Spreading cultural literacy

An Island educator travels to West Africa.

A small portion of the K-8 school, on completion of the latrine behind us. Cornelius, the principal, is in the orange shirt. — Courtesy Andrew Vandall

Someone once told me that life is vividly memorable experiences scattered with a few tremendously thoughtful people. In an effort to find one of those experiences I traveled to Ghana, West Africa. As an avid traveler, I was enticed to volunteer in Ghana, mainly because it is considered the Star of Africa, being the first country to become independent from European colonial rule in 1957. It is also known as the “gateway to Africa” for first-time visitors to Africa: a soft introduction to the African continent.

I arrived in Accra International Airport, after 24 hours of travel on four separate flights. The heat and humidity hit me like a wave. I dragged my bags through customs and security checkpoints, guards checking for yellow fever immunizations, past a thousand people shouting “obroni” or foreigner, vying for my ride to the city center, to Gloria’s Flower Shop outside the terminal. It was past midnight, and I was a mixture of excited, nervous, confident, and very aware that I was now in Africa. At the shop, I met Evans, who was assigned to get me to the volunteer house.

Evans was a young black man of about 25, well dressed in brightly colored shorts and a T shirt, and muscular; he found us a taxi, haggled over the price, and we jumped in for a 30-minute ride. My role as a volunteer with International Volunteer HQ placed me in a special position. I was there to give help to the people of Ghana in any and all ways that I could. In Ghana, the volunteer projects are organized by color. The Gold Program was for construction, the purple was for orphanage work, the pink was for agriculture, and the blue was for medical. I requested the Gold Program, so that my contribution could be more enduring. I was placed near the industrial market town of Koforidua northeast of Accra, in a small village, on a red dirt road leading away from Tinkon Station. There were three other volunteers on the Gold Program, one other volunteer from the United States, and two from England. Our project: building a basic latrine for a K-8 school.

I was required to learn Twi (pronounced Ch-wi), one of the three dominant traditional languages spoken in southern Ghana. Although Twi is the predominant language of south-central Ghana, many people also speak Ewe and Ga, but Twi is the most common where I would be volunteering. The language classes were an important cultural piece to my training, so that I could become more acculturated when at my host site, and embedded within the village community. Learning the basics of Twi helped me integrate into the culture of the villages, as the locals were more than happy that an “obrini” cared to learn their language. Saying, Good morning, how are you? — “Ma-jo ete-sen” — was always welcomed with a smile and a wave. Most of the people I worked with were of the Akan tribe. It was easy to spot them, as many still were marked with a little cut, or burn on their left cheek. This was done at birth, and other tribes still used facial scarring to separate themselves. I was startled at first, but then as I spent more time in-country, I grew to admire those tiny scars and their cultural significance.

The village where I stayed was halfway between Tinkon Station and the school where we were going to build the latrine. We could walk 30 minutes to the school, or for 2 cede (50 cents), we could take a moto-taxi. We often opted to ride on the motorcycles, as we were tired of doing manual labor all day, and had the extra change. Many of the locals had to walk, and could not ride because they did not have spare change. Every amount of money was predestined to become part of how each family survived in the village. Riding a moto-taxi was a luxury.

Our house mother, Tina, by 6 am prepared our breakfast of cassava pancakes, or eggs and thick white bread, all washed down with bitter instant coffee and condensed cream from a can. Cassava is a tuberous root, also known as yuca, and provides a main starch in much of South America, India, and Africa. It provides a staple diet for over a billion people in the developing world. Every morning we ate heartily and arrived at the school by 7 am.

The students always met us there, as they were already cleaning the school grounds, pumping water, and preparing the school for the day. Kon-kong Presbyterian School was a mid-size school of about 400 students, most of whom walked to school every day. I later found out that some students walked over an hour to get to school. The children wore uniforms and had neatly shaved heads. In Ghana all students, male and female, have closely cropped hair, from K-12 grade. I never found out why. In Kon-kong village, a haircut was about 25 cents. Most of the villages I visited are not on Google Earth. They are off the grid, and do not have power or electricity.

When we returned from work, Tina also cooked us lunch and dinner. In a few days we were able to try Banku and FuFu, both wonderful traditional meals, that required a little bit of instruction before eating. FuFu is a dough-like mixture of cassava, green plantain, and water, pounded together. After it is cooked, one has to eat it with fingers, by slicing chunks with the thumb and pointer finger. The gooey substance is not chewed, rather swooshed around in the mouth and swallowed. It is sort of like gummy mashed potatoes.

Our daily labor was mostly to mix two bags of cement with six wheelbarrows full of sand, to make mortar for the walls of the latrine. The young students pumped the water, and carried it in buckets on their heads. Our supervisor, Godfrey, a robust 23-year-old of strong build, would help us in the process. However, after we learned the trade, his frequent calls of “tem-tem,” or “hurry up,” were alarming but amusing.

Speaking with Cornelius, the principal of the school, the first question he asked me was what I thought about homosexuality. In Ghana it is illegal, and can carry a jail sentence. I told him that in the United States there are many people who strongly believe in supporting basic human rights, and believe that the freedom to choose a partner is a practice of those individual freedoms. The second question I was asked was if I were married, and if I wanted a Ghanaian wife. I replied that I was in Ghana to build a structure, not a family, and that I was happily in a relationship back home. I realized that he cared deeply for the students, and was excited to learn that I was an educator from the United States. Our conversations always had a natural flow. He expressed his ideas and frustrations with education in Ghana. Cornelius explained that even though in Ghana corporal punishment is illegal, most all village schools still hit the children. I took a deep breath as he stated, “In the villages, sometimes the children just need to be hit.”

On one of the last days we arrived at the site, we found that the day before, some students had walked on the wet cement that we poured on the latrine floors. When Godfrey saw the footprints about 7 am, he set off to punish the students who had stepped on the cement. Godfrey found five third and fourth graders, and cracked each one on the hand three times with a cane, as they cried and struggled to get free. As a Western educator, it was a devastating incident to witness, and a grim lesson to learn that many places in the world still use corporal punishment on children.

Over the two weeks that I worked at the school, I became close with many of the students. They would ask my name, and say good morning in English; it was always a highlight of my day to converse with the students in the village. When we finished building and painting the latrine, we had a celebration, and gave every student a few pieces of candy. Though they still have candy that costs only a penny, it was a special treat that filled the students with excitement. I became saddened the day we left the school for the last time; the students shouting “obroni,” as I shouted back “Nakuma obibinini” — my “heart is with the locals.”

There were aspects to Ghanaian culture that I recognized. In some ways it was familiar, in that it was an English-speaking nation, Christianity is predominant, though Judaism, Islam, and the traditional native religions were also practiced, and it’s largely democratic, believing in some principles of equal rights, gender equality, and the ethic that hard work is rewarded.

As an educator, I have always valued the experience of traveling to see the diverse regions of the world, in order to celebrate the people that live there. Learning from their customs, traditions, and histories provides the opportunity to enrich my classroom lessons, and enlighten the students I teach.I have traveled to 30 countries on five continents, including Brazil, Ireland, Thailand, Nicaragua, Japan, Qatar, and Sweden.

Visiting West Africa was a trip of a lifetime. The Ghanaian people are friendly, deeply devoted to family, very open and loving, and are always ready to joke around. They live a truly Christian life, and practice hospitality, humility, and kindness.

Cultural literacy is so important in today’s society; I feel fortunate that I can teach about diversity and cultural awareness not from a book I’ve read, but from the people I’ve met, and the places I’ve experienced. Using an analogy, in the West, education is like a bowling ball, we are only trying to make it as smooth as possible. In developing regions of the world, such as Ghana, they have a square stone, and they are just trying to make the block roll.


Andrew Vandall is a history teacher at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, where he is creating a Center for African Studies. If interested in helping or adding to the endeavor, contact him at avandall@mvyps.org.