Monday, October 20, 2008

The Story So Far

I’ve been in Ghana close to four months now, and it’s about time I started an online journal as a means for reflection, catharsis, and cutting down costs on phone bills and postage. For this first post, I’ll attempt to summarize everything that’s taken place from the time I left the States to the present, where I’m currently racing against time to finish this entry and get back to my site post-haste.

Quickly, though, if asked if I was happy, I would respond “Yes” and “What’s it to you?” I have great friends here, I’ve integrated well with my community, the students are excellent, there’s plenty of delicious food, and I live in a castle. I also share my neighbor’s dog, which I’ve grown to love, and I’m pretty sure won’t be killed. I cannot believe my luck that things are so good for me here.


The trick now is to accomplish and learn as much as I can in a two year period, without getting seriously ill or majorly offending anyone. For my students, I would like them to: be able to think and learn on their own, have pride in themselves, treat other people with respect, have a sense of compassion for animals, make well thought out life choices, value education, and read more. I don’t think this is too much to ask. My students are great when it comes to carrying my things and getting me complimentary food. Yesterday I scored some nkyeree (pronounced encheriyay), which is like peanut brittle, but with maize in lieu of the peanuts.

I also want to have a positive impact on the teachers. Caning has gotten way out of hand at my school, and I can’t even teach at times when I hear a student getting punished for probably nothing in the next room. I don’t think the teachers I work with believe in their students, nor do they understand that they are just kids. Flailing them for the smallest things doesn’t teach anyone anything. I still have a lot to learn about how schools operate here and where educators’ frustrations stem from, although I have some theories on this. As of yet I’m not too sure what I’d like to work on with my community; I’ve only been in town for maybe a month.. There was a good turnout at the last PTA meeting, so I think there’s at least a sense of concern from the parents for their children’s education.

For myself, I would like to become fluent in Twi and maybe French, and maybe even pick up some sign language. I’d also like to be able to run a marathon, do electrical work and home improvements, use a slingshot accurately, and play soccer. I tried to build a robot out of bamboo, mud, wiring and a motherboard, but the ants got to it before I could see if it works.

The first three months I’m going to only focus on teaching, learning about the school system and the town’s resources, speaking Twi, and learn about the people in my town. Once I feel like I have a handle on things, I would like to begin working on some secondary projects, for instance maybe painting with my students a giant periodic table, double helix and world map on the side of our school building (The World Map Project). Other projects I have in mind are: an email correspondence program between my students and their American peers, field trips, and STARS (more about that in another posting). By the time I start any secondary projects, though, I’m hoping the students come up with something they might want to do.

In a year from now, I want to work with teachers in and around my area so that students are provided with quality education receive less draconian measures of discipline. I also plan on learning from books and perhaps university professors about the education system in Ghana. If possible, I would even try to work with government officials about the state of the education system in Ghana, though it sounds too lofty an idea at the moment. I’ll just see how things go for my first term as a JHS teacher.

The Job At Hand

Some background into what I’m doing in Ghana. About a month ago I swore in as a Peace Corps Volunteer to teach science and math at the middle school level. My site is in Otumi, a small town located in the Eastern Region. I’ve been teaching now for three weeks, and because of the teacher shortage at my school have been asked to teach a computer class to my Form 1 and 2 students; so to sum it up, I’m teaching science, math, and ICT to Form 1 and 2 students (think 6th and 7th graders), and I am in charge of the Form 2 students.

My students are excellent, almost everyone shows up to class everyday and are eager to participate and help me out with things. They seem to understand what I’m saying, but a lot of work needs to be done when it comes to students expressing themselves. Talking to the students after class, a lot of them said they are shy or don’t know enough English to participate in class discussions.

I teach a combined total of 85 students, and by now I’ve remembered a majority of their names. I’ve made two books where each student is designated 4 pages; in the pages, I document the students’ performance, attendance, and personalities to better handle each student on a case-by-case basis. I can tell which students can be the trouble-makers, but once being one myself, I’m pretty fast in shutting any mischief down. The students are doing well policing themselves, and classes are rarely interrupted, except on the occasion that a teacher or a student’s family member comes in with something bogus. The best part is all of them try in my science, math, and ICT classes; I just have to maintain their determination to learn and do well.

The students do not have any books to take home, and the ones they do have do not go at all with the new syllabus that I have to some how cover in its entirety. Copying important information on the board takes some time, but I manage to get in a few good activities in many of the classes. It’s still taking some getting used to in both covering the material and building students’ critical thinking skills. In fact, I’ve been dwelling on this issue for a while now, and it occupies a lot of my thinking time. The time tables aren’t really followed by teachers, and sporadically classes are cancelled. Since the students sit around in some classes because the teacher is out, I usually sit in and have the students work on practice math problems with each other while I plan the next week’s lessons.

Caning is the biggest problem for me right now. My headmaster does not like caning, but the two other teachers do it constantly. My counterpart is gone for registration, so it’s just been me and this other teacher (Mr. Baku). The teachers are both my age, and although Mr. Baku is pleasant to me, he is way too harsh on the students.

Since I’m head of Form 2 students, I think I’m going to request that none of the teachers hit them; instead, I want them to come to me if there’s a problem. My students behave very well in my class, and whenever I do catch something, I can shut it down right away without wasting any time or hurting the student in the slightest. The worst that happens is I have them sit on the floor for a small period of time, depending on the incident. They are kids full of energy, though, so good planning and fun lessons sort out most of students’ anxiousness.

The Community

Otumi is a small rural town in the Eastern Region, about 3.5 hours north of Accra and 3 hours slightly north-west of Koforidua. There is no high school, but there are two middle schools. I teach at Kwaebibirem Model Junior High School (KMS), and across from this is the primary school. So far as I know, most of the people are farmers or traders, and the main crops grown in my town are cocoa, oranges and palm oil. The funny thing about palm oil is that it gives off the strongest odor during the manufacturing process- this odor can very easily be mistaken for the smell of burning pot. In fact, the first time I smelled it, I thought that’s what it was, until someone told me that smell came from the palm oil.

The school is about a 5 minute walk from my home, and the town market is about 10 minutes away. I’m not sure how many people are in the town, but everyone seems to gather in the market square or at church on Sundays.

The roads are rust red and extremely underdeveloped. Houses range from large compounds to small mud structures. Some of the houses and buildings have electricity; my school does not. There is also running water in some of the homes and facilities. Power outages do occur, though, and I just got through a three-day black out.

When I’m not working on school plans, I try to go out and talk to the people. I still have much more to learn about the community, and I would say everyone I’ve talked to has been kind and affable. I get many requests to sit and eat with my neighbors, and I’ve taken a few of them up on their offers. I have to admit, the food is good, but it’s kind of gross when I’m expected to share the same bowl with three other people using my hands, which is customary here. I try to put everything I learned about Biology out the window when I partake in whatever is in the bowl. The first time I told them I had a cold and I shouldn’t share from the same bowl. That was nonsense, they told me, and so I ate.
I’ll go more into the food in later entries I’m sure, but to give you a sense it’s usually a ball of some starchy treat surrounded by a soup of some sort. Fufuo is my favorite, but my stomach goes ill on me every time.

I met the chief, subchiefs, and the elders of the community. They all seem to be very supportive of my mission there, and the chief offered to take me around the Eastern Region when we’re on break. Currently, the chief is working on getting computers for our school, so we’ll see how that plays out.

Roger is the caretaker at my place; he and his family live in back of my house and we often talk when we see each other. The entire family is from Togo and they primarily speak Ewe and Twi; but Roger and his 13 year-old son speak pretty good English. He also has an 8 year old son and an 11 year old daughter. Almost everyday the kids and I do some reading on the front porch, then about 15 minutes of jumping rope, followed by weight lifting (buckets filled with rocks), and pull-ups on the orange tree outside the house. By the end of it we get a spectacular view of the sunset on a lush tropical forest, and then I eat and wash dishes outside.


Training took close to three months to complete. First, all of us met up in Philly as part of the staging process. There, I met the 35 people belonging to my group, all educators in Ghana. There were four different sectors of education: science, math, ICT, and art. Funny enough, my friend Stephen and I belong to three of those sectors now. We had 3 days of orientation and ice-breaking sessions in Philly, then flew from NJ to Amsterdam, to Ghana.

Arriving in Ghana, we were greeted by current Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) and our future trainers for the three month training process. We were escorted by police vehicles to Valley View, a college in Accra. We spent a few days doing more Peace Corps introductory sessions there and visited Peace Corps HQ, among other things. I became pretty close to the people in my group, though I liked everyone from the get-go, and still do actually.

On our last day at Valley View, we were to head out, on our own, to visit a current PCV’s site as part of Vision Quest. Each of us were paired with a PCV and spent 5 days taking notes and seeing what life is like as a volunteer. I visited two people in the Volta Region- Phil and Beth in Guaman and Logba Tota, respectively. Their sites were magnificent- both volunteers lived in a mountainous region surrounded by thick tropical forests. I had a good time with both hosts, and afterwards had to leg it to Kukurantumi for the next part of training: site interviews and placements.

My group members slowly trickled into the Peace Corps hub site in Kukurantumi as they were returning from all parts of Ghana. Some people spent the good part of two days on the road getting to their Vision Quest sites. I was fortunate to only have to travel 8 hours, though I thought I was going to lose my life on the drive up to the site. The next two days we were interviewed about site preferences: I wanted to teach middle school science somewhere south and surrounded by other volunteers. The day after my interview, I got precisely this, and as fate would have it, I was paired up with my host family, the Boatengs, in Kukurantumi. In fact, all JHS volunteers stayed in Kukurantumi, while the other volunteers teaching Senior High School went to the towns flanking Kukurantumi- Suhyn (pronounced Sushyen) and Old Tafo.

Without going into too much detail, we spent two weeks getting field experience at a selected school. I taught at a Presbyterian school not too far from my home, and taught there with my friend Jack. Also during training and continuing after the two week practicum was language and technical training. For language training, there were 5 people in our group and we were all learning Twi. There were other Twi groups as well as Fanti, Dongbe, etc. But our group was the best.

Technical training consisted of teaching methods and procedures in Ghanaian schools. The group members in my town would get together for these sessions on weekdays. On weekends, everyone in our group would meet up at the hub site in Kukurantumi. Aside from technical training, we also had sessions on Ghanaian culture, which was kind of fun for me but monotonous for others.

I’m skipping over a lot of events and info, but during training a few people sadly had to go home, I had a brief, tempestuous relationship with someone in my group I think I might have loved, I had a brilliant time with my host family, and splitting with everyone after swearing in was tough for me. When I got to my site after swearing in as a PCV, I had three weeks before school started. I spent most of this time preparing for teaching, though I frequented Accra weekly to see a few friends.

From Here On Out

I’m in Accra itching to get back to site, so that's it for now. I plan on posting the past week's worth of events tomorrow sometime soon. Know that licorice, rainbow sprinkle cake icing, Gatorade dry packs, mac-n-cheese packets, and other provisions would be greatly appreciated here. I'll also have an Amazon wish list up soon (I'll let you know when). Letters are also cool. I’ll leave my address below. Pictures are available at this address:

Music to complement this entry:

Hot Pants- Bobby Byrd
Rock Island Line- Sonny Terry
Blue in Green- Bill Evans Trio
Summer Samba- Ramsey Lewis
Rocky Raccoon- The Beatles,
Je Te Veux, Valse- Erik Satie,
Mandolin Concerto in G Minor- Johann Hummel
Doo Wop- Lauren Hill
Natural One- Folk Implosion
Making Time- Creation
Security- Thane Russel
All Right Now- Free
Back in Black- AC/DC
My Hero- Foo Fighters
Country Grammar- Nelly
Summer Love- Justin Timberlake
Inversion- Mark Ronson
Bhindi Bhagee- Joe Strummer and the Mescalaros
Evenflow- Pearl Jam
Bohemian Like You- The Dandy Warholes
Alone- Brother Love
Strictly Bongo- Bent
Leave Home- Chemical Brothers
Build Me Up Buttercup- Dance Hall Crashers
Downtown Venus- P.M. Dawn
Can’t Wait- Hepcat
Paths- Robert Miles
From Me to You- Bobby Mcferrin
It Was a Good Day- Ice Cube
Morris Brown- Outkast
Werewolf in London- Warren Zevon


First Days in Ghana

My Host Family
After Swearing In

Fufuo in Peanut Soup

What we lack here in Ghana

Otumi Market Square

Kwaebibirem Model Junior High School (KMS)

My Palatial Home

My Classroom

Some of My Students

The Chief, Elders, and Subchiefs of Otumi

The Caretaker (Roger) and his Family

My Dog Spike (who will not be killed)

Peace Corps Ghana

Darren Fleischer- PCV

PO Box 5796 Accra North, Ghana

West Africa


Hassan said...

nice blog, u know even me i have blog
my blog
read about u, u are teacher of computer, can we start having friendship, because i want to share ideas and opinion about computer......
my name Hassan from Zanzibar plz visit my blogs. and reply.

Unknown said...

Hi there!
I'm Barbara Jo White and I created the World Map Project just over 20 years ago while serving as a PCV in the Dominican Republic ('87-'89).

Glad to hear you want to make a map.

I've put materials and pics on my new world map project website

and hoping you could spread the word

I'm also on twitter