Friday, April 16, 2010

A Very Important Date

Yes, in 3 months I too will be making a sandwhich. On August 4th, I plan to be home, so who's up for a sandwich party by the beach?

Last week was my group’s COS conference, during which time we could choose a date to finish our service at our sites. So far, two out of the 24 people in my group decided to stay another year, while most of us signed up to leave during the month of August.

For months I have been indecisive on when would be a good time to leave. On the one hand, I need to get back ASAP to start working and paying off my student loans. Since I plan to teach, and school in the US starts in mid-August, it would seem logical to give myself a week or two of rest and readjusting before I jump right into a new job. On the other hand, leaving early means a rushed goodbye to friends, and of course Otumi. School in Ghana ends July 31, so an early COS would take away from leisure time spent with close friends in town. Leaving just after school ends wouldn’t feel right, and that is certainly not how I want to end my service.

I decided to be realistic and choose the one where I get home with time to rest before I dive back into the working world. The headmaster at my school felt that it was the right thing to do, and it would not have to feel rushed- once I knew a date, everyone in my town would know it too. After the phone call,I went back into the conference room and sealed my fate- Darren Fleischer: COS date August 2-4, 2010.

Of course I had my initial doubts- What about the computer lab and library? Will I be leaving too soon, right when things started rolling? Should I stick around and allow some overlap for a new volunteer if one were to come? We are also getting a new headmaster at the school, and I don’t know if I will get to meet him/her before I leave. So many times I had the urge to change my COS date to a later one, but in the end I felt like it was the right decision. If I stayed another month, I’m sure I would want to extend that another month and so on. I need to go back home.

Yesterday was my first day back at site after 3 weeks of being away for STARS work in Accra and conferences in Ho [Volta Region]. I decided to take a walk into town and greet all the people I haven’t seen while away from site. In retrospect, I should have taken a flashlight, because despite the small size of my town, a Big Greet can take ages. I live far from everyone, so going into town is like going to a pub where all the patrons know you.

The sky was blue and the sun told me it was fivish as I set out on my little Odyssey. On my way to the center of town, I had to stop and check on the progress of our computer lab and library- while attending conferences in Ho, the headmaster and a few others from town would call me and tell me how magnificent the computer lab looked. The building now looks so much better than when I left it 3 weeks ago; it now has windows, wiring, a finished roof, and a look that made it easy to imagine just how amazing it would be when finally complete. I was so impressed, I made up my mind to visit the assembly man on the other end of town to congratulate him on all his hard work.

The sky was a mix of gold and blue when I finally made it to the assembly man’s house. Along the way to his house, I chatted with many other people who happened to be on the main road; one guy insisted that I go to his house to see the remnants of a snake he killed at farm- a python, and from the looks of the dried skin, well over 10 ft. When I got to the assembly man's place, we chatted for a while until I heard thunder approaching, and I got out of there. I've had enough lightning storms for my time here.

Of course, I had to visit the chief before the Big Greet came to an end- not seeing him would be an insult. Unfortunately, my timing was awful, because when I popped in the palace, there was a couple pleading their case to the chief- this can best be described as a scene from “The Godfather”. I didn’t want to interrupt, but he caught sight of me and waved me in while he listened to the wife and husband. So I sat, watching the sky go from gold to black. When the couple was through and said their thank yous and good byes, I gave my greetings, reminding him where I went during the three weeks of my absence. During our conversation, I told him I plan on living in Brooklyn right when I get home, and he said he will be back in the Bronx for a visit in December. He lived in the Bronx for about 15 years, so you could imagine how easy it is to relate with him on how excited I am to live in NY, but at the same time how lonely it will be when not surrounded by all things Ghanaian.

By the time I left the chief’s palace, mostly everyone had gone to their houses. Aside from high altitude white lightning flashes, the sky and everything below it was completely black. No moon shone through the overcast sky, and thousands of lightning bugs made the long, lonely walk back home both eerie and difficult when trying to discern the road from the bush and puddles. Unlike most of the people in my town, navigating the road at night without a flashlight proves difficult for me. And it didn’t help that just an hour ago my friend displayed his +10 foot python skin, fresh from the farm.

The Big Greet drove home just how much I will miss Otumi, and the people I will say goodbye to in less than three months. By now, everyone knows my COS date. Second August. Hearing it from a friends’ mouth makes it more real, like their saying it gives it more form- the hugs, tears, promises of returning and writing and calling.

August still seems so far away, considering my projects in progress- STARS, the almost complete computer lab and library, and of course teaching my boisterous students in our last school term together. But really, all us volunteers know that this next 3 months will go in a flash. How inchoate my ideas were before leaving for Ghana! I never would have imagined how close I would become with my friends and students, and how aweful it would feel to be leaving. As much as Otumi feels like home, it isn’t. I know I couldn’t live here all my life, but I feel so welcomed, and the things I’ve grown so familiar to- going to farm, chatting with an entire town, eating food with random families- will all be lost when I go back to America.

While in Ho, we had a conference for all Peace Corps Volunteers serving in Ghana (there is a little over 130 volunteers in country). Sessions lasted from 8 to 5 for an entire week, but of course when not in session we got to catch up with friends, many of which we haven’t seen in months. Since my group is on its way out, learning about how to implement a project wasn’t what you’d call exciting. Many of the newer volunteers described up-and-coming projects, many of which are AIDS/HIV education related, and I felt impressed about the creativity and Ghanaian partnerships that went into each one. Speaking of creativity, the Peace Corps prom turned out to be a success, the best I’ve been to. I’d write more, but I’ll let the pictures below speak for me.

After the week-long All Vols conference, our group stayed four extra days to attend the COS conference. The COS conference is not only designed to mark the period where we accomplished almost two years of service, but also to discuss things like finding a job, readjusting to life in the US, saying bye to our friends at site, closing projects, continuing our service, and typing our final reports. But never mind all that- for the first time I got to see the music videos to Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance and Telephone. Holyjesusmotherofgodandallthingsgood. The first time many of us saw the videos, we just stared; sometimes we would glance at a friend to see their expression before gazing back at the projector screen. At any given point throughout the rest of the conference, you would hear someone singing either Bad Romance or Telephone. This might sound bad, but the music video for Telephone was made for the average male Peace Corps Volunteer. Sandwiches? Beyonce? What more could one ask for in a music video? After watching it for the 40th time, I’m wondering how appropriate it would be to show some of my friends in town- what would they think of the US?

In April, I got to meet Jack’s family, and watched as they were introduced to just a taste of what Jack and I have experienced over the last 23 months. It was great fun, and even though I don’t expect my own family to come, it was nice to see how the families of other PCVs reacted to Ghana humidity, local foods, and insects of all sorts.

Also in April, my students finally were able to purchase new jerseys for their football team. It took them three months to save up about 200 cedis ($140), but when the time came, the teachers put together a football match between the seniors from our school, and past students who are now in high school. Most of the town came out to watch the match, and my students gave them a good show. In the end, we won 3-2.

In March I went to Kumasi with my friend Georgette to get a full kente- the traditional cloth worn by Ghanaians for special occasions. There are a variety of kente colors and patterns, each one having a different meaning. For instance, the one I got is called “Nothing has permanence”. I wore it for the first time when I went to church for Easter. As a Jew, it felt awkward not celebrating Passover and instead going to church, but when in Rome……

To all you mothers and preggers out their: Happy Mother’s Day!!! I wonder if they celebrate that holiday here; I’ll have to ask someone in town tomorrow.

Thanks to everyone who donated to the STARS project- we now have the funds to hold the conference. In June I’ll write an entry on how STARS went, along with pictures of the by then completed computer lab and library. Till next time!!!


Jermann Venezia-Giulia Vintage Tunina 2006


Bad Romance- Lady Gaga
Telephone- Lady Gaga
Oh What?- Beastie Boys
Party In The USA- Miley Cyrus
Heart Of The City- Jay-Z
Snail- Smashing Pumpkins
On April 2- Headlights
Get What You Need- Jet
Mad Season- Matchbox 20
Punk- Gorillaz
In A Moment- Collective Soul
Poetry of the Deed- Frank Turner
Time Goes Back- John Frusciante
The Way I Are- Timbaland

Computer lab thank you's

My coworkers hugging after a loooong Term 2 comes to an end

How I spiraled into loving kente

My new kente

Sitting on the chief's throne

Otumi church on Easter

Drying my sweat soaked kente

What came crawling out from under
my bed the other day- thing was like 5 inches!

Yellow birds on Ghana's coast

At the beach with Jack's family

Jack and his brother playing some Ghana chess

Our new football jerseys

More spectators arrive to watch our footbal match

Peace Corps kente!!!

Peace Corps Prom baybee

The Nard Dog

Steph, the coolest hippo hater this side of the Volta

Disclaimer- This is not how Ghanaians wear cloth

Our DJ for the evening

My prom date- I tried impressing her with
my ripped plaid shirt and drunken stupor.
PS- That cig prop disintegrated before the night was through

The don't ask don't tell policy will do just fine here

Collecting our COS certificates from the PC Director

Dan's amazing [full] basketball court

Our small band of JHS teachers during the COS conference

The cats I'll be leaving behind :(

Funny face group picture---sans Jack. Me thinks he's swimming

Our final day with the Form 3 students

Happy Mother's Day!

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Hand Me That Cutlass

Just got a text from a friend today congratulating us on 21 months of serving in Ghana. 21 months. Meditating on that (with licorice tea), I can rewind and fast forward all the ups and downs, triumphs, failures, blah boring moments, reality checks, and fears I had in the beginning and still harbor now. 21 months of learning the ropes so I could be infallible the rest of the time I’m here. 21 months of setting up the dominoes for the spectacular conclusion. Ha! Who am I kidding?!

I’m currently working on three main projects- teaching at the JHS, helping to organizing this year’s STARS youth conference, and getting the computer lab and library finished before I COS. Stop me at random, ask me what I’m thinking, and honestly it would probably have something to do with one of those projects. Luckily I am not going solo on any of this; several dedicated and creative people are working right beside me, thankfully. I hear “everything will work out” or “by God’s grace”. Telling that to a volunteer hurtling towards their close of service just doesn’t work.
In the end it doesn’t really matter how hard I work, everything is reliant on the enthusiasm and involvement of others, along with a little luck. It’s like planting seeds and hoping they will germinate, granted you are being smart about your sowing. Ultimately it’s up to the seed and the right conditions for things to come to fruition. Ooooh, perfect segue.

Lately, I’ve been farming. A lot. As soon as I step into the bush, I leave behind all my worries and thoughts. I focus on two things: weed well, and don’t get bitten by a snake. Weed weed weed weed. This is the top de-stressor. Plus I’m helping a good friend AND paying her back for doing my laundry (I’m awful at hand washing shirts and pants). In the forest, I learn a lot about things that don’t crop up normally in conversation, like the life of farmers and stories in the forest. A lot of the farmers I know do not own a plot of land, they rent it by splitting their harvest with the actual owner. Also, around my town there are armed robbers who at any given moment can come in and take the farmer’s entire day’s work, or even their lives in some recent cases.

Every Saturday, my friend Auntie Obi and I head out towards the thick part of the forest. She would occasionally call out an echoing “HOOOOOOO”, with “HOOOOOOOOO” responses from unseen farmers in the green portrait. This is to let the other farmers know you are there, and make things less mundane. It is an hour walk into the forest to get to her farm, and at any given moment we would pass one of my students or a friend I know in town. Their reactions are worth the trip. “Oh sir, you have done well!” “Ayeeekoooooh!” (well done!), “Wo betumi do?” (you can weed?). And I can’t forget to mention what people jokingly say to me on the way to the bush- “Catch me a rabbit” “Bring me back a yam” “Bring me one bush rat”. I would pretend to scrawl this on an invisible sheet of paper; god forbid I forget to bring them their prize. Of course I’ve earned my own keep of avocado, kontummere leaves, yam, oranges and plantain after a morning’s work.

Second to farming is running. Running for my life, as fast as I can go for about ten minutes after school is more like it. Beats the hell out of my stress, because I’m too busy catching my breath than thinking about how shitty my lesson went or that I was the only teacher at school for most of the day. If no one is around, I chase the goats until I tag them. This takes a lot more effort than my normal runs. So far it’s Goats 9-Me 2.

Last week, after school, while running on the main road, some storm clouds were approaching, so I turned around and headed home. On my way back, I heard some of my students calling me from deep in the forest (I stand out pretty easily). I left the road and went down the snaking trail of the forest towards my students and their families. They were getting down palm nuts, and it looked like they were about finished, and just in time- a storm was brewing not too far from where we were . They told me to take the lead, and I went on my way. By the time I got back I was soaked, and lightning was striking all around my house. Usually, I prefer running in the rain, but my acute fear of lightning trumps my love for saturated exercise.

While the lightning was striking all over the place, I could see farmers, including the aforementioned students and their families, walking the flooded road back to their houses, which are almost a mile away in many cases. Some farmers were using their giant metal bowls as umbrellas, with lightning striking so close to them I cringed every time. And here’s where I become a coward- as much as I yelled for them to come to my house for shelter, they could not hear me through the deafening rain. And I was too chicken to go out and direct them to a mug of tea and chair in the confines of my safe and warm living room.

After that day of seeing the farmers working in the rain, straining with their load, and walking several kilometers back home with the threat of being hit by lightning, I’ve had a new and profound kind of respect for my community. I see my students in a new light. When they are finished at school, without question they go to farm in adverse conditions. And then they come to school the next day to learn. I’ve lived here long enough to know this, but my recent farming expeditions allowed me to know a bit more. When I was their age, I worked too. But their work helps feed their family, despite the obvious dangers. Props to the farmers. I know February 6th is Farmer’s Day in Ghana, but in my town that should be every day.

Right next to my house is a palm oil mill. Some farmers bring their harvest of palm nuts straight to this mill, and the nuts are pulverized to make this bright red oil- I have no idea of the nutritional benefits of it, but most people use it when cooking a meal. When I first got here, a tablespoon of the stuff would wreak havoc on my stomach. Ever since I got to my site and could cook for myself, I opted for vegetable or coconut oil and avoided palm oil. Very recently my stomach has gotten stronger, and I don’t get sick from friends’ cooking, so I’ve started getting my own palm oil. I can just go to the mill, and they give me all the oil I want. I’ll come home with a huge container that would last me weeks.

Not too long ago, I got back home with such a container of palm oil, and went to shower after a long day of school. When I got out of the shower and went to the kitchen, the container was on its side, and my three white cats were now red colored culprits. So much fun cleaning that up.

Other small stories

I accidentally dropped a teacher while giving her salsa lessons. We were in the staff room, and all the teachers were laughing hysterically at me and Eva, one of the female teachers, whizzing around doing an awful job of salsa. Then Eva, thinking I would catch her, did a faint. I did not catch her, and she ended up hitting the floor pretty hard. This brought more laughter.

There are so many stories from the staff room, but most memorable was a recent situation where I was left acting as pseudo-parent for the day. While grading papers, dozens of my female students entered the office with one of the other teachers, who looked like Santa holding a big black bag. In the bag were bras, underwear, as well as Western second-hand skirts and shirts. Of course they started putting on the skirts and holding up the bras and shirts to their friends while I sat trying to find a spot on the ceiling to focus on. But the girls and female teacher wanted my opinion. There were plenty of “definitely not’s” and “not on your life” for the pouting girls wearing way-too short skirts. Ghanaians are usually over ambitious as it is with girls, and I didn’t want my students creating more hassle for themselves.

Not too long after that weird situation, my host father from Peace Corps training came to randomly visit me in my town. Everyone in town calls me Kwazi Boateng- Kwazi for Sunday born, and Boateng being my host father’s name; but until then no one ever met him. That day Nana Boateng got to see the school and meet with many of the people around town. It was so nice that he finally got to see where I live. Recently my host sister, Regina, died, which incidentally was an exact week after our primary headmaster passed away. I think this contributed to my host father's decision to get out and see my site.

Although I couldn’t make it to Regina’s funeral, I did go to the primary headmaster’s funeral. Hundreds of people attended the service, and even though his death occurred about 2 months ago, many of us were still grief-stricken. One curious part of the funeral had all the teachers line up, while the new primry headmaster called roll. When they got to the deceased headmaster's name, we all yelled "Present Out!"- this is what our students say if we call out their absent friend's name during register.

We celebrated Ghana’s 52nd independence Day on March 6th with a little marching in the market town. Last year, like every year in Otumi, all the students are involved and compete against the other primary and middle school in town. For months, the students would spend the early morning hours practicing to march. At the last second, the event was cancelled due to change of plans. This year, 20 students from the JHS and 20 from the primary school were invited to come to Kade, the district capitol, to march for the District Chief, the Director of Education, and other dignitaries. Our school did a good job….I think. When I play back what I recorded, the teachers are cracking up at how uncoordinated they were. You could see these videos for yourself when I get home…. In 5 months….

For those who donated to my site project, I just got the donor's list. I will be making thank you cards throughout the week, complete with pictures. The building is almost finished, and when it is I can start getting the computers. I feel weird bringing up this next project, but here is the STARS website if you have any more money to donate. Just click on the link for more information. Thanks!

Peace out!

Wine: Ghost Block Cabernet Sauvignon Oakville 2005


Day-O- Harry Belafonte
Phantom Other- Department of Eagles
Man In the Mirror- Michael Jackson
Too Long- Andrew Bird's Bowl of Fire
Obscured- Smashing Pumpkins
On A Day Like This- Elbow
Second Walk- John Frusciante
Peace And Quiet- The Rifles
Sitting, Waiting, Wishing- Jack Johnson
Give It Time- Eric Lindell
Holographic Universe- Thievery Coporation
Flip Flop Rock- Outkast
Sepian Bounce- Charlie Parker
Run It- Chris Brown
Roll Over Beethoven- The Beatles
Stir It Up- Bob Marley
Nervous In The Alley- Less Than Jake
Mr. E's Beautiful Blues- Eels

Worst idea for a poster (bottom right)

Going to farm with Auntie Obi

The trail to AO's farm

Getting down some weird round cucumber thing

How I do dishes

Learning Twi through JHS textbooks

Lights off! Bring out the coal pot

Airplane ≠ Space Shuttle

Nana Boateng (my right) in Otumi

March 6th - Independence Day marching

My school!

Taking pictures with students after marching

My friend has this strange poster in his house

Eva and Milli, two of my coworkers, after marching

At the palm oil mill

A container of palm oil

Another container of palm oil

At the primary headmaster's funeral in Kade

Lining up for "Roll Call"

Three of the sub-chiefs of Otumi

My dogs after a funeral in Nkwanta Anwiem