Thursday, March 31, 2011

Say what?

 Since Twi is the first language for Ghanaians from the Ashanti region, they will often lapse into it when they have trouble understanding something.  ICT training is a great example of when Twi works better than English. Most of the heads of the schools have had little experience with computers before now, which means that they often have trouble understanding the explanations I give them, even when I try to use plain English and lots of gestures.  That’s when Eugene will step in.  His explanations in Twi generally result in “Eureka!” moments that are much more rare when I’m the one doing the explaining.

Ghanaians also tend to speak in Twi when discussing matters of extreme importance or controversy, like how to fund this program going forward.  According to MCI’s website, “MCI accomplishes this [helping select cities become viable, sustainable ‘Millennium Cities’]  through a combination of research and policy analysis, and by working with local, domestic and international partners to stimulate economic and social development.”  My personal translation of this statement is that MCI doesn’t give money, they give knowledge and support.  But in a country where the GDP per capita is $1700, as compared to the $47,400 for the US (thanks, CIA World Factbook), the average of 300 cedis (~$200) needed monthly for the recurring costs of this program (electricity, Internet access, maintenance, and security) is no small sum.  Since the heads are the managers of their schools, it falls on their shoulders to figure out how to fund this program.
During this week of training, they’ve had many long conversations on the future of this S2S program, having long conversations in Twi about funding but also about future training and everything else under the sun.  Since I only speak a few words of Twi, I generally don’t pay much attention to these discussions.  But one particular comment caught my ear.  During this extended discussion of the program funding, one of the heads said something along the lines of:
“Blah blah, blah blah blah blah blah KMA blah blah blah blah Head Teachers meeting.”

I thought I had an inkling of what they were discussing, so I piped up with, “I’m not certain what you’re discussing, but if you’re talking about someone from KMA coming to the Head Teachers’ meeting and the Steering Committee meetings…” and proceeded to tell them what I had learned at a meeting at the Metro Office on this topic.  I had guessed correctly on what the head meant.

When I finished speaking, a few of the heads were astonished by my contribution to the discussion and asked me, “Do you speak Twi?  Did you understand what we were saying?”  For half a second, I considered telling them that I did just to see their reaction (since I found out later that they were also discussing my going-away party that they’re holding tomorrow morning at the end of the training), but I was honest and pointed out that I knew very little Twi, but hearing the words “KMA” and “Head Teachers’ meeting” helped me make a very educated guess.

Throughout this week, I’ve been reminded of how much of what we say is unspoken.  When Eugene steps in to explain an ICT topic, I have the advantage of knowing his topic, but his gestures and occasional English words would make it possible to follow the conversation even if I didn’t know.  Listening to someone’s tone of voice and watching their body language is a sure sign of what they’re really thinking, especially if the words don’t match the gestures.  Learning to read people better is a skill that I’ve had to develop as a survival skill in this very different culture.  I hope to carry it back with me when I end up on more familiar ground.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

“If we took a holiday…”

Five months into my stay, LJ had the opportunity to come see me here in Ghana.  Due to our busy schedules, he unfortunately didn’t have time to come up to Kumasi to see where I’ve lived for all this time, but instead we spent a long weekend along the Ghana coast.  It was a last hurrah for Nela and Steffi and me as well, as they are both leaving at the start of April. 

Getting LJ here took way more effort than I would have expected—and not because he didn’t want to come.  Obstacles were thrown up at every turn, starting from the inability of the US Post Office to deliver “overnight” mail in less than four days.  LJ sent his passport out at the beginning of March by overnight mail, but due to the USPS’s incompetence and a poorly timed Ghanaian holiday celebrated on March 7 (Independence Day, March 6, fell on a Sunday), the passport took a week to get to the Ghanaian embassy in DC.  Perhaps surprisingly (given “GMT” meaning Ghana Man Time), the Ghana Embassy processed it within the 72 hours rush job that was requested.  On the way home, it took the post office only three days to send “overnight” mail, so at least they’re improving.

His trip over here was also a mess due to a 2.5 hour delay on the RDU to Dulles flight that LJ needed to take before the Dulles-Accra leg.  LJ travels enough for work that he knew how to get himself put on another airline (Internet tells me that it’s based on Rule 240 from many years ago)—but that one landed in Reagan National, not Dulles.  A $65 cab ride got him to the correct DC airport with maybe a half hour to spare.

After the craziness of his travel planning and of my intense workshop teaching weeks, I was glad that we had planned a very relaxing, lazy holiday at the seaside.  I caught a flight to Accra on Friday morning.  Our driver for the trip, Eben, picked me up at the domestic terminal and we headed into the city, where I killed some time doing gift shopping, before heading back to the airport to pick up LJ.  He finally arrived mostly on time and I happily greeted him at the arrivals hall.

Eben took us to the Afia Beach Hotel to pick up Steffi and we were on our way.  After an uneventful trip, we arrived at the Coconut Grove Beach Resort in Elmina.  We were in no rush to get up the next day, so we arranged for Eben to get us at 10 am for our trip to Kakum National Park.  That evening, we had a nice dinner at the restaurant overlooking the beach.

Saturday we headed off to Kakum National Park, which is considered one of the premier tourist stops in Ghana, primarily due to the canopy walk high above the rainforest floor—40m high, that is.  Steffi had been there in January with her father and Markus on a weekday, with the place practically to themselves.  That wasn’t the case on this weekend day.  The place was swarming with school groups and other tourists when we arrived around 11 am.  We paid our 30 cedis each and queued up for our walk in the woods. 

If I had realized what 40m would feel like before I went on the walk, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have gone.  I was expecting that the walk through the “canopy” would mean that we would feel surrounded by the trees.  Not so.  I could definitely see all the way to the ground—way, way far down below me.  My fear of heights kicked in something awful.  Each of the seven bridges of the canopy walk got scarier, or maybe I just got more freaked out.  By bridge five I was really ready to get down from the walk.  LJ wanted me to take a picture of him in the middle of the bridge but I wasn’t willing to let go of the ropes and turn around to take it.  I didn’t really enjoy the walk as much as I would have hoped but at least I survived it.

We spent a leisurely hour or two over lunch before heading to Elmina to visit one of the slave castles, St. George’s Castle, the oldest European building in sub-Saharan Africa.  Since Steffi had seen the castles back in January, she opted to go back to the hotel to hang out at the pool while Nela, LJ and I continued our journey to the castle.  Getting out of the car, we were mobbed by people trying to sell us all sorts of trinkets.  But the surprising thing is that ignoring them actually worked and they left us alone.  We went into the castle to pay our entrance fee (9 cedis) and camera fee (2 cedis per camera).  We were ushered into the “museum”—really just a collection of pictures and the history of the place—and asked to wait a few minutes for our tour.

Our tour guide took us all over the castle and told us the history of the slaves that lived in that place—and the Europeans who put them there.  The descriptions of the slave dungeons were both powerful and terrifying.  My eyes are watering as I remember the stories he told of the slaves passing through the Door of No Return, the tiny doorway that led to the slave ships that took them to the Americas.  We were given the tiniest taste of what the rebellious slaves experienced when the guide locked us in the slave cell for a minute or two.  The stunning scenery around the castle was such a contrast to the horrific things that happened there.  But my melancholy mood was slightly lifted when LJ reminded me that even though there are still atrocities happening around the world, everyone around the world is more aware of them and more willing to push for change.

Leaving the castle, we headed up the hill to Fort St. Jago.  As we were walking up the steep path, three little girls started shouting in unison, “Ghana Ghana one cedi!”  It would have been cute… if hadn’t been so sad to see three-year-olds already learning how to beg from the obrunis.  Reaching the top of the hill, I was apprehensive to see so many young men hanging around with nothing to do, as I was expecting them to pester us, but they left us alone as went into the fort.  The man watching the table on behalf of the caretaker allowed us to wander around the fort on our own.  After a few minutes, the caretaker came and found us to ask if we wanted a tour and to tell us that we owed 2 cedis each on the way out. 

On our walk down the hill, more of the local children followed us.  Apparently one of the little girls grabbed LJ’s hand and started dancing with him.  She didn’t even ask him for money.  Unfortunately, I missed this moment of joy because I was focusing on not encouraging the children to beg from me by not interacting with them.  Probably a mistake on my part.

We met Eben at the base of the hill and drove back to our beach retreat.  More relaxation time was followed by dinner at the hotel restaurant again and drinks near the beach.  The next day, we spent the morning at the hotel and left around 12 to go see the other major slave castle, Cape Coast Castle.  This tour started off immediately with a tour of the slave dungeons, including rather graphic descriptions of the conditions experienced by the slaves.  Since this castle had been converted to a trade site, the Door of No Return had been significantly expanded to allow for large carts to pass through.  This change made it possible for the guide to take us out through the Door of No Return—and then back through it, making the other side the Door of Return.  That nomenclature was formalized a few years back when the remains of two slave descendants were exhumed from Jamaica and NYC and passed through the door, effectively breaking the chain.  The new meaning of the door is also symbolized with the large sign saying “Akwaaba”, Twi for “Welcome.”  Since Cape Coast is more well-known than Elmina, there is a marble plaque memorializing the visit of Barack and Michelle Obama on 11 July 2009.  On the other side of that same doorway was a plaque that read:  “In everlasting memory of the anguish of our ancestors.  May those who died rest in peace.  May those who return find their roots.  May humanity never again perpetuate such injustice against humanity.  We, the living, vow to uphold this.”  After the guide read the inscription out loud to us, our tour ended and we were left to wander the castle on our own again.

We met Eben outside and asked for a restaurant, to which he replied that there was one right next to the castle.  We headed down there, where three of us had a wonderful curry while the fourth had garlic chicken.  (Bet you can’t guess who had the chicken.)  Then we took Steffi and Nela to the mini-bus station—a station for mini-buses, not a small station—where I said my final goodbyes to Steffi, as I would not see her in person again here in Ghana.

LJ and I then started the journey to Busua, described by the Ghana guidebook as being “a great place to chill out for a few days”, known for its sandy beach that is among the best and safest in Ghana.  After a two-hour drive, we arrived at the Busua Beach Resort, reputed to be one of Ghana’s top beach hotels.  Upon arrival, we told Eben that we wouldn’t need him again until Tuesday and headed to the check-in counter.  The porter led us to our suite—all the way at the end of the row of cottages that made up the resort.  As we were walking….and walking and walking, I pointed out to LJ that this must be Ghana’s answer to the monstrous Hilton resort on the Big Island of Hawaii.  The resort had all the modern amenities, from free bottled water to wifi throughout the resort.

The next day and a half was spent doing lots of nothing, which was something that we both needed.  We had a long, leisurely lunch at a restaurant just up the beach from the resort where we were graced with the presence of one of the only monkeys I’ve seen in Ghana.  During dinner at the resort each night, we were surrounded by lots of kitty cats.  They were being fed the leftovers from the guests’ meals, as well as anything they could beg off the guests.  Some of them were rather vocal and persistent about what they wanted. 

On Tuesday our all-too-short visit was drawing to a close.  Eben came to get us at 11 and we started the long car ride back to Accra.  Unfortunately, we forgot to tell him that we needed to go the airport rather than the Afia, which led to an extra hour of driving through tiny streets and traffic in Accra.  LJ and I had an early dinner (or maybe a late lunch) in the Holiday Inn right near the airport.  Then he grabbed his things from the car and we left him there to start the car trip back to Kumasi, which wasn’t too bad, other than the hour that we spent in stopped traffic in a village called Nsawam just north of Accra.  His trip back to the US was pleasantly uneventful, especially as compared to the process to get here.

I had to get back to Kumasi that night because we had our last monthly Head Teacher meeting the next morning.  I can’t believe that I’m at the point of using the word “last” to describe events here.  Given the number of schools in the program, I already have to start my final visits to the schools this week.  But that long weekend was just the break I needed to get me geared up for this final project work.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

And so it begins...

 Last Wednesday was the date set aside for the first official videoconference for the SHS project.  Over the weeks leading up to the group Skype call, we had made strides towards getting the technology to work, with a reasonably successful 3-way call with the US school and two Kumasi schools occurring a couple weeks before the event.  Unfortunately, planning for the videoconference itself was less than adequate.  One of the students pointed out these possible issues in an email the week prior to the event, but we adults didn’t do a very good job at following up on his points. 

Since I had been at Opoku Ware (OWASS, the boys’ school) for a previous trial call, I decided to attend the videoconference with my girls at St. Louis.  I have to admit that I was partial to this group of young, motivated women, especially knowing the importance they seemed to place on my presence at their school.  We had a successful 2-way Skype call with OWASS with working video and audio, which was an improvement over the previous calls with audio only.  I felt like the technology was as ready as it would ever be.

Kumasi SHS School2School Partnership
The videoconference was scheduled for 12:15 pm Eastern US time to coincide with a class period at the partner US school in DC.  Thanks to the change to Daylight Saving that previous weekend, there had been a last-minute scramble to point out to the Ghana schools that it would be at 4:15 pm GMT, not 5:15 pm.  4:15 pm came and went without the US school’s Skype account showing up as logged into Skype.  The next ten minutes were possibly the longest minutes of my stay in Ghana, a country full of long wait times.  Finally I called (using a phone) the teacher at OWASS only to find out that they had been on Skype with the US school for those ten minutes.  I was dismayed that he had not called us, but there are two sides to every story: he had been told by the US school that they were trying to contact St. Louis with no luck.  What wasn’t clear until later is that the OWASS teacher had added every Skype name that had been sent over email, not just the US school’s account one, meaning that he actually had the teacher’s Skype name that was being used by the US school.  After a struggle to ask him the correct Skype name over the phone, OWASS was able to patch St. Louis into the call.

Since OWASS and the US school students had already introduced themselves, St. Louis and the US school followed up with their introductions.  Then we proceeded with the agenda, which started with a report from OWASS.  During their report, we lost the Skype call.  At the time we assumed it was a technical issue but it turns out it was financial: we had run out of Internet credits.  Not that it really mattered—the US students had another class at 1 pm so the call ended soon after we were booted from it.

Not knowing that we were out of credits, we tried to get back into the call with no success.  After a few minutes, I called the teacher at OWASS and learned that they were no longer on the call with the US due to the students heading to their next class.  Given all the effort it took to get to this point, I was annoyed and saddened that the US partners had not taken the project seriously enough to ask for their students to be allowed to miss part of their next class for this project.  I went to high school in the US—I know that teachers will let you out of class for a good reason, and a formal videoconference with foreign schools on a topic of global importance (migration) should definitely fall into that category.  Coming off this call was quite a let-down for many reasons, not the least of which is that the Kumasi schools had spent a great deal of time preparing for the call, even going so far as to write up group reports on the topic.  I guess I did the job asked of me: to make sure that the Kumasi schools were prepared for the call.

The girls weren’t sure that the US students were all that enthused about the call, but it turns out that the US students were extremely interested and wanted to try the call again soon while we had momentum—momentum that came to a screeching halt when we all realized that the US school was about to go on spring break.  Once they come back from break, the Kumasi schools will be busy with exams followed by their Easter break, meaning that the next opportunity for this videoconference wouldn’t be until mid-May, well after I leave.  I felt rather deflated and demotivated after this experience.  There are so many things that could have been managed better on both sides of the ocean.  I can only hope that we take this as a learning experience to set things up better for the next time.

The title of this post relates to this next bit: my goodbye visit to the girls at St. Louis and the larger process of leaving Ghana to go home.  I still have a month here, but with exams next week and Easter break starting April 6, last week was the best time to see the girls again to say farewell.  Their teacher was able to gather them to meet with me Thursday afternoon.  I gave them copies of the group pictures we took on the first meeting between the two schools (St. Louis and OWASS).  We talked about the project so far and came to the conclusion that too much pressure was put on the one-off videoconferences, especially when we’re using the untried technology of group Skype.  They would appreciate more opportunities for informal interaction, like the Facebook group that was proposed a month ago but never created or email pen pals, both of which I will suggest to the US partner schools.  (There’s a second US school that is meant to be participating in this partnership, but they didn’t have the time to prepare before this first videoconference.)

After tying up the loose ends on the project, we got into personal topics—really personal topics, like religion and family and the future.  One of the girls told me that she was horrified to find out that Americans put their parents in retirement homes.  She’s also the one who was very adamant about the importance of God, listing the priorities of a Ghanaian as “God and family and relationships”, with education and money coming up next.  They were all very interested in when I would have kids—not if but when.  Funny that most of these questions would seem prying when asked by an adult, especially an American one, but they seemed reasonably harmless and friendly coming from high school students. 

I was asked what I would take home with me from Ghana, not in terms of material things—although they did ask about that, too—but about Ghana and the people.  I’ve been thinking long and hard on this topic over the last couple weeks, both because of the “case study” I have to write for GSK on my work here and because of wanting to understand what I’ve gained personally from being here.  I wanted to be positive, which meant that I wasn’t going to be the one to bring up “Ghana Man Time” and how frustrating it is that no meetings ever start on time.  So I told them that I really appreciated how much they take care of each other, how very distant relatives can rely on each other for help, how family and friends and loved ones are more important than anything else.  I told them how proud I am of the work that they put into this project—and I really am.  Then I turned the tables on them and asked them some personal questions.  They are definitely all planning to go to university, with some of the aiming very high: Harvard and Princeton and “Yah-lay”—er, Yale.  (A reasonable stab at the pronunciation, given how Tamale and Mole are pronounced here.)  They still didn’t quite understand that I’m not coming back in this role again, so I had to explain to them more about the GSK Pulse program and how I came to be here.  [Editor’s note: That’s a conversation that I am forced to have with almost everyone here.  I don’t think they really grasp the idea of the “pulse” of work that I’m supposed to do on a local project.  Maybe I needed to do a better job of explaining that concept throughout my stay here.]  I told them about how I was working on this project because of all the inspiring women I had met throughout my education who had encouraged me to stay in engineering. 

At many points during our conversation, I could feel the tears creeping up.  How is it that these students I’ve only seen a few times have had such a strong impact on me?  Their open acceptance of me and their interest in me as a person is something that I hope I reciprocated.  When we all realized that I would finally have to leave, they asked to pray for me and my safe travels.  We held hands in our circle as one of the girls quietly thanked God for my presence and my involvement in their lives.  They and their teacher walked me back to the car where I hugged each one of them.  Even then, they were acting like the teenagers they are—one of them asked me to tell the rest of them that she’s tall and that I didn’t have to bend down to hug her. The school keychain they gave me as a going-away gift is something that I will treasure as a reminder of the all-too-few meetings I had with them and their warm wishes.  In this day and age, with Facebook and all these other electronic communication tools, I have a feeling that they won’t be out of my life even when I’m out of their country. 

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Teaching the head teachers, or how I spent (part of) my Christmas break

Given that next week I’m leading a second ICT workshop for the head teachers at the fifteen participating schools, I thought it would be good timing to share this long-overdue post on my first head teacher workshop experience. 

Instead of taking it easy as we headed into the holidays, the week before Christmas ended up being a great time (well, the only time) to lead a 4-day workshop to help the head teachers (the closest US equivalent is a principal) learn some basic ICT skills.  Originally we had considered the first week of January, immediately before class comes back into session, but that conflicted with my chance to see LJ over the holidays.  But the week of December 20th has turned out to be fantastic timing for a workshop.  The head teachers have been relieved of their daily duties, allowing them to relax into the slow pace of the workshop.  Some of the teachers have even shown up early for the workshop each day, which tell me that they’re interested, because many people seem to show up late for almost everything, including their own wedding (true story and one that I may get around to sharing).

During the week of December 13th, we struggled to get 14 computers up and running in time for this workshop.  While the host school had 14 computers that would boot, it took a huge investment of time to get Microsoft Office 2007 installed on all of them and make sure that the network cards were functioning.  Luckily they contract with someone to handle their ICT problems, and even more luckily (forgiving my poor grammar), he was available all that week and the Monday of the workshop to get the PCs working.  Installing MS Office is a simple process… if the power will stay on.  But I must bring bad luck, for there were power outages on three consecutive days that impacted the installation process—and by impacted, what I really mean is made the installation process impossible  The most difficult to comprehend was probably the power outage on Wednesday.  Apparently it was announced on the radio that morning that the power for the entire Ashanti region—the central part of Ghana—could be off for up to eight hours that day as they did repairs.  While I appreciate that they have to do work to upgrade the system, they could have announced it more than two hours in advance.  It also would have been good if it had actually fixed the problems.  Unfortunately, there were power outages on Thursday and Friday, meaning that it was sometime on Friday before the PCs were ready for the workshop.

I had no expectations going into the workshop.  Some of the head teachers are very comfortable with computers, especially Eugene, who is on the Steering Committee for the project.  (He is helping me with this workshop, rather than taking it.)  But others have very little experience with computers.

On the first day, I was ready to start teaching when I was gently reminded that we should start with a prayer.  We are fortunate enough to have someone who is both a head teacher and a priest, so he was tapped to lead us in our prayer.  Then we started with the most basic of topics: turning a PC on and off, which took us a good half-hour to cover in detail.  If there was anything in particular that I needed to cover for this workshop, I might have felt stressed about the time we spent on this task.  But this workshop is purely to help them become more comfortable with computers, so this is time well-spent.

Since I figured that typing would be a major issue, the first practice with Microsoft Word used a half-written letter.  I typed most of the letter but put the phrases in the wrong places, meaning they needed to practice using cut/paste to put the letter together in the right way.  In discussing text manipulations (like making text bold), Eugene asked if he could explain it in the local language of Twi.  Even though I speak only a few words of Twi, I still understood what he was trying to explain by his gestures and the occasional English word.  While it took longer than expected to work through the letter, we still accomplished everything I expected for the day.

After watching the typing of the teachers, I quickly changed the presentation Monday night to put more focus on typing skills on Tuesday.  Little did I realize that typing would become the only topic we covered that day.  I was fortunate that one of the ICT teachers, William*, showed up to help out as scheduled, as his explanations in Twi were often much more helpful than my American English ones.  While he showed the proper typing position using the home keys, I demonstrated how not to type by showing with hunt-and-peck typing method using large, sweeping gestures to the laughter of the attendees.    At the request of one of the teachers, I asked him to return for the following days of the workshop. 

Due to the schedule shifts, Eugene said that I would be there at 8 am Wednesday morning (yikes!) and that we would start at 8:30.  Contrary to all expectations, we had more than half the class there at 8:30 and got started by 8:45, which is more than reasonable by the Ghanaian relaxed views towards timekeeping.  We started the day off with a hands-on display of the inner workings of a computer, which was where Eugene really showed how much he knows about PCs with his explanations of the integrated circuit board and SATA cables.  We spent the rest of the morning working on a Microsoft Word document to request donations of used PCs from local businesses, an activity inspired by the initiative that Paul* took in writing these letters himself.  I gave them an example I wrote but warned them, “Be sure to use your own words.  Don’t copy exactly what I wrote, because I know that none of you would use the same language.”

This freeform activity yielded surprising, mostly positive results.  Lewis*, who had been struggling to keep up with some of the lessons, composed an extremely well-written letter, full of key details about the program.  His letter would make me want to sift through my pile of PC parts at home in North Carolina to put together a working PC for his students.  Perhaps that’s why his lab has more PCs than some of the others.  In other cases, teachers who had been keeping up very well with the lessons (like Connor*) were very sparing in their descriptions, lacking in the key details needed to encourage the businesses to help out.  But then again, who’s to say that a short, succinct letter wouldn’t get the desired results?  Surely not me, the one non-Ghanaian in the class.

Close to lunchtime, Gladys, the Metro Education Director, came to visit the workshop.  When she walked in, I greeted her but then continued on with my lessons.  While walking around to see how the teachers were doing, Lily* (who stood up when Gladys arrived and had not sat down) asked me “Do you know who that is?”
“Yes, that’s Gladys,” I responded.
“The Metro Education Director.”
“Yes, I know.”
I saw Lewis*, who was also standing, gesturing to her and somewhat speechless.  It was then that I realized that they expected her to say something to the group.  At that point I stopped my lectures and gave Gladys the floor.  In later reflections, I realized that I might have committed a major cultural faux pas by not giving her the floor as soon as she showed up.  My only defense is that I expected her to ask for the floor if she wanted to speak—not a great defense given that I have been living here for three months and should have known that it’s not the way it works.  Perhaps if I were Ghanaian I would have known that her position as Metro Education Director of Kumasi means that she doesn’t need to ask.

As with the other days, we did not finish the topics for that day.  I rearranged slides again for Thursday, slicing and dicing out large sections of what I originally planned to cover.  The newly adjusted expectations included a single activity of sending an email with an attachment.

Thursday we got started more or less on time with eight teachers again. I went through key parts of the Internet Explorer browser window.  However, I left out the most important part—the address bar—as I realized when I had them log into their email.  While all but one of the teachers had an email address, logging into it was a struggle.  Having them list their email addresses on the sign sheet on Monday meant that I was able to help them remember the address but I was no help for the password.  I found it fascinating that they could write the address correctly on the sign-in sheet but then couldn’t remember it when it came time to type it to log in.

The ICT teachers were invaluable again.  Their patience and ability to walk the head teachers through the tedious process of opening an email account or attaching a file was a real treat to watch and gave me hope about the skills that the students are learning at the schools.  Things were rolling along rather smoothly, lulling me into a false sense of security.

Then the power cut out.  For the first time all week, I externally expressed my frustration at Ghana’s problems.  Sitting at a desk, I thumped my fist once while dropping my head down on my other arm lying on the desk.  I just knew that we would not complete the pared-down training course if the power wouldn’t cooperate.  Elaine* and Eugene both tried to console me.  I looked up at Eugene. 
“I think it’s time for our snack break.” 
Eugene laughed at this comment but we did take our break.

After only a few minutes, the power came back on.  Teachers trickled back in from the break and picked up where they left off.  This time around, I showed them how to “save draft” in their email, knowing that if I did that then Murphy’s Law would make sure that the power wouldn’t go off again.  I was proven right in this thinking, as we had no more power issues that day.

While they were working on sending an email with their letter attached to it, they were also discussing the need to levy a small fee on each student to cover the cost of the computer labs.  They came to the conclusion that they needed to write the Metro Education Director a letter to ask for permission to collect the fees.  They went from discussing it to Eugene writing the letter to all of them signing it in less than two hours.  I was astonished at the breakneck speed with which this was accomplished.  I almost wish I hadn’t seen it.  Until that, I could console myself with the thought that there was no sense of urgency about anything here in Ghana, but this experience made it clear that it’s not a lack of awareness that keeps things from moving at a faster clip, just a lack of urgency.

Somehow we got the emails sent and completed discussion of the few remaining topics on the agenda.  To wrap up the workshop, Eugene said a few words on the workshop and thanked me again, asking the teachers to give me a round of applause for my hard work.  He called me a real Ghanaian, which prompted someone to ask what my Ghanaian name is.  Eugene started to answer for me, but I interrupted him.
“It’s Ama.  I was born on a Saturday.”
Cheers and applause erupted at that small statement.  After a closing prayer, we adjourned for the well-deserved Christmas break.

*Names changed for privacy.  Eugene is really Eugene because there’s no good way to avoid identifying him.  But since I didn’t say anything bad about him, he shouldn’t mind.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Another day in paradise

On Monday, I finally visited Nela’s “jungle”.  Nela is my GSK colleague who has been working on the Tropical Laboratory Initiative, described very well in this Millennium Villages Project blog post.  While she lives with me in Kumasi on the weekends, she spends her weeks out in the Bonsaaso cluster, a grouping of 30,000 people across a bunch of small villages located a couple hours by car from Kumasi. 

Due to some issues regarding paperwork for visa extensions, we got a late start on Monday morning, leaving Kumasi around 9:30 or 10.  [Editor’s note: if you ever have the good fortune to spend an extended time in Ghana for work, the visa extension process will probably drive you insane.  Let me put it this way—leaving the country to extend the visa may be expensive but it’s so much simpler than this process.  Nela had to get a new letter from the health service just because the back of her letter had writing on it.  There’s a process for the government workers to follow, and writing on the back of a letter interrupts that process.] But leaving late is not really a problem, since most of the people employed by MVP live in Kumasi on the weekends, including all the Ghanaians.  After dropping things off at Nela’s jungle hotel, we arrived at the MVP office around 11 po find almost no one there.  They make up for the late start to the day by having a multi-hour meeting every Monday starting at 5 pm.  At the office, we picked up an MVP person who needed a ride to the cluster.  Before heading to the lab in Tontokrom, we made a stop at Ghana Health Service for Nela’s replacement letter and picked up another rider: a community health worker who was going to be working somewhere in the cluster.

During the uneventful drive, I was reminded of the driver Owusu’s fondness for 80s music—not the happy, bouncy sort, but the more thoughtful kind, like the Phil Collins hit with the same title as this post.  Somehow “Another Day in Paradise” fits very well with driving through the impoverished communities serviced by this project.  For some reason there weren’t nearly as many people out in the villages as on a normal day.  Part of it may have been the lack of children going to school.  Due to the teachers’ strike, most of the schools were boarded up with fewer children than normal playing in the school yards.

We arrived at Nela’s lab in Tontokrom, where we dropped off the community health worker and the MVP employee.  Nela showed me around the small but organized lab and introduced me to Eric, the lab technician.  In the short time I was there, I developed a very good impression of Eric.  He and Nela were discussing a problem with how the cleaning woman was not really cleaning the lab very well.  His response was that he had sent for a duster and would clean the countertops himself until they got things sorted out with the cleaning woman.  Here was a lab technician who was willing to do what it takes to keep the lab clean, even if it means doing the cleaning himself, a job that would be considered beneath him by local standards.  After seeing the lab, we made a quick visit to the clinic across the dirt road.  This clinic had been housed in the lab building but their work had increased enough that they had to move to a larger building.

We left the lab to head off to see one of the local gold mines that employs many of the local men.  Owusu knew someone at the mine and was able to arrange a tour of the mine by the owner himself.  The miners here were working in the blazing sun, shoveling piles of dirt onto the sluice that ran water over the dirt to find the tiny specs of gold underneath.  Some dim recollection helped me remember the term “panning for gold”.  This mine was almost identical to the classic gold mining in the US west in the Gold Rush.  While we were there, a couple of trucks pulled up and dumped piles of dirt in front of the miners for them to keep shoveling.

Watching the gold miners, I began thinking about their place in the global economy.  Gold is crucial to so many things, as a hedge against economic problems to a key component in much technology and industrial manufacturing to serving as a symbol of love when fashioned into a wedding ring like the one I’m wearing.  And yet, I’ve never given much thought to the harsh, dangerous work required to pan tiny bits of gold from the ground. 

Leaving the gold mine, we stopped by one of the larger clinics in the cluster.  I had the great fortune to meet Rita, a nurse who had worked with Abenaa and asked me to send
Abenaa her good wishes.  Rita and all the other people at the clinics obviously love Nela and will be very sad when she goes.  I can’t blame them. 

We headed back to the health service office for Nela’s letter.  On our way out of town, we stopped by the office again to find the lab manager, Francis, and Nela’s local MVP manager, Eric.  I had a wonderful conversation with Eric about my work with MCI and the unique focus of the program on training the teachers, rather than just the students.  Our stay at the office was all too short.  We dropped Nela off at the hotel and started the journey back to Kumasi.

Seeing the lab was both encouraging and scary, as it made me begin to wonder about the sustainability of such a project.  Nela is fortunate enough that the TLI has a wonderful new technician and a great laboratory manager to run the lab, but what about the samples?  Will the midwives still send samples to the lab when Nela isn’t visiting with her huge smile and happy attitude to encourage them?  How often will anyone visit the midwives at their clinics when they don’t have access to reliable transportation?

My project invokes many of the same worries.  Ghana Education Service will be assigning one of the ICT teachers to the role of S2S (School-to-School) coordinator to keep the schools on task for this program, but (s)he won’t have a car and driver paid for by company money or a corporate laptop for organizing files or a corporate expense account to cover Internet and mobile phone credits.  All these things have made my job easier while I’ve been here but they are not sustainable when it is GES footing the bill.

In addition to the financial constraints, there’s the key difference between how visitors and residents are treated by other residents.  In a conversation yesterday, the point was made that visitors are treated with more kindness and assistance that someone who lives here.  Almost every school I visit has treated me like royalty, bringing me food and drinks and being concerned about me anytime I visit.  But the person who takes over the S2S coordinator role will be a Kumasi local.  I’m hoping that the fact that this person will still be a visitor to the school will go a long ways towards these extra courtesies, but I’m not sure if it will.

I have even started to wonder about the advisability of having a volunteer from overseas involved in this project in the first place.  But then I think about the teachers that have been helped by this program.  Even if their computer labs decay away to nothing, some of them will continue to know how to use the Internet to find fascinating topics to teach, to send email to colleagues far away, to share their thoughts on teaching with someone across the Atlantic Ocean.  After a great deal of thought and soul-searching, I still come down on the side of thinking that it was a good thing to kick this project off with a full-time Pulse volunteer.

I would guess that the TLI will be much the same.  Even if not all of the clinics continue to send samples for testing, some of them will.  And those clinics will have patients who will be helped from a more accurate diagnosis in a faster time.  Tying it back to the reason that I’m here, GSK has the same sort of concept: focus on the patient.  While these programs may not be the same that they were when we were directly involved, there will still be individuals who have greatly benefited from the work.  In the end, that’s all that really matters.