Wednesday, March 24, 2010

I am blessed

All my life, I've felt that I've been searching for something. I'm not even sure what that something is, but I know it is missing because I don't feel whole. There is an absence in my heart that makes it impossible for me to be happy for any sustainable amount of time. Sure, I see glimmers of happiness here and there, but it never quite sticks. Never.

I probably cause most of my own unhappiness. I tend to isolate myself out of fear. It is like I build a fort out of the empty boxes of my life, and climb inside to protect myself. Where the boxes ever even full? Or where they always empty? Just dreams...hopes, never realized. I use them as my armor, though cardboard is easily penetrable. I feel that I should make a choice and commit to it, rather than sitting in limbo just hoping the big bad wolf won't come and blow my fort down. I either need to stay in my fort and reinforce its walls with brick and mortar, or I need to knock it down, and destoy the pieces.

These last 12 months of my life have been...different. I've continually tried to do the things that scare me the most; to make the opposite decision that I would make normally; to break out of my fort. I've lived 29 years being afraid of everything and it has gotten me virtually no where. I felt it was time to face those fears and try a new road, a new philosphy.

The first step was going to Australia. As an adult, I've never really gone on a vaction. I was always afraid of what might happen at home while I was gone and therefore out of control. I was always afraid of spending money because a disaster might strike and I'd need that money to repair the damage. It became clear to me that I have been spending some much energy trying to control life, that I've really missed out on the very thing I was trying to control. So when the opportunity to go to Australia with Marieke and Lise came about, I went for it. What better way to get over my fear of travelling than to go to the opposite side of the planet? Face that fear head on. And I loved it.

Not only did I love it, but no disaster struck while I was away. Since then, I have travelled to Spain, England and the Netherlands by myself, quit my job, got rid of my apartment and came to Ghana. I've shed my armor. Now what?

This trip to Ghana has turned out to be exaclty what I hoped it would not. I was trying to avoid a volunteer placement that was about me, not the people here who need help. It has morphed into a sort of vacation, considering I have gotten nearly nothing accomplished. My NGO has basically left me out to dry. I have had near zero interaction with the organization since my arrival. Without any training or preparation, they sent me to establish an HIV education program in a remote village. I have no support, no tools, no resources, no funding. Nada. What is worse, I have no experience and no one to work with. This is ridiculous.

I've also come to find out that my counterpart and caretaker are barely given a fair wage for the work they do for me...and they can't even rely on actually being paid. Futher, the bulk of the money I spent to come here was supposed to go towards room and board. I have discovered, though, that the room I am staying in, including the electricity was donated from the homeowner. SO WHERE IS THE REST OF THE MONEY? In the NGO's pocket.

Let's do the math. I paid GVN approximately $1500 for 6 weeks. I know that approximately $300 of that was for an application fee, and I assume GVN kept this. That is fine, they provided a service. So, that leaves $1200 that went towards my actual stay here in Ghana. My counterpart gets paid at a rate of 100GHC per month, and my caretaker gets a rate of 250GHC per month. That only adds up to 525GHC. At an exchange rate of 1.45GHC per USD, they are getting paid only $360. That leaves $940. A donation was supposed to be made to the project on which I am working. As far as anyone knows, not one dime, or pesewa has come to Abuadi.

I also know that my counterpart and caretaker only got paid half their fee. The other half is to be paid at the end of my 6 week stay. None of this is in writing, by the way, and they get paid in cash. Very shady business. I am going to see the director of the NGO tomorrow, when I tell him that I am leaving early. I aim to make it very clear to Mr. Director that I want my counterpart and caretaker paid for the full six weeks, and I want them paid before I leave on Saturday. I expect this to be a problem, but I'm not willing to accept anything other than full payment, with a record of that payment.

Upon my return to the States, I plan to get my CBO partnered with another NGO because Bridge is obviously corrupt...well, atleast the Volta Branch is corrupt. Anani and Favor can't risk losing the income they have, even if it is below market and unreliable. Once I get the CBO partnered again, I plan to pursue having Bridge's NGO certification taken away. But most important, I need to make sure that Anani and Favor are taken care of. I don't want to hurt them in my efforts to help them.

The sky has been gray here in Ghana for days and days now. You can literally stare directly at the full sun in the heat of the day without blinking because the fog is so thick. There has been no rain. It if officially the dry season here, and no rain means no farming. No farming means no food. No food means starvation. Most everyone here in Abuadi is a farmer. They are first famers, and all have second jobs and maybe a third...Anani is a farmer, works as my counterpart, is an electrician by trade, and even works to collect trash.

For Abuadi there is a solution to the lack of farming in the dry season. There is an abandoned dam nearby. With another volunteer they managed to raise enough money to buy a water pump that can be used for irrigation in the dry season, but they still need more money to dredge the abandoned dam of years worth of silt. The estimate for de-silting the dam is $12,000USD. When the average household in Abuadi earns just $600USD per year, you can see that $12,000 looks like an unclimbable mountain, an inpassable river.

Aside from the most immediate goals of fixing this debacle of a volunteer placement, I really don't know what I want to do with myself when I get back to the States. I was seriously hoping for an ephiany. I was hoping that the trees in the forrest would part, and a path would become clear. Alas, all I see are the same detours and deadends.

The way I see it, I have the following options available to me:

1. head back to NYC and get a job doing what I was doing before I left

2. return to nursing school

3. pursue teaching

There is a fourth option, and it is the one I like the most...

4. buy a car and drive out west to work at a park for the summer

The fourth option is the most appealing to even the level-headed, think of the future Stephanie because after the summer is over, I can still opt for numbers 1-3. So, we'll see.

What is important here, for me, is that I have options, unlike the people here. I can wake up in the morning and not worry that there will be no food to eat. I know that if I get sick, I can see a doctor, get medication, or go to a hospital. I can flick a switch and lighten the dark. I can open a tap and drink clean water at any time.

Aside from an ephiany, I was hoping to learn some important lessons on this trip. I wanted to learn patience. I can't say that this has been achieved, but I am surely alot closer than I have ever been. I also wanted to learn how to take directions and navigate a map. I think I will just have to accept that my brain is incapable of this! A few times I attempted to use my guidebook map to get around a city only to discover that I had gotten it all backwards. Sheesh. The last, and probably the most important thing I hoped to gain was perspective.

It is through gaining a bit of perspective that I have been shown that I am truly blessed. I have options. I have my health and strength and intelligence. I have family that loves and supports me, and I have friends that I wouldn't trade for the world...And if I had never ventured this trip to Africa, maybe I would never have appreciated all these things so much.

Who knows what my next adventure might show me? Life really is about the journey, not the destination.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

All roads lead to Kumai

I hit the road Wednesday, March 17th (HAPPY ST. PATTY'S DAY) to make my way north with the ultimate goal of reaching Mole (pronounced like guaca-mole) National Park, Ghana's largest wildlife sanctuary. I knew this was going to be a rough trip, but even having spent over two weeks learning the ropes in transcity travel in Ghana didn't prepare me for what was to come.

I left the house at 7am, and, of course, waited for a trotro out of the village. Wednesday was a market day, so there were tons of folks waiting with their wares with me. And I finally saw a grasscutter, albeit a dead one. A grasscutter, also known as a cane rat, is a rodent, sometimes weighing up to 8kg, that is popularlly eaten as bushmeat in Ghana. One lady had one in a bucket (covered in flies) that she was bringing to the market to sell. I had to politely walk away and hope that the bucket of dead rat was going to be put on the roof of the trotro and not in the cabin with us.

We made our way to Ho, and there I paid two boys 10 pesewa each to lead me through the market (mayhem) and to the main station. In Ghana, having someone navigate the market for you is a very good investment. There I boarded a trotro to Accra...a 4 hour trip. It's gotten so that 4 hours in a cramped non-airconditioned dirty minivan doesn't even phase me. I arrived in Accra around 1pm, and thought that this was good because my guide book said that there were hourly STC buses to Kumasi leaving Accra until 2pm. No such luck. No more buses.

A bit heart heavy I started to walk to the center of the city. I had really hoped that I would have made it further. This delay would cost me nearly a day of travelling. And I really don't like Accra, so the idea of having a whole day and night to spend there wasn't appealing. As it happens, though, while walking the road I came upon a lot filled with buses. This was not marked on my map nor mentioned in my guide book, apparently because it is relatively new. I asked if any of the buses happened to be going to Kumasi, and voila! I'm on my way!

The private buses here are much much nicer in everyway to the public buses (Mass Metro). The one major drawback is that they play movies, badly made African movies (Nigerian I think), at an absurb volume. EVERYTHING here is loud. EVERYTHING. The people, the radios, the horns...its infuriating. A bus driver will blast the radio even at 4am. I think there must be an innate hearing deficit country-wide. And let me also point out that every male I happen to sit next to on a bus will ultimately ask me for my phone number. Without fail, every time. I used to tell them that I didn't have a phone, but then they would ask for my email or my home address. Now I just plainly tell people I don't give out any contact information. When they ask why, I simply tell them its because EVERYONE asks for it. I've grown tired of being overly polite to people who don't deserve it.

For example, last night I got on a trotro headed for Adaklu Mountain at 3:45pm. There are 50 some odd villages around Adaklu Mountain, including Abuadi. All the villages are first named Adaklu. I live in Adaklu Abuadi. Before boarding the tro I made sure to ask the driver if it was going to Abuadi, and he said it was. I then sat in this deathtrap for an hour while the driver ran paid errands in town. He stopped to pick up lumber and building supplies to be delivered to a village in Adaklu, then went back to the station and picked up more passengers before we even got on our way to the mountain. We arrived at Adaklu Helekepe around 5:30pm and everyone gets out of the tro except me. The driver then tells me that this is the last stop. Helekepe is about an hour's hike on a dirt road through the bush (which is home to deadly snakes) to Abuadi.

This driver didn't seem to understand that to tell me that he was going to Abuadi, to drive me around for two hours, and accept my payment to only leave me an hour away from my home just before dusk was obscenely unacceptable. He then demanded more money. I told Mr. Driver, who must only be a teenager, that he was not going to get anymore money, but perhaps a punch in the fking face if he didn't get back in the truck and drive me to Abuadi. I don't think he understood a word I said, but clearly my anger, indignation and refusal to backdown translated because he got back in the truck.

He drove me within in eyesight of my village, all the while telling me that he was hungry, an orphan and needed more money or food from me in exchange for driving me. Once out of the truck I ripped into this kid and told him that I would be sure to tell the people in my village, including the chief how he treated a volunteer. I then threw the bag of bananas I was holding at him and walked away. In hindsight, I should have thrown the pineapple I had, it would have hurt more. When I got back to my house and was greeted by the kids, I literally ran up to them and bear hugged them all. Its good to be home, and back in the village.

Back to Kumasi...I arrived around 7pm, got to a hotel, barely had enough energy to bath and eat before I passed out. Awake a dawn, as usual, I set out to explore Kumasi, Ghana's second largest city and the modern capital of the Ashanti Region. Holy crap. Kumasi is ridiculous. My guide book says its perfectly, so I won't try: Today, contrary to any expectations conjured up by the epithet "Ancient Ashanti Capital," your first impression upon arriving in Kumasi is less likely to be rustic traditionalism than daunting developing world urbanity. Kumasi is one of the most hectic cities...and the mood is emphantically modern: the surging throngs of humanity and constant traffic jams that emanate in every directon from the market and lorry station feel positively overwhelming...

Kejetia Market is reputedly the largest open market in West Africa. It is estimated that over 10,000 vendors set up shop in this market everyday, with many more spilling out onto the surrounding streets. It is amazing and terrifying at the same time. I ventured into this labrinth and was certainly dazed by its busy enourmity. Every kind of product possible is found here: radios, toothpaste, fish, batik, vegetables, soap, clothing, shoes, tires, and meat. There is a buther's block that is too awful to write about. But try to imagine piles of unnamed meat from various animals on bloody newspaper, covered in flies, baking in the African sun. Then try to imagine the smell.

There are so many things here that I would like to photograph, but can't. I stick out so much, I can never be just an observer. Things seem to stop when I walk by. People sometimes just stare. Others say hello and want to talk to you, or usually sell you something. Then others yell. OBRONI! WHERE ARE YOU GOING? YOU, WHITE PERSON, COME HERE NOW! HEY, YOU, GIVE ME MONEY!

Making my way out of the market (by a small miracle I am sure) and out onto the street to get some air and sense of direction, I walked to a corner to catch my breath. A girl selling water tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to another white person standing in the street not too far away. I shook my head "no," thinking that this girl had assumed that I was with the other white person, and then realized I KNOW HER!

I had first met Maaike in Elmina. We were on the same tour of St. George's Castle. She then walked passed my dinner table on the beach in Cape Coast the next night. We had dinner together that night and travelled up to Kakum National Park the next day. We then parted ways, having exhanged contact information. Maaike is from Holland and has been volunteer teaching in a school in Burkina Faso for 5 months. She was travelling a bit in Ghana before she headed back to Burkina, and then home.

What are the chances that she and I would be standing on the same street corner in Kumasi, at the same time weeks later? It must be fate! Or is it that all roads lead to Kumasi? Kumasi, in the center of the country is a major trasportation hub. To get most anywhere north, you have to go through Kumasi.

Needless to say, I was very happy to see Maaike's smiling face. She and I, along with a friend that she picked up on Kokrobite took on Kumasi together that day and night. We hit the market, again, Manhyia's Palace which was built in 1926 following the return from exile of Prempreh I, Kumasi Fort built by the British in 1897 and is arguably the oldest building in the city and now home to the Armed Forces Museum, and the National Cultural Center with a craft market with goods made onsite. Kumasi is also home to a very large bat, thousands. The hungry bats flock over the city sky at dusk. Its really a sight to be seen, and heard!

The three of us travel to the bus station at 4am to catch the early Mass Metro bus out of Kumasi north to Tamale. This 7 hour leg of the trip is really quite awful to recall. To me, the Mass Metro buses are like giant trotros. They are old, delapidated city buses filled to capacity with people and their luggage. The conductors pack the aisles and exits with bags and boxes. It is law suit central! Of course, a giant man sat next to me, and on 3/4 of my seat. And yes, he asked me for my phone number, several times.

Much of the road to Tamale isn't paved. You can see that they are doing work to make a highway, but completion seems a long way off. There is obviously no air conditioning, so the windows must be kept open and the dirt flows into the bus. This still isn't even the worst of the trip.

We arrive in Tamale and I see Maaike and her friend off in a trotro headed for Bolgatanga, on the border of Burkina, another 3 hours from Tamale. I get a ticket and wait for the next Mass Metro bus to Mole National Park. I wait for four hours, in the disgusting bus station, in the blistering sun. Now, a bus station is Ghana is nothing like a bus station in the States. Most buses leave from and park in the same lot as the trotros. There are vehicles of every axle count possible: bikes, taxis, trotros, buses...goats. And there is no order. Everything is a mismash. There is always music blaring from multiple spots, people are always yelling, and hawking their wares, horns are honking, and the sun is always blazing.

I literally had to talk myself out of crying right there and then standing in the middle of this mess. After travelling for hours and being dirty, and sweaty, and overheated, and pushed purposefully by two people: one a woman who didn't like me making a two minute phone call in front of her shop where she was taking a nap on the floor, and the other a Mass Metro employee who didn't like that I was standing too close to the door to the bus office, I had just about had it.

Finally the bus arrives, two hours late, and everyone and everything piles on board. I sat next to a woman, two coolers filled with god knows what, and had a small child sitting on my lap...on a dirt road for four hours. And this is the worst road I have ever been on. I'm not even sure it can be called a road. The woman next to me happened to be a saint, so all wasn't lost.

In Ghana, you have to ask people very specific questions. For example, when you ask the bus ticket vendor when the next bus to Accra is, she will tell you 10am. She won't tell you that she means 10am tomorrow, or that it is already full. Or when I called Mole Motel, the only hotel in the park, and asked if they had any rooms available, the man at the reception desk simply said no. What he didn't tell me was that there was plenty of room available in the dorm. So, I consult my guide book and locate a guest house in the village of Larabanga, approximately 3k outside of the park and select that as my destination.

Talking to the woman next to me, Amina, she tells me that I cannot stay in Larabanga. CANNOT. She said it was NOT safe and she was very emphatic about it. She even consulted a friend on the bus, who lives IN Larabanga, and he agreed. A lone white girl should not go there, especially at night. Now I'm freaked. Amina makes a phone call, and just a few seconds later, I have a reservation for a room at Mole Motel! HOW DID YOU DO THAT?? Turns out, she dates the manager. She and I exchanged numbers and she made sure that I got into the hotel ok, and called me everyday to make sure I was doing alright. Where do people like this come from? I can surely tell you that I will be much more patient with tourists in NYC when I get back. I promise!

Upon check in, I meet three girls: Amber from Florida, Tonya from England, and Sabina from Denmark, and we sort of adopt eachother for the weekend. These girls are great, and all three are volunteering in Koforidua. The more volunteers I meet, the more I am sure that I got a bum placement. Other people cannot believe that I am in a village alone. Nor can they believe that I have no training or anyone to work with. Quite frankly, sometimes I can't believe it myself.

First thing in the morning, leaving my room, I encounter a warthog. Holy crap. Seriously, there was a warthog right in front of my door. I came to the park to see animals, but I figured I'd have to go INTO the park to see them. I didn't know that they would come out of the park to see me. Having no experience with the nature of warthogs besides multiple viewings of Disney's The Lion King, I stood still and tried not to be noticed. The warthog, which turned out to be a mommy warthog, trotted by and was trailed by 5-6 babies. Wow!

We weren't 10 mintues into our morning safari hike when we came upon an elephant. I stood maybe 100 feet from a wild African elephant, and have the pictues to prove it! I think I said "HOLY CRAP" maybe 300x times this day. The elephant didn't too much appreciate us interrupting his breakfast and made it known by stomping its feet, grunting, and ripping branches from a nearby tree in protest. As it turns out though, elephants, for the most part are alot of bark with little bite. As soon as the armed park ranger threw a rock in the animal's general direction, the beautiful beast would back off. In all, we saw three elephants that morning.

The girls and I paid a bit extra to take a 4x4 deep into the park for the chance to see the other animals that don't come to the exterior where the walking tours take visitors. We got to see bush buck, water buck, kob, green and red monkeys...and baboons. The baboons are a menace. They are quite habituated and not afraid of humans at all, so it seems. At lunch, one rushed a table full of people and stole the sugar bowl. Another chased me and grabbed my backpack, which was ON MY BACK! HOLY CRAP!

That night we opted to stay in the park's tree hide. Yup, we slept in a tree house. Well, it was more of a deck than a house, and about 2k into the park. A great majority of the animals in the park are nocturnal, so while we couldn't see any in the dark, we could surely hear them...including hyenas! Don't worry, we had Christopher with us, a rifle carrying 14 year veteran ranger of the park. Christopher was actually our guide all day. Lucky him.

At 2:30am Christopher led us through the dark out of the park so we could catch the 4am bus to Tamale, the only bus that day out of the park. Hiking in the the middle of the night, or early morning was really strange, and a bit scary. While we could not see anything but the few steps ahead of us, you were certain there were many pairs of eyes watching us from the bush. We hiked at breakneck speed...even with Tonya and Sabina wearing ill-fitting boots rented from the park because you can't hike in sandals, and me carrying my backpack like a sack of potatoes because both straps had busted during the trip.

We just made the bus, and Amina, my lil angel, had saved me a seat next to her. The bus ride back to Tamale was just as bumpy and crowded, but not as hot thanks to the early morning departure time. But this time, we were running on near zero sleep and without a bath. Upon arrival in Tamale, we find that the next and only STC buses out of Tamale to Accra and Kumasi are sold out, and we grudgingly buy Mass Metro tickets for the next bus to Kumasi. A security guard at the station told us that an STC bus from the north stops in Tamale at 11am to drop people off, and we could board then. This is great news, so we wait the 2+ hours until the bus arrives only to discover that the bus is full and there are no seats for us. Oh, and our Mass Metro bus had already left. We were stranded.

Without another option besides calling the day a loss and getting a hotel in Tamale, a local helped us negotiate a taxi to Kumasi for 200 cedis. This may have been the best 50 cedis I ever spent. Wait, no, I am SURE this was the best 50 cedis I ever spent. The taxi however, was filthy (which is par for the course in Ghana), wreaked of gasoline, and had windows that were permenantly stuck open. At the end of that 6 hour car ride, I couldn't have been more dirty if I had just rolled around in the dirt. We were really a miserable mess when we boarded a trotro for Koforidua.

At trotro was mostly full, but the driver sold us tickets and expected us, with our bags, to sit in a spot barely big enough for two people. So, this tro driver fought with the next tro driver while we sat helpless and the other passengers began us, and the drivers. When it comes to tros, the first tro there must fill up before the next can start taking passengers. So, the first tro was nearly full, but only had room for two of the four of us. Since the four of us wouldn't seperate, we had to go to the other tro, which angered the first driver. Eventually they settled their dispute, we boarded the other tro, waited for it to fill, and departed for K-town.

Upon arrival in K-town, we were a bit disconcerted to see the lorry park completed desserted except for the small groups of people that presumably live there who were gather around small trash fires. There was a big football match that night, so even though it was a Sunday night, maybe revellers were out, including teenaged boys who see it proper to harass white girls.

We made it back to the girls' house, ate, showered, and hit the sheets (or lack of sheets for me) around midnight. I've never been so happy to see a bucket shower or unmade bed in my whole life! In the morning the girls, my new best mates, shared their breakfast with me and dropped me at the trotro station on their way to work. Three hours later, I arrived in Ho and went to the Bridge Office only to learn that their internet was down. Patience...

I went to the Vodafone Internet cafe to catch up on a week's worth of emails. I am so cut off from the outside world. I haven't see a tv or a newspaper in a month! Jess told me that the healthcare bill passed! Yippee! This is great news to me, although obviously just one of many steps to be taken towards healthcare reform...but it is a start! It is then that I decided that I have had enough, and I booked a ticket home. I leave in a week, making it one month that I lived in Africa.

I know that I will visit Africa again. And I know that I will volunteer again. But I know that I will never do either one of those things alone, again. It is not that I can't hack it here. It's that I don't want to. I am really disappointed with my volunteer assignment and the NGO Bridge, who I have had near zero interaction with. I am very curious to see where my money went, because I don't believe it went towards helping anyone but those at Bridge. We'll see. I feel like I can do more to help Abuadi from the States, honestly, and I will. You can't do much here without a working phone or internet connection...and no funds. I haven't seen or told Anani yet, and I am sure that he will be disappointed. But then again, so am I.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The kindness and unkindness of strangers

Determined to get out of the village on Monday I waited nearly two hours for a trotro out of Abuadi. I didn't wait alone though. The kids had off from school in honor of 6 March, so a steady stream of wanderers kept me company.
I'm rarely alone, unless I am in my room. And sometimes I'm not even alone then if you count the random roaming child or the multitude of insects that I find living with me. Last night the women here had a big laugh at me. I had gone out to brush my teeth and when I returned there was a giant spider in the middle of my room. The spider and I stopped, and stared at one another, both frozen in fear. I thought about trying to squish the spider with my shoe, but really, I don't think my size 8s would have done the trick. Plus I hate killing things, even if they are huge and ugly and have too many legs. But I also knew there was no way I could go into my room, let alone sleep in there knowing that beast is in there.

I sought out Verity who was sitting outside, and through pantomine, I explained to her my predicament. Thus begins the laughing. She had her daughter fetch Favor, and when Favor arrived, they both laughed at me. I suppose when you live all your life just three degrees above the equator, the creepy crawly creatures that come with a tropical climate aren't really all that creepy.

Of course when we went to my room, Mr. spider had moved. Favor took her makeshift broom and started sweeping at all the corners and dark spots a spider might go, but found nothing. Now I'm really squirming...I'm not going in there. I'm just not. She was about to give up when the offending creature dropped from the door frame. I shrieked like a cartoon character and literally ran away. Laughing hard, Favor slayed the beast and returned order to the house. Akpe kakakakaka!

So back to the story at hand...Monday, around 9 a.m. I finally catch a trotro into Ho. In the tro, I ask the man next to me in which direction I can find the STC bus station. He insists on taking me there. Now, this has happened to be before, a few times. Half the time, the person is just really kind and leads me to where I need to go. The other half of the time, they are being kind because they want something in return...and when it comes to the men here, its hard to tell what exactly they are after, but usually its a wife, or a visa.

Gideon takes me to the STC station and we discover that I have missed all the buses out of Ho for the day. He then insists on taking me to the trotro station and insuring that I get in the right vehicle. While I appreciate this help, I'm awfully weary. At the station he does indeed help me find the right trotro but before leaving he asks for my number, so that we can "converse." I reluctantly give him my number, and he eagerly tells me how he can't wait to come to the US to visit his new friend: me. You see, most people here cannot get a visa to enter the US without a resident sponsor. Gideon called me four times that day...and contines to call me. Obviously his calls go unanswered.

This white skin of mine makes me such a target here. There is no blending in, and really, I just want to yell LEAVE ME ALONE to the throngs of people that clamor all over, asking for money or my phone number. "Hey you, white person, come here now!" "Obroni, give me money!" "Are you married? Be my wife."

Cape Coast was the worst. I literally couldn't go into the restaurant I wanted because of the gang of teenaged boys that were surrounding me, pulling on my arms, standing in my way. I've never gotten the impression that these people want to hurt me. They just want money, and things like my watch. I'd just like to point out that I'm wearing a $40 timex brought specifically for this reason.

In Elmina while I ate dinner at my hotel's outdoor restaurant, a security guard had to sit at the table next to me to watch over me. Even with him there, teenaged boys would come and interrupt my dinner, calling at me from the fence, or even brazenly coming to sit at my table. The security guard, who was just a little old man, would have to chase them away. Needless to say I ate quickly and went inside.

The taxi drivers are the worst. They are all greedy crooks, but these taxis are really the only way to get around. Most of the time you have no idea where you are going, and its too hot to attempt to walk there even if you do know the right direction. A shared taxi should cost no more than fifty peshewas (like fifty cents), but cabbies will ask for 5 cedis without even blinking. Yesterday a cabbie told me 20 cedi for a ride I know costs 10 even with the white man tax. Twenty cedi is a large sum of money here. I was so fed up with being ripped off and asked for money, that I attempted to walk 7km to the beach in the blistering sun. I gave in and paid a taxi 3 cedi, even though i know it should have cost only 2.

It is the kindness of that security guard, who took it upon himself to watch that I wasn't harassed, and this girl in the market at Accra yesterday that over heard my asking directions to the trotro station that ran up to me, told me I was going to the wrong station, and walked ten minutes out of her way to escort me to where I needed to be, that really make up for the negative greediness of others you meet here.

No one in Abuadi acts like this...No one. Its only outside of the village that a white person is beseiged with hangers-on. The village is a special place, and believe it or not, I was actually happy to be back here last night.

The power is out again in the village...ah, patience.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Sounds of Ghana

The sounds here are amazing. My first night, I was totally unnerved by the loud screeching of bats that earplugs couldn't even deaden. Last night, upon returning to the village after a few days away, I was stopped dead in my tracks by what I thought had to be fire works. I looked 360 degrees around me thinking I'd find some mischevious kids and found nothing. Silly me...I should have been looking up, up to the mountain. A brush fire had broken out on Adaklu Mountain. The snaps and crackles of the fire made it seem as if it was the fourth of July here in Abuadi. And the locusts are so loud, often one must shout to be heard over them.  Let's not forget the roosters that love to announce the morning, and the goats that sometimes sound like crying children.

I can't seem to get used to the bells from the EP Church right next door. They are riduculously loud, and don't seem to sound at any particular time everyday...but they do ring serveral times a day, everyday. Another interesting phenomenon of this church is the BLARING music coming from its loud speakers at 4:30 a.m. on Sundays. It goes for hours. They must have a limited supply of tunes because I hear what seems to be the same three songs repeated over and over and over again. No one seems to mind though. In fact, most people around here sing along while going about their business.

The church thing is something else that I can't seem to get my head around. Everyone here goes to church. There are five in the village. There is no set mass goes all day and parishoners come and go as they please. Most, however, stay for hours. HOURS. They sing, they dance, they pray and pray and pray some more. They also donate alot. I watched some people donate 4x during one two hour stint.

The churches are the nicest buildings in the village. The schools are crumbling on top of the children, literally, but one church as a sound system? When I asked Anani why classes weren't held in the churches on the rainy days, since it seemed like a very logical solution to the problem of the hole in the roof of the lower primary school that cancels classes each time it rains, he had no answer. He said its just not done.

Everything here in Ghana is named something religious. EVERYTHING. Even the taxis and trotros have scripture or psalms or pictures of Jesus emblazoned on them. He Has Risen Internet Cafe. Know Thy Lord Enterprises. The Blood of Christ Clothing Outlet. Im not exaggerating in the least. Its rather comical.

After attending church last Sunday with Anani for the two hours I could stomach, I asked him to please explain to me why Ghana had adopted the religion of the Europeans. It seemed to me that if a group of strangers came to America, enslaved and/or corrupted its people and raped the land of its resources, and laid domain for hundreds of years while declaring their divine right as decreed by their foreign religion, the very last thing I would do is adopt their religion. Again, Anani had no answer.

While waiting in trotros for them to fill with passengers at the station, sometimes for 30-45 mintues, people, always men, come along and plant themselves in the open door of the vehicle to preach, nonstop. Its torture...but again, no one seems to mind except me. Thank GOD for my ipod...yuck yuck.

Another question I can't answer for myself is why Ghana, and Africa is so far behind in development. Human civilization started here on the continent hundreds of years ago...why is it nearly 100 years behind? I am reminded of the Aboriginal peoples of Australia. How people can survive in the earth's most harsh climates, and thrive, for hundreds of years astounds me. Yet these two ancient peoples are so far behind the trend towards modernity. I'm beginning to think its philosophy and the people here are slow to change.

Here is where I am a bit frustrated with the work I am supposed to be doing here. I get the impression that the idea of volunteerism here is that someone is going to come from far away and just magically make everything better. Please don't get the impression that these people are lazy or unintelligent...just the opposite is true. They make due with an oppressive lack of resources. They have adapted to this harsh climate and everyday make a comfortable life for themselves and their families using just their knowledge and skills and the most basic of tools. But when it comes to modernity, they don't know where to even begin, so they don't. They go on as is, only dreaming about what could be but having no idea of how to get there.

When nearly the whole village is attending the school volleyball game at 10 a.m. on a Friday, like today, I want to shake them, and shout: What are you doing here? Go get a job! Do something! There is a difference in philosophy here. This is one of the very many differnces between life in America where one is told you can acheieve anything if you work hard enough, and Ghana where community and tradition are held most sacred. It is also important to point out here that there are no jobs to be gotten. When I explained to a taxi driver in Cape Coast that I had quit my job to come here to volunteer, he was astonished. He told me that if one were to lose their job here, they'd probably be out of work 8 or 9 years until another employment oppurtunity came along.

Another major breach in philosophies concerns children. The people here are poor. There is no question about it. But they keep on happily having children. Now, I'm 30, and have wanted to have children as long as I can remember, but I don't because it is not financially responsible. If you have no electricity and live in a crumbling cynderblock house with no running water and barely enough food to feed the children you already have just once a day, what business do you have having more children? It boggles my mind. But I am here as a visitor, to, I have become a Stephanie that is barely recognizable...timid and quiet with my opinion. Imagine that! Ha!

There goes that church bell again...marking what exactly? I don't know.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

6th March

Today Abuadi, and the rest of Ghana celebrated 53 years of independance from Great Britan. Children from the surrounding villages joined Abuadi's children in a display of marching and drumming that they have been rehearsing all week. They first march through town, and then to the school grounds where they pay respects to Ghana and her flag. It was a lovely display, and an assemblyman addressed the crowd. He announced that in addition to the road paving project that just broke ground Friday, the government has added the villages of Adaklu to the list of those that it will be supplying with the means for electricity. Big changes are to come to Abuadi in the next few years.
From my room I can hear the beating of drums and bleats of trumpets as the celebration continues. In honor of the day, I sampled the "local gin," at ten in the morning. This tasted like death, and not too different than cheap whiskey in the States.

I spent some time visiting with Anani's (let me point out here that in my last post, and since I got here, I've been mispronouncing and misspelling the man's name) family: mom Elizabeth , fedelia, desmond, yorm and grandmom Mary. Childcare here is quite different from home, and really amazing. The babies here rarely cry or fuss. Cloth diapers and rags are used, and there are no baby wipes, ointments or powders, yet the babies somehow survive (ha). The babies sleep with their parents, as do all children. Anani told me that its not uncommon for children aged 18 to sleep in the same room as their parents. They don't put so much stress on independance as we do in the States, and yet, the children here are some of the most kind, respectful and capable that I have ever encountered.

Favor contines to take excellent care of me...and I will most certainly come back having gained 10lbs as every meal is based in yam and/or cassava. Its like a carb-lover's heaven. I'm beginning to wonder just how many ways there might be to prepare a yam in the universe.

I'm feeling a bit disillusioned. I don't think I was really given a clear picture of what I was expected to do while I was here...and I still don't have one. Basically, I'm here in Abuadi to design and hopefully implement an HIV/AIDS education program for the community that can spread throughout the surrounding villages. This seems to me quite a daunting task considering I have zero experience in this type of thing, and I have nothing and no one to work with. Well, to say I have no one to work with is not fair. I'm working with a CBO (Community Based Organization) called Adaklu Restoration. This is literally a handful of farmers and tradesman that have formed a committee in the hopes of doing good works and promoting development in the area. Projects they have in the works are dry season irrigation (which is currently on hold until they can raise over $12k to dredge a nearby dam of silt and mud), repairs to their schools (which are in major disrepair, and I have not yet seen an estimate of what it would cost to make even the most basic repairs), and now this HIV/AIDS education program. These poor guys don't even know where to start...and that's where I come in. My goal is to get these committee members to a point where they personally can lecture and educate the community. I don't think they should rely on outsiders, like me, to deliever the message. So, how to I teach these men everything there is to know about HIV/AIDS, and how to effectively teach it????? I started at the local hospitals in Ho.

Anani and I travelled to Ho on Thursday. These trips into town are growing more and more frustrating for me. A simple trip (there is only one road in and out of town) that should take about 30 mintues, tends to take more than an hour. The trotros come and go as they please. They will not depart a station until they have a FULL vehicle, and they make random stops along the way to talk to friends and even grocery shop. It is infuriating...but only to me, because it is the way in Ghana. Our first stop was Ho Municpal Hospital. It was outrageous...I wanted to take photos because I don't have the words to describe the shabby conditions, but I didn't want to insult or offend the multitude of people waiting outside on benches to see a doctor. AND, I was told that the HIV counsellor was only in on Fridays, so therefore I'd have to come back tomorrow. No one else could offer us any help, apparently.

Friday saw us taking another infuriating trotro ride into Ho. Stop one was good old Ho Municipal Hospital to see Dr. Robert. Thankfully he saw us right away, in an airconditioned room. Dr. Robert informed us that he is not a doctor but a medical technician, and the resident HIV counsellor. He was super nice and very helpful. At Ho Municipal, HIV antibody testing is free! Robert had tested 16 people so far that week, and three had come back positive. We then saw the head midwife and she was kind enough to show us the HIV clinic...which is a tiny room crammed with desks and chairs...barely enough room for 2 people to sit comfortably. She offered us some of the materials and pamphlets they have available. All in all, a useful visit, which is certainly more than I can say for our visit to the regional hospital.

This hospital is supposed to be the nicer of the two, and therefore much more expensive. However, we were greeted with such hostility and inadequacy, I left fuming. The nurse that was supposed to be helping us had no information, or just didn't want to share any with us. According to her, they had no materials and/or pamplets, and the one and only HIV counsellor was not there. She coudn't even tell me when the counsellor was supposed to be there. I can't imagine what it would be like for someone from a village like Abuadi to walk away from farming responsibilities and pay money to make the trip into Ho to bravely submit to an HIV test only to encounter this sour person and her attitude. It took all I had to remember I'm not in NY, and not tear this woman to pieces. Ah....patience.

The pace of life here is mindnumbingly slow...maybe it is because of the heat. But village life is beginning to wear on me, and I'm making some plans to travel starting Monday. I hope to head west to Cape Coast and Elmina.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

You are welcome...

Wezoe = You are welcome. Those are the most common words heard by a westerner visiting the beautiful country of Ghana. The proper response, which is the only word of Ewe that I consistently remember is "Yooooo."

I only just arrived in the village of Abuadi 19 hours ago and i feel like I've met every resident. My counterpart is Anami, aged 33. He is a young, married father of two girls and one step son, Desmsond. I first met six year old Desmond early last evening when we found him at home, holding and caring for his 1.5 month old baby sister Felecia while their mother bathed. Anami immediately let me hold his infant as if I were an old member of the family...he just handed his beautiful lil girl to me. I was surprised to see that she already has her ears pierced.

A storm has recently passed through Ho and its surrounding villages, like Abuadi. So, when I arrived yesterday, there was no electricity anywhere in the village. The streets were a dark I had never experienced before. After settling in at my house, Anami took me around the village, by torch light, to meet the locals, including the chief. Tradition has it that I should offer the chief a bottle of schnapps next time we meet.

The language has presented itself as quite a barrier, although smiles are not rare. The people of Abuadi, and much of the Volta region speak a tribal language called Ewe. It is a tonal language, which makes it that much more difficult to understand. Anami is doing his best to teach me, but i hate to admit that I think I’ve been a slow learner.

Lesson one for me on this trip is patience. I don't have much patience to begin with, so it has been very difficult to adjust to the speed of things in Ghana and Abuadi. For instance, yesterday was a market day in Ho. These market days come every 5 days, so the next one will be Friday. On market day, people from all over the region come to sell their goods and services in a large flee market of sorts.  It is tremendous and really makes one head spin on arrival. Anami led me through a maze of stalls and piles and stacks and hoards of people going about their business.

It is from the central lorry station just outside the market that one can catch a trotro or taxi to other locations. We had arrived just after a trotro had left for Abuadi, so you just wait around for another one to come. There is no schedule. There are no signs to tell you which trotro is going to which village. There is alot of yelling, and people walking around with buckets of pure water sachets on their heads, selling them for 5 peshewas, for roughly 5 cents. So you wait and wait...until you hear a driver yell Abuadi, then you pile in the minivan...and wait for the minivan to fill up with passengers. This particular minivan was filled once there were 20 adults, 1 child and 3 infants inside. I kid you not. Twenty four human beings and their belongings stuffed into a minivan that I don't believe was ever meant transport people in the first place. Oh, and have i mentioned the heat, yet? The heat is stifling. It is currently 91 degrees in my room, but the humidity makes you sweat constantly. You will sweat by just sitting still.

With 24 passengers, the trotro takes off for Abuadi...down a dirt road that is filled with rocks and ruts from the recent storm. I'd think that this journey would be near impossible if it were raining and there was mud rather than red dirt. But this all seems routine for the other passengers. Ah...patience.

My journey to Abuadi started with a 10.5 hour flight from JFK. They must work in Ghana-time however, because even though we left an hour late from the gate, we arrived on time. I sat next to a wonderful loud woman named Rosemond. She is from a village outside of Accra, the capital, but now lives with her family in Connecticut. She was very kind and assured me that I'd love Ghana and never want to go back home. She was returning to her village to visit with her mother, who is 109 years old.

When you arrive you must fill out a customs form, much like arriving in any country. This form asks for an address at which you will be staying. There is no address for where I am staying, so i left it blank, and then the customs agent denied me entry., i got out my guide book, took an address of any hotel in Accra, filled in the form, and breezed through customs. Interesting system. I was greeted at the arrivals gate by a young dreadlocked man, Joy, age 28 (although he will be 29 March 22nd and promised to invite me to his birthday party).

I was so happy to see his smiling face that I hugged him as I introduced myself. And seriously, thank god for Joy. The transportation in Ghana is beyond daunting. It’s complete mayhem, or so it appeared to me. We took a cab to the main lorrey station in Accra, then a trotro 3 hours to Ho's main lorrey staion, then another cab into town. The road from Accra to Ho is not paved and it is full of ruts because of the recent storm. We even had to brake for cattle.

Since most of this region is Christian, everything shuts down on Sunday. And i mean everything. So much so that Anami couldn't get transportation in to Ho, and therefore I couldn't get to the village where I was to be staying. Joy was kind enough to offer to let me stay with him and his sister, but i was getting more and more uncomfortable. I really just needed some quiet time to myself, and a shower. I desperately needed a shower. Everything in Ghana is very dusty. Even the air is filled with red dust, and it clings to your damp skin.

Oh god, i think i just heard a chicken being killed. Mommy!

Joy looked in my guide book and found a hotel nearby that was reasonably priced...the most expensive room was $27. My requirements were a self-contained room with air conditioning. Self-contained = private bathroom. That night Joy was kind enough to take me and Tamara out for beers. Tamara is a girl we met at the hotel. She was 24 and from Slovenia...where? She had been travelling with a friend around the area, and was now by herself in Ho. We had a nice night chatting over cold beers at a club called New York...Joy got a kick out of taking me there.

The next morning Joy picked me up at the hotel and brought me to the Bridge office where I met with Bismark, the director. He gave me a quick orientation, and at this point i finally got to go online and send some emails. It is here that I met Anami, and he took me to run a few errands in Ho, and to explore the market. He then escorted me to Abuadi, and the house where I will be staying for the next 6 weeks.

The house is sort of a dorm, and part of 5 other houses on one wall contained compound. All the houses on the compound are owned and inhabited by the Gusso family...brothers, uncles, sisters, cousins...Also on site is the grounds caretaker Gabriel and his family. My caretaker, Favor lives nearby with her husband and two children. Favor is kind, but very quiet. I don't really like someone cleaning up after me and cooking my meals and doing my laundry. She knocked on my door at 6am to sweep the floor. She then served me breakfast at 6:30 sharp. Having a "servant" makes me a bit uncomfortable, and i try to talk to her, but she just smiles and laughs. I'm not sure how much English she knows. Or maybe I'm just funny. Or maybe both.

Today Anami introduced me to many other people in the village...I really can't keep all the names and faces, and new words straight. I really want to take everyone's picture and label them! Oh, especially the children. They have been the highlight of my trip thus far. They are all so curious about me. They all shout "Yevoo" at me when I walk by. Yevoo = white person. Ghanaians don't have the same sense of race as we do in the US. Calling out "white person" is perfectly acceptable, as would be me responding in Ewe's equivalent of "black person" (which i need to learn because the kids get a real laugh out of it).

We visited the school around 7:30 am, and even though classes didn't officially start until 8:30 am, most of the children where already there, tidying up the school grounds, arranging the sparcely furnished classrooms. There are three school buildings: kindergarten, primary, and junior secondary school. There is no secondary school in the village. If children wish to continue their education, they must leave the village.

I am continually impressed by how well the children behave, but at school this order is kept by a reed. If a child steps out of line, or misbehaves, or fails at a task, they get rapped on the legs with a reed by the teacher. On this particular day, the children were marching around the school's grounds for hours, practicing their performance for the celebration of 6th March. 6th March = Ghana's Independance Day. 2006 marked 50 years of Indpendance, and it was acknowledged with great celebrations country wide, or so Rosemond told me. Eitherway, the children and teachers at the school in Abuadi take this celebration very seriously. Many children were rapped with the reed if they didn't keep the beat of the drums with their little feet.

After marching practice, the children were shuffled off to do various sporting activities, like volleyball. The boys in junior secondary will be playing a greatly anticipated volleyball match versus a nearby village school team on friday. So today, they played and practised for hours in the blazing sun, rarely, if ever stopping for water. Anami and I were joined by others in the village to watch the practice games. It seemed strange for me to be sitting around and doing virtually nothing in the middle of a weekday...and it seemed even stranger that I wasn't alone. But, so is life in Ghana. The farmers have a very difficult life. They rise at dawn, or before, and head out to the fields to toil til night. The women even have their children in tow, if they are not of school age. The women, it seems have it the hardest. I observe them always in motion...carrying huge buckets of water on their heads, washing and hanging clothes, cleaning, cooking, tending to children. There are so many children roaming around I can't seem to attach them to their parents.

More to come...

Ps it takes forever and a day to upload pictures i will try facebook...ahhh patience.