The Challenges of Teaching in the Developing World

On the mornings that I teach, I walk the mile and a half to the junction where I take a tro-tro (van meets bus) for 20 cedis, or about 15 US cents, and get off three stops down at the village of Medie. The dirt road is scarred with pits and ditches and you have to be careful not to step in excrement, both human and goat. There are small stands on the side of the road and ladies are hawking handmade doughnuts and pineapple. Then I take a swift left over a make shift bridge, which saves my feet again from the waste of feces and I  take my special short cut.

This is my favorite part of my walk. A narrow space between buildings gives way to a tiny community, call it a compound of five houses all  with their doors opening to the space to face each other. Here babies are always chasing chickens around half naked with muddy feet. Women are washing clothes in metal basins and heating water on wood burning fires.  They always wave, “Hello madame!” as I walk by. They know I am the white teacher. If I am walking by during lunch they say, “You are invited,” the typical Ghanaian saying to welcome you to their meal. I always gracefully decline. Below is a picture of the elderly woman who always greets me on my walk.

As rewarding as the experience of teaching here in Ghana is for me, it has been challenging as well. I teach Primary 3 here or P3 as they call it. My class is a good size, not too big. About 23 students. Their names alone are such a wonderful signature of the culture. For the girls, there is Blessing, Joyce, Salamatu, Brigit, Sandra, Grace, Eunice, Rhoda, Portia, Dorcas, Winner, and Gladys. The boys in my class are named, Bright, Johnson, Justice, Emmanuel, Theopolis, Maxwlle (yes that is how it is spelled), Edwin, Silas, Kofi, Wassir, Morrison and Samuel.

For the most part, they are well behaved. It is hard to tell if they are chatting or talking out of turn because there are only loose wooden planks separating my class from the P2 class in the next room. The noises from the other class often float over requiring me to raise my voice.

It is the culture here to carry a long dry reed with you as you teach. They call them canes, but I don’t think they are very “cane like.” I had a funny misunderstanding the first week of school. When the children were acting out of order, I could hear the teachers yelling, “ I will kill you! I will kill you!” I was quite disturbed by this news and confided in my taxi driver one day. He just laughed and asked, “ Are you sure they are not saying I will cane you?” When he said cane it sounded like kill and I realized I was hearing the wrong word. (Thank goodness.) The children are caned by the headmaster on Tuesdays if they don’t have clean fingernails. Whenever this happens, I find myself inspecting my own, as if they child in me secretly fears the wrath of the cane.

I am teaching Science, English, and Creative Arts. I feel that I am learning so much about the culture from the way the school books are written. For example, Ghana doesn’t claim to have four seasons like we do in the U.S. This makes sense considering that it never gets below 75 degrees and most people hear only know “snow” as a mythical cold white substance, said to exist, but never seen. Ghana has two seasons; wet and dry. I am not joking, that is what is written in the books! During the wet season it rains a lot. During the dry season it does not rain at all. This fact made for a very short science lesson.

I’m also learning so much about the way my students see the world. We have a reading period twice a week. It is challenging because some of my students are fabulous readers, and some cannot read at all. I have paired up the fast readers with the illiterate ones so that they can learn from their peers. Each story we read has key words that I write on the board. After the story I ask the students to define each word. I had to spend the whole first hour of this class teaching them what the word “define” means.

Yesterday I was surprised to see that one of the key words was “Toyota”. I asked what it meant, but no one knew. I don’t see too many Toyota’s on the road here, and most of my student’s parents don’t drive cars, so I understood why they didn’t know. They easily described what “cassava” and “fetch” means. It is all so relative. Below is a picture of Wassir hoisting Justice up to clean the black board after a lesson.

For Creative Arts, I have been cutting out pieces of the Cosmopolitan and Time magazines I bought in the Atlanta airport on my layover to Accra. I let them each choose two pieces and talk to them about what it means to “collage” art. They don’t seem to care, but love gluing the prized pieces to their books and lunchboxes. Last week I taught them the song, “Down by the Bay.” I changed the lyrics a bit, though. Instead of, “Where the watermelons grow” they sing, “Where the plantains grow.” I thought it was clever and more culturally relevant. I then let them choose their own rhymes for the end. Among their favorite were “Have you ever seen a pig wearing a wig?” and “Have you ever seen a fish spinning a dish?” Every time we get to the end of the song, they can barely contain themselves and break out in peels of laughter.
For what it is worth, I know we have no electricity, no doors, no fan to cool off in the blistering heat, but these children can learn as well as a child in a well-lit, walled and painted classroom in any western country.

1 comment

No ping yet

  1. Dan says:

    Read your blog today. Sorry to hear about your experience re: “Water Please”. Don’t quite know what to say or think about the race card being played. I am however quiet certain that it was all about him and not at all about you. It may not be that uncommon of a response. I”m interested in what your Ghanaian and ex-pat friends have to say. It must have been very painful to hear his response. Sounds like you did the best that anyone could do in such circumstances.

    His wages may be so low that he regularly expects to get paid extra for the jobs he is paid to do. In Mexico, the police are paid almost nothing, so they expect and get Mordida’s i.e. little bites from the people they stop or cite. It’s the same when you go to a government office. The workers all want a little extra just for doing their job. Anyway that’s been my experience in Mexico. Not necessarily good or bad but just what it is.

    I’d love to share some words of wisdom, but I have so few, that there are none to share. Maybe this will be the start of a great friendship! Stranger things have happened.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>