Saturday, February 28, 2009

Oh, Susanna!

I don’t like Sister Suzy at all. I don’t think any of my students like her, either. She teaches them math (or, as they say in Ghana, “maths,” and the th sound is swallowed so that it sounds like “mass”). I’m usually teaching another class while she’s teaching them, but one time I sat at my desk correcting homework during the first part of her lesson. This is how it went...

She had a pile of exercise books on Adwoa’s desk. She picked up each book, one by one, and read out the name.


Henry walked up to the front of the class to collect his book.

“Turn around,” Suzy instructed. “You got the answers wrong.”

Henry obediently turned around... and received two lashes, right there in the front of the entire class. He winced, scrunched up his face, but managed to walk bravely back to his seat when his beating was over.

“You may sit down,” Suzy said. “Next! Stephanie”

Stephanie went up to get her homework book, but she also had made a few mistakes, so Suzy lashed her twice, too. Stephanie pleaded with her not to lash, and tried to edge her way out of a beating, but to no avail. When she walked back to her desk, she looked like she was about to cry.

One by one, over half of the students went up to collect their books and to receive lashes because they missed some of the problems. I only remember two or three who had gotten all the answers correct and were allowed to collect their books without being lashed.

When Adwoa’s desk was empty of books, she called up the children who hadn’t turned their homework in at all.

“Elorm! Come forward.” When he was before her, Suzy lashed Elorm, once, twice. Rubbing his buttocks, he started walking towards his desk. “Wait! You’re not finished yet!” she said. “You get two lashes if you got any answers wrong, but you didn’t turn in your homework at all. You get more lashes, for that.”

Etc. What a wicked witch!

Now I understand why all my students hate maths. They dread it like a visit to the dentist. Poor dears... they have it three or four times a week, too! I hope they get good math teachers in the upper classes, otherwise I’m sure they’ll hate math for life. I imagine that after having Suzy as a teacher, they’ll grow up hating all nuns, as well.

They love English class. Love it! They become excited about it. “We have English class today, Miss Kate!” I’ve never seen kids more excited about learning English! I wonder how much of their enthusiasm is from their love of English and how much of it is from their love of their English teacher (me!). It’s really cute and really encouraging. If I can make them excited about learning English... think about how far they could go in life!

I never lash them. Ever. Although, if they’re being really bad, I “sack them out” of the class and make them stand in the hallway with their nose touching the wall until I call them back in. If another teacher walks by and catches them fooling around and decides to lash them, I don’t stop it. That was our agreement. Rule #5. Obedient Classroom - NO CANING. I promised I would never cane them, but they must listen to me, because if another teacher thinks I can’t handle the classroom, he might come in and cane them. And it has happened a few times, when another teacher who was passing by heard the racket those two or three troublesome kids were making and lashed them. I felt bad about it, but once they witness one of their classmates being caned, the rest of the class is REALLY good for the rest of the day. I told them that if they are obedient, they will never be caned, because even the other teachers won’t have a reason to lash them.

However, being obedient in Suzy’s class is no guarantee that they won’t be lashed.

Yesterday, I had just finished English class in 4A when Elsie, one of my girls in 4B, came to the door, rubbing her arm. She looked like she was about to cry.

“Elsie! What’s wrong, my dear?” I asked, concerned.

“Sister Suzy lashed me and Lina because we didn’t know the answer in class,” she said.

“What? Wait, you were lashed just because you couldn’t solve it?” I asked in disbelief. Elsie nodded. “Were you trying?”

“Yes, we tried, but we got it wrong. Sister Suzy lashed my arm, and she lashed Lina’s arm so hard there’s blood.”

Oooh, that made me SO mad! It’s one thing to be rude to me -- I can deal with that -- but to lash my girls just because they got the answer wrong in class! It’s probably not even their fault... if they couldn’t figure it out, it must mean that she didn’t teach it properly. I especially couldn’t believe that Lina was lashed! Lina is always very quiet in class and always does her homework. She’s so sweet and meek and I can’t imagine EVER laying a finger on her! How DARE Suzy do that to her!

A couple hours later, after closing, I talked to Lina about it. Just the remembering what happened made her eyes water. She showed me the scar on her arm from the lashing. I gave her a big hug and told her how sorry I was that she was lashed. I reassured her that she’s a very smart, beautiful girl, so please don’t think otherwise. Her twin sister, Lisa, who is in the other class (4A), moaned that if Lina got the answer wrong, she would also get it wrong and be lashed during the next maths lesson.

I’m the exact opposite of Suzy. I always encourage the kids to try to answer, and I don’t put them down if they get it wrong. “Thank you for trying!” Even if a student writes the wrong answer on the board, I make the rest of the class to clap for him or her for trying. “It’s okay to make mistakes!” I tell them. “Everyone makes mistakes. Even I make mistakes. Plus, you’re only in Class 4! You’re still learning! You’re not professionals yet.”

I REALLY dislike Suzy now more than ever for what she did to my kids. I know if I talked to her about, it wouldn’t make a difference; she doesn’t respect me at all. I think I’ll say something to the Headmistress when she returns next week. That’s really so unfair the way Suzy treats these kids!

Friday, February 27, 2009


In the past, I have given candy to the students who brought their homework as a way to reward and to motivate them. I tell them that I can’t bring candy every time, but they should always remember to do their homework, because they’ll never know when I have candy to give out to the good students.

The other day, they asked me to bring them candy if they did their homework this time. (I’ve noticed that the kids here are a bit selfish/piggish/greedy when it comes to candy.) I reminded them I couldn’t bring it every time, and some of them started whining that they wanted me to bring them candy.

“You guys! I’m so poor. I’m a volunteer here. Do you know what a volunteer is? It’s someone who does work to help people, without getting paid. The rest of the teachers are paid each month and have money, but not me. I spent all the money I had on a plane ticket to come here, so now I only have a very little bit of money. When I buy candy for you, that means that I can’t buy something for myself. So I’ll buy candy when I can, but I can’t bring it every time.”

I only told them this so they wouldn’t selfishly expect candy every time and so that hopefully they would better appreciate the candy that I did bring them.

This morning, little Brian came to where I was sitting at my desk, saying he wanted to give me something in secret. He slipped something into my hand and pushed my fingers over it. I peeked inside, and saw a one cedi note and a few ten pesewa coins.

“What is this for? Do you want me to hold this for you?” I asked.

“No, it’s for you! It’s for you to have,” he said.


“Because you said you’re poor. I want you to have some money,” he said.

“Oh, Brian! You really don’t have to. Here, take it back,” I said, but he refused to take it back. I asked him where he got the money, and apparently it’s from his own nine-year-old savings. He absolutely insisted that I keep it.

“Brian, that is so sweet of you!” I said, quite touched by his generosity. “Thank you so much! I’ll use it to buy candy for the class sometimes.”

So, while it’s true that I don’t have tons of money, somehow, with the GH¢1.40 in my purse, such a thoughtful gift from a loving, giving, unselfish student, I feel very rich right now. :)

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Second Term Midterm

We had our midterm break on Monday and Tuesday, so I decided to spend my four-day weekend traveling Ghana. Sister Juliana had invited me to visit her during the midterm break, so I called her up on Thursday night and asked if I were still invited. Of course I was, and I should meet her in Kumasi on Saturday. Okay!

My students, might I add, are ridiculous. Some of them were crying when I said goodbye on Friday. I was like, seriously! It’s only four days! I’ll see you in five days! “Five days is a long time for me!” Ohemaa said, pouting her lips. (This is the same girl who, when I told her I’d be here for another five months still, complained that five months is so short for her!)

I slept in until almost 8 on Saturday morning, but I didn’t set out for my adventure until 10. My first stop was Circle, a station in the north of the city from which most of the buses and cars traveling long distances depart. I wandered through an enormous “car park” (the British/Ghanaian expression for “parking lot”) with trotros headed to cities all over the country, and upon asking a man selling phone cards, was led to a van going to Kumasi. The ticket was only GH¢4.50. I paid for the ticket and sat on the trotro, which departed at noon, and four and half hours later, I found myself at the big Kumasi trotro station.

There was something so refreshing about being back in the rush of a big city! Kumasi is the second largest city in Ghana, after Accra. I always want to live in a big city. Haatso, the suburban town where I live and teach, is too small and spread out. I’m not sure where I’ll end up next (after Africa, I mean), but I hope it’s a big city! Anyway, I called Sister Julie when I arrived, and she talked on the phone with the cab driver to direct him to........ ANOTHER CONVENT! (Can I ever escape?)

The Sisters who greeted me at the Kumasi convent were quite kind. They led me to the room that I would be sharing with Sister Juliana when she arrived, and I rested for a while until they called me to dinner. One thing I remember was that I insisted on doing my own dishes, and the dish soap smelled SO good! Sister Juliana arrived maybe an hour after I did, and I sat at the table while she ate, chatting with the other nuns who were there.

The next morning, the nuns had a meeting about God knows what, so I spent the morning relaxing on my bed with a book. It felt blessedly cool in the morning, and I really enjoyed the way the morning light colored the room I shared with Sister Juliana. I read, slept, daydreamed, read some more, and the morning was wonderfully relaxing! Normally I feel like I have too much to do to relax like that, but with literally nothing else to do, I felt no guilt about my morning in bed!

When the meeting ended, Sister Juliana and I went back to the Kumasi station and found a trotro going to Goaso, the town where she is taking her four-week education administration course. I sincerely thought I was going to die. This rickety old van was going SO fast! The driver was speeding down these really bad roads with horrible potholes, speeding through little villages with pedestrians and children strolling inches away from the road, speeding to overtake other cars and trucks, speeding everywhere! It was the scariest ride of my life! I was praying the entire two hours in the car. It was the kind of crazy driving that turns atheists into believers, when your entire life flashes before your eyes and, if you survive this, how differently you’ll live your life!

Guess what! I survived! It was some sort of miracle, but the trotro didn’t crash. I think God must have big plans for my life... that’s the only explanation. The trotro pulled over to the side of the road about three kilometers away from the town, and Sister Julie told me to get off. As soon as the van’s door opened, about four or five men jumped out and began pissing on the side of the road a few feet away from me, and I was really grossed out. I hate seeing that. It bothers me so much. Okay, so Juliana and I crossed the road next to a sign that read “Catholic Pastoral Center” and walked down a dirt road next to a plantain plantation, basically in the middle of nowhere, with a few buildings up in the distance.

One of these buildings was the guesthouse, where Sister Juliana has been staying for the past three weeks. It felt like a hotel! It was a very new building (I learned later that it was built this past November). Everything was very clean. Juliana’s room had two beds, a closet, a desk, and even a modern painting on the wall. It wasn’t a five-star hotel or anything (obviously), but after my recent living arrangements, it felt like one, especially since the bathroom had RUNNING WATER! My word! WHAT a treat! I’ve never been so excited to take a shower. The water still wasn’t hot, but it did come out of a shower head connected to the wall by a hose that I could hold above my head for a constant stream of cold water (rather than using a cup and a bucket as I’ve become accustomed to). So, yes, it felt very luxurious to me, indeed!

Also, the breakfast felt like a hotel’s. They served this Ghanaian porridge and bread, but the bread came with a choice of either a delicious chocolate-hazelnut spread or peach jam to spread on top, rather than just margarine like I’m used to. Also, we had the option of tea, Milo, or instant COFFEE! Of course I took coffee! I mixed it with Milo, added plenty of milk and sugar, and it tasted almost like a mocha. Okay, all of this may seem like it’s not a big deal, but imagine being a girl who lives for variety but who is living a life of culinary monotony... something as simple as peach jam and a mocha can totally make my day!

I spent Monday morning wandering the town of Goaso by myself. Sister Juliana recommended that I visit the cathedral, which was beautiful, she said. I thought the first church I came upon was the cathedral. It was locked, but I could look inside, and I saw a few dozen plastic chairs strewn around the inside. Ha! Not beautiful. When I had circled the church, I found another, bigger church... the cathedral. It was like an average American church. It did have simple yet pretty panes of colored glass in the windows, which delighted me, and a side chapel with a statue of Jesus that reminded me of a garden gnome. I took lots of pictures of the churches, then explored the town. There wasn’t much to explore. It was a small town, and it had a small town charm, although with a heavily-felt African twist. I discovered a little market where women were selling vegetables, fish, beans, etc, and the way the market women treated me made me really feel like a celebrity, except that I was the paparazzi taking pictures of them! I admired how sharply the colors of the vegetables contrasted with the dull brown of the wooden stalls, and everyone vendor wanted her picture taken. If the school’s internet is ever fixed, I’ll try to post them online, somehow. Anyway, after I wandered around the town for a while, I sat down at a bar with a bottle of Guinness and my notebook and wrote. There wasn’t anything else to do, and I was trying to kill time before lunch. Around 12:30, I got a ride back to the Pastoral Center.

Oh, as a testimony to how WEIRD my life has become... did I mention that all of Sister Juliana’s classmates were also nuns? Imagine me in a dining hall with about 20 nuns! Nuns of all colors! Normally in America the nuns just wear black, but in Africa, their habits (nun uniforms) can be a bright, royal blue, or a pastel orange, or all white, or shades of gray. All of the nuns there were very nice to me, so I didn’t really mind it so much. It was just weird. It seriously took a lot of restraint to keep from standing up on my chair and announcing to the room “MY LIFE IS SO WEIRD!” My goodness! Who just goes and hangs out with nuns?

That afternoon, after resting in the room for a little bit, Sister Juliana told me she was going to class for the afternoon session. “I’m going to Ireland,” I said, holding up my book (A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce). I spent the afternoon reading, then dinner with the nuns, then back to the room, where Sister Julie employed me as her secretary. I typed up the minutes from a top secret nun meeting for her.... oooooh! I had no idea of the scandals that went on in the convent! Typing up the minutes was like reading someone’s diary. I sort of thought that life as a nun was all rosy and boring, but no... ridiculous things go on, and nuns get caught committing crimes that you’d never imagine from a nun, and even though it’s bad, I somehow think it’s SO exciting!

The next morning, I ate breakfast with everyone and said goodbye to the colorful nuns. Sister Juliana dropped me off at Goaso, where I found a trotro to Kumasi, where I found a trotro to Accra... that broke down three times! “You’ve got to be f***ing kidding me!” was all I could think the second and third time I found myself standing next to a van under the hot African sun. I was quite relieved when I alighted at St. John, a junction outside of Accra, where I found a trotro going to Madina. I got off at Haatso junction and walked the last twenty minutes of my journey, hot, tired, and really having to go to the bathroom. I didn’t get back to my house until just before 6PM... but I did make it back!

I was so happy to see my kids today at school! After such a relaxing, refreshing break, I returned to my job as a teacher feeling very calm and patient. My kids gave me dozens of hugs and told me how much they missed me. They were really good and quiet today, and it made me really love being a teacher!

I’m Miss Kate... a teacher. I’m also an adventurer. This was good practice for me, traveling alone. I mean, I’m used to traveling alone in Europe and America, but not in Africa. Now, when spring break comes and I have three weeks off school, I’ll be able to travel wherever I want! I want to see an elephant! In the meantime, I’m staring at a huge pile of laundry that I have to wash by hand. I’m thinking about all the homework I have to correct and the exams I’m supposed to have written. I have so much to do and I hope I have time to finish everything!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A WHAT-pusher?!

I have high hopes for all my students. I want them all to go very far in life. I am very encouraging and always assure them that they have what it takes to go after their dreams; they just need to apply themselves and work hard starting today, in Class 4. They can be whatever they want to be when they grow up. They have high hopes for themselves... doctors, lawyers, pilots, businessmen and women, soldiers, drug pushers?

To encourage them to work hard, I tell them how important it is to speak and to write English well. If they can’t write well, they won’t be able to go to the university. I often ask how many of them want to go to the university when they grow up, and usually they all raise their hands... except for one.

A boy in class 4A named Priest sat with his arms crossed as the rest of his classmates waved their hands enthusiastically in the air, determined to show their commitment to college.

“Priest! Don’t you want to go to the university?” one of his classmates asked him. He shook his head.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” I said.

“A drug-pusher.”

The entire class started laughing. I, however, didn’t find anything funny about that.

“Priest, you are much too smart for that. You will go to the university one day. I’ll make sure of that. You won’t be a drug-pusher. I won’t let you,” I said.

“I was just kidding,” Priest said reluctantly. “I’ll go to the university.”

“You won’t be a drug-pusher. That’s bad. The rest of the class will be doctors and lawyers, living in nice houses, but you’ll be living in jail,” I said. “I won’t let you.”

One of the other students raised his hand.

“Miss Kate, you can go to jail for that?”

“Yes, it’s BAD!” I said, but I noticed a quite a few puzzled looks on the faces of my students that told me either pushing drugs isn’t considered bad or illegal here, or I had made a mistake.

“Wait, Priest, what did you say you want to be?”

“A cart-pusher,” he said. “Have you ever seen someone pushing carts of coconuts on the street?”

I almost burst out laughing right there in class. He had said, “Cart-pusher,” but somehow, I heard “Drug-pusher.”

“Okay, never mind. I thought you said something else. You can’t go to jail for being a cart-pusher... but still, you can do much better than that, Priest! You can go to the university and get a really good job!”

“I know,” he said, concentrating on twirling a pen between his fingers.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009


Sister Dorothy came back today, and I’ve never been happier to see her. Now I won’t be left alone with the evil babysitter (aka Sister Suzy). Although, it must be known that the nuns do NOT babysit me. I’m allowed to come and go as I please. I’m just living in a convent, but it does NOT mean that I am a nun. I don’t have to ask permission to go out and I don’t have to participate in their nun activities (although they did force me to go to church one Sunday against my will). Thank you.

Okay, my life is SO WEIRD. Seriously! What the hell? Who lives in a convent?

In other news...

Apparently, they’ve started giving away the dogs and the puppies. Instead of having twenty-something canines terrorizing me in my own house, eventually I’ll only have three or four, maybe. I’m not a nun, but, Thank you, Lord, Alleluia!

I did think the puppies were ridiculously cute, though. However... puppies grow up into dogs. And while I seriously doubt that I’d hold any bad feelings towards the dogs the puppies will grow into, I’m glad we’re not going to have an additional dozen dogs running around the place. That’s just too much!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Country Music

This is a story I forgot to write about that happened a couple months ago of which I was reminded yesterday. One weekend in mid-November, Fred made plans to hang out with me, but he kind of stood me up, so on the following Monday he just showed up at my house to apologize and to take me out for a drink. We found a hotel called the “Hollywood Lexus” in Madina whose flashing Christmas lights caught Fred’s attention. The inside of the restaurant was draped in curtains and was rather tacky as far as the bars and restaurants I’ve been to go, but for Ghanaian standards, it was niiice. Or so Fred said.

That part of the night made sense... going out for a drink in a nice restaurant with a friend who wanted to make up for standing me up. But something happened on the car ride back that I NEVER would have expected!

Fred is a generally predictable man with a few completely and delightfully unexpected quirks. One such quirk is his love of country music. Country music? In Africa? Apparently so!

Imagine me sitting in a car, silently laughing at the irony of my situation, as my African friend drove me through the crazy Ghanaian traffic, negotiating his way around trotros and taxi cabs, speeding past plantain trees and little shacks selling kenkey and fish by the side of the road... listening to country music. I’ve never been a fan of country music, so don’t remember exactly which songs were playing, but I did recognize the singers’ names (I did attend a midwestern university for four years, you know, where I was one of the minority who refused to listen to country music).

A year ago, if someone had told me that I’d one day be driving through the suburbs of Africa in a car with country music blasting on the speakers, I never would have believed them.

I’ll close with a cliché: Never say never.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

My super fine valentine

Happy Valentine’s Day! My day was so amazing!

It started with coffee. Yes, COFFEE! After the trotro dropped me off at La Paz, I had to wait a little while for Fred to pick me up, and I found a little stand selling bread, fried eggs, Milo, tea, and coffee. I ordered a coffee and sat under an umbrella at a wooden table behind the stand enjoying it. I drank it slowly and people watched as I sipped. When Fred showed up in a taxi to pick me up, I rambled happily about how thrilled I was to have stopped for coffee because my favorite thing in the world is going out for coffee. “Really?” Fred interjected, and I confessed maybe it’s not my all-time favorite thing, but I do love going out for coffee quite a bit and normally do at least two or three times a week, but this was the very first time I’ve gone out for coffee since I arrived in Ghana over four months ago! (Okay, what kind of life do I live to get such a thrill from something as simple as going out for coffee?)

The taxi took us back to his parents’ house, where a canopy and chairs were set up for the after-party of the engagement ceremony for his “sister” (aka cousin). They call it an engagement ceremony now, because the church wedding will follow in a week or two, but before Christianity came to Ghana, this was it. Before church weddings, Ghanaians had this exact ceremony, and voilà! The couple was married! It is basically a traditional Ghanaian wedding ceremony that everyone still observes just to keep tradition before the church wedding. The engagement ceremony was incredible to experience! It deserves an entry of its own, so I’ll write about that part later.

After the engagement ceremony and party, we were supposed to hang out with Fred’s cousin, Marion, who has recently returned from a few months’ holiday in California. She didn’t answer her phone, however, so we were unable to meet up with her. That was okay, because I did something far greater.

I went for a haircut! FINALLY! It’s been about six months since I last cut my hair, and the resulting split ends have been really bothering me lately. Fred and I met up with his friend Mavis who took us to the salon. I was SO nervous. Really. First of all, I can only remember two or three times in my life when someone other than my hairstylist Aunt Karen cut my hair. Secondly, I have long, wavy, brunette hair. Obruni hair. Real hair. Most of the ladies here have fake hair. It’s strange to me! The hairdressers here braid cornrows circling the lady’s head, and take strips of artificial hair and sew them in layers onto the circular cornrows until it looks like the lady has nice, pretty, straight hair. It’s not her real hair, however... it’s fake! If I wanted to have my hair plaited, or have extensions sewn on, an African hair salon would be the perfect place. But for a trim?

One lady washed my hair in a sink, and another one ran a comb through my hair and started to cut with these scissors that weren’t very sharp at all, like little kid scissors. She seemed like she knew what she was doing, but I was still afraid she’d screw it up somehow. I had to remind myself that it’s just hair! It will always grow back. After the haircut, she put my hair in rollers and made me sit under a dryer, where it felt like my head was in an oven. When my hair was dry, she took out the rollers and applied way too much hairspray. But my hair looked great!

I bounced out of the salon, feeling pretty and absolutely beaming. We took a cab to an ice cream parlor/bakery down the street. I was bubbling over with excitement. I LOVE going out for ice cream or pastries or anything with friends, and this was the first opportunity I’ve had to do it in Ghana. We sat at a table for three outdoors, talking and laughing. Yes, I do miss my friends from home terribly, and they are all irreplaceable to me... but it is such a lovely feeling to have new friends to pal around with in a this strange place who A) don’t wear veils and crucifixes and B) are older than 16 (but younger than 45).

I love Mavis! She’s a little quiet, but very sweet. It was so nice to spend my Valentine’s Day with a girlfriend! Mavis is single, too, so she laughed when I started talking about how idiotic men are and how much I hate all men. Of course, every five seconds I had to add, “Except Fred, dear,” so he wouldn’t take my criticism of the male species too personally. (I don’t really hate all men, by the way, but it’s sort of a Valentine’s Day tradition for me to put them down and to celebrate being single and independent.) Anyway, it was wonderful just to laugh and joke around with them. We sat for hours outside the ice cream parlor, and mmm, the ice cream and pastries were delicious!

Fred had planned for us to go out for drinks with his friend Esther, but when we returned to his house to wait, it began pouring rain! It rained and rained and thundered and lightninged, and the power went out for a little bit. By the time the rain let up and the power came back, it was already after 9, which is late for Africa. Fred said we’d make it some other time, but now he had to drive me home. We picked up Esther on the way so Fred would have someone to drive back with him. I was glad we left when we did because there was SO much traffic that it took two hours to get to my house! Ghanaian drivers are RIDICULOUS!

When I hugged Fred goodbye, I thanked him for such a wonderful day. I told him it was one of the best Valentine’s Days I’ve ever had. I had coffee. I witnessed a traditional Ghanaian wedding. I got my hair done. I went out for ice cream. I made new friends. How wonderful! I know that most of those things really aren’t a big deal, but for a girl like me who LOVES going out but who lives with nuns (who do like to go out... to church!), my word! What a great day!

I didn’t tell Fred that, as awesome as my day was, nothing will ever compare to my Valentine’s Day in 2007, when I drank wine and ate an incredible chocolate mousse dessert with my best friend, Erin, at a small but fancy restaurant right across from the Louvre museum in Paris. I don’t care how wonderful my future Valentine may be, or how many roses or chocolates or diamonds he gives me... I don’t believe any Valentine’s Day will ever compare to my Valentine’s Day in Paris.

Friday, February 13, 2009

How long is five months?

How long is five months?

The other day, my 11-year-old brother chatted with me on AIM using our mom’s screen name. He doesn’t know if he can wait five months and a few weeks to see me! Five months seems like FOREVER!

Some of my students, however, feel differently. I found myself surrounded by some of my girls, and they brought up that dreaded topic.

“Miss Kate, how long will you stay in Ghana?” said Makeba.

“I’ll be here for as long as you’re in class 4. When you go to class 5, it will be time for me to leave,” I said. “I’m going back to America in July.”

“When will you come back to Ghana again?” little Nana Ama asked.

“I don’t know,” I said truthfully.

I didn’t expect the response I received. They started crying.

“No, Miss Kate! Please don’t go back! Please stay in Ghana and be our teacher next year!” Ohemaa whined.

“I’m not leaving for a long time! I’ll be here for more than five months. That’s such a long time!”

“No, it’s not a long time for me!” she cried, wrapping her arms around my waist. “Please, stay for twenty more months!”

“Miss Kate, I want you to stay for a hundred months!” said Nana Ama.

“I want you to stay and don’t leave for one thousand months!” Maame said, and there were actually tears on her cheeks!

But there were tears on my little brother’s cheeks, too, for the few weeks before I left for Ghana. He hugged me and begged me not to go. He asked why I wanted to leave him. Oh, of course I didn’t want to leave him! It was just time for me to move on to my next adventure. I kissed his cheeks and promised him I’d be back in 9 months.

“I’ll be your teacher for the rest of the time you’re in class 4,” I promised the girls. But when July 27th comes and I have to say goodbye, I won’t be able to assure my students that I’ll see them again soon. I don’t know when I’m coming back to Ghana, if ever. I don’t know if I’ll ever see them again.

Oh, it’s just too sad to think about! I really can’t wait to go home to see my family and friends and to enjoy the comforts a developed country has to offer, but I don’t even want to think about saying goodbye yet!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Home Alone

Yesterday, Sister Dorothy came to my classroom to say goodbye. I had no idea she was about to leave! She’s traveling until Sunday, I think, which normally wouldn’t be a big deal, except that now I’m basically alone in the house with Sister Suzy.

I feel like a kid who is left alone at the house under the care of the evil babysitter!

Well, Suzy is not evil. But she doesn’t make a very good babysitter.

Last night wasn’t so bad, however. I stopped by the internet café and by the time I came back to the house, it was 7:30 and Suzy had already finished eating. I ate alone. Just as I finished my meal, I received a long distance phone call from West Hollywood that completely made my day! :)

My word! What kind of life do I live? How on earth did I end up living in a convent? My life is SO strange. Who does that? I mean, seriously! Who just randomly moves into a convent? In Africa?

I wanted an unusual life, a life of adventure, a challenging experience. I guess I have what I asked for!

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Valentine's Day

I have Valentine’s Day plans! :) Oh, but not exactly the romantic kind.

Apparently, Fred’s cousin just came back from America and is dying to meet me, so Fred made plans to take me to her house to spend the day with her. She called me this afternoon, demanding to know when she could meet me. I laughed and assured her that she’d see me on Saturday, and she seemed quite pleased about it.

In the morning, however, we’re going to an engagement ceremony! One of Fred’s friends (who is also named Kate!) is having a real Ghanaian engagement ceremony on Saturday morning, and how could I refuse an invitation to witness a Valentine’s Day engagement ceremony?

After the ceremony, we’ll go out with his cousin. Wonderful!

So, it’s my 22nd Valentine’s Day without a Valentine... but that has never bothered me much. Last Valentine’s Day, I was at a job interview in Los Angeles. The Valentine’s Day before that, I was in Paris, completely amoureuse of life! I spent the Valentine’s Day before that drinking wine with my girlfriends. Who needs a Valentine to be happy? Not me!

Who knows? Maybe next Valentine’s day I’ll have a date and roses and chocolate and all that jazz, and that would be nice, but if not, who cares? Valentine’s Day = Celebrate Being Single Day!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

What the hell?

I was walking back into the house, exhausted after a long day at school, when I heard a voice drifting from the dining room.

“The obruni hasn’t eaten yet.”

It was Sister Suzy’s voice. I froze next to the door to the garage, and listened.

“I said, the obruni hasn’t eaten her food,” she repeated.

By the time I walked to the kitchen, Sister Suzy was gone. There was my fufu, covered and uneaten on at my place at the table. It wasn’t ready in time for me to eat during my lunch break, so I had taken bread and Milo for lunch instead. Didi, the cook, had put my serving at my place while I was at school. Oh well, not a big deal, I’ll just eat it late. But did Suzy really just call me that? Obruni?

I was livid. How dare she talk about me like that? Seriously! I have a name, bitch! Is that all I am? Just “White Person?” It’s one thing if a little kid calls me “Obruni!” from across the road, or if a stranger shouts “Obruni!” at me because she doesn’t know my name. But to have someone in my own house call me that, the lady I sit next to every night at dinner... oooh, I really don’t like that. It’s not like she was speaking in Twi, either. She was talking to Didi in English, and she couldn’t use my English name.

Imagine if the situation were reversed, if she were the stranger living in a house of white nuns. Could you ever imagine any polite, normal person saying, “The negro hasn’t eaten?” Of course not! That’s just rude. I felt quite insulted, and I wanted to cry. I had to remind myself that this was Sister Suzy, and I already knew she hated me... no new news there.

I never understood why she hated me. I thought at first it was because she’s a nun and I’m not. I thought she was just a religious snob. Then, one night, I saw her joking around with Hannah, laughing and teasing about something. Hannah’s not a nun, either... but she’s not an obruni. Is that why Suzy hates me?

Okay, maybe “hates” isn’t the correct word. I think a better way to say it... Suzy doesn’t respect me at all. I’m not asking for any kind of special respect other than the respect that every human person deserves. Suzy treats me as though I’m beneath her. I don’t know if it’s because I’m not a nun or if it’s because I’m an obruni, but I don’t like it either way. It was easier to handle when more of my allies were around, but now that I’m basically alone here, it’s much harder on me.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Take a deep breath

I realize I haven’t been writing much, which is largely because I feel that there is so much to write about and it overwhelms me. I’ll try taking it slowly.

Also, after spending 8 to 10 hours every day at the school with the kids, I have a hard time focusing. These kids are nuts, and I’m usually just so exhausted at the end of the day.

At least I’m not teaching the entire time. I teach 13 periods of English per week to class 4A and 13 periods a week to class 4B and 3 periods of French to class 2A. Each period is about 40 minutes. When I’m not teaching, I sit in the back of class 4B’s classroom and grade their homework and plan lessons while trying to get them to stay quiet.

It’s weird, I’ve been getting really bad headaches almost every day for the past week. I don’t know why. :(

Sunday, February 8, 2009


I did some laundry today, and I realized how hard it is to do what I’m doing.

It’s so hard living in a place without running water. My fingers are red from washing my clothes by hand. When I put my hands in the soapy water to wash my dishes after lunch, my fingers stung and hurt so badly! I can’t wait to live in a place with a washing machine or even a laundromat. I miss having a dishwasher or even a sink with a working tap for washing dishes. I would love to take a long, hot shower, and just stand under a spray of hot water, letting its warmth trickle down my skin... but it will be another five months and twenty days before I’ll be able to have that luxury.

It’s so hard living in a place of such monotony. When I first arrived, everything was new and exciting, but now that my life has become routine, I long for variety again. I miss living in a place with many food options! Here, we eat basically the same five foods every meal. The food is good, but I’m so sick of it. I’d love to go out for sushi, or a cheeseburger, or lasagna, or tacos, or a milkshake, or a crêpe. Mmm...

It’s so hard living in a place where everyone prefers to stay home. I’d love to go out. I’d love to go the the movies. I’d love to lose myself in a real bookstore. I’d love to catch a live show with a friend. I’d love to go out dancing. I’d love to start a dance party in my car.

It’s even harder living in a place where I don’t have very many friends. The most interaction I have here is with nuns and nine-year-olds. It’s hard not being able to see the people I care most about for nine months. It’s hard not being able to pick up a phone and call my family and friends whenever I want. It’s hard not even having convenient internet access!

It’s so hard living in a place where I don’t know if I’m making a difference. Really... am I making a difference? What if it’s all for nothing? What if I teach these kids something, but they forget it by the time they reach high school? What if they don’t learn anything from me? What if there is absolutely no point for my being here?

It’s hard being here... but I have a feeling it will be even harder to leave. Some of these kids have a hard time saying goodbye to me when they leave for home, even though they’ll see me the next day. What are they going to do when I leave for good? I love thinking about going home, about seeing my family and friends and a big In-N-Out sign, but I don’t love talking about it with my students, because they become so sad.

That’s life, I guess. This is just one chapter in my life story, and before I know it, I will be on to the next chapter. All I can do is try my best to enjoy this chapter while it lasts. I can try to live in the moment. I can appreciate the good things I have, and put the future from my mind. My future will come soon enough, and I’ll have the rest of my life to enjoy it... but my time here is limited. My first bottle of malaria pills is almost finished. When I take the last pill from that bottle, I will be halfway through my stay. I’d best enjoy what I have while it lasts, don’t you think?

Saturday, February 7, 2009


Sister Regina left this morning. :( I’m quite sad because I really like her. She always treated me so sweetly. She asked me to visit her at school one weekend, and I told her I would. In the meantime, I only have one remaining dinner-time ally: Sister Dorothy. How will I survive until Sister Juliana comes back in March?

I needed to get away from the convent, so I spent today wandering Accra.

I had five objectives: to browse a bookstore, to buy postcards, to buy a map of the world for my classroom, to eat non-Ghanaian food, and to visit the art museum.

I found a few bookstores, but they pretty much sucked. The majority of the books were school textbooks, like what my students have in their backpacks. There were large selections of Christian literature, which isn’t exactly what I was looking for, either. The only non-Christian, non-schoolbooks they sold were second-hand, mostly trashy romance novels and those best-selling thrillers that I despise. I realize that it may be 5 months and 21 days until I can lose myself in a real bookstore... the thought makes me want to cry.

I asked around for a map of the world, but everyone was out! Dommage! I guess my students will just have to wait a little longer. I really want a map of the world for my classroom, because I’m constantly talking about different countries or cultures and I desperately want a nice map to show them what I’m talking about.

I found a few people selling postcards... but they were way overpriced. I will either keep looking or just print my own pictures, which is close to the same cost.

I found a Chinese restaurant! I ate fried noodles with egg and drank chocolate tea milk. It was a tiny place, on the second story. Oh, isn’t that the wonderful thing about China? China is universal. Chinese food is the one international food that can be found in every country. As I sat on a little plastic chair at my table overlooking the rooftops, I wasn’t in Accra; I was in every big city. Mmm, mmm! Eating non-Ghanaian food left me quite satisfied.

I wandered around Accra for a bit, trying to find the museum, but before I could, I found the Art Centre. It was this community where artists and craftsmen live and sell their crafts, mostly to tourists, I think. There was an art gallery with modern paintings, and I must say I was surprised by how much I liked what I saw. All the other “art” I’ve seen in Ghana so far has been very tacky, so I was impressed by how wonderful the paintings here were. There were also shops selling bright African clothes, drums and other instruments, wooden carvings, and wooden masks. I wandered around the Art Centre for a while, and then, finally...

I found the museum! I didn’t go in, though. It cost GH¢6 for non-Ghanaians to enter. I had planned to leave Accra a half an hour later, so I decided to save the museum for next time. Now that I know where it is, I’ll have no trouble finding it again. Next time, I can go and spend as much time as I like there!

I found a trotro going my direction right away, and from the time I sat down to the time I walked into the school compound, almost an hour had passed. So, while I didn’t complete all of my objectives, and while Accra wasn’t all I dreamed it could be, it was still nice to see a change of scenery and get out of Haatso for the day.

PS: I’ve been here for four months. Strange! It feels like I’ve been here for so much longer!

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The benefit of having allies

I’m a sweet, easy-going person and I like everyone I meet... except Sister Suzy. I don’t like her.

The other night at dinner I wanted a hot drink, but the table where the tea, Milo (hot chocolate), and sugar are usually kept was empty. Sister Dorothy helped me find the tea, which had been hidden in a drawer. Sister Suzy announced that she had packed it there because of the ants (which, incidentally, aren’t a problem if the lids are screwed tightly on the jars). The next night, I looked in the drawer, but the tea wasn’t there, either. Sister Anne found it locked away in the little cabinet under the TV, and gave some to me. This afternoon, I was quite hungry for lunch, but Didi was still pounding the fufu and I didn’t think it would be ready in time for me to eat before my next class. Usually when this happens, I take tea and bread for lunch... but today, I couldn’t find it anywhere. The table was empty, the drawer was empty, and the cabinet under the TV was locked and no one knew where to find the key. I knew Sister Suzy was responsible, and I felt such resentment for her, although I didn’t think she had locked it away on purpose. I assumed she was just being thoughtless in packing it away without considering that some people take tea during the day.

Oh, but tonight! She was sitting on the sofa behind me, watching TV, and I asked her where the tea was.

“Why do you want tea right now?” she asked.

“Because I like hot drinks,” I explained.

“It’s with me. I packed it away so it doesn’t finish,” she said. (Yes, that is how Ghanaians talk. They use the word finish much more often than necessary.)

“Oh,” I said, confused, and turned back to my spaghetti. I had thought the tea was for everyone to use... I hadn’t realized it was just for her. Before three nights ago, the tea and Milo and coffee (if we had it) were left out on the table all the time, for anyone to take, although usually only Sister Juliana or I take it at night. After a few minutes of thinking about it, I turned around again, and apologized. “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize the tea was just for you. I thought it was for everyone.”

“It’s for everyone, but I’m managing it. I don’t want it to finish before the end of the month, or I’ll have to pay for it,” she said.

I suddenly understood. It must be her month to manage the food budget. I remember Sister Bibi explaining it to me once, that they take turns being responsible for the food money, and if they’re not careful, they may use up the money before the end of the month and have to compensate with money from their personal allowance.

“Oh, okay. Do you know where the Milo is?” I asked.

“The Milo is also with me,” she said.

“Can I have some Milo, then?”

“No. It will finish,” she said.

“Oh, okay,” I said, feeling somewhat abashed.

I was a little bit disappointed that I couldn’t drink tea that night, but that’s not why I was upset. I just couldn’t believe the way she handled it. Instead of just explaining that she mismanaged the money and that there was only enough tea to take it once a day, she hid the tea from me, locking it away in a cupboard, as if I were a five-year-old child. Wow. She seriously treats me like five-year-old... as though I’m not really worthy of notice or intelligent enough to have a conversation. I stared at the television set, pretending to be interested in the news, but really just wanting to avoid eye contact with anyone in the room because I felt like I was about to cry.

I overheard Sister Dorothy giving Suzy some money and telling her to buy some Milo, sugar, and powdered milk for me, so that I could take a hot drink at night. I was really, really touched by this. Even though Sister Dorothy can be an absolute bat sometimes, she has always been an ally, and I’m grateful she’s around, especially now, when almost all of my other allies are gone.

Suzy took out some of the Milo we already had for me to drink. As I sat at the table, blowing on the hot water to cool it down, I felt like a spoiled grandchild. Yes, it was nice to take a hot drink after dinner, but that’s not why I enjoyed it. What I enjoyed most was the feeling that yes, even though I’m living in a freaking convent in the middle-of-nowhere, Africa, I’m still surrounded by people who care about me and, somehow or another, my needs will all be met.

Monday, February 2, 2009

What makes nunneries undesirable

Yes, we all know how comedic my life has become since I started living in a convent almost four months ago. Even comedies, however, have their conflicts and bad moments. When I first arrived, I found that living in a convent was much better than I anticipated, so I didn’t mind it so much. I wrote about life in a convent when I first arrived, but the dynamics have changed quite a bit, and I don’t like it so much anymore. Convents can really suck, depending on the type of nuns who live there.

I live with two types of nuns... my allies and the ones who dislike me.

When I first arrived, I was greeted by Sister Juliana, Sister Dorothy, and Sister Bibi. The next day I met Sister Anne, who I thought didn’t like me at first, but now I see I was wrong. She and I are pals now. Living with just the four of them was nice, because we all got along so well.

A week after I arrived, I learned that another nun lives here, too, who was too sick even to leave her bed. Her name is Sister Germaine. After a few weeks, she started getting up and walking around, and although she’s still too sick to leave the house other than hospital visits, she is no longer too sick to leave her bedroom. She comes into the kitchen from time to time and chats with me, but she still takes all her meals in her room, so I don’t see very much of her. She’s usually nice, although she does tend to lecture when I’m doing the dishes incorrectly. She’s an ally.

Another ally is Sister Regina. She showed up a few weeks before Christmas. Apparently, she had met me before, but I didn’t remember meeting her. You see, there have been so many nuns who have passed through here and there is no way I can remember them all. When Sister Regina came a week or two before Christmas, I thought she would only stay for a couple days... but she didn’t leave! She’s definitely my favorite, besides Sister Juliana. When I was going through a hard time around the holidays, she took me aside and insisted that I confide in her, so I did. Ever since then, she’s called me her “sweetie” and is always so happy to see me. However... she’s leaving later this week to go to school until her next break in May! I’m so sad!

There is another nun named Sister Faustina who lives here. I think she’s actually been here the whole time, but it took about a month for me to realize that she lives here and wasn’t just visiting frequently. I think she’s teaching somewhere nearby, but she’s hardly ever around and she never eats with us. She dislikes me. She never bothers to have a conversation with me and tends to act a little bit cold toward me, but at least she usually smiles and greets me when she enters.

I can’t say the same for Sister Constance. She came here sometime in November. Sister Constance rarely smiles at me, and usually ignores me. She eats with us occasionally, but I don’t like when she does. Even though she can speak English without a problem, she often speaks in Twi at the dinner table, which I don’t understand very well. I feel excluded from the conversation... until she starts talking about me, in front of my face, in a different language. I know when she’s talking about me, because she calls me “obruni.” Oooh, I hate that. I have a name, you know, and my name is not “white person.” Bitch. How rude is that to talk about someone in front of her face in a language she can’t understand? Fortunately, she’s usually out late, so I don’t have to see very much of her.

And then we have Sister Suzy. She arrived in December, and has started teaching math and science at the school. She never lets me forget that I live in a convent, because of all the nuns I live with, she’s the only one who acts like one. If the chapel were a party, she’d be so much fun (she’s always the last one of the nuns to leave). Her conversations are mostly about priests and nuns and church-related things... from what I overhear. She hasn’t bothered to have a real conversation with me. When she first arrived, I tried to get to know her, and I’d ask her questions about herself, but she always gave the briefest possible answers and stopped talking. I definitely got the vibe that she didn’t think I was worth her time, or even worth noticing, really. When she first arrived, she always cleared the table, going from person to person taking each of their plates to the sink and washing them... except mine. I didn’t really care, because I don’t really mind doing my own dishes anymore, and I’m glad she wasn’t sucking up to me like she was to the other nuns... but it definitely did make me feel that she thought of me as beneath her. She’s so sickeningly deferent to everyone else, like a pathetic little mouse, such a suck up to the other nuns. She acts very meek and obedient to the other nuns, and I’ve never seen her question them or defy them in any way. Whatever they tell her, her reply is always, “Yes, Sister.” Always. With me, she yells at me for stupid little things and treats me like a child, which is strange because she’s only a few years older than I. I’m not a huge fan of her.

Living with Sister Suzy was bearable... until now. Sister Bibi has been gone for good for over two months. Sister Anne started night classes again this week, so she’s never around anymore. Sister Germaine still takes her meals in her bedroom. Sister Juliana will be gone for the entire month. Once Sister Regina leaves, my only remaining ally will be Sister Dorothy. She’s old, and sometimes, I feel like she’d rather talk to the TV than to me. Besides her, the remaining housemates dislike me. Get me out of here! :(