A Project Stuck in Neutral

During an eventful Friday, I went to the field to visit a GEM (Ghana Environmental Management) Project, or GEMP. This followed the Environmental Management subcommittee meeting the night before, where nearly all the government departments were present (Agric, Education, Health, NADMO, Fire Service, Environmental Health, and a man from the NGO PAPADEV).

The project concerns a nursery with various tree saplings that are to be grown inMankuma, and then sold to five pilot communities, creating revenue for one town and food production for the others. Thanks to the donors, these saplings will be subsidized. So, on the economic side, rather than the usual 2 cedi that might be paid by the community, it will be 1 or 1.5 cedi. The other rationale for this project is to encourage reforestation, as cutting down trees for charcoal is a major issue in several districts. The meeting saw an odd point, where they talked about taxing the illegal practise. Seems like some twisted logic.

Unfortunately, this proposed plan hasn’t happened yet. The meeting saw a lot of back and forth, but the main result is that meeting attendants would break up into groups and go to the different communities to get people on board.

Some of the trees have been planted, but due to quarrelling between the two men in charge of running the program, who are from different villages that make up Mankuma (found on either side of the main road), work has been put on hold. After visiting the site, which has plenty of brush lying around (a potential fire problem) and some trees planting within 3 or 4 feet of each other, we went into town to visit the two traditional authorities. It was the DPO, a chief from Bole area (Saala Wura), a representative from the Fire Service, and myself who went to the respective chief compounds to explain our concerns.

Turns out that the two men went for training in Tamale, but now aren’t talking to each other. Thus, the standstill. Thanks to some discussions with the 2 chiefs and their declarations that things will get done, the two men are suppose to get back to work and clean the site. The reason for this ultimatum to get things done by Monday, was that the donors – CIDA (Canadian International Development Agency) and EPA – were going to visit on the following Wednesday. They had plenty more saplings to donate, but need to see something optimistic before continuing with the project. It was very odd for me to see the DPO specifically introduce me as a Canadian in relation to the fact that it was a Canadian donor’s project. As if, I had any influence in the decision making.

After these meetings, we all returned back to the District Assembly and made our leave, but not before one more task. The DPO handed everyone their respective allowances for the two days: 10GHC for field visits and 15GHC sitting allowance for meetings.

I’ll need to check with DPO to see what the result from this week was. How well the site was cleaned up and if the donors will continue with the project.


Investing in Education: Delivery

03 DEC 2012

This INVESTING IN EDUCATION series of blog posts will follow a set of charitable initiatives to help rural Ghanaian children attend and excel at school, removing some of the barriers that may keep them in a cycle of poverty. I want to extent a high level of thanks to everyone who contributed funds and time to make these activities happen.

If you’ve read my previous two posts related to this series, then you’ll know the more detailed back stories on the Yipala Junior High School and the Sumpuoryiri Primary School.

One my last Monday of my last week working in Bole district, I decided to take a day off work. It would be my 3rd such day not specifically doing International Development work. Rather I would do something that is traditionally classified as ‘humanitarian work’.

It would be classified in this way as it is entirely of a single event. Nothing sustainable or long-term. But I still have hope that it will bring more positive impact than negative.

First off was Yipala JHS. This is a typical village school – one with a combination of many students but few resources. Regardless of their reality, they were able to go from 0% (o of 24 students) passing the final exam for entry into Senior High School to an impressive 88% pass rate (14 of 16 students). All this in just one year.

To reward the teachers and students for their amazing success, me and others asked the school what they needed. They came up with two requests – textbooks and blackboards. The latter could more easily be achieved by themselves with material nearby, so we agreed to provide the former.

Based on the funds raised, I was able to purchase 60 textbooks. 15 each in Mathematics, Applied Sciences, Social Studies, and English. The thought behind this number was that each class would have enough books for a 2:1 (students to textbook) ratio. The beauty of these Aki-Ola series textbooks is that they can be used in all three forms (or grades) of JHS. So, four textbooks can be used in 12 different classes.

I also bought a dictionary and a few novels of classic Western and African literature, with the hope that some young student may gain a passion for reading. You can see the result below.

It was a little hectic handing out the books and making sure that everyone understood that books would stay at the school under look and key, but I’m sure they received the message. Well, maybe.

The teachers, who each did amazing work with only one textbook or less and a determination for improving the education within their classes, are most to congratulate for this feat.

I look forward to the 2013 examinations, where Yipala JHS will be sending 24 candidates to take the BECE exam. We will see if the textbooks had any effect, whether positive or negative. I’m hoping for the first one.

If I had more freedom and the time to explore, I would speak with GES and ask why students in the rural Northern Region are without the same textbooks that schools in the southern area have access to. It is an entirely unfair system, but requires more investigation.

After a short visit to Yipala, I moved on to my second mission for the day. This involved traveling with the IBIS driver from Yipala to the Tinga area – a 3 hour drive at least. But it wouldn’t be that simple!

Before arriving at the school, Alidu and I would have another list of items to complete. This started with making a quick stop at a gravel seller, which was mainly Chinese contractors – all of which knew no English. We then dropped off some furniture for my co-worker in the Sawla-Tuna-Kalba district. This involved not knowing the exact house and asking around for where the ‘white lady’ lives. Lastly, we picked up the fellow IBIS staff and headed on our way. Not knowing whether or not the students would be waiting for us, as it was approaching closing time very shortly.

We arrived in time though, with a swarm of students from Kindergarden, Primary, and Junior High Schools all set to take the walk to their respective homes. The headmistress was our organizer, as see found us an empty room and gathered the children who were about to receive their rewards for entering school only recently and showing a passion for learning.

This next part was chaotic!

To the best of my abilities, I sorted the clothes and sandals that each child was to receive. There was big kids, small kids, kids whose name might not exactly match the list we had. There was girl’s dresses but assigned to a boy and a few the other way around. There were dresses that were to small, with arm holes that didn’t work. There were boy’s trousers (like the boy in the center of the photo below) that were obviously too long for an 8-year-old.

In the end though, everyone received something close to what they intended. And if they need to be altered, so be it. The smiles on these children’s faces are beautiful and show the appreciation of that day.

It should be noted that the govenment education service does hand out uniforms on an irregular basis. This year, due to different reasons, Sumpuoryiri Primary missed out on the distrinution and it is unclear when the next round will occur and how many uniforms will be earmarked.

I want to give another round of thanks to everyone involved in making these donations happen, both in Canada with fundraising and in Ghana with logistics. I surely could not have done this much if I was working alone. We all need to work together.



TOMS Shoes

When I walked into the Social Welfare office to give training on Microsoft Excel (as I usually attempted every week), I was confronted by a pile of boxes next to the door. These didn’t seem like anything special at first glance. They were stacked tightly, with the odd computer printer box mixed in for a splash of diversity. There are many departments that have things in there office, waiting to be handed out. Youth Employment has had bicycles and hair dryers. Community Development has had large bags of Ionized Salt. So, I went to take my seat, not thinking too much of them.

The boxes themselves were very plain. Crumbled and stamped with basic text. They read “Toms Not For Resale”. It took me a few glances and a more carefully reading to understand what the boxes were trying to say. They were Toms shoes and the were meant “Not For Resale”. These were indeed the end of the supply chain from all those American and European malls where people buy Toms shoes at retail price and expect that one pair will be delivered to someone in need. I was actually seeing the result of that business model.

Sadly, I would be returning to Steven’s office many times before experiencing the shoes being used. Steven is the department officer of Social Welfare. He has a few office staff and all of them have field duties in addition to what they must do in the officer, mainly involving reporting. It was about a month of me asking Steven for updates before he was able to start handing out shoes to children. 

There was the one week where it looked like we were going to go out to visit the schools, but the volunteer from Best Generation Community Foundation (the Ghana organization that was actually coordinating the distribution of shoes along with local government officers) was unable to make it up from Accra. So, again we waited. Luckily, Steven was able to make some progress working by himself. He visited the various schools and tabulated lists of needy children.

Then the next week there was an issue getting a vehicle. Like many smaller, newly decentralized departments, Social Welfare doesn’t actually have its own means of transportation. You can only imagine the frustration this causes when you need to visit a village an hours drive away. But I digress.

In the end, we were able to get a vehicle and all the volunteers were in town. Everything was in order. First stop, St Kizito A Primary School – one of the many primary schools found within Bole. Here, 24 children would be receiving a brand new pair of black Toms shoes. For some, it would be their first pair of new shoes. For others, it would be their first pair, period.

Only a few minutes drive from the District Assembly, we arrived at St Kizito during the perfect time – during class. The students about to receive their donation were already pulled out from class and could be interviewed without any interruption from fellow classmates. Although many were curious and watching from inside the school quarters.

Children fell into three general groups: those with new-ish footwear, mainly bathroom sandals and one or two with actually sneakers; those with bathroom sandals that were cracked or missing a piece; and those with nothing, bare footed.

The children provided their names and stood for some stereotypical “before” photos. Then the boxes were offloaded from the rear of our truck, ready for handout. Chooses sizes posed a difficult challenge, as most children had no idea what size of feet they had. So, round and round, the “try it on and see if they fits” attempts went. All in all, it went pretty smoothly. This was the first attempt for everyone involved, seemingly.

After the school visit, I was returned to the office. But the group of volunteers and government officers continued on to Sonyo Primary and one other school for more distributions. In the end, they handed over more than 300 pairs of shoes that day.

Here are some other children who received a bit of happiness that day.

During the short ride I had with the volunteer from Best Generation, he was able to provide a few additional facts. Not only was Bole District receiving 1,000 pairs of Toms shoes, but so were many other Districts. This was the first round of donations from Toms in Ghana. Although they would be returning in 6 months, and presumably, on a continuing basis, both me and Steven questioned whether the proposed plan of giving these same children another, slightly larger pair of shoes was the best tactic.

They might hand over their old pair to a sibling or friend, but from the visits Steven went on, there was an astounding need for shoes. How about the children that will receive nothing and continue to walk bare foot?

I encourage any readers to not just go out and buy a pair of Toms shoes because of this post, but to question the reasons why children across the world are unable to afford such basic necessities, like footwear.

Thank you.


Investing in Education: School Uniforms

This INVESTING IN EDUCATION series of blog posts will follow a set of charitable initiatives to help rural Ghanaian children attend and excel at school, removing some of the barriers that may keep them in a cycle of poverty. I want to extent a high level of thanks to everyone who contributed funds and time to make these activities happen.

After hearing the story of a young man who made the trip from his village of Gbodda to the district capital of Bole with nothing to show for his work, I knew I needed to help.

To help his family earn some money, this 12-year-old boy brought a bag of charcoal from his home to the district capital on market day — Friday. The cost to get there was 1 cedi. After an entire day of waiting for a buyer and negotiating back and forth, he was able to sell it for 2 cedis. After a short time, he realized his horrible fate.

He had spent 1 cedi already, had earned 2, so had made a profit of 1 cedi. But still needed to make the right back home, which would cost him his entire earnings for the day. He was about to head home, after a day of anguish in the market, and have nothing to show for it. No food for his family, no money for his efforts.

After realizing the situation, he was devastated and headed to the nearest NGO for help — IBIS. There he told his story and asked for assistance. He had told the story of his family. His mother had left him, his father was an alcoholic, and his siblings were mainly raised by their grandmother. He has 2 younger brothers and a younger sister.

The family was not earning enough to eat on a regular basis and the father was drinking away any money that was coming in. The grandmother would make pottery and sell to earn a living. The children would do some work, here and there, to also earn funds for buying food.  Sadly, they were not on course to earn an education.

To help them out, the intern at IBIS gave them a short term remedy by providing them with a bag of rice. This would mean a source of food for a few months. The family’s jubilation can not be described adequately.

The other thing missing was the clothing required to attend school. Each school has its own colors and its required that children wear the appropriate clothes to illustrate what school they attend. In smaller, poorer villages, there is usually only one school, but this requirement still stands.

Obviously, if a family can’t afford to eat, they won’t have the funds to afford new clothes. So, with a little help from the Budget Officer of the Education Department, we planned to purchase 4 school uniforms (3 shirts, 3 short trousers, and 1 dress), along with 4 pairs of shoes for this family.

The day we handed out the items was the first day I had met the children. It always surprises me to hear stories of hard working children and then realize how young they truly are!

First we met the younger 3 and then the oldest boy came later. By the look of it, these kids had only one outfit. The clothes were ripped and the shoes were close to being unwearable. Although we couldn’t talk directly to them, the buzz of what they were about to receive was definitely understood by all.

We had gathered everyone up and headed next door to the school to meet the chief. After an explanation of the mission that day and the story of the young man, the chief gave his thanks and assurances that he personally would watch over the food that was given. Sadly, it was pointed out that the father had attempted to sell the rice to earn money for alcohol. He was stopped in time fortunately and will be monitored for any other attempts.

The chief was handed the clothing and then tried to dress the children, which was very comical to watch. One of his opinion leaders was also there to help. In the end, it was a great day. Although a new set of clothes and some shoes won’t bring immediate wealth to their family or food in their bowls, it will give them the opportunity to gain an education and maybe improve their fortunes. We can hope for that at least.

The next step is to replicate this act of donating a school uniform and a pair of shoes to another 50 children. There is no shortage of kids with this need, but due to a variety of conditions, Sumpuoryiri D/A Primary School was chosen to be the recipient of this good will.

From IBIS:

“The other school we will visit is Sumpuoryiri D/A Primary School, which is one of the many schools in Tinga. IBIS has a lot of CEP-learners (Complimentary Educational Programme) who gets transferred into this school. But often the learners can’t afford the school uniforms, which in some cases leads to drop out and in other cases to poor attendance. The reason as to why it affects the attendance, is that the children will be asked to help generate an income for their families. Especially in Tinga the children are sent to the mining areas to carry rocks, sell food, do laundry, wash rocks and basically they do all the minor jobs that no adult would want to do. In average the earn 3-6 cedis a day doing this. But they also have to buy food out of that money so the reality is that after 8 hours of carrying rocks a child has earned just under one dollar. Or in other words the child has to carry rocks for two months in order to pay for a school uniform. Another unfortunate aspect of the activities (galamsey) in the mining areas are a high rise in the number of children with tuberculosis and teenage pregnancies. The tuberculosis is the result of the dust they inhale while carrying rocks. 

“The children often sleep outside or in tents with ‘relatives’ and the girls are thereby vulnerable to men who befriends them by offering small food or other things and then demands sex in exchange. It might sound amazing that giving a girl a school uniform can prevent her from getting pregnant at 13 or 14 but the fact is that it actually can make a difference. Teenage pregnancies in Tinga accounts for 24,6% of the dropout from school. A girl is not allowed to go to school if she is pregnant. She is allowed however to return after giving birth, but most girls end up never returning to school. 

“All of these factors are unfortunately only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to barriers to children’s education in the Northern region of Ghana.”

After receiving a list of needy children from the primary school headmistress, it was off to Wa to start the process of tailoring so many uniforms. The headmistress had done a great job, by providing all the measurements and shoe sizes. 22 girls and 28 boys, ranging from KG to P6, will be the recipients of this generosity.

Everything is in motion now. All I need to do is pick up the uniforms, get into a vehicle, and deliver some good will to a lot of smart kids.


Investing in Education: Textbooks

This INVESTING IN EDUCATION series of blog posts will follow a set of charitable initiatives to help rural Ghanaian children attend and excel at school, removing some of the barriers that may keep them in a cycle of poverty. I want to extent a high level of thanks to everyone who contributed funds and time to make these activities happen.

From IBIS:

“So the name of the school we will visit is Yipala Junior High School. This is the school that went from having 0% passing the BECE to being the best in the district. The BECE is the exam you have to pass in order to be accepted to Senior High School.What really amazes me about this community is the way all of the community came together to fix the problem. It is completely unheard of that parents, teachers and students collaborate into fixing the problems. The normal reaction is a mud fight where blame is shifted around. So Yipala is really a sunshine story which we will be able to use to demonstrate to other communities that change is possible. If you look at the overall numbers of Ghana and BECE only 46% passed the BECE in 2012. This means that less than half of the students are able to qualify to go to Senior High.”

Yipala is located in the Northern Region of Ghana, in Sawla-Tuna-Kalba district. It is a small village, adjacent to the main Wa road. The school includes classes from KG to Primary to Junior High. It is making remarkable advances but still has many hurdles to overcome.

On the day I accompanied IBIS — a Danish-based NGO working towards developing education — we headed to this small town for a meeting. There was headmasters, teachers, parents, community leaders. Basically, everyone you need to come together to actually improve a school.

The meeting was one of the most interactive and informative ones I’ve ever attended. All participants were allowed to speak and more importantly, encouraged to voice their opinion. The thing I was hoping to learn was what the school truly needed to improve.

The JHS, in particular, has made remarkable changes in only one year. 2011 saw zero of 28 applicants pass the BECE exam. This means that those kids will only be able to go into trade work — mechanic, tailor, shop owner — if lucky. Some may repeat JHS Form 3 in hopes of a second chance, but more likely they will never attend school again.

The following year, 2012, saw 14 or 16 students pass the BECE and be given the chance to attend Senior High School. (There is no SHS in Yipala, so they would have to journey to a larger community that has one.) This means the possibility of higher education, higher job prospects, and a higher standard of living. Although you might guess from the numbers — 28 applicants down to 16 — that the school didn’t send everyone it could, only those most likely to pass. In any case, they reached a 50% pass rate, up from absolute zero. Regardless of sending all or just a few, most schools can only reach a success rate of 30%, at most. Yipala JHS is excelling

Other topics brought up in the meeting include:

  • Literacy rate of children in Primary School (P1 to P6) is around 10%, regardless of class. Nearly all kids grow up in non-English speaking families. They are exposed to English in P1 to P3, but have there local language as the primary mode of communication. When they reach P4, English is the sole method of instruction, meaning a steep learning curve for many. Few children do the required readings at home, preferring to watch TV, meaning pressure from parents to be engaged in their children’s school work is needed.
  • Children moving to the gold mining areas of Bole district (5 hours away) during their break from school and not returning. Some go by their own choice, others are sent by parents. Girls have the worst of it, usually falling into prostitution. It was noted that the community was told that these mining town were upset with the influx of children. Not because they are worried for the children’s safety, but because they charge less for sex and therefore are hurting the business of adult prostitutes. The shock value of this revelation was not as high as one would think.
  • Use of phones in the classroom. These are taken from parents and cause major distractions in class.
  • Poorly designed Primary and JHS classroom blocks. Rather than being tall structures with open windows for easy air movement (critical during the scorching Harmattan season), they are low lying with art-deco blocks, allowing for the most minimal of air flow. The possibility of removing these blocks was brought up.
  • Money, to be awarded to teachers for their excellent performance, has not been given yet.
  • 100+ children in Kindergarden. 1 teacher. KG 1 has more than 70 children and KG 2 has more than 30 kids. Parents are dropping off kids at very early ages, treating the school like a daycare. The is no actually GES (Ghana Education Service) classroom for KG, so they are currently using an abandoned church adjacent to the other classroom blocks.

All of these issues were noted and would be reported to the local government and their DCE, the man who usually helps push community grievances forward.

After the meeting concluded, we went on a tour of the KG/church building to assess the situation.

We had concluded after 1:00 pm — the time when kids go home — so we missed the feat of trying to house all the young, energetic children into such a small space, but one’s imagination could do an adequate job. 

The first thing we encountered was an overwhelming stench of urine.

There are two openings on either side. No doors, so goats are free to enter in the night time, urinating and dedicating without restriction.

The floors are bare, only dirt. Blackboards at the front and read, both falling apart. Seats made from concrete, crumbling, used for KG 1. A few desks in the back, used for KG 2.

Some small windows allowed for a minimal level of natural light to enter. The most concerning part of this building was the structural integrity  made worse by children routinely hanging from the window shutters.

It will be a miracle if this place stays standing for long. One hates to think about that very real possibility of the walls or roof collapsing on a group of innocent, little kids. It was abandoned for a reason.

The one women tasked with controlling so many children with so few resources is truly a remarkable person. She deserves constant recognition.

Returning back to the JHS success story again. They had noted two items to better equip themselves for success.

  1. Mobile blackboards. These would allow them to take classes outdoors and in the shade during Harmattan.
  2. Textbooks. Currently they only have a small assortment of outdated textbooks. Only enough for the teachers.

We had theorized before coming to Yipala that textbooks might help them continue their level of success, as well as reward them for their hard work. There are four key subjects in JHS: Math, English, Applied Science, and Social Studies. Each class averages 24 students across Form 1 to 3. Each textbook — part of the Aki-Ola Series — covers all three forms. So the English teacher, for example, would take his set of books from one class to another. My hope is to provide enough books for every two children. This has the added benefit of children working together and possibly helping each other through any challenges.

As for the blackboards, these can built quite simply. All you need is some plywood and black paint. Use chalk to write and you’re done. IBIS also noted that there are funds available to complete such work, so I will try my best to inform them of this.

All in all, it was an informative day. If I ever come back to Ghana and the Northern Region, I hope to visit this school and some of the scholars, to see how each has grown. 

My next mission is to track down these books, purchase as many as I can, and reward the school for all its hard work. I’m sure they will be pleased to see what hard work can lead to.

Stay tuned for the result.