I’m not very good at blogs. I start them and then abandon them. I feel particularly bad about letting this one lapse because I actually have an interesting topic and perhaps something useful to say.
It’s been more than a year since I came to Ghana. I’m a different person than the one who stepped off the plane last 13 months ago. I’m forty pounds smaller, I can speak a new language (somewhat) and I now speak English with a ridiculous Ghanaian accent (Sorry-o!). I’ll be coming home for a visit in August; I’m looking forward to the free drinks and food and teaching all of you Ghanaian English.
I’ll do the rest of this post as a Q and A.
What have you been doing for this past year?
Teaching middle school math and science. I work at a small JHS (less than 60 students total). I teach mostly 6th and 7th graders. Here your preconceptions about African classrooms are mostly right – I teach in a small building without power with few textbooks. The work is not easy; there are too many topics to teach, and not enough time and the students are not adequately prepared. The education is supposed to be English only but of course it isn’t. Maybe half of my students can understand English well enough for an English only curriculum.
I don’t want to paint an overly bleak picture. I have loved these past months. I go to sleep each night knowing that I have done something important, have impacted someone’s life in a meaningful way. This last May, I started an after school tutoring program for my best Form 2s (7th Graders). These students will write a comprehensive exam next June which will determine if and where they go to high school. The results have been encouraging – across the board improvement for all of the participants. I think some of my brightest pupils have a shot at entering Ghana’s top high schools. Although it is no guarantee of anything, admission to a Class A high school is a huge step in the right direction, out of the village and into economic opportunity.
1) I helped organize a school trip a few months ago. Many of my students have never been more than a few miles away from home. We took them to the Kumasi Zoo, Manhyia Palace (the seat of the Asantehene (the chief of all the Ashanti chiefs)), Kumasi airport and a dam and water treatment plant. (Pictures will come)
2) I’ve held a few HIV/AIDS education activities. I’ve given a lot of condoms away.
3) I’ve started a small school library and hope to expand it to 2000 or so books in the coming months.
4) I’m organizing an HIV testing day at some of the universities in Kumasi.
5) I’m working with Kente weavers in my village to find new ways to distribute the product.
6) I’m refurbishing a clinic – if all goes well, we should have a doctor and a couple of nurses in the village full time by October.
Do you live in a mud hut and shit in a hole?
No. I do wash my own clothes by hand and I do use a latrine. But my house is made of cement blocks and has a tin roof. I have two bedrooms and two bathrooms – including a tub, sink and flush toilet. My house has power. Rain water is collected from my roof and piped into the house. Except for the lack of hot running water, my current accommodations are nicer than any place I lived in while attending BYU.
All that being said, I live in a rich Ghanaian’s vacation home. Most volunteers don’t live in a place like me. There are mud huts in my village and there is a level of poverty here that is almost impossible to translate into U.S. terms.
Every week or two I go into Kumasi – Ghana’s second largest city. It’s nick name is the Garden City, in the same way that New Jersey is the Garden State. Kumasi is big, crowded, dirty and sprawling. Traffic is terrible, all of the time. But the city has a certain charm and draw for me. More importantly, it has Obruni (White Person) stores and an Internet café with broadband speeds. I can buy things like cheese, butter, fruit juice and Worcestershire sauce to supplement my diet of bread, starch and more starch. I have been able to keep up with TV and movies from back home. (New Season of Breaking Bad is amazing). I cooked up some amazing bacon cheese burgers to celebrate the fourth of July.
What has surprised you/shocked you/interested you?
In no particular order:
1) The rampant pro-Americanism and friendliness of Ghanaians. The number of times I have been helped by total strangers while in this country is uncountable. I hitch-hike without fear. I remember during training a Ghanaian man bought a round of drinks for an entire table of Peace Corps Trainees; he said he wanted to welcome us to Ghana. If you need directions anywhere, to anywhere, ask anyone and they will often go out of their way to take you where you need to go without any thought of a reward. (This is less true in more touristy areas).
2) The frustrations and ecstasy of on the ground development work . Many days, especially in the first few months in the village I felt a sort of helplessness and despair. It goes something like this – after a yearlong application and three months of training you are dumped in a village with dysfunctional schools, extreme poverty, and incomprehensible bureaucracy and power structures. All of that idealism and desire that has been bottled up for so long sort of hits a wall of apathy, incompetence and cultural misunderstandings. You question whether you are capable of doing your job and even if you work as hard as you, can you actually change anything. You stare into the abyss and try to hold on. For some volunteers, this is a breaking point and they head home disillusioned or settle into a holding pattern of doing little and expecting little from their community. It sounds bleak and it can be. But for me, I came through to the other side. My counterpart (a Ghanaian teacher at my school who serves as translator, mentor and partner in projects) is motivated and good-hearted. My headmaster and a few teachers at the school seem to genuinely care about the students. Mostly due to dumb luck, I’ve met a number of community partners who are eager to help their fellow Ghanaians. And so I’ve managed to bring a few projects to fruition and it feels really good. As an example from our school trip – we were standing together on the Tarmac at the Kumasi Airport , teachers and students from the two JHS and the two primary schools in my village. It had taken months of work to scout locations, raise funds, charter vehicles, and get the district office to approve our trip. A plane was landing, and 100 faces were totally focused, totally and completely enthralled by the aircraft in its descent. As the plane turned off the runway and toward the terminal, we could see the pilot in the cockpit. He waved to us and we returned the greeting – a hundred little hands. There were plenty of other great moments from the trip, but that one alone made the whole project worth it.
3) The development of Ghana. Ghana has recently joined the ranks of middle income countries. The Per Capita income is about $1200 per year last time I checked. You can see these statistics made concrete all over the country. People are moving to the cities in droves. New buildings are going up in Accra (the capital), Kumasi and other major cities. Major highways are being built or expanded. Cell phone usage is widespread, facebook is well known and well used. The teachers I work with are enthusiastically borrowing and investing money, starting businesses, and looking for economic opportunities in Ghana, rather than just trying to get to America or Europe. And although there is corruption and graft at all levels of the government, it is basically stable and functional. 2011 was the 50th year Peace Corps has been in Ghana – it was the first country to receive volunteers. As Peace Corps volunteers we were happy to be in the historic group, but also saddened that after 50 years we were still here. I’m going to predict we definitely won’t be here in fifty years, probably won’t be here in twenty five and, possibly won’t even be here in ten. You may be familiar with the so called Asian Tigers – China, South Korea, Taiwan. These countries used to be as undeveloped as Africa but took off over the last 30 years to become economic powerhouses and fully developed countries. I believe Ghana is an African Lion. It, along with Kenya and South Africa continues to develop at a fast clip. It is on the right trajectory, it just needs a few more years of good luck. As an Econ nerd, it is a privilege for me to be here, to watch this process happen. Maybe this has what has kept me going when things seemed particularly bleak in my village.
4) Cost of living differences. Again, sorry Econ nerd. But here it is. I make about 350 Ghana Cedis a month but I don’t pay rent. This works out to about $175 a month to spend on food, booze and travel. What can you do with that amount of money?
a. In Ghana, a pint of chocolate milk costs the same as 22 ounces of beer (5-6% ABV), $1.25
b. In Ghana, the cheapest shots (moonshine) are 10 cents. Gins and Whiskey shots are 15 cents. Irish cream and Vodka shots are 25 cents. The amount of alcohol you can consume spending less than $2 is insane.
c. Prepared food is widely available – rice (fried, or with a tomato sauce) is most common. You buy it in 50 cent increments. $1.50 will get you plenty of rice, a small salad, a chicken leg, a few baked beans and a topping of mayo, ketchup and spicy fish paste.
d. Imported foods like apples, pears (50 cents each), butter ($2.50 per stick) and cheese ($10 per pound) are more expensive than locally produced things like bread (70 cents a loaf), onions (50 cents/pound) and bananas (25 cents a bunch)
e. I live 11 kilometers from Kumasi. I either take a mini-bus and pay 50 cents each way or a series of group taxis for which I pay a total of $1.25.
f. I buy cloth and have it tailored into shirts for a total $5.50. If I’m feeling cheap, I visit the shirt market and pay 50 cents for something out of a pile (which you probably donated to Salvation Army or Good Will).
g. Traveling from Kumasi to Accra – a seat on a plane – $50, on a Air-condition bus $15, in an air-conditioned mini-van $7.50, in a tro-tro (no A/C, 20-30 passengers per car), $5.50
Knowing what you do now, would you still have joined Peace Corps?
Unequivocally, yes. This has been a life changing experience. Like I said above, I’m certainly a different person and unquestionably I’m a better person. I have met so many interesting people. I have had so many unforgettable experiences. Returned Mormon missionaries sometimes say their missions were “the best two years” of their lives. I hope I don’t talk about Peace Corps experience in the same way – it would be a shame if I can’t find work as fulfilling as Peace Corps after I finish my service. But I know I will always be appreciative to have this time of profound experiences, personal growth, and self-reflection.
There is a joke among volunteers that goes like this – “PCVs who serve in Latin America come back politically motivated, PCVs who serve in Asia come back spiritually enlightened, and PCVs from Africa come back loud, drunk and happy.”
I can’t wait to see you all. I’ll be in the States August 7 to August 29. I hope to begin posting updates more regularly when I return to Ghana.