Posted by: fullandbye | August 18, 2009

enormous post

I know it has been eons since I last posted. Since coming to Ghana, I have had my computer locked in an office. I could have just written a post on the web, but web services here are frequently slooooow and it made much more sense to wait for my machine and some time so I could compose at my leisure.

Enough nonsense. On to the post!

August 13, 2009.


Ten weeks to the day after emerging from the cool, dessicated environment of a 767 into the lush sweat of a morning in Accra, I am no longer a Peace Corps Trainee, but have today become a Peace Corps Volunteer.

The past 70 days have been pretty remarkable. Rather than sum up everything that has happened, I will instead provide an overview of the process as a whole, and a few snapshots of events that merit mention.

The Training Process: Peace Corps is a pretty big bureaucracy. Each country program is its own smaller bureaucracy. As with any bureaucracy a lot of effort is given to the task of managing risk. In this case the risks are pretty obvious: sending a bunch of people, generally young, many who have never been outside the US before, and for the most part pretty idealistic and outspoken, into rural Africa could result in some trouble without proper training. The training takes multiple forms from technical training (eg: how to build a soak-away pit for malaria control), lots of language training (in this group of 63 trainees I think we learned 14 languages), and most important of all: how not to get sent home early either by violating policy, compromising your security, or getting really sick.

They say that if you can get through the ten weeks of training, that the rest of your service is a cinch. While I doubt that this is precisely the case, I can say that these past ten weeks have been trying at the worst of times, but also pretty fantastic most of the time. After the first two weeks together, we left the greater Accra area and moved our operation to the Eastern Region where the hub training site is. During the past eight weeks we all lived with homestay families in communities near the training center, and over the past eight weeks I have become quite close to my homestay family. I have also bonded with the 12 other people in the Water and Sanitation sector, the rest of the group as a whole, and the various American and Ghanaian trainers all of whom were supportive and helpful.

A bit more about homestay: Five people comprised my immediate homestay family (the venerable Ofori Amanfo family of Anyinasin). They are my host father, Mr. Yaw Ofori Amanfo, my host mom Rose, my brother Kwame (aged 16), my sister Akua (aged 14) and my adorable eight year old brother Kwabena “Junior”. The first few days when we were still getting to know each other were admittedly pretty awkward. I had to convince them that I was not only capable of carrying my own bucket of bathing water but I also really did not need anyone posted outside the bathing room while I bathed. It was a pretty steep learning curve both ways; me learning to eat with my hands (just the right hand, actually) and my family getting over the fact that despite my ripe old age of 26, I am still unmarried and (as far as I am aware) have not sired a single child. In addition to this cultural exchange I also had to get used to the realities of living in the second largest compound house in the community. I am still not sure exactly how many people, chickens, and goats lived in the compound, but I am pretty sure that the respective ratio was something about 1:1.5:2 and that at least 20 people lived in the compound. You do the math.

I was incredibly fortunate in homestay. I really enjoyed my family, and I hope and believe that they enjoyed having me too. They were generous, welcoming, accomodating, and patient. They made me feel very much at home and were keen on me joining them in the running of the house; fetching water, washing clothes by hand, and cooking on a charcoal stove every night. My father is a also one of two or three sub-chiefs of Anyinasin–the Gyasehene (jya-seh-heh-neh). This fact led to me wearing royalty beads walking around the village and frequently being addressed not simply as Kwaku Ofori (ellided to “Kwaku’fori”), but as Nana Ofori (Chief Ofori). My father’s chiefdom also led me to meet many many people in the village who would come by the house to seek his counsel on any number of issues that came up during the our two months together.

Some other quick things that merit mention, and then back to the news. Each of these snippets has a larger story behind it, but this post is getting long enough.
*Small Ghanaian children are frequently terrified at the sight of an “obruni”. The parents of these unfortunate children find their hysterics absolutely uproarious and actively encourage us honkys to approach their children and terrify them. Incidentally, this was also the case in South Africa, but in SA it was a lot harder to find children who were not pretty accustomed to seeing caucasians.
*If a cobra lives in your latrine, you can solve the problem by throwing a molotov cocktail into the abyss.
*If approached by a Juju war dancer while trying to enjoy a quiet beverage on a patio, expect to pay some sort of fee to get him (and his drum corps) to go away. Until you do he will do all sorts of strange and vaguely menacing things with the assortment of large knives tucked into his costume.
*Riding in a minibus for 6 hours as it bumps down a dusty dirt road will result in every single fair-skinned person in the car looking like an overgrown oompah-loompah.
*You can get away with some really amazing clothing around here. Shorts are generally off limits, but if your shorts are manpris made of velveteen leopard print and you are wearing a smock made of a different velveteen leopard print you will be complimented on your fine choice of attire.

And now, some breaking (and possibly heartbreaking) news:
A few weeks ago I visited my site, and this turned out to be the single most difficult time of the training. After living out of a backpack for five months I was really ready to unpack and settle into the house I will live in for two years. No one has been assigned to my community for nine months, and in the intervening time, an enormous colony of bats took up residence in the house. Fortunately I brought my mosquito net hammock along for site visit, because even if there was a bed in the house (there wasn’t) I would have not been able to sleep inside because evidently I am allergic to batshit. Or possibly the spore that grows in batshit. Or possibly something else entirely that was in the house. I am not sure. In any event, during my site visit whenever I attempted to go into the house to clean and put stuff away my eyes would start to itch and then my throat tingled and I had some shortness of breath. After three days of multiple daily attempts to work on the house and get things sorted out I broke out in a really nasty rash and went to Accra for medical attention and to try and meet with my program director to sort things out.

In Accra I discussed my problem with my program director and the medical officer and it was decided that the first step is to try to have the community clean the house, the second step will be to try and find a different site in country. If no other suitable sites can be found, then the third step could be medical separation and my early return stateside. I hope that it does not come to this, but if it does then I hope that PC headquarters in Washington DC would be willing to work with me to come up with another assignment. This would mean…training all over again.

Still, as demoralizing as this experience was (and it was very demoralizing) I am committed to somehow making this work. Site change, country change–I guess we will cross these bridges if we come to them. I really hope I can stay here though. This country is great and after ten weeks here it is hard to imagine serving anywhere else.

I hope beyond hope that I get to site and have no problems. Site is small, remote, poor, and full of people whose lives I might be able to impact just a little bit. The house also has a large concrete rainwater catchment cistern that I can sleep on and that will make an amazing star-viewing platform. Even more amazing than this though is the enormous overstuffed chair upholstered with…you guessed it! Velveteen leopard print!

Today (18, August) is my 27th birthday and I intended to get to site today. Things here can sometimes take longer than expected though. I spent a couple days getting my bearings (and doing laundry) at a friend’s site on Hohoe and I got to Nkwanta yesterday. I intended to make it to my site today but because it is not market day today, the bush taxi service is not running and I would have had to charter a car for more than ten times what it usually costs to get up there. So I am spending another day getting my stuff in order here. The moment of truth will come tomorrow when I walk in my front door and see if the clean-up efforts worked. Send good thoughts this way and hope that everything will work out for the best.

A final note: During Obama’s visit to Ghana, we were taken to see his farewell address at the airport. We were in the front of the crowd and I shook Michelle Obama’s hand. President Obama also gave a shout-out to Peace Corps three times during a 15 minute speech. Go us! The light was incredibly dramatic and I took some sweet photos, but it will take some time to get them online. Also, there was a secret service agent at the event whose moustache was remarkable. I would pay to see his moustache take on Daniel Day Lewis’s “There Will Be Blood” moustache head on. I am not sure who I would back though; that would be a pretty even bout if ever there was an even bout in the world of moustache fighting.


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