Meb Byrne

Archive for the ‘ghana’ Category

Take Me Home. Things Are Normal There.

In ghana, storytelling on February 2, 2011 at 8:45 am

Sunday, January 16

Five of us went to the movies last night. I wanted to see the Accra mall, but I was too exhausted. Of course I stayed up till midnight tweeting with friends anyway,  they on their phones & me on the free computer.

Breakfast, glorious breakfast, was a sandwich of buttered white toast and a veggie omelet, sort of a compiled version of everything we’ve been eating till now, only toastier and butterier. The instant Nescafe was particularly delicious. Like at Jangels, all plates were served under stretchy plastic; unlike Jangels, every room received a full breakfast tray with a plate of two sandwiches- assuming we’re all couples or conserving flatware or something, I guess.

My razor gave in to rust the last night in Abura, so we’re going au naturale for the last few days. (TMI?)

Monday, January 17

Yesterday’s tour of Accra was whirlwind:

  • Lunch: We ate banku with vegetable relish and chicken; and fufu, goat and pepper soup. If banku has the consistency of Play Doh, fufu has the consistency of Silly Putty. The goat skin was black, bumpy and freaked me out. Meat stringy. Our mouths burned off from the banku sauce. We waited an hour for four plates of fries. Alvaro, Fanta, always.
  • National Arts Center: An open-air warehouse of wooden stalls, mostly vacant for Sunday. Ava and three of us haggled a not-great deal for hours- watching a master bargainer at work was fascinating. Cheap prices from Mohammad, way in the back. 5 cedi for masks we’ve bargained down to 15 c in Cape Coast. Drew got the largest mask there, easily two or three times the size of his head, for $4 US! I bought artwork & bracelets.
  • Woodcarving Village: We got out of the van and guys from every shop along the road came out and started shouting to us. We all have our own styles: Courtney’s a shopaholic, Ava bargains and always gets her way, Liv is too nice, Drew gets price-raped. He was close to tears in the Arts Center (in a comical way), so we didn’t let him buy anything here. (He was flat broke finally, which helped.)
  • Botanical Gardens: Trees of allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg, bay leaves. The oldest tree in the garden is a silk cotton from the late 19th century, when the space was used for colonial Brits. 250 feet tall palms line the entry road. The crowd pleaser was a parasitic tree that had eaten away the tree it originally sapped of life, and now stands alone with a hollow, holey center. The Swiss cheese of the botanical world, if you will. PHOTO OP. Another favorite was the mimosa plant, a low grass that curls up when you touch it. More fun that bubble wrap, more accessible than sea anemones.
  • Dinner: at a hotel, in a fancy Westernized dining room. The complimentary ten minute massage was pretty tame, and we didn’t get around to the post-meal nail cleaning and polishing. Nice of the staff to offer, though. The buffet meal had all the usual trappings- no farewell plantains for me- but quickly devolved into a spaghetti and meat sauce noshfest. I gorged. It hurt.

We patronized the uber-Western gelato shop down the road (seriously, it was like we’d dropped into the West Village). Lemon and nutella gelato for me. The temporary joy of sweets couldn’t make up for the self-loathing masochism my intestines incurred several hours later.

Yvonne had $80 stolen by the maid who’s been accused for room theft three times before. (And this woman still has a job why?) My bed slats broke but I still slept on it.

Wake-up call at 4:15 am to load the bus at 5 am for the hour-long drive to the airport that actually took 15 minutes because there’s no traffic at 5 am on a Monday. There is, however, morning worship at 5 am on a Monday. The church down the street blasted music. The hotel stiffed us on breakfast. We ate pineapple and Fiber One bars instead.

On The Road Again

In ghana, storytelling on February 1, 2011 at 7:54 am

Saturday, January 15

8 am

Breakfast

Single sausage, white bread, margarine. I am genuinely curious whether the food we eat in Accra will differ at all from what we’ve been served the past two weeks. I doubt I’ll miss these breakfasts- let’s be real- but the excuse to eat bread and butter and salt with impunity has been nice.

Everyone is contracting vague diseases: diarrhea, stuffy sinuses, laryngitis.

Joseph is dressed up today: red checkered shirt, jeans, canary yellow trainers. He’s being his old curmudgeonly self and nagging everyone to load their luggage into the van before we leave, instead of later this afternoon. My heart is breaking for him and Liv. He cares for her so much. He found out yesterday that we weren’t coming back from Accra. I guess he thought we were going for a day and then returning. Apparently, he burst into one of the classrooms, very upset, during yesterday’s morning lessons. Beyond the sentimental loss, he’s now out of a job. It doesn’t seem fair that we have to leave him behind. He still asked Liv if she’d marry his son last night, though.

I don’t like leaving. It’s long, it’s drawn out, and it’s generally painful. If you’ve made good friends here, you have both a more fulfilling experience overall and a more painful goodbye. I’d prefer a fade to black (cue If The World Were Like The Movies, My Favorite Year): clean, without sadness. This has been a good trip.

9 pm

We spent the day at Oasis, learning to drum and dance in the tree house cocktail lounge where we were all afraid to venture last night. It’s an open, circular room with mosaic flooring and a few disco lights on the walls. A circle of assorted drums was set up, on which we banged and slapped to various rhythms. The lesson was basic and our drum solos collectively sucked, but everyone really enjoyed it. I wonder if a drumming career is out of the question for me, with my wrist and all.

After drumming, we discarded our shoes and sweated out a dance from the Volta region of Ghana. I danced the boy’s part, which just meant I paired up with Lilly to do partner moves. Dance solos were equally amusing. Out accompanists were 4 drummer dudes from Castle resto. I think they liked us.

I talked with an obruni woman whom I’ve seen around drum practices before, as well as walking around town. She’s a professor of geography and gender at SUNY Geneseo, and she’s dating the leader of the dance troupe. She told me about his group: it’s three years old, its performers are abysmally poor (7 cedi a week for pay, if they show up at rehearsals and land gigs), and most still live at home and don’t hold outside employment. Her boyfriend works hard to enroll the teenagers in school and to pay for their school fees. She said she only know of 4 members with steady jobs now. Many have skills (masonry and so on) but unemployment is so high in Ghana right now that there’s little to be done to help them. There aren’t enough jobs to go around, and since a World Bank/IMF debt reduction program ended 2 years ago, Ghana has been classified as a middle-income nation and doesn’t qualify for aid anymore. Thus, my queries about what everyone walking the streets do all day are answered: not much.

Lunch: jollof rice, coleslaw, salad, chicken, fish, French fries, Alvaro. Blah. I’m planning my first meal in the US, and it can’t involve any of those foods, or plantains, or bread, or anything fried. Basically, I’ll be eating a vegetarian Atkins diet. Ready go.

We watched groups of fishermen hauling in their nets on the beach in front of Oasis. 30 guys, 15 on each side, heaved away at a massive net cast by canoes, while 2 more men in the ocean motioned directions and guided the net’s movements. The result was an enormous amount of fluttering, jerking silver fish, as long as the span of my hand, mixed in with a few flat rainbow fish, a lot of plastic and trash, and a snake fish with nasty-looking teeth protruding from a gaping maw. Fishermen’s wives stood around and brought lunch to their husbands, and traders peddled food. In the aftermath, when the fish had been taken in, teams of vultures circles the beach. Three pigs appeared out of nowhere to root around in the sand for leftovers.

We had half an hour to kill and I definitely did not want to see the Rasta guys, so Matt and Mallory and I took the long way through town to the fair trade show, Baobab. (For a primer on fair trade vs. free trade, click here.) We sat under beaded curtains in the blistering heat and ate banana cake and coconut cake. Both were heavy, dry and more bread than cake. Banana actually tasted of banana, so it was better.

2:30 pm rolled around, our appointed hour to rendezvous at the bus, and of course no one was there. Then, once again of course, there’s a communications snafu and Kirsty had sent a new bus (bigger, shinier, air conditioned) from Accra to pick us up. Joseph was out of luck and out of pay once again, and Kirsty, who had let the ball drop, yelled at Lawrence about it. That woman needs to be replaced pronto.

We were all upset, but Joseph was fine and said everything was ok. I was indignant that the group’s indignation lasted just long enough to discover the amenities of the new bus (cushioned seats, working locks on the doors, a shock absorption system) and then magically disappeared.

Our new driver, Alex, put up with the group’s chattering and squealing laughter for the three hour ride. I tuned out the whole trip. Morgan lent me his iPod, and I spend the ride immersed in Mumford & Sons and 5 albums of classic Disney tunes. It was the first real isolation I’ve had in two weeks, since I left my electronics at home. Delicious. Got some good thinking done.

Ava and Lilly kept us well-fed on the trip: plantain chips, FanIce, FanChoco, FanYogo, strawberry biscuits, ginger snaps, chocolate sandwich cookies, shortbread rounds, wafers, sugar cookies. We bought from the vendors that walk between cars with impossibly large cases of chips, ice cream, nuts and meat kebabs balanced on their heads. Morgan spotted a pineapple-flavored FanMilk product called FanDango, so it’s his new mission to find and eat one before we leave. (In 2 days! Ah!)

The hotel we’re using in in Osu, outside Accra. It’s nice-ish: there’s a guard in a pressed blue uniform outside and a heavy wooden front desk. The conference room is cramped; the free internet service has to be serviced before we could use it. The rooms might have been decorated in the 70s: a sickly green lighting scheme, dust-colored drapes, mossy green velvet chairs, the same Silly Putty beds as in Jangels. Courtney and I are in room 12, the palatial suite again, with artwork, a full mirror and dresser, wardrobe and working AC.  The boys share our alcove, and their room is, shall we say, subpar. The bathrooms are oddly down the hall, with light switches on the opposite end of the corridor, begging for practical joking. Again, the boys whine that our bathroom is better. They’ll probably fight us for our shower in the morning.

10:40 pm

When I twist our room key to unlock the door, all the other keys fall off the ring. And I just realized that we have two beds and only one sheet. Oh dear.

Getting Crazy Tonight

In ghana, storytelling on January 31, 2011 at 7:48 am

Friday, January 14

Wearing a bright yellow kente cloth dress and feeling pretty.

I worry that I’m not giving a detailed enough description of Ghana in this journal. I haven’t talked about the cell phone ads on every building’s walls, the bites taken out of the pavement and the rampant potholes, the police checkpoints at regular intervals on the roads. There’s red dust everywhere and cockroaches and dragonflies and stick bugs and giant ants and giant lizards with bright orange tails. Roadside stalls sell everyday items stacked into pyramids next to plantains frying over coals. I can’t emphasize enough how everyone carries everything on their heads with little cloth caps for balance, the lack of stars at night despite no street lights, the abundance of anything and everything sold by the side of the road (refrigerators! arm chairs! motorcycle parts! rocks! oceans of oranges!). Speed bumps come in threes.

I was ambivalent about our school education today. Nansi and I had six girls, aged 13-15, in the headmaster’s office. Nansi, like Carrie, is older, but Nansi plays the smiling kindergarten teacher or guidance counselor. I got to talk more, but I still prefer the older sister feel of the first two days.  i think it also helped that those first two days, we were in groups of threes. With only 2 people, someone is bound to emerge as the leader.

The girls we taught were quiet. Nansi thinks they were knowledgeable- again, I’m ambivalent. They nodded a lot and gave us the stock answers we’ve heard all week, which I don’t necessarily equate with knowledge. I was impressed, however, that they knew what HIV and AIDS stand for. Immunodeficiency is a big word for anyone to know. I’m sad that the girls are so accustomed  to answering how they’re told and saying yes, sir whether they understand or not. Learning isn’t memorizing. It’s wrestling.

Lunch on the bus (fatty chicken, jollof rice) and straight to Williams’ school, UPSHS, where we were supposed to teach yesterday but failed to get permission to test minors for HIV. We toured the large, well-kept campus, saw the visual arts department with portraits of Obama and walls of pottery sculptures. We ended up under a grove of trees outside, in a sort-of circle with 50 or more prefects and interested students, for an informal round-table discussion of US and Ghanaian culture. We asked questions of them but it was mostly the other way round. They wanted to know about the SATs and what we do on weekend, HIV stigma, homosexuality, discipline in schools, religion. The loud-mouthed headmaster tried to answer every question and talked over the kids’ answers, but we were able to handle him.

We could only stay for an hour, which made me sad. The kids were really getting into asking questions, and I was fielding a lot of them and semi-moderating, by virtue of sitting next to Ellen, the actual moderator, and having a loud and authoritative tone of voice. The head boy and girl decorated all of us with UPSHS pins (coat of arms and motto and everything) and we were served Coke and Sprite and Fanta in glass bottles. We took group pictures and exchanges contact info with a few students. Then it was all about the Mystery Bus and we were off to town.

My distaste for town is growing. It’s all the same people and all the same shops. Many volunteers have befriended certain shopkeepers, to much personal and financial benefit. I think I’ve pissed off enough Rastafarians with my silence to make me persona non grata by Castle Restaurant. I saw Patrick warming up to dance again, and Liv and I sat and watched for a bit. We waved. I’d be ok if today was the last I see of him. I’m proud of how ballsy I was, and I don’t need any more reminders of his mortality.

I wasn’t planning on shopping, but I actually completed all the purchases I needed, which feels great: dress for me, mask for Dad. I paid more than I should have for both (18 cedi for the former, 15 cedi for the latter) but a) there’s a lot of fabric in the dress and the woman who sold it to me owns the shop herself, and b) I wasn’t getting anywhere with the mask guy. I tried out Ava’s bargaining techniques for the first time, so I’m ok with a learning curve of a few dollars lost.

We were due at Jangels for a wrap-up discussion with VHO at 5, and for once, the men were on time and we were late. They expressed gratitude; we discussed strengths and weaknesses of their program.

From there, a resto.We all wore our new dresses- Friday night out in Cape Coast, woo! The spot was nice and we ordered dished individually for the first time in two weeks. In a cruel, ironic twist, the kitchen was out of fufu and goat and pepper soup, leaving us with the options of chicken/beef/fish and French fries/yam fries/fried rice/jollof rice on the side. Curses.We all ended up ordering nearly identical dishes, and certainly nothing we wouldn’t have gotten from a buffet, even down to the cold slaw slathered with mayo and ketchup (gross-sounding but yummy), which we ate last night at the uber-Western resto. No one asked if the snails were in stock.

The portions were enormous: an entire leg of chicken, thigh included, per person, breaded and hot-peppered and heavily fried with at least 1.5 cups of rice, maybe 2. The yam fries were too heavy and my digestive system abhors French fries, but the ketchup (!) was the only sweet thing on the table, so I ate them to cool off my burning mouth. Alvaro is starting to lose its appeal. I think it’s time to leave.

Oasis advertises drumming, bonfires and dancing on weekends, so we checked it out. Along with all the other obrunis in Cape Coast. In a town this small, you get to know the people whose skin sticks out, and seriously, they were all there: the Mizzou ProGhana group, the professor from Geneseo, that one guy with blond mop of hair. Only the albino chick and her boyfriend were missing.

We ordered our non-alcoholic soft drinks and watched the drummers and traditional dancers. I’m biased, but the troupe that works at Castle is better. Still, the dancers were good- inspiration for the gym. I was vaguely uncomfortable with the black performers and wait staff serving the predominantly white crowd. So many 8-packs in this country, oh my goodness.

We played Spot The Sex Worker (we named them Pink Shirt and Sequins) and Let’s Not Smoke Pot With Locals. (Put the giant plastic bag away, buddy.) Amira and Lilly both entertained gentlemen friends, to the amusement of the rest of the group. I had a teachable moment with a man who may or may not have been a pimp, when I suggested he get tested for HIV. I stuck around till her started talking about scarification and I realized Morgan and Drew had deserted me. I swiftly (rudely?) excused myself and ran to the beach with every else putting their feet in the waves.

Policemen with machine guns yelled at Pink Shirt and she left for a bit, but she was back later. Sequins scored a john and took him down the beach, behind the fishing canoes. We could see her dress twinkling the whole time.

We piled ourselves into cabs home and sang to Akon with the windows down. Morgan screamed like a girl at a giant spider, half the size of my palm, chilling in our hallway. Most of my stuff is packed to leave for Accra tomorrow morning.

Like The Moon Needs Poetry, You Need Me

In ghana, storytelling on January 30, 2011 at 9:00 am

Thursday, December 13

8 am

Headache. Sick to my stomach. 6 hours sleep isn’t nearly enough with days as packed and draining as ours.

I told Ashley last night that I simultaneously want never to leave and can’t wait to be home. I also begin each day almost dreading the work, praying Williams won’t arrive with the van. Of course, once we’re at the site, I’m glad to be there. Yvonne told me she thinks I have a good teaching style, but that I should be careful not to confuse the students with my extensive vocabulary. She joked, “I don’t understand what you say half the time,” which is funny because it’s true. Lilly said in reflections that she thinks my presentation voice has an air of legitimacy but also intimacy- trustworthiness. I’m trying very hard not to be too serious or scary for the students, especially since my fellow teachers are always so kind and compassionate.

Oranges here have super-thick skins. I understand now why street hawkers shave the skins off. Without a knife and fork, I would never have gotten this thing open. My hands were filthy from dirt and grime on the orange’s skin, which made me a little nervous about the cleanliness of fruit. The segments themselves are large, pale orange and sour. I wonder what breed they are. Definitely not naval, or least not bred the way we eat them in the States.

10:15 am

Change of plans. University Practice SHS children don’t want HIV testing, or at least their parents don’t want it for them- out of 700-some parental consent forms, only 2 came back. We’re going to a junior high school for the next two days instead. What can we talk about with them- condoms? Sex?

9:50 pm

Bedroom with Courtney

My nutrition bar stash is dwindling. This Pure Protein bar I’m strangely choking down now (why? why?) is basically fudge-coated soy by-products. Mmmmm…?

We did education only, not testing, at St. Cyprian JHS, which was originally our stop for tomorrow. Uniforms: royal blue and white, burnt orange and khaki. The younger kids ran circles around the courtyard when we arrived, along with a not inconsiderable amount of chickens and goats. The older students weren’t more than 100- probably more like 75- and sat quietly in a single classroom to greet us. Morgan and Drew got about 30 boys and each team of 2 girls got between 6 and 12 students.

Carrie and I were paired up today, and it made for a very different group dynamic. On Monday and Wednesday, my groups were all young women, 18-22, which created a cool, laid-back, “big sister” vibe in the room. Carrie, conversely, looks and acts much older (not to mention she has about 10 years on me), which instantly made the room matronly and professional. Suddenly, she was the mother figure, the in-charge one with all the answers. I definitely shrank back and played the magician’s assistant. I think I did about 5% of the talking.

Our students wer 14-16 years old, and both shy and knowledgeable. They knew how to put on a condom and details about transmission that my other groups didn’t know at all. We played a game for the first half of class with great success, giving points for answering questions, whether correct or incorrect (teachable moments!). Not my favorite day of teaching, but not painful.

Lunch of white rice, yam balls and chicken (what, no fish sauce?) was consumed/spilled on the bus driving to the Planned Parenthood Association of Ghana (PPAG). We toured the facilities: one building for consultations, examinations and procedures; one building with a big conference room for meetings. The walls were covered in posters about HIV and keeping yourself safe from pregnancy. The autoclave and steel jars and instruments were clean and shiny, but smacked of the 1950s. Abortions are legal and obtainable in Ghana.

The afternoon brought us into town for shopping again. I was really bummed out that our service was so limited this morning. I’ve shopped enough, y’know? Drew and I used an internet cafe for an hour- slower service than in Abura but only one system crash this time. We wandered a bit and ended up back at the beach, where my inner mountain goat/mermaid hybrid came out and I was clamoring all over the rocky bluffs to stare at the ocean and the crashing waves. The street kids who play on the beach followed me and begged for money. Drew was kinder to them, both because he’s Drew and because I was tired of being switched “on” all day. Same for the Rasta guys who sell by the castle. I wasn’t in the mood to be super-cordial, and it sticks out more than usual in Ghana, where being nice and greeting everyone is paramount. I don’t have a convincing paparazzi smile. I didn’t feel like buying and I didn’t feel like being objectified, so I went to see the drummers and dancers instead.

Patrick saw me first, sitting under the Castle restaurant steps, and smiled and waved and I smiled and waved back. I sat at the top of the stone stairs but his buddies called to me to come closer to the band and to watch him. He came over and we talked for a minute. I asked what he’d done in the past two days and he said slept; he said he was in town yesterday and saw my mother (I assume Ellen). We admired each other’s necklaces. English isn’t Patrick’s strong suit. Neither is conversation. I don’t care. His buddies were more into our meeting than he was, I think, nudging each other and smiling at me. If he teaches our Oasis dance class on Saturday, I will die.

Dinner was at a restaurant. Makayla made it out to be a nice place with a Western menu: French toast, omelets, pizza. The grounds were pristine, the meal routine. Buffet dinners lend themselves to the same stuff we’ve been eating this whole trip. And still I haven’t had fufu! One positive thing, though: the resto had salt shakers! First I’ve seen on this trip. I loaded up a paper napkin with the white stuff. I’ll use it on buttered bread and eggs in the morning.

Reflections happened. We got an impromptu slide show on puberty rights from Brother, a VHO board member we met on Sunday. It was late and I was tired and cranky. We all went pretty feminist on him, asking about gender equality and such, which isn’t always a bad thing to do to a man.

Called Mom. Ready to go home. I’m upset we’re transitioning back to tourist mode, just when I’m getting the hang of action-packed days of service. I liked days early in the week when we were too exhausted to do anything at night. It felt productive, much more than half a day at a school and the rest wandering through Cape Coast’s tourist traps.

I wish the parents could be at JFK when we land. It doesn’t seem right to come home from a big trip with no one to greet you with a big glittery sign, no friends or family that can be there.

Look What’s Happened To Mabel

In ghana, storytelling on January 29, 2011 at 9:00 am

Wednesday, January 12

The alarm clock, she works! Thought the midnight chickens and the 7 am carpentry outside our window did their fair share of waking me up, I’m sure.

Now that I have a pineapple, of course fruit has started appearing at breakfast. I sat alone for a while till Ava, Lilly and Carrie descended, so I inhaled the pineapple under plastic and left the tasteless watermelon. We tried paw paw, too: bright orange fruit with a melon/mango texture. I liked it.

Williams and the VHO team were especially late today. It was almost 10:30 am by the time we pulled out in the bus. To pass the time, I journaled (I spend so much time with this damn book) and Lawrence and Joseph taught us a Ghanaian card game. Their pronounciation was rough, but I think it’s called Spur.

Today’s school< Jakawa SHS, was wilder than Monday’s, lots of open fields of brown grass and brush, one-story open-air buildings and structures, goats and sheep everywhere. Monday’s students wore dark blue dresses with pink piping for girls, pink shirts and blue shorts for boys; today was teal dresses for girls, teal shirts and khakis for boys. Same introductions to a packed assembly hall, same splitting into classrooms. I was paired with Lilly and Ashley, who both have experience with teens They were the big sisters that set the tone of the room; I was the legitimate, intimate one that did the demonstrations.

We had 67 girls, aged 15-18 years, with a 20 year old and a 23 year old thrown in. They were quiet and more unresponsive than Monday’s girls. Thte beginning of class was like pulling teeth. They became animated once we pulled out the wooden penis and wooden model vagina with frighteningly large lips and a see-through stomach wall to show the uterus. By the end, they all wanted our phone numbers and email addresses. A few of them asked me questions quietly after class was finished, which had never happened before and make me feel good. The girls had trouble with my name (everyone thinks I’m Mabel, not Meb) but a lot of them called out to me with both names on campus throughout the afternoon. I felt special that they would remember me.

The group ate lunch in the van: piece of fried chicken, 4 yam balls, fish sauce, coleslaw. I discovered almond cranberry Kind Plus bars are like manna.

No one wanted to play football, but before we could back out, Williams and his compatriot Daniel arrived with the uniforms. Yours truly suited up, along with Amira and Liv, neither of whom played on Monday, and prepared for sudden death. In the end, it wasn’t bad. We tied and our team lost by a single penalty kick. I played middle and kicked the ball the correct direction a total of two times, which is more than expected. I basically served as a glorified road block for the teenage Ghanaian boys, an orange cone with ladybug socks and a bright red face.

Joseph sought out meat pies in new and interesting shapes and crates of Coke, Sprite and Fanta. We were dying of thirst till he returned. The meat pies remind me of Ankh-Morpork. All African food reminds me of Ankh-Morpork.

We took our sweaty, disgusting selves to town for shopping. I got my salt shakers! No one else thinks they’re cool, but I think they’re cool. 15 cedis for 2, when the shopkeeper originally wanted 15 each. Morgan, Drew and I spent time with the Rasta guys. The power of friendliness: they love Morgan and cut him deals. Must be nice to be a man. I found a necklace with crossed skeleton keys on it that the seller, Kofi, said represent good and evil. His stall’s proximity to the slave castle gave the keys other connotations to me.

We checked out a bookstore, Barclay’s, the beach. I saw Patrick from afar, looking fine in a black T-shirt, but didn’t feel the need to greet him. (Creeper much?) The surf was magnificent and scary. A boy on the beach warned me away from the rocks and the undertow.

Dinner may have been lamb stew- tough to tell. I saved room for my pineapple, cut up by the staff. I ate 75% of it. Nommm.

We walked to Tina Tavern with Matt the Englishman for dancing and passion fruit Alvaros all round. We danced in circles and cheered each other on. Hot and sweaty. Everyone got FanIce off the street. Tastes like icing. Soooo good.

No, No Trouble

In ghana, storytelling on January 28, 2011 at 7:08 am

Tuesday, January 11

All quiet on the Western (African) front today. Courtney and I work to the sound of banging on our door at 9 am, half an hour late for breakfast and triple that time past our scheduled wake-up call. My alarm clock is uncooperative. We bolted downstairs (I love how easy it is to get dressed in dresses) and weren’t late for anything. I shoveled sausages, white bread and jelly, and a ton of pineapple down my gullet, and promptly got sick to my stomach.

The morning was spent in the Jangels conference room with a local social worker. She briefed us in detail on pre- and post-HIV text counseling, which probed useless at the very end, when we realized that having translators present would breach confidentiality. We were also trained in administering HIV tests, both finger sticks and mouth swabs, by a young medical student. The tests were simple and really interesting. I did the oral swab for myself, but I refused to stick my finger, because I am my father’s daughter and I know that if I had any open cuts on my hands, even with Cand Aids and rubber gloves, I wouldn’t be comfortable giving any tests to Ghanaians. I felt like a wimp for abstaining, though. The dozen little tubules of live HIV+ serum lying on the conference table made everyone nervous.

Lunch: 1 piece chicken, several pounds jollof rice. And a nut bar from my stash.

The afternoon started late (GMT), around 1 pm when we showed up at the Efutu site from last evening. Men were setting up poles for tents and rows of plastic lawn chairs. We stood around, casually interacting with the school children who trickled in. I had a decidedly one-sided conversation with a young girl, maybe 3 or 4 years old, with a purple stain on her mouth and hands from the plastic bag she was sucking.

Our role at the event was never defined, so even when the testing was announced over a loudspeaker to the community, we mostly stood around. Eventually, some of us went into the town in pairs to talk to people and encourage testing, while others of us stayed under the waiting tent and acted as the TV in the waiting room, a distraction and something to make potential testees stay. Funnily enough, the people who came to be tested were pretty cool about the whole thing, not nervous or anything, just quiet. We had our hands full with the local kids, though. They were roughly 11 years old and under, and god were they poor. All their clothes clearly made some US children very happy in the 1980s, and were covered in dirt. Their feet especially were caked in dust (though, to be fair, so were mine by the end of the day). They mostly wanted to be near white people, so any conversation or games were added bonuses.

Locals trickled in to be tested. They saw one nurse for pre-test counseling, one of 2 other nurses for the test itself, and supposedly any of the 3 nurses for post-test counseling, though that seemed lax. In the end, we tested 61 people, almost half and half for genders (a few more men than women), and all were negative. One individual’s test had a discrepancy, so they will be tested again in a few weeks.

I talked for a long time with a young man named Joseph. He’s a senior at Efutu SHS and skipped school today on account of the cold weather. (Cue raucous laughter.) We discussed testing, girlfriends, his aspirations to be a designer or a tattoo artist. The conversation morphed into him asking for a tattoo machine in a roundabout way, or for assistance for his family. I excused myself several times to avoid awkwardness.

Several girls from last night remembered me and latched onto me for the whole afternoon. The leader, Agata (Agatha?), took me on a tour of the village, stopping at the houses of various sisters and grandmothers, all of whom may or may not be related to her by blood. (Tight-knit Ghanaian sense of extended family and community solidarity and all that.) The homes were mostly mud brick with corrugated iron roofs- standard building procedure for Ghana. I saw Florence again and her room of cloth and dress patterns, two women pounding fufu and a paste of orange peppers, more women pounding fufu, more women sitting outside, even more couples inside, guys in a convenience shop. We passed a mosque that Agata wouldn’t enter, and approached a very nice whitewashed house, as big as ten huts with real glass windows, only to be flatly turned away by the woman at the door when I suggested she come to be tested. Other than her, all the people I spoke with said they’d come to the testing, though none would come with me. Because I worked alone and because I had, on average, 20 children hanging off my wrists at any given time (I counted), I didn’t sit to talk with any women more in-depth about HIV, which I wish I could’ve done, in retrospect.

My favorite new friends were the 2 grandmothers I met. One was a very old women, with a craggy face and a set of outrageously bad teeth. She wore clothes as dusty as those of the children, but in her ears were bright gold pendants with green gems in their centers. She attended to a small boy, putting on his shirt, while Agata told her what we were doing. My personal interaction with many villagers was limited to this: I’d greet them with “Otsi den,” they’d reply with “Bocoo” or some various response; if their English was good enough, I’d explain my job and compliment their village; if not, well, I’d talk anyway and smile a lot. The first grandmother smiled too, through crinkly eyes. The second grandmother was sitting on the dirt floor of her tiny kitchen, a free-standing hut away from the rest of her house. She stood and came to the door to talk. She was younger, 50s maybe, compared to the 60s or older of the first grandmother. She gave me 6 oranges to put in my bag for no reason at all. She, too, smiled a lot.

Back at the field/testing site, everyone was playing games: Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes; the Hokey Pokey; Simon Says. I stayed with my group of kids and played their games. The most common one is where you clap, hop and kick your legs out. In another, everyone holds hands in a circle while the littlest one in the white and yellow skirt set squats in the middle and a growing train of kids skips around her. A similar game has each kid go to the center of the circle and shake their finger and shake their hips, to the song of “Shake your body.” I preferred these games to American ones, simply because I wasn’t in charge of keeping the kids occupied when I didn’t know the rules.

One little girl with whom I spent a lot of time, in a fluttery purple shirt that kept falling off her shoulders, fell and cut herself in the only accident of the afternoon. Courtney was with her and called to me for Band Aids. When I brought the first aid box over, the kids immediately swarmed me, grabbing at the kit and stretching up their hands to me. I told them to back off but it wasn’t any use; I had to shut myself in the van to get bandages and wipes. The girl was fine and more blood was shed than tears. Ava’s hip is perfect for balancing sad children on.

The kids roughhouse and hit each other a lot, but no one reprimands them, so we haven’t said much. The same goes for handling nasty-looking knives and machetes at a young age.

We stayed in Efutu till about 4:30 pm, I think, and then bussed out, to the combined dismay and joy of the children (sad that we were going, but happy to watch us leave, in the least creepy way possible). Joseph took us to town, where we met his son Benjamin at a gas station. We all predict an arranged marriage with Liv any day now.

3 days a week, there is dancing and drumming at Castle Restaurant, Oasis (another nightclub), and at least one other spot on the coast. We went to Castle on Ellen’s insistence. A troupe of 20 or more dancers and drummers were going crazy outside the resto near the beach, all in pink T shirts. The best dancer was a thin young man with short dreads and a sweat-soaked shirt- this boy could freaking move. Did I mention he was gorgeous? I stared and took photos a little too much.

EDIT: Dearest reader, here follows a three-page account of my evening with the dancer, Patrick, who is also an electrical welder and a baker, and currently unemployed. I’ve redacted the pages because I don’t think they add to this story, and because I use the phrase “AAAHHH!” a bit too often in them. All you need to know is that we hung out and it made me exceedingly happy.

We ended the night with Alvaros at Oasis (pronounced oh-AH-sis- don’t ask why) on the deck facing the ocean at high tide. Yvonne, Liv, Carrie and I shared a table under a palm awning and talked about dream theories. Yvonne and I walked to the water at the end of the night. She asked me what my favorite thing to do it, and I asked her about meditation, which she digs. It was really peaceful and calming- great big ocean, great big waves.

We’d let Joseph go earlier in the evening, so we all had to call taxis to get home. Drop taxis take you exactly where you want to go, while tro tros, or shared taxis, act more like buses on a fixed route. Tro tros are like VW buses or vans; drop taxis are four-door sedans with the front and back body panels replaced with orange or yellow panels. Ashley had picked up a short guy in a fedora early in the evening (he’d picked her up, more like it) and he haggled our cabs down to 4 cedi each, which is about right for fare. Ours missed the junction, so we walked home in the darkness, down the road that Kirsty told us not to use after 8 pm. Woops.

Efutu SHS

In ghana, storytelling on January 27, 2011 at 9:00 am

Monday, January 10

Our first full day of service started late, with breakfast served at a leisurely 8:30 am. The kitchen is getting feisty: the cooks served bowl of vegetables and pineapple to boot. I also tried the corn flakes, whose nutrients are listed in ten different languages and which look suspiciously like astronaut food.

Efutu Senior High School is maybe a half hour drive from Jangels, more like 20 minutes. The grounds are massive and house girls’ and boys’ dormitories, bungalows for the headmaster and a few professors, kitchen and football pitch cum courtyard, along with the obligatory classroom buildings and mess hall. We 14 split into groups: Drew and Morgan got 100+ teenage boys in the mess hall, and the girls divided into groups of 3 to take anywhere between 20 and 40 teenage girls to a classroom to talk.

First , all the students gathered in the mess hall to greet us. More properly, we greeted them, by lining up at the front of the room and announcing our names and majors. At each introduction, the students went wild. They especially liked Drew’s Ghanaian football jersey.

Yvonne, Liv and I took the largest group of 40-odd girls to a classroom on the second floor. The students were aged 15 to their 20s; our class was 18-20 years, with two 22 year olds and one young 15 year old. We did introductions for both ourselves and the students, created a safe space for the girls by promising not to repeat anything they shared with us, and asked them what they know about HIV. We discussed ways to contract the virus (sex yes, sponges no) and symptoms (any and all they described, but we stressed that no one symptom is proof of HIV- only a blood test can do that). I did the male condom demonstration on a fairly impressive wooden dildo, which held the girls’ attention, and a nurse demonstrated a female condom, which freaked the girls out (“Too big, too big!”).

All the Efutu students, both boys and girls, were stunning: slim, fit, with gorgeous faces and good teeth to boot. If there’s a country in which to get an inferiority complex about your pastiness and relative lack of stature, Ghana is a good candidate. Even the heavy women are beautiful. And don’t get me started on the men. I’m pretty sure it’s illegal for me to think about the male students that way.

Yvonne, Liv and I answered questions from the girls (can you feel it if he wears a condom, can you wash out a condom and reuse it). I was proud of my comprehensive response to the non sequitur, “Can homosexuals get HIV?” and its follow-ups, “How do homosexuals have sex?” and “What about lesbians?”. Being gay is extremely stigmatized here, very much on the DL, and (I believe) illegal.

And then we had a dance party.

Afterward, I was surrounded by about 5 girls who wanted to know which church I attend (the answer didn’t go over well) and if I have a boyfriend (ha!). One of them, Tina or Tiwan (her nickname, cobbled together with her boyfriend Wango’s name), took me on a tour of the school. I tried gari, finely ground and dried cassava, in the mess hall- think panko bread crumbs or corn starch. The students were mixing it with red bean stew into a paste they ate with spoons. I would’ve liked to have tried some, but I lacked a spoon. Tiwan showed me Houses 1-4, the girls’ dorms, and the kitchen, a sooty, circular one-room building where large cauldrons headed over fire pits in the ground. A man sat on the floor in front of a pile of silver fish bodies and guts, preparing them for the fish stew that was to be tonight’s dinner. I exchanged contact info with Tiwan and a few other girls, including a strikingly beautiful and tall young woman who was the best dancer in the class, and apparently good at sports, too.

After parting ways with Tiwan and negotiating lunch (the van left with the box lunches! they’re all mixed up! oh god!), we noshed on chicken or fish and rice. The latter came with vegetables, so I braved tiny bones to get my vitamins for the day. Plus the fish sauce is red and spicy and good. Meanwhile, a little over half our group suited up and prepared for certain death at the hands of the Efutu SHS football team. Our outfits, both jerseys and shorts, were sherbet orange, totally geeky and sponsored by UNICEF. Think prison chic. The students wore red, sponsored by AIG. The game was short but spirited. We beat them 2 to 1, for the sole reason that we had 2 Ghanaian boys sub in for our shortage of players, at least one of whom was a ball hog. (Raquel later complained about these additions creating a gendered space on the field and sucking the fun out of the game. Oy.) I stayed on the sidelines as the water girl, taking photos and shouting encouragement. I wanted to heckle, but no one would be Waldorf to my Statler.

Everyone got celebratory Sprite or Fanta and meat pies, dense, flaky half moons with not much filling. After a wait (there’s always a wait), we headed back to Jangels, where the group split up at the junction down the road: some to the hotel to shower and rest, some to the ProWorld volunteer house to check it out, and some to hunt the elusive Internet at a cyber cafe. I joined the third group and paid 80 pesewas for an hour not-too-slow Firefox, with only three system crashes. We bought pineapples for the same price on the walk home, which I plan to make my breakfast tomorrow if we’re not served eggs. White bread gives me energy for about an hour and then I just crash.

The evening was the most egregious example of GMT, or Ghana Man Time, that we have yet experienced. (The moniker is a local joke.) It may not have come across in this journal yet, but for almost every outing we’ve gone on, barring the first event of each day, there is a wait period of at least 20 minutes, whether to pay the tour guide or because the van is missing. The phrase “I’m on my way coming” means “I haven’t left the house yet,” and we hear it quite often. Tonight, the plan was dinner at 5 pm and Efutu community outreach from 6-8 pm. In reality, dinner didn’t come till 6, Williams (our VHO point person) didn’t arrive to take us to the community till 7:15, the event didn’t start till at least 8, and we were home by maybe 10. It was chaos.

At dinner, I overdosed on plantains. I’m starting to resent my plantain habit. (Is that one of the steps of acceptance?) Someone pointed out that we haven’t eaten goat or lamb yet, or fufu, the national dish, for that matter. We played gin, badly, till Williams came.

We were told we’d be doing street HIV outreach at a film screening in the Efutu community. When we arrived, it was pitch black and a projector screen had been set up in the pack of a pickup truck. A soap opera (B-rated, for sure) called Agatha, Part 2 was screened, wherein Agatha the wayward woman is taken by a man who falls for her and wants to marry her; all this while her plump, over-mascara-ed madame claps her hands with pride and her father bemoans a lost inheritance. The show was a ploy to draw in locals, because let’s face it, HIV is not the sexiest of topics (irony of ironies).

Two small kids sat on my lap during the HIV film, a production of the Salvation Army in Ghana, shown to a considerable crowd. The film was gender-biased and abhorrent because of it. 2 stories, that of Nancy who had sex with her older boss for money and gave HIV to her loving husband, and that of Joyce who was a good girl till she had sex before marriage with an HIV+ man, painted an unrealistic and unfair portrait of how to contract HIV for young men and especially young women, in a nation where extramarital affairs are almost expected of men and condom use is still a tough subject. The atrocious acting didn’t make the film any more palatable.

Lilly called us together as the film was ending and sent us out into the crowd in pairs with a translator (read: random bilingual local) to talk to people about their thoughts on the film and answer any questions they might have. I initially paired up with Carrie but got distracted by a group of 6 or 8 kids staring at us. I befriended them all and spent the evening with them, learning Fante, singing songs (Joy to the World and If You’re Happy And You Know It, naturally) and answering questions about the US: mother’s name, siblings’ names, teacher’s name.  I pulled out my bag of tricks from Kenya and let them feel my ghostly white arms and my hair, which the little ones flipped for. My favorite was a five year old girl in a frilly white dress who stayed at my side the whole night. We trooped over to an open-air clay structure and sat in a cluster. I’m amazed I still have all my valuables. Dennis’s money pouch is super handy for situation involving crowds, dark spaces and tiny hands; you can’t access any cash without disassembling the wallet, which is impossible to do without my noticing. (Win!)

I tried to fit HIV into the conversation, but the 6 year olds didn’t speak English and the 11 year olds didn’t really care. My one good HIV interaction of the night was with Florence, the 17 year old sister of one of 2 girls intent on teaching me Fante. (Most of my fan club was content to stand as close to me as possible and hold my hands.) I asked what she thought of the movie and she said she liked it and learned from it, that in school she learned to use condoms to prevent AIDS, and that her girlfriends used condoms but not her because she was focusing on her studies. I tried to branch the conversation out but she didn’t really understand. Either way, I was proud.

The volunteer group shared later that their outreach was rough. It’s hard to connect to people and have a good talk in the dark, with a loud film blaring in the background. Plus, a lot of teenage boys showed up, and when the group began distributing condoms, they went wild and almost started a riot in their clamoring to get some. Finally, Ellen felt it wasn’t safe for us to stay, so we booked out on the bus with the kids reaching up to the windows and running waving after us. I felt like we were dignitaries fleeing Cuba.

I’m proud of my work (play?) with the children, but I’m frustrated that I didn’t feel safe enough to push my comfort zone and talk to locals. I realized in speaking with the girls at Efutu SHS today that I haven’t interacted much with Ghanaians yet, especially in an educational role. It’s scary! I’ll get better at it over the next few days, I hope, and it’s a good thing to realize for future gigs. I get scared is all.

They Say It Makes You Crazy, But I’m Already Crazy

In ghana, storytelling on January 26, 2011 at 9:00 am

Monday, January 10

7:45 am

Yesterday was rough.

Peanut butter made an appearance at breakfast. It was neither deliciously nutty nor candy sweet- just kinda sticky. The apricot jam is getting old and the fruit we were promised has yet to be revealed. Eggs and Ellen’s beans were good as always, but a less-than-hearty breakfast really affects my energy for the day.

Yesterday’s highlight was the Kakum National Park canopy walk. We climbed 40 meters above our starting point with a guide, up steep stone steps into the rain forest, and then another 40 meters above the forest floor to reach the bridges. There were seven bridges in all, suspended by thick twisted wire cables, floored by wooden planks between metal poles and guarded by netting on both sides to prevent falls. We were briefed on local wildlife a bit by our guide, but other than that, there was no coddling involved in this expedition. I was the first to cross the bridges, which made me proud, and the first to spot monkeys playing in the canopy below. Each landing between bridges encircled a tree trunk like the world’s best wrap-around porch cum tree house. We could see for miles, till the trees disappeared into shadowy figures on the horizon. The sounds of birds were all you could hear. Unbelievable.

Drew, Raquel and I were at the head of the group and finished early. We followed three Dutch tourists who knew the way our through the forest. This might’ve been my favorite part of the morning. With the group both fat in front of and behind me, I was alone in the forest for good chunks of the trek back to base camp. I imagined myself a Columbus or a Cortez, surrounded by bamboo and baobab and butterflies, exploring uncharted territory. I may or may not have been playing the soundtracks to Pocahontas and The Road To El Dorado in my head. (And yes, my more socially conscious colleagues would be horrified to find me identifying with such a Euro-centric, colonialist legacy, but it’s my fantasy, dammit, not theirs.)

The monkey sanctuary was next. Originally intended as a guest house with a few animals, it’s now a zoo of sorts with 42 kilometers of rain forest attached, into which animals are reintroduced if conceivable. A thin, tan and utterly crazy Dutch woman runs the sanctuary with her husband; it was she who took us around. I’d name all the animals if I could, but quite honestly, I’d never heard of half of them before. Various monkeys, porcupines, furry relatives of the elephant, infant deer or antelopes, a python, alligators. The names were the best: the python is named Monty, a pig with a tuft of mohawk-style orange hair is Punky, a monkey with particularly pointy, furry ears is Dr. Spock. Joseph rushed to tell Liv the Fante names of all the animals. At one point, they held hands. Theirs is the best relationship to come out of the trip, in my opinion.

We climbed the top of a hill and looked out over all Mrs. Doolittle’s (not her real name) property, even down to Kakum where we began our morning. Mrs. D told me about her origins in the resto business, how her only pet before this sanctuary was a goldfish, how her husband has malaria now, how she only took Larium, a malaria drug, for 2 of her 7 Ghanaian years, during the rainy seasons, and she dropped to 41 kilos. She didn’t flinch when the monkey tethered near the house repeatedly flung itself at her arm; she just laughed and pried the little bugger of. “We had a deal! You would bite Speedy Gonzalez,” and she tossed a stuffed toy in the air.

Lunch and down time happened at Hans Cottage, another resort with a buffet of rice varieties, chicken, fish, plantains, steamed vegetables and beans. My growing aficionado status has allowed me to perceive slight differences between light and dark plantain fries, sweet and bland, and the way in which cutting methods affect the end product (julienne is different from rounds is different from large chunks). I’m not one for second helpings, but I make a nightly exception for plantains. Or afternoon-ly. Or whatever.

The rest of the afternoon was whiled away in the Jangels conference room about the dining room, in an NGO orientation for the next week’s in-school HIV education. Five teachers and professors, men, from a local group named Volunteer Health Organization or VHO, schooled us in local culture and customs, and prepped us for questions we’d likely receive from the students. The meeting was long, and alternately informative, amusing, frustrating and insulting. The men could be vague and disorganized, and (worse) patriarchal and almost mocking at times. No details stick in my mind, just a general annoyance and a lot of man-bashing from our group for the following 8 hours.

The whole day was pretty rough, quite honestly. I’d been feeling isolated from the group, and it was getting to me. I ate my feelings at dinner, and again when we went into Cape Coast at night for the ATM and to get a “pop,” as Ava adorably dubbed it. The 14 of us dominated Castle Restaurant and ordered far too much of its sub-standard food. We all got milkshakes (problematic to start because Ghanaians don’t refrigerate their milk and we didn’t know the origin of the fruit) and fruit pancakes, listed under the “Deserts” section, along with “boiled potatoes.” (I tried to make a joke about my favorite desert being the Mojave. It died.) The milkshakes arrived in plastic Dixie cups, warm, half foam, with a taste reminiscent of meat- and that was only the pineapple. The fruit shakes, a mixture of apples and tropical fruits, added notes of sawdust. They were pretty damn awful.

The pancakes arrived half an ice age later and didn’t totally disappoint. They were spongy and folded like crepes over warmed fruit. The evening’s hilarity centered around a mistake of mine that got blamed on Ava. Our end of the table ordered three pancakes to share: apple, pineapple and lemon, and Ashley, at the other end of the table, ordered a second pineapple pancake. The waitress dropped off an apple and two pineapples at our end of the table, and yours truly, being a little piggy, chalked the discrepancy up to a miscommunication and dug in. She had misheard my lemon as melon the first time, after all. Three desserts later, the lemon arrived, and with it, a table-wide investigation for just the facts, ma’am. Somehow Ava got pinned with the blame- not in a bad way- and received her share of verbal harassment the whole night. The table laughed so hard that most girls couldn’t breathe. I was on the outside looking in (giant surprise) but whatever.

I called the parents and gave them the Cliffs Notes version of the past four days. They said it snowed in Syracuse. I broke down and sobbed to Mom about how excluded I felt, and she was awesome and Mom-like and comforted me. I spent the rest of the night slumber-party-hopping, from Ellen’s room to Yvonne’s room till 1 am. It made it better.

Sound Of Silence

In ghana, storytelling on January 25, 2011 at 9:00 am

Sunday, January 9

10 am

Our latest volunteer, Matt, is from Manchester. He just left several months’ volunteering in South Africa to come here till March. He graduated uni in July and has been avoiding the real world and the job market since then. When asked about his plan after March, he said, “Irrelevant,” but hinted at grad school, which is unspeakably cheap in the UK.

I lay on a bench under the palm trees and listened to the 10 o’clock news on the radio. An Arizona Congresswoman shot in the head, 15 tourists decapitated in Acapulco by a drug cartel, 2 French tourists killed in Niger along with a busload of Muslims. I haven’t heard any news for several days, and it was sobering and grounding to hear President Obama’s voice again.

5:20 pm

I feel frustrated and out of place and unnecessary and a drag. I’m not a social worker and I’m not an HIV expert and I don’t have as much compassion or sociability as everyone else. I’m too serious, I’m too cynical and I don’t think anyone likes me or would miss me in my absence.

What A Man Can Do, A Woman Can Do It Better

In ghana, storytelling on January 24, 2011 at 9:00 am

Saturday, January 8

Mornings are still my favorite here. They’re bright and cool, and no one smells like sweat yet. The country smells like trees and smoke from burning trash.

We departed late because our guide, Lawrence, was 40 minutes behind. I feel like I’m at summer camp- T-shirts, long shorts and sunscreen. I’m wearing three kinds of sunblock right now. The most amusing is the face stick that looks like a glue stick and makes my ears smell like mint.

Fruit was missing from breakfast again, but we’ve been promised it tomorrow. Today was one sausage and dried-out tomato slices- I stole two more and some vegetarian Heinz beans from Ellen. Still more bread, butter and jam. I’m rationing my salt packets from the US. Butter tastes so much better with them! The tea is boring and Ashley refuses to stomach the instant coffee anymore.

We saw a ton of idle kids in town yesterday. Kirsty said they don’t go to school- attendance is mandatory but it’s not enforced. They might sell things or beg in cities. The girls’ ears are pierced at birth to differentiate the genders, since girls aren’t allowed to grow their hair long until they’ve grown to 18.

The back of the bus sucks. The windows open further, so Morgan likes to take pictures back there, but the shocks don’t work too well, so every pothole or speed bump rattles like an armload of dropped pots and pans, and makes me clutch my boobs for dear life.

We spent the morning at Joy House, a school Alternative Breaks helped to construct and paint last year. It’s in use now for 150 kids. Our job was to make bricks to build an additional room to the school building. 15 or 20 children helped us, along with Lawrence and Dennis, the director of the school.

Here’s the plan:

1. Take plastic buckets and basins to the river or watering hole, a five minute walk through the forest behind Joy House. Fill with water. Give buckets to 8 year old children to balance on their heads. Bring back to the school. Invent songs and dances on the way. (The children sang the word “wedding” in Fante over and over again. Ava started the impromptu conga line; Courtney was in the middle and I brought up the rear. Repeat. Have both your hands held by different children each time. Let them model your sunglasses and hat. Take their photo 7 billion times.

2. Take other buckets and basins to the road, where men are breaking up piles of red earth with pickaxes and transferring the soil to said buckets. Take your full basin back to the school. Repeat. If you get the really big silver metal basin, take a friend to help you. Have Joseph thrust a shovel into your hands and show you how to grip it and fill buckets. Do so with vigor. Fling dirt everywhere but the bucket. Bend your knees. Flatten your back. When one dirt pile is down to the dregs, improvise using a pickax based on what you’ve seen the men do. Learn the flat end is more effective than the spiky end to disperse rocks and soil. Develop a genuine fear that you’ll miscalculate and pick your own eye out. Repeat.

3. Take your shoveling skills to the dirt pile by the school, where men and Liv are turning over the soil and adding grey concrete powder to it. Stab the dirt pile with choppy motions. Learn how to sprinkle water and make the dirt dark brown and wet. Repeat.

4. Watch Lawrence or Joseph shovel finished cement into metal forms and pack it in. Heft the model with a partner. Feel like your arms will fall off. Shuffle around the corner to the school and deposit the metal box with Dennis, who will up-end it and produce a fully formed brick. Carve your name into its side, if you wish. (I didn’t get to.) Have 15 or so bricks by the end.

5. In your down time, play London Bridge and Simon Says with the kids. (I taught the YMCA.) Ask their names, tie their dress ribbons, and try to get Jeff the silent 4-year-old to speak. When you get stuck with the quiet, serious girl, just stand there holding her. That’s cool too.

6. If any part of your body or any article of your clothing is not sweaty, sticky, greasy, achey or covered in orange dirt by the end, you’re doing it wrong.

And that was only till 10:30 am.

Liv is the star pupil of the trip. The girl gave herself blisters from shoveling so intensely, and she’s learning Fante like a pro. Just today she picked up numbers 1-10 and basic phrases by repeating the guys at the site phonetically. Joseph adores her and now teaches her constantly through repetition.

I have my first real souvenir of the trip. Dennis gave me his money pouch to hold for safe-keeping which he was shoveling cement. He later found out I speak French (I may be the only one in the group who does) and he spoke with me! Several times. I felt so cool! I returned the purse to him as we were leaving, and he asked if I wanted to have it. I said I’d love to, so he took his money out and handed it to me. It’s beautiful leather, with Africa embossed on the front- something I’d never buy for myself, which is even better. WIN.

We all had ice cream to recover from manual labor, over my protestations of “But it’s only 11 am!” I tried FanChoco. FanIce is my favorite, hands down, since it’s creamy. Amira likened the flavor to frosting. FanChoco was good once it began to melt into chocolate milk- otherwise, it was too icy.

Everyone loves Alvaro. I tried the pear flavor today- it’s spot on, and better than the sickly sweet pineapple flavor. Joseph was watering down his Coca Cola and I asked why. He said it’s too sweet, and everyone in the group agreed.

Mallory, the junior voice major from SUNY Potsdam, and Daisy, the Chinese-born, Australian-educated Cambridge engineering student, individual ProWorld volunteers who’ll accompany us for the next two days, fit into our group well. We drove to to a resort on Abandze Beach, where all the ladies piled into a bedroom and changed into swim gear. We hit the water immediately. It was warm! A nice respite from the frigid coastal waters of the US. We were told to stay away from the foreboding black boulders rising from the water. Morgan, Mallory, Drew, Ava and I ventured out far into the waves, which were big enough to surf in. A few hours later, when Mallory and I went out again, the tide was high and the breakers were dangerous, preventing us from reaching where we were earlier and pushing us constantly toward those rocks. We attempted boogie boarding a bit before heading in and collapsing.

I took no less than two naps on the beach and escaped without a sunburn. Lunch was my least favorite meal so far, but the extra-fried egg rolls and spaghetti with lobster and veggies were both quite tasty. The rest of it was white bread with butter and a hint of garlic (boring, but others liked it) and a flavorless beef and bean stew mixture that disappointed (again, only me).

Ellen and Nansi befriended some children on the beach and played Duck Duck Goose with them. These kids were rougher than the ones at the school, so I guess the experience was less positive. My only interaction with them was trying to get a group of 5 kids carrying things along the beach to join in, since they seemed interested. English wasn’t their strong suit, I think, and the one girl I managed to bring up to the game smiled sheepishly and told another girl that she was selling things and couldn’t stay.

The beach was great for bonding. My favorite image of the day, more than the school kids, was 12 beautiful women, all shapes and sizes and colors, wading into the ocean with a white beach and palm trees in the background. I felt a surge of pride in my gender that I don’t often feel. After lunch, I sat with six ladies- Yvonne, Liv, Ashley, Amira, Ava- and we shot the shit for hours. Body image, roommates, boyfriends and husbands, sperm banks, RAs, 4Loko. I often fell quiet and didn’t know what to add to the conversation, but just being with these powerful, self-confident women was a gift.

A bartender at the hotel was on the hunt for a wife. He spoke to Ellen about liking Ashley, and later told me I was “a nice, pretty lady.” He was sexy, I won’t lie. At that, everyone in this country is beautiful- the men, the women, the children and babies are all attractive. Obrunis look funny next to them. It’s intimidating.

Our second GCI “module” (class) was hours late and more pointless than yesterday. This one, on sustainable development, lasted 20 minutes and got the definition of the phrase wrong from the get-go. Our entire group hates the sessions, and Ellen plans to speak to Kirsty about getting us out of future GCIs.

We picked up fruit for the group on the way home and ate it as a post-dinner snack during reflections. Dinner was lots of veggies, chicken and (too bony for me) fish, rice (which I loaded up on to avoid chastising from the cooks and then didn’t eat) and yam balls with red sauce. Who knew yams were white and like a starchier potato? Ellen, the token vegetarian and my eating buddy, shared her plantains with me too. I think plantains are my new chapatis, though nothing can ever replace my beloved fried Kenyan pancakes.

It’s only day three, but it struck me today that I want to do this type of trip over and over again. If I could join a group and go to a ProWorld site, or another NGO that does both service and cultural outings, I’d save the money and come for two weeks of vacation time every few years. I could start small- do a NOLA trip or farming in California, or WWOOFing in Europe. Getting away from the office completely for two weeks might be hard, especially if I get a political job, but I think I’m going to make it my goal. After a while, I could have quite a collection of travels and projects under my belt. It’d be a great way for me to continue service abroad, yet work in the US and in NYC, where my heart is. Plus, ProWorld has sites in India, Peru, Mexico, Belize, Thailand, Nepal soon- I’d go to any and all of those!

Courtney and I switched rooms! We don’t know why. We’re now in 201, a palatial suite, with common room, full bathroom with full-length tub, and huge bedroom with fan, couch, two wardrobes and two beds. The pillows feel more like they’re filled with cotton balls than Silly Putty, and the AC and the faucet both work. Our full-length mirror is too skinny and we can’t unlock the door to the adjoining balcony, but I’m not complaining.

We had a late-night Fante lesson with Lawrence- good but long. Reflections are getting better and more beneficial, too. We discussed highs and lows today, and shared some touchy subjects: pickpocketing, sexual harassment from locals.