Friday, January 22, 2016

Ernest Goes to Micronesia

The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.

I last posted to my blog as I was nearing the completion of my 27 month assignment as a math teacher with the U.S. Peace Corps in Ghana, West Africa.  Since returning over two years ago, the time has gone by quickly and I have easily settled back into my home in Virginia Beach and resumed teaching at Saint Leo University.

A few months ago the Peace Corps invited me to join a team going to the Federated States of Micronesia, a country whose land area is made up of 607 small islands in the Western Pacific.  Our assignment is to assist villagers with typhoon damage restoration.  This time for 6 months.  So, on January 28th,  I will board a plane and if on schedule, arrive January 30th on the island of Pohnpei. After a few days of briefings, I will move to the island of Chuuk and begin working with villagers living on the small, outer islands.   

I am grateful for the opportunity to help and that my children are again supportive of "Dad's" adventure.  

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Reflections and Images

The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.

The end of my service in Ghana is now just over 30 days away and I must begin looking at a plan for turning over my site and leaving.  One of the superb leaders I worked for in the Navy never let us start thinking like "short timers."  I can still hear, "We are not short timers, we will keep working until relieved, we will leave the work site orderly, and we will enjoy our success when we get home."   Woe to the person who lost focus or began slacking off  as we neared the end of deployment. 

I still have numerous tasks to do and now with a replacement Volunteer scheduled to come to the school, I am often reminded of his demand.   Without losing focus on the remaining days, these are some reflections and images on my time here:

Physically this has been a life altering experience.   
August 2011 with my Language Teacher
May 2013 less 60 lbs.

The Peace Corps doctor says I have likely improved my health and my Granddaughter said, "you sound like Papa, but you do not look like Papa!"

During an information session on preparations to return home, some Volunteers who had gone through the experience of returning told us that it may be more difficult to adjust to coming home than the adjustment to Ghana.   I will find out, but how difficult can it be to hug my children and slowly enjoy a strawberry smoothie?

Why did I do it?  Reflecting on joining the Peace Corps, I can only say there was not a single reason.  It seems like God's providence allowed a number of circumstances that provided me the opportunity:  good health; supportive family; personal circumstances; need for change; another challenge; a feeling of loneliness; an opportunity to serve.    As a typical human being, I decided to join on my own and then asked God to bless my decision.  Despite that failing, He has been gracious to me.

Did I ever feel like "packing it up" and coming home? Yes, once near the end of the initial 12 weeks of training, living in a Ghanian home, with the intensity of preparation to pass the required oral interview in the local language, and a nightly series of uncomfortable coughing spasms from the dust that interrupted my sleep.   In addition, a sawmill located about 100 meters away began operating during the hours 11 pm to 4 am to avoid paying the electric bill.  They had jumped the meter and so only operated at night.  But I remembered, "Woe to the person who lost focus."

Stay focused.  You will not be a short timer.
This a picture of my land lady who brought me the cough "stuff ?" in the middle of the nights that allowed me to get some rest.  I am sure my coughing plus the sawmill had her entire family awake.  

What were some unexpected things?  It has been more challenging than expected.   I missed my children even more than I had anticipated and decided to go home for a visit at the one year point.   It was an excellent decision.   I also found that I had to readjust the definition of success a couple of times.  Measuring the retained knowledge of mathematics skills by my students was not sufficient, but inspiring them to work hard at their tasks, value education, and discipline themselves was a better objective.  I already feel that twinge of missing them but know I still have the task of staying focused to prepare them for a strong finish for this academic year.   

What do I feel best about?  Certainly not my language skill, my lack of ability to remember all the names of a 120 students or to eat any Ghanian food from a kiosk on the roadside.  It is an event for which I only made my fellow teachers aware.  Operation Smile is a non profit with Headquarters in Norfolk, VA and known to me through my daughter Joni's volunteer work with them while in High School.  They do amazing reconstructive surgery to repair cleft lips and palates and other facial deformities, around the world, for free.   In Ghana, you do not see these children as they are often kept hidden and sometimes believed to have bad spirits.  When I heard Operation Smile was coming to Ghana, I told the teachers of their amazing work and asked that they use our students to get the word out to the community of this opportunity.  Two days later, a young mother came to the school with her very young baby, wrapped so that you could not see the obvious facial deformity.  Using my cell phone a teacher immediately called the contact number and did all the work to set up an appointment and the possibility for corrective surgery.   It all got done, and a month later the mother returned to the school with her son and their beautiful smiles.  Life changing is hardly adequate to describe what had happened.  I cried.

The school girls mowing the school yard with cutlasses. 
Mother and child.

What is next?  Not sure of all the details, but I will work until the new Volunteer arrives, leave my site orderly, and enjoy being back home in the United States.

Have a great Independence Day!    


Saturday, April 27, 2013

It's about building capacity !

The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.

The Peace Corps Ghana is about building the capacity of the people to improve their own lives, not giving away stuff.  I have heard words like that often during my 23 months here.  Most of what I do, hear and see have been supportive of that approach.  Teaching mathematics and computer skills in a small village's Junior High School has on the whole been a satisfying experience in building personal skills.  Like many worthwhile but challenging jobs it will often go out to the extremes:   from sheer joy to being humbled.  

However, family and friends have been faithful to help me in my classroom, with "stuff."   I make sure the students know these are not gifts and are not from me, but from friends who want to see our class succeed. The pencils, erasers, pens, rulers, books and beautiful magazines are used as tools to motivate, encourage, and show the children that some one is interested in their success.  Most of these items are available in Ghana, but I ensure they know who took the time to collect and mail them, how long it took to get here,  and that my friends are interested in their education.
A personal Thank You note

Awarding a pen for using critical thinking skills in my math class has encouraged students to speak up and give it a try.  Note pads and pens for perfect attendance are eagerly anticipated when the new term begins.  Team competition is more intense when a prize is awarded.   The Headmaster presented each student with a new pen at the beginning of the end of term examinations to encourage students to do their best.  A folder with an appropriate level reading book and magazines (National Geo graphics and Smithsonian) were presented to each of the 9th graders who are preparing for a standardized examination to determine their qualification for Senior High School.  The exam is completely in English and the book and magazines are to encourage them to begin reading and improve their language skills. 

A chance to improve English skills
New blue pens on test day under the mango tree.

Thanks for helping me with some stuff.  You are helping to make a difference, the students are benefiting and it's all about building capacity. 

Monday, March 25, 2013

Shopping Day at the Market.

The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.
Got Onions !
One of the shoe sections of the Bend Down Boutique

I live a 15 minute taxi ride (50 cents) from the largest outdoor produce market in Ghana.  This is the center of the rich and productive farm land of the Brong Ahafo Region.   I went shopping last Friday, the day after the peak market day for buyers from Burkina Faso to the North, Cote D' Ivoire to the West, Togo to the East and from all over Ghana.  You can buy a single onion or a truck load.  Today I bought some onions (bag, half the size of a volley ball, 25 cents) and dried black beans (2 cups, 50 cents) for my dinner of black beans and rice.  

Besides produce, the market offers many other items for the shopper.  The "Bend Down Boutique"  can dress you from head to toes in a variety of styles.   Very popular is the wide selection of sports wear, mostly team gear from European football (soccer), but also U.S. hockey, basketball, base ball and some American football shirts.  

 Most items are sold from mats on the ground or from portable kiosks. In addition to the many vegetables and fruits; kitchen ware, woven baskets, dried fish from Lake Volta and the Atlantic, wooden furniture,  a barrel full of assorted remote controls, cell phones, hard ware, beauty aids, toilet articles,  farm tools, palm oil, cloth of all colors and types,  a section of traditional religion stuff (bones, beads, feathers, etc) and much, much more.   This day I even had one offer of marriage.   All prices are negotiable and bargaining is expected .

Tool Man

One of the few shops where all items are marked with the price is this place that sells plywood, nails, screws, glue and a few tools.  During my stay in Ghana, I have purchased many items here.  "Tool man" has taken a real interest in my project to repair school furniture and has become a friend that I stop to visit when I go to the market, even when I don't need anything.   I love walking around a hardware store, but his shop takes no more than 10 seconds.  Still can not help picking up a hammer to feel the weight or looking at his assortment of nails.   His wife took our  picture, the first time she had ever held a camera. She was thrilled.

The twenty two months here has not diminished or dulled the many sensations of walking into this intriguing place of business.  


Friday, March 8, 2013

Not to be Forgotten !

The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.

Twenty one of the twenty seven months of my Peace Corps service in Ghana, West Africa have been completed and some thoughts of returning home are beginning to slip into my day.  I do not want to get too far out front,  as plenty of work remains;  half of my second academic year at the Junior High School, marking and posting final grades and turning over my site to a replacement Volunteer or shutting it down.   Many memories of these special times will go back with me, but some of them will likely fade as time goes by. Here are a few of the memories I would not want to forget:     

I will not forget the day of reporting to Peace Corps, Washington D.C. and the anxiety of waiting with 71 other Trainees, most a third of my age, for our 10 hours, non stop flight to Accra, Ghana.    
I will not forget the scope (this is how you will take your bucket bath) and intensity (you will be tested on your language skills) of the 12 weeks of training and the relief of being sworn in as a Peace Corps Volunteer by the US Ambassador to Ghana.   

Lunch at the Castle with fellow Volunteers

I will not forget our  piece of history by becoming Volunteers on the 50th Anniversary of the Peace Corps' very first deployment of Volunteers arriving at its first county site,  Ghana.   To commemorate the event we enjoyed an invitation to have lunch with the President of Ghana, His Excellency John Atta Mills at the Presidential Office and Residence, The Castle.  

I will not forget the place where I taught Mathematics and computer skills  for two yeas.

The Junior High School Building

I will not forget my students; curious, chaotic, energetic, loud, and full of promise for the future.
A short US History lesson, July 4th.

My host family coming home from Church

  I will not forget the caretaker of the home where I lived and the children she took care of so generously.  
In the teachers' office and lounge

I will not forget my fellow teachers and the excellent leadership of the school's Headmaster.  

The real Champions

Visiting the Village Chief on Boxing Day

Schools over, let's go home

I will not forget the school's girls soccer Team.  Although they lost in the tournament, they played with more determination and passion for the game than any of the other teams.   They are winners!

I will not forget the children

I will not forget the love and support from my three children which allows me the opportunity to have this unique experience.  

Friday, February 1, 2013


The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.

The Form 2 (8th grade) Science Class

The school year is now 4 of its 16 weeks into the second term.  In mid- December the season changed from hot to hot and dry with the annual Harmattan winds blowing from the Northeast bringing beautiful sunrises and sunsets, but dust, grit and dirt everywhere.  The wild fires have begun which only adds to the unpleasant air quality.  It is very hot at mid day.  The rains are due to start again early March.

When I arrived in the Village 17 months ago and immediately began teaching at the Junior High School,  I discovered that the chairs and desks you see in the picture must be provided by each student who is also responsible for the care.   However, some departing students had just left their broken furniture at the school and a sizable pile of derelict pieces were in the store room.  Looking for an after school project, I asked the Headmaster to allow me to attempt to repair some of the pieces and offer to students who may not be financially able to buy a desk and chair.   He was somewhat skeptical, but when I told him I did not believe I could make them any worse, he agreed.  During the past months I have enjoyed learning how to repair some of the pieces and when completed have turned them back to the school for student use.  With some purchases in the local market, the help of my children and purchases during my visit with them last August, I have accumulated an assortment of hand tools which now makes it easier for me to disassemble, repair or replace parts,  and then glue and clam to reassemble using screws instead of nails.  

Some furniture waiting for repair
 Last December during the end of term exam, I noticed a young student taking her exam while attempting to hold one of the legs of her desk in place with her knees.  After finding a replacement desk, I told her to bring the desk by my work room and I would attempt to reattach the leg.  My first job for a specific student.  Since then four other students have come by with their pieces and asked that I attempt a repair. 

I believe most folks and certainly Volunteers are encouraged when they can provided a service of value.  Yesterday, going out the door early in the morning on my way to school, there was a broken chair sitting outside on my porch.  No note or identification, but for me a clear  confirmation that I could be of service to one of my students.  I was encouraged.  Still do not know whose chair, but I'll get it ready.

I am looking for a student or person in the village who might like to learn something about this work and maybe other types of wood working tasks.  He or she gets the tools.


Thursday, December 27, 2012

Walking thru the Village to School

The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.
Down the highway into the morning
Fast food breakfast spot
The first term of academic year 2012-13 is completed.  Experience is indeed a wonderful teacher as I felt more comfortable in the classroom this second year.  The desire to inspire my students to earn and value an education and to gain self confidence and discipline has increased.  

I have included some pictures along my route to school each day.  Classes start at 7 AM.   I am usually out the door at 6:30 for the 10-15 minutes walk. This is a farming Village and although the road looks empty there is plenty of activity.  

The road to the Primary and Junior High Schools

Children in school uniforms are waiting for their bus or joining the line with other villagers  to get a quick breakfast snack.  This stand sells take away porridge in a plastic bag (chocolate, sugar, water and soft rice or maze) and fried bread made from yam flour.  A little like corn bread and delicious.  The students and teachers are always ready to snack at anytime during the day and vendors stop by school frequently selling oranges, nuts, frozen yogurt, and more fried bread.   

Off the main street (highway) I take a right turn down a dirt road to the Schools.  To the left is the Village Park,  soccer field, and behind the bright blue wall on the right is a beer garden.  The playing field is very much like the road, with only sparse grass, and hard as concrete when dry, but red soup when it rains.  The large building on the far left is the Catholic Church.  Football (soccer) is a passion of Ghana and most activity slows when a match is going on as everyone wants to watch and help the coach manage the game.  

Getting water and the latest news

Near the end of the road I pass a water point.  There are four bore holes (water wells) in the village and most house holds must visit frequently.   It is a gathering place where relaxed communications happen and villagers can catch up on the news.  I doubt there are many secrets in the village due to these spots.  I am fortunate that the young woman who lives in the house where I stay fetches the water when necessary.  It is not an easy chore so I have learned to conserve.

Teachers Grading End of Term Exams
Study Hall for End of Term Exams
End of the school day is at 2 PM.  Students assemble, take down the flag that reminds them to be alert to risks of HIV/AIDS, and head for home.  I teach a section on HIV/AIDS education every other week as a part of the computer skills and mathematics classes. 

HIV/AIDS Alert Flag
Under the Mango Tree for Dismissal
Going home.

Many students go home, change out of the school uniform and head for the family farm or help around the house.  There are few recreational activities after school such as organized sports or clubs.  I have opened the room where the school's two computers are located to give them some free time to practice what they learn in class.  However, like many teenagers, they love to play computer games or listen to music.  

On my walk home I can take care of some business; get a haircut, shop at the market, buy some items at the mini-mart, load some call time on my phone, or get a snack of fried yams.  The dry season begins in early November, so on most days I just want to get home and out of the blazing sun.

The barber shop.  Haircut, $1
The Village Market.  Fresh eggs, 20 cents each

From Soap to Fresh Water
The Phone Store, 20 minutes call $1

 The Village has a number of these little businesses and when possible I like to shop here rather than the large market city 15 minutes away.

Fast Food Stand with Some Fresh Hot Peppers Drying

In less than a year I will complete my service here and leave for my home.   Unless I move into a large city, I will likely not experience anything like walking to work each day, seeing and greeting familiar folks and taking care of some of the daily tasks as I move from home to work and back.  I think I will miss that.

Thanks for taking some time to share what my school day looks like.  I continue to enjoy excellent health and am eagerly anticipating the remaining two terms in this school year. 

Hope you have a wonderful 2013