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."