Monday, July 17, 2006

The Gritty Realities, full of unromance and blah.

After a long discussion last night with Bryn about ‘romantic’ messaging – that is, writing wonderful stories on dancing in the rain and seeing elephants (the latter, I haven’t done; I’m pretty far away from Mole Park and won’t be seeing it at least until July), and painting an inaccurate picture about life overseas for those reading our blogs I’ve decided to make an attempt at the “nitty gritty” of life here. But the thing is, I’m not sure who’s life I’m going to attempt to discuss.
In terms of an average northern Ghanaian ‘subsistence’ farmer – I’ll do that later after I’ve spent a week in a village (around the first week of July). I guess what we came up with though is that in no way should people reading this get the impression that we’re on vacation – while we’re not all living in the villages, or even in small towns, its not white-sheet hotels and having laundry done for us.

1) I work. Because I’m committed to achieving my objectives, I spend hours after regular working hours, and pretty much every evening devoted to figuring out how best to make change in my District Office. Its stressful at times, and definitely harder work than I’ve done all year at school. So pretty much I would compare this to a co-op term more than a ‘trip’.
2) I do my own laundry. I’m sure this sounds ridiculous but right now – yes, this instant – go look at your full laundry basket. Now imagine each one of those things, especially pants and shirts, is dirty like a Tide commercial, with ground in dust, and chicken shit, and whatever you might imagine. Now imagine taking a bar of blue soap, mostly lye, and scrubbing the holy bananas out of each of those things, then rinsing them twice, then wringing them, then hanging them to dry.
3) I’m isolated from westerners and ‘western’ things. They have things like juice (real juice – with real fruit!), and cheese, and internet, and books; I’m sure they do in Tamale. In Salaga? Nope. When I’m bored, I read Megan’s “Agriculture in Ghana – Junior Secondary 2” textbook, or draw crayon pictures of my family and friends, attempting to do it “cubist” style for added oomph. Usually, I’m rarely bored..
4) There is no running water. My sister Megan, my sisters Krofiye and Sadia, and their friend Sister Helena usually draw the water in large metal basins from the bore pump (about a kilometre away) and carry them on their heads back to the house. We fill a huge oil drum, and a black retaining tank with water. When the water is “fresh”, or it has just rained, its clean. When its ‘old’ (ie, reaching the bottom of the drum), the frog eggs, random worms, small insects, that have all had 4 days to grow are all swimming around in it. Awesome. You will be amazed at how you have to re-structure your life when there is no running water. Also we drink this water. Now, all EWB volunteers have “pristine” chlorine drops with them that we’re supposed to treat our water with, but imagine drinking poolwater daily…yum! I haven’t really got the runs really bad since I arrived, and I’ve never “pristined” my water. But because the water comes from bore-pump, and a ground source, its far safer than surface water.
5) Because of the abovementioned constraint, the toilets are not attached to the house. We have a “bath” room, for bathing, which is just a tiled room with a small drain. You bathe out of a bucket. Supposedly everyone here pees in the “bath” room; I can’t bring myself to do that because .. I don’t know. But I don’t. So anyway, the latrines, half way to the bore pump, are built to “development gold standards”. They have doors, they have windows, they have a roof, and they are painted a standard Ghanaian yellow and green. Because there is no water in the house, likewise, there is no electricity in the latrines. They have been wired for it (I see switches, but they don’t turn on and off..), but yeah – no go. So at sunset (around 6 in the evening) and afterwards, its pitch black. The actual apparatus of latrine is a hole in the cement. I guess it goes to a retaining/decomposition area beneath. Of course, like most things, it has mud termite and wasp nests growing out of the walls, its infested with bats, and if you drop your flashlight, you’re screwed. Compared to the bush, this is marvellous set up, but yeah, compared to a bathroom back home? Try waking up at 2 in the morning, righteously nauseous, scrambling to find glasses, flashlight, (oh wait – the power is cut! Awesome!), can’t find the flashlight, running to the latrine, to throw up into a hole, afraid your glasses are going to fall in. That is not a vacation.
6) Its hot. Obviously its hot, and I won’t expand too much on this, because I’ve spend summers since childhood in Madras, India – which is also equally hot. However, I can’t wear any tanktops. Or any shorts. Or any skirts shorter than mid-calf. Salaga and surrounding areas are pretty conservative Muslim towns, and out of respect for their traditions, and to ease my integration and acceptance, I have to dress appropriately.
7) Throw away every lesson on sanitation, surface growing bacteria and food microbiology you’ve ever learned; once you’ve visited a rural Ghanaian meat stall.. So, pretty much the entire cow (sans head, hooves, tail) is hacked up on a wooden table COVERED at all times, in flies. A dirty machete is used to chop up the meat, with all of the parts touching each other (ie intestinal contents touching ribs touching, I dunno, other cow parts). Then its put in a polythene black bag, tied up, and you take it home (the parts you want). There, it sits outside for a few more hours until you cook it. Luckily they cook things until they’re hard enough to be dangerous weapons; I guess that kills the bacteria. Everything, and anything, will be covered in insects if you don’t cover it. That is a sub-tropical rule. Of course, most food is not covered – this practice is slow to take hold.
8) And don’t ever try to ask “what am I eating?”, especially if you are a girl who has never even had a big mac, let alone chicken mcnuggets in her life. You just chew. And chew some more, and eventually swallow. At least the meat is free range! Some of EWB’s overseas volunteers have managed to remain vegetarian, but in this house, its really not an option. Most children here suffer kwashiorkor or protein deficiency to some degree – because if you don’t eat the meat, the food you are eating is ground up maize, tomato, and maggi cube. There are no beans, there are eggs only when the guinea fowl lays them. There are no vegetables except okra, tomato and onion. Oh and cassava, which is pretty much 100% starch…
9) There are no cars. If you want to go somewhere, either you find someone with a motorbike (rare), you walk there, or you ride a bicycle there. Yesterday, when I had to take myself, and my festering leg, to the hospital – I biked there. I’m sure if I mentioned it to my family, they would have Megan bike there, with me sitting on the back of the bicycle – but yeah.
10) How many doctors would you guess the average hospital had? I bet the doctors reading this would have a pretty close answer, but I’m saying..at least 20? At least? For a mini-micro hospital? Ours has….2. And they are the only doctors in town, so if you have a cold, or if you have malaria, or if you are having a heart attack (heaven forbid…), you will go, and wait in the same hospital. To see one of the two doctors. It really puts in perspective the luxury of health care we all possess – and really makes you delve into the sketchy realm of ‘self-diagnosis’. Of course, all sorts of things that you never thought possible are available in a pharmacy/dispensary here. If I went, and requested heart medication, or some viagra analog, or pretty much whatever – I can get it, without a prescription! The medication is all cheaper as it comes from mass-scale no-name pharmaceutical manufacturers in India. When I was buying antibiotics yesterday, the shop owner pointed out that I look “just like the girl in the Cold-tab package!”. I sure do.

In short, I reiterate this thought again for added emphasis – I am not on a vacation. Sure, its life changing, and there is so much beauty and interesting things to learn and grow and share and love – yes, in that manner of thinking it is phenomenal. But living here is one of the more difficult things I’ve had to do in my life. Its not the adjustment, it’s the mindset with which you approach things – all the “challenges” above are simply ‘physical’ challenges – they have nothing really to do with society or people interactions. But if you make up your mind to complain, to ‘suffer’ – go home. The latrines, the puking, the days when you want to cry and miss your teddy, and would do almost anything for a vegetable or five; even on those days, the hardest part is to put it back into perspective. I don’t think I’ve really even once broken down. Everything, everyday is just a ‘learning experience’, a point from which to grow. We are trying as much as possible to live close to how people here live, to really understand their lives and problems so we can begin to work with them and find a solution.
EWB is phenomenal for that – every single person overseas right now has that same ‘learning’ mindset towards their experiences, and every one of us is striving to be humble in our approach and integrate as much as we can into the local cultures. I don’t find that emphasis on humility and integration in other organizations, and that’s tragic – I believe its tantamount to co-operation and making any changes in a society/structure. Nobody will want to give your ideas any weight or want to co-operate with you when you insist on maintaining an “us” and “them” structure! I have learned more in these past few weeks about myself, about interacting with people, about society, culture, and “anthropology” than I have ever picked up in my lifetime; and I’m so glad I’m here, and I’m so glad I’m here with EWB. No regrets!

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