are to help people in times of need.  Danni loved Dr. Pepper.  She had a batik stamp made of the Dr. Pepper logo (batik is a unique printing of fabric in which you wax stamp the fabric before dipping it in different dyes and the stamped areas retain the color of the first dye after washing off the wax, pretty cool)  She wasn't able to get her batik made before she passed so a batik maker in Accra cleared her schedule and within 24 hours made 200 yards of black and red Dr. Pepper batik for us to wear to the service.  She also worked with multiple tailors and many of had shirts/dresses/skirts to wear in Danni's special commemorative fabric.  It felt good to do something that was all about Danni together.

This is Danni's special batik

 A photo collage of Danni in Ghana
 And the pretty girl.....
Danni's influence will be left on her communities and in the future work of all the volunteers here in Ghana.  My deepest condolences to her family and friends in US.  She will always be warmly remembered.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Ghana: A Progressive Nation with a lot of Progressing to Do

So my sporadic blog entries are due to the fact that I am a busy-busy bee here in Ghana.  Many education volunteers speak of free time and only teaching a few classes a week.  That is not the case for me.  I teach, plan lessons, and grade papers for 12-two hour classes a week.  Not complaining but it has been a bit draining lately and I am ready for the term break.  Aside from teaching I am also assisting in planning a week-long national leadership conference for senior high students,  leading a health club at my school, and working on grants for a computer lab and library.  Just wanted to give a brief update on what I’ve been doing before I get to the real topic of this blog.
                If you look at Ghana, its politics, and it’s freedom, it is one of the most if not THE most progressive nation in West Africa.  We recently successfully held a free and fair election for a new president.  The Minister of Human Rights, appointed by the president himself is a supporter of LGBT rights in a nation where homosexuality is widely frowned upon, not to mention illegal.  But there are many things that I see far too often that remind me I am far from home.  It’s my own belief that strict traditional gender roles and whole hearted beliefs in taboos and witchcraft will continue to separate Ghana from the modern world.
                The first topic is one that did not come up so often in my first few months here, but as I make friends and get more social, it has been appearing in conversation time and time again, so I felt compelled to write about it.  It is the widespread belief in witchcraft, and it is truly amazing.  It is not to say that all Ghanaians believe in it, but I am frequently shocked at the caliber of some individuals that do.  College educated people with multiple degrees are among the believers.   
                My favorite subtopic here is the issue of Ghanaian Witchcraft vs. American Witchcraft.  My students as well as friends and co-workers have all told me that Ghanaian witches use their powers to bring despair and suffering to people that they are envious of.  That is why Ghanaians are suffering.  If something bad happens, it is not uncommon that it was at the hands of a witch.  American witches, though, they use their powers to bring prosperity and goodness to their people.  That’s just another reason why America is so great.  It has good witches!  I tell them that the overwhelming majority of Americans do not even believe in witches, including, myself.  They tell me that is good, because if you do not believe in them, they cannot harm you.  “??” So I ask, why doesn’t everyone just stop believing in witches and we will all be in the clear!  That just confuses them completely. 
                This seems like an innocent traditional cultural belief, and it can be, but it has also proven to be very dangerous.  For example, in the northern regions of Ghana they have ‘Witch Camps’ where people who are believed to be witches are sent to live out their entire lives, isolated from society, unable to do ‘harm’.  Hundreds of women have been forced into witch camps, and most of the time these women are uneducated and illiterate.  They do not know any better, and that kind of trauma might cause many of these people to believe they are actually witches.  If someone eats food and gets sick, the person that prepared the food might be deemed a witch.  Off to the witch camp you go.  Bacterial food poisoning maybe?  Nope, definitely a witch’s doing.
                Other tragic cases often involve children.  A child born with deformities might be considered to be a ‘spirit child,” one that is intent to do harm to all people that encounter him/her.  Or if the parents fall ill soon after birthing a child, it might also be a ‘spirit child.’  Many of these ‘spirit children’ have been killed by ‘conconction men’ that make a poisonous brew of toxic roots to give to the child in order to kill it and stop it from doing harm.  There has been accounts of a father dying shortly after he gave a punishment to a child.  The child is then accused of being a witch and killing the parent in anger.  The child may then be severely neglected and isolated from the family, or worse. 
                 I discussed this issue with the chief of a large district in Kumasi, a major city in Ghana.  He is a highly educated man and one that does not believe in witchcraft.  He made an interesting point that it is a problem of illiteracy and poverty.  He told me that a rich person would never be accused of being a witch, no matter what tragedy presents itself.  A very unfortunate side effect of poverty is lack of education, which leads to lack of understanding of the workings of the natural world.
                Let’s move to gender roles.  Ghana is an extremely traditional society and women simply do not enjoy the same treatment as men.  It is a highly patriarchal society.  One of the first real gender shockers I encountered came on behalf of both a student and fellow teacher at my school.  The action that set the stage was a perceived mishandling of a student’s attendance record.  We have what is called a ‘register prefect’ which is a student appointed to record all student attendance for the school.  This register prefect is a female student.  A male student happened to view his attendance record and believed he was marked absent when he was present.  This inspired him to go to the register prefect and hit her in the back of the head with a closed fist, hard enough to bring tears to the girl’s eyes and a bump on her head.  This of course sent her wailing and throwing rocks at the boy.  The entire encounter was witnessed by a male teacher.  We had a small staff meeting to decide how to punish the boy and if it was necessary to punish the girl for marking the register incorrectly.   My input was that physical violence should never be tolerated no matter the reason and the boy should be punished.  There was a dispute among teachers on whether or not the girl should be punished for making an error in the register.  It was amazing that the conversation was focused more on the accuracy of the register than the fact that a male student physically abused a female student.  It did not seem to be a very big deal.  Almost as if it was acceptable for the girl to be hit if she marked it incorrectly.  One of the male teachers also gave his input that if we do not want the boys to abuse the girls, we need to train the girls not to insult the boys in case the boys cannot control themselves and feel the need to hit the girls.  My mental reaction was: “WWWHHHHAAAAAT!??”  But I did not lose face and decided I would have a private conversation with the teacher later.  That conversation ended in me convincing the teacher that maybe counseling the boys on withdrawing from physical violence might help but it would be better to teach the girls to respect the men so they don’t get hit……Because in Ghana it is not uncommon for a man to control his wife with his hands……but doing trying both strategies is a good idea.  Small progress…small progress.
                It is also very common for the girls in school, even the bright and promising girls, to act dumb and pretend they do not know the answers in class in order to not insult the boys by making it appear the girls are smarter.  This even happens at the university level.  I was with a Ghanaian friend of mine, who attends a teacher training college, while he was telling his elementary school sister, who is her class captain, not to speak out in class all the time if the boys are keeping quiet.  I asked him why he was teaching his sibling to be submissive and he said that’s just how it is, even at his university.  The boys should always be stronger.  Families are also more likely to send a son to university and not worry about the daughters education as the main concern there is that the woman finds a husband and will not need to work. 
                Finally, women are simply not as respected as they should be.  I was having a drink with my friend after a funeral and his friend and wife later joined us.  The first thing his friend said to me was “Wow!  Nice American lady!  I always said that I wanted to marry a white woman but I had to marry her instead” as he gestured to his wife.  I could not believe he would make such a comment in the presence of his wife, who just looked down and did not say a word the entire time.  It was uncomfortable.  I thought he was joking but he continued to talk about how all Ghanaian men want a white wife and Ghanaian women only disturb their husbands.  I am positive that in this particular case, the husband was doing the disturbing.  But then again, this type of society encourages women to be passive and submissive to their husbands, so maybe she didn’t mind.   I did.
                So, needless to say, these things remind me of how different the world is outside America.  Something like witchcraft, that we think is pure nonsense and a cheap form of entertainment in the movies is a serious and scary reality for some people.  Women’s rights and equality have come along way in the U.S. but even a progressive nation like Ghana has a lot of catching up to do in that field.  I also believe that America is less like the rest of the world than any other nation.  There are more third world countries out there that lack education and freedom and that perpetuates these views.  Many are hundreds of years behind Ghana.   I think most of the world’s nations have views and ideas that are less like Americans and more like traditional Ghanaians.  But you just have to get out in the world and find out for yourself!  Otherwise you’ll never know.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Home Sweet Home

Hello world!  Or hello to those of you that are following this blog.  Forgive me friends; it has been over two months since my last blog ingression.  Last time we met here I was merely a Peace Corps Trainee.  I am very excited to have crossed the threshold and emerged a volunteer.  I have been in Ghana nearly five months and cannot believe how fast the time is going by.  I am not even sure where to begin on what has happened.  The first three months of training are busy, energetic, full days, little free time, but somehow I managed to write nearly every week or two during that time.  The pace was at first much slower when I got to site, and now I am finally becoming busy which is a very very good thing.
                So, I am now permanently at my site which is in a small village near the sprawling market town of Kumasi.  I love my village, school and community, but no situation is perfect.  I have the nicest house in my part of the village.  (I know, terrible, right?)  I have really great digs compared to many other volunteers.  I have a big living room, a bedroom, a kitchen, private latrine (many volunteers share with others), and private bathing room.  I have a whole house to myself, and also a vacant room.   It’s actually really great…BUT….Most families here have three, four, five, six, or even more living in a house the size of mine or even much smaller.  Part of my responsibilities as a Peace Corps volunteer is cross-cultural awareness, which involves promoting better understanding of Americans to the people we serve.  It is standard for a Ghanaian to think that all Americans are rich and live a life of luxury.  How can I change that perception when I am the only white person in town and I move into the nicest house on my street all by myself?  They don’t know that my school pays for my housing, and the people that always ask me for money don’t understand that I am working on a very limited stipend.  I do my best to explain but seeing is believing.  My students come by my place often to help me clean or fetch water.  They tell me ‘Madam, your place is sooo nice.  I wish to come and live here with you.’  They don’t understand how I can live here alone.  But, I am extremely grateful that my school found such a great place for me to live.  It is more than comfortable and much more than I expected.
                Being the only white person in town also means that people I have never even spoken to know where I live, where I work, and they know my Ghanaian name, which in my village is ‘Abena Abofiri Koto’.  Even though I live alone, I don’t have much privacy.  I leave my house and almost everyone I pass and greet, whether I know them or not says
 ‘Abena! Where are you going?’
‘I am going to Market.’
‘What will you buy?’
‘Just some food’
‘What will you prepare?’
‘Not sure yet’
And on and on and on…and it always ends with them telling me to buy them something.   If I am walking toward my house everyone I pass says ‘Abena! Where have you gone?’  If I go into Kumasi for market or errands and the traffic is bad, I return home and some will say ‘Abena! You have kept long-oooh! Why!?’  (Ghanaians add –oooh to then end of many sentences, it’s catchy, and I have been adding it to my sentences as welloooh). It would be rude to not respond, so it means that mamny people in my village not only know where I live, but they also know where I am and what I am doing at any point in the day.   I will be honest that it was endearing at first, then became extremely frustrating and invasive.  I would smile and say ‘Oh! I am just going into town to buy some things.  I will go and come.’  Then they say ‘You go to Kumasi or you go buy things here?’ I then smile and respond casually with the appropriate answer, even though in my head I am imagining the vein in my forehead pulsing as I scream ‘WHY MUST I ALWAYS TO TELL YOU EVRYTHING I DO AND WHERE I AM GOING??!!!1!!’  But, as more time passed, I adjusted and now reminded myself that it is a different culture.  These small villages are like one big family.  Everyone knows everyone and I am a part of it now.  They only ask me these things because it is part of their culture to do so. They are curious about me.   I am starting to welcome it more and more as it also means  that I am becoming part of the extended family in which my village operates.  I have no choice but to embrace and roll with it, and so I am rolling.  J
                So regarding the education sector  in the Peace Corps; it is much different than other sectors like natural resource management (NRM) or heath and water sanitation (WATSAN).  I know that this is obvious simply by stating it, but what I mean is that volunteers in other sectors have a lot more freedom and flexibility in their projects (or so I’ve heard).  They get out into their communities and assess the needs and make a plan to address what needs they are most capable of assisting in.  I am not saying that education volunteers do not do that, but our primary project is very structured and clear: we teach.  We definitely have the option of taking on secondary projects in other sectors but we are discouraged from doing so until we have been at site for three months and have settled in.  The only reason I am even laying this out is because it makes the first few months at site pretty boring for an education volunteer, or at least for this education volunteer.  I have been meeting with people in my community and brainstorming ideas as to what I can do for secondary projects within my community, but I also have to be careful that I am not sending a concrete message that I will be able to do this that and the other, because I don’t know how much time I will have to focus on other things when I need to focus on teaching first and foremost.  So I am hesitant to do much else other than teach until I am completely comfortable and confident in doing so, because the last thing I want to do is be over ambitious in efforts outside of being a teacher, resulting in failed projects and disappointment.  Plus, my school is in such a deprived state that I am sure I will make the biggest difference in Ghana by improving the resources and facilities of my school, so any secondary project I do take on in the future will be focused directly at my school.  It does not have a library, no computers, no science equipment; our education resources are seriously limited to chalk and a chalkboard.  A lot of students do not even have textbooks.  I guess the whole point of this rant is that my initial ideas about ‘community development projects’ I would be doing were involving people from all over the community, but at this point it seems that I will make the biggest and most sustainable difference by focusing on one community group: the students at my school.  But even if I improve the lives of even a few people, or a few students during my time here I will see it as a success.  I have been trying to not make any assumptions about the possibilities here.  I want to do as much as I can but I also want to keep realistic and attainable expectations.
                More on teaching, I am actually really enjoying it.  But teaching in Ghana is hard.  Not devaluing the work of stateside teachers in anyway,  it’s just that in Ghana, the majority of students are extremely passive in their learning and even apathetic at times.  Especially for a new teacher, progress is painstakingly slow.  I have also noticed that thinking independently is not something that Ghanaian students are used to so I have found that the hardest part about teaching is to get the students to just think about the material and try to figure out the answers on their own.  They are used to rote memorization and regurgitation of words, not comprehension.  So I feel I am not just teaching science material, but I am teaching these students how to learn.
                As far as the material goes, I am completely baffled at what the education system expects these students to learn.  I teach integrated science, which is basically general science, and everyone has to take it.  There is a section on organic chemistry!!!  Why a 17 year old business track student needs to learn how to name organic molecules I don’t know.  It kind of drives me crazy.  And the fact that the textbook writers think that they can ‘summarize’ organic chemistry in a 10 page chapter of a high school general science book is astonishing.  But nonetheless, I have been giving organic chemistry lectures to 17 year old Ghanaians with the sad knowledge that they won’t remember any of it.
                This week I also started teaching math, and I am also working on my first secondary project of bringing a library to school.  So these things are keeping me ridiculously busy.  My reasons for staying off the blog stream so long were at first no computer due to the theft incident, and then when I got a replacement I was too busy to write consistently.  Anyway, I will have more on the library soon and I really need some stateside support so please keep in touch with me because very soon I will be having some great opportunities for people to get involved with the work I am doing here.
                Welp, sorry no pics this time.  Uploading photos takes forever for my mobile USB modem so I can only do it at the speedy internet cafes.
                Oh, I almost forgot!  I got a dog!  Things can get pretty quiet and boring on the weekends so he is a great pal to have around.  I got him from my neighbor when he was probably a little too young to leave his mamma, but he’s doing great and is living a very posh life compared to other Ghanaian dogs.  When I got him his little face and body was crawling with dust mites and fleas.  Now he is clean and happy and getting fat!  His full name is Daakyehene (Dah-chay-he-neh) which means ‘Future King’ in the local language.  It is a common nickname for brilliant people or people that are expected to do great things in their life.  I call him Daakye (Dah-chay) for short, which just means ‘future’.  Everyone absolutely loves that I gave him a Ghanaian name and he is now quite famous around town.  People even call me Daakyehema, which means future queen, since my ‘son’ is the future king.  If I am spotted in town without him everyone is asking “Eh, Abena!  Where is Future King?!”  I love that people love him! J And he is smart and loyal.  He comes to school with me and never wanders away from the school grounds, and if I leave him at home if I need to travel I will return to him just hanging out on the porch or running around in the yard, he never strays.  You will see pictures soon but eventually you will meet him as I plan on making the trek back to America with him.  J
                This is all I got for now.  I will try to be more consistent to limit the thesis length updates.  Much more has happened but of course I can’t remember it all at the moment.  Till next time!

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Letters, packages, and photos!!

So not a whole lot has happened since my last post.  I am back at home stay after much traveling for another three weeks before moving permanently to Kumasi area.  It will be so nice to settle and stop living out of a suitcase. And spend enough time in one area to get to know it well.  I received letters from my friends Andres and Kiere!!  I loved that!  Getting an actual handwritten letter is a refreshment and I promise as soon as I get to site I will sit down and write to everyone.  I also received a most awesome package from Brian.  Here's a few of my favorite photos so far.

The first pic I took in Ghana

These giant snails are also a delicacy
 Crazy traffic.  It's just one never-ending, multi-player game of chicken
 Bus station in Accra
 My home stay room
 Courtyard area of my current home

 Neighborhood kids

 Pounding fufu, common dish in ghana made of plantain and cassava

 outside of the local 'spot' we frequent.  Pretty  :)
 The next four were taken on the way to and at Kibi School for the Deaf.  Gorgeous area, I love the effect of the fog around the mountains

 Oyoko Methodist S.H.S.  where I did my teacher training.
 Mercy, my sister.  She loves my specs and looks great in them!! 

 Markey Day!!

 We picked up a few guys in our full taxi on the way home, so they were placed in the trunk of course! :)

 My friends Kate and Sarah!
 Slick Vick and I anxiously awaiting our language announcement
 trying to learn west african dances
 My first street meat! It may have been goat or lizard.  :)
 Sisiters, Mercy, Agi, and Fausti

 I'm gonna miss this girl after I leave home stay!!
 This is the head of a German NGO in my village.  He had done so much they made him an honorary chief!  
 The headmistress made this room for me during my site visit because my home wasn't ready yet.  Complete with a TV and a high voltage converter!
 Marta, the headmistress St. Georges S.H.S where I will be teaching, on her way to the installation of the Archbishop.  She rocks.
 Archbishop istallation
 These next few are of Lake Bosomtwe, pretty much where I will be living the next two years.  :)

 Check out these sexy gams.  I do use a mosquito net and insect repellent.  The one that looks like a small volcano is recovering from a pretty nasty infection.  Yay Ghana!! :)
 Boti Falls Excursion.  GEORGEOUS!!

Here's a moving ball of a few hundred red millipede things.  They come out after it rains!!
Forget pick up trucks, this guy is resourceful.. :)