Thursday, May 29, 2008

Funerals and Blackouts

Ndo! (Good afternoon.) Last night it stormed for 8 hours straight. The rain on the tin roof and the thunder is so loud it almost hurts, and the lightning so frequent that any epileptic would have been seizing like there was no tomorrow. The electricity went off in the entire town while we were eating dinner, so most of our evening was spent by candle and torchlight. Absolute, simple bliss. Life at the Homebase is quite pleasant - we eat three big meals a day, and sleep four to a bedroom. I am sleeping on the top bunk enveloped in my mosquito net, above a girl named Caitlin whose first words to me were "I don't think I'm going to last here very long."
Working at the school has become very comfortable and exciting. I bought a bike in town and now ride to and from work (about a 10 minute ride through tall bushes and muddy paths). They gave me my own office with a ceiling fan which overlooks the main building with the classrooms. When I arrived on Wednesday morning, all 70 of the students were in one classroom learning an Ewe song. I don't know how they do it but every single one of them has a powerful ringing voice and they learn harmonies in seconds. I joined the classroom (anytime I sit down on the floor or one of the students' benches, a student is ordered to fetch me a nice chair - I constantly feel like I'm being served but they are happy to do it!) I discovered that the women were rehearsing a song to be performed at a funeral this weekend for a student who died last week. She was 20, with a 3 year old boy. I stuck my nose in just enough to find out that she was ill and taken to hospital but I do not know how she died. The girls are all wearing red ribbons on their blue uniforms in honor of her passing, but they are not sad. In fact, they were so giggly during music practice that a few of them were taken out to be caned. Corporal punishment is common here, but too difficult for me to watch. They treat it so lightly - Stanley, the English teacher, came into my office this morning and said "I'm looking for a cane. I want to punish someone." I asked him who, but he said he was just 'getting ready for class'. And then he asked me to marry him.
There are 8 teachers and they have all warmed up to me quickly. In fact, I can't get them to leave my office so I can do work. I am not teaching, as I have decided to write 4 grants: 1 for a library, 1 for the completion of the main building, 1 for the completion of their dining hall, and 1 for the needed equipment (computers, sewing machines, chemicals and dyes for batik). They are incredibly grateful but they work so differently here: I asked the headmaster for his 5 year plan and he laughed in my face. I've asked him for budgets several times and he just smiles and nods, "I will get them to you".
The one challenge is the students; they hate me. At least they seem to. I went up to one girl the other day to ask her name in Ewe, and she just kept walking. I tried to speak to another in English and she just laughed and responded (in perfect English) "I don't understand you". I'm hoping to profile a few of them for the grants, and I would hate to leave the program without getting to know them. Fred, the Batik teacher, told me he would put in a good word for me.
We did
The town is slowly getting used to the bruunnies (whities) but continue to stare, and the children always ask for my water bottle so sweetly I can't say no (carrying a water bottle here is a sign of wealth). I am constantly sweaty and muddy and dusty and stand in awe at the women with bowls of 8 watermelons on their head, walking their bone dry bodies with grace and ease. I had two Batik dresses made for me at the market that I will pick up on our way out of town tomorrow. Lori's childhood nanny was from Ghana, and her cousin lives in a town about 6 hours away. He will pick Lori, Ashley, Jimmy and I up tomorrow and take us to his town for the weekend. On Saturday we will attend his brother's funeral (yes, funerals are sadly common here) and see the town, and on Sunday we will stop in the capital of Accra before heading back.
Please keep staying in touch - I am not homesick but it is nice to know that I can share this incredible journey. Jon, I will absolutely do my best to bring one of the little goats home. They look like My Little Ponies. Love!

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

White lady!

I am here!!! Ghana is more wondrous and beautiful than I could have imagined. I am forcing myself to be brief because the internet here is sketchy at best, but the sights and people I have seen over the last few days could fill a novel. As I write this, I am surrounded by Hohoe teenagers who are singing along to Boyz to Men's "I'll Make Love To You".
After a few quick and easy flights, I arrived in Accra on Saturday night with two other CCS volunteers. Lufthansa lost their luggage, but mine arrived just fine! A man named Sylvester (I promptly decided to call him Rambo) drove us four hours north to the town of Hohoe. The drive was amazing; through forests and towns filled with people and little kids and taxis and the smallest goats you have ever seen. We stopped halfway at a roadside bar for a Star beer and to go to the bathroom. That was my first induction into peeing with lizards and bugs buzzing all around you. I'll skip ahead because there's just so much!
I am staying at HomeBase B, on the northern side of town, with 22 other volunteers who are mostly college students from the midwest. I have to say that the biggest culture shock has been dealing with these volunteers. There are, however, a few wonderful people who are becoming fast friends: Lori, the 28 year old dance therapist/psychologist from Los Angeles, Carrie, the 33 year old health administrator who served in Iraq for four months, Ashley, the 23 year old recent college graduate from Tennessee, and Jimmy, the surprising liberal from Alabama.
Hohoe is the capital of the Volta region in Ghana, and one of the largest towns I've seen here (apart from Accra). The town is constantly buzzing with activity - the locals spend all of their time outside. As I walk through town, most of the villagers stare at me but also yell out the greeting "Weozo" - which means "you are welcome". The response to this is "Yo", my favorite part being that you can make the Yooooooo as long as you want. The more welcome you feel, the longer the Yooooo! Every day I receive marriage proposals from complete strangers and they're so sincere it almost makes you want to say yes. The children are absolutely beautiful and so loving and happy - I can't walk down the main road without being waved at or group hugged by the kids. I have been learning Ewe, the tribal language and enjoying trying the local foods.
Today was the first day at my placement, the Women's Institute. It is a vocational school with three different programs: business, dressmaking and catering for its' 66 students. The headmaster and I talked for a good two hours today (Ghanaians like nothing more than to sit and chat for lengthy periods of time, and they are constantly late). I will be assisting with the business program, specifically the computer classes, but I have also promised the headmaster that I will write a project proposal for the school. The headmaster has tried over the last 5 years to secure any type of funding but has been disappointed every time. The main building's second floor is just concrete and moss, as the building development was to put to a halt when funds ran out. The dining hall is also just a concrete shell, and they have no library and hardly any books. Imagine learning economics with no books! I am so grateful for the opportunity to help this school, and that my non-profit background is coming in handy! In the mornings I will be teaching some business and computer classes, and in the afternoon I will meet with the girls and research and write grants to secure funding for this amazing, yet underappreciated, school. The school promises its students self-sufficiency and an escape from poverty - I hope I can help.
Tomorrow, after work, we will hike up to the Wli waterfalls. Apparently, it is the largest waterfall in West Africa, but no one can tell me exactly what the term 'largest' means. Tall? Wide? Regardless, it will be beautiful.
I will write more as I continue to get settled. There is so much more to tell and I fear I have not portrayed just how magical being here is. It is more than I could have imagined.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Hop, skip and a big scary jump

I saw my grandmother yesterday. She was excited to hear of my trip to Ghana because my grandfather was stationed there for 3 years (length of time somewhat questionable, bearing in mind it may be hard to keep all the facts straight at her age of 96) leading the 29th General Hospital in Kumasi. She assured me that this trip is "going to make a real woman" out of me. Let's hope so.
Despite the cold I picked up in SF (thanks Chez and Melis!), being at home has been rejuvenating - see picture of house etc. above.  I have thoroughly enjoyed stuffing my face with all the English necessities: sausage and chips, fish and chips, salt and vinegar chips, custard creams, lucozade, home cooking and lager. As soon as my passport arrives with my visa today (we all know I'm a last minute kind of person), I'm off to London. I'll be staying at one of the airport hotels and getting up at 4:30am tomorrow for my flight. Going through Frankfurt and Lagos, I'll arrive in Accra around 5:30 in the evening. From there a bus will take me 3 or 4 hours into the Volta region where I will meet my fellow volunteers and crash at the homebase, to begin a two day orientation on Sunday.
Earlier this week I received my volunteer placement: working at the Women's Institute of Development Studies. Apparently, I will be teaching french (haven't spoken it for years), business (don't have a job), dressmaking (my grandmother almost spit out her tea) and basic hygiene (I may have that one covered) among other things.
I'm a little speechless at this point. Everytime I think about what I've gotten myself into, I want to pee my pants. Perhaps I won't be the best hygiene teacher after all. Next time I write, I'll be writing from the internet cafe in Hohoe! This blog is about to get 100% more interesting.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Ode to the City by the Bay

On this, the first official day of my trip, I am surprised to find that I will really miss this city.  Even as I took a shower last night I was thinking "I love you so much, showerhead.  I can't wait to come back home to you".  (The water pressure in my apartment would blow your mind).  The weekend was a perfect combination of part-ay and relaxation; out of town guests arrived for Sunday's festivities, I finished packing and got to spend some quality time with my family. On the penultimate day before my adventure I was fortunate enough to enjoy an annual SF event.  And by enjoy, I mean party my ass off. 
 Bay to Breakers, for anyone that doesn't know, is a drunken street parade from one end of San Francisco to the other.  That's 7 miles; not a marathon by anyone's standards.  In true SF form, the 'race' was just like the biggest block party ever planned.   Naked Elvises, keg stands, women in diapers, people shouting "I love you!" to passersby, lesbians making out against trucks (Gay's Anatomy, for those of you that were there.)  Our group, a hungover mixture of Jem and the Holograms, Star Trek and Mario Brothers, stumbled along the route with paper bagged 40s and Jaeger shots, stopping only to pee and to dance during a bottleneck to Journey's "Don't Stop Believing".  If there is a heaven, and a God interested in luring me there, he will know to provide beer, a classic rock soundtrack, and 60,000 strangers who just want to dance.  You know those moments when everything aligns and all you can think is...happy?  
The fog arrived in the afternoon as we Muni'd our way home to put a close on the insane heat wave the city's been having.  Watching the fog roll in is one of the magical things about San Francisco - if you haven't seen it, book your flight now.
Other magical things:
1. The city is 7 square miles - you can walk anywhere.  And I do.
2. The Chinese ladies on the bus who have no sense of personal space and have no qualms about using their elbows to get where they want to go.
3. The local slang and ways to behave: Divis, Tendernob, livin' in the cuts, hella...Noe Valley is No-eeh, not No.  You don't have to yell "back door" every time you want to get off the bus, just wait for the green light and pound the door.  Learned most of these the hard way.
4.  The bridge.  Ah, the BRIDGE.  Just catching a glimpse of the red towers over the green hills makes me want to yell 'yippee!' every time.
5.  The people.  Everyone is a friend, everyone wants to help you out.  Even the bummies are polite.  I can't imagine a better place for me to have come to start anew.
I'm ready to go.  And I am so incredibly happy that this is where I get to call home when I return.  On to the Isle of Wight this afternoon (my British home) for a little time with my parents before I head to the Ghanaian village of Hohoe (Ho-way - it's not pronounced ho-ho.  Sorry guys, I was disappointed too.)

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

And so it begins...

I went to the airport today to purchase my ticket from Ghana back to London.  (Apparently they want to look you in the face when you buy it so they know you're serious).  Without proper research prior to leaving the house, what was meant to be a quick trip to SFO resulted in a two hour wait for the ticket counter that never opened.  Yeah...I'll be going back tomorrow.  
Surprisingly, that little trip to SFO this morning changed a lot of things.  The last week has been a confusing mess of emotions.  Like waves of nausea or the bouts of traveler's diarrhea I'm sure to get in Ghana (the first but not the last time I'll mention it), I have been afflicted with momentary crying spells.  When you're standing at the beginning of a life changing adventure, your brain can get crowded; mine just exploded.  This trip was planned in haste and in the haze of a break-up, a move to a new city and the pursuit of a new career and I have just now had a moment to realize what I've gotten myself into.  The initial plan to volunteer in Ghana for 21 days quickly became a 7 week journey including stops in England, Germany, Nigeria, Spain, Puerto Rico and Mexico.  Phew.  
I have seen more of the world than most of my peers and yet...I've never seen it alone.  And it's Africa!  My doctor told me to make sure I don't change a baby's diaper while I'm there (oh, you're sneaky, Hep B), my sister-in-law told me her friend was shot in South Africa (just your average Cape Town mugger), and I will be living in a fisherman's village with no hot water and only well water to wash my clothes in (did I mention the 20 college kids I'll be living in a house with?)  When I got my yellow fever shot, I threw up for three days (perhaps they put a little too much yellow fever in the vaccine?) and I cursed Africa every time I ran to the bathroom.  

But my wait at the airport changed all that.  An hour reading Eat, Pray, Love and the quiet observation of people of all shapes and sizes heading who-knows-where reminded me that I am in for a much needed adventure.  And I am thrilled to be doing it alone - this experience belongs to only me and the things I will see and feel during this sojourn will always be part of who I am.  How I wished I were getting on a plane today!  I can't wait to drum with the locals, ride the tro-tros, eat fufu, visit slave forts and monkey sanctuaries, and to work alongside strong, happy, resilient people.

I expect this trip to both simplify and complicate my life.  I predict being so far away from home will both depress and comfort me.  I think my idea of what 'home' is will change.  I hope to return to San Francisco healed and ready to continue the happy life I lead.  I may write here every day, or you may not hear from me until I get back.  I am still terrified, but I have never been so sure that I am finally living the life I want to live.