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Opinions of Sunday, 13 July 2014

Columnist: Tawiah-Benjamin, Kwesi

The International Student Sweats it in the Cold

Scholarship or No Scholarship, the International Student Sweats it in the Cold

When I was studying in London, I saw Ghanaian students on a double decker bus eating Kenkey and shito with no fish. I also met Africans who had no place to lay their heads. Their strategy was to board any bus going anywhere in topsy-turvy London. When the bus got to the final destination, they jumped onto another one and journeyed back right where they had started. From there, they turned to the east of London, or to the west, or wherever the southbound bus was heading, to do it all over again. The reason was to avoid being noticed by the drivers as a ‘bus gypsy’. Occasionally, they would change the bus strategy and try the trains when they could afford the ticket, or sneak in without paying if they could avoid being caught. From one end on the Northern Line through Euston, where they could change onto the Jubilee or Piccadilly Line, they would leave their footprints on the tourism map of London–not as tourists, but as ‘desperadoes’. They sometimes abandon their studies altogether.

It was my first week in the country, and everything else looked quite promising except the missing fish. How can a Ghanaian eat kenkey or banku without fish, or even sesewkwesi? I had left lots of dried fish in my fridge in Accra just the previous week.I would soon learn that it would have been a smart idea if I had carried the fish along. The weather was very cold in September, compared to the chili-hot summers I had been enjoying in AgonaSwedru, Sunyani and Accra Kwashieman, but I had not travelled only to study law or whatever there was to study; I was happy to be escaping the Sorbibor of Ghana, and all the Suhum-Nsawam-Achimota traffic.

Well, it wasn’t quite an escape, I would soon realise. It was a particularly difficult adventure combining academic work with full time shifts in the factories, supermarkets, care homes and other places of survival employment. I even chanced on a first class Legon graduate who had completed a Master’s Degree in a good university in Birmingham, but had resolved to remain in London illegally as a car wash attendant. In the street next to mine were some Zimbabwe nationals who had been picked up by immigration authorities for working more than the required hours while on student visas. They were kept in detention camps and later deported. I had also met some Ghanaian students in church, most of whom had terrible stories about their ordeal as students in a foreign land. They paid several thousands in school fees, rent, food, winter clothing, and most importantly in remittances to family–even as students.

While still learning how to wrap up warm in the winters and work a few more hours in the summers, I found time to recollect my sad emotions in several newspaper and internet articles about “the dilemma of the student burger.” In those series,and in the subsequent articles on “Dodgy degrees and Bogus Universities,” I told how some African students had exchanged big money for degrees cooked in the chicken and chips shops of first generation Indian immigrants. I also reported how some Ghanaians were shortchanging themselves in the affiliated colleges of recognised universities, where teaching was delivered more like vacation classes for remedial students in Taifa. There was no time for serious learning, because the students devoted more time for hard work that paid the fees and the bills, than the boring theories of professors. In the end, they got degrees that seemed good on paper butnot good enough for the quality employers want to see when they come to Ghana as foreign trained professionals.

These were usually students who had travelled with no government scholarships, or any form of financial assistance from any university. They had to sweat it in the cold for their degrees. The experience is not any better for the international student on government or university scholarship. They sweat it too, sometimes in worse forms, because these scholarships also come with some restrictions and conditions. The sad story of our medical students in Cuba is a familiar experience for international students in other developing and developed countries. It is reported that the government had failed or delayed to send their allowances on time. They are unable to afford soap and other basics necessary for the not-so pleasurable student life in a foreign country. Learning has become difficult. There had been earlier reportsthat some Ghanaian students had been allegedly involved in shoplifting–justto make ends meet.

The public commentary on the plight of our students in Cuba has been critical of government, especially at a time that the government found it necessary to airlift millions of dollars to our Black Stars in Brazil, after the lads had demanded the money in cash. We had succeeded in making a laughable global spectacle of ourselves when Brazilian television stations sacrificed prime air time to telecast live bullion vans carting dollars from their airport to our players in their hotels. We had also paid several hundreds of thousands in taxes to the Brazilian government while our future medical doctors sweat it in the cold in Russia for offering to develop themselves for the good of their country. Would we have the compunction to demand their return to Ghana, instead of the United States or London, when they complete their programme?

It is not clear whether a foreign degree affords the holder any special advantages over locally trained professionals. Most of us flew away with the twin objective of studying for a degree and acquiring a big TV. That was then when opportunities for graduate degrees were limited to three universities. Today, an MBA from GIMPA is as good as an LLM from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. Soon you would need a good GRE or GMAT score to be accepted at GIMPA or Central University. Even now, we understand that true to their name, the beginnings of scholarship are more promising at Ashesi University than in many foreign learning institutions. At least, it is warm here.

Kwesi Tawiah-Benjamin