Nyekornakpoe is a small village of around 250 inhabitants located about 1 kilometer before my village, Abutia Teti. In Ewe, Nyekornakpoe roughly translates to turn and look. As you speed down the road in a taxi to my village you really have to quickly turn your head and look for Nyekornakpoe or you will miss it. The Ghana WASH project has provided Nyekornakpoe with about a dozen household latrines, which have catered to a large part of the community. However, not everyone has benefited from the latrines, because they are only partially subsidized – the beneficiary still foots 60% of the cost of their latrine. Since each latrine can cost almost 1,000 cedis, or about $500, the poorest community members often cannot afford to work with Ghana WASH project to build a latrine.
In Nyekornakpoe I identified a household that was in dire need of a latrine. Just outside of the house people regularly defecate out in the open because they don’t have any other place to go. The house belongs to an old man who wanted to partake in the project, but could not due to a lack of money. I could tell he understood the importance of owning a household latrine, so I spoke to the director of my local NGO, EDSAM, to see how we could get a latrine for him. After some brainstorming, we were able to scrounge up some extra materials in the form of sand, concrete blocks, and labor for the old man. This meant the old man only had to provide about 25% of the cost of his latrine by digging his pit and proving water and stone chippings.
Despite this, the old man still had difficulty providing for his latrine. Perhaps the most difficult part was digging the pit for his latrine. The two options are to perform the backbreaking work yourself or pay a laborer to do it for around 150 cedis. Since he doesn’t have any money, the old man chose the former. After he dug the pit he said sarcastically, or maybe not, the pit should instead be for his grave rather than his latrine.
The old man proudly standing in front of his completed household latrine.
Eventually we finished constructing his latrine and now he and his family have a place to relieve themselves. Through this experience I learned how people are truly suffering because of their poverty. Through the Ghana WASH project we’ve build a number of latrines for people who don’t really need them, such as Government officials, village chiefs, and people who already have WCs in their houses. However, the old man is someone who desperately needed a latrine and I’m happy we had the opportunity to provide him one.
In honor of my 50th post on this blog, I recently sat down and wrote 50 random things I’ve learned from Ghana.
- Always greet.
- Unless you are going to the restroom or throwing something away
- Different greetings in Ewe literally translate to, “Did you wake up?” and “Are you alive?”
- Utensils are very optional, even when eating rice.
- And when eating with your hands only use your right.
- You drink, not eat oatmeal.
- Therefore, oatmeal is a substitute for tea. Seriously, don’t order both oatmeal and tea for breakfast.
- Everything can be carried on your head, including machetes and chainsaws.
- A man’s primary responsibility in a household is to produce children.
- Women mostly take care of everything else, including cooking, cleaning, paying school fees, etc.
- Health insurance cost about 7 bucks a year.
- I can get a fully tailored suit for 70 bucks.
- Ghanaians are crazy about their national football team, the Black Stars, and always remind me they beat the U.S. in the past two World Cups.
- Stone chippings are valuable, so people spend hours cracking stones.
- A simple construction project often takes decades to complete.
- Ghana has an abundance of cocoa, yet it is a chocolate wasteland.
- There are two main seasons in Ghana: rainy season and dry (hot) season.
- But my favorite season is “mango season”.
- Oranges are peeled with a knife.
- They are eaten by cutting the top off and squeezing the juice into your mouth.
- Spiders are your friend.
- Mosquitoes are your enemy.
- In fact, every illness is attributed to malaria.
- Insects are edible.
- The only critter you should be really scared of is a snake.
- Many people think washing your hands after eating is more important than before.
- You cook sitting down.
- It’s acceptable to throw your trash anywhere, especially the bush.
- The “bush” is any part of outside of town where nobody lives.
- It’s not rude to call someone “old man”, “white man”, “black man”, etc.
- AVA is a global phenomenon.
- I really miss washing machines.
- I can make small children cry on command just by being white.
- Prepaid phone plans are great!
- Electricity typically goes off everyday.
- A drinking bar is called a spot.
- A restaurant is called a chop bar.
- Obama has his own food line.
- And clothing line (Obama underwear. Sorry no photos).
- Due to inflation, the decimal point on the Ghana cedi was moved 4 places to the left a few years ago.
- Many people have yet to adjust, and as a result, 1 (new) cedi is still referred to 10,000 (old) cedis.
- Transportation costs have increased 50% since I’ve been in Ghana.
- A taxi isn’t full unless you have 4 people in the back and possible 2 in the passenger seat.
- Checkers is called draft.
- Underwear is called pants and pants are called trousers.
- The same can be said about coffee.
- Make sure you finish your run by 7am or the sun will beat you.
- There are plenty of people in senior high school that are older than me.
- Few people know the difference between Europe and America.
- Despite and because of all these, I love Ghana.
This is a guest post from my parents, Alan and Linda, who visited me in Ghana this summer. It was interesting for me to get a different perspective of Ghana after living here for a year and a half.
I have a lot of memories of my trip to Ghana this summer. And we were lucky to see what Ryan has been experiencing since arriving here. One of the most interesting things for me to see was the way the people can carry most anything on top of their heads. On the streets, in the city and the villages, people are everywhere selling their goods off the top of their heads. They can balance heavy items, flat, square or even lopsided things. They can even run or bend down with whatever is on top of their heads. These women are selling items to people passing in cars. It’s the ultimate drive thru.
These women are at a market and they didn’t appreciate us taking pictures. But you can see the ability to balance so much on their heads is amazing. And their posture is perfect.
On the first night we were in Ryan’s village, we needed to purchase a case of soda. The soda was part of our gift we gave to the clan leaders of Ryan’s village at a formal greeting the following morning at 6:00 am. That’s another blog post. This case of 24 soda bottles in a plastic crate was no problem for Ryan’s cook, Beatrice, to put on top of her head and carry through the village, on an uneven road, parts up hill, and almost 9 months pregnant!
And there are a lot of babies in Ghana and no strollers. So in addition to carrying all things on their heads, the women also carry their babies on their backs.
Not just the women carry things on their heads either. We came across this man, with machete in hand, carrying a huge piece of wood. I know it looks photoshopped, but it’s not.
It was interesting to see how Ryan has adapted to the way of life in Ghana. But the time we were with him, he never attempted to carry anything on his head.
During the past month I’ve had houseguests. My housemate’s sister and her six children ranging from elementary school to high school age are here from Togo. The children are on break from school until October so most of the family decided to spend their vacation at my house. In general I don’t mind them being here. I find it interesting that they treat me like the guest in my own house. They wash my clothes, cook, and clean my dishes for me. I especially appreciate the washing clothes part. This saves me hours of my time and they do a better job hand washing than I do.
Having them in the house forces me to practice my Ewe. In Togo Ewe is the dominant tribal language and French is their colonial language. As a result my Togolese guests don’t speak any English. So to communicate I have to rely on my Ewe and one semester of beginner French. To make things more complicated the Togolese dialect of Ewe is different than the Ghanaian dialect. For example, the way you welcome someone back to the house is different. It sounds like a random example to use, but in Ghanaian/Togolese culture it’s a phrase that is used dozens of times a day. Even the word for bread is different (abolo in Ghana versus akpono in Togo). If I butchered the spellings, sorry to all of my readers who are Ewe experts.
Just a few of the kids from Togo.
Six extra kids running around the house can be entertaining at first. But after a month it gets old. Staying at someone’s house for a month in America is a long time. Too long in fact, you would probably be kicked out by then. But in Ghana, it’s almost expected. When you travel and stay over for only a few days, you will be asked why you are leaving already. People truly have a different sense of time here. Nonetheless, I’m still American so I’ve been getting a little annoyed with my houseguests lately. I’m starting to think teaching the kids how to play Uno was a bad idea. Now every night is Uno night. However, after learning that Togo is the least happy place on Earth, perhaps I can let them stay. That is, if they wash my clothes for another week.
As my Peace Corps service is dwindling to a close I am forced to face the question of what to do after Peace Corps. Before I look into the future, I think it is best to first look into the past.
When I graduated from college I had no idea what I wanted to do. The U.S. was in a recession at the time so I jumped on the first job offer I got, to join SPAWAR Systems Center as an electronic engineer in their New Professional rotational program. For my first rotation I worked with underwater low probability of detection signals. Although the work was intellectually stimulating, it involved little human interaction. In fact, there were days were the only person I would interact with at work was my supervisor. For my second rotation I joined the cost estimating division. I enjoyed working there because it connected my interest in both engineering and business. However, I always felt I was not as polished on the business side as I could have been.
So why join the Peace Corps? After studying abroad in Sweden during my senior year of college I’ve always had an itch to live and work abroad. I wanted to live in another culture and learn a new language and the Peace Corps provided me with the best opportunity to do both of these things. Perhaps my biggest takeaway from the Peace Corps so far is my interactions with the people. For example, I am working with an NGO to build partially subsidized household latrines (both the NGO and beneficiary contribute towards the construction of the latrine). This requires me to manage over 20 latrine artisans and 460 latrine beneficiaries to construct the latrines. Through this experience I learned that managing people is one of the most challenging, yet rewarding, things to do in the world.
After reflecting on my professional experiences I’ve decided that obtaining an MBA is the best next step for me after the Peace Corps. At SPAWAR I enjoyed working at the intersection of technology and business, but I realized I lacked business acumen that comes with a business education. Then in Ghana I discovered that I enjoy managing people, but it is a skill that requires developing. I’d like to focus on global management at a top MBA program. Not only will I gain fundamental business skills in finance, accounting, and operations that I lack coming from an engineering background, but I will also become a better leader through project work and classroom learning. Furthermore, I want to go to program that will broaden my international experience through a global consulting project, such as MIT Sloan’s G-Lab. I’m confident an MBA will help me develop my business and management skills and provide me with opportunities to continue working internationally.
Joining Good News choir was the easy part. Actually singing is the challenge. First, other than a pass/fail Gospel Choir course I took in college, I have no singing experience. I don’t even sing in the shower. However, one thing I learned in my Gospel Choir course is that it is really easy to blend into the crowd, so as long as I don’t have any solos I should be okay. Second, I didn’t know any of the songs and they are all in Ewe, making for a very steep learning curve. So I bought a song book and a few CDs and tried to learn the songs.
We practice three times a week: Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Recently we’ve been combining practice with Church Choir and have invited a choirmaster to come lead the practices. This has helped me, because the practices are more organized and focused on one or two songs.
On Sunday Good News Choir held a ceremony for the donning of our choir robes. Wearing the robes is a big deal for the choir and the church as a whole. In fact, many people came to the ceremony, including the Abutia paramount chief and professionals who are from Abutia, but live outside the community. Someone made a very generous donation to purchase the robes. Each robe costs 100 Ghana Cedis and we bought about 30 of them. The women’s robes look like graduation gowns, because of the graduation type cap they wear and the men’s robes look like judge robes. Many people said I look good in a robe, so maybe I’ll consider a career as a judge.
My choir putting on the robes for the first time.
I’m very happy with my decision to become a member of Abutia Teti E.P. church and Good News choir. It’s typical for Peace Corps volunteers to stay away from churches for different reasons and I might be the only one to have joined a choir. However, being part of a group with so much tradition that many people in the community care about makes me feel part of my community.
Good News Choir after the robe ceremony.
Maybe I’ll go for a career as a judge after the Peace Corps.
Ever since I arrived in my community almost 16 months ago, I’ve made an effort to attend church every Sunday. Not only does it help my language skills (most services are conducted in Ewe) and help me meet new people, but it also demonstrates to the people in my community that I am interested in their way of life. As I mentioned in a previous post there are 14 churches in my community of 4,000+ people, so it was a bit tricky deciding on one to attend regularly, especially since every church wants to be that one church the white person is attending.
After attending a half dozen churches I settled on the Evangelical Presbyterian (E.P.) church in my community. A huge factor in this decision was the music/worship. Almost every church I’ve attended in Ghana worships by playing the same beat on westernized instruments (usually drums and bass guitar) with death metal like “singing” into a filtered microphone. Moreover, the volume is typically increased to an obnoxious level, making the “music” unbearable to listen to. However, music in the E.P. church is different. They literally don’t use anything modern, just good old fashion instruments – African drums, cowbells, shakers and sticks. The music they make is soothing and it even makes 5-hour church sessions almost bearable.
Good News Choir drumming.
In my church, Abutia Teti E.P. church, there are a number of groups referred to as “choirs” that make music and sing during church service. Some of the choirs are Church Choir, Good News Choir, Great Choir, Israel Group and C.Y.B. (Church Youth Band). During the course of a church service each choir, which sits together, sings a few songs. You might think that there would be some form of competition between the choirs. However, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. It’s common for one choir to drum for another choir during its time to sing and some choirs even practice together!
The choirs are almost like clubs or church groups, as they do much more than singing and making music. Choir members fellowship with one another, work odd jobs to raise money for the choir’s bank account and attend church rallies together. So, naturally, once I decided to regularly attend Abutia Teti E.P. church, I then had to decide which choir to join. Fortunately, my decision was somewhat easy to make, because my barber is the leader of Good News Choir and they were accepting new members. So I joined Good News Choir.