Friday, March 23, 2012

I left Ghana and flew home almost two weeks ago, but due to a little jet lag and a Spring Break trip to the Dominican Republic it's taken me a little while to post some final pictures and thoughts from my trip. Here are a few pictures of my last days at Happy Kids and the monkeys from way back. I spent my last week marching with the school for Independence Day and finally finishing the painting of the world map in the P5/P6 classroom. The map looks great and both our marching routine and my uniform were a big hit... our group won 1st place! 

The uniform

The group before the march
Lined up and ready to go
Madame marching with the Nursery Kids

All of Happy Kids

The teachers

Monday, March 5, 2012

"We are the famous Happy Kids School, we never shall die."

I’ve been spending lots of extra time during the afternoon and weekends at the Happy Kids School and boarding house. In the afternoon I help out with whatever chores the kids have to do (usually getting water or collecting eggs from the chicken coop) and on the weekends we’re free to play.

Almost done
Last weekend I was finally able to start the painting in the P5/P6 classroom that we’ve been planning for weeks. After having all of the kids draw a map of all of the continents as a part of a geography lesson a long time ago, they asked if they could color their maps and hang them on the wall. Their classroom was completely bare and lacks any paint or any color at all, so I thought it would be a good idea to paint one giant map on the back wall of the room. Madame Elizabeth was thrilled to hear that I wanted to paint so I told the kids I would take on the project.Two of the oldest boys, Atta Joshua and Kodjo Etornam drew the continents on the wall with chalk and then we started painting. By we I mean me and the 20 kids that eagerly followed me from the boarding house to the school to paint. Keeping 20 kids ages 10 to 16 on task without making a complete mess has been a challenge. I was told to use kerosene to get the paint off of unwanted places, so cleanup is always eventful and usually involves me pouring kerosene into their hands or rubbing their arms with a rag soaked in kerosene. I was concerned at first, but one of the other teachers told me that kerosene is just like paint thinner and always used remove paint. Apparently the kids basically bathed in kerosene after painting the boarding house. I’ve snuck to the school to paint without the kids a few times just to avoid the whole cleanup hassle. We’re almost done, but I definitely underestimated amount of time it would take and the amount of paint we would need to cover the wall. 8 days after starting and a few trips to the store for more paint and brushes the map is looking good. 
Kodjo drawing the continents
Atta painting

Ghana will be celebrating Independence Day tomorrow so Happy Kids (just like every other school in the country) has been preparing for the annual march. On the 6th all of the school kids gather in a local park or town square and march (like soldiers) in a competition to be named the school with the most original and polished routine. Happy Kids has been practicing tirelessly for the last three weeks in order to take the number one spot in the village of Gbi Wegbe for the second year in a row. For the past three weeks, after opening the day with the Happy Kids Preparatory School Song, the kids have spent time practicing their march. I practiced with the girls for a few days before being told by the headmistress that my form was good enough to join in the competition. I now fall in line every morning next to the oldest girl in the school and march around outside of the school under the direction of Felix who has taken on the role of drill sergeant. The “Sir” or as I call him, Felix, orders us to keep our lines straight as we march, lift our arms shoulder level and mark time loudly with our feet. We spend at least an hour every morning practicing and just added in our “style” or dance that will be added to our salute. The 6th March is no joke and all of the students take it pretty seriously so I wasn’t sure if I would make the final cut until the headmistress let me know that I would need a uniform like the other girls. Tomorrow morning I will be ready to go, in my new green and yellow short sleeve pleated dress. I promise to share some pictures.

Prince and Eric on the
tire swing after school
(they're both in the KG class)
Breaking news... there’s a new teacher at Happy Kids. Around the same time he started, the regular kindergarden teacher disappeared. Because the new teacher was hired to teach my P5/P6 class I was bumped... again. I’m not the most patient person in the world and had a solid routine with the older kids, so I was super bummed about the move down to the outdoor kindergarden class with 17 rambunctious 5 to 8 year olds. Happy Kids starts teaching kids English when they’re still in the nursery, so luckily the kids all know basic English. With the help of one of the nursery instructors I was able to quickly establish some solid behavioral expectations and quickly move into their English. We’ve been working through the alphabet day by day with each day dedicated to one letter. The skill level of the class is greatly varied and some of the kids haven’t really been taught how to write yet so we spend the morning reviewing the sound of the letter and doing different reading or writing activities. If I’m feeling fun, we do some sort of arts and crafts activity or word game focused on the specific letter. This is my third week with the KG 1 & 2 class and while it was definitely a rough transition to make, I’m slowly establishing a new routine.
The move to the kindergarden class means that I’ve taught all but one class at Happy Kids. When the headmistress pointed this out to me I also realized that currently I am the teacher at the school with the most seniority. My 7 weeks at the school is longer than all of the other teachers except for the 2 women in the nursery and the computer teacher (who hasn’t taught in a while because none of the computers work). Two of them are the headmistress’ kids and also live in or right next to the boarding house.

Speaking of teachers, I feel like I should properly introduce all of the Happy Kids staff members.
Madame Elizabeth is the headmistress at Happy Kids and one of the women who started the school in 1995. While she doesn’t have an education background, she lives in the boarding house with the kids and is basically raising all of them. She is super friendly, but strict. Sister Pat is Madame Elizabeth’s daughter who works in the nursery (or teaches kindergarden when they’re left without a teacher) and handles most of the administrative duties of the school. She’s the voice of reason at Happy Kids, which is great because she’s hilarious and the kids love her. Immanuel is Madame Elizabeth’s son and the ICT (Information Computer Technology) teacher at Happy Kids. They used to have a few nice Dell computers, but they all died recently so Immanuel just fills in for whatever teacher is missing when he’s there. Makafe is the main nursery ‘instructor’, but spends most of her time just watching the 40  2 to 4 year olds in the nursery. She’s 22 and very quiet, but always lets me steal kids from the nursery and is willing to help me figure out how to properly tie the fabric to carry a kid on my back. For the past few weeks I've been heading into the nursery to take one of three kids into my classroom. Mommy, Kofi and Frances are all new to Happy Kids and seem to enjoy getting out of the crowded nursery every once in a while. Frances is only 18 months old and loves sleeping on my back while I’m with the kindergartners.


Felix is the teacher who was hired to take over my original P3/P4 class. He’s 25 and recently graduated from a teachers college here in Ghana. He’s a trained teacher and knows what he’s doing which is good, but he is quite the character. He’s a bro and the kids think he’s great even though he always seems to be making them run errands for him, canning them with a stick, or embarrassing them in some way. He makes the kids dust off his shoes when they get dirty and his favorite response to a wrong answer or silly outburst is, “Oh, you’re a fool!”. I’ve seen him hit kids with a Bible during Wednesday worship service and his favorite punishment is making kids kneel in the front of the room or in the dirt outside of the school. On Friday, all morning classes were cancelled because he bought a net to setup a new volleyball court at the school. He made the boys trim the grass and clear all of the brush and palm tree leaves out of the way and then made them play in order to “build their physical education”. He sounds horrible, but we get along great and helped me tailor a few English lessons to the small P5/P6 class. I think he’ll be a great source of stability for the school.

David is the newest addition to the Happy Kids team and is now teaching the P5/P6 class. He’s very quiet and pretty much just doing whatever Felix tells him to do for now. 

Due to Independence Day, the school is closed tomorrow and Wednesday, but I’ll probably spend both days with the kids. Tomorrow for the march and Wednesday just hanging out at the boarding house. Friday is my last day at the school and I’m sure that saying goodbye to the kids will be the hardest part about leaving. 

Random Things I’ve Noticed/Learned:
  • I wake up early some mornings to walk around the neighborhood and am always surprised at how busy Hohoe is at that time. Everyone seems to have been awake for hours and well along in their daily routine. People are always friendly but usually seem confused as to where or why I’m walking that early. I’ve noticed that the guys on their way to work with machetes tend to be the friendliest and they always wish me a fine morning. 
  • I let the kids take turns using my ipod while painting if they were well behaved. It was a great way to keep them from painting all over each other, but they were disappointed to see that I don't have any Beatles songs on my ipod. Their favorite artists seem to be JayZ and Cee-Lo Green.
  • Everyone calls each other “Chalie”. It’s like bro or buddy and has slowly made its way into my vocabulary.
  • Someone sent a box of toys to the boarding house last week. The toys that the kids are most excited about are the Sing-A-Ma-Jigs that sing weird songs and talk to each other. The young kids are kind of scared of them, the girls think they're strange, but the older boys love them. 
  • The best way to add a dramatic effect to any statement in Ewe is to start or end it with ‘oh’ or ‘la’. 
  • If someone wants a coconut at the Happy Kids boarding house, one of the boys just climbs a tree and throws one down. I’ve thought about suggesting that someone just throws down a bunch at once to store in the kitchen, but their way just seems to be more fun.

The Sing-A-Ma-Jigs

Atta going up the tree for a coconut

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Winner, Winner, Chicken Dinner

I realize it’s been a while since my last post, but I’ve been keeping myself busy here in Hohoe. The past two weeks have been filled extra hours at Happy Kids and visiting the regulars around town. I was glad that our schedule finally calmed down a bit and we stopped doing all of the touristy Africa stuff. There are a lot of new things going on at Happy Kids so I’ll dedicate a full update on that sometime soon, but for now I’ll share the story of my chicken dinner.

A while back I mentioned to the guys at the shop that I wanted to kill a chicken and cook it. They said that would be easy to do if I actually went through with it... so last weekend we made it happen. I figured since I’ve eaten a lot of chicken in my lifetime and was sure to be continuing my carnivorish ways I should be able to do it myself. We scheduled a large saturday chicken dinner complete with yams and kelewele (fried plaintains cut up really small and cooked with lots of spices). 
The Chicken Coop
After some questioning about what would be involved in killing the chicken, I learned that Courage had the most experience in killing animals to cook them so we took the lead on the meal. We went to a nearby chicken coop where I sized up the chickens and picked out one of the fatter hens. The woman tied up its legs and its wings and Courage and I made our way down the street to begin preparing the meal. The word had gotten around that I would be killing a chicken that afternoon so all of the guys gathered at Godson’s house to witness the event. 

Before the killing
I’ll skip all of the bloody details, but the whole thing was much harder than I thought it would be. Long story short... we dug a hole, pulled some feathers from the chickens neck and I was instructed on how to properly hold the chicken in order to cut his neck and let the blood spill into the hole. I got about half way through when I just couldn’t do it and Courage quickly stepped in to put the chicken out of its misery. 

We then dipped the chicken in boiling water to loosen his feathers, plucked it, burned the extra small feathers off and watched as Courage butchered it up. I’ll save the pictures of the butchering for those who are really interested. After the chicken was all cut up we boiled it with lots of seasoning and fried it with our little outdoor stove. Once the yams and kelewele were ready we gathered around the table to eat Ghanaian style, with everyone using their right hands to dig into the piles of food in the middle. The guys made sure that Mike and I got the best pieces of meat and they wasted none of the chicken. Almost every part of the chicken was eaten including the head, feet and bones in the legs. The kelewele and the yams with the special red sauce were delicious, but the chicken was too tough for me. 
Ready to be plucked
Boiling before frying the chicken
We spent the rest of the night sitting and talking outside after toasting to new friends and me killing my first chicken. I say first because we’re planning another big dinner for before I leave. I’ll either get another try at a chicken or move up to a turkey.

Random Things I’ve Learned/Noticed:
  • Real cheese doesn't exist here. They have the small spreadable Laughing Cow kind, but that's it. The kids in my class had no clue what cheese was and it's really hard to accurately describe.
  • When I walk around town by myself, I don't get the Yovo call or get followed by herds of waving children. I've also noticed that more and more people try to talk to me in Ewe when I'm out and about and are surprised when I respond in English.
  • Because thin plastic bags are cheaper than plastic bottles, many items are sold in a little plastic bag of some sort. Pure water comes in a 500ml bag, salt is sold in a bag and bars sell little baggies of gin or bitters. It's a good way to keep costs down, but all of these bags just end up on the side of the road. 
  • Rainy season started last week so we've been getting a solid 30 minute storm every other day or so. The rain is good because it cools everything off, but has also brought out tons of bugs.
  • Midterms were last week at Happy Kids any didn’t involve exams of any kind. Midterms mean that all of the students at Happy Kids must have half of their semester school fees payed. The school was closed for two days so that students who hadn’t payed yet were able to go home to help their parents earn the money. The few kids that hadn’t payed spent the two days helping their parents in their shop, working on the family farm or selling items at the market.

Monday, February 13, 2012

A Snake and a Goat

It's been an eventful weekend...

A huge snake was spotted behind Happy Kids, from my window on Friday morning. The entire school instantly paused all classroom activities to try to kill it. Apparently this happens quite frequently because there was a definite plan of attack. This is the 10 step plan to catch a snake on the run around the Happy Kids School:

Nelson during the snake hunt

1. If the snake was spotted from a 2nd floor window, drop a huge slab of cement on it  
     a. If the snake runs, it's alive and needs to be chased. Continue to step 2.
     b. If the snake doesn’t run, it’s dead and no more work is needed
2. Alert all of the teachers, nursery staff and the headmistress about the snake sighting
      a. This will cause all of the students to run outside to join the hunt
3. Gather all objects that could be used to fight off or spear the snake (this should include 4x4’s, long pieces of plywood and metal pipes)
4. Assemble a watch team to stay on the 2nd floor to keep an eye out for the snake or any sudden movements in the grass
5. Find matches
    a. If matches can not be found in the office, get the fastest boy to run to the boarding house to get a new pack of matches
6. Light pieces of the brush on fire in areas where the snake could be hiding to flush him out into the open
    a. If snake doesn’t respond to the original flame, light lots of little fires to scare him
7. Chase snake to new hiding spot while throwing rocks at it (this step is tricky because some people will want to run away from the snake)  
8. Stand on alert near the snake’s new hiding spot with spears ready to attack
9. Throw an occasional rock into the bushes to scare the snake
10. If the snake cannot be found, return to step 6
Looking for the snake after
starting the first fire
Everyone on alert at the snake's
new hiding place
Some of the 2nd floor lookout team

The big palm tree next to the school was
set on fire after returning to step 6
We chased the snake from behind the school into a heavy brush area with a big palm tree and weren’t able to find it. When we returned to step 6 of this process, the headmistress instructed someone to light the palm tree on fire. The tree burned for a while, but the snake was no where to be found. We finally gave up and headed back inside after we had been on the snake hunt for about 45 minutes. The new teacher, Felix, thought that the snake had run away, but everyone left their branches, pipes and pieces of wood by the front door of the school so they could get to them faster if the snake was spotted again.

I don’t think theres a way to ease into this, so I’ll just put it out there. I ate goat on Saturday. 

Nicole and I headed into town to meet up with the guys at the shop and were reminded that we would be spending the afternoon making fufu. Saturday was Nicole’s last day in Hohoe, so a special meal was  needed to properly see her off.
The soup
Fufu is a popular dish here in West Africa and is usually prepared with cassava and yams or plantains. (We used cassava and plantains.) Preparing fufu is a strenuous task that involves boiling the cassava and plantains and then pounding them into a dough with a huge wooden mortar and pestle. The dough is then eaten with a special soup with a tomato base and added onions, green peppers and ginger for flavor. Because Saturday was such a special occasion, our soup included a whole Red Fish and some goat meat. I helped cut up the vegetables for the soup, but was only able to help a little with pounding the cassava and plantain. This is by far the hardest I’ve ever seen anyone work for a meal. As the cassava got doughier, I could barely even lift the pestle out of the mush to mash it more. Courage and Enoch took turns pounding the starchy foods into dough for about 40 minutes while I held the bottom of the mortar in place with my feet. 
Pounding the Cassava
Courage. The fufu master.

Once the dough was done, the soup was poured over it into a bowl and set on the table. After washing only my right hand in the water bowl (as is custom here in Ghana because the left is considered unclean) I pulled up a seat around the table with Nicole with the 4 guys. Everyone dug in and after asking a few questions about what exactly the goat meat would taste like, I finally tried it. I was nervous but it wasn’t bad at all... kind of like a more chewy piece of beef. I told the guys I thought the meet was really chewy so they gave me a different piece to try. I noticed the texture was completely different and when I asked why, they said because that was a liver piece. After hearing that, I quickly traded my piece of goat meat in for some of the red fish. I thought the fish was great, but it took me a while to figure out how to eat around the bones while only using my right hand. I’ll need a little more practice and don’t plan on eating any more goat, but was glad to finally have a truly traditional Ghanian meal. 

All of us around the table
The so-called Red Fish that
went into the soup... whole

The final meal

While we ate, one of the guys shared a story about his experience killing a goat and the rest talked about other foods that they thought we should try. I told them that I want to kill my own chicken, pluck it and cook it with them before leaving. They said that wouldn’t be too hard to do, so we’ll see.

Random Things I’ve Noticed/Learned:
  • 'I’m coming' means a lot of different things, but usually never ‘here I come’ or ‘I’m coming right now’. Most people say 'I’m coming' to mean ‘hold on’, ‘I’ll be there in a minute’,‘I’m leaving for a while’ or ‘I’ll be right back’. This may sound confusing, but I usually can figure out exactly what they mean.
  • The majority of people in Hohoe are Christian, but there is a small Muslim population who lives in their own special area of town. I thought the separation was interesting, because all of the Muslim residents of Hohoe only live in that part of town. I finally crossed the bridge and ventured into the Muslim part of town this weekend. Like in the rest of Hohoe, everyone was very friendly. The only real difference is that most Muslims in Hohoe speak Housa amongst themselves, not Ewe.
  • Sitting under a big mango tree is usually the only option for air conditioning. There's lots of shade and usually a nice breeze.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Mia Dogo. We will meet again.

The Crafty Art Shop
Last weekend was the first weekend that the whole group stayed in Hohoe instead of taking some sort of trip. I was glad to have some down time, but even more excited to have time to visit the people I’ve met around town. A few of us had spent some time looking at the artwork in one shop called ‘Crafty Art’ where the guys inside always invited us to stay and hang out. Last Friday afternoon, we had the time and finally went down to the shop just to talk. We easily spent 3 hours there just getting to know the guys that work there and talking about anything and everything. We talked about music, gender roles, the upcoming presidential elections in both Ghana and America and the term African-American. They are a special group and kind of remind me of some friends from home. Their group includes the quiet artist, the politician, the goofy little brother, the lovable drunk and the renaissance man who draws, paints, sings and writes poetry. The conversation in the shop is always interesting, but I am always most impressed by the artwork they are able to create almost effortlessly. Their rasta friend comes around every once in a while, but they don't seem to ever know what he's doing. I’ve seen numerous paintings sketched and completed and chairs carved out of wood while we’re just there hanging out. Here are a few of pictures of some of the guys.

Inside the Shop 



Free Hands
On both Friday and Saturday nights we met up with the guys from the shop at our new favorite spot, Obama Gardens. We gathered around a large table (with our favorite server Divine) and taught each other our favorite drinking games. The guys seem to like 4 and Kings the most and I am excited to bring the shoulder game (better known as free hands) back to the States. 

On Sunday morning, myself and another volunteer attended Assemblies of God Pentecostal Church with our staff member Rebecca. We arrived for Sunday School a little after 8:30am and the morning service started promptly at 9:30 as promised. The service and style of worship was very similar to Pentecostal services I’ve seen in the U.S. with lots of singing and dancing. The choir even sang a song that I recognized from my home church, “Higher, Higher”. The one thing that surprised me was how many people from the congregation were invited to the front of the church to speak. One man came up to give a large donation to the New Building Fund and told a lengthy story about how he had came about the money. Others were specifically asked to come up to testify and some just wanted to make an announcement. I also thought it was interesting how much time was spent speaking against the recent decision of the United Nations (and the U.S.) to pressure Ghana to be more accepting of homosexuals. 

I’ve experienced an occasional long sunday church service before, but didn’t account for the time it would take for everything to be translated from English to Ewe. A translator had a microphone during the entire service which means everything was said twice. I enjoyed the service, but around 12pm we realized that we hadn’t asked anyone to save lunch for us so we decided to leave early and head home. I told Rebecca that I would be sure to come back with her another Sunday.
Ghana is currently playing in the African Cup of Nations which is a huge deal here because the Ghana Black Stars are so highly ranked worldwide. Sunday evening we headed back to Obama’s to watch the quarterfinal match against Tunisia. We piled into a large outdoor tiki hut and gathered around a 20inch TV with 40 or so other people. The crowd was hilarious and was very happy to see that we were cheering for Ghana. A few red cards and an overtime later, Ghana won 2-1. We immediately poured into the streets with the rest of Hohoe. It was 10pm on a Sunday night and pitch black outside, but the whole town seemed to be out celebrating. Kids ran through the streets singing while their parents gathered together to bang pots and pans. All of the cars and motocycles on the road speed past beeping their horns and flashing their lights. As we headed towards home we discovered that a big crowd had gathered in the town square to dance around the statue and sing Ghana’s praise. I’m sure this celebration was more exciting than any Superbowl party that happened on Sunday. Ghana lost the next game in the series, but I'm still amazed at the level of spirit people here have for the Black Stars. 

My free time this week was spent visiting new friends and learning more about the everyday happenings here in Hohoe. My usual stops are at a shop in town to say hello to ‘grandmama’ and her grandkids, my favorite seamstress Divine and of course the guys at Crafty Art. All of these people have been so welcoming and have really made me feel more connected to Ghana. I’m looking forward to spending more time with all of them and now know to say mia dogo upon my departure to let them know that we will meet again. I'm sure that it is the relationships I'm building with the people around town, our staff members and the other volunteers that will make this trip such a great experience. 
One of our security guys, Immanuel
and one of the neighbor girls

Grandmama's Shop
Learning how to weave Kente

Random things I’ve noticed/learned:
  • If you want to get the cheapest price for a cab, you must be willing to stop and pickup others who are headed in the same direction. I got a ride for less than half of the usual price after riding with 3 other adults and a baby in the backseat of a regular sized taxi. 
  • Most barbers here use regular clippers to cut hair. The only real difference in hair cutting techniques is the use of an open flat razor blade to lineup the edges. The kids at Happy Kids cut each other's hair using only an open flat razor blade and a comb. 
  • Public Displays of Affection don’t happen here in Hohoe, among any age group. They’re highly frowned upon and the occasional couple holding hands or walking arm in arm definitely stands out. It is common, however, for friends of the same sex to hold hands as a sign of their friendship. 
  • The town of Hohoe starts to run low on water as the dry season comes to a close. This shortage caused us to lose running water at the Home Base for a few days. We still had access to water, just not through the pipes so I'm slowly getting used to bucket showers.
  • Wednesday morning is worship time at Happy Kids. A teacher leads the students in a bible study kind of service consisting of a song, scripture and prayer. I was surprised to see that an offering was collected and the kids were asked to give any extra change they brought to school that day. One of the teachers told the students that their “coins could go towards ice cream or the Lord.” That's a rough choice for 2nd through 6th graders to make, but I noticed that most kids who had change quickly gave it up. 
  • Never Eat Salty Watermelon is the most commonly used mnemonic device to remember the proper North-East-South-West order. 
  • Friday is gameday at Happy Kids and most other schools around Hohoe. Classes end at the 10:15 break when kids run to the park to play soccer. While the boys play soccer, the girls jump rope and play handgames. These girls are the highest and quickest at jump rope that I've ever seen.
Charlotte jumps so high!
Some of the boys getting ready for
the weekly Friday match