"Life in the Peace Corps will not be easy. There will be no salary and allowances will be at a level sufficient only to maintain health and meet basic needs. Men and women will be expected to work and live alongside the nationals of the country in which they are stationed—doing the same work, eating the same food, talking the same language. But if the life will not be easy, it will be rich and satisfying. For every young American who participates in the Peace Corps—who works in a foreign land—will know that he or she is sharing in the great common task of bringing to man that decent way of life which is the foundation of freedom and a condition of peace."

-President John F. Kennedy

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

I have some news

I have some news. But first let me say that my dad and sister made the trek to Ghana and the further trek up to my village. It was a mostly successful and semi-healthy trip for all of us. It was an unbelievable feeling having them in my village, and my village even had a huge cultural dance to welcome them when they arrived at my place. There were at least 300 villagers there, a huge set of speakers, and a dance troupe wearing outfits of 50 kids and adults. The elders (chief’s right hand men) were present and gave my dad the typical dress that they wear, a big knitted smock and a hat. He was instantly taken in. As for Kate, she probably heard the words “You will not leave Ghana, you will stay and marry me” about a hundred times. The girls and women liked her, but the boys and men LOVED her. Glad she made it out without a bunch of husbands. We spent some fun time in the classroom and at my school, but also traveled to the big national park game reserve a few hours away. We saw some elephants, monkeys, deer, antelope, and pumbas (from the lion king).

Let me tell a quick funny story before I get to the big news. In our motel at the national park (there’s only one small place to stay), there were at least ten baboons that hang out. Over the years, they’ve enjoyed human food more and more so apparently they don’t go far out into the park. One morning when dad, Kate and I were in our room about to leave for breakfast, we were watching some of the baboons outside our door. They were literally ten feet away hanging out. A few mothers were carrying babies as well. I had the door open and was taking a few pictures. I turned around and stepped away from the door, and before I knew it a mother came running in the room with her baby hanging on to her belly! She grabbed Kate’s purse by the door and after realizing there was no food in it she put it down and came further into the room. On the desk was a Tupperware container, closed, and holding a few Clif bars. The baboon went straight for it, somehow knowing that whatever was inside was food. At this point another baboon had also come in, and the three of us were trying to yell “No! Get out” but the baboons didn’t care. This was all happening fast, the whole thing only lasted about 30 seconds. The mother baboon grabbed the Tupperware of food and all three baboons ran out, and the fourth baboon – I mean Dad – ran out after them! He wanted those Clif bars! It was to no avail, those monkeys were climbing up the trees and fighting over the Clif bars in no time at all. It was scary and funny all at the same time. Those things are so smart for knowing exactly where our food was out of all the other stuff scattered in the room.

Now onto my news. Let me say that I appreciate all the support from everyone, and for taking interest in reading this blog to see what life is like for sub-saharan Africans. After a long, fulfilling year, I’ve made the difficult decision to cut my 27-month contract short at almost 14 months. I’ve learned a lot and gained a lot. I can only hope that I gave half as much as I gained from living in Ghana. Peace Corps is a great organization, and I will highly recommend it to people in the future, but trying to complete two years in this situation while being in a long-distance relationship is pretty darn hard. After a year of work, it’s hard for me to rationalize a second year and I feel like it is time to move forward. My service has put me on the path that I want to be on, and I’m excited to be on my way and to also be with Menucha. It was difficult telling my school, my village, my Peace Corps friends and superiors, but that is now all finished. My school gave me a friendly farewell and they understand where I’m coming from. They presented me with a smock and we had a photographer there to take pictures of all of us on my last day. I was told by the elders that around December, when they choose a new chief, they were planning to name me as an honorable chief as well. Of course I wished I could make it for that, but now is the time for me to go. The school year just finished and some other things also lined up.

I’m coming out of this service as a new person. It hasn’t been easy, but that’s the point.

America (and then who knows where), here I come.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Ghana happenings...and the World Cup!

It’s been awhile, but things have been going on like normal. This school term is only 10 weeks compared to the other two terms being 14 weeks, and we’ve had some slowdowns and interruptions making it go by even quicker. I’m essentially done teaching, I just have some review days left and then exam weeks. I’m writing this a few days before my dad and sister come (super excited) so I will post about that trip after they leave. As always, I’ll just skip around to some different stories and interesting/funny things happening in Ghana.

This term brings in the end of the Ghanaian school year, which means the Form 3 students are finishing JHS and need to write the official Ghana-wide high school placement/entrance exam. It’s a big deal here. Because of the exam’s importance, it is also of great importance to hold mock exams. The test is called the BECE in case I refer to it as such later on and not realize. So one Monday I show up to school and after headmaster and other teachers arrive, I learn that that week will be a BECE mock testing week for our form 3’s. I didn’t think it mattered to me since I only teach the form 1 kids, but it certainly did effect me. Let me explain the issue that precedes. The form 3 kids (111 of them) all pack into one room every day and sit three to a desk. These kids are all about 18 years old and some are big guys. They’re packed, we simply don’t have enough room for all the students in the school. So for them to take a test like this mock, it was determined that we would spread those 111 students out between our school’s six classrooms. All day. All week. Meaning no teaching for me or anyone else, we all just have to supervise the test-taking for our students’ mock exam. I wasn’t happy. They probably could’ve fit into just three classrooms or at least something else conducive to teaching for the 250 other students in the school. The official mock had yet to arrive from Ghana Education Services (GES) office, and it was expected to arrive the next day, a Tuesday. So I realized the whole week was shot and I show up Tuesday ready for a worthless day supervising, only to find out that the exam for some reason didn’t arrive. Of course. I guess I was happy, other than all the uncertainties and this just meaning that the following week would probably be when the mock would take place. The week went on like normal, and the exam finally arrived one day, and we sure enough had a full week dedicated to a mock exam where all the other form 1 and 2 students ran around like crazy. Very efficient.

Some good did come of this. Coincidentally, that exam week was the first week that the new computer lab was actually set up enough to start being used. It wasn’t officially commissioned by the head guys and whatnot, but I had the key and I was determined to make some use of it this term. Thankfully during the supervising week I didn’t actually have to supervise for a couple of the days. So what I did was organize groups of 20 kids for about a half hour each to enter the lab and get a quick briefing on the laptops and I showed them how to turn on and use the mouse and stuff. Let me not gloss over that. This was awesome and a truly unbelievable feeling. I got to watch over a hundred kids sit down to a laptop all to themselves and try to start using it. The mouse was the funniest thing. Most moved the mouse incredibly slow and just didn’t get which way to move it to get the pointer to also move. Even if they got to what they wanted to click, when they clicked they would shift the whole mouse and it wouldn’t open what it was supposed to open! I tried not to laugh and just guide their hands for them, and sure enough they got the hang of it. Almost all of them ended up with the mouse at some crooked angle or at the edge of the table because they didn’t know they could pick it up and place it back to a good place and have the pointer still be there. They learned quickly though when I showed them. In that first day I had them all power on, learn the mouse, find the start button and scroll up to the paint program and open. Using paint was a great way for them to get comfortable with clicking and dragging and stuff. They could open a new document to start fresh, and learned how to “X” out and then shut down. I was actually surprised with how quickly they got it, computers are pretty intuitive for certain things. It took a few more times in the lab for most of them to really get how to shut down and “x” out and stuff, but it’s so rewarding to watch them learn. Ever since that first day, without fail I get students coming to my house asking if we can go to the lab that night. Most evenings I’ve been able to go and open it for about an hour, and there’s always a full house. Thankfully the computers came loaded with Microsoft Student which includes Encarta for Kids. The program is simple, has every topic relevant, and even some videos for them. They are obsessed with it. Almost every time in the lab, ten students will go and find the section with national anthems and proceed to play the US one so that I sing. Another thing I always see them go to is a ten second video of sumo wrestling. They love it. I’m constantly being asked what things are. Picutres of snow, rockets, surfing, other sports, certain animals, you name it. All of that stuff is literally brand new to their eyes.

One day headmaster said that we will be able to get some money from the government to help some of our poor students to get by during JHS. I had no idea how to tell who was more poor than the next, but the way we approached it was to get the kids who have lost one or more parent. So, out of my 120ish form 1 students, 15 have lost at least one parent, and four of them have lost both. They are mostly 13 or 14 years old. I was blown away.

I was told a young primary school student had gotten a snake bit next to the school building. I’ve never seen a snake in Ghana. That one crawled over menucha’s feet in her first week here, but I wasn’t around to see it. They’re apparently everywhere, and my students have even shown me their skin that they shed (forget the name right now). The child was apparently taken to a hospital and who knows what happened after that, I’m sure they are fine or else I would’ve heard something. The solution to the problem, though, was quite funny. About an hour later, during school, a big truck rolled up with about 20 tires in the back of it. The tires were emptied out onto the ground in the area where the child got bitten, and they proceeded to burn all the tires! Then, as I was told, one by one the snakes would come out, and the men waited all day with machetes and chopped up each one that popped out. Unfortunately I had to go into town that afternoon and missed that part of the activity, so I can’t attest to whether or not it worked, but I’m sure they didn’t go buy all those tires for no reason. Must be a tried and true method.

I got in a trotro one time, and it felt and looked like any other tro, like it would fall apart any second. This one was extra special though. When we were all loaded up after a half hour or so, the driver jumped in and reached beneath the steering wheel while another guy was out front under the hood. The driver then proceeded to hotwire the tro because the key was either lost or stopped working! The guy under the hood was doing something to also make the thing come to life, and after a few minutes the engine fired up. And then shut right back off. So what do you think method two would be to start a tro that only starts by hotwiring? Well, we were on the slightest downgrade, so some guys got behind the tro and started pushing while the driver tried kicking it on from this push start. It wouldn’t start, and we were fast approaching another set of tros at the bottom of this tiny hill! The driver was pumping the “brakes” and we stopped just before slowly ramming the other tros. The guys around back came to the front and pushed us back some until the driver could turn and get a new angle with a small downgrade again. We got another push and the driver was hammering the gears and pumping the clutch and doing a whole bunch of voodoo tricks and finally the tro started! Okay, minus the voodoo tricks. Anyway, the thing stayed on and got me to my destination two hours away, probably only like 15 miles though.

As I said, the form 3 students had to write their big BECE exam. A couple weeks after our mock exam in school, the week came where the students would write the real exam. Our students were lucky, they only had to walk 5 kilometers there and back to the testing school each day that week. Crazy. Them walking that distance is essentially nothing, and they don’t complain at all because that’s all they know. They think it’s OK and normal, and like I said, they’re lucky compared to some other schools. I wasn’t a part of the exam at all and didn’t go to the testing school all that week, but a fellow teacher had a good story for me. I had heard in Peace Corps training that there was rampant cheating on this BECE exam. The testing site was a simple open air classroom like mine, and either there aren’t enough teachers to supervise, or the teachers themselves end up giving answers to help the kids. What my fellow teacher said was a bit different. He lives directly next to the testing school and he said that every day his house was busy. I figured he just meant the kids were all around during breaks and stuff, but he said that there would be a young kid who would grab the form 3 student’s papers out the open-air window slots and run them to the house so that parents and high school kids could write the solutions. Then the kid would run the sheet back and give it to the students taking the exam. And apparently the supervisor was totally fine with this. The cheating in this country is just out of control. It apparently stems from their “helping” culture. They always help and share whatever it is the other has, which is now translating to answers in school. If one kid knows, then he should tell everyone else.

My tiny kitchen after a day becomes a total mess. Some days a ton of flies are inside, and I know that’s terrible because that’s how I would get sick the easiest. Some flies landing on poop and then landing on all my kitchen stuff where I prepare food. I was doing my dishes and where I stand I have a open-air window so I can watch people go by and stuff. As I’m washing, and as these flies are all around, I see a little boy just 20 feet away squat down and drop down what actually seemed like quite big logs for a little guy. He wasn’t even wearing pants, only a shirt, and when he felt like it all came out, he stood up and just kept walking. Great. Now those flies really are going to bring in some diseases. I scrubbed the kitchen good that time. Knock on wood, I actually have been very healthy lately and even the past year I haven’t had anything serious like other volunteers. Really, we all need to knock on wood for that one, thanks.

I may have explained this a long time ago, but there is always a different teacher on duty each week at the school. This just means that teacher is the main discipliner and does the announcements and can really run the school that week. Quite often, on Monday that teacher will come (late) and when all the kids are lined up for morning assembly, he will have them hold out their hands as he goes by and inspects to see if their fingernails are kept nice as well as their hair cut and kept neat. They all have shaved heads but apparently many don’t “keep it nice” or grow it a bit too long. The fingernail thing I guess they are looking for dirt and stuff, but since the kids have to work for like three hours before even starting school, I can’t imagine how they’re hands are clean. And remember, there are over 300 kids in the school, so this teacher will walk around with about five canes and inspect each kid and cane maybe a third of them on their head and hands if they don’t look nice. The canes are straight from the tree, the kids have to go fetch them and bring them stripped of leaves, and then they get hit with them. They break easily which is why the teacher will carry at least five for this activity. It sucks to watch sometimes, but other times all the kids laugh at each other during it, except when they wince in pain if it’s their turn. Also, nearly all of them ask me all the time why I don’t cane them, and their tone implies that I need to and should be caning them to keep them in order. The kids expect it and know that it’s the only way that they will stay in line, well at least stay in line to some degree.

Unfortunately I have run into a little issue with the computer lab. On a random evening when I wasn’t even using the lab, the power went out. Typical, I didn’t think anything of it. But the next day I found out that the rest of the village had power. Since I share a compound with the headmistress for the primary school, we wanted to figure out what the heck was happening. Since the computer lab is also connected to our power meter, we decided to go check it out. Plus, just a couple weeks ago the fuse blew inside there and we lost power but were able to put in a temporary fix. Apparently that temporary fix was finished. After having a guy come check out the electrical box, it was determined that the switch had totally melted, thus knocking out the power for the lab and our compound. Things move slowly here, so the next day it was determined that we had to buy a whole new switch and also separate the power from the lab and the compound so that this problem didn’t arise again. There was too much power on the meter, hence the blown fuse and melted switch. Replacing a part and getting another meter takes a lot of time and money unfortunately, and things weren’t looking good for getting power back anytime soon. After the third day and night without electricity, we finally got an electrician who said he could come up with a temporary solution. He went in the lab and started looking at the wires in the box and was hacking his way around. I know the guy and he does do good work, but I didn’t know what he was trying to do this time, I truly thought there was no saving the day. He said things looked promising, and he had me run about 100 m over to my house and stand there to check if my power came back on as he messed around with wires. He was trying to isolate the compound power from the lab power. After several more minutes of him fooling and me waving that there was nothing happening, the light flickered! I started jumping and shouting to let him know it was working, almost as if I was stranded in the dessert and finally saw water. Three days without power really gets to you. Without a fan its exponentially hotter and the mosquitos are around more. This fix felt great. The only downside is that the lab’s power is still screwed. We will now wait to get a new meter from the electric company and hope we can come up with some money to buy a new switch or whatever. Unfortunately, I’m being realistic with myself and saying that this could be weeks of a setback. So, so frustrating.

On a more positive note, I recently pulled through with landing 800 more books to add to our 300 in the library already. Thanks to some people for contributing a bit of money, I was able to get a solid selection of textbooks and other things so that now all the shelves in the lab are packed. It looks nice, except the lights and fans and computers don’t work. Can’t win ‘em all.

The World Cup has been quite exciting around here. There was a lot of trash talking before the Ghana-U.S. match and  unfortunately I was on the worse end of it since Ghana has beaten us before. For that game, I decided to put my tv outside and invite whatever students wanted to come and watch. I wasn’t sure if I would get 100 kids or 10, but since the game started at 10pm here, it was pretty late for most of them. Also, my compound is just a bit separated from the village and the center so the kids can watch at some other TVs in town. I ended up getting about 20 students and a teacher who lives nearby. That first goal at the very beginning was awesome. We had barely settled before I could start celebrating for the goal! I decided to give the kids candy for all American goals. I ended up giving for the Ghana goal too though. So we watched all through the game outside, but when it was getting to the end some wind started picking up. It escalated quickly, and we had to rush to bring the TV back inside before the rain came. In those five minutes bringing things inside and connecting the TV, both the Ghana goal and America’s winning goal were scored. We missed all the excitement, of course.

The second Ghana game I watched in the nearest town, Walewale, with a friend. This was a much bigger gathering of maybe 75 guys around a standard sized box TV. It was plugged in outside at a half-finished gas station, but it somehow was a popular spot for people to watch games. I made sure to explain to everyone that I was cheering for Ghana in this game, because there was still a chance both Ghana and the US could qualify. It was a pretty uneventful draw, and Ghana’s chances were looking slimmer. For the third game, a lot more trash talking led up to it. The Ghanaians were certain that they somehow had good chances to qualify and America would go home. I don’t know why they thought that and were so confident, but I tried to keep quiet and waited for the two games to start. That game was in the afternoon after school and it was hot and I was tired, so I just had a few teachers come to my house to watch. I couldn’t view the US-Germany game, but I followed online. There was a span of about twenty minutes or so when all Ghana needed was one more goal to be in the qualifying spot if our game stayed at 1-0. The guys were hootin and hollerin and were overly confident. Once Portugal scored that other goal though, they were silent and simply knew their chances were blown. I’m certainly happy and proud for the American squad, but it’s definitely sad to see the Ghanaians lose because football (soccer) is so, so big for them. Their guys just weren’t ready to play I guess. USA! USA! USA!

I don’t think I’ve every really talked about what a teacher makes here. I am not 100% sure of the number, but I’m most certain that they make about 700 or so Cedis, which comes out to, let’s say, 250 USD. This is per month. Simple math shows that annually they make about 3,000 USD. Teachers are middle class if not upper middle class I would say. Some more simple math shows that if as an American you make 50,000 USD a year, it would take a Ghanaian nearly 17 years to make that much. More simple math also shows that if as an American you (are lucky) and make 70,000 USD annually, you will make as much in one day as a teacher here would in one month. Obviously, if as an American you make half that, so 35,000 USD, you would make as much in two days as a teacher here would in one month. Whew.

I’m going down to Accra to pick up my dad and sister tomorrow, let’s see how they find Ghana and sub-saharan Africa!

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Before and after of the lab!

Almost one year in Ghana!

I’m fast approaching a year in Ghana…woah.

The computer lab/library is about 99% finished! We had made a timeline, but just as we had also made a budget, it simply wasn’t adhered to. Ghanaians just don’t see time the same way as Americans. It’s OK now that we got it done actually because I was definitely worried we would hit some rough standstills. In general I’d say we moved fairly smoothly and I was surprised with the commitment and progress. We had a three week break from school around Easter, and 95% of the work got done before we reopened school. It was just a couple weeks into school that the finishing touches were done. Just at the end here, I was asking headmaster if we could move the books into the room and I would organize them and put them on shelves. He was telling me that we should wait to get the District Supervisor for education in to officially “hand over” the lab to us, even though he has literally done nothing and I’ve never even met him. That’s just the way things need to be done in Ghana though, following the proper chain of command since the school is in his jurisdiction. For once, though, I won the battle with headmaster and got through to him that it made sense for me to get the books onto the shelves looking nice before that man came to “hand it over.” I was not about to wait for weeks for that meeting to be made and our books still sitting in boxes. We were given the 24 laptops by Ghana Education Services way back before I even got here, and at the time since there was not proper place to use them, headmaster gave 13 of them out to the teachers. He could get fired for this according to the code, but nobody fires people here, they’re too nice. This, however, is a huge reason why nothing gets done correctly and they aren’t making much progress. That’s a whole other topic. Anyway, with no official meetings and some random spurts of dedication from my counterpart and headmaster, we got this thing done. It’s a pretty unreal transformation when I look at the before and after photos, even though I’ve been in and out of the room every day of work.

One day I saw a girl sitting by my latrine. I wondered why she chose this spot since it is obviously quite a smelly place. I went and inquired. It turns out she is a high schooler but came home to the village for the weekend. She told me that whenever she stood up and started walking, she got really dizzy and then couldn’t see anything. Great. Dr. Austin coming right up. I truly felt bad for the girl. She seemed really sad and said it has been happening to her all day and the day before. This could be any number of things, serious or simple. Since I can’t diagnose and treat the serious, I chose to help her as if it was just s simple problem. It very well could have simply been some dehydration of sorts. I went back inside and made her a propel drink mix to get some electrolytes in her. It really was all I could do. It’s frustrating to think that she just has no way of doing anything about that simple bad feeling. Her parents probably wouldn’t know what to tell her, and they wouldn’t give her money to go to the hospital unless she was near death. She would just put up with it and hope it goes away. She ended up being able to get up and bike out of my sight; I don’t know if she just tried her best to act like my help worked for her, or if it actually did and she could bike all the way home. I saw her the day after and she greeted me with a big smile and said she was better. Guess it worked. Maybe the village needs an airplane load of Gatorade to cure a lot of their problems.

I tweeted some quotes the other day from a guy who I hitched a ride with to the capital of the region north of me. I’ll also share his wise words with you all here…

“Can you find me an American girlfriend? I want one first, then two or three later. They have to be all different cities. They have to be RICH RICH ones!. No small girls, I want me a LADY!”

“You have to find yourself at least three local girlfriends to be satisfied.”

“All the policemen want is your money. Just trying to steal your money. Police and women.”

“ Bob Marley is a great, great man.”

“We like the Peace Corps ones, but if you are doing the spying, we don’t like.”

Thank you my friend, I’m sorry I forget your name so I could give you credit.

About a week ago I got a kitten. There are always cats around here having babies, and people want to get them off their hands, albeit for a small price. All I had to do was ask one person and they instantly could take me to the nearest hut with kittens, which was like two minutes away. I paid 5 cedis, picked one out of the four that I liked, and took her home. She’s been a real pal. I should’ve gotten a kitten right away, I can’t believe it took me this long. The first night she went all around my rooms and ate the dead cockroaches or spiders in all the corners. She kicked around the ants that crawl around on my floor, but it seems it doesn’t scare them away. I’ve named her Lorde, after the artist booming right now in America with the hit song “Royals.” For a cat in Ghana, this cat is treated like royalty in my house. Credit here goes to Menucha.

Lately the avocados have been pretty common even up here in the north. Being a nimrod when it comes to choosing ripe foods, I always feel the need to ask which one I should pick. To my market women who hardly speak English, though, this is quite a challenge. Even in Mampruli they don’t get the phrasing of my question. It usually goes something like this:

Me: “I want ripe one, which one is ripe one?”
Woman: *Confused stare and proceeds to hand me many of them to buy*
Me: “No, no, no. Which one can I chop today? I want to chop today.”
Woman: “Yes! You can chop!”
Man behind the woman watching: “You put in the rice and chop and it’s good”
Me: “Yes I know I can chop, but which one is sweet now?” *I proceed to squeeze them and act like I know what I’m feeling for*
Woman: “Ohhh, then this one!” *Hands me one*
Me: “So I chop this one right now? Or tomorrow? It is ripe?”
Woman: “Yes, you chop these ones!” *Still thinking I don’t even understand that it’s food*
Me: “OK I will just take them. Thank you”

Some of this I do in Mampruli but the concept of ripe to them just isn’t there. They will eat the most unripe mangoes, and I think this trickles over to other fruits and veggies. If it’s any sort of edible, then in it goes. Usually, I do end up getting OK avocados. I now know what I’m feeling for, but I still like to have the silly conversation.

Another little funny interaction I find is that in greeting, people simply say “How is it?” At first, this always bothered me. What “it” are you talking about? I would always wonder. How is what? A normal response to this is, “Ohh, better.” Better? Better than what? Than this morning? Than yesterday? Than your dying grandma? Just simply “better,” it just means you are fine from what I can tell. So then when I’m sick one day and they ask how I am, I tell them I am sick and not feeling well. Then the next day when they ask, if I say “better” when I’m actually still feeling pretty crummy but I’m somehow better, they think I’m totally fine because of their use of “better.” The little things..

Since the lab is mostly done, I have put one computer in and the projector and invited some of the students in at night. The funniest thing to watch is as each new person comes inside, EVERYONE in the room starts yelling at them how to enter the room and which way to walk so they don’t walk in front of the projector light. They think it will blind you or will ruin it. So as I’m showing some videos, every few minutes a new person walks in and twenty people jump up to yell at the person different directions of how to walk around the room to a seat so as to avoid the projector. Maybe I’ll show them that it doesn’t harm, but for now it’s funny. I showed a picture of a plane in the clouds, which was really cool for them to see. I was so happy when I got the brilliant question, “But how did they take the picture of the plane if it is flying?” Excellent question. At least someone out there is thinking. They thought it was funny when I explained that another plane or something was flying next to it and took the picture. Another question about planes was, “Do the planes fill before they go?” This question arises because, as I’ve explained before, all the taxis and trotros here run on the basis that the car needs to fill completely before it moves. To get a taxi you have to wait until five people show up so there is no wasted space, the driver gets maximum money, and the trip can be effectively made, no matter how short it is. Same with the trotro vans, you can wait for hours sometimes for a 20 or 30 person tro to fill up for the destination you are going. So the girl asked if you have to wait for the plane to fill before going. I had to explain the whole concept of buying an advanced ticket, and how one can even choose the exact day and time they want to leave. Totally foreign. They just asked how you could possibly know which day you will be able to go, and what time you’ll be able to get there. It’s just so hard for them to grasp certain concepts of how the developed world functions.

I’ve talked on this briefly before, but today I confirmed from one of my best students. Naim Yakubu is a fourteen-year-old boy who is very bright and inquisitive and always comes to my house to see me. I know that if he were given the opportunities I had in life, he would be able to succeed. But given his circumstances, he will probably be a farmer in Gbimsi, but who knows. He told me today that he has only been as far as Walewale and Wulugu, the towns 2 miles south and 4 miles north, respectively. He’s 14. His eyes have only seen a 6 mile stretch of Earth, and those six miles look pretty darn similar.

I was hitching with another guy, this time he was quite educated. He drives a pickup truck that goes around to pick up beer bottles from various drinking “spots.” In Ghana and most of the developing world, the seller returns the bottles to get his/her deposit back. The company then cleans and re-bottles. Anyway, this guy was telling me a story of a time recently when he was making his rounds and off in the distance on the road he could see a roadblock, and it wasn’t a police checkpoint. It was four men, all with guns. Everyone knows about the highway armed robberies here, but obviously only a small percentage experience it. The guy was telling me the whole story, and it ended up that he got away only giving them some cash in his wallet even though his real cash was in a bag in the back. They also drank a couple bottles of the beer in his truck. What these armed robbers do is go to the nearest police and tell them that they’ll get a cut if they let them rob some people that day. So the police checkpoint could be just a couple miles away, but the robberies will still happen because the cops are getting a cut. Some of the cops here are even illiterate. Apparently it used to be difficult to become a cop, with physical tests and such, but now it’s all about who you know. So these guys who just want some bribe money are infiltrating the police force. Real progress here, right?

During this same ride, we were listening to some music on the radio. This pretty cool song came on, I hadn’t heard it before but it was some hip Ghana rap and had a good beat. Since it was in a different language I didn’t know, I asked the driver if he knew what they were rapping at the chorus. Turns out it was something like, “I want some porridge. Man but I don’t have money. You must have money, put your money down. I just want some porridge.” Nice.

Junior high has three forms: 1, 2 and 3. As I’ve explained, I teach form 1. The form 3 kids right now are about to finish their junior high career, and therefore have to take the BECE standardized test that will determine if they get into high school, and better scores can get you into better high schools. More on this as it comes, but I was talking to some of the girls and they said that once they finish the exam, they will have to travel to the big cities in the south to work in order to get money to pay for high school. This innercity youth work phenomenon in Ghana is called Kayayei, meaning “carrying load on head.”  What happens is these girls think that the money is all in the south and they have no other options of getting money for high school, so they have to go down and sell things in the streets from baskets on their heads. What they don’t realize, though, is that often they are homeless, hardly make any money, even money to eat let alone save. Thankfully, some PCV’s just recently made a documentary on this to show girls what it’s truly like. It isn’t some fairytale land of money and riches in the south. They won’t come back with bags of money despite all the stories they hear. This week I showed the video to about 30 of the girls, and I couldn’t excalty judge but I think it got through to them in some way. I still know that they’ll end up going. There really is no other way for them to get money. Either they go do that work in the south and hope it somehow works so they can go to high school, or they don’t go to high school at all. Not good choices at all. Maybe once the president of Ghana stops getting super-preferential treatment and all the political leaders stop chopping money at the top, the kids will be able to get to high school without paying ridiculous sums of money. It kills me. A country like this has to plainly see that a HUGE way to bring people up out of poverty is to reduce school fees so more can get educated and become contributing members of society. It’s just not happening yet. The people at the top are just so happy to be at the top and aren’t ready to fairly distribute the wealth and put money where it needs to go.

I don’t think I’ve every really described how phone conversations go in Ghana. Since I’m always hitching rides and/or meeting new Ghanaians, they always want my “contact.” So I give it to them. This just means that for the next, say, three weeks, I will get a few calls that last about one minute each. Ghanaians are super friendly, they genuinely call each other just to chat and see how the family is. They don’t want to get into long conversations, they aren’t seeking something, they’re just making use of the phones they have to check in on people that matter to them. Turns out, I matter to a lot of them; at least for a few weeks after meeting. This is how a typical conversation goes with Ghanaians I met once and probably won’t meet again:

Him: “Ahh Mr. Jacob good morning!”
Me: “Hello (sometimes forget name) how is the day?”
Him: “Ohh, by god’s grace, the day is fine-o.”
Me: “Ah, then that is good, how is the family?”
Him: “Mmm they are doing well, how is the house?”
Me: “Ya everything is ok, I am doing well.”
Him: “Ohh, then that is good. We thank God.”
Me: “Yes, then we will talk soon.”
Him: “Ahaa yes.”
*No goodbyes*

As the Form 3’s are getting ready to write their high school entrance exam, some of the teachers are helping them with extra classes. Well, sort of. One teacher was telling me how he showed up one evening and the students didn’t have any chalk for him. Of course, the teacher was appalled and thought it preposterous that the students weren’t prepared to bring chalk for the “master” to come teach. It’s bad because the students are tasked with paying for their own class’ chalk when they already don’t even have 5 cents for water during the day. So here the teacher is mad that the students are too foolish to not have chalk for him, which in a way he is right because that’s just how it works here, but to me it looks terrible that he can’t just pay one cedi for a box of chalk for when he goes to school. I buy my own chalk so I don’t have to use the chalk that the students pay for for the other teachers to use. I’m not going to buy all the teachers chalk, because that would just be white man handouts. But now most teachers know I have chalk, and the students definitely know, so they aren’t buying chalk and all the teachers and students are asking to borrow from my one box of chalk. It’s dirt cheap, I don’t care, but it just shows how messed up the whole system is.

I received letters from my mom’s students recently and have been meaning to have some of my kids write back. I thought it would be a simple activity and fun for the kids. It was fun for the kids, but the furthest thing from simple. Here at my JHS, if there is one thing the English teacher makes sure he/she teaches, it is teaching how to write a letter. I’ve seen the kids practicing it and thought that they understood it. They don’t. And they’re lack of English writing skills constantly surprises me. They just aren’t there yet. A five-year old in northern Ghana now will get to JHS and be able to write a fine English letter, but these students are still behind on English skills. They were asking me what to write after ‘dear’ at the top; they weren’t sure if it was their own name or the American student’s name. Some just copied the sentences of what they saw in the American letter, some just didn’t understand anything in the letter and wrote what they had always practiced when writing letters in English class. I have to give some other students credit because a few can actually put together a letter that makes sense and responds to the questions asked initially. Many of the American students wrote how it has been snowing a lot, so I had a million questions what the word ‘snow’ is. I ended up pulling up a picture on my phone to explain to them. They mostly don’t get that other places in the world have different weather than Ghana. I was watching one student write and he said his favorite sport is basketball, but when I asked him what it is, he had no idea! He had heard it somewhere along the line and decided to write that it is his favorite thing. The American students talked about sports, instruments, weather, and pets but for these Ghanaian students, those four things are nonessential and almost unfamiliar other than soccer as a sport. The two hour chunk of time this took wasn’t even close to enough to explain things and have them write letters that made sense. I tried to explain the concepts of having a pet, what an instrument is, and how the weather changes a lot in America, but to no avail. I suppose it was a fun(ny) activity and the bar is now set pretty low so it can only improve for next time.

Headmaster entered my class one day and had a funny announcement for the kids. It went something like this…

“Hey! You better not be running outside the classroom like fools. This term is only 11 weeks, and it will be gone like that! If I see you running around I will pick two of you, put you on my new sturdy desk with your rump in the air and we will make example of you! The term is 11 weeks. Remove two weeks for exams and revising, that’s 9. Remove two because this is the end of the second week, that’s 7. Remove another for sports week if it is to come, that’s 6. When your father calls you to farm, will you say no? No! So remove another week for when you are at farm, or two weeks, that’s 4 or 5 weeks. Then other days for the rains that come, it’s left with four weeks at most. You better not be fooling around at school!”

That, my friends, sums up the Ghanaian education system perfectly.