Thursday, October 28, 2010

19,000 Words


Africa has already forced me to grow up. I simply have no choice but to be self-reliant, because if I don't take care of myself, nobody will do it for me (except Julia sometimes). So I spent six weeks being very responsible and adjusting to my new position as an independent adult.

Then the real Katherine, the one who is a highly impulsive, typical eighteen-year-old, broke free.

In other words, I bought a puppy. With about the same amount of forethought I take to decide which color to paint my nails. And I'm down to one bottle of nail polish, sooo....

I talked about our trip to Keta. What I didn't mention was that when we were sitting outside Tony Blair's house after visiting Deborah's island, I saw some half-grown puppies chasing their mother in the distance. Being the animal lover I am, and missing my chihuahua at home, I said, "Awww, I want a puppy!"

Tony Blair disappears into the house for a moment and drops a little bundle of fur into my arms.

That was it. I was done for. Katherine on toast.

"Nene?" How much?

"Seven Gha'a"


In retrospect, I should've bargained- and they undoubtedly expected me to because I found out later that a dog here is 3 or 4 cedis, 5 at most. However, I didn't know that at the time and I would've paid much, much more. Roughly $5 for a puppy is nothing!

As far as I can tell, she is about 8 weeks old now.

In the week and a half that I've had Keta (named after the town where I bought her), I'm already amazed by how much she's grown! I swear she's gained almost a pound already.

At first she could only crawl a few feet awkwardly. After a few days she could walk with the clumsy, drunken swagger of someone who still hasn't gotten their sealegs. This morning I had to hurry after her as she took off across the courtyard with her humorous, bouncing run.

Her teeth were just barely poking through and she wasn't even fully weaned when I got her. I fed her powdered milk with a spoon and worried obsessively that she wasn't eating enough. But now she has almost a full mouth of teeth and it actually hurts when she tries to use my ankle as a chewtoy. She attacks her bowl of bread and milk, comically bracing herself with her front legs while she devours the whole thing. So now I'm worried that she's getting fat...

Now I have a confession:

Buying a puppy with about 3.6 seconds of consideration was probably bad enough. But don't worry, it gets worse.

I didn't exactly...precisely...ask my host family.

In my own defense, I TRIED - twice even - but Worfa and Victoria were in Accra and didn't pick up the phone.

So I was counting on two things: Ghanaian culture and Worfa's personality.

In Ghana, animals aren't viewed the same way as they are in the western world. Animals here serve a purpose - food, protection, etc. A "pet" in the same sense we would use that word is very rare here. So my guess was that bringing home a puppy unannounced would not be the huge deal it would be back home.

And Worfa is an extremely easy-going man. I didn't think he'd mind.

I spent an hour sitting outside our house with Keta in my lap, waiting for them to get home and reassuring myself that I wasn't insane and they weren't going to freak out and really, it was all just fine. And for 30 seconds I'd believe myself and then I'd start thinking about what would happen if I brought a puppy to my parent's house without asking and I'd have to start my pep talk all over again.

Worfa and Victoria come home. Worfa looks at Keta. "What is this? A puppy! Oh, you like it? Very fine!" and continues walking inside to change his clothes.

MWAHAHAHA. It really was that first.

You see, the problem with my stupid decisions is that they always seem to work out ok. (One day I'm going to wake up with a tattoo of Brad Pitt on my forehead and realize this isn't always the case.)

Worfa loves her. He didn't hesitate for a second in letting me keep her. He's already blocked off a corner of our courtyard to use as a pen and helps take care of her. There's something very endearing about watching him sit on the ground and play with her, or just laugh tolerantly when she starts gnawing on his ankles.

In contrast, Victoria hates her. She is completely convinced that Keta is going to make her sick. I actually got scolded because I poured some porridge out of a plastic bag into Keta's bowl, and then stuck the bag in a mug so it wouldn't tip over and spill the leftover porridge. Now Victoria says she can never use that mug again. She keeps walking around the house muttering, "The sickness, the sickness" in her humorous if not somewhat frustrating Victoria way.

Ironically, I did get sick for the first time the Monday after I brought Keta home, which unfortunately has only confirmed Victoria's suspicions that we are all going to die of the dog plague. It was very mild- I ate something that didn't agree with me, threw up twice and felt fine. But, predictably, when I came home and said I didn't want dinner and was just going to bed because I didn't feel good, Victoria shot Keta a death-glare and muttered, "It's 'cause you touch dem thing." I swear Victoria mutters everything.

Things came to a head last Friday, when I'd had Keta for almost a week. Victoria approached me when it was just the two of us at home and spoke to me at length, telling me how she loved me like a sister and didn't think of me as someone who was simply living at her house. But she hated the dog, didn't want the dog, if she'd wanted a dog she would've bought one, etc etc. And she asked me to get rid of her.

What else could I do?

This is her house and even though the way she'd handled the situation really frustrated me, I value my relationship with Victoria more than Keta.

So I spoke to a couple friends and found a guy across the street who agreed to take her.

That same afternoon, Keta left for her new home.

I tried not to be angry with Victoria. I can actually understand why she doesn't like dogs and I respect her opinion. I tried to focus on how well Victoria takes care of me every day, and all the sacrifices she has made for me. But I was just so frustrated! You could say I got what I deserved because I brought a puppy into the house without asking. The problem is, even if I'd asked ahead of time, the same thing still would've happened: Worfa still would've said yes, I would've brought Keta home and Victoria still would've been unhappy with the situation.

Then Worfa came home and found out what had happened. In the deliberate, thoughtful way that is so characteristic of Worfa, he waited until I had eaten and was sitting at the table reading until he approached me. We ended up talking for about 45 minutes. I've never been so nervous at the beginning of a conversation, but by the end of it I respected Worfa even more than I did before- who knew that was possible.

He said we all need to be upfront with each other. He said he knows I have parents back home, but he still tries to be a good father to me in Ghana and sees me as his daughter. However that does not mean I am not obligated to do what they say if I disagree with something. He told me I have equal rights in this household, so If I'm unhappy about something they want me to do, I can just say so. He said that if I want a dog, I can have a dog. He didn't like that this had all happened without his knowledge. I told him I was worried about straining my relationship with Victoria or making her unhappy, but he assured me that she would get used to Keta and that once she was grown, it wouldn't be as much of an issue anyway.

So almost as quickly as she had left, Keta came back home.

And thankfully, everything seems to be alright with Victoria. She still shakes her head disbelievingly when she sees how much fun I have playing with Keta or how gently I carry her around. And sometimes she still mutters. But she doesn't seem to be mad.

For the first week I was able to take her to school with me. My students loved her and I was able to take care of her without neglecting my teaching. She's a little too active now though! She isn't content to stay in her basket anymore! I asked Worfa to get me a leash so I can start taking her everywhere with me again, because I feel bad leaving her in her pen for 10 or so hours everyday.

Plus, taking Keta around Aflao with me is good protection!

Instead of men asking me "White lady, what's your name? Will you marry me?" now they ask me, "Yevu, what's your puppy's name? Can I have it?"

She doesn't even have all her teeth and she's already a good guard dog!

Piece of Cake

Sunday, October 24

When I was 15, I went on a hiking trip with my Dad in the mountains in New Mexico, at a place called Philmont. About halfway through our two-week trip, as we ascended to the highest point of our trek, debilitating blisters forced me to seriously consider returning to base camp.

Now it's an unfortunate truth that I have no discipline when it comes to putting myself through physical discomfort. Like working out? Forget it. I will not run for more than 6 minutes at a time unless an angry rhinoceros or a yetti is chasing me.

Luckily, somewhere between sniffling in self-pity and blaming the world for my dilemma, I realized how much I would regret quitting. I started pounding the offending hiking boot on the ground and bellowing,
"You're not taking me off this mountain!"

This has become a legendary moment between my Dad and I, a sort of tangible proof that little by little I'm learning to stand on my own in the world.

Well anyway, the point is that I climbed a very difficult mountain today and couldn't stop thinking about that moment - though thankfully there were no blisters involved in this hike. My Keen sandals are by far the most valuable thing I brought to Ghana. Seriously, I do everything in them: run, climb, swim, think, eat, sleep.

Saturday morning, per usual, found me off on another adventure. Julia, Laura, Lula, Karina and I travelled from Aflao to Ho to Hohoe to Wli (Vlee) in order to visit the Wli Waterfalls.
We got the Waterfall Lodge where we were staying and went that same afternoon to see the lower fall, which is an easy 30 - 40 minute hike on a basically flat trail through the rainforest. Butterflies swirl in clouds around you. The air is filled with the sounds of birdcalls, trilling frogs and trickling water. The forest smells pleasantly of damp earth. And just as you reach the point where you can hear the awe-inspiring roar of the waterfall, you see...that the entire place is crawling with university students on a field trip from Accra, who have even brought an enormous sound system and are blaring hiplife music in the middle of our nature paradise...

Laura turns to me and goes, "Look, we get a nightclub and a waterfall all in one."


After about 20 minutes of trying to ignore the rowdy teenagers, we finally decided to go swimming like we'd originally planned. So Lula, Julia and I waded into the chilly water, while Laura and Karina agreed to wait for second shift so they could guard the bags. We were happily shivering about 50 feet away from the waterfall when some random boy comes up, wraps his arm around my waist and goes, "Let's go." ...Uh, sure. So we actually went under the waterfall.

The lower Wli fall has got to be nearly 100 stories tall, and I'm truly awful at estimating so don't put too much faith in that, but the point is it's nothing to be trifled with. As we got closer, the spray hit my skin so hard it hurt. By the time we were directly under the falling water, I was getting pummelled so hard I went numb. Karina, who was waiting on the bank with Laura, said she could hear me screeching madly. I don't think I was making quite as much noise as she said- although I know I was making some- but I couldn't actually hear myself. I couldn't open my eyes either. Every single sense was deadened.

For a few minutes, the entire world was the roaring white water crashing on top of us.

Emerging from the Waterfall

It was exhilirating.
And a little terrifying.
The water under the fall is not even knee deep (and, irritatingly, I still had rando holding onto me), so I wasn't overly worried about drowning, but the sheer power of the waterfall inspires a healthy amount of respect.

A huge colony of fruit bats lives on the cliff face next to the fall, and one of the first things I saw when I shook the water out of my eyes was that an enormous cloud of them had taken off and was circling over the clearing, probably disturbed by the music. Pretty cool looking.

That night I had the rare opportunity to sit and hang out with my friends. We rarely stay out past 7 in Aflao, so it was nice to be able to sit outside at the Lodge and visit without any time restrictions.
I love this group of girls. Between the 5 of us we represent 4 different countries, and only 2 of us speak English as our first language, so conversation is always interesting!
This trip in particular, we kept mishearing each other all over the place.

"I need the banana money."
"Banana monkey?"

"Where's the bug spray?"
"What butter spray?"

"My mom sent me chocolate milk in my package!"

My favorite was Laura though, who kept inexplicably saying "Cake" in places where it not only made no sense, but there wasn't any word that even sounded remotely like cake.
Like, "We climbed the cake" instead of mountain.
So now whenever one of us mispeaks or can't remember a word, the others helpfully supply, "CAKE!"

We also have the best system of loaning money. People always make us pay as a group, and you can rarely get more than 5 cedis in change, so we have to get pretty creative.
Julia owes Laura 5 from the tro-tro, but Laura owes Lula 3 from dinner, so in the end Julia owes Lula 3, but they all owe me 6 from the waterfall tickets, except I owe Karina 12 for the hotel room, so they have to partially pay her instead...
It gets pretty hilariously confusing, but we haven't made a mistake yet!

We went to the upper fall the next day, which was the hike I was referring to.
Two hours of literally crawling up the mountain. The trail was so steep I had to pull myself up using roots and tree trunks and rocks. Every 100 yards or so my muscles would start shaking so bad I had to sit down. I was also sweating so much I began to wonder where my beer gut and 3 day stubble was...The air is so humid none of it evaporates, so everyone was just dripping.
After that we had a 30 minute descent to the base of the fall, which was less physically strenuous but equally challenging in it's own way becuase you had to watch every single step. I placed each foot very deliberately to avoid tumbling head-over-heels down the same kind of treacherously steep path I'd just so painstakingly dragged myself up.
You might not believe this, but it was actually incredibly fun.
You're swaying where you stand and trying to look at the view through the black spots in your vision and every possible pore in your body is sweating and you're still having a blast.

And the waterfall was worth it.

It falls into a sort of natural basin formed by the sheer cliffs that surround it. The force of the water crashing down creates a wind that fills the basin, whipping back our soaked hair and forcing the plants into a perpetual bow.


The way back down was obviously the opposite from before- a 40 minute climb and a 90 minute descent.
We were as proud as Everest climbers when we finally reached the bottom.

I'd do it again any day!
Piece of...what's the word again? Oh yeah-

Monday, October 25, 2010

Oreo Overdose

I got THREE packages from home last week!

My mom and I had given them up for dead, but then all three arrived super late and inexplicably all at the same time.

Julia and I went Wednesday (Oct 20) to pick them up. That ended up being pretty nerve-wracking because we couldn't find a tro-tro to Ho until 2:30, which means we got to the post office with only about 10 minutes to spare before closing. The parcel guy remembered me- fondly, judging by his expression- from my first trip when I went to pick up Ryan's package a couple weeks ago. I guess most of his customers don't sing and dance while they're filling out the handling forms...Hmm. The customs guy, on the other hand, did not know what to make of me. We had to open all the packages for his inspection and he was shocked by the amount of sweets jammed into those three boxes. I grinned at him, "Don't worry, I'll have eaten all of it in two days." His eyes got huge. I laughed, "I'm just kidding!" He looks relieved. "...Five days."

If there was ever any doubt of that, there isn't now.

She sent me a Halloween box with orange Oreos, tictacs, and Snoballs (my favorite!), themed napkins and stickers, and my weight in Halloween candy. The other boxes were stuffed with Nutella (!!!!!!), more Oreos, chocolate chip cookies bites, Propel drink mix packets, Nutrigrain and Nature Valley granola bars, graham crackers, cracked pepper and olive oil triscuits, gum, mints and other small usefull things like Ziploc bags and travel-size bottles of lotion.
I was like a pirate sorting his booty!
My entire bedroom floor was covered with piles of treats, dividing them up between what I want to share with my family/neighbors, what I'm giving to my students, and what I'm squirreling away for myself.
My host mom caught sight of it and her jaw dropped (as she snitched several rolls of Smarties from my student pile, tsk tsk).

It was like Christmas, my birthday, Easter, Halloween, MLK Day and 4th of July all squashed together. I was walking on air- and Oreo packages if I didn't watch where I stepped.

Her packages are even more useful than she probably expected. Like I'm using the empty Ritz Bitz crackers container as a pencil holder. And I stacked two of the boxes (the ones now containing my neighbor and my student piles) next to my bed to use as a bedside table. Haha, I'm getting very creative the longer I stay in Ghana. I'm probably going to go home and be one of those crazy people who saves every single paperclip and used staple because "It could be useful somehow!!!"

Thursday afternoon I brought some of the chocolate chip cookie bites to school. I explained that they were from my mother in America who sent them just for them. I gave out most of the package, but then- like a true teacher- I made them answer questions to earn the rest.
So now my kids absolutely love my mom and keep asking me if she can come to Ghana. I had them draw some pictures on the board for her.

Portrait of my Mom by Grace

So Mom, these are your thank-you's from my babies in Ghana! You have no idea how many smiles your very thoughtful packages have caused. : )

Laundry Extravaganza

Friday, October 22

Not even 8 AM and sweat is already pooling in the small of my back.

By 10 AM it's too hot to walk on the sand in my courtyard barefoot
(yet another habit my travel clinic nurse would love).

By 11:30 my laundry is sun-dried and toasty warm.

We had a laundry party this morning. (We being my favorite "foster mom" Abla and some of my meerkats -Christian, Sonya, Lucky, Daniel, Constance, and Fabris.)

Ghanaians have done more before noon than most Americans do in an entire day- which sort of evens out in the end considering they basically sleep for the rest of the daylight hours. It's Friday morning, but I have today and Monday off for our mid-term break. Of course no one told me it was going to be mid-terms, so I walked into school this past Monday and Saddam (my headmaster's lovely nickname) tells me, "You can give them their mathematics exam now." I made some sort of intelligent response along the lines of, "Uhhhhhhh...Huh?"

The cool thing about exams is that I get to write them myself. In theory I teach Math, English, Creative Art, Citizenship and Science. In reality we mostly just focus on Math, some Creative Art and daily English spelling, reading, grammar and writing. I'm detest math, but surprisingly I enjoy teaching it quite a bit.
On their math exam they had to identify how many tens and ones in two-digit numbers, show their work for addition and subtraction that involved carrying or borrowing, add/subtract numbers with a decimal, and write numbers in numeral form from word form. We've worked very hard on the difference between the "tys" and "teens", such as thirteen vs thirty.
On their English exam they had to change verbs from present to past tense, write the plurals of nouns, and label nouns common or proper . I've drilled them for weeks now: "A proper noun is a-" "NAME!" "It begins with a-" "CAPITAL LETTER!"

The lack of communication was frustrating, as is the examination process itself. The children take the exam, get caned if they fail and then life returns to normal. There aren't any records to keep track of who is struggling and no effort to provide them with any extra help.
Four of my kids did particularly poorly and Saddam punished them so severely that it got to the point where I actually jumped in front of one of them and told them to sit down. The poor things just stared back and forth from me to Saddam as we alternated orders: "Sit down." "Come back!" "Sit down." "Get back here!" I try very hard not to undermine his authority, but I will not allow my kids to get beaten for something that is not their fault. I finally told him it was my class and that is not the way I handle things.
Thankfully I was able to sit down with Saddam yesterday and discuss some changes we can hopefully make in the school. I pointed out that, since there are no walls between classrooms, my kids can barely hear me with the other classes runnng around screaming. And that there also isn't any sort of curriculum or records system. I told him that the kids should be helped, not punished.
Diplomacy is not my strong suit and I was probably too blunt, but Ghanaians tend to be blunter than a bubble-wrapped spoon, so he wasn't offended.

So anyway, now here I am with my unexpected day off and I desperately needed to do laundry. It's very hard work and I avoid doing it at all costs. Then I ran out of clean pants, so the time had come.
I'm able to do the small stuff myself, but someone has to help me with anything bigger than a washcloth. To do your laundry, you fill two basins with water from the well, take your washing powder (which rubs your hands raw and leaves your skin slightly sticky for hours) and begin scrubbing the cloth between your knuckles in a very distinct motion. The women all laugh at me when I wash, so I try to do it when no one is around. As one neighbor put it, "You look like my baby daughter when she tries to wash." They think it's hilarious, and I can take it with good humor, but it still gets annoying after a while to be constantly corrected on something I just don't have the ability to do exactly the way they do, at least at this point.

But, as is always the case when I'm home during the day, I inevitably become the involuntary Awakorme babysitter. I love, love, love kids...but I can only tolerate them for about an hour at a time now. At first they start creeping through our courtyard gate one by one, but eventually they come stampeding in a screaming, chanting horde. Between my neighbors and the other students at my school, I feel suffocated by children. There's just SO MANY of them, pushing and shouting and fighting and touching EVERYTHING! Actually I feel suffocated by people in general most of the time. I'm a curiosity, and I understand that. But honestly, people- I just want to read my book on a Sunday morning without five people over my shoulder. The little kids' behavior I can understand. It's Worfa's 16 year old nephews who mysteriously show up every time I'm home alone and just sit and watch me without saying a word who really irritate me.

But anyway.

I'd only been washing for a couple minutes when I already had a small ring of kids watching me curiously. This time the company ended up being very welcome though, because one of the mothers showed up just in time to help me with the big stuff.
We took two hours and washed my sandals, 9 shirts, 4 pairs of pants, 1 pair of pantlegs (yay for zip-offs), my washcloth, my towel, 5 pairs of underwear, 1 bra, 1 sock, the fabric I wear around the house, and 2 tanktops.
It's exhausting, and basically all I did was wring out the items once they'd been washed and rinsed and hung them on the clothesline. African women are made of tough stuff.
It was also a lot of fun though, with me an Abla and the puppy and the pack of kids running around doing together what is otherwise a mundane chore.
I guess being the neighborhood nanny is the price I pay for having clean clothes!

The Prophetess

"At this time the prophetess Deborah was judging Israel.
She used to sit under Deborah's
palm tree...and there the Israelites came to her for judgment."
Judges 4:4-5

Last Saturday's excursion took Julia, Laura and I to the seaside town of Keta with aspirations to see the lagoon.
After overshooting Keta completely and then backtracking to end up in a little village that was next-to-but-not-technically Keta, we decided to ask around to see if a fisherman would be willing to ferry us around the lagoon for a couple cedis. This is where you have to love Ghanaian culture --
We walk up to a house on the beach with a bunch of fishing boats sitting behind it, say "We want to see the lagoon. Can someone take us?" And out comes this ancient fisherman with one silver eye and some younger guy who is probably related to him somehow. The old one introduces himself as Tony Blair and the young one is Early. They usher us into their canoe and off we go. I don't know if they do this periodically or if we are the first yevus who have ever come up and requested a ride, but it was if we had reserved an official guide ahead of time.
But of course, it wouldn't be Ghana if things had gone entirely to plan. Or rather, had gone according to our plan. Our guides knew exactly what they had in mind for our tour.
The lagoon turned out to be all of about 6 inches deep, and this is the rainy season no less. They punted us diagonally across part of the lagoon, a roughly 10 minute trip, to an island. There we were instructed to wade through ankle-deep black mud to the shore and start walking barefoot towards the solitary hut on the other side of the island. Here the trip took on a bit of a surreal quality. The half-baked mud, peppered with sharp seashells, burned our feet until we learned to stick to the patches of rubbery aquatic plants. The silver glint of the sun on the water almost obscured our view of Keta in the distance. Ahead of us, a tiny hut situated beneath two lonely palm trees shimmered in the heat.
It wasn't until we'd been walking for a bit that Tony Blair finally explained what we were doing:

We were going to see the prophetess.

...who was not at home. Pfft. Anti-climactic much?

We took a few minutes to explore her house. Our guides told us that she has lived alone on the island for six years now. Her simple hut was significantly smaller than the average American's garage, but she had a flourishing garden of cassava and maize. Even more impressive was the seashell shrine she had built. Hundreds of shells in carefully arranged mounds formed an enormous cross framed in designs with an inscription at the head.

Eventually we turned to go back to the boat only to see a figure coming towards us. Apparently Deborah had seen us coming when she was on her way to the Keta market and had come back to see us.
She seems to be in her 40's, with a tough, weathered look from living on the island. She had an odd way of tilting her head back with her eyes half closed and saying, "Yesssssss."
Then she launched into giving us Bible verses. We stood for nearly ten minutes under the boiling sun while I scribbled furiously:
"Judges chapter one, chapter two, chapter three, chapter eight, chapter ten, chapter five. Nehemiah chapter eleven, chapter twelve, chapter thirteen, chapters sixteen to eighteen. 1st Timothy chapter four, chapter five, chapter nine, chapter twenty-three, chapter seventeen verses twelve to fifteen..." On and on. She finished by tapping the paper with the verses insistently and saying, "Prayer and fasting, prayer and fasting" over and over, then praying over us in rapid Ewe while we stood with our heads obediently bowed and our eyes closed except to peek at each other curiously.

My first reaction is to think that's she's a little bit crazy. The torrent of Bible verses- chapters, really- didn't make much sense. And to be honest, I'm very skeptical about her status as a prophetess.
Yet religion here is a whole different animal than it is in the Western world. In America, a religious fanatic who went around blessing people and lived alone would just be viewed as some mentally ill person who wasn't taking their medicine. Here, it's completely normal.
So a little part of me wants to believe. 
Life is boring if you're too cynical all the time.  

Monday, October 11, 2010

Liar, Liar...

I want to quickly clarify that my intention is not to demean Ghanaian men at all. Numerous men have been very kind, helpful, etc. That said, inevitable prolems arise where the more immature males are concerned, and learning how to handle those situations with humor is a critical part of adapting to life in Africa.
Julia and I have come up with countless ways of avoiding interaction entirely, cutting it short, or sometimes just providing ourselves with some comic relief so we don't lose our tempers. Many times we are simply pleasant and the men who approach us only linger for a minute or two. But when we begin to reach the end of our patience with the frequency of the interruptions or someone is vastly overstaying his welcome, we become very sneaky. Read on!

Think Black, Think Black, Think Black
Ok, admittedly the least sneaky of our sneaky tactics. Whenever we see that a man or group of men is approaching us, or worse yet if we have to walk through a group of them, we try to camoflauge as best we can. This pretty much means chanting "Think black, think black, think black" until the threat has passed. Somehow they always seem to figure out we're white anyway though...Not sure what gives us away.

Play dead
We can only use this one on the beach when we're stationary and preferably already lying down. We seem to have a developed a sixth sense for knowing who is going to bother us and who won't. One of us can catch sight of someone walking our general direction from a good hundred yards away and know whether or not to start hissing, "Eagle, eagle!"- our code word to quickly pretend to be asleep, minimizing the appearance of being social prey. We joked that we were like mice, which is where the eagle part comes in. I'm not even sure mice even actually play dead to escape predators, but not the point. Julia and I have become very adept at shifting from the middle of an animated conversation to falling limp at a moment's notice. We did it so many times at Denu beach I think some bystanders might've thought we had narcolepsy. It worked a fair number of times, but the most persistent eagles kept squawking "Hallo? Hallooooooo! Hallo?" until we woke up anyway.

My Country Tis Of Someone Else
I rarely admit to being an American to people on the street. Doing so opens me up to countless requests demands to take people back home with me, give them my phone number or address in America, help them get visas, etc. and is usually also accompanied by a 5 -10 minute speech about the virtues of  St. Obama. Pluse it seems to increase my appeal as a wife. Usually it's safe enough to claim that I'm German if I'm with Julia or Canadian (hahaha no one wants to go there!) if I'm by myself. However my various other nationalities incude Norwegian, Alaskan and Spanish. No one has noticed my lack of accent yet...or that Alaska isn't actually it's own country...

Just Call Me Yevu
Julia and I have begun lying about our names when we're not in Aflao. It doesn't help us end or shorten our unwanted conversations, but it has provided us with some comic relief on multiple occasions. The majority of the time it's harmless/unimportant if we give someone our real names, and if we're truly desperate to get out of a situation it's best to refuse to give a name period. But sometimes, like when we were fed up with the vendor after vendor grabbing our wrists as we walked down the streets of Accra, we start fibbing just to amuse ourselves. Julia began introducing herself as Monica, and I was Naudia. It was pretty funny until it actually backfired and one of the men happened to be wearing a bracelet that said Monica... now seriously, what are the chances?

Lo Siento, Solo Hablo Deutsch
By far my favorite our sneaky tactics: We just tell them we don't speak English and launch into our respective other languages (German, her native language, for Julia and Spanish, my second language, for me). It doesn't get Julia and I out of conversations completely most times, but it's downright hilarious. No one has realized yet that we aren't even speaking the same foreign language as each other, much less that we can only understand a small percent of what the other one is saying while we're pretending to have a conversation.
Sometimes it sorta backfires and people spend even longer trying to talk to us than they would've otherwise because they want to teach us some English or they're so curious/confused/frustrated why we don't understand them. But the trade-off is that we get to mess with them : ) Which I think is only justice when they are intruding entirely uninvited. One pair of guys spent 15 minutes crouched in front of us, trying to teach us the basics after we told them in our pidgin English that we were Germans who came to Ghana to learn English. Because every European comes to Africa to improve their English don't you know.
My favorite time was when we told two other guys that Julia could speak a little English and I couldn't speak any- so she had to translate their English into German for me, I'd answer in Spanish and she'd translate back into very simple, choppy English... Oh my goodness I'm starting to laugh all over again just remembering it.
I've gotten very good at staring blankly when someone approaches me saying "Fine lady, I want to be your friend" and stuttering " English" and starting to rattle off some nonsense in Spanish.

I'm going to be a pathological liar by the time I get home...

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Ghana Trivia

Some interesting observations about Ghanaian culture.

Hissing is a normal way to get someone's attention.

Many people snap at the end of a handshake, sometimes 2 or 3 times.

"Oh!" is the most frequently used noise to express delight, surprise, etc.

Calling someone fat is not usually rude or insulting, and can even be good.

PDA is extremely rare, even between married couples.

Using your left hand to eat or give/receive objects is disrespectful.
Many Ghanaians bathe 2 or 3 times a day. .

Chopping or a chop bar refers to eating. A spot is a a place to drink.

"Tro-tro" refers to the vans that take between 9 and 20 passengers from city to city.

"Dashing" is a word for gift giving

Saying "It's a lie!" is a way to express disbelief or respond to teasing.

Funerals are elaborate events that can continue for months after the person's death.

"Flashing" means calling someone briefly so they can save your number- which is a startling phrase to hear if you don't know what it means!

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Yevu Parade

(September 4, 2010)

My volunteer network just keeps on expanding!

It's really fantastic for me, because between the various people I've met I'm now guaranteed to have a friend in the area until the beginning of February instead of just mid-December.
I'd like to have Ghanaian friends, but this doesn't really seem to be a possibility beyond spending the evening with a couple of people at the beach or a spot every once in a while- which is fun, but there's not much substance to those relationships.
Friendships between fellow volunteers, on the other hand, seem to develop nearly instantly. Whether through shared experience or just necessity, we bond very quickly.

Last week, for example, Julia, Lula and I were standing outside a bank near the border waiting for a car to the beach, when a taxi pulls up and out steps two yevus! Naturally we started talking. There are six questions volunteers are guaranteed to ask each other:

1. What kind of work you're doing
2. What organization you're with
3. How long you're staying
4. How long you've been here
5. Where you live in Ghana
6. What country you're from

These two women are from Denmark (6) and are working as teachers (1) in Dzodze (5), a nearby town that is pronounced almost like "Georgia." They're two months in (4) to their six month stay (3), so right in between me and Julia in terms of seniority if you will. Technically they're not volunteers because they're doing a paid internship through their university (2), but that makes no difference in our ability to relate to each other.

The introductions were over quickly, but an hour later we were still huddled in a circle on the side of the busy, muddy street, baking in the hot sun while we swapped stories.
An encounter between volunteers inevitably includes some classic, good-natured one-upping in who has had the worst/weirdest experiences with the various aspects of African culture. My trump cards so far are hand-feeding the monkeys and seeing the chicken get its head bitten off, but I'm only in my fifth week here. We're also guaranteed to talk about our problems with the men, the food here, the food we miss from home, the horrors of travelling by tro-tro, and the Africans' religious style. Usually these conversations also include some wonderfully horrifying "one that got away" stories that would put even the best fishermen to shame...but of course these versions refer to cockroaches. I have no good cockroach stories so far. I'm a little disappointed about that, then again I have no doubt my time will come. The worst I've had so far was a small one in my bed. I had thought I was safe because of the mosquito net, so of course realizing that wasn't the case triggered an unhealthy amount of paranoia. However I failed to squash the roach, so I settled for squashing my paranoia instead. One or the other had to go for me to be able to go to sleep that night.

Anyway, our hour-long, chance meeting generated an invitation to Dzodze. So the following Sunday Julia and I stopped there on our way home from Accra and met Karina, the more outgoing of the two. It was only the second time we'd ever seen Karina, but we might as well have been old friends. Julia, Karina and I sat at a chop bar for a while, and then moved to a very nice drinking spot once Lula arrived from Aflao.We split a package of CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIES. I had THREE whole chocolate chip cookies all to myself and I've seriously never been happier. Ok, the milk in Accra may trump the cookies, but only barely. We saw real milk in Dzodze too, which is surprising since I haven't seen any in Aflao. We didn't get any though since we'd just had some and it's a bit pricey at 4 cedis.

The four of us spent the whole afternoon just talking and laughing. I really like being able to skip the small talk and the formalities and the level of reservation that are usually intrinsic to new friendships. They have some value in mainstream society I suppose, but when you've only got nine months in Africa, there's no time to waste. By the end of our second meeting, Karina already had an invitation to travel with us and we have a place to stay in Dzodze anytime we need. She has to come back to Aflao tomorrow to visit the bank again (Dzodze has real milk and American cookies but no ATM. Personally, I think their priorities are exactly straight...) and I'm looking forward to seeing her again.

Our community within Aflao itself has grown again as well!

Laura arrived from Germany on Saturday night. Julia and I met her very briefly in Accra, but it wasn't until today that we were all able to really sit down and talk. There are four Aflao-ian yevus now! We held our pow-wow at The Pledge, Aflao's main real restaurant (as opposed to the numerous chop bars which have a limited menu and may only have a couple rickety benches outside by way of seating), and went through the now-standard process of introducing her to the basics of Ghanaian culture, drawing her a map and teaching her the taxi routes, and addressing any questions or concerns she had about her experience so far.

Laura is working at the Ketu District Hospital, as opposed to the Central Aflao Hospital where both Julia and Lula are. She is 28, which seems to have added a really nice dynamic to our group. She's old enough to provide some different perspective, but still young enough I don't feel like I have to be on my best behavior as if she's one of my parent's friends or something. Overall it seems like she's going to fit in with us wonderfully.

Brown Paper Packages Tied Up With String

(September 30, 2010)


I use my organization's P.O. Box in Ho, which is about 2 hours away. Sylvester, my coordinator, can get letters for me, but initially if a package came in my name I had to pick it up myself. I've written him an authority note now though, so it's not an issue anymore.

Anyway, I got the call yesterday and scared Julia half to death because I started worldlessly shaking her in excitement when Sylvester told me. I explained after I hung up and we had quite the celebration in the middle of the tailor's shop. The measurements for my dress are going to be all messed up because I couldn't stop bouncing.

Packages have become a bit of an obsession for us. There are two things Julia and I talk about every day without fail:

1. what food we've eaten

"I got yam for lunch today!" "Oh man, I got rice again." "Aw, that's the third time this week." "It's ok though because I had a Fan Milk" "That reminds me- want a donut?"

2. and speculating about the progress and content of our packages

I've even modified my nightly prayers:

Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray the Lord my package keep
If it arrives before I wake
I pray no thief my package take

So I'm sure you can imagine that I hopped a tro-tro to Ho as soon as possible the next day to go retrieve my baby, I mean my box.

Naturally the tro-tro had to stop for fuel and then there was a detour because of road work and then we got stopped at customs because some guy had to pay duty on some goods and when I arrived I couldn't find a taxi and then once I FINALLY got to the Ho Post Office Sylvester wasn't there yet and he had my notice so I couldn't get the package without him. Sigh. I'm not a patient person to begin with.

This whole time I had assumed the package was from my mom, who already has several en route (bless her wonderful, wonderful, beautiful soul). So I was surprised when I saw my friend's handwriting on the label instead. I knew he'd sent one, but my mom sent one via Fed-Ex Express, so I figured that one would arrive first. But it's equally exciting as far as I'm concerned. My first thought was, "Oh! Ryan's package, not Mom's. Well then, peanut butter instead of nutella!"
I could read the contents on the label before I even opened the box: Peanut butter, Earl Gray tea (my favorite!), Burt's Bees chapstick...
Sylvester was laughing because I was hopping up and down at the Post Office counter and making various high-pitched noises of excitement. He kept putting his hand on my shoulder, I think trying to get me to stand still. A white girl is conspicuous enough even if she's not skipping down the streets of Ho kissing a cardboard box.

My host family is very happy for me...but a little confused why I'm wandering the house singing "The Sound of Music" tunes...

You're Not Francis...

My internet credit ran out, and I decided to delay buying more for a little while. I'm shocked by how much somewhat isolating myself has helped me to settle in even more and not feel homesick. I guess it's hard to really be in Ghana when I'm connected to America via the internet every night. Removing that crutch was more beneficial than I expected.
Anyway, I have a bunch of blog posts to post at once, but the date I actually wrote them is at the top.
Happy reading!

(September 28, 2010)

A new volunteer arrived today!

We were told to expect an 18-year-old German boy named Francis.

She's a 19-year-old British girl named Lula.

....Okee dokee, close enough.

She'll be here for 6 weeks. She seems pretty shy, but very nice. She works in the hospital with Julia and lives next door to Good Shepherd, my school.

Although we welcome any fellow volunteer, Julia and I mourned the loss of a male companion. Unfortunately that makes a huge difference here in where we can go, how late we can stay out, and our host parents' comfort levels. And we are severely deficient in terms of trustworthy men.
We actually invented a boy we call Robert Praise The Lord, who is the source of endless jokes. He's the ideal man: in his mid-20's, has a serious girlfriend, goes everywhere with us, and is clean cut, very protective of us but unfailingly polite, and- of course- a DEVOUT Christian, as holy as they come. Hence the name.

Despite the inconvenience of not having a male volunteer, I'm still happy Lula is a girl. Back home, the vast majority of my friends are guys. Normally I prefer that, but in a situation like this, where my choices are so limited, I think it's better that my friends are other girls. Lula came and my friend group literally doubled. I am extremely fortunate that I genuinely like Julia as much as I do...because it's not as if I have any other options. I have more acquaintances than I know what to do with, but only two people I can truly count on. I need all the solidarity I can get, and being a white girl in Ghana is vastly different than being a white guy in Ghana.
To be honest, I've never been put off men/dating/romance so much in my life (Ok, ok, stop cheering, Dad). It's a little ironic that I would be a freshmen in college, a time when you usually go a little crazy in that department, and instead I'm thinking, "I dare you to ask for my number. Call me baby one more time..."
Not that I'm a man hater (I keeping thinking that says Manhattan) by any means. I know there are plenty of great men out there- my host father definitely being one of them, thank you God thankyouthankyouthankyou. It's just that the scummy ones stick out so much more. And it frustrates me that they act so entitled to my time and attention. Like I'm the rude one if I don't say "Why yes, I love you too as a matter of fact and I would like nothing better than to take you back to America with me" when they approach me on the street?

But on the positive side, I'm growing quite the backbone. I like to think I already had one, but I'm realizing I was less bite and more bark before. But now I've been provoked enough that I've learnd to be both when the situation calls for it. Arf arf!

(Feel free to start cheering again, Dad.)