Tuesday, November 17, 2009


I have thought long and hard about whether to let this blog and thus my time in Ghana to end abruptly, or to do some sort of reflection post to close this chapter. Since I have tried to make to time to catch up with people since I got home, most have at least heard the summary of my trip. But an email from one of my good friends living on the opposite side of the country reminded me that I have not talked to EVERYONE and, in addition, I have not necessarily given my true thoughts about the experience to everyone that I HAVE talked to. So in short, this will be the last post of my Ghanaian adventures and hopefully an elaboration on whatever I may have said to you in person.

Since I have been home one of the most welcome and the most frustrating questions I've gotten has been the simplest: "How was Ghana/Africa/your trip/etc?" What most people don't know is that this seemingly simple question is the hardest to answer. Upon hearing it uttered a litany of additional questions runs through my mind: Where do I start? Do you want to actually know how my trip was? Or do you just want to know the watered down fun and exciting version? Do you have 5 minutes? Or 5 days?

I love to tell individual anecdotes from my 5 weeks there. It is by far the most enjoyable story telling I can do about Africa. Most of those tidbits have been posted here, but not all. Not the time I dressed up in every piece of Ghanaian fabric I owned and scared the living daylights out of some of the new volunteers. Not the time I ran home from the rice fields to get my laundry off the line, only for it not to rain at the house. Those and others are stored away waiting to be shared with whoever is interested, and probably many who are not :-)

But the question "How was Ghana?" implies so much more that individual stories. It is a reflection on the entire trip. The good and the bad. The simple and the complex. And that is much harder to vocalize than single stories.

Here is my attempt to verbalize what I have failed to do so many times since I've come home. Answer that frustrating question:

Ghana was, and is, complex. Every nation is and certainly a developing nation in Africa has it's own share of complexities that us Westerners can only struggle to understand. And so in consequence my feelings on my trip to Ghana are even more complex than they would ordinarily be.

I loved and disliked parts of my trip. I loved meeting a variety of interesting and unique people. Other volunteers and locals alike. Forever the foibles of human beings give even those meetings and interactions a depth. Most people on the trip I liked. However, a few were petty, disruptive, and uncompromising. I get frustrated when people have no respect for others and have no consideration. Living in a communal situation brought all those frustrations to the surface. It was frustrating to have my feelings and opinions walked over because I was the "nice girl" who didn't like to make waves. I was frustrated at myself for letting it happen and for not speaking up.

I loved learning from others and laughing at the ridiculousness of some of the situations we got our selves into. There were so many amazingly intelligent people I encountered in Ghana. It was great being able to hear their stories and piece together their life, personality, and outlook from their anecdotes. Getting to know new people is something I haven't been able to do in awhile. Living at home and interacting with those you've known all your life is not very conducive to meeting new people. I hadn't even realized that I missed that intense bonding experience that occurs when people who have never met before are thrown into a stressful and unfamiliar situation...freshmen year of college anyone?

Learning about and experience the culture was so interesting and unique. Some things are done so differently. There were many great cultural experiences: learning to dance; learning about, listening, and becoming addicted to hiplife music (if anyone wants a sample I have over 135 songs on my ipod); traveling to different areas within Ghana; being there when Ghana won the Under 20 World Cup; learning phrases of pidgin and Ewe; shopping in the market...etc etc.

But there were other things that I could not grow accustomed to. Being called Yevu (white person) gets old after about a week. After 2-3 weeks I stopped answering to anyone over the age of 10 calling out to me in that manner. Hohoe is a major town in the region, there are plenty of white people there. To call out to me in that manner is disrespectful and derogatory...yet it is accepted. They call out Yevu because they want me to buy something, yet if I was interested they'd charge me 10 or 100 times the price if I was Ghanaian. You get used to the white surcharge of 10% but those who thought they would charge us 100% or especially those who we had befriended and still thought they should charge us more were those that frustrated the most.

The education and health systems were also frustrating. Seeing the state of such important systems in one of the most developed countries in Africa made me weep for the other African nations. Especially the education. Leaving the issue of global competition aside, how can this nation provide better quality of life if their children are going without basic fundamental education. Oh, education is mandatory but the quality, to be put bluntly, sucks. Rote memorization without fundamentals discourages any form of creativity, of contextual meaning, of ownership of ideas. Caning makes learning a painful and humiliating experience for those children who need extra guidance or who minds don't function the way the current curriculum says it should.

There is so much that needs done. And even I, as someone outside the educational field, can see where changes need to be made. But to see such systemic problems makes the challenge of change daunting and seemingly insurmountable.

I went to Ghana wanting to get away from what I knew and explore what I didn't. But I also went because I wanted to make a difference. I knew that no matter where I was placed I would give it 110% and expect nothing better from myself than the best that I could give. Because that's how approach every important task in life. But, although I KNOW I helped make a difference in some children's lives, I feel like I failed. Because I did not give it my best. I did not put in as many hours as a could have, or even as I should have (only about 2/day due to scheduling limitations). I did not give to the fullest of my potential and thus leaving happened way too soon. I knew I wasn't going to change the world so all I asked for was my best. It hurts that I couldn't even give it that. Maybe if I had went in thinking of it as a vacation where I could help some people on the side I would feel more fulfilled. In fact it would have then met my every expectation. But that was not how I looked at it. Not what I expected it to be deep down. And so in the end I would not repeat this experience by going through CCS if(when?) I ever go back to Africa. If I ever go back it will be to either to sight see or to volunteer. This middle ground left me somewhat unfulfilled on both counts.

HOWEVER, I have no regrets about going on the trip. It was overall one of the most memorable and eye opening experiences of my life and will probably hold that status for many many years to come. I enjoyed to much of it: the great and the difficult. I changed because of it, even if I am still trying to figure out how and why. I would encourage others to do it, which I believe says a lot of any experience whatever it may be.

So hopefully now you understand why I might stutter, pause, and collect my thoughts when you ask "How was Ghana?"

Monday, October 26, 2009

Mountain Paradise???

Saturday we decide to go hiking. My last attempt did not go so well, so I was leery of trying again. But I'd heard such great things about this place called Mountain Paradise, that when Brenna, Lana, and Annie wanted to go, I tagged along with them.

It was over an hour drive to get there. But between the traffic and the condition of the roads here it's probably not over 25 miles away. We get to the town and we turn off onto the mountain road that takes us to the Mountain Paradise lodge. I can safely say that it is the worst road I've been on in Ghana. It is little more than a gravel path with ruts deep enough to get lost in. We wind up this path. The higher we go, the less worried I get; because the higher we are, the less we have to go up, right?

Then Annie, who's been on this hike before, tells us that we go all the way to the top and then walk back down to start the path. About this time we pass a guide with a group of Americans. (They were white and had Lake Placid apparel on.) We continue on to get our own guide. But when we get to the top we're told that Believer is the only guide they have. So we can only go on the hike if we can drive back down and catch him before they get on the trail. We did, thankfully.

So the first part of the trail off the "road" is almost straight down. I know we end up at the top, at the lodge. So I start to worry about the fact that we are going even further down into the mountain valley. But we end up at one waterfall and it's not so bad. The hiking is both vertical and horizontal and having the other family of Americans with us, slowed us down enough that I with my asthma and Lana with her probably broken ankle can keep up. (It's been hurt since week one but its a chronic problem that she refuses to deal with until she gets home. She's very stubborn.)

Before we can see the next waterfall we have to rappel down a hill side. Without a harness. Luckily no one slipped. I didn't get in the waterfall like the others because I abhor wet socks. With a passion. And with half the hike left I was not purposely making myself miserable.

Unfortunately, I wasn't warned that due to the heavy rainfall we'd be wading knee deep through steams anyway. So I could have gotten in the damn waterfall. Oh well.

It took us about two hours but we finally made it back. Dripping in sweat. Covered in mud. Starving and and dying of thirst. We looked like refugees escaping from a war. But I'd do it all again. It was absolutely amazing. Great exercise that is still making me sore 2 days later, but completely worth it for the views.

The Boondocks

It was Brenna's last night in Ghana. We told the boys that we wanted to hit the "underground" hot spots in Hohoe. We didn't realize how underground we were going.

The Boondocks they said. I thought to myself, "That's an interesting name for a chop bar. I wonder why it's called that? I know what that word means at home, I wonder if it means the same here?. " So I should have guessed what the night would entail. But I didn't.

We start walking. The boys warn us that it's a bit of a hike. Okay, we say. We are game for anything. On and on we walk. Past the radio station, that I had thought 2 days before was the edge of town. Past the store fronts. Past the street lights. Past the traffic. Finally we come to this gas station in the middle of nowhere. We continue past.

No they say, we've arrived. The Boondocks. Ahhh, I think. They sure do have a mastery of subtlety here.

It was actually a great place. Great hip life music (which I've grown to love and have almost a hundred songs of). Great variety of drinks. We all had this non-alcoholic pear cider that was delicious. It's nice to be able to have something other than water now and again. Oh, how I miss lemonade.

I wish the Boondocks was closer to town, because as is, I can safely say I'll probably never go there again. I think I pick something a little closer for my last night in Ghana. It was fun and the walk back was highly amusing. But if we had been walking by ourselves, without guys we trusted (both the ghanaian boys we know and Dan, one of the other volunteers) it wouldn't have been nearly as fun.

Next time, however, I will know to take Ghanaian names literally.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Mexican Night in Africa

Last night was official Mexican night in Hohoe. At least around the home base it was. And what started out as a potential disaster turned into a quite edible meal. But I should probably start with the hows and whys.

Last week before the 3-weekers left, there was some sort of stomach bug running rampant through the house. Add that to the already clashing personalities and it resulted in short fuses and insulted staff. Some people were blaming the spiciness of the food for their explosive diarrhea, instead of the parasite that it probably was. I feel compelled to add that these same people were vegan and didn't eat most of the spicy food. However, they made comment to the program director and the cooks, John and Jane, were chastised for basically nothing at all.

For the next several days the food was the worst it's been this entire trip. No flavor at all. We retaliated and petitioned and eventually got some flavor back in the food. But we still felt bad for John and Jane after everything that they do for us. Cooking 3 meals a day in Africa, especially for this size group, is not an easy task. So we decided to cook them a meal. And what is more foreign and spicier than Tex-Mex?

Saturday some of the girls staying traveled the four hours down to Accra with the group headed to the airport and stopped at the supermarket to pick up the ingredients we'd need for a home cooked Mexican Fiesta. The meal was supposed to happen the next day, Sunday, but one of the house members came down with malaria (she's fine now) so we were busy with all the medical drama of that.

We decided that everything had settled down enough by yesterday to cook it up. However, by the time we went to start prepping at 4pm (Dinner is normally at 6) we found that we didn't have all the ingredients we needed.

Avacados = not ripe yet
Pita Bread (substitute tortillas) = moldy
Chili Powder = lost
Chicken = still frozen
Microwave = In our dreams?

I wasn't even part of this planning process. I was just along for the ride, which I've become surprising adept at doing here. But I couldn't keep myself from helping out when I saw the state they were in. We nixed the guacamole. We put off the chicken until last so it would thaw. We decided to fry up potato chips to use instead of tortilla chips.

Having actually fried potatoes before I took over that station. And for the next 3 hours witnessed the hilarity that ensued from my corner of the stove.

Jane the cook was home sick but John was there wincing at the mess we were making of his kitchen. I think at points he thought us to be incompetent, ridiculous, clueless, crazy, or all of the above. I'm pretty sure there were times he went outside just to stop himself from taking over.

I don't know if I have ever laughed as hard as I did last night. It was definitely a case of too many cooks in the kitchen. But at the same time most of us were just laughing at the ridiculousness of it all that no one cared. I wish I could describe the individual moments to you so that you'd have an inkling of what occurred but I wouldn't be able to do them justice.

Let's just say that dinner eventually got done, only an hour behind schedule. And the feast consisted of: Rice and Beans, Fajita-style chicken, homemade salsa, homemade cheese sauce, potato chips, taco salad with a taco season vinaigrette, and churros.

It actually tasted good. Which was great because the kitchen looked like a disaster zone. If we had been in the States they would have needed to call in FEMA. Honestly. I think we used every available pot, pan, fork, spoon, knife, bowl, etc. in the building. It took us over an hour after dinner to do the dishes. And that was even with "cleaning as we went". Sort of.

Every time something would go wrong all night, our mantra became TIA, TIA. It's quite fitting and reminds us to roll with punches when things aren't what we expect.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Insects, Reptiles, and Other Ghanaian Creatures

In the weeks that I've been here, I've come across the full spectrum of Ghanaian creatures. Not all of them have been pleasant experiences.

Not quite sure what it is, but I believe it to be something similar to a ground hog. I had heard about them for several days before my first, and hopefully only, encounter. We were driving along the road on our way to Accra, the capital city. This trips are harrowing as it is with the Rhode Island size potholes and various pedestrians and cyclists lining the the way. However, on this particular trip we were stopped in traffic. Traffic can get horrible, especially in the constructions zones around Accra, and here sitting in traffic is a multitasking experience. Vendors of all sorts come up to the car windows and try to sell you their wares. You can get everything from food to toilet paper to mislabeled maps of the world. And, also, apparently dead grass cutter yet to be skinned. Eyes glazed over staring at me from the other side of a thin piece of glass. I didn't get a good luck because as I realized what it was we were already moving on. I'm thankful.

I knew that they would be bad. TIA after all (This Is Africa). But they sneak up on you at the most inopportune times when you are stuck out without bug spray. During the night it's the worst but daytime is when most of us are caught unawares. One of the volunteers got Malaria. It's surprisingly treatable here. It really is the one thing the medical field can treat and treat well here. If you have anything else, you are better off self-diagnosing because they'd probably just shine a flashlight on it.

Giant Snails
The very first night we were here the volunteers staying over from the last start date took us to a local hang out spot. It's pitch black after 5pm and we are walking on muddy paths through the dark. One of the volunteers warned us of the giant snails and to watch out because it would be really gross if you stepped on it. While I believed her I didn't realize what she meant by "giant". The next day we were sitting out on the patio and the same volunteer pointed one out to me on the wall. So now I know giant equals softball size ball of goo and slime.

Lizards and Other Unwelcome House Pets
Lizards, Spiders, and a very nasty rumor about mice have all run rampant in the home base. It isn't uncommon for you to look up and see one of these scurrying across the wall or ceiling . Or over the tile floor. Lizards I can handle. They're cute and non threatening. Spiders on the other hand, that's a completely different story. In a house full of girls the entire neighborhood probably knows when we see one. Mice and I are DEFINITELY not on good terms. I am very very very glad I haven't spotted one and continue to hope that they are indeed just a nasty rumor.

Goats and Chickens
Goats and Chickens here are something inbetween pets and food. Pets until they need to be eaten I guess. But they run free all over the place. At feeding times they headback home for dinner. Other than that they are in yards, in the road, in houses, and sometimes really unlucky ones can be found in the gutters after a run in with a car.

Van Cockroaches?
Yes, I did indeed say cockroaches. One of the vans we rode to Kokrobite was infested. I found out BEFORE I took a 6 hour car ride in it. Imagine how comforting it was to know that somewhere there were cockroaches crawling around. I started feeling itchy and jumpy. The whole ride I kept my feet off the floor. Although I guess that wouldn't have stopped them from crawling up the seat and into our clothes. They didn't but I don't know what I would have done if they had. Probably screamed. Stopped the car. Shook them out...And got back in. TIA after all. Somethings you just have to deal with. Unfortunately, including cockroaches.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Ghana WINS!

Friday night was the FIFA Under 20 World Cup Finals, and guess who was playing? Ghana vs. Brazil! Futbol here is extremely popular, as it is in almost every country outside the U.S. For the past several weeks we have been kept updated on the status of the Ghanaian team.

We have no TV at the home base. So we all had been debating where to watch it. One thought was Malezia, a chop bar not far from the home base. (Chop Bar, is a bar/restaurant. Think American Bar and Grill as an equivalent.) But then Paul, a local, offered for all of the CCS volunteers to come over to his house and watch it there. Paul, and his friends Jojo and Van-li, became friends with the last group of volunteers and my group has continued those friendships. They are really sweet boys who are close in age to most of us and have a shop in town that we all hang out in a lot.

Anyways, Paul lives with his mother and sister in Hohoe. He walked us over there Friday night and we sat around in his living room watching the most boring game of soccer ever. 0-0 all game long, even through extra time. Just as it was getting to penalty kicks...the connection went out on the TV.

We were horrified. Here we had been sitting for over 2 hours with no excitement and we are missing the best part of the entire game. We tried to figure out what was happening from the yells of the neighbors but it wasn't enough. We head off down the street in search of a new TV. Around the "block", there was a chop bar. We stood outside peeking through the slated walls trying to catch a glimpse of the last couple of kicks. We couldn't see but we could tell when Ghana won because the place ERUPTED!

People were yelling, hugging, high fiving, and jumping up and down with joy. And here we were a bunch of (for the most part) American Yevu's in the middle of it all. As it settles down a little we head back towards town. Shouting and clapping our way down the street and congratulating everyone we meet along the way. A couple of times we encountered masses of people and were engulfed into their mix. Paul and his friends were a little worreid about one of us getting hurt but nothing bad happened in the crowds.

We thought we had seen crowds of people but that was nothing compared to what we faced when we actually got back into the heart of town. We had convinced the Ghanaian boys to lead us to Malezia to finish out the night with good music, lots of people, and maybe a nightcap or two. But as we approach the streets are packed. The only thing I can liken it to is pictures I've seen of New Orleans during Mardi Gras.

It was such an adrenaline rush to be a part of something that momentous. It was the first time an African country had won a World Cup finals and it was Ghana! I think that will go down as one of the top 5 memories I will take away from this trip. I don't think I've done justice to the energy that sizzled through the air Friday night.

It was diffently exhausting. After the excitement of Friday, I decided to stay in the rest of the weekend. I don't think I left the home base either Saturday or Sunday. It wasn't to do anything productive either because I still have a ton of laundry to do. Oh, well. Maybe that'll get done tomorrow morning...hopefully.

Eugemot Orphanage

First, I want to apologize for my horrible spelling. I'm a bad typist normally and trying to write these posts under a time limit at the internet cafe is not helping matters. Now that's taken care of I can get down to the more interest parts.

Last Thursday, several of us volunteers went to Eugemot (U-G-Mot) Orphanage with Annie, the volunteer who is placed there. We normally only go to placement in the mornings but Annie finds time during most weekday afternoons to make it back out. I now understand why.

There are just under 50 orphans who live there. Their ages range from 1 yr old to 15-16 yrs old. There are 32 boys who sleep in one room, 18 bunk beds stacked 3 high. That's almost 2 boys for every twin sized bed. The girls don't have it any easier: 17 of them in 9 beds. The orphanage has 7 rooms in total, 2 bedrooms, a main living quarters that is about the size of a small family room in the states, an office, a tiny bathroom, a kitchen, and a storage room. There is no room really for the orphans to place their belongings. They keep everything they own in plastic bags tucked under or around their beds.

We arrive in the van and we can hear the children yelling "Annie! Annie! Annie!" as we pull up. As we get out, we are surrounded by children with faces lit up with excitement. They didn't know who we were but were happy to see us anyway. We were asked our names then our hands were grabbed to be given the official tour by a sweet little hellion named Sarah with wild hair and a contagious laugh.

Also on the grounds are 3 or 4 pavilions. This is where classes are held. They are thatched roof and cement floor pavilions (with tables fortunately). There is nothing to keep out inclement weather. But they probably don't have much paper to be blown around by the wind anyway.

I felt at a loss at first at what to do and who to play with. I was offered to join a game of Uno with another volunteer who had been to the orphanage the week before and had already made a connection with some of the children. From there I just got sucked into whatever was going on next. I built block towers, gotten my butt kicked in Jacks, taught some kids War, read books, sang songs. In all, the kids were happy and joyful. That they were starving for attention was obvious. But none of them were maicious towards us, which cannot be the same for the kids at St. Francis primary school where I am placed.

It made me see truly how much volunteers are needed in the area. I had been doubting the necessity of my being here at St. Francis because it seems like we do so little there. I know we are making a difference with our literacy program--we can already see results and improvement--but we are there for maybe 2 hours a day. Thus far I have been more on vacation than a volunteer trip.

But after the trip to the orphanage, I think that will change. I plan on going back with Annie several times this week. I know the kids there can get so much out of just 2 hours of my time and energy. Even that little bit will make me feel like I've accomplished something here.