[Mr. Santos, who is in his fifties, is on a two-year leave from his university in Cuba to be a lecturer in Spanish at a Ghanaian university. This is his second such volunteer assignment; in the mid-eighties he taught Spanish in Leningrad. He credits the Cuban socialist government for the chance for a person with his humble background to get a higher degree. His wife and two teenage sons remained in Cuba during the current assignment. Allan Wicker sat in the living room of Mr. Santos’ spacious university house for the interview.]
I teach two main groups of students. One is second level and the other is third level; each has about 20 students enrolled. In each we cover three subjects: grammar, literature, and "whole practice" (conversation and writing). The groups have no regular meeting time, which is sometimes frustrating. The students taking Spanish have different other classes. We have to arrange class meetings to fit everyone's schedule. Sometimes we meet in the morning, sometimes in the afternoon.
Besides the teaching, I serve on the jury for special exams, such as for students who want to qualify in Spanish as a foreign language, and I do minor administrative duties.
A typical day depends on whether I meet a class. In classes I may show films or we may read poetry, followed by discussion. In the third level group, all the discussion is in Spanish. In the second level, we also sometimes discuss in English. Outside of class I may prepare course materials, since students don't have access to many books. For example, I started to make a Spanish-language exercise book, but haven't yet finished it.
[How do you feel about your work?]
Really fine. But it is a pity that internal problems have interrupted my work. (This is a reference to a lecturers' strike at the Ghanaian universities that had been in effect for three months). We had a lot to accomplish in the classes. I was eager to offer more than I have been able to. Now I feel I'm wasting my time. I want to give more.
Even so, students have come to talk with me, and meet me at my house. Sometimes we use my video here, to see films. The students seem eager to learn, but while I don't want to criticize the university organization, I think they could do more.
Students may be in class from seven in the morning to seven at night--the whole day. It is impossible. Certainly not the best for the students. In the afternoon we may have to make jokes in class to keep them alert, because they are very tired. The best is in the morning. Also, it is not so easy being a student. They may have to travel to get to campus, and prepare their food, do so many things besides attend class.
What I find most satisfying is seeing that students can talk to me in Spanish about topics I have introduced in class. For me, that's the best. The most frustrating is now--that I'm not teaching because of the problems. I don't think classes will resume before I return to Cuba in two months. Chances are lost. It's too late. It has been a long strike.
[Would you volunteer again to do this work?]
Yes, but not right away. I have to spend some time with my family. It would be fine if I could come with my family. I've enjoyed being in Ghana. I've traveled to a few places: Cape Coast, Akosambo, Kumasi, and of course, Accra.
[What advice would you give to someone coming to teach at a Ghanaian university as you have done?]
Try to bring with you books and other educational materials; they are in short supply or not available her. I would also say, "You'll be fine there. The students and other people are pleasant. The university is the same. You can work freely, and do what you think needs to be done." I would also say that you can flourish here. The soil is fertile.
I've enjoyed having this wonderful university house. Maybe someone else with a different character would not like having so big a house. But I really love it. I can do gardening, paint portraits.
The classrooms, however, are not so good. The university is large, but they didn't take care of the classrooms. For me, the best places in a university should be the classrooms. I have had to move my classes from one room to another because another class needs it. You lose lots of time that way. I also have to carry chalk and erasers for the board. And the rooms are often not clean, and it is not comfortable for the students or even for the teacher. But I learned a long time ago that we have to feel fine in the place where we are sitting. Not only that, we have to teach not only knowledge, but behavior too. So if the room is dirty, what can you do?
I brought and use my own video player and television, so the equipment situation is okay. As I mentioned, the students sometimes come here to see videos.
[Are there any hazards or discomforts have you experienced in your work?]
Not in my work, but in my life. Snakes and scorpions. I have seen them. I'm very afraid of them sometimes. If I see them, I can kill them, but it's really stupid to die from a bite of a scorpion or snake. I prefer to die another way. In the beginning I was really afraid of that. But now I walk everywhere. Also, people advised me about theft, so I have locked my house. But I've had no problem.
[What people do you work with and how do you get along with them?]
There are the other lecturers in my Department: three or four Ghanaians and one from Spain. Also the administrative staff and teaching assistants. The teaching assistants are good; some have spent time in Spain and they speak Spanish fluently. I'm very friendly with all of them. They're kind, pleasant. No problem, no problem with the people.
In fact, the Ghanaian people I've met have been pleasant and well-mannered. Cuban men tend to be a little "macho." Here, if someone bumps you, they say, "excuse me, I'm sorry." Everybody says hello to you. Everyone says hello. I feel fine wherever I go.
I'm paid by the Cuban government at home, and get only a living allowance here in Ghana. It is adequate to eat and do what is necessary. Also, the Ghanaian government provides me a car three times a week to go shopping. Transportation is not a problem, unless you want to travel. I've had no health problems here. All my friends have been having malaria or something like that, but I haven't.
I do miss my family, though, and they miss me. Soon we'll be together again, and I'm eager for that. I have not spoken with them by telephone since I arrived nearly two years ago. It would be possible to talk to Havana, but not to my home city on the other side of the country. My family and I have only written to each other. I write almost every day. I used to write like a diary. The best way is to send letters is to give them to someone who is going to Cuba; that is safer and faster. Otherwise letters home take 15 to 30 days, if they are not lost. My family also writes me often.
This work is a wonderful experience--culturally rewarding. I have met people I wouldn't otherwise have met. I would like to have taken an English course while I was here, though. At the end of an assignment like this, you think about what you might have done but didn't.
You know, I have been teaching for more than 25 years. Sometimes I will I hear a knock on my door, go to open it and find someone I don't recognize. But they didn't forget you. They have been your student. They will say, "professor!" I will say, "Who are you?" Because I don't remember. "You were younger. We can't keep in mind all the faces and names of all the students." But for me it is wonderful--also when someone I don't recognize greets me on the street. I've had that experience lots of times. I've taught in many places. I started teaching in secondary school.
I do enjoy gardening, both here and at home. I love it. You can see over there some peppers I've grown. At home I raise a lot of vegetables. I am in charge of making fresh salads from my garden for the family. You know, a difference between teaching and gardening is that you see results a lot sooner in gardening. I once was the director of an agricultural school, even though when I was appointed I did now know much about agriculture. I was so impressed by the demonstration plots: plants with the correct nutrients grew well, those without them did not, even though they were side by side.
[What will you do when you return to Cuba in a couple of months, and how will your life be different from this experience?]
Of course, I'll meet with my colleagues in the Department to talk about it. I've taken photos, collected some souvenirs to take back. There is a group of faculty at my home university that teaches African studies. I can be a hero to them. I can tell them about many things. And my sons, as we say, will "eat me in questions" about my experiences. That is very rewarding for a father. I dream that they are lying in bed and asking me, and I'm telling them.
One's life or way of thinking is wider. You can be more accepting of people. We have in Cuba a lot of people with African roots.
You know, the world is not so large. Maybe some day we can meet again. Maybe Mr. Clinton is changing a little. You may knock on my door one day.