Welcome to Peace Corps Ghana! You are probably currently experiencing a wide range of emotions, excitement, anxiety, nervousness, sadness, joy, fret, and a bit of panic. Don’t worry everyone goes through those emotions before leaving. I remember thinking “oh lord, I have to pack my apartment, say goodbye to my friends, family, and dog, say goodbye to cheese and bacon, figure out all my financial stuff, figure out what to pack for two years, and still find time to enjoy America while I can?!” You are uprooting your entire life to move to Ghana. It is not easy-o. Soon you will be joined by 25 other trainees who, like you, did just that. Then you will be in Ghana with about 150 other volunteers who have also given up everything to spend two years in Africa. You are never alone here.
You will have a ton of questions before you leave, I know I did. You will probably question your decision to join the Peace Corps a few times before leaving. You should spend time deciding if this is really what’s right for you. It is a serious commitment and is definitely difficult. If you are really prepared for service, the doubts will remain, but your determination, excitement, drive, and desire to help will far outweigh that question mark in the back of your brain.
Peace Corps is thrilling, a sensory overload, rewarding, and challenging. You will be happy beyond measure and feel lonely and sad, probably in the same week or even day. You will miss your family, friends, and pets, but you will find that you quickly make a new family here. Your fellow Peace Corps Volunteers are an incredible support system. They will help you work through your low points and help you get out of your funk. Fellow PCVs will be there during the best parts of your service and will make your service even better than you could have imagined. Texting in Ghana is incredibly cheap and keeps you connected to your friends. You truly are never alone in Peace Corps, there is always someone there who is willing to listen, give you a shoulder to cry on, entertain you, and keep you laughing until you almost “join the club.”
You will be tested (literally) mentally and physically. The first three months of training are draining, exhausting, frustrating, super fun, and totally overwhelming. Your life after training will be completely different. It will be on your own terms (for the most part). You will learn a new language, how to recognize every scary medical ailment possible, all about rabbits, all sorts of mumbo jumbo development stuff that you will probably forget (but don’t worry they give you plenty of heavy books in case you want to refresh!), the food security pillar/triangle/hut, wonderful cultural insights, and lots of technical information. The most important thing you will learn in training is about the culture. You will observe it at homestay, in sessions, from your language trainers, and while walking on the street. Learning to adapt and integrate into Ghanaian culture will help you have a great two years of service. If you are constantly fighting against the culture, bashing it, or refusing to compromise – your next two years are going to be an uphill battle and it will be you against an entire country. Learn to embrace the differences, recognize the similarities, and enjoy Ghanaian culture.
You will be shocked by the food, especially during training. You will gag at dried fish and vehemently refuse anything that smells even remotely fishy. You will eat more tomatoes than you thought possible. You will discover the various properties of yams. You will be so sick of Ghanaian food by the end of training, you will spend countless hours “paying attention” during training devising your meals once you are at site. You will soon discover that chicken and rice are your new best friends (don’t get sick of it, it will follow you to site). You will quickly find that being super polite when it comes to food is not in your best interests. Try your host family’s food, if you don’t like it, make it extremely clear – “I don’t want to eat this again, it does not agree with me.” They won’t be offended if you are direct. They are cooking separate meals just for you, they aren’t eating the same thing – so tell them what you want to eat. Food is one of the biggest sore spots during training.
Training will be difficult and rewarding. You will make new friends and have wonderful new memories. Enjoy it, enjoy spending time with your friends. After about a month and a half, everyone will start getting stir crazy and probably a little angry. It will pass. Breathe. Once you are at site, your stress level will drop dramatically. Training is only 3ish months, you can do it.
I’ve put together a little FAQ:
1. What should I pack?
Packing is never easy. You should pack clothing that you are comfortable wearing. If you go out and buy items you would never wear in America, you are not going to wear them here. Don’t have long skirts? Don’t buy them. Bring pants, bring jeans. Odds are you will have clothes made at site. So, really you just need clothes for training. Most of the time you are with your fellow Americans. Don’t bring short skirts or super short shorts. Don’t look disgusting, that’s really all you need to know. You can always get extremely cheap t-shirts, pants, jeans, and basically everything you would ever need at a market. You won’t really have access during training, but once you are site – have at it! Most farmers wear sturdy pants and a t-shirt with a ridiculously funny slogan on the front (funny to you.) The packing list in the Welcome Book is outdated and you should not use it. Look up Volunteer’s packing lists.
You are an Agric volunteer – you will be farming, even if you are a business type. So bring clothes that can get dirty. Bring at least one pair of hiking/backpacking/sturdy pants. If it you wouldn’t normally wear it – you will need it here. You will get dirty as much as you fight it.
Chacos are your friend – I would never be caught dead in them in America – I wear them all the time here. Toms are good for close toed shoes and you can wash them. If they start to smell, soak them in vinegar and soapy water. Your feet will just start to smell all the time here anyway. I recommend bringing a pair of Old Navy super cheap flip-flops, house shoes, shower shoes, they are pretty sturdy and last longer than the sandals here. Don’t bring any remotely nice shoes, you won’t wear them and they will get insanely dirty. You are a farmer now!
Bring one nice outfit for the Ambassador party, that is the first couple of days once in country. You really don’t need any other nice outfits, bring a blouse or nicer skirt if you want to feel pretty every once in a while. T-shirts, tank tops, and light pants are going to be your new “uniform.”Target tank tops work wonders here, the ones I have have not stretched out yet! YAY! Don’t bring white, the Ghanaians keep things white, but they have magic washing powers.
Underwear – either bring the sporty, ultra dry kind or all cotton. I brought plenty-o-panties and I’m super happy. Not only do I wash less often, but my panties still look like they just came from the store. You can shove underwear in little crevices and it doesn’t take up that much space. The underwear here is a little scary.
The rainy season – you will get cold. Very very cold, it may be 70ish degrees outside, but you are used to high 90s now. Bring something comforting that’s semi warm – what I wouldn’t do for a hoodie or fuzzy socks. It will take up more room though. Wish I had a good raincoat, umbrella is handy. Better yet, a poncho would be clutch. Go listen to Toto’s Africa and prepare yourself for torrential downpour.
If you wear makeup in America, pack some. You will go out with fellow volunteers and want to look pretty.
Electronics are always tricky. Laptop? BRING IT. Don’t doubt it, don’t question yourself, pack that sucker. Ebook reader? Bring it, don’t have one? Ask for one as a going away gift. Trust me, my life is so much better with a Kindle. iPod – necessary. External portable hard drive – the bigger the better. You will soon find that all Peace Corps Volunteers are movie and TV show fiends. You will watch movies, you will be bored, you will want as many as possible. USB Sticks, bring a few – always handy and super expensive here. Unlocked phone – is it cool? Bring it. Having a nice phone makes a pretty decent difference, especially considering the amount of texting you are going to do. If you can find really cool portable small speakers, bring those.
Bring enough shampoo/conditioner/toiletries for 5 months. Have family or friends ship you more, especially deodorant. Never can have enough deo. You can get shampoo here, but I’ve only found it in Accra. It is pretty cheap and actually good, but you won’t be travelling to Accra often. Body wash and soap is everywhere here.
OTC meds? Skip them, your med kit is stocked with everything you could ever want EXCEPT: mucinex, good bandaids, and specific vitamins. Take fish oil? Supplements, besides a prenatal vitamin are not provided. The bandaids they provide are beyond craptastic. Bring good cloth ones.
Don’t leave home without a towel (camptowel is preferable) and a headlamp. The headlamp is the most useful/necessary thing to pack. Don’t be stingy, buy a good one. You will use it everyday and you will love it. Rechargeable batteries are pretty damn handy.
Bring a notebook for training and some good pens. Paper in Ghana is A4, so it is bigger than paper in the states, buy a folder or something here to keep all the paperwork they give you handy.
Bring some junkfood for training. Hold off as long as you can, but there will be that one day when you really need some Peanut M&Ms.
What about nonstick pans and good knives, kitchen stuff? Set all that stuff aside and have someone send it to you later. Spices are really good to get in the mail.
During training, you will be going back and forth to classes and the hub site. You will need some type of bag to haul crap in. Backpacks are useful – get a laptop backpack, something sturdy.
When you pack, do it at least twice. Take out things you are unsure about.
2. Will I have electricity or running water?
Electricity is a probably. A lot of sites these days have electricity, I know all the ones I have helped to develop have electricity. Running water is much harder to find. You will most likely have borehole water. You will have to fetch water, send a child to do it for you, or collect rain water. You will be given a really good water filter for drinking water.
3. What will my bathroom situation be like?
There are a few different situations here in Ghana. There is the basic latrine – hut with a hole in the ground, you squat and never look down. Latrine with a seat – same concept, but someone has built some sort of seat over the hole. Toilet with bucket flush – you have a toilet, but you have to put water into the tank every time you want to flush. Flushing toilet – just like America. Latrines and seat latrines are most common. It isn’t as bad as you think, you get used to it. The smell, you never get used to that though. Another reason you want a headlamp, for going pee at night. Most latrines are a little distance from your house, which is really fun in the rain! Learn to love empty juice containers…
4. Will I be close to other volunteers?
Probably. I can’t speak for the other regions, but if you are placed in the oh so fabulous Brong-Ahafo, you are never more than an hour from another volunteer. That sounds like a long time in American time standards, but here that’s essentially like 20 minutes. Time really is different here. I can reach 6 other volunteers in about an hour. Other volunteers are closer than you think.
5. What will my housing be like?
It obviously varies, but you will have at least one room. You will have a place to poo and a place to bathe. Most bathing areas are concrete mini mazes with no roof. Bathe under the stars! Some people will have two rooms.You will have space to cook, it might be outside though – most of the outside cooking spaces are covered – like a porch. You may live in a single house alone, in a compound but still off to yourself, or in a compound with people. Your housing is provided by your sponsoring organization or community. It is possible to change your housing situation, but you have to work with your org or community, since they are paying for it. I live in a large compound, I have two rooms, a kitchen, a shower, and a flush toilet. I have running water. I’m the outlier. But other volunteers are always welcome!
6. What sort of work will I be doing?
I’m glad you asked! Peace Corps Ghana has a really great Agriculture program. Yes, I’m biased. There are two main programs that Agriculture volunteers work on/with: Cashews and Shea Nuts. We are all a little nutty in Ghana. The primary focus is on adding value to forestry and agricultural crops. If you have a business background, you will most likely be doing association and organizational building or teaching basic business principles to farmers/groups.
Cashews – Peace Corps Ghana has an amazing cashew program, the Cashew Initiative. Traditional agriculture types and business types work together to educate cashew farmers on improving yields, quality, and income. The Cashew Initiative is a very structured program, there are specific goals and objectives that apply to cashew volunteers. We hold three trainings a year to get cashew volunteers up to speed on all the ins and outs of cashews. For example, I am a business agriculture volunteer (hub), I work with traditional agriculture volunteers (satellites). I teach business literacy to farmers, which includes basic business knowledge and accounting. I work with a German software company to bring smartphones, transparency, and traceability to cashew buying. A lot of the other cashew volunteers are working on beekeeping, improving quality through pruning, and nursery related things. We conduct a lot of trainings for farmers.
Shea – I honestly can’t speak for shea, but I do know they do a few things. Shea volunteers work with women’s groups doing shea processing. Shea can be used in food, cosmetics, and I’m sure more things. That’s all I know! Shea also has a group with organizing volunteers. Shea volunteers put on shea specific trainings as well.
Everything else – Beekeeping is very popular as is rabbit rearing. I honestly don’t know what the other volunteers focus on that is within the new framework (Agriculture is new to Ghana – before it was Natural Resource Management, which had a different emphasis). You will be working with a group or helping to form one.
You will also be able to join various Volunteer led groups, such as GYD, STARS, SWAT, and the Diversity Group. GYD is Gender Youth Development, Stars is something complicated – a leadership camp for high school students, SWAT is malaria focused. There are plenty of groups within Peace Corps Ghana, so if you say you are bored, you aren’t trying hard enough.
7. Will I be able to stay in contact with my family/friends back home?
Yes! You will have network access at your site, it may be crappy – but it will be there. Sometimes you have to walk around and hold your phone at weird angles. The cost of calling home is pretty cheap, you can’t call home every day on a volunteer budget, but you can call more than you think. Calls back to America cost around 10p a minute – about 5 cents. Your family and friends can also add credit to your account via TelephoneGhana.com. You will most likely buy a USB modem once in Ghana – this will give you internet access. I have skyped from my bed in Ghana, it is possible, but expensive. Internet isn’t cheap, but it easily fits into a volunteer budget. I pay 30cd a month for internet, and that’s pretty steep. I check facebook daily and my email. I am always connected to home. Staying in contact with my friends and family is much easier than I thought it would be.
8. How much money will I make as a volunteer?
It won’t even matter until you get to site. There is no way to budget for your normal living expenses until you have been at site for at least 2 weeks. If I am a good girl and don’t splurge, I save 100cd a month. So, your living allowance is more than enough. That’s even with my trips to the tailor and utilities. I do live ridiculously frugally though and almost never cook. If you cook for yourself, expect to spend a lot more.
9. What do volunteers do in their free time?
You will have free time, lots of it. You can read, use your laptop, watch movies, chat with neighbors, get a pet, write, knit, crochet, make crafts with kids, figure out things to make out of water satchets, sew, fantasy football league, hang out with other volunteers, cook, play with kids, teach english, tutor students, study for the GRE, paint, text, play computer games, write grant applications, research grad schools, come up with new fashion designs, clean, garden, build furniture, attend events in town, and of course – chase children.
10. What if I have other questions, who/where should I ask?
There is a facebook group already started for October 2012. Ask all your questions in that group, that way it is nicely collated. Volunteers are always happy to answer questions, we love it. You can always message someone as well, especially if you have questions that you are embarrassed to ask, like about tampons or getting your period or how often volunteers get diarrhea. No question is taboo!
I hope this was helpful! Feel free to leave questions in the comments or find me on facebook. Get ready for the best two years of your life.