Monday, April 20, 2009

Finished with Term 2!

It is looking especially beautiful today- Cool breeze, plenty of sunshine for my drying clothes, and ecstatic children enjoying their first week of the school holiday. It must be murder for the Form 3s, who are right now getting in a few more hours of test prep before they take tomorrow’s BECE. Aside from my neighbor’s outdoor kitchen that blew down, one would never suspect that just last night another of Ghana’s tropical storms barreled through our small town.

Thursday marked the end of Term 2 of the school year, and on Saturday I finally finished recording grades. Over the break, many of my Peace Corps friends will be doing some travelling, some running around Ghana, others going to Togo, Niger, Egypt, etc., and at least two of my friends are spending a few weeks in the States. My plans do not include any of the above- I’m strapped for cash and holding out for when my brother (and maybe others?) come here in August. We PCVs get two vacation days a month, and I’ve been saving up every one so far for a nice trip up to Northern Ghana, possibly Mali, and a two week sojourn in Florida to see family and friends. Anyway, I have enough on my plate as it is until June- I think I’ll make the most of this holiday in Otumi.

For April, I was looking forward to having a Passover cedar in northern Ghana with my friends Corey, Jack, and a few others. These plans took a strange turn where I ended up spending the Jewish holiday hang gliding over Nkawkaw, while Corey had a BBQ up in Tamale. I guess the temptations of flying and eating burgers trumped a Jewish tradition thousands of years old.

Each Easter, Ghana’s Tourist Board sponsors hang gliding in the Nkawkaw mountains (about 3 hours from my site), where ten hang gliding pilots strap reluctant passengers to themselves, then run off cliffs and into the air. There are other pilots who go solo, but for people like me, we pay for the tandem ride. Peace Corps volunteers have been coming to the event for years, and many of us were looking forward to this year’s event. Unfortunately, it was rumored that the event was cancelled, so PCVs started making other plans for their four week Easter vacation. I went on the website for the event and contacted someone about the cancellation. I found out that it wasn’t exactly cancelled, it was just not being sponsored by the Ghanaian government this year. The event was originally created by the NPP party, and since the NDC party came into power this year, the event was put to the side. Instead, this year’s event would go on, but on a much smaller scale and privately funded. What was supposed to be the 5th Annual Easter Hang Gliding Event, with ten tandem pilots and loads of people dissolved into a makeshift event of one tandem pilot, about 5 solo flyers, a few eager participants like myself, and a handful of onlookers.

With me were Stephen and Kyle, and all three of us were feeling keen on getting into the air. To make a long story short, only Stephen and I got to go, and Kyle had to get back to site early. The line to get on the hang glider was long, and with only one tandem and an hour in between each flight, we were there for hours just talking to people milling about and watching the take offs. We did meet some Germans, Brits, South Africaaaans, a Swiss fella, and a few Ghanaians (one of which was an ambitious university student whose dream was to marry a white woman).

These awesome, and might I add fine, German girls let Stephen and I go before them since we had to get back to our sites and they were staying in town. Stephen went first, and I regret laughing my ass off when he took off- he kind of went stiff during take-off and this looked hilarious. Why I regret this was my take off was no better, in fact it was much much worse- with the simple press of a button, Stephen can play this scene over and over and over again. What happened was this: Before taking off, the pilot, Ed from San Fran, would take us through the motions on the ground- I’m in front, so I lead. I run. I keep running, even as I’m in the air (like Santa’s reindeer- I have the big red nose to go with the part). Fin. Did I mention I’m running about 100 yards down a declining slope that ends at a sheer drop off the top of a mountain? After Stephen got back, it was my turn to fly and Stephen’s turn to laugh. I got into position, and immediately when I put my first foot forward, a gust of wind pulled the wing back and both my feet were in the air- so much for running. The problem was we needed to be running and going forward, and the instant my feet hit the ground a little farther from where we started I ran like hell- I remember the pilot saying something like ‘We need to be going like 12mph to get this thing into the air properly’. This continued two more times where just when I started to get enough speed, I would be in the air and my legs would be rendered useless. It seriously looked like we were going to fall.

Things started to look up as we got past the cliff’s edge and were riding the wind to get higher elevation. I can’t describe how beautiful everything was up there. I thought to myself- why don’t I own a hang glider? I looked down at an ant-sized Stephen while gliding over mountains and marveling at everything under my feet. One snag though- my testicles were being crushed by a harness that kept me attached to the rest of the glider. I had no idea how to fix the problem, and I was too afraid to fiddle with anything with the fear that I might unfasten something. So as great as the flight was, my privates were in a vice. I got dizzy and nauseous, but at least I got the pilot laughing. I had a hard time taking pictures since I concentrated more on shifting my weight, but I got a few in, including one showing my nether-region fiasco. We touched down in a soccer field, and that was that. After the flight, Stephen and I hung out with the some of the Brits we met at the event. They were volunteers as well, and they lived just a few minutes away from where we took off. There were some serious parties going on, and I was shocked to see how upscale the Nkawkaw area was- people were dressed for success, there were BMWs, Cadillacs, and Mercedes on the road, and the houses were huge. There is definitely money in Nkawkaw.

Later, my headmaster would tell me that the people who come from that town (the Kwahus) redistribute their wealth and help each other, unlike places like Otumi where if someone makes it big, they usually leave and keep their money for themselves. He said sometimes people from these towns are afraid others will curse them because of their newly acquired wealth. Aside from the cursing bit, this fact seems to hold for Otumi- I’ve talked to several people now in my town who haven’t heard from brothers or sisters who grew up in Otumi and made it big. At least two people here have siblings who are doctors in America- one is a brain surgeon, and I’m helping the guy get in contact with his brother through email. Even the headmaster has a brother in New York who made millions after coming to the US in the 70s. He is what I deem a potential STARS sponsor.

With great sorrow, I also must add that my grandfather passed away last week, and I learned this shocking news just after touching down from hang gliding. I had known a week before that he had to go to the hospital, but after several phone calls following the day he was driven to the hospital, I was convinced he would pull through. My top concern before leaving the US for Ghana was whether or not I’d ever see either of my grandparents again. I’m very close to them, and since it is difficult to speak with them over the phone, I’ve only been able to communicate through letters. I’m surprised I didn’t remain despondent when we went out with the Brits, but having Stephen around and talking to my family definitely helped. When I got back, my the headmaster at my school also did a good job of cheering me up. A friend back home suggested I write something for his memorial, and I think that definitely helped as well. I wanted to go back, but this would have made things much more stressful for my family. I wish I could have seen him one more time…

The day following my hang gliding experience, I was to attend a teacher workshop in the district capital with my counterpart and another teacher. Three teachers from each school in the district were supposed to take part in one of three 3-day workshops: social studies, math, and science. I attended the math workshops, my counterpart the science workshops, and the other teacher did social studies. The workshops were on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, and school got out on the last day of the conference. I was upset that I’d have to miss the last days of school, which is when I wanted to go over the answers to the students’ finals, but what can you do? On the bright side, I get more insight into the education system in Ghana, and since Stephen’s in my district, I would get to see him as well.

The first day of the workshop was alright, although there was no sign of either my counterpart or the other teacher (we went separately). I showed up a bit early to say hi to someone I knew who worked at the education office- Martin, my old Peace Corps trainer, and I had a feeling that since it said on the notice that the workshops started at 9, Martin and I probably had all morning to talk. Of course the meeting got started at 10:30, and once we got started we moved into the new education reforms which went into effect at the beginning of this school year. The district director of education came and gave a speech, and that was pretty much it for the first day. Stephen was in the science workshop, so we had to meet up later and compare notes. Both of us got stares and childish yells of Obruni by many of the teachers at the workshop (over a hundred of them at each one). I recounted to Stephen how over half the teachers in the room were loud and obnoxious and would try to finish the speaker’s sentences. I’m not kidding when I say my students are much better behaved than most of the teachers that showed up.

The last two days of the workshop went downhill. First off, my counterpart was nowhere to be found. I found out later he skipped out and went to the Volta Region miles away. The other teacher showed up, and we both agreed that these workshops were a waste of time and money (Stephen said an NGO was footing the bill). Instead of focusing on teaching methods (which was quickly glossed over), the teachers in the math workshop argued over sample math questions that I solved in my head in a few seconds. I am not kidding. I wanted to tear my eyes out. Mind you, our workshop took place in a JHS classroom, with other students around, and teachers were being loud and roudy. A teacher behind me would shout random nonsense like “Random sample!” if the coordinator asked someone in the audience to speak. One was making a big deal and almost crying because someone stole his juice box (this is not a lie). Another teacher kept getting up, paced the room, and at one point spat a mouthful of water at the back blackboard to make other teachers laugh. Sneaking into Stephen’s workshop, I saw the same deal- here too the hooting and hollering was in full swing. It was INSANE. If these people weren’t responsible for students’ futures, I would think this workshop was the funniest thing I’ve ever seen. Instead I glared at the teachers as they laughed and talked while someone was trying to speak at the front. I could see some of the students shaking their head in disappointment, and I exchanged looks of embarrassment with some of the older teachers.

On the last day of the workshop, while going over our notes of the stupidity we saw, Stephen and I encountered the same exact situation: During lunch, I noticed a single female teacher was carrying the complementary lunches to the rest of the teachers, even though 95% of the room was male. I sat in my seat and just stared, trying to think if I should get up to help her or what. I didn’t know if she volunteered to do it, or if I’d be insulting her in some way if I got up to help. I at least offered to, and she smiled and said it was alright. But it bothered me the entire time. Meanwhile, the exact same thing was happening on Stephen’s side, and he made the same offers and had the same reservations.

I was able to be there for at least some of the last day of school before the break. Since I’m so far behind, I offered to have students come directly to my house, where we could sit on the front porch and I could help catch them up on new material or go over the basics if they preferred. I also announced that we would likely be doing a World Map painting on a side wall this break since our Periodic Table painting was such a success. At least two teachers in my town will hang around, and I think this time they’ll help with the project.

In my last post, I talked about getting a bike and riding it miles out into the bush. This turned out to be a very bad idea. The headmaster, along with some of the teachers and students, all warned me that it is too dangerous in the bush, that there are people who kill others for their blood and what-not. I blew it off as them trying to scare me. After their warning though the trails seemed to feel much darker o ride on. Finally, a group of farmers I met on one of the trails echoed what everyone at school said: don’t go on the trails, at least don’t go alone and unarmed- take a student or a friend. Apparently someone was recently murdered in the bush out around where I was riding. A few people in town confirmed this, and after that day I’ve stopped riding into the bush. I shudder thinking back to all the abandoned or isolated homes I came across in the middle of the forest.

After discontinuing my rides into the bush, I thought I was again safe so long as I didn’t go out there. Of I was wrong. Just a week later, one of my female students was chased down by three men in a taxi while walking home from night classes. At the same time a woman in my town was hit over the head with a pestle and robbed in the night. The teachers and I had to stop night classes for the students’ safety, and now we are trying to figure out when students should come for computer lessons and private tutoring. I reported the incidents to Peace Corps, and someone from safety and security dropped by to check on me and speak with some of the locals. I asked if they could issue guns to PCVs under special circumstances, but I was told no, they didn’t. Guess I’m just going to have to watch my back and be smart.

Two weeks ago I went to Accra for STARS fundraising, where I went in person to a few businesses to find sponsors. A few people were very helpful, and although I didn’t get any donations then and there, I think some of the companies I went to might be able to help. On my list of places to go was the Ministry of Education. In my head I pictured a modern looking building with busy people walking through corridors with important documents tucked under their arm. This was not the case. When I got there, I thought I had the wrong place because even though there was a large sign saying “Ministry of Education”, all I could see was an old, sad-looking U-shaped building. Not many people were out, and it took me a while to find the person I was looking for since there were no maps (I used the piles of old furniture as land marks). I talked to three people about getting speakers and sponsors, but no one seemed to be helpful. In the end, I felt like I needed to donate money to the Ministry of Education. I plan on going back to Accra for follow ups and I need to talk to a few more companies.

Also in April I went to a funeral in town, had dinner for two separate families, and mailed out about 70 or so pen pal letters my students had written. The funeral was alright, I wore my 8 yard funeral cloth commonly adorned by the men. I saw the chief and several people at the funeral, which was held in the center of town. The deceased was an older man, a retired fire chief for another town, with tons of children and grandchildren. He seemed to be well-liked by the rest of Otumi. Since he died at an old age, the family wore white, the color of happiness, to celebrate his life. Had he been younger, the family would have worn black and red.

I went with the family of one of my students who sort of took me in as one of their own, which is fine by me because their food is delicious and they’re a nice bunch to be around. After the funeral, I offered to cook them American food the following week. They took me up on the offer, and after about two hours of preparing and cooking pasta with contummere (spinach) and garlic bread, we sat and ate in the confines of my home. It was a successful dinner party, with 5 people at the table.

The other dinner did not go so well. For a long time I swore that I would make a meal for one of the women in town (the one who wants to go jogging and practice boxing) since she is so nice to me and almost daily has a student deliver to me complementary fruits, snacks, and home-made doughnut-type things. Her father tells me stories about when he was a soldier, and her husband is an alright guy as well. When they tried my food, a curry dish made from scratch, they had the worst looks on their faces. The onions I caramelized and in my opinion were delicious were too sweet for their palettes and ruined the whole meal. I was upset, but it was also amusing to watch the husband try in earnest politeness to finish his plate with a disgusted look on his face. So much for caramelizing anything for Ghanaians. We talked into the night, and realizing the “crime wave” in our town, headed back to my house. I need to mention the peculiar name they gave to their cat: Mr. Quiddles.

Lastly, my students had fun writing pen pal letters, and I finally sent them out two weeks ago. Now we play the waiting game of having them arrive in the states and receiving response letters. Along with the letters, I also made a Power Point with pictures of my school and around Ghana. Some of the pictures were actually taken by other Peace Corps volunteers to promote eco-tourism in Ghana. These first letters were more introductory than anything, and I found on the Peace Corps websites good lesson plans using the pen pals letters (i.e.- HIV/AIDS discussions, cross-cultural dialogues, day-to-day life, what sharing means, etc.). My students keep coming up to me and asking if the response letters came yet, and I expect them to keep asking until they finally arrive four to five weeks from now.

That’s it for today. I’ve got to help write a section for a JHS booklet we’re making for the new volunteers coming in this summer, and I’m hoping to crank out a section on PCV/ school staff relations. Of course I have to plug the website for STARS donations. Below is a link to the STARS PCPP that went through. Please at least click on the link and read about the fund raising we are doing for STARS. Again, this is the conference where about 60 high school students meet for 5 days in Kumasi to learn about HIV/AIDS, Science, Technology, tertiary education, as well as participate in fun activities and hear from successful Ghanaians speaking at the event. It’s coming up in June, and it relies heavily on outside contributions. This is the thing I’ve been walking around Accra for, so in essence if you contribute, I wouldn’t have to walk so much from office building to office building. Please give what you can; it is a very good cause.


Dierberg Pinot Noir Santa Maria Valley 2005


Hold On! I’m Comin’- Sam and Dave

The Kids Are Alright- The Who

It’s Your Life- Lenny Kravitz

If I Never See Your Face Again- Maroon 5

Mad Season- Matchbox 20

Pretty Vacant- Sex Pistols

Shout- Sean Paul

Nkawkaw (This is the Brit's dorm/house)

A tree blocking the way up to the hang gliding site

The hang gliding site

Stephen's take-off

The problem

Looking down at our take-off point

Where we landed

"Kyle, check this out..."

Going to a funeral

Making fufu

The pictures I sent with the pen pal letters

Peace Corps Eco-Tourism pics sent with the pen pal letters

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