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.