Summer of learning |

Summer of learning

Sandy Conlon


Travelers landing at Ghana’s Kotoka International Terminal are greeted by this sign. It is a message whose truth is shown daily, in myriad ways, by the friendly hospitality of the Ghanaian people.

For six weeks this past summer, 24 teachers from across the United States had the privilege of studying and traveling in the West African country of Ghana. Chosen from a pool of 300 applicants, the teachers were participants in “Ghana: Continuity and Change,” sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the University of Arkansas at Monticello. They were selected to study Ghana’s history, culture, art, music, literature, economic and political issues, in order to develop curriculum materials for teaching about African countries.

I was one of the fortunate 24 landing in Accra (ah-Krah) on a gray morning made vibrant by the “You Are Welcome” sign and by friendly, helpful Ghanaians.

Our first introduction to Ghana’s monetary system, and a small clue regarding the condition of the economy, was at the airport Forex, where each of us traded a single $100 bill in exchange for a plastic bag filled with 40 to 50 paper cedis in denominations of 5000, 10,000, and 20,000 (9000 cedis equal $1).

Some in our group could not wait to go shopping. We later learned that the average income for many Ghanaians is about the equivalent of $500 per year. However, food in the thousands of both indoor and outdoor markets in cities, as well as in the countryside, is relatively inexpensive.

Both traditional- and European-style clothing is also readily available for reasonable prices in clothing stores, as well as in the outside markets in cities and towns. While finding housing in the cities is somewhat problematic and apartments often are not available for people coming to the cities looking for work, in the countryside many people live in villages and compounds inhabited by earlier generations of the same families.

Ghana has a population of about 20 million people in a country the size of Great Britain or Oregon, and education is one of its highest priorities. There are 30,000 elementary, 8,000 junior secondary and 4,000 senior secondary schools in 40 districts, and families are required by the government to pay approximately 900,000 cedis ($100) per year for each child. According to Ghana’s Ministry of Education, there is a 65 percent literacy rate among adult males and a 55 percent literacy rate among adult females.

The government provides university scholarships for people wishing to become teachers, but the majority of those who train in Ghana’s colleges and universities end up teaching in Europe or the United States. Teaching salaries in Ghanaian public schools start at 600,000 cedis ($60) per month– a high salary compared to other public sector jobs. However, there are issues of poor roads, lack of clean water, and unreliable electricity that prevent teachers from wanting to teach in the rural area schools. At present, there are some 20,000 teaching vacancies in the country and many, mostly rural, schools have neither qualified teachers nor textbooks.

When teachers and textbooks are available, students learn social studies, math, science, vocational/technical skills, graphics, agricultural sciences, English, French, and one of the 50-plus Ghanaian cultural languages, such as Asante-Twi, Fante, Ewe, Mamprusi, Ga, Frafra, etc.

In order to move from junior secondary to senior and from senior secondary to the university or vocational technical schools, students must pass a national examination in all the areas studied.

As well, there is a strong emphasis in the schools on moral and religious education, on being a good person and living a good life. Religious instruction stresses the principles of moral behavior and world views that are held in common by Christianity, Islam and African traditional religions, rather than promoting a particular set of beliefs or dogma.

Our bus wound its way through Accra’s crowds of enterprising street vendors and slow-moving traffic. Even in the afternoon heat it seemed as if everyone had something to sell. In this modern and energetic city, outdoor stalls boldly proclaimed such businesses as the God is Good Enterprises, Jesus Never Fails Beauty Shop, Precious Blood Barber Shop, the Living Bread Bakery, as well as the Grace is Sufficient, very used, Tire Shop. Near the outskirts of the city, on a crumbling wall read the message, Taste the Living Bitters, a provocative invitation to say the least.

The bus jostled its way past the remaining shops and vitality of downtown Accra, and we found ourselves on what seemed like an endless road to Cape Coast, some four hours west of Accra. For most of us, it was our first contact with the sub-Saharan Ghanaian countryside, green and shimmering in the afternoon light. The countryside was filled for many miles with people walking on both sides of the road, carrying on their heads fruits, vegetables, bags of flour, maize, firewood, and many other useful items in baskets, bowls, and buckets perfectly balanced with the rhythm of walking.

Early on this first day, we saw many Ghanaians smiling, but as the day wore on and we drove further from the city, the road travelers with their heavy burdens appeared quite somber in the fading light. In the coming weeks, we would visit village schools, listen to lectures by some of the best and brightest professors from the University of Cape Coast and the University of Legon in Kumasi, be entertained by traditional African dancing and singing, read the literature of Ghana’s most famous authors, see some of the stunning, wealth, poverty, and sheer beauty of the country and of the Ghanaian people, and experience first hand the richness and complexity of the culture and history of this West African country.

Sandy Conlon is a world history and literature teacher at Steamboat Springs High School. He can be reached by calling 871-3633 or e-mail sconlon@

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