June 10, 2009. July 6, 2009. While these dates may mean little to most, they have great significance to a small group of Peace Corps volunteers (PCV’s) here in Ghana. June 10th marked 1 year in country and July 6 signified that we had completed 50% of our service commitment. So I thought we should take time for some reflection. Like how have we changed? What have we accomplished? What have we learned? And maybe most significantly how has our view of the world changed?
Chris and I will attempt to answer these questions in a series of blog entries by sharing some of our reflections of the first year. Here is the first one:
When I first arrived here I have to admit (at great risk of sounding like a very un-P.C. PCV) that everyone kind of looked the same.
Now before you judge me too harshly, let me add a few things to my defense. First, everybody, everyplace, and everything was new. I had a lot of mental sorting to do. Next, is a little obvious; everyone it seems has dark skin, dark hair, and brown eyes. Then add to this my primary project as a school teacher. All Ghanaian schools have a uniform code. Not only are the poorly lit classrooms typically packed with 40-60 students, but all of those students must wear the same dress, same color shoes, and the same cropped hair, the last item being regardless of gender. The girls must also even wear the same type of earrings – no identifying accessories are allowed at all! So while I know how bad it sounds, I have to admit that in the beginning to me they all looked the same.
Since then, of course, my perception of things have changed. I still don’t know half of my students’ names, but I at least I now recognize them for the individuals that they are. (And being teenagers, most of them are becoming very individual).
The first time I had to step into the classroom I was terrified! I’m in a foreign land. I stand out like…well like white on black. I’m a woman thrust into a male-dominated society. I have chosen not to have children of my own and I have never claimed “I want to be a teacher when I grow up”. And now the mission at hand was to deliver a lesson on HIV/AIDS to a room packed with over 60 teenagers that I had barely been introduced to and who think I talk funny. Yikes! What was I thinking when I volunteered to do this?!
Well, my first experience actually went fairly well and now I have survived my first full year as a teacher. I have pretty much gotten over the things that scared me then. There are plenty of other things that scare me now but they’re much different, like NOT being able to spend adequate time with the students in the classroom. I hate to admit it, but I even catch myself feeling a bit bored without the students around and almost miss those annoying pains-in-the-arse while we are on break. There are still a few students around right now though. And it seems that our home has become a magnet for some of them. For a couple without any kids, it sure seems like we have kids around a lot of the time.
The other day, one of Chris and my visitors was Victor. Victor is one of the four STARS students who traveled to Kumasi with us for the conference. He is extremely bright and a natural-born leader. He’s respectful and helpful, and a good-hearted kid. As is typical with visits, we sat on the sofa in our hall (living room) and chatted about several different things that were on our minds. We learned that over the school break, Victor planned to take an extra summer class and also help his mother at the little shop she runs in town.
The other day Victor showed his mother a photo from STARS in which our group of six was posed together. It took her by surprise. The two teachers in the photo were white! Learning that his mother’s shop was located on a main road in town I commented that surely his mother would have seen Chris and me before. We must have passed by dozens of times during our year here. While there may be an occasional short term volunteer at the hospital or orphanage, or even a rare tourist, we are the only obrunis that live in town. “Yes”, Victor politely explained, “this may be true. But to us you all kind of look alike”.
Thursday, July 30, 2009
Tuesday, July 7, 2009
We might not have gotten off to the best start: First, the STARS students that Chris and I had invited (DASHS’s top students) didn’t show up in time for our school bus to take them to town. We did end up arriving at the conference together though. Upon which Chris and I gave our students a little pocket money and sent them out to find a snack. Twenty minutes later we learned there was a conference rule that no students are to leave the site without an escort. Whoops…
Thankfully everyone showed up prepared for the opening event (and on time) and we were off to a good start after all.
Our four shining STARS
It was an active week for us middle-aged curmudgeons. Our daily schedule went from breakfast at 7 am to lights out at 10 pm. Then I slept in the girls’ dorm and Chris in the boys’. Each day was filled with a host of activities:
Monday-Youth Leadership Day
Tuesday-HIV/AIDS Education Day
Thursday-Tertiary Education Day
Friday-Guest Speaker Day
We had small and large group discussions, Ghanaian guest speakers, role playing, counseling, and an assortment of leadership and team building activities. The students got to tour the college campus and visit the computer lab. We also had nightly events including debate, drama, movies, a talent show, music and dancing.
There were 60 STARS students in attendance representing every region in Ghana. For nearly all of the student participants, this conference was a first time experience in many ways: first time to travel outside of their home area, first time to visit a big city complete with multi-story buildings, first time to see a college campus, first time to mix with such a large diverse group of other top students, and most importantly first time to be heard and respected by their adult supervisors.
So how did it all go?
On the last day Chris and I sat down with our four students to summarize the week. We were impressed by the list of clubs and events they plan to implement at our own school: How to plan and study, HIV/AIDS peer education, Leadership seminars, goal setting workshop, workshop on how to develop your potential, and a weekly posting on food for thought.
To assist students with taking ideas and lessons learned back to their individual schools, we were provided with a kit of materials (including a bag of condoms and a wooden penis). Next school year will most certainly be an interesting one.
Chris reports that the highlight of the week for him was pretending to poke students in the eye. Ok, before you jump to any conclusions you must first know that Chris served as the “Activities Man”. He was the guy in charge of organizing those fun, goofy, team-building activities. One of those included blindfolding most of the participants. To make sure there was no cheating, he and some of the other organizers went around to each blindfolded person acting as if they were about to poke, punch, etc. The tactic proved quite affective. It was of great amusement to those who could see and with the way the instructors carried on, nobody with an insufficient blindfold could possibly keep from cracking up at their “threatening” antics.
It's all fun and games...
His other highlight was the last night when people wore the traditional dress of their area to the closing dinner and dance. He says “I was absolutely blown away by the beauty and diversity of the dress. This is in a country smaller that the state of Oregon. I find one of the most profound things I will take home from this entire PC experience is how amazing and inspiring diversity really is”.
For me, the highlight was a break-out session with a group of girls on HIV/AIDS day. This was their opportunity to ask candid questions in a safe environment. And ask they did. It was a positive, productive session. My only regret is that it seemed to end too soon. The off-shoots of that discussion could have kept us busy for weeks. (Periodically throughout the event a voice was popping into my head. It said “Is this really me doing this”? Who would have thought?)!
At the close of the event, our STARS said they wished they could stay. They also eagerly volunteered to return next year as Junior Group Leaders.
Its moments like these that make it all worth it
Yes, we’d say that the event was a success. Thanks to all of you who helped make it possible. And for those who did not get a chance to contribute this year…next year will be here before you know it!
For more about STARS visit http://starsconference.blogspot.com/