Malaria Month Update

Malaria and Long-Lasting Insecticide Treated BedNets.

malaria mural

After a few false starts late last year, my counterpart and I were finally able to procure and distribute 1200 mosquito nets in my town and surrounding villages. We began registering homes last September based on an proposed grant by a seasoned Peace Corps volunteer planning to secure nets for interested volunteers in the southern half of Ghana. Another volunteer had done the same in the northern half and their distribution came off last fall.

As we began this plan before Christmas, I included information on its progress in my report to stake holders in my town last year. I sent my report to the chief and elders, the local government officials, the hospital administration, as well as local volunteers with whom I work. I spoke directly with folks in the hospital administration about our plans for registration and distribution. Recently, on occasion I would hear of a meeting at the hospital about their planning of a possible parallel bed net distribution, but I was never directly informed of these meetings or invited. A friend in the hospital administration told me rumors of Ghana Health Service obtaining 400 nets for pregnant women in my district (a population at significant risk), but I heard nothing more.

The original southern bed net distribution did not come to fruition, so I ended up writing my own grant and just before Easter we were able to pick up the nets in Accra and have them transported back to my village (approximately 10-12 hours by truck). It was no small feat and I was happy to finally be able to follow through with our promises of mosquito nets to the registered people in our area. Mosquitos breed in still water and with the onset of the rainy season, and the subsequent massive, long-lasting puddles, mosquitoes were once again wreaking havoc in our area.

It should have come as no surprise to me when after finally obtaining our 1200 nets we heard that Ghana Health Service also procured nets for the district. They received more than the rumored 400 for pregnant women, but rather they procured 29000 nets for the district! This number estimated offering one net for every two people living in the district. I was simultaneously thrilled that so many people might receive this form of protection and dismayed that our efforts could not be coordinated to better serve the population. We were working in parallel realms and did not find an intersection.

My counterpart and I were able to distribute our nets before GHS had worked out their distribution system. For our nets, we had participants sign a commitment form promising to make use of the protective measure. When we went house-to-house to register the residents, we were careful to avoid offering nets where they had clearly been misused. Nets are routinely given away in Ghana and often not taken seriously, being used for fencing, screening, etc instead of their intended use of preventing mosquito bites while sleeping. In the upcoming weeks we will visit several homes of recipients to make sure their nets are hung and being used properly. We are hoping that based on our signed commitment forms, our visits might scare those not using their nets into action. I never thought of shame as a motivator before, but in a society where reputation is so important, keeping a good name for yourself is key. I am hoping that many of our nets will be put to good use and we are able to reduce the number of malaria cases in our area. I don’t believe GHS has the manpower or budget to do a similar check up. In this regard, I am happy to have the time to follow up with people and attempt to ensure their safety. Our numbers may be smaller than those offered by the national health service, but I feel secure in knowing that our nets will be put to good use and our clientele have been educated, not just about use and hanging of bed nets, but also about building soak-away pits to decrease incidences of standing water and other prevention techniques.

Malaria is seen in similar terms to the flu by many Ghanaians. They get sick, with body aches, chills, vomiting, and then they head to the clinic where they are given medicine. What seems to be overlooked in this cycle is the lasting effects to the body. Repeated malaria causes anemia. Malaria in pregnancy can cause miscarriages or low birth weight. Severe malaria, when simple malaria goes untreated and advances, can lead to death, especially in young children. Malaria is serious. It presents like the flu, but it can be devastating to ones health. We are doing what we can to educate those in our community to take this illness more seriously. Pushing for behavior change is the hardest part of this job, but it is critical to the development of this country and I will keep working on this front as long as I remain in Ghana. Hopefully my efforts will make at least a small difference in the lives of those around me.

work in progress

busy, busy girl

Yet again, it’s been a while since I wrote a blog post. Life marches on and in the classic-Chris. Todd style I have overextended myself. Many people in Peace Corps take their service time as an opportunity to slow down, and in many ways I have as well, especially when you consider the looseness of time in Ghanaian society and the slow speed of communication when bridging a language barrier. On other fronts, life has sped up. Over the past few months, I have been very busy. I started a (hopefully monthly) feeding/cooking demonstration program in my community. We track the children that are underweight each month and then gather those families to cook and eat together the following week. This gives us an opportunity to teach the mothers ways to fortify or improve their meal offerings, as well as a time to educate the families about healthy food preparation techniques and food choices. In my village, there is plenty of food, the problem seems to lie in prioritizing balance (many fill tiny bellies with too much starch and minimal vegetables or protein). Hygienic practices that reduce food-borne illnesses, such as diarrhea, is another area of concern that we are addressing. During last month’s cooking demo, for example, I asked the women to cover the vegetables after they were chopped while awaiting their time to cook. They all laughed and told me African germs don’t hurt Africans. I took that opportunity to discuss what causes diarrhea and the connection to flies (plenty of which were landing on our food). Another project that has taken up a lot of my time is HIV club follow-up. Back in November we presented four HIV trainings in the district. We invited three students and one teachers from each JHS in the area and trained them for two days, covering such topics as awareness, transmission, prevention, and stigma reduction. We had the opportunity to bring in PLHIV (people living with HIV) to talk to the students; this really made an impact on the kids by putting a face and real life stories on the issue. Last month I visited every school in the district to follow up. This involved a lot of travel on some really treacherous roads, but was so rewarding. Of the 24 schools visited that had attended the training, 20 had started HIV Awareness clubs. The clubs had over 600 participants and many had already done outreach in their community to educate the masses. It’s so nice to see concrete actions taking place as a result of our efforts. I’m still working with my midwife as well, assisting her with malaria work and insurance claims. Madame Alice has had a private midwife practice in my village for 29 years. She typically sees between 20-50 patients a day, seven days a week. She is one busy lady, so I’m happy to support her in serving the community. To be clear, she is available to everyone in the community, often dealing more with malaria and cases of chest infection, then with antenatal care, birthing, or postnatal follow ups. Of course, often those concerns overlap. Pregnant women and children under five are high risk groups for contracting malaria in this endemic area. So on that note, I’ve also been working on a bed net distribution in my area. We have procured 1200 mosquito nets and we’ll start distribution soon. Many homes have already registered and after distribution we intend to follow up to make sure they are being used. This, however, does not solve the issue of mosquito bites from dusk till dawn outside of sleep hours, but it helps. Malaria is a huge problem here, with each repeat case leading individuals further down the road toward anemia, which in turn complicates pregnancy for women of fertility age. Efforts to reduce malaria are a complicated issue. I just took over as chair of the Gender and Youth Development committee and am looking forward to working on the “Let Girls Learn” project that Michelle Obama is piloting. In 9 Peace Corps countries. That committee works on promoting and increasing programs that reach out to women and children to improve the standards of living in these populations. Tied to this is my work designing the upcoming Nutrition training for fellow volunteers. I’m working with a group of three other fantastic ladies, who came to country with me last year in the health sector. We want to train newer volunteers in not only the information necessary to promote improved health through strong nutritional choices, but also how to reach out in the community, soliciting not only the buy in of mothers cooking for their families, but also the support of their partners. This is by and large a society where women cook the food provided by their husbands and as such the men often get most of the scarce protein, which their growing children desperately need. We’re hoping to open communication lines and find ways to encourage more equitable distribution of resources. Lots of other day-to-days things keep me busy as usual, but those are the big things that I’m trying to juggle right now. So, I thank you in advance for accepting my slack blog entries. I’ll try to post shorter blog entries more frequently instead of waiting for time to tell all. Wishing everyone back home the best and looking forward to having my husband join me here again soon. Thank god for his summer break!

The Secret to my Success…?



CT3February Blog

Earlier this month the newest group of Peace Corps Trainees came into Ghana. This was the newest Health Sector volunteers, thus confirming that my group had been in country a full year. I was asked to write something on success to be shared with this latest batch of newbies, here’s what I sent:

To feel successful in Peace Corps Ghana one has to change some of their views and preconceived notions about success. In America success in the workplace is reflected in terms of profit: productivity and efficiency. For some the definition expands to include a sense of worth and happiness as well. People often talk about wishing to find balance between work and home life, but this struggle is rarely won, though when it is accomplished those individuals have a greater sense of success.

In Ghana, the pace of life is s…l…o…w…
Public transportation, government agencies, schools, and other groups rarely, if ever, run on a strict schedule. Often the time frame to complete a simple project is ridiculously extended. And on top of the other concerns, in order to see a project through, you must not only maintain your own motivation, but also continue to harness any drive found within your community.

To define success in PCGhana one must take a step back. It cannot be measured in projects started, planned, or completed; it cannot even be measured in sheer numbers of lives impacted. Rather in our quest to find meaningful work it is important to recognize the impact you can have on a very small scale, quality over quantity. Every day in Ghana, you are not only changing your own perception, but also challenging the perception of those around you. Success is the little things, the “seeds we plant whose shade we will not see” in our short time here. Success in Peace Corps is finding a way to believe in the greater good, hoping that through example we can inspire change, however small. And that by inspiring change in a few individuals, the impact will find roots which support future growth.

Not too bad, huh? However, it wasn’t until I put those words out on paper that I could really consider them personally and furthermore, consider what changes I have encountered personally and how my internal compass has shifted.

When I was in the States a friend told me her belief that Peace Corps, like most volunteer work, is not an unselfish act, in this case on the part of the US Government. The US is investing in citizens less to bring skills and peace around the world, as much as banking on those qualities coming back home after service. Peace Corps service allows US citizens to appreciate what we have in our home country, inspires future local volunteer work, and be affirms a desire to ignite change back home as well. Sound theory. No volunteering is selfless. I am here, at least in part, because I want to experience living in another culture. I want to do meaningful work. I want to feel important.

Yesterday while in the city, I visited a senior high school with a colleague. My friend, Kelly, worked with the headmistress’ daughter back in the states. The headmistress we visited was very educated, well traveled and connected, she had been on Ghana’s Olympic committee for the games in London. She and her assistant were asking us questions about Peace Corps. Kelly described it as choosing to spend two years in another country in order to get to know people in that country and allow them to get to know you. The assistant asked if it was all about socializing then and Kelly said we also had secondary specializations. It shifted my ideas a bit. Being assigned to the Health Sector I always thought that was my primary objective. However, goals two and three of Peace Corps are essentially as outlined by Kelly in this conversation.

According to the website, The Peace Corps’ Mission is to promote world peace and friendship by fulfilling three goals:
1. To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women
2. To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served
3. To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans

Throughout Ghana people will comment on the sacrifice we make by coming to Ghana. They understand that the country is not a developed as the US and wonder why we would want to spend years of our life here. It’s nice to hear the affirmation, but usually I worry that I’m not doing enough in return for Ghana to deserve this accolade. I came here with the intention of making an impact. I do not spend most of my time on life-altering projects, but rather on daily work, which includes chores, socializing, and some actual work like helping the midwife or educating various groups. I have spent quite a bit of time securing grant monies for my community to fund the procurement of bed nets to fight malaria, to offer HIV workshops to JHS students to prevent new cases and reduce stigma, and to purchase library books to help form libraries throughout the country. I did not come here hoping to be a cash cow for my community and struggle with this angle of my service though I can see the visible impact of these funded projects.

I spend a lot of time thinking about what role I play here and what I hope to accomplish. Ultimately, I stand by my definition of success above. In whatever form I can, I choose to make an impact, however small. This week I enjoyed part of the market day morning sitting at a local store building a toy chicken out of used water sachets at the request of a ten year old girl. She saw the silly toys I made for the children in my home and asked me to make one for her. I told her to collect clean empty sachets and she instantly pulled 8 from the nearby ground (litter is ubiquitous in Ghana which is what inspired my initial creations). I sat with her mother and starting cutting sachets, employing her mother in tying strips together into chains and had spectators stop and go while observing the obruni doing “something weird” with trash. Ultimately the toy chicken was a moderate success, recognizable at least and sturdy enough for a day or two of rough play. But the real success was being able to expose people to thinking outside of the box. I get a lot of attention just because my skin is different from everyone else in my community, to harness that interest while performing unusual tasks is one way to reach people. To change people’s perceptions on any front is a useful activity. Couple that with connecting socially with people and you have a good recipe for success. When I returned to photograph my creation! the girl had already given it to a young child for his enjoyment. Bonus! Not only had I been able to show a girl a new way to make toys from trash, but then she got to give that toy away and add a little joy to a child’s day as well.


I was Skyping with an old friend last night and discussing these matters. I was talking about redefining success at work and through our conversation I realized I had also been forced to reconsider my definition of friendship. I live in a land where much of the people have a thinking-level comparable to fourth grader in the US. Lack of quality education or access to information, inadequate health resources, and many other factors have limited the growth of this country and its people. Critical thinking is a rare skill here. Whereas I value friendships back home based on depth of connection and understanding, here my relationships exist closer to the surface. And coming to that realization helps me redefine the success of my connections in Ghana. Our experiences, culture, and background have left gaps in our ability to connect at a deep personal level, but in no way alter our ability to relate on a fundamental level. We are all humans and can sit together and enjoy one another’s company without needing to compare notes on deep philosophical matters. Surface connections still have importance and impact.

So later on that same market day when I emerged from lunch at home I saw a small girl and boy struggling to fetch a pail of water from our well. The teenage girl seemed to only be able to use one hand and so with each pull, the boy behind her would then secure the rope at that level. I offered to help and took over pulling the bucket up the well. The kids were grateful, but what I hadn’t considered was the response I would get at market. A few witnesses spread the word quickly and while walking through the stalls, many of the sellers commented on my act. They were surprised that I could haul water and impressed that I had done so for locals. It was a day of my small acts being recognized, small acts that changed perceptions. My help at the well gave Ghanaians the chance to not only see an American doing manual labor, but also acting selflessly, volunteering my efforts for the good of another. It is through small acts of kindness that great things can occur.


January- returning for US

I wrote this when I returned a few weeks ago and the Internet is just now (in the final hours of January in the US, agreeing to post it. Enjoy!)

January blog: Just got back from America

So before I get back into life in Ghana, let me say a little bit about going back to America.
Things I used to take for granted are so much more meaningful after time away, here are just a few things I noticed/missed:
RUNNING WATER, every way that it influences your life is amazing: drinkable water from the tap (though many Americans refuse to drink “that” kind of water), showers, washing machines (not to mention dryers!), dish washers, flushing toilets (especially with the added bonus of pipes that can handle flushing of used TP)… Wow! Who knew basic easy-access to water was such a hidden luxury!
MY PEOPLE, my culturally like-minded, American-English-speaking, everyday folks: with our many flaws, it is still so great to feel completely comfortable with the people you surround yourself with. Comfortable with so many little things, including the ways we interact and communicate. Being able to assume a few things. Phones alone, for example like, it is acceptable in US to NOT answer your phone; to text (either when feeling antisocial or for quick/clear communication); to fall into the internet wormhole that is a cell phone these days, etc. I missed Ghana’s typical greeting/connecting with people at first, but then later really appreciated my anonymity. In America, connecting with people is a choice, in Ghana it is more of an obligation, which can be exhausting.
NOT BEING CONSTRUED AS RICH. Because i am a foreigner, it is automatically assumed that I am rich. Because I am white in a black country, I stick out like a sore thumb. If I was making an American paycheck, by Ghanaian standards, I would be rich. If my pay was 400 USD instead of 400 GhC, I’d be three times as wealthy as I am; as it currently stands, I have left a husband behind in a wealthy country to eek out a living on his own, while I eek one out here. There is little extra money and when I go back to the US I am poor, by most standards, with an income of $400/month. Not being able to communicate this to Ghanaians is even more frustrating. I constantly feel like a disappointment for not being a cash cow in this needy country, and yet at the same time, I know that wouldn’t fix anything and would create an unhealthy dependence (which Ghana already struggles with from past and current NGO-interference).
CLOSE FRIENDS. See #2 above. Being among people who think/live/eat/survive differently and have done so for their entire lives and know no other way of life, does not lend itself to tight bonds. I have friends here and the family I live with has basically adopted me as their sister, but it’s so nice to be home, and know that people get me, without need for explanation. To EVERYONE I got to visit with back home, a great big thank you for being there. And for those I missed, I truly miss you!
FOOD VARIETY, the variety which is built by living in the world’s largest melting pot. I missed cheese and wine, of course, and enjoyed them freely in US, but don’t miss them as much as I thought I would. More so, I missed Mexican food, Indian food, Thai food, sushi, and the ability to eat any combination of said variety each week. I missed the wide array of vegetables available at the grocery store, even if they aren’t all bursting with freshness and incredible taste. Variety/choices are fantastic! Oh broccoli, how I missed you.
STORES. I don’t love shopping, but I missed the convenience of running into a store to grab something, from toilet paper to sneakers, from chewing gum to clothing. The added bonus of stores in US is the way they are usually low pressure situations. I can browse freely. I can leave without buying anything, without having to explain myself. I can buy something for the price it says instead of having to bargain and try to figure out what the “real” or acceptable price should be. So exhausting to constantly feel like you’re being charged more simply because you are foreign and therefore rich (see #3 above).
MARRIED LIFE. Still haven’t had much of it to enjoy (officially a year, but if you count time in same space… significantly less) but being in the company of my husband has become super precious. I miss our quiet time, sitting together watching TV, doing a puzzle, playing a game. I miss easy, daily interactions. The phone just isn’t as easy and cuddly.

So, yes, basically I missed America more than I realized and more than I like to think about on a daily basis (for survival’s sake). I have returned to Ghana and wonder what I’m doing, what I want to accomplish, and how I can use this time to help shape myself and ready me for what is next, and how to figure out what that will be. Basically, I have to get back into the flow of things here with an eye open for what’s next back there… suggestions are welcome!

The zest of life

deflated orangeI am grateful to have come to my Peace Corps service later in life. I realize at this point that I have had a number of experiences that have better prepared me for my time in a third world country.

Travel: My first international travels were during a spring break trip to Italy in my last year of college (thanks Deb Bell for showing me how); from that point on anything seemed possible. My volunteer work in Nicaragua and Colombia helped acquaint me with third world realities, such as bucket bathing, brushing your teeth without running water, and learning to navigate local produce. My later travels through Europe, especially spending most of a summer traveling and living in Greece, finally gave me the confidence I needed to pursue moving to another continent.

Thrifty living: My New England upbringing prepared me for living life in a pragmatic, financially conservative way. I learned to work with what I have and stretch a nickel. This has served me well on my volunteer budget. My time as a college professor allowed me to be a bit more extravagant, but my roots lie in pinching pennies. Like my mother did during my youth, I keep used containers that may be useful for something else at a later date. I’m not hoarding, but I am keeping things I would normally just recycle back in the States. This recently paid off when I turned my pump sunscreen container into a liquid soap dispenser (a device that seems to be absent in Ghana). I cleaned the spent lotion container, then filled it with liquid dish soap and am enjoying the luxury of soft soap.

Living simply: Life in a small African village where people don’t often travel beyond the district, is quiet. I am usually home by 6pm before it gets dark and other than the inane shows on TV (and, trust me, they are even more ridiculous here than in the US), I have to create my own entertainment. Thanks to my sister-in-law, my kindle is well stocked, so reading has become a great escape. Thanks to my experiences working out with some amazing trainers, I know how to fit exercise into my daily routine, both as a means of stress reduction and mood-balancing, as well as a form of entertainment. Thanks to my husband, I have someone to call everyday to keep me rooted to my American life as well.

A few other things that have helped:
My independent spirit: I’m used to doing things on my own.
My willingness and ability to talk to anyone: Modeled throughout my life by my dear old dad.
My ability to sleep anywhere, through almost anything: including bumpy tro rides, through roosters crowing at all hours of the night, and the big Thursday market just outside my window each week. My years of sleeping through joe’s basketball games! complete with buzzers and whistles! helped set me up with this gift.

There were a few things a that I was not prepared for however, like:
Eating food and drinking water from a plastic bag.
Eating super hot food with my hands (sans utensils).
And the frustration of trying to communicate in a shared language (English) and failing miserably.

But the thing that actually made me realize how much my past has prepared me for my present was really quite trivial…
Drinking an orange: First I must say that fruit near the equator is AMAZING! It tastes like the sun intended instead of the cardboard “fruit” available in the US.
So what prepared me to ‘drink’ an orange like they do here in Ghana? When I was a kid we had a plastic device that you could insert into an orange and suddenly it worked more like a juice box than a piece of fruit. The device looked a bit like a wide straw attached to an apple corer. The way people in Ghana “eat” (drink is more accurate) their oranges is quite similar. First they peel the outer most peel away, leaving a white globe. Next, they slice off the top and proceed to suck the contents of the fruit through this hole. It’s delicious! And this is what started this whole train of thought, things that led to me feeling comfortable and at ease in a very foreign land.

I imagine there is some proverb or saying about oranges, but I can’t think of any, so I leave you with this thought: drink your oranges while you can, before you know it they’ll taste like cardboard again. Or better yet, when you get oranges, drink ’em like orange aide.

Merry Christmas to all my friends and family! I’m looking forward to coming home for a short spell and seeing as many of you as I can manage. The rough schedule is as follows: December 23-27 Ohio, 28-1/2 Maine, then heading south to NC and SC. Continue reading

Living the dream…

Michael holding handsI have been trying to think of something blog-worthy to write about since my last entry. As my Peace Corps projects and daily life in Adabokrom slowly unfold, it is hard to keep in mind that most of you reading this are not experiencing this type of life-altering experience along with me. In fact, at times, it seems a bit mundane and it’s hard to think of it as life-altering at all, though I know at a base-level that it has already altered my path. Just the other day the phrase “living the dream” came to mind. I had yet another week filled with routine daily activities, which include cooking every meal, washing my dishes in two buckets of non-running water, washing my clothes by hand struggling to ring all the suds out, walking any and every where I want to go (usually down muddy paths), and once again hiding from the midday heat as rainy season ebbs away. With these typical time-consumers come silly irritants like pulling countless prickly “wheat seeds” out of the cuffs of my pants (yes, I often wear pants in this crazy heat),making sure I have an extra scratch card with credit for my phone in case I run out, and trying to avoid stepping in the shit that is littered along every path by the various animals (goats, sheep, chickens, ducks, guinea fowl, cows) that stroll freely around town, not to mention the litter left behind by the people. In addition to physical tasks, there are social tasks to accomplish daily as well, such as greeting EVERYONE I see, trying to find something to chat about with those I do stop and converse with, and generally keeping a smile on my face, laughing when people jokingly ask where my husband is (hoping that yet again I will playfully say he has gone to America and ‘can you believe he left us all behind?’), finding creative new ways to interact with toddlers that cry at the sight of my glow-in-the-dark skin (lately I tell them that I will cry too and do an exaggerated sob), or witty responses to ‘I’m hungry’ or ‘give me money.’ It was during one of these mundane tasks, probably while walking somewhere in town being confounded by the local language once more, that the thought hit me, “I’m living the dream.” Ha!

Not the ‘I’ve got it all’ (house, car, dream job, family) typical-American-status-oriented dream, but despite the third world challenges, I am, in fact, living out one of my life dreams. For years I have wanted to live in another country and experience life differently. Don’t get me wrong, this dream has not always been so altruistic, it hasn’t always involved moving to a developing country by any stretch; sometimes it took an academic-path, with dreams of teaching somewhere glamorous abroad; sometimes it took the romantic path, with dreams of being swept off my feet by some exotic person from a distant land; but there were times that it took the “I can make a difference” path, otherwise Why would I have filled out the Peace Corps application and be here now. But regardless of the inspiration for living abroad in my dream of moving somewhere completely different was always lurking in the shadows.

So now, here I am: living in Ghana. Weird. I hadn’t even visited this continent before agreeing to commit two years of my life to working here in an effort to help with health development. Health development? I had never even considered working in the health field, other then the occasional fantasy about teaching exercise classes. Add to that agreeing to begin my married life on a different continent than my husband most months of the year and it’s an exercise in trying new things! My life at present is split between worlds, being a newlywed with a husband back home, while learning to work as a development volunteer in a third world country. All of this, it’s by my own choice. This is how my dream plays out. I didn’t imagine many, many angles of this situation, but I am living the dream; a fact that I need to remind myself of during some of the more mundane or challenging moments.

During my Peace Corps interview, I distinctly recall being asked how I would feel living in a fishbowl, where all of my actions would be noticed. I said, with all seriousness, that being an extroverted little redheaded girl, measuring in at less than five-feet tall, has always led to being noticed by people, so I was prepared for it. How naive I was thinking it would be similar. Being the only white person for MILES around is entirely different. Getting glances based on being petite is light years away from having children petting your arms and elbows (sometimes chest) during greetings or swiping a quick feel across your flip-flopped toes because they assume your skin must feel differently due to the color. Having people ask for money ALL THE TIME, because they assume that you must be rich since your skin is white and you’re from the first world. There are times that I wish I blended in more so that I could walk down the street anonymously. Everyone in my town knows me by name, since it’s easy to pick out the one obruni (stranger) in a sea of Ghanaians. Those who don’t know my name, feel free to call me ‘obruni’ in order to get my attention. I, on the other hand, can probably only tell you the names of 50-100 people, fewer if I meet them outside their typical locale. Sometimes I wish I was less of an outsider, and other times, I am thrilled by the attention, the special treatment, the fact that just being greeted by me (the obruni) makes people feel special; especially the kids in town; they love to say hello and sometimes hold my hand as we walk along. This week alone I had two wonderful new experiences with children in town. One morning, as I went out for my run, there was a ten-year-old boy sitting on the side of the road; as I passed I asked why he just sat there. He jumped up and joined me for my morning run. It was a holiday Monday, so he did not have to go to school and sat there in anticipation of joining me in one of my regular activities. He ran beside me for three-miles, keeping good pace and answering my occasional questions. Then on Wednesday, I walked the long way to our local hospital, around the time that schools let out. I walked into a group of kids headed home. I was surrounded by about 15 kids who walk several miles just to attend school each day and they chatted with me as we trudged along in the afternoon heat. One boy, about 9 years old, took my hand and walked alongside me. The hand-holding in Ghana is one of the sweetest forms of companionship that I have experienced. I especially love seeing boys holding hands (boys from 0-100 can hold hands with other boys freely here, which does not happen back home. Unfortunately this does not translate to acceptance of same sex relationships in Ghana. This country is predominantly homophobic, yet somehow same-sex hand-holding is acceptable. In fact, holding hands with someone of the opposite sex is the peculiar act here.)

There are many aspects of Ghanaian culture that I still don’t understand, and others that I just don’t like (beating your children to make them obey, for example), but in general, I’m at peace with my decision to be here. My projects are starting to pick up and I feel more useful. I’m able to keep a daily running routine and I’ve found time to read more books than I have in many years (my previous reading record is well known by my book club friends, who by all means should have kicked me out and who I thank for letting me come enjoy wine and conversation regardless.) My conversations in this new land are still limited and I will always be a foreigner, in that my skin and background will always be different, but I am “living the dream” and have found a place to call home here in Ghana for the time being.

* Side note: I will be traveling to my various homes in US for the holidays. I will be stateside 12/22-1/11. At present plans look like: Ohio, then Maine, then South Carolina. Looking forward to seeing friend and family along the way.

Literacy class

8/2014 blog

As many of my friends wrap up their summer adventures and begin a new year expanding the minds of university students, I am gearing up to dig in and begin some of my initial Peace Corps Ghana projects. I have spent three months getting acclimated to town. I feel pretty good these days about taking care of myself in this foreign land. Having Michael here was fantastic, but I’m ready to get to work.

This week has been very busy. It began at site, with a visit from an NGO’s literacy representative coming to train us to begin their English literacy program for adults. Last week was busy signing students up for this course (we signed up around 92 adults who are interested in learning to read and understand English better). This week we trained the teachers and assessed the adults who wish to attend classes. The NGO, EngageNow Africa, is providing us with books and curriculum for the program and we are hoping to graduate our first crop of students in six months. I was a bit disappointed when only 24 possible students came to our official registration meeting, but we are hopeful that many more will come this coming week. Of the 24 that came, about 75% of them could recognize 10 letters or fewer in the assessment test. A handful more could recognize most of the letters and read a few two and three letter words. Only two could read four and five letter words and they had little comprehension of what they could sound out. This literacy project is really exciting to me. The ability to read, even at a basic level, can really open doors for some of our students; many of whom are small business owners already. The ability to read and write is something many of us take for granted, but those skills cannot be assumed here, where many people don’t even complete junior high school. Think about it, being able to read allows people to know their medication dosage when combatting malaria, gives the opportunity to figure out your profit margin (or if you have one) on the products you sell, allows you to read the scriptures to decide for yourself what you believe in your chosen religion, and so much more. For me, here in Africa, I have more free time than I have in years, so my ability to read allows me to transport myself into various worlds, learn how others view and cope with their lives, learn new things, or just escape into the fantasies of others. I can’t imagine life without the gift of literacy.

On a related note, I have secured a pallet of books for the town and plan to begin their first library. I’m especially looking forward to starting a reading program for the little kids (to inspire their thirst for knowledge at an early age) and hopefully a reading club for some of the older kids. Education is essential in order for a country to develop and inspiring kids to want to learn does not come naturally here in Ghana. Since few parents can read, there is the obvious consequence that few children are read to. In the schools education is primarily rote memorization (repeat after me until you’re blue in the face) and thinking/digesting/analyzing skills are not a part of their schooling. This is a HUGE problem here, and not one that I can conquer in such a short time (I’m only here 2 years after all), but one that I can chip away at. One where I can help plant seeds of change… We’ll see.

My week continued with a trip to Kumasi (a big city about 5 hours from my town) for a training workshop. About 16 PCVs,with 2 Ghanaian counterparts each, got together to learn a program called Grassroots Soccer. It uses the medium of soccer to teach kids about HIV, both in terms of safe practices and to reduce the stigmatization of PLHIVs (people living with HIV). It was a great, enthusiastic training and a good solid platform for educating the youth. We hope to pilot programs in the 4 JHSs in town when students start back to school in a few weeks.

Finally, I have returned home and we registered another 30 students for the literacy course. We have a mandate to register another 50, but we were able to begin the basic classes already with those who have signed up. It was exciting to watch 50 enthusiastic adults sit in a classroom and repeat after the teacher: “a is for apple.” Wow! This adventure is exciting to be a part of and the possibilities are endless! Unlocking the door to reading opens up worlds…

Missing post from June

As I gear up to write my first entry since Michael left, I realized the only one I wrote while he was here was never posted. Hope this will tide you over for a few days…

Blog 21/6/2014
My apologies for “keeping so long” since my last blog entry. To be honest, it has been a combination of being busy integrating into my town, being distracted spending time with Michael, and trying to come to terms with my current situation.

The first three months at site are challenging for most PCVs; many of my colleagues also mention the struggles they are encountering during this period when we connect. It is a time when you are suddenly thrust into unfamiliar territory without as much of a roadmap as you may have expected. Training did well to introduce us to Ghana and some of the basics of working in the Peace Corps health sector here, but once you find yourself on your own, in remote lands, you become aware of all the ways in which you were not prepared.

On the food front alone, it has taken weeks for me to figure out how to begin to deal with that here. How often to buy items and from where, how much they will cost, how long they will keep, how to store cooked and uncooked items, etc. My landlord and the local midwife (who is ridiculously busy with so many pregnant women and so much malaria!) have both given me tips and a few lessons on local food preparation along the way, which has been tremendously helpful!

At this point (early in the first rainy season) there are still many vegetables available at the market: tomatoes, onions, garden eggs (from the eggplant family), kontommire (a dark leafy green, like spinach), and okra; there is usually cabbage and green peppers, and sometimes cucumbers and carrots. It sounds like many of these will disappear as the season changes and I will again need to adjust my diet. So far, I have learned to make a few varieties of thick Ghanaian “stew” to eat with rice or boiled yams, peanut soup (though Michael doesn’t enjoy soup, so I’ll keep that knowledge for later this year); as well as a few makeshift quasi-American dishes, of which my favorites include stir-fried vegetables with peanut butter, pineapple juice, and ginger over rice, or fried cabbage and eggs with macaroni. There is no cheese here, so that “go-to” CT-staple is notably absent. I eat a lot of eggs these days, both for the protein they offer, as well as the texture variation.

Food (and everything it involves: finding it, buying it, preparing it, cooking it, eating it, and storing it), is just one of the many arenas here that has been surprisingly unfamiliar and difficult.

I often compare Peace Corps to grad school in my mind; they are both experiences involving a great deal of freedom, self-imposed scheduling, and both begin as unfamiliar beasts. I pursued grad studies in a new area, both in terms of geographical location and subject matter, switching from theatre technology to woodworking. What I didn’t realize, or appreciate at the time, during my struggles with the newness of grad school, was how much of “the familiar” I still had access to at the time.

Here in Ghana, a foreign land, with different languages, different customs, different climate, different…, different…, different…, And working in a new field (health), where I am not only NOT an expert, but I have spent most of my life actively avoiding all things medical. I am keenly aware of the unfamiliar.

My nearest Peace Corps neighbor is at least 3 hours away. The nearest Peace Corps sub-office is 5 hours away. My dear friend, Fredanna visited Accra this summer from Sierra Leone and the travel time from my site would take over 10 hours, making that connection impossible… I am feeling a bit remote and removed. I am very thankful that Michael has joined me during this adjustment period.

As I learn the language more, and as I learn what is going on around me more, I will start to feel more connected to this place. For now, Adabokrom remains a bit of a mystery and I am frustrated by my lack of access to better understanding. I know time will take care of many of my concerns and our “site restriction” will be lifted soon, allowing me to travel a few days a month to explore my surroundings. Additionally, more training is scheduled this summer, so I will be better equipped to tackle the health concerns in my area. All of this will lighten my load and I’m sure my time here will be well spent and I will emerge from this experience with new knowledge, friendships, and perspectives which I can’t begin to imagine today.

(More about my site in my next post, as I promised last time… I guess it’s all sort-of about my site anyway? I wish I had pictures of my market and some Ghanaian food to share with this post. I’ll try to work on more visuals as well. Thanks for reading and for your comments!)

Michael has arrived in Ghana!!!

Just a quick update:
I have been at site now for three weeks and have been adjusting to my new environment. This week I received two cooking lessons and feel a little more able to fend for myself (just barely though). I will dedicate an entry to site adjustment soon, I promise, but for now I just wanted to share that MICHAEL HAS MADE IT TO GHANA!!!

After a long journey stateside getting to JFK (including an accidental bus tour through Manhattan enroute between airports), his cross-Atlantic flight turned back, after traveling halfway across the ocean, due to faulty weather radar equipment. Instead of Accra, he took a 9 hour flight from NYC to Atlanta! 14 hours later than expected, his flight finally arrived in Accra. Sadly his checked bag did not, so we await its arrival before heading back toward site. I hate to tell him we have at least 10 hours of ground travel ahead of us to make it home… (As I write this, he is catching up on some sleep before we head to the airport in hopes of collecting his bag.)

We will likely stop in Kumasi on our way back and travel for two days, both for sanity’s sake and so I can stop at the bank there (my closest option) to set-up an ATM card. Everything takes a long time in Ghana, but now I get to relish all those long pauses with my husband! Hooray, Michael is here (for almost 3 months!!!).

Home New Home…

Maame Cecelia and Me at Swearing In4-23-14 blog

Last week we completed our training. The final day we underwent a test comprised of ten stations to assess our readiness for service. We were challenged about issues such as language, safety and security, culture, technical knowledge, etc. The good news is we all passed and were invited to serve as Peace Corps Volunteers! The following day we all dressed in outfits provided by our host families (many of which were made of material to match the outfit of our host mothers), with a few notable exceptions, such as the host mother whose dress resembled the American flag! The swearing in ceremony was extensive, including many speeches, skits and dancing; the Ambassador, a former PCV himself, waxed nostalgic about his service and subsequent career, and finally we recited the oath that made it all official. The next day we all set off for our respective new residences, saying our goodbyes to the close-knit group of former trainees and our fantastic host community of Maase.
I have mentioned before in this blog that my new way of life living in Ghana has begun to feel like habit. Now, however, I have moved into my official new community and nothing seems routine. I continue to jog in the mornings, but now my new neighbors call my contact person to make sure he knows that I am out and about. I have to cook for myself and realize here as well that even this basic function feels foreign here. I have inherited a two burner gas stovetop from the former PCV; one burner doesn’t seem to work, and it sits on a table too high for my petite stature, but perhaps the strangest thing is that I have not cooked with gas since college. I recall going back to an electric range after those years with much disdain, but now gas again seems to be a stranger…
I am currently living in a room of a house occupied by many others, some family (landlord, wife, two kids, and grandma), some renters (some within the house and some in the back building), and others a mystery to me (who does the three year old boy belong to? And is his name Kevin or Calvin?)
I inherited a bed, stovetop, bookcases, and table and chairs from the former volunteer and for these belongings I am very grateful. Unfortunately, since I do not eat meat, I am unable to also inherit her seat at the meal table (it sounds like the landlord’s wife provided many of her meals).
I have ventured out into town, but am careful to avoid the hottest part of the day, as I fear that heat exhaustion may have been the cause of my sickness during site visit about a month ago. During my early afternoon downtime, I have rearranged and cleaned my new room (the former volunteer also had a cat, so spring cleaning was in order). And I look through the resources I have received from Peace Corps to remind myself of what’s ahead. Peace Corps suggests NOT starting any projects during your first three months at site. They want you to focus your energy on integrating into the community and observing the needs of the village. My village is very big and so just finding my way around and meeting some of the people will keep me quite busy, I am sure. Unfortunately, most of the schools are on holiday for a few weeks, vacation which coincides with Easter each year. This prevents me from diving in and observing the school systems where I imagine I will spend much of my time (and I believe Michael will spend some of his). The Ghana school system is quite different from America and students learn almost purely through route memorization. Critical thinking skills are not developed here and I think this is an area rich for my exploration! I look forward to observing when they are back in session to get a better sense of how I can make a difference.
Michael will arrive in about 2 1/2 weeks for the summer and we are trying to get the new living quarters at the community center ready in time for us to live there. I will miss the company of the family where I currently stay, but look forward to the privacy and independence that this new space will provide. It is more centrally located, as well, positioned right next to one of the schools, so that will be convenient.
Not much else to say. Adjusting to my new life is challenging, but will prove to be a good investment given time. For those of you concerned after my embarrassment in Maase early in, I can happily report that I have seen T-Roll in many stores on our main street and will not need to relive that misadventure here. Though my first day back, a few kids followed me home, one carrying my small bag, then asking for a tip. I refused him and then headed to the bathroom (or rather toilet). As one of the young boys saw where I was going, he said, “you are going to shit?” I was shocked. I understand from training that the word “shit” is a word is used here and words like “poop,” for instance, are not understood, but all the same it surprised me to be again confronted by the boldness of it all. I guess growing up in the U.S. where ladies are not thought to go #2, I’m just behind the times… Ghana certainly is a developing nation!