Saturday, March 21, 2009

<------On The Move------>

The past few weeks have kept me in a constant state of motion – I’ve been restructuring my curriculum plans for this and next term as well as sweating over STARS fund raising. Both have me a little on edge, but then again I like a good challenge. Unfortunately I’m starting to realize that it really doesn’t matter how hard I work here; any real progress is contingent on the choices those around me make, leaving me feeling powerless. Case in point- There was another fight between a teacher and a student, and I’m pinning the teacher for trying to get the student to fight him. We had a staff meeting, and I tried to communicate that when teachers don’t show up to school and lack any real system for discipline at the school, then we are just welcoming chaos. Hell, I was a terrible student in my day, and that was with a sound school system There was a time when I’d lie to teachers about tending the family lobster farm, sneak into friends’ classes, blow up projectors, give fake names to teachers [Taj], wear togas to school, and get into fake fights with my brother- having teachers around kept my options limited. How far would you have gone if adults capriciously showed up to school each week?

Classes are still being cancelled- tomorrow, students are collecting bamboo from the bush. I spend hours strategizing how I can make up that lost time, since there are a babillion topics students are responsible for “learning” in the syllabus, and I haven’t taught a third of what I I should have covered by now. I’ve been teaching at the school for six months, and I still face the same issues I started with. No one considers my suggestions- I’m thinking a little laziness, frustration, and lack of care is getting in the way of progress.

Last week, four out of the seven teachers that were supposed to be at the school were nowhere to be found, sending a strong message to my students- no one gives a shit about their education. Know who else doesn’t care? Answer: The Ghana Education System. GES not only piles on a ton of topics the students are supposed to learn, they make nit-picky tests that in some ways have blatant grammatical errors. Last week the Form 3s took their mock BECE, which will prepare them to take the real test that helps decide whether or not they get into a good high school, if they go at all. The questions, might I add, look for minute information that requires the students to memorize, more than anything, random bodies of knowledge in science. I’m sure it’s the same for other subjects as well.

As a science teacher, my philosophy in education is to have my students think critically, question the world, and discover the big picture through science; teaching in Ghana makes this incredibly difficult. In fact, right now I am torn. GES wants teachers to practically have students memorize incredibly hard concepts and facts in science, leaving almost no room for students to think on their own. Last week I accepted that there is no way I will be able to cover everything in the science syllabus- cancelled classes, teaching to a large percentage of students who are struggling with the material (and in some cases reading and writing), and parents’ lack of concern about their child’s education has put me so far behind that I am left wondering what good I am here. I want my students to have a good future, one where they go to high school and maybe even go on to college. At the same time I flat out refuse to just write facts on the board and have students memorize them, which is how it seems to be around here. I’m stuck. I’ve been trying to find some way to teach the way I like to AND prepare my students for that idiotic exam, but so far I’ve been going too slow and by now no matter what I do I won’t be able to cover everything in the syllabus.

I’ve talked to the headmaster and other teachers about this, and they told me that’s just how it is here. My headmaster told me there used to be someone high up in GES who actually gave a damn about the students and did things smart; in fact the guy went on to work with several African nations to improve education throughout the continent. But he left behind a broken system here. I know it could be much worse, but I tell you now it could be much much better.

I’ve been amassing a list of names tied to GES, as well as a list of criticisms; one day, probably when I’m done with my service here, I can shoot…. I mean talk… to the right people and maybe put things on a better track, at least with the syllabus. I’ve talked with teachers about several problems with the education system here- teachers not getting paid on time, headmasters having little power at the school, a severe lack of resources and in some cases teachers, no accountability- these are real, I see them at my school and other schools I’ve visited. I wouldn’t know the first place to start in making recommendations to GES; but in terms of what is taught and how students are tested in science, oh man do I have a lot to say. Too bad my current students have to learn from such a terrible syllabus made by people who probably have no idea what schools are like in most of Ghana outside the major cities. And that’s it for my rant on Ghanaian education for this entry.

Night classes continue to have a good number of students, though lately many classes were cancelled due to freakish storms and power outages. One storm unloaded pea-sized hail on Otumi, and the power was out for the rest of the day. Recently, there’s been a lot of rain- I guess the rainy season has started, and I didn’t even get to start a garden. My headmaster and I have been talking about fixing up the garden we have at school, but that means about $100 in repairs on a sturdy anti-goat and pig fence. We did attempt to weed a small area of farmland, but while heading out to do the work, my headmaster suddenly stopped, pointed up to the top of a papaya tree, and instructed the students not to move another inch- at the top was a good sized cobra. Immediately people started to freak, and reacted when they realized my fascination with snakes (I remind students to call me if they ever see a live one). The first step I took towards the snake sent all the students pulling me back and away from the tree. Mind you I was in no danger and nowhere near the snake’s spitting or striking distance, but I kept my distance to put everyone at ease. Then the stones started flying. A student with a slingshot got a dead-on hit with a rock to the snake’s head, probably killing or concussing it. This did not stop students from hurling rocks at the tree until the serpent finally fell in a twitching heap on the ground. I just stared at the body, dead but not dead, synapses firing with the effect of random sections moving around, giving me the idea to later hold an unofficial class on muscle fibers and nerve cells.

Anyway, night classes- The deal is that students and teachers meet at the school from 7 to 9 to use the computers, chat, or play/brawl. Since school gets out at 3PM, we all get a good four hours to unwind, or in the students’ case, help their parents with cooking and cleaning. It’s usually the students that show up in the evening that show the most enthusiasm to learn, so as long as they’re interested, I’ll keep coming. Next week, the headmaster and two of our teachers will have a typing race for the students, using the school computer, my laptop, and my headmaster’s computer. I’ve also been saving random pictures from the internet (PG you idiot), from people skiing off mountains to giant squids. Teaching chemistry is much easier with CGI pictures to go along with the lesson.

I finally have working internet, although it’s as slow as molasses here- like 56K slow. I’ll just have to grin and bear it- it’s better than nothing. Do you remember those days where you want to load a page or a picture, and every minute adds an inch to your loading image? That’s what I’ve got. For those students who are extra good in class, I’m thinking of letting them use the internet and maybe open an email account. Perhaps a correspondence program is not too far off. The problem is I only get to download/upload 500mb per month on the plan I have, and the amount of time it takes to load up a page can take all day if students are going to use it. These kinks aren’t too bad in the grand scheme of things.

Recently I’ve had students write pen pal letters to high schoolers at Rickards High, the school I interned at in Tallahassee. I’m in contact with the teacher there, and in April I’ll be sending those letters on their way. The students are writing about themselves and Ghana, along with questions they have for the high schools back in Tally. The students are very excited about this. I’ve read some of the letters, and I’m impressed with some of the students’ writing abilities. Sometimes they write something like “Do you like to eat fufu?”, and I would have to explain that most Americans don’t know some of the things here.

Like I was saying at the beginning of this entry, STARS fundraising also has my head laden with anxiety, an annoying passenger behind me kicking my seat and saying “So far no word from your sponsors Darren. No word from anyone’s sponsors. Grants aren’t looking promising. What’s going to happen with this year’s conference Darren?” In April I plan on going to Accra to ask for sponsorship in person, and I’m hoping things will start looking up for all us STARS fund raisers.

A few weeks ago I got a bike, a Frankenstein bike if you’d like recommended by my friend Mike. Actually, it was Stephen who intended on purchasing a bike, and I came with him to Koforidua to shop around. He knew this guy David volunteering for Bikes Not Bombs (based in Boston), an NGO that supplies cheap bikes to countries around the globe. A huge shipment came in, and Stephen wanted to check out what the place had to offer. After a two hour trip to Kof, Stephen and I walked to an inconspicuous storehouse tucked away in a side street which until then I never knew existed. I must have walked past the place a dozen times during training, completely ignorant that a 1 minute walk around the building would lead to David’s shop.

The shop was actually two store houses side by side, with huge metal doors on the outside and bikes heaped on top of bikes on the inside. At the front of the shop, a wooden sign lying on its side advertised “Ability Bikes”, and on a stool next to this sign was David, drinking his morning coffee before another day of work. He offered us some bofrut (I keep hearing bowl fruit), a Ghanaian version of doughnut holes, and gave us some background into Ability Bikes. For a while now, David’s been working with a team of I think seven people - made up strictly of Ghanaians with physical handicaps and who were selected from 30 others who applied for the job. They get shipments from Boston’s BNBs, repair what they get, and sell them to bike shops and individuals in town. Poking around in the garage, I noticed that many of the bikes were manufactured by well-known companies, and sold for $300 and upwards in the States. Many of the bikes had one problem or another, and it was up to David and his team to fix them. Ina few months, David will be finished with his service here, and I could tell he will miss Ghana. His team will carry on the business, which David hopes will be sustainable without him.

I found out Stephen is some sort of bike aficionado because he was mentioning all these different bike names and parts, none of which I knew anything about. In the end Stephen did not seem satisfied with any of the bikes, and wanted to wait for another shipment. I on the other hand spotted a bike in the garage I could definitely envision myself riding flying around town with, a Gary Fisher Mamba. I inquired about the Mamba, and David said that it needed a lot of parts replaced, and it would take a week or two before I could pick it up. I decided on getting the bike. Was this impulsive? Probably. But now that I’ve had it for about a month, it was worth every Ghana pesua. Getting to school takes less than a minute now, compared to the ten I usually spend walking, and a lot of stress is sloughed off after school when I take the amazing dirt roads that go miles into the forests around my town. Fortunately, the bike is light too, allowing me to pick it up and jump over puddles, crocodiles, barrels, butterflies, flames and other obstacles on the trails.

Most of the trails have a single dirt road for cars carrying bamboo, oranges, palm nuts and cocoa. There are some foot paths- I rode my bike for miles on these, sometimes coming across dilapidated mud homes no longer inhabited by the farmers in the area (pics coming soon- a storm came and I had to head back before taking any pictures). I occasionally stop to talk to farmers if they are not burdened by 80 pounds of haul on their head. I don’t recognize many of the farmers, probably because they rarely go into town. They totally freak when they see a whitey flying down a rocky path, listening to an iPod and wiping flecked mud of his face. I’m glad I have a good grasp of the local language- so far out from town, the farmers’ English is almost negligible. “What you from?” asks a guy who looks to be about 20, with 50 years experience on the farm. We talk for a while, and then I continue on my way deeper into the forest. At some junctures, I could see if rain is on the way, which means I need to race back the same way I came. Otherwise, night classes start at 7, curtailing my journey further into the forest. Another day, another trail- that’s what I look forward to after school.

One thing before we move on: When I got the bike in Kof, I was sure no one would mind loading it in/on their lorries. I was wrong- it takes two lorries to get to my site, and both drivers were blatantly unhappy with my cargo. They acquiesced to help me get it to my site, but I could have sworn I’ve seen bikes on lorries. On the trip from Kof to Kade, my bike was dangling out from an open hatchback, and I was worried it might fall from the vehicle. At some point on the ride, I conked out, and when I woke up and my glasses were gone! I think out of my exhaustion I took them off and they fell out of my hands. Without my glasses, I’m blind. Not exactly- I can see blobs of color. Mortified, I had to ask the driver to stop the car so I could look for my glasses, which I assumed fell out of the lorry whose hatchback was open because of my bike. Luckily, I found them somehow mangled under the seat- I must have stepped on them or something. I bent my glasses back into shape the best I could, wiped mud off the lenses, and frowned at the new scratches on both lenses, which added to a history of neglect. The lorry roared into life again, and glasses sitting askew on my face, I apologized to my fellow commuters.

As for other March stories, I went to a VAC meeting at my friend Sue’s place in Abompe, as well as watched my students march for Ghana’s Independence Day festival in Otumi.

Peace Corps volunteers are spread out in each of Ghana’s ten regions, and for each region we decide on one of our own to represent us and keep us updated on news from Peace Corps- these are our VAC leaders. Occasionally, VAC meetings are held throughout the year to go over anything we PCVs want to communicate to Peace Corps staff through our VAC leaders. We also talk about safety and security issues, our living allowance, gossip, and side projects (i.e.- hosting educational radio programs, AIDS/HIV bike rides, school murals, etc.). I belong to the Eastern Region group, and this last meeting was held not too far from Koforidua, at my friend Sue’s palatial house in Abompe. On a Friday, after school, I headed over to Kof where I met up with Stephen, Chris, and Tammy, then proceeded to Sue’s. The actual meeting was on Saturday, and only a few of us were there on Friday. When Saturday rolled around, several more PCVs showed up to the house, and after a great breakfast, we broke into two groups- those interested in a trek through the surrounding mountains and those wanting to take a tour of the village where bauxite jewelry is made (as well as bamboo bicycles). Torn, I decided to do the village tour, swearing to come back and do the mountain hike with Sue another day.

Our first stop on the tour was a house with some of the local jewelry made from bauxite. Ben, our guide and Sue’s good friend, gave us some background into the history of bauxite mining and jewelry-making in Abompe. Afterwards, I bought a necklace that caught my eye before we continued on our way (see pic below). On our next stop, we entered an elderly couple’s house where they showed us how to drill holes into finished bauxite beads: What they do is take a stick with a skinny nail at the end, and with a bow make it gyrate until a hole is made (think of starting a fire with the friction of spinning a stick on wood). Later, my friend Chris would try this, finding it a bit difficult at first. We also got to see how bamboo bikes are made- the bamboo is used for the frame and the rest is made up of spare bike parts.

After the tour, we went to a bar where the other group eventually joined us for drinks and talk. Then we headed back to the house where we had our official and successful VAC meeting. When it was over, dinner and fun; I played chess with Ira, then some Texas Hold ‘Em using coins for chips. Ben hung around to learn the basics of both games, but poker went well past 1, and drained, I fell asleep. The next morning we all headed back to our sites- many of us are teachers and had classes on Monday.

March 6th is Ghana’s Independence Day, and as part of the festivities, schools have marching competitions to prove they are the best. For the two weeks prior to Independence Day, I would come out to the football field to watch students practice marching and drumming. Although I’d get pissed when some of my classes were cancelled for marching practice, I have to admit that my students looked good out there. The event took place at the Presby JHS’s football field across town, and it was our JHS and primary schoolers versus theirs in the marching competition. First, speeches and prayers were made by town officials. As was customary, one of the elders poured alcohol to the ground to honor the ancestors (think “This one’s for my dead homies”). The officials then scrutinized the students that were now lined up and puffing their chests out in pride. Then my JHS students had the honor of drumming for all the students marching. Each group would do a complete circuit around the football field, showing off their formations and marching technique.

When all the groups went, my headmaster got a little silly and pressured the teachers from both our school and our rival school to march once around the football field. The whole town was there, and I felt timid marching in front of everyone without getting any practice in. My students tried showing me how to do it, but I think I might have looked like my lower half was getting electrocuted- I had no rhythm and I’ve never felt so uncomfortable doing something that was supposed to be fun. Even one of my coworkers told me I looked terrible and I should wait until next year to go. My headmaster told me not to mind Mr. Osei, and his glee was infectious enough for me to say what the hey and march with the other teachers. Hundreds of locals were laughing and cheering when we teachers started marching, and I felt like I was on display at a freak show, but it was fun and it made my students happy. Next year I’ll show them when I get practice. When I practice…

That’s all for this month. Like I said, I have internet. If you’re interested in chatting online, shoot me an email (mine is and let me know what time and IM program you use and I’ll see what I can do. Congrats Steph and Marc, I’d love to go to the wedding, but if it comes down to it I’ll send a video message. Otumi is a hot spot for honeymooners. Really!

Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down- Puff Daddy and Mase
The Rocky Road To Dublin- Dropkick Murphys
Cursive- Pulse
Sugar, We’re Going Down- Fall Out Boy
Here I Come- Fergie
19-2000- Gorillaz
Turn A Square- The Shins
Who Got The Hooch- Everlast
Slow Down- Goose
Without Me- Eminem
Drivin’ My Life Away- Eddie Rabbit
Welcome To The Jungle- Guns N’ Roses
Faded- Ben Harper
Really Got Me- Van Halen
Hey Boy- The Usuals
On Impulse- Sonny Rollins
Magic Carpet Ride- Steppenwolf
Superfly- Curtis Mayfield
Flight of the Bumblebee- Bobby Mcferrin & Yo Yo Ma
We Get On- Kate Nash
Paper Planes- M.I.A.
On The Run- Mark Ronson
Harder To Breathe- Maroon 5
Come Out And Play – The Offspring
What I Got- Sublime
Come Dancin’- The Kinks
Uisge-Breatha (Whiskey)- Pork Pie Tribe
High Speed- Coldplay
Stop Don’t Panic- Jamiroquai
Morceau II [Enlevé] - Erik Satie
Don’t Let The Bastards Grind You Down- The Toasters
Run It- Chris Brown
Party At The Moontower- The Expandables
Free At Last- G. Love and Special Sauce
Hard to Handle- The Black Crows
Rock and Roll- Led Zeppelin
Song 2- Blur
Break On Through- The Doors
The Repudiated Immortals- Of Montreal
Tribute- Tenacious D
Three Little Birds- Bob Marley

Merus Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2005

Ability Bikes in Koforidua

David and Co.

My bike

Side trail

Going down?

Bird's nests on bike trail

Hauling bamboo

Night classes

Moses and Priscilla

Nana Darko- A town elder known for his backflips

Me with some Otumi officials

My Form 2 KMS Drummers

...And we're marching!

My Form 1 girls moving forward

Click Me

View from Sue's place

In search of breakfast in Abompe

Insert pithy comment here

Bauxite from the mines

Abompe local drilling holes into bauxite beads

More bauxite necklaces

I got one!

My buddy Chris trying his hand at hole drilling

Some soon-to-be beads
Bauxite bracelet- You will be mine. Oh yes, you will be mine

Awesome bamboo bike

HUGE fruit the size of your everyday miniature poodle

Night scorpion

More books you should definitely read (if you are literate)

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