For various reasons, most Ghanaians do not make it to high school. To begin with there is a lack of high schools and admittance is determined by test scores. Following JSS (Junior High), students take exams and are allocated to high schools based on their results. Only 38% attain scores high enough to qualify for high school. Something that tugs at my heartstrings daily is the shadow of yearning on the faces of young men and women left behind, who now have lost the opportunity for significant further education and the chance for income beyond that of a farmer or laborer. Another reason students stay behind is money. High schools are not free. Students must pay tuition for high school in Ghana, with the first year’s tuition of $300 being the equivalent of a farmer’s annual income. At times, the extended family members can gather enough to pay tuition for qualifying youth. At times students must delay for a year or more before money can be gathered, at times they never get to attend high school in spite of good exam scores.
Perhaps that helps to explain the enthusiasm and vitality that exudes from the girls dormitory at the brand new Kongo Senior High School on a Saturday. To begin with, it is early in the school year and, consequently, an awareness persists among the girls that they are extremely fortunate just to be there. As we arrive, it becomes obvious that Saturday is a day for laundry, cooking, bathing, and cleaning. There is a bustle of outdoor communal activity with some hand washing and ironing school uniforms (using irons with hot coals), other girls carry water from a borehole, some girls cook on little hibachis, and all of it is unsupervised. There is a sense self-sufficiency and purpose, accompanied by much laughing and talking.
The dorm rooms themselves are something a westerner must see to believe. The two hundred girls live with 50 girls to a room, sleeping on small bunk beds (smaller than a twin bed) packed closely together. At the foot of each bed is a small box or suitcase for personal items. In an unaccustomed luxury for most Ghanaians, each dorm room has ceiling fans (all of which were turned on) and large windows. While the rooms were reasonably pleasant, these girls will never have opportunity for peace, quiet, and solitude. And there were no desks. I neglected to ask where school books are kept. And a word about something we all take for granted, the flushing toilet. There are currently no latrines or toilets at the school. The technical term is ‘open defecation’; not a new experience for these girls, but of some health concern to me considering the high density of students, the possibility of flies spreading disease from the exposed feces, and the absence of running water for washing hands.
Social expectations in Ghanaian schools are comparatively restrictive in regards to personal freedoms. Students must contact the headmaster for a weekend pass, and are only allowed a few of these per year; though everyone does go home for major holidays. And, are you wondering about boyfriends? Kongo Senior High is a coed school and the boys dorms are strategically placed at least a quarter mile away. Boys are not allowed to go any where near the girls dorms, and vice versa. A typical punishment for meeting a boy outside of class is to be suspended from classes for one week, leaving the student to fall behind in classes and sit alone in the dorms.