Saturday, 28 January 2012

Money, money, money

For a while before Christmas and since I returned from England I haven’t used any fan in the house. Although warm I’m fending off the day when we need to resort to room fans. Indeed, in the early hours of the morning I’m reaching for a blanket! I can remember being issued with my blanket, almost a year ago, and being incredulous over the possibility of ever needing it. By the time I leave the house just before 8am it is warm enough to be out in a thin cotton blouse. Numbers for Morning Devotion at the office have been thin on the ground this term and the popular reason for this seems to be……”It is too cold for people to get out of bed, so early!” One officer added.....especially if you don't have a wife to warm the water for your bath! (Bath = bucket shower, in almost all cases). Can you believe that?  Needless to say, teachers, headteachers and pupils have been in school at least an hour by then! No warm baths for them.

I thought I’d try to explain a little about the money system in Ghana. I may regret this as it is so complicated and my Grade “C” O’Level may not be sufficient to cope.
There are at least 6 notes of different denominations of Ghana Cedis and a few Peshwa coins which represent cents of a Cedi. There are about 2.5 Cedis to the British pound. This has been the arrangement of cash since 2007. During that year re-denomination took place and 4 noughts were removed from the value……or if you are a mathematician the values were shifted 4 decimal places to the right! Hence, what was 2000 is now 20 Peshwas. Got it? “Simples”.
Well, it’s not quite that simple. Most people don’t use it and some have no idea what to ask you for and are clearly extremely muddled. Alarmingly, the youth of Ghana are no better and some of them should know only the new system. Last Wednesday I went to buy milk powder and 2 toilet rolls at a small shop I frequent regularly. The lady in there got out a calculator, punched in a few numbers and asked me for “One Oh Four”. It took a moment for me to work out that 1Cedi 4 Peshwas wasn’t going to cover it. Meanwhile she is looking at me as though I’m daft. Finally I guessed 10Cedis 40 Peshwas and she seemed happy with that.

 You can imagine our confusion when we first arrived being asked for thousands to buy a few onions. Nobody in the market uses Cedis at all, whether they are old women or small girls. Often one will call another over to explain to us they want 1500 for a pile of tomatoes. They use English digit names so it doesn’t need any translation. You just need your wits about you to work it out. 

We spent 90000 in Wa market on a length a gingham cloth today to curtain off some kitchen shelves!
By the way my allowance works out at 12 million 960 thousand a quarter. I wish that £520 felt so much!

Oh, and another thing…..apparently, the Minister for Education resigned this week.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Booster Classes

I reported some time ago that the Basic Education Certificate Exam results were diabolically poor in the last academic year across Ghana. These are “written” by students at the end of Junior High School during the Easter Holidays! JHS covers the 3 years after Primary (Key Stage 3 in England) and mark the end of compulsory basic schooling. Normally the students would be about 15years old but in reality can be any age above that.

Last years’ results for our District showed 33% of students reaching the required level to pass BECE. Yes, that bad! The government have, understandably, seen the need to respond. I am wondering how much thought went into their decision making. All Y3 JHS classes are now running Booster sessions after school each day for 2 hours and 6 hours on Saturdays. Some are in school by 7am each morning. The only funding offered to schools has been to promise the students and teachers lunch. Of course there is no system to distribute this money through Regions to Districts and down to schools. Then the schools need to find someone to cook it daily. To set one up would take months so, if the funds are really there our students will receive none of it to satisfy their hunger. I wonder where that money is!!? More affluent areas of the south, closer to the Capital, have more access to funding and availability of food sources.

It is important to comply with governmental demands so the JHSs in Nadowli District are doing their best. The students & teachers leave school to find refreshment at the end of the normal day and are expected to return 30 mins later for 2 hours extra lessons. Amazingly, it seems most do in Nadowli town. In the north of Ghana we don’t really do snacks! The pupils who are fortunate enough to be given food to bring to school carry small packages of Banku, TZ etc. Others may bring a few peshwas to buy something similar from a street stall or one of the women who gather under trees near schools to sell food and sachet water. The school day begins between 7am and 8am depending on your age and most finish around 1.30pm. Many children eat nothing before they leave home and bring nothing with them!

I was in a JHS today where the headteacher was telling me, “All our students live a long walk from the school. It is between villages and there is nowhere nearby to find food or water. By the time they are home it is too late to eat and get back in 30 mins so many don’t return. If they need to drink water they have to walk halfway home to the borehole and many don’t return from there either.” I also learned that this school and the Primary next door have no toilet facilities at all.

As I have mentioned before, teachers are poorly motivated here and receive precious little in the way of rewards. Headteachers have no training, poor support and are given very little power and authority. These classes will continue to be offered until the middle of April and it will be monitored how many students attend and how successful they have been ultimately. For about 13 weeks teachers and some pupils will have worked five days for 9 hours with 3 short breaks and another 6 hours on Saturdays. There is no Booster Programme of Work. They are just bashing away at the same syllabus. Students are already bored in some schools after 2 weeks. The main problem with the BECE is that subjects are taught and tested in English and, particularly in the north, most people’s grasp of English is poor. Some teachers also have limited English! Often, it is not that the students don’t know the answers to the questions, they just can’t read & understand them!

I am trying to organise training for the JHS teachers in Nadowli to help them to improve students’ English in test situations through some alternative strategies. My belief is that this may raise pass levels above 33%. I fear that tired teachers drilling exhausted students with uninspiring textbooks for all their waking hours will have no positive difference at all to test results.

(This photo shows a class of JHS students having a rare experience of good practical science with resources they brought themselves.)

 Some of you may be wondering what GNAT (Teachers’ Union) are saying about it. Well, as far as I can ascertain………nothing at all!

I hope the government ministers in Accra feel satisfied with the wisdom of this new policy. Most will never visit the north of their country and few will be aware of even a few of the impossibilities endured by schools up here. 

Saturday, 21 January 2012

The Long & Winding Road

During my visit home I managed a couple of journeys that required public transport, one from Kent to Yorkshire which I covered in a single morning. Whilst sitting in a clean, comfy train carriage speeding north from London I contemplated travelling a similar distance in Ghana. Not surprisingly, I was rewarded with the expected challenging journey back up to Nadowli from Accra last weekend.  This was not helped by the weight of my bags full of “goodies” from home. Needless to say my camera was buried deep inside and had I produced it the emotional temperature of the participants in the following pantomime would have risen significantly.

Buying a bus ticket anywhere here is a bit of a lottery. Rarely do you acquire one from a ticket office. It is luck whether there is one or not and if you are lucky you may find your seat not quite what you are expecting or you are standing………….for a at least 5 hours and that is a shorter trip! Sometimes, being European is an advantage as tickets can be found in the hope that we will pay over the odds for them. Everyone assumes we are rich.

The first leg from Accra to Kumasi was reasonably normal in that we all had a seat. Fortunately, I wasn’t in the seat in front which was permanently reclined. Four very large boxes were pushed up the aisle, conveniently blocking Emergency Exits and any chance of getting out easily. The journey was uneventful. However, the country holds elections this year and the government have suddenly decided to make some headway with finishing the main highway north out of Accra. For 2 hours we wove between potholes in the red dirt road so large you could lose someone in them. As we passed workmen who continued to dig and move earth with an assortment of basic tools through clouds of dust, I marvelled at the robustness of the buses. That is a dangerous thought as plenty break down in the most inaccessible places.  Some men in flip flops supervised the few large rolling machines. They were working hard but it was obvious that this will be a long job. The bus arrived in Kumasi 5 hours later having traveled just 150miles!

Fortunately, I travelled with my Dutch friends Bas and Jeannine as far as Wa, otherwise this whole process is twice as gruelling on my own. We spent the night at the Presbyterian Guest House which is basic but comfortable. By 6 o’clock on Sunday morning we were standing in a sizeable crowd of Ghanaians beside a bus proudly displaying Wa as its destination. Confusingly, there were quite a number of people pretending to be in charge and it took a while to decide who to approach regarding tickets. At least 4 men held a fistful of notes each but a woman had a bagful and she did most of the shouting! Patience is a virtue and essential in these matters.  There is a lot of coming and going, taking someone aside, shouting and waving of arms. It appeared we had the last 3 seats available but 2 hours later we still hadn’t been encouraged to board the bus. I find these experiences fascinating to watch in terms of human behaviour but after a few hours I tire of them and pray to get a move on!

 At one point the negotiating prices for luggage in the “hold” began. The luggage compartment doors were lifted and 3 men woke up and climbed out. I think one was the driver. Unusually, there was no livestock to be transported this time, nor mattresses. However, endless lengths of plastic were threaded through the windows and filled the space above our heads. By then I had entered the bus to ensure our seats did exist and to claim them with pieces of hand luggage. I noticed the seats had seat covers over them and plastic sheeting covering the covers. All fabric seats are like this. There must be a lot of buses that are scrapped at the end of their long lives with pristine plush seats inside them! Having persuaded an angry young man wearing an “Asda, night staff” T shirt with a fistful of cedis that I was not paying more for my suitcase than I was for myself, I finally climbed aboard. I was followed by a small boy carrying a pile of plastic stools which were arranged up the aisle. 

It was another hour and a half before we had set off, then filled up with petrol and waited in the layby for the obligatory armed policeman…………oh, and stopped at a private house to deliver a parcel and collect snacks for the driver and his large crew. The bus was packed! One of the “crew” decided to check everyone’s tickets after we were all on and he had to climb over the people sitting in the aisle to get right through the bus. It was all exhausting to be a part of and I looked forward to dozing off. 

“Enterprise” is the only way many Ghanaians can make a living. At intervals on any trip you come across Police and Customs Check Points. Nothing much seems to happen there but it makes the officers feel important and all vehicles need to slow down to pass through. Whole teams of women descend on the buses and a number of transactions take place in those few seconds that the bus travels at running pace. Loaves of bread and sachets of water are the most popular items thrust through the windows, although smoked fish, hard boiled eggs, doughnut type cakes and strange things on skewers can be had. Payment is often thrown out as the bus gathers speed to be chased for along the kerb.

This part of our journey  was the longest at 300 miles and we eventually arrived in Wa at 3.30pm. I dragged my luggage the short distance to the tro tro station and claimed a seat on the next one to Nadowli.  Gemma, my housemate, met the tro and together we carried my bags to the house.

A cup of tea and a Rich Tea biscuit, retrieved from my suitcase, revived me somewhat as I contemplated the events of the last 2 days.  I had been lucky. Nothing untoward had befallen us between Accra and home. Nobody had been in any hurry. We all got to our destinations safely with all our belongings.  When the 11:22 from Tonbridge to London Bridge is a few minutes late I shall reflect on my 2 day journey up Ghana and think about how fortunate I have been.  Mind you, it will be a while before I can persuade myself to head south again!

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

A Happy New Year

This is a very quick posting to welcome you back to my Blog and to wish you a very Happy New Year. My stay in England was very hectic and longer than I originally planned due to being proper poorly over the flight home and the first few days. I had a wonderful time and am extremely grateful to my family and friends who welcomed me home so warmly and provided such luxurious hospitality. I ate everything I had craved, even though I had to wait a few days until my system could accommodate it all!

I have a few stories to tell from my last days here and the journey back up to Nadowli last weekend, but my holiday in England is not part of "Adrienne in Africa" so will not feature here. Watch this space for another year of life in Ghana and more of my thoughts about my experiences here in Nadowli. I am seeing my role differently a year on and can bring more wisdom to the way I approach things. I have greater energy at the moment and feel renewed, so I hope to achieve more of what the Ghanaian people want from me rather than what I think they need. Here's to another exciting and fulfilling year. I wonder what it will bring for us all.

The Last 2011 Goat Tale.........   I squeezed the last things into my rucksack on my final afternoon here in the house, before I walked to catch the tro tro to Wa. I was checking that everything was turned off and the louvre windows were tightly closed in an attempt to keep the worst of the Harmattan dust out for the next 5 weeks. Suddenly, I heard the most awful bleating and calling from the veranda. I ran to see what the commotion was about and found an extremely pregnant goat looking at me through the doorway. I thought I recognised her from a previous encounter and she clearly needed help! As I came out of the door she led me around the corner where her equally pregnant friend was howling with her head stuck in an empty paint can left by the builders. Her small horns were wedged under the rim. Fortunately she couldn't see me and I was able to extricate her out of her predicament. Instantly they both ran off, but not before my friend turned and called something that felt like "Thanks". I could imagine they both gave birth minutes later following the shock of their experiences! Of course, I removed the can to a safer place before I left the house on the first stage of my journey home. Even in those final minutes my life here is full of wonder and unexpected excitement. It is that, the friends I have made here and the role I have found to be useful that have drawn me back to my home in Nadowli.