Sunday, 29 July 2012

End of Term

I have been in school most of the last few weeks helping with exam marking and collating results. It has been a busy time. In amongst it all, the Ghanaian people have lost their President of the last 3 years. John Atta Mills passed away during this last week. There was a more sombre mood around Nadowli and the music played was of a more funereal tone than is usually heard coming from people’s houses. However, I have noticed little reaction to the news and as usual, up here, life continues much the same.

I have been typing the Education Service Comprehensive Inspection Report Form which amounts to some 15 pages of criteria. Usually the officers hand write it laboriously and then the typists type it all laboriously! Now they have a version that can be printed and the gaps filled with data. Typists can also fill spaces in the electronic version. This is all to save time. However, I sometimes wonder whether they need these long tasks to fill their hours! The form interested me particularly, in that the reference to gathering performance data from schools is mentioned briefly in Section 25.8. Before that come sections dedicated to the number of text books, school desks and urinals. There is an optional opportunity for Inspectors to observe lessons and, reassuringly, the monitoring of daily lesson notes is deemed of great importance.

I presented prizes, on the last day, to pupils with the highest attendance this year and those who attained the best exam results. This was a serious business and none of them smiled as they received pens and exercise books. Evidently, some of them will not reach the classroom as the children may choose to sell them.

P6 organised their leaving party and spent most of the final day cooking. Rice, spaghetti and fish were prepared in a huge iron pot over charcoal and I was presented with a plate full as well. The children had been raising money to fund it for some weeks by weeding farms, including our maize field after lessons and at weekends.  Apparently, the pupils from a neighbouring school had bought 2 goats with their accumulated funds, intending to roast them for the end of school feast! I couldn’t help thinking of the school parties at home with fizzy drinks, salted snacks and loud music in the school hall. Parents will have provided everything and the children won’t have lifted a finger. Nothing comes easily here!

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Farming Progress

The maize we planted 3 weeks ago is now about a foot high and it is time for a little fertilizer. Louisa bought a large sackful of tiny white balls of the magic stuff through a government subsidy scheme of vouchers which enables people to make the most of their land. Yesterday dawned bright and sunny and we began to tip quantities of the fertilizer into small holes dug beside each plant. Needless to say this was proving to be a laborious job and as we looked down the length of the field there was no way we would finish in the day. Some swift telephone advice allowed us to place the white balls close to the plant on the surface of the soil. Too close to the seedlings and if there was no rain imminent, then the chemical would burn the plants. A risk, but one we were prepared to take. We worked much faster now with 3 of us making our way down the rows. The fertilizer ran out about 20 plants from the end but we were fortunate to acquire an extra calabash full from a neighbour to complete the task.

As the day drew to a close the sky was clear with a gorgeous evening glow. The likelihood of rain was slim. Nevertheless, at 03.40 the telltale wind blew through my window louvers and sent my curtains horizontal to the ceiling. I knew then that our prayers had been answered. The rain lashed down for over 3 hours and dribbled for longer. I lay in my bed imagining hundreds of thousands of fertilizer balls dissolving and penetrating their way down into the soil. The seedlings humming with delight!

Timing has been crucial over the last week and a team of P6 pupils were busily weeding between the rows after school. Fertilizing weeds was out of the question! These children were desperate to earn some money to fund their end of Primary School Party. More news of that will follow next week. Schools are all involved in farming areas of their sites with areas of school fields temporarily sporting young crops of beans, maize and other staples.

An elderly woman ran into school the other day in a rather frantic state. She wanted to enlist the help of a group of pupils. Evidently, her pig had got loose from its tether and was running amok in someone’s field. The farmer would rightly kill it if she didn’t catch the animal soon. Such is the importance of the farmed crops. Children were dispatched from the classroom, but in vain as they couldn’t find the hog and returned later to resume their lesson. I never heard the fate of the pig and whether it is now more securely tied to a tree or has been enjoyed by many for lunch.

District Education Officers farm too…….well, most pay others to do it for them. They can’t really get their hands dirty. The Officer in charge of Basic Schools (that’s all of them from Primary through to end of KS3 ) arrived at one school last week and asked for a group of 20 pupils to weed her farm. This is quite common practice, to use children to labour in fields with hoes. However, this was in school time! To compound the horror of that, apparently, she didn’t even offer the kids water to drink and they were there for hours. It beggars belief sometimes!!

Thursday, 19 July 2012

It isn't fair!

Frustration is an ever present emotion for me here. Sometimes it can just be a response to disorganisation or ridiculous bureaucracy involving masses of unnecessary paperwork. However, the most difficult to accept is when something is blatantly unfair and, to my mind corrupt.

One of my youngest readers sent a text this week to ask,” Why can’t you just tell the lazy teachers how useless they are?” Little does he know what a can of worms that is!

There is a Disciplinary Committee established at the District Education Office. They can sit to hear cases of repeated drunkenness and teachers sexually abusing pupils etc, but they almost never do as there are costs incurred. Teachers can have their salaries placed on an embargo. They will still get their money one day when it is lifted, but it is frozen by the District Director in the meantime. There is paperwork to be done for this so it rarely happens. Incidentally, there are unqualified teachers in this district who have not been paid since 2009. Goodness knows how they are living.

In addition to these sanctions, teachers are re-posted from one school to another for professional negligence like repeated absence, lack of lesson preparation, causing disruption in school, not cooperating with the headteacher and staff, refusing to do their job etc etc. The best schools are expected to be in the District Capital, in our case Nadowli, where they are “seen”. If you are reposted from a town school you will be banished to a village somewhere. Out of sight out of mind!

Now come the tricky bits……….. There are people in Africa who are known to have strong spiritual powers that they frequently use against others for a fee. I have heard that some spell will be chanted, often over an item of stolen clothing or maybe a piece of hair that will bring something untoward or even death to the victim or a family member. This can be inflicted just by brushing past someone and touching them. These are real fears and people here can quote examples. The legal system of law and order comes a far second to traditional retribution and spiritual punishment. Nobody wants to be the person pointing the finger and making a decision to reprimand a wrong doer, especially if they live in the same community as the miscreant.

Families are extremely strong and widely extended. Family members are very quick to stand by their own. If someone causes the slightest offence to another, possibly inadvertently, there will be words if not actions to follow. If you have a connection with someone in the District Assembly (local council) and you are being punished for not doing your job, they will step in and demand a favour on your behalf and suddenly Education Officers are made to look fools as they back down to preserve their safety. In addition, confidentiality is almost non-existent here. Whatever you say goes right around and back to you, leaving debris in its wake.

It is not fair and it is the survival of the fittest and dog eat dog to a greater extent. Whatever the situation, it is a brave person who is prepared to stick their neck out and tell a lazy teacher how useless he is! This system needs more very brave people before this education system is likely to improve.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Making Music

On my way back from the market this afternoon I heard the sound of children chattering mixed with the now familiar tone of a large xylophone. As I rounded a corner it all became clearer. A group of men were sitting under a tree surrounded by the parts of a traditional xylophone, whilst a gaggle of very young children were testing a recently constructed one by bashing it with beaters. One of the joys of this instrument is that anyone can play one with no experience or talent and it still sounds quite tuneful.

I climbed off my bicycle to watch and remained there for some time. The men were quite happy for me to ask questions, take photos and generally get in the way! The skeleton base of the xylophone was an old one which they were re-furbishing. The wooden notes are made of teak and a basic adze was used to slice pieces off until it made the required tone. The residue from pounding shere nuts is used to season and treat the wood and cow hide straps hold the instrument together. The only modern material is the nylon rope that attaches the wooden blades to the frame.

The parts that fascinate me the most are the calabashes that are suspended underneath each note. Of course they are chosen by size and graduate along the instrument. A man was paring slices off some to get the correct tone and also making small holes in the sides. I was interested to see him cover the holes with pieces of plastic film. I wasn’t able to make him understand my question as to how that affected the notes.
Men of all ages were helping and a young teenager seemed very knowledgeable about the process. I am sure these skills are passed down through families and I could tell it wouldn’t be long before this young man was able to construct his own xylophone from scratch. I imagine these families are also the ones called upon to play during funerals. Unfortunately, these are the occasions when the xylophone is heard most often, although the sounds accompany dancing and more cheerful events too.

Friday, 13 July 2012


I am writing this post as light relief from 7 solid days of typing exam questions. I lost the will to live only a few times but all within the last 3 days. 

By the way, as I sit here I am listening to the latest call from our mosque. I did hear that attendance there is poor and that rather than calling people to prayer, the Imam just preaches over the loudspeaker system, which is pointed towards my house. As it is in Dagaare, I assume, I cannot understand what he is saying, and if I describe any more I shall be accused of something detrimental, so I shall halt. The feedback from the speakers is bad this week, particularly this morning at 5am when a child was reading from the Koran. 

So, back to the exams.……..By law, every child in a GES Primary School must sit end of term exams in at least 7 subjects. The teachers set them based on what they have taught during each term. As the attendance of some teachers is dire they have taught very little and have the audacity to complain about writing the questions. The quality of many teachers’ English is poor so I have been rewriting a large number of these papers. Those whose attendance is deplorable try to set tests based on a single unit of work hoping short-sightedly that nobody will notice and the children will score well.

The children in most classes will not be able to read them and the answers are, as required by the education office, predominantly multiple choice. We will hope that the teachers can read them and that the pupils have a slim chance of making an accurate stab at a few correct answers. I am expecting a few of the very least committed teachers to suggest that, as I wrote the questions on their papers, maybe I should mark them too! If I ever felt the necessity to use a cane…… something used frequently here………….I would be aiming it at the teachers who blatantly show no concern whatsoever for the pupils under their care.

God bless these children, their dedicated headteachers who have no effective sanctions against their idle staff and the responsible teachers working hard within an extremely frustrating and difficult education system. I award them 10/10 at least !!!

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Sowing some more!

Sunday was our day of rest, but Monday dawned brightly and found us sitting in the field by 7.30am preparing for the day’s work with bowls of Jollof Rice. This sustained us for the next 6 hours…..well, with a few calabashes of Pito at regular intervals. 

Marking rows was more complicated today due to the proliferation of trees and bushes in the way. These obstructions necessitated the walking around with reels of cord and the inevitability of tangling! Finally, we had a straight run to the bottom of the field. Fatigue intervened late in the afternoon and eventually work was halted. By then, Louisa was on her own with the sole assistance of a P6 pupil who deserved a medal.

This chameleon strode swiftly across the field to inspect our work. As I circled him he didn't take his swiveling eyes off me for a moment! He posed for this shot and then walked up a tree to watch us from a good vantage point.

Later that night the rain began to fall again, wonderful for the sown seeds but not boding so well for the continued sowing on Tuesday. As we monitored the weather throughout Tuesday morning it looked hopeful for a completion of the marathon task. Nothing is that easy in Ghana! As school closed the thunder clapped and the black clouds slowly made their way across the sky towards us. Jennifer in P6 assured Louisa that between them they could finish the job before the rain reached them and they dashed off to try.

I was sent off home before I was soaked. Honestly, I didn’t take much persuading! From the shelter of our veranda I watched the sky and the progress of this violent front. Surprisingly, it was 2 hours before the heavens opened. The “farmers were able to reach the final row and the whole field was sown. As night fell and the rain soaked down through the rich soil those pairs of seeds will have been swelling beautifully in their dark beds, all ready hopefully, to yield huge, healthy maize plants, “as high as an elephant’s eye.” Our harvest will come in October but there will be monitoring & maintenance duties in the meantime. I’ve yet to learn the details of these!

It really is fantastic how much is growing now and the speed with which progress is made. Some crops look close to harvest time whilst others are clearly, being newly sown. Every available piece of ground is being turned over, weeded and planted with something. The rains are almost daily and often a continuous soaking rather than a flash deluge, much more to a farmer’s liking. Not quite one week on and tiny shoots are already appearing from the seeds we sowed! The future bodes well!

Thursday, 5 July 2012


How lucky were we that last weekend included a Public Holiday – Republic Day. We needed so much time. Sowing started in earnest on Saturday morning with Louisa, Paula (our seamstress), and me raring to go with bags of maize and lengths of cord to ensure straight rows. To begin with we were in the shade which was nice for us but the overhanging trees will not allow the best yield.

As the day wore on we were joined by various children, some to watch and others, of all ages, lending small hands usefully. A steady supply of Pito helped sustain us as we measured the width of the rows and the spacing of the seeds and made slow progress down the field. At least 3 assorted men arrived periodically to offer their different advice which was taken or left according to their experience. (The PTA chair is also the District Agriculture Officer so he probably knows his stuff!) 

Others slowed or stopped their motos along the road to observe a Nansapor sowing, a sight not seen previously I understand! A team of women offered their services to do the job for us for 5Cedis (£2) each on Tuesday, but the determination was there to complete the task before then. Saving some money was an added impetus. 

The first 2 hours we had spent weeding had been unnecessary, evidently. Just remove the weeds at the sowing point and it will be fine. The feeding of the 5000 workers/supporters happened at some stage.

Watching experts manage this operation is amazing as the process requires some skill. As I fumbled a handful of maize and stabbed my cutlass into the soil at random intervals, my co-planters were progressing almost at a run beside me and completed at least 2 rows to my one. It was like a dance ……step, insert cutlass tip, lift soil, insert 2 pieces of maize, cover with a couple of taps and step ………and so on. Poetry in motion with a permanently bent back, which doesn’t seem to be a problem to Ghanaian women. I ended each day with 2 Ibruprofen that soothed my muscles wonderfully.