In 2013, Ana Maria Acosta, a freshman in Early Childhood Education at Palomar College, decided it was time to realize a dream. She wanted to travel to Africa to teach kids.
After lots of research and a little help from her parents, Elias and Mary Acosta, Ana decided to volunteer to teach kids English in the country of Ghana in the village of Kwaekese [pronounced kwah kay see].
Many countries won’t let you in without an invitation. Ghana is one of these countries. But that wasn’t a problem. Ana’s mom, Mary, had a friend in the Catholic Church who knew the Bishop in Ghana—Gabriel Kumordji. Ana got her letter. The visit would last roughly three months from mid November 2013 to the end of January 2014.
Bishop Kumordji’s diocese had a convent with a school that was in Kwaekese. The nuns here are teachers. It was ideal. Ana could teach in the school by day and a live in the convent by night.
But Kwaekese is pretty remote, and the culture, a break from what most westerners are used to, even for Ana who has lived in the U.S. and the Dominican Republic.
To get to Kwaekese you have to fly into the closest big city, Tamale, then drive for two hours until you reach Lake Volta, the largest man-made lake in the world. Then you travel by boat the rest of the way. It’s about six hours.
Ghana is jungle. It’s summer all year round. The time that Ana Maria was there it was the dry season. The average temperature during hamatan or dry season reaches 110 degrees. When you’re this hot all day, your appetite wanes. She dropped 25 pounds while she was there. Some would consider that a good thing. She certainly does.
But why travel to Africa to teach? Simple.
She’s always had a desire to help people. She gets it from her parents and her grandparents. Her grandmother is a teacher. At eighty-five, her grandmother continues helping kids get educated.
Born in Tampa FL, Ana moved to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. It’s here that she grew up. Her English is perfect. That’s because she attended an English school. If anyone understands the importance of an English school, it’s Ana.
When Ana got there, the nuns showed her the school right away. She was excited that it was only a short path through the Jungle. The children at the school came running up to say hello, except the preschoolers. That’s because they were scared.
People from Kwaekese don’t see many foreigners. They’re leery. This took some getting used to.
English is a national language, here, but most of the people in the village speak tribal languages.
The language in Kwaekese is Twi [pronounced chwee]. Ana is good at languages. She went to an English school. But Twi was difficult to pick up because the villagers actually speak combination of both Twi and another language Ewe [pronounced ayway]. The effect is similar to Spanglish.
Language was a barrier at first. The older kids, those in 7th grade and older, speak English. But the younger kids don’t.
Ana taught primary school: K-1 [pre kindergarten], Kindergarten, and grades 1-6. So how was she able to communicate? When asked, Ana revealed that she didn’t have any translation support in the classroom. So, she just had to wing it.
To be fair, two of the nuns were teachers in other elementary school classes. Though they were more sympathetic than the other teachers, they didn’t know English.
How did she wing it? Gestures.
She’d ask the other teachers the other teachers for a list of vocabulary words, and they’d bring out a workbook. And she chose action words because they’d be easier to teach. She’d take the kids outside and give the corresponding actions. For example, running. She’d say the word and mime the action. By the end of the day, kids learned 5-6 new words.
She’d say a word and have the children repeat it and act out the gesture. The students made fantastic headway despite the apparent lack of English from other teachers.
In two months she was able to teach them:
- The letters of the ABCs both write and recite
- The numbers from 1-15 both write and recite
It wasn’t easy but she persevered.
“I’d come home at night frustrated. I questioned the practicality of some of the other teachers. How can English when you don’t know enough of it?
“One day, none of the preschool teachers showed up. I had to teach 80 preschoolers without a full lesson plan. It was here that I saw some of the things that I’d learned from my grandmother.”
One Ana’s biggest challenges was trying to teach the younger kids, when both she and the younger kids were starting to make real headway, when the older kids, who were curious came into the classroom and were allowed to disrupt.
“It was so frustrating. And I didn’t know how to correct the older children. Thankfully, some of the mothers who were going to and from the well, happened upon these shenanigans and helped me get the older kids back in line.”
What would you say to someone who’s thinking about going abroad to teach?
- Not to have too high expectations about the environment
- Don’t expect brick houses
- prepare yourself for the language barrier, and apparent unfriendliness
- Keep and open mind
- Have a big heart
- Have lots of love
- Have fun and expect to learn
Ana loved this experience. She’s grown and evolved her life goals as a direct result. Since returning, Ana thinks she’d like to teach English to children and adults here in the United States, who don’t know it.