Following the Daily Graphic publication of the intriguing story of Olivia Agbenyeke, the 19-year-old girl who defied all the odds as a slum dweller at Agbogbloshie in Accra to achieve academic excellence, and the overwhelming public response to the story, I went in search of other brilliant, needy students whose desire to pursue higher education is being thwarted by financial constraints.
My radar fell on Bernice Datsomor, the daughter of a peasant farmer in the Ashanti Region, whose ambition to study medicine at the university is threatened by lack of funds, as I discovered on a trip to the home of Bernice’s parents at Kordie, off the Kumasi – Offinso Road.
The story of Bernice is strikingly similar to that of Olivia .
Apart from them being females, Bernice is also 19 years old and completed senior high school (SHS) in 2012.
She, like Olivia, studied science and obtained grade ‘A’ in seven subjects in the 2012 West Africa Senior School Certificate Examination (WASSCE).
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Bernice conquered Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Integrated Science, Elective Mathematics, Core Mathematics and Social Studies.
The only subject she could not subdue absolutely was English Language, managing that subject with grade B2.
Again, like Olivia, Bernice desires to become a medical doctor in future.
But their common financial predicament had constrained them from entering the university in 2012 to pursue their dream career.
The parents of Bernice could not even raise money to buy university admission forms for her last year.
At the moment, she is staying with her elder sister in Sunyani, in the Brong Ahafo Region, where she works at the Owusu Memorial Hospital, as an issuer of patients’ folders.
Working at that hospital is, perhaps, the closest she has come to her dream of becoming a medical doctor in future, because that gives her an opportunity to see doctors at work and, hopefully, interact with them.
Encounter with Bernice
Encountering Bernice first via telephone promptly revealed her sterling academic qualities.
She sounded very articulate in speech, logical in reasoning, sharp in focus and strong in conviction.
Even without admission to medical school, and in her financially hopeless situation now, she is passionate about studying cardiology in future.
Cardiology is a branch of medicine that deals with the diagnosis and treatment of heart disorder and related conditions.
It is a specialised area of the medical profession many females shudder to thread, perhaps, due to the long and rigorous processes involved in training as a cardiologist.
Enquiries made from some health experts indicate that there are only a handful of cardiologists in Ghana with only one female practising as paediatrician cardiologist.
So Bernice’s desire to study cardiology may be considered overly ambitious, but the daughter of a peasant farmer, driven by strong conviction, is already fancying the challenge.
“These days, I hear of many people suffering from cardiac diseases so I thought it would be good to train as a cardiologist to help treat them,” she remarked.
That is strong conviction from a girl in a hopeless situation now.
When I met Bernice personally, her diminutive figure and calm disposition belied her huge career ambition and excellent academic results.
The Datsomor family
Mr Joseph Datsomor, the father of Bernice, used to be a security officer with the erstwhile Ghana Telecom, stationed at Koforidua, Ho and Tamale at various times.
But he was among hundreds of Ghana Telecom workers affected by a redundancy programme a few years ago, when the company was taken over by Vodafone.
Driven by survival instinct, he took refuge in farming at Kordie, off the Kumasi – Offinso Road in the Ashanti Region, mainly for subsistence.
As a peasant farmer with six children, putting food on the table has always been the foremost priority of Mr Datsomor.
While working as a security officer with Ghana Telecom, he could manage to cater for his children’s education with his “small salary”, as he put it.
But now, the situation has become what he describes as “S-O-L”.
His reference to the term “S-O-L” prompted a quick question on its meaning.
“Survival on Loan,” he responded.
That response put smiles on the faces of everyone around, during my interaction with the family and that helped to lighten the sombre atmosphere.
Survival in school
For Bernice, she had to survive on regular subsidies on her fees by the authorities of St Louis Senior High School to complete school.
Enquiries made from school authorities during a visit confirmed it.
But that notwithstanding, as she graduated with excellent WASSCE results, she still left behind a debt of GH¢400 in respect of school fees, extra classes fees and other commitments.
With the huge cost implication of university education, especially at the medical school, which Bernice desires to pursue, the financial stakes are far higher than fees paid at the SHS level.
So for Mr Datsomor and his daughter, they may not be able to survive on loan this time.
Conscious of that reality, Mr Datsomor could only wax biblical and take inspiration from Psalm 121:1-2, which he recited with passion:
“I lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth”.
For many years, the government has been promoting an initiative that seeks to encourage girl-child education.
It has also been pursuing a vigorous agenda to encourage more girls to study science.
Indeed, just last week, the government launched a new programme to encourage girls to study science and technology.
The maiden programme dubbed ‘Girls Camp 2013’ was on the theme: “Empowering girls for participatory development”.
Those policy imperatives must have informed the establishment of the Girl-Child Education Directorate at the Ghana Education Service (GES).
The results have been very positive, with increased enrolment of girls in school and a number of girls excelling in the study of science.
But the stories of Bernice and Olivia suggest there is a huge gap between the means and the end in respect of those initiatives, considering the fact that many girls are excelling in the study of science and yet they cannot continue their education after SHS because of poverty.
Enquiries made at the Scholarship Secretariat in Accra indicate that the government gives scholarship/bursary only to needy students in SHS and postgraduate students in public universities.
There is no scholarship facility for undergraduate students and, for that matter, brilliant, needy students seeking university admission.
Apart from the Scholarship Secretariat, many brilliant, needy students and their parents (as confirmed by Bernice and her father) are not aware of other avenues to seek financial assistance to continue their education.
Need for action
While many girls who excelled in the study of science at the SHS level continue to languish at home with little hope of continuing their education, the government has rolled out a new programme to encourage girls to study science and technology.
The Deputy Minister-designate for Environment, Science and Innovation, Dr Bernice Adiku Heloo, was quoted in the Thursday, May 2, 2013 issue of the Daily Graphic as saying at the maiden ‘Girls Camp 2013’ in Accra, that the government was ready to provide scholarship packages to brilliant, needy science students in the country.
Inasmuch as those words are very reassuring, unless they are backed by action, they will not be heart-warming to brilliant, needy girls like Bernice Datsomor who excel in science but are unable to continue their education at the university due to financial constraint.
Story: Kofi Yeboah