Buses and summer school

A new post from our 2015 Volunteer Coordinator, Kerry.

St Cecilia’s School

In preparation for the volunteers arriving and starting summer school, I was invited to St Cecelia’s (our partner school) to discuss the final details such as class sizes etc. I went with Dan, KSG’s Chair of Trustees in Ghana, Coco, the Ghanaian Volunteer Coordinator and Divine, one of KSG’s Ghanaian Trustees and fellow volunteer at the summer school.

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We walked through the gateway onto a pathway leading to various long, one storey buildings and was soon greeted by a few of the more confident children who politely said “hello”, but before long I was lost in a crowd of young children all screaming “Yevu” (white person), and holding out their hands. To keep everyone involved I decided to play a “greeting game” of High Five, but changing the level and direction (not sure who had more fun – me or them!) Ghanaian children get extremely excited when Europeans visit, which can make you feel not only very welcome but, from a volunteering perspective, it pre-empts the impact that you can have on a new generation.

The structure of the schooling system in Ghana is slightly different to that of the UK. It is broken into the following stages: KG (Kindergarten) is similar to UK infant’s school, with ages 4-6. Primary ranges from 6-10 and JHS (Junior High School) 10-16. SS (Senior School) is from 15+. One thing to note is that because children start school at various times, the age of the child does not determine the ability – for anyone teaching this can, of course, make it more challenging to effectively meet and develop the needs of each child. There is also not usually staff trained to identify and support children with dyslexia, so learning can be challenging for children with dyslexia – something which (on average) does not hold back children in the UK to the same extent (e.g you would get extra time in exams).

2In total there are over 700 children at St Cecelia’s School covering KG, Primary and JHS. The summer school is for Primary and JHS students. St Cecelia’s will cover the core subjects of maths, English, science and citizenship and our volunteer-led sessions would be extracurricular, focusing on developing soft skills, such as teamwork, cognitive development, language and empathy.

We were taken to meet the Primary Headmistress, Madame Rejoice, and the JHS Headteacher. The teachers and Dan did the main transaction of business, which is fairly laidback compared to the way of business in the UK – things such as salaries could be left and discussed further (summer school was initially planned to start in four days’ time!) There was also time allocated for photos. The reason for this is because the summer school is an important aspect of the curriculum at St Cecilia’s, it prevents children from playing on the streets throughout the summer and picking up “bad habits” (something which I heard various times) and is a chance for children to develop further. This is more important for those about to sit the JHS entrance exams, but overall the teachers noticed an improved performance in the following academic year of the children who had attended summer school in either of the past two summers. This was the reason that this year the summer school opened to JHS students (last year it was only primary). This was excellent (although nothing short of a Mount Everest challenge for Coco and I to devise a timetable with double the classes and half the volunteers!).

Meeting adjourned and I had the chance to see the football pitch Dynamo FC train on as this is also at the school. I was shocked and impressed – I struggled to walk over the sloping ground with random ditches and potholes – let alone play and run with a ball. For those of you who know football, you will probably also be impressed that during training play is 2-touch, as games would be in the UK on a flat surface.

A week later I took the volunteers, Gareth and Faith. We were introduced to all the teachers in KG, Primary and JHS and received a very warm welcome. As Ghanaian names are based on the day you are born, all the teachers were pleasantly surprised to learn that Gareth, Faith and I, were all Monday-born!

We were shown into the classrooms, which are fairly large and lined with individual wooden desks and a width-wide blackboard at the front. Back in 2009 and 2010 KSG were involved with the renovating of the KG and Primary buildings (respectively). So, although basic, they are cool and protected from the heavy rain that falls during the summer months; a pleasant place to learn. The IT suite contained about 20 computers and portals for laptops. We were also shown the Library where children are encouraged to go to borrow books and read. It highlighted the importance that the school places on computer literacy and reading. We were even introduced to the cooks in the canteen, a small hut with a few rows of small tables and chairs – I was impressed that they were able to cook for around 200 children with such a small amount of equipment and space!

Our tour finished (via a lot of “Yevu” and waving from the children) we said our goodbyes and promised to be at the school at 7am (on the dot, insisted Madame Rejoice!) to meet the priest of the church which is attached to St Cecelia’s.

The following day we arrived, at 7am (precise!) to visit the parish priest. Once the formal meeting was over, we attended assembly. It was the last day of term, so a slightly smaller number of students were in early. On the last day everyone brings in homemade food for a party, so many children were still cooking at home. The children and teachers gather outside on the grass and are conducted by one of the students to sing the national anthem and Lord’s Prayer, among other things. We were introduced to the children as the teachers for the summer school, working alongside their usual teachers. As volunteer coordinator I had the pleasure of being put completely on the spot to say a few words to the 100 plus children gathered watching eagerly (no matter how many public speaking events you do, these are still petrifying, especially when you have a small voice like me!)

What happens when you take the wrong bus to Accra…

The title will give this section away…but I hope it is a lesson to all volunteers and travellers journeying from Ho to Accra (or anywhere in Ghana!).

Having travelled through Ghana before, I know to leave plenty of time to travel, never more so than when I am going to the airport and need to be there on time to meet our volunteers (first impressions count!). The volunteers, Gareth and Faith, were due to land at 8:05pm. It is a three hour journey (dependent on traffic) from Ho to Accra. I arrived at Ho Bus Station at 2pm, aware that I may need to wait for up to an hour for a bus to be filled and ready to leave. Plenty of time!

The first bus I see, slightly to my left, says “Accra”, brilliant I think, that was nice and easy, I pay for my ticket, 11GHC. “You have the last seat, hurry” says the female ticket conductor. I turn and flee onto the orange Metro Mass bus. What I didn’t know then was that this was where I made a big mistake!

I squeeze through the tiny aisle of the packed bus murmuring apologies for the people I am disturbing and squash myself between a gentleman and lady on the crowded backseat. Only then do I realise that there was a back entrance next to my seat! I am feeling elated as the bus pulls off, I am on track to be early (all I can think is that I may be able to find a place selling ground coffee…maybe there would be a Starbucks somewhere near the airport I think). Then I remember all those films I have seen where the last seat is the most ominous sign…I try to shrug it off.

An hour and a half into the journey and we are powering along a dirt track through a small village, bumping over hump strips, what we would call speed bumps, something which a bus that has been around longer than my meagre 27 years is clearly struggling to do. As I try to peel my stomach off the roof of the bus after the final jolt, we grind to a holt. Yep, it was an ominous sign to take that last seat!

Luckily one of the passengers happened to be a mechanic, so tried to jump start the bus. Several large clouds of black smoke later and what sounded like the engine may be dying a slow wheezy death, it came to life – we were back in the game! But, wait, half the passengers are buying water from the roadside, others are on the phone and some have just simply disappeared. Unfortunately, this meant that the engine died before everyone was back on! Queue a lot of “EHHHY” from those on the bus.

In the interim I got to know the lady sitting next to me really well, she essentially took me under her wing. This was lucky. We soon got under way again, rattling along, passing through large expanses of greenery and fields, it was beautiful, very much like the UK countryside, over another set of hump strips we go, and then stop. Ah, this time we are in the middle of nowhere!

We stand outside the bus looking at the highway stretching as far as the eye can see on both sides in the hazy late afternoon sunshine (by now it is 4:30pm and we are nowhere near Accra!). The lady I have befriended suggests flagging down another car – that’s what Africans do when we breakdown the lady explained to me. At that time I thought it may not be a bad idea…

However, after another large cloud of black smoke, the bus kicked back into life; it looked like we were good to go again. We all just made it on in time, the door slamming as we bounced off down the road.

By the fourth and then the fifth time we had broken down, the whole bus barely noticed; everyone was standing, laughing and chatting to each other and then someone started singing. It was akin to a small community travelling.

At breakdown no.6 I lost my friend, she left the bus and jumped on a tro at the roadside. I did consider following her thinking it may be a quicker journey to the airport (T minus two hours and still not near Accra). Luckily we didn’t as we overtook that tro.

By the time we reached Bus Stop. 37 in Accra we had stopped three more times and I had made another new friend, who kindly put me into a taxi and directed them to go the back way (avoiding the usual Accra traffic).

I pulled up to the airport at 7:30pm – half hour to spare! When I finally met Dan he looks at me and says; “Why did you not go to the right of the bus station and take the air conditioned bus for an extra 6GHC? (£1.20!)” Ah, so that was the wrong bus! But, it was an eventful journey which nicely illustrated the difference in pace of life and ways of dealing with hiccups along the way, especially between the UK and Ghana. In the UK this would have been a front-page-of-the-Metro-scandal.

Please let this also be wise words to travellers, if you can spare the extra 6GHC and you are in a rush/need to be on time go for an STC bus. If you have time and want an experience, go for the Metro Mass bus!

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