Friday, May 1, 2009

If you educate a girl. . . you educate a nation, Part I

Last year while in Ghana I attended some of the Founders' Day activities of Achimota, the boarding school I attended for 7 years (1960-1967) as a secondary student. It is a time set aside every year to reflect on and appreciate the school's founders and alumni. I was moved by one speaker's message who remarked how the founders could not imagine that over 80 years after Achimota's beginning it would make so many impressive contributions to the nation's development. The school's motto is Latin for "that all may be one," and its crest is black and white piano keys, representing how all must work together to create something harmonious.

The implied message that day was that there is value in building for the future. I liked that. One important area of the school's leadership was the introduction of coed boarding schools. Taking the logo seriously, the school applied this truth to many areas of life, including race and ethnicity, rural and urban, but especially gender. Coed secondary schools were unknown in the 1920s, and the idea was quite controversial. One of the founders, Dr. Kwegyir Aggrey, is credited with going around the country allaying the fears of parents with this mantra: "If you educate a man you simply educate an individual, but if you educate a woman you educate a family." These words eventually became the famous quote: "If you educate a boy, you educate an individual, but if you educate a girl, you educate a nation." Many important female leaders were trained at Achimota. A small sample includes Joyce Aryee (CEO of the Ghana Chamber of Mines), Dr. Esther Afua Ocloo (a pioneering woman industrialist), Dr. Susan Ofori-Atta (the first Ghanaian woman physician), and Judge Prof. Akua Kuenyehia (Judge, International Criminal Court, The Hague) and Dr. Letitia Obeng (Ghana's first woman scientist in zoology).

Originally girls made up 10% of the student body, but today the numbers of boys and girls are essentially equal. The current (Mrs. Beatrice T. Adom) and two previous (Mrs. Adelaide Kwami and Mrs. Charlotte Brew-Graves) principals of the school are all women. Also, the current President of the Old Achimotan Association (OAA) is a woman, "Akora" Sarah Nuno Mansaray to the left in the photo on the right, with another alumna who is a physician.

I must reflect sadly that despite this insightful vision of equality, the University of Ghana and the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, both of which had their roots in Achimota, have yet to produce a female Vice-Chancellor (President).

I am intensely aware of the urgent need to reassert the importance of women in science and engineering education and to seriously encourage women to enter these fields. My next blog will present a few of the women who are role models for the future.
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