One year ago today, I received that fateful email that said:
I am writing to inform you that you have been invited to a Small Business Development assignment in Sub Saharan Africa which departs in early October
I spent two months eating, saying goodbyes, packing up my life, and spending hours with my dog at the dog park. I packed my bags at least 5 times, spending countless hours trying to figure out the most efficient way of packing. I moved to my dad’s house with all my belongings, packed into a moving truck. Man, I have a lot of stuff. We went with his bike gang on one last trip to Tulsa, for the best burgers on the planet. When we got there I split my pants (literally). There was a nice breeze all the way back home. I said my goodbyes early on October 5th. I remember crying leaving my precious dog sitting in the living room. He just stared at me, like he knew something big was happening. I hugged my dad goodbye at the airport, hoping he and the security didn’t see the tears streaming down my face. As I put on my shoes, I tried to pull myself together. I sat in the airport thinking – this is it, I’m moving to Africa, I am about to fulfill one of my life’s dreams.
As I landed in Philadelphia, I grabbed an Earl of Sandwich Italian club and ate hastily. I had to get to staging in just under an hour. I take a taxi to the hotel and I’m blown away by how pretty Philadelphia is. I finally get to the hotel and go to check in. The desk almost put me on a bus to Ethiopia. I go upstairs and knock on the door – my roommate is already there. The door opens and there is the most beautiful woman standing in front of me. I completely forgot that people over 30 join the Peace Corps too. We chat and go down to staging. Last one to arrive.
We sit through staging, talking about our expectations, our fears. We perform a skit about some situations we may encounter in Ghana. I was paired up with Mary, Josh, Richie, and Diana. Instantly, I knew that Richie and I would be great friends. After staging, I meet up with my Mom and we head to a fantastic tapas restaurant for dinner. It was one of the best meals of my life. It was the perfect way to say “see you later” to my mom. I’m so glad I got to meet her boyfriend too. It reassured me that my mom would be just fine, while I was away.
The next day we hopped on a bus headed to New York City – the first time I have ever seen the city. Small hitch at the airport, but luckily I had a great ticket counter lady who figured it out and fixed everyone right up. Soon we were on a plane to Frankfurt. In Frankfurt, I took a shower – which was a great idea. We get on the next plane and poof tarmac problems. We were delayed for a long time. Finally, we land in Accra. The first thing I noticed stepping off the plane was the humidity. It hit me like a wall of water.
The next two and a half months were spent in intense training. Twi classes with the boys, technical training that did not benefit me in the least, bad food, medical training, boring training about all sorts of things I can’t really remember. I learned to love bankou. I learned to tell people how to get to my house in a tribal language. I learned that bunnies are still cute and cuddly no matter what continent you are on. After a long and arduous training, 24 of us swore-in as Peace Corps Volunteers.
I moved to site and strapped in. My first week at site – I was on a conference call with SAP. My second week at site I was registering farmers. I spent Christmas with Corndog and a random smuggler. I spent New Years searching for a dance club. January and February I was consumed with SAP. Registering farmers, getting ready for training, preparing materials, doing everything and anything SAP. I wasn’t supposed to work for 3 months. That didn’t happen.
March is a blur of more SAP things. In March, I went around with my friend developing sites for the next batch of volunteers. I spent a lot of March learning the ropes. April came with a storm. In April, we had our All Volunteer Conference – which was incredibly fun. The day after All Vol was when I got very sick. I stayed sick until the beginning of May. The dreaded Typhoid! I honestly can’t remember most of April. I remember two days and a few conversations. I remember my family here praying for me at the door to my house.
Thankfully, a incredibly high dose of antibiotics cured me right up and I got back on my way. May was another whirlwind. I attended a cashew IST and learned how to cut down a tree and make it grow back. I learned that I am really really bad at grafting. I spent most of doing little things and organizing this that and the other. Lots of little meetings. In May, we met with MIM to discuss a partnership. In May, I organized a meeting with the head of the African Cashew Alliance.
June was partially spent in confinement in Accra. I went two weeks without my laptop. I’m so proud. The rest of June, I spent working on a business literacy training program for farmers. Chase and I put together a framework and I wrote a 10 page how-to guide on teaching basic accounting to farmers. The end of June, I went out and actually trained farmers on business literacy.
July was all business literacy trainings. Two a week for the entire month. I trained 108 farmers, with more to come. June and July, I also spent collecting SAP phones and tying up lose ends on that project. The Fourth of July I had a giant party in my compound and shared American culture with my Ghanaian family and friends. July also consisted of lots of research. July was difficult. It was the first time I had free time since I got to site. Cashew season was over and I had far fewer things to do. Panic set in and so did a quarter-life crisis, which I am pretty sure I am still experiencing.
Over these 7.5 months, I have schemed, panicked, organized, and planned. I have been working extremely hard on bettering the Peace Corps Ghana Cashew Initiative. I have devoted months to the SAP partnership. I have written analyses, project summaries, reports, and lots and lots of emails. I have felt corruption; I have stared it in the face. I have redefined goals and expectations. I have listened to rants. I have ranted myself. I have been stressed. I have learned to farm! I have planned a super vacation to South Africa. I have had my share of hardships. It hasn’t been all roses and unicorns. I have had super rough days, where I just cry the entire day. I have seen friends leave. I have been at very low points. I have relied on my friends to get me through the tough days. I have been deprived of food and nutrients. I have felt hopeless and alone. I have gained weight and lost weight. I have been sick, tired, and sad. I miss my friends and family. I have tried to take the weight of the world on my shoulders and failed. I have discovered my weaknesses. I have found my flaws. I have spent hours in beat up, old, should barely be able to move vehicles.
I am currently in a low point, I have far less things at site to do. I’m happiest when I am overwhelmingly busy. Everyone in Peace Corps experiences the “rollercoaster of emotions”. I’m just stuck at the bottom right now. That doesn’t mean I haven’t had an incredible ride so far though.
I have made amazing friends, both American and Ghanaian. I have stayed in contact with my friends back home and I still feel like I’m a part of their lives. I have been welcomed with open arms into a new family in Ghana. I now have 3 brothers, 2 sisters, a baby cousin, a mom, and a dad. My new dad is also a chief, which has really been great. I have tried new foods and learned to love them. I have discovered eating with your hands is the way to go. I have become a regular at my favorite places at town – no longer having to order! I have been dashed because I’m loyal. I have been called many names: Mama Ghana, Michelle Obama!, Mama Africa, and Mama Jackie. I have become friends with my spectacular tailor. I have had over 50 things made at the tailor and love all of them. I have developed an incredible friendship with my Muslim counterpart, he has shown me the true meaning of service and dedication. I have seen selflessness. I have been welcomed by everyone. I have learned so much about myself. I have learned to love my body. I have laughed until I cried. I have learned patience. I have discovered my limits and tested them. I have been proposed to many many times. I have 56 husbands! I have bowed before a chief and learned to only use my right hand. The Muslim farmers in my town have accepted me as one of their own and the men shake my hand. I have been incredibly happy and productive. I have learned to smile more. I have learned to love not wearing a bra. I have pushed myself. I have felt my heart flutter. I have found my soul mate – too bad he is gay. I have matured. I have grown.
Peace Corps has taught me more than I could ever imagine. Did you know you can take a really nice bath with less than 4L of water? Did you know that you can go without ANY water for a week and make it out just fine?
It has been 7.5 months at site and 10 months since I have been in Ghana. Hard to believe one year ago today, I got that email. Time sure has flown by. Here’s to another 500 days!