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Yep. Still here.

*sigh*
 
Well, then.
 
April was intense. May was even more intense. Let me tell you about it.
 
The first April crisis was that Caroline and I both got malaria. Well, technically, we already *had* malaria, seeing as the malaria prophylaxis that all Peace Corps Volunteers are required to take just keeps the malaria parasite from reproducing in your bloodstream. But when you combine several days of high stress with poor nutrition, strenuous travel, and little sleep, even the best prophylaxis in the world can’t keep your immune system from throwing in the towel. So, we both got malaria, right as we were returning to my site from KSO.
 
What is malaria like, you may wonder? Well, it kinda sneaks up on you. For a day or so, I felt mildly ill, but well enough to take care of Caroline. The next day, however, I felt like I had the flu: joint and muscle aches, fever, general malaise, and tiredness. Then, the headaches started and the fever really ramped itself up.
 
Imagine having the inside of your head scraped out with a rusty shovel. Imagine it happening at random. Then, throw in a fever of 103 and all of the aforementioned symptoms, and add really weird hallucinations whenever you try to sleep. That’s what malaria was like for me. The sad thing is that it comes and goes in cycles, so that you almost begin to feel better, and then it hits you again and you’re back to being totally incapacitated.
 
Luckily, at that point, Caroline was feeling well enough to take care of me and make me take my Coartem (the drug we use to treat malaria).
 
Coartem is a really effective drug. It is so effective that after my second dose, I was feeling well enough to get on a tro-tro with Caroline and come back to KSO… which is when she started having a high fever and chills. So she took *her* Coartem. And after several days of having malaria and then recovering from it, we both felt like someone had run us through a garbage disposal. In fact, my first training run after recovering was easily the most difficult 5K run I have ever done.
 
Anyway, we eventually recuperated and started to feel human again, and I managed to get all of my final exams marked. I also  got some good work done on the freedom toaster, and even found time to plan some things for my mother’s visit in May. And that’s when the second crisis happened…
 
Caroline’s roof blew off in a thunderstorm.
 
Yep. Blew. off. And her ceiling caved in, too.
 
She was not hurt, and she had the good sense of mind to put all of her electronics and books into her giant wardrobe once her ceiling started to leak like a running faucet. The only things she needed to replace were her towels (which she put down on the floor to prevent her slipping and breaking her neck) and her pots and pans (which she was using to catch water when she thought it was just a leak, and which got crushed by the ceiling after it caved in). I left my site to come help with the cleanup effort as soon as I could get out of town, and she ended up coming back to my site for a week while the school repaired her ceiling and roof.
 
The last week of April was the All-Volunteer Conference at Chances Hotel in Ho, Volta Region. After the preceeding events of April, this was a welcome relief. I got to spend time with friends, eat meals I didn’t have to cook, do a little gaming, and learn a little bit about what my colleagues have been doing at their sites.
 
After All-Vols, the remaining members of my training group had our Close-of-Service Conference, where we discussed how to say goodbye at our sites and prepare for returning to the U.S. This is a topic for another blog post in the future, but it was sobering and a little bit sad, while at the same time being fun and exciting. I look forward to seeing you all in September, when Caroline and I return to the U.S. as RPCVs.
 
This brings us to May, when Caroline and I met our mothers at the airport for a two week trip around Ghana. There is much to say about this trip. We laughed; we cried; we got sick; we got better. All in all, it was an experience that none of us will ever forget. I will write more about this when I get a chance to sit down and process it in more depth.
 
Alright, that’s all I’ve got for now. I promise to not get malaria again and keep the updates regular.
 

Pregnant cats, bike chains, and freedom toasters

I present to you, for your enjoyment, a random selection of scenes from my life, in no particular order whatsoever.

** My cat is pregnant. *Very* pregnant. I estimate her belly contains somewhere between 30 and 40 kittens. It has had the wonderful side effect of mellowing her out; less meowing, less demanding to be let in/out, and more sleeping. I approve. At least until the kittens arrive, that is.

** My students are continually flabbergasted at all the things I can do, like cook, fetch water, use a broom, and talk to them in my (very) rudimentary Twi. I don’t know if it’s the gender roles (very rare to see a man cook or sweep) or the fact that I’m white that causes their surprise. Just today, I surprised two of my female students by lighting a coalpot and cooking up a giant pot of black-eyed peas. They stood, watched, and congratulated me (not kidding — they literally said “You have done well, sir!”) for a full 10 minutes as I stirred the beans and fanned the coals while sitting on my wooden cooking stool. It’s a tough job, but somehow I manage.

** The term is over in approximately a week and a half. I get a brief bit of respite until I have to mark the bazillion exam papers that I will have from all of my classes. The sad thing is that I _just_ finished marking homeworks and class tests last Wednesday. *sigh*

** Marathon training is coming along well. I am steadily working at building my base, and steadily growing hungrier as I do it. I just completed a 23km week; next week is a 24.5km week. And so we go from there. At some point, I will be averaging 50km per week. And that’s before I start the honest-to-God training. *gulp*

** Every time I pay my electric bill, I have to replace a light bulb. An odd coincidence, but I don’t like doing my evening routine in the dark, so I do it. When I went to the provision store to buy a bulb, the owner gave me a “blue” one — one that resembles a black light that is used in bars for mood lighting. I didn’t bother to check, and you can’t return goods in Ghana without a serious fight, so I now have a black-light style light in my main hallway. I feel like I’m 13 again.

** My bike chain broke the other day. I was hauling water, and luckily was returning to the house with my last jerry can before the bearing slipped and the link bent itself at a very odd angle. And of course, when I tried to replace the chain with the spare one I brought from America, my chain breaker (the tool you use for removing/opening the links) promptly broke.

Luckily, Mike Simpson at KSO has a complete set of bike tools, so I’ll just bring my bike there and get the chain fixed; it’s just a question of when. I’d like to have a working bike for hauling water during the break, as well as for marathon cross-training; on the other hand, traveling with a bike sucks. Really sucks.

** I’ve been spending a large amount of my free time trying to assemble a working Freedom Toaster, and then compile my efforts into a distributable package that can be used to create additional Freedom Toasters.

What is a Freedom Toaster, you ask?

A Freedom Toaster is a stand-alone, easy-to-use kiosk that is used to distribute open-source software and freely licensed media (a la Creative Commons). A user goes up to the Toaster, picks out their software/content using a touchscreen or trackball, and inserts a blank CD, and the toaster burns it all to a CD for them.

The original Freedom Toaster was first proposed in South Africa as a way to facilitate the distribution of open-source software in places where broadband internet access (the traditional delivery tool for open-source software) was prohibitively expensive or non-existant. It can be put in places like libraries, internet cafes, public computing labs, and university campuses to allow the public to take full advantage of quality software.

The original project had quite a bit of steam, and several toasters were built from an open code base before the developers founded a company in 2007 to build them (only in South Africa, to my disappointment), and the open code base for building a toaster was left to moulder. Thus, I grabbed the code, set up my own development environment, and set to work updating it so it would install again. If you feel so inclined, you can help me: the code’s at https://code.google.com/p/freedomtoaster/

** Caroline and I do not yet have a definite date set for our wedding, but we’d really like to have it within 6 months of returning to the U.S. We’ll keep y’all posted.

Alright. That’s all I’ve got. Until next time…

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In which I ask some very important questions

The first question I asked was of Caroline. She was taking a nap, and I entered the bedroom with a little ring box. She woke up and saw the box, and after a little nervous fumbling, I got down on one knee and asked the most important question I’ve ever asked anyone:

“Will you marry me?”

Thankfully, for my sake, she said yes. Actually, it was more like “YES!!!”

Anyway, I am now engaged. That’s the first important question I have to talk about.

———-

The remaining questions I have to ask are from my students. We’ve been studying the internet this term, and at the beginning of the term, we did a group project where I posed the following scenario to them:

Pretend that you have been asked by the government to represent the youth of Ghana at a congress of world youth. Every country in the world is sending a delegation of their best and brightest students to represent them. As part of the congress, you will be asked to give a 20-minute presentation on any topic you like. There will also be a question period where you can ask 5 questions for the other congress attendees to answer.

I then asked them, in groups, to write down:

a.) the topic that they would present
b.) their 5 questions for the rest of the congress

I went around to all 8 of my classes and had the students vote on their favorite topics and questions, and told them the winners would be posted on the internet for the whole world to see.

So, now I make good on my promise, and let you see their questions. I’ve organized them by classes, so you can see the similarities and differences between each.

—–

3 Arts 1
Winning topic: Teenage Pregnancy
Winning questions:
1. What can we do to limit and reduce unemployment?
2. How can we make sure that the schools provide adequate ICT education?
3. How can we deal with the problem of street children?
4. How can we prevent deforestation?
5. How can we avoid teenage pregnancy?

—–

3 Business
Winning topic: Teenage Pregnancy
Winning questions:
1. What are the causes of increased teenage pregnancy in Ghana?
2. What can we do to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS?
3. Why do African countries find it difficult to develop?
4. Why should students have access to the internet?
5. Why are foreign industries developing faster than local industries in Ghana?

—–

3 Agric
Winning Topic: Teenage Pregnancy
Winning questions:
1. How can we avoid teenage pregnancy?
2. How can we bring teenage pregnancy under control?
3. As future leaders, what can we do to stop HIV/AIDS?
4. Is teenage pregnancy only an African problem?
5. What is the world doing to curb the effects of global warming?

—–

3 Arts 2
Winning topic: 3 year vs. 4 year high school education
Winning questions:
1. How can we prevent bush fires?
2. What punishment should be given to those who start bush fires?
3. Can the government of Ghana provide enough infrastructure for a 4 year SHS system?
4. What can we do to control teenage pregnancy?
5. Why is teenage pregnancy such a big problem?

—–

2 Arts 1
Winning topic: Teenage pregnancy
Winning questions:
1. Why is it important to educate our children?
2. What can we do to eliminate malaria in Ghana and the rest of Africa?
3. How can we support democracy in Africa?
4. Will there be enough security at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa?
5. Why do Ghanaians have freedom of speech, but other countries don’t?

—–

2 Agric
Winning topic: Girl-child education
Winning questions:
1. What can the government do to create more jobs?
2. Why do we put so much money into football?
3. Why are farmers poor?
4. Is HIPC a good fund, and should African countries join it?
5. Why can’t university graduates in Ghana find jobs?

—–

2 Business
Winning topic: Education
Winning questions:
1. How can we prevent corruption?
2. How can we prevent serious accidents in our countries?
3. Why don’t Europeans like Africans?
4. Why did HIV/AIDS spread so quickly?
5. How can we improve education?

—–

2 Arts 2
Winning Topic: Bush Burning
Winning questions:
1. How can we prevent deforestation?
2. Why is Africa the “poverty continent”?
3. How can we prevent bush burning?
4. What can we do to improve the standard of education world-wide?
5. How can we prevent HIV/AIDS from spreading?

—–

Now, it’s my turn. How would you answer these questions? What questions would you ask my students? What questions do you have for me? If you send me your answers, or things you want to ask my students, I will pass them on.

Cheers,
Grant

In which we almost see a hippopotamus

It’s been a busy month. I turned 26 (thank you to everyone who sent birthday wishes!), and I feel no different whatsoever. I also got more computers in my computer lab, which involved quite a bit of travel, confabulation, and negotiating. I caught a stomach bug and spent 3 days at home because of it, and I have spent more time in my computer lab and the classroom than I care to admit.

The rainy season has started. In fact, it just rained. The dust is gone, and fetching water has become considerably easier, but with the rains come the mosquitoes, and the humidity has returned, especially at night. Think June in the upper Midwest of the United States: beautiful days, miserable nights. If it weren’t for my fan, I would be pretty much useless due to poor sleep quality.

Marathon training is proceeding on schedule. I am working on building a base, which means getting my body used to the idea of running to nowhere in particular for long periods of time. Once I have a solid base, I start training my body to run to nowhere in particular for ridiculous periods of time.

Alright, it’s time for me to go off and prepare my lesson plans. I leave you with the next installment of Caroline’s and my Christmas adventure.

———-

On the Sunday following Christmas (Feast of the Holy Family) we said our goodbyes at the monastery and set off for Bui National Park. We managed to catch the last tro-tro for Bui out of Wenchi, and spent 3 dusty hours on the road. We finally arrived in Bui Camp, the worker’s village that houses all of the park staff and their families, as well as the main camping area for the park. After a quick discussion with the caretaker of the camping area, we were able to locate the nearest provision store, as well as secure the use of a coalpot (charcoal cooker) so that we could make dinner for ourselves. In the process of making dinner, we managed to impress and fascinate a Dutch woman and her two daughters, whose dinner plans consisted of cookies and whatever drink they could find. We did the dishes, took warm bucket baths, and then retired to our bed for the night.

The next morning, we awoke to discover that we had overslept. We had arranged to share a park guide with the 3 Dutch ladies and set off early so that we could all hopefully see the hippos at Bui and get back in time for lunch; they would then try to leave on the afternoon tro-tro so as to get to Techiman by nightfall. We hurriedly packed a day-pack and set off with the guide for an hourlong walk to the river. When we arrived, we contracted with 5 boats to take us out on the river, where we proceeded to look for hippos.

We saw part of a hippo. Two, actually. The guide and the boatmen spent about an hour an a half tapping on the sides of their boats, trying to get the hippos to come out of the water. Unfortunately, it didn’t work; all we saw were ears and the tips of noses. Eventually, we gave up and headed back to the landing.

That’s when the nickel and diming began. We ended up paying each boat crew GHC10 (we were told it was going to be GHC5 per boat). We then walked back to Bui Camp, where the Dutch ladies proceeded to grab their packs and try to head out, only to discover that they had missed the afternoon tro. After frantic consultation with the caretaker, they decided to try and charter a taxi to Nsawkaw, which Caroline and I decided to join. After all, Bui didn’t really have all that much to offer in the way of hiking or sightseeing. We settled up our bill with the caretaker, who proceeded to add on the park entry fee, the guide fee (per person per hour!), and the camp site fee. All told, caroline and I paid GHC39 to see 4 hippo ears and two noses.

Needless to say, I don’t plan on going back to Bui any time soon.

Anyway, we settled up and then crammed into a Tico (think Geo Metro) with our 3 Dutch companions for an hour and a half long ride to Nsawkaw. 5 people and a driver, plus all of those people’s belongings (more Dutch belongings and less PCV belongings, by the way) makes for a very crowded Tico taxi. After a bumpy, dusty, but surprisingly expedient taxi ride, we arrived in Nsawkaw. Luckily, we were able to catch a tro leaving for Wenchi, and filled the last 5 seats (it’s amazing how quickly you can travel by tro-tro when you can fill close to half of any given 13-seat vehicle). On the way, we discussed our plans with our companions, and they decided that Kumasi was as good as anywhere.

Upon arriving in Wenchi, we met up with a Metro Mass Transit bus that took us to Techiman. We then took another Metro bus to Kumasi.

We got to Kumasi just after nightfall; around 6:30 or so. When we arrived in Kejetia, the ladies looked expectantly to us for the next step. When we announced we were parting ways with them, there was an ever-so-slight note of panic in their voices.
“You aren’t going to the Guestline Lodge?” they asked.
“No, we’re going to the Peace Corps office.”
“Oh… is it far from the Guestline?”
“It’s on the other side of town, actually.”
“Oh… Are there any hotels around there?”

Going anywhere in Africa at night can be tricky; after all, streetlights and headlights are optional. However, Kejetia station at 6:30pm is hardly challenging. Still, we remembered our first days and weeks in country, smiled a knowing smile, and continued our good samaritan routine.

“Not really… Would you like me to help you get a taxi?”
“Would you? That would be very nice!”

We got them on their way, with slightly relieved looks on their faces, and proceeded to find our own way to the office, where showers, fried rice, and the internet were waiting for us.

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Sooo many things.

It’s Sunday evening. Ghana just got into the semi-finals of the Cup of African Nations, I have successfully prepared my lesson plans and exercises for the week, and now, I’ve got nothing left to do but use the Internet. Or study Esperanto.

Yes, I’m learning Esperanto. I want to learn a bunch of languages, and I might as well get the one everyone will laugh at out of the way. There are practical benefits to it; there are studies that suggest studying Esperanto before studying other languages greatly reduces the amount of time and effort needed to learn subsequent languages. AND: there’s an international directory of Esperantists who are willing to open their homes and host other Esperantists who are traveling in their country. Any language with people who are willing to host complete strangers can’t be all that bad. My plans are to get a good grasp of Esperanto, and then move on to French, followed by Spanish.

Next up…

*deep breath*

I’m going to run a marathon this year.

There. I said it.

My plan is to run the Twin Cities Marathon in October, or an equivalent one depending on what travel plans Caroline and I have after our COS (Close of Service). I’ve been thinking about running one for a long time, and now I expect all of you to hold me to it.

Speaking of COS: I’ve started to mentally prepare myself for the whole idea of coming back to America. The truth is, America scares me a bit. Grocery stores, freeways where the traffic laws are enforced, a 10:30 appointment starting at 10:30; there’s a lot of things I’m no longer very familiar with. Then again, there are a lot of things that I am very much looking forward to: cheese, fast Internet access, cheese, libraries, cheese, bookstores, cheese.

At the same time, I’m really going to miss Ghana. I love going out and having banku and groundnut soup after my Saturday morning run. I love the look of understanding that dawns on my students’ faces. I enjoy dickering for cloth and furniture in the market; the way that the kokoo and koose lady always dashes me an extra koose; the way that a tro-tro that takes two hours to fill can leave the station in 10 seconds flat.

I feel more wonderfully alive and aware of myself here than I’ve ever felt before. Despite the setbacks and the delays that come with every day life here, I feel like I’ve accomplished something meaningful. I’m beginning to feel like I’ve found something that is more important that I am, and while coming back to the U.S. for a while is probably in order, I don’t think I’m done working in the developing world.

Anyway, I promised a breakdown of my Christmas vacation. I’ve decided to do this in installments so as to get the maximum blogification value out of it. If it worked for Charles Dickens, maybe it can work for me. Today, we’re talking about Kristo Buase.


Caroline and I, along with our friends Jennifer and Vicki, decided to spend Christmas this year at Kristo Buase Monastery. Kristo Buase is a Benedictine monastery that was founded in the late 1980s at the request of the Archbishop of Sunyani. The community was founded by the Prinknash, Pluscarden, and Ramsgate Abbeys in Scotland, though eventually it is hoped that it will become an entirely Ghanaian community.

Caroline and I arrived at Kristo Buase on Christmas Eve; Vicki and Jennifer went early so as to avoid the crazy Christmas travel and to confirm that, in fact, we had a reservation to sleep there. The monastery is located just north of Techiman, outside of the village of Tanoboase. It is surrounded by over 80 acres of cashew trees, undeveloped forest, and some of the most beautiful rock formations I’ve seen in Ghana. Caroline and I dropped at the entrance to the monastery grounds and had a delightful 20 minute walk to the monastery cloister itself. We were greeted by Brother Gabriel, who showed us to our rooms – all guests sleep one to a room. The rooms were very spartan – a desk with a chair, a bed, a small closet, and a shower area with a sink – but very well kept.

One of the things that strikes you about the monastery is how well things are kept in order. There is no chipped plaster, no flaking paint, no crumbling bricks; everything is kept up very well. That’s not something I’ve see very often in Ghana, because many people either don’t have the money or don’t care enough to repair their houses. The gardens and orchards surrounding the cloister are well-tended, and full of wonderful, delicious things like star fruit, oranges, papaya, lemons, avocado, and grapefruit. It was very wonderful to see everything taken care of in such a considered, deliberate fashion.

The monestary does a lot of work with cashews, including working with local farmers to do education on how to best maintain their cashew plantations. The brothers also make several tasty jams and chutneys that they sell in a small shop just off the cloister. We ended up buying several jars of jam from Brother Patrick (the chief jam-maker), which is not only cheaper than the stuff for sale in grocery stores, but much better tasting. Cashew apple and star fruit jam… mmmm.

The brothers were all very warm and inviting, and we not only enjoyed celebrating mass with them on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, but also enjoyed playing a number of games of Scrabble and shared several wonderful meals with them. Caroline and I spent a great deal of our time talking to the prior, Father Giles, who is originally from Scotland; he has a great deal of interest in technology, and I promised to send him several CDs of software and public-domain books. When not relaxing or spending time with our friends, we went and climbed in the gorgeous rock formations that surround the monastery. I have several wonderful pictures of the climbing, and was sore for several days afterward.


Next time: the Tale of the 39-Cedi Hippo Snouts — or Hungry, Hungry Park Service.

Now, it’s Esperanto time. Ĝis revido!

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