Friday, February 11, 2011

This one is 12 pages single at your own peril.

I am very behind. You don’t need me to tell you this. You know this. Months have now passed since my last blog entry, and my last blog entry dealt with months long past. I am hoping a sub-par turn of phrase will induce you all into forgiving my absence from the blogosphere. However, I have much more respect for you, such an intelligent and discerning readership, than to actually expect such juvenile ploys to work. Now I am resorting to flattery. You see past it. Very well, I guess I will just have to make it up to you with an attempt to describe everything that has happened from where I last left off to the end of training. In the interest of actually filling you in on all that, there may be times in this blog entry where you may be wanting for greater detail or scratching your head asking: “what just happened?”, but trust that you won’t be alone (I often find myself asking the same question), and that it’s all for the greater good—that is, getting those naggers among you off my back for my vow-like silence.

When we last left off, I was about to embark on a journey from Accra to the Upper East Region of Ghana in what the Peace Corps calls a vision quest. This is what happened:

Vision Quest:

After a solid 3 hours sleep, I awoke at 4:00 A.M. that morning 5 days into Peace Corps Ghana and toted the entirety of my massive luggage through the quad and to the storage facility where it would be held while we were off questing. The fact that after I had dragged my bags to storage I was told that we should leave our luggage in our room, and that I dragged them back to the room, and then that I was told again that actually the bags would be held in the storage facility, and that (so) I dragged the bags again to the storage facility, and that at this point I was tired, hungry, had heart-burn from taking my malaria pill without water or food, was nervous and nauseous, anxious and abrasive and almost held up the early morning bus but in the end was followed (mercifully, lest Opera Jonathan become Tardy Jonathan) by one guy who showed up even later, hungover, are all not important (facts). What is important, is that I was about to set off on my own. Well, not quite. The night before when I had received my assignment to journey to Kandiga in the Upper East, another trainee, Chris, had received the same assignment. We were to travel as a pair the long road up through all of Ghana. Although at the time I had spoken hardly a word to Chris, I soon learned what an interesting character he is. Chris, who grew up in Sebring, Florida, has an affable, easy charm that served him well in the hotel management industry (which he’ll tell you all about if you ever meet him) in his hometown. I soon found out Chris loves to talk and has a passion for the finer things in life, like clothes and a vigorous social life. I can with confidence state that Chris has purchased more yards of Ghanaian cloth, commissioned more tailored outfits, and has visited more people’s sites than any other volunteer in my class. Yet he is no spoiled hotelier and possesses a toughness that his lilting southern voice belies. Most importantly, he was organized. That above all is what I appreciate in a travel buddy.

We began the day, about 20 of us, shuttled to an Accra bus stop where we all were escorted into yet another air conditioned, comfortable bus. During the smooth 4 hour ride from Accra to Kumasi, I was beginning to believe that Peace Corps life might actually be a perpetually sheltered experience. After the AC van dropped us off at the Kumasi station, that illusion was quickly shattered, and I got my first taste of my least favorite part of life in Ghana—travel.

Picture, if you will, 20 Americans, standing in the middle of a bus station in 95 degree, humid weather, surrounded by a mud-floor parking lot packed with moving, busted vans, shouting Ghanaians, and vendors. Now picture that nobody seems to know where any of the vans are going, and even if they do, they don’t know how to tell us in English. Now picture 20 of us, each with different opinions of where to go and what to do next. After much delay, tempered bickering (as bickering often is within new groups of people most of whom still hope to be liked by the rest), and few answers, we found out that we had been dropped off at the wrong station and would have to make our way across town in heavy traffic. This we did with the assistance of a 2nd year volunteer living in Kumasi and finally stood in a long “line” (a term I use EXTREMELY liberally; mass or blob would be the more accurate locution) to buy bus tickets to Tamale. Kumasi is Ghana’s second largest city and the cultural and historical home of the Ashanti people and the Twi language. Its history and the importance of the Ashanti people in Ghana are interesting and worthy of exploration. However, at the time, I couldn’t wait to get out of there. After hours of waiting and scrambling, we board the bus. One hour sitting in traffic later, we left Kumasi. Six hours and a very sore butt later, I arrived in Tamale, where we took taxis to the Tamale Sub Office, or TSO, and spent the night. Tamale, although the biggest city in Northern Ghana, is nevertheless much more tranquil than Kumasi, and finding transport to Bolgatanga, the regional capital of the Upper East region, was manageable. The means of transport itself, was not.

This was my introduction to the Tro Tro, the principal means of transportation between towns in Ghana. Tro Tros are on the surface, simply vans, which act as mass transit. Most of them look like the vans which are described on the local news as the vans picking up small children in nice neighborhoods, the big white vans favored by child molesters nationwide. I was always told as a child never to enter such a van if a strange man invites you inside. In Ghana, I’ve had no choice. These vans, built probably around the time of the Kennedy assassination, John Kennedy, are the most decrepit pieces of poop you have ever seen on the road. The windshields are cracked, the doors are falling off or held by string, and goats are tied to the roofs. Originally intended to seat 8 passengers comfortably, these vans manage to fit in a minimum of 19, and usually more if children are on board. I am a tall man. I don’t fit in Tro tros. Literally. I could train with the best Yoga masters in the world for 20 years and still sitting in a Tro would be like Chris Farley wearing David Spade’s coat. But, such is life, and so I sat in that Tro on the three hour trek to Bolga, and I have sat in countless Tros on much longer rides since, and now, all I hope for is that my butt and legs fall asleep fast enough so that they become inured to the pain. When we arrived in Bolga, Chris and I were welcomed by Shauna, our Vision Quest host, and it all got better from there.

Shauna and Kandiga:

Shauna belongs in the Peace Corps and here are three reasons why: she has a master’s degree in economics with a focus in developmental economics, she was a professional protester, paid by lobbyists to fly to a meeting of the World Trade Organization in England and disrupt the proceedings ( I didn’t even know you could be paid to protest), and she wears her hair short—on her head (to stay cool), and under her arms (to stay warm?, because shaving is a pain here). My first impression of her was that she could beat me up. Nothing occurring since then has changed my impression (although, I meet very few people who can’t beat me up), but I also learned that she was an incredibly sweet, knowledgeable, and interesting host. After lunch and a cold beer in Bolga, we hopped in yet another car for an hour ride to her site Kandiga where we spent the next three days. This was my first real Peace Corps experience—life with an actual volunteer. She had a great set-up, her own house with a garden and several rooms. Her outhouse, containing a friendly hole in the ground which splashed up water (well, it was certainly part water), was clean and well maintained and located only feet from her bedroom. She even had electricity. It was, in short, far more luxurious than I ever imagined Peace Corps life could be.

Her village, Kandiga, offered many charms. Ghana historically was a conglomeration of many different tribes, each with different customs, cultural practices, and even languages, particularly in the North of the country where Ashanti influence waned. In the Fra Fra region of the Upper East, where Kandiga is located, houses are built in circular clusters with farmland scattered in between the clusters. The result is that you have these circular mud compounds with fields and Baobob trees (whose giant branches look like tree roots with dangling fruit on strings) integrated into the residential area. This zoning practice struck me as very American, with each family keeping its homes and land together, the house with a lawn or farm model. Shauna had helped to build a community center in Kandiga, and Chris and I visited a group of women who now used the center as a meeting ground. The women were very excited to greet us and invited us to crack peanut shells with them, which we did for several hours, listening to the women talk in a language I did not understand.

Women’s Groups:

Women’s groups are at the heart of many development strategies in the impoverished nations of the world, and Shauna had been assigned to work with them in her community. Women’s groups have become the focal point of development for a variety reason, but above all others is that women tend to be more responsible than men (obviously), and women are willing to adopt new methods and practices precisely because they have to. Women are often left with the charge of caring for the family and supporting their children. Even women with husbands in much of Ghana still find that their husband does not fully support their children. Where a woman will typically put her money towards soup or school fees, a man might buy alcohol or a motorbike. Polygamy is also practiced in parts of the country and some husbands have far too many children to support. Thus women, in order to keep their family fed, work harder and tend to work collectively, in ways that are conducive to social change.

What struck me most about Shauna’s life was just how slow it was, and I realized becoming a PCV would mean accepting a pace of life far different from any I had ever experienced. Shauna’s typical day consists of waking up with the sunrise, making breakfast, walking around her village greeting people in the local language, and then maybe working on a project of her own for the rest of the morning. In the afternoon on the days when the women’s group meets, she will sit with them, but besides that, there is little she can do. She fills the rest of her day with reading and cooking, her two chief Peace Corps hobbies. Shauna is a high-powered person, and she has made a real effort to serve her community, yet she described her life as a kind of “early retirement.” Her description, I would discover, is all too accurate at times.

The Night Sky:

It was on the second night in Kandiga that I discovered that not only could I make it through my 2 years of service, but that I would love it. That night I went outside to brush my teeth and I stood witness to the most beautiful night sky I had ever seen. Far from the lights of cities, there was more diamond than black in the sky—I felt like Han Solo (although it’s hard to imagine Harrison Ford with toothpaste foam running down his chin, gawking at the stars above him). Shauna warned us that Peace Corps training would be dull and frustrating, but that once we got to our sites we’d appreciate the unique life that Peace Corps offers. Shauna, Kandiga, and the night sky convinced me. After three days, I traveled down to meet up with the rest of my training class at the Peace Corps hub site in the Eastern region of Ghana, ecstatic that I had made the right decision in coming to Ghana.


Having been dispersed throughout the country on our separate vision quests, we came back together, each of use a conquering hero, eager to swap tales and share our excitement at seeing each other again. We met in Kukarantumi, in the Eastern Region of Ghana, where Peace Corps has a hub site. Here, in a relatively developed southern part of the country, we would complete most of the rest of our training, and we would be living not in a dorm as in Valley View, but with Ghanaian families who would be our surrogate “homestay” families for the upcoming months.
Peace Corps occasionally has a flair for the dramatic. On the day we were assigned to our homestay families, Peace Corps brought all of the Ghanaian families and all of the Peace Corps volunteers under a summer hut and sat us on opposite sides of the room, facing each other. Then, they announced in pairs the names of the families and the Peace Corps Volunteers who would be joining them. In the spirit of keeping an open mind, I decided to judge a book by its cover and select from among the Ghanaians the family I would like to join. One older man was wearing a shirt with Japanese cartoon drawings and I knew immediately he was the one for me. When my friend was paired with him, I was mildly disappointed, but when they called my name a few moments later, I jumped up and cheered all the same. I would be staying with the Kyere family, Seth, his wife Agnes, their 22 year old daughter Deborah, and their 23 year old son Sammy who lived in Accra but came to visit. The Kyeres are among the warmest, most caring people I have ever been privileged to meet. They took me into their home and showed the affection normally reserved for one’s own children. They insisted I refer to them as my mother and father, and they called me son.

Religion too:

During the next two months I would learn a great deal about Ghana from the Kyere’s. They lived in a town called Masse, a short ride from the hub site, of about 1500 people. Seth is an Orange farmer and the church elder at the Pentecost church. Agnes runs the family’s general store just off the main strip in town. The Kyere’s truly provided not just a comfortable place to stay and warm feelings, but also a fantastic entrée into several facets of Ghanaian culture. The Kyeres are extremely religious, and Ghanaians in general, are as well. All night revivals are common. 4 hour church services are standard. Pastors are celebrities. It’s America, only more so.

Seth, as the church elder, would attend church at minimum 3-4 times a week. In an effort to integrate into the family and culture, I would occasionally accompany him. For a Jew, I certainly find myself in church more than I ever thought I would. Seth and Agnes really appreciated it when I went to church with them, and even though the services were long and in Twi, the predominant language of southern Ghana and the Ashanti people, I often obliged their wishes. You see, the hospitality they offered me was so magnanimous that I felt I owed it to them. I also felt guilty for on occasion traipsing through the woods in the dark of night on a bush path to see a girl I liked, a fellow Peace Corps volunteer living in a town 30 minutes away at the end of that path. The Kyere’s worried about me, and attending church was my means of repentance. Nevertheless, there were times I enjoyed services. I like to try most things once, and I absolutely was interested in understanding what went on during these very loud church services all throughout the country. The answer is that interspersed between a firebrand style of preaching are lots of singing and dancing, which as much as I could (not knowing the songs), I partook in. I also witnessed an exorcism, which was a first.

Ghanaian Food:

From Agnes, I learned about Ghanaian food. Agnes was recognized as one of the best cooks in Masse, and I have no reason to doubt the verity of that recognition. Ghanaian food is quite different from what I am used to, either Chinese or American food, but Agnes made sure that I had ample opportunity to adjust to this new cuisine. Ghanaian food can be summarized as a selection of carbohydrate balls (made from yam, cassava, plantains, rice, maize, or millet), which are dipped in a soup or stew with one’s hands. The most famous Ghanaian dish, fufu, can be made from yam, cassava, or plantains, and is pounded with a large wooden stick until soft and elastic. Fufu, because of the texture gained from 15 minutes of pounding, is not chewed but simply swallowed. Although it took some acclimation, fufu with a spicy tomato based light soup is now one of my favorite Ghanaian dishes. Agnes always served me portions far larger than I could eat, and insisted that I “eat all.” I have discovered that one of the surest ways to get somebody to like you is to eat as much of the food they cook for you as you possibly can, and then keep eating. This method has earned me friends, literally, all over the world, and I employed it with Agnes, stuffing my face at every meal. It didn’t hurt that the food Agnes served me really was scrumptious.

Site Placement Interview:

To this point I have described my early training experience, and when you are in the midst of training, it is hard to see past it. Yet, in a few short months we would all be graduating from training, leaving the comfort of the communities we were forming and, much as we did during vision quest, disseminate throughout Ghana, this time for two years. Our Peace Corps experiences would be shaped above all by where we situated for these 2 years; this would be determined in a site placement interview.

During the interview, all Peace Corps Volunteer Trainees interviewed with our bosses, the Assistant Peace Corps Directors of our given sector. The APCD for the Small Enterprise Development sector, a Ghanaian from the Volta region named Beza, asked us a series of questions designed to glean what type of site would best suit each volunteer. The questions ranged from those trying to understand our work background and skills, to our interests, and even to our lifestyle preferences. I mentioned my time working in financial services in Shanghai, my leadership and management experience during and post-college, proficiencies in language learning, writing, communication, etc.—standard interview fodder. I also expressed my interest in agribusiness, micro-finance, and working with groups of women entrepreneurs. Despite having about as much experience in agriculture as Billy Crystal in “City Slickers,” I believe that development work begins with agriculture. The poorest working people in the world are farmers, and food prices and supply affect the poor more so than any other commodity. What I did not know, I wished to learn, and I would use the skills I had developed to help Ghana’s farmers profit from their toil. Finally, Beza asked me about the lifestyle I would feel comfortable with at site. I must have been feeling somewhat inspired, wholly insane, and more than a touch of hubris that day because I sat there and told him (and believed) I wanted to be in a rural village, preferably in the north of the country, I did not care if my site had electricity or running water, and I viewed Peace Corps not as a normal job but as service to my country and to the people of Ghana. I told him further I would not terminate early from Peace Corps unless extreme circumstances demanded it. I just hope I am not Ulysses shouting at the gods.

Site Placement: Bugubelle(pop. 800)

The most important day of training, and arguably all of Peace Corps, was the day on which we were assigned to our sites. Peace Corps staff had drawn a large map of Ghana in chalk on the pavement in the Hub Site. Then, in similar yet far more drumroll-please fashion to the Homestay assignments, they called off our names and sites one by one and literally placed us on the map so that not only could we physically see where we would be living for 2 years, but we could also see which volunteers we’d be spending much of our time with, and those whom we’d see almost never. As usual, with “Schatz” coming towards the end of the alphabet, I had the opportunity to see most of my friends assigned well before me. When I knew my name would be called soon, I began to get very nervous. I didn’t even know exactly where I wanted to be assigned and told myself I would be happy with any site. Then they called “Jonathan Schatz, Bugubelle, Upper West Region.” Before this even registered, I whooped with joy, ran over to the Upper West Region on the map, and gave all of my new neighbors hugs. I was to be far from many of the friends I had made thus far during training, but I had wanted to be in the North, and the Upper West region was the most remote, farthest from Accra in the country. I read the packet they handed to me hungrily, skipping to find the important details: “agro-processing center”, “womens’ groups”, “shea butter, ground nuts, cereals, rice, soya”, “population 800”,”NO ELECTRICITY IN THE VILLAGE.”
I began to laugh. What had I gotten myself into? Yet I was excited, excited to have a Peace Corps experience to the fullest extent of what I had imagined Peace Corps to be. Near to the border with both the Upper East region and Burkina Faso, Bugubelle was probably the second most remote site of those handed out this year. My nearest neighbor, two and a half hours away from me by car, has the only site more remote. Yet my APCD had granted me everything I asked for in the interview: a rural community, in the north of the country, agribusiness, working with womens’ groups, and although I had wanted electricity, I had in some way expected not to get it.
After all the assignments had been made, we went around comparing our assignments with other volunteers. I found out that I was the only SED volunteer not to have electricity, but I was also one of only two in the North and the only one assigned to work with both farmers and women. This was the assignment I wanted. We all celebrated with beers at the nearest drinking spot, and when I went to bed that night, I breathed a “holy cow” sigh, shook my head and chuckled, and drifted into sleep.

Nana and Sofia and SED:

Once we knew where we would be going after we would swear in as official PCVs, we knew what language we would be learning, and so, training could begin in full force. Each day was divided into two segments, a language segment and a technical segment. Bugubelle is located in the Sissala tribal area of Ghana, and my language teacher, Sofia, would be teaching the Sissala language to myself and one other volunteer, David, the same guy who roomed with me that first night in Philadelphia. On the surface, David and I had little in common. David had packed less luggage than any other PCV; I had packed more. David had a healthy tan complexion from a vigorous outdoor life; I didn’t know the word “sun” could be spelled with a “u”. David had hiked the Appalachian Trail; I had played the video game Oregon Trail. However, I quickly learned that this introverted mountain-man would be the perfect neighbor and classmate. What I lacked in “skills” and “competence,” David made up for in spades, and we enjoyed brainstorming ways in which we could develop our communities. We talked about sports, music (these days when we meet up David plays the guitar while I sing), the Peace Corps, life, literature, politics, and girls.

We also found in common how much we both liked our teacher. Sofia is a large, gregarious, uniquely independent Ghanaian woman from the capital of the Sissala region, Tumu, who speaks seven languages, loves to laugh, and most importantly seemingly loved to put David and I into situations that made her laugh. She constantly had us playing games, singing Sissala songs loudly in front of random Ghanaian spectators (who didn’t speak a word of Sissala), and participating in silly skits. She was a great teacher who really got us engaged and is as smart as they come. We spent six hours a day with her, learning the language and the culture of the Sissala people. Without her guidance, my integration into my community would have been far less successful. Although I’d be lying if I said that I enjoyed every minute of class, David, Sofia, and I found ways to enjoy ourselves, developing a bit of a routine, banter-wise:
Sofia: How many wives do you have? (in Sissala)
David: 10
Jonathan: 11
David: Actually, I have 12 wives.
Jonathan: Actually, I have …
Sofia: What are your wives names?
Jonathan: Assibi, Assibi, Assibi, Assibi, Assibi, Assibi, Azuma, Azuma, Azuma, Azuma.
Sofia: You can’t have 10 wives with only two names!
Jonathan: Assibi, Assibi, Assibi, Assibi, Assibi, Assibi, Azuma, Azuma, Azuma, AND Rainbow.
You get the idea (I didn’t say we were funny, just that after weeks of six hour a day of language learning monotony, there was laughter).
From Sofia, we learned about the History of the Sissala people, the customs for greeting and living in the village, and we learned about the way of life into which we’d soon be entering, and this occupied the bulk of our training, especially during the early weeks.
The rest of my training was spent with my SED colleagues under the direction of our SED Coordinator, a “progressive” Akon Chief named Nana. Nana may be the most interesting Ghanaian I have met. Although short and somewhat paunchy, Nana carried himself in a way that left no doubt that he was special, noble even. Yet, he did not come across as stuffy or haughty, as he has the most joyful, childlike high pitched wheezing laugh I have ever heard in a grown man. Chiefs occupy a very important place in the communities in which they live. Even though Ghana is a democracy, a chief plays an important role in shaping virtually every element of community life. They have the power to initiate programs, rally public opinion, or stop an initiative dead in its tracks. Throughout Ghana, chiefs tend to be powerful citizens, given levels of respect not accorded most folks. Some chiefs use their status and power to enrich themselves, others to enrich their communities, and others still in the service of their country. Although a privileged and reasonably powerful man in his own right, Nana had devoted his life to development and social change. As a youth, he lived in Cuba and studied “the revolution” and had been a communist. As he matured, he began to see the benefits of development utilizing the system of capitalism. Instead of padding his bank account, he spent 12 years of his adult life living in villages, attempting to encourage social change through the vehicle of financial education and the encouragement of savings and entrepreneurial practices. In the brief 8 weeks we Americans were under his tutelage, he tried to impart his knowledge and experiences to us.

The SED group:

Traditionally, the SED group consists of many of the stronger A-type personalities in Peace Corps, the Small Enterprise Development sector attracting a certain type of business-minded individual. This year was no exception. With the highest average age of any of the sectors and comprising people with a wide array of business backgrounds, the SED group did not lack for forceful characters, willing and occasionally eager to make known their disagreements with others (those of you that know me know I obviously was no exception). Nana presented class activities designed to engage that nature of ours and channel it towards productive and thought provoking ends. He was a natural small-d democrat, and his activities and lessons integrated lecture with interactive participation. We would work in teams to design business models or analyze a small business owners’ finances. He gave us the lay of the land in the Ghana small-micro enterprise sector.


The activity that most impacted me was our group’s creation of a small communal savings and loans association know in Ghana as a Susu. Susu’s are fairly ubiquitous in Ghana, and it is one of the features of this country that makes development prospects more encouraging. These community savings groups operate primarily in the informal sector of the economy in places where traditional banking access is limited, flawed, or non-existent. Although Ghana has many formal banking institutions, these institutions are generally interested in catering to clientele they deem more profitable, namely urban clientele. Even the rural banks, created and supported by the Ghanaian government specifically to address the credit and savings needs of rural communities fall far short in achieving their expressed goal, a problem due as much to negligence on the part of the people running the banks as to the systematic challenges of reaching the rural poor. Susus represent the communities’ attempt to encourage savings and provide micro credit to its members.
Susu’s are typically operated among groups of people (often women) who trust each other and have a mutual desire to save and access credit. Although there are several ways in which they can go about doing so, all of them amount to a pooling of money, collected at weekly meetings, stored in a shared safe box with passbooks to track the cash flow that are designed such that even illiterate farmers can understand how much they are saving. The staggering thing about these Susus is that by and large they work. The default rate within these Susus is very low, typically far lower than bank default rates precisely because this money is generated within the community and participants apply significant social pressure on other members. The goals of the participants tend to be modest and practical and afford a greater level of life control. Simply engaging in savings practices for the first time can help a mother to afford her children’s school fees or start a small business. In a country where even micro-loans come with an interest rate of between 27-40%, these Susus are all the more essential.

A lesson for Americans:

I was ecstatic to learn more and walk into a culture that was taking charge of its finances. In America, we find ourselves hostage to the financial control of people disconnected from our struggles and dreams. As much as we hope that and rely upon the government to regulate Wall Street, the continual failure of it to do so should only indicate that if we are to gain control of our economy, our savings, and our credit, we must emulate the Ghanaian villager and take control of our finances. Fortunately, what I am saying is nothing new, and institutions like credit unions are presently doing this in America and have been doing so actively since the late 19th century when farmers in Midwest and Southern states pooled their resources to give them greater leverage in purchasing farm equipment, allowing them to at times bypass Wall Street. The model still exists and is particularly feasible with the smaller levels of capital required by small and medium scale entrepreneurs—the chief generators of new jobs in America. Until Americans take control of their finances, we will all be subject to the whims, the greed, and begged-for good nature of men in vaunted halls most of us will never see.

Capitalism is the great engine of the world, and it is the best economic system developed and tried by man. However, it does not take a genius to see the system is broken. Capitalism can and must be utilized for the development of not just the top 10% of the world’s economy but for the bottom 50%, the billions making less than 2 dollars a day. Central to this effort is reclaiming finance. If the entrepreneur is the actor in capitalism, finance is the blood. Without an affordable stream of credit to the right entrepreneurs, the economy stalls.
The rise of micro-credit in the developing world has been heavily publicized in recent years thanks to the triumph of institutions like the Bangladeshi Grameen Bank, and I was excited to participate first hand in Ghana’s Susus. As a SED class, we created our own internal Susu. I immediately became enthralled with the possibilities this offered, and my class elected me to be the moderator of our SED Susu. I quickly learned how difficult that charge would be. I early on imposed my thoughts and voice on our Susu meetings, abusing to an extent the power granted to me as moderator. Half the class rebelled, against the Susu and against me, with two members refusing to participate in the end. Although the other half supported me, I found that I had failed in my role by making the Susu about me. I had a dream and wanted to foist it upon others, but the point of community finance is that it is democratic, adopted and run by the community. There will be debate, and there will be disagreement, and it is not about the vision of any one member, but about finding a collective vision—the task is not easy, but it can and is accomplished every day, throughout Ghana. I had learned a lesson.

SuMO (Susu Microfinance Organization):

Even with the internal struggles of our SED Susu, two of my classmates and good friends, T.K. and Chris, were as interested as I in utilizing the Susu model within Peace Corps to raise funds for local community projects. With this in mind, we developed a presentation to recruit Peace Corps members to together to start a microfinance organization of our own, which we called SuMO (Susu Microfinance Organization). The idea was simply for each member of SuMO to contribute 5 dollars a month to a joint bank account, the money from which would be used to grant the money back out in a competitive grant process to the communities of the Peace Corps members of SuMO—SuMO raised money granted to the communities of SuMO members. When we presented the idea to our peers, the response was unexpected and overwhelming. About half of our Peace Corps class signed up. People were very interested in understanding and participating in micro-finance. This time, I tried to be a better leader. I spent less time foisting my opinion and more time listening to and considering questions. SuMO has been shaped by those thoughts and questions, and if it is to survive, its direction must be determined by its members. SuMO is still in its nascent stages, and we are struggling with the opening of the joint bank account (foreigners face many regulations in Ghana when trying to open a joint bank account), but I remain optimistic that SuMO will work and positively affect the lives of the PCVs who participate and the communities in which they live.

The SED-Stache:

Aside from the many wonderful things I was learning, I was making even more wonderful bonds of friendship with a few of my fellow SED volunteers. After vision quest, I decided to shave, and by fate or grace or some awful impulse, I decided to shave everything but my mustache. When I showed up to training the next day, my good friend Mike, a giant of a man, one inch taller than me and almost twice my weight, took one look at my face, laughed, and exclaimed “yes!” With that, the SED-Stache was born. Mike and I agreed not to shave our mustache for the rest of training, and we convinced T.K. and Chris, and a few of the other male SED volunteers to do the same. Needless to say, we looked hideous, but the SED-Stache became a thing of pride. Although my mustache can hardly be called attractive, the real winners of the SED-Stache “prize” were T.K. and Chris, both blond, who looked like somebody had put whiskers on their upper lips. T.K. looked like a catfish.
On the day training ended and we swore in as Peace Corps Volunteers, I sang the American National Anthem with a fellow PCV Emma (who has a great voice and possesses far more musical talent than I can claim) at the opening ceremony, dressed as a Ghanaian woman in a skit David and I put on for our Sissala language group, and danced in two Ghanaian dancing lines. We were all sad to be leaving our friends from training, but we were ready to go to our sites and begin our lives as real Peace Corps volunteers. The next morning, I shaved my SED-Stache and boarded the first tro of many to take me to Bugubelle. The adventure was about to begin.

The pictures are of: 1)My SED Group (the guy in front dressed extravagantly is Nana), 2)Sofia and I, 3)my Ghanaian parents, Agnes and Seth Kyere, 4)me with the girl I traipsed through the woods to see, and 5)me after swearing in, the SED-Stache freshly shaved.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

View from the Valley

Ghana blog post 3

The chief problem with describing my life in Ghana in the past-tense is that the nature of life here is one constantly transformation; specifically, my views on Ghanaian culture and life are changing, such that things that were difficult or shocking or fascinating to me initially become commonplace over time, and often in not much time at all. For that reason, any reader of this blog will be denied the type of first-person present, documentary-like experience of going through Ghana with me. Additionally, whenever people experience new things, we react to them in ways that upon reflection, we may feel do not show us in our best light. For instance, within a week of arriving in Ghana, I had adopted a ridiculous “Ghanaian English” accent in order to be better understood by Ghanaians. The result was that I was usually understood, but I sounded, as I just wrote, ridiculous, and was not speaking with a Ghanaian English accent but rather in the way a comedian might speak if he were making fun of Africans (Pictcha me speekin like dis my brudda). I have since toned down my accent a bit (although it is still, after my fashion, over the top) and am moderately embarrassed by my earlier imitation, which I consider patronizing in the same way that speaking very loudly and slowly to an immigrant who speaks perfect English is. The point is, we learn from our mistakes , are reinforced by our successes, and we grow, and sometimes, we hide, consciously or sub-consciously, from our past, our follies. This will inevitably be reflected in this blog until I catch-up, and in all likelihood, even after. Nevertheless, I look forward to the type of free flowing writing that the present-tense can offer. Trust that I have ambitions of honesty. For now, I must resolve to take small steps, in my blog as in life. This entry is my step off the plane, and into my first week as a Peace Corps trainee in Ghana:
It seemed a poignant contrast that my last view of America was that of New York City, perhaps the greatest city in the world, on the way to the airport. Stepping off the plane in Ghana, tired, excited, anxious, a fellow trainee near me started to sing the song "Africa" by Toto; I knew I wasn't in Kansas anymore.
The Accra airport looked old and run down, but may simply have been shoddily built. Nevertheless, I had been to worse, more chaotic airports (Heathrow for a start), and we, the PC trainees, were ushered like sheep through baggage claim, through customs and passport inspections, through the rain, and onto a lush, air-conditioned bus, in Ghana. The city of Accra is the capital of Ghana. With a population of about 2 million and considered to be one of the most developed cities in Sub-Saharan Africa, Accra certainly did not represent the rest of Ghana (where we would be living), but driving through its streets in comfortable leather seats, the sights we sped past were a far cry from Manhattan, or Shanghai for that matter.
We were taken to the Peace Corps headquarters in Accra-North. The compound is walled off from the rest of Accra, and inside it looked a little like what you might expect a small Club Med would look like if it were built in the sixties with little maintenance over the years and no ocean. Ghana, the closest country in the world to 0 longitude, 0 latitude, is right smack dab in the tropics, and the headquarters contained a number of palm trees and a summer hut, under which we all sat as the rain kept us cool and slightly wet. We were greeted by our Country Director Mike, and a slew of Ghanaians, including several importing looking people dressed in traditional Ghanaian garb.
Undoubtedly many of you are interested in a description of Ghanaian clothing, and as a loving blog writer, I should give one. On this count, I will procrastinate, and at a later date, hopefully, oblige you. Who knows, I may even post pictures! For now, suffice to say that Ghanaian clothing consists primarily of brightly colored and patterned cloth and is in my opinion quite beautiful. Ghanaians highly value their appearance.
Ghana was the first country to receive Peace Corps volunteers, which they did almost 50 years ago after JFK started the program in 1961. It was clear from the get-go that Ghana took pride in its relationship with Peace Corps and vice-versa, and the reception we received was warm. We were given a shot of apateshie (the locally brewed alcohol – think moonshine), which is often drunk at traditional ceremonies, and endured several short, forgettable speeches.
Over the next five days, we would all be ushered back and forth between the Peace Corps headquarters and our first living quarters in Ghana, at Valley View College, in a women’s center college dormitory, on the outskirts of Accra. If you are paying attention to the titles of my blog, now is a good time to recognize the pun in this one – View from the Valley, get it (my apologies)? Arriving at Valley View was for me, intimidating. The college grounds, though spacious, were nothing like those of my beloved Duke, nor even of my local community college. Many of the buildings were in poor condition and others still appeared to be in a state of perpetual construction (actually, that is like Duke). We were all placed in an enclosed compound which had dorm rooms along the outside of a square with an open space in the middle. Virtually all of the training staff (with the exception of the people at the top with whom we would have limited contact) were Ghanaian. When they spoke, I often could not understand them. On the first night, a giant black scorpion appeared right in the middle of our group, an event which frightened even the Ghanaians among us. Although the rooms were fine and pretty clean, several elements were cause for consternation. The first were the giant spiders—flat spiders which run very fast (if spiders can be said to run) and are bigger than just about any spider I have seen in the States with the possible exception of Tarantulas. The next was the bucket baths we would be taking. For Peace Corps Volunteers, running water is a luxury few of us receive. My first encounter with my to-be method of bathing occurred that first night, when I filled a bucket with water, and got to it. Now I enjoy a nice cool bucket bath, but try to understand that in my mind, I had few expectations of what Peace Corps life would be like, and what I did expect tended to reflect my fears. When I encountered the bucket bath, spiders, and scorpions, these confirmed in some small way the challenges that I expected PC life to entail.
The final thing that concerned me was that all of my volunteer cohorts appeared to be far, far more outdoorsy and for lack of a better word, “hardcore” than me. There were hippies from Colorado, farmer’s daughters and sons from Illinois and Montana, hikers from Upstate New York, field biologists, big game hunters, etc. Even the so-called nerds of the group: science and ICT teachers, included black belts, mountain climbers, and bikers (of both the Hell’s Angels and Lance Armstrong variety). EVERYBODY couldn’t wait to start cooking for themselves. My idea of a good meal is one that somebody delivers to my door at 11:30 PM.
I knew I could deal with it, but that first night was stressful, and I lay awake in bed, dirty, worrying that a spider would crawl on me in my sleep, that I’d catch Malaria, or poop my pants. But I told myself to be brave, and I survived that first night, and the nights after that, and I stopped worrying so much about these small things and started focusing on everything else that was coming my way.
It was during these first few days that I began to really get to know some of my fellow PCVs. It was a bit like college study abroad at first, with everybody dashing to get to know each other, form cliques, and if possible find somebody with whom to spend one night or two years worth of nights together; however, I found that I really liked a great many of them. These were some cool people. They also weren’t as hardcore as I thought (well some were), either that or they weren’t significantly more hardcore than me. Administratively, we accomplished very little during our first four days aside from some small language lessons in Twi (which is the most widely spoken of the local Ghanaian languages), getting a few shots and medical and security briefings, and getting a lessons in how to wash our clothes by hand.
Valley View rather was defined by the people and social experience of 72 new arrives getting to know each other. I imagine that people who considered me at all thought me to be an odd duck. I had spent the last two and a half years of my life wearing suits and ties, and thinking I might have cause to wear one, I brought one, my best one, in fact – a tailor made pin-stripe suit from Shanghai. Of all the things I packed, this was by far and away the most absurd. Nevertheless, I was determined to use it, and when we were told we would have site-placement interviews, I decided to truly dress to impress and wear the suit. That morning, as I stepped out into the Valley View quad, I was greeted with one of three responses: 1. Why are you wearing a suit? 2. Looking sharp 3. Laughter. When we arrived for our interviews, they turned out not to be the site-interviews with our future bosses, but turned out instead to be medical interviews, where we would be given a shot…”Schatz” comes towards the end of the alphabet, and so I waited most of the day in the blazing hot weather, wearing the suit. When I finally got inside, sweating profusely, the ”interview” lasted 10 minutes and consisted of exactly what you’d expect it would in a medical interview. I rolled up the sleeve of my sweat-soaked collared shirt, and was pricked in the arm. On the way back to Valley View, I ripped my suit pant leg on a rusty nail sticking out of a pole. Somebody helpfully suggested I turn it into suit shorts. Good riddance suit.
We also had a talent show, and I, inevitably, signed up. Preceded by mostly guitar-playing males, I sang the operatic “O Sole Mio.” For a few days, I was known as “Opera Jonathan,” which was certainly better than the sobriquet “Suit Jonathan.” Somehow, I began to make friends, spent nights singing Beatles songs, playing Mafia, and even frolicked in a rain storm. The specter hanging over our heads was “Vision Quest.” Vision Quest is a journey that all Omnibus volunteers (non-teacher PCVs) take 5 days into Peace Corps to visit a current volunteer in the field. There was a lot of hype surrounding Vision Quest, and rightly so. We would be travelling by ourselves or with a partner using public transportation to potentially anywhere in Ghana when we hadn’t even been in the country a week. I was nervous.
The night before Vision Quest, however, we were to go to the US Embassy in Accra for a swanky reception to send us off into the grime and glamor of Peace Corps life. We all dressed our best (no suit for me, just a blazer), and were undoubtedly the cleanest we would be for the next two years. The shindig was quite something, with a live-band, delicious finger food and ample drink all set in a posh residence. The Ambassador, Donald Teitelbaum, was gracious and gave a typical and thankfully short speech. After less than 2 hours of FUN, we were ushered quickly out of the house (lest we get too accustomed to such comforts), and back to Valley View where I received my Vision Quest assignment. I would be traveling to Kandiga, in the Upper East region, near the border with Burkina Faso. It was the longest trip anybody would have to take. Maybe it was eagerness to get out of Valley View, the confidence that new friendships and a few days without diarrhea or sickness can bestow, or the wine flowing through my blood, but for some reason, I was stoked.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Orientation, Philadelphia, and Zsa Zsa

The day I went to the San Francisco airport to head to Philadelphia began like any other day for a member of the Schatz household who is moving to a foreign country begins…with teary goodbyes and excessive luggage. My flight was scheduled early out of SFO to Philly, and like the diligent, responsible human being I am, I arrived early and prepared. I would be moving to Ghana for 2 years, a country I knew little about beyond the meager research I had done before going, and from what I could tell, Ghana was poorer than the United States, and had less available hand sanitizers. I knew I couldn’t bring the United States with me to Ghana, but gosh darn, I was going to try. And try I did. With the help of my overzealous, caring parents, I packed much; much much. Clothes, books (lots of books), electronic accessories, survival gear, and hand sanitizer. Equipped with 2 monstrous bags, a mid-size travel bag, and a backpack, I trundled into the airport and went smoothly (if bulkily) through check in and security arriving at the gate with little stress, except for the overwhelming sensation of complete change and teary goodbyes, early mornings, and vast unknowns.
Little did I know, but the already tiring, draining trip to the gate would be the least of my worries that day. First, my flight was delayed, then delayed more, then delayed yet again, then cancelled. Because of the repeated delays, almost all of the other flights to Philly that day had already left or were fully booked. I grabbed my checked in luggage and began running (sprinting) around (ALL bags in tote) the airport and waiting in ridiculously long line after ridiculously long line trying desperately to get to Philiadelphia so that I could actually go to Ghana. Fortunately for myself and for the two other PCVs I met in SFO, Richard and Chelsea, we somehow managed to get on a flight and arrived late, late in the night in Philadelphia where we had already missed some of Orientation and were forced to tip-toe into our respective rooms without unduly disturbing our snoring roommates. Despite my skill at carrying excessive luggage, David heard me come in and woke up. It was 4:30 A.M. when I went to bed.
I arose at 6:30 to begin Orientation began. I could quickly see that the fuss over arriving late to Orientation lacked reason…Orientation was boring. I spent a lot of time, sitting in rooms, waiting in lines, and trying (futilely) to get to know the other 71 volunteers who would be shipping over with me to Ghana. The setting was not conducive to conversations of any depth, and we were really just being shepherded through administrative necessity after administrative necessity—the Peace Corps trying to do what they had to make sure we all went to Ghana legally. Orientation also was short. We spent two days in Philadelphia before driving up to New York and JFK airport, from which we would ultimately fly to Ghana. The highlights of Orientation undoubtedly were the overpriced Philly Cheesteak I consumed (my last non-kosher meal—more on this later), and the night we all went to Karaoke for Kevin with the superb mustache’s birthday. I sang Crocodile Rock. I am a ham.
When we all went to JFK on busses, it became very clear to me just how much I had over-packed. The roommate whom I had disturbed, David, had brought little more than a hiking backpack with him. I, with my 4 bags, 3 of them rolling, was the Zsa Zsa Gabor of Peace Corps. Channeling Zsa Zsa, and all the socialites that came before me, I strutted my way through JFK and into Ghana.

This, the first blog entry, is, like my life, late and out of order

Greetings from Ghana! Greetings from an official Peace Corps Volunteer!
I have been in Ghana for 12-13 weeks now and this is my first blog post…sorry.  Please trust that I have been incredibly busy, had very little internet access, and that I always planned on starting up a blog as soon as training ended.  See how I deliver on my promises?
Well training is done, and I have begun my service as a PCV (Peace Corps Volunteer), and there is so much to tell that I don’t know whether to start from the beginning or the end or in medias res, but I think stream of consciousness perhaps will work best, because otherwise I think this will take far too much time, and I’ll enjoy it far more if I do it in rhyme, at least until the stream runs dry, and from lack of inspiration I break down and cry.  So hear it goes I'll give a try, and yet here I am still delaying, oh how the time flies...ok, enough with that!  Here are some facts:
In the beginning...I had been living in Shanghai for 2.5 years, had a steady job with Global Shares, and a well developed life, which I left in a whirlwind fashion after hearing with little advance notice that I had been accepted to join the Peace Corps in Ghana as a Small Enterprise Development Volunteer.  It was a very emotional time in my life, and I really did leave a lot behind.  I still miss my friends and colleagues in Shanghai and hope to remain in contact with them.  
Yet a life in the Peace Corps called to me.  The adventure, the challenge, and the opportunity to orient my life towards bettering the world, particularly towards utilizing the resources and dynamism of capitalism to the benefit of the world's poorest billions proved to be an opportunity I could not pass up.  And thus, I quit my job, broke up with my girlfriend, gave up any hopes (fledgling as they were) at Chinese Pop Stardom (capitalized), and moved back to the States, where I would spend 2 weeks at home in California with my parents before heading off to Peace Corps staging in Philadelphia.