24th March 2018
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Despair turns to hope in Ghana school

, by , in Features

In her final article from Bongo, Linda Davis reflects on the work she has been doing in her short, three-month placement for VSO in Ghana.

A TYPICAL kindergarten in Bongo District, and there are 62 of them, will have one or two rooms made of concrete blocks with either wooden shutters or decorative block work for windows and a tin roof.

Inside the walls will be bare and often very dirty and the floor will just be cement. There may be desks and chairs and some will have slates and chalk, nothing else.

There will be one or two teachers with up to 75 pupils each. A few of the teachers are trained, but most are volunteers from the local community.

I think that the prize for the worst must go to the one that had about 90 children sitting on the floor in a bare, dark and dirty room. The children did absolutely nothing for the entire morning while the volunteers, two oldish women who lived nearby, sat in the doorway gossiping and occasionally waving a stick at the children shouting: “Don’t make noise, don’t make noise.” It was as if they thought that somehow the children would learn by osmosis, by simply being in a room called a kindergarten.

Anyone who knows a bit about education knows that kindergarten, or nursery, is the most important stage. This is where the foundations for future learning are taking place. No wonder then that I felt I should return to Bongo and try to help for a few months.

The director of education, the kindergarten adviser and myself chose a kindergarten that was fairly central, so that when “improved” it would be easy for other kindergarten staff to visit and could be a centre for informal in-service.

St Anne’s Kindergarten, when I arrived, was a typical building with three classrooms but it had some desks and chairs, slates and chalk and even half a dozen skipping ropes. It was also unusual in having two trained teachers and a volunteer. As I was not therefore starting at rock bottom it was felt possible that something could be done in three months.

Still, where to start when the year one class has 72 pupils, each of the year two classes have 45 and the teachers have only ever taught the children to recite the alphabet and numbers to 20, was something of a problem. Well, as Julie Andrews would no doubt have advised me, the only place was to “start at the very beginning”. So for the first 20 minutes or so of the day we had nursery rhymes and action songs, neither needing any resources except the teacher.

Eight weeks down the line the classrooms have been painted and the year one room has murals on the walls whilst the two year two rooms have the alphabet with pictures as a resource for teaching phonics. We have sand and water play, sorting and matching games, cutting out, threading and balls, bats and stilts have joined the skipping ropes.

The real work was teaching the teachers how to use all these, but they rose to the task and it is now quite amazing to see them dashing around organising it all and keeping to a timetable. Ghanaians are not noted for dashing or time keeping; the weather and the culture encourage neither, but so far so good.

It would be impossible to talk or write about a kindergarten without mentioning the children themselves. They are just like children every­where in many respects, some are shy, others naughty, some learn fast and others take a bit longer. Some cry for their mothers for the first few days, they hurt themselves, vomit on the floor and don’t always get to the toilet in time. Any nursery teacher will know the scenario.

The main difference is that although the children play at home and around the village they have had it drummed into them that school is a serious place. You can’t learn without pain and you certainly don’t play. It took a few days, therefore, to get them to play with the new resources and not just to sit and look at them. Now you can’t hold them back. They are wobbling along on the stilts, trying to catch balls, pretending to be market women selling millet in the sand and chatting on the wooden mobile phones.

Our biggest problem with the children was in year one when we tried to split the class into six groups to rotate around the activities. Each group would have a colour and each child in the group would have a ribbon of that colour pinned onto them when their name was called on the register. A fine idea, but although we didn’t expect these three-year-olds to know the colours we were rather taken aback to discover that most of them did not know their names or whether they were a boy or a girl.

On the first morning it took from 8am to break time at 10am to mark the register and pin on the ribbons.

I was in absolute despair but the volunteer who takes the class per­severed and now it takes only 30 minutes before activities can commence. No mean feat.

With only a few weeks left I am now organising in-service training for other kindergarten staff in the district. This week about a dozen teachers will visit each day to observe this new way of learning and next week there will be an in-service day on how to resource the activities.

With so many children and almost no money resourcing calls for great ingenuity, we have devised many activities which need only blackboard or slates and chalk. Other things, like sorting and matching activities, the teachers can make, but cardboard, felt pens and scissors are still needed for this. Some things have been made for us by a local carpenter but these are not cheap in local terms.

Thanks to the generosity of Shetland people I was able to bring some money to help a few schools to purchase resources and imagine my surprise when Peter called me to say that an ex-colleague from the education department in Shetland had sent a substantial donation. This will really make a difference and the message from the teachers and pupils to all those who have helped is: “Thank you and God bless you.”