Tag Archives: education

Malawi street kids work through struggles with HIV and AIDS

Jonathan is one of many Malawian children orphaned and HIV-positive who struggles to keep himself on a complicated ARV drug regiment without older family members to assist him.

Meet Jonathan – “Big John,” I overheard a friend call him, despite the fact that he is quite small for his age.

Jonathan’s parents died when he was 10, leaving the child on the streets and forced to fend for himself. So that’s what John did.

Shy about the details, Jonathan told me that after the last of his family had disappeared, he realized that nobody was going to take care of him. He accepted this, found a routine place to sleep, and joined the ranks of Blantyre’s uncounted street kids. And then, somewhat settled, Jonathan walked to the nearest hospital he knew of.

He found a doctor, asked to be tested for HIV, and, predictably, the test came up positive. So Jonathan asked how he could get medicine.

Roughly one year later, he boasts that he has never missed a day taking his ARV drugs. The kid is smart.

Jonathan’s no longer on the streets. A chance encounter saw him placed in an orphanage, which brings us to the second inspirational character I met at Jacaranda Foundation, a complex of schools and, come September, a health clinic, in Chigumula township, Blantyre.

I’ve long held some disdain for CNN’s annual “Heroes” television event.

I considered it a self-serving affair; a chance for a superfluous news network to flatter and aggrandize itself by filling a room full of celebrities that could then be filmed applauding good people who were poorer than them.

And what is a hero, anyways? Most instances of the word refer to the man who has spilled the most blood.

Then I spent an afternoon with one of CNN’s heroes –no quotation marks. My attitude has changed.

Marie da Silva, a recipient of the 2008 CNN Hero award for her work with children, has long championed the cause of orphans and at-risk you in Malawi. Travis Lupick photo.

Marie da Silva is the 2008 CNN Hero for championing children. She received the title for founding the Jacaranda Foundation. Today, Jacaranda’s elementary and secondary schools provide an education to 400 orphaned or at-risk youth. After spending a couple of hours at Jacaranda, it’s difficult to express how strongly I agree with CNN’s assessment of da Silva.

“John is an amazing boy,” she told me. “He came here by himself and enrolled himself in school. And at the time, he was living alone. And he was just 10. Just 10 years old.

Da Silva confirmed that Jonathan put himself on ARV drugs. “He would go by himself to the hospital,” she explained. “He would walk, ever since he was a young child. And many children do that. Many children go by themselves to the hospitals to get their ARVs.”

On his feelings for Jacaranda, Jonathan is equally complimentary.

I’ve been given a life,” he said in Chichewa, speaking softly. “I’ve been given a family. I know that if I were still on the streets, I would not have a life.”

When Jonathan grows up, he wants to serve in the Malawi Defence Force.

According to UNICEF statistics, in 2009, there were 120,000 children aged 0-14 living HIV-positive in Malawi, and an estimated 650,000 thousand youth aged 0-17 orphaned by AIDS.

Jonathan is just one of them.

KNUST Graduation and a brush with royalty

Leah Wong at the KNUST Graduation Ceremony, photo taken by graduation photographers

Just like students graduating from Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology I shook the hand of the Ashanti King.

A week after our tour of the school, I attended the first day of graduation, held in the school’s great hall. Unlike the week before when exams were in session, the grounds were filled with people. All around graduates, their friends and families were snapping photos.

When I reached the venue I was seated inside with the former Vice-Chancellor, Professor Kwasi Adarkwa’s wife in the front row, giving me a clear view of the day’s festivities. Following the procession of both convocation, the university’s Chancellor and the University Council, I realized that I was going to be seated in front of the Ashanti King for the entire ceremony.

The valedictorian, Kwadwo Boakye Boadu, received the highest marks for students from the two colleges, provided the usual inspirational speech to his fellow classmates. He encouraged his fellow students to continue to work hard as his lecturers engrained in him that “only in the dictionary [does] success come before work,” reminding them that “it doesn’t happen in the real world.”

The motivational speaker for the event was Frank Tackie, the President of the Ghana Institute of Planners. Tackie encouraged the graduates to take hold of opportunities, even if it means leaving the country. In his 35 years as a planner, he has traveled to work in over 20 countries globally.

The graduation ceremony was for both the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, and the College of Architecture and Planning. Each graduating student shook the hand of the chancellor of the university, the Ashanti King, Otumfuo Osei Tutu II.

Following the graduation ceremony, Prof. Adarkwa and his wife took me to a reception at the Vice-Chancellor’s house. There I sat in the same room as King and enjoyed refreshments. The King did not eat the same food as I did though, as he travels with a cooler of his own food wherever he goes. We sat waiting for the King to depart, and though I did not have my camera, Prof. Adarkwa said he would introduce me to the King.

After a brief introduction about how I was the daughter of one of his Canadian classmates, and that I was working at Kapital Radio in Kumasi, I was able to say hello and shake hands with the King. Shaking hands with the King is a great honour by Ghanaian standards, something I truly realized when I told the story to my coworkers later that week.

Exploring primary education in northern Ghana

I had the chance to travel north last week and visit some schools in Bolgatanga, including a private academy and some public primaries.  Largely, the perception is schools up north lack funding and government support, and as such are often ill equipped and inadequate to provide quality education to their students.  I wanted to see this for myself.

[pullquote]“Private schools charge fees and can motivate their teachers [with higher pay.]  Ours are assigned by Ministry of Education and aren’t paid much.”[/pullquote]

At Great Victory Academy, I was viewed with suspicion, and the administration didn’t seem overly excited to accommodate me, though they allowed me a quick interview and a few photos.  At Adabase Primary, however, I was treated like a special guest (which, in hindsight, I suppose I was,) and was given freedom to roam around, take pictures, and talk to teachers.  Aside from an obvious bias on my part as to which school I preferred, I found interview subjects from both institutes to be knowledgeable, well spoken, and insightful on the topic of primary education in the northern regions.

Great Victory Academy

“Our students are very excellent,” said Mr. Kris Joseph Akubah, director of Great Victory Academy, one of northern Ghana’s more prestigious primary and junior secondary institutes.  “They are selected through a series of exams to attend this school, but they also need to be able to afford the fees.”

While public primary and junior secondary schools are now fully funded by the government, according to Akubah, private schools receive little to no funding.  This often results in financial hardships for families if they wish to continue sending their children to the elite school.

“Our students get no funding from anywhere,” said Akubah.  “Even if they are geniuses, they don’t receive funding.”

Costs range upwards of 110 cedis (70 CAD) per term for primary school students, and 125 cedis per term for junior secondary students.  This is in addition to uniform costs, school materials, food, and transportation.  Of course, the expenses testify to the product.

“Our teachers are the best of the best,” said Akubah.  “They are not doing national service, they are trained educators.  They don’t have time to do anything else than teach, so they put all their attention into it.”

Students working hard on English in a P5 class at Great Victory Academy

Adabase Primary School

“Our teachers aren’t always motivated,” said Ayishetu Mahama, head mistress of Adabase Primary School.  “Private schools charge fees and can motivate their teachers [with higher pay.]  Ours are assigned by Ministry of Education and aren’t paid much.”

On the other hand, students don’t have to pay as much either.  A capitation grant introduced by the last federal government gives about 3.50 cedis a year to each student for sports and culture subsidies, which actually go a fair way.  The government also provides uniforms and exercise books, though the latter are limited and often students have to resort to writing on any paper they can find.  That being said, public school students still pay for other school materials, exam fees, food, and transportation, all of which add up.  It’s a necessary price to pay for education, but the problem, said Mahama, is most parents don’t see the use of education.

“They don’t see the point,” said Mahama, “and because they don’t see the point, they won’t cooperate.  They won’t feed their kids in the morning, they won’t buy them pencils.  Kids will walk one mile to school and haven’t eaten.  This is not healthy.”

However, Mahama doesn’t lay all the blame with the parents.

“They can’t provide what they don’t have.  The poverty level here is too high.  That’s why we need the government to do more.  They’ve done something, but they need to do more.  These kids need it.”

Usefa, 3, does his drawing on the veranda because there's no paper, and no classroom, for that matter.

Going to school in Bolgatanga

Last week I had the opportunity to travel up north to Tamale, Bawku, and Bolgatanga.  Along the way, I checked out the school situation as I’d been told that the standards and conditions of the educational system up north left something to be desired in comparison to the rest of Ghana.  In truth, what I saw wasn’t all that different from the primary schools I’ve seen in Kumasi and Accra, although the kids made do with less.  See for yourself what a typical school day looks like in Bolgatanga.


Tourists Prop up School in Ghana’s Stilt Village

The school in the village of Nzuluzu would not be able to function without tourism.

One of the three classrooms in "the stilt village"

The 500-year-old remote village is built on the water, held up entirely by stilts and only accessible by canoe. Each day, tourists from all over the world make the 30 minute canoe trip to the ‘stilt village’ to observe the culture and infrastructure. But their trip means much more to the town than visitors, it means money for education.

Along with a few jhr interns, I made the trip to the town for an adventure. Upon arrival, we were asked to sign the guestbook and make a donation to the primary school. We obliged and gave a small donation to the school and according to resident Mensah Athur, the school would crumple without donations like ours.

The school houses 120 students from kindergarten to Grade six. They only have one government-funded teacher for all the students. Seeing this was inadequate, the school has hired three community teachers to help that they pay for out of tourist donations.

“Every tourist that comes here helps with a donation to the community,” says Athur who runs the Kasapa Guest House and greets visitors as they enter the town. “If tourists stop coming here, there won’t be any donations to pay the teachers with. The school would collapse.”

Athur says the school, in fact the whole town, relies on tourism for development. The major industries of farming, fishing and gin-making, would not support the maintenance of the town, let alone provide extra funding for the school.

In 2000, the private tourism companies/workers were pushed out to make way for the Amanzuri Conservation and Integrate Development Project. The ACIDP collects tourism fares that go directly to projects in the six communities.

The project proposals only cover maintenance of infrastructure and small business loans. So the community made the decision to collect donations at the beginning of each trip to support their sinking school.

Kids being kids in front of the camera in Nzulezu

Islamic Schools in Ghana – Educating a minority

Students in the pre-school class at Madrasatulil Muhammad sit on plastic woven mats on the floor while reciting verses from the Quran.

There is no clear consensus on the exact number of Muslims in Ghana; according to official government census, Muslims make up approximately 15.9 percent of the population. The Coalition of Muslim Organizations and the CIA World Factbook, however, say the more accurate figure is 30 percent.

Whatever the exact number may be, Muslims are undoubtedly a minority in Ghana. The building that doubles as a mosque and an Islamic school where my friend Fuad Muhammad teaches plainly illustrates that fact.

Madrasatulil Muhammad is one of the many madrasahs or Islamic schools in the Muslim-dominated Akrom Zongo in Kumasi. They are commonly known as makaranta which means ‘school’ in Hausa, the native language of Muslims in Ghana.

When I visited the school, there was some renovation construction going on. Thanks to the school’s generous benefactor – a Muslim Ghanaian businessman who lives in the US – the ground floor of the building which acts as the community mosque is now being installed with glass windows.

The classrooms above the mosque, however, remain windowless. Lessons begin right after dawn at the makaranta and it took a while for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. Whatever light that came through the doors at either end of the room was swallowed up by the bare cement walls and floor.

Seated on rows of wooden benches, students craned their necks and waved impatiently at those blocking their view of the blackboard. There are no desks; students simply put their books on their laps or the vacant spaces on the bench next to them. Students in the pre-school class are gathered at the ground level of the building. They sat on rows of woven plastic mats on the floor reciting verses from the Quran.

Students writing their exam at the Madrasatulil Muhammad in Akrom Zongo, Kumasi.

Despite the bare amenities, students at Madrasatulil Muhammad show up every weekend for their lessons in the Arabic language, Islamic history and Quranic studies. They are also given sex education since it is a taboo subject that is rarely discussed between parents and their children the conservative Muslim society.

Muhammad said that the school collects 70 peswas (roughly equivalent to 45 cents Canadian) from each student per day. The money is used to pay for some of the teachers’ transportation costs. The rest, like Muhammad, work on a volunteer basis. According to Muhammad, he doesn’t mind not being paid for his work because it is an extension of his duties as a Muslim towards his community.

Vandals Defecate in Classroom

Children cleaning up after their classroom was vandalized

Students at Inchaban D/A Primary and Nursery School arrived to class Monday morning to find their classroom scattered with human excreta.
“I feel so bad and I feel so dirty too,” says a basic four student.
Classes were postponed while the students cleaned up the mess.

“When I came, I saw feces all around the place. They spread some on the tables and the chairs. I told them [the students] they should take out the tables, go and fetch some water and clean it,” says teacher Dorcas Entsewa Mensah.

An excreta wrapped in a black polythene bag was also found in a classroom cupboard where students keep their shoes and textbooks.

“It was in a polythene bag. They threw it through this window,” says Sophie Bosomtwe, a basic four teacher at Inchaban Primary, pointing to a busted window that can’t be locked. She says this is the third time vandals have broken into her classroom.

In December last year, fireworks were set off in the school after hours which burnt many textbooks, precious learning materials that still have not been replaced.

The headmistress of the school attributes the crimes to a lack of lighting on the school premises. “This is a free range for criminal activities. There are no lights and there is nothing going on here. So when it is dark and we are gone, the place becomes the property of whoever wants to use it,” says Helen Bogobly.

It is also against school policy to hire a watchman. School staff is appealing for this to be changed, so learning can continue.

Getting Schooled on World Refugee Day

Today is World Refugee Day and I have never really recognized this day before.

Yes, perhaps I would have retweeted a Tweet about the day, or even posted a story about it to my Facebook wall, but it would not have resonated like it does now.

In my time in Ghana, I have visited the Ampain Refugee camp twice and met with refugees about their experiences with the ongoing political and ethnic struggle going on in the Ivory Coast. I have mainly been interested in what the education is like in the refugee camps.

Ampain houses over 5000 Ivorian who fled the political unrest and now ethnic persecution in their home country. The UNICEF supported primary school educates about 800 students in temporary wooden structures with tarp roof and walls. Last Thursday, the camp got a donation of desks and white boards from the Christian Conservatory of Ghana so the children no longer have to sit on plastic mats on the ground or learn from tarp walls made into makeshift blackboards.

The former 'blackboard' for the secondary school (in the window, you can see the blue tarp of the primary school)

The volunteer teachers still only have limited books and school supplies to try to educate the school, which is seen as a safe haven for the children. Most of the children have been directly impacted by the trauma of the unrest and move to the refugee camp.

When I visited the camp briefly last week, we heard there had been an incident earlier that day. I learned later that it involved a dispute at the charcoal distribution and the police were called in to interfere. To try to regain power, they shot their guns in the air, which caused more havoc, especially for the school.

The children were taken aback by the sounds of the gunfire and ran into the bush for cover. Many children refused to come out of hiding prompting a ‘Missing Children’s List’ to be drafted and a search team organized. All ten ‘missing children’, some as young as four, were eventually talked out of hiding. The next day, many of the students did not attend classes.

“[The children] went to the bush to hide when there was gun shooting because when [they] were in Ivory Coast, during the war, they would have heard all the gunfire and learned to hide themselves,” explained Jacob Ahoua, who is coordinator of the refugees for the camp and established the school as an assistant of community service.

“Most of the children of the camp are traumatized because they heard of the noises of war. Some have seen their father or mother killed. So this event was a bad experience for the children.”

After hearing this story, visiting the primary school and meeting the people of the refugee camp, I definitely view World Refugee Day in a new light.

A child draws in the sand outside her tent at Ampain Refugee Camp

For a first hand account from the people at Ampain listen to Raquel Fletcher’s, Ivorians Seek Refugee Status in Ghana.

Major upgrades to basic education

Students at Adum Presby Primary School in Kumasi, Ghana

Adum Presby Primary School’s Class 3 is made up of 60 children: 33 boys and 27 girls, each wearing a royal blue uniform and a short hair cut. They are packed into wooden desks by threes, and even by fours, although they are only meant to seat two, sharing their textbooks and many other things in this modest classroom. The teacher, Asamoa Margaret Antwiwaa, or as her students like to call her “Madame Margaret”, recaps yesterday’s lesson by taking up the students’ homework questions. Some of the children stand up confidently to respond, while others sit quietly, dreading to be called upon.  While it is obvious that many children are eager to learn, it is also clear that many students did not complete their homework or understand the material, and some haven’t eaten breakfast.

Under the Ghana’s constitution, the government is obligated to provide access to Free Compulsory Universal Basic Education (FCUBE). The FCUBE policy was put into effect by the Ministry of Education/Ghana Education Services in 1995. It has been adapted into various educational reforms and programmes as a strategy to reduce poverty restraints and increase enrollment by removing school tuition fees and levies on basic education for all “school-going age children” (grades 1 to 9).

Although school enrollment rates have increased, Madame Margaret touches on the other socioeconomic conditions constraining access, quality and completion of basic education for all. “There still aren’t enough learning materials in government schools and parents don’t want to buy books.” She explains that many of the pupils at Adum Presby (a government/public school) come from low income families. Their parents do not have time to help their kids with homework, and do not have the means to purchase their school materials or even to provide them with breakfast every morning.  Owusu Agyamang, a Regional Public Relations Officer for the Ghana Education Services, expands, “if a parent is not economically empowered, then even though basic education is free, they are still unable to send children to school.” This is particularly true of the rural and more remote areas in the country, especially the Northern regions of Ghana, where low levels of economic development, weak social services and lack of infrastructure are prevalent. According to Ghana’s most recent Preliminary Education Sector Performance Report, access to and the importance of education in these areas tend to be more limited and less emphasized.  “In these areas, there are poorer households, fewer (total and trained) teachers, low demands for education, poor infrastructure, limited community-school relationships, high teacher absenteeism, high migration, and a rigid schooling system that doesn’t account for the needs of local rural communities.” In many Ghanaian families, school-aged children (mainly girls) are often put to work to supplement household income. Sending a child to school can be seen as a loss of family wages and domestic support. As a result, some parents do not see any benefit in their children getting a formal education. [pullquote]

The deprived northern districts are all below national levels, and achievement of basic education for girls is significantly less than boys nation-wide.  These gaps however, are decreasing thanks to Ghana’s recent educational reforms.[/pullquote]

Matilda Bannerman Mensah, head of the Girl Education Unit at the Ghana Education Services, adds “there are also traditional socio-cultural practices that put preference on boys’ education rather than girls’.”  Arranged and early marriage, female genital circumcision, and bondage are degenerative practices that are still predominant (particularly in the deprived northern regions) and constitute some of the other barriers preventing girls’ access to education.

The Government of Ghana and the Ministry of Education are well aware of these limitations and are attempting to address the issues. In 2002, the national government committed itself to attaining the United Nations Millennium Development Goal (MDGs) of achieving universal primary education by their targeted deadlines and included it in conjunction with the implementation of its national development strategy. The “Ghana Poverty Reduction Strategy” (GPRS) provides a guideline for the development and execution of the latest Education Strategic Plan’s objective: 100 per cent equal access to and completion of universal basic education for all children in Ghana by 2015. The aim to ensure equitable participation in and completion of basic education has meant improving the quality of teaching and learning, the provision and management of resources, and the overall efficiency of the decentralized education management system.

Ghana’s government has introduced a number of initiatives in the last decade including: a national school feeding program, free school uniforms and exercise books, extended kindergarten services, the building and rehabilitation of school facilities, education awareness campaigns, and in-service staff training, to improve both the quality of teaching and learning, and to increase equal basic educational opportunities for both male and female children in Ghana.

The number of boys and girls in each class of Adum Presby Primary School

Although these initiatives have encouraged more children to enroll in and attend school, only 88 per cent of primary students and 67.7 per cent of junior high students complete their education, hindering the 2015 target of 100 per cent basic education for all.  Gender and geographical disparities in enrollment and completion rates remain an issue. The deprived northern districts are all below national levels, and achievement of basic education for girls is significantly less than boys nation-wide.  These gaps however, are decreasing thanks to Ghana’s recent educational reforms.

Educational limitations and discrepancies stem from the lack of funding and resources available to accommodate the growing needs of students and schools within the districts they operate. “[The] quality [of education] is [being] compromised in some way,” says Veronica Jackson, the National Activity Coordinator for the Ghana Education Services. “The right thing would be to add on to the infrastructure, but it doesn’t happen that way. It all comes down to funding and resources. There are more needs to be catered for than the resources can take care of. These are all part of the challenges.”

While the largest source of funding within the education sector comes from the Government of Ghana, its share in the total national expenditure has been declining. Economic policy restrictions imposed by institutions like the International Monetary Fund’s loan agreements, have weakened the government’s ability to allocate resources where they are needed most – in public infrastructure and social services.

Increased donor share for education costs is crucial for the development of the sector and the success of its reforms. The Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) contributes significantly to the implementation of the GPRS and Ghana’s subsequent national development plans. CIDA is working to improve the effectiveness of aid and the coordination of development projects in Ghana through activities aimed at improving budget planning for poverty reduction, delivery of basic services, strengthening technical and management expertise, and improving public financial management and oversight.  This assistance helps build the capacity for effective, transparent and accountable systems of governance for Ghana’s population; however, the collaborative effort of aid donors, development partners and the local government is required for sustainable educational improvements.

Girls rationing out the lunch of beans and rice provided by the School Feeding Program

Fortunately for the students at Adum Presby Primary, the school will soon benefit from more governmental and community support. Headmaster Akwasi Agemang Duku explains that the school is shortlisted for the construction of a kitchen facility to strengthen the delivery of its feeding program and a new school building, complete with more classrooms, washroom facilities, a library and information and communication technology equipment, set to be ready by the end of next year.

“The government is doing their best. Because children are the future leaders, we put everything aside and do our best. Whatever is given to us, we have to take it…God on our side and because of the work we have chosen-and we love our work- we are managing,” says Agemang Duku.

Statistical Source:

Preliminary Education Sector Performance Report 2008, Ministry of Education, Science and Sports (MoeSS)