I met this weekend with two beautiful Kumasi teens who participated in MCI’s School2School (S2S) exchange 16 months ago, when they were 14. Back then, in March 2009, 7th-graders from Washington DC’s Sidwell Friends School came to Kumasi, Ghana’s second largest city and a Millennium City since 2006, to teach some of their peers about watersheds and to lead water quality testing labs at Opoku Ware Junior High, another key MCI partner school.
At that time, the DC students and I met one of these girls, named Precious, who seemed very “into” the science labs and into thinking about the importance of clean and safe water, about why a result of “0”dissolved oxygen is good for your tap water, but bad for your lake water and other complex findings. We also met a girl named Lina, along with many other boys and girls, all of whom seemed to love their first-ever science lab.
But Precious was something else again. She asked me, the very first moment we met, whether all Americans were racists. From that unsettling beginning, and then once I was back in the States, a dialogue and friendship ensued; it turned out her little brother had died in a crowded Texas emergency room, which she was quite sure happened because the medical staff had neglected him because of his color.
In one of our email exchanges following the week of science labs, I asked Precious what she wanted to be, when she grew up; “THE NEXT SECRETARY GENERAL,” she wrote back in all caps, “OR A WORLD-CLASS SCIENTIST.” I decided then and there that the Sidwell-Opoku Ware exchange had been a success. MCI’s Project Manager for Ghana, Abenaa Akuamoa-Boateng, then went to the principal of Opoku Ware, Eugene Asante-Bekoe, and to all Kumasi’s other junior high school principals, to find out what they would want, out of more such school-to-school exchanges. More help with science, math and technology, we were told, in no uncertain terms, and from this instruction, our S2S Kumasi-New York Partnership Project was born. This public-private partnership is sponsored by the City of Kumasi itself, which has outfitted the 18 participating schools with computer labs; the global communications giants Ericsson and Zain, which have furnished the connectivity and broadband access; a number of New York City’s public iZone schools, which will partner with Kumasi classrooms; GlaxoSmithKline, which has seconded a research scientist to help shepherd the teachers through their first year; and Columbia University Teachers College, which is training and supporting the teachers and providing the intellectual leadership to the program.
Intended to help teachers make good use of Instructional Technology to help study math, science, geography, literacy, and issues of global importance, the curriculum for this three-year project, which will be launched at the time of the General Assembly’s Summit on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), at the start of the coming school year, is structured around applied ways of researching and thinking about the MDGs that strengthens the skills they should be mastering, in Ghana’s 7th-grade curriculum. For instance, in studying the MDG targets in water and sanitation, Kumasi students might learn more about graphing by charting data about water use, or solid waste collection, in New York, while the New York students do the same with information from Kumasi. Focusing on the MDG 3, gender equality and women’s empowerment, students might interview their grandmas, and write about it in a memoir-esque or literary fashion, sharing their writings on our platform with their New York or Kumasi counterparts. MCI is very excited about this program, as are the participating teachers, principals and students.
Precious and Lina and their peers are now anxiously awaiting the results of a nationwide placement exercise that will determine, on the basis of their 9th-grade exams, whether and where they will go on to high school. These public high schools are mostly segregated by sex and are largely boarding schools spread out all over the country; there is no guarantee that these girls, or anyone, will receive the school assignment of their choice, or anywhere near their families. Precious and Lina are both capable students, with good grades; Lina has her heart set on a school in Accra, a five-hour drive from home, whereas Precious was persuaded by her dad to rank as her first choice a school closer to home. Both are excited about moving on to high school, but insist they will not capitalize on their newfound freedoms, given the major sacrifice their going to high school will entail on the part of their parents.
“We need to work hard now and become independent, and not rely on our parents so much, because anything can happen to them at any time,” Lina said soberly, as someone who, in the course of her short life, has obviously witnessed a good deal of hardship and untimely death.
Thinking back to our water quality testing lab of so many months ago, and about these girls’ palpable enthusiasm at that time about science, on this rainy Saturday afternoon in downtown Kumasi I asked these now lovely young women what they wanted to study in high school.
“Biology,” Precious shot back, “but I want to be a surgical doctor, to help people, all pro bono.”
“Me, too,” said Lina, “just like her: I want to be a doctor, to help people.”
We talked a lot, the three of us, about some of what they called the negligent care they had observed in public hospitals toward the poor, and they resolved to be very different kinds of medical practitioners, to be not only smart and knowledgeable scientists, but above all, to be kind.
In our pursuit this coming school year of the MDGs – as we focus even more intensively, as the five-year countdown begins, on education, women’s and girls’ empowerment, improving public health and forging global partnerships – MCI could not launch its S2S program with a more inspiring “push” from two more impressive “alums” of one of our pilot programs.