By Alhassan Baako
Humanist Service Corps Volunteer
In my opinion, life without formal education is meaningless. Growing up as a child, my immediate guidance counselors were my parents and the various classroom teachers I had for my formal education. My counselors made me understand that there were several means I could adopt to develop socially, mentally, psychologically, and emotionally. I took to almost all the advice I had from the already learned personalities of my society to get me to where I am now. But I am lucky. Having access to formal education, let alone guidance through that education, is not universal. For me, visiting Gnani and Kukuo witch sanctuary depicted the fact that the education of children, and therefore their lives, are in great jeopardy. Even the most intelligent and hard working children face obstacles, such as parents choosing for their children to marry young, or work, or lack of funds for school fees and materials. These obstacles often stop them from attending school altogether.
Several years ago, I had the opportunity to visit and collect information about the school systems in the witch sanctuaries in northern Ghana. The schools appeared normal until I conducted several interviews with the instructors to determine the faults and challenges that pertain to their teaching and learning processes. Having been a student in schools in three of the northern regions of Ghana, I tried to compare and contrast the disparity between my urban education and the rural education I was learning about. Written documents have it that government and other stakeholders play a massive role in building the educational structures for the vulnerable in the society to have an easy access to formal education. In my school days, the best performances in national exams and university attendance came from the southern part of Ghana. But the question I used to ask is “Are the southerners more intelligent than we, northerners, are?”
I know now that the answer is “no.” Southerners are not more intelligent than northerners. Southerners do have better schools with more money, better-trained teachers, and good education supplies. This is a legacy of the colonial era when the British had an incentive to educate southerners to be able to help with their colonial governmental and business interests. The British did not have the same incentive to build schools in the north where they looked for laborers. In northern Ghana, schools remain less-funded than in the south, and the situation is even more dire in rural communities in the north. So southern students perform better in national exams and are more likely to continue their education after high school. It’s not because they are more intelligent, but because they don’t have the same obstacles to overcome to finish their education.
It’s even worse in the witch sanctuaries. Schools in the rural sector are somewhat provided with teaching and learning materials (TLMs) which ease them in the instructional processes. In both sanctuaries despite the infrastructure provided, children face challenges of grossly inadequate educational TLMs that could serve as major aids in learning for their future success.
Dropping out of school is a common problem in the rural parts of the region, including the witch sanctuaries. One reason is because of child marriage, which, though declining, is still a real problem here. The problem is only increased by the fact that school children lack sex education, making them vulnerable to teen pregnancies that further prompt them into child marriages. So many nongovernmental organizations, including our partner Songtaba, are working to curb the number of child marriages. Though there has been heavy effort put forth more efforts are still needed.
For some decades now, parents of school children in the northern region subject their wards to child labor. This causes inconvenience in the children’s lives when it comes to achieving even a basic education. Parents tied to their cultural norms and beliefs prevent their competent children from completing their educations. They claim that sticking to what the ancestors did is the best way to fit in the modernizing world we are growing into. The ancestors failed to send their children to school and made farming their priority. But the ancestors failed to send their children to school in large part because schools did not exist or only existed for the upper class. Times have changed. Northern folks saw different tribes—southern tribes—making decisions in parliament for all of Ghana. They wanted to participate, which required education. They decided to promote education.
So education has become more accessible in recent decades, but poverty still keeps many children from attending school. Those in junior high school can perform brilliantly in academics, giving them chance to continue to senior high schools, but are still unable to attend because of financial constraints.
Take for example Napari, who I met in Kukuo. Meeting his mother, Pooni Dajohi, an alleged witch, was one of the saddest moments of my life. I nearly shared tears. Pooni told my group she wasn’t concerned about being banished to the witch sanctuary. Her major concern was Napari, who had completed junior high school but could not go further because she faced financial constraints. Women accused of witchcraft often lose everything when they move to the camp and therefore have to scrimp and save and rely on charity even to eat. School fees are a luxury in this context. I decided to help raise funds to get Napari back to school.
Napari’s journey back to school became realistic after we were able to find a sponsor in the US who was willing to pay his first year’s fees. I traveled with him to Tamale, the capital of the Northern Region, to a school where he was given admission a year ago. Unfortunately, they told Napari that because of his delay in coming to the school he had to be placed on a waiting list. We never gave up though. In the next month my teammate, Warren Tidwell, accompanied me to meet a different headmaster who assured us of admission in a different school—Yendi Senior High. The headmaster warmly received us and immediately called on the assistant headmaster to give Napari admission to study General Art. Napari’s dream of furthering his education was accomplished due to a great and caring donor.
In the witch sanctuaries, children brought to the camp to help their mothers and grandmothers find everything difficult in school. Even attending school is not possible for every child. Not every child is as lucky as Napari to find someone outside his family to help pay his fees. I said that life without formal education is meaningless. But in northern Ghana, and especially in the witch sanctuaries, accessing that education is often impossible. The Humanist Service Corps, with Songtaba, is seriously working to make education a real possibility for every child in the sanctuary. One way we are working to do that is by working with alleged witches to improve their economic standards through livelihood support and agricultural growth, and by reintegrating them, so they have better opportunity to support themselves without stigma. When those objectives are achieved our hope is that the mothers will be empowered and able to pay for their children’s fees from the profits of their businesses.
Alhassan Baako is a Northern Ghanaian activist for women’s rights and science-based medicine. After graduating from the University for Development Studies in Tamale, Baako taught Business and Technology at the School of Management Studies. In 2013, Baako began assisting Leo Igwe with translation, data collection, and historical/cultural guidance for Igwe’s doctoral research into Ghanaian witch-hunting. Since then, Baako has become a staunch advocate for victims of witchcraft accusations. He continues to help Leo Igwe as Igwe’s doctoral research draws to a close, but Baako became interested in the Humanist Service Corps as a way to directly restore dignity to banished women and stop witchcraft accusations altogether.
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