Higher learning in Ghana
Growing up as an "army brat", Krissy Darch was accustomed to packing up and moving to new locations on a regular basis. However, a recent 8-month CIDA youth internship in Ghana proved to be a moving experience of a whole other order.
As a 23-year-old woman on my own coming to work, I was confronting a massive unknown when I stepped off of the plane in Ghana. I had studied at the University of Ottawa for four years and had been working in various galleries, libraries and bookstores when I spotted a single bright-orange poster in the university Art Department advertising a job opportunity in literacy and art in Accra, Ghana. A few months later I arrived as a CIDA intern working for a Canadian non-governmental organization (NGO), the Osu Children's Library Fund, in one of the four main community libraries in Osu, a district of Accra. I was working as a facilitator of art and creative writing with both the children library members and the adult literacy class, which included sometimes up to 30 adults, ranging in age from 19 to 40. They came from various backgrounds, some from as far as Bolgatanga on the northern border, working as seamstresses, house-help, hairdressers, carpenters and traders.
The highest point in my experience started one day when my students and I were brainstorming ideas for a creative writing exercise. I was hoping to engage them and help them construct simple sentences, and so the topic was "Things We Like and Things We Don't Like." The students were often hesitant to write casually and honestly from their own experience, in part because of the formal nature of their education system which promoted a "by-rote" approach to learning. To make the students more comfortable and to break down the teacher/student hierarchy, I wrote a simple example myself and read it out loud to them. They laughed knowingly when I talked about liking the warm feeling you get after drinking a Star beer before you've had any supper. Before really thinking things through, I read another short piece describing the thrilling feeling of taking off in a plane.
Not one of them had experienced this sensation, so I continued to describe the feeling as well as I could. The students were just smiling quietly. I felt a rift growing between us and I could tell what they were thinking: That's really nice, but as if we're ever going to fly in a plane. I felt terrible. The intention of the exercise had been to create a sense of equality, but instead I had rubbed my privilege in their faces — describing something that they would never experience. As implausible as it seemed, as of that day, I started to have a vision of the students in an airplane.
The Ghanaian approach to problem-solving
I immediately tracked down a "business connection" I had been patiently nurturing since my arrival and enquired about the possibility of organizing an airplane ride for the class. Kofori, a Ghanaian journalist, Ministry of Education employee and event-organizer extraordinaire whom I had had the fortune of meeting said he was good friends with some people out at the Air Force base. Wildly and idealistically, I confronted him about my idea. He said, vaguely, that he would look into it for January, and then disappeared. On nothing but instinct, I promised my students a ride in an airplane. They were so excited they could barely believe it.
In the months that followed the prospect faded, as Kofori had not visited me at the library, and there was no contact. We lost touch, but, still hopeful, I drafted a brief letter outlining my request: a short flight for approximately 25 students, possibly to the Apam plains. I couldn't take the letter straight to the Air Force Base, unless I did it through Kofori. And it was Kofori who, on Valentine's Day, two weeks before I was to leave the country, pulled up unannounced outside the library gate.
After greeting him calmly I launched into an appeal for his help in making the airplane ride happen for the students, and to take me to "his people" to let me convince them. He said it was probably too short notice for them but with much insistence, Kofori took me to the OC Flying Wing of the Air Force base and submitted my letter.
The secretaries were skeptical.
"Wait here," one of them told me.
With the resounding slam of the Base Commander's door, the secretary ambled disinterestedly back into the room.
"He says no. The 23rd is impossible. If we allow it at all, it will have to be after that. And we can only do it on a Thursday."
No was not the answer I had come to hear.
"But I leave the country on the 25th. If the 23rd is impossible, and it's only possible on Thursdays, what about this Thursday?" I asked.
She found my urgency amusing.
"But that's only in two days."
"I know. I just want to ask."
"I don't want him to get annoyed with me, but you wait here. I will try to talk to him again."
She went in and out, blocking the doorway conspicuously as I stood and lingered at the door of the office.
Seeing that I wasn't going to abandon my position outside his office clutching a copy of my letter, the secretary took pity on me and gave in.
"Fine. Come," she said.
The door shut behind me.
In the subsequent minutes I put into practice the scrupulously followed protocol of Ghanaian etiquette I had painfully learned over the last eight months. And five minutes later, smiling and holding an envelope, I walked out past a line of curious uniformed men.
"I refer to your letter dated 14th February, 2006, on the above-mentioned subject. I am to inform you that your visit to Air Force Base Accra has been approved for Tuesday, 16th February, 2006. Please endeavour to report to the Base reception by 0900 hrs."
The Base Commander had said repeatedly that we must arrive at 9:00 sharp. With no time to lose, I began the tasks of chartering a vehicle from the city with only two days' notice, and tracking down and informing all of the students. There was no class scheduled the next day and they had no way of finding out with such short notice. I was frantic. That very afternoon, with the help of one of my students, we went from house to house and phone number to phone number to reach as many people as we could, urging each person we reached to call on every other person in the group they knew. In two days, Godwin and I traipsed around Accra on foot in the blazing sun, scaling the rough ledges of massive gutters and navigating ancient, labyrinthine residential areas of the city, wondering if any other "oburoni" (white foreigner) had ever had the fortuity to see this side of the city, in a last-ditch effort to round up the class. After a lot of sweat and a string of luck and unbelievable coincidences, every student heard the word.
God is in control
The next morning I was up at 5:00, wound up and clenched. Everything depended on the students and the driver being on time. When I was the only person to arrive at the library at 7:30, I clenched even tighter. The driver didn't show up on time. The students didn't show up on time. But the one person whom all of this couldn't happen without, the one person we couldn't leave without, was Kofori. By the time the driver had arrived and the last students were trailing in, Kofori had still not shown up.
After an agonizing wait of almost two hours, the bus finally pulled out past the library gate at 9:40, with all of my students and Kofori in tow. I was beside myself. I had no idea if the plane had left. And even if we didn't miss the flight, we would miss the educational component the Commander had promised.
We finally arrived at the base and the Commander was furious. The captains and officers who had pulled so many strings for us were angry. Even the secretaries were upset. And we had missed the flight.
With all of the students waiting in a reception room, I found myself standing on the edge of the runway area in the bright sun apologizing profusely to the Base Commander as he squinted thoughtfully and distantly at all the parked aircraft. Finally, I stopped apologizing and there was a moment of silence. The Commander seemed to be deep in thought. I remembered something I had read on the back of a tro-tro (small buses bearing colourful proverb-like sayings). I turned to him and said, smiling, "'God is in control,' right?" He brightened. "Yes, of course." He laughed. "Of course. Hold on one moment. Don't worry, okay? I'm going to go talk to one of the pilots."
In moments, a stunning uniformed Ghanaian woman approached me, walked with me to where the students were waiting, and calmly ushered us into a briefing room.
She introduced herself confidently to the group of mostly female literacy students. She was a pilot. To my increasing surprise, she gave them a thorough and concise educational talk about how, even though they were young adults, it was never too late to educate oneself. She talked about how on the Air Force base they employ tailors, seamstresses, caterers, house-help, shoemakers and mechanics, and encouraged them to continue with their vocational training as well as to work towards writing their High School equivalency exams. She encouraged them to set their sights high, and everyone walked out inspired and focused to work harder, and feeling that there was hope for them.
We were then taken outside and a pilot led us to a Sky Hawk helicopter. We were all motioned to climb in.
There was rising tension and nervous laughter after we were all seat-belted in. People were looking around in wonder at the interior of the aircraft. Then there was the incredible sound of the three engines turning on one by one and the propeller starting up. We stayed like that for a long time in the same spot, our seats vibrating with the movement of the propeller, waiting, sweating. My heart was pounding. Two of the librarians were across from each other, looking at each other and grinning from ear to ear, breaking into fits of giggles, their hands clenched into fists.
Finally we started to move. The anticipation was unbearable as we rolled forward, faster and faster. The students were either laughing and grinning uncontrollably or sitting very still, holding the hands of the people next to them. When we started to lift up into the air all sound and movement stopped, as though everyone were holding their breath, and all heads were turned towards the windows, watching. When we reached what was almost our full height, a squeal of excitement broke the silence and everyone started laughing again. The students stared, transfixed, out the little circular windows. We flew for over half an hour, over all the major landmarks of the city, the boys shouting, "Look, it's Nkrumah Circle," and "Look, Independence Square!"
A new perspective
When we returned to the library, Aunty Florence, one of the librarians who had chosen to stay back, came running to greet us shouting "I saw you! I saw you! Welcome! By the grace of God!" She had seen the helicopter fly over the library and somehow knew it was us. She went leaping and running out into the compound, shouting to everyone that those were "her people in that big yellow helicopter."
The thing that was really magical about that day was that it ended my internship on a high note, physically and metaphorically. It was symbolic of the hope of rising above the situations we're in, the hope that each of the men and women are holding out by coming to those literacy classes. Not only were the students inspired by what they saw, and given hope of finding a way out of poverty, they flew. For once they were able to experience the empowerment of gaining a new perspective on their world, of being able to imagine things from above.