A Peace Corps volunteer reflects on his time in Ghana
The author spent two years in Ghana from 2007 to 2009 working with the Bormase helping with the cultivation of the Moringa tree, whose leaves are rich in vitamins.
By Ira Shaughnessy ’00
Obruni, wo ho te sen? Blefono, o nge saminya lo? Siliminga, kawula?
I spent two years in Ghana with the Peace Corps between September 2007 and November 2009. The country has 79 documented languages and loosely defined tribal borders, so I often kept my bearings there by listening to the “White man, how are you?” greetings that followed me for two years. When I left the U.S. with 47 other Peace Corps trainees, we were told the three simple goals of Peace Corps were to help make a sustainable difference in Ghana, to promote a better understanding of Americans among Ghanaians and to promote a better understanding of Ghanaians among Americans.
We scoffed. Each of us had bold expectations of how we would change the world. However, within one month, before any of us had moved from training to our respective assignments, five trainees had gone home to the States. After three months of training in language, culture and technical skills, my fellow Peace Corps volunteers and I were on our own.
I lived in Bormase, Ghana. (Asesewa is the closest place that shows up on Google Maps). A village of roughly 600, Bormase has four chiefs, one road, no electricity and no running water. As an agro-forestry volunteer, I was given the task of teaching the village about Moringa, a tree whose leaves are highly nutritious. Before my training, my green-thumb qualifications were limited to throwing hay bales, shoveling cow patties and accidentally yet inevitably killing store-bought orchids. Knowing that I was in no position to give advice, I observed.
It didn’t take long for me to notice Dorothy, the matriarch of my host family and one of the driving forces within the village. The daughter of a retired Ghanaian soldier, Dorothy ran the home and her endeavors with military precision. Dorothy raised chickens, ran a gari mill (for the grinding of cassava) and made soap by hand. She also ran storefronts in Bormase and a neighboring village. In her spare time, she helped run adult education programs and monthly baby weigh-ins.
To assuage the guilt that my comparative malaise inspired, I started a Moringa farm. I learned early that while I may not have been a Moringa expert, I was a curious spectacle, and people paid close attention to my activities. In addition to keeping me busy, my farm would attract attention and would get people talking. Over several weeks, I cleared an acre of land and planted 3,000 Moringa trees. My fast-emaciating body would walk up the road with rudimentary tools in hand each afternoon. Hours later, I would make the same walk in reverse but with mangled hands and sweat-drenched clothing. Once home, I would wash up and walk to the village borehole.
As a 6-foot, 3-inch, stick-thin white man, I stood out from the others at the borehole to collect water. The children who surrounded the borehole ranged in age from 2 to 15, and the only way I could tell the difference between boys and girls were the stud earrings the girls sometimes wore, as most children kept their heads closely shaved and wore filthy underpants and maybe a shirt. I’d wait my turn, fill my 5-gallon jerry cans and make a few round trips hauling 40 pounds atop my head. Between trips, I would exchange basic greetings in the local Krobo language, joke with the kids and sometimes help the smaller children pump water, barely able to match the efficiency and strength of an 8-year-old girl.
Every two days, if my work didn’t completely sap my energy, I’d reward myself with an hour on the soccer field, which was located between the one-room primary school and the sole road. It pitched at least 10 degrees from side to side and sported bamboo goal posts and a surface made of grass, sand and massive sub-surface stones. Athletic attire of my fellow soccer players ranged from barefoot to cleats, knock-off pro jerseys to bare skin. I had 13 years of formal coaching, unlike those with whom I played, but many were just as good and some were even better. After a very informal practice, I’d head home for dinner.
For our family meals, three to six would gather around one shared food bowl filled with a starch ball (cassava, local yam, plantain, fermented maize or a combination of these), tomato- and oil-based soup and maybe dried fish for protein. After dinner, I’d enjoy an open-air bucket bath under the stars and head to bed to read by headlamp light.
After months of this routine, I started to notice some changes. A simple handshake earned me instant respect among local farmers. My calloused hands, put to shame by the hands of the locals, proved to them that I was at least trying. Furthermore, my trees were growing quickly, my language skills were improving and my WCAL training was earning me respect on the soccer field. Soon, Sub-chief Patrick Kofi took me under his wing. Like Dorothy, Patrick was a multi-talented entrepreneur. Trained mason, teacher and bead-maker, Patrick was also an early adopter of Moringa and the local soccer ref. Though Patrick may not have been the only Bormase native with this broad skill set, he also spoke fluent English. A sinewy 6-footer, Patrick was unimposing physically yet always made his presence known. Patrick was the first of many community members to approach me with an idea.
As many as 70 percent of the men I met take part in the Krobo tradition of bead-making, traditionally done by pounding plate glass into powder using steel rods and stones. Years ago, an NGO came into the village and built a glass-grinding machine to facilitate the process, turning glass into powder in seconds. After the NGO had left, a belt broke and a water tank rusted through on the machine, rending it useless for nearly three years. Repair meant spending $80. As is true all too often, the aid organization put money towards a cause and left. While villagers appreciated the machine, nobody knew how to maintain or repair it, and nobody from the NGO was around to help. I put $80 of my $220 monthly salary towards repairs and received a percentage of bead sales until the debt was repaid.
Over the next 18 months, Patrick served as translator and project manager for numerous endeavors. We taught HIV education to 80 young soccer players using the Grassroot Soccer model. We helped village members purchase more than 100 subsidized bicycles through The Village Bicycle Project. We added four classrooms to the primary school through a Peace Corps Partnership project. Finally, Patrick and I collaborated with bead makers from Bormase and neighboring villages to make a central workstation. Rather than laboring individually under thatched roofs, bead makers could work together, directly next to the machine. They also bought spare parts for the machine in case it broke down again, and they promised to teach local youth the traditional craft. Both of these actions guaranteed sustainability for the project.
As eager as I was to make a difference in Bormase, I came away learning more than I taught. The Peace Corps helped me to provide access to the Internet, to aid agencies and to friends and family back home. Patrick, Dorothy and many others in Bormase were ready for such an opportunity and took advantage. Community members drafted every budget and grant proposal, and local craftsmen and artisans provided construction, transportation and project planning.
When I left Bormase, people of the village were both thankful and proud. In fact, I left the village with the school and bead center incomplete due to lack of time and funding, and returned to the U.S. and to a privileged life. Later, I received word that the villagers had completed both projects after each of the chiefs collected contributions from their communities. While I can’t guarantee that my projects will be sustained far into the future, I do know that I helped build skills and capacity in the village. I didn’t simply throw money and buildings at the problem.
My Peace Corps experience changed my life. I would recommend this sort of service to anyone at any age. To the majority of you who have the means to help in other ways, please seek out organizations similar to those mentioned. Your time and effort will always go farther than money, but such organizations will at least let you put your money behind the time and effort of others.
The author, the son of longtime SI faculty member Michael Shaughnessy ’67, works as the sustainability manager at Dow Chemical, focusing on energy recovery technologies and keeping plastic out of landfills. “Ghana showed me what I took for granted. The impact I had abroad inspired me to gain influence domestically and encouraged me to go back to the University of Michigan.” There he earned his MBA and master’s in Natural Resources and Environment, focusing on sustainability strategy and behavior change. He joined the Peace Corps as “I always had been interested in doing so and was motivated by not loving my job at the time.”
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