By Simon Mariwah, PhD
The phenomenon of “schools under trees” has become a social problem and a propagandist political tool for all political parties in Ghana. I cannot trace the origin of the phrase but I know that it is relatively recent. Growing up in the village in the early 80s and 90s, I never saw or heard about “schools under trees” because the communal spirit for development, through communal Labour, addressed most of these problems. However, in recent times, the media report the phenomenon of “schools under trees” as if the communities in which such schools are located are helpless without the government. This raises the question: what has happened to the communal spirit in the socio-economic development of Ghana?
Schools under trees: “Na who cause am”?
Generally, the phenomenon of “schools under trees” is a situation where communities (mostly rural) do not have properly constructed classrooms or structures for classes, and hence teaching and learning occur under a tree or trees. This puts the lives of students and teachers in danger, and also subject teaching and learning to several distractions including rains, sunshine, sounds from birds and animals, etc.
The greater blame has always been put on successive governments for their failure to invest in education through the provision of educational infrastructure in those areas. Of course, the role of government as a major stakeholder in education cannot be over-emphasized. The government, in collaboration with its development partners and NGOs, has a huge task of training, recruiting and retaining teachers, providing educational materials and infrastructure and ensuring that students stay in class and progress to the next level through policies and programmes such as free uniforms, free books and pens (pencils), the school feeding programme etc.
Certainly, this is a huge task the government alone cannot efficiently and effectively perform. Participatory community development is very critical here. However, in the name of democracy, where political parties are poised to win power or retain power, successive governments (through their manifestos) have arrogated to themselves the sole providers of educational infrastructure and materials. And like human evolution, any part of the individual that is not used, will eventually become dormant. So, since most communities have been completely taken off from their own development initiative, the communal spirit has gone into “extinction”. No wonder in election years, we hear slogans like “No road, no vote”; “No electricity, no vote”; “No classrooms, no vote”; “No toilet, no vote”; “No this, no vote”, “No that, no vote”, etc. Though these slogans have yielded partial results in some cases, the apparent lack of communal spirit for local development is a major culprit of the “schools under trees” phenomenon in the country.
The power of communal spirit for development
In the late 70s and early 80s, I grew up in a village called Dawiri in the Jaman North District of the Bono region, Ghana. Communal Labour was very effective in the provision of classrooms, construction of roads, toilets and even clearing footpaths to our farms. The communal spirit in development was virtually seen around all the communities in the area, and I am clear in my mind and experience that such communal spirit was evident across different parts of the country.
So, why is there an apparent failure of communities to mobilize local resources to build classrooms? In rural communities where we have these “schools under trees”, residents do not live or sleep under trees; they build their own houses as individuals, and build communal toilets; so why can’t they collectively build a classroom? What at all does a community need to build classrooms for their school? Of course, they need bricks for the superstructure, trees for pillars and roofing, grass or palm branches (or locally available materials) for roofing and then the expertise (carpentry/masonry) for the construction. All of these materials can be found in the communities because they use them for building their own houses and even shelter for their livestock. Therefore, these same community resources can be harnessed to eliminate the “schools under trees” phenomenon in Ghana.
In fact, this is not limited to the development of infrastructure in rural areas. The communal spirit in Ghana is so low that even in urban areas, you can see a community of wealthy individuals investing in beautiful and expensive houses and cars, but cannot mobilize themselves to construct the link roads to their houses. The road leading to some of these newly-developed areas is an eyesore but individuals (mostly very rich) are waiting for the government to help construct the road. Particularly in election years, such people will call into radio and television programmes to complain about their bad roads (which are sometimes less than a kilometer or two long from the main road). Meanwhile, with proper leadership and coordination, they can mobilize themselves and solve the problem within a shortest possible time. This is not a new concept: even in developed countries, communal spirit continues to be harnessed for the provision of local services and infrastructure such as roads, schools, electricity and water.
Although the government has a responsibility towards building classrooms for schools in the country, local communities should be empowered to take steps towards eliminating “schools under trees”, by mobilizing local resources (materials and expertise). The same strategy can be adopted in solving similar local problems in both rural and urban communities in Ghana. In this regard, the media have a huge role to play: they should change the narratives of seeing this as a failure of government (both current and previous), and include the failure of communities to solve simple problems in their localities. Therefore, I entreat all media houses to put critical questions to community leaders and members about how the communities themselves can mobilize local resources to eliminate their schools under trees.
By Simon Mariwah, PhD.
Associate Professor of Health and Development Geography.
Department of Geography and Regional Planning.
University of Cape Coast, Cape Coast, Ghana.