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.
Two weeks ago I volunteered at the Volta Regional Spelling Bee in Ho. Each region in Ghana, except the Western and Upper West regions, has a regional spelling bee. After the dust settles the top spellers from each region compete in the Ghana National Spelling Bee in Accra. The winner in Accra will represent Ghana at the 86th Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington D.C. (not sure why it’s called “national” when there are foreign countries competing). In fact, last year the top Ghanaian speller came from the Volta Region and won himself a trip Washington D.C.
When I agreed to volunteer, it wasn’t very clear what I was going to do. I don’t have any experience with spelling bees besides elementary school class competitions and being disappointed by ESPN televising the Scripps National Spelling Bee instead of an actual sport. At the event I was thrust in being a word recorder. My job was to transcribe each contestant’s spelling of the word, mark whether the contestant asked for any hints (part of speech, definition, use in a sentence, etc.), and mark whether the contestant got the word right. I was surprised that the spelling bee coordinators entrusted this job to a random Joe off the streets who has no experience with spelling bees. Though, on the other hand, many Peace Corps volunteers have worked with the spelling bee before, so I supposed I wasn’t just any random Joe.
You could cut the tension with a knife.
Coming into the spelling bee I thought it would be a grueling event comprised of many rounds. However, after the first round exactly half of the spellers were eliminated. We started with 52 and by round two we were left with 26. The words get more difficult after each round and it showed during round two. After two rounds, only five spellers remained. Since the Volta region could send at most six spellers to the national competition, the spelling bee ended after only two rounds and the five remaining spellers were invited to Accra for a chance to represent Ghana in the Scripps International Spelling Bee in Washington D.C.
The top 5 spellers from the Volta Region. They will be competing in Accra in February.
The spelling bee is a great opportunity for children living in rural villages. It provides them with a fun way to learn English and gives them the opportunity to compete in regional capitals and potentially Accra. Most village children never get the opportunity to visit a large city. Hopefully I can get the schools in my village interested in the spelling bee so next year I’ll be talking about how students from Abutia Teti competed in the Regional Spelling Bee.
Last week I attended In-Service Training (IST) in Kumasi with the group of health WATSAN Peace Corps Volunteers I entered Ghana with in February. IST is mandatory training that each volunteer must attend after living in his or her villages for the first three months. Each volunteer brought his or her community counterpart to IST. Bringing our counterparts allowed us to educate them on what the Peace Corps is and how the Peace Corps operates. I was grateful for this opportunity, because hadn’t worked very closely with my counterpart before IST so I wanted the chance to form a closer relationship with him.
Sitting with my counterpart during session.
During the first three months we weren’t allowed to do much travelling and are discouraged from started big projects in our communities. So IST marks a milestone in a volunteer’s service where the reigns are removed and the volunteer is free to travel and start community work. During my first three months at my village I did some projects with Ghana WASH through my NGO. However, now I think I’m ready to initiate some projects on my own. During the training we learned about the types of grants available for volunteers and how to apply for them. I definitely came away from IST more motivated and with project ideas for my village.
All of the volunteers with their counterparts.
On Thursday during IST we visited KITA (Kumasi Institute of Tropical Agriculture), an organization that farms everything from mushrooms to fish. Although we aren’t agriculture volunteers, it was still interesting to learn about bee keeping and rabbit rearing. Plus, these are some projects we can bring back to our villages to generate income for people.
Did I mention they have ostrich rearing at KITA?
A couple months ago Peace Corps Ghana moved offices in Accra, Ghana’s capital city. I haven’t been to Accra since my first week in Ghana, so after the IST, I travelled down to Accra to check out the new office. After spending most of my time here in villages, Accra seemed very westernized and luxurious. It was quite unusual to see stop lights everywhere while driving on two-lane roads. There is even a small mall with a grocery store and theater. On Saturday night a group of us saw the new Batman movie. The theater is like any normal theater in the Unites States, so it was nice to pretend I was in America for a few hours.
Part of the “software” portion of the Ghana WASH project took me and a few of my colleagues to a Primary School (Elementary 1st – 6th grade) and a Junior High School (JHS). Ghana WASH built latrines for these two schools a few years ago. In exchange for the latrines, the schools have agreed to teach regular health lessons to the students and keep the latrines properly maintained. Our job was to evaluate how well these schools implementing the health lessons and maintaining the latrines.
Inspecting the latrines.
One of the schools we visited was Tsito E.P. Primary, a Presbyterian Elementary school. When we arrived with met with the SHEP (School Health Education Program) Coordinator. The SHEP Coordinator is one of the teachers at the school who is in charge of everything that includes health education – from health lessons to after school health clubs. SHEP is a program started by the Government of Ghana a few years ago, so every school is “supposed” to have a SHEP Coordinator.
After meeting with the SHEP Coordinator, we patrolled the campus. First, we looked at the latrines, which were very clean because the students clean them five days a week. Then during break we got to interview the students. We observed their general hygiene and also quizzed them to see if they have learned anything from the health lessons they have been receiving. Our criteria for having good hygiene is clean nails, a full head of hair (ring worm is rampant here; I’d say 1 out of every 10 kids has it on their head), a personal handkerchief, and a cup for drinking water.
Inspecting the children’s fingernails.
I’d say about half the children I evaluated passed the test. Since the children love to swarm around any person who is white, this also provided a good opportunity for some impromptu health lessons.
The rest of the month is looking like it’s going to be rather busy. I have a couple of workshops I need to attend, I’m teaching a computer course to the staff of my NGO, and the construction of latrines is about to get underway in four communities. At least I’ll have plenty to blog about.
The first couple of weeks living at my site, Abutia Teti, have been both exciting and challenging. So far the Peace Corps hasn’t been a two-year vacation. I’ve been very busy working with my Local NGO, which has been subcontracted by Relief International to implement the Ghana WASH (Water and Sanitation Hygiene) project. In short, Ghana WASH is split up into “hardware” and “software” portions (I knew this engineering thing would come in handy eventually).
The main goal of the hardware portion is to work in communities to end open-defecation by subsidizing the materials to build household latrines for anyone who wants one in the community. However, there is long and sometimes complicated process to this. First, we introduce the project to the chief and elders of the community. Next, we create a water and sanitation profile of the community. Then we “convince” the community that they need to defecation in latrines, not out in the open (this step deserves a whole blog post on its own). After people agree that they need to build latrines, they must produce some of the materials (such as sand, stones, etc.) themselves, while local artisans trained by us produce the rest (bricks, roofing sheets, etc). Finally after the latrines are built, we ensure that they are properly operated and maintained.
The main goal of software portion is to ensure that community water and sanitation facilities have continued use and function. We plan to accomplish this by working with the Water and Sanitation (WATSAN) committee in each community.
In the past few weeks I’ve worked in both in the hardware and software portions in about a dozen different communities. My Local NGO is in charge of over 30 communities and each community is in a different stage of the process—so we always have something going on. I’ve had a lot of practice speaking Ewe and people are often surprised that “the white man can hear Ewe”, however I still need a lot more time until I’m conversational. Here is a photo of my co-worker and I monitoring latrine materials for each household of the community.
The most challenging part of the Peace Corps isn’t the physical aspect of living in “harsh” conditions (although I have running water and electricity most of the time) or the mental aspect of learning a new language. The most challenging part is the psychological aspect. Living in a village where you are the only foreigner can get tiresome at times. There is definitely a fishbowl effect where it feels like everyone is always watching you and there is nowhere to hide. Luckily everyone in my community is extremely friendly and always willingly to help the Yevu (foreigner). For example, the other day someone I just met gave me 5 huge avocados (or pears as they are called here). Sometimes it seems as if everyone under the age of eighteen is scared of me or nervous to interact with me. However, I’ve already noticed people have started to get more comfortable being around me, especially when I try to speak Ewe.
So far I have no big complaints with my community or work and I feel blessed to have this opportunity. Here is a photo overlooking part of my community. I will get some better shots once I climb the steep hill that overlooks my community.
I’ve been in Ghana for 11 weeks and I still haven’t been able to call myself a Peace Corps Volunteer—until last Thursday when I officially swore in as a volunteer. Peace Corps Ghana threw a big ceremony for our homestay families and us. After the Ghanaian and United States national anthems, the 23 trainees swore in with an oath and were handed “graduation certificates”. The rest of the ceremony consisted of speeches, cultural dances, gifts for our host families, and lunch. After the ceremony we took pictures with our host families.
Me with my homestay mom and dad.
Me with my homestay mom, two brothers, and sister.
For the ceremony, each homestay family made matching shirts for the guys and dresses for the girls. So my dad and I wore identical shirts and my mom wore a dress made out of the same pattern. Unfortunately, the tailor finished my clothes halfway through the ceremony, so I had run outside for a wardrobe change during the Peace Corps Ghana Country Director’s speech. However, my shirt was worth the wait, because my mom picked out a bright red fabric with shiny golden streaks on it. The next time I wear it will be for Chinese New Year.
It’s a huge relief to be done with training, as it was starting to drag on and get really repetitive. Now, the rest of my service will be drastically different from what I’m used to. Instead of having every hour of the day planned out for you, it will be up to me to find ways to fill my time. Furthermore, it’s going to be difficult to be apart from the other 22 volunteers. After spending every day for the past 11 weeks with each other, we have all grown to be pretty close. In order for us to integrate faster, the Peace Corps requires us to spend the next 3 months at our site with little to no travel. So there is a good chance I won’t see the other 22 volunteers until we have a week of training in 3 months. However, I am excited to finally start living at my village!
While in the Upper East Region, we visited a crocodile sanctuary. Part of my job description for Peace Corps is to tame crocodiles, and as you can see from the photo, I was able to round one up pretty easily with my bare hands. Actually that’s not true, Ghanaians just have a good relationship with crocodiles. The people who worked at the sanctuary summoned the crocodile out of the pond and we all took turns sitting on the crocodile. Before any of us touched one, the workers told us that no one has ever been attacked by a crocodile at the sanctuary. Here is proof that crocodile is real.
After everyone has his or her turn with the crocodile, it was fed a live chicken and quickly returned to the water.
The other day we traveled to a Peace Corps Volunteer’s village outside of Tamale to build latrines and soak-away pits. I was on a team that built two soak-away pits, so I will talk a little about those. Most small villages in Ghana don’t have gutter systems like in the U.S., so it’s very common to see all of the dirty water from a household flow straight into pedestrian paths. This creates a breeding ground for mosquitos carrying malaria. The solution is to dig a 3-4 foot deep hole and fill it porous stones to collect the water.
We started digging around 9 am and with the help of some people from the village, we finished two soak-away pits by 2 pm.