Come for Two Years, Stay for Four

– 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.


You can contact the author at lgbrpcv-news@lgbrpcv.org

 

Friends of Dorothy: A Letter from Ghana

– by Joel Parthemore, RPCV Ghana

I was halfway through pre-service training, passing through Accra on my way back from a site visit. I had dropped by the Internet Cafe (more a hole in the wall than a cafe, but the connection is usually good) to check my e-mail and try checkout the LGB RPCV listserve.

Leaving the cafe I asked a man at random for directions to Karneshie Station, the lorry (bus) park serving the Central Region where the training site is located. He gave the directions readily enough, but asked if I wouldn’t consider staying in town for a day or two. He had a large house where he lived by himself, and the two of us could have it all to ourselves. His implications were clear, and he was not unattractive; but I explained that I really did need to be back in Salt Pond that day and excused myself to continue somewhat regretfully on my way.

I do not know if he recognized my Freedom Rings (Accra is a remarkably cosmopolitan city) or made assumptions about my long hair, which is a novelty to the Ghanaians. People will often reach out from nowhere just to stroke it. But I was thrilled to meet my first gay Ghanaian.

The Ghanaian trainers in Salt Pond said at first that homosexuality does not exist in Ghana. When pressed, they conceded that it does exist in the larger cities, but insisted it was unheard of in the villages. In fact I had been in my very small, very rural village less than 24 hours after training was over when I had unambiguous advances made: middle finger scratching my palm during a hand shake, combined with eye contact and body language, and repeated requests that I visit the man’s house. He made similar advances again recently. I offered no response on either occasion, both because I do not find him so attractive and because I am frightened at the potential dangers of having a relationship in the village. At the same time I would like to ask him what it’s like to be gay here.

It seems as if each time I get together with members of my training group I meet yet another male (apparently straight) volunteer who tells me he’s had similar advances made to him, usually in the villages. I can only guess that for frustrated gay men in rural Ghana, all they hear about homosexuality has to do with Europeans or Americans, who would then be the only people safe to approach.

It is certainly not the case that homosexuality is not discussed. The recent trial in Zimbabwe of Canaan Banana (a former vice president accused of forcing several subordinates to commit sodomy) was the subject of several heated discussions in the staff common room at my school: “…imagine, a minister of the church and a pillar of the community committing these acts” -“…they say that in America the homosexuals even want the right to marry” etc. One of my colleagues (who studied in France) offered that consenting adults should be left to do what they wish in private. I held back from the discussion and chose my responses carefully when pressed for an opinion. I may be very “out” to Peace Corps Ghana and my fellow PCVs, but my only concession in my village to my identity is my “Why I Am Part of the Lesbian and Gay Civil Rights Movement” poster on the wall of my bedroom. It is there for visitors to read, but they can also choose to ignore it. I am also painting a Freedom Flag on the inside of my bedroom door. My house is increasingly filled with such artistic projects, which must seem strange to Ghanaian sensibilities. I knew when I agreed to come to Africa that I was looking at two years of celibacy and sexual isolation. The reality of the experience however exceeds any ability I might have had to imagine it. It is as if each time I return to the village from Accra, a fundamental part of me ceases to exist.

My fellow PCVs and PC Ghana have generally been quite supportive if not always well informed. But among the 150 other volunteers currently in country I know of only one bisexual male and one lesbian. The PC Med Unit tells me there’s a gay male volunteer in Togo (the Togo border is perhaps a kilometer from my house), but they have not yet facilitated our getting it touch and have been noncommittal about my suggestions for a regional support network. PC Ghana seems anxious for something to happen – evidently some communication has arrived from Washington. The Med Unit issued an appeal in August for LGB volunteers interested in forming a support group. So far as I know, I’m the only volunteer who responded.

I’ve offered to serve as a contact and resource person whose name may be freely publicized. I’ve asked the Med Unit about getting reinforced condoms and drawn up a provisional list of books and videos they might want to obtain. I’m also working with my PCMO in revising a questionnaire that was done here several years ago on attitudes toward homosexuality (see Heidi Lehmann’s article in our August 1995 Newsletter). I would like to see it completed on an annual basis by PCTs, PCVs, administrators and trainers, just to know what attitudes are out there. At the moment the only profile of attitudes we have is anecdotal. And, from my experience, what people say in public is often different from what they believe or what they do in private.

I’m slowly rebuilding a gay identity here in Ghana – one based on activism rather than relationship. Again from my experience, adults rarely if ever change their minds. Change comes with the (often disempowered) youth. If I can open the minds of the children I teach to new ideas – not necessarily in the hypersensitive area of sexuality, but wherever – I’ll feel I’ve done my part for development. After all development for me is not about money or infrastructure or grand designs, but solidly about ideas. But sometimes I still wish my fellow lesbian, gay and bisexual volunteers were not quite so far away.•

 

Has Cher Come Out with Anything New?

– by Heidi Lehmann, RPCV Ghana

I’m currently in the waning months of a two and a half year term as a Forestry volunteer in the West African country of Ghana . I laughed, I cried, I planted plenty of trees and I thought about Cher … a lot. At home everyone knew of my total infatuation with CHer. Here, among sixty plus strangers who I had to co-exist peacefully with for the next two years, my once vocal admiration was muted.

In the silence I listened for just one sentence about gays and lesbians in the Peace Corps. Thank CHer for keen hearing or that one sentence would have slipped by me! Silence is for church, silence is for meditating, silence is for sitting across from old Aunt Betty because she refuses to wear her hearing aid and can’t hear you anyway. Silence is NOT for two of the most emotional years of your life. Thus I approached the Peace Corps with a request to create an atmosphere conducive to discourse on gay and lesbian issues, which in turn would allow the needs of gay and lesbian volunteers to be met by PC staff, Ghanaian trainers and other PCVs. I proposed this be accomplished in the following way.

First, a session dealing with sexual orientation as a component of diversity was designed. This would bring the issue of sexual orientation as a volunteer concern to the attention of the Peace Corps staff, Ghanaian trainers and other PCVs. Then this session facilitated by me would be incorporated into PST ’94. Next, to provide incoming PCTs with a very general idea of the attitudes toward homosexuality they might encounter in-country, a questionnaire was put together. The questionnaire, entitled Perceptions Toward Homosexuality, was distributed to both the

Ghanaian trainers and the Ghanaian Peace Corps staff. 42 out of the 44 trainers and 3 out of the 16 staff responded. Last, the actual session with me as the facilitator was presented at PST ’94. That was the day I started to reconsider and think that maybe silence wasn’t so bad. After all it had the reputation for being golden.

Why again did I feel the need to open my mouth? Talking one on one with my APCD about the fact that I was queer as a three dollar bill was one thing. Getting up in front of 25+ strangers and talking about it was a different ball game. I was scared and I was nervous. Let me say that in another way. I was really scared and I was really nervous. There I was in front of a room full of strangers and a handful of volunteers I had known for a year. The song, “Let’s Talk About Sex, Baby!” crept into my head. I took a deep breath … and I was talking about sex.

I felt the session was incredibly successful in that it opened up discourse on sexual orientation. The audience was extremely interested in the results of the questionnaire. Basically, the results indicated that the respondees perceived homosexuality as unacceptable behavior. 59% said they would feel uncomfortable about discussing it and 30% said they would refuse to discuss it entirely. This reflects the general climate in the country concerning the issue. Only two Ghanaian trainers didn’t return the questionnaire. After my session, there was no difference in my interaction with the Ghanaians. This year I have handed out a slightly different questionnaire and have been involved in the entire training process.

While it is apparent that my Ghanaian colleagues don’t approve of homosexuality, I see it as a somewhat passive disapproval. For example, in my town there is a man who works at a “chop” bar. This is considered to be women’s work. It struck me as odd that a man was doing it. After some time I started to ask questions about him. The people were amazingly forthcoming with information. He was a man “who doesn’t prefer women.” People were sure that I knew what they meant. I was momentarily startled by this and thought that maybe “gaydar” transverses continents. Actually they were “sure” we had those in America. I cheerfully responded, “sure do.”

This is not to say I would feel comfortable proclaiming my sexuality to the people in my town. But in contrast to a fellow volunteer who served in the West Indies, I have been fortunate enough to discuss homosexuality with some host country nationals without feeling any danger.

In terms of volunteer to volunteer support the response has been extremely positive. The decision to approach Peace Corps Ghana about doing a session was not an easy one. But I think it made an incredible difference in how I was able to enjoy my two plus years here. Now, when new volunteers arrive or when anyone returns from a visit home, the first thing I ask is, “Has CHer come out with anything new … anything?”

Heidi Lehmann has returned home. If you would like to contact Heidi please do so at lgbrpcv-news@lgbrpcv.org.