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 ...