Friday, March 18, 2011

more, from Ghana

(Wednesday) kids and burning wood


A technical note: it’s clear by now, that Internet access is not a guarantee in Hohoe, Ghana. In the spare hours (late, after dinner), I can walk to the village. If it’s not violently storming. But it’s a toss of a coin whether the power, or Internet will be functioning.

Once I do have a signal, it takes forever to load a photo. If I want to read email and upload pics, the process of uploading just ten photos will take two hours. The Internet café (café by name only) closes at 9. Yesterday, the owner sweetly kept it open for me for another half hour. He enjoys watching the TV there and his assistant spends her idle time on Facebook (in Ewe?), so I don’t feel too bad. And, I pay by the hour. But even so, I could not open all my messages and I could only load a limited set of photos for the day. (I write the text at the home base, when most everyone is already asleep, so at least that’s ready to go. But if I make a mistake, there’s no opportunity to make corrections. So you have to live with my mistypes.)

Is it all a nuisance? No, not really. The Internet café late at night is a special place. People drift in to watch the Ghanaian sitcom and hearing their laughter in the room is precious. As is watching the young women – the few lucky ones who can afford it – get on Facebook and stay on it for one, sometimes two hours.

The café is very open – the front of the building is completely exposed to the street and the bugs in the evening can be ferocious. Not mosquitoes. Those are evil and much more discreet here, but other tropical nuisance bugs that love crawling across my MacBook as I load photos. I’ve learned not to care.

The walk home, around 10 p.m. these days (and a tad of a violation of home base rules, which are: stay out if you want, but if it’s late, walk in groups, just in case) – I have come to love that as well. Hohoe becomes calm. Not quiet – the cabs still cruise the main road and look for passengers, but there are fewer people, fewer open shops, fewer sounds. The goats are the biggest noisemakers.

Last night, as I was about to turn away from the main road to walk along the dirt track home, I passed a group of five people of various sizes. The tallest – a man with a tub on his head, asked me who I was and where I was from. He knew I was yevu but he couldn’t tell from my back if I was a man or woman (I wore below the knee pants and my hair was pulled back) so he asked first -- are you a woman?

Women really do not wear pants here. It’s not frowned on (as above the knee skirts would be, for example), but it’s just not done.

The man introduced me to his wife and his three children. Older kids. Two of them had tubs on their heads. Empty tubs. They must have been coming back from a successful day of trade.

It was such an insignificant and yet deeply satisfying exchange. After, I walked home, for the first time, by the light of the bright moon. I did not need to flick my flashlight. I could spot a snake, were one to pass in front of me.


Wednesday morning is spent teaching and I have a geography lesson, a math lesson and an English lesson prepared, ready to roll.

But I digress so often in class, that I worry whether pedagogically this is wise. (I consult with one of the volunteers, who’s president of the school teacher’s union in her district in the States. She reassures me to keep contextualizing. That life is not lived in compartments and neither should all the lessons appear that way. It feels good to have the support of someone who is actually trained in teaching methods.)

The headmistress at Happy Kids asks if I could take school photos. Great. I’m happy to do this. I promise to make for her a book of school photos when I return.


I talk to her at length during recess about the orphanage and school. She started small – to give kids a chance to develop a love of books, she tells me. Happy Kids is a private school, funded entirely by small contributions from parents who can pay. It grew. I ask how is it that there are so many orphans. (And hers is not the only orphanage in the district). In the class that I teach, out of twelve, she tells me, six have mothers but no fathers. But the mothers could not afford to care for them any longer. Two have no parents at all, two come and live there for the week, returning to their parents, who are quite far, for the week-end. The rest (two) have parents who have chosen Happy Kids because it is a private school.

the preschoolers come over at recess

What’s with all these private schools in Ghana? So that even Hohoe has at least a half dozen up and running?

There is a predictable answer. Ghanaian women have lots of children. And you can see this. On the street, kids outnumber adults by far! Both tradition and imported Christianity have affirmed for the people here that it’s important to reproduce.

Public school teachers have low wages and so they supplement teaching with other work – private preparation of students for level examinations, for example. They have scattered commitments and their teaching suffers. Not to mention that the class size is large. And so the parents feel that at least in private schools (charging, as Happy Kids does for the few paying kids, fees of, say, the equivalent of $230 per term) their children will have more of the teacher's attention. And, in private schools, you are hired or fired at the discretion of the director. Presumably if you can’t teach, you’re out. I get the feeling that the director is still keeping an eye on my rather freshly hired regular classroom teacher.

In class, I talk with the kids about letters, words, numbers, counting, adding, subtracting – the usual rabbits that you can imagine I’m pulling out my hat.

Story reading is always so popular, but I can’t tell you how little relevance our books (including the ones I am using from the small library at the home base) have for the lives of these kids. Rather than explaining: in America, it is this way, I change sentences and read what is not really written there. I do have one good book about Goldilocks – she’s white and blond and she visits a house that is fancy as hell, but she at least has dreadlocks and the bears eat porridge and that’s a chunk better than all those books where the kids eat pancakes and maple syrup for breakfast and have cubby holes in school and who have sinks and bathrooms and rubber boots when it rains and warm coats when the weather gets nippy.

At Happy Kids, the young children go off to the side to pee and the little ones don’t quite make it and so you watch them as they stand and the pee trickles down to their feet. In the toddler room, the cement floor gets washed down periodically because otherwise, the smell of urine is too strong.

For breakfast it’s porridge, for lunch it’s rice and beans, for dinner it’s... rice and beans. The headmistress tells me feeding twenty-five orphans and a handful of borders is a challenge.

And then the morning lessons end and they go off to their lunch and we get picked up and have our home base meal.


If you are a tourist in Ghana, chances are you’ll want to see the Wli falls. They’re the tallest in Western Africa and they are majestically beautiful. The CCS (Cross Cultural Solutions) staff always plan an outing to them for the volunteers. The falls are about an hour from where we live and work. There are a few shop there, as well, where men carve ebony and mahogany and other timbered masks and figures.

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But even as it is a tourist destination, there's only one pair there this afternoon – a man and his son, and they are from Germany. It’s a return trip for the dad and he wanted to bring his kid to let him see this very fascinating, very different culture, but we can see that the kid is freaked by it all, so that when the dad walks away for a bit and he is left alone, he cries and cries and does not let a single Ghanaian come to his help. He’s okay with our volunteers.

It reminds me how for the littlest ones at Happy Kids, the immediate reaction to seeing me, yevu (white one), is trepidation. But there, very quickly, as in all aspects of their young lives, they pick up their cues from their friends and if their friends want to touch yevu, they’ll follow suit.

We hike up over bridges through dense forests  until we are at the falls.


Our volunteers plunge into the pool to rinse off under the crashing water. I’m happy just to catch the spray and to look at the hundreds of bats that fly in and out of the caves high up in the cliffs...


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... and the rainbows that form at the side.


I didn’t write much about the volunteers here, on Ocean, in the same way that I would avoid writing about colleagues or students back home. I will say this – each CCS person has her or his own reason for volunteering in Ghana, but really what counts is that they are volunteering and working so hard in their placements. That's impressive.


Butterflies. Did I mention the butterflies? The cocoa and the butterflies, the African lilies, the ferns. But mostly I'm thinking of the butterflies. Childlike and impatient. Scattering quickly if you approach too quickly or get too close.



The van is working well again. We rumble back to the home base, away from the high cliffs and the villages below, where people cut bamboo and gather sticks, carrying them deftly overhead.




The sticks are for the evening fire. Ghana at night has the scent of burning wood.