Long before homes in her village were connected to the national grid, Vida Nyagre Yakong had set out early in life as a very determined schoolgirl in Nabdam, a district in Ghana’s Upper East Region.
But she had barely completed her primary education when her father, Yakong, suddenly withdrew her from the classroom.
She was taken from the school to the fields to herd and tend the family’s cattle. The reason for the withdrawal was not immediately mentioned to her. But, curious, she soon found out why.
One sunless afternoon, her parents were seated in front of the family’s house, a multiple-room structure built with red earth and roofed with grass at Nyobok, a community in the district. Her father was sharpening a near-rusted blade of an old hoe on a stone while having a discussion with his wife, Bugre. The discussion was on a long-established view some members of the community held about girl-child education.
As the hoe blade steadily ground back and forth against the stone with a screeching sound, he said some of his peers in the village had told him he would gain nothing if he sent his daughters to school. Vida was within the earshot of her parents at the time. She had returned home a few hours earlier with the family’s cattle from an open pasture in the village.
She was alone in a room trying on her own to revise some old lessons she was taught when she was in school. On hearing the subject of her parents’ discussion, she put her books aside at once, suspending the revision exercise, and tiptoed to a laptop-sized window to eavesdrop on the conversation. She was very anxious to know why she was converted from a schoolgirl into a cowgirl.
Nobody knew Vida was keeping a keen ear on the discussion from inside the unlit room. After Yakong had honed the hoe blade until its rim became as very thin as the edge of a SIM card, he put it down and explained to his wife the reason his friends zealously considered girl-child education as a waste of time and money.
He said his peers had made it clear that it did not make any economic sense for a family to invest its resources in educating a girl who traditionally was bound to only end up in marriage under another man’s roof where she would live as his property throughout her life and answer to his name.
Vida’s elder sister, Philomena, was lucky. Much older than Vida, Philomena had an opportunity to go to school through a compulsory education policy introduced in the early 1960s when the government of Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first president, launched the Five-Year Development Plan.
That policy became a victim of an ‘infectious’ coup d’état (many coups would follow suit in Ghana and beyond) as it was starved of continuity after Nkrumah’s overthrow in 1966. Philomena is said to be the first girl to complete senior high school― and the first to go beyond that level― in the entire village.
Vida spent 6 years out of school, herding the family’s cattle insecurely alone in the forests of Nyobok and the surrounding communities. Her now-employed-nurse sister (Philomena) sent her back to school after her father died. Her former classmates— and juniors— had completed their studies and left that school before her return.
“I didn’t get the chance to go to school until my elder sister finished her secondary education and moved on to do nursing,” she recounted in an interview with Media Without Borders.
“I was withdrawn from school to take care of my father’s animals. I took care of sheep and, later on, cattle. So, I was also a shepherd. And I gained so much skill from being a shepherd. When my elder sister finished her schooling and started a job, I was brought back to school.”
Fulfilling a childhood pledge
She progressed remarkably after her return to school, from the basic stage to the tertiary level.
In 2014, she was awarded a doctorate degree, the title “Dr.” thus going with her name thenceforth.
Dr. Yakong became a senior lecturer in 2018 at the University for Development Studies (UDS) in Ghana’s Northern Region.
In 2020, she was appointed the first ever Dean of the School of Nursing and Midwifery at the same university.
Aware of the fact that many girls in Nabdam still face a gender-based challenge similar to what she experienced early in life and concerned about their future, she launched a scheme to fulfill a dream she had when she was a teen shepherd.
The dream was to protect girls, and boys alike, from suffering what she endured as a child. She has supported hundreds of vulnerable schoolchildren in the deprived district from 2004 to date not only to remain in school but also to perform as expected. They include 353 girls and 29 boys.
“The fact that girls are the ones who would face this obstacle the most doesn’t mean there are no boys who also have similar issues. So, there is that balance; boys who are in need are also supported. At the time I started providing the support, I was almost the only one who had completed up to senior high level from this area.
“It was like a pledge. I took it upon myself that in ten years’ time we want to have girls completing from senior high school. Of the 353 girls supported so far, 72 have finished from senior high school to tertiary institutions. Some of them are teachers. Some of them are nurses. The boys have also moved on similarly. I have established a vocational centre for girls who are not in school to develop their skills to be able to lead a meaningful life,” she said.
Dr. Yakong is credited with providing books, school uniforms, bicycles, sporting materials and furniture for schoolchildren and schools in the district. She also initiated a 6-year-long free school-feeding programme and supported people living with HIV/AIDS― including children living with the disease― with food and medical expenses in the district. She introduced the development of alphabets for Nabt (the language spoken in Nabdam) and two books she authored for basic schools were launched in 2017.
“It was through Dr. Yakong I completed my second-cycle education at Bolgatanga Senior High School— Big Boss— and graduated as a nurse at Community Health Nursing Training College, Tamale,” said Hellen Dompoka Kurug, who hails from Dagliga, a community in Nabdam. “Girl-child education is not valued in the rural areas. I am the first female to reach the tertiary level in my family through the efforts of Dr. Yakong. My siblings now look up to me as a role model to achieve same.”
Hundreds of women lifted from poverty in 52 communities
In 2008, Dr. Yakong established a non-governmental organisation―Ghana Rural Opportunities for Women (GROW) ― in collaboration with the University of British Columbia, Canada, the same university which had awarded her a doctorate degree in Interdisciplinary Studies under Medical Anthropology.
The organisation was established to empower women economically and to promote girl-child education and growth. Annually, GROW looks for helpless women, including widows, in the district and donates a female goat to each of them. Each beneficiary takes the goat home to rear.
The first female kid produced by the goat is passed on to another needy woman in the district to rear after it has been duly weaned. The new beneficiary, too, replicates the gesture to another vulnerable woman when the time is due. If the kid is a male, it remains with the beneficiary as her own asset. The presentation of the goats is done periodically at Nyobok.
A recent presentation ceremony saw 23 women return home happy with one female goat each. There were 11 widows among them.
For lack of means of transportation, most of the women in the district carry firewood, farm produce and construction materials on their heads. Some are reported to have developed hairless spots on their heads in the course of time as a result of carrying such burdens consistently on their heads through long distances.
To ease their burdens, GROW also donates donkeys and donkey carts to women groups in the district from time to time. Two female donkeys, each having a young one, were donated to 24 women at the last ceremony. Each of the donkeys was presented to a group of 12 women to serve them individually and as a group.
“We decided to present female donkeys so that this can also go a long way to support the women when the donkeys also produce. The donkeys can help them carry farm produce, carry items to the market, carry building materials and a whole lot. The group can rent out the donkeys with the carts and get income out of it for themselves,” Dr. Yakong said.
From inception to date, the organisation has supported 1,510 vulnerable women in 52 Nabdam communities some of whom have also received 1,255 goats, 102 donkeys and 100 carts for free. Some 1,815 women in the district have so far registered with GROW for support, too. She has also donated 5,520 mosquito nets to community members and registered 310 vulnerable groups with the National Health Insurance Scheme (NHIS) within the same period.
Her biggest landmark so far, perhaps, is the Okanagan Community Clinic, a health facility she constructed for her community in 2014 through the Project GROW she established.
She also built a residence for the clinic’s healthcare staff and connected the clinic to the national grid. In addition, she donated a standby generator to the facility, drilled a mechanised borehole for the clinic and provided a tricycle ambulance for emergency purposes.
“Dr. Yakong has been an economic backbone to several households in Nabdam. We live in communities where even those of us who are not widows are struggling because our husbands hardly earn anything to take care of the families. But for her interventions, many women would have died before their time out of poverty.
“A lot of schoolchildren, particularly girls, would have dropped out of school for the same reason. Some of the youths are in university and some have graduated from universities. Besides, we were carrying firewood on our heads and many of us were going bald as a result of the loads we were carrying until Dr. Yakong supported us with donkeys,” Rebecca Kugre, one of the beneficiaries of the interventions initiated by the shepherd-girl-turned-university-dean, told Media Without Borders in the district.
Source: Edward Adeti/Media Without Borders/mwbonline.org