Monday, March 21, 2011

Sure I'll Have A Mango

My confession for this week is that I never knew mangoes were extremely sweet and tasty. I had an inkling that they were good, (why would all those fruit drinks which have eight different flavors add in mango as a prime ingredient if it didn't taste good, yes?) but intensely sweet and juicy, no. Now I know different.

There may be a difference between the mangoes that are sold in the states and the ones that are here in Ghana, but again my knowledge is not quite sufficient to say what the ones we get in the stores in the U.S. are like in comparison to here. Maybe if I describe them well here, someone back home can comment on how close they sound.

On the tree, and the campus here has maybe a dozen fully-grown mango trees to choose from, the fruit has a light-green colored skin. They will hang in clusters and most of the ones you would be able to reach and pluck by hand are too small and not yet ripe. Those that fall on the ground roll in awkward patterns due to their oblong shape are also rarely ripe. Green is not good. We need the skin to turn a bit yellow first in one place before we can obtain the sweetness. The trouble is how to get then out of the tree when they are ripe.

Enter the children who either live on the campus or very near to the school grounds. They are all free to employ, and they have pretty decent arms for not having the sport of baseball at their disposal. There is really nothing you can use the hard green mangoes that fall to the ground except chuck them up at the ripe fruits stubbornly fixed to their stems high up in the tree. The tree closest to my bungalow is probably fifty feet tall so the good ones don't come off the limbs without this subtle coaxing. I typically take just one of the mangoes that the boys offer me since my guess is that they are going to sell them to others in town.

A brief aside: the senior house-master at this morning's assembly implored the students in his typical rascally way that they are not to be taking rocks, mangoes, or sticks and catapulting them skyward in order to get the fruit. He made one exception to this rule for the mango tree outside of his house. He figured he could partake in the mangoes liberated from his tree by the students. Everyone laughed quite a bit to his exception.

Eating the fruit is quite simple. You just cut into the skin and peel the tough layer off and gnash your teeth into the pulpy yellow-orange fruit. The pit is flat and big and clearly inedible. Depending on how ripe the mango is, you may be able to put your mouth on the meat of the fruit and almost drink the meat in all its sugary goodness. But if it is not overly ripe, then you have to use the teeth a bit to take bites out of it. My only problem is that the strands of the mango wedge themselves efficiently in between my teeth and gums. The mango is an excellent tool to encourage flossing.

So that is my first-hand account of the delicious mango. Does it sound familiar? I will put you down for 30 when you come and visit.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Back On The Teaching Train

It has been a few days now, and I think I know my schedule well enough to comment on the new semester. I again have seven classes a week to teach which is by far a fairly tame schedule for teachers in Ghana. I know some who are teaching at the high school level who have close to thirty periods a week which boggles my mind. As it stands now, I don't have much in the way of classes, but I tend to spend my time in the lab for the bulk of my days and teaching students new things just flows throughout the day. Still, not much of my time is devoted to classes.

With that out of the way, our first class was held on Monday. That class was not present unfortunately. All the students had to go searching for their desks and chairs as all the furniture was moved out of their classrooms and into an empty laboratory due to the SHS students who lived on campus for their sports week. Classrooms were turned into boarding rooms, and to prevent widespread loss of school property, all of the students possessions were moved into that one giant room. At 8:00AM the students were permitted to retrieve said furniture, but that was also the time for my class. I had five students show up so it was not quite an official beginning.

Tuesday was not much better. I went to the administration building to check for my schedule which we did not have distributed on Monday morning. For my next class I learned that I would be having two classes at once. That is not quite possible to do. Two classes to meet at one time (2:15PM) won't work as there are 70 students and only 40 chairs in the lab. I spoke to the teacher who set up the schedule and he said that he would try to fix that problem, but I am aware that it might not be possible which would mean some further complications for teaching both classes. Maybe one time each week I would need to have one or the other class come to learn during their prep hours which run from 7 to 10 in the evening. Not the best option, but still, better than having 70 people in one room at a time.

Some more fun yesterday was the fact that the power was out from about 10 in the morning all through the rest of the day. Not only could I not teach both classes (due to the size just mentioned), I couldn't even teach one class without power flowing. The power did not return until early in the morning today, Wednesday. Small things of course, but nothing is completely straightforward here. Something can go wrong, and Murphy's Law will always apply here it seems.

My hope is that by next week we can have almost 90% of the machines running and useful for the students. Currently we still have a few machines that A) won't start at all, B) start but are not functioning well, and C) work but won't get online in their current state. So if I could get 9 out of 10 machines working and networked I would consider it a victory.

On to make-up classes and a brief introduction to the internet. This week the students must create an email account and send me a message to complete their assignment.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Our Computer Cup Runneth Over

With just a few days left before classes resume the computer lab looks like, well, a computer lab. Not only are there many machines displayed on the desks for all to see, but now they actually work. There was supreme satisfaction on Wednesday when the folks who had the equipment showed up at the front gate of the campus asking if they could come in and replace all the broken parts. Finally, a way for the students to learn on their own computer during our lectures.

Of the twenty brand-new machines that we received at the outset of the semester, only four worked at semester's end. Each one would have a fault with the power supply inside the computer case and our friends at the manufacturers would not replace the unit - the inconsistent power in Ghana meant that they would not cover its replacement. They even had the gumption to tell us to check the current in the building to see if that was the culprit. The nerve.

Except that when the people came to repair the lab the electricians came and checked the power to the it. It was actually under by about 70 volts which is low for the machines and that might actually make a difference to the power supplies here. Instead of being at 220 to 240, our lab was running at 170 volts. I didn't know, and I was not about to lick my fingers and touch bare wires to figure out if we had just the right current or not. That was fixed up, and then the new power supply units arrived this past week and we were back in business. To date, none of the computers have exploded or failed to come on.

Aside from a few extra computers being crammed onto the desks, the lab looks pretty much the way I wanted it to look. Before there were two columns of desks that sat too close together. I could walk between them when there were just empty chairs pushed in, but when students arrived the space behind the chairs was too narrow for me to easily get by, thereby preventing me from walking the length of the desk to see a student's screen and answer their question. I made sure that each desk was an equal distance from its neighbor and aligned them correctly before putting out any computers. I cleaned the dickens out of everything with all my free time. A toothbrush and a paintbrush became my friends as dust disappeared from all of the equipment (I even dusted in those hard-to-reach places on the ends of cables and plugs), and arranged the units in a staggered pattern; new machine, old machine, new machine, old machine, ad infinitum. Best of all, each of the old machines (there are twenty of these as well) has a new wireless card installed so that we do not have to run ethernet cables everywhere on the floor.

It was all so rejuvenating. A phoenix out of the fire if you will (forgive the hyperbole please).

Which means that the students can now sit at forty different machines and access the world wide web simultaneously, over a connection that at maximum offers a download speed of 60 kilobytes per second. For the record, that isn't very fast and that is on a very good day does one see that speed. I shudder to think of all the students simultaneously opening up Yahoo Mail and seeing nothing but spinning icons and blank screens. But we'll cross that bridge when we get to it.

Right now things are looking pretty. Best of all, the sports week has come to a close so I will be able to sleep soundly at night again. What a week here.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

What The Week Will Bring

Today we had a staff meeting at the school's administration building and while the sounds of a football and volleyball matched droned on below the windows of the second floor staff common room, we spoke about what was to come for the returning students. They arrived on Monday (and it is still nice to see the familiar faces here and there) but they have no where to assemble for classes. All the participants of the sports competition have taken up residence in what was their classrooms.

A little clarification is needed. Apparently St. Francis was chosen to host the games for the district's senior high schools sports competition. I didn't know this was going to happen until a fellow volunteer mentioned it to me last Friday. His school was part of the teams participating. Since it was new to me it did not mean that it was a surprise to the school or the faculty, but with most of the competitors taking up residence in anything that had a roof, it seemed like the campus was turned inside-out by everyone's arrival.

With the campus crowded (I would hazard a guess of 300 extra students now everywhere on the school grounds) it seems pretty clear that there will be no classes beginning this week. One more week and I can return to teaching. I hope.

Which brings me to another point brought up at the staff meeting. There was recently a change in the pay of teachers across the country. They are government employees and after several years had passed without any change in the pay of teachers, the government decided to make a new system of pay go into effect. That change was begun with the police officers of the country. They saw a rather large increase in pay in their monthly salaries. It was presumed that teachers would also see an increase in their pay stubs, but apparently the new regime worked out for allocating funds made one thing apparent: not everyone was going to see large pay increases. Most saw very small increases as a matter of fact while others were even more surprised to see pay decreases. Talk has circulated that there will be a strike called for if the government does not change its position on teachers' pay. Our group has been asked to wait and see what happens. Right now it would appear that there will not be a strike on the campus, but Monday is a long way away.

So long as I get to come back to an air-conditioned computer lab and have students stop in to check email, I will be happy.

Monday, March 07, 2011

And Life Returns To Campus

Things are back to normal insofar as things can be normal when three hundred or so high school students have descended on the campus grounds. Life certainly picked up over the weekend, that is for certain.

There are athletic events all through the week that pit many different teams of Senior High Schools from the entire district of Hohoe against each other. The soccer field is the site for the bulk of these events, and given that my house is quite close to the field I get to hear all of the cheers and screams as well as the beating of drums and cowbells. It makes for a raucous place during the day.

What it makes for at night is another story entirely. The campus is housing all of theses students in any room not occupied by its own students. That leaves pretty much every room aside from the student dormitories as fair game for these youngsters to reside in. All of the first- and second-year classrooms are now converted to large bedrooms, and most of the desks and chairs have been moved outside under the shade of trees. It really has made a kind of mess of the campus. So far as those of us still on the school grounds living in our houses, we can safely say that these temporary students do not believe in the quaint notion of sleep. It can be a bit loud over the course of the evening hours. Since they are not students of St. Francis, then they're not under control of the staff or the facility. It is a touch more lawless than we are used to here.

Maybe the incoming students can help on this matter. I saw many of our students arriving on campus and getting ready for this next semester. I am sure they are a bit surprised to see their classrooms turned into makeshift barracks, but they are their classrooms so if they say clean it up and put it back the way you found it, maybe the interlopers will take the hint and do as they are asked.

Not to neglect on what I have been up to (aside from lamenting the noise-level and squatters), I made a trip out to Accra on Saturday and returned on Sunday. It was a quick trip for a meeting with some of my ICT (Information and Communications Technology) cohorts at the Peace Corps headquarters. We conducted a meeting and then went out to enjoy ourselves afterwards. I don't recall getting much sleep, but I was awake enough to keep a lookout on the way home to Hohoe. Maybe half-way home there was something standing by the road waiting to cross. My first inclination was to say a goat was being patient. As it was getting closer I revised it to somewhat large dog. At maybe 200 yards I put my money on what it really was: a rather large monkey. Standing on two legs and two arms, it seemed to find itself at a crosswalk and just waited for our tro-tro to pass. I didn't make out a lot of details as we were maintaining a fairly fast speed, but it was bigger than I was expecting and had a face that seemed somewhat darker than the coat of fur he was wearing. I would love to know what species I was seeing, but it was gone in a second. My first ape sighting!

So things are picking up. We have a staff meeting in the morning and I am sure we are going to be discussing when classes begin and what will be done while the sports competitions are ongoing. Maybe while that goes on, we can manage to get the computers fixed in the lab. They are ready and waiting to be fixed and my students will be very appreciative once they can get back in here and go online. It was really nice to be greeted by the familiar faces and the "Fo Koku" that I go by here. I am excited to get back to work.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Days Repeating Themselves Come To An End, Soon

While I have been doing a few things here and there on the campus grounds, one thing that I have not been doing is updating the web log. There are a few reasons for that: none of them worth a lick of salt though. Mostly, the days were very repetitive. I would wake up, do some small chores in the house if I felt up to it, take some tea and brew some coffee, read, get breakfast delivered to me from the family on the school grounds who see fit to keep me fed generously (I am still buying them gifts every so often), then I meander over to the computer lab to clean up computers which were buried in an insulating layer of dust and dirt, then surf the web for hours at a time.

As you can see, having eight posts about that cycle of life might bore the readers out there, and it would also affect the author's sanity to keep reminding him of the repetitiveness. So those days are boiled down to about six or seven daily rituals and summed up here in these short sentences. That will have to make do for the lack of updates.

On this side of groundhog's day, I now have a computer lab that is fit for America almost, if not tops for Ghana. The large room where the machines are housed and the students will be is mostly clean, filled to the brim with computers at each long desk, and has the look of a professional classroom. I really like how it turned out. Whether or not it had anything to do with me being here, I am certain the students will enjoy the space now when they come to use the world wide web.

There are computers, however, that are still not functioning. Maybe this week some components will come that can repair the new machines that had power supplies fail left and right, and then we might even be able to hook up the old computers which are still in service to the network via wireless cards which were recently purchased by the school. Things are moving right along here. I can hardly wait to have 35 machines all try and load Yahoo! Mail at one time. The speed will rival a snail with a bum knee.

There may possibly be a trip to Accra this coming weekend devoted to those volunteers in the ICT sector. I have some basic details of what we will be discussing, but any chance I have to compare notes with other volunteers in the same arena that I find myself in is a big plus. That, and I will have make sure to stop in and have really expensive pizza. Cheese tastes so good after you forgo it for a few months.

After I return the majority of students will be on campus. I need to get them running through software in the following fourteen weeks so that they are comfortable with Microsoft Office in full. Otherwise, vacation is finally over for me.