Thursday, April 28, 2011

Work in progress

Something that is very apparent, especially when sitting on the Citylink plane leaving Kumasi on my way to Accra, is that Kumasi is in a permanent state of construction.  Flying over the city, one can see the numerous concrete buildings with half-finished top floors where the first floor is already in use.  For example, one of the schools’ computer labs, which they are currently using, has a new library going in on the second floor.  In Ghana, buildings don’t have to be finished within any reasonable time of the start and the concrete/cement construction doesn’t get impacted by the weather, so people tend to start building with whatever money they have and work on the buildings as they can. 

This sense of unfinished business applies to my project, since even though the term ended, the project didn’t.  I spent quite a bit of time after the academic term was over working with the new S2S coordinator to help him get up to speed on the project.  He turns out to have been an even better choice that I realized, making me very comfortable with leaving the project in his capable hands.  He was teaching math and ICT before he took on this role, but he’s also taught JHS science classes, too, covering all three subjects for this program. 

One of my major assignments in the last few weeks was to compile a training manual on what Liz and I have taught during the past six months.  I’m so glad that I had preemptively started writing up sets of instructions even before my MCI manager requested this manual, as it made it much easier to pull it together.  I’m sure this makes me a total geek, but I was so excited to organize and write and format this manual.  The 40+ page final manual is a masterpiece of basic ICT training.  By “basic”, I mean tasks as simple as understanding the parts of a computer, like the mouse and keyboard, followed by how to assemble a computer and turn it on and off.  Using Windows isn’t until the third lesson in the manual.  We’ll see how much of the manual remains after it goes through the review process at the NGO and the education directorate.


One of the tasks I set for myself before I left Kumasi was to figure out what to do with all the used clothing from my stay there—some of it was gently used while much of it had taken a beating in the harsh African conditions.  I decided to donate all of it to the Kumasi Children’s Home.  A few days before I left, I stopped by to ask them what else they might need and was given a short list of baby-care items, like formula and diapers.  I picked those things up at the Opoku Trading wholesale section and Akmed and I headed over to the home.

When I arrived, there was already a huge truck dropping off many more items.  But they still greatly appreciated my smaller, yet no less heartfelt, donations.  I asked them if I could see the home before I left and one of the managers took me around.  It was one of the few times in Ghana when I was told that I couldn’t take pictures, because (just like in the US) some of those kids were there because they had been pulled from their homes y social services.  The buildings at the home were basic but clean and well-maintained.  Watching the housemothers interact with the babies was very heartening.  They truly loved the children in their care, making me even happier that I had given so much to the home.


I’ve been back in the US for a few days now.  I was intending to spend my first few days back easing into my life here, but thanks to an ill-timed accident (are any accidents ever well-timed?), I have been taking care of LJ as he recuperates from a broken right ankle.  He broke it not 26 hours after I landed in North Carolina and had surgery on it yesterday.  The surgery was a success, with the surgeon not seeing anything unexpected.  But this situation has wrecked havoc on my slow transition to my “normal” life.  At the moment, I’m not sure how I feel about being home.  I desperately missed my friends and family and loved ones and was thrilled to see many of them, starting with a welcome-home lunch at Bojangles.  But I’m already missing the energy and excitement and happiness that permeated my daily life in Ghana.  In this short time back, I’m struck by the more reserved nature of us Americans as compared to the Ghanaians, and this is in the friendly, genteel South. 

A couple of people have already asked me what I’ve learned in my stay in Ghana.  Unfortunately, I’m struggling to put into words all the things I learned about myself and my place in the world.  Even more unfortunately, within my first three weeks back at GSK, I’m supposed to summarize those learnings in a three-page case study.  While I recognize that there has to be some deadline, three weeks seems like the wrong time frame.  I feel like three to six months would be more reasonable—long enough that I can start to verbalize my experiences but short enough that they haven’t started to fade away.  I don’t know how long I’ll keep this blog going, but I know it will be for a while longer, since much of my experience won’t become apparent until after I see the contrast with life here in the US.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Survival skills

Living in a foreign culture away from everyone and everything I know has done wonders for building lots of useful skills, some of which I never even considered before now.  What follows is a random selection of those skills. 

  1. Compose a succinct, polite email that gets results.  Using too many words leaves too much room for interpretation, especially when speaking with people for whom English is not their first language.  A short, direct email that says, “You need to do X” is much more in line with Ghanaian thinking.
  2. How to say NO.  I’m generally too nice, but it’s easier to say no when I get requests that seem excessive, like teaching all twenty teachers at a school or bringing a brand-new, $1000 laptop back from the US. 
  3. Open a wine bottle using the corkscrew on a Swiss Army knife.  ‘Nuff said.
  4. Figure out what a conversation is about when I understand only 5% of the words.  I’m sure this skill will come in handy for those jargon-laden conversations that occasionally happen in meetings at work. 
  5. Not freaking out at the presence of wild animals in the house.  Let me say that I am not a fan of millipedes.  One morning I woke up to find a millipede crawling across my bathroom floor—a 3”-long, dark brown, scaly, creepy-looking bug.  Three months ago, I would have recoiled in disgust and tried to find someone to help me get it out of the room.  Now, though, I looked at it for a moment; grabbed a piece of toilet paper and picked it up; and opened the bathroom window to hurl it out onto the lawn.  The geckos are another story—they’re kinda cute, so I like it when they wander across the office wall.
  6. Find my way around Kumasi without a map or GPS.  One evening, Akmed told me he couldn’t drive me the next morning because he had to go to a funeral. In the first few weeks, I would have had to call a school to tell them I couldn’t make it. Now that I know where most of the schools are, I pulled out my appointment book, saw that I would be going to a school I could direct a taxi driver to, and asked him whether he would be able to get me to my next school.
  7. Negotiate a fair fare.  That same day, when I went to get a taxi, I talked to both the taxi driver and another man, neither of whom could understand that I wanted to go to a JHS.  The second guy that the taxi driver called over at least knew where the university (“Tech”) was, so when I told him it was on the way to the university and I knew where to turn, he gave the taxi driver directions.  When I asked “How much”—since you always have to fix the price before getting in the car—and the taxi driver responded “Five”, I said “It shouldn’t be more than four, since it’s closer than Tech and Tech is five.”  The taxi driver took my four cedis offer.   I also learned to bargain my way to a reasonable price on other things, like getting a 25-cedi dress down to 18.
  8. Watching television to understand a country’s culture.  I think I learned more about Ghana watching TV with commercials than any other way.  For example, there was a commercial for Oxo washing powder.  The scene begins with kids playing football (soccer) when one of them kicks the ball into the second-floor of an abandoned building.  In the US, the kids probably would have gone to find an adult to help.  In Ghana, though, the two kids look at each other and then run up the stairs where they found a treasure trove of footballs waiting for them.  They started throwing them out the windows to their friends downstairs.  The moral of the commercial was that kids are meant to explore and that Oxo washing powder can clean up the mess from it.
  9. Patience.  Probably the biggest skills I’ve learned in Ghana is patience.  Everything takes much longer than expected, from waiting in line at the post office to getting around town in the nightmarish traffic of Kumasi to trying to get things done within the school system.  Learning to be patient is an important skill for life in general and for working in pharma in particular.  It’s not for nothing that there are ads out there talking about how “when I started working on this drug, my daughter was in diapers, but now she’s graduating from high school.”  (Not my daughter—someone else’s daughter.)
  10. Enjoying the moment.  Ghanaians seem to embody the phrase “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you may die.”  While it can be frustrating that it’s hard to plan for the long term, it does help in learning to embrace the present and not worry about the future so much.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Driving Miss Michelle

With my time here growing short, I thought I’d devote a post to the nicest man in Ghana, which is saying a lot in a country full of helpful, friendly people.  If you’re a regular reader, by now you should realize that I’m referring to Akmed, my friendly, reliable driver.   Given that I’ve been in the car for a few hours a day three to five days a week since October, I’ve spent significantly more time with him than anyone else in Ghana.  He’s been a driver and tour guide and source of information on Ghanaian life all rolled into one.  Plus I really like not having to drive and being able to take in the sights around me.  I’m not sure that I’m ready to start driving myself again back in the US.

-Timing is everything: Akmed’s primary employer is my manager, but since she has her own car, most of the driving that she needs him to do is to run errands that take only a few hours, with the occasional day of driving for someone from out of town.  Since she’ll be here long after I leave, he rightfully needs to put her first.  But he bends over backwards to try to accommodate both of us.  In a typical example, a couple months ago Akmed called me one evening and asked if he could drop me off at my first school early (7 instead of 8) because “Auntie need to go to airport”.  [From what I understand, Auntie is a term of affection for a venerable woman that is widely used even when people are not actually related.]  Given how helpful he is, I’m happy to leave the house early if it means that he can work for both of us in a given day.  [Besides, I’m not really able to sleep in here in Ghana.  The heat and stresses of living in foreign country, no matter how friendly, combine to exhaust me enough that, without roommates to give me a reason to stay awake, I’m in bed by 9 or 10 each night.  Then, between curtains that are too thin and the rooster that starts crowing at 4:30 or 5 in the morning, it’s a rare morning that I manage to sleep past 6:30.]

-The circle of life: on Saturday I hired Akmed to take me to the craft villages, specifically Bonwire, the Kente cloth village, which Liz, Steffi and I visited on my very first weekend in Ghana.  In the six months I have lived in Kumasi, I had not managed to find any Kente bags to purchase for folks back home, so I wanted to head back to Bonwire for some souvenir shopping (a common pastime for me here).  It was also my last opportunity to go out and appreciate the dust and chaos and energy of the Ghanaian villages. 

Our journey took us past the busy tro-tro stop at the east side of Kumasi near KNUST (Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, the place we occasionally go swimming) and St. Louis SHS, one of the schools I had the good fortune to work with during my stay here.  We stayed on the Accra road, as it is locally known, until we reached Ejisu, where we turned north to head to Bonwire.

Akmed took me straight to the main weaving center at the edge of town where there was a pack of young men waiting outside for unsuspecting tourists to arrive.  A few of them peeled off and led me into the wooden structure where they do the weaving and sell their wares.  The same young man who had greeted us the last time explained the Kente to me again.  He offered to let me try weaving, but I told him that I had been there before and on this trip I was mainly coming back to make a couple purchases.  Big mistake on my part.  I was swarmed by men trying to sell me their crafts.  What I didn’t really understand last time is that each of the men in the shop has their own area, so they have a vested interest in dragging me to their corner.  Akmed was not with me, which was another huge mistake, as I got overcharged for the bags I bought, at least compared to what I got charged later when we went to the town center to get a couple more.  (The prices are still very reasonable—but it’s the principle that counts.)  I had learned something in my time here: when multiple men kept asking me my name, I let them know that I had already purchased a bookmark with my name on it to keep them from weaving me another one.  The more persistent ones then offered to make bookmarks with my friends’ names.

I finally managed to get out of the shop by telling them I had no more money on me, which wasn’t entirely true but was the only way they would leave me alone.  Walking outside, I found Akmed playing a board game called dame (pronounced dah-may), which is the Ashanti equivalent of draughts or checkers.  Akmed and his opponent sat the beautifully carved wood board on their knees and using square red or white tiles as their pieces.  Akmed appeared to be a dame shark—as we left, I asked him if he had won and he said he won three games.

We got into the car and drove about a half a kilometer to the town center where there were more shops.  Since Akmed walked with me this time, I was charged half as much for the couple of bags that I bought.  Literally half.  I also picked up a couple small purses that I probably for which I probably paid too much.  I was fascinated to watch Akmed’s haggling technique, obviously honed over many years of experience.  Someone would give him an offering price and he would start the bidding at half or even a quarter of that price.  I couldn’t tell what exactly caused him to decide where to start his bidding. 

We drove back to town towards the wood carving villages for which I don’t have a name.  When I got out of the car, I let the carvers know immediately that I was just looking and might be back if I decided to buy anything.  Amazingly enough, they respected my wishes and didn’t try the hard sell tactics.  Some of the carvings were stunning but their sheer size makes it impossible for me to get them home.

That’s when we ran into car trouble.  Akmed’s car had been stalling out occasionally over the last couple weeks, but it always able to restart.  Unfortunately, this time it didn’t.  He thought it was overheating, but we let it sit for quite some time without being able to start it.  He caught a tro-tro to bring back a mechanic, who decided that it was a problem with the fuel line and was able to repair it well enough to get us home.  During this whole time, Akmed was very apologetic about the car troubles.  I tried to get him to understand that even back home, our cars break down and we have to wait to have them fixed.  But he’s so conscientious that he doesn’t want me to have to wait.

-Would you like fries with that? Akmed is great at developing relationships with people.  There’s a particular little “take-away” spot not terribly far from here that he asks to stop at anytime we’re near it.  By “take-away” spot, in this case I mean a few vats of bubbling stew full of animals and animal parts that I just can’t bring myself to eat, served alongside fufu or tapioca or another starch.  Whenever we pull up, he’s always put at the head of the queue and we’re out again in only a couple minutes.  We stopped there yesterday, which gave me the chance to ask him why he’s always served quickly.  He said that they know that he’s always driving people so they understand that he needs to get his food and go. 

During the couple minutes we were waiting, I saw an adorable little kid in a walker, something that you don’t see very often—the walker, not the kid.  I got out to look at her and met a few other little kids.  With hand gestures and a bit of translation from Akmed, the lady running the spot offered me her child to take with me back to America.  I politely declined the offer, mainly because my suitcase is already too full.  [Just kidding.  There’s still room in the suitcase but I’d never get a passport in time.]  That’s the second time I’ve been offered a child to take home, the first time being when Nela and I visited Steffi in Accra in January.

Akmed is a key player in my version of take-away, plantains and groundnuts.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, he’s very good about making sure that the food is fully cooked when he buys it for me.

-Lost in translation: One of the more entertaining and enjoyable parts about working with Akmed is that I feel very comfortable asking him very strange questions about Ghana and he seems fine with asking me anything on his mind about America.  A few weeks back, we had a very interesting conversation about whether there were white people in America who had never seen a black person.  I had to think a bit on that one.  I told him that there may be white people who had never seen a black person in person, say a young kid in the middle of nowhere in Montana or Idaho, but they probably had seen them on TV.  Our no-holds-barred conversations cover all sorts of topics, from Ghanaian and American politics to customs in our respective countries. 

-Charity begins at home: on one of our typical days driving to visit the schools, we ended up on the main Accra road on our way to the Metro Education Office.  The median of this multi-lane road is chock-full of various vendors and beggars, probably due to the ideal combination of high traffic volume and long light cycles at the Amakom roundabout (which used to be a traffic circle but is now a traffic light).  A girl about eight or nine years old, with caramel-colored skin and two pigtails poking out from the sides of her head, came up to Akmed’s window to ask for money.  He engaged her in conversation and found out that she’s a refugee from Niger.  (Speaking of our conversations, this led me to ask him if they were refugees due to war or money.  It was the latter.)  Her mother was begging at a different intersection in Kumasi.  He wanted to know why she wasn’t in school but she didn’t have a good answer for it.  Akmed handed her a coin before the light changed.  That’s not the first time that I had seen him hand money to a beggar—he’s often given coins to the handicapped beggars at the intersection—but something about his gentle conversation with this little girl struck me as the embodiment of his friendly, helpful attitude. 

-The gift that keeps on giving: For all he’s done over these six months, I wanted to get him something nice.  Today we went and picked out one of the flowing burlap shirts that the Muslim men wear here in Ghana.  He was so very happy about the shirt.  He said, “Shirt should last ten, fifteen years.  Every time I wear it I think of you.”  The smile on his face was completely worth it.  In case it wasn’t clear from all this rambling, I’m really going to miss working with Akmed.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

To everything, turn, turn, turn…

Ghana may not have the four seasons as we conventionally consider it in the West, but there are still some noticeable seasonal changes.  In the past few week, the evenings have been very cool, cool enough that it would be possible to sleep comfortably without air conditioning if weren’t for the concrete roof on this house that traps heat in like an oven.  The mornings dawn grey and cloudy, much like what I expect of London weather.  (No wonder the British colonized this country.)  But then about mid-morning, the dense cloud-cover starts to break apart and the temperature rises, with the hot sun overhead baking the landscape.  We’re also moving into the rainy season, which means that we get torrential downpours once or twice a week when the heat has built the clouds up enough that they can’t hold their water any more.  [One oddity about this change of seasons: two weeks ago there was an infestation of black moths/butterflies, coating the ceilings and walls of any building with open windows, from the house to the schools.  A few days later, they were just as suddenly gone, with only a few stragglers who seemed to have missed the memo that their time was over.] 

Speaking of seasons, the concept of our four seasons is somewhat lost on the average Ghanaian.  Earlier this academic term, I asked one of the teachers about the break between the second and third terms, which I called “spring break”. 
“We don’t have spring here,” she said.
“What do you call the break between second and third terms?”
“Easter break.”

[Sidebar discussion: I wonder what happens in the years that Easter is much earlier, like late March.  Does the break between second and third terms get moved up in the year, making the second term shorter than the standard fourteen weeks?  Or is the break still called Easter break even though it doesn’t happen at the same time as Easter?  I still haven’t found a school calendar for one of those years.] 

As we continued talking, we discussed that the previous break was Christmas break, not winter break.  They also don’t have “summer vacation” for the same reasons.  Students still change grades in September, as they do back home, but the break during August and early September is called the “end of term break” or the “long vac” (short for vacation, of course).  This break is only six weeks long, since they don’t have the anachronistic reason of summer farmwork to require that students be out of school for three months.

This lack of seasons came up again in early February when discussing the introductory email from one of the NYC teacher partners.  (This discussion is also a great example of the assumptions we sometimes make.)  The Ghanaian teacher first wanted to know what “NYNY” meant, referring to the US teacher indicating that she was a teacher as a school in “NY, NY”.  That question gave me the opportunity to bring up the concept of American states and make a reasonable comparison to the ten regions in Ghana.  It was followed by a question about “summer”, since the teacher said she spent two summers teaching in Uganda.  The Ghanaian teacher told me that “We don’t have summer”, so I replied that she probably meant the months of June, July and August.  His response?  “That’s our rainy season.  We only have rainy and dry.”