I’m Afraid of America

I’m terrified of going back to America. I’m scared of becoming complacent. I’m scared that I might actually think about donating money to a charity. I’m scared of driving. I’m scared that I will scream at someone because they complain about something mundane. I’m scared of gaining weight. I’m scared of processed food. I’m scared of having a job that isn’t satisfying. I’m scared I won’t feel fulfilled. I’m scared of sticker shock. I’m scared of cold weather. I’m scared of having to resettle. I’m scared of money. I’m scared of politics.

For two years, I’ve lived in my comfortably harsh bubble. I’ve become accustomed to eating the same six things: banku and groundnut soup, kenkey and pepe, egg sandwiches, tuna salad, popcorn, and spaghetti. I’ve learned to enjoy the simple life of latrines, walking everywhere, and bucket baths. I don’t mind three hour long tro rides to go just 100km. I don’t even mind 8 hour trips to the capital. Air conditioning makes me cold and I’d rather sit outside in the hot sun chatting with the neighbors than watching a movie. Food tempts me too much and I know that as soon as I get home the pounds will begin to stick nicely to my squishy parts.

Honestly, I’m just scared of leaving. I never been unemployed before and searching for jobs is difficult when I know exactly what I want to do, but I either have to wait for the stars to align or fight tooth and nail. I’m scared of leaving my job. As I continue to say, despite the low points and illnesses, I’m still very happy with my service. My primary project was a dream project. I’ve learned so much from the successes and the many failures. Even yesterday, I had to say goodbye to my SAP contact, Carsten, and I fought back tears. This project has been my life for two years and Carsten’s been there conference calling me through it. I don’t want to leave this project, I simply don’t. Giving it up and handing it over to another PCV is like handing your baby up for adoption – I’ve nurtured and cared for this thing for two years, take good care of it, so be a good parent and don’t screw it up!

I’m losing everything again, just like when I left for Peace Corps.  I’ll leave a piece of me behind in Ghana, as everyone does. It’s time to start again on a new adventure, but not before I give myself time to reacclimate to American life. I’ll need time at a grocery store to not freak out over choices. I’ll need time to relearn how to drive. I’ll need time to cope with first world problems. I’ll need time to learn how to be polite again. I’ll need time to merge my Ghanaian self with my American self without hissing, yelling, or generally degrading someone’s religiosity in order to get past the greeting stage.

But most of all, I’m terrified of losing the knowledge I gained during these two years. The knowledge of how to get by on so little and how to be happy no matter what comes my way. The knowledge of how to find fulfillment.

Please America, don’t let me lose myself. 

Reconciling my contradictions

I’ve been struggling lately to reconcile my own beliefs. I’m finally coming to terms with the fact that the sun does not revolve around the earth and this new concept that the world is not flat. I’m struggling with the battle going on in my brain between what I knew and what I’ve now experienced.

As kids we all dream about what we want to be when we grow up. Something triggers a sudden revelation that yes, indeed, I want to be a monkey trainer. Then with those wonderful attention spans, a kid changes his mind and now wants to be a fireman. I changed my mind a few times growing up, but I typically stuck to a profession for a few years until reality crashed down on my head and reminded me that either I couldn’t draw (architect) or didn’t like science (rocket scientist). I remember those soul crushing reality checks were devastating, but a few weeks or months later I’d find something better to dream about. When I was 16 my mom suggested a career path to me that she thought I’d enjoy. As with most things in my life, my mom was right. The more I looked into the career, the more I wanted it. Now 10 years later, I still want to work for the Foreign Service.

But why? I have two main reasons for wanting to work for the State Department. The first has to do with my love for other cultures. As a kid, I spent some wonderful years living in Germany. That gave me the exploration bug. I wanted to know more about other cultures. Some of my favorite projects in school had to do with researching other countries and their people. Despite everything they tried to teach me in Oklahoma, Americans are not the only human beings on this planet. Through globalization and technology we have become a truly interdependent planet. Our relationships, partnerships, and shared interests are what keep our economy chugging along, even if it does have some hiccups every few years. I want my career to be focused on sharing cultures and values, along with advancing mutual interests.

My other reason for wanting to work in foreign service is deeply rooted in my family history. Both of my parents served in the Air Force. I grew up understanding service and duty. I have great respect for how my parents served America. Through osmosis I developed this same sense of duty to my nation. My life should be in service of others, not to better serve myself. I feel like I would be disrespecting my family’s legacy if I didn’t devote my life to service.

 

Peace Corps is about grassroots development. Help others help themselves. But why? I believe that through globalization lines on a map our slowly becoming less relevant. Yes, I’m an American but I’m a citizen of Earth. Countries rely on each other for food, resources, protection, and goods. The idea is simple, if you help developing countries advance, you help yourself. You’ll gain access to more resources, more skilled labor, increased technology, and a greater supply of food. Those citizens will also reap the rewards by having greater opportunities, increased income, access to better education, and an overall better quality of life. So, in effect, while development tries to be altruistic, it is really a mutually beneficial exchange. I want to see Ghana succeed because I care about her citizens and I care about her culture. I want my farmers to have access to better resources. I want them to be able to have the same opportunities I had growing up.

But is that just my Western upbringing and mindset that is imposing these beliefs and hopes on them? My farmers are happy, yes they’d like more money, but they often site TVs and laptops as their next purchase if they had the money. They wouldn’t reinvest their money into their farms to improve their yield in the long-run. Investment just isn’t something they think of here. But does that make it wrong? Is my way of thinking right? Am I imposing my ideals on them? Yes, I know that investment is good and it makes sense, but does it mean buying a laptop is wrong? In America, we put happiness and wealth on equal pedestals. Are we generally happy as a nation though? I would argue no. Do you have to have the American or Western ideal of happiness to be truly happy? No.

 

Through my Peace Corps service, I’ve been able to integrate into a community and a culture that is vastly different from my own. I’ve been able to experience life as a Ghanaian and I’ve come to understand their culture. Their way of life has had a profound impact on my own beliefs about happiness and service. I feel trapped between two worlds: my American culture and my Ghanaian thinking. I’m glad I have these two sides, because they make me a stronger global citizen. And technically there’s also my German heritage thrown in there too.

I will continue to serve my country by serving others. I will use my multiple cultural identities to make better decisions. And I will constantly reconcile my experiences so that I will challenge the status quo.

I will be forever grateful for my time in Peace Corps for allowing me to experience things that question my beliefs. Life would be awfully boring if we didn’t have belief upheavals every once in a while.

And the world would still be flat.

Comfort foods

I pull my two yards of fabric closer to me, curled in a ball wishing I had a better way to get warm. Then I laugh and remember the grueling mornings of the hot season. I don’t miss waking up drenched in sweat, despite the fan being on me all night. As I get dressed, I immediately grab my jeans, anything else is too cold. I left my scarves and warmer clothes back in Germany. I’m really missing them now. I debate wrapping a two yard around my neck and calling it an infinity scarf. I slip on my now too loose Chacos and head out into the foggy morning. I haven’t seen the sun in over a week. I try to remember when weather wasn’t an extreme. I laugh again, being from Oklahoma every day is extreme weather. I walk towards town at a brisk pace to keep warm. The mist of the morning clings to my face and hair. I pass by families cooking breakfast over an open fire. I greet them as I walk past. I hop over the ditch and land on the asphalt road. It rained the night before, so the ground is slick. I cautiously step over a pile of sewer dirt as I head down the road. I wave at the girl washing a store’s tile floor with a rag as I continue by. I hear far off screams of “OBRONI!” as I turn onto the main road.

I keep my head down as the cars fly past me, the wind makes the mist swirl around me. I greet the woman who sells early morning banku. I hear her customer click furiously and exclaim “wote Twi!” I smile and keep walking. I pass the new container store which has been painted like an American flag. I chuckle quietly. I’m careful as I walk; the rain has stirred up sewage, dirt, and oil in a coalescence of filth. The pungent odor of the town wafts by with each passing car. I wrinkle my nose, but it’s a desperate effort. I walk past my favorite general store and greet the owner enthusiastically. Her smile lights up the store. I continue past building after building passing children crying and yelling. I’m getting closer to my destination. I check the busy road for errant Daewoos and quickly skip across to the other side. I keep my head down as I pass a group of burly men in blue coveralls. They don’t greet me. As I reach the blue metal stand, I see my friend’s face peek out from behind her mound of kenkey. I carefully step onto the wooden plank hovering over the ditch and walk slowly towards my friend. With a big smile I greet her and lament about how long it has been. She fires off in Twi asking me where I went to, clearly I must have travelled. She asks when I got back and why it has taken me so long to come get kenkey. I plead that it has only been a week and ask for her forgiveness. She smiles and gives me a steaming hot bag full of kenkey. I wave as I leave and begin my journey home.

As I return home, I set my kenkey on the ground and pull my keys out of my pocket. I unlock my gate and tug open my door. I gently set my kenkey on the wooden counter and kick off my shoes. I slide into my flip flops and shimmy out of my jeans. I throw my pajamas back on with flourish. I carefully place the kenkey in a dish and wash my hands. I sit down eager to eat my hearty breakfast. As I claw into my ball of kenkey, I feel at ease. Comfort food at it’s best.

As I finish my food, I know that soon I won’t be able to indulge in these rituals. I will be sent back to a land of different rituals and different food. But for now I will enjoy every moment of eagerly dipping my corn dough drenched hands into spicy pureed goodness. 

The Peace Corps Ideal and Dealing with Fellow PCVs

One of the biggest hurdles I’ve faced in Peace Corps isn’t what you’d expect. I knew coming to West Africa that I’d be in the minority. I knew that I’d be treated differently because I’m a white woman. I knew that I’d have to work that much harder to prove, as a woman, I’m just as capable as any man. I expected this from the locals. I didn’t expect it from my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers.

My first job out of college was working with red-blooded Oklahoman natural gas engineers. I know what it’s like to be in a man’s world. But that was Oklahoma, this is Peace Corps. When you think of Peace Corps, you imagine a bunch of liberal hippies off in Africa holding babies and living in a mud hut. That was the 60s, this is 2013. Volunteers join Peace Corps for different reasons now, such as travelling the world, trying new things, slapping it on a resume, giving back, challenging themselves, etc. I’m sure people had the same idea in the 60s, but the variety of people in the Peace Corps today is staggering. We have one thing in common though – we are all Americans.

As Americans we share a cultural history, which includes inequality and discrimination. We may not like that aspect of our history, but it is there. Maybe I was naïve, maybe I was idealistic, maybe I just didn’t even think about it, but I didn’t expect to face these issues during my Peace Corps service. I felt the cold hand of discrimination in my first year of service, but primarily with locals, or at least I thought so. As I look back on my service, I can see now that my first year was very difficult. I fought an uphill battle, lost a few battles, but in the end I feel like I won the war. Some of those battles involved me having to prove I was good enough, qualified, and capable to my fellow PCVs.

There exists currently an identity crisis within Peace Corps. I believe Peace Corps, as a government organization, knows where it is going and what its vision is for the future. Peace Corps is focusing more and more on partnerships with other governmental organizations, NGOs, businesses, and universities. It is also pushing heavily the Peace Corps Response positions and their new health/nurse program. You also see many recruitment efforts directed toward older individuals. Peace Corps still has the same focus though; the three goals have always remained the same: helping others in developing countries, sharing American culture with locals, and sharing local culture with Americans. There is always a difference between perception and reality though. While many people know of Peace Corps, they rarely know of all three goals. Most people think Peace Corps is just goal one, helping people in developing countries.

Peace Corps’ identity crisis stems from its perception and reputation among Americans. I haven’t met a single Peace Corps Volunteer yet that didn’t have the same general idea of what serving would be like. I like to refer to it as the Peace Corps Ideal. It may not be the expectation, but everyone imagines that when you join Peace Corps you will be sent to some far off corner of the world (generally Africa). You’ll live in a mud hut among the locals. You’ll sit under a shady tree sweating profusely while you speak to the locals in their native language. You’ll forgo electricity and running water and live simply for two years. You’ll have little contact with the outside world and the nearest Peace Corps Volunteer will take a bus, train, donkey, and bike ride to get to. You’ll be alone for two years. No matter how much research you do (I did a ton – reading blogs, reading books, talking to people), it is hard to shake that image of what Peace Corps service should be. Peace Corps might have been that at some point in its history, but not anymore.

There are varying reactions once you get to country, get to site, and realize that your service does not fit into the Ideal. Some people embrace the new conveniences of service: rapid expansion of cell phone networks in the developing world, close proximity to other volunteers, electricity either in your village or the next biggest one, and living in a house made of anything but mud. Some people balk at these conveniences. Some people struggle to accept them. Some people will fight to live simply, even purposely forgoing convenience to conform to the Ideal.

The biggest issue I’ve faced with the Ideal is people refusing to work together because the Ideal dictates that Peace Corps is an individualistic activity, the living and working alone factor. The fallacy inherent in this thinking is striking. Peace Corps is about people: living, working, and sharing with people. That includes other Peace Corps Volunteers as well. In Peace Corps Ghana, we have over 160 Volunteers for a country the size of Oregon. My closest Volunteer neighbor is 15 minutes away. In my region alone, we have 25 volunteers. Volunteers throughout the country work together on sector projects, clubs/groups, and events. For instance, we have the Peace Corps Ghana Cashew Initiative, an agriculture sector project in which 17 volunteers focus on cashew projects. We all work together in some capacity, whether resource sharing, a direct project, or knowledge transfer. There’s also the SWAT team, a group of Volunteers who focus on malaria prevention and education for Host Country Nationals and Peace Corps Volunteers. Then there are events such as the GLOW camp: a leadership and girls empowerment weeklong event for girls. I know of very few people who have not worked with another Volunteer in some capacity.

So, you’ll understand my surprise when I found myself having to prove my credentials, worthiness, and ability to Volunteers who subscribe to the Peace Corps Ideal. The same individuals who believe Peace Corps should be about individuals doing things alone and isolated. I’ve had to pass the same tests everyone else has to to join Peace Corps. We are all qualified to be Volunteers, otherwise we just wouldn’t be here. Then why have I consistently needed to prove myself to my fellow Americans? I think I finally realized what it boils down to: being in the minority.

Minorities throughout the years have struggled to prove to the majority that they are worthy of having their voice heard. Women continue to fight to prove to men that just because we have different parts and hormones we are not inferior. Racial minorities make it known that skin color does not affect your capacity for greatness. Within Peace Corps Ghana, I’m in a small minority of business people. Most Volunteers have agriculture, environment, health, education, or science backgrounds. Business people have a different mindset, we see things differently from say someone with a degree in biology. I see a problem and I analyze it from every angle. I’m always thinking of contingency plans. I see a problem and I want to put numbers to it. I want to maximize opportunity and minimize risk. I see every problem as an opportunity. For a lot of people who haven’t worked with people with business mindsets, it can be quite jarring. And for a lot of people who haven’t worked with me I can come off as quite strong.

But does this make me inferior? No. I’m worthy of having my voice heard. I’m a capable Peace Corps Volunteer. I will continue to face adversity from individuals who don’t understand my point of view or don’t think my voice is loud enough to listen to. The only thing I can do is continue my work. I will continue to work hard, pursue the three goals of Peace Corps, and initiate projects. Eventually, people will stop limiting their judgments based on the superficial. This isn’t unique to Peace Corps. This happens in every workplace, in every country.

So I hold my head up high and know that I’m doing my best. That’s all you can do.

Monthly Musings–Goals 2 and 3

My service was different. I hit the ground running. I was lucky to work with established groups, organizations, and locals. I didn’t have to wait to assess my community’s needs. It was all laid out in front of me. (In retrospect, maybe doing the assessment might have saved me some from being evacuated. Speculation though.) So while most people’s experience resembles a diminishing return curve, with a general increase in activity up until the very end, mine is turning out to be opposite. I started out busy and highly productive as the months pass by, my projects have started to wrap up. While my calendar still has penciled in trainings, my focus has changed to goals two and three. I spend more time just sitting and talking with my Ghanaian friends, enjoying their company and stories. I eat local food as often as possible, I know that at some point this year I won’t get it anymore. I often find myself drifting through the market, aimlessly stretching my legs. The smells, the feel, the frenzy, it is unlike anything else I’ve ever experienced in America. I want to spend the remainder of my time loving every moment. I want to soak up the smiles, the conversations, the attitude. I can teach bookkeeping to as many people as possible and I wish that I could. I could also spend a few hours a day sitting with Vida, my best friend in Techiman, watching people pass in the market, chatting, and sharing moments together. Diplomacy isn’t just about building boreholes and increasing farmer yields. Diplomacy is sharing the American ideals: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; hard-work and tenacity; and finally, freedom.

I’m no longer having the personal revelations I had during my first year of service. I’ve had a few, but I just feel different now. I feel like the last year I spent peeling back layers of myself until I discovered the true me. What’s left now is the new and improved model. I’ve attacked my flaws face on and I feel like I’ve won. I’ve overcome obstacles and learned to cope. I’ve been trudged through the slimy stairs of Hell and found my way back to the land of the living. I’ve learned how to be a better person, employee, teammate, coworker, friend. I’m proud of who’s emerged. I can’t wait to show you the new me at the end of this year.

I love long tro rides. I can stare out the window for 8 hours and be content. I love eating with my hands. I love taking a cold bucket bath. I love early morning walks to the junction to get kenkey. I love feeling like nothing is extraordinary here anymore – it is the Ghana I know and love. I still find beauty all around me, but nothing surprises me anymore. It all seems so normal.