Six months in Ghana

7.30.2018                                                                                                        Ashanti Region, Ghana

In January, I said goodbye to all of my friends and family. I took a leap into the unknown when I boarded a plane to Ghana with not a lot of information, but a whole lot of questions. Now here I am six months later, pre-service training and official site integration completed, ready and feeling prepared to get to work on some bigger projects. I am having a hard time believing it has already been six months. While each day of training seemed to drag by, the days and weeks since are flying by in a flash. I love to be on the move, and I think I will have more of that starting next month, but site integration has been valuable in learning how to be still and stay in one place.

The highlight of this month was being reunited with my training group to mark the official end of our site integration period with a week long training in Kumasi. Not only was it so great to see everyone after being away for so long, but also the food was amazing, the hotel had a great pool, and the rooms had hot showers. The first day was awesome! They dedicated a whole morning to letting us each give a short presentation about our sites. It is amazing to see the many similarities and differences among sites and regions all within one country. It is also reassuring to hear people going through some of the same challenges and celebrating their successes at the same time. I loved hearing what everyone has been doing and glad this was how we spent the first day. I got a lot of great ideas in the process.

Now a lot of this training was a review from our pre-service training, but we had a few sessions that I think will be essential to a successful service. One was about grants and how to apply for them. There are many avenues available for raising money for projects, some donation based and other from funds set aside by the U.S. government. Applying to grants will be a major priority for this upcoming month. We also learned about project design and implementation, which was the focus of my MPH, so very exciting to see this incorporated into Peace Corps training. Finally, we met this great group called KITA, which based in Kumasi. They basically help with a variety of agriculture-related, income-generating projects including bee keeping, growing moringa, rabbit rearing, and more. They also taught us how to make liquid soap, which is an activity we are planning with the Girls’ clubs next term. I am super excited about growing mushrooms, and hope to bring them out to do a training on how to grow them. When I suggested this to the community at the meeting last month, they were super excited about this idea.

Some other fun times from the month included celebrating the Fourth of July with a couple of other volunteers from my area, teaching the kids about some basic nutrition, helping build a tire playground at another volunteer’s site, and attending the last day of school of the term. For the Fourth of July, we had bean burgers, guacamole, tortillas, a frozen watermelon drink, and apple pie for dessert. It was the best homemade meal I’ve had in awhile. My health lesson this month was on nutrition. I went to the primary school and did a lesson with about 80 students, which I will probably never do again with such a large group, but was a lot of fun nevertheless. We talked about Go (carbohydrates and fats), Grow (proteins), and Glow (vitamins and minerals) foods. We sorted locally available foods into the different groups and talked about how to have a balanced diet.

One day this month I took a little day trip to another part of the Ashanti region. A volunteer from the previous health group was working on a tire playground for her primary students. A few other volunteers and I put together a tire dome and several see saws. The kids did a lot of the digging and burying the tires in the ground, and we bolted them all together with the help of their teachers. It was fun to see it all come together, and the kids couldn’t wait to start climbing all over the dome before it was even finished. The last day of school for the students was this past Thursday, and now they will have about six weeks off from school. There was a lot of excitement as the kids all received their final grades and scores from the exams, and some of the parents came out to see how their students have done this year. One of the teachers did mention a concern over how kids can regress during the breaks because they aren’t studying. I know we also have this problem in the United States. I will have to explore the possibility of setting up a Kids’ club during breaks to review and practice reading. I’d also like to maybe help with some tutoring next term.

Now for some personal updates: I’m still having cooking lessons (I’ve posted the recipes if anyone is interested) and working on improving my Twi. This month I started training for the 10K, and I’m trying my hardest to stay motivated and follow the schedule. I’m definitely remembering why I hate running so much, but Gyata does make it better. We go running in the early morning or evening right before the sun sets when there are less cars on the road. She runs either in front or behind me the whole time and keeps me going. I’ve also started a gratitude journal. My other attempts to journal so far have fallen to the wayside per the norm, but I am hoping a couple of sentences a night will remind me of all of the great things and people I have in my life. I just finished reading book number 20 (my goal is 100 before the end of service), so if anyone has some suggestions, please send them my way. My goal for myself this month is to learn some basic sign language. I’ve got the alphabet and numbers 1-20 down, but would love to be able to hold a conversation with the students in a nearby school for the deaf. I’ll keep you updated on my progress. Next month, I am attending a conference on malaria and a training about nutrition, so I am looking forward to learning some new things to share.

To Build a Home

6.30.2018                                                                                                        Ashanti Region, Ghana

It is hard to believe it is the end of June. Next week marks the end of official site integration and everyone from my training group will meet in Kumasi, the regional capital, for Reconnect IST. This week long training will be a chance to debrief about our experiences and receive additional information about things like applying for grants. When I think back over this past month, I am amazed by how much has happened and how fast time has gone by. Every week I feel myself becoming more comfortable and more connected to this place. It’s starting to feel like home.

My most exciting update is that I have become the parent to a three month old puppy named Gyata and a kitten (unknown age) named Max. The two of them together are a handful, but they add an enormous amount of love and excitement to my life. The only downside is they love to fight. I am constantly having to separate them in different rooms, and I can never leave them home alone together. The biggest instigator is actually the cat, who likes to jump on the dog’s back and face while she is sleeping, even though she is more than twice his size. Both of them love to snuggle with me, especially the cat who climbs and sits on my shoulders while I work on the computer. I take the dog on one, sometimes two walks a day, and it gives me a chance to greet my community members on their way to farm. The kids are fascinated by the dog, and now when ever I go out, they ask me where she is. Nobody has mentioned it, but I imagine they find it quite strange to see me walking the dog on a leash. The cat desperately wants to be an outdoor cat, but since he hasn’t gotten his vaccinations yet I have been keeping him inside. He is getting bolder with his attempts to escape though. To get away from the dog, he sleeps in my bicycle basket or on the top of my mosquito net like it is his personal hammock. The two of them have such big personalities, and they alternate between driving me crazy and keeping me laughing with their antics. It has been a real crash course in puppy training. If anyone has any puppy tips, please send them my way, especially for biting and potty training. I have lost two toothbrushes, three pairs of flip flops, and the cord to my USB fan to Gyata. Though we have a long way to go with behavior, she is a quick learner and really super sweet when she wants to be.

I have also started weekly cooking classes that I am really excited about me. My Peace Corps Counterpart, Evelyn, offered to teach me how to make local foods, and I am so glad I took her up on it. She comes with me to the market on Tuesday, and shows me where to buy the ingredients. Then on Wednesday, she comes to my house, teaches me how to cook, and then we eat together. So far I have learned how to make Kontomire Stew and Boiled Yams, Groundnut Soup with Rice Balls, and Jollof Rice. Next week, we are making Waakye, which is a dish with rice and beans. I am enjoying getting to know her better, and becoming more knowledgable about such an important part of the culture, food. Knowing that I don’t like to eat meat, we have adapted most of the meals to be vegetarian. Although she says you can’t make soup without meat, so I’ve had to compromise a little. In the past weeks, I have also started Twi lessons with the teacher at the JHS. He is confident that with his help I will be reading, writing, and speaking Twi well in no time. I’d truly like to be able to communicate better with all of the people in my community, so I hope it works out. We are starting at the beginning, but moving quickly. Already I am feeling more confident, and my community seems excited to help me too.

As for my work, I helped with two child welfare clinics this month, helping record vaccinations and the nutrition status of children. Ghana is in the process of switching to the Inactivated Polio Vaccine (IPV) from the Oral Polio Vaccine (OPV), so it interesting for me to see the process and how they educate the mothers about the new vaccine. I visited the Senior High School in my community for the first time, and discovered another potential opportunity to collaborate. It is a small private school with plans to expand this September. I observed a class taught by the headmaster, and I was impressed first by how he was able to teach science labs to his students without any materials and second by how he went well beyond the lesson to instill self-worth and self-confidence into the students. The school is lacking a library, a computer lab, and a science lab, but the teachers and students are committed nevertheless. The teachers I have met here and their commitment to helping their students is amazing. Going to the school and working with the kids is my favorite activity. I have had two sessions with the JHS’s Girls’ Club where we covered how to make reusable menstrual pads and hygiene habits. They are so energetic and receptive to learning. This month I hope to plan a lesson on nutrition before the term ends at the end of July. Finally, I hosted a community meeting to go over the results of the needs assessment I conducted when I first arrived at site. I felt surprisingly comfortable speaking in front of the group, but I think that it helped that I had a translator. We did some priority ranking and determined that building a clinic in the community should be the first priority.

This month, I hope to focus more on my fitness goals. I signed up for a 10K race in Accra that will take place at the end of October. Between now and then I plan to turn the daily puppy walks into runs. We will see how Gyata feels about running. I am hoping it will keep her from eating things along the way. I am also finally getting to my garden since the gate is finished now thanks to the help of some guys in the community. This past week I started digging the holes and berms to guide water through the garden. I need to weed, set up the beds, and then I’ll be ready to plant. I plan to start with some local vegetables like garden egg (eggplant), peppe, and Ayoyo (a leafy green). I also have tomatoes, cucumber, lettuce, carrots, basil, and luffa (like the sponge, apparently it is a plant). I am excited to see how it turns out. I imagine that this next month is going to fly by like the last. Follow me on Instagram for more regular updates.

New Name, New Routine

5.29.2018                                                                                                        Ashanti Region, Ghana

In Ghana I answer to a different name, a local name given to me by my homestay family during training. I am called Adwoa (meaning I am a female born on Monday) Akyaa (a family name). Now, six weeks into site integration, answering to this name feels natural and like I am a part of my community. I walk down the street and am greeted by everyone I pass, asking me how I am and where I am going. When I go to the school, the kids crowd around me shouting my name and trying to get my attention. The community has welcomed me warmly. My community members bring me fruit and vegetables from their farms, and help me fetch my water on a weekly basis from the borehole. The kids come to my house to say hello and play games. The teachers and clinic staff that I have interacted with patiently answer all of my questions and teach me about their culture. I love being able to answer all of their questions about life in the United States as well.

The house that I live in gives me the perfect amount of privacy and space, and as a bonus it is set against an amazing backdrop. Everyday I wake with the sun, and am up out of bed by 6:30am. I bathe, get dressed, and make myself breakfast, usually oats or avocado toast. From there, each day is a new adventure. Some days I find myself at the school, shopping in my market town, helping at child welfare clinics, or doing chores at home. Tuesdays are market days, which is the busiest day when all of the vendors come to town. Their stalls are tight packed together and line the streets, and I can get all of my food for the week and more: clothes, electronics, household items, fabric, etc. They have mostly everything you could possibly need.  Once a week, I try new do laundry which takes about an hour. I wash everything in one bucket, rinse in a second one, and then hang it on the line to dry. I am in the process of starting a garden, and a couple of boys in the community are building me a fence to keep out the goats and chickens. I am looking forward to growing vegetables that I can share with my community in return for everything they do for me. I have lots of free time, and am constantly looking for ways to spend that time productively. Though I do love watching TV shows on my computer and am moving through seasons at an incredible pace, I have also found time to read more (Just finished the book Unbroken, and would definitely recommend!), relax with yoga and coloring books, and experiment with new recipes (Learning to cook is one of the goals I have for myself here). In the evening, it gets dark around 6:00pm and usually I am asleep by 9:00pm. On a normal day, my go to dinner is rice, vegetables, and a hardboiled egg. I am thankful for my rice cooker and fridge, which makes meal prep so much easier.

My first full month in my community was aligned with World Malaria Month, so the first thing I did was conduct a malaria survey assessing knowledge and practices around malaria prevention and treatment, in addition to a general needs assessment. I visited 60 houses with the help of my Peace Corps contact person, Evelyn. She lives close by and has been incredibly helpful by introducing me to people and showing me where to get things in my market town. We spent several days interviewing people, and talking to them about their health concerns and desired health projects. Through this process, I learned so much about my community dynamic. Malaria knowledge is strong, even among the young kids, and most people are well-educated about how to identify and prevent the disease. The actual availability and usage of bed nets is still very low. A bed net distribution is just one of the things that could benefit the community. They have also expressed the need to invest in community infrastructure, including building a clinic to improve access to medical care, mechanizing the boreholes to make them better suited to serve a community of their size, building latrines in people’s homes to promote hygiene and sanitation, and finishing the new school building to address overcrowding issues. I was surprised by the number of chronic diseases in the community, in addition to the expected infectious diseases. The next step is to gather the community together to discuss the results of the survey and identify priorities and the resources and leadership needed for completing these projects.

We finished out the month by hosting a Grassroots Soccer event on malaria and stenciling Malaria symbols at the school in my community. Grassroots Soccer is an adolescent health organization that leverages the power of soccer to educate, inspire, and mobilize at-risk youth in developing countries to overcome their greatest health challenges. I am going to a week long training for the program in July, but this was a sneak peek at how it works and how I can use it in the community. Some other education and health volunteers from nearby came to help, and we played games with the kids and talked about malaria. Even though it was African Union Day and the kids had a holiday from school, we had great turn out. The kids know a lot already, so it was mostly a good way to get to know them and have some fun. I think the favorite game was the one where I was the “mosquito with malaria” and had to tag the kids when they ran by. Once they were tagged, they became a “mosquito” as well and helped tag others. The lesson is how easily malaria can spread in a community when even one person has malaria. The kids also enjoyed another game, which is similar to the parachute game I remember playing in Kindergarten. Basically they use a sheet to toss a ball in the air, and then have to all get underneath before the ball hits the ground. The sheet is the “bed net” that protects them from the ball or “mosquito.” We also spray painted some visual reminders on the walls of another volunteer’s school. Shaped like a mosquito, the symbol says “End Malaria, Fight the Bite.”

I have been enjoying getting to know people and doing these little activities during integration period. This next month I will focus on developing a plan of action and building relationships, that way we can start off strong when integration ends in July. I also hope to solidify a language tutor in the next month, that way I can start to improve my language understanding. I also am adopting a puppy this week, so look out for more about her.

We’re officially PCVs!

5.01.2018                                                                                                        Ashanti Region, Ghana

I have been in Ghana exactly three months as of today; the time has passed quickly and slowly at the same time. I am here with 20 other new, recently sworn-in, health volunteers from all over the United States. We come from very different educational backgrounds. Some of us studied public health and biological sciences, but others have backgrounds in music, religious studies, and international politics. We are fresh from ten weeks of training, and ready to settle into a new community and routine and join the more than 150 volunteers from the agriculture, health, and education sectors that are currently serving in Ghana. Ghana was the first place to receive volunteers more than 60 years ago, and the impact of the work can felt throughout the country today. You can see it not only through the public health and other achievements that have been made, but by speaking with people who have known volunteers and had their lives impacted through those relationships.

What attracted me to Peace Corps is that its development work built on a foundation of mutual respect and friendship. My goals when I came to Peace Corps were to learn about a different culture and way of life and tackle infectious disease problems in the process. I also saw Peace Corps as an opportunity to push myself past what I thought I was capable of and embrace uncertainty. I was hired as a health extension volunteer, which I have learned is as broad as it sounds. Promoting good health is my ultimate goal.  The training I have received has given me tools to educate, foster behavior change, and address barriers around malaria, HIV, maternal and child health, and water, sanitation, and hygiene, the four health focus areas in Ghana. Training covered language and culture, the role of gender, medical and safety, and technical health skills.

My public health background gave me an understanding of the social determinants of health and behavior change framework going into training. My focus at Boston University in Community Assessment and Program Design has given me the mindset of the importance of community input and sustainability throughout the program implementation process. Peace Corps training added tools for evaluating cultural misunderstandings and practical skills that I can bring to the community. Using the DIVE (Describe, Interpret, Verify, Evaluate) method, we were taught to think critically about  cultural differences and find informants to help us understand why things are the way they are, instead of making assumptions. My practical skills now include building soak away pits to reduce the standing water around bath houses, giving lessons on nutrition using Go Grow Glow guidelines, and teaching women to make reusable menstrual pads.

The first three months of service is called “Site Integration”, and it is during this time that we are encouraged to be present in our community and open-minded to learning about the place we will be living the next two years. This early effort gives us a better idea of what public health  problems the community faces and how we fit in. My community is near Agona, about an hour north of Kumasi, the regional capital of the Ashanti region. They are a community of about 1000 people. Most are farmers, whose main livelihood is growing cocoa, the cash crop of Ghana. They have welcomed me openly and appear motivated to improve the health of their community. I am the first Peace Corps volunteer to serve in this community, so they are very inquisitive about who I am and why I am here. As a first volunteer, the relationship building is a particularly important part of my service, something I may have underestimated before I got here. With my public health experience, I feel prepared to fulfill my duties as a health volunteer. However, I expect to be challenged by the the more personal aspect of meeting people, having less privacy, and overcoming language barriers to form friendships.

I have been at my site about a week and a half, and I am excited to start defining my role in the community. I will begin visiting the clinic this week to see how I might support the outreach work they already do. I am also looking forward to school starting next week, so that I can get to know the students and teachers. The first project my community has requested is a health club in the schools. I hope to teach the kids about gardening and nutrition, sexual and reproductive health, and malaria prevention. The community has expressed that teenage pregnancy is an important issue here, and from speaking with the police commander, drug use seems to be a challenge as well. I think youth empowerment will be vital to my work, and in the future I hope to be involved in the leadership camps organized by Peace Corps. I learned from the nurses in the clinic that malaria is also a huge concern in the area. Continued community education about the severity of malaria is essential as bed nets are often not used, despite their availability. I intend to serve as a co-facilitator in addressing these issues. I plan to work in partnership with community members to leave skills and knowledge behind with leaders and role models when I leave at the end of two years.

My public health background has given me a more structured and logical approach to addressing problems to create more successful outcomes. I will use my knowledge about conducting needs assessments to identify community priorities and ensure that my efforts appropriately address these. My education has also helped me identify clear goals, objectives, and measures of success. Based on my time in the community to date, I believe I will have opportunities to both explore my interest in infectious diseases and work on areas that are new to me. While I am excited for what is to come, I believe that this experience will challenge me in ways I cannot even anticipate yet. In addition to navigating new social dynamics, I expect to face unexpected barriers when implementing projects, whether that people with different points of view or challenges accessing resources. These experiences during service will help me grow to be a more adaptable and resourceful person. I came in with very few expectations, and I am pleased to find myself in a place where I can support and help grow the current programs that exist.

Preparing to Move Abroad

1.22.2018                                                                                                            Chesapeake, Virginia

One week from today I report to Peace Corps Staging, a day of registration and orientation in Washington D.C. before I and other Peace Corps Volunteers in my cohort board the flight to Ghana. It’s hard to believe that this experience is finally happening, especially considering there was a period where it looked like everything I had dreamed and worked towards might be for nothing. Getting medically cleared for Peace Corps turned out to be a long and intensive process. However, I am proud to say that after not getting cleared the first time and being told I wouldn’t be going to the Peace Corps, I appealed the decision and won. While this clearance process was not easy, I am thankful to the Peace Corps for their commitment and diligence to ensure their volunteers are fit to serve and able to access appropriate medical care. I believe everything happens for a reason. I can say that going through this process has removed the doubt and fears I had before and made me more certain than ever that this is where I am supposed to be.

Preparing for two years outside the U.S. comes with a long to-do list, which includes both the important logistical things such as finances and shopping, but also the equally important personal experiences like spending time with loved ones and eating all my favorite foods (Honestly, not sure what I will do without Chick-fil-A). Fortunately, Virginia’s inability to handle snow has allowed me to have lots of quality time at home. I’ve got my bags mostly packed (and yay they’re only a little overweight), registered for my absentee ballot, taken care of those dreaded student loan payments, and now I’m all set to go. I am so excited to get out in the world, meet new people, and put my degree to use. I’d like to think I have a good  understanding of what’s in store for me, but honestly I’m just going in with no expectations and a plan to take it day by day.

With love,

Catriona