So I spent close to three weeks in Ghana after the end of my first semester in graduate school. Ghana green coffee shops are like my second home. Every time I step off the plane at Kotoka International Airport and feel the humid, tropical air sticking to my face like wet Saran wrap, my soul does a little shimmy. I feel somewhat at peace when I am in Africa.
However, all was not quiet on the western front at my relatives’ house where I stayed in Accra. The culprit causing most of the drama?
Long story short, one of my very young relatives has been home for the past few months because his parents cannot afford his school fees. Bored with no books or stimulation, I would often see him just watching television, causing mischief, or running general errands for my grandmother. It broke my heart because my cousin is an extremely bright child and always did well at school. Of course, my grandmother asked me if I could help out by paying my cousin’s school fees. My initial reaction was to do whatever I could to help. However, my followup reaction told me to call my mother to get to the bottom of this.
Her reaction? “Karen, don’t touch this problem with a ten-foot pole.”
I see two issues at work here in this situation: remittances and female education.
Remittances: My mother has since forever been sending my grandmother money every month for her upkeep, household expenses and sometimes for household emergencies. Over time, I have observed that my grandmother has been using the money to help out with school fees and food for my cousins. So she gives the money to my cousin’s mother. However, what happens by and by is that the money given to my aunt is siphoned off for other things, i.e. going to other people in the community where she is from, funerals, trading, etc. So then all of a sudden, there is no money for school fees (not to mention the costs of books, uniforms, and transport). And then my mom gets a phone call for more money, which she sends to my grandma, and then the cycle continues ad nauseam. She’s sick of it.
Which leads me to my second point about female education.
Many studies in international development have rightly found that increasing female education in third world countries lead to positive economic development outcomes. For instance, more female education leads to lower infant mortality rate and lower population growth. Educated mothers mean their children are more likely to finish school. My aunt never achieved a high school education, nor did she learn to fully read or write. Educated mothers will place a priority on educating their children. Financial difficulties aside, my cousin’s education is suffering because of his mother’s lack of it.
But here’s the challenge. Throwing money at problems like this rarely produce results. I told my mother, “Money cannot change a person’s ingrained priorities.” Prioritizing education could mean many things. It could mean sending the child to a cheaper school. It could mean sending my cousin to public school. It could even mean asking to buy books and making sure my cousin does some reading and writing everyday to at least keep up while the family gets back on its feet. My mother is adamant that the family send my cousin to public school and figure out a way to educate their children without depending on remittances.
It would be interesting and worthwhile if development organizations took the initiative to develop partnerships with Africans in the diaspora to track not just the amount of remittances that flow into a country, but how households are spending the money. Like how much is spent on food, health care, fuel, phone credit, and education for a family living in Accra? Or in the rural areas? Remittance spending journals could be useful not only to the families themselves, but also in the realm of governance and economic development.