I would like to have gotten this up earlier, but I’ve been busy with the holidays and all that stuff. I had a job interview yesterday, and another this morning – They actually offered me the position right after the interview, but I don’t think I’m gonna take the gig. Anyway, enough about that.
So let’s see… Ghana! Where to begin?
People have been asking me how the trip was, and I say “great, it was a very eye-opening experience”, but beyond that, I’m not really sure what to say, or where to start. I suppose I’m still processing it all.
Cortney and I got to JFK Airport in NYC around noon on November 11th. We hung out in the airport bar until our flight left at 3 pm.
It was a 10 hour flight, and I think that the complimentary drinks helped it go by rather smoothly. We arrived at Kotoka International Airport in Accra (the Ghanaian capital) at about 4:45 am.
We had heard about the “kiss of Ghana” – When you first step off the plane and the warmth hits you. There was nothing subtle about that kiss, even at 5am.
We went through customs and baggage, and when we stepped out of the airport, there were lots of people holding up signs. When we finally saw a sign with our names on it, we approached the guy. He introduced himself as Appiah, and we realized that he wasn’t the dude we were told was going to pick us up. No big deal, but let’s be realistic here – it could have been some ridiculous scam where our organs ended up being harvested and sold on the black market. Stranger things have happened, right?
Appiah hailed a taxi and took us to a “tro-tro” station. A “tro-tro” is a bus/van.
When we arrived at the tro-tro station, I saw a guy rocking a Slayer “South of Heaven” shirt on and got all excited! I wanted to make conversation with him. In retrospect, it’s probably better that I didn’t. I would soon learn that many times, people don’t choose their shirts. Some people wear whatever clothing they’re given via donations. So you’ll see teens wearing ironic shirts like “Everyone loves an Italian girl” and things like that. In retrospect, the guy may not have been a metalhead.
Appiah tells us to board this tro-tro and we’re the first ones on it. We didn’t know this at the time, but tro-tros don’t leave the station until they are absolutely jam-packed full of people, to the point that it’d be a real challenge to fit any more people inside.
We’d eventually learn to use the tro-tro system on our own, and it was our main form of transportation no matter where we went in Ghana on this trip, but it’s definitely a big change when compared to public transportation in the US.
While we were on the tro-tro waiting for it to fill up, we got our first taste of street vendors in Ghana. In the US, if you want to get someone’s attention, you might say “excuse me”, or “yo!”. In Ghana, they either hiss at you (like a snake, but very loudly) or they make a kissy noise. This isn’t just what they do to foreigners, they do it to one another as well.
Street vendors approach the tro-tro windows balancing bowls/boxes of all sorts of things on their heads. Food (including lots of fruits and vegetables that I didn’t even recognize yet… Oranges are green/yellow there), drinks (some in bags), and all sorts of things like cheap watches, cell phone cases, bandanas, knockoff 50 Cent shirts… You get the picture.
We’re sitting on the tro-tro for an hour or so, and we’re not used to this type of heat. We’re dripping sweat. It’s probably about 6 am by now, and the tro-tro is packed full of Ghanaians. Appiah is the last one to get on the tro-tro, as he was keeping an eye on our luggage that they loaded in the back (which was completely out of our view while we were sitting on the tro-tro) and we start driving.
We didn’t know it at the time, but we were heading to Ho. Ho is the modern capital of the Volta Region, and in my experience, the busiest town in that part of the country (along with Hohoe and Kpandu). It took us about 3 hours to get to Ho.
The things that initially stood out to me were the animals (goats, chickens, and lizards) and the largely unattended piles of burning trash on the side of the road.
I would soon learn that there is no public waste system in Ghana. It’s socially acceptable to litter, as there are no public trash cans. When the trash piules up, they set it on fire and walk away. That’s literally what happens.
When we got to Ho, we went to a bank to exchange some money. I exchanged $100 and received roughly 92 Ghana cedi. Their currency took me a bit to get used to. 10,000 cedis is equal to one Ghana cedi… The old currency is cedi, the new currency is Ghana cedi. Got it? Good.
After that, Appiah took us to a hostel. We had separate rooms, even though each room had 3 beds in it.
I remember thinking that the showers at the hostel left something to be desired – I had no idea what was in store for me later! Had I known ahead of time about the toilet and shower situation that awaited us in the village, I would have probably spent hours sitting on the toilet in the hostel just to savor that porcelain feeling.
The next day, we went to DAVS (Dream Africa Volunteer Service, the group that organized the trip) to meet the rest of the staff.
They gave us a rundown on Ghana and the different regions. They told us about some cultural differences that we should be aware of, like not using your left hand for things – it’s considered dirty!
It’s a hard habit to break, and if you accept something from someone with that hand or point to something using it, it’s offensive.
Another thing… If you invite your friends somewhere, you foot the bill – For everything. Travel costs, food, you name it. That’s the social norm.
Also, if someone prepares a meal for you and you don’t finish it, that’s considered very offensive. It was helpful to learn about these cultural differences right off the bat.
They also gave us a rundown on the orphanage. They filled us in on the bathroom situation: there’s no running water. No flush toilets, no showers, etc.
We paid the remainder of our fees to the organization, and then went back to the hostel.
Later on, Appiah started to tell us about his issues with the organization. How he didn’t know where the money went, and he shared with us that he wasn’t paid much for his work. He asked me to buy him a stereo for his apartment, which caught me off guard. He suggested that maybe next time we’re in town, we sleep on the floor of his apartment, and use the money that we saved on the hostel to buy him things. Later on, he’d ask me for money to put him through university.
The perception of Americans in Ghana is that we have vast wealth. I suppose that this isn’t far-fetched, compared to what most people in Ghana earn. I think I remember hearing that the average working person makes around $400 a year.
That night, some of the DAVS staff took us out for dinner and drinks. We taught them to play an American drinking game, and they added their own rules, which didn’t make much sense, but were a lot of fun regardless.
For the majority of the day up to that point, Appiah had been asking me if I was a big drinker, and if I drank much in the states. My tolerance has gone down since graduating college, but I can still hold my own, so I told him “yeah”. Well, when it finally came time to drink, he was extremely drunk after 1 or 2 beers. I should probably mention that the beers there are 21 ounces each.
I thought that was pretty funny, only because there was so much buildup beforehand. He left the bar early because he was so drunk, and we (Cortney and I, and the 2 other DAVS staffers) left with only a slight buzz. I’m certainly not proud of this fact.
Over the course of the night, they asked me what kind of music I liked, and I tried to explain heavy metal to them. They didn’t understand.
They talked about relationships, and we tried to explain the differences between relationships in the US and Ghana. In Ghana, men will come up to foreign women and propose to them on the spot. The whole “courting” process is very different.
The next day, we met briefly with the DAVS staff again, and they told us that we wouldn’t see them again for a while. They’d stop by the orphanage in 2 weeks to check on us. Up until that point, I thought that their involvement would be much more frequent than that.
We took a taxi to another tro-tro station, and then got on a tro-tro to Hohoe (ho-ho-way), which was about 2 hours from Ho. I was drenched in sweat while waiting for the tro-tro to fill up, but I was starting to get used to it.
When we arrived in Hohoe, we walked around for a bit. I bought as much bottled water as I could carry, since I was told by many different people not to drink water from anywhere but a bottle, and to not even brush your teeth with water from other sources. After we couldn’t take the heat anymore, we got on yet another tro-tro which dropped us off at “Ve Junction”.
When we got there, some children were waiting for us, and they took our luggage and led us down a road to the orphanage.
I should mention that I was still adapting to Ghana in every sense possible. Everywhere we had been so far, I was just experiencing total sensory overload – All the new sites, smells, and sounds were so much to take in.
When we arrived at the orphanage, all the children said “you are welcome” as soon as they saw us, in very cheery voices. It was adorable. They all had such big smiles on their faces; it was hard not to smile in return.
We met Margie, the other volunteer who had been placed in the orphanage; she had arrived a week earlier. I was shown my room. It was in a mud building with plaster on the outside.
I was greeted by some rather large spiders and lizards that I would soon get used to seeing crawling all over the walls. Luckily that sort of thing doesn’t bother me.
Soon after arriving, we ate some dinner. It was noodles with tomato and fish sauce. I’m not a big fan of seafood, but I really enjoyed this. Little did I know that we would be eating this same dish for lunch and dinner for the rest of our stay.
Occasionally they’d mix it up and serve either fufu or banku, 2 of the most common dishes in Ghana.
I’ve never eaten the same foods with such regularity, but it gets to the point where, even if you have an appetite, you have a difficult time eating. The crazy part is that what we were being served was considered a special treat in comparison to what the kids at the orphanage normally ate.
Later that day, I was opening some of my things that I had brought with me. I took my flashlight out of its packaging, and the kids were fascinated by it. They have flashlights there (they call them “torches”) but mine was small and they were so interested in the way the batteries went in and how bright it was.
Here’s a good illustration of how few material possessions these children have: A few days later I saw some of them playing with the packaging that the flashlight had come in. That really made me realize how much we take for granted, that something I would just throw away without a second thought is actually a source of entertainment for them. The same thing happened with things like airline literature: I’d throw it away and find kids playing with it a few days later, fascinated with the colored pictures inside.
That night, Cortney and I drank some cheap ($3) vodka that I purchased up in Hohoe earlier that day. That may have helped me to feel a bit more comfortable in my new sleeping quarters.
I also found some comfort in my iPod, which I almost didn’t bring with me! The sounds coming from the jungle outside of my room were a bit unsettling; mostly because I couldn’t identify them. Had I not brought my iPod with me, I suspect I would have had much more difficulty sleeping.
I’m a light sleeper, and even if all the crazy sounds coming from outside my window were familiar to me, I still think I would have had some trouble sleeping through them. I also remember hearing singing and drums coming from the jungle, which seemed odd to me at the time, but I’d soon get used to it.
The music of Sound Tribe Sector 9 put me to sleep every night for the first week or so, until I got tired of listening to that particular set. It was a recording from one of the first times I saw the band, at Camp Bisco. I still listen to that show from time to time and think back fondly on the trip.
When I got the prescription for my malaria medicine, the doctor briefly mentioned some of the side effects, which included hallucinations and crazy dreams. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but starting that first night, I definitely had some very intense, disturbing, surreal dreams that were unlike anything I’ve experienced before. I won’t go into details here, but I remember times waking up in the middle of the night very upset and sweaty, and not hesitating to go back to sleep for fear of continuing the nightmare.
I put a mosquito net over my bed, but I still managed to get bit up pretty badly that first night. Normally, this wouldn’t be a big deal, but malaria is so widespread in Africa that you really have to be careful. I learned to put on bug spray before bed, and to wear long sleeves, long pants, and socks – Which was ridiculous in the heat, but I assumed it’s better than the alternative… Getting malaria.
I woke up around 6 am. It gets bright out around 5:30 or so, and from what I can tell, the entire village is usually up and moving before sunrise – doing their chores, showering, and preparing for the school day ahead of them.
The pigs and roosters guarantee that you won’t get any sleep after 6 am. I’m not accustomed to the sounds of pigs eating, so when I heard the first set of unsettling pig shrieks I knew I was awake for the day. It sounds like they’re being slaughtered!
I missed breakfast that first day, so I went straight to the school building. The children were all out in the hallway (both those that lived in the orphanage and those that came from other nearby villages just for classes) and they introduced themselves one by one.
I often have trouble remembering one persons name, so 60+ names was a daunting task. I tried though!
They sang some religious songs for us – We’d hear these many more times during the length of our stay. They were accompanied by some boys on drums.
The DAVS staff told us that all of the volunteers would be in one classroom teaching together, as sort of a group effort. They also told us that we’d have two days to observe their methods before we started to teach. That turned out not to be the case.
The orphanage mother and father (the husband and wife who run the place) were told by the DAVS organization that we were experienced teachers, so they expected us to know exactly what we were doing. No syllabus or anything! They handed us a book and assumed we’d know what to do from there.
I was originally supposed to teach math, but the books were poorly written, and it had been so long since I did any factoring that I didn’t feel confident in my ability to teach it to others, especially when none of the answers to the problems were in the book. I decided to go with science instead.
I taught two science classes: “Class 4” and “JSS 1”, which is their equivalent to 6th grade.
The first day of teaching was tough. It took me a while to figure out which of the 6 classrooms I was supposed to be in. When I finally got there, Isaac (one of the teachers that lived at the orphanage) taught for the first 20 minutes or so, and then said “brother John is going to take over”. He handed me the science textbook and walked out.
I was unsure what to do, so I wrote some notes on the board from the book.
I was sweating so much that the book got wet, and I had to keep wiping my sweat off on my shirt. Needless to say, this first day of teaching was challenging and frustrating! I quickly learned that wearing anything more than a tank top results in lots of sweating, and that I should bring lots of water, and a sweat towel, to class.
It was clear that some of the students weren’t paying attention, and I had to walk around the room and tell each one of them to copy things down. I soon learned that I needed to talk more slowly so that they could understand me – they all knew varying degrees of English, but tend to speak to one another in their native tongue, Ewe, which Iwould learn more throughout the trip.
After class, I was sitting outside. The kids warmed up to me very quickly, and before I knew it they were climbing all over me. They have had volunteers at the orphanage before, so we’re nothing new, but they still loved to touch my hair and skin. At first, it was challenging to get used to this, as some of the kids have open sores, but I warmed up to it very quickly.
I noticed that the kids didn’t do this to Margie very much, they tended to leave her alone for the most part, but that’s presumably because she’s stern with them, and I didn’t have the heart to tell them to go away. I also enjoyed their company, playing with them was fun after I got used to being smothered!
Later that day, Cortney, Margie, and I went exploring, and three of our students came with us to make sure we didn’t get lost.
They showed us some pretty cool stuff – I was a little intimidated by the massive termite mounds that we saw all over the place.
We walked, hiked, and climbed for an hour or so in the heat, and eventually ran into a fellow white man named Jim, who welcomed us to Ghana by treating us to some palm wine.
I had read about palm wine prior to my departure from the states, and was excited to try it, but the stuff that we tried that day was extremely bitter and tasted… old.
There were a crazy amount of flies buzzing around the area where we sat down to drink the wine, making it a challenging experience. That’s not to say that the wine itself was at all pleasant, though. It was served in a half-coconut. There were lots of little black things floating around in the wine, and they looked like bugs to me, but Jim told me they were nothing more than burnt embers left over from the process of creating the wine. I still think they were bugs, but I didn’t want to offend him so I drank them anyway.
Based on what other people told me, palm wine is supposed to be served fresh, and that stuff definitely wasn’t fresh. Still, I got an unexpected mid-day buzz from it.
I’m gonna stop for now, and post the next chapter of my experience in a few days. I’m heading down to Harrisburg area to visit some friends, some of whom I haven’t seen for a while. Don’t worry, I’m not gonna make you wait another week until I post again. I hope you’re all having a great holiday and staying warm – Well, those of you in climates similar to mine here on the East Coast anyway. Take it easy everybody.