Liz goes to Ghana

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Happy Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving! I’m in Guinea right now, so I spent my Thanksgiving holiday here. Thanksgiving is not a holiday here, clearly, so I worked Thursday, but got off early. I worked Friday too, even though Thursday and Friday were supposed to be days off at my American-based NGO. But I was actually very happy to work on our days off, because I got lots of comp time and I’ll be able to take more time off when I take vacation. I’m planning on traveling during Christmas, but I’m not sure where I’m going yet.

I’m in Guinea for work, on a “traveling circuit ride.” When we are traveling we go in groups, and in our group here there are five Americans, including myself, and seven Ghanaians. We are in Guinea to interview refugees who are applying for resettlement in the US. Most of the refugees we are interviewing here are from Sierra Leone and Liberia. If you don’t know much about the civil wars in these two countries, which I didn’t before I came to Africa, you can read short, but informative, descriptions on the BBC’s website. The refugees all have horrific stories of the atrocities that have been committed against their families and their tribes. Most of the refugees I interviewed were targeted because they or someone in their family was a member of a certain tribe, or a member of a certain political party. The rebels attacked certain tribes because of longstanding prejudices against certain tribes. Alternatively, in both Sierra Leone and Liberia, the major political parties had their own rebel groups, who routinely attacked supporters of the opposing political party. All of the refugees I interviewed had been attacked in their homes by rebels, their entire families had been beaten seriously, some family members had been beaten to death, and all of the women and girls had been raped by the rebels, usually in front of the rest of the family. In many cases, the head of the family (the father or grandfather) had been beheaded in front of the family. Also, in many of the cases some of the family members were tortured, some were mutilated with machetes, and some had hands and arms hacked off by the rebels. Sometimes it’s really hard for me to listen to these stories, but it’s gratifying to feel like I’m doing something to help them.

Guinea is a beautiful country. If you don’t know where Guinea is, don’t feel bad, I probably didn’t either before I moved to West Africa. Guinea is in West Africa, on the coast. It’s cooler than Ghana, and greener as well. And there are hills and mountains here, which is a nice change from Ghana, which is mostly flat. We are staying in a really nice hotel, with a nice pool and gym, and it’s right on the beach. It’s been so nice to have air conditioning when I get back to the hotel after a long day at work, and to take hot showers. And of course, the pool and gym are great too. We’ve been really busy though, and I haven’t had too much time to enjoy the amenities. Last week I worked 12 or 14 hours most days. I really like the work though, so I haven’t minded working long hours at all. And of course, I get comp time for any overtime I work. But I had Saturday and Sunday off, which was great.

Guinea is a francophone country, which means that the common language here is French, and very, very few people speak any English. Most people don’t speak French either, but only speak local languages. It’s been very interesting spending time in a country where it’s so difficult to communicate. I speak a little French, but not much at all. I’ve had the advantage of usually being with other people that speak French, but the French that’s spoken in West Africa is very different than French that’s spoken in France, so we’ve still had problems communicating. But it’s been very fun at times, having to find creative ways to communicate with people. I'll be going home soon, back to Accra, but I've had a great time in Guinea!

Monday, November 13, 2006

Going to Guinea

I’m leaving for Guinea tomorrow! I’m going with 11 co-workers to Conakry, the capital, to interview refugees. We’re going to be gone for about 2 weeks. It’s going to be really long hours, and we’re working over Thanksgiving, so I’ll get tons of comp time. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun, we’ll have to wait and see though. Two of my close friends are going on the trip as well, so I think we’ll have a good time, even though we’re going to be working really hard. I don’t know how much time I’ll have to see Guinea, but we’re supposed to have Sunday free, so hopefully I’ll be able to see a bit of the country. They make really beautiful fabric there, dark blue dyed with indigo, so I’ll at least have to fit some time in for shopping. We’ll probably also go to the beach, which is supposed to be gorgeous.

Everything is going really well at work. I’ve been really busy, and I enjoy the work we do. I feel like I’ve learned all of the different aspects of our job pretty quickly, and I’m confident in my abilities to do my job well. Many of my co-workers are good friends of mine, so it’s a fun work environment, even when we’re really busy.

I gotta run, lots of preparations for Guinea to do. I’ll still get to check my e-mail occasionally while I’m in Guinea, so everyone can feel free to e-mail me. By the way, I have my own laptop and continual internet access at work, so feel free to e-mail me and distract me from my job!

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

I love my job!

Sorry I haven’t updated in so long, I’ve been really busy. I love my new job! I had to wait a while (seemed like forever) for my work permit to be processed before I could start working, but it was nice to have some time off, even though it got boring after a while. I read a ton of books and spent a lot of time hanging out with friends and watching DVDs.

When I finally started working I had training sessions for a few days, which were kinda boring. Then a circuit ride started, and it got really busy and interesting. Circuit rides are when we are actually interviewing refugees, and last from one week to several weeks. When we’re not on a circuit ride, we are reviewing cases and doing other things at the office, but aren’t actually working directly with refugees. During circuit rides is when we spend all day doing hands-on work with refugees. We have circuit rides here in Ghana, and also all over west and central Africa.

Anyways, shortly after I started working we had a circuit ride here in Ghana, so I spend a couple of days observing other people as they did interviews, and I then I was on my own. I really enjoy working with the refugees, and it’s very interesting and fulfilling as well, being able to help in a hands-on way. We were extremely busy during the circuit ride though, and worked really long hours. For every hour we work over our regular 7.5-hour workday, we get an hour of comp time that we can take whenever we want. So for every couple of days we work long hours, we get a comp day that we can take off work whenever we want. It’s great!

I really enjoy interviewing the refugees, although it can get really intense. Sometimes it’s hard to stay composed while they’re telling their stories of torture and rape and family members and friends being murdered. Many of the refugees have absolutely horrific stories, and get extremely upset while telling them, and we have to calm them down while staying collected ourselves.

I like all of the people I work with. There are about 25 expats (expatriates, i.e. foreigners) who work at my organization, and about 75 Ghanaians, but I work mostly with the expats and only a handful of the Ghanaians. I was already friends with most of the expats when I started working here, so it’s been really fun to be working with them now. And all of the other people working here are great too; they’re all really interesting and have lived all over the world. It’s a great work environment.

I’m living with two good friends (who I also work with) in a three-bedroom apartment right now, but I’m planning on moving in with some other friends in November. Both places are nice, with housekeepers, and are in the same area where most of my friends live, so they’re both great.

Before I forget, I’m traveling with work to Guinea in November! A group of us are going for a couple of weeks to interview refugees. I’m really excited! All our expenses are paid, we get tons of comp time, stay in nice hotels, and get paid extra for every day we travel! Overall, things are going really great for me right now. I love my new job and am having fun living in Accra.

One more thing, I have a new address. Everyone should send any letters or packages to the following address:

Liz Kah
O.P.E.
#10 Quarcoo Lane
Roman Ridge
P.M.B. K.I.A.
Accra, GhanaWest Africa

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Some Ghana Highlights

While in the states, I got the opportunity to tell people about my daily life in Ghana (over and over), and some anecdotes proved to be extremely popular. Such as the fact that I occasionally kill my own chickens. It’s not hard, you just slit the throat, and I feather and gut them myself too. To buy any food, I used to ride my bike to the market to get everything I needed (or whatever was available at that time (but there is pretty much nothing available in Ghana (ever))). One thing they do have in Ghana is chickens, but you can only buy live chickens. I never cooked meat when I was cooking just for myself (I think the reasons are obvious), but whenever I had guests over to my house, I had to cook meat for them, because in Ghanaian culture it would be extremely rude not to. So I bought the live chickens, strapped them in the basket on the back of my bike, and went home and made dinner.

I also killed a goat once. It was during a huge festival with drumming, dancing, chanting and singing- it was really cool, straight out of National Geographic. All the dancers were wearing cool masks and headdresses, and body paint and traditional loincloth type things. They also had metal things hanging off their ankles, similar to bells, but not quite the same, which made noise when they danced. It was amazing. Anyways, I was the guest of honor because I was the only white person there. So they gave me the honor of killing the goat. Goats have thick, tough skin, so it was a bit hard to slit its throat. It was pretty gross, but definitely a unique and amazing experience.

I Love America

I had such a great time in the states. I was in a bit of culture shock, but it was good to appreciate things that I have always taken for granted. I was so grateful for things like reliable electricity and running water, paved roads and trustworthy law enforcement and government (comparatively). I was staring wide-eyed at the tall buildings in New York (which are quite rare in Ghana, especially since there are only a handful of elevators in the whole country). I was also grateful for the fact that I have the best family ever, seriously. If I were to write out all the amazing things they did for me, it would take forever, so here’s a really abbreviated version: Mom- shopping (tons), facial, nails, hair, packing, use of phone, car, jewelry…; Dad- tickets Ghana-NYC-Ghana, tickets NYC-DFW-NYC, tickets NYC-DFW-NYC again (sorry about that!); Daniel- portable DVD player, movies, visiting me in Dallas twice!; Carl- ipod, music, visiting me in Dallas twice! I also have the best friends ever, both in Dallas and in NYC. Unfortunately, even an abbreviated version of all the cool stuff they did for me would take way too long, so I won’t include that here, but thanks guys! I had such a wonderful trip, especially getting to spend time with my family and friends. Sometimes it’s difficult to truly appreciate our relationships with family and friends until we spend time away, and I now realize more than ever how blessed I am to have such wonderful people in my life.

While in the states, I was an honor attendant in the wedding of Abbey Thomas and Dane Daniels, which was my original reason for traveling to the states at that time. I had fun going to the showers/luncheons/parties and hanging with Abbey, and Kat Higman (who was also an honor attendant) and our other friends and friends’ families. The wedding was gorgeous, Abbey looked gorgeous, tons of people came, and everything went beautifully. Abbey and Dane are going to be ridiculously happy together. I also got to spend some time with friends in New York, which was great. I stayed with one of my best friends from college, Alissa Zulvergold (thanks Al!) and had a blast hanging out with friends from college. My whole trip to the states was amazing, and I hope to return again sometime soon:)

New Job!

I am back in Ghana now, but I am no longer a Peace Corps Volunteer. I got a real job working with refugees, and I am so glad. I am so happy that I don’t have to deal with all of the bureaucracy and hypocrisy of Peace Corps anymore. Overall, I had a wonderful time during the last year in Ghana, and I wouldn’t trade this experience for the world, but in my opinion, the Peace Corps organization itself is not the best. So I decided to look for a job so that I could stay in Africa, but not with the Peace Corps.

I was extremely fortunate and I found a job with OPE, which is an international non-profit organization which aids refugees who are seeking resettlement in the US. OPE works in partnership with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Department of Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to assist in the preparation of documents for refugees who are of “compelling humanitarian concern” in West and Central Africa.

I will be working as a caseworker, which means I will be interviewing refugees to determine whether or not they are eligible to be resettled in the US. It’s a complicated process, but basically a refugee is eligible for resettlement if they can show that they cannot return to their country of origin because they would be in imminent danger. Also, there are some reasons some refugees would not be eligible for resettlement, such as involvement with a dangerous rebel group etc. I have not started working yet because the government has not finished processing my work permit, but I should start soon. I’m really excited and I think I’m going to really enjoy this job. I will be living in Accra, the capital, and the job also involves traveling to different parts of Africa.

I have several friends who also work at OPE, and lots of friends who live in Accra, which is nice. I don’t have a permanent place to live yet, but right now I’m staying in a friend’s room while she’s traveling. I’m definitely very excited and happy about this new job, and look forward to starting work soon. Although, it is also nice for right now to just hang out with friends and chill all day. And in case anyone was wondering, I’m planning on returning to the US in May of next year, and then starting med school in June at NYU’s Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Good News and Not-so-good News

The good news is I'm coming home on July 24th for about a month. I'm coming home because my best friend Abbey Thomas is getting married on August 12th in Dallas. So I'll be in Dallas from July 24th until around August 17th, then I'll fly to New York, and spend a few days there before flying back to Ghana on August 21st. I am so excited I can't even find words to express it. Seriously, I can't wait.

The other news is that I'm changing sites. It's a really long story, but I've been having problems with the NGO I work with in Koforidua the entire time I've been here, and it's finally gotten to be too much, and Peace Corps wants me to move sites. I don't know where I'll be moving to yet, but hopefully I'll find out soon. I've been really busy trying to find a new site that I like, which is one of the reasons I haven't updated my blog in so long. Sorry.

I spent last week in Tamale, in northern Ghana, and I really liked it. It's very different from southern Ghana, which is like a tropical rain forest, and is mostly Christian. The north is more like the desert, and is mostly Muslim. In the north people are more laid back and less aggressive, which was a really nice change. The culture is entirely different, and it was very interesting to see the changes as I traveled north.

Hope to see all of you soon in America!

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

I have the best mom ever

I just wanted to let everyone know that I have the best mom in the whole world. She bought me a new ipod to replace the one that broke, and then she took it to Abbey to have her download music and videos on it (thanks Abbey!), and then she arranged to have someone who was coming to Ghana bring it with them and give it to me. And she did this all on Mother's Day. No kidding. She spent Mother's Day running around doing all this for me. She even got a case for the ipod, so hopefully this one won't break. Thanks Mom! Seriously, I have the best mom ever.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

ummm...

During the rest of April it was pretty much the same old stuff for me. I did lots of HIV/AIDS education and outreach programs and worked on various programs providing care and support for people living with HIV/AIDS. From May 1st to May 6th, I had in-service training with all of the other Health and Water Sanitation volunteers from my group. There were 20 of us volunteers altogether, and we each brought our Ghanaian counterpart with us. The training was held at a hotel in Takoradi, which is on the coast. Overall, the training went pretty well. I gave two presentations, one on working with groups providing care and support for people living with HIV/AIDS and on income-generating projects, and one relating to HIV/AIDS education and stigmatization and discrimination. Both presentations went very well. I also arranged for an HIV positive individual to come and give his testimony, which was very powerful. I had a lot of fun hanging out with my friends from my training group, many of whom I haven’t seen since training ended in November. It was very interesting catching up with everyone and hearing everyone’s stories from their sites. After training I went to the beach at Busua for 2 days with some of my friends. It was gorgeous and so relaxing and fun. After that, I came to Accra for some meetings I had to go to.

I really like Accra, but it’s crazy trying to get around the city. It’s just a huge mess. Somewhere around 2 million people live in Accra (depending on which source you believe, since there is no official census) and it is a sprawling urban tangle with unbelievable congestion. There are tons of twisting, winding streets, most of which are not paved (i.e. dirt roads) and most of which don’t even have names. Even for the streets that do have names, usually none of the locals know what the names are, so that doesn’t really help. So if you need to go somewhere you’ve never been before, you’re in for a big headache. And the traffic is horrendous. Accra (like many cities in Africa) has had huge population growth recently, and the infrastructure hasn’t caught up with the number of people and cars. There are big problems with access to water, sanitation facilities, and electricity, in addition to the traffic problems. I have definitely spent 2 hours in traffic just to go 5 miles before during rush hour, and of course there is no air conditioning on public transport, so it’s a really sweaty affair. Transportation here is quite a unique experience. On the other hand, Accra has many amenities that can’t be found in many other places in Ghana, like restaurants, bars, hotels, and places with air conditioning. There are also other foreigners living in Accra, and it’s nice to hang out with non-Ghanaians occasionally.

As I’m writing this, a torrential downpour has started outside. It’s the rainy season again, and in the room where I am writing this, the roof has started leaking. It started with just one leak, but now there are areas of water dripping from the ceiling all over the place, and I’m getting wet, as is the computer equipment, so I’m going to have to leave now. Later.