See No Evil

So, how was Ghana?

That was the question everyone was asking when I’d returned from Toronto. We’d had a session at debrief which aimed to generate answers of varying levels of engagement to The Question and it helped for sure. I found myself easily sizing up the true interest of askers to determine which of my predetermined conversation-generating answers I’d use. Some obviously cared a lot and wanted to hear the whole story, while others were alright with my disengaged “it was great! Really life-changing!” I certainly had the tools to deal with The Question itself.

did not have the tools, however, to deal with the fact that it would be asked of me nearly every time I reunited with anyone. It became exhausting almost immediately. I’m so thankful for my close friends and family who know me well enough to know that the answer to the question was one which would take a long time–years, maybe–to unravel. They didn’t ask; no, they waited.

Beyond the exasperation of hearing the same question over and over again, I was tired of being asked because I really didn’t know the answer. In fact, I had no fucking clue how Ghana was. I was still processing and, I realize now, beginning to deny the whole experience. In the weeks that immediately followed my return, I steadily withdrew, burying myself in my schoolwork and relationships and ignoring any idea of the red dust country I’d brought back to Canada with me. I focused on the new me and understanding the skills and perspectives I’d acquired through my experience instead of on the experience itself.

And the sense of denial stretched out from there. To this day, I haven’t called any of the people I met in Ghana. At first I had the excuse of having lost contact information due to a virus on my computer. But, as time passed, I realized that I didn’t want to call Yaku, or Emmanuel, or Illy. I didn’t want to be reminded of Ghana. Of course, I wanted to see how Yaku’s new job was and how Emmanuel did on his WASSCEs, but something was–and still is–stopping me from reaching out to them. It’s a complicated head space about which I’ll probably write in a later post.

I finally understood the underlying cause of my deep-seated denial when I was forced to talk about my experience at a chapter meeting. I went in relatively unprepared, with only a vague idea of what I’d be discussing (this is how I typically approach presentations) and I fumbled. I said the wrong things. I gave the wrong impressions. I stood in front of some very impressionable and naive first-year students and, in my mind, completely botched the idea of “Africa” I wanted to convey to their plastic minds.

That experience (and many others to come) made me realize the power that my narrative holds. I mean this in no self-aggrandizing way; it’s not like I have some incredibly powerful story to tell that will revolutionize the world. In fact, I have a very small story that is relatively short. However, I came to understand that even something so little could become something very dangerous, or something very good, depending on how I wielded it. I’ve learned since then that all narratives involving more vulnerable individuals or groups hold this power, especially when delivered from a privileged individual. In the end,  It all depended on how I was able to connect with others around me and how well I was able to articulate some incredibly complex ideas.

The revelation was, like my story, very powerful. All of a sudden, I was forced to really think about my experience, to piece it all together into something which exposed nuances, was self-critical and-above all-was viscerally honest all at once.

I’d opened a Pandora’s Box.

-C

Reunion

The mental preparation began the minute I felt the rumble of the landing gear extending. I had been told what to expect before landing in Ghana, but felt more than a little unprepared for what to expect upon landing in Toronto. There are going to be white people, I told myself, A lot of them. For whatever reason, I figured that would be the most shocking part of the whole arrival process.

Well, when those big arrival doors slid open at the airport, I was completely unprepared for the crowd of people waiting for travellers to arrive on the other side. Why does the Pearson International Airport even have that set up? You walk along this corridor with these huge sliding doors at the end. It just makes the whole thing so theatrical and hyped up. When those doors opened, the waiting crowd they revealed had some white people in it, yes, but there were people of many other nationalities there, too. I’m pretty sure that the white people were the minority, in fact.

It floored me.

Shit, I thought, Canada really is a multicultural place. At that moment, I did not want to be reminded of that very awesome fact. I told myself to be cool as I walked down the ramp to where some of the other JFs had convened. I tried to talk to them, but we all could only speak in short bursts of staccato semi-sentences; apparently I wasn’t the only one who’d been struck by the immediate circumstances awaiting us upon arrival. As we watched those cursed doors for the arrival of more JFs, I saw a man who I didn’t know pass through. He was eagerly greeted by another man who ran towards him and, to my surprise, open-mouth kissed him on the arrival ramp.

I am more than alright with public displays of affection between partners of the same gender. And I think it’s great that Canada is one of the countries where the social and legal climate is becoming more and more equitable for LGBTQ people. But I had just spent four months in a place where neither PDA nor anything LGBTQ really existed. My brain and heart knew not how to respond to what was happening in front of me and all I could do was stare with wide eyes.

“Can we just catch a bus out of here?” I asked the group. They eagerly agreed to that plan.

Almost everything I encountered during the time we spent in Toronto following our arrival elicited similar emotions in me. Shock, confusion, anxiety, and–strangely–fear. For me, reverse culture shock felt a lot like being woken up at a very early hour of the day by the sound of an air horn. I was often shocked, slow to process and respond, frustrated, and even a bit angry at what was going on around me nearly 100% of the time. It was exhausting and I’m glad that EWB gave us some time to debrief as a group. The content of that debrief may not have been very useful, but being around a group of individuals experiencing similar things as I was really helped with my transition back to “normal”.

Make no mistake: the post-Ghana normal is very different from the pre-Ghana normal. When I reflect back on the last nine months since I’ve written on this blog, I realize that the immediate feelings I experienced due to reverse culture shock in that first week back are the thematic things I’ve felt between returning and now. It’s been a bit of a mixed bag of entangled feelings and thoughts and I’ve been afraid to uphold my promise of continuing my story here–lest I say something I don’t mean–until now. I think I’ve had ample time to process and reflect enough to begin writing about what the my new normal looks like and how my experience as a JF influenced that new normal.

Here goes nothing.

-C

A Summer Well Spent

“So, do you think you’ve had positive impact here?”

That was the question posed of me by my good friend and classmate Emmanuel on my last day in Tamale immediately after I had wrapped up my work at the REO.  After four months of working to create a data system and process for data use in decision-making there, I wasn’t sure how to answer Emmanuel’s question.

“I think so,” I told him, mentally reminding myself of the successes and failures I experienced in my work. I explained more about what I did at my office, what I thought I got right, and what I thought I got wrong over the course of the summer.

“Then I think you’ve made a change,” he said after I finished. “You’ve done well,” he told me, adding so much meaning to a Ghanaian phrase I’d heard many times over the summer.

You see, I’d gotten feedback from many people on my work up until then, but nothing compared to the sense of validation I got from Emmanuel’s words and bright smile on that sunny afternoon in the empty classroom at Tamasco. In that moment, I wanted to stay in that red dust country for at least another four months. After all, while I had some small positive impact on the lives of students like Emmanuel there are still many opportunities to improve the realities of Ghanaians.

Later that day, I said goodbye to Emmanuel and all my other amazing classmates from Tamasco who were still around to study for the upcoming WASSCEs. I made sure that it wasn’t the forever kind of goodbye, though, but more of a “see you later” with a promise to return someday attached. I left Sagnarigu the following morning before the sun had risen and while the night’s rain was still falling. From Tamale, I went to Kumasi, then Elmina, then Accra, then home. Even though it’s been less than a month since I left, it feels like I was in Ghana a very long time ago (especially with the effects of reverse culture shock hitting me on a daily basis).

Now that my life has reached an approximate steady-state, I can finally take a moment to reflect on my summer experience as a whole and begin to answer the often-asked question, “How was Ghana?” and the not-as-often-asked-but-much-more-important one, “Did I have any positive impact and what was it?”

Like I said before, I’m confident that I had some positive impact on my office’s ability to deliver good education to Ghanaian students through my work this summer. What that impact was is a whole other question, though, and one that I’m slowly answering. I’m sure I’ll have more thoughts in the near future.

Which brings me to my next point: it’s not over. There are still these reflections (and others) to be mulled over, analyses to be done, and important messages to be delivered. I’ll be using this space to do so in the next little while, and I hope you’ll continue to follow my journey here.

Oh, and as Emmanuel might say, “Ghana was fine. How was Canada?”

Reports, Opportunities, and a Not-So-Village Stay: An Update

I haven’t blogged for almost a week now, which is a bit of a break from the 3+ posts/week rate I’ve managed to keep in the past few weeks. This is not because there hasn’t been anything about which to blog; quite the opposite, in fact. I’ve been too busy to write! Alhassan was out of the office for a big convention in Cape Coast for two weeks and as a result work at the RESO was going very slowly. He returned on Monday and brought with him a flurry of activity.

I spent Monday catching Alhassan up on plans for the following week and a half. In the time that Alhassan had been gone, Mina and I had decided that a village stay was in order for the final weekend before debrief. This meant that Thursday would be my last day at the office and I’d be in a village outside Tamale from Thursday afternoon-Tuesday afternoon. I told Alhassan that I would come to the office on Tuesday afternoon to say my goodbyes and we discussed what reports I should submit to the RESO team and Director.

In the evening, I informed Yaku of my (maybe) finalized plans for the village stay followed by travel to Kumasi, Accra, and–finally–Canada. He looked at me over our TZ, his eyes glistening, and said “so it means you’ll be gone as of Thursday?” Cue this:

I told him that I’d be back for Tuesday night and that I’d cook a “Canadian” meal for the family then. We stayed up late chatting about families, Canada, and education.

On Tuesday, I jumped into my final report for GaRI. It turned out to be quite the challenge; how does one condense 3 months of learning, including strategy recommendations, into <10 pages? I’m not sure (which is probably why the report isn’t done yet). On the bright side, what I have written has really made me realize just how much I’ve learned this summer. The theme for this blog for next week will be Learning, so expect to hear more about it.

Wednesday came with some very exciting news. I opened my email inbox to find an invitation to a forum in Accra held by USAID on a review of EMIS they performed in May. Dan Boland had connected me with the researcher (coincidentally named Chris) from RTI who performed the review early on in my placement. Chris interviewed me to get my perspective and was surprised to hear what I had to say about access to EMIS data. He told me that I’d be kept in the loop should anything worthwhile come out of his research. When I opened up the invitation attachment, I saw that one of the major points to be discussed at the forum was data access. That was pretty exciting. This guy wasn’t even considering access issues in his review until I spoke to him about it and now it was appearing as a topic of discussion at the review forum.

I figured that the forum would be an excellent opportunity to network for EWB and push the thoughts I have about EMIS a little further by introducing the briefing paper I wrote about it to the stakeholders who’ll be present. So I sent an excited email to Mina and Dan that read “Do either of you know about this? CAN I GO??” By the end of the day, I had purchased my ticket to Accra.

Because the forum is on the 17th, I’ll have to travel south a day earlier and meet up with the other JFs in Kumasi after the event is done. Cutting one day off the few days remaining created a lot of sudden stress for me; I have so many reports to finish, a village stay to attend, packing to do, and goodbyes to say and one fewer day for it all. In the end, I decided not to do the village stay so that I can spend the weekend preparing to leave.

And now it’s Thursday. What’s on my mind for today and tomorrow? REPORTS. I’ve got a bunch of thoughts to work out and translate into coherent English before Tuesday. Wish me luck.

-C

Not Quite So Familiar

What do the following things have in common?

Rain

Yes, Janelle’s tears and the rain are both organic and beautiful expressions of catharsis. That’s kind of secondary to my experience, though.

Maybe.

I’m sitting at my desk in an otherwise empty office, reworking a draft briefing paper, listening to Ms. Monáe’s album and the rain pounding down on the roof. This song comes on and I’m immediately transported back to the first time I listened to the album all the way through in my basement apartment on Hilda street in Ottawa. The rain was pouring down then, too, but on Hilda street I was wrapped up in a thick blanket, had a cup of really good coffee sitting next to me, and was “working” on a lab report.

The feelings of relaxation, serenity, and joy in the small things that I experienced then are contrasted against what I’m feeling in this moment: tiredness from extra 3 a.m. prayers, a slight pang of hunger that I’m trying to ignore, frustration at the disorganization of my own thoughts for this briefing paper, and–I now realize–genuine homesickness.

It seems this precipitation-and orchestral hip-hop-driven quasi déjà vu has tugged on just the right heart strings to make me suddenly want to be back in that cold basement apartment, wrapped up in a comforter with a cup of Peruvian at my side. Or better yet–a really good latté. And instead of my lab report, I could be reading a fantastic book. I’d follow that with a slice of extra cheesy pizza with lots of bacon and maybe a nap with my cat curled up beside me in my warm and inviting bed.

I snap back to reality and wipe the drool from my mouth. As I redirect my focus to my work, I realize that I should not have sent that email to my mother this morning about all the food I want her to have on hand when I return from Ghana. After all, my thoughts on the topic about which I’m trying to write are scattered enough without daydreamed distractions. I continue the re-write without really thinking about the words on my computer screen. Something in me still craves the scene I’ve created in my head.

Two things about this experience are curiously new for me. The first is that I thought of–no, felt–Ottawa as my home. That’s literally never happened to me and I guess that, despite my best efforts, I’ve finally let my guard down and let that city into my heart. The second is that the depth of the homesickness is greater than I’ve felt before. This prompts me to think that maybe I haven’t really been homesick until now. Are missing home and homesickness the same thing? I’m probably thinking too much into this, but it really beats longing for good food and the company of my cat.

This has definitely been a phenomenal adventure that has really opened my eyes to a lot of different things about the world and myself. There are so many things that I take for granted and my time in Ghana has made me understand that in a big way. I might be ready to go back to those things with a new-found appreciation, but I can’t help but hope that I’ll miss my life in Ghana when I’m home just as much as I miss home right now.

-C

Dis Ma Hood

Ah, the joys of technology. WordPress has a great feature where you can write a blog post when you have time and internet access, but have it post at a specified date and time. I’m a big fan of this feature, but this morning it led to a blank post! Sorry about that. I had intended on introducing you to my ‘hood, Sagnarigu, but I ran out of internet credit and there was rain this morning, so I couldn’t buy any. As a result, I couldn’t postpone the post or write the one I wanted to before it was posted.

Anyway, take a look at the wonderful village in which I’ve been living for the past couple of months:

 

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Less than three weeks remain until I’ll be back in Canada and man, I’m going to miss this place.

-C

(De)Motivation

On Monday morning I woke up feeling, well, really crappy.

No, I wasn’t sick. I didn’t have malaria, parasites, or even just katah*. Something just wasn’t sitting right in my being. As I lay under my mosquito net, a thin sheet protecting me from the cold of the night and muted sounds coming from the compound, Cat’s words from pre-dep about mental health came rushing back to me. I had an immediate self-diagnosis: demotivation.

I know I’m a hypochondriac, so I did a little check-in to make sure that I wasn’t exaggerating with myself. Low appetite? I’d been blaming it on my experience at Tamasco, but I had been having difficulty with food recently. Low energy? I’d even complained to Tania about that the night before. Changes in sleep habits? I checked my phone to see that it was 5 a.m. Neither the Call to Prayer nor my own alarm had awakened me at such a strange hour.

Dammit Chris, I cursed myself, way to ignore every warning sign for the past two weeks. Looks like it’s time for a mental health day. I wondered if talking to myself was a further sign of deteriorating mental health, before realizing that that was the hypochondriac part of my brain speaking up. I silenced the nonsense and fell back asleep.

When I woke up at 8, I immediately called one of my coworkers to tell him that I’d be working from home that day. Thankfully my office is awesome and even encourages working from home, so it was no big deal that I wouldn’t be coming in. After all, Alhassan told me on day one that “you’ll be more productive if you vary your work environment every now and then” (seriously, who is this guy?) So I pushed all fragments of guilt from my brain and set up a make-shift mud-hut office in my room. I spent the morning working on some stuff before heading to town in the afternoon. I had to get some pictures developed to give to my classmates at Tamasco and I had some other small errands to run as well.

However, when I arrived in Tamale I found myself wandering about the shops aimlessly, thinking about the source of my current melancholy. Education in Ghana is just really demotivating. There are so many big changes that are required to fix it and even though everyone working in the sector knows what those changes are, nothing gets any better. I think it was the one-two punch of sitting in a teacher-less classroom one week then immediately hearing teachers tell me that they’re powerless to impact their students the next that led to the KO of my motivation.

“Hey Tamasco! Comena.”**

The voice broke my reverie. I was wearing my Tamasco cloth shirt because it was the only clean one I had left. The man calling me looked young and was flapping his fingers in the very Ghanaian “get over here” motion. He didn’t shake my hand when I reached him, but instead demanded to know about the source of my shirt. My answer of “me, I’m a Tamascan” didn’t satisfy him, so I told him my whole story.

It turns out that the guy’s a teacher getting his degree at the University of Cape Coast. He asked me if I like to read and when I told him that I do, he started prattling off a list of African and Ghanaian authors and their novels. I didn’t have a notepad to write any of them down (because, you know, it’s not often that I have to rapidly record African names and book titles), so I took his number instead. He finally shook my hand.

As I turned to go, he caught my attention.

“You know,” he said, “Education, good education, is the only way, the only way that Africa will get out of poverty. That’s between you and me. Ignore what the rest of them say, it’s the only way.”

I wasn’t sure how to respond to that and thankfully I didn’t really have to, because he had disappeared into the crowd of his friends. As I stood on the street, the sun beating down on me and people pushing past me, something clicked. The stranger’s words played back in my head slowly. As they did, I squeezed out every drop of significance I could from them.

What a strange coincidence. This stranger had put to words the exact thoughts that I needed to hear in that moment. Sure, the interaction would have taken place regardless of my mental state and it’s likely that I attached more meaning to it than was reasonable or real. However, I can’t ignore that the message I needed was delivered to me right then and there.

Ask and ye shall receive? The power of The Secret? A random event?

I don’t know. Regardless, my drive is back.

-C

* – katah = rhinovirus infection

** – comena = come here