Friday, February 3, 2012

So...... How Was Africa?

“So, how was Africa?”

We are back.
America… land of the free, home of the brave, and also soft pillows, real French fries, and toilet seats…we are glad to be home.
However, we are also mourning for Ghana, and the wonderful people we met there, and thus the simple question all of our friends and family ask becomes a loaded query, with answers still too raw and emotions too complex to express past the basic “Really good.”
Jetlagged, yelling “AKPETESHI!!!” at random people and not getting an answering laugh and echo in return, we ask a little immunity as the realization starts to sink in that we are truly not in Africa any more.
The last days in Ghana were relaxed, spending much time on the beach, or grabbing the last few opportunities to be tourists by hitting some of the renowned sights of Ghana. The team screamed and laughed (some even bounded) across the treetops of the African jungle at the canopy walk. Many expressed their artistic side by creating beautiful batik fabric with lessons at a local shop. The group watched an impressive display of traditional dancing and music from a local Ghanain group, complete with an impromptu drumming lesson.
We haggled enthusiastically at the art market, returning laden with souvenirs. We reflected large-group for the last time under the somber roof of Elmina Castle, an old slaving castle on the coast of Ghana. Students and professors alike talked and reminisced on the sand, clambered up giant rocks in the sea, or sat under the breeze with unforgettable bruschetta, letting the experience soak in.
We were forced to say goodbye to some of our new friends; the team gathered in hearty support of our fearless driver, Samuel, and waved farewell to the “party bus” as we were dropped off in Accra. We stayed in the Accra hotel (newly christened the “Western Sun”) relishing the air conditioning and pool under the African sun one last time before loading up and heading to the airport. There we said our final goodbyes to John and Tori, our leaders, and Emmanuel, our guide and fellow teacher at Bakpa-Avedo. Then, with many promises to return soon, we flew off towards America and home.
It was nice to have that time off, to think and savor our experiences before being thrust into the hectic rush of “real life.” Our very last reflection displayed much of the fruit of our growth; vastly different than our first night, we drove deeper into the issues, and were open and honest with each other in new ways. The reaction to the slaving castle varied—some looking more at the future and hope surrounding the castle, and some looking sadly at the past, at the horror permeating those walls. As one person said, the castle felt “heavy.” The thick, unrelenting stone walls were heavy, but the atmosphere weighed low as well as we were guided through torture chambers, holding pens, and finally, the “Point of No Return.”
The conversation that ensued reflected this heavy tone. We discussed the history of Ghana; how that millions-strong tragedy has affected it even unto the present. We connected our experience at Elmina Castle with our time in Avedo, and started to explore together the connections between this remote slaving castle and the every day lives of our dear students. We discussed different ideals and reactions to such atrocities, and together looked at different ways people seek to fix something like this. While it is so easy to become overwhelmed with the terrible things that have happened and are everyday occurring in this world, the team was able to openly express very different viewpoints, and I think the team left with an appreciation that it truly does take all kinds, all personalities and approaches, to work and improve this world.
If our trip could be summarized into one idea, than I think that might be it—the appreciation of people as people all over the world. We came to Ghana not really knowing what to expect, but maybe imagining impoverished Africans of TV commercials, or little angel students just desperate to learn, or perhaps adults embittered at our apparent wealth. Instead, after about one day, we realized that these people are just humans, just like us, with daily issues, different opinions, and a myriad of personalities, just like anywhere we might call home.
That idea—the community of working with people, children who punch each other, teachers who might have flaws, smiling faces that might actually be unhappy upon occasion—wove through all of our reflections. We are tied to the lives of the people in Avedo. Now that we are aware, it is impossible not to care about their lives. In one of our reflections, someone noted that “once you start caring about someone, you care about what matters to them as well.” And it’s true. As the pictures begin to flood facebook, and the statuses ache for Africa, the lesson becomes even clearer: we are changed, grown a little more, with a deep love for the people of Ghana, and a connection to the lives and livelihoods of Africa that can never die.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

A Special Day For Celebration

Today was our last day in the schools—calendar countdowns over, all the supplies finally left in the hands of the children, and all of the teary “yehvus” (white people) packing up and thinking once again about America.
There was not much official academia today, but there was indeed celebration. The children had a Wednesday morning church service while the “teachas” set up, putting up decorations, and making the classrooms as inviting as they may have ever looked. Snowflakes cascaded in P-5, and the alphabet danced across P-1 through 3, bright banners bearing handprints decorating every classroom wall, charts, art, classrooms spilling over with colors and creations. The entire Bakpa-Avedo school shone with an array of students’ work beckoning the children, and testifying to the work we’ve all done here these past weeks.
The students returned to those cheery classrooms as the service let out, quickly energizing and practicing final presentations before the ‘assembly’ began. Hardly the stereotypical monotone-microphone assembly; each class got up and sang, chanted, and danced, displaying bits of the knowledge we’ve gained to their parents and friends. The headmaster and elders spoke, thanking the BSC group for coming, as we presented the supplies that we had gathered; crayons, pencils, paper, science books, children’s literature, and a myriad of resources to aid the teachers and children in their learning.
We all celebrated with dancing; drums set a capturing beat as some of the students, dressed in what looked like traditional Ghanain garb, moved with practiced skill. BSC students and professors jumped in to dance along—which ended up looking mostly like a very jolly garbled chicken dance. Much laughter was had as we flapped around, and after the ceremony closed in grateful prayer, we swept joyfully to the classrooms for an African “open house.”
Happy chaos ensued for the next 30 minutes as children attacked their Gummy Bears and showed their parents and friends the bright classrooms packed with evidence of their learning. Slowly, though, the BSC students were dragged away from the Bakpa-Avedo students as we said goodbye and loaded the bus. Many teachers fighting tears all day finally caved, as we cried at leaving these beloved faces. As the bus pulled away from the children and the school, there was silence, save for a stray sniffle, or the quick cry of a student’s name as we waved furiously our “goodbyes.”
We drove back to Sogakope in complete silence, each lost in thought or quiet tears, but we continue (forward ever!), and have already begun packing for the beach. The group plans to have an intensive rest and rejuvenate time, paired with equally intensive reflection on what has happened over this month, and the connections we have forged with our friends here in Ghana.
Out of respect for that time, we will not be updating the blog while at Cape Coast, but will return again with updates on Monday. Instead, we ask your thoughts, wishes, and prayers as we in turn look at all we have done here and all we have gained, and decide how we can grow from this magical experience in Africa. 

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

What a Wonderful World

Bakpa Avedo classrooms are bulging at the seams with school children who have heard the news about the visiting American teachers.  More and more eager and beautiful faces greet us each day.  In several classrooms desks built for two children side-by-side hold four young learners.   
The art education provided for the school children has been amazingly creative and sensitive to both local culture and resources.  For example, a project that uses a tremendous amount of water would not be possible, as it would require drinking water from the local pond that is soon to dry up during this dry season.   One of the projects today was to create a colorful banner made of large pieces of Ghanaian fabrics for each classroom.  De-Colorant was used to imprint each child’s handprint on individual class banners, a signifier of the classroom communities our BSC students have become part of during the past ten days.
In lower-grade classrooms, the children are making individual copies of favorite books and songs.  This project allows children to keep their very own copy of the book and re-read it as often as they like.  Many children chose to skip break and lunch today to finish these songbooks and familiar texts.   

Fourth and fifth-grade classrooms completing a weather unit have created a winter wonderland in Africa by hanging paper snowflakes in the rooms and creating a greater-than-life-size snowman with cardboard, chalk, glitter, and duct tape.   In the upper grades, children experimented with force and friction by making hand-held zip-lines.
Our students have spent time in the classroom this week preparing the school children for our departure tomorrow.  The children have asked many questions about the United States and we have done our best to answer these questions.  They have asked our students questions like, “Do you have your own car or must you share with your family?”, “Why must women have long hair?”, and “How do you become president in the USA?”   The dialogue between our students and these children has been rich.
In the summer hut, a breezy gazebo with a thatched roof, the Bakpa Avedo teachers attended a short in-service.  The headmaster and teachers were interested and most grateful for the work we have done with their children.  The curriculum, which will remain here for their use, was intricately described.  The teachers were so engaged we led them in a few mini lessons. All joined in when Dr. Jacobs sang  the songbook, What a Wonderful World.  It was quite a magical afternoon.
Kristin, Helen Amekor, Amelia and Louanne
Sporting Ghanaian dresses made by Mrs. Amekor
Tomorrow is our last day at the school.  At a short gathering of the community and school participants, classes will present songs, dances, readings, experiments and speeches so the children can show off all their hard work.  Afterward, the community will be invited into the classrooms to meet our students and learn more about what we have taught and learned at Bakpa Avedo Basic School. 

Sunday, January 22, 2012

This morning, after a breakfast of omelets and fresh bread, we dressed in our Ghanaian attire and went to church.  As guests of the Amekor family, we entered the beautiful Catholic Church just as services were beginning.  We sat on the last four rows, which provided a nice breeze for the three hour service. The open, cheerful sanctuary is accented with multicolored windows that look like a design on a Lite Brite.  
Everyone was dressed in their Sunday best, with beautiful dresses and head wraps for the ladies and brightly colored shirts or traditional Ghanaian wraps for the men.  The sermon, liturgy and the announcements were all spoken in Ewe and then English.  Joyful, lively songs, accompanied by drums, peppered the service.  The offering, which is taken twice in each service, allows everyone to dance down the center aisle to offer their gifts.  A variety of gifts were given as a form of offering, items ranging from water bottles to fresh eggs.  I have learned that all offerings are given to the church and dispersed as needed to the church family and the community.  Toward the middle of the service, the children processed down the center aisle to present their offering.  Children of all ages danced into the church in a line that seemed to stretch forever.  Brightly dressed children with big smiles walked by our group with curious eyes.  Not surprisingly, by the end of the service the children had warmed up (literally and figuratively) to us so much that almost every BSC student was holding a child.  The service was a lesson in both culture and faith, with the cornerstone being the initial greeting from the pulpit- “We have gathered together as family.” 
This afternoon we have some much needed time for relaxation and planning for the next week.  Tonight two Peace Corps volunteers that work in Ghana are spending the night with us and visiting with the students.
Tomorrow begins our last three days in the school.  The BSC students have already shed a few tears in anticipation. 

Saturday, January 21, 2012

All Work and No Play- Not for BSC Students

Bakpa Avedo Basic School has pulsated with life this week.  Thursday was a long challenging day for many us.  Our novelty has worn off and the children have found their LIVELY voices in the classroom.   Learning a new language takes a great deal of mental energy, so by Friday both students and teachers were quite spent.  At Bakpa Avedo, school children usually experience a teacher in the classroom for less than a couple of hours a day.  You can imagine how exhausted they were at the end of this five day week of school.

Although our main purpose at Bakpa Avedo School is to teach English, we also strive to create an environment that is welcoming, challenging and fun.  If learning takes place in an atmosphere which is both challenging and engaging, then coming to school will be a rewarding and joyous experience.    It is clear that the BSC students have succeeded in creating these types of environments.  There is laughter and song during almost every minute of every day.  The children are learning basic English vocabulary but also learning English vocabulary for physics and earth and life sciences.  Along with all the fun, we took class pictures Friday.

 One of the Bakpa Avedo teachers pulled Dr. Louanne Jacobs aside Friday and began to speak to her in a serious manner, “Madame, I am a trained teacher- a trained teacher!”  She began to worry about what would come next.  However, the teacher continued, “ I will be a better teacher and a better man when you leave.  I have watched your students and how they enjoy teaching.  I want to teach like that, too.”
After school Thursday, we followed most of the school children to the Avedo market, where people in the village buy anything they need for the next week - mostly food but also clothing, shoes, and fabrics.  Of course a large bus filled with Americans was a novelty at the remote rural market, but the school children were thrilled to see us in their market.  One tiny girl, no more than six years, still dressed in her school uniform, skipped by us reciting the children’s book, Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?, saying “Yellow duck, yellow duck what do you see?”   
Today was a day of rest and rejuvenation.  We enjoyed an extra hour of sleep and then traveled to Keta Beach for swimming, picnicking, and relaxing by the ocean.  We also took a tour of Fort Prinzenstein, one of the slave-trade forts that dot the coastline.  A particular treat was the experience of joining local fishermen and women as they pulled in their daily catch using mile-long nets – an amazingly unifying activity. 
After dinner tonight, we were treated to an impromptu fashion show!  Our Ghanaian clothing was ready!  After fitting at least 25 dresses, the seamstresses had only to correct only 2 dresses.  We wear these beautifully made dresses to church in the morning, so stay tuned for pictures.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Lions and Tigers and (Brown) Bears, Oh My!

The last two days in Bakpa Avedo have been incredible.  Children have come out of the woodwork to join our happy community.  Record numbers of children have come to Kindergarten where the last child count reported 70 children.  The regular teacher of Kindergarten says she has never seen some of these children!  Yesterday when Yao Amekor came to visit the school, he said he was amazed.  He said, "Usually when I visit the school there are children everywhere in the village.  Today when I drove up, I saw no children in the village.  They were all in school!" 

School children have been learning the parts of nonfiction text:  table of contents,labels, glossary, captions, and how to use an index.  This learning will help them be stronger readers in any texts long after we leave.  Two grades have been studying weather.  Today they learned about tornadoes and made waterbottle tornado model.  Older grades have concentrating on writing their observations and questions about physical science using the English language.First, second, and third combined today to make lion masks, read connected books, and go on a Lion Hunt  (adapted from the children's favorite Going on a Bear Hunt).

Art continues to enrich our days.  Today children in the upper grades created Wax Resist Batik with crayons and mud.  If you can imagine how much Alabama clay stains boy's socks and multiply it by 100, you can imagine how well this art project worked.

We took supplies to the Three Kings School for the Blind today, including textured puzzles and alphabet cards and battery-powered page magnifier.  When we arrived, the children sat under a shady arbor practicing braille with frame brailers.  For us they brought out a typewriter brailler to show.  The typewriter brailler is much faster to work with, but the school only has 3 to share between 40 students.

Tonight we celebrated Becca's 21st birthday and Yoa's 33rd birthday by enjoying the sunset over the Volta River from Ciscneros. 

During tonights reflection, one of our students was relating a classroom experience.  One of the children remarked that it must feel good to have FINISHED learning to be a teacher. He hoped one day to finish learning and become the president. Our BSC student responded, " No, we are all students.  I am still learning to be a teacher in the same way you are still learning to become the president."

Monday, January 16, 2012

Education can grow in CRAZY ways!

Bumping all the way to the school this morning, there was chatter and laughter, but all of us were thinking about the day ahead.  With only two days last week, a five day week seemed overwhelming.    As the village and the school came into view, the anxiety dissolved because there were children everywhere waiting for us.  Village adults watched, children waved frantically, young girls swept the dirt with their straw brooms, and the school children began to line up for morning assembly, all in an effort to welcome us back to Bakpa Avedo School.
The day was an amazing high for us.  There was singing and dancing, playing games and reading books, All the while the communication barrier was disappearing.
The morning consisted of work in the classroom.  Some of the classrooms were as full as you could imagine a classroom to be, many of the classes split into two and three groups, using the surrounding terrain as an enormous outdoor classroom.  We planted seeds in Dixie Cups, made colorful, beaded bracelets to support learning counting and color words, learned rhythm games and songs.  Our two resident artists guided the children in creating chlorophyll printing and Picassoesque face collages. 

At lunchtime, the BSC crowd gathered together in the kindergarten room to share sandwiches, cookies, and lots of water.  Though the children typically go home for lunch, many stayed in the classrooms.  Older ones showed younger ones their science projects, read books, and chose to stay through the break.   A third-grader, racing back to class after most of the teachers had returned from lunch, yelled, “Sorry teacher I took it home to read!”, as she waved one of the books being used in class. 

The children do not have recess or PE built into their schedule.  Our students saw this as unacceptable.  Today for “movement class” our students recruited a drummer and commenced teaching “the wobble”!  In return the children taught us a popular Ghanaian dance.

After school was dismissed, some of the teachers led us on a walk to the village pond, where village residents fetch water many times a day. Emmanuel shared that this pond was one of four water sources and the last one to dry up in this, the dry season.  He also told us that it is common for school children to make two round trips before school and up to four round trips after school.  It is amazing to think that before we ever see these children in the morning, they will have walked up to two miles to fetch water for their family.
These students continue to impress and amaze us.  They are a credit to BSC and their families- Forward Ever! 

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Old Friends and New Adventures

Students pose in front of the Baobob tree

Our first weekend in Ghana was filled with exciting times, old friends and new adventures.  Saturday's itinerary consisted of a pick-up soccer game, bus tour of Sogakope, visit to the market, lunch with the Amekor family, fittings with the seamstress, games by the pool and a lovely dinner - WHEW!

Because we are such a large group, we broke into several groups to tour the marketplace.  Each Saturday people in Sogakope come out to shop for their family.  The market is filled with tantalizing smells of roasting peanuts, smoked fish, and live baby goats.  The sights in the market are almost overwhelming with the bright multicolored fabrics of red, green, blue and yellow.  You can hear ladies laughing, children calling, babies crying, and motorcycles zooming by, sometimes too closely!  Often a man with portable PA system will call out to the crowd in the manner of a street preacher.  When we asked our host if his message was religious or political, she looked at us and said, "No, it's about cream."  We looked and at his feet was a carton of all-purpose miracle cream.

Many of us bought fabric in the market (stay tuned for pictures after next Sunday's service).  After making our various purchases, we made our way to the Amekor home for lunch al fresco.  The Amekor family welcomed us, new friends and old, into their home and fed us a remarkable Ghanaian feast:  grilled chicken, red-red, palm nut stew, fried plantains, fresh pineapple, and more delicious side dishes than we can name. 

Today, Sunday, we traveled 2 1/2 hours to Lake Volta for a riverboat cruise.  Fun, fellowship, and "swimming" in the billiards-table-sized swimming pool was the perfect way to end our first week in Ghana and begin our second full week of teaching.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Even from a million miles away, we would not forget you!

Happy Birthday to Steve Jacobs and Crystal Sweda!

Soccer at Dawn

Though we were all up late last night, many of us rose with the sun this morning to see a very special football game.  Two BSC soccer stars, Erica Ogle and Dani Mayer, played in a regular Saturday pick-up soccer game here in Sogakope.  They were troopers and did not school the regular soccer players, but did make some nice shots on goal!  We were very proud of them.

Teaching and Learning at Bakpa Avedo

No one can prepare you for the emotions of going to Bakpa Avedo School.   We drove to the school for the first time Thursday morning.  After a 20 minute ride, mostly on dusty, bumpy dirt roads, we approached the village.  Villages in this region are located close to the road and many have small market tables with various fruits or breads.  As you pass you can see animals roaming and people of all ages working, playing and talking to each other.   Bakpa Avedo looks like any other village, except this is our village, the one we already know. Children ran from every direction toward the school and the bus.  If you had been unaware, you might have thought the President of Ghana and his motorcade had arrived.  Yet, these children were welcoming US.  It was an emotional moment that can hardly be articulated.  I believe it will be a moment we never forget.
The school is a K-8 school that serves several villages in the Togo Region of Ghana.  Each BSC student prepared to take his or her place teaching with a co-teacher and writing lessons for two full weeks in the classroom.  This was a difficult task, not only because preparing to teach for two weeks is daunting, but our young adults had no idea what to expect of these children.
Our first day was overwhelming.  The village's community came out to a wonderful celebration of welcome.  Community leaders talked of the anticipation with which they have awaited our arrival.  There was singing, dancing, hand-shaking, and “toasting” with homemade libations.  These symbolic gestures have served to solidify the communities of Birmingham-Southern College and Bakpa Avedo .  We are all Ghanaians now. 

Though the BSC students were introduced to their children and spent a little time in the classroom, the second day was a full day in the classroom with complete responsibility.  As teachers and administrators stood watch, the BSC students took over the classrooms with genius ideas and unlimited energy.  Children were so excited about school after the first day with our students, the classroom filled to overflowing on day two.  In one classroom there were 40 or more children, sharing desks, pencils, and paper. 
As one might expect, the language barrier has been challenging.  Teachers in American schools often anticipate working with a few English Learners.  However, they rarely expect to teach an entire classroom of English Learners who all know the same language that they do not.  The language barrier has created the need for gestures, visual aids, and pantomiming, all of which have instigated laughter and the atmosphere of cooperation between student and teacher.  It has been quite a magical metamorphosis. 
Today the school was alive.  The sounds of music, laughter and reading aloud floated in and among the classrooms.  Children read, counted, wrote words and stories, drew pictures of plants, made cars of recycled water bottles, learned words in English, and learned about the weather.  And, the children taught their teachers (students from BSC) words in their language, Ewe.   In the fourth grade class, Cynthia Andrews asked, “Do you want to sing the song again?”  One little boy piped up, “No, I want to learn!”   Learning was happening everywhere you turned and it was magic!
After a full, hot, exhausting day of teaching, we took a walking tour of the villages.  The pride in the faces of those who welcomed us at each stop was evident.  They were proud of their homes, their children and their school.  Children followed us everywhere and brought the entire village to catch a glimpse of their very own teacher! 
Our main purpose in coming to the Bakpa Avedo School is to create an atmosphere in the school that makes the children love to learn.  Watching their faces today, there is no doubt that we are on our way!
Everyone wanted to watch and learn!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

You are welcome! (a common Ghanaian greeting!)

Greetings from Ghana, Africa. 
We have arrived in Ghana with record speed and ease.  From Atlanta to Accra, there were no glitches at all.  Our transportation was waiting for our arrival to take us to the mall to exchange money and on to Sogakope. 
The hour before dinner was spent unpacking, showering, and relaxing by the not-yet-full pool. The hotel, Shekinah Glory, is quite nice.  We are sleeping 2 or 3 to a room a private bath, plenty of space, air-conditioning, and running water.  Life is most definitely good.
Dinner was a feast of Joliffe rice, white rice, noodles with vegetables, and chicken.  We were all so hungry we might have eaten stale bread, but the prepared meal was delicious!
The team is amazing.  One would have suspected some division between the education majors and others, as there seemed early-on to be two large groups of friends.  The work to prepare for the trip and the journey here seems to have erased any false boundaries between these young adults.  We now have one purpose- the Bakpa Avedo School.
At the end of dinner Kelsey, the reflection officer aptly noted that all of us were tired, so we simply went around the table offering our hopes for our trip.  These young adults were so impressive and thoughtful in sharing their hopes and so honest in sharing their fears.  They are anxious about the unknown of tomorrow’s work- facing the language barrier and connecting with strangers.  They are hopeful about growth- growth for the Bakpa-Avedo students and their love of learning and growth for themselves.  Overall, we are excited and nervous about our job but thrilled to begin.
This morning, as the bus pulled out of the hotel parking lot, you could almost hear the sigh of relief.  This is what we have been waiting for.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The team is on the ground!

Amelia just sent me a text message, and they are safely on the ground.  She will begin posting from Ghana once she has access to wi-fi.  Blessings to the team! 

Monday, January 9, 2012

Here we go!

The entire team has met together, planned together, laughed together, and packed together. We have spent a week together so far and we like it. This morning we finished packing our bags; we are taking one bag with OUR clothes, etc and one bag with supplies for the trip. The bags have to be 50 pounds or lighter, but some of our bags might weigh a little bit more than that.

Tomorrow is the big day. We pile onto a charter bus on campus at BSC and wave good bye to our family and friends for 3 weeks.

Our flight leaves Atlanta at 9 pm, Tuesday, January 10 We will sleep, eat, watch movies, read, and watch each other sleep for 11 hours. We are scheduled to land in Accra, Ghana at 1:110pm (local time), which is 7:10 am Wednesday morning back in 'ole Birmingham.

As soon as our flight arrives, I will text my husband, Brad Spencer (205-249-2955) who will update this blog. Therefore, official information can be obtained right here, folks.

Thanks for all of your support and prayers.