Working in a Local Community
I once worked in Ghana at a school on my gap year and this is what happened.
The plane journey was possibly the longest journey of my life, both literally and mentally. Then actually getting off the plane was the most intense thing I've ever done; imagine stepping into a sauna just that little bit too hot and then triple that, then you will have half the idea of how the heat hits you as soon as you enter Ghana.
I lived in a small town called Mamfe in the Akuapem Hills, about an hour and a half away from the capital, Accra. Living with a teacher at my school meant that the kids I taught every day came round to our house at about seven every morning to do the weeding (slashing at the long grass with machetes) right outside my window. I stepped outside my door onto the open porch to the sight of hundreds of African children in orange and brown uniforms laughing and joking at the sight of me in my pyjamas!
The chickens, cockerels and pigs didn't really help my morning lie-in either, so I was always up at seven ready for my bucket shower and the 10-minute walk past the local mechanics and friendly dress-maker to work in the centre of town at the Mamfe Presbyterian Primary School.
Teaching in Ghana on my gap year
I taught three different classes, stages four, five and six. The children were in classes of varying ages, from eight to 15.
The class I taught the most was stage five. I was told that I would only be teaching English conversation. However, on arrival I was thrown in at the deep end and asked to teach all English classes including reading, grammar and composition! My only advice is to be prepared; I brought grammar books with me - thankfully, because some of the basic things you have to teach aren't actually that basic!
I also taught Art, which was incredibly challenging as the kids are used to learning by repetition; they find it extremely difficult to think for themselves and seem to always need something to copy. This was tough as, if I were to draw or write something on the board and ask the kids to think of their own version, they would just copy exactly what I had done. Trying to get children to use their imaginations should be easy, but as they have been programmed to learn this way it took a long time to get them to bring out their own personalities. But when they did, things were mad!
The children were incredible, always laughing and playing, often during the lessons. This was stopped by the use of the cane which I found incredibly shocking. I spoke to the teacher about it and understand her point that perhaps we are too soft on children in England which is why some of them have no respect for others. However, I could not bring myself to use the cane myself, and felt that sometimes it was a little overused.
At the beginning of my stay I often didn't have a clue who was meant to be in my class, the children were always running in and out of the drab classrooms delivering notes and generally making themselves known to me.
More of my story about this experience
In particular, at break times, or clean-up when the children had to sweep the floors, the kindergarten children would come into my classroom, hold out their hands so that they could give me a high-five, then run away laughing and screaming! They always came back, did exactly the same thing and then would follow me around grabbing onto anything they could! Also, many of the children stayed in during break times to teach me their local language, Twi (there are five languages in Ghana); I learnt a fair bit by the end of my stay, but as soon as you go anywhere else it's a different language so I didn't get much chance to perfect my newly established skill!
My favourite and probably most memorable time at the school was the sports day. Two days of dancing and playing with the kids, it was the most fun I've had in a long time and made me realise that I really did love it there and I had become a real part of the community. It was often tough being away from my parents and friends, but I soon became established as a teacher and began to make some real friends within the town and amongst the other volunteers, many of whom I am still in touch with and miss terribly.
My last day teaching in Ghana
My last day at the school was so upsetting: the headmistress organised a big presentation for me which I certainly wasn't expecting, they gave me a carving and traditional shoes and beads. It was a beautiful gesture. In return I presented the school with a sports kit as during the sports day all they had were huge, old yellow t-shirts. It wasn't much but was the best I could do at the time. Since I've come back to England I have been trying to get some funding for the school as I would love to give them a library, or at the very least some new books.
I miss 'my kids'. I had my favourites, usually the troublemakers as they always made life more interesting. I could always tell that something was coming when they flashed me their cheeky grins, but they never failed to surprise me with their kindness.
It wasn't just the local community that surprised me with their spirit and general friendly attitude. We travelled most weekends and then for two weeks at the end of our projects.
Our travelling adventures left a lot to be desired, considering we spent one night sleeping on the steps of a hostel in Kumasi, and on our way to see the elephants at Mole national park we broke down three times and eventually arrived at midnight on a bus with no headlights! Sleeping in the middle of the rainforest under just a mosquito net was nothing compared to that!
Obviously you have to experiment with traditional forms of transport: tro-tros are fantastic, falling-apart minibuses packed with people, nice. We did succumb to the odd English essential; an amazing sports bar called Champs in Accra was where we spent many a drunken Friday night singing karaoke! Saturday nights were down to Kokrobite beach and the live music at Big Milly's Backyard, only the best backpackers' in Africa! (I'd better get a discount next time I go there!)
Most people we came across went out of their way to help us. Obviously, being young white females we did get a fair few marriage proposals and the like. At first it's a very strange experience, being whistled at in the street and people touching your strange pale skin, but you get used to it, and as long as you act like you know what you're doing taxi and tro-tro drivers and market sellers won't try to swindle money out of you. The Ghanaians are a wonderful people; if you have never been to Africa before, I would recommend starting in Ghana as you could not find a friendlier place.