Don’t let it slip

I’m fast approaching a date that I don’t want to pass. I’m terrified of November 20th. I don’t want it to come.

I don’t want to say I ended my Peace Corps service over a year ago. I want to remain within my one year mark. I don’t know why, but I don’t want to tip over into that territory. I want to be still fresh off the plane. Three days isn’t going to make a difference, because that date is going to pass no matter what, but I feel it sometimes. I feel it slipping. I feel the connection to my service slipping from my hands. Somedays I come home and cry because I miss Peace Corps so bad. No I don’t miss the hardships or the heartbreak, but I miss the feeling. I miss feeling impactful. Arabic makes me feel selfish. Learning a language is selfish. I’m learning this for me, so I can converse with others. I’m not doing something that has a direct impact on others right now. I get that this whole mindset of wanting to be impactful is just as selfish, but entertain my line of thought. I miss feeling smart because I had all this time to think and better myself. I miss being loved by a community of strangers. I miss feeling like I was doing something. I was someone. I miss that feeling when lights have been off for hours and suddenly the lights are back on and everything seems amazing in the world, like I could do anything because suddenly I had electricity. I miss the intellectual conversations I would have from my porch with other Peace Corps Volunteers, locals, or sometimes the goats. I miss the look on a farmer’s face when I told them something that changed their minds. I miss the smile from my small girls when I would turn on Gangnam style and we would have a dance party in front of the ravine. I miss my fellow Volunteers and the stories we shared. I miss it all.

I enjoy Arabic, for the most part (except when I’m patronized and demoralized), but I can’t really measure it. I can’t describe its impact on me, not yet. I can’t see it smile at me from across the courtyard when I run out of my room because a mouse scurried under my bed. Arabic doesn’t care that I know all about cashew nut quality. Arabic doesn’t excite me like a fresh batch of farmer data ripe and ready for analysis.

We are always ready and looking forward to the next moment, stage, or period of our life. But sometimes, you have to look back and realize where you came from. As much as I miss Ghana, I know that I’m going to enjoy going to my fridge and making dinner in my government apartment though. But right now, I don’t want missing Ghana to end.

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My Peace Corps Service

On October 6, 2011, I emerged from the Lufthansa plane into the steamy evening air of Accra. I stepped foot onto the African continent for the first time. Two years later, I can still vividly remember the feeling of arriving in Ghana. Two years later and I’ve accomplished a lot, but only time will tell what my impact has been.

Standing on a cliff overlooking a tree dotted savannah, shadows and sunlight fill the scene. My service has been much the same. The shadows sometimes cast doubt on the effectiveness of my service, but the rays of sun pouring over the landscape reveal the true story.

Two days into my service as an official Peace Corps Volunteer, I sat huddled over a shiny metal table, pen and paper in hand ready to dive into the conference call. Beads of sweat formed on my neck and temple, slowly rolling down my front as the screechy fan circled above my head. I leaned forward to hear the speakerphone over the din of the bar’s crackling TV. As the conference call finished, I could feel the corners of my mouth slowly pull back into an unmistakable smile. This was going to be my primary project. Ideas started to form in my head, cogs started turning, and a pull deep inside my stomach told me that this project would become my baby.

A few days later, I sat in a dusty office surrounded by binders, papers, and cobwebs. I quickly opened my laptop, ready to prove myself to my new Ghanaian counterparts. As SAP stated exasperatedly during our conference call, farmer registrations were far behind schedule. I sprung into action, creating a plan for tackling the registrations in the next few weeks. We had just three weeks to register farmers from over 16 communities, spanning half the region. Christmas eve, I set out from my house to Muslim area of town. As I approached the first house, I suddenly became anxious, this was after all my first introduction to my farmers. I was greeted by a group of about 15 men who had just finished prayers. This group would turn out to be my biggest supporters and friendliest farmers. As we documented each farmer, I took pictures of each person (an added transparency measure for the software).

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Our taxi would bump along the dirt roads surrounding Wenchi. Dust would fill the car like a fog entering the vehicle, it would grab hold of my throat and linger softly on my clothes. My short red hair would turn redder and lighter with the dust settling wherever it could. As we jostled around in the taxi hurtling toward Nchiraa, I noticed the land change slightly. Crags burst forth from the mix of maize and cashew farms; palm trees rose high above the grasses. We climbed slightly and as we emerged from a dense section of teak trees, the view broke through and you could see for miles. Miles of farms, untouched land, and Africa.

A few weeks later, we were making our way down another bush path. This time the journey took much longer. I dozed off and on in the backseat as we passed bushfires, cashew farms, and tiny villages huddled around a water source. We stopped in a small village to register a few farmers. We parked in the shade of an ancient mango tree, dripping with thin, waxy leaves. I set my laptop on the roof of the tiny Daewoo so it would be eye level. My counterpart, gently grabbed my arm and pointed towards a little shack across the street. The closest gas station for miles and miles.

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(The yellow jerry can is the gas station.)

The hot wind pushed my bedroom curtains higher and higher as I sat on my makeshift desk, my bed. I furiously added data into a spreadsheet, enjoying the monotony of the work. I coughed and reached for more water. One of the 800 farmers I shook hands with likely handed me the flu. But the fever and body aches weren’t going to stand in the way of my data analysis. I poured over the data, fascinated by the trends that were emerging and their implication for this project. Not only did I have a great sample of cashew farmers, but I had insights that would help me plan my future trainings.

January melted into February and with it the hot harmattan winds continued to blow. One night, the team from Germany arrived, and we discussed logistics for the next week’s training. As the sun set over the hills of Wenchi, the bats sleeping restlessly in the giant mango tree began to stir and disappear into the dusk. The furious sound of their wings beating against their bodies and their cries of hunger echoed into the night. The stars began to slowly pop into view and I listened to the team from SAP conversing in German. I chimed in on occasion as we discussed details. As the night wore on, one of them snuck off and came back with a bag bursting to the top with German goodies. I was ecstatic to see some of my favorites – Weisswurst, Knodel, and Haribo. The full moon slowly rose over the horizon, distorted by the harmattan winds, it glowed orange illuminating the town.

The cashew season slowly soldiered on. The intoxicating smell of cashew flowers filled the air. March became April and the first shadow crept over my service. As I laid in bed, writhing in feverous pain, I drifted in and out of delirium. Sweat poured down my back as I tossed and turned during the hottest month of the year. Suddenly, I would wake up from my terror strewn dreams and stumble wildly to the bathroom. I couldn’t even remember the taste of regular water, I was drinking so many oral rehydration salts. I don’t remember what or how I ate, but somehow in that month I received sustenance. Nor do I remember travelling to Kumasi to visit the lab. As I teeter-tottered back in forth in the lab chair, I willed myself to stay conscious. Leaving the lab, the Peace Corps car had left. I walked in a stupor towards what I hoped would be towards a vehicle to take me back to the office. The next days were a blur as I got progressively worse. My energy was sapped wholeheartedly from my body, leaving me to crawl to the bathroom. Four weeks passed since the start of my illness and finally I was prescribed medicine to treat typhoid fever.

The rainy season arrived in thunderous fashion. The sky seemed to open up and a deluge issued forth. Roads became rivers and rivers became violent. My curtains remained almost horizontal for the three month monsoons. I could barely leave the house for fear of being swept away. The rain would hammer on the tin roof deafening my ears. Loneliness began to affect me and sadness slowly seeped into my daily life. But eventually, the rain died down enough that I could carry on with my work.

I quietly organized my handouts for my basic recordkeeping and accounting trainings. Everything was prepared and I was thrilled to begin teaching. Before I joined Peace Corps I envisioned myself giving basic accounting trainings in some far off land in a different language, well my vision became reality, except it was in English. The farmers surprised me with their attentiveness and participation in the trainings. I was shocked to find women participating with the men. I drew out the shy farmers and asked them about what they learned. I provided pencils as incentives for participation. For seven weeks, I trekked around Wenchi providing trainings to over 100 farmers. I was thrilled at the progress they made and satisfied with my work. 

A few weeks later I set out for the adventure of a lifetime, traversing around South Africa for three weeks. The cold Atlantic Ocean took my breathe away as I lowered myself into the cage. Being careful not to dangle my appendages outside the confines of the steel cage, I watched as great white sharks swam past me in the water. They leapt with such force over the choppy surface of the water, I could barely believe the experience was real. A week later and I was awestruck when I saw my first giraffe. As the baby giraffe was chased by devious warthogs, the sun set over the savannah. The air grew cold as we spent the evening chasing lions and tailing rhinos. The lion’s roar reverberated throughout my entire body, enticing goosebumps to ripple across my skin.

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The next month was bland in comparison to my South African escapades. I travelled back and forth to the district offices, pleading with bored officials to support my bushfire prevention event. I had been looking forward to planning this event for a year and I was excited when the agencies were all on board. I left the final planning to my counterpart and I hopped down to Accra for Thanksgiving at the Ambassador’s residence. I stayed with an amazing couple who have embraced me like a member of their own family. Thanksgiving Day, I slipped on my specially designed and tailored dress and blow dried my hair. As I sat down to eat, I invited those at the table to share what they were thankful for – a family tradition. That day I was even more grateful for gravy, lots and lots of gravy. Later that evening, I joined my embassy family for second Thanksgiving. I waddled to bed that night.

I returned home to Wenchi, eager to conduct my bushfire event. Then, it all crumbled to pieces in front of me, sabotaged by one individual. By the time I got to the event location that morning, I was already fearful and severely shaken up. I still haven’t recovered from that day, and I doubt I ever will. Peace Corps arrived like a knight in shining white Nissan armor to carry me far away.

Another dark shadow cast no light over the month of December and I struggled. I came very close to quitting and accepting defeat, but through the strength of my friends and support from my APCD I made it through those dark 51 days of homelessness.

As I sat on the edge of my new bed contemplating the boxes and bags of stuff in front of me, I wondered where to start. Where do you start over? I pulled clothes out of boxes, books out of crannies, and decorations out of bags. I was determined to make my quaint, tiny space my home. I purchased beautiful batik for my curtains. As I went to hang them, the table I was standing on gave a giant creak and suddenly split in two. Only one word came to mind as I slowly tumbled backwards onto my concrete floor, and that word was inappropriate. I healed and moved on with my work.

February approached once again with a flurry of events, one of which I had been planning for a long time – the Peace Corps West Africa Cashew Conference. I’m incredibly proud of the results of this conference, but it came at a price. Another shadow was quickly filling up any sunlight visible.

My friend Ralph encouraged me to go to a spot with him one evening, but the moment I got there I knew it was a terrible mistake. The gurgles and deep resonating growls coming from my stomach had nothing to do with hunger. I looked around frantically for a latrine, desperate for any sign of relief. The cramps hitting my stomach caused me to double over in pain. I pleaded with Ralph to let me go home immediately. I just made it in time. That night I laid in bed drenched with sweat and feverish, the food poisoning felt like I was being eaten alive. Over the course of the next month, the effects of that food poisoning became clearer and I became sicker and sicker. But again I survived and over the next few months healed.

Despite healing, the shadows grew darker as I struggled with a project and the sudden death of a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer. I’ve unfortunately often heard the pained screams and wails of Ghanaians as they discover the news of a loved one’s passing. I couldn’t help but echo those same wails as I heard the news of Danni’s untimely departure. I headed back to Accra, where I dealt with my sorrow by hiding away and baking. I’ve held my friends closer ever since her funeral and hope to never cry such terrible tears again.

I returned to work determined to excel and I set ahead furiously studying for the Foreign Service Test, which I passed. The happy news of my score reached me while I was on a much needed vacation in Germany. We’d just stepped foot inside the house, returning from a wonderful few days in Spain, when I received the email. The next few weeks I spent enjoying the crisp, fresh air of Germany with my aunt and uncle. It was exactly what I needed and a wonderful treat. I truly didn’t know how much I valued fresh air until I inhaled it again.

There must always be balance between the amount of sun and shadows, so after my magnificent trip to Germany, I should have been on guard for the shadow that began to creep up again. Rays of sunlight still flooded through hoping to break the shadow, but again one individual was bound and determined to cast darkness back into my life. Despite being scared and shaken, I survived this security threat with my head held high. I refused to shrink back into the ease of the darkness.

Happiness once again returned after I received my official Close of Service (COS) date: November 20. With just a short amount of time left, I set a course for closure and began wrapping up my primary project. This included a World Cashew Conference and a round of meetings with my project partner, fresh off the plane from Germany.

One week will mark my two year anniversary in Ghana. I have just 53 days left in West Africa. Only 53 days to ensure my primary project will be well looked after. Only 53 days left to say goodbye to the friends I’ve made and relationships I cherish. I don’t know what my impact has been. I know what I’ve done. I know what I’ve taught. I know how my primary project has expanded beyond my dreams. Time will tell if I’ve made any impact on Ghana. But Ghana has surely made an impact on me.

From Tree to Tummy: a cashew’s journey

Ever wonder how that cashew in your mixed nuts got there? Ever walked through the grocery aisle and wondered why cashew nuts are so expensive? Well here’s the scoop on how one small nut goes from a tree in Ghana to your pantry.

Cashews grow on trees. Like so:
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The farmer then walks around his farm and picks up the nuts that have fallen on the ground. That’s how you know the nut is mature. The nut is attached to an apple which is removed. The farmer then takes his cashew and dries it on the ground.

After it has dried for at least a day, the farmer takes his cashew nuts to an agent. The agent weighs the bag of cashews and calculates the amount of money he will give him based on current prices.

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For example, this year the highest price per kilogram was about $0.55.
Consider a normal sized container of cashews, they are typically 225g (8oz.).
That means 225g = $0.13.

Okay, so now the farmer has been paid for his cashew. The agent collects cashew nuts at a buying station, until he has enough bags to load a truck. Now, the buyer (who has hired the agent) sends a truck to the buying station. Using a few very strong men, the truck is loaded. Each bag of cashew weighs about 85kg or 187lbs. Two men lift opposite sides of the bag and place it on another man’s head. That man walks the bag to the truck and slides it off to the guy packing the truck. Once the truck is full, it heads to the warehouse.

At the warehouse, the cashew is dumped onto a large tarp or slab of concrete. Here the cashew is dried again to ensure it will not spoil while being stored. The bags are refilled and stacked on wooden pallets for storage. When the buyer is ready to ship another truckload of cashews to a processor or a customer, he again loads a truck.

If the cashew is not being processed in Ghana, it is sent to the city of Tema, a large port. At the port, the bags of cashew are immediately off-loaded into shipping containers. The shipping containers are then loaded onto a vessel for transport to India, Vietnam, or Brazil. Once they reach dry land again, the containers are offloaded and the bags are transferred to a truck. The truck then hauls the cashew nuts to a processor.

The cashew kernel (the part you eat) is encased in a tough outer shell. Now that the cashew nuts are being stored at a processing plant, they go through quite a few more steps.

1. Roasting – cashews are roasted using steam to make the shell brittle and easier to crack.

2. Shelling – using a stick or a cracking machine, the outer shell is cut. Gloves or oil is placed on the hands during this process. Inside the shell is a liquid similar to poison ivy. When it touches your hands it starts to burn, so precautions must be taken. The kernel is removed from the outer shell during this process. Some companies do this by hand or use a machine that shakes the kernel out. Kernels that are whole and undamaged are worth considerably more than halves or split nuts.

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3. Drying – prior to this stage, the kernels may be sorted based on size. The kernels are then dried in a giant oven. This takes about 6-8 hours.

4. Tesla removal – just like peanuts have an outer papery shell, so does the cashew. This is removed by hand using a scrapping tool.

5. Grading – nuts are then sorted and separated based on their grade. Here are some grades:
180 (very large whole kernels) – the most expensive grade
210
240
320 (smaller whole kernels)
Halves
Splits
Butts
Pieces – one of the cheapest grades (Most jars of cashews you’ll find in the supermarket are halves and pieces mixed together.)

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6. Packaging – cashews are then vacuum sealed and placed into boxes for shipping. Each box weighs around 40-50lbs.

At this point, the cashews are again loaded onto trucks for transport to another customer. This time the customer is a roaster. The cashews are again offloaded into shipping containers and shipped to America for instance.

In America, the shipping containers are transported by truck or sometimes train to the roaster. The roaster receives the boxes of cashews and immediately freezes them. This ensures anything potentially living in any of those boxes (hopefully not, but this is America we triple check everything) dies. The boxes are then emptied into a giant container. The nuts then proceed down a canal of sorts. Air is blown against the nuts, to help separate any foreign materials from the nuts. They proceed down an assembly line of checks to make sure the cashew nuts are free from any bugs or other random objects.

The kernels are now ready to be roasted. This is done using giant vats of hot oil. Apparently, the kernels travel through a hot oil vortex! After the kernel is lightly roasted, flavorings are added. This can include salt, sugar, or perhaps chili powder. If the nuts are being added to a trail mix, they continue down a conveyor belt and meet up with the other ingredients. Nuts are then dropped into containers, sealed, and a lid is placed atop.

The packages of cashews are then again boxed, and ready for distribution to the next customer. This customer may include some big name stores, or a food distributor. They may be stored again in a warehouse. The jars of cashew are then delivered to a store, stocked, and lastly purchased by the final customer. You.

The final container of 225g of cashew might cost you $3.50, but after all the miles that cashew nut has logged, you should be grateful it isn’t sending you an expense report.

There you have it, the incredibly long journey a cashew takes from a farm in Ghana to your grocery store.

Peace Corps Proverbs

Like every continent, Africa has its share of proverbs. These fun little sayings can impart important moral lessons. Plus, they are awesome. Here’s an example of a Ghanaian one:

Anoma antu a Ɔbua da.
If a bird does not fly, it starves.
Meaning nothing ventured, nothing gained.


I decided to come up with some of my own proverbs based on my life as a Peace Corps Volunteer in West Africa. Can you guess the meaning of some of them?

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You find patience and grace in a tro, they are sitting right beside you.

A cockroach in the latrine is a sign of a healthy diet.

If you throw the paper down the hole, you will never see it again. If you throw the paper in a bucket, you will have to see it many times. If you use your hand, you only see it once.

A run in the rain beats running in place.

Don’t ignore the roaring lion, he can run faster than you.

It only takes one drop in a bucket to bathe.

If you stand in the bucket, your water will become dirty.

A burnt finger is a sign of a good meal.

Fufu is in the eye of the pounder.

You can’t starve if you have good neighbors.

A fat cow produces better milk.

If you travel all day down a bush path you can look at yourself and think either “I’m dirty” or “I’m tan!”

A stich in time saves nine, but nine tailors can’t stich in time.

The cock that crows the loudest tastes the best.

The grass is always greener during the rainy season.

The bite of a mosquito only itches if you scratch it.

A good hoe should be between your legs.

Don’t put all your eggs in one Bolga basket, they won’t survive the taxi ride.

One yard of fabric can cover your head, but two yards of fabric can cover your ass.

The PC West Africa Cashew Conference

Everyone has their “baby” project. The one thing they hold onto dearly. The one project that sits on their VRF mantle as a gold star of accomplishment. Something you can truly write home about. Last week, I found my gold star.

Peace Corps Ghana hosted our very own West Africa Cashew Conference, with participants from Benin, Burkina Faso, Gambia, Guinea, Mali, and Senegal. The Conference was sponsored by the West Africa Food Security Partnership, SAP, Red River Foods, African Cashew Initiative, and of course Peace Corps. Ever since I arrived in country, there had been talk of hosting a regional conference. We first attempted to host the conference in June, but it didn’t even get past the thinking about it stage. Finally, after some wonderful pushes from SAP and Red River, the conference was put on the calendar.

We started planning the general outline of the conference in August or September of last year. I remember because we held a meeting to determine the In Service Training, SAP training, and conference dates before I left for my fabulous vacation in South Africa. The same day we sent the outline of our proposed program to the Director of Programming and Training (DPT) here in Ghana. In early November, I created an invitation for distribution throughout Africa (although we later found out only West Africa could financially swing coming). For all my advertising friends back in the States, I know, I know. I don’t have inDesign, so I had to make due with what I had. Remember, this is Peace Corps!

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While down for my Mid-Service Medical appointment, we had a conference call with SAP and Peace Corps to discuss the conference. So, immediately after that meeting we drafted the program. SAP requested a field trip so that we could see the technology being actively used, so I thought it would be great to combine that with a visit to the Monastery – basically a really cool giant cashew farm with these amazing rocks for climbing. We hashed out the rest of the schedule and distributed tasks according to our action plan.

I worked on the budget, materials list, welcome to Ghana info packet, the first draft of a logistics letter, and a whole slew of behind the scenes logistics. I was also the main contact person for our partners (Red River, SAP, etc.). Which meant a lot of phone calls that started like “no I swear this is still happening!”

There were times when the work was incredibly overwhelming and staff thought about scrapping the entire conference, but thank god we soldiered on. Some days I would have 30 new emails about the conference. It reminded me of client emails. Or emails from my good friend Mr. Nedry: “no, change the binder to say this…Oh wait, CEO doesn’t want that. Hold on. No, go back to the original. Did you order the brown or black again?” Something like that.

Even my fellow cashew PCVs had doubts that the program would still go on. I had faith in our ability to make this happen. What’s Peace Corps without a few really ridiculous hurdles? Finally, the days ticked closer and closer to the start of the conference. Participants had booked their flights, in country flights were secured, the hotel was confirmed, and all of our partners were still on board. All that was left was for me to pick out my clothes.

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And trust me, that was difficult.

I arrived at the hotel two days early, to double/triple check everything and hash out any last minute details. I arranged the type of meals we would eat every day and for the hotel bus. I also spoke with the chef about getting boxed lunches one day. The hotel kept telling me, “no, we already have that covered.” or “everything is already arranged.” I wouldn’t have believed them if I was in America, but this is Ghana. I’m taught not to trust those words. They were so confident in their preparation though, I had to trust them.

The next day, the DPT calls me and tells me Ghana ran out of jet fuel and instead of flying up to Sunyani, the whole crew would need to drive up. We regrouped and came up with an altered schedule for the next day. The next morning, I get another early morning call from the DPT – they found jet fuel! They were on their way to the airport. Everyone was still there, all countries had arrived, and everyone had their bags. Flabbergasted.

I rush over to the hotel to get settled in (read take a shower, put on my fancy clothes, and do my makeup) and double check that everything was ready to go for the afternoon, including lunch. The porter showed me to my room and I was shocked to find a Ghanaian celebrity standing right outside my door. It had to be an omen. I was just about to hop in the shower, when my fellow cashew PCVs called me over to divvy up our revised slides. I run over there, get my new slides, run back to the other part of the hotel, and dress. I get a call from the DPT – they arrived! I head over with the hotel bus to pick everyone up. I’m so excited. I have my Woodin outfit on, so I’m looking sharp. I get off the bus and everything turns into slow motion. It felt like one of those movies when the football team pulls into the parking lot after a big win and is greeted by cheering fans. Except this was just a bunch of Africans and PCVs who looked tired and eager to change. But to me, this was everything. Everyone was there. They were there on time. Once we were on the bus, I felt the energy change. You could feel it in the air. This was the first time I had met PCVs from another country.

I worked so hard on making this conference a reality, when everyone was in the hotel lobby getting checked in and settled – I realized something. This was no longer a dream. This was it. Now I’m in my element.

I shared a room with a PCV, Stephanie, from Guinea. I was incredibly interested in learning more about other PC countries. What was it like during Pre Service Training? How is the PCMO? What languages do you learn? What’s the money like? I felt like a kid asking all sorts of questions. Then we talked fashion and fabric. Enough said.

We went downstairs for lunch and they served my favorite – banku and tilapia with peppe. I ate that fish with my hands and I let everyone know – I am GHANA! Alright more like, look at how integrated I am! I wear cool fabrics and eat giant plates of fish and fermented corn dough! Finally, we enter the conference room and the conference officially starts. I must have been grinning from ear to ear, because I couldn’t believe this was actually happening.

The first day we heard from SAP about their technology, so we could be prepared for the field trip the following day. We cut the day short, so everyone would have adequate nap/socializing time. Which meant we all rushed for the pool. As we floated around the pool with life preservers, we discussed music, food, sites, and general Peace Corps curiosity stuff. After dinner, I was hounded with questions about fabric. Which I was more than happy to answer. I called it a night early, to rest up for tomorrow’s field trip.

Tuesday, we left almost on time – just 10 minutes later – for Tanoboase. We met up with another PCV there and we saw his buying station facilitators use the SAP phone and application protoype to purchase cashew. The guys had the application down pat. They also showed us their records, the bags they already tagged, and took us through each step of the application. I think I almost cried. My two babies merging together at the same time – the conference and the SAP pilot. I even overheard one of the facilitators telling the staff member from Benin – “I don’t want my kids to be cashew farmers. I want to be a great farmer, make a good income, and provide for my kids school fees. I want them to do better than me. I want them to do something great.” I could have hugged these guys.

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They also spoke briefly about how the PCV helped them create their association, their plans for the future, and how they see themselves growing.

We moved to the shade for our snack and we discussed the SAP pilot, association building, and constraints farmers have with forming associations. As a Cashew Initiative, we discuss these things off the cuff. It is just a general conversation we have with each other, but here at this shady tree, we were discussing why. We were trying to dig down to the root of the problem, to truly discover how Peace Corps Volunteers could uncover these issues, handle them, and work with their communities to create something sustainable. We boarded the bus and the conversation continued, and it didn’t stop for the remainder of the field trip. We didn’t just talk about the issues, we had lively discussions on how individual people and Peace Corps programs can inspire change. It gave me goosebumps. We also discussed how government plays a role in promoting industries, but how individuals can inspire the government to focus their efforts. At one point, we were getting very intensely into a discussion about sustainable development. But instead of it being heated, it was lively and inspiring. People weren’t downtrodden, they were excited. It was refreshing.

After we toured a bit of the Monastery’s facilities, we took our lunches to a rock archway overlooking a good chunk of the Brong-Ahafo. We all sat together on the ground facing towards the grasses, cashew trees, coconut trees, and transitional savannah that stretched out before us. There was a nice breeze under the rocks and everyone was astounded at our hidden lunch alcove.

We returned to the hotel and had a break before we continued into the night talking about SAP. We got into another discussion about Peace Corps politics. One discussion I’ve had many times before. I let the staff handle that one.

The next day was the Cashew Initiative day. We had all been looking forward to this day for a long time. The presentation we gave was first drafted up by me back in July of last year. I just checked and I spent a total of 13 hours and 55 minutes editing the presentation. Four of the five of us met a few weeks before the conference to work out additional details and slides for the presentation. A couple days before the conference, our last member took a last swing at the presentation and made it look pretty. She had a lot more cashew photos then I did, so it helped to make the presentation literally look pretty.

We were joined that day by some veterans, which was really wonderful. Sam, Chad, and Wayne – some of our founding fathers were there to speak about the history of the Initiative, how it started, and why they wanted to create a Peace Corps Ghana Cashew Initiative. Then the members of the Executive Committee all contributed their input for their slides and we yammered on about our mission, vision, goals, objectives, projects, challenges, and future for 2 hours. I was given the difficult task of speaking about our challenges, there was a lot of staff from other countries, but also Ghana staff. I wanted to make sure everyone knew that this hasn’t all been easy, it has been an up-hill battle, but as sensitively and politically correctly as possible. PCVs often think they know what is best, Staff does too. You have to find a way to marry staff and PCV vision, so everyone is on the same page. This isn’t unique to Ghana. You could say the same for any organization – the CEO may have an idea for where the company is going, but low level managers disagree. And that’s where teamwork, compromise, and cohesion come in. Anyway, our presentation went amazingly well and we moved over to our booths.

We set up “booths,” tables where staff and PCVs could learn more about our specific activities and ask in depth questions about more technical things. The idea for the booths came from David, the Chairman at the time. The booths also went swimmingly. Everyone got an opportunity to really dig deeper into cashew related projects. Plus, they got to try jam, juice, and preserves. We started attracting attention from the guests of the hotel as well and we even had a cashew buyer come up to us and want to learn more. I had a great time talking to staff about my business literacy program. It was so comforting for me to be able to speak with business-minded people for a while about accounting and record-keeping. I’m in a super minority here, so it is great to be able to throw out the words balance sheet and not have confused faces. (Mom – why didn’t I become an accountant? Oh yeah that’s right, I hate double entry accounting.)

We had lunch afterwards and it started to rain. In America, that could be seen as a bad omen – but here in Ghana we love the rain. Nothing like a light shower to cool down the day. Following lunch, we had presentations from other countries about what cashew stuff is going on there. I learned that Benin has more cashews than you could imagine for that small of a country, but almost all of their processing plants are defunct. Everything gets shipped to India or Vietnam for processing. Ghana is slowly processing more and more of the kernels grown here at home, so income is being passed onto Ghanaians. I also learned that Gambia has a lot of small scale processors. Something interesting for me as well, in Gambia and Senegal they actually eat cashews. Cashews are not as expensive to buy regularly. Here, you can’t get a small bag of cashews without spending half your daily allowance.

It was truly fascinating to learn more from the other countries. We briefly talked about how the Ghana Cashew Initiative could be replicated in other PC countries. Something we always reiterate – why reinvent the wheel?

Thursday, the last day of the conference we heard from ACi, Red River, and ACA about their involvement throughout West Africa. And like that the conference was closed.

I had the privilege of being MC for the majority of the conference, which heaven knows I loved. I got to meet other PCVs and talk about the work I love to do. I got to spend a week at a nice hotel, eating good food, and enjoying A/C. We had the opportunity to share our experiences, successes, failures, and ideas for how grassroots development can impact cashew farmers. We had riveting discussions that almost brought me to tears, I was so happy and excited. I loved it. I loved (almost) every minute of planning this conference. I loved every minute of the actual conference. If the other countries left inspired, they have no idea how inspired they made me.

After a while, you see your fellow PCVs get jaded and unenthused. Day in and day out, we do the same thing. But this conference brought a new energy to our program. It was that spark that brings a smile back to your face, washes away the jaded attitude. This conference was everything I ever dreamed of. It inspired me with new ideas, gave me hope, gave me even more enthusiasm, and reminded me of why I am a Peace Corps Volunteer.

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We may just be Peace Corps Volunteers, but we can make a difference.

Starting Fresh

It looks like there might be light at the end of the tunnel! I’m crossing my fingers and hoping that things are partially resolved tomorrow. Or at least the start of a resolution. My first option fell apart in spectacular fashion (as things tend to do here), so now we are evaluating Plan B.

I had reservations about Plan B. There were a lot of factors that made me extremely hesitant, however at the end of the day I realized no challenge is insurmountable. A lot of my reservations were mental blocks that I set up myself. After a little mind pep talk, I realized I was being obstinate and honestly just scared. I was scared that I wasn’t strong enough to find work in a town so big. I was scared that I would be set adrift at sea, alone.

But I got over it. I realized my desire to succeed, to work, and to help the community is much greater than my fears. Where there is a will, there’s a way, right? It feels like joining the Peace Corps all over again, confronting the fears I should have had before joining. The fears I never actually thought of before now. Suddenly, I’m faced with starting over again and the excitement of something new isn’t as bright. The excitement was tarnished by the ticking clock ever present behind my shoulder.

But I got over it. I realized that to be a Peace Corps Volunteer is to be flexible. You need determination, drive, and the right attitude. It was like a heavy cloud hovering over me, forcing me to forget my constitution. But with a subtle nudge from my Country Director and a not so subtle nudge from my dear friend Emma, the cloud dissipated and I could see clearly again. I remembered why I joined Peace Corps, why I refuse to give up, and why I want to be here.

I joined Peace Corps to give back. I joined Peace Corps to share the little knowledge I have with someone who can benefit from it. I joined Peace Corps to learn how to be selfless. I want to be in Ghana. I want to be in Peace Corps. 2012 was one of the best years of my life, despite the ups and downs. I have seen a completely different side of the world and I love it. I have discovered that while my heritage is mainly American and European, my heart is African. I love the heart and soul of this continent. I love the attitude of Ghana (for the most part). I love eating with my hands. I love the smell of cashew flowers blooming half the year. I love buying food from a ladies head with my hand outside a tro window. I love shopping for fabric and going to the tailor. I love how it feels to be African.

This is why I didn’t give up. This is why I want to be here.

I will make the best out of my situation. I will find work to do. I will continue to teach farmers about recordkeeping and business literacy.

And I know I will be eating well, with access to banku and fufu, exotic vegetables, and pizza. Plus, I know exactly where my favorite batik lady sits.

Bushfire? Not UP IN HERE!

So, I’m planning a massive event for my town at the end of this month. We are inviting all the farmers in my town, plus all the farmers who want to come in the district. Bushfire is a major problem in my area and the fires will be starting again soon. Bushfire can easily destroy a farmer’s cashew and it kinda sucks to be covered in ash for a month. So I made it a goal to have a giant bushfire event and educate as many people as I could on how they can prevent fires.

Just call me Smokey the Bear. So last week I walked up to the district offices and petitioned them for approval/funding/participation in the event. Luckily, everyone is on board. The only issue is funding because of the election the district’s budget is on a freeze. I’m not sure how that works because I feel like money should be flowing right before an election. Oh well, I’ll come up with some other way to secure funding. I’m resourceful and I have fabulous dresses, someone will cough up some cash.

Oh by the way, I’ve only been asking for 230cd, which funds 4 tents, 500 chairs, a table, sound system, and water for dignitaries. Basically that’s $130 for one kick ass party. So dear US taxpayers, I’m going to try and get your tax money to help people in Africa learn to prevent bushfire, which means more cashews for you, and people in Africa don’t go hungry. That’s decently worthy right? Right.

Anyway, so I visited with the Fire Chief this morning and it was honestly pretty amazing. I had a productive meeting with a high level official with the government. That’s an achievement in any country. (Can I get a ribbon?) He told me that the program I proposed was great and that this is exactly what the farmers need. Yesssssss, approval! So the Fire Service is totally on board and they are getting pumped about the football tournament as well.

For once in my life, I’m not stressing about the details. As long as there are chairs and a sound system, this will work. I’m organizing over 5 government departments and helping them to do their job for them. I just need them to show up and they will do the rest.

And that’s exactly what a Peace Corps Volunteer is supposed to do. We come in and help organize events like this. We allow locals with knowledge to teach each other, we just help facilitate it. If this event works and goes well then I’ll consider my service a true success.

If anyone is in a generous mood and wants to help contribute to the event, let me know in the comments below.