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.