Saturday, October 31, 2009

Connecting Students

After close to ten arduous months of meetings, phone calls, and grant proposal writing, the PCPP for my community’s Computer Lab and Library has finally been approved by Washington- the capital, not the deceased president. A day after hearing from Peace Corps that my project had been given the green light, a web page with a description of my project had been added to the Volunteer Projects website. The address for my project is

The project is entirely funded by friends and family, so please please please spread the word and get people to donate. 100% of the donations (which are tax-deductable) go towards 20 Pentium 3 computers complete with monitors, keyboard and mouse, as well as a 1-year subscription to the internet and a projector to use for computer, math, science, and social studies classes. I’m hoping to get all the funds by mid-January, since that is when Term 2 starts.

That being said, October and November were pretty quiet months- just teaching and gearing up for the STARS conference in June. The months are flying like my chewed fingernails from all the STARS worries that come with the job. It feels like I just started climbing a mountain shrouded in fog concealing steep inclines and mountain goats I can easily trip over.

In October, I attended a funeral for the mother of two of my students. I’ve been to funerals before, but this was the first where someone I knew was directly affected. I have never seen any of my students so grief-stricken. The headmaster and some of the teachers at my school attended the funeral, held a stone throw’s distance from our school. In the early morning, women dressed in bright red cloths were playing soccer, which was later explained to me was a way to celebrate the fun side of the woman who passed away. I dressed in my traditional funeral cloth, which I always dread for a number of reasons: My diaphanous feet glow white against the black cloth, funeral shoes, and blood that drips down from the open sores on my feet. Yes, the sandals I wear for the occasion are made of hard leather that, because of friction from walking all over town, tears my feet open like they were made of tissue paper; Ghanaians fare well because it’s like their feet are made of indestructible Nike shoes. If you could imagine, two hours into the funeral I’m shuffling around with a pained look on my face, and the body hair did not help my appearance, which was simian to the max.

Several of the students, usually not permitted to attend any funerals, were allowed to support their two classmates. During the dancing part of the funeral, the teachers and students goaded me into dancing. I think I did alright, and it was one of the most memorable times I’ve had in my town- everyone joined in for the dance with happy-sounding music in the background. As cheerful as the music sounded, I had trouble translating in my head what the hell the song was about. I never would have guessed that each song was meant for a funeral since none of it was funereal. One song had the message of moving on with your life after a loved one has passed away, another about making the most of your life while you still have it. A little after the song ended, a storm that had been slowly rolling towards us from the horizon finally arrived to the funeral grounds, raining over our flimsy tents and flooding the ground. So many things happened at once- for an hour lightning struck over and over again so close to where we were sitting I thought we would surely get hit. The ground was no longer dry and rocky but saturated with small rust-red rivers that went under our chairs and headed towards the forest at our backs. The rain was coming down something fierce, but this didn’t deter a dozen or so of the people from continuing to dance in the rain. The rain stopped as abruptly as it started and continued crawling towards the setting sun. Glad to be alive, I bade farewell to everyone and took me and my bloody feet back to the house. The two students are still coming to school, performing much better than I’ve ever seen them. Their mom would be proud.

A few days after the funeral, I was relaxing under one of the shade trees (people tie rocks to the branches to weigh them down, until they collectively make the tree look like a giant umbrella), when a friend came out and pulled me away from the tree. It turns out I had sat under a huge nest of killer bees, you know- the bellicose African kind. While keeping a fixed glance at the black hive now a safe distance away, I asked my friend if he was going to knock them down or something and he said that very night, when they are asleep, they were going to set it ablaze. I made it clear that I wanted to watch and he told me to come around 8:30 at night. A storm similar to the one that came during the funeral blew through though, and I had to stay in that night. The next morning the guy said the storm blew away the hive, which I guess was fortunate for all parties.

One day in late October, my students were taking a quiz when all of a sudden, out of nowhere, there came a low, Jumanji-style rumbling from several yards away from the school. Drawing nearer we hear drumming, cheering, and bells clinging, parade-like. Then we saw, coming up the hill, all the primary school children from the school across town marching up, saying “ebi, ebi, ebi, ebi” (I thought I heard A-B,A-B). This elicited snickering and cheering from the students; meanwhile I had no idea what was going on. In the teachers’ lounge, I learned that the students at that school, for reasons entirely unknown to me, were shitting in their classrooms, which pissed off the teachers and eventually led to this march of shame throughout the town saying, shit! shit! shit! shit shit! The Presby school on the other side of town is very old (well over a hundred years old) and has no locks for its six classes, and supposedly students were sneaking in, leaving a clandestine dump on the floor for everyone to see and smell the next day (according to the teachers, this is not at all normal and unheard of in Ghana). Quoting my headmaster, “They were leaving shit-bombs….and got their just deserts.”

Recently, I’ve been enjoying fresh palm wine in town, something I had never had up until the funeral. My headmaster and a fellow teacher took me to one of the houses to enjoy the tasty beverage, and were shocked when I said I hadn’t tried it yet. This drink is a staple beverage in my small town, considering we are surrounded by palms and it is so easy to make. To get palm wine, you cut a hole in a recently felled tree, tapping the sap for about two weeks. Fresh palm wine has a very low alcohol content (about 2%), but tastes not unlike a fruity soda with a hint of bitters. When it is fresh, it is sweet. The longer it sits, the more fermented it gets, and the alcohol content increases. I prefer it fresh. When I came back to town the week following the funeral for more palm wine, I brought my own bottle to be filled (it’s about 50 cents for 750mL). My students saw me and freaked out that I was buying alcohol. I told them that they should wait until they are older, and when they are, to drink in moderation. Sounding Al Gorish, my students realized I wasn’t a swinging drunkard and left me alone. Riding home on my bike, the bottle’s top (not fully screwed on) popped off violently, and I learned that the vapors are slightly volatile. Someone once told me these very vapors attract invisible dwarves, which is a story I’ll have to get into another time. Let’s just say during training, a host-brother of one of my friends warned us not to “F^%$ with the dwarves!” I won’t.

Another newly discovered favorite of mine is this bubble gum ice cream in Accra- 6 cedis (roughly $4) gets me 8 scoops of this cold treat. Lisa and others complained that I have the pallet of a four-year-old since I prefer this flavor over, say, normal vanilla or blasé mocha chip. It doesn’t help that I’ve also started mixing into my oats a brand of this nutritious and delicious powdered baby food. Although the package clearly states it’s for infants, with a baby cartoon bear over this message to help clarify things, I don’t see what the problem is. I have banana flavored, fruit flavored, and maize flavored powders that are keeping me alive and happy. Does that make me less of a man? No. Now, can someone please come over and help shovel this into my mouth making plane noises?

What else happened over the past few weeks? Oh yes, a friend of mine up north was bitten on the arse by a hippo that wandered into town. He's alright, and he has such a great story to tell his grand kids. Course if I were him I would add that it had been a great battle, and the hippo, still out there with the taste for human flesh, now has one eye missing and my own bite mark on its hide.

Coming soon this month are Thanksgiving and the arrival of the students’ pen pal letters. The U.S. Ambassador is having Thanksgiving at his place again, and mostly all I can remember from last year is feeling like Jaba the Hut and somehow making it to the pool for a swim. After the ambassador’s, I went to the Kumasi Thanksgiving too, and after two Thanksgiving dinners, I thought I would be med sepped for gluttony. This year I think I’ll play it safe and go to only one Thanksgiving event.

Around the end of November, I’m hoping we get our pen pal letters from the students at Rickards High in Tallahassee. We’ve been doing a correspondence program with the students there, and this time it the letters focus on what science can and cannot study. My students keep asking me when the letters are going to come, and for 6 weeks or so I’ll be saying “It takes about six to seven weeks from when we sent them out.” So we have that to look forward to.
As for me, I’ll be checking the progress of my grant twice a day like a maniac, since this is the biggest project I’ve been working on for over a year. Love ya’ll and have a happy Thanksgiving!

Cardwell Hill Pinot Noir Willamette Valley, 2006


Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?- She & Him
You, Me & The Bourgeoisie- The Submarines
Shadows- Rufus Wainwright
The Thanksgiving Song- Adam Sandler
Ship Out On The Sea- The Be Good Tanyas
Yes!- Coldplay
Love- J Dilla
Shine A Light- Wolf Parade
Strange Apparition- Beck
Homelife- John Mayer
Straight Street- The Fiery Furnaces
Sitting, Waiting, Wishing- Jack Johnson
Empire State of Mind- Jay-Z
Each Day Gets Better- John Legend

The Computer Lab and Library- another month and it will be completed!!!!

Enjoying palm wine during the funeral

At the funeral with a teacher (left) and my headmaster (right)

Two other teachers who attended the funeral (to my left)

Some houses around my town

The Form 1 Classroom

My Form 3s

My Form 2s

The cats, acting weird

They just chopped down this tree outside my home :(
Baby food....or breakfast of champions?

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