Dan Bergert

Dan with his host family in Saltpond, Ghana.

Dan was both a Peace Corps Volunteer and a graduate student in the Loret Miller Ruppe Peace Corps Masters International Program at Michigan Tech. Find out more about this program at http://peacecorps.mtu.edu/ .

Notes from Dan in mid-October 1997. Peace Corps Training in Ghana.


"The welcome we have received here has been amazing. When we pulled into Saltpond (our training site with a view of the ocean from the roof of the dorm) all of the children jumped up from their school desks and cheered us. At the site all of the chiefs welcomed us with a libation ceremony, drumming and dancing. We have all been elevated to the a status of minor celebrity, and everyone wants to be our friends. I can't walk around without some one wanting to know my name and how I am. And surprisingly (considering I have been here only 3 weeks) many people do know me. My host family was very proud of me and introduced me to all of their friends at church. (By the way, church here jams! The service is in Fanti but I go anyway, because anyone can worship through music and the locals love to watch us dance through the offering line.) As I was saying, my family loves me dearly. They are poor (yes, even by 3rd world standards) but they are the happiest friendliest people I have ever known. Mama Patience tells everybody I am her first born whom she had when she lived in Canada. There is a picture of urban forestry in their backyard (the line of "sweet apple" orange and coconut with a plantain out of line). The plantain is a little over a year old and 25 feet tall. I tried to convey to her the growth rates of black spruce in the UP [Editors note: UP = Upper Peninsula of Michigan] and she exclaimed "Eieh! How do you eat?!"

"I harvested a replanted cassava once. The woman who showed me how thought it was hilarious that I would climb off a $400 mountain bike from a recreational ride to do women's work.

"I will be placed in the southeast corner of the country in the Volta region, 20 minutes from the coast where the sea turtles lay their eggs and 35 minutes from the Togo border. I am 4 hours away from Accra, but less than an hour away from Lome. I had hoped to go north (I have no idea why) but the APCD decided to send me to "the most ecologically challenging site in Ghana. Lucky me."

Training at Saltpond includes time to study and reflect and ....

technical training on how charcoal is produced and ....

.... instruction on how to run a small tree nursery.

Dan as the master drummer.


Sometime in mid-December

“I’m going into week 2 at my site and I’ve already made plenty of friends. Granted, most of them are under 13, but it’s a start. The headmaster at the school lives in my compound and speaks conversational English, but at times he will only speak Ewe to me (I’ve asked him to) and communication is frustrating, but how else will I ever learn? ... I’ve got enough working vocabulary to convey essential ideas, but my most used phrase is “Me de coocoo, fo nu blewuu” (I beg you, speak slowly.)”

“The compound is 4-6 families and 30-100 animals, and my PCMO [Peace Corps Medical Officer] is worried about solitude and loneliness. I think in three months I will be craving solitude and loneliness.”

“[The farmers] are rice farmers (the Chinese-built irrigation project allows this) and since I arrived they have been drying and winnowing. When I offer to help they laugh at me, and when I did take the initiative to grab an implement and start spreading everyone else stopped what they were doing to watch the white guy work. Then, on Sunday, with at least 30 bags spread about, covering almost all of the cement in the compound, a storm brewed up in the west. Everyone was shouting and running around, scurrying to get the rice up. I jumped up, ran out and grabbed a shovel. No one batted an eye. There were at least twenty people busting ass on the rice from the smallest boy to the most decrepit old man. We shoveled the last few handfuls of rice into bags as the first large drops fell. (Still, I was the only one sweating.) As I handed the shovel to the old man I got a warm smile and a heartfelt “Ale-pe”. Now I can help dry rice anytime I please."

6 January 1997

"{I am in the process of adding some structure to my daily routine. I have enrolled in school. I will be attending JSS 2 & 3 ( ~9-10th grade, as high as the village goes) agric classes and Primary 1 & 2 Ewe classes. Attendance fees have been waived, I’m not sure if it is because of my skin color, age or both. I haven’t decided if I am going to buy a uniform yet. Next year I hope to be a T.A."

"I was surprised to find environmental education in the school curriculum. I expected it to pretty much consist of the three R’s. But from the primary schools on they talk about uses of natural resources and our dependence on them, all of this separate from the agric theory and practicals."

Sometime in late February, 1998

"Distance is a factor in wood collection mostly due to tenure issues. My landlord, for instance, has a productive naturally generated woodlot. Actually he has an old maize field with two wind rows in it. After about ten years of neglect he has plenty of firewood just 100 yards from the house. But my landlord is a well off member of the community, which is why he owns land close to the village. Some landowners are not so lucky adn their wives have to walk farther to collect. Those who are not landowners are not left in the dark., but are generally able to collect on the farm plot they are working that year, without having to compensate the landowner, unless the tree will have some value for other things than firewood, like building poles or food."

"Medicine can usually be collected without harming the tree and the herbalist doesn't even really have to ask the landowner that he wants to collect medicine as much as inform the landowner that he is going to collect.. Incidentally, in Ewe 'ati' is tree and 'ke' is roots, 'atike' is medicine but I am told that the two are completely unrelated. Then again, I am also told that 'aba' - sleeping mat and 'ati' wood is totally unrelated 'abati' - bed."

"The village is also only six miles from the Accra-Lome road. As the crow flies Dekpor [the village where Dan lives] is 20 km from Lome, so although the people of Dekpor are rural farmers, they have for the most part been exposed to the metropolitan lifestyle and all of the associated western influence. (Speaking of which, do you think I would regret returning to the States with "No, I don't know how to get you a visa." permanently" tatooed to my forehead?)"

Dekpor Tree Nursery.

"There is a greater variety of foods available at larger markets (Agbozume and Akatsi - 10 miles in opposite directions) such as pineapples, oranges, mangos, yams, avacados, and carrots but it seems that the people of Dekpor do not care for any foods outside of what can be acquired in the village. (Although Bacon Bits were a big hit.)"

Palm oil production.

Late March, 1998

"I guess I read about the whole roller coaster aspect of Peace Corps before I came, but that literature doesn't prepare you much for the experience. Everything is either boom or bust. ... There is no middle ground. But I really think the Peace Corps experience here really reflects the dichotomous nature of the Ghanaian world view. People find out I play the guitar and they ask, 'Are you perfect?' If you are not perfect, you are 'trying.' My language tutor is a somewhat remarkable artist and has painted a beautiful landscape of Dekpor on the wall of my house. People come to my house and say, 'Oh, he is trying.' Trying? Looks like he's pretty much succeeded to me."

"I have constructed a garden in my cement compound, and now that the rain is becoming more and more anticipated I have sown improved hybrids of broccoli, spinach and other yeuu vegetables that my mom has sent me. The painting and carpentry are finished on the inside so it is a cozy little bush palace. Sure, it's not a mud hut, but at least I'm not living in an apartment complex in Europe."

"If my employees in the nursery keep bringing more and more their kids, I'm going to have to open a nursery in the nursery."

The T-shirt is from Bayfield, Wisconsin, near Dan's undergraduate college.

T-Shirt number 2, from Dan's home town. The small world syndrome. Home of the village herbalist in the background.

Early May, 1998.

"The growing season is gearing up here, everything is ready except the rain. We're all waiting. I have procured two acres for myself. I've got half an acres worth of seed maize and am nursing pepe, carrots, cabbage, adn tomatos. No doubt I will have the most diverse farm in Dekpor. Still working on the landlord to let me plant trees. He can't understand why I would want to plant trees when I will be leaving before they are mature."

"A race against the clock, a grueling 13 hours on a Greyhound style bus (minus the bathrooms and plus people in the aisles ("no livestock allowed" read the ticket)), a day and night drumming and dancing in the Fairale sub-office, and a jolting two hour pre-dawn ride brought me to Mole National Park."

Elephants at Mole Park.

"Baboons had gotten into our tents and we had to take a short break to wrestle one volunteer's underwear away from a particularly feisty male ... the warthogs had caught a whiff of our afternoon teabreak biscuits and were understandably and keenly interested."

Early June, 1998

“... the everyday highs you get in the village: the way the 4-year old girl in your compound thanks you for a cup of Kool-aid, the fact that everyone knows your name and greets you as you pass, the way market women get giddy when you try to speak the local language, the old men that slap you on the back if you slug down a shot of the local rotgut palm wine; not to mention the big picture of you playing a part in planting thousands of trees in West Africa.”

“The rains allowed me to sow my upland farm with maize and although I was a little cheated on the plowing, I am using improved seed and plan on fertilizing, a luxury many people here don’t have. I expect to yield enough to last me until next year. And of course, I’m planting trees. (Alley cropping with Luceana) No tenure issues apply to me since I am leaving soon and I didn’t even have to hire the land because the landlord is proud to have a Yew farming on his land. It seems I am gaining respect in the village with this venture. Strangers stop me on the street to see my blisters.”

The tractor used to prepare Dan's farm.

Ndo nududu = Lunch break. The day of sowing my farm. Generally you don't pay laborers for sowing since the work isn't that hard. Just get some of your friends to come out and feed them well on the farm. Kind of like the Ghanaian version of a painting party. I really wanted the camera to get an image of what was in the bowl, but if you put that on the internet it might turn some people away from the program.

Sowing the maize seed.

Me ga Tlombe O - this tree name roughly translates as "Forget Me Not." It is planted in cemetaries as an ornamental. In December when it flowers one always knows when you are close to a cemetary from the lavendar fragrance.

July 7, 1998 - PaaKojo Dan's Ghanaian Dolmas

15 young pawpaw leaves (non-timber forest product)
300 cedis cooked rice
1 handful shredded smoked kisi (squirrel-like bush animal) * goat or
guinea fowl can be substituted if the hunters are unlucky
4 garlic buds (12 if local type)
50 cedis ground hot peppers
100 cedis diced onions
50 cedis chopped groundnut
200 cedis palm oil

Blanch pawpaw leaves in boiling water (removes bitterness). Mix remaining incredients except oil in bowl. Wrap mixture as well as you can in the 5-pointed pawpaw leaves. Tie shut with spear grass. Dip in the palm oil and put in pan over medium heat for 8-10 minutes. Cover with a heavy plate. Serves on PCV with one or two left over for small boy who is going to do the dishes.

Charcoal for sale in Afiedenyigba. There are 5 times as many charcoal sellers as firewood sellers, primarily due to transport costs.

One good reason why Paga is a good tourist destination. The crocodiles are pretty much tame. Local legend has it crocodiles once saved Paga from slave raiders, so they are allowed to live in the pond (50 yards from Paga's forest nursery). For the price of a chicken to feed them you can have your picture taken with one.

July 22

"Outplanting is in full swing. Reliable transportation has been my full occupation for a couple of weeks now. We have distributed over 3,000 trees now and hope to finish by the end of the month - mostly to ADRA subsidised tree planting groups. The trees are in the ground and we are praying for rain.

"The farm is coming along well. The maize is taller than me and the pepe is bushing out nicely. I plan to plant leftover Leucaena from the nursery at the beginning of the minor season.

"I have outlawed English in the nursery, and although my horribly butchered speech doesn't really provide the atmosphere of a well run agribusiness, it is good education and makes for a good working environment. We sing songs while we work.

Agbelikanklo ma du la. 2x
Wobe me etse?
Ame ga(te) no etse. 2x
I will eat the cassava balls. 2x
Who is frying them?
The manager's mom is frying them. 2x - (Note: Dan is the manager.)

November 23, 1998

"Extension efforts are going to be geared toward woodlot planting. Now that my vocabulary contains catchy phrases such as "improve soil fertility", "income generation", and"marketable fallow crop" (where "soil food", "money getting", and "buy thing and not eat" were not working as well) I think I will be able to convince some people to try to plant woodlot trees. .... but the main idea is going to be "people buy trees, you see it in the market. Trees bring money."

Dan and Kofi Ackagbo trim the roots of Senna siamea.

From Bev Bergert, Dan's Mother: (She visited Dan around Christmas of 1998. Letter written Jan. 16, 1999)

"I just returned from 2 glorious weeks. I had a wonderful time! Of course it was so good to see my son after more than a year. He has adapted to Ghanaian culture quite well. I'm not sure if he'll ever come home!"

Photo of Dan taken by Bev Bergert.

March 10, 1999

This year a complete outplanting is going to take place in the Dekpor nursery, and thoughts of sustainabilty are going on the back burner. Distributing 16,000 is enough of a goal for me. Also, people are going to learn about Casurina, a tree which is abundant 10 miles away at the coast, but which is few a far between away from the sea. Casuring is "the best firewood in the world" (most BTU's/kg, no sparks. burns wet, etc.) but people don't know about it, don't use it; yet.

The most common uses of E. guineesis are akpetshi (rotgut), palm wine, palm nuts for red oil, palm nuts for kernels, shade structures, and brooms. I realize the last two I haven't really mentioned so far, but these two uses require the pruning of the tree, which Hartlely advises against. I would love to measure how the cutting of the fronds for building shade structures and making brooms affect the ultimate harvest of the plant for potables. The drinks made from the palm are by far the largest scale money maker.

March 31, 1999

"I got a little touch of malaria. Fortunately, (in accordance with medical compliance) I was taking my propholaxys, so the symptoms were partially supressed. Unfortunately, since I was taking my propholaxys, the syptoms were partially suppressed, so I was still dragging my ass down the nursery for two weeks thinking I just had the flu or some virus. I finally came in when my eyes turned the color of peaches. Now, pumped full of a weeks worth of drugs and at least a pint of blood lighter I am heading back."

Dan's Tree Planting Propaganda Song
(sorry we don't have audio of this)

Atiwo hea tsi ve
Atiwo naa kutsetsewo
Aka, kple nake
Atiwo naa fafe eye
wonyakpo na
Atiwo kpena de anyigba nu
Amesiame na do ati
Atiwo nye miafe agbe
ad infinitum

trees bring rain
trees give fruits
Charcoal, and firewood
trees give cool [shade]
and are beautiful
trees help the soil
everyone should plant trees
trees are our lives

June 1999

On the great Benin-Togo bike trip.

In February another couple of Volta Region volunteers and I took a mid-service bike trip across Togo and Benin on our trusty Treks. It was actually also a language odyssey since none of us spoke a lick of French. Ewe got us through Togo and the coastal areas of Benin, bus once in mid-northern Benin I discovered that Eon Ewe is not as closely related to Anlo Ewe as my History of the Ewe's book led me to believe. ... even on vacation we are still at work. Since 2/3 or Peace Corps' goals deal with promoting cultural interaction, Peace Corps service turns out to be a 24 hour a day job. [Editor's note: Dan also spent part of the last few months Barracuda fishing and at beach parties.]

Dan surrounded in Togo.

Success in the Dekpor nursery includes the completion of the chicken coop and purchase of 138 day-old chicks. Despite some losses, it appears we will, at the very least, break even. Tree production is also in full swing with the a goal of 25,000 set for '99. Secondary income includes groundnuts and cassava growing, which are going to be thoroughly processed and retailed from the nursery. Contractual pepper raising is also underway. The contractees were chosen to avoid the problems of last year. For next quarter the plan is to distribute all of the seedlings.

Nothing official can take place without a bottle of the local [alcohol from oil palm] exchanging hands. The culturally accepted way of expressing sorrow is for a loved one's loss is to bring them a bottle of booze. Hey, it beats a bundt cake.

13 August 1999

"Despite being shorted cashew seeds (which account for 85% of trees distributed from our nursery) we were able to distribute all the seedlings in a six day period. .... Usually when we reach a village for distribution we round up all the truant kids and put them to work."

Satisfied customers leave the Dekpor Nursery.

"Also in the nursery the batch of broilers failed pretty miserably. Despite the early losses to disease we still had enough to make a profit, even at ¢10,000/bird guaranteed market I had lined up. (JK Flovi, who advised me on the poultry has his own 1,000 bird operation which warrants free pickup from Accra. However he didn't inform me of the pickup until two days after the fact.) Then I found Ho (regional capital) 2 kg birds were going for ¢15,000. So I slapped together a little cage to haul them up there and all the women in the nursery, who generally are responsible for marketing, were hesitant to go. Even the ones who had been there before. So the foreman, also hesitant to send someone to Ho, finally convinced two to go. They came back early and said they found someone who wanted to buy them in Agbozume, the junction you have to pass to get to Ho, at the price of a local chicken ¢6,000. (Production cost was ¢8,000.) I brought it to the committee and they also seemed surprised that I would take the chickens to Ho to sell. So, for some reason, which no one will explain to me, we can't take chickens to Ho to sell."

21 September 1999

Anyway, I'm still plugging away at my own palms, getting 30-40 liters of wine a day. We've distilled once (214 liters yielding 24 liters fo the most lethal stuff you could ask for). I'm also picking up anecdotes and a lot of details of palm wine culture.

October 27, 1999

The nursery has hired a piece of land to serve as an agroforestry demonstration plot, planted this year with groundnuts and pepper (short crops so as not to compete with the trees during establishment). However, all of the trees in the nursery were distributed this year (!), so there were none left over to plant in our plot. So this year our agroforestry plot has no forestry involved. We are also going into layers poultrywise, but to save transportation cost we are going to buy the one year's worth of feed all at once, which requires our fat check to come through for this year's seedlings (6.5 million cedis). So all I am really going to do is advise my replacement (due today for site visit) on what I would do here if I was going to be here for the next two years. This basically includes making as much money as possible and spending it all on community projects (schools, water, etc.).

November 5, 1999

Today is the day. At 2:00 pm I have my exit interview with my APCD then at three with the Country Director. Then I'm going on one more fishing expedition in the Volta Estuary with my ex-pat pal, camping out on the beach, then off to Burkina Faso and Mali. I will spend a month in those countries, hopefully getting to Timbuktu, then coming all the way back down here to fly out. I'm flying through Frankfort, with a lay-over of up to a year.

Mid February 2000 - The True Story (or so we are told) of Leaving Dekpor.

Leaving Dekpor was harder than I thought. I mean that in the literal sense because I had to pay a 50,000 cedi fine for disrespecting and committing an offense to a chief. Believe it or not, this is actually a jailable offense. Although fines are generally paid on the spot, as in my case, I do have a friend who spent six months in jail in Ho for saying the birth name of the chief. But I did not commit such a serious offense. What I did do was operate a tree nursery on his stool lands without his consultation.

I am pretty sure I wrote in previous reports how my approaches to him regarding the nursery were responded to. But to reiterate, my first six months at site I used every opportunity I saw him (all of twice, with him being a resident of Akosombo and all) to approach him about what to do with the nursery. These approaches were responded to with, at best, indifference. Every meeting after that involved a nominal "how's the nursery?" from him, much in the same manner you would ask someone "how's your day?" or "how is that boil on your thigh?" You don't really want to know. It was just protocol.

On the last day of my stay in Dekpor my replacement and I were walking up from the river where I had one more person to inform that I was leaving. Walking back to my house to get my bags, we heard the generator at the "palace" (the chief always loved to use that word with such emphasis) indicating he was back to 'his' village for an ego massage that weekend. I groaned as I realized I would have to introduce my replacement. After all necessary greetings, and my statement of purpose of visit I didn't get the customary 'Woezo', meaning we were welcome. Instead, I was assulted with an extensive yes and no question and answer period in which he hints around at why his pissed off with out ever coming out and saying it. Then when he finally came around and said it, about an hour and a half had elapsed. In which case the guilty party (me) confers with his some elders about the fine and begging to reduce it and all sorts of other pseudo-judicial processes. Fortunately I have friends among the elders. Unfortunately they were culturally bound to not say anything in my defense because it would contradict the chief, (at least I hope they were culturally bound, otherwise they weren't as good of friends as I thought). They were able to help me out with reducing the fine to two bottles of booze: 50,000 cedis.

Then we returned the house and gathered the bags and started for town to catch a car. My house family was with me, and the trip to town was like the Wells-Fargo wagon in River City. A few members from each house came out to join us and by the time we reached town there was a full entourage. When the car finally came there were prayers and tears and well wishings. I had to keep my sunglasses on the whole time.

I guess that is the end of the Peace Corps experience in a nutshell. You are glad to leave your village and floundering projects but sad to leave the people you lived with and worked with.

Dan using a sea turtle as a pillow.

The same turtle on a beach in Ghana, without Dan.

In the computer room, writing that thesis.

From an email on 21 June 2004. How Dan became a vessel agent with Alaska Vessel Agents.

I am following through with the fourth radical career change I mentioned earlier; into the international shipping industry. To catch you up, after a couple years in Korea where I derived more enjoyment from learning Korean language and culture than actually doing my job trying to teach them to talk American, I realized living in a mega-opolis like Seoul was really getting to me. So I came up to Alaska and started looking for something to do. I did wildland fire-fighting training with the state Department of Forestry, but fires have been few and they haven’t been calling people up. Then last month, I got an e-mail originating from my web-posted resume. It was a small Alaska-based shipping agency who were hiring for a vessel agent position. I didn’t even really know what agents do, but, they said there was no experience necessary; they would train . Apparently it means serving as a communication link between shipping companies, their ships, the stevedore companies, customs, immigration, and the Coast Guard. They sent a list of questions to about twenty candidates, to which I responded in an essay. The owner of the company seemed to enjoy my response to the question “Describe a difficult situation you encountered in a previous job and how you solved the problem.” My verbatim response to this typical question was:

I recall one incident where I was confronted by a voodoo priest who was the steward of all the communal land in my Peace Corps village. Since my project was using communal land procured by my predecessor, the voodoo priest demanded restitution or he would kick the project from the village.
The funding agency had not allotted for paying for project land, although they had paid handsomely for my housing. I negotiated with the priest, who was demanding the equivalent of my housing allowance, to instead, publicly 'bless' the project with a voodoo ceremony. I was able to do this for a 'consultation fee' amounting to about 1/10 of the original amount. His contentment at the settlement showed he wasn't demanding money as much as a public acknowledgment from me of his spiritual authority in the village.
However, the village was split evenly between the traditional religion and Christian converts, so I realized having a Christian minister bless the project as well would show the project's impartiality in village politics.
The project is still functioning today, in a Peace Corps Volunteers absence.

11 July 2004 - From Unalaska

First day here I went out with the tugboaters for the company and landed a 40 lb. halibut. Small for a halibut, but the biggest fish I've ever caught.

6 September 2006

More great fishing from Alaska.

The nearly seaworthy "Perry L"

Setting the line, 50 hook long-line strings.

Hauling in the catch.

Dan with the fish.

You can also go to the official Ghana homepage.

Most recent update: 6 September 2006.

Back to the Michigan Tech Peace Corps Home Page.

This page maintained by Blair Orr.