Samantha Barlow - Teaching, Teaching English and Other Subjects in Ghana
My entire time in Ghana is a memory that will always stay with me, but my arrival stands out as particularly vivid. As I stepped from the air conditioned interior of the airplane onto the tarmac at Accra International Airport, I was met with a wave of humidity and heat only a Ghanaian afternoon can provide. After a meet and greet at the Projects Abroad office in Accra, I was provided with a front row seat to the countryside of southern Ghana during my 5 hour bus ride up to Kumasi. I was absolutely agog and could not tear my eyes away from the window as images of everyday life in Ghana streamed by: women in beautiful local dress, people carrying anything from water to 20 bolts of cloth on their heads, free range goats and chickens just running around everywhere. It is one thing to see pictures and films about these seemingly exotic places, and a totally different thing to be there, beside it, living it.
After settling into my new house and touring the city that I would call home for the next two months, I made my first appearance at Christ the King of Kings International School. To get to the headmaster’s office you have to cross the school’s front yard and by several classrooms. The minute we entered the school gates we were absolutely swarmed by little kids, smiling up at you and all trying to touch you and hold your hand at once. As you can imagine, having ten kids wrap their arms around your waist in a hug makes it difficult to move, and it took us a while to get to the headmaster’s office. Chants of “O-bru-ni, Obruni” followed us the whole way there. I was very excited by this exuberant reception from the littlest members of the school, and I became even more pleased by the smiles and warm welcomes from the staff.
The first class I taught was crazy. The headmaster put me in a room alone with 40 staring pairs of eyes with the instruction to teach the class composition for an hour. After finishing introductions, I had no idea what exactly I should start teaching or where anything was. With no adults in the immediate vicinity to ask, I thought it was going to be a very long hour, but the students were incredibly helpful and curious as to what I was going to say. They passed out the notebooks for me and showed me where the chalk was. I ended the tortuous hour looking forward to coming back and teaching these great kids again, next time with a more organized idea of exactly what we would do.
Though the first class I taught was a bit haphazard, after that I quickly learned the ropes at the school and ended up having the time of my life teaching. By choice I taught the older students (ages 7 through 10), which was great because they all spoke English with reasonable fluency, so I had more flexibility on what I could instruct. It was certainly frustrating sometimes because there was so much I wanted to teach and impress upon the students and so little time to accomplish it, as well as a certain lack of organization to the school system.
It was very different from the way things are run in the United States and really the biggest difference is money. There is no money to supply students with paper and books and pencils. There are no world maps or posters on the wall. The class sizes are large because they can’t afford a bigger building or additional teachers’ salaries (which are meager as it is). The only tools given to teachers are a blackboard and white chalk. There is no electricity so all the big windows and doors are open to let in the beautiful Ghanaian sunlight.
Teaching in Ghana was in many ways the most difficult job I have ever had, yet hands down the most rewarding. I felt like I was doing something meaningful and something that might actually make a difference, even if just for one student out of the 213 I taught. Though I taught them about things like capital letters and adjectives, I think the most important thing about my presence was simply my teaching style. For these children who have hardly any access to the rest of the world outside of hip-hop music and pirated Hollywood blockbusters (120 movies to one DVD!), my presence simply showed them that there were other ways of life out there.
Though I really and truly loved and respected most of my fellow teachers at Christ the King’s, the Ghanaian style of teaching involved a lot of memorization and not a lot of understanding why. Children were taught to listen and repeat, not so much to create. I think my feeble attempts to have them use their creativity and answer open ended questions were nevertheless important. One day, one of my favorite and brightest students impressed me with an answer and I just had this amazing feeling that even though it didn’t always feel like it, I was indeed impressing something upon them, and that made it worth it.
I loved the other volunteers, the other teachers, my host family, and the Projects Abroad staff to death, yet I loved my students the most. Even when they misbehaved and drove me crazy, I loved them. I learned most of their names and little things about their lives. All the frustrating moments were made better each morning as I walked into the school yard and my students would call out “Miss Barlow, Miss Barlow!” and hurry over to carry my bag or hold my hand as I walked to class. I and all the volunteers had quite a celebrity status, especially with the children. They all wanted to learn little games and rhymes that we knew, and taught us Ghanaian games like ampe as well. Though most of my time was spent teaching, the relaxed schedule of the school allowed quite a lot of time for play, and the kids basked in the attention.
Staying in a hotel on vacation is one thing, but having the opportunity to live with a host family in a place so unlike anything you’ve ever known is a different experience entirely. You definitely get more of a feel for the flavor of the country after burning your own garbage and making traditional Ghanaian meals like Fufu and Banku with your host mother. Things that stick out in my mind are showering out of a bucket, eating with your hands, shopping in the center of town (always accomplished through bartering), and tro-tros. Tro-Tros are these converted vans, gutted out and made to fit more people than originally intended, complete with a trunk door held shut by some string wrapped around the windshield wiper, an overheating engine, and a conductor who leans half his body out the window shouting at people potentially wanting a ride. Kumasi is just so much more alive and colorful than anywhere I have ever been. I was amazed by how much people looked out for each other. If I was ever lost, people would not just tell me how to get somewhere, but actually take me by the hand and see me safely to my destination. I was incredibly impressed by the giving spirit of seemingly everyone I met.
Leaving this country and its people that I fell so quickly in love with was an incredibly difficult thing to do. By the time I came home, I had acquired a different perspective on everything I saw around me, and perhaps that was the most valuable part of the whole experience. For millions of people this was not a vacation, but a way of life. Poverty, lack of quality health care, education, and a justice system is normal. I came back to the United States of America and it was like I was looking at things through a different set of eyes. I saw how spoiled people are about some things and how these things are taken for granted. I found myself upset as I thought of former classmates who had wasted the amazing level of education they were privileged to. My first time back to a supermarket, I was astonished at how everything was right there. The distribution of electronic devices and technological luxuries was startling. I now understand how lucky I am to live where I live, and I feel changed for the better. This is an experience I truly wish everyone could have, and it left me feeling inspired.