Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Now blow out your wishes and make a candle...

Birthdays, like New Years Eve are always anti-climactic. Everyone wishes you the best, and says have a great day! But what if it isn’t a particularly good day? Afterall, anything could happen. You could get your period and feel like a ten ton truck with a couple extra water filled tires hanging heavily around your waist, for example. You could get up, look in the mirror and see the dark circles of life settled deeply under your eyes.

You might just be facing a work day that is particularly stressful and have a pounding headache, and not enough time to grab a sandwich even for lunch.
It might just be that you find yourself completely alone on that particular day with nothing to do but contemplate all the far flung well wishes and your own self pity.
You might come home to a quiet house with yesterday’s chili in the fridge and reruns on TV…

Happy Birthday! I’d like mine postponed this year, and while you’re at it I’d like the number adjusted by 10 years.

I’d like a big surprise party so I could blush and feel special and then diamonds and other extravagant unnecessary luxuries to prove I’m loved. I’d like a chauffeur to pick me up and whisk me off to a spa for a day of full pampering and self indulgence.

But I’d settle for good health and savings in the bank. Uh oh, both those are in jeopardy this year as well.

Probably a good idea to skip the cake too, as the number of candles needed at this stage could crush the cake and start a fire!

Birthdays put so much pressure on you to be happy, be honoured and be remembered.

But what if deep down you know that you have a great family and friends who love you all the time and that you might get a random gift on an off day when no one is expecting you to, and won’t ask if you got spoiled on the big day?

Isn’t it just as good to have a great child, be in an amazing relationship, have a challenging job and dreams that are forming into tangible future plans? Is it not good enough to wake up to sunshine and warmth and two fried eggs on a plate?

Birthdays should give you a chance to reflect on how the year has disappeared and ask yourself what special moments you can remember. And then keep them with you. Birthdays should remind you that time is short and precious and irrevocable and that every minute, day, month, year you have should be filled up with your best. Loving those around you and laughing as much as possible.

I think I’ll dust off that bottle of champagne at the back of the liquor cabinet, pop it open and celebrate near 4 decades of an excellent life, and toast the effort to make the next 4 decades even better.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Exposing corporal punishment in Ghana schools hits a sour note

Yesterday in my response to an article on the virtues of Ghanaian schools, (or lack thereof), I received quite an earful/screenful from Anonymous.

I took a step back, digested his/her comments (highlighted below):

"I have read the article you quoted and to be frank your posting is much more biased and highly exaggerated in comparison.

In your hasty attempt to rebutt an article which, I suppose, does not conform to your idea of "Ghanaian education", you intentionally come up with half-truths and complete falsehoods to justify your entrenched perception.

That is a shame!

I am a Ghanaian. I, like many Ghanaian children, received my elementary and secondary education in an unimaginably poor rural area of Ghana, but I had a good foundation which enabled me to gain admission into an ivy-league college in the States.
We may not have had the very best of what money could buy, but certainly we did not recieve an inferior education judging by my grades in class.
It is totally false to claim that "students are not asked to write 'in their own words' about topics they read".In fact, we were taught never to copy from others but submit our own independent work every time.
Since when has teaching children to keep their environment clean become an abuse? In America, they have the money to hire peple to take care of the schools' environment, in Ghana the children help to clean. There is nothing superior about the American approach.
At least, we are not confronted with the issues of shootings and violence in many of the schools in the west. And the reason for that, if you care to know, is:Ghanaian children are taught to respect authority and not fear them,as you claimed.
Reading your post will not help the reader, because it is not only full of exaggerations, but outright antagonistic in nature.

Have a nice day!"

And then I came to the conclusion that my experiences and observations have not been imagined or exaggerated. Nor am I the only one to observe the things I noted. I realise that exposing the harsh truths about what really goes on in Ghanaian schools is something that many Ghanaians (especially those abroad)are not happy about at all.

There is a perception among many westerners that corporal punishment is negative, despite the circumstances, and therefore the truth of it being at the core of the Ghanaian school system is something often breezed over or brushed under the carpet.

I was then alerted to another article called "Ghana's School of Hard Knocks", in the Epoch Times, dated earlier this year, which could be considered biased by my anonymous reader, as this is written by a Canadian who teaches in Ghana, with a stepson attending school here. It's worth a read. Here is an excerpt:

" From the first moment of junior kindergarten, at the tender age of four, the cane enters the life of Ghana's school children. How else can teachers manage with classes ranging from 40 (the smallest I've heard) to 62? Teachers, breathe deeply.

The environment in schools is punitory. If a class does poorly on an exam, all the students may be caned. If a child's clothes aren't neat, his nails aren't trimmed, or he comes to school without a handkerchief, he may be caned. If he is late, it's the cane for sure.

" Having taught school here, I quickly noticed that the children are addicted to the cane. Without one in your hand, they feel it unnecessary to listen to you. They are like convicts in a prison, going wild when the guards are off the range.

I have noticed that children here often lie to avoid the harsh punishment. There is no emphasis on "goodness for goodness sake," or on internalizing moral reasoning—the moral code is governed by the cane. I worry that this focus on external may be the tiny seed from which corruption springs, and the popular idea that "if you're not caught, it wasn't wrong."

The trouble is that her observations are not false - I can relate to most examples she gives.

The question becomes whether corporal punishment is truly as bad as westerners believe, whether it hampers education and self confidence in children, whether it instills fear and develops the habit of lying, whether it is wrong morally and tramples the human rights of vulnerable children ... not whether it in fact occurs daily in Ghanaian schools. That answer is a resounding YES.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Corporal punishment and lack of teacher training in Ghana not to be idealised

I read an interesting article today by an American grant consultant, called 'Ghana offers some lessons in discipline, teacher quality', where he compares Ghanaian schools with those in Iowa, USA. With children having passed through both the public and private school systems here in Ghana, I found the lighthearted and naive assumptions and conclusions of the author to be disturbingly superficial.

The intention of the article was to stress both discipline and higher educational standards for the folks back home, but to praise both of these aspects of the Ghanaian educational system, without placing them in their context, with all their pitfalls, is also a dangerous stand to take.

There is a passing comment about the paddle that is present in the corner of every classroom. This American author would be no doubt suing the school board if his children were beaten with any of the implements used commonly in Ghanaian schools for ‘discipline’. He glances over what would be considered by western standards as a culture of child abuse in the educational system across Ghana.

Children are caned on a daily basis. The acts of indiscipline warranting the caning include being part of a class of 52 children, where one or two have not completed their homework or memorized a certain passage to perfection. My own son attended a semi private Ghanaian school for five years and came home with welts, having been beaten for this very reason, despite having completed the tasks himself.

When I confronted the teacher and principle I was told his skin was too soft and hence marks were left, and they could not be blamed for that. There is no guilt or shame among educators in Ghana for beating children. It is an integral part of the curriculum and culture. Students from as young as five years old are tasked daily with chopping grass with machetes and cleaning out gutters on the school compound. This again would amount to using children for manual labour by American standards, and again, not completing these tasks to the teacher’s satisfaction also attracts stiff beatings. The respect he commended in classrooms can be rather attributed to fear. Students may call their elders ‘Sir’ and “Ma’am’ but unlike the system in the west where often teachers are close mentors, in Ghana teachers and students have a relationship closer to dictator and servant.

I also came across an interesting article on the TimesOnline site, "African cane tames unruly British pupils". A teacher is interviewed at a Ghanaian school, "Children must be taught. You don’t sit down and discuss directions with a child – you tell them where to go,” he said. "Children are beaten for misbehaving or failing to do home-work, but not for poor results".

One of the students sent from the UK by his immigrated parents, Sienam, admitted that he had been caned “many, many times” by his teachers in Ghana. “Any time you do something you know you shouldn’t do or step out of line, you get caned.” It is the reality of the system.

Secondly, with regard to curriculum, the Ghanaian standard is modeled after the British system of the 1950s and 60s. The author must have seen on his many visits to Ghanaian schools, some of these textbooks taken directly from 1950s editions from the UK. The focus is on memorization and many times regurgitation. Essays which evoke the child’s imagination are not part of curriculum, and students are not asked to write ‘in their own words’ about topics they read about. What results, as a close American friend of mine teaching at the University of Legon currently experienced, is that 50 out of 60 students will submit THE EXACT SAME PAPER. She is now at a loss as to what recourse to take. I am not sure that American schools should encourage a return to this type of learning, when the school systems in the west have intentionally moved away from these methods, after realizing children gain irreplaceable skills by applying their knowledge outside textbooks.

I have yet another concern regarding the author’s assessment of the quality of teachers in Ghanaian schools. Constantly during my son’s five years at a prominent and well respected Ghanaian elementary school, I was shocked by the lack of basic grasp of English grammar amongst the teachers. They constantly marked wrong grammar as correct or even worse, corrected proper grammar with complete mistakes. The problem was not concerning only one teacher but many, and I can guarantee it is not an isolated problem with this particular school. The average pay for an elementary school teacher in Ghana is less than $200 per month, which does not attract the most talented pool. The wages and living conditions in the rural schools are even worse, meaning these schools suffer an even worse fate in terms of their faculty.

Kofi Annan, illustrated in the article as a typical example of the products of Ghanaian education, is the child of Ghanaian Royalty, having graduated from the then highly elite boarding school ‘Mfantsipim’ back when the British system resembled the contemporary curriculum of the day in the UK, is definitely not representative of the average Ghanaian child, with comparable opportunities. Especially in today’s Ghana.

In fact, he states that education is ‘mandatory’ in Ghana, and indeed it may be, but the reality on the ground is that the streets are lined with children hawking goods during school hours, and estimated figures are closer to 60% of urban children are actually attending school on a regular and consistent basis. The rural areas are nowhere near this figure. Many villages have no schools to attend, let alone the money for the fees.

Though I do agree it’s a good idea to get people in western countries with developed economies to stand up and re-evaluate their school systems and the lack of respect among the youth of today, I don’t believe that exonerating the educational system in a poor country like Ghana, with it’s lack of infrastructure and a culture of corporal punishment, is fair in the context given.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Shopping - Ghana style

The 'profession' of street hawking is alive and well in Ghana.

Today, I 'snuck' out of the office to run some quick errands during business hours, and found myself in a quagmire of traffic, taxi drivers shouting, the sun beating down relentlessly, in a snake of cars longer than a few CN cargo trains chained together. Completely stagnant and unmoving.

Instead of fuming and cursing endlessly to myself about how useless the traffic police are, in dealing with the constantly powerless traffic lights, and the fact that despite the massive explosion in urban dwellers and vehicles in Accra over the past 5 years, the roads have remained tiny one lane rivulets, letting cars trickle through like molasses down a rough canvass...

Today, imprisoned in the jam, encapsulated in my airconditioned 4x4, I busied myself by jotting down each item that a street seller pushed up to the chilled window, and below is the list, as complete as I could muster...

1. Shoes for boys and men

2. Magazines - Ebony, Time, Elle Decor

3. Brightly coloured soccer balls - with a head bouncing display by the seller

4. Shears for shaving your head (I must be having a really bad hair day to be offered these!)

5. Kitchen knife sets including the extra large cleaver for those bone cutting jobs

6. Small coffee tables - inscribed with the Ghanaian symbol Gye Nyame 'Except God', and polished with red and black shiny shoe polish

7. Soy milk, in a bowl of water (for chilling?)

8. Homemade peanut candy, cut in triangles and arranged in a bowl on the seller's head

9. Chinese branded pineapple crackers... hmmm

10. Bathroom scales

11. Men's leather belts

12. Lanterns (electric I think)

13. Socks

14. Cufflinks

15. Television remotes

16. Suit ties in fancy silk lined boxes

17. Plantain chips

18. Bread in sweating plastic bags

19. Water in clear plastic sachets (sold for biting the corners, sucking the contents and throwing the non-biodegradable shriveled remains on the side of the road - very popular)

20. Chinese New Year decorations for hanging on rearview mirrors (I have a feeling I'll be seeing lots of these in taxis soon)

21. Wooden walking canes

22. Pleather steering wheel covers

23. Rat poison and cockroach chalk (same seller)

24. Chinese Etah-a-Sketch boards - I got a demonstration!

25. A textbook called 'Americans in Literature'

26. Yams

27. Bottles of coke

28. Chilled tins of Milo (malted chocolate drink) in cooler box

29. Bathing sponges in rainbow colours

30. Wind-up toy spaceships

31. Brass bracelets

32. Ghana maps

33. Nail clippers

34. Mirrors with ‘I Love You’ inscribed on the bottom corner - hard to resist those...

35. Keychains with expensive car logos

36. Mobile phone prepaid units scratch cards

37. Sunglasses

38. Pleather passport holders

39. Bath towels

40. The Real Life of Barack Obama – somehow I knew it was a matter of days before these books would be at every traffic light

41. Toilet paper in 2 roll packs and 10 roll packs

42. Ice cream

43. Toothpicks

44. Laptop briefcase style bags

45. Hankerchiefs

46. Lawn chairs (I’m not kidding)

47. The History of Rwanda (I wonder where the guy found this book?)

48. Oranges

49. Earbuds

50. Shoe shine kit

51. Green apples

52. Red grapes

53. Chinese fans – for all this heat!

45 minutes later I emerged on the other side of the traffic light, waved through with 4 or 5 other cars by the military men in full gear and white gloves. I was finally headed to my destination, knowing that shopping malls are the silly construction of foreigners and take so long to get to, one could just buy everything along the way and turn back upon arrival.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Old Couple at Heathrow

Here they hover,

Two halves of a common whole

Strangers in their familiarity

Fussing and puttering; shaking

Settling at the table for tea

Together without words to string together

The regretful sagging bond that holds them

Year upon year in the face of inevitability

In the grizzly demise of self and spirit

Crumbs sit dryly on trembling lips

Mingle with the spots of age and the dissolution of vanity

Knobbled fingers grope and balance cups and napkins

Bruised veins betraying fragile surface

Muted mutterings, the fragility within…

But tender their need and knees

Barely touching under the table

Elaborate fans of printed news separating them

The explosion of paper’s bends and crackles

The only sound

But the communication is deeper
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