JFs are encouraged to stay with a rural farmer for a week of their placement in order to get an understanding of the realities faced by Dorothy–the peoplewho make up EWB’s bottom line. Since I’m working in Education, I chose to be a student for a week instead. This post is the first in a day-by-day review of my adventures.
Tamale Senior Secondary School, or Tamasco, is just outside of Tamale proper and has been in existence since before Ghana gained independence. It is known as the “Shining Light of the North” and has educated some very important Ghanaians. I chose to go there for my school stay last week because the data show that the quality of education at Tamasco is declining rapidly. What better a place then to understand some of the barriers to good education that are currently plaguing Ghana’s system? I was slightly concerned that the close proximity of Tamasco to Sagnarigu would mean that I wouldn’t be pushing outside of my bubble enough, but I soon found out that this concern was wholly unfounded.
I arrived at the assistant headmaster’s house at around 1 p.m. on Sunday. The headmaster grabbed the attention of a passing prefect named Jacob and told him to give me a quick tour of campus. After introductions, Jacob said to me in a serious voice, “so, are you Christian or Muslim?” This has been a really common question posed of me by Ghanaians immediately upon introduction, but I’m still somewhat taken aback when I hear it. Religion is certainly more of a private matter in Canada than it is in Ghana, and no matter what answer I give, the follow-up questions are always more difficult.
“Uh, I’m a Christian,” I told him. “What church?” He probed. I knew that was coming. “Uh, as for me, I don’t go to a church,” I told him. “Then we’ll go to the PenSA service tonight,” he commanded. (I later found out that Jacob is the commander of the Tamasco Cadets). I had no idea what PenSA is, but I decided that I was game. Saying yes to (contractually-allowed) new experiences has been my default in Ghana anyway.
We continued our tour of campus to Jacob’s dormitory, Hayfron House. As we passed by the rooms of the other students living there I received many stares and calls of “obruni, obruni, how are you?” At first, I was taken aback by their use of that word; it’s an expression for a white person in the south of Ghana. In the north, they use “souleminga” instead. Besides that everyone in Jacob’s dorm spoke in Twi, a language of the south. As a Dagomba man myself, I immediately felt out of place. And I loved it.
The high school system in Ghana is such that a student’s performance on the BECE dictates which bracket of schools they can attend. Better score = better school opportunities. A random computer system places students at schools based on their score and the bracket accepted by schools. This is something I hadn’t considered before coming to Tamasco, but I realized then that it meant I would be living with many southerners for the week.
I missed dinner that night because the students were intensely interested in me and they kept me busy with all their questions. Thankfully, Jacob shared his garri and shito with me. Shito is a wonderful, fish-based sauce that adds flavour and spice to whatever you want. I actually love it. Garri is a sort-of edible sand made of fermented, dried, ground cassava. It’s basically the equivalent of ramen for students in Ghana, because it’s super cheap and can be easily prepared in about a gazillion different ways with simple ingredients (read: water). It was my saviour that night, but now I can’t even type the word without my stomach turning (why? You’ll just have to keep reading to find out!)
Jacob wanted help with some Maths work, so after dinner we went to one of the classrooms and talked about… high school girl crushes! We didn’t end up doing any math at taallll. Instead, Jacob told me about this girl he likes–his first crush, actually–and the troubles he was having with approaching her. It seemed really familiar a topic to be discussing, but at the same time there were some strange differences that made advice-giving difficult. The most notable of these was Jacob’s guilt caused by his feelings. This is something I’ve never encountered in any previous infatuations and seems unnatural to me. Still, I answered his questions as neutrally as I could.
From there, things got a whole lot different. We went straight to the PenSA service from the class. It turns out that PenSA means Pentecostal Students’ Association. I was immediately worried that the service might end up being somewhat intense for my first religious service of any kind. I couldn’t back out once I was already seated in the auditorium, though. Yay for learning experiences!
The service started out as I expected it to: sit, stand, “hallelujah! Praise the Lord!”, sing, sit, repeat. However, after about two rounds of this, the preacher (a student) began to get very fervent and started riling the entire congregation to follow him in his passion. Then they all started speaking/yelling/chanting in tongues and pacing about the room randomly while the preacher interjected wildly. I just stood there, unsure of what to do as I have little to no experience in speaking in tongues. I’m sure the scene would have looked comical to an outside viewer, but I was just scared, to be honest. Thankfully that part didn’t last too long and soon a different preacher took to the podium to talk about the importance of studying hard. I heartily approved of his message (and Jesus does, too).
After the service, I went back to my room which I would be sharing with 5 other guys. I lay down on the thin mattress of my bottom bunk, exhausted and excited at the same time. My brain raced, but my body desperately wanted sleep after the intellectually exhausting day.
It’s like all of Tamasco is speaking in tongues, I thought before passing out, whether inspired by God, high school crushes, or their upbringing. And I’ve got one week to translate their message.