Thursday, September 25, 2014

Taka, Tika and Gangale

During last year's national elections then candidate, now President John Mahama told a folk tail with origins in the Northern Region of Ghana about three birds who got more applause when they sang together than they did singing alone. He was appealing for unity in the interest of winning the election, but Ghana's first leader, Kwame Nkrumah also appealed to the people to put aside their differences in the interest of national unity- not only within Ghana, but in looking towards a pan- African future. Given the recent history of peaceful elections and stable democracy, it would seem Ghana is a standout when it comes to singing in harmony. Ghana is a peaceful nation, known for its relative tranquility since independence.  This is why, before visiting Ghana I created my research question around wanting to know more about the fabric of Ghanaian society and the forces that seem to bring and keep people together here.  I wondered if the school system, the government, or other cultural leaders had done something special to promote unity. There are multiple tribes and 79 languages.  English serves as a unifying force.  The British colonial period left behind this common language that is now the official language.  Twi is also widely spoken and serves as a Lingua Franca between the ethnic groups.  I have learned during my rural field placement in Sefwi Bekwai that people in the rural areas are not as fluent or comfortable with English as the people who live in Accra, so Twi is used heavily and the students are not as confident when speaking in English.

Schooling in Ghana also provides opportunities for building national identity.  Most of Ghana's secondary schools (high school in the U.S.) are boarding schools.  People who live in different regions and who are from different tribes must live together in close quarters and will bond as they form a new identity around the school they attend.  Below is a link to a video of the kids at Sefwi Bekwai High School singing a unity song at the morning assembly.  You will also here a pledge.  If the song is difficult for you to understand stand listen for the words SEBESS (Sefwi Bekwai Secondary School), School of Excellence.  College graduates in Ghana also must provide a year of community service to the country; and their service will likely place them in a different region of the country from where they grew up - forcing them to learn about the struggles of others as they walk with them through life for a year.

The chief who visited the school for the anniversary celebration was also a force for unity; at least judging by his public persona and his speech.  He acknowledged the Imam who was at the ceremony and was sitting up front with the other dignitaries even though the school had a strong Christian culture including a student pastor and worship services led by the headmaster.  His speech had a very gracious tone reminiscent of a wise grandfather.

Anecdotally, I asked one of the female teachers who was hosting me why everyone in Ghana seems to get along so well.  She said that she thinks the country is so behind and is trying to catch up and that people realize that fighting would only put them further behind.  So they will just "smoke the peace pipe," she said - and get over their differences.  I wonder if we could have them send some consultants over to the United States to impart some of that spirit?  I was so impressed by the lovely people I met and their country - so full of promise and poised for taking their place in the world.

Morning Assembly Video

*I wrote this post right after I returned from Ghana, but never published it.  Now I don't know why.  After reading it today I wanted to go ahead and publish it because it reminded me of how impressed I was with the strength of the Ghanaian identity.  The new citizens of Ghana could have focused on their tribal and regional identities starting back in 1960, but their leader showed them the strength they could have and how they could be better together.  The country stands out in the region in terms of its level of development and its per capita GNI, as well as in the talent of their soccer team (they beat us once and gave us a challenge again in the World Cup last summer)!  Ghana, stay strong and stay the "Hope of Africa!"

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Reflections for My Students

I wish I could have taken you all with me.  Human Geography just teaches itself when you see things first hand.  But beyond that, it is so impacting to see for yourself how hard-working and determined the people are in the face of significant obstacles.  We met a young man named Peter who walks seven miles to school every day.  He can no longer afford to stay in the hostel at the school (students who live farther away have the option but they have to pay) so he walks.  His parents are cocoa farmers, but it is just his mom now because his father died.  He was behind on his school fees because the cocoa harvest hasn't come in yet, so he wasn't certain he would be able to take the exams to move to the next level since they sometimes won't let you if you can't pay your fees.  Secondary school (grades 9 and up) is not free in Ghana.

I got to visit the girls hostel one evening.  They wanted me to see how they live, make their food, etc.  When we arrived the girls were cutting the grass around the school grounds with machetes (see below).
The girls cutting grass on the school grounds.

The girls stay in rooms with 8 to 12 others and there are bunks crowded into each small room.

One of the girls hostels at SEBESS

They are responsible for cooking their own food, and when they get home they have to light the charcoal fires that they will cook on.  Since their uniforms must be perfectly ironed (if not the protocol prefect will let them know during inspections) they iron their clothes every evening.  They don't have closets so they hang the ironed clothes on nails above their beds.  There are no ironing boards, as you can see from the picture below.  They also fetch water for their use in the hostel, and just like everything, they carry it on their heads.  We shouldn't feel guilty for having all the conveniences we have in our lives.  But we should feel gratitude, and I am hoping that is how you will respond.  And to the girls, remember that these girls aren't always as valued by their families as you are, simply because of their gender.  Take a moment to count your blessings, and then think about working hard and making the world a better place in any way that you can.  You have the time, you have the resources and you have the intelligence.  If we don't, who will?

They wanted me to see how they cook.

Heating the oil on the stove.

Ironing the school uniform

Water from the spigot gets carried back to the hostels on their heads.

Friday, March 29, 2013

The Economy

Trying to understand the economic struggles of a developing country is complex.  There are so many facets to the problems people here are facing when it comes to development.  I won't pretend to have answers, but one major problem I see is the lack of exports.  There are roadside stands everywhere and people hawking goods at every street corner.  But, apart from tourists they are trying to sell their wares to each other and there just isn't much money in the economy with a per capita GDP of $3,300.  I have seen many microfinance places here, and microfinance may help women start new stores or ventures; but how many of these can the economy support without new money coming into the country to stimulate buying?  What is needed are some basic industries; the kind that bring in revenue from outside the country, in order to grow the economic pie here. Almost everything I have seen here is being imported, the cars the air conditioners the pots and pans in the markets. Of course, capital is needed to invest in large industry, and often the route that a country will take to accumulate capital is to exploit their mineral or natural resources first.  We were able to tour the local Bauxite mine and learned that the Chinese own 80% of the mine, which was owned by Australians before that and by the British originally.  Of course, there are some taxes paid to the Ghanaian government,  but the opportunity to build wealth through this resource is being missed.

Bauxite travels down the mountain to be washed
after being crushed.

The Chinese flag flying at Ghana Bauxite

Cocoa is an important export for Ghana.  70% of the world's Cocoa comes from either Ghana or Ivory Coast.  But you will only find imported chocolate bars, and much of the value added in the commodity chain for chocolate is in the manufacturing of chocolate for the consumer.  Cocoa farmers aren't getting rich here, except for a few large ones, and government sets the price for cocoa.  We were told Ghana's Cocoa is desirable because of the process Ghanaians use to ferment it during the drying stage.  Below - a stack of Cocoa pods and what they look like on the tree.

Large industries also require reliable electricity and good roads.  Both of these things are sometimes lacking here, still.  The Chinese are loaning the Ghanaians money to build a new road from Accra to Kumasi and it is close to being finished.  But right now there are spots where it just ends and your smooth highway turns to bumpy dirt.  Power outages are common and the people here are used to it.  We read an article in yesterday's paper that was written by a Ghanaian speaking of the need for entrepreneurs here.  Most people seem to want to work for the government if they are educated, or contribute to the brain drain by leaving for the U.S.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

"My colleagues under the tree would like to interact with you."

This is was how our host teacher Alex summoned us over to visit with some of the other SEBESS teachers who wanted to chat with us about the United States.  It struck me as funny and was a great reminder of where I am and what my new normal has become in this last week.  Under the tree is definitely the best place to be here at Sefwi Bekwai Secondary School because it is so hot, and the teacher workroom gets very stuffy since there isn't any air conditioning anywhere in the school.  This is obviously more of a concern to someone like me from Ohio than it is to everyone here.  His colleagues were under the tree because they are on strike and are not in their classrooms for right now.  All teachers in Ghana went on strike about the time we arrived here for our teacher exchange program.  I don't yet know how this has affected other teachers in the program, but for us it hasn't really made this any less of an amazing experience. The only thing we have missed is seeing these teachers in their classrooms and watching them teach, but the strike gave us more time with the students. We went in some classes yesterday and taught them about the United States. I also got to hang out with the girls in their hostel.  His colleagues called us over to talk about the U.S. school system and we had a very good exchange.  The teachers here make about $6,000 dollars per year and they don't think it is enough.  I would have to agree with them based on what I have heard over the past week.  A government employee who works for the Education Ministry makes 5 times their salary.  The strike is coming at a very significant time in the school year because the final year students were supposed to take their exams yesterday and today.  As it turns out, they will not be taking them now because there are no teachers to supervise, so they will take them when they return from their break.  They are going home early so they all began packing and cleaning this morning.

This afternoon we visited a local teacher training college.  We drove about thirty minutes into the mountains, and when we arrived the students at the college were just being released to pick up some laptops that were donated by the Ghanaian government.  They were very excited, but they also took the time to gather around us and listen to us for a few minutes.  We gave a brief impromptu speech about Global Education and explained what it is and how it is implemented in the classroom.  I don't know if they understood every word but they nodded and smiled a lot, so hopefully they did.  It seems our accents make it difficult for the local people to understand us easily.  All graduates of this training school will have a job, unlike in the U.S.  But we think it is because of socialism, or perhaps the low pay also helps.  All teachers in Ghana are paid on the same scale which comes out of the central government's education ministry.  We have spent a lot of time explaining how decentralized the U.S. system is and how teacher pay and conditions vary from place to place.  They are also amazed that all teachers in the U.S. would never be on strike at the same time.

On a different subject, the women here are dressed beautifully all the time.  This is a nation of beautifully-dressed women.  Actually all the people are well-dressed.  They iron their clothes every day and wear such spectacular colors and patterns.  All the dresses that women wear have been custom made for them and they just look stunning.  I admired the beautiful purple color of the dresses the students at the teacher training college were wearing (picture #1 below) and I left there with a bag of the fabric in my hand that they would not let me pay for.  When we got back to Sefwi Bekwai we pulled over to the dress maker's shop and she has promised to have my new dress ready by 8:00 tonight. All this for only $10 (and I think I am paying her a bit more than the going rate, but I am fine with that).
The students at the teacher training college.  They just squeezed in between the park cars to listen to us.

Roadside stand (above) the avocados and the clothing are both stunning.

The girls outside their hostel.  They were getting a treat (a Coke) from the school for serving as ushers at the anniversary on Saturday.  They all want to talk to the "Obronee" or white person -- me!

The ladies who have made my dresses.  Their shop is in town.

The Chief and the Okyeame

Royal families and chiefs still play a role in African society.  We were told during our visit to the Bauxite mine that, along with paying taxes to the government, the Chinese company that owns it must also pay fees to the local chiefs.  You cant speak directly to a chief, so the man in front of him with the staff (the Okyeame) is the person you would speak to and he would answer you for the chief.  The chief did make a speech at the anniversary celebration.  He has a palace in town.  My host teacher Alex tells me he is in the royal family in his region and could be a chief someday.  He doesn't know if he will accept it though.  He also would like to come and live in the USA.
The Chief and the Okyeame

Cultural dancers at the anniversary celebration, Sefwi Bekwai Senior High School

Sunday, March 24, 2013

TIA = This is Africa

Yesterday was the big anniversary celebration.  It was fascinating.  I want to post many pictures and I have a bunch, but the internet is not reliable at all right now.  It takes forever.  I will keep trying.  You can see the clothes they had made for us.  Every single person in attendance was wearing an outfit made with this fabric. It was stunning.  There were many dignitaries in attendance including a chief, education ministers and former headmasters of the school.  

Phil Siegrist, my partner in the program, is from Lancaster, PA

We were introduced as "a couple of white individuals."  They did say our names later.  They event was supposed to begin at 9:00 but actually started around 10:00.  It lasted for 6 hours and was outside in the 90 degree heat.  The Africans handle all of this much better than me!  It was a beautiful display of African culture.  There were dancers and drummers and there was a speech from the chief who spoke while a man with a staff stood next to him and someone else held an umbrella over his head.  I have photos that I will keep trying to publish, but the whole thing was amazing and wonderful to be part of.

We went to church today.  It was to begin at 9:00 but actually got going around 9:30.  They had us come to the front and extend greetings from our home churches in Christian fellowship.  

I am learning to be flexible and about African time.  Daily we hear this phrase from our host teacher, "There has been a change in program."  But that is okay, time just isn't as important here.  That is all part of the experience and I will take the advice of Susanna from IREX who told us back in D.C. to just say "TIA"  for "This is Africa,"  and not worry about it.  So to my non-working hairdryer, the spotty internet and to learning to get ready to go when your driver shows up to pick you up, but not before.... to all of you I say... TIA!

Friday, March 22, 2013

My New Dress

We are waiting for our host teacher Alex to pick us up.  We are on our way to pick up the dress and dress shirt that have been tailor-made for us in 24 hours.  Our measurements were taken last night when we got here.  This is so inexpensive that all of the students and teachers will have them for tomorrow's big 22nd anniversary celebration.  I will post a picture tomorrow so you can see.  Today we walked in the parade which went around town.  There are some photos of that and of Sefwi-Bekwai Secondary School.

Soon after arrival, touring the school with our host teacher, Alex Dadzie.

Heading out for the anniversary parade.  Since the school sits on a hill there is a spectacular view of the area.  Pink is the school uniform color and most of the students are wearing special shirts for the parade.

The main classroom building at Sefwi Bekwai Secondary School.