Off to Great Places

“What’s next?” friends ask, curious about the next chapter in my life.

“I don’t know!” I reply, unsure of my direction.

After serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer for twenty-seven months in Ghana, West Africa, I’ve spent the last ten months adjusting to life in America. Reconnecting with friends and family. Volunteering to support causes I believe in. Rejoining social groups to spend time with people I love. Settling into a house and making it my home. Meeting new people. Talking about my Peace Corps adventure to anyone who will listen. Living.

But something is missing.
“What’s next?” I ask myself.
I explore options.
Searching for answers. Reading. Researching. Listening.

You have brains in your head and feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself any direction you choose.
You’re on your own. And you know what you know.
And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.
(“Oh, The Places You’ll Go” by Dr. Suess)

I’m the driver. Any direction. I’m on my own. So many options.

I expand my horizons and narrow my criteria.
An adventure. Outside America. Where I can meet new people and be exposed to different cultures.
Where I can learn and grow.

I choose a direction. I decide where to go.

The Camino de Santiago – the ancient pilgrim path across Northern Spain.

I’ll travel independently to Spain in late May. During the 500 mile walk, I’ll connect with people from around the world who walk for a variety of reasons. Walking 10-15 miles a day (while trying to avoid blisters) will test my physical strength. Talking with new friends on the trails and strangers in the towns will increase my Spanish-language skills. I’ll have lots of time to think and reflect. I’ll learn and grow. I’ll return to America in July with new stories to tell and new decisions to make.

Please support me (and all people who are journeying through life) with your love and good wishes.

Buen Camino!

(The blog for my Camino adventure is


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Reality Ramblings…

A few months ago an internet video went viral among Peace Corps Volunteers. The short animation featured two points of view: an idealistic future volunteer imagining a dream life of service in another culture and a somber voice identifying the realities of living in a developing country.   

One vignette stuck in my memory. The idealist  ic PCV said something like, “I will eat freshly harvested organic fruits and vegetables grown by local farmers.”
The you’ve-got-to-be-kidding counterpart responded, “You will see a woman selling hard-boiled eggs that have been sitting in the hot sun for eight hours. You will tell her, ‘I will buy two. With some peppe.’ You will devour the eggs and spicy sauce.”

I also thought I’d eat healthy foods living in a farming community. I didn’t know that local farmers grew mainly yams and cassava – two root veggies similar to potatoes. I’ve eaten plenty of starches and more than my share of questionable protein. But I figure hard-boiled eggs – no matter how long they’ve basked in the sun – are a safer snack than (who knows what kind of) meat on a stick. 


Loading yams at Kpassa market

As I prepare to end my Peace Corps service, I consider the contrast between my pre-service mental images and the reality of living in West Africa.

I will live in a small round mud hut with a thatched roof. I will share my space with mice and spiders. 

I live in a three-room mud-brick house funded by the Carter Foundation for Guinea Worm eradication. I collect rain water gushing from the corrugated tin roof during rainy season. The floor of the house is uneven; the western side of the house is a few inches down hill from the eastern side. The bed, desk, tables, bookshelves and sofa each have a leg or two propped up with chunks of wood to keep the sleeping/sitting/writing/storage/cooking surface somewhat level.  The screens on the five windows keep out the malaria-carrying mosquitoes but not the dust. The mice and bats stay in the space above the ceiling. I share my living space with small lizards and several varieties of spiders.

I will walk miles to fetch a bucket of water from a shallow stream. I’ll boil the water for ten minutes to kill visible vermin and destroy micro-organisms. I will be frugal with the scarce resource; a single bucket will meet all my needs for a day.

Children vie for an opportunity to fetch water from the borehole (machine-dug well with a hand pump) that’s less than 50 yards from my front door. When a child carries and dumps five water buckets to my blue 250 liter barrel, she washes her hands with soap, comes into my kitchen and pours oil and popping maize into a pan. When the corn is popped, she adds salt and transfers the white snack into a clear take-away bag. She carries the treat home to share with her family. Although the borehole water has been tested and is safe to drink, I filter water through a two-reservoir desktop filter before drinking. I try to conserve water, but I use half a bucket for each of my two-a-day baths and I share “fridge water” with guests.


Donkwa's popcorn treat

I will live without electricity or running water.

Like everyone in my community of 1,600 people, I have electricity (“lights”) but no running water. I could survive without lights – even though days and nights are equally long eight degrees north of the equator. But I enjoy electricity. I love being able to sit in front of my fan, keep fresh fruits, veggies, leftovers and water in my fridge, and bake bread in my toaster oven. (Today’s yeast bread features powdered cheese and Italian seasoning.)  

I will ride my bike down a dirt path to remote villages where I will teach captivating health and nutrition lessons to mothers in their local language.

I ride my used six-speed bike a couple miles down the main road to market and another mile to the vocational school where I tutor. Whenever I teach, someone who speaks English and the local language translates for me. My health and nutrition lessons may not be captivating, but only the babies sleep through the sessions.

My toilet will be a hole in the ground.

My toilet is a hole in the ground – surrounded by a mud-brick outhouse with a tin roof and a wooden door. I squat over the key-hole shaped hole and use t-roll (toilet paper) purchased at the local market. A tall metal sprinkling can filled with plastic sunflowers decorates the inside of the latrine.


Being thousands of miles from family and friends, I may be lonely.

Today’s electronic communication options makes my Peace Corps experience completely different from the experience of the first Peace Corps Volunteers in Ghana over 50 years ago. Although I miss seeing and interacting with family and friends, I am not isolated. I stay connected to individuals via email and phone. At last count, 170 individuals read my blog and 75 people receive my daily four-word emails.  Although I’m generally out of touch with news unless someone posts something on Facebook, I feel incredibly connected. I look forward to connecting face to face in a few weeks. 

I will learn to cook native dishes and surprise my friends and family with unique delicious recipes when I return to America.

I have perfected multiple variations of beans and rice and make an awesome groundnut soup (with peanut butter, garden eggs, onions and tomatoes). I use local ingredients to make two delicious snacks – groundnut toffee (candies peanuts) and banana bread – using recipes I adapted from internet.


Sorting groundnuts for toffee

I will be on call 24×7 and have no time to myself.

My day sometimes starts before daybreak with roosters crowing, children calling, and mothers chattering as they fetch water. But I have lots of time to myself. Time to read, write, and think. Time to do craft projects and cook. Time to think about how my life in Ghana is different than I anticipated. Time to contemplate what to do with the next phase of my life.

I will love my Peace Corps adventure. I will learn as much as I teach. It will be difficult to say goodbye.

I love my Peace Corps adventure! I’ve learned much more than I have taught. I have started to say goodbye. The goodbyes are challenging. The hellos will be exciting!


Saying goodbye at Kpassa Technical High School

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Boti Falls

Enjoy the new lyrics to an old tune (B-I-N-G-O).


We went to Boti Falls Sunday,
Saw Ghana’s natural beauty.


B-O-T-I Falls. B-O-T-I Falls.
B-O-T-I Falls. We went to Boti Falls.


We hiked, and laughed and took pictures,
In Eastern Region’s forest.


B-O-T-I Falls. B-O-T-I Falls.
B-O-T-I Falls. We went to Boti Falls.


We took a break at ancient cave
And marveled at the hist’ry.


B-O-T-I Falls. B-O-T-I Falls.
B-O-T-I Falls. We went to Boti Falls.


We climbed atop Umbrella Rock
And felt a bit like Simba.

B-O-T-I Falls. B-O-T-I Falls.
B-O-T-I Falls. We went to Boti Falls.


We sat and climbed the Triple Palm
Perhaps to have twin offspring.

B-O-T-I Falls. B-O-T-I Falls.
B-O-T-I Falls. We went to Boti Falls.


We ate our lunch and then returned
To families in Masse.


B-O-T-I Falls. B-O-T-I Falls.
B-O-T-I Falls. We went to Boti Falls.

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Cooking Yams

Cooking Yams

“Yam!” Magawiny holds up a two-inch thick slice of recently harvested yam above his head. I use a permanent black marker to write my interpretation of his name on the dirt-encrusted peel.

“Yams!” Pomba cradles six end chunks of yams in the pouch made by the tattered yellow t-shirt he wears. The small soft yam pieces are discards from yams destined for market. He writes the number “6” on each of his yams.

“Anggh! Anggh!” Ilando who cannot speak words gets my attention and holds four yam ends in his cupped hands. One of his friends writes “Ilando” on each tennis-ball-sized yam treasure.

“Madame. My yam. Big!”  Joshua smiles as he shows me the end portion of a four-inch diameter yam. He writes a large “J” on his big yam.

It’s yam season in the northern Volta region of Ghana. Men return from farm each day with six or eight yams strapped to their bicycle carriers. Women balance pans of yams on their heads walking to market. Trucks transfer tons of yams to Accra. Children bring yam discards to my house. 

Their parents mark their yams with a thumb-print sized colored dots or lines to indicate who receives the money when the yams are sold. The children mark their yams to indicate ownership. They’ll peel and slice their own yams. I’ll cook the yams. They’ll carry the cooked yams home in take-away bags.

I collect yams during the day. Late in the afternoon, nine children claim their yams from my kitchen floor and sit on my patio. Using knives no child below the age of six in America would be allowed to touch, the Ghanaian youngsters peel their yams and cut them into slices.


They rinse their yam chunks in water and dump the dirty water near the drainage hole in my patio wall. We measure the yams in a large cereal bowl; I record their name and a number to indicate their relative quantity of yams. Matali gets a 2; her sliced yams cover only the bottom of the bowl. Mejanya gets a 5; her yams almost spill over the bowl’s rim. 

They sweep up the yam peels and place them in the blue compost bucket. Enoch will dump the future-soil into my compost pile.


The sliced yams fill two cooking pots. I add some salted water and bring the yams to a boil.


The yams finish cooking in fifteen minutes. I divide the starchy chunks into clear plastic take-away bags.  The children run off to eat their yams. Most of them will share their food with siblings or friends.


And most of them will return tomorrow with more yams. 

It’s yam season in Jumbo.

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Making Yellow

Twelve-year-old Seelow called “Hall-o-o!” from my yard early Friday evening. “Me cook?” she said hopefully. Our schedules finally matched. Seelow wasn’t at farm, caring for her younger sibling, or cooking for her family. I wasn’t working on a report, planning a training class, or weighing babies.

I invited her inside.

It was already dark. I had already eaten. We needed to a fast cooking option. Reciting and performing the actions for “Wash your hands many times a day. Always use soap to keep the germs away!” gave me time to think.

I retrieved a small cardboard box from the cupboard. “We will make Jello.” I announced, introducing a word she had never heard. “We will make strawberry Jello.” I pointed to the picture of a fruit she had never seen.

“Yellow” she repeated, pointing to the red berries on the box.

She opened the box and the tan inner liner. The humid rainy season and the hot African temperatures had transformed the individual crystals into a block – similar to solid-packed brown sugar. She peeled off the paper and sat the small red block into a bowl.  I handed her a whisk that once had a handle and demonstrated how to break the brick into separate granules. “Toffee!” she declared as sweetness filled the air.


The electric teakettle boiled water and turned itself off. I poured one cup of hot water into a lime green plastic measuring cup. Seelow added it to the bowl and used the whisk to dissolve the gelatin.  She stirred for a full two minutes before adding a cup of frige water to the warm sugar-water.  Seelow continued stirring. Her sister arrived and washed her hands – just in time to help with the bananas. Seelow peeled some local bananas – much fatter and shorter than bananas available in most American supermarkets. As she cut each slice into quarters, her sister transferred the banana chunks from the apple-shaped cutting board into the sweet red liquid.


After adding three bananas, Seelow pointed to the stove and the burner switch assuming it was time to cook. She looked confused and disappointed when I cleared a spot in the fridge. But she placed the bowl on the waiting shelf.

“Come back tomorrow.” I said after the two preteens washed the knife, cutting board and measuring cup.

Three young children joined Seelow on Saturday. We ceremoniously followed the instructions in the “wash your hands before you eat” chant. I retrieved the jello from the frig. I tipped the bowl toward Seelow slightly to show her the congealed mass. She jumped back – away from the spilling liquid we had placed in the fridge the day before. “Jello!” I reminded her, jiggling the bowl a bit to show her the new texture.

“Yellow” she parroted back.

I sat the bowl on the counter. I added a smaller bowl and a spoon to the counter so we could transfer some strawberry-banana jello to a separate container. Seelow took the spoon and started stirring the jello, breaking the congealed mass into smaller chunks. (What else would you do with a spoon?)  She pointed to the propane stove. Her eyes said the words she could not voice, “Now do we cook it on the fire?”

“No fire.  We eat.” I grabbed a blob of jello with my fingers and plopped it in my mouth. “Yummy!”

The four children looked a bit surprised, but followed my lead.


“Toffee!” they declared as soon as the sweet treat touched their tongues.

“Yes,” I expanded. “Jello is sweet, like toffee.”

We ate half the “yellow toffee” standing in my kitchen. Seelow divided the leftovers into two plastic containers. She carried one container to her family compound; Dankwa took the second container to his family. “Eat it tonight.” I told them as they headed home.

The children loved the red yellow.
I love red-red (fried ripe plantains).

They scrunch up their noses and winced at “American rice” (rice pudding with nutmeg).
I try not to scrunch up my nose and wince as I tilt my bowl to avoid eating the red oil floating on top of Ghanaian soups.

Their parents pull out crunchy walnuts from banana bread.
I pick out crunchy fish bones from soups and stews.

Our cooking styles and food preferences provide glimpses into our cultures.

Wouldn’t it be fun to listen to a Ghanaian woman describe an American’s first experience making and eating fufu?

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Protecting the Children

A twelve-year-old boy in a red and white striped t-shirt watches his left arm as a nurse places a needle into position. An eight-year-old girl wearing a private school uniform – the next in line for the vaccine to prevent measles and rubella – peers over the boy’s right shoulder to understand what will happen to her. A mother with a simple head wrap and her ready-to-walk baby wrapped onto her back stands behind the girl. Eight more children create a haphazard queue looking at the camera or the activity at the front of the queue.


The “National Mass Measles-Rubella Campaign” poster mimics a slice of life in Jumbo. Children across Ghana are standing in queues for vaccines during September. Children in the small village where I live received their shots September 11-12. 

Our queues were longer and a bit more loosely formed.


A couple children selected a more interesting vantage point than a spot in the queue.


A four-person volunteer crew supported the Jumbo nurse who gave the shots.

Three of us filled out a new yellow vaccination card for each child.


I had the easiest job – writing the repetitive information on each card. I recorded our location (town, district, region) and date the card was issued on the front, then flipped the card over to write information about the measles-rubella vaccine (the date, the eight- and ten-digit batch number codes for dual vaccine, and “Jumbo” as the location).

Kingsford had the most challenging job – completing the personalized information on each card: child’s name, date of birth, gender, and mother’s and father’s name. Sometimes he could copy the information directly from the child’s green Ghana Health Services record booklet. But not all the children have booklets. Some mothers brought their child’s Ghana Health Insurance Scheme photo ID cards in a blue sleeve or laminated copies of an official birth certificate. The ID cards didn’t include the mother’s or father’s name; the birth certificate didn’t include the gender. He asked mothers questions to gather information. Several mothers brought scraps of paper with their child’s name and date of birth. Some papers only listed the child’s first name (e.g., Kwame for Saturday born) and age (11 yers [sic]). Some children arrived by themselves. A ten year old girl brought her three year old sister. She submitted two slips of paper – each with a first name and date of birth – to receive the vaccine.


My counterpart Joseph was the final step in our “complete the yellow card” process. He recorded the child’s age in the appropriate column on an official tally sheet. (A man stopped by today for just a few minutes to witness the in-progress vaccinations; he signed the back of the tally sheet to make it even more official.) Ghana Health Services will know how many children in three broad age groups (9 months to 4 years; 5 years to 9 years, 10 years to 14 years) received the vaccine. Joseph handed the completed card to the mother who took it to another health volunteer who controlled the queue for the nurse.


The Jumbo nurse gave vaccines to about 300 children each day. Shrill cries from just-vaccinated babies pierced the air and sometimes drowned out the girls’ clapping games, the boys’ shouting matches, and the mothers’ chatter.


Yesterday we gathered under a tree by the church. We moved the tables three times as the sun crossed the sky and changed the location of the trees’ cooling shadow.

Today it rained; we held the all-day health clinic at the school in the open area where the Kindergarten class usually meets.

Tomorrow (or tomorrow next) 597 Jumbo children will be added to the nation-wide tally of thousands of children who will be protected from measles and rubella.

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A New Song…

… or some new lyrics to an old song. 

Clear your throat. Sit up straight or stand tall. Take a deep breath.

And sing the following words to the tune of “Are you Sleeping?”

Are we partners?
Are we partners?
Yes, we are!
Yes, we are!
Helping people help themselves.
Helping people help themselves.
To change our world.
To change our world.

The French nursery melody “Frere Jacques” was first published in 1811; the new lyrics were written last week. 

Each word was carefully weighed and measured. The modified words needed to fit the existing rhythm. The message (initially created as an ice-breaker for a joint meeting between Ghana Peace Corps and our host-country partners) needed to be succinct. 

“Are we associates?” seems too formal. “Are we collaborators?” is not only pretentious; it has too many syllables. The more friendly “partners” shows equality and a close connection – working together toward a common goal.

“Helping people help themselves” has an extra syllable. But if you mush the words together, the rhythm still works.

Substitutes for “people” were considered: “Helping others help themselves.” and  “Helping our friends help themselves.” Both have the right meter. But “others” seems too distant while “our friends” suggests no need to help casual acquaintances or people we’ve never met.

The final line started as a condescending “changing their lives.” Whoa. Not very partner-ish. Way too paternal.

“To change” is more action-oriented than “changing.”
“Our world” reinforces our connectedness, to each other and to our environment.
“We are all one child spinning through Mother Sky.” (A Native American proverb)

Thanks for partnering with me, for making my life more complete.
Thanks for helping me help myself. Thanks for helping everyone whose lives you touch help themselves.
Thanks for continuing to change our world.

Want to join me in a new anthem?

Are we partners?
Are we partners?
Yes, we are!
Yes, we are!
Helping people help themselves.
Helping people help themselves.
To change our world.
To change our world.

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