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Site announcements and more

I took the last few weeks off from blogging; it began with my birthday (coupled with a lack of Internet access) and since we haven’t had a day off since, I have fallen behind… A lot has happened in the last few weeks, so I’ll try to catch you all up.

I had a very nice birthday in Maase. It was a busy day beginning with my Language Proficiency Exam. I did much better during my pre-exam the day before, but was still able to get a ranking of Intermediate High, so that’s pleasing. I received my first piece of mail in Ghana just before my birthday too so that was a nice surprise. My parents sent me a birthday card with a homemade puzzle included. The simple things from home bring joy.

My birthday was our last full day in Maase and the next morning we left for “contact persons workshop” in Kumasi. The next morning I learned that I am stationed in the top of the western region and met my contact person, CK. He is a wise 28-year-old from my new village, who worked with the previous volunteer on most of her projects. He is very nice and definitely knows the ropes. We traveled to town from training on Friday. We spent the next several days busily showing me around and introducing me to the elders, chiefs, churches, and schools. It is a big town (estimated population around 10,000). He sent his sisters with food for me while I was visiting and without prompting it was vegetarian (though I don’t know how he knew). He is very conscientious and kind. The town loved the previous volunteer calling her MomBee (short for Madam Baily) and so this is the local version of “obruni” (the southern term for foreigner. At first I wondered if they thought I was the same person, but have since learned MomBee covers all white people here, male or female, old or young…

After a few days at site I headed back to training on my own. This was my first solo adventure in Ghana and I enjoyed the challenge. The morning I was to leave site, I sat in my front porch with my bag packed waiting for my counterpart, CK, to come by and walk me to the station. Once at the station, I grabbed the next tro-tro (minivan) and was headed back toward Kumasi within minutes. The ride to Kumasi takes about 5 hours, so I arrived around 11:30am. I then had to find my way through the crowded city to the Peace Corps sub office. After denying an expensive cab ride, I began walking in the direction indicated to get to my next tro-tro. I felt a bit like I was on the Amazing Race trying to navigate myself with a large hiking pack through a foreign city. People in Ghana are so kind and helped me find my way again and again. I boarded a tro-tro and ended up making it safely to my destination.

The next day the group of trainees that gathered at Kumasi sub office filled yet another tro-tro toward Tamale. This journey took about 8 hours and once we arrived at the Tamale sub office, we immediately boarded a a Peace Corps bus and headed an hour outside of town where we are staying for our offsite technical training.

Offsite training has been very informative. So far I have learned a lot about malaria and nutrition (specifically malnutrition which is a factor in 54% of mortalities under age 5 here in Ghana). These are huge concerns in this country. I’ve also learned about water and sanitation concerns (also a big deal since people are still openly defecating in several areas if this country!) and HIV. People Living with HIV are quite stigmatized by society, so part of my work will be helping to de-stigmatize it, while also promoting safe practices to reduce the infection rate. Ultimately, my Peace Corps service over the next two years will involve a combination of these various concerns. I imagine much of my efforts will involve education as that is where I feel most comfortable.

OK enough for now. I wanted to post an update even though free time had been quite limited. Thanks to all those leaving comments. It’s nice to hear that you are enjoying the blog.

Still in Maase (written 3/1/14)

For some reason this never posted. Sorry for delay.
Blog 3/1/14
March begins in Ghana about five hours before it does back home. This time difference is palpable some days, especially when I speak with Michael and I am exhausted from a long day of training and he is about to begin the second half of his day…
This past few weeks have been very full. Last Sunday we went on a field trip to Boti Falls. It is a beautiful natural preserve in the eastern region. First we descended several stairs to view the twin 30 meter waterfalls and then we climbed through boulders to an ancient cave and on to umbrella rock. Let me assure you OSHA is not alive and well in Ghana. To get on top of umbrella rock you can climb on either of the two ladders that are side by side. One is missing rungs and so the rung spacing is hard to predict and the other was missing the first step… All the same I climbed the rock and enjoyed the beautiful panoramic vista.

Today I did laundry. Since we were away last Sunday I have accumulated two weeks worth of dirty clothes. Washing that much by hand is a ridiculous chore and I ultimately succumbed and will have to continue tomorrow. My knuckles are raw from the scrubbing and detergent. Simple tasks are more cumbersome here, including getting on the internet…

I apologize that I did not make more time this week to pre-write an entry to post upon arriving at my Internet cafe. This one is quite short as a result. This week I took on the role of language tutor to two of my classmates. It must be to the teacher in me that feels compelled to help them catch up. Our instructor is really good and I’m enjoying our progress. I have taken pretty well to learning twi and am pretty good at sounding out the words from their (basically phonetic) spelling. I still struggle to understand people on the street, but they are patient with me and usually ask the same set of questions. So I’m getting really good at saying I’m fine and I go to school… If I want to extend our interaction, most are amenable and allow me to ask their name or how their family members are feeling, etc. This week we learned some phrases for the market, so I have been practicing my buying and bartering skills. It is customary to ask for a discount or a little extra (known as a dash) when making a purchase. This still feels weird, but when avoided suggests lack of integration into the culture. Most vendors are happy to throw in a few extra tomatoes or politely tell me that the price is fixed. Sometimes I intentionally ask on something that is ridiculously cheap and/or I know to be a set price. Then I laugh and include the vendor in my joke. It’s a fun game. I’m hoping to buy some material on my way home today which I will try to get a discount on. I bought fabric a few weeks ago and had a fantastic dress made. All in all it cost (fabric and labor) about $14. Once I’m to site and find a seamstress and fabric vendor there I will accept measurements and orders!

For now, my internet time is running short so I will sign out.
My mailing address for now is:
Chris Todd, PCT
Peace Corps Ghana
PO Box 5796
Accra-North, Ghana
West Africa

I am in need of nothing for the states just yet and packages are VERY expensive to send ($60-90 it seems!). Michael will be coming in May so he can bring things you want me to have. As I get closer to my site, I will know what I need better. For now, feel free to write letters! I’d love to hear from you and only get the internet once a week!

Still in Maase (through my birthday!)

Blog 3-9-14
I have been in Ghana for over a month now! Given the adage that it takes 21 days to create a habit, my life here has become very familiar. I know how to get around town, have my favorite people to greet, and know back roads a bit more each day. I’m used to sleeping under my mosquito net, untucking/retucking it to climb in or out of bed. I’m quite used to eating my host mother’s delicious meals. Always washing my hands in a fresh bowl of water with dish soap which is set on the bottom shelf of my small plastic eating table.

This is not to say there aren’t still surprises. Saturday when I went for my morning run, I ran into about 30 local teenagers also out running. It was fantastic! I ran an extra mile so I could chat with them in “Twi-nglish” and enjoy the unique experience. Apparently they come from the neighboring village and run on Saturday mornings. I hope our timing allows us to cross paths again next weekend. Other than the obrunis (foreigners), very few people here run/jog or if they do it’s not on my schedule. Most people are readying themselves for school or walking to farm when I run at 6am/day break.

Next Sunday, I will have my first birthday in Ghana. This is also the date of our language proficiency test. I am confident that I will pass, but will spend time pushing myself in order to pass with a high rating, even though passing is passing. I really enjoy the challenge of communication, but appreciate that each day it gets a little easier and I am able to say a bit more. Just yesterday when someone asked if I was married. I could respond in Twi that I am, my husband is a teacher in America, and will come to Ghana in May (the month of the crab here). That was fun!

The months here are named in phrases that suggest the tone of each one. January is the driest month, so is called big dry. December is called small dry, as it is the beginning of dry season. July is hold your hand, since that is a time when supplies are low and one might be tempted to steal in order to eat. The poetry of this language makes it enjoyable to learn. The flowery nature makes it difficult for those who want everything to directly translate. Thankfully, I love it. I will miss my 6 hour language training days and will have to find a reasonable alternative tutor once I get to site. Alex, my current instructor, is very knowledgable and structured, so that will be hard to replace.

For now I will sign off. I have written this in the early morning and hope to be able to post later today. First I will have a full morning of laundry and school work. Wishing everyone a wonderful weekend and hope you are enjoying your washing machines. I will never again take that luxury for granted!

Maase 2 (written 2/16/14)

Blog 2-16-14
This week we continue to live with our host family. I learn more each day about how to survive here. Today I did my laundry. This involved three buckets: 1 with powder detergent for first cleaning, this is very soapy and is the stage to remove most of the dirt; 2nd bucket was water with a bar of soap, to clean the other soap out more; finally a rinse bucket. You don’t wash your underwear with others, so I will need to start cleaning a few pair each day in my room, so as to not offend. I probably should’ve been doing this all along, but each day brings more information. Not to worry, I brought many pairs of underwear.
Today I had to buy a new roll of toilet paper (referred to here as t-roll). This was a bit confusing, as it is a private matter that I had to be public about, inquiring at various shops if they sell it. Awkward!
Good news: our languages were announced and I got Twi, which is the local language in our village. It is the language spoken throughout six of the ten regions in Ghana. It suggests I will be stationed in the south half of the country. I have many new friends telling me words and trying to help. I’m a bit overwhelmed, while absorbing what I can. There are at least 4 distinct versions of Twi, so that complicates vocabulary as well. This morning I got an anatomy lesson over breakfast. I jotted down all the body parts, but the dialect and slightly different alphabet here make oral lessons without a chalkboard difficult. We’ll see how I did when I meet with my language teacher (“tikya,” with “ky” producing the ch-sound). Their alphabet is phonetic, so if I can spell something my chances of saying it increase significantly. (Thanks to all my Spanish instructors at Coastal for re-engaging my capacity to learn a new language…)
Today many volunteers are headed to Koforidua, the nearest large town. Sunday is our day off, when we have one, so many are headed in to use the Internet and possibly buy some fabric to have clothes made. I am somewhat hopeful that I can find wifi so I can use my iPhone. I still need to unlock it, which super complicates my life. Once it is unlocked, I can get a new SIM card and use it for Internet through a cellular provider. I hope this can happen. Otherwise, my iPhone and iPad are useless here…
If you’re reading this, I have at least found wifi. That’s a good first step.

Maase 1 (2/13/14)

Internet access especially via wifi is few and far between. I’ve written 2 updates since I last found Internet. Here’s one:
Blog 2-13-14

We are halfway through week 2. We have been with homestay now for about 4 days. My homestay mama is a 62 year old woman named Cecelia. My African name, which she gave me, is Akosua (“Ah-koh-see-ah”) Amponsah, which means Sunday-born plus her last name. Her older sister also lives at this compound, along with two small children who do most of the chores. Rahey, is an 11 year old girl that fetches everything for Cecelia and Kobe is Auntie Kate’s 9 year old boy worker. They are children of relatives from other regions. It’s hard to be sure I understand who they belong to since everyone is a sister or brother, auntie, or uncle… The children are given over at a young age to care for relatives without small children. I’m unclear when or if they get to see/visit/spend time with their original, immediate, biological family.

We’re staying in the Maase community (outside Tafo, not too far from Koforidua), in the Eastern Region.
I have my own room, with a bed, table and chair (including locking door, all of which PC requires for homestay). All rooms are off the main courtyard which is open. My compound is quite near the Methodist church where PC training occurs. We enter the compound through the side gate and we are directly across from the school soccer field.
In the mornings I take my bucket to the center of the courtyard and fill it from a barrel for my bucket bath. The barrel is filled from the well and catches rain. The bathing area is a small room off the courtyard with a door and a hole in the floor. Two doors down is the toilet room. I throw my toilet paper into a trash barrel even though the latrine is a pit and therefore this practice is unrelated to concern for possible plumbing issues. This I don’t understand, but do as I am asked.
Mama Cecelia makes all my meals: morning, noon, and night and is very good about allowing me to remain vegetarian, including a small salad in many of my meals in addition to the main dish, which usually contains stew (a tasty thick tomato paste with spices, onions, and eggs), and some sort of starch, such as rice, plantains, cassava or yams. For breakfast, I get scrambled eggs with veggies and bread. So far the food has been delicious and I feel like I’m getting some balanced nutrition. Some of my fellow trainees are not fairing as well with meals, with one trainee getting 2 cookies for yesterday’s lunch…
I sleep under a mosquito net, even though this is not a mosquito-ridden area. We are practicing these habits now so we are old pros when we get to our assigned site.
Everyone has now met with John, the Health Sector Director. He will announce our languages soon, which suggests he has decided our assignments. He will not share assignments yet in case there are a few drop outs or changes. We have had one trainee leave already as her phobia of lizards was so extreme that she could not function here. It was sad, as she was a neat girl with lots of enthusiasm. To wait so long for an assignment and then have to leave so soon must have been difficult.
Anyway, people here are very friendly always wanting to greet you, ask your name and how you feel. This is true even during my morning jog, which makes for an interesting challenge. Challenging as well because we only know how to greet with a good morning (mah-che), good afternoon (mah-ha), or good evening (mah-jew), followed by a simple exchange of how are you? I am fine and you? And that is where we end. Once languages are announced the Twi group can continue to practice here and the rest will stop trying Twi and focus on their assigned language (dagbani, dagaare, ewe, or mamprusi).
It continues to be an adventure. Everything is different and challenging at some level, from simple things like brushing one’s teeth, to the more complex, like navigating the area or purchasing daily needs. There is a reason training is ten weeks; we have a lot to learn on every front.

Week one

When I wake up tomorrow I will have been away from home a week; in Africa for five days. It simultaneously feels like an eternity and the blink of an eye.

I ran into weather delays on day one headed to Philly and ended up missing my team’s only pre-departure training day. There are 23 Peace Corps Trainees in my group: Health Volunteers in Ghana. I first laid eyes on most of them Tuesday morning as we boarded the bus for JFK. I felt a bit disconnected for having missed the introductions, which went on while I sat in the Atlanta airport eagerly awaiting my flight to join them.

As luck would have it, my ticket for our ten hour flight across the sea was next to my new friend, Barbara Sykes. Though we slept most of the flight, we bonded quickly, as I learned that she was also recently married (two years ago, but recent is relative in love). Once in Accra, Barbara and I decided to be roommates for our first week of training. It has been a good partnership, she bathes at night, I bathe in the morning, and we both like to steal naps when we can find time.

This week of training has been very full. Learning and practicing Twi greetings, being filled in on many of the preparations that went into our arrival (including how our training home-stay families and future work sites were chosen), and learning all about the customs of and appropriate behavior for Ghana. They, the Peace Corps Training staff, have eased us into the country. We’ve eaten simple foods and stayed on a university campus during this first week. Our rooms have running water, piped showers, electricity (most of the time anyway), and we surprisingly have WiFi nearby.

It has been a tiring week, filled with events and training sessions. Highlights have included an evening at the Ambassador’s home, mingling with several US aid agencies; another trip to Accra to visit the Peace Corps office and be greeted by the area’s religious leaders; and finally our team scavenger hunt, where we were released in the city to find our way around on the local transportation and find a few sites. My team had to find a military cemetery, the parliament building, and a conference center. We accomplished our tasks well, each taking the lead and relinquishing control at different times: a well-oiled machine.

So Africa, specifically Ghana:
Hot? Yes.
Are mosquitoes biting me? You bet.
Am I taking my malaria mess religiously? Count on it!
Friendly people? Let me just tell you, on our scavenger hunt several people stopped what they were doing to guide us around (read as walk with us, sometimes hand in hand), and chat with us about our quest. From stranger to best friend in moments. Asking about where we come from and why we are here.
There are amazing sights and smells and I hope to post pictures soon.

On Monday when we wake up, a week into our journey, we move to our next phase: home-stay. We will move to the village of Maase where we will meet the family we will live and dine with for the next several weeks during training. We will have more freedom and be responsible for more of our day-to-day concerns. In addition to our other training, we will begin our specific language training there as well to prepare us for the region where we will be placed. The Health Sector Director is interviewing us this week to better determine where we fit into this crochet work (I should say Kente cloth) that is Peace Corps Ghana. Until then, I continue to look forward to exciting new experiences and to moving in with a family that will welcome me with open arms to their beautiful country.