Double Validation

Today I received my official appointment letter, salary offer, and lots of paperwork. I was so excited just for that. I ran around the house dancing and making odd noises that could be confused with guinea pigs. And then this happened:

http://www.peacecorps.gov/media/forpress/press/2379/

Peace Corps finally did a press release on the Peace Corps Ghana Cashew Initiative. (And they used my picture too!) Michael took over my German software technology project and look where we are now! What was once just an idea tossed around by a few Peace Corps Volunteers is now a shining star in Peace Corps’s list of successes. Why? Because it worked. We worked. Our project was a sustainable success.

So I guess my crazy dream of becoming Secretary of State might not be so much of a pipe-dream after all. Because at this moment, I realize that anything truly is possible.

Advertisements

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).

SAP Guy

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.

IMG_3632

(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.

DSC_4838

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:
IMG_3274

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.

image

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.

IMG_0393

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.)

IMG_0420

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.

You can’t spell passion without SAP

Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks, uses the word passion on almost every single page in his book. When I hear the word passion, I think of many different things. I imagine picking passion fruit from the vine in Kumasi. I picture my guide on safari as he spoke so passionately about the animals in front of us.  I envision the passion between two people staring deeply into each other’s eyes and seeing more than just irises. Passion can mean different things, but how do you find the thing you are passionate about? Howard Schultz found his passion in the coffee business. I found mine buried deep in a spreadsheet.

The 2013 cashew season is over, which means all the data from the SAP pilot has been collected. I sat on my bed, my workstation, and downloaded the latest data from the project. I was excited to see hundreds more data points for one of the buying stations. I quickly went to work consolidating the previous data with the new set. I went through the new points and made sure they matched with the old information. I cleaned the spreadsheet up a bit, using simple formulas, and went to work making pivot tables. I compared the registered farmers data to the unregistered and ran some simple calculations. I did everything “by hand,” meaning I wrote all the formulas myself. During registration, I had the farmers provide their statistics from last season – yield and acres of cashew. Using this information I was able to compare the results of this year with last year. I could calculate their yield/acre and income/acre. Based on the average number of trees in an acre here in Ghana, I determined yield/tree as well. Using this information, I prepared reports for each of the registered farmers. I put the numbers into context and provided tips and advice on how to improve in the next season. I compiled each of the farmer’s data and also provided an overall report for the association.

I know that sounds like a lot of mumbo jumbo. So let me sum it up. I had lots of data. I analyzed the data. I made awesome reports.

I always knew I loved numbers. I don’t necessarily love math, but I love numbers. Numbers are wonderful, but they mean so much more when put into context. 1 seems like a mighty small number, but what if it is 1 exploding volcano. That volcano isn’t just a singular number, it represents lots of things, including dangers. Numbers take on new meanings when you surround them with words. When you understand how a number can change a farmer’s livelihood or farm, you can provide better feedback to that farmer. And that’s what I love. I love digging through a pile of numbers and finding the hidden meaning. It’s like a great puzzle that I’m itching to answer. How can I sift through this data and make sense of it? How is this information going to impact the end user? How can they benefit from knowing this information?

After I finished my analysis for the association and SAP, I started crying. No shit, crying. Tears of happiness rolled down my face. I’ve never felt so fulfilled before in my entire life. I didn’t just sort through some numbers and come up with some averages, I discovered data that will truly impact a group of farmers. These farmers have never had access to this sort of information before. Information that can change the way they farm. How? If a farmer finds out that their yield per acre is only 140kg, they can take steps to improve their yield. They can prune or thin their orchards. Next year, they will be able to see how their yield has improved. Farmers are more likely to adopt practices that their fellow farmers find beneficial. They need to see it to believe it. In the future, people will be able to see how adoption of improved practices is changing yields. If farmers can see and understand the importance of these changes, they might be more likely to adapt quicker.

You see, to me this project has always been more than just collecting data. It’s about providing farmers with information that will empower them. Knowledge is power.

I smile every time I think about how my analysis is just a drop in a bucket.
All you need is one drop to create a ripple.

April Showers Bring More Rain and Some Flowers

IMG_1273

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?

First training

March 8

IMG_1298

May 17

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.

IMG_1303

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.

IMG_3255

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.

Ch-ch-ch-changes

With less than 9 months left in my service, I’ve started reflecting on what I’ve learned so far. With a new group of Agriculture Volunteers settling into their sites, I’ve seen many of them struggle with the same issues I first encountered. When I check facebook, I see many of my friends back home moving on with their lives. Peace Corps is similar living in a fishbowl. In your town, you are visible to everyone. Everyone is staring at you, yelling for your attention, asking you thousands of questions. You are the goldfish. As the goldfish, you look outside of your bowl and all you can see is the world passing by around you. My friends are starting families, at least 6 of my friends have had babies since I’ve been in Ghana. My parents always have something new to tell me every time I call. Life moves on, I’m just not there to watch it happen.

I want to reflect back on lessons learned, strengths and weaknesses uncovered, and how I’ve changed since becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer.

1. Never trust a fart. The wisest words an older PCV ever uttered to me. This knowledge has been essential, especially given my plethora of stomach problems.


2. I’m mellower, but more confrontational. I know that sounds ridiculous, but it is true. I used to be slightly high strung, impatient, and a bit of a drama queen. I would get antsy if I had to wait more than 5 minutes. I would deal with it, but I was still in a heightened state of huffy sighs. Everything here takes time. I never wear a watch because it is rather useless. I still have moments where I actually do need to be somewhere on time and I can feel the anxiousness creep back, but I have to just shrug it off and realize, I’ll arrive when I arrive. I’ve adopted that attitude – it’ll happen when it happens. There are things you can control and things you cannot, it is useless to stress over the things you cannot control. But why am I more confrontational? That’s a direct result of two things – taxi drivers and my situation at my old site. Most people try to cheat you here, they see white skin and you can watch the $$$$ pop into their eyes. Market ladies are easy enough to haggle with, because once you speak in the local language they realize there ain’t no cheating her. Taxi drivers are a rare breed though. My fellow PCVs and I have often remarked that there must be a taxi driver secret school here in Ghana. A school that teaches drivers how to scream on top of their lungs, repeat a city’s name faster than imaginable, and how to cheat anyone and everyone out of their money. I’ve been cheated so many times that anytime a driver tries to cheat me, I go postal on them. Just a bit. Taxi drivers are my breaking point, they have no shame in what they are doing – so I like to make sure that shame resurfaces. It is hard not to let it get to you, you know they are just looking for more money – but I’m broke.

In fact, PCVs have recently diagnosed ourselves with “Obroni Travel Aggression.” This illness presents itself immediately upon entering a taxi station. Travel aggression is often manifested by rapid onset of bitchiness, short temper, and a low grade fever which induces blood boil. It is also common for patients to experience elevated heart rate, dilated pupils, and a low growling noise coming from the throat. By the time the traveller makes it to their final destination, the recommended course of action is a nap and possibly alcohol.

Back to the topic at hand, a part of that confrontational attitude has carried over though. I think it has made me play devil’s advocate more though and I think that is important. I’m no longer afraid of bringing up the messy alternatives because I might upset someone’s “perfect” idea. I think in order to have a great idea, plan, or direction you need to consider all facets.


3. Never go to the market “just to look” at fabric. Yeah, I’m addicted. It’s true. I love the feeling of getting a new dress or shirt back from the tailor. But going to the market just because the fabric is pretty often results in rapid loss of money.


4. Teamwork has been one of my biggest struggles so far, but for reasons I never would have expected. We work with such a variety of people and personalities here – both American and Ghanaian. With Ghanaians, you get the big man syndrome, with Americans you get the “holier-than-thou” syndrome. But there is one thing in particular I’ve noticed about working with my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers, everyone thinks they know it best. Volunteers all have an ego – we develop it when we join. We are sacrificing two years of our life to change the world, one person at a time, therefore we are awesome and our job is better than yours. We get catty when we think another PCV is doing better than we are. We compare ourselves to each other, despite the fact that we all have such different experiences that is pointless to try to compare. This ego gets in the way though.

When you join Peace Corps you imagine it will be a certain way. Most of the time people imagine Peace Corps as sitting alone in a mud hut in the middle of nowhere chatting with locals, eating the local food with a family, and teaching something under a tree in town. The key word in that sentence being “alone.” Most people imagine PC as a solitary assignment with little contact with other PCVs, friends and family. Maybe it is in some countries, but Ghana is small and we have a lot of Volunteers. My closest Volunteer is now a 5-10 minute drive away based on the taxi driver. If I took a car north, northeast, south, west, or east I’d be at another PCV’s site within 20 minutes.

The structure within the Agriculture sector here is focused on working together as PCVs on a set of projects – cashews, shea, bees, maize, and chickens. Working together is truly better than sitting alone trying to change the world. Here is where the ego comes back. Teamwork is essential in any job and it is becoming increasingly important in Peace Corps Ghana. In college, I had group projects in every single class I took. In all of my jobs prior to Peace Corps, I had to work closely with other people (wait, what? you do that in an office environment?! MIND BLOWN.). I’m used to working with people, but most of the time it is people from similar work backgrounds. There is only one other Volunteer in Ghana that has a similar work background to me – and she lives in the capital and I’ve seen her maybe twice. Here though, I work with people from all over the spectrum, people whose majors range from Philosophy to Environmental Science. This combined with the Peace Corps ego has made teamwork one of my biggest challenges and learning moments.

When everyone thinks they know best, wants to try and be the superstar Volunteer, is judgmental of everyone else’s work as a Volunteer, and has different priorities – it makes for a very interesting meeting or group dynamic. It has been challenging trying to balance the notion that Volunteers are largely self-serving with the idea that we are here for others. But Volunteers have to work together, we have goals larger than ourselves that we all find important. I know that I haven’t been the perfect team player and I have certainly been all of the above Volunteer ego categories. If Peace Corps teaches you anything though, it is how to deal with people.

I’m still struggling, learning, and actively working on improving my teamwork skills – but I have learned something invaluable. You won’t always be surrounded by people with similar backgrounds. In work and life, you have to work with people from all over the spectrum. In order to be effective as a team, you need to accept each other’s weaknesses, play off each other’s strengths, compromise, be willing to accept defeat, and share responsibilities. You have to accept that people might not like you and may not like working with you. Do your best, know that you are doing the right thing and it won’t matter. You can’t please everyone, but you can do your part to be inclusive, supportive, and a team player.


5. I now know what it is like to be a minority. I told my friend the other day – some days, I feel like I’m a lesbian Pacific-Islander living in a small town in Alabama. Sounds strange, I know. (I’m not by the way, clearly.) Being white in Africa makes you stand out, period. But even within Peace Corps, I feel like a minority. Here in Ghana, we have about 9 people who are business focused out of about 190 PCVs. And even being from Oklahoma puts me into a minority (although we are representing in Ghana). Oklahoma has only 47 Volunteers worldwide serving, 4 of which are here in Ghana. It’s hard to have your voice heard when it seems so small. But lucky for me, business tends to run the world so my voice isn’t drowned out so easily.

Part of being in a Peace Corps minority has made me also realize that I’m not a typical Volunteer. I’m not doing what I expected to be doing. I’m not alone in the mud hut. My work as a Volunteer is different from just about everyone else here in Ghana. I’m not really working in my village – I travel to other Volunteers’ sites to teach business basics in their communities. Just last week, I was in another PCV’s site teaching recordkeeping, how to track expenses, how to calculate profit, and how the global cashew market impacts their bottom line. I’m the Chairman of the Cashew Initiative, so I work on facilitating trainings, working with Peace Corps Staff, coordinating with partners. And with that I’ve also started basically doing business consulting. Entrepreneurs and businesses have started approaching me asking me how they can get involved with our communities, how they can bring new business opportunities to Peace Corps villages. And since the beginning of my service I’ve been coordinating pilot programs with SAP.

Sometimes I think: “This isn’t Peace Corps!” But my expectations of Peace Corps were romantic. I expected Peace Corps to be the 1960s version – cut off from the world. I’m something different and that’s perfectly fine. My responsibility is still to the farmers, the market ladies, and the communities in which they live. If my role is to connect them with resources and partners they otherwise would never have encountered, that’s perfectly fine. After all, Peace Corps is about finding ways to help locals help themselves, and sometimes that means connecting them with the people who can help them. Grassroots development of the value chain, or something like that.  


6. Be grateful for the luxuries in life. I’m grateful I have a seat to my latrine. I’m grateful I have plenty of girls near me that help me fetch water. I’m grateful when I get to take a shower. I’m grateful when I am cold. I’m grateful when I can talk to my parents on the phone. I’m grateful for cheese. I’m grateful for the love and support of my friends. I’m grateful for learning to live with less.


There you have it, six ways I’ve changed, six lessons learned, and six reasons I’m happy to be a Peace Corps Volunteer.

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!

cashew invite

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.

 IMG_0543

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.

IMG_0585

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.

IMG_0603IMG_0604

IMG_0616

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