Monday, December 7, 2009


In one week, I’ll be picking up my Israeli cousin Einat from the Accra airport. In two weeks, Jack, Einat and I will be in Mali exploring Dogon Country. At first glance, the itinerary looks like a lunatic drew it up after briefly peaking at a map of West Africa- the party would zigzag from Ghana to Burkina Faso to Mali, with several stops off the beaten track. But there is a method to the madness that will be our winter trip: each stop has something special- like a fellow PCV, something culturally unique, or a sight that could only be viewed in person.

Take for instance the zenith of our trip- Dogon Country. For years I’ve wanted to go there after reading a book on it. Dogon Country is a beautiful strip of land with villages swathing the southern border of Mali, just above Burkina Faso. In ancient times, a group of people called the Tellem built buildings inside the vertical cliffs that make up the region for protection from the sun and danger below. Presently, the Dogon live in the area, while the Tellem people are said to have moved east. East is where we will be headed, moving from village to village for about 5 to 7 days. There are about 20 villages in total that people can visit, each one having something new. For example, Amani has a sacred crocodile pool, Ireli has ancient Tellem houses and mud granary towers built by the Dogon, and Tireli is known for its pottery and Dogon mask ceremonies. That’s only three villages! It would be amazing if one of the villages were known for its outstanding replication of Chicago hot dogs, but hey, how many Americans get to see this side of the world?

After a series of chats with friends who went to Dogon Country, along with trial-and-error phone calls, I finally got through to Omar, Peace Corps Volunteers’ go-to tour guide. He knows the deal with Peace Corps volunteers- with our $160 a month salary, few of us could afford the normal price charged for tourists checking out the area. No, Omar and his company gives a great price for us volunteers, enough to make for an unforgettable trip. So after talking to Ira and Sue about their trip, I had a general idea of what to bring, how much to spend, and how much patience I should have when trying to get ahold of Omar- he is usually in the bush, of course. But Sue got me in contact with Omar, who is soooo incredibly nice to talk to on the phone. He called, saying unfortunately he couldn’t be our guide, but that his brother Musa will. In Bankass (heeheeeheeeheee) we’ll meet up, and then proceed to Dogon Country.

Other trips [may] include Kakum National Forest (Ghana), Cape Coast Castle (Ghana), Tamale (Ghana), Tatali (Ghana), Bolgatanga (Ghana), Mole National Park (Ghana), Donkorkrom (Ghana), Kumasi (Ghana), Sirigu and Paga (Ghana), Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso), Mopti (Mali), Djenne (Mali), and of course my own town. The trip hinges on a number of factors like tentative vehicle departures, weather, whims, health issues, and the unexpected================================================

Wow. Just had one of those “I love Ghana” moments while taking a break from typing. Normally I like to cook and clean dishes before it gets dark since I don’t have a sink or a light in my kitchen. Doing dishes outside means I’m with all things that come out in the night to bite. So, finished with dinner, I am cleaning up outside when I see tons of my students walking down the road from their parents’ farm. When they caught sight of me, the all rushed up the driveway to my house. It was great. I wish I had my camera, but I didn’t want to leave the scene. Some students had large bowls filled with fruits and vegetables on their heads, others had 6 meter-long bamboo poles with hooks at the end. All were cheering and laughing. The very thing I needed after a long day of chores and work. They started giving me all these oranges, even though I kept telling them my house is surrounded by orange trees. Oh, will I miss my students……………………..


Anyway, back to the trip. Basically, there’s so much to see, with such little time. Plus, I really was looking forward to the annual Cattle Crossing Festival in Djenne, a ritual done for about 200 years where the Fulani people guide their cattle across the Niger River and meet up with their families after the year-long journey. The festival is held between the end of December and the beginning of January, depending on water levels of the Niger. Unfortunately, when I asked Omar about it, he said the festival already happened two weeks ago in Djenne.

Aside from seeing sights, I would like to bring back some art from Ghana, Burkina and Mali, such as pottery from Sirigu and Dogon Country, masks from Mali and Burkina Faso, mud cloths from mopti, and bronze statues from Ouagadougou. I really want to bring back a butterfly mask from Burkina, but I’m worried that since the mask is about as tall as I am, there’s no way I’ll be able to travel with it. But I am resourceful- I will find a way!

Christmas will be spent with my friend Serena at her site in Tatali, way over by Togo in the Northern Region of Ghana. New Year’s will be celebrated under the Malian stars in Dogon Country. No New Year’s kiss for me though :( Lis will be miles away spending it with friends back in Ghana, since she used all her vacation days traveling in October/ November.

About two weeks ago I had a fantastic dinner at the U.S. Ambassador’s house. The food was AMAZING, and again I stuffed myself like nobody’s business. But aside from eating my weight of Thanksgiving dinner and seeing friends, another great part of that holiday was meeting and staying with one of the families who hosted Peace Corps Volunteers who came down to Accra. Volunteers usually stay at a bunk house that holds about 9 people comfortably, 60 people uncomfortably. About 60 volunteers came to Thanksgiving, which meant instead of inundating the place, Peace Corps found families for us to stay with, most being American expats.

I hit the jackpot with my family. Actually, a lot of volunteers said this, but that doesn’t detract from how great my family was. For three nights I spent time getting to know the Zager family- a family of four, with 2 young children that were so adorable I couldn’t ask for better children myself. Josh, the father, recently came to Ghana as the Marines attaché worker. Jana takes care of the kids, who both attend school in Accra. A Jewish family, I felt at home, and it was such a change of pace from the average day here in Ghana. We made challa for Christ’s sake! And Josh, Lis and I went to see Inglorious Bastards at an actual movie theater. Movie theater. This was the first movie I’ve seen at a movie theater in almost 18 months. Another first in Ghana was jumping on a trampoline while eating cookie dough ice cream at the mansion that was the USAID Country Director’s house, which is where Lisa and a few others stayed. All of us felt so strange going to the most different living arrangements to what we are used to back at our sites. It felt like heaven. That’s what it felt like when it came time to go back to site- leaving food and comfort heaven for the unair-conditioned bush. But rolling up to my town after a four-hour trip from Accra, I was just as happy to be back as I was eating turkey in one hand, and pecan pie in the other. Well, not that happy, but few things compare to Thanksgiving smorgasbords.

The day before I left, Lisa and I went down to the beach to do the second thing I haven’t done in 18 months- go to a bowling alley. Since Lisa was an avid bowler way back in her New Jersey high school days, I figured my girlfriend is going to clean the place with me. My experience with bowling is working at one as a kid and sucking then, going bowling with friends and family and still sucking. My ball once ended up in another lane. But lo and behold, I was beating Lisa during mid-game, and the last frame had me laughing. All I needed was two pins and I’d beat her. I didn’t beat her. End. Of. Story.

When I got back, I thought for sure I’d be sick with the flu, since it’s running rampant here. Lisa had it, and so did the kid sitting next to me on the cramped tro ride back to site. Since the windows were closed, the kid’s coughing fogged up the window I sat next to, and while the snot rag brushed up against my arm and hand, all I could think was how many oranges I would have to eat when back at site. *Sniff *sniff *cough *cough*- 4 oranges. Each hanky-to-hand contact equaled 3 oranges. A direct cough or sneeze to my face equaled 5 oranges. Luckily, I didn’t get sick. Maybe the combined powers of turkey and oranges protected me from all things pathogen related.

Two frustrations this month involved dropped groceries and the caretaker’s kids. With the groceries, I went to my market town an hour away to pick up the school drum that was recently repaired. While there, I decided to change things up and get more dried food than I usually do for god knows what reason. I bought a ton of rice, red beans, black eyed peas, sugar, and peanuts- enough to hold me over for three weeks, before I leave for Mali. So I ask the tro driver to drop me off in front of the school instead of my house so I could bring the drum to the headmaster and get my bike. Drum delivered, I hung the bags on my handlebars like an idiot and went down the slope towards the road. Even though I knew how flimsy the bags were and how easily plastic bags break here, I still rushed to get home so I could cook before dark. Of course I hit a bump, which jostled all the bags to fall off my bike and explode all over the ground. Three week’s worth of food on the floor + a cursing white guy = an inquisitive group of Ghanaians. The people were so nice, helping me pick up EACH INDIVIDUAL BEAN OR RICE GRAIN and putting them in a new bag they got for me. They even tried scooping the sugar into a bag, even though it was red from the dust and pebbles that was now part of the sweetener. As pissed and embarrassed as I was, I can’t describe how grateful I was towards my community; the kindness they show me comes every day in different forms, and this was definitely a new form of benevolence. Now I’m sorting more pebbles out of my dried food than ever before. I actually salvaged some of the sugar too. But lesson learned. Take your mother%$^&#@# time!

As for the kids, boy oh boy. The caretaker of the house I live in is in Togo, again. He sometimes leaves his kids here while he goes over there, but this time it’s been too long. His wife was hit by a motorcycle and sick (she’s okay, says the kids), and the daughter is also sick and had to go to the Togolese hospital. The parents have been gone for about two months now, leaving their two boys with a family in town. The kids still sleep in the room at the back of the house, and have a key to my house for some unknown reason, maybe to clean. But clean they didn’t. I gave them slack of course because of their family situation, and fed them on occasion and gave them soap and water to wash. What bothered me, even when the father was here, was the fact that they stopped attending school. When the father left, I had my headmaster come to my place to talk them into going, saying that if it was a money issue, we would deal with it, but no success came. Instead, the students used their total freedom to annoy me.

When I needed to leave for Accra to fix my fried computer (now fixed), I remember giving the kids half a loaf of bread while legging it to a waiting tro outside my home. When I got back, I noticed that the bike chain on my bike was off, and tire marks lead out of the house through the side door, where the kids have a key. Shit. And the kids, for whatever reason, left the broken bike lock on the kitchen table. I was furious, but I needed to cook and clean, giving me time to cool off and think. Later, the kids came home, and when they heard me in the house, they ran straight into the forest. GUILTY! I wouldn’t have been so angry if this hadn’t been the second time this has happened. Months ago, the kids took my bike and trashed my house (I mentioned this in an earlier entry), and with tearful apologies, they promised it would never happen again. Fool me once……

The next day I went to the house where they were getting food, and called them out. They both denied any wrongdoing. I said to give me the keys to the house. They said they lost them. I threatened to go to the headmaster to get the keys. They didn’t budge. So I then turned to the family, who knew me and knew of the childrens’ guilt. So many things pointed to them, and when more people heard what happened, a crowd started to form around the kids. People said they saw the boy riding my bike to the next town. The kids were stuck, and finally confessed. The next step was what to do next. We all new the delicacy of the situation, with the parents gone and the sister severely ill. A few people said I should take them to the police, but I think this was to scare them straight. I took them to the school, where my headmaster and their primary headmaster heard the story. It just so happened the town officials were all at the school dealing with a different issue- some of my students were caught gambling (a major offense which ended in them getting 12 lashes to the back in front of the school and their parents).

When it came time to decide the fate of the caretaker’s children, the officials handled it very well- the outcome was that the teachers pooled money together so the kids get food in the morning, so long as they attend school. As for meals and after school care, the officials will talk to the Ewe community in town to see what could be done. The kids were bawling and saying sorry, and I think this time they really meant it. They are kids after all. I think they realized that after all this time I spent caring about their schooling, feeding them, providing gifts now and then without asking anything in return, that they in turn crossed a major line. They admitted to taking food and using my stove while I was gone (I think they damaged the left burner). But I forgave them. No word from either parent, but the kids are going to school, are actually looking happy (I check on them now and again at the primary school), and after paying their school fees, they can now take their term exams; I don’t really know how they’ll do on those, but according to their teacher they are trying.

Some good news- the books I’ve been waiting for finally arrived. I emailed an NGO that donates books to Peace Corps Volunteers working in the schools, and about 4 months later got more than I expected- brand new books matching exactly what I had in mind for my students. In the email, I wrote that my students are middle-school age, with many students at elementary-level reading skills. I requested math, science, and world culture books. What I got was math, science, and culture books, along with short novels appropriate for some of my students. Coinciding with the delivery of these books was a microscope I asked a friend to lend me. My students love it. They look at everything from the cotton fibers of their shirts to the mouthparts on a spider’s carapace. Since the term is almost over, students are busy studying for their exams, leaving little time to look at the books. Next term, I plan on having a revamped reading hour using the new books, as well as the books given to us by the Ghana Education Service.

My town is wearing a coat of orange this winter- the red dust is so much that what once was green plants and white animals are now orange plants, dogs, cats, chickens, and goats. After spending last year in Otumi, I am already inured to the harsh harmattan season down here, although I’ve heard it’s much worse up north, which is where I’m headed next week….

That’s about it. It’s Hanukkah and I’m spinning the dreidel by my lonesome. Last week, Lisa cooked real latkes for me, complete with apple sauce shipped from home! I can’t wait to spend the holidays with family next year. This year, it’s winter in West Africa for me.

Big big thanks to the Zager family for inviting me to their home and feeding/spoiling me. Thanks to Ira and Sue for helping with the Mali trip, I’m missing you both now that you’re gone. Thanks to Darien Books for the brand new and excellent books (the students are working on the Thank-you cards). Thanks Brian for the microscope, I’ll have it back in one piece. And thanks to all who have donated so far to my Computer Lab and Library project. Oh owe a lot to my bro, Adrianna, Park, and Ortiz, Maurine and Tim for their fundraising initiatives. Thanks to everyone helping out with the project. And thanks to those people who helped me pick up my beans and rice.

Happy Hanukkah, happy holidays, happy New Year! Love you all!
*Please continue donating to my Peace Corps project, the target amount we need has still not been met. The website is


Forget wine. Leave space for more turkey, cranberries, pumpkin pie, salad, mashed potatoes, and stuffing with gravy on top. Wash down with a glass of sangria.


Smile- Michael Bublé
Bron-Y-Aur Stomp- Led Zeppelin
Fix Up, Look Sharp- Dizzy Rascal
The Egg and I- Seatbelts
Little Delia- Blind Willie McTell
Tender- Blur
Too Long- Andrew Bird's Bowl Of Fire
We’re Leaving- DeVotchKa
The Chanukah Song- Adam Sandler
Something to Look Forward To- spoon
Bluehawk- Thelonious Monk
Voxtrot- Wrecking Force
Slow Jamz- Kanye West
Run Run Run- The Velvet Underground
Each Day Gets Better- John Legend
All the Old Showstoppers- The New Pornographers
Homelife- John Mayer

The trip up West Africa

The rough plan for Ghana

Dogon Country

Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso

Mole National Park, Ghana

Kakum National Park- Canopy walk in the trees over the rainforest

Butterfly mask of Burkina Faso (above and below)

Cattle Crossing Festival, Mali

Mud home near Bolgatanga, Ghana

Thanksgiving dinner!!!

Jack, Lis and I, 2 stone heavier

Hanging loose with Mike, Peace Corps Ghana's Country Director, at Thanksgiving

Jack with a gargantuan dog

Ira and Cheri, gonna miss you both!

Chris holding up a neat Peace Corps designed kente cloth from Volta Region
Sue me!
Before losing the match

Guh. Terrible.

Merry Hanukkah Charlie Brownstein!

Go dreidel go!

The books donated from Darien books

Yes, a book on sabertooth tigers, only the most ferocious cat that ever lived

My headmaster and I get these newspapers for the students whenever we go to the market

A hand-made pineapple paper card made at my friend Kat's site

Poster from when Obama was here

Lisa made this. Is that a good thing?


Lisa said...

a VERY good thing!

Krista Sheppard said...

That is fantastic! Loved to see the photos of the books you were sent, they look like a good fit.

:) Glad to hear your thanksgiving... uhh... ROCKED!

Also, Jack's hair???? Oh my god, long! Soon he will be known as Jesus instead of Bin Laden...