Friday, 26 October 2012

Education or Training ?

The thing about my Blog Posts is that you don't see one for weeks and then 2 come along together!

I must apologise again for the lack of Blog posts recently. The server connection is currently poorer than I have ever experienced here. I am told it is a small problem that the provider is working on….. for over 2 weeks!......., I have changed my provider but it doesn’t seem to be making much difference. I suppose I could just try and live with no contact through phone or internet and experience how it must have been for volunteers in the 1980’s! The trouble is, the rest of the developed world assumes I have the access, which makes the situation doubly difficult. Also, I am still hoping to reach my target of 200 blog postings before I leave here in February. Never mind, please don’t desert me. I’m trying my best.

I have had the opportunity to help with some training for teachers, qualified and un-qualified in recent weeks. This has allowed me to consider all sorts of issues related to “learning”, that confirm my feeling that I have been time travelling back to the British 1950s or beyond whilst here.
Increasingly, it occurs to me, hardly anyone in the world of Ghanaian Education in the Upper West, holds any beliefs or opinions about the profession in which they are employed. That may be due to the fact that they are never asked their opinions about anything educational!

If different strategies were employed in classrooms to enhance pupils’ learning, then comparisons could be made about effectiveness. However, there is only “chalk and talk”. Chalk is the only resource in most classrooms. Teachers are there to tell children what they need to know to pass the exams. Nobody needs to think, they just need to remember. Enquiries about their thoughts or opinions are not made to pupils or teachers. There is no discussion about theory or practice. Applying any information at the most basic level is a massive issue in teaching and learning for pupils and teachers.

All teacher and headteacher workshops are precisely the opposite. They are briefings. We tell you how to do it. Don’t ask questions other than for clarification of facts. The term “workshop” implies some activity, discovery and sharing of expertise. Well, the “trainers” have been told from Accra what they should impart and they follow instructions. Training is about “taking people through procedures”.

Teachers and pupils behave in the same way. They are programmed to sit, listen and don’t talk. Asking questions implies you don’t understand and that is a weakness that you wouldn’t want anyone to be aware of. I don’t think there is any political reason for denying teachers the right of personal opinion. They just haven’t got to that stage yet. When you take the openness of expressing opinions and ideas for granted, it is stifling and frustrating when you can’t get any out of a whole room full of educators! I just wish I had the opportunity to experience some teacher training to see what they do in college.

Misguidedly, I tried to suggest some groupwork in lessons, “talk partners”, discussing a simple issue and feeding back to the class. I explained how they worked and the value of these strategies to pupils and teachers. The blank sea of faces almost put me off but no, I forged ahead with examples and reasons why. The crunch came when I gave an example of a learning objective. (Remember the pupils are in ability grouped classes in Ghanaian schools. If you are not up to it you are not “promoted” to the next class and repeat a year.) “Most pupils will understand why a plant has roots.” There was a low mumbling in my audience. It was then quietly explained to me by an Education Officer, that “most” was too demanding and the African child cannot be put under this much pressure. It is testament to my new found tolerance that I remained in the room until the end of the session!

I wonder where creativity fits in anywhere in these parts of rural Ghana, except in terms of life skills, in making what you have fit the purpose. Basic problem solving in the home, I imagine, requires some creativity if it means you eat or not. So, is any other type of creativity unnecessary, time wasting, not even considered worthy?  Art, including live music is rarely evident. What is there is good and often intricate, making careful use of precious resources. In school, however, Art consists of, “make one that looks exactly like this.” So, Art is a luxury. Plenty of other tribal communities wouldn’t agree.

Of, course there is a difference between productive creativity and creative thinking. In schools in UK we aim for both, ideally. We give children a little knowledge and skill them in using a range of tools, then we allow them to explore within a framework of expected learning outcomes. Rarely is anything “wrong” unless it is a specific mathematical or scientific fact.

We are educating young children in the affluent developed world for a future we cannot imagine. They have to be able to think for themselves and solve unimaginable problems. We can probably imagine the future, possibly still reduced in life span, for most children here. It may not be much different from their present. At best, their future will be our present.

The education system here feels as though it covers what they think they should be providing without really thinking about it! For instance, English consists largely of remote and unnecessary grammar. Shades of my early years of French lessons with no conversation just declensions! I have got to 58 and think (although you may disagree) I can write reasonable English in a wide range of tenses without knowing the names of them as explained in a P2 textbook! Would there be harm in leaving that to degree level? It would be nice to think someone was learning from the mistakes of our frequently changed and modified education system.

So, what qualities does the Ghanaian system look for in their teachers? Bear in mind that there aren’t enough and they are all assigned a school somewhere in the country. No teacher is unemployed.  They are all posted. “Professionalism” is not a word you hear. However, “Appraisal” is one being mentioned more frequently. Through the “Handbook for Teachers” that I have produced and reproduced throughout the District, thanks to funding from friends in UK, I have highlighted a range of professional behaviour issues that would not need mentioning to teachers in UK. “Accountability” has not been realised yet. If your class achieve very poor exam results at the end of the year, a teacher will not assume they have any responsibility for them. It will be the children’s fault! They didn’t learn. There seems to be no correlation between teaching and learning. Teachers teach and children learn. That should just happen. Teachers are not responsible for considering other strategies than the chalkboard to improve or accelerate learning. Why should they? Nobody is holding them accountable!

I have hinted before at the “No Blame” culture I have encountered at all levels. You may be incompetent, however, woe betide anyone who points that out in any official capacity. Dark forces are very real here and you fear for your life, literally! Parents respect older teachers who come from their community. Whether the teacher attends school and their child is learning anything is a minor factor in many parents’ evaluations of the situation. As I remember writing a long time ago, it is “who you are and where you originate”, not “what you do and achieve”, that matters here. It is reassuring to stay with the familiar. Change is scary and there are enough frightening things that can happen to your family here without adding “educational development” to them!

This post continues a rambling of thoughts I have mentioned before. I am still realising the enormous canyon between a system I have grown with and the one I encounter here in Ghana. My feelings oscillate between fascination, frustration and horror. My short time here is beginning to run out but I continue to live in hope that there is hope for a better future for schools in northern Ghana.

Return to Mole

The drive across Ghana from East to West from Tamale to Mole was quite an experience and a testament to the quality of Francis’s driving skills. Some of the journey was conducted in silence as we all held our breath through the worst of the mud baths and the mammoth, rain filled craters in the road. Surely we would become stuck somewhere, wheels spinning, heading for the ditch. But no, we made it, quite miraculously having come across no more than 3 other vehicles in about 4 hours. We would have waited a long time with poor network connection for assistance!

Mole National Park was as welcoming as I remembered from 2 previous visits. Some refurbishment since Easter included the luxury installation of AC in the same room I have stayed in for each visit. After dropping bags we headed for the bar and a much needed drink. As the permanent residents have a free rein here, the baboons, in particular can be difficult if hungry. One took a liking to my colourful handbag and snatched it off a table whilst I was distracted briefly. All my worldly goods were inside which alarmed me somewhat. Fortunately, a waiter armed with a catapult fired a direct hit at the animal and it dropped the bag before darting up a nearby tree. It seems to be a game they play, a means to a peaceable end but disconcerting when you are not expecting it!
 Our morning walking safari took us in a different direction than previously trekked. Osman, an experienced guide, took only 3 of us in the group along muddy paths and marshy areas. He knew we were desperate to see elephants. However, these wonderful creatures are not always accommodating when it comes to appearing at the appropriate times to suit visitors. We saw plenty of wildlife, some beautiful birds which were of special interest to Jeny. Large herds of members of the antelope family were captured on cameras at fairly close proximity……. but no sign of elephants! Finally, Osman had a call from a colleague. A trio had been spotted heading towards a waterhole some distance from us. We had time to return to the hotel, eat some breakfast and return in a jeep to track them. Great excitement!

The best view was from the roof of the vehicle and I managed to climb up there, holding tight to the flimsy rack. Nothing got in the way of my camera and I was in heaven as we sped along the muddy tracks ducking under overhanging branches.

Eventually, we came to the lake and there they were as regal and magnificent as ever! Two were in the water and one stood on the bank watching, alert for predators. We watched from the opposite bank and from the shelter of a large hide.

 After some time we got back in the jeep and toured the immediate area to spot other interesting animals and birds. We were rewarded richly and loved this morning of exploration. We couldn’t believe our luck when we came around a bend and there were the three elephants drying themselves off in the sun and throwing dust over their backs. We edged closer and closer with me on the roof, slightly nervous but extremely excited. The youngest one stamped his feet and trumpeted his concern about our proximity, but neither he nor we were in any real danger. Mission accomplished, we dragged ourselves away after a long time and returned to the hotel.
This was probably my last trip to Mole. I have been very lucky and seen elephants each visit and in two different seasons. I feel privileged to have had these experiences and the memories will stay with me forever…….. along with many photos of which I am proud.

Monday, 15 October 2012


I realise that my usual flow of Blog posts has dwindled recently. This is due to a couple of things. One is the internet connection has been dreadful recently and secondly, I have been busy with harvesting!
The amazing maize is now spread out and drying in Louisa’s yard under the watchful eye of her mother. Once dry and stripped from the cobs it will be ground and ready for use. There will be TZ and Banku enough to feed the population of Ghana!

We were waiting until it was dry enough to pick and that seemed to coincide with the weekend. The school children did a wonderful job on Friday afternoon whilst we were at a Headteachers’ meeting. As the closing prayers were being offered a procession of girls appeared across the park laden with bowls of corn cobs, all heading for my garage. Load after load were tipped into the corner until we had a veritable mountain. 

You would not believe the weights these girls can carry, and over a distance too. I tried it later, the bowl, nowhere near as full, was so heavy I managed to haul it about 30 metres and my arms ached by then, not to mention my neck!

It all stayed in the garage over the weekend waiting for the truck to transport it to Jirapa.

Meanwhile we scoured the devastated field searching for missed cobs. There were plenty. We filled a couple of bowls on Friday evening and another on Saturday morning. Once the locals think you have finished your harvest, it is a free for all! Anyone can come in and chance their luck. I’m fairly sure there was little to be found. Mind you, people are cheeky enough to help themselves, under cover of darkness or even in broad daylight, before the harvest starts.
We are doing a few calculations now to see whether the whole farming business has been financially worthwhile. When the sacks of flour can be counted and we know the going rate, our profits can be counted……. or not!

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Songnaayilli Day 2

 Day 2 dawned bright with the usual chorus of crowing cockerels. We enjoyed a lovely breakfast of omelette sandwiches in the sunshine before setting off to watch a new born baby being washed. This is quite a ritual performed by a woman other than the mother for up to 2 months! 

Very hot water is used and it involves a massage and streams of water poured over strategic nether regions to encourage the child to perform at that time rather than waiting until a clean cloth is wrapped around it! A very good idea. 

A herd of children followed us everywhere, desperate to appear in all the photos.

The Assistant Chief led us around the village and finally we were invited to sit under a tree whilst a band and group of exclusively male dancers in wide smocks danced traditional dances for us.  
There was a hint of Morris Dancing about it, especially when the rotation with striking of metal sticks took place. We were expected to join in and none of it was too taxing. It was a considerable struggle for Jeny as she was almost incapable of extricating herself from a crowd of children, most of whom were on her knee, trying to take photos with her camera and ours!!

This was a lovely experience, albeit a little rushed, in a village of very welcoming and genuine people and it gave us an insight into some aspects of Ghanaian life that I had not seen before. As we were planning to leave we sat briefly with a group of Ghanaians, from Meet Africa and the village who were talking about the roles of men and women in Ghana. Times are changing for them too, but they are a long way from female emancipation. Some traditions are very embedded in culture and this culture has a long way to go. The women will continue to do 90% of the work for many years to come, I feel!

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Eco Living Experience

Finding our way to Songnaayilli Eco – village was quite a palaver and involved a drive through Tamale following a girl on a moto to the offices of “Meet Africa”, another NGO. We met members of this organisation and bought some drinks before continuing the journey to the village, where we were staying a night.

 We arrived and were shown our accommodation. The round thatched huts with central support posts were very nice and had mosquito netting that prevented the mosquitoes getting out of the rooms!  It was all a bit of a rush as we needed to take part in some rural craft activities but there was just enough time to test the deep drop toilets! However, Francis used a whole can of Insect spray down them to reduce the population of mosquitoes to a mere thousand or two. A thick carpet of dead ones greeted us on our next visit.

This is a village with a Muslim population who welcome visitors and show them some of the life skills they use every day. The welcome we received was genuinely friendly and some of the villagers came to the house to greet us in the evening too. We were invited to take as many photos as we liked. We were taken to watch a woman spinning cotton by hand with a spindle. It looked simple enough except for the fact that the spindle rotated without encouragement and she managed to keep the cotton the same thickness throughout. I didn’t risk asking for a turn as I know I would have tangled the thread or broken it at least. A large piece of woven white cloth was displayed and it was explained that here they work towards weaving their own piece or pay someone else to, in readiness for their own funeral. This is what your body is wrapped in. To die without one is hugely regretful. The cloth was beautifully woven and very soft to the touch. It seemed such a waste that it would never be really admired!

We just had time for a visit to the Soothsayer before dinner. Individually we sat In a dark room whilst he shook a bowl of beads and a very sick looking child lay on a sofa in the corner. I was assured of a long life and wouldn’t end it poor, which was greatly reassuring. I was born to be a “giver” (that could have been wishful thinking on his part), and my maternal grandmother watches over me and I should be more aware of that. My friends didn’t find out anything mind shattering or life altering either and I think everyone was too focused on the imminence of a hot meal!

Our meal was lovely, I had fried plantain, palaver sauce and Tilapia fish. We did the whole thing in pitch dark, which is tricky with fish! We were mindful of the lightning and thunder rolling around the sky as well as clouds of mosquitoes that appeared to want to share our meal and whatever else was going on. A carton of wine helped to pass the evening along with the groups of villagers who came to peer at us through the meshed doorway. The children, as always, the most inquisitive.

One rather wonderful experience was standing naked to the stars, which were so plentiful, in the walled bath area, pouring cool buckets of water over my sticky, tired body. It’s surprising I haven’t done this before as millions of Ghanaians do so twice every day of their lives!
And so to bed! The biggest bed I have ever seen. The three of us could have slept in it and not seen each other. With no electricity, no fan so it was rather warm and with the incessant sizz of mosquitoes in your ear, sleep was slow in coming, but eventually we succumbed, exhausted.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Hand in Hand

Hand in Hand is one of many Dutch NGOs in Ghana. This organisation gives a home and an education to disabled and rejected children and young people. Their site is near the village Nkoranza and we drove there from the Monkey Sanctuary to stay the night and visit their organisation.

The students are of all ages and most will be there all their lives. The educational accommodation for the 90 students was well organised and attractive. We were shown around by one of the “parents” who stay with their wards throughout out-of-school hours. We met some Dutch students who were there as short term volunteers sharing expertise, some of it medical. I imagine the stimulating artwork around the complex was the responsibility of such helpers.

The organisation welcomes visitors and we stayed in a small cottage that was very comfortable and had its own facilities. We were not the only guests in the cottage as I discovered the following day when pulling out a half nibbled muesli bar from my rucksack! However, I had the best night’s sleep of the holiday in this place.
The students appeared very relaxed and happy here. Early in the morning, everyone was walking around the pathways in small groups singing. This seemed to provide a recognised daily routine of exercise, assembly and communication. Some expert drumming kept everyone in time. As we toured the site, older students were engaged in vocational craft activities and we watched them weaving and working with beads. These are sold in the shop and at various places around Ghana. Their 4 beautiful donkeys were clearly precious to them and some had their welfare as a responsibility. Much of what we ate was produced on their farm too.
 The staff were making the very best use they could of the little equipment and few resources they have. It was really admirable how they were managing to stimulate some extremely disabled children. It was clear to see how much more could be developed in the future with continued funding and interest from donors.

I liked this place. It was very sobering to read the students’ histories in the brochure we were shown. Each had an extremely sad past and I couldn’t help thinking how fortunate these young people were to have ended up here. So many rejected children, if they survive, are enduring desperate lives elsewhere. This is a small haven in Ghana where people are dedicated to making a difference for some young people who really need it.

These are the lucky few.