From Gordon College to Ghana: Serving in the U.S. Peace Corps
This post, by Roland Griggs ’15, originally appeared on the La Vida Center for Outdoor Education and Leadership’s blog.
This past October, I found myself stepping off a plane into a new world and a new stage of my life. I had just finished my bachelor’s degree in biology at Gordon College followed by a summer in the Adirondacks leading trips for La Vida when I arrived in Ghana to begin serving as an agriculture volunteer for the U.S. Peace Corps. For those unfamiliar with the Peace Corps, it is a government organization that sends volunteers to live among people of developing countries all over the world. Its mission is to promote world peace and friendship by providing developing nations with men and women trained to meet the needs of people in host countries and to stimulate mutual understanding between Americans and host country nationals. In my case, I work primarily with farmers by demonstrating improved farming techniques and training farmers to use such techniques. My work in the Peace Corps has thus far given me the opportunity to apply lessons learned in La Vida to new contexts outside La Vida, and I recognized many similarities between Ghanaian culture and La Vida culture in the process.
Upon arriving in Ghana, I realized Ghanaians live at a cultural crossroads. In many ways, life for modern Ghanaians, especially those located in rural villages, remains similar to that of their ancestors who lived hundreds of years ago. People live in buildings made of mud, they farm small plots of land using the same farming techniques as their forefathers, animals roam freely throughout the village, and the local governing bodies still consist of tribal chiefs and elders. In other ways, however, life in Ghana has changed drastically. Many people own cellular phones, modern roads and vehicles make various kinds of goods more accessible to rural communities than ever before, and power lines now reach the majority of the country.
Despite these recent changes in the country, one feature of Ghanaian culture that remains ingrained in society and also reminds me of La Vida culture is that of time perception. At La Vida, we strive to reduce people’s anxiety and foster community by encouraging people to live in the present. But in Ghana, no one needs to be told, “Be here now.” People always live in the present. They spend much of their time talking with others as they do chores or lounge under shade trees, and they rarely look at a clock. Ghanaians’ lack of time management is actually a serious problem from a development worker’s perspective, because teachers and students don’t arrive at school on time (if at all), and it’s nearly impossible to schedule events that have fixed start times. Nevertheless, Ghanaians rarely worry about schedules and timeliness, and they build some of the most cohesive communities I have ever seen.
The simple lifestyles in Ghana also remind me of La Vida. For example, my village has no running water, so we have to fetch water regularly and carry it to our houses to cook, clean, and bathe. Most people don’t own a bed, so they sleep on mats on the floor. And although my town does have electricity, power outages occur regularly; consequently, flashlights are essential tools for evening activities. All these attributes of Ghanaian life resemble attributes of La Vida excursions, and I feel La Vida prepared me well for living in Ghana.
In addition to seeing similarities between La Vida culture and Ghanaian culture, I have found myself applying lessons learned while working for La Vida to my work here in Ghana. One of the most important group facilitation skills I learned during La Vida staff training was that of framing experiences. Prior to beginning an activity it is always important to explain the relevance of the activity and ensure participants understand the task ahead. This same approach is essential when facilitating training sessions or other activities here in Ghana.
Many of the people I work with have little to no education and do not speak English, and my local language skills require a lot of work before I can begin offering training sessions in the locally spoken Mampruli. Most of my formal communication with people is therefore done through a translator. When speaking through a translator, messages are easily skewed, so it’s essential to ensure trainees understand what they will be doing and why it is relevant before beginning an activity. When meetings and trainings are framed effectively, those attending the meetings and trainings understand the messages conveyed and retain information more effectively than they do when meetings and trainings are framed poorly.
My experience working with co-leaders on La Vida expeditions also prepared me for my work in Ghana. On La Vida, I learned the importance of communicating my thoughts and intentions with my co-leaders before making decisions or taking action. I now apply this lesson whenever I work with my counterparts in my village. My counterparts serve as translators and co-facilitators when meeting with or training Ghanaian farmers, and communicating my thoughts and intentions with my counterparts before making decisions and beginning training sessions is essential. Prior to conducting training sessions, I often meet with my counterparts to make sure they understand the messages I want to get across. If my counterparts understand the messages that the trainees need to hear, then we reduce the amount of information that is lost in translation during meetings and training sessions, and everyone (hopefully) goes home enlightened.
I loved working for La Vida during my summer breaks from college. La Vida gave me a chance to perform meaningful work, enjoy God’s creation, and experience wholesome community, and the atmosphere surrounding the program made me want to come back for more each year. Now that I have moved on to a new job, I see how lessons I learned on La Vida apply to my life outside La Vida, and I’m continuing what I started on a warm August morning when I last ran eight-and-a-half miles back to Base Camp.
Roland worked as a Sherpa for La Vida’s Adirondack Expeditions program in 2013 and 2015.