Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Ghana's Eastern Corridor Road

Thanksgiving Travels

After a great Thanksgiving in the Upper East and a weekend in Tamale, I traveled back to Bodada along the infamous Eastern Corridor Road. Connecting Accra to Tamale via the Volta Region, the ECR is a traditional African highway. You'll experience coastal savannah, the might Volta River and its accompanying valleys, the mountains of central Volta, and the foothills that lead you into the great North Ghanaian savannah. Contracts to pave the road have been signed for years, but more than half of the road is surfaced with dirt. It is considered by many to be one of the worst major roads in Ghana. Here's how it went:

MONDAY: I woke up at 4:00am and got a ride to the taxi station. Then I walked from the main station to the Metro Mass station; I arrived at 4:45. The first bus only had seating for the first 4 rows of people waiting, and I was in the 6th row. The rest of the tickets were sold as standing room only, but I didn't want to stand for 2+ hours in the early morning. I left the station at 7:00 on the 2nd bus, and we arrived in Yendi at 9:10. Yendi is not a known as a peaceful town  because local chieftaincy disputes have resulted in gunfire as recently as Christmas (and probably more recently). Peace Corps doesn't let volunteers spend the night there, but I didn't have any problems walking to the Bimbilla station or waiting for my next car.

The Benz (atro-tro made my Mercedes that fits about 30 people) left Yendi at 10:15. At 10:22, the car broke down. We waited 45 min for another Benz to come, and when it showed up there were already 8 people in the car. I didn't want to push and shove my way into one of the seats, so I boarded last and had to stand for 45 min until enough people got off and I had a seat. The car arrived in Bimbilla at 1:40pm, and I found a car going to Nkwanta.

Unfortunately no one told me that this car was the 4th car in the queue going south. Most cars that go south stop at Damanko (on the border of the Northern and Volta Regions),or Kpassa (firmly in Volta), but this one was going straight to Nkwanta so they put me in it. After an hour, I realized what was happening, but I had already bought my ticket. I wasn't going to be able to make it home in one night, and I had only one option that didn't cost too much money. I called up Linda, a Health PCV in Jumbo, just south of Kpassa, and she graciously accepted me as a guest. At 3:40 we left Bimbilla, and I eventually arrived in Jumbo at 5:45pm. Linda cooked quiche. It had real Velveeta cheese in it. And she had an extra bed for me to sleep in. Linda is awesome, and her site is good. Highly recommended.

TUESDAY: I woke up at 5:00am and left Linda's house by 6:15; I walked to the station in Kpassa. I boarded another Benz heading to Hohoe at 7:00, but the car didn't leave until 9:50. Thankfully I had plenty of "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me" podcasts to listen to, and I'm now caught up on current events. After sweet-talking the driver into taking me into town, we arrived in Jasikan at 12:30pm.  I lucked out and my car to Bodada left right away. By 12:50, I was finally home, and I was greeted with rain.

Thoughts: First, the road isn't that bad. In the Northern Region between Yendi and Damanko it is pretty rough, and I can see how it would be even worse in the rainy season. Honestly though, it isn't that much worse than the section between Hohoe and Jasikan.  

Second, I think it might be possible to go from Tamale to Hohoe in 1 day, but one would have to be lucky. By catching the first bus, I think you could get to Bimbilla by 11:00. Then by taking cars to Damanko or Kpassa and then to Nkwanta instead of getting a straight car to Nkwanta, it might be possible to get to Hohoe by 6:00pm. However, this assumes that you get cars relatively quickly, 7:00 or 8:00 is probably more realistic. 

Third, Northern Ghana is hotter than the South, but it's also drier. I was sweating constantly, but it dries so it's not nearly as oppressive.  

Fourth, my site is awesome. In my opinion, equatorial jungle mountains are superior to savannah grasslands (In other words, the jungle where Simba lived with Timon and Pumba > the Pride Rock plains). 

Fifth, podcasts and music make traveling here bearable. I would have struggled a lot more without my iPod.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

4 Months Later...

Since I'm a horrible procrastinator, I now have the pleasure of trying to sum up the last four months of my life.  Obviously this will lack a lot of detail, but I'll try to expand where I can.


The best part of April was our All-Volunteer Conference (April 11 - April 15), but before I went to All-Vol, I visited my homestay family in Anyinasin.  It was the first time I had seen them since I swore in August.  We were all happy to see each other except Kwaku Peter Vanney who, much to everyone's enjoyment,  was afraid of me.  My family did comment on my hair, and they described it as "very beautiful."  For those of you who don't know, I had been growing quite a mullet (the back hadn't been cut in almost 1 full year), and many Americans honestly said it was not too bad at all.  I also had been growing a full mustache for a while, rather it was full beside the part right in the middle which still hasn't come in yet.  They liked that too, but said it made me look much older.  It was really fun seeing them, but getting ready for bed brought back some of the anxiety I had during training.  It wasn't anything I couldn't handle, but it made me reflect on how far I had come as a Peace Corps Volunteer and person.  I went straight from their house to All-Vol.
All of the Peace Corps Volunteers in Ghana come together once a year for training conferences, administrative talks, and to relax and meet the new volunteers.  Aside from Thanksgiving (which might not happen this year because there's a new American Ambassador to Ghana) All-Vol is the only time when everyone gets together.  During the day (8am - 5pm) everyone is gathered together in conference halls, and we watch a lot of presentations.  But at night the fun really starts.  The evening activities were Game Night, Date Auction, Talent Show, and Peace Corps Prom. 
Game Night was kind of a dud, and most of the volunteers (myself included) who arrived on Thursday chose to enjoy some nice, cool adult beverages with their fellow volunteers.  This relaxed setting somehow managed to transform itself into a dance party sometime after 11pm and lasted into the morning.  (This is really late for most volunteers, and I personally go to bed around 9 or 9:30 and wake up before 5am.) 
The Date Auction was and usually is a huge success.  This year all of the proceeds went to an NGO in Kete-Krachi which rescues and then supports child slaves who work for the fisherman along the Volta River.  I don't know how common this practice is throughout Ghana, but it is a serious problems in some of the larger fishing and market towns.  I am pleased to announce that over 2000 Ghana Cedis were raised, but I'm not sure of the actual figure.  The headlining date is usually "Thai Dinner for Four with CD Mike," and this year the our new Director of Management and Operations (DMO or Money Man for short) Mike L. decided that to add a date for four at his house to the mix.  He hinted that ribs could be prepared, but it wasn't decided.  Since I wanted to show support for the children and I'm not afraid to look stupid for a while, I decided to offer a date to barber my hair and mustache.  My date ended up going for 51GHC (about $27), and CD Mike even bid on it.  There are pictures on Facebook documenting the carnage, but I ended up with two different horrible haircuts: one for Saturday and another for Sunday.  The first was a zig-zag "reverse mohawk" buzzed (no guard) off the center of my head, and the right half of my mustache was shaved off, also.  The second was a complete buzzing of my head except for a couple of patches, and then a circle was shaved (with a razor) into my head.  On Monday morning I promptly shaved my whole head with a razor and started clean.
The Talent Show was very enjoyable, and I'm always amazed by the talents and variety of people we have in Peace Corps Ghana.  I elected not to participate as I had already been embarrassed enough the previous night.
Peace Corps Prom happens on the final night of All-Vol, and this year's theme was "Wild Thing."  I hadn't really planned anything, but I hoped on a bandwagon with some of my friends to cut down some plantain leaves and form a skirt with them using belts.  I'm not sure what we were supposed to be exactly, but we were certainly wild.  Before prom started PCV Media recorded a Harlem Shake video, and you can see me right up front dancing with my plantain-skirted friends.  Prom was a lot of fun, and because everyone is old enough to drink alcohol, there was a lot of dancing.  It was a nice way to wrap up the weekend.  Overall All-Vol was great: we came, we ate, we drank, we danced, I got to meet a lot of new people,  and I got two unique haircuts.

I returned to Bodada just in time for the final days of Term 2.  I graded the end of term exams and chatted with the teachers.  The rains were just starting to come, so I planted some green beans and made them a trellis to climb.  The bamboo fence I asked some of my students to build around my garden worked great, and kept out all of the goats and chickens.  However, nothing could be done to keep people from closing the gate after throwing trash into the burn pile, so in the end all of my pepper plants and green bean plants were eaten by goats.  I haven't bothered to plant anything again because I'll still have the same problem.  I'm going to get some of my students to adjust the fence so the burn pile is not fenced in.  Hopefully that will keep people from unnecessarily opening and not closing the gate.  I'm going to try sweet corn as soon as the fence is fixed.

Just before May, I got a horrible phone call saying that a PCV named Dani Dunlap had died.  We haven't gotten the autopsy reports yet, but all signs point to severe dehydration from cerebral malaria.  She was taken from her site to Accra by Peace Corps vehicle, and she passed away shortly after arriving in Accra.  I didn't know Dani very well, but I talked to her a couple times.  She was very loved by everyone who knew her, and she was described by many people as a Super Volunteer.  Super Volunteer is a term that we joke about here as a way to describe someone who goes above and beyond all expectations, but no one was joking when they described Dani that way.


Dani's memorial service was held in Accra on May 3 at CD Mike's house.  It was a large event, and almost every PCV in Ghana was there to show their support.  Dani's homestay family from Anyinasin came, and a car full of Ghanaians came from her site in Central Region.  Also in attendance was Dani's mother who held up better than anyone else in the audience.  She thanked everyone for the love and support they showed Dani during her time here, and she urged everyone to take malaria medication.  The next day she flew back to Atlanta with Dani.  Seeing and talking to Dani's mom was the hardest part for everyone because it was impossible to not imagine one's own mother.  I haven't missed a dosage of my malaria prophylaxis, and I don't know how I could forget after what happened to Dani.

I turned 24 the day after Dani's memorial, and I had originally planned to have a birthday party at the beach in Keta.  My party turned into a small group of people going to Keta and relaxing there.  It was a nice change of pace from the grief we had all experienced.  It was highlighted by one of my non-Peace Corps, American friends in Ghana, Pat who works with a tilapia farming group on the Volta River, when he brought all of the fixings for s'mores.  Ghanaian chocolate doesn't melt as easily as American chocolate (because if it did it would permanently be melted) but we managed to stuff ourselves full of s'mores anyway.

The next big event for me was Training of Trainers (TOT).  I applied to be a trainer for the 2013-2015 education volunteers, and at All-Vol it was announced that I had been selected as a trainer.  I applied because I enjoyed training more than most, and I thought that my perspective and advice would be very useful to someone who is training to be a PCV teacher in Ghana.  On my application, I said I would be a good trainer because "I am a unique blend of friendly, Iowa farm boy and informative, experienced Ghanaian PCV."  I elaborated more in the rest of my application, but I thought that was a pretty good line.
Back to the point, TOT was a weeklong event where we tried to plan all 10 weeks of training.  I was brought on with three other volunteers to be PCVTs (the T stands for trainer), and the PCVTs' jobs are to provide technical and cultural training to the PCTs (this T stands for trainee) and support PCTs in their times of distress.  Essentially we teach the newbies how to teach effectively in Ghanaian classrooms, mind cultural differences, and give them a shoulder to cry on.  The role of PCVTs in training is crucial as we link the Ghanaian training staff to the new trainees, and the trainees often see us as the most credible people around (because we are American and we have done what they are doing).  During TOT we planned as many of our sessions as possible and laid out the CALENDAR OF TRAINING EVENTS.  I thought there was a lot of potential in TOT, but there was simply not enough time to execute the plan to its full extent.  Two weeks would have been much more effective than one week, but the staff was worried about the amount of school we would be missing as teachers. 
Third term started during TOT, and being a trainer means that you miss 7+ weeks of a 12 week term (for JHS, the SHS term is longer).  I was worried about this too, but since my district shuffled all of the teachers last year, my school has a surplus of teachers.  The form three students write the BECE in June, so they are not in school after the first two weeks of the term.  After the form three students left to write their exams, the teacher to student ratio was 1:7 (without me).  I got my counterpart and good friend Godwin to teach my classes while I was away.

Also, I got a package from my Aunt Tammy and her daughter's family (the Berrys).  It had all kinds of wonderful foods inside like summer sausage, real maple syrup, parmesan cheese, and canned roast beef.  I know what you're thinking, "Canned roast beef? Gross."  WRONG.  It's delicious.  Before I left for training, I went to Mount Afadjato and cooked a taco dinner with Kate and Cara.  I haven't had any Mexican food beside guacamole and salsa since I arrived in Ghana, and oh my, was it good.  We rolled and grilled our own tortillas (with the help of Cara's small girl), cooked rice with lime and cilantro, made refried beans, fried the roast beef with taco seasoning and lots of cumin, and we had giant bowls of pico de gallo and guacamole.  I can't even begin to describe how amazing this tasted, except that it was so good I didn't even mind the lack of cheese and sour cream.  So a big thank you to my family in Washington state.  I love you all, and so do Kate and Cara.


The trainees flew into Accra on June 5, and they arrived at the Training Center in Kukurantumi in the Eastern Region on June 9.  My fellow PCVTs (April - Biology/Integrated Science, Kate - Deaf Art, and Jim - Physics/Chemistry) and I (JHS Math/Science/ICT) met them at Kuku, and the next day we started sessions.  The first week of training was mostly technical training: teaching them about Ghanaian schools, students, and what is expected of them as teachers.  This week went pretty well, but we were all tired from the long work days of presentations during the day and preparation in the evening.
The second and third weeks of training were practicum.  The JHS teachers were split into pairs and sent to four different schools in the Kukurantumi/New Tafo area.  Most of them taught 10 different lessons each week, and only a handful had any teaching experience.  They all had plenty of room for improvement, and by the end of practicum everyone was so much better at teaching that I could hardly believe it.  I'm sure I went through the same transformation, but it is hard for me to imagine how awful I must have been trying to teach Ghanaian students for the first time.  It's easy to think that you can just show examples and that is teaching, but it's not.  You need to guide the class from the foundation and work step-by-step until you reach your goal.  Then once you reach your goal, you can give examples, and you should give lots of examples.  I digress, but I was impressed by the improvements I saw, and I can say without reservation that all of the JHS PCTs are more than capable of teaching in a Ghanaian classroom.


The fourth week of training was filled with more technical training, but as we were already finished with practicum, there was less interest in our sessions.  We tried to make them as engaging as possible, but there's only so much you can do with government mandated sessions.  Kate and April both left to attend to matters at site, so Jim and I had lots of good bro time.  It's unfortunate that Jim is already back in the USA and that we didn't meet sooner because we got along really well.  He'll definitely be one of the friends that I keep after Peace Corps, and I hope we'll get a chance to hang out in the future.  We also celebrated the Fourth of July with the trainees, and Jim and I brought hotdogs to the party.  They are actually quite easy to find in Ghana, but very few Ghanaians eat them except as a luxury item for breakfast (think English sausage).  The Fourth of July party was a hit, and we sang (if you can call me shouting lyrics out of key singing) lots of patriotic songs.  I think the trainees really enjoyed it too, and it was good to show them what you can do when you get together and eat with other PCVs.
After the fourth week of training, Jim and I rode to Accra in a Peace Corps vehicle; all I can say is that traveling by private car is about 100 times better than traveling by trotro.  I was going to Accra for my midservice medical checkup and dental exam, and Jim was going to stay in Accra one night before going back to his site in Central Region to wrap things up.  Going into Accra, Jim told me about the proper way to travel to the PC Office (ie. where to alight, where the taxis are, which ones to take, etc.), and I was determined to have a good time in Accra after not really enjoying it in the past.  It has always been okay, but I never really relaxed and figured things out.  This time I enjoyed everything and learned about where you can go for cheap but good food in Accra (the Metro TV canteen is a goldmine). 
After we dropped off our things, we ventured into Osu with Nihal for pizza, burgers, and beer.  Jim read this book that the trainees were given called African Friends and Money Matters, so we all three discussed it.  The book compares and contrasts the differences in money and savings between Europe/America and Africa.  The gist of it is that social value and giving is more important in Africa and that system works well as a means of surviving, but in our globalized world where so much wealth and power is in Europe and America, the system fails.  Americans are brought up to value savings and personal work, but most Africans are brought up to value sharing wealth and giving to those in need (because there will probably be a time when you are also in need).
I only skimmed it during training, but it's an excellent book, and I will pick up a copy next time I am in Accra.  Nihal offered an interesting perspective on the whole situation, and he has a pretty amazing story.  He was born in South Sudan, and lived there for 11 years before moving to Houston to live with his uncle.  He's a great person and I don't know his story well enough to tell it now, but there was an article written about him fairly recently.  I'll try to find the link after writing this.
I passed my midservice medical exam, but I did learn that I had a fungus living on my skin.  It wasn't doing anything bad to me, but it was causing my skin to break out in a rash.  I thought it was heat rash for a long time, but the PCMO told me it was fungal.  I've been battling with it since then, and I think I've finally beaten it.

After my time in Accra I finally traveled back to Bodada, but I had an unfortunate surprise waiting for my arrival.  I was expecting an overjoyed dog named Bobby to be waiting for me at my house, but when he wasn't there on the first night I thought maybe someone else was looking after him.  Jean-Paul (the pastor whom I live with) had traveled, so I assumed Bobby was spending the night somewhere else.  The next morning, I asked my neighbor where Bobby was, and she told me that the pastor sold Bobby to some people in a village to be used as a hunting dog.  As you can imagine, I wasn't too happy about this, so I called the pastor to ask him about it.  He confirmed that Bobby had been sold for 50GHC to some people in Patricia's (the school girl who boarded at the house and cooked for us) village.  Truthfully, Bobby was not my dog, but when the pastor brought him here one year ago, he told me that the dog was to keep me company because he heard that Americans like dogs.  I was still annoyed by this, but I understood why he sold him: he didn't know who would take care of him when we were both traveling?  Well, the answer is that I would have found someone to feed him while I was away.  And the pastor also considered Bobby to be his property because he paid for him.
When I got to school I asked Patricia if this was all true.  She said that it was mostly true, but that Bobby was dead now.  The people who bought him said that he wouldn't eat their food, so they killed him and ate him.  I thought she was lying at first, but she was telling the truth.  Now it's true that I did eat dog once in Ghana, and I've eaten cat on multiple occasions, but I've never eaten one of my pets.  More than anything I was just shocked by this information.  I raised that dog since he was a puppy and someone else sold him off to be slaughtered.  It's kind of a big deal.  Every Ghanaian that I talked to was shocked that the pastor didn't even consult me or anything.  And when I told the other teachers at EP about it, they told me that they were wondering where he had gone.  Apparently, Bobby had been going to school every day looking for me while I was in Eastern Region.  That pretty much broke my heart.  I don't think I'll be getting any more pets in Ghana.

I did get back to school in time to proctor and grade the end of year exams.  I was highly disappointed in the performance of my students, and grading the exams was a big reality check for me.  I had spent the last 5 weeks surrounded by Americans, and I had romanticized Bodada EP JHS, my teaching ability, and my students' abilities.  This was a reminder that I still have a lot of work to do.
During this time one of the trainees, Emily, came to Bodada for a job shadow.  She had a great time, and really enjoyed my site.  I have a pretty awesome site in the rainforest surrounded by mountains, and I have a pretty cushy living situation (running water outdoors, a shower, electricity, decent internet via cellphone provider, and a good group of friends).  We went hiking, played basketball, ate bugs, and talked about life in Peace Corps Ghana a lot.  It was fun to have a visitor at my site, and everyone in town wanted to know if I had brought my wife.  When she left I traveled back to Eastern Region with her because there was still one more week of technical training.
Training was fine, and nothing too interesting happened.  I visited my homestay family again, and they were disappointed that I didn't have my beautiful hair, but they told me I was beautiful anyway.  After the week of training, I went to Kumasi for a meeting of the Gender and Youth Development committee.  That was enjoyable, and it was fun to relax at the KSO.  I wish I were a little closer to a non-Accra office, but at the same time, I already feel like I've been away from site too much and I would probably want to visit those places more if I were closer.
Before I left Bodada, the pastor also told me that he has been accepted into a master's program at the University of Ghana - Legon in Accra.  He and I discussed this before, and we talked for a long time about littering and other environmental issues facing Ghana before his interview.  I think he'll get a MA in African Studies with a specialization in environmental policies.  I'm happy for him, but he was my closest friend here and I'll be sad to see him go.  I hope whoever replaces him is half as welcoming and open with me as he was.  This is my next biggest hurdle: living alone in my compound and then meeting the new pastor and hoping I can stay here.


4000 words and a couple hours later I'm getting burned out from writing.  I got back to Bodada on July 30, and I haven't done too much since then.  Since I'm the only one living here I'm mostly just trying to clean and get the house in order.  The pastor left me the kitchen key, and I can use the full size refrigerator in there (I think the church owns it).  I've been cooking a lot of rice for myself and some pasta too.  I'll be leaving this weekend to go back to Kukurantumi for the new teachers' swearing-in ceremony, so it seems silly to fully stock my pantry and fridge when I'll be leaving so soon.  I've been reading and watching a lot of TV shows lately.  I recently finished "Entourage," and I'm watching "Downton Abbey" now.  I've been reading classics lately: I'm currently reading One Hundred Years of Solitude, and I recently finished Animal Farm, On the Road, some Hemingway, Vonnegut, and David Sedaris to round things out.  
Last week I biked to Jasikan to play basketball at the senior high a few times.  It was a lot of fun, and I'll be able to teach those kids (some of them are my age...) a lot of things about basketball.  In rural areas no one plays basketball, so they don't learn how to shoot, or dribble, or even pass until they get to high school.  One of the tall kids can dunk, but that's all he can do.  It's pretty fun being the best player on the court.  On average I think Ghanaians are the same height as Americans.  I'm taller than almost everyone, and I haven't found anyone to bring back to the NBA (cough* sorry Nay).

That's all I have for now.  I'll write again sometime.  No promises or guarantees about when though.  I've learned my lesson with that.  As usual, let me know if there's anything in particular you want to hear more about.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Two Messages to My Family

I sent two long messages this week.  The first was to my mom who sent me a Facebook message to check in and ask me about Easter.  Here's my response:

Hi Mom, I just stayed at Bodada for Easter. We had a church service Friday morning, and then I went to Hohoe on Saturday to pick up a package that Peace Corps had dropped off with Kate. She forgot the package at her house, so I went to her site to pick it up and had to stay there for the night because most of the taxis were also on Easter break.  I was about 2 hours late to church on Sunday morning because it was nearly impossible to get a taxi.
Luckily they were Confirming some kids so it was a long service, and I was still there for over an hour. Easter Monday is a traditional picnic day in Ghana, so I went with a lot of the church members to Jasikan to picnic with the EP Church there. They play games like musical chairs (known as chair dancing), sack racing, and pinatas (they use a clay pot in a sack), and they had an Easter egg hunt (but they call it "search for Jesus" because they put a little Jesus figurine in one of the plastic eggs). There was also an eating competition, so I signed up for that thinking we would be eating a lot of rice, fufu, or banku, but it turned out that we had to eat a big slice of bread that was tied to a string without using our hands. I actually won the contest quite easily and got a bar of soap for winning. There were also girls and boys football matches (Bodada EP vs Jasikan EP) and Bodada won both games. It was a good day overall and it was good for me to make friends with more people in Jasikan.
Today, I gave the primary school some of the books that would be more useful to them, and they loved it. They want to write some letters to thank people. Can you give me the address of some of the people who helped collect books? Could we send a letter to John Cline too? My students are also very excited about the new books, and I'll get them to write letters too.
The only thing I kind of want are some cucumber seeds and maybe watermelon. No need to go to Seed Savers just to pick up those, so if they aren't around, don't worry. In related news, my tomato plants have been totally eaten by grasshoppers, and my pepper plants are getting the same treatment. I know it's not the same, but I can see how devastating a plague of locusts would be. I'm going to prepare some soil at the compound for a small garden and grow those things here.

The next message was an email from my brother Paul.

Sup Petey.
So we've been talking about Ghanaian independence for the last couple of weeks in my History of Modern Africa class.  We had a debate about Kwame Nkrumah and the Volta River Dam that he so, perhaps unwisely, built.  Anyways, some experts claim that he was responsible for Ghana not really getting off its feet and that he sent it them into debt and so on.  On the other hand, other people thought he was the only person to take the blame for the failures that came about.  
So, I was wondering: how is he regarded by Ghanaians?  How do they teach history about him?  Is he portrayed as a man blinded by his dream of Ghana as a super power or was he just unlucky and was at least trying to advance Ghana?
If you don't know anything about the matter that's fine.  Just thought I'd ask if you did.
My response:
Ghanaians idolize Kwame Nkrumah (he's featured on the 2 Ghana Cedi bill and has a smaller role on the other bills).  Yes he build the Akosombo Dam without clearing the valley, asking or compensating the people, or realizing that it would change the environment.  I'm guessing this is what you talked about in class.  These are the main issues that people bring up, but the Akosombo Dam remains the major source of electricity for Ghana, Togo, Burkina Faso, and Benin.  That kind of planning and execution hasn't been seen since he was in power.  The roads, schools, factories, and buildings that Kwame Nkrumah built are still the best in Ghana.  This cannot be overstated.  He oversaw the construction and enforced a certain level of quality (and he was willing to borrow money from the USSR and the US to pay for quality, which is why our government didn't like him that much).  
All attempts to build things (roads, factories, schools, anything really) in Ghana have failed or have fallen woefully short of expectation.  Corruption, cost cutting, inflation, and foreign debt have been bigger problems with leaders following Nkrumah than they ever were while he was leading.  At the end of his presidency he did pull the typical African-leader move and try to stay in power forever.  That wasn't good.  But I don't know if there was anyone who could replace him and follow his vision (that's why I think he tried to stay in power).
Ghana really got screwed in the 30+ years of dictators and military coups that followed Nkrumah.  We're in the Fourth Republic now.  It was started by Jerry John Rawlings in 1992 during his second coup.  So far it appears to be stable, but every election people worry about violence or some candidate doing something stupid.  Most of the people are unaffected by national and international politics, and inflation was the only thing most Ghanaians had to deal as a consequence of the government changing hands.
In school the emphasis is placed on Nkrumah's positive achievements, and very few negative things are said about him.  They don't teach very much about the different governments which controlled Ghana after Nkrumah except the names and dates.  Those guys didn't do much for infrastructure or leave any legacies.  Most of the social studies classes focus the history section on the Fourth Republic and British colonial rule.

That's all for now.  Thanks for reading.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Second Term

Almost three months have gone by since I last updated this blog, and I'm sorry about that for the 20 of you who read this.  I'll try to give you a review week by week, but I have definitely forgotten a lot of things that happened.
Week 1 (January 7)
The first week of school.  As predicted, this week got off to a slow start.  I think all of the teachers reported to school by the second day, and by the end of the week, we were already teaching classes.  There was not much yard work for the students to do because the grass doesn't grow during the Harmattan.  In other news, I started my garden!  My mom sent me seeds from Seed Savers so I have some great heirloom vegetables to grow.  I used a big egg carton flat (the one that can hold 30) and planted German Pink and Italian Heirloom tomatoes, five different types of peppers (sweet bell, jalapeno, Chervena, Santa Fe, and Buran), and some herbs (basil, oregano, thyme, and rosemary).  I'm not sure when they started sprouting, but I was pretty excited when they did.  Of the herbs, only the basil and oregano have lived, and I'm not sure what I'm doing wrong with the other herbs (help me out if you have tips!)  I had a little trouble transplanting the bell peppers too, but everything else is doing really well.  Most of the things are ready to be planted in the ground, but I'm pretty sure I have to harden them off a little more because the sun is crazy hot here.
Week 2 (January 14), Week 3 (January 21), and Week 4 (January 28)
The second week of classes went well enough, and I'm just going to lump the rest of January together.  I bought some poster paper and made flashcards for multiplication (3 through 15) and turned that into a game for my math class.  The form one students were watching, so of course the next time I had science we had to play the flashcard game.  I also made some science hazard flashcards with great success (lightning bolt = high voltage, no smoking, highly flammable, etc.).  In science we have been studying soil, soil profiles, and the hazards and dangers of science.  In math we spent most of the time studying data and graphs.  Pie charts gave my class the most trouble, and I think that's because they aren't exposed to graphs and data as much as we are in the US via TV news. 
During the fourth week, I took a day trip to Accra to pick up some packages (four of them!)  I had to leave Hohoe as early as possible so I could make it back to Bodada before night fell and the taxis stopped running.  I was in the Accra van by 7am, and we were on the road 30 minutes later.  I think it took about four hours to get there and the last hour was spent in Accra traffic.  Coincidentally Pastor Jean-Paul was also in Accra, so after I picked up my packages and figured out how I was going to travel with 50 pounds of snacks, I called him and we met at the main office of the Presbyterian Church of Ghana.  I had a little trouble getting there because the Pastor said I needed to go to "OH-pare-a" Square.  I just repeated that to the taxi driver and he seemed to understand, but it took the sign "Opera Square" before I figured out what he was talking about.  Ghanaian English is different.  Anyway, we missed the bus to Bodada so we had to take a van to Hohoe and taxis to Bodada, but the trip wasn't so bad.
Also, the church elders told me that the ICT lab would be completed by the beginning of February.
Week 5 (February 4) and Week 6 (February 11)
Surprise, surprise!  The ICT lab isn't ready.  In fact, it's still not ready and it's the end of March.  All we need is a light, fan, tables, and chairs, so it really is close. 
In school, we did some review and then had a test in both science and math.  Class tests are always a little difficult because we don't have a printer or the funds to print tests, so you have to write the test on the board and then the students copy the test into their homework notebook.  To discourage cheating I usually get another teacher to come in and watch the students while I finish writing the test on the board.  They are much more scared of the other teachers because they walk around with a cane and are quick to give a rap on the head if cheating is suspected.  I excuse the other teacher and then walk around with a red pen to mark cheaters' tests.  I get at least five students flipping through their notebooks looking for the answers, and usually it's the same offenders.
The results were not too good, and I definitely made the math test too hard.  Only seven math students scored above 50% and the highest score was 78%.  In science, I did better with the difficulty and most students scored about 50% and one student got 93%.
Week 7 (February 18) and Week 8 (February 25)
Week 7 was the first week without teaching.  We got our formal invitations to the social studies quiz competition, the Independence Day celebration on March 6, and the Buem cultural festival on March 15. 
The quiz competition happened first, and it involved all the schools in the Bodada school circuit.  Instead of the quiz masters writing their own questions, they accepted questions from each of the schools.  Naturally, each school used the questions they submitted to determine which students would represent the school.  Luckily for EP, every question we submitted was used in the actual competition, and our representative had memorized those answers.  Thus, I wasn't too surprised when we won, and I was happy, but we had a big advantage.
After the quiz competition we started practicing marching and dancing.  As my fellow PCV Kevin pointed out: on March 6, Ghanaians celebrate their independence from their colonial masters in the UK by marching in the traditional British style (straight elbows and knees, lots of arm swinging, and kicking their feet out as they step forward).  This style of marching takes a lot of work and is not nearly as simple as the roll-step style of marching we used for DHS Marching Band.  I would have hated practicing marching in this style for three weeks, especially since there was no actual teaching going on.  The same is true for the cultural festival.  We practiced marching in the morning, and then in the afternoon we focused on talking drums (Ewe is tonal so using two drums you can recreate some poetry), Twi poetry, Ewe singing, English drama, or traditional Buem drumming and dancing.
One of these days we had a bye-election to replace the Member of Parliament for the Buem Constituency, and most of the teachers worked at the polling stations.  We only had a half day of school on this day, and I used it to get the students to weed my farm.  I got ten boys to bring sharp cutlasses to school and they attacked the eight-feet tall saw grass that had overgrown the school farm.  It took them about three hours to clear my farm (20 meters-by-50 meters), and afterwards we went back to the house and ate rice and stew.  Rewards aren't necessary and most teachers wouldn't give the students anything, but that goes against my American values.  The students refused to take my money so I had to get some of the school girls to prepare food.
Under the supervision of another teacher, a few students also made a bamboo bench on that day.  They cut down some small trees and dug holes in the ground to plant the posts, and then split bamboo (which I forced the boys to collect as punishment for coming to school late) and nailed the strips to form a bench.  I'll post a picture of it on Facebook; I'm pretty proud of it since I played a big part in its creation.  Also, it ended up way too big, but it's cool anyway.
Week 9 (March 4)
Independence Day week.  We focused on marching all of Monday and Tuesday, and we were told that the schools should assemble at 7am on Wednesday.  I asked the pastor about this, and he laughed and said that nothing would happen until 10.  I went to the meeting place around 8:30 and no other school was present.  By 9:30 two of the other schools had shown up, and finally by 10 we started marching to the town football park.  We paraded through town, and in Ghana, everyone joins the parade as it passes.  A couple hundred people came to watch the festivities, but the sun was strong that day and lots of people left after an hour of nothing happening.  Eventually the chiefs and elders came and we were able to get started.
It took way too long for all the schools to march past the chiefs and education officials, and some of the schools organized fancy marching routines to salute the "big men."  We didn't organize anything fancy, but the students decided to spice things up a bit and somehow they pulled it off.  By noon they were finally finished, and I went to get some fufu with some of the other teachers.  To celebrate Independence Day even more, two of the schools were playing in a football match, and then the Bodada teachers were playing against the Bodada town team. 
I agreed to play and everyone was shocked to see me come out onto the field.  I had been standing in the sun for about four hours by the time the match started and was already sunburned.  Before the game, I put on more sunscreen, but my skin was no match for the sun.  After 30 good minutes, I was completely gassed and had to get a substitute.  Apparently, we were playing with the official three-substitution rule because when I wanted to go back in for the second half, there were a lot of complaints about it.  Eventually they let me go back in, but the other team wasn't happy.  I think they only let me because I have white skin, but I really didn't know they were playing like that (there are no lines on the field, it's on a hill, and the posts are made of bamboo, and I thought the game was just a friendly match).  The game ended in a tie 0-0, and everyone I saw for a week asked me about the match.
Week 10 (March 11)
This is the week of the cultural festivities, so we practiced the whole week.  However, the chiefs and elders decided to have a town forum about the poor performance by all students on last year's BECE and postponed the cultural festival.  The teachers were not happy about this because they assumed that this would just devolve into the elders and community members shouting at the teachers.  Miraculously this didn't happen and everything stayed very civil.  The town brought in some people to give speeches and they allowed each of the headmasters to talk about the problems they faced at school.  People talked a lot, but no one really said anything.  Everyone agreed that the students needed to study hard and do better.  The parents asked the teachers to teach better, and the teachers told the parents to discipline their children more in the house.  No one mentioned that there are teachers who don't come to school, and student attendance was hardly touched upon.  I suspect this would have come up if the open forum had happened, but the forum was thankfully cut short by a thunderstorm (it lasted 4 hours and could have easily continued into the evening).
Week 11 (March 18)
On Saturday March 16, the Ghana National Association of Teachers went on strike.  Most teachers belong to this union, so schools shut down all across the country.  I didn't hear about the strike until Sunday night, and I confirmed that the teachers would not come to school on Monday.  I don't teach classes on Mondays and was already planning on going to Hohoe to buy a bicycle, so my plans didn't change.  I called the headmaster and let him know my plans, and he told me that he would go to school on Monday and figure out what was going on because the cultural festival was supposed to happen on Tuesday.  He called all of the teachers on Monday afternoon begging them to come to school on Tuesday so we could compete in the festival.
I bought a great looking 1995 Marin Stinson hybrid bike in Hohoe for 130 Ghana Cedis.  It was easily the nicest bike in the shop, but I was still overcharged.  Most Ghanaians I talked to were surprised I paid more than 100 GHC, but this is a quality frame with quality Shimano parts.  It should hold up better than most bikes here, and I'll take good care of it.  I rode my bike back to Bodada, and all I can say is, "Wow."  This area is beautiful, and I think I'll bike as much as possible.  You can see so much more from a bike than inside a car and you're going slower too.  The annoying part of biking is dealing with all the people who have never seen you and shout "Yevu!" or "Obruni!"  I greeted most of the people who shouted at me in either Ewe or Lelemi, and they were shocked to hear me.  I only wish I knew someone else who would bike around here with me.
On Tuesday, all of the EP teachers showed up at the football park, but only three of the schools came.  The other schools' teachers decided that the strike was more important, but my colleagues agreed that this wasn't breaking the strike because we weren't actually teaching.  The festival/competition was a lot of fun, and I recorded video and took a lot of pictures.  Once I sort through them, I'll put them on Facebook/Youtube.  I was very impressed by the students, and I was happy that not all of the schools were there because it would have taken all day.  As it were, we closed around 4pm and paraded back to the school as champions.  Of the five competitions, we took first place in four; I think our play took second place.
The rest of the week belonged to the teachers' strike, and I just met with the form three students to review some math topics for a couple of hours.  The other teachers are not upset about this, but I don't think they are thrilled that I'm teaching.  Various groups have come out saying that the teachers should go back to school, but GNAT has not called off the strike yet.  I'm going to meet with the headmaster again on Monday, and we'll figure out what's going on.  The strike isn't as big of a deal for JHS students as it is for SHS students because last week was final exam week at SHS.  I'm not really sure what happened, but I'm sure they made do.  I just want to get back to teaching because it has been five weeks .since I have taught an actual class.  I'm very behind, and I wish we practiced our extracurricular activities outside of normal class time, but such is the system.
Sorry if this wasn't as entertaining as my usual postings, but I've been kind of sick for the last two weeks, I'm watching a Black Stars football match (they are winning 4-0), and it has been too long since I posted.  Thanks for reading.

Thursday, March 14, 2013


Sorry it's been so long since my last post.  I'll update you on the last 9 weeks or so soon.  For now you'll have to settle by reading some parts of my VRF (Volunteer Reporting Form for those of you who don't speak Government).  The VRF is the main form of government oversight for volunteers all over the world, and it provides trimesterly proof that we actually do something.  I didn't include the activities section which has all the numbers and stuff, but there are 57 students at Bodada EP JHS, and about 63 in the primary school and kindergarten.  So here are my answers:

Community Integration
Integration requires work; simply living in a community is not enough.  I struggled with this during the first three months, and I felt intimidated by the rest of the community - not because they felt ill will towards me, but rather because they were so happy to have me.  They told us during training that volunteers become celebrities in their towns, but I did not know the effect that being a celebrity would have on me.  At first it was difficult for me to venture outside my house for simple things like groceries and toilet paper because everyone wants to know how you are and where you are going.  And you are bound to meet someone who has not met you yet and to whom you have to explain everything about your life.  I must have told the story about who I am and why I am in Ghana 100 times.  But you have to work at this, and after 100 times you get pretty good at introducing yourself.
I am happy to say that because of this struggle of putting on a happy face to meet people and walk around in the community, most of the community knows who I am (although the little kids still prefer to call me "obruni"), where I am from, and why I am here.  I should also mention that they speak a local language called Lelemi which is not closely related to Twi or Ewe.  This added to the difficulties because I was all set to greet people in Ewe (which I learned during training) and was capable of greeting in Twi.  Learning Lelemi has been difficult but also very rewarding.  I prefer to take notes and write down words and phrases as I learn them, but most of the people prefer to repeat the words at the same speed - making it difficult for me to determine the letters.  The trick is to find someone who has studied the language and build your vocabulary word by word.  I am fully capable of greeting, saying a few things about myself, and expressing my wants and needs.  The community loves that I can do this and everyone is shocked when I first greet them in Lelemi.  After the initial shock wears off they do one of two things: they either try to test my knowledge or they assume I am fluent and just starting chatting away.  The smiles that follow these interactions are very rewarding and helpful as I work to become part of the community.

Integration has been a struggle, but I've outlined that thoroughly in the Community Integration tab.  At school my biggest struggle was classroom management; after the initial shock of having an American teacher wore off, I realized just how little control I had over my classroom.  I was too nice, and I should have been stricter enforcing my rules, especially during the first month of school.  I let students talk more than I should have, and I did not enforce the "English only" policy of GES. 
These problems were compounded by a lack of other teachers.  At the end of the first week, three of the four teachers received transfer letters and left EP JHS to go to their new schools.  As is common in Ghana, the new teachers were in no rush to report to school, and for three weeks my counterpart and I were the only teachers at the school with 55 students (thank goodness we have a small school).  The new teachers showed up one-by-one, and eventually we had a full staff of seven teachers.  Most of them have been good, effective teachers, and with their help and guidance I gained some control over my class.  A more important factor than the other teachers' arrival was the respect I have gained from my students by showing up to school every day (and not caning them).  Eventually the novelty of having a white man as a teacher wore off, and the students were able to look at me like another teacher.

Lessons Learned
I am not cut out to be a celebrity, and I prefer being able to retreat into seclusion sometimes.
Teaching is not easy. I have a lot more respect for all of my former teachers, and I feel bad about the times I misbehaved during class.
As a teacher I mean it when I say, "I care less about the scores you get and more about the effort you give." And "I do not judge a student's character by the grades he or she gets."
Learning a new language is not easy-oo.
My stomach is not the steel trap I thought it was in America.
Being polite and smiling can get you through 90% of the conflicts here.

Planned Activities
I will keep teaching my classes, but the PTA would like me to play a bigger role with the ICT center.  I will work with the Primary school's ICT teacher in developing rules and learner-centered teaching methods for the new computer lab.
I would like to talk with the church, PTA, and community about the possibility of writing a grant to repair, plaster, and paint the school.  It is a sad state of disrepair, and a little money would go a long way.  Hopefully we can a get a quality appraisal.

"To promote a better understanding of the American people on the part of the peoples served"
I speak in a normal voice and try to dispell myths that America is the promised land where everyone is beautiful and rich.  Compared to most Ghanaian languages, English is spoken in a higher voice, but someone planted the idea that white people speak only in falsetto.  This is the single most annoying thing I deal with when I leave my community, and I try to speak normally (okay, I actually speak a little lower than usual) and carry on the conversation.  After I respond in a normal voice, the offender usually changes to his or her normal voice as well.  Ghanaian and Nigerian movies have also created a unique sing-songy inflection in American English.  To show that they are smart and can speak "like an American," some people will use this tone with me as well.  While it is not as annoying as the falsetto, I do usually ask them to just speak normally.
America is a highly idealized place, and most people are shocked to learn that there are poor people who can barely afford to live, homeless people, and "mad" people.  Most of the things they see about America depict it as a great place where everyone carries guns and/or knives, and people are quick to escalate disagreements to violence.  I have to constantly tell very intelligent people that the American movies are not an accurate depiction of normal American life.  Also, the news rarely shows the way a majority of Americans live.  Whether they only say it to humor me or they truly believe it is hard to say, but usually these conversations end with, "Huh, America is a lot like Ghana."  And I say, "Yes, people are mostly the same no matter where they live."

Success Story
Students do not have a solid foundation of mathematics and English necessary to learn junior high level math and science (not to mention English).  I think this is a failure of the GES and not just a problem found in Bodada.  Instead of forcing students to learn the basics of math and English in primary school, students are promoted the next grade (sometimes against the teacher's wishes through social pressure from parents and the community).  I believe that having students repeat grades when they are younger would be more effective than having students repeat higher levels when the lack of knowledge was first noticed.
My solution was to spend my own money (only a few Ghana Cedis) to buy poster paper and create flashcards.  I made flashcards for multiplication and science, and I am working with the English teacher to create English word flashcards.  The multiplication cards have enjoyed the most success, and their favorite game is World Cup.  I split the class into four or eight groups depending on the number, and each group carries out a small "round-robin" style tournament where each student competes with every other student in the group.  The winners of the groups are put into the championship bracket and the losers are put into a consolation bracket.  Then we go through the bracket to determine the champion. 
The game takes a lot of time, but they all love playing and they even practice on their own now.  The results are obvious and the whole class is better at solving multiplication and division problems.  I plan on using a game/competition method any time memorization is required as that seems to be one of the most engaging and enjoyable activities.

Monday, January 7, 2013

"Winter" Break

It's been one full month since I last blogged.  As much as I would like to say, "I'll blog more." I have a feeling that this will be the norm.  Maybe as I run out of television shows to watch (currently watching Doctor Who and really enjoying it), I'll blog more, but who knows.  Luckily I have a pretty good memory, so I should be able to get into some detail.
Last time I wrote it was election day, but due to some technical difficulties (voting machines and fingerprint scanners breaking), voting continued on Saturday.  The election was really close, and the last constituency could have swung the vote either way, but in the end the incumbent John Mahama won.  Mahama is associated with the New Democratic Congress party (NDC), and leaned heavily on the votes from Volta Region, Accra, and the northern regions to win.  His main opponent Nana Akuffo Addo was the New Patriotic Party's candidate, and he didn't take the loss very well.  He made the comment, "All die be die." which some people took as a call for violence, and he made lots of claims about being cheated out of the election.  (My favorite theory was that the NDC hired Chinese hackers to change NPP votes).  Some NPP supporters protested in Kumasi and Accra, but I don't think anything turned violent.  Today is the Inauguration Day, so most people agree that this will end the talk of foul play cheating.
The end of school wasn't too eventful.  The continuous assessment forms for recording grades suddenly made their appearance, so all of the teachers had to scramble to record and calculate end of term grades.  I hope that this term we'll have them the whole time so I can record selected homework as I grade it.  The students spent the second to last day of school moving sand from the stream to a house so they can plaster the inside and outside walls to make my computer lab.  Since I haven't heard any word about it, I'm assuming that no more work has been done.  We raised money for the lab one day in church though, and I think we got over 200 Ghana Cedis.
I traveled around Bodada a little bit: jogging almost to Jasikan, jogging half way to Amenor, walking a little ways on the Teteman road.  It was good to get out of the house, but I still didn't do as much as I had hoped.  My walks on the Teteman road were nice because the pastor joined me in the evenings, and we had some good chats.  Another time I ran into the former headmaster of my school Gyamebi, and we went to visit his palm wine farmer friend named Ski-Doo (okay it's actually 'Squito -like mosquito- but it sounded like Skidoe, and I prefer to think of him as Ski-doo).  I'm fascinated by palm wine farming, and after asking a lot of questions and watching Squito intently, I asked if I could watch him tap some fresh trees that he had recently felled.  So one Sunday morning I went over to his house at 5:00am (he lives close to town so he has to collect it early because people will come and steal his palm if he lets it sit) and we walked to his farm.  As it turned out he didn't have all of the tools necessary to properly trim the fronds, so I had to settle for trying my had at cutting the tapped tree and drinking the sweet palm wine.
One day I went to the Ewe village of Awoma (about 15km away from Bodada going towards Kute) to visit one of my students Kofi Agamah Prince who also lives in the compound with me and the pastor.  Awoma is a small village with one school (primary and junior high) and a large Muslim population.  I got there in the morning because I had hoped to do some farming, but it turns out that they weren't going to farm that day, so I helped put the metal roofing on a kitchen.  That afternoon Prince took me out to his farm and gave me a bunch of ginger and papaya, then his mother cooked us a big lunch.  His mom was the happiest that I came to visit, so she took me around to visit all of the EP church members in the village.  We ended up walking around for a good two hours, and I was ready to fall asleep by the time we got back.  They were really disappointed that I didn't stay for dinner and spend the night, but I had already told the pastor that I would be back that night for fufu.  It was a great trip because I don't get to see true village life in Bodada; in fact people consider it a very big town (population of around 1,500, supposedly).  Awoma doesn't have any pipe water, electricity, or paved roads, but the people are no less friendly to a white person who can speak a little Ewe.
Christmas came next, and although I've heard it can be a difficult time for volunteers, it didn't feel too different to me.  I miss the cold and the snow, but because the Harmattan has set in I get chilly nights that have forced me to use a second sheet to keep warm.  Last night I even shut my door to keep out the breeze (I still left the window open, so it got nice and cool).  I've been loving Harmattan because the dusk-to-dawn temperature is perfect, but Ghanaians freeze.  Most people around me have broken out their sweaters and winter coats, and they don't understand how I stay warm walking around at 6:30am in shorts and a t-shirt.  If only they could experience a nice Midwestern winter...
I went to church on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.  The Christmas Eve service was pretty short, and five different groups of people just sang songs.  The pastor had told me that singing was pretty much the only reason for the Christmas Eve service, so I told him that I would sing them my favorite Christmas song, "Silent Night."  When he announced that the congregation should expect a song from me before we closed for the night, the few people who were there (30 or 40 only) clapped for me.  I was pretty nervous since I was just going to sing it by myself, but I knew that people wouldn't mind the quality and they would just be happy that I was singing.  However, just before it was my turn, the youth group (of whom only 2 showed up) sang "Yen Agyen Kwa," the Twi language version of "Silent Night."  My thunder was instantly stolen.  The whole congregation joined in, and I sang along too.  Then it was my turn, and I stood up and walked to the front of the church and told them that even though they just sang my favorite Christmas song, I was going to sing it again, but in English.  Of course I started way off key, which wouldn't have been as much of a problem if I were singing solo, but the keyboardist knew the song and was playing along, so it sounded terrible.  I just laughed and asked him to restart, and I got it right the next time.  Everyone clapped when I finished and there were shouts of "Wofa Yaw!" so I just laughed and waved.  Then to top it off, we sang another song before leaving for the night, and guess what it was...yep, "Yen Agyen Kwa"...again.  So all in all we sang it three times that night.  Not to mention the time that we sang it the next day at the Christmas Day service, which by the way lasted a good three and a half hours.  I recorded the Christmas Day version and quickly made a movie with the pictures I took that day, and I posted it to YouTube.  Here's the link if you want to check it out:
You'll notice that the end of the video is a picture of a respectable pastor and a goofy looking man from the '80s with a nice mullet and a terrible moustache, and I'm sorry to say that it's me.  Or at least me from two weeks ago.  The mullet looks the same now, but the moustache has gotten a bit thicker.  I've posted an updated picture on Facebook for your enjoyment.  If you were able to remember anything before that picture, you might have noticed some nice waterfall pictures.  That's the famous Wli Waterfalls.  Shortly after Christmas I made a quick day trip there and hiked up to the upper falls.  The hike is pretty steep since Ghanaians don't really believe in switchbacks, but the upper falls are pretty cool.  I'm not sure how high they are because the "guides" who go up with you don't really know much information about the area and mostly just try to get money from you.  That was a fun trip, and anyone who visits me can easily visit Wli.  Did I mention you can swim in the pools formed by the waterfalls?  Well you can, but as you get closer to the water, it gets windier and windier until the water is stinging your whole body.  It's what I imagine a hurricane to feel like.
My most recent day trip was down to the Gulf of Guinea near Keta for New Year's Eve.  I couldn't stay for too long because it's a long trip, but it was a lot of fun.  Great waves (I need to learn how to surf) and a beautiful beach.
The second term of school "starts" tomorrow, but who knows when we'll start effective teaching (aka teachers and students show up on time), it might be a while.  15 more weeks of school.  I think I'll become a dedicated ICT teacher and work on getting the computer lab open and the laptops set up so students can't destroy them.  Who knows.  You probably were drawn here from Facebook, but I've uploaded a couple more pictures there for your enjoyment.

Friday, December 7, 2012

6 Months in Ghana

I can hardly believe that I'm six months into my service.  Some days drag on, but overall the time flies by. Next week school is mostly just a formality, and all of the teachers will be recording grades while the students take their last couple final exams.  Before I get into retelling some highlights of the last month, I want to write about what I did today.
During the week I read The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac, and I became inspired to lace up my hiking boots (not a nice Italian pair unfortunately) and climb a mountain.   Since today is election day in Ghana, (and like most countries in the world, election day is also a government holiday) I got the day off from school, and I had the perfect opportunity to climb my mountain.  I wouldn't say that The Dharma Bums changed my life and turned me into a Buddhist hipster, but it did reaffirm my thoughts about nature and peace.  I had my own epiphany last summer; while kayaking by myself on the Upper Iowa River, I was struck by the beauty of the bluffs, trees, riverbanks, and river itself.  I just couldn't believe that all of this beauty and peace was so easily accessible.  All I had to do was take a 20-minute drive in my crappy, but lovable 1990 Toyota Corolla (more affectionately known as The Little Red Dragon Go-Kart), lock up my old Schwinn road bike (that I had turned into a pretty nice ride) and helmet at Malanaphy Springs, put in just downstream of Bluffton, and within 15 minutes I could be separated from the outside world by a shield of natural beauty.  After reading The Dharma Bums I wanted to have that again, and I knew all I needed to do was climb one of the many mountains around Bodada.
I think I have more shoes than any other male Peace Corps Volunteer in Ghana: Chacos (can't be a PCV without a pair of Chacos), running shoes (I thought I would be jogging more), boat shoes (my brown dress shoes), black Adidas (soccer-inspired style, but I use them as dress shoes here), soccer cleats (I thought I would be playing a lot more soccer), flip-flops (known as Charlie-waters or shower slippers here because you wear them while bathing), and last, and until today least, my hiking boots (they're just so versatile I couldn't leave them at home).  I digress, but I think it's funny how many shoes I have, and I like to laugh at myself.  Anyway, I had hiking boots just like Japhy and Smith, so at 8:30am I laced them up, picked a peak, put my water bottle and camera in a bag, and started my journey.  After walking to my school, I realized that without a cutlass (machete for those of you who aren't privy to Ghanaian English) I was just going to have to follow the farm trails and hope I got to the top of a mountain.  So I looked around again and spotted a small corn field almost at the top of a peak that wasn't too far away.  So I followed the trail and turned onto a smaller trail when I thought it was time.  Just 20-minutes after starting my journey, I was in that cornfield I had spied from the school, and I loved it.  Looking around, all I could see was jungle, hills, and the occasional corn field.  I took some pictures, but they really don't do it justice.  Then I started back down the mountain knowing full-well that I wasn't finished with my morning adventure.
I got back on the main path (10 inches of packed and worn dirt, kind of like good single-track mountain bike trails) and continued away from town.  I ran into the first Ghanaian I had seen since I started.  Fridays are taboo days (no one is allowed to go to farm, something to do with local gods and resting, and you get fined if you're caught) so I hadn't expected to see anyone.  I greeted the man in Lelemi, and he asked me where I was going.  I shook my head and told him "Ni sa walk." which means "I'm going walk."  He just laughed and asked me if I was going "back-back."  I didn't really understand what he meant but said yes anyway, and we continued on our respective ways.  He just chuckled to himself and said, "Obruni."  I probably really surprised him.  He probably hadn't expected to see anyone, let alone a white man who greeted him in the local language.  Ghanaians don't really go for hikes, so he probably thought that was strange too. 
Shortly after that I started to walk through a cocoa farm, and decided to help myself to a cocoa pod.  There were tons of ripe pods, and no one was going to miss one, but I felt kind of guilty anyway.  I decided that I would ask around and figure out whose farm it was and befriend the owner.  Cocoa tastes nothing like chocolate, more like an intense pineapple/mango sweetness with the texture of snot, and I love it.  I just needed a nice coconut to top it all off, but I made do with my stolen cocoa pod.  I walked on, crossing a small stream (that the townsfolk probably call a river) a couple of times, and just enjoying the beauty and serenity of everything.  I came to a fork in the path and decided to go up instead of following the stream, so I climbed to the top of another "mountain" and continued along the ridge.  I came across a small pineapple farm, lots of peaceful looking bamboo grove, and eventually a palm wine and akpeteshie farm.  I was really hoping someone was at the palm wine farm because a couple calabashes of sweet palm wine and a chat with a local farmer would have topped off my adventure perfectly.  But alas, I ago-ed and no ame-s came back; the farm was empty.  
I walked on a little further, and I was hoping to find a trail that would take me down to the road or some other trail that I could loop back on, but I would have no such luck.  Judging by the big ridge on the opposite side of the road, I guessed that I had hiked almost three miles from Bodada, but it was a very pleasant three miles and I wasn't disappointed about having to follow my same path back to town.  My only regret was that I had no one to share my experience with, and I got a little lonely before deciding to write about it in a blog post today and share it with the world.  Bodada is truly a beautiful place, and everyone should come visit me here (fellow PCVs in Ghana and everyone back home with $2400 - enough for the plane ticket and 2 weeks of anything else you want to do). 
After hearing about everyone's stories from site at our three month Reconnect-IST (In-Service Training), I decided that I have no reason to complain.  I'm in a gorgeous area, I have internet access, and my classes are not too big (largest class is about 25).  I struggled with classroom management early on, but for the last month, things have been going pretty well.
The week before Thanksgiving (Nov 12 - 16), I wanted to have a class test in my math and science classes, but unfortunately the Ghana bug got me and I had to stay home from school on Thursday (when I was planning on giving the science test and grading the math review homework) so that pushed my test back until Tuesday, November 20 (my mom's birthday! Happy birthday Mom!).  On Monday I don't have any classes scheduled and enough teachers came that I couldn't sneak into a class and give my test, so I just planned on giving the test on Tuesday.  But just before we closed on Monday, the headmaster of the primary school comes up and tells us that our schools (EP Primary and JHS) get the honor of weeding (cutting the grass) the clinic which is about as far away from our schools as you can get in Bodada.  Also he tells us that we'll go over there at 8:00am and then the students are supposed to get the day off of school after that.  This honor was bestowed upon us by Chief Nana Abo IV, who is also the Ministry of Education supervisor for the circuit of Bodada, so there was no getting out of this work.  And while my headmaster said that I could give the tests to Godwin to administer on Wednesday, Godwin wasn't so keen on grading those tests for me.  I wanted to leave for Thanksgiving dinner with the Ambassador in Accra on Wednesday, so something was going to give.  We agreed not to tell the students that they were supposed to get the day off of school after the weeding, and we would give the tests when the work was finished.  This ended up working out fine,  but it's just an example of the planning and emphasis on time and scheduling in Ghana.  The results were encouraging, one student got 97% on the math test, and I think 80% was the best grade on the science test.
Thanksgiving in Accra was awesome.  I stayed with Dennie Ege who works at the US Embassy in Accra.  He's a State Department employee and gets posted to new places every three years.  It was so great to stay with him in his American style house with tv (I got to watch some NFL games!), air conditioning, running water, hot water, 2 fridges, a freezer, Doritos, cereal with milk, and hamburgers.  I couldn't have asked for a better homestay in Accra.
Thanksgiving dinner itself was fun because I got to see almost everybody from training and I met over 50 other PCVs.  And the food...two buffets full of turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing, cranberry sauce, green beans (although no green bean casserole with those "fried onions" on top), cheesy cauliflower bake, and salad (which I didn't have room for on my first trip because it was at the end).  I had two full plates of food, and a third helping of turkey.  It was great although I don't know if it was quite up to par with my mom's cooking (mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and green beans especially).  Then came the dessert of pecan, pumpkin, and apple pie (once again missing Mom's apple crisp with ice cream).  It was great and I nearly ate myself into a coma.  But everyone else wanted to go out to a bar and party, so I tagged along.  We went to an Irish pub in Osu, and I posted up at the bar and watched the Lions' game and didn't drink a drop (even if I had wanted to, there was no room in my stomach for alcohol).  As soon as that game ended, I was in a taxi back to the Ege house where I felt reenergized, having finally allowed myself five hours to digest some of the feast.  So I watched a little bit of RGIII magic and went up to bed, did I mention the air conditioning?! I was cold that night and got to use a quilt.  I missed the cold more than I realized.
The next day I went to the Peace Corps Office in Accra to pick up my packages from my new favorite aunt and uncle (Cathy and Dave) and my always favorite mom (Mom).  After a little searching in the mail room, I found both packages and did my best to downplay the contents to the horde of once-again-ravenous PCVs who call themselves my friends.  "Oh just some food and stuff, probably nothing too good," I said, knowing full well that there was candy, meat, and cheese of some kind in there.  Everyone seemed to understand and backed off once I said I was going to wait to open them until I was alone.  Processed American food is worth its weight in gold among volunteers, so yeah, I wasn't about to open that up to the masses.  While at the office we were told to get our flu shots (mandatory) and any immunizations we still needed (final Hep-A for me). 
I also decided to weigh myself because that's kind of the cool thing to do.  Who has lost the most weight?  Wade I think.  Has anyone gained any?  I dont think so.  Who can gain the most weight when they visit America?  I think the record is 22lbs in one month.  I weighed in at 172lbs, down about 12 since I arrived in country, but I think I lost most of that during the first three months of training.  172 is the least I've weighed in a long time, probably since freshman or sophomore year of high school, and that was the day after Thanksgiving.  I do think my weight has stabilized since I've arrived at Bodada, and now that I have cheese and snacks for a few weeks I'll probably put on a little more.  Besides losing fat weight, I think I've lost some muscle mass too.  The diet here is mostly starch with some soup and oil, and since I don't really have a taste for smoked and dried fish, I eat vegetarian pretty often.  I try to eat beans as much as possible, and now that I have some beef jerky and beef sticks (courtesy of the care packages) I'll be eating very well.
The next day I left Accra for Kumasi with ten other volunteers.  We stayed at the Kumasi sub-office (aka the KSO) for one night and then headed to Christian Village for the IST.  The KSO is awesome, and it's a shame that it takes me over 12 hours to travel from site to Kumasi because I would really like to spend some more time there.  It has a full kitchen, showers, comfy couches, and even wireless internet.  My only complaint is that the yard has too many trees to effectively throw a frisbee or football, and there's no basketball hoop. 
Christian Village is pretty nice as far as accommodations in Ghana go, but I prefer the State Dept. houses in Accra.  Everyone from my education training group was there; there are 22 of us now.  It was great to hang out with everyone, but the sessions during the day sure can drag on.  My counterpart never showed up, but on Thursday, my headmaster came.  I thought he would enjoy it, but mostly he was as bored as everyone else.  All of the Ghanaian counterparts had trouble understanding the American speakers, and even we were bored, so I can't imagine how they felt.  In truth though, the sessions were pretty useful.  You had to be active and participate to stay awake, but if you could handle that you would definitely learn something.  The first event lasted two days and was just a "How are things at site?" chat with possible solutions to some things.  Then we had one day of grants and HIV/AIDS stuff because that's how we get a lot of funding (and a lot of Ghanaians need to be educated about the truth).  The third event lasted two days and covered behavior change and a specific model that we should use.
Most of the fun happened after our sessions when we would go back to the dormitory and relax with a beer or throw around the American football or the frisbee.  After a little peer pressure and a couple drinks, I decided that it would be okay to get my hair cut into a mullet.  I immediately regretted my decision, but everyone was less enthusiastic about cutting it off and I decided to just own it.  The next day I got the sides trimmed up even more and added a little style to the whole thing with some lines.  It's pretty epic now.  On Thursday and Friday we (to be more accurate, a few girls) got the Ghanaian counterparts to play a game of frisbee with us, and then on Friday night everyone went to a big outdoor bar and restaurant in Kumasi called Echoes.  It was a lot of fun and they had a live band and we danced until a little after midnight.  I was supposed to catch a bus to Hohoe at 4am on Saturday, but decided that my morning would be better spent in bed.
On Saturday, with my day suddenly free, I decided to go into the city and visit the Vodafone internet cafe and just hang out in the city.  I can't say that I love Kumasi, but it's not so bad.  It's crowded and noisy and smelly, but that's what you get with cities.  Then that night I stayed at the KSO with three other people headed to Volta.  We decided to get up early and start our journey at 5:00am because it would take them ten or 11 hours to get to Ho, and it would take me more than 12 to get to Bodada.
We weren't really sure how we would get there exactly, but we knew the best plan was to get to Koforidua (capital of Eastern Region) and then get cars to Ho and Hohoe.  We decided to just play the trotro game where you stand on the side of the road and try to get trotros to pick you up.  The difficulty increases with the more people you have and the farther you have to go.  Luckily for us, the second trotro that stopped knew how we could get there and dropped us off at a great junction with a pretty big station.  We got a car to Koforidua from that station and even though it wasn't a direct car, we only had to take two cars from the KSO to Koforidua.  From Koforidua, I got in a car to Hohoe and had to wait less than one hour.  We got a flat tire near Have-Etoe, but other than that, the trip was great.  Then it was just two more taxi rides before I was back home to Bodada.  I had missed site and was happy to be back.
On Monday, I went to school and then to Jasikan to withdraw some money and stock up on groceries.  The pastor I live with is having surgery on his humerus, so he's going to stay in Ho for a while.  This means that I'm living alone again for the next few weeks which is fine by me because I get to cook any food I like.  And since I just got a bunch of cheesy things and spices from my mom, I have been whipping up tasty dishes like chicken alfredo, parmesan risotto, and marinara rice.  I'll tell you all right now that the 24-oz of grated parmesan cheese won't last nearly as long with me cooking alone as it would back in American with my whole family eating from it.
On Tuesday, as I was reviewing math with my form 2 class, the headmaster walked in and said that we just received the exams from the office and that we were supposed to start them an hour ago.  So unfortunately for my students, they didn't get much review with me, but I helped them out immensely by rewriting the terminal exams for math and science.  For some reason, they pulled questions from the whole syllabus instead of just the first trimester, so my students had only been taught about a third of the test.  I wasn't too happy about this, and neither were the other teachers, so a few of us wrote new questions to replace the topics we didn't cover.  This increased the grades, but still showed how much work I need to improve my teaching style to help the bottom quarter of the classes.
Next week is the ICT final which I personally feel is worthless, but I'm having forms 2 and 3 take the test so they can get used to the format and so I can learn what I have to teach.  I'm going to teach to the test in my scheduled ICT classes, and then focus on actually using computers in extra classes in our new computer lab with 24 new laptops.  We got the laptops from the government, and once we have a suitable place to store them, they'll deliver them.  The PTA would like to use my computer experience to run the lab, and focus my energies there.  And since we have plenty of math and science teachers, I think the students won't suffer too much without me teaching them.  It will be interesting to see how long it takes for this lab to get finished because my kitchen still hasn't been touched.  Also, I guess we're just going to renovate an existing room close to the church and turn that into a computer lab.  My guess is that it won't be done by September next year, but they might be a little more serious about this because we're getting free computers.  Who knows.  Either way, I'm going to try putting more pressure on redoing my kitchen as well as the lab.
That's all for now, and I hope you can tell that I'm doing pretty well here.  I think I'm settling in well at site, and I'm looking forward to break and getting out on the town more.  Thanks for reading.