Friday, July 22, 2011

Back At Wli Waterfalls

My friends and I went to see the waterfalls that are located close by to Hohoe yesterday. We have had a pretty significant amount of rain in the area over the past three weeks and that was on incredible display when we finally arrived at the falls. I would say that the cataract was at least twice as powerful, maybe even three times as powerful as any other time that I have seen it. The stream that is the runoff from the falls was already running quite rapidly so it was pretty obvious that the falls would be larger than normal, but I wasn't quite ready for what we saw.

By the time you reach a clearing in the path to the falls you will be able to hear the rush of water, and it was at that point that I told my friends that they better get ready for a spectacular sight. It was only a few seconds into the clearing that I began to feel the spray on my face where I never had felt water before that I began to understand what we were in for. In the past I have been able to stand at the edge of the pool of water where the falls collect and only be sprayed a little by the crashing water; now we were all being pelted by the rushing spray and we were not even close to the water's edge. There was in effect a light rain from all the tree leaves overhead that were continually bathed in the wash of the waterfall. It was amazing.

Both Aaron and Steve decided to entertain themselves with a little swim and I tried to stay back to get a few photos safely planted behind a tree but after two clicks the lens was soaked and it was a battle to keep anything dry for more than five seconds. I know that the experience for them was spectacular as they got into the water and tried getting closer to the actual waterfall, but the immensity of the show meant that you could not really observe the scene without taking a shower for the effort. I did not know that the falls could be so powerful. Maybe for the next season I will stick to the dry season for my fun.

We had a good time staying there but since everything was wet at the falls we couldn't sit down and enjoy the scene so we made our way back to the visitor's center. On a Thursday it was not very crowded which allowed us a rather peaceful walk down the path through the jungle. I have to say that I was very lucky to land in Hohoe - plenty to do and a lot of good people here.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

I Lost 400+ Students And Gained Two Visitors

This past Saturday was the closing ceremony at the college. All the students gathered in the church on campus and we heard from various staff on what the students had accomplished and what they might wish to try harder on next year. I really enjoy the Senior House Master when he delivers the list of, "those, ... who must be punished." There is a lot of work given as punishment for rules infractions and I think the students actually enjoy hearing him announce it. During the assembly he had quite the list of student names who refused to do work when they were summoned too earlier in the week. My suspicion is they quickly got their jobs done so they could leave the campus and head home.

By Saturday night the campus was empty and it was very quiet across the grounds. There were some students who were left but I would say upwards of 95% were gone by 2 or 3 in the afternoon. You do not need to ask them twice to head home. This was the first time that I felt a little gloomy for the break. Before, during the school year, I would actually anticipate the students departure so I could have some quiet time and get a few things done in the computer lab or elsewhere. Now I feel like some of the people that I liked to talk to and chat with are gone for a good long while. It is a different feeling for certain.

As with all things though, they must come to an end some time. With their departure came the arrival of two friends from the states who wanted to pay a visit. Steve and Aaron arrived on Monday of this week to spend a fortnight (some times an entire blog post is spent just so I can use the term fortnight) here in Hohoe. It has been great fun so far.

I forgot that when I got here I was gently eased into the culture with Peace Corps help and guidance. When they both arrived at the airport I was there to greet them, welcome them, and then get them right into the middle of culture shock an hour after they arrived. In hindsight, putting them into the thicket of humanity at the station to board the tro-tro was not the best idea. People everywhere, me trudging forward and avoiding the barkers who keep asking, "Where are you going!?", getting to the right tro and trying to reduce the luggage feel to something much more reasonable may have been overwhelming.

We had a good time, and I think they survived the ordeal nicely. Long plane rides followed by long tro rides are difficult at best to handle, so given that they were still smiling on the following morning seemed to me to be a good sign. I suspect we will be visiting of few of the touristy places around the area so maybe I can get around to updating my picture album soon to show off some of the sites. It is great to have good friends come here and reminds me how much life has changed for me in the past year.

More updates to follow we hope.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

From Training Last Month: Out To Asafo

In one of the previous posts I made a passing mention that I would offer up a story or two from what went on during training but then failed to post anything more on the subject. This one is here to fix that oversight, but it only has to do with my homestay family from when I was in training the year before.

Our current trainees took up housing in several communities, but the one that I had stayed in last year was not among them. Peace Corps will start a rotation with the hopeful benefit of not wearing out one community over many years of training in that area of the Eastern region. Asafo was having the year "off" in other words. It meant that if I made a visit out there to meet the family that allowed me to stay with them then I would be doing it on my own with no one else coming along for the ride.

With less than a week left to stay in Kukurantumi I was heading out to observe a Peace Corps Trainee (PCT) at one of the junior high schools when I got stuck in New Tafo looking for a taxi or a tro. At that time I had not contacted my homestay family and I was still unsure of when or if I would make the ride out to visit them. As I was on the lookout for a tro to stop by I happened to notice an individual walking towards me. It was my one brother from the house coming to greet me. "Hello David!" he said. "Hey... (pause thinking of names as fast as possible) Mensa! How are you?" I was lucky to have his name on the cell phone so that I could remember it without missing too many beats. He asked what I was doing and I mentioned the training and that I was only around for a few more days but that I would like to stop by and see everyone. He agreed that that would be ideal and we figured that that coming Saturday would be best.

By Saturday I was ready to go and make the trip to Asafo after our training duties were over which meant that I left our hub site by about 2. It took well beyond an hour to get to the village as there were just not many taxis willing to head out to the place. As an example, when I got to New Tafo station which is where the taxis should be when you need a lift to Asafo, there were none parked nor any metal signs resting on top of a car roof indicating an imminent trip. That was not a good sign. I hopped in a car that went to Maase, but that only put me in more of a bind as three or four giant funerals were being held in each of the small towns and traffic into Maase was only turning around to head back out the way they came. I was stranded in Maase for 20 minutes or more waiting for an empty taxi to continue the journey.

I did manage to make it out though and after 3:30 I was walking up to the house. Little Theresa knew I was coming and was sprinting towards me screaming. That is a good feeling to have, seeing someone greeting you with that much enthusiasm. She landed quite solidly into my legs and missed seeing me double over in pain by a few scant inches; it was quite the greeting. She hugged me so I couldn't move and only when she released her grip did I manage to go to the house and see everyone.

My mother came out and I gave her a big hug, and my father who was seated under the awning roof on their front porch shook my hand warmly. Everyone was smiling and it really, really felt good to be back to what I called "home" for almost three months. I wish I could have stayed for longer but there were only a few hours for me there. Since they knew I was coming they had a big bowl of fufu ready for me and I forgot one thing about eating there: they gave me so much meat in my soup that I could not finish half of it. I still faced the wall while I was eating but this time they gave me a plastic chair to eat on which was comfortable. The fufu didn't get finished but I really enjoyed their version of the dish as it was soft and tasty.

When I was done we spent some more time chatting the late afternoon away. I learned that the youngest girl went back to live with her biological family which saddened me somewhat since she was the most precocious giggler I have ever met and always got me to smile and laugh, and one other sister was not there as she was visiting family closer to Accra. Beyond that, the family was still there and my father had managed to afford some galvanized steel sheets to roof the one cinder block structure on his property so that it almost resembled a house. His farming is doing well now and the rains were much more helpful this year than they were last year.

I paid my farewells and thank yous to the family and moved along to the station. My mother walked me to the center of town and there were a lot of comments from her friends of having the visitor though I could not understand a word of it. She still doesn't speak much English but then again, we just smile and laugh mostly and communicate that way. She packed me into the taxi and sent me on my way back to Mid Tafo with a full belly and a lot of smiles.

I am going to try and squeeze in a visit to their house when I swing down to Accra for the swearing-in ceremony. When I go I have to remember to pack myself full of gifts for them. They have shown me tons of generosity and kindness and they need to know that I really appreciated all of it. Ghanaians are terrific.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Being The Day-time Watchman

Our semester is coming to a close here on campus and with that ending comes the Cape Coast exams that test whether the students understand the concepts and minutia of teaching in Ghana. While first-years and second-years are busy writing away, the school provides for invigilators, those whose job it is to watch and make sure that there is no talking or helping during the examination time. I did a little bit of that twice already, and next week I will stare at two more groups of students as they disgorge all that they have studied in the preceding four months.

There is a very good reason for the invigilation. Everyone helps out in Ghana. If your family doesn't have enough food, the families right next door are there to lend you a hand. If you didn't have a place to stay then someone will learn of your plight and give you a roof and a bed and you will be happy. It is a very good ethos to have in a country, except when examining what you do and don't know. Then it becomes a bit of a challenge.

Most of the students that I have viewed are trying their best and doing their own work without a moment's hesitation which is terrific. It is maybe 10% of the group that will find ways to "help" out their neighbors on certain questions. Many times when I have been with other volunteers who are teachers we have relayed stories of what kinds of cheating go on in the classroom, but for the most part in the junior high and senior high school levels there is not a lot of good cheating going on. Many people will cheat off of another student who had absolutely no idea what the answer was either. The best example I can come up with for this was a bonus question that a volunteer told me was on an exam. What day is October 31st in America? He had told them briefly that it was Halloween, but felt that only the most attentive student might remember such a very strange name. The answer on most, but not all, tests was: "Children Happy Fun Day".

Back to my group this past Friday. The students are arranged by their class identification number and the test is two hours long. Our classroom sat through a music exam and it was a bit tough to keep the talking to a minimum as the exam began with music blaring through a loudspeaker so that they could be quizzed on what type of music so-and-so was, or the number of phrases that were just played twenty seconds ago. When the music came on I could see heads turn and possible mouths move to ask what the answer to number three was. It was hard to keep the class in order for the first 30 minutes, more so when one of the questions on their paper did not match the queue announced on the audio tape (question 5a and 5b were actually 7a and 7b on their papers).

After the first part of the test was over, things settled down. I am not sure if my new rule helped matters at all, but I informed the whole group that I was going to use a yellow card and a red card to enforce the no-talking rule. Everyone is familiar with yellow and red cards here from soccer, and they understood that if I wrote down their student ID number then they were in a bit of trouble, especially if they got a red card. Fortunately I was able to keep the red card in my pocket (I actually didn't have a red card, just a yellow sticky note) and only gave yellow cards to four students.

My guess is that they don't like me invigilating but that is too bad. Rules are rules and I'd rather every student try their honest best and get what they deserve than have 10 or 15 students do all the work and the rest copy their answers.

As the test came to a close I felt a bit of relief as my legs and back were tired from standing around doing nothing. There will be two more exams that I oversee in the coming week and then the students are home free and I am left with a quiet campus again. Just don't let me catch you talking during test time.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Out And Back Again

Not quite three weeks in Kukurantumi came to a close this past Sunday as I headed back to Hohoe and my house on the campus at St. Francis. It was good to get back to home sweet home as the saying goes, but I will miss having fun with all of the other trainers and of course the new trainees. Maybe the word "new" isn't appropriate, as they are settling in to the life in Ghana quite nicely and made for some fine teachers in the classes that I sat in on. Trainees is more than correct, they have met the new culture and have adapted just splendidly.

Being in the education group meant that our focus was primarily on getting the new volunteers-to-be up to speed on the Ghanaian education system and becoming acclimated to the environments that they will likely inhabit once they get to site. It meant that the Peace Corps Trainees (PCTs) in my sector were always at colleges of education since that is where they are headed. I watched over them during the second week of my stay, but during the third week I got to observe those who were teaching at the Junior High School (JHS) level. That was quite the shock to me.

I had never been nor really watched how school is conducted in Ghana at that level. My training and my job have put me at the tertiary level of education with young adults who are looking to really excel at education so they may either follow the teaching career path or advance themselves to the full university level of education later on. They are nice and I have befriended many who habitually come to the lab and see me. But at the JHS level you will see students aged 10 to 15 (or older), and classrooms that have upwards of 40+ students assembled. The class size mirrors what I have, but the large age variation makes the class look somewhat comical with very small looking young students mixed in with high school-age students.

In addition to that, the school that I observed had no windows. A tin roof covering a room that consisted of three-foot-high walls along the left and right with a gap at the front of the room for an entrance, and two floor-to-ceiling walls at the front and the back. The chalkboard was concrete, a raised surface that spanned the width of the classroom which has to be constantly repainted black with a mixture that includes dry-cell battery acid. As the paint wears away from use, the chalk gets harder and harder to discern on the board, thus more battery acid is mixed up for a refresh. This is the bare minimum one needs to run a school, and that is how most will function.

Before going to far of course, there should be a point here about noise. The school is all at ground level, and the school rooms are just long blocks of rooms that encircle a grass field. That grass field is where recess takes place for the primary school located just across the way. The noise that the teachers had to contend with was monumental at times and I am not sure how the PCTs kept their voices for two straight weeks. One of the trainees even had to punish a young student who launched a soccer ball into his classroom, hitting a student in the head.

The struggles are different here. But in the end the teachers put forward lesson plans that the students could comprehend and memorize; and that is what the system is all about.

I feel like it would be good to give each volunteer a chance to see what the others are facing during training if possible, but knowing how tight the schedule is and how difficult it was to travel to some of these places where we trained at it seems very unlikely to do this. I enjoyed the perspective though.

Other than that, the trainers wrapped up the session with a movie and a review of the experience and that was the end of our part in the training. There are 36 PCTs who are more than ready to handle a classroom at their schools. Now they must go through the waiting period of language training in order to be ready for their oral test. That is probably the most difficult part of training, but one that must come in order to ease your way into the community.

After I got home I decided the best thing to do on my first day back was to stay at home, take a long shower, sweep up the house, and just take a day off. There are a few more stories to share on the trip which I will type up in the days ahead, but I think that the training went smoothly and that most had a good time during the weeks we were there. Only time will tell how well the group (all of us, trainees and trainers included) did, but I am ready to celebrate come the 30th of August when they all swear-in. It should be a great time.