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.


  1. Peter, happy holidays!!!! I love hearing what you are up to. Your mom and I hope to go see Marilyn Wurth on Sunday but it might SNOW!!!!!!!!!!!!! Thinking of you, Marty

    1. Thanks for your support Marty! I miss snow; Ghana is permanently stuck in July.

  2. Hey Pete, I loved reading your blog! It's fun to live vicariously through you! Happy Holidays from both Charlie and I! Take good care! CJ

    1. Thanks CJ, I'm glad you are enjoying it. Happy holidays to you too!

  3. So Marty's moniker is Mom, but this is your Mom. Thanks for the props in the blog. Are you the only PCV without Birkenstocks? Mary and I didn't get to go see Marilyn as it did snow. I didn't want you to be homesick for snow, so I didn't send a picture. I thought I should send a picture of me shoveling the driveway. I'm sure you don't miss that. Love you!

    1. Chacos have replaced Birkenstocks, at least here in Ghana. I miss the snow and seasons, and I realized yesterday that I missed one whole season and I'm about to miss winter. You'll have to put some cross-country skiing pictures up as soon as you get out. Maybe some of Shiloh playing in the snow too. Love you too.