Is it really over a month since The Queen’s Commonwealth Essay Competition deadline? As one of this year’s Ghana country representatives it is hard to believe that the students’ creative work is done. My students worked so hard on their submissions. They wrote, re-wrote and finally delivered their essays for the 1 June deadline.
Hitting the send button on the final submission email was a moment to be savoured. Now we are all left wondering who the winners will be. Could the 2018 winner be a Ghanaian?
I have been an Associate Fellow of The Royal Commonwealth Society since 2016, so when the call for country representatives was issued I applied and was lucky to be selected. I applied for the role because I fully support the competition’s objective: to nurture young people to become global citizens and future authors.
The whole experience has surpassed my expectations. It is unlike any job I have ever had. As a secondary school teacher, I realise how important it is to encourage young people to share their opinions. And this competition is a global platform that allows children all across the world to express their opinions on some of the biggest social and political challenges we face. I knew I had to be part of that.
So how to get budding young Ghanaian writers to enter the oldest international essay competition in the world? Growing up, I did not have the opportunity to enter The Queen’s Commonwealth Essay Competition because nobody introduced us to it. Only children in urban schools were able to participate. I decided I would encourage children from rural communities to take part in the competition.
Students in rural Ghana face a set of challenges not unlike those in other Commonwealth countries. In Tongu, where I teach, poverty levels are high. Most people do not have running water; instead we rely on the river Volta that winds through southern Ghana. Many of my students walk for hours to get to school, crossing the river in a canoe just to get to class every morning. They are extremely tired when they arrive.
Many of the girls I teach are teenage mothers who - with the support of their families - have been able to return to education. They work hard to take care of their young families and also study. Many are forced to work as petty traders selling food to make ends meet. They regularly miss school on market day - Friday - which has a detrimental effect on their schooling. Yet many have made time to enter the competition - such is the need to express their opinions and have their say.
I knew I could rely on some of my students at Volo Community Senior High School to enter, but I had ambitions to get a record number of essay submissions. Armed with competition flyers and a PowerPoint presentation, I travelled across Ghana by bus visiting as many schools as possible. I spoke to students during school assemblies and urged them to take part. I also used my network of teachers in the hope that they too would encourage students to write. Interest spiralled and before long we had over 100 entries.
Being part of the competition has been inspirational for everyone involved. For me personally, it has fed my passion to promote literacy in schools. Over three months, engaged teachers and librarians across Ghana encouraged their students to write. Together we have become part of a global discussion on education, human rights and how we shape our shared future.
Without giving too much away, the most popular themes for my students were ‘Healthy, wealthy, happy and free – is one more important than the others?’ and ‘Can education contribute to a fairer future?’. These issues are pertinent for young Ghanaians. In the last decade the country has seen huge increases in school attendance as a result of sustained government investment in education. School fees have been abolished and pre-primary education has been prioritised.
This generation of Ghanaians has unprecedented opportunities to learn and thrive. We have some way to go before we reach free universal senior secondary education - which would support teenage mothers and the poorest students immeasurably - but we are on the right track.
My students are confident, determined young people who understand the importance of education and the benefits which it brings. The Queen’s Commonwealth Essay Competition has given them the confidence and space to debate and discuss.
When they tell me that taking part has inspired them to share their ideas and has boosted their confidence to express their views, I see the intrinsic value of the competition. When they tell me they want to become authors in the future, well, I’m overjoyed.