The ideas and thoughts expressed within this blog are not the views or opinions of WorldTeach nor the Namibia Ministry of Education, but rather my personal views.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Back to Ghana

Although this post is entitled “Back to Ghana,” it really talks about my first trip to the nation. It has been over two months since the experience, however, and I am only now getting “back” to publishing a few details about it.

In July, a good friend decided that he would celebrate his 40th birthday in Ghana and invited me to join him on the trip. He didn’t have to ask twice. The big day was August 16 (although I didn’t arrive until August 17). Lucky for him, this was not his first trip; he suffered from acute poisoning after a steak dinner on day two, which seriously impacted his ability to get out and about.

I must say that the plane ride was the BOMB. I traveled using frequent flyer miles and fortunately, I had no option about whether to travel economy or business class, because only business class was available. It is very easy to get spoiled by the right type of business class. The seats were wide and comfy, fully reclined into horizontal position, and were just heavenly…….. Ahhhhhhh…….But enough about the plane.

This post is about my sojourn to a West African nation filled with history and lore. Ghana is the birthplace of Kente cloth, one symbol of African identity, pride, and honour embraced by masses of African-Americans; it is the home of ancient Kingdoms and Empires; it is a nation where millions of blacks were sold into slavery and transported to the United States and other former slave-holding countries; and among other historical markers, it is the first sub-Saharan African country to gain independence from European colonial powers.

It seems impossible to visit Ghana without exploring places that played critical roles in the transatlantic slave trade. According to one tour guide, over half of the European-owned coastal forts and castles discovered along West Africa are located in Ghana. I visited a few former trading posts and the experiences were very moving. The “Door of No Return” was eerie at both Elmina Castle and Cape Coast Castle. It was through these doors that millions of chained men and women left Africa, boarded ships, and never saw their freedom, family, homelands, and some of their various cultural traditions again. Another feature of each castle that left visitors caught in thought were the churches and chapels where captors and traders worshipped, seemingly without regard for the inhumanity of their subjugation practices. I also found it interesting that one former trading castle in Accra now serves as the Presidential Palace.

I will not soon forget the TRAFFIC in Accra. It was seriously no joke. Luckily, there were things to do while waiting for the congestion to clear. If you were in the mood to shop, you could buy just about anything you needed right from your car window. Street hawkers took vending to the next level. Candy, drinks, fruit, vegetables, clothes, toiletries, jewelry, houseware, toys, pets/puppies, you name it, a street vendor had it. I was amazed that (1) I did not see anyone get hit by a car during their weaves in and out of traffic to make a sale, and (2) I did not see many product-casualties – vendors carried most products on their heads!

Another etched memory is the endless homage to President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. The Obama’s visited Ghana about one month prior to our trip. There were billboards everywhere welcoming the president and couple, and declaring a “new day,” promising future of change, and partnership between Obama and the Ghanaian President.

It was a definitely unique and memorable trip. There is so much to share about the sights, sounds, and discoveries in Ghana, I'll have to do it in pieces and in person.

Here was my itinerary:
Day 1: Arrive at Kotoka International Airport
Day 2: Accra Mall; Internet Café; Dinner at a rooftop restaurant in Accra
Day 3: Nima Market; Ghana School of Law; Supreme Court; Kwame Nkrumah Museum and Memorial Park; Greater Accra Centre for National Culture; Evening trip to Lister Hospital (not for fun)
Day 4: General touring and shopping around town; Jonathan’s speaking engagement at University of Ghana – Legon
Day 5: Shopping around Town; Dinner and Movie at Accra Mall
Day 6: Taxi to Akosombo Dam and Dodi Princess Cruise on Lake Volta (largest man-made lake) –Dancing!!; Evening concert at Alliance Francaise Accra– More Dancing!!
Day 7: Jonathan’s return flight to the U.S.
Day 8: Connect with One Africa Guest House owner at the W.E.B DuBois Memorial Centre for Pan-African Culture; Drive to Elmina
Day 9: Canopy Walk in Kakum National Park; Tours of Elmina Castle and Cape Coast Castle
Day 10: Early Morning bus from Elmina to Accra; Evening flight from Accra to Johannesburg
Photos included in this post: Me in front of the tomb of Kwame Nkrumah's (Ghana's first President); a plaquard celebrating the 50th anniversary of Ghana's independence from England; a vendor selling jewelry at Nima Market; and a highway billboard reading "Akwaaba (Welcome) President Obama"

Saturday, October 17, 2009

My Third Trimester

No, I am not with child. I am, though, into my third trimester of interaction with hundreds of schoolchildren in Northwest Namibia.

Schools throughout the country operate in three terms per year. The third and final trimester of 2009 began in early September and will end, for most, at the beginning of December. It will end sooner for grade 10 and grade 12 learners.

There is an increasing expectation and push for teachers in public schools around the country to complete their syllabi in the first two terms, so that the third term can be spent helping learners review and prepare for final exams. Learners in grades 7, 10, and 12 must take national standardized exams in the third term. Grade 10 exams are over at the end of October, after which time they are free for the remainder of the year. Grade 12 exams continue into November.

The standardized exams for grades 10 and 12 are critical. In the case of grade 10, learners who do not receive enough passing marks will not be allowed to move to grade 11. In the case of grade 12, learners who do not receive the required scores will not graduate. In both exam situations, learners failing to earn the required passing marks are not allowed to return to school the following year. They must:
  • prepare to retake the exams either through independent study or an approved program designed to assist learners who have failed (They may return to school once they have passed the required tests);

  • enter a vocational school or program;

  • enter the workforce; or

  • choose some other life path available to individuals without secondary school certificates.

Unfortunately, a few of these learners (without secondary school certificates) end up teaching in Namibia’s underresourced public schools, earning full credentials along the way. You can imagine the challege this can present in the classroom.

Over the past year, I have learned that because of the past inequities in the educational system and a still developing teacher-training system, many teachers are not fully knowledgeable about the academic subjects they have been hired to teach, especially in the math and science disciplines. Some teach straight from textbooks and tend to stick to a single method of introducing new topics to learners. I have now begun encouraging teachers to utilize the Centre to improve their subject understanding and possibly adopt different instructional techniques. Language barriers, confusion about the role and offerings of the Centre, and trepidation about using computers are still three of the biggest obstacles to greater teacher engagement in the Centre.

Throughout this trimester, I have been focused on drafting an operations manual for the Centre, including a comprehensive Centre Manager job description and planning calendar; gathering input on registration and learner selection policies; continuing to train and motivate teachers and administrators to take ownership over the Centre; collecting and analyzing school, class, learner, and Centre performance data to begin evaluating potential impact; and familiarizing myself with the scope and tools of the educational learning software. I’ve been super-busy and super-pumped, and yes, my colleague (supposed counterpart) at the Centre still finds time to read books and magazines during the workday. Pity.

Although my original contract ends in December, I have decided to commit another six months to this project. There is just so much potential and so much work to be done.

At the end of this trimester, I will relocate to the capital city of Windhoek and work as an advisor for related computer-based learning centres throughout the country. I will also spend time working in the southern town of Keetmanshoop to review and hopefully revitalize the math and science centre there.

Things Fall Apart

The past week was emotionally difficult. On Monday, October 12, a fellow volunteer in a nearby town died unexpectedly in his sleep.

The volunteer was a member of Nigeria’s Technical Aid Corps(TAC), the international volunteer program for Nigerian professionals. My housemate is also a TAC member and was very close to Folorunso, the deceased. Folorunso was a frequent houseguest and the news of his passing was a serious shock.

It truly highlights the fragility of life. It also draws attention to the sacrifices we make and risks we take as volunteers in a foreign country. We especially risk not being around family and friends during times of triumph, or in this case, tribulation. I have missed four births of family and friends back home, for example, since I journeyed to Namibia.

The sacrifices and risks seem worthwhile when observing the direct benefits of our service. When you see a few of the fruits of your labor, you truly want to live life to the fullest and make impacts where you know you can. When tragedy strikes, however, the shock can cause the mind and soul to wonder, “Why?" and "Why am I here?”

I must admit that I was hyper-sensitive to everyone’s direct and indirect interaction with me throughout the week. There were fleeting, though unfounded, feelings of being under-appreciated at times. I became annoyed when I didn’t receive returned phone calls, or e-mail and text messages from colleagues. I was constantly annoyed while walking to and from work, frustrated at the government’s lack of foresight and determination in arranging readily accessible car transport for my project. And I remained annoyed with the perceived lack of passion and dedication in my colleague who may be assuming leadership over the Centre once I am gone. Without a solid succession plan with qualified personnel, would my investment be a waste? The week was draining.

The week was also extremely productive. I hosted four life science and physical science classes at the Centre, each group showing excitement about seeing topics come to life in front of their eyes and about half using computers for the first time. I had a successful Teacher Development Wednesday, bringing the number of educators participating in my training this term to around 50. On Thursday and Friday, my co-administrator sent a substitute in her place; he was very focused and I enjoyed working with him. And over 100 registered users attended sessions throughout the week, many seeking additional instructional support from me to finally comprehend challenging math concepts. Oh, and I led my second session as a official tutor for University of Namibia students on Tuesday.

I know exactly why I am here. I am comfortable with the decisions I have made. And I know just how quickly life can end. Still, it doesn’t make the loss of a friend less significant.

Folorunso leaves behind in Lagos, Nigeria a wife and five children, ranging in age from about 7yrs to 15yrs. May he rest in peace. And may the family find support and solace in this difficult time and in the future.