Friday, 29 June 2012

Welcome rains

Already this rainy season is much wetter than last year. I am typing this in socks and a jumper for the first time in 16 months! Bizarrely, I am also drinking mulled wine, thanks to a carton of the only wine available and a sachet left over from Christmas. The rain has been falling for 6 hours and to start with was of monsoon proportions. Pupils were trapped in classrooms with no light, of course, and the sky was “as black as your hat”. P3 sat in the dark telling stories and riddles, waiting for the torrent to subside. A small stream was percolating through a crack in the wall and spreading across the floor. As soon as we could see from one side of school to the other, the children said prayers, very quickly and dashed off home.

All this rain is of great hope to everyone as they are all farmers. Any small area of land is being dug up, weeded expertly by small boys with short hoes and sown with something. Almost an acre of school land was ploughed with one of a few very busy tractors in the area for the sole benefit of the headteacher. A perk of being the headteacher on Catholic church land! The tractor may have turned the soil but the weeds are still lying there. They need to be dragged out and either removed or left on the surface for the sun to scorch dry……….if the sun is in evidence! I offered my services as you’d expect and, despite the comments about soft white palms and the expectation of blisters appearing within 10 minutes, I managed to wield a hoe for a very short while until a group of likely lads arrived and entered into negotiations with the landlady over rates! The young boys around these parts are probably raking it in (pun!) weeding fields for people. They usually work very hard for their few cedis too.

Anyway, the long and short of it was that my farming duties were curtailed as my hoe was requisitioned by someone much younger and a whole lot fitter. 6 of them agreed to weed half an acre for 20 cedis (£8). The gang did work hard whilst we sat at the Spot over the road supervising from a distance over a chilled shandy. Before long it was almost dark and the sound of hoes slicing through soil could still be heard. The boys were frantically trying to complete their duties in the day. During their activities they unearthed some lizard eggs, small rubbery things that have very strong skins and a toad was disturbed from its earthy bed.

Finally, we all had to go home with the job not quite complete. Nevertheless, a great deal more was accomplished than if I had been left with the task. The following day was wet almost throughout so the farm boys were released from duty with their dues honoured. The other half of the field is still lying there full of healthy weeds thriving wickedly whilst we sit with maize ready to sow watching the rain fall relentlessly. At least the ground will be soft to work with, eventually.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Football successes

The items of sports kit that my nephew, Victor brought to Nadowli were all used enthusiastically by the RC schools in the town this month during the football and athletics competitions. Whether they contributed to the success of the teams cannot be categorically determined. However, the athletes looked the part and competed eagerly against the teams from the other localities. They won all the disciplines except football. Last term they won the football tournament and had yet to be presented with the football trophy that my friend, Jeny brought out at Easter. So, rather confusingly, the school team had a celebration party last Friday for the athletics success of this term and the football from the previous one. 

I was asked to present the trophy and teachers made speeches praising the children and encouraging them to continue with their training. This is an area where everyone is enthusiastic to contribute and support each other. Notwithstanding my recent criticism concerning the neglect shown to the education of the majority of pupils in favour of a chosen few athletes, it was nice to witness all this enthusiasm. After all, success has to start somewhere.

On my way home, I was distracted by some movement further along the track. It was a dung beetle purposefully going about his business! I watched him for some time and it was fascinating. He was moulding a fresh piece of dung into a sphere so that he could set it rolling. This one was wedged against a stone so he could get a purchase on it. He or she was patting uneven parts with its front legs to smooth the surface. Eventually, it pushed away from the stone, travelling backwards and propelling the ball with hind legs until it bowled along gathering dry matter from the path as it went. It looked like an enormous football being dribbled along the track. Eventually, I overtook the busy beetle and continued on my way.

On the subject of wildlife, there is a lizard that has been living in my bedroom window frame for 2 weeks now and shows no sign of moving out. He treats the louvers and security bars like an adventure playground and yesterday took to swinging on the curtain. He is making himself far too at home. It’s not as though I object too much but I could end up with a whole family moving in. I shall not name him as he might take that as encouragement to remain there permanently.

By the way, we haven’t seen Doris and Sooty for 2 weeks due to the tethering requirements at this time of the year. Evidently, they have been transferred to the family’s farm in an undisclosed location and I’m guessing we won’t see them until the end of this wet season! As Gemma leaves in August, she may never see them again. I wonder how Doris is managing without her daily diet of stale bread crusts and banana skins. My mornings are not the same any more. There is something wonderful about being greeted as soon as you open the gate each day. Never mind I shall look forward to their release in about September.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

ICT the Future

Some of the readers of this blog have commented that I report little of my work. The main reason for this is that it is often not at all positive and the outcomes are rather depressing for me. One area in this category is ICT.

Very slowly, individual Ghanaians are acquiring computers, usually laptops, which they are, largely, unable to operate. People are aware that ICT is the way to the future and talk of the possibilities for themselves and their children. Gemma and I have offered frequently, to train any teacher/officer in the basic skills on their, or our, laptops, but nobody has taken us up on that offer. We stress that the training is free of charge but still nobody comes. I have wondered long and hard as to the reasons for this and remain confused.

A local Junior High School (Key Stage 3) was given 24 electronic notebooks before Christmas as part of a nationwide scheme to develop ICT in schools. This particular school has electricity, well, a couple of sockets hanging alarmingly from the wall and a cable with a light bulb snaking around a roof beam in one classroom. The notebooks would need to be charged at school as nobody would volunteer to undertake that task at home (they all charge their phones with school power) and anyway the lack of security and trustworthiness would make this prohibitive. The school PTA has decided that a dedicated “Lab” needs to be established in the school. To acquire this facility they are demanding 10 Ghana Cedis (£4) from each pupil. I can’t imagine how long they will wait for this money to materialise. However, in the meantime this vital and valuable equipment is sitting in boxes somewhere unused while pupils are learning about computers from pictures in textbooks.

Three new Dell desktop computers were acquired by the District Office from somewhere last year. Bowing to some pressure from their VSO volunteers, these were installed into the Teachers’ Resource Centre. Gemma set up a timetable for teachers to walk pupils from local schools for instruction. A few schools took up that opportunity, allowing their students some hands-on experience. All went well for several weeks. Remarkably, the small suite is still there despite there being only 2 padlocks between them and outside world. Unfortunately, a surge in the electricity during a storm over Easter was too much for the surge protectors, which we ensured where used, and 2 of these desktops are now “spoiled”. A few volunteers have looked at them but to no avail. The technical expertise and replacement parts are not readily available to repair them. There is no infrastructure for this. Not only that, nobody in the District will take any responsibility for this problem and persevere with efforts to resolve it. Actually, nobody cares! Therefore, these machines will sit there until they are obsolete gathering dust by the ton.

In the meantime, Gemma and I visit schools…….if they invite us….to enable a few children to lay their hands on our personal laptop keyboards.  At least those children have seen one live and not just in a textbook. Small small, as they say here!

Incidentally, my exploits with basic art materials in a local school has caught some people's interest at home. We had fun with simple mobiles this week. One sheet of card and a reel of thread enabled everyone to make one and we practised a lot of skills along the way.

Hanging them from the classroom beams was quite a feat and most of P6 came in to help, many being taller than me!

Monday, 18 June 2012


I know I have said I won’t write negatively or whinge excessively about the Education system here. However, there are things I need to write down so I can remember them in the future, things that are so outrageous I won’t otherwise believe them. Nothing is anybody’s fault, of course, as everything is generated from faceless people From government departments in Accra and they are so far away they may as well be on another planet!!

I have mentioned about Capitation (School Budget) before. This funding comes to headteachers termly. However, in June they are still awaiting what is owed to their schools for the last 2 terms. A few pitiful Cedis arrived in February to cover the purchase of a few sheets of cardboard but nothing since. Some new headteachers still haven’t had a financial handover and are nearing the end of their first academic year. In short, they haven’t seen a bean! Financial handovers need to take place with the District Internal Auditor and he retired last month. I expect he will be replaced at some point in the future.

It is clear that despite the nationwide disgust and embarrassment over the end of basic schooling examination results last year, it is only school sport that really matters in our District. Everything is halted to allow Sports Week to proceed. Recently, for 5 days, not one lesson was taught, District wide, from Kindergarten to the end of JHS (Key Stage 3) due to the locality sports competitions. A few children were selected from each school to play football, sprint, run long distance or play volley ball. Everyone else was in a supporting role all day, each day. Many didn’t attend the town park at all and most wandered around showing, understandably, very little interest.

Next week, the victorious athletes from each locality meet up to compete for the District Team. They take a selection of teachers with them and their classes back at school will be without a teacher for another week.

This ridiculous waste of learning time is bad enough but the funding aspect really takes the biscuit! Each term, headteachers have to send a contribution for Sports and Culture from their Capitation, per child to the District and another tranche for the Locality Sport & Culture funds. No kit is provided by the District, nor balls, trophy, refreshment, travel expenses or accommodation. Indeed, Kindergartens have to cough up and none of their pupils are invited to take part in any sports! In terms of Culture Education, there is no evidence that any funding has been spent anywhere during this academic year for the benefit of pupils.

Headteachers are being pressurised days before the competition begins, to borrow money, as they have no Capitation, to pay their contributions to the District. Parents are not expected to provide anything and neither does the District. The schools must fund everything from the football itself to the meals that sustain the players. The only place they can borrow from is their own pockets…………and they are empty due to the fact that their salaries for this month can only be retrieved from an ATM in Wa that has a queue around the block until the middle of the month, as long as it is working.

The Capitation, assuming it eventually appears, has already been spent and will all need to be paid back into headteachers’ pockets. Sports, and the cost of photocopying the relentless stream of bureaucratic, unnecessary & totally unimportant forms from the District Office, have swallowed it all. As usual, I wonder when the academic education of the majority of the pupils is considered a priority.

Rant over! Sorry, but I feel better now.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Art for Art's Sake

As my adopted school has 2 of its 6 teachers on Maternity Leave and there is no system of “Supply Cover” in Ghana, I’m quite busy in the classroom lately. It is rather nice to think my career has come right back round and finds me being a classteacher again.

P3 are a nice bunch of kids who are getting used to me and more importantly, my English, which sounds different to theirs. I have taught a few impromptu lessons across the curriculum but draw a line at Dagaare. It would be interesting to see what they could teach me though.

My last lesson was Creative Arts and as you can imagine by now, there were no resources at all. The objective was to explore textures through wax crayon rubbings.  I borrowed 2 packs of crayons from the Kindergarten, found 6 assorted pairs of scissors around the house and took some paper I had bought for printing. I woke in the middle of the night in a panic as I realised my plan involved glue and we didn’t have any. I need not have worried, as a child was dispatched to fetch a bunch of glue berries. I had completely forgotten about those!

Eventually, I worked with about 60 children, from P2 and 3, who grasped the concept of making a rubbing and most of whom managed to manipulate scissors, possibly for the first time. We had all cut out butterflies and stuck them on leaves by the end of the day. I appreciate this effort would not even rate as “satisfactory” in front of an OFSTED Inspector. However, we had the time of our lives due to the excitement of the children discovering the delight of creating something.  Some succeeded in sticking them to the walls on display whilst most waved them proudly on the way home. What fun!

“Sustainability” is considered crucial to the work of VSO volunteers. Unfortunately, most of what we achieve is unlikely to be sustained. In the future, however, 60 children may remember they had fun this day and learned from that. I am hoping to find ways to provide some basic materials to resource more Creative Arts and other curricular experiences for children.  At least we are enjoying ourselves and some of them cannot say that as often as they deserve.

Saturday, 9 June 2012


I know that I am asking for trouble and tempting fate when I upload this posting! I have been very fortunate with my health in Ghana. I can only recall 3 significant bouts of anything nasty involving my stomach, one of those was leaving the country at Christmas and none resulted from chicken. For obvious reasons I cannot include photos with this one either.

At least twice a week I call into the Cold Store to buy chicken and fish. The Cold Store is a freezer in a lock-up.  Inside lie boxes and loose pieces of chicken and fish at various stages of being frozen, depending on the electricity situation and whether “lights out” has been a long session. Sometimes stocks run low and we are down to the bowels of the freezer to find a few pieces to make soup or stew. I can’t imagine the freezer ever being emptied and cleaned. The woman who runs it, now knows me well and anticipates my order. She usually reaches in and pulls out a chunk of chicken pieces all frozen together and yanks a couple of pieces off it before throwing them into a weighting scales pan, which also shows no evidence of ever being washed. When I remember to ask her to “chop it” she reaches for a filthy chopping block and a very sharp cleaver from the floor. From above her head she brings the cleaver down onto the chicken expertly and cuts it like butter as pieces shoot off the board in all directions. Finally, they are gathered and put into the obligatory black plastic bag and handed to me for the princely sum of £2 per kilo! It is very nice chicken.

Today, was a more challenging task as there had clearly been a delivery, the stock was more frozen than usual and the freezer almost full. I held the lid as she struggled with a sealed box inside, finally cutting the strapping with a razor blade. Eventually she heaved out the entire contents of this box as one frozen chicken mass. I expected to see the cleaver at this point, but no, she threw the chopping block onto the floor and hurled the frozen mass onto the edge of it to dislodge some smaller pieces. It worked, of course, and by shuffling between different sized chunks retrieved from the floor we arrived at the desired weight on the scales.

All the time I am watching this I picture myself standing in the butchers at home. Everything is white or crystal clear glass. The meat is cut with a variety of precision tools by experts who have qualifications in selecting and surgically dissecting the required cuts of each specific beast or fowl. The used tools are sterilised between customers. My purchase never touches a surface without a sheet of film beneath it and is clinically triple wrapped before it is presented to me for the princely sum of a king’s ransom!!

It’s amazing we all survive, isn’t it!

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Sowing to Reap Benefits

Invitations to watch the Queen travelling to St Pauls for her Jubilee Celebration Service on anybody’s TV were so thin on the ground that we were forced to go to the Spot at 9am this morning! Shandy in hand we searched satellite channels in vain. Eventually we gave up and walked home, Shame! We came via the Electricity Office to pay the last month’s bill of £5. Maybe I should stay here forever! Water comes in at a little less - £3 approximately!

As we negotiated a new route through the town we were accosted by Edith who was on her way to her farm to sow maize. We accepted an invitation to join her and ended up under a mango tree drinking strong, 3 day fermented pito. (My second alcoholic drink before 10am!) She had a team of neighbours helping to peg string as guidelines for the planting. 

They showed us calabashes with elastic finger stalls to allow you to hold it and pick out the grains to sow, all with one hand, the other being occupied with a cutlass making the holes in the ground. Ingenious and it works perfectly. 
I had a go but was told to rest after only a very few minutes. Maybe I was falling below their exacting standards, or more likely………… it was their excuse to bring out the pito again. They had a huge field to sow and were sure they wouldn’t manage it all today. It was fairly clear why! Shortly afterwards we were escorted home, via Edith’s father’s house. He sat under a tree with two sticks nursing a broken leg and his wife sat in the courtyard, also with a broken leg, apparently! As there is no access to x ray I imagine, “broken” is a term applied to many an injury. His maize looked significantly further along the growing process but maybe he didn’t have as many pito breaks as his daughter. This shows 3 weeks growth. You can see how quickly crops sprout here with perfect conditions.

Evidently they will be sowing beans and ground nuts too. These involve digging mounds to enable planting in the sides. These mounds protect the seeds as the heavy rains can flash flood areas and wash them away.

So, our Jubilee Day was not quite as we had planned but considerably more educational, sociable and entertaining, none the less.