I’ve been traveling now for seven months, criss-crossing the globe and searching for answers to questions I haven’t quite been able to articulate. For now my journey has brought me back to Africa, the place my heart has always known it belongs. How I arrived in Ghana is a sort of mystery that is still unfolding. What I know is that a force beyond myself, and in spite of myself has brought me here against innumerable odds.
I’m not really sure why I’m here, or why I feel so content in the face of extreme poverty. I don’t know how long I’ll stay, or what kind of a future Africa and I share. The only answer I can give is What. I can tell you what I’m doing, and what it’s like to live in a community with very little material resources. I can tell you what I’m learning from my students and what I hope to teach them in return.
My students took this picture as part of a photography project we started today. They each have the chance to capture two things they like about their school and two things they dislike.
These days my mornings begin with the sound of my host family stirring awake before the sun fully rises. The rooster crows and I start to hear hushed voices and eggs frying over a bed of coals, signaling me it’s time to wake up and begin my day. There’s no morning coffee or running water, so I walk sleepily to the washroom where my shower consists of a cold bucket of water and a bar of soap. After eating breakfast, I walk the worn path to wait for the “tro tro” to take me to the next village where I teach English and Computer science to a group of young students. My days are slowly starting to form a sort of routine as I adjust to “African time” and these early morning risings.
I’m not a morning person, in fact I would never choose to wake up before 9am. However, the work I’m doing feels less like a job and more like a privilege. There’s no written schedule for my classes, so each day I walk to the school, not knowing who I’ll be teaching or how many classes I’ll have. The textbooks I’ve been given don’t match what the kids have been studying, so every day begins with a review of what they’ve learned so far and what they think we should learn next. Yesterday my high school students read a story about sexual and physical abuse, so I took the opportunity to discuss conflict resolution and reconciliation with them. We learned new vocabulary words as we compared and contrasted acts of hatred vs. acts of love. We talked about the emotions associated with silence vs. speaking, and how language is a tool we can use to express ourselves and regain our voice.
My younger students have been learning about complex sentences and adjectives, so I shared with them this passage from Out of Africa,
“The air was cold to the lungs, the long grass dripping wet, and the herbs on it gave out their spiced astringent scent. In a little while on all sides the Cicada would begin to sing. The grass was me, and the air, the distant invisible mountains were me, the tired oxen were me. I breathed with the slight night-wind in the thorn trees.”
We closed our eyes and pictured the place the author was describing. I asked them to think of their own place they could identify with and they chose their school. When I asked them to close their eyes and describe what their school looked, and smelled, and tasted like, one of the students said, “home.”
Another photo from my students. I think they have some blossoming photography skills!
Another one of my English classes has been working on writing a short, creative story. We’ve been writing a paragraph each class period and using this time to identify grammar concepts we’ve learned. The class collectively decides each sentence and the students take turns writing it on the chalkboard. When I called on one of the boys to do the writing, I noticed his classmates were spelling the words for him, letter by letter. They had just impressed me with their use of foreshadowing in the story, a concept I hadn’t yet taught them, yet I realized this boy of 14 years old couldn’t write. I stood next to him and helped him sound out the words and practice pronouncing the ‘wh‘ sound in disbelief.
My computer classes are all working on writing and sending an email to partner classes in the United States and Mexico. The students are writing the letters themselves and each class has begun their greeting in a similar way, “How are you? We hope by the grace of God you are fine.” Their typing skills are non-existent, so each sentence is meticulously written one by one as the students take turns at the keyboard. The only computer we have to use is my own personal laptop, so all of the other students huddle around the screen as their classmates slowly tap out the words.
IT is one of their favorite classes, they often skip their break to keep working on the computer!
The school itself is beyond primitive. The kids are so eager to learn but the noise level from the surrounding classes alone makes it impossible to be heard. The classes are divided only by a partition and a chalkboard, the desks are broken and half of the school building is still under construction. There’s no electricity. The students pay about 50 cents each to receive their school lunch which is cooked by two ladies in a large pot opposite the toilet, though I haven’t actually seen a toilet.
This is the area where lunch is prepared every day.I’m told this is the toilet area, though I haven’t been brave enough to venture inside. One of the kids snapped this photo to capture what he didn’t like about the school. Can’t say I blame him!
There aren’t enough erasers for each class, so the kids run back and forth borrowing the few we have each time the board needs to be cleaned. Sometimes the teachers’ schedule gets confused and so the kids have entire class periods without someone to teach them. Instead of running around and doing what kids normally do, they’re usually in their room, writing in their notebooks and patiently waiting to learn.
I usually stay at the school until around 3:30. Afterwards, I walk down the road to the house of the young pastor who founded TANF, the organization I’m volunteering with. TANF stands for The Anidaso Nsae Foundation, which means “hope has come” in the local language. The pastor is 23 years old and responsible for sponsoring 20 of the students I teach at Wisdom Academy.
Presenting the students with their first white board!
He buys me lunch and we sit down with our computers and fried rice, discussing ways to improve the school and the community. Soon, the neighborhood kids start trickling in to stare at our computers in awe. They snack on bananas and I hold my favorite one, Kwaku in my lap when he cries which is often. Night falls and I take the tro tro back to my village or walk, depending on how late we’ve stayed at his house.
Someone from my family somehow magically always knows when we are coming and they wait to take my schoolbag from off my shoulders and walk me the rest of the way home. I slip of my dusty Birks and step inside the house. My 13 year old sister and I watch a Mexican soap opera while I try to consume a plate of noodles and fried eggs made for someone three times my size. I eat slowly and determinedly and we laugh at the charactors’ dubbed voices, not quite pulling off the dramatic flair of the Spanish language in English. She points to the screen when the actress I’ve been nicknamed after, Maria Alejandra Mendoza enters, and I ask her about class during the commercials while trying to put together some haphazard lesson plans for the next day.
Sometimes I sit outside and listen to my host Dad give advice about life and love, or speak of the challenges his country faces (there are a lot). Lately, I’ve been staying up too late, waiting on my spotty dial up connection to work and trying to keep up with my blog while planning a fundraiser for the school. I want so badly to help these kids, to offer as much as I can in the time that I have, but there’s simply not enough.
Another photo from my students!
I retreat to my room and think of ways to describe what I’m experiencing here, towing the line between poverty and hope, lack and potential. It’s hard. Some days I feel I am bursting at the seams with pride for how smart and capable my students are. Other days, days like today, I am overwhelmed with frustration at my own lack of training and the kids’ poor behavior. I think of the impossibility of teaching them how to type, two minutes at a time, once a week. I think of our grandiose plans to build a computer lab for them and I start thinking maybe we should start with a toilet, instead. Or a school bus. Or an office.
A computer lab would actually make it possible for them to practice the computer theory they’ve been learning!
I think of all of these things as I eventually collapse onto my mattress on the floor and wincingly set my alarm for 6am. It’s hard to take it all in and my perspective is skewed by how attached I am to this place and these kids. I haven’t really had time to process it all before diving in, but that’s life, isn’t it? Right now I’m just taking one day at a time and sleepily rolling out of bed when the rooster crows or my alarm goes off, whichever comes first.Google+