Tuesday, May 5, 2009

A Vacation of Sorts

The second holiday of the school year is almost finished, and Term 3 is coming up. I would say this has been more or less a productive holiday, with some fun thrown in to make things interesting. I did not paint the world map with my students, unfortunately, but I felt that should wait until school opens and all the students are present. Besides, most of my students were busy picking oranges or helping their parents on the farm. Instead, I spent much of the holiday promoting the STARS conference around Accra. I also finished my section of the JHS teaching manual that will be introduced to the new volunteers in June.

Briefly, STARS is a five-day conference held for Ghanaian high school students at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) in Kumasi. Each Peace Corps volunteer chooses two of their top students (a boy and a girl) to go to Kumasi to learn about leadership skills, science, technology, HIV/AIDS, as well as meet and pose questions to successful Ghanaians with various backgrounds. Keeping in mind transportation, food, accommodations, and various supplies, the event costs a few thousand dollars- well worth it in my opinion. Each year, the conference counts on grants, PCPP funding, and corporate sponsorship. It was my job to help out with corporate sponsorship in the Accra area.

Twice now I’ve been to Accra, speaking with different people from major companies in Ghana. It was an amazing experience to meet so many people at the top and bottom of these corporations. Several of the people were very supportive (verbally), but it was frustrating at times when most of the companies no longer were able to sponsor fundraising events-they told me this was due in part to the economic crisis. It felt so strange though to come from my town of Otumi, where there are no buildings taller than one story, to Accra, where I would hit the button for the 17th floor and be zipped up to a luxurious office. I met Ghanaians with various foreign accents, like English and even American. On my beat around town, I met a student studying journalism at the university, a manager of a small business looking for a good summer camp in the States for her children, a division 1 (?) football player, and several Ghanaians who traveled the world, each with their own novel-worthy stories.

The first time I left for Accra, I had been gone for about 5 days, giving the care taker’s children enough time to run amok through my house- I mean they must have gone ape shit- breaking things and eating my food. When I got home, I found my bike in shambles, mud on the floors, and open, empty containers of what used to have contained food. I was pissed. Every day, the children (11, 9, and 5, I think) are supposed to come into the house to turn the lights on/off, sweep, and clean the compound. If I am not home, they have a spare key. When I found the children, I brought all three of them to the house to show them what they had done. It turns out that the parents went to Togo for a few weeks, leaving the children to stay at home and take care of each other- so I had no parents to complain to. Immediately I took back everything I had given them over the months- the books, the jump ropes, the toys. I told them they lost the privilege of coming into the house for a long time, and I made them sweep and mop up the mess they left throughout the house. The days following my return from Accra, the children stayed away from the house, and probably cringed when I cursed at a newly discovered item damaged by the children (i.e.- broken bike pump, discarded shaving cream). The thing about all this was I probably would have gotten into the same mischief if I had been their age and left alone- My idea was to play the parent, I had to be tough on these kids. I even threatened to tell their primary school teacher, but the looks on their faces said that would result in a terrible beating, so I laid off- my point was crystal clear to them though- what they did was not right.

Over time I warmed up to them again, and when the parents eventually came, we had talked and the problem seemed to be resolved. The parents were extremely apologetic, and the children felt genuinely sorry for what they had done. Now, all is well and things are back to normal- in fact I just got climbed the mango tree to watch the sunset with the little ‘uns. I hope I handled the situation well… but it did give me practice as a future parent (god help us all).

Around the time I started warming up to the children, I left my site again- this time I was off to watch a festival in northern Ghana as well as make my way back to Accra for a second round of STARS fundraising, knowing full well the children wouldn’t try the same things again. Of course, when I got back, everything was in its place.

As for going up north, I went to Techiman [in the Brong Ahafo Region] to participate in the Apoo Festival, where people in Techiman and Wenchi get to call out and criticize their fellow citizens for wrong doings done onto them- the citizens are even allowed to call the chief out on things as he sits on his thrown in front of the huge crowd. As hostile as this event sounds, the mood was quite the opposite- people were having a grand old time dancing, drumming, and marching in the streets. I was even led to the chief of Techiman to pay my obeisance amidst the sea of Techimanians. There were a few cross dressers in the crowd, for fun mind you, and people wearing masks and paint on their face. I was left wondering what happened to the people after the event- like what would the chief do if you really went up to him and gave him a hard time for this or that.

While in Techiman I finally purchased a smock (see pictures below), mainly for the occasion, from the market in town. I’ve been itching to get one for a while, and now I have something formal to wear for festivals in my own town. Smocks are more of a northern Ghana thing, and I wanted to wait until I went up there to purchase one.

Walking my way towards the smock section of the market, I passed booth after booth of juju supplies- juju is a major part of Ghana’s traditional beliefs, where juju is a type of magic dealing with the occult. At each booth, one could find a myriad of strange objects, mostly coming from animals of all sorts. There were crocodile skulls, husks of blowfish, birds, and local bush rats. There were live chameleons in cages hanging over their deceased and desiccated relatives. Monkeys’ paws. Gold rings and spears. Dark cloths. Wild cat fur and porcupine spines. It seems like anyone buying this stuff would be up to no good.

Around my town, I have only seen one stall selling juju items, mainly because almost everyone around me is either Christian or Muslim. In talking with my headmaster and a few people in my community, juju and traditional beliefs are “evil” and don’t belong in Otumi. There are some, though, who are Christian or Muslim and still hold traditional beliefs, like some of the people I met in Kukurantumi during training. All opinions aside, the things I’ve seen dealing with traditional beliefs are all intriguing to behold. Traditional beliefs are so ingrained in Ghanaian society, people often speak of juju with fear and seriousness, with anecdotes like someone seeking retribution and employing a juju man as an agent of vengeance . The papers sometimes have a story on juju, like the one I read yesterday blasting some sort of practice called “sikadura” (using juju to get money) as evil.

Up north, I enjoyed my new favorite food- wagashee. Wagashee is simply fried cheese, and in a land with a serious cheese deficiency, wagashee is highly sought out by Westerners like me. The cheese is not all melty like you might think- it’s spongy, but not in a bad way. I love the stuff, and I must have spent a small fortune eating my weight of the snack since I don’t get it in my area. I asked around my town today, and so many people never even heard of the stuff, with one vaguely knowing about it.

I also went out of my way to get some other stuff, the name of which I did not bother to remember because it tasted horrid. Never mind that the reason I got it was because some friends played a practical joke on me, saying “Oh, Darren, when you go to the north you HAVE to try this pastry shaped like a ball and coated with powdered sugar. The inside tastes like chocolate!” While on a lorry, I spotted someone selling the food off their head and beckoned them to come and sell me one. Mouth watering, I bit into the donut-whole-sized thing, and met a taste not too far from wet cement. Ha. Ha. It was a good joke. Good enough for me to lay on the new volunteers coming in June. Ha. Ha. Ha.

Also while in the north, I visited Kintampo Falls, an excellent spot for relaxing. The landscaping for the place was incredible, and taking it all in, I let every aggravation go. Eventually, several groups of Ghanaians and tourists alike showed up, breaking the tranquility and creating a different atmosphere of contagious exuberance. Since it’s not too far out of the way from the main road, I might have to visit the falls again in the near future.

Meanwhile, one of my PCV friends and her five pieces of luggage had just arrived back in Ghana after a brief visit to the States. She called me from Accra asking where I was, and miles away from the place I could only slap my head in remorse- I had let her down again. At least I’m consistent. I’m not what you’d call a good friend in many cases, but I do try, which also sometimes back-fires- like when I bottled some pineapple jam I had made and put it in her mail box at the Accra office, only to find out that it leaked on her packages and went bad. I guess I’ll hold back giving her the home-made, battery operated fan/spray bottle I made for her the other day.

After the north, I headed back to Accra for another round of STARS fund raising; more or less for follow ups with the companies I talked with on my first visit. Overall, I would say my meetings were successful- a big stationary supplier in Ghana donated a generous amount of items we would have had to buy for the conference; also, a major television station signed on to cover two of the five days of the event. I’m kicking myself for not going to the television station in the first place- so many of the companies I talked to were interested in promoting their own company, and mentioning “media coverage” would have surely gotten my foot in the door. It’s not too late though!

That’s about it. Next week, we start Term 3 at school, and we’ll just have to see how that goes. I’ve tweaked a few things in my teaching approach that might get things moving faster, although it might be to the detriment of some of my students- more about that in my next post. I have to hold my students accountable for learning at least the basics, and if that means keeping them for class even though all the other classes have been dubiously cancelled, so be it. I’m also trying to hatch another scheme, this time involving a huge parent/teacher workshop that includes my school and the rest of the schools in Otumi. After interviewing some of the teachers and community members, I’ve gathered that parents don’t really promote education outside of the classroom, and even if they did, many of them might not know how to best go about getting their children to study. This in turn frustrates the teachers, who allege that students are not retaining anything taught in class. Perhaps after having a meeting with all the teachers, the chief, and some of the parents, we could hatch a large workshop that would turn things around here. I think we can actually do this. Later!

Wine: Seghesio Zinfandel Sonoma County 2007


That Old Pair of Jeans- Fatboy Slim
On Green Dolphin Street- John Coltrane
So What- Field Mob
Take Me Out- Franz Ferdinand
Fa Fa- Guster
Shining Star- Earth Wind & Fire
Escape- Hoobastank
Hints- Jose Gonzalez
Holes to Heaven- Jack Johnson
Mega Bottle Ride- Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros
After School Special- Jurassic 5
I Predict A Riot- Kaiser Chiefs
Touch The Sky- Kanye West
Of Moons, Birds & Monsters- MGMT
Jumping Jack Flash- The Rolling Stones
Odo Ho Akyire Noa- Amakye Dede
Luv 2 Luv Ya- Timbaland
Gravity Rides Everything- Modest Mouse
Blue Monday- Fats Domino
Get Down- Nas
Money (That’s What I Want)- Barett Strong
Monkey- Counting Crows
CrushCrushCrush- Vitamin String Quartet
On the Sunny Side of the Street- Diana Krall
In A Big Country- moe.
Last Stop: This Town- The Eels
Fade In-Out- Oasis
Unwritten- Natasha Bedingfield
Pay to Play- Nirvana
Sofisticated- Stereo MC’s
Superstition- Stevie Wonder
Juju Items

Monkey's paw

Medicinal tree bark

Tailor making a fine smock

Being forced to dance

Under the sub-chief's umbrella

One of Techiman's sub-chiefs

A thronging crowd



Lover (I meant to tell you about her earlier, I swear!)

Kintampo Falls lounge area

Kintampo Falls

Wagashee (fried cheese from the north)- delic!

I was told this is bean paste. It looks, tastes, and has the consistency of wet cement.

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