Semester in Ghana


Read by Date --> April

Journal entries from April detail my term final exams and subsequent service project. Also included are discussions of customs I observed in my social environment.

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April 4

In more temperate parts of the Northern Hemisphere, April is roughly when gardening types begin contemplating what the seasonal tenants of their backyard plots will be. This annual occasion is less widely observed by amateur gardeners of the Tropics, though. Monday, Priscilla called me over to the small dirt patch in the corner of the compound to see the green sprouts from the corn seeds she planted after her last corn-rearing attempt failed. I explained that, in most cases, Americans with unsuccessful planting endeavors must wait an entire year before retrying; she was pretty surprised. In addition to the growing season flexibility, I have noticed that seemingly everything grows here! Tomato plants identical to my mother’s adorn a gutter wall on my walk to church, banana trees squeeze between houses, some hedge varieties are reminiscent of Pittsburgh ones, and lots left to their own devices become meadows. If this is the land’s natural arability during the dry season, I can only imagine what Tema looks like in the rainy season.

Speaking of rain, the aridity is lessening as we approach the July peak of the wet season. Monday and yesterday both saw midday precipitation. Our rusty classroom roofs allowed for isolated indoor drizzles to accompany the outdoor downpour. I had never understood why a particular Canteen table was so deteriorated until I saw the curtain of water that section of the roof let in. Nonetheless, I greatly appreciated the relief from the heat that the weather provided. Since exams began Wednesday, no teachers bothered showing up on Monday or Tuesday. Strategically sitting in a dry part of my classroom, I whiled away the hours explaining math to classmates and drawing maps to brief myself on last term’s history notes.

This week, Chemu was tasked with facilitating examinations for all 2,000 attendees. Within each grade level, kids were placed in 35-person groups and assigned to classrooms by alphabetical order. A scowling teacher marched into our room at noon on Tuesday and barked that we were to arrange the desks in a 5 by 7 array. As our classroom is usually supposed to accommodate 67 students—not that there are enough chairs on days with good attendance, but that is a different story—this process involved relocating numerous desks to outside the room. Overflow desks from ours and other rooms were positioned in long rows in a large covered plaza/hallway on campus. For the next month, this area will be occupied by final-year students taking their West African Secondary School Certificate Examination (WASSCE). (This exam extends into non-final-year students’ school vacation, which begins at the end of next week.) All told, more desks were needed than before because school attendance during exams improves drastically. For this reason, a carpenter has been working all term, removing old wooden slats from a heap on campus and hammering them back into usable desks. Under the blazing noonday sun, students lugged desks (which have attached chairs) around school grounds, carefully picking their way over uneven dirt and gravel.

Unsurprisingly, my name did not make it onto any of the lists for examination room assignments. The printed lists were posted Friday, so I approached the Administrator at the end of last week to ask for a placement, and he requested I return Monday morning. I tried his office at 8am and 11am Monday, and he was not there either time. On my way out of school, I ran into him (he had been late on account of the rain), and he told me to return Tuesday morning. Midday Tuesday, the women sitting in his office informed me that he was in Accra for the day. They directed me to the teacher in charge of examinations, who was in a locked room. After Abigail and I hammered on the door for a while, he came out and sent us to yet another teacher. This man commanded Abigail to fetch a pen, and he walked us to the last classroom on the list and ordered me to use the pen to write my name at the bottom of the page. My thus-assigned testing room is located in the uncompleted block, which has unpainted cinderblock walls, a roof, and no windows or doors. It might be surprising, then, that this was the placement I had hoped for. Although it is not pretty, the unfinished construction affords this building terrific airflow, providing nearly-ideal conditions for me to concentrate.

Tuesday afternoon I tried a new food, called “yooyi” (pronounced with the same vowels as “woody”). The snack is the seed pods from the yooyi tree, which reportedly comes up naturally in cornfields following the harvest. A brittle, dark skin surrounds the edible part. To eat, one cracks off the skin, gobbles the peach-colored flesh, and spits out the enclosed seed. Wikipedia tells me the tree’s scientific name is Dialium indum, and it is commonly called velvet tamarind.

Wednesday morning my friends asked me if I had read the Literature books in preparation for Wednesday’s English final. My answer was no, I had never gotten Literature books. They lent me copies of the study guide books they were using to cram for the test, and I familiarized myself with a couple of the works about which multiple choice questions would be asked. Fortunately, the Literature portion is small. Otherwise, the test included grammar, comprehension, and a long response—I chose the essay prompt, but there were also article and letter prompts. As a native English speaker, I had an advantage on the grammar because the correct answer usually sounded natural to me. Comprehension is not my forte in America, but I think I did alright, anyways. The comprehension and long response were in the open-ended portion, which came in the morning and lasted 2.5 hours. Later in the day, we had 1.25 hours to complete the multiple choice questions. CAPA English finals are one-hour essays—torturous (for me, at least), but only 60 minutes at the end of each semester. These are monsters in comparison.

Also different is the provision for an environment conducive to successful testing. On some scores, Ghana is better for me: I would love to always take finals in a pavilion; I find natural light and outdoor noises less distracting than artificial light and forced silence. However, much less effort is made to eliminate disturbances. For instance, our proctor’s cell phone rang during our exam, and he answered the call and began jabbering in Twi. In addition, the sun was shining in on some desks on one side of the classroom, and a teacher disrupted everyone by ordering various shaded students to trade desks with kids in the sun. But the most distracting are test corrections. As students in other classrooms are taking the test, they notice typos in the problems and report the mistakes to the appropriate teacher. That teacher then must go to every other classroom and relay the correction to the other 600 pupils in that grade level. Whenever such a journeyer arrives, all work stops, and everybody flips through the test booklet to find the questioned questions. Then we all try to remember what we were doing before noting the tweaks.

A third difference is the timing. To make the tests harder, time limits are imposed such that not all people finish. Thus, exams are harshly timed. Yet this is African time, so nothing is rigid. Of my experiences, this combination of harsh and flexible is unprecedented. When we are nearing the end of the allotted time, the proctor instructs us to “get ready to stop work.” In response, students call out requests for five, ten, or thirty minutes. Although proctors never expressly agree to lengthen the test period, determined students can accomplish a good deal of scribbling while classmates negotiate for time extensions.

Yesterday’s assessment was on elective math, and today’s was core math. As it turns out, end-of-term exams in Ghana deal very little with the term’s material. Mostly, they mimic WASSCE’s variety of questions in hopes of preparing kids for that all-important test. Unfortunately, I was not here for the first half of high school, and the American curriculum is different, so many problems were simply skills I have never learned. Thankfully, I could figure out the majority of them.

I was dismayed that the necessary knowledge was, in most cases, neither reviewed nor mentioned ahead of the examination. Therefore, I could not have self-studied to prepare myself. Nevertheless, I am grateful that most problems proved possible, and I am especially glad that I only ran out of time on one section.

On an unrelated note, a Wednesday happening reminded me of a Ghanaian custom I wanted to discuss. As we were driving home from school, my host father pulled over and allowed a woman on the street to climb into the backseat. As with previous times he has done this, he informed me that the passenger was a member of his church. His church has several thousand members, so it was easy to believe that this was one. But these impromptu carpools are not restricted to fellows in a congregation. On one of our walks to school, a sedan driver offered my classmate and I a ride because he recognized our uniforms and was driving his daughter to school anyhow. Similarly, two Chemu girls flagged down my host father’s car one morning after spotting me (no surprises there) in the front seat. My host dad was happy to cart them the rest of the way to campus.

I will close with a scene from the drive home today. As was alluded to in the past, streets here are lined with gutters, the bulk of which are uncovered. Some are just dirt ditches, while others boast concrete construction. Residents use wood or cement slabs as bridges to provide access to their front doors. Between these walkways, though, the gutter is a tripping hazard, particularly for children. As we approached the house this afternoon, we passed an area with a cement gutter that was approximately a foot-and-a-half wide. A small girl was walking home with her even smaller brother. When they reached the edge of the gutter, she hugged and lifted him by the torso, leaned over the trench, and gently deposited him on his feet on the other side before stepping over herself.

April 6

Walking and driving around the neighborhood, it’s hard not to notice that, while most vendors strolling through the streets are adults, others are youth and still others mere children. My inquiries to Priscilla and my host father have yielded the following insight. On Saturdays, some mothers—who are vendors by weekday—give the merchant responsibilities to their school-enrolled daughters. That explains why I saw a 13-year-old yesterday with a tray of baby clothes on her head. On the other hand, if school-aged children are working on weekdays, there are two possible explanations. They might attend the government-operated school that offers half-day schedules to accommodate families that count on child-earned revenue. Otherwise, the young sellers’ parents are likely unable to afford education, and the kids may have started working before their tenth birthdays. Wednesday, there was a girl selling tomatoes whose age could not have been in the double digits.

In the past, I have discussed words and grammar in Twi and Ghanaian English, but as with any community, those are not the only aspects of communication. I find it interesting that non-verbal expressions are, in general, more audible than their American equivalents. This is, by no means, an absolute rule; Ghanaians use hand gestures, etc. but not as much as Americans do. Whereas Westerners are very sensitive to body language and silent—and often unintentional—gestures, Africans frequently convey opinions and reactions through voiced sounds. These elements of language are difficult to transcribe, but I will try to relay a few. Firstly, hissing often replaces hand-waving as the method for getting someone’s attention. Secondly, a nasalized “eh-heh” is used in the place of nodding to indicate conversation comprehension. Thirdly, Ghanaians suck their teeth (similarly to stereotypical, snobby middle school girls) as a sign of contempt, instead of giving dirty looks. Fourthly, a sharp, upwardly-inflected “eh” is used comparably to raised eyebrows. I expect these translations to be reflective of only the Ghanaians with whom I have the most interaction. However, I hope they illustrate the concept of audible, yet non-verbal communication.

Also on the topic of language, I have a few comments on the process of learning Twi (not that I am particularly far along on that score), which emerged from a completely different language family and culture than any other language I have studied—English, French, German, and Spanish. As a language learner, I must distinguish between the significant and insignificant variations in speech. Examples of significant variations in English include syllabic emphasis and vowel enunciation (i.e. whether the speaker’s mouth is wide, tall, round, relaxed, etc.). Inflection and vowel length are less significant. On the other hand, speaking with Ghanaians requires paying careful attention to inflection and consonants, while overlooking some vowel variation. For instance, Twi-speakers cannot always hear the difference between “letter,” “litter,” and “leader,” but I had to learn to differentiate between “eyeh” with an upward inflection (which means “fine”) and a straighter tone (which means “it is”). Although this was frustrating at first, my ability to hear such things is improving.

April 11

Exams this week were rough in and of themselves, but fortunately, I kept my wits about me and did not become frantic. We had one test each day. With the exception of Monday’s history exam, none of the assessments focused primarily on material discussed this term. Topics for Social Studies included adolescence, reproductive health, and conflict resolution, all of which are Health Class subjects in American curricula. Among other things, Integrated Science tested simple machines and plant reproduction, which might have been skimmed over in 4th and 7th Grade Science, respectively, but those years were not characterized by particularly rigorous science instruction. Journaling in Microsoft Word semi-weekly provided me most of the answers to the Information and Communication Technology questions. And today’s Physical Education exam was a mix of Ghanaian soccer trivia and skeletal system knowledge. All in all, it is unreasonable to suggest I could have been fully prepared. Knowing that I did my best is what allows me to reflect on this week with, if not total satisfaction, at least content apathy.

Panning out to the broader picture of Chemu during Finals Week, the most applicable illustrative analogy is a zoo. Teacher supervision was nearly as nonexistent as foreknowledge of information such as assigned examination rooms. Because different classes needed to take assessments for their various elective classes (and individuals within a given class generally have identical electives), my class was supposed to be assigned to a specific room in which we would take all of our elective subjects’ tests. However, we encountered several problems. Firstly, the classroom we should have occupied was often inhabited by other students who were either taking their own electives’ exams or studying in the down time between tests. To compound that, our class contains 67 kids—twice as many as is permitted in any individual room—so two classrooms usually had to be found before testing could begin. As soon as a student heard rumor of a room assignment, everyone stampeded to the fabled location to reserve a desk. Because fetching furniture was the preserve of the losers, this race was taken very seriously. Additionally, the competition culminated in a time of war, during which any seats inadequately guarded were swiped. Gradually, the mayhem would mellow into noisy conversation and studying once more; that is, of course, until the next whiff of relocation was scented.

Eventually, a proctor would appear in the doorway, growl at us to straighten the rows of desks, and hand out the test. After time ran out, papers were collected and students filed out. Backpacks were disentangled from their heap before groups of friends meandered to the Canteen to discuss the exam over greasy bowls of rice. There were no worries about time; although subsequent tests were said to be “right now,” suggestions that we return to the room were always met with, “after we finish eating.” Indeed, on no occasion did I ever reach the classroom fewer than fifteen minutes earlier than the proctor.

April 15

Today’s journal entry is a discussion of various Ghanaian customs, all of which coincidentally begin with the letter “c.” First, there is caning. Although I have mentioned corporal punishment on previous occasions, those were all regarding school. However, I have realized that this form of discipline is pervasive homes and even churches, in addition to educational institutions. Sunday, a young girl came to the store to buy a cane. (The standard practice is for teachers to demand students buy and bring sticks with which the adults will beat them.) Sheila asked her why she was buying a cane on a Sunday, and the girl replied by naming her church. In a separate incident, several weeks ago, my host father expounded upon his affability with children, citing, as evidence, his disuse of the cane on his kids. It was clear that ordinary Ghanaian fathers keep canes on hand at home.

Next in alphabetical order are car horns. In my experience, American drivers primarily use these in traffic or when a nearby vehicle is performing an unadvisable maneuver. Ghanaians, on the other hand, have developed more creative applications. Honking is most commonly employed as a greeting to pedestrians. In the car, my host father frequently notices a friend walking on the street, cranes his neck to get a better look, sends them a few loving beeps, and finishes the ritual by throwing his arm out of his window for a vigorous wave. Secondly, the horn replaces turn signals. A healthy honk announces any intentions to stray from a car’s present path. Maybe this is because cars changing directions are just as often clearing the road of animals as people. A final appellation for the African car horn is “garage door opener.” Upon arriving at home, my host father shoots Grace a long blast to ask her to open the driveway gate to admit the car.

From car horns we turn to church creation. Next door, a church opened last week, and I know that because I heard it. One night during the week (Tuesday, maybe?), my shower was serenaded by a chorus of human screams and a microphone blaring over them. I inquired about the ruckus, and my host dad told me that he had considered buying that plot of land when it was for sale, simply to avoid the bother of a new church so near the house. He spoke of a growing phenomenon whereby recent middle or high school graduates, rather than pursuing a trade or higher education, seek their fortunes by founding evangelical churches. (He assured me that his church dated to a time before this practice gained popularity.) Good-looking young men, he explained, attract the women to their services. They advertise all manner of signs and wonders, and their services are characterized by the din we endured from next door.

Another focus is the nonexistence of things that are truly “compulsory.” In the United States, it is widely accepted that certain duties—attending school, paying the stated price for purchased goods and services, staying on the right side of the road, etc.—are required. I would argue that, at its base, people comply with these rules because there is the threat of legal action against those who do not. In Ghana, that threat is absent. Teachers can—and, sometimes, do—threaten truants with divine destruction, but they cannot mail them a court summons, such as the ones sent to my American classmates who skip school. No customer leaves the store gate with their purchases before counting their change. By the same token, my host mother checks any large bills for anti-counterfeit marks. After all, money dishonestly earned carries the same value as that which is honestly earned, and victims cannot sue their rippers-off, since most stores—including my host mother’s—are not formally registered with the government. However, Ghanaians are God-fearing people in some of the same ways that Americans are lawsuit-fearing people. I believe that religious piety and the threat of supernatural wrath keep citizens performing their necessary responsibilities. Social stigmatism also discourages petty crimes and irresponsibility. In fact, I have come to regard this “informal” judicial system as just as legitimate as our “formal” one. But it cannot guarantee such duties as I highlighted earlier; they remain, at their core, optional.

“Cops” closely follows “compulsory” in the dictionary. I send the following sentences trusting that none of you will report me to the police. Ghanaian law enforcement is, in a word, shady. They don solid black uniforms and hide their cars under roadside trees. Stepping up to front-seat windows, they search for excuses to seize licenses from any drivers lacking the tact to offer bribes. Standard practice is to enclose five or ten cedis with the license when it is collected for inspection. Officers will then disregard out-of-date inspection stickers and things of the like—things on which they would certainly capitalize were there not a crinkled bill hidden under the license. My host father complained about the cumulative total in bribes he paid as his inspection renewal was being processed. He explained that they usually did not approach him because they saw that he was a big man, but this year they seemed especially money-hungry. Also, he cautioned me against letting the authorities see my camera last Friday since cops usually seize any device that could be used to report their behavior. It is important to note that the practice of taking bribes does not seem to render them completely ineffective. Drivers are much less disposed to break traffic laws when police are present; in that sense, bribes and tickets are similar. However, bribes do not discourage misbehavior in the long term. This is particularly true for truckers. Freight trucks—such as the one in the last update’s picture collection—are commonly flatbed and use large canvasses to tie down goods. From what my host father told me, this is sometimes, if not always, illegal. Despite this, the price of contained trucks is evidently too high, so bribes are considered transportation costs, like gasoline. In conclusion, police corruption is ingrained and will not be easy to uproot.

April 18

Today’s musings center on home life, of which I have been experiencing a lot this week thanks to school vacation.

Whether they realize it or not, Ghanaians depend enormously on buoyancy and dilution when putting on meals. Buoyancy is most important in food preparation. Before dry rice is shoveled into the pot, it is rinsed in a basin of fresh tap water, so the black grains of dirt in the package can float to the top and be skimmed off. This process is repeated once more after the rice has been dumped into the heated water. The dark particles’ buoyancy is responsible for the effectiveness of this method. Dilution, on the other hand, helps in washing dishes. The Ofoedas have running water, but both Grace and my host mother (and my host father, but he doesn’t wash dishes) were born in villages. As they were taught as children, the first step in meal clean-up is to haul buckets of water and dump them into basins. Thus, even rinsing is done in a container of standing water. It is true that plunging the first dish into the basin renders the water soapy, but it is trusted that the soap content is diluted enough that the water can be reused for the rest of the sudsy plates. That trust greatly reduces amount of water necessary.

Just as the above are customs to accommodate the absence of running water, color identification solves a problem posed by illiteracy. For several items, brand names are known, but that is not true for all. Product labels are commonly a solid color other than white, and customers requesting goods from the store usually refer to the colors of those labels. Luckily for me, colors are named in English. Undereducated mothers and not-yet-educated children are the most frequent visitors at the store because they are not employed elsewhere. As my store-tending skills progress, I find I am depending on color identification more and more. Pronunciation of those words is more universal than that of product names, which still sound like mutters to me. For example, yesterday I thought a young boy wanted “Omo” (a brand of detergent), when he was really after “Malt” (a nonalcoholic canned beverage).

As anyone notices when they leave home, there are countless inconsequential tasks for which each community develops a unique procedure. Here are a few Ghanaian mannerisms I find smarter than their American equivalents. Firstly, towels are fastened differently. Once wrapped around the body, instead of tucking the loose end into the inner rim, the inner rim is folded down over the loose end to hold it in place. This technique is also used for the securing a baby sling. A second dissimilarity is the way in which bags are tied. In my experience the American practice is to make a loop, pull the free end 180° around it, and tuck the loose end through the loop. Ghanaians, on the other hand, pull the free end at least 360° around the loop before tucking. This renders the bag more airtight, which is very important considering how many food items are kept in tied bags for long stretches of time. Lastly, I have observed a clever system for beating away mosquitoes. People firmly flick dish towels in swipes parallel and close to their legs, hence harshly knocking out the bugs without self-inflicting too much physical pain.

Lately, I received a question regarding visitors. To begin, it should be stated that guests are always either neighbors/church members or family. Some weeks, there are visitors on three different days while other weeks pass without seeing any unfamiliar faces. Typically, folks arrive in the afternoon, and they rarely leave before dinnertime. One major difference is the attitude toward food preparation in the presence of guests. Since cooking dinner is an affair spanning several hours each day, it must be commenced in the afternoon. Regardless of whether my host mother has started cooking when visitors arrive, she inevitably prepares the meal in their midst. The driveway then functions as both kitchen and parlor, and chatter persists throughout the cooking. To be clear, visitors do not, unless they are younger family members, participate in the labor of cooking. Once the meal is ready, some guests eat in the driveway whereas others depart with a plastic bag containing their dinner.

April 21

Saturday afternoon, my host father took my two host sisters and me to the Shai Hills Resource Reserve, located a little bit outside of Tema, maybe a 45-minute drive away. Aside from affording me opportunities to take copious photos of the natural terrain of southeastern Ghana, this excursion provided fresh air and even some mild exercise. First, we drove into the reception area, which was infested with photogenic baboons. All visitors to the Ecotourism Park were required to be accompanied by guides. The fees were per visitor per hour, and guests were divided into two categories for the purpose of pricing. “Ghanaians,” unsurprisingly, paid about half as much as “Non-Ghanaians.” After my host father settled the bill, Ishmael, our guide for the afternoon, hopped into the backseat of my host dad’s car and gave directions to reach the trailhead for our desired hike. I had chosen the highest peak and most strenuous hike, and I’m glad I did; these are no Appalachian Mountains. Hielow Hill (I hope I am spelling that correctly.) reaches 290m above sea level, and the round trip took between two and three hours, including the frequent breaks my host family members took.

Hielow Hill has a cave near the top in which the Krobo people kept their war drums. Upon spotting approaching enemies, the warriors sent their wives and children to their homes in the hillside settlements, scaled the hill, crawled through the dual-entry cave to retrieve their instruments, and proceeded to the vantage point on the other side of the cave. We made this trek too, though in less of a rush than I presume the Krobo warriors would have been in. The second and third “Grassland” shots were snapped at the top of the hill, as were all the head-on pictures of my companions. After descending, we stopped at Mologo Hill (I am pretty sure I am spelling that one erroneously.) on the way back to the reception area. In the past, the Krobos used Mologo Hill as a training camp that each year’s batch of pubescent girls stayed on for six months in preparation for their puberty rite. This history is evidenced by the impressions left by the grinding of ornaments that the girls wore during the rite. Each of these foot-long ovals indicates an initiate. I took “Hiking” and “Grassland 1” on Mologo Hill, too. Ishmael routinely pointed out Baobab trees, which were undoubtedly the most impressive species of tree in the area. In addition to having a comparatively tall stature and a knack for picturesquely catching the afternoon sun, these trees store large amounts of water in their hefty trunks, and thirsty residents drill into their bark during droughts. I enjoyed seeing them and other telltale signs of nature, which are so conspicuously missing from this industrial city.

“What are Easter celebrations like, both sacred and secular?”

There is not really a distinction like that, and I expect any celebrator would claim his activities to be religious. I witnessed little hubbub, but my host father informed me of some of the goings-on in the market this weekend. Before dawn on Easter morning, people light candles and proclaim the holiday before closing up shop and heading to church. The real party gets going on Easter Monday, though. This morning, a noisy parade passed in front of the compound. The markets and beaches are reportedly zoos. People gather in certain restaurants and other establishments to listen to music, dance, drink, buy food, play in bouncy gyms, and even enjoy live performances of comedies.

“Is there any change of seasons?”

Rainstorms are slowly becoming more frequent, but the heat between them remains as strong as ever. The mosquitoes might be getting worse, or I may just be becoming lazier about getting indoors before sunset. I do not detect much of a change, and Ghanaians do not discuss it much.

“How do Ghanaians save? Where and how do they tend to invest their savings?”

According to a question on my Social Studies exam, acceptable locations for saving money are banks, post offices, and objects called “Susu Boxes.” I am not sure that the majority of Ghanaians have the means to make investments, but I will summarize observations I have made about family finances. Laborers make as little as five cedis, or two dollars, each day. Girls selling bags of water to market shoppers take home about one cedi for every thirty bags sold. For a little perspective, I can eat one or two cedis of a prepared rice dish in one sitting. Water vendors are widely considered the lowest earners in the tertiary sector, and the daily profits of other workers in the markets reach double and maybe triple digits. My host mother’s markup on items ranges from 25% on bread to 80% on toys. I think my host father charges four figures for a medium-sized contract, and he pays several employees and imports large orders of supplies. From what I can see, groceries are bought daily. Sheila told me that ingredients for one night’s dinner might cost fifty cedis. Most of that is spent on meat and fish, which are quite expensive. In short, people appear to spend most of their money on food. I know that my host father owns a few plots of land outside the city, and I am not sure what he intends for them, but they are investments, I suppose. Aside from government-run elementary and middle schools, all educational institutions charge fees, so I think children’s education is an investment (not that it is one that all parents can afford to make). Only the largest corporations are registered with the government, and I assume the status of being unregistered would render most businesses ineligible for a stock exchange, if such a thing were to exist.

April 24

This past Tuesday, today, and tomorrow, I am functioning as a math teacher at Leads International School. Tuesday, I retaught eight eighth graders about algebraic expressions, number sets, and linear inequalities. They were reasonably attentive although a few were clearly more interested in breakfast than math. But I guess that is true for almost everybody. “Madame Mary” was provided a couple of textbooks, a blackboard, chalk, and a pair of someone’s old gym shorts that functioned as an eraser. I definitely caught my pupils off guard when I asked what they wanted to review in advance of their end-of-middle-school exams, which begin in June.

As Tuesday was the first day of Holiday Classes, not many kids showed up, so I returned home after only that one class. Today, however, a few more students straggled in—between one and three hours late, per usual. The first group I instructed was comprised of elementary school children, to whom I taught basic fraction addition. When I kept it to shading specified numbers of blocks, it went pretty well, but I lost all but the oldest kids when I tried to transition from visually finding common denominators to algebraically doing so. Oh well. After leaving the young’uns, I moved to a room with three seventh grade girls, the respect of whom I believe I earned over the course of the hour I instructed them. We focused on isolating variables in algebraic expressions. It was obvious to me that the math instruction they had received had concentrated primarily on the end results and not enough on the process. For example, instead of explaining a calculation as “I subtracted 3 from both sides,” it would be put, “I sent 3 to the other side.” This method worked fine for operations their teachers had drilled into their heads—addition, subtraction, and multiplication—but their weak conceptual understanding caused errors in calculations involving more complex operations, such as square roots. I, therefore, did not permit the use of any of the shortcuts their teachers had thrown at them. Rather, I required the full illustration of all steps, with the goal of their recognizing that every stage in solving a problem really is the administration of a given operation to both sides of the equation. In other words, 3 is not sent to the other side of the equals sign, where it becomes negative; instead, 3 is subtracted from both sides, such that it cancels with the positive 3 on one side of the equation. Hopefully, my three seventh graders will not follow the Ghanaian trend of poor performance on tests assessing mathematical reasoning skills. I rounded out the morning with another hour in the eighth grade classroom. I have no idea which age groups I will take charge of tomorrow, but I am not worried. Although it is frustrating to come on time for students who do not, I am enjoying this community service project, and I am glad that I ended up with it.

An aspect of culture I wanted to discuss today is status. The Ghanaian social structure is very stratified, and I have observed certain characteristics that both identify a member as significant and, in turn, contribute to his or her perceived greatness. Undoubtedly, the first symbol of status is age. Adults are careful to internalize their grumblings about elders until out of their earshot, children freely order around their younger siblings, and even the miniscule age differences between twins are frequently referred to. Other than age, it is impossible, as a foreigner, to miss the value given to anything attributed to, or anyone connected with, the outside world. My friends and host family members explain that those who call to me in the street, at school, etc. want to be friends with “a white lady,” and to be able to make that claim. Apparently, the fame of the white girl in a Chemu uniform will boost my host school’s number of applicants this fall. Everyone I meet is careful to inform me of his or her “American friend” in Virginia, New York, Ohio, or whichever state the person happens to live in. Thirdly, there are numerous, widely recognized manifestations of wealth. Anyone with ample means is sure to invest in such things as cars—big, shiny, foreign (especially Kia) models that are distinctly ill-suited for Ghana’s poor roads and high gas prices—and renovations aiming to make the home bigger and more distinctive. My limited experience suggests that Ghanaian society acknowledges the above as marks of prestige.

As a result of this stratification, Ghana has developed a highly complex system of titles and phrases used to address people. My age determines my title as “sister,” as in “Sister Mary, “ but those seeking to flatter me use “auntie” instead. “Auntie” is generally applied to grown women and “grandma” to elders. “Brother” is commonly applied to unmarried men, and “uncle” and “grandpa” may be standard for older males, but I have less exposure to men than women. Titles are used for acquaintances and, in particular, friends of one’s parents. However, before names are exchanged, people are called to using one phrase or another. In ascending order of age, the girls’ set of phrases is “small girl,” “young lady,” and then “Mommy” (pronounced with the “oo” in “wood,” and used for family friends) or “Madame” (used for people of authority). Teachers usually use these instead of bothering to learn their pupils’ names. To be polite, “young lady” is used for anyone old enough to understand the difference between the phrases. But if such respect is not intended to be communicated, adults will apply “small girl” to those well into their teens. For example, my core math teacher, when he was trying to irk me, called me “small girl” (even though he had previously demonstrated his knowledge of my name). Just as age is the dominant symbol of status, so too does it often determine the appropriate manner in which to address someone.

Another notable maxim in interactions, and conventional Ghanaian life as a whole, is the proper use of the right and left hands. Nothing is passed with the left hand, and no gestures are made with it, either. When speaking to a person of authority, the left hand is held behind the back. Food preparation, laundry washing, and house cleaning are the reserve of the right, too. The left hand is thought to be dirty, and it is only used for the facilitation of excretory procedures. Although it is slightly irritating to reach for an object on my left side with my right hand, I do not complain because I have now watched enough men urinate in the sewer and return directly to other morning business (including food handling) to be glad that the hand making my lunch is not the same one used earlier in the day. After buying something, I am careful to hold the shopping bag in my left, so my right hand is the only one with which I can inadvertently motion or wave. Inattention is the only circumstance that causes me to break the right hand rule, but that is not the case for everybody here. Lefties, for one, need special arrangements. I asked a Chemu classmate if her left-handedness was an issue, and she informed me that teachers had initially tried to make her write with her non-dominant hand but that they had since given up. Even more severe, there is an eighth grader at Leads with a semi-paralyzed right arm (Sorry, I’m not sure what the real name of the condition is.), but he must nonetheless deliver items with his right, even though his wrist appears to be the only mobile joint on his arm. Aside from cases like his, the custom is minor, if slightly inconvenient at times.

April 29

This weekend, Leonie and Fanny (I learned the correct spelling.), the Koforidua girls who joined us at the beach, visited me. They arrived Friday afternoon, and the three of us shared my bed for two nights. We chatted about host families, cultural differences, and strategies for maintaining personal health as an exchange student. I am so blessed to have amiable fellows in my Ghanaian adventure. As the only exchange student in Tema, I encounter the culture in a way that I expect would not happen if I saw other white girls on a daily basis. It is, nevertheless, therapeutic to speak in person with peers who deal with the same struggles as me. We depend on one another’s support to stay optimistic, perseverant, and present. Meeting with them was, thus, very uplifting.

Today’s first discussion topic is the attitude toward planning. In comparison to my American life, there seems to be less of this. Teachers collect workbooks near the end of the term to log students’ classwork grades because they did not keep records of assignment marks when they graded them. The bakery sometimes delivers the morning’s bread loaves in two shipments since certain some are not finished cooking, so any customers seeking Butter Bread early in the morning are told to “go and come.” Week nights’ dinners need not be planned on the weekend because grocery shopping is a daily, rather than weekly, affair. Much of the economy operates on the “Gimme” System, in which merchandise is prominently displayed—usually on vendors’ heads—to entice buyers. On the other hand, my host mother takes “best by” dates seriously; older cans are stacked on top, and she judges how large a price cut is necessary to ensure the shelf clears before the impending doom of expiration. In summary, forward thinking is less pervasive but not nonexistent.

Next is a collection of the requests I get most frequently. To begin, Ghanaians are always asking me to let my hair down. In temperate countries I wear it down almost every day, but Ghana is not one, so I keep it safely away from my neck in hopes of minimizing—or at least reducing—the volume I sweat. Whenever I let it down to redo my bun, any and all company I might have pleads that I leave it that way. I try to explain about temperature control, but neither my bald classmates nor anybody else has firsthand knowledge of the problems posed by a neck blanket in 90° weather. Secondly, everyone wants me to take them to America. Irrespective of age, gender, or whether I know them or not, people seek my vow that I will bring them home with me. I admit it gets a bit tiresome to make this emptiest of promises over and over and over and over again. I highly doubt any of the assured actually expect anything; they just want to ask me, confirm my assent, and laugh. Finally, I get a lot of requests for my cell phone number. Safety comes first, so I am happy to say that I can worm myself out of this one without too much trouble. For strangers, I deny owning a phone; for acquaintances, I claim my phone is only for calling my American parents; and for the insistent, I ask for their number instead and pretend that I will call. I have shared my number with precious few people, and I am not sorry; I get enough calls.