We promise you’ll smile when you see the students, staff and volunteers at the Semanhyiya American School dancing to “Can’t Stop the Feeling!”
Before You Leave
What should I bring that would be appreciated?
School supplies (erasers, pencils, etc.) and medical supplies (gauze, bandages, etc.) are always needed but candy is nice to bring too. Shipping anything to Senase is very expensive so if you have room in your luggage to transport any supplies, let The Godfreds Foundation know! Also consider bringing small gifts for the Benneh family. Banana bread, protein powder, nail polish and Bop-It went over very well for me!
What immunizations do I need?
You NEED the yellow fever vaccine to enter the country. There is currently a global shortage of the vaccine so I encourage you to plan a visit to a travel clinic early because it needs 10 days prior to leaving in order to be effective. The travel clinician should also prescribe malaria pills and will probably also suggest a typhus shot.
What is the day-to-day schedule like?
In Senase, almost everyone is up by 6am. If this scares you, remember that this is when the sun rises and, since electricity is used very little, it makes the most sense to start the day at first light. Meal times are very similar to Western meal times. The sun sets around 7 and most people are in bed by 9 or 10pm.
What language do they speak?
The local language is Twi (pronounced “chee”) and it is fun to pick up phrases. English is spoken sparingly in town but almost everyone at home speaks English.
What are people like?
We are continually shocked at how kind and generous people are. Everyone will greet you and ask you how you are and you should return the favor. Children especially will wave to you and say hi and it is fun to wave back. You will feel like a celebrity. When people refer to you, they will often shout “Oburoni!” which means “White-skinned person.” Girls, expect some lighthearted marriage proposals and don’t be afraid to smile. (It is nothing like the catcalling or harassment that you may experience at home.)
What can I buy in town?
You can buy everything you might need in Berekum, the neighboring city. There is a market, a bank, and supply stores. Your hosts can help you find anything you might need. In Senase, there are dozens of market stands where you can buy snacks. Donuts are two for one Ghanaian Cedi and they are delicious!
At the Benneh Home
Who will I be staying with?
Most likely, you will stay with the family of The Godfreds Foundation co-founder, Fred Benneh. Olivia, Oliver and Janet are Fred’s siblings and they will be your hosts. There are almost a dozen other teenagers and adults that also live with them.
Is there electricity?
Yes, but there are frequent power outages and it is scarce. We had no trouble keeping our electronic devices charged. You will be surprised at how little electricity you actually need. When there are power outages, there are solar lanterns to use for light.
What about Internet?
To use the Internet, you need to buy credits. Once you are connected, Facebook and Whatsapp are free and do not deplete your data usage. We recommend telling the friends and family you want to stay in touch with to download Whatsapp before you leave. If you get your SIM card unlocked (go to your network provider) then you can load credits on your phone as well.
How’s the food?
Most of what Ghanaians eat consists of some sort of carbohydrate, usually Fufuo or Banku, in some sort of soup. Ghanaians scoop their food with their right hands—don’t worry, you’ll learn quickly. If you find that the texture of Fufuo or Banku bother you, there are plenty of other options and your hosts will always make sure you have something that you like to eat.
Do we have access to clean water?
Yes, always. The drinking water here comes in bags instead of bottles—just bite into the corner of the bag and enjoy!
Where will I sleep?
The Benneh home has bunkrooms for you to share with them. Mosquito nets are hung from the ceiling and make a nice cozy tent for you to sleep in. It can get a little loud at night from crowing roosters or music, so if you are easily disturbed, consider bringing earplugs.
What about bathing?
There is a shower room in the bathroom, where you fill a large bucket and then use the smaller bucket to wash and rinse off. You will learn to appreciate the cool water when you are hot and sweaty from working hard!
Is there a western-style toilet?
Yes, although not everywhere in Ghana. Remember to put your toilet paper in the bin instead of in the toilet bowl to prevent clogging.
Will I be able to do laundry?
The Benneh’s do all of their laundry by hand and hang them outside to dry. Laundry is done almost every day. You are welcome to join in the washing, although you might need to keep insisting before they let you!
At Semenhyiya American School
Do we eat at school?
Breakfast and lunch are served every day at school. Teachers, staff and volunteers eat after the students. If volunteers are eating something different than what is being served, it is polite to eat it in the office out of sight from the kids.
What are the students like?
You will fall in love! The kids are so unique and precious—Learning names will be easier than you think, especially if you keep learning 10 new names a day. You’ll find that the students of SAS are much better behaved than American kids and they love to play and have your attention.
What is the school schedule?
The first bus arrives shortly after 7:00am and breakfast is finished by 8:00am. Then there is morning assembly where the kids recite the national anthem and SAS pledge, dance to the Cha-cha slide and listen to announcements. Then students are dismissed to their classrooms, where they learn with their teachers until break time or lunch. The buses leave by 2:30 except on Fridays when class ends one hour early.
Is English spoken at the school?
Yes. Sometimes Twi is spoken to the youngest students (KG1) but English is used almost entirely. Sometimes students will slip into speaking Twi, to which you should say, “English please!”
What should I wear to school?
Clothing should be modest and neat but also comfortable. Polo shirts and other shirts with collars are a good idea. Casual tank tops should be avoided but are fine at home. Both men and women should try to keep their knees covered. Flip-flops are not allowed at school but sandals are fine.
What will I do at the school?
It depends—what are you good at? They will try to match your tasks with your skillset so if you bring medical experience, AV or technical knowledge, teaching experience or artistic talent, get ready to put those skills to work. Then there is always cleaning, serving, reading and administrative work to be done. (Oh, and playing of course!) At the end of the day, your job is to help make the school a great place for learning.
If you have any other questions for a past volunteer, feel free to reach out to Cosette at cosette.haugen AT gmail.com
6 Things I Learned From Running Away From Life and Moving to Senase, Ghana for Three Months
By Cami Haas
- Not saying hello isn’t cool
Everyone knows that feeling of running into someone you know and pretending like you don’t see each other in an attempt to avoid an awkward hello. Or when you see someone wave at you and the mortification when you realize they were waving at the person behind you after you just fully committed to the wave.
But seriously, what’s the big deal? When did greeting acquaintances become a chore, unworthy of our time? Why don’t we just wave and then carry through by introducing ourselves? I can’t say I’ve never had an issue with someone taking time to notice that I exist.Now let me pitch a really crazy idea—what if it was rude not to say “hello” to almost everyone you cross paths with? Welcome to Senase. Everywhere we go, we greet the people we see. When there are kids, we generally get followed as they repeat their greetings over and over. And when I stop to think about it, I realize how wonderful that is. It builds an amazing sense of community. Once I got past my initial apprehension, I found that, not only does it feel good to be greeted by people I’ve never met, but it also feels good to do the same for other people. It made a small village on a different continent feel like a home.
- Appreciate differences, don’t shame them
So let me walk you through what it was like anytime we walked around Senase the first few weeks: I’m just walking, minding my own business, and then I see women on the side of the road motion to me and say something. The person I’m with, usually someone in my host family, will start laughing. In the time that it takes me to ask what they were saying I’m already analyzing every single thing that I could have done wrong. Then to my surprise, I’m told that the women were talking about how beautiful I am.
As the pasty, kind of chunky American that I was when I got here, trust me when I say this answer blew me away. In America, it feels like the first thing people do when they see someone who looks a little different is point and stare and talk about how odd this person looks. But here, different is beautiful. Different makes people talk to you out on the street and genuinely compliment you. Why? We need to take time to be more like those women on the street and see someone different and appreciate the beauty in that.
- When you lack electricity, you are missing nothing
I am the first person to admit that I’m addicted to my electronics. Netflix, Facebook, Buzzfeed—I love them more than a functioning human probably should. So when I came to Senase, not having constant connection to these things was a little bit of an adjustment. One thing that happens here that, as a person born and raised in the US, I was not used to, is lights out. These are periods of time when there is no electricity. Sometimes they last an hour, but other times they last for a day or two. This means no wifi, no lights, no fan (usually the hardest part), and so on. Sounds rough right?
Well let me tell you some of the things that happen during lights out. You get an amazing view of the night sky and I can report that there are more stars in the sky than you could possibly imagine. Other times when you’re lucky enough to have lights off in the rain, you grab your shampoo and run around in the rain to shower. Sometimes you grab the solar powered lantern and sit around with the family and talk for hours, and laugh so hard that your stomach hurts.
- Let kids be kids
In all my love for Senase, I have yet to talk about the reason I came here in the first place, which was to work with the kids at Semanhyiya American School. So it’s probably good to talk about the kids for a bit. As I am going for my Occupational Therapy degree, I know that kids need to play. I could bring you all of my references and supporting evidence, but to save you from my coursework, just trust me that play is hands down the most important thing for a child’s development in every area.
One thing I’ve noticed in the U.S. is that kids just don’t play anymore. Everything is so structured and needs to have some sort of purpose or end result. But here in Senase, kids are everywhere and always playing, running and yelling with each other. It is so refreshing to see kids just being kids. Even in school you can see the impact. The kids can imagine and think outside the linear way the US is so accustomed to.
- It’s possible to survive without pizza and ice cream
I know, I was shocked too.
In fact, it’s possible to survive without a supermarket at all. Here in Senase, pretty much all of the food is locally sourced. As someone who survives on microwavable frozen food, this completely blew my mind. The fact that the families here are able to take things they find in their backyards and make all different kinds of food out of it, without a microwave, or stove for that matter, seems like magic. And it’s not just the fruits and vegetables from the yard, it’s the chickens and pigs and other animals too. So those bunnies that were born last week will be dinner one day.
- Life begins outside your comfort zone
When I initially dropped the bomb on my parents that I wanted to spend my summer in rural Ghana, they were pretty shocked. When I told my friends, they thought I was joking. And honestly, every day that my flight got closer, it seemed unreal that it would actually happen. Getting on my flight from DC to Accra was one of the most anxiety inducing experiences I’ve ever had. I questioned everything: “What am I doing?” “Is it too late to just go back to Chicago,” and most of all “ I don’t think I can do this.” But by God’s grace, I got on that plane and jetted off to a part of the world many people will never experience. And it’s the best decision I’ve ever made.
Every day I experience something new, and sometimes things that scare me. Other times, it’s things that make me fall in love. Most importantly, there’s things that challenge me. And in taking this chance and moving outside of my comfortable bubble at home, I have learned more about myself than I thought possible. I learned to love more deeply than I thought possible, to appreciate all the goodness around me, and to be a better version of myself.
We Learn Everywhere
Walk into any one of our classrooms and you will find children sitting in small groups reading, putting puzzles together on the floor, or maybe even laying on play mats while working on a math or reading worksheet.
Walk onto our campus and you will see groups of children sitting outside at lunch tables playing educational games, under our play ship having a science lesson or maybe even relaxing in the shaded hallway, barefoot, reading books with their teacher.
As a youngster growing up in Ghanaian Schools, our co-founder Fredrick Benneh knew what he did NOT want in our school. He did not want rows of desks where children sit facing a blackboard being given information to memorize by their teacher. In school after school in Ghana, this is education.
This is why experiential learning is the focus of our classrooms and our entire school. Learning by doing is how we truly understand, and this is why it is crucial for the future success of our students.
Our students know we can learn:
- At a table
- On the floor
- In the hallway
- Sitting at the lunch tables
- Under our play ship
Learning at SAS happens EVERYWHERE!!
An Unexpected Lesson
By Barbara Allison
When 30 Semester at Sea students visited Semanhyiya American School for three days in March of 2016, one of their activities was to give an informal assessment to a group of Semanhyiya American School 1st grade students, and then to visit three Government, (Basic), schools in Senase and nearby villages and administer the same assessment to groups of 1st graders at these schools.
Not only were we interested in learning what effect our model of education was having on our students at SAS versus students who were attending other local schools, but we also wanted to expose the Semester at Sea students to the conditions in which these children are being educated. It is not only eye opening, but explains why there is so little hope for these young people to ever have the opportunities that every child deserves.
While some students brought Frisbees, Play-doh and bubbles to share with the kids at the schools we visited, others, with the teacher’s permission, took students one at a time to ask simple questions having to do with letter and number recognition and basic language skills.
Later that night we met as a group to discuss what the students had observed during the day and what they had learned through their experience. What made the biggest impact with our Semester at Sea students was not what we were expecting to hear. Although not surprising to us, it was actually heartbreaking. We heard the same thing from all three groups that gave assessments at different schools: the children at the government schools seemed very scared, some were even shaking. Not only did they seem afraid they would get the answer wrong, but often they wouldn’t even try. Several Semester at Sea students noticed their teachers standing close behind them, and in some cases giving them the answers.
You might be tempted to think that maybe the kids were afraid because they didn’t know our SAS students, but if you could see the way we are all greeted throughout the village by these same children outside of the classroom, you would know that this was most certainly not the case.
What our Semester at Sea students didn’t know, but unfortunately is true, is that corporal punishment, or caning, is accepted and still used in a majority of schools in Ghana. As recently as 2014, UNICEF was joining the effort to eliminate violent discipline in schools in Ghana. http://www.unicef.org/education/ghana_75533.html
Children are often required to bring a long wooden stick to class, (which is sold at the market!), and is used to beat them if they don’t know an answer, give a wrong answer, or for any reason the teacher feels compelled to punish them. Often students are beaten just because it is the only way teachers know how to control their overcrowded classrooms, which often have 60-100 students.
This brought up the question, “How can kids learn when they are afraid?” We all know the answer. They can’t. This is one of many reasons we made the decision to open a private school, rather than just build another school building. We knew we had to have control over the environment our students were learning in, and that meant no corporal punishment would be allowed.
I have to tell you that it wasn’t easy to convince our young teachers at the beginning of the year, that there was another way to discipline. Corporal punishment was all they knew – all they had grown up with. It took a couple of months to find exactly the right methods that would work best with our students, as we learned that stickers are just not as exciting as they are for students in the U.S.!
When you visit Semanhyiya American School, you will see nothing but positive discipline methods used campus wide. You will see pocket charts with red, yellow and green cards, and hopefully you will mostly see green cards! You will see children raising their hands in class eager to give the answer, and knowing that it’s okay if it’s wrong. What is most important in our classrooms is to try!!
Over the past year our teachers have learned that students will thrive on encouragement, acceptance, respect and compassion. What they need is a cheerleader, someone who is on their side, encouraging them to always do their best. Now they have the permission to be wrong, to make a mistake, and to learn from it. How awesome is that!
Since the opening of Semanhyiya American School in September of 2015, we have been asked by parents throughout the community to please add a Nursery School, (creche), to our campus. Although not part of our original plan, our PTA Board and the Ministry of Education have also encouraged us to add two- and three-year-olds to SAS, so we can begin to train them in our methods at even an earlier age.
Because we do things so differently at SAS, getting our young ones started early will have many advantages:
- Improved English skills by the time they begin kindergarten.
- They will develop a love of learning from the very beginning.
- We can catch them while they are “learning sponges”! Every new experience, every word they learn, every behavior they adopt will be an investment in their future.
- They will learn that our school is ruled with kindness, compassion and mutual respect for others.
- We will help them to develop resilience early on, which is the foundation for coping strategies for greater challenges in life.
We are thrilled to have such community support in our efforts to bring the kind of education needed to give these children the skills for success throughout their lives, and can’t wait to increase our number of SAS Scholars.