Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Receiving Compliments in Ghana

The vast differences in cultural understanding can be neatly identified in the ways in which Ghanaian people give compliments. So many times during my stay here, I have been accosted by statements to which I often initially take offense. However, upon noticing my disgruntled or confused expression the complimenter generally insists that what they've said is actually a GOOD thing.

Example #1: “Madame Becky, your earrings are killing me!” Upon hearing this, my immediate mental image was the slow, painful death that would ensue if trying to murder someone with an earring. But maybe that's just my sadistic mind. As it turns out, it's not that far off from Western expressions of saying something is “sick” or “cool.”

Example #2: “You are growing BIG!” or, even more delightful... “Ghana is making you FAT!” I receive these remarks on at least a weekly basis, if not more frequently. Generally, when these statements occur in shorter intervals of time, I become driven to go jogging for maybe one or two mornings and stop eating fufu for 3 or so days. But exercising in this country is just way too difficult, as is avoiding fufu or other foods in the form of carbohydrate-rich balls. Nonetheless, saying someone is “fat” or “big” is a compliment here because Ghanaians like big people, especially women. It is desirable to be big/fat because it demonstrates that you come from a family wealthy enough to fill your belly to the brim with food everyday, you have children to work for you, and you are fertile and womanly.

Example #3: One particularly startling 'compliment' that I received yesterday was “You look like you've just given birth!” This confused me greatly, to say the least, as in my mind, I imagined a woman laying on the birthing table covered in sweat and baby residue. I, on the other hand, although sweating an average amount for Ghana, was sitting quietly at a table, not exerting myself at all. But, as it turns out, she was actually just referring to the clothing I was wearing – a white top and blue skirt and, in her words “my bright smile and expression” that would doubtlessly match the beaming face of a woman who just brought a child into the world. This again reflects the cultural priorities in the country, since giving birth to a plenitude of children is generally a very desirable thing to do, and doing so is a major source of pride and happiness for the mother and family. Basically, why would someone NOT want to look like they've just given birth?

Example #4: Although not so culturally-specific or confusing, another rather cute compliment that I received was the following: “Sister Becky, today your beautyness has come.” Just like that. It's nice how beautyness happens sometimes.

I hope everyone is doing well. I have to say that I'm not yet really missing the whole “Christmas season” thing because it's difficult to fathom Christmas when it's 30+ degrees everyday. As most of you probably know, my boyfriend Kevin is coming to visit me December 20th, and we will be spending Christmas on the beach. I am excited!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

More than half-way through

As of Nov. 11, 2010, I was officially half-way through my IDS co-op placement in Ghana. The time has gone VERY quickly, and I imagine the upcoming 4.5 months will go even faster.

Frequently, on my daily excursions, I run into curious locals who pose the question “So how do you find Ghana?” Generally, I try to answer the question in the way that people expect me to respond: “Ghana is a niiiiiice place. A very cool place.” (“cool” as in the people are peaceful and non-threatening, the way that most locals describe their fellow Ghanaians).

But really, outside of this quick, impersonal banter, how do I find Ghana?

For the majority of (non-IDS) friends and family members back in Canada, I feel that I am expected to report great sufferings, near-death illnesses and a plea to return home. The “I-told-you-so” attitude, if you will. But, apart from some slight annoyances, I can essentially sum up my feelings for Ghana in three short words: I love it. I apologize in advance for anyone back home who may be disappointed by this statement.
Unfortunately, the rationale for this love is not quite so easily explained.

Upon reading my previous blog entries, I have come to realize that upon initial arrival, Ghana and I definitely went through a honeymoon phase. During this time, everything was new and wonderful. I was able to laugh off all annoyances and scamper about trying to etch a niche for myself. Next, came the adjustment phase. At this time, some things really began to get on my nerves, especially when my Canadian methods of problem-solving generally did nothing to resolve issues I encountered here. Now, I can safely say that I have reached the normalcy phase. The things that were once so new and exciting, or frustrating and difficult have both equalized to the extent that I am now just living a regular life. Indeed, many of my personal reactions to everyday events that arise are quite similar to those of most Ghanaians. An example of this is power outages. Upon first arrival in Ghana, I found power outages to be amusing: “ha ha ha ...oh silly Ghana.” Then, I found these power outages to be exasperating. They interrupted the showing of my well-planned powerpoint lessons, caused everything in my fridge to spoil and caused my fan to stop spinning, leaving me at the mercy of the smoldering afternoon heat. But now, the power going off is just something that is anticipated in everyday life. One finds alternative ways of doing things: preparing different forms of presentations, buying less perishable food, becoming increasingly used to the sun's heat.

Although I don't exactly know when this transition occurred, upon arriving at this new stage of normalcy, I feel as though I am finally able to make a more educated comparison of my life in Ghana and in Canada. In Canada, on reflecting back, I feel that we are always anticipating what is to come, instead of living each day as we want Рas clich̩ as that may sound. But really, especially in the winter, everyone is always anticipating the summer, or, at the very least, the next upcoming long weekend. It is as though we only really become alive during select moments of life that are the most opportune for us.

I find that the opposite is true for Ghana. Although one could likely make the claim that the work ethic of many Ghanaians may not be up to par with that of the average Canadian, the extent to which life is lived in this country is so much greater than in my own. Indeed, upon initially meeting many Ghanaians, the level of enthusiasm observed from simple things such as greeting new people, chatting on a tro-tro or even watching a movie – exceeds the level of enthusiasm displayed by most Canadian adults in an entire month. In my opinion, the capacity for most Ghanaians to enjoy the most simple things in life (such as each other's company) far outweighs the luxuries often thought to be associated with increased levels of happiness in Canadian life.

Speaking more personally, even in Canada, I enjoy greeting strangers and making new acquaintances – despite the fact that there are generally unspoken (and very restricted) boundaries of where meeting new people is appropriate. For instance, using the TTC as an example, it is expected that one should enter the bus/subway and sit quietly in a seat the furthest from where everyone else is seated, without looking or speaking to anyone in the process. Myself, I love children, but even greeting young children in Toronto often causes the parent to look at me very suspiciously before forcefully and abruptly taking their child away from my sight and arms' reach – as if this 5-foot blonde girl is a major threat to their child's well-being.

On the other hand, on entering a tro-tro or taxi in Ghana, it is expected that you greet the person sitting next to you, if not the entire load of people present. From there, strangers spark up discussions about things happenings in the country, laugh or shout at things taking place outside of the tro-tro, and collectively scold the driver if he is driving unsafely. Phone numbers are frequently exchanged, laughs are shared and arguments are pursued. Indeed, an average ride on a tro-tro often feels more like a family vacation than a public transit ride with a group of strangers.

On a different note, some of my students began their first radio program on Sunday, on the topic of the importance of sending female children to school. We ran into a bit of a dilemma when trying to decide in which language to host the show, since Ghana is composed of a very diverse array of languages. The girls began the show very nervously in English (a second language, for all of them) and had trouble answering some of the questions that were brought forth. After they had whizzed through the hour's worth of questions we had prepared in about 8 minutes, we all started to panic and had to go to a music break. During the break, I told the girls to speak in Twi instead of English, and, on returning to the show, their level of confidence increased ten-fold. The rest of the show (although I couldn't understand much) went quite smoothly, with the girls attending to all questions brought forth by listeners calling in to the show. I was really proud of them, and yelled out excitedly after the hour when the DJ motioned that the show was finished. Unfortunately, I didn't realize the microphone was still on and that everyone could hear my shouting. The DJ laughed and apologized to was just the silly Obruoni standing next to him at the station. He then proceeded to introduce me to all of the listeners.

In all, I am very excited for what the girls have accomplished and what they will continue to accomplish in the upcoming weeks. Tomorrow, I am taking a group of girls to meet with the Queen Mother of my village to discuss her opinions on issues that women in the community are facing and to get some ideas about ways that the students can help out in the community.

I just made some ground nut (peanut) soup with sweet potatoes and it is DELICIOUS. Also, it is mango season and I am quite happy about that. My tomatoes and basil are both growing quite nicely.

Ghana <3

Thursday, October 28, 2010

What have I accomplished so far?

(For those of you looking for a quick, entertaining read – turn away now, this blog is going to bore you. This means you, Hridi Chowdhury!)

If I had been one of those 3-month “Leave for Change” volunteers, I would have left Ghana last month wondering what I had accomplished. Things move so slowly here that accomplishing anything substantial in three months is really a feat, in my opinion.

Thankfully though, things are finally beginning to pick-up with my work. I am actually busy during the day and I go to sleep at night feeling pleasantly exhausted. I am the type of person that needs a busy schedule to motivate me, so having long, extended periods of time to accomplish something means that I will probably never get that thing done (ie: research proposal).

So - what have I been doing? It seems like everyone in IDS has done an official “work update blog;” but I have been avoiding that for the past 4 months until I could muster up anything substantial to say. Finally, that day has come.

MOST of the students are now back in school – after a 2 and a half month delay. It's nice to start off the year fresh. As a “career and guidance counselor” (that term should be taken lightly) I don't really have a whole lot to do during the day since students are in class, and my school has a major space deficiency, which means I really don't have a quiet, private place where students can come talk to me, if they want. So, instead, I have invested my time in starting MANY school clubs – including a Writer's Club, Debate Club, a community Radio Program, Tuseme (a girls' empowerment club), a choreography club and a school choir. (don't worry – I'm not actually leading the school choir and choreography).

I have been given about $3000 to start the clubs and plan club activities, which is pretty awesome. So, I've got some pretty big plans. For the Writer's Club, our focus is going to be on both creative writing and journalism. The girls will have the chance to go into the community to interview community members about issues that women are facing in the community, region and country. We will also be doing some creative work like writing poems about what it means to be a woman, an African, etc. All of these things will be published in a school newspaper, that will be distributed monthly to the community.

For the community radio program, some of the students will have the chance every Sunday afternoon to host and lead a panel discussion on the local radio station about a variety of topics that they have chosen, many of which go hand-in-hand with my Life Skills class schedule. I'm excited because it gives them the chance to really reflect on some of the issues and to receive feedback from community members as they call-in to the radio program.

The girl's empowerment club, called “Tuseme” (which means “Let us speak out” in Swahili) is a club focused on promoting girls' empowerment and community awareness about gender issues through the use of dramatic arts. The club is also receiving money for the purchase of wireless, internet modems so that the girls will be able to start an email exchange with some African-American girls living in the Bronx, NY. This will not only give the girls valuable learning experience as they learn to use the internet, but will also hopefully be empowering to build friendships and learn about the difficulties and accomplishments of life in another culture. I have also recently received money to purchase bicycles for the school (none of the girls can ride bicycles, but ALL boys can) so I am going to teach the girls to ride. I feel that this is a “direct” way of combatting gendered stereotypes, instead of the traditional, over-done workshop method.

Another note on acting – these girls are AMAZING. We are supposed to be hosting an “important American visitor” (that no one knows anything about) this Friday, and I've been told that all of the clubs have to prepare SOMETHING to show this “visitor.” After stressing about it all week (how am I possibly going to prepare a program for 6 clubs by Friday?), I met the Tuseme girls with the most pessimistic attitude: “I want you to divide into three groups and work as a group to come-up with a play that depicts issues faced by girls or women in Ghana.” I stressed that it only had to be 3-5 minutes, and that I wasn't expecting anything elaborate. WELL, 30 minutes later, I called the groups back to perform what they came up with....and I couldn't believe what I saw. Each group managed to include all of the group members into their play (about 12 students per group), no one was shy, no one needed paper to remember their lines, everyone worked together so well... and each play was quite complex and actually about 20 minutes in length! I was beaming the whole time – these girls, that are so often timid, reserved and afraid to contribute to group discussions – absolutely excelled at acting and creative expression.

It really made me wonder – teachers here often have such low expectations of their students. They give them the most detail-oriented assignments, exam questions, etc... and the students do not do well. But, simply giving them open-ended assignments where they have the ability to be creative and free... the results, as far as I've seen, are beautiful. And so – I've come to approach my job as a “counselor” in a completely new light. In Ghanian culture, “counseling” is essentially an adult lecturing a 'child' while the child quietly sits nodding and saying “thank you Sir/Madam.” Myself, coming from a North American background, tried to establish a more egalitarian relationship with the girls – but in most instances, they don't understand this method of communication, and I feel that they think that my indirect problem-solving and advice-giving is because I am incompetent about how to solve issues they are facing. However, giving the girls the freedom of expression through drama and art allows them that opportunity to really say what they are thinking, without being accused of being “disobedient” or “disrespectful.” I feel like I've been enlightened.

On that note, I should also briefly mention what I've been working on in terms of my research proposal. Firstly, doing research here is ridiculous. I have encountered SO many barriers – mainly due to unreliable internet connections, unreliable electricity, smotheringly hot working conditions, complete lack of available online resources, and unreliable internet cafe hours. Needless to say, things have been difficult in the research department.

Nonetheless, I have managed to come up with an idea.

The Ghanian Education Unit, several years ago, implemented a goal to bring guidance counselors into all public schools in the country by 2005. Since that time, I have found no documentation to demonstrate how successful that goal has been, or the extent to which these counseling programs are actually assisting students. The reason that I am so keen to research whether these programs have been helping students is because Career and Guidance Counseling is actually an American intervention. That said, counselor training courses and textbooks most often emphasize individualist, Western ideals of how a counselor should assist his “client.” Essentially, the aim of counseling sessions is to assist that client in self-reflection, with the ultimate goal being the personal empowerment of that client to find her or her own solutions to the issues he or she is facing.

The problem, however, is that the traditional, hierachial social structures found in Ghana and throughout many African countries means that it is very difficult to form that egalitarian relationship, especially between someone “older” or “more elite” (like most counselors) and someone young/poor or uneducated like most students. In this regard, young people are expected to receive and accept advice and solutions from adults in their society, without much questioning.

My research would be to examine methods used by counselors in Ghanian schools and to find out if both counselors and students perceive these forms of counseling to be effective. From the most positive responses, along with my own work as an experimental counselor, I hope to draw conclusions about effective counseling practices within the cultural context of Ghana.

So that's that.

Anyone who actually read through this long, boring blog entry – please let me know what you think about this research idea! I have yet to receive much feedback on it.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Ghana: Ten Lessons learnt so far

Hello everyone,

Just a quick update to share a few of the unexpected cultural lessons that I've learned here in Ghana so far....

  1. Before traveling ANYWHERE outside of your home, make sure you are armed with toilet paper and Imodium.

  2. Always ask for directions at least three times before going somewhere new. Ghanians love to help and direct, even if they don't exactly know where you're going.

  3. The only way to measure distance here is “far” and “not far.” Traffic, weather and bad road conditions play a major role in the establishment of whether something is “far.”

  4. Even if someone nods frequently and says “Ah, okay” several times during a conversation, that does not mean that they understand you. It is very rare for people to admit that they don't know what you're saying.

  5. If you give out your number, people WILL call you several times a day at all hours of the day and night. Unfortunately, some cellphone companies in Ghana offer free calling between midnight and 4am, so people often take advantage of this.

  6. Do not plan things more than a few days in advance, at best. Situations arise that will disrupt your plans. These can take a variety of forms depending on the plans, but frequently include: power outages, no water, people not showing up (or showing-up very late), lack of understanding or consensus on particular happenings, rain (yes – rain is a legitimate excuse), random public holidays, random government decisions to extend school holidays, late/incomplete construction projects, unexpected (and unpleasant) illnesses, district-wide shortages of essential things like fuel, printer ink, paper, etc.

  7. Being a young, white, female foreigner ensures it is very easy to make acquaintances and potential husbands, but very difficult to make genuine friendships.

  8. On that same note, being a young, white, female foreigner (without a real degree) gives me very little credibility as someone who is capable of looking after herself, let alone assisting others. “This girl can't do her own laundry, pound fufu, carry heavy things on her head, run alongside of cars on the highway selling things, or speak Twi. What CAN she do?” (Fortunately, I can do some of those things now, so I've earned at least some degree of street credibility.)

  9. If you are anything other than Christian or Muslim, it's better to just say that you are either one or the other to avoid direct, confrontational, conversion attempts.

  10. If you witness some sort of petty crime (ex: pick-pocketing) it's often better to just turn your eyes away, since calling it out may result in the criminal (even a youth) being beaten (sometimes to death) by a crowd of people and/or the police.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Sorry for the Delay...

Dear Readers,

I just wanted to make a quick note about something. Quite obviously, my blog does not detail everything that I have done during my time in Ghana. Instead of briefly accounting events, I hope to paint pictures of specific memories that are meaningful to me exactly as they happened. As such, taken as an entirety, what you are reading is a memoir of my Ghanian experience with very little real transition between the entries. So, if you would like to have the blanks filled-in, please speak with me directly!

Several weeks ago, instead of going to work, I went to the “saloon.” Now, before you jump to the conclusion that Becky has become an alcoholic due to the immense affordability of Ghanian alcohol, please permit me to explain. In actuality, Ghanians call beauty salons beauty “saloons.” This confused me greatly for the first couple of weeks, as I wondered why so many women were telling me about all of the hours they passed in the saloon. It didn't seem like something that would be spoken about so liberally in a highly-Christian society. Nonetheless, I eventually figured it out and adjusted my only-in-Ghana vocabulary accordingly.
So, as I said – I took the day off work to go to the saloon. (On a side note – only in Africa can you take the day off work to get your hair done and have no one question you). I decided that I wanted to get my hair braided – mainly as a way to keep cool in the hot Ghanian climate. I was told beforehand that I needed to purchase hair extensions to make the braids “nice,” and, surprisingly, I was actually able to find some extensions similar to my hair colour in the little village of Fotobi.

Julie, the lady that took me to church in a previous blog entry, decided to take me to her sister-in-law, a local hairdresser to get my hair done – promising that she would not over-charge me. This sounded like a very good plan to me. And so I went, and sat for 6 hours while 1-3 women worked on my hair. As they worked, they spoke in Twi. I knew they were often talking about me, despite having no idea what they were saying. I have become accustomed to this however, over the past couple of months. And so, 6 hours later, I walked out of the saloon with about 5 times more hair I had when I went in. Overall, I quite liked my new African-style hairdo. However, since washing the braids is impossible, combined with the hot and humid Ghanian climate, the braids lasted only a little over 2 weeks before I had to remove them. One little-mentioned component of getting your hair done like this is that when you remove the braids, you lose about 50% of your original hair. No exaggeration. I was horrified by the thought that I was going bald as handfuls of my hair came out as I combed it with my fingers.

A few Fridays ago, I had the experience of attending a Ghanian-style fundraiser at the school. Essentially, our school is fundraising for a school bus as participating in field trips is currently next to impossible due to the rurality of the school's location and the less-than-ideal transportation systems in-place in Ghana. The fundraiser was set to begin at 10am. No one began arriving until 11am. During the event, some of the students sang and danced, and then came the “Appeal for Funds” segment. During this occasion, various groups appeared in front of the audience and danced until people give them money. So, each class of students danced until their parents came forward to give them a few cedis. Then, everyone thought it would be HILARIOUS to have the Obruni girl (ie: me) go up and dance too. I told them that this was not a good idea, but still I was dragged forward in front of everyone and told to dance.
And so, once again in Ghana, I swallowed the small shreds of my remaining pride and danced until people threw money at me. Over all, we raised about 1800 Cedis – a far cry from the 30 000 that we need for a school bus, but not too bad for such a small school in a small village.

For those of you who have seen my facebook pictures, you will know that I recently acquired a cute little orange kitten. Although you may assume that I did so to counter feelings of loneliness, that is not entirely true. In Ghana, everything is different. And I mean EVERYTHING. The food, language, weather, people, houses, water, electricity, clothing, transportation, sanitation, furniture, houses, shopping, etc. etc. In all of these things, I just wanted one thing to be familiar to me. And fortunately, I found this through Koko, my new kitten. He speaks a language that is familiar to me, and is the only one that doesn't treat me differently for being an outsider, or have presumptions or expectations of how I should act or what I am capable of. I love him for that. (Sorry for the cheesiness, but it's true.)

In the past 10 days, I have been supervising a Girls' Empowerment Camp in Accra. Essentially, 257 girls from the most impoverished areas of Ghana were selected to attend the camp. Ten of the students from our school were selected to participate, and I was chosen to accompany them. Those ten days were possibly the longest 10 days of my life. After attending summer camp on various occasions as a child, I had certain expectations of what this camp would be like. But, as I should have known, things in Ghana never happen as I expect they will. First of all, the students had to wake-up every morning at 5am to go jogging for one hour. For those of you who have never tried it, motivating 10 teenagers to wake-up ten days in a row for jogging at 5am is almost an impossibility. It felt like bootcamp. After jogging, everyone was expected to bathe together in a communal shower room. Ghanians have no problem with this, or nakedness in general, but being the only Obruni girl made me a major object of attention during these procedures. And so, I had a bucket bath while 50 young girls and their accompanying Ghanian chaperons stared relentlessly at me. Fortunately at this point though, upholding my dignity is no longer one of my major priorities.
Secondly, everyday at the camp was spent indoors being lectured at for about 6 hours. Actually, let me correct that – probably about 2-3 of those hours were spent WAITING for the people who were supposed to be lecturing us. It was very frustrating how poorly organized everything was, and how poor leadership and zero communication are just accepted norms here. Of course, the only people that appeared frustrated by this fact were myself and the two other Canadian volunteers who were working at the camp. In all, the campers had the opportunity to “play games” only twice and completed only one craft during the ten days. There were no talent nights, roleplaying, funny skits or attempted humour of any kind. At the end of the 10 days, my students declared they were more than ready to go home. It was sad that the camp COULD have been so wonderful, had the leadership been different.

Well that is about it for now. As I said, many other things have been happening, but I have decided to only share the things that really stand out in my memory. My apologies for not updating my blog sooner – I have had several half-written entries stored on my desktop, but there is usually about a 70% chance that my internet is not working when I am ready to post an entry.

Hope everything is going well! It feels strange that for the first time in 16 years, I am not preparing to go back to school right now.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Address and Phone Number

EDIT: I made a mistake! I gave you the incorrect number before, but I have corrected it now. So, please note the correction.

I just wanted to do a very brief update to satisfy all of you who have been demanding a mailing address. The addresses in Ghana are a bit odd... as in, no one really has one. But hopefully this should work:

Becky Hillyer
Nsaba Diaspora Girls' Senior Secondary School
PO Box 356 Nsawam,
Eastern Region, Ghana

Also, if anyone is feeling rich, they can give me a call at : 233-548-991-024 (Just like that, you don't need a 1 in front )

I am almost out of my supply of comforting Canadian food (ie: starbursts, skittles, chocolate, tea) so any care packages you may wish to send would be GREATLY appreciated!!

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Julie, Church and Aburi

First of all, Julie. I met her one evening at a friend's birthday party and she invited me over to her house. On Thursday evening, I took up that invitation and went to visit her and her lovely family – 5 strong boys under the age of 10, and one baby girl.
When I arrived at her house, she was outside doing a BIG load of laundry, while her children, all in their underwear, finished the last of their dinner. She was surprised to see me, but greeted with a friendly and enthusiastic “Welcome!” I sat down next to her and we chatted for a bit, while I watched the 14-month-old baby crawl with ease over the jagged stones that covered the ground. Then, the youngest brother, two years of age, hit his little sister with a twig, clearly just to annoy her. The little girl yelled out “Please stop, my brother!” in her tiny baby voice. I think those may have been the only words she knew, and they will definitely be handy with 5 older brothers.
Shortly after my arrival, it began to rain. Not the dreary, mellow Canadian rain, but the instantaneous, pelting African variety. Julie instantly began assembling all of the children and laundry to bring inside, the baby on her back bouncing like a confused cowboy riding an angry bull. But the boys had other ideas. Instead of taking shelter inside of the house, they stripped off their underwear and ran free in the warm rain, sliding in the red mud with some of the largest smiles I have ever seen. I wondered about the last time most North American children had been allowed to partake in similar ventures.
After the rain finally stopped, Julie cooked some plantains over hot coals, and invited me to church on Sunday. Although she informed me that the service would be in Twi, the anthropology student in me decided that it would be an informative, educational opportunity nonetheless; and so, I consented happily.

So today, Sunday morning, I arose early to be at church for 9am, the scheduled start time. In fact, the service did not actually commence until after 10, and people were still trickling in at about 10:45am. The congregation was filled with exuberance: everyone singing and dancing throughout most of the service and encouraging me to join-in at every opportunity. Although I didn't understand what was being said, my level of discomfort was only medium-low at that point. But then things took a turn for the worst.
About half way through the service, the pastor approached me, asking my full name. I assumed that he was going to introduce me to the congregation as a visitor, and so I happily gave it. However, when he finally signaled for me to go to the front of the church, I was met with a situation I did not expect. He DID introduce me in Twi as “Sister Becky” to the congregation. And then, he turned to me and said “Ok, and now you must sing a song.” Since I had been confused throughout the entire service, I assumed that I was confused now. “A song?” I questioned. “Yes,” he replied – “you may sing any song you want.” My face must have contorted into a medium of fear as I heard a chuckle ripple through the onlooking congregation. I turned and surveyed their faces: smiling and expectant. I scanned my mind for songs I knew, and drew a complete blank. The only songs that came to mind were “Mary had a little lamb” and “Jesus loves me.” Frig. Frig. Frig.
After a few moments of silent deliberation and mental turmoil, I determined that I had to sing SOMETHING, and so I chose the latter. Thank God, literally, for Sunday School. In the squeakiest, most nervous voice, made only worse by the rattling low-quality of the microphone I was using, I croaked out Jesus loves me in front of an entire congregation of Ghanaian adults. I winced at how painfully terrible my voice sounded compared to the rich and vibrant confidence of everyone around me. Frig. Frig. Frig.
After speeding through the song, I somehow melted back to my seat and there was a loud applause. I was the only one in the room capable of blushing, and I was definitely taking advantage of that ability at the moment. Finally, many Twi songs, sermons and offerings later, the service concluded 4 and a half hours after I had arrived at about 1:30pm. As I left, everyone shouted “See you next week!” Frig.

On Saturday, a short-term volunteer from Canada (Judy), Mr. Nyame (one of the teachers here at the school) and myself set out for Aburi Gardens – one of the touristy park areas in Ghana. I had been told, before our journey, that the road to Aburi was “bad,” but by North American standards, most of the roads in Ghana are TERRIBLE so I thought nothing of it. So, off we went in a rickety tro-tro, the back doors held shut by a string, the windshield already with a glittering, spidery crack from previous implications. As we approached the road, I quickly realized how it attained its reputation of badness. Since it had rained heavily in the past 2 days, the road was a soupy mess. And then we started ascending a mountain – in a tro-tro, on a soupy, unpaved road, with no guard rails and a sheer drop down the mountain on one side of the vehicle. I prayed for the brakes to not fail. In order to avoid many of the major pot holes and ditches caused by erosion, the driver had to drive so close to the edge of the mountain that when I looked out the window I could not actually see the road underneath of us. Please brakes, don't fail. Please brakes, don't fail.
I have to say though, that the view as we drove up the mountain was sensational - lush mountainside forests and flourishing farm fields. Even though my personal level of stress and the inhaling of carbon monoxide from the struggling vehicle may have shaved off a couple years of my life, it was an experience that I was happy to have.
Aburi Gardens itself was not quite as wonderful. Although we saw lots of interesting vegetation – like star fruit trees, cocoa trees, lemon trees, etc. - it was a bit too non-authentic for my liking. It did not seem like Ghana at all – especially since Ghanians actually seemed to be a minority there. And then it poured rain on us and I actually became very cold – in Ghana. It was my first time feeling cold in a month. The temperature up on the mountain was significantly colder than down below. In fact, the town of Aburi has been dubbed “Little London” by locals.
Following our time at the gardens, Mr. Nyame suggested that we go visit his mother – who works as a teacher at a school for deaf children, nearby. Upon visiting, we were welcomed with a warm bowl of fufu and light soup – and I was actually able to finish ALL of it (to the excitement of the host) in my cold, hungry state. Mr. Nyame's mother (Margery) was beautiful. Fluent in sign language, she was able to teach us simple things like “How are you?” and “I am fine” so that we could greet the children. Then, I had the great privilege of meeting a young girl who was both blind and deaf but who had the ability to talk. After feeling the signs from Margery, she was able to say my name aloud, and then asked us simple questions like where we were from. An amazing little girl.

Now, after a long weekend, I am finally getting a bit of quiet rest in my room, the ceiling fan on full blast. The question of what to research for my thesis is always lurking at the back of my mind, but I am really hoping to make a dent in that soon.

Until the next time, I hope everyone is having a great summer!

Monday, June 28, 2010

A Definite Change of Pace...

On Friday afternoon, I had to take a student to the hospital in the closest town, Nsawam. While waiting on a bench in the hospital, I looked around to see some sort of dried bodily fluids on the floor next to me, dirt and dust being strewn around by taxis that actually drove inside the pavilion-style front lobby, and ailing patients attached to IV stands on dilapidated stretchers all throughout the crowded hallways. I silently thanked my body for so-far remaining in good health, in hopes of never having to be a patient there myself.... I should have knocked on wood.

Following my hospital excursion with the student, I departed for Accra to spend a fun-filled weekend with friends Brianna and Hridi. Upon arriving in the city, Brianna and I discussed some plans for the weekend as we waited for Hridi's bus to arrive from Kumasi. We would go to the market Saturday morning, and out to watch the big Ghana vs. U.S. football match in the evening. Sunday we would go to the beach. It sounded like a good plan.

However, on the way to pick-up Hridi, things took a turn for the worst. My stomach began to cause A LOT of trouble, and as we waited at a gas station for Hridi's bus to arrive, I proceeded to vomit in the parking lot. Hridi arrived shortly afterwards and I warned her not to hug me. I was feeling worse than ever and I suggested Eric (our wonderful Ghanaian tour guide) should drive as quickly as possible back to the hotel.

On the way back, the road seemed rougher and traffic far slower than ever I had known before. We seemed to encounter police barriers every 500 metres. My stomach was about to give out again, and I requested (demanded) for Eric to pull over. We entered another gas station parking lot, and Eric quickly asked where the washroom was. It was not quick enough however and once again I puked in the parking lot. An attendant directed me inside and Hridi and Eric pushed me forward. Not only was vomiting an issue, but I now also had what the Ghanians call “running stomach” (ie: diarrhea). At first glance, I was relieved to see that the washroom seemed fairly functional – a flushing toilet and a sink. However, upon closer inspection, the flushing toilet did not actually flush and was already filled with someone else's running stomach remnants. In addition, the tap did not work and there was no toilet paper in sight. At this point however, there was no other option. I called out to Hridi to search for something to take the place of toilet paper. There were a couple moments of silence as I heard Hridi scurrying around the empty store and then:

Hridi: “Umm... Becky, I found a football poster. Will that work?”

Becky: “I guess it will have to...”

Hridi: “Well at least you can wipe your butt with attractive men!”

At this point I was fairly humiliated, and, exiting the gas station, I apologized to everyone waiting for me in the car. I pleaded for Eric to hurry, who, I realize now, probably did not need any encouragement to get me out of his car as quickly as possible. Nonetheless, five minutes later, I needed to stop again. So, once more, Eric pulled into a gas station and asked for the washroom. We were directed nonchalantly to a dark ally behind the store. Running, we tried various doors, but could not find anything resembling a toilet. Finally, we encountered a small, wooden, outdoor cubicle inside of which lay a bucket ONCE AGAIN filled with someone else's running stomach residues which had, in addition, spilled out all over the floor. At that point however, I took no notice of these things. The bucket, in fact, looked quite inviting at this moment of urgency.

While squatting in the disgusting cubicle, in the deserted ally in complete darkness, I once again called out pitifully for Hridi to find me something resembling toilet paper. Luckily, she was able to purchase some from inside of the gas station. As she came back, I started wailing aloud that I had no dignity and that I hated this country and other ramblings which are a blur to me now. Finally, exiting the tiny chamber of filth, I began to apologize profusely to Hridi as she calmly poured bottled water over my feet to get rid of all of the unmentionable things I had just stepped in. I then kindly proceeded to puke all over her leg.

Somehow, exhausted, weak and soaked with cold sweat, I managed to make it back to the car and we were once again headed back to the hotel. Of course, we were stopped by another police brigade and since we had 4 in the back seat, he shouted at us “OVERLOAD OVERLOAD” and we had to pull-over. I even pleaded in my weakest, sickest voice “please sir, I am very ill – we are just trying to get home” but he paid no heed. Fortunately, Eric had encountered the situation many times before, tipped the policeman 5 Cedis, and we were on our way. After what seemed like hours, we finally made it back to the hotel.

Don't fear friends and family, I am pretty much myself again, after a few days of illness. I just wanted to say thank you SO much to Hridi and Brianna and Eric for looking after me all weekend – I am seriously surprised that you guys are still my friends (especially Hridi).

On a much happier and lighter note, we were able to go to the beach on Sunday (with a little help from my friend, Imodium) and Ghana won their match against the U.S. Which was AMAZING. So I am very thankful for these things!

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Washing Day

On Wednesday evening, I arrived in the small village where I will be working for the next 10 months. And let me tell you, my experiences here thus far have been overwhelmingly lovely.

For those of you who may not know me so well, I am NOT a city girl by any means. So, after 5 days spent in the heat, dust, noise, traffic and pollution of Accra, I was more than ready to head out of town. Only one short hour outside of the city, lay the small villages of Fotobi and Obodan. On the way there, the road became narrower, the traffic lessened, the air became cleaner, the noise became almost non-existent. As the drive continued, mountains became apparent in the distance, covered in lush, green, tropical forests. Women walked along the roadside, large baskets of wares on their head, babies strapped to their backs. As the WUSC SUV bumped along the road filled with potholes, I became more and more excited that I was to be working in such a beautiful place.

Finally, we arrived at the destination. Although I had been told that I would be working in Fotobi, the school is actually located in Obodan, an even smaller village, only a 10-minute walk away. Just when I thought things couldn't get any more wonderful, I met the students of the school where I will be working. These girls are even more beautiful than the landscape. Upon my arrival, three of the students voluntarily carried all of my luggage to my room, immediately began sweeping the floor, dusting, fixing the bed, opening the curtains and window. Everything was a whirl of activity, and even though I told them that they certainly did not need to do that, this suggestion was resolutely disregarded. Soon after, I was given (various) tours of the school, and was greeted by all students with a big smile and the simple words “You are welcome.” And welcomed, I certainly felt.

The next day, I awoke quite early and realized I had virtually no idea of what was expected of me. I arose from bed, proceeded to accidentally lock myself in the shower room (luckily someone heard my shouts) and then headed to the school in time for the students' morning assembly at 7am. At the assembly, I introduced myself to the entire school - about 170 young girls. I was then told by one teacher that counseling sessions could be held on Thursday afternoons during the “Life Skills” double period between 1:20 and 2:40. It was Thursday. Although I was completely unprepared at that point to lead a session before 170 girls for an hour and 20 minutes, I returned to my room to conjure some ideas.

Fortunately, the session actually went quite well. Although I was not able to constructively fill the entire duration, it was a good chance to break the ice, and to get the girls thinking about things they would like to discuss over the up-coming year. Indeed, some of the topics that the girls wanted to talk about were quite shocking : appropriate relationships between students and teachers, teen pregnancy and rape. At the same time, other topics, in my opinion, would have seen almost too simplistic for the high-school level : proper female hygiene, for example. So, it was certainly a valuable learning experience for me, and gave me a good idea of the issues that will be brought up during the more one-to-one counseling sessions.

Today, as can be seen by the title of the blog, was washing day. Here, all clothing is washed by hand, and, since a machine generally washes my clothing, the girls were excited to teach me this skill. As they wash, outside from a row of colourful buckets, sun beating down on their skin, they sing. And their voices are lovely. Following the wash, clothes are strung onto one of the many long clothes lines – blowing in the warm breeze of the highlands - or simply laid flat on the grass or hung from tree branches. This is not a chore for them, but a chance to be together, singing and chatting. As for my washing lesson, I ended up getting quite a lot of help with my laundry, but they said I was a hard worker overall. : )

I need to wrap this up for now, as Ghana is playing football today against Australia and everyone is extremely excited. I have come to like watching football/soccer since I've been here and it makes me wish that Canada would step-up their abilities.

Monday, June 14, 2010

First Impressions

In case everyone is not already aware, I have arrived safe and sound (*knock on wood*) in Ghana. Brianna and I arrived at the Accra airport on Friday night, and we have been staying and will continue to stay at a small motel in Accra until our WUSC training is completed on Wednesday.

To be quite honest, I feel as though I have somehow cheated the IDS system of placement-going. After reading about the drastic things that happened to my friend Hridi who has been in Ghana for a month, I had mentally prepared myself to expect the worse. However, as I was able to travel with Brianna (not by myself as I had expected for the past 3 years), had a smooth and on-time flight, as well as an easy transition from the airport to a nice motel, everything seemed to be just too easy. To top things off, Hridi came to visit us on Friday night, and proceeded to show us the ropes in Accra throughout the weekend. We even had a great local driver/tour guide, Erick, who was a cousin of one of Hridi's friends in Toronto.. Everything has just been too strangely simple...But not that I'm complaining.

To paint a bit of a mental picture of Accra, I will highlight a few things that stood out to me over the past couple of days. When I first stepped off of the plane, I took my first breath in Africa and was met with pretty much the richest feeling of warmth I had ever known. The humidity immediately hit me like a wall and I remember a distinctly recognizable smell of warm things: pavement, sweaty bodies, red earth and motor exhaust. Since that time this sweet distinctiveness has decreased, but I think that smell will remain in my memory for a long time. The city itself reminds me of the developing version of a GTA subdivision: buildings sprawled over the landscape for miles without particular rhyme nor reason, nor with a particular point of centrality or focus. In addition, again like the subdivisions of the developed world, it seems to take forever to get anywhere due to high volumes of traffic and highway construction.

One of the most amazing contrasts to me was the sheer number of people in Accra. Always, there are people gathered outside, in front of shops, along the roadside, chatting, walking, working. Drivers yell out to other drivers, to pedestrians, and vice-versa: not in anger, just friendly words of greeting or directions. It seems everyone is in a constant state of communication, like long-time friends. Also, despite the seemingly wreckless craze of driving in Accra, most drivers are more than willing to slow, stop and wait for pedestrians to cross, or for cars to emerge in front of them in a long line of traffic. It is extremely rare for anyone to use signals or lane distinctions, and I have realized that honking instead is the main way for drivers to communicate these things.

Saturday night, Erick took us clubbing around Accra. It was definitely a fun experience, but likely one that I will not do again too soon... at least until I have developed an adequate booty. Like a lot of clubs in Toronto, guys definitely outnumber the girls. However, while in Canada it would be considered strange to see heterosexual males dancing together, here it seems to be a perfectly normal and acceptable practice. I really love this because it makes me realize that people here dance just for the sake of dancing and being together. Nonetheless, from what I've seen so far, all Ghanians seem to be born with the natural ability to dance and keep rhythm beautifully. This definitely creates a high level of intimidation for me, as I know that I am perceived as the awkward white girl that cannot even clap her hands to keep a beat, let alone dance to high-tempo African “hip life” music.

All in all though, the people are wonderful, the city is beautiful and the weather is a nice change from the ever-fluctuating Canadian climate patterns. I am very much looking forward to getting to Fotobi, the village I will be working in for the next 10 months, on Wednesday.

I guess that is all for now. I miss you and am thinking about you all. Although internet is unavailable in Fotobi, I am hoping to soon purchase a modem stick so that I will be able to have some internet access.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Baby Steps into Ghanian Culture

So I've been sitting here for 10 minutes on the Via train with Yasmin, trying to decide how to start my first blog entry. I guess it would be logical to let you all know where I'm going and what I'm doing, so here it goes.

In early June (I don't yet know precisely when) I will be travelling to Ghana, West Africa for my IDS co-op placement for 10 to 12 months. More specifically, I will be working outside of Nsawam in the small villages of Fotobi and Obodan. My "official job title" describes me as a career counsellor for teenage girls in the local high school. This worries me just a bit. My main fear stems from the fact that I feel rather unqualified to deal with the issues that may be brought forth by the girls. Through speaking with the previous volunteer that worked in the same position, some of the issues that arose were extremely daunting, and the ways in which they are dealt with within the context of Ghana is far different than how similar issues would be dealt with here. Nonetheless, I am looking forward to the challenge.

So, I mentioned previously that I am currently on a train. In fact, I have just returned from Uniterra and CIL training in Montreal. Surprisingly, (and I think this had more to do with the facilitator than the CIL material) I learned a lot. We also had the opportunity to speak with past volunteers in Ghana, as well as a man that previously lived in Ghana.

Now, onto the more interesting stories! Last night, Brianna and I (Brianna is another IDS student who is also going to Ghana, but to a different area) went to an authentic Ghanian restaurant in Montreal. When confronted with the menu, I had essentially no idea what to choose - most of the items I had never seen nor heard of before. But, through previous research on Ghanian, I had learned that "fufu" is a traditional Ghanian staple food, and so that was my choice. Upon informing the waiter of my selection, he asked Bri and I if we would prefer utensils or to use our hands the way Ghanians do. Up for a challenge, Bri and I chose the latter.

When the food arrived, we were a bit confused and intimidated. The bowls in which the food arrived were huge, and inside lay a large ball of what appeared to be cookie dough, surrounded by oily soup and with a whole fish on the side. The cookie dough, as it turns out, is the fufu: a carbohydrate-rich medley of plantains, cassava, and other ingredients mashed into a ball with the consistency of very very thick mashed potatoes. The soup was made of peanuts. Quite honestly, I have never eaten soup with my hands, so I just sat there thinking about it for 5 minutes wondering how I would avoid burning myself on the steaming liquid. Eventually though, we got the hang of things, and the meal was very tasty - although we could barely eat a third of it (note to self: fufu is EXTREMELY filling).

While we were eating, the waiter let us know that he was from Ghana. When we likewise told him that we would be going to Ghana in June, he suggested one of us should marry him. (Our first proposal!) Following the meal, we approached the bar area to pay our bill. I complimented the lady on her cooking and she asked us when we were leaving for Ghana (apparently the waiter, her son, had told her that we were going). When we told her June, there was a flurry of activity as she told us that she was going to give us the numbers of various nephews and nieces. As it turns out, she was unable to find the numbers, so she had to firstly call several other relatives to obtain the numbers. It was 1am in Ghana at that time, and I can imagine that these people were not overly happy to be awoken with such a seemingly trivial matter. Finally, she got the contact information of her nephew and gave him a call. After speaking with him for a few minutes, she past the phone to me! After an awkward phone call, I agreed to add him to facebook. We hadn't even left Canada yet, and already people were going out of their way to help us feel welcome when we arrive in Ghana.

Well, that about concludes my Ghanian experiences so far. Although not yet in the country, I feel as though I've made some valuable first steps that will ease some of the initial confusion when trying to emerge within the culture of a different country.