Come for Two Years, Stay for Four
February 3, 2002
– Joel Parthemore, RPCV Ghana
It’s been nearly six months since I closed my Peace Corps service.
The final severing of the knot was delayed by an intestinal infection gone wild that sent me to the hospital in Techiman for a few days. Enoch, a student of mine from Model School four years earlier, had gotten back in touch and come to visit. He came along to the hospital and helped nurse me back to health.
Peace Corps wasn’t too happy about the additional delay. I had had my difficulties with them already over missing extension paperwork and exactly when I was supposed to close service. I had after all extended for four months on top of my six months’ extension, on top of my thirteen months’ extension to my original two years of service. Some confusion was probably inevitable. But I made it to Accra, a few days late. I finished my paperwork on a Friday afternoon; the newly revised close-of-service date was set for the following Monday.
I went back to my site to finish a few more things with the computer lab I had set up and install a network at a friend’s school in Techiman. I also went to say good-bye to a friend in the village with whom I’d had a few, brief romantic encounters. But he wasn’t so keen on seeing me again. Then I returned for the last time to Accra. My friend Moses came to my hotel room to say good-bye. I scratched his palm; he scratched mine (palm scratching is a common way of expressing physical attraction). That was all that happened, but it was nice.
James, a friend very much struggling with his sexual identity, was supposed to come by as well that evening and spend the night, but didn’t. He had previously become the benefactor of my magazine collection, sent by friends over the four years to keep me company on the long, lonely nights. Evans, a friend (but not a friend-friend) from when I first arrived in country, came by the next morning to say good-bye. Later he wrote that he held himself together until after I had gone, then went away and cried. I went around to visit a friend, another James, and told him, as I’d always wanted to, that I found him quite attractive. He said that yes, he had been told that any number of times both by women and by men, and though he did not see it himself, he thanked me for the compliment.
I left Accra by road for Cape Coast and Abidjan. In Salt Pond, where I had done my pre-service training, I stopped to say good-bye to my friend Kwame and his mother Ethyl and enjoy some of their freshly pounded fufu. I stayed overnight with my homestay brother Maxwell, recently engaged to be married. Then I was across the Cote d’Ivoire border and off on my whirlwind rail tour of French West Africa.
I’ve had plenty of E-mail and snail-mail letters from Evans and Moses, and several E-mails and a photograph from James. I’ve gotten into E-mail correspondence with a number of gay Ghanaians, in Berekum, Swedru and Accra, and started to get an understanding of the network that I suspected but never really knew existed while I was a volunteer. If only I had known about them while I was in Ghana, my nights might not have been all so lonely. I’ve also found myself the subject of discussion in the returned Peace Corps volunteer rumor mill for my alleged dalliances. Ah, if only my life there had been so exciting!
I’ve missed Ghana, more than I would have realized before I left, when all I could think about was cold weather (not as my Ghanaian friends defined it, where 20 C meant bundling on all the clothes that you owned) and snow. If someone made me a job offer, I would think seriously about going back. Indeed I have a lead at the moment on running a distance education program in Accra.
I miss all the beautiful shirtless men. I miss those times I shared a bed with someone, even if nothing happened. I have a sense of unfinished conversations and relationships. And I would like to write a book, I think, about what it is like to be gay and Ghanaian.
It’s not that it was easy being a gay volunteer in Ghana. It was bloody difficult most of the time. I didn’t try to hide my sexual identity (much to my trainers’ chagrin during pre-service training), but there weren’t a lot of opportunities to be open about it either. There were people in my school and my community who knew. Whether they spread the word to everybody else I never knew and didn’t really care. When I fielded the inevitable stream of questions about whether I would marry a Ghanaian, I answered quite truthfully that I would be happy to, but I didn’t think it was going to happen. The marriage offers I turned down as politely as I knew how. After a while people got the idea and stopped asking.
My main support network was with friends in the States via E-mail. I tried to set up a volunteer support group but got nowhere for lack of interest. I didn’t get along so well with the other gay volunteers I knew, whose needs were different and who were temperamentally quite different from me. One of them told me in effect that my “need” to be open was a sign that I was still closeted. “I used to be like that,” he said. I told one of the volunteers (gay or straight I don’t know) that I had a crush on him. It freaked him out at the time, though as time went on he seemed to be all right with it. I found the occasional surprise book at the used bookstore in Accra: Armistead Maupin’s “Tales of the City” and Michael Cunningham’s “A Home at the End of the World,” both personal favorites. I had the letters I got from RPCVs in response to my first LGB RPCV newsletter article. Later on I discovered it widely circulated on the web.
I had my all too occasional romantic encounters. (I was voted by my training group as most likely to remain celibate until the end of his service, after we were informed that 90% of volunteers become sexually active during their tour.) I had my local friend who discovered my magazines and took great delight in them, though he never did get my permission to take any of them away. I think one or two other visitors must have discovered them as well, because they ended up looking very well read.
Besides of course my primary project – the computer lab that fell apart after I left and is just now pulling itself back together – I wonder about the legacy I left behind as a gay volunteer. On behalf of the medical office I helped write and distribute a questionnaire on attitudes toward homosexuality that proved quite controversial and apparently generated letters to Washington. Volunteers complained that the questionnaire, which went out to volunteers and Ghanaian counterparts, was attempting to pigeonhole them. I can’t speak to the medical office’s intentions, but I know I was just interested in getting a portrait of people’s attitudes, not in saying what attitudes were “right” or “wrong.” To me providing a supportive environment is less about changing people’s attitudes (we all have our prejudices) and more about helping people feel safe to share what those attitudes are.
The results suggested that neither were volunteers uniformly so supportive nor counterparts so uniformly antagonistic as popular belief seemed to hold. One counterpart called homosexuality “a gift from God,” and several admitted unprompted to having had homosexual experiences. Going through all the questionnaires was an enlightening experience.
What if anything Peace Corps will do with the survey results, I don’t know; I knew only that I needed to finish them before I left. I have found some passing reference to them on one of the official websites. The only clear legacy I can point to as a gay volunteer, besides the addition of a few books and a video to the medical office library, is that on my initiative the medical office started getting reinforced condoms.
On balance, I suppose it is not the worst of legacies to leave.
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