Fallen through the cracks

BY: Elizabeth Ohene
Elizabeth Ohene
Elizabeth Ohene

Every once in a while, something brings you down to earth and you are forced to reassess the things you have been taking for granted.

All the conversation around me is about social media, digitisation, online applications, Google, E-mail, Facebook, Instagram, MoMo, Civil Society Organisations, scholarships, fake news, Influencers, slay queens, Auditor-General’s reports, corruption, …. You get the idea.

If you don’t take care, you get carried away with the jargon and the language of the type of conversation that has these words.

Before very long, you begin to think this is the world, the country we live in.

Yes, according to the statistics, there are almost 40 million mobile phone subscribers in Ghana, 130 per cent of the population, that is, and 98.7 per cent of these people have smartphones, and as of January 2021, there were 15.70 million Internet users.

There was another story two weeks ago which stated that we have the fastest broadband service on the continent.

The ensuing argument was about whether this was true or not.

Of course, every time there is an Auditor-General’s report, we all get extremely excited.

The newspapers have “Chop, Chop” headlines and we all look out for public officials who have been caught dipping their fingers in the public kitty.

These are our normal daily fare, nothing new or strange about that.

Reality

So, what is the reality that I have bumped into? Last week I met a beautiful, young lady.

She is 29 years old, or at least, that is what she said.

She cannot read or write. She cannot read anything, not her name, not the alphabets, not the 1,2,3, not English or Twi or any language.

I asked her at which stage she dropped out of school, how many years did she spend in school.

Her answer was she had never stepped in a classroom, not for one year, not for a term, not for a month, not for a week and not for a day.

She had never stepped in a classroom all her life.

If she is 29 years old, it means she was born in 1992 and that would be the year of our Fourth Republican Constitution.

This young lady, with the charming smile has a phone, a smartphone. I asked her how she manages with phone numbers if she cannot read or write.

She has a friend who stores numbers for her, she said. I didn’t quite understand the explanation she gave for how she deciphers which number is which and which name is which.

The rest of our conversation was stressful, to put it mildly. She felt it was too late for her to learn to read and write.

Does she mind that she cannot read and write, does she know or does she feel she is missing something because she cannot read and write? What is the point of these questions?

She just wants a job, she kept repeating, a job that will enable her look after herself and her three-year old daughter.

I must confess I was completely stumped as I stood there trying to work out how to deal with this type of new problem.

I know how to deal with job seekers who don’t want to apply online and want to be taken on “protocol” basis.

I was stumped because I did not know there were 29-year-olds in this country that had never entered a classroom.

Aliterate

I know that some people drop out after three years, many drop out after Primary Six and some of them then forget all that they had ever learnt.

I hear there is even a word to describe such people, aliterate, but that is as much as I thought our problems went.

As I stood there wondering what to do, my mind went back to 2002 and a portion in then President J. A. Kufuor’s State of the Nation Address. I have looked it up and this is what he said:

“Mr Speaker, two weeks ago, a 14-year-old boy was brought from the Krobo area to live with one of my friends in Accra.

“The young boy, Johannes, was in Primary Six in the village. In Accra, after a full morning of testing, the teachers decided the boy should be placed in Primary Three.

“This young boy exemplifies the chasm that has developed between schools in the rural and urban areas”.

Gap

This was the main problem the President felt we had and he set about to do something about it and I believe, we have gone some ways in narrowing the gap.

In the year 2002, this young lady that I met last week would have been a 10-year-old. She was not suffering from the gap between urban and rural schools. She did not have a schools-under-trees problem.

She did not have an untrained teacher problem. She did not have any of the many listed problems that we have with our Primary schools. She had simply never entered a classroom. She was a statistic.

When I went to the Ministry of Education in 2003 as a Minister of State, increasing enrolment and keeping children in school was one of the main preoccupations that the late Kwadwo Baah-Wiredu and I had.

Making a spectacle of the First Day at School was one of the strategies we adopted and we were determined that every schoolage child would be in school.

I used to be very proud of the fact that we had increased the enrolment and retention figures. The last figures I saw said we had 86 per cent enrolment.

You might think this was a pretty good figure until you come face to face with the missing 14 per cent, which might turn out to be an attractive 29-year-old woman who cannot read or write and has to depend on someone to “store” numbers for her on her smartphone.

She is on WhatsApp and relies on audio and video messages and not on written words.

You might then discover that we are living in totally different and parallel worlds in this country.

The things that get you agitated and you consider so very important do not even register on her radar.

When you are making the calculations about your followers on social media, the number of people who called to congratulate you for the piece that “tore the minister to pieces”, please remember that it is all between your own group.

Your own incestuous group in which you cheer up each other.

I am suitably humbled that my 29-year-old new friend, Deborah, will not be able to read what I have written about her, does not care and does not believe it makes any difference to anything.