Since arriving in Accra I have been entranced by Ghana. My experience has been mostly very positive, though an incident earlier today showed a more brutal side of some of the people, but more on this later.
The first thing that strikes you is how deeply religious a society Ghana is, with worship performed both regularly and with devotion. This struck home on my drive away from the airport after landing, with the preponderance of shops and stores that are named to reflect religious beliefs: ‘Praise the Lord Welding Services’, Good Shepherd Plumbing and Building’ and ‘The Lord is our Provider General Stores’. The most souped up car I noticed was a ‘boy-racer’ type, with a massive custom spoiler, alloys and undercarriage neon which was emblazoned with ‘Lord is my Shepherd’ transfers on the rear shield in a ‘scary’ halloween script!
Amongst the poverty and the atrocious squalor of the living conditions of the majority of people here there is hope and a certain optimism. Africa beats with music and it fills my soul and spreads happiness. The humble joy of the people is infectious as they smile and laugh.
I’m staying at a volunteer house in a town called Asaka, close to the shore of the world’s largest man made lake, Lake Volta, in Eastern Province. Volunteers, mostly Brits, are constantly arriving and departing so the rhythm of travelling, of hellos and goodbyes is quickly established. I’d been warned that the amount of goodbyes that I’d say to people I met on the road would be staggering and this is so true. It can be the hardest thing, saying these goodbyes, but the compensation is that you meet so many characters as this ebb and flow proceeds.
Weekends are spent at the Rasta beach village of Kokrobite along the coast from Accra. Upto eleven of us crammed into a choo-choo for the five hour drive from Asaka on a Friday afternoon and a weekend of debauchery. If only I could remember our exploits I’d be sure to share them with you!
My voluntary work here so far has comprised teaching at a very remote rural school. It is not even in what could be called a village, more a dispersed farming and herding community of mostly muslim immigrant children, aged between 4 and 18 years old. These pupils predominantly come from surrounding and nearby countries such as: Mali, Niger, Benin, Togo, etc.
The school is entirely run by us, the volunteers. There are no Ghanian teachers, nor is there a school head. Parents speak very little if any English and are certainly not able to provide the kind of western middle class support and aspiration that children benefit so much from.
There is such a range of abilities and concentration that the teaching is challenging, classes are divided into two groups according to age. The youngest are read stories, recite the alphabet and count up to twenty, we also introduce them to colours and shapes. While the oldest are taught the same at basic level with more gifted children in this group are set individual maths and english tasks: such as algebra, the use of nouns and verbs to form sentences.
One thing is certain, apart from the ‘devil child’; who has an awful spitting and hitting habit, yet smiles angelically when caught, the kids are a joy to be around. In this very deprived community they wear the same dirty clothes week in week out, but as with all children there is promise that perhaps they will be able to experience a brighter future. Hopefully the volunteering helps contribute a little impetus in this direction.
So all in all Ghana is a wonderful, entrancing and happy country.
That said, this morning I witnessed an uglier side to life and while I’m assured by the local volunteer co-ordinators that the incident is rare and perhaps confined to immigrant communities, such as the one I teach in, it was brutal.
Twenty minutes into class this morning one of the parents, a father who has been attending school to learn some English was approached by another parent. This second parent had come across the fields into the school and started shouting and remonstrating with the first man. Although initially this appeared to have been just a case of venting with both men momentarily retreating, it soon escalated into something far more sinister. A wooden pole was wielded by parent number two and the first forceful blow to the forehead of the other men drew blood, which soon streamed down the first mans face.
This took place in our single school classroom, imagine an area the size of an English 3 bed semi, in full view of the children. The confined space meant that everyone was a potential victim of the pole wielding and blows that followed. Needless to say collectively, volunteers and children, were at first stunned by the outbreak, but we all managed to vacate the building and find safety, before sending the kids home and cancelling school for the remainder of the day.
Later conversation revealed that the two men had been involved in a feud for some time and had fought before, though the roots of the dispute remain a mystery. The thing that struck me about this incident is the rage that descends on men (yes it is always men), when pride is at stake and also the seemingly brutal manner in which they sought to settle the dispute.
This is easily the most violent incident I have witnessed in my life and sheltered as it may be, I have no doubt that it would’ve been fought to the death had not a local herder intervened. He did so in a decisive but equally violent manner, by raining blows with his own shepherd’s stick on the initial aggressor, so that the man fled the school building.