Life As A PCV

I have officially sworn in as a Peace Corps Volunteer!

Our Swear In Ceremony was just over a week ago now, but it feels like it was so much longer. Life definitely changes after you become a PCV. One day, you are in a village with all the other Peace Corps Trainees as your neighbors, your homestay mom cooking every meal for you, and Peace Corps dictating everything you will do down to the hour, but that’s OK because it keeps you busy. On days we had to travel to Kukurantumi, a nearby town for training sessions, we would take taxis there but 3Peace Corps would drive us back on an air-conditioned bus. And every day at 10 am we would get a snack of juice and cookies. The day after swearing in, there was no more Peace Corps bus to take us anywhere, no Peace Corps staff to tell us where to go or even how to get to where we needed to be, and we all packed up our things and moved out of our homestay houses and headed off to our respective sites. It was sink or swim.

Saying goodbye to all my friends was incredibly hard. We practically spent every waking moment together for the past three months, and now we are spread all over the country. I was pretty much an emotional wreck for several days leading up to our goodbyes. However, once I was finally on a tro headed into the western region towards Adabokrom all the sad emotions began to leave and I felt myself becoming excited to be back at site. Part of it was the incredible scenery—I am really blessed to have such a beautiful site. I kid around and tell people I live in the jungle, but it’s true. I am in the Bia District of the Western Region, and most of the district is a protected national park. The area surrounding my village is thick rainforest with towering trees and lush foliage all the way up to the road. I love traveling to my market town just because it’s such a pretty drive.

Getting back to site was a bag of mixed emotions. I was happy to see my village and the people I met during site visit, but I was also a bit overwhelmed at the realization that this is where I will be living for the next two years, by myself. I got to my room in the chief’s palace and it honestly didn’t feel like home at all. Though I was expecting it, I was still discouraged to see mice droppings all over my room, including all over my bed (the last night I was at site visit I watched several mice crawl under my door and make themselves at home while I tried to sleep—not one of my best nights in Ghana). I was also disappointed, but not surprised, to see that the running water in my compound was still not actually running, which meant I was going to have to find an alternative for my bathroom since the flushing toilet wasn’t going to be an option. Mostly, though, the whole compound had an abandoned and lonely feeling to it and it just did not feel like home.

After being there for about half an hour my counterpart came to my house and told me that we could go see my new place if I wanted. Confused, I asked him what he was talking about. Seems it slipped his mind to let me know that I would be moving when I got back to site. I asked where I was moving and he told me that my new house was by the clinic, where my friend Evans and his wife live. I really like Evans and his wife (who I just call Sister… no idea what her real name is but she’s great) so I was excited to be close to them and close to the clinic where I will be spending a lot of my time. I had zero expectations about the new place, but I was excited at the prospect of having my own place since I felt like an intruder at the chief’s palace and felt comfortable there. We walked to the other side of the village, turned a corner, and there was an enormous, American style house behind the market area. It was clearly still under construction. At first I thought my place must be beyond this house, but we walked right up to it. Inside was several men painting walls, and we were greeted by Kofi, the landlord. He showed me the room that will be mine, which is enormous, with two huge windows, a beautifully tiled floor and high ceilings. I was so struck with how beautiful the place was I couldn’t believe my luck. They showed me the rest of the house, including where the toilet, shower, and kitchen will be. Peace Corps requires that the residence of a PCV have a toilet facility of some sort, and since the toilet will not be ready for some time Kofi was in the process of having a latrine constructed for me so I could move in as soon as possible. For the time being, however, there is an enormous open pit in front of the house. My counterpart told me I could move as soon as the latrine was completed.

When we got back to my room in the chief’s palace, my counterpart filled me in on why exactly I have to move. It seems that when the elders offered a room in the chief’s palace for the new PCV, they were not aware that Peace Corps would be sending a woman. There is an old traditional rule that women are not allowed to be in the chief’s palace while menstruating, but really, it means that women never actually live in the chief’s palace, period. That explains why I met one of the chief’s wives at her house across the village from the palace. After I left for technical training, the elders met to discuss this predicament. I guess some argued to let the rule go, but others were adamant that I could not stay because I was a woman. Once I heard that, I felt even more unwelcome in the palace and was glad for the excuse to leave. As I continued to think about it, I became more and more upset about the situation, probably because I didn’t expect to be faced with outright prejudice based on my gender the first day at site.

The second day at site I received a visit from BCS (Behavior Change Support project, the project from Johns Hopkins I will be working on) and my local NGO. It was good to meet the people that will be my bosses, for lack of a better term, and to be welcomed to site by them. The told me that the quarterly meeting for BCS in the Western Region was later that same week, and that I would be traveling to Takoradi to attend. When I heard this, I was excited because I wanted to learn more about what exactly my local NGO does and my role within BCS exactly is. A small part of me was also excited to be able to see the other PCVs from my training group that were also assigned to BCS in Western so soon. On Thursday, I met up with my friend Tristan and we began what turned out to be a 17-hour journey to Takoradi. 17 hours in buses on the horrible roads of Western Region was a special kind of torture, to put it lightly. The meeting was a one day meeting and was very enlightening, if anything. There is a giant disconnect from what we learned in training regarding the abstract idea of what BCS is supposed to be and how BCS is being implemented on the ground. It was a bit shocking, but I guess it was good to jump in head first the first week and know what I am really getting into instead of having idealistic ideas of how BCS works only to be disappointed down the road.

Today we traveled back from Takoradi. I couldn’t bring myself to do another 17 hour journey, so I stopped for the night at the Peace Corps sub office in Kumasi. Tomorrow I head back to my site for a few hours, but then I am leaving again to go to a three day training with BCS in Bia Region on malaria. Typically, Peace Corps asks that newly sworn in volunteers do not leave their sites at all for the first three months so they can really get to know their communities and integrate as much as possible. So far, that is definitely not working for me, but I don’t really have a choice since my project/NGO are asking that I attend these meetings. At the same time, I don’t really mind being away from site, doing work, while my latrine is being completed, because until then I cannot start to settle in. I can’t even unpack, since I will be moving at any time. Hopefully in a week my new place will be ready and I will be done with BCS trainings for a while, and I can finally go to site and start integrating, even if it is two weeks behind schedule.

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Wow, a lot has …

Aside

Wow, a lot has happened since the last blog.  Sorry it’s taken me a while to post, I’ve been incredibly busy and had very little time to sit down and write/post a blog. 

On March 19th we had our LPI’s, which is Language Proficiency Test.  After a month of intensive language training, we had to take an oral exam to prove we are proficient enough in our languages to go to our sites and survive.  The week leading up to LPI was very stressful for everyone.  In order to swear in, we have to prove that we are at least at an intermediate level in our languages, which after only 4 weeks of learning is a pretty tall order.  However, we all managed to pass the test, which was a great feeling. The night after we did the test we had a traditional night with all the host families, which included a potluck full of traditional foods from all over Ghana and a drumming and dancing demonstration from a local group.

The next day we all headed to Kumasi, a major city in the Ashanti region of Ghana. We were all so excited to go because we were going to Counterpart Workshop, which meant that our sites would be announced (finally!) and we would get to meet our counterparts, the Ghanaians we will be working with for the next two years.  The first morning of counterpart workshop felt like it lasted forever because we had to sit through several hours of sessions before getting the site announcements.  During the morning sessions, some of our trainers drew a giant map of Ghana and put dots where people would be placed. It was fun to watch them drew the dots out, but also nerve wracking. Finally, John started calling out names, projects, and regions.  Imagine waiting to be called for kickball in elementary school, but 100 times worse.  Finally, he called my name.  I was thrilled to hear I got the project I wanted—Behavior Change Support with Johns Hopkins University in the Western Region.  I will be working on a behavior change campaign with five other volunteers from my group focusing on malaria, family planning, maternal health, nutrition and water/sanitation issues.  The rest of counterpart workshop was a bit of a letdown and honestly pretty frustrating because all we wanted to do was go to our sites. 

Finally, on Saturday we got to go to our sites. My site is called Adabokrom and it is in the very northern part of the Western Region, right on the border of Cote D’Ivoire. The village is several thousand people (I haven’t quite determined how many; my packet said 10,000 but I don’t believe it is that many).  The entire village is without electricity. I arrived at my village after a very long day of traveling with all of my belongings. Turns out, I’m staying in the chief’s palace.  The chief has been ill for a while and hasn’t been living there, so basically I have the whole place to myself.  I have two rooms in the large compound to myself, and if anyone ever comes back to live in the palace with me I will share a kitchen and bathroom.  Until then, it’s all mine.  The bathroom has two showers, a flush toilet and a sink, which is amazing.  After my first day at site the water ran out, however, which made things interesting.

My counterpart had told me there was a funeral going on that day, but he didn’t mention that it was taking place right outside my house.  To get to the house, we had to wind our way through the funeral crowd.  Funerals are a big deal in Ghana anyway, but this was especially large because it was for an elder.  Most of the town, as well as a lot of people from other towns were there.  We dropped off my stuff in my room and my counterpart told me to come outside with him to the funeral.  We walked up behind the stage and I heard them start speaking on the microphone and they kept using the word “America” so I knew they were talking about me.  Then, my counterpart and I walked out in front of the stage and in front of the whole crowd and they introduced me to the community.  The funeral was convenient because all the elders were gathered right near the stage, and we walked down the line, shaking everyone’s hands.  Then we sat down across from the elders and they all got up, along with other important people from the community, to come shake my hand.  After about ten minutes of greetings, my counterpart and I left.  Soon after, all the elders left the funeral and came to the chief’s palace to again greet me.  Whenever the elders need to meet, they always convene at the chief’s palace in a community because there is a large, open area designated for their meetings in the compounds.  As they all settled into their seats, I came out of my room and introduced myself and told them my mission.  It was slightly intimidating to stand before 25 well respected men in their best red and black funeral garb, but they were very gracious and welcoming.

I spent three days at my site, getting to know my community, seeing the clinics I will be working in and preparing myself to live there for the next two years.  The first night was a bit overwhelming to be completely honest.  I think a lot of it was exhaustion from a long day of traveling and meeting half the town upon arrival. A major part of it was also the realization that I will be living in this village for the next two years of my life, with the closest friend living an hour away. Pretty intense feelings, but I’m fortunate that I have really great friends in Peace Corps with me and good cell phone reception, so I spent a few hours that first night talking to several friends about our sites and how we felt about them. 

After my few days at site, I met up with my friend Tristan (the one who lives an hour away) and we headed back to Kumasi together to meet up with the other people placed in the southern part of Ghana.  We stayed at the Kumasi Peace Corps Sub Office that night and had a really good time catching up, hearing about each other’s sites, eating pizza and drinking beer.  The next day we loaded up in the Peace Corps bus and drove eight hours to Tamale, where we have been ever since, doing technical training.  Tech training is really intense and draining, but it’s also a nice change of pace from language classes because this is information we will actually be using as PCVs.  We have done a lot of traveling over the northern part of Ghana, visiting different PCVs sites and villages learning everything from HIV/AIDS awareness and participating in a HIV testing day, seeing community projects like tree nurseries and school gardens, painting murals at nutrition clinics, teaching school health education classes, visiting with Catholic Relief Services, doing sanitation awareness activities, and building latrines. We are about halfway done, then we head back to our homestay community for about a week until we swear in as PCVs!  We swear in on April 19th, then its off to site and the real world.