Living conditions and volunteer lifestyles in Ghana

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Revision as of 09:48, 30 November 2008 by 144.82.200.10 (Talk)
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Contents

Communications

Mail

Few countries in the world offer the level of mail service we have in the United States. If you bring with you U.S. standards for mail service, you will be in for a great deal of frustration. Mail takes two to three weeks to arrive. Advise your family and friends to number their letters and to include “Air Mail” on their envelopes. All packages are opened and inspected at the post office in Accra in the presence of a Peace Corps staff member.

Despite delays, we strongly encourage you to write to your family regularly (perhaps bi-weekly) and to number your letters. Family members will become worried when they do not hear from you, so please advise your parents, friends, and relatives that mail is sporadic and that they should not worry if they do not receive your letters regularly. If a serious problem were to occur, Peace Corps/Ghana would notify the Office of Special Services at the Peace Corps headquarters in Washington, D.C., and family members would be contacted.

Your address during the 10-week pre-service training will be:

“Your Name,” PCT

Peace Corps/Ghana

P.O. Box 5796

Accra-North, Ghana

West Africa


Once you have become a Volunteer and are at your site, give your friends and family your new address there, and ask them to send your letters to you directly. Many Volunteers live in a community without a post office. In this case, you will travel to a district or regional capital to pick up and send mail.

Packages

Packages can be sent to the Peace Corps/Ghana Accra office address, where they will be held until either you are in town to pick them up or staff travel up-country. There is always a customs charge for the recipient to pay, typically around 20,000 cedis, or $2 (U.S.). You will be responsible for reimbursing Peace Corps for the costs of obtaining your package from customs. Avoid liquids and chocolates as they tend to leak or melt in transit.

Telephones

The Ghana telephone agency has offices located in major cities and some smaller towns with direct lines to the United States. You can call collect or use a calling card such as AT&T, MCI or Sprint. The calling card is generally a cheaper option than calling collect. Fax services are available at post offices. Once you are at your site, you can send the fax number to your friends and relatives for easy communication.

Please do not tell friends or family that you will call or e-mail them as soon as you arrive in Ghana. You will not be able to access phones or Internet until after the first couple of days.

Mobile phones are growing in popularity throughout Africa and Ghana is no exception. A Growing number of Ghanaian mobile phone companies provide services that cover most of the country’s major cities and secondary towns. Most Volunteers choose to purchase a mobile phone in Ghana. AT this time most everyone has mobile service in or near their site; while some PCV's do not have coverage in their communities they use the phone when they travel to a larger town. If you choose to bring your own phone be sure that it is a GSM phone and can operate on the systems (900 and 1900 mhz) available in Africa. You can also buy a cheap mobile phone during training for about $50. SIM cards for the various networks around Ghana are readily available and inexpensive. Everyone uses the "pay as you go" option of buying credit from the ubiquitous kiosks selling "scratch cards". Peace Corps will not pay for mobile phones but know that if your site has service it will be expected by your community members that you have a phone.

Computer, Internet, and E-mail Access

There is e-mail access in all major cities and in some towns. These are usually at communications centers (known as com centers). The cost varies, and equipment and connections can be slow.

Housing and Site Location

Housing varies by region, district, community, and by sector.

There are few generalities about housing or site location. Peace Corps Volunteers are placed at the request of the government, Volunteers go where they are needed. Peace Corps/Ghana requires that the community contribute housing and that it meet the minimum standard of at least two rooms (or one room with a porch/sitting area). Housing must be adequately ventilated with a leak-proof roof, a solid floor and walls, access to year-round water supply, latrine, bathing facilities (often a bucket bath), and secure doors and windows. Some Volunteers find their housing goes way beyond these minimums, while others barely meet them.

Peace Corps/Ghana has Volunteers in all 10 regions of the country. Some sites are very remote, while others are in sizeable towns or cities. Once you arrive in Ghana, you will be interviewed by the associate Peace Corps director for your project to help guide the final placement decision.

Living Allowance and Money Management

The local currency, the cedi, is freely convertible. The exchange rate is determined by market forces. It has fluxuated around 9000 cedis to the dollar since September 2004.

Volunteers are expected to live modestly. Do not bring flashy or expensive equipment. Volunteers can live comfortably on the living allowance provided. There is no reason or obligation to bring additional money. Some Volunteers choose to bring about $100 or $200 for post-service or vacation travel, or to purchase gifts.

As a Volunteer in Ghana, you will receive four types of allowances:

Most Volunteers find they can live comfortably in Ghana with these four allowances. Volunteers are not permitted to supplement their income with dollars brought from home. The living allowance is adequate, and all Volunteers should have no difficulty living modestly. Credit cards are worthless in a rural seeting but can be used in a limited number of establishments in Accra and for travel outside of Ghana. Credit card fraud is high throughout West Africa.

Food and Diet

Ghana has a diverse and flavorful cuisine. You will find yourself cooking creatively with items from Ghanaian markets. Many Volunteers take their meals with friends and neighbors; others enjoy inventive cooking for a fusion of American and Ghanaian flavors.

What food is available to you will vary greatly by region/site location. Common meats and other protein include: chicken and eggs, fish (smoked and dried), beef, pork, goat, grass cutter (small wild animal), beans (bambara, red, and white), and ground nuts (peanuts). Common vegetables include: tomatoes (fresh and canned paste), okra, garden eggs (like small eggplant), onions, kontomire (like spinach), hot peppers, red peppers (very hot), and cabbage. Fruits (in season) include: mango, banana, orange, avocado , pawpaw (papaya), coconut, pineapple, and watermelon. Staple foods include: Bread, coco yam, rice, plantain, pasta, sweet potato, yams, cassava, and oatmeal. Spices include: red pepper (not black), curry pepper, salt, cloves, bay leaves, sugar, fresh ginger, and fresh garlic. Also readily available are: white flour, popcorn, oils, corn flour, dry whole milk, soft drinks, coffee, tea, baking powder, vinegar, crackers, cookies, canned whole milk, and maggie cubes (like beef bouillon). Lettuce, potatoes, apples, cucumbers, cheese, and green peppers, are sometimes available but expensive. At or very near site you will have the basic minimum market of tomatoes, onions, pepe, and some basic starch, with quality varying by season.

Bring recipes that include these items. It is very unlikely that you will have an oven, but you can make a Dutch oven and bake almost as well as with a conventional oven.

Transportation

The main mode of transportation within and around your site is by bicycle. It is very likely that you will ride a bike on a daily basis. Volunteers are provided cash to purchase a bicycle. You must bring a bike helmet with you. Peace Corps/Ghana will reimburse you up to $50 when you arrive for this helmet. Wearing helmets is a requirement. Peace Corps/Ghana prohibits the driving of, or riding on, any two or three-wheeled motorized vehicle. Violation of either of these regulations can be grounds for administrative separation. Volunteers are not allowed to drive cars without the approval of the country director.

For longer distances Volunteers travel by local taxis and tro tros (vans). Longer trips around the country are on large “Greyhound-type” buses. Internal airline service between Accra, Kumasi, and Tamale is provided by two airlines but the cost is out of the range of a Volunteer’s living allowance. For family and friends, many major airlines fly in and out of Accra daily and to other parts of Africa and the world.

Geography and Climate

Ghana, located on the Gulf of Guinea in West Africa, extends about 450 miles from north to south, and 250 miles from east to west (roughly the size of Oregon). Geographically, the country can be divided into three zones: the southern narrow coastal strip of savanna; a broad tropical rain forest extending 150-200 miles north; and the northern savanna area. Lake Volta, formed by the construction of the Akosombo Dam, is the largest manmade lake in the world and is an important geographical feature of the country.

The climate of Ghana is tropical with two main seasons, the dry season from November through March, and the rainy season from May through August. It is hot and dry along the southeast coast. It is hot and humid in the southwest, and dry in the north. During the dry season, the Harmattan affects the northern and southern regions with days of continual cool air, haze, and fine dust.

Social Activities

Volunteers immerse themselves in their communities and take part in the various festivities, weddings, funerals, parties, story telling, local dances, and other interesting activities. Many Volunteers pay special attention to youth and use informal time with them to read, color, play games, sing songs, and do household chores together. Volunteers are encouraged to explore the areas around their community and visit nearby interesting sites during the weekends. Visiting and spending time with people is a primary form of socializing. You will find yourself socializing with friends in their compounds, under a tree, or on a bench for hours on end. Being present is a critical factor in relationship building.

There is a continually changing repository of books at the main Peace Corps office in Accra and at the offices in Tamale and Kumasi.

When you join Peace Corps, you expect it to be difficult.

That’s why you join; to challenge yourself, to give and to grow. You will choose what kind of Volunteer you will be. Will you be the kind who gravitates only to other Volunteers or will you be the kind that goes out of your way to develop strong friendships with Ghanaians? Will Ghana be the backdrop to your American adventure in Africa or will Ghana be in the forefront of your experience?

Professionalism, Dress, and Behavior

One of the difficulties of finding your place as a Peace Corps Volunteer is fitting into the local culture while maintaining your own cultural identity and acting like a professional all at the same time. It is not an easy thing to resolve, and we can only provide you with guidelines.

You will be working as a representative of multiple organizations, and as such you are expected to dress and behave accordingly. While some of your Ghanaian counterparts may dress in seemingly worn or old clothes, this will be due to economics rather than choice. The likelihood is that they are wearing their “best.” A foreigner wearing ragged, un-mended clothing is likely to be considered an affront.

Ghanaians are very meticulous about their dress in the workplace and wear their good clothes. They are particular about their personal hygiene (a real accomplishment in communities of mud-brick houses and no running water), and cleanliness is a sign of respect. Shorts are acceptable around your house after work, but Peace Corps Volunteers must never wear them in public. Above-the-knee length skirts are seen in the cities, but not in small communities. Besides, they are not practical, comfortable, or appropriate when traveling in a crowded bus. Although it is hot here, you can only wear tank tops with small neck and sleeve openings. Tops with “spaghetti-string” straps are only appropriate at the beach, so do not bring too many of these.

You will find that some volunteers adopt the Ghanian attitude about dress and personal appearance while others do not. It is helpful to understand that how you dress on a daily basis will depend on the work you are doing (Environment volunteers are not expected to "go to farm" in their best while Teacher PCV's are expected to dress smartly to school). In addition, cultural attitudes about dress vary from community to community; some villages will be very formal about dress and some will not. However, on the whole, you should realize you will be treated more as a leader if you dress well in your community, no matter the work you are doing and how important that is to you is an individual choice. During travel on public transport, especially in the North, it is especially important to dress well in order to be treated with respect.

Personal Safety

Peace Corps’ approach to safety and security is called the acceptance model. You are safest when your neighbors, friends and colleagues look out for you, when you are accepted into the community. More information about the Peace Corps’ approach to safety is outlined in the Health Care and Safety chapter, but it is an important issue and cannot be over-emphasized. As stated in the Volunteer Handbook, becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer entails certain safety risks. Living and traveling in an unfamiliar environment (oftentimes alone), having a limited understanding of local language and culture, and being perceived as well-off are some of the factors that can put a Volunteer at risk.

All Volunteers experience varying degrees of unwanted attention and harassment. Petty thefts and burglaries are not uncommon, and incidents of physical and sexual assault do occur, although most Volunteers complete their two years of service without personal safety problems. The Peace Corps has established procedures and policies designed to help you reduce risks and enhance your safety and security. These procedures and policies, in addition to safety training, will be provided once you arrive in Ghana. At the same time, you are expected to take responsibility for your safety and well-being.

Unfortunately, as elsewhere, crime does exist in Ghana. Because you are a foreigner and considered “rich,” your new home may be more prone to break-ins than those of your neighbors. Normal precautions such as not leaving your belongings in plain site will usually reduce most risks. Ghanaians are fastidious about locking up their belongings and you must also be careful. Crime at the village or town level is much less frequent, but risks increase in proportion to population size. In urban areas, you must be security conscious. Fortunately, violent crime is not a severe problem. Ghana is considered comparably safe, although in some situations women should be escorted at night or travel in groups.

Rewards and Frustrations

Many Americans never have the opportunity to live in a place where families and the life of the community are literally the most important things. Many people never truly understand how much people can do with seemingly so little, and what a difference just a little help can make in someone’s life. With their familiar habits and routines gone, Peace Corps Volunteers in Ghana learn to develop new routines and relationships, and in doing so, have life changing experiences. What could be more rewarding?

Most Americans coming to Ghana find the pace of life much slower, and for some this is difficult to adjust to. It is especially difficult when you are trying to meet deadlines that you believe are important while everyone around you seems to be on a different schedule. Relying on unpredictable transport rather than just picking up and leaving when you want to, not being able to make yourself clear when communicating, and finding that you really are responsible for making this experience what it turns out to be, can be overwhelming. At the end of two years however, when you realize what you gained and how you adjusted to a new environment, you will see why it was the experience of a lifetime.

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