“We make a living by farming,” Yaku explains to me over TZ and a soup made of leafy greens. We’re sitting under the stars together in the compound after the last prayer of the day. The women have already eaten.
“But, I thought that you teach?” I ask, doing my best to dip the amorphous carbohydrate into the soup without dropping it. “Ah, yes, I teach Maths at a primary school,” he tells me, deftly following my clumsiness with the grace of experience, “but it doesn’t pay well.”
I’ve heard this before: teachers don’t get paid well, so there is little incentive for them to do their jobs. As a result, teacher absenteeism is a big problem. Conversely, I’ve also heard that teachers in rural areas can make more than a DCE. The increased pay is to entice teachers into these areas, since poor teacher distribution is also a big issue faced by Ghanaian education. I look around my compound and decide that there truly must be a large discrepancy in pay amongst educators.
“I’m also taking courses,” Yaku continues with a proud smile. He has piqued my curiousity. “In what?” I ask. I am beginning to formulate an image of a very bright future for this obviously intelligent young man, who can’t be older than 30. “I want to write my exams,” he tells me, “the WASSCEs.”
Now Yaku’s low pay makes sense. The West African Secondary School Certificate Exams (WASSCEs) are a set of exit exams in core subjects for senior high schools in the West Africa region. Yaku must not have previously written them and is thus an unqualified teacher. Being unqualified means that his pay is not set by the GoG, so he likely makes even less than the already-low salary of a qualified teacher.
Unqualified people teaching at schools is not an uncommon thing in the Northern Region–in fact, some schools have a higher proportion of unqualified teachers than qualified ones. There is an attitude amongst planners that having somebody there to teach the children is better than having nobody (an attitude that I would question; I will post my thoughts on it later).
“And after that?” I continue, preemptively adding a university-educated Yaku to the image I’ve been creating in my head. My question wipes the smile from his face. He turns his head downwards. “And after that there is only the farm and the household; nothing else,” he sighs. He goes on to explain to me that university in Ghana can cost upwards of 8 million cedis* a year after government subsidies, which only apply to those with very good grades on the WASSCE (a quick search tells me that this is, in fact, a low estimate of costs). He tells me that between farming, teaching, and taking on odd jobs in construction, he has trouble saving even 1 million cedis each year.
I do some quick math on that: 8 years to save up to pay for school + at least another 4 to save up the amount he would lose in wages during four years of schooling = at the very minimum, 12 years before Yaku can even think about going to university.
He goes on to explain to me that he thinks education is the best investment anyone can make in their own future and the future of their family. I can tell from the tone in his voice and the sadness in his eyes that he wants nothing more than to be able to reach his potential through learning, but that his context prevents him from doing so. Yaku’s situation is, for me, overwhelming.
Our conversation under the stars continues and I realize that nightly dinner with this man is going to be an informative tradition.
I’m typing this from my desk at the RESO. Cool air blasts noisily at me from the A/C unit we’ve got and the (relatively) high-speed internet to which I have access is allowing me to write this, check email, and research data use in education in Ontario at the same time. If I go out the back door, there is a toilet with water that flushes (no T-roll, but I carry some in my backpack for this kind of thing). Every afternoon, a woman selling bananas and ground nuts comes into the office to deliver food directly to the employees. I walked here in 20 minutes on a well-worn road, and some of my colleagues even have cars or motos for rapid transportation.
It’s a cushy life for the Office Employee.
That’s why it’s very easy to feel disconnected from the issue at hand: good education for Ghanaians in the North (and maybe the rest of Ghana, too–although I’m trying not to get ahead of myself, here). I see this disconnect in many of my colleagues at the RESO on a daily basis. There are some exceptions-like Alhassan-but for the most part, the employees here seem to have only a small link to the complexity of issues over which they have some control. What’s more important to them is steady employment and a nice paycheque.
Thankfully, I have Yaku.
I recently discovered that Yaku isn’t exactly a teacher, but instead a National Youth Employee. In this role, he receives a small stipend and acts as a teacher’s assistant. It’s likely that he sometimes teaches classes. He’s getting experience and preparing to write his WASSCEs so that he can fulfill his dream of becoming a Maths teacher.