Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Mr. Darren Goes to Town

I spent the past few days typing up what I’ve experienced since swearing in, as well as some back stories to go along with whatever needs to be elaborated on. By page 30, I stopped, realized no one is going to read that much drivel, and scrapped the whole thing; instead I’ll hark back to last Tuesday and proceed from there. In fact, events that took place last Tuesday are a major reason why I’m sitting here now in the Accra Peace Corps Office today and not teaching classes at my site. It stinks that I’m leaving out a ton of stories I have from the past several weeks at site, but I hope to make up for it in my later posts. This one might be alright, but I’ll leave that up to the reader.

Quizzes and Caning

Last Tuesday, the year of our Lord October 14, 2008, was what one could call a typical day for a Peace Corps Volunteer: went to school, chased goats out of my home, and went to the main market a ways away from my site. My Form 1 and 2 students took their first test in my class, and cheating wasn’t too bad, though after grading the tests, I found some awfully similar incorrect answers on students who sat next to one another.

Cheating is prevalent in most Ghanaian schools, and is sometimes even encouraged by some of the teachers since it makes them and their schools look good if the student does well on high stakes tests like the BECE. Cheating goes on in my classroom, but it’s been on the decline since I usually just stand there, arms akimbo, quietly telling the student to go to the front of the room where they can sit and take a zero. Some students do really well on the tests and quizzes I give, while others seem to do poorly for one reason or another. I’m still trying to get to know each of my students on an individual level, so it’s tough for me to see who is studying and putting forth an effort while others might have learning disabilities. Many of the students, after school, do a long list of work for their parents, many of them being farmers. I don’t blame the students for being exhausted when they come to class, which is why I try to make my lessons as enjoyable and insightful as possible.

Word of mouth is pointless; the teachers at my school are out of touch with the students. Case in point, we had a new student come in, and my headmaster told me she is known to be shy and probably won’t participate in class at all. So far, she’s volunteered more than most of the class in providing answers. Almost all my students are still conducting themselves very well, taking notes and coming to class on time. I’m still working on getting them to be more open and comfortable during class discussions.

Student performance is alright in my classes. Since I’m teaching Math, Science and ICT to the Form 1 and 2 students, it’s sometimes hard to step back and evaluate things when so much is going on. Basically, I’ve found that both forms do well with attendance and effort in class. I try to keep my classes interesting, but I’m still finding it hard to get many of the students past just waiting for the answer or reciting in verbatim the definition for something. This is just how they learn from their other teachers, so I’m hoping with time and effort I can help students move away from this type of learning and actually understand what they are studying.

I’ve noticed with the teachers at my school is that they have very little confidence in their students, and they think caning is the end-all solution to dealing with students who misbehave or don’t know the answer to sometimes cryptic questions. On top of working with students, I’m putting some effort into getting the two teachers at my school to realize that the students are not hopeless and need to be hit to behave. All I hear from them, and this is no joke, is that students are “stubborn” and need more discipline. I feel they are just middle school students with tons of energy and frustrated with such a heavy workload at school.

One teacher at my school, we’ll call him Mr. Mhm, evades classes at all cost, and shows up late on a regular basis; but if one students does something minor, they are punished severely, I’m talking punches them hard in the arm in a non-playful way. These are my students, and I really don’t know how long it will be until I lose my cool on him, though first I need to talk to him alone. I really don’t like him though, and these probably won't be the last pejorative statements I make about the guy. Thus is the situation at my school.

I might be having some sort of affect on my headmaster, because he told me and the rest of the students and teachers during morning announcements the other day that “caning is no good, and that it will hopefully be done away with soon.” I’ll have to see it to believe it, but for now I’m just going to continue doing what I’m doing and try to convince the teachers that there is a better way.

From the Ghanaian teacher’s point of view, I’ve been told that being a teacher here is frustrating, that students get little discipline at home and must cane or they would have little power in the classroom. Another source of frustration comes from the low pay for teachers and in many cases extremely late payments into their accounts. I’m ignorant as to how many of the teachers are trained, and I’m slowly learning about the teacher-placement process as well as many other aspects of the Ghanaian education system.

This week I’ve been collaborating with teachers about how we can deal with the teacher shortage at our school as well as more effective methods of classroom management. I’ve seen little results this week, and I still hear the terrible sounds of students getting caned in the next room over. I caught myself glaring at the primary school teachers going nuts on their students with the cane. My students know how much I hate the measure since I openly protest to it when we chat after class.

Chihiro and the Problem

So Friday an odd but wonderful thing happened- I was asked to go home to collect some of the extra class money I was responsible for holding for the school, and on the way to my home, thought about how great it would be if my friend Jack came with me to Japan after we finish Peace Corps. Jack and I share a similar interest in Japan, and he can speak the language pretty well. I reminisced about the two years I spent there on the return back to my school, and when I entered the staff common room to count the money, not a minute later this Japanese girl is there before me. This might sound mundane to most people, but when I am the only non-Ghanaian in my town and don’t normally see any foreigners, it’s a big deal. If I had a tail, it would have been wagging.

My headmaster introduced her as a Japanese volunteer belonging to JICO (can’t remember what this stands for), and I remember him mentioning something about her a while back. The girl is about my age, beautiful, and has worked at a hospital not too far from my site for about a year and a half. Her name is Chihiro, and I took great pleasure in surprising her that I lived in Japan and could speak the language pretty well. As part of her work in Ghana, she would go around to schools teaching about AIDS/ HIV and other diseases. That day she made plans with my headmaster to come back Tuesday to educate our students. We chatted it up for a bit, with the end result of her planning to come to my house for lunch on Sunday.

Later that day, though, I was eating dinner at school while the students worked on this science poster I asked them to make, when my mouth suddenly started to swell up precisely in the area where a year earlier a dentist had accidentally severed my nerve. A little panicked, I asked my students if they noticed anything wrong with my face, with which they replied they did, and I looked a bit weirder than I usually do. The past few days, I’ve been having some strange sensations in that area, and even felt like my salivary glands decided to shut off. I’d get dizzy some days, and there was a level of concern that entire week. I figured it was a new allergy that might have cropped up, though I’ve only ever been allergic to plutonium isotopes. I called the PCMO (the Peace Corps medical officer), and he was under the impression that it might be an allergy and I should go on anti-inflammatory for a while until it clears up.

Friday, though, it was serious enough to get a hold of my dentist stateside and find out what he thought. He was under the impression that I had a mouth infection based on my history in that area and what I experienced the past few days. He gave me a list of medications, and I called the PCMO again to see her Saturday. If you could picture it, here I was with a swollen mouth in pitch black (my power was out and it was night time), writing down fantastic prescription names and packing my stuff for Accra. I did not find the humor in it at the time.

When I got to Accra Saturday, the PCMO looked at what was going on with my mouth, saw there was some inflammation, and put me on meds. She told me I need to stay in Accra until Monday to see the dentist. I told her maybe it would be best if I went back to my site, which was about four hours away, and come back bright and early Monday morning. She told me no. I looked at her incredulously; on any other occasion I would love to stay the weekend in Accra with Peace Corps’ permission. I usually spend my weekends taking a brief sojourn in Accra to visit friends and surround myself with all things familiarly Western, including shopping malls, pizza, and ice cream. A while back I had to cajole my APCD into letting me stay in Accra so that I could watch my friends compete in a marathon, and from that conversation I acquiesced to not coming staying in Accra again until the end of the term.

Any other weekend would have been brilliant, but this one was no good. The PCMO asked me why I needed to get back so badly, and I let it out that this beautiful Japanese girl was coming over to my place at noon on Sunday to eat lunch, and that I really had no choice but to go back to my site. No go. And here I am in Accra typing this up.

The weekend wasn’t so bad though. All in all this turned out even better. I texted Chihiro that I wasn’t going to be able to make it Sunday, and asked if we could maybe move the lunch to Saturday or Sunday of next week. She took that well and so next Sunday I plan on doing something really special, which I’ll elaborate on in a second. So with that matter resolved, I walked again with some panache in my step to the mail office to get the package I heard came for me the previous day. Signing for it, I noticed my friends Chris and Tammi from my group had also picked up a package not too long ago, and Sammy the mail guy told me they might still be in Accra. I gave them a call immediately and learned that in fact they were still in Accra and would stay the night.

We met up at a great Italian restaurant called Mama Mia’s, which I had previously went to with my friend Stephen. My friend Ming, a PCV from the education group before us was also there. They all came to Accra to vote as well as run other minor errands, and we got to spend all day together. We caught up, and even though I had talked to Chris and Tammi numerous times on the phone before, it was great to see them in Accra. They are a great couple, and part of the reason I enjoy Chris’ company so much is because he towers over me like a sky scraper, reminding me of such wonderful cities as NY, Chicago, Tokyo, and San Francisco.
After lunch, we stopped by the Asian marketto look at squid in a bag and get some dried plums. I bought up some soba, green tea cakes, and something else for lunch next Sunday when Chihiro comes over.

Sunday I bid farewell to Chris and Tammi, and I spent the rest of the day lounging at the Peace Corps office with my friends Ming and Ira, as well as some other people I met over the weekend. While at the office, I saw an article featured in the San Francisco Chroncile about Ralph, one of the PCVs in my group; he is currently the oldest PCV, and one of the most amusing in my opinion. I also met this one woman who had volunteered as a PCV in Ghana, but was now stationed in Afghanistan as an engineer for the Army. We talked for a bit, and Sunday she and the rest of us went to the officer’s mess hall just a few meters away from the Peace Corps office. The food there was amazing and affordable.

Monday I got to vote, which felt wonderful in many respects. For one, we voted before any state-side suckers could, and two, this is by far the most exciting election that Florida will NOT screw up, so help me god. I also spent Monday going to the dentist’s in Osu where the doctor checked out the inflamed area, which ballooned up the previous night while chowing down dinner; the doctor told me to go to Korle-Bu, an area about 30 minutes by taxi from where we were, to get an X-ray. It was a scenic ride to the office, where we passed long stretches of beach. I would recommend though that anyone who visits the beach to plug their nose

When I returned to Osu to show the dentist my X-ray, he pointed his finger at my chest and said “Son, you have a mouth infection.” Really though he told me this news like a normal person. He wrote me a prescription, but before going back to the office to give the prescription to my PCMO, I stopped in an actual bookstore I had noticed on the way to the dentist’s. Actual bookstores are a rare site in Ghana, and I being the avid reader cannot escape bringing everything to a halt to check out what was in the shop.

The bookstore had a decent selection of books, all used, and I picked up maybe $35 worth of books even though I had only $20 and needed the rest to get back to site. Since I thought I was going back to my site the same day I left for Accra, I didn’t bother taking things like extra underwear or money. The result was me standing in the bookstore with an armful of books, smelly clothes, and a defeated look on my face. The guy at the register ended up giving me such a good discount that I got to take almost all the books home and had enough to return to the office, where I would later be reimbursed for food and travel.

When I got back to the office, I entered the computer room to find three girls I was all too familiar with: two of them I’m enamored with, the other knowing about these attractions since I confided this fact to her a while back. The two I liked were staying in Accra at the same hotel I was to take the GRE the following day. Excellent, although I think any interest in me by other of them is nil. They went to dinner while I worked on this entry; later I met up with another friend at a restaurant across from our hotel before meeting back with the two I adored.

Today, being Tuesday, four of us had breakfast at one of my favorite restaurants, and we headed back to the Peace Corps office. We talked for a bit in the computer room before they left and I got back to work on this post. I also picked up my medication, and plan on coming back here for a check-up next week. I’m really upset I missed two classes, and I hope this doesn’t put my students too far behind in the curriculum.

While putting the finishing touches to this entry, my friend Ira and I, the only two PCVs at the office at the time, were invited to pizza, which happened to be on my mind all day. Soon I’m taking off, though, so I’ll leave you with an address to an Amazon Wishlist I’ve created. I’m not saying I’m book deprived per-se, but I would greatly appreciate if you send any of the items on the list my way. My next entry should come next week, if anyone is at all interested.

Music to complement this entry:

Johnny Appleseed- Joe Strummer
People- The Oscar Peterson Trio
The Good Life- Kanye West
Senorita- Puff Daddy and the Family
Outversion- Mark Ronson
Photograph- Def Leopard
Around the World- Red Hot Chili Peppers
Flutter- Amplifico
You Can’t Hurry Love- Diana Ross and the Supremes
Living in America- James Brown
You Sexy Thing- Hot Chocolate
Fly- Sugar Ray
Jump- Van Halen
Ooh La La- The Faces
Flower- Moby
Raspberry Beret- Prince
A Little Less Conversation- Elvis Presley
Yay Area- E-40
Passing Me By- Pharcyde
Dark Eyes- Ramsey Lewis Trio
Ming and Chris and Squid at the Asian Market

Sunset at my Site

The Inquisitive Goats


Mama Mia's

Chis, Tammi, Ming and I

Stephen and I


Ralph and Squinty McGees

Chris and Tammi


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