Saturday, 24 November 2012

Hair today gone tomorrow!

I don’t think I have written much about “hair” in Ghana and it’s a significant part of life. Children and students at school, of any age, have shaved heads. There is no danger of head lice here. Maybe this is something that should be considered at home, although, probably,  it would be contravening children’s human rights to demand they remove all their hair. Nobody seems to mind and you don’t notice after a while, that none of the pupils have hair. Most have good shaped heads and the style suits them.
Men shave their heads too. You don’t often see men with hair. Most work manually and become filthy during the day. Bathing is easier without hair. There are a few Rastafarians around, but not many in these parts. They have plenty of hair, of course, which is mostly coiled under large headgear.  I have not met any Rastafarians and know little of their culture.
Women’s hair is an enormous industry here. Like seamstresses, there are many hairdressers who all have small salons around towns and villages. Some women have very little hair and often what they have is not good quality due to damage from plaiting and it rarely being exposed to light and air! Others have a lot and the texture varies. There are various choices for wearing hair. Some women keep it very short and often wear a cloth around their heads like a scarf. Others wear wigs. Understandably, they vary in quality by price and how well they fit. Some look dreadful and others much better. As they are all synthetic, they tend to be shiny and look very black.

Women who can afford it have their hair woven regularly. I think it is like extensions, although I have never had any!! You buy the hair pieces and they are woven/plaited into the natural hair you have. These stay in for as long as you like, usually weeks but you need to have them washed at the salon. There are advantages to this, like you can totally change your appearance every couple of weeks. The process takes a few hours as they need to undo the old piece and wash your hair before they work on the new one.  These weaves can look really good and natural. Some people, usually younger women, have their hair braided close to their heads. Often they will have extensions added to the braids so that they appear as lots of long, thin, tight plaits. When I have seen this being done, there have been two or three hairdressers working on one head. It takes hours and they pay a very few Cedis for this service.
I have had people touch my hair and pull it to see how strong it is. You don’t often see grey hair and I imagine mine grows more quickly than Ghanaian women’s hair. I have never seen anyone have their hair cut with scissors except in Accra and then that was another white person. Cutting “European” hair is something hairdressers up here won’t attempt. They have no experience or training for it. I daresay a brave one may take clippers across my scalp but we would both need to be very brave or foolish!! Layering straight hair demands different skills. The “scalping” I have had on a few occasions in Accra would make any good English hairdresser pale in horror. However, people still recognise me, so it can’t have been that bad!

Farmers' Day

A couple of weeks ago it was National Farmers’ Day. Normally, this is a public holiday and is celebrated on the first Friday in December. Unfortunately, that is Election Day this year. Therefore it was moved to November, but was not given holiday status. Election Day is a holiday.

In this district, Farmers’ Day competition finals were being held in Sombo, about 24km up the road towards Wa. I was supposed to accompany the Assistant Director in the Director’s absence. However, on the said morning, all 3 of the office cars were “spoiled”. Undeterred, I chose to take Michael. The timing of all these events is a moveable feast so I welcomed the opportunity to have the freedom of my own transport.

The seating was laid out and the loudspeakers were belting out some popular music as I arrived. Some exhibitors were there proudly displaying their produce and craftwork. These were clearly the finalists. A long line of sparking new bicycles stretched out in front of them. These were the prizes for categories of farming including, “best pig” and “best shea butter”. The overall “Best Farmer of the Year” would receive a motorbike.

It was encouraging to see the arrival of two Senior High School buses with livestock tied to the roofs. Students were there representing their schools with prize goats and sheep. The craft teacher from one of our local JHSs, who is blind, was displaying his brightly woven beds and stools. Peter weaves these with students and has his own business too. By selling them he can buy more frames and the ropes with which to weave. Quite rightly, he won some recognition for his work at this ceremony.

After 2 hours the district Chiefs were still arriving and being escorted to their seats by a band of talented young musicians, mainly drummers. An hour later and prayers had been said and libation poured on the ground to honour ancestors. The ancestors of these farmers would be rightly proud. I am sure if the day had been a holiday, many more spectators would have been present to honour them and celebrate their achievements. As it was, there were a large number of children from the school beside the park, showing enthusiasm for the competitors.

Heat and hunger drove me to leave before the end, unfortunately, but it was good to see the livelihood of the vast majority of people in this part of the world being recognised and celebrated publicly.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

A lot of hard work

It’s strange that I have never been too bothered about cooking at home, but here, where everything is labour intensive, I love it! I pass a small building on my way to the market from which emanates at all times of the day, the sound of the grinding machine. All the maize has been harvested and the cobs dried. Most of the corn has been removed from the cobs by beating them with poles and the grains are now stored in sacks waiting for grinding. 

After grinding the flour is spread out on large concreted patios to dry in the sun before the women take it home to cook with. I have seen many women sitting watching their flour dry. I think it is the only time they get to rest!  I doubt there will be a shortage of corn flour this year and TZ will be prepared vigorously in many a household.
There have been good harvests of beans too. Beans come in a range of sizes and shapes for different uses. Banbarra beans are fat and round, growing on the roots of their plants. These are dried and then pounded in a mortar to remove the shells. The shells are then winnowed away in the wind to leave the choice beans. These are a wonderful source of protein and very tasty.

Others are much smaller and are ground into bean flour. There are a number of recipes which require bean flour including Kose and Bele bele. Both of these start as a thick batter. Kose is then dropped into boiling fat to produce savoury dumplings which you dip in spicy salt and eat hot. Sometimes they are mixed with some leaves and onion to give more taste. This is the closest you will find to “fast food” in the markets. A bag full for 15p.

Bele bele is poached. You need the large leaves from a Glue Berry tree and a pan of boiling water. Some batter is poured into each leaf like a tiny boat. These are then floated on the boiling water. With large numbers they are sunk and poach until a dark green colour. When you peel off the leaf it looks like small pieces of liver on the plate. It doesn’t taste like it though! The texture is quite heavy and they are filling. You need a stew of tomatoes, onions and fish to dip the Bele bele into.


School Performance Appraisal Meeting….. SPAM for short! I was given a yellowed, foolscap document, a couple of weeks ago and asked to brief Circuit Supervisors about conducting SPAM.
There are readers of this blog who have sat through many a similar meeting with me in school, under a range of different acronyms ……. and right now I can’t remember any of those!! The meetings I recall well and the feeling that any shortfall in test data was probably my fault. Hours we spent pouring over percentages and figures beating ourselves up over the one child who missed the target by half a mark which threw the whole show and landed us in hot water with an imminent OFSTED inspection. (I’m quietly having a panic attack at the thought, now.) The children were never at fault, nor parents blamed. All test data appeared as black shadows over the shoulders of the teachers and ultimately, the Head. Accountability with a capital A.

Anyway, I arrived at a Junior High School this morning where a group of maybe 25 parents, many with a hoe under their seat, were assembled under a tree with the school staff. The Head had very efficiently made an agenda for the meeting and had run through the data for the school’s BECE (Basic Education Certificate Examination) test results for last year. These results determine who is promoted to the Senior High Schools, of which there are few in this region and these are seriously over crowded. This school had achieved a 27.3% pass rate. Also, please bear in mind that the school decides who will take the exams each year. If a student looks unlikely to pass, they can be told to register the following year.

These parents showed great concern for their children’s success and were quite forthcoming with ideas for bringing improvement. I expected the meeting to present itself in 2 halves. The parents would suggest how they could send their children well fed, rested, having completed homework etc. Then the school would explain where their extra effort and focus was to be placed. The second part didn’t happen though! Clearly, any poor showing of results was squarely the responsibility of the pupils and in turn, their parents. Mobile phones seemed to take most of the blame and one father told everyone how he had burned 2 last week! All of this meeting was conducted in Dagaare, of course.

The final point on the agenda was for the school to set targets. Ah, I thought, this is where they reveal how they will raise standards for 2013. There was a slight exchange of banter between teachers and the figure of 30% was rapidly confirmed as the target. “Think of a number,” came to mind. Suddenly, it was all over. We were on our feet for the Closing Prayer and the parents shuttled off at speed to their farms. Later on I thought further about this and realised it is the issue of methodology again. If you teach everything from a text book and only have chalk as a resource, there are few strategies for teaching differently and nobody is looking for them! The Director was surprised when I said the schools should be offering improvement strategies at the SPAM meetings. This clearly hadn’t occurred to her either.

Before I left the school I was invited to speak to the Form 3 students who will be in the “hot seats” for 2013 in April. “Something motivational”, was required! Briefly, I retold the Ghanaian fable of the orphan eagle chick who was raised believing he was a chicken and refusing to spread his wings and show his true potential in the skies. The students listened attentively and seemed to comprehend when I asked if they were chickens or eagles.

As I kick started Michael to take me home, I wondered whether they had much chance to be eagles when their teachers predominantly, scratch for grain!! 

Sunday, 11 November 2012


I just learned that Obama has secured a second term as US President. I don’t expect anyone else in Nadowli, nor for many miles radius from here is aware of this. I could say, they won’t even know who he is. However, following a visit to Ghana in 2009, Obama mania hit Ghana and the T shirts, school exercise books and, bizarrely, children’s underpants bearing his image, are still widely worn!

Ghana has its own elections next month. VSO have given us instructions that we should stay indoors throughout December 7th in case of “trouble”. It’s hard to imagine “trouble” in sleepy Nadowli, but I shall probably follow orders anyway. I am assured the NDC, National Democratic Congress, will be triumphant come the day. The other parties are still campaigning hard here. They have party offices, some of which have painted images of candidates on the walls.

 Large SUVs emblazoned with poster images and blasting loud music from speakers on the roofs are a common sight up and down the local routes. A few weeks ago the local MP held a rally on the local park. We went to see what was happening 2 hours after it was due to start and found nobody about. He must have arrived at some point as his promotional T shirts were in evidence stretched across a range of chests for days afterwards. Groups of voters, including headteachers are invited to meet candidates with a very soft carrot of a bottle of sugary mineral. These fool nobody but the politicians continue to hope that their constituents will be swayed by this weak generosity. Soon it will become impossible to purchase a Coke or Fanta as they have all been bought by the MP to butter up the locals!

The President, himself, paid a visit to the Upper West last week. I heard sirens but didn’t realise it was his cavalcade sweeping through the town towards Jirapa. When I visited Wa on Tuesday, his plane was sitting on the airstrip close by. I have a feeling, the last time anyone landed on this airstrip it was the same man as Vice President when he launched a development project here about a year ago.

I was talking to officers at work today and discovered the fragility of their jobs due to political influence. Evidently, Public Services are prone to changes in personnel following elections. If there is a change in government, they fear for their jobs. The District Assembly, local councillors, will change completely and can bring in all their loyal supporters to fill roles in the Education Service and Police, to name but two. I had not realised the precarious nature of their positions. As well as holding positions as education officers, some are Assembly Men and Women.
The process of registering everyone to vote was a huge operation earlier this year. Voting is clearly seen as an important responsibility of the greater majority of Ghanaians and I hope their Election Day, a public holiday here, passes without incident and safely for all.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012


I have made a few references to my “Booklet for Teachers”. This is an 8 page A5 leaflet that is now in the hands of all teachers in the District. Production was funded by friends from home and money has never been better spent according to officers and headteachers alike. The Director carries a few around and distributes them like Business Cards. I’m sure it will be cloned around Ghana, which is all to the good.

Local headteachers and I wrote it in July in response to various grumblings about the failings of teachers on their staff teams. It appears there is nothing written that tells a teacher what they should do in their role. It is basic stuff and you might imagine, doesn’t need to be said. You would be wrong! Here are a couple of excerpts……..

Teachers provide role models for their pupils and are expected to behave in a professional manner at all times whilst on education premises. As good role models they will not smoke, shout, drink alcohol or be under the influence in the classroom. Their behaviour and dress will give good
examples to pupils in the community. Kindly, with respect, avoid “Oto Fister & “I’m aware”.
( Oto Fister was a coach to the Ghana Black Stars, football team and was the first man here to wear his trousers below his hips! I’m aware, is directed at women who show too much cleavage or midriff.)

Teachers should accept that they are there for the education and welfare of pupils throughout the school opening hours. Nobody should be engaging in personal conversations, activities or transactions during instructional hours. This includes phone calls and the playing of music.
 Teachers must be fair to all pupils. Pupils should be treated equally including fairness in examinations. There must be no malpractice or leaking of questions to anyone. 
 Staff must be fair and firm in dealing with pupils. Caning is discouraged, will only be administered by the headteacher and recorded in the Punishment Book.
 Teachers must make sure they do not have sexual relationships with any pupil. This is illegal and a very serious issue. Sexual relationship issues must not be settled outside court.

 Many teachers carry a stick throughout the day. In many cases it is a threat. The pupils don’t appear particularly threatened by canes. Indeed, they rather expect them and treat a caning as we would a “missed playtime”! Is it all just about what you are used to? The Director wrote the “caning” sentence. I told her if I wrote it, it would read quite differently!

I recall the many “Victorian Days” I have experienced over the years in aid of primary school history projects. Teachers walk around with a “cane” in their hands and the children are pleading with her to cane them. The mock punishments elicit great excitement and everyone wants a go!

When I have introduced this booklet to various groups, there have been comments about the sentence above. When I tell them I would have lost my job if I had ever hit a child, they laugh in amazement and disbelief. “The African child cannot be controlled without the cane”, is a response I have heard often. They cannot believe we manage that in England and probably believe we have some alternative powers to achieve it. I suppose they are correct. The “powers” are called, self discipline, mutual respect, pupil accountability, positive focus on learning, pride and consistent approaches to discipline, to name a few. These things take a long time to develop but you have to want to achieve them. I wonder whether this will ever change in Ghana? The roots of this change are very deep in the culture and would herald all sorts of behaviour developments amongst adults too. If you saw the frequent incidents of “domestic violence” that make people laugh on TV soaps, you would know what I meant.

Water, water everywhere

Georgitta cleans the house according to a rough schedule of weekly tasks each Monday morning, without mishap. This week was different, however! Her phone was “spoiled” and I needed to be at a school in the next village to do some INSET at a staff meeting. We arrange for her to leave the key with a friend at the main junction and all would be well.

What we hadn’t anticipated was that my training would be twice as long as expected and my toilet cistern would fall off the wall as Georgitta mopped underneath it!!!! Of course my phone was turned off through the training, as I try to set good examples. She was running around the town looking for someone who knew my number or where I’d gone.

Anyway, eventually I opened the door to be met by a tide of water spreading across the sitting room and the cistern in my bathroom hanging on by one bracket. The stop cock was there beside it but then Georgitta would never have been familiar with a flushing toilet, may indeed never have seen one before she met mine! I am so proud of my plumbing skills. I thought attaching a new kitchen tap was pretty good, but this demanded even greater skills.

I mopped up 2 hours of running water before remembering there was a redundant toilet with a dodgy ball cock in the house. Within 30 minutes I had fixed the whole problem. Despite the brackets and cistern failing to be equidistant, which may have put undue pressure on the protruding peg, It all screwed in nicely and the hardest job was getting the pipe into the back of the bowl.
The skills I have mastered through this VSO placement are beyond belief. I can feel a second career coming on………………….. possibly one more lucrative than the last!

Thank God for Thunder!

Thank God for thunder and slate grey skies! I’m sure he sent it on purpose to rescue 90 headteachers and me from the frightfully poor experience of today’s “workshop”! This is a repeat of the training for headteachers on organising and delivering INSET in their schools that was previously endured in my first week in Nadowli. I offered many times to help with this or even run the whole thing myself. Finally, I was given a 30 minute slot on Day 2 of 3.

I know I have written about these occasions negatively before but today surpassed all previous horrors to the point of being humorous, hence my decision to write this. For those of you who have ever organised training, this is the nightmare you experience the night before and then wake with relief that this couldn’t be real.

The programme stated an 8.30 – 9.00am registration period. At 9.00 the padlock still held firmly on the Teachers Resource Centre Door. A few phone calls were made and the facilitation team were discovered in a church hall not far away. By 10am we had all got the message and were gathered inside the long dark room. It wasn’t until after the welcome that I was aware of raised voices at the back. These continued undeterred by the voice of the first facilitator, so I turned around to see what was going on. The back of the hall was partitioned but only to about 8 feet high, providing an integral room. Clearly, there was a gathering of cleaners or suchlike who had no idea their every word could be heard. An officer was despatched to ask them to “keep it down”. I don’t know what he said but it made absolutely no difference and they continued with occasional peals of laughter. Later on they took delivery of a large consignment of heavy cardboard boxes which took some organising. I sat at the front and struggled to make sense of the trainer. I can’t imagine they heard a thing of any use at the back.

I was distracted, as were the other participants at the front, by a beautiful toddler in a pink flowery dress who was extremely busy, quietly disrupting procedures whilst her mother watched. She helped herself to an exercise book and a box of pens from the top table and signed in before swinging on the flip chart frame, lying underneath it and at one point pulling on the District Head of Supervision’s trouser leg. Later we were entertained with dancing and the unpacking of our mid-morning snack biscuits. Bless her, she did far more “work” than anyone else in the room and probably learned more too! What a bright, inquisitive and imaginative little poppet. It won’t be long before all that is extinguished through her school education.

Anyway, facilitators continued unmoved by the comings and goings in front of them, people jumping up to answer phones with increasingly bizarre ring tones, other facilitators interrupting them, latecomers appearing and needing to sign in, a teacher coming to collect a key from a participant but not knowing who and a line of mothers breast feeding in the front row………. oh yes, and the chicken and goat made appearances. Finally, to cap it all, the office driver and a cleaner were distributing crates of minerals and cream crackers all around the hall. There were choices to be made re. flavour of drink and then bottle openers were found and circulated.

Now, bearing in mind this was a complex programme of training for these headteachers, whose concentration, I have discovered can be short lived, nothing of the first session could have reached anyone’s consciousness!

Much later I heard someone mention “CPD”, a new acronym for Ghana Education Service. Nobody explained it which was a mistake as “Professional” is a word I have not heard used here. Good professional development is rarer than gold dust, never mind Continuing Professional Development.
I lost the will to live at the bottom of my coke bottle as there was no reference to any values of INSET in school. The importance was placed firmly on completing an action plan, ensuring a suitably experienced Curriculum Leader was appointed to deliver it and the correct form was completed at the end. If only I had been allowed to say something.

The brightest of the Circuit Supervisors eventually suggested the heat was getting to us and we should all take our chairs outside under a tree. A flurry of conversation took place between the more than sufficient facilitators and one than came across towards me. “We are waiting for lunch and wondered if you would like to share something small with us all?” Hooray, my chance to bring children into the proceedings and to suggest that headteachers prioritise open and honest dialogue within their staff teams. How INSET without funding can be valuable if teachers are willing to open up and share their skills and experience with each other. As usual, I’m not convinced they understood but there were a few nodding heads amongst them. Huge balls of banku in palm nut soup arrived, and was served, from the open back of the office car. All anyone wanted to do following that was sleep………… and then thunder rolled in the distance. Closer and closer it came whilst the sky darkened and the wind whipped through the trees overhead. Within minutes the chairs were stacked back in the hall and speeding motos were heading off in every direction.
Tomorrow I get my 30 minutes………………