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EASE Supports Education of Students in Ghana

By Arthur Musah

Expediting Access to Standard Education (EASE) is an MIT student group that raises money to pay for the basic education of underprivileged children in Africa. After just one year in existence, the group is making a big difference in the lives of 25 children in Cape Coast, Ghana. Every ninety dollars EASE raises pays for three years of school fees and books for one child, making it possible for him or her to stay in school.

As part of an IAP Public Service Fellowship sponsored by the MIT Public Service Center, I had the opportunity to help lay the foundation for expanding the program into a second town in Ghana called Sunyani. I visited the volunteers (the Board of Trustees) who implement the EASE sponsorship program in Cape Coast and the children who benefit from the sponsorship.

Trustees run EASE in Cape Coast

Three trustees work on the EASE project in Cape Coast: Mrs. Sally Honny, Mr. Joseph Sam and Mrs. Mintah Nyarko. The EASE trustees work on the project on a completely volunteer basis. During my visit, I learned how these trustees ran EASE activities during the past year. First, the head teachers of six schools nominated children from their schools to be considered for EASE sponsorship based on the children’s histories of inability to pay school fees. The trustees then conducted interviews with each of the sixty children nominated to get a sense of what their lives were like and to assess their levels of need. Twenty-five children were finally selected to benefit from EASE support.

In its nascent stage EASE is tasking itself mostly with raising money to pay the school fees of underprivileged children. The communities that EASE serves appreciate the sacrifices that the three trustees have had to make to get the project off the ground.

EASE makes its mark on children’s lives

Over the course of two days, the trustees accompanied me on visits to interact with the EASE children in St. Michael’s Girls, St. Monica’s Girls, Mensah Sarbah, Jubilee, Christ Church and Antem Schools. The glimpses I saw of the children’s lives were deeply moving.

Emmanuel is one of the four children from Antem sponsored by EASE. He is the best student in his class and wants to be a doctor when he grows up. Emmanuel lives with his grandmother, who has a hard time providing all of her grandson’s needs with the meager earnings from her trading job. Sometimes, Emmanuel and his grandmother have to forego supper to save money. Thanks to EASE funding, which guarantees that Emmanuel can stay in school through Junior Secondary (equivalent to middle school in the United States), the young boy’s dream of becoming a doctor is that much closer to becoming a reality.

Mensah Sarbah School has three children benefiting from EASE support: Francis, Dina and Philip. The school is a practical two-story building from colonial times like most of the buildings in the center of Cape Coast. It stands on a grassless hill with an air of simple dignity despite its shabbiness. The exposed hillside is severely eroded. We climb up to the school and find Miss Cecilia Otoo, a teacher who helps coordinate the EASE program in the school. She tells us that the class we are looking for is gone to Regional Educational Unit’s Resource Centre for the day. The Centre is the only place that has the equipment the school needs to teach the required Technical Skills course. In this course, the students learn carpentry, bricklaying, and technical drawing. Once a week, they get to use the facilities at the Centre.

Dina gets by on 6 cents a day

When we get to the resource center we only find Dina and Francis. Dina tells us that Philip is at home because he fell sick with a tummy ache. Dina wears a yellow and brown dress, like the other children around, except it is evident that hers has been mended too many times and sags with wear. She is timid and speaks very softly when I talk to her so that it is almost impossible to hear her. I repeat my question in Twi, a language that is very similar to the native Fante of Cape Coast, thinking that perhaps I was not clear enough in English. At the same time, I lean down to hear her better and she tells me in concise English that she lives with her sister and mother. She and her sister, who is a year ahead of her in the same school, have to share 1000 cedis (approximately equivalent to 12 cents) a day for food because it is all her mother can afford.

Dina’s portion of that money, 500 cedis, is not sufficient to buy even a good size Fante kenkey (the most common of staple foods in the area), much less some kyenam (fried fish) to go with it to provide a little protein in her diet. As Mrs. Honny puts it, how can you study hard on an empty stomach? Mrs. Honny is touched by Dina’s predicament and pledges to pay a tailor near her pharmacy to make a new school dress for Dina. “A good dress will give her confidence,” she says. She also promises to give Dina 1000 cedis each school day from then on to enable Dina afford some fish to make her diet more balanced.

Francis has his arms held respectfully behind his back all the time while we talk to him. He expresses his gratitude for the help he is receiving and asks for God’s blessing for the people working on EASE. He does all this in bold English and the timidity of his voice does not tame the sincerity of his words. It is hard not to admire the strong spirit that drives these children on through the hardships of their lives.

Learning resources scant in local schools

At St. Michael’s Girls School, we meet seven girls who are receiving EASE aid. Three of them are in the first year of Junior Secondary School. The other four, and one more girl who is absent from school that day, are in the second year. These girls are livelier and more cheerful. They are also more forward with answers and have questions of their own. Gloria is one of the second year students and has the responsibility of running the school library.

She leads me to a large wooden cabinet covering most of one wall in the room. It has a number of doors with padlocks. She opens the rightmost door in the bottom row and shows me a space that is no more than a cubic meter in volume. This space holds fewer than a hundred reading books neatly arranged on two shelves. This is the school library.

Gloria keeps records of books borrowed by her schoolmates and makes sure that each book that goes out of the library is brought back. She is proud of this responsibility and the headmistress of the school testifies that she executes it dutifully.

Community grateful for EASE support

The girls at St. Michael’s, too, say warm thank-yous for EASE support. The poster on their head teacher’s office door depicts the government’s FCUBE (Free Compulsory Universal Basic Education) program in bright colors. While this is a laudable goal, the present reality for these girls is that fees have to be paid so they can stay in school, and EASE support is one prayer answered.

St. Monica’s Girls’ School is housed in another colonial building, this one with a relatively recent coat of white paint on its walls. The school is located within a walled compound that protects the children from the danger of accidents on the road that runs in front of it. Of the six schools where EASE operates, S.t Monica’s is the only one with a dedicated room for a library. We find Abigail, another EASE-sponsored student, in the school library engrossed in a book. Abigail is not the best student at all her subjects, but all the time she spends in the library helps her in English -- she is among the top five girls in her class when it comes to English. But even where there is a desire to learn, there must also be tools to teach before results can be achieved.

Just the beginning for EASE

In its second year, EASE plans to expand its program to help schools like St. Monica’s and St. Michael’s stock their libraries with books donated in the United States. By supplying educational materials to schools, EASE will be going the next mile in helping to educate children like Gloria and Abigail. Having recruited a new set of volunteers to work on the project in Sunyani, EASE will also start sponsoring children in this second town in September 2003.

EASE has been able to reach 25 children who are among those that most urgently need the kind of help EASE offers. The positive impact of this first year of work is spurring everyone on the EASE team -- donors, volunteers at MIT and in Ghana, and all the people who support the project in diverse ways -- to work harder to help even more children gain access to standard education.

Arthur Musah is a co-founder of EASE. More information about Ease can be found at http://web.mit.edu/ease/www.