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.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

A New Housemate In Hohoe

It is finally official, I have a second body staying permanently in the house here at campus. St. Francis College has received a new volunteer by the name of Yoshitaka and he is living in our house fully now. He was here for a short time in Hohoe last month for training purposes, but he was not living with me. He had a homestay family of his own in town that treated him to some Ewe lessons and made him feel right at home in Ghana with plenty of food. After a trip back to Accra he came back this past Friday for good to live on campus.

He is enjoying the new routine I think and has been very gracious in allowing the house here to remain a way-station for other people who are traveling up and down through the Volta region. After he arrived I had two volunteers stay on two consecutive nights and he was all right with the arrangement. That was a small concern of mine: that he might not like a lot of company. He was very clear in saying that he enjoys being social and likes to relax with a beer every so often. I told him my personal preference for socializing and a Malta and we are communicating nicely.

Today was church day (like clockwork, every first Sunday of the month) and Taka, as he prefers to be called, and I went to do our duty. It was a fun service yet again, however they continue to run into the 2 and a half hour zone. The service could really be sped up if they just passed a collection plate between the pews instead of having everyone get up and dance-walk their way to the front of the church to drop in their coins or bills. Maybe I should suggest this efficiency to Father Akpa in the near future. With a few more suggestions, I bet I could get the entire Mass down to 39 minutes! "Communion could be handed out while you pass the donation plates around."

Currently I am sitting in our computer lab. I left the lab yesterday thinking that the power was out in Hohoe as there was no electricity humming in the lab itself. When I got home I saw we had power - what luck! Today I learn that our lab still has no power and that the other buildings on campus do have power. Apparently just the lab and maybe one other building block are out of juice. I didn't know this until today. Our electrician is traveling and tomorrow in Ghana it is a holiday so it looks like we might not have someone available to work on this small hiccup. That would be bad since today is the first day where I have people participating in a working meeting of the ICT Club. Hardware can be a trick to fix when you don't have electricity but we'll manage, "...somehow".

Friday, November 04, 2011

A Trip Up To Nkwanta

Recently I made an overnight trip to the Nkwanta region to see a few of our northern Volta volunteers. It was Halloween and many suggested a party to celebrate and that seemed like a great excuse to make the trek. Most who know me here can count on me being at the house or at that computer lab when they pass through Hohoe since that is where I usually am 99% of the time. But that needed to change. Off to the north I went.

The main complaint about the trip is the quality of the ordeal you go through. Not quite torture by any stretch of the imagination, but difficult for sure. The road heading north is about half pavement (gravel dropped on top of a layer of hot tar) and half dirt. The pavement part seems a luxury after you have been riding on the dirt for a few hours, but even that part can stand some infrastructure improvements when compared to other roads in the south. Still, the bulk of your fun stems from the dirt portion of your trip. The road has seen torrential rains for the past three months so its condition would leave a civil engineer in the states scratching their heads: do vehicles still use this road?

Absolutely. The biggest trucks in Ghana regularly use the road to deliver produce (tons and tons of yams) to the south and goods back up to the north. So picturing big heavy trucks lumbering up and down a thoroughly drenched dirt road and you have an idea of the damage that is possible. At a few key points the land is too low - about even with the water table it would seem - and the road becomes a pit. Fortunately when I passed back and forth, the rain held off for a day or two so the mud was firmly packed, but the tro-tro had to gingerly make its way into the trough, riding on the ridges left behind by the wider tracks left by the yam trucks.

Since it was drying out a bit, the dust on the road is everywhere inside the tro when you are finished with the journey. My clothes were a mess and when I stepped out of the vehicle I was reminded of the character Pigpen from the Peanuts comic strip, a haze around me as I tried to knock the dust off my jeans.

All in all though, the trip was very much worth it. I stayed at a volunteers house and got to see what village life would be like were I not placed in a rather large town. Lots of people passing by and saying hello using a language that I haven't the faintest idea how to hear or speak, and a beautiful scene at sunset. I don't get those so often here (or maybe I do, but I am in the computer lab helping someone's laptop see the wireless signal again).

I don't travel much in Ghana but I think I could be convinced to make a long trip before my service is up to see some other Peace Corps Volunteer sites and to experience what others have. It was the farthest north that I have been since arriving I think and well worth the bumps on the road to get there. A very kind thank you to those PCVs who showed me around!

Making A Long Distance Connection

Way back when, maybe at the beginning of 2010 when I knew I was going to come to Ghana, I filled out a form for the Coverdell World Wise Schools program whereby a member from the Peace Corps connects with a school back in America. My teacher and I have been in touch and it looks like we can get the students connected while separated by thousands of miles and a small body of water.

A few weeks back we had our first connection and it was a lot of fun.

We used just a normal phone line to make the connection and I think we spoke for about 45 minutes. All of the students had a question about what life is like, what the students here do and what it might be like to be in a class in Hohoe. I tried my best to answer the questions but I let them know that my experience here was with a different age group. The students that they were more interested are around 10 to 12 years in age I think, so my students who can be young-ish adults don't quite match up so well. We managed though, and I had a lot of fun telling them about fufu, banku, and the other Ghanaian dishes and customs that one finds here.

We are going to try to make another connection and I have in mind using our ICT Club here to organize a project that will show what life mightt be like here using videos and photos of school. It seems to be very interesting to the students in my classes, and I am hopeful that the students back in Ms. Tinney's class get a kick out of it too.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Taking HIV To The Radio

Ever since this past May when I attended the All-Volunteer conference I have had an interest in doing something on our local radio station. One of our since-departed volunteers explained how he went about getting a monthly show on the air at a radio station near his site and what he did to educate people on the disease of HIV. Personally, I had no secondary project on hand to report back on and there are two radio stations in my town so it seemed like a good idea to check them out. I even went so far as to tell others that I was thinking about doing such a thing, but my words spoke much louder than my actions. I hadn't done a lick of work to make it happen.

Worse, the radio station that is closest to me is three minutes from my house by bicycle. There was no excuse for me to not stop by and ask around about the possibility of appearing on a program, or getting a slot made available every so often. Yet day by day, I would ride right past the building, a giant tower protruding into the sky with an antenna at the very top just calling out to me, "I'm here, come on in." And I kept riding.

What if they said, "Yes, sure, come on tonight," then where would I be? The fear of them saying yes or no was keeping me at bay for some reason. Silly, but I have been thinking about it and not doing anything for over three months.

Finally, I was writing down my to-do lists one day and I put on the list the following item: Call a fellow volunteer and ask him about the radio station that interviewed him. My mind suggested that I would need an "in", and maybe this other volunteer would have a name or a number that would set the ball rolling down the hill. It was also a lot easier to call a friend then to go in cold, or so I thought. Over two weeks later, (yes, it was at least that long before I checked off the task) I made the call. His response was something akin to, "I'd just go and ask the first person you see if you can speak to someone." Oh. That simple eh?

Yes, it was that simple. By the end of September I had stopped avoiding it and just pedaled my way through the iron gate to the miniature compound and removed my bike helmet and asked the first person I met if there was someone I could talk to. I was speaking to Joseph, the security guard, and he said that I should go inside. I tried to explain myself to Patience, the secretary inside the main room of the building why I was there. She nodded, smiled, and then said let me get the station manager. (This was going rather well already, four minutes in to the task). I met Jos and in no time he was telling me that I was welcome and that not only did he like my idea of an HIV-themed segment, he offered up the varying time slots and programs that might a good fit.

"Why didn't I do this sooner?" I was thinking. If I could have, I would have excused myself and walked somewhere private to kick myself in the backside. It wasn't necessary though, as all was working out nicely. Eventually in a day or two I got to meet the program director of the station and we went over what was possible and it was agreed I could start by doing two things. One was the health program that aired on Wednesday nights from 8:00 to 9:30 in the evenings, "Our Health, Our Wealth". It seemed like a good fit for the HIV education that I was interested in. He then suggested a program about business that was to air on Mondays and possibly talking with the host of that program to see what we could do in terms of exchanging ideas on what business was like in America versus what it was like here. Great! Let's do it.

Then I got to thinking that I might have to fill an hour of time on HIV and business. I was determined to get a bit of a running start on my HIV knowledge as quick as I could. I met with the host of the health program and Rita suggested a few questions that she might ask, and I told her what my focus would be for the program for her to review. Our preparation meeting went well, and later that day (Wednesday of this past week) I was on the air with her in a very tight little room filled with recording and audio mixing equipment. Thankfully it was air conditioned and we were ready and comfortable.

The first part of the show is the discussion between the host and the guest and the last half hour is reserved for calls to the station about the topic. At the outset I was very nervous as I had no idea who was listening in, I wasn't sure of what I was going to say precisely after her first question, and I knew I had to speak really slowly or else no one was going to understand me. Five minutes past by and everything felt fine.

It was more like talking with a friend who was just curious about this and that rather than speaking to 100 people at once. When I answered one of her questions she would refer to the notes she made of my answer and then translate that answer to Ewe so all the listeners would understand what I had said. It also padded the first hour wonderfully. I was waiting for the switchboard to light up with phone calls after 9 o'clock, but it was lit up by a little blip of a light. We had one caller, and that question was a good one: Can an HIV+ person have a child? I said yes but that transmission was a possibility if it was the mother who was positive, and Rita mentioned that if the man was the one who had the virus then possibly artificial insemination was the way to go. Good call Rita! Thus the end of our callers. Only 27 minutes left to fill.

The program didn't quite go the full hour and a half as we ran out of questions and callers by about 9:15. It was still a lot of fun and I am hopeful of turning the appearance into something consistent. After we concluded the broadcast I thanked Rita for her performance and for helping me out with the nervousness at the beginning. The producer of the show gave me the audio recording of the broadcast on a USB drive and I thanked them both profusely before I walked out the door.

During the next day I had two teachers come up to me and say that they had heard me on the radio and congratulated me, so I can confirm that at least two people were listening to the broadcast. It was fun and I am eager to try it again. The next program is the business one this coming Monday. My hope is that is goes off smoothly like Wednesdays edition.

Until next time Hohoe, this is Fo Kwaku wishing you a good evening and a sound sleep.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Being Busy Is A Good Thing

As September came to a quick close I found myself having to write out lists of things that I ought to do. Back in August I was pressing myself a bit to find things to occupy the days while the students were away. Now I am getting caught up in four or five things at once and it is a good thing.

Firstly, the students are back and milling about the campus a lot now. The third-year students were the first to arrive and they attended a week-long lecture on what is expected of them during their tenure as a teacher in the area schools around the Volta region. It was great to see some familiar faces again and I had a terrible time of remembering names (for which I am so ill-equipped with names that I know and have heard before, let alone try to figure out which is Enyanam and who is Dziedzorm (both of those names I did remember as they are very sweet ladies who stopped by the lab often enough so as I could etch their names into my brain)). Lots of smiles and lots of fun while the third-years stayed on campus.

I attended one of their lectures in the building close by to my house on a Thursday. There were not many teachers present for this lecture so I stood out a little by my late arrival and the fact that I was the third teacher seated, but it went well. One of the teachers leaned over to me while the speaker was finishing up with her presentation and let me know that I would be allowed to do the closing prayer for the assembly. I pleaded as best I could to not be the one to do this (for those who know me, the reason would be obvious) but it became clear that she was not letting "no" be an answer. I jotted down something to say that sounded religious enough, and then made sure to include a bit of humor. It went something like this: "God, grant us today the humility and serenity which You have given us through our entire lives; and Lord please keep our third-year students safe for ever and ever -- or at least until they get back from the bank with their school fees. For this we pray, Amen." At the Amen part the entire room exploded with "AHHH MEN!!!" and laughter. I don't know if the joke went over well, but they were happy to be done which made me happy in turn.

Out with old, in with the newer. Or something like this as the second-year and first-year students arrived in the following week. The new faces were immediately put to work and the campus started to become a little less overgrown with grasses and weeds. No one attends the college without bringing their favorite machete and they were using it well in the early days of this week. I didn't get to meet any of the new students in classes as they were too busy working, but during the following week I will be able to greet them and introduce myself. Already a few know me by the name Fo Kawku (my best spelling of what is a symbol in that looks like a backwards 'c') which is fine by me.  A few have even trickled into the lab to check email and let the family know how they are doing. I already have a very capable student who can fix hardware issues quite nicely. He repaired computers for a living at a business here in town and brought that know-how to the school by fixing an ailing computer from our school's typing pool. I was impressed since I was stuck on how to resuscitate the patient before he showed up.

Students returning to campus was the easy part and required very little of my time. I happened to get involved in a few other things that have had me busy. Our school here is desperate for a web site and I am trying to help out by coordinating the committee responsible for launching the site by December. So far we are not really sure if we can afford (through school funding) to purchase a domain and then buy hosting space on a web server. I hope to find this out first before getting too far into the "building" part of the site. The worst case scenario that I see is just putting up a few pages for free at a site like Still, it is nice to have some tasks to take on and get done.

With a web site being built my hope is to organize and grow an ICT (Information and Communication Technologies) club for the students on campus. In the dream world that I occupy there would be enough interest in the club to support an HTML boot camp where the students themselves would maintain the hypothetical web site that St. Francis operates. If that were the case, then when either my counterpart or I leave there will be people ready to train the next class on how to make updates to the site. Again, that is a bit ambitious. For the near-term the ICT Club would be there to allow those students who are interested in taking their understanding of computers and communications a bit further. The classes which I teach just get their feet wet in some software, but there is a ton to learn out there in the world of communications and this might be the right forum to see what interests the students and to give them what they want. Another possibility is to take this club and have them be a part of a dialogue with younger students back in the U.S. through the Coverdell World Wise School program. I am working with a teacher to try and create a bridge between the two classes demonstrating what it is like to live and learn in each culture. This might be a way to introduce video recording and editing to the students and a neat way to see how the other country does things. During the first week of classes here I am going to advertise the heck out of it (the ICT club) in the hopes of having a few sign up.

Most volunteers get involved in something outside of their main duties and up to now I really hadn't approached a secondary project. It could be for the best that I had some time to think about one and hear different ideas for projects which lead me to a previous volunteer's work directing a radio program in his community speaking about HIV and educating people about the disease. My own fear of speaking in public be damned, I went to the local radio station in town (we have two here) that is closest to St. Francis first and met a very receptive station manager. He was supportive of the idea and his warmth and smile made me realize that this wasn't going to be the fight that I was picturing to secure air time for such educational segments. He directed me to the program manager and I met the same positive response. I am taking some time to gather more information so that I can actually speak competently on the subject, but they were asking me about stopping by and giving some perspectives on life and the difference between Ghana and America. This sounds like goal number two in Peace Corps' mission statement to me, so I feel quite excited about it and very thankful that the radio station was open to it.

On a very small scale I have been lending my cartoon talents to the SWAT Malaria initiative sponsored by a few other PCVs here in Ghana. The illustration of a woman stabbing her little baby with a mosquito looks pretty good if I do say so myself. Each cartoon is meant to convey an idea that we are protecting ourselves from malaria by taking certain steps and the stabbing-a-baby picture is just a striking image to go along with that campaign. There are a few others to complete, but so far it seems to be working out. My hope is that the group sponsoring the campaign is all right with the drawings. My biggest challenge is to render in cartoon-form someone suffering diarrhea. That shall be high art.

There are a few other things that are going which may not be big deals but make me feel like I am getting some things done. St. Francis typically does the timetable for all of the teachers and students by hand, leaving one person to try and solve all the conflicts that arise when accounting for many many classes spread throughout the week. Now we have software at the lab that might be able to remove the tedious aspect of the work and get a schedule that won't have conflicts right from the very start. If it does not work, then... well, I am hoping that it works from the get-go. More personal goals involve struggling with the guitar, making small improvements on my Turkish with the help of a very understanding (and pretty) coach, and then a teacher workshop focused on giving everyone basic internet skills and using the machines in the lab.

Indeed, keeping busy and then some.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Medically Cleared For Service

After three days going to and from Accra I am ready for the rest of my service, medically speaking. About a dozen of us from Volta and a few other regions convened at the Peace Corps Headquarters prepared to visit the doctor and see a dentist to ensure that we still are coping with the banku and fufu adequately. We had two days to be in the medical unit of the compound but I was able to get both appointments done in one day, meaning I could get back a day early. While I was there I tried to eat as much American food as I could, but the spending allowance PCVs receive is not quite up to the current prices of eating so well in the city. Two cheeseburgers and french fries plus a pizza are enough Americana for me.

All volunteers go through this checkup to see that there are no problems and that our bodies are not harboring any unseen characters that might affect our health negatively. When I went to see the doctor the only thing I had a complaint about was insect bites but they are minor and as long as I resist the scratching urge they are not a big concern. We reviewed the ankle injury and then that was about it. A few deep breaths to check my lungs and all was deemed well. I sense that I have gotten a little fatter as I am up to 157 pounds and none of that is extra muscle. In hindsight it makes the cheeseburgers and pizza look a bit more criminal in terms of my health, but they were a medical necessity for me (mental necessity at least) which I won't be regretting any time soon.

Part of the process includes giving a few medical samples on which to run lab tests and while the women have more to give than us men, we still all have to do a bit of "collecting" in the lavatory. There might be some more humorous stories I could tell about all of that, but for the sake of a public web log I will keep those private, reserved for later story telling when I get back home. Suffice it to say, you must produce samples of your waste so the lab can do some checks. I obliged and promptly forgot about it. On the 20th, Tuesday, I was running around the buildings at headquarters trying to get my reimbursement forms filled out correctly when the doctor stepped into the lobby of the medical office and made sure I got a brown paper bag with my name written across it. "What's this for?" I asked. "It's your medicine." I wasn't sure what I had neglected to get from him on the previous day so I opened it up and saw one small blue and white box with Arabic writing on it. On the other side I saw a sticky note affixed to the English side of the medicine and on the note it read, "Giardia isolated in stool." I have no idea how long I have had that in my system but apparently it is not so bad as to be a huge concern, and thankfully it is treated with four quick pills which I took promptly. From training I heard that giardia could cause you some severe problems on the gastrointestinal side but I felt decent as of late. I need to be careful on what I am eating apparently.

That was the worst of it though. One tiny little parasite that is currently experiencing its death throes in my small intestines. I feel ready for the next eleven months and those pearly whites feel nice and clean. With the students coming back next week things should get much more busy on campus and I am feeling ready for it all.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Here Is A Taste Of Ghana

This video below is courtesy of our newest group of Peace Corps Volunteers. One Austin Pruett pulled together video clips that he took during training and put on top of it a nice song and there you have it, a video of what it is like to live in Ghana. Many kudos to him for taking the time to do this.

For those back in the States with weak stomachs, I ask you to stop watching at the 4:04 mark (after the Fufu is being pounded) and continue on at the 4:30 mark. Chickens here don't die of their own accord when it is dinner time, and in those 25 seconds or so, you see how it is done.

The credits at the end are inspired to say the least.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Sixty-Nine New Faces On The Map

August 30th has come and gone but the memories will be around for at least two more years in Ghana as the new group of volunteers have officially taken the oath and cast their lot with the rest of us still occupying our humble homes in the country. It was a great event and one that reminds me of how special it is to be here and be a part of it all.

As it may have been mentioned in the previous post, most every volunteer who was present in the country made their way to the capital and got themselves ready for the ceremony on Tuesday. I had the pleasure of being housed in a friend of a friend's place in Osu (a district in Accra) and before I forget, I am deeply indebted to Peter and Jessica Gross for their hospitality. I saw where most of the volunteers were staying and tried to keep mum about what I had in the way of a full bathroom, hot water (if I wanted it which I didn't - cold showers have a certain way of waking you up in the morning), air conditioning and a ceiling fan right over the nice queen-sized bed with a warm duvet cover. Yes, they are owed a huge thanks. Add to that, Peter and Jessica are wonderful company and full of ideas and it makes it all the better.

We all were there and got to say hello and how are you before a mandatory training session took place at the headquarters in Accra. We need to know how and when to report allegations within the organization and we had a few trial runs on doing just that. I think it was helpful and a good reminder that corruption or just bad behavior is not tolerable no matter where and no matter who performs it. By the time two hours passed most of us were ready to head out and grab a quick bite to eat that Monday night. Again, Accra does not disappoint you when you are hungry for something like a cheeseburger and fries which is precisely what I was in the mood for. The price can be steep, but sometimes you have every reason to celebrate and enjoy yourself once in a while. A 50th is a great reason to celebrate in my estimation.

The next day, Tuesday, brought the festivities. I arrived just at 10 to see the cow horn being blown by Robert Moler (our Director of Program and Training) giving us all the cue to take our seats. It was decided that the event would be located at the Ambassador's house (where Thanksgiving was last year and where it will be this year as well) and it was well-suited for the occasion. We had the Ambassador, the Country Director for Ghana, our Regional Director for Africa, and then a Minister from the government of Ghana all had time before the microphone to say a few words. The Trainees then stood up, raised their right hands, and promised to do their best to defend and uphold the Constitution of the United States. I was pretty happy and proud that they had made it. It seemed as though their 12 weeks of training went by fast (it was two weeks longer than our group's training) but I was assured by most that it was every bit as long as 12 weeks could be. Just the same, they are now fully PCVs and have all the rights as I do which is to say, not many but who is counting. We just needed to celebrate with a party.

Much like Thanksgiving, the staff there at the Ambassador's residence did an outstanding job preparing snacks and dessert for us to munch on. The pizza tray never got more than eight paces from the main house before being swarmed by famished volunteers which was quite comical. The cake was good and the drinks were on the house so I helped myself to two Cokes and a Sprite before closing time.

At the appointed hour the new PCVs were sent to the first place they visited in Ghana, Valley View which is where we went when we arrived over a year ago. Peace Corps did this unusual step because a recent addition was made to the schedule: they would be meeting the President of Ghana on Thursday, September 1st. Now being in Peace Corps gives you some room to complain maybe just a little bit and this was our group's gripe: those who came a year ahead of us were treated to a visit by President Obama in 2009; these who have just arrived meet the Ghanaian President; we got to meet... well, we didn't get to meet any Presidents. It is a joke among us really, not a complaint, that we are the unwanted middle child. All in good fun mind you.

After the ceremony our little band of PCVs, the "old-timers" now headed out to various places for food and libations. I was really happy to be with the gaggle of PCVs that I ended up with since we could trade stories over sushi on the roof of a great restaurant at night with a cool breeze passing by. For 22 cedis I had nine portions of sushi and rice and called it a night with a sundae from the new - can you believe this - KFC that arrived in Osu. It definitely felt like a party.

Now the celebrations are over and I have the pleasure of getting to know two new volunteers who have stopped by for a place to stay while they make their way to their site. We only had three new volunteers placed in the Volta region, but 2/3rds of them have to pass through Hohoe which means I can see them from time to time. So far it has been a good week and I hope to continue it into the next.

Happy trails new volunteers!

Monday, August 22, 2011

We Are Almost 50 Years Old

If you were born on August 30th, 1961 then you and Peace Corps have a birthday coming up. We are going to be celebrating 50 years of service coming up soon, and the celebration will be starting in Accra in the country where the first sandals hit the ground and volunteering began: Ghana.

Our new group of trainees, as I may have mentioned, will be swearing-in come the 30th of this month and it has been timed to coincide with the celebrations for Peace Corps' first half-century celebrations. There should be plenty of people on hand to wish the organization well and that will also include me. We have been informed that there is a mandatory training session on the 29th (part of the PC plan to increase protections for volunteers and administration staff while serving abroad) that will require us to show up in Accra on the day before the swearing-in takes place. It will be nice to celebrate the new group with almost all of the currently serving volunteers close by. Most of the rumors being passed around center on who the biggest name will be to show at the celebration but my breath is being generously held; best not to expect too much when it comes to A-ticket names attending. Though if the President were to swing on over during his vacation, I would not mind taking a photo for posterity's sake.

Fifty years is a long time. Hundreds and hundreds of volunteers have passed through the country before me and I hear about them often. When I mention what I am doing here there is a 50% chance that the person I am talking with will recall having a volunteer show up in her community years and years ago and help either teaching or with agricultural practices. They always have found memories of the volunteer and reflect on the impression that this program has made on them. It is a nice feeling to be a part of that, but it also makes me think that I have a bit more to give to the country and that I better hurry up. Less than one year to go and then I am stateside.

If the stars align properly, there may be a video clip on the CBS morning program in America that highlights the 50th anniversary and may include a few interviews with my fellow volunteers here in Ghana. I won't be able to see it, but it would be nice if all of those who read this blog might check out the station next week on the 30th.

Here is to another 50 years of connecting cultures and doing the right thing across the globe.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Ruminations On School Break

Firstly, I am posting today on August 16th, which means I owe my happiest of birthday wishes to my mother who was kind enough to let me come to Ghana without too much worrying and remorse on her part. She is a special mom, one that I was very, very lucky to have growing up back in Pennsylvania. Enjoy your day Mom!

On top of the special day for her, I am right back in the heart of Peace Corps training as I was invited to attend a workshop on Sunday for saftety training. My house and my town are now a collection point just in case anything remotely bad should happen in the area or across the country, and as such the secruity coordinator within Peace Corps suggested I be an alternate warden to help count heads and open the doors to the house up just in case it became necessary to move Peace Corps Volunteers around. I don't know when (or if) there has ever been a large-scale consolidation of volunteers outside of some general elections held back in the 1980s, but if there ever were a problem, it will look just about like any other weekend at my house with people stopping by strapped in backpacks.

Speaking of people stopping by, two tourists stopped through various places in Ghana and while looking for places to stay, they got in touch with a few fellow PCVs. These two eventually stopped by my place. They were Alex and Eva from Ireland (but orginally from Poland) who stopped in to rest a bit from their three weeks of travel. Both had cameras and were very good photographers; Alex sporting a Polaroid camera that was at least 50 years old which he used to take many peoples' photos - mine included. The instant film prints looked terrific and he was very adept at using the camera which, if you can believe it, held no batteries and was entirely a mechanical / chemical process. The technology built decades ago is still around even today (Fuji still produces the film and paper for the instant print aspect of the camera) but I highly doubt any of the cameras I have will be around in operating condition come 20 years, much less half a century from now.

Back to Kukurantumi: I will be here until Wednesday as I am going to do a small presentation for the Volunteer Advisory Council and then make sure that the Director of Program and Training sees me in my beautiful Philadelphia Flyers smock (he ribs me on the batakari smock all the time). It is nice to have time back here with the Trainees and some of the other PCVs that were extended a similar invitation but the bed is not nearly as comfortable as my own back in Hohoe and for some reason I neglected to bring a pillow with me so my neck is a bit stiff. Other than that, there are great times here and a lot of good people to be with.

I can't conclude without mentioning that Kimmy and Katie (PCVs from the northern parts of Ghana) made some really fantastic meals at the hub site which has a pretty nice kitchen on the premises. Last night was a stir-fry Chinese dinner which tasted fantastic, and then this morning they had pancakes ready with maple syrup and banana slices. Talk about a treat! That too went down quite well. The only thing that I could contribute was my hands in the sink to clean up the pots. They were quite creative in making the pancakes as there were no skillets to be had in the kitchen; they took the lid of a silver pot, flipped it upside down and laid it on the gas unit to make the pancakes. Volunteers can really adapt well to life in the country.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Slow Days Inside And Outside

The tempo has slowed quite a bit. My American visitors departed at the end of July and I returned to Hohoe from Accra the day after. I gather that my immune system was working overtime during their visit and was getting exhausted as I had a slight headache all morning long getting ready for the bus ride home. As the bus finally moved and I was done snacking on all the foods brought to me in my seat (sellers abound in the tro-tro stations) I didn't quite feel so well.

Then the four-hour ride started and I really didn't feel well. The minibus had a little LCD screen fixed to the front of the vehicle and the driver allowed the passengers to watch a Ghanaian movie. Those are not my favorite as the quality and production value screams "home movie" done on your friend's camcorder. As the trip wore on, I could feel a bit of queasiness build and my body started to ache. By the time I got home I was really in need of a taxi and a quick ride back to the house for some sleep. The first driver I inquired said "two cedis", I laughed at him and walked away. That felt really good actually, knowing when someone was just being silly with the fare and then making sure they got zero instead of the normal fifty pesawas.

My next attempt landed me in the right taxi with the correct fare and I was home in no time. I hit the bed and just felt terrible before the drugs that I took could take effect. It had been a while since I felt that ill here, and it was a long-ish night of fitful sleeping and violent kicking of sheets and blankets when the fever broke. The flu stayed with me off and on for around four days, just in time for me to get a few trainees to stop by.

By Thursday of last week I had four somewhat hardened recruits stop by and settle in for a few days of report-writing and internet surfing, plus maybe one or two tourist attractions. Friday night three more came and the house was a bit jam packed with bodies, but everyone remarked that they had a good night's sleep. In the morning one volunteer took it upon herself to make my kitchen into something useful, and breakfast was made for all. I must admit, Kate knows how to sling her eggs and make them taste great.

With Sunday came the end of the foursome and they made their way back to the Eastern region. I am going to be there myself come Saturday for another round of training, this time for the purpose of inculcating in me a sense of what to do in an emergency. I gather that the Safety and Security team will fill our brains with more facts about what to do and when, who to call and who to listen to, and so on. From there I will stay in the region and wait for Wednesday which will be a day to present what the Volunteer Advisory Council does to the trainees there in Kukurantumi. A short presentation and answering a few questions is on the itinerary. From there I can head back home and see the friends here in Hohoe once more.

To keep busy I have a few little things to do. I still do not have the server in the computer lab yet; I really want to be able to install the operating system on it and see if I can create a working network using the system and the notes I have collected to date. We have not judged the room adequate in the back of the lab to house the unit and my counterpart feels that the server should not be in the lab itself. I am still working on this as I don't mind where we put it, I just want to tinker and play with it and get the headaches out of the way as soon as possible, and what better time than when I have a lot of time.

On a personal note, I will be trying to pick up a few chords on the guitar thanks to the generosity of Matthew Morgan who sold me his acoustic guitar before he headed back to the U.S. Bless his heart, it sounds great and it makes my fingers hurt to play it. The A and E major chords are the first ones on my list. Plus I have been told I need to learn how to play the song, "Smoke on the water," first in order to truly say that I am learning the guitar. Just a few thousand hours and I might be decent at it.

Other time is spent fixing and helping those who are still in town or on campus with their computer problems. Nothing major yet has come through, but that will surely change the more I stop by the computer lab.

Still enjoying Ghana, but I am very thankful that I can enjoy it when I am 100% healthy.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Back At Wli Waterfalls

My friends and I went to see the waterfalls that are located close by to Hohoe yesterday. We have had a pretty significant amount of rain in the area over the past three weeks and that was on incredible display when we finally arrived at the falls. I would say that the cataract was at least twice as powerful, maybe even three times as powerful as any other time that I have seen it. The stream that is the runoff from the falls was already running quite rapidly so it was pretty obvious that the falls would be larger than normal, but I wasn't quite ready for what we saw.

By the time you reach a clearing in the path to the falls you will be able to hear the rush of water, and it was at that point that I told my friends that they better get ready for a spectacular sight. It was only a few seconds into the clearing that I began to feel the spray on my face where I never had felt water before that I began to understand what we were in for. In the past I have been able to stand at the edge of the pool of water where the falls collect and only be sprayed a little by the crashing water; now we were all being pelted by the rushing spray and we were not even close to the water's edge. There was in effect a light rain from all the tree leaves overhead that were continually bathed in the wash of the waterfall. It was amazing.

Both Aaron and Steve decided to entertain themselves with a little swim and I tried to stay back to get a few photos safely planted behind a tree but after two clicks the lens was soaked and it was a battle to keep anything dry for more than five seconds. I know that the experience for them was spectacular as they got into the water and tried getting closer to the actual waterfall, but the immensity of the show meant that you could not really observe the scene without taking a shower for the effort. I did not know that the falls could be so powerful. Maybe for the next season I will stick to the dry season for my fun.

We had a good time staying there but since everything was wet at the falls we couldn't sit down and enjoy the scene so we made our way back to the visitor's center. On a Thursday it was not very crowded which allowed us a rather peaceful walk down the path through the jungle. I have to say that I was very lucky to land in Hohoe - plenty to do and a lot of good people here.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

I Lost 400+ Students And Gained Two Visitors

This past Saturday was the closing ceremony at the college. All the students gathered in the church on campus and we heard from various staff on what the students had accomplished and what they might wish to try harder on next year. I really enjoy the Senior House Master when he delivers the list of, "those, ... who must be punished." There is a lot of work given as punishment for rules infractions and I think the students actually enjoy hearing him announce it. During the assembly he had quite the list of student names who refused to do work when they were summoned too earlier in the week. My suspicion is they quickly got their jobs done so they could leave the campus and head home.

By Saturday night the campus was empty and it was very quiet across the grounds. There were some students who were left but I would say upwards of 95% were gone by 2 or 3 in the afternoon. You do not need to ask them twice to head home. This was the first time that I felt a little gloomy for the break. Before, during the school year, I would actually anticipate the students departure so I could have some quiet time and get a few things done in the computer lab or elsewhere. Now I feel like some of the people that I liked to talk to and chat with are gone for a good long while. It is a different feeling for certain.

As with all things though, they must come to an end some time. With their departure came the arrival of two friends from the states who wanted to pay a visit. Steve and Aaron arrived on Monday of this week to spend a fortnight (some times an entire blog post is spent just so I can use the term fortnight) here in Hohoe. It has been great fun so far.

I forgot that when I got here I was gently eased into the culture with Peace Corps help and guidance. When they both arrived at the airport I was there to greet them, welcome them, and then get them right into the middle of culture shock an hour after they arrived. In hindsight, putting them into the thicket of humanity at the station to board the tro-tro was not the best idea. People everywhere, me trudging forward and avoiding the barkers who keep asking, "Where are you going!?", getting to the right tro and trying to reduce the luggage feel to something much more reasonable may have been overwhelming.

We had a good time, and I think they survived the ordeal nicely. Long plane rides followed by long tro rides are difficult at best to handle, so given that they were still smiling on the following morning seemed to me to be a good sign. I suspect we will be visiting of few of the touristy places around the area so maybe I can get around to updating my picture album soon to show off some of the sites. It is great to have good friends come here and reminds me how much life has changed for me in the past year.

More updates to follow we hope.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

From Training Last Month: Out To Asafo

In one of the previous posts I made a passing mention that I would offer up a story or two from what went on during training but then failed to post anything more on the subject. This one is here to fix that oversight, but it only has to do with my homestay family from when I was in training the year before.

Our current trainees took up housing in several communities, but the one that I had stayed in last year was not among them. Peace Corps will start a rotation with the hopeful benefit of not wearing out one community over many years of training in that area of the Eastern region. Asafo was having the year "off" in other words. It meant that if I made a visit out there to meet the family that allowed me to stay with them then I would be doing it on my own with no one else coming along for the ride.

With less than a week left to stay in Kukurantumi I was heading out to observe a Peace Corps Trainee (PCT) at one of the junior high schools when I got stuck in New Tafo looking for a taxi or a tro. At that time I had not contacted my homestay family and I was still unsure of when or if I would make the ride out to visit them. As I was on the lookout for a tro to stop by I happened to notice an individual walking towards me. It was my one brother from the house coming to greet me. "Hello David!" he said. "Hey... (pause thinking of names as fast as possible) Mensa! How are you?" I was lucky to have his name on the cell phone so that I could remember it without missing too many beats. He asked what I was doing and I mentioned the training and that I was only around for a few more days but that I would like to stop by and see everyone. He agreed that that would be ideal and we figured that that coming Saturday would be best.

By Saturday I was ready to go and make the trip to Asafo after our training duties were over which meant that I left our hub site by about 2. It took well beyond an hour to get to the village as there were just not many taxis willing to head out to the place. As an example, when I got to New Tafo station which is where the taxis should be when you need a lift to Asafo, there were none parked nor any metal signs resting on top of a car roof indicating an imminent trip. That was not a good sign. I hopped in a car that went to Maase, but that only put me in more of a bind as three or four giant funerals were being held in each of the small towns and traffic into Maase was only turning around to head back out the way they came. I was stranded in Maase for 20 minutes or more waiting for an empty taxi to continue the journey.

I did manage to make it out though and after 3:30 I was walking up to the house. Little Theresa knew I was coming and was sprinting towards me screaming. That is a good feeling to have, seeing someone greeting you with that much enthusiasm. She landed quite solidly into my legs and missed seeing me double over in pain by a few scant inches; it was quite the greeting. She hugged me so I couldn't move and only when she released her grip did I manage to go to the house and see everyone.

My mother came out and I gave her a big hug, and my father who was seated under the awning roof on their front porch shook my hand warmly. Everyone was smiling and it really, really felt good to be back to what I called "home" for almost three months. I wish I could have stayed for longer but there were only a few hours for me there. Since they knew I was coming they had a big bowl of fufu ready for me and I forgot one thing about eating there: they gave me so much meat in my soup that I could not finish half of it. I still faced the wall while I was eating but this time they gave me a plastic chair to eat on which was comfortable. The fufu didn't get finished but I really enjoyed their version of the dish as it was soft and tasty.

When I was done we spent some more time chatting the late afternoon away. I learned that the youngest girl went back to live with her biological family which saddened me somewhat since she was the most precocious giggler I have ever met and always got me to smile and laugh, and one other sister was not there as she was visiting family closer to Accra. Beyond that, the family was still there and my father had managed to afford some galvanized steel sheets to roof the one cinder block structure on his property so that it almost resembled a house. His farming is doing well now and the rains were much more helpful this year than they were last year.

I paid my farewells and thank yous to the family and moved along to the station. My mother walked me to the center of town and there were a lot of comments from her friends of having the visitor though I could not understand a word of it. She still doesn't speak much English but then again, we just smile and laugh mostly and communicate that way. She packed me into the taxi and sent me on my way back to Mid Tafo with a full belly and a lot of smiles.

I am going to try and squeeze in a visit to their house when I swing down to Accra for the swearing-in ceremony. When I go I have to remember to pack myself full of gifts for them. They have shown me tons of generosity and kindness and they need to know that I really appreciated all of it. Ghanaians are terrific.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Being The Day-time Watchman

Our semester is coming to a close here on campus and with that ending comes the Cape Coast exams that test whether the students understand the concepts and minutia of teaching in Ghana. While first-years and second-years are busy writing away, the school provides for invigilators, those whose job it is to watch and make sure that there is no talking or helping during the examination time. I did a little bit of that twice already, and next week I will stare at two more groups of students as they disgorge all that they have studied in the preceding four months.

There is a very good reason for the invigilation. Everyone helps out in Ghana. If your family doesn't have enough food, the families right next door are there to lend you a hand. If you didn't have a place to stay then someone will learn of your plight and give you a roof and a bed and you will be happy. It is a very good ethos to have in a country, except when examining what you do and don't know. Then it becomes a bit of a challenge.

Most of the students that I have viewed are trying their best and doing their own work without a moment's hesitation which is terrific. It is maybe 10% of the group that will find ways to "help" out their neighbors on certain questions. Many times when I have been with other volunteers who are teachers we have relayed stories of what kinds of cheating go on in the classroom, but for the most part in the junior high and senior high school levels there is not a lot of good cheating going on. Many people will cheat off of another student who had absolutely no idea what the answer was either. The best example I can come up with for this was a bonus question that a volunteer told me was on an exam. What day is October 31st in America? He had told them briefly that it was Halloween, but felt that only the most attentive student might remember such a very strange name. The answer on most, but not all, tests was: "Children Happy Fun Day".

Back to my group this past Friday. The students are arranged by their class identification number and the test is two hours long. Our classroom sat through a music exam and it was a bit tough to keep the talking to a minimum as the exam began with music blaring through a loudspeaker so that they could be quizzed on what type of music so-and-so was, or the number of phrases that were just played twenty seconds ago. When the music came on I could see heads turn and possible mouths move to ask what the answer to number three was. It was hard to keep the class in order for the first 30 minutes, more so when one of the questions on their paper did not match the queue announced on the audio tape (question 5a and 5b were actually 7a and 7b on their papers).

After the first part of the test was over, things settled down. I am not sure if my new rule helped matters at all, but I informed the whole group that I was going to use a yellow card and a red card to enforce the no-talking rule. Everyone is familiar with yellow and red cards here from soccer, and they understood that if I wrote down their student ID number then they were in a bit of trouble, especially if they got a red card. Fortunately I was able to keep the red card in my pocket (I actually didn't have a red card, just a yellow sticky note) and only gave yellow cards to four students.

My guess is that they don't like me invigilating but that is too bad. Rules are rules and I'd rather every student try their honest best and get what they deserve than have 10 or 15 students do all the work and the rest copy their answers.

As the test came to a close I felt a bit of relief as my legs and back were tired from standing around doing nothing. There will be two more exams that I oversee in the coming week and then the students are home free and I am left with a quiet campus again. Just don't let me catch you talking during test time.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Out And Back Again

Not quite three weeks in Kukurantumi came to a close this past Sunday as I headed back to Hohoe and my house on the campus at St. Francis. It was good to get back to home sweet home as the saying goes, but I will miss having fun with all of the other trainers and of course the new trainees. Maybe the word "new" isn't appropriate, as they are settling in to the life in Ghana quite nicely and made for some fine teachers in the classes that I sat in on. Trainees is more than correct, they have met the new culture and have adapted just splendidly.

Being in the education group meant that our focus was primarily on getting the new volunteers-to-be up to speed on the Ghanaian education system and becoming acclimated to the environments that they will likely inhabit once they get to site. It meant that the Peace Corps Trainees (PCTs) in my sector were always at colleges of education since that is where they are headed. I watched over them during the second week of my stay, but during the third week I got to observe those who were teaching at the Junior High School (JHS) level. That was quite the shock to me.

I had never been nor really watched how school is conducted in Ghana at that level. My training and my job have put me at the tertiary level of education with young adults who are looking to really excel at education so they may either follow the teaching career path or advance themselves to the full university level of education later on. They are nice and I have befriended many who habitually come to the lab and see me. But at the JHS level you will see students aged 10 to 15 (or older), and classrooms that have upwards of 40+ students assembled. The class size mirrors what I have, but the large age variation makes the class look somewhat comical with very small looking young students mixed in with high school-age students.

In addition to that, the school that I observed had no windows. A tin roof covering a room that consisted of three-foot-high walls along the left and right with a gap at the front of the room for an entrance, and two floor-to-ceiling walls at the front and the back. The chalkboard was concrete, a raised surface that spanned the width of the classroom which has to be constantly repainted black with a mixture that includes dry-cell battery acid. As the paint wears away from use, the chalk gets harder and harder to discern on the board, thus more battery acid is mixed up for a refresh. This is the bare minimum one needs to run a school, and that is how most will function.

Before going to far of course, there should be a point here about noise. The school is all at ground level, and the school rooms are just long blocks of rooms that encircle a grass field. That grass field is where recess takes place for the primary school located just across the way. The noise that the teachers had to contend with was monumental at times and I am not sure how the PCTs kept their voices for two straight weeks. One of the trainees even had to punish a young student who launched a soccer ball into his classroom, hitting a student in the head.

The struggles are different here. But in the end the teachers put forward lesson plans that the students could comprehend and memorize; and that is what the system is all about.

I feel like it would be good to give each volunteer a chance to see what the others are facing during training if possible, but knowing how tight the schedule is and how difficult it was to travel to some of these places where we trained at it seems very unlikely to do this. I enjoyed the perspective though.

Other than that, the trainers wrapped up the session with a movie and a review of the experience and that was the end of our part in the training. There are 36 PCTs who are more than ready to handle a classroom at their schools. Now they must go through the waiting period of language training in order to be ready for their oral test. That is probably the most difficult part of training, but one that must come in order to ease your way into the community.

After I got home I decided the best thing to do on my first day back was to stay at home, take a long shower, sweep up the house, and just take a day off. There are a few more stories to share on the trip which I will type up in the days ahead, but I think that the training went smoothly and that most had a good time during the weeks we were there. Only time will tell how well the group (all of us, trainees and trainers included) did, but I am ready to celebrate come the 30th of August when they all swear-in. It should be a great time.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Tasting Something New

Often when I was in the states I would start my morning, spend my day, and close my commute with National Public Radio. A thousand stories must have passed by my ears and obviously I cannot name them all, but one stuck out in my mind. A report about a berry one could eat that would make anything you put in your mouth taste sugary sweet. It sounded neat and my recollection is that parties in NYC would charge people something like five or ten dollars just to taste the berry and then a whole host of foods that ought to taste sour or bitter.

I filed that one away as a neat thing, but today I got to try it out.

We came back to the hub-site to welcome some of the other volunteers who were traveling around the country visiting various sites and at one point in the afternoon I was pretty much all alone. Our security man, Daniel, came up to me with an orange that he had deftly stripped of its rind with a knife. He was giving it to me which was nice, but I told him that I like my oranges sweet and the kind that grow around here are quite sour, almost lemon-like. He told me that they were sweet, or rather he could make them sweet.

He walked 15 paces and there it was, the Miraculous Berry from that NPR story. It is growing right next to the tents that we take our meals under. I had never noticed it before and here is a source of constant sweetness! My taste buds were in for a treat.

You pop the seed of the plant, which is reddish and waxy, into your mouth. The skin is pretty thin and under it there is a soft meat of sorts that you just roll over your tongue for a minute, then spit that seed out and find your choice of fruit to eat.

That orange which I rejected outright was the sweetest version of orange juice that I could get in the U.S. I am so thankful to our security guard for pointing this tree out to me, as apparently it only fruits during this month so the timing was perfect. I wonder if I could sneak this plant back to my mother's house in North Carolina. I just can't believe I didn't see this during all of my training last year.

Just another tasty Sunday here in Ghana.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Training Away The Days

My blog posts are becoming less and less frequent and must learn to correct that behavior. Here is my first chance to do some correcting.

I traveled to Kukurantumi on the 14th with my fellow Hohoe-ian Scott to get to the training hub-site. We made very good time after leaving somewhere after 1PM on Tuesday. After we walked into the gates of the hub site we saw the new arrivals for the first time. Thirty-six individuals enjoying some rest and dinner just before 6 o'clock. Within minutes of our arrival at the hub-site, the other three trainers arrived on the scene.

We got our orders to find places to stay within the community which has already been set up, and then we took to find some dinner. A nice evening walk and we were in a town close by finding a restaurant to eat at. Pretty simple and we were all in bed getting ready for an early morning.

Our first day of training was general information about what the Peace Corps Trainees (PCTs) would be doing for the rest of the week, who we were as the Peace Corps Trainers (PCTs), and what the Ghanaian Trainers were responsible for. These 36 are all going to be teachers so we started off with the appropriate topics that teachers need: what are the courses that to be taught, what will the environment be like at the schools, how to manage a chalkboard, and so on. There were lots of topics and it reminded me how quick it all passed by when I was trying to fill my head with it all last year. I must have missed quite a few points as the acronyms got tossed around, but sure enough we got to the good part - actually teaching.

Thursday was meant to learn the do's and don'ts of teaching for Ghanaian classes. I think the PCTs had a good time teaching lessons on how to perform a major triad chord, playing Tic-Tac-Toe Cubed, and other subjects. Even in the light-hearted forays into teaching there were still things to praise and critique, so that certain points can be polished and other points improved. With peer teaching in the books, we broached the subject that occurred today: micro-teaching.

The Trainees had to travel to real schools and demonstrate a short lesson on subject material more closely related to their disciplines in front of real students. Our group of ICT teachers traveled to two schools: Kibi and SDA. SDA is the Seventh Day Adventist College that our group trained at last year while Kibi (I don't know the full name of that school yet) is a new school about an hour away from where we are staying. Both campuses are nice and it seemed that all involved had a good time teaching a few students. I was even able to get up and do a demonstration lesson on digital images, so we all got in on the act. The PCTs looked as nervous as I felt when I was in their shoes.

We headed home from the colleges in the afternoon. As the tro-tro pulled into a gas station I heard the sound of a sheep ba-a-ahing from below. I thought we had hit one on the way in, but no, the sound was not emanating from outside the tro but from right behind my seat. Someone was ferrying their sheep in the back so we had an extra passenger. I think the Trainees appreciated that. Just one more thing that makes you smile in Ghana.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

One Year On

Time flies and all that. I have not been in America for 365 days officially. My first post from here came on June 5th, but we landed in Accra on the 4th at about 8AM. Some days have been whirlwinds, and others have been smooth and slow. But mostly my stay has been changing me day-by-day in good ways.

Service so far has taught me to adjust to a lot of things. Food that can be grown in a tropical climate does not match much of what I liked back in America. Yams, plantains, and cassava were not my principle food groups, nor palm nut oil or heaping mounds of okra. But somehow my stomach eventually gave in and accepted the changes. It was a struggle early on of course.

Teaching has had its moments of fun and frustration, but doesn't every job have those? I have been fortunate to have a few more, decidedly more, fun moments during the days here. Our school year is almost over and I will miss out on teaching the last few classes due to the training schedule for the next batch of volunteers, yet even if I were still here the time seems way too short to cover the programs and material that I wanted to show everyone.

To be clear, I have not been a volunteer for a year yet. I swore in the 12th of August so that is the official start date and it will also be the official leave date for most of us come 2012. Thinking ahead though, there will be a great deal I will have to un-learn by that time. Let me list some of the things that come to my mind:

  • Ending a sentence with the long "O", especially the word 'bye-bye'. Everyone adds the "O" sound to things, and you will too if you hear it enough times. Sorry-O. 
  • Opening the refrigerator (which I am lucky to have) at night and forgetting to bring a flashlight to see inside.
  • Shaking someone's hand and going for the finger-snap to conclude the shake. This one will be a really hard habit to break.
  • Crossing the paths of roaming sheep, taxi drivers, and bicyclists all on the same street.
  • Waking at 5 every morning.
  • Talking to anyone and everyone I pass.
  • Taking public transportation and immediately slating time for a shower.
  • Not hearing a plane fly over head or any motorized lawn care equipment running during the weekends.
  • Using my fingers to eat rice.
I am certain that there are more that I will add to the list, but that is just a taste of what Ghana has done to me so far. There are so many new friends I have here that I feel really lucky to have been given this chance to volunteer. We all miss the good old U.S. of A., but once you mold yourself into your surroundings, you realize that where you find yourself isn't so bad after all. Never would you think someone was having it hard here judging by their laughter and smiles. Ghanaians are really friendly and roughly ten times more hospitable than Americans, it will be hard to leave. But I am getting ahead of myself.

So far so good. One full year is in the books. I can't wait to see what the next year brings!

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Uninvited Guest

It was a full day yesterday and as I trudged home from the lab at around 10:30 I was thinking of getting home and calling it a night. An early start in the morning and then just being out and about on campus put me in the sleepy mood, and a thought occurred to me as a got within about 100 yards of the house: I didn't make my bed.

I almost always make my bed. No, let me put it this way, I don't recall the last time that I didn't make my bed before slipping under the mosquito net and going to sleep. Sometimes I do it after I get ready in the morning, other times it is in the late afternoon, but it gets done. Yesterday was the exception to that standard however. I forgot to do it and didn't use my time wisely to make sure the chore was complete. It was just something that didn't happen.

So my thought as I approached the house was of this nature: "Why should I do it? I can just crawl into bed and not make it, and who will know?" Rationalizing like that is probably the sign of something not right, but it did seem like a good argument at the time. By making the bed I have to move the mosquito net out of the way, take the one bed sheet and smooth it out properly, and then put the pillows on just so to make it look nice. Simple, but it is a minute of effort. I could just toss that ritual aside and go to sleep.

I don't know when I changed my mind, but by the time I got my gym shorts on and was ready for bed, I couldn't do it. I had to make the bed. I took the mosquito net and pulled both ends tight and swung them over the lines that tie the net to ceiling. I took the pillows off and rested them on the night stand (an old student's desk from years and years past) then I straightened out the bed sheet, all in the darkness of the bedroom.

It should be noted that I adopted a rule for nighttime activity in the house; use lights so you can see things clearly. Earlier yesterday I turned on the light to the pantry and took great exception to the cockroach crawling around my forks and spoons. Without the light on, dark places can hold a few surprises.

Last evening was an exception.

I straightened the bed sheet out nicely and was about to put the pillows back when one wrinkle just barely caught my eye on the bed. I tugged at the edges of the bed sheet and it wasn't going away. Did I leave a pair of gym shorts under the sheet? It seemed like the edge of a drawstring for a pair that I brought over, so I reached under the sheet, in the dark, and grabbed the end of the drawstring to remove it... but drawstrings usually don't have scales and feel incredibly limp.

In science class, we were taught that the decisions made by the brain are centered in certain areas. But those actions which aren't so much decisions but flat-out urgent reactions are controlled by a more ancient part of our nervous system in the brain stem. That was most likely the region in action last night as I, in a fit of spastic haste, let go of whatever it was that I had grabbed. I heard the faintest of thuds on the bed as it landed, and then I moved quickly to find my headlamp to see what was in my grasp.

Sadly, a skink had made its final resting place in my bed (it looked like this one). Under the covers during the day an exhausted lizard felt the need to stop this mortal journey and find ever-lasting peace about ten inches from my pillow, just under the cover of my bed sheet. I got it out of the bed and took her (or him) to an even better resting place just outside my back door on the grass. It did not smell nice to put it mildly.

So there is a moral to the story. If you don't want to make your bed, you better think twice. You might unknowingly be sleeping with a dead, or worse, live lizard in your bed.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Training Trainers Or Trainers Training

Over the past week several people took part in the Training of Trainers (ToT) at Kukurantumi. After I attended the previous workshop where staff and volunteers alike hammered out what the Pre-Service Training (PST) would be like in terms of events and timing, I got the notion that being a trainer might be rewarding. Who knows why that didn't occur to me before, but once it did I sent in my letter of intent and was informed at All-Vol that I would participate.

We arrived on Monday, May 23rd, and learned about the plan of events from our Director of Program and Training, Rob Moler. It seemed like there was a lot of work ahead of us, and a fairly high expectation of what we might accomplish by Friday. A total of eleven PCVs are to become the PCVTs (Peace Corps Volunteer Trainers) so that they may help the new arrivals, the PCTs (Peace Corps Trainees) adapt to their new environment and get a head start on their positions. Again, everything is an acronym and if you don't know what the acronym is, you ask and do your best to commit it to memory since it will appear repeatedly.

The beginning of the week was focused on what the whole PST would be like. Where events happened, the timing of various bits, and where conflicts might arise. After a thorough review of the big picture for training, we were often breaking into our sectors to concentrate on what we would need to bring to training at a more detailed level. What books and handouts should a PCT have? When should they get them? How many and where can we obtain them, or are they already available but at a different location. Many many different things to go over, and every day of training there is about eight hours of time to account for; the complexity grows by every hour that you work on it.

In the end, we had a fairly good idea what would be needed per session on the calendar, really good resources to draw upon from prior years, and then a direct path to get ready for this year. Friday was fun as there were nine or ten of us at computer screens typing up, copying over, and editing with reckless abandon all types of material. We also had time to write up comical biographies for one another which will find their way into the welcome book that trainees will get upon their arrival. I didn't read my own bio but I am hopeful that someone remembers that I invented the Nalgene bottle - which was the persistent rumor that went around during our training session.

These workshops are a bit of fun but they do take a bit out of you. Breakfast is at 7, so you need to be ready by about 6:30 to make it to the hub site on time. My wake up call would have been around 6 but for the fact that I could never sleep in that long. Most mornings I would pop my eyes open at closer to 4 and then try to nap my way to 6; failing by 5:30, I would just resolve to get up and shower. We also would join up after the day was over and head to a local pub (which is a very inaccurate description of a watering hole here - think of a cargo container with a few plastic chairs scattered around and that paints a better picture). I'd have one soda, feel the effects of the early morning wake up call and be ready for bed by about 9. Oh the sacrifices, yes?

Joking aside, there was a lot done at the training workshop and plenty more work to be done in the coming week or two. The new group is set to touch down in Accra on the 8th of June which is not far away at all and the real fun begins.

After all of this I am now remembering how it all felt to get here. It has really been one year? Time flies when you are having fun.

Not that I couldn't go for a cheeseburger and fries right about now, but that can wait. More fun is calling.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Combining Traditional Clothing With American Culture

I have mentioned in past posts that if you have an eye for a particular fabric for sale on top of someone's head or in a shop, you haggle for a price and then get it for a few cedis, then take it to a tailor and get something nice made to fit you. It really is a much better way to go about dressing oneself then heading to a giant store to find pre-made clothes that may not be the best fit in colors and patterns that don't quite match your style. That is all well and good and something that I find lifts my spirits up a bit (I am currently waiting for a shirt to be made that is using a print that the school sells to the students here, a print that has a photo of the statue of St. Francis and has written around said photo the words St. Francis College of Education), but how about making your own cloth and then getting something traditional made?

Enter my fellow volunteer friend in Hohoe, Scott. He works at the Volta School for the Deaf and he is their art instructor. Scott and I have had many conversations at the Grand Hotel just chatting about life and often our work. He was telling me that this year he had made a concerted effort to get some of the students who have an interest in doing art to use that inclination for the school's benefit. They make stuff and Scott is finding ways to market it for the benefit of the school. It is a great idea, and one that seems to be helping out everyone involved. The students have also taken to weaving kente, a type of cloth that our area in the Volta region is well-known for. So through his school I had a ready source of weavers for some fine material that actually is quite expensive on the open market. The first step is taken care of.

What type of shirt to make though, that was the question. I have regular shirts already, ones that might not be too out of place were I to wear them in the U.S., but I didn't have something that was a bit more Ghanaian. Here is where the smock comes in. The best way to describe it would be to say that it is a sleeveless shirt which has about one extra shirt too much cloth in it. Smocks are usually big, baggy, and heavy. Typical to the north, but still worn throughout the country, I have been tempted to find one that I could get as 1) a formal Ghanaian shirt to wear to class, and 2) a souvenir for when I return to the States. But when I see these shirts for sale they come at a hefty price and often I am not interested in the color or the style of the pattern. Then back in April I met a Ghanaian who was wearing a smock, and it appealed to me for one specific reason. It was a smock meant for the Miami Dolphins.

Well, not exactly, but it was certainly the correct color scheme. Vertical strips of white, bright orange, and turquoise blue. White was the dominant color, and the orange and blue were thin lines running top to bottom. I commented to the man wearing it that I liked it because of what it reminded me of, and he smiled and thanked me. Here is where the two ideas merge then.

I need a Philadelphia Flyers smock.

Scott was very supportive of the idea since he had already made a go of letting his students weave a kente pattern with Ohio State colors included, and he said this would be something the students could easily handle. He bought three colors (orange, white, and black for the uninitiated in hockey team colors) and yesterday I set out to arrange a pattern. We batted around about six ideas and settled on one that will have a lot of orange in it. The cost of the thread, the students time and the effort to sew the smock will most likely come out to 70 cedis which is expensive, but the smocks last a long, long time, and I hope to be showing it off to people when I return so I think it is a good purchase.

Oh sure, the Flyers lost to the Bruins in a four-game sweep not too long ago, but they won't fold the club up and move to Wichita any time soon, so there is always next year. When the smock is finished I can wear it on game days and tell students that the Flyers are playing, hence I must sport their colors but with Ghanaian sensibilities. I will post some photos of the project as it moves along. Go Flyers!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Beads, Beads, And More Beads

Sunday has been a day of recovery of sorts due to the fact that I made a day-long trip to Somanya to see a bead-making operation. I don't get earlier starts than 3:48 AM.

I was supposed to be up earlier than that too; my alarm had a feature where it would ignore weekends so as not to wake you up on your relaxed weekends. My 3:30 wake-up alert never came and instead I was awoken by the phone ringing next to my ear. It was the art teacher on campus and she asked if I was indeed going to come along with her and the rest of the students. I said, “Yep,” and shambled off to the bathroom to try my best to wake up in under two minutes and get out of the door. I made it to our statue circle where the vehicles were parked by 4:01.

Not my typical Saturday here.

We got on the road by about 4:20 and I think I was the only one that was not used to being awake at that hour as my head bobbed to and fro trying to fall off of my neck. It didn't and I was treated to seeing a sunrise on the road. It was a very beautiful day to start, and after a few hours trekking over some bumpy roads, we made it to our destination.

The man who operates the business is nicknamed Cedi and that is the name of the compound we entered, Cedi Industries. He is a very friendly man who took time to explain to the 35 of us what is involved to make glass beads, the different types of beads one can create, and how to make them using clay molds and lots of fire. After our lesson was over, we all clamored about for a few clay molds and got to working on our objects d'art. It was fun and I took a lot of time making my one masterpiece, the glass bead that would clearly show my artistic talents to all present.

At this point the skies became pitch black and the rains let loose on the land in torrents. Our glass beads were not affected and the fires raged on in the kilns, but it was hard to get around the place as most of the facilities were not connected by hallways, just open-air paths from one hut to the next. It has been a while since I have seen rain like that so maybe rainy season is just around the corner.

During the time where our beads were being fired (they have to melt in some very hot ovens before you can see the final product) our friend and guide Cedi showed us another technique to make much fancier glass beads. His demonstration was impressive while he used a propane and oxygen mixture to form a single glass bead from several colors of glass filaments. I was impressed and would have loved to try it, but apparently the techniques a few years to master, and we had about thirty minutes to spare.

After taking our lunch, the second year students and I piled around the now cool clay molds to see what our glass beads looked like. I was hoping for near diamond-like perfection but what I got were dark balls of greenish glass that had holes pressed through the middle. My expectations were not quite on target. Later still we got to see the special bead that we created using powdered glass in one clay mold. Out came mine and it looked, well, it looked awful. No design could be seen in the mix of colors that I had used, and the oblong shape made me think somehow I had fallen asleep during the instruction phase of our lecture. Though it was mine, and I took a photo of it to commemorate it prior to giving it to another student who had lost her bead.

We were taken to the shop where we were allowed to take one bracelet and one necklace professionally created at the site. Mine looked nice, and I ended up buying two more bracelets while I was there. One maybe as a gift to myself and one to hand out to someone later.

By the time I got home my head was quite heavy. The students were great and it was nice to have a chance to talk to some of them in a relaxed situation. If I get the chance to do this type of trip again I will definitely jump at the opportunity.

Does anyone need some ugly glass beads? I know how to make them now.