I had plans to start this blog a few days ago, though as days have gone on my thoughts have changed from when I first arrived and I thought it was important to share my most recent thoughts first. I have had so much to say (and am also maybe learning the importance of blogging more frequently) That I have also broken this blog up into Part 1 and Part 2.
I came to Africa feeling sad, feeling like these poor kids in Africa have nothing and must have such difficult lives. I came here thinking they themselves must often feel sad and must need some cheering up. I had no idea what to expect when I arrived at the school. I had no idea how the kids would respond, what I would do, and mostly, how I would be able to hold myself together watching these poor children with nothing. Yes, they have nothing. Yes, they are poor. But they are not sad and maybe in the end, I really should not be either. And as I have had the privilege to spend the past 5 days with the kids at the school, I am learning that these kids live the life they have been given, the cards they were dealt with, made lemonade when life has handed them (very) sour lemons and have grown extremely resilient and inspiringly resourceful as a result. For metaphor purposes, they may not necessarily make the type of lemonade you or I think is great; they may not even make it the same way for that matter, but they have done so with such careful detail and attention, and though not perfect, for them, it is delicious. I am learning from these amazing, inspiring children, that life really is about seeing the glass as half full or half empty, and they surely do see it as half full. I’m trying to think back to when I first got here and it feels hard to remember, my view has changed so much. But, as my new British friends call it, I will “give it a go”.
When I woke up Monday morning, I was so excited yet so nervous. I really had no idea what to expect. The last volunteer told me via email that there are desks, a chalkboard, and chalk..that’s it…but t it’s hard to picture something so scarce when you come from a school with classrooms that have so much. Our car drove up a rocky road, and turned right, and as we climbed up the road, suddenly I saw groups of children in blue uniforms gathering. We drove up to a big open field with dirt and a bit of grass, and I was able to see the children more closely as they began coming closer towards the van. Me and Beatrice, the other volunteer stepped off the bus and suddenly surrounding us were children of all ages..some waved, some smiled, some got shy and hid behind their friends. I looked around and realized ‘Oh my god, we are here. This is the school.’
My immediate reaction was one of shock. I was amazed..and I stayed that way for the whole first day. The school consists of large open dirt fields, with 3 barnlike looking structures they refer to as classrooms. The children are divided up by age categories called “stages”. There are stages 1-6, each consisting of between 20-30 children and ages increasing by Stage number. When we first got there, the children were having assembly. This consisted of children lining up in a semi-circle with their stage (or class). At assembly, they prayed, and heard the announcements from the principal, Headmaster as they call him. He is someone I don’t think I’ll ever forget. The headmaster is this old African man with a thick accent that is very hard to understand. Often, you don’t need to though, his expressions say it all. He’s such an adorable little old man, with a strong exterior but a noticeable heart of gold.
He grabbed me by the arm and put me in the center of the kids, and with a stern loud voice he introduced me as “Madame Alana, from the United States of America”, and they all greeted me with a “Welcome Madame”. It was so adorable. The children continued to just stare at me. Standing in the middle of them all, looking around at their school property I took a deep breath and it was in that moment that it hit me that I was really here in Africa, and that this experience is going to be life-changing. Before going to their classrooms, the kids were asked to put their hands out so the teacher could check if they had short nails. Here in Ghana, it is custom to eat food with your right hand, so it’s especially important that your fingernails are kept short and clean to avoid infection. Those kids whose nails were too long or dirty, were scolded and hit with a bamboo stick by the teacher. Kids were also being hit on the head if their hair was too long (I was told later that it’s important Ghanian kids keep their hair short so they stay cool in the heat). I was given a heads up that corporal punishment is used here in schools, but seeing it for the first time was pretty difficult. One child stands out in my memory who must have known that his nails were inappropriate; when it was his turn to show them, he had them hidden though slowly showed them while closing his eyes. I felt badly for the ones who got hit really hard. Though it seemed routine, I can’t imagine that pain is something one can ever get used to.
After assembly I was lead to follow the older kids. The headmaster grabbed my arm, pointed to a building and said “Stage 5. Yours. Go. You are in charge”. I’ve never really taught as a teacher before let alone one without any material so inside when I heard this I got really nervous. Stage 5 students range from ages 10-12 and have a classroom attached to that of Stage 6, who Beatrice, the other volunteer was working with. I walked into the classroom, looked up and saw 20 quiet students staring back at me. I was definitely experiencing culture shock, and felt a bit overwhelmed.
The kids were sitting at wooden desks-2 or 3 kids at each, some without any backs. There was a chalkboard, though not much room in the front of the room for a teacher. On each of the left and right walls of the classroom, which felt more like a hut, were one big open square acting as a window. The floor was actually a dirt ground, which I just couldn’t believe. Walking around just outside the classroom, was a rooster. A rooster. I really couldn’t believe my eyes.
I walked in the classroom and introduced myself briefly though as I was doing so one of the teachers came in and told me the students had exams this week and they were about to begin. I then moved on to helping by handing out tests. Some kids had pens, others pencils, other had to go to a sibling in a lower class to borrow one. Each child received a lined piece of paper as the answer sheet, and a test form. Taking the test, these kids were so diligent and focused on their test-more so than any US students I’ve ever seen. During this time, Beatrice and I were asked to join the teachers, where the Headmaster introduced me (I felt like Ms. USA) to all the teachers. While the older kids were taking exams, I took a walk around the area. Outside of Stage 5 and 6 rooms, is the “kitchen”. The school we are at is a private school, and therefore the kids have to bring money if they’d like to eat through out the day. The kitchen is another hut and consists of two kitchen staff- they are two of the sweetest ladies. They remain in that space all day so they can sell either bread and butter in the morning, or lunch later in the day. The children are given bowls to eat from, though no utensils as they eat with their (right) hand. There are also no tables to sit at so they can find space at either a bench, a tree trunk, in their classrooms, or on the ground.
Because most of the kids had exams in the morning, the rest of the day was spent playing. All I had to do was walk around the grounds to make friends; as I would walk children began crowding around me like I was food to fish in water. It was crazy! I didn’t know who understood what, so I mostly just stood there and smiled. As time went on through the day, they continued to do the same thing, though every now and then you’d hear “Bufaleh how are you”, meaning “white girl”. Though these children have seen some white people before, it is very rare and they are so curious when they do see one. They began grabbing my hands, pulling me one way or another, and said many things to me in their language, Nzema, which I did not understand. Though the kids do learn English, the older kids speak much better than the 3-5 year olds. SO, I spent much of the first day smiling at kids, giving them high fives (which they find really amusing), and taking pictures with them (which they go crazy for). Our school has no bathroom for adults, and though there is some sort of bathroom-like hut for the kids, a lot of the youngest ones just pull their pants down and urinate..some, even right in the middle of playing! This was definitely something I wasn’t expecting to see. The kids are in school from 8:00am-3:30pm, though again, we’re on GMT (Ghana Maybe Time) so it starts roughly around 8:30, give or take. There is a school bus (more like a van), though most of the children walk to and from school. Each classroom has a teacher and through out the year they learn individual subjects: Math, English, Nzema, Citizenship, Computer and technology ( I know..surprised me too), Science, and Creative Arts. For some reason, the male teachers seem more involved and have more control over the kids than the female staff. Also interesting was to see some of the school staff arrive as late as 9am. Both the male and female staff are all really nice. They vary in age between 18-35.
To be continued in the next blog..