My service as a Peace Corps Volunteer was the most challenging and difficult experience of my life, and ultimately one of the most rewarding.
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Just the facts, ma'am
I served from 1991 to 1993 in Ghana, West Africa. The first two months or so were spent in training in Cape Coast, a regional capitol near the ocean. After completing training I spent almost two years in Wa, a remote city near the northern border. I left the Peace Corps in 1993 and spent a year working at an international school in Accra.
The first stage of training was in Chicago, where I met with the other volunteers in my group and we underwent some preliminary orientation. I was so nervous and excited that I don't remember much about it, although I remember that it was nice to spend my last few days in the U.S. in a familiar city. (I had just graduated from Northwestern.)
I had only been out of the U.S. once (to Mexico) so arriving in Accra was a shock-the heat, the smells and the extraordinary crowds of people. After spending a few days getting vaccinated and having our passports stamped, we were taken to Cape Coast, an old city gently crumbling into the sea.
We spent two long months in Cape Coast, at the Mfantsipim School. We had language and culture classes, and those of us who were going to be teachers learned about the Ghanaian school system. Training was an emotional roller coaster, alternating between touristic wonder and euphoria over simple accomplishments (I bought some plantains!) and feeling that this was really all too much. A few people E.T.'ed - they chose early termination and were sent back to the U.S.
I learned a lot, but was really glad when training was over. You know you've been among a group of people too long when you can identify the owner of every T-shirt on the community clothesline.
One highlight of the training experience was the annual Cape Coast festival, which took place near the end of our training period.
The Cape Coast festival 1991. The man with white body paint is a fetish priest, whose purpose is probably to protect the man walking next to him from magical interference. I was told that the rather innocous looking stick he is carrying had magical properties and that I could die if he touched me with it.
I was assigned to teach math at the Wa Secondary School in Wa, Upper West Region. It was a good fit for me, since they needed someone to teach calculus and I had been a math major. I was given a small and spartan house to live in by myself. The house had three rooms each of which opened onto a porch where the water faucet was located. The water and electricity flowed intermittantly.
I arrived only a short time before the official beginning of the school year, so I felt a little rushed getting ready, but I managed to get settled in. Still I was a bit nervous as I walked over to the school for the first day to find--nothing! No one at all was there. It turns out that the official day for opening the school is largely a fiction, and that teachers and students gradually trickle about a week later.
When school did finally start, things went well. I avoided teaching science classes, which I wasn't really prepared for, and was given responsibility for the most advanced math students. Everything was going smoothly when...
I got sick
My memories are fairly hazy about exactly how things went in October 1991, except that I can safely say I was more sick than I ever had been in my life. I had caught malaria, which produces cycles of fever and extreme fatigue; and, in my case, as an added bonus, painful diarrhea. It took me several weeks to recover.
Christmas and New Year
I spent Christmas in Accra, my first trip away from my post since my arrival in September. I stayed with a nice American family, and then at the University of Ghana, where we a few days of additional language training.
The new year
I returned to Wa in 1992 and resumed my work at Wa Sec, as the Wa Seconday School is generally referred to. I got into a good rhythm, teaching classes in the morning, going for lunch and then resting in the afternoon, and doing paperwork in the evening. Once a month or so I went to visit some of the other Americans who lived in the region. I celebrated my 23rd birthday with a few of my Peace Corps colleagues in February. Most importantly, I stayed healthy, thanks to being careful with my food, and to being lucky.
How I spent my summer vacation in Burkina Faso
In June our school took a break for three months, so I didn't have much to do. I took short trip to Burkina Faso with my friend Mary, who was a forestry volunteer in another town in the region. Whoever said that getting there is half the fun has never tried to go from Wa, Ghana to Bobo Dioulasso, Burkina Faso. Getting from my house to the border was a fairly effortless three-hour bus ride. This was followed by a minor crisis after crossing the border when a policeman discovered the fact that I had not exchanged all of my Ghanaian currency for the Burkinabe currency. How was I supposed to know that that was against the law? However, a few hours of muddled argument, in various languages, resolved this little misunderstanding and we were on our way.
We squeezed on to some benches set in the back of a pickup truck with twenty-two other people and started off. The trip went smoothly until we got our first flat tire. The spare was also flat, so it appeared we were stuck. Then the driver hit upon an idea: He waved down a passing car, telling its driver to take the flat tire, have it patched in the next town and then sent back. “Great plan”, I thought, “We’re never going to see this tire again.” A few hours later the freshly patched tire was brought to us and the journey continued. It wasn’t long before yet another tire went flat. We might have gotten farther just blowing up balloons and taping them to the wheels. By now it was night, so we were well and truly stuck and I spent a restless night sleeping on the side of the road. It wasn’t too uncomfortable except that every twenty minutes or so a gigantic truck came speeding by, forcing me to get up and run behind a tree for safety.
The next morning we found a new ride. It was another pickup truck, full of crates of empty Coke bottles. In fact, it was so full of crates of empty Coke bottles that we had to sit on them, which was terribly uncomfortable and probably less than safe on a bumpy gravel road. But finally, more than twenty four hours after leaving home, we arrived in Bobo Dioulasso. The rest of the trip was actually rather pleasant. We took a train to Ouagadougou, spent a few days there, and then a bus back to Ghana, stopping to visit some colleagues in Bolgatanga.
Mary at the main mosque in Bobo Dioulasso. It is quite similar in appearance to the Wa-Na palace.
A Second Year
I began my second year in Ghana with some optimism. I had been healthy, my garden had done well, and I was looking forward to continuing to be able to work with my more advanced students on some fairly complex topics in calculus and physical mechanics. Also I had begun to learn the local language, Waali, which deserves a section of its own.
Yele a yeli Waali
Although I had some brief langauge training in my first year, and had learned some Waali without really trying, I had not taken a serious interest in learning the language. That's somewhat surprising, as I have had always had an interest in languages, having learnt Spanish and some Russian in college. When I finally started learning Waali, I regretted not having put a lot of effort into it earlier, because it was both useful and fascinating.
The most interesting thing about Waali is how differently it converts sound to meaning. Waali is, like many African and Asian languages, tonal, which means that the pitch of voice used when pronouncing a syllable is meaningful. For example, ba with a low tone means 'not', ba with a medium tone means 'they', and ba with a high tone means 'father'. I eventually got to the point where I could understand most ordinary discussions and have meaningful, although often garbled on my part, conversations.
A short word list is available at
If you are a Waali speaker, please email me with any additions or corrections.
Things worked well for me the second year. I became engaged, visited Togo and Cote d'Ivoire, and did well with teaching some fairly advanced topics. I never got over the incomgruity of explaining how to solve somehting like a second order differential equation and seeing a barefoot woman walking with a huge bundle of firewood on her head to take to sell.
Unlike most volunteers who left Ghana at the end of their two years, I was able to stay by getting a job at an American run private school in Accra, which I did for one year.
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