5:45 AM wakeup to disassemble tents, have coffee/tea and bread, and head out for a 6:30 hike to see chimpanzees.
There were a family of 35 chimpanzees in the area; so we split into 2 groups and headed into the forest. (Pat, Doug, Maj, Emmely, Steffi, Daniel, Sabrina, Francesca, and myself) We hiked for 1.5 hrs with Robert as our guide. He and the other guides connected through their mobiles trying to pinpoint the chimps’ locations but – being chimpanzees – they tend to fly through the trees very quickly and move away.
We finally found three of them and stayed for an hour with our necks cricked up and our cameras trained above us. The outcome was a load of treetop pics with black blobs. I gave up DSLR after last year’s trip to Myanmar, when I was finally enlighten that I’m just not a good enough photographer to warrant lugging around all that weight and lenses for less than impressive pictures. So I sold my DSLR and upgraded to a small but amazing Sony RX100 II. The zoom lens isn’t powerful enough to capture the details of chimpanzees in trees, which gave me great reason to sit back and enjoy them. One of the guides gave me binoculars and – as I looked through them – Emmely stuck her nose in front of me and joked she was a “really big monkey” which made me laugh out loud.
We had brunch back at camp: tuna and pasta and fruit. There were two picnic tables, one of which see-sawed up and down unless you and the rest of your table planned the weight distribution just so. Without that, the table would tip and half the people would tip over. Ana and Lissette and I sat at this table and giggled as we tried to coordinate our sitting/standing in unison.
Promptly after lunch we packed up the bus-truck and started our 220K drive to Lake Bwindi.
One forgets how immense Africa is until driving overland. It’s big. It’s bumpy. It’s often full of cars. And it’s dusty. I’d forgotten about the dust. We crossed over a long stretch of hot, rocky, bumpy construction road that slowed us down to a few km per hour and likely added 1-2 hours to our drive. But TIA. This Is Africa. I was reminded yet again of one of my favorite quotes, from a book called “Dear Exile” when one friend advised another: “Aways bring a book. But in Africa, bring seven.”
We topped for groceries in Kabale – a town 30 mins outside Lake Bunyoni and finally arrived at the Bunyoni Overland Resort – a beautiful campsite on the water. Emmely and I upgraded to a room with a shower which was pure luxury and had a beautiful view. We were so happy to shower in our own private room. Steffi made me laugh later when she asked, concerned, “Did you not know we were camping?” Yes I did, but when only on a 1-week holiday I’d never turn down an opportunity to upgrade. Especially after a long, hot, dusty day like this.
Dinner and This Is Africa
Dinner was mashed potatoes and chicken on the upper porch above the lake – and even though John told us to show up at 7:00 for dinner and a briefing we weren’t served food until 8:00. After dinner, John instructed us to wait so our gorilla guide could brief us. This was a bit of drama as apparently the guide arrived at the campsite with a driver who was not welcome and so they weren’t let in. Lots of phone calls back and forth, followed by a false alarm of “The guide says he’ll be here very soon” but never showed. After 9:00 PM we all gave up and went to our rooms to pack for the next day’s exciting gorilla trek.
Someday it will occur to me that – as much as I love adventure and wildlife trips – they always require early-morning wake-ups. Diving, safaris, gorillas – these are not lazy, sleeping-in holidays. So our 6AM departure should not have surprised me at all. The only wrinkle in the process is that I’d planned to leave my work roller bag at the Red Chili Hideaway and pick it up when we returned, but there was no one at the front desk to lock it up. So John said “You can’t just leave it there – we’re put it into the truck”. And away we went. Jimmy Choos and all.
The truck is almost exactly what Jon and I rode in during our Africa trip in 2001 – what we called a “bus-truck”. It’s a bus that fits all of us relatively comfortably, all our backpacks, camping gear, and groceries for the road, and has four-wheel drive for the rough patches.
We had a long drive to our next campsite – ten hours on the road in total – and stopped for a few breaks. lunch at a tourist shop. A few bathroom breaks in the bush, a stop to exchange money, and lunch at a tourist shop. The road was quite bumpy at times – but #thisisafrica.
Our campsite for the evening was a quick stop-over. Nothing elaborate or special, and no showers. Just a “shawer”.
We had an afternoon tour of the tea fields by a man named Robert and his trainees. He taught us a great deal about how tea grows and how it adds to the Ugandan economy.
Dinner was a stew of meat veggies and rice. The bus-truck did have a chore chart, though John’s rules were “just everyone pitch in” which means – after a day of observing – that no one really does.
Before bedtime a group of kids from the local orphanage came to perform some dances and songs for us around the campfire. They rounded it up by singing “Happy Birthday” to Emily and Mags. I crawled into my tent to fall asleep, but not not until 2AM. Darn jetglag. I listened to the sound of the baboons in the trees until I fell asleep.
All great trips begin with a long flight(s). For this one, it was NYC to Amsterdam. Amsterdam to Kigali. Kigali to Entebbe. I decided on Uganda was originally going to be part two of a 2-week trip to Africa. Part 1 was a volunteer pro bono trip to Nairobi with Salesforce.com, and this Part 2 was a “me trip” to see the mountain gorillas. (and to use an outstanding credit with G Adventures). When the travel alerts were raised in Nairobi, Salesforce.com cancelled the trip. By then, it was too late for me to cancel Uganda – so I was off.
I had two bags: a backpack for the Uganda/camping trip and a roller bag for a business trip to London the following week.
I was quite a sight to see as I checked in and left the airport in Entebbe at 11PM. Especially as my pre-arranged driver wasn’t there to meet me. A lovely American named Heather (who, incidentally, had a sister named Heidi) took charge of me and other wayward traveler, Leigh from San Diego. Heather was based in Minnesota but runs a nonprofit in Uganda that helps missions run their school programs. She, one of her locals David, and a driver drove Leigh and myself – and three carts of bibles – to Kampala. Along the way we stopped by a grocery store – in a mall – to pick up bread, water, and snacks. The parking lot of the mall was packed with people partying out of their cars. A veritable tailgate, but without the sports paraphernalia. Our driver told us later it was a local dance that had let out and this is where the party landed. By this time it was almost 1AM.
We drove to the Red Chili Hideaway, only to discover that no one was there except a guard who informed us that it had moved. Poor Heather- doing a good deed by safely delivering lost travelers turned in to an unintentional late night drive. We were deeply appreciative, though, and we got to know her very well. She and her husband have adopted three Uganda children – each of whom had a traumatic childhood and suffer from different elements of that trauma and dissociative disorder. It’s amazing – the capacity of the human spirit to give. Heather and her husband have, essentially, dedicated their lives to making these children better. When we finally arrived at the real Red Chili Hideaway 20 minutes later, Leigh and I were thankful, inspired, and exhausted. We checked into our rooms and crashed.
The next day I’d intended to volunteer at an orphanage down the street – I’d even brought onesies and some plush toys to give – but that was “down the street” of the old Red Chili Hideaway. There was no orphanage near this RCH. And I slept until 1PM. Instead, I sat on the balcony of RCH in the rainy gray day and read. Leigh took my onesies and plush toys since she was staying in Kampala and would find someone who could use them.
The G Adventures group showed up around 6PM. We had dinner and introductions – though they’d been together for 2 days since Nairobi – and I sorted out various details with the G Adventures staff on the trip: John, Johnson, and Johannes. No kidding.
There were 18 of us on this trip: Emmely (Sweden), Jackie and Brett (Australia), Maj (Netherlands), Xander (UK), Steffi (Germany), Julienne (Australia), Pam and Doug (Australia), Ian and Mags (Ireland), Ana and Lissette (Chili), Daniel, Francesca, and Sabrina (Switzerland), and Kate (UK)
I understand now why one-week volunteer trips are so difficult to find. It’s because for the first few days we’re veritable children. We don’t know where to go, how to act, or how to communicate. We’re learning. But finally – after 5 days in HoHoe – I finally felt like I had things figured out enough to be more independent and so of course it’s time to leave.
And – of course – Kitty figured out how to balance things on her head. With a neck pillow.
Ghana red sauce
Susan had a “Ghana Red Sauce” date with John, one of the CCS cooks to learn to make this fabulous red sauce we’ve had at every meal. I’ve captured both the recipe and the process in words and pictures below:
6-8 cups fresh tomatoes rinsed and seeded ( big mixing bowl)
1 onion sliced
5-6 habanero ( little green peppers)
3tsp grated onion and ginger
4 shrimp bouillion cubes
1 tsp salt
Heat oil in a pot
Add half sliced onions and cook til soft
Purée tomatoes peppers and other half onion ( 1/3 really)
Add puréed tomatoes
Add salt pepper and bouillion
Simmer on high heat for 30-40 minutes stirring occasionally
Here are the pics of the step-by-step:
The rest of our morning was spent packing, sharing pictures, and trying to stay as cool as possible so we sweat through our travel clothes.
Around 2PM, Dale, Kitty, Susan and I all piled into the van for the five hour trip to the Accra International Airport. We got their in time for a beautiful sunset and said our good-byes to Dale who planned to stay an extra two days. Then Kitty, Susan, and I weaseled ourselves into the First Class Lounge for free drinks, endless finger food, and silliness on SnapChat.
There’s really nothing else to report. After a few beverages in the we went down to our plane and settled into our respective exit seats. Watched a movie or two, slept, and then arrived into JFK around 4:50 in the morning.
On Volunteer Time Off
I would absolutely do it again. The week after I returned, I was filled with a feeling of fullness. Whenever I’ve taken a vacation for myself -I always feel relaxed and happy. But this was different; I’d done something good. I made people smile. I did get some culture but that wasn’t the point – the point was to give back to someone, somewhere. That’s a feeling unlike anything I’ve ever had after a vacation. I’ll definitely do something like this again.
Our second day with EPDRA was with Vida, who is hilarious, cheerful, booming energy. She greets you immediately with arms wide open “I like to give hugs” and her enthusiasm never ends. We spent three hours wandering the roads and alleys of HoHoe, laughing and joking and, yes, singing. We sang. And when I got peed on by a naked little baby I was holding, Vida suggested, “That means your pregnant!” Hah-hah.
The interesting thing about HoHoe – and Ghana – is that stores are often named with the intention of inspiring customers. Many of these name incorporate religion and beliefs.
Monday and Fridays were “market day”, and our Monday market trip got rained out so we tried it again on Friday. Francis walked us around and introduced us to the friendlier of the merchants. It was a cloudy day with an occasional sprinkle of rain.
After the market we swung by Miss Divine’s seamstress shop to pick up our goods. She made me a skirt, a few headbands, and a few little coin purses. I was so happy with them!
Susan and I decided to take a walk into town for a soda or two (a real treat to us, since there’s nothing like that in Home Base). Twenty minutes down the road we realized that neither of us brought any money with us – but we did get some great pictures of Bangalore road.
More souvenir shopping
Andreia wanted to return to Akuna Matata – an artist shop – for another print, so we took at taxi back into HoHoe and then walked back. I took the time to enjoy some local shop pictures.
To celebrate our last night in HoHoe, after dinner we all went to an outdoor bar called “Obama Gardens” after, yes, our President. It was an open-air bar with plastic tables and chairs and a disco light that reflected off the grass. We ordered a few rounds of beers and presented Isaac with his 40th birthday present: a bag full of HoHoe goodies.
Back at Home Base, we set up our last table of spoons – and this time we played with elimination rules. Bittersweet, for sure, but no less brutal.
I woke up to a bunch of noise from the common area and immediately jumped out of bed and grabbed my camera. It was time for our turkeys to become our dinner. Jessica was planning to do this since she’s from a farm and also here on a nursing rotation. But the knife that Peter and Emmanuel gave her was a steak knife and not the machete she anticipated, so she opted out and instead Emmanuel stepped in. He followed in the traditional Ghanaian way of taking care of poultry, which apparently involves sawing its neck rather than a clean, quick cut. I’m not a squeamish person by nature (see Dakshinkali in 2001) but this made all of us turn away. Jessica would later remark, “I didn’t think they’d use a steak knife! I thought they’d use the machete I have.” Me: “Uh, why do you have a machete?” Jessica: “As a souvenir, of course.”
Back in the kitchen, we managed to forget the scene of the first turkey and instead focus on our breakfast. Then the post-turkey-turkey-prep commenced in the backyard. I’m proud to say that I helped pluck my first turkey!
Micro-Finance Day #1
HoHoe has a branch of EPDRA – Evangelical Presbyterian Development & Relief Agency – an organization that helps local business owners to save money. And when I say “local business owners”, I mean someone who has set up a table on the side of the road to sell rice or bread. These people don’t have bank accounts, and they’re not going to make the trip to a bank to open an account to save only a dollar or so a day. Instead, EPDRA offers a way for these business owners to save by walking around and collecting money on their behalf every day. At the end of the month, EPDRA gives the money back. So these good people – who normally wouldn’t save anything at all – have a way to save money and to see the benefits of it later.
At the EPDRA offices we met Francis and Vida. Isaac and Ivan went with Vida, and Susan, Andreia and I went with Francis. We walked around HoHoe, down back alleys, through a lot of poverty, goats, unwashed children, and places without electricity. It was hot and airless, but everyone was friendly and lovely.
Ghanaians are a kind, warm people. The phrase “You are welcome” is said by everyone, and not as a formality. Everyone says it and they mean it. Ghana also has a special Ghanaian handshake (hand, fist, hand, then finger snap) that everyone does. No joke; EVERYONE.
The day was hot hot HOT. Within 10 minutes we were drenched with sweat. And Francis was a fast walker who has about 178 clients to service every day so we hoofed it all around. There was a standard process to follow with each client:
Take pink deposit card from client, initial for each unit they deposit (anywhere between 1 cedi or 5 cedis (GHC))
Record date and amount in the book
Give cedis to Francis to put in his bag
Wish business owner a good day. Coo at babies. Carry on to next spot.
We did this for almost three hours until it was time to return back to EPDRA. There, we met Happy and George – the EPDRA coordinators – in the courtyard and the five of us sat in the shade and talked until Isaac and Ivan returned.
Back at CCS Home Base, prep for our Thanksgiving dinner was well underway. Lea, Jes, and Celeste stayed home all morning to cook and prep. There was a lot of cooking going on.
Hand-dyed batik is an important part of the Ghana culture, and both women and men wear colorful batiked fabrics throughout the day. So our afternoon trip was to a local designer so we could see and participate in the batiking process.
Down the street from CCS Home Base was a hut where three men could often be found on their looms, making kente cloth – another local piece of pride.
Lecture about Child Labor
Our Thanksgiving Night lecture was pretty appropriate in terms of being thankful for what we have: it was all about child labor. Samuel Agbotsey, of the IDEC (Integrated Development & Empowerment Centre) shared with us some of the cultural issues and traditional beliefs Ghana has to get through to progress and evolve. Many families still have many children in order to put them to work in the fields or to sell them off for labor elsewhere. Samuel talked about the educational efforts he’s making locally and in the government. It was fascinating, not only to hear the stories but also to hear from someone in a nonprofit.
Samuel Agbotsey, of the IDEC (Integrated Development & Empowerment Centre)
Let the Thanksgiving festivities begin!
We had turkey, mashed potatoes, mac and cheese, carrots, green beans, stuffing, banana bread, garlic bread, sweet potatoes and more…it was all delicious even if there were some unconventional ways of getting in the table. The CCS staff joined us – a happy family of 23 Thankgiving diners.
Of course we ended the evening with a lively game of Spoons. Unfortunately there weren’t enough spoons since we used them all at dinner. Instead we improvised with colored pencils from the resource center.
Every day, the kids start Assembly at 7:30 and then march – chanting – to their classrooms at 8:00. The teachers then stand in the yard for 20-30 minutes for a staff meeting. Apparently on Wednesdays they start with their worship session (Ghana is a very Christian country) and then head to class, so we got there just as they were finishing up Assembly and singing at the tops of their lungs. Perfect since I brought my camera:
My assigned curriculum today was “Questions and Responses”; specifically the word “do”. I explained the differences in questions and responses, which Belinda then explained in Ewe, and then I did my exercise by asking them various “Do you like….?” questions and them answering “Yes, I do.” or “No, I do not.” They caught on pretty quickly – assuming they understood the subject noun. “Do you like cats?” “Do you like dogs?” “Do you like spiders?” (“ye-ye” in Ewe). Then Belinda moved them to the board where she’d written an assignment to follow-up with the “Do” lesson. But before she assigned it she said to me, “Do you have anything else you want to teach?” Actually, I had a bag-ful of things.
We played an alphabet game, where I gave them each an index card with either a capital letter or a smaller case letter, and they had to match up with the child who had the corresponding letter. This would have been great except: (1) no one understood that they were supposed to run around and find the match, and (2) they really didn’t know their letters well. But it’s Africa, so you improvise. I just had them sit next to each other and made a few rounds through the alphabet. It wasn’t a rousing success but it took up time which probably made Belinda happy.
Then came the hand trees. I handed out their newly mounted hand pics with our colorful scraps of paper and a few glue sticks – and the kids quietly went to town. I was prepared for a rowdy noisy affair given that I only had 7 glue-sticks among 20 students but these kids were focused. They shared, they pasted, and they requested more scraps when they used up their colors or wanted different ones. Belinda had to translate that the scrap papers were supposed to be leaves (having them repeat the word “leaves” each time I said it does not equate to them understanding) but once they understood they were even happier. One little boy took all of his scraps off so he could re-do them into leaves. I was so delighted with them that I couldn’t resist taking out my camera and snapping photos of each of them as they finished (“feeneeshed”).
I completed my morning with a picture book, which I introduced to them “What’s my favorite animal?” and they yelled, “FEEEESH!!” So we looked at pictures of all sorts of “Sea Creatures” like manatees, seals, octopus, barracuda, anemones (that was a doozy to pronounce), angel fish, and sharks.
At the end of the morning I was actually sad to leave. For the next two days Susan and I would walk through town with a non-profit micro finance organization, so this was our last day to teach. As difficult as it was to anticipate lesson plans for kids when you don’t know what they know – it’s a real joy to watch their faces light up.
Lunch was talapia with pasta and the now-famous Ghana red sauce and delicious plantains. And we had to say goodbye to Emily and Dianne as they left for their flights back to the US. The group immediate felt smaller without them; which I realize is an obvious statement but for some reason it felt even bigger with them here.
Tafi Atome Monkey Sanctuary
Our afternoon excursion was to the Tafi Atome Monkey Sanctuary. This is a place where a collection of mona monkeys swing from the trees and land on your shoulders, clambering to get a banana from your hand.
After the trip was over we cleaned off the mud, banana guts, and the scratches from where the monkeys got a little rambunctious with their claws. The funny thing is that I had a huge spider bite that we called my “flesh eating bacteria”, and a mosquito bite that was my “malaria bite”, and then probably rabies from the monkey scratches. And yellow fever, I’m sure. Susan gave me an antibiotic wipe, though. So I’d be fine.
Back at CCS Home Base we had a great surprise: the CCS staff had been hard at work procuring food for our Thanksgiving Dinner the next night. We were sure we’d have chicken – like every other night – but the grins on the staff revealed otherwise. “Go look outside!” said John. There in backyard were two turkeys. Two LIVE turkeys. In hindsight this made perfect sense; there were no frozen food sections in HoHoe. So of course the turkeys would be alive. Jessica – our resident nursing student – wanted to help take care of them the next morning (Thanksgiving morning). Now that would be interesting.
Lecture on the Educational System of Ghana
A kind man from the education department sat to tell us about the Ghana school system, which goes from kindergarten to P1 to P6, then to JHS (Junior High School) for 7, 8, and 9th grade. This is all free, compulsory, and uniform across the five countries that make up the West African Examinations Council (Ghana, Nigeria, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Gambia) which follow the exact same curriculum and standards. After JHS, costs of high school is “shared” among the government and the parents. This is expensive because of the costs, but also because many schools have “unofficial fees” imposed by the school and its parents to keep the quality of the school to a higher standard.
Dinner was sweet and sour chicken with rice and our favorite fruit sugarloaf pineapple, which is sweeter and less tart than a pineapple and one step closer to a pina colada. Between the heat and the sweating and the teaching and the walking, we were all famished by the end of the day. I kept going back for seconds just because I was starved.
To entertain ourselves at night we perfected the art of playing the card game Spoons, where cards speed around the table and where spoons suddenly disappear because someone has four of a kind. Skills improved with each round, and the occasional “Stealth Spooner” would sneak out a spoon and silently wait to see if others noticed. There was also the “Agressive Spooner” who got a little over-zealous and spoons would fly across the room. On this night the group discovered that moving the table out and away from the others gives us more surface area and more room for additional players. We also noticed that the table had mark on it specifically for placement of the spoons; thus making it a “Spoon Table”. It was so fun – lots of laughter and joking.
Before the official start of the school day, the students gather in the yard for “assembly” and – when it’s over – they sing and march to their respective classrooms. It’s a wonderful thing to see!
For Day #2 at school, I went prepared with flashcards and other fun activities for the students. So – after their maths (plural) lesson – Miss Belinda turned it over to me to have fun with the students.
After fun with flashcards and multiple rote-learning repetitions, I showed them pictures of my family and of my scuba diving. I belated realized that showing them pictures of my sister’s and brother’s dogs probably didn’t translate well since dogs are often food in Ghana. But it certainly didn’t help. One of the highlights was having Miss Belinda translate my sister’s job as a wildlife biologist, which I described as a “bear doctor”. The kids LOVED that. “Bear doctor!!” they’d repeat with me. Understandably the scuba pictures didn’t translate quite so well, though they did love that I told them my favorite animal was a fish. “Feeesh!” they repeated.
For our art project, we first drew pictures of our favorite animal. Standard favorites: horses, birds, roosters (“cocks” in Ghana), and – probably because of the power of suggestion – fish. Then I had them do step #1 on a two-step art project: tracing their hands on some construction paper. About 1/3 of them brightened up and got VERY excited the second I showed them my hand against the construction paper. Clearly they had done this before, though the rest of the class had not. It’s so interesting to see what these kids do and do not know. But they drew their hands – some of them with great difficulty – and I collected the papers so I could take them with me when it was time to leave.
Lunch – I can’t remember what it was, but I was starving and ate all of it.
The Wli Waterfalls are one of the great sites to see in the area, and we were so hot that we were quite happy at the prospect of lots of cold water. To get there, we hopped into an old van that’s actually called a “trotro” but which I named “A Deathtrap on Wheels”. It was pretty rickety.
Once we got to the parking lot, we settled in to a 20 minute walk to the waterfalls. Two teenage boys began to walk with Kitty in an attempt to give her a “tour” and theoretically get a tip at the end of the walk. But Susan and I started to worry that leaving her alone with them wasn’t a good idea. So we loitered back with her but also not giving the boys any leeway. It’s not that Ghana was unsafe, but we both had reasons to be wary of strangers on paths.
The Wli Waterfalls were beautiful, flowing from the top of a cliff and down to a huge pool of water and complete with a pretty rainbow at the end. I wasn’t going to go in due to prior experiences with waterfalls and leeches. But FOMS (Fear of Missing Something) quickly set in and I trudged in. The spray was extremely powerful – like needles pricking your eyes and skin. Jes and I backed as far into it as we could before we’d had enough. My skin was thoroughly exfoliated.
Our CCS Program guide mentioned that there were no washer and dryers in the Home Base facilities, but that we could wash our own clothes in the yard “with a little elbow grease”. Given the amount of sweating we’d done it’s no surprise that laundry needed to be done by a few folks. It was a lovely afternoon so I stepped out do capture the process, and also to take pictures of Gabriel, one of the local boys.
School Prep Night
Those of us teaching at schools were motivated to create arts and crafts projects for our students the next day, so we pulled out scissors, glue, construction paper, and other goodies and sat in the communal kitchen to cut and glue. Jes – a special ed teacher – was well versed in teaching younger kids and full of ideas for what we could do to help teach and entertain the kids. Jes has been to Ghana many times on her own and with her church, and has found her element here. She keeps her own blog of her adventures too.
With the help of Susan and Kitty, we cut out my students’ hand drawings and pasted them to construction sheets of complimentary pieces of paper. This was made doubly hard because it was hot so we had the fans on full blast so of course construction paper not weighted down with ketchup, salt, and pepper flew everywhere.
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.
After our long trip the day(s) before, I slept for 13 hours and woke up around lunchtime. HoHoe was HOT. Not just a dry heat but an extremely humid, hot heat. (Jon would say “Tarzan couldn’t stand this kind of heat”) Susan and I thought about going into town but the heat and our scheduled 1:30 orientation made us decide otherwise. Instead we sat out on the porch and read our books.
Makafui, the director of Ghana’s CCS program, sat with us for two hours to give an overview of the program, HoHoe, and expectations for the upcoming week. Most of us had teaching assignments at various schools in the area – Susan and I were at Gbi-Kmeme right around the corner. None of us knew which grades we would teach, or whether the kids would be fluent in English, or whether a teacher would be in the room, or what kinds of lesson plans we should create, but we did know that we should feel overwhelmed, chaotic, and ineffective for at least a day or two. Those “managed expectations” helped but definitely didn’t soothe our type-a personalities, though I appreciated when Makafui said “If you make one child smile this week, then you’ve done your job.” That’s a goal I knew I could meet.
Susan and I did arrive prepared with a number of games, songs, and exercises that could be altered for different age groups. So that was something. Still, though. We were all a bit nervous.
Our volunteer group was made up of 9 week-long volunteers and 4 volunteers who were there longer-term:
Susan and me
Andreia (our roommate) from New Jersey
Kathryn from South Carolina
The brothers Issac from San Francisco and Ivan from Brooklyn
Dianne from Hoboken
Emily from Ohio
Dale from NYC
Lea – from Miami. She was there for a few months and was working on the EBPRA micro-financing as well as some teaching
Celeste – from California. She was teaching
Jes – from upstate New York. She’s a special-ed teacher who had a class of deaf students
Jessica – from Baltimore. She’s studying to be a nurse so she had a rotation at the hospital
Auntie Pat’s Language Lessons
While English is the official language of Ghana, Ghanaians speak about 50 different dialects and languages. In HoHoe, most people speak Ewe (pronounced Ay-way). So a lovely women named “Auntie Pat” came to give us a 15 minute overview of important Ewe phrases:
Woé zɔ (sg) Miawoe zɔ (pl), Yooo (response)
Nilyenia / Gbedoname
How are you?
I’m fine. And how are you?
Me fo. Wo ha ɛfoa?
Long time no see
What’s your name?
My name is …
Where are you from?
I’m from …
Pleased to meet you
Me lo kpe wo
Ŋdi, Ŋdi apemetowo (response)
Dinner was chicken, which we quickly learned was the dinner of choice in HoHoe; and certainly not a bad one. It was served with rice, cucumbers, and potatoes. No such thing as carb cutting this week.
After dinner a spontaneous volleyball game broke out in the CCS front yard with a bunch of local kids, giving me the perfect opportunity to take my camera out for a little dusk-time walk before crawling into the bunk bed for more sleep.