"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

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Girlfriend Visit, Chief Death, Student Pregnancy, A Lost Bag, and….RAIN

It has been quite some time since I last posted. That is, beside my grant being completed. I’m getting close to my funding goal, and then I’ll begin actual work on the lab. My girlfriend Menucha visited me for the month of February, and she was enjoying the 105 degree days so much that she extended for a few weeks into March. She has since gone back, and I’m now the loner I used to be. Not a good feeling at all, but I have some things to look forward to for the time being. My dad and sister have a visit planned for the end of June!

I’ll start with the weather. I’ve seen that most of America has had quite the winter. It’s safe to say that I’ve ditched what would have been the coldest and worst winter of my life for what has been the most painfully hot several months of my life. Sure, you all would kill for some equatorial heat, but trust me, the sun here is INTENSE. It has rained twice since November, and it’s been over 100 degrees nearly every day. It’s the driest, dustiest, most perpetual heat. Inside my house my thermometer gets up to about 96 in the day, and down to 90 at night. I sleep with my two fans blasting hot air on me, but I put a wet towel on my body so it keeps me cool. I even keep a bucket filled with water next to my bed so that I can dunk the towel continuously throughout the night (thanks Menucha!). It truly hurts your eyes and stings your skin to stand in the sun during this hot dry season. Luckily, April is bringing the rain and cool temperatures (90s) so I’m looking forward to the transition.

I’ll proceed by telling a few stories and observations over the last couple months. There’s been plenty of interesting happenings around the village of Gbimsi!

My chief died. I’d only sat with him a few times, and he doesn’t speak English so it’s not like I had a deep lasting relationship with him. But it is a big deal for a little village. In Ghana, you don’t ask why someone died. I did anyway - to my counterpart teacher, who actually turns out to be a relative to the chief. The only answer I got was that he fell sick one evening and it was bad enough to rush him to the hospital. I’m not sure how far away or if he took one of the six ambulances in all of Ghana (that’s a lie), but he was taken in and subsequently passed away. I learned of this by waking up one morning to 12 gunshots. Normally for funerals it is just 2 or 3 gunshots, but that morning there were 12 in a row. I didn’t know what it meant at that time, but I asked right away and found out. Hundreds of relatives and visitors from outside of the village came to the chief’s house for nearly a week. I paid my respects by going with my fellow teachers to the house and going through the whole cultural nine yards. The compound was just packed with people and it was obviously over 100 degrees so it wasn’t too pleasant. Also, many fires were lit as they were brewing massive pots of stew and whatnot for everyone staying there. We entered the appropriate rooms with the elders, uncles, and brothers, removed our shoes and knelt down and gently clapped our hands together as everyone exchanges greetings in vernacular. It was really neat for me to go through all of this – twice – as a near local. I did it all and was treated and felt like a villager. We contributed 5 Ghana Cedis each to help the family cope. There was drumming and dancing with a bajillion people for a few days; it was quite the event. So you may be wondering what happens next? Well, two of his sons have already passed away, and the other son lives in Accra and does not want to be Chief. This means that in a few months, the Head Chief and many in surrounding villages will get together to choose a new one. He could be an outsider and have to come in to the village, which may not go over well if the villagers don’t like him. I’m not exactly sure when this will happen, and I can never get a straight answer from someone. RIP Chief.

To show you how Ghanaians act towards women, and even white women, I have a quick observation. Twice for Menucha and I, when we were both carrying a backpack or bags, the taxi driver or man would take my bags for me to assist me, and leave Menucha carrying whatever she had! Of course I would then just carry Menucha’s, but it was kind of funny.

My students had a football match in a nearby town, so Menucha and I decided to go and watch. Unfortunately, it was in the afternoon with the heat, and at the dirt field there was no shade or anywhere to sit to watch. We ended up picking a couple small rocks and sitting off in the distance a bit under a bit of shade. I had to pop up to run and take a picture of the team, and before I know it people are yelling at me and pointing behind me! They said, “did you see what happened to your wife?!?!” (Menucha was essentially my wife here since they don’t really understand the term boyfriend/girlfriend much). I wondered how something could’ve happened to her in the ten seconds I got up to walk forward. It turns out, as she explained, that a snake had slithered right past where I was sitting, and over her feet! Somehow, people saw it from a distance and were also scared. I couldn’t believe it, I have yet to see a snake in Ghana, and here she is having one crawl over her feet in the first week in the country. Luckily we didn’t have to deal with any bites.

One Saturday I decided I needed to go to Bolgatanga, a “big city” north of me about an hour or so (in a tro tro). I wanted to get some “fast” internet at a café, buy some things, use the ATM, and just relax a bit. Turns out when I get there in the morning, the power in the city was out. What does that mean? The internet café was closed. The ATM was off because the bank doesn’t turn on its generator on weekends. I tried to wait around and hope it would come back on, but it usually doesn’t until the evening. I decided to go back home after a few hours. As I’m sitting in my jam packed, sweltering tro tro on the way back, we come to the only incline for miles, and we putter putter up the hill…only to break down about halfway up. Fabulous. But I got somewhat of a lucky break, or maybe it was just because the color of my skin. I had been chatting it up with the guy next to me on the tro, and when we broke down and were standing along the road, a big truck was going by and apparently he knew the driver! He told me to jump on and they’ll drop me at my village. I was thankful to not have to stand alongside the road in the heat of the afternoon for who knows how long, but I couldn’t help but feel bad for the other Ghanaians on the tro tro. This must happen to them all the time, and they just wait for another tro to come by and pick them up. Which is what happened to Menucha and I a few weeks later. We were traveling back from Tamale on a warm, cozy (lies) tro when that one decided that the weight of too many passengers and things piled on the roof was too much for the engine. This time we did have to wait alongside the road in the heat of the afternoon until another tro came to pick us up. Oh Ghana, when will you adopt the mindset that not overloading your vehicles and giving them regualar maintenance will actually save you money in the long run. It’s just that there is no long run here. You have to make the money you can make, there’s no surplus.

One day at school one of the Form 3 boys (8th graders but who are age 17) asked me if vampires were real. I asked him what a vampire was before I answered, and he correctly explained it, and of course I told him that, no, vampires are only in movies. Good. But then I got a question that is quite interesting. He then asked me if dinosaurs are real. I laughed inside. Think about it, these kids see vampires and dinosaurs on TV and whatever movies they see, but when it comes down to it, they truly don’t know what is real (or was once real) and what isn’t. I explained that they are in fact real, but that they no longer live, and that nobody really knows for sure what happened to them. I may have gone too far by joking that the same thing may happen to us…whoops!

As you may know, polygamy is quite common amongst Muslims. And since there are majority of Muslims here, there are many men who enjoy several wives. One day at school, this whole discussion came up among the teachers. They were just saying that by having more wives will then give you more kids. By having more kids, they can do more work for you in the farm and around the house. Then later on, the kids can take care of you. They seem to leave out the step where the parent takes care of the kids and gets them into high school (college is but a dream). They also believe that the more kids you have, the more chances that you’ll hit the “kid jackpot” and have one who will be a political leader or bring in a lot of money. I explained my point of view about having fewer kids so you can nurture them specifically and make sure they succeed no matter what. They understand, but it’s not yet catching on in northern Ghana. Maybe in the south where it is wealthier they are adopting this mindset now, I’m not sure. It basically ended by the one guy deciding that four wives is the perfect amount, and that they will be able to grow old “into their 60s.” Jeez. 60s…

One day (which happens too often) my water bin was empty. I’ve explained to you the implications of me fetching water before, but I still do it sometimes. However, me carrying one small bucket that distance is quite inefficient, so I can tell the teacher on duty for the week that I need water. He will then identify some tardy students or ones who misbehave during the day to go fetch me water after school. He told me he had ordered this one older, big boy to get water for me because of his tardiness or something. Usually it’s several students who will fetch a small amount rather than one student fetching a lot. In the afternoon I waited and waited without water. Luckily, I can buy small “pure water satchets” next door if I need to drink, although those probably contain more bacteria than the pig’s bath out back. The boy never came, so I just went without water for that day. In the morning, four or five of my young students – girls – came to my house and said that a certain older boy told them that they were to fetch water for me. They were on there way to go and were just telling me. I called them back and questioned who the boy was. It turns out that this older boy pawned off his punishment by commanding these younger girls to do it for him. I caught him. The issue is that the girls told me if the boy gets in trouble, then he will hit them at home after school. So what do I do? Do I let the girls fetch for me so they don’t get hit by this boy later? Or do I confront the boy with headmaster and see how to handle it, but knowing that my girls could get hurt later. Luckily, we all got together and resolved the issue. The boy got in further trouble, the girls didn’t have to fetch, and to my knowledge he did not end up hitting them that night. I think he knew they would rat him out again. Anything I can do to get some girls some power here feels so good. They are so weak and bossed around with no rights. This time they won.

As the subject line denotes, there was an issue of a student in my school becoming pregnant. Remember, I am in a junior high school. Sadly, this isn’t all too uncommon. A few girls have already become pregnant this school year, but this case was different; it involved one of our teachers. A teacher student relationship is usually an issue in the high schools here and not the junior high, but it still happened. Headmaster called us teachers to a meeting one afternoon, where he proceeded to tell us all that we have a serious issue at hand. He was beating around the bush and using all these African ways of leading into a conversation. Finally he announced that we have a student pregnancy and one of the teachers has been accused. He named the teacher….but I didn’t know the name! There are 14 of us teachers, and I obviously know them all by name, but not their last names! Headmaster kept referring to the man by his last name, and I had to just sit there and look around wondering who it was. A couple teachers weren’t there, so I figured it was one of them but I couldn’t imagine. After about an hour of discussion amongst the teachers figuring out what to do (I’ll get to that in a second), I remembered that there was a board off in the distance where all the teachers first and last names are written. It was just in close enough view that I could squint and see the teachers first name. He was sitting right behind me at the meeting. The whole time we were talking as if he wasn’t even there, but that is just the way they talk. So what was the discussion? Well, it started that it was just a crazy accusation. All of the teachers were discussing how they need to handle the issue because one of us was wrongly accused of impregnating a girl. What happens is that if a girl believes she has become pregnant, then the parents will actually try to pin the pregnancy wrongly on a teacher in the village, because they can get money out of them to settle it. Even if the girl was known to be sleeping with village men, they will try to pin it on a teacher so as to get more out of it. This has happened before in my village before I came. However, the story went that two village men were actually following the teacher around and tracking the girl and her whereabouts. One day, she went to the teachers home in the village, and the men following saw this. They gave it some time and then went to see what happened. They claimed that the teacher was outside on the veranda and the girl came out from inside in not much clothing. Would they lie about this? Well, as the meeting and discussion progressed, we were still trying to figure how to handle it as an accusation. But then one of the other teachers who had been silent came out and asked the teacher being accused if he could tell the whole story. This other teacher proceeded to tell us all that in fact the teacher in question had been having relations with the girl. It was also true that those men had essentially caught him at his house that one day. The accused went to the other teacher’s house a few days before our meeting to discuss what he should do. So after about two hours of our meeting, the whole thing changed since we now knew that he was truly guilty of having relations, we just didn’t know if it was for sure him that got her pregnant. The conversation then changed to how we can get our “fellow teacher” off the hook of this pregnancy. There was talk of denying it all the way through, and other ways to get him around the situation so nothing comes down on him or the school. Never once was it discussed that he should come out, tell the truth, take responsibility, and help the girl in any way possible. It was only how we can get around all of that. I was sitting in silence this whole time in disbelief at the whole situation and how it was being handled. It played out that the headmaster requested the parents to take the girl to the hospital to get a true pregnancy test and to see how old the baby was so they could figure out if we can get our teacher off the hook or if he would end up being pinned. The girl was quarantined by her family so nobody could get to her. We initially thought that the village men and parents were trying to get her to lie and accuse the teacher evne though it wasn’t him. In that case, the villagers would be totally in the wrong. But the girl continued to profess that it was the teacher who got her pregnant, and we all knew it truly was, but nobody could say anything. The pregnancy test came back and she was 15 months pregnant, and the teacher had been having relations with her that whole time. The girl was under 18, I’m just not sure how far under.  What happened in the ensuing days, at meetings I wasn’t a part of, the teacher ended up having to confess. He was too pinned by the evidence. It was then decided that the parents wouldn’t take the issue to the authorities or his employer as long as he agreed to pay for the abortion, and all the hospital fees and pregnancy tests. He agreed. It was an easy way out for him actually. The abortion apparently costs about 180 Cedis, or 75 dollars. There really is just no good that comes out of this situation. Different parties were in the wrong at some point, and it was just handled in a totally different way than I ever could have imagined. The girl will get the abortion and be able to write her high school entrance exams in June, and hopefully proceed to high school. I suppose that’s a good thing indeed, it’s just that there are so many other wrong things in the situation that it’s hard to know how to digest it all properly. The girl was consenting to the relations, but obviously underage. She was probably easily swayed by the charm of an older guy, especially a teacher. Who knows if protection was even discussed by the two, or if she was forced not to have him use. Some things are uncertain, but the whole thing is just messed up. I wanted to share this story as best I could, although it’s better explained in person rather than typing. This is what happens to girls all over the third world I’m sure, and we need to be aware of it, and try to do something about it. The men are in the wrong, and the girls don’t have the courage to say refuse. I’m sure there are countless times where this happens and the girl ends up having the baby and then isn’t able to get more education. Then without education she doesn’t reach her full potential. The root of it is women’s empowerment. Yes, the male teacher was in the wrong, but the method of attack isn’t trying to get men to not go for the girls, but rather to empower young women to say no and realize that it’s not worth it at all to get pregnant while in school. I could sit there and tell men not to go have sex with young girls, but I’d much rather empower the young girls to live their life and understand how to best do that. Once that happens around the developing world, the whole globe gets to benefit from the 50% population that is women, because right now we aren’t getting anywhere close to all the women in the world being productive citizens and reaching their full potential. One day! Thankfully, there are many organizations out there doing just this, helping women and girls in the third world to feel empowered and reach their full potential.

So Menucha and I were on our way back to Accra at the end of her stay so she could fly out. It’s a long 15ish hour overnight bus ride, but this time it seemed to have gone by quickly. I had only a bookbag, she had a bookbag and a bigger backpack, which included some of my finer clothes in Ghana. We’ll call this bag 3. Bag 3 was a concern of ours from the beginning. We each had our important stuff in the other small bags, and it was always being stashed under buses and neither of us felt total responsibility for it since both of our stuff was in it. We got to Accra when it was still dark out in the morning, and alighted on a busy highway. Despite our lack of sleep, we remembered that our bag was under the bus and we got it out. I carried it for about 20 minutes to where we would pick a tro to go to the guest house we’d stay at. By this time it was light out. The driver put the bag in the back of the tro, and he told us not to forget it. We both were reminding each other on the 30 minute ride. However, we were both so tired and hungry, and I wasn’t sure the tro was taking us to the right place. We were lost, I was getting frustrated and unsure what to do. Finally we just got out, and off the tro went, into the hustle and bustle of the other million taxis and tros in Accra. Of course, we forgot bag 3 in the back. We were so tired, hungry, and hot and didn’t know what to do. Of course we wanted the bag back to have our clothes and things, but we just didn’t know if we could ever get it. We rushed around asking people frantically what to do. We went to the nearest taxi and tro station to see if the tro had stopped there to refill passengers. Nope. BUT, one incredibly Ghanaian tro driver decided to help us out. We explained the situation and he started making some phone calls. Somehow, all of these tro drivers can call around and continue to get the right phone numbers of possible drivers who left a certain area awhile ago. It probably helped by asking the potential drivers on the phone if they were carrying white people somewhere in the van. After some calls, the man told us to just sit tight and not worry. He was even comforting Menucha as she cried…I guess that should’ve been my job, but I was too unsure of the bag ever coming back. The guy just told us that he found the driver who had us, and he remembers the bag. We just had to sit tight for about an hour and when he comes back this end of town, he will bring the bag. After my time in Ghana, I know that one hour does not mean one hour. I was expecting two hours that he’d come back with the bag. Two hours went by as we sat in the heat, still starving and dead tired, and finally the driver showed up! He told us that “I told you to remember the bag in the back!” and we acknowledged our fault. However, the driver was no longer driving that tro. He said he passed off the bag and the tro to another driver, for who knows what reason. He told us that in 15 minutes it would come. I figured 15 minutes probably meant an hour. Another hour goes by, no bag 3. We keep asking, and they keep telling us that it will come, it will come. After a painstaking four hours of waiting uncomfortably, and not even believing that it would ever come back, good ol’ bag 3 showed up in a tro right in front of our eyes. No questions asked, everything inside. Ghana – I just want to say that no matter how inefficient and frustrating you are, you pulled through somehow and made up for my mistake of leaving a bag on a random tro in a city of 2.5 million people. Cheers.

Luckily for the remainder of our few days in Accra, we had VIP treatment due to Menucha having a family friend who works in the British Embassy in Accra. They were gracious enough to not only open their doors to us, but have their personal driver chauffer us around the city, take us out for a truly fine dining experience, and then to a nice bar with live music at night. At the restaurant, 100% of the people were white. It was apparently just a western style restaurant where only expats go. Seeing that many white people like that was literally foreign to me. We then proceeded to the bar with live music and once again, 99% of the people there were white. I think I saw one black person, and I’m not even sure if he was Ghanaian. It was just another spot where only expats go. It is run by some Kiwis and is a nice place. We had a great night out with the couple, and I’m so grateful for all they did for us. They had me stay the night after Menucha left since I wasn’t going to catch a plane back up north until the next day. Yes, I was going to take a domestic flight in Ghana…..

The flight to Tamale is actually cheap, it just isn’t plausible on a PC volunteer allowance. However, it was a gift to me from Menucha, so I ddin’t have to suffer again on the overnight bus ride. The flight was quite comical. For a domestic flight, you can go through security without an ID or a ticket. It’s not until after you go through and are waiting that they then check your boarding pass, but no ID. One guy apparently had a flight booked for three days beforehand and didn’t even know. We got on the bus to taxi us out to the little propeller plane. We only halfway filled it, and I swear the air condition didn’t work for the whole one hour flight. I think it’s safe to say that the one hour domestic flight from Accra, Ghana to Tamale is the #1 Most Popular Place to Take A Selfie. It seemed like everyone (all 40 passengers) were snapping pictures of themselves as they sat on the plane because it was either their first ride, or a very unfrequent circumstance. It was open seating, and I was up toward the front. Rookie mistake. Apparently all the young Ghanaian men who were obsessed with the place and taking pictures of themselves with “cool” faces and a peace sign up all choose to sit up front because they call it “business class.” They were a ruckus for the whole flight, and the woman Ghanaian flight attendant had no power over them. They weren’t doing anything wrong per se, they just didn’t have any courtesy or know the simple etiquette of a plane ride. Anyway, funny times, safe flight, landed back at Tamale where the runway felt like it would lead straight to Hell it was so hot. After waiting and getting a tro for four hours back to my village, I was home. And just like that, I was back to being a poor Peace Corps Volunteer in a rural village, living alone, and missing Menucha. Dramatic, right?

Now I just gotta start this computer lab once the money is raised!

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