Julie and I were married just three weeks before departing for Ghana, West Africa, where we would spend the next two-and-a-half years as Peace Corps volunteers, teaching secondary students in a rural and impoverished school. We joked that we were beginning our real, extended honeymoon, a reference we made many times during the course of our time there. We had attempted to learn as much as we could about Ghana prior to leaving, but information on the country is often outdated and in short supply, so we really had no idea what to expect. But the next 27 months brought more ups and downs than anything I’ve ever before experienced.
We were immediately welcomed into the homes and culture of our village. Everyone wanted to be our friend, some more forcibly than others. In time, we learned to cook local dishes, always over a charcoal pit and open flame. I finally learned how to tie and wear a “cloth,” the traditional fabric robe worn by African men, after many unsuccessful, embarrassing and partially naked attempts. Our hands became calloused from washing our clothes by hand. Our palates adapted and we eventually relished such delicacies as bushrat, grasscutter, antelope, porcupine and cat, every part of which was eaten. We learned to eat fufu, kenkey, omo tuo, banku and akepele, all served with a spicy and oily soup, using only the fork and spoon a Ghanaian will tell you God presented each of us with at birth.
While trying to keep up with the pace of dinner with our local friends, our hands would be scorched by the boiling temperatures of the food as we held back our breath and our tears. Our senses were liquefied by Akpeteshie, the local liquor distilled from the sap of palm nut trees. We would elbow our way onto the overloaded tro-tros, or mini-buses, that were always hazardously speeding to their destinations. We were living as Ghanaians did, and it was deeply gratifying and uplifting to assimilate fully into the beautiful and elegant culture that traditional Ghana presented to us.
The school we were assigned to was rural, impoverished and merely a collection of dingy, half-constructed buildings dropped into the middle of a rain forest. Our students ranged from 13-24 years old and possessed a wild array of intellectual talent and ambition. Oddly enough, in a country with more than 90 indigenous languages, it was their level of English proficiency that predetermined their performance in school.
We toiled to keep up with the Ghanaian education system’s overzealous syllabi, which crammed five years of material into just three often-interrupted ones. The students slowly began to comprehend our accents, and we did the same with theirs. We faced many obstacles, yet over the two years everyone learned, developed and was changed in a unique way never again to occur in any of our lives.
The most rewarding work for me was relating to HIV/AIDS awareness and education. Ghana has an HIV infection rate much lower than most sub-Saharan African countries, but it still is a problem, especially among the adolescents. As teachers, we integrated ourselves into a segment of Ghana’s population that placed us in a prime position to impact the future generation in regards to HIV awareness and prevention. I included scientific understanding of HIV as part of my core science class, as a prelude to the after-school HIV/ AIDS Awareness Club that stimulated many students more than anything else they encountered in school.
Many became so passionate about the efforts we were making they expressed interest in focusing on this type of work after completing school. Our club took an active roll in educating the community, as well as surrounding ones, of the effects that HIV and AIDS can have on their livelihoods and their culture. People, even those we think of as uneducated because they have never attended school, have an innate receptive sensor that tunes in intensely when presented with information that can benefit their families and keep them healthy. People in Ghana listen; the problem is that many times they have no one to listen to.
On countless occasions we would meet Ghanaians who would leap off the ground, hug us, yell something wildly to their accompanying friends and extol us for dedicating ourselves to this service in their country. Through our experiences in Ghana, we grew as individuals, as educators, as a married couple and as members of a world and not merely a nation.
Scott Hoffmann is a member of the Class of 1998.