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...

Monday, July 13, 2009

President Obama's shout-out to Peace Corps Ghana

This week was one of those weeks that reminded me how lucky I am. I'm down in Kukurantumi helping out with the training for the new group of Peace Corps volunteers who arrived the first week of June. My time on duty right now just so happened to coincide with President Obama's visit to Ghana. I didn't think we (the Peace Corps) would get to do anything with the President, considering how tight his schedule was for this visit. But three days before he arrived, as I was on my way south for my last round of training duties, I got a very exciting message -
"Peace Corps volunteers will have the opportunity to attend the departure ceremony for President Obama in Accra on Saturday." Wow.
I wasn't expecting much. We are after all just volunteers. There was no way we were going to get special treatment at such an event. But as we discovered when we arrived at the Airport was there was a special standing section for Peace Corps volunteers and other important people (ie - Embassy staff etc) just a few yards away from the podium upon which President Obama would speak. Double Wow. We ARE special.
I thought that would be the end of the specialness. I was wrong. Here is a short excerpt from his short speech to the crowd gathered to see him off...
I want to recognize our Peace Corps volunteers who are here. (Applause.) You know, Ghana was the very first nation to host young people from the Peace Corps. And for decades, our two nations have formed vital partnerships and lasting friendships because of this program. So all of you in the Peace Corps, you are doing an outstanding job and we're proud of you. (Applause.)
(the whole speech, both President Atta Mills and President Obama's can be found at
The part where it says (Applause) is a gross understatement. We went crazy. If you read the whole speech, you'll discover that not only did Peace Corps Ghana get a shout-out from the President, but we were thanked for our service directly after the country of Ghana and President Atta Mills.
And it gets better still. After the speeches were over and the national anthems sung, Obama got down and came to shake our hands. I wasn't able to push my way to the railing to get a handshake, but I did get one from Mrs. Obama. Triple Wow.
So thank you, President Obama. Thank you thank you thank you. I feel loved.
I'll put up some pics on flickr later on. I don't have my laptop with me to transfer them.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Be very quiet, I'm hunting wabbits

That's right. I'm on the lookout for a couple mama rabbits and a daddy rabbit to start my rabbit colony in Fufulso. This was a decision I made just a few weeks ago at our In-Service Training. Someone was talking about raising rabbits as an alternative livelihood project. You see, rabbits breed quickly, are very tasty and nutritious, and sell for a relatively good price of six Ghana cedis (about $4) a piece. I'm going to start experimenting with raising some at Madam Hawa's house and if they thrive, I'll start trying to get some of the people in my village interested in trying it too.
I've got a lot of plans like this in the works right now. The Guinea worm cases are finally slowing (we've only had 15 cases so far for April), so I finally have time to do and think about other things. Some of these other things are...
1) Planting moringa seedlings and promoting them in town
2) Painting murals for both Guinea Worm and HIV/AIDS awareness
3) Starting a student health club
4) Meeting with the District Assembly (once they finally get decide upon a new District Chief Executive for the new administration) to find out how I can help with any district health or WATSAN initiatives.
5) Promoting rainwater harvesting and improving harvesting capabilities at various places in the village
6) Finish my GPS mapping of the village
7) Community Led Total Sanitation - aka, promoting and helping with the construction of household latrines and soak-away pits (to get rid of mosquito breeding grounds)
And on and on.
It seems I have a lot on my plate. Yet somehow, I don't really feel like I'm doing much right now. Part of that is the rains are starting to come small small, so people are starting to go to farm all day, making it difficult to get people to come to meetings and help with other projects. But it's nice to have a bit of a break. Last month, I was able to do a little traveling. I had to go to Accra for medical, then a planning meeting for the upcoming PST, then WATSAN IST in Kumasi, with a couple of days at the beach in there somewhere. Check out flickr for pictures of me bodysurfing and looking like a badass in a matching outfit with my counterpart.
I'm hoping that I'll be able to get at least a few of these projects off the ground before the newbies come in June. I just found out on Thursday that I'm going to be one of the trainers for the new group, so I'll be going down to Kukurantumi quite a bit in the next few months. My friend Alice is also studying abroad in Accra this summer and planning to come to my site for the first couple weeks of August. And some cousins are going to be in country at some point as well. So yeah, I'm going to be busy busy busy. But that's a helluva lot better than bored bored bored.
Leopold is nice and healthy, though he fails at catching the mouse in my kitchen. Maybe I should feed him less.
Life, in general, is good these days. I can finally sleep inside again (sometimes), though chilling in my hammock just before bed is still my favorite part of the day.
Okay, I'm heading back to the village now. Check out the photos (

Friday, March 06, 2009

New pictures

I posted some new pictures on flickr today.
I'll update the blog for real on Sunday afternoon.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Jabiru saves the day

In my last entry, I mentioned a little boy named Jabiru. The other Guinea Worm workers jokingly refer to him as my little husband, because I’m always asking about him and making sure he gets toffees when he comes to be bandaged.
Well, when I returned from my weekend in Tamale, I was happy to learn that both of Jabiru’s worms are now completely out and the sores are healing well. He is so much happier now that the excruciating pain is over.
What I didn’t expect was what happened yesterday. As I was returning to my house from yet another trip to the school latrine, I heard someone yell, “MANTENSO!” (that’s my Ghanaian name). I looked up and saw Jabiru, running full tilt towards me across the football pitch. This little boy, who last week couldn’t walk because of the pain, was running again. And quickly. I took him to the house and gave him a lollipop and a bouncy ball.
So even though I’m suffering from a major case of the runs and am still without a latrine, I can’t ignore that I’m part of something amazing. We’re so close to eradicating Guinea Worm, not only in this country but in the world. Hopefully this is the last time Jabiru, and all the other small children in my village, will have to deal with Guinea Worm.
Okay, off to find the masons, who are dodging me instead of working on my shitter.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The latest from Fufulso/Junction

I’ve been sitting at the computer for a few hours now, trying to figure out a way to convey to you some of what I’ve been going through in the last two months in one short blog entry. I’ve decided it’s impossible. So I’ll tell a few stories and leave it up to you to come visit and see for yourself what it’s like to live in a rural Ghanaian village.
I arrived at the Tamale Sub Office (TSO) yesterday morning. I haven’t taken a day off in over a month (day off in this sense meaning getting out of the village, because even if I’m just at the house reading, I’m not relaxing, because there’s always something going on around me). In order to preserve my mental health, I decided to come here for the weekend, to spend some quality time with electricity, toilets, showers, and other things I don’t have at my site. I splurged on some cheddar (a small piece was 9 ghana cedies – more than my 6 ghana cedi daily pay) and made some chicken fajitas and jollof rice for dinner. It was just me and Mike (filling in for Allison as PCVL for the weekend – she’s at one of the ISTs). After dinner, I browsed through the library and found a collection of Hemingway stories. What a way to spend the day. 24 hours later, I am feeling so much better. I’ve been under way too much stress, so taking a day for myself was amazing. And I have another 24 hours before I’m supposed to go back to site, so I’m going to live it up (and post some pictures and words, of course).
The major reason for my stress is Guinea Worm. Fufulso/Junction is still leading the country with the highest number of active cases. When I left on Saturday, we had 25 cases for February so far. It’s not a pleasant disease. Because we’re leading the country, the Carter Center and the Ghana Guinea Worm Eradication Program (GWEP) are throwing a lot of resources our way. This includes 1) a “stop team” – five guys who have come to stay in the village and help with the daily activities that are needed to stop the current outbreak from causing the disease to spread. The team is living in my compound, which makes for a much louder, busier environment for me 2) a treatment center, consisting of a couple of large tents, lots of bandages and antiseptic, and one awesome technical advisor, Mr. S.S. (he won’t tell me what the S.S. stands for – he says it’s his secret name). 3) Weekly nighttime case searches, conducted by me, the stop team, community health nurses from the clinic in Yapei, and whoever comes down from the GWEP office in Tamale. 4) New dam guards, to ensure the women filter not only in their homes but also at the waterside when they fetch. 5) Lots of education – at the schools, in the homes, and at big events, like the huge concert/drama thing we had this Friday. 6) And on and on.
Because of all this, just about every day is spent doing something Guinea Worm related. I’m glad to be doing so much in a way, because I can say that I’m part of something historical – we’re very close to eliminating Guinea Worm not just in Ghana but in the world, and it’s not everyday that a disease gets eradicated. But at the same time, the constant work is really starting to wear on me. I’ve been having trouble sleeping (lots of work and emotional stress + really really hot nights + cultural adaptations = sleepless nights). And while I like going to help at the treatment center, it’s very depressing to walk into the tent and see every bench full of small children suffering from Guinea Worm at various stages. There’s one little boy that I’ve become rather attached to.

His name is Jabiru. He’s three years old and has a Guinea Worm coming out of each foot. Sometimes it’s takes several of us to hold him still to change his bandages. I usually give him toffees if he’s a good boy while we’re dressing his wounds, but sometimes even that doesn’t help. Like earlier this week, when he bit me while I was holding him still for bandaging. If you have a strong stomach, check out the pictures I’m posting on flickr today. It’s going to be difficult getting rid of GW completely for us, as we have no safe water source. Dam water is notoriously unhealthy - not only does it harbor GW, but lots of fecal mater ends up in the water, thanks to the cattle and donkeys and free-ranging small boys. Because our village sits smack dab on the water divide, drilling boreholes isn’t a realistic option. All their attempts (including one as recent as this month) have come up dry. The White Volta is only 4 miles or so away as the crow flies, but politics and economics mean that we’re not going to be getting water piped in from there anytime soon (just like the lights – power poles arrived three days before the election, but not a single line has arrived since then). That leaves us with a few hand-dug wells and a handful of primitive rainwater collections systems. But these are all part of why I’m here – to work with the village to either solve these problems or find a way to live with them.
On a more positive note, the latrine is finally under construction. John (my Peace Corps boss) came for a site visit last Saturday and ripped my landlord a new one for not having already completed the project. So hopefully by this time next week I’ll have somewhere to poop that’s not a six-minute walk from my house (and more importantly, is accessible at night). I also managed to get rid of the river of sewage flowing outside my bedroom window. All the way from the compound drains from one hole (bathwater, dishwater, wash water….) and it makes quite a smell mess. So we used the broken pots from our ceramic filter distribution (UNICEF donated a ceramic filter for every household in the village) to make a soak-away pit. You dig a hole where the water drains, put rocks (or in this case, ceramic pieces) in the hole, cover with a screen or sheet metal and cover with dirt. The water goes in the hole and the rocks/ceramic shards help the water soak into the ground in a much cleaner manner. Not only does this help with the smell, but it also means that you’ve eliminated another mosquito breeding ground. Score one for the community health volunteer.
And joy of joys, my kitchen is finally operational. I broke down and bought a three-burner gas stove (it runs on a propane cylinder). Though initially expensive, in the long run it’s cheaper than charcoal, as it only costs about 5 ghana cedis to refill the cylinder. And it’s a lot cleaner and easier to cook on. I had the carpenter build me a table and some shelves, and except for the lack of oven, my kitchen is complete. Cooking has been a major stress release for me these last few weeks and the stop team guys really like my cooking (we’ve all decided that the landlord’s wife is a terrible cook, so the guys buy me ingredients and I cook for them as well a lot of the time). Leopold the cat has also helped keep me from going insane. She’s getting big, mostly because I give her a lot of fish to eat. She still likes to cuddle, sleeping in my lap as I’m reading in my hammock and curling up at my feet when I go to sleep at night. I don’t know what I’ll do with her when I have to go back to America but luckily I don’t have to think about that for quite a while.
Thank you to everyone who has/is sending me care packages. You can’t imagine how it helps to get stuff from home, even if it’s something as simple as a Texas Monthly magazine or a roll of Charmin (note – we do have toilet paper her, and I can even get it in my village. It’s just not very high quality). I like letters too and though it might take me a while to respond, I will reply.
And a note on communications. If you’re calling me through Skype, I have my skype account forwarded to my Ghanaian cell phone. If it’s not going through, it’s usually because our cell network frequently goes down for hours at a time. That and I have to send my phone out for charging. So if you don’t get me, just keep trying. Eventually you’ll get through. And when you do, I guarantee it will make my day.
Okay, I think I’m going to stop here. I want to go to the market so I can make something tasty for dinner, since I have access to an oven here. Until next time…

Saturday, January 10, 2009

A quick update

Christmas was surprisingly great - my landlord slaughtered a goat and we had a feast. New Years was uneventful. I was stuck at my site for both holidays due to the presidental election run-off in Ghana. C'est la vie.
My village is currently in the lead as far as the number of Guinea Worm cases reported for 2009. That's not a designation we want. I've therefore been keeping busy doing filter inspections, case searches, and am getting ready to do some educational programs at the schools once the students return. We had a football match yesterday with Guinea Worm question and answer afterwards. Both chiefs came and even sat next to each other - an historic moment for Fufulso-Junction.
I still don't have a latrine, a situation which is particularly annoying on days when I want to do nothing but spend the day inside of one. They keep saying the mason is coming to finish it soon. But lord only knows when it will actually happen.
Getting a dog was vetoed by my landlord, who fears them. A girl tried to get me to buy a baby deer, but I saw potential problems with such a pet. So I bought a kitty instead. I named her Leopold. Yes, it's a her. I came up with the perfect cat name, not taking into account that it might be a girl. I couldn't think of another name though. So Leopold it is.
So much has happened in the last month but I don't have time to talk about it now. I uploaded some pictures to flickr, so check them out.