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Teaching in Ghana

by Colyn Alcock

My month of volunteer teaching went by in a blizzard of chalk and
perspiration. On the balance sheet, I think I learned more from teaching the
kids than they learned from me. When I’m in my rocking chair on the porch at
80 years of age, I’ll close my eyes and my mind will flicker back to those
kids running out of the classrooms, jumping and shouting, through the
elephant-eye grass to greet me. I’ll remember how I offered my hands to the
boys and girls in yellow and brown uniforms, how they took one finger each,
as we jaunced along to the schoolyard. Long after the names have been lost
and forgotten, I’ll remember the smiles on their faces, the curiosity in
their stares, their desire to simply grab my hand when words failed them and
my regret that I couldn’t take each and every of them one home with me.

The day started with assembly, held in the schoolyard, which is a dirt
patch outside the four classrooms. The teachers appointed a senior to help
line up the kids and they kicked off with a resounding version of “Ghana my
Homeland”, followed by hymns like “Jesus, Thank You for This Day”. As the
little ones lined up they’d put their hands out, palms downwards, for a nail
inspection, and the teacher would take a critical look and whack the
miscreants with a bamboo cane. “Why are you wearing sandals?” Whack! “I told
you to get your hair cut, you are not Rasta girl!” Whack! “Why are your
nails dirty?” Whack!. I checked my nails, stuck my hands in my pockets and
smiled. Then the teachers dismissed them and each class marched separately
with arms swinging ahead, like chanting soldier ants, twice round the
schoolyard and into their classrooms. Not a White Boy with a Dry Eye in

Sometimes Kwesi, the headmaster, would trundle up on his Vespa and give them
a pep talk, which mostly consisted on the virtue of growing up as good wholesome citizens and making sure their parents paid the school fees. “You don’t have a thousand cedis, don’t come tomorrow… need education….. you don’t want to grow up to be a maid and nothing more…”. Kwesi very much has a point. But, what’s the future for the little attentive faces I saw there? Most children can only work in the markets or help out on the farms. A determined few who scrape the money together for higher education, study and qualify, find they are one person in a hundred chasing a professional job.

For many years, I’ve been an advocate of assisting people from the Third
World to pursue a brighter future in Europe. This happens, and whatever
controls the immigration authorities set up, it will always continue. One
Ghanaian working say, in Hamburg, will get enough money together to pay for
his brother to join him. The brother will work and save and send for the
cousin, who will find the money for his sister. That’s how West Africans
help each other, and no coastal patrols and passport checks will ever stop
the human desire to make a better life for you and your family. Yet, in a
small way, Kwesi has changed my opinion on this. He says he prefers to
invest the little money he has in setting up the school, building a computer
room, and employing a qualified French teacher, rather than using that cash
to fund an unknown life in Europe. At least here he can create something,
train young minds and fulfill a realistic and attainable dream for himself,
right here in Africa. Maybe some of the young ones I’ve been teaching will
be able to do something similar.

Now I’m not saying volunteer teaching is anything but a challenge. Most of
the time I rolled up late and hangover with no idea what I was going to
teach, no teaching schedule or textbooks, just a piece of chalk and 40 eager
faces, armed only with improvisation and inspiration. Which sometimes fell
flat. My main big mistake was refusing to cane. One day, four kids rolled up
even later than me and the form teacher passed me the stick. I remembered
how much I hated this when I was young and passed it back to her. Ten
minutes later, little Patience, all of 7 years old, stood quivering and
scared out of her wits in the doorway and I had to crouch down and clutch
her hand and lead her to her desk, promising that she wouldn’t be punished.
Kids communication travels faster than text messages, and once the word got
round that the white teacher teacher was a soft touch, mayhem ensued. “Michael,
don’t thump Ester!” “Joshua, please sit down!” “Ester stop hitting Michael!”
“Kofi, why are you eating the chalk?”. “Joshua, sit down right now!”
“Michael and Ester….” Kofi, I told you it tastes bad…” Little ones wandered
in from other classes and some stood and stared, some wandered round and
ferreted in my schoolbag and some just went to sleep on the floor while I
was trying to explain the intricacies of English grammar. I soldiered on.
Samuel, all of 12 years old, illuminated my mornings my singing one of the
local radio hits “I Believe I Can Fly” all the way through the class. “I
Believe I Can Fly…….“I Believe I Can Fly…………” “Samuel” I said from behind
gritted teeth, “I Believe You can Shut Up…!”

Yet, the rewards far outnumbered the frustrations. On the last day, I
clutched at the straw of asking the seniors what they knew about the life of
Jesus. In a country where every second taxi carries a message praising God,
I figured I was on to a winner, a nice chatty topic. Yet, silence. “Where
did Jesus live?” Blank little black faces. “Who were his mother and
father?”Lost expressions…… So, summoning up everything I recalled from
“Stars on Sundays” and “The Life of Brian”, I gave a haphazard rundown on
the life of Christ (but I gave a sanitized version of the crucifixion when I
saw their alarmed looks). “Do you go to church?” I asked. “Yes” they
chorused. “So, what do you do there?” “Sing!!” And they started off on a
completely unscheduled twenty minutes of church hymns, each kid taking turns
to stand up at his desk and lead the rest, harmonizing like angels in
English and Twi. I chipped in with a couple of turgid Protestant hymns, but
most of the time I could only lean back against the wall with folded arms
and marvel at their happiness. You don’t need a schoolbook to teach joy.