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!

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.