Hostage School Kids Of Accra – By Kofi Akpabli

It is past 7 p.m. Akua, and Junior lie huddled on the cold verandah in a corner at the school entrance. They are still in their uniforms. Junior, six years, uses his schoolbag for a pillow, while Akua, nine, tries brushing off mosquitoes from her brother’s body. They are both under a yellow bulb, which has a swarm of insects. The school compound is dark and the two young children are alone; well, except for the catapult-wielding, tobacco-chewing night watchman.
Suddenly, the silence is broken by the sound of a motor engine. The children are startled. Slowly, a car approaches, its headlamp blinding them. The vehicle grinds to a halt. The driver’s door opens and their names are shouted above the roar of the engine.

Hurriedly, the children pick themselves up and run towards the car. In a moment, Akua and Junior are settled in the cozy warmth of their mother’s deluxe latest Audi series. Another school day has ended.

Every school day in Accra, several other children have to wait for hours after school is closed until their parents pick them up. On the other hand, many school children have to leave home as early as 4 a.m. to get to school, sometimes waiting  for a few hours before school actually starts.

City residents are used to the early morning scene of uniformed children munching breakfast in a car that is grounded in traffic. At other times what one finds is a car-load of school children sleeping heavily in transit.

‘‘I once observed this family in traffic,’’ says Dinah Sam, a commuter on the Spintex Road. “The man was driving whilst reading the papers, the daughter was by him   brushing her hair and at the back seat was the mother dressing up a school boy.
‘‘I am sure if I had caught up with them a mile earlier, I would have seen them brushing their teeth.’’

Sam’s anecdote serves as a telling example of how families have been constrained to adopt tight schedules because of distance and traffic-jammed commuting. Observers suggest other factors.

‘‘Parents, parents, parents,’’ says Mr. Gabriel Ansah, headmaster of Elmwood School in Accra. ‘‘Parents are under pressure. Our system has turned them into economic animals; they have to juggle many challenges just to survive.’’

Although figures are not readily available, a growing number of young mothers are also career women. With husband and wife actively working away from home, the very core of parenting has been affected.

Theo Normando of the Accra Metropolitan Authority explained that Accra’s fast growing middle class implies that folks are moving into new homes. These settlements are dotted in the outskirts of the city. Unfortunately, children’s schools as well as parents’ workplaces remain within the capital.

Alfred Banahene,  a taxi driver, said that  traffic is part of the reason school children have to leave home very early and arrive very late.

“In the morning, not only has it become wise to leave very early, it is also convenient for all to leave together,’’ said Banahene..

Banahene, who drives his two children and his wife to school and work said the homeward trip is no less frustrating. Usually, his wife has to find a way of getting home first. She prepares the evening meal while Banahene is charged with picking the children on his way home.

Mr. Jones Akoto, an insurance agent who lives  at Ofankor said he always has to contend with the Achimota and Lapaz traffics.

‘‘I leave my office at 3 p.m., same time as my girl closes from school. So I pick her, drive to GIMPA and  lock her up in the car until I finish my class by 8pm,’’ Akoto, who is pursuing a professional course, said. ‘‘It is pathetic, but we all have no choice. The traffic is such that she won’t get home on her own earlier, anyway.’’

This bad situation is not that bad for everyone. Certain teachers, for instance, have found a new way of earning extra income. They receive cash incentives to stay behind until parents come for their wards.

. ‘‘As long as I wait with a stranded child until a parent comes, I get some good cash,’’ said Fred Azumah of Taifa, one of such teachers.

Much as Azumah enjoys supplementing his small income he is not always able to wait. ‘‘Sometimes I just can’t stay any longer. Remember I also  have family at home,’’ He explained.

At the receiving end of such conveniences are school children as young as six.

‘‘Many times on our way home, Daddy will lock me up in the car for short business meetings. Sometimes he will tell me we have to wait for traffic to go away. Then he will bring me a coke and go and join his  friends at the bar,’’ says Dela Kwami, a primary five pupil.

Asked whether he doesn’t feel bored, Dela says no. ‘‘Daddy makes me talk to mummy on his phone and we tell her where we are and what we are doing. If I can see, I even do my homework in the car.’’

It is not only fathers who take their school kids “hostage.” Mothers who have to pick up children also combine that chore  with other assignments. During week day church activities, some go  along with their wards and make them wait until it is over. Some also do a series of  stops at roadside stalls and super markets. And of course, the school child does not get home until mummy is all done.

Paul Antwi, a fresh university graduate said that the traffic cum housing challenge in Accra is affecting job decisions too. ‘‘Although I need a job badly I cannot afford  any offer outside the  Spintex -Tema- Nungua triangle,” said.’ Antwi who has just rented a house near Sakumono with his wife. More importantly, their five-year-old twins have also enrolled at a school in their neighbourhood.

According to Martin Martey, not only are job locations being selected to avoid prolonged commuting, career paths are also decided based on these considerations. An M.Phil holder who has applied to  teach  at the University of Ghana, Martey said he is attracted by the flexible hours a career  in academia offers.

‘‘I chose to teach because I cannot afford to have my kids wait at school until late in the night,’’ Martey explained..

According to  Ama Twumwaa,  a child psychologist with SEND Foundation, an Accra based NGO the implications of this trend are more than we care to consider.

‘‘Nutritionally, children are worse off because during the long wait they are treated to junk food which is not different from what they eat during school break,” Twumwaa said. “When they do eventually get home, they are either too tired or too sleepy to eat a proper home meal.’’

Twumwaa explained that children’s learning abilities are negatively affected also because they do not seem to catch enough sleep. “They get to class feeling sleepy. Irregular eating and sleeping patterns do not promote good child growth.”

According to Dr. Kwaku Yeboah, a Senior Lecturer at the Sociology Department of the University of Ghana, children’s social networks also become distorted.

‘”Because they spend all day at school, they cannot make friends outside. Some do not even know their own neighbourhood. Let alone develop a sense to  explore. It’s serious because even during holidays, children continue this routine through classes,” Dr. Yeboah said.

Yeboah said this is a price the nouveau riche have to pay for their lifestyle. Whether  it is too high a price or not remains to be seen. However, for parents such as Saddick Ahmed, a travel consultant, there are few alternatives..

“I love my babies, but I earn my money by the hour,” Ahmed said. “For me it’s a big relief each day the children go off to school. A single public holiday is my nightmare. When their teachers go on strike, I really die.”

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