More precious than football

Posted: Friday, March 28, 2008

It's Sunday evening. Darkness has fallen and a boisterous crowd has assembled around the neighbor's generator to watch the final match of the 2008 Cup of Africa Nations (hosted by Ghana) on television. Excited teens lead impromptu marching lines (of toddlers) through the village, beating soup cans and screaming victory songs. Fervor surrounding the cup has been, to grossly understate, crazed.

For weeks now, the appropriate response to any and all questions has been, "Goooooaaaaalll!" And now, at last, in the culminating end to a month of excitement Egypt and Cameroon will play for the title. The entire village has gathered to partake in the excitement.

The entire village - except Clement. Clement has been awaiting the outcome of the cup for the last six months. But he has been sitting at my candle lit table diligently factoring quadratic equations for the last hour. I have to remind him the kick off will be in five minutes.

Clement is one of several senior secondary students (equivalent to high school) I have taken to tutoring in my spare time. Though informal at first, these tutoring sessions have quickly become the most meaningful part of my day. They have proven an illuminating foray into Ghana's educational system - a journey both depressing and hopeful. Depressing because I hear stories of families who pour their life savings into a high school education only to find the money is not enough.

I hear of headmasters who embezzle funds, and boot students from class. I hear of teachers who never bother to attend their classes and use their positions of authority to intimidate and violate their students. I see textbooks that teach only process and care little about comprehension.

I enter schools attempting to teach computer skills, but are without electricity. It can be overwhelming.

But I become increasingly hopeful because in spite of these obvious obstacles there are still teachers eager to teach, parents who will sacrifice everything to educate their children and students so thirsty for a real chance to study that they forget about a soccer match they have waited months to watch. And so instead of the corruption, the inadequacies and the failures (which exist in any system), I find it relevant to focus on the students. I'd like to describe a few of these individuals.

Clement was my first pupil. He sleeps in my spare room, and takes care of my house when I travel. One day he announced, "Sister, I want to learn the quadratic formula." It's not such an entirely obscure request. Turns out Clement had been booted from class, for lack of school fees, and missed the unit on quadratics while he scraped together enough money (30 dollars a term, a financial impossibility for many) to be readmitted. One look through his book was enough to realize that even had he been present for the class time, his comprehension might still be lacking.

So we began nightly review sessions and have worked our way to quadratics. When we finish the sessions, Clement pours over the world map I have on my wall. He wants to be a geographer, to make maps himself. He had never seen a world map until this year.

Juliana and Mavis are equally inspiring. They are sisters who wish to retake their exit exams. Juliana wants higher marks so that she might go on for higher education, if she finds the money. Mavis's scores were canceled because the year she took her exams there was too much cheating. Therefore, to validate her three years of Senior Secondary School, she must pay to take the exam again. We study computer skills, grammar, essay writing and math.

Their father, Master Effah, a remarkable man, permits them to stay home from the farm in order to study. After each lesson, he gives me bushels of oranges - overjoyed to see his daughters turning on and off a computer, a skill he never acquired. He insists I use his electricity (his house is the only one in the area with electricity) to teach others as well. On the weekends, he himself is beginning to learn computer skills because he has heard of a program called Microsoft Excel that enables one to do book keeping with less difficulty.

Finally I wish to talk about Angelina, one of my closest friends in the village. We study anything and everything. When Angelina heard I studied Classical Greek in college, she too decided to learn Classical Greek. Her reasoning? "I want to learn whatever I can be taught." While we haven't gotten to Greek... we have gone back to review her lessons from Senior Secondary school. The fact that Angelina has graduated, and passed her exit examinations, is of no concern to her.

She tells me, "I want to know what I am doing, not just how to do it." I share these stories because they remind me to value my own education in ways I never thought to value it before.

In my four years at Juneau-Douglas High School, I was privileged to receive an education I neither sought out nor paid for. My teachers showed up to teach and taught me not to memorize but to conceptualize and understand. The district provided textbooks, computer labs, college fairs and career resources - maintained an entire system dedicated to my success as a student. And that system, that system invested in my future because it was designed to believe in my human potential.

I will be forever grateful for my education, and if it is any tribute, as I watch my pupils study away I am filled with the desire to delve again into calculus and physics, to learn Spanish, French, German and Latin. I am inspired to audit history courses and attend lectures on economics. What a gift, to know education will always be at my fingertips.

• Sophia Polasky, of Juneau, is a Peace Corps volunteer in Ghana, West Africa. She can be reached at

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