"Life in the Peace Corps will not be easy. There will be no salary and allowances will be at a level sufficient only to maintain health and meet basic needs. Men and women will be expected to work and live alongside the nationals of the country in which they are stationed—doing the same work, eating the same food, talking the same language. But if the life will not be easy, it will be rich and satisfying. For every young American who participates in the Peace Corps—who works in a foreign land—will know that he or she is sharing in the great common task of bringing to man that decent way of life which is the foundation of freedom and a condition of peace."

-President John F. Kennedy

Friday, June 27, 2014

Ghana happenings...and the World Cup!

It’s been awhile, but things have been going on like normal. This school term is only 10 weeks compared to the other two terms being 14 weeks, and we’ve had some slowdowns and interruptions making it go by even quicker. I’m essentially done teaching, I just have some review days left and then exam weeks. I’m writing this a few days before my dad and sister come (super excited) so I will post about that trip after they leave. As always, I’ll just skip around to some different stories and interesting/funny things happening in Ghana.

This term brings in the end of the Ghanaian school year, which means the Form 3 students are finishing JHS and need to write the official Ghana-wide high school placement/entrance exam. It’s a big deal here. Because of the exam’s importance, it is also of great importance to hold mock exams. The test is called the BECE in case I refer to it as such later on and not realize. So one Monday I show up to school and after headmaster and other teachers arrive, I learn that that week will be a BECE mock testing week for our form 3’s. I didn’t think it mattered to me since I only teach the form 1 kids, but it certainly did effect me. Let me explain the issue that precedes. The form 3 kids (111 of them) all pack into one room every day and sit three to a desk. These kids are all about 18 years old and some are big guys. They’re packed, we simply don’t have enough room for all the students in the school. So for them to take a test like this mock, it was determined that we would spread those 111 students out between our school’s six classrooms. All day. All week. Meaning no teaching for me or anyone else, we all just have to supervise the test-taking for our students’ mock exam. I wasn’t happy. They probably could’ve fit into just three classrooms or at least something else conducive to teaching for the 250 other students in the school. The official mock had yet to arrive from Ghana Education Services (GES) office, and it was expected to arrive the next day, a Tuesday. So I realized the whole week was shot and I show up Tuesday ready for a worthless day supervising, only to find out that the exam for some reason didn’t arrive. Of course. I guess I was happy, other than all the uncertainties and this just meaning that the following week would probably be when the mock would take place. The week went on like normal, and the exam finally arrived one day, and we sure enough had a full week dedicated to a mock exam where all the other form 1 and 2 students ran around like crazy. Very efficient.

Some good did come of this. Coincidentally, that exam week was the first week that the new computer lab was actually set up enough to start being used. It wasn’t officially commissioned by the head guys and whatnot, but I had the key and I was determined to make some use of it this term. Thankfully during the supervising week I didn’t actually have to supervise for a couple of the days. So what I did was organize groups of 20 kids for about a half hour each to enter the lab and get a quick briefing on the laptops and I showed them how to turn on and use the mouse and stuff. Let me not gloss over that. This was awesome and a truly unbelievable feeling. I got to watch over a hundred kids sit down to a laptop all to themselves and try to start using it. The mouse was the funniest thing. Most moved the mouse incredibly slow and just didn’t get which way to move it to get the pointer to also move. Even if they got to what they wanted to click, when they clicked they would shift the whole mouse and it wouldn’t open what it was supposed to open! I tried not to laugh and just guide their hands for them, and sure enough they got the hang of it. Almost all of them ended up with the mouse at some crooked angle or at the edge of the table because they didn’t know they could pick it up and place it back to a good place and have the pointer still be there. They learned quickly though when I showed them. In that first day I had them all power on, learn the mouse, find the start button and scroll up to the paint program and open. Using paint was a great way for them to get comfortable with clicking and dragging and stuff. They could open a new document to start fresh, and learned how to “X” out and then shut down. I was actually surprised with how quickly they got it, computers are pretty intuitive for certain things. It took a few more times in the lab for most of them to really get how to shut down and “x” out and stuff, but it’s so rewarding to watch them learn. Ever since that first day, without fail I get students coming to my house asking if we can go to the lab that night. Most evenings I’ve been able to go and open it for about an hour, and there’s always a full house. Thankfully the computers came loaded with Microsoft Student which includes Encarta for Kids. The program is simple, has every topic relevant, and even some videos for them. They are obsessed with it. Almost every time in the lab, ten students will go and find the section with national anthems and proceed to play the US one so that I sing. Another thing I always see them go to is a ten second video of sumo wrestling. They love it. I’m constantly being asked what things are. Picutres of snow, rockets, surfing, other sports, certain animals, you name it. All of that stuff is literally brand new to their eyes.

One day headmaster said that we will be able to get some money from the government to help some of our poor students to get by during JHS. I had no idea how to tell who was more poor than the next, but the way we approached it was to get the kids who have lost one or more parent. So, out of my 120ish form 1 students, 15 have lost at least one parent, and four of them have lost both. They are mostly 13 or 14 years old. I was blown away.

I was told a young primary school student had gotten a snake bit next to the school building. I’ve never seen a snake in Ghana. That one crawled over menucha’s feet in her first week here, but I wasn’t around to see it. They’re apparently everywhere, and my students have even shown me their skin that they shed (forget the name right now). The child was apparently taken to a hospital and who knows what happened after that, I’m sure they are fine or else I would’ve heard something. The solution to the problem, though, was quite funny. About an hour later, during school, a big truck rolled up with about 20 tires in the back of it. The tires were emptied out onto the ground in the area where the child got bitten, and they proceeded to burn all the tires! Then, as I was told, one by one the snakes would come out, and the men waited all day with machetes and chopped up each one that popped out. Unfortunately I had to go into town that afternoon and missed that part of the activity, so I can’t attest to whether or not it worked, but I’m sure they didn’t go buy all those tires for no reason. Must be a tried and true method.

I got in a trotro one time, and it felt and looked like any other tro, like it would fall apart any second. This one was extra special though. When we were all loaded up after a half hour or so, the driver jumped in and reached beneath the steering wheel while another guy was out front under the hood. The driver then proceeded to hotwire the tro because the key was either lost or stopped working! The guy under the hood was doing something to also make the thing come to life, and after a few minutes the engine fired up. And then shut right back off. So what do you think method two would be to start a tro that only starts by hotwiring? Well, we were on the slightest downgrade, so some guys got behind the tro and started pushing while the driver tried kicking it on from this push start. It wouldn’t start, and we were fast approaching another set of tros at the bottom of this tiny hill! The driver was pumping the “brakes” and we stopped just before slowly ramming the other tros. The guys around back came to the front and pushed us back some until the driver could turn and get a new angle with a small downgrade again. We got another push and the driver was hammering the gears and pumping the clutch and doing a whole bunch of voodoo tricks and finally the tro started! Okay, minus the voodoo tricks. Anyway, the thing stayed on and got me to my destination two hours away, probably only like 15 miles though.

As I said, the form 3 students had to write their big BECE exam. A couple weeks after our mock exam in school, the week came where the students would write the real exam. Our students were lucky, they only had to walk 5 kilometers there and back to the testing school each day that week. Crazy. Them walking that distance is essentially nothing, and they don’t complain at all because that’s all they know. They think it’s OK and normal, and like I said, they’re lucky compared to some other schools. I wasn’t a part of the exam at all and didn’t go to the testing school all that week, but a fellow teacher had a good story for me. I had heard in Peace Corps training that there was rampant cheating on this BECE exam. The testing site was a simple open air classroom like mine, and either there aren’t enough teachers to supervise, or the teachers themselves end up giving answers to help the kids. What my fellow teacher said was a bit different. He lives directly next to the testing school and he said that every day his house was busy. I figured he just meant the kids were all around during breaks and stuff, but he said that there would be a young kid who would grab the form 3 student’s papers out the open-air window slots and run them to the house so that parents and high school kids could write the solutions. Then the kid would run the sheet back and give it to the students taking the exam. And apparently the supervisor was totally fine with this. The cheating in this country is just out of control. It apparently stems from their “helping” culture. They always help and share whatever it is the other has, which is now translating to answers in school. If one kid knows, then he should tell everyone else.

My tiny kitchen after a day becomes a total mess. Some days a ton of flies are inside, and I know that’s terrible because that’s how I would get sick the easiest. Some flies landing on poop and then landing on all my kitchen stuff where I prepare food. I was doing my dishes and where I stand I have a open-air window so I can watch people go by and stuff. As I’m washing, and as these flies are all around, I see a little boy just 20 feet away squat down and drop down what actually seemed like quite big logs for a little guy. He wasn’t even wearing pants, only a shirt, and when he felt like it all came out, he stood up and just kept walking. Great. Now those flies really are going to bring in some diseases. I scrubbed the kitchen good that time. Knock on wood, I actually have been very healthy lately and even the past year I haven’t had anything serious like other volunteers. Really, we all need to knock on wood for that one, thanks.

I may have explained this a long time ago, but there is always a different teacher on duty each week at the school. This just means that teacher is the main discipliner and does the announcements and can really run the school that week. Quite often, on Monday that teacher will come (late) and when all the kids are lined up for morning assembly, he will have them hold out their hands as he goes by and inspects to see if their fingernails are kept nice as well as their hair cut and kept neat. They all have shaved heads but apparently many don’t “keep it nice” or grow it a bit too long. The fingernail thing I guess they are looking for dirt and stuff, but since the kids have to work for like three hours before even starting school, I can’t imagine how they’re hands are clean. And remember, there are over 300 kids in the school, so this teacher will walk around with about five canes and inspect each kid and cane maybe a third of them on their head and hands if they don’t look nice. The canes are straight from the tree, the kids have to go fetch them and bring them stripped of leaves, and then they get hit with them. They break easily which is why the teacher will carry at least five for this activity. It sucks to watch sometimes, but other times all the kids laugh at each other during it, except when they wince in pain if it’s their turn. Also, nearly all of them ask me all the time why I don’t cane them, and their tone implies that I need to and should be caning them to keep them in order. The kids expect it and know that it’s the only way that they will stay in line, well at least stay in line to some degree.

Unfortunately I have run into a little issue with the computer lab. On a random evening when I wasn’t even using the lab, the power went out. Typical, I didn’t think anything of it. But the next day I found out that the rest of the village had power. Since I share a compound with the headmistress for the primary school, we wanted to figure out what the heck was happening. Since the computer lab is also connected to our power meter, we decided to go check it out. Plus, just a couple weeks ago the fuse blew inside there and we lost power but were able to put in a temporary fix. Apparently that temporary fix was finished. After having a guy come check out the electrical box, it was determined that the switch had totally melted, thus knocking out the power for the lab and our compound. Things move slowly here, so the next day it was determined that we had to buy a whole new switch and also separate the power from the lab and the compound so that this problem didn’t arise again. There was too much power on the meter, hence the blown fuse and melted switch. Replacing a part and getting another meter takes a lot of time and money unfortunately, and things weren’t looking good for getting power back anytime soon. After the third day and night without electricity, we finally got an electrician who said he could come up with a temporary solution. He went in the lab and started looking at the wires in the box and was hacking his way around. I know the guy and he does do good work, but I didn’t know what he was trying to do this time, I truly thought there was no saving the day. He said things looked promising, and he had me run about 100 m over to my house and stand there to check if my power came back on as he messed around with wires. He was trying to isolate the compound power from the lab power. After several more minutes of him fooling and me waving that there was nothing happening, the light flickered! I started jumping and shouting to let him know it was working, almost as if I was stranded in the dessert and finally saw water. Three days without power really gets to you. Without a fan its exponentially hotter and the mosquitos are around more. This fix felt great. The only downside is that the lab’s power is still screwed. We will now wait to get a new meter from the electric company and hope we can come up with some money to buy a new switch or whatever. Unfortunately, I’m being realistic with myself and saying that this could be weeks of a setback. So, so frustrating.

On a more positive note, I recently pulled through with landing 800 more books to add to our 300 in the library already. Thanks to some people for contributing a bit of money, I was able to get a solid selection of textbooks and other things so that now all the shelves in the lab are packed. It looks nice, except the lights and fans and computers don’t work. Can’t win ‘em all.

The World Cup has been quite exciting around here. There was a lot of trash talking before the Ghana-U.S. match and  unfortunately I was on the worse end of it since Ghana has beaten us before. For that game, I decided to put my tv outside and invite whatever students wanted to come and watch. I wasn’t sure if I would get 100 kids or 10, but since the game started at 10pm here, it was pretty late for most of them. Also, my compound is just a bit separated from the village and the center so the kids can watch at some other TVs in town. I ended up getting about 20 students and a teacher who lives nearby. That first goal at the very beginning was awesome. We had barely settled before I could start celebrating for the goal! I decided to give the kids candy for all American goals. I ended up giving for the Ghana goal too though. So we watched all through the game outside, but when it was getting to the end some wind started picking up. It escalated quickly, and we had to rush to bring the TV back inside before the rain came. In those five minutes bringing things inside and connecting the TV, both the Ghana goal and America’s winning goal were scored. We missed all the excitement, of course.

The second Ghana game I watched in the nearest town, Walewale, with a friend. This was a much bigger gathering of maybe 75 guys around a standard sized box TV. It was plugged in outside at a half-finished gas station, but it somehow was a popular spot for people to watch games. I made sure to explain to everyone that I was cheering for Ghana in this game, because there was still a chance both Ghana and the US could qualify. It was a pretty uneventful draw, and Ghana’s chances were looking slimmer. For the third game, a lot more trash talking led up to it. The Ghanaians were certain that they somehow had good chances to qualify and America would go home. I don’t know why they thought that and were so confident, but I tried to keep quiet and waited for the two games to start. That game was in the afternoon after school and it was hot and I was tired, so I just had a few teachers come to my house to watch. I couldn’t view the US-Germany game, but I followed online. There was a span of about twenty minutes or so when all Ghana needed was one more goal to be in the qualifying spot if our game stayed at 1-0. The guys were hootin and hollerin and were overly confident. Once Portugal scored that other goal though, they were silent and simply knew their chances were blown. I’m certainly happy and proud for the American squad, but it’s definitely sad to see the Ghanaians lose because football (soccer) is so, so big for them. Their guys just weren’t ready to play I guess. USA! USA! USA!

I don’t think I’ve every really talked about what a teacher makes here. I am not 100% sure of the number, but I’m most certain that they make about 700 or so Cedis, which comes out to, let’s say, 250 USD. This is per month. Simple math shows that annually they make about 3,000 USD. Teachers are middle class if not upper middle class I would say. Some more simple math shows that if as an American you make 50,000 USD a year, it would take a Ghanaian nearly 17 years to make that much. More simple math also shows that if as an American you (are lucky) and make 70,000 USD annually, you will make as much in one day as a teacher here would in one month. Obviously, if as an American you make half that, so 35,000 USD, you would make as much in two days as a teacher here would in one month. Whew.

I’m going down to Accra to pick up my dad and sister tomorrow, let’s see how they find Ghana and sub-saharan Africa!

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