Alien Schooling

Sign at school in Ghana

For many children in northern Ghana school is a baffling experience. Because English is Ghana’s official language, that is the language used in school. But the children don’t speak English. Neither do their parents or friends. For many, the only place they hear English is in school. Furthermore, the teacher probably doesn’t know their language, so he or she can’t explain. Because parents don’t know English, they can’t help their children with homework. It’s sink or swim. Some schools even ban students from speaking their languages.

Somehow, this alien experience has come to be considered normal. So normal that students and their parents may be blamed for the poor results. And poor results proliferate – huge numbers fail and repeat grades, many drop out. For many parents, school is a lottery. You send all your kids hoping one will by chance succeed, get a good job, and benefit the whole family. That’s a load of heavy expectations to put on a first grader!

There’s hope. The Ghanaian organization I work for, GILLBT, (link) is leveraging its experience and expertise in translation and literacy in Ghana languages to change all this. It is working with schools to teach students in their own languages for the first three years then transition to English. In fact, when I was in Ghana in July, GILLBT’s training center was overflowing with teams of Ghanaians each preparing teaching materials in their language.

The preliminary results are impressive. The number of second graders reading at the required level went from 15 to over 70 percent. Because you only learn to read once, the transition to English will go quickly. In pilot projects in other countries, children starting in their own languages spoke better English by grade six than those who started in English.

Besides, all those students will become adults who can read the Bible in their languages instead of the illiterate dropouts they would have become.

Children curious about me

Wrong kind of kid in school

Demolished school

Demolished school

I walk by several times a week, and one day it was demolished! And the rubble was just left piled everywhere. A short section of wall was still standing. On it was the painted primary school decorations and teaching tools, now showing incongruously for all to see.

There has to be a story behind a scene like this, so I asked. The man who ran the school had built it on someone else’s land.  The when he refused to vacate, the land owner took him to court. The court issued a judgment in favor of the land owner and ordered the school closed. But the man running the school ignored the court order and kept the school open. Negotiations failed. So, one day when the school was not in session, the land owner brought a bulldozer and the police, and they knocked down the buildings.

Kid (goat) in demolished school

Kid (goat) in demolished school

However, there are still kids in this school, just the other kind.

I never thought much about the kinds of systems and organizations a country needs. This story is about weak systems in Ghana that regulate land. Without those systems, real estate agents are self-appointed and some of them are crooks who will not hesitate to sell you a piece of land, or a building, that belongs to someone else. It happens all the time.

I suspect that the man who “owned” the school thought that he owned the land, only to find out that his title was junk. At first glance the situation was surprising and humorous. On another, it is a tragedy.  On yet another, it is a story of a country where land used to belong to everyone and its use was regulated by the chief, but which has been and still is moving to a different system and there are lots of bumps along that road. It makes me glad to have grown up in a place with pretty good systems for such things, and it gives me empathy for the Ghanaians trying to buy a piece of land.