"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

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Some ramblings by yours truly

During this hot, hot, HOT season, the only cool place to sit is under a mango tree. While everything else is dead in this season, the mango tree actually bears fruit. For two months of the year, there is a ridiculously abundant supply of mangoes. The trees have big leaves and provide nice, dark, cool shade to sit under. A lot of times, kids will be climbing up in them just to get the most ripe mango, and even the most ripe isn’t exactly ripe. When the fruits just barely start to show, kids will get long, skinny branches from somewhere and try to knock off the small mangoes that they see. By my standards, I would never eat them at the stage they are in, and I kept thinking that the kids would knock off all the premature mangoes and we’d never get ripe ones, but I grossly miscalculated. There are TONS of mango trees throughout the village and all across Ghana. In the two months that they are in season, there is never a shortage. The problem is, the village mango trees produce a small, too-stringy mango, rather than a large, soft, juicy mango. It’s still a nice treat to have, but they aren’t the voluptuous ones you may be thinking of. There are so many mangoes that you can get about 5 or 6 apple-sized ones for 20 pesewas ( less than 10 cents). Kids are constantly sucking on the mango pits throughout the day to make sure they enjoy every last bit of it. Most Ghanaians just chomp right into the skin, no cutting and carving out as I would do.

So as people sit under these mango trees throughout the day, anywhere I go I am greeting people as they sit and relax. Greeting is huge here; you can’t walk past someone – even off in the distance – without shouting a greeting. And since all of the huts are so close to each other in proximity, if I want to walk about 400 yards through the village to buy my bread, I will have greeted about 15 people along the way, not to mention waving at countless children yelling “Mr. Jacob, Mr. Jacob!” from places that I can’t even see. I just throw my hands up in that direction and wave. It’s kind of nice to always have to greet everyone you see. Some days when I’m not in the best mood, I’ll be walking and zoned out a bit and stuck in my head thinking, as I walk past people and they call out to me and ask why I didn’t greet them. Whoops! Sometimes I genuinely don’t see people or am not paying attention, and they make sure to say hello and ask how I am in Mampruli. It’s nice. A bit overkill, but nice.

I’ve discussed how sometimes I fetch my own water, and sometimes the students will fetch for me. The borehole is about 400 meters, or 5 minutes slow walk balancing water on your head, from my house. In my village of several thousand people, there are probably just three boreholes I believe. You do the math. There are more wells than that, but the wells run dry in the dry season, and in the rainy season they are left open and therefore the water you pull out is pretty dirty. At least it’s dirty to me – I’ve seen kids walking around with a bottle full of not-so-see-through water that they are drinking. None of the villagers purify the water. Even if they were provided with iodine tablets or a filter, I don’t think they would use it because they’ve just been using this water forever and have been fine. Well, sort of fine. It’s hard to tell if most of the diseases the kids and people get is from unclean food, poor food prep, or just the dirty water itself. I just don’t think the people would use filters even if an NGO dumped 1000 of them for free in the village. The borehole water comes straight from deep in the ground. it pumps out from a simple hand pump that you see the kids pumping all day long as it’s almost fun for them to do. Plus, since there is water around they can splash and stay cool. Along with about 50 women and their buckets waiting around to fill up, the borehole attracts donkeys, pigs, and goats as they drink some of the runoff water. It’s quite the lively place at certain times of the day. When the water flows out of the pipe, it’s crystal clear. If I use a clean bucket, it stays pretty clear by the time I dump it in my water bin at home. That bin is kept closed, but the water somehow still gets dirty and murky. If students fetch the water for me, it’s not always a guarantee that there buckets are nice and clean, so when they dump it in my bin it looks a bit dirty. After some time, the dirt settles to the bottom and I still run that water through my little gravity filter. I do bathe with the water as is from the borehole. I would like to think that this water is pretty safe and uncontaminated, although I won’t be sure until all of my insides get checked out for worms and parasites or whatever is transferred in dirty water.

As the term comes to a close, we of course have exams. For normal tests throughout the term, the practice is that the teacher will write the test on the blackboard and the students will write. For final exams, the school decides to charge the students and families for money so that we can type and print all the exams on paper so it’s neat. Whether that’s right or wrong, I haven’t decided, but this term I decided to offer my magical skills of typing to save some money for the students. I’m not sure how much it is saving them, but instead of having the school pay someone somewhere to type all of our exams and then print them, I am doing the typing and then we will print for the fee. It isn’t exactly sustainable, but my hope is that when the computer lab is up, I can provide a simple exam template and ensure that the teachers all type their own exams. Also, if the students’ families are paying a bit less this time, and if next time I say I won’t type because all of us teachers should type our own, yet they refuse, then the parents will wonder why they are paying more again for the exams. I’m not sure if that makes sense, but it makes some sense to me and I hope it works. We have about 21 exams total for the junior high, and it took me about an hour on average for each one…and I only had a week to do it on top of everything else I’m doing. It wasn’t fun, but I hope it works. Plus, I eliminate all the spelling errors and such and format it in a better way.

I’ve been doing a bit of small business development lately. A Ghana-based American company that sells solar products and such has been in contact with me about a trial of selling solar lights to villagers. The deal is they would give me 40 solar lights to sell for 48 Cedis (22ish bucks) or for 6 Cedis for 8 weeks. The idea is that a student can’t afford to pay 48 straight up, so they can pay 6 a week for the time and then pay off the light. The further deal is that I am doing this with a local Ghanaian, a teacher and friend at my school actually, so that he can turn a small profit, continue selling more lights after another shipment, and then possibly sell other products if all goes well. It turns out that the students still can’t even afford the 6 cedis a week, but the middle-class Ghanaian like teachers are snatching these lights up. My friend Jacob and I sold 40 of these lights to teachers at our school and one other nearby high school in about two days. Some are paying the weekly, and others just paid the 48 outright. It’s going so well that Jacob will get an additional 100 or 200 more lights to sell over the next couple months and keep some profit. With that profit he will then be able to buy some of the other solar products and resell them for a profit, thus ideally putting him on a path of being a reputable solar product reseller in the area here. He has a lot of work to do, and I’m helping him, but I think it will go well and he will be able to grow his small barbershop/clothes store into a bigger store with solid American products that will help villagers here in the north. The technology on these lights is cool because there is an app on a smartphone that activates the lights after payments are made. If the first week’s payment is made for a specific light, the phone and light pair wirelessly and the light is activated for 7 days. Once the 7 days are up, the solar panel light won’t charge, they have to then come back and pay the next week.

As the school year comes to a close, the Form 3 (eighth graders) are preparing to right their high school entrance exam in June. Around this time every year apparently, there is a whole debate between students, PTA, and teachers about offering extra classes to these students.  In the past, the parents want the teachers to offer the class, and even agree to pay a small amount of money to the teachers so that they hold the classes. What happens, though, is that oftentimes the teachers don’t show up, which in turn upsets the parents, and of course the kids are in the middle of it. Once the teachers don’t show up at times, then the students don’t show up. After this happens, both parties are blaming each other. The teachers claim all of the students don’t always show up and are therefore wasting the teacher’s time, but the students claim that they don’t all show up because they know the teachers won’t necessarily show up. It’s been ongoing like this for years now. So this year, the teachers (sort of) agreed to give the classes for free, and see how it goes. I thought it was great. It turns out that not all of the teachers knew they weren’t going to end up getting paid, and were under the impression they would be. This caused some trouble, and the teachers weren’t always showing up to the classes. Then, as expected, some of the students don’t want to show up. It’s pretty annoying to watch people point fingers and not own up to things.  I don’t always know whose side to be on, and it also is frustrating that when it comes down to it, I really can’t change much. I can set my good example by showing up and whatnot, but there are so many underlying cultural things here that I can’t expect to restructure an after school program or run things the way I know should be run as they are in America.

What do kids play around here? To be honest, they do have to work a lot around the house, even the little ones. I think a 10 year old girl carries the amount of water on her head that I can carry. They’re strong and work a bunch. They do have fun though while they’re working, at least I think, like at the borehole when they pump and splash around. The girls play this hop-clap kind of game ALL the time. The little boys will run around pushing a bike tire and trying to keep up. Some can build little trinkets with trash laying around (see Facebook pictures) or they’ll play football with a ball made of who-knows-what. Sometimes they play games in the sand/dirt, and they even have a variation of tic tac toe. Older guys will play a card game called spa, and older girls will mostly sit at a hair place and talk and get a weave. One day I saw kids playing tug of war – just with their bodies (also a picture on Facebook). If I was a kid, I’d be chasing goats and chickens around, but they don’t seem to think it’s that fun.

I explained in the previous post that Menucha and I spent a day in the Accra mall. Accra is the capital, by the ocean, and has the vast majority of any wealth that is in Ghana. They have what I believe is one of the largest malls in West Africa. For those of you in Ohio, it’s smaller than Polaris. There is a movie theater that plays some previously released movies, and in general the place is actually incredibly nice and clean. They have a legit food court with many fast food options – pizzas, chicken galore, pastas, and other typical western dishes are offered. There are jewelry stores, a Puma and Nike store, and two big stores that are identical to a Home Depot and Target. Needless to say, stepping foot in this mall takes you straight back to the first world. It truly was odd for me to walk around in there, after living and spending so much time at the village level. There are a decent bit of white people inside, but mostly wealthy Ghanaians, wearing shirt and tie just as an American would. I can’t even imagine the look in the eyes of one of my students, or even their parents here in the village, as they stepped foot inside the mall. They just wouldn’t understand. Hardly any of them have been to Accra at all, and even if they were to go, they would never step foot in the mall. Nobody inside was dressed poorly, and I honestly wonder why some poor villagers don’t just go walk through out of curiosity. Maybe they don’t even know it exists. Maybe paying for a taxi or tro to get there is pointless for them if they know they can’t buy anything. I don’t know. But I would kill to take one of my students through that mall and see how they react. To enter a grocery store and walk down aisles with anything you could imagine, their minds would be blown. Heck even the air condition would be weird for them. The only place around here that has AC is the bank, and no kids step foot in there. And then if I took a student on the plane from the north to the south, I honestly think their head would explode. I’ve only seen one plane in the sky up at my village here, so I know they have hardly seen any in the sky, let alone to get on one and actually fly. I would just love to take one of them on a plane to Accra, and then through the mall. Their mind would just be so changed and they would be able to picture the things they could do if they get a good education and keep going through high school and university and continue to work hard. Most of them aren’t able to even see a different path other than becoming a village farmer, and I think if they were shown a different path, then they would be eager to work to take it. But I know that through technology, Internet, and worldwide connectedness, they will soon be exposed to life outside the village and be able to see other things that they can do and learn how to get there. Without cell phones, Tv’s, computers, and the Internet, they would just never be able to see or connect with things outside the village. That’s why I truly believe that technology is the key to exposing people here to the rest of the world and to in turn escape poverty. They’ll be able to learn more about health and agriculture, get more things they need, and feel involved in what the rest of the world is saying and doing. And that is all happening right now. It’s the beginning. Villagers have cell phones, they have internet signal but not quite the right phones and enough money to use the internet. They have Tv’s so they can see what is happening all around Ghana, and even get some news across Africa and elsewhere. Ghana in the next 5 to 10 years will grow and thrive more than it has in the last 50 years, all due to technology.

Anyway, enough of my rambling, I have to get some tomatoes and onions at market to cook some dinner.


  1. Fascinating read. Thanks for the insight. Keep up the good work.

  2. Thanks for the support. Glad you enjoyed.