We found out where our sites were at the Contact Persons’ Workshop. Each approved site sent a Contact Person to be the emergency contact for PC while we were away (as this was our first time leaving the nest), make sure there was at least one person who knew and understood PC goals, the purpose of the volunteer and be our chaperone to and at site.
CONTACT PERSONS’ WORKSHOP
The workshop does deserve some mention. It was a four/five day event in which we learned where we would be placed, CPs and PCTs underwent cross-cultural sessions, covered health topics and got to know each other a little better. Personally, it was a stressful time because it was the first time working alongside Ghanaians (and working with people from different cultures for the first time is always intense) and aside from sessions I was observing the contact persons present, especially my own. I will not sugarcoat anything because it would be a disservice to any future PCVs to Ghana or otherwise to only write about the good things that happen. What I noticed was the late arrival and early departure of people, stigma and general lack of knowledge on HIV/AIDS, use of words that hinted at huge gender inequalities and zero participation by some in group activities. But most of these things are the reason why PC exists and aim to change or improve. In the moment, I did not recognize this.
The issues I noticed about my contact person worried me as my site was set up for me to live in his compound, with him and his family. Upon arrival at site, all these worries were immediately washed away as it became clear how respected and involved he is in his community. Only then did I realize it was the setting of being surrounded by strangers, attending workshops in a non-native language and possibly the nerves of picking up a foreigner who you have been tasked to take care of, that made him seem quiet and uninterested. I feel immense guilt at having jumped to conclusions during the workshop and only looking back now can I see that we were all on edge, whether we realized it or not. OH and especially in the north, it is a cultural thing to not look directly at the person talking to you and in fact bow your head in respect. So yea, a lot of the times, I thought my contact person was a sleep.
For security reasons I cannot publicly state the name of my community. The most specific I have been and will be is West Mamprusi District, Northern Region. My community, I shall name after Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s mythical town in A Hundred Years of Solitude, Macondo.
We got to visit our sites for about four days in late November. I could immediately tell a lot had been done and sacrificed to have me there. I knew I had taken someone’s room in my CP, Rauf’s house, an outhouse/latrine had been especially built for me, a community group had donated money to take care of me during my visit and families gifted me fowl, rice and sweet potato to eat. Rauf’s wife, Amina, is a fantastic cook – her groundnut soup is superb!
We had arrived in the late afternoon and I was left to freshen up and relax my first night. The next day, we went around meeting and greeting people. I quickly became an expert in Mampruli greetings as I am pretty sure I sounded like a broken record. We then went to greet the Chief. Ghana practices a traditional, complex and important chieftancy system in which every community has one and the system is officially recognized in the country’s constitution. Chiefs have many responsibilities, including settling local disputes, essentially acting as a magistrates. Definitely a topic interesting enough for a blog entry of its own, so I shall leave it at this for now. My chief met with myself, Rauf and the village elders. It was a brief meeting in which we discussed community needs and my purpose. The Chief is unfortunately not well and had to remain indoors, unable to attend my welcoming ceremony.
We sat outside the chief’s house, beneath two large mango trees. More and more people started to arrive and I began to feel quite shy – I was the center of attention and this was all for me. I heard drums and it got louder and louder. Behind a crowd of people, I snuck a apeak at the line of drummers and dancers meandering their way to me. I remained seated on the one plastic chair (a symbol of honor and respect because it is more expensive than wooden chairs) as everyone else shared the long wooden benches or stood.
As the drums entered the shade of the trees, tens, if not hundreds, of bats started shreiking and flying from branch to brach. In their…frustration, they started to poop. I, was apparently, their only target. One *splat* on my lap, I moved. Two *splat* on in my hair, I moved. Water and some cloth appeared out of thin air and someone cleaned it off me. In Italy, to be pooped on by a bird is good luck, so to make myself feel better, I will believe it is the same with bats in Ghana.
I got a traditional northern dance all for me. I was grinning from ear to ear thinking ‘this is so cool!’ All the men wore the colorful smocks made of kente cloth, women wore pattern on pattern bright cloths. The dancers included teeneagers, the youth leader, the Chief’s wife and other distinguished looking women. Their high-pitched yells were in perfect synchrony with the drums and metal clanks coming from what I can only describe as tamborines for the legs. The music decreased in volume and the Chief’s wife presented a locally made top to me. She made to put it on me and placed the head hole over my head four times, yelling each time and on the fifth, fitted my head through and helped with my arms. The crowd cheered and I am cracked up. The music stopped and Rauf translated for me that they were going to give me a local name. I do not actually know how they arrived at this name but nonetheless I was ecstatic. It is Mandiaya, pronounced Mahn-di-a-yah (soft h’s), meaning that I have been accepted and I accept them in turn. I love it and I asked that they call me this and never silimiŋa *link to previous post*. Funnily enough, fast foward to the start of service and about a week into it, I get the feeling that ‘Mandiaya’ has simply replaced silimiŋa. Luckily that initial sentiment has now faded and Mandiaya is how I am known.
Back to the welcoming ceremony, I got to do a little introduction of myself in my very awful Mampruli. I hoped some were surprised I could do more than just greet. I am glad Rauf took pictures of the whole event. We continued to walk around and greet more community members before heading into the market town.
We hopped on bicycles and made our way to the venue for a meeting with rice farmers, which lasted about three hours. Lesson learned on my first day: meetings and gatherings in Ghana never start on time. I also got to meet my supervisor, who lives in a different village and he too knows everyone and is well respected. He is foreign educated, holding a Masters from a British university and we talked of our love of England and commiserated over our observances and experiences of our developing home countries. Overall, an awesome first day at site and I was loving Macondo.
Aside from making the rounds to meet Macondo’s assembly man, Ministry of Food and Agriculture (MoFA) agents, police commander and checking out my nearest hospital, my main highlight was going to farm with Rauf and some children (it was the weekend) and harvesting sweet potato. He had struck a deal with a lady who was going to sell them in Tamale and she wanted ten sacks. We had the day to do it and it took as long. I did have to convince Rauf that I wanted to come and that I wanted to remain the whole day, despite him saying I should go home several times during the hottest hours. We brought the radio and I got a soundbite into local politics (local elections were the next day), I took a nap under some tall grass while waiting for more sacks to be brought and learned that Ghanaians snack on raw sweet potatoes. I was happy to be outdoors – I knew my leg muscles were going to ache the next day from all the forward folds and squating. At sunset I went home the way I came – on a bicyle and brought back a small bag of sweet potatoes, the radio, some bread and dishes from lunch. As I got on the main road I could not help but cycle as slowly as possible, savoring the awesome moment of realizing that I was in Africa, ambling home, admiring the sunset while listening to an unknown-to-me reggae song.
Before I knew it, site visit was over and I made my way back to Tamale to begin two weeks of technical training before swearing in as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I could not wait to get back to Macondo.