How one community in rural Ghana is solving complex issues with simple solutions

 

Originally Posted on Medium.com/@mattbautista

I think it was Dale Carnegie who first publicized the phrase “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” It probably seemed pretty genius at the time but now it’s just plain obvious, right? Even in the face of adversity you can create something sweet with an optimistic and positive attitude. But tell me this — when you’re stuck with lemons, have no access to clean water, and can’t afford sugar, what the hell are you supposed to do with them? Suck em dry and convince yourself it tastes just the same?

Lesson one in international development: turning lemons into lemonade isn’t always as simple as it seems. Sometimes the odds are stacked against you in a way that makes even something as “simple” as lemonade hard to produce. And, in this field, lemonade takes the form of things we need a lot more than a few satisfied taste buds: healthcare, infrastructure, education — to name a few. How do you even begin to address issues that are a lot more complex than a 3 ingredient summertime brew?

 

What We Need Most

According to a recent survey conducted in 9 nations in Sub-Saharan Africa, healthcare and education rank as the two highest priorities for improvement in every single one. In Ghana specifically, 87% of those surveyed noted that the quality of schools in Ghana was a “very big problem.”

 

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When a problem dramatically affects a large portion of any country’s population, it seems safe to assume that the effects of these problems are bound to be even more complex in rural settings where government involvement tends to be less present. As Kwode states in his article about education inequality between rural and urban students in Ghana, “rural schools are often characterised by inadequate teachers, poor classroom structures and in some case schools under trees.” When even a rainy day poses a threat to a child’s education it’s no surprise there’s a stark difference between the two settings.

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One At A Time

After having spent the last two months in one of these rural communities, Bawjiase, it’s become obvious that the issue is much more complex than it seems at first glance. The biggest problem with public schools seems to be the lack of cooperation between teachers, the government that employs them, and the students left to suffer the consequences. “There’s no supervision, there’s no connection. The teachers do as they please because of an employer that doesn’t value them highly,” one former public school teacher explained. When most public school teachers show up less than their students and the cost of a higher quality private education can heavily offset the $2–3 average daily income, how is it possible to provide your children with the type of education they need to become self sufficient and, hopefully, take care of you when you’re no longer able to?

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Meet Dora Abdu

One of the individuals able to shed some light on the situation for me was Dora, your typical Bawjiase, badass mother. Her story starts with the sort of story I’ve heard many times during my stay here in rural Ghana — the young death of her father and only guardian leaving her to make up for the loss of income created in his absence. When her father passed away, she was taken in by her grandparents and forced to forgo her education so that she could be put to better use (read: make more immediate income) selling food in the local market. At the time, it wasn’t her choice to skip class and spend her days learning how to turn a profit, but back then, she didn’t have a choice.

“I wanted to go to school, I wanted an education, but they wouldn’t help me get one. They wanted me to start earning money instead.”

Although it’s easy to shame her grandparents for forcing her to miss out on such a valuable experience, let’s not forget that it’s not the fault of an individual stuck inside a system that seems to be working against them. Had the circumstances been different, had they had more support from their local government and more opportunities to generate sustainable income, her situation might be different. Because they lacked proper support, Dora paid the price of going through her adolescence without a single day of schooling.
All of this results in one thing: a lack of valuable skills/knowledge people are willing to pay for. Now, Dora works selling snacks in a nearby town and, between her and her husband, a taxi driver, she’s able to make ends meet — most of the time. But, because of not receiving an education, one thing she still struggles with is affording one for her children.

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Eric & Beatrice have been enrolled in school ever since they were old enough to attend, but Dora was never happy with the kind of education they received for free in local public schools. She knows she doesn’t want to sacrifice her childrens’ education for extra income, but paying for it seems too difficult to manage when her income sources are never guaranteed.

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Teaming Up For a Solution

When Sofo Elisha, a local community member and foster parent here in Bawjiase, witnessed the lack of quality education being provided to local children he started drawing up plans to build a school to rival city standards while still considering rural drawbacks. In 2013 he started United Hearts and offered a different approach to families looking to invest more in their children’s education. The goal: to provide quality education, comparable to the kind found in urban environments, while understanding the financial constraints of families in the local community.

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Sofo Elisha, Headmaster Gabi & Nana B

But goals are nothing without a plan to put into action. Elisha needed staff that knew the issues his community faced and had personal experience in coming up with unique solutions to these complex issues. His first recruit: Nana B, a young and energetic local who knows this town better than anyone having spent most of his life here with his family; and his second: Headmaster Gabi, with over 10 years experience working in rural education and knowledge of urban standards. Together, they are helping Elisha change the game of education in small town Bawjiase.

When Dora found out about United Hearts, she withdrew her children from public school and went straight to Elisha to see about getting her students a high quality education — even if she would have to figure out a way to afford it. Although he would charge school fees like the other private schools, missing a few payments would result in discussing ways the school could help rather than threatening expulsion, making a world of difference for parents like Dora Abdu.

Badass mom tip #1 — Make It Work

The financial struggles still continue for Dora, but because United Hearts operates with a different mentality — one based off community support and engagement — she is able to delay payments when she can’t afford school fees. (School fees are $5/trimester, Dora’s income is about $10/month). Now, Eric and Beatrice are enrolled at United Hearts and come home in the evenings bursting with stories to tell about the lessons they’ve learned instead of pocket change to help buy the sugar they were missing.

“If they go to school, if they follow what they’re taught and keep learning, they will never be able to say that someone has kept them from getting an education. For that, I’m willing to make some sacrifices.”

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Thanks to individuals like Sofo Elisha and his team, community organizations are being created to make up for a lack of support and are affording mothers like Dora the opportunity to find a way to make some sweet, sweet lemonade with what she’s been given. I can’t imagine what that tastes like.

If you would like to make a donation to United Hearts so that more children can receive the same opportunities Eric and Beatrice have been lucky enough to receive click here.

Help us invest in the next generation with one of the most powerful resources available — a quality education.