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Opinions of Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Columnist: Ato Kwamena Dadzie/Daily Dispatch

THE OUTSIDER: Death at Adisadel

As a child I attended a Methodist School and I loved it. We learnt a new hymn every week. Even though my music teacher couldn’t make up his mind whether I should sing alto or treble, I had a perfectly good time every Wednesday when we were all crammed into a large hall to learn to sing some more notes from the Methodist Hymn Book. I am not a Methodist per se but I can sing almost every hymn in the MHB.

The singing aside, I also remember that I enjoyed life at Essikado Bethany Methodist Primary because we seemed to enjoy more holidays than the kids in the other schools. On John Wesley Day, we’d only go to church to be told the history of ‘Methodism’ and then we’d take the rest of the day off. I am a bit fuzzy on the details now, but I remember there were other times when we could just take it easy because something was happening in church. If an elder of the church died and we knew there was going to be funeral service on Friday, we could decide not to go to school. The teachers would understand. It was fun.

When the time came for me to move on to the secondary school, I had only one school in mind: St. John’s School – an all-boys school run by the Catholics. Apart from Wesley Girls’ no other school appealed to me. I was warned that I’d have to take in a little bit of Catholicism if I chose to go to St. John’s. After weighing all my options, I decided that I’d rather be a Catholic for few years than miss out on the opportunity to go to my dream school.

At St. John’s, we had to go to church every Sunday. Truth be told, I didn’t enjoy the services as much as I did in the Methodist Church. The Catholic services are a bit too solemn for me but the Methodists are quite feisty. At St. John’s I was shocked (and quite disappointed, really) when I was told that only Catholics can contest for the high office of school prefect. I was gunning for that position. So you can imagine my disappointment. But I decided that I will try to be as Catholic as I could be – and that meant attending church as often as possible. Luckily for me though, there was a power vacuum in the school for a few weeks and I was brought in as interim school prefect, even though I couldn’t say the first three lines of ‘Hail Mary’. There was a crisis and the school authorities were experiencing a season of slim pickings. It wasn’t the time to ask people to bring out their rosaries.

Like many of you, I still have very fond memories of the schools which gave me the little education that I have. The school block of Essikado Bethany Methodist was recently completed and painted (almost two decades after I left) and St. John’s School is still the best secondary school I know – after Wesley Girls, of course. Hundreds of thousands of Ghanaians were educated in mission-schools, so-called because they were built and run with offerings from the various churches. Almost every major school in this country was established by a church. So the contributions of the religious missions (including the Muslims) to our educational system cannot be underestimated. The system is not as good as it should be, it must be said. But it would have been much worse if the missions had not intervened.

Truth be told, the churches didn’t entirely set up the schools entirely out of the goodness of their Holy Ghost-filled hearts. Part of the reason for setting up these schools was to spread the gospel and convert more people to Christianity. That’s why I had to learn every song in the MHB and that’s why St. John’s doesn’t allow non-Catholics to be school prefects. The churches don’t even like people who are not part of their fellowship to be appointed to head their schools. So you might be Angel Michael and very good at what you do but if you are not a Catholic, you will not be a headmaster at St. John’s... unless you come with a special note from the Pope.

But all these have to change.

A few days ago, a student at Adisadel College (being chased by a teacher to be punished for failing to go to church) jumped from the fourth floor of a classroom block and, on landing, hit his head against a cement block, ending his life prematurely. He was a Muslim in a school established and run by the Anglican Church. The loss of life is very regrettable. This should never have happened. But I hope Master Gafaru’s untimely death compels us to question how the mission schools are run and demand the necessary changes. We should not just talk about it, express regret here and there and forget about it until the next tragedy happens.

People cannot (and should not) be forced to engage in any form of worship. In other words, Muslims should not be forced to go to church because they happen to be students in a Christian institution. Also, Methodists should not be forced to observe Catholic rituals because they happen to find themselves in a school like St. John’s. If our constitution guarantees religious freedoms, where best can we put these provisions into practise than in our schools, where our futures leaders are being raised?

The mission schools were set up partly to evangelise. Granted. But we live in different times now and it’s high time they started respecting students’ fundamental freedoms and the need to give equal opportunities to all. Muslim students should be able to worship in mosques in a school like Adisadel. The daughters of atheists school be able to take it easy on Sundays at Wesley Girls whiles their friends who so wish go to church. The Ghana Education Service has to come out with a policy on this (and fast) taking cognisance of our basic constitutional rights and freedoms. But this should not lead to a system of cloaked discrimination where people’s religious beliefs are used deny them admission into some schools.

I know that some bigots are going to argue that if you cannot do as the Romans do then don’t come to Rome. In other words, if you cannot act Catholic, for example, don’t come to St. John’s. And they will have a point there. If my mother’s weekly offering in a church has been used to build a school, she and other members of the congregation will surely be justified if they demand to have a say in how the school is run. But whatever say they have should not cover how students choose to worship. The evangelisation mandate of the mission schools is over. They should just concentrate on educating the kids – not just in science, mathematics and business but also to respect and celebrate the diversity of humanity.

That should be the best memorial to Master Gafaru.