Returning to School and Finding New Directions

After Ghana, it was hard to come back to school. The hours of travel from Accra, the Iowa cold, and the Monday school routine were sadly anticlimactic. Fortunately, my students were sweet–they had missed me–and they were eager to hear about my adventure. I enjoyed showing some pictures and telling a few tales, and that made me feel closer to my students and to my journey.

Over the next week, I struggled to reconcile my need to stay connected to Ghana and my responsibility to continue teaching–and to make the travel more about my teaching and my students than about me. I decided that we had to undertake a project. The Chemu library needs seemed like the most approachable, language arts appropriate project.

The Chemu library has a collection of fewer than 150 free-reading novels. The plaque on the fiction collection states, “Gift of Cargill, Ghana” and the titles are an odd assortment of American adult and teen bestsellers.   To me, this seemed like the most interesting need that my students and I could address.  IMG_0619

More pressing, according to the Chemu librarian, is the age of the World Book Encyclopedia collection. Back at school in Iowa, the encyclopedia seemed like a clunky, outdated, unglamorous resource to sponsor, but with spotty electricity and internet, and just one computer lab, it makes sense that a print encyclopedia is the go-to source for Chemu’s library users.

My students surprised me in two ways. They were good at brainstorming ways to raise funds or collect book donations. They suggested getting the UNESCO City of Literature organization, the Iowa City and Coralville Public Libraries, and even the U of Iowa Sororities involved. On the other hand, they struggled with the task of creating a suggested book list. Of course kids could easily name novels that they had read and considered important in high school. But once they tried to consider the appropriateness for Ghanaian teens, students were too troubled to name more than a title or two. Lord of the Flies seemed too dated and too irrelevant. Even To Kill a Mockingbird invited multiple objection. It was too unkind to African Americans, too sexual, too unflattering to the U.S. These concerns led to a string of questions: Should donated books portray american life accurately? Should they even be about Americans? Should books only portray African Americans or African immigrants kindly? Should books be ruled out for sexual content, un-christian values, excessive wealth? Are American novels, especially those for teens, too problem-centered, too dark, too selfish? Is the Harry Potter series too young?   Roald Dahl too weird? We kept a running list on the white board (and I made a digital list), but it seemed that each day students erased as many as they added.

Ultimately, we came to the right conclusion: we needed to collaborate with the Ghanaian teachers and librarians. Because Ghanaian exams were over, and teachers were on break, we decided to browse books in the summer, seek Ghanaian teacher input, and start back up with our project in the fall. We finished with a much deeper respect for the complexities of book selection and cultural sensitivity. We were daunted, but determined.



De-Briefing & Last Moments in Accra

Like me, all of our TGC teachers seemed to be overwhelmed with images, impressions, theories, questions, and emotions. Pauline helped us to process some of these by first asking us to share cultural observations, education values and concerns, and personal impressions. She helped us with the overwhelming emotions by asking us to write about emotions and the images that represent them. I identified one of my emotions as “frustrated urgency”–a thwarted sense of desire, intention, and need to act upon the needs for books, computers, school buildings, teacher training–and a maddening feeling of delay–months and perhaps years of delay. Then, once we discussed these, she helped us to use these identify lessons learned, ways to use these in the classroom, and other ways to take action. For sure, this is a wise way to proceed, but I am sure that I will need much more time to make the move from swirling emotions and images to concrete plans and actions. Though I was happy to be with our full cohort, I also felt the need to dwell in my grief over leaving Ghana, my new friends, and my fragile certainty that I’ll ever make a difference.


Reunited, We Visit Cape Coast Castle

Cape Coast Castle is now a museum that vividly traces the history and illustrates the conditions of the West African slave trade. Cape Coast Castle was the gathering and departure point for perhaps millions of slaves. Our tour guide, Justice, led us into the dungeons, each of which held 1000 men or 500 women. It seems impossible that anyone could have survived the 6-12 week holding period in the dungeons, let alone the transatlantic journey. Terrible.

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I was heartened, at least, to see free men playing soccer on the beach where thousands had been rowed out to sea.


Here’s link to a good little description of the castle, museum, and tour, from Smithsonian magazine:

Leaving Tema for Kukuma National Forest

On Thursday we had to say our final goodbyes to Jerry and Charlotte, to the Crismon and to Tema. I worried that I might never see them again. Ekem joined us for the long road trip from Tema to Cape Coast and the Kukuma National Forest. Fond as we are of each other, it felt good to spread out in the big van and keep to ourselves in the cool AC–and ever-present pop-gospel. By afternoon we’d made it to the rain forest. Billy hitched a taxi from Cape Coast to join us on the canopy walk.  The series of seven bridges criss-cross a section of forest, and, mastering our jitters, so did we.


Lunch with Chief Nii

Teachers are necessarily adaptable, and pretty adept at new social situations, but this one was intimidating. As we tiptoed through the gates into the Chief of Tema’s dusty courtyard, we were deeply aware that we didn’t know anything about how to behave at a luncheon with a Ghanaian chief–not when to speak or remain silent, when to sit, stand, eat, or pass the plates, whether to drink or abstain, make eye contact or avert the gaze–not even how to take a proper sized finger-full of banku. The queen mother and some assistants prepared the lunch and served us, table-side. It was declicious: spicy red sauce and fish, plentiful avocado chunks, and softball-size balls of hot banku steamed and served in banana leaves.IMG_1177 IMG_1190

Kathleen blushingly shared a plate with the chief, who ate in relative silence, with a few knowing, appreciative looks at his shy date.

I was happy to share a plate with Jerry who quietly advised me on the right size of banku balls and the way to dip into the sauce.

As spokesperson, Jerry also talked intermittently with the chief. The two priests, in white, remained pretty quiet, except for a few low conversations into their cell phones. Eventually, the chief finished, and so the lunch ended, and we were ushered upstairs to be draped in gorgeous traditional cloths and beads for our formal photo with the whole party.



Touring the Fishing District of Tema

One of Chief Nii’s directives was that we teachers tour the fishing community within the Chief’s territory–to see the way that “real fishing” is accomplished. Jerry, in constant cell phone contact with the Chief’s correspondent, informed us of several delays in our luncheon schedule, so we had plenty of time to walk among the fisherman as they mended nets, carved and hammered new boats, hauled in catches. From the debris-strewn strip of sand beneath the builders, we watched a baptism among the waves. On another arm of the shore, fisher wives and grandmothers scaled and gutted fish in buckets on a smooth cement platform under the shade of a tin roof. Children slept and slid on the wet, fishy surface, among the bucket-centered clusters of women.

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Chemu Farewells

Wednesday was our last, sad day at Chemu Secondary. We started the day with a 7:30 am school worship assembly. In preparation, teams of students swept the schoolyard and sidewalks with spindly brooms while others set up chairs and tents and musical instruments and the p.a. system. Finally everything was ready, all were seated, and excitement was palpable. The headmistress responded with a temporarily mood-dampening scolding for slow preparation. Then, the pastor and speakers and singers revived everyone’s spirits and collective pride and individual aspirations. I spent the first half of the event muttering my intended opening address–a greeting in Twi–which I slaughtered, syllable by syllable when the time came. At least the students laughed and smiled. Kathleen got hers right. Annette was gracious and emotional, and we all got teary.

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