Some reflections on year one as a PCV in Ghana…
This shit is hard- Metaphorically, of course. I have yet to join the club, but I’m sure my time will come. All PCVs, past and present, will understand.
Being a PCV has been the most challenging, but also by far the most rewarding, opportunity of my life. I’ve grown more as a person than I ever imagined possible, and I’ve come to love more than I ever thought my heart could bare.
When I first came to Ghana, I endured 10 weeks of Pre-Service Training before swearing in to officially join the Peace Corps family on August 10, 2017. The next three months were supposed to be site integration, meaning don’t leave your site. But, my body had other plans and I spend almost one month in Accra trying to decipher the masses in my breasts. I was then flown to Morocco for follow up breast MRI. After the MRI, they decided to do biopsies and I was brought back to Ghana. My six month follow up visit was March 1, 2018. So far, everything looks like it is supposed to. Reflecting back on this part of my life is difficult. There’s not much of it I want to remember. I can say for sure that I never valued my mom near enough until I had my second, of three, breast ultrasounds and the doctor seemed concerned. My mom is and was my rock. My PCMO was not very helpful in the process. He suggested that I just have all 6 masses removed and move on. In my life, I have felt violated on many occasions, but this was by far the worst. At 21 years old, my only doctor was suggesting that I have 6 tumors removed from my breast and move on with no definitive follow up. I fought and fought to be medically evacuated to a country with a certified breast MRI machine, as all three radiologists suggested. I prayed that I would be allowed to go home to the US, but sadly, Peace Corps made it clear that was not an option. There’s nothing I wouldn’t have given to have my mom, or even a friend, by my side the day of my MRI and biopsies. In Morocco, both of my doctors spoke French, with VERY little English. I was in a room full of strangers, completely exposed on a cold hospital bed, with random sensations of pressure as the biopsies were taken. As tears streamed down my face, I tried so hard to be still as they instructed. After about an hour of digging around, which felt like 1,000,000, I was bandaged up and sent back to the hotel Peace Corps provided. In this hotel, I was alone. I tried to keep my mind busy, and I managed to earn 4 certificates online from Tulane in Infection Control in Disasters.
Upon returning to Ghana, I struggled with how to explain to my community I had spent less than a month in before vanishing for an entire month, what had happened. I was anxious, nervous, scared. In our communities, we already receive a startling amount of attention, and I didn’t feel I was up to it just after coming back. I attempted to talk to a Peace Corps counselor which was a disaster. The counselor told me that I didn’t want to be a Peace Corps Volunteer or be back at my site, and that she thought I should be sent home for mental health and I probably wouldn’t be allowed to come back. I fought back, hard, and never gave up. My 22nd birthday came and went. I honestly couldn’t even tell you what I did or who I was with. I managed to get back into the swing of things at site. I started teaching and making friends in my new community. I got to work making my house a home buying household items, and adding shelves everywhere because I insisted that I would not live out of suitcases for two years.
I applied to attend the STOMP Malaria Bootcamp hosted by Peace Corps in Theis, Senegal and I was lucky enough to be selected. December 4-17, 2017, I was in Senegal learning all about STOMP and how to bring this program back to Ghana. I felt like an outsider throughout the program, which is much different than normal. I was far more nerdy than the others, which is also normal. But by the end, I realized that was okay (more on this to come).
On the 18th, my momma landed in Accra and started her three week adventure in Ghana. After landing, I immediately shoved her on a bus, with a driver insistent on honking, for 6 hours to my house. The next few days my mom got to meet a few of my students as they wrapped up the school term, packing to head home. We explored Kumasi and all of its traditional and cultural wonders. We also visited Lake Bosumtwe, 20 minutes from my house, which is the only natural lake in the country. Momma and I ended our adventures in Accra by staying at an AirBnB with some amazing company. While we were in Accra, I ditched my momma and spent the morning on my own little adventure going to visit Peter, a student of mine.
Peter is a student in one of my classes. When I first met him, he was cheating on my class exam. Outraged, I did what I always do and made him come to the front of my class and tear his paper to shreds in front of his peers. I told him to come see me after class. He did. I told him to copy his notes three times and when he was finished I would let him take the exam sitting next to me. After more than four hours of copying notes, he finally finished. I gave him a new copy of the exam and told him to get busy. Watching him, I could see he was struggling. So I began to ask questions. By the end of our conversation, I learned that he could not read or write, which took me by surprise because his verbal English skills are stronger than most in his class. I discussed this with a friend who was insistent that he was pretending to befriend the obruni (white lady). But, I decided not to listen- how unlike me! I offered to do everything I could to help and two days later we started meeting in the mornings from 6:30-7:30 AM. Every day, he came. He came early. Other teachers mocked him and his peers made fun of him for liking the obruni teacher, but still he persisted. After two months, the school term ended and I ended up in Accra with my mom. Through our conversations every morning, I began to learn about his home life. Peter has had anything but an easy life, but he isn’t quick to use it as an excuse and he damn sure doesn’t let it define him. He asked if I would visit his parents the next time I came to Accra. Of course, I did say I would do anything didn’t I? After going way out of my comfort zone, armed with minimal Twi and directionality in Greater Accra, I made my journey. The trip to his place, really represents his life. It’s been rough, but at the end of the road there’s someone there that believes in you. Throughout my first year, he’s been the cornerstone of all my good days. He persists. Every day, now six days a week, we meet from 6:30 to 7:30 AM. In February he completed reading his first chapter book, with assistance. And in April, he took his first spelling test and correctly spelled 27/30 words. Seeing a 90% written on his paper brought the biggest smile to his face. For once, he was proud of himself. Ya know, that’s one moment I wish I could have captured, but for the rest of my life it will be in my memory. He is amazing- actually that’s a sorry understatement. I cannot wait to see where year two and beyond take a young boy who is now my son.
Teaching is going great, I’m getting it figured out bit by bit. I’ve learned I hate small pieces of chalk and you can get callouses on your finger tips. Being a teacher is definitely not in my future, but I’m glad it’s in my present. Of all the things I do of importance in Ghana, I think teaching falls to the bottom.
I have started a girls club, which has about 20 students. It’s small, but good. Most days we talk about reproductive health, mental health, but we also discuss future goals and work on public speaking. I have two young ladies in my biology class that have filled a special place in my heart. They often come to my house to try continental foods, most of which they don’t like, but they love to try. At my school, I seem to be closer to the boys I teach. I was expecting it to be the opposite. My boys, as I affectionately call them, often come to me with questions. I never thought 78 teenage boys and 2 rebellious teen girls would come to take my whole heart. I may teach them science, but they teach me the truths of the world. Let me tell you, they’re amazing kiddos.
In the beginning, I felt very alone at my site. I’m over four hours from my closest Peace Corps Volunteer neighbor. But over time, I’ve come to enjoy it. Being far from other volunteers has not just be great for my bank account, but also for my own personal growth. Not having anywhere to run away to has forced me to really become self-reliant. I’ve seen more than I care to share, but I’ve learned to deal with it. I’ve killed and been bitten by more insects than I can count. Being far away from other volunteers is also a blessing because it keeps me positive. Other volunteers seem to be very negative about their sites, which for some reason also makes me feel negatively about mine- which isn’t the case. I love my site. My kids are great, I have some incredible colleagues, and my house is wonderful. Being a “site rat” as we’re often called is pretty awesome actually. I’ve become close with colleagues from my school, which is a blessing. I’ve managed to get a lot accomplished, and share many laughs with great people along the way.
In the last month, I’ve been a busy bee. A colleague and I reclaimed the school library, beginning a massive facelift and reorganization effort. I’m proud to say it now looks incredible. More than 10 students come and check out library books each day. I also worked closely with two other science teachers to submit a grant application that will hopefully bring our school a science laboratory. We spent days gathering estimates from various stores, compiling lists of practicals to be completed for each science class, and dropping sweat from everywhere. For World Malaria Month, I completed more than 140 surveys on malaria, three malaria talks to my various groups of students, a giant malaria mural, and six Grassroots Soccer Malaria Skillz programs, among some other activities.
I’ve learned so much about myself this past year. I don’t even slightly resemble the person I was when I arrived here. I’ve become confident, truly confident, not the kind of confident you fake. I’ve become comfortable with myself- I love to talk, I love to love, and I love to see the best in people. I’m much more positive, and I like me this way. Life is far from perfect, but at the same time it’s everything I ever dreamed it would be and more. In Ghana, I’m often told not to trust others, but what’s the fun in that. Life is for living, and living every day to its fullest. How can I do that if I’m always scared? Everyone I’ve come to trust in Ghana, has turned out to be amazing. Maybe that’s something about life, huh? Maybe everyone just needs someone to have a little faith in them. My students have faith in me, and I have so much faith in them. Life is about opening up, being vulnerable, and truly being you- not the you you think the world wants to see. Piss people off, speak up, speak out, be bold- but do it with an open heart. You never know when you’ll meet someone that will completely turn your life upside down. Don’t ever shout so loud, you miss the small voices that really need to be heard. Trust yourself, always. And love. Love now. Love always. Love much. Love you.
So as year one winds down, I want to thank everyone who has been keeping up with my adventures. Turns out, I suck at writing a blog. I’m thankful for Ghana. I’m thankful for family, both here and abroad. I’m thankful, most of all, for my students that really keep me going day in and day out. I’m one lucky teacher. I can truly say, I’ve never actually wanted to go “home”. This is home. Ghana is home. ❤️
“Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” -JFK