In-school Reading Scheme training – Libi Village

After our visit to Lahagu school we headed over to Libi Village. This is one of our furthest communities (about an hour by motorbike from Tamale) but thanks to Alhassan’s speedy motorbike skills we arrived ahead of the others.  This afternoon Alison and David would be beginning to train Primary year 6 students (aged around 15-16) to run a new in-school Reading Scheme.   Libi is a community we already work with and have a Play Centre there which has been running for the past 6 months. We set-up our Reading schemes in communities where we already have a Play Centres working well and the community are well mobilised.

Demonstrating how not to carry a heavy load Ghana style!

As we were early the headteacher of the school took me on a tour of the village. I was introduced to many of the community members, including some of our volunteers, the head of the PTA and the community Leader. All were so grateful for what Lively Minds had brought to their community already through the Play Centre –  I’ve never had so many handshakes and blessings! Some of the women insisted I tried carrying a bucket on my head – the only way to carry heavy loads over here. As my bucket was empty it wasn’t too difficult – and the women seemed to find it hysterical!

Walking round the mud huts it brought to light again the extreme levels of poverty the communities around Tamale are living in. There is no electricity or water linked to these homes. We headed back to the classrooms where Alison and David were just beginning the first training session. Alison speaking in English with David translating to Dagbani (the local language). The hour session first explained to the children about the Scheme and how over the next 6 weeks they would be trained how to read to the younger children in the school. The session was interactive with Alison asking lots of questions of the children as to why they think it’s important that they should be able to read, tell stories and translate/speak English.

Reading Scheme training. Alison & David explaining to the teenagers how they’ll be running the Scheme for younger children in the school.

We could see straight away that 2 or 3 of the children were incredibly bright – first with their hands up and answering all the questions ahead of the others. Of the 20 students only about 4 of them were girls – so Alison was keen to involve them in the discussion. We hope that through our programmes in communities like Libi – families will learn that it’s equally as important that girls stay in school and girls want to continue their education too. So over the next couple of years as we continue to work with Libi we would expect the numbers of girls in P6 to increase.

Alison reading aloud to the children to demonstrate how they they will be reading to their younger peers.

Alison then read Goldilocks and the Three Bears to the class with David translating. These children rarely have access to stories and books (when asked at the beginning of the session if any had books at home – only one did, and he only had 1 book) so it was great to see how mesmorised they were by the story. One paragraph at a time was translated with Alison stopping to show the pictures in between. After the story was read, she then asked the class questions about the story to make sure they had understood it correctly.  They all said how much they had enjoyed the story and were excited about the prospect of learning how to read in this way to their peers.

Our fantastic Libi Play Centre volunteers

After the session we then met with all the Volunteers from the Play Centre to thank them for their hard work running the Play Centre. We asked them questions about how they found teaching the younger children and so many of them put their hands up to tell us how teaching had benefitted them. As is common of the communities only one or two of them had been to school (and then only to primary level), so they had enjoyed the process of learning themselves and felt more confident in themselves. They were also loving the opportunity for all the women to come together.

Yudfashina – one of our Volunteers who’s benefited from being part of the Play Centre

Afterwards I had a chat with one of the women – Yudfashina. She told me that she had never been to school herself as she was often ill as a child. Now wherever she goes the children shout ‘Teacher is coming, teacher is coming’.  She said that the Handwashing (all children must wash their hands before starting the session and all households are given a tippy tap to use at home) had made a big impact on the community. The children were complaining less of stomach aches and were generally healthier. They had learned the importance of handwashing and she said that her own children always runs to the tippy-tap before they eat now. Yudfashina also told me that many of the women who didn’t put themselves forward to volunteer are now wishing that that they had too so she is very proud of herself that she volunteered and is making a difference for the children in her community.

Before we left Libi the headteacher said he wanted to present us with a gift to say thank you. Not your usual bottle of wine or box of After Eights. We were given a huge bag of yams – each the size of an arm and the weight of a couple of bricks!

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Selection process

It’s been a busy week so getting behind on my blog posts! But wanted to have the opportunity to write about all the elements of our programmes that I’ve seen during my 10 days in Ghana.  Tuesday morning was selection visits so  we all split up to visit 3 different Primary Schools. We work with the Ghana Education Service to find schools based in rural deprived villages – those who are the most in need of our support. We select based on criteria such as class sizes and look for poverty indicators such as level of basic amenities- type of water source, whether there is electricity provision, type of housing, distance to main road.  We also try to choose communities who do not have support from other NGOs.

Earlier this year we piloted an in-school Play Centre where we train woman from the community alongside the Kindergarten teacher to run the Centre in-school  – as opposed to in the communities. The women then come to the school 3 times per week to run the Play Centre for the Children. This also helps to improve the quality of Kindergarten teaching as often teachers will be untrained and classes are heavily oversubscribed. The pilot was a success, so we are looking to open more Play Centres in this way.

Lahagu school

Lahagu School

I went with Alhassan and John to visit Lahagu school.  I was amazed how basic it was… literally 3 classes and a small room which was the headteachers office.  There was one cupboard in the headteachers office with a pile of old books – all the educational resources this school had. We met with the headteacher and introduced ourselves, what we do and how the Play Scheme works. He seemed enthusiastic about the idea and supportive.  It’s extremely important that we have the buy-in of the school, PTA and community leaders – as they all have to work together to make the Centre a success. So we want to select communities who are willing to get involved so we can be sure the Centre will be sustained.

Lahagu school headteacher

The Headteacher at Lahagu School

The head teacher told us that there are over 60 children in Kindergarten (and just 1 teacher) and then 25 in Primary year one and 20 in Primary year 2. This means that many of the parents in the community are not sending the children to Primary years classes after they’ve completed nursery. By training mothers and engaging the whole community in the importance of education, we also aim to encourage them to send their children to school so that they can have the opportunity to reach their full potential.

After speaking to the head teacher we also met with a member of the community to find out more about the village. As expected – sanitation facilities were basic here, with the community mainly using water from a nearby dam.  We were not able to find the head of the PTA and the community leader today so John will return to Lahagu tomorrow to meet them and explain the programme.  We explained to the headteacher that together, with the community leader and PTA, he would need to put together a proposal for us (written or verbal) showing their commitment to the programme and the willingness of at least 20 women from the village who would each be able to volunteer once a week.

We met with Alison and David later who had visited 2 other Schools. Once we have seen/heard all the 3 proposals we select one to work with and begin to train them to run the Play Centre.  If more than one is suitable – we will work with the other community(ies) once the first has been set up.

We’re still small and our 4 members of local staff in Ghana (David, Alhassan and John in Tamale and Eric in Bolga) are working at full capacity to set up in new communities. We hope to grow over the next 12 months so we can employ more local staff and purchase more motorbikes, so we can reach even more communities and hundreds more children, whilst continuing to support our existing communities with more capacity building training and activities.

Play Centre Visit – Daboagshie Village

Today the Lively Minds Ghana team took me to visit one of our newest Play Centres in Daboagshie Village. About 45 minute motorbike ride away along very dusty and pot holed filled roads – I arrived looking rather orange from the dust! What’s special about this Play Centre is it was one of the three Centres our first group of International Volunteers – who left Ghana just 3 weeks ago – had helped set up.  So I was eager to see how the women in the village were getting on so I could report back.

Daboagoshi - Outside Play

Outside Play at Dabagoshi Village

As we arrived there was a hub of activity with children and women laughing and playing outside all around us. Possibly one of the most energetic woman I have ever seen was jumping around and singing with over 20 children who were all laughing, singing and clapping together.  I stayed around to watch a while in awe of her vivacity – she seemed to be having as much fun as the children!

Nearby there was a small undercover area (a raised concrete platform with concrete walls on 2 sides and a tin roof) where the Play Centre was in progress. I learned later that this small area was the Village school. I headed over to have a look inside.  I was thrilled to see that the Centre was running exactly as it should be by these mothers from the village. Lively Minds staff and our International volunteers had trained these women over 6 weeks to run the Play Centres themselves – teaching them how to make and use games. These games  may seem simple to us but the majority of women who living in rural communities have never been to school. We later found out that of the 35 women running the Centre in Daboagshie, only 2 of them had been to school – and both had only been in their primary years.

I walked around to watch the 5 ‘games stations’.  Each woman was sitting with 4 children playing a different game. They played each game once or twice with the children and then swapped with the station next to them. The games were very simple – counting games using bottle tops, dominoes made from cut-out sheets, matching colours and shapes  – so they are cheap and can be replicated easily give the limited resources available to these women in Daboagshie.

Play Centre at Daboagshie Village

At the end of the session we called all the women together for a feedback session. They told us that since they’d been trained they were successfully running the Play Centre 3 days per week. Each day consisted of 2 one hour sessions with around 20 children joining each session – so 120 children per week (all the children in the village) were able to take part and benefit. They told us how the children’s skills were already improving in the short time and that this was something new to them – without Lively Minds’ training they would never have games or play with children in this way. (Play is vital to a child’s development so the Centres really make a difference to the children). One woman told us that in the first 2 weeks they showed the children how to wash their hands, but not they all know what to do and run to the tippy-tap for handwashing before they start the Play session without being told. She also said that her child always washes his hands when he enters their home now too. (We give each of the woman a Tippy tap that they can use at home too).

The women were also benefitting – one told us how the games had taught her how to count in English as well as the children. They were also enjoying the opportunity to come together a few times a week (without the men) and enjoy themselves with their children.  Generally women would only come together in this way at religious or festival occasions. And they certainly were enjoying the social aspect! As there were so many of them (over 30) occasionally we struggled to keep the whispering and gossiping levels down when we were trying to talk! When it was my turn to speak (with David translating) I said how I liked it was the same in England – if you have a room of women together, everyone’s going to be chatting and gossiping.  After David translated for me, I was met with lots of smiles and laughter – so it’s clear to see that women are the same the world over!

Me with the women at Daboagshie Village

After we said our farewells and took some photos of all the women, we were just outside about to leave and suddenly the heavens opened. Sheets of rain and heavy thunder and lightning. We all ran for cover back in the shelter where the Play Centre was held, and there we had to stay for the next 45 minutes. It was then that I was hit with the harsh reality of how these villages were living in poverty.

Rivers of water were forming just by where we were sheltered . Some of the children were instructed to rush out into the rain to put out pails so that they would be filled with the rain water that would be used for washing, and probably drinking. Daboagshie village has no sanitation facilities and very limited access to water. The village was 45mins motorbike from Tamale – so town life and provisions are extremely inaccessible for these communities. It was so inspiring to me to see how joyful and full of life these women were, and they were so grateful to have been trained by Lively Minds staff and our International Volunteers, welcoming me into their community.

Downpour!

Finally when the rain subsided we were able to head back to Tamale. At the moment in Ghana it’s coming into the dry season, so there are still often downpours of torrential rain (as I saw today and also all through the night on Saturday). But in the rainy season it rains every day and often hours at a time. When conditions are like this, it’s impossible for our staff to reach communities by our motorbikes. Motorbikes are the cheapest way to travel, but our dream is to raise enough funds to be able to afford a 4×4. This would enable our staff to reach communities that our even further away from town (those living in the most poverty and would benefit even more from our programmes) and of course in all weather too.  So my new mission for when I return to the UK is to try and fundraise for a vehicle. So, if you’re reading this and keen to help, let me know! (julia@livelyminds.org)

Yipielnaayili Village Reading Scheme

I woke up on my first day in Tamale well rested after my 24 hour epic journey and extremely excited. First to meet our Lively Minds Ghana staff – David , Country Manager and Alhassan , Volunteer Coordinator – and also to finally visit one of Lively Minds projects.

Alison presented me with a helmet and my chariot to the village awaited – back of David’s motorbike. Having just met him shame went out the window as I clung onto him squealing a little as we hit the dusty pot-holed roads of Tamale. Didn’t take too long though before I relaxed into my new transportation mode taking in my new surroundings.

Arriving at Yipielnaayili Village

We drove to Yipielnaayili Village to monitor a Lively Minds Reading Scheme. The communities have extremely little or no access to books and a limited understanding of English. In years 1 to 3 of primary school children learn in the local language, but in year 4  lessons are in English – teachers read to them in English and pupils repeat the facts back. So children often have no understanding about what they are actually learning. Lively Minds provides the villages with books and Alhassan and David train teenagers (who Volunteer) from the villages to read them aloud to all the younger children in the village. First in English and then translated into the local language.  Yipielnaayili Reading Scheme was set up 3 months ago and runs every Saturday – so our visit was to monitor the Scheme to see how they were getting on and deal with any issues. Our Reading Schemes aim to promote a culture of literacy, story-telling and spark the imagination of children in the villages.

Children greeting me as I arrived. Here they’re waiting to wash their hands before they start the Reading.

As I arrived children were queuing up to wash their using tippy taps. I immediately welled up! I’ve told so many people and written about our handwashing project in numerous funding applications – so to see  it really working was amazing. Handwashing is incorporated into all our projects –  We train the volunteers in its importance and children must wash their hands before the Reading starts – this habituates them to this vital practice. The villages have little or no sanitation and dihorreal diseases are rife, handwashing is a simple prevention method. Ash was being used though instead of soap so I asked Alison why  – often soap is just not available to these communities, the friction of washing with ash is an alternative effective cleaning product.

The children were then split into 4 groups and over the next hour I went from room to room watching these amazing young volunteers reading to the children. One teenager would read a line in English, then the other would translate. They would then show the pictures in the books to the children. It was so lovely to see the children laughing at the stories. And some of the more confident volunteers acting skills! At the end of the book the children are asked questions about the story to make sure they have understood. When they get the answer right everyone claps.

Afterwards we held a meeting for the volunteers to get their feedback. All said that they were benefiting – their English and reading skills were improving and they were finding school easier.  They were also more confident and liked that the children looked up to them. They also said that the children were learning too, with one reporting how he had heard the children using phrases from the books when they were playing.

Fusayna, 13 years old, reading to younger children in the village

The highlight of my day though was speaking with one of our volunteers – a 13 year old girl called Fusayna. Out of the 14 volunteers she was the only female.  Before we left I asked if I could interview her to find out more. We try to encourage women and girls to volunteer to empower them and improve their child care techniques so future generations can benefit.  She told me however that other girls in the village were not interested or encouraged to becoming volunteers – so it is a challenge for us to break through the traditions of women staying at home and their beliefs that they should have equal opportunities.  Having trained as a volunteer Fusayna has been Reading at the Scheme for 3 months.  She told me “I used to be able to read but didn’t understand the translation but now I am understanding English more and learning too”.  I asked her what she wanted to be when she is older after she has finished school and she became very shy but proud to say that she wanted to be a teacher. I told her that I wanted to come back in 10 years and see her as a teacher.  I really hope she does!

After the day spent in the blistering heat in the field we decided to hit the town for some well deserved dinner washed down with a Ghanaian beer or two. (I have a feeling my blog posts will all end in this way!)

Boys reading to the younger children. One reads in English and the other translates in the local language. As you can see thoughg when I’m there the children are more interested in looking at me than the books!

Our group of young readers. All say how their reading skills have been improved by being part of the scheme

From London to Lively Minds Ghana…

I met Alison (Lively Minds founder) through a mutual friend – and watched in admiration as she has grown the charity to where it is today.  I’d been working in the charity sector as a fundraiser for the last 10 years so when Alison asked if I’d like to work for Lively Minds – I jumped at the chance and have been working  for Lively Minds for a year now in our London office (mine and Alison’s flats!). Spending all that time talking and writing about our work in various funding application and to our supporters who always ask if I’d been myself – I decided it was time to finally do so! I was really eager to see the projects in action and witness firsthand how the money raised in the UK is really making a difference.

I flew to Accra (Ghana’s capital) from London via Portugal (cheaper than direct flight!) and arrived at the delightful hour of 5.15am. I knew there was an internal flight to Tamale at 7am and it was going to be tight as to whether I was able to catch it in time as I had to get through customs, collect my bag, find the right place to purchase a ticket, check-in and board.  I strategically asked to be seated at the front of the plane from Lisbon so I was first off… and I was, and first in the queue as I ran there! I experienced immediately how friendly the Ghanaians are as I was greeted by a smiley customs officer who welcomed me to Ghana.  Finger prints taken and reason for my visit okayed  I rushed to get by bags – and after a little wait I grabbed them and headed out. I was immediately hit by the heat and a sea of taxi drivers trying to help me with my bags and take me somewhere! I politely refused and sweated my way carrying my heavy load – bags laden with books donated from the UK – to the other terminal.  Clock watch 6.15am I had a safe-ish 45mins to get the internal flight  (there’s only one a day the alternative a day in Accra with a very early wake up and journey back to the airport). As I staggered to the ‘Starbow’ kiosk I overheard the attendant telling the girl in front that there were no flights to Tamale today – the reason – Termites on the runway! I joke not.  The girl (I now know as Nicola and I also know her life story and she mine) was visiting her boyfriend for the weekend in Tamale. The attendant informed her she could take a 30 min flight to Kusami and from there a 3 hour bus ride to Tamale. Nicola asked if I would like to go with her – so I did!

We had a couple of hours wait in Accra Airport for the flight to Kusami – possibly the shortest flight I have ever been on – and from the airport took a Taxi to the bus station. I’d texted Alison from Accra to tell her not to meet me at Tamale Airport and my alternative plan. As I picked up phone reception in the Taxi I’d received a text back from Alison with the news (which I then broke to Nicola!) that the bus is ‘more like 5 hours, so make sure you try and get a good one with A/C’. 15 mins later at the bustling local bus station (ie no buses with A/C) we learnt that the next bus to Tamale didn’t leave until 11.30am (It was still before 9am!). There was however an alternative – we could take a bus to Bolga (2 hours North of Tamale) and if we ask the driver he would drop us in Tamale on the way.

Tickets for Bolga bus purchased we found out the bus only leaves when full!.  2 hours later all tickets were sold and we – bags and all – alighted the bus. It was a little tight but my rucksack made a good foot rest! 8 hours later I arrived in Tamale! (I will gloss over the part about the bus not actually dropping us at the bus station where Alison was waiting for me, but at the side of the road – fortunately another girl who got off with us was from Tamale and pulled over  a taxi and took that to the place Nicola was staying and Ali met me there !)

What should have been a 1 hour 30 minute flight was an epic 12 hour adventure! Though the last hour was a little nerve wracking – bouncing over pot hols in the road leading to Tamale in the dark and not knowing where I was actually going to end up in Tamale when I got there! – I’m actually really pleased I had the opportunity to see some of the country and experience travel the Ghanaian way. And make a new friend!   I saw too how the villages and roads changed as we travelled further north where people are living in poverty and the roads are plagued with pot-holes.

Sweaty, smelly and knackered I took a taxi with Alison to where we were staying. Just 24 hours door-to-door from Archway (North London)  pretty basic, but I have my own bed and there is electricity and water (sometimes!) so I am pretty pleased! I was surprisingly awake given I’d not slept for over 38 hours buzzing from my mini-adventure and the next week ahead of me. So after a lovely cold shower we hit the town for some well deserved dinner washed down with a Ghanaian beer or two.