Mohammed started following me the moment I stepped off the bus in northern Ghana.
That was hardly unusual; bus stations in Africa are prime locations for hawkers, hustlers and beggars of every stripe to converge on passengers, foreign and domestic, because a) they’ve got money, at least enough to travel, and b) there’s a good chance they’ll need some kind of service, be it food, lodging or further transportation.
As I hoisted my backpack, waving offers away, Mohammed didn’t take the hint. He tried striking up a conversation and I tried ignoring him as I looked around for the ticket wicket to buy the next bus ride.
Eventually I told him where I wanted to go and he guided me to the office and then to a nearby hotel. I tried tipping him, to make him go away, but he hung around the lobby, faithful as a puppy, until I went to find food.
Fine, I thought, I’ll feed this kid. He’d said he was 15 years old.
Rather than take a free meal, which few Africans who hang around bus stations would turn down, Mohammed asked if I’d give him the cash I was planning to spend on his food so that he could buy books and pay for exam fees, because he wanted to go back to school.
His mother had recently died and his father could no longer afford to send him to senior secondary, or high school, he said.
Education is not free to the public in Africa. It’s not free in Ghana, which is a model of political and economic prosperity in West Africa, because World Bank policies of cost-recovery for loans granted to African nations in the 1980s and 1990s still require user fees for schools.
“Even where governments introduce the abolition of fees, there always seems to be some compromising twist in the formula, so that the abolition is never fully complete,” said Stephen Lewis, former special envoy for the United Nations Secretary-General for HIV/AIDS in Africa, in his 2005 book Race Against Time.
“Either books or uniforms are excluded (and they can be costly), or the individual schools tack on ‘registration fees’ or ‘examination fees’ or ‘parent-teacher fees,’ which make attendance for many children impossible,” Lewis said.
He estimated that 44 million children in Africa are denied access to education, despite guarantees written in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
“From UNESCO to UNICEF to the World Bank, it is agreed that universal primary education is the ultimate vector of human progress.”
In Ghana, user fees have been abolished for the first 11 years of school, although parents still pay for uniforms, books and admission, said Elijah Sarfo, a kindergarten teacher.
They pay between $100 and $160 for a four-month term of senior secondary school, he said — not a small amount, considering lower-income Ghanaians live on less than $50 a month.
But parents can afford to pay, said Sarfo. It’s a question of priorities.
Funerals are a big deal in Ghana, and parents who attend them “are buying funeral wear, they are paying money for that,” he said.
“If you think about your child’s future, you have to pay.”
But Sarfo would still like to see user fees gone.
Ghana is making further reforms, although they won’t make things less expensive for parents.
Starting in September, high school students will go to school for four years instead of three.
“Our ability to become and stay competitive as a nation is inextricably linked to our ability to ensure that our educational systems are the best we can afford,” Education Minister Papa Owusu Ankomah announced last week.
President John Kufuor expects the reforms to boost the national literacy rate, currently around 50 per cent, to 100 per cent by 2015, he said.
That will be too late for Mohammed, who will probably still be lurking at the Tamale bus station in September, unless he meets enough sympathetic foreigners.
I have no way of knowing how he spent the $8 I gave him. He said he would mail me the receipts from the books, but I haven’t seen them yet.
Maybe Mohammed was a hustler, but I don’t think so. When people badger you to give them something on an almost-daily basis in a foreign country, you hone a sense of who’s telling the truth and who isn’t.
Mohammed was legit, I’d bet… $8 on it. If he was lying, then I — like African kids, the governments that represent them and the World Bank that finances their future — have a lot to learn.
Former Yukon News reporter Graeme McElheran is currently living and writing in Ghana.