Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Home For the Holidays (Part II)

I’m in Kade again, this time to pick up more paint, stock up on food from the market, and type the second part of this entry. Since I’m stuck at my site until January 2nd (remember, stand fast), I’ll have to get plenty of food not available at my site, though I’m sure that if I run out of food, I could count on Chichiro or my students and neighbors to pick me up something while in town.

I need to add that I'm at the internet cafe near my town typping this up, and there is a huge argument going on over politics and the coming run off. It's kind of exciting. I'm amazing and impressed by how concerned people are about the elections; almost a 70% turnout in the first elections two weeks ago!

Today my students and I continued painting the Periodic Table and some chemistry-related pictures on the wall of our school, and though I took some pictures, I’ll try posting them another day. We had a good turn out- about 12 students came; keep in mind that students are on holiday and are probably working, going to farm, relaxing, etc. We finished with the black, and tomorrow we’ll use the colored paint- the students wanted to use red, gold, and green for the metals, metalloids, and nonmetals, as well as the electrons, neutrons, and protons (think Ghanaian flag colors).

All in all we’re having a good time; the students are learning chemistry, and afterwards the students teach me how to use the school drums and speak Twi. Some people in town periodically stop by to watch us paint the school, and some of them even ventured to name some of the elements (only the abbreviated version of each element is on the Table so that we could use the painting for science trivia).

So in my last post I stopped at me just leaving Bunso for my site. That was a good place to stop. I left a ton of stuff out in my last entry, but maybe I can cover it today if I don’t forget. Anyway, coming back to site….

The back to my site wasn’t too bad, the typical tro ride. I left early enough to get back to my school around noon so that I could see my students and tell them all I saw and did while at Bunso. As we entered Otumi on the lorry, I was happy to be home; having people wave to you and see all too familiar buildings and faces has an exciting effect on the soul.

I told the driver, whom I know all too well by now, to go past the school and head for my home first so I could drop off my stuff. As we passed the school, I noticed many of the students were outside getting food or lounging on the bamboo benches. When they saw me in the tro, keep in mind I am in no way embellishing this story, almost all of them immediately chased after the tro; it must have been a mob of 70 students. Man did that feel good.

I got home, quickly shed myself of my luggage, and headed to school, where I told my students about everything I came away with from the All Volunteers Conference. We talked about the need for HIV/AIDS education in our community, the USAID poster contest (which I’ll get to in a minute, what we will do for Term 2 as well as our plans for the remainder of Term 1.

It was a Wednesday when I got back from Bunso and gave my spiel to my students. I learned that day that the District term exams will not be ready until possibly next week, and when I asked my students what they had been doing for the time being, they said "nothing," which would explain them being outside while my tro was pulling into town. Although this frustrated me, I told them they are still responsible for taking my own exams (the ones I wrote myself) on Thursday, Friday, and the following Monday. All were fine with that. Like I said in my last post, I gave the exams and my students, to my satisfaction, did very well.

The following Monday I gave my last exam, Form 2 Math; unfortunately on that same day it was announced that the District Term Exams will not be issued this term, and will instead be issued the following term. I maxed out my pejorative comments about the education system in my last post, so for now we’ll leave it.

So Thursday and Friday I gave students 4 out of the five exams I had in store for them, leaving Monday open for the Form 2 Math exam. I intentionally left math for last so my students could come to me over the weekend for help. That Saturday I showed up early to the office and a few students came by for tutoring. At around 1 though I got a call from one of the Peace Corps Leaders (PCL) in Kumasi that the country Director had been trying to get ahold of me that day- it turned out that a Florida Senator was in Accra as part of a small tour of Africa for intelligence gathering, and he was planning a brief stop over to the Peace Corps office to meet some Peace Corps volunteers. Peace Corps needed me as the token Floridian…the next day. Since Sundays no bus comes through my town, I needed to leave for Accra that very moment (traveling at night is disallowed by Peace Corps and strongly advised against because of a number of dangers).
I apologized profusely to my students, told them I would postpone the test to Tuesday, left the office, swept my room for anything I needed to bring with me to Accra, and legged it for a ride. Unfortunately, when I hear the bus coming and had the kids run out to flag it down, the bus kept on going. Since that was the last bus to Accra, I had to resort to taking the inefficient, costly, and dangerous method of transportation- tro. Not only that, but I waited an inordinate amount of time waiting for a tro to come through my town. I talked with some of the townspeople before eventually catching a ride, and I was on my way.

When I reached Accra, I saw that a few other volunteers were there to meet the senator- Ira, Carolyn, Cheri, and others- a nice diasporas of about 10 volunteers for the senator to meet. We had one water sanitation PCV, some educators (most of them in def ed), and others belonging to the business, agriculture and environment sectors. All of them had been in Ghana for at least a year, making me overly conscious about my nascence.
Before meeting the senator, we were briefed about his background, the people who would accompany him, what we might want to talk about, as well as the senator’s name- Bill Nelson. Two interesting things about him: he went into space on the Challanger (the launch preceding the one where the shuttle and its crew met their end), and he went to the University of Florida as an undergraduate. Great, I thought.

"So you grew up in Florida, what university did you go to?" ‘Florida State.’ "What was that?" ‘Florida State’. "Haaaaaa haaaaa."

It was explained that the senator was going to be a bit late and that his wife would arrive first to field questions and ask what each of us did. A little before the wife showed up, all of our eyes followed what looked like to be a delicious cheese board, followed by other hours-de-oeuvres. When the wife did show up, we were given the green light to go and eat cheese- something PCVs must pine for throughout their two years of service here. When the wife did arrive, we introduced ourselves and the discussion went into full swing. We told her what we did at our sites, and I was deeply impressed by what all of my fellow PCVs had to say. One, whom I’ve known for a while now, surprised me when she said she worked at a halfway house for women banished from their towns as a result of being accused of being witches. This PCV would work with the women to undertake business ventures using art as an income. Every other volunteer seemed to have an equally interesting role at their site.

Each of us were also prompted by the senators wife to provide any improvements Peace Corps should make, or anything that can make our jobs and lives easier there. My fellow PCVs came up with several good points: having an extended period of prioritization in government jobs for returned PCVs- many of them go on to graduate school after Peace Corps, and the one year priority benefit doesn’t seem to cut it; US military postage rates- we have to go through the Ghanaian postal service, and sending mail home costs an absolute fortune; higher readjustment pay for returning volunteers, especially for those living in major cities.

I was the last person to speak, and when it came my turn, I felt slightly embarrassed about my greenness as well as nervous to speak in front of my peers; also keep in mind that by this time I was at the 5lb mark for cheese consumed. With a surfeit of nervousness, I explained that I am a middle school teacher in charge of about 80 students, teaching math science and computers. When I explained to her that I pay close attention to gender equity since this is something I studied extensively in graduate school, she asked what the male to female ratio was at my school. At this question, I locked up; even though I well knew that it was about 2:1 in both forms. I didn’t bother to ask my peers later how I did when talking to the senator and his wife, but I think I sounded like a nervous ignoramus.

Overall, our conversation with the senator’s wife went well, and in turn we learned that she herself did plenty of humanitarian work. She showed a genuine interest in our cause, and seemed to be well versed in outside humanitarian organizations.

Eventually the senator did show up, and again we briefly introduced ourselves. He asked us what entailed a typical day at site, and again I locked up. I don’t even want to go into it anymore. I did get cheese though. And a photo with the senator. Ira drank the untouched coffee once belonging to the senator.

So that’s about it. I went back to site the next day, and held classes in order to review for the Math test. the next day students took the test, then we took class pictures (see below?). Other highlights:
Wednesday I got sick off of bananas that two students separately presented to me. Living off the land in Ghana is great- I get to eat plenty of the sweetest (and free) pineapples, bananas, oranges, watermelon, and mangoes, not to mention avacados, cucumber, tomatoes, onions, carrots, chili, okra, and spinach. I could just ask for one of these items, and not ten minutes later a student would be back with said item after pulling it from ground or tree.

This next story is told with much chagrin: Thursday was the last day of school, and I wanted to use it to get students interested in a USAID poster contest discussed during the All Vols in Bunso. In a nutshell, two representatives from USAID came to Bunso with enough paint, paintbrushes, pencils, pencil sharpeners, and posters for everyone; these items were to be used for a contest that had ten people or groups design a poster 11x17 inches with the theme "Celebrate Life". These would be submitted to USAID located in Accra later in March.

I described as best I could the details to my students on Thursday, and several of them wanted to get started then and there. I figured I would do it during Term 2, but the enthusiastic look on their faces made me reconsider when I’d hold the contest. Half exhausted from the day, I said to myself what the hell and broke students into groups and passed out the art supplies.

Just after I handed everything out and everyone got to work, my headmaster said he wanted to have a staff meeting about the extra money we collected from the students over the course of Term 1. Extra class money is given to teachers from students for classes they teach after school. Teachers usually use this money to compensate for their meager pay, using it to pay bills or purchase DVD players (I’ve been to a few of my teachers’ homes, and if what they say is true, they are spending upwards of $600 on entertainment equipment- a lot here). I was in charge of collecting and keeping track of the flow of extra class money from teachers, which is why I needed to be present for the conference.

Peace Corps disallows us to use this money on ourselves; we can however alow the money to go back to the school. The meeting was about divvying up the money, and in all I got 40 bucks from the deal- enough to purchase paint for the Periodic Table Project, with the remainder to be go towards a computer the teachers and students have been saving up for.

While this meeting was going on, and unbeknownst to me at the time, pure chaos transpired as students began fighting over the art supplies and forgetting to make their posters 11x17. In retrospect I should have both held out till Term 2 and written instructions on the board. During the meeting, several students came into the room complaining about the scene in class. When I entered the class, it quickly became apparent of how much of a disaster the whole project became. Some students went home with their posters; others used the paltry amount of paint on their practice sheets I gave them; some students even stole other students’ posters or pencils.
Trying to remain indefatigable about the situation, I collected what posters and art supplies were left, took down the names of the owners of these items, then had the students get as much info as they could on those students that broke the rules/ left school with their supplies. To this day I still trying to put things back on track with this poster contest.

There are other stories, like the one that deals with a lone kitten, but I left some food with the woman I usually buy from in the market, and it’s getting late. My next post should be up in early January, around the time I am allowed by Peace Corps to travel outside my site again (remember, stand fast), so you can use your time learning to ice skate (or if in South Florida, roller skate), sculpture your abs, hang glide, get over a fear, etc.

As for me, I have a 25-day holiday. My plans are to paint with my students the periodic table and chemistry pictures on one of the school’s walls, raise money for STARS (an onus I volunteered to do during the All Vols), plan for Term 2, tutor my students, write up my quarterly report for Peace Corps, and spend some time with Chihiro before she leaves Ghana for good. I’ll report to you in January about how my break went and whether or not I was able to fix the disaster that was the USAID poster contest.

Happy Holidays!
Happy New Year!
Happy Birthday Avi Jamal!

Music: Holiday themed (a Jew can enjoy the occasional Christmas song too)
Drink: Eggnog
Game: Dreidel

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