9: 00 am: Wednesday, July 21, 2021.
It was mealtime at the Zorkor Senior High School in the Bongo District of the Upper East Region when The Fourth Estate visited. But only a handful of the students were present for breakfast.
The Zorkor SHS has a population of about 1,200, but a majority were on the mid-term’s break.
It is often said that the fewer, the merrier; but in the case of these students, mealtime cannot be associated with merrymaking. It is the most dreaded part of their lives as students.
They have no roof over their heads, so they dine in the sun. And in the rain, when it is not very severe.
It was only nine o’clock, but the blistering northern Ghana sun had served enough warning that it would be worse when they returned for lunch later in the afternoon.
Off the record, the students shared their daily misery and frustration when they had to take their meals in the open. They had not been permitted by the school authorities to grant an interview so they would not speak on the record.
“I wish you had come here on a rainy day,” one of the students told The Fourth Estate.
When it rains, they have to go through the rain to take their meals. But when the rainfall is severe, they stay away.
The students take their meals on the concrete foundation of the abandoned dining hall project. Below the raised concrete surface where the students are taking porridge with bread, a donkey is grazing. It is tied closely to the dining area so that it does not feed on the crops nearby.
There are only a handful of dining tables, some with visible deterioration from the vagaries of the weather. The tables are not enough so instead of ten students to a table, thirty students use one table at mealtime.
There are no chairs. Once they are served, some stand and eat, while others look for the nearest shade.
It is a situation that raises concerns in the Covid-19 pandemic, but they appear more concerned about the epidemic of deprivation. They have many problems, but their main concern is the fact that they cannot eat in a decent environment.
That has been the plight of these students since their temporary dining hall structure collapsed on June 10, 2021.
Zorkor SHS was established by the chiefs and people of Zorkor in 2009 when the Computerised School Selection and Placement System did not place some students from the community.
The school was later adopted by the government, but it still remained an orphan, in many respects, as far as some critical infrastructure is concerned.
In 2016, the government awarded a contract for the construction of a dining hall for the school. That contract has been abandoned at the foundation level. The project halted because the contractor had not been paid.
The chief of Zorkor Kodrogo and member of the school’s governing board, Naba Adindaa Awamyelum II, said the school had always lacked a number of amenities.
The students used to eat in the open because the small baobab tree close to the kitchen had insects and other pathogens falling into their food whenever they ate under it, he said. He was, therefore, happy when the assembly awarded the contract for the construction of a temporary structure after many appeals from the school and traditional authorities.
Naba Adindaa Awamyelum II said he took an interest in the project, but at a point, the contractor could not complete the work. The assembly did not pay all the money needed to do the work.
In 2018, the Bongo District Assembly awarded a contract for the construction of a temporary dining hall structure but that structure has collapsed, leaving the students with no option, but the open space.
The contractor said the District Assembly should be held responsible for the collapse of the structure.
The supervising engineer of the project, Ayuba Issakah Aguba, told The Fourth Estate that the initial contract, worth about GHc70,000, was for the construction of a 12 by 25 metres structure.
The school authorities protested that it was too small and could not contain even half of the students. The size was subsequently increased to 15 by 50 metres, according to Mr Aguba, the contractor’s engineer.
Mr Aguba said the contractor required at least GHc230,000 to build a structure that could be strong enough to accommodate the students.
According to him, the Bongo District Assembly said it could not afford to pay that amount so the assembly brought its own drawings and specifications.
Mr. Aguba said his estimates with the assembly’s drawings showed that the least amount needed for the project was GHc160,000.
Again, the assembly said it could not afford GHc160,000. The district assembly, according to Mr. Aguba, said it could only commit 90,000 for the project. Even with that, the assembly ended up paying only GHc70,000 cedis.
Mr. Aguba said the weight of the structure required bigger concrete pillars if it was to stand the test of time. He was not surprised that the structure had collapsed, saying he had warned the assembly about it.
The Bongo District Assembly has denied responsibility for the collapse of the temporary dining hall.
“To say that we made the contractor do shoddy work is casting a slur on our integrity,” the Bongo District Chief Executive, Peter Awimbisa Ayamga, told The Fourth Estate.
He admitted the cost of the project was revised upwards when the initial estimate of GHc130,000 proved not enough. He could, however, not remember the exact cost the assembly agreed with the contractor.
“If you have done work which is not of good quality, or [if] the wind was too strong and pulled it down, why do you blame the assembly?” he asked.
He said the plight of the students eating in the sun had been brought to his attention a month earlier, but the assembly was yet to meet on the matter.
For now, the students have no alternative. The school does not have a dining hall or a structure big enough to accommodate the students at mealtime.
As they continue to pay the price for neglect, they are thankful for one thing:
They were not in the temporary structure when it collapsed. A number of them might not have survived it.
That might have attracted national attention and, perhaps, a visit from the Minister of Education who would dispatch contractors to finish the project.
For now, the assembly does not even say when it would work on the temporary structure. And with the dining hall project abandoned, the students will continue to stand and eat in the sun, and stay away from food whenever a heavy rain coincides with mealtime.