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Opinions of Sunday, 30 August 2020

Columnist: Dr Justice Boakye Appiah

How SHS boarding system is fighting ethnicity and bigotry in Ghana

So ....! Since the registration is over and tensions have died down, let’s take advantage of the temporary ceasefire to have a friendly laugh before the stoking resumes when elections are nearer.

I am a staunch believer in the boarding house system. I am convinced it was the best policy initiated with regards to our education system before Free SHS. We may not have recognized it but the secondary school boarding system has been one major mediation factor in the fragile peace and stability we enjoy in this country.

It has played a bigger role in fighting ethnicity and tribal bigotry than any other institution you could name. Its influence and positives have gone far past the acquisition of academic knowledge. It has built bridges, taught young humans how to live peaceably and transformed shielded teenagers into open minded and independent thinking citizens of the world. For a heterogeneous society as ours, the idea of bringing teenagers of various backgrounds and upbringings at their most malleable stage of life to live together, learn from one another, build lifelong friendships and learn to independently manage their affairs could only have been divinely inspired. Nigeria has fought the Biafran war which was purely tribal. Cote D’Ivoire fought its version recently. Underlying the Liberian and Sierra Leonian wars were tribal tensions and intonations. Burkina Faso is still going through turmoil and buried deep under the openly discussed cause is tribalism. We have been lucky as a country to have enjoyed so much peace thus far and I’m very convinced that as meagre as its role may sound to you, the boarding house system must be accorded a lot of credit for this.

The history of boarding school in Ghana suggests that the concept was originally thought of to solve the problem of access. That, in view of the number of secondary schools available at the time, bright young ones scouted from all around the nation could only have accessed education if they were housed and fed within the confines of the few schools in the country. It was not long after when the missionaries realized that this was not only a means by which the colonialists could obtain cheap brainwashed labour but that they (the church) could also effectively take advantage of the situation to spread religion. History gives the American example of “Killing the Indian and saving the man”.

When European settlers moved to the New world and intended to physically kill the native Indian tribes to steal their lands, they came to the realization that apart from being totally needless and inhumane, it was practically impossible to have rendered these Indians extinct that way. So they adopted the clever concept of abducting Indian children from their homes and placing them in boarding schools where they were re-educated and de-culturised. So by the time the teenagers returned home, they had literally lost their Indian values and become in no mean ways, European in thought. Hence the term “killing the Indian, saving the man”. Don’t worry, we’ll get to the story for today. Just a little more background.

Post-independence, the framers of our Educational structure did us a lot of good in maintaining the boarding school system and encouraging teenagers to travel to other parts of the country to meet other teenagers from places they may never have heard of. Not only did it expand our horizon of the country we live in but it also served as an avenue to shed of most of the silly stereotypes and preconceived notions young ones may have been fed from their own close minded nuclear upbringing setting.

Depending on where you grew up, you must have been surprised to have gone to boarding school to meet the Fanti man Richmond Godwyll who did all he did with all forms of serious and dedication to duty and never shared a joke or made anyone laugh. Not even once caught passing bad air in public and worse of all, being vegetarian and hating cheese. What a fake Fanti man! What of a man like my friend Haleed who had travelled all the way down south from up north in the thick and thin of conflict and never once got into an argument with anyone but would simply walk away when any disagreements came up? Those were the days of the Yaa-Na killing and the Bukpurungu Bimmoba-Konkomba unrests. Then the Ashanti man Kwasi Nuamah, born and bred in the heart of Kumasi yet as meek, respectful and ineloquent as Agya Attah. Where is this guy really from? You would have doubted his origins if you met Murphy Nana Kwame Sabi the Bono man born and bred in Berekum yet so loud, extroverted and many light years away from timidity. “Eye-thorn” guy (Translate into Twi). From the stables of our landlords, the Ga envoy Julius Leslie Quarshie may have shocked you. Expected to have been loud, verbally abusive, aggressive and financially unsavvy, you would have been disappointed to meet this guy. Wait, that’s actually a lie. He perfectly fitted the stereotype. You are shocked I haven’t mentioned the main Efos right? Don’t worry, the short story is about one.

Our dormitory was initially occupied by 33 form 1 boys. Of these, about half of us were Accra boys who though belonged to different tribes, had some common values by virtue of the cosmopolitan Accra environment we had grown up in. It wasn’t too easy to distinguish between us tribally. But I must be honest to acknowledge that it was quite easy to tell Accra boys from those from other parts of the country. We had boys from Tamale, from Kumasi, from Berekum, from Sunyani, from Tarkwa, from Kade, from Koforidua, from Sefwi... Literally from all parts of the country.

The most distinct individual was however a young envoy (Envoy because he represented his people) from Anlo Afiadanyigba in the Volta region. I’ll call him Efo for the purpose of this conversation. I don’t know how stories spread so uniformly in Ghana but whoever was behind stories like Madam Moke, the Ghana Indian football match, Kofi Nkrabea and the popular stories around may have been the same person to have spread the rumour that every Ewe has juju. Hehehe.

As funny as it is, there were other ewe boys like Sirlorm Glah who had come from morning star in Accra but no one thought he had juju. He wasn’t the true Ewe rep for us. Accra had wrongly socialized him. All eyes uniformly looked at Efo with some fear and paranoia. Having grown up in the Volta region and with this being his first travel out of the place, he must definitely have some juju. At least so we thought and feared. So no one messed with him. He also noticed our fear and cunningly decided to take advantage of the situation. We had the habit of stealing food from one another. It was a game we played but no one ever stole Efo’s food. You could not dare wash your fresh uniform and leave it hanging without standing by to watch. It would be gone within a minute. Efo left his shirt many times and no one dared steal it. He was the only one who could lay his bed, place his slippers in the open, go home for the weekend and return to meet his laid bed still smooth and his slippers untouched. I still don’t know what his Shito tasted like. He ate alone. Who did not fear? Hahahahaha... Stupid us!

To impart more fear, he would threaten us by claiming he was going to report offenders to his grandfather in his hometown. And a few times when he was in the mood, engaged us with conversations about the shrines in his hometown. Ah! S33 na it was all fraud!!!!

We used to have some black cats in the house and these cats entered our dormitories late at night to walk about. Rumours were rife that these cats were evil and came to spy on us at night. In fact, one of the boys whispered to me that they may be Efo’s bodyguards sent to accompany him from the Volta region. On one of our daily evening prayer sessions, we decided to pray and cast these black demons out... Oh that prayer was intense. Went on for hours! People were seeing visions. Revelations and prophecies all over.... My eyes were so tightly shut all through the prayer. Charlie, I didn’t want to see anything that would give me nightmares so I just prayed with my eyes shut. But after a few hours, my ocular muscles must have been exhausted and needed some rest so I squinted my eyes open just for a few seconds. Ei! Is that Efo I see binding demons so aggressively? Huh... I nudged one of the leaders to look at Efo in the corner praying gidigidi. “Eiiiii... they are launching a counter attack to our prayers oooh... Pray harder pray harder pray harder! Pray harder! “he shouted. Of course the others did not know what we had seen but he was directly referring to Efo. It wasn’t a spiritual counter attack; this could be physically seen.

Then the shock came. Efo walked to the middle of the circle with his Bible. We all looked on suspiciously. I’m sure some were surprised to even learn he had a Bible. He read some Bible passages and told us what he had seen spiritually and encouraged us to pray more

What? So Efo be christian?

He must have regretted opening up that night because that was the beginning of the collapse of the feared walls of Jericho he had built around himself. Now, “he had become as us”. The boys abused him like we all did to one another. Related to him as we related to everyone else and had no fear of him. Sadly, he was a smallish looking guy and quite feeble so even juniors had no fear of him. In final year, I walked into an argument between he and one other guy and was called to mediate as the matter almost ended in fisticuffs. When the issue had been settled and we were all back to laughing moments, I asked the guy who fought Efo, “Ei massa ! Efo paa wey you people no dey fear am again so ? Efo wey you dey diss am dey threaten am so? Efo wey you dey tell am say you then am go fight? You no dey fear for your life?”

And he responded laughing out loud “Hoh! Forget Efo ! Efo no get anything! He no get any medicine. Para sef he no get.... “

I would later find out that Efo’s father was not even a traditionalist. He was a Christian lecturer with a PhD in chemistry. But it was through this envoy Efo that all these otherwise indoctrinated boys learned to unlearn our silly stereotypes. He had dismantled some ceilings which many years from then, still remain viable points of entries to be used by people of all tribes into our lives: That we know that all men bleed red and piss salt. That all men are created equal before God and each man is to be evaluated on the merits and demerits of his/her own character and never to be bundled into collective stereotyping.

I think with the full implementation of free SHS, the next step we should be considering is an attempt to convert all secondary schools into boarding schools with special exceptions for the few students who for very compelling reasons cannot be in the boarding house. Schools should only be allowed to admit a few students from their local districts and students be encouraged to travel to other regions to meet different people. For a society as heterogeneous as ours, this is one big way to manage the ethnic tensions we face. Forging national cohesion should be an active process we deliberately pursue. Since the day God dispersed men united in purpose with different languages, the natural order has been entropy.

Living peaceably together can only be achieved through conscious efforts and the boarding school system presents such an opportunity.
Warning: If you dare mention Efo’s real name here, you’ll hear from his native lawyers!

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