Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Solemana the Teacher

She was wearing a neck brace so I assumed she’d been in a car accident. I was wrong, she is a teacher. Solemana, a stout woman with sharp eyes and a gentle smile teaches primary school. She has a sore neck because of all the writing and marking she does. I always have my head down, she told me.

Solemana may have her head down preparing for class and marking students work, but during the day she must keep her head up to keep track of all of her students. She teaches in the public school system and has 41 students in her class. Her students range in age from 10 to 16 even though they’re all in the same grade.

“The government is now giving school for free,” she said. “So the older students want to learn. Many of them missed out when they had to pay.”

It’s hard to discourage students in their teens from starting school, but I could only imagine how having such an age span in the classroom would make it difficult to teach. I asked Solemana how she coped.

“The older ones bully the younger ones,” she said. “It is hard for them. I told them [the government] that they shouldn’t put the older students in the same class as the younger ones, but there’s no place for them to go.”

I commented on the large class size and how tough it must be to teach that many students.

“Some of the other teachers have 50 or 51,” she said “I only have 41. Yes it’s very difficult, but most people don’t think so.”

I learned about Solemana’s life as a teacher as we bumped along in a Tro Tro on my way home from work. She had the demeanor of a good teacher who’d been in the system a long time. She was confident, and determined - a great communicator – but also seemed very tired.

Then she turned to me. “What are you doing here?” she asked.

“I’m working with people living with HIV to help them start businesses,” I said.

After saying this I looked for her reaction. There’s much stigma around HIV/AIDS in Ghana and I get mixed reactions when I tell people I’m working with people living with HIV. One woman a few weeks ago stuck out her tongue in disgust. One man asked me violently “Why would you want to work with them?” Another woman backed slowly away from me as I told her.

Solemana just looked forward thoughtfully. She hesitated for a brief moment and then spoke.

“They want us to teach about HIV in school,” she said. “They sent us for three days of training. They want us to tell the children how you can get it, where you can get it, and to beware of HIV.”

I was pleased to hear Solemana talk openly about HIV. As a teacher I hoped she would be enlightened enough to accept people living with HIV, but she actually seemed happy that I’d brought up the subject.

“Their brains are so young,” she said continuing the discussion. “They’re not ready to talk about sex. We tell them they can get it at the barber from razors, and that it’s something that happens between a man and a woman. That’s as far as we go. We tell them they can’t get it from touching someone.”

I told Solemana that I worked with 15 people living with HIV and some of them hadn’t even told their families they’re HIV positive.

“Oh you can’t,” she said adamantly. “They might expose you.”

“It’s very difficult” I said. “If you don’t tell anyone, then you live with your secret all alone, but if you tell people you run the risk of being hurt by your family. We need more people to understand about HIV so that people living with the virus won’t have to be afraid to tell others.”

Solemana nodded adding, “Many people are rejected.”

I smiled at her and wondered how many people she knew were infected with HIV. Perhaps she was even infected herself. 1 in 20 people are infected in Ghana, so there was a 5% chance she was HIV positive. Out of her entire family – extended families are very large in Ghana and can include up to 150 people if you include men with multiple wives – there were likely a handful living with the virus. Most people know someone who has died from HIV, but talking about it is still frightening. If you talk about it people might think you have it.

We descended from the Tro Tro as we’d reached the bus station. Solemana chugged along behind me as we wove in and around buses searching out the one to our next destination. I was going in one direction; she was going in another.

“How long have you been teaching,” I asked.

“37 years,” she said emphasizing the number. “I started in 1970.”

“That was before I was born,” I said laughing.

She chuckled and looked at me smiling, then grew serious.

“I have three years left, but I think I’m going to stop after this one.”

Her eyes flashed before me and I imagined her picturing the 41 students waiting for her every morning. After nearly four decades teaching she’d put in her time.

I had reached my bus. I thanked her for the chat, and left her to continue her shuffle down the street.

- Janet


Jack said...

At first,your piece made me think that you had been a teacher in the school system here. Then I remembered that your dad was a teacher and teacher educator. I'm sure you remember the time he spent preparing lessons and marking amd marking some more when you were growing up.
I think you should send your article to the New Brunswick Teachers' Association and to UNB's Education Department. It would be a very valuable read for some of the prospective teachers of this province. It doesn't matter where you practice your craft, it's still draining and time consuming. Often there's little thanks but once in a while you do get that feeling that you've done something worthwhile and made a difference in someone's life.
Thanks for the reminders.

Anonymous said...

Janet, Another beautiful story. I agree with Jack. You should send this story to the teachers association. I am sure many teachers will associate themselves with this story.It is a wonderful profession and we should be all be so lucky to have good teachers like this dear one. I am sure Mark you can relate to this too and you Janet in helping these dear people with aids and how they are treated. Love, Mummy and Daddy L