Ghana was the first black African country to gain independence, and it is still leading on a number of fronts in the region. It tops indicators of press freedom, governance, and anti-corruption efforts in West Africa and is comparable in those areas to Eastern European countries, according to country rankings by Transparency International and the World Bank’s Doing Business report. It has made substantial progress in diversifying its economy and reducing extreme poverty. Its democratic government held its fourth successful national election in 2012. Ghana is politically stable and peaceful. Its football (soccer) team, the Black Stars, has also gained international recognition and is participating in the 2010 World Cup.
[Map Graphic is by InterCordia Canada]
In terms of Ghana’s economy, the largest sectors include commodities, such as gold, cocoa, and lumber. However, it has also made strides in strengthening its financial, chemical, tourism, and manufacturing sectors. In terms of tourism, it has a reputation as being one of the friendliest countries. According to the World Bank, Ghana has a population of about 23 million people and an average annual income of approximately $700 per capita, although most of the wealth is concentrated in the South. Ghana’s capital is Accra.
Like many other countries in Africa, Ghana has remarkable ethnic diversity, including Ashanti, Ga, Fante, and Dagomba people. Christianity is the dominant religion is southern, eastern, and central Ghana, while Islam predominates in the North. English is the official language, and there are nine additional government-sponsored languages that are taught in school. By one estimate by Ethnologue there are 79 different languages in Ghana. Most city-dwellers speak more than one language, whereas many people in rural areas speak their local language and some English, the proficiency of which depends largely on the number of years they have attended school.
While Ghana’s education system boasts several excellent private schools in southern cities and there has been an increasing focus on building schools in rural areas in recent years, there are still many challenges. Curricula in public schools, which the vast majority of students attend, are still partially modeled on a colonial approach that trained students to memorize facts and perform administrative duties, but which didn’t teach them how to think critically or creatively. In addition, there is a tremendous lack of early educational facilities in rural areas, which undermines students’ abilities to do well in later grades. Teachers are also frequently under-motivated, which too often translates into high absenteeism and a lackluster quality of teaching.
Northern Ghana consists of three regions: the Northern Region, Upper East Region, and Upper West Region. It has a population of about 4 million people and covers 97,702 km². It has a savanna, or grassland, eco-system that is conducive to growing corn, rice, peanuts (groundnuts), shea nuts, and mangos. Visitors to the area are often overwhelmed by the beauty of the vast expanses of land dotted with acacia trees, as well as by the warm hospitality they receive. Northern Ghana’s economy is largely made up of agriculture, with smaller trading, international aid, small retail, and tourism sectors. The average income is less than $1 per day.
The main ethnicity is Dagomba, and the predominant language is Dagbani. The largest city in northern Ghana is Tamale, which is the capital of the Northern Region. The Ya Na, the Paramount Chief, or traditional leader of the Dagomba people, is based in a city called Yendi. Important celebrations include a fire festival called Bugum and the Islamic celebration, Eid.
[Pictures by Meet Africa Movement for Americans]
While the North is generally peaceful, over the past decade there have been periods that of unrest, primarily in Yendi. In 2002, the Ya Na was murdered, which led to temporary instability in Yendi and confrontations between different clans that aimed to succeed him as ruler. In the following years, there have been relatively localized incidents concerning land ownership and an instance in which a political youth organization used violence to demand greater influence in local government.
During colonial times, the British administered northern Ghana separately from southern Ghana. Due to the location of Ghana’s ports and most of its highest-yielding commodities in the South, Britain concentrated almost all of its infrastructure and educational investment in the South. Ghana’s first elected president, Osagyefo Dr. Kwame Nkrumah tried to change this situation by building more schools and infrastructure in the North, but this effort was derailed when he was overthrown by a coup and during the ensuing period of instability. The legacy of this underinvestment is still heavily felt in the North, although recent administrations have put some focus on constructing additional schools there.
In terms of educational indicators, the literacy rate in northern Ghana is the worst in the country, and in rural northern Ghana it stands at an abysmal 23%. Key challenges include a lack of early education, children not being able to afford school costs, unmotivated teachers, and curricula that are overly reliant on rote memorization and which do not adequately develop creative thinking or language skills.
Dalun, the village where our first school is based, is located 32 kilometers northwest of Tamale, the capital of the Northern Region. It has a population of about 3,000 people. Most adults farm, trade, sell items from small storefronts, or engage in a mix of these activities. Other local non-profit organizations include the Ghanaian Danish Community Association, which offers educational support to young adults and conference space, and the Dalun Youth Association, which provides job skills training for young people.
In terms of early education, prior to the opening of our pre-school, children had to take a bumpy, half-hour bus ride to reach the nearest adequate pre-school or kindergarten. However, those schools are typically over-subscribed, so the early educational options for young children were minimal.