Posted by: kristinej | August 14, 2013

Home again

Hi all, 

Most of you know by now, but I made it home safely earlier this week.  My flights went amazingly smoothly and I even joined in the ritual clapping when we landed in New York, partly because it’s amusing and partly because everyone was a little on edge with all of the travel warnings.  Now I’m just enjoying the last few weeks of summer in the US of A and will start what should be my very last year of school in a couple of weeks.  

Thanks for reading and commenting!  

Posted by: kristinej | August 6, 2013

August 6, 2013

The question “what do you do?” or “what are you studying?” is never an easy one to answer. Here’s a long-winded attempt to answer that question, perhaps fueled by the increasingly frequent question “what will you do when you graduate?”

If I’ve gained anything this summer, it’s an appreciation for how complicated the idea of international development is.  Nothing is black and white. Are we doing the right thing?  Is our project really helping people?  Is it helping the right people?  Are we using our money in the best way possible?  Are there unintended consequences that we never thought of?  Should we even BE here??

I didn’t have to grapple with these questions as much when I was in Mali.  I could see, and still do believe, that Project Muso was doing a lot of things right.  Living in a somewhat isolated area, I was pretty withdrawn from the larger development world of the World Bank, national development agencies, contractors, and large NGO’s (non-governmental agencies).  What I saw was a few dedicated people implementing small-scale programs that were visibly making a difference in the community.  A new ward at the health clinic meant that pregnant women had a place to sit when they went for prenatal consultations.  Mothers could bring their children to my host mother’s house for a rapid malaria test, and she would accompany them to the health clinic if needed. Evaluation results show child disease rates falling in Yirimadjo, and the project has scaled up from 20 Community Health Workers to 75 (http://www.projectmuso.org/node/116).  The project has been incredibly efficient, working within a very small budget and drawing its staff from the community. Still, its scale is small and it’s taken years to get this far.  It’s a drop in the bucket, making its own small difference while at the same time just one of thousands and thousands of development projects in Africa.  What makes some more effective than others, and why, after all this time, do we still not really know what works best?

These questions are the reason I was drawn to evaluation.  Sure, I could go sit in a classroom and watch children learning with new textbooks that have been donated, but are they actually learning more?  Will they spend more time studying at home? Will more of them graduate?  At Social Impact I worked mostly on performance evaluations (sometimes also called process evaluations).  In most cases a donor such as the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) would hire us, as independent evaluators, to determine whether or not their grantees were spending American money well.  Were they doing what they said they would do, and were they doing it well?  Did the program design make sense and was it the most effective way of reaching the intended objective?  Often they would also ask us to determine what impact the program had had, but this was hard.  Sure, we could see if a country’s political situation had improved over the last 3 years, but could we say it was due to a specific project?  Hardly.  There are so many factors.

The business of evaluation is booming, despite, or perhaps because of, difficult financial times.  Donors want to know where their money is going and that it’s being used well.  At the same time, impact evaluation has emerged as a way of using statistical methods to attribute changes to a specific project.  The most rigorous of these methods is the randomized control trial (RCT) – the same method used in medical trials.  You give two identical groups of patients two different treatments (or one treatment and one placebo) and see how they differ at the end of the trial.  Since you randomly select the treatment and control groups from within a mostly homogenous group, the treatment is the only factor that could have led to a difference between the two groups at the end of the trial.

This same practice is now being applied to development projects.  The project I’m working on, for example, will install satellites and computers in 70 schools in 4 districts in Ghana and will remotely teach math and English classes to students there. On the evaluation side, we will randomly choose 70 schools from a sample of 150 schools that have been deemed eligible for the program.  We can therefore expect the group of treatment schools to be, on average, the same as the group of control schools.  We’ll test English and math scores in all schools this fall, and then again in 2 years when the kids in the treatment schools have finished the program. If the scores of the treatment kids are significantly higher than those of the control kids, we will be able to say that the program was effective in raising learning levels.

While the program and the evaluation won’t start until this fall, my role this summer has been to get everything set up.  I’ve worked on our IRB application, which gives us permission to do research with human subjects, collected data on all of the schools in our districts, and designed a questionnaire to give to the kids in the program.  Yesterday I finally had the chance to pilot the questionnaire.  We visited a primary school an hour outside of Accra, and had a local surveyor ask the kids some of the questions to see how long it took and how well the children understood.  We will then make revisions and the team will pilot it again up north near our other target district.

Where am I going with this?  I think evaluation is important, I really do.  We all want to know that our work is making a difference.  But there’s a limit to what it can do.  While some evaluations are done right, and the results are shared and incorporated into policy, others are rushed, poorly done, and ultimately ignored: a colossal waste of money.  In other cases, the focus seems to be more on checking boxes, reporting to donors, and creating jobs in what is now essentially a global business just like any other.

So what will I do when I graduate?  I’m not sure.  But this summer has given me a lot to think about.  While I love Africa, I have always been highly uncomfortable with the idea of being a white person coming in with money and my American degree and trying to “do good.”  I recognize that I’m here mostly for selfish reasons: to progress my career, to learn, and to have some adventures.  But still, I try to live humbly within the context.  There’s nothing I hate more than going to a restaurant and hearing white people talking loudly about things they don’t like about Africa, or discussing Ghana’s problems, as though the waiters or other patrons can’t understand English.  And I cringe whenever I see tourists pull out their camera in a village without so much as a greeting, or walk down the street in short shorts as though they are still in America.  And then there are development agencies whose staff live in gated homes with pools, cooks, and drivers and may not know even a word of the local language.

My goal for this year, then: figure out how to reconcile wanting/needing to have a stable career and some standard of comfortable living with doing work that is not so removed from actually helping others.

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Learning math

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Primary school in Dangme East district

 

Posted by: kristinej | August 5, 2013

August 5, 2013

I only have a few days left here, and I can say that I will be sorry to leave. My officemates, housemates, and honorary Ghanaian family have been an excellent community for me here over the past months. Recently I was given a lovely traditional Ghanaian dress, and had the chance to wear it to church on Sunday. Fortunately, I had mentally prepared myself for a long service, since Communion Sunday meant that the service lasted four HOURS! Still, it was mostly enjoyable. The church was beautiful, and the service was Methodist so it was a more familiar style to me. Though the preacher’s accent was heavy and I didn’t understand most of what he said, I enjoyed watching the women dance up the aisle to give their offerings and listening to the gospel choir. I will also probably be now featured in some church bulletin or marketing materials since the church photographer took several close-ups of me sitting in the pew smiling at the camera with the people around me instructed to keep looking towards the pulpit. People loved my dress though, and later in the day I had the woman who I buy rice from call out to me, “Hello, African woman!”

Today my officemates took me out to a goodbye lunch, which was really nice of them since we don’t actually work on the same project together, but they’ve been incredibly helpful and supportive over the summer. Two of them are Ghanaian but went to college and grad school in the US, so I’ve loved hearing their unique perspectives on all things development.

In addition to learning about Ghana from my friends, I’ve also enjoyed all sorts of random conversations with taxi drivers and shop owners. Some highlights:

Me: I am going to the Ghana Education Service. Do you know the place?
Taxi driver: Yes, I know it.
Me: Ok, how much?
Taxi: 10 cedis.
Me: Eh! That’s way too much (we settle on 6 cedis and start driving).
Taxi: So, you know the place, right?
Me: No, you said you do!
Taxi: I do, I do. But you’ve been there before, right?
Me: Yes, but I don’t know the roads.
Taxi: Ok, ok. (long pause). I like the way you look.
Me: What?
Taxi: I said you look nice.
Me: Ok, thank you.
Taxi: Do you like me?
Me: No, I don’t like you because you tried to charge me an unfair price and you lied about knowing how to get to this place.
Taxi man laughs, stops multiple times to get directions, then tries to short me on change. I make him pay up, then as I’m walking away I hear him yell, “I love you!”

—————

Me: Where are you from?
Taxi: Volta region.
Me: Oh yes? I know that place, it is very nice.
Taxi: Yes, it is very nice. There are waterfalls and mountains. You can even go see monkeys.
Me: Yes! I went and saw them. I was scared at first when they sat on my arm.
Taxi: You should not be afraid. Monkeys are a woman’s best friend. They are clever and can do anything, just like women.
Me: Yes, that sounds about right!

————–

Me: Good evening.
Woman: Good evening.
Man: Good evening. What’s your name?
Me: Kristine.
Man: Kristine, that’s nice. I want to be your friend. Do you live around here?
Me: Yes.
Man: Where around here?
Me: In this area.
Man: Which side?
Me: Just around here.
Woman: Haha! She doesn’t want to tell you where she lives!
Man: I just want to know so I can come visit you sometime and chat.
Me: Oh, well unfortunately I am leaving very soon.
Man: Where are you going?
Me: America.
Man: Oh, that’s my favorite country!
Woman: You know, you should hide this man in your suitcase and take him there with you.
Me: Oh, that will be a long journey! I don’t think he will get through security anyway.
Woman: Haha it’s true. And I think he will die before he arrives.
Me: Yes, it’s probably not the best way to get to America.
Woman: What will you tell your people about Ghana?
Me: I will tell them that it is very nice and that the people are very friendly.
Woman: Yes, it’s true that we are very friendly, but sometimes [white] people don’t want to open themselves up and don’t want to talk.
Man: It’s important to have friends here so that they can look out for you.
Me: Yes, that is very true.
Woman: You know, it’s very cold here today. I am suffering, oh, I am suffering (she is wearing a winter coat).
Me: Yes, it is not normal. Even I am suffering because I am not used to it. I think I have African skin now!
Woman: Haha! From the sun!
(we talk about my work here)
Man: So where you live around here? I want to come visit you.
Me: Oh, I have just told you where my office is, so you can come visit me there if you want to.
Man: No, I don’t want to visit you there.
Me: (geez, he’s persistent) Well, I don’t think my boyfriend will like it if you come visit me.
Woman: Haha!! She has a boyfriend and doesn’t want you to visit her!
Man: Is he Ghanaian? Is he here?
Me: No, he’s in America.
Man: I think you’re lying.
Me: I’m not! He even came to visit me here.
Man: Oh, ok, that’s very nice then. Maybe I will meet you again at this store sometime then.
Me: Yes, maybe so. Goodnight. (Walk in opposite direction of my house, just to be safe!)

—————

I buy some tomatoes from a woman’s small stand. She is eating something out of a plastic bag. “You are invited,” she says.
Me: Thank you.
Woman: Do you like this food?
Me: I don’t know what it is.
Woman: It’s boiled corn. Here, try some.
So I do, even though breaking off and eating a piece of someone’s half-eaten ball of boiled corn on the side of the road is probably number one on the traveler’s “Don’t Do” list. Can’t pass up a cultural exchange, can you?!

And finally, while I’ve not been very good about learning the local language (or the main language, I should say, since there are many local languages), I think I have become pretty good at Ghanaian English. Some of the unique phrasings:

– A taxi or car doesn’t drop you off somewhere, they just drop you.
– Similarly, you don’t pick a person up in your car, you just pick them. You may also pick a taxi.
– “small” is used in many ways. For instance you might say you want “only hot pepper small” or you might give someone “small small money.”
– When asked how you are, you always say “fine.”
– When saying that something is good, it’s always “nice.” Ghana is nice, that fabric is very nice, that food is nice.
– “Charlie” is a familiar way of saying friend. Ghanaians add it liberally to informal conversations: “Charlie, you should have seen….” I didn’t even realize that’s what they were saying until recently since it sounds more like, “chalet.”
– “Please” is placed at the beginning of most requests. “Please, can you tell me the price?” “Please, do you have…?”
– Instead of saying the power is out, you just say, “lights out.”
– Instead of saying they are out of something, a shop owner will just say, “it’s finished.”

All of these things are pretty small differences but they make conversations a little smoother and make you sound a little less like a tourist!

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Church dress

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Bethany Methodist Church in Dzorwulu neighborhood

Posted by: kristinej | July 24, 2013

July 24, 2013

Today is the one-year anniversary of the death of Ghana’s president, John Atta Mills.  He had been in office for about 3.5 years when he died and had just returned from the US for medical consultations.  While he declared himself healthy and fit, and while some supporters demanded an investigation into his death, the President had suffered from throat cancer and had been growing visibly weaker over the past few months.  My friends here say that the nation mourned deeply when he died, and all this week there have been ceremonies around the country in commemoration.

Two other interesting political developments are in the works:  First, Ghana’s elections in December resulted in the election of Vice President Mahama.  However, the election was contested by the opposing party, and the issue went to the Supreme Court.  The ruling is due by the end of this month, and it will be interesting to see what happens.  Mahama has been President for a year now, since Atta Mills’ death and it’s bit hard to imagine what would happen in the event that his election is ruled invalid.

The other piece of interesting political news is that Sunday will mark Mali’s first elections since the coup there over a year ago. There are over 20 candidates, some serious candidates with an established political background and other virtual unknowns with little more than a Facebook page.  Some people have called for a delay in the elections for many reasons:  voter registration has been plagued by errors and omissions, it’s rainy season AND Ramadan meaning that voter turnout will be even lower, and areas in the north are still not terribly secure.  It seems there will be many reasons to contest whatever result occurs, which can only lead to more division and conflict.

But back to Ghana… I’ve spent the past two weeks living out routine daily life in Accra.  Here are some miscellaneous musings on what that’s like.

People often ask me what I miss most about the US (aside from the obvious, family and friends). When I was in Mali, the list was fairly long and included large-ticket items like food and privacy.  Here, the list is much shorter and nuanced, which stems both from living in Accra (an interesting mix of African and Western culture, but more on that later) and living mostly on my own (rather than with a host family). So what do I miss?

  • Sidewalks.  Number one, which might seem odd.  But those of you who know me know that I like to experience a place by walking and running around it, an endeavor made more difficult here by constantly having to avoid getting hit by a car.
  • Cars that yield to pedestrians.  In a similar vein, I would love if cars here even considered stopping at an intersection, or looking before pulling out of a parking spot.  And I have sworn to myself that I will get hit by a car before I jump into a sewer to avoid one that decides to give me about 2 inches of space.
  • Taxis that don’t honk.  There are about 1 million taxis in Accra and 99% of them don’t have passengers (my estimates).  The result is 990,000 empty taxis patrolling the streets.  And in case the yellow paint and the “taxi” light on the top of the car wasn’t enough to let you know that they are there to give you a ride, they honk constantly while driving down the street, just to make sure.  Sometimes they’ll even slow down and yell out the window to see if you need a ride.  As if I’ll suddenly realize that no, I don’t really want to finish my lunch, but actually do need to hitch a ride somewhere.  How did they know?!  The positive side of this is the comfort of knowing that no matter where you are and no matter what time it is, you can find a taxi within about 5 seconds.  I’ve often thought that if I ever got into trouble, the most effective thing I could yell out would be “taxi!” because surely about 10 men would appear instantly.
  • Good coffee.  Instant Nescafe just isn’t the same.

Of course, there are other “creature comforts” I miss.  The water is frequently off, meaning bucket showers, filling up the toilet tank with a bucket, and washing dishes with cupfuls of water.  And the electricity also goes out occasionally, but it’s been fairly reliable.  All in all though, life in the capital city is pretty comfortable and easy compared to my previous African living experience, and compared to living pretty much anywhere else in the country.

So what do I love about Ghana?

    • The people.  Every guidebook claims that Ghana is the friendliest country in the world.  I’m not sure if that’s true (Malians were pretty darn friendly), but Ghana surely ranks near the top of the list.  Even before I left, I had a list of Ghanaians I could reach out to if I needed to, and sure enough I have a network now that checks up on me when I travel, invites me to birthday parties, and asks about my day at work. While it might be harder to find life-long friends to share everything with, there’s no shortage of people to hang out with or to look after you.
    • Street food and vendors.   I’ll write more about the food later, but there are two things I REALLY love here: 1) I can buy a huge lunch for less than a dollar.  Once you figure out which shacks sell which food, and what quantity you should order, you have a whole range of options available to you.  2) Mobile food vendors.  Yes, women do still carry things on their heads, even here in Accra.  You can sit outside and not wait too long for someone selling fruit, vegetables, pastries, or ice cream (in a bag, of course) to come walking by.  And again, it’s cheap!  I can buy an entire pineapple or mango for a dollar, and they’ll cut it up for me right on the spot.  Best thing ever.
    • Funny signs. Some personal favorites (note: chop bar is basically a fast food joint)  “Mind your wife chop bar.”  “Don’t urinate here you fool.” “Jesus is Savior Barbershop.”
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In case you were wondering…

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My favorite

  • Fashion.  I’ve mentioned this before, but women here (at least those with money) take African fabrics and make really awesome dresses and skirts. 
  • The ocean.  While the beaches in Accra are not nice, you don’t have to go far to enjoy a quiet, clean, beautiful beach.  In addition, Accra’s position on the coast means there is often a cool breeze that makes it much more tolerable than inland cities.  The only downside is the recent smells of fish and salt permeating the evening air here.  My housemate suggested that “maybe the ocean is full.”

 

Last weekend another intern and I went to a beach about an hour outside of the city, and it was great.  The beach itself was on a sandbar, so we took a very short boat ride across the channel and found ourselves on a lovely, quiet beach complete with a restaurant/bar and a lifeguard (!).  Life’s pretty good when you can spend all day basking in the sun.

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Bojoe Beach – an Accra oasis

Since I brought up food, here are some photos of the traditional dishes here.  Tasty!

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Yam, plantains, and egg with palava sauce

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Rice and beans (waakye) with plantains (kelewele), sauce, and cassava powder (gari).

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Red-red (beans mixed with cassava powder and palm oil.

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Kanki (fermented corn dough) with fish and hot pepper sauce

Posted by: kristinej | July 17, 2013

July 17th, 2013

For the 4th of July, we joined the other IPA interns for American-themed trivia at an expat bar here in Accra. Our team had a high percentage of Americans, so we fared pretty well and placed 2nd. Being in another country always makes you think more about your own country, and I like asking Ghanaians (or any other expats) what their thoughts are on America. Some reactions:
– Lawrence asked me why Americans are so proud of their country. I asked him if Ghanaians were not proud of Ghana, and he said that they were, but not in the same way. Martina (my Spanish friend) agreed that Americans are unique in their outspoken pride for the US (not in a bad way). I didn’t quite know what to say- I personally don’t think it’s so simple, and many people might say they are not so proud of the US. But overall I think we know we have it pretty good, and are proud of our country’s status and diversity.
– I’ve heard lots of praise for Obama, but most people just seem to like the US in general and they also appreciated the attention Bush gave to Africa. I’ve had many a taxi driver tell me that Americans are “their people!” They’ll tell me that the US is good because of the opportunity and wealth, whereas Ghana is dirty and people can’t find jobs (to which I would like to respond, “well, stop urinating in public places.”) And they are always shocked when I tell them how much better off Ghana is in comparison to Mali.
– Visas are much coveted, not just among Africans, but among people around the world. One of the other interns was describing the long process he went through, including the application, which has questions like, “Do you intend to bring chemical weapons into the country? Do you intend to employ child soldiers? Do you intend to commit suicide while in the US?” Most Ghanaians want to go to the US to find work, but others just want to visit on vacation, like my coworker Derick who wants to go to Nashville to see all of his favorite country singers! I told him I’m sure Andrew would be happy to host him (right?!). But it’s especially hard for men his age to get a visa even though he is well educated and is not looking for work.

But back to our travel adventures… our plan for weekend #2 was to visit Cape Coast and Kakum National Park, two of the major tourist destinations in Ghana. We again left very early in the morning on Saturday, and were pleasantly surprised to find ourselves in a tro-tro with AC (although it was actually too cold!). We were in Cape Coast by 9:30am and stumbled upon a wonderful little vegetarian restaurant run by a German nonprofit where we treated ourselves to a vegetable-heavy brunch. We then headed over to the Cape Coast castle, which is an old British fort that housed slaves before they were loaded onto ships to be sent to the Americas. It’s clear that tourism is on the rise in Ghana because the entrance fees everywhere we went were 3-4 times more than what was listed in my guidebook from 2010. We had to pay $10 just to bring a camera in! There were all sorts of people there – American exchange students, local school groups, and a fair amount of Ghanaian adults.

The fort itself is beautiful – a white structure right on the ocean with old cannons lined up against the walls and a small church enclosed in the grounds (shameful, really). But the story behind it is, of course, terrible and that became clear when we went down into the slave dungeons. Even on a cool day it was stuffy and hot in there, and I cannot even fathom the fact that they fit a thousand human beings in there for at least 6 weeks, sometimes letting them out for meals, sometimes not. There were no toilet facilities, and when the castle was renovated the excavators apparently determined that human refuse had reached about knee-level in the dungeons. People who died were just thrown out to the sea. When they were ready to be loaded onto the ships, they were led out through a door that said, “Door of no return.”

Cape Coast Castle

Cape Coast Castle

Slave Dungeon

Slave Dungeon

Cape Coast

Cape Coast

After our tour of the castle, we caught a taxi to Brenu Beach, where we’d be staying for two nights. We chose it because it was off the beaten path and had hammocks, and when we arrived we were greeted by name (perhaps a sign that I had called too many times to confirm/ask directions?) It literally looked like one of those ads you’ll see on TV of a pristine, uninhabited beach. The riptides can be fairly strong, and with no lifeguards not too many people swim, but we did wade in a bit (Blake more so than me).

Brenu Beach

Brenu Beach

The next morning we had a taxi pick us up and take us to the national park. Along the way we stopped at multiple police check points, where the driver had to slip the policeman a small amount of money in order to pass. It was another example of corruption being present at all levels, and the driver lamented that while he was a polytechnic school graduate who couldn’t get a job, these policemen were skimming off the top. He also pointed out that we paid a substantial entry fee to the park, while the road leading to it was still riddled with potholes, despite the fact that it is one of Ghana’s main tourist attractions.

The main attraction at Kakum is the canopy walk, which is a set of rope bridges high up in the treetops. Kakum is a semi-rainforest, and most of the animals come out at night but even if they are out during the day, the forest is so dense that you’d be hard-pressed to see anything. Still, the hike through the forest was beautiful, and the canopy walk itself was really fun, though it wouldn’t be for someone who’s afraid of heights! We lagged behind the tour group so that we could take our time, look at the scenery and take pictures.

Kakum National Park

Kakum National Park

We spent the rest of the day at the beach, and headed back to Accra the next day. All in all, it was a great couple of weeks – it was so nice having someone to travel with and be a tourist with. Now I have only four weeks left here, which I’m sure will fly by. Maybe sometime before then I’ll write about the actual work I’m doing!

Posted by: kristinej | July 14, 2013

July 14th, 2013

Happy Bastille Day, and thank you for the kind birthday wishes!  My 3rd birthday in Africa was a pleasant and relaxing day.  In the spirit of birthdays, I dug up a 1987 calendar so that I could see what day I was born on, which tells you what your traditional Ghanaian name should be.  I was born on Tuesday, meaning that my name is Abena.  I think it’s a beautiful name, but if I’m ever called anything other than Kristine it will be my Malian name Fatoumata.

These past couple of weeks have flown by thanks to a busy travel and sightseeing schedule.  After 48 hours of travel/sleeping in the airport, Blake made it here on a Saturday afternoon and rather than let him get acclimated, I had him on a tro-tro headed to a rural village by 7am the next morning.  We couldn’t let Delta Airlines ruin our weekend plans!

Our first stop was Tafi Atome a small village known for the monkey sanctuary it runs as a form of ecotourism.  We had the bus driver “drop” us at the junction and I wasn’t entirely sure how we would get from the main road to the village about 5km away, but I figured things like that have a way of working out when you’re in Africa.  Sure enough, we were met by many eager young men offering to take us to the village on their motorcycles, and after a brief consultation we agreed. Blake was thrilled, since he used to race motorcycles, and I was thrilled since I haven’t ridden on the back of a motorcycle since Mali, and I figured a rural dirt road was a pretty safe place to do it.  We each hopped on the back of a bike and immediately my driver asked me if I spoke French which I thought was odd, but I guess he was from Togo and didn’t speak much English so he just took a shot in the dark.  He talked the whole way to the village and tried to convince me that he and his friend should take us to Togo!  I told him thank you, but we didn’t have our passports with us (nor did we have the required visa, and I sure wasn’t going to sneak across the border!).

Tafi Atome is a pretty typical African village aside from the tourist attraction and the swarms of white high schoolers there volunteering to help build a library.  When we arrived we were shown to the guesthouse which was extremely basic, but at least had electricity and an outhouse with a toilet (though no running water…sometimes I think a hole in the ground is actually better than a toilet when the water is never on – using a bucket to fill the tank and flush is such a pain!).  We then had a very traditional Ghanaian meal of Banku and Okra stew.  I couldn’t help but laugh at the fact that less than 24 hours after Blake arrived (and this was his first trip to Africa or any developing country) we were eating corn dough dipped in okra stew in a tiny rural village.  I was very impressed with how well he coped.  It also made me realize how comfortable and self-sufficient I have become in West Africa – a lot of things that I used to think were extraordinary (in a good or a bad way) now just seem normal to me and I struggled to imagine how he must be seeing things.

Our “hotel” in Tafi Atome

For the monkey tour, our guide led us through a path in the woods until we reached a clearing where he started making monkey sounds and we could immediately hear rustling in the trees.  Soon we could see several little monkey faces peering down at us.  The guide took out a bag of bananas, and first showed us how to hold onto the banana tightly and hold it out so that the monkey could peel it and eat the fruit.  If you didn’t hold it tight enough, the monkey would just pull the whole thing out of your hand and run back into the trees. It was crazy how quickly and deftly the monkey peeled the banana.  We each took a turn feeding a monkey in the tree, and then we moved away so that they had to come up to us.  I was prepared to have one jump on my arm from the ground, but I was caught totally unaware when one jumped from the tree behind me onto my back, causing me to scream and drop the banana.  Fail.  Next time I was better prepared and stood relatively still as a monkey perched on my arm and ate the banana, then pushed off my chest to jump back into the tree.  Blake, meanwhile, had 2 monkeys jump on him and fight for the banana.  It was definitely a unique and entertaining experience!

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Blake with an eager monkey

Tafi Atome Monkey Sanctuary

The next morning we hopped on another motorcycle (this time both of us on the same bike!) that took us to a nearby village known for traditional kente weaving.  The village was very quiet, but we were greeted by a guide who took us into the main weaving building where there were about ten men weaving the colorful strips of cloth.  It was amazing to see how quickly they moved both their hands and feet.  The guide told us that kids start learning the trade at the age of 8, and will work after school as apprentices until the age of 18 when they become master weavers.  A single strip of cloth takes 5-9 hours to weave, depending on its complexity, and is exported all over Ghana.  I bought a couple of strips myself, and then we were shown around the village, where other individual weavers were working from their houses.  It was pretty fascinating to see the bright strands of thread stretching out across the otherwise neutral-colored setting.

Kente cloth

Weaver in Tafi Abuife

From there we took the motorcycle back to the main road where we caught a tro-tro to Hohoe, the main town, and then a taxi to Wli, a small town near the highest waterfalls in West Africa.  Since it was a national holiday, the visitor’s center was packed with tourists, most of whom were actually Ghanaian. They had huge speakers and coolers, and were clearly ready to spend the afternoon partying.  We wanted to avoid that craziness, so we waited until the next morning to do the hike to the waterfalls and instead spent the afternoon enjoying the beautiful landscape and more good local food.  The next morning we left early to do the fairly short guided hike to the falls, where there were only a few other people.  The water was not too cold, so we waded in, and after some persuading Blake managed to get me to go right underneath the falls.  It was crazy how windy it was when you got close – I imagine that’s what a hurricane feels like.  From there we headed back to Accra, tired but satisfied with a very fun and varied weekend.

I’ll cover our second weekend trip in the next installment.

Wli Waterfalls

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Wli village

Posted by: kristinej | June 24, 2013

June 24th, 2013

Some of my more impatient readers have pointed out that I am remiss in updating my blog.  So here comes a long new update …enjoy!

Part 1

Last week I traveled to Nkwanta, in the Upper Volta region.  Located at the very northeast end of Lake Volta (the largest man-made lake in the world) and not far from the Togo border, the area is not only much poorer than areas around Accra, but is reached by far fewer NGOs than other areas of Ghana.  Even some of the Ghanaians I work with said they would not go there because it’s so remote and hard to get to!  I traveled there by myself on public transport, and rather than describe the whole trip, I thought I would sum up the experience with a list of what it’s like to travel in a tro-tro (a 10 15 passenger van).

What to expect when traveling by public transport in West Africa:

– unless you’re traveling from one major city to another on a charter bus, there’s no such thing as a set departure time.  You show up at the station, buy your ticket and then wait for it to fill up.  I waited 3 hours in Accra for my first bus to fill up, and another 45 minutes in Hohoe for my second bus to Nkwanta.

– you can buy everything from water to fried yam to leather belts through the window of the bus while waiting for it to leave.

-just when you think the car is full and ready to go, they will force you to scoot over to fit one more person. You are now sharing the row with 3 adults, 2 kids, and a kitten.

– you most likely won’t be able to move your legs for the entire trip, and you may consequently lose feeling in your toes.

– if you are fortunate enough to be in a vehicle that does not break down, you can expect to stop at least once to help one that has.

– you will marvel that the flatbed trucks, piled so high they look like santa’s sleigh from the Grinch, are able to even get started, never mind navigate narrow dirt roads.

– you will feel like a player in a video game as your van weaves across the entire road, trying to avoid potholes the size of craters.  You may also be concerned that the driver seems more concerned about avoiding said potholes than oncoming cars.

– you will pray (ironically) not to have a priest in the car, or you may be treated to a 3 hour sermon.

– you may or may not rekindle your lifelong love for Bob Marley.  It is just fits, you know?

– if it is NOT rainy season, you will be covered head to toe with a not-so-thin layer of red dust.  For once, this is more noticeable on the Africans, whose eyelashes now appear golden yellow.

– if it IS rainy season… well, God help you (see September 12th post from Mali blog for a full description).

Despite all of this, traveling in a tro-tro can be FUN!  You develop a certain camaraderie with your bus mates (I mean, how can you not, after spending several hours sweating and napping on each other?).  And best of all, you arrive at your destination with some serious street cred, not just among other white people but among Africans as well.  “You went where, in what kind of vehicle?!” they will say.   “It wasn’t too bad,” you’ll respond as you shrug your shoulders nonchalantly.  Inside, though, you’ll wonder if you really have another round trip journey in you.

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Rural road   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Nkwanta

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Part 2 

Once in Nkwanta, I was met by Gill, an older British woman with whom I’d be staying.  She runs one of the only nonprofits there – an education program. She’s lived here for 9 years, owns a nice spacious house on the outskirts of town, and knows all the ins and outs of the education system.  I’d be tagging along with her for a few days to visit some schools, talk to teachers and headmasters, and find out what other organizations in the area are doing.

The first day we went to a primary school where Gill spent the morning leading special activities for a group of girls ages 12-14.  She had them play games, do ice breakers to practice their English, and express the idea of girls’ empowerment through poetry, dance, art, and drama.  I worked with the art group, and it was rather sad to see how they struggled with the activity.  While schools start teaching English from the first grade, in rural areas most families don’t speak it at home, and it was clear that most of the girls could barely read and write.  Additionally, they had rarely if ever had the chance to draw, and really struggled to draw simple things like people, cars, and trees.  Finally, the idea of thinking creatively and coming up with their own ideas was the biggest struggle.  Most of what they do in school is just rote memorization, and you can tell that many children are afraid of being punished for getting the wrong answer. Despite those challenges, it was fun to see them let loose a bit when we did some sports activities.

Two other mornings I helped her lead a health day at the community center for junior high school girls from 4 different schools.  These girls were aged 14-18 and it was not clear that their English was that much better than the primary school girls from the day before.  It’s very hard to tell because you will ask them if they understand, and they will say, “Yes ma’am,” but you have a feeling they don’t really understand.  We had them list out diseases that they or a family member had experienced and then talk about ways to prevent them.  I have to admit that this activity made me feel rather ignorant, since I couldn’t really tell you the exact sources and symptoms of diseases like TB, typhoid, and cholera.  Still, it was really interesting to hear what they knew and didn’t know.  In most cases, they had heard of diseases but didn’t know much about them.  Some even had misconceptions about malaria, which they learn about from a very young age.

Most of the disease prevention came down to keeping a clean environment and practicing safe sex.  The latter proved particularly problematic.  First of all, many girls had very little knowledge about their own bodies and what was normal or not normal.  In addition, they receive conflicting information about how to prevent sexually transmitted diseases.  Nonprofits will tell them to use a condom, but the Church (and some teachers, we found out!) will tell them that using a condom is a sin and that they should only practice abstinence.  Compounding these problems is a culture in which girls often have little control when it comes to sex.  We had one girl approach us after the session because she is living with a family member in town so that she can go to a better school, and he has been making advances on her.  And this was after she had to leave another place she was staying because the man there was also sexually harassing her!  What’s sad is that some people would say that it’s clearly her fault, since it’s happened twice and no one else in the family has complained.  In addition, we had a number of girls ask if it was ok to have sex with a boy if he offers to pay for school fees, if they don’t have parents or their family is not supporting them.  We tried our best to explain that a young boy may say that he loves her and is going to support her, but in reality only wants one thing and she has so much to lose from a situation like that.

All in all, the trip was fascinating, if a little depressing.  I guess I never really stopped to think about how much the odds really are stacked against these kids in rural areas.  Some of the teachers really are great, but others just see the job as a necessary step to a better career.  Teachers are frequently absent, and in all of the schools I visited I only met a couple of female teachers.  Children too face pressure to help around the household and sell goods at the market, even if it means skipping school.  Something like 97% of the government’s education budget goes to salaries, and corruption is rampant, meaning that materials are virtually nonexistent.  Can you imagine trying to teach ICT (Information Communication Technology) to a group of students that has never seen a computer?!  Ghana has prided itself for instituting universal (free) primary education and development agencies love setting enrollment targets, but when kids show up to a school building with 100 students in a classroom, no teacher, and no teaching materials, you have to wonder if the situation is really that much better than it used to be.

Art activity

Art activity

Girls' empowerment day

Girls’ empowerment day

Fun and games

Fun and games

Posted by: kristinej | June 10, 2013

June 10th, 2013

Lots of updates this Monday morning after a busy weekend in Accra. So consider this fair warning: a very long post, but also very interesting!

The bed bug saga continues and I am hoping to be relocated, but for now I have bagged up most of my stuff and am living in the living room, which is still bug-free. Thankfully, the toilet has been fixed and no more flooding has occurred. Work has not been too crazy yet, but by the end of this week I should be heading up to the northern Volta region where part of my project will be implemented. It’s a 10 hour drive due to poor road conditions, so that alone will surely be an adventure! I’m excited to see Ghana outside of Accra, though, and Volta is supposed to be one of the most beautiful areas, with forests and mountains. Otherwise, my Ghanaian coworkers here in Accra are super nice and very willing to answer all of my questions. I am starting to suspect, though, that I own more clothes made from traditional African fabric than most of them… can we say fabric addiction?! The fun thing here, though, is that Ghanaian women are very creative, and you see all sorts of sundresses and tops made from the fabric. I have two dresses that I had made in Mali, and the other day I was walking down the street in one of them when a woman said to me, “I dig your style!”

Last week I was joined in the apartment by Martina, a new intern from Spain, who will be based in northern Volta all summer but is here in Accra for about a week. Since she won’t be here all summer, we wanted to do some sightseeing over the weekend. Saturday morning we set out for Accra’s largest market, Makola. It was a typical large, open-air market, though not nearly as crazy as I would have imagined, at least the part we were in. Next we headed to Jamestown, one of the historic districts of Accra. Bordering the ocean, it is the site of a former British fort, where slaves were held and transported to boats via a tunnel. There is also a lighthouse and the remains of slave housing. I had read in my guidebook that you could only go down into the fishing harbor accompanied by a guide, and indeed upon arrival we were told that we couldn’t take pictures without a guide. As soon as we told the man, Emmanuel, that we would go with him, he said, “Take pictures of whatever, whoever! Take lots of pictures!” I use the word “guide” very loosely here but he did offer a few tidbits of information and it was definitely necessary to have someone leading us through what was essentially a slum surrounding the harbor. He led us through the slum area to the ocean, where from the pier we could see a few fishing boats out in the distance. He explained that he swims out to the boat each night at around midnight, fishing until dawn. We then walked along the short sand beach where a few people were swimming, guys were playing soccer, and vendors were selling fish and fruits and vegetables. The area was not only incredibly poor but also very dirty – there was clearly no way to dispose of trash or bodily waste, and the combination of those smells plus the fish smell was delightful. Still, seeing the handmade pirogues lined up on the beach, each differently decorated, was a site to behold.

Fort James and lighthouse

Fort James and lighthouse

Jamestown harbor

Fishing pirogues

Fishing pirogues

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More pirogues

After our tour, we went back to our neighborhood and met the brother of a Ghanaian friend of mine from the US for lunch at an American style restaurant. The transition from the slum to a nice, air-conditioned restaurant was a little jarring. We felt like we were seeing our neighborhood with a new set of eyes – the open sewers no longer smelled so bad, the roads were astonishingly quiet and clean, and the tall buildings and shops a clear sign of prosperity. From there Lawrence took us to the Accra mall, where the culture shock was even more profound. While not as large as American malls, it had upscale shops, a food court, movie theater, and even a play area for children. It was clearly a haven for the wealthy, both Ghanaian and foreign, and it was interesting to see. On the one hand, a startlingly portrait of inequality (not that the US is devoid of that) but on the other hand, a refreshing view of what developed Africa looks like.

Finally, our day concluded with a pizza dinner with the other IPA interns and another American couple in Accra. While meeting locals and learning their culture is obviously one of the perks of living abroad, it is also always fascinating to learn from other expats, who come from their own countries and cultures and have usually traveled extensively. For instance, I think I have learned as much about Spain from Martina in the last week as I have about Ghana, and last night I got a primer on Pakistani politics from a fellow intern. I was also particularly entertained to hear about one guy’s experience at the Fast and Furious 6 premier at the Accra mall cinema, where apparently people were high-fiving, talking, and laughing throughout and where one man, after a particularly intense (and unrealistic) car chase scene stood up and shouted, “America!!”

Sunday was less eventful, but we still covered a lot of ground. In the morning Lawrence picked us up to take us to his church so we could see what that was like. He said that it usually lasts from 9-12, but he suspected we didn’t want to be there for that long, so he arrived according to “Ghanaian time” at almost 10:00. For whatever reason, the service only lasted until about 11, so we didn’t see that much of the service. Still, it was fascinating. In Accra there are churches of all denominations on almost every streetcorner, and the church we attended was a charismatic mega church. I’ve never been in a church so big – I estimated it could seat at least 2000, comfortably. And that was just the sanctuary! It was like a village, complete with street vendors, apartments for visiting missionaries, and – get this – an ATM right by the entrance to the church. Indeed, the minister spent a considerable amount of time on the offering portion of the service, first asking people who were tithing to raise their hands and bring their envelopes up to the front of the church while everyone applauded. Then the ushers passed around bags to collect the normal offering, and the minister made a point of saying to the ushers as they left that he was watching them and didn’t want to see any hands reaching into those bags! Finally, he appealed for a special offering for the missionary apartments, and the process was repeated. It was not my style of church (they also spoke in tongues while praying), but definitely worth seeing once.

After church we went to Lawrence’s family’s house for lunch, where we joined his father for yam and palava sauce (greens and fish), jollof rice (made without much spice, specially for us), and beer. Finally, the oldest brother of the family and his fiancée took us on a driving tour of the University of Ghana, Legon which was amazingly huge. On the edge of the city, the grounds are immense and the buildings spread out, but there seemed to be a college for just about anything you would want to study. Apparently they are also starting a PhD program in development economics.

All in all, we covered a lot of ground and learned a lot about Accra and Ghana in general. There’s so much to soak in, and you feel like you can’t possibly, in 11 weeks, visit all the beaches and sites, learn even a fraction of the local language, try all the local foods, learn your way around the city, and do the actual job you came here to do. But, there’s nothing saying you can’t try!

Qodesh Lighthouse Chapel

Qodesh Lighthouse Chapel

Our gracious hosts

Our gracious hosts

Posted by: kristinej | June 4, 2013

June 4th, 2013

One of things I remember most about Mali was how each day was filled with extreme ups and downs – moments of happiness or accomplishment could so easily turn into moments of frustration, and vice versa. I’ve already found the same to be true here. I think that must have something to do with living in a place where so much is out of your control. In the US I know all the appropriate methods for coping with things that go wrong and have all the tools I need to fix them (usually), but in Africa, as a visitor, you’re often left feeling helpless and totally reliant on others.

My weekend started out well enough – I went out for a beer after work on Friday with some coworkers and other Americans, and had a great time chatting in French with a coworker from Benin who had just spent 2 years working with IPA in Mali. We reminisced about how warm and friendly everyone there is, and when I imitated the Bambara phrase I used to use to tell the bus driver where I wanted to go, he literally snorted he was laughing so hard. “You’re a true Malian!” he said.

My stroke of luck continued Saturday morning, when I was walking down one of Accra’s busiest streets and a man came up behind me and said, “Hey, your bracelet, is from my country, Mali!” I looked down and realized I was indeed wearing a Malian bracelet, and so I stopped and said hello and told him that I used to live in Mali. We switched to French, and he pulled off the road to tell me about how he had been a tour guide in Mali’s Dogon region, but had to leave because of the war, and was now selling bracelets on the side of the road in order to make enough money to live on and to send back to his family. While he speaks both English and French fluently, he has not been able to find a job as a translator here since people seem reluctant to hire foreigners. Actually, he said he found Ghanaians to be a bit racist, a comment I took with a grain of salt, but still found interesting since we usually think of racism being based on skin color. Anyway, I bought a couple of his bracelets since I felt bad and he was a genuinely nice guy. I didn’t even have the heart to bargain because, let’s face it, the dollar or two I would have saved meant a lot more to him than it did to me. Before parting, I made sure he knew I spoke some Bambara, told him my Malian name, and gave him a blessing to wish him luck in the market. He in return, gave me his phone number in case I wanted to drink tea sometime, as well as his number in Mali and the number of some family member that still lives in Gao, Mali. Although his name is Alifou, he said if I went anywhere in the country and asked for “Camille the Magnificent” they would know who I was talking about and would be able to direct me to him. An Malian legend, selling bracelets on an Accra street corner.

My Sunday morning was just as pleasant. I walked down to the ocean for the first time, though within Accra it’s not much to see – limited beach area and lots of trash floating in the water. There is supposedly a much nicer beach down the road, but I’ll save that for another weekend. What I was really in search for was what I had seen on Google Maps, called the African Artists’ Alliance. It ended up being hard to miss – a brand-new mansion right between the main road and the ocean. Though I think I arrived a half-hour before it even opened, the doors were wide open so I walked in and no one stopped me. Inside were 3 floors of some of the most beautiful paintings I’ve seen, from around Africa. The rooms were large, with white painted walls and the ocean breeze coming through the open windows. In addition to the paintings, there were smaller sections of textiles, beads, and wood carvings, as well as a gift shop with some really beautiful items. I’m thinking I could spend every Sunday there!

So what, you ask, could have ruined this weekend enough to merit my intro paragraph? Well let’s see: a torrential downpour leading to a flooded living room and bathroom that I mopped up with dish rags and a bucket was just the start. A toilet that mysteriously stopped working and still hasn’t been fixed has been a constant source of frustration (and disgust). And a sketchy encounter with a man who wanted my number and was not so friendly when I wouldn’t give it to him put me in a sour mood (fortunately, some much nicer Ghanaians helped me out of that situation). But the real kicker? Waking up Monday morning with my torso covered in very itchy bug bites and realizing that no, they are not from mosquitoes or spiders but rather from bed bugs. I like to think I have a pretty high tolerance for “roughing it,” but the combination of the toilet and the bed bugs has just about put me over the edge. Stay tuned…

Posted by: kristinej | May 29, 2013

May 29th, 2013

My first thought upon leaving the airport in Accra on Saturday was, “I’m home!” (Home being West Africa in general, of course). Within minutes, though, I realized that that was probably an exaggeration. In all reality, it’s been almost 3 years since I left Mali, 3 years in which I have become increasingly used to and expectant of all of the comforts and options that life in the US has to offer. Perhaps I had unrealistic expectations that Accra would be developed far and above Bamako (and in some ways it is, I’ve realized), but my first glimpses were of urban sprawl much like Bamako, where men with disfigured legs use their hands to push themselves along busy roads on what is essentially a skateboard, where you attract much attention while buying a cell phone in the market, and where the roads are lined with open sewers (which I will do my best to avoid falling into).

I was dropped off at my apartment in the Osu district, one of Accra’s nicest neighborhoods. I’ll have other IPA staff and interns staying with me throughout the summer, but for now it’s just me. The apartment is fairly nice – I have an actual bed, dresser, desk, and ceiling fan (!), as well as a common room, bathroom, and kitchen. The kitchen is by far the biggest improvement over my time in Mali since it means that cold drinking water is no longer a luxury and I can control my diet when I’m home. Still it’s a far cry from American standards – the water is only on for a few hours each day, so it’s good that I’m an expert at bucket showers. The walls are also quite thin, and I keep thinking that movements from a neighboring apartment are coming from my own apartment – a completely unfounded fear of course, except when it’s not and the cleaning lady lets herself in on Sunday evening to get hot water for the wound on her finger, or at 7am on Monday morning to wash dishes.

Still, I’m not complaining in the least. I’ve already discovered from walking around the neighborhood on my own that I can find Thai food, smoothies, burgers, and pizza, all within a 15 minute walk. The fact that everyone speaks English makes navigating much easier. There are plenty of other white people walking around too, which makes for excellent people watching, and I have yet to hear anyone yell “Obroni” which is the word they use for white person here. Although, I keep thinking that I hear people saying “toubabu” which is the word they use in French West Africa, and one that I grew accustomed to hearing about 1,000 times a day in Mali. I’ve even gone running a couple of times. Apparently the girl who lived here before me also went running so while everyone stared, no one seemed too shocked.

Yesterday was my first day at the office. The office is only a 10 minute walk from my apartment, and is air conditioned, which makes the business casual dress code much more comfortable. These first couple of weeks I’m mostly doing background reading, an ethics training so that I can participate in interviews and data collection, and an intern training. By next weekend I should be making my first trip up to Nkwanta in the northern Volta region, where the project will actually be implemented.

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