Friday, December 9, 2011

Madonna was Right: XPRESS Yo'self

There's nothing better than standing in a room full of individuals so bright they could light a fire. They're ready to take on the world and change the injustices they see - even when it means they must also improve themselves. I got the chance to work with forty-five such individuals at XPRESS Camp, a GYD-led initiative and the first of its kind, with Kimmy Smith in Wa. The purpose of the camp was to encourage leadership and volunteerism within the youth, while fostering self-expression through art. You can probably guess that last bit was my favorite part: I was all "ART ART ART!!!" all week (and we even threw in some theatre and song & dance); basically I was in Emma Heaven.

Because the first day coincided with World Aids Day, after crafts and icebreakers were over, Kevin Lenihan and I took the opportunity to share the stories of our uncles with the kiddos. By doing this, we were able to discuss stigma and life with HIV, after which, we were met with a rather interesting Q and A. The questions were interesting (and thorough), so I think it was a hit ... then again, I always say that :)

Over the next four days, we did an array of things - 'inner expression' masks, social problem brainstorms with coinciding skits, discussion of career development and leadership, a talent show (during which, PCVs preformed 'The Thriller'), and poster creations to encourage community volunteerism on a small scale. We culminated all of this in a public trash pick up in the Wa Market on market day. It was interesting, to say the least. Aside from the 'normal' kind of harassment that comes with picking up trash, I think the students found it hard to deal with accusations of reimbursement for work that was obviously voluntary. It was a common agreement we were all able to share and might have changed the way some of them saw the PCV leaders.

Despite a few hardships, I think most (if not all) students came away having learned a great deal. They made friends and opened up; they learned the value of respecting each other and the value of teamwork in projects big and small; they even got to use REAL flush-toilets. I think, in the very least, we taught them to be louder about their cause (ie. 'Hey! Don't drop that there: use a rubbish bin!" or "Hey! HIV is serious and stigma isn't something to laugh at!") which is always good when applied in the right way. 'Occupy Wall Street' would be so proud ... We also came to the conclusion that this model had to be repeated - you wouldn't believe the feeling of inspiration being thrown around by everyone; it was the perfect storm.

After being involved in such a thing, I can see why teachers do what they do - the potential of one young person (let alone forty-five) is enough to invest in thousands. And thank goodness these students have volunteers in their communities - it was amazing to see how good a positive role model could be in just a few days. Makes me proud to do what we do.

With the vision of a prophet, Kimmy (just call her Mohammed) organized our closing ceremony on International Volunteerism Day; five schools in the Wa district were invited to join in our festivities (and what's more, they all showed up!!) Three brilliant student speeches later (and a lot of certificates) we were finished without any serious hitches. Will Smith got to stay in his box.

Now that we're all back at our respective sites, planning has commenced for at least three more regional camps. I speak entirely for myself, of course, when I say that I've been channeling some serious artsy vibes, as well (which manifest themselves in Christmas decorations, if you must know). Personally, I'm as proud of us as I'm surprised that Christmas is a mere two weeks away (which is a lot). I can't wait to hold my own XPRESS camp in the Upper East! Nothing in the world sounds better to me than encouraging leadership and volunteerism at the same time as creative expression. Seriously. The only thing that could be better is another performance of The Thriller. Which is bound to happen some time.

Any way, I think we can finally change that old saying about shooting for the moon ... something like: "With so much potential in that sky, forget about the moon! Go catch some shinies!"

Whatever, mine's way better ... :)


Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Fight the Good Fight: World Aids Day

If you know anything about me, you probably know that my uncle, Monkey Alan, died of pneumonia due to complications with AIDS. If you don't know me, but you're good at connecting dots, it's pretty easy to figure out that he's my constant inspiration - especially when it comes my work in Ghana. Tomorrow, December 1st, marks another year in the fight - the fight for a cure; the fight for universal medicine; the fight against discrimination; the fight for Monkey Alans all over the world.

Over 33.3 million people are living with HIV today; over 25 million people have died in the last twenty-six years - 25 million sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, uncles and friends. Twenty five million Monkey Alans.

Maybe you know one of them; maybe, like me, you've lost someone already; maybe you don't know anyone, but still support the cause. Well, tomorrow's your day to display your support: wear red, wear a red ribbon, volunteer to hand out condoms, attend a rally or a vigil or a concert. Do your part to support the fight.

And just in case you don't have a face to put to the cause, I'll show you mine - my daily inspiration, the reason I joined the Peace Corps, the angel over my shoulder - Monkey Alan:

In Loving Memory

   For more information, go to to see what America is doing for HIV today.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Speak the Truth: (Chimamanda Adichie)

I stumbled upon this video while browsing and I thought it important to share; it's a young female writer from Nigeria speaking on the dangers of adopting only one story to describe different people, cultures, and problems. It's kind of like the 'stereotype' talk, only deeper, and I think she has a wonderful point. It doesn't hurt that she's a great speaker, as well.


Sunday, November 20, 2011

Existing in Excess

I know it might be slightly premature, what with a pending extension in the works, but I find myself thinking about what it'll be like when I come home. What I'm refering to here is the inevitable reverse-culture shock. I mean ... where to start? Reliable electricity (that I have to pay for), faster-than-lightning internet, trash-tv, produce aisles (hell, GROCERY STORES), fashion, private cars, movies and movie theatres, candy (and weight gain), the people I love, people I don't know paying absolutely no attention to me, running water, an existence devoid of any comic goat-related moments ... The list only gets longer ...

I just know it: I'm gonna turn into the crazy lady who has a bucket in her shower to bathe, uses only candles as light, and hordes any kind of container for water collection. I will also probably be incredibly cold. 90% of the time.

On the flipside, I'll (probably) overdose on fashion (it's inevitable, really), yell excited obscenities as I drive my own car down a real highway, and use up all my carbon-credit flying across the country to visit people EVERYWHERE. Basically, I'll be a terror; completely out of control. I imagine it'll be terrifying and awesome at the same time, kind of like the Tower of Terror.

What astounds me more than this inevitably loony behavior (almost, but not quite split-personality) is the sudden heightened awareness I'll have for anything in excess. It's going to drive me up the wall ... think about it:

I've not only watched, but experienced just how much effort's involved for most people to get access to water. I watch people walk miles, full basins balanced on their heads, in sweltering heat, for a daily supply. DAILY supply. How will I react when someone next to me in the bathroom runs the tap unnecessarily? Probably fly into an ugly hulk-like rage that ends in tears - mine, of course, as she walks around the crazy lady and toward to well-marked exit.

Can I possibly fight the urge to knock on every door in the neighborhood and tell them the merits of flourescent lights (the blue ones keep away bugs and induce groovy underwater hallucinations); or that they could simply turn OFF most of them to reduce their carbon footprint? Reading by candlelight is fun! And romantic! Besides, no light's gonna keep the hoodoo voodoo man away at night ... sorry, little Tommy.

Just contemplating our excessive nature (as a country) makes me want to curl into a whimpering ball. I've adjusted to my new life so well, it almost seems impossible to need as much as the average household uses (and wastes). Nevermind the crippling self-esteem issues I'll develop with such a drastic drop in marriage proposals and child-parades; it'll be like beating my fists against a brick wall. The waste potential of a produce aisle might make my heart burst! Which is likely, anyway, considering the sudden variety offered to me.

How do I prepare? Is there some kind of Peace Corps bootcamp where Billy Zane comes and beats my ass back into shape? Would I go back, given the chance, to a blissful existence, blindfolded to the rest of the world's struggles? The answer is definitely 'no.' I am going to voluntarily turn into a crazy, walking contradiction; a well dressed, philosophical wreck; a giddy, technology-crazed ball of simultaneous guilt and unbridled joy. This is gonna get weird ... you've all been warned.


Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Things My Dad Says

Compared to mum's visit, dad's was a whirlwind. I contribute this to two things: the coinciding of his trip to a national holiday - leaving us stranded in Accra for two extra days - and the fact that it was only ten days long. I guess he didn't take me seriously when I told him how long it takes to get to my house :)
After spending way too long in Accra (read: over 36 hours) dad and I (and a rather sturdy, retro-tastic suitcase filled with cheese products) scrambled onto the last bus leaving to Kamasi. The trip was largely uneventful, but I did manage to find and justify buying grapes: HIGHLIGHT. Our guesthouse that night was pleasant and equipped with a TV; I mention the TV because it completely distracted me from an early morning departure .... watching the original 'Last Air Bender' was totally worth it.

Being late meant a longer wait time, but dad got to overdose on culture so I don't think he cared. I have to admit, he was a pretty sneaky paparazzo. He basically documented everything - I think he took over 600 photos in 10 days. He was like a kid in a pile of toys he could secretly document. Referencing Hitchhikers almost non-stop for the entire trip, we arrived in Tamale safely (though a little cramped ... I swear I had eleph-ankles for an entire month).

Interesting fact: I stayed in the same room that mum and I shared before, but this time it was cheaper. Why? Because my father is a man. Nevermind the fact that they're my parents - a same sex couple always pays more. So weird ... anyway, until dad succumbed to his snoring, I read ' The Restaurant at the End of the Universe' outloud and fell into a peaceful, improbability-driven sleep. The next morning we rolled to Bolga (seriously - non-stop traveling at this point), and when I say rolled I ain't kidding:

So far, dad had basically seen the inside of buses and guesthouses. Naturally, neither of these things prepared him for my caddy-shack - pit latrine included. He was kind, though, during his documentation of it, saying things like, "yeah, Roo, it's uh .... it's really cozy ..." Obviously, my house appreciated his political correctness. He also kind of renamed my cat 'shit head,' as in, "What, shit head?" and "Get out of the way, shit head." Sometimes he just said the word 'shit head' as she sat, staring at him in that crazy, cock-eyed way of hers: BFF's for life.

Without slaughtering any goats, we managed to have a pretty successful welcoming party, during which dad (like mum before him) completely out-danced me and recieved a chief's smock. He definitely deserved it, look at him:
For that matter, look at her:

Basically my village LOVED my parents - they are always welcome. WIN.

Aside from having the same sense of humor, my dad has this uncanny ability to say exactly what needs to said, completely unprovoked. They're lightbulb moments, like, "I knew that was true, but only after you confirmed it, kind sir." He's kind of like Mr. Miagi; here are a few of his revelations:

1. Why wouldn't you go to school in DC? Rookie.
2. You need to stay far, far away from boys. Seriously. Wear horse blinders if you have to - you're too easily distracted. In fact, you need a sabbatical.
3. I know you like boys; I used to be the same with girls. Therefor, please see above ...
4. You inherited your horrible timing from me (but also my devilishly good looks - YOUR WELCOME).
5. I love you, Roo.

Okay, so that last one's a given, but the rest of it made up a weeks worth of great "life" discussions with my pops. On top of setting me straight, he managed to simultaneously intimidate and impress everyone he met; I kept saying, "See? Now you know why I try so hard ... just look at my parents!!" So true.

After roaming the village for a few days, I did the only thing possible to perfectly culminate his short trip: I sadistically subjected him to THE NIGHT BUS. Basically, I'm an asshole. And he was miserable. Unlike me, he was unable to curl up like a lapdog in the spacious bucket seat - he spent the night battling terrible, unsubtitled Ghanaian films and creepy Christian Gospel. I honestly don't know which is worse, but I'm fairly certain I won't be reminding him of my cruelty any time soon ... oh wait ... HI DAD!

In Accra we spent his last hours doing the only thing that brings me unadulterated joy: SHOPPING. The Cultural Center in Accra is an assault on tourists; luckily, I'm two things: obnoxious and honorary FraFra. After schmoozing all the Bolgatanga boys with my language skills, I learned how to say 'pain in my ass' and relentlessly recited it whenever they quoted outrageous prices. It worked - dad still got cleaned out, but it worked. I'm not sure how he felt about all of the marriage proposals, but he didn't punch anyone (and we saved a lot of money), so I see it as a clear victory.

We repacked (again) and hung out at Ryan's for happy hour (again) before making the trip to the airport. After a speedy check-in, he decided to go find his gate. I'm not joking when I tell you that one of his parting sentences was, "You know, I'm serious about a boy-sabbatical, Roo. Trust me, you'll be fine. (As long as you stay away from the boys.)" It's a story I've been telling people ever since - ten days in and my dad knew I was too distracted by boys; I should emphasize here that I live alone. It gets great laughs, mainly because it's true, and I can't think of any better way to sum up his trip: STAY AWAY FROM THE BOYS. Or was it, "You'll be fine, Roo"? hehehehe. I love you, pops!


Ps. Speaking of parents, I promised a shout-out to fellow volunteer David, so here it goes: Hey, Mrs. Fields! I can't wait to meet you when you come for a visit and thanks for reading!!! *HUGS*

Friday, October 28, 2011

My Toilet is a Hole in the Ground

Latrines: rumor has it that some are quite high-tech; mine is not. When mum and dad opened the door to find a quaint little hole in the floor, they turned to me with wide, fearful eyes. It was obvious they didn't know whether to politely compliment it or wander off to pick out a bush instead. Having a rather humble, unassuming latrine, it expected neither (and I'd secretly expected less).

I've never fretted over something more than I did over that damned latrine before my parent's visited. How could I feel so self-conscious about a giant, empty concrete space? It's clean; I don't keep roaches; and it's not an entirely unpleasant experience - what could possibly go wrong?

A giant crack appeared in the doorway: Great, I thought, my latrine is going to swallow my mum whole. Each of my familiar roommates suddenly became a menace - What if the spiders tried to make friends with my dad? Or a lizard kamakazi'd him in the middle of the night? What if it was haunted by all the bugs I'd killed over the last year and they suddenly returned for their revenge? Clearly I wasn't thinking straight. I was afraid of the gross factor;I'd completely forgotten about the shock factor.

Until dad took not one, but six photos of it, I'd rather gotten used to the idea of my latrine. Perhaps it was the fact that he needed several angles, or the repeated exclamation: 'Paulette is not going to believe this,' but I suddenly remembered that most people I know don't use latrines. Like ever. I remembered my own first encounters - an irrational fear of the dark, followed by an irrational fear of what might fly into the light; my apparent shyness when it came to using something without a flushing mechanism to make it all go away; a frantic search for anything with wings, more than two legs, and pinchers anywhere near me or my backside. Having over a year to get used to my circumstances, I'd completely forgotten how this must look through someone else's eyes; in six different angles; with no flash.

So, for all you world travellers (and hopeful Ghana visitors ... hint, hint), here's a little list in latrine usage. Enjoy!

1.) If your latrine is more than five feet from your house - you may eventually have a problem.

2.) Be prepared for mosquitos to take full advantage of your vulnerabilities.

3.) Though a nuisance, flies aren't smart enough to take advantage of your vulnerabilities; with this in mind, be prepared for them to charge - without reason - at your bare ass anyway.

4.) There are some species of lizards that like to base jump. Onto your head. Consider them mostly harmless. (Extra points for understanding the reference!!!)

5.) If you do not have at least two back-up rolls of toilet paper (in the house and your travel backpack), you are an idiot and you asked for it. On most occassions ... I am an idiot.

6.) Someone else will eventually use your latrine. And they will miss.

7.) If you're travelling and you don't have to pay for it, I wouldn't recommend using it. Consider yourself warned.

8.) That boiled egg you just ate with pepe? You'd better hope your short distance sprints are up-to-par 'cause your latrine is lookin' pretty far away ...

9.) That is, indeed, a small child's eye ball in the crack of your door ... they can't see in, right??? IT'S TOO DARK IN HERE, RIGHT??!!!

10.) A toilet bowl is convenient, but squating is exercise. Choose wisely, grasshopper.

11.) Charcoal. Charcoal, charcoal, charcoal. There's only one place you can toss it and I suggest doing so.

12.) If your door, like mine, can only give credit for its upright status to an intricate web of strings tied around the frame, you may want to check the knots regularly. 'Cause that would just be awkward ...

13.) A mosquito net will only make midnight trips to the latrine even more inconvenient;  perfect your ninja roll.

14.) You are never above aiming: there's no room for arrogance when all you've got is a four inch radius.

15.) Remember: though surprising high-tech for anyone who regularly frequents the bush, visitors will most likely stare, take pictures, and talk crap about your poor, innocent bystander of a latrine. Remind your latrine regularly that it is, indeed, useful; perhaps give it a name to reassure it of its worth; and frequently pretend that you're living in a medieval castle. You're latrine will appreciate you for clinging to its novelty (however terrifying that novelty was in the beginning). It is always good to have a positive relationship with your latrine.

I'm sure there are more - many more - things I could say when it comes to my latrine and foreign latrine experiences. As a friend told me once, "always choose the bathroom you know over the one you don't." Ghana brings a whole new meaning to the phrase.


Friday, October 21, 2011

Mum Visits Ghana

I've been racking my brain for weeks attempting to write a blog about mum and dad's visit. Obviously I've been failing miserably, though I refuse to take any blame ... (combine an uncommonly unruly brain with four weeks of material to sift through and you've got yourself a pretty inconvenient personal situation). Having said that, last night (after brainstorming, imploring, and finally childishly ignoring my creative mind and it's ridiculous coup), I decided to do something I rarely do: I'm going freestyle. Apologies will come later.

PART I: The Much Anticipated Arrival

It was the eve of Peace Corps Fiftieth Anniversary - big stuff, for those of you who don't know - and volunteers from all over Ghana had gathered to 'prepare' (also known as Happy Hour). I was counting the minutes, trying not to fall on my face in a fabulous pair new heels, when suddenly it was time: mum would be landing in 30 minutes. I gathered the troops; Beth, Nikki, Catherine and I (taking one last swig) hopped in a cab and made our way to the airport. I think I may have bounced in my seat the entire way.
We soon found ourselves standing behind the appropriate barrier when, "SH*T!" I said (and much too loudly), "I forgot the sign!" How on earth, I reasoned, would mum know who I was without a witty sign? I mean, I'm a gnome! You can hardly see as it is! What would I ... [insert interruption by a large peice of paper in the face, here]: "THE MOST BEAUTIFUL MUM." It had been printed hastily at the airport internet cafe; it was perfect. (Thanks Beth!)

Next came the waiting ... I'd forgoteen about customs ... and as I madly shoved my clever sign in the face of every o'broni exiting the doors (man, woman, child - I cared not), I started to get restless. While I foolishly allowed Nikki to document the many faces of my impatience, Beth plotted with three random strangers to bum-rush their visitors as well as my mum. It seemed to take forever. And, though I vowed NOT to cry like a small child, the moment she came around the corner I squeeled, threw myself under that stupid rope barrier, and tackled her in a fit of tears. It was beautiful; even Beth cried:

We were immediately herded out of the way by airport staff (clearly we were expressing way too much emotional goo), while our impatient taxi driver rolled mum's luggage out the door. She'd barely had time to breath (shoved into the back of a taxi with three of us girls), but damn it - she was in Ghana.

PART II: Swearing-in and Mif Kits

Ignoring completely what must have been a killer case of jet-lag, mum (who'd stayed out for a few drinks and a bit of socializing) woke up with the birds to get ready for the Ambassador's house. The high-pitched shriek we heard from the bathroom told us her first experience in bucket bathing was a success, albeit a chilly one, and soon we were off to catch a free ride the the party. The ceremony was great and being able to share it with mum was even better. I surprised her by singing the National Anthem and, by the end of the ceremony, we were all a little caught up in the fiftieth birthday of the Peace Corps.

Even though I spent a majority of the reception gorging myself on what civilized folk call 'orderves' (we volunteers simply refer to them as "THOSE!!! OVER THERE!!!" before inevitably trampling innocent bystanders), lunch at Pizza Inn (it was 'two-for-tuesdays') immediately followed. Yes: I stuffed more food into my face. I'd be lying if I said I remembered where we waddled to next, but I believe it involved copious amounts of mirth and just the right amount of alcohol. With mid-service medical starting the next day, we were upgraded to a pretty posh hotel (thanks, Richard!) and proceeded to spend the next few days enjoying  the many luxuries of Accra (including, but not limited to: Captain America, shopping at the mall, real wine, the Embassy Marines' BBQ, and a night out on the town - until 5am - with the same Marines). By the time we left Accra, mum knew the city better than I do.

PART III: Ghana and Public Transportation

     Next was our day trip to the Volta. In one day, we were able to check 'acquired heat exhaustion while waiting,' '... we probably almost died back there,' 'was that the engine?' and 'I guess we're hitchiking,' off of her travel to-do list. It was an eventful day (and a crash course in Ghana travel). Though we'd given ourselves ample time, we rushed to catch ... THE NIGHT BUS

Those of us who live in Ghana know that nothing compares to the night bus. And, in order to save time, I subjected my poor, unsuspecting mum to the VVIP. Let me tell you a little bit about the night bus: seats, seemingly spacious and comfortable in the day, become gnarled, over-sized torture-buckets at night; loud Nigerian films, played back-to-back, are without subtitles so you CAN'T EVEN FOLLOW ALONG while they keep you awake (angry face); police check-points can be delayed for hours during the night ('cause the bribe's too small) ... I could go on, but I think you get the point. Needless to say, by the time we pulled into Tamale and found our way to the sub-office, mum was ready for a nap:

     I think I let her sleep most of the day; truth be told it was nice to relax. Tomorrow would bring Bolgatanga and I wanted to be well-rested; our hotel room that night had air-conditioning. BOOYA.

PART IV: Bolgatanga and the Most Expensive Party Ever

Our travel fell on a market day, so we were able to meet the new volunteers at a local hang-out; after some chatting, I decided to prep for mum's party. This involved hand-picking a goat to be slaughtered and buying more vegetables/ingredients than I thought possible to prepare. I named the goat 'Food,' but I suspect he didn't like his new name because he made me smell like him for weeks. I can only assume this was just punishment. Thanks, Food.

When we finally got to the house, my three-legged cat was in a frenzy - I'm pretty sure she thought I'd left her forever (she always does). She bonded with grandmum quickly (which basically means she tangled herself in mum's ankles, which immediately made them best friends forever) and we spent the rest of the night cuddling and unpacking; Gimpy was in heaven. Over the next few days we did our best to wander around town (mum even fetched her own water at the borehole), but everyone was so excited to meet her that it was hard to leave the house. Our party (marked by the early morning departure of a goat named Food) started late, but had everyone dancing past sunset. There was Pito, live drums, and lots of grub: it was a BLAST. They presented mum with her very own smock, forever making her an official FraFra mama and, in the end, it was worth every penny.

PART V: A Monestary and a Sanctuary

We decided to make our way back down more interesting than the night bus up - I'd heard wonderful rumors of the Techiman monestary (a Catholic Monestary built into gigantic climbable rocks), so we decided to give it a go. Mum braved the Metro Mass (seriously, I'm a travel-sadist) and we somehow found this beautiful, secluded, red-brick monestary. We celebrated immediately by taking a four-hour nap; it may have been the best nap of my life.

This place was amazing - quiet, peaceful, and secluded (three rare things in Ghana) - the monks grow their own garden, from which the homemade meals are stocked, and there was a library that SMELLED like a library. (If you know anything about me, you'll know that I drooled all over those poor books.) We arranged a taxi for the monkey sanctuary in the morning, planned an afternoon hike, and enjoyed a quiet dinner (seriously - they take a vow of silence) with four very nice monks.

Our taxi was miraculously early - he spent three minutes honking at a locked gate before we rescued him and negotiated a price; then we drove into the boonies. Seriously, this place could not be more remote if it boasted a Tyrannosaurus Rex. I thought we were going to get mauled by Velociraptors when the car broke down, but our driver (who'd obviously had this problem before) knew what part to shift before the imaginary pack of dinosaurs found us. It turns out all this place had was monkeys (I was overwhemed with relief - raptors know how to open doors) and we were able to enjoy a pleasant walk through the forest in our search for harmless monkeys. We did managed to see both kinds of monkeys (shy and unshy - guess which one is to the right), though visitors can no longer feed them, and I left town with yet another marriage proposal.

Of course, the day was far from over - a shower and a nap later, we took off into the wilderness to clambor over rocks (and clambor we did). We walked, me climbed, we took silly pictures in precarious places, and then we walked some more. It was everything it promised to be. Dinner, with a considerably chattier bunch of monks, proved to be just as entertaining.

VI: Mama Sewah and Cape Coast Castle:

This trip would not have been complete without a homestay visit so, naturally, it was our next stop. We matched our arrival with the Koforidua bead market (so I could sufficiently overload mum's senses and empty her purse - SUCCESS) and visited Mama Sewah for dinner. Though we surprised the family, it didn't stop mama from stuffing us with rice - watching, as a Sewah does - to make sure we'd finished every last piece. After two hours of great conversation, we were headed to Cape Coast; when I tell you we spent more time travelling than we did in the places we visted, I'm not exaggerating.

So is life (or, better put, travel in Ghana).

Our final destination was the perfect ending to a very satisfying (but hectic) trip. We visited a volunteer's site, enjoyed the ocean breeze and took a trip to the castle. This is the same castle Obama visted - once one of the largest suppliers of the slave trade. I think they can trace most decendents of the West African clave trade to this port and, while beautiful, the truth behind its walls was sobering. In fact, it was horrible (and I mean that in the best way possible). Mum and I were both sobbing by the end, having learned more about the slave trade than books could ever teach. I'm glad to have visited at least one historically relevant site during mum's travels, but once was enough.
THE FINALE: Mum Departs, Dad Arrives

We spent our last night in Accra before mum left for home, our goodbyes marked with the same emotional goo that began our three week adventure. A small family reunion was had as dad arrived just in time to say goodbye and saying goodbye was probably the hardest thing I've done in a long time. It's safe to say mum left Ghana a slightly different person than she was coming in, but that's the nature of Africa. It was possibly one of the best trips I've ever taken and, in short, we had an amazing time; I missed her before she got on the plane. I love you, mum.

[stay tuned for dad's visit ... of course, I've got to write it first ... so ... there's that ...]

Friday, August 19, 2011

Things to Know, Pt. 1

1. 'I'm coming' is a legitimate every-day phrase spoken to indicate one's pending arrival into any number of situations. It's also used as a polite refusal to come over at all. (... word's out on whether there are additional signals to tell one from the other.)

2. Don't feed the children; it's kind of like letting a bear into your trash = disaster.

3. Dancing is okay anywhere, any time. Also, everyone's invited - even if it's a group of strangers dancing in a circle around a cell phone ringtone on the street corner.

4. Even if you don't go to church ... you go to church. And you will be there as long as it takes.

5. You (the white person) are hilarious no matter what you're doing. "You try, oh. It's cute."

6. Gimpy is the magically, constantly pregnant cat. It's how we roll in the African wilderness.

7. Looking at certain children will always make them cry. You get extra points for making them scream in terror (because playing tag with a giant white person is kind of like being chased by hockey-mask-weilding Jason ... machete optional??) Also, whoever gets the most points wins Peace Corps.

8. Finding a second-hand shirt from your high school in the dead-obroni pile also wins Peace Corps.

9. Pito is a legitimate breakfast substitute. What?? Beer's a grain, right?!!

10. Texting is neither considered efficient or normal means of communication/information exchange. Yelling the same greeting into a phone seven times (before running out of minutes), however, is.

11. Flashing is not something you can get arrested for, it's something you do after running out of credits when you tried greeting that one dude seven times ... Call me back, yo!!

12. "Urinal? Yeah, it's the third bush to the left - careful, though, there's a kitchen window over there with a perfect view of your comically white ass."

13. "No, seriously: how white is your ass!??!"

14. Just stop. You're white. (This roughly translates to 'surely you can't know how to [insert mundane everyday activity here] and is always followed by 'WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU CAN'T SPEAK [insert Ghanaian language here]?!!! Apparently one standard doesn't apply to the other ...)

15. "Ohhhh. You didn't mean eleven when you said the meeting started at nine? ... Cause I had stuff to do ..."

16. Ghanaians never sleep. They nap. On the upside, discotechs and bars are open until four in the morning.

17. The main highways of Ghana are one continuous drive-through; top-shopping is what you do when you buy food off someone's head, it is not a British fashion boutique.

18. OCD takes on an entire new meaning in Ghana. No you may not alter the items in your dish, mix concoctions together, or rearrange something you see.

19. Speaking of menus: there's no garauntee that the item you want (listed on the menu out front) is actually available today ... or ever.

20. You're gonna have to repeat yourself ... better yet, just make sure everything you say is repeated back to you verbatim. Ghanaians are agreeable. They will nod their heads in a general agreement-fashion just to make you happy (or get you into the damn taxi).

21. Taxis are tricky. Sometimes they're a complete rip-off. Negotiate and settle on a price before you sit down; rinse and repeat.

22. It's amazing how white my neighbor's whites are ... and embarassing that mine definitely aren't. Maybe they were right when they told me to stop because I was white ....

23. Ghanaian films. There's nothing else you need to know. (Besides the fact that you should probably block a seven hour period to watch one - this allows ample time for parts one through seven.)

24. Bugs definitely bite.

25. That guy/girl you just walked down the street with? Yeah, you're going steady now; kind of like in Pleasantville. Now go run off and neck in the woods somewhere ...

26. 'Backing' a baby is much harder to do when your ass doesn't look like that (yes, Gifty, I'm talking to you).

27. Everyone has an opinion; it's especially obvious on a full bus. It's kind of like being in a room full of Italian grandmothers. And you aren't married yet.

28. Oh! You aren't married? No problem. You can have my brother/sister/cousin/son/daughter/friend. Hell, you can have me! I mean, at your age it's amazing you're still fertile! (I'm twenty-four...)

29. Africa is hot (and I don't mean like Paris Hilton).

30. Cheese is necessary for both survival and sanity. Also, strawberries are awesome.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Growing Up Ghana

I think it's safe to say I've grown a lot in Ghana - grown up, grown out, grown loud(er) - because Ghana offers me something new to learn every day (and, mostly, I learn about myself). Though the entire experience has been incredible, I think I've managed to learn the most in the last six months (every Sunday at two o'clock).

When it comes to our support group (I say 'our' because believe in community ownership), I think I've felt - and more than once - that I've learned much more from them than they have from me. Perhaps that's the nature of our relationship: fifty people have a lot more to teach than one. I consider myself lucky everytime I walk into a meeting and I find that they're all still there - ready to learn.

What once seemed a tiny smudge in the distance, our positive living workshop arrived with theatrical flair and triumph - I can call it nothing less than a success. As I sat there, watching twenty-two people become more and more enthusiastic, brighter and brighter each day, - their auras, their comfort level expanding and becoming visible to the naked eye - I realized how grateful I was to have finally offered them something in return for their faith in me. It's not often one has the opportunity to impart true, life-changing knowledge onto a group of people (let alone a group of adults) and, though I only really take credit in the workshop's general organization, it was amazing to be a part of something so integral to their lives.

I, undoubtedly, had the easiest job in the room: I sat, listening with the other group members, occasionally chiming in, while our facilitators, imported from Accra, managed to do everything I'd been trying to do in the last six months in three days. It was amazing. And it gave me the chance to get to know twenty-two people in a way I couldn't have achieved with a group of fifty, even if we'd met every other day. I was finally able to hear their stories; twenty-two people opening fold by fold, like flowers in bloom that I hope will never close again.

I think they were genuinely happy, surprised even, by everything they learned - inspired by both Edem and Gifty to live loudly, proudly, and forever positive. Because, after all, having HIV is just another state of being - a fragile state of being, yes, but a state of being, nonetheless. We growled at injustice, we laughed in the face of ignorance, we cried at tragedy, and we reveled in the fact that life is always still worth living. And I'm so proud of each and every one of them, ready to go into the world and impart their knowledge - educate so that their lives and the lives of other's may improve, educate so that we may beat HIV, so that we may beat the more dangerous diseases of discrimination, hate, and miseducation.

Our meeting this Sunday will be their first challenge: a challenge to infect others with positive energy, to take responsibility as peer leaders (and to realize their potential in the face of what some would consider an end, rather than a beginning). I have so much faith in them; Sunday cannot come soon enough.

"I want you to give your virus a name," Gifty said, "and I want you to speak to it. I want to to welcome it into your body," pausing for Joe's translation, "then I want you to set some ground rules. Trust me: your virus will listen. And then," she says, smiling a secret smile, "I want you to listen. I want you to ask your virus why it came to you and I want you to listen to what it has to say. I promise you," she levels a finger at her audience, "that it will answer ... if you listen well enough. It will."
Because, she explained, that the only way to live with the virus is to be at harmony with its existence, to accept its interference, and come to a compromise. "It's not a cure," she later enforced, "there is no cure, but there is life with HIV."

She called her virus 'Little Dragon," and when she spoke to it, Little Dragon told her to go out into the world and teach, to fight, and to live. If you think, as someone not living with HIV, I have nothing to learn from this, you'd be wrong. In fact, we all have something to learn from Gifty. Though it may not be as daunting as HIV, we all have Little Dragons, demons that weigh us down, and if you sit there in dejection - if you allow your Little Dragon to possess you, steal the fire in your heart for its own - then you are letting your Little Dragon win.

And so I left with a fire in my heart, hands entwined with my own Little Dragon, waiting to unleash twenty-two newly inspired, positively loud group members onto a world that will - eventually - accept them, wholly, for who they are. And, despite having reservations about publically declaring their status, I believe that each of them walked away as PLWHA. Loud and proud. Positive in every aspect of the word.

What's not to be inspired about that?

Ruby Red

He walks into the storm with purpose - parasole, ruby red, and detailed with something I'd think to see in Saigon. He leaves with sprays like purfume in his wake. Ruby red, daintily protecting him from the rain; a stain, vibrant, in my periphery.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Observations of ‘that girl:’ Gimpy

Gimpy is wholly original, unlike any other cat I’ve ever encountered. In fact, I’m not entirely convinced she is one.

She is completely at the mercy of the world – ‘helpless’ might be the word – though she often seems too smart for her own good, even for a cat.
Three years old and graying at the ears, when she stares (which is often) it is with impossibly green eyes. The rest of her face, lost to black shadow, dims in comparison to those bright lights.
Three paws (she’s missing one) do their best to keep her upright; often it seems they forget that she is under-staffed. She barrels her way through every movement – somersaulting, vaulting over herself in an effort to get anywhere, colliding with any stationary object in her path (which isn’t always straight).
She frequents the space between feet, usually while they are moving. Being that she’s missing one of her own, it likely ends in disaster more often than naught.
Purrs like a whisper, little more than a silent hum in a narrow chest, the sound is only detected by direct contact with a rib or her very loveable, pettable under-belly.
She cuddles, constantly attached like Velcro – currently attached like Velcro. It is impossible to sit anywhere without Gimpy finding me and taking up residence on my person.
I don’t believe she realizes claws are sharp, evident by scratches and scars – the marks of her devotion as she climbs her way, often forcefully, into my arms.
An inside cat (because three working legs and an escape plan rarely succeed), I am trying to keep her un-pregnant (though somehow she always is).
There is a piece missing from one of her bat-like ears which, when compared to her long, often tilted, face, give the impression of satellites ready to transmit orders, sir. Maybe that is why she always looks confused – she should have made contact months ago.
She sleeps with her eyes half-lidded, it is impossible to tell whether or not she is asleep. Does an operative for the alien enemy really ever sleep?
Mid-rest, she has been known to roll over, leaving her incapacitated on her back, startled and tangled on the floor, very far away from where she last remembers being (namely a few feet higher and in a cushioned chair). Involuntary movements, all; definitely unplanned.
Though seemingly startled by life, she is not without enthusiasm for it – surprised to find that she can walk and eat and roam between two moving feet, she is content to find herself upside-down when her zeal catches up with her. But there is never any doubt that she loves me, she is never startled by that. I often wonder what she must be thinking, something profound and life-changing, no doubt, though instantly forgotten. She is, perhaps, the perfect companion. I love her dearly.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Fringe Division, Ghana

Someone call Joshua Jackson, ‘cause I’ve come to a conclusion:

As a continent rife with any number of ailments by way of myopic parasites and creepy-crawlies . . . Africa is kind of gross.

I came to this conclusion in a veterinary clinic, inspecting a type of parasitic larvae imbedded in the hind leg of my cat, Gimpy. How she came to acquire such roommates, I could only guess (she’s currently an inside-cat), but if it was anything – it was gross. Like cross-your-heart, turn in three circles, and spit on your mother gross.

She got a bath (like a child with lice), a standard de-wormer (because apparently you can never be too safe in Africa), and I was left to ponder, like a paranoid volunteer, the parasitic potential of my little piece of the continent.

Once home, I flipped open our medical handbook and did what any paranoid volunteer would do – I sought out every bug-caused malady and tortured myself with its details. As I wavered between engrossed and disgusted, I realized that I live in an episode of The X-Files. Africa: a place where things hatch out of the skin, burn at the touch, and carry Malaria; a place where my own body becomes an enemy (as if I didn’t have enough to worry about with all of the creepy-crawlies).

I have yet to experience, but hear tales of the infamous abscess – an infection and swelling of the hair follicle, sometimes to the size of a quarter, that has to be cut open, drained, and scraped out (insert collective gasp here). Even now, I fear the razor, as I fear my bug-bites catching an antibiotic-worthy infection and scaring my newly-tanned skin for life.

During hot season, I was perplexed to find large, painful blisters behind my knee – a minor infection of the poor, over-worked sweat glands lamenting the day I learned to sit with my legs crossed. And any beetle within ten feet is shooed away in-case it happens to be the Blister Beetle, which releases a chemical that burns the skin and causes a blister which, if popped, will continue causing blisters until the fluid is washed away.

If random tapeworms weren’t enough, the thought of a Tumbu Fly’s eggs hatching under my skin leaves me skittish (though morbidly curious) about whatever caused my three-footed cat’s current predicament. The amount of times I’ve doused my house in bug-poison is kind of ridiculous considering it’s apparently futility, but the false security of my bed net (I looked down to find a giant centipede crawling along my leg in bed the other night) and market-found pesticides (because, let’s face it, the ants just keep coming back) give me enough comfort to let me sleep at night (with my medical handbook far, far away once I retire).

I suppose in the land of follicle cysts and sweat gland infections it’s only natural to find skin-burning beetles and burrowing larvae like an episode of Fringe. It certainly explains the vivid Mefloquin dreams of giant poisonous spiders, snakes, and hungry, hungry ants swarming the bed in a feeding frenzy.

Africa, as it turns out, is a pretty hostile place – a place where survival means inhabiting the intestines of the nearest living creature and stealing their food; a place where the only way to keep a happy home is to douse it regularly with poisonous insecticides; a place where the bugs not only like to bite you, but may give you Malaria as a result. Maybe I shouldn’t hold it against my potentially threatening fellow creatures: in a harsh environment, it seems that harsh is the only way to survive. Maybe one day, it’ll convince Joshua Jackson to visit … a girl can dream, right?


Sunday, June 19, 2011

A Year Later: a Vision Quest and an Introspect

To measure self-growth, to mediate maturation, is as difficult as it sounds (seriously, I wrote that four times before it sounded right). And I am no exception:

June 8th marked the training of a new batch of volunteers (I say 'batch' like we ship them by the dozen in bulk). Aside from being overwhelmingly nostalgic about my days as a trainee, I was startled to find that I would suddenly be considered a deep well of information. I picked up my plastic, heart-shaped, hand-held mirror and asked quietly: "Am I a deep well, mirror?" (mirror-like silence) "What could I possibly know that would fill a me-sized well, let alone a deep one?" (pointed mirror-like silence)

It wasn't until last week, marked by a trekking trainee of my very own, that I realized I had vastly underestimated the kind of change that can occur in thirteen months.

Elizabeth Lyons, my vision quester, asked a lot of questions. More than this, she asked a lot of good questions (so specifically tailored to me that I thought, for a second, she might be my PC soul mate ... and realized, a second later, that my assumption was correct). As I answered her questions, which led to discussions, it dawned on me that I sounded like an adult. Now, I'm not entirely sure I could explain to you what an adult sounds like (or what I sounded like in that specific moment), but I felt different and it wasn't just the way I spoke, but the way I was. It was like staring into a tiny, plastic mirror and finding a deep, dark well staring back.

I bring this up because a lot of people have been asking me how I've changed. Though a year in Ghana merits a little introspection, I couldn't seem find an answer. I kept sitting there staring at the screen, hands poised over the keyboard and waiting for inspiration: How had I changed? Surely I could answer that without consulting a heart-shaped piece of plastic ....

Blank. Blank all over the screen, blank in every corner of my brain, blank in the general direction of a little plastic mirror that could.

But then I got Lizzie and after Lizzie I got a message asking a slightly different question: 'Do you think we'll notice that you're different when you get home?' It suddenly occured to me that I'd been thinking about it all wrong. Of course it had been hard for me to measure change - I couldn't readily observe it (even with the help of a slightly awkward, heart-shaped mirror ... sorry, mirror).

What I can say is this: I know I've changed, I just don't know how. I'll leave that up for to you to decide in another year. I know I've changed only because the way I view the world has changed - something I didn't notice until last week (when I was given both a platform and an audience). So, while my little mirror keeps it's secrets, I'll be patiently waiting to see just how different I seem  because, apparently, I've been sneaking around behind my own back, hording knowledge and doing change-y type things.


Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A Minor Correction by a Feminist in Ghana

Recently, browsing volunteer blogs, I came across a friend discussing feminism in Ghana. More specifically, she addressed the misplacement of Western feminism in the developing world. Her focus fell on a well-worn phrase those of us in Ghana use: “Women work, while the men follow the shade of a nearby tree.” Having shared some scattered discussion and a common interest in women’s studies, I was eager to hear her well-read opinion.

As she touched on the problem of over-generalization, the application of condescending and biased Western definitions, I began to feel a tinge of uncertainty. Having recently written a blog discussing my experiences as an (American) feminist in Ghana, I felt slightly insecure. Had I fallen into the category of an over-generalizing, biased, and patronizing observer? I was thus inspired to take a step back and make an honest assessment of my self-titled ‘feminist’ observations in Ghana and that is the topic of today’s discussion.

My first concession comes in the form of admittance: I, too, have fallen into the trap of arrogantly over-generalizing. It’s hard to forget that blanket definitions are unfair. To claim that all Ghanaian men lazily follow the shade of a tree isn’t any truer than saying all Americans are rich. If I can react with offense to this assumption, then I should be more careful with my own. No doubt, some of my observations will stand – sometimes being a woman in the developing world, not just Ghana, can be heartbreaking, but I’m willing to bet I have a few things to correct. I may be controversial, but I’m not a complete tosser 

Though it may have a role, to assume patrilineal inclination stems solely from religion is an obvious mistake to make. As an anthropologist, Kristi pointed out that most gender roles (including the distribution of work) are based on traditional roles and expectations. They’re neither born out of sexism nor easily changed; this is especially true in towns and villages, like mine, that rely on a pastoral lifestyle. My observation of shade-following men may be accurate sometimes, but I should give credit where it’s due – women have a vastly different role from the men and one that’s easier for me to observe. It would be an oversight to imply that all Ghanaian men are lazy, even if I have doubts about a certain few. This brings us to correction number one: As a rule, Ghanaians are hard-working; they’re simply a different kind of ‘hard working’ than I’m used to. This means my expectations should change, as should my definition of feminism.

Now, I won’t go so far as to say that traditional definitions don’t clash with feminist ones and create sexism in their wake. I have experienced this phenomenon, myself, and it stems from the attempt to stick a square peg into a circular hole. It’s a clash of the cultural titans, one that finds root in the refusal to incorporate the new with the old (and vice versa). Feminism in its own right can be applied anywhere successfully, as long as we understand that its application must be unique to that culture. As much as I’d like to see Ghana turn into a Little America, I have to understand that it may not be possible (which, in turn, may not be a bad thing as long as it finds the right kind of feminism for Ghana).

This is where I often see a lot of tension; indeed, I mentioned it in terms of reconciling tradition and modernization. What I see is the attempt to drop a cookie-cutter onto Ghana, which never works (and, quite frankly, shouldn’t be the goal). This is also where you get phrases like ‘following the shade,’ which really do nothing more than undermine a majority of Ghanaians and any progress they make. Of course, nothing’s perfect. It isn’t ethnocentric or demeaning to point out inequalities as long as it’s done respectfully.

For instance:

1.) It’s more likely a male child will be picked to go to school if a family can only afford to fund one education, but children of both genders are often taken out of class to help with farming during rainy season. What we see here isn’t just a problem with gender, but how people view education as a whole.

2.) It’s true that in Kayayo, more young girls and women find themselves in dangerous/compromising situations, but it’s also true that all Kayayo run up against risks (including diseases, poverty, theft, and natural disasters). So we see that it isn’t just an issue of gender, but an issue regarding the opportunities available to those living in the poorer regions of Ghana.

3.) There are a lot of school girls who find themselves pregnant at a young age, sometimes it’s even expected. Though I find inquiries into my own non-existent children (and the reason for their non-existence) to be amusing, it’s still not an issue centered in gender and feminism. There’s also the issue of education and parenting. It comes down to a life very different from one I'm used to, with very different expectations.

All of these things end up being multi-faceted. Like people, they can’t be simplified and, though I didn’t necessarily mean to, I’m guilty of over-generalization and simplification of the issues. This doesn’t mean that gender problems don’t exist in Ghana – I absolutely had a conversation with a man who was, quite literally, angry at me for engaging in manual labor; I do see men drinking before seven in the morning (with what is, undoubtedly, the same money their wives need to buy food); I have been accosted more than once (and harassed more than that) by men who think I should be subservient. I’m not disagreeing with my previous statement regarding feminism’s place in Ghana, but I realize that I may have hasty in my critique. I forgot, for a second, that the world is made up of individuals and, though it’s easy to fall into generalizations, someone in my position should be more careful.

Aside from hoping this makes sense to more people than me, I wanted to thank Kristi. She brought some faults to my attention and, in the true sense of the word, managed to remain unbiased and fair in her assessment. As for me, I'll follow her lead.

Like I said before, I'll rattle the cage patiently.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

AllVol: Incriminating Photos Will be Taken ...

So, I'm sitting in a bank, watching time pass and it only makes sense that I forgot my book. Lucky, I brought my handy-dandy pocket journal (and was smart enough to bring a pencil or this might be worse). So, ladies and gents, as well as clocking the time (and enjoying the air condition), I'm going to tell you about All Voll in the only way I can: the handy-dandy pocket journal pre-blog (it's kind of like pre-gaming, but with a lot less alcohol ...)

Getting to (and from) AllVol was probably the worst part. It always is. It involved 12+ hours to Accra (kind of like the cousin you don't want to acknowledge, but have to in order to win Gran's approval - AllVol is Gran in this situation). On the updis, beside being uber-expensive, I did have some amazing ginger Talapia and some cheap draft beer (thanks to Becky Pfleuger's cravings). Unlike most Saturday nights spent in Accra, it was an early retirement for us ... we would be leaving for Volta early the next morning.

I was impressed, not only with the fact that I can now *deftly* navigate Accra, but the swiftness with which our tro filled on a Sunday. It's a strange phenomenon I've stumbled across: there are never any Ghanaians in sight, but the moment a mass purchase of tickets by travelling o'bronis occurs, it is almost always followed by the sudden appearance of enough Ghanaians to fill all remaining seats. And it is glorious. Every time. So off to Hoe we went ...

The ride through Tema is beautiful (and quite jarring, considering it looks like a suburb of Beverly Hills). Though my ipod was dead, I'm happy to admit that I've grown quite accustomed to staring out of tro windows for unbelievable amounts of time (and with the efficiency of a mule pulling its cart without needing to be whipped for motivation ... the verdict is out on whether or not this is a good thing ...) Aside from having a driver who's childhood dream must have been Nascar, stunt-double, or any other profession where wreckless driving is acceptable (bank robbing?), we got there in one piece. DPT Rob Moler's greeting: "Wow! You all look so healthy!" was met with a quick inventory of existing limbs and a nod of agreement ... if our driver had only had his way ...

Chances Hotel: swimming pool - need I say more? I was poolside before my pack hit the floor. What ensued was the kind of catching up only pool-giddy volunteers drinking palm wine in Ghanaian sun can pull off. Beers were discounted. And we celebrated. I had a girl's night, of course - three to a bed and a channel dedicated to only American movies. It was bliss (and we didn't even need the air conditioner).

Monday began with news of Bin Laden's death, as we crowded around the TV in silence (a few muffled 'Murica's' made their debuts) and shuffled into meet the biggest breakfast most of us have seen in months (three: count them. THREE cups of tea for your's truly). The thing you should know about AllVol (besides the food, and the pool, and the air-conditioning, and prom, and the talent show ...) is that it is, first and foremost, work. They just butter us up first :)

This year was PEPFAR - next year is food security. Though also an opportunity to meet second year volunteers (and reunite with first years), it's a chance to re-energize and motivate to keep going strong. It's exactly the kind of break needed to do both - you'd be hard-pressed to find a volunteer who isn't ready (and excited) to go home after AllVol. (Wow - I just call my site 'home' - teehee!)

Now, I don't want to brag, but WatSan pretty much kicks ass at PEPFAR and HIV-related activities. This being said, it was nice to learn a few things - get new ideas and access new tools. Peace Corps is punctuated, always, by the ability to learn something new. Like a session on MSMs (Men Sleeping with Men) and how to support (or identify) them in rural as well as urban settings. Or getting to experience 'Theatre for Change' and how interactive theatre can be used to teach Ghanaians in a creative, fun way (they do love their drama ...)It was really a great time, regardless of being unused to the 8-5 grind and power-point presentations. But that's not the best part.

You know what the best part of AllVol is? The good ju-ju between old and new volunteers. We had some seriously positive energy; we were 'gellin';' there was a lot of love being thrown around. There was also excitement as we, the newer volunteers, realized we would soon be the 'big fish,' so to speak - the next group comes in June for training.

I couldn't believe it'd almost been a year since I set foot in Ghana, that we would soon be the same fountain of information that the second years were to us (and that the second years would soon be homeward bound - sad face). I suddenly found myself really excited to be welcoming a new group of fresh faces ... and then there was the talent show (and the craft fair) ... (and prom) ...

I was a little disappointed in the lack of a 'bromance' duet from CD Mike and DPT Rob, but we did get bonafide American candy lobbed at our faces so ... it's pretty much a give and take. I decided to make a cheeky re-write of 'I will Survive,' PC Ghana style. It was pretty much a lesson in what happens when rehearsal is limited ... I credit the fun I had fumbling through it to my supportive and forgiving audience (and a purple diva boa). The show as a whole was hilarious and ended with a second year flash dance - an idea I'm pretty sure I'm going to steal next year ... The craft fair left me broke, but happy in a way that only shopping can - I am currently wearing at least two pieces bought that day. And prom was ... well prom. There are plenty of incriminating photos that I will treasure forever and it involved enough dancing that the only way to cool off was to jump into the pool fully-clothed. On at least three seperate occassions. Eventually we ditched the dance floor all together for a dance party in the pool because, in the Peace Corps, we are efficient.

I went to bed sober, but way too late for an 8am departure time to catch a tro to Kamasi. Away from air-conditioning and suffering from severe lack of sleep (let's face it, conference or not, *this guy* likes to socialize), my heat rash made an angry come-back and my mule-like efficiency disappeared with the presence of a toddler who fake-cried for FIVE hours straight on the way to the KSO ... I think Connor honestly considered tossing him out the open window at least a dozen times. None of us would have blamed him :)

I wish we could have stayed at the KSO longer - we were all still feelin' the love, but my AllVol reboot left me anxious to get home (plus I really missed my kitties). Being that any kind of travel in Ghana leaves one exhausted, I passed out in Tamale and barely found the motivation to haul my ass to Bolga the next morning. Home at last, I've had a kitten attached to my lap at all times (and both have taken to following me to the latrine, lest I disappear again). My support group meeting yeilded 50 shining faces and some real bonding time.

I am currently committing myself to no long trips until my mum comes to visit (hi mum!) and I'm happy to be back in the groove. There's nothing like going away for a while to make you realize where you really want to be. And where your kittens really want you to be too. And that, my friends, is what All Vol is all about.

I should also add here that our Youth, Gender, and Development group raised over seventeen hundred cedis with their date auction - when PCV's love, they really LOVE ... by the way, Rob: I'm winning that date next time!

Until next time

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

My Friend With HIV is Still My Friend

I have found some new friends - fifty of them, in fact. Sometimes their numbers ebb, sometimes they swell, but my friends are always there to meet me every Sunday at 2:00pm. My new friends are all HIV positive.

Most of them are punctual, arriving even before I do - all of them always greet me with a shining smile. We start with an opening prayer, always led by a different friend, and then I proceed to teach a lesson. The lesson is different every week and while I fake it really well, I'm just pretending to know what I'm doing. I teach straight out of a book.

Like any class, there are the same few 'students' (though I'd rather call them friends) who actively participate, but all of them are always listening. I can't quite figure out why they, so faithfully, hang on my words (and Joe's), but I'm grateful that they do. I am humbled, in fact, every minute I spend leading these lessons - floating above this capable, commanding, knowledgable person I become every Sunday at 2:00pm.

You see, we started a support group, Joe and I. The capable, commanding, knowledgable teacher exists because she needs to - she provides them with the answers to their questions without judgment (a commodity in a country with such high stigma). Sometimes it's hard to believe the stories I hear, the way they are treated by the very people who's job it is to help and educate. They look at me and say, "If you saw me on the street, you'd never know I was HIV positive. You'd treat me like a normal person."

I suppose that's why we're friends - I do consider them normal people. And I guess that's why they're so eager to meet with me every week - they get to be free. There's no stigma amongst friends: my friend with HIV is still my friend, as the saying goes...

Friends exchange stories; friends laugh and smile with each other; friends seek answers and advice from one another - there is nothing friends do that we don't, every Sunday at 2:00pm. I am convinced it's not a support group they need, anyway. The word 'support group' suggests an inequality between us - the helper and the lesser fortunate who are helped. I am learning just as much from them as they are from me and, if that isn't a friendship, I've been wrong for most of my life. All any of us ever needs is a friend.

Lucky me: I've just gained fifty.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Is that a ... Snail Kebab?

I’m a firm believer in travel buddies. In other words, I believe the success of any trip depends on the people involved. In Ghana, where traveling anywhere can take a few hours or a few days (and neither is predictable), this rule has become my golden.

A close friend of mine, Chris Adams, had been organizing his town’s first Kente Festival for quite some time. Being that I’d never been to the Volta Region, I decided to do two things: 1.) Support his fabulous efforts and 2.) Finally visit the region so many of my friends inhabit. To my delight, I realized my road-trip would be complemented by three girls – Katie, Kimmy, and Zoe – all of which can make anything sound fun, even ‘travel-ankles.’

I met Katie first, showing up late to Tamale, to share a bus to Kamasi. What seemed to be bad luck – an empty independent bus, which prompted an ill-fated attempt to find a quicker-filling metro bus – turned out to waste the perfect amount of time. The independent bus, upon our return, was no longer empty – in fact, we were buying the last few seats available. Score one: out of Tamale by 2:00pm.

Travel in Ghana is usually supplemented by terrible Nigerian films. This can either be endlessly amusing or unbelievably frustrating (both of which largely depend on whether or not sleep is involved). They tend to be played loudly, badly recorded, painfully acted, and terribly long. Katie and I hardly noticed. In fact, if I were ‘a betting man,’ I’d say it’s highly possible we annoyed the Ghanaians around us by ignoring (and talking over) both films accompanying our seven-hour, air-conditioned cruise. I don’t know about you, but I think not noticing the same seven hours your ankles do is a pretty great experience in travel-buddy-ism … Score Two: time-travel.

A small side-note: I have to say that Kamasi is my least favorite city in Ghana. It’s half the size of Accra and yet, as quickly as I figured out Accra, Kamasi makes no sense to me. I usually avoid it at all costs; unfortunately, it was unavoidable. We ended up spending too much money on a cab to take us straight to the sub-office - there was no way I was getting lost in Kamasi.

The Peace Corps Sub-office, as well as being a place housing bunk-beds and a kitchen, offers an endless supply of stimuli. I usually become temporarily insomnia-tic and this visit was no exception. After meeting up with Kimmy and Zoe, checking our watches and realizing it was already after midnight, we decided to pull an all-nighter – departure the next night would be at 6:00am. Of course, I ended up falling asleep at 4:15am, face-first in a triple-sized coffee mug with American Tale playing in the background ... Kimmy was stronger than all of us.

Kamasi, as well as having streets I’m convinced rearrange themselves at will (think stair-cases at Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry), is very close to Accra. This means incoming traffic is plentiful and, in the case of tro-tros, seriously lacking empty seats. In order to get to the corresponding tro-station, we finally flagged down another expensive cab and bumped our way through NYC-worthy traffic to 2-Pac (which ended up canceling each other out, making Kamasi startlingly neutral on the hate-scale).

Once the tro to HoHoe (Ho-hoy) was identified, tickets and breakfast were bought, and we were effectively squished in, I glanced over and made a startling find: the book. You’d be mistaken to assume this book is ‘good’ or otherwise related to the Christian religion. It is, in fact, the source of all awkward love-texts sent by Ghanaians to PCVs and Ghanaian love-interests alike. I have, on several occasions, wondered how Ghanaian men (who supplement their text-vocabulary with things like ‘2,’ ‘4,’ ‘dis,’ and ‘eva’) seemed so suddenly eloquent and rhymed. Apparently this was how.
Zoe: “OH MY GOD! You found the book!! KIMMY!! BUY ONE!!”
Kimmy: “I’m buying TWO!!”

Naturally, we spent the next hour reading all manner of inappropriate paragraphs out-loud. I was certain (though they secretly had to be enjoying the ridiculousness of it all) we’d gain a tro full of enemies by the time we reached Kpandu. Thankfully, I was wrong. For the remaining seven hours, we (and our elephant ankles) managed to entertain the entire tro; they couldn’t get enough of our stories, our strange ways of stretching the not-built-for-travel-o’broni-muscles, and enjoyment of everything (from Volta cuisine to being rained on through the open back door). I think Zoe racked up a few marriage proposals getting out, while Kimmy had managed to convince the driver to back-track on command (we missed the drop). As we waved them off (and scrambled to find somewhere, not public or bush-like, to relieve more than seven hours of water consumption), we dodged traffic and caught the next tro. Tro, private car, and a short walk later, we arrived at Chris’s site just past night-fall. The drumming and dancing had begun – perfect timing.

If you know anything about me, you know I love any kind of sporadic beat-related movement. If you know anything about Africa, you know that, as a continent, it is perfectly suited for any number of beat/shaking/Emma duets. Katie was first (something we’ve all come to expect, after many-a-dance-sesh during training), Zoe was next (quite the natural, she knocked the socks off of every Ghanaian there), and then me (as I enticed almost all of the remaining volunteers to join in the boogie). The well-planned drum-circle attracted a big enough crowd to air Chris’s debut as a rather convincing travel host in his short tourism film. After which, having a large screen and projector at their mercy, the Ghanaians decided to hold a private screening of The Passion of Christ.

It’s right about then that we took our leave … you know … because there was a lot of catching up to do (not because my skin was itching in an almost-guaranteed explosion of human combustion). After several hours of catching up, half of us snuck back to Chris’s house for some much needed rest. I haven’t slept so well in a long time – seriously, I was asleep before my head hit the pillow.

As most PCV events go, the O’broni sets a schedule and the Ghanaians sleep in. Considering we had some time to kill (and Chris seemed okay with it), a dozen of us decided to visit the Monkey Sanctuary down the road (after we watched Chris, donning a traditional Chief’s outfit, walk with the Chief’s procession through the town, of course). The monkey sanctuary was filled with adorable displays of desperation-for-banana, a pleasant stroll through a forest housing trees larger than my house, and, New Orleans worthy brass from the very large funeral procession being held. After seeing tie-dye batik (and wooden penis carvings) at the gift shop, we returned to the festival just in-time to see it kick off.

The festival, complete with a speech from Country Director, Mike Koffman, and closing comments from Christopher, himself, was fantastic – I really enjoyed participating in his success. Afterwards, we were offered some amazing southern Banku (which, if prepared right, tastes like cheddar cheese) and relaxed. Our game of Phase Ten was rudely interrupted by some seriously ominous-looking thunder clouds, and so the party moved to the safety of Chris’s gargantuan home (with the promise of more fabulous southern cooking). Once again, my head hit the pillow after I was asleep as my body (and almost-normal-looking ankles) prepared for another long journey back home. This time, Katie and I would try to make it to Tamale in one day.

Perhaps it isn’t only the travel buddies you bring along, but the collective luck they bring with them – we had pretty amazing luck again. Catching two tros almost immediately, we were on our way to HoHoe by 7:00am. Because it was Sunday, the car to Kamasi was attending church with its owner, so we snagged four of the last seats in a tro for Koforidua – our old haunt during training. Eating a typical Ghanaian breakfast – a mixture of beans, rice, noodles, and hot sauce – we were on the road again by 9:00am. Over the next four hours I played hide and seek with Zoe’s toddler-neighbor, took-in enough greenery-includes-mountains scenery to last me a few months, and tried the local finery: snails a la’ kebab (which kind of taste like mushrooms, if you ignore the fact that, in addition to rubbery bodies, you’re also munching on the same squishy snail eyeballs you used to poke repeatedly as a child).

Kof was exactly as I remembered it, though the love affair was short-lived as we were hussled into a surprisingly plush tro. Aptly named a ‘hit-it-and-quit-it,’ we were hurtling down the highway in the direction of my nemesis, Kamasi, within five minutes.
(Sorry, Kof, I’ll call you soon: I promise!) 

Much quieter this time, we passed the hours with gossip and PCV-catch-up, until Zoe and Kaming (Kimmy had business in Accra) went in the direction of The House of Excess Stimuli while Katie and I continued to the Tamale station. Mixing the stations up, we arrived just in time to buy the first two tickets of the next bus leaving for Tamale (Damn you, Kamasi, you thwart me again). We hunkered down, refusing to sit until we absolutely had to, and made small-talk with anyone within ear-shot. By night-fall (8:00pm, and three hours after we’d arrived), the bus was finally full (mostly with Kayayo) and we calculated we’d be in Tamale by 3:00am. Much more boring by comparison, this bus ride involved lots of uncomfortable-napping attempts (thank God there was no TV – no Nigerian films) and, right on the money, we arrived in town by 3:30am. Which was just in-time to see people waking up for morning prayers, but not late enough to warrant cheap cab-fare. By the time we walked in the door, no amount of stimuli could keep me from passing out immediately (and practically in the doorway). We’d made it – there’d be plenty of stimuli to process in the morning, elephant ankles and all.