Friday, October 31, 2008

Being a White Guy in Ghana

One of the billions of lizards that inhabit ghana.
Four of my host siblings, closest is Addie, the dude is Paw Kwasi, the little girl is Angel, and the girl in black is Mamia

Our tuesday and thursday treat... egg sandwitches and "milo," a wonderful malt coco drink. the guy who helps us is awesome and has made that enormous milo can tower

Bakoniaba road, the driveway to my host home is at the top of this hill

Well the days continue to slip on by here in Sunyani. I have now almost been away from home two months, which seems already like an incredibly long period of time, especially considering that before this I'd never been away for more than a couple weeks. Life is going pretty well for me here, I have become semi used to the flow of Ghanaian life and I am adapting fairly well I'd say. That said, I knew that this year would be a challenge before I left, and having now been here as long as I have, I can see that it indeed will be. In my last post, I explained how school is a very trying aspect of my life here, and today I am going to explain an equally trying aspect, and that is the experience of being a white guy in Ghana.
Walking around as a white person in Ghana is roughly the equivalent of walking around in the U.S. wearing a tutu and a gorilla mask. It makes you an instant novelty. The difference however, is that while most people would avoid a person wearing a gorilla mask and a tutu, Ghanaians certainly do not avoid white people, or in twi, "obrunis." Other than my two safe havens of my host home and my classroom at school, I am verbally confronted everywhere I go, and by anyone and just about everyone. The majority of the banter thrown my way sounds harmless when explained on paper. Most often, the conversations are simple and short, polite questions, such as: "Obruni how are you?" "Obruni where are you going?" Obruni, what is your name?" So obviously, the reason I feel semi assaulted is not because of the content of what people are saying to me. The problem instead, is with the frequency that I am confronted and the frequency with which I must answer to there, "Obruni..." questions. It really is almost incessant, especially when in town I am greeted by a large portion of the people I pass. Considering that most the people are well meaning, I know it sounds rude on my part to say that I am starting to find all these conversations annoying, so instead I will just say that I am starting to find them tiring.
The other problem with these constant interactions aside from their frequency, is the way in which Ghanaians choose to attract my attention so that they can start a conversation. Often "obruni," or "obruni bra,"(white man come) are used to attract my attention, and as I've already mentioned obruni is not on my list of favorite words. The most common way people grab others attention, however, is by hissing. So, I'll be walking through sunyani and I'll feel as if I am surrounded by hordes of hungry snakes. As much as I would like to just tune the the hissing out and ignore it, I cannot because here in Ghana that would be quite rude. It is funny, because at home it would be rude to call over a complete stranger and demand a conversation, but here I am required by courtesy to at least say a few words. Most often the conversations are short and the people well meaning, as I mentioned before people most often just want to know where I am from, how long I am here, etc. There are however, slightly more annoying people, and those are the ones who like to use obrunis to get a good laugh. This often comes in the form of marriage proposals, requests for me to assist with hard labor, and the most common and most annoying, people who speak to me rapidly in twi and then break into hysterical laughter. I have learned that the best way to deal with these comic obibinis, (black men) is to just smile, nod, and continue on my way.
There is one more kind of interaction I have on a daily basis as a result of being white, and that is requests for money. Obrunis are not only seen as a source of amusement, but also as a source of money. The most difficult part about these requests, is that they most often come from children. I have seen next to zero beggars in Sunyani, but there are an abundance of school children who would love to have a little more spare cash in their pockets. Oftentimes, I'll just be walking to or from school, and kids of varying ages will come and grab my arms or hands, and then ask for money. As hard as it can be, I have to deny them all. I am going to be here for eight more months, and I definitely cannot afford to gain the reputation of being the obruni who is always leaking money. I do not have that hard of a time turning down the older kids, because they are often completely tactless. Apparently white people are so rich that you don't even need to be polite towards them, often they just say, "Obruni give me money!," and I have little difficulty turning them down. I cannot help but feel a bit guilty however, when I turn down the small, big eyed children who grab my hands so fervently.
Well friends, that brings me to the close of newsletter #4, I hope it has been enjoyable. I had intended to send this off more than a week ago, but I have to admit that I have been having quite a few problems with writers block, and hence it took me a bit longer to complete. The writers block was positive in one way however, and that way was that it gave me an idea. I realized that with each passing day life here is becoming more and more the norm for me, and there may be many things that you my readers might find interesting, but that I no longer see as so. My idea then, is to do a Q & A edition, or an edition that is at least part Q & A. So, please, if any of you have any questions for me that I have not covered yet, please send them to me so that i can incorporate them into my next newsletter. Also, if you have any suggestions as to how I can make these newsletters better please let me know!

Monday, October 6, 2008

Twene Amanfo Secondary School

There has been one big addition to my life since I last wrote, and that addition has been school. Twene Amanfo Senior Secondary School. The school year here is comprised of three terms, and this first term has been going for three weeks and will last until the middle of december. So, much as I would back at home in Bellingham, I now go to school monday through friday, from eight in the morning til three in the afternoon. Beyond that however, Twene Amanfo is drastically different than school at good 'ol Mount Baker, and so I am going to dedicate this post to describing me experience up til now at my new school.
Twene Amanfo is comprised of roughtly fifteen one story buildings that each hold three or four classrooms, as well as one three story building that contains about fifteen classrooms. The campus also includes a nice football pitch at its center, as well as an open air cafeteria and a small library. Practially everything on the campus is the school colors of green and yellow, from the buildings to the buses to the student's uniforms. Walking around the campus it has a nice open air feel to it, and it is also well complimented by trees bordering the walkways and the perimiter wall. The asthetic appeal of the place however, ends abruptly as soon as you step into a classroom.
The classrooms here are not dedicated to a subject, but instead are dedicated to a course and to all the students in a grade taking that course. So for instance, the course I chose is visual arts, and myself along with all the other second year students who chose visual arts sit in the same classroom all day, while the teachers who teach the classes that make up our course come to us throughtout the day. When I first heard how things worked here, I thought, OK, being in the same room all day will be sort of like elementary school, and elementary school was pretty fun. WRONG. These classrooms unfortunately, more closely resemble a prison cell than they do the cheery classrooms of my childhood. Gone are the colorful posters and art on the walls, the racks of books and the boxes and drawers of supplies. The classroom that houses Visual Arts Form Two is bare bones simple, as are all the classrooms here. A chalkboard stretches accross the front wall of the room, so smudged with chalk residue that it takes an effort to decipher the new additions teachers make. Filling the rest of the room are the wooden desks the whole school uses, desks that look much like the ones you'd expect to see in one room classrooms during the American Homestead period. They really are almost torture devices, the narrow wooden seat causes my butt to ache after only a few minutes of sitting, and the vertical wooden black allows for no slouching that might relieve my discomfort. The desks at home seem like Lay-Z-Boys in comparision. Apart from the desks and the chalkboard, the only other items in the room are two pieces of paper taped to the wall. One is a typed up paper encouraging students to study the bible, and the other is a handwritten schedule of classes from two years ago. Enclosing these few items are hostile cement walls, originally painted a dingy green, but now flaking badly and fowled by chalk graffititi and smudges of who knows what. I know my description must sound critical, but my intent is only to compare the classroom here to the classrooms I know back home. The classrooms at Twene Amanfo were built as they were, I imagine, due to limited funds, and for the way teaching and learning has evolved here they serve their purpose well. And plus, I'm sure having my tailbone put into agony by my desk each day really is an invaluable characer building experience, and ten years from now I will look back on it and smile.
The uninspiring classroom however, has not been the biggest adjustment for me in this new system. By far, the biggest difference I've had to deal with is the way teaching and learning are conducted here. At home, teachers talk about the different ways each of us learn, how some of us are visual learners, some are hands on learners, how some are oral learners, etc. Unfortunately, the teachers here didn't catch that memo, because almost everything here is based around taking notes, memorizing those notes, and then spitting them back out for tests. The only exceptions to that would be my three art classes, ceramics, graphic design, and GKA, (general knowledge in arts) where we occasionally will break from note taking to do a project. As a student who is used to doing a limited amount of notetaking, and lots of projects and assignments, this different style of education is unfortunately proving to be a bit on the side of boring. Luckily, I am partly saved by the prospect of getting to do some fun art projects, although there havn't been any so far, as well by a classroom of very friendly peers who are constantly making me laugh.
The teacher student relationship here is another big difference from home, and a bit of an unpleasant one too. Here in Ghana students are expected to not only be respectful and obedient to their teachers, but we are also expected to be totally submissive. While I am conforming to this as I must, I won't lie and say it is easy for me act as if the teachers are some sort of superior being. Saying, "Sir" and "Madam" and standing when we speak really isn't a problem, but it is a bit discomforting how the majority of the teachers take very little interest in us despite our good manners. I am sure that the teachers here care for their students just as much as teachers back home do, its just that they do not seem to feel the need to show it. This is difficult for me because back home I have friendly relationships with many of my teachers, and because of that has been a bit difficult being in an environment where my teachers are 100% business. They are also 100% percent into discipline and punishment, and witnessing the punishment has been amusing more than anything else. Their two favorites are caning students and making them pull weeds for hours on end, and there are many different ways you can have have them brought upon you. Being late, wearing white socks instead of black, having your hair to long, sleeping in class, talking out of place, answering a question wrong, being out of class when you aren't supposed to be, and that is just to name a few. They are also very fond of punishing people in front of the whole school. On the first day of school, they brought a girl whose hair was too long out in front of the whole school and beat her, and there have been several other similar instances since then. Its not as if they ever do any damage, but I'm sure that cane can leave some beautiful welts, although I am in no hurry to find out.
I hope this latest entry has been informative, and I apologize if it comes accross a bit on the negative side. I really do think they are trying hard to improve their education system and are making progress, unfortunately however this is a third world country so funds are a bit limited. Anyways though, to end I thought I'd just add a couple fun little tidbits that aren't negative and that should be a bit amusing.
-The chalk smudged chalkboard I mentioned is no longer chalk smudged. A couple of days ago it was re-blackened, with battery acid. All the students were asked to bring in one big battery, and then the batteries were broken open and the acid was poured into a bowl. A fellow student then used a rag to administer the acid to the board, when he was finished his bare hands were black up to the wrist with the acid. The board looks great though.
-Lunch at MBHS costs $2.50. Lunch here costs me 50 Ghana Pesewas a day, which is slightly less than 50 US cents.
-The bathrooms at the school are a bit primative. They are simply cement holes cut into the floor, accompanied by baskets of recycled notebook paper to wipe with. I make sure to do my business at home.
-We have been learning about how to use the internet in one of our classes. When the teacher asked how many students had used the internet, only two Ghanaian students raised their hands. I think at home 100% of the class would have. Also our school only has 4 computers and no internet access, so all the teacher could do was write stuff up on the board. It was a bit amusing to see www. and yahoo and google written up on this smudged up old chalkboard.
That is it for now, until next time I hope all is well back at home and I hope you all are doing well.