Thursday, October 28, 2010

What have I accomplished so far?

(For those of you looking for a quick, entertaining read – turn away now, this blog is going to bore you. This means you, Hridi Chowdhury!)

If I had been one of those 3-month “Leave for Change” volunteers, I would have left Ghana last month wondering what I had accomplished. Things move so slowly here that accomplishing anything substantial in three months is really a feat, in my opinion.

Thankfully though, things are finally beginning to pick-up with my work. I am actually busy during the day and I go to sleep at night feeling pleasantly exhausted. I am the type of person that needs a busy schedule to motivate me, so having long, extended periods of time to accomplish something means that I will probably never get that thing done (ie: research proposal).

So - what have I been doing? It seems like everyone in IDS has done an official “work update blog;” but I have been avoiding that for the past 4 months until I could muster up anything substantial to say. Finally, that day has come.

MOST of the students are now back in school – after a 2 and a half month delay. It's nice to start off the year fresh. As a “career and guidance counselor” (that term should be taken lightly) I don't really have a whole lot to do during the day since students are in class, and my school has a major space deficiency, which means I really don't have a quiet, private place where students can come talk to me, if they want. So, instead, I have invested my time in starting MANY school clubs – including a Writer's Club, Debate Club, a community Radio Program, Tuseme (a girls' empowerment club), a choreography club and a school choir. (don't worry – I'm not actually leading the school choir and choreography).

I have been given about $3000 to start the clubs and plan club activities, which is pretty awesome. So, I've got some pretty big plans. For the Writer's Club, our focus is going to be on both creative writing and journalism. The girls will have the chance to go into the community to interview community members about issues that women are facing in the community, region and country. We will also be doing some creative work like writing poems about what it means to be a woman, an African, etc. All of these things will be published in a school newspaper, that will be distributed monthly to the community.

For the community radio program, some of the students will have the chance every Sunday afternoon to host and lead a panel discussion on the local radio station about a variety of topics that they have chosen, many of which go hand-in-hand with my Life Skills class schedule. I'm excited because it gives them the chance to really reflect on some of the issues and to receive feedback from community members as they call-in to the radio program.

The girl's empowerment club, called “Tuseme” (which means “Let us speak out” in Swahili) is a club focused on promoting girls' empowerment and community awareness about gender issues through the use of dramatic arts. The club is also receiving money for the purchase of wireless, internet modems so that the girls will be able to start an email exchange with some African-American girls living in the Bronx, NY. This will not only give the girls valuable learning experience as they learn to use the internet, but will also hopefully be empowering to build friendships and learn about the difficulties and accomplishments of life in another culture. I have also recently received money to purchase bicycles for the school (none of the girls can ride bicycles, but ALL boys can) so I am going to teach the girls to ride. I feel that this is a “direct” way of combatting gendered stereotypes, instead of the traditional, over-done workshop method.

Another note on acting – these girls are AMAZING. We are supposed to be hosting an “important American visitor” (that no one knows anything about) this Friday, and I've been told that all of the clubs have to prepare SOMETHING to show this “visitor.” After stressing about it all week (how am I possibly going to prepare a program for 6 clubs by Friday?), I met the Tuseme girls with the most pessimistic attitude: “I want you to divide into three groups and work as a group to come-up with a play that depicts issues faced by girls or women in Ghana.” I stressed that it only had to be 3-5 minutes, and that I wasn't expecting anything elaborate. WELL, 30 minutes later, I called the groups back to perform what they came up with....and I couldn't believe what I saw. Each group managed to include all of the group members into their play (about 12 students per group), no one was shy, no one needed paper to remember their lines, everyone worked together so well... and each play was quite complex and actually about 20 minutes in length! I was beaming the whole time – these girls, that are so often timid, reserved and afraid to contribute to group discussions – absolutely excelled at acting and creative expression.

It really made me wonder – teachers here often have such low expectations of their students. They give them the most detail-oriented assignments, exam questions, etc... and the students do not do well. But, simply giving them open-ended assignments where they have the ability to be creative and free... the results, as far as I've seen, are beautiful. And so – I've come to approach my job as a “counselor” in a completely new light. In Ghanian culture, “counseling” is essentially an adult lecturing a 'child' while the child quietly sits nodding and saying “thank you Sir/Madam.” Myself, coming from a North American background, tried to establish a more egalitarian relationship with the girls – but in most instances, they don't understand this method of communication, and I feel that they think that my indirect problem-solving and advice-giving is because I am incompetent about how to solve issues they are facing. However, giving the girls the freedom of expression through drama and art allows them that opportunity to really say what they are thinking, without being accused of being “disobedient” or “disrespectful.” I feel like I've been enlightened.

On that note, I should also briefly mention what I've been working on in terms of my research proposal. Firstly, doing research here is ridiculous. I have encountered SO many barriers – mainly due to unreliable internet connections, unreliable electricity, smotheringly hot working conditions, complete lack of available online resources, and unreliable internet cafe hours. Needless to say, things have been difficult in the research department.

Nonetheless, I have managed to come up with an idea.

The Ghanian Education Unit, several years ago, implemented a goal to bring guidance counselors into all public schools in the country by 2005. Since that time, I have found no documentation to demonstrate how successful that goal has been, or the extent to which these counseling programs are actually assisting students. The reason that I am so keen to research whether these programs have been helping students is because Career and Guidance Counseling is actually an American intervention. That said, counselor training courses and textbooks most often emphasize individualist, Western ideals of how a counselor should assist his “client.” Essentially, the aim of counseling sessions is to assist that client in self-reflection, with the ultimate goal being the personal empowerment of that client to find her or her own solutions to the issues he or she is facing.

The problem, however, is that the traditional, hierachial social structures found in Ghana and throughout many African countries means that it is very difficult to form that egalitarian relationship, especially between someone “older” or “more elite” (like most counselors) and someone young/poor or uneducated like most students. In this regard, young people are expected to receive and accept advice and solutions from adults in their society, without much questioning.

My research would be to examine methods used by counselors in Ghanian schools and to find out if both counselors and students perceive these forms of counseling to be effective. From the most positive responses, along with my own work as an experimental counselor, I hope to draw conclusions about effective counseling practices within the cultural context of Ghana.

So that's that.

Anyone who actually read through this long, boring blog entry – please let me know what you think about this research idea! I have yet to receive much feedback on it.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Ghana: Ten Lessons learnt so far

Hello everyone,

Just a quick update to share a few of the unexpected cultural lessons that I've learned here in Ghana so far....

  1. Before traveling ANYWHERE outside of your home, make sure you are armed with toilet paper and Imodium.

  2. Always ask for directions at least three times before going somewhere new. Ghanians love to help and direct, even if they don't exactly know where you're going.

  3. The only way to measure distance here is “far” and “not far.” Traffic, weather and bad road conditions play a major role in the establishment of whether something is “far.”

  4. Even if someone nods frequently and says “Ah, okay” several times during a conversation, that does not mean that they understand you. It is very rare for people to admit that they don't know what you're saying.

  5. If you give out your number, people WILL call you several times a day at all hours of the day and night. Unfortunately, some cellphone companies in Ghana offer free calling between midnight and 4am, so people often take advantage of this.

  6. Do not plan things more than a few days in advance, at best. Situations arise that will disrupt your plans. These can take a variety of forms depending on the plans, but frequently include: power outages, no water, people not showing up (or showing-up very late), lack of understanding or consensus on particular happenings, rain (yes – rain is a legitimate excuse), random public holidays, random government decisions to extend school holidays, late/incomplete construction projects, unexpected (and unpleasant) illnesses, district-wide shortages of essential things like fuel, printer ink, paper, etc.

  7. Being a young, white, female foreigner ensures it is very easy to make acquaintances and potential husbands, but very difficult to make genuine friendships.

  8. On that same note, being a young, white, female foreigner (without a real degree) gives me very little credibility as someone who is capable of looking after herself, let alone assisting others. “This girl can't do her own laundry, pound fufu, carry heavy things on her head, run alongside of cars on the highway selling things, or speak Twi. What CAN she do?” (Fortunately, I can do some of those things now, so I've earned at least some degree of street credibility.)

  9. If you are anything other than Christian or Muslim, it's better to just say that you are either one or the other to avoid direct, confrontational, conversion attempts.

  10. If you witness some sort of petty crime (ex: pick-pocketing) it's often better to just turn your eyes away, since calling it out may result in the criminal (even a youth) being beaten (sometimes to death) by a crowd of people and/or the police.