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.