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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 20, Number 2, October 2007

Project Overseas: Ghana

By Jan Walsh-Hohert

Project Overseas 2007 Team Ghana met for the first time at CTF in Ottawa during early July. We were there for orientation with 45 other teachers heading to 12 other countries throughout Africa, the Caribbean, and Mongolia. The 6 of us come from a variety of backgrounds and parts of Canada. We were born in Canada, Barbados, Tanzania, Britain, and the United States. We live in Ontario, Alberta, British Columbia, and Nunavut. We were strangers when we met, strangers with a common goal. We were going to Ghana to work with teachers from GNAT (Ghana National Association of Teachers) for the delivery of professional development to teachers from three different regions of the country—Kumasi, the territory of the Ashanti people, Koforidua to the east, and Hohoe in the agricultural Volta region close to Togo.

Our team of 6 grew into a team of over 20 once we met our Ghanaian counterparts—co-tutors, some of whom were going to teach with us, and others who were to deliver courses in English and French. Meeting Ghanaians can be quite disarming until one gets used to it. Upon being introduced for the first time, the polite response is a formal handshake and exchange of names. This is all just fine until the person whose hand you are shaking looks at you, smiles warmly and says, "Akwaaba" or "You’re welcome!" The first few times this happened, my immediate thought was that I had not yet said thank you for anything. Later I understood that I was being told that I was being welcomed, welcomed to Ghana. And we were. The hospitality was memorable.

During the opening exercises at each location we encountered a sea of about 200 faces, the faces of strangers. We sang O Canada and learned the moving Ghanaian national anthem. We tried to extend greetings in the language from each region—a popular, if not proficient, effort. As the week passed and we taught math, science, and administration to teachers at all grade levels, the faces became familiar and the connections strong. At the end of each week, during closing ceremonies, we left a room full of friends and felt sad to be moving along to the next location.

Our Ghanaian friends were always ready to smile and laugh, ready to share their stories and their pride in their country, and to be open about their challenges and their needs. Many teach in schools with class sizes of over 60. Some are assigned to schools that have fallen apart so they teach under a tree. Adequate teaching materials can be scarce, supplies difficult to get. Some work in places where they do not speak the local language. Although English is the official language of Ghana, people often speak two or three other languages and English skills are often very weak.

Poor English skills can be a hazard to success in a country that maintains high academic standards and the old British system of accountability through exams. Teaching conditions can be very challenging. Many attempt to teach over the sound of traffic, baby goats calling their mothers, people passing by. Many have very little teacher training and may not have mastery of the content for the courses they teach. Many are working far away from home for a small amount of pay. All try their best to keep children coming to school, not always an easy task.

Our Ghanaian friends constantly demonstrated the strength of their community—singing and dancing and eating together. Their warmth, hospitality, and generosity were always on display. We were encouraged to try their favourite foods, to wear their brilliantly coloured clothing, and learn their dances. The extended family is the core of their community and society. Much of their strength comes from their belief that they are all one people despite their numerous tribes and languages and religious beliefs. This strength brought them through independence from Britain 50 years ago, and has lead to peaceful times ever since.

The July 2007 issue of Vanity Fair magazine, dedicated to Africa, contains a memorable interview between Brad Pitt and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The Ghanaians in my classes had no idea who Brad Pitt was, but they clearly loved the Archbishop. In my class we read the interview and talked about the concept of ubuntu, the interconnectedness of all humans. Desmond Tutu says, "We say a person is a person through other persons. You can’t be human in isolation. You are human only in relationships." Working together, we all felt interconnected. It is impossible to spend time in Africa and not feel that way.

In addition to our work we had time to travel and see other parts of Ghana. Among the places we visited, the slave castle at Elmina along the Atlantic coast was most memorable for me. St. George’s castle was built by the Portuguese in 1482, captured by the Dutch in 1637, and then by the British in 1872. It was expanded when the slave trade replaced gold as the major export. Storerooms were turned into dungeons filled with suffering humans while Europeans attended church a floor above them. At one time there were 12 such castles along the coast of Ghana.

The history of the slave trade was so well explained by the excellent tour staff, that everyone left feeling humbled and subdued by the sheer brutality of colonialism, by "man’s inhumanity to man." On the lighter side, we were impressed with the presence of Canadian engineering feats in Ghana. First was the aerial walkway at Kakum—a series of rope walkways very high up in the jungle canopy. Second was the incredible Akosombo Dam that created a huge inland lake and enough power for Ghana as well as two other countries. Ghana also features two beautiful waterfalls at Boti and Wli, spectacular beaches, the Mole Game Reserve, cultural centers, markets, and, in Black Star Square in the bustling capitol of Accra, the monument to Nkrumah, the leader who helped Ghana achieve independence.

We returned home wondering what lasting impact our work would really have on the teachers we met. It may be difficult to ever know the answer to that question, but what we do know is that we shared a great deal, and experienced some of the challenges of a developing country. Ghana is a country trying to educate all school-aged children, and GNAT is trying to provide professional development for all teachers. We salute those goals. We appreciate the Project Overseas experience. We miss our friends.

Jan Walsh-Hohert is a Saanich teacher on leave.


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