"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

Saturday, May 24, 2014

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.

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