Saturday, December 20, 2008

Home for the Holidays (Part I)

sBreak out the Maltas! As far as I know, Thursday marked the close of Term 1 for the students and teachers of Ghana. School will reopen January 14th, allowing for a nice 25-day holiday. I can also say that I’ve been in Ghanafor about 6 months now (counting my 10 weeks of in-country training preceeding my actual teaching). Looking back, I feel like the first three months at site weren’t half bad- I became close with the people in my community and got a better sense of what it’s like to be a teacher in Ghana (with all its frustrations) as well as observe the general ebb and flow of life in a small rural town. Suffice it is to say that I still have a lot to learn, and my teaching can use some refinement.

This first term, I took things slow and simple with my students so as to get a better sense of how things work at my school. I won’t go into too much detail here because my earlier entries document most of my observations. What I can say is that the students at my school have a lot of potential- they came to school, did their work, and improved greatly in my math and science classes. Their success can be attributed mainly to their hard work in and out of class, which gives me hope that many of them can go on to high school and maybe even college. The biggest challenge is catching the students up on their math, considering in primary school it seems like they learned very little.

I spent almost no time working with the school staff this term; who was I to tell them how to do their job? Instead I focused on the students while interviewing and observing the teachers in Otumi. I got the sense that without having a firm place at my school, teachers would remain intractable when it comes to me trying to persuade them to rethink their teaching methods. In time, though, I’ll make my move. Unfortunately, I’m not close to any of the teachers in my town, however my headmaster and I get along quite well, and I get the sense that he has genuine concern for our students’ futures. There are times he is nowhere to be found, he is a busy man of course, but I’m hoping that next term he will be around more. I’m also hoping he begins to inform me at least the day before if classes are going to be cancelled; planning lessons this semester and then implementing them was nerve racking. We’ll have to work on that.

The most recent case of incompetence at the educational level was the failure of the district to issue Term 1 tests to students, which means that the sat for two weeks at school doing nothing in terms of learning or being assessed. My classes were the exception. I wrote my own tests in advance since I did not go by the order set by the national syllabus. Surprisingly, my students were eager to take the test to show me they studied hard. After grading the tests, I sat back with a huge smile on my face- almost every student did well on all five finals, including those questionable ones who I have to discipline constantly.

It still troubles me that the District Education Office failed to issue the tests to the students; each student had to pay an equivalent of $2 for printing fees for the test, only to find out that they would not get the test on time. Instead, they will have to take their exams the first few weeks of Term 2, wasting valuable time that could be spent learning new material.

Why was the test delayed? The company being payed to make the copies allegedly took on too much work and could not make enough of the tests to be dispensed on time. This is indicative of the government’s ineptitude and lack of concern for its students outside larger cities like Accra and Kumasi. Stephen’s school, being in the same district as my own, also did not get exams on time. He and I talked at length about our frustrations with the education system- no tests, no textbooks to go with the new syllabus, no accountability. Come Term 2, he and I are planning on voicing our complaints to the director, or maybe even staging a coup at the District Education Office in Kade.

Enough: Let’s leave griping about the education system for now and begin where I left off in my last entry. Where was I?

Full of Thanksgiving dinners, I had to make my way back to site. I’m happy to say that I was able to find my way back to site with no problems. That was about two weeks ago. Since then, I captured a hand-sized spider, went to Entertainment Day at my school, had Chihiro over to watch a football match at my school,, showed Jack around my site, went to the All Volunteers Conference in Bunso, fell into a large hole, met a Florida Senator, and proctored my first term exams..

Starting with the spider, of which I’ve christened with the name “Kwame”, I’ve seen it around my home before, having no fear of the thing nor any quams about it being an inhabitant at my home.- it eats hoards of insects and is no real threat to me. The night I came back from Thanksgiving, though, their was a power outage, and I happened to badly need a shave. I shook up my flashlight to give it about three minutes worth of power, and proceeded to shave in the diminishing light, something I’m getting better and better at. While shaving, I noticed in the mirror an irregular-shaped silhouette just behind my neck, which I immediately recognized as the menacing but innocuous arachnid that comes out at night. I ignored it (one learns to tolerate such things while living in Ghana), and finishing shaving, I showered up an returned to my room. In almost total pitch black, I heard a skittering sound close to my bed. The spider overstepped its boundaries! I shook the flashlight up to give it more juice, and turning it on again, saw that it was racing along the wall at lightning fast speeds. I later explained to my mom that at that point she probably would have had her nervous breakdown. I grabbed a Tupperware container and managed to captured the beast, but not without accidentally clipping off two of its legs in the process. I released it outside, and to this day I haven’t seen my now six-legged friend.

The next day Chihiro came to my school to watch my student play American football. It was a grand day out- a cool wind was blowing down from the mountains north of my site, and many of my students came to the field to talk to Chihiro and watch their fellow students play. Even some of the teachers in town came to the field to watch. The students made teams of about 15 players, and played for about an hour before calling it quits. They played well, and to my satisfaction no one seemed to get badly hurt despite all the tackling that was going on.

The day after the football match, my students had their Entertainment Day, which meant that the Form 1 students performed different acts to entertain the Form 2 and 3 classes; girls dressed up as guys, and vice versa to make things a bit more interesting. Some Form 1s danced, while others sang, did comedy, or quoted passages from the Bible. Most of the acts were done in Twi, but I could tell the students were having loads of fun. Then, the Form 2 students “baptized” the Form 1 student leaders using chalk erasers to the face. Strange, but the event led up to its name.

Jack came to my site next day, although coming from the Western Region of Ghana, he arrived later in the afternoon. Jack and I had planned on leaving from my site for Bunso, where the All Volunteers Conference was taking place. Beforehand, I went to the neighboring town of Kwae (about an hour south of my site) to watch volleyball and soccer matches with a rival school. The girls were able to hold their own in volleyball, but the Kwae school slaughtered our boy’s team. At one point, one of my students was caned by the ref for kicking the volleyball out of frustration. While the games went on, I was introduced to the headmistress of the school, along with the other teachers. They seemed nice, but we didn’t get into any deep conversations. When I got a call from Jack that he was almost at my site, I had to split, and missed the soccer matches.

Arriving back at my site, I met Jack in the town square, where my headmaster also happened to be at the time. Walking back home, we saw my chief and a retinue of subchiefs and elders (kitted out in royal regalia) sitting outside the palace, so we three stopped to greet them. After introducing Jack, we had to leg it to my house if we were to prepare and cook food in adequate light- my kitchen lacks any kind of artificial illumination.

For dinner we had heavily spiced bean burgers, rice wrapped in seaweed and lighty flavored with wasabi; for desert we had sliced apples topped with honey. Jack and I dragged out the dining room table to the front porch to eat and watch the sunset. It was quite pleasant. One of the children stopped by to inform me that the soccer match was rained out, and neither team was pronounced winner.

In the morning, Jack and I ate some breakfast, threw the football around, and did some target practice with a slingshot before heading out for Bunso. To get to Bunso, Jack and I would have to take a car to Kade, then to Koforidua, before finally making it to Bunso. The trip in all took about 3 and a half hours. We dropped at the wrong stop, and went in a big circle before learning that our quarters were the next stop over. We finally arrived at around 6:30PM, and just made it to dinner.

As a reminder, the main purpose of the All Volunteer Conference was to consolidate volunteers during Ghanaian elections, in case any violence sprang up. That means about 90 of us would spend about 5 days at a dormitory compound while being updated on election events, attending seminars on subjects like HIV/AIDS education and grants, and going over technical issues dealing with Peace Corps. The All Vols lasted about 5 days, and I got to see several of my friends. Another 50 trainees on the verge of swearing in as new PCVs stayed in a different compound, so we didn’t get to see them.

One morning, after a jog around the Bunso area, I ran into my friends John and Patrick as they were going into the forest just behind the compound. They intended on walking a trail they had found, snapping some pictures on the way. I joined them, and we set out for the forest. Before entering the forest, we passed a scenic view of large timber trees in the distance as well as an acreage of cocoa trees growing as part of the Cocoa College’s research (the dormitories we were staying at were part of Bunso Cocoa College). John was in the front, I was in the middle, and Patrick in the back as we walked the trail leading into the forest. It wasn’t the best trail, and was used more as an auxiliary path for farmers in the area. Not five minutes into our trek into the forest, John suddenly fell straight down into the ground, grasping onto vines that covered up a nice sized hole. Without thinking, I quickly ran to his aid, only to fall in the same hole, not realizing how big it was. I too grabbed on to vines to prevent me from going all the way in, I could tell the hole was quite deep because of how my legs dangled in the air. John and I both managed to scramble our way out of the whole, but not without being completely covered in dirt, and I had some nice slashes on my arms from the spiky vines. It soon became apparent that there were holes all around us, but they were mostly covered by foliage and forest creepers. The holes turned out to the remnants of felled trees that were taken away by Bunso residents. We noticed that some of the holes were easily over 15 feet deep. We continued on our way through the forest to a river with some bamboo growing around it. John snapped his pictures and we headed back disheveled, but looking cooler brandishing our cuts and scrapes.

As for the elections, many people were on edge because:

a) We were interested to see who would win

b) Possible violence, aside from being terrible in its own right, could mean that we would have to stay away from site an extended period of time, and at worst evacuated from Ghana altogether, like the recent Kenyan volunteers had to do.

c) If no party was pronounced winner, there would be a run-off. There were about 4 main parties in the race, and if one party does not get at least 50% of the vote, than the top two parties would have to again compete in run-off elections in late December. This would mean that us volunteers would be able to go home, but have to remain at our sites as part of a stand fast (in case of run-off violence). Since many volunteers had friends and family planning to visit at the time, a run off would prevent them from traveling anywhere in Ghana.

For about three days we listened to the radio as news came in about voting turnouts and any occurrences of violence. To everyone’s relief, almost no violence befell Ghana, save for an incident in the Northern Volta area, and some possible voter fraud in the Accra area. When the final report came in, we learned that in fact there will be a run-off between the NPP and NDC parties on December 28th, meaning that stand fast would go into effect December 24th and end January 2nd. Any plans we had for meeting up for Christmas and New Years, as well as any travel plans people had for their families and friends, would have to be cancelled. Most of us were frustrated.

Among the highlights of the All Vols was Peace Corps prom and entertainment night (thanks Stephen for suggestion). For the prom, many people came in attire commonly known in our circles as “Ghanafabulous”- for some this meant wearing traditional cloths, such as funeral cloth; for others a smock sans pants sufficed.

For entertainment night, there was comedy, music, acts of sorts, etc. (one song a PCV wrote and sang, something about hippos, is regretfully stuck in my head). One performance ended with the first two rows getting soaked with water (see picture below).

The day after hearing the news, I left for my site. Some PCVs stayed for the swearing in of the new Peace Corps Volunteers, but I had to get back to give my term exams.

….I actually need to run back to my school. I’m painting the periodic table with some of my students, and so far we’ve chalked an outline. When I get back, we are going to paint the thing in. I’ll try to finish up the second part of this post tomorrow, mentioning a story of how I came to meet Bill Nelson, a/the Florida senator, as well as other small but possibly entertaining tidbits.

Music to accompany this entry:

Salty Air- Bitter:Sweet
When The Lights Go Out- The Black Keys
Standing Outside A Broken Phone Booth With Money In Hand- Primitive Radio Gods
Eros’ Entropic Tundra- Of Montreal
Where It’s At- Beck
Go-Go Gadget Gospel- Gnarles Barkley

Wine to compliment this entry:
Any white wine will do.

A praying mantis outside my home

Kwame caught

From the windoooows to the walls

Entertainment Day
Taking off for Bunso

Giving someone the finger (to vote, of course).
Note: Normally it's the thumb that's used to vote;
my headmaster used his pinky finger since he
is special and was in charge of one of the voting booths.

Forest holes

Entertainment Night
Grant being Ghanafabulous (Thunderdome style)

Larry and I at Peace Corps Prom

Florida Senator Bill Nelson (5th from the right)

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