Ghana and the afterlife

Bear with me here…I bought a book called “Travel Writing” and reading it in combination with hot-season boredom led to this article about a funeral I attended in January. If you actually want to know about what I’m doing, I’ll give a brief update now: sweating, stressing about the halt in progress of the Vocational Department I’ve been attempting to create for the past year, attempting to fit various parts of my body into a mini-fridge, and enjoying the company of my 406 absolutely perfect students. Now, moving on to my attempt at real-person writing…

The loud music oscillates as the wind carries the sound to and from my approaching ear. The drums have been replaced by speakers, the musicians by never-ending mp3 playlists, yet this tradition of playing music at exorbitant volumes to alert neighbors of upcoming festivities, has remained. The volume of the music deceives me into thinking we are closer than we are, but after twenty more minutes of bumpy dusty driving on a road that disappeared long ago, we finally arrive.

The blasting music is now accompanied by the smell of the freshly killed goat being prepared for a stew, and the familiar (but friendly) stares of a mass of Ghanaians, wondering who brought the white girl. A giant baobab looms like a creature above the traditional mud compound, reaching its arms as if to protect it from the expansive surrounding bush.  I’m surprised at the size of the crowd that has already assembled, given the fact that it’s just after 8 am, until I’m told that the majority of guests came the day before to take part in an all night drinking and dancing celebration. That explains the reek of booze on people’s breath and the familiar droopy-eyed pallor of a party that lasted too long. This must be rural Ghana’s version of a frat party.

And then I turn to see the reason why we have all congregated at this remote compound on the very edge of northern Ghana – the body of my friend’s late mother wrapped in the traditional straw mat, waiting to be brought to her final resting place.

Carrying the bodies to the grave site is harder after 5 shots of Apatesche

Carrying the bodies to the grave site is harder after 5 shots of Apatesche

This is not the first funeral I’ve attended over the course of my two year stint in Ghana, and definitely won’t be my last. Unfortunately, malaria, motor accidents, and medical care that leaves much to be desired, are constant reminders of the fragility of human life. However, Ghanaians have proven their resilience and have found a way to shed light in the shadow of ever-present death. Funerals are….well…..fun! They emphasize celebrating a life more than mourning a death, and are one of the few remaining events held in today’s Ghana, where genuine traditional beliefs and practices are still very much alive.

First of all, despite the recent development and urbanization of Ghana, people still maintain the “come one, come all” attitude of a small village. Everyone is invited and, in fact, encouraged to come even if they have no relation to the deceased or the family. Funeral size has become a sign of wealth, power and standing within a village. More affluent families hang posters and billboards around town to announce the funeral, much like concert posters adorn telephone poles of American college towns. “Come Join Our Thanksgiving and Burial Celebration for the Late Pantia Kolog Nyog-Naab!” Coffin shops line the streets with their colorful creations like the birthday decoration aisle at Michael’s; pepsi can caskets, race car caskets, caskets that look like a disco ball.  Once you arrive at the funeral, informative pamphlets are handed out like playbills. “Part one: musical interlude, opening prayer, tribute of family. Part two: Short Exhortation, Wreath presentation.”  Apatesche (the locally made hard alcohol) flows endlessly out of 3 gallon jerry cans, and the DJ makes sure the upbeat, bass-heavy hip-life music can be heard for miles. A typical celebration usually lasts from 3 to 5 days, depending on the wealth and stamina of the hosts, and it’s common for families to set aside more money for funerals than they do for university or insurance.

Of course, each funeral has its own flair depending on the tribe and traditions of the hosting family. In the mostly Christian south, funerals tend to be bigger and every attendee sports the traditional red and black funeral attire. They’ll sometimes wait six months after the death in order to spread the word and draw the biggest crowds. In the north, where tribal culture is more active and religion tends to be a blend of traditional beliefs and either Islam or Christianity, funeral traditions vary slightly from village to village. In some, mostly naked men baring bows and arrows do a War Dance – a beautiful, extremely athletic dance that mimics fighting – all around the family compound in order to scare away evil spirits. In others, the women do the dancing. They stomp their feet, gyrate their hips and flail their hands, while onlookers clap and chant rhythmically (the DJ is kind enough to turn Chris Brown down for this portion of the days’ events). The one thread that unites nearly every  funeral I’ve attended is the sense of jubilation, not sorrow, of life prevailing over death. The only exception is the death of a young child – an occurrence that is universally tragic.

It is now time to bring my friend’s mother to her grave, and a clan of shirtless men lift her body effortlessly and lovingly to their shoulders. To my surprise another bundle of straw is then lifted to another clan’s shoulders. Before I have time to even ask who the second deceased is, my friend leans over and explains to me that in their Frafra tribe, no one goes to the grave alone. They exhumed the body of the deceased’s best friend so that they could take their last journey together. I look to see how intimately that 7-months-dead woman’s body is lying next to the face of her carriers and squirm. It might take me longer to adjust to some traditions than others…

Men and women of all ages dancing in front of the body

Men and women of all ages dancing in front of the body

We parade to the grave site, bodies carried aloft, among more dancing and celebrations. Toothless women, whose ages were forgotten decades ago, leap into the middle of the circle, throwing their still-limber bodies into the throes of the rhythmic, athletic moves their people have been dancing for centuries.  They’re not dancing for cameras or tourists, they’re dancing for their friend, mother, wife, teacher, stranger or sister, who died, yes, but more importantly, lived.

A Sad Goodbye

As students trickle in for the beginning of Term 2, so did some terrible news. One of my best (and favorite) students, Akulga Nsobonu, was killed when he was struck by a car over the holidays. He was 14. His absence on campus is felt. He was an incredible student, a good kid with a kind heart and infectious smile (literally don’t think I even saw him frown). He was my best basket weaver, and would often come to my house after school just to work on the baskets with me (meaning he would work, and I would sit with him in awe of his talents). A student who would go out of his way to greet me every morning, giving me a huge smile, and reminding me how lucky I am to be here. He was quiet and humble – didn’t need special attention or recognition. What hurts me the most is that he probably had no idea how much of an impact he’s had on me during my time here.

Unfortunately, life goes on here at school, and there is little mention of him. I guess this is my way of telling the world that he is not, and won’t be, forgotten. I never got the chance to tell him myself.

Nsobonu, may you rest in perfect peace.

2012 in Retrospect

Happy New Year! I hope 2012 treated you all as well as it treated me, and you’ve prepared New Year’s resolutions for 2013 that consist of eating lots of good food and traveling to wonderful places. Or working out and getting healthy or something boring like that……

Anyway, because it’s been so long since I’ve actually updated you on anything I’ve been doing over here, I’ve decided to give you a “2012 Retrospective” of my past year in Ghana. The good, the bad, the heart-warming, the heart-breaking, all peppered amongst pictures of cute African babies to hold your attention.

January – I don’t remember; that was 12 months ago, Jeez. Moving on to cute nugget pictures.

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Africa.

 

February  – Agana probably showed up at my house every morning without pants on, I taught some classes, and it was too hot and I sweated.

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AGANA!!!! with pants on…the many I have of him naked were deemed inappropriate for internet.

 

March – Hot season hit full swing, so I spent most of the day lying prostrate on the floor of my house under the fan and panting. Not much got done except a little work on the computer lab and some more teaching. Starred in super popular PCV movie (see link) and am now a local celebrity.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=toz4_vPmmIA

April – I turned 24, I paraglided, and we began the classroom renovation. Peace Corps hosted the annual All Volunteer Conference (“AllVol”) and I tried desperately to NOT compare myself too harshly to all the other PCVs doing amazing and life-changing work in Ghana.

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My birthday present to myself…paragliding! Too bad I was in tandem with a Yankees Fan.

 

May – Term 3 started, and it finally rained again. The classroom renovation was completed and I moved into the new space! I went home and saw my amazing family and my wonderful friends, WHILE gorging myself with cheeses, leafy greens and micro-brews. It was heavenly.

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The renovated classroom!

 

June – LAURA AND VINNY GOT MARRIED!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I returned happy, healthy, and several pounds heavier to Ghana.

The running water at my site stopped working entirely (still doesn’t work) and I had to adjust to living a little more ruggedly. It’s amazing how little water we actually need to get by!  A 5-week drought caused a lot fear and stress throughout my village. I got a taste of what it really means to depend on the farms and how terrifying weather can be when you don’t have a supermarket down the road. Right as whole fields of crops started to fail the village elders sacrificed a cow and managed to get those gods to make it rain again. Who knew it was that easy!?

I started a project working with the International Food Policy Research Institute which involved working directly with a farmer in my village and documenting what he does week to week. His name is Sandoog Kennedy Buzong and he’s awesome (see picture).

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Buzong in all of his glory!

 

July – I spent most of the month running around all of Upper East making final preparations for the Leadership Camp. Chaotic and stressful but very fulfilling.

july - anita

Anita showing off my ‘specs’

 

August – I hosted the Leadership Camp for the Deaf (see previous post), in addition to my parents! They finally got to see my site, my camp, my cat, and my multiple Ghanaian families (HI GODFREY! HI HAWA AND DANIEL! HI FRANCIS!). All of Ghana and Peace Corps fell in love with Mom and Dad (as is usually the case), so I’m pretty sure their fan club now has an international base.

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The campers from my school, Godfrey and I all befriending a crocodile (as we are wont to do in Africa)

 

September – Celebrated Ryan’s birthday with pizza, gin and tonics, and a quest for bat meat (which still hasn’t been realized). The school year started with the typical 4-week wait for students to arrive and classes to start. The District Assembly finally agreed to pay for half of the creation of the Vocational Department (the other half paid by Canadian NGO Marigold Foundation), and we started to make REAL plans to make this department actually happen.

I found out I’m going to be an AUNT, and immediately started scouring the markets for African baby clothes.

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Unfortunately, Brains Foods didn’t have bat meat…or brains for that matter.

 

October – Kicked off a project to paint murals in the renovated art room which many of YOU made possible through your outrageously kind donations! THANK YOU! I also teamed up with a neighboring PCV to update a giant World Map on the side of a classroom block on my campus.

I attended a training workshop for teaching to children with multiple disabilities and brought two of my students who got HIV and peer education training.  Then I continued my travel down to Accra for my Mid-service medical appointment (NO WORMS!), and spent too much money on delicious Accra delicacies such as pizza, sushi, and bacon. Worth it.

(Emma would like to add here that she returned to Ghana, but not the Upper East; she is certain that everyone was and is terribly sad about this and insists on being obnoxious about it in a blog post that isn’t even hers …)

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One wall of the classroom with murals painted by some of the students.

 

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Britney and Me looking really super cool in front of our almost completed World Map!

 

November – Construction of the Vocational Department began!!!! And I subsequently became the happiest PCV in Ghana. And THEN the icing on the cake was that Obama got re-elected and I got a standing ovation from all the staff at my school (since I played such a pivotal role in his re-election, of course).

I had a wonderful Thanksgiving at the Peace Corps Office in Tamale which involved a live (and then dead) turkey, stuffing, mac and cheese and….sushi! I then attended a traditional fire festival at a friend’s site in Northern Region.

This festival was AMAZING. Words cannot adequately describe what it feels like to be in the middle of a remote village in Ghana, surrounded by people with white ash covering their faces and chests, wielding torches, screaming, drumming, chanting and firing rifles into the dark night sky (I realize how terrifying this might sound to someone who’s never been to Ghana but trust me… it was wonderful. Well…ok…and terrifying at times).

The festival originated hundreds of years ago when apparently a young village boy was lost in the bush. He was found days later, safely sitting under a Baobab tree. Ever since that day, members of his Dagaati Tribe participate in a yearly fire festival in which they mimic the search for the boy – thus the torches at night – walk from the village chief’s palace (that’s what they call it…it’s actually a hut) out to a specific tree in the bush. They throw their torches on the tree in a symbolic gesture to thank the gods for returned the boy safely to them so many years ago. On the walk back to the Chief’s palace they bring live branches in the place of their torches to signify bringing life back to the village. It was incredible. The entire village, all ages, takes part in the ceremony, and it’s a completely out-of-this world experience. I swear, it almost made me believe in juju. Almost.

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Ryan carrying his torch through the chaos of the fire festival

 

December – Ghana had its Presidential and Parliamentary Elections and once again proved itself to be a beacon of peace and democracy in West Africa. The elections itself felt much more like a drunken college football rally than an actual presidential election – people with faces and chests painted, waving flags and parading through the city streets covered head to toe with paraphernalia of their chosen political party. LOTS of energy, not a lot of actual content…. After seeing a friend in the garb of his opposing political party, I asked him why he changed sides so quickly and he hurriedly explained that NPP was providing the free food today and that tomorrow he’d return to NDC. Overall a grand time was had by all, and John Mahama was re-elected in an impressively peaceful democratic process. Hats off to Ghana!

I painted a giant map of Ghana on the side of the second classroom block and finished a complete handbook to hosting a Leadership Camp with the hopes that future PCVs continue the tradition.  Construction of the Vocational Department continued at an impressive rate and I spent another snow-less, homesick Christmas in Africa.

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Progress of the Vocational Dept construction as of December 29th!!!!!!

 

Ok, it wasn’t THAT bad, I was on the beach surrounded by the AMAZING friends I’ve made throughout my year and a half here. But there was a severe lack of Corke family antics, fireside card games and skiing involved.

Summary: 2012 was an absolutely incredible, frustrating, shocking, boring, fulfilling, guilt-inducing, character-building, pride-swallowing, chaotic, educational, inspiring year. Full of sweat, tears and gut-cramping laughter, the year 2012 will be remembered as containing some of the best days and worst days of my life, but also shaping me into more confident, well-rounded, independent and capable version of myself.  A version that is much more aware of my strengths while acknowledging my ignorance. Over the last 365 days I’ve proved to myself that I can take on Ghana…now let’s see about the rest of the world.

Wishing you all happiness, health and gluttonous portions of cheese in 2013!

Leadership Camp for the Deaf

I know, I know….it’s been a REALLY long time. Here is an article I wrote for our Peace Corps Ghana newsletter about the leadership camp I hosted. By Sunday you’ll also get a full update about the progress in the vocational department I’ve been working on creating at the school. Stay tuned!

I was a ball of stress as the overcrowded bus struggled two hours late up the bumpy dirt road towards my school – The Gbeogo School for the Deaf in Upper East. Inside that bus were my fellow Deaf Education PCVs, their counterparts and four exceptional students from each of their schools specifically chosen to attend the first (hopefully annual) Leadership Camp for the Deaf. Many of them had been traveling two straight days, coming from all over Ghana, to arrive here, at my school, packed like sardines in a hopelessly unglamorous school bus. I’d spent so long working towards this moment and now that it was here….well, all I could think about was how hot it was, how the dorms were uncomfortable and that there was no running water. I held my breath as the bus heaved to a stop in front of me, the dust settled and the engine let out a sigh, the first students stepped down from the doorway and- to my surprise -smiled.

The idea for the camp started during training. With only seven Deaf Education volunteers in the country, all working at Primary/Junior High schools for the deaf, we realized early on that we could achieve a lot by collaborating. We also noticed that despite a relatively large population of deaf in Ghana, there is still very little awareness about deaf culture and extremely high levels of stigmatization. Often ignored or rejected within their families and villages, the deaf in Ghana lack an overall sense of pride and belonging and thus have no foundation on which to build a powerful and unified community and fight for their rights. After noticing this trend throughout our schools, we decided to hold a camp geared to create confident, capable leaders throughout Ghana, who can then encourage their schools to become more vocal in their cause and create a national correspondence. We wanted to motivate our students to take a spotlight in their communities instead of being shunned to the corners. Most importantly, we wanted to allow students and teachers from all over the country to meet each other and feel what it means to be part of – to belong to – a nationwide community.

The camp itself took place from July 29 through August 3, and was organized into a variety of events. We started with two days of leadership, goal-setting and confidence building workshops. The tone of the entire week was set by guest speaker, Robert Sampana, who was born deaf and is now incredibly successful working as Head of Advocacy at the Ghanaian National Association of the Deaf (GNAD) in Accra. His presence at the camp was crucial to inspire the young, brilliant and, obviously, deaf campers. He was able to relate to the campers and communicate with them in ways that would have been impossible for a group of hearing, American PCVs. He started conversations about how the deaf are viewed in Ghana, how each of them can help fight stigma and stereotype, and the importance of the deaf community’s actions in igniting change. He also gave examples of opportunities available for the students, and the steps he followed himself to get to where he is now. Another deaf counterpart, Emmanual, gave a presentation on what “Deaf Pride” means, and how each camper could help spread the word to their peers using Deaf Pride Clubs when they get back to school. It was incredible to see our students active and inspired during these discussions, and we often talked well past the scheduled time for the session.

Interspersed among these sessions were crafts, games and ice breakers, meant to get the campers comfortable with each other and give them a chance to relax, socialize and have fun. We had two half-day excursions to the Upper East tourist destinations, Paga and Sirigu, to allow students who had never been to UE or even north of Kumasi to get a feel for a different part of Ghana (and, of course, to allow them to practice their ever-so-creative poses). To continue this trend, we ate all local northern foods, however, T.Z. got mixed reviews from those southern students who had never tasted it before.
The evenings were filled with entertainment. Our second night at camp was a talent show which highlighted the campers’ talents in dancing, acting and even talking and singing (honestly, proof that the “deaf can do anything except hear”*).
The next night was movie night, followed by a night of trivia from facts and questions taken from every session in the camp. It was during the trivia that we were able to assess just how many of our lessons the students actually absorbed, and it was amazing. We were hard pressed to find a single question they didn’t know the answer to, and finally were only able to stump them with questions like “What is Lauren’s father’s name?” (If you know the right answer, I’ll give you toffee).

We ended with a bonfire and glow stick party, and as the students ran around with each other, smiles on their faces and glow sticks in hand, it was impossible to tell who had come from which school. They were enjoying their last night with all the new friends they made, stopping only to tell the councilors we needed to have another camp soon. And so, at an ungodly hour of 4:30 am the next morning, the PCVs, counterparts and campers boarded that dusty old bus again to make another long and uncomfortable trip home. But they left a different group than they had come. They left as one community: proud of their uniqueness, confident to mobilize their peers and united in a goal of spreading deaf advocacy and pride.

Thank you very much to Austin and Paul with PCV media, who made an absolutely incredible movie of the camp. Check it out online at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yX4nUqwGcKE

*quote: Dr. I. King Jordan, President of Gallaudet University

The Obruni Dilemma

Integration. This word is said over and over again during Peace Corps Training. It’s the very basis of Peace Corps. It’s the reason we have a minimum service of 27 months. We pride ourselves in the fact that we live long enough in communities to share their languages, their customs and their thought processes. We start to crave their foods, tell their jokes and wear their clothes. We are given local names, accepted into families, and crowned as Chiefs or Queen Mothers in our villages. Integration is held central to how successful we view our service, which is why, I think, so many volunteers struggle with the fact that nearly all of us are treated differently from our Ghanaian brothers and sisters – even up until the last day of our service.

It’s a common conversation among us PCVs when we get the chance to get together and gripe. We want so desperately to be seen as nothing more than a member of our villages that it frustrates us to no end when we’re given special privileges. A certain trotro driver will always give me the front seat in his car when he sees me. After waiting 3 hours in a bus line, and still about 50 people away from the ticket counter, I’ve been pulled aside and given the last ticket. I was invited to an exclusive dinner at an expensive hotel after a funeral I attended solely because I was the only white face in a crowd of 500.

While I can sometimes brush these interactions off as practice for when I’m inevitably a celebrity or a princess, most of the time they leave me with a feeling of blended unease, annoyance and guilt. I’ve certainly struggled with it a lot since I arrived in Accra last June, and in a way, it’s become magnified the longer I’m here. Like, alright guys, I’ve been here a year, when are you going to start treating me like a normal person? I’m trying to integrate, remember?

But then again….what would I say? “Please, don’t treat me so well. I’d much prefer that 6 inch wide back seat slot with no leg room or ventilation next to the toothless drunkard than this front row window seat that has a real seat cushion and its own door.” “No, sir, I know it’s the last bus of the day and the only place I have to sleep tonight is that open gutter reeking of sewage, but I simply can’t cut the line and buy the last ticket that you’re so kindly offering to me just because I’m white.”

This, my friend, is what I like to call the Obruni Dilemma.

Many of us foreigners in Ghana become annoyed at, or even reject, these open gestures of hospitality and welcome simply because they point to the fact that we’re different. They put us at a crossroads: do I accept this kindness (which, quite honestly, would make my life a lot easier) but was only offered to me because I’m white? Or do I insist upon receiving no special treatment because I want desperately to be seen and treated as a local (despite the fact I glow in the dark)?

I recently took it upon myself to dissect this Obruni Dilemma, and came to some relieving conclusions. In many ways, my passion to integrate has blinded me to what integration really is. Being treated differently doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m not integrated. I still like to think I am to the degree I can be given one certain fact: I’m white. I’m American. I’m a guest. Who am I to say that Ghanaians are not allowed to treat me with the respect their culture has deemed appropriate for guests? And more so, who am I to assert that the fact I’ve lived here one whole year has somehow made me Ghanaian? I’m not (clearly, I’m a redhead for christ’s sake). Saying I am after a total of 27 months in country would be an insult to an extremely rich culture that has been around for thousands of years. Although I honestly forget I’m white sometimes (true story, sometimes I’m shocked by the amazing reflectiveness of my skin after being at site for a long time…have I mentioned I’m pale?), doesn’t mean my Ghanaian friends have, nor that they’re required to. I think integration isn’t about being treated the exact same way as a culture or ethnicity to which you are a guest, but it’s more about understanding their reasons and motives behind treating you differently. In the past I’ve weighed the former so heavily that I didn’t even realized I’d achieved the latter. Ghanaians aren’t doing what they’re doing to point out to me that I’m different. They’re not doing it to annoy me. They’re doing it because it’s polite and they want me to have as enjoyable a time in their country as possible.

Now…it’s important to differentiate between expecting this kind of treatment, and simply accepting it when it’s offered. I do not expect special treatment. Ever. Quite the opposite, in fact. I’m flooded with relief on those days when I’m shoved in the back of the tro with a strange lady’s baby (aka nugget) on my lap and a goat under my feet. But now, when it’s given to me, I will strive to accept this treatment with gratitude instead of annoyance.

And hey, when I become a celebrity someday, I’ll also be a little more prepared for that red carpet treatment.

LIFE… according to a Ghanaian Child

  • A white person sighting can make or break a day
  • Snow kills
  • Juju kills
  • A monkey is King Kong
  • An Asian man is Jackie Chan
  • A white man with a beard is Jesus
  • A white man without a beard is Mormon
  • Another black person is a brother, sister, mom, dad, aunt or uncle. End of story.
  • America is somehow close to Accra
  • In trotros or buses one is not eligible for one’s own seat until they are in their teens, so quick! Take the strange white girls lap before another kid gets it!
  • Clothes are optional
  • If you haven’t had worms yet, you haven’t lived
  • A boob is food, even if it’s not your mother’s
  • Slamming your head against a wall, being hit by a friend or having a fever of 103 is not a valid reason to cry. Being asked to bathe is.
  • Going through a white person’s trash can yield new and exciting toys
  • Why look when you could STARE?
  • OBAMA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
  • The best way to insult a friend is to make fun of the shape of his/her head.
  • Adult supervision? Never heard of it.
  • Yelling is the only way to talk to a peer
  • Whispering is the only way to talk to an adult
  • Not a single item of clothing, no matter how pink and sparkly, is gender specific (….but why would you wear clothes anyway? Fool).
  • It’s ok to relieve oneself…anywhere
  • Running with a tire and a stick can lead to hours of entertainment
  • America=UK=The Netherlands=Germany=candy