Thursday, September 30, 2010

The end before the beginning

Tomorrow marks my last day of work here at GSK before I leave for Ghana.  Between completing tasks on my work to-do list and my home to-do list, the past couple weeks have flown by.  I had a very enjoyable going-away party last Saturday, complete with pork BBQ purchased from Smokey's BBQ shack in Morrisville and Bojangle's sweet tea, two food I will sorely miss overseas.  The weather was still hotter than West Africa: current conditions in Kumasi are in the 80s during the day and 70s overnight, as compared to the blazing 90s we got here in Raleigh.  Who would have thought I'd have to go to Africa to cool off?

I attended my last group meeting today.  Most of my tasks and responsibilities had been handed off before this week, leaving me with a few days to do all the other tasks that popped up, like the end-of-year review that I had to complete in September.  Since I won't have access to any GSK systems while I'm gone, the work I do on assignment gets captured in next year's performance review.

One of the more enlightening things to come from preparing for this experience is realizing how many things I do at work.  While I created a list in July of all my major activities that needed to be handed off to others, I kept running across small tasks that I do just because they make life easier for a colleague.  I would wager that anyone who sat down and listed all their activities would come to the same realization.  Maybe it really is the little things that matter.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The best defense is a good offense

Mosquitoes in Ghana are not quite of the "carry-a-small-child-away" variety, like in Alaska.  They're more of the "small-but-deadly" sort, since they carry all sorts of fun diseases, the most prevalent being malaria.  While it is quite possible for one to contract malaria and survive, those who have experienced malaria indicate that it is not all that pleasant, what with all the fever and chills and feeling like death might be preferable.

In the interest of warding off malaria, I'll be on Malarone, a GSK anti-malarial drug, the entire time I'm in Ghana.  Another key weapon in my defensive strategy is copious amounts of DEET or picardin on any exposed skin.  The Duke Travel Clinic said that the extended release versions of  DEET called Ultrathon and Sawyer CR are the best for prolonged protection from skeeters.

The trifecta of defense is a compound called permethrin, which is in the class of synthetic compounds called pyrethroids, known for its ability to repel and kill all sorts of insects, including ticks and mosquitoes.  Many outdoor clothing manufacturers infuse their products with long-lasting permethrin under trade names like Buzz Off.  All of these products are treated using the patented process owned by Insect Shield, which is both the company name and the marketing name for the technology.  The process adheres permethrin molecules to fabric in a way that holds up for 70 washings, which they consider the lifetime of a garment.  Insecticide-treated nets, like those donated to Africa and other malarial areas by Nothing but Nets, are treated with permethrin.

The companies that license this technology often have a significant upcharge on their clothing.  For example, a long-sleeve Ex Officio shirt that costs $50 is $85 when treated with the Insect Shield process.  But Insect Shield sells clothing directly on their website without all the branding upcharges, and even has an offer where they will treat any of your clothes for less than $10/item.  I sent in a stack of clothing for treatment in the hopes that I won't have to completely slather myself in DEET the entire time I'm in Ghana.  I wore Insect-Shield treated clothing yesterday during my going-away party outside at my house and it seemed to make a difference, as I wasn't nearly as bothered by all the mosquitoes as many of my friends.

8 days and counting until I leave, and the list of things to do before I go doesn't seem to be getting any shorter.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Millenium Development Goals

Coverage of the Millennium Development Goals is in the news this week, as there is a summit of world leaders going on Sept. 20-22 at the UN in NYC to discuss progress towards the MDGs.  Almost 150 world leaders were expected to participate in this status check towards achieving the goals by the UN-set deadline of 2015. President Obama's speech to the UN today describes a new initiative, the U.S. Global Development Policy, which will "seek partners who want to build their own capacity to provide for their people" and support "development that is sustainable".  The Pulse program overall is well aligned with this new initiative, as the point of the Pulse program is to support sustainable, lasting change in the organizations and countries that we support.

The focus on the MDGs this week is great timing for my upcoming trip to Ghana, since my project is directly linked to two of the eight MDGs: "Achieve universal primary education" and "Promote gender equality and empower women".  As part of the School2School project, I'm supposed to help the teachers in Ghana and NYC learn how to view some of their lessons through the lens of the MDGs. I hope that the teachers on both sides of the pond are aware of this summit and are ready to use the news on it as part of their lessons.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Preview of coming attractions

Thanks to a random post I made on Facebook about packing for my trip, I learned that Caroline, an ultimate (frisbee) teammate from last summer, lived in Accra for four months during a semester of study abroad at the University of Ghana.  I bought her dinner Friday night in exchange for the insider's view of the life of an American ex-pat in Ghana.  While I've been learning so much from my steady stream of questions to Kirby, I was still missing the key viewpoint that could only be gained by talking to an American in Ghana.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that much of the information found in the Bradt guide to Ghana was  in line with Caroline's experiences.  She did many weekend trips all over Ghana and the neighboring countries of Togo and Burkina Faso, so she was able to fill me in on all the cool places to see.  Her opinion of Kumasi as a modern city with access to banks and internet and a fantastic market makes me happy that it will be my home.

One of the biggest questions/concerns I've had is around personal safety.  Even though Ghana has been described as extremely friendly and Ghanaians are supposed to be very protective of women traveling alone, the guidebooks still talk about keeping money and bank cards in a money belt and carrying a decoy wallet.  Caroline and the people she spent time with took some precautions, like keeping money in a few spots in their bags and clothing, but they never felt concerned for their safety.  Some of the other students at the university did get mugged on campus, but they were walking through an area that they had been specifically warned against transiting at night.  While I feel very sorry for anyone who experiences a mugging, even here in the US it pays to listen to the locals when they warn you about an area.  From everything Caroline said, as long as I keep my wits about me, I shouldn't have too much to worry me.

I was able to learn much about the subtle nuances of daily life in Ghana, such as the different type of street food available and how to run errands from the tro tros (the local vans that drive all over the city and countryside).  Caroline's obvious love for her time in Ghana has added to my excitement about my upcoming trip.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The PULSE of Africa

This year, PULSE opportunities are found on six of the seven continents, with Antarctica being the (somewhat obvious) exception.  With the range of places I could have landed, one may wonder how I ended up in Ghana for my upcoming assignment.  The background starts from 2006, when I tagged along with LJ on his work trip to South Africa.

We spent two weeks in Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Kruger National Park.  On our travels throughout the country, I was stunned by the level of poverty I saw. Outside Cape Town, there were literally miles of shantytown, built from corrugated metal sheets and anything else that could be cobbled together as housing.  Electricity was strung from shack to shack with whatever wires were available.  The people there were missing the basic infrastructure that most of us take for granted in the US: clean water, always-on electricity, easy access to stores and jobs, and the like.

It's not hyperbole to say that the seeing  the shantytowns changed my life.  I took a significant interest in all things South African, from reading books such as John Carlin's Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Changed a Nation (the basis for last year's film "Invictus") to listening to any news story with "South Africa" mentioned.  As I learned more about South Africa, I found myself growing interested in the African continent in general.

Sheer luck of the assignments available this year led to my match with Ghana. When I first read the assignment description, this opportunity to assist with using the Internet to support STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) teaching spoke to me.  Given my involvement in supporting STEM teaching and mentoring throughout the last decade, this assignment seemed like a match made in heaven.  The specific African country of the assignment was an afterthought, at least at first.  But the more I learn about Ghana through my reading and my conversations with my co-worker, I can't wait to spend time in the African nation known as the "island of peace" in West Africa.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

My kingdom for a Babelfish

Readers of "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" will know that a Babel fish is a species that, when dropped in one's ear, allows one to instantly and completely understand all languages.  Technology geeks may recognize it as the name of the universal translator website created by Altavista and currently owned by Yahoo.  Either/both references are quite appropriate here.

Before I go any further, I need to applaud the the English language abilities of the people I'm about to discuss.  The extent of my foreign language skills at this point in my life is my ability to ask "Do you speak English" in numerous European languages. 

That said, I'm reminded of how complex English is, especially for someone who didn't grow up speaking it.  While I knew that I would be developing my inter-culture communication skills on my trip to Ghana, I had no idea how important communication would be before I even left the US.

As a native English speaker, I am turning into a bit of a Babel fish myself, providing English-to-English translations between various people for whom English is a second language.  Much like the start of a bad joke, a German, an Italian, an American and a Ghanaian are trying to sort out the details around our house in Kumasi.  In these emails circulating among the 3 GSK employees (German, Italian and American), the terms "sheets", "linens", "bedclothes" and "dressing" have all been used to describe the bed coverings that we will use for our stay.  Luckily (for the HHGG fans), the word "towel" is just "towel" for all of us.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

One ticket to paradise

On Friday I got my ticket to Ghana booked on the United routing.  This is where I'm probably supposed to announce some sort of countdown timer for the big day, but I don't think I'll need a timer to realize how quickly October 4th will come.  After a short hop from RDU to Dulles, I take the overnight flight into Accra.  One of my fellow GSK Pulse program volunteers will be landing in Accra on October 5th as well.  We'll be staying at the same hotel and flying together from Accra to Kumasi on the 6th.

To get from Accra to Kumasi, Ghana has two in-country airlines, CiTylinK (their capitalization, not mine) and Antrak (not Amtrak).  While both the websites allow online bookings, I get the impression that locals don't use this option.  Abenaa will be booking the flights for us and we'll pay cash when we show up.  I'm not sure which airline we'll be flying, but I'm sure I'll know that before I get there.

Update on my visa: Ghana must export their most efficient government employees to work in their US embassy.  On Friday, I Fedex'ed my visa application and passport to the Ghana embassy in DC with the extra money for the "expedited" service that is supposed to take 72 hours.  My passport was on the Fedex truck at 4:22 pm yesterday, only 2 working days from when they got the application.  I was very pleasantly surprised by the turnaround.

My Ghana visa is somewhat different from the visa I had for my time in Australia as a "visiting scientist" during graduate school.  For anyone who has not seen a visa before, Wikipedia, the fountain of all knowledge, shows a few examples of visas.  My Australian visa looked much like the Canadian visa on that link: a sticker pasted into my passport that has obviously been computer printed with the necessary information.  The Ghanaian visa is still a sticker, but the information on it has been filled out by hand.  (They also stapled my receipt for the payment into my passport!)  I was granted a "B2" visa, which sounds like the business visa I needed, but I can't figure out when it expires.  The information on the Ghana website is a bit unclear about the whole process, especially as it applies to a business visa, but my general background reading indicates that I may have to apply for visa extensions once I'm there.
Non-sequitur:  I just couldn't resist linking to this article I found on ghanaweb about the recently published Canadian study on cannabis.  The picture is priceless.