Peace Corps Volunteer,
Health and Sanitation
[Ms. Chin is a single Asian American woman in her mid-thirties. She has completed an advanced degree in biology, and has worked professionally as a biologist. She was nearing the end of a two-year assignment as a Peace Corps Volunteer in a town near Kumasi, in Ghana's Central Region. She conversed with Allan Wicker in a conference room at the Peace Corps Ghana headquarters in Accra.]
I'm a health education, water, and sanitation volunteer. I work in a small farming town in the Ashanti Region. I educate the townspeople to improve their primary health care, and work with them on sanitation and potable water projects. I've helped the town build a teaching health clinic that will be staffed by medical students from the University of Science and Technology in Kumasi. Also, the previous volunteer in the town--the person I replaced--helped dig five wells by hand--since that time the people have dug four more wells themselves.
I've also started a nutrition project, but that's not going too well because I introduced foreign foods--that project just has to be done another way. Another project was to assist in building Mozambique-type latrines, which are vented toilets with a cement slab cover. They are put into individual households--they are easy to maintain, very low in cost, and don't require communal labor. Generally a single household can afford to have one. With a little assistance, the family can have their own latrine in a couple of weeks. And then there's health education in the churches in the town. We talk about AIDS a lot, about teen-age pregnancies and birth control. We talk about nutrition until we're blue in the face. We talk about sanitation, but that's kind of a hard one because the consequences of unsanitary practices don't manifest themselves very quickly.
[Could you describe for me a typical day?]
There is really no typical day. But I'll give you several kinds of days. In the first one, I get up at 5 a.m., make breakfast, brush my teeth, do chores like sweeping my room and the compound. If it were a light day, I might do my laundry. If it's a communal labor day, I'd go out to the work site by 7:30 or 8:00 to make sure work gets started, then I would leave--I don't want to be heavy-handed about what I'm doing--and come back periodically to check up on how the work is going. I might then visit a couple of Ghanaian friends--one is a tailor, whom I might bug for being a couple of months late in making some clothes for me. I might also visit with the Salvation Army pastor; we might talk about what we should do about our town. These are two of my best friends in town.
If it were an atypical day, I might go out to the District baby weighing clinic to help out, by weighing and recording vaccinations. Or I might see one of the District administrators to seek help for one of the communal projects that the town can't afford to do on its own. Sometimes I go to the National Service coordinator; we work with primary health care National Service people. (Ghanaian college and university students are required to serve in the National Service upon completion of their studies.) Or I might go shopping in Kumasi, which is 25 miles away, to get supplies for communal labor projects. It varies. On days when I'm really, really frustrated, I'll go out to visit another (Peace Corps) Volunteer.
Our town is a farming community; it has no market except for a couple of tomato sellers. If I want to beg food off people, I can. They could definitely support me and I wouldn't have to spend any money on food. But I couldn't get any meat. So some days are market days for me. I'll go to another town about nine miles away and do my shopping there.
[How do you feel about the work that you do?}
It has evolved. When I first arrived, I was very, very anxious to get started on a project. I followed in the footsteps of another volunteer, and there was a project all ready for me. It was to finish one of the wells for clean drinking water and put a pump on it. Then I was caught up in doing a clearly defined project.
After that we started a nutrition project--getting a corn mill from UNICEF. If the community had built a building to house the mill we could start producing a product called "wean mix." The mix would provide a high protein food for weaning children. I was caught up in this, but I realized several months after the mill was completed that this project just was not working, and nothing I was doing was getting it to work. Then I recognized that it should not depend upon what I was doing--and so my idea about how I feel about work began to evolve. I decided that in the next project I did, host country nationals (townspeople) have to be more involved. I became really strict in requiring that they participate in the project, in the planning--including details like who was going to come to work, on what days--all that kind of thing. I came to see that if the townspeople's participation wasn't forthcoming, I should stop the project and re-evaluate it.
This was a very frustrating time for me, because I was also figuring out the community dynamics. On some days I would feel really great about the project, and on some days, I would feel like, "Good Lord, why am I doing this? Does anybody want this?" Eventually I saw that they really did want it, but that they didn't want to do it the way I wanted to do it, so that meant a restructuring of what we were doing.
On some days, it's really frustrating because it's a different culture. Every assumption you have is tested. It's very strange to realize that all the assumptions you've had about working are cultural. You have to re-evaluate so many things. So that's frustrating.
[Could you talk about some specific assumptions?]
Oh, the common things. You want to start communal labor at a particular time, and that never happens (laughs). But people expect you to be there on time, so they can come and give you the excuse for why they're going to be late. Then there are other things. For example, communal labor is supposed to be for the entire town. We entrust to certain people the keys to the room where all the tools are kept. And the people are trustworthy--you never find a tool missing. But sometimes the people will take the tools to do their own work. And sometime that just sends me. One day I said to one man, "I'm tired of this. I'm going to the police, and you'll be arrested for stealing." But he said, "Nothing was stolen, the tools weren't being used, so I used them." The idea that somebody would take another person's or another group's things to use for their own benefit just because the taken items are not being used, was a little different for me. I had a bit of trouble with that.
You know, now I have a completely different view of development than before. And it's unfortunate that Peace Corps assignments are only two years long, and that I don't want to extend my stay for another two years, because I would probably be much more effective. I would push more for community organization and for community leadership. And I would push for no money being brought in for projects; they would have to look for ways to do things without outside help. This would stretch their creativity on projects. I feel good about coming to this realization. I feel that I should write all these things down for the next Peace Corps Volunteer who comes into my sights so they won't have to reinvent the wheel, like I had to. I'm sure that my predecessor came to the same conclusions--it would just be impossible not to.
Now I think of myself not as someone who is instigating things in a community, but as part of a process. If I'm doing something and I keep saying "I, I, I"--that's a no-no for me now. If I can assist and then stand away and a project takes off by itself, that's good. If they start doing something, and I don't have anything to do with it, except perhaps occasionally monitoring to see that it's going in the direction people want it to go, then I feel really good about it. And even if something flops or fails, I don't feel like it's a failure because people have tried. I don't find that too upsetting anymore. And I don't take these things personally.
[What would you say are the most satisfying aspects of what you do?]
Personal things. One time a child had a foot that was going gangrenous, and I didn't think I could handle it. It was raining and the roads were so bad it wasn't possible to get a car out of the town to take her to the clinic. So that day I had to treat her foot. I think I gave her all the antibiotics I had. I had to deal with something I never thought I could handle. That was very satisfying. The next day it stopped raining and I packed the child off to the doctor. She's fine now. Her foot didn't get worse because of my treatment, and I didn't throw up (laughs).
Personal relationships can be satisfying. The tailor in town that I mentioned is a very community-minded man. His uncle was the town's chief, and he feels a responsibility toward it. He's one of the most organized people I know. He has two wives and about five kids. I've worked with him on projects.
There are also frustrations, like always being asked for money. That's just old. Always being told that obrunis (white people) are rich. Being accosted sexually--that's never been fun. It doesn't happen much, except at funerals when people have been drinking. Demands for handouts from people I know in the town--even after two years when they know I don't like that.
Also, most of the people in my town don't speak English. Some days I find it frustrating to have conversations on the level of a two-year-old in a combination of English and Twi. Mentally it's challenging. I got a dog, and talked to him in long monologues in English. That was satisfying. Unfortunately I lost him when I returned home to attend my mother's funeral.
My nearest PCV (Peace Corps Volunteer) friend is five miles away from the town. I requested to be close to another volunteer. Unfortunately, she was the PCV most often in the medical unit in Accra. She was away for long periods--even had her appendix removed.
Although I have wanted to be a Volunteer for a long time, I think I would have been better suited to do it ten years ago--before I started graduate school. It would have been better physically; but maturity-wise, probably not.
[Could you describe your living conditions?]
I live in a cement house. I have one room and a bathing area, which is just a cement room with a hole for a drain. There is a flush toilet, but no running water. There is a closet-sized room for a kitchen. It is a compound house; there are five bedrooms, each occupied by a different family. There is no electricity in the house. The closest potable water now is only about 40 feet from the house; a well was recently sunk there. I use that for bathing water. Before the well was there, I used to go about a quarter of a mile to another well. I often carried it myself. I would also get young boys to help. But there was a point at which I became pretty leery about doing that because the mother of one of the boys who helped was taking streptomycin for a cough, which meant to me she might have TB, and the boy was also coughing. But I tested positive for TB anyway--I don't think anything happened to my lungs, but I was exposed. So I started carrying my own water again--I still use the more distant well for drinking water.
My biggest fear in coming to Ghana was of becoming seriously ill. I finally told myself, "it's a challenge, so you should go." I've been through a few things. I have giardia now, like all the time. I've had bacterial dysentery. I haven't had worms--that's real good. I've had malaria once, but I didn't want to tell the medical officer that I wasn't taking my malaria pills. I didn't seek medical treatment, but just went and got some chloroquine, and since it cleared up, I figured that was it. I've had pneumonia, of all things. I let a cold go during the dry season, and ended up with fluid in my lungs, and wasn't real happy about that. I had dengue fever. I've had cuts go septic. Oh, it's just been amazing. But I've had a pretty mild stay here. I don't have horror stories that some people have, but to me it was a big deal.
When I would call people back home, they would say, "God, why are you still there?" I would say that it's not that bad, but I hardly ever was feeling good. And I'm sure there were times that my physical state did not help my mental state. When you're sick, everybody wants to come to visit you. But what you really want to do is just lie in bed and sleep. There is no good way to tell people they should leave.
As for hazards, there are snakes--green mambas--near my house, which is a bit outside of town, close to farm land. It's quieter, but there are more "critters." The ants are really bad. I find ants in my laundry bag, or in food that has been left out. Then there are the black army ants. One night I went out without a flashlight to visit some friends, and coming back, just as I was approaching my house, something attacked my feet. I was jumping up and down, trying to get the door open. When I got in, I shook off about 30 ants. I got a flashlight and went out, and saw that there were eight lines of these ants converging on my house. (laughs) That was really funny. I retreated to my room, poured kerosene around the bed, and prayed to God I didn't have to use the bathroom. They were just outside the door, but didn't come in my house. And there are some green worms, that if they touch your skin, it blisters. I had that experience when I was weeding around my house.
(Could you say something about the people you work with?)
Unfortunately, because it's a rural area and the educational level is rather low, my friends in town are mostly men. The lack of women friends makes me feel lonely sometimes, because I don't have females to talk to about different physiological problems, you know. (laughs) I usually hang out with men in town, and they're generally people who have more than the usual junior secondary education. It's because I need to talk to people, and language is a problem with others.
(Does your being an Asian American lead to special reactions from people?)
Not in my town--there I'm just an American. But once I get out of my town, people sometimes call me by the name of a Japanese character in a television show that they have seen. And some people who have never been to the US say, "I know what Americans are like, and you are not one of them." And African Americans have very different experiences, some of them unpleasant. I went shopping with two other Peace Corps Volunteers; one was African American and one was Anglo. The Anglo friend bought something, and the clerk put the purchase in the bag and handed it to the black American, like this was a "small girl"--a servant of the white American. I just about lost it! I couldn't believe it. I thought, "oh my God, the clerk thinks you're her 'small girl'." There is bigotry here that you would just not expect.
That's another thing I hate about my job. My town people will often use me for my color. People needed some materials for the school workshop that they're building. Even though I'm not part of that project at all, they'll send me. The District Office will allow a fellow Ghanaian to sit for hours, even wait until the next day, but they won't allow me to sit that long. That's just ridiculous. And if I go to the bank, the bank manager won't let me wait in line with everybody else. He will take me aside and into his office. That grates on my nerves quite a bit. Non-blacks get special treatment. Believe me, I lost my sense of racial identity a long time ago.
(How does your family regard the work you're doing?)
My mother died while I was here on assignment, and the only surviving relative is my sister. She thinks I'm completely nuts--that doing this is a bad career move, that I'm going to die, that I'm going to come home with a Masai warrior for a boyfriend--that's the wrong part of the continent, of course. (laughs) She never considered coming here for a visit. I tried really hard not to write about negative things, about getting sick or the ethnic conflicts up north. I tried really hard.
I have been writing to a male friend, and we talk on the phone at least twice a month. And we write pretty often. Also, two of my former bosses were in the Peace Corps. They've been pretty understanding and can empathize. I write to them.
(Do you have a philosophy of work that you could summarize?)
I like working, I like working hard, I like working on things that I feel passionate about. I like being around other people who share my view of work.
(Any final thoughts?)
I like the Peace Corps, I would do it again. I like the people I work with here. When you move someplace for two years and live among people with a salary that's commensurate with theirs, that's really satisfying. It's satisfying to them, because you come and work in a place without any electricity or running water, you've gotten sick with them. That's important to them, and it's important to me.