Monday, January 5, 2009

Generation "Why?"

Young women like Elizabeth inspire me more than any rhetoric about “working ourselves out of a job” or other platitudes can.

Elizabeth is 19 years old. She’s living with her aunt and uncle, a life she says is better than it was with her parents in Volta Region. Elizabeth accompanied me throughout my stay with her family in Gbaln. I cooked with her, fetched water, swept the compound, cut guinea corn, sat up late talking with her, and slept alongside her at the end of a long day. She came to Gbaln about 6 months previous. Her parents sent her to live with her aunt and uncle because it would be easier for them to support her to finish senior secondary school (SSS) in Saboba than it would in Volta Region. She’s the only girl in Gbaln to have completed SSS so far, but she wasn’t happy with her marks so she’s going to attend another year to bring them up and grant her entrance into what she hopes will be a nursing school in Tamale.

The steep river bank that women have to climb while carrying water.

She recalled her first day in Gbaln. May was just the start of the rainy season, so the natural and hand-dug wells were still dry near the village. This meant that women had to walk 40 minutes each way to the River Oti to fetch water. The river banks are extremely steep during the dry season, and soon become slippery after the streams of women begin fetching water and clamouring up the slope with their load perched expertly on their heads. Elizabeth said she only fetched water twice that first day, and still her legs were so sore she could barely walk the next day. “How could I say anything? So I just kept to myself… all the other women did this everyday.” she told me. Although the work is harder, she says she likes it with her family in the village, and most importantly, they help her to go to school in Saboba. Each day I was there Elizabeth took the lead in preparing the meals, and serving the family: men first, then male children, followed by young women, and lastly her aunt (the matron of the home) would eat what was left from other people’s portions. She said she was happy to do this during her break from school to show her appreciation for her uncle and aunt’s generosity.

Elizabeth threshing guinea corn with her sister Wapu

“How many children do families have in Canada?” she asked me one day on our way to fetch water (thankfully from the natural well only an 8 minute walk away).

“Two” I said, “though sometimes three.”

“That’s what I’d like,” she said confidently “three, but two would be okay. If you have more than that, you’re not being fair to your children. There would be no way to pay for them all to go to school, and the girls would be the first to be told that there was no money to send them.”

“Do you have many girl friends in SSS?” I asked.

“Many of them had to stop attending; their fathers said there was no money. Most girls still stop after JSS [junior secondary school].” She paused “But if there is trouble sending a son to school the fathers will somehow find a way for them to continue. They don’t sacrifice like that for the girls; they feel they would be just sacrificing for their future in-laws to benefit.”

Elizabeth gets her hair straightened by the traveling hairdresser.

It’s such a shame, and carries such a consequence on the next generation when a girl is kept from school. The next generation starts from where their parents started, which reinforces a sort of your time will come justice, but also devastatingly reinforces the cycle of poverty that grips so many families in Ghana. I believe gender issues are at the heart of every obstacle to development, but the fact that it’s so deeply rooted in tradition and culture makes it only able to affect indirectly. Young women like Elizabeth, and the men that join them to create new norms and challenge old ideas will be the greatest pioneers of change that help countries like Ghana live up to their full potential.

These girls fetch water at least 6 times a day. They're happy because right now the well still has water so it's only an 8 minute walk away.

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