Friday, December 3, 2010

The Price of Four Condoms

If there’s one thing I’ve managed to do in the last three months, I have, in the very least, managed to spread the rumor amongst young men that I sell condoms for cheap.

My under-the-table drug store transactions started when I realized the previous volunteers had – after holding multiple AIDS campaigns and hosting plenty of condom demonstrations – left me with about one-thousand condoms and a wooden penis. Now, I know full well that a girl’s got to have a little fun every now and then, but what the hell was I going to do with a thousand condoms?

I know! I thought, I could sell them to the neighborhood kids for a cheaper price than they can argue their way out of! I didn’t want to get into the habit of giving them out for free because I didn’t want these boys to fall out of the habit of buying them – I would simply make my house a better alternative than wandering over to the drugstore where their pharmacist new them (and their parents) intimately well. Why not just cut out the middle man? And when I’ve raised enough money, why not spend it on something small for the village?

When we spring cleaned the house, I made sure to mention my overabundance of free condoms and my intention to sell them for an affordable price to anyone who needed them. I wanted to encourage their use and the fact that I wouldn’t judge these kids because they were making the right choice.

For the first few months not much happened, except that I stared at a giant box of condoms sitting underneath my writing desk. In fact, after two and a half months, I had kind of given up on the idea – maybe it was too embarrassing for the boys to buy condoms from a girl, a white girl, and a new member of the community … maybe they already got free condoms somewhere else … and then, one night at 2:30am, I woke up to the sound of someone pounding (with a vengeance) on my very loud tin door. What in the world?

It was one of the local men, in his early twenties and obviously drunk, wobbling at my door and asking for condoms – he didn’t have money, but he would pay me back; he just really needed condoms. I gave him three, for 10p (roughly around 8 cents), and told him to pay me when he could. I’m not sure what happened afterwards, though I found the wrapper of one condom in front of my latrine the next morning – I wasn’t about to judge. The important thing was that someone had finally gotten up the (liquid) courage to come to me and ask for something they all, apparently, knew I was selling. This is all it took.

Now, there haven’t exactly been hordes of men clamoring to the door in search of condoms, but, in the last three weeks, there have been three separate instances. Enough for me to turn my ‘spare change’ cup into a ‘condom money’ cup and hope the trend continues. Apparently someone, maybe that first guy wasn’t as drunk as I thought, has been letting everyone else know that the rumors were true – I do, in fact, sell condoms for super cheap and I don’t ask questions (except for the obvious ‘do you know how to use this?’).

It’s a small, silly kind of victory, but I feel like I’ve accomplished something tangible (the one thing we all search for in the Peace Corps) and I hope that those three young men told three of their friends (who will come to my door and tell three more of their friends) and, somehow, before they expire, I will have managed to sell one thousand condoms in a year.

A girl can dream, right?

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Most Beautiful thing

In some areas of Ghana, it is custom to dye soles, palms, and fingernails the various shades of Henna. It’s considered a mark of beauty and I’ve caught glimpses of it, taking the form of faint orange pads, as proof.

Today, while riding in a tro to Tamale, my attention is turned to the hands of the woman sitting next to me – she is searching her bag for change. I am struck, suddenly, by the color of her dyed palms and fingernails. It is a deep red – red like the setting sun, red like drying blood – and it inhabits every free patch of skin on the underside of her long, dark hands from wrist to fingertip. It is painted, one shade fading into the next, onto each fingernail. Her skin is the perfect shade of ebony to this deep red. Like a dance, they fade in and out of one another, sloping the folds and wrinkles of her skin. I am not struck by its simplicity; I am struck by its complexity.

In this moment, this woman’s hands are, quite definitively, the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. Her palms, mapped in color, are a work of art. I cannot stop staring, nor can I work up the courage to ask for a picture. Instead, I take one while she sleeps. I tell myself it is better she doesn’t realize the beauty of her hands for, then, she wouldn’t wear them so perfectly.

It is today that I finally understand why the practice is considered so beautiful.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Kayayo: Ghana is a-Changin’

For your reading pleasure, another ‘Blog that Matters’ (I thought it was about time to throw some more culturally relevant material into the mix). As always, the subject matter is a bit morally ambiguous, but hopefully it’ll get your gears rolling.

So, what is it, exactly, that’s supposed to be rolling your gears? Well, that would be Kayayo.
And what is Kayayo? For starters, it’s a noun. It’s actually a person, place, and a thing (or, rather a person, a journey, and a kind of job); it carries with it a strong stigma and, depending on whom you ask, it will result in setbacks or opportunities … but not both.  

The person is a porter who travels to major southern cities (most likely Kamasi or Accra) in search of a job. They usually do this in-between farming seasons (or school terms) because there isn’t a lot of other work otherwise.
The job description differs between genders. Women carry loads on their heads – a traveler’s luggage, someone’s shopping, or a pallet of goods to be sold somewhere else. Most of the time, what they carry weighs more than they do. Boys work in construction.
The journey is a number of things: it’s the distance traveled between cities (specifically for Kayayo, of course); it’s a right of passage, an experience of adulthood; for some, it’s the movement away from ones traditions and into the modern world.

Much of the lure of Kayayo is said to be brought on by the introduction of technology like the internet. It’s believed that a wider understanding of the world, of wealth, and of different cultures pushes young, rebellious boys and girls away from their local traditions. The truth is that they feel the same pressures any teenager does – they use Kayayo as a way to rebel, to experience a big city, and to take advantage of the opportunities and relative freedoms it can offer. The method might be foreign to us, but the idea certainly isn’t (and I’m willing to bet that Kayayo existed before the internet came to Ghana, too).

My language teacher, Pastor Mark, had a different opinion – one that’s closely tied to tradition and sees Kayayo as an unavoidable necessity. He told me that a man and wife are required to bring certain things into the marital home. Mostly these are, quite literally, things that relate to gender-specific marital roles, but there’s also a dowry. As most families can’t afford extra luxuries (or set aside money for a dowry), the responsibility of purchasing these items (and saving money) rests on the children themselves. Sometimes its even up to them to pay for their school fees.

In the northern parts of Ghana, the job markets are pretty underdeveloped – it’s populated by farmers and the farming season is only one. By the time a new season starts, families have little to no money left. You can imagine the kind of cycle this creates – one of relative poverty, at that. It also stunts education. Some families would rather their children help with the harvest, so they take them out of school. Others simply can’t afford the fees. This does one of two things: it delays completion of primary and secondary education due to low test scores (which, in turn, delays higher education and job acquisition) or it obstructs education completely. Though this subject could (and probably will) inspire an entirely separate blog, it certainly contributes to Kayayo.  

As simple as it sounds, the matter of Kayayo is quite complex. People can be gone for weeks, months, even years. It’s not actually limited to young people, they simply make up the majority – sometimes it is a parent who leaves in order to send money back to the family. Because money is the goal, Kayayo isn’t something that can be done just once or for a short period of time. The money received is minimal – sometime Kayayo can start to sell their own items, but most will remain porters. There are obvious setbacks to such minimal pay, the lead being a lack of safe, reliable places to live. Many Kayayo sleep on the streets, folded into the large bowls they use to porter; others crowd up to thirty people into tiny rooms and shipping containers. Both have obvious setbacks. Everyone is susceptible to theft and poor living conditions usually lead to large outbreaks of Tuberculosis, frequent shantytown fires, and flooding.

Women who sleep on the streets have a serious lack of privacy, leaving them vulnerable to harassment, attack, and even rape. A lot of girls are actually forced into informal prostitution – sleeping with men or taking ‘boyfriends’ in order to have a safe place to stay, in order to receive money and gifts. Unless they’re being safe (which is, unfortunately, highly unlikely), a lot will get pregnant or contract an STD – even HIV.

But wait, Emma, I thought you said the situation was ambiguous … this is all sounding pretty horrible to me …

Well, it is ambiguous. It’s ambiguous because there’s no proper solution. It’s ambiguous because there are a number of good things that come from Kayayo. It’s ambiguous because those who return from Kayayo only share stories of their success, which contributes to the cycle. It’s ambiguous because, like most things of this nature, there isn’t a suitable alternative and the reality of such a situation isn’t acknowledged by the greater population.

So, what good could possibly come from Kayayo?

For many, it marks a passage into adulthood. Some gain knowledge and experience, others are inspired to continue their schooling in a major city. It offers an opportunity to make and save money, either to contribute to their families, their education, or their future homes. It’s often seen as a right of passage – Kayayo can be a very important journey, especially if it’s a successful one. Fortunately, the cities of Kamasi and Accra are starting to get involved, usually in the form of government and non-governmental organizations who’ve converted abandoned warehouses into safe, affordable places to sleep. Other organizations are working to help girls (and boys, of course, but the majority of Kayayo are women) get legitimate jobs and proper schooling. In fact, many of the girls who do Kayayo eventually pay for their own school fees and empower themselves through education.

In the end, the experience of Kayayo is an individual one. It’s hard to gauge, honestly. No one comes back from Kayayo and talks about all of the bad things that happened. So, it seems that the benefits often outweigh the setbacks. Young men and women continue to make the journey, despite those who claim it will only keep them away from their roots and communities. Some, I’m sure, find a way to balance the opportunities they find and places they came from – I’ve heard at least one story of a girl who attended nursing school in order to work in a local clinic. I’m sure hers is not the only one.

The problem is often the stigma – knowing that a lot of girls have to resort to prostitution, you can imagine that the Kayayo has a pretty bad reputation. Considering the kind of jobs Kayayo undertake, it only causes a further separation between Northern and Southern Ghana – the south boasting of modernity, while the north is stuck in its traditional farming roots. Often times the Kayayo are labeled as slaves to the Southerners, carrying their luggage and working for pennies. And, yet, if you only develop in the south, what option does the northern population have but to migrate and try their best at finding work? Like I said, it’s ambiguous because there isn’t a better option available.

As I mentioned before, many families in the north can’t afford education for their children. Is it really so bad that a young man or woman is motivated enough to try to afford that education on their own? If we’ve left them no other option, how can we call them ‘slaves?’ It’s obviously an unfortunate situation, one that is too complex to solve immediately – especially when the problem, itself, isn’t being recognized as a problem. If there is some way to guarantee relative safety, to help steer those who go on Kayayo in the right direction, the situation could be viewed in a completely different way … and, slowly, we’re getting there because, slowly, people are starting to recognize the problems involved.

I think Kayayo is a lesson in resilience. Being forced into prostitution, being unable to trust those around you, having an unwanted child, contracting a fatal disease, or having to live knowing that everyone around you thinks of you as a slave – all of these things are sad realities. But what these realities can’t do is take away the empowerment that can come from Kayayo, the motivation to change one’s circumstances and give back to one’s community. Even if the only goal is to buy marriage items, there is an invaluable lesson in being able to earn those things on one’s own, of realizing one’s potential for independence or one’s capabilities.

I suppose it’s like every other kind of sacrifice or leap of faith … the key is the proper education; the key is leaders taking the responsibility to ensure that, even if their citizens are forced to engage in these activities, they’re taken care of and educated. Let me give an example: If I can teach one student in every classroom, the values of using condoms during sex and that student happens to go on Kayayo – maybe their experience will be different, will be better. If we know they’re going to do it anyway, why not help facilitate in their success – to ensure, at least in part, their safety? It’s not easy – it’s never easy – and success in this endeavor obviously isn’t guaranteed; but it’s better than avoiding the subject to begin with or accepting it as is.

If you take the right steps, you never know, do you? That’s the thing about ambiguousness …

Monday, October 4, 2010

I've Got Nothin' but Time ...

My Random Thoughts ...

On Mosquito Nets:
Every time I crawl out of my mosquito net, I invariably feel like I’m being birthed. Usually, I try to go for a ‘smooth’ exit, like a ninja roll, but have only ever managed ‘highly unattractive.’ This dilemma probably wouldn’t occur if I didn’t keep my net secure at all times, but I’m kind of paranoid about what gets into bed with me. I mean, this is Africa so most of those things are terrifyingly large and fond of biting. So, every morning, I pull up an edge and slide onto the cold floor like a wet fish (I also immediately re-tuck the edge … usually while still lying prostrate). It is a humbling experience, to say the least, and never fails to amuse me … or my three-footed cat, Steini. She stands there; adorably lopsided and staring at me with what I can only imagine is the most absurd internal monologue going on in her head. This alone has made me determined to find a better method – one that I wouldn’t be embarrassing to whip out if anyone comes to visit. Only, I’m pretty sure there isn’t a better method (and my vanity does not override my strong aversion to Malaria). So, until I figure out a way to walk through walls and mosquito nets, I’ll at least be assured of a good belly laugh as my cat rolls her pretty little eyes at me. It all counts for something, right?

On Steini, the Gimpy Cat:
Speaking of my three-footed cat – she has got to be the most adorable thing this side of the universe. She is the combination of both of my cats at home tucked into a tiny, gimpy package. Firstly, she chews on everything. She’s chewing on my bracelet right now. She also sits directly on my chest when I sleep. Coincidentally, she is little more than a cat-shaped shadow in front of the computer screen right now. I keep telling her she’s a pain, not a window, but I don’t think she gets the joke. When she’s not sleeping with me in bed, she’s circling the mattress, tirelessly, in an effort to find her way in. She quite literally walks around the edge of the bed until I create a door for her. Sometimes she manages a squeak, but most of the time I wake up to the jostling of my mosquito net as she stomps around above my head. When she thinks she knows where I’m going, she gets in the way of my feet and I trip over her constantly. The other day, she followed me half-way to the borehole before she decided she’d rather wait for me to return. She is also usually pregnant. So, imagine a three-legged, boat-like cat wobbling around my feet as I, in turn, wobble around her and you’ll understand why we’re so ridiculously made for each other. As much as she likes to stare at me while I’m making an idiot out of myself every morning: I think I may have fallen in-love. Also, it’s endlessly amusing to watch her try scratching behind the ear that coincides with her non-existent foot – it usually ends in her tumbling onto her side and looking at me incredulously as I giggle hysterically. Yep: I’m in-love.

On Latrine Etiquette:
Fact number one: I have a latrine. Fact number two: it’s located twenty odd feet from my house. Fact number three: there is a ledge running along the side of my house, on which all of the men consort before the day starts. This means that every morning, when nature calls, I have to walk past more than two-dozen men and their children to get to the loo. Now, if you remember, it’s customary to greet everyone you see – not doing so is considered rather rude, if not anti-social. So, not only do I have to walk past a large group of men (who all know where I’m headed and why), I have to go through the entire process of greeting them beforehand. It may not seem like a big deal to you, but here’s an example of the standard greeting: ‘Morning,’ ‘Morning,’ ‘How are you?’ ‘I’m fine,’ ‘How is your house?’ ‘It is fine,’ ‘How are your children?’ ‘They are fine,’ ‘How is your morning?’ ‘It is fine,’ ‘How was your breakfast?’ ‘It was fine. How are you?’ ‘I’m fine,’ ‘How was your morning?’ ‘It was fine,’ ‘How was your sleep?’ ‘It was fine …’ (you get the idea). Now imagine all of this wrapped in a two-yard of fabric, doing a sleepy-eyed potty-dance, wearing disheveled Harry Potter hair, toting a roll of toilet paper, and you get the idea. The really funny thing is: I might be the only person who thinks it’s even remotely embarrassing.

On the Bolga Market:
The only thing you need to know about the Bolga Market, besides the fact that it occurs every three days, is that it is a completely unprovoked assault on the senses. I walk in, expecting to buy a few things and head home, only to get karate chopped in the face and held ransom by the entire experience. Today, while doing my best to keep up with Sylvester (and wondering where the smell was coming from) I got assailed by a cloud of thick smoke flying at me from the left. I had very little time to prepare myself before numerous specks of charcoal were in my eyes, nose, and mouth all at once. It was like being hit by a thousand tiny fists – which caused me to make the same face Brad Pitt makes whenever he gets punched in movies. 95% of the time, Bolga Market makes me feel like Indiana Jones…’s nerdy cousin (who also happens to be a mountain goat). I’m constantly dodging puddles of ‘unknown,’ small children and giant moving carts, only to find myself perched atop random high-standing objects. With ‘Saleminga’ (AKA ‘yo, white-y!’) being shouted out from every direction, it’s easy to get confused and distracted. One has to keep their wits about them; staying calm is the key to getting out. I’m lucky I keep finding my way home – bread crumbs would be eaten immediately by a number of animals milling about and I bet they’re just waiting for the day … but I’m rambling. What I mean to say is that, in Ghana, every day is your birthday … wait … that’s not what I mean to say … where am I, again? Where was that exit? And what is that god-awful smell?

On Roommates:
A word of warning: at any given time there are a number of creatures who will, undoubtedly, plop innocently onto a number of body parts – the suddenness of which, undoubtedly, solicits panic on the part of both parties. Despite frequent run-ins with arachnids and other bug-things, it seems I’ve got quite a few little roommates who aren’t of a creepy-crawly persuasion. Using my latrine one night, torch in hand, I shut the door to find something large had found its way onto my head. Flailing around in the dark, I tried finding out exactly what it was, but the culprit was no where to be found. Not knowing if said creature liked to bite and appreciating its relative size, I shut the door carefully for weeks. It wasn’t until my heavy, tin door slammed shut one day that I figured out what it had been. Once again, something heavy plopped onto the crown of my head; we both froze. Not again, I thought, making the first move … I bent over and tried to frantically rustle it out of my hair. In the same moment, he decided to make a run for it, jumping spread-eagle off of my forehead and into the cat litter. What was it? A tiny lizard. I had to admit, I was slightly relieved as he (presumably shouting expletives to himself) scrambled his way up the wall and out of the house. Now, I’m not sure it’s a coincidence, but since then every time I go to the latrine, at least one lizard runs across the door – usually two. This prompts both of us to pause dramatically and stare as if to say, “you again,” before he scuttles off in the opposite direction and I inspect the top of door just in-case. Considering how many different things live inside of that latrine, I think I have a new motto: if in doubt, assume it’s a lizard … because anything else is probably just gross

(Speaking of Gross) On Flies:
There are a lot of flies in Ghana. As annoying as any other fly might be, I’d be willing to bet that Ghanaian flies take the cake. Why? Ghanaian flies seem to think they are great deal more important than ‘normal’ flies. I’ve yet to have a run-in with a fly in Ghana that wasn’t punctuated with violent buzzing and the kind of urgency flies just shouldn’t have. At least two or three make it directly into my cornea, daily, and causes a great deal of thrashing and cursing as I swing myself in circles. Sometimes, I wonder if they’re trying to tell us something really important … I can’t think of any other reason to hurl oneself in the direction of an eardrum, if it’s not because one assumes the person just isn’t listening. Today I had the thought that some of them are pesky gossips, stopping to dance around anyone (or anything, for that matter) willing listen (or hasn’t a choice … like a cow tied to a post). This would, of course, account for their persistence and lack of tact. The flies that frequent my latrine have made our relationship rather awkward lately – buzzing angrily out of the hole and hurtling themselves at my bum. Aside from interrupting their disgusting little meetings down there, I often find myself wondering what flies possibly have to be so angry about. Maybe, because their lifespan is ridiculously short, they spend it punishing those of us who live longer than 48 hours; maybe they resent the fact that they’re diseased and at the bottom of the food chain. (Who wouldn’t be angry if everyone constantly swatted at you and refused to listen as you attempted to tell them the secret of the universe?) One things for sure, if I didn’t hate them enough already, my feelings have definitely hit an all-time low … I mean, if learning the secret of life means getting pink-eye from one of those little bastards, I’m not sure it’s quite good enough a reason not to send them happily into the next … am I right?!

On a Serious Note:
Jokes aside … it’s worth mentioning that, when I’m riding home on my bike – Harry Potter hair fluttering wildly in the wind – and receiving the most genuine smiles in return for my attempts at Guruni: I’m truly satisfied. Radiating from the soles of my feet, pumping in-time with my heart, and reflecting in my eyes – anyone can see that I’m content in ways that can’t be explained. As hard as it is to follow conversations (though I do try) or leave the safety of my house to explore, all anyone needs to know is that I’m happy. I’m right where I’m meant to be.

A Hitchhiker's Guide to Ghana

Okay, okay; first thing’s first: no, I’ve not accepted any marriage proposals; I’m referring to the age old mode of transportation. A taboo in America, it is, unless you want to pay for and suffer the woes of public travel, one of the fastest and most reliable ways to get around Ghana. It’s also, I’ve found, a great way to meet people.

Aside from being impressed with the generosity of Ghanaian motorists, I’ve come to quite enjoy the experience of ‘hitching.’ The first few times were a bit jarring, trying to find an appropriate subject on which to expound, but it’s since become a kind of adventure in and of itself. I’ve met a great number of interesting people, many of whom were taught by or befriended Peace Corps volunteers in their youth. I’ve also managed to form a collection of very eclectic conversations, including the politics of ‘raising Ghana’ to the cultural differences between our two countries (and various plans to make me marry and stay forever). No matter who picks me up, they are always interested in my thoughts (they’re also amazed at the length of time I’ll be here).

I’ve caught a lot of rides in semi trucks – they’re an easy bet because they’re probably going farther than I am; cars are harder to gauge. Sometimes I catch trucks and SUVs; the welcomed addition of air conditioning and ridiculously fast driving make them a hitcher’s paradise. When asked why they pick up hitchers, most people invariably say that they’ve got empty seats and are traveling in the right direction … so, why not? I’m sure some of them pick me up because I’m a harmless looking white girl, but from what I understand hitching is an acceptable form of transportation if one’s willing to wait for it.

Some cars fly past without a second look, but most of them find some way to signal to me and explain why they aren’t picking me up … which I find adorable. I’ve seen various forms of ‘flailing of the arms’ to explain that he/she isn’t traveling far; sometimes it’s a brief honk and flash of the headlights to acknowledge my presence, but no empty seats for me; lately they’ve been stopping and offer to take me as far as they’re going, where they have helped me find a way to continue to my destination. All in all, the whole experience is as inviting as any other experience I’ve had in Ghana and completely different from what I’m used to.

The other day, I caught a ride with a couple of truckers from Burkina Faso. Upon realizing neither of us spoke a language the other could understand, we sat in companionable silence for two hours and, every so often, offered to buy each other food and water along the way. At one point, they stopped to pray (both being Muslim) and I sat and read in the cab, declining their invitation to join. A moment after returning, one of the men turned to me and said, “America o Canada?” to which I replied, “America,’ and got various positive motions and sounds – one of which included a definite, “Obama!”

With as untrusting as we are in America, the hospitality of Ghana has been refreshing. Sometimes I’d rather sit in silence, but for the most part, even if the conversation is much of the same, it’s a completely different experience. Who knows, maybe I’ll be more open to picking up hitchers in America, having been in their position? For now I’m content to learn about Ghana one person at a time. I mean, we’re both traveling in the right direction … so, why not?

PS. Hitched a ride in a Ghana Police car today! woowoo!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Fridge Magnet Poetry

Don't believe mama, she got every silver goodbye
I am the goldmine to her black heart

I'm afraid
without this heart, I changed
I love her, I miss you
and tonight my heart and the bed are miserable.

... so, I'm sitting at the TSO, enjoying the internet, listening to a Florida State game, and waiting to eat the awesome-smelling Italian cooking.

Upon creating my disjointed poetry on the fridge, I came to the conclusion that there are multiple indie bands who write lyrics solely with fridge magnets ...
not bad for a first try!


Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Crazy Ghana Me

They warn you that the Peace Corps will be stressful, that it will be challenging; they even manage to slip in a few stories about a few mental breakdowns. These things are expected, in the very least they are ingrained. What isn't expected is the fact that these 'little breakdowns' occur daily, from moment to moment, that they will catch you off-guard and have the potential to derail an entire day.

It's not often I get to meet Crazy Me and Ghana Crazy Me is an anomaly all her own. CGM (the Peace Corps loves its acronyms) is prone to random fits of tears, completely unprovoked; CGM rides a roller coaster of giddy highs and sleepy, drowsy lows; CGM is prone to narcoleptic fits because she likes to think too much and when she does think, she revisits ridiculous, long-dead memories that seem to tap on the door at night. CGM is not over the things I thought I was over. I'm pretty sure she never got over them and has been holding onto them, hoping to have pity parties (table for one) at the most inconvenient times. I do not like CGM.

It's unbelievable how something small, like having moving cell-phone reception (it, quite literally, moves about the room in varying degrees) or broken zipper, can make CGM crash and burn. It's like having a dramatic roommate who uses your pillow as a tissue every time something goes remotely wrong (which just so happens to be all the time). CGM affects everything (or, rather, everything seems to affect her) and in the same twelve-minute span, I can feel exuberant about Ghana and my role here, excited about all of the possibilities, and quite suddenly fall into a terrible anxiety about existing alone, with an entirely different culture/language/existence than anything I've ever known. 

In addition to constant mental and emotional challenges, an under-estimation of how strongly this experience can affect morale, means that any PCV is prone to unprovoked, intense reactions to the smallest things. Turns out, the Peace Corps involves an inordinate amount of introspection (and the opportunity for intense conversations with the self about those deep, inner conflicts). It's like taking a particularly rainy day  and splashing in the puddles until it's fun again.

Now, it should be clarified that I'm not entirely sure I'm ready to sucker-punch any of my demons just yet. It should be clarified that these random fits catch me completely unaware and make it quite uncomfortable to be around myself. But this is Ghana - and not just any Ghana, it's Peace Corps Ghana. If the statistics are right, and the shock of being a PCV is equivalent to 3x the death of a spouse, 4x the loss of a job, or 5x the jailing of a family member, then I am in for one hell of a ride ... and CGM has full reign of the vehicle.

I guess I'd better find a pillow and break out the popcorn for what might be the most entertaining drama I've ever seen. I'm sure you've heard of it. It's the one starring me, and you've got front row seats.


Saturday, August 28, 2010

First Weeks at Site ...

So, I'm finally an official Peace Corps Volunteer (yay me!) ... and my first few weeks at site have been relatively busy:

Usually, this isn't quite how the first few weeks at site go, but I've been lucky enough to piggy-back the couple I'm replacing. It's an overlap of about three weeks and, in that time, I've been able to help them with a Girls Leadership Group in Bolgatanga (one that we all hope I'll be able to continue over the next two years) and I've rescued a panic-stricken Environment volunteer who didn't know how to construct the required latrine for her new house.

I am feeling quite accomplished, actually ... and realize that the next three months will probably not follow suit. As the rules go, the first three months are a 'no-leave, no-travel' time for new volunteers. This allows us to start relationships with community members, become more fluent in our language, and assess the communities needs, without the stress of big projects. My situation is probably more unique than most, considering there are a few open grants and projects to be taken over, but, relatively speaking, I will have a lot of 'down time' over the next twelve weeks.

We have been traveling in and out of Tamale and Bolgatanga (the capital cities of the Northern and Upper East Regions) for various household purchases, so familiar faces are seen every once and a while, but once Kirsten and JJ leave in T-minus four days, I will, effectively, be on my own for the first time since I touched down in Ghana. This prospect is both freeing and terrifying. This will be the first time I've lived on my own as an adult ... and, don't you know, I've decided to do it in West Africa - living in a cute little house, all to myself. I've already begun planning what I'll do with the house to make it a home and am fairly certain that any first-three-months-mental-break-downs will be narrowly avoided by keeping myself busy with projects. I've already wrangled in a few one-year volunteers in the area to help me build things, clean things, and paint things ... all for the price of beer and a good meal ... I'm quite excited to have a nice, cozy place to call my own - even if it will be left here, after I'm done.

I've already begun making lists of potential projects/on-going projects that should keep my mind busy, keep me focused, and sane (this is all in theory, of course). The Girl's Camp was definitely a keeper. We spent six days total - three training the 'big sisters' and three with all of the girls - teaching them about leadership, self-esteem, HIV/AIDS, reproductive health, and peer pressure. I think it was fairly successful. The group of girls was fantastic and I think we may have positively affected them as peer leaders in their communities. I also managed to find a few local friends in the 'big sisters' and decided I had a lot to learn from this country.

Within the last few weeks, I've learned how mentally challenging my service will be, as well. As I mentioned in the last blog, there's a lot of introspection involved, what I didn't realize until recently was that it didn't necessarily have to do with Ghana or the Peace Corps. Being in a constant state of 'stress,' with various types of stimuli being thrown every-which-way, the brain tends to have short-term revolts against its owner. What I realized, but didn't really understand about the Peace Corps was its potential to be an altering force in me - a chance to fight my demons and an opportunity to better myself, in retrospect of my experiences. I've written a blog about 'Crazy Ghana Me' that I will post relatively soon, but (once again) I am writing impromptu, so you'll have to wait.

Rest assured, Emma now has two distinct personalities:

1.) Relatively normal Emma
2.) Crazy Ghana Peace Corps Emma

I am sure that, at various intervals, you will be hearing from both of them as time goes on ... as for now, I'm going to make myself some tea, enjoy the Tamale (tah-mah-lay) Sub-Office, and the short time I have with familiar faces. Happy travels ...


Sunday, August 8, 2010

A Slippery Slope You Can Chew On

I'm about to drop mind bombs.
Aside from actually saying something like that out loud, you might ask, why would Emma make such a philosophical threat? Well, it's been a while since I've written a blog of social relevance (I've yet to write one in-country) and I think it's about time I rectify that situation.

This topic is a fairly obvious one and is hardly original, but it's important nonetheless - especially in my current situation. It came up during our 'Fireside Chat' with Country Director, Mike Koffman, and has been on my mind ever since. By the way, I hope the rest of you appreciate the famous historical reference above ... I, myself, was tickled for days. In a word? Awesome ... but I digress ...

So what were we discussing? Among other things, it was our roles and responsibilities in the Peace Corps and, on a similar note, what this would mean in relationship to sustainable development in the developing world. The question posed to us: How did we want our two years to affect our community as, we hope, integrated members of it?

With this line of discussion came the topic of NGO 'gift giving' vs. long-term projects based in and by the affected community (like Peace Corps). Now, don't get me wrong, it's a step in the right direction and I'd never take away the significance of volunteering in the developing world (whether it be for one month or twenty-seven) or investing in it by striving to fulfill their needs ... but this topic has come up quite often amongst volunteers, especially when we run into various short-term volunteers in-country.

Example: a volunteer comes in for six weeks to build a forward-thinking, modern contraption that they deem necessary for the community. Said volunteer goes home, having spent just enough time to scratch the surface of the surrounding culture - never really giving themselves enough time to assess whether the community really wanted, for example, a solar-powered large-scale oven, and whether it'll go unused once they've left. There is no real long-term thought applied, when it comes to the community benefiting from the gift.

Next, a big NGO moves into a community that practices Open Defecation (OD) and builds a top-notch, large-capacity latrine and leaves again. It's more likely the latrine will never be used or fall into disrepair (rendering it useless), than the community suddenly realizing the error of their ways and becoming a shining OD Free example to the surrounding area.

Similarly, boreholes that are donated by organizations and built by out-of-country volunteers share the same fate. When it breaks (which, eventually, it will), who will fix it? And, with what money? If it was a gift to the community, who truly owns the borehole and will they ever care about it, as a result?

This is the slippery slope between doing a good thing and doing a sustainable thing. In the Peace Corps, we may not ever have a big-scale secondary project (ie. building a borehole), but we may spend two years laying the foundations for the community to want a borehole - in which case, the next volunteer can hopefully facilitate the process even further.

I understand that long-term volunteering isn't for everyone - it's also not feasible for a number of people - so charity, in the form of gift-giving, seems like a better alternative than doing nothing. But is it, really?
Is coming into a community, judging their poverty based on outside, Western standards, and throwing money at them in the form of outside ideas and influences really better than doing nothing at all? In the end, do they end up becoming the same thing?

If the latrine is left unused ... if the solar powered oven abandoned  ... if the borehole spoiled ... all because the community was detached from the entire process, did we really ever do anything at all for that community?
And what's the alternative? Are you 'damned if you do, damned if you don't'?

This occurs within the Peace Corps, as well, in the form of secondary projects and grant writing (tapping into NGO resources). Now, while the community usually pitches in a decent percentage of the money being donated - thereby involving them and increasing the likelihood that they'll 'own' the project - if no time is spent creating a relationship with that community, assessing what they think they need, and investing in their ability to sustain the project once you've left ... you've effectively done nothing more than provide an shiny new thing. Which is what they expect from the 'rich American,' anyway.

This is exactly the opposite of the Peace Corps goals and a dilemma we all have to grapple with - it's easy to fall into the pattern of thinking that 'things' equals success.

This isn't to say that grant writing, secondary projects, and things like boreholes are all inclusively evil or something to be avoided - they are, in fact, needed. But I've begun to realize why the developing world is having such a hard time developing on it's own ... and why the Peace Corps is such a stellar organization (Shout Out!) and heavy, long-term responsibility.

Two years is, when you think about it, a relatively short amount of time in the grand scheme of things ... but, if used correctly (which is all on an individual basis), they can help create long-term change within communities at a 'human' level.

Teaching a family about hand washing may only change the children's habits, but those children will teach their children the importance of washing hands and, suddenly, there's one, significant, sustainable change within a community.

The key is in using judgment to assess priorities - both ours and our community's - and, while no one is perfect, understanding how what you do affects the community is the first step. There's a lot of introspection involved in Peace Corps service ... a lot of stepping back and realizing who we are here to help ... and that it's not really us who needs to 'save' them, but they need to be able to help themselves.

We are in the business of human stability, in human development, and it's definitely something that takes a lot of thought. It's a big responsibility and a little daunting, if I'm being honest. It's clear that NGOs have started to change their behaviors, spending their time and energy on long-term education projects that focus on behavior change, but there's a long way to go.

For my part, I'm really interested in working with NGOs (maybe facilitating some behavior change, haha) so that we can help ourselves help each other. But, for now, I hope I've given you something you can chew on ... cause it's been on my mind a lot ...


Sunday, August 1, 2010

What Do You Know About HIV and AIDS?

Query: What's more amusing than pulling out a wooden penis in front of fifty-plus strangers (most of which are your elders) and doing an impromptu condom demonstration under a tree?

... actually, I don't have an answer to that ... reading it back to myself, I realize that 'not much' is the adequate answer.

Query: What's scarier than teaching a simplified HIV/AIDS lesson to a classroom full of students you've never met (ranging from the ages of 10-20) with a format you've only read about and a clear language barrier?

... probably crouching over the back of a ten-thousand year old, half-blind, two-ton crocodile that has thankfully decided he would rather eat the significantly smaller baby chicken dangling in front of his mouth, than you.

I have done all three of these in the span of a week and I'm not sure much will pass it in hilarity, awkwardness, and slight horror in the next two years. Having said this, however, I'm fairly certain I will eat those words sooner than I expect.

The best way to learn about something is to teach. This fact is all but universal. The best thing to do to learn a multitude of facts about yourself (including, but not limited to, your patience level, mental stability, ability to improvise and adapt to the unfamiliar, and the surprise of looking up and realizing you're holding a legit HIV/AIDS lesson) is to teach an impromptu HIV/AIDS lesson in a classroom and under a tree (... and various other locations that have yet to be determined because we all know planning is for rookies ...)

This means that very soon, owning at least one wooden penis and a multitude of condoms (with no real normal explanation ... though the term 'normal' is largely interpretive in this situation) is going to be a reality I will know intimately (clever pun completely unintentional).

As stressed as I was that morning, coming up on the tail end of 2 weeks living in a house with the same people 24-hours a day, in retrospect, it was an awesome experience - the likes of which I've only ever imagined in passing.

It's also completely satisfying to realize they've learned one thing; that they were engaged for a tiny moment and learned something because I taught it to them. Especially when it's related to their futures and well-being. I'm even toying with the idea of teaching a basic geography/history lesson at the local school in my village. This means my abilities to speak the local language will have to increase exponentially, but that will come with time.

For now, I'm stuck with the ridiculous image of 3 O'bronis standing in front of a classroom of kids and teenagers, talking about condoms, vaginal secretions, semen, and sexual activity. Because, really, that sentence, alone, requires a second run-through and makes me giggle out loud, even now.


Sitting on Crocodiles

It's not every day one drives three hours to straddle the tail end of a crocodile twice the size of 'relatively safe' that may or may not own both of its eyes. Of course, any day I've experienced since June 1st probably doesn't count as 'every day.'

If it weren't slightly comic that the crocodile in question only made his (slow) appearance after he heard the sound of two baby chickens being knocked together by their heads, it's certainly amazing that this community in Paga fishes, bathes and lives near the lake housing over 200 crocodiles.

Clearly, I was terrified and refused to squat or touch any part of it. With as much ease as the yellow-vested employees displayed, the hurried way in which they ushered me off of the crocodile tells me that my reaction to its wide mouth, a kind of squeak escaping my throat as it lumbered up the bank, was the correct one.

The entire experience was only exaggerated by the fact that all of the young, unbroken crocodiles were engaging in what can only be described as stalking from the edge of the lake. We caught on to their newbi-ness by the way they were cracked on the mouth with sticks when they came too close, which sounded a lot like the splitting of a log ... probably not advisable, but who am I to judge? I certainly wasn't wearing a yellow vest.

Of course, I grew attached to a baby chicken - I named him Chester - the same baby chicken hanging by his feet in front of the one-eyed croc's gaping mouth. When we finished being tourists, Chester was thrown into the abyss and, quite literally, swallowed alive. Everyone turned to me - both of my hands covering my open mouth, my eyes moving between the yellow vested chicken-killer and my fellow trainees. "Emma? Are you okay?" I could only manage a small nod before backing away from Goliath (who apparently decided he was still hungry as he followed our departing crowd, thumping down onto his belly and smiling pretty any time one of us would turn around to look at him).

Needless to say, I can check 'stand over a large crocodile' off of my list of 'things to do that I didn't know I wanted to do until I got to Ghana.' I guess I can add 'stalked by large crocodile on the way back home' to that list, too ...


Monday, July 26, 2010

Travel in Ghana: Not For the Light of Heart

A rooster, a screaming child, and 24 random strangers pile into a Tro meant for 15 ... Stop me if you've heard this one before ...

There's nothing like dangling your feet out of the back window of bus you suspect was made in the seventies (just having noticed the faded blue and white flower pattern printed into the ceiling), squished between your hiking pack, the wall, and another volunteer (with what you think is a rooster flapping around two rows up) to remind you that you are no longer in Kansas.

This is travel in Ghana.

Being that I am quite 'bite-sized,' it's no wonder the ticket operators take one look at me and decide today's the day they sell three extra seats. This also means finding myself shoved into tiny spaces, usually in the back corner, and conspicuously located next to the other O'bronis on the bus. It is during these moments, I find myself grateful for having such compact limbs and often remind myself to thank my parents for their perfect planning ...

Taxi experiences are not much different - unless you want to pay for all of the open seats, it's stuffed to the brim with passengers ... some picked up along the way. Depending on where you're headed, these can be much more uncomfortable and require a certain finesse in the art of 'Short-term Storage.' I have yet to experience travel with any animals larger than a fowl, but I am sure the day will come when I am sharing my ride with none other than Bessie, the family cow.

Most of the vehicles we climb into have a certain kind of charm ... the kind of charm that can only be credited to a lack of well-paved roads. Like most taxi drivers, their skills here in Ghana are unique ... the rules of the road being largely interpretive. There are a few things you do need to know:

1. Avoid the front seat at all costs - there is a noticable absense of seatbelts at any given time
2. Choose the lesser of two cracked windsheilds
3. Avoid night-time travel  

Of course, if we didn't set our standards relatively low, we'd never get anywhere. This is why it's sometimes useful to close my eyes and pray that a stray goat doesn't meander into the road as we fly by (there are an awful lot of meadering goats in Ghana). I have been pleasantly surprised on a few occasions, finding myself on a bus complete with air-conditioning and a 6 hour movie (no, I am not exaggerating), but the most difficult thing to get used to hasn't been any of the above. It is what we affectionately like to call 'Ghana time.' 'Ghana Time' refers to the fact that there is no schedule. The bus/tro/taxi will leave when it is full: whether that be five minutes or four hours after you've bought the ticket (yes, I have waited four hours for a five hour bus trip). Once the art of 'Ghana Time' is mastered, I have been told that one is well on their way to integration ... this is a common goal amongst the volunteers and I suspect I'll be a great deal more patient once I return to the States.

If anything, travel in Ghana is an adventure: tros and taxis honk at each other intermittantly as they pass back and forth (it's a little game we like to play, counting how many times the same three tros have continuously passed each other along one stretch of road). Sometimes these honks are used to alert the people walking of car's presence - to which the response is almost always said pedestrian throwing themselves into the eight-foot grass lining the road at the slight sound of a honk (this never fails to be terribly amusing). Animals are also warned, by honks, that they are dangerously close to becoming dinner, but seldom listen and seem to appear at the most inconvenient times. I've only seen blinkers used on a handful of occasions and I credit the skill of 'weaving' I picked up as a cocktail waitress for saving my life on several street-crossing experiences.

I promise it only sounds scary in writing, for the most part, it's quite easy to get used to - I've even found myself shouting various things at passing taxis, whether it be for the open seat I've spotted or the fact that I almost took off their mirror with my hip. The radios inside blare loudly enough that conversation is non-existant once the doors are slammed shut (with two people in the passenger seat and at least four in the back) and the engine sputters to life. I'm often reminded of my gratefulness for the invention of windows ( as air-conditioning has become a luxury and surprisingly overrated).

I am loving that everything in Ghana is an experience. An example of this is the much feared 'night travel.' The reason we don't like to travel at night is that most drivers turn their headlights off to conserve their batteries ... I won't tell you, then, how late the Ghana-Uruguay match let out ... or the state of the hatchback taxi that 6 of us shoved ourselves into when it ended. Despite the match loss, this was the night's one redeeming quality, as we giggled ourselves into tears and recited, "I think we might die" and "Where's the 'oh shit' bar?" at various points during the fifteen minute ride home. It's really all about the little victories ... like the fact that our driver had his headlights on (and so did the other cars that night), as living on the equator doesn't leave us but 12 hours of daylight, so headlights are a must.

Most of the time, the only thing running through my mind, despite the occasional 'I think we may have almost died back then,' is almost always 'I'm in Africa.'

I'm in Africa. Sharing a tro with a rooster and 24 random strangers, one of which has a child who is screaming out of sheer fear of my pale skin. I'm in Africa. With my feet dangling out of the side window of a bus that should have had it's last trip years ago. Thank God for this open window. Is that a rooster up there?Where's the 'oh shit' bar, because, holy shit, I'm in Africa!?


Thursday, July 22, 2010

This Volunteer is not Prepared for Internet Time

So, today's internet excursion was completely impromptu ... again ... and, as such, I am not carrying my three blog updates with me. Confounds!

As I'm growing used to the PCT reality of living by the seat of my pants, I am not phased - though a little disappointed in my ability to adapt into 24-hour preparedness for the unplanned ... but I digress. The last three weeks have been a whirlwind - a whirlwind I'll not go into detail about (for fear of spoiling those other well written blogs in my journal), but I'll try to fit as much in as humanly possible without making this too convoluted.

So, before my last post we left for counterpart workshops where we met our counterparts and supervisors (I have two counterparts - Thomas and Sylvester - and one supervisor - Jop, all of which are super supportive and really excited to work with me on anything I am willing to do) and sat through an intensive two day seminar-packed workshop, learning all about what it means to be a counterpart/supervisor/volunteer. It was intense, alright.

Next, we left early on a Wednesday morning for site visits, commandeering an entire city bus to drive five hours to the Kamasi-Metro Station, where Jop and I got a bus ticket for a straight (and long) ride to Bolga (the capital city just outside of my village). We waited maybe four hours for it to fill, you'll learn about this process in more detail when I post my blog about the traveling experience in Ghana, and rode the full ten hours squished (well, I was squished ... Jop's a big man) and ready to jump out at a moments notice. You'd not believe how exhausting long-distance travel is in Ghana. It took a total of 16 hours of the day to get into town, where I was dropped off at a local guest house and left to rest until morning.

From there I took a 10 cedi taxi (an amount unheard of in Ghana) into Sherigu (which took a whopping twenty minutes) to meet the couple I'm replacing (and the animals I will be adopting, yay!). I spent three days in Sherigu, walking about and meeting my neighbors, checking out all of the side projects that have been started (including but not limited to a nursery and a computer lab for the local school), and being spoiled with things like pancakes for breakfast and tomato basil soup with grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch. At one point we went into Bolga, a beautiful forty-minute bike ride from my house, and met some of the other volunteers in the area over lunch and a mineral (aka. Coka Cola, etc.) ... It all suddenly started to settle in and, before I could start freaking out or focusing too intently on the fact that - the first time I'm ever living alone, I will be in Ghana and in my own house - I started organizing the colors I'd paint the walls, the way I'd rearrange the furniture, and all of the possible project ideas I had floating around in my head.

Oh, the joy, to be completely OCD in Ghana ...

After finding my way into Bolga to catch a Metro to Gushie (where our training is being held), I began the process of living in a big house, sleeping mattress to mattress, eating, and taking class with fifteen other people all day - every day. It's definitely something I'm not used to, almost like summer camp but eighteen-million times more intense. The first week was spent specifically on lecture-type lessons on everything from CLTS (community led total sanitation) and AIDS/HIV to malaria and hand-washing lesson techniques.

On Saturday and Sunday we took a break, traveling to my site (a mini-lesson in the different types of side projects you can do) and then to Paga Crocodile Pond where, I kid you not, we squatted over a very large, very ancient crocodile that I am pretty sure was missing at least one eye (this is also going to be expanded upon in a separate blog). Next was this beautiful rock park, of which I forget the name, but is pictured on my Facebook profile for our group WAT/SAN photo and then home to an enormous and delicious proper Italian spaghetti dinner and apple pie. On Sunday we went to one of our trainer's - Beth - sites to draw murals on the side of school buildings with the kid's Health Club. We did an HIV/AIDS mural ... pictures will be posted soon, no doubt.

This week has been out-in-the-field learning, or so to speak. We have gone into the community to give lessons (an age-appropriate hand-washing lesson at the school, an HIV/AIDS lesson to a group of villagers and elders of all ages, a Health Day complete with impromptu field-day activities, helping construct two local latrines and visiting several different village clinics and hospitals).

Before I got sick (again), we spent an hour or so doing what is probably the most amazing experience of my adult life, thus far. After checking on the latrine construction, we come into a compound where the women of the village are pounding a new dirt floor. Only they're bent over, slamming these large wooden 'feet' onto the ground, in unison, to the beat of a worker's song being sung by all. We stood there, amazed, for a few minutes until more wooden 'feet' materialized ... intended for us ... the opportunity of which I took immediately and got right into the fray. I was covered in mud splatters within a matter of minutes ... which I realized was actually a mixture of mud, cow shit, and water (it hardens like cement) a few seconds later. By then I realized it was worth the risk of getting cow shit in my eye, which I eventually did, and infecting a newly opened blister, which I also did, to be immersed in such an awesome cultural experience. I do not regret it. A few girls in our group even shoved their forearms right in and mixed the stuff ... I commend their bravery.

I have to admit, however, it was the best shower I've taken in Ghana so far.

So, here I am today, sitting in Tamale - in Heaven (aka. the Vodofone cafe) - taking a nice break and ready to head into the market for goodies. I hope more pictures will be posted soon, tagged from other people, so that I can post them on here ... in fact, I think I'm going to download a few right now ...


         WAT/SAN group photo, I'm behind a kid on the left
         the magical twin's rock from a previous post
        the first Black Star game

Friday, July 2, 2010

Mama Sewah says 'Eat It All."

It's amazing that, being in Africa and preparing myself for a completely alternate reality from which I'm used to, I still struggle with what to write about on this blog! Talking to my dad about it the other day, he reminded me that most people won't ever experience home-stay and that I should write about that ... how simple! I know I briefly mentioned it the last time I wrote, but I figured I would take his suggestion and run with it ... as such, this blog will expand on the experience that is "Home Stay."

The most important thing you should know is the name given to me by my family: Em-Sewah. This effectively means that I have become a part of the family ... in fact, the entire town calls me by that name, so everywhere I go, I hear: "Sistah Sewah! Wo hen to sen?" ("How are you?")

I like to think my experience is slightly unique, having gotten seriously ill within the first twelve hours of being in the house. My poor family must have thought I'd picked up an allergy to Ghana! My temperature soared upwards of 102 degrees and I slept for two days straight, I am certain they thought I was dying. In fact, my father - Foster - came to visit me in the Sick Bay to make sure I was still kicking. Luckily, that was the day I felt well enough to come home to, and have been living in since, a community that constantly asks me if my head and stomach are well everyday. And I do mean the entire community - barely a week into my home-stay and I'm already finding ways to manipulate the water-cooler gossip!

In all honesty, I love my family. They are incredibly welcoming and understanding of my busy schedule, every day is prompted with, "You are going to school today, yes?" and food is a subject much discussed. I've learned to carve out extra time when I'm in-transit anywhere because, invariably, every person I pass will stop me for a brief conversation in what little Twi I know. I've still not gotten used to the idea of being interesting enough to invite constant attention, but we're almost like mini-celebrities. The children yell, "O'broni! O'broni!" ("Stranger! Stranger!") and wave whenever they are within yelling or waving distance.

My mother and sister must think I'm strange with my 'mild' food requests and my nose constantly shoved into a book (Quick request: SEND ME BOOKS!!). But I am constantly told that I am such a "niiiiiiice girl" and such a "goooooood girl" for studying and staying in after it's dark. I'm sure none of you have ANY idea about what she's talking about ...

I'm quite certain I am doing a number of things wrong, but they are so polite here that I'm never corrected. I know I don't have to, but I tip-toe around the metaphorical edges of my family because I still consider myself a guest and am quite uncertain of how to exist in a home-stay without over-stepping some boundaries - both personal and cultural.

For now, our 10 watt smiles are universal - even when I can't speak Twi. I believe we are all quite happy, though I am making assumptions on the part of my family, of course. There is certainly no bad ju-ju and, if there is one thing I've learned about Ghana, it's that the country is full of good ju-ju.

I am sure they worry about whether or not I shower enough (it is so hot here, the custom is to bathe twice or more in a day). If anyone was curious, I do, in fact, shower enough ... and a bucket bath under the stars really is the only way to take a shower. I have yet to master the bucket bath, but I am determined that - at the close of two years - I will be skilled in the art of 'not-finding-dirt-in-random-places-ten-minutes-after-bathing.'

Physically, we live on a small compound and I have a room large enough to spin circles in (trust me, I've already experimented). There are two dogs, two puppies, and two cats (the majority of which love the O'broni who feeds them and is constantly showering them with belly scratches), plus a number of goats and chickens running around. My father is a farmer with a small bar on-property for off-season and my mother is a cook for the children at a local school. I have inherited two sisters and one brother, my nieces and nephews are known to me as "my children" (to which I replied, "Wow! That was easy!" only to receive blank stares in return - we have to work on the sarcasm thing).

My family tries to accommodate my wants - there is a pile of fruit up to my elbow chillin' in my room right now - and love to teach me things. I was told last Sunday that I would learn how to fetch water from the borehole, carrying it on my head - don't worry, I've been given the small beach bucket - but it has been rescheduled due to our feildtrip to Boti Falls. When hand-washing a pile of laundry last week, Mama Sewah watched intently out of the corner of her eye to make sure I was scrubbing hard enough. I know this because every time I caught her eye, she would mime "scrub hard," stare at my hands, and nod her head in silent approval when I obeyed. I am sure that, with any sign of wrist weakness, she would have barreled me off of the bench and finished the pile herself ... fortunately, I was able to side-step any embarrassment and finished all of my laundry without any help.

My younger brother loves to play frisbee and has taught all of his friends the sport. I think I may leave my frisbee with him as a present, since it is in his constant care anyway (anyone willing to send me a bunch of cheap frisbees? it's a great ice breaker with the kids!) I'm still teaching myself how to 'own' in hackie-sack ... it is a process.

I feel badly that my days are so full, that I am so tired at the end of them, and must spend so much time studying. Fifa has been my saving grace, as we all came together for every Ghana (and USA) game ... I am rooting for the Black Stars tonight!! They love to watch my reactions to the game and copy my expressions whenever they can, we all laugh with each other over our small eccentricities. I am enjoying being an O'broni because it is certainly a humbling experience, to be surrounded by such an amazing and welcoming culture.

As for now, Mama Sewah is waiting for the day I "eat ALL" and I keep telling her, "Yes, mama. It is like football ... I must practice first."


Sunday, June 27, 2010

Nothing Like a Waterfall to Make You Feel Small

So, I have to be the nerd and tell you that I had an entire blog written in my journal for the next time I was on the internet. I was attempting to plan ahead (such a silly concept in Ghana, mind you) and stay organized. Low and behold, I've found myself at the fastest internet cafe' near our town on accident, so bear with me because this might be another jumbled free-flow.

It's Sunday, our free day, and we spent it with the Education Trainees at the Boti Waterfalls just outside of Kofi. It was absolutely gorgeous ... I spent the whole day repeatedly telling people that I felt like I was in Tomb Raider ... I'm pretty sure they're all coming to the realization that I am a huge nerd with stores of nerdiness they have yet to encounter. We hiked around the surrounding area, finding ourselves in the sacred caves and, at one point, standing on-top of the sacred rock that apparently gives you twins (if you so wish for them). Luckily, no twins dropped out of my  uterus, so I might be safe for a while ... how awkward would that have been?

My home-stay family (the subject of the journal-blog that I will post later) is quite used to me being gone most of the day. They were careful to make sure I was happy with the Ghana win against the US last night before making too much noise, which, of course, I was. For now, we have a week left until we go to our counterpart workshops and visit our sites for a couple of days. After that, it's technical training in Gushie (which will also include field trips to a few of the national animal reserves) for a few weeks before we come back down to our home-stay families. It seems like there's so much to do, but I'm sure it's going to fly by and, suddenly, I'll be at my site and immersing myself into the language and culture.

I'm currently working on bribing all of my PC friends to come visit me because my site is going to be awesome and unique and exactly what I expected when I found out I was coming to Africa. The more time I have to think about Sherigu, the more excited I get about living there. We are all starting to get rather impatient - training is, for everyone, a slightly painful experience because there's so much to learn. I am slowly amassing care package lists ... most of them involve lots of cheese and cookies ... for when I get to site and start cooking on my own. I have a house to myself, with two rooms and a kitchen. The couple who lived there before me closed off the garden with a wall, so I have privacy and intermittent electricity (which is better than none). I'm actually quite excited for my parents (and, hopefully, a few friends) to come visit ... walking around today, we were all so flabbergasted at the realization that we were, in fact, in Africa.

I will go for now and next time you will read about the experience of home-stay ... for now, I am enjoying the air-conditioned internet cafe' and flush toilets :)


Sunday, June 20, 2010

Making Friends in Ghana

Before getting into the thick of things, let me first say that it is so refreshing to log into Facebook and see people talking about normal, mundane, every-day things. It seems funny to me now that I used to make fun of Twitter and status updates for their irrelevance. Now I can do nothing to hide my excitement over listening to and reading every small detail of the going-ons in America - anything to feel connected and normal.

Our training has officially begun, which means that we've split off by sector and - having learned our site assignmens two days ago - our site-specific languages. It's become quite normal to re-organize our worlds at the drop of a hat, but it hasn't made it easier to deal with friends being stationed somewhere far away. I had a small moment of panic, learning that my site (in the Upper East) was one of two in the region recieving new volunteers from our group. After such an overwhelming first twenty days in Ghana (and plenty more to come until, at least, August 12), I was finding it hard to see the trees through the forest. If I'm being honest, I haven't quite recovered, but I spent the morning reading letters from my family and friends - the letters that remind me why I came and why I'm capable for this job - and I'm feeling much better ... much more grounded.

It's really a slippery slope we walk - it's not that we're alone, it's just that we're very seperate. This is a feeling that most of us have never really felt, a part from being independent and comfortable as individuals, willingly sending ourselves into a foreign land is such a startling experience. You really can't do much to prepare. This morning I found myself feeling completely inadequate in any and all conversation regarding Twi. Forgetting completely the magic words, "Be patient with yourself," I began to feel some self-doubt leaking up under my springs. It isn't that there aren't plenty of people offering help and guidance and friendship. The people here are so welcoming and willing to teach. It's not that I'm not totally open to what I've gotten myself into. I'm taking all of the opportunities thrown my way to interact and enjoy this awesome experience, but sometimes it's still really hard to find the tiny Thomas the Train in my brain.

I only really feel alone at night underneath the Mosquito-net, when the sounds I'm still getting used to are surrounding me on every side, and the darkness curls into the window like a sheet. And I suppose 'aloneness' isn't really all that bad, but knowing that I'll be alone for most of the next two years is surreal. I still cannot believe that I've gotten myself to Ghana. This is all so strange to me, that I'm sitting smack-dab in the middle of one of my biggest accomplishments to date. Even stranger is that my family is so far removed from the experience. It makes me feel stronger, but slightly discombobulated. Like my umbilical chord is stretched too thin.

Now, I don't mean to make anyone think that I'm not enjoying myself. I'm just working through some of the first feelings at the moment. I'm sure there will be fountains of them to come. For now I will tell you that my homestay mum is a jolly woman who I am sure is plotting ways to MAKE ME FAT. She also had me eat an ENTIRE pineapple today after eating lunch because she knew it was one of my favorites. She laughed when I told her I would explode if she kept trying to feed me so much. The kids at the house are sweet and love playing frisbee. We watch lots of football and everyone loves to watch my reactions, laughing and slapping their knees in response to almost anything I do. I'm actually okay with the fishbowl situation here, it keeps things interesting and keeps me as grounded as I can get.

There is so much to write about, you have no idea. Including a two day hiatus in the Sick Bay at our training site (anyone else thinking Star Trek?) ... The other PCTs were betting back and forth whether I had Malaria or not, it got so bad. Apparently I was the only one on my side: I WIN.

As for now, I have a sensative stomach that grows suddenly shy around latrines (you have to be here to know why). Coca Cola is my new favorite treat, even though I hated how sweet it was in the states. I am currently bombarded with random obsessive thoughts involving Pringles and Chewy granola bars - even though the latter hasn't touched my lips in years. My Malaria pills makes movies obsolete when I sleep because my dreams are AWESOME. My old roommate was glad to finally have a room to herself at homestay because I didnt chatter at her all night long. And goat bleets are possibly the best random comedic relief you could possibly have ANYWHERE.

I suppose I should sign off for now, next time I'll try to be a little more organized (though no promises ... something tells me my organisational skills are about to go right out the window), but I am hoping everyone is well and have officially clocked 20 days as a Peace Corps Trainee! Please be sending letters. I may not get them quickly and my replies may take even longer, but like I said above: there is nothing more relaxing than to hear about the normal stuff I'm missing back home. Below is a temp address, I will post the permanent address when I get it:

Emmaline Repp, PCT
Peace Corps Ghana
PO Box 5796
Accra-North, Ghana
West Africa



Friday, June 11, 2010

Greetings from Ghana!

I am typing up a quick hello from an internet cafe' in Wa to let you all know that I am in good spirits and doing very well (though very hot). I am having troubles accessing Facebook because of the lengthy security check and slow connection here, so hopefully there are some who will check here and pass the message on.

I am enjoying my experience immensely. The people here are most welcoming and the trainees are all people I am proud to know. Training is soon to start, we are traveling down to Kukurantumbi tomorrow, and that's where the hard stuff will begin. Many of you will start getting piles and piles of letters, as I will finally have some downtime and will realize how much I miss everyone! I do so wish I had constant connection so that I could share all of these awesome experiences all the time, but for now I will settle for a couple of minutes and a few meager sentences.

I am excited to learn the language of my area, we will be given our assignments within the next week, and cannot wait to get to know the people in my surrounding area. Fellow trainee Nikki and I spent the last couple of days on our Vision Quest staying with a PCV in Jiripa. We were proud of ourselves for traveling so far and alone ... now that we've tackled a twelve hour trip, local tro-tros and cars won't seem half as daunting once we get into the fray! Spending the day at the market and heading to Bole tonight to meet with two others who will travel down with us tomorrow.

I will unfortunately be missing the US World Cup game tomorrow, but am excited to see a game tonight and spend the evening watching Ghana play on Sunday - I plan on watching it with some locals. The food is fantastic and, so far, I haven't had any troubles or sicknesses. A head cold attacked me for the last two days, but is fast disappearing.

I only have a few minutes left so I will sign off for now. Know that I am happy and loving everything about Ghana. It is definitely sensory overload!!


Friday, May 28, 2010

On Packing Lightly

"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us ... Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do ... It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others."
-marianne williamson

I'm slowly packing up my life.

After simplifying, all of my belongings magically fit into four 60 gallon tubs. Who knew that such small containers could store so much of my life? With every rolled garment of clothing, neatly stacked and organized, it's starting to settle in that I'm starting an entirely new life; a life that fits neatly into a medium sized duffle bag. Have you ever fit the necessities of your life into a duffel bag? It's a strange feeling ... knowing you can carry your life on your back. Oddly satisfying, in fact.

I'm simultaneously nervous and anxious - nervous for the unknown, knowing that I'll have relatively little control over my life for the next few months; anxious to finally be doing what I've waited so long to achieve. I am trying my hardest to shine, as the poem above illustrates; I am mostly fearless.

This is probably the terrifying moment I'm supposed to realize I'm really growing up ... that moment my life changes so completely, it will be unrecognizable. Am I terrified? Of course. But more afraid of the creepy-crawlers under the bed than the prospect of being dropped off in Africa. This is an adventure of a lifetime - this is going to change me forever. How many people get to experience that at 23? What better than to leap, spread my arms, and try my hardest to touch the sky? In the words of a fellow blogger:

"What do you want to be when you grow up?"
"I want to be a tree."

Am I going to be a tree? Am I going to be a leaf on a tree? Am I going to be the sunshine, causing shadow and light between the leaves of a tree? Or will I be all of it at once? 
I guess now it's up to me.


Tuesday, May 4, 2010

'May' Must Be 'Twi' for Goodbye

I found out recently that I'm leaving for Ghana on June 1st. It is the first country the Peace Corps ever landed in - it has a 40+ year mission legacy (no pressure) and I've been given the opportunity to work in the exact program I wanted (no pressure). I feel like the luckiest girl in America - to be given the opportunity to follow my dreams and put a tiny mark on the world. This experience is going to line up the rest of my life. I'm ecstatic ... and completely terrified of failing those expectations, despite having come so far.

To have people telling me that they're proud of me, that I inspire them in some minute way, is the most humbling experience of my life. It erases every mistake. My perspective has shifted ever so slightly in the right direction and, suddenly, the minutiae has completely disappeared. Why? Because I have people counting on me, people holding me responsible for my goals.

What a fantastic way to make yourself accountable for all of your dreams: to simply tell someone about them?

I am completely in-love with the idea of possibility. I feel so incredibly lucky to have been thrust in the direction of my aspirations. I'm finally beginning to do the things that define who I am, the kind of person I want to be. I couldn't be more grateful.

This has only made me realize I must make the most of my time. This way the people who matter don't doubt it and the one's who don't aren't revealed too late. What I'm most excited about, though, is the first month I've had off in over a year - and the memories I'll be able to stock away, in bulk. I have a feeling I'm going to need them.


Thursday, April 15, 2010

Metrosexuals Not Welcome

Brace yourselves, ladies.

There's a new revolution on the horizon and it has nothing to do with, well, anything, really ... (unless you go 'gooey' for machismo and a fashion sense like Frank Sinatra). What is this new movement, you ask? The 'Retro-sexual' Movement. Yep. RETROSEXUALITY.
Gone are the days of eyebrow waxing and monthly mani/pedi appointments for your well-groomed man-friend! The day of sissy-boys is officially over! There is a retro 'manly-man' revolution occuring right under our noses! The kind you would only find on an episode of MadMen.

As per a professor, who's begun 'Male Studies' classes on his campus, our society has been reprogramming its men to be less 'manly.' Speaking with a CNN correspondent yesterday, he frankly told her that drugs like Ridalin are "turning [boys] into girls."

As I sat there (casually wondering what Ridalin turns girls into), I was fairly certain that this man's idea of masculinity resembled something hairy and gorilla-like, frantically pounding it's chest whenever other hairy, gorilla-like creatures drew near ... you know, obnoxious. I have to admit, I was rather amused - I mean, it's not exactly the most original idea, but who am I to deny a revolution the kind of spotlight it deserves?! 

So, in the spirit of friendship (of the chest-beating capacity) and only slight jest, I've come up with a few 'retro-sexual' rules for the New-Age Manly-Man:

1.) 'Real' men are no longer allowed to own automatic vehicles.
      Retrosexuals drive their cars, the cars do not drive them.

2.) In the event of an altercation, the only term to be used is fisticuffs; also, 'real' mean do not start fights at any given time, they kindly invite enemies to another location (to avoid inevitable fainting spells in creatures of the female persuasion).
3.) If injury should occur, only slabs of meat are to be used against the skin.      
     Retrosexuals wear 'black-and-blue,' and pull it off flawlessly.

4.) Women are not permitted to speak, unless spoken to, in the presence of a 'real' man.
     Retrosexuals will not be emasculated by anyone with a vagina. Not even mother.

5.) 'Secretary' is not a real job. Secretaries are ladies 'real' mean hire to sleep with. When they're bored.  
     Retrosexuals play golf and have affairs with office workers, they do not 'work.'

6.) There is to be absolutely no 'going downtown.' Not even on special occasions. She, however, can 'go downtown' whenever she wants. Which is to say, when he wants.
     Retrosexuals do not serve you.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Cloud Nine (and the Peace Corps!)

I'm sitting here, a heavy mix between cloud-nine excitement and nervous anticipation, waiting for my invitation letter from (DAH-DA-DA-DUN!) the Peace Corps. Yes, that's right! Yours truly was finally accepted!

Despite being infected with perma-grin for the last four days, I have now started stalking UPS. I'm like a bat-shit crazy girlfriend! I've spent the morning pacing back and forth, chewing my nails, and imagining all kinds of panic attack-inducing, letter-losing disasters. Every time I hear a UPS truck-like sound, I jump up and stare out the window - both hands (and an ear) pressed tightly to the glass ... because I'm certain it will help me look around corners. 

If I'm being honest, I've made about a dozen excuses to go outside (
you know, to NOT check for a random UPS truck). Just for future reference, there is only so much trash you can take to the dumpster in one morning. Also, the mail will never be here before noon ... so, checking it at half-an-hour intervals from 9:30 am, on, will probably make you look like a crazy person.

Riding the high of my mini-victory on Wednesday - I am now a bundle of nerves. I find myself doubting the authenticity of my acceptance, despite having checked my application status on the P.C. website multiple times. Today is supposed to be a big day. Today I presumably learn exactly where and when I'm leaving. With the letter in my hand, I can start the 
excitement-turned-fear-turned-acceptance process. Today the reality sets in and I can officially go screaming down the neighborhood streets in mind-altering happiness!
This is, of course, assuming the letter shows up. I'm currently fighting the urge to call UPS and ask them when it will be here ...

For the time being, however, I am still suspended. Having finally gotten accepted, after a year-and-a-half, the impatience is kicking in. So, I will resume my stalking of UPS ... but, I promise, you will be updated as soon as I tackle that son -of-a-bitch and get my letter!