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Words to the warriors

Wednesday October 11, 2006

Anne Dixon

As you will guess, schools in rural Africa have little in the way of resources, so it?s ?chalk and talk? and trying to be as creative as you can with what comes to hand. We get excited about crayons these days. Even basics, such as cardboard, can be hard to find, so last year we recycled packaging from teabags and toothpaste into flash cards and board games.

Some classrooms are solidly built, but others are open to the elements, with leaky roofs and teacher-sized potholes in the floor. Here in Ghana we are often joined by educationally motivated chickens, ducks, frogs ? even the occasional snake. We have never worked in a school that had electricity or running water. Textbooks for the children are often a rare species ? not long ago there was just one English comprehension book between 30 students. Ghana has recently moved to improve this, however, by issuing a surplus of books. In fact, now the children can barely move under the weight of them as they walk to school.

The use of the cane is banned in some African countries, such as Ghana, but its use is still widespread. This can vary from an institutionalised thwack for being late, to what can only be described as beatings. Often local teachers have no knowledge of alternative classroom management techniques and simply rely on the cane to maintain order. This is compounded by the habit of writing long, tedious exercises on the board and leaving the kids to get on with it, unsupervised. As the children get restive, out comes the cane.

In Ghana we have made a long-term commitment to one school and have worked with the proprietor, staff and Parent-Teacher Association to make the use of canes, or any other physical methods of discipline, a sackable offence. As a consequence, staff have changed their teaching styles. We hope that we have acted as role models, demonstrating that learning should be fun and that teachers need to be seen to be working if they expect their students to follow suit.

As native English speakers we have always been welcomed as teachers. Our African colleague?s grasp of English has varied widely, even though in Ghana and Malawi all teaching is supposed to be conducted in English from the primary level and all public exams are in English. Local teachers have been disadvantaged by the lack of skilled English teachers at the higher levels of education.

Frustration levels can peak when working in African schools, but we reckon that the rewards far outweigh this. These include getting to know local communities and their lifestyles; local people?s delight in laughing at you because you are hopeless at their language or things that they do every day, like carrying yams on their head or weeding with a cutlass; the children who soak up knowledge like young sponges; and the general sense that what you are doing is directly worthwhile and makes sense. It sounds corny, but it?s true. Plus good English really does improve people?s chances of progressing.

In all three countries, as well as working at the schools, we have offered adult classes in basic English. In Tanzania we taught Maasai warriors to read ? how cool is that? Teaching adults in a community helps to break down barriers that staying in the confines of a school does not.

The day-to-day living is entertainment in itself. Bucket showers and pit toilets are the norm (you can get ?sit on? versions of the latter these days). Ghana is the only place where we have encountered mains electricity. We use local transport, get our clothes made locally and shop in the local markets. We watch football on the TV at the local bar: we work hard at being locals.

Of course we never will be, but with this attitude we have always found that local communities are highly supportive of us, with Ghana being the most enthusiastically welcoming. We have spent many months in Ghana and can still only mumble a few words of Twi, the local language. Swahili, in Tanzania, was much easier to learn. Travelling in Ghana is pretty easy (if a little hair raising); getting about in Tanzania is also okay; but in Malawi, away from the big cities, you can wait a very long time before something comes along.

The economies of Ghana and Tanzania are steadily growing and you can see everyone working away at small enterprises, keen on improving their lot. The energy is palpable. Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world and there is little sign of improvement on the way. We certainly met people with energy and drive, but it must be hard for them to maintain it when they are hungry and can?t see a future. Malawi is a particularly demanding place to work.

We are independent volunteers these days, paying our own fares, insurance and living costs. We found placements through voluntary organisations in the past and would offer the following advice:

  • First, if education and teaching are your prime motives in volunteering, be sure that the organisation placing you shares your level of commitment in these areas. Education can lose priority when organisations have projects on the go in other fields.
  • Secondly, if a project fee is required in addition to your board and lodging expenses, be clear about how that money will be spent.
  • Thirdly, if you are volunteering for a lengthy period of more than three months, try not to pay everything up front. If the placement doesn?t work out, you could lose a lot of money.
  • Get proper training. Thanks to an exhaustive TEFL course we have always felt we had something positive to offer. But we have watched with sympathy as well-meaning but underqualified teachers flail in the classroom, with little idea of what to do in terms of preparation and delivery. It is hard for them and for the schools they have been placed with.

So, if you enjoy a challenge, like living in different cultures, want to get back to basics and can hack the heat, insects and sanitary arrangements, then do come to Africa. If you have the right skills and attitude, it really is possible to contribute and change lives. It may change your life too.

Anne Dixon took her TEFL course at Global English

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