You can take the girl out of DC


Recently I’ve been missing Washington, DC. I miss lying on the Capitol Lawn reading a book and tourist-gawking. I miss wandering the Smithsonian museums. I miss Big Bear Café and Eastern Market and Capitol Hill Books, my three favorite haunts. I miss Busboys and Poets and their earth-stopping sweet potato fries and the Eleventh Hour Poetry Slam (I even find myself snapping my fingers in applause during ceremonies while my other hand hoists my camera).

I suppose, too, in a way, I miss the constant talk of politics and the excitement that envelops each such conversation. The polar divide that can separate me from the young girl one seat over at the bar is a chasm only perceived, sometimes ignored, other times inflamed, in Washington, DC.

Political speak in Ghana is principally domestic and economic in nature. Foreign references are to development partners, not wars or open press or opportunities for higher education. There is an attitude of expectancy: Ghana is still falling behind in some aspects and wealthier nations are expected to step in to help.

While I am a proponent of international diplomacy and, yes, aid as well, I naturally believe the latter should be exercised responsibly. Sadly, I commonly encounter irresponsible or poorly-planned aid, and those most affected are my friends and neighbors and the children in rural schools.


Government-issued textbooks are in fact provided by development partners, such as the US. Development partners, in turn, are unable or unwilling to foot the bill for textbook provision to an entire country – the cost would be astronomical – and so are assigned specific regions in which to deliver their goods. Volta Region is covered by US publishing company Macmillan.

The federal program guaranteeing ‘one book for every child’ therefore relies almost entirely on the benevolence of the international community, which in turn provides only enough books for the exact headcount of students to practice fiscal responsibility. In effect, this means local government education offices have no textbooks on hand to reference, even though their jobs are to monitor how well teachers utilize the materials and stick to the national syllabus (curriculum) while teaching from those very books.

There also seems to be no preset plan for future replacement of battered books – the normal wear and tear of a child studying – or updating content as new knowledge enters the stream. Many children do not have textbooks because schools have not been issued new copies; some have not even received the original shipment.

Teacher training on the use of the provided classroom materials is one week long and lacks a consistent, regular monitoring of progress and success. New teachers are not trained on any of the older successful programs (NALAP, for instance). The Ghanaian government treated that particular program as a ‘project’ – an important distinction since projects are inherently short-term. Thus when it came time for NALAP to be turned over exclusively to the Ghanaians to run and monitor, it essentially expired. As if a box of books was dropped at the door in Accra, hands were generously shaken, end scene.

These things happened.They were glorious and they changed the world… and then we fucked up the end game – Rep. Charlie Wilson


Hospitals in this region are outfitted with whatever medications, examination machines, supplies, and staff can be donated by the international community (or sold at a bargain) and delivered by the government. Medical personnel are trained, but their training is lacking. I learned recently that the most common prescription given is for Valium: valium for tooth ache, back ache, head ache, waist pain, or just general body pain. Identical prescriptions can be issued for vastly differing health problems. Furthermore, the amount prescribed never changes. A standard prescription is for 3,000mg daily, regardless of age, medical history, or body size.

The local diet is maddening – carbohydrates, fats, and little else. Protein comes from fish or meat, which are markedly more expensive despite their availability, or beans in local dishes like Red Red (a favorite) or Waakye [wah-chay]. Health care is irregularly sought and exercise is limited. Young Ghanaians are generally fit – a combination of low income and overwork more than intentional regimen – but those over thirty watch their bodies rapidly decline, and often expand.

Why should we expect children to develop healthy eating habits when their parents and their culture provide them with so unbalanced a plate? When the government feeding program, to entice increased school attendance, is comprised of cassava and palm oil? Where is the model for these children?

I pause.

Washington, DC gets a bad rap sometimes for talking more than acting; for making simple problems enormously complex and then failing to solve them in the end anyway; for mandating reports and public statements over statistical change. Considering the current state of Congress, I understand that such a reputation is only exacerbated.

On the other hand, the striking difference I see is an increased willingness to collaborate that is sorely missing here. I am still trying to grasp the finer intricacies of Ghanaian politics, and probably never will. Politicians themselves will admit that each person believes he or she is right and attempts only to talk the other into obscurity, thereby allowing one’s own ideas to triumph. Meetings follow an agenda with little expectation to produce results: another meeting can be scheduled, of course, and moderators seem to anticipate participants’ unwillingness to actively work with their colleagues.

Perhaps I am still too naive or idealistic in my belief that a willingness to compromise is essential to progress – I sprang from a group of idealist advocates in Washington, after all. That belief continues in Ghana, though, and is reinforced by my work that daily sees children stunted in their growth, both physically and mentally, and sees community members in frequently and visibly poor health while bureaucracy bickers intelligently in some far-off cloud over the definition of specific words while ignoring the glaring inconsistency in promised aid and delivered product.

I miss DC, where ‘collaborate’ and ‘compromise’ are more than vocabulary terms, however difficult they may be to use.


6 responses to “You can take the girl out of DC

  1. Pingback: 500 Words: An Apology | The Menace of the Years

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