Back to Bongo

6 03 2009

Parents and pupils waitI went back to Bongo this week. I probably ought to explain that the Bongo in question isn’t a percussion instrument but one of the poorest districts in Ghana. It’s outside Bolgatanga in the Upper East Region and nestled right up on the Burkina Faso border.

I went to observe and help in the selection of recipients for the “Ambassadors’ Girl’s Scholarship Programme” (which also includes boys despite the name). I visited Bongo last March with ISODEC to visit some of the schools involved in the project, this year a couple of new schools have been added, meaning that 75 pupils from each needed to be selected. The criteria for selection is reasonably clear; the most needy students who are academically able. In practice this means orphans, the disabled, the children of parents who are elderly or unable to provide in some over way. The selected “scholars” are given their school uniforms, shoes, text books, stationary a bicycle if needed and the family is given a sack of either maize or millet. The idea was to encourage families to keep girl children in school. I could explain for ages why it’s so important to keep girls in education, especially in rural areas, but I won’t. At least not now. Anyway the communities asked for the scheme to be extended to boys so now we also support needy boys.

Tuesday started early. Three of us were travelling up from Tamale – about 2 hours south of Bolga. Fortunately we were travelling in ISODEC’s (white) pickup and I was picked up at 6am so that we wouldn’t waste too much time. With a bit of luck it was hoped we could finish in a single day. Arriving late at the first school we were met by 85 prospective scholars with their parents as well as community “opinion leaders” and members of the PTA so that the selection committee would be community based. My task was to photograph each student after they’d been interviewed by the panel, in front of the rest of the prospective scholars. Given that we had two schools to visit it quickly became clear to me (although apparently not my colleagues) that completing both schools in one day was impossible. In fact completing in two days looked optimistic at one point. No-one seems to have done the simple maths of multiplying the number of students by the time it would take to interview each one.

The actual interviews consisted of the basic details on the application form being checked, it was surprising how many students had got their dates of birth wrong. It’s always a bit of a shock to realise how old some of the students are, we were interviewing junior high school form 1 and 2 students (I think year 8 in the UK) and there were students in their late teens. In the poorer rural areas children are often withdrawn form school for a year or two at a time either to help with the farm or because the parents can’t afford the school uniform, stationary etc. The children themselves were smartly presented, but many of their clothes showed signs of repeated repairs. After establishing the basic facts the criteria for selection were established, “Where is your father?” being barked at a nervous looking student who all too often replied “He is dead”. Students who turned up without a family representative were grilled about why they were alone. Finally each child was asked to read a passage. Most were nervous about reading in front of strangers and mumbled. It quickly became clear that the reading level was extremely low – probably a result of disrupted schooling in schools that lack almost all facilities and trained teachers. Some of the adults in the committee seemed to find the stumbling efforts of the poor children extremely funny and proceeded to laugh loudly at each mistake, making the child even more nervous. When the ordeal was finally over I “snapped” them and they could go home. Both days went on without a break from the speeches and opening prayer at around 10am until we limped home exhausted and dehydrated after 5pm.

[Edited 7 March to add photos]

Parents and pupils wait

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