Krystle's Adventures in Northern Ghana

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[Disclaimer: Since this post is so long, pictures will be coming in a post tomorrow. For now, enjoy the story of a fellow PCV and I visiting Brianna and her literacy courses in Ghana!]

After an unexpected delay in our departure and a few battles at the bus station, Kerry Kelly (a fellow PCV) and I were off to Ghana on Monday, April 30, 2012. Brianna and Lucas met us at the border, and we continued in a car to Sumbrungu. We would be staying at the women's center where the Sumbrungu Community Library is housed. Over dinner, we talked about our plan for the next week. Kerry and I wanted to observe Brianna's adult health literacy classes and do presentations featuring our new book, Mary Loses Her Teeth, a story featuring a young girl who learns about baby teeth, cavities and the importance of oral hygiene. Brianna had classes each afternoon at one of the three libraries from 3 p.m. until 5 p.m. We planned to accompany her each day to observe for the first hour of the course, which was dedicated to literacy practice. Then we would do presentations about oral hygiene and our book during the second hour, which was allotted for the health portion of the day's lesson.

We spent the first night remarking on the differences between Ghana and Burkina and how hard it was to understand Ghanaian English. It didn't take long to see that Ghana was a much more developed country than Burkina. People and chickens looked more well-fed; dishes came to the table covered to keep out flies (sometimes in plastic wrap!); handwashing stations were everywhere and the number of fancy houses in the small city of Bolgatanga rivaled that even of Ouagadougou. It was also already rainy season, which was a welcome change coming from Burkina, where hot season is still insistently hanging around.

Since our mornings were free, we decided to explore the area with Brianna and Lucas as guides. On Tuesday, we went to the Sirigu Woman Organization of Pottery and Art, where we learned a little bit about traditional painted houses and basket weaving. I bought a really pretty fan that ended up coming in quite handy in during Ghana's extremely humid afternoons. The grounds featured a sculpture of Kofi Annan's head in honor of his visit to the center in 2002. We also visited the Pikworo Slave Camp, where Africans that were captured in the area were held while they waiting to be sent to the coast to be sent to the Americas. We had a guided tour of the area, and a few Ghanaians played percussion for us using small rocks to beat on a boulder. It was an interesting and sobering experience.  

In the afternoon, we went with Brianna and Lucas to the class in Kunkua-Gowrie. The class was very well attended with about 15 participants. There was one lone man, who interestingly did not seem out of place in a sea of women. Brianna and FAVL Ghana's research assistant, Richard, led the class. Brianna explained the lesson and Richard translated into local language, as most of the students did not understand English. At the beginning, students reviewed the consonant letter sounds that they had worked on in previous classes. Then, they moved on to vowels and words using those vowels like "ice." The class involved a lot of repetition of the sounds as a group and by individuals to get the members of the class used to saying the sounds. The second hour of the class was the health lesson. Since this class was going to meet twice during our visit, we were to present our book on the second day. So we observed Brianna and Richard's health lesson about babies and children.  As a class, they talked about how illnesses (especially malaria and diarrhea) disproportionately impact small children and what parents should do if their child is sick (go to the health clinic).  Brianna had created a health manual for the class with discussion questions and illustrations for each topic that each participant had received at the beginning of the course. They addressed the questions individually, and the students filled out their workbooks as they went along. Everyone (even the sole male) was very active in the discussion and had good comments and questions to contribute. It was great to see the women in particular participating so actively without deferring to the male member of the class or being intimidated by the male instructor.

On Wednesday morning, we went to the market, which was full of people selling basket s and pretty tie-dyed cloth. For lunch, we enjoyed a Ghanaian delight (one that I really wish that Burkina would get the memo about) of red-red. Red-red is a mixture of red beans and fried plantains covered in a spicy tomato sauce. Very tasty! On our way to class, we stopped at an arts and crafts village, which featured vendors selling the usual West African tourist fair: beaded jewelry, leather wallets, statues of elephants and women carrying babies on their backs. We stopped at one stall selling bows made entirely out of wood (including the part that is normally made out of string). We had quite a time taking turns getting lessons in shooting the bows. In the end, I was the only one who was unsuccessful in developing my hunting skills.

Wednesday meant class in Sherigu and our first oral hygiene presentation! The first hour of the class was spent in much the same manner as in Kunkua the previous day: a review of consonant sounds and the working on vowels. The demographic was about the same: mostly women with a couple of men interspersed. Simon, the librarian, led the session with periodic interjections from Brianna. He was a fantastic teacher - very patient and encouraging with the students. Kerry and I were up during the second hour with our dental hygiene book. The book is in English, and only a couple of the students were strong enough to read in English and translate into Fra Fra. So we decided the best strategy was to have those students take turns reading the text, and then they and Simon would translate for the rest of the class. First, we went over difficult words and expressions from the back of the book. Then we read the story and explained along the way. It went slowly, but at the end, everyone seemed to have gotten the gist of it. Since this lesson had not originally been a part of the curriculum, there was no page in the students' workbook for them to fill out. So we just took time at the end of class to answer any questions they had. As in Kunkua, the class got really involved in the discussion and asked a lot of great questions. A lot of the participants said that they already chewed on Nime branches, but they didn't know it could help them keep their teeth healthy. They also said they would encourage their kids to start brushing their teeth on a regular basis and make the Nime powder if they couldn't afford toothpaste. The class went over by almost an hour because everyone was so engrossed in the conversation.    

Late Thursday morning, Kerry, Brianna and I met with Lucas and two of the librarians to discuss strategies for continuing the class after Brianna's departure. Brianna had created a manual for them that included best practices, tips on improving encouraging literacy and a guide to 20 literacy classes. She also gave them sample registration sheets. Since reading camps would be an interruption to any adult health literacy class that started immediately, and would thus bode badly for attendance, the librarians decided it was best to wait until later in the year to start again. They also decided that next time around, they would charge a small fee to ensure that participants would take the class seriously and to off-set some of the cost of printing the workbooks and of buying pens and notebook holders for everyone. Since the librarians had been basically running the classes themselves for the last few weeks, they felt confident that they would be able to do that alone in the future. The hope is that adult literacy classes will become an annual event like the summer reading camps.

Thursday's class was our second in Kunkua-Gowrie, and this time, Kerry and I were going to give our dental health presentation. Richard was not present this time, so the librarian ran the class. Brianna wanted to get them into the habit of doing that so that they would be able to continue the class after her return to America. The class went much the same way as the others. During the first hour, the class worked on their literacy skills. Then, we read the book about oral hygiene as a class. This time, there was only one girl who could read the English well enough to read aloud. To facilitate the process, the librarian translated as we went along. We had a question and answer period here too. The students asked good questions (though different from those in Sherigu). We encouraged them to pass along the advice on oral hygiene to their children and the other people in their families.

On Friday morning, Kerry left bright and early to catch a bus to Kumasi before continuing to the beach. So it was just Brianna and I for class in Sumbrungu in the afternoon. Brianna told me that at Sumbrungu, she has had a big problem with attendance and few of her students came on a regular basis. Thus, when 3 p.m. rolled around, we were not surprised to have only three women present. Fortunately, they came eager to learn. Because of poor attendance, Brianna had not been able to advance as far with this class as with the others. They were still working on associating letters with the sounds they made. As the three of them practiced, some stragglers showed up, until we ended up with about ten women present. After the literacy portion of the class, it was time to talk dental hygiene. Since the literacy level of the class was so low, there was no one who was able to read the text for everyone. We decided the best way to go through the book was for me to read and for the assistant to explain in Fra Fra as we went along. In the other classes, we noticed everyone's attention wandering as the English readers went through the text. So we took a minute before beginning to tell everyone to follow along with a pencil as I read. After a few false starts because the women had mistaken my direction to mean that they repeat the words after I said them, the reading went along fairly smoothly. It was hard for me at first to read slowly enough for them to keep up, so I had to slow myself down by following the words with a pencil like I had instructed the participants to. Again, the women seemed interested in the information and asked a lot of questions. In all the classes, a popular inquiry was about gums bleeding while you brush your teeth.

Since Brianna would be leaving the following Thursday, it would be her last class in Sumbrungu. Each participant was to receive a certificate for their participation, but only if they had attended at least 50% of the classes. Sadly, this meant that only a few of the women present received them. But those who got them were thrilled! Brianna got quite a few hugs, and everyone came together for a group picture.

During the trip, Kerry and I both commented on how we wished we could have done similar projects in our villages in Burkina. All the participants seemed to get a lot out of both the literacy and health portions of the course. Maybe with our new volunteer Antoinette's help, we can get classes going at some of our libraries here in Burkina! 

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Books, reading, and libraries relevant to Africa by Michael Kevane, co-Director of FAVL and economist at Santa Clara University.

Other contributors include Kate Parry, FAVL-East Africa director, Peace Corps volunteer Emilie Crofton, Krystle Austin, Elisee Sare, and Monique Nadembega.

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