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Ghana trip a learning experience for educators

| Sunday, Sept. 25, 2005

Fourteen local educators had a foreign adventure this summer in Ghana, West Africa, where they experienced a country with a way of life vastly different from their American homeland.

"We all had culture shock," said Gloria Farzati, of Greene Township, Beaver County, a teacher at Western Beaver School District.

The trip, funded under a Fulbright-Hays Fellowship sponsored by the University of Pittsburgh, was designed so the group could study Ghanian culture and work it into the curriculum. The group from Beaver and Allegheny counties consisted mostly of grade school teachers, several middle and high school teachers and two librarians.

Each participant is expected to do a project on Ghana, which is located on the southern coast of West Africa. The country, which became independent in 1957, has six main ethnic groups, of which the Ashanti is the largest. While Ghanians speak their own ethnic language, English is the official language.

Farzati explained that during the first two weeks of their stay they attended lectures at the University of Ghana. Different professors came in and talked about topics such as "Ghana Today," geography of the country, women and different ethnic groups.They also did some sightseeing while traveling in a van driven by a driver from Ghana who knew the way and was a good source of information, Farzati said.

The Ashanti are known for their arts and crafts, such as weaving and woodcarving, which are always done by males. Pottery is a female specialty. The woodcarvers produce mostly sculptures and different kinds of drums.

Drumming is one area of expertise of Jessica Beblo, of Cranberry Township, a music teacher in the Beaver Area School District.

"I teach African music, so when I was in Ghana, I studied African drumming and dance with some members of the National Dance Company," she said.

She also took private lessons and learned how to perform one of the dances in the drumming ensemble. She returned with recordings, video footage and musical instruments to use in the classroom.

Christine Kuzma, of Beaver, a librarian in the Western Beaver school district, explained that she is working on a multimedia presentation as a joint project with film clips and explanations, basically a PowerPoint presentation.

"As a librarian, my project is to gather resources so that my teachers can use it in their classes," she said. She explained that because Pennsylvania has a statewide lending policy, she can share her resources with other schools.

Jeanine Ging, of Robinson Township, a third-grade teacher at Conway Elementary School in the Freedom Area School District, is working on a project that includes other areas. After staying in Ghana for a month, she flew to South Africa and Mozambique for another two weeks.

"Part of our curriculum already focuses in on Senegal," she said. She noted that she is doing a broad overview of these countries, such as what the flags are like, what kind of government they have and the money they use. She is comparing the United States to the different areas in Africa. She also studied ecology and the environment, topics she teaches in her class.

During the trip, the women sampled Ghanian foods, which they described as "spicy." They said that Ghanians love their "banku," which is a corn dish described as "almost like a dough ball, very heavy." Soups, such as palmnut and peanut soup are an important part of Ghanian cooking. Then there was "fufu," a fish dish that "was everywhere."

"I think it's pretty much of a staple," Kuzma said.

Ging, a vegetarian, didn't get have much to choose from.

"I just got something vegetarian. But it was very spicy," she said.

Luckily, the hotels catered more to foreigners and served eggs, toast and fruit for breakfast. The local fruit was wonderful, the women said.

Most of the time the teachers stayed in Accra, the capital, but made side trips to the city of Ho in the Volta region, and to Kumasi and Cape Coast. Farzati said that she expected Accra to be more like Kumasi.

"I thought that Kumasi had a lot more development," she said, adding that the city had more buildings and a larger business district. She pointed out that many people are dressed in Western-style clothing, but that women especially wear the traditional flowery and colorful dresses, and are decked out with scarves or head scarves.

Money-wise they all felt like millionaires, because the exchange rate of the local cedi was about 9000 cedis to a dollar.

"We had these big wads of money, but you really didn't have more than 20 dollars," Kuzma said, laughing.

They all agreed that the people were "overly friendly" toward Americans.

"It takes you back just a little bit to have everybody approach you and talk to you," Ging said. "It was a bit unexpected, but it was nice. I really appreciate what I now have at school. We have so much more than these schools that we went to."

She also noted that the children were disciplined and attentive and worked very hard.

Farzati agreed, noting that children in Ghana have mandatory education until grade 12, but tuition is not free.

"So, even though it's mandatory, if you don't have the money, you don't go to school," she said. The women saw children playing outside while school was in session.

Farzati's project focuses on women.

"We got to talk to a lot of women and women's groups. It's amazing the things they do with so little resources," she said. She added that one group of women had just finished a Women's Manifesto about certain issues they wanted to include in the national dialogue. They planned to present it to the Parliament of Ghana to have it passed.

"It was amazing to me. It was a massive undertaking," she said.

Beblo explained that the people of Ghana value their origin and cultural traditions, in which music plays a large part in religious and formal ceremonies.

"I think we Americans are looking ahead so much. We're looking where we're going next and sometimes we forget to reflect on where we came from," she said.

One of the many celebrations that are held in Ghana is the annual Panafest, which celebrates Ghanian heritage. It is attended by those who have ties to Ghana in some way.

"Speakers from the continent of Africa and abroad speak on various topics," Beblo said. "There are musical performances by many countries. For me, as a musician and a teacher, it was really fun to see them incorporate all those different styles and share those with other countries."

"We experienced so much in one month," Ging said, adding that she enjoyed the outdoor activities. "We got to see the Miraculous Waterfalls, the Canopy Walk, the rain forest and monkey sanctuaries. I enjoyed sitting and talking to the local people and hearing their perspective on things."

Ging noted that the group as a whole pulled together, making the trip enjoyable for everybody.

"It was just nice to get the support system that we had. We all needed each other for something. I know I did."

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