If you don’t have an education you don’t have a choice.
I fell in love with Africa instantly. Now I live in a fishing village called Kokrobite in Ghana, West Africa. When I first arrived here I was sitting on the beach one day, watching the fisherman haul in their catches, the women selling pineapples from baskets on their heads and the children who were playing on the sand and in the sea. There were literally hundreds of these children, even though it was term time and a school day. A friend I’d made approached me as I sat there, he was with a young boy who was bleeding from his head because another child had hit him with a rock. My friend knew I had a super duper ‘do anything bar brain surgery’ medical kit and wondered if I could help. I was happy to. I tended to his wound and then I asked the usual ‘head wound’ questions ‘how many fingers am I holding up?’ ‘what day is it?’
The child couldn’t answer them, not because of any concussion, but because at the age of 9 he had never been to school. I looked at the children on the beach. Clearly no one was going to school, and yet I’d seen a school in the village. Why weren’t these children going to school? I wanted to know. I’d done a lot of youth work and teaching in Britain and was in agreement with the above quote. But also, the only way for Africa to blossom as it should, is by empowering the young people through education to manage the changes that are taking place on this magnificent continent.
I talked to some of the children and asked them, ‘what job do you want to do when you are older?’ The boys said ‘fisherman’ the girls said ‘hairdresser’. It emerged that these boys and girls weren’t attending school for a whole host of reasons. In many cases the parents hadn’t been educated so they didn’t place any importance in it. In others, the children were more use to the family if they weren’t at school everyday, they were needed to help with looking after siblings or with earning money for the household. More often than not there was barely enough money for food let alone the school fees the government demands each day or the shoes and uniform they wear or the exercise books, pencil, rubber and ruler they need.
Slowly the Kokrobite Chiltern Centre was born. KCC is basically myself, my husband, Martial, a West African, and the various volunteers who help us throughout the year. Through the help of our amazing sponsors we currently ensure well over 100 children attend school each day. The beach is much quieter these days! Our work entails meeting all the children at 6.30am, to give them their chop money (lunch money) and purchase food. It has to be done each day and given to the children directly otherwise the parents may take it and the children not see it. We check that they are wearing shoes (shoes for feet that keep growing are a problem here for impoverished parents, often children are sent to school in an a pair of adults trainers stuffed with socks, this can be quite uncomfortable for a five year old) we check they have exercise books, a pencil, rubber, and ruler. (All our volunteers are dumbfounded how the simplest things, like paper and pens are so scarce in the schools here, quite often children will be sharing one pencil between three of them) We see them off to school, then we go and chase the children that weren’t there at 6.30am. Quite often a parent will have decided they should help them at home, or by making money, we try to explain to them the importance of education. Martial is the world’s best truant officer! A lot of our work is with the parents, supporting them and encouraging them to support their children. Then we spend a lot of time visiting the schools we send our children to, checking the pupils progress but also checking the school is functioning properly. We’ve recently helped a school build a block of toilets (very exciting!) We also place volunteers in schools to work on specific projects in order to improve the level of education offered and provide professional development opportunities for the teachers. For example, we have recently been running a series of Creative Writing and Oral Storytelling Workshops.
There is sadly an administration aspect to our work including providing reports to the Ghanaian Social Welfare and Education authorities, checking whether sponsorship money is in place and updating our website and Facebook pages, all which we somehow manage to do with daily power cuts and sporadic internet connection.
On Saturdays we welcome local children to our home. We tell them to come at 9am but from 7am they start to assemble outside our gate. We give them a hot breakfast, they have the run of our back yard and house and the use of all the toys and resources we have amassed (there isn’t a strong culture of children playing here in Ghana or an understanding of the value of play, there are no play grounds and few toys so the children love playing with one of our footballs or in the Wendy House). We lead them in games and do various activities with them. It varies from week to week but we’ve done, face painting, jewellery making, exam preparation, all sorts. At the moment it is all based outside because the term ‘Centre’ is currently a misleading one as we currently only have half the centre built – the bottom half! We’re waiting until we can raise funds to add the roof.
We also have a youth football team, The Kokrobite Chelsea Babies! The player Michael Essien is from Ghana so most of the country supports them, including my husband, their trainer!
Every year we host a now legendary Christmas party where we feed and water hordes of children (last year 431!) They all arrive in their very best clothes, we feed them jollof rice and fried chicken (a real treat here) and Tampico to drink (delicious!) we have a lucky dip where each child receives a present ( please take a moment to imagine all the wrapping!) then we have a band and dancing. It is a very special day, which the children start talking about in August!
So that’s us in nutshell. We’ve been in operation now for almost seven years. Benjamin the boy whose head I saw to that day in the beach is currently in Class 6 at school, a bright boy who I have a very, very soft spot for. This year 6 of our children are taking their B.E.C.E (Basic Education Certificate Examination), to try to get into Senior High. I am nervous for them. Up to 70% of students have to drop out of school due to lack of funds at this point even if the pass their exam. When I last asked the children what they wanted to be when they were older, one girl said a lawyer, and a boy a doctor and I have to say I had to blink back a tear.
We fund all this work ourselves, and with the help of our sponsors who pay £160 per year to cover the cost of their child’s educational needs. If you would like to sponsor a child, or donate towards the cost of the Christmas party or the football team or indeed in any way at all, we would most definitely be thrilled beyond belief or why not come out and volunteer and see it all for yourself? To those who already support our work in numerous ways including sponsorship we would like to say a big, heart felt THANK YOU!