Update from Henrique de Freitas
A failed experiment. If before living for four months in the small farming village of Oguaa I had envisioned my final results as my students earning a failing average on their Math district exams, and building six broken water filters, “a failed experiment” is how I would have labeled my stay in the village. When we moved to Oguaa, I was determined to test myself by seeking out challenges that I could not face elsewhere. In the mornings, I taught at the school with the most students, highest student-teacher ratio and lowest pass rate in our area; in the afternoons I started a bio-sand water filter project, to bring clean drinking water for underprivileged communities in other parts of Ghana.
Every morning I took the ten-minute bike ride to Senchi, a neighboring town where I taught at the Junior High School (JHS). I focused on Math and English with Form 1, the equivalent of seventh grade, but also assisted in a few other subjects in the other Forms. The school is in disarray – there are not enough textbooks and no electricity, and teachers work if and when they please, with no consequences imposed by the headmaster. Since a two-week national strike in March, the teachers at Senchi have yet to fully reassume their responsibilities, two months later. But these examples of developmental gaps were already implicit in this type of service placement. I believed I would be able to power through such barriers; to bring knowledge-hungry students, whose curiosity had been ignored, to successful results.
Grading the Mathematics District Exams for my Form 1 class illustrated my general teaching experience. In a class of 52, only three got the six simple problems of addition and subtraction of fractions correct. I taught this single topic, which had already been covered by Ghanaian teachers in the previous grade and in the past term, three times. I used drawings, paper models, metaphors and skits; I gave homework, class exercises and answered questions. But when it came to the test, more than forty students still decided 2/4 was the answer to ½ + ½. Some of my students worked hard in school and came to extra classes, but even most of these would forget by the next day how to calculate the area of a rectangle.
My students presented a pattern of asking less questions and making few to no suggestions in class - a general lack of curiosity. This was particularly odd because our relationship outside of class was very much friendly and playful. Nonetheless, they retained very little information beyond memorized definitions. The fact that other teachers and my Bridge Year friends identified the same problem only in Senchi JHS made it more enigmatic. In other schools students had reasoning abilities similar to what you would expect from a fourteen-year-old, and were capable of quickly learning from mistakes when exposed to new topics. My students, even when coming to voluntary extra classes, seemed to be driven by a desire to do the right thing as opposed to actually wanting to learn - being present, not active, in the classroom.
After school, I worked on just as challenging a task as teaching. Each afternoon I walked to an empty building in the Oguaa JHS, which the community permitted me to use as a workshop. I saw moving to the village as an opportunity to do something I had never done before - to start a project in which I would be responsible for every stage, from planning to implementation. I chose to build concrete water filters that use sand to purify drinking water, following blueprints from CAWST, a Canadian NGO. These filters are simple to operate, easy to maintain and relatively cheap, but the building process is a different story. The challenges began in building the metal mold, the basis of the entire project. Materials weren’t available in the village, and the nearest welder lived a 45-minute drive away, though this was simple to address. It was the imprecision in the construction process that threatened to compromise the final product. Need to flatten a plate? Beat it with a hammer. Drill a hole? Melt through the metal. Cut the metal plates? No machine, take a hammer and chisel.
Improvising a little, with close supervision and strict standards, we finished the mold. With construction materials secured, I had a full month to build the concrete bodies and fill them with the layers of clean sand for filtration. I started by testing different ratios on mixing concrete, which ended with a couple of crumbling filters as a result. Soon a proper ratio of sand and gravel was achieved, only to be met by insufficiently strong metal parts - the extractor piece unexpectedly bent to the weight of the concrete. Since the number of days left in the village was limited, I had to respond immediately to any unpredicted setbacks. In this instance I set out immediately to the welders' workplace, to reinforce the structure of the extractor by welding extra pieces of metal. This fixed that particular issue, but what then gave way was the bolt that connected the extractor to the mold - the threads were smoothed down by the sheer force of trying to extract the concrete body.
Such was the dynamic throughout the building process. A problem would arise - needing replacement bolts, a bigger wrench and a longer extractor, for example - and I would work out a solution within the same afternoon: long trips to the city for new pieces, reinforcing the mold at the welders' workshop, or sawing off lengths of metal. Building the filters did not allow time to bask in minor successes - the work just refused to follow what was predicted in the blueprint. For a month I started every afternoon fixing a problem, only for a new one to arise by evening. Though I was able to solve each setback as it surfaced, this delayed the process, and our time in the village ended before I was able to complete the water filters.
Both building and teaching brought renewed difficulties every day. Though I molded my expectations to the reality of my students' performance, my confidence was still hit with each failed homework assignment I marked. Similarly, there was always something needing to be fixed with the water filters. My stay in the village eventually became punctuated by questionings of, “is this going anywhere?" and, "what am I learning here?". There were stretches of time when teaching and working became mechanical, not joyful; when it was difficult to bike to school or to carry tools into the workshop. That, however, was precisely the greatest challenge - to maintain the same effort regardless of circumstances. When teaching seemed ineffective, I forced myself to plan lessons more thoroughly and teach them with twice the dedication. If a part of the mold broke, I would not allow myself to react to it until I had planned a solution and was sitting in a trotro half an hour later, heading to the city of Kumasi to find a replacement.
The two halves of my service work combined to intensify both the difficulties and the lessons of the four months in Oguaa. I did not come into Senchi JHS thinking I could modify the entire educational system, but I did believe I could change some minds. Though many of the problems I encountered remain aspects of the daily reality of my students, I do view my efforts as having come to fruition. I instituted a library system, which the students have been using frequently, and the teachers have agreed to keep running. By April, my Form 1 students proudly chanted "don't copy, create!" whenever given a homework assignment. Many indicated by coming to extra classes and working more diligently than in January, that our conversations in between classes were meaningful enough for them to rethink the importance of education. Though some effects may not be fully visible now, I believe they will impact my students’ educational paths in time.
Starting the water filter project independently yielded more than learning how to weld metal and mix concrete - I had to plan and implement every step, dealing with unexpected situations as the project developed. I also had to manage a budget and be creative to work around it, envisioning the longer-term needs of the project. Though it did not work this year, the project is now set up for future Bridge Year Ghana groups to continue, and will hopefully provide drinking water to poor communities in the North of Ghana.
The four months in Oguaa might have represented the greatest test I have yet faced. Because the challenges stemmed from personal choices, and I was held to personal standards only, there was no benchmark to affirm "the job is done". The outcomes of both ventures were different from what I would have envisioned, as I faced repeated trials - and failures - in a short period of time. But I got through each one consistently, which brought a different sense of accomplishment - one of having battled through difficult times, in a way I can be proud of.