"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, April 28, 2014

Poultry farms, solar sellin', school news, and real lab progress!

A month has gone by since my last post, and A LOT has happened. Exciting stuff!

I’ve taken over a grant from a girl who finished her service. She was in the closest town to me, and we’ve worked with the same counterpart before, so it just made sense that I help her finish the project that she started and couldn’t complete. The project stems from the requests of a local small women’s group. These women are your typical rural market ladies who go to farm daily and then sell their produce. Apparently, eggs are quite scarce here in the north. Well, you can get them fairly easily, it’s just that they cost “a lot” and are not in surplus. Sometimes they will even have to be shipped up from the south so that we have enough to go around up here. Why, exactly? I do not know. But this women’s group wanted to become the go-to egg sellers in Walewale, and they needed some money from a grant in order to do this. So what happened is that everyone worked together to discuss a plan for a reasonable amount of money that could be used to built a small poultry farm, buy the birds, feed, etc., and then start making money from egg sales right away. The group will see a 65% increase from the 300 birds that will be brought in to this newly built structure to house them. Some pictures of the process will be on Facebook shortly. It’s been pretty cool to be a part of this because it really isn’t up my alley but has exposed me to a new aspect of Ghanaian women’s lives here. In the future I’ll be able to get some stories from those women and report back on how they’re coming along.

Lately my morning runs have been invigorating due to the new green growth from the rains and also the cheeriness of my villagers as I pass. Running past them and greeting in Mampruli always brings a HUGE smile to their faces and in turn to mine. It will never get old. They love to stare at me in my short shorts as I go by on some weird “exercising” ritual. I tell them that it’s what I have to do to stay healthy since I don’t go to farm every day. On Easter Sunday I decided to wake up early and head out on my bike for a ride straight back into the bush away from the main road. I always jog that way, but I don’t go very far and I’m always curious to go way back. I’m disappointed it took me this long to partake because it’s amazing to roam around back there along the small dirt paths the people use to go out to their farms. I passed countless people – women, kids, and men alike. I even jumped into a bike train of four men who were hoofing it out to farm. I was going along at a wandering pace when they came up behind me on fixed gear bikes about to fall apart, and they knew me by name but I didn’t know them, but I rode along fast with them for awhile. At another part I was resting and a mother and small child came walking by. I had stumbled upon a small pond, or large puddle, when they walked by and we chatted a bit in my broken Mampruli. She was smiling and joking that she wanted me to come to farm with her. As we were talking, the little boy bent down to scoop some of the puddle water into his bottle. It was murky brown, but down the chute it went. Those are times where I don’t really have the power to educate. My Mampruli isn’t good enough to sit there and explain why one shouldn’t drink from some standing water out in the bush, and also if I just said something short like “No, you shouldn’t drink,” they would just look at me in wonder because to them it is just water. I plan to bike way out there more often to soak in the beauty and the people working hard at farm, yet still so very happy. The trail network can just never be exhausted, and I somehow feel that those trails must end up leading straight to Togo (the country east of me).

One morning I was going to Tamale and I luckily got in a car with someone going. We were driving along at about sunrise when we passed by a woman police officer walking on the side of the road. The driver decided to help her out and pick her up to take her wherever she was going. It turned out she was just heading to work in a nearby town, and it didn’t hit me until later how odd it truly is to just see a police officer walking on the road to work because she didn’t have means of transportation to get there. Picture that one in America.

The second school term just ended before Easter. We’re basically on trimesters here, so right now I have a three-week break. After the first two terms, I’m proud to say that I can call about 90% of my 120 students by name right away. The rest I struggle with or come close. I think that’s a pretty cool thing given the fact that when I first got here I couldn’t understand, pronounce, or spell a single name, and all the kids looked the same to me – both boys and girls. Now I know their faces, names, behaviors, and smarts…or lack thereof.
Just like last term, I held the team party for the teams who had the most points in my ongoing competition. Interestingly enough, only one team was different. I have to make sure next term that I motivate the other teams in my two classes where the winning team has been the same. Anyway, I had them over on a Saturday morning (their choice) at 10am, but they showed up at like 11. It was OK because I had spent the whole morning rushing around to cook two huge pots of spaghetti. I had all these veggies and my sauce sitting in the blender and I was just waiting for the right time to mix it all up and put on the cooked pasta. Inside my house, I had my mini projector set up so that we could all watch a movie without huddling around my laptop.
Then, surprise surprise, my power went out! My blender was coming in so handy because the sauce was quite a lot and I really didn’t want to grind it all up in my grinding bowl, but it turned out that I had to do so anyway. I waited a few minutes hoping it was flash back on, but it didn’t. So I had the kids come in and they watched an action movie on my laptop all huddled around. To them, it was still great, but for me it was a disappointment. Just like the food…. My sauce wasn’t enough, so the pasta mixed with the sauce was quite thin, and I even had extra plain cooked noodles sitting aside. Turns out with some requested salt, the kids still munched it all down in a matter of minutes, only to rush back to me and question why I had a big bowl of plain noodles. I told them there is no more sauce or veggies, but they were still confused why we weren’t eating the plain noodles! They didn’t even want margarine, they just split it all up and munched that down too! Just like before, they were blown away by my propel drink mixes. Chilled, flavored water is great for me, so I can’t even imagine how awesome it is for them. To add to the carbs and electrolyte energy drink, I also gave them some pixie sticks. They were probably running around like crazy all day long. They were so confused by the pixie stick being essentially all flavored sugar, but they didn’t hesitate to eat it.
After the movie was about halfway through, I used the opportunity to get in something truly worthwhile. Some other volunteers made this excellent 30-minute video on the dangers of a certain life that many young girls choose in Ghana. Once girls finish junior high, a lot of them hear that they should run to the south and just sell a bunch of things in bowls on their heads while roaming the streets. They’re told that the money is in the south and that’s where they need to be, but in reality when they go down there for those petty jobs, life is much more harsh than what they have up here, not to mention what it would be like for them if they just could move on to high school. The video does an excellent job exposing these realities, and it’s offered in some languages including Mampruli to boot. I hope it got through to them. Oh, and after the two or three hours they were here, the power came back on. Ghana, Ghana, always keeping me on my toes.

I explained a bit last post about my solar light initiative. It’s really taking off. An American solar manufacturer is trying to reach low-income markets in the developing world by implementing a pay-as-you-go scheme for the relatively cheap solar lights. This company, Divi, has reached out to this other American solar company who is actually based here in Ghana, called Burro. Divi wanted to run a trial of their new scheme in Ghana, and Burro is their contact on the ground to distribute and sell these high-quality, low-cost lights. I was in contact with Burro here in Ghana when they informed me of the trial that Divi was rolling out. Essentially, I was communicating to the right place at the right time, because I have now set up my Ghanaian friend, Jacob, with a new path in his life. Jacob has just this year taken out a loan to open a small barbershop while also being a teacher in my school. He never truly wanted to be a teacher, and that’s OK, so it’s just a middle job for him as he tries to become established as an entrepreneur. He also bought a handful of shirts, shoes, and pants to sell in his small shop. The reality is, there are so many of those little shops, even in a town like Walewale, that the outlook for paying off a loan and becoming profitable is pretty slim. Lucky for him, the Divi trial required no up-front cash. As long as I am the contact and supervisor involved in the sale of these lights, he can receive boxes of these lights to sell at no up-front cost, pay back the company via mobile money, and keep a 10% profit. So far, Jacob has blasted his way through selling 200 of these solar lights, and is currently working on selling another 100. The profit he is turning on this is a game-changer for him, however it is still taking some mentoring by me to ensure he is saving correctly for future investments. I’ll get to that. He has been travelling on his moto to far away villages to sell these to people that are off the power grid and who really want to have reliable lights. Currently, these people buy batteries for their flashlights every couple weeks, and are sick of the low-quality, probably China-made batteries and flashlights. When presented with an American-made solar light that is a decent price, they jump on the opportunity. Some of them choose to do the pay-as-you-go weekly scheme, whereas others just want to buy the thing outright and be done with it. Some are a bit hesitant of the purchase and just want to see how it works by only paying for the first week, but they all end up paying for the rest once they see its quality.
The one thing they wish for, though, is the capability to charge phones. Phones that they aren’t yet able to buy because they don’t have a way of charging them. This is where my mentoring comes in. Burro has luckily taken interest in Jacob’s hard work and is allowing him to try his hand as a reseller of their many solar (and other) products. Normally they are only looking for resellers who can buy in at a specific amount, but they are cutting a break for Jacob since he is doing good work and I can coach him along. From his profits he is earning on the Divi light sales, he has been able to put a chunk of that cash aside because we have sat down to look at the reseller price breaks for Burro products. The product he really wants to target next is a solar light and panel that will also charge most cell phones. This is a significant increase in price from the other light, and unlike the previous, this phone-charging light will have to be paid for up-front. We found a realistic amount of those lights and, at a certain price break, he is able to reinvest his profits and other small savings to buy this new product that his customers are asking for. As if the situation hasn’t worked out well enough already for him, it is looking like that for the price break he purchased the new lights, and the above-normal retail price that he will be able to sell them for, he will end up being able to continue this cycle yet again and then be totally in the clear and earning profits. He knew that products would sell fast, and they have, he just didn’t have the up-front cash to purchase those products. But with the profits from his Divi sales we have been able to find him a path to true profit and to becoming a bonafide reseller of these quality products. The growth of his small business is currently off the charts, and will be more so in the future. He will go from hardly making any money with the barbershop and trying to pay off loans, to profiting bigtime and continuously reinvesting in good products that people want, all thanks to Burro and Divi. I feel pretty good being the middleman and mentor. I can also know that I not only helped one person grow his business exponentially, but also that I made it possible for hundreds (maybe down the road, thousands) of villagers to be able to have reliable lights, and even more importantly, access to cell phones for the first time.

In the middle of all that selling, one day Burro was planning to drive up to my village to drop off a bunch of the Divi lights. It just so happened that their car broke down on the way, about an hour or so from arriving. Jacob and I were supposed to meet them for the first time together to discuss business and plans. It was during the school day that this was to take place, so when they broke down, it became necessary that we go meet them to transfer the lights into a car and bring them to the village. I thought it would be no problem that Jacob and I go, but upon greeting headmaster and asking his approval, he didn’t mind if I went, but nixed the approval for Jacob. His reasoning made sense, Jacob was employed by Ghana Education Services, and was required to be in school despite other matters. To many of you reading, this makes complete sense. But the flexible, no accountability, come-and-go-as-you-please method school is run here in Ghana made it seem outlandish for headmaster to decline Jacob leaving for a couple hours to go conduct some other important business. Also, it was revision week before exam, which is even more of a joke. No classes are officially held, and you are supposed to review but nobody (small exaggeration) does. I did, except this day I had to go meet them. Anyway, nearly all the teachers sided with Jacob. They saw no reason he shouldn’t be allowed to leave for this special occasion. And, I quote from a fellow teacher, “It’s just revision week so we don’t teach. He should have let him go! Headmaster is a wicked wicked man!” I figured I would share this story not because of the drama, but to show you the way people, mainly teachers, view things here.

After that little incident, I proceeded on to meet the people from Burro. I called a taxi driver friend and he jumped on the opportunity to take a fairly long journey if he would be paid in full. We started on our way and after about a half our, we passed one of the numerous police/military checkpoints along that main road from the south all the way to the north. The men are armed with a good-sized gun that slings around their torso. Their primary INTENDED duty is to stop large trucks who could be transporting illegal items, or ensuring no highway robberies take place in the middle of the night. Their primary ACTUAL duty ends up being stopping random taxis, tros, and whatever else they want to ask for a bribe. So Dauda and I got stopped by these guys. I thought it would be no problem, because we were doing nothing wrong and I thought they were just checking to see that, but when asked for his driver’s license, Dauda displayed a 14-month expired one. The officer picked on him a bit and proceeded to ask for a 20 Cedi bribe “Or else I will have to report you.” Realistically, they won’t report you and it’s not even their duty to do so, but on the same token, you can’t really get away without paying.  Dauda got out of the car and went to talk with the four armed officers and was somehow able to talk them down to only 5 cedis. The initial 20 Cedis is quite a chunk of money for a guy like him to have to fork over like that, and in a way I was feeling bad that it was happening to him because he is my friend. Then again, the license should have been renewed way back. The truth is you can probably get away with an expired license for a long time, so why bother going to renew it when there is no accountability? Anyway, he paid off the men and they’ll proceed to keep pocketing money from poor taxi drivers day in and day out.

I’ve made huge progress on the computer lab. In this past month, the money has been transferred into my account (thanks to all who helped out!), I’ve been working with the various artisans and stakeholders to buy most of the necessary items, and the initial groundwork has been done inside the room. It’s been exciting but a mess – in a unique way that I enjoy learning from. All of the initial work I did organizing the right people in order to make a plan and get the proper estimates is just being thrown out the window. For example, the carpenter had sat with my counterpart and headmaster on several occasions and we all formulated a plan of what wood to buy, how much, and how we would do the construction of tables, shelves, and ceiling. However, once the money arrived and we reorganized to initially go buy all the wood, they all had a totally different – and conflicting – ideas on what wood to buy and how to build! I’m just standing there listening to their back and forth in Mampruli and trying to keep both sides together, all while I’m also upset that we aren’t just sticking to the initial budget estimates we all did together.

“Instead of buying 10 2by2s, we should now by 4 2by6s and cut them” blah blah blah.

“No we should buy this other redwood that is less money and buy more but then cut them ourselves” blah blah blah.

And so on.

Buying all the wood was a total fiasco and essentially all of it differed from the very specific budget I had from our previous discussions. Thankfully, most of their new ideas did indeed intend to reduce costs in some way, and I was able to calculate and tabulate on the fly at the hectic timber market in Tamale so that we could stay as close to the budget as possible. Somehow, despite all the confusion, arguments, and straying from the budget, we walked away spending something like 1500 Cedis and were only 90 Cedis off the original budget…in the positive. As the carpenter began work, he kept requesting other little things and more nails that he never included in the budget that we have. It’s pretty hard for a carpenter to stick to a budget and previous plan constructed when he doesn’t know how to write or do real math. We try to tell him that we only discussed four pounds of nails to be used for all the woodwork, but he insists he needs more and doesn’t understand the budget is finite. But this is the man headmaster trusts because he did work on his house before. I’ve tried to be accommodating, but I’m also forced to be firm and stand my ground and explain that the money isn’t unlimited just because my skin is white. So far, some estimates have been too low, but we’ve also been able to save some money on others, so I’ll be able to manage it correctly but it’s quite difficult given the situation and working with Ghanaians.

Another challenging aspect of working with numbers and budgets with Ghanaians is that they are still in a changeover from a previous currency they had some years back. They still sometimes talk in “old currency” because it’s how they grew up, and it makes for some confusing transactions. For example, if something costs 100 Cedis, they will say “one million” because that is how their old currency works. Something that costs 1.5 Cedis would be called “fifteen thousand.” The rule doesn’t always apply throughout, though, because they will also say “two forty” for something that is just 24 Cedis. So I’m here discussing prices and negotiating on items that I don’t even know how much should truly cost, AND trying to understand an odd number scheme. Sometimes it’s funny, sometimes it’s annoying. A challenge nonetheless.

Since I mentioned negotiating, I’ll bring up another funny issue I’m having. Since nothing in Ghana has a fixed price essentially, I really don’t have the upper hand in bargaining due to my skin color. Even though we had to build a precise budget and are required to stick to it exactly and retrieve receipts for all purchases, any item we need to buy really doesn’t have a fixed price. Any seller can just adjust the price to what he wants. In addition, the Ghana Cedi has been tanking the past several months and we’re experiencing hyper inflation. So usually when we need to buy things, I go with my counterpart because I actually have to hide for a lot of the transactions. If any man in the timber market or just a guy at a shop sees me approach, especially when carrying my small bookbag, he will automatically increase prices of anything we ask for. Thankfully, my counterpart, and all Ghanaians, understand this. Whenever we need to buy something, I have to hang out around the corner and let Thomas go in and get a fair price and then I can show up with the money! Kind of inconvenient, but funny. I’m just automatically perceived to have money that can be thrown around. I suppose it’s a fair judgment based on how they perceive westerners, but it’s not always fun dealing with it.

Apparently I lost my cultural sense a few weeks back when the grant funds came in my account. I was so anxious and also frustrated with the slow pace of things that I jumped on the help of a friend who already has a computer lab up in Walewale. He is the one I am working with on the poultry farm and I trust him and like his work ethic and commitment. He offered help right away and I jumped on the opportunity of him helping me kick things off the right way. This is the American way, to be efficient and find the right people to move things forward in the way you see fit. The African, or Ghanaian way is to first inform all the people involved that the money is in, and to ask how they can all help. A couple teachers and headmaster knew the money was in and were also helping me start off, but many of the other teachers weren’t yet aware. I screwed up by not informing them and sitting with them all to discuss our next steps and how they can help proceed. I skipped that phase of taking time to talk with people “involved” and see how it is they can help. I fixed it and also explained the cultural difference. As expected though, none of them have the time or willingness to help other than my counterpart and headmaster.

One last quick story about my experience at the hectic timber market in Tamale. First off, zero people wore safety goggles. I guess I could’ve guessed that one beforehand, but it was still such a shock to see men working these saws with their eyes wide open. Even for me standing 10 feet away I was still getting hit with things and had to wear my sunglasses the whole time. I don’t know how a person doesn’t lose an eye there. The other wild thing was that women and children gather around the saws as they cut or plane the wood. The first time I saw this I didn’t know what was happening. They all kind of casually jockey for position, and when the saw is shut off, they jump to the pile and are on all fours pulling as much wood shavings as possible with their arms into a pile at their feet. This would be maybe six or seven small children or women doing this. They would even fight a little bit while frantically swiping the shavings into a pile! Once all the shavings were accounted for in people’s piles, they would fill their bags or huge bowls and then carry it away on their head, only to come back and do it all over again all day. The shavings can be used for a variety of things, and I assume its free as long as they’re tough enough to get in there and get some.

As I’ve been typing this, I’ve had to continuously jump out of my seat because I keep hearing a large ish animal messing around in my ceiling space. My neighbors have declared it to be a bat. I suppose due to the Ebola scare here in West Africa, I probably shouldn’t plan to eat it when it dies up there. I’m just really hoping it doesn’t somehow get through the ceiling tiles that are rotting away in places….

I’m also stuck in the middle of a nasty windstorm, and hopefully some rain will follow. The power has been off all day and this evening it has been off and on.

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