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. 


  1. Your comments on the personal questions reminded me how Clare's students in China all wished that she was able to find a husband once she returned to the US. In India we were often asked if we had a love-marriage. Sorry the schedule isn't allowing your last weeks to be more fulfilling work-wise, but glad you're coming home soon!

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  3. Not surprising how much the local culture impacts the students' concerns. Then again, the US kids I've mentored have also been interested in some of the same subjects.

    In terms of work, other than the disappointing videoconference, things are going pretty well. Just trying to survive the craziness of wrapping up the project and handing it off to a local teacher.