Monday, February 21, 2011

Animal Farm: Ghanaian Edition

 If the animals in Ghana serve any purpose, it is, in the very least, to be the comic relief of volunteers. I’m not talking about the ‘African’ animals you see in national parks and calendars; I mean the every day kind of animals you find in a farming village. Take goats, for instance ...

Pigmy Goats:
While staring out the window of a moving vehicle, it’s quite common to see a number of goats doing a number of things. What catches the eye is that most of them (if not playing ‘chicken’ with your automobile) are balancing on top of things - strange things.

There is the neatly stacked pile of bricks (which happens to be tall enough to cause a double-take and immediate rejection of its possibility); the rather narrow porch wall (which offers the option of a view, but is rarely ever utilized because goats always prefer to stare at a very specific spot on the wall); or, as I was lucky enough to see a few weeks ago, the various ‘peaks’ of a parked farm vehicle (the highest of which is maybe eight feet off of the ground and houses a rather pleased, but preoccupied, goat – I can only assume he’s wondering how he’s going to get down).

They are the most amazingly ridiculous creatures. I catch them constantly – frozen, mid-chew, and staring suspiciously at anything non-goat-like moving within thirty feet (most of the time it’s me). They're prone to making loud, startling noises, while stealthy perched beneath bedroom windows at 5am and have inspired a little game we like to call ‘Goat or Baby?’ You’d be amazed at how many times we're wrong.
When they mate it’s even worse. For days, all you hear is the scuttle of hooves making a continuous circle around the same building (unless they get caught in a corner – which they do), while the males make absurd mating calls that range from “Was that a fart?" to “Goat? Baby … wait … goat; definitely goat.”

I’m prone to picking up their newborns – adorably narrow little things that go around, butting their heads against other adorably narrow little things. They get these hilarious spikes of energy which send them trouncing about with, what seems to be, very little control over any of their limbs. They aren’t very fast (mainly because they’re not very coordinated) and they’re quite easy to catch. When caught they usually produce a loud, startled little scream (which, in turn, causes their mothers to panic, walk back and forth hurriedly, and also scream loudly). This never fails to be amusing.
I like to think of them as stubby little practical jokes, put here to remind us not to take things too seriously. It could always be worse, right? Imagine having to live with the urge to climb everything and anything, despite its dimensions or your dainty little hooves. How awkward would that be?

Guinea Fowl:
How, oh how, should I describe the Guinea Fowl? First of all, they’re ugly. They looks like a cross between a Turkey and the Dodo bird (except something went terribly wrong and not only did they all come out the size of a chicken, but they managed to get a feathered bed skirt wrapped around their legs).

Secondly, they’re stupid – I don’t know how they survived before humans domesticated them – they don’t even raise their own young. Farmers have to foster them with chicken mothers. So, along with all the normal chickens and chicks, you end up seeing the inevitable “foster mom” with hordes of baby Guinea Fowl gathered closely around her. She has no idea – even after they get much bigger than her (rendering her little more than a chicken-sized pocket amidst a crowd of ugly, squawking bed skirts).

They can’t fly very far … not that they don’t try: I’ve walked into my kitchen quite a few times to see a long line of Guinea Fowl who have, for some reason, found it necessary to wrap themselves along my wall. Sometimes they even managed to get up onto the rooftops. Many mornings have started, not by alarm clock, but by a dozen of The World's Most Ambitious Guinea Fowl clumsily plodding across my unforgiving tin roof. A friend of mine likened the little bastards to a creature someone designed for a video game; they neither look real, nor is their a shortage of them.

Only last week, I looked up into the tree towering over my latrine and, much to my amazement, found myself looking at a handful of Guinea Fowl bums that had managed to lodge themselves onto a branch ... I’m now waiting for one of them to come tumbling down onto my head one of these days - give the lizards a break …

I know, donkeys aren't exactly exotic, but in America, we don’t have the privilege of donkeys being tied to a post every twenty yards. It makes one hell of a difference. Have you ever heard a donkey expound loudly on his philosophies concerning life? It starts out really strong – you can hear it a mile off – and ends, prematurely, in a ‘huff’ that sounds as though he gave up on whatever it was he thought was so interesting in the first place. Luckily, I have a wall around my house and, soon, it will even boast a working gate, but Kirsten and JJ told me of their frightful encounters of the donkey-kind. Their first few months were peppered with late-night incidents, startled into consciousness by the ungodly racket coming from a donkey-shaped blotch in the window. Unlike flies, you can’t swat the ramblings of a donkey away with a hand, which only makes them more zealous to include you in their cause.

Sometimes they toss out the idea of speaking in full sentences – squeaking in what sounds to be the voice of an un-oiled door, opening and alerting you of its presence. Perhaps they don’t want to discuss the merits of their full thesis today, but want you to know that it (and all other ideas of particular worth) will be up for debate tomorrow morning. They’ll wait for you near the stream, at the third tree to the right (though they’ll be there all day, having been tied to a post, if you’re going to be late).

Sometimes a few of them will sprint away, chasing after each other in the distance – dust ballooning up around their ragged forms while they engage in one of two dances: the ‘I-want-you-to-have-my-babies’ tango and the ‘then-you’re-going-to-have-to-catch-me’ foxtrot. Both of which are exceedingly elegant, if elegant were the word you’d used to describe a drunken brawl in broad daylight.

Endlessly amusing unless they’re decimating your tomato patch, they are left to wander during dry season, which turns them into traveling professors, heading to a discussion of untapped wisdom with a panel of flies (probably the very same who frequent my latrine). Today, after having a discussion about the various things yelled at me whenever I leave my house, I decided that, maybe, all they're saying is: "Salaminga! Buy me bread!" or "Salaminga! Give me your bike!" or "Salaminga! BAH BYEEEEEEE!" (although I don't know what a donkey would do with a bike). Maybe they leave life's secrets to the flies and their latrines ...

I can, at least, take comfort in the fact that their machinations are limited to daylight hours, at least four feet away from my bedroom window, and are barred from wandering in and out of my yard (unlike the children) … though I do wonder, sometimes, what it is their arguing about.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Peace Corps Guilt Complex

Forget what they told you in Sunday school – the Catholic Church ain’t got squat on the Peace Corps.

Ask any volunteer, currently serving or recently returned, and they’ll tell you that, along with life-changing experiences and the opportunity to be useful to the world, serving in the Peace Corps produces a particular brand of guilt – guilt a lá Peace Corps. It’s a constant companion, causes a continuous ‘project-piggy-back’ affect, and is usually accompanied by the words, “What have I done recently?” and “Did I really just watch all twenty seasons of Lost in two months?”

Peace Corps guilt: it’s the reason most of us never sleep-in past sunrise; why some of us refuse to ask anyone for help; and why we all wish we more to say than, “well I negotiated the crap out of the lady selling tomatoes today ..." to anyone back home.

After applying, I’m sure the majority of us didn’t think we’d be flying in and out of burning buildings or performing heroic, life-saving acts all the time (Who am I kidding? My cape is sitting unused at the back of my closet as I type), but I’m willing to bet more than half of us expected an ‘existential, blow-your-mind’ kind of moment every day. What actually ends up occurring is a series of simple, personal changes – the kind only really noticed from afar. But, in the absence of sudden and constant existentialism, we fall into this bizarre, PC limbo: measuring our successes in grand gestures, rather than recognizing the significance of baby steps. I guess we require an adjustment of expectations.

Volunteering in the Peace Corps comes with a fair amount of expectations; usually they're held by volunteers and their families, but can affect anyone who happens to pass one of those epic Peace Corps posters which incite thoughts like “I’ll be changing lives!" or "Give me twenty-seven months and I'll change the world!!"

Both of those statements are absolutely true, but their occurrence is likely to be subtle; many of us won’t see the behavior change we work to achieve. This doesn’t mean it won’t occur, but the things we teach and strive for are not designed to give immediate gratification – it’s much more valuable. More realistic is the fact that our lives will be changed, that we will come back different.

On an average day, I might spend less than five hours outside; maybe I'll have a bad language and want nothing more than to watch Harry Potter continuously; maybe all I’ve done in six months is piggy-back someone else’s projects and, sometimes, it’s all I can do just to understand the ever-changing relationships around me. Most of what I get into is the same stuff I did back home – I read a lot, I watch a lot of movies, I play board games and do crossword puzzles. I figured I'd end up doing these things, but I always imagined they'd be the punctuation marks of a really epic, life-changing, adventurous sentence, rather than the other way around.

Having been at site for six months, I can grasp the concept that having two real friends is a big success or that leaving the house to fetch water is a legitimate, cultural activity, but the grandiose expectation I created for myself can still make me feel like it’s still not ‘enough.’

So how am I supposed to combat this daily struggle? How is it that I keep from sinking into the quicksand of PC guilt? I guess it’s best to 'keep it simple, stupid." So, embark with me, if you will, out West - into the landscape of simply keeping it simple:
Do I talk to people regularly? (check)
Do I learn new words, even if I'm unsure how to use them? (check)
Do I make an effort to be involved in cultural displays/festivals/activities? (check)
Do I enjoy myself, even on a boring day? (check)
Do people know my name? (check)
Have I recently invited all the children to watch Harry Potter WITH me as I learn to weave baskets with them??? (double check plus, plus, plus and cultural bonus points)

... you see? It all counts, really. As long as I keep doing this - writing about it and sharing it and making it significant, I can't really go wrong right? I mean, I've achieved almost half of my to-do-list (the one I OCDingly wrote within my first weeks here) and I don't even feel the need to check things off or compare anymore. It's all in the name of progress!!

I guess, sometimes, I forget that, even on a ‘boring’ day, it’s likely I’m doing things that are completely out of the ordinary. If I'm being honest with myself, it's not really boring either: every day is a little adventure into what will hopefully become awesome (grandiose and flighty) stories that I tell my grandchildren (they can decide for themselves which parts are exaggerated and/or completely fabricated) ...