Category Archives: Feelings

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?”

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

(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

 

 

16 And Pregnant: Sagnarigu Style

A few weeks ago, a young girl and her two children appeared at my compound. I’d seen the girl before, but now it was obvious that she was staying at the house. Family structures are quite fluid among the Dagomba, it seems, so I didn’t think twice about it.

A few nights later, Yaku and I were eating dinner when a young man showed up. He greeted Yaku and the girl before taking her and her children out of the compound. Yaku seemed a bit bristly after the encounter. I didn’t have to ask why, because he was eager to tell me the story. Apparently, the girl is his sister. She’d gotten pregnant in high school with the young man who’d just been by. They’d since been married, but because she’s young, she is staying with her mother to learn the ways of raising a child. Again, a Dagomba thing.

Yaku was not pleased with the man, that much was clear from the tone in his voice when he told me who he is. We continued eating, though, and moved on to other conversation topics. I didn’t really think about the situation after that.

Last week, Yaku asked me if I remember the guy. He told me that the husband gave the mother 2 cedis (~1.33 CAD, but more like 4-5 CAD when you factor in the buying power) and then disappeared. Yaku’s voice was shaking; it was the first time I’d seen anything remotely close to anger in the man. “What can you do with two cedis?” he asked me.

“Nothing,” I quietly responded. Yaku went on to tell me that he wanted to go the man’s family to give them a piece of his mind, but that his own family had prevented him from doing so. “I know it’s not the right thing to do,” he said, “but what else is there to do?” I had already answered that question: nothing.

“I bet this wouldn’t have happened in Canada,” continued Yaku. Ha! Little did he know. I told him that teenage pregnancy happens all too often in Canada and that some high schools even have day care centres in them to support teenaged mothers. I went on to explain that the girl and her family usually have little power in influencing the boy to deal with the situation in a manner befitting of a man and that if they’re lucky, they’ll be able to get regular child support money from him.

Yaku wasn’t surprised by this and after my explanation I realized that he was just venting his frustrations. Personally, I hate it when people burst my frustration bubble, so I felt as though I’d ruined his opportunity to articulate his feelings.

I think it was fellow JF Kevin in Malawi who wrote about witnessing the end of a marriage. He pointed out that even in Malawi, life still happens. The story of Yaku’s sister highlights the fact that there are certain things that cut across cultures. No matter where you are in the world, there are always people experiencing conflict, hurting each other, or drastically and negatively changing the course of each other’s lives.

Of course, there are also always people working together, finding love in one another, and drastically changing each other’s lives for the better. I think that there’s something to be said about the uniting force of either; in that one conversation with Yaku, I was able to really understand his frustration and exasperation.

I’m never going to be able to change the situation for teenaged mothers in Ghana, but at least I can take something positive away from this garbage dump of a situation.

-C

 

Day 6 – A Tamascan

As I mentioned in my previous post, I cut my stay at Tamasco short by one day due to illness. Doing so meant missing out on the Dagomba Students’ Assocation (DSA)–of which I was made an honourary member–meeting, not being able to perform in the dance routine introduction to the gospel rock show that I had been rehearsing for diligently, and missing out on the usual Saturday Tamasco dance party.

I actually had fully planned to rest up during the day, eat a bunch of saltine crackers and drink some tonic water, and go to all of these things, but I really was not feeling up to it. Plus, I had to remain close to a toilet at all times. Instead, I went to town to get tested for various bowel-related illnesses, then rested in my hut.

While I was resting, I got about 7 different calls from unknown numbers. Each time I answered, it was a different Tamascan I had met asking about how I was doing and wondering if I’d be able to make my commitment for the day, or if they should come and visit me. Before I left, I had given my number to 2 close friends that I had made at Tamasco.

Their concern for me and desire to include me in the student life made me feel absolutely awesome. The students that I met at Tamasco were phenomenal! They were so hard-working, welcoming, interested, and interesting. I really wish I could’ve spent a month there, instead of just a week. Still, in that week, I made at least 2 good friends who I will continue to communicate with for a long time.

The people I met were so fantastic that I want to introduce them all to you:

Helena. She was one of three no-nonsense girls in my class.

Emmanuel a.k.a. E-Man a.k.a. Tom. He's my best friend at Tamasco! It's too bad he closed his during this picture, though.

My buddy Francis. He helped me out around campus and looked surprisingly similar to Fiddy Cent. It doesn't really show in this picture, though.

Francis and I. My uniform is somehow big, I know. I didn't have time to get it fixed before I started school.

Me with Emmanuel and Oliver, a.k.a. Tom and Jerry. These two were inseparable.

(Most of) Agric Form 3 Class E! These guys and girls were awesome! So bright and funny.

Something that Emmanuel told me when he was calling to check up on my health really stuck with me. He said, “you’ll have to come back tomorrow to get some Tamasco cloth, because you’re a Tamascan, after all.”

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Ghanaians are the most welcoming people I’ve ever met. These students were no exception and I truly do feel like a Tamascan because of their hospitality.

-C

Day 4 – Attempts at Goal

This is what my Thursday looked like at Tamasco:

Students...

...but no teacher

We sat in class from 7:00 a.m. until 2:00 p.m.  and not a single Master showed up. I asked some of the students if this was unusual and they told me that, in fact, they hadn’t had an ICT (Information and Computer Technologies) Master in their three years at the school. So, it’s not like the Master was lazy, there just wasn’t one. I was astounded; Ive heard that teacher absenteeism is a big problem in Ghana, but to experience it firsthand was eye-opening. I guess that’s the value in a school-stay.

When I told my classmates that in Canada, or the US (and probably parts of Europe, although I have no way of knowing), a teacher would be immediately queried and disciplined, if not sacked (fired) for such behaviour, they laughed. “Welcome to Africa,” said Daniel, a Dagomba brothah of mine, “feel free to put that in your report.”

I couldn’t help but feel frustrated. Literally one week prior, a classroom full of teachers had told me that their students “weren’t serious”. I wonder: were they talking about the same students who were faithfully in class, studying from their textbooks and practice question sets while their Masters did who knows what? The same students who get up for the 4:30 a.m. prayer, even if they are Christians, so that they can get in extra study time before class? The same students who study for 2+ hours every night in the empty classrooms on campus?

After “class” (a.k.a. free study time), Emmanuel told me that he wanted to show me something. We hopped on his bike and he directed me to a seemingly secret location whose purpose he wouldn’t disclose. He stopped us under a tree close to a nearby JHS where many bikes were parked. “See that?” he asked me. “Yeah, but what am I looking at?” I responded, confused. He went on to explain that the Masters who had not been present during the day were holding extra classes and charging students 4 Ghana cedis for entrance. He told me that usually 80-90 students would show up to these extra classes and that if you don’t show up early, you won’t get a seat.

The whole thing was abominable to me. The teachers know they won’t be fired for missing classes, because there is little to no accountability for them to actually do their jobs. For them to create a demand for extra classes and take students’ hard-earned and sparse money through their inaction is just disgusting, in my opinion. I know that not all teachers do this, but that it happens at all just astounds me. I wanted to weep under that tree right then and there.

We had to leave the extra class quickly, because there was a football match between the two Agric classes. All of my classmates wanted me to play, so I pushed out of my comfort zone and laced up. I’d like to point out that I haven’t played a real football match in maybe 10 years, and that back then football didn’t involve three different languages (Twi, Dagbani, and English), a bunch of grown Ghanaian men who have been playing since they could walk, herds of goats on the pitch, and the occasional moto driving across the field. Even without these things, I still had a penchant for scoring on my own team’s net back when I did play. I figured this match would be interesting.

The whole time, I felt like I was just running to keep up with the other guys, let alone actually play. I got the ball a total of four times. Once was a good block that received some cheers from my team, another was during a collision with one of my own players (no injuries sustained), and the last two were attempts at goal. The first attempt was laughable: the net was wide open and the ball was right in front of it. My foot never actually made contact with the ball and I ended up on my ass. The second attempt was a little better, but the ball rolled off the top of my foot and ended up going over the net instead of into it.

The whole game made me truly feel like a Ghanaian student. I was always running, working so hard just to keep up. When I did have a chance to attempt a goal, I didn’t have the skills to follow-through to success, because I was horribly out of practice.

As I high-fived my teammates after the 3-2 win, a mix of happiness at our success and raw desperation at the reality of these students hit me.

I had become part of the missing bottom line.

-C