Monday, February 12, 2007

School Again

Approximately 3% of the population in Ghana is infected with HIV. Compared to other African countries where rates are as high as 25%, this is low. Because of the threat of HIV/AIDS, people are frightened of the disease and those who are infected face severe discrimination.

Education of HIV/AIDS is limited amongst the general population. I am working at the West African AIDS Foundation (WAAF) for the next five months, and during a training seminar last week, one of my colleagues said some of the people in the training seminar still thought you could get HIV/AIDS from touching someone.

Billboards throughout the city remind people to use condoms, and encourage young people to abstain from sex until marriage. For a highly conservative, Christian region, the messages can be pretty direct.

Starting this Monday, I am going to be working with a group of 15 people living with HIV who are involved in an income generating project. It is difficult for them to find work because of the stigma attached to people with HIV. Once employers find out they are HIV+ they lose their jobs. And, it is difficult for them to hide their status because of the regular trips to the clinic for anti-retroviral drugs.

To help them build sustainable lives, WAAF has developed an income generating project that will hopefully provide the participants with some form of financial independence. For the past couple of months, in groups of 5, they have been trained in one of three areas: Jewellery making out of Ghanaian hand-made glass beads, sewing textile products from hand-made batik cloth, or bread making for the local market.

By the end of March, it is assumed they will have the skills necessary to apply for a loan, and start their own businesses. My role is to help them build business skills so they’ll know how to find markets for their work, sell the products, and manage the business.

Early on I realized the group had some barriers to overcome before I could start teaching business skills. More than half the group has trouble speaking English, (they only speak their native languages Ga or Twi), and three quarters of the group cannot write much beyond their names. When asked if they’d gone to school, I learned that about half had gone to school until they were 8 or 9 years old, and the other half had never been to school.

My plan quickly changed from one where I’d be teaching small business workshops, to one that focused on adult literacy and teaching English as a second language. The business skills could follow or slowly be incorporated with the ESL teaching, I decided.

When I told the bead and sewing groups that we would start with English lessons, all of the women were very excited. They want to be able to speak English, and read and write. It will give them confidence and freedom. One woman, Vyda, smiled shyly as she struggled to show me she could write her name. Her situation is difficult. Vyda’s husband died recently from AIDS and both of her children are infected with HIV. She faces eviction from her apartment next month because her lease will be up, and she doesn’t have enough money to pay her rent for two years in advance – the norm here. Still, I could see in her eyes, the thought of learning to write more than her name, and learning to read, gave her hope.

The bread group all came running when they saw me for the first time. I was greeted with huge hugs. When they found out my name was Janet, the same name as one of the group members, two women threw their arms around my neck and hugged me again. When I told the group I would teach them English, I could see tears well up in one woman’s eyes. She looked straight ahead, and nodded approval.

An older man, Ibrahim who is part of the jewellery group, decided his English was good enough that he wouldn’t take the lessons. “I think I can express myself,” he said.

I want the lessons to be voluntary, so didn’t push it. When I told the staff of WAAF that Ibrahim would not be taking lessons, they were disappointed. He really needs help with his comprehension, they said.

I went back out to the front garden where Ibrahim was sitting with his cane; a white crocheted hat covering the top of his head. He was concentrating on stringing a small white glass bead.

“Ibrahim”, I said slowly. “We would really love to have you as part of the English group. It might be too easy for you, but it would be a good chance to practice your writing and learn some new words.”

I watched for his reaction as he sat up in his chair. He leaned forward, gripping his cane between his fingers as he thought about his answer. “So we go back to school,” he said.
- Janet


Anonymous said...

Janet and Mark,
I've been following your blog with great interest. I find that what you both are doing is most admirable. You are both excellent writers and I enjoy reading about your experiences and ambitions not only for yourselves but also for those with whom you are working. Imagine Janet, how proud the dad would be to know that you're teaching ESL. I'm sure your mom feels the same way too.
I don't know you parents Mark but you've certainly given them reasons to be proud as well.
I look forward to sharing your adventure with you over the next while through you blog.
Thanks for what you are doing for others.

Jack Hill

Anonymous said...

Mark and Janet,

It is amazing the simple things that are sometimes taken for granted in Canada are so precious to those who are less fortunate such as speaking the English language. It must be very rewarding for each of you to be able to make such a positive difference in the lives of others.

I admire you both for your passion for helping those in need so selflessly.


Anonymous said...

Hi Mark and Janet,
We feel very proud of you too. You are giving so much to these special people. We look forward to your blogs every day.
God Bless you.
Love, Mummy and Daddy

Anonymous said...

Mark and Janet,

Your experiences with the people you are meeting are so amazing - you must feel so priveleged! I feel so lucky to be able to experience it all through your posts. The likelihood of me having an adventure like this are slim (for the time being), but through your accounts, I feel as though I am there alongside you! I've passed on your website to some students. I thought this post would be of particular interest to them. I also encouraged them to respond to your posts. I hope they do. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts and experiences. We miss you and think of you always,

allie (and gang)