Semester in Ghana


Read by Date --> February

I further settled into my daily and weekly routines in February, so the focus of my journal entries broadened to both my experiences and my observations in Ghana.

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February 4

Saturday morning was pleasant, with a half hour of stretching and a foray into the World Wide Web to send out my second update. The afternoon's plan was to accompany my host father--who was to come home at noon from his village, where there had been a funeral--to an Internet Café to Skype with my parents at 2pm and complete a couple of short homework assignments. Instead, he came home at 3pm, toting yet more credit for my prepaid data (for which I was successful in reimbursing him, this time) and saying that his son had told him that I could Skype from my laptop, using the data. This confirmed my theory that he had not understood my intentions, which were to save the prepaid data and visit the Internet Café because I figured Skype would use a lot of Internet in a short amount of time. Following his return, we learned that the only Skype-enabled Internet Café nearby was awaiting the repair man to fix their modem. This concludes my rationale for video-calling my parents via my laptop. Turns out, it does not use too much Internet, and I confess it was nice to speak with them in the privacy of my bedroom.

Church on Sunday was hard, again, but for different reasons. For the past four weeks, the church has held a "fasting and prayer" series in which members did not eat each day until after an evening prayer session at the church. To end this series, the regional bishop of the Assemblies of God churches (my host family's denomination, I think) came to preach. He began by entreating the congregation to place money (it was after the offertory) on the steps of the altar if they thought what he was saying applied to them. He then read the story about Samuel anointing David to be king. From the story's beginning about Saul being rejected by God, the pastor extrapolated that although God forgives, every time a shirt is washed it fades, so eventually God gives up and rejects people. He encouraged those who wanted to, like David, be held above everyone around them to drop currency at the front of the sanctuary. After the sermon, the visiting priest performed the unction he had been brought to the church to do.

A choir member emptied a bottle of vegetable oil into a kitchen dish, and the bishop dunked his hand in it before grabbing and shaking someone's forehead and hissing, "Receive it! Receive it!" Having survived that ordeal, I set to making Sunday's American Lunch, a feature we have decided to air weekly for the enjoyment of our tummies. Bumps in filming included the machete mildly nicking my finger and my carefully chopped vegetables diving onto the driveway after my host sister set them on the edge of an unstable table. She washed them in water with a little vinegar, and they were later sautéed, so I deemed them safe. We took the leftovers to Accra in the evening when my host father, host sister, and I visited Sheila, my other host sister at boarding school. I confess to have been surprised and put off by all of her squeals and commands ("Oh Mary, smile!"). The visit was mercifully short, if nothing else.

Yesterday, my host father and I walked to school, which took 1.75 hours. Other than the length, it was quite pleasant, and he liked it, so we will try to do that twice a week. I am working it out to be driven to a friend's house two other mornings (she lives a 20-minute walk from the school), and I will stick to being driven to school on Wednesday (for Assembly) and home every day.

During the night, I needed to use the bathroom, and because my school lacks toilets, and because my stomach felt a little weird, my host father decided I should stay home and that he would take me to the clinic. Since my host father only takes his children to his favorite clinic in Tema, we drove across the city during the morning rush hour. The Raphal Medical Centre is quite nice and not especially alarming, even to a doctor's daughter. I can only really compare the waiting room to a dinky airport gate. People sit in the shadow of various posters, my favorite of which read, "Please be a patient patient; you might be the one taking all of the doctor's time."

All in all, it was fine, and I was diagnosed with non-infected inflamed bowels. For this, they sold us antibiotics, antacid, and rehydration salts. My mother agreed that I didn't need to take antibiotics or antacids because I don't have an infection. The dehydration salts (dissolved in water) taste gross, but I got one packet down, and my lunch didn't bother my stomach.

Let's try some questions:

Do Ghanians eat together, or does each one eat when they want to?

The only time I have seen my host family eat together is on Sundays when I cook American food. I'm not quite sure why that prompts them to eat together, but it is really nice, even if it's only once a week. In general though, each person just eats when he or she wants to.

What do you and your friends talk about? I bet you really do stand out. Are most of them Christians?

With all of the down time in Ghanaian schools, conversations cover many topics. A decent amount of time is spent discussing the differences between Ghana and America, but plenty is also devoted to complaining about certain teachers, debating how much homework is really necessary, and even talking about religion. I know of one Muslim in my class, and nearly every Ghanaian is either Christian or Muslim. Three or four of my friends are Jehovah's Witnesses, but I promise I've only been offered one pamphlet! I was approached yesterday by a kid in my class (with whom I've had a decent conversation in the past) and interrogated (at least that's how it felt) about why, even though the Bible commands women to cover their heads while they pray, I don't do that. It was slightly uncomfortable, but I'm planning to pull out Romans 12-14 on him next time he bothers me.

February 6

Around noon yesterday, my stomach pain propelled me to the infirmary. There, I rested until the end of the school day. I decided that school today was not in the cards, and I told my host father, who seemed fine with that. Today I'm feeling better, but I'm glad I stayed home, where I can curl up on my bed and use decent toilet facilities at my leisure. There are a couple topics I wanted to take advantage of today to discuss in my journal.

First off, I should give an update on the communication situation with my host mother. It is slowly improving; plain misunderstandings are becoming infrequent. There are plenty of times I simply don't know what she's trying to say, but it is uncommon for me to fully misinterpret her.

Next, I hoped to list some of the things I find myself unexpectedly missing. To begin, as a very visual person, I miss saturated colors on billboards and signs. Secondly, I miss going outside in summer evenings. Particularly after the number of mosquito bites I accumulated over the weekend, staying inside past 5:45pm is a necessary precaution. Finally, I miss printed handouts at school.

Last but not least, I can provide some information about Jenna, Leonie, and Hannah--the other exchange students I am in contact with. Jenna, the Californian, is not doing very well. Homesickness and culture shock seem to have been detrimental to her emotional health, and she sounds like she has little hope. Leonie, the German, is doing fine. Her time is split between teaching high school and Kindergarten students. Hannah, the temporary Dane, is sick but otherwise fine. She also teaches in a Kindergarten.

February 9

My illness flared up Thursday night, but it was pretty much gone by Friday afternoon. Then, the pain and frequent bathroom visits gave way to low appetite, which was more pleasant physiologically, even though explaining to my host parents why I was eating plain rice was like describing the North Pole to a tropical fish. Thereafter, I slowly worked my way back to my normal diet. Because of my less-than-ideal amount of sleep, combined with lingering symptoms, I stayed home on Friday too. It turned out to be a very enjoyable day, with plenty of rest, rice, and reading.

Yesterday was also nice. I finished the book Stardust, by Neil Gaiman, which I had started Friday. My host mother presented me with another tailored dress, made out of a fabric she had shown me earlier in the week. I'm not entirely sure why she picked the material; the only explanation I can muster is that she found it similar to the polka dots I so appreciated last time. The pattern is black, grey, white, and red, with angular splotches of donuts, music staffs, and stadium lights.

One subject I will revisit, regarding yesterday, is food preparation. Hopefully, you find this as enthralling as I do. Dinner last night was jolof rice and fish. Before she began, I referred to my stomach and requested that she use only a little bit of oil. She seemed to understand this, even if the half liter of sunflower grease she used in the meal suggested otherwise. First, she called a fish vendor off the street to come into the compound and sell us six thin, grey, non-descript fish that she had bought from the harbor that morning. The vendor scaled, gutted, and rinsed the fish, employing a wooden block to hack at the nose and fins with a machete. I rather impressed myself in tolerating this performance. Once my host mother rinsed them in a saltwater solution, she coated them in corn flour (there is no wheat here) and deep-fat fried them in a pan sitting on charcoal. Next, she combined fresh, chopped tomatoes, canned tomato paste, corned beef, spices, and oil in another charcoal-heated pot. Having added some water, she filled the pot with dry rice and, as is customary for her to do with rice, stuffed a large plastic bag between the rice and lid to act a seal for the steam. Thirdly, Grace and I chopped cabbage, green pepper, cucumber, and lots of carrots. These were rinsed in vinegar-water but remained uncooked. I insisted on dabbing the surface of the fish with a clean rag, and the yielded grease was enough to soak through and stain my skirt. Oh well. I mixed the salad and rice and accompanied it with two pieces of fish. It was delicious!

This morning, I attended the youth service, as I had been planning. To begin, I occupied a seat at the youth pastor's Sunday School class, which I was far more impressed by than the one I had been sitting through. The youth pastor strikes me, far more than the adult pastor, as a capable and well-intentioned person. Afterwards, he walked me to the youth chapel, which turns out to be 20 lawn chairs on a patio, about 100 ft from the sanctuary. In addition to youth ministries, the youth pastor heads the adult choir, so he then disappeared until the adults finished worship. In the intervening wait, one of the youth addressed the fifteen-or-so assembled teens and young adults, leading us in some songs and prayers, none of which were planned ahead of time. The sermon, once the pastor finally returned, looked at the parable of the sower. It was good, if a little lengthy, and I felt so much more comfortable than I had at either of the past two Sunday services.

February 14

Happy Valentine's Day! Half of February is already past! I can't pretend it has gone quickly, but I have been diligently not journaling in hopes of getting into a rhythm of Friday and Sunday entries. This should let me discuss most things that happen without changing my 8:30pm bedtime. We'll see if my intentions come to fruition. Monday was my first day back to school, and the white girl's absence had not gone unnoticed. Aside from several people asking where I had been, the most remarkable occurrence came during study hall, which, as I may have already mentioned, is the final hour of the school day. Having received little direction from AFS and little encouragement from my school, I took my community service plan of teaching math into my own hands. I re-taught about half of the class income tax, which had been, in my humble opinion, very poorly introduced by our core math teacher. It was fairly well-received, but projecting in a non-enclosed space overtop of noisy students is nearly impossible, so I did a decent amount of repeating myself.

Tuesday saw my first gander into the school library's novels department. With Advanced Placement (AP) English looming next year, and with my ridiculous amount of free time, I decided that books would be the most productive and easily set-up activity with which to engage myself. Chemu Secondary School boasts a whole three shelves of unsorted novels and, in their shadow, some luxurious folding wooden chairs adorning a cafeteria table. The benefactor for this wealth of literature was Cargill--a cocoa exporter, I believe--not Carnegie. None of this was especially surprising, though, and the occasional gust of morning air made the room almost pleasant. The books don't look too bad, and the shelves are certainly stuffed enough to carry me to June. Having enjoyed Gaiman's fantastical masterpiece over the weekend, I contented myself to struggle through Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, which, I keep telling myself, will assuredly present itself during a high school or college English class. It is quite bearable, and I am passed the halfway point, as I write this journal entry.

Wednesday brought another Assembly, by which I was no more impressed than its predecessors. The sermon centered on setting an example, and this subject gave the speaker a wonderful opportunity to reiterate the importance of being good little boys and girls. The highlight of Assembly, by far, was during Announcements--the headmistress' unrestrained rant at the end of the ceremony--when, in the middle of an extended admonishment about punctuality, a tardy student came bounding through the sweaty congregation; he had just arrived at school and needed to reach the back of the crowd to find a seat. When he heard the subject of discussion, he added a grin to his gallop routine.

I walked to school yesterday. I would gladly have restarted this discipline Monday, but my host father had different ideas. It is not easy to express how relieved I was that the 90-minute walk was enjoyable in round two, too, especially since I am hoping to make the trek every Monday and Thursday. This time, I was joined by classmate who lives in my neighborhood. My host father accompanied us for the first half, but once we reached the main road, he caught a tro-tro (functions similarly to a public bus) back to the house because he had a busy workday ahead of him. The classmate's name is Tilford, and he is a quiet 17-year-old who (as my interrogation revealed) likes biology, geography, and economics classes. Prior to reaching the main road, though, Tilford led us through a less prosperous area, on a path that seemed to go through several houses' backyards. This course was fascinating to me, so I will endeavor to relate some the sights. There were dwellings that looked neither as spacious nor as modern as a Port-a-Potty. Larger shanties often had concrete showers outside, with morning bathers' heads visible. Mothers cooked breakfast for toddlers exhibiting varying degrees of nudity. The land was uneven, packed, red dirt, except for the stream/gutter/sewer that fostered bright green banks. I observed at least one early riser urinating into this geographical feature. All around, faces turned to behold the obruni ("white person") trudging alongside the two men, with her school uniform and backpack.

Today, during one of my "free" periods, I had a conversation with two classmates about the disadvantages of the Ghanaian education system. Neither of the products of said system was exceedingly impressed by it; indeed, they were--in my mind, duly--disenchanted by the lack of accountability and ineffective curricula and materials. In Ghana, textbooks are outdated books of text, which the students must buy and try to memorize, in hopes that they will be able to regurgitate enough text to pass the exams. (There are multiple-choice components to the tests, but the method of preparation is the same.) If and when this is not achieved, the students are blamed because the teachers are not required to even show up, much less adequately ready their pupils for the assessment. However, scores from the WASSCE (standardized exam for exiting high school) do reflect on the school, but instead of this motivating the school to more effectively teach the material, it results in a large proportion of Wednesday sermons being devoted to statements like, "Don't give up; with Jesus, you can study hard enough to pass the WASSCE in subjects you think you're not good at."

As a final note--and as my dinner approaches--I will briefly discuss new foods from the past week. Wednesday, my supper was Groundnut (peanut) Soup with fish and fufu. It was exceptionally tasty, particularly with the fish, which I am becoming increasingly fond of--partly because I'm getting better at avoiding the bones. I think Groundnut Soup was cooked Wednesday in honor of my host sister's twelfth birthday (also Wednesday), as it is her favorite dish. Last night, my host mother made Rice-Ball to go with the leftover soup, which was basically a patty of sticky, stirred, cooked rice. It was similar to other Ghanaian starches in texture, but because it was made of rice, it was not as heavy, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

February 16

Following a rather lengthy journal entry last Friday, I went to take my shower and was greeted with a foreboding gurgling noise (and no water) when I turned on the tap. The Ofoedas' bathroom has a Western toilet, sink and shower head. At this point only in my towel, I had to tell my host family about the problem, wait for buckets to be brought, and receive brief instructions on how to take a bucket shower.

Saturday is the most common day for laundry here, and although this weekend was not my first experience with hand washing, I will take this opportunity to make a few remarks about it. First and foremost, whoever or whatever gave me the impression that manual laundering was gentler than machine washing was deceptive. Maybe that is true for hands that wash one or two items per load, but in a country where washing machines are scarce, that is just plain wrong. The process involves four basins, two with soap, one for rinsing, and a fourth containing bleach. Bags of powdered detergent are dumped into the initial two basins, and a bar of lye soap is also employed in the first of these. Clothes soak briefly and while others are being handled. Clutching the fabric in one's left hand (my host mother made a point of me using my left--I don't know why), soap is ground into the threads by roughly passing the cloth back and forth with the right hand. All unclean spots, both visible and potential, are scoured with the lye soap, too. As much as I insist, my host mother does not always respect my wishes that my more fragile textiles be spared from the big, bad bleach. The only other opinions I have about hand washing are that it's actually pretty fun, and the stiffness in sundried clothes is temporary.

Church today was fine. I thought I might have gotten lucky when I saw the youth pastor present at the beginning of the service, but, alas, we still waited for the preacher because we were graced with a different orator than the aforementioned staff member. The sermon dealt with the necessity that Christians be visibly different from others, which I found a bit dull and cliché. The speaker evidently enjoyed interacting with his ten-person audience, and he posed numerous questions to us. His conclusion consisted of worming resolutions out of two teenagers. Overall, though, the service was decent, and today was certainly my least emotional Sunday yet. The pasta and sautéed cabbage I made this evening was delayed by a thunderstorm, about which I am not complaining. The wind, clouds, rain, and booming thunder were reminiscent of Pittsburgh springs. It is true that the weather gave the power company an excuse to shut the electricity off all evening, and since my host father is at his village for the day, my host mother was kind enough to bring a neighbor over to turn on the generator so I could take my third bucket shower.

One question to tackle today: What is school really like? Is it all copy-from-the-book, then exercises? Are there class discussions?

During productive class periods, teachers either slowly read aloud, or lecture on, course material. When they read aloud, it is usually their adaptation of the textbook, but sometimes it comes straight from the book. In these instances, the white board is a place to write words that the students might have trouble spelling. Other teachers prefer to lecture on material, using the white board to outline the lesson and draw diagrams. Sometimes, teachers combine these two strategies. In math classes, example problems are hand-copied onto the board and into notebooks, and then the teacher guides the solution process. Maybe five times a week, teachers assign exercises. Problems are copied into small notebooks and completed beneath the question's text. These books are then collected and hastily graded by the teachers. Tests are conducted in the same manner. Regarding discussions, they are infrequent in most classes (except English, in which comprehension questions are hotly debated), but instructors often ask individual students to recall definitions, etc. from prior school terms. These are recited to the class before more material about them is covered.

February 21

The third quarter of the Steelers v.--I mean, February was not without its rough patches, but I made it through alright. I am content to say that four months from today I will be boarding a flight to New York City.

Monday's frustrations arose primarily out of teachers that I only deal with on that day. That infrequency is comforting, but it does little to make those class periods more pleasant. For enduring the school day, though, I was rewarded with a delightful call with Leonie, who I am hoping to meet in a couple of weeks in a mountain park conveniently located between her city and mine.

Tuesday morning, my host father dropped my classmate and me off on the main road and we walked to school from there. It worked quite well, giving me a modest forty-five minutes of aerobic exercise. Tuesday evening, my AFS local contact came at last. Speaking with someone who had experienced America was extremely heartening. He spoke to my host mother about the amount of food that was customary to eat there, and she seemed to understand that message more when it came from him.

Wednesday I began my second book, Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin's Three Cups of Tea: one of my mother's favorites about Mortenson's construction of schools in the Middle East. I had never successfully gotten into it before, but it's now enthralling. In addition to being uplifting and superbly written, the descriptions of navigating in the third world strike a chord with my present adventure. Although Ghana is far tamer than remote regions of the Himalaya, I am amazed and soothed by the parallels I have been able to draw.

Yesterday--Thursday--began with another full walk to school. Because the terrain is so flat, my stamina is much higher. Ninety minutes of walking is sweaty, but it does not tire me significantly.

Our Friday early dismissals are followed with the odd combination of heavier traffic and a quieter neighborhood. More vehicles clog up the roads than usual, but the area surrounding the house is all but deserted, compared to regular afternoons. Today, I took advantage of these circumstances to climb up to the unfinished house atop my host mother's store and take pictures. As few nearby structures feature a second story, that height lets me capture the sea of red dirt, corrugated tin roofs, and people with laden heads. In addition, I convinced the fish seller to let me photograph her in the act of cleaning my host mother's purchases, and I got a shot of Grace hacking at a piece of raw cassava with a machete and no cutting board.

February 23

Yesterday morning ended in my first successful use of an Internet Café. I needed to print and bind the book that I slaved over last weekend. Having put the final touches on in in the mid-morning, I went to the café around 11:15am and checked my email while a staff member spun out my twenty-page masterpiece and put a comb binding on it. The computers were fully functional desktops with an open browser and a timer counting my half hour, which cost less than a quarter. The book, on the other hand, was over four dollars, making it one of my most expensive purchases so far (because my host parents have insisted on paying for all of my dresses).

Following this excursion, my host father, host sister, and I visited the orphanage I hope to volunteer at during my five weeks of Easter break. Although there are "orphanages" in urban areas like Tema, my host father says these institutions are very well-funded, so people will sometimes purposefully put their children there, in hopes of a cheaper and better education. Instead of helping there, he wants me to go to a village orphanage, in which my assistance might be more needed. I fully support this idea.

On the way there, I saw a hill for the first time in a month-and-a-half. It was not particularly impressive to this Pennsylvanian, but I took a picture nonetheless. Upon arrival, I learned that OrphanAid Africa is the brain- and wallet-child of the Ghanaian-born '90s captain of the French soccer team. The large compound recently had a fire, so children were transferred to natural or foster families, leaving eight or ten residents at the orphanage. However, the organization also runs the village's preschool and elementary/middle school. As such, I am hoping to spend two weeks of my break assisting one of the two preschool teachers, who are in charge of 15-20 little ones. This plan hinges on whether the school's break is as long as (and coincides with) mine. If not, I intend to survive Easter break's boredom by making a day-job out of this.

My host mother greeted me with the presentation of my third Ghanaian dress. I had seen the fabric previously, and I had tried to communicate some desires regarding the style, but the tailor only finished it yesterday. A so-called "caba [and] slit" is the traditional Ghanaian outfit for women. The caba is a fitted shirt, and the slit is the matching floor-length skirt. I am quite pleased with how it came out, despite my apparently-ignored instruction for the omission of shoulder puffs. After trying on this slightly sweaty garment, I thoroughly enjoyed my first real shower since last week. Although I am now conscious of how much water is actually needed to bathe--and how much more is used by a shower head--it was blissful to let something else pour water on me.

This evening, as I was dishing out the pasta I made, my host mother called me to the store. I had told her several weeks ago of my desire to learn how to carry a baby on my back, so she wanted me to try toting her visiting neighbor's newborn (maybe three months old; it was hard to tell). I handed off the serving spoon and leaned over, as I had observed mothers do. The infant was balanced on my back, while a bath towel-sized cloth was draped over him. I tried to tie the corners as I had seen others do, but it was difficult to firmly secure them. Thus, neither the child nor I were entirely comfortable; however, he was never in danger of dropping and did not cry, so I will call the experience a success.