A passion-shaker, an eye- opener: NGIJ 2021

In this piece, Deborah Pokua Bempah, one of the fellows of the first cohort of The Next Generation Investigative Journalism (NGIJ) Fellowship, shares the impact the 5-month programme has had on her.

Writing an aptitude test and making it to the final 10 selected to be part of the first cohort of the Next Generation Investigative Journalism Fellowship was elating. On the eve of the orientation day, a question kept ringing in mind “Can you do this”? This question was not a result of doubting my abilities as I am a graduate of Central University Ghana, with majors in Print Journalism and Public Relations. It was rather, because of the picture I had in mind about Investigative Journalism- being dreadful, having to do it in secrecy and needing some ‘super powers’ to pull through.

In a male- dominated field of Investigative Journalism, with a couple of women heard of, I sought to be equipped to tell stories that would impact the lives of children, the physically challenged and minority groups in society as my interest is in community development and solution journalism, ultimately being safe while practicing.

The training sessions was an eye opener and a passion shaker.

An eye opener because my fear was allayed as I was introduced to avenues of getting information, cultivation of sources, interviewing skills, RTI Law, data journalism, mobile journalism and safety mechanisms, and how to script findings into a beautiful story.

A passion shaker because the training afforded me the rare privilege of meeting renowned industry players, hear their experiences and ask them questions. This made me know all I was learning was not in vacuum because all these people have been practicing, and they are safe and alive. This made me poised for action.

Moving to the field, all these skills came in handy as I was able to meet sources, interact with them, and even get information from hostile sources.

Within the period, I was able to work on a fact check story and three other stories, which are published on The Fourth Estate website. One of my stories was on Aggressive Academy, a caricature of a school on the verge of death in Otengkope-Dawa, a farming community in the Ningo-Prampram District, about one hour drive from Ghana’s capital. Its population of about 900 inhabitants grow mainly vegetables. The school structure with cracked-walls, potholed floors, and doors and windows yet to be fixed, is not different from what is seen in some of the most deprived communities far away from the capital.

The community did not have a school and so children had to cross a highway separating the community from another town to attend school. On many occasions, children were knocked down and killed by speeding vehicles. Parents in the community then decided not to expose their children further to the risk of crossing the highway, and that deprived children in the community of education until they were eight years, when parents deemed them mature enough to cross the highway safely.

A native of Otengkope-Dawa, Beatrice Adelah, driven by strong desire and passion to help address the problem, established a community school for the benefit of children in her native home. With four teachers including the founder. However, when COVID-19 struck the country, Aggressive Academy reeled under the severe aggression of the pandemic. Some of the teachers and caregivers, unpaid for a long while, abandoned post to seek better jobs elsewhere.

Due to the seasonal drought and poor crop yield, many parents do not have money to buy books, uniform and other essentials for their children. As a result, some of them have dropped out of school. Aggressive Academy lacks facilities such as furniture, teaching aids, toilet, compelling students to attend to the call of nature at a nearby public place of convenience, while the younger ones defecate in bushes around. The school has five classrooms, which accommodate pupils from Nursery 1 to JHS 2. One room is shared by JHS 1 and JHS2 classes, while classes 4, 5 and 6 also share one classroom. Classes 1, 2 and 3 occupy one room. Nursery 1 and 2, as well and KG 1 and 2 share the remaining classroom.

It is in that dilapidated school, which might collapse without help, that lie the destinies of 110 pupils including Melody and Abraham who aspire to be a Nurse and Pilot respectively.

Endangered Dreams: The hopeful children battling deprivation

Within this period also, I tested the Right to Information law as I made two requests and an Internal appeal to the Ghana Education Service and Ghana Health Service respectively, of which my request was granted and aided in my Fact check story. I fact- checked a claim of the Vice President of Ghana on the provision of wi-fi to 700 Senior High Schools. The initiative to provide schools with Wi-Fi was at the heart of the governing New Patriotic Party (NPP) educational policy that brought them into power in 2016. The promise was captured in page 32 of 2016 manifesto of the NPP. “Contract awarded to provide free Wi-Fi connectivity to all 722 SHSs, 46 Colleges of Education (CoEs), 16 Regional Offices, and 260 District Education Offices,” NPP’s 2020 manifesto stated in page 57. The RTI request to Ghana Education Service requested the number and list of schools that are beneficiaries of the free Wi-Fi project.

According to the GES, as of March 10, 2022, the free Wi-Fi project had been completed in 663 Senior High, Technical and Vocational Schools. The data indicated at the end of 2020, 523 (79%) of the 663 schools had been connected to the Wi-Fi. The remaining beneficiary schools received the government Wi-Fi in 2021. Thus, Dr Bawumia’s claim, which he has been repeating since 2021, that the free Wi-Fi project has been completed in over 700 schools is therefore inaccurate. The Veep’s claim is inconsistent with data from the GES.

FACT-CHECK: Has Gov’t provided free WiFi for over 700 SHSs?

Collectively, I did a story with my other Fellows on abandoned schools across the country. As the Greater Accra Regional Reporter, I covered an abandoned E-classroom block at Goi. At Goi and its environs in the Ada West District of the Greater Accra Region, interest in education is very low. Children here prefer salt mining and other economic activities to schooling. A few of them who are at the basic level have to travel long distances to neighboring towns like Ada, Battor and Tema to continue their secondary education. The Government of Ghana and the World Bank Group signed a $156 million financing agreement to improve access to secondary education in deprived communities across the country.

The grant was to support the Ghana Secondary Education Improvement Project, which aimed to enroll 30,000 new students in secondary schools, improve learning outcomes for 150,000 students in low-performing schools, and enhance the capacity of 2000 senior high school (SHS) teachers, headteachers and other education officials. The $156-million project was intended to be implemented over a six-year period (2014-2019).

The project was to help expand access to education through the construction of 23 standard four-storey classroom blocks dubbed ‘E-Blocks’, laboratories, toilets, teachers’ flat, head teacher’s bungalow, technical and vocational blocks, where necessary, and other core structures and furniture/inputs. In addition to the World Bank loan, the Ghana Education Trust Fund (GET Fund), in 2018, requested the utilization of 40 percent of its revenue to secure a loan of US$1.5 billion to be used for the provision of educational infrastructure.

Sadly, a sizeable amount of these funds pumped into the execution of the ‘E-Blocks’ project are yet to yielded the needed results after eight years, as many of them were abandoned immediately after the 2016 elections and assumption of office by the new administration in 2017. But work on the project stalled after the change in government, and has since remained at the ground floor level as of March 2, 2021, when I visited the project site.

The completion of this project will ease the burden of students who currently have to travel long distances to other communities to access secondary education.

The story of 14 abandoned E-Blocks: Some now used for church, cassava farming

Another story published is on Special Needs Education, woes and ordeals of parents and caregivers during and after Covid-19

When the COVID-19 pandemic took the world by storm, it unleashed catastrophic effects on the economy, business, health and education of many countries. The global pandemic did not spare the Ghanaian special needs schools. The ravages of Covid- 19 were heavily felt among them after the president’s announcement.

“Our children must go to school, albeit safely, and we are satisfied that in the current circumstances, the reopening of our schools is safe,” the president said.

For some parents whose children were in private special schools, the fullest weight was felt when expatriates who funded the fees of their wards sent information that they had to withdraw their support due to the economic crises that came with the pandemic.

The special school owners knew that the withdrawal of the donors will affect enrolment and attendance of students because part of the bills which had earlier been waived for parents due to the availably of funding would now have to be borne solely by the parents without any reduction.

For parents, they knew it was “a door of no return”. That is, without funding, or subsidy on charges and fees, they could not bear the expenses to keep their children in the special schools. As a result, some of the children were withdrawn. The fortunate ones were sent to regular schools and the others, were kept at home.

For those who enrolled their wards in regular school, it was because they could not afford the fees, but others have completely dropped out of school.

Ghana’s special needs children face a special, new problem

With all the skills acquired, going forward, as an eaglet, I seek to tell more compelling stories which will generate public discourse among citizens and policymakers like the Eagles already in the field. Also, to be a guide to younger journalists and students who aspire to do impactful Journalism, to find solution to challenges, and soon, society will be as beautiful as a butterfly.

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