Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Throwing in the Towel

In the boxing world, when the corner man throws in the towel it is an indication to the bout’s referee that his man, his fighter, can no longer on. That he wants out. That he’s done for, done in. He is giving up. Surrendering.

That is me. I am surrendering. I have had enough. I’m done for and done in. I am going home.

We have lived in Ghana for more than 12 years.

In those 12 years, we’ve raised our children I think well, given them a good education, let them see what life is like in a world less developed than the one from which they came. We have and seen one of them leave the nest for the U.S. to attend college, where he is well and sorely missed every single day.

In those 12 years we had started building what was to be our “dream home” but which never was completed to the point where we felt safe or comfortable moving into it. We still have high hopes for its completion, though I don’t envision moving into it any time soon.

In those 12 years, we have had one child diagnosed with type 1 diabetes which we’ve managed to manage as best we can with the help of friends around the world.

In those 12 years we’ve endured agonizing periods of lights off and pipe closed. Right now, despite a “Better Ghana Agenda” we are undergoing load shedding yet again. I am writing this after having suffered through 12 hours of lights off overnight, a surprise to us because the newspaper printed a schedule which indicated we’d have lights off for only 6 hours in the overnight hours. “Surprise, surprise,” says ECG/VRA/Gridco/NDC (pick one), “Eff you.”

In those 12 years we’ve seen the cedi’s value move up, down and sideways. At one point, and it’s hard to believe this, it was nearly at parity with the U.S. Dollar. Now, though, not so much with an exchange rate that is fast approaching 3 cedis to the dollar. But the government says that despite the media reports, the economy is in pretty good shape. I guess 14% inflation isn’t really a problem, is it? Oh well, I am not an economist so what do I know. The government, they must know something I don’t, right?

Those 12 years haven’t been easy and yes I’ve done my fair share of complaining. But I’m done. No more complaining because it doesn’t get me anywhere; just gets my blood boiling. And actions speak louder than words anyway.

So we’re leaving.

I am throwing in the towel. I surrender.

I am tired and there are too many things I am missing and I am tired of missing them.

I miss constant power and running water. I miss traffic lights and stop signs. I miss drivers who (mostly) exercise patience, compassion and common sense. I miss radios that play 70s music. I miss snow. I miss suntan lotion. I miss libraries and bookstores. I miss car washes and self serve gas stations. I miss supermarkets and fast food joints. I miss shopping malls and movie theaters which overcharge at the concessions. I miss museums and zoos. I miss parks. I miss clean beaches. I miss garbage pickup and mail delivery. I miss buses and trains and subways. I miss skyscrapers. I miss friendly store clerks.

But mostly, I miss my son and my mom and my family and my friends.

I miss home and all of the things that make it home.

So this will probably be my last post; we’re getting our ducks in order for our departure and hopefully by the end of June we will be home.

Because there’s no place like it, anywhere in the world.

Friday, May 24, 2013

For One Child at Least, the Ordeal is Over

The last many, many months have been spent trying to get our son Sean into college. My husband and I had believed that moving to Ghana more than a decade ago would be to the children’s benefit because the school system here, even at public school level, would be better than the U.S. To some extent we were right and to another, we were not necessarily wrong but not necessarily right, either… let me explain.

Late last year, Sean’s final year at Achimota, we began the process, like so many (parents) before, of applying to colleges. Thankfully, it isn’t like the old days when we were trying to get our Ghanaian nephews into school in the U.S. and had dozens of brochures and paper applications to fill out and individual checks to be mailed. It was mostly done online and thank heavens for that! As protracted, though, as the process is for applying to college, it is even more daunting to do it from anywhere outside of the U.S., especially a third world country like Ghana.

We could not use credit cards to pay for any of the college applications that used the services of the “Common Application” form. Ghana is, of course, a hot bed of credit card fraud and that is perfectly understandable… frustrating, but understandable. Fortunately a few of the schools which did not partake in the Common Application did have a standalone payment system and we were able to take advantage of it. It wound up being a moot point for the most part, however (keep reading).

We could not complete the dreaded FAFSA form (for financial aid) which required a credit card payment at the back end for the submission of financial aid data to the chosen schools. Some schools’ financial aid offices were willing to forego the form and allowed us to simply send them a print screen of the completed form. That was nice of them but essentially moot in the long term (keep reading).

We could not enroll Sean for the SAT for the same reason, and had to rely on the willingness and patience of my dear sweet sister Christine to get the ball (and the checks) rolling. In the end, though, Sean took it twice; he got a not too shabby 1700 on the first one and a much better 1920 on the second.

The real problem we ran into was the obtaining of his high school transcripts. The school would not give them up. We went in late December to request them and paid for seven copies which were prepared and placed on the desk of the school’s headmistress. She didn’t sign them in December. We heard she went on vacation. Okay. She didn’t sign them when she got back. Not sure why. Sly went to the school to discuss it with the headmistress and only a significant amount of self-control (on my husband’s part) kept him from tearing her head off. According to her they don’t release transcripts while a child is in school because it has been their “experience” that the students then develop an “I don’t give a shit” attitude (I’m paraphrasing, of course). She pointed out a young lady waiting to pick up her transcripts from the previous year as an example. But you get the gist. Bottom line is no transcripts till Sean finished his WASSCE… in May! It was even suggested that – being urgent and all –Sean be withdrawn from school even before he began his WASSCE. Yeah, that would work. You see, how well their students performed the WASSCE was paramount to their being able to maintain the school’s “prestigious” and “elite” distinction. Who cares about the outgoing student, in the long run?

It was too late for many of the colleges without the official transcripts and the rejection letters began rolling right in. Only Virginia Tech would accept Sean provisionally based on “unofficial” transcripts but of course there would be no financial aid because they needed the official stuff (I am assuming this, to be honest, but with his grades and SATs and other incidental data he should have been eligible for something). But financial aid from Virginia Tech in the form of scholarships was zilch. Oh well, he’s in their door and that’s the hard part – he will become very good friends with the personnel from Virginia Tech’s Financial Aid office, I am sure.

So now here we are in late May. The grueling WASSCE’s are now finished and Sean has officially completed school. Before he could get the transcript now he needed to get “clearance” from more than a dozen individuals which meant he didn’t owe any money/books/equipment. That was an effed up process from the get-go. For three days Sean was running around the school like a chicken without a head looking for this person and that person and the next. He’d come home exhausted with only one or two names to show for his efforts. Why they couldn’t have arranged for all of these people to be made available for an hour or two each day in the administration block, say, I will never know.

Then the uncompleted form wound up on some “housemaster’s” desk (at his “order” it should be known) and he told Sean on Monday that he wouldn’t be bothered to return to the office to get it and that Sean should come back the next day for it. Did I mention we live about 25 miles from the school? And that Sean rides to school in a taxi which costs about $15 each way? So I decided to accompany him on his endeavor on Tuesday, in the hope of speeding up the process with my obroni presence.

First stop was the guy who had the incomplete form and from whom we’d eventually need the penultimate signature. He was unbelievably, incredibly rude and wanted first to know why Sean felt the need to drag his “mommy” around with him. I said I was there to ensure Sean wasn’t just hanging with friends instead of doing what he was supposed to be doing. Two women in the “master’s” office confirmed he’d been there the day before. I knew that. I just wanted the “master” to know that I knew… ya know? Then he proceeded to ask Sean why he would even be given an incomplete form; when Sean tried to explain about the “order” which came during the final day of WASSCE testing that all day students must include their clearance forms in the batch (from the boarding houses) that was intended for his own review – regardless of the form’s completion – the housemaster cut him off with an I-don’t-want-to-hear-it. Now I am not one to be aggressive (writing is different, okay?) but I raised my voice and made the typical Ghanaian “I-beg” motion and asked that he please listen. He made a face, shrugged his shoulders, turned around, grabbed the form from the top of the stack behind him and handed it to Sean. A grand gesture – like he was bestowing the kid with a knighthood or something. Sheesh.

So we got the form and after three hours of waiting around for a staff meeting to end we finally got the rest of the signatures but we’d have to come back about the transcript yet again since the headmistress was now out.

Finally, Wednesday, we picked up the official-sealed transcripts – already signed by the headmistress (in mid-February!) Had we had these transcripts in hand back in February the outcome might have been different. Sean might be going to a different school or he might have at least gotten a scholarship or two.

All in all Achimota was a learning experience for all of us. Sean did receive a solid education which was good enough to get him into one of the best schools in the U.S. for aerospace engineering. And we know that he’s not afraid of hard work, or the endless hours of studying as a result of teachers who mistakenly believe they are a student’s only teacher and the general life in a dorm.

My husband and I have also learned a thing or two. We’ve learned that for some schools beaurocracy and “appearance” is more important than a child’s future. That perhaps we should have been a bit more “grateful” (I know you know what I mean) for the assistance we sought. That we don’t dare let this happen again with Michael and/or Alex; they will either finish their high school years in the U.S. or we will have established the ground rules with the school’s administration early on for the transcripts. Of course they may or may not go to Achimota. Regardless, fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

As it is, though, we are incredibly happy for Sean. Relieved. Glad his ordeal is over. After all he has been through at Achimota – from the early days of boarding and the crap he endured with the senior who couldn’t stand him and made his life miserable, to the health concerns exacerbated by an apathetic house master – I am sure that for him Virginia Tech and dorm life in Blacksburg, VA should be a breeze! He will be majoring in aerospace engineering and we expect big and great things from him! Though we will all miss Sean terribly, we couldn’t be prouder of our son.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Vodafone Ghana: Power to Who?

One of the hardest things about living as an expat and especially as an expat in Ghana is that I miss my family and hearing about the things that may be trivial to some but which are vitally important to me… how my elderly mother is feeling and faring, how my niece’s new job is going, how the hurricanes and snowstorms are affecting my brother and sister, who’s pregnant, who’s getting married, who’s doing what with whom.

But because that is so important to me, it’s why my frustration level with Vodafone Ghana is at an all time peak. Perhaps you’ve heard me complain about them before – certainly if you’re a Facebook friend you’ve seen my endless rants and diatribes about their shit service.

If you’re from the U.S. you may not have heard so much about Vodafone as AT&T and Verizon hog up all the good/bad telecommunications news. But Vodafone Ghana is Ghana’s largest monopoly; a few years back the Ghana government decided to do away with Ghana Telecom and pretty much handed all of the country’s telecommunication services to these money grubbing a-holes.

When Vodafone took over, service had initially improved. It was wonderful that we had finally gotten a telecommunications company that took the needs of the citizens to heart; they improved land line service and more and more customers actually had land lines installed in their homes. And then they offered internet services to the home which made my life at least infinitely better. I could keep up with my family, my kids could play games or chat online, the boys could connect Xbox and play their Halo or whatever; we could stream videos and movies and download new ebooks from Amazon. All was right with the world.

And then it wasn’t.

About nine months ago things started to fall apart. It began in May 2012 with this note to Vodafone Ghana’s Facebook page:

Since 5/4/12 and to date, I have called #100 daily to report a broadband outage (# XXXXXXX). I heard many excuses – my modem, my connection, a general problem in Tema – the latest a migration to fibre optics. I cannot get a straight answer. My pre-paid continues to erode. I was told yesterday that emails were sent out about the migration and account credit; I received no such email.

This reflects poorly on Vodafone. I deserve a straight answer; when will my service be restored?

Barbara Zigah

Vodafone Ghana’s Facebook people responded to me about a day later with an email address for their customer service…. here is that email:

Through the Vodafone Ghana Facebook page I was encouraged to write to you about the problems I have been experiencing with Broadband over the past 6 days. Since last week Thursday, April 5, I have not had internet access in my home at V42 in Tema, Community 8.

I have called customer care each day; each time the technician has run through the check list which ensures that my modem settings are correct and that the led lights are properly lit. Over the course of my several phone calls, I have been told that it is my problem and that someone would be sent to check (that did not happen). I have been told that it is a general problem with the server relative to my area and that someone would check (that did not happen). I have been told it was a wide-spread problem and that technicians were working on it. I have been told that it is due to the migration to fibre optics. I can no longer even connect to the “web configurator.”

I have received a lot of excuses and no solutions.

Meanwhile, I am worried that my prepaid account balance continues to erode; when I mentioned this to one customer care representative he said that emails had been sent out to customers about the migration and how to obtain a credit for the time lost – I received no such email notification.

I would just like a straight answer. When can I expect this migration (if that is indeed what it is) to be finished and my internet access restored?

That got no response.

Of course, those emails were preceded by a few dozen phone calls to Vodafone Ghana’s customer care line at #100. I would call them first thing in the morning and last thing at night. Note that to call them you need a Vodafone land line (not working) or a Vodafone SIM card – you cannot call customer care from say MTN or Tigo. Fortunately, my mobile modem has a Vodafone SIM card in it so I can switch the chip into my phone to make the phone calls. Each call to customer care goes something like this:

Thank you for calling Vodafone’s customer care line.
For English press #1; for Hausa press #2 and so on.

I press #1.

If you are calling about your mobile line press #1 or your fixed line press #2.

I press #2.

If you cannot make calls press #1, if you cannot reach the internet press #2.

I press #2.

Then I am forced to go through a whole host of reasons why I may not be getting to the internet before I am allowed to press #0 to speak to a customer service representative.

That would be all well and good if you got a representative quickly enough but usually, you hear the dreaded words “the transfer failed” and you’re sent back to the main page that might actually happen two or three times before you get someone live. Or you get dead silence or a beep-beep-beep which means you’ve been disconnected.

Then if/when you get a customer service representative and they listen to your complaints you feel instantly condescended to…. Oh I am so sorry Barbara Zigah that you are having difficulty accessing the internet or I am so sorry Barbara Zigah that you have no dial tone and cannot get online. They parrot you word for frigging word. Next time I call I will tell them my name is Asshole Customer and that I am being screwed by Vodafone just so that I can hear them say, “I am so sorry Asshole Customer that you are being screwed by Vodafone.” At least that will feel good and give me a laugh.

More recently, Vodafone has changed their customer care prompts so that just before you are in the queue to speak to a customer service rep you are encouraged to “hang up and send us an SMS with detailed information and a customer care rep will get back to you promptly.” As if – that’s just another way for them to ignore my complaints.

So going back to the May problem I made several visits to the Vodafone office in Tema. The first time I went on a Thursday, and they were having problems in the office so that they couldn’t even register my complaints online – the representative was writing the information down on a pad of paper and promising that they’d look into it. The young lady Susan said if I didn’t hear anything I should come back on Sunday. Still nothing by that Sunday but I returned on Monday and asked for her. As it turned out she was the assistant manager at the Tema office and she was surprised to hear that we still had no internet access. Right then and there she contacted the head broadband engineer (Honorable Dan) from the office and he came and sat with me and asked tons of questions. He wanted to know how long it would take for me to get home and I said 15 minutes; he promised that he would work on it and let me know or even come to my house himself later that day.

Wouldn’t you know it within 2-hours I had internet.

That lasted for about a month or so and then we inexplicably lost service again and got it back after only about three days after a tech finally came to the house. He checked the phone line, heard a crackle and thought perhaps we needed a new splitter. But of course this is Ghana and a new splitter isn’t something he carries around so we had to have someone take a taxi to community 1 to buy a new splitter, then wait for this guy to return to replace it later in the day. He came back, put the new splitter in, listened to the dial tone (still crackling but he disregarded it), did some things on the computer, made some phone calls and we got the phone line and internet service back. And at that point we were leaving for vacation so it didn’t matter.

Coming home the crap started up pretty much right away. We had no internet access; troubleshooting on the laptop which runs Windows 7 indicated that we had no access to the remote server meaning it was Vodafone’s problem and not ours.

I contacted Vodafone yet again, and was told it was a broader problem in the area. So I walked the 200 feet to the nearest internet café and asked if they had Vodafone and if they had broadband. Yes to both questions. Yeah, “broader problem in the area” my ass.

I continued to call on my cell phone and lodge complaints regularly. Finally, I got one guy who came to the house; I told him we had no dial tone and no ADSL light and no broadband. He picked up the phone’s handset and confirmed it. Looked at the phone wires from the house to the pole and went back out to his truck, pulled out his ladder and climbed up the pole. Ah, the phone line was shit. I could have told him that and I’m pretty sure I did tell him that, as well as the other techs who had been to the house and the customer service people in the Tema office. Who listens to me? What do I know?

So the actual pole to the house phone line was replaced and we instantly got back our dial tone and our ADSL light. In fact, it was an enlightening experience with that particular phone tech who seemed to be among the few with some integrity. He told me that calling customer care was useless as they really did not care and that he had heard the same complaint from nearly every customer he visited. I was so happy I tipped the guy 10 cedis and got his phone number.

About six weeks ago we had trouble again with the internet and calling customer service was useless as usual. My phone guy friend couldn’t help me (as I mentioned he does have integrity, unfortunately, and suggested that I must go through the proper channels first) but did point out that there was a major problem in the area which was being worked on and he expected it to be fixed within a day or two. And it was.

But then this Thursday some time after 2:00 am, we lost internet service again. I know because I had been up to check Alex’s sugar at 2:00 am and got online to check emails since my tablet is right on my headboard. But by 5:00 am the internet was down. At 6:15 am I called Vodafone from our landline phone which had a dial tone amazingly enough, and reported the outage.

By 10:00 am I had no dial tone anymore, and still no internet service. A call to customer care at 5:00 pm assured me that the complaint was reported. Next morning, Friday, still zilch, and another phone call and another promise. Rinse lather and repeat for Friday night.

Saturday morning (just a while ago) nothing again. This time I hand the phone to Sly to call and he has got his dander up as it’s not been a good morning here (busted pipe but that’s another issue entirely). He gets Leticia on the phone who instantly wants to give him the brush off because he first talks about internet service – she’s the fixed line customer care rep and doesn’t care about internet service but he quickly interjects about the phone having no dial tone. She rudely puts him on hold for about 10 minutes and then disconnects him. (It’s at this point I decide to come out of hiatus with this post.)

He calls back and gets someone else on the phone, complains about Leticia and then calmly explains the problem. Within an hour we have broadband – no dial tone but broadband. It’s a start, right?

Sadly, it will only get worse.

Vodafone decided late last year to cap internet service to residential customers. It used to be unlimited, but they decided that some bad apples were hogging up all of the bandwidth and so to be “fair” to every broadband customer they’d just punish us all with the cap. For 65 cedis a month we are entitles to 15 gigabytes of data. Generous, huh? And just in case you were wondering, no it was not us hogging up all the bandwidth; apparently some internet cafés had signed up for the residential package but were using it for their business.

Weird way to be fair, I think.

And there’s nothing you can do about it because Vodafone is a monopoly. You can complain to the NCA if you want, but they’re not going to do anything. A few very angry individuals created Facebook pages to protest the cap and they have been orchestrating and coordinating efforts to use popular opinion to appeal the cap.

I personally doubt it will work. Vodafone Ghana is doing all within their powers to become our colonial master.  For all intents and purposes, Vodafone is by any definition or stretch of the imagination, a monopoly. They control all fixed phone lines and all fixed line broadband in the country. They can and do do whatever they want. Vodafone’s catch phrase “Power to You” is nothing but a slap in the face.

In truth, we are powerless.