Opinions of Wed, 8 Nov 20176

My secondary school struggle and Free SHS now

I have been known first, throughout my primary school in the Central Region, (The village of Odonase) in the Abura Asebu Kwamankese district as Samuel Acquah. Today, I am known by others as Obrempong Yaw Ampofo. My schoolmates George Baffoe, and later Edmond Baidoe were the big brains I had to work hard to beat in class.

I was selling Fante Kenkey every weekday at the district capital Abura Dunkwa, before returning to the village for school. This means, I had to wake up at 5:00am, sweep, bath, set off to sell the Kenkey, and then return to school before 7:30am.

Whenever I was late for school, the teachers understood. I remember in class four, when a newly posted teacher lashed me for being late for school. Sadly, the teacher wept with me and said sorry many times when she realized I had to sell daily before school.

After school, we had to join mother in the farm, who had by then finished selling some Kenkey at home. It’s a daily routine; and it was a 10-25km distance to the farm to weed and to help bring foodstuff home.

I completed Junior High School in 2002, after writing the BECE twice, following the leakage of the 2002 BECE (even though it was those in the cities who were benefiting from the leakage). My Mother, after struggling to take care of us (six in number) through cassava farming and selling Fante Kenkey, encouraged us to join our father who had married another woman in Kumasi to continue our education.

I and my elder brother George Acquah, completed the 2002 BECE in the same year at school at Odonase D/A JHS. We then headed for Kumasi with great expectations in October 2002. But it was the beginning of a rather sad start to life.

To our surprise, my grade 28 (and 32 for my brother), even though was the best throughout the history of our village school at the time, was no competitor in the schools in the Ashanti Region. Truly, we were no match for our fellow graduates in the city in terms of education.

The obvious challenge surfaced; bad grades, so no school for you in the city. Our father, who has been staying in Kotei, some 4 kilometres from KNUST in the Oforikrom constituency, sent me to the Kumasi High School at Gyinyase to seek for admission. But I could not gain admission into Kumasi High School for obvious reasons.

There was the afternoon session at Kumasi Senior High School which had just been introduced. [It was a way to accommodate the large number of students who graduated that year]. Bingo! I was in there with over 500 other students (of my kind, some even with better grades but were with me there) in this category studying business.

My brother had to better his grades at the Kotei RC in the next two years. Father, who thought what he, had done for me what Napoleon couldn’t do, left everything to us. No pocket money, no transportation to school, absolutely nothing from his end. Here came the opportunity.

Construction works were at its peak in Kotei which required people with active energy. Even though I was 15 years then, I had no choice but to see it as the manna God was sending down to me. My brother will go to school in the morning daily, but mine started daily at 3:00pm. That was the opportunity window!

I will go and search for construction sites early in the morning which required labourers. As many caring foremen and contractors were denying me work on the grounds of my age, others after listening to my explanations, offered me work, but were not going to entertain me leaving for school when its 1:00pm with full pay for the day.

Saturdays, and at times Sundays, were days for serious search for construction sites for myself and my brother. That was our source of livelihood for over two years whilst I continued schooling.

Sadly before I realized, our number in the afternoon school had reduced to some 40 students or a little over that. Majority of students had stopped on the grounds that, that wasn’t the kind of secondary school education they envisaged or wanted.

Many also became frustrated when we had to be moved from the Kumasi High School premises to two different primary schools (Osei Tutu International School and Mother Smith) all at Gyinyase on the grounds that our school someway somehow had become illegal.

Others, including myself also owed school fees of Ghc74 for two terms. The situation degenerated when teachers also started skipping classes. I was confused!

Back at home, the landlord’s daughter was returning from the United and we had to evacuate the uncompleted building which had hosted us for nearly three years. Jeez! What do we do? I said to my brother when he announced the eviction notice to me whilst I was returning from Madam Patricia’s Business Management class.

We had at this point tried to live without our father for some years. We were teenagers doing our own thing whilst he was also living with his wife and two daughters just a fence away from our home.

It was difficult for us to return to him in view of previous treatment from him. We had at some point given him our GH80 we had gotten from construction works for him to get back his lost driving license. But he returned to us that the money got missing on his way to the license office.

We were totally confused and I particularly was considering returning to our village in the Central Region. But someone who was going to shape my future was about to show himself to me.

In all these, we kept sending messages through people to be passed on to our mother back in the Central Region. Unfortunately, throughout our two to three years in Kumasi, mother got only two out of the over 10 messages sent through eight different persons.

She did not respond to our first call, which was about the treatment meted out to us. According to her, these were experiences of city life for first-timers like us. She however paid a visit upon the second message from the same messenger. As expected of a mother, she expressed shocked over the development, and encouraged us to stay focused.

In fact, it was during her visit that she encouraged us to give the GH80 to our dad on the grounds that if he got back his license, at least things will improve. Sadly, that did not happen! As it had been the trend, when the news of our exit from the house was given to the messenger, the message did not get to our mother when we needed her advice the most.

We waited for over four days amidst anxiety. Without hearing from mother, I decided not to use the next day’s transportation for school, but to walk to school whilst we waited to hear from her. That was to prepare, such that in the event she asks us to get back to the village, there will be some monies on us.

Whilst walking that afternoon, I saw a colleague afternoon student walking from a distance ahead of me. Ben Kofi happened to be the son of Kumasi High School’s main gate security guard. I walked faster to join him. After a quick chat on the developments in our school, he counselled that I leave all the home related issues to my brother, pick a few things, and perch with fellow Kumasi High School students who were at Peace Hostel near “To Be Guest House” at Gyinyase.

The challenge wasn’t me moving to join them, but that I didn’t know the students there. After the Economics class (which was the only class we had for the day), I used the rest of the day to test the waters at the hostel. I met Ernest Bombokuli, a second year General Art’s student from northern Ghana.

I asked how things are done, and who runs the hostel. He introduced me to Bro Yaw, a nephew of the owner of the hostel, real name, Nana Yaw Sarpong Kumankuma. He asked that I pay GH20 cedis monthly instead of the GH30 others were paying after listening to my story. I accepted it and discussed it later with my brother.

He also agreed I moved to the hostel whilst he also moves out with the remaining items to perch with Obed Amoako, Michael Dankwa or Michael Adu who were his classmates at Kotei RC Primary.

Eventually, Michael Adu’s parents at Kotei accepted to accommodate him till the remaining one year before he completes JHS. I also went to stay in the hostel at Gyinyase. This presented a whole set of troubles for me.

At Gyinyase, there were no construction works that I could do before school in the afternoon. I had to resort to eating from the Kumasi Senior High dining. Unfortunately, and unknown to me, the tables at the dining hall were assigned to specific students, and each student knew who made up the tables.

Young Obrempong Yaw Ampofo working at a construction site

You get to any table and it’s like, “are you a new comer or something?” I remember when the dining hall prefect hit me with a ladle and asked me to stand in front of the student crowd for eating from the dining hall when I was not a student of the school.

He nearly reported me to the school’s authorities. This he wanted to do eagerly because other students testified that I have been eating from the hall for a while. But thanks to one of the women who worked at the Kitchen who came to my rescue. She in fact saved me.

It didn’t end there. She became my friend who was feeding me through the back door in the mornings and evenings. She was now my God-sent manna from heaven. By this, I was sorted out in terms of food. It was a great relief!

At the hostel, I met friends like, Ernest Opoku Fofie, Black Cat, Frederick Awuni, Elvis (who I met in Takoradi working for Google Ghana a year earlier), Gardener, Stone Gee, Osei Tutu (who was known for preparing fake terminal reports to students with stamps and head teacher’s signature) and others.

Bro Yaw, the hostel manager, became my friend even though he was way older than me. Soon I was playing football with them behind the hostel in the evenings.

School fees wahala

At the hostel, garbage was kept on the way to the bathhouse in an uncompleted block. It used to spread so much outside the uncompleted block that, from the bathroom, you would have to walk through the filth before entering your room. It was a normal and common phenomenon.

I came to meet it there. But on one Sunday morning, somewhere in June 2004, I decided to tidy up the place. I cleared the weeds, collected the waste with a packed old wheelbarrow and burnt it outside the hostel.

Many of the students were surprised and so was Bro Yaw and Otumfo (a teacher who was also staying in the hostel). On Tuesday, the owner of the hostel, Nana Sarpong Kumankuma who I later learnt was the bursar at Nkawkaw Secondary School in the Eastern Region had returned to the hostel. In my absence, he had expressed shock at the development.

He had apparently requested that I see him when I return to the hostel. To my surprise, he had ordered Bro Yaw to ask me to vacate the hostel to his apartment which was in the same compound. Heaven has listened to my inner wailings!

Shockingly on the other hand, our school which started with over 500 students had reduced to 20 or less. In their bid to ensure teachers are paid to come to class regularly, the remaining students were constantly sacked for school fees.

That included me. My fee for three terms was hovering around GH89. At this stage, it was evident I could not pay because I was not working. In the area of food and accommodation, there were no problems, but I could not also pay my fees.

Finally, I was sacked by Madam Pat, who has been a friend to me all this while. I was grounded by the frustrations on her face because she knew I was not going to get it. I went home with so much pain. I revisited my immediate past which was somehow fading away. That night I wailed! I wept so much that Bro Yaw had to ask other students what was wrong with me.

I informed my brother of the issue. Instead of looking for the school fees, he suggested I stopped the school because he could see the school was going to collapse. That meant I had to go for my items at the hostel and head for the village whilst he also finishes his JHS to join me later.

When I went, Bro Yaw who had a Siemens mobile phone back then, had informed Nana Sarpong, the hostel owner of my situation. He had suggested that I move to continue my education with him at Nkawkaw. Come and see! Excitement bi what! But wait, on one condition.

“You would have to pay your admission fees. I will give you accommodation and food.” Sosket! It’s the same situation I was running away from!

I told Bro Yaw that I could not pay the GH96.00 admission fees he was talking about. He called Nana Sarpong Kumankuma right in front of me to inform him of what I have said.

Nana Sarpong, who was speaking through the phone’s loudspeaker, then asked, and I quote:

Nana: “I am building a primary school at Atwima Koforidua. It is not far from Abuakwa. I need about 4,000 blocks. I heard you were doing construction. Can you make the 4,000 blocks so you use GH96 from the GH100 that you will get to pay for your admission fees at Nkawkaw Secondary? You can look for support from anybody who can help you make the blocks. Can you do it? Me: I have not made blocks before but I will try. Nana: Good! If you get support, you can do this in two weeks. Me: Okay.

Nana: Yaw, arrange for him so he will move to Koforidua to start. Yaw: Okay Nana.”

With that conversation, I was neither happy nor sad. I did not pick my items at all. I went back to Kotei to tell my brother about it. He suggested we inform Dad so he could accompany me to make the blocks.

After I chronicled all that he has done to us, my dad agreed to go with me to Atwima Koforidua. This was somewhere in September 2004 when schools had reopened. Had our school been active, I would have been in form three.

Somewhere September 18 2004, Dad and I left for Atwima Koforidua. But what happened after a day’s work was something else.

Dad left the very day he came, against the initial two weeks plan. We were able to make 400 blocks that day. This work was particularly tiring, because the sand for the blocks was not bought from the trucks, but from digging portions of the land on which the school was going to be built, near a waterlogged site.

First, I had to clear the weeds, gather it at the fringes of the site, and then start digging. I will then remove all roots and apply cement. Water was not provided, so I had to carry it from the stream nearby.

So Dad left to check up on home issues; at least, that is what he told me, on day one. The remaining 13 days were like a blockbuster movie. God certainly intervened. But the body weakness and inhaling cement particles certainly was going to have a toll on me.

I was down for 6 days amidst coughing! Nana Sarpong was impressed with my one man show when he visited! 4,000, five inches blocks spread around. He asked that I move to Nkawkaw immediately because school had reopened and lessons had begun! My admission totalled Gh 96, and so I was left with Gh 4 for pocket money and a few items. My former school apparently collapsed.

It’s now Nkawkaw secondary school! Great Kawsec was welcoming. I met new set of friends. The arrangement here was that, Nana was going to provide me accommodation at his bungalow with three other students; Appiah, Maame Yaa and Rosina. School fees from second year term two till I complete, was to be paid by my parents. It was a bitter sweet sort of experience.

It wasn’t easy. Mother was simply not in a position to add my fees to the remaining three children who were at different stages in school. It was Dad who could have done some magic.People, my story was heartbreakingly complicated when Nana Sarpong kicked the bucket after a short illness! Man never was!! Wow!!! At this time? Jeez! Well, the struggle of man begins at birth, I said to myself!

Nana’s death opened the floodgates to my troubles. I had been with him for over a year without paying my school fees. He was always defending me, knowing my story at the school’s administration. Since he was no more, his absence meant no food, no accommodation, and no support whatsoever.

It was school fees pay time! I knew no one at Nkawkaw, except my classmates. My father will ask me to travel from Nkawkaw to Kumasi only to be given Gh 1.50p, the very TNT at the time from Kumasi to Nkawkaw. It was completely useless! What followed is the reason I like free SHS! I was sacked many times from class.

I cannot count the number of times I had to hide under the desk and be covered by a student whenever the assistant headmaster of academics came asking for me for school fees. Those my mates at the gate to our class were my eyes and ears. They will quickly signal that Assist 2 was coming so I could hide. After successfully hiding, some will lie I was either absent for school or out of class at the time.

I was unlucky one of the regular days when Assist 2 saw me hiding through the thin opening at the door. I was late and he was smatter. Come and see beatings. Hmmmm.

That was after I had managed to go through the registration for the first time WASSCE in 2006.

During the introduction of WASSCE, school heads were asked not to sack students who owed. But then, the new trick was to seize my exams papers for over 30 minutes immediately we were asked to start work, and be given to me afterwards. It wasn’t only me, some students were part.

I also resorted to borrowing food from the canteen and “parasiting” some classmates. It was the usual thing.

To shorten a long story, I still, I mean today, owe school fees at Nkawkaw secondary. That’s a fact! Maybe it’s now a bad debt as I was taught by our accounting teacher.

I am not writing my story to score any cheap point or court sympathy, but to echo the sentiments of several thousands of people who have similar or more disturbing stories like me.

When I heard and saw the implementation of the Free SHS policy this September, I said to myself that, aaaww, if there was free SHS back then, maybe I wouldn’t have had to suffer this much for secondary education.

Let’s support free SHS, for we have no idea the many burdens that will be lifted if this policy is implemented and sustained.

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