Friday, April 30, 2010

RIP My Computer and Send Money Now!. . .

So I've been a little slow on the blog front. When I got home, I returned to a no-longer-working computer. This is especially depressing for me since two activities that give me the most pleasure- writing and watching movies/tv are no longer possible. On the bright side I've turned back to reading. I'm just about done with Harry Potter 7 and then I can move on to finishing "Guns, Germs, and Steel," a book I would really recommend to anyone who is interested in development.
Now about the money, several of my fellow volunteers and I are in the process of planning a large summer camp for girls from our villages. The cost of the camp is several thousand dollars, and we have posted a PCPP request on the Peace Corps website. We really need your help! We still have over $4000 raise and the camp is in next month! I took four girls to the camp last year and it was an excellent experience. Several have gone on to do very well in their third year of College. Anyway, to contribute try to click here . If you belong to church groups, social groups, etc, please consider asking the group to donate. It will be a big help for us! At this point, we might be at risk of canceling the camp! If that doesn't work go to, click on donate now, and search for Benin. We are Camp GLOW Parakou. Thanks in advance. And shoot me an e-mail so I know you contributed. Otherwise I won't know to thank you!
On another note, I wanted to quote a friend's blog. I found this story hillarious.

I ended up leaving the party early and traveling to my friend Kendra’s nearby post for the night, hoping to come back the next day for more funeral festivities. The next morning, I woke up and went to pee in her latrine. It was by far the shallowest latrine I had ever been in, so the sunlight illuminated all the sludge underneath, and I was sort of casually peering in after I had peed, and what did I see? Not a snake, not a scorpion, not a cockroach… no…. a GOAT. He looked up at me and blinked, and I realized I may have just peed on his head. The door on a neighboring latrine had fallen off, so apparently this little goat had just wandered in and fallen down the hole. I woke Kendra up and together we went and looked in at the little guy. Since it was a Sunday, her neighbors were all away at church, and we had to wait several hours before anyone came around to help. The latrine was just deep enough that the goat would be out of reach, so a young man made a noose out of a rope, let it down the latrine hole, captured the goat, and pulled him up by his neck. The poor little goat was tired and covered in muck, and since he didn’t belong to the concession, no one there wanted to wash him. He got himself to his feet and sadly started walking out of the concession; get this, with a piece of toilet paper trailing off his hind hoof. You can check out Jessica's blog for yourselves here.

In general things are going fine. I'm often reminded that my time is coming to an end by people and by events. I think by August, I'll be really ready, though sad, to leave all the stress that accompanies my life here in Benin. My students are doing reasonably well. I'm especially in love with one class of second-years. They are so anxious to learn and curious about what I have to teach. Often people ask for things, gifts, foreign aid, etc, things that I can't give and that I am happy not to be able to give. These excited students remind me that my work here isn't in vain. They seem to "get it." They understand the value of my presence here at their school. Sometimes I'm not even sure my director gets it, especially since he likes to remind me that I'm not building classrooms or bringing any substantial money to village.

Our finals have been pushed back to the beginning of June. I'll probably teach up until the finals, but since I taught during the strike, I won't have to teach after. This is good, since I'll be busy with the girls camp (please donate) in Parakou and a smaller, low-cost girls camp in my village. I

I've also started to look at jobs. I know it's a bit early, but I figure it can't hurt to get my resume out there and start networking. I am really hoping to move to the NYC area. There's the possibility of living with my friends Erica and Ellen, along with being close to my sister Theologian Mom. I still want to pursue teaching, so I figure the best bet is to apply for music teaching positions in charter and private schools along with other positions in the domain of education, for example, non profits that help get students apply for college and monitor their success. That sort of thing. If anyone has any connections or ideas, please send me an e-mail!

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Ghana Part III. . .

Where are we? Part III. . .

After a day of brass casting, Angelina and I went and got a tro-tro (mini-van taxi) to Cape Coast. We didn’t have reservations and ended up staying at the standard Oasis resort, which is down the beach from the Cape Coast Castle. It was charming, if not a bit run down, but we still enjoyed having our little clichĂ© round hut that faced toward the ocean.

I was taken aback right away by the aggressive nature of people in Cape Coast. Up until this point, it seemed pretty relaxed. As whites in an African country our presence was pretty much ignored. Now all of the sudden we were at one of the premier tourist spots in Ghana and the obnoxious “I’ll tell you a good lie and you can give me money, and if you don’t you’re a racist” type.

The first night we walked around a little bit and had a good dinner at the hotel. I was very interested by their fishing practices along the shore. The men go out in giant canoes and cast very large nets. After a few hours, what seems like the whole town comes to literally pull the nets in using a giant rope. As the net comes in, you begin to get an idea of the harvest. I assume the fish is sorted later to be smoked and sold.

The next day we went to the slave traditing castle, one of the sites that Obama visited last year. It’s never a very pleasant experience to visit one of these places, but still the history is fascinating. Our guard liked to remind us of the irony – a church placed over a slave dungeon - and of course of the terrible things that were done. In addition to the basic abuses of slavery there’s rape, torture, and mutilation. We saw the dungeons with no light and hardly any air. All the slaves’ waste simply accumulated and our guide told us that in research and excavation they found evidence of what you would expect – bones, blood, vomit, menstruation, urine, and excrement.

The castle was a big, grand building, much nicer than what we saw in Ouidah and much more fortified. It was large and whitewashed, as are many buildings in Africa, so even though I’m sure it was painted for Obama’s visit last year; it’s already starting to look old and tired again. Anyway, as could be expected, the visit served as a good reminder of the atrocities that humans can commit.

That afternoon we took a very air conditioned (this excited us) van to Krokrobite, which is just west of Accra. We spent two nights at Big Milly’s Backyard where we enjoyed the beach and a little bit of pause before heading back to Benin. The resort was nice, but there were lots of westerners. We even went out in the village to get a little street food and to save a little money. It was a good reminder that we were still in Africa.

After two nights in our hut in Krokrobite, we took a tro-tro back to Accra, and a van to the Ghana-Togo border. The difference was immediately noticeable. “It was like a decent into hell,” I joked with Angelina. We exited the Ghana departure customs, which were in a nice air-conditioned building with lots of camera and equipment that you would expect into a hallway where a police was yelling at someone. We passed and walked into what was literally a shack held up by logs and covered by tin. We stood there and waited for a Togolese customs officer to process Visas for some other Americans, that you’re not even supposed to be able to get at the border at a cost about $20 less than we had paid in Cotonou. Finally I got annoyed, and started giving him a hard time. All he had to do was stamp our visas and let us leave. He got a little mad at me but stamped us through. We immediately entered Togo to be heckled with cries of “Yovo! Yovo!” and “Les blancs! Tu es en afrique maintenant!”

We went to get our Taxi to Cotonou and some taxi driver “stole us” from another driver, even though it wasn’t his turn. They started fighting over Angelina’s bag, and finally the driver who stole us won. Shortly thereafter the other driver left with a full car. Had we been in that car we would have arrived in Cotonou before dark, but because of the jerk driver, we ended waiting almost two hours to leave.

Anyway, we rejoiced a little when we arrived in Benin. The officers were nice and much more professional. Just by the difference between Benin and Togo’s borders, I can’t help but think Benin is in much better shape!

Unfortunately, I checked my e-mail in the car as soon as my phone started to work on a Beninese network. I found out that I wasn’t accepted into the France Teaching Assistant program. I’m not sure what I did wrong, because I know people with a lot less qualifications are often accepted and I’ve never heard of a PCV not being accepted. I think I must have messed up my application and/or they didn’t like that I didn’t have any French in college.

This wasn’t a very happy note to end my trip on. I have to evaluate everything and figure out what I want to do with my life. It’s added stress to an already pretty stressful life. That aside, my trip to Ghana was amazing. Angelina was great to travel with and I feel like we saw a lot of the important sights in Ghana. It also impressed me as an example of development in Africa. I understand that Ghana is not that rich, but just the infrastructures of roads, transportation, and taxing seemed really well implemented. Go Ghana!

Check out angelina's blog here.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Ancient Brass Casting Technique, Ghana Part II

When Angelina was at the University of Michigan, she worked with one of her history of art professors to prepare and design an exhibit on the Ashanti Brass Casters of Ghana. Since we began planning this trip, Angelina has made it a goal to visit these artisans in the village of Krofrom just outside of Kumasi.

We had an incredible experience, seeing every step of the process from the forming of the mold to the actual casting. I’m going to try to recount the process and when I have good internet access I’ll include pictures.

First a wax mold is made using bees’ wax collected from bee keepers in the north of the country. Some molds are already made with cement and wood to help give the wax basic form or Ashanti symbols. These casters were working on a frogs and bottle openers with faces on them.

Next, a milky clay made with charcoal powder is used to cover the wax. It’s left in the sun to dry and then shortly after covered with another layer of the same type of clay. When these molds are dry, they put layer of thick mud clay mixed with palm tree fiber in them, leaving strings of wax that connect to the outside.

After the molds are dried, they are held over the fire. The wax melts out; following the paths made by the wax strings, and shortly after the brass is poured into the mold.

After the cast has cooled, they start chipping away at the mud and the charcoal clay until you arrive at the final product, which in our case was a porcupine, apparently the symbol of the Ashanti Kingdom.

This process can take over days and the product can vary from small things such as intricate brass beads (the mold made with wax strings wrapped around cow poop) to big things such as candle holders, masks, and statues. It was a once in a life time experience! As soon as possible I’ll add lots of pictures.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Where are we? Ghana Part 1. . .

April 1st Angelina and I began our trek across West Africa to see what we had been missing over the past year and a half. We had bought our visa to Togo and Ghana in advance, so we waited about an hour for a bush taxi and we were off. Travel was easy enough. The border crossings were strange. It seemed like anyone could just walk across, but not wanting any trouble we followed the protocol. The first taxi was only to the border between Togo and Benin. We didn’t see much of Togo for the 25,000 (roughly $50) we had to spend to get there. The destination was Ghana. We crossed the Ghana border, filled out the forms, and moved on to finding a bus.

It was quite the mess – Togo and Benin both use the West African Franc (CFA), but as soon as we got to the Togo and Ghana border, we were harangued by money changers who wanted to give us pretty rotten conversion rates to the Ghanaian cedi. In addition we were accosted by a variety of taxi and tro-tro (mini bus) drivers and were so confused that a police man came up to us and helped us (in English!) to a bus, which was not our planned method of transportation, but it seemed to work out.

Obviously, the first noticeable difference was the English. We went into the customs office and the two ladies were behind computers and chatting in English about how to speak French. “Where are you going is ‘tu vas ou,’” she informed the other. The second noticeable difference was that there were computers and they were actually entering data that we had given them into them, along with taking our photos. Neither Benin nor Togo seemed to care much about the forms they forced us to fill out.

The four hour drive to Accra was long and tiresome. As we approached the city, our eyes widened. We started traveling on a four lane interstate. Minutes later we started going under overpasses and seeing big modern looking buildings. Everyone was driving cars, lots of official looking taxis, big cars, and little cars. We passed the Mall on our left and headed into the center of what looked like a modern American city.

“Where are we?” we thought, only a few hundred miles from Benin. How could development exist like this so close to where we live? Malls? Movie Theatres? Over-passes? Garbage cans? We found ourselves taking pictures with said objects – Angelina with a Garbage can, John Mark eating sushi. Pictures that will probably make you readers think we’re crazy.

We checked into our hostel, Pink Hostel, which was nice enough – Single beds, private room and bathroom, and AC. We cleaned up after a long day of travel and went out to what some call the nicest restaurant in Ghana, Monsoon. We ate sushi, noodles, Japanese grilled meat, drank frozen daiquiris and almost fell asleep at our table.

The next morning we headed to the Mall. Because it was Good Friday many stores were closed, but hundred of people were there – walking, eating, and browsing the stores that were open. There was a huge bookstore with a lot of American books and a lot of restaurants and fast-food joints. It was weird to see these really modern Africans. There were little children speaking English and families sitting together. One father would pull out his digital camera and take pictures of his kids while the mom would go order the pizza and diet Cokes. It was surreal. There was an apple store with an internet cafĂ© and people were readily using the computers.

In the afternoon we went to see Clash of the Titans in a real modern movie theater and in the evening we ate dinner at Champs, an American-style sports pub. We ate nachos and burritos and ran into some Benin US embassy staff we met recently. We had a few rounds of beer and in the end they treated us, which was quite the gift since we’re on a shoestring budget.

Now on to the second part of our journey in Kumasi. Right now I’m in the Kumasi Peace Corps Workstation. I have a feeling now we’re going to see the real Ghana that exists outside of Accra. Even still, everything is very clean and seems so much more developed. Many Beninese say that the French were bad colonialists and the English were better at it, which is why countries like Nigeria and Ghana ended up so much richer. I think their resources are just better, but I haven’t done much research.

Anyway, that finishes part 1. More to come.