Hello! So here it is, my first post at site as a fully-committed Peace Corps Volunteer! I’ve been in Ghana for four months now, and have completed a whole 1/24th of my service at site . So far, it’s been going well! The ups and downs have been a bit more drastic than I’ve ever felt in the states, but I’m learning. Mostly I’m just taking it day by day, and reflecting and relating it all back to the states isn’t a part of that. I’ve been really focused on what I’m doing here, and in a weird and unexpected way, I try to not to think about it too much. ‘It’ being the bigger problems I can’t tackle, and trying to relate what I’m doing here back to home brings all of those obstacles up again. But on the brighter side, I thought I’d be reporting back having discovered new levels of boredom, but so far it’s been the opposite! And along with the many frustrations, which are now from actually trying to do things as opposed to bug bites, I’d say it’s been a pretty successful first month at site, and the following are a few reasons why-
I started teaching! It’s an overwhelming, enjoyable, and incredibly eye-opening experience. I’m teaching integrated science for form 3 students (the equivalent of about 8th grade in the US). It’s provided stability in my schedule that I couldn’t be more grateful for (Any and all meetings with groups of my NGO invariably start 2-3 hours late, which is fine and it’s always for understandable reasons, I’m just never made aware of them until 2-3 hours after the meeting was supposed to start). So back to teaching- I guess I should start with how it actually started. I’ve been making a point to go to all of the schools in the area for a number of reasons- find out where they actually are, potentially start environmental clubs, teachers and students always speak fairly good English, etc. There are 10 primary (equivalent to elementary) schools in my community, 3 junior high schools that I know of, and one senior secondary school. I started with a few of the primaries, where most are suffering from a lack of adequate space and hold classes under baobob trees. Nothing I can do there. (But this night-time read is making this a little frustrating.) I knew that one of my neighbors taught at the Sirigu Junior High School (JHS). I was told by many that it was close, but someone would have to take me there because directions are a crapshoot. This didn’t put that school very high on my list of ones to visit. Regardless, one day I just started with the little directions I had- “there’s a path that starts at that Neem tree, and you have to cross a river”. So I followed the uniformed students through fields of millet and maize, through a river (notice how I didn’t ‘over’), and eventually, to Sirigu Junior High School.
This turned into a very good day. It turns out there is actually and JHS A and JHS B. First I went to A, and was greeted by curious students, and met the headmaster of that school. He told me there was already a science and environment club. Perfect! They would be meeting the next Friday (I went to this meeting- gave an impromptu speech on environmental problems and solutions to a group of 40 and was really impressed with the clubs organization). Then I headed over to the other block of classrooms. I asked for the headmaster (actually headmistress), who wasn’t in, but after talking to her the following Monday, I started teaching on Wednesday. The form 3 students didn’t have a science teacher, so it was just an empty period for them. The school system in Ghana is a lot different than America- when you go to senior secondary (high school), you have to apply. These students have to take a test at the end of the year, that will include science as a core subject, and do well enough to get into a (hopefully good) senior secondary. So I’m filling that gap for them four times a week for 1/2hr to 1.5 hours.
Like everything else has gone since I’ve been here- I’m doing something I couldn’t actually picture myself doing. Teaching is a case in point. I was given a half-inch notebook (large print and pictures on almost every page) and a scheme of work (syllabus). The challenges are endless: almost no lab equipment, no powerpoint for pictures, no at-home internet research, no way to make handouts, my american english is hard for them to understand, usually the first example that comes to mind for me to explain something has no relevance to their lives here, and they don’t have textbooks. But the most interesting challenge is that they weren’t taught the same way I’ve been taught. For example- I was teaching them about different mosquito control methods and the advantages and disadvantages of each one. So I made a table- columns of advantages and disadvantages, and rows for efficiency, economics, and the environment. I wrote chemical control methods, and then filled in the table. Then I erased everything but the table and its headings. This was a problem, and I wasn’t expecting it to be. We made it through, but it was just one of many examples of different teaching styles.
Now that it’s been a couple of weeks, getting to see that the students understand something by their expressions and the questions they ask is a really great feeling. When getting to a new topic, I usually try to remember how it was presented to me. I always liked science, and thankfully remember quite a bit from Mrs. Thompson’s class, Mr. DiMaggio’s class, and random classes from elementary school- depending on the topic. Usually this is useless because I remember a lap or really eye-opening picture. But sometimes it is a description. One of the more vivid ones is a case study we read in Mrs. Thompson’s seventh grade class about the environmental effects of DDT. How the chemical had made its way up the food chain and was cracking egg shells. How it was overused by farmers. It wasn’t until years later that I learned that DDT was used to control malaria. As you can imagine, the textbook on malaria control in a country where 1 in 12 children under the age of five dies of malaria, the DDT story is different. DDT is still used here. It’s still overused in some cases, but it’s a case of tradeoffs. So instead of just hearing Rachel Carson’s story, they’re actually living amid the tradeoffs. I still told them about the food chain and the eggshells and biomagnification, and judging by the questions, they really understood what was going on. It was a good day in the classroom. And let’s be honest, this wouldn’t have been a true blog post if I didn’t at least mention malaria.
But back to exciting things in my community-
A few weeks ago, I purchased a bike. It’s even a big purchase in the states, but here it was like buying a car. I read this book during training, What is the What (a wonderful read by the way, if you’re interested), and the man shared an experience from his childhood in Sudan (now South Sudan) of the beauty and prestige a bike has. He talked about how glorious the bike looked with all of its shiny parts, and the lengthy discussion that ensued about if the plastic cover should be removed or not. It’s a little different here though, they’re fairly common. In the weeks before, I was receiving tips on what to look for in a good bike (all of which are used ‘village bikes’- the equivalent of a beach cruiser that I constantly take offroading, and imported, so I hear, from Japan) and what I should pay for it. So on the big day, I had my counterpart with me to help with negotiations.
bikeshop guy: “145 cedi”
bikeshop guy #2: “110 cedi” (I was told by many that I should pay 100 cedi)
me through my counterpart: “will you do 90 cedi?”
bikeshop guy #2, again through my counterpart: “I will do 100 cedi, but I won’t give you a basket”
me: Oh but I want the basket.
bikehop guy #2 and my counterpart: speaking Gurune at a level above my comprehension, and the bikeshop guy #2 retrieves a basket from inside his shop. Success!
The following week, similar to buying a car in the states, everyone commented on my new, pretty, red bike, gave me advice on bike care and informed me that I still needed to get a bell, asked me how much I paid for it, and told me: “you had done well”. A common Ghanaian expression that I have come to appreciate. Since all of that, having a bike to get around has been great, and it’s worth it solely for the breeze it creates when I ride it.
I have yet to really talk about my NGO, the thing that’s been occupying most of my time and energy, but I’m going to keep focusing on it for now so that I can reflect and relate later. I do have another bright thing of my month to share-
According to the monthly peace corps newsletter, Global Handwashing Day is on October 15th. I thought this would be a good entry point for me with my community. I started doing some research, and Ghana has some work to do in this area. From a national study, it was found that the handwashing with soap rate after using the latrine is around 3%. I’ve been using this as a point to talk to a couple of the primary schools and the clinic, and most recently, it was a focus of a meeting I organized with one of my NGO’s youth groups. This is going to sound a lot simpler than it was, but during the meeting, we built a tippy tap (low-tech handwashing station) in front of the house. I thought it went well- the kids were entertained, and we made educational posters to hang up at the clinic about the different times you should wash your hands. But the thing that really showed me it had hit home was when I met with the mother’s group (the mother’s of the daughters) and they had gathered around the tippy tap the kids had built, and one of the mothers said (translated to me) that her daughter had come home and started building one! It’s a small step, but a positive sign toward behavior change. I couldn’t have been more excited! However, someone did steal the soap from the one in front of my house the next day, but hey, choose your battles wisely.