Sunday, November 07, 2010


It's Sunday afternoon, and I'm sitting in a smoothie shop in Osu, eating a chicken wrap with ranch dressing, drinking a berry-flavored smoothie, and using the free wireless. Am I really still in Ghana?
Yes, if only for a few more days. Tomorrow morning I start the COS, or Close of Service, process. It's going to be three days of unpleasant medical procedures, frustrating dealings with the admin unit, and meetings with various PC staff. I don't fly out until Thursday evening, but everything has to be done by the end of the day on Wednesday as Thursday is a U.S. holiday.
The last few months have gone by so quickly that I haven't had time to stop and reflect. Despite the problems I had in the last six months of my service, everything at site wrapped up rather nicely. I finished the rainwater collection system, the world map mural on the school building, and the wheelchair ramp at the junior high. I left Fufulso feeling good about the work I've done and hope that I'll be able to make it back to Northern Ghana someday soon.
Like I said, my flight leaves Thursday evening. I'll fly to Washington, then a few hours later fly to St. Louis via Chicago. From there, I'll go to visit the Leonards in Carbondale, then back up to St. Louis for a few days. I'm planning to drive down to Dallas on the 17th, and will be there until the 21st, when I drive down to Austin.
It's going to be a crazy couple of weeks. I can't wait!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Let the goodbyes begin...

I’m really bad at goodbyes, and I have a lot of them ahead of me for the next month and a half.

Last week we had our COS (Close of Service) Conference for the 2008-2010 Omnibus group. Most of the people I trained with were together again one last time at the Coconut Grove Beach Resort in Elmina. Those who weren’t able to make it were missed very much, especially Ann Paisley and Consuelo, who are both in my prayers. That last morning was hard for me. Some of the group is leaving early because of one reason or another; it was my last time to see them. It’s one thing to say goodbye to one person, but quite another to have to say goodbye to a bunch of your friends all at once. There’s no time to say what you want to say. So to all my Peace Corps friends who are leaving, farewell and we’ll see each other again soon.

Though the goodbyes were making me sad, I did get some good news last week: I received and accepted an invitation to serve as a Team Leader for AmeriCorps NCCC (National Civil Community Corps). I'll be based in Vinton, IA for 11 months starting in January of 2011. It feels good to know what comes next, even if it is only for the next year. I'll leave Ghana on November 11th and will have exactly two months off before I report to the NCCC campus in Vinton.

For now I’m back at site, getting ready to wind things down, pack my things, and move on to the next adventure. Yesterday being Friday, I knew both of the chiefs would be home, so I went around with Assemblyman, Madam Hawa, and Mr. SS to inform them and the other opinion leaders that I’ll be leaving the village in early November. It didn’t take long for the news to spread. “Mantenso, are you really leaving? When are you coming back?”

In Gonjaland, and most other parts of Ghana, when someone is leaving your house, you send them off by saying some variation of, “May God send you safely” or “May God send you safely there and back.” I like this second phrase better than the first. It acknowledges that you’ll be back, even if the time of return in unknown. I don’t know when I’ll be back in Fufulso, but I will someday, and that’s what I tell everyone. My landlady is in her final month of pregnancy with her second child. She told me yesterday, “When you come back, I want to have five children to show you.” It makes me feel special to know that I’ll be missed, and hopeful that I’ll have the money to come back here one day soon.

A little update on the projects:
The rainwater collection system at the school is complete, and thanks to some heavy rains in the last couple weeks, the tanks are full. That’s 20,000 liters of water ready for the students when they return for the new school term.
I’m waiting for the headmaster to return and school to open in order to start on the wheelchair ramp. I don’t really have funding, but there’s a bunch of left over blocks, sand, and gravel from the construction of the tank platforms for the rainwater system, so we’ll see what we can do.
The world map I’m painting on the side of one of the primary school buildings is about 90% complete. I should finish it this coming week if the weather cooperates.
I’m down to one rabbit, but she’s healthy. I’ll pass her off to Madam Hawa when I leave.
In one finally attempt to spread the word about moringa, I’m nursing a bunch of seedlings to distribute throughout the village.
And (DRUMROLL) – still no guinea worms to be found.

One final story.

I was at the roadside one morning in early August, buying something for breakfast. I remember that it was a Monday, because it was Buipe market day, and a bunch of lorries were lined up at the roadside waiting to go to the market. All of a sudden I heard a crash – a small child was trying to cross the street and was struck by a speeding car. The car then swerved off the road and struck another man and child before crashing into a billboard. The boy who was hit on the road died the next morning. He was the grandson of one of the Red Cross Mothers I work with. The man who was hit died a week later from his injuries.

Speeding cars have always been a problem in this community. We’re on the main truck route that passes through the country, so everything from private cars to big, overloaded, articulated trucks heading to Burkina Faso and beyond pass through the village. Because the road is fairly nice at this point in the journey, drivers pass through as though there’s no village, some not even tapping the brakes. The problem of speeding used to be mitigated by the presence of the police barrier on the south end of town. But about six months ago, headquarters decided to move the barrier a few kilometers outside town, despite protests from the villagers. For those six months, the leaders of the community have been appealing to the District Assembly for help, either to move the barrier back or provide speed ramps. The community members said they would build their own speed ramps if the DA wouldn’t, but the DA insisted that they were working on it, that the community should just be patient and the speed ramps would come.

Well, the death of two people because of a speeding car lit a fire under a lot of people. Two weeks after the accident, a crew suddenly appeared and quickly built some shoddy speed bumps. Within two weeks, these speed bumps were reduced to almost nothing. Some cars don’t even slow down for them anymore. Most of the people I talked to dismissed it as another example of the failure of the government to answer to the needs of the community. No electricity, no clinic, no latrines – of course there aren’t speed ramps either.

On Thursday, I woke to find a large group of men from the community taking matters into their own hands. I don’t know who provided the cement, but they decided to build their own speed bumps. They’re not the greatest speed bumps, and I don’t know how long they’ll last, but they’re definitely slowing cars down. I have a feeling there’ll be some backlash from somebody for taking matters into their own hands like this, but right now, drivers are going a lot slower when they pass through Fufulso.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

What's new in Fufulso?

It’s time to post something new on this here blog. I’ve been so very, very bad about posting for the last year, if not more. A lot has happened, both good and bad, but I don’t really feel up to trying to fill you all in. Not in this forum anyway.

Let me tell you wants going on now. I’m in the final stages of constructing a rainwater harvesting system at the two schools in Fufulso. I found some used polytanks in Tamale, and was able to write a grant to get them and the other materials I needed. When the system is complete, there will be four 5000-litre tanks between the two schools (one at the junior high and three at the primary school). I had a guy in Tamale fabricate the gutters for me and come a hang them properly, and a local mason and his assistant made the platforms for the tanks. It’s been kind of stressful running around getting things organized, but I’ve had a lot of fun. It’s nice to have a project come together so nicely and so quickly. It’s been about three months’ work start to finish. Even though the water won’t last through the dry season, the tanks will definitely help the students have access to safe drinking water for part of the year. The district coordinator for UNICEF’s I-WASH program (a water and sanitation initiative) has expressed interest in replicating the project in other villages, so I’m working on a report for him to help him do just that.

I’m also trying to figure out a way to build a wheelchair ramp at the junior high. Wheelchairs were donated to two disabled girls in Form 1 but because there’s no ramp, they have to leave their chairs outside all day and can’t move around once they go in.

Things are coming to an end so quickly. I have just under four months left in my service and time is flying by. Ramadan will begin in the next couple weeks, which will turn everything upside down for a month. Then COS (Close of Service) conference in early September, my birthday bash in October, then COS in November or December (I won’t know the exact date until the COS conference).

What next? I’ve applied for a position as a Team Leader for AmeriCorps’ NCCC (National Civil Community Corps). If I get the position, I will be leading a group of 8-12 volunteers between 18-24. We’d be based on one of five campuses in the US and would do a series of service projects together throughout the region for about 10 months. So everyone do me a favor and send me some good luck vibes. This sounds like exactly what I want right now; a perfect transition from Peace Corps to whatever comes next.

That’s all for now. I’ll try to post some pictures on flickr soon.


Sunday, January 31, 2010

Fufulso Loves Football

This past fall I started a Health Club at the Junior High in my village. The headmaster and other teachers were very supportive and the students very active in the club. We spent much of last term talking about HIV and other related issues. This term, I decided we would spend more time talking about sanitation and hygiene, especially since the environmental health people were getting ready to come in for CLTS (Community Led Total Sanitation).
Well, CLTS flopped. The opinion leaders (chiefs, elders, etc) of the village were unwilling to even attend a community meeting to discuss it, even though we rescheduled multiple times to accommidate them. I'm not going to lie, I'm pretty pissed off about that. But I'm taking solace in what the students have been up to.
For our first meeting of the new term, I talked to them about how to build soak-away pits. These are pits dug behind the bathing areas (or other places where water drains) then filled with stones, which help eliminate mosquito breeding areas and disgusting stagnant water smells. The students helped me to fix my own, after which I gave them a challenge. I have a nice new Adidas soccer ball that someone sent me, and I told the students that if they built at least 30 soak-away pits, I would donate it to the school team.
Well, soccer (or football, as we call it here) is pretty much a religion in Ghana. People are especially excited right now because Ghana's Black Stars are about to go head to head with defending champions Egypt at the African Cup of Nations final, tonight at 1600 GMT. It only took the students a week and a half to get the 30 pits dug and filled with stones. If they can do thirty, why can't they do more? I therefore told them as I was giving them the football that if they reach 50 in the next couple weeks, I'll come up with something else to give them.
What I'm thinking is jerseys. Here's where you guys come in. Does anyone know of a group which would like to donate two sets of jerseys to my kids? If so, contact me via email, blog, facebook, phone, telepathy, or whatever.
That's all for now. I have to go find a good place to watch the game. Super Bowl? Who cares. Let's go Black Stars!

PS - I just uploaded a bunch of pictures from December and January to flickr -

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Welcome to 2010

A Belated Merry Christmas from Northern Ghana, where instead of snow we have dust storms; instead of stockings hung over the fireplace, we hang old socks and polytin bags over the (broken) AC unit; and instead of staying up for midnight mass, we stay up playing on a broken guitar until we hear the 4:30 call to prayer from the mosque.
Oh Peace Corps. Last year for Christmas, I was stuck at my site by myself (our Safety and Security Officer put us on Standfast - meaning don't leave site - during the holidays due to the run-off presidential election). This year, I was talked into filling in for the PCVL (the volunteer leader who takes care of the Tamale Sub Office) during the transistion period between our old and new PCVL. It was a lot of work but it sure was nice. I played Santa, with beef jerky rather than candy as stocking stuffers (we PCVs don't get a whole lot of protein). I made pancakes on Christmas morning, with nutella on top. Then I spent ten hours cooking for nine other volunteers and two visiting RPCVs. Why so long? Well, first I had to make my own cheese. Then I had to grind my own beef. Then came the pies (both pumpkin and chocolate cream), during the baking of which we ran out of propane for the oven. Thankfully, everyone around us is Muslim, so we were able to get it refilled even on Christmas Day, after which we continued the cooking. I made a killer salad (with ACTUAL LETTUCE, not cabbage), some 15-bean soup (thanks to the care package from Granny), and rounded it all out with some lasagne. It's a lot of work, but I highly recommend making your own ricotta for some lasagna some day. It was amazing. I then raised my glass to toast a successful year, and finally drank the mini bottle of Glenlivet that Erica sent to me a couple months back.
I hope you all had a Merry Christmas back home, and welcomed in the New Year in style. After Christmas, I headed down to Consuelo's site in the Nkwanta North district of the Volta Region. Looking at a map it's not that far, but it was quite an ordeal to get there. I left the office at 4.30 in the morning to catch the Metro bus to Yendi. In Yendi I had to wait several hours for the cargo lorry to fill, then road it to Bimbilla. In Bimbilla, I had to wait for the "bone shaker" to fill (a very special form of transport - an old Datsun pickup with benches in the bed under a welded on canopy), which I road as far as Damanko. Here, I crossed the river into the Volta region, and immediately upon crossing started getting harassed and swindled. I then took a taxi from Damanko to Kpassa, where I got into an argument with the taxi driver who wanted 3 cedis to drive me two miles up the road to Jumbo, Consuelo's village. I was just about ready to walk when a tro driver decided to take pity on me. He drove me there for free. Merry Christmas!
I had a wonderful time at Consuelo's eating lots of good food and catching up with a good friend. Consuelo was my neighbor during homestay but I've only seen her a couple of times since then. I stayed with her until New Year's Day, then headed back to Tamale to get started on my resolutions.
What are my resolutions this year? Well, lets see...
1) Start over with the rabbits. I got some good tips from Consuelo, whose bunny is healthy and pregnant. Hopefully I can get some good breeding stock and try again this spring.
2) Have a lovely garden. I've started composting, and the women at the roadside are helping by providing me with food scraps. Hopefully I'll have some good compost ready by the time the rains come again.
3) Become a market lady, complete with market lady hat. Handing out moringa seeds didn't really work out, so I've decided to start nursing moringa seedlings to sell in my tiny little market. They'll only be five pesawas (about three cents), but I want to sell them rather than give them away so that people will actually take care of them. My moringa trees are now way about the roof. I should have cut them back but they look so pretty.
4) Improve sanitation. A lofty goal, but that's why I'm here. Last term with the JSS Health Club, we focused on HIV/AIDS. This term (which starts mid-January), I want to focus on sanitation. To start with, I'm going give the students a challenge. I will have them help me build a new soak away pit at my house (this allows water from the bathroom to a place to soak into the ground, thereby eliminating mosquito breeding pools), then have them start building there own throughout the community. If they build X-number of pits, they'll get a new football. I've get to come up with the numbers and the prizes but the couple of students I've told are very excited about it. It'll be a good way for the students to help get the community ready to take on CLTS (Community Led Total Sanitation).
5) Keep Guinea Worm away. We may not have any active cases right now, but constant vigilance is necessary to transition from most endemic village in Ghana to recently freed. Central Gonja District is the last stronghold of Guinea Worm in Ghana and one of the last in the world, and I want it gone. Now.
6) Get going on this truck drivers' education thing. Me and Liz and Maria want to do more HIV education for the long-distance drivers who pass through our village on the main Tamale-Kumasi road. We're going to start next month by training some of the tea and kenkey sellers as peer educators.
7) Not worry so much that I'm not doing enough. I need to learn to be okay with the fact that not everything has gone as planned so far, and the idealistic plans I had when I came here just might not work out. I want to enjoy my last year in Ghana, not suffer through it.
8) Post on my blog more. Oddly, this will probably be the hardest of these resolutions to keep. But I'm gonna try.
That's all for now. Today I'm heading back to the village after a couple weeks away, and hopefully I can get cracking on a few of these. Time will tell.
Happy New Year everybody!

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Ups and Downs

One night, about two weeks ago, I was sleeping peacefully in my hammock when I suddenly woke up and realized that I was FREEZING. I got up, went inside, and curled up in bed with my two-yard as a blanket. The next morning, it was still cold (this is all relative of course – it was probably only about 65 degrees) and a haze had settled over the village. It was then that I realized – Harmattan is here. For a couple of months each year in West Africa, winds from the north bring cool nights and dry, dusty days. Though it’s a lot easier to sleep now, the dust is more than a little annoying. By the end of the day, even if I’ve done nothing but sit at the Guinea Worm center, I’m as orange as an Oompa Loompa. Then there are the itchy eyes and runny nose – a result of who-knows-what being tossed up into the air by the winds. But even with all these problems, it’s still preferable to the hot season that follows it.

I’ve just returned to Tamale from a week in Accra. The main reason for my trip was to see the PCMO for my mid-service medical exam. This is not quite as exciting as it sounds. Though the exam itself takes very little time, we have to be there for three days so that we can go poo three times. Yay, stool samples! I passed with flying colors. I also weighed myself on an accurate scale for the first time since arrival. I was 135 when I came in, and even after several days of gorging myself on the food in Accra, I was only 121 when I weighed myself on Wednesday. And here I was thinking that I had gained back all that weight I lost in January and February (I got down as low as 110 at one point, according to the shea nut scale at Zak’s place, which is probably not that accurate). No wonder my jeans are falling off. We also had to visit the dentist as part of our exam. Let’s just say that it wasn’t nearly as thorough as a dental cleaning in the U.S. But they did have free mochachinos in the lobby.

The powers that be decided to bless me with an awesome schedule for mid-service medical. I was scheduled for the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday before Thanksgiving, making it possible for me to attend the Thanksgiving festivities at the Ambassador’s Residence. This year, the Ambassador decided to extend the invitation to all volunteers, and even though they wouldn’t pay for transport or lodging, Peace Corps did set us all up with host families for Wednesday and Thursday. I stayed with a nice USAID family in a very nice house. The food at the Ambassador’s was AMAZING. In addition to twelve turkeys, there were copious amounts of mashed potatoes and gravy, carrots, green beans, salad, stuffing, and cornbread. And of course, the pies – pumpkin and pecan (thanks to the Ambassador’s wife’s foresight – she ordered pecans from Waco in September). We also had sangria in addition to the usual offerings at the bar. I somehow managed not to explode, and when I got back to the house at which I was staying, I was just in time for the family’s dinner too. I went to bed bloated and groaning, but happy as a clam.

Needless to say, it was difficult for me to get on that bus to Tamale on Friday morning. I’ve been in a “sophomore slump” of sorts. Apparently it’s not uncommon for volunteers to have existential crises around the one-year mark, but that doesn’t make it any less annoying. It just seems like I’m not getting enough done. The rabbits are dead, victims of some mysterious rabbit disease. The HIV programme for truck drivers hasn’t gotten off the ground yet for a number of reasons. And of course, there are the saboteurs. The emergency water system that UNICEF donated was finally operational for a couple of weeks when it suddenly stopped working. As it turns out, some … jerk cut the main pipe with a cutlass. This isn’t your average PVC pipe – it took effort to get through this one. There was no way it was accidental, nor could it have been a small boy or woman. I have my ideas about who it was, but lacking proof, there’s not much I can do but wait for the chiefs to find and punish the culprit. And we all know how long things take here.

Understandably, I’m pissed off. Before I left for Accra, I was a wreck. But getting away for several days, and especially, talking to other volunteers helped me to realize that even though some things are not going so well, I still have a lot of stuff that IS going well, and plans for other things to keep me occupied. First of all, there’s still no Guinea Worm in Fufulso/Junction, and only a couple of cases for the district in October (none so far for November). We’re still not in the clear yet – we have to wait until March to congratulate ourselves. But it’s looking good so far. The Health Club I started at the Junior High is going really well. We have about 35 members, and about 15-20 of those are really excited about and committed to the club. We’re working on putting together a program for World AIDS Day (December 1st), which will include a drama and HIV quiz for the rest of the students at the school. The Health Club kids wrote the drama themselves and it’s fantastic. They’re also helping with Guinea Worm case searches and I have some other ideas for how they can help me with educating the rest of the community on different health issues. The moringa trees that I planted in April are now taller than the house (at least on one side of the house – on the other side some kids destroyed the fences and the seedlings got chopped by goats). My plan is to start a compost heap now so that by the time the rains come again, I can take down the moringa fences and make a vegetable garden around the trees. I’m thinking tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, green beans, squash, and carrots. I’m getting hungry just thinking about it.

Getting down to Accra made me realize how badly I need a proper vacation. Since it’s really expensive to fly to America, it’s looking like I might hop up to Europe for the first couple weeks of February. Plans are still in the works for that. I know – I’m going to freeze. But at least I won’t be melting for a couple of weeks.

Anyway, I think that’s all I’ve got to say right now. I just posted some pictures on flickr, including Halloween and Thanksgiving pictures, and some cute shots of adorable African children. See them here –

I hope you all enjoyed your Thanksgiving and have a great Holiday Season.


Sunday, September 27, 2009

My, how time flies when you're having fun...

One year ago today, I walked into the lobby of a Sheraton hotel in Philadelphia, ready to start the next adventure. Here I am, still in Ghana a year later and wondering how the time went by so quickly. I’m sorry to my friends and family back home – I’ve been SO bad about keeping yall up to date on what’s going on in my little village in the Northern Region. But consider this – I went on the BBC website yesterday to read the news and I didn’t understand a damn thing. It was all gibberish to me. I’ve missed so much that I don’t know what the heck is going on anymore. But it’s been worth it to disconnect for a while. I’ve gotten to the point where, when I travel out of my little powerless, (semi!) waterless, toiletless village, I find myself itching to get back.
But enough reflecting. You want to know what’s going on in Fufulso/Junction.
First. The rabbits. Or I should say rabbit. I was finally able to get some bunnies from a friend of Maria’s in her village. Unfortunately, about a week after I bought the two girls and one boy, two of them got sick and died. So as of right now I only have one girl bunny. And bunnies have a strange way of not reproducing on their own. I’m planning on getting some more but I keep getting distracted.
UNICEF’s emergency water treatment plant that they decided to send to my village is officially up and running, though no one is using it yet. It’s still the rainy season, so people have rainwater in their houses and aren’t fetching yet. We’re prepping people to start fetching from the system though. Hopefully they will. I tasted some of the water out of the tap. It’s nice. It’s amazing how a simple filtration system can make 2800 g/mL of fecal colliform just disappear.
The guinea worm mural is also finally happening. It only took 4 months, but I finally got the money from the Carter Center to buy the paints for the project. One of the teachers from the primary school is a pretty good artist and has volunteered to help me. And the Junction chief is letting us paint it on the side of his house. Of course, this means we’ll probably have to paint one at the Fufulso chief’s house too, but we’ve got plenty of paint for now.
The last couple months have been really hard for me. I haven’t been able to get a lot of work done. First of all, it’s rainy season. That means lots of rain. And when there’s rain, it’s time to farm. Even if I wanted to get stuff done, most of the people in my village are spending every daylight hour at their farms. I helped with my landlord’s groundnut harvesting, but other than that I’m pretty useless on a farm. School is also on break, so I can’t do anything there. Then there was Ramadan, which lasted until about a week ago, meaning everyone was exhausted during the day and no one really wanted to do anything. On top of all that, I was traveling a lot this summer due to helping with the pre-service training for the new group of volunteers that arrived in June. Then, after swearing-in, one of the new volunteers came to stay with me for a while. Turns out he was allergic to the house he was supposed to live in (specifically to the bat shit seeping through the ceiling and down the walls due to an extreme infestation of bats and the fact that the house had been empty for nine months) and Peace Corps was trying to find out what to do with him. So instead of staying in Accra, he came and hung out up here. They wanted to put him in a village near me that needs a volunteer, but the house they wanted him to stay in there had had bats at some point and there was a little bit of residual poo making his eyes itch, so they had to ditch that idea. It was fun to have another American to hang out with for a while and I was sad to see him go after three weeks at my site. Especially since they decided to transfer him out of Ghana. He left on Tuesday for his new home. Jamaica. That’s right, his new country is Jamaica. And his site is ON THE BEACH. I’m not going to lie, I’m kinda jealous. I also don’t know what to do with myself now that I’m alone again.
I’ve been in Kumasi for the past week for a PEPFAR (President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) conference. It’s given me a lot of ideas for projects to keep myself busy. The biggest is a series of programs I want to put together with the District Health Management Team to target the long-distance truck drivers. As you may recall, my village lies at a major junction on the “highway” between Kumasi and Tamale, the main route for drivers heading north to Burkina Faso. A lot of drivers pass the night at the roadside in my village, and like many young men, they like to … have fun before they move on. The idea would be to train the tea sellers who work the roadside at night as peer educators, maybe even getting them to start selling condoms at their tea stands (since the pharmacies are not open at night for them to buy condoms), then have a weekly educational program on HIV/AIDS, possibly even getting the nurses involved so we can do VCT (Voluntary Testing and Counseling). It’s not like we can tell them, “Hey, come get tested tomorrow!” They’ll be gone by morning. Anyway, it’s going to be a lot of work to get this project rolling. But I think Liz (the new volunteer in Yapei, my market town) and Maria are on board to help.
That’s about it for now. Let me end on a humorous note by saying that watching my 50-something-year-old Ghanaian housewife counterpart learn how to demonstrate how to use a female condom was definitely the highlight of the PEPFAR conference.

PS - I'm thinking about the future. Would I sorta count as a grad student if I went back for another bachelors then a masters? Thinking about following in Kimmie's (and Mom and Dad and Linda) footsteps and going to nursing school. And the best nursing school in the country just so happens to be in the city in which I want to live and has a graduate entry program...