The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, October 19, 2007


Carlisle teachers' trip to Ghana is a study in contrasts

This summer two adventurous Carlisle School staff members traveled to the East African nation of Ghana. The sights, smells and sounds are among the strongest memories brought back by music teacher Megan Fitzharris and technology specialist Cyd McCann. They traveled there in July with a group of educators through the Primary Source foundation, of which the Carlisle School is a member (paid for by a grant from the Carlisle Education Foundation). They said the experience was amazing and enticing, and Fitzharris said she was "ready to return in a heartbeat."
Megan Fitzharris talks with some of the children at the HUGS International School and Orphanage at Mmofra Trom, Ghana. The girls from left to right are Gloria, Josephine, Wendy and Emmanuella. (Courtesy photo)

Their photos show strong contrasts: women wearing colorful handmade clothing and children in mundane American t-shirts; well-kept middle class classrooms and poor village schools; modern buildings and dirt villages; abundance of luscious fruits and simplemeals of tiny, salty fish; men in formal suits and children in mismatched flip-flops. One single theme was repeated throughout their interview: the people. They were friendly, welcoming, proud, gifted and intelligent. Leaving them was the hardest part of the trip, they said.

Their trip was lead by Al Hope, head of African Studies at Primary Source and was self-funded by Fitzharris and McCann. The goal of the tour, according to Primary Source, is "for K-12 teachers to immerse themselves for two weeks in the history and culture of the people of Ghana." Primary Source requires teachers to bring back cultural knowledge, and develop sharable curriculum activities.

Cultural lessons begin

Flying to Ghana after a stop in Morocco, they arrived in Ghana's capital, Accra, in the middle of the night, and were taken to Mercy's Guest House. The next day was filled with cultural lessons, and studying "Twi" (pronounced tree), one of the many languages of Ghana. As the group traveled the country they learned Ghanaians would greet them with a request for their name and their birth day (not birthday), since many Ghanaians have names that are derived from the days of the week. McCann was called "Adjua" for Monday and Fitzharris was called "Ama" for Saturday.

In the Kakum National Park rainforest, Cyd McCann looks comfortable striding across a rope bridge that spans the forest canopy. (Courtesy photo)

"The people were amazingly friendly," said McCann. She said one of her reasons for taking the trip was to see places she had heard about from her husband, who was a Peace Corps volunteer for 25 years. Fitzharris said she wanted to expand her knowledge of African music, which she uses in her curriculum. "It's been a lifelong goal," she said. Both will use their information to build a web site that traces the roots of American music through West African connections. Their trip, which the teachers noted operated on "Ghana time" (no hurry to get from place to place), included a visit to the Accra Artisans Market and the Aburi roadside market. Fitzharris bought six xylophones and a hand-carved drum, and is waiting for her instruments to be shipped home.

Two contrasting schools

They visited a Montessori school in Accra which was relatively well-equipped, and a village school north of the capital which didn't have electricity or running water. Fitzharris said that while they were at the village school, a huge rainstorm raged over them. The sheets of rain were blinding and hit the tin roof like thunder, making it impossible to hear. They had to wait until the rain stopped before their tour bus could head back to their hotel, and they saw four or five overturned trucks that had slipped on the muddy road.

The teachers visited this Montessori school in Accra, which they report was "well equipped." (Courtesy photo)

Weaving Adinkra cloth

The group traveled north to the Kumasi Region, and visited the Museum and Palace of the Asantehene, home to the Ashanti King. They visited an Akan village where traditional Adinkra cloth is woven. Fitzharris and McCann decorated their own Adinkra cloth using stamps carved from calabashes. The special ink on the stamps is created from the bark of the badie tree, and each stamp is carved with unique, meaningful symbols.

On the coast of Ghana they were treated to a performance by an ensemble in Koforidua. "It was a gorgeous day," said Fitzharris, "with the ocean in the background and a two-hour performance of traditional music and dance. They performed pieces from a number of cultures across Ghana." One of the most moving experiences, they said, was their visit to the Cape Coast slave castle, where over 20 million Africans were forced through the "door of death" and on to slave ships. "This was very powerful," said Cyd. They needed 24 hours to process the experience.

They also visited the Kakum National Park Rainforest, where they walked through the forest canopy on rope bridges, which were remarkable adventures.

What stands out

Amid all that they had seen and done, Fitzharris found that spending time in an orphanage was one of her two most powerful experiences. "I wish I had more time with the kids," she said. Music was not taught at the orphanage school; she seemed ready to head back to Ghana to enhance the curriculum. "The kids were extremely well-behaved," she said, at that school and all schools they visited. "They wanted to learn," added McCann.

Megan Fitzharris (center) and Bobbi Voss of the Framingham Public Schools dance with students and teachers at the L & A Memorial Academy in Accra. (Courtesy photo)

Fitzharris' other favorite experience took place at the Aburi woodcarving market. She walked up and down, she said, "listening to who was playing the drums." She met Kata, a drum maker, who allowed her to play his "djembe" drum. "He sang with me," she said. She sang Mano Efe Dusime. "He knew the song I was playing and said I pronounced the words correctly." He also gave her complete instructions on building a djembe drum. Kata's handcrafted drum, which takes him about a half a day just to shape from a log, cost approximately $10. Additionally, Fitzharris did discover another tradition, applicable to her but not to McCann. As an unmarried woman, Fitzharris found out she is worth at least 361 cows, a goodly sum in Ghana.

The courtyard of a Ghanaian village between Akosombo on the Volta River and Kumasi on the border of the Eastern Region and the Ashanti Region. (Photo by Cyd McCann)

Their visit to create Adinkra cloth was a high point for McCann. "This day stands out," she explained, because as she waited for the others in her group to finish decorating their own Adinkra cloth, she alone was pulled aside by an Adinkra weaver. He took her to his loom and gave her a lesson on how to weave the cloth.

Fitzharris and McCann brought back a deep appreciation of the culture of Ghana. Through all her experiences, Fitzharris said, "It was the time with the people that really impacted me. I undoubtedly would have liked more time in the schools and with the people. It was so amazing to just sit, talk and learn from them." McCann would have liked to visit more villages and "also to have had more free time to explore and wander and meet people."

Both women stressed that Ghana is not a "backwater," that there are poor areas and there are modern areas. Their tour guide, Al Hope, summed it up for them: "Poverty is an absence of hope. These people are not impoverished. They are simply poor."

2007 The Carlisle Mosquito