This was our first day of volunteering in Ghana, and we were all a bit nervous about what to expect. We knew it would chaotic and unexpected, and those are things none of us relish. But one thing was in our control – and that was what to wear. We’d been carefully instructed to dress conservatively: skirts to cover our knees, shirts that covered our shoulders, and shoes with straps on the back (not flip flops).
Our school – Gbi-kpmeme (pronounced “Bee-mehmeh”) – was a 5 minute walk down the dirt road, a school compound with 6-7 different buildings and a few hundred students. Christine took us to meet the Headmaster, made the introductions, and left us with him to show us around the secondary school which are grades 6-8. We’d walk into every classroom and the students would stand and say, “You are welcome madame” which – in their Ewe accent and recitation – sounds like “You ah welllllcommmme maaahhh-daaahhhm”. He’d then introduce us as “Sister Dee, Sister Heidi, and Sister Susan” and let the students know why we were there. After the secondary school rounds he handed us off to the primary school headmaster who showed us around the primary school. Similar routine of walking into each classroom, “You ah welllllcommmme maaahhh-daaahhhm” and then waving. The younger kids don’t speak as much English so much of the communication was in Ewe. She then let us chose which class we wanted to be with: Andreia with KG1 (4-5 yrs), Susan with P1 (5-6 yrs) and me with P2 (6-7 yrs). We spent the rest of the morning observing our teachers.
As soon as I walked in the students stood up “You ah welllllcommmme maaahhh-daaahhhm” and I said hello and introduced myself. I sat in a plastic chair in the front of the classroom and watched Miss Belinda teach her students. They stood up to sing a round of Row Row Row Your boat unlike any other I’ve seen because of all the hand gestures that went with it. Each line had an accompanying gesture so they could move while they sang, and when they got to “Merrily merrily merrily merrily” they shook their little bodies and danced and smiled and giggled all through the line. It made me laugh and giggle too. How could it not?
The classroom itself was bare except for the chalkboard and three small posters on various walls. Our room was centered between Susan’s P1 classroom and the other P1 class – we shared their walls and their roofs, though nothing was closed so I could clearly hear the students and the lessons being taught in each other classroom. The classrooms were open to the outside through the open doors and the shuttered windows (which often blew shut when a breeze would float through). And despite the crazy heat of Ghana it was surprisingly cool inside. The students sat at old style wooden desks – some kids three to a desk – and the only other pieces of furniture were the table and chair where Miss Belinda sat and an old marred cabinet in the corner.
They sang another song called the Good Morning song, “Good morning, good morning, how do you do? Happy to see you, happy to meet you, good morning, good morning, how do you do? Happy to see you my friend.”
As with row, row, row your boat, this one had hand gestures and movements. The last part was sung with great ferver and hugs to their friends.
Learning in Ghana
Classrooms in Ghana follow the rote learning technique which is based entirely on repetition and memorization. The idea is that the students can quickly recall the meaning of something the more they repeat it. Turns out this is a widely practiced method in many countries, but it’s strange for an American like me who never experienced the repetition approach. Miss Belinda would go over a lesson and have them repeat back key words. Then she’d write a few examples on the board and would have them repeat back those examples and key words. And then it was time to demonstrate their knowledge in their exercise books.
The exercise books were small, individual paper journals for each student and for each subject. These books were kept in the marred cabinet in the front corner of the classroom along with the workbooks from which they did they copied their exercises – and which they had to share one per every three students.
I also got to see my first “caning” – which was really a “switching” but you get the picture. CCS prepped us that we might see this. CCS tried to get the schools to stop doing it because it troubled the volunteers so much, but they realized that the schools were just holding off the canings until after the volunteers left. Truthfully, it’s a big part of the Ghanaian culture and parenting system. Parents actually get upset with teacher who don’t discipline through caning. So when Miss Belinda took the two boys out of their time-out session – which was them kneeling on the concrete floor – she had each of them stand still to be solidly swatted across their bums with the switch. But it really did settle the class down. Miss Belinda keeps those kids under tight control.
Next was learning – by rote – an English poem:
“Once I saw a little bird
Come hop, hop, hop;
So I cried, “Little bird,
Will you stop, stop, stop?”
And was going to the window
To say, “How do you do?
But he shook his little tail,
And far way he flew.”
Then we had a “maths” exercise (plural, since I’m told by my British friends that there’s always more than one math) on adding multiple numbers together. And then at 10:15 we had our first Break. I wasn’t sure what to do so I went out to say hello to Susan and to stand in the shade, where we watched Andreia in the distance being much more sociable with the kids than we were.
After break was a rote-based Natural Science lesson on water and the uses of. Then an exercise. And then it was break #2 at noon. I was hot, sweaty, and ready to go.
After lunch at CCS Home Base, we all piled into taxi cabs to go to the HoHoe Market. Mondays and Fridays are full market days and I love going through marketplaces. First stop, though, was Barclay’s bank to exchange dollars for Ghanaian Cedis. Barclays was blissfully BLISSFULLY air-conditioned and we all agreed we might never leave.
As we picked out material to have bags and dresses and skirts made by Miss Divine – the seamstress who would visit us at Home Base that afternoon – we were hit by a sudden downpour. We dove for shelter underneath a nearby tin awning and we were going to wait for it to blow over so we could see the rest of the market. But as the rain came down in droves and created muddy rivers through the market aisles we figured it was best to leave. We gathered up our material and bolted for our individual taxis.
After the rain lifted Susan and I took a humid walk to explore the neighborhood. We thought we’d walk forever, but it wasn’t that long before we hit a traffic-y road and turned around.
Local Dance Show
After dinner we had a group of singers, drummers, and dancers come give us a show. This drew out all sorts of neighbors to see what we were doing and enjoy the demonstration with us.