My Time at ASA, exploring the Ghanaian Culture.

It all started with a well-timed email.  My Harrow School colleague, Johny Marsden, mentioned a “very good school in Ghana” that was keen to host a Physics teacher with some experience of preparing students for A level Physics.  Well, who wouldn’t be excited by that prospect, even if the dates overlapped with our UK term?  Yours truly, however, happened to have been granted a sabbatical term and was sufficiently intrigued to look into it all further.  A quick Google search for African Science Academy and, within ten minutes, I was already convinced that this was something I would definitely like to do.  I was able to meet Tom and Efua at a delightful reception hosted by Tom in London shortly thereafter and it was pleasure to be able to thank them both for giving me the opportunity to come and spend some time at ASA.

I was met at Accra Airport on Good Friday by the inestimable Justice who was to be my guide and travelling companion for the next few days as I took advantage of the Easter weekend holiday to see some of Ghana’s wonderful country.  There was so much to admire in the natural beauty of Kakum Rainforest and the Cape Coast landscapes, but by far my most vivid experience was the visit to the Castles at Cape Coast and Elmina.  It was extremely distressing, not to mention humbling and mortifying, to learn of the atrocities committed there during the vile slave trade and to sense in the commentary of our excellent guide the passion, indignation and fire that, rightly, prevails to this day.  So my first few days in Ghana were anything but a relaxing settling-in period, but I quickly gained a sense of the country’s extraordinary history and culture, and felt, even more strongly than before, that I wanted to contribute as much as I possibly could during my stay.

Finally arriving in Tema and settled into my lovely apartment, I couldn’t wait to get stuck in and meet my new colleagues at ASA; and most especially, of course, the students (whom I was promptly informed preferred to be referred to as “ladies”!).  The flags of multiple nationalities that grace the entrance to the school building immediately give a sense of ASA’s internationalist outlook and it was wonderful for me to meet girls from so many different countries in Africa.  Coming from a very traditional boarding school in England, I was already very used to the idea of the ‘school community’, but, before arriving at ASA, I was sceptical as to whether such a feeling of togetherness could be instilled in an institution where girls stay for just one year – but I was wrong.  The fantastic sense of teamwork and the closeness of the relationships between the staff and the students was immediately evident.  I knew instantly that I was going to have a very happy, enjoyable and productive time.  The warm glow of good feeling was raised yet further upon meeting Ann, Beatrice, Bella and Carlene who were so kind and welcoming to me.  I was supplied with plenty of cold water, helped to rather large portions at meal times (more on this in a bit) and solicitously positioned under electric fans in order to alleviate my sweating and gasping (Ghana’s heat and humidity were initially something of a shock to my system I must say).  

What can I say about the ladies of ASA?  The difficulties of taking three such very challenging A levels as Maths, Further Maths and Physics, and especially in just one full year, cannot be overstated.  Fortunately the ladies of ASA are amongst the most highly motivated students I have ever had the pleasure to teach.  The ability and determination they have already shown just to get to ASA is hugely impressive so I had anticipated a high degree of receptivity and engagement.  I was heartened by their evident grasp of much of the key detail (having been very well prepared by Sir Hubert over the year) and I was further encouraged by their eagerness to learn, to ask questions and to keep coming back for further clarification if my initial explanations had not hit home.  A quality that distinguishes top scientists from much of the general population is not so much possessing the ability to answer questions but, rather, always being prepared to ask them; and to persist until a complete understanding (to “feel it in your spleen” as the saying goes) has been gained.  In this respect I am confident that ASA is helping to nurture some great scientists and engineers who, I am sure, will help to transform Africa in the coming years.  I must also say that another great pleasure for me was to arrive early in the morning and have the privilege of sitting in on some of Miss Levina’s marvellous maths lessons.  To see such energy, passion, expertise, lucidity and caring in a teacher is always an uplifting experience and it was simply wonderful to get to know her and exchange ideas with a great professional. Clearly the ladies of ASA are in great hands!

Of course I couldn’t possibly write about ASA without paying tribute to the marvellous food produced by Grace and the rest of the kitchen team!  Fufu was my favourite dish, I think, closely followed by waakye, red-red and banku (though eating soup with my bare hands proved beyond me so, to my shame, I’m afraid I resorted to using a spoon!).  Jollof rice, of course, deserves a special tribute all of its own.  And on the subject of food in Ghana, how wonderful it is to be able to buy fresh and absolutely delicious coconuts, avocados, pineapples, melons and mangoes from the roadside!

Of Ghana itself I have to say I have taken away only the strongest positive impressions.  The most striking feature of the country is the courtesy and friendliness of its people – a bit of a cliché, admittedly, for any foreigner to say about a country in order to flatter his hosts but, in this case, it is absolutely true I assure you!  By the end of my first few days, I was literally on first name terms with just about every family who lived along my route into work.  I lost count of the number of strangers I passed in the street who simply said “welcome” to me with a kind smile.  I have travelled in many countries and have never encountered such casual amiability and warmth and I hope Ghana never loses this spirit of cordiality, acceptance and tolerance – it makes Ghana a very special place indeed.

But most of all I will always remember the ladies of ASA.  Spending time with them, and feeling their enthusiasm and love of learning, has reinvigorated my own feelings about teaching and touched my spirit in ways I am still processing (as we scientists do!).  So good luck to all at ASA, thank you for your kindnesses and for having me amongst your special community.  I have made some great friends amongst you and hope we will continue to stay in touch. 

This blogpost was written by Chris Barry