Saturday was Rural Women’s Day in Ghana. As I was reading the article in Saturday’s Daily Graphic on Monday morning, I read that 41% of Ghanaian women have never been to school, and 49% of rural Ghanaian women had never been to school. I was shocked the figure was so high, although it does make it a bit more understandable why, although Ghana is “English-speaking”, there are an enormous number of adults who do not know English well at all. When I was researching Ghana in preparation for my trip here, I read that education through Junior Secondary School (junior high) was free and mandatory. After coming here, I learned that it is “free”, except for fees that many poor families cannot pay. It reminded me of my graduate school days at The University of Texas, when I had a fellowship that paid my tuition but not the fees, and in fact discovered that the University’s fees were more than the tuition! So, the reality here is that although education is “free”, in practice it is not, and poor families may be faced with choices of who to send to school, and women are often at the bottom of the priority list. Also in my pre-departure research, I discovered that historically, parts of Ghana were a matriarchy society, and even today Ghanaian women can own land and property, unlike other African countries. But again, reality turns out to somewhat different from what is printed in the books. In a family with many children, it is reality that the boys have a higher earning potential than the girls, and by sending the boys to school the family may be improving the chances for survival of the entire family – a man might be able to earn enough to support his many sisters, whereas the chances of a woman supporting her brothers is not as high. We’re talking survival here, and it is understandable, although of course not equitable and certainly regrettable.
As I was reading about Rural Women’s Day, our Swedish friends who spent the night with us were sharing breakfast with us. They are assistant teachers at a private school in a village outside of Accra. We have also learned since being here that most Ghanaian children do not attend public school, even though it is “free”, since public schools are so bad. In a recent report, we heard that something like 90% of children in Accra attend private school. One of my thesis students at Ashesi (I say “my” – clearly I haven’t overseen the entire development of his project, but only the writing of his thesis since I’ve been here) developed a computerized learning tool for science content for the JSS (Junior Secondary School) level. He went to both a public and private school and put together focus groups at each to help him design and then test the product. Even he, a Ghanaian, was shocked at the results – 4 out of 5 of the public JSS students had never used a computer or held a mouse; only 1 of 5 private school students hadn’t. Furthermore, he reported the public school JSS students were completely passive and unengaged – they would offer no suggestions or ideas – everything was “fine, good”. The private school students were active with suggestions and ideas for content, display, mode of interaction, etc.
I asked Ilse and Ellen if at their private school there were more boys than girls. They did not think so, but thought that the disparity of women in education that was reported may have been from years ago, and perhaps in more modern times it was not such a problem. But then they launched into what were the problems. Even in their private school, the children in the younger grades are caned, often severely. They both started volunteering in the younger grades, but could not stomach the punishments the kids endured, so switched to the older grades where it is not so bad (with the good excuse that the younger kids did not yet know English, and they did not know Twi, so they could be more helpful in the older grades). Since the kids in the younger grades are not so competent in their lessons, they observed that the main teaching tool is caning. Although they are not in the position to contradict their teachers (they are only 17 and 19 years old respectively, and are not trained teachers in Sweden), they did ask a teacher, away from the students one day, why there was such an emphasis on caning. They told him that there was no caning or any form of corporal punishment in Sweden, and that there were alternatives. The teacher apparently responded that Ghanaians are stupid (he is Ghanaian) – they even reported that he said something like “we are like animals” and that if they did not get hit, they would not learn. Our friends surmised that he was told this at a young age, and is perpetuating the cycle. They also reported frequent humiliation of the students; for example, each month it is announced whose fathers had not yet paid the monthly tuition, and those students would be called to the front of the class and humiliated in front of everyone, and then sent home until their fees were paid. One of the things the teachers say to the students is something like, “look at what the obruni teachers think of you – they have come all this way to teach you and your father cannot even pay the fees – they are ashamed of you”, while they try to plead with their eyes to the children that no, they are not ashamed of them, while being careful not to contradict the teacher in front of the class. They say that outside the teacher’s eye, they try to be as loving and caring and accepting of the children as they are able. They are in a very difficult situation, but I for one am very thankful that they are in that place, at this time, to possibly make a difference with these children.