Wednesday, August 29, 2012

It Has Been A While

Just a simple post here to register a pulse, to say that things are all right and to ponder what direction the  blog takes next.

I did arrive in America safe and sound in March and have had many wonderful things take place since returning. In short order (but in many more details to come) I have: wed a wonderful woman, moved to a town outside of Boston, learned that I will be a father, looked for and found a job doing something that will be rewarding, found a house to buy and live in, adopted a puppy, and enjoyed life as much as possible.

So things are not going too shabbily I must say.

Yet thinking of all these things and then thinking back to the place I was at last year at this time, it makes me think a bit about what it meant, being a volunteer and serving in a foreign land. I guess more on that to come.

Politics are warming up and it will be fun to see where the campaigns head. Maybe I will go back to that topic here and see what pushes the keys. As mentioned before, there is still some pondering to do.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Last Day In Ghana

This is it.

My service is up as of the afternoon of March 21st, 2012. I am still in Accra as I type this up sitting in the computer room at the Peace Corps headquarters (with the air conditioning on at full throttle and aimed directly at me), but I am leaving for good come this evening. What one goes through at an early termination (ET) is practically the same as what one goes through for their close of service (COS), just at an earlier date which meant there was no expedited service for the process - you still must take a few days to move through the proper administrative channels and get your medical clearance, but the whole affair will take at least two days and most likely three.

Three days is a lot of time to have boring details, so we will just skip that part.

But it has been enough time here to capture glimpses of the time. The people that I have gotten to know really well, the ones who have spent a great of time helping adjust and make a happy life among the different surroundings, it all comes back. There are great times here and then are some times when you would look at the calendar and scratch your head and say, "How long do I have left again?" Most days were ok though and that was in large part to communication with loved ones back home and friends right here in Ghana. I could always count on some support from the far corners of the earth as well as right next door.

I am sure that with further reflection, I can wrap my head around the adventure. It was a wonderful experience and I will state as unequivocal fact that Ghanaians are the friendliest people that I have ever met, and I would love to return years down the line. I would really have to persuade my wife though, so it may be many many years down the line.

The final act of service by the way here in Ghana is handing over your Peace Corps identification card so that they can punch a hole in it. I think with that, you're finished. I am eager to return to get married, and I am going to say goodbye for a little while. It has been a great part of my life and I am happy and I get to add to the story by doing something wonderful now in the U.S.!

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Announcement

[Belated Post]

It took the better part of ten minutes for the Principle of my school to make his observations and points to the students of the school on matters of discipline and school procedures before he came to the sad news of the week. One former board member of the school had died recently and the entire assembly stood in silence in his memory, and then he turned to news about me. Fo Kwaku was leaving as he stated. "at any point from this day forward."

Mumblings across the entire chapel as I felt a lot of eyes fall on me. I did all I could to look away or around and make sheepish grinning faces as I felt gazes staring in my direction. If it could be considered a good thing, people were decidedly against the idea which was nice, but the reasons for my early termination of service were not given in detail by the principle. Instead he said that I was being recalled by Peace Corps and let it go at that. My guess is that he didn't want to say I was quitting but that in fact was really the case.

In Peace Corps parlance, quitting is Early Termination (ETing), and it can be done at any point from the start of training until the last day of your service before you officially close out your service. So why would I terminate early was the question I faced at every step after the morning assembly concluded.

Quite simple: I was getting married!

My fiancee is still in America and she had the good fortune of finding a contest that we decided to enter. In honor of the Boston Marathon run in April, a museum in the city was promoting a marathon day of weddings for 26 lucky couples. We wrote an essay, submitted it before the deadline and figured it was less than a slim chance that our name would be pulled. On March 2nd I got a message from her that read, "We woooooon!" Our little dream of getting married was going to come true and it was all paid for and everything.

But there is the little matter of Peace Corps to return to. They will not let a volunteer marry another person without 30 days prior notice. If the intended spouse is not an American citizen, then you must wait 120 days. There was not enough time to notify Peace Corps of the intended marriage with that rule in effect which meant any marriage would be cause for ending it all, an Administrative Separation, which is a lot different than ET'ing. It would be similar to a dishonorable discharge - not what you want to end your service with. I felt that leaving early was the absolute best decision and that it was a wonderful moment to start life all over again, precisely what I felt like I was doing when I accepted the invitation to come to Ghana in the first place.

When we closed from the chapel I attended the staff meeting and was given a few moments to explain the decision to the staff present which included all of the above story, less the unromantic details of administrative separation. They said they were sad to see me leave, and that it would only be fair if I invited all of them to the wedding ceremony in Boston, to which I said, "You're invited." The principle then asked if I would be coming back after and I explained that it would be a long while before I made my way back to Ghana, but I did manage to say "Mayi mava," which is "I will go, I will come." They laughed at my poor Ewe but appreciated the effort.

From there it was making the rounds on campus and seeing the students who have gotten to know me over the course of my 20 or so months at the school. They expressed a bit of dismay at my decision until I explained the reason and then they wished me all the best. It was probably harder to see the second year students since I taught them last year and I know a few of them pretty well, but nothing compared to the way I had to tell the vice principle's family.

I have been at their house more than any other place since 2010 and I have gotten to know them very well. They have given me a place to eat for almost my entire service here at St. Francis and have been generous to the extreme end of the spectrum. When I told them on Sunday night, I knew they would be happy for me and Damla, but I also knew that they might be sad for me leaving a lot sooner then they had expected. The mom was there, her two children, and her cousin who has been my helper at the house all this time and it started off fine. They were excited that I would be married. Then I turned and saw the daughter, who is 11, crying. I felt a very empty feeling in my stomach, then my helper Leticia, left and was crying too. So after that short outburst we kept talking and things began to calm down a little bit.

It has been quite emotional and I am sure the rollercoaster is only just getting started, but for the time being it was nice to tell the community that I have grown to really love that I won't be here until the official end. It would have been hard to leave though had all the students left the campus and I was here by myself after the semester was over leaving the empty campus behind. Now I get to wave goodbye to all of my friends and say to them how much they have meant to me. Thankfully there are social sites that will allow me to keep track of the ones I have gotten to know quite well after I leave here, and I am ready, more than ready, to embrace a very wonderful life back in America.

On to the next big thing.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

It Has Been A While

That seems to be a fairly standard title for a post among Peace Corps Volunteers, especially those who are coming around the bend a bit, making their way to the conclusion of their service. As the months pass by, you tend to feel less impelled to tell the loyal readers about what the goats did outside your door, or what someone yelled to you on the way to town. In all honesty, what happened to you during the training aspect was so dutifully documented that it could just as well apply to every day thereafter and you have a good idea of the experience as a whole.

Still, posts start to decline, you talk and email to your close friends and keep them abreast of what you are up to, and then months pass by and you say to yourself, "Wait, do I still know the password to my blog?"

So it is here. The days crept by a bit slowly at first and then it wasn't days, it was weeks. I will do my best to capture the essence of 30 days or so and see how I do.

Generally speaking, it has been quiet on the campus. Last year I am certain we had adult students descend upon the grounds to continue their studies but this year the campus remained vacant between the first and second semester. That meant that my return trips from the computer lab late at night had nary a soul to chime, "Fo Kwaku" in order to say goodnight. In truth, I have gotten to greet the security guards a bit more since they are the only men who are awake with me after 11 at night.

Right on Valentine's Day I had a visitor from America arrive and we did some of the usual tourist things in the Volta region. We generally stayed around town and did small things here or there to get the flavor of life in Ghana. He was quite impressed by the hospitality and the friendliness of everyone (less so the vegetable sellers who were vehement that he not snap their pictures with his cameras), and we had a good time. During that stretch my roommate here on campus was out so we had the place to ourselves. I would say about mid-way through his stay I got a case of the intestinal blues (too much eating out or something) and we had to stay a bit closer to home for a day or two. Eventually we did make it to the waterfalls at Wli, and that in and of itself is a fun story.

My friend is an avid amateur botanist. He loved to photograph the fauna here and was always wanting to know plant species. "What's this one Dave?" he would say, ignoring the prior 48 answers I had given him to the same question: "I have no clue what that might be." Still, the walk to the falls at Wli was filled with such plants and it made for a bit of slow going. Normally I see tons of people on the path to the falls but this day we didn't see a soul except for a few locals who were going about their business. The walk itself should take about 45 minutes, but that day it was more like an hour and a half to get to our destination. Had it only been 45 minutes, we would have had the falls to ourselves completely. It would have been the first time I had experienced it in silence and I may have enjoined my friend to take the moment to quietly meditate on the beauty of nature (Ok, that is just me making stuff up, I would have just fallen asleep on a bench or something).

But at the precise moment where I told him that the falls were just ahead, three boys came running up the trail dressed in school uniforms. They greeted us and sprinted past. Four more went racing by and then even more. A high school from Hohoe had made a field trip to the falls and no sooner could we hear the rushing water then we could also hear the screams of the students shouting in merriment. Most Ghanaians have heard that if you yell and shout, more water will come over the cliff. I have no idea who started that novel idea, but I was aghast that our silent quasi-meditative state was lost. Now we had to share.

I took maybe five minutes to be upset and then several of the students came up to the both of us and started to ask us questions. It was great again, and the happiness started to flow. For the first time I decided to hop into the water and join the kids under the falls. The water was chilly and the laughter never stopped. It was incredibly fun and after I left the falls, every student it seemed wanted to have their photo taken with me in my t-shirt and swimming trunks. I felt more like a TV star than a PCV. Sometimes life has a way of making a good situation out of a bad one without you having to do anything to mess it up.

That was a good memory to take away from that day. Sometimes life has a way of saying, "Here, try this change on for size and see if it fits." I am just happy that I have said, "Sure," on several of those occasions.

After my friend left I had about two days where the house was empty until more fun ensued. My roommate Taka asked to have a going away party for one of his fellow volunteers and it seemed like a great excuse to have a whole bunch of people over. Let me tell you one thing: the Japanese know how to have a great time anywhere. It was a barbeque of out-sized proportions and we all had a great time. All the cooking and logistics were handled by his friends and all I had to do was accept having 12 strangers stay in the house for 24 hours; the perfect entertainment combination. Several PCVs showed up as well, and we all had a good time sending Jun (pronounced like the month) off on his merry way. It would be great to have other parties just like that in the future, but we shall see how the timing works out.

Everyone is gone now though, and the rains (remember it was dry season when I last wrote) are coming down in buckets. Thunder is rumbling away and I can hear the water cascading off the roof and into the cement channels around the perimeter of the house's foundation. Everything has turned green in the past two weeks too which makes the land look so much better - there were far too many burned-out patches on the ground from fires set to clear brush and leaves and trash. It definitely has the feel of the tropics again.

I am going to promise more posts in the very near future, but as for now, Ghana is still here and so am I.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

A Fine Day For A Burial

One of the many cultural differences between and America and Ghana is the treatment of death.  Weddings are different too, but yesterday I didn't go to a wedding to celebrate a new beginning; no, I went to visit my counterpart and show my support for him and his family after his grandfather passed away. I don't think the death was sudden, and for most present the attitude was that at 91, he was done living the good life, and it was on to better things.

But oh the details of it all.

Firstly, this funeral was naturally in the deceased's home town which is decidedly not Hohoe. My counterpart, Destiny, said all along that one day he would take me to his hometown (my guess is that 40 - 50% of Ghanaians will want to take you to their home town) and this was my chance to make good on that offer. He lives rather far south, close to Anloga near the rather large lagoon in the Volta region. I had never been there before but with the help of our math teacher Mr. Eric Kakraba, the two of us made our way out of Hohoe and down the road a piece to reach his village. The directions we had were easy enough, and the biggest landmark Destiny could give us was the one traffic light on the road that we traveled. It wasn't working, but sure enough, it was there watching traffic sail underneath it without so much as a flashing yellow light in order.

We made it to his grandfather's house by about 1PM but we had left six hours before this from Hohoe. Just the usual slowness of transportation which I will refrain from repeating here. Needless to say, when we got there we were immediately welcomed by the mourners present in the house. Destiny was not there so the two of us mingled for a little bit with people we had never met before, most of them in good spirits. It was noted to us that since his grandfather was old and had lived a happy life, we could wear white clothing to show off the celebratory mood of the funeral.

90% of the mourners were in head-to-toe black. Eric and I looked rather gleeful in our nice white shirts while the somber crowd chatted. And I very much wanted to wear the funeral shirt that I had made over a year ago.

Really though, people were in a bit of a festive mood and we were treated to something to drink and some food. After wandering those many miles from home neither of us had anything to eat and we dined on some fine banku and okro stew (the slimy stuff) that had quite a kick to it. You will never look at spicy food the same after living here for a while, that is for sure.

Sufficiently fed, we then met up with Destiny who was incredibly busy with all the affairs of the burial itself. The funeral starts on a Friday with family gathering at the homes of the dead one and paying their initial respects. I think that first day has a bit more sadness than Saturday. One small aside at this point, the deceased has probably been kept at the mortuary for the better part of a month (sometimes much longer) so that preparations can be made. I must confess that this has to be a relatively new trend in funeral services - the waiting part. I can't imagine anyone waited a month or longer to bury their relatives in say 1900 or even 1950.

Back to the story. Saturday is more of a day for the whole entourage and extended family and friends to make their presence known. It is also the day of the actual burial so by 4PM Destiny was on his way to the funeral grounds where they would lay the man's body to rest in the grave. Before that time though, I was escorted from the grandfather's actual house to what seemed like another village altogether which was described to me as the family's house. It was bigger and had more of a compound feel to it (self-contained houses next to each other). I briefly was introduced to a few friends and then I made my way around a corner through the main courtyard. Among the dozens upon dozens of plastic chairs occupied by morose-looking older women I saw on my right a tent of sorts. Black cloth, someone sitting inside looking out... oh. There is his grandfather. He was in a nice suit looking comfortable but quite a bit different than the photograph used to announce his death - a very drawn appearance to the skin and the features were much more lifeless (obviously) than the robust and regal man I had seen in the photos. Still, that is quite customary I believe to put the dead person on display so that all may pay their final respects. I chose that moment to keep the digital camera in my pocket and not take his picture.

Our final stop was to the main area where shade had been set up and people were seated in rows and rows of those same plastic chairs. As I think about it, the main tent-area had fabric which looked to be from giant rice sacks which were opened up and stitched together. Under this tent people had formed a circle so that they could sing a funeral dirge for the mourners gathered around. Eric and I sat down in a back row and just listened and watched. I would lean over to Eric and ask a lot of questions but I had trouble listening as I was drawn to back to the performers who continued their song. Soon the really large African drums were being played, and the songs were getting a bit more lively.

I could see that those gathered were starting to smile a bit more, greeting everyone that they hadn't seen in a long time, and rearranging their cloth so as to take part in the traditional dance of the region. I would say that the dance reminds me of the chicken dance a little, but not really. For one, I can't ever get the movement right and I have had some practice trying to adopt new dances so this traditional dance isn't easy. But when you do it right, it is a lot of fun, especially by the looks of the faces of the dancers. Several stopped by to encourage me to go try it, but I felt that it would be more of a spectacle, "Look, the yevu is trying to dance!" and may not be honoring the man as much. Then again, I bet if I had met Destiny's grandfather he would have smiled and laughed too at the sight.

Just the same, I didn't dance and both Eric and myself started to look at the time with a bit more apprehension. It was getting close to 4 and we knew we had a long journey ahead of us. We said our goodbyes to Destiny and made sure to get back to the station to find a quick car back to Hohoe. It was quite nice to be close to the coast though, and the day will be one where I can think back to my first real funeral here. It seemed to me that Saturday wasn't a day for the dead, it really was a day for the living. I am happy I went on the journey.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

The Students Exit

And the campus at Franco goes quiet.

While not every student has left the school grounds, 96% of them have and the dormitories have gone quiet. Walking around the campus I don't find that I get to say hi very often as there is nobody left to say hi to save the teachers who are still living on campus and some of the staff who remain at their posts. But in all, there is not a lot of action right now.

Their exams ended on the 3rd of February and several found taxis to the main station the moment they were given permission to leave. Others took time to pack up their belongings and do some last minute cleaning of their halls and rooms before heading home on Saturday. Our computer lab had zero students inside last night; nobody studying for their Cape Coast exam, not a soul checking Facebook to see what their friends had posted on their Walls. Very quiet.

That isn't to say that it is quiet at my house or that I have resigned myself to sleeping all hours of the day. Not in the least. Yesterday the bungalow on campus where I live turned into the meeting house for the Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) which takes place next week in Hohoe. I am hoping to have a little time to do an over-arching computer lesson for them provided they have the time. Should be fun as several volunteers have stated that they don't have computers to use in their studies of ICT.

During the camp I will be receiving a visitor from the U.S. near Valentine's day. My friend Joe is visiting and I hope to show him around a bit of my area and see what else he might want to take in while he is here. There are a lot of things to see around my area, but after three days, well, you need to find something else to do.

Just to be sure, it is still the dry season. It has not rained since late October or early November, so we are still dry on the ground. The humidity has increased slightly along with the residual heat at night making for more uncomfortable sleeping weather. I am just very thankful that the electricity has been on at night to power the ceiling fan. That is very beneficial.

Otherwise, my thoughts are continually turning to the end of the journey here in Peace Corps and a bit of reflection on what two years will have done to me. So far it has been a fun ride, but I do find myself wanting to get off the bus soon and parking myself back in America for a long while. Just over the horizon, about five months distance.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Slow Period

Our students are in their first week of a two-week period of exams. The Cape Coast tests are 60% of their overall grade and if you want to see a quiet campus, then these two weeks will be the time to come. No one is wasting any time walking or talking with friends, they all have books open, pens and pencils at the ready, and lots of time poring over the facts and formulas that their tests will question them on.

The lab has been, with absolutely zero physical changes, transformed into a quiet study hall at night. At about 7 or 7:30PM each night the doors open up and students walk in and occupy a chair and a small bit of desk space in order to revise (study) their notes. Most don't bother turning on a computer as they need to stay away from the distractions, but I am happy to oblige any that do need to have a break and just relax for 15 minutes. Unfortunately for every student here the internet connection is so slow that the 15 minutes could turn into 40 if they don't mind the time. Too many people on at once slows our speed down at prodigious clips. I was having concerns of leaving Facebook running but decided against it as it may be the only fun thing they get to partake in during these two weeks.

When the students are finished they will depart and then the next thing I get to look forward to is my friend form the states visiting close to the middle of February. Maybe we can do some more exploring around here and turn up some new things to do. My hope is for lots of fun and again to see the country through the eyes of the first-time visitor. I think I will skip the trip to the jam-packed Tudu station this time though. Unless he wants to just get right into it.

A fun story from last night before I stop here. I ran home last night near 6 or 7 and found that my housemate was in the kitchen making something to eat. I headed straight for the bathroom as I stay hydrated to a fault. While in the water closet I could hear loud footsteps sounding as though my housemate was taking a bit of exercise while he was in the kitchen. It then occurred to me that I might have seen a bat in the kitchen earlier in the day that may have still been hanging around. In hindsight, I should have extricated the bat then, but the story would not be as fun.

Sure enough I found him saying, "Bat!" as I walked to the kitchen. The poor bat was stuck in there. They usually find their way out but he was taking a couple of breaks from the flight circles, so I had the chance to toss a bowl over him while he sat down on the floor. Sliding a manila folder under the bowl gave me the chance to pick the little fellow up and escort him outside. I don't believe Taka is an animal lover, but he was relieved that the little fellow was released back outside to freedom.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

What Accounts For A Storm In Dry Season

If you have been reading the last few posts, then you already know that dry season has been visiting my neighborhood for the past two or so months with little let up. Each day the sky turns a light dusty white color and you never see a stitch of blue sky, nor a cloud to speak of. Today a very strange thing happened in the morning, it was quite dark outside.

When I woke up it seemed to me to be a bit too dark for the time. Sure enough when I went out the back door of the house to hang up my towel, I could clearly make out the boundaries of dark clouds which I have not noticed in weeks. But to have borders meant there was a sky to see around them and hence I could witness blue for the first time in a long time. I wasn't confused into thinking that the dry season was over but I was a bit relieved to see something approaching a normal view upstairs.

Then tonight I got the full effect. It started with a slight fuzz of a sound. The curtains tossed around on the open windows and sure enough, the fuzz which started off inaudible turned into a full buzz. The rain was hitting the sheet metal roof and the sound was reminiscent of the October storms. I ran outside to put my bike under a roofed enclosure and expected to see the torrents come down but... no. Nothing more than about one hundred drops and it was over. It barely made the dust and dirt budge and then no more. Later there were flashes of lightning in the night sky, but even those were hard to see through the dust in the air.

It would seem that the rain didn't see it's shadow - two more months of dry season.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Have You Walked Up A Staircase Lately?

Just for a moment, consider the last staircase you walked up or down in your life. Can you recall anything about it? Was there any difference that was notable or did you just see the stairs and then move from one story to the other? My guess is that if you live in America, then no, there was nothing particularly unusual about the staircase - maybe you noticed a chip in the paint on the handrail or that their is a bit of dirt on the third stair. I think I can expand a little bit on stairs here in Ghana from a recent experience.

There was a recent In-Service Training (IST, naturally) for our newest education volunteers which was held just outside of Kumasi. The trip out and back were most definitely worthy of a post here, but that will be later. Peace Corps held the workshop at a hotel that felt like it was 50 miles away from Kumasi but in reality was probably about 10; traffic is so bad around the Kumasi area that walking would feel far faster than sitting in a taxi. Still, the hotel was very nice. The rooms had air-conditioning and a water heater in every room in case you wanted to take a warm shower. It was a beautiful hotel and one where a lot of money was spent to create a building that had four floors of good-sized rooms. Tile was everywhere and TVs that worked in each room.

Every morning I would descend the steps to get breakfast in the lobby and each morning I would make a mental note of which steps were completely different. I could lose count before I was finished with the first flight of stairs. I would dare say that in this very fine hotel, one where a lot of money was spent to make things nice enough for international travelers, no one step was a carbon copy of any other step. Like snowflakes, each one had a unique character, and by character, we really mean exaggerated flaw. Several steps were not even close to parallel either, they jutted out in completely random direction as if someone purposefully liked to change the lines to create "visual interest".

In the morning it was not so bad, you are walking down the stairs and the foot lands when it lands but there is not as much danger of a stumble. Unless of course you found the one set where there was a miniature bonus step added to the top stair. No, the morning commute was fine. It was the evenings when you were a little tired (or as some volunteers tried it, tipsy) that the steps posed a safety hazard. There were so many variances in step height that you could not keep track of which one was the odd man out. Was it the first set on the second floor where the third and eighth step were too high? No, it was the third step of the third flight which was out of sequence. I tripped at least six times on those things and I knew they were there.

This problem exists in a lot of buildings here in Ghana, too. The steps seem to be made from the ground up and at some point the people checking the steps realize two-thirds of the way up that they have to make up 3" of extra space in one direction or the other. If you were employed only to do this type of work there surely would be some form of trick or shortcut that would give workers a better method of consistency, spacing the rise and run of each step to be similar to the previous one and the next. My hope is to post a photograph of the first stair case that I would climb down in the morning - it was comical.

It is one of the endearing things about Ghana I think, but I am not sure I will miss it when I leave.

Here was the photograph mentioned above:

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Dry Season Means Dirt Season

Being gone for about 25 days meant that upon my return to the house there was a tiny little bit of cleaning to do in the house. Every square inch of horizontal service collected 25 days worth of microscopic particles while both me and my housemate were away. The floors are spattered with footprints, and if you stamp your foot somewhat hard on the floor, then you will see curls and tendrils of dirt curl through the air. It is really dusty here.

Even in the bedroom where the windows were mainly shut and the door was closed, there is dust everywhere. I found my mechanical pencil on my sketchbook and was hoping that maybe with the windows closed that not as much dust had made its way in there. Carefully I plucked the pencil off the cover of the sketchbook and sure enough it appeared as though an x-ray had been taken with the pencil clearly showing up in a perfect outline of dirt. This was going to be difficult to clean out, and worse, I had this very bad feeling that my bed and the linens sitting there beside the desk were equally as covered with the mere beginnings of dry season here. Everything is going to need a washing (or a heavy whacking) to get the dust loose. Even when sweeping it out you can physically taste the dirt that is clouding up the room as the broom brushes over the floor.

Worse is that after cleaning out the house, it is only going to get dusty again and leave us with no other option but to sweep and dust more. Maybe I knew this was coming but for some reason having the entire house covered in dust was not the grand reception that I was hoping for. Oh, and the two bats that were in the house as well.

It's the little things like that which I will miss I suppose.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Holiday Summary

The holidays have come and gone and it appears that this site has been rather bereft of updates and posts. Someone must have been asleep at the switch, operator-error in the parlance of the computing world, and things have been a bit slow. So now would be a good time to change that. For what it is worth I have been contemplating writing a bit more on life. Several people that I saw over Christmas and New Years' gave me positive feedback on the updates so I want to continue with them and at the same time practice my writing, honing the craft a bit more in preparation for the return to the real world of American life.

With that in mind, this is a wrap-up of the trip out and back for Christmas. I took about three weeks to travel back to the states and see my girlfriend and family as well as a bit of time to just relax away the days better than I can in Hohoe. Leaving on the 14th meant that I would fly during the night into Amsterdam and then proceed after a few hours of layover-time on to Boston. Damla was there and as a precaution had a jacket ready for me so that I would not freeze upon walking outside. Fortunately it was a nice day for the northeast and that meant I could manage without too many extra layers. The coat would definitely come in handy later on during the trip though.
My initial thoughts on being back were that things had not changed much since I had left. There was still order in the streets, dogs on leashes, and commercials blazing from every surface imaginable trying to encourage the people to go out and use those credit cards to add just a few more precious gifts under the tree. I had forgotten how much media pushes people to buy things without a television or radio in my life here in Ghana. No Christmas music either. That was corrected within seconds of being back on the ground in the airport as it was all that was playing and being advertised.

Still, it was good to be back, and the idea that the holidays would be had with family and friends made me feel very happy and peaceful. A majority of time was spent in Boston but for about 8 days we were driving around the country on a mission to visit people. Unfortunately there was only so much time to get around here or there and so much energy was left in the tank by the end of the trip that I couldn't make it to everyone I wanted to see. In all, we traveled 2,000 or more miles to make a road trip that would put a long-haul trucker... well, they probably do that on a Monday and call it a good day. But still, for the two of us, it was a bit of an accomplishment.

We managed to do this as boyfriend and girlfriend at first, but after Christmas day we could drive all over America as an engaged couple. I proposed to Damla on the 25th and she said, "Yes" which is a whole lot better than, "Let me think about it and get back to you." We are both very happy and had a great time as the husband- and wife-to-be that we were.

It isn't already obvious, Christmas and New Year's Eve were great and I had a lot of food to eat which I don't have in great supply here in Ghana. Ice cream, gallons of coffee (not an exaggeration either), almost a half-gallon of eggnog, meat that is cooked to perfection and things that are deep fried to that golden goodly crispness. Everything was fantastic and by the end of the vacation I really didn't have any more need for it. When I come back permanently I might try eating a few "bad" foods for a week, but I find that I much rather like the taste of good things prepared well as compared to having unhealthy things that taste sweet or fatty. That, and I watched many reruns of the show "Chopped" from the Food Network. Why anyone should know how to cook rose petals is beyond me.

As with many things in life that are good, this trip was much too short. After the kisses and goodbyes were over, it was always off to the next thing. Eventually that had to be the airport in Boston, and both Damla and I said some long goodbyes before I boarded the plane to Rome. Much of the trip was uneventful save for an overhead panel falling down in the seat ahead of me. Alitalia may not be seeing me use their fine services for the return flight to the U.S. A great trip made even better by everyone I got to see. Thanks especially to my mom and Damla for taking great care of me and seeing to it that I got fatter for the stay.

One thing is for sure: next year I will be home for Christmas and I won't have to fly in an airplane or be at an airport for 24+ hours to do it! (Enter the Christmas music 11 months too early)

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Just Another Saturday

All it turned out to be was just another Saturday in Ghana.

For the most part this year is a little bit easier than last year. I know what is going on, I know when odd days off are going to magically appear on the calendar, and there are more things to do on campus then I was aware of last year at this time. One of the things that I knew would be coming is the matriculation ceremony of the first-years. They are called "freshers" for the first six or seven weeks of the semester until they go through the ceremony at the chapel and become official students. I am not so sure they are unofficial students before this as they have already paid a hefty sum of money to sit down in the classrooms, but it is a ceremony that comes no matter what and the students seem to get a kick out of it.

Our clocks were set to 9AM to begin the festivities with a full Catholic mass. I knew it might be a long day of course, (it was last year) but things tend to drag on a little bit when the master of ceremonies arrives about half an hour late. During that time I was doing some small detail work on the school web site that I have been trying to help build with the staff here. We were going to introduce it to the school even though our internet connection has been out for well over a week now due to hardware issues from our provider. The site looks pretty basic but it had to be finished for this day as per the Principal of the school. We had a few pages ready for the event but I could hardly resist small little edits here and there to make it look better in my eyes.

Fortunately for me the Principal asked that we have the projector ready in the chapel to show the site and I found our entertainment prefect in the church and asked him to help out. This afforded me the small excuse to be in the back of the chapel working out some further kinks in the site while the mass was going on. My part in the proceedings didn't happen until fully two hours into the service. After the mass ended I knew that it would be the Principal's turn to speak so I got all of the pages ready on my browser (different tabs were opened to keep as many pages as I wanted to show the congregation at the ready) and at his cue, I walked in and hooked my netbook up to the projector and prepared to dazzle the assembled mass with the wonders of the world wide web.

The only thing was I didn't notice on our first test that the projector didn't like my screen resolution. It cut off about 25% of the right side of the site. Well, it was mostly there for all to see. That was the only incident in the show, and it was probably not too noticeable for most of the people there. The students were excited to know that all of their names were present on the site for the world to see, and that more is coming in the future. Right now it seemed best for the school to save money and use a free web blogging tool to get the job done, so I can happily introduce to you, my loyal readers, the new St. Francis' College of Education web site. Many students and staff asked for the address afterwards and I realized that it is not the easiest one to write down.

With the students matriculated it was off to the staff common room in the administration building to celebrate a little with food and drinks. Rice, fried chicken and vegetables plus a Coke for me sat rather nicely. I arrived late as all the students that I saw asked me to take pictures with them since they were dressed quite nicely (white button-down top and black slacks/skirts plus a dark tie with the Franco logo emblazoned on it). In turn I used a film camera I have here to get a few shots of staff and students as well. I can't wait to see the results in print!

After lunch it was off to St. Theresa's College of Education for a friendly volleyball match with the staff at that school. It is an all-women institution so the court was ringed with a fairly partisan contingent of ladies rooting for the other side. I have to admit it was a lot of fun playing again and not suffering a severely twisted ankle as payment but to have an audience proved embarrassing on several occasions. While we didn't win, we also didn't lose by means of complaining that it was too dark to finish the match (we were losing so bad at the time that it may have been a ploy by our team to save just a tiny bit of face). Again we were treated with some drinks in their staff common room and I got to meet a few more people from their school.

This brings me to only 6:30PM or so. I had a chance to invite a student back at the house to play my guitar and show what he can do, eat a dinner of fufu and groundnut soup, spend several hours online with my girlfriend and nurse some wounds and sore joints in a cool bedroom with the fan on low. There were also a few JICA (Japanese volunteers) who showed up to stay the night at our house which was nice. I got to use my only Japanese which was, "good night" but said with the thickest American accent you can imagine. The day was busy but entirely fun and enjoyable. I am leaving here very shortly to return to America and spend a lot of time with said girlfriend and family, but I will be coming back to finish off my service in January. July is just a stone's throw away after that and then I can return for good.

Yes sir, just another Saturday here in Ghana.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Thanks Have Been Given

It is two full days back at Hohoe and I still feel like it happened way too fast. The Ambassador to Ghana invited those in the embassy and all of the Peace Corps volunteers in the country to his house so they could enjoy the pleasures of a very splendid turkey dinner with all the trimmings and the best Thanksgiving you can get while you are thousands of miles away from home. This year I almost didn't make it.

We tend to get the announcement that there is an invite waiting for us when the September newsletter is circulated to all of the PCVs in-country. It clearly states that you are invited but that you must RSVP to reserve a place for you on the guest list. Naturally, I made a mental note of that and promptly forgot to do so five seconds later. By the end of October I had talked to one or two volunteers who said that they would be seeing me at Thanksgiving when I realized that I hadn't responded yet. Typical.

It was by the goodness of one lady's heart that she overlooked my lateness and added my name in pencil to the bottom of the list. I am not sure if I was the last to respond, but there were plenty ahead of me on the sheet of paper that I saw. Sometimes Peace Corps is strict about their regulations, but in the end I was incredibly thankful to have them bend the rules.

Thanksgiving last year was almost identical to this year save for the fact that now my group was the old group and the new group was eager to understand what they were in for when the food came out. The chefs and staff at the Ambassador's residence still know how to put on an edible show as the feast began at 2PM and didn't really stop until 4 with dessert. I tried my best to not be gluttonous but a second helping of mashed potatoes could not be resisted, and an extra slice of pie (or three) was also there for the taking with some extremely fine coffee. I was satiated and then some.

With most of the volunteers in one spot you could walk no more than eight feet and not stop to talk to someone about how things were going and what they planned on doing next. Maybe after talking to one hundred people and having been up since 5 that morning in order to catch a tro-tro to Accra the day had grown on me a bit. Being just a little weary and finding out that I could stay with an returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV) who was living with her family in Accra, I begged out of joining others for more fun in the city and went to the family's house. It was just what the doctor ordered: I had a quiet place and a very fast internet connection. It allowed me plenty of time to chat with and call my girlfriend back in the States, and provided for a serene evening of air-conditioned comfort. Also, a swimming pool.

There is one thing though that makes the trip to Accra a bit painful. Leaving it. I am not a big fan of the city and while it has plenty to offer for everyone, I am much too used to the quiet days and the roosters calling at all hours. It just seems more like home when there is less noise, smoke, and people around. To get home on the very next day, Friday, meant that I had to find a Hohoe tro in the afternoon. It was not very easy at all. When I walked into the park that operates as a central Volta station I saw three or four long lines of passengers waiting and absolutely no vehicles. That isn't a good sign. On Fridays there is never enough tro-tros to fill the demand. Hence, a long line. Oh, and the price escalates by two cedis for the trip.

I made friends with the man that I stood behind in the queue. Soon, maybe 20 minutes or so, someone approached him and spoke very briefly. Emmanuel turned around (he was dressed nicely and I assume that since his shirt had the words Ministry of Health that he worked there, seemed like an eminently trust-able soul) and motioned me to follow him. It pays to greet people here.

We walked for maybe a half-mile to a station that I had never seen before that seemed to be at the heart of a wild labyrinth of market stalls selling everything from smoked fish to purse imports from China. Sure enough though, at the end of our meandering path there stood before us the dilapidated tro-tro that would take us home. I landed in the flip-out seat in the second-to-last row (the last row housing several pieces of automotive hardware which were in need of repair) next to a very big father and his children. It was tight, hot, and uncomfortable and we waited for about 40 more minutes for the last person to arrive so that we could make our exit.

This is not to complain, as the trip back and forth from where I live to Accra is a fifth of what others go through to come down from their homes, but it does not make it any more pleasant or easy to bounce along and know that others have it worse.

By about 7 o'clock I was back in town and a few more minutes later I was at the house resting. It is always nice to see other volunteers and to be treated to very American foods, but at times all you want to do is go back to the place you call home.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Back To The Radio Station

Just yesterday I had a fun if unexpected moment at the school. While teaching students the difference between a bulleted list and a numbered list a student from another class walked in and asked for my phone number. She was told to do this by another teacher whose name I was not quite sure about. After I gave her the number it took about ten minutes for me to receive the call and soon I figured out who the teacher was but I was still thrown a bit by the message. "Go see the station manager at Heritage FM."

Why was she giving me the message? What did the station manager want and was I in some sort of trouble? I got done with the class and made my way to find the teacher in question. Alberta (a few months pregnant and in need of a chair outside of her class to rest a bit) explained that she had a radio program with the station on Wednesdays about marital issues, hence she knew the station manager. He had called her up as the station had lost my number and asked Alberta to send me the message. She didn't know what they wanted but said I should just take a taxi and head over to the station. After thanking her and teasing her a bit, I found my bike and rode down the road to the station.

The manager was there and I sat down to hear what he had to say. He was offering me a chance to do a radio promo for them which is not what I would call an urgent message or request, but one that turned out to be pretty fun. They do their promo spots in-house and they had a few scripted messages for me to look at and repeat. It seemed a little silly, but also it was a great break from the regular stuff so I said that I would give it a try.

The station itself is in what I would describe as a small house walled off from its neighboring buildings. As you enter the building from the front, just off to your right is the production studio. To say studio makes you think of something from the movies or television where there are two rooms, the audio engineer sits behind a bank of a thousand dials and knobs and she or he looks through a big glass window to the recording area beyond where the talent delivers the music or voice that will be heard by millions. For this studio, picture a six foot by eight foot room completely covered from wall to ceiling with egg-crate foam and one air conditioning unit humming away to keep the room cool. There was not a lot of space to walk around or move, and I was the fourth person to enter the room so it was crowded. Two desks held the audio mixing board and the computer that would save the tracks that were recorded.

This is not the same studio where we recorded the health program, that is in the room next door. This place is just meant to do recordings and it was where I would be speaking. They gave me the sheet of promos and showed me what they had in mind for me to read. I wish I had memorized the one passage they had me say as it was the silliest thing I have ever said into a microphone (I think, I have said some silly things in my time) but it boiled down to, "I have traveled the world and have never found a radio station that gave me so much pleasure as Heritage FM, 107.3" After I did a few takes of this passage, they had one they liked and they did just ten seconds of post production to it. They played it for me on their rather nice speakers and I was rather impressed my voice could sound the way it did. I didn't get a copy of the file, but when I return I will ask around to see if someone can give it to me.

What would be even better is to hear it on the radio and say to whoever is near me, "That's me!"

Sometimes the small things here can make you smile and have a good day. I should note that while I was enjoying myself at the studio I was not preparing for our ICT Club meeting. I drafted notes earlier in the morning for the one-hour session but didn't refine or practice what I was to cover during my lecture. That had a negative consequence to what I went over. You can't win them all I suppose. It just means I will try a bit harder for our next club meeting whilst I listen to the radio in town for their promo spots.