Saturday, November 24, 2012

Giving thanks

(This post is a few days late, but that's what happens when I don't have on-demand Internet access like in the US.)  I spent my Thanksgiving holiday (Wed-Fri) catching up with many of the teachers I knew well during my assignment in Kumasi.

Since this vacation has been somewhat unplanned, I wasn't really sure how much time I would have in Kumasi after leaving the village.  I was able to stay there for three days, which gave me enough time to visit 12 of the 15 schools in the program.  Of the remaining three, two no longer have teachers I know and there's only one remaining teacher from the program at the last school.  How did I get to all these schools scattered across three sub-metros?  Wilfred, the S2S coordinator who took on my role after I left, was unbelievably wonderful about driving me to all the schools.

At each school, we went through a very similar routine.  Wilfred and I would walk up towards the school.  As we got closer and saw teachers I knew, they would look at us in disbelief, not really believing what their own eyes were telling them: that I was back in Kumasi.  I know that most (maybe all) of them never expected to see me again when I left.  Many of the female teachers would hug me (rather gingerly, like I would break if they hugged me hard) while the male teachers would shake my hand.  I would share with them my story of visiting my PCV friend on my holidays and tell them how glad I was to have the time to see them, even if only for a few minutes.

All of the teachers were grateful to see me, with many commenting upon how "you kept us in your heart" even after my return to the US.  Some of them also commented upon how much they appreciated me spending my own funds to see them.  Some of the individual reunions were particularly memorable:
-Lucy, a headmistress, was on the phone when we walked up.  She kept talking, but then she did an actual double-take and ended the call quickly to be able to greet me.
-Elizabeth, one of my favorite ICT teachers, was so happy to see me that she literally squealed.
-Bernard, one of the teachers I had nominated to interview for the role that Wilfred now has, was so surprised to see me that he said, "I will mark this on my calendar as the biggest surprise of the year".
-Julius, who is one of the most unlikely success stories, pumped my hand so hard while shaking it that I thought my arm would come off.  He tried to show me something on the Internet (which, unfortunately, was not working).  I was astonished at how well he used the PC when trying to show me.

Every reunion was different, but they all had one thing in common: I felt such amazing levels of gratitude from them for what I considered to be such a small gift, the gift of my time.  I cannot imagine a better way to have spent the uniquely American Thanksgiving holiday than receiving so much thanks from so many wonderful people.  I am grateful for having the chance to see them again so that they know that someone across the huge Atlantic ocean still cares about them.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

“Teach the children well…”

My free laptop from work (donated to the science outreach program I lead at work) has temporarily become a very heavy paperweight [on Nov. 20th].  For some reason (probably the heat), I am now getting a “fan error”.  Normally I would just look that up on Google, but out here in the bush, the internet is too slow/often not working, which makes it difficult to fix my laptop.  Luckily Maggie has a netbook that I can use to check email and try to post my blog.  I’m just annoyed that I’m now carrying around a laptop that might be useless for the rest of my trip. [Editor's note: I eventually posted this from the Vodafone cafe when I made it to Kumasi the next day.]

Yesterday, as tends to happen in Ghana, things got out of my control and, in this case, I ended up teaching a Form 3 ICT class.  Maggie had called Thomas, the ICT and science teacher, to let him know that I wanted to observe his class.  He asked her if I wanted to teach it, to which I shook my head at her with a terrified no.  But when I walked over to the school, there was no Thomas in the classroom.  The headmaster was in there watching the class while Thomas was headed to a funeral.  He also asked me if I wanted to teach.  The look on my face must have told him no in no uncertain terms because he followed his question with, “Oh, you are worried.”  They managed to track down Thomas, who came back to the classroom for a bit.  Knowing that the students would learn nothing if I didn’t teach, I asked Thomas what they were supposed to cover.  When he showed me the section in the lesson book on email, I took a deep breath and said I would teach it. 

While we were sorting this out, Maggie called.  I let her know that I would be teaching, so she ended up coming down to the classroom to watch.  Thomas also stayed for part of the class.  The headmaster had warned me that I would need to speak slowly, which is something I was prepared for.  What I was not prepared for is how little I would accomplish during the time allotted for class. 

I picked up a piece of chalk, which promptly broke as I started writing the words “electronic mail” on the board.  I had a bit of terror at that point until I remembered that I saw the teachers struggle to use this cheap chalk.  Based on the textbook (which turns out to have been borrowed from one of the students), I managed to get through the format of an email address ( and explaining all the parts of it.  I explained that, “Typically your username is your name.”  Then I asked one of the students in the front row, who seemed to understand, what his name was.  His last name was the name of a “botanical” (flower?  Tree? Crop?) that to me sounded like “Acoogly” but turned out to be “Akugre”.  Listening to me try to pronounce his name back as part of an email address sent the class into laughing fits.  But laughter seems to be the best way to handle the miscommunication that often occurs here.  The section after email and email passwords was about creating an email account and logging in, a subject I was not willing to tackle without access to computers.

After describing the format of an email address, we reviewed a couple advantages of the Internet (e.g., entertainment) and disadvantages of the Internet (e.g., “bad films”, aka pornography).  I was about to start a new topic when the bell rang.  (An actual bell, that is.  One of the students goes out to a table outside the classroom, picks up a handbell, and rings it when classes change.)  I asked the students if they had any questions for me about America before they left but, just like American kids, they were ready to run out the door as soon as class was over.

During this experience, a few of the teachers came by to watch through the window.  They asked Maggie if I was a teacher in the US, since I had such nice handwriting on the board and knew how to use the board effectively.  I’ll take compliments wherever I can get them.  Only after this experience was over did I realize that I didn’t get any pictures of me actually teaching the students, which is the only thing I regret about my first classroom experience in Ghana.

Monday, November 19, 2012

"It's the journey, not the destination..."

On this short trip to Ghana, I’ve been exposed to a much wider range of transportation options than when I lived here. The trip to Adupri [on Friday], a small village about 2.5 hours from Kumasi, requires taking a tro-tro and two line taxis. In contrast to the dropping taxis that we used in Kumasi (which pick up passengers and, for a negotiated fee, take the passengers straight to their destination—the way taxis work in the US), line taxis are much more like mini tro-tros or buses. They run on a set route, or “line”, and, like the tro-tros and buses, won’t leave until they’re full. Note that “full” has a much different definition than in the US. Here a “full” taxi has four adults in the backseat plus two in the front and any number of children and all the parcels each person is carrying, some of which can be put in the boot (aka trunk, for those not familiar with the British term). The two in the front doesn’t include the driver, except on the main routes where police will pull someone for having two passengers in the front seat. Oh, and I forgot to mention that these are cars the size of a Ford Focus and generally are in a state of rust and disrepair such that you wonder if the car will make it another few miles. On the good side, the fares are relatively cheap.

We were fortunate enough to get on a nearly empty tro-tro in Kumasi, which meant I could get a window seat, seriously reducing the changes of any sort of travel sickness. Getting out of the tro-tro park in Kumasi took over half an hour, primarily because it was a Friday, which means everyone is heading home to the villages from their week at work or heading into Kumasi to escape from the villages for the weekend. Once we got out of the tro-tro park and out of Kumasi, we had a surprisingly uneventful journey to Bibiani, the large (~2000 people) market town near Adupri. The skies had opened up on our journey to Bibiani, but the rain had subsided just long enough for us to get out and go look for a taxi, at which point it started raining buckets again. We crammed ourselves into a line taxi with our backpacks on our laps and continued our trip. At one point the rain was so heavy that the driver pulled over, but the rain let up again and we made it to Tanoso, where we had to switch to yet another line taxi to take us up the bumpy dirt road to Adupri.

We arrived in Adupri just as the sun was setting though the quintessentially African trees, the one that look like baobobs but aren’t. I drank in the clean, jungle air and followed Maggie up the path to her home, unsure of what awaited me during my short stay in Adupri.

A trip down memory lane

Arrival in Kumasi [on Thursday, November 15th] was surprisingly easy. The Antrak flight was mostly on time and delivered me to the Kumasi airport where Maggie was waiting for me. We tried to bargain down the airport taxi driver, but much like airport taxis in many places in the US, there’s a set price that’s higher than the in-town rates. I got checked into the Royal Basin Resort just a couple doors down from the Peace Corps office in Kumasi. As part of my welcome to Ghana, the power to the hotel keeps cycling, which wouldn’t be that big a deal except that it trips the A/C off. (Then again, it’s not like I’ll have A/C in the village—maybe I should just get used to it.) After some time to get my bearings, we headed back into Kumasi for dinner. I really wanted to go back and see some of my old haunts, so we were off to the Stadium area.

We took a couple tro-tros (my first Kumasi experience on a tro-tro) to Children’s Park, only a ¼ mile from the stadium. On our walk to dinner, we stopped into the Ababio grocery story, the super-fancy obruni-friendly store that had just opened weeks before I left the last time to head home to the US. The place has some stock outs and is a little less organized, but it still has plenty of stuff that Maggie hasn’t seen in awhile, like cheese. We ate dinner at It’s My Kitchen, one of the restaurants that was in high rotation for our Saturday night dinner out, where I got my first taste of red red in 18 months. Oh, how I’ve missed a good, sweet roasted plantain. The only other thing I missed that much was our Ghanaian Radler, a mix of the local light-tasting beer, Star, and Alvaro, a sweet non-alcoholic malt beverage that comes in pear, pineapple or passion fruit. It made for a nice dinner all around.

After dinner, we caught a dropping taxi back to the Peace Corps/Royal Basin road where I pretty quickly went to bed, exhausted from my travel and looking forward to my journey to Adupri, Maggie’s village, the next afternoon.

But before that happened, I wanted (needed?) to check out the city center of Kumasi and especially Kejetia, the central market. The next morning, I caught a tro-tro to city center, where I saw a huge billboard hawking GSK’s Lucozade energy drink, right above the largest road into town. (I’ve got a photo of the sign but I’m posting this from the village with super-slow Internet access—you’ll understand why in a moment.)

I wandered through Kejetia, which was just as hot and noisy and chaotic as I remembered it. I noticed more obrunis than I remembered seeing in Kumasi when I lived there—only five or ten of them, but still quite a few more than I expected. I was hoping to go to the Vodafone cafĂ© to relax in the A/C while checking my email and posting these updates. Unfortunately, it was closed to the public for a “national event” and would not re-open until 4:15, long after we left for Adupri that afternoon.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

"All you need is a little patience"

For those of you who followed me when I lived in Ghana, you might be curious why you have a message in your inbox saying that there’s a new post. Well, as I type this [evening on November 14th], I’m sitting in NYC’s JFK airport only two hours away from boarding a flight to head back to Ghana. This time around, I’ll only be there for ten days and it’s for holiday, not for my job (although I hope to do a bit of volunteering while I’m there).

The seeds of this trip go back over a year and half. Not long after I returned from Ghana, I had dinner with Maggie, the little sister of a college friend of mine. Maggie had joined the Peace Corps and had been assigned to Ghana. Not only would she be headed to Ghana, but is only about 2.5 hours by road from Kumasi, the 1.5-million person city where I lived on my assignment. In June 2011, she flew to Ghana, armed with my relatively realistic description of life (albeit city life) for an obruni (loosely translated “white man”) in Ghana. But I’m sure my experience there was different than hers. Back when I was in Ghana, a fellow PULSE volunteer had described our experience as “luxury volunteering”. We had electricity (most of the time). We had running water (all but those three days right before my trip to Dubai). We had someone cooking for us and cleaning for us (creating employment for the locals, much like the Brits did when they ran the country).

Fast forward a year to this fall*. Since Maggie left, I’ve been reading her blog and have been itching to head to back to Ghana to visit her and see how her life there differs from what mine was like. I held onto enough vacation time to make a trip to Ghana work, using the Thanksgiving holiday to extend the trip. One plane ticket to Accra, a new visa, and here I am, sitting at JFK.

But that plane ticket only gets to me Accra and I need to go to Kumasi. Let the West African chaos begin. There are two airlines that routinely** fly within Ghana, Antrak Air and CiTylinK. Based on recommendations from MCI staff, I always flew CiTylinK when I lived in Ghana. But this time around, I tried to set up a flight on Antrak, try being the key word. Once I booked it, I had 11 hours to pay for it, but Maggie couldn’t get to Kumasi fast enough. So I went back to the CiTylinK site and booked a later flight—for which I had to pay within 24 hours. Argh. Maggie gave CiTylinK a call the next day only to find out that they were “on break until December”. Oh really? Then why does the website let me book a ticket? Now I’m really glad I didn’t trust the online debit card payment system from their site. Maggie gave Antrak Air a call and sorted out a ticket on the flight I wanted in the first place.

While we were sorting these flights out, Maggie sent me instructions on how to get from the Accra airport to the Peace Corps office in Kumasi. Surprisingly enough, I recognized all the landmarks she listed and felt entirely comfortable with getting there by road if it came down to it.

The best part of this whole experience has been my reaction to it. I know that I wanted to go to Ghana to experience an unplanned, messy trip, but I still could have reacted pretty badly to this chaos occurring before I even got there. I’m pretty stoked that I didn’t react that way, that I really have learned to be a bit more flexible in my thinking since I lived there. Now if only I could figure out how to apply that flexible thinking more effectively in my American life…

*A season that is unknown in Ghana, as their four seasons are the main wet season, the mini wet season, dry season and harmattan (when the dust clouds drift down from the Sahara and make Ghana’s air as thick as Beijing or Los Angeles).

**Routine is a more loose term within Ghana. One of the airlines, CiTylinK, has the following message posted from this time last year: “We are sorry to inform our cherished customers that flights to Tamale have been suspended until further notice.” Turns out I probably should have paid more attention how quickly their services can change—and how slow they might be to return.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

“The rest is still unwritten”

 On Monday I had the opportunity to share my PULSE experience with a group of female college students, their faculty advisors and their female GSK mentors at the GSK Women in Science Scholars program.  This experience gave me reason to pause and reflect on the fact that one year ago this week, I was completing my last bits of packing prior to heading off to Ghana, not to set foot on US soil again for over 6 months.  I was both excited and nervous about what awaited me at the other end of an overnight flight across “The Pond” (known to most of you as the Atlantic Ocean).  The Hollywood movie version of this story would have rolled the credits at the point that I was on the plane was rolling down the runway leaving Ghana a few months ago, leaving the audience (you) to wonder what happened during the “happily ever after”. 

Much of what happens is the same as before I left.  As I learned during my last overseas experience (four months in Australia during grad school), the world did not end—or even fundamentally change —in my absence.  On the surface, my life probably doesn’t appear all that different than it did before I left.  I still live in NC with my husband and two cats, I still work at GSK, I still do process engineering (albeit on the primary rather than secondary side of development), I still play ultimate, and I still enjoy spending time with friends and family.

But this journey was not about the surface.  It was about digging deep inside myself to find reservoirs of untapped strength, learning to persevere through novel challenges and coming out the other side thankful for the experience.  Having had a few months to ponder my experiences, some of the ways that I’ve changed are detailed in the vignettes below.

I am really not a fan of driving in the US.  I didn’t actually drive in Ghana, so I have no personal comparison to make, but as crazy as it may sound, I somewhat prefer their chaotic but polite driving style to the completely insane drivers here in the US.  Ghanaians don’t seem to have started the terrible texting-while-driving habit.  I’m sure it’s only a matter of time, but until then, Ghanaian drivers seemed to pay more attention to the road—primarily out of self-preservation, because the rules of the road are somewhat arbitrary and the term “road” can only be used in the loosest sense to describe the dirt/paved/gravel surfaces on which they drive.

I have begun to realize that some of the peace I felt living in Ghana comes from having Akmed to drive me around each day.  The couple times that he wasn’t available, I felt completely lost.  While I can’t avoid driving in the US without making a massive lifestyle change (like moving to NYC), I have begun to pay more attention to when I drive and am more actively avoiding traffic.  Not only do I feel more relaxed but I get the added bonus of getting back all that time I was wasting in the car.

Technology seems to give me more and more ways to not communicate with people.  In Ghana, the primary means of communication was text messages and mobile phone calls.  Here in the US, I’m back into the mode of using email and instant-messaging to find people at work.  Unfortunately, there are many times when people ignore their instant messages—and their email and their work phones.  Even though we’re a global company with offices all over the world, it’s often more effective to get up and walk down the hall to talk to someone.  (I wish there was a good way to measure the productivity increase from in-person conversations, both from actually getting to the person that I need to talk to and from the relationship building that occurs from these conversations.)

Oddly enough, I seem to get dehydrated more easily living in NC than in Ghana.  It’s not that it’s less humid here—because it’s not, especially in the summertime—but I spend much more time in low-humidity environments (air conditioned in the summer, dry heat in the winter).  While the humidity and heat in Ghana made me feel like I needed multiple showers a day, I got very few headaches and even fewer migraines during my stay there.  But since I’ve gotten back, I’ve averaged a migraine every few weeks, with some regular tension headaches thrown in for good measure.  I also think I’m allergic to things here in NC that don’t grow in Ghana.  Weather changes also hit me hard—the only significant weather changes in Ghana were rainy season to harmattan to dry season.

Patience is a virtue as well as a skill.  During my stay in Ghana, I was forced to develop my patience due to the somewhat fluid definition of being “on time”.  I also became more used to the constant schedule changes caused by this “definition”.  These skills have served me well in my transition back to life in the US.  While my initial re-entry back into work was a bit of a shock (understatement bell is ringing), I’m finding that I’m now getting better at waiting things out when project timelines change.  I am less likely to jump into email discussions about issues, preferring to wait and see if the issues resolve themselves (as they so often do).    

I’m sure there are a million other examples I can give of how this experience has changed me, but one of the more important is how it has brought me back to a passion of mine: sharing my love of science with kids.  Coming off my PULSE assignment, I’ve been floundering on how to continue giving back to the world in a meaningful, concrete way.  When I first moved back to NC after grad school, I got involved in the Women and Math mentoring program.  Since I was (happily) unemployed at the time, I had plenty of time to help mentor a pretty ambitious project.  Over the years, I’ve kept up with a few of the girls on that project, watching as they finished out high school and headed off to college.  One of the girls recently contacted me to tell me that she switched into chemical engineering, in part due to my mentoring.  I was both excited and humbled by that thought.

Around the same time, serendipity brought me in contact with the next PULSE volunteer on my project—who also happens to be the outgoing chair of the Science in Schools group at one of our PA research sites.  These two events coincided to make me remember how much I enjoy interacting with students and how energizing it is to see them get excited about science.  I took the initiative and got the RTP Science in Schools group started up again, getting funding allocated for us to start building science kits and signing us up for a couple events.  (If you’re in the RTP area, you just might see us out there representing GSK at a kid-focused science event.  And if you’re an RTP-based GSK employee, you should come join us.)  I’m thrilled that there are a number of other GSK employees who are also interested in getting out there to show students why science is cool.

I am unbelievably thankful for the experience I had in Ghana and am trying to hold onto that experience in so many ways.  But as might be obvious from the long delay since my last post, I’ve struggled to put into words how it feels to incorporate that experience back into my “normal” life.  Of course, perhaps that’s the key—since this experience was so life-changing, it has become a part of me and my history.  (If you missed seeing some of that history, you can go back and check out the photos at this link:  

While I might not be writing any more on this chapter of my life, the project that I helped start in Kumasi still goes on.  If you’ve enjoyed reading about my experiences, you might want to check out my colleague Stacie’s blog.  She’s been over there in Kumasi for only a couple weeks so you’re not too far behind.

Thank you to all of you for following me in this journey.  Perhaps someday I’ll feel the need to blog about my experiences again, but for now, “the rest is still unwritten”.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

"Pointing me in a crooked line..."

Amazing what a difference a year makes.  This time last year, I had just gotten my oral typhoid vaccine and come down with a fever of 101, keeping me away from work for a couple days.  I was also contemplating the thought of there really being a place where the streets have no name. 

Now all that seems so far away.  I’ve thrown myself into my new(ish) role at GSK with a sense of passion and abandon that seemed impossible just a couple months ago when I was still completely blindsided by returning to my “normal” life.  My adrenaline-charged learning binge is keeping me from spending too much time reflecting on my experiences in Ghana, but luckily there are people who keep pulling me back to my time in Kumasi.  The Peace Corps volunteer I know who headed to Ghana in June has been posting on her experiences over there.  I really enjoy reading about a different side of Ghana while reminiscing about my own time there. 


As part of my recently found enthusiasm for work, I’m looking into starting a formal science volunteering program at GSK RTP.  I’ve been considering this idea for some time now, but a recent move by GSK pushed me into action.  A couple weeks ago, Deidre Connolly (head of North America Pharma) met with President Obama and business leaders at the White House to announce a $10 million donation to support education reform.  GSK also committed to assign two PULSE volunteers per year to programs that focus on STEM education and drop-out prevention initiatives in the United States. 

In reading the GSK story, I stumbled across an item in the news that said that the number of STEM jobs (science, technology, engineering and math) in the US grew three times faster and paid better than other careers over the last ten years—something that most engineering undergrads realized when we chose our majors.  The next ten years are only going to increase the number of STEM jobs available but there won’t be enough US graduates with the right skills for the jobs.  That’s where initiatives like science volunteering come in.  I still keep in touch with some of the girls I’ve mentored through the Women and Math Mentoring program.  One of them has even followed in my footsteps and switched into chemical engineering at State.  It was a proud moment when she messaged me on Facebook to tell me of her major change.

Rather than reinventing the wheel in trying to start up the science volunteering program, I recently spoke with someone in UM who started up such a program there.  She also happens to be the PULSE volunteer headed over to Ghana to join the School-to-School project in October.  She and I are both motivated by sharing our passion for science with the next generation.  Hearing her talk about preparing to go reminded me of all the things I was sorting out last year: housing, clothing, supplies…   I have to admit that I’m a bit jealous of her and the adventure she’s about to undertake.  Only in the last few weeks have I really started to adjust back to my life in NC and yet I’m ready to head out again. 

With these thoughts in mind, I looked at my weekend shopping through a different set of eyes.  While in Ghana I learned the meaning of the lyrics of the Rolling Stones song “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”.  Even with the more limited selection as compared to the US, I could always get what I needed.  I need to remember this mindset anytime I set foot in a store as I’m still struggling with the overwhelming number of choices in the US.

At least I’m doing much better on my flexibility, something else I was hoping to improve through my PULSE assignment.  Research never works the first time—if it did, it wouldn’t be called re-search—and often doesn’t work on the schedule I expect.  I’m getting used to my day starting out with one plan and ending with a completely different one without getting stressed out about it.  I hope I can hold onto this flexible mindset as our projects progress.