Tuesday, May 24, 2011

“Back to life, back to reality”

Last week was full of activities that are part of my transition back to life in the US.  I’ve had the opportunity to speak to three very different groups of people on my experiences: my colleagues at work, this year’s PULSE volunteers, and a kindergarten class.  That last group was the first “talk” of the week.  A friend of mine helped me connect her son’s kindergarten class with a Kumasi KG class.  This side project was really an excuse for me to make regular visits to the Kumasi KG class where they treated me like a rock star.  It reminded me of the Intel commercials with the tag line “Your rock stars aren’t like our rock stars.”  (I even had the tech gear, like a laptop and flash drives, to make me a credible tech star.)  I was happy to come back to the US KG class and tell them about my experiences in such a different place.  I also had gifts for them—two separate art projects done by the 60+ students in the Kumasi KG class.

I brought a tri-fold board with a smattering of pictures from my assignment, which I created primarily for my presentations at work.  My friend’s son had apparently talked up his friendship with me, which prompted the teacher to introduce me by asking the kids, “When you heard about Michelle, did you know that she was a grown-up?”, to which I piped up with “Sort of.”  As soon as I set out the board and sat on one of the little kid’s chairs in front of the kids, who were seated (mostly) quietly on the floor in front of me, the first question I got was about the soccer players.  When I pointed out that Ghanaians call soccer football and asked if any of the kids had known that before, a couple of them had, not surprisingly the Hispanic-looking kids in this multi-ethnic class.  I also showed them a Ghana Black Stars jersey.  My friend’s son leaned over and, in a very loud whisper, asked me to tell everyone that I had brought him and his brother a shirt like that one.  Being the good friend that I am, I told the class, which caused one of the kids in the back to pipe up, “You should go back to Ghana and get 23 shirts!”  Not coincidentally, there are twenty-three kids in the class.  It’s good to see that kids are the same everywhere.

I had a couple pictures posted of the slave castles at Elmina and Cape Coast.  Of course, one of the kids asked about the castles.  I said that they were from when the Europeans first came to Africa, at which point I trailed off and looked to the teacher for help.  She said, “I think that’s probably enough for them,” leaving me off the hook from trying to explain to a multi-racial group of 5- and 6-year-olds what the purpose of the castles was. 

Another question was about what a picture of a baby animal showed.  I said, “I think it’s a baby sheep,” which elicited a round of “Aww” from the kids, leading the teacher to say that I really would have been a hit if I had brought it with me.  (I had this mental image of smuggling the lamb on the plane and trying to get through customs with it.)  One of the little girls was fascinated by the baby (human, that is) that I saw in the Muslim part of Kumasi, which gave me a chance to point out that they learn about different religions in school there.  They also picked up on the pictures of a couple weddings I attended, one for a head teacher’s daughter and another for the caterer at our house.

The learning wasn’t a one-way street.  When I spoke about not being able to drink the water and having to buy water in bags, which they called sachets, a little girl in the back of the room raised her hand and asked, “Do they come in different flavors?  Where my mom is from, you can get them in strawberry and watermelon and like twenty other flavors.”  Turns out that the little girl’s mother is from somewhere in Puerto Rico.  Given that I have work colleagues who have worked in Puerto Rico, I’m wondering if they had that same experience.

All too soon, the school day ended and I had to make my exit before I was mobbed in the hallway by the kids leaving school.  My friend asked her son if he wanted to leave with her, but like all little kids, he preferred to stick with his normal ride home.  I’m really glad I had the chance to visit the class.  I need to follow up with the school in Kumasi and see if they’ve had a chance to read the class letter that was sent over.

More about the PULSE volunteers and the work talk in another post.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Don’t leave home without it

 Having had recent conversations with a Peace Corps volunteer headed off to Ghana in June and the GSK PULSE volunteer who will be joining the S2S program in September, I’ve been spending some time thinking about advice for life in Ghana.  Friends who have travelled with me, whether on ultimate tournaments or scuba trips or ski vacations, know that I embrace the Boy Scout motto of “be prepared” to the point of excessive over-packing.  (Just ask LJ about the mini-CVS that exploded in the corner of our bedroom before I flew over in October.) There were certain things that my pre-trip reading told me I had to pack—like contact lens solution—but what follows is a list of the things that no one told I should pack but I’m glad I did. 

  1. Leatherman/Swiss army knife.  I packed both and used them all the time for anything from computer repairs to cutting open packages. The Swiss army knife was almost confiscated on a flight to Accra but I talked the security folks into finding my checked bag so I didn’t have to give it up. I was honestly surprised that they worried about the knife given that they don’t always (or ever) check ID before boarding the plane.  The GSK-branded Leatherman also made a nice going-away gift for one of the Ghanaian teachers.
  2. A wardrobe primarily from REI.  Ghana was harsh on my clothes but the worst effects were on my light-colored cotton clothes, all of which I left there.  The UPF 50+ ripstop nylon pants and rugged shirts held up really well with the hidden security pockets a nice way to spread out the large amounts of cash I needed to carry.  They also fit my overly casual clothing style.
  3. Amazon Kindle.  Any eBook reader would do but it was nice to be able to log into Amazon to purchase and download books whenever I was online.
  4. Headlamp.  Between power outages and lack of reading lamps in our house, the Petzl Tikkina 2 battery-powered LED headlamp I bought came in handy on a regular basis.  And the French Rose color is so stylish because style is such a consideration for me, as evidence by my lifelong attraction to T-shirts and jeans. (Don’t forget a stash of AAA-batteries, preferably the long-lasting, lightweight Li-ion ones.)
  5. Bug spray, both Natrapel picardin and 3M Ultrathon DEET.  The DEET was great for the really intense mosquito areas while the nice-smelling Natrapel was good for sitting on the veranda in the evenings.
  6. USB flash drives.  Perfect for transferring files and for portable anti-virus programs to clean up the viruses transferred by those drives.  (Thanks to Markus and Steffi for having Markus bring over a bunch of old drives they didn’t need any more.)
  7. Multi-color pen.  Anyone who’s watched me in a meeting knows that I like to use various colors to highlight my notes.  One of my co-workers gave me a fantastic going-away gift of a fine-point 4-color pen.  When the barrel of it cracked, I taped it back together and kept using it for the entire PULSE assignment.
  8. Moleskine ® notebook and pocket calendar.  I’m sure this marks me as some sort of hippie-yuppie hybrid (a yippie? A huppie?) but the leather covers are ridiculously durable and the 5” x 8” size made the notebook a perfect choice for fitting into my handbag.  Speaking of which…
  9. Overland Equipment Donner bag.  This link is for the newest version of this bag, which I’ve had for a number of years.  It was the perfect size—large enough to carry around water bottles and camera gear but not so large as to be unwieldy.  I’m not the only ones who thinks it’s perfect for travel given that there are nothing but 5-star reviews on their website.
  10. Deodorant.  Not that they don’t carry it in Ghana, but all I saw was the roll-on deodorants that have been mostly phased out in the US.
  11. Sunblock.  Not exactly easy to come by in a country with few obrunis.
  12. Energy bars (Clif, Luna, etc.) and Emer-gen-C.  My adventure comfort food whenever I didn’t have time to eat or I felt a bit out of sorts.
Almost anything else I needed* was available in Ghana so everything else was overkill.

(Technical difficulties on Blogger kept this from being posted over the weekend.  Looks like the problems are fixed now, though.)

*This one’s for the ladies: There’s something you’d want to pack that isn’t easily found over there.  Think of those commercials that show women being active in white tennis outfits and you’ll know what I mean.  I didn't mention it above because it's clearly stated in the Bradt Ghana guide that becomes your Hitchhiker's Guide to the Universe.  Also, if you’re really particular about the brand of hair products you use, like shampoo and conditioner, be sure to pack plenty of it.  Obruni-friendly hair care products are not all that easy to come by.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Rip van Winkle

I didn’t sleep for a hundred years, but six months is a surprisingly long time.  In that short window of time, some of my friends’ kids went from being babbling babies to two year olds who can string together a grammatically correct sentence.  I missed an entire season (winter) and part of two others, which has caused these crisp spring mornings to seem like early fall.  Culture shock hits me like a ton of bricks at the most unexpected times, like when I’m grocery shopping.  My first day back in a Harris Teeter, I wandered dumbfounded through the store, amazed at the number of choices and unable to comprehend such simple questions as why we need ten different types of peanut butter.  Is there really a difference between crunchy and extra crunchy?  How important is organic when it comes to something growing inside a shell?

I was expecting some significant culture shock again today, since it my first day back at GSK.  Not only would I be meeting my new manager for the first time, we also had an all-hands meeting with our new (to me) group, which formed while I was gone.

I showed up at work this morning and went to the security desk just in case my badge didn’t work.  (Luckily it did.  Apparently security badges don’t get turned off as quickly as email passwords.)  The security lady, who was on her first day at that post, tried calling my manager but he wasn’t in his office.  I thanked her and said that I’d figure out his office location on my own.  I wandered over to the other building, passing a couple people on the way.  I recognized one of the men but wasn’t sure I had met the other.  They were kind enough to hold the door open for me as I passed them. When I got to the break area for my building, I was fortunate enough to run into a few of my colleagues who directed me to my manager’s office.

After a few minutes, my new manager arrived at his office.  Guess what?  He was one of the two guys I had passed on my way there.  I’m guessing this sort of thing doesn’t happen in a smaller company, but pretty much the entire pharmaceutical industry is in a state of flux these days, and GSK is no exception. 

As I’m getting back into my “normal” job, I’m starting to understand the intelligence of the academic sabbatical.  Leaving for six months is long enough to get a fresh view of the organization in a way that’s just not possible when you’re there day in and day out.  But it’s a short enough time that I haven’t completely lost touch with what we do as a group and a company.

I’m very fortunate that my management chain is giving me the time to close out my Pulse tasks, which should allow me to make a clean start in my somewhat new role.  They’re also giving me time where I will be most useful in the new organization.  Now I just have to figure out what I want to be when I grow up.