Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Day in, day out

A short post today, as there is not much new in Soabe the last several weeks.  Teaching is going about the same, its sort of day-in and day-out at this point.  We have had three full-time teachers for most of the term, and one or two volunteer teachers without a set schedule.  We just recently got a new full-time teacher to teach a science class and pre-tech (a mix between shop and technical drawing classes).  The weeks leading up to sports week had a lot of missed classes due to practice and pick-up games with nearby schools.  I dislike this, but it was not entirely unexpected.  So last week I traveled to Kumasi to finish my science video library.

There are a number of science experiments and demonstrations in the science textbook for which most schools do not have the supplies.  This does not make any sense, since the text books are written for schools in Ghana by Ghanaian educators.  It is simply naive to think that many schools are actually conducting these experiments, such that I think its kind of foolish to include them in the curriculum.  Just like authors in the U.S. would not insist that students conduct experiments in space, the authors in Ghana should take into account the resources available to the schools that are using these books.  But alas, we have what we have.

While virtually no schools here have chemistry or physics laboratory equipment, computer labs are proliferating quite rapidly.  So I thought it would be a good idea to have a video library for volunteers to show experiments to use if their school does not have the supplies and equipment to do the science experiments in real life.  I finished this weekend and compiled about 50 videos into a library.  I could not find videos for all the experiments in the textbook, so I hope the next phase of the library is for volunteers to make their own videos for niche topics from the book.

Like last year, the ambassador is inviting all the Peace Corps volunteers to Thanksgiving dinner, so I will be heading to the capital for Thanksgiving dinner.  For someone having grown up in Indiana, it feels a bit odd being able to swim in the pool on Thanksgiving, but its warm enough here year-round for outdoor pools.

After Thanksgiving, there are just a few more weeks of school until finals and the end of the term.  I am planning another small event for World AIDS Day at my school on December 1st, and I may be traveling to some sites around country, but no big plans until the end of the term.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Updates to Map and Book Club

I will write a true update in a couple days.  I wanted to point out that I have updated my reading list with several more books.  Additionally, on the links to the left, one goes to my village.  The satellite photo used to be very grainy, but there has been an update and you could see the village pretty well now.  If you click the link, it will take you write above the school campus.  My living quarters is on the right end of the long building with the white roof.  My headmaster and some other teachers lives in two rows of building to the right, partially obstructed by a cloud.  My JHS is a very short distance away to the south-west.  You can tell the building because it has a dark roof (it is very rusted).  The primary school is the building nearby to the south-west.  The incomplete building that was supposed to be an internet cafe is across the road further south, and the kindergarten is further south.  The school campus lies on the north side of the village.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Home, Sweet Home

This week I am writing about houses in Ghana.  When I was thinking about what to write this week, I thought about more about how we think of houses in the United States.  In the U.S., houses are this never-ending masterpiece for many people.  Someone moves into a house starts filling it with stuff, but has this mental wish list about what they want to get next: bigger television, nicer furniture, or a pool table.  Then after more time, the house itself becomes inadequate.  One either needs to move to a new house or apartment, or they upgrade what they have: hardwood floors, extra bathroom, three-car garage, etc.

While I have never had my own house, I have my own story of bigger and better.  After I moved out of my parent's house (which itself was remodeled), I started in the dorms at Purdue for two years.  Then I got an apartment where I shared a bedroom.  From there I moved to a house with my own bedroom.  In Houston, I lived in a small apartment, then to a larger apartment, then into a house, then into a bigger house.  My rent, and usually the quality of the housing, went up every year for close to a decade.

People in the U.S. seem to have so much more of an emotional attachment to their homes.  For many, there are sad feelings if they have to move after living in a house for sometime.  We have house warming-parties: a party for no other reason other than someone has moved into a new place.  (As I write about how silly this seems, my friends in Houston will attest to how much I love house-warming parties.)  We have television shows where we watch other people trying to buy a house (or flip a house, or renovate a house, or paint a room, or buy a new rug, or replace their worn out drapes, ad nauseam.)  Ghanaians would probably find it bizarre to watch a television show where a clerical error with the mortgage application is used to add suspense.  

For Ghanaians, houses are much more simple.  The poorer among them live in bamboo “cages” with mud as a plaster and thatched roofs.  They have dirt floors and no windows, but will typically install a door frame and door in the bamboo cage.

Most people can afford more than a mud hut.  Most  buildings have bricks covered with plaster and a corrugated aluminum roof.  There are two styles of house that are very common.  One style is called a compound.  It consists of an open courtyard area surrounded by rooms with doors that only open to the inside.  There is only one entrance to the courtyard which typically consists of a large gate which is shut in the evening.  Each room has shared walls so so that the outside of the structure is a continuous wall that goes around the entire compound.  These often have shared toilet and bathroom facilities, and a family will use more than one room if they are big enough to need it.  The nicest of these I have seen even has their own well in the courtyard.

The other common style is just free-standing buildings made with the same materials.  They sometimes have a fence, but more often they just face each other to make a more private, but not completely isolated center area.  These are often more than one building all belonging to the same extended or nuclear family.  Most have a cooking hut similar to the bamboo hut I explained above so that their main living area is not smokey and hot from cooking.

Both of these styles of houses have concrete floors.  Sometimes they put a laminate covering or this permanent glaze-type stuff on the floors so they feel less abrasive and are easier to keep clean.  There is no water or sewer system in the village.  Most people either fetch water from a well or from one of the few borehole/hand pumps around the village.  The most wealthy people have large plastic water tanks suspended high above the ground on concrete pillars.  They have their own borehole and an electric pump that pumps water up to the tank where it is stored until it is needed.  Some houses have their own latrine, but many people must use the public toilets, and more still probably just open defecate.  It is this that most puzzles me about the houses here, as I will talk about later.  They bathe with a bucket, typically in a small structure just for that purpose elevated slightly so that the water can enter a drain and run out onto the ground.  Is is generally walled on three sides with the fourth side open or with only a partial wall.

Ghanaians do most things outside.  A Peace Corps administrator once pointed out how in the U.S., you may very well go an entire day without leaving your house, whereas in most of the rest of the world, that would only happen if you are sick.  Ghanaians often cook and eat outside, or in the cooking hut.  Even if they are just sitting, talking, and hanging out, they often do it outside.  They wash their clothes by hand in a bucket outside.  I have even seen people set up there televisions inside, often because it gets too warm inside if they do not have a fan.  Perhaps because of this, there house are just places to store their stuff and sleep, and not the sort of sanctuaries we consider homes in the U.S.  They do not shop at The Container Store.  There stuff is usually just stacked up in the corner of a room, or if they live in a compound where is safe from theft, outside on a patio, or in a spare room.  Most of there stuff is used every day, for cooking, cleaning, fetching water, or their clothes.  Almost everyone here has a television.  You can look out and see bamboo stalks with antennas on the top shooting up everywhere across the village.  You know all those hundreds of things you have in your house that you use once a year?  They have those too, but they are usually shared.  If you need a piece of duct tape, bicycle pump, a latter, or a screwdriver, you have to walk around until you find someone who has it.

Furnishings are generally sparse.  Some families have some upholstered furnishings, but most make do  with stools, buckets, or other things on which to sit, or the ubiquitous blue plastic chairs you see everywhere in this country, and of which I have three in my house.  Most people seem to have beds, but  I think most people share them with siblings or other family members.  The next best thing is what's called a student mattress, and its an individual mattress a couple inches thick that people can put on the floor when they sleep, but easily put up and away during the day when they need the floor space.  The worst is sleeping on wicker mats: its just enough so that you are not laying in dirt, but not much better than that.

Very few people have cars, and to be honest, it's not entirely necessary.  While sometimes it takes a long time waiting for a tro, most of the time the wait time is reasonable and the travel costs are very cheap.  In any large town there is an abundance of cheap cabs available.  A few people have bikes and even fewer have motorcycles if they want the convenience of traveling without waiting for a car.

So while there are awful roads on which to get around in this country, there is not the infrastructure like garages, parking lots, and parking structures to accommodate everyone getting a car.  This is not a problem now.  It is not as if an explosion of personal car ownership is imminent in this country, but everyone wants a car, and its starting to come within the financial reach of educated workers.  As it trickles to more and more people, this country is not going to have anywhere to put all of these cars.  I noticed this when I was visiting a friend of mine in Kukurantumi.  He works as an administrator in the Ghana Education Service and was a trainer for Peace Corps math teachers.  He bought a car and loves to drive it, even in times when I felt we could have walked.  Once we were driving to a spot to get something to eat and I realized there was no parking lot.  I had been to that spot, the For You in Kukrantumi probably 50 times, but this was the first time I realized there was not where to park a car.  He just parked on the grass, and that got me thinking that this country is going to have a lot of growing pains as more people get a car.

As for my personal house in this country, it is one of the nicest in the village.  The development fund of the European Union built all of the teacher housing, so while the school is a crumbling piece of crap, the teachers' quarters are nice, if a little aged.  I realized as I was writing this that it took moving to Africa for me to not have a roommate.  I have never lived by myself my entire life.  In some ways it's nice, but I sort of miss having a bit of company.

My teachers' quarters are split into two buildings.  One building is a compound consisting of three two-bedroom units around a courtyard and some shared toilet and shower facilities.  In the same way that some adjoining hotel room share a door between them but also have a door connecting the two, these two-bedroom units have been split into one-bedroom units for each of the teachers, except the headmaster, because he is married with seven children.  The other building is a row of five two-bedroom units, each with their own back patio, showering area, latrine, and cooking room.  All of the other teachers in my building teach at the primary school, and all of them are married.

I have my entire unit to myself, though one of the bedrooms is not used for anything but storage.  Each also has a living room area.  By Peace Corps standards in Ghana, my place is not even that nice.  Some volunteers have enormous houses, especially many of the teachers, but mine is fine.  I do wish there was more a sitting area with a couch or something, right now I just have a desk and a wooden chair.  I have two ceiling fans which save the day one many a hot days and nights.  The back door leads to a fenced in patio.  The latrine, shower and cooking area are all detached from the main house with their own doors that open into the rear patio.  The patio is where I store my water bucket and where my clothes hang to dry.  I pay students to wash my clothes so the back patio is where they wash the clothes, too.

I had already felt in the U.S. that I valued clean, functional living spaces over unnecessarily large houses.  I was tickled pink when I got to sell lots of stuff before moving from Houston back to Fort Wayne.  Everything I own fits into a mini-van.  Living here has made me see how austere your living place can be without having a huge impact on our life.  People in the U.S. would probably find people's living spaces here less clean than they would like, but its hard keeping things clean here because people are always walking through dirt and mud instead of pavement, and they do not have the arsenal of sponges, mops, and cleaning supplies that most people have in the U.S.  I personally do not like the lack of closet spaces here, such that things in storage are just out in the open, but that is a pretty minor complaint.  Overall, smaller houses, less clutter, and being able to walk to your work and a small store is quite nice.

The hardest part about living in most of the houses here would be toilet facilities.  I have gotten use to a bucket bath, though I warm up the water whereas I am sure most people take it cold.  But using a public or shared toilet quickly leads to a tragedy of the commons scenario, and what a tragedy it becomes.  During Health Day, we had a segment on latrine sanitation and the importance of hand-washing.  I tried to do a little investigative research to see where most people went to the bathroom, but it was not terribly fruitful.  I asked to see one student's latrine, and he insisted that no, in fact, I certainly did not want to see it.  I was at another student's house and I asked where he goes to the bathroom, and he just said , “Not here.”  I tried to clarify exactly where he went, and he just kept avoiding the question.  When another PCV friend visited for Health Day itself, she braved Soabe's public toilet.  She reported that they were the most full latrines she has ever seen, and that it has a very limited life left.

The fact is most rural Ghanaians are embarrassed about where they go the bathroom.  Some people take all their clothes off before they go to a public latrine because they claim the odor permeates their clothes.  Other people simply open defecate in the woods somewhere.  To these people, I want to scream the question, “Why don't you build your own latrine?”  If theirs is full, which takes several years, even decades, to do, then build a new one.  If it's dirty, then clean it.  But in a country where everyone has cell phones, televisions, DVD players and even computers, it strikes me as odd that they do not value more highly a clean place to go to the bathroom.

One thing to which I am really looking forward when I come back is looking for a new apartment.  I applied for the Peace Corps before I graduated from college, but got nervous and never completed the second part of the application.  But since then, it had been my goal to do it a few years out.  Because of this, I put off things like getting a cat or buying a house.  I also made due with all my hand-me-down college furniture, including the dresser trio that looked like it was from a Vegas hotels from the 1970s.  If I had to buy a “durable” good, I typically just got the cheapest one, saying to myself that I do not want to spend more because I will be joining the Peace Corps in a couple years and I will just have to get rid of it.  This is going to sound so completely mundane, but I am really looking forward to getting a subscription to Consumer Reports and buying their recommended items, even if it is not the cheapest one.

That's it for this week.  Look for me next week on Trading Spaces where I have to help redecorate a neighbor's cooking hut.

Monday, October 24, 2011


The internet access at my site has been awful as of late, so this post is quite delayed.  But that has been the general theme the last few weeks.  This will not be the most cheerful post.

The situation at my school has hit bottom.  The third teacher of five Ghanian teachers at my school left a couple weeks ago.  We know have myself, my headmaster, and one other teacher.  I teach 12 periods a week.  My headmaster is supposed to teach 9 but he is often gone on administrative duties.  The last teacher teaches 9 periods a week.  We also have a Ghanaian volunteer teaching Form 3 math and science, but its not clear how long he will be here.  With this few teachers, the students sit at the school with no teacher nearly a third of the time.

Ghana has a national service program for new graduates.  I do not know all the details, but it attempts to send people who are newly graduated from some post-secondary education into a area that says is undeserved.  The volunteer teacher who came to our school actually got assigned to a high school, but the high school was not in need of any teachers, so since he lives in Soabe, he comes and teaches math and science to the Form 3 students.

Anyways, the other teachers have reneged on nearly every promise they made at the beginning of the school year.  We passed some questionable students onto Form 3 on probationary status.  They were supposed to take an exam a month into school to see if they needed to be sent back to Form 2 or if they were going to be ready for the BECE, the entrance exam to get into senior high school.  I am the only teacher who held any exams for any form.  No Form 3 students were held back.

Many of the students at my school were so lacking that I had to make a mandatory multiplication exam for students to so much as learn their multiplication tables.  Punishment consisted of cutting grass with a blade if yo could not pass each week.  My headmaster agreed at the beginning of the school year that any Form 3 student not able to pass the exam would be sent back to Form 2.  This seemed reasonable to me: how well can you possibly do on a high school entrance exam if you cannot multiply one-digit numbers?  I started the first week with multiples of 2 and 3, and each week I add the next number to the mix.  By multiples-of-five week, three Form 3 students had failed, but my headmaster just waves his cane and yells instead of doing anything of substance about it, like sending them back a grade.

To reduce some of the idle time the students have, I proposed that we hold library time instead of the kids just messing around for an hour.  Puzzlingly, we still have computer class at a school with no computers and no teacher to teach assigned to teach the class, so I suggested that this period could be used for library time.  But in order to get the students to actually read instead of talk, we need to have a teacher in the class.  I said it would be best if teachers were assigned this role, but the group decided that it would be an optional; a teacher with free time would just in the class on an informal basis.  A month into school, and I am the only teacher who has ever proctored library time.

Typically the first week of school is an enormous waste of time.  This year, I convinced my teachers to teach at least a little during the first week, in between time spent cleaning and weeding the grounds.  I also requested that we not let Fridays go to such a waste as they typically were last school year.  There were nods of agreement at the staff meeting the first week of school, but little action to back it up.  It is as if any excuse whatsoever is valid in canceling class on Fridays.  Church services, travel, or soccer practices are all legitimate reasons for a teacher to not teach.  When I told my headmaster that I thought that it would help with student achievement if we were more serious on Fridays, he simply disagreed.  If someone has something to do on Fridays, they should do it.  He honestly does not see a problem with teachers leaving for other activities, and believes it has little impact on how the students perform.

Before we had a national service teacher, I had volunteered to teach all the math and science classes at my school.  However, there were conflicts on the time table where two of these classes would have occurred at the same time.  I got my headmaster to agree to let me make a new timetable until we got more teachers.  If a teacher was teaching every slot on the table, they would be teaching 19 periods a week (there is one period of worship that no teacher "teaches").  When I unveiled the new timetable to my headmaster and the other teacher, the other teacher rejected it because he taught back-to-back classes.  Teaching all math and science classes at the school, I would be teaching 18 periods a week, as much as the headmaster and the third teacher combined, which entails teaching every slot in the week except for one, and he was audacious enough to reject it because he taught two classes back-to-back.

I told my headmaster that I did not want to miss any classes the week before sports week due to training for the event, but if this term so far has been any indication, I am waiting for the other shoe to drop on this issue.

This term has been a train wreck.  It's not that all the problems are insurmountable; rather, it's that there is simply no motivation for anything to change.  All throughout training, Peace Corps told us we were going into the field to be agents of change.  But most schools in this country do not want to change, and they certainly do not look to PCVs to suggest change.  They just want rank and file teachers to teach subjects that they themselves do not feel comfortable teaching.

For example, while we have lost three teachers since the beginning of the school year, there is no reason that four teachers cannot handle teaching an entire JHS.  But when the teachers and the Ghana Education Service insist that 10.5 hours a week from each teacher is sufficient, it will undoubtedly leave a shortage of teachers.  This is absurd.  10.5 hours a week is not a full-time job.  If these guidelines are to be followed, then it would take seven teachers to fully staff my JHS of 50 or so students.

Despite this, teachers still always talk of going on strike because they are not paid enough.  A steady paycheck in a country of subsistence farmers, free housing, less than 15 hours a week of work, Fridays off if you want them, and three months of a vacation a year does not a reason to strike make.  I just wish that regular citizens were informed well enough to realize how bad of a deal they are getting for their tax dollars on the education system in this country.

I believe I have mentioned before in this blog that not a single Form 3 student from our school passed the BECE last year.  The best student got a 33, while the maximum score to enter high school is a 30 (lower scores are better, the best being around an 9, I believe).  This best score was achieved by the headmaster's own daughter.  And still, he rejects the notion that things about the school need to change.  There are opportunities abound to save time, get more time learning in the classroom, and keep the students busy while they are at school, but every time I suggest something, it's deemed unnecessary.  It is always the students' fault in the eyes of my headmaster, apparently even when its his own daughter.  There is not even agreement of the existence of a problem with our school, much less agreement on how to solve the problem of low student performance.

So clearly, things have been frustrating in my professional life here, but things have not been rosy personally, either.  I am sort of surprised how long I lasted being completely satisfied reading as much as I did, or watching the occasional movie (or the more-than-occasional Seinfeld episode, or other TV show on DVD).  But lately I have been feeling bored much more often.  The weekends sort of drag on.  As rough as this school year has been, I still prefer classes to the idleness of the weekends or evenings.  I count down the days to weekends out of town.  It took nearly 16 months, but the boredom is really starting to get to me.

Anyways, in a couple weeks from now will be Sports Week.  I plan on traveling up to Kumasi to complete my science video library (more on that later).  I will update as the internet allows.