How to Maintain a Positive Attitude During Language Training

I’ll be the first to say that maintaining a positive attitude during language training is tough. Really tough. You are on a constant rollercoaster of language emotions; one day you feel great about your abilities and the next day you can’t even say “أمريكي” (American). It is exhausting, exhilarating, frustrating, and pretty damn cool all at the same time. I’ve found that the things that bother me the most in class are things that have bothered me for years, for example, constantly being interrupted. In the afternoons, I struggle to both stay awake and read tongue twisting Arabic sentences. And while honestly, I like to commiserate with my colleagues, language training really isn’t that bad. Yes, I lament daily about the trials I must endure to survive 8 long months of Arabic, but it is probably because if I went around shouting from the rooftops how freaking awesome language training is, people would look at me like I was crazy. Well and Diplomatic Security would probably have issues with that. I’ve found that in order to conform to the group mentality, I need to throw in a daily complaint about how terrible my class truly is. I really wish I didn’t have to do this or rather feel like it was necessary, but it is the psychology of long term language training. But, I don’t want it to be. And I don’t think it should be. It is too easy to fall into a jaded trap. I will say that I do believe it is important to advocate for yourself and your learning style though. If your class does not facilitate the learning you need, then you should feel empowered to speak with your teacher, supervisor, and learning consultant to discuss concerns.

So how does one break the cycle and maintain a positive attitude during language training?

1. Stick a post it note on the back of your door that says “suck it up cupcake.” Read it every morning.
2. Write down every day one thing that you did well in class. If you knocked it out of the park, right down everything.
3. Focus on what you can do rather than what you can’t do. At least for those moments of weakness.
4. Write down on a piece of paper the amount of money the Department of State is spending to train you in another language. Now divide that by the amount of money you spend in rent (if you are a non-local). Follow this up with a dollop of whipped cream on the humble pie.
5. Figure out how to say in your language why you joined the Foreign Service, all of it and from the heart.
6. Walk every hallway at FSI during lunch and look at the number of classrooms and languages.
7. Calculate the number of teachers in your department. All of those people have jobs because of people like you.
8. Celebrate success by taking a break from studying. Go out and enjoy the city and everything it has to offer. When else will you be able to live virtually free in a city that offers the Smithsonian, Kennedy Center, Bao Bao the panda, and Americans who theoretically know how to use traffic circles?
9. Shadow a congressional constituent services intern.
10. Lastly, take a moment to reflect on what lead you to this opportunity.

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Why Life Ain’t So Bad

Let’s cut to the chase, here’s why life is currently just grand:

1. Spoke in Twi twice today to two different Ghanaians. Turns out, I’ve still got it! Commence Azonto dance now:

2. Told a story in Arabic today in a conversational tone at a regular speed, as if I were telling the story in English. I was so happy, even if the story wasn’t as funny as I always thought it was.

3. This time next week I will be in San Diego with my best friend. Bring on the burritos!

4. Finally making friends in DC outside of the Foreign Service bubble. Don’t get me wrong, I love my colleagues, but sometimes it is nice to hear someone talk about something besides language training. Plus, as it turns out, non-State folks do really awesome things too. And they are normal people, normal cool people.

5. I’m still getting paid to be a language sponge. The Department of State is still high fiving me everytime I walk into my apartment.

6. I’ve stopped drinking as much caffeine, 90% less I’d say, and I feel much more alert and awake. Funny how that works.

7. I learned the proper way to say King Tutankhamun today, so that made everything seem a little more real.

8. Speaking of real, I sent in my housing form today. Now that makes things feel real. I just hope to the housing board gods that they give me an apartment that doesn’t smell like dead fish and is not inhabited by a gang of wild flat spiders on tour from Ghana. It still feels like language training is going to last forever, but I guess it is just another 4 months.

9. Christmas is right around the corner and I’m always reminded during the holidays about how grateful I am for all the opportunities that have come my way.

It’s all downhill from Monday

Since we are all really just an experiment at the Foreign Service Institute, I’ve been taking notes about my condition. I need more data points, but I have made some correlations that surely will be made into a lovely Excel chart at some point, all in an effort to avoid homework at all costs. The first thing I’ve discovered is my best day is typically Monday and it all goes downhill from there. But, working towards Friday is always uphill, so win win for me. The second thing I’ve discovered is my total and utter lack of patience for class past 10:11am. After 2.5 hours of class, I’m at my maximum saturation point and my brain turns to mush. Which luckily for me, the Egyptian word to negate things sounds a lot like mush, so I can just mutter that under my breath and pretend I’m really following along. I’ve also determined that I really enjoy learning languages, despite my attempts to derail class into a discussion on natural gas production in the US. I enjoy my time with my classmates, because we each have different strengths and we mesh together well. (I like m[]sh words now.) I know that when I’m struggling with something I can rely on my classmates to help me get where I need to be or to go off on a tangent and let my brain rest. I also immensely appreciate having a great friend who speaks Egyptian. That way I can have someone to correct my pronunciation and drill me on vocab when we are just out and about, also secret languages are fun. Also, she tells me I have good pronunciation and then I feel smug about my life.

Another discovery has been truly how vital work life balance is, also my English sucks now. Does that sentence even make grammatical sense? Eh, I don’t care. Either way, work life balance is not just a concept the Germans have down pat and Americans like to mock. Having a balance is good for the mind and the soul. I could study more, I know I should study more, because thanks societal and work pressure, but I don’t. Why? Because, I’ve found that excessive studying does not yield better results. In fact, it leads to worse results. My brain becomes fried and I’m practically useless the next day. I’m sure my brain is consuming some crazy amount of energy processing all this stuff all day, so when I come home and don’t let it reset, it overheats. Just like my laptop with a bad fan. I prefer to spend my time doing something completely unrelated to language learning, such as going to trivia or out to dinner, or dancing around my house to super loud country music, alone. And it’s awesome.

I’ve also found that by taking the occasional brain break, I’m able to come back to class or my homework and knock something out of the park. So now we come to the part of my post that I’ve really just been leading up to, because I want to boast, mainly because I’m shocked and excited, and hells yeah, why not? (“why not” is my favorite sassy thing to say in Arabic) So today, I wasn’t really feeling the first two hours of class, but then I started to feel a little bit like I was back on track. Then 10:11am hit me with a sleepy stick and I mentally checked out for 15 minutes. After the break, I met with my learning consultant and we had a one hour session where he will go over any exercise you feel like. For me, I need the most practice just talking, so he asks me random questions and we have a dialogue. I started talking about working for a natural gas company after college, which lead to a discussion on Qatar and natural gas rights. Which, frankly I couldn’t talk about before Area Studies because I had no idea there was anything to talk about. But, we sat there talking about maritime borders and natural gas fields in Arabic on a Monday freaking morning. And then we talked about the economy of Ghana and the primary exports, including politics between gold producing regions and national foreign relations interests. I blew my own mind with my seemingly out of nowhere ability to talk about these topics. But then I realized I was good at it because it was something new and interesting. I wasn’t talking about Oklahoma or food, but something different. And I loved it. So, I came home and did a 16 minute recording talking about Ghana’s primary exports, expanding more on different products. Off the cuff, just because. All in Arabic. We are just under 2 months in and this is where we are. I love my job. I have no complaints.

Life is awesome. And someone is paying me to do this. Inshallah y’all.

April Showers Bring More Rain and Some Flowers

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

My Peace Corps Philosophy

Let me first say, the mefloquine dreams are truly unreal. I had an amazing dream earlier that would make for an incredible plot to a sci-fi novel or movie. But then I woke up and was nauseated, so I couldn’t fall back asleep. Boo hiss. So I started thinking, of course, and I realized a few things that were worthy of a blog post.

But before we get to that. Can I just mention that while starting to type this very entry, I look over to my right side and see something move. Out of nowhere, the biggest cockroach I have EVER seen in my entire life waltzes out from some crack in my door. Hey asshole! I just cleaned my room, there isn’t anything tasty in here. I imagined how freaked out my friend would have been if he saw that cockroach. Little guy is hiding behind a wheel of duct tape, and he is the same size as the roll. Ha, not sure what this guy has been eating but he sure is a porker. How on Earth did I manage to have a ridiculously irrational fear of spiders, but cockroaches I don’t care. Well, except for that shit that just went down. No kidding while typing “cockroaches I don’t care.” The jackass runs towards me with lightening speed and I freak out. Probably because I’m up at 3 in the morning, I just took my Mefloquine last night, and paranoia is a side effect. Also, does anyone really want a GIANT cockroach lurking under their feet? No I don’t think so. So I stomped on that guy and he got attached to the bottom of my shoe, so I had to murder him senselessly to get him off my shoe. Now he is just chilling, VERY dead next to me. I don’t have the heart to shoo him away. But I am heartless enough to smash him into pieces. Alright just kidding, I shuffled him out of my line of site. No one wants to look at that. Aw great, now I’m going to have to wash my shoes AND my floor. Yeah well, next time his brethren will know better than to mess with a girl on Mefloquine.

Okay, back to my original point. I met the new trainees last week, but they came to my site yesterday. I was told to teach them about contracts, my project partners, and explain a little bit about my site situation. I realized afterwards that what I told them was probably a little scary. I haven’t exactly had the best site situation. I didn’t mean to scare them or to sound jaded, but it probably came off that way. Don’t you wish you could go back some times and just rephrase things? Luckily, I’ll have the chance to tell them this Wednesday. Are you ready for this? This is my personal Peace Corps philosophy, I’ve held onto this philosophy since the dawn of my Peace Corps time.  30% is your site. 70% is what you make of it. There will always be things you cannot change. There will always be people who don’t like you. Sometimes you will be put in a community that doesn’t really need a volunteer or maybe even a community that needs one so desperately, you couldn’t possible help them enough. You might not have electricity or easy access to water. You might have crappy transportation to your town. You might have to walk everywhere. Your original counterpart might be awful or they might be amazing. No matter what you do, there will always be variables you have absolutely no control over.

But that doesn’t matter, what matters is how you deal with them. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, you are given the freedom to make your service what you want it to be. You can work on the original project you are given or you are free to create your own. You are given free reign to do what is best for your community. Okay, nothing related to the government is ever completely free reign, but you get my point. Despite my setbacks at site, despite the stupid stuff I’ve had to deal with, despite the corruption, I’ve still had the best damn year of my life. I feel like I have accomplished more in one year than I have in half my lifetime.

Even though my site situation makes me roll my eyes and growl, I have never once regretted my decision to join Peace Corps. Every experience we have in this life teaches us something, it helps us to grow. Now when I get asked in a job interview “tell me about a challenge you faced and how you overcame it” I can floor them with my awesome story of how I was faced with crazy circumstances, corruption, and people who were unwilling to change. I persevered because I saw the big picture. I know that this isn’t about me, this is about the people I’m trying to help. There are farmers in my community who want my help, they want my knowledge, and I want to give it to them. This is about them. I would gladly sacrifice tears and frustration if it means the farmers I work with have a chance at a better life. I’m not here for me, I’m here for them.

When faced with insurmountable odds and defeat, you truly realize your convictions. I’ve been dealt a crappy set of cards, but I’ll be damned if I don’t do everything in my power to win my hand. So while there are some cons to my service, the pros far outweigh them. I’ve been given the opportunity to work with a giant German software firm, I’ve made friends that I cherish with all my heart, I’ve discovered new things about myself and I’ve grown tremendously in the past year, I’ve tried new foods, I’ve been incredibly blessed to be part of a second family that treats me just like their daughter, I’ve made local friends who have changed all my opinions about Africa, and I’ve been able to work on a project that I truly believe in. I’m happier than I have been since I was a carefree kid with no worries in the world. I’ve found fulfillment.

This is my favorite adinkra symbol, Nkyimkyim it is associated with the proverb: The course of life is full of twistings, ups and downs, and zigzags.”

The course of life is full of twistings, ups and downs, and zigzags.

So to current, future, and prospective Peace Corps Volunteers – will you let the 30% control you? Or will you control the 70%?

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.