Friday, February 6, 2009

An Upright Disposition

First off, let me just say that I haven’t been neglecting writing a new entry for this blog or anything - twice now I’ve typed up this same entry only to have both computers cease cooperating with me; my first attempt at posting ended with me grabbing hold of the monitor and vigorously shaking it because the internet went down at such a crucial moment when I tried to post my text. The second time I typed it up, I managed to post the pictures, but just as I was posting the text, the power went out and that was that. Since the closest computer with internet (tentatively speaking) is about 45 bumpy, dusty minutes away from my site by tro, I’m usually hesitant to make the journey; my trips are usually made in vain because of the computers’ capricious behavior to work/ not work. I’m currently at my friend Stephen’s site doing class observations and unwinding from such a stressful week, but more about that later.

Soon after posting my last entry, which was about a month ago, my counterpart (a fellow teacher at my school) and I went to an in-service training (IST) conference in Kukurantumi. A few months after swearing in, Peace Corps volunteers and their counterparts are supposed to attend a five-day IST meeting in order to increase their effectiveness at site. At this IST conference, there were about 17 of us volunteers, about 17 counterparts, and several Peace Corps trainers (four of them being veteran volunteers). It only took me about two hours to get to IST, about a day and a half less than it took for other volunteers coming from the northern regions of Ghana. Volunteers stayed in the bunk house at the hub site while the counterparts stayed in a hotel just down the road.

During IST, we would wake up early for breakfast at 7, spend about 8 hours participating in sessions, and end the day with heavy drinking and debauchery. Some of the sessions involved how to write grant proposals, HIV/AIDS education, safety and security at site, student discipline, and teaching techniques. One session in particular allowed us to pose questions to our Ghanaian counterparts (i.e.- Why do [some] Ghanains blast their music for everyone in the vicinity to hear? Why do [some] Ghanaians call our phones 15 times even though we are not picking up?); likewise, our Ghanaian counterparts had their own questions for us (i.e.- Why do [some] Americans like to cry? Why do [some] Americans refuse any help?).

In another session, a Ghana Education Service (GES) official showed up to field questions about the science and math syllabi as well as answer any other questions we teachers had for him. Unfortunately, our guest seemed to offer nothing but double-speak and insouciant excuses for the education system’s lack of clarity and understanding. Granted, we came off as overly critical of the education system, but all in the name of making schools better for our students. I brought up the point that the GES is out of touch with what is really going on in Ghanaian schools- the syllabi for the primary and middle schools are too difficult, especially considering that English is not the primary language for most students; the science syllabus concerns itself too much with minor facts instead of major concepts (for instance, they want middle school students to remember the names of different digestive enzymes in the human stomach); from what I’ve observed at the primary school across from me, the reading level is set too high for the students, and they are caned if they make any mistakes reading aloud. Other PCVs brought up the lack of clarity and accountability with GES when it comes to allocating funds, resources, and transportation for schools. Towards the end, the GES official pulled out a medium-sized sword and performed seppuku in front of the crowd of teachers. Before he did this though, he told us that Ghana was a developing country, and they were trying to improve things gradually. I’m hoping that as time goes on, we could create some sort of dialogue between PCVs, teachers on the ground, and GES officials to sort out those things that need major improvements in the education system.

On three occasions during IST, a few of us went to play basketball with the locals at a pretty nice court. Our team consisted of 2.5 Jews (Jack, Corey and I), Serena, Jeff, Kyle and Beth with Matt making a cameo appearance. Some of our competitors attended high school, and almost all of them looked chiseled and ready to bench press buses. We did well in our first game (I get no credit for this because I suck). The Ghanaians played way too rough at times, made several fouls, and we got on them about their roughness with the girls, though all in all we had a good time. How did I play? I think if you took a decent basketball player, got him plastered on booze, spun him around in a chair upside down and clocked him in the face while shouting how insignificant he was in the grand scheme of the universe, then told him to forget everything he ever knew about basketball, you would have me.

After IST sessions, Jack, Toby and I (along with the occasional passerby) got some target practice in with our slingshots. As targets, we used a Michael Crichton book, a Newsweek with McCain’s and Palin’s mugs on the cover, a piece of paper with Hitler drawn on it, and a milk jug we named “Big Birtha”. We spent hours shooting rocks at these targets, and we probably kept people up with our mirth and the ting of a rock connecting with Birtha’s protruding belly.

One night several of us hunkered down to watch a movie, and I finally got to see The Departed- an excellent movie as many of you know. In Ghana, you can purchase a disk for about 3 bucks with about 13 movies brand new or old. I’ll try to get a picture of the 13-in-1 movie covers (with titles like “Major Explosive Action” – Die Hards 1,2, and 3, Rambo, The Hulk, etc.)

The best thing about IST was visiting my host family. It took about twenty minutes to walk to their house, and when I walked up their driveway, it felt incredible to see everyone again. I talked to my host family about once a month at my site since the end of training, and it really was like a reunion seeing them in person after four months of being away. The whole family was there- Nana Boat (father), Mama Agy (mother), Kwazi, Ema, Kwaku, Brayn (children). I think my father might have broken my vertebrae with his crushing hug, but no matter, I was too excited to see them to care about my own mortality. We ate dinner, and I got to impress my mom with the new Twi I picked up at site. After catching up with my host family, my host father, his brother and I hit up the bar across the street for libations and further talk about this and that. By the end of the night we made plans to have them come and visit me in Otumi.

My counterpart was not able to make it to our little family reunion, but he eventually met them on the last day of IST when all of us were to head back to site. After saying bye to my host family, my cp and I continued on our way to Koforidua, where I both met my cp’s parents and boarded a tro to get back to site. My cp’s family seemed very nice, one of his sisters was actually very easy on the eyes (she is attending one of the top schools in Ghana right now –KNUST [Kwame Nkruma University of Science and Technology]- so brains and bod). Meeting my cp’s family also gave me the opportunity to get a bit closer to my counterpart, which was an objective of mine at the beginning of ICT. As you know from my earlier posts, there was some contention between us, and I felt that resolving our issues might benefit our students in the long run.

Before leaving Kof for my site, I had to stop at this film shop to make a major purchase- prior to IST I bought some film for my headmaster’s camera so I could snap pictures of my host family, and while there I noticed a nice looking film camera in the window (a Nikon F601 [N6006]). Since I was on edge the entire trip about not breaking my headmaster’s camera, I felt that maybe it was time to have a film camera of my own. The owner wanted $200 for it, and after headbutting him, I left the store. During the five days at IST, I wondered whether or not I should purchase the camera, and I knew from experience that I could talk the man down drastically in price. After IST and meeting my cp’s family, I went to the internet café to research the specs, reviews, and price range of the Nikon, and it turned out to be a decent camera with the average price of $120. I went to the shop, spent an hour haggling down the price, showing him my Peace Corps volunteer card as proof that my pockets are not lined with money, and finally convinced him to give it to me for $105. When we agreed to this price, I went to my bank, where I took out all but five bucks from my account. Now I purchased the camera, leaving me with just enough money to get home; when I finally got to my site, I thought I had about $50 stashed away. I was wrong. I had half that, and with maybe 15 days left in the month, I had to get by with my meager savings. Mind you that I could still eat three meals a day, but I had to cut back on the frozen chocolate milk I’m addicted to at site, among a few other extraneous food items.

Talking about money, I recently filled out my cost of living survey for Peace Corps, which is used to gauge how much Peace Corps volunteers spend and is the deciding factor for any subsequent raises in the future. Now some people spend hardly a thing at their site because, well, they are isolated and have nothing to buy. Other volunteers, on the other hand, have the opportunity to spend their money on a number of things, and it comes down to having the will to save. I unfortunately lack any mechanisms in my brain to put away money for future use. Case in point: In filling out my cost of living survey, I found that on average I spend about $290 a month. We get paid $230 a month. Looking closely at my cost of living survey, I spend a ton on travel expenses, phone cards, and food. Frozen chocolate milk goes for about 40p here (about 40 cents). At 2 a day, that comes to a lot of money at the end of the month. So in submitting my cost of living survey to Peace Corps, I am outright saying “Darren Fleischer fritters his money away on shit like ice cream and trips to Accra.” That needs to stop. Soon.

On to my current situation:

About a month ago, I wrote in my last entry about how I was spending my school holiday. The holiday is over now, and we are currently in the fourth week of classes for Term 2. Unfortunately, the term is going ludicrously slow. I spent the first week of school with my counterpart at IST while my students cleaned the school compound. During week two,, the students were busy taking their Term 1 exams (ridiculous!), since the District failed to deliver these during Term 1. Instead of resuming the regular class schedule, students spent the third week mostly collecting bamboo and palm fronds from the forest and building a fence for the coming sports events in Otumi. And now we are just finishing the fourth week, with even more classes cancelled on account of the actual games going on in my town. Since there are about 13 solid weeks in each term, I’m a little distressed at how far behind we are; and I seem to be the only one concerned about this. All the time I spent planning for Term 2 during the school holiday turned out to be redundant. Of the classes I managed to teach, my lessons suffered due to students’ fatigue from forest work and constant interruptions from teachers for school funds or more workers. It was plain to see my irritation to all this and I must say I’m a bit panicked- which leads me back to my original comment that I am stressed and currently unwinding at Stephen’s site.

Aside from the painfully slow pace of the second semester, caning has become much worse at my school, I’m working on a major secondary project at my site- the Science/ Computer Center, my headmaster and I are trying to get power for my school, and I’m in the midst of fundraising for STARS.

During the second week of this semester, we had a PTA meeting, where many of the parents showed up. Among the topics discussed during the meeting was the lack of discipline amongst the students. The parents and teachers agreed that students were not performing well in school, and felt that the solution should be more caning. My headmaster and I disagreed with everyone else, and I openly objected where this conversation was going; I stopped short at implying that the teachers were mostly to blame for the students’ poor performance, but I did recommend that parents play a larger role as facilitators of their children’s education (not exactly in those words, of course). I explained that I noticed a lot of my students out and about after school, and that parents should make sure their children use a bit of that time, at least 20 minutes to an hour, reviewing notes, reading, or doing homework. Being at site for about four months now, I understand that a lot of household work goes on when the child returns home from school, but talking with a few people around town, I’m confident in saying that before nightfall, the parents have at least 10 minutes free time to make sure their children are doing their school work.

At the PTA meeting, I told parents that instead of caning, I will hold those students who are acting up or doing poorly in class after school, and if any parents had a problem with that, I’d be happy to work something out with them. I experimented with this during my first term, and I learned a lot about those students I kept after school. During the first few weeks of this term, only a few students stayed after school, and so far it’s worked out pretty well.

One teacher was going nuts with the cane one day because some students did poorly on a test he gave; I almost got hit with the cane when I had to physically remove him from my class since he was eating into my class time to hit these students. We had a teacher’s meeting, but I needed to use that time to persuade the teachers to use a chunk of school funds for a new computer and electricity. GES policy states that only the headmaster can cane a student, and only for extreme conditions; I’m thinking about threatening the teachers at my school that I will report them to the district, an damn them if we lose a teacher or two—trust me reader, it’s for the better. First though I need to talk to my APCD [my boss] about this.

I’m so close to purchasing a computer for the school- the students saved about $120, and the one we want is available in our main market town, though it is $80 out of our reach; but if I could get my hands on at least some of the school money, we’d be good to go. Now, all I have to do is convince the teachers that this is a good use of the money. When we had a staff meeting yesterday, I thought all the teachers would be all about getting the computer. Instead, they seemed reluctant to give up the money on the grounds that our school did not have power, a valid point. But we had power line poles sitting outside the school, and I assured the teachers that our headmaster and I have been petitioning the assembly man and the chief to hook power up to the school, and with a new computer we could put even more pressure on them. Since I teach computers, I made the point that this term I need to start teaching the students about launching and using different Windows programs, and that it would be ridiculous to do all this sans computer. Also, I had them bare in mind that the students were able to raise over half the cost of the computer. The teachers reluctantly acquiesced to handing over the $80 so next Tuesday I’ll go to Kade to buy the computer.

Not only have my headmaster and I been busy trying to get power to our school, but we’ve also been trying to disentangle the bureaucratic nonsense that surrounds the half-built, dilapidated ICT building just outside our school. We’ve talked to a few people about what it will take to finish construction on the building, which has been in the same sorry state for about two years now. Pretty much, the building just needs a new roof, some windows installed, furniture, computers and other accessories. With grants and perhaps outside contributions, I think we can finish the building in a few months if we can hire a new contractor and round up the much needed cash. I’m hoping to raise money from people in the States using funds from a Peace Corps Partnership Program (PCPP) grant I’m trying to write up. I haven’t applied for a PCPP yet, but when I do, I’ll provide a link to my project where you can read more about it and if you can, donate money. I know a few people and organizations that can donate books for a small library at the center, as well as some science equipment. Pretty much, the bulk of the money will go to new computers, a projector, internet, and furniture. The walls are up, and when completed it can be a beautiful structure. If we get internet, we could use the computer lab to generate money for the school by using it as an internet café after school hours. To get the ball rolling, I would first have to submit a project proposal to Peace Corps, and once approved Peace Corps would contact the people I suggested might contribute to the project, while I refer people to the link. I would need the community to contribute to 25% of the project, but since the walls are up and the sheet metal is available for the roof, much of the community’s share is already covered. Note that all tax-deductable contributions go directly to the project.

Aside from the Science/ Computer Lab, I’ve also been gearing up to do STARS fundraising in the Accra area. Briefly, STARS stands for Students Taking Action Reaching for Success; it is held once a year at KNUST, and PCVs teaching at the high school level select 2 of their top students (preferably Form 2 students- a male and female) to go to the conference to meet students from all the other regions of Ghana. Some of these students have never travelled too far from their own towns, and to be exposed to new surroundings and meeting students just like themselves, it creates an incredible atmosphere. The 5 day conference covers topics like leadership skills, HIV/AIDS, tertiary education, and female empowerment; on top of this, incredible Ghanaian speakers, some PCVs and counterparts are invited to the event. This weekend I have a meeting in Kumasi with everyone directly working on this year’s STARS conference, and I figure after that, I’ll begin typing letters to old and new supporters for the event. I have until June to raise as much money as I can, and last year’s conference cost about $5,000- mainly for transportation, food and lodging.

Any other news?

I got lost in the forest one day while trying to avoid all the dust from the main road leading to my house. I took a footpath through the forest that I could have sworn would eventually lead to my home, and unfettered by time as well as looking for a brief respite from the bullshite at school, I continued to walk farther and farther away from the general direction of my home. I had hoped that the path would eventually wind its way back at least parallel to the road, but I kept going deeper into the forest. Sheer stubbornness kept me from retracing my steps, and I kept pressing forward, curious to see what was out there. I sometimes followed a few side paths to come across a small mud home or two, but the main trail got thinner and thinner, to the point where I was just walking in the forest. My main concern was stepping on any of Ghana’s extremely poisonous snakes, like the spitting cobra, black or green mambas, vipers, or puff adders. I decided to just walk in a straight line until I hit road, and maybe an hour after making this decision, I finally made it back to my house, disheveled and dehydrated. The funny thing is I can look out on my porch and pretty much trace where I got lost using the trees I passed along the way as landmarks.

Over the past few weeks I made a few jams and marmalade using the free or cheap fruits in my town, since spending money on sweets was not an option for the month of January. I first attempted to make marmalade using a ton of oranges I plucked from the trees around my house. The recipe called for oranges, some water, a ton of sugar, and some of the rind from the oranges. Unfortunately, I added too much rind, ruining the marmalade and creating an awful smell of barf to waft through my house. I tried to swallow the stuff, but I almost wretched every time I ate a spoonful of the stuff. I succeeded in my second attempt at making marmalade, and I am doing well with pineapple jam.

Ever since IST and Big Birtha, I’ve also been honing my slingshot skillz at my site. Everything in my field of vision has now become either a target or a projectile, and like Bart Simpson, I’m usually found with my slingshot tucked in my back pocket. I even have tournaments with my headmaster and a few of the children in town shooting rocks at small targets around my school. I seem to be getting quite good at the activity.

Yesterday, it was my turn to speak at the weekly worship deal at my school. I’m not religious, so I stuck to asking students why they think they go to school. Is it because their parents make them? Is it for the pursuit of knowledge? Perhaps they want a good job or advance to SHS and college. I explained for a good while why they need to think about these things, and not let anyone tell them what they should think. I went on to tell them why I became a teacher, what my thoughts are on hard work, and my belief that people can make good things come about in the world. This little spiel was received well, and afterwards, instead of breaking for sports, a lot of students stayed after to talk more about the day’s worship speech. They even showed me ways they were remembering the first 20 elements and their electron configurations.

Today I just made it to Stephen’s last class, and I have to say he did quite well teaching his Form 1s. Among the differences between my school and his school, his class size is half my own, the roof has a huge hole in it, and classes get out an hour earlier from my own. We chewed the fat for hours, and I’m feeling a lot better after a long long week.

That’s about it for now. A month’s worth of drivel. Usually I try to get at least two posts in for each month, so check back whenever. I will also keep you informed about that PCPP, when I have the time to write that proposal and finally get it approved. Please email me if you think you can constribute money to the Science and Computer Lab; donations would be greatly appreciated when the time comes. My email address is Etre yibehyia!


Back 4 U- Jurassic 5
1700 Run Outside- The Kleptones
Headlock- Iomega Heap
Flagpole Sitta- Harvey Danger
Sabatoge- Beastie Boys
I Was There- Cabin
Amor de Loca Juventud- Buena Vista Club
Yellow- Coldplay
Glosoli- Sigor Ross
The Bee- Starlight Mints
Big Mistake- Natalie Imbruglia
One of These Things First- Nick Drake
Dedicated Follower of Fashion- The Kinks
Sugar Water- Ciba Matto


Ravenswood 2006 Teldeschi Vineyard Zinfandel

Various slingshots

My new toy

The partially built ICT/ Science Center...

...with detachable roof

Slingshot action

Jack, awake and alert at the in-service training conference

Ronald Tschetter, the director of Peace Corps (center in black jacket)
with PCVs and staff

1 comment:

Krista Sheppard said...

Updated OUR blog and came to see if you did too - hooray! New pix.

I read it every chance I get (about once a week I visit EVERYONE'S blog; usually about 2 of them have been updated :)).