From Park City to Ghana and back
December 22, 2011
As a kid growing up in Park City, Connor Botkin said he never warranted a second glance. But when he first entered the village of Kpendua in Ghana, he said his six-foot-tall Caucasian frame sent the children running in the other direction and made the babies cry.
"In northern Ghana, they rarely see white people," Botkin said, "It took them a while to get used to me, but they were very welcoming. My first night there, the village chief sent over two doves for me to eat."
Botkin graduated from Park City High School in 2006 and attended the University of Colorado at Boulder. After graduating last May, Botkin wasn’t sure if he wanted to travel or do something productive, he began researching the Peace Corps and decided it would allow him to do both.
Once accepted, he was assigned to a village of 3,000 people in northern Ghana where he is in charge of health education. The closest American is an hour bus ride away.
"There are a few people in my village who speak English and I have become fast friends with them," Botkin said. "I am extremely functional in the native language Dagbani, but if I travel 10 miles in any direction, they speak a completely different language that I don’t understand."
Botkin has been in Ghana for 19 months and was able to make the trip back to Park City for four weeks to celebrate the holidays with his family before returning for his final six months. While sitting in his kitchen, eating fresh-baked rolls and gazing at the ski slopes on Thursday, Botkin said he had dreaming of this moment for the past year and a half.
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"I would be lying in my concrete room in the 120-degree heat, it was dusty and dirty, and this was all I wanted to be doing, looking at this view of the snow and mountains. Feeling carpet under my feet. Eating meat!" he said. "Driving up Interstate 80 from the airport, there were no potholes, no goats in the road. It only took us half an hour. You suddenly appreciate those things."
Before he leaves, Botkin said he wants to enjoy all the food he has been missing out on. His diet has consisted mostly of yams, rice and other carbohydrates for the past 19 months. His first meal back in the United States was a Whopper from Burger King. He called it the best burger he has ever tasted.
However, as he thinks about returning to ‘His village," as he affectionately calls it, Botkin said he wants to complete some of the sanitation projects he started and continue building positive relationships.
"Before I went over there, I thought ‘making an impact’ was something you could quantify and see on paper," Botkin said. "But so much of the impact comes from forming relationships and sharing stories. When I look back, I think I can say I was successful with my Peace Corps mission, not because I can list things I accomplished, but because of the good relationship I have with my village."
Botkin has been trying to educate the people in his village about HIV and proper sanitation. He has been busy building latrines and trying to figure out what projects the villagers want badly enough to contribute time or money for.
"There are many different aspects of development type work and you need the people that can provide the monetary donations just as much as you need the village to be working alongside them and making relationships." he said. "The villagers can easily become dependent on aid and develop the mindset of ‘If I just sit here, someone will come do it for me.’ But if you fold yourself into the village and have them contribute toward the projects, you can figure out what they really need because they are willing to work toward it. You would think the people would be so excited for a latrine, but they are very set in their ways, you need to build the relationships first and get them to understand the necessity."
Botkin has traveled to Third World countries in the past, and said before moving to Ghana, he always felt a twinge of guilt about the kind of life he was able to live in Park City.
"After being in Ghana for bit, I realized I got really lucky in the birth lottery and I should enjoy it and make the most of it because so many people would trade lives with me in an instant. If I don’t take advantage of every opportunity I can, that’s the only thing I should feel bad about," he said.