May is no different from any other month in Peace Corps. The days go by slowly, but the weeks pass at an alarming rate. This month has been a mix of emotions and I’m still trying to quietly sift through them. I feel like I didn’t do much of anything this month. Then I remember the good things that did happen. Progress and success aren’t measured by quantity, but by quality. I’ve said from the beginning that I measure my success not by the number of projects I do, the grant money raised, or number of children I have following me. I will feel successful if I have impacted just one person. Just one. More is nice, but one is all I need.
I let this month slip by knowing that I have been a successful Peace Corps Volunteer. The month began tragically. I still can’t believe our beautiful Dani has been taken from us. As we all gathered to mourn the loss of our fellow Volunteer and friend, I felt an overwhelming presence. I’m not sure if Dani’s spirit was dancing in each of our dreams or sitting sassily in the corner of our minds, but I could feel her. I knew that she was telling me life is too short. Life is too short to hold grudges, to forget to love, to be petty. I took her spirit’s words to heart and mended fences that have let too many cows out to pasture in the past year. I returned to site shortly after the memorial, renewed and ready to face any challenges that stood before me. The Wednesday after the memorial, I gave a tour of the Brong-Ahafo to a businessman looking to expand and create a market for cashew apples. I’m excited about the potential of this project. Afterwards, I spent time working on my SAP pilot project, creating analyses and debriefing farmers. The season is all but finished and I’m tying up loose ends. Halfway through the month I caught a cold. I took no chances and guzzled Vitamin-C, drank ridiculous amounts of water, and slept half the day. I recovered in just a few days. I did my PCV duty and informed the Medical Officer immediately as well. There is no longer a culture of fear in reporting illness, now it is a duty to our parents, the PCMO, Staff, and ourselves to report every thing – no matter how small. Two weeks ago I travelled to Brodi to conduct another Business Literacy Training. I did a training there a few months back to the same group, so I was excited to see how things were progressing. Did anyone learn anything from my last training? Did I make any impact?
As I began my training, I noticed familiar faces. I also noticed everyone came prepared. I asked the group, “who can tell me what is an expense?” Hands shot into the air. Multiple people gave me the correct answer and examples. I asked again, “who can tell me how you calculate your profit?” Again hands shot into the air, clawing at the opportunity to answer. Again, correct answers. I know Ghanaians are smart, but after a year and a half of accepting failure as the default condition, I was in total shock. Not only did the remember what I told them, they brought the handouts from last time. I fought back a tear. This training session, I focused on how to adapt what we learned last time so the farmers can keep a record book for years to come. After that I did what I once thought impossible – I taught the farmers about malaria. After 19 months in country, I taught something that wasn’t related to business or cashews. We did a cost benefit analysis of malaria. Finally, I did my new favorite training – the value chain.
There are a few other players in there, but I like to explain the general idea to farmers. Honestly, farmers have no idea what happens to their cashew after they sell it. And I bet you don’t really know how cashews come from my farmers to your grocery store. As I explain the steps to them, I show them how much money is added at each step. Once you get to processing they are dumbfounded. Farmers this year sold their cashew for about $0.55 a kilogram. Once it is processed (cashews lose weight during processing so about 4-5kg of cashew after processing is equivalent to 1kg of kernels), 1kg of whole cashews sells for $7.50. Next time you go to a grocery store, buy a can of cashews. Are the cashews whole? Probably not. Split cashews are much cheaper $4.00 per kg. After I go through the exercise, I explain some of the factors that impact the price of cashew. Farmers are always outraged at the price they receive, so by doing value chain and price trainings you can help manage expectations better. Also, farmers will be less hesitant to hold onto their cashew for better prices. The training went fantastically. I even saw that many of the farmers kept books during the season. In VRF terms, training retention! If Peace Corps gave out badges like Boy Scouts, I’d demand a “THEY ACTUALLY KEPT RECORDS!” badge.
The following day I dropped off a rather large bag of clothes to my dear friend Wayne. Wayne, the PCV who I replaced, was travelling back to America the following week. He begrudgingly agreed to haul my 1 ton of clothes back to the States and ship them for me. And I’m eternally grateful. As I chatted with him in his gigantic cashew buyer house, he told me some simply amazing news. The kind of news that still makes me cry when I think about it. So, before I divulge, a little backstory. Wayne also worked with the Wenchi Cashew Union. At the time, the Secretary of the Union was Yahya. Yahya, a Muslim and hardworking cashew farmer, would go out of his way to help others. He quit the Union and went solo. Everything he did was to help his fellow farmers. In comes me, after a few months of working with the new Secretary, I realize Yahya is the better contact. I started working with Yahya on a regular basis last February. We conducted trainings, travelled together, worked on the SAP project together, and he even took me to farm. Yahya has been a great friend to me. We spent many hours planning out trainings and figuring out how to best meet the needs of farmers in Wenchi. Last Fourth of July, Yahya and my brother Ralph joined us for festivities at my old house. He barbequed with us and even brought me a gift – a microwave. Yahya and I spent a month together planning my ill-fated bushfire training. He was the last person I saw before while I was being evacuated. He’s continued to work with the new Peace Corps Volunteers and their communities. A couple of months ago, he conducted a training on grafting in one of my favorite villages. Today he is conducting a pruning training in another Volunteer’s village. He does this because he wants to. He never gets paid. In Peace Corps, the ultimate goal is to train individuals who will go on to train other locals. Sustainable development. Yahya already knew a lot before I met him, but together we taught each other much more than grafting techniques. I taught him how to bust out a business training. He taught me how to fight the man! Wayne once told me that I’m the first woman Yahya has ever agreed to shake hands with. Wayne worked with him a lot as well, but together I think we helped Yahya change from being a great person to being a great person and a great businessman.
So, when Wayne told me that Yahya did really well this season I wasn’t surprised. Yahya, now a cashew buying agent, is very skilled at organizing farmers. I’m sure he would have no problem buying cashew. No problem is an understatement. Yahya, now gainfully employed, made more money this cashew season than I did in the entire year before I came to Ghana. Let me repeat that. He made more money than my salary was in America. In 5 months. He bought over 300 metric tones of cashew. That’s 2% of Ghana’s crop. When I first started working with Yahya he really had no income source. Now he’s wealthy! And he’s buying lunch for me next time.
Wayne should take most of the credit for Yahya’s success, but I think I had a part to play too. I’m hoping in the next few months to start another project with Yahya. Yahya’s no longer just a motivated farmer, he’s a true leader.
Wayne’s great news has got me through some tough days this month. Sitting at site, I’ve been studying for the Foreign Service Officer Test, which I will take June 10th. I passed last time, but I don’t want to take any chances this time around. Taking a break from studying, I called family to celebrate some other good news. The phone call didn’t go as I expected and I’m still mulling the call over in my head. Two days later, the tornado struck. I cried for two days straight. The memories of my close calls were too much for me to handle. I’m lucky to be part of such a wonderful Peace Corps family though. My friends and the expats I stay with called me to check on me and my family. They offered their support and put me at ease. It is hard to be so far away when tragedy strikes something close to your heart. I’m still shaken and emotional when I think about the tornado, but I know that I have friends here to comfort me.
As the month comes to a close, I have a cashew festival to look forward to. Next month I’m hosting a resume workshop for PCVs, and I’ll take the Foreign Service Test. If my leave is approved, I’ll be enjoying time with my Aunt in less than a month.
Life has a funny way of throwing us curveballs. Perhaps it is simply life’s way of telling us to hit the ball and just keep running.