Monday, January 31, 2011

Drawing Can Still Pass The Time

There was room at night to bring out the sketchpad and do some light drawing over the past month. If I could find a way to do more drawings in the open air that did not involve me sweating profusely I would try that but that moment has yet to come. Instead when the evening breeze moves through I open the windows up, turn on the lights, and bring out a book of Roman art to find something of a challenge.

This one was pretty high up there in the challenging departments. Here are both pictures to give you a reference of what I was trying for and what I ended up delivering. The statue can be seen in its entirety on Wikipedia. So this is the photograph from the book that I have:

The fellow does not look happy to say the least. And all that detail in the beard and hair... I thought the last portrait I did of a Roman emperor was difficult because of a few waves of hair. This one took a lot of patience and I managed to miss some proportions as well, but it was a good stress reliever in the late evening hours. This was my version of the photo:

It was fun to do. Maybe twenty or more hours of drawing time spent getting all that hair untangled in my mind's eye, and then shading on top of shading. I can really see how a drawing at a fairly large size could take a month or more to finish - but mine would still look like something was slightly off. Only slightly though, that is an improvement.

What The Last Month Has Been Like

It has been a bit slow as of late. Actually, it has been a great deal slow this entire month due to the lack of classes. My days are filled with doing projects of my own accord, and helping myself to as much learning as I can while the first and second-years are preparing for the next exam. None so far have needed any help on ICT which is a bit disappointing but then again, the ICT exam has yet to be administered. Maybe they are saving up their questions for the night before.

This means that I typically find my mornings and afternoons free. I have chosen to do a few things with that time that are as follows (but in no particular order): reading books, reading even more books, drawing, learning another language, reading, and then some light reading. Oh to be sure I took some time to make a lesson plan or two for when the students come back to classes in March, but that will be a ways off before I make use of that.

On the book front, I have finished off two books that required a bit of time to get through and a third that was done in just three days. Two books by Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker and The Selfish Gene. I liked the second one better than the first, but both had many illuminating points. I might have made a half-decent biologist in another lifetime, but for now I get to comfortably be an armchair one and enjoy light trips into and out of the field. The Selfish Gene was probably my first understanding of life through only the principle of, “What's in it for the gene.” A very fine illustration of why nature is so very brilliant in its complexity and nuances. The third book that was pretty quick was Freakonomics which just came over courtesy of my good friends David, Kara, and little Eva (thank you so much for the care package!). That book was pretty good, though short. I could have used about four or five more chapters of odd data and confounding analysis. I seem to recall there was a follow-up book to it, but that will have to wait for some other time.

So lots of reading. However, when I am not reading and the laptop is nearby I have been spending some time learning a new language – not Ewe though. Sadly, there is no software or language course that I can find online that will help me learn the native language spoken here in my region; I need to find a tutor who can work with my brain to figure out the sounds and the grammar. No, I wanted to learn Turkish to make sure I don't sound like a tourist when I visit Istanbul after completing my service here. I hope my friend agrees to take me there of course so as to help me buy decent shish-kabobs. So far I have a small vocabulary saved up, but not much grammar and sentence fluency. More practice to come and Rosetta Stone is great if you can get your hands on it.

Lastly, drawing. That will be another post maybe in February when I get the scan ready for posting here, but I have been taking my time a few nights a week trying to refine my skills and proportion and rendering. While it might look nice, I know where I have plenty of work to do to get better. I keep reading of a friend's progress on his web log and it gives me some motivation to see what I can do to improve my own craft.

Beyond that, the month of January had been extremely cool in the nighttime hours. Blissfully cool you might say. I think in the past seven days the temperature has ticked decidedly upward, such that my wool blanket is no longer needed and I am a touch worried that by March I will be sleeping in the computer lab with the air-conditioner running. It is getting warm and the humidity is slowly coming back. It seems like I am finding out what Ghana is really like.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Our Computer Lab Is An Absolute Wreck

Yes, things look pretty awful around my "office" as of late. When the windows were replaced I had a suspicion that the school was serious about fixing up the room where all of the computers are housed. I just did not know that every other change was coming one after the other. My counterpart informed that there was going to be new flooring installed, painting to be done, a full check on the wiring system to eliminate any dangerous spikes that might be disseminated to the machines and components, and so on. I was told that a new whiteboard might be coming as well, which is needed because the one that occupies the front of the class room smudges too much when something is erased. It is a lot of work and from what I have heard about some institutions in the country, there are things that happen and other things that just never get started. It was refreshing to see that our lab was very quickly attended to and with some decent work to boot.

Of course that also meant that the things which I took pains to arrange and organize in the lab are now back to square one. All of the machines that were stowed away as needing repairs got mixed up with all the machines that worked flawlessly, and now I have no clue as to which ones work and which ones do not. My fault for not pulling out a piece of masking tape and labeling things accurately as was suggested to me by another volunteer earlier on in training. You live and learn every day here.

There may be a bit of obsessive compulsive in all of us, but I have it certainly when it comes to arranging and organizing computers. I like the wires to be arranged neatly, and for there to be a distinct lack of clutter. As it stands today, the main room where I would normally teach has every long desk crowded one next to the other, and boxes of mangled cables and wires stored everywhere, not to mention the CPUs and monitors occupying this and that spot on the floor and on dusty chairs. It is a bit sad to see this and look back at a phone a day before the students arrived for classes.

Yet this does meant that I have ample opportunity to improve upon the setup of the first installation of computers. There is even talk that the new machines (sixteen in all) will be fixed up for the return of the students. I desperately need them to make sure that most of my classes have a computer on which to learn. Lots of dust, plenty of sweeping and washing, and a bit of elbow grease will yield a lab twice as good as the old one.

Oh, and my cold has abated so my attitude is a bit more positive than it was before.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Oh The Humanities

[Belated post]

This day is just not as good as some others in the recent past. Around 2AM I found myself battling the feelings of a head cold with backed up sinuses, a dry throat, and eyes that were slightly burning around the lids. I hate that feeling, more so on a warm night where the temperatures forgot to dip down to the low 70s like they had been doing for the last month. Rolling around trying to will my cold away did me no good, and the fact that this was a Monday morning meant that I would be up in just a few hours to get ready for the 6:30 assembly.

That is a bad start to a day if I do say so myself.

I battled the snooze alarm until 6AM when I knew I had better be taking my shower in order not to be late to the chapel. It was the first time in a long while that I was not shivering while the water dripped down on top of my head. It was warm in the house and the slightly-cool water actually felt nice instead of like diving into a pond three weeks into the new spring season. Again, this was not a good sign. I had spoken to a volunteer right after I arrived and asked him how Harmattan was for heat at night. His response was that there were cool nights and warm days up to a point, but he just laughed and informed me that it got warmer. This may be the stage where things get cooking.

The students are now fully dedicated to taking their exams. The assembly belabored several points about what constitutes legitimate and illegitimate behaviors. At the staff meeting following the assembly the same protocols were announced and debated as to the invigilators, those who look over the students shoulders and ensure that no one is looking at another's work. One full hour later and everyone was off to their duties. Except me. I am not to be doing the work of invigilation for the probable reason that this is paid work for the staff, and I am apparently a volunteer not collecting a pay check from the school. No matter, I could just go to the computer lab and whittle away the hours.

Yet I was still stuffy and feeling lethargic from the lack of sleep. So something had to give and I retreated back to the house for a few naps. That helped the lethargy, but it didn't help the cold so far as I could tell. With little else to do, I figured another outing would be good for me.

I got dressed up and headed back to the lab to let students surf the web for a bit. At least, that was my plan. I met a fellow teacher who asked if I was going to see the renovation work being done to the lab. “Work?” No, there wasn't any work being done that I was aware of, just the windows that were installed over a week and a half ago. Sure enough though, I approached the building and I could hear the pounding. A new tile floor is being installed over top of the poured cement floor. All the computers were moved out, and the computer desks were everywhere. Presumably the modem and router were disconnected but I did not even bother to check.

No computer lab and no internet, a sun that keeps on shining through a thick haze of dust, and a head that is remembering that it is winter back home and ought to endure the season with a nice head cold. It wasn't the best day. With that out there, I am incredibly thankful that this may be what I call a “low day” on the scale of serving here. Many other volunteers have had bouts with actual sicknesses where they are worried about where things are going. They are posted to far more remote places where the weather is a heck of a lot more stifling than here, and the fully-functional air-conditioned computer lab with internet access just doesn't exist.

So what if I have the sniffles? I have a lot of things that are going well. This post was just typed out to remind me of that. I hope your January 24th has been a good one!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Sound Of The Class Bell

I recall (somewhat hazily, I admit) the sound of the school bell in high school. My memory says it was more of a buzzer sound than an actual bell. The fire alarm was more of a bell and that came in handy whenever someone called in a bomb threat out of fear that they might not pass the test in fourth period. But classes were regimented by the bell and it is no different here.

School starts at 7 with a study period allowing students to get prepared for the day. Then comes the first class at 8:00 AM. The first break is at 9:00 and then class resumes at 10:00 and on the day goes. At every one of these interludes we hear the call, the low baritone call of the two Ghanaian drums set up near one of the dormitories. Wub-buh-wub-bub goes the beat, or something approximate to that, for about five seconds. You can  hear that across the entire campus without any issue at all. And when you are still wrapping up your long-winded lesson on why it is important to use 'Save As' before shutting down all the while the drums are rumbling, you will find that the students instinctively know you should stop talking and let them move to their next class.

While this superficially sounds archaic ("smoke signals wouldn't work?" is a comment which would not surprise me), it saves a heck of a lot of money stringing up alarms and bells all around the campus and making sure nothing shorts out or breaks. Just keep the drums in one place and beat them like there's no tomorrow at the appropriate time. Simplicity wins out, especially in a country where the power grid is on 95% of the time.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

How Classes Are Going Now

So far so good. The students came back to campus, the classes were scheduled, and I have not taught anyone since.

Most of the work of the first semester is now boiling down to how the students will do on the Cape Coast exams. They will be administered all next week and the week after. If you don't do well on those tests, well, your life becomes much more difficult as a teacher-in-training. As most education goes in Ghana, you study your brains out for one big test rather than having a cumulative score based on your performance throughout the year with some milestone tests every month or two. If I am remembering this correctly from training, these exams count for 60% of their grade. No pressure at all.

Each day I visit the classroom that I am to teach and ask if they want to learn Excel or study everything that they need to memorize in order to pass the test. They have all said they desire to study more. So that means my days are about the same as they were before the students came here. I just go to the lab and review what needs done, and then move back to the house to take care of the odds and ends. I will have plenty of time to fill out the Volunteer Report Form (VRF) which will be another post of its very own. That and more time spent language learning.

So all is mostly quiet here. Next week I will probably be stopping in a few rooms to watch students take their exams and make sure no answers are whispered here and there. Look up the word invigilate and see what it means. I never used that word until now.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Dust Up

It is everywhere.

On your furniture, over your clothes, and even in the bottom of boxes that you thought were impervious to it. The harmattan has brought with it the dust of what I will guess is the Sahara but for all I know it is just the dirt right outside my door being blown around. I have given up on cleaning anything that collects these fine particles as the very nature of the breezy afternoons only serves to inundate the clean parts with more dust. Even the curtains smell of it and you can barely see through the glass louvers as they are covered in a haze or light brown.

The hangers in my closet have collected it as well. I didn't think there were this many surfaces that I would need to keep clean when I first moved in to the place.

Dare I mention how dusty the computer lab has become. We have embarked on a few repairs with the first being the replacement of the windows. That kicked up a ton of dirt that has now blanketed everything in sight. It does not help that our brand new machines are black and attract particles left and right. I have a few handkerchiefs that need washing, but wiping things down does not keep them clean - it really serves to leave a trail of clean in what otherwise is an ocean of filth. My own plan to deal with it is to let it stay where lands and then wait for the rainy season to come back. After the wet weather tamps down some of the powdery-ness of the air I will go through and get my house and my lab back in order. Mainly with the help of very capable students in the lab.

One very pleasant thing though is the cool weather at night. Today all the students had jackets and sweaters on for the morning meeting in the chapel. I had my short-sleeve button down shirt on and it was great. I could get used to that part of Harmattan.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

A Little Trim

[Belated post]

There are plenty of trees around where I live on campus and it had not struck me when I first moved in that many of them had a rather consistent arrangement around the bungalow here. After walking past a few times I did notice that they had been planted in rows and were fairly evenly spaced apart, and all of them were very similar in size – maybe around ten inches in diameter with the tops of the trees probably 20 or 30 feet up. I never thought to ask why they were arranged in a pattern like that, nor why they grew with such clumps at about six feet up. It just never dawned on me that these are just really tall crops. I took them to give me a little shade and a touch of privacy between the neighboring house.

That was until about a week ago. At that point some of the men who work on the grounds came through with machetes and hacked and chopped at the limbs at about the six-foot level until tree after tree had a rather stilted, column-like look. The wood apparently is being used for the school which I presume to mean firewood for the kitchen. Each tree got the axe (though no axe was used for the job which would have yielded better results in my opinion) surrounding my house and it really has changed the look and the amount of light I get in the bedroom wing.

As the work continued this morning I heard the men working at the tree closest to my bedroom window. I presumed they knew what they were lopping off so I just went about my business until the sound of a rather large trunk came down with a whoomp and a thud. My window was brushed by the falling branches and when I peaked outside to see what they had done I realized how close the tree was to actually hitting the house. About eight or ten feet of clearance was all they had and I was a bit thankful that was not the sound I heard at 7AM when I was just waking up. It would have scared me pretty good.

So I now walk to class through a stub-ridden field. Poor trees, they will just sprout more branches and try to grow tall again with similar results in about a year's time. I am glad that they don't cut my hair with the same method.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

What's For Lunch?

Often I have done something dozens upon dozens of times here in Ghana but failed to mention it on the web log. Every so often someone will ask a question and then I give a very brief description of the event and find that it probably could be shared with everyone, so here we are. Are you hungry?

Almost every day I go to the computer lab to teach or use the web I find myself getting that growling feeling around 11:30 in the morning. It is the perfect time to find my way out of the lab, past a bungalow that houses a staff member's family, and on to the canteen. It is a small, loosely enclosed structure that is no more than 200 feet away from the computer lab so its convenience to me cannot be understated.

The walls are made of concrete and extend about three feet above the hard-packed dirt which surrounds the front entrance. Maybe eight or ten wooden posts set into the concrete slab hold up the tin roof perched above the walls, and the roof is sloped to keep the rain water rushing away to the back of the building. To describe it as a building seems a bit overboard as it is almost the size of my living room (granted my living room is not that small by Ghanaian standards) here, but that is just enough space to hold four or five benches and low tables. All the furnishings have been used for many years and show signs of wear at every corner but they do the task just fine.

When school is in there are three women selling food, one woman selling treats and snacks, and another lady a bit removed from the canteen who cooks up fried yams. All of them are decked in similar uniforms which is a somewhat long blue-white checkered dress. The one woman who sells from inside the building is my banku lady. She makes a very smooth banku and a terrific ground nut (again, that means peanut) soup. I have lately favored the fish (akpa) as my meat and this goes for around a eighty pesawas or a single cedi depending on how much fish is thrown into my bowl. The other two sellers are positioned outside of the wall at the front entrance. They are the sellers of beans and rice. The dish known as red-red in English and baugh-baugh (my best English translation) in Ewe is made from beans and fried plantains with dried cassava sprinkled on top. The rice dish, which I have mentioned before, is called watsi (wah-CHEE). That consists of rice cooked with something else to give it a brown color, and maybe noodles and beans plus a spicy sauce placed on top.

Of these sellers my preference is to go to the banku woman first since she is selling meat and my beloved groundnut soup, then the watsi seller second. I like the spice of the watsi and sometimes she will have a hard boiled egg to toss into the dish. Lastly is red-red; it is served to me so hot that I must wait a bit before I can even begin to eat the fried plantains, and the beans are almost always scalding so that by the time I am half way through with the meal I am sweating like a marathon runner in the last mile. It just is uncomfortable to eat during the hot days. When I eat the banku I use just my fingers to eat the meal and with the others I am given a spoon to shovel in the lunch.

When the students are in class their break comes at precisely 11:30 which means that if I want a somewhat undisturbed meal I try to get there at 11:25 before classes break. On a typical day the canteen will serve maybe 100 or more students a meal that will hold them over until lunch which starts at 2PM. If I have a need to add a little extra to my belly after I finish the main course, I will walk over to the tree where the fried yams are made. I ask for three and she will dash me a small fourth one and talk to me. If here granddaughter is there she will get her to say my name. Everyone calls me Fo Koku here, but the little two year-old has trouble with the 'k' sound, and her pronunciation is a cute little “Fo Popu.” The grandmother now also calls me that and smiles from ear to ear.

One other bit I should mention: the women who see me everyday are adamant in getting me to practice Ewe. They ask almost all of their questions without English and only at my dire pleading do the switch to English to explain what I could not understand. I like stopping by to talk to them even when I am not hungry, and I know where two of them live and talk to them out in the town when I see them though it takes me a few seconds to realize who they are outside of their uniforms.

So that is lunch. It definitely beats peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

To Accra And Back In One Day

Birds chirp and the bats fly home to roost at about five in the morning. Not much else goes on during that hour here in Hohoe. I had my fellow volunteer with me on the mission, Randall, and we headed out the door before the clock struck 5:30 so that we could walk to the station. It was pitch black out and the town seemed very quiet, more so than I was expecting. I felt that there would be a lot of people up and about moving around but none materialized until we almost reached the station. As a an example of how empty it was, we both walked down the middle of the road leading to town which is normally quite full of rushing taxis and motorbikes during the day. It was pleasant to walk through town without stopping for short conversations that remind me how poor my language skills are.

At the station we made our way into an air-conditioned tro-tro by 6. It was full and ready to go by 6:30 for the three-hour ride to the city. Unfortunately the seat I chose was not high on the comfort scale and my ankle proved to not like many of the positions that I chose (the one that was injured almost a month ago).  It was a three-a-half hour lesson that made me choose differently on the ride back.

Sure enough, we were in to Accra around 9:45 and had plenty of time to walk to Peace Corps Headquarters and find the Medical Office. I got my shot and had the doctor take a long look at my ankle to be sure he didn't see anything severely the matter. The fact that the joint is still swollen means, well, I did do some bad things to it playing that day. He gave me a brace for support and to help apply compression around it and I promised to pass along the X-ray that I had taken (and absent-mindedly forgot to bring with me). That was that.

Well, that was not really that. We had a bit of training on how to fill out an expense report, known as the 1165, and it took me two tries and three trips back and forth from the admin office to the medical office to get things arranged correctly. I should have paid more attention to that lesson back in August, but just the same I think that I had the form done correctly before I left. We shall see if I get reimbursed.

As we were ready to leave we had the good fortune to bump into more volunteers from our training group. We numbered eight by the time we stopped walking around and sat down at a restaurant. A pizza restaurant no less. Yes, you can get pizza in Accra and as the saying goes, you can get anything in that town. You just have to pay for it, and boy howdy do you pay for the pleasures of home.

All told, the deal worked out to twelve Ghana cedis for a Coke, a pretty big pizza, and an ice cream. That is about eight dollars American, but realize one thing: I can eat all three meals in my town for under four Ghana cedis, or thereabouts per day. That would be about two-fifty in American dollars. That meant I splurged quite a bit for lunch. Later that night I would eat banku and soup for 2.50 with water included. I practically spent that much for ice cream alone.

With lunch out of the way (and my cheeks hurting from laughing and enjoying myself in a nearly criminal fashion) we decided to split up and head our separate ways. Some volunteers were staying the night, others were going to leave later. Randall and I decided to head out and check out a computer store. We took one look at the city traffic and realized our timeline was not in accord with what the snarl was giving us. We joined up with two other Volta volunteers and made our way to To-Do (that is my approximation to the name, it sounds like the words 'to' and 'do') station to pick a tro-tro to Hohoe. This time we found one without a working air-conditioner and with precious few windows. Pulling out of the station jammed packed with vehicles and people seemed interminable. It was probably the hottest I have been in a van since arriving here, but thankfully after about 45 minutes we started to find more open road to yield a stale-yet-quite-warm circulation of air.

As I mentioned earlier, my choice of seating was better and my leg and foot were not nearly as big of a problem on this trip. I dozed off only slightly while on route to home and spent the remaining hour talking philosophy and energy conservation with another volunteer which was a lot of fun. By the time we arrived in town the sky was dark and the time was about 6:30. We made it to a restaurant here and had a quick meal. Two volunteers had to stay the night to avoid driving further at night and we had a good time just chatting and playing games until about 11.

It was a long day but a good one. I now stand ready for the onslaught of the flu season armed with a sore spot on my shoulder and an inflatable ankle cast on my foot.

Monday, January 03, 2011

A Mission To Accra Tomorrow

It appears that a few of us Volta volunteers will be making our way down to Accra tomorrow for our H1N1 shot. The flu is something that I don't' want to have and this seems to be a good way to keep it at bay provided that the influenza virus has not mutated eight different ways by now to defeat the shot. We shall see I suppose. I know that a few families on campus have had coughs for over a week now and I don't want that either so I tend to stay away from those who are hacking and coughing. Just being safe.

For the most part things are quiet now. I get online for a few hours a day by walking over to the computer lab and see what the world is doing. I took to picking up the pencil again and found new subject matter to draw but the piece is not finished yet, not even half-way done and I have spent over five hours on it so far. It is pleasant to draw away the hours listening to music (I bought three new albums online courtesy of my Christmas present from the family and I commend to you Sleigh Bells, Ramona Falls, and Land of Talk for your listening pleasure) at home. Nice and relaxing with only a wee bit of frustration at the result.

Several volunteers will be arriving at the house soon. We have an meeting of the Volunteer Advisory Committee (VAC) for the Volta region and I am anxious to see what occurs at the meeting. I am pretty sure that the meeting itself is going to be held at my place as the living room has plenty of space to seat people. I must say, this place is definitely a great place to live since everyone passes through at one point or another. Obviously it will be good to have friends back here, so that is something to look forward to soon.

All told, the campus has been quiet over the past few weeks and I miss the students now. The lab being crowded at night will be an adjustment when they return, but I will be happy to see the faces and smiles when they do come back next week. That, and the campus needs some cleaning so I am sure the first-years will be busy upon their arrival.