A long way from home

14th January 2000 at 00:00
Patrick Doe is spending a year teaching in Ghana. He was prepared for adventure, but was still surprised by what he found.

This is a true story. Three-inch cockroaches lived down my pit toilet until the night the driver ants ate them all. Now there are just maggots. You have to use the toilet quickly because the maggots come up the pit towards the light when you lift the lid. When a cold maggot slides over my bare foot first thing in the morning, I sometimes ask myself: why did I decide to spend a year teaching in a senior secondary school in Ghana's Ashanti region?

It seemed like a good way to get some classroom experience before I started my PGCE, and I am getting a chance to work as a full-time teacher before committing myself to teacher training and the debt of another year at university.

Living in Africa for a year was a daunting prospect. I realised that lots of my ideas about life in this continent came from news stories about famines or wars, and I wanted to find out for myself what it was really like. I was surprised when I arrived at Sekeyeredumase, two days' travel from Accra, to find it fitted the stereotype of an African village. It is 20 miles down a dirt track from the nearest road. There is no running water and there has never been a white man staying there before. Herds of skinny cows graze in the school's compound and people fetch their water from a pump and carry it home on their heads.

My friends had joked that I would be living in a mud hut. Actually, I share a tin-roofed brick bungalow with Tom, another British teacher, but most of my pupils do live in traditional houses with mud walls and straw roofs.

My second surprise was to be teaching chemistry and physics at around A-level standard - I was expecting to teach maths. Most of the students came to this senior secondary school to study agriculture. They need two sciences if they want to go on to study the subject at university, so all the agriculture students study chemistry and physics. They find both subjects very difficult because they have not had the necessary foundation in junior secondary school. Some of are almost a year behind.

All lessons are in English - a language pupils understand more than most of the people in the village, but they still struggle to put complicated scientific ideas into words. One of the biggest challenges has been trying to teach chemistry and physics in simple language but, at the same time, introducing vocabulary pupils need to understand the exam paper.

The school was built for more than the present 85 pupils but many young people leave the village to attend school in the cities. This means it is under-subscribed and is left short of money. The electricity bill alone amounts to more than twice its government funding. The bill has not be paid for over a year and the school is threatened with being cut off.

Resources are very limited, but it is frustrating to see how money has been spent. At first the school library seems to be well stocked, but a closer inspection reveals most of the books were thrown away by a public library in Solihull in the Eighties and are completely unsuitable. Someone paid good money to ship crates of battered romantic novels to the school, money which could have replaced the few relevant textbooks in the library which are dog-eared and out of date.

Ghanaian bureaucracy is also as frustrating as the mistakes of well-meaning Westerners. Although the school has no cash, it employs a bursar, accountant, accounting assistant and a store keeper. here are 27 non-teaching staff, but only six teachers.

School starts at 7.30am, but the pupils arrive 15 minutes early to sweep the school and its grounds. Usually the girls do the sweeping and the boys push the wheelbarrow. After this, there is an assembly where pupils sing the national anthem and say the Lord's prayer. A few pupils are then caned on the hand for apparently minor misdemeanours, such as talking during prayers or forgetting to bring their contribution to the parent teacher association. Corporal punishment is only supposed to be administered by the head in his office, but other teachers regard beating as an essential part of education.

There is little consistency in punishments, however. Children may be beaten one day for an act that is overlooked the next or by another teacher. One teacher drew the line at beating a group of girls because, he said, "they are so wicked, they must be witches". The power of juju seems to be widely feared - although I am told that black magic does not work on white people. Though I am not expected to beat children, my fellow teachers tell me African children must be hit to make them respectful. Ghanaian pupils, however, do not seem any more disciplined than those in UK comprehensives. Pupils often simply run away from the teacher to avoid punishment.

The sweeping and beatings take a long time and it is common for school to start 30 minutes late. On Wednesdays, pupils bring out the school drums and clap and dance for the 45 minutes of Christian worship, which they all enjoy - even the Muslims.

Lessons finish by 2pm each day, but the pupils return for prep supervised by prefects from 7 to 9pm. On Thursdays, they all have to bring their machetes to school for "groundswork" - cutting grass and weeds around the school compound. I still find it alarming when someone pulls out a machete in the middle of my lesson to sharpen his pencil or to use it as a ruler.

Tom and I are minor celebrities in the village. People like to come and watch us doing our washing or pumping water or weeding our tomato plants, but they still get our names wrong because "white people all look the same". Sometimes it is annoying to always be on show. We are stared at in the town and laughed at when we make an attempt at speaking the local "twi" dialect, but I can understand that it is exciting to have someone different in the village. For children who have no television, staring in the window of the white man's house is a good substitute.

For us, too, there have been lots of things to get used to: the heat; tropical rain that drums so loudly on the classroom roof that teaching is impossible; rat for dinner; scorpions on the porch and frogs in the bathroom. But those are the experiences I expected. And it is surprising how quickly you forget about luxuries like running water and reliable electricity. What I have found more difficult to cope with is that living in a remote village is very boring. I went to Ghana expecting adventures but, for Tom and I, most evenings end with a game of Scrabble.

Patrick Doe is on the Teach in Ghana programme, operated by BUNAC, 16 Bowling Green Lane, London EC1R 0QH. Tel: (020) 7251 3472. Participants must teach for a minimum of three months and pay pound;1,200 to cover flights, insurance and administration. Teachers are provided with accommodation and paid local rates: enough to survive but little else. Flexibility is important as placements may change. Teachers may have little idea where they are going or the subjects to be taught

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