Friday, May 27, 2011

Do Not Stop Making Ice Cream

There was this woman I would go to. She made ice cream. In Ghana! In Jirapa! It’s safe to say I loved her for this. Ghana ice cream by the way melts really fast. A side note, I’m also involved in helping a People Living With HIV group. I’ve missed the last couple months meetings due to Peace Corps conferences and Girls Camp etc etc…anyway so I finally came to a meeting and she was there. My ice cream lady! She had just joined a few months before when she found out she was HIV positive. She was weaker and a little sadder since the last time I saw her. I could see this imaginary horrible, heavy, weight on her that I couldn’t begin to imagine. She has 4 kids and works hard to put them through school. So I stopped by her store again today and she didn’t have any ice cream. A sad day in my world. She is my moment of fake Dairy Queen happiness in Africa. She said since she was sick she didn’t have the energy to make the ice cream anymore.

Later that evening she stopped by my house. To make her feel less bad about not having ice cream I told her it’s good that she relaxes and rests to feel better. Then she told me it’s not because she feels too sick to make the ice cream but it’s a fear she has. This woman is a business woman and very proactive. But now she won’t make the soy milk or soap she used to make. She won’t make anything. She won’t even cook for her family anymore. I asked her why, only to hear the answer I didn’t want to hear. She said she didn’t want to take the risk. What if she cut herself? What if one of her children got it? My heart sank slowly to my stomach.

There are a lot of myths about HIV. For instance some people in America thought I would get HIV from simply coming to Africa. So you can imagine what the people in Africa (coming from no educational background) think about HIV. A women’s group I did an HIV/AIDS lesson with thought a lot of interesting things about it (Note the picture). They thought it was air born, spread through urine, and that there is a cure in America (America is perfect in the eyes of most Ghanaians; fascinating and disturbing fact). Experiencing all this has made me realize how difficult it is to teach people about something they fear, they can’t see, or really understand. With no scientific or health background HIV is not that tiny retrovirus programmed to make thousands of copies of itself by high jacking your cells machinery to do it. No, it is scary and probably there because you did something wrong. I would like to remind the doctors and nurses that work with these patients that treating a patient is not just treating a disease. There is more you have to do to help someone then cut them open or give them drugs. You have to tell them, to make ice cream, damn it.

No matter what I said, she felt scared of herself. I told her that I know that she is always careful and she never spilled blood in the ice cream before so why worry now? Plus, I’m convinced it’s impossible to even cut a Ghanaian woman’s hands, they’re so rough and thick from all the hard work, farming, and grabbing of really hot items . Note: There are no pot holders in Ghana. Or need for them. Even if blood was in the ice cream the virus wouldn’t survive to infect someone else. Anti-Retro-viral therapy, CD4 counts, neutralizing antibodies, tcells, bcells, viral load…blah blah blah she still has HIV and her entire family is afraid they’re going to get it from her. And worst of all, she is afraid that she will give it to them. My friend Emmanuel (the regional representative of People Living with HIV) called this self-stigma. He said that sometimes it is worse than being stigmatized by other people. We really can be our own worst enemies.

I don’t know how she got HIV. Most of the women get it from their husbands who are sleeping around or are allowed to take multiple wives. At least her family hasn’t kicked her out. Some people I’ve met have been left to die by their families. Why keep someone alive who is just going to die sooner and may infect others? That’s the logic. But, if that’s the case, everyone in Ghana who takes public transportation has a higher chance of dying than if they have HIV so we should all just stop eating and wasting food. Save time and resources for all those safe people that don’t leave their homes.

If I can give her and all the people like her one message before I go this is it. I know I can’t speak from experience but, don’t be afraid. We all have something. We all have secrets. And we are far from perfect but you have to keep doing the things you do. Your life has not stopped or ended. It has simply taken a new path. Go with it. But, most importantly, don’t stop making ice cream. Never stop making ice cream.

One more thing! I COS (Close of Service) on August 5th and will be taking off on a Europe adventure with the amazing Casimir. Here we are at Paragliding (picture below) which took place during Easter. The football(soccer) field in the background is where we landed. Its crazy to think I only have a few months much to do...but I'm ready and excited for the next step in my life.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Back to Local

I rode my bicycle up to the Jirapa District Assembly at 10am on a Tuesday. Its a simple and usually quiet 3 story building but today its flowing with life like a busy anthill. Its the day of the 2011 "Inauguration of the Jirapa District Assembly". A building full of elected officials representing, "the people". The ants are interesting. They wear bright patterned clothing, stopping to greet each and every ant in their path. A formal obligation ingrained in them since birth. I join the ants in their customs and eventually enter the conference hall. Squeaky ceiling fans push hot air around the crowded room and a sea of colorful traditional smocks (Casimir is modeling one in the photo) greets me with Ghanaian formality. I find a seat in the back to observe the "smock fashion show" and try and blend into a room I will unequivocally not blend into in anyway possible. But, still I try. It doesn't work as recognizable faces start sitting beside me making jokes about their luck in seating and comments on how hot it already is. I ignore most of their jokes because I came to the meeting to watch a friend of mine be sworn in as an Assembly Woman representing her community. She's one of the only two Ghanaian women in the large room. Don't worry, I'm not going to talk about gender issues (although its a huge one) but, as I was sitting through the ceremony I continuously tried to get a glimpse out of the window and into the real world below. The place where I really wanted to be at that moment.

I've realized since long ago I am not meant to sit in an office trapped levels above the ground. Not only do I hate the awkward formality of all of it and the dead ends that come from long boring meetings but, the place where ideas originate and plans take action is not in an office building. Its on the ground. Its under mango trees, its in the market, walking to farm, fetching water, sitting in a Ghanaian classroom. Its in action. Its in communication. I've noticed that when you stay so removed from the earth and the people you lose the ability to make informed and experienced decisions on behalf of a society. When a political figure moves from their big isolated homes to a car and then an office building followed by lunch at an expensive restaurant and bar they miss the world. They pass everything by through tinted windows. Yet these are the lives of the "Big Men" that represent the people in Ghana (and probably most places in the world).

The next day, I was actually in the office to work on the computer when I was instantly disturbed (as normal). Two men came from Wa (Our regional capital) and I was pulled out of the office with my friend (the one just elected Assembly Woman) to get lunch and a drink. Normally when "Big men" go out they hide from Jirapa behind bottled drinks and food delivered on trays (I know that sounds normal for America but here its not affordable for most). Don't get me wrong, its nice to be treated every once in awhile. It is a good thing to enjoy your successes and life but this lunch was different, in a better way. As we sat on a bench in the center of the market drinking pito (picture of my friend, Nick, having some pito) and eating the local cakes and meat for anyone to see one of the men noticed how uncomfortable my friend was (this was not her choice setting) and explained something to her. He told her, "The moment you are elected to represent your people you start trying to avoid them. You start to forget who you're working for and what they stand for. Its good to go back to your culture and people. Be local! Remind yourself and everyone you're working for that you're just like them. And you are not above them, better than them, or superior. You know them and that's why you can represent them." The moment he said this I started enjoying this lunch even more. As I've been working in a government office in a developing country for almost two years now, I've noticed the corruption in politics and that he is correct. Once you're elected you're no longer "local".

In the Peace Corps they encourage us to stay out of politics. In fact, its in our handbook, but not only do I represent the United States Government but I am hosted by part of the Ghanaian Government. Hard for me to ignore politics. I don't have an opinion about their parties or who is running but more what they are doing. Or in most cases, not doing. I am here because children are dying from diarrhea that could have been prevented from having a clean water source, because malaria is continuing to cut peoples lives short, and because Ghana requested assistance to educate their people. So no, I don't care about greeting everyone in a fancy office building when the person I really need to greet is carrying her sick child on her back to the hospital. And no, I don't care if the Assembly holds a thousand meetings every year if none of them ever leave the office to talk to their people, to find out if their programs are working or how they can fix them. To be fair, there are some wonderful government employees that work very hard and do care about who they're working for. To be honest however, there are a lot of employees that only do things that benefit themselves which is not the ideal "civil servant". As far as I'm concerned the Peace Corps is about being "local" so to speak. Grassroots. I do not belong in an office. I can't do much in an office except type letters and stare at walls. What I can do outside is so full of possibilities its overwhelming.

A health club I work with at a local Junior High School has done more for their community in a few months than entire departments at "the office" do in 6 months. They educated the younger students on HIV/AIDS with practiced activities and songs. They all came on a Saturday morning to help clean up the hospital. During the clean up they even found and helped to solve a public health risk at the children's ward (picture of some of the kids cleaning). Where is their ceremony? Where is their time and travel payment? Their sitting allowance? If 15 year olds can do all of this without money, cars, computers and offices I start to wonder about all the complaints I hear at the office.

I cannot and do not wish to waste my time stuck in an office. I think I've made that clear by now. I can only speak for myself (after all I do realize its easy not to care what people think when you get to leave after two years/stay out of politics) but I will never stop sitting with the locals. I will never stop listening to their stories. I will never stop and pretend that the only people that exist in this world are like me and those equally employed. People here are always asking me why I'm not in the office all the time? It's simple, my work is with the people. Not the office. The office is there as a means to assist the people, not a prison to house dictators. If you ask anyone what their favorite part about their work is, do they ever say, "I love my office"? I doubt it.

This is a picture of my health club with some GREAT District Assembly employees that supported their clean up activity!

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

My new perspective in an old place

Originally I thought I would never leave Ghana. I would serve my full 27 months without stepping foot on American soil. Why would I need or want to go back? I had spent 23 years there! Well, exactly. I had spent 23 years there and to be honest I missed America. I missed my family and friends. I missed the food, I missed playing the piano, and I missed my culture. I'd like to think I'm so integrated in Jirapa that leaving would devastate me but when it came down to it, I needed a break. Ghana means something important to me but Montana will always be my home and I needed to go home.

Now, I still have 8 more months of the Peace Corps and a lot to do so I didn't come home for a few weeks to forget. What I have done, everyone I met and everything I learned in Ghana is only making my vacation back home all the more interesting. In fact I've realized I've forgotten quite a few things about America. Observations:

1. I can use my left hand. I have gotten so good at always using my right to not offend Ghanaians I actually feel some guilt when I use my left hand.
2. I can pay with large bills and people will have change. I was so used to getting all my money in 1 or 2 bills I almost asked for 1 dollar bills at the bank until my mother reminded me it would be better to get larger denominations. Nobody can break a 20 at market but in a grocery store, no problem.
3. Fast food is really disgusting but amazing. I think I forgot the disgusting part but after a fake cheesy something with ham and triple fried curly fries at the airport my stomach wasn't exactly agreeing with my taste buds.
4. Nobody is hissing or yelling at me. To go in a store or shop and not have the owner try and persuade me to buy everything is strange but nice.
5. No offense to anyone but there are a lot of fat children in America. And you really notice it after being surrounded by skinny or really fit Ghanaian children all the time.
6. I have a seat belt.
7. No one says, "small, small", "sorryo", "I'm coming"(when they're leaving), "Aba"(my favorite saying in Dagaare) and "Paa".
8. I love milk. I really forgot how much I love dairy.
9. I can drink the tap water. :o)
10. American's are really nice. Everybody is always talking about how welcoming and friendly the people in Ghana are well, if it weren't for a friendly and nice American I would have missed one of my flights because I was so tired and fell asleep outside the gate. In my opinion we are just as courteous. At least in Montana.

I also notice a lot of things we take for granted. When people complain to me about their pipes freezing and not having water, or when I hear about spoiled children complaining about toys I cringe just a little. I'm not saying people can't complain and a lot of Americans I know work very hard for what they have but trust me, things could be worse. Cliche but, be happy with what you have, count your blessings, etc...don't make me say more.

America is not a completely evil self-centered place and its not perfect but it is my home and it has provided me with opportunities I am very grateful for. Opportunities many children in Ghana will never have. I can't even begin to address the differences and similarities between Ghana and America but I do know that people are people and that is what makes both of my two worlds go around.

I will head back to Ghana in a few weeks hopefully a few pounds heavier and a little refreshed. After my successful but stressful donation of 200 bicycles with 10 workshops, health club/school activities, and domestic disputes in Jirapa I feel I will be ready to go back to face all of these things with a new perspective. And the rest of my service will focus on my relationships. Although Washington DC likes numbers and results they don't make me smile quite the way a friend does. And thanks to Ghana my measure of success is qualitative not quantitative.

Happy New Year!!!!