I’m still alive

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.
Other Highlights:
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.
Peace,
Spencer

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Settling In – An Update from My Site

Hello all,

I apologize for going dark for the last four months. It is not easy to get online in this country so I’ve been neglecting my blog. I hope to make these posts more frequent over the coming months.

First, My site.

I live in a village of about 1500 in the Ashanti region of Ghana called Sakora Wonoo. The primary work of people in my village is weaving. Walking around town, I can see men sitting at their looms (inside a house or under a tree) weaving the colorful patterns of Kente cloth.

The village is laid out along one main road which is partly paved but mostly dirt. On one end of town, in the town cemetery in fact, lies my house. At the other end is the school where I teach – Amos Okrah Seventh Day Adventist (SDA) Junior High School. The previous  volunteer helped the town build a 18 desktop computer lab which is situated in the SDA primary school.

I live in a compound with another teacher; we each have a separate house. I will try to post pictures of my house to this blog or facebook when I can. It has a bathtub, flush toilet, microwave, refrigerator, and plenty of nice furniture. Rain water is collected and stored in a cistern providing me running water during the rainy season.

As I said, I teach in a JHS – comparable to middle school or junior high in the United States. I teach Form 1 (6th grade) and Form 2 (7th grade) mathematics and Form 2 science as well as an evening test preparation class for the Form 3 (8th grade) students. At the end of JHS, all  students take an exam called the BECE. The results of this determine if and where they can go to Senior High School.  Last year, only about 50% of Amos Okrah students passed the BECE and our mathematics scores were particularly low. So I have my work cut out for me.

I’m teaching quite a bit – at least two seventy minute classes a day, sometimes three or four. The school day officially runs from 8:00 AM to 2:00 PM but the students come for early morning and after school classes. As I said earlier, I teach an evening class focusing on test preparation. I have also started a Mathematics club after school which has been surprisingly well attended.

I’ve got a lot to work to do here. Teaching is hard. Many of my students can’t understand English well enough for English only education. Most don’t have a strong foundation of math skills (one digit addition, subtraction and multiplication). However, the students are eager to participate in class, and most days they are reasonably well behaved. Every day I am improving as a teacher. I am trying to give remediation to the students who need it but I still haven’t figured out what to do about the weak English speakers. Even so, I am optimistic about what I can do here.

During training, I learned a little of the local language – Asante Twi. Since coming to site, I have not been studying as much as I should as I have been busy preparing lesson plans and teaching.

I am looking into a few secondary projects. My school could really use a decent library as well as electricity and I’m looking at doing an HIV testing day in the town sometime in the next couple of days.

Anyway, that is all for now. If you would like to send me a package or mail, send it to:

PCV Spencer Campbell c/o

Peace Corps Ghana

P.O.Box 5796

Accra-North

 You can also bother me via email but the turn-around will probably be a week or two.

 

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Hello from Ghana

So I apologize for ignoring this blog for the past couple of months. Stuff happened. I got busy. I had to pack.

I arrived in Ghana about two and a half weeks ago although it feels more like two months. Currently, I’m in the Kofiridua Vodaphone internet cafe, or the “good internet cafe” as it is known to the trainees. The connection is fast and reliable and the building is air conditioned. It is pretty much the best thing ever.

I won’t try to summarize the last two weeks. After I get my 3G modem and can post from my laptop I will post pictures and more details. But I will say the country is beautiful, the food is delicious, and the people, on the whole, are ridiculously friendly. A few days ago I got my site assignment – I learned where I’ll be spending the majority of my two years here.  I’m headed to the Ashanti region in the middle of the country and I’ll be replacing another volunteer who just got funds to get a computer lab put into his school. I’m super excited to take the reins of the project and make it my own. I heard that the house I’ll be staying in is pretty sweet. I’m even inheriting the last volunteer’s dog.

Right now, I’m living in a small town called Kukurantumi. There are about 5000 residents and a number of schools. My homestay father is Kukurantumi’s “Sub-chief for Development” and is apparently quite good friends with the Chief of Kukurantumi. I got to ride in his car (a luxury SUV) on the way to a “Meet the Chief” welcome ceremony last Sunday.

By Peace Corps standards, my place in Kukurantumi is quite nice. I have both a toilet that flushes as well as a real bath tub as opposed to a hole in the ground and an outdoor bathing stall but no running water in the house.  My room is spacious and has a concrete floor. It does get a little hot during the day. I will post pictures as soon as I can.

This week and last I’ve been participating in Practicum. Myself, and the other education volunteers have been placed in real classrooms throughout Kukurantumi to get some teaching experience. I teach at OPAS MA Junior High School (JHS). Again, you need to see a picture of the building to appreciate it fully. In my classroom I have a blackboard, a tin roof, and three-foot high partitions instead of walls. Oh, and 70 students crammed into 50ish wooden desks. The other day, a primary school kid kicked a soccer ball into one of my fellow trainee’s classroom and hit a kid in a temple. He called the kid in and made him apologize. The other day, I had a chicken wander into my classroom.

Even with the spartan accomodations, the kids are eager to learn and I feel more comfortable teaching everyday. I started writing in ALL CAPS to make my handwriting easier to read and I’m slowly learning the many Ghanaian English expressions.

I will do an entire post on Ghanaian food some time. For the most part, it is delicious. There is a lot of rice, tomato, chicken and a variety of peppers and spices. Oh, and a whole lot of delicious rolls, cakes and bread. And FanIce – a sort of Icecream bar without the stick.

Anyway, more to come.

-Spencer

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Invitation – GHANA

Hey all,

I don’t have a whole lot of time to post but my invitation came and I’m headed to Ghana!

I’ll be teaching middle school math. It is all just a bit overwhelming right now. I will have pictures and updates real soon.

-Spencer

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A Quick Post

Hey all,

I just wanted to quickly post this, the beautiful picture I saw when I logged in to my Peace Corps application this morning:

So excited. My invitation letter might come today, but more likely Monday or Tuesday.

-Spencer

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Yes, I’m starting a blog

Friends, family, and people of the internet:

Hello. I’ve decided to start a blog to keep you all up to date during my time in the Peace Corps.  Barring delays due to a government shutdown, natural disasters or other such nonsense I’ll be heading for Africa in June.EDIT: I’m headed to Ghana on June 6. I don’t know exactly where yet but based on a little googling and the information at peacecorpswiki.org I think I’ll be assigned to Tanzania or Malawi. I’ll have much more information once I receive the official invitation packet.

I’ll try to update this blog regularly over the next two months and then whenever I can once I am in country. As you probably know, Peace Corps Volunteers live a spartan lifestyle. I will likely  be assigned to a rural community and live in a house with no electricity or running water. More importantly, I don’t know if I’ll have internet access more than once or twice a month.

Since I started telling people I applied for the Peace Corps, I started getting a lot of questions about the service, what I’ll be doing, etc.  Here are a few basics:

When will you be leaving?

June 6, 2011 Hopefully, June.  I don’t know if the government shutdown will delay my departure. I’m crossing my fingers that it won’t.


How long will you be gone?

From June 6,2011 until August 30,2013

I do get some vacation days so I may be able to come back to the US briefly during my service.

What will you be doing?

I was nominated for the Education – Secondary Math program. I’ll be teaching middle school mathematics in English. In addition to that, I’ll likely work on secondary projects in my community (things like AIDS/HIV awareness programs, teaching or tutoring students learning English, etc)

Why the Peace Corps?

I’m going to tackle this question in excruciating detail in a later post. For now I’ll say the more I learned about the program, the more it appealed to me. I’m excited for the opportunity to travel abroad and I think I can be a real asset to the community in which I am assigned.

Why is the Peace Corps application process so ridiculously long?

The Peace Corps folks say that it weeds out those so who aren’t serious. I think the program is just understaffed and underfunded (but doing their best).

Just for your reference here is my application timeline so far:

  • Summer, 2010 – Started working on the online application
  • October 4, 2010 – Submitted the application complete with references, essays
  • Mid-October, 2010 -Submitted fingerprints and paperwork for a background check, more application paperwork
  • November 12, 2010 – Interview with a Peace Corps Recruiter at MSU
  • November 30, 2010 – Nominated for service in Sub-Saharan Africa leaving in Q3 2011
  • December 7, 2010 – Received the Medical paperwork
  • December 2010, January, February 2011 – a physical, dental and eye exam, a couple of shots, a TB test, more paperwork.
  • March 9, 2011 – Medically cleared for service
  • March 2011 – Several emails with the Placement Office for some last final (for real) questions and to update my resume
  • April 6, 2011 – I get an email from my Placement Officer telling me I’ve been ‘cleared for placement’ and that my invitation is in the mail.
  • April 12,2011 – Invitation came! Ghana, West Africa
  • June 6, 2011 – Depart for Staging
  • June 8,2011 – Arrive in Ghana

Compared to the horror stories I’ve read, I’ve made pretty good time.

That’s all I’ve got. Let me know if you have any more questions in the comments.

-Spencer

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