Semester in Ghana


Read by Date --> January

I arrived in Ghana mid-January, so entries from this month encompass international travel, interactions with other exchange students, and the early stages of culture shock.

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January 16

Yesterday, I saluted Pittsburgh goodbye on my 11:45am flight to New York City. After arriving in New York, we watched our breath leave our shivering bodies for what felt like at least fifteen minutes while they brought the gate-checked luggage to the jet way.

Finding Baggage Claim was not quick. Signs pointed there the whole time, but trudging by the entire terminal’s gates and shops, it was hard not to think that maybe I was not headed the right way. Once I got there, I hauled my 48.5 lb. bag off the belt, hoisted my rolling carry-on onto my back, and followed the airport employee’s instructions to the elevator, which let me off at more signs indicating the AirTrain (that I needed to take to meet the program representative).

A highlight came on one of the moving walkways when a little girl in a stroller pointed at my teddy bear that was strapped to the carry-on resting on the handrail. “Pooh!” she exclaimed. Jenna, my fellow Ghana-bound girl, ran into me as she was getting off the elevator and, having recognized me from Facebook, greeted me with a hug and the information that my present (What?) would be given to me soon. Lance, our other companion to Ghana, showed up in the lobby a little later, and he, Kat, and I got coffee (croissant for me) from down the street.

In the hotel conference room, we watched a video about AFS history. It was a little dated; the final decade it mentioned was the 90’s. A few discussions of cultural adjustments later, we headed off to Chinatown for dinner and Little Italy (not the one in Bloomfield) for dessert.

My last American shower was blissful, as was the Belgian waffle that came after it. We departed for the AFS office around the corner where we went through the remaining motions of our Gateway Orientation. Our group got New Yorker takeout for lunch. For me, that entailed a sandwich on a salt bagel; the bagel did not disappoint, though the sandwich contents could have been better. Hannah then had to leave for the airport, which was sad. Lance accurately summed up the circumstances following her departure by saying, “And then, there were four.”

After lunch, Kat, Jenna, Lance, and I had three hours to kill, so we went to Times Square and traipsed around to all of the fun window-shopping stores. These were the Toys’R’Us, Hershey’s Store, LEGO Store, Apple Store, and FAO Schwartz. Everything was huge and expensive and it was frigid outside, but it was a very enjoyable afternoon. On our way back to the hotel on the subway, I commented that it felt more like an end of a day than a beginning.

A cranky taxi driver took us the bumpy, congested way to the airport; the chaperone who took us (Amanda) assured us upon entry of the airport that our taxi experience was not the status quo. As soon as we had reached the gate, I felt the attention I know I can expect for the impending semester. Although we were by no means the only white people at the gate, it seemed that everyone turned to look at the American teenagers getting settled in chairs next to a monitor proclaiming “Accra.”

Our flight was slightly delayed in leaving the gate because there was a passenger that did not show. Since it is an international flight, this meant that that passenger’s bag had to be fished out of the belly of the plane before we could leave.

January 18

We filed off the airport into noon-time heat, so no one complained about the airport being air-conditioned. The Immigration line did not take long either. We were near the middle of the pack from airplane because they allowed people to use the back door. Thus, the slow speed of the line was not compounded by a full international flight’s worth of people in front of us. However, the wait at Baggage Claim was worryingly long. I am not confident that our checked bags were last to get off, but I do know that the packed area was feeling less populous by the time we lugged our suitcases off the belt.

Upon exiting Customs, we saw mercifully distinct AFS staff waving at us. A few guys were wearing shirts and holding a big banner. I was in charge of the cart with our heavy luggage on it, and I was prepared to fight anyone who tried to “help” me with it. No one was going to take advantage of me! Unfortunately, I did not realize that most of the men trying to help me with the cart were AFS staff who were not clad in paraphernalia until we were almost to the van. I hope I didn’t offend them by trying to shake them off of the bags.

We drove to the hostel, which took a long time. Cars in Ghana do not have air conditioning. We rode in the AFS bus, which doesn’t either. Then, we drove to the AFS office, and were pleasantly surprised that it was air conditioned. The three of us sat on a couch in the conference room and talked with different AFS guys. I learned that one of the staff members lived in Ashaiman and went to Chemu Secondary School. He told me that school is from 7:30am to 3:30pm with breaks throughout. He also let me know that my host father planned to drive me to school which would shorten the trip to 45 minutes. (Google said the commute would be 14 minutes.)

We responded positively and emphatically to a question about hunger. Shafic (yes, I remember his name by thinking “traffic”) took us to a restaurant claiming to serve Chinese and local cuisine. I’m pretty sure that only meant that they offered fried rice in addition to normal Ghanaian food. They happened to be out of fried rice, so Jenna, Lance, and I ordered plain rice and beef, which came with coleslaw. The coleslaw had little sauce, so it wasn’t too bad, but I didn’t eat much. Unlike the others, I only picked at the meat because I thought it didn’t taste good. All in all, my first Ghanaian meal primarily consisted of plain rice.

On the walk back to the office, Shafic and I discussed his exchange year in Virginia. He even said that a cousin of his had stayed in Pittsburgh! We compared climates, and he talked about what it was like to observe Ramadan in a Virginia summer.

Jenna and I were pleased to be greeted by air conditioning, and we got the WiFi password from downstairs and contacted home. It was not until 10:30pm that Belgian girls came into our room and told us that dinner was downstairs. We had been told it would be 7pm. As we learned, the four Belgian girls’ flight had been delayed. Along with them arrived a German boy and girl. The AFS guys also brought pizza! It was very good. After dinner, we laid in our beds for a while as two Belgians put on more types of insect repellant than I think I have ever seen. Additionally, the toilet paper quickly ran out, and there was no soap in the dispenser. Sleep took a bit to come, but I was grateful for a comfortable bed and bedroom temperature.

In the morning, we ate the hostel’s breakfast, which consisted of dry bread, starchy strips of something, processed sausage, little bananas, and fried noodles. We proceeded to the office, where we discussed safety and learned some Twi. The language is very different; that is to be expected. In Ghana, children are traditionally named after the day of the week on which they were born. There are fourteen names total, one male and female for each day. My name would be Abena because I was born on a Tuesday.

It became clear that none of the Europeans were going to school in Ghana; they were all completing Community Service projects as the second half of a gap year. I was very lethargic and I slept on the couch while they discussed their program. Since there was no point in my staying, I was driven back to the hostel after lunch. Dinner came at 7pm or so, and the Europeans with it. I ate jolof rice, which is cooked with spices. Neither Jenna nor I touched the chicken. Showered and teeth brushed, I went to bed.

January 21

My host family is well-off. My host mother runs a large shop in the front of the complex, similar to a general store. My host father has a repair shop near the harbor where he works on mostly electrical machine parts that people bring in. He has several workers. Priscilla, my 11-year-old host sister, is cheerful and rather unpleasant to share a queen-size bed with, as I tried to do last night. Mordester, my 13-year-old host sister is currently in Kumasi (central Ghana) with her mother’s family there; I do not know when she will return. There is another “daughter” in the house: 12 years old, Grace does not go to school but stays home and helps with the store. My host family is extremely warm, and they already call me their sister/daughter.

The compound is surrounded by high walls with openings for a gated driveway and the store. There are two cars: a small sedan and a KIA Sorento that my host father bought through his US-resident friend. There is a renovation going on, which I think I might have been the catalyst for. (This includes painters on the outsides of both my bedroom window and the bathroom window, neither of which have curtains.) When you step into the house, a large foyer and living room greet you. There is an attached kitchen and a hallway with a bathroom at the end. My room is large and square with faux marble floors—which I think is a big thing in Africa because the AFS office had them too—and a brand new queen-size bed. My host parents told me that they will bring a mattress in for Priscilla to sleep on because I did not sleep well last night. Her things are in another room, however, so my stuff, a small television, a closet, and a little dressing table are the only things in the room.

Ashaiman is a suburb of Tema, with Lebanon as a district within it. All but the main roads are dusty and filled with potholes (yes, worse than Pittsburgh). It is hot, but my room has an air conditioner that I use sparingly because it is so costly to operate. I have been told that it will get cooler in February and that in March it will begin to rain a little. What I saw online suggested that June and July are the peak of the rainy season, and since I return to the States in June, I think the weather will get more bearable.

School runs on the trimester schedule. I will miss a little bit of the January-March term, and I will attend the first half of the May-July term. Don’t worry that my April off will be idle; I have been told that plenty of homework is assigned during that time!

I do not love Ghana yet. Getting around is incredibly slow, and I still haven’t quite figured out how to get enough sleep. My host parents concern about me not eating enough prompted my host father to take me to the mall to buy food that I eat in America. The portions are so big, and even the fast food they bought me for my first night was too spicy and too much. I want to eat Ghanaian food so that I will become assimilated in the culture and not a burden on my host family, but my appetite has diminished because my surroundings are so foreign.

A final source of discomfort would have to be the heat, which is like the hottest days in a Pittsburgh August without air conditioning or swimming pools. In addition to being draining, the climate makes it difficult to sleep.

This morning, I was very homesick. I probably cried (alone in my room) for three hours, until my host parents found me. (That encounter in and of itself was not entirely comfortable, but it served as very good encouragement for me to pull it together.) I watched my favorite TV show, tried to nap, looked at pictures from home, called another exchange student, held my teddy bear, listened to comforting music, vented my feelings into Microsoft Word, used my air conditioner briefly, and played Solitaire on my computer, but nothing worked. It was rough. Once my host parents found me, my host father drove me around Tema to take my mind off of home, and then let me get some mercifully tear-free rest in my room.

I just tried banku, which is paste-like ground corn dipped in some kind of stew. It wasn’t bad, though my host mother’s idea of a “very little bit” differs slightly from mine. Otherwise, this evening has involved trying to explain how to use the washing machine that my host father just bought (because of me).

January 23

My host mother bought me fabric yesterday and brought a tailor to the house to make a dress out of it for me. It is green, blue, and brown large polka dots on a white background; I like it very much. At church in Accra last Sunday, I decided that I definitely wanted a Ghanaian dress, and I told my host parents that, but I didn’t expect it to happen so soon. I chose a sleeveless pattern that hangs just below the knee.

My host mother, with Grace’s help, made fufu last night. Though she denied me the chance to help, I made her promise to let me try next time. First, she used a machete to peel and chop plantains and cassava roots into roughly Ping Pong ball-sized pieces. Then, she washed those and boiled them on an outdoor, small, charcoal stove for a while. After they cooled, the mashing began. My host mother put the pieces one by one into a circular, wooden basin which was maybe a foot across and with a three-inch high rim. She fed the pieces in while Grace pounded a heavy branch with dried grass on the end into the basin. Once enough pieces had been mashed up, my host mother folded the mash in to the center which, with the continued pounding, was a mechanism similar to kneading. This continued until the plantains or cassava resembled bread dough. A spicy sauce and fish were put on the starch, and the dish was eaten with the hands. She made a less spicy sauce for me (which was almost too spicy for me), and told me to eat my whole dish, which was the size of an American serving dish. I was proud of myself for almost getting through half of it, by which time I was quite full.

I am keeping in contact with Jenna, the Californian. She is in her host home now, and she starts school today. Because she had to wait in Accra until yesterday, she will have none of these lazy days; she chooses her classes this morning.

Sleeping is better; I now have two 9.5-hour nights under my belt, and I hope I can continue going to bed at 8pm when I have homework. Priscilla said she misses sleeping in her parents’ room and, if that is what she wants, it is fine with me. I have arranged my bed so that my face is directly beneath my fan, and my host parents installed curtains so that the only time I need to close the window is when I use the air conditioning. Though I remain unsuccessful in filling my room with cool nighttime and morning air, it is comfortable with the fan on.

January 25

Yesterday, Priscilla took me on my first stroll through the neighborhood, and I was faced with how much I really stand out. This is logical as well as apparent from interactions with my host mother’s customers. However, people’s reactions were stronger when I was walking through the streets.

Information about school is still sparse, though I know I will start on Monday. My host father and I visited Chemu Thursday, but little was learned; I didn’t even get a schedule. I know to be there at 7:30am in a white button-down and black skirt, and I know that my class tract will be General Arts.

On a normal school day, I believe we get an hour-long break for breakfast in the late morning and another hour for lunch in the early afternoon. I should get my schedule Monday and will then have firmer details.

It rained this morning for ten minutes or so, which was very nice. The rain itself, however, was not clear water droplets; it was dirty and brown. I don’t think it was acid rain because it felt normal on my skin, but then again, I don’t really know what acid rain is. The shower was not enough to wash out the streets or cause any other substantial damage, though it did necessitate my re-rinsing of the dishes I had washed. I believe Tema gets an average of 8 mm (less than half an inch) of rain in January, so maybe that was it. If so, I’m glad February is almost here because it is supposed to produce a whopping inch of precipitation.

Today I was awarded the distinction of enduring a first gander into an African market. It was not entirely what I expected. I will try to describe it, but I do not trust my keyboard to fully do it justice. The ground was uneven concrete, and the width of the path was between one and two people wide, depending on where you were. In some places an open, concrete sewer divided the walking area in half, contributing to the overall smell of the market. Everything from produce to dress shirts to toilet paper was sold there, and I say with decent confidence that no individual item was sold at only one stand. Because it was so densely packed with shoppers, sellers, and stands, not too much light made it in, contributing to my feeling of being in an old movie about the back streets of London. The stands themselves were corrugated metal sheds (maybe 2 feet in all three directions) with their double doors open wide. Products were stacked on free-standing stools and hung on the walls. A couple of vendors sat in each stand. I cannot say how many stands there were, but I know that there was no space between them and that to walk through the entire market (though we might not have gone the whole length of it) could take 15 minutes.

January 27

Church was harder than I expected. Upon arrival, I was ushered to the corner of the sanctuary where the English-speaking singles’ Sunday School took place. I didn’t understand most of the points the teacher was saying, but I’m pretty sure we were discussing covenants. After the lesson wrapped up (we might have been there for the last fifteen minutes), a church leader stood in the middle of the sanctuary and asked questions to everyone. I had managed to down enough water to need to use the bathroom, and since I was in my host mother’s care at this point, communicating my need to her was difficult, as the most helpful gestures were not ones I was looking to use in a crowded church. Having taken a little time in the stall to pull myself together, I returned to the service for the offertory. The music was incredible; it didn’t matter that the approximately eight singers and soloist were singing in Twi. The sermon discussed the dangers in “playing around with holy things.” Throughout the sermon, the pastor’s words were translated into Twi by a guy who followed the pastor around and copied some of his gestures and facial expressions. For the prayer/benediction, the pastor told of a recent sudden death and advised that everyone pray that no one close to them suffer the same fate. At this, the entire congregation began praying fervently in tongues, Twi, or maybe some of both. After this, church was over.

In the afternoon, I made pasta with sautéed vegetables so that my host family could try an American dish. It turned out quite well, and my host father was very complementary of my cooking. I cut the tomatoes, onions, green peppers, and carrots the African way (outside, with a machete, and without a cutting board) and mashed the garlic with a traditional wooden pestle. The meal was, by far, the highlight of the day.

Today was my first day of school. The school itself can most kindly be described as nightmarish, but I was blessed by finding some very good friends. My class of 67 had 11 absentees today, which everyone seemed to consider normal. The day is split into five class periods with breaks after the second and fifth. I am taking two electives (history and extra math), but during the other two electives (geography and economics) I sit in the classroom and do homework. Thus, I have one “free” period on Monday and Tuesday and two on Thursday and Friday. The last hour of every school day is a study hall, and Friday we get out at 2pm, which is two hours early. Corporal punishment is beyond commonplace here; most of the kids in my class were caned by three different teachers today, and we only have five teachers in a day. Teachers use a yard-long, flexible wooden rod to hit students’ backsides for coming to class late or unprepared. Because I am an exchange student, I don’t get caned, but watching this all day was torturous enough. Basically, each 70-minute class period was either spent writing dictated paragraphs (i.e. history) or organizing the students to be caned. Thankfully, I struck up friendships with two girls in my class. One of them, Ida, is the class prefect, and the other, Baaba, is in all of my classes. I ate lunch with Ida and her friends, and I followed Baaba around to the various classrooms.

January 29

I am very glad to be able to call my first day “uncommonly bad,” as the two since then have been completely different; yesterday and today have been much more like what I expected (from reading former exchange students’ blogs). They have been dull and not very productive because the teachers do not show up, but they have not been scarring like Monday.

Yesterday was the first day of the term that they checked whether students had paid this term’s tuition before allowing them to enter the school. Thus, our class was half its prior size (a mere 29 students). Knowing that so few kids would be present, the elective math teacher did not show. Together with my one Tuesday “free” period, that made for a day of only core math and a double-period of social studies. Core math is taught by a man that makes little sense, focuses entirely on formulas, insists students complete problems using his method, and doesn’t understand my accent when I speak. This coupled with the material (tedious interest and tax calculations) makes for a mildly boring and frustrating class, especially since math is my favorite subject. I hope elective math will be better, but I have not yet met the teacher, so I don’t know. Social studies, on the other hand, is taught by an older teacher who lectures rather than dictate notes, which is refreshing after the scribble-fest of Monday’s history class. I really like teacher, so the class was rather unexpectedly pleasant.

Today began with Assembly, in which all of the students (more than a thousand total, spread over three grade levels) dragged chairs into the Assembly Hall and sat for an hour-and-a-half. The event was a modified Christian church service, with several long prayers, a small reading from John, some uninspiring preaching about being good little children, and an extended period of announcements (basically a rant) from our headmistress about misbehaviors of various students.

The elective math teacher did not show again, and the teachers had a meeting during the school day, so our English teacher never came, and our Chemistry teacher was forty minutes late. Nevertheless, I think I like his teaching style and it is certainly nice that he understands my accent. The two full classes we had were core math and history. In core math, I followed along better than yesterday, and I did fine on the classwork, but I was no more impressed with the teacher. History consisted of a long introduction to a set of dictated notes. Before getting into the notes, though, the teacher wanted to know the grades people had gotten on the final exams, and since our history class probably has eighty students, the process of going through the roll took the remaining time in the class period.

January 31

Two weeks down, a few to go! Yesterday and today have been fine, and I feel that I am (finally!) content here. I know culture shock will probably rear up again sometimes, but I no longer have two ups and downs every day. I have been blessed with a loving host family, an incredibly kind group of classmates, and even a rainstorm today! As I become accustomed to living in Ghana, I expect my journal to transition from being a travel log/emotional outlet to a means by which I can describe some experiences I have (on the weekends, etc.) and answer your questions about sub-Saharan Africa. For this reason, I am devoting this journal entry to broadly speaking about aspects of the Ghanaian lifestyle in hopes that it may help you generate some questions for me. If that happens, simply reply with your inquiries and I will attempt to tackle a few each time I send an update.

The first topic that comes to mind is the general situation of traffic. Tema does not have many paved roads, so those it has tend to be hopelessly congested during rush hour. This is especially true anywhere near a roundabout, of which there are several. These eliminate the need for stoplights, but fighting one’s way into and out of the tornado of cars, taxis, vans, pick-ups, oversized supply trucks, motorcycles, and bicycles circling the intersection is difficult—to say the least. This situation is most advantageous for vendors, who walk through traffic with laundry basket-sized displays on their heads and/or shaking products in the faces and windows of their captive audience. I have seen everything from flyswatters to shoes to plantain chips, and the list goes on. In order to avoid this mess, we try to make use of side roads on the morning and evening commutes. In addition, this is necessary for getting from the highway to the house. These unpaved roads are compacted dirt with patches of concrete here and there, all covered with a layer of red dust. Since they are not maintained, the dirt parts continue to sink lower, so much of the time driving is spent stepping one side of the car on and off the concrete ledges, while the other side of the car stays on the dirt level.

Having survived the morning commute, I march across the school compound from the entrance to my classroom. The compound is made of several blocks, or one-story rows of classrooms that share walls. The Form 2 (second-to-last year of high school) General Arts (my class tract) Block has around eight large classrooms. A couple of buildings are two-story, but most are blocks like mine. My class’s classroom might be a 30ft by 30ft square with a 15ft-high ceiling. The walls that are not shared are screened windows (no glass), meaning that only two (the front and back) walls are finished. Yellow and unadorned but for some graffiti, the walls provide only a whiteboard in the front of the class for the teacher to use. About sixty unpainted wooden desks in various stages of disrepair are stuffed into the classroom; all of them had chairs attached at one point, but some in the back of the room now require plastic or wooden chairs to be dragged in front of them for students to sit on. Except for the plastic ones, all chairs are flat wooden boards, and it takes me less than two minutes of sitting to grow uncomfortable.

Thus, I never complain when the bell rings and we can stretch our legs and, if it is break, visit the cafeteria. Housed in a separate building, the “Canteen” has long, traditional lunch tables with benches. They sell a variety of pastries, candies, fruits, and Ghanaian dishes at different stands and stations in and around the Canteen. During morning break—11am or so—I buy bananas and peanuts from a stand outside the Canteen; this is the healthiest and most anticipated meal I eat on a daily basis. During afternoon break—3pm or so—I either eat the rice, spaghetti, cabbage, and chicken dish the Canteen sells or leftovers brought from the house. I never enjoyed cafeteria food in the States, but the food they cook here is delicious!

After school, my host father drives me back to the compound and goes back to work, at which point it is roughly 5pm. Priscilla, my host sister, returns from school later than me, so there is half an hour with my host mother and Grace before an English-speaker arrives. My parents and I have discovered that Gmail SMS Chat is free for texting internationally, and it costs me less than two cents to reply, so we communicate that way while I read over my history, science, and social studies notes. Dinner is usually ready between 5:30pm and 6pm, and I often eat first. By far the largest meal, I rarely finish my supper, which consists of some kind of (often mashed/pounded) starch—plantain, yam, rice, cassava, or corn—served with a stew of meat, vegetables (if I’m lucky), and spices. I enjoy this meal, and amount of food I can eat is slowly increasing.