Saturday, October 18, 2014

Accomplishing a Lot with a Little

It is easy to pick on Ghana's education system. Teachers lack the sort of resources that their counterparts in more prosperous parts of the world enjoy, which is one of the reasons why Ghana teachers often rely on a system known as "chalk and talk" or "chew and spew" that emphasizes memorization.

But reading through the several hundred letters from Ghana students have recently contributed to their Yo Ghana! partners reminded me that in some respects the current system is very effective.  The great majority of letters are well written.  This is true in the literal sense (the letters are very legible) and of the prose more broadly, in terms of sentence construction and clarity of expression and clever turns of phrase. Students who come to to college or university in the U.S. may at first struggle with assignments that require independent thinking rather than rote learning.  But most adjust quickly and then thrive.

This is all the more impressive when one considers that for the great majority of Ghana students, English is a second or even third language.  Indeed, even pre-teen students commonly remark that they can read or speak or write in two or three languages.

Clearly, then, a thirst for learning and access to dedicated teachers counts for a great deal.

Friday, October 10, 2014

The Face of West Africa

If you travel to West Africa, you'll find many people like the girl here: friendly children full of laughter.

Such people are rare, though, in mainstream U.S. media's treatments of West Africa.  Here you'll find Muslim extremists, blood-crazed child soldiers, and, now, Ebola.  And why are Americans paying so much attention to Ebola, as opposed to diseases that kill far many Africans?  Well, in part because unlike malaria (or starvation), the disease may "break containment" and come to the U.S.  That was the message of the Hollywood movie "Outbreak" from the 1990s, that a mysterious, deadly disease could move from the steamy and sinister "Heart-of-Darkness" jungles of Africa to ravage innocent American communities.

Ebola is a very serious problem in parts of West Africa that requires our attention.  But its presence should not lead us back into tired stereotypes about the continent and its people.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Unsettling In

Brando and I have been back for about six days now.  After a month in Ghana, it's been hard to "settle in."  Part of that is jet lag.  But part of it is trying to wrap my head around the juxtaposition between life in Ghana and life in Portland--or, at least, my life in Portland.

Here's a photo of part of what I was missing while in Ghana--watching my son play soccer. Thursday night his defense helped vaunt Central Catholic High School to the top of the 6A standings with a tough 1-0 victory.  As it was for me back in the first half of the 1970s, sport is at the heart of Peter's high school experience.

But I had just spent a month around people who seemed to have much more pressing needs: university students trying to figure out a way to help schools be able to graduate sixth graders who were literate; technology teachers grappling with how to teach the subject without computers; school administrators trying to decide whether to turn desperate students and parents away or to fit still more children onto the floors of classrooms that were already crammed way beyond capacity.

My first impulse is to try to fix all of these problems.  And of course that is impossible.  So my second impulse is to try to forget them.

I think that at the heart of what Yo Ghana! means for its U.S. participants is how to live in a way that is poised between these two impulses, to struggle to figure out how to live in such a way that is honest both to what is beyond us and what is not.  I don't know what that means in practical terms, and I may never know.  But I am pretty sure that it begins with the realization that the cocoon of wealth and comfort in which many of us live is both highly exceptional and that it offers us the possibility, if we proceed thoughtfully and respectfully, to help others whose lives are much more difficult than they should be.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Days 9-10

On Tuesday morning we left the warm hospitality of Sampa and Mr. Brew and his staff.  They not only fed us, they also put our logo on the side of their exemplary school!

Not far out of town is Morle Junior High School, where we had the pleasure of meeting with Mr. Albert, our tireless liaison at the school, and the rest of the staff as well as very enthusiastic students.  Then it was a very long drive to Kumasi.

Wednesday morning dawned bright and early, and Mr. ["what a road!"] Anthony, our driver and now friend, got us to Awisa Presbyterian Junior High School about two minutes early, more than three hours later.  There Dr. Eric Ananga from the University of Education, Winneba, joined us for a rousing session with the entire student body, which packed itself into one classroom.  We also had a strong meeting with the staff.  This village school has been one of our strongest members for some time and, under the guidance of Mr. Moses, did an exemplary job on their grant application and report last academic year.  And they do a great job educating students from modest backgrounds.

On the way back to Accra we stopped off for an emotional meeting with the leadership of Purity Preparatory School, one of the first schools we began working with.  Proprietress Madam Constance and Headmistress Madam Stella, who volunteers her time, keep the school thriving against great odds

Thursday I rejoined our Accra taxi driver, Mr. Frank, who somehow manages to stay serene and generous no matter how bad the traffic gets, and we visited four schools before a last dinner with Dr. Williams, Yo Ghana! board member and self-appointed head of security and public relations at Chez Afrique, his wife's wonderful restaurant in East Legon.  Then Friday we were off to Mr. Brando's home village, Akalove.  More on that later--we are laying over in London after a very hectic Friday night at the Accra Airport, so we are a more than a little dazed and confused after trying to do far too much in four weeks, operating regularly on a couple of hours of sleep a night, surviving Northern Ghana's roads and Accra's traffic, all punctuated regularly by meetings with inspirational educators whose challenges make you want to weep and whose dedication can't help but make you have hope for Ghana education in particular and humanity in general.  Thank you.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Day 8

We had a busy day today. 

First was Nipaba Brew School, where students like the one pictured here surrendered a good part of their holiday to listen to us talk about Yo Ghana!  The school is particularly innovative in helping children to read at a very young age.

Then it was off to Nafana Presbyterian Senior High School, where a roomful of another group of students willing to come in on their day off awaited us.  Enthusiasm was high among staff and students at this school, too.

Then we wrapped up the day meeting the Chief and Elders of Morle, a village outside Sampa and the home of Morle Junior High School.  Some mentioned that they had not seen a white man up close before, but I think I did a good job of demonstrating that white men are nothing special.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Day 7: Linear Man Meets Ghana

As my students can attest to, I pride myself on being organized.  So throughout this trip I've been trying to lay out every day's schedule well ahead of time, and my good brother Brando has done his best to accommodate the plan.  But the days have seldom gone as expected.

Take yesterday, for example.  The original plan was to meet with the leaders of the three schools in the area that we work with on Saturday night or some time on Sunday, then visit the schools on Monday and Tuesday morning.  But Monday is a holiday (though it is not listed as such on any of the lists of holidays I had consulted before planning the trip), and two of the people I had hoped to speak to before Monday were  not available, and so forth.  So when Sunday dawned, our dance card was looking pretty sparse.  After three weeks of trying to fit too much into too little we had time on our hands--which, given our general state of exhaustion, was perhaps not a bad thing.  Resting is seldom part of my plan.

Anyway, part of the dynamic here is that Ghanaians have been promised so many things by visitors from the West--and so many problems can come up to interrupt a trip--that they don't take our stated plans very seriously.  Until, that is, one actually shows up.  So Sunday was punctuated by a series of visits from friends of friends, meals that we had neither asked for nor expected, and offers of help.

The one big event of the day--which I had not anticipated when planning the trip--was a visit with the Chief, but that kept getting moved back 15, 30, 60, 90 minutes as everyone assembled to greet us.  The meeting itself was conducted in Twi, so most all of it went over my head, but there was no mistaking the fact that the Chief and Elders were delighted by our visit and stated purpose, which Brando confirmed, and by the time the meeting was over doors that had before been slightly ajar were now opening quickly and Monday was going to be a full day, indeed. 

But there was more to Sunday.  The day ended with an extremely emotional and inspiring meeting with a man who has devoted his life to redeeming the pains of his own childhood.  I had no idea of and no plan for that.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Day 6

Today was a long drive from Tamale to Sampa, on the border of the Ivory Coast.  Soon after arriving we had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Gilbert Brew, Headmaster of a remarkable school, Nipaba Brew Primary, that we'll be visiting on Monday, and his hospitality was outstanding.

Passing by dozens and dozens of schools as we have driven across much of Ghana has prompted Brando and I to think and talk a lot about what sort of Ghana schools Yo Ghana! gets involved with.  Here's a list:

1) A liaison or intermediary.  All of the schools we work with have at least one person who is comfortable in both the western and African worlds.  Mr. Dominic Fordwour, for example, was taught at one of Ghana's teaching colleges, was a head teacher at several schools and a supervisor of an educational district before moving to Oregon, and he has a very detailed knowledge of many Ghanaian schools.

2) Serve many children from (economically) poor families.  There is a very close relationship between income and educational access in Ghana as elsewhere, so we love working with schools that are trying to do something about that, even when it hurts their bottom line.

3) The schools are not waiting for someone like us to come along and solve their problems.  They are doing a lot with a little, so that Yo Ghana! can become a sort of junior partner in their efforts.
St. Kizito Basic School in Kpandai, shown above, hits all three points hard.  Dominic referred us to the school as one with outstanding leadership.  Shown above are the kindergarten buildings which house over 300 students.  Classroom size approaches 100, and some of the teachers are volunteers.  Yet the people who oversee the school  are relentless problem solvers, even knowing that the problems are most likely going to outnumber the solutions by a healthy margin.  A cynic would look at the situation and turn away.  A romantic would try to solve everything at once and soon burn out, or perhaps focus on one narrow problem among many.  The compassionate realists who are so common in Ghanaian schools do what they can on multiple and shifting fronts, an approach that takes a special sort of courage, and we are more than pleased to do our small part in encouraging and supplementing their efforts while offering them the opportunity to teach and learn from their counterparts in the U.S. through letter writing.