Friday, December 21, 2012

On Being Lonely

There is an art to being alone, to finding comfort in it and seeing its potential. For me, more than anything else, being in the Peace Corps has re-routed my perspective.

If there’s one thing I do when I’m alone, it’s think. I think about any number of things and lately I think about home. I imagine the mountain range in winter, the crisp stillness of days when snow floats silently from the sky. I think about my friends and all of the amazing things we've done. The silence of being alone, the symptom of a fishbowl, reminds me of my awe for the world, reminds me of the love I bear for my friends and family; mostly it reminds me of ... well ... me.

The first thing I tell people about the Peace Corps is that liking oneself and ones company is a requirement. With nothing to do but think about life and self and growth, strange things start to happen. Sometimes it’s forgiveness and letting go – as easy as dropping a pebble into the sea and watching it sink it’s farewell; other times it’s acceptance and self-love – looking into a mirror and seeing something beautiful there. Sometimes it’s unbearable – nagging thoughts circling like birds above their prey, picking at weaknesses and drawing blood; other times it’s pure bliss – that moment of nirvana when the world stops and calm quiet descends, a moment of clarity without meditation, a point of light in the mind as warm as the sun on a spring morning.

It’s purposeful; not always filled with the pursuit of knowledge, but pursuit of self and useful introspection. Journal pages are filled with ramblings, some of them profound. Books get read and pages are typed – reflections of this life and those that came before occur with regularity.

And in the silence, somewhere along the way, you start to listen and what you hear sometimes surprises you. Having thought you knew everything about yourself, you realize you are just an acquaintance of yourself. And a gate opens somewhere and more than you ever thought you had to say comes tumbling out. Things that are old - antiques you thought you’d lost or sold, things that are new - things you hadn't realized you picked up along the way. Some of them are obvious and ugly and you realize you want better company.

All the while you’re getting to know yourself – silence being a sneaky catalyst to a reinvention long overdue. And without noticing you begin to change, begin to like yourself in your entirety, begin to leave the ugly things behind because forgiveness seems more important in the silence.
You do a spring cleaning and what’s left is a clear, empty room. Pictures and memories line the walls, an open window filters love and light everywhere and a comfortable chair waits for your return. This is where you come to think, enjoy and relax. It’s where you feel safe and free and loved. It’s your room in your house - your heart and your mind. It existed there all along, but fearing loneliness like most people do you neglected it, let it clutter.

But you see, there’s a difference between being lonely and being alone. And once you've mastered one you will never feel the other. The company of people is meant to be worshiped, but you marvel at the fact that you like your own company, too. Dinner and movie, a book at your favorite coffee shop, a late-night stroll under the stars. You find that you've become aware of the world – no more vultures in the sky. You see beauty all around you, reflected in you, because as well as loving the world you recognize your place in it. You are more beautiful because you belong to it.

And it loves you in return – sends you the sun and life giving rain, grows you flowers and gives you sustenance, sends the wind to tussle your hair and you understand that it’s a gift. Every breath. And you are lucky just to be standing here, sleepy eyes and grateful heart.

This is what being alone has meant for me. An expansion of awareness, of appreciation – the ability to love and laugh and cry when I need to cry. Some people call this God, I call it life; you can call it whatever you'd like. I crawl into bed with it every night and needn't fear it’ll leave before morning; and wouldn't you know, I’m always smiling – even when I’m alone.

Welcome to 2013 – take some time to be alone this year; you might find something you like.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Things I Know ( And Things to Remember) Thanks to Ghana

The first rule of Peace Corps is to re-write the rules ...

1. Be grateful for every day, even the bad ones.
2. It truly is the little things that matter most.
3. Kindness comes in so many forms, it'll blow your mind.
4. Expectations have no place in the world; they ruin the joy of spontaneity and the many unexpected kindnesses of every day.
5. Hugs are the best medicine, as is laughter (which, conveniently enough, happen to be universal).
6. Loving yourself is the only way to truly love the world
7. You are always the student, posing as the teacher. Always.
8.  Exploration is the key to a life well-lived.
9. We are not superior because we have more, nor should we hang our heads in guilt or shame. We should be grateful (understanding that no system is perfect) and then we should forget the system exists completely and remember, simply, that we’re talking to another human being.
10. Having a little hope, a little determination, and a little faith in those around you is important, but having empathy is always better.
11. Follow your dreams for you, and never lose sight of that.

Here's to hoping we all apply some of these rules in the new year 

Monday, December 10, 2012

Religion in Ghana

As I sit here, listening to the culmination of another week filter its way out of church windows next door, I realize I've never explained the phenomenon that is church (and religion) in Ghana. In general terms Ghanaian dedication to the Almighty is mind boggling. (And I grew up in Colorado Springs, which was featured in the documentary Jesus Camp.) I’m not sure the missionaries understood the kind of goldmine they’d found in Africa - I don’t think anyone can prepare for that kind of dedication - but they couldn't have been more successful had they shown up with pom-poms and Sue Sylvester from Glee.

Now, at this point, you probably think I’m being facetious and, while I admit to approaching this blog with the same humor I approach most blogs, I want to give you a few examples to illustrate my point:

 When I was younger, I was invited to attend church with my family in South Carolina – we’re talking once a week, two hours at most – and I wouldn't set foot in that church without an adequate supply of notebooks for hangman tourneys, tic-tac-toe, and note passing. The highlight of these Sundays were the cookies I got once it ended, I was a kid after all, but I observed plenty of adults who still couldn't get through an entire service without checking football scores or nodding off at least once … and that was before the iPhone. 

Fast forward to modern day Ghana: the church next door is testament to the fact that a lot of Ghanaians attend church seven days a week. If you've ever attended a service on Sunday you know  to carve out at least seven hours (no I’m not exaggerating) and sometimes Fridays are equally important, though it’s hard to predict when. Last Friday I thought I’d watch a few movies on my laptop; when I removed my headphones at 12:30am, I was startled to realize the church next door was still in full swing. Okay, I thought, I could probably watch some Mad Men. They’ll be done soon.

Ha! Hahaha, oh rookie me …

I was still holding a pillow over my ears at 3:30 am, weeping and convinced - in my hallucinations - that I could actually understand what was being spoken in tongues (which at that point was a very lively conversation about the poor sap living next door, trying to get to sleep over the glory of God). So when I say ‘mind boggling’ above, what I mean to say is relentless … obviously.  

When it comes to religion in Ghana, there are two: Christianity and Islam. That’s it. If you don’t claim one or the other then you are grievously misinformed; if you don’t attend church then there must be something wrong with you. I happen to fall under both of the categories above and I’ve honestly had people react to me the same way I would react to terminal cancer. On the up side it’s sparked a lot of great conversations about things like the Inquisition (my counterpart  made a comment about Muslims being terrible, wicked people so I introduced him to Google and gave him a history lesson), but requires a constant awareness that admitting my heathenism will always be met with strong curiosity. 

“God willing” is a common phrase here, but it’s the dedication to it that’s foreign to me. A student will pray to get better grades in school without taking the time to study for exams; a man will pray for money without improving his work ethic; a mother will pray for her child’s health without taking them to the clinic to be diagnosed … God willing … It makes me feel like I’m in a Greek play. For the most part, this is because Ghanaians take the Bible very literally. Every word. They aren't simple minded people, but their education system is based on rote memorization and very little room for debate.  Things aren't meant to be interpreted, things are directly as the Bible says and the Bible is the only book anyone ever reads. I say that last part because any book I happen to be reading (right now it’s A Game of Thrones) will undoubtedly be referred to as my Bible (because every other book I see will undoubtedly be concerned with Jesus). If this doesn't give you an idea about religion in Ghana, then I don’t know what does.

All of this being said, churches do a lot of really great work in Africa, but I honestly don’t think anyone could have predicted just how popular Jesus  – a blond haired, blue eyed, Jewish carpenter – would become in even the most remote villages. It’s like watching a Bieber concert. It’s also one of the reasons white people are referred to as ‘Sunday born’ in their local languages, are met with constant enthusiasm, and are given an almost immediate declaration of church before anything else. (Honestly – I met a guy the other day who told me he was Pentecostal before he told me his name.)

Considering my hometown, this shouldn't surprise me as much as it does and, considering my occupation, I see it as an opportunity. As a Peace Corps Volunteer it’s not only my job to educate you about Ghana, but to teach Ghanaians about America. Being an over-achiever, I also consider it my duty to teach them about the world at large (starting with a few choice Google searches) and so we talk about church and dying traditionalism, but we also talk about gay rights and Judaism and why some people in America don’t eat meat (this last concept, by the way, is absolutely mind blowing to them).  

I've run across Ghanaians who ask me if I know who Jesus is - like it’s Pig Latin. They adopt him so thoroughly here that they often forget Christianity is a foreign implant. It's amusing every time. I figure my trade off for listening to sermons on the bus, on the street, on Facebook, and from my neighbor next door is being able to sing Broadway show tunes at the top of my lungs at any given time and call it cultural exchange. 

So, sure, King Solomon (yes, this was his name), I’ll come to church with you – I appreciate the unique cultural experience it presents me – but when you’re laughing at my exhaustion eight hours later, remember: next week we’re having a Harry Potter marathon and I’m going to tell you a little about what happened to witches in the Dark Ages.


Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Why Bikes Are Good Bargaining Chips (and Other Useless Information)

Since living in Ghana I've learned an awful lot about the ‘barika’ (or, the bargain); most importantly, I've learned that currency does not always come in the form of coins or bills.

In the village, I often held aloft small things – pencils, paper, chewing gum and other teeth-rotting concoctions, movie viewings, and temporary skull tattoos (lovingly referred to as ‘la stamp-la’) – as payment for chores and services rendered (because as Ghanaian as I think I am, I couldn't fetch an entire drum of water if I wanted to). Among the best of things I had to offer, however, was my bike. And my bike was a hot commodity.

On average, even with a flat, bikes have two more wheels than most humans. What this meant – in midday heat – was the difference between ‘footing’ one’s way from shady tree to shady tree (which are sparse, at best) and rolling swiftly by all those suckers with their pathetic walking feet. It also carried with it the Flintstones equivalent of a drop-top: beautiful man-powered wind. What might take forty minutes to walk one-way was now fifteen at most and this, my friends, left a lot of time for socializing – the biggest benefit of them all.

In addition to the obvious advantage of two hollow, inflated circular tubes, a bike has a basket. Some bikes even have a basket AND a platform above the rear wheel – like mine. These come in handy when hauling heavy things like packages or a week’s worth of groceries; water is easily hauled from borehole to door, children can be hauled from home to school (riding on the back rack, legs splayed and looking surprisingly comfortable, though I tried it and it wasn't), and usually means that walking with such things on one’s head (or shoulders, or kicking and screaming at the end of an outstretched arm) is unnecessary. Last time I checked, humans have neither baskets nor built-in butt racks so, clearly, the owner of a bike is at an advantage. All of the time.

Bikes happen to have bells which, while much more adorable when rung by well-dressed old men, happen to make everyone who use them polite and endearing ( ... just try to squeeze past someone without ringing a bell and your charm is instantly lost, you dangerous vagabond, you). Bikes can be used to lean against in the midday sun, sat on in the absence of a chair, and is rather effective at parting crowds in times of need and desperation (though a white person on a bike will part crowds whether it’s necessary or not).

Conveniently, after the initial purchase, bikes are free. In the village this is the difference between waiting every three days (and paying a fare) to leave town or traveling wherever and whenever one pleases. When one has free, two-wheeled transportation at the ready, everything becomes that much simpler – which makes it so sought after to begin with. Especially in a poor farming village.

Of course, people don’t get things like flat tires – which makes having two feet rather convenient when a tube happened to pop – and I'm not personally equipped with a chain in danger of rusting or jumping the tracks - which are both things that happened whenever I loaned out my bike - but the fact that medicine and food and meetings were a simple ride away made my rusted, beat up little guy a resource to be collected frequently.

Thinking back, I probably could have gone all ‘Jaffar’  on my household, jealously coveting its power and convenience, but a bike is meant to be used and if it wasn't always going to be used by me, it might as well have been a village bike [insert ‘yo mama’ joke here]. Until people adapt to grow wheels in their heels like some kind of twisted, awesome opposable thumb, just remember: never underestimate the things you take for granted - turns out bikes are excellent bargaining chips.


Thursday, November 29, 2012

Some Things Never Change

I know I’ve been talking up my new digs like it’s nobody’s business, but I thought I’d revisit a few things that haven’t changed in the name of nostalgia (you know, for those tiny moments that make me realize I’m still in Africa):
1    1. My roommates:

Nothing says you’re in Africa quite like the mummified carcass of a lizard *falling out of the closet and smacking you in the face*

2. Lights Out!

I know I live by the ocean and I know a lot of power in Ghana is water powered, but thinking that I get steady, reliable electricity because I live near a steady, reliable source of water would be foolish. The only thing that connects our frequent power hiccups and the ocean are the pirates who stole our oil on its way from Nigeria.

3. Oh, is that the ocean?

It’s torturous, really. I work on the harbor, I pass the ocean on my way to work and I have this beautiful plumbing system with all of these taps attached to it and yet … I still store water in giant drums, I still bathe from a bucket most days and my office – on the second floor  – still pays a man to fetch water and haul it. I’m starting to realize that this is just how things are.

4. Teenage Mutant Ninja … yeah, I’m not going down there, dude.

You know that moment when you walk out of your apartment, holding a flask of piping hot coffee, and walk right into a wall of odor that stops you in your tracks? You don’t have an open sewer right outside your gate? My bad … I thought that was a problem for everyone.

5. Goat or baby?

I cannot tell you how excited I was to hear a goat behind my house the other day! I live in a city, which makes my favorite game ‘goat or baby?’ really hard to play. Plus, baby goats are hilarious and I found one.

6. Oh my God, I LOVE your shoes!

Now that I have an office job, it’s tempting to wear high heels everywhere I go. Except that high heels are pretty inconvenient when the sidewalks are busted. And I don’t mean a few cracks here and there, I mean an open sewer drain covered by a plank of wood; I mean sidewalks that lean to one side; I mean hazards that could cost me an ankle, if not my life.

Okay … so maybe that last bit was an exaggeration (I would never twist my ankle in high heels – I’m a pro), but I mean it when I say it’s a jungle out there – a heel-unfriendly jungle that will probably make me look ridiculous in the near future (because let's be honest - I’m not going stop wearing high heels).

7. I know I look like I just showered, but you’d be mistaken; that was hours ago …

There’s nothing like looking your best walking out the door and showing up to work looking like someone tried (and failed miserably) to baptize on your way there: mascara running down my cheeks, tendrils of hair sticking limply to my forehead, a shirt that looks like some kind of ink blot test (maybe it’s a bird, maybe it’s Lionel Richie, but it's definitely not normal) …

You know what? I’m sure it’s fine. I’m sure I look really impressive; you’re right.

8. Hallelujah!

If you ever visit me, you may start to wonder what that sound is from 6-9pm every day. That, my friends, is salvation. Friday through Sunday are all-day extravaganzas – a cacophony for Jesus. I may have gotten a nice apartment complete with guards and no neighbors, but I also have three churches surrounding me … and they have generators.

There’s no lights-out for Jesus.


Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Think Like a Man

[A reflection on 'If Beale Street Could Talk' by James Baldwin]

I wonder what it's like to be a father, not just a father, but a father to a daughter. Women are born mothers, we embrace the world and long to soothe it of its woes; men are born with its weight, resting there, on their shoulders. Struggle as we might to adopt that weight women can never truly carry it alone, and man could never survive without a woman. She is always the pillar and never the roof.

I wonder how this changes their minds, turns them away from us; I wonder what it's like to love as a man, to fear as a man; to know that, in addition to loving someone, you must also protect her and support her and in doing so accept that you might hurt her - even as you love her deep into your organs and the crevices in-between. It must be a painful, terrifying kind of love; seeing the carnage of those before you and knowing they expect you to will fix it, not make it worse.

I imagine what its like to experience that, to hope vehemently against it when it becomes my own daughter; knowing all of the things I did in youth and stupidity, seeing all the damage I created, and knowing I have the potential to do worse, still, even as she stares at me with those big, innocent eyes.

And you always end up doing worse - out of fear, mostly - and all you can do is hope to God she'll be strong enough to grow past it all and forgive you for being so goddamn scared.

You love her, of course; you love her so much it hurts to breathe, to blink, to live and watch her move about the world. You pray for the day she finds someone who loves her a fraction of the amount you do, because you'll have to trust him to take care of her; to make her believe. You just want to be able to feel that relief, knowing that she'll be happy and safe and all the other things you ever wanted for her. You could never give her away otherwise, this tiny little thing that managed to change everything - everything you thought about women, everything you thought about everything.

If you'd had a boy, your view of the world would have stayed exactly the same, but thank God, because you realize now that James Brown was right -  you just had to hold her; just had to know you would do anything to make her world spin. And you realize you don't want her to be like those other girls, the broken ones you've met along the way. And it's this awesome responsibility - greater than the stars in the universe, greater than the universe itself; and while you're proud, always proud, goddamn if you aren't scared shitless.

I know what it's like to be a woman, what it means to love as a woman, but sometime's I wonder what it's like to love, to fear, to feel, like a man.

Tell me your secrets.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

My Last Day: In-love

Well, I did it: two years.

I didn't realize until Lauren mentioned it; I kept thinking of the continuation, of the next step, forgetting completely what I'd accomplished - the fulfillment of two years. What an awesome thing to suddenly realize; what a wonderful thing to celebrate! And then, there I was ... eating my last meal with Mary, spending my last morning at Travelers Inn, and leaving the Upper East as a resident for the last time. Just like that; two years.

I feel like I'll live in Africa for the rest of my life; I'll always be in the Peace Corps and I'll always be an O'broni. It's written forever in my sky - the people I met, the things I did, the simple fact that I was here. I can't name all of the things I learned about myself, but I do know that I fell in-love here; with life and potential and, dare I say, myself.

Any love is a good thing, an amazing thing, but the kind of love I found in Africa is different; it's hard to explain. It's a love of complete vulnerability - the honest kind; the kind of love that looks like a halo; the kind of love that feels like a furnace; the kind of love that's contagious because there's just too much of it.

I've never known a light like this - directed not only at the world around me, but inward as well. It's close kin with gratefulness, it finds inspiration in adventure and calls empathy a friend. It paints the world in dazzling frescoes, makes music of the simple things and the poetry - oh, the poetry ... I walk taller; I smile wider; I laugh all the time. I'm so happy that I can't explain it and the only thing I could do to express myself was to apply for an extension.

Maybe my insecurities will come back sometimes, maybe they'll always exist because I gave birth to them, but most days they grow quiet and I can finally think. I don't pretend to know anything about the world - three years here and I will still be its student. I can venture only to say that now I know myself. I love deeply and endlessly, unapologetically. I have finally accepted a lot of things, learned to be calm about them, learned to let go and let my heart breathe a little.

I know more about the atrocities of life - things I should never accept because the world is worth so much more. I learned when to find balance, when to pick my battles; that tugging on the rope around someone's neck - the shackles on their wrists - will sometimes make them cling tighter, struggle against you harder. I learned what it means to invest in people, to protect and nourish something as precious as their potential.

My heart must have grown three sizes, my tear ducts have sprung a permanent leak. I got lucky; I realized I'm not hot shit. I fell over, but I found people who helped me get back up - some of them complete strangers, some of them close friends. I've experienced a lifetime - a separate life, completely - that seems more real to me than the one I'd already led. I wouldn't say I'm different, but I'm changed. Everything is still in order - I've been the same person since the day I was born (just ask my mother) - but my perspective is new, and the distance between lives impassable.

I love people in a way I never loved them before; I've forgiven people, taken the time to understand and let go. Having so much free time managed to do that - allowed me to think, threw everything into sharp relief; a photograph made of words and actions and emotions scratched into the surface. Ugly things were there. And I had to be honest with myself about the fact that some of them belonged to me.

I think that's what's made the most difference - taking responsibility for my part in my life. I stripped myself of pity and talismans and began to define myself anew. I reinvented myself, not to run away, but simply because it was time. Meanwhile, I became an inspiration to others; I was emboldened, validated. And, once, I needed these things; I needed the Peace Corps. I don't anymore. My decision to stay is purely my own.

My third year is what I want; the first two were what I needed to kick me in the ass (and show me some sugar). I mention love so much because it changes everything. I don't think many people take the time to appreciate themselves or their place in life. It's one thing to love and appreciate the life one leads, the luck one encounters; but to love one's place in that life is rare. And important. And it's something I finally found here, finally allowed myself, and for that reason I will never truly leave this place.

Nor do I ever want to.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Where I Sleep

I'm writing this blog on my 26th birthday (by my count, which is probably off by at least six time zones, I am 6 minutes into my twenty-seventh year). Of these twenty-six years, I can honestly say that the last two and a half have been the most important.

In the six weeks I was home, I heard one thing more than anything else: I'm different. Whereas before I wasn't aware of the changes occurring within and around me, growing older has allowed me a closer seat to retrospection. Of course I can't observe these things as they happen, but now I am aware ... which is definitely new.

Looking back, I've always enjoyed life, but today I can say I understand much more of it; this is something I could not have said at 23. I think a lot of my growth came from the acceptance that I am always a student, even in my work with the Peace Corps - I have learned so much more from this experience than I could ever hope to teach - and understanding this has made my job much easier; it's also made the world more enjoyable.

I will never be perfect (audible gasp), but no one is. While this used to be an earth-shattering possibility, I realized that giving myself (and everyone else) the space to make mistakes, sometimes fail, and almost always land right on my face, was the key to my success. I had more fun and learned a valuable lesson in the fact that the world was still standing when I picked myself up. Looking around me I can see that true beauty doesn't lie in perfection; my most exciting adventures, my most memorable moments, were born out of the unexpected.

Maybe it came from a willingness to put myself out there, trusting that everything would work out even when it didn't; I found that having such an extreme lack of control created a sense of reckless abandonment I completely embraced. And though it may seem backwards, letting go of that control seemed to garner me more of it (unless of course I noticed, after which I would almost always be forcefully thrown from my high horse).

After all of this, more than anything else, I've found that I'm happy. Even as I say this, I will admit that it wasn't always easy; this has not been a smooth journey, but my happy eyes tend to forget the struggle they sometime see. Honestly, I think it's the risks that have made me happy - the blind chase after my dreams - because in them, even in failure, I find fulfillment. Yes, I miss my friends and family; yes, I miss the amenities that make America so wonderful, but I'm proud of my work. This alone fills up all of my empty spaces and makes time pass so quickly that endings still sneak up on me.

At twenty-six I'm proud of myself in a genuine, healthy way; I'm motivated even in moments of doubt; more importantly, I'm self-assured. All of these things, if nothing else, make three and a half years absolutely worth it.

As I start a new year, I start a new job; I'm in a new city and a brand new house; I'm even thinking of getting new babies (read: kittens). Call me crazy, but (be it the size of my new house, the job I both sought and was fortunate enough to get, or the general proximity of a pretty awesome beach) I think it's gonna be one hell of a good year.

Wish me luck!

Friday, August 17, 2012

A Day in the Life of Me: A Satire

I am about to perform a miraculous feat; you are about to witness a 'Cultural Transplant.'

Much more difficult than, say, a heart transplant, this procedure requires you to suspend everything you know about reality and allow me to rewrite your world - my life here, exactly as it plays out, in America. Brace yourselves for a journey; it will be absurd (it's a satire, after all), but don't make the mistake of thinking that all of it is an exaggeration ...

6:00am, Saturday morning:

You've just woken up, not to an alarm, but to a gaggle of squawking Guinea Fowl perched in the tree outside your window. Stretching, you imagine all of the wonderful ways you could eat them for dinner and they, having accomplished the act of serenading you, move on to other, unsuspecting sleepers. Padding to the bathroom, you fill the tank behind your toilet from a water barrel against the wall and dry brush your teeth.

Within a few minutes of walking into the kitchen - sleep lines and blanket creases etching the side of your face, hair orbiting your head like Rodney King and Conan O'Brien had a love-child - there is a knock at the front door. It is insistant. You rush to wrap a two-yard of fabric around your bare legs and answer in a puff of activity ... to find your sweet, elderly neighbor from two floors below. He just wants to greet you before he leaves to farm his small plot behind the building. Looking in, he invites himself to your breakfast, reminding you that he is your father, after all, before realizing it's something he doesn't like. He recovers by asking for various items visible to him in your open cupboard, but, being in a rush, he informs you he'll come back later. You're pantry is safe for now.

In the time this exchange has taken place, several people have passed in the hall and have stopped to politely greet you; one drags a very uncooperative goat behind him with a rope. You assume the goat is screaming his greetings, as well, as you shut the door and return to your breakfast. It's 6:15am - you will have this exchange at least two more times before you finish your first cup of coffee (strained with the only clean pair of socks you own). Delicious.

After bathing from a bucket placed *just so* in the bath tub and getting dressed in a mirror you are convinced was made for the Fun House, you decide it's time to head to the grocery store. It's Market Day. (Though you can get some things every day, the actual grocery store is only open and fully stocked every three days.) You grab a reusable bag (you consciencious citizen, you) and head out the door.

Walking down to and now along the street, you greet everyone you see. If you happen to miss someone, they call you back, and all of them inquire as to where you're going; many of them will ask, half-jokingly, what you plan to bring back for them. Bread is the safest response. Keep in mind, while you're promising an entire bakery to your neighborhood, that most of these people are complete strangers. Also keep in mind that none of this phases you.

You are walking to the bus stop because you don't have a car. In fact, many of the people in your neighborhood don't; when you finally reach your destination it's crowded. The bus fare is pretty in-expensive, but on the whole the bus is unreliable, at best. As more and more people arrive, the feeling of ease and laughter amongst friends is on the decline - potential seat rivals mill around, eye-balling each other with increasing malice. Some people walk farther down the road in order to catch the bus before it arrives and even you find yourself searching for weaknesses in the crowd. An old man stands next to you, shaking three well-fed chickens in your general direction, attempting to sell them to you as he waggles his eyebrows up and down. The chickens are not amused.

Roughly forty minutes after you arrive, you see the lorry coming. (Yes, you call them lorries.) It's in bad shape, but it appears to be moving and that's what matters ... well ... moving after a fashion ... once it rattles to a stop several men hop down from the roof to off-load goods. People fight their way off as others attempt to fill the empty seats; you manage to squeeze on and take the closest seat available (but are not immune to a pair of elbows poised for victory over the seat behind you). For a moment it's chaos. Two minutes later there's no room to spare (and you swear you saw a woman crawling through the window), but the mayhem has dissipated and for some reason there's a baby on your lap. You stare at each other suspiciously.

The bus pulls out slowly and you hope it won't take too long to travel what ends up being roughly 8 miles (the way the roads are organized, you couldn't walk it in less than two hours). Another forty minutes and numerous short stops later, you arrive - the parking lot is loud, crowded with buses heading in every direction; stalls of goods perch here and there, grey hounds call out destinations and animals roam around; people peddle wares from the trunks of their cars. Entering the store you are 'greeted' with disdainful stares and silence ... customer service needs a little work in this neck of the woods ...

To the right is the butcher's area - animals are fresh and you can watch your meat prepared, pig-to-pork-chop, if you'd like. You don't. You start to wander the aisles and before long you realize that they all display the same basic items, varying in price. Several people stand in the aisles, having bought all of one item, and attempt to sell them to you at prices high and low. You find several items this way and manage to save quite a few pennies: it is a small victory.

Clothing is strewn in piles on the lenoluem floor. You sift for a few minutes until you see something you like that's ... that's ... way too small. (There's only one of each item and only some will be your size - you continue to sift.) Everyone around you barters for better prices, several items are stained or ripped; if you need to try something on it's done in public. A couple of women fight over a shirt and you give up, sulking away empty handed. Next time, perhaps?

At the check-out there is no line, there's a crowd. Everyone simply waits for an opening (or a distraction) and slinks right in. The cashier is disinterested and gives an entire range of prices on similar items being bought by different people; you barter until you can both be satisfied, but when you hand her the money you find she has no change. She proceeds to leave completely and spends the next five minutes asking all the other tellers to break your bill. When she returns she lets you bag your own items, but gives strong critiques on your form, before you are moved away by the growing crowd. You almost forget your change in the process, but a smiling child chases you to the door to hands it to you.

People offer to carry your things, strangers in every direction greet you, and peddlars try to sell you anything you could dream of. (Was that a full magician's set he pulled out of his bag?) A motorcycle wobbles past you from inside the store - BEEP - as you dodge in the direction of the 'spot' (read: bar) your co-workers are waiting at. Four taxis honk at you in the span of twenty yards, each yelling a different location in an attempt to guess your destination, and a very naked homeless man watches you walk past as you try to ignore his nakedness.

Fifteen minutes of catching-up goes by before you realize no one's approached to take your orders. You volunteer to order inside and walk in to find an empty bar; the bartender promptly ignores you for two more minutes until staring at you silently (apparently this means he's ready). "Um ... two Buds, one Coors Light, and a Coke, please." (No, micro-brews do not exist - I told you this was harder than a heart transplant.) "No Bud, the Coors Light is warm and I only have Sprite." "Okay ... what's cold?" "PBR and Guinness." "Okay, so ... two PBRs, one warm Coors Light, I guess ... and a Sprite?" (At least the beers are giant, you think.) The beers take five more minutes to come and he leaves without opening them, preferring, instead, to put on a football match (which he turns up to 11).

After a second round (three cool Coors Lights - he put them on ice because you drank the last PBR - and a Fanta that miraculously appeared as you watched a shipment of Coke get stocked), you decide to go your separate ways. Your beer costs $2.30 (which is $2.00 more than it cost to buy lunch from that stand on the road - a meal too big for you to finish). Your priorities seem skewed.

The ride home is much easier now that its midday; even waiting for the seats to fill, you're still home within the hour (and you didn't have take an elbow to the face, either - VICTORY). As you walk from the stop, several kids you know run to help carry your things and many people, fetching water from a well and hand-washing their laundrey, greet you as you pass. A few of your neighbors complain that you didn't inform them where you were going, but laugh it off as they invite themselves to dinner. All of the doors you pass are open and you lean in to greet the neighbors you can see; many invite you to dinner, but you politely decline knowing they do so in earnest. At your door the children drop your things and wander off as you settle yourself to watch your favorite show.


Luckily you have a gas stove; you start to prepare dinner, eyeing the fridge and idly wishing for electricity some time soon. A girl comes to your door to ask repeatedly for different things - she looks around your apartment for inspiration; some of her requests are pretty entertaining (the bottle of vegetable oil, the bookshelf against the wall, a lightbulb still in its socket) and when she gets bored she leaves. This happens no less than five times and the same sheep bleats into your apartment every other time you open your door, staring at you as if he expects answers. NOW. You avoid eye contact.

You know the lights are back when you hear a stereo thumping somewhere beneath you; it competes with several television sets for dominance. You shrug and pop your Ipod on, as the situation is clearly unavoidable. Your attempt a little later to make a simple phone call wastes at least three minutes searching for service in the building - you find it wedged in a corner and make your call from the floor. On speaker phone. You work out, check your very slow internet, and greet every neighbor on your floor before retiring to bed. Drifting off to sleep, you note a few loud exchanges below your window and the sound of thunder (which might actually also be motorcycle engines) and wonder if, perhaps, you should hand-wash your laundry tomorrow ... if those damn Guinea Fowl would let you sleep in for onc ... must fetch ... magicians ... the sheep are angry, angry magicians ... *snores*


Wednesday, July 25, 2012

2 Wheels, 4 Wheels, No Wheels; Push!

When I was in training I wrote a blog about travel in Ghana. While everything I said still stands, I am convinced it's taken two full years of experience to understand what it means to 'Travel Ghana.' The difference? I'm no longer surprised. By anything. More importantly, I accept Ghana's transportation system for what it is and while we still have our disagreements, we finally have a stable relationship.

Before I continue, there are a few ground rules to consider:

1. If you are picky about seating, this will be a very painful experience.
2. Load up the Nook, charge your Ipod or make sure you're really well-versed in 'Sleep Mode.'
3. Go ahead and let your dignity slide for a day or two.

Of course, these only apply if you prefer to take public transportation. For all of you fancy VIP bus types, not only does this blog not pertain to you - you can go fly a kite. Good luck finding a kite ...

The first thing you should know defies all logic: In a country the size of Oregon, to travel from one end to the other takes at least EIGHTEEN HOURS. Yes, I'm yelling.

As you can probably guess, the roads are preposterous and most of the vehicles belong somewhere in the seventies. Many of them still have their original parts. The fact that they're still on the road is pure ingenuity - sometimes the only thing separating you and your feet from the moving pavement below will be a piece of metal welded to the edges of a gaping hole; sometimes you will look up and realize that the door you've been leaning against for two hours owes its existence to a piece of string tethered to the frame. Africa is the place seat belts, windshields and seat cushions come to die. If your Ipod can drown out the diesel engine abusing what's left of the vehicle around you, you're one step ahead of the game.

At least once you will fill an entire bus, only to find every person in the back avoided sitting in that crappy middle seat. You can't fool the bus driver - his eyes will not sweep over, and dismiss entirely, the missing fare that seat represents. He will sell that final ticket and one of two situations will unfold: everyone in between that person and the seat will file off the bus and back onto it or they will proceed to climb over everyone pretending not to notice that they created this problem. Someone's rear end will probably end up in your face, which leads me to my next point: bodily functions are tricky.

Stick a sick volunteer into a structurally-unstable hot box with shocks like ninety-four year old knees and you will test the strength of everyone involved. There are only so many drugs you can pump into someone before you have to throw up your hands and leave the next five hours to divinity. Just know that every pit stop you make will empty at least half of the car (requiring a human game of tetris to re-organize) and that, despite the number of pit stops you will probably make, someone will request to stop the car five minutes away from your final destination. Stay strong.

I'm sure it's fairly obvious that bad roads and broken vehicles are a bad combination; getting into a vehicle in Africa comes with the guarantee of one free viewing of your life flashing before your eyes. What you may not be prepared for is the risk of bodily harm from other passengers. I'm not saying Ghanians are violent, unfriendly travel companions, but when it's a Sunday and cars are scarce, that sweet old lady and her giant purse will maul your face if it's between you and the last seat in a car. It doesn't matter if you've been talking to her for forty minutes about her grandchildren - you're in Africa now and Grandma's about to teach you a lesson in natural selection.

At least one preacher will try to save you, at least one tire will pop, and at least one engine will over-heat. You will fully appreciate air conditioning, finally figure out how to travel light and the goat strapped to the roof will receive little more than a glance from you when it slips off the edge and is boosted back up by the passenger nearest the window. Travel in Ghana will try your patience, but it will also teach you what you can and cannot possibly hope to control. You will find that it's easier to  adopt Africa Time, that you're not above a plastic stool in the aisle and that the most important thing is getting there eventually.

If you can handle this, you can handle anything. And, just maybe, your fondest memories might involve watching that beautiful landscape slip past you because, really, you learned the most about Ghana when you traveled it.


Friday, June 22, 2012

35 Things To Do when it's 'Lights Out'

Oh no! No lights?
Don't fear - I've had a lot of practice with this situation; with your permission, I'd love to make a few suggestions ... I know, your battery is running out, I'll make it quick:

1. DANCE! (Just watch out for walls, superstar; there are four of them.)
2. Contemplate the theory of relativity ... and how it pertains to cheese.
3. Play 'what's that crawling across my face?'
4. Remember that one thing you put somewhere in this room earlier? Well now your brain wants you to find it, again. In the dark.
5. Hunt for ghosts.
6. Don't be surprised when you find one.
7. Talk to the stars (or the ceiling fan that stopped moving like 45 minutes ago - whichever is closer).
8. Steel your mind against the heat.
9. Attempt to convince yourself that it's actually a nice 65 degrees Fahrenheit.
10. Laugh at your previous attempt: 65 degrees doesn't give anyone heat rash.
11. Karate? Why not? (You can't be bad if no one can see you, right?)
12. Turn up your ipod and dedicate the next 45 minutes to learning every word of 'Rocket Man.'
13. Turn off the ipod and serenade THE WORLD.
14. In fact, you should just sing out loud to every song you hear.
15. Text people you rarely text, just because.
16. Realize how awesome they are and promise to text them more often. (Keep your promise.)
17. Make a verbal bucket list: fingers and toes, my friend; fingers and toes.
18. Hold a candlelit vigil for Whitney - complete with an a'capella mash-up of any Number One hits you can recall (or can't: 'I'M EVERY WOMAN; IT'S ALL IN ME ... nah nah THING you ... nah nah ... DONE, baby, I DO IT NATURALLY!')
19. Practice holding your breath.
20. Okay, stop holding your breath.
21. Enjoy the silence!
22. Scare children. Trust me, it won't take much.
23. Hold reenactments of any kind with sock puppets. (Seriously, what else are you using your socks for in Africa? Exactly. So ... Frodo was on his way to Mordor ...)
24. Create an entirely alliteration-filled sentence; work up to paragraphs.
25. Haiku time!
26. Text your beautiful poetry to all of those people you rarely text - what? It's not weird at all!
27. Blind self-portrait - GO!
28. Make a list of the things you'd like to eat in America.
29. Promptly forget because it's torturing you.
30. Practice night-vision!
31. Eat carrots by the handful, then practice again.
32. Pray to the gods of electricity and make sacrifices in their honor.
33. Speak in tongues and make vague promises of first born children if they would JUST. MAKE. THE FAN WORK.
34. Talk to said fan, name said fan, love said fan until the power returns.
35. Scream in triumph and immediately rescind the first born child thing ...


My Latrine - The Disaster Zone

Yes. I do, in fact, realize that this will mark the third blog I've written about my latrine (not including all of the honorable mentions along the way). I can't really defend myself in this; all I can say is that, as proud owners of holes in the ground, we volunteers grow to have a special relationship with our latrines. Especially when they turn into disaster zones. Take mine, for instance:

Unlike most standing structures, my latrine no longer has a working door. I mean, it has a door, but right now it is a useless, door-shaped piece of wood that leans against the wall in a decidedly door-like manner. I guess one day it decided it wanted to be off of the wall for a while; I'm assuming it was having some kind of mid-life crisis.

Really, though, it's only a problem when I want to use the latrine, which is a lot less than I want to use, say, my kitchen. Also, there's nothing remotely valuable or worth stealing in my latrine - not even a door, apparently. I've taken to using what I call 'the poor man's door,' a piece of fabric draped, somewhat dramatically, across what used to be the door and the gaping hole it once inhabited.

Most days this works out perfectly, but sometimes, mid-pee, the door starts to look like it's falling toward me; usually because it is. I have to agree with the door - peeing underneath it is just as efficient as draping something across it, but I guess I'd rather feel like I'm peeing in a room temporarily missing a door than a pile of rubble I've stumbled on to. I'd also like to add that, while it's completely unnecessary, I still prefer to swing the 'door' open and close as I pass. I certainly understand that at this point 'manhandling' it would be perfectly acceptable, but I like to pretend I still have a working relationship with all doors. Even mangled, Ghanaian ones.

Being suddenly less VIP and more 'public access' has left the room, itself, kind of a disaster. Interest has peaked across the board and, on numerous occasions, I've found myself confronting a pair of surprised beady, little eyes attached to surprised, feathered little bodies and am left to stand awkwardly outside as they loudly, disdainfully vacate the premises.

I also find lots of morning surprises. When I do, I avoid eye contact and continue to tell myself (loudly and repeatedly) that I should be proud someone used the latrine, not criticizing their aim ... obviously it's a daily mental struggle. What used to be a cement safe-haven is now a hostile, unfamiliar place - any and all trust gained has been completely lost. Even my two yard, doing its best under the circumstances to provide a little coverage, is always dangerously close to flapping open in the breeze and  exposing me, forever, to a world that isn't even remotely ready for such a spectacle. I spend most, if not all of my time, staring at it threateningly.

These are not my latrine's only problems; its concrete floor is starting to resemble the surface of a frozen lake at the start of spring. If this were Narnia, I'd be riding blocks of ice down a fast moving river. As it is, I simply, carefully, replace the broken pieces whenever they shift and expose the ant kingdom beneath. Technically (in the absence of a door), I probably don't need a front step, but I've always been one for keeping up appearances. If anything, I hold the small hope that anyone walking by will be so impressed by the concrete slabs, immaculately placed, that they'll hardly notice they are staring into a latrine because it's missing a door.

The door frame rests mockingly against the corner, coolly sporting its now completely useless lock. If I'm being honest, the contraption formerly-known-as 'door' spent most of its time suspended from an intricate web of strings. Clearly it wasn't meant to last forever, but if there's one thing you should be grateful for in America, let it be working doors, latches, and locks - excellent ventilation is a small consolation when the possibility of flashing innocent bystanders becomes a daily likelihood.

I could, of course, fix it. That's what you're thinking, isn't it? I will say only this - if there's a second thing you should be insanely grateful for, it's regular access to capable, always available, sober carpenters. Until 'Africa Time' ceases to exist, until my doorway isn't two inches wider than the door frame on both sides, I guess I'll just have to thank the Peace Corps for making me so laid back that not only do I consider 'the poor man's door' an adequate alternative, but proudly introduce it to you via the world-wide web.


Thursday, June 14, 2012

I'm Proud of You

It's not an end, but a beginning, and I have tears in my eyes, but they are of pride and happiness; there is sadness, of course, always sadness in goodbyes, but these were two years spent growing and learning - learning more about ourselves, more about each other than we ever wanted (or thought possible). We lived through loneliness and success and failure; and all dust kicked up in-between. For life, now, we are connected; we will know what it meant, what it was like, what we sacrificed and why it was worth it. Every day, every hour - even the darkest of hours; everything given until we thought we could give no more was worth the life we all received in return.

And though we crave America (we can't wait to go back), all of us will remember making Ghana our home; allowing her to fill a tiny, Ghana-shaped space in our hearts that grew big enough to change our lives. Never forget that we shared it together, this amazing experience, because when I think of the lives and moments that affected me, of the smiles and faces that I love, I think of you, too.

I'm proud of you, Class of 2012. Travel safely and keep in touch.


Saturday, May 12, 2012

My First Two Years: A Retrospection

I feel like the title of this blog should be 'my busy month.'

It's not, of course; I like to think I'm more subtle than that (LIKE A FOX), but it wouldn't be an exaggeration. I won't bore you with details, but if this month has been anything, it's been damn busy. I haven't even been writing (which, considering the number of emotions tumbling around in my head, is a feat in and of itself).

For the sake of efficiency, I'll try to sum up AllVol in a few choice sentences:
There wasn't a pool, but there were late nights, dance parties, and lots of laughter. New friends were found, old friendships strengthened, and a lot of volunteers said youtube-worthy, quotable sh*t ( For many of us it meant something else entirely - our closing of service and its fast approach.

Last week it came and went, our COS conference like the blink of an eye. It hardly seemed real, staring at faces I knew would start leaving within the month. 62 friends, colleagues, and comrades; we'd really done it: two years in Ghana. Two years older, two years stronger, two years different. Pinch me, we say, slightly shell-shocked, as we start to reflect ...

Do you remember the day you got your letter?

 It's strange for me; that day seems so far away and yet I remember it like it was yesterday.
When I took my interview over the phone, I actually called back to confirm (in hopeful, elated, quiet disbelief) that I could actually start telling people I was, in fact, going to Africa. "Yes," the man replied, "you can expect your invitation letter within the week." I proceeded to stalk the UPS man.

When it finally found its way into my hands, my stomach dropped into my pelvis and my heart flew up next to my eardrums (which is an awkward place for either to be). I don't think there's ever been a moment in my life I was more terrified, excited, or proud - this was something I'd legitimately achieved on my own. Peace Corps was like my baby and I was proud of my baby.

And then they hand us our Aspiration Statements ...

Well, this is embarrassing ... I was clearly trying to kiss major Peace Corps ass. In fact, I kind of wish I could still write like this; so professional (and slightly pompous) and sweetly naive. I really don't even remember writing any of it. What I do remember is spending all night with Morgan trying to figure out what I wanted to say (Thanks, Morgan); I was so afraid of saying the wrong thing (the remedy for which was apparently a Thesaurus).

I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, but I certainly faked it well (*pats past-self on back*). I even make a lot of really good points that still apply (thanks, Morgan), but two years puts a lot of miles between me and the girl who wrote this. If anything, seeing it now is a clear reminder of that. A slightly embarrassing, thesaurus-aided reminder that the Peace Corps is never what you expect.

What are your accomplishments and achievements?

These are hard to gauge because, in the Peace Corps, the word 'achievements' covers a spectrum as broad as the color wheel.  I could make a list (and probably need to), but many of them are personal: being able to speak and understand a second language; building something successful from the ground up; living independently in a foriegn country for two years; mastering the transportation system (and thus patience) ... once I start naming things, they just keep coming - rolling out into the universe like a ribbon of light.

In creating a list, I start to realize just how significant this all was; that people who think volunteers are running away from life to bullsh*t for two years have no idea what they're talking about. This is, in fact, a pretty big deal. It's a giant accomplishment made up of other accomplishments; an achievement cuddle-puddle, if you will. (Feel free to steal and use that tag-line in future advertisements, Peace Corps.) I have a lot of pride.

How have you changed?

Wow. That's a doozy ... Um, I got fatter, I got skinner, I got blonder, I'm a better writer, I stopped journaling, I started free-styling, I gained a pen-pal, I got better at dancing ...

... but, really, I guess a lot of my accomplishments can serve as personal changes; being capable, confident, and knowledgeable in a field I was passionate (but clueless) about are all things changed in me. I'm older in more ways than one and I'm happy; I'm a much better person, as a whole. I've always been social and optimistic, open and appreciative, but in small doses (the way only very young people, green as spring grass, can be). Now I feel like I am those things: a capable, willing, confident adult.

Seriously, I may have my bad days, but I send off so much genuine love into the world on a daily basis that my cheeks hurt by the time I fall back into bed. That feeling, that pure goodness right there, is the biggest change I've experienced. And I owe it all to Ghana, for helping me feel purposeful and successful and just plain grateful.


Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Death of a Father

 A line of headlights appeared along the road, horns blaring as the procession came closer - they were escorting the body to be displayed and prayed over before the ceremony. In a matter of minutes motorcycles were spinning in circles, kicking up dust and threatening bodily harm. It's quite possible none of them should have been driving, but they needed strength to lift their father's casket high overhead and bring him to their grieving mothers.

We followed them into the house and despite two sound systems boasting separate playlists, I felt like I'd intruded upon the most private moments of a family's mourning. The bombastic beat seemed to disappear as women sat with tears streaming down their cheeks; some wailed openly, collapsing against walls and calling to God; others, still, prayed in earnest. It was raw and loud and honest, and I felt like a voyeur.

The crowd soon moved to a darkened part of the house where I could hear traditional drumming. As I held the hand of each woman in turn, the coffin sat silently behind us, a traditional priest standing over it with eyes closed in concentration. Whispers and sobbing carried from each open door until we turned the final corner, where we found a circle of women and girls speaking in tongues - some on their knees; some with hands raised; every head thrown back and dripping with perspiration. Two women led prayer; I do not know how long it lasted. I, too, lifted quiet words of peace for a man we'd watched die painfully and afterward retired to rest. The moon seemed far, far away as Lauren and I sat in the cool night watching children dance, traditional drumming broke out occasionally into the darkness.

Many things happened at once: music and dancing, traditional displays, Pito brewing and drinking, food sellers setting up shop as countless men and women moved in and out of the house to give condolences. We sat in plastic chairs and watched, for a time, dark approaching clouds from the East; lightening flashed and we smiled, hoping. Eventually it rained, a blessing from our father, and we danced much to the children's delight.

At 10pm the first church service started, at eleven Lauren and I slunk away to sleep - we were naive to think it'd be that easy. Some time around midnight both speakers began again and at 3:30am we woke to a traditional war dance near the window; once drumming stopped 50 Cent came on and we deliriously discussed his merits at a funeral. I assume we fell asleep shortly after.

At 6:30 in the morning, I opened my eyes to find the music had not stopped; animated conversations outside told me the day was in full swing again (and that no one had slept). Today, we were told, was the service and burial; drumming and dancing would continue tonight, but today was the last official day of the Christian Ceremony. After a hearty breakfast (Southwestern Omelets with CHEESE) we picked our way to the tents. It was quiet again and cool (for Africa); we were put in the front row. 

The ceremony lasted five hours, almost as if we'd simply decided to go to church that day. Every denomination was represented by a song (accompanied by an amazing band of calabashes and drums) and a particularly zealous sermon was given by the local pastor. Two rounds of donations were performed, though Lauren and I observed it was just as much a part of the culture to pretend to give as it was to give generously, and at the close of three eulogies and a biography, the casket was opened and all were invited to give their last respects. Since dead bodies creep me out, we opted out (though an usher enthusiastically told us we were, in fact, allowed to view the body, as well). He had no idea we'd already said our goodbyes along with 50 Cent the morning before.

With the ceremony finished, it was time for Pito (local beer) and general merriment. I devised a plan to leave for Lauren's site. If we thought it was bad the night before, we were fools: drunk men I'd never met before were already milling around my yard, waggling their eyebrows at me as I made my way to the latrine. I wouldn't say that I'm a wimp, but I wimped out. 

As we left, dozens of people watched a traditional priest lead a lamb to sacrifice and an older man led the boys of the household in a war dance (complete with bows, arrows and two rifles) to scare bad spirits away. Droves of people in various states of sobriety greeted us as we walked to Social Center, headed, no doubt, for one of two speakers to dance their sorrows away. No doubt it was a party to remember.

Since returning, traditional funeral rights have continued - one lone man bangs his drum over the house at sunset and sunrise. The house, still in open mourning, lets out a piercing cry occasionally as women come and go, presiding over the family's comfort. Truth be told, most of life has returned to normal. The only sign that anything has changed is the open chair our father used to sit in, an absence made all the more obvious by the silence when his drums stop. 

May he rest in peace


Monday, March 19, 2012

The Development of Ghana

It's not surprising I think about development constantly - I live in the developing world, work in the development field; I come face to face with the problems of development work on the daily (and I've grappled with their elusive solutions for the better part of two years). One would think it easy - it often sounds easy enough to accomplish, but that's from the perspective of an office with a view - on the ground it's a mine field, sometimes literally.

We all agree there must be balance, a middle ground on which to meet. Time and again I see the results of skewed, unbalanced relationships - well-meaning companies, groups, and individuals want to help the only way they know how: money, gifts and things in an abundance most communities have never seen. Lines are drawn and roles are accepted: the victim & the savior; the unable & the equipped; the ignorant & the enlightened; the giver, the taker, the charity & the help.

The legacy of these interractions create any number of things, from apathy to expectation. It's happened in many places for many reasons - we have a saying about the 'best laid plans' for a reason ... So what do we do? We change the way we give, sometimes we change the fact that we give, and we change what's given.

Peace Corps requires a community contribution of some kind; in fact, most organizations do. It impresses importance upon a community, implies responsibility, requires a committment; but this, too, isn't as easy as it sounds. Most communities need help for a reason - what if they can't provide the contribution, or cultural differences surround how a contribution is given? What if there isn't adequate infrastructure to fulfill the requirement (hence the need for aid)?
The plot thickens.

And sometimes the community lies; sometimes they don't understanding the concept; sometimes the entirety of the idea is lost on them. Back to square one.

In relation to what's given, more organizations are turning to a more Peace Corps-like model. We, first and foremost, use our skills to build capacity. We facilitate - teach people to do, rather than doing. It's much more relevant, but harder to accomplish (at least in ways that can be seen). It still almost always includes 'giving' (because someone, somewhere, will always need something or we'd all be out of a job; it's the way the world works).

We aren't always the first 'here,' however. Some people spend two years trying to correct the outcome of actions and behaviors before them. Visitors are often associated with one another, leaving behind them myths, prejudices and long-standing beliefs about the entire culture they come from. Short-term volunteers often underestimate the smallest action or spoken word - a gift given, a custom ignored (whether intentional or not) can upset the balance so quickly (and for so long) it will affect development in certain communities for years.

Development work is surprisingly delicate. Without the proper foundation, introducing something like plastic bags can have resounding affects, layers deep, that span generations and sectors. Similarly, handing out something as insignificant as candy, unprovoked and frequently, will affect the way a community views development work and volunteers completely; it may even affect their success.

The solution seems easy, right? Train volunteers. But how? And how well? When it comes to volunteers, there are several different types. How does one control quality in benevolence? And what's the role of benevolence in long-term development?

More than naught, volunteers are short-term, untrained, and largely uneducated about where they end up. Not many organizations have the time or money to prepare volunteers like the Peace Corps does. Many of them are young and inexperienced; some come to fulfill requirements for school or national service - the organizations they come with are largely privatized, unorganized, and spread very thin. Can you start to see a problem? It's not that their intent and motivation are wrong - altruism and volunteerism have a very significant place in the world - but good intentions often fall short in the face of such daunting social problems.

Trained individuals exist, but they exist behind a desk somewhere else, it's why volunteers are necessary. And when trained, long-term volunteers run into problems anyway, how can short-term programs expect anything different? It's probably why so many of us end up in development work - we keep trying to fix the problems we experienced on the ground.

This is what makes my job rewarding and difficult (and difficult to explain). It's not necessarily pessimism, but the inability to find the 'right answer' to long-standing problems; they solidify like a pile of collective trash - burn the top layers, sure, but until you dig down to the bottom there's no telling what problems hide underneath.

Would you believe this is only the start of problem, a tiny part of it? It already seems so convoluted, but this is only what I see from a community level - nevermind state politics, regional politics, or international politics; forget corruption or the short-comings of basic governmental structures in communities so far removed. What about economics, the world market, the willingness and ability of businesses to take advantage of a population without the proper knowledge or representation? And then we have culture wars, ethnic conflicts, social constraints and inequalities ...

It becomes clear why so many difficulties face developing nations, why they simultaneously need and desperately need to be rid of outside help (of benevolence and guilt). Take into account a history of exploitation and broken promises, of leading by example, and suddenly it's like putting a shattered egg shell back together. The solution is multifaceted and always far from perfect, always needing improvement, always needing time and attention. In my case, I feel like I understand less about development than I did coming into it (writing lengthy blogs and muttering to myself in secret).

And still, after all this thought, the answers elude me. I sit up worrying at night that the time I've spent on building a sustainable project will find some reason to fall short. I can't help but wonder, all the time, about the complexities of this life I've found and the path I've chosen to follow after I leave it. How does it work? How can it work better?

... and here you just thought I sat around holding adorable babies.
(to be continued?)


Thursday, March 15, 2012

Ghana: A Love Affair

The most valuable lesson I've learned in Ghana has been in my continued love affair with life. The smallest thing strikes me as profoundly important with increasing regularity.

It's not as though my curiosity, my childlike naivity, did not exist before Ghana, but it is most certainly magnified. And I like it. It enables me to whole-heartedly, with all of my being, enjoy everything as though it were new. The color of powders lined side by side, bowl by bowl at market is intellectually stimulating; the textures of the world come to me through a camera lense; the beauty of pattern and fabric against smooth, dark skin is like a canvas in front of me just waiting to be painted.

In my love affair I appreciate other things, too, small things with no seeming significance; the fact that something as simple as dried flowers and leaves dyes the color of my tea in varying degrees - orange to green to blue - or that the pattern it makes before resting at the bottom of the mug is as intricate as any cloud I've ever seen in the sky.

I find beauty in a lot of things I didn't give much attention to before. A small ant, the triumph of bread crumbs heaved atop its shoulders, is whispered encouragements by me; he is as important to the whole as I am. I hold no disdain for him and he, making his way over my toes, doesn't even realize I'm here. Just he and a breadcrumb.

I lose minutes, hours, of my day to people watching. Sometimes I just close my eyes and listen to the sounds, clues to life. In the midday sun no other movement exists but the wind, squeezing around the chimes in my window, through the branches of the trees; leaves seem to whisper to each other as sun light weaves its way into spots along the shaded ground; laughter - a lilting sound carried up and into the sky, as if it would fly away and be as free as the child who made it, who uncaged it.

Vibrations come to me underfoot in the drumming and building and cooking; and I can feel the strength behind it, wrapping itself up and around my calves. It's a rythym like a pulse showing me Africa's heart, why the leaves and flowers and branches still find reason to plunge into the ground and take root; dryness in the air sets my hair alive like the rubbing of two balloons.

It whispers at night when thousands up thousands of stars sparkle to life - just how vast this universe is and how I will never comprehend its fullness, not even if I were to dedicate my life to understanding the beauty to every piece.

And when I can't see it, I bend my ear to earth and listen; and if it can't be heard, I place my palm upon dirt like the ripe belly of a mother, and I find that life is going on all around me; that I should be naive and curious in its beauty is a truth I cannot deny. This is as relevant a lesson as any. Perhaps it is the most important of all.
Ghana has become a kind of love affair.



Sunday, February 26, 2012

'Coming [Home] to America'

"I am King Jaffe Joffer, ruler of Zamunda."

In trying to find words to describe America I realize it's as hard as describing Ghana. I suppose I could use a list of adjectives, things like 'clean' and 'vast,' or 'deafening' and 'delicious,' but that doesn't tell you anything real, does it? A tumbling list of adjectives says very few things; and I'm just as afraid of saying too little as I am of saying too much.

Two weeks in America was too short and too long; 'overwhelming' is probably the appropriate word - the extent of which I'm finding hard to verbalize. After twenty consecutive months away from home I was completely unprepared for it's complexity. I tried to steel myself, I did, but against my best efforts everything was foreign  How could it not be? The first time I tried to use my best friend's phone - a touch phone not unlike one I used to own - it was like typing with my elbows. No one on the receiving end would have known the difference.

Except her, of course, watching in abject horror.

Characterizing my experience in Ghana has always been a challenge; describing abstract ideas and emotions is the bane of my existence (I am a writer, after all), but I've never found it difficult communicating with myself. Knowing this, I gave no thought to the possibility that I'd become a stranger in my own life.

America isn't necessarily different; I am.

It would be no exaggeration to say the minute I stepped onto solid, American soil, I completely shut off my brain. Sure, I followed the polite, well-lit signs pointing me to an EXIT, but coping with the amount of motion going on around me required me to stop processing it. Until I sat down and observed individuals (*eh hem* their outfits, let's be honest here), I was like Terminator - determined to find a bench at all cost, without impediment and at pedestrian risk.

The first thing I noticed was a quiet anonymity, a feeling both blissful and isolating. Physically, being inconspicuous despite color, religious affiliation, or nationality was liberating. I closed my eyes to the stillness and took it in completely; car horns floated over the wind, a fast-moving highway hummed quietly in the distance, and not one person interrupted me or asked me what I was doing sitting alone with my eyes closed. And yet, having grown so used to a culture so thoroughly present I immediately felt Ghana's absence. Like my first months at site, I was completely aware of being separate from my surroundings (and if there's a place to throw twenty months of volunteerism into sharp relief, it's LA).

Usually volunteers notice how quiet America is immediately. Not all of my time in Ghana has been filled with noise, but the quiet is of a different kind. I didn't realize how acclimated I'd become to African sounds until my brain tried to over-correct them by reproducing the noises electronics make when they're confused. The airplane, the car, the houses I visited - all eerily quiet; my sense of comfort and familiarity had entirely changed (the ringing in my ears was just the proof).

Truthfully, I don't think I made one decision while I was home; I couldn't have handled the pressure. Heather and I were a disaster. We sounded like the vultures from Jungle Book: "Whadda you wanna do?" "I dunno, whadda you wanna do?" "I dunno, whadda you wanna do?" "I DUNNO! WHAT DO YOU WANT TO DO?"

I didn't even care; I was so happy to be sitting next to my best friend that we could have watched paint dry, crack, and peel off the walls. There were so many different options, so many possibilities, that my only coping mechanism was to stare vacantly and pretend I didn't understand English  I forced everyone to make all of my decisions for me; this happened with movies, clothes, accessories, conversations, even a sandwich menu. I felt like a child - slightly frustrating, but only when people looked at me like I should know what kind of sandwich I wanted.

I felt obligated to explain my life in Africa, to thank everyone behind me for adhering to the social construct of a line, to randomly ask them about their sleep, their morning, their family, their house, their day, their job, their car, and their kids in quick succession. I was completely socially awkward, but without an obvious excuse. My line of thought, my type of conversation, my general life experience was totally inapplicable.

Writing a charming blog about volunteerism is one thing, being completely unable to relate in conversation like some hermetical cat lady is quite another.

In the Peace Corps we often talk about 'the glaze.' It's a look 'normal' Americans get when they've reached their limit in Corps-talk. This usually happens when they stop being able to empathize; it could mean too much detail or too little, too boring or too fantastical, and sometimes it just means too much. Some people last longer than others, but it always happens - at some point my experiences will just be too different to visualize. This isn't something I take personally, but it is something I recognize. Vigilance is key. If I'm going to catch the glaze soon enough (and save myself a mental wound), I've got to stay on my game.

Naturally, this makes conversation kind of a task. I don't think I realized how exhausting it would be to talk to people. It took a lot of mental preparation, continuously reassessing what was an appropriate topic; it was like exercise for my brain. (I didn't spend twenty months in Ghana to tell people about the mundane, culturally misunderstood, and sometimes depressing segments of the curtain-raiser called my life in Ghana, did I? No!) Still, I caught myself Ghanaian clicking mid-conversation; worse, I found myself engaging in Ghanaian English. I had to brace myself against things like materialism and melodrama, but also against the fact that I would inevitably 'glaze over,' too. (Just like that delicious chicken dinner on the KLM flight to Amsterdam - when did airplane food get so good??)

Near the end of my trip, we visited Quinn's (Downtown Colorado Springs) on a Saturday night. I forgot, completely, any reverse culture-shock I might be experiencing and jumped right in, belly exposed and arms spread wide. I found that my limit for group activities is roughly a dozen people; and the thought of more people coming caught me like Peter Rabbit with a carrot in my teeth. I felt my eyes go wide and the thoughts dropped from my head faster than I could pick them up again; I panicked so fast I didn't have time to recognize where the feeling came from. Anna, a friend recently nominated for the Peace Corps, squared her face to mine and asked if I was okay.

Ah. I remembered where I was, I realized why I'd started to panic - the sound of a hundred conversations rushed back into my head, a dozen of which were directed at me; live Irish music, drink orders, and general merriment came at me in layers as I realized, once again, that I was technically a visitor. This was not normal for me.

I had to reassess, and quickly. I realized it was easy to fall into a pattern of retreat; playing the role of an observer in my village had made me vulnerable to overload. I was vigilant, damn it. VIGILANT.

You know what else? I was lucky. Not only was I surrounded by some of my closest friends and family, I was actually enjoying being a visitor. Absence has this funny way of making the heart realize how lucky it is, how important certain things will always be, and how great it is to see life through fresh eyes. It sounds gooey and mushy and dripped-in-pink, but it's true. Feeling foreign to America means good things for integration, for my growth as a person and, most importantly, the opportunity to really appreciate my life. Both distinct parts of it.

Both distinct types of silence; both distinct types of 'queues;' both distinct types of conversation, friends, and experiences. It all came together sitting at the airport in Amsterdam. I was people watching, as usual, and I decided to run to the restroom. Not wanting to trek my bags back and forth, I turned to the Ghanaian woman next to me and asked if I could leave my bags with her. "Yes," she replied, "you go and come and then when you come, I will also go." My heart fluttered in my chest: finally, someone I understood.

I always miss America. I miss America because my family and friends are there, because Pikes Peak carved a giant ridge into my heart, because it's my home. Until a stranger spoke Ghanaian-English to me in a Dutch airport, I didn't realize how much I'd missed Ghana, too.

What better feeling is there than realizing you're coming home?

RIP Gimpers; my home was you, too.