Friday, March 19, 2010

School Daze

March 9, 2010

Week #2 of our real life in the apartment in Kokomlemle had some ups and downs and some real life learning for all of us. The goal at the start of the week was to finalize our school plans. We decided to go with De Youngsters as the school of choice for several reasons: it is a ten minute walk, they already know some of the kids and they would get a real taste of school life with the local Ghanaian kids. It also happened to start the soonest as they were willing to give us a discount for starting mid-term.

I went early Tuesday morning to have another look and see about a “mid-term” discount. I arrived at 7:20 AM and the headmaster was not there yet so as I waited for him. I hung out in a little courtyard and watched the students arrive fresh for school. Fresh is a good word for mornings here in Accra; 6:00 to 9:00 AM is a wonderful time. It is cool, quiet and feels efficient, like you can accomplish a great deal in a short while. So I was feeling refreshed and enjoyed watching the students arrive. I met one of the grade one teachers who assured me that the boys would be fine with learning to read in English even though they have only read in French up until now. He said they had a student from France once who was in a similar situation and that he was able to catch up. This teacher said they could work with the boys to help them. All of the teachers I met were kind, intelligent and seemed genuinely happy to be at work as they mingled with each other smiling and joking. It was in the outdoors (all classrooms are cinderblock designed, with exterior air flow and they open out to various outdoor spaces), but it could have been any school staffroom in Edmonton during first assembly of the day. Older kids seemed to be assigned to watching the younger ones until official assembly at 7:30 AM. It was cute to see them take this task on until I saw one of these monitors (who looked about 10) with a stick which he used to discipline one of the kids who was not settling down. This was slightly concerning because when I came in the week before, the headmaster assured me (after I asked him) that there are no “canes, sticks or straps” in their school. They don’t believe in hitting children. So to see a stick seemed odd, but I thought perhaps it was like a game with the kids. I continued to sit and watch as kids filed in, many greeting me with “Hello Madame”.

At 7:30 AM official assembly of the kids begins in the largest space near the grade one classroom and Junior High wing. It was so cute to watch as they lined up with their class groups while a sort of cow bell was wrung, just like in “Little House On the Prairie”. I stood beside Jack, the French teacher and was very happy to hear that they would be taking French classes at this school as well. As I stood practicing my French with him, I saw out of the corner of my eye, a teacher using a stick on the hands of a group of lined up older boys. I immediately switched to English and asked what was happening there. He assured me all was fine and that these were students who live very close to school and were late this morning. I told him of my conversation with the Headmaster in this regard and he was completely non-plused again saying it is really nothing and that this is how they will learn for next time. I looked over at them again and saw that the teacher and students were smiling and he was not in fact hitting them very hard. It seemed jovial almost like a game or a tease. There were too many other good things happening so I didn’t dwell on this for very long.

The Head master then arrived. He is like the King of Kensington. The kids seem to love him. When I first met him the week before, he was sitting in a tiny chair watching a kindergarten class. He is a soft spoken, gentle giant of a man who lumbers around slowly always smiling. He said he could give me a discount or scholarship as they call it and we went to the admission office (it is in a different building from his office for some reason). So I met the ladies there once again and they were friendly, excited to have us join, and said the kids could start school as early as Thursday (without their uniforms which they would hopefully have ready by the following week). I went home and met Evelyn from downstairs whose 2 children play with our kids and attend this school. She told me how it is a very “tight” school meaning that it is competitive for marks and that the students are encouraged to and really want to do well. I knew which way I was leaning and was getting more and more excited with the prospect of De Youngsters. I phoned “Christ The King” (the school I wrote a letter of enquiry to) and found out that they do not have space for kids in the Third Term (May to July). I immediately called Terry to update him and we decided to move quickly. *WARNING: this next section is dry with details only to attempt to give you an idea of the Ghanaian style administration* I went with the kids to De Youngsters in the afternoon to pick up 4 admission forms. She said to come back tomorrow “someone is getting them” as they only have 2 right now. Next morning I went with all the kids again and they still only had 2 forms. They said not to worry I could fill them out the next day (Thursday – first day of school) when I bring the kids (I paid about $4 Canadian for each form). I went to see the Headmaster who I knew had some forms in his office, which he produced, but they were only 1 page instead of 4 pages. We all went back to the admin office, they spoke/argued amongst themselves then said I could use the incomplete forms and they gave me $8 back from the original $16 I paid for the forms. They then showed me the Friday Gym uniform set which would cost me about $5 each (I am continuing to use Canadian currency for ease), but I was out of money and they said no problem, I could pay for those tomorrow. I spoke with the Head Master about the stick I saw at assembly the day before and he seemed to play dumb at first, but eventually owned up to the need for some physical discipline to help teach certain students, but that it would never be used on my children. It was said with smiles, kindness and sincerity, so I decided it must have been a fairly isolated incident and I reminded myself that we chose a Ghanaian school where things are different and I have to be accepting of some of those differences. We left with the Head Master saying he would show us around in the morning if we arrive at 7:30 AM and introduce us to all their classrooms and teachers.

The kids and I went home then all excited for the first day of school. After lunch we headed to “The Mall” even though it was the heat of the day and a long trocho ride away. We needed school supplies like lunch coolers, ice packs, a few groceries to make sandwiches and snacks for their lunch etc. We also had to get 2 Five Hundred gram packs of laundry soap, 2 bars of soap and 2 toilet paper rolls per child (8 of each item, which felt like a lot). We were all still giddy though as we made our way to meet Terry at Alliance Francaise to celebrate. We ate outside, drank beer and fanta in the grass and watched as some performers got ready for a huge art installation and some drummers assembled all their gear. We partook in the Opening of the exhibit (which was a fascinating piece where we walked on sand and lit candles to view it), drank some free Guiness and wine to go with a chicken skewer which was also on offer. We decided to leave early, unfortunately missing the drummers, but we needed to get ready for school. We got the kids to bed and stayed up late filling out admission forms, making lunches and organizing backpacks and water bottles.

Thursday morning arrived and all were excited, but nervous for what the day would bring. We arrived at 7:25 AM feeling just a little self conscious with our big cooler of food for lunches, our 2 big shopping bags of soap and toilet paper and our 4 young white kids with no uniforms. “Auntie Lucie”, the kindergarten teacher helped us right away as the Head Master was not in yet. She said she would care for the cooler, so that the kids had a central place to go for their lunches and the toiletries were left in the Head Master’s office. We waited and waited on a bench they set out for us as the other kids arrived and got ready for assembly. Finally, the assistant Head Master came and tried to help. I had not met him before, which is too bad because he seemed to run the place more then anyone else. He was very friendly and began trying to figure out which classroom they would go into. It was all very haphazard and he asked if we had paid the school fees yet. I said no because no one told us we had to on the first day. I only had money for the “Friday Gym Uniforms” (we can only get about $175 out from an ATM at a time and school fees were going to cost us about $675). They said we could come back in the afternoon with the fees.

Terry had to go so kissed the kids goodbye and went off to work. We scrambled around, but got Lilianna into her class, then I went with the boys to their class. Josie had a death grip on me so I left the boys and went to her class. The boys were with the teacher I had met 2 days before, but he had something wrong with his eyes which were irritated and watering. He was sitting at a desk and another teacher was trying to help him. Off I went anyway and met Josephine’s teacher who was extremely kind and had a wonderful way with the students. He saw her eyeing the stick on his desk though, so he explained to her that “the reason it is a black stick is because it is for the black kids only.” He assured her it would not be used on her. This was again a bit worrisome, but I stayed positive as did Josie who was feeling comfortable enough to be left on her own now. I popped in on Lilianna, who was doing fine in a class with the French teacher, Jack. I went back to the boys’ room waiting for the other grade one teacher to arrive so I could meet her and talk to her about their English reading issue. The original teacher was still sitting at his desk wiping his eyes as all the kids were arriving in the class. It was a huge class and another teacher came to help settle the kids. Riley and Dezmond just watched. Finally the female teacher arrived and I introduced myself. She seemed to think all would be fine with the issue of reading English. I told her she should sit the boys at different desks as they were already bugging each other (the desks are shared tables of two). I kissed them goodbye, went back and kissed Josie, then Lilianna. As I was getting ready to leave the Assistant came to check in with me again, friendly as ever and asked if the girls had taken the “placement exam”. I knew nothing of this, but showed him their progress reports from Holyrood in Edmonton. He was surprised the Head Master had not given them the exam, which is their way of determining which class is most suitable for the girls, since their system of grades could be different from ours. I asked if they could take the exam today, but he never really answered. I decided to leave it in his capable hands. I had to go out and buy material from the market for their school Uniforms plus get to a bank for some money. I knew these tasks would take nearly the whole day.

I had about 10 minutes of enjoyable freedom before all hell broke loose with the day. As I walked home, a young girl stopped me who was selling second hand clothes (carried in a bowl on her head) and I tried on a nice blouse. I bartered but she would not go low enough and I knew I did not need it, so I left. It was fun though and I felt free and independent. I went home then and spoke with Evelyn about where to get the material at the market. She offered to have her “house help” girl, Rita accompany me to the market so that I would not be taken advantage of. Also because it is a massive market which is difficult to navigate (Makola Market is in Centra Accra, difficult to get to and huge). I needed money first so went to 5 ATM’s within a 2 KM radius of where we live and was unable to get money at any of them. The one I knew I could get money at was a taxi ride away, so Rita and I went there first, then to market. The ATM ate my card so it took about 10 to 15 minute before I got my money. The taxi driver charged us extra for the wait and the security guard who helped me asked for a tip as well.

The market was insane. It is like a huge octopus with arms that snake out in all directions. Everything looks the same and the place is packed with people all wanting your money. It is dusty, noisy, frenetic and constantly moving. We tried to get the best price, which took a couple of hours going stall to stall and travelling to different parts of the market. In the end I only saved about $0.50 from the original place we went to. We also found a store which had smaller lunch coolers for the kids (more inconspicuous) and some stepping stools which I had been needing for our apartment. Finally, exhausted disheveled and dusty with the city, we took a taxi home. Rita was a sweetheart (just a young girl saving up to go to University), so I dashed her (tipped her) for her help. I tried one more bank in our area with no luck so decided to offer the School Admin $150, which was all I had. I hoped they would let me pay the rest as I was able to get it.

I went back to the school and checked in on Josephine who had been moved to a smaller class and seemed to be doing great. Then I checked on Lilianna who shoulder shrugged me that things were okay. When I went to the boys’ class Riley was there, but not Dez who was apparently in the bathroom. Riley didn’t even see me he was completely engrossed watching the other kids in the class, which appeared fairly chaotic. I went to look for Dezmond and found him washing his hands with “Auntie Lucie” after having used the bathroom. He started crying as I walked him to class and he wanted go home. He was embarrassed having a teacher help him in the bathroom and his stomach was sore from diarrhea. It killed me, but I told him there is only one hour left and that I had a tough day too, but that we had to do our best on this first day which will be the toughest one until we get more settled into the school. He wanted me to stay, but I had to go to the office and pay fees.

The admin ladies accepted my financial situation and said I could pay the rest as I was able to get it. Phew. I had a receipt for the $150 I paid so far. I then went to our closer smaller market and spent whatever money I had left to get some fruit for the kids to eat after school and so that I would have some for their lunches on Friday. I got back to the school with 5 minutes to spare and watched the boys in their class. Dezmond saw me waiting just outside the class and had a huge grin for me (what a relief). Riley was still completely unaware of my presence. I waited and waited, the school bell rang and other kids were getting out, but the grade ones seemed to be having to finish a writing assignment which the boys were not doing because they did not have a notebook. His teacher asked me about notebooks for the boys. I had no idea what was needed and she said I could get them from the admin office for tomorrow. I assumed that school fees would pay for this and provide them. No one had said anything about this before now, although Josephine said her teacher bought a notebook for her at the beginning of the day. I hoped it could all be cleared up in the admin office next day. As I waited for the boys, I focused on Riley as he took in the chaos around him. It was surreal. I felt like I was watching a movie with noise that faded into the background as the action went to slow motion and the camera slowly zoomed in on Riley who was in his own world watching the fighting/playing/noisy kids around him. He was in a trance and it was clear that his whole day had been like this. My heart broke and tears welled up, but I repeated the mantra in my head that I had been saying all the way back from market, “The first day is the hardest. We have to give it our best effort and see it through. We can’t give up.” I was arming myself with these words to tell the kids after school because I knew they each would have had a tough day. Nothing prepared me for what the kids shared with me though. They were such brave little souls.

I finally went into the boys’ class to retrieve them since they were not doing an assignment anyway. There was no order and the poor teacher was completely burnt out with constantly telling kids to sit down, be quiet, do their work etc. I finally counted heads and came up with nearly 60 kids in the class. The girls found us there and we left the trenches together. As we walked home, the kids had story after story of how the stick was used constantly throughout the day. They each witnessed their fellow students being wacked hard on the hands, shoulders and backs with these sticks or canes as they call them. The boys had headaches because it was noisy in their class all day. At one point they said the teacher was gone for about ½ an hour (6 year old time) and the class became a playground, a zoo. Lilianna was careful in her stories knowing that I was armed with telling her not to give up, to see this thing through, give it a chance. She told of being bored to tears in class, especially in French. She told of the Math teacher not showing up so the French teacher supervised them for 1 & ½ hours while all the other students socialized and Lilianna sat quietly watching, waiting. She told of learning a subject called Creative Art where they write fancy letters using a graph and ruler in a mathematical sort of way, then being quizzed on it (acing the quiz after guessing on the multiple choice answers), she had stories of awful bathrooms, and girls in her class leading her to the boys bathroom then laughing at her. She too had a headache from the constant chatter in the classroom. Josephine said Lili cried when they met at lunch. Josephine told of her teacher stepping out of the class and another teacher coming in and thwacking each student hard with a stick on the back because he could hear their noise from his classroom. He set Josephine aside to watch and she said even the students that were sitting quietly got hit. My couragious little soldiers came home though and while snacking Josephine started her homework right away and Lilianna followed suit as their stories continued and I got more and more upset. I hid this from the kids until Terry got home and then I lost it. I took him out onto the balcony to talk privately and figure out what to do. I felt so stupid. How could I not have seen that they would use those sticks? Why didn’t I wait a full day before buying fabric for their uniforms or paying any money to the administration? What are we going to do? Our money is so tight. We count every penny. Do we simply think of it as a donation to this school and pull them out? Do we see this thing through? There are only 15 school days before a 4 week break between the 2nd and third terms. Can my kids handle this school for 15 days? Are we being snobs or overly superior? How do the local kids do it? Maybe we should just suck it up. We kept coming back to the reality though that the kids had headaches and it was the longest day of their lives, Lili and the boys in particular. Also, we kept thinking about the fact that we would be spending about $650 for these 15 days of school instruction where I know Lilianna and the boys would learn nothing. Is the cultural experience enough of a learning adventure? Then I saw Josephine and Dezmond playing a game where she would wack him with a stick and he would scream. That pretty much made up my mind. I can’t have our kids witnessing that kind of violence to their fellow students, exasperated by the fact that they are exempt simply because of the color of their skin. After much discussion and going back and forth, Terry and I decided to pull them. I would go the next morning and try to get our money back.

I had crazy dreams all night and my stomach was in knots as I walked to school for 7:30 AM Friday morning. I spoke to the Assistant (the Head Master never did turn up again), and made 2 points: the headmaster told me there were no sticks or canes and there were. My kids came home very upset because of this. The Head Master also told me there would be 30-40 kids per class, not 60. I asked him if I could get my money back because my husband is a volunteer and that kind of money is a big deal for us. He understood my concerns, tried to talk me into staying then spoke to the admin lady to whom I paid my money the day before. I sat on pins and needles as they spoke softly in Twi back and forth. I heard him say something about volunteer. I waited and waited, then he turned and smiled saying the admin lady would give me back my money. I couldn’t help myself, I started crying I was so relieved. He gently took my shoulders saying “it’s okay, don’t be upset, everything is fine”. I thanked him and her profusely, then asked for all my toiletries back, which they also gave me.

I went home and saw Rita, the young girl from downstairs, and told her how we had pulled the kids out. I apologized for all the work she put in to help me the day before and joked that we need to find a school now that has black and white uniforms after all the time, money and effort that went into them. The kids were relieved not to have to go back and we had a great day at home on Friday. I cleaned the apartment while they played, then we homeschooled with some success in math after lunch. The next day, Saturday was the start of our long weekend and we headed to a beach resort just out of the city where we stayed in a bungalow just off the beach and time stood still in this little piece of paradise away from the noisy city. When we got back last night (Monday evening), it felt good to be home, truly home after a holiday. We are adjusting to the noise, heat and daily routines of our little apartment in Accra. The noises of our neighborhood have become normal, like the pre-dawn rooster calls, the incessant sweeping, the constant hum of our fans, the bells, the knocking of wooden carts, the horns, the arguments, the laughter, the Muslim calls to prayer which don’t even wake us up anymore. And there are many things I have come to enjoy and love:

  • The lady from the market who gives us free mangoes because she loves Josephine who shares a name with her eldest daughter.
  • Our neighbors all around who look out for us, and make sure we feel happy and safe.
  • The bird that sings outside my kitchen window every day and sounds just like the first birds of spring in Edmonton.
  • Cheers from the local soccer pitch (a field of brown dirt), where skilled games are played every evening as I cook dinner. These games attract so many spectators, it sounds like a stadium of people.
  • The sweat that trickles as I cook dinner in our hot sweaty kitchen.
  • The absolute joy, relief and celebration when the electricity and water finally come back on.
  • Our balcony at night after the kids go to bed, just me, my book and the hammock.
  • The breeze, the blessed, blessed, breeze.
  • 6:00 AM
  • Alliance Francaise
  • The hotel, a ten minute walk away which lets us use their pool now for about $7.50 once a week.
  • 2nd hand clothing stalls on every other corner to make up for the clothes we brought which are too clingy.
  • Fresh pinapples, mangoes, bananas, Red Red, and Palava. Ice cold Star Beer from Auntie Baby’s shop
  • The praise, congratulations and God Bless You’s I get whenever people find out that all four kids are mine.
  • The incredible courage of our children as they adapt to this life and thrive while I drag them with me in trochos and to market where they help me carry bags.
  • Seeing Terry at the end of his work day and sitting down to dinner where each has a turn to share their story for the day.

We have our challenges, but we manage them. The power goes out every other day and I fear for the food in our fridge. Out longest outage started in the middle of the night and went until 2:00 PM the next day. The water is shut off every once in a while. We are currently heading into our second day with no water. We keep a barrel filled for these occasions. We filter all our drinking water. All fruits and vegetables must be peeled or cooked or soaked in salted water for 20 minutes then rinsed in filtered water. The bugs, ants in particular, have invaded, and I have to put all food into containers or the fridge. All food spoils very quickly in the heat and ants can get into just about anything that is not sealed in a container. Market (a fifteen minute walk) needs to happen every second or third day and I am still not getting the best deals I am sure. The kids hate going to market with me because it takes so long in the heat. It is quicker if I am by myself, because with the kids everyone wants to stop and talk to them, find out their names, their ages, how many are twins etc. They love twins in Ghana! The kids get bored in the hot afternoons when we take shelter from the heat in our apartment and they bicker and fight. Mom and Dad can get on edge at this time of day too. Then the air cools at 4:00 PM, the breeze comes and all is well.

Overall though it is a life we are getting used to and calling our own. We are all enjoying ourselves. One of the boys asked me the other day as we were walking, “Mom, how come you are always smiling here”, I replied, “Because I’m so happy I guess”. Everyone was silent as they pondered this and I think we each felt the same way.

Next time I write, I hope to have the kids enrolled in a school that we all feel good about. I also want to tell you about the things that are sold in the streets as people commute in Accra. The traffic snarls allow for a huge business selling everything you could imagine in the convenience of your car or trocho. Squeegie guys in Toronto got nothing on Accra.

Bye For Now,




  1. Testing the post a comment section...?

  2. Awesome Info in great detail i may add... lil sleepy now so i need a nap ! hehe

    Hope your having a blast, i'll keep checking your blog for updates from time to time.

    Take care :)
    ~Roger Brunelle~

  3. So, now... home schooling? Great blog. Looking forward to updates...

    Maria and the other 4Ks