Wednesday, March 16, 2011

from Ghana

(Monday) lessons

Well, I wouldn’t have guessed this day would go in the way that it does. Not when I first signed up for international volunteer work, not when I received my placement at the Happy Kids Foundation in Hohoe, Ghana.

Our volunteers are variously placed – a school for the deaf, the district hospital, Happy Kids. The three of us who are assigned to Happy Kids have been warned: it’s not very structured. And some teachers are challenged by English, which is why it is especially useful for them to have an English speaking volunteer in the classrooms. Kids here learn Ewe at home. English is a second language and predictably, some kids learn it faster than others.

A taxi takes us to the school. There are no private cars in Hohoe, not even salvaged wrecks. If you really need to move quickly and longer distances, you take one of the cruising taxis. The equivalent of 35 cents, anywhere in the district (it loads up with passengers along the way). The volunteer van is once again broken and we have a ways to go.

The volunteers that have worked here before warned me: at Happy Kids, be prepared to take a class for the week. And be prepared to teach the first day.
You mean assist the teachers?
No. From day one, you’ll be alone with the kids.

Well now.

It’s hard to prepare not knowing their ages, or what kids in Ghana learn in school, or what level they’re at – no, let me rephrase it – it’s impossible to know how to prepare without this information.

We rumble along a rutted lane and we come to a clearing. The kids are working in classes shaded by dry palm leaves. Three separate spaces. (There is a fourth class of preschoolers – these play in a half open cement structure.) I am escorted to one class – the largest one, with twelve kids. Ages 4 to 12. That’s a big spread. [I should note that all photos are with appropriate permissions from the school.]

my class; their Madame is in the back

A really big spread. Nusi, Bright, Porshe , the twins (Christian and Christ)... the ones in matching uniforms, the ones with mismatched uniforms and ones without uniforms at all... socks, flipflops, bare feet – they’re all here. Where do I begin?

There is an old blackboard and I ask for volunteers to come up and write their names. And I pass out a sheet of paper. Let’s start with writing your name on that as well.

Too ambitious. Half of them are not there yet and the remaining ones struggle. I scale it back a bit.

I see that there are three challenges here: they’re all young (in one way or another), they know only spoken English and the young ones hardly even know that, and the resources that they have had to work with are very scant.

Teacha, teacha! The kids call me that to get my attention. Their regular teacher has few control issues. They cane kids here and she has a stick in hand to make the point. (Though they know that volunteers don’t like to see this and they try to restrain its use in front of us.)

The teacher sits down to rest. Flies buzz, the heat intensifies, she dozes... Who can blame her. The class is mine. Now what?

I have a few songs, movements, introductions up my sleeve, but they’re random. I brought my photo book about Madison and they just could not get enough of those images of snow and ice and autumn leaves. Here, near the Equator, the temperature is uniformly the same. Hot. The season are “dry” or “rainy,” though I have to say, that’s a tad unbelievable as we are ostensibly in the dry season and there have been violent storms every night so far. Even as they never last.

And so I teach. And it becomes clear that instruction here is based on repetition and the kids will repeat most anything you tell them. Sometimes you have to remind them that it really is a question and then that the guessing usually doesn't work.

I teach them clapping games and they love those! I reach for these games when the energy level gets to be high, too high – toward the end of the first morning period.

There is the boy who will raise his hand for most anything and then grin a large grin for you without having any answer. And the little one, the 4 year old who likes to curl up on top of her table when she is tired. If Madame notices, there is a large rap with a stick on the desk. The little girl seems unruffled, though she does scramble back to the bench.

And by the end of the period, I am not too far from wanting to curl up somewhere as well. The spread is too large. Keeping all twelve engaged when clearly one on one would work so much better is the biggest challenge of all.

A boy rings a bell. It’s recess.

But it’s not recess for me at all. I want to say – run and play, but they don’t want to do that. They hover around me and others, the youngest preschoolers come out to look at my photo book and it is clear that so long as yevu teacher is there, they will be right next to me, wanting to play hand games again, with hot little sticky hands in this little school in the tropics.

After recess, I have them draw. The teacher gives me pencils to distribute. I have brought paper and colored pencils from the home base, but there aren’t enough and so they have to share. And they do, though not without scuffles. The older ones quickly learn that they can get one from me if they sit and raise their hand rather than clamor after me – teacha, teacha! I want orange! (The colors of choice are orange and brown. Or whatever the child in the seat next to yours is using.) They swap their coveted colors with their savvy classmates. By the time they reach age eight, they know how to trade efficiently and effectively.

You have no idea how long these kids can keep going on drawing a picture! I tell them on this first day, draw anything! I suggest a flower or an animal, but most draw houses with mango trees at the side. One attempts a picture of himself playing soccer with his twin. One does random figures.

I think this is surely going too long and so I go back to arithmetic, but it’s hard to tear them away from their “paintings.” They hand them in. They expect to get them back with a teacher’s mark the next day. Hmmm.

I read a story, borrowed from home base and I ask them afterwards – what was this really about? It was one of those “try it, you’ll like it” kind of messages and I have the feeling that something in that message resonates with the teacher even more than with these kids (the teacher has the unfortunate habit of answering questions I throw at the class – why didn’t the rabbit want to climb the tree? He didn’t know how!).

And then it’s noon and the car for volunteers is here. The kids are real huggers and they warp themselves around me several heads deep. I don’t know which are the orphans and which have families. The young ones love to be hugged, hands reaching for yours, again and again and again. I think it must be that at one time they were wrapped so closely to their mother’s body. All babies are carried that way – in a sling on the back until they are ready to walk and it must be jarring to suddenly have nothing warm next to your small chest.

pulling away from the school

And if this wasn’t enough for day one of the week at work, in the afternoon, after a lunch of fu fu (a favorite here: a yam dumpling in a spicy chicken tomato broth)...


...the new volunteers head out for market. (Monday and Friday are full market days in Hohoe; on other days it is more limited.)

I’m not even going to describe it. A few photos cannot show off the variety. The colors of west Africa: the fabrics, the dried fish, peppers, okra. All there, all on this very very hot afternoon.

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After, we take the long walk back to the home base, past familiar homes and neighbors.

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And there is still more at the base: Cross Cultural Solutions – the international volunteer program which I joined – links the volunteers with local people and groups that can make sure we understand at least some of the culture and traditions of the region. This afternoon a group of drummers and dancers from the village next to ours comes to the home base to show us the tradition of story telling through rhythmic movement and song.


Ghana, of course, was a major slave sending country in colonial times and the story was of slaves digging escape routes out of the muddy soils of the rainy season.


Yes, we were encouraged to learn some of the traditional steps. Teaching songs in the morning (Head and shoulders knees and toes! Knees and toes!), learning music in the afternoon.



Late in the evening I again hike down to the Internet café and this time I am not so lucky. A storm comes thundering in from the mountains and rushes through Hohoe furiously and frantically, dumping the rain, flashing severely then rumbling out to the West. I dash into a bar and wait it out. The smell of Hohoe after a downpour will be with me for a long time.