Friday, July 15, 2011

Back To The Beginning

I've been back in the country for seven weeks now and I am still searching for a way to describe what coming home has been like. I'm so rarely lost for words.

I miss Ghana enough that I try not to acknowledge that I miss it very often.
That said, I experienced very little culture shock on my return. I'd like to think that's a result of how long I spent preparing myself mentally and emotionally for the process of coming home, though that may be giving myself too much credit. It helped that I was ready to come home in a lot of ways, eager for the next phase of my life. And my American life was waiting for me with open arms; everything seemed to fall back into place almost effortlessly- from driving my little Focus on midnight snack runs with my best friend to playing my violin in the backyard.
Still.... a little part of me wishes I had experienced more of an upheaval. Coming back took so little adjustment that I sometimes wonder if I ever really left at all.

But although I am still me... I know I am not the same me.

Almost a year ago I sat in this same chair and took the first step towards publicizing one of the most personal experiences of my life. Many people have commented how much they appreciated the blog as a way to connect with me and vicariously share my experience, and my ramblings have been followed by far more people than I ever expected.
But while I am by no means a shy or reserved person, sharing my trip to Ghana has been very difficult at times, especially since I got home. Maybe that's because there's no neat way to summarize nine months of growing up. There is no "in a nutshell" way to express all the things I have thought and felt and seen since that day in early July when I sat on a hot driveway with my forehead to the ground, overwhelmed by the news that I was finally going to Africa. Yet I don't regret my decision to share this experience. It started a ripple effect that we have yet to see the end of, and that is incredible beyond belief.

So as I close this chapter, I simply want to say thank you.
Thanks for your support in whatever form it took.

The most valuable lesson I learned in Ghana was that although bad choices may be louder and messier, loving choices are just as powerful. I witnessed the profoundly positive impact people can have on each other if only they're willing to open themselves up to the opportunities.
It was a lesson so important and personal to me that I tattooed it on my shoulder in the form of a butterfly. Because for every person whose life I touched in Ghana, there were a half dozen more people in America who had helped make that encounter possible in the first place.
I am so grateful, on their behalf and certainly on my own, for this experience. It was a coming of age, a spiritual journey, a trip down the rabbit hole. It was so many things I don't have the words for.

Although I'm sure I left some lasting fingerprints in Ghana,
I know beyond a doubt that it left its handprints on me.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The End of the World, the End of the Road

The Ghanaian churches all seem to have gone on an End of the World kick. Most are just sticking with the classic "the end is near" general approach, but one particular church has announced that Judgment Day is officially May 21st. Personally I think that would just be downright mean of God to end the world ONE DAY before I fly home. I'm petitioning him to change it to May 24th so that I have at least a little bit of time to devour all the American foods that I miss. "Please give me a chance to eat Panera just one more time...and see my mom again. Amen."

The Apocalypse may be negotiable; my flight home is not.

Part of me wishes that my flight was like the end of the world though, so it could just creep up on me and one day I would wake up and suddenly discover I was leaving. This whole counting down business is killing me. On one hand, I'm pretty squirrelly to get home. For the first time it's starting to feel like I really have been gone 9 months. All the people and things I haven't let myself miss have broken down the mental door and taken over my brain; I can't stop thinking about them, imagining what that first week back will be like. It doesn't help that with my work more or less finished and no other volunteers in town, I'm bored a lot. Going home seems a lot more appealing when the highlight of my day was rereading a People magazine my mom sent me in December. Still... Third term began at Good Shepherd this week. I hadn't seen most of my kids for almost a month. Their dutiful "You are welcome, Madam" when I walked in was definitely scripted, but no one forced the huge grins on their little faces. Seeing my kids again forced me to realize, perhaps not for the first time but no less powerfully, that going home will mean leaving.

The questions have started coming from people both here and at home, "How do you feel about going home? What will you miss the most?" etc etc. Mostly I give the standard, "I'm happy to go home, sad to leave. I will miss the food, the beach, my students, my host family, the weather." Which is true and satisfies most people, win win. But asking me that is like asking someone what they love about someone else. 90% of the time you're going to get an answer that sounds pretty much like, "I love that he/she is smart, funny and kind." That may be true, but it's not the heart of it. The core reasons are much more subtle and indescribable than a handful of general character traits.

Likewise, the things I will miss most about Ghana go far deeper than fufu and living in eternal summer. I will miss little hands exploring my arms and face for wonders such as freckles and tanlines, picking at my nail polish and pulling my arm hair. The staccato tapping of lizards fighting on the metal roof. Finding tiny braids in random places all over my head for hours after I let the girls play with my hair. I will miss that moment when I see someone I know from far away, and a brilliant white grin appears on an otherwise featureless dark face. The roaming coffee cart at the trotro station that serves a cup of powdered Nescafe for 1 cedi far better than anything I have ever gotten at Starbucks. Surprising people when I understand an Ewe word they didn't expect me to know. I will even miss waking up to deafening Gospel music on weekend mornings.

I can't be as sad as my Ghanaian friends and family over my departure, but neither can I be as happy as my American friends and family over my arrival.

Tomorrow begins my "lasts." It will be my last Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, etc. This week I will have my last day at the orphanage, eat my last fufu, go to the beach for the last time. Well...the last time until I come back, anyway.

I don't plan to write again before I leave, but I will post at least one more time once I'm home, so stay tuned!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Way I See It

Bill wants pictures of Keta, Julia wants pictures of the babies, Mom wants pictures of the school, Solomon wants pictures of my cornrows- I CANNOT KEEP UP WITH YOU PEOPLE! But I will try my best! :) So here's a little glimpse of my life recently...

St. Patrick's Day in Aflao

Keta getting a taste of America

My drama class playing "Sally Walker"
Drinking a coconut at Green Turtle Lodge

Aqidaa bridge

Julia and I practicing our African skills

Gabriel and Francis

Traditional mudhuts on the way to Tamale

Hamster or kitten? You decide

Julia showing kids photos of themselves in Aqidaa
Good to know that no matter how hard I try, I can't set this truck on fire...

Peter/Paul (never sure which), Bless and Edem making creative use of my chalk stubs and empty sticker sheets

My faux dreadlocks

Teaching English class

Christian helping with the grocery shopping at Denu Market
Overview of Aflao
Philip "Agogo"

Me and my boy Prince
Christian getting a haircut from Victoria

Circling my (50+) sand flea bites. Yes, this is what we do for fun in Ghana.
the witness and the Bride-to-be!

Constance, aka Superboy

My guest appearance on my friend's talkshow for Light FM

Worfa playing with Gracious and Lucky and the fleabag

Less Than Half

My buddy Rudy got me hooked on yet another TV show. (I imagine those of you who remember my "Kyle XY" days are groaning right. Sorry, guys.) This one's called "Off the Map" and it's about a group of doctors running a free clinic in the South American jungle. I'm really enjoying it except for one thing- very bad idea to watch a show about a developing country in a developing country. I'm constantly muttering, "That wouldn't happen... That's so unrealistic!... Oh my God, it's totally not like that!" For one thing, their clinic has stuff like a working X-ray machine and a sonogram machine- Pah! The village has no trash in the streets, all of the women doctors have perfect hair despite the supposed jungle heat, they eat sandwiches for lunch, etc etc. In one episode, one of the guys even prints a photo to send to his family and I'm thinking there's three things wrong with that: 1) There would not be a post office in a village that size. 2) There would not be a printer in a village that size. And 3) even if there were, it would definitely not print a picture of that quality. Most annoying to me is that virtually all the villagers miraculously speak enough English to communicate with the doctors who don't speak Spanish, aka the local language. That's not even true in Ghana, and it's an ENGLISH-SPEAKING country for goodness sake. Ok, ok, I know that's just a matter of making the show comprehensible to American viewers, but still- !
Yes, I have turned into one of those people.
So to avoid driving myself- and anyone within a half mile radius when I get really worked up- bonkers, I decided to avoid stuff about Africa while I'm in Africa.
Well, my mom sends me all her issues of "Reader's Digest" and "Guideposts" since both are nice and compact for mailing purposes and I'm constantly desperate for reading material. I happened to pick up the September issue of "Guideposts" while I was eating lunch today and came across an article by reporter Kate Snow called "I Want To Read." It was a tribute to Kimani Nganga Maruge, a Kenyan man who held the title of world's oldest student until his death.
To paraphrase part of her article: According to United Nations' statistics, less than than half of elementary school children attend school in most African countries- and even less in rural areas and city slums. "Schools lack teachers, teachers are untrained and classrooms often do not have a single textbook." Since few African countries offer free public schooling, many parents can't afford to give their kids an education and most need them to help contribute to the family income as early as possible.
It brought tears to my eyes for several reasons.
In stark contrast to the errors in "Off the Map," the situation the article described is exactly the type of everyday reality I am surrounded by here in Ghana.
I tore my eyes away from the words to glance out the window at Worfa's new school, which opened for its first day of classes today. I could hear him cheerfully teaching an English lesson to his students, most of whom are my little Meerkat neighbors. He reduced the registration fee to 5 cedis as an "Easter present," but I have a sneaking suspicion that it was really because the original 7 cedi fee was still too high for some families.
Here I was reading about the woes of Africa, and literally all I had to do was look up to see someone actively working to fix those very problems.
Maybe sometimes it's good to experience media about developing countries while I'm still in one after all. In America, I can read about the poor orphans an ocean away and feel sorry for them. In Ghana, I can walk out my front door and do something.

If you've done everything you can to put things right on that day, you get so tired that you have to sleep. There is so much positive.
If you dwell just on the bad things, you become useless."
~ Jane Goodall

The Gods Don't Work On Tuesdays

Sorry it's taken me so long to get my April posts up! My internet went on an unexpected vacation and only just came back.

The social norms in Ghana are a little bit different than they are in the Western world. For example: I went to the Green Turtle Lodge a couple weeks ago with Rudy and Julia, and ended up befriending a group of Norwegians (primarily because the Germans I had befriended previously couldn't figure out what country they were from and enlisted me to go ask). Christian, Wilhelm and Ragnhild had only been in Ghana about three weeks at the time, and are staying three months. Halfway through his six month stay, Simon is the oddball of the group as the sole Swiss volunteer and the only long-termer. They're staying in Eastern Region, decently far away from me.
Not an hour after I sat down- uninvited- at their table, they learned that I didn't have any plans for spring break and promptly invited me to go up north with them ...And to think we westerners are hesitant to even ask for someone's phone number the first time we meet them under normal circumstances! Naturally I accepted and we met April 4th in Kumasi- minus Wilhelm, who had some work commitments.

Day One: Will There Be Water At The Waterfall, Ferguson?
Our first stop was Techiman, an easy tro ride north of Kumasi. Techiman itself has little to offer in the way of tourist attractions, but there's a small village just outside called Tanoboase that boasts the site of a grove sacred to the Akans. The grove is a huge rocky area that forms a natural fortress, a solid basin with high walls perfect for scanning the rainforest for enemies and accessible only by a small crawl space. The Akans used it as a safe place to hide their king during wars.
We had a great afternoon scampering up and down boulders and steep rock faces, rewarded periodically with spectacular views. The basin is surrounded by a forest that is swarming with bats. I have never seen so many bats in my life- and I've seen plenty of bats before. I'm not sure I even realized so many bats existed in the world, much less in one place. And whoever said bats are nocturnal has clearly never met these bats. Their screeching and squalling could be heard continuously echoing from one end of the forest to the other, and they often erupted out of overcrowded trees to circle the sky in a dark cloud.

From there we went to Buoyem, another village on the outskirts of Techiman, to see African Rock. Which is... a rock shaped like Africa. Which is pretty much as exciting as it sounds. However, much more interestingly, it's situated right by an overgrown, mostly abandoned reptile breeding farm. Which is pretty much as absurd as it sounds. On top of that, our tour guide was a 14 or 15-year-old junior high student with the irritating habit of rushing us completely unnecessarily.
As a subtle revenge for this, Christian and Simon began asking the most absurd questions.
"Will we see lizards?"
"Yes of course."
"Did the owner eat the lizards?"
"No, no! He exported them!"
"Oh...then did he eat them?"
"No, he sold them."
" you eat them?"
"No, no!"
"Oh...So who does eat the lizards?"
"No one eats them!"
" what do you do with them?"
When Julia was still here, she loaned me a book by Mark Twain called "The Innocents Abroad," a partially fictionalized account of a steamboat trip to Europe and the Holy Land that he took. In it, Twain talks about how he and companions gave up trying to pronounce all the foreign names of their tour guides and decided to call them all Ferguson. And when the Fergusons drove them crazy, they would ask stupid questions to turn the tables, amusing themselves and driving the guides crazy instead. With that story fresh in my mind, I got extra amusement out of the boys' antics.
We also saw a small waterfall called Bibiri Falls. It's a good 30 minute trek into the hills outside Buoyem, and felt much longer when were constantly being harangued by our guide's frantic urging that we should "Hurry. Please come. Let's go. Please, let's go." But of course the first question out of Christian's mouth was, "Will there be water at the waterfalls?"

Day Two: Shake It, Tamale!
Another tro took us further north to Tamale, hands down my favorite of Ghana's major cities. In some ways, northern Ghana is much more yevu-friendly than southern Ghana. We, a group of four white people, could easily walk for 10 or 15 minutes in Tamale without a single person calling out to us or approaching us for some reason. That would NEVER happen in the south. The taxi drivers gave us fair prices without haggling. People barely gave us a second glance really. For maybe the first time in 8 months, I felt like I wasn't being treated a certain way based solely on my skin color. It doesn't matter that Tamale has the worst tasting water sachets in Ghana and the most heat-absorbent hotel on the planet, it's a winner in my book.
Perhaps Tamale's only true shortcoming is that it has virtually nothing for tourists to do. We browsed a shop that teaches skills to disadvantaged women, and eventually ended up at the Culture Center in a misguided attempt to find a fetish market. A man there explained that there wasn't a fetish market (the first of many times our Bradt travel guides would be proved wrong), but he could show us some magicians the next day. We spent the next two hours watching a drum and dance group practice. Predictably, all four of us were pulled up one at a time to dance with the instructor. As a longtime dancer, Ragnhild nailed it, but the boys and I held our own too...sorta. In any case, I very conveniently have no pictures of myself attempting their traditional dances. If they'd ever seen me at the salsa lessons we had in Spanish class, they would have let me stay seated...

Day Three: The Gods Don't Work On Tuesdays
Per our agreement, we met the man from the Culture Center the next morning to go see the magician. As we walked, he vividly described everything the magician had promised to show us: killing a chicken and resurrecting it! Cutting out his own tongue and healing it! He could even change into a lion! Now I'm more open-minded about juju and traditional mysticism than pretty much any volunteer I've met, but not even I believed that what we were about to see was actually going to be magic. I did, however, anticipate an impressive illusion. Ha! Silly me. The magician proceeded to turn several cigarettes into money, light a ball of cotton on fire with a simple command (while holding a lit cigarette, but ignore that), and make food appear in an empty wooden box. To add insult to injury, he wanted 40 cedis for his lame parlor tricks. When we protested, asking to be shown the amazing feats we'd been promised, the magician began throwing baby powder all over his idols and insisting that the gods wouldn't respond on Tuesdays and what day would we be leaving? On Thursday? Well, if only we could come on Sunday, then we could see the big things. Now, 40 cedi please.
Neither impressed nor amused, we told him he should turn more cigarettes into money if he wanted to be paid. Ready with an answer for everything, he told us that the gods required that he only use the charmed money for charity. Right. Naturally. I'm sure they're unavailable on Tuesdays because they're off working at the soup kitchen themselves. We paid him significantly less than he demanded and left, eyes rolling and muttering about gods' schedules.

Day Four: What A Wonderful Day To Be 19 In Wa
We made a last minute decision to see Wa, the capital of the Northwest Region, instead of spending another day baking in our hotel room with only the nasty sachet water in Tamale. So Wednesday found us up at 3 a.m. so we could be at the station at 4 for the 5 a.m. bus that left at 6... sigh. I don't think I've had a birthday begin that early since the very first one.
Wa is little more than a city-sized village. It can essentially be summed up with the words low-key, rural and taxi-less. So we didn't have very high expectations for our accommodations, except the faint hope that they would be less reminiscent of an oven. And here's where I throw out my whole-hearted promotion for the Kunateh Lodge in Wa:
Yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay Kunateh!!!!!!!!!!!
The receptionist told us that all the single rooms were occupied, and a double room was 35 cedis- a little high for our budget. We asked if we could all sleep in one double room for an extra fee, a fairly common practice. Their double beds are enormous, so it usually doesn't even feel cramped and can be a real money-saver. The receptionist agreed...and then repeated that the price for that would be 35 cedis. Overbooking without an extra fee? What kind of place was this?!?
The kind of place where you open the door with sweat streaming down your forehead and pooling in the small of your back and see an AC unit on the wall. Ok, not too unusual. The important question is not "Is there air conditioning?", but "Does it work?"
And at Kunateh Lodge, the answer is yes, ladies and gentlemen, the AC works!!
Then Simon discovered that we not only had a fridge, we had a working fridge.
I collapsed on one of the beds (our "double bed" was really two obese twin beds pushed together) and shouted, "This is the best birthday present EVER!!!"
I don't know who the owner of Kunateh is, but I'm finding out and naming my firstborn after them.
In great contrast to the south, the population fo the north is predominantly Muslim. We spent the day touring two mosques. We were allowed inside the modern one and even got a good view of Wa from its roof. We also saw the outside of a mud-and-stick one from approximately the 15th century.

My traveling buddies then took me to a real restaurant and bought me a birthday dinner that didn't contain rice- I almost feel like I'm bragging when I say that, so I might as well also tell you that I had a steak, in fact. Well...the menu said it was a steak and it tasted good, so that's good enough for me. Afterwards we bought some drinks- which we stored in our cold, working fridge- and watched a Disney movie in our AC.
Most volunteers who have their birthdays here get pretty homesick. I understand; it's a rough day to be away from your friends, family and traditions in a more personal way than Christmas or another holiday. I thought I might be a little down, especially being away from even my Ghanaian friends and family too. But they spoiled me rotten all day, and even sang to me in Norwegian and Swiss German. I couldn't have asked for a better birthday.
We decided that obviously the gods work on Wednesdays.

Day Five: Is That How You Behave In Your Country??

About three hours after we arrived, we had run out of things to do in Wa. So Thursday we managed to find one of the few taxis and charter it to explore a nearby village called Nakori. We saw another ancient mud-and-stick mosque, and simply wandered for a while to get an close-up view of the circular mud huts characteristic of northern West Africa.
Back in Wa we took a brief look inside the surprisingly modern St. Andrew's Cathedral and decided to also check out the Wa Naa's Palace just across the street. After staring at the outside for a while, we went over to the soldiers lounging nearby to ask if we could take pictures or maybe go inside. We approached the first man and Simon asked, "Do you know if it's possible to go inside?" He shook his head and then suddenly told us to ask his boss, sitting about 15 feet away. So we moved over and Simon repeated, "Is it possible to go inside?" Apparently someone was having a bad day, because that sparked a searing 5 minute lecture. "Is that how you would address your superior in your country?!? Is that how you should behave? What's wrong with you!? You come here and look down on Ghanaians! Go away!! Go now!"
I've dealt with my fair share of irritated government officials in Ghana, but GOODNESS GRACIOUS.
Jumping straight into asking questions without greeting him was admittedly a social blunder on our part, but I've been here long enough to know that our oversight was no where near serious enough to merit that kind of lecture. Of course my hackles went up, but my friends simply turned around and left without saying another word, so I grudgingly did the same. It's always good to travel with people who keep you from yelling at overly-aggressive soldiers in foreign countries...

Day Six: Hakuna Matata
Around Tuesday, Simon and Christian became inexplicably obsessed with seeing "The Lion King." (I feel like this movie comes up a lot...) Luckily for them, DVD stores are quite common. For 2 or 3 cedis you can get a disc of up to 24 poor quality, often hilariously subtitled, probably illegally burned movies. You can find everything from the hottest Nollywood hits to "The Best of Mel Gibson." About five stores and two duds later, we managed to procure Lion King 1, 2 and 1 1/2 on DVD. Appropriately, we watched the first one the night before we set off for Mole (Mo-lay) National Park on Friday morning.
Northern Ghana relies almost entirely on buses for transportation. In many ways, I liked the north better than the south, but I very quickly started missing the tro-tro system! Especially when we got up to catch another sinfully early bus from Wa to Tamale, with the intention of getting off about halfway in Larabanga- best known for its somewhat questionable claim of having the oldest mosque in West Africa and being the gateway to Mole.
By Thursday afternoon the tickets to Tamale were already sold out, but we had been told to go to the station anyway to try to snag standing tickets. When we got there around 5 a.m., the tickets for the next morning were already selling out. (This is what happens when you cut tros from the equation!)We joined the desperate people fighting for a spot close to the doors. As the buses began to fill, the crowd swelled and became borderline violent. It seemed like all of Wa was trying to squeeze into those three buses. About the 20th time I was knocked off my feet only to find that I hadn't fallen because there was no where to fall, I began to worry that we were going to get stuck in Wa. The mayhem peaked when they started actually selling the standing tickets and after all that waiting and shoving I ended up running in the opposite direction just to avoid getting crushed. I'm all for a good mosh pit, but not before breakfast.
Dejected, we discussed our options. Well, option, singular. Really we had no choice but to take a tro-tro to Sawla and try to pick up a ride to Larabanga from there. Unfortunately, the travel guide strongly advised against this, considering official transportation from Sawla to Larabanga doesn't actually exist... So off we went in a pathetic little tro, supporting the roof with our heads. Things looked pretty bleak: no taxis, no tro-tro station to speak of, and the buses had already come through. About 20 minutes after we arrived, a man suddenly came up to us and asked where we were going. When he heard we were headed for Larabanga, he immediately said, "Let's go!" And so we spent the next 2 hours riding in the back of a lumber truck.

Which is SO uncomfortable but SO fun. The landscape of the north is what I think most people imagine when they picture Africa. It's scrubby and desert-y, but at the same time vibrantly alive. The sun beats down relentlessly on the brown chest-high grass. Kilometer after kilometer, the savannah was only broken by small clusters of circular, thatched mudhuts. Cicadas droned from their hiding places in the twisted trees. I caught myself repeatedly thinking, "Wow, I'm really in Africa!" - a somewhat humorous reaction considering how long that's been true.
The Mole Motel, the only accomodation in the park, is built on a huge hill overlooking a waterhole. It's a paradise for animal lovers. Ghana doesn't have the same big game animals that make East Africa so popular- no giraffes, no rhinos, no zebras, no hyenas. Lions, crocodiles and hippos are rare and only appear occasionally near the borders. But for someone who as never seen any African animals outside a zoo, Mole was a very memorable experience. Before we even checked into our room we went to the viewing platform and saw our first elephant! Ok, so we just saw a miniature version of his butt half hidden by trees far below, but you would had thought he had appeared right in front of us in his best suit by the way we went on about it. Then no sooner had we dropped our bags in our room when someone glanced out the window and shouted, "Pumba!" A small group (herd?) of warthogs were grazing around our back porch. Used to ridiculous tourists, they didn't even glance up from their curious half-kneeling position as we hung over the railing to get closer and closer views.

Personally, I think Pumba is more handsome than his real life counterparts. But that didn't make seeing a wild warthog up close and personal any less amazing.
Between the awesome ending after the extremely stressful beginning to our day and all the wildlife sightings, we were in spectacular moods. Naturally we all denied it, but all of us spend the afternoon singing "Hakuna Matata" under our breaths.

Day Seven: Take A Walk On The Wild Side
We woke up Saturday morning to a troop of baboons outside our front door. Slightly less tame than the warthogs, they nonetheless let us get within 20 feet of them as they played tag, groomed each other and picked at the sparse grass. One of the best things about visiting Mole in the spring was that we saw babies of all the animals we encountered except for elephants. (Note the baby baboon hiding between its mother's legs in the first picture.)

Wilhelm and Caroline, another Norwegian I hadn't met, joined us Friday night. All 6 of us managed to get up and out the door just in time for the 7 a.m. walking safari in the morning. For the first hour of the two hour tour the best sighting we had was an elephant mostly hidden by trees as he ate breakfast, and I began to lose hope that we'd see anything very noteworthy.
Then we arrived at a swampy area and lo and behold- there was an elephant! Pretty as you please in the middle of a clearing, calmly taking as a mudbath. We were able to get within about 40 feet of him, give or take. It was absolutely incredible. Here's the world's largest land animal, which could easily outrun and trample us if it had wanted to, letting us come paralyzingly close to it in its natural habitat. Just as we were about to leave, two more elephants appeared out of the brush behind the first and joined him. We had to back up in case they decided to get rowdy. (Boys will be boys in in every species, I guess.)
Been within a stone's throw of wild elephants- check on the life goals list.

We decided to go on the driving tour in the afternoon and had just enough time to go to the pool first. I was the last one to get ready, so everyone else had already left the room. I was right in the middle of changing when I looked up to see a baboon watching me through the window. He was standing on his back legs with his hands cupped by his face to block glare and his nose pressed against the screen- exactly like a human. I started laughing...and finished changing in the bathroom.
Aside from baboons, there is another type of monkey commonly found around the Mole Motel. I think it's called something like a "Patas" monkey, but I probably misunderstood the Ghanaian pronounciation. These smaller monkeys are even bolder than the baboons (if you can get bolder than pulling a Peeping Tom...) and have the mischievous habit of stealing food right of guests' plates. I ended up filming one culprit in action instead of swimming- and the tourist who hadn't quite figured out that, yes, monkeys do bite...
One of the coolest things about the driving tour is that you can ride on the roof of the Jeep. Caroline, Ragnhild and I got the roof, uh, 'seats' for the first hour, and Simon, Christian and Wilhelm switched places with us at the turnaround point.

We saw five different kinds of antelope, including bushbuks- an animal I got to introduced to as a pet when Julia and I went on vacation in the end of November. We also spotted more baboons, herons and two kinds of storks. Most of them were close enough to see clearly, but too far to get good pictures of unfortunately. I don't think I'll ever be satisfied seeing animals in a zoo anymore!

Sunday, April 17th, we got up in the middle of the night for the third time on our trip to catch a bus, this time a 4 a.m. one to Tamale. We spent the night in Kumasi, and the next morning I said goodbye to make the grueling 12 hour trip from Kumasi to Accra to Aflao by myself.
In many ways I preferred northern Ghana to southern. I like the more obvious African vibe. I liked the landscape; it reminds me of New Mexico, whereas the south is more like a combination of Florida and Arizona. I LOVED that the people didn't harrass us very much. My first day back in Aflao I was walking down the street and it seemed like every third person was competing to lose their voice yelling, "Yevu! YEVU!" I just thought, "Yup, I'm back in the south."
The end of my trip kicked off my last month in Ghana. It was strange, and sad, driving through Accra and realizing the next time I would see these buildings, I would be on my way to the airport.
However... My first morning back, Worfa, Victoria and I were relaxing in the shade of a tree in our front yard. In her broken English, Victoria made the effort to tell me, "I felt something missing the entire time you were gone. When you go (home to America), I will keep the room for you. You will always have a place to come back to."
Suddenly coming home- to whichever home that might be- doesn't seem so bad.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Katherine goes C.P.A

With the completion of my second term exams and report cards, my job as a teacher at Good Shepherd is essentially finished. It's a bittersweet landmark- on one hand, I'm relieved to be done with the stress of it and feel very satisfied with the results of my work. On the other hand, I already miss the time with my kids horribly. During my last seven weeks in Ghana, my main job has become managing the donation funds, which basically means making sure they have been successfully applied to whatever purpose they were intended before I leave. It's a surprisingly time-consuming job. It's put me up to my ears in unfamiliar financial matters and I feel like I am constantly darting from meeting to meeting, but I'm enjoying myself immensely. My Type A is having a grand old time with the business-y, organizational side of it, and my Type Me is so excited to finally see more than seven months of planning and fundraising finally turning into tangible changes for my Aflao community. I have three big projects in the works right now:
Using the donations from Ford's fundraiser, work will begin on April 15th to repair the roof on the House of Norway building. If it had caved in during the upcoming rainy season, the older students would have had no where to hold class right at the peak crunch time of preparing for their BECE exams. We're hoping to have all the supplies purchased by the time school closes next week so we can actually begin on schedule and have the job finished before we resume classes on May 9th. (Everyone who has been to Ghana before is scoffing right now, but we'll show you all!)
I'm going today to buy teacher copies of Math, English, Science and Social Studies textbooks for each grade at Good Shepherd. When the previous staff left over Christmas vacation, they took all the school's textbooks with them (not sure how/why that happened). Buying about 32 textbooks will only cost just over $100.
Then there's Success International....

Meet Livingstone Gomashie:

You know him better as Worfa, my host father. In December, Worfa shared a dream with my brother and I- the dream of building his own school right here in Awakorme.
Awakorme is a poor district of a poor town, where mostly farmers and fishermen live. Only a very small percentage of kids who live in this district have the opportunity to go to school. Remember my Meerkats, the ever-growing herd of neighbor kids? Only four of them have ever been to school, and even then only inconsistently. Worfa, who has been a teacher at a school in Lome (Togo) for ten years, saw his passion for teaching as an opportunity to give these kids a chance they might never get otherwise. And, when I received a private donation of 1,550 cedis, Success International School went from a dream to a reality!
Our house has been a construction zone for the last several months. This initial donation completely covered the materials and workmanship to construct a three-room school building in our courtyard, as well as building 13 wooden desks. The three classrooms are separated by interior walls (something I would kill for at Good Shepherd) and a corrugated metal roof keeps out the rain. The cement floor is being laid as I type and soon we are going to install the doors. I got a second private donation of 400 cedis last week, which is going towards outfitting Success with blackboards, textbooks, a clock and all the other little items needed to run an efficient school. 

In accordance with Worfa's intentions, the core mission of Success International is to provide education for kids who would not be able to afford it otherwise. Therefore, he is only charging a 7 cedi registration fee, compared to the usual minimum of 15 cedis. He plans to open after Easter in time for third term (Ghana uses a trimester schedule). As a sort of good faith gesture, Worfa is not charging school fees (tuition) until school resumes in September. He plans to charge 18 cedis per term. Again, compare that to the usual minimum of 20 cedis, although finding school fees even that low is rare. In other words, a child can go to school at Success International for under $40 per year.
And yet, even that is enough of a financial burden that some families may have to pull their children out of school- maybe temporarily, maybe permanently.
As Worfa and I were discussing all this, I was amazed by the steps he is taking to make his school accessible to everyone. At the same time, I couldn't help thinking about the realistic possibility that even though he's doing  everything in his power, some kids still won't be able to afford it. It didn't help that earlier that morning, one of my aunties had shoved a meticulously written letter into my hand, asking if I could help send one of her children to school. For 7 months I have watched student after student at Good Shepherd miss classes, skip exams or drop out entirely for financial reasons. It broke my heart every time. I guess my heart got tired to piecing itself back together, because this time it got mad and decided to DO something instead.
The Meerkat Scholarship was born.

First of all, for the sake of clarity, the scholarship is not anything legally or officially registered, recognized, etc. At this point, it is operating out of a personal-albeit-formal agreement between Worfa and myself. However, it is an official program offered at Success International School.
The function of the Meerkat Scholarship is to supplement families' incomes and provide an incentive for students to be academically successful. Each term, parents who cannot afford the entire school fee can apply for the scholarship to cover any portion of it by filling out a simple form signed by a witness (a pastor, elder, etc) stating that there is a legitimate need for assistance. It will also provide full scholarships for orphans and half scholarships (9 cedis per term) for families with 4 or more children enrolled, and for any student who stays at the head of their class at least three consecutive terms for as long as they maintain that position. The scholarship is also available to adults, as Worfa is going to offer night classes in English, and Ewe reading and writing.

I don't know how well this will work, in all honesty. Not surprisingly, I've never attempted anything like this before. And the scholarship won't go actively into effect until around October or November, when the due date for first term school fees is approaching, so it will be a while before I know if my plan needs tweaking- or total renovation, for that matter. But if I have to tweak, I will tweak. If I have to renovate, I will renovate.

I've traded my chalkboard for a spreadsheet, and it's feeling pretty darn good so far...

Friday, April 1, 2011

Something Strange At Makavo

I learned the hard way that some things stay the same across cultures:

I got a call this morning from my buddy Hardcore right as I was stirring up a gourmet cup of powdered coffee. "Katherine, there's something strange going on at Makavo! They're saying a pig gave birth to a human! You have to come see!"
I thought Whoa, must be a deformed piglet. Everybody's going to be all up in arms about juju. So I obediently set aside my powdery goodness and hopped on a motorbike, still pondering if this was a hoax or just some freak of nature.
When I got to the Makavo Hotel, I called him again, "I don't see you."
"You at Makavo?"
"Yeah, where are you?
"....Do you know what day it is?"
I groaned.


Thursday, March 31, 2011

Africation Complete

There's not much in Ghana that phases me at this point. I know that may sound jaded or arrogant, but that's not how I mean it. It's more of a comfortable "I know to expect the unexpected" mindset that helps me feel more relaxed. I'm not going to be able to do things in Ghana the same way I do them back home, and nothing is going to go according to plan anyway, so why get all worked up? I gave up trying to stay annoyed at inconvenient light-offs, faulty school schedules and late trotro's a long time ago. Too much effort in this heat! Besides, I like my bucket showers and chasing geckoes away from my computer. I love the way of life here- quirks, faults and all. Someday I won't have frizzy hair daily and sand in my bed and constantly dirty feet and mosquitoes in my toilet, and call me crazy but I know I'll miss even those things. Like sitting in a traffic jam because a flock of sheep is in the road and wading through ankle-deep water every time it rains, they're just another part of living in Ghana.

The process of being Africated takes a different amount of time for each person, but the components are basically the same:
* calls all white people 'yevus' (check)
* has hissed at an entirely inappropriate moment (ooooh yes, check.
                  I thought that carriage driver in Egypt was going to toss me into the Nile.)
* fumbles if the other person doesn't snap at the end of a handshake (check)
* frequently uses the words 'small' and 'somehow' incorrectly (somehow check)
* has killed a bug with their bare hands without thinking (check...unfortunately)

But the more Africated I become, the more awkward it can be to be around newcomers because cultural gaps appear where you don't expect them. So I was a little nervous when I heard two newbies were coming. Jess and Lucy are 21 and 22-year-old nursing students from England, working for a month at Good Shepherd with me. I was even more skeptical when I saw their coordinator unloading their luggage- an enormous suitcase and a backpacking pack apiece. I thought, "Good Lord, they're gonna die in Aflao..."

Well, shame on me. There I go being judgemental again and having it come back to bite me:

After giving them the general run-down about Good Shepherd and the teachers, Lucy commented, "You've really found a home here, haven't you?"
That was probably the moment my attitude really began to shift.
I wanted to throw my arms around her and say, "You do get it! We're going to get along great!" You see, my only real difficulty with newcomers is when they can't get used to the idea that I've adjusted to Ghana enough not to particularly miss home or American culture. I never know what to say when I'm wrist deep in soup and fufu and someone says something like, "I miss forks." I mean, obviously it's not that convincing to agree when you have four fingers shoved in your mouth...

And it turns out that both bulging suitcases were full of donations they had campaigned and fundraised for weeks to collect. They brought toothbrushes, clothes, soccerballs, notebooks and pens... In 7 months I haven't seen anyone donate on that scale. It was one of those powerful moments that moved me to guiltily promise myself for at least the thousandth time, "I will never make snap judgments again." In the two days I have spent with Jess and Lucy so far, my attitude has done a complete 180. Fulfilling my Yevu Contract doesn't seem like a chore now.

The Yevu Contract, named by Julia and myself, is the unofficial yet sacred obligation that volunteers have to look out for one another. It means that you show newcomers where the best place to get mangoes is, introduce them to the inexpensive tailor and buy them their first bag of aji peli. It means that once you've gotten to know each other, regardless of if you get along well or not, you share sunscreen when someone runs out, divide up the chocolate in your package and bring them Coke and bread when they get sick. I am extremely fortunate in that I have stayed in Aflao long enough to become part of a second family and find genuine friends, however for most volunteers, we are the only support system they have in Africa. So basically if those suitcases had been full of cutesy dresses and hair straighteners instead of stuff for the kids, I still would have drawn a map of the town for Jess and Lucy (a fantastic tradition started by my Julia when we first met) and explained old vs new currency to them... I just wouldn't have enjoyed it as much. As it is, I have been having a grand old time playing tour guide and helping two more people fall in love with Ghana as completely as I have.

I was talking to Britta shortly before she left to spend her last two months in Mali. She told me, "Remember that candy you gave me? I left it on my table and some ants got to it." With a grin and pause she added, "...I shook them off and ate it anyway. I think I've been here too long!" I responded, "Yeah, when I go home I think the other volunteers are going to be shocked by some of my habits!" When Britta started laughing I realized, "Oh yeah...not all white people are volunteers...I think I've been here too long too."

Africation complete!

Walk Like An Egyptian

I know this post is ridiculously overdue, but I figured better late than never! It somehow ended up in my finished pile without ever getting posted. My brother and I had the chance to take a tour in Egypt from December 30 - January 11. We left shortly before the rioting started, which caused many groups to be cancelled. Andy and I were that much more grateful that we were able to take this trip when we did!

The Brandrews Sphinx

My first impression of Egypt was, "Wow, it's COLD!" Coming from weather in the 80's and 90's, Egypt's low 60's winter chill felt downright frigid. Of course I didn't realize QUITE how cold intolerant I'd become until I was happily snuggled under a fluffy comforter, commenting how nice it was that it was finally cold enough to sleep under a blanket, and Andy informed me that it was 70 degrees in our room. Oh....Uh-oh...

Overall my perception of Egypt was radically different from the other group members'. That was to be expected though; my standards coming from West Africa were just a little different than they might have been if I'd come straight from America. Andy mentioned in his blog post that while our group members were exclaiming over the poverty and dirtiness of Cairo and how crazy the drivers were, I was marvelling over the obvious affluence and tame traffic. They were excited over how cheap everything was, while paying more than $2 for a meal felt like highway robbery to me. I woke up in a 6 cedi-a-night hostel in Accra on a pillow that smelled like mildew and went to bed in a glitzy four-start hotel in Cairo. We ate in the hotel restaurant the first night and I don't think I've ever been so flustered. I felt like everyone was staring at the bold pattern on my skirt and my dirty Keens. They had a four-page menu that actually served everything it listed, with prices in the double digits if you converted them to dollars. I was so overwhelmed by that alone that I literally had to put it down and come back to it. I went around our hotel room that first night just touching everything. And the shower, oh the shower! I had my first hot shower in 16 weeks and it was fantastic. Ghana is so hot that I don't miss hot showers, but considering I couldn't feel my toes in Egypt, it was my new best friend.
Billboards. Fast food restaurants. Turn signals. A GRAND PIANO.
Dozens of things I hadn't seen in more than a dozen weeks.
I enjoyed the luxury even as I felt out of place in it.

The hardest part was thinking in terms of dollars again. I stopped converting Ghana cedis to dollars in my head a long time ago because I quickly figured out that if you do, you'll get ripped off. However in the upscale restaurants and boutiques that our tour group was so fond of taking us to (blech), it was practical to check the price in Egyptian pounds against the US dollar equivalent. Every time we bought something, I was working a double conversion in my head: Egyptian pounds divided by 5 for dollars times 1.4 for cedis. And let me tell you I was NOT liking the numbers I was getting, even while incessantly reminding myself that I had to think like an American again.

News Year's Eve day Andy and I tagged on to an optional trip to Alexandria with a small group who was finishing their tour. Although the sites were interesting, I almost enjoyed the 3 hour drive from Cairo to Alexandria more than anything. We were on our way by 6 a.m. and took the desert road. As we left the outskirts of Cairo, I caught my first glimpse of the pyramids, just black silhouettes against the soft pink-gray sky. Once in Alexandria, our stops included old Roman catacombs, a small museum, a Roman theater and a huge column in the ruins of an old temple called Pompey's Pillar- misnamed because of the myth that the politician's severed head was placed on top after his execution. My favorite stop was the Qaitbay Citadel. Of the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World, the Great Pyramid at Giza is the only one surviving. However the Citadel was built from the blocks of the Alexandria Lighthouse, fished out of the sea after the Lighthouse collapsed from an earthquake. So the castle-like structure is the closest you can come to visiting a second Ancient Wonder.

Qaitbay Citadel

We spent the first day of 2011 wandering around Cairo on our own since our tour didn't start until the 2nd. We chartered a taxi through our hotel and saw the outside of a handful of mosques and were given free reign to explore the small Coptic (Christian) District - with strict instructions to "stay away from those (roadside) shops. They no good. They push you, run into you...Madam. I take you to good shops." Hahaha, our taxi driver knew I was going to be trouble. All throughout our tour I tried to convince people that I live in Ghana, meaning I'm perfectly used to being hustled, pushed, hounded, propositioned and grabbed. But working with rich tourists day after day has conditioned these guys to coddle their customers as much as humanly possible because God forbid I should breathe the same air as the common Egyptian. So after exploring St. George's Cathedral, I bought a thick wool shawl on the sly from one of the road vendors, suspecting that the "good" shops our driver planned to take us to were more accurately "expensive" shops. And I was exactly right. A papyrus art gallery, a perfumery, a jeweller...gorgeous and definitely a waste of time. I would have to get a second mortgage on the house I don't have to buy anything from those places.

Ramses II Colossus
The first day of our tour took us to Memphis to see a relatively small alabaster statue of a sphinx and the Ramses II Colossus, once 12 meters high but now missing the last 3 meters of his legs, poor guy.
At Saqqara we saw a handful of small pyramids, most notably the Step Pyramid, before heading off to the big dogs: Giza.
In the middle of the bursting Cairo metropolis of 20 million, three colossal pyramids overshadow the crumbling apartment buildings and sleek business centers.

Great Pyramid
The Pyramids at Giza are...there aren't words. I'm simply awestruck by the things humans are capable of. The inside of the Great Pyramid was nothing like I'd imagined. Although certainly I realized that the grandly decorated maze of passageways full of booby traps and trick doors that Hollywood portrays was unrealistic, that's still what I had in my head. What I encountered was a steeply sloped tunnel 90 cm wide by 100 cm tall, packed with two lanes of people. An eternity of creeping uphill through the massive granite blocks at a crouch brought us into the burial chamber. A dimly lit room with nothing but a built-in sarcophagus the size of a small car. Nothing to impress the eye, but thrilling to the mind. I walked through a manmade mountain, built nearly 5,000 years ago by 20 million pairs of hands. Back in the fresh air, we were given nearly an hour to marvel before driving a short distance away to see the Sphinx. Not surprisingly, I found something incredibly moving about the sight of the Sphinx standing guard in front of the pyramids. He faces modern Cairo, almost as if he's warning it to stay away. How could I not be fascinated? All the sites we saw in Egypt were amazing testaments to human achievement, which draws a distinctly different reaction than a natural wonder.

We took the sleeper train to arrive in Aswan on the morning of the 3rd, where we toured the Unfinished Obelisk, the High Dam and a lotus-shaped monument built by the Russians in the '60's. We took a short motorboat ride to the island temple of Philae, a picturesque site of worship for Isis, the mother goddess. That afternoon we were introduced to the luxurious cruise ship M/S Norma, our home for the next three days. After lunch we went to Kitchener's Island to see the botanical gardens- an unimpressive place in January- and take a feluca (a traditional sailboat) ride. 

Aswan at night

January 4th was set aside for an optional trip to Abu Simbel, one of Egypt's most popular attractions after the pyramids. But at a steep $250 per person, Andy and I opted to wander Aswan on our own instead. We hired a horse-drawn carriage to take us through some of the back streets. For the second time in our trip, I hid my blond hair under a headscarf and savored the rare opportunity to escape my role as a stereotypical tourist. Admittedly Egypt is a very difficult country to visit independently and our trip was greatly improved by the involvement of a professional tour group, but being catered to like that nonetheless made me uncomfortable. That night we saw the Kom Ombo temple, dedicated to the crocodile god Sobek and the falcon god Horus, dramatically lit up at night.

Sailing through the night brought us to Horus' temple at Edfu, the temple that has remained the most intact, and then on to Luxor.

January 6th (Epiphany!) we went to the Valley of the Kings outside Luxor. A seemingly drab, lifeless valley, this was hands down one of my favorite stops. 61 of the 62 tombs had already been emptied by grave robbers by the time modern archeologists unearthed them- the exception of course being King Tutankhamun's. The thing that struck me about Valley of the Kings was that, since they are underground, the paint on the carvings has survived. The sight of Anubis' striking black jackal face, Horus' regal blue feathers and Amun-Ra's rather amusing green-blue skin brought the history to life for me in a way that none of the other temples did. It finally hit me that I was seeing the things I've been learning about in history books in school my whole life. What 3rd grader doesn't know King Tut? I mean, c'mon- VALLEY OF THE KINGS...! On the other side of the mountain is Hatshepsut's temple, built by one of Egypt's female pharaohs. Our day ended with a visit to Karnak. At 300 acres it's the largest temple and used to employ 81 thousand people. Crazy, huh? It boasts the world's largest hall of columns, where Andy and I wandered for close to an hour with our jaws dragging on the ground. It looks like it should have been built by giants, not ordinary humans without modern equipment.

Hall of Columns at Karnak

The next day we took a short flight back to Cairo and pretty much just bummed around the hotel. January 7th is the Egyptian Christmas, which happened to fall on a Friday- the Muslim holy day. About 10 hours after Andy and I left, a bomb went off outside a church in Alexandria on New Year's Eve, the first terrorist attack Egypt has seen in a decade. Our assumption is that our tour group was concerned about more tension between Muslims and Christians and was trying to keep us out of potential crossfire. We did get out briefly to see the laser light show at Giza though- impressive light effects, but a hilariously outdated script.

The last day of our formal tour took us to the Mohamed Ali Mosque (also known as the Alabaster Mosque), the Hanging Church in the Coptic District and the famed Egypt Museum where we saw the loot from King Tut's tomb among a thousand other interesting artifacts.
It was surprisingly hard to say goodbye to our guide and the five other group members.

It was even harder to say goodbye to Egypt when the time came for Andy and I to go home.
Leaving was a very bittersweet experience. Between having my brother with me and most of the luxuries/ amenities (depending on your point of view) common to American life, I felt like I'd actually gone home in a lot of ways. Sure, the signs were in Arabic and most of the men still wanted to marry me, but it was close enough. Egypt made me homesick in a way I never expected. Suddenly the next five months looked pretty long and part of me wished I was getting on the plane in Accra with Andy the next week.

And yet, as soon as I arrived back in Ghana, the comfortable feeling of returning home sank right into my bones.

I was happy to be back in a place where I speak a passable amount of the native language, as well as a useful form of pidgin English...versus only two words of Arabic and getting confused looks when I told people I would "Go and come, go and come." People responded (positively) when I hissed at them. I didn't have to stress over giving an appropriate tip, and Ghanaian vendors tend to be much less aggressive in regards to prices. And- maybe most importantly- I was WARM!!!
Whirling Dervish performance