Reached Tamale after a confortable trip from Accra: today I’ll take it easy. First impressions are quite positive: Ghana looks like what I hope other african countries I visited will look like in 10-20 years from now. The only problem is the heat… snow was still melting down when I left Italy and now I need to carefully plan each and every movement of my body in advance to save some energy. I guess I will get used to it in a couple of days, but today i’ll mainly hang around at the Lively Minds headquarters, drinking huge quantities of cold mate and reading a book about the war between whites and reds in 1920 Siberia (they surely had no heat-related problems). I am also quite satisfied with the first night spent in Tamale: not a single mosquito bite, not a single mosquito in sight! For that, I have good allies: a mosquito net in wonderful conditions covering my bed, but most of all spiders and lizards strategically placed between the windows and the anti-mosquito grids (after a few trips in the Amazon region I learned to mistrust accomodations deprived of such friends). Tomorrow I’ll visit the office and start my training.
I am so happy I’m going to work for human minds, rather than for human bellies. In post-war Angola my job had to do with food-aid programs, a one-way ticket to a world of corruption, injustice, greed, frustration and impotence. When Alison told me ‘no need to bring pens and stuff, we don’t do handouts’ I thought that Skype should really consider adding a little “hug” button !
Sitting here in my room in the Lively Minds house in Tamale, life is calm. The bustle and stress of my normal everyday life seems to have disappeared and instead has been replaced by relative peace and the occasional sound of a goat bleating. Things seem to move at a different pace here, almost as if time has slowed down. Everything takes far longer than ‘normal’ and I’m slowly growing accustomed to waiting over an hour after I have ordered food for it to arrive. Travelling anywhere, even down the road seems to take much longer and I’ve learnt that patience is the key. This is Ghana.
I’ve been volunteering with the Lively Minds team in Ghana for about two weeks now and it has been an incredible experience. During the week we travel by motorbike (or motion-sickness inducing tro-tro) to two remote communities about an hour away from Tamale. Within these communities we are setting up a play centre to be run by the local women, and a reading scheme to take place in the local school. Arriving in these communities is an experience in itself. As soon as the kids see us, they rush out to greet us and we commonly find ourselves trapped in a throng of excited, smiling children wanting to say hello. Disentangling yourself from this commotion can be rather tricky, especially if they notice you have a camera. Endless posing for the camera ensues until one of the locals chases the kids away so we can start our work.
Working in the reading scheme can be challenging because not all the children understand English very well and prefer to speak in their native Dagbani. Despite this, it’s amazing how much you can get across through simple actions and pointing. Spending time with the children is rewarding, but my favourite part of this trip has been interacting with the women in the play centre. These women have never been to school, are illiterate, and cannot speak English, which provides certain challenges when it comes to teaching them how to teach games. Additionally, in these remote communities, the roles and opinions of women are not held in high regard and women generally don’t speak in community meetings in the presence of men. As an Australian women who has always spoken up and been listened to, I find this incredibly frustrating.
Despite these obstacles, once you remove the local men from the equation it’s amazing how much you can teach through simple gestures and pointing. The excitement in the room amongst the women is contagious, and you really do get the sense that you are doing something positive for the community. Gradually the women are coming out of their shells and starting to realise that they can be influential, important members of the community. Slowly slowly my frustration is abating as these women grow more confident and I really hope that by the end of my time here I will have seen a calculable change in these women and that they truly are more empowered than they were when we arrived.
This was an intensive but extremely rewarding meeting! Following the meeting with the elders at the beginning of the week when we sought permission to set up the play scheme in the village, we asked for a minimum of 24 volunteers to make the scheme working. When we arrived we were greeted by over 30 women and the community hall quickly became quickly packed with excited young and very old women keen to hear more about us.
The objectives were clear. We were trying to get the women to see the importance of education, play and volunteering and to disperse any local taboos they were accustomed around volunteering their time. They are expected to teach their children through play for 1 hour per week and volunteer for their community for a period of two years for free. It was important to establish how many women attended the first community meeting and whether they heard about us from others in the community. This was an important indicator to assess whether they were forced to attend the scheme.
The women were divided into groups and asked to participate in discussions. With the help of Alhassan’s translations, I was able to ask simple but effective questions of these women. What surprised me was how difficult they found to understand why playing games with children was beneficial to children’s growth and development and all in the community.
The discussion was lively and each woman was keen to be heard. David, the manager skillfully geared unravelled the key concepts at the heart of Lively Minds and introduced them to women volunteers.
As an international volunteer and a woman, I felt I had an important role to play for Lively Minds in educating these women on the importance of play and education in their community especially for young girls and women, who seemed to be at a clear disadvantage.
One answer, in particular, stuck with me because of the way one lady responded. “The programme must be good because you come from Europe to be here with us” she said. I explained that we were here together because we collectively believed in the wellbeing and development of children, through education and play. They understood me and I felt satisifed to play such an important and positive role.
We left on an upbeat note; with hope that these women will return truly believing in the roles they could play as Lively Minds volunteers in their communities.
Today we arrived at the school to show the children the benefits of good reading. The aim was to reinforce drama and audibility in story telling and to make reading fun and interesting for younger readers.
When we arrived, the school was full of children, with headmaster present but no teachers. We learned that the teachers went into town to collect materials for the election campaign however we were expected to continue with our training. Classrooms were full of children, with very young ones seated at their desks and older ones keeping the school running. The children were extremely excited to see us and many have already got to know my name, I heard “Jadzia, Jadzia, good morning Madame Jadzia” everywhere. One girl walked up to me and with a serious face and asked to carry my bag into class. Childen were so good here and I felt so rewarded to be with them.
I peeked into one of the classrooms and saw one young boy standing up and reading aloud numbers 1-10 in English from the blackboard. I was extremely impressed with how keen these children were to learn, however I later found out that these pupils did not understand what they were actually reading as everything was based on repetiton and often teachers did not have a full understanding of all the materials.
The pupils we were visiting were much older, P5 and P6 pupils. We were there to train them so they could read to the younger ones in P1 and P2. David, the project manager, explained to children why we were here. We emphasised the techniques of good reading by demonstrating to children how to read well.
The story, which I read to children this time round, was about a “Noisy Farm”. The children were mesmerised by the story, the book was interactive with sounds and the children enjoyed pressing the button, to hear the sound of a tractor. They giggled and laughed. I laughed with them too and was very happy. We broke them up into groups and asked a child from one group to tell a story to the rest. We staright away could see two brighter children, which could read well but were in the younger group and lacked confidence. The point was to get the children to read out loud and to interpret their stories in imaginative ways using pictures even if they could not fully underestand the translations. A very shy boy stood up and started to read alound a story of “The Gingerbread Man”. He was one of the youngest boys from P5 and this book was one of the hardest to read. I was astonished how well he could read despite being the youngest in the class. I praised him for his reading and encouraged him to use dramatic techiques to tell the children the story. He was so pleased to be able to show me and his collegues what he could do and to be praised in front of the younger ones.
I was extremely proud of what Lively Minds was doing here. At the end the visit, children understood what we asked them to do and despite the lack of teachers at the beginning of our session, the visit went well and was well recieved by the children and the headteacher. We knew we still had some work to do and I could not wait to return! All the children did not want to let us go but waived goodbye to us for now and anticpated our next visit.
Early start to the day, the objective was to visit Kpilo School to set up a Reading Scheme for children in Primary School stages 5 and 6 and get them to read to younger children in stages 1 and 2. We wanted to get the children to understand the importance of reading and the difference it can make at home, school and whilst travelling to them and their families. The key message was to train the children how to read in a special way, which is fun and interactive so they could also read to the younger children and enjoy reading themselves.
We were already made aware of the sensitivity of introducing such schemes into schools and the interaction with the local teachers who often worry about being undermined or criticized. It was very important to us to get the teachers on board with Lively Minds.
Today was a lot cooler; it was the time of Harmattan blowing from Sahara. On the bike again, we whizzed passed clay hut villages, with many children smiling and waving, women going about their daily business, carrying water, food or cleaning rice.
We arrived there early and were greeted by the School Headmaster and his teaching staff. There were only 6 teachers for the entire school, they seemed nervous about meeting us. We introduced ourselves and met the full staff. We explained the value of Lively Minds and that it was there to support the students and staff, adding value to teaching and learning, not substituting it. It was nice to be greeted by teachers. The children were waiting in anticipation for us to arrive. In total, one class consisted of 48 children; only 4 girls were present. This reinforced the issue that Ghana faces in relation to education and participation of young girls and women.
My task was to demonstrate that reading could be fun and interactive. Equipped with a children’s reading book entitled Hippo’s Day I read the story to the children, often making them laugh through my imitation and facial expressions. It was great to see that every one of them was listening. They enjoyed the demonstration, the story telling, which engaged their imagination. Translating the story into local Dagbani helped them to be more receptive.
We promised to come back the following day with more stories.
The day started at 08:30 am where we prepared for our meeting with the Community Elders of Jarigu Village Today was important, we needed a full buy-in from the village, particularly the women, who we hoped would join our programme.
I climbed onto the back of the bike and we sped towards Jarigu for the community meeting. When we arrived the school headmaster greeted us. The community school hall was already filled with people. The Chief of the village was already seated at the front. His presence was important, it showed that he took our visit seriously and the villagers would listen. It was important to show respect and greet the Chief and the elders in the right way by bowing low and speaking in the local dialect. We were warmly received. Only a handful of women attended the meeting and the gender separation was clear, as most sat in the corner of the big community room.
With David translating into Daghbani, I was asked to introduce the Lively Minds programme. Each of us worked extremely hard and team work and communication was really important and each of us had crucial roles to play. Our objectives were simple, the community leaders needed to understand the programme and we needed to spark interest, we asked for the minimum of 24 women to volunteer and we clarified the criteria for volunteering. We asked a set of simple questions:
How many of you can read and write?
How many of you have paid jobs?
What are the causes of these?
Do you want your children to have different lives?
We demonstrated a set of simple counting and picture matching games and we asked the leaders to participate. These were simple, interactive and fun games aimed at 3-6 year old children but many of these grown up men did not seem to understand these games. It was important to explain to the community the benefits of children playing these games. The meeting went well and they appear to have enjoyed our demonstrations.
Convincing the Village Elders to see the value of play, education and volunteering was one challenge. The second challenge was to ensure that the women were not forced to attend the Lively Minds meeting but they come freely and saw the value in educating their own children. Coming from the Western culture, I was astonished to see how much power men tried to excerpt over the women by attempting to control the recruitment for the scheme. The meeting was turning unpleasant and we had to act quickly. I asked to speak which seemed to have worked. I reiterated the essence of volunteering, my role which I played for Lively Minds particularly as a woman and an international volunteer. I reached out to women in the meeting and told them that I especially come to see them and they themselves had to take the initiative and help their own communities otherwise this would not work. Women were the natural carers and home -makers, they were the natural ambassadors for Lively Minds as naturally they would share what they have learned with their children our of love and care for the benefit of the whole community. This seemed to have worked. I went over to greet the women and they welcomed me warmly.
We thanked the leaders and all we could do now is wait and hope that the participation at our next meeting with women was high and they come freely.