Not dead, just covered in dust

The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated. I know I
haven’t written in a while, and I apologize for that.

So, what happened in the month of November? Lots of things. For starters, the harmattan started in November — a Tuesday, in fact. Quite literally, we had rain and humidity on a Monday, and woke up on Tuesday morning to cottonmouth, a not-unpleasant chilliness, 3% humidity, and the gray dust of the Sahara in the air. For about thenext 2 months, we’ll have that, and then we’ll be in the dry season.

The harmattan makes for fast drying of clothes — I can dry a bath towel on a clothes line in about an hour — and covers everything in a fine layer of greyish-orange dust. Dusty roads get even dustier, the vegetation dies back, and everyone gets the cattagh.

What is the cattagh, you ask? Well, think back to the last time you swept your garage, attic, basement, or someplace equally dusty. The air filled with dust while you swept, right? And then your mouth and throat got covered in a film of dust and dirt, which you either hacked up or spit out. Make it a bit less intense, and draw it out over 2 months, and you have the cattagh. It’s kind of odd; on the one hand, you’re hacking up loogies all day, but on the other hand, it’s socially acceptable to pause mid-conversation and go “SNKGGGH!
HOOOOOOOOOCK. PTUU!” And the cool weather in the morning can quite enjoyable.

Ghanaians take the harmattan in stride, like they do with just about everything else life chucks in their direction. In fact, they almost seem to relish the challenge. People dress more extravagantly, and the color white features prominently in the wardrobe of anyone who is not traveling. And in the mornings, people actually wear stocking caps and parkas (yes, I declare shenanigans, too) to ward off the cold. It’s almost as if to say “What? That’s the best you can do?”

One thing the harmattan does do well is kill computers. Specifically, the dust and the heat kill the already old, worn-out hard disks. Thus, solid state media like USB sticks and CD-Rs are your friend — no moving parts to get infiltrated by the dust, and wonderfully tolerant of power fluctuations that come with the heat and the dust. I’ve been working on deploying something called thin-client computing in my lab, which basically lets me eliminate all but 1 hard drive, but I’ll write more about that once I’ve ironed out all the kinks.

Well, that’s about all I’ve got for now. Until next time…

A Day In The Life

The universe has a sense of humor.

There are 49 periods in a week on our school’s timetable. I was teaching 10 of them.

God saw this, said “What? NO! That Dobbe kid isn’t working hard enough! Give him the most out of any teacher on the staff!”

And thus, I went from teaching 10 periods a week to teaching 40 periods a week.

Joy of joys.

Luckily, that time table had some problems, and (surprise, surprise) because I was in charge of the timetable software, I cut myself down to 32 periods a week by introducing the concept of study hall. American culture for the win.

I actually don’t mind teaching 32 periods a week. It’s enough to keep me busy, and not so much that I can’t get out and do stuff like eat or brush my teeth. It’s nice.

So, I was going to talk to y’all about my daily routine. Having had one for almost a month now (it’s nice not to travel all the time), I’d like to spend some time going over what exactly it is I do during the day.

 5:30am – Wake up. Get out of bed (run a comb across my head…). No stairs, so that’s it for obscure song references. Make the bed, throw on some trousers, stumble into the kitchen and start boiling water for tea. Let the cat in, feed her something, and turn on the radio. Once the water has boiled, I make tea, scrounge up some breakfast, and read a bit while waiting for the tea to kick in.

 6:15am – Make self presentable: wash face, brush teeth, shave, finish dressing. Listen to the BBC and go over my agenda for the day. Tidy up the house, if time permits and I feel industrious.

~7:00am – Head for school. Morning assembly starts around this time. Required for masters on duty and students, otherwise optional. I will observe if I have nothing pressing to do. Otherwise, I run minor errands, print my lesson notes, and open the computer lab.

 7:30am – The timetable rolls into action. If I’m scheduled for class, I teach. If the students have practicals, they come to the lab. Otherwise, I work on lesson notes/projects, fix hardware problems, run errands, or just sit and talk to people.

~11:30am – Lunch! If it’s a busy day, I go buy kenkey and beans (or send a student to bring it back for me) and eat at school. Otherwise, I go home, warm up some leftovers, tune into the BBC or Voice of Nigeria, and eat. The cat usually insists on covering me in cat hair while I do this.

~12:30pm – Head back to school. Wash, rinse, repeat.

 3:10pm – School closes for the day. If there’s staff class or Open Lab scheduled, I stay and take care of that. Otherwise, I go home, exercise, do chores, go into the market, or visit people. If it’s been an especially mentally taxing day (read: Oh, by the way, we need you to spend 4 hours programming the timetable software. And the power keeps going out. Have fun!) I do nice, mindless chores, such as dishes, sweeping the floor, etc.

~6:00pm – The sun is down, so I start cooking dinner. More house chores to the dulcet tones of the BBC. If it’s lights out, I light candles and kerosene lamps.

 6:30pm – Dinner is served. Cat eats hers, then comes and bugs me while I eat mine, eventually falling asleep and/or bathing in my lap. I usually read *and* listen to the radio while eating. (Attention Deficit Disorder: Hey, this book is really interesting, and so is that story on the radio. By the way, that car needs a new muffler and your fly is unzipped. Where am I?)

 7:30pm – Bath time. Listen to the news, brush teeth, floss, do stuff.

 8:00pm – Read, write, plan, review the day, play the harmonica, watch a movie, or something along those lines. I really try to empty my head during this time, which helps me sleep better. I’ve also been trying to meditate more often, which helps with the ADD and the sleeping.

 10:00pm – Cat goes out, and I go to bed.

That’s the basic gist of it, anyway. On Saturdays and Sundays, replace “school” with “whatever I feel like doing” and/or various and sundry chores like laundry and dusting. There’s also a nice long bike ride in there somewhere as well.

Sunday mornings are my church service, which consists of me getting up and going for a nice 10km walk. I can hear all of the local churches from my house, which is impressive because the closest one is 1/2 a mile away. That kind of hearing damage doesn’t interest me, and I can’t really understand it that well because it’s in Twi. So, I go play Unitarian for awhile. God’s just as much out there as he is in any building.

Anyway, that’s a day in my life. Until next time, stay classy.

Back in the Village

Frisbee’s in heat. I thought she liked to yowl and meow before; man, I had no idea. Next time, I get a boy cat. Like Caroline’s cat, Lovelace. Yes, I know the name is not a boy name. She named him before she was able to correctly identify his gender. I refer to him as “the boy named Sue”.

Anyway, things are rolling along here in Ghana. I returned, went to the PEPFAR IST, and then headed home to a house full of cobwebs and musty smell, as well as an internet connection that needed to be turned back on after not paying the bill for a month. Still, it’s good to be back. I’ve only got 11 months left, and I intend to enjoy it.

There’s a lot about this life that I enjoy. Yeah, it’s a pain doing laundry by hand, and travel is annoying, but all things considered, I am happy. My clothes get clean, my food is tasty, and my electric bill is about $10 a month. Teaching can be a bit stressful, but that’s true of any job; and I still end up with a ton of time to read, write, and tinker with stuff. And after being completely overwhelmed by the snack food selection at Target, I’ve come to appreciate buying whatever brand of biscuit the shopkeeper bought that week.

About the only gripe I have is internet access. I could live in a shack in the middle of nowhere so long as I had a garden, a root cellar, a bicycle, a solar panel, and a connection to the internet. I get most of my news via shortwave radio; the rest comes from the internet. The software updates and anti-virus definitions for my school come from my internet connection (though they’ll have one by the beginning of October or whenever I next get to Sunyani) and if I had a faster (and more reliable) Internet connection, I’d probably get more of my entertainment that way, too. Not that I don’t mind reading; I’ve read more good (and bad, and downright mediocre*) books here than I’ve been able to read in a long time, but it’s also nice to be able to listen to a new album or watch a movie a little sooner than 6 months after it’s released.

School has started again as of last week, which means that my students started showing up as of this week and we have a timetable as of today. It seems inefficient and wasteful, but consider that it’s hard to have motivated students when you don’t have motivated teachers, and it’s difficult to have motivated teachers when your paycheck is a pittance and arrives anywhere from 2 days to 3 months late.  Still, I’m excited to teach this term; I’ve got a dedicated lab (which means NO! MORE! PRACTICALS! AFTER. SCHOOL!) and a good solid stack of lesson plans from which to work. The ICT fee has also finally been added to the student bill, so we should be able to get something a little bit better than the dregs of technology to work with. As much as I’ve enjoyed the challenge of making Pentium Pros work in a modern computing environment, I think it’s time to move on to more maintainable and responsive hardware.

Alright, that’s about all I’ve got this week. Next week: what I do all day.

* I’m looking at you, Clive Cussler. Oh, and Mr. Clancy: whoever’s writing the Op-Center series of books these days is pretty much phoning it in.

In which our intrepid hero returns to America

I’ve been in America for almost two weeks now. I’ve seen people I haven’t seen in a year, eaten foods I’ve missed, downloaded a bunch of stuff for my school and my own use, and enjoyed the novelty of hot running water. But it hasn’t been all easy.

Culture shock is something that you expect to encounter upon entering a culture different from your own. It’s not something you expect to experience when you return to your own culture. You get used to doing things a certain way, buying things in a certain store, or having a normal morning routine, and you return to find that this business has moved, the dishes aren’t in the same cupboard, the road is closed for construction, and it’s shocking. Some things are easy, like taking a shower or washing the dishes. Some things are hard, like remembering to turn on the vent fan when you take a shower. Other things are just plain overwhelming.

Take department stores, for example. When you go to Ghana, you get used to having only a few choices. Your laundry soap is either Omo, Klin, or an off-brand; you brush your teeth with Pepsodent, Close-Up, or whatever off-brand they have that week. Jam is a delicacy, the bread is all the same, and the peanut butter you buy in your market comes in a small plastic bag. No Jif, no Skippy, no store brand. Your day is still busy, but you only have about 600 options when you do 100 things. You also get into a habit of impulse shopping — I see basil, I need basil, and I might not see basil for another 2 months, so I buy 3 jars of it.

Thus, when you walk into Target and see 25 varieties of Tide, 120 different types of toothpaste, and jar upon jar of strawberry jam next to 16 different types of wheat bread, you feel a bit floored. And because you see stuff you “need” and you are used to it being gone when you turn your head, you put all of these “needed” items in your cart. You see everything, you want everything; at the same time, you see everything and want nothing. Because when it comes down to it, you don’t really “need” all that much. Jam is nice, but peanut butter and banana sandwiches are just as tasty and just as filling. And as long as the soap gets your clothes clean, the washing powder is a commodity product. So you take the $600 of stuff out of your cart and get only the stuff you really do need.

Internet is another one of these things that floors you. As a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ghana, one gets used to having slow, unreliable internet. And even though I’ve had internet access through my cell phone at site, I’ve grown used to using it for checking my email, researching topics for lesson plans, and downloading software updates. So, when I get to an internet connection and download anti-virus updates that normally take 4 hours in Ghana, but take 15 minutes in the U.S., I’m faced with the dilemma of “OK, now what?”

And throughout all of this, I find myself at the mercy of two conflicting emotions: I want to do lots of stuff, because I’m only home for two weeks and once I get back to Ghana, there will be no chocolate cake with coconut topping and no Target. On the other hand, I know that once I get back to Ghana, I am going to be working hard at site to accomplish projects, write lesson plans, and work with my students. So if I don’t take this opportunity to just sit down and do nothing, I will have taken a vacation for nothing.

I apologize if I haven’t seen some of you, or spent as much time with some of you as I would have liked; but I thank you all for your kind words and wishes and appreciate the time you have spent in supporting me as a Peace Corps Volunteer. For those of you whose spam filters like to eat friendly messages, Caroline and I will be having lunch on Saturday at 12:30pm at the Chatterbox Pub in St. Paul. The Chatterbox is located at 800 Cleveland Avenue South. I understand that some of you have prior plans or live too far away to make a trip up to St. Paul, but all are invited anyway.

3 days from now, I return to Ghana. I’ll have a new sense of perspective, a renewed well of energy, and  a better idea what I want to do when I grow up. For now, I close again with thank you and a promise to see you all again real soon.

Hurry up and wait

It’s interesting how little it takes to make me happy.

Case in point: I spent 4 hours with about 150 of my colleagues standing on an airport tarmac with nothing to eat or drink, waiting to see Barack Obama for 30 minutes. When he finally arrived, we were nothing short of ecstatic. When he mentioned the Peace Corps, we lost it. When he came around to shake hands, we *really* lost it.

Of course, my feet ached with a vengeance and my body was not happy about the whole lack of food or water, but this was one of the few times I was happy to be in Accra.

Accra, as most Peace Corps Volunteers in Ghana will tell you, is not something you enjoy; it’s something you endure. Getting in is a pain (all the roads around it are in some state of perpetual construction/repair), getting out is a pain (Circle station just. plain. sucks.) and everything is at least 2x as expensive as the rest of Ghana. Its one redeeming quality would be the food you can get there — nothing takes the sting out of travel quite like a nice burger.

And now I’m back in Seikwa. I returned to a garden full of weeds, a house full of cobwebs, and a cat who let me know in no uncertain terms that she was *pissed off* about having to sleep outside for 3 weeks. Nevertheless, I was happy to finally sleep in my own bed and wear clothing other than the 3 shirts and 2 pair of trousers that I had taken on the road.

I also returned to a most pleasant surprise: the girl’s dormitory has electricity! After almost a year, I finally get a proper computer lab! I enlisted my students to help me clean out the room and move the computers down into it. All I need now is a couple of electrical outlets, and I’m in business.

The computer lab is one of those examples of the pace of life in Ghana, which I think is best described by the term “punctuated equilibrium”. It might take 6 months or more for something to happen — the construction of a building, the paving of a road, the digging of a well, or the arrival of new equipment — but when it finally happens, it happens fast. I’m told that sinking the power poles, stringing the lines, and connecting the building to the grid took about 3 days, and the electrical meters are due to be installed on Monday. It’s a complete departure from the rigidly-scheduled American way of life, where being 10 minutes late is cause for alarm, and despite being chaotically unpredictable, it somehow works.

Alright; time to make dinner and relax. Enjoy your weekends, everyone!