Monday, June 25, 2012

The Sheet Is Falling! The Sheet Is Falling!

Two days after high school graduation I boarded a plane to Africa and spent the summer teaching math at the Jesus Grammar School in Dawhenya, Ghana. While I was there I fell in love with the country, the people and the culture - but mostly the children. The following is not about the heartfelt lessons or mature moments of clarity experienced there, however, this post is about the language barrier. 
Ghanaians, like most Africans, speak multiple languages. In the little village I lived in, Dawhenya, the population spoke Dangme, Twi, English, French and a few other nameless dialects I couldn't differentiate between. 
I only spoke one language. 
Luckily, English is one of the many tongues of Ghana. 
Unfortunately, it is not the same english I remember learning in the states. The African accent is heavy and places emphasis on all the wrong syllables. African vowels make entirely different sounds than American vowels and for some reason the Ghanaian vocabulary consists mainly of words the U.S. has chosen to leave behind or define much differently. 
My first week in Dawhenya I heard the following tattle-tale from a number of children 

Naturally, I assumed the child meant the students were exposing themselves to eachother as per the standard definition for "flash".
 I was shocked.
Here I thought the American School system was being eroded by an over acceptance of moral relativism in the name of universal acceptance, and my pedestal students at Jesus Grammar School were flashing one another. 

What I thought happened: 

What Actually Happened: 

Clearly I was mistaken.

A few days later I was in the market shopping for mangoes when I struck up a conversation with a native Ghanaian who was roughly my age. He was friendly and I was lacking in adult interaction so I let him take my phone and enter his contact information.

*Side note - while most Dawhenyans live without electricity in plywood shanties sharing a single communal water spigot that is only functional 13 days out of the month - they all have cell phones, facebook and an uncanny knowledge about american celebrities.

He handed me back the phone, smiled and told me to "flash him"
Now I had learned from the previous school yard miscommunication that "flashing" wasn't an indecent mardi gras hoorah - it was flatulence in the general direction of another person.

I was still confused.

What I thought he meant:

What he actually meant:

Apparently Webster's dictionary hasn't made it to Dawhenya yet, If I ever return, I plan to take one and clarify once and for all the correct definition of the world "flash". 

 I did not speak African English. 

Grades 2 and 3 were held in a makeshift structure haphazardly enclosed by rows of ruggedly cut sticks and covered by a leaky grass thatch roof.
Because I feel my paint skills are especially lacking in the drawing of class 2 and 3, I've included a real picture. If you want to see said real picture click here

Grade 2 happened to be my favorite class. 
One day, about two weeks into my African Adventure, I was teaching in grade 2 when the children started to make a ruckus. 
I did not know what "falling sheet" was, but apparently it was a big deal. 

So I asked.
The problem with asking second graders to explain something to you is their inability to speak one at a time. All the sudden I had fifteen children all yelling out, in various degrees of correct english, trying to explicate exactly what this mysterious "sheet" was. All I was able to ascertain is there was something in the roof and somehow it was all Peter's fault. 
Peter was a trouble maker. 
I now understand the complicated relationship between trouble maker and teacher. While the child is mischievous and disruptive in class, teachers find them secretly funny and sneakily able to win them over despite poor behavior.
 I secretly thought Peter was hilarious. 

I racked my brain for a proper definition of "sheet" and came up with two possibilities. 
Either there was a literal bed sheet holding up the thatch roofing or there was a sheet metal lining to serve the same purpose. 
Peter must have been pulling down this structural sheet, threatening the soundness of grade 2's classroom.
I went to investigate. 

I couldn't see anything beyond the mess of palm leaves and grasses that comprised the roof. 

The second problem with second graders is their lack of ability to distinguish between auditory and visual stimulus. While I was busy looking for bed linens in the ceiling, the entire class started to point and shout "Sheet! Sheet!" as if their cheering would motivate me to see better. 

My eyes were not motivated. 

I still saw no sheet. 

I began to believe Peter had duped me yet again, and gotten the rest of the class to go along with it. 
 I confiscated the stick from Peter and prodded a bit myself, feeling for the enigmatic "sheet". 

I found nothing. 
Conclusion: it was a Peter prank. 

I thought I had settled it.
No touching the roof. 
Sit in your seats. 
 Problem solved and Shenanigans neutralized. 

But the children persisted. 

And so did I 

Francis (the only teacher for all 6 grades at Jesus Grammar School), hearing the commotion across the stick barrier separating class 2 and 3 came to settle my class for me. 
When he heard the children shouting "Sheet, Sheet! Sheet on mees Weenties head!" and saw my perplexed expression he couldn't stop laughing and I was even further out of the loop. 

I then learned that there is no "sheet" involved in the making of a thatch roof. 
There are, however, little animals that often make their home in the thatch, and often poop in their homes. 
"Sheet" is the Ghanaian pronunciation for the 4 letter "S" word for feces. 

I unwittingly poked and prodded feces from the rodent infested roof and into my hair. 

I was a sheet-head. 

I also allowed an entire room of 8 year olds to chant profanities.


The End. 


  1. Hey, just came across your blog. This post was so funny :). I'm from Antigua, a small island in the Caribbean and we have a similar dialect as well so I get it - LOL. I will be following you... SHEET :)

  2. This is hilarious:) Thank you for sharing your experience in Ghana. I also love the drawings that you made with the story.

    In the Philippines, the pronunciation of "I" is also that of long "E" and vice versa. Also, the pronunciation of "P" and "f" are also interchanged. I hope you make it here. We have so many depressed areas that could use dedicated teachers like you.

  3. This is damn funny. I like the drawings as well. I am from Ghana but living in Sweden. I hope you have decided to go back. Cheers

  4. my favorite was when my husband and I moved into a new flat and my husband told me the previous occupant had left his bed sheet behind. I said 'Where?' he said on the wall. after much repetition that the sheet from the bed was on the wall, which I couldn't see and didn't think would be worth complaining about in the busy days of moving furniture, I finally realized it was actually droppings from the pet parrot that were on the wall.


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