JHHS Students learn life lessons

By on April 18, 2012

JHHS student Vanessa Walker reads Dr. Seuss with Ghanaian eighth graders at Cape Three Points School. – photo by Evan C. Huggins

Jackson Hole, Wyo.-At dawn, opaque layers of mist shroud consecutive craggy points that march up the coast toward an ivory lighthouse. Below this lighthouse, at the very southern tip of Ghana, the village of Cape Three Points is a collection of mud and bamboo huts that line staccato causeways and drain, at a slow trickle, toward the Atlantic.

On the beach is scattered a small, heavily ornamented fleet of fishing boats, most hand carved from a single hardwood trunk. At the end of this beach there is a sandy soccer field where villagers gather to play, cleated or barefoot, big or small, each evening. Past the field lies Cape Three Points Junior Secondary School. Here, students who make it beyond sixth grade study basic English, math, and Nzema, the local tribal language.

Up the hill from the soccer field, dirt paths — festooned with goat dung and discarded plastic – serpentine through a menagerie of vernacular architecture. Where the majority of these paths terminate, just beyond the well that serves as Cape Three Points’ sole source of fresh water, lies the primary school. Here, nearly 100 students attend class daily. The school has no textbooks, no restrooms, no garbage cans, few desks and four teachers for six grade levels.

Each day, students in the third and fifth grades sit teacher-less in their classroom and are told to copy sentences from a blackboard, though most have no paper and no pencils.

In Ghana, ninth graders must pass an entrance exam to attend high school. Many kids from Cape Three Points never make it to ninth grade, of those who do, less than 10 percent pass the entrance exams; of those who pass, many are unable to pay the annual fee to attend high school.

On the morning we departed, myself and the 13 Jackson high school students who elected to spend their spring break on a community service trip in Ghana, attended our first two classes. Most of them at the public high school where every classroom is equipped with a smartboard projector, computers, desks, chairs, whiteboard, markers and a plethora of other learning equipment. They were taught by a competent, and in most cases very committed teacher, who showed up to class every day and received a reasonable salary in compensation for his or her work.
“I don’t necessarily think I took my education for granted before,” commented trip participant Morgan McGlashon after witnessing the shortages of the rural Ghanaian education system, “but I would say now, it has helped me to see how lucky we are.”

Situated two miles east of Cape Three Points on the striking Ghanaian coastline, Trinity Yard School is the brainchild of Vermont native Rory Jackson. He traveled to Ghana as a high school student on a similar trip 14 years ago and subsequently purchased land, built a homestead, and established the school as it is today. “The Yard” as it is called by those who live and work there, provides educational opportunities for students from Cape Three Points and nearby villages who either cannot pass the entrance exams or cannot afford high school.

The school is focused primarily on teaching skills that increase employability including computer science, math, English literacy, and the traditional arts of kente weaving and batik.

The student service project was created by Mark Pommer, Jackson Hole High School psychologist and Yara Abad Pesantez, Jackson Elementary School dual-immersion teacher, who first led a different group of Jackson Hole High School students to Cape Three Points in 2010.

I was asked to join the leadership team for this second installment of service learning in Ghana. Together we created programming for this trip. We left from Jackson Hole Airport on March 21 with 15 boxes of supplies in tow. There were many potential community service projects at Trinity Yard School and in Cape Three Points. At the request of Jackson, we established the primary goal of setting up a library at Trinity Yard. To this end, we carried level readers, ELS learning games, and many boxes of books, all purchased with donations from Colter Elementary students and community members.

Perched atop a hill with a protracted view down the coastline in both directions, the new Trinity Yard School building, completed in 2011, houses three large classrooms, a central rotunda, and on the second floor a beautiful seven-sided wooden room that was to become the library. In 2010, the group of Jackson Hole students traveled to the Trinity Yard to hand-dig and lay the foundation for this building. Our completion of the library would be the final step of the building process.

In the library we found dust-coated boxes of books piled into great heaps. As books emerged and were sorted by category and size, gigantic spiders abandoned their homes between “Good Night Moon” and the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Bismark, an 18-year-old employee of The Yard, joined us in sorting books along with Benjamin, a 16-year-old from Cape Three Points who attends Trinity Yard School. As they worked, these boys joked with the Jackson Hole students. They talked about their homes and the things they wanted to do later in life. We began to forge friendships.

On our fourth day in Ghana, the group walked to the village of Cape Three Points. The dirt road from The Yard is lined by small palm oil plantations and crisscrossed by local men and women harvesting everything from bamboo to bananas. On the walk we tried to prepare the students for what was soon to come — many had never traveled outside of North America; none to Africa.

Outside the concrete house where the village chief lives, Ghanaian children began to accumulate around each of us. They asked for pictures and watches, but mostly they would reach out to grab at our hands. We circulated around burnt out huts and old women frying fish over hot coals. The women looked up at the snowballing mass of children around our group and seemed to snicker before returning to work. Our presence became tidal. We rolled through the streets and onto the beach where fishermen repaired nets with green string and a young woman holding an infant stared past upturned boats at us.

“It is hard to be happy about what you see when you walk into the village,” said McGlashon. “About all the children’s swollen bellies and huge belly buttons … it’s heartbreaking to see the conditions they live in … it really is an impoverished place and obviously you can’t be happy about that, but it was almost hard to even think about that because it was just such a different experience with how happy [the children] were and just incredible that people [in Jackson] have so much stuff and aren’t anywhere close to as happy as these kids that run around in the dirt with nothing — no shoes or balls to play with or anything.”

Soon we crossed the soccer field. I turned around to see the second half of our group at midfield surrounded by a mass of children 40 meters wide. One Jackson Hole student was down on her left knee putting a pair of sunglasses on a small girl; another had joined a circle of Ghanaian children who were singing, “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes.”

I mention our first experience with the children of Cape Three Points at such length in an attempt to explain when the project we’d come to accomplish gained a new level of importance — when statistics began to grow faces and poverty got a whole bunch of names. Statistics and poverty ceased to be abstract; there was a boy named Bismark, a girl named Dorothy, a fearsome foursome of youngsters: Emanuel, Benjamin, Ebenezer, and John.

Our group took to work with a bolstered vitality over the following two weeks and attacked four separate projects simultaneously. In seven days, the library transformed into a categorized, beautiful center for learning with newly constructed shelves and large colorful mats where children could sit and read. Signs were painted and hung to delineate sections; rules were established, taught, and posted.

Finally, the shelves were stocked with leveled readers and teacher resources purchased by our group with donations to continue to support the instructional efforts of the Trinity Yard School. “If you believe the phrase ‘knowledge is power’” commented Jackson Hole High School senior Dusty Perrin, “then we have created the most powerful building for hundreds of miles.”

In addition to the library, Jackson Hole students constructed a staircase out of the trunks of young almond trees and beach rocks in an effort to mitigate erosion on the path leading to the library. Under the guidance of Teton County School District educators, the Jackson Hole students taught English, installed trash cans and explained the importance of keeping the environment clean. The Jackson Hole contingent facilitated reading groups, and instructed classes at the Trinity Yard School and Cape Three Points Primary school.

Finally, I had a special project. Before leaving Jackson, we received generous donations of bike parts and tools from local shops, Hoff’s Bikesmith and The Hub. So, with the help of several creative students and a talented Ghanaian carpenter named Bombay, I spearheaded the creation of a fully functional bike repair workshop at the Trinity Yard. With Bombay’s help we designed and built a large, locking workbench.

Bikes are not just for leisure in Ghana. Bikes also serve as a critical form of transportation in rural Ghana, where virtually no one owns a car and public transit is scarce. For many Trinity Yard students, bikes are the only way of effectively getting to school each day from their homes in neighboring fishing villages. Some bike more than six miles to get to school.

We learned that bicycle maintenance at Cape Three Points is practiced as a form of triage — in other words, answer the question, “what is going to make this bike unusable first?” If you are able to fix that, move on to the next thing; if you can fix the next thing, move on to the third problem. The endless mountain of critical problems presenting themselves in bike maintenance became an allegory for every situation we attempted to remedy. This is at the core of the frustration that surrounds a service project like this—as soon as we were close enough to help with a problem, the problem grew. Not only that, but a vision of every other town around the world in want of the most basic infrastructure grew and swelled in many of our minds.

The group pushed through these feelings; inspired by all the wonderful people we met. We brought classes from the primary school to the new Trinity Yard Library. Jackson Hole students read children’s books with primary school students, most of whom had never seen a library before. They taught the students how to care for books, showed them how to use our simplified book classification system, and played English learning games with them. We also trained our wonderful cook, MaaT, as the interim librarian. In Jackson, we plan to raise funds to pay a full-time librarian for Trinity Yard School in order to provide stability and sustainability to the project.

With our projects wrapped up, we departed Trinity Yard in a tumult of emotion.
For those two weeks, the Western world’s mass of complexities narrowed to the simple day in, day out routine of sleep, eat, work, repeat. Sun, sand and sweat took the place of modems, cars and text messages. Tough soled feet replaced 15 pairs of shoes. The tangled web of complexities in modern life gave way to a linear unanimity where the defining characteristic was a startling sense of clarity of purpose. It was hard to leave this simplicity behind, and it was harder still to leave the new friends we had become close to in such a short time.

By the time we reached our final flight from Denver to Jackson, we had what a fellow traveler described as a green cloud hanging over our heads. Looking back, we were all wrapped in fear — fear of forgetting lessons learned in Ghana, fear of breaking up an amazing group, fear of all the expectations we would be faced with the moment we stepped off that plane. We were afraid and so we held in our minds the small things — the shorts and sandals, the bright colors of kente cloth, the Ghanaian hit single “Azonto,” and even the dirt ground into our clothes. The “green cloud” of body odor hanging over our heads also seemed a special reminder.

Undoubtedly, holding onto these things was as trite as it was temporary.
But there is a residue that still sits in the softer corners of each of our psyches. It is composed of moments, the artifacts of Trinity Yard, of Cape Three Points, of our friends Bismark, Promise, Ago, MaaT and so many other truly remarkable Ghanaians we met along the way.

Ghana Service Trip Slide Show and Presentation, 6 – 8 p.m., Thursday, April 26, Jackson Elementary School Commons. Free. Evan.C.Huggins@gmail.com.

photo by Evan C. Huggins
JHHS student Vanessa Walker reads Dr. Seuss with Ghanaian eighth graders at Cape Three Points School.

About Evan Huggins

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