Thursday, 14 November 2013

A Not-So-Happy Post

Here's a question for you:

What do you do when you are witness to a child being hit several times with a bamboo cane? How about when you are witness to such a thing in an environment that considers such practises totally normal and acceptable?

I ask myself this question everyday.

As I write this blog in my notebook, I'm sitting in the staff common room, frozen in my seat as my eyes meet with a young boy, probably 8 or 9 years old, as he stands still in one spot, trembling with fear while awaiting his inevitable punishment. His crime? Letting his hair grow too long.

I'm trembling too, but not with fear.

Fortunately, the teacher delivering the boy's punishment has chosen to forego the cane today, and instead has returned to the staff room with a comb and a blade; he is going to trim the boy's hair to an acceptable length.  

However, the boy had no idea what was in store for him, so for fifteen minutes he stood at the table in front of me, fearing the worst, silent tears flowing down his cheeks while he tried to stifle involuntary shudders of fear and anxiety in an effort to avoid an extra lash for crying.

Even though I could see some relief in the child's eyes when he realized he would avoid the cane this time, a few tears still found their way down his cheeks as he watched bits of his hair fall to the floor. ("Hey, stop crying," the teacher scolded, "men don't cry.") Once the job was done, the boy was instructed to pick up his hair from the floor and discard it.  As the boy rushed out of the room, I could see his face contort into an expression of anguish, embarrassment, and relief as he finally let his tears come freely out of sight of staff members.

This is a reality for many of the students I work with.  This is a reality for them every. single. day.

And I feel like a completely helpless asshole. 

Before I go on, I want to throw a disclaimer out there; this is a totally biased blog post on the issue of corporal punishment in schools in Ghana.  This is me coming from a Canadian context and writing my personal struggles with the issue; I didn't grow up in Ghana, and I certainly don't consider myself privy to the nuances of the culture here.  I also want to be careful that I don't completely paint the teachers that cane students in a bad light; I've developed some solid relationships with many teachers here and they are really great people.  The fact that they cane students doesn't necessarily mean they are bad people or they are doing it with malicious intent. There's like, systemic stuff going on there and stuff.  Also, I'm only spending my time at one school, so in no way is this representative of all of Ghana (but I wouldn't be surprised if it is incredibly common). So if I come of as uninformed or ignorant in the writing of this blog, well, it's because I probably am.

The range of "infractions" that warrant a caning is on a very wide spectrum.  I have seen students physically punished for the most insignificant things, such as not having the top buttons of their uniforms done up.  I have seen students punished for things that they did not do, or were out of their hands, such as an entire class being late to the closing assembly because their teacher chose to keep them late during last period.  The force of each lash also varies from light smacks to sharp, cracking "thwacks" to the legs or wrist, accompanied by cries and screams of the inflicted. 

It was difficult enough to see students be physically punished when I first arrived in Ghana, but now that I have developed deep and meaningful connections with  many of the students I teach, seeing tears well up in their eyes and hearing their shrieks of pain make it even more heartbreaking to watch.  The culture of fear of authority and bullying runs rampant here.  The uncertainty as to whether or not a teacher will physically punish them or simply reprimand them is crippling for children, both physically and psychologically.  If a teacher makes any sort of movement towards a student, whether it is to hand them something or get their attention, students have an instinctual flinch after years of being caned. It sucks.

The use of corporal punishment is often justified with love and claims of positive intentions. Many teachers believe that they are doing students a favour by "correcting" them with a cane.  Maybe because they were caned when they were in school and it's the only way they've ever been taught how to solve conflicts.  Whatever the reason, because they love students and want the best for them, caning is okay, because it teaches them to respect authority and be disciplined.  Students are also told that physical punishment is a part of Christian life.  Morning assemblies are full of Christian lessons for the day.  While some lessons are totally awesome, like "Love Everyone" and "Be Grateful Everyday". other sermons include themes such as "Punishment: A Gift of Love from God" encouraging students to thank and bless their teachers who lash them for misbehaviour. 

I knew what I was signing up for when I wanted to work at a school in Ghana.  I knew that corporal punishment was still common here.  I also was never under the assumption, even for a second, that I could come in and "fix" the problem of corporal punishment either.  I'm only here for 9 months, and I am only one person. 

But I didn't think that I would just sit by passively and let it happen either.  That's not like me at all.  

So that's where my personal conflict comes in: where do culture and ethics meet?  

It would be culturally inappropriate for me to call out a teacher's actions as wrong in front of students; but when I have brought my concerns forward privately, I am met with smirks and defensive statements like "This is Ghana, not Canada" and "Trust me, nothing else will work. You just don't know."

Maybe they're right.  I probably don't know.  I don't know a lot of things. It still feels really shitty, though. 

Maybe it feels shitty because I do know that other things will work.  I have yet to have any major struggles with classroom management here.  I know that I'm the white novelty at the school, so that might have a part to play in it.  But I'm also a damn good teacher (for a beginner that is…I'm still learning.), and I know how to handle most students.  Students have been nothing but responsive to my management strategies, and have even expressed such sentiments like "I wish you could teach our Saturday classes…we are comfortable when you are in the class." 

That's the reason I continue to go to work here.  While I certainly like many of the staff members, the only thing keeping me at the school is the students, because I want to look out for them.  I want to provide a comfortable, positive classroom where they don't have to fear being wrong or fear being who they are.  

Sadly, (and this makes me feel like the biggest jerk of all) it's not enough to keep me there for the whole time I am in Ghana.  I'm still trying to figure out how I can possibly have any influence in this regard for the remainder of my time here.  But to go to work everyday and see children massage their welts, dab at the blood seeping out of their broken skin and try to hide their tears is too much for me.  It's too much for me to do anything, and it's too much for me to not do anything.  

So, again I ask: What would you do?

Where do ethics and culture meet? 

Next blog will be a happy one, I promise.  


Also - Sharon Harvey is the best. 

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