"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

Monday, December 2, 2013

First big holiday away from America…not too shabby

I’ve returned safely to my home here in the north. I had a great time the past 10ish days down south at my Reconnect in-service training along with celebrating Thanksgiving. Here’s how it went….

The trip from home to Tamale is about 2 hours, then I took a “nice” bus down to Kumasi, which took about 7 hours. There is quite a difference in terrain and atmosphere as you travel south here during the dry season. As I’ve explained, the north now is incredibly dry and doesn’t have much green growth; it is also flat. I hadn’t been south in three months, and I was just a young Ghanaian lad at that time, so traveling this time I was able to compare and digest more. About halfway through the ride you can see the changes; the mud huts disappear, some fluffy clouds are in the sky, rolling green hills pop up, and the temperature dips below 100. As you get to the outskirts of Kumasi, the traffic begins piling up, and there  are rolling hills with decent housing for as far as you can see. It was quite nice to be in a bit more advanced and pleasant environment than the north. Also, over the next several days it ended up raining – pouring – not once but twice! The rain felt heavenly, and it of course lifted the heat.

Our Reconnect training was held for my group of 20 that entered Ghana. The idea is that we get together after 3 months at site to realign and get some more training on grant-writing and other specific topics. When we all trickled into the Christian Village (which seemed extravagant to me) it was great to hear some stories and to see everyone again. We went through a lot together for 10 weeks of training, and reuniting felt grand! The place we stayed at had toilets and (cold) showers, so that was a treat to be able to use for the four days. No A/C, but the south was a break from the extreme heat for me so the fan in the room was enough. For this training, all of our counterparts attended as well. Thomas, who is a fellow teacher in Gbimsi with me, traveled down also.

The training was very beneficial. Also, we were fed plenty so that was a positive. I figured out my grant-writing plans for my computer lab (details coming), learned some more about how to start a library and get funding/books, hashed out some cultural issues between Americans and Ghanaians, and have returned home with good ideas and a bit of a fresh outlook on things. Honestly one of the most beneficial aspects of the training was simply discussing with the other several JHS maths teachers and comparing what was happening for them and passing suggestions back and forth. Another positive was that my counterpart Thomas received special recognition by my boss, the PC Education Coordinator, at the end of the training for exceptional participation throughout the conference. I’m lucky to have a good counterpart and friend here at school.

During the week I found out from the PC Security director that something was happening near my home in Walewale, just a few kilometers away. It was on nationwide radio and TV. Apparently, the senior high school students were not agreeing with some of the headmaster’s decision making at the school, so nearly 100 got together and rioted. They burned the headmaster’s car and home, some of the ICT lab at school, and then proceeded on to overtake the unarmed police in town. The regional police had to come in to calm things and the fire service (I’m not sure what the fire service really is) had to come in to put the fires out. Many of the students are in jail in Tamale now and the situation is under control…supposedly. I don’t know many other details, but I’m back here and everything seems normal and there isn’t really any threat. Pretty serious deal but like I said I don’t feel any tension and don’t think anything further will happen, especially with the regional police hanging around for awhile. And if it truly were a safety concern, the PC Security guy would have relocated me for some amount of time.

The training wrapped up on the Wednesday morning before Thanksgiving, and 13 of us were proceeding further south from Kumasi to Accra, the capital, for the holiday. Let me explain the struggles of this journey by saying this: The distance between Kumasi and Accra is about 155 miles, and it took us 9 hours. We left at 8am, and due to traffic aplenty, subpar roads, tro-tro’s failing brakes, and other methods of travel, we arrived at 5pm. It’s expected that you have to take at least three taxis/tros to make it there, but we totaled 6. On the first leg of the trip, our tro’s brakes failed not once, but twice. The first time we hung around for an hour while he got them fixed, but the second time we weren’t having it and began hitching rides to get further south. One of the ensuing tros we flagged down had a lovely half-alive goat tied up and laying at my feet under the seat. Needless to say, it was not a fun journey.

An interesting observation I was realizing as we entered Accra is that when I was first (and last) here back in the first week of June, I was overwhelmed by the third world and only noticing the bad parts of it. Now, however, after living away from the most developed city and in the poorest region of the country, coming to Accra is stellar. This time I was noticing all the nice buildings and foods and whatnot.

The deal for thanksgiving was that the US Embassy had invited any of the PCV’s who wanted to attend. Further, some American embassy workers opened their doors to us and allowed us to stay in their homes. I had been wondering for a few weeks leading up to this how exactly their homes looked. How many amenities did they get? Well, it was a pleasant surprise. I met my host at the PC office and we walked around the corner through a developing rich-person neighborhood and arrived at his compound. Everything in Accra has walls and gates with barbed wire on top, but what lies behind most of these gates is surprising beautiful; well, at least in these neighborhoods around the embassies. It turns out they live in essentially American homes. My host has a fairly recently built home, decorated lavishly, and most importantly, pumping out abundant AC and equipped with water heaters. He poured me a drink with ice, told me to take a hot shower, and set me up in my room. I was in shock! Coming from my living situation and a rough travel day into a pristine American home, taking a hot shower for the first time, and laying in a normal comfortable bed with a remote to control the AC, I was in heaven. I thought I wouldn’t have any of that for 2 years unless I traveled somewhere out of Ghana, so it was quite the treat. He was very hospitable and welcoming.

Thanksgiving was the following day at the embassy. He and I took the ten minute walk over at 1pm, went through security and then entered the quite beautiful US embassy. I was also surprised at how massive the property is. The ambassador was in attendance, along with about 30 PCVs and 100 or so embassy workers. Most importantly, the food table was flush with turkey dishes, mashed potatoes, stuffing, and all the other Thanksgiving essentials – including wine. Unbelievable! There was even a whole dessert table! It was by far the best meal I’ve had in half a year (I’m a 6-month-old Ghana baby today actually).

We were there for a few hours, and afterward I had another surprise in store for me. Apparently some of the embassy worker’s complexes have a pool, and we were invited over for an afternoon swim! Once again, I couldn’t believe it. After that, a different guy opened his doors for us to come watch the NFL games….and eat popcorn. Thanksgiving day was a total success. Missed you all back home and my normal activities for the day, but by no means was I struggling.

The next day we roamed Accra a bit more before taking an overnight bus up north to Tamale. Taking this “straight-shot” made it a bit less painful, but it was still a 13 hour journey through the night. We caught up on rest in Tamale at our sub-office there and I made the two hour trip to home the next day.

When I got home I found that everything was under a layer of dust/dirt/sand that gets blown through the screens here. The place was a mess, my kitchen was a mess, and I had no water. It took some time to get everything back up and running, cleaned, and situated. But I’m back now to finish out the term. Recharged and also looking forward to making some small plans for Christmas/New Years here.

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