The students who are taught how to cry

 On the fenceless campus of a school at Battor Manya in the Volta Region, two boys aggressively stared at each other. They uttered no words. Just growls.

But just as one expected the pugilist in them to trade punches, one of the protagonists suddenly knelt down, gently parting short-manicured grasses. His compatriot lost interest and walked away, scratching buttocks that peeked through his torn shorts.

About 20 metres away, another group of children huddled together. They hugged and shouted names. One bulky student with the voice of a ring-side announcer screamed invectives that are common in coastal communities in Accra. They were directed at no one. His peers burst into unrestrained laughter.

“Break over! Break over! Go back!” a teacher shouted, his hands pointing to a row of green and white buildings. The fits of laughter came to a sudden end.

A first-time visitor is likely to be bemused by this rare spectacle. For the teachers and children of The Three Kings Special School for the Mentally Handicapped, however, it was a daily ritual.

But there is a part of the school’s training here that is likely to grip a visitor’s attention more than what happens on the playgrounds.

The signboard of the Three Kings Special School  PHOTO: Clement Edward Kumsah

Learning how to cry

The Assistant Headmaster of the School, Wisdom Asantide, has spent two decades of his life in this school. Like an intravenous infusion, he has been trying to infuse the school’s aim into its students.

“The children we have around,” he explained, “are children with intellectual disabilities. They have problems with communications, movement, writing skills, understanding, recall and abstract thinking. These are some of the problems they exhibit.”

Wisdom Asantide, Assistant Headmaster of the Three Kings Special School PHOTO: Clement Edward Kumsah

“Their thinking is just about now. They can’t think beyond, say, ‘in the next ten minutes, I will be doing this. I will do that.’ They don’t plan as such because they don’t have the capacity to do that. So, whatever they have around is what they think about,” he said of their abilities.

With dementia taking over their brains, some of the students store nothing in their minds. They remember nothing.

“If you teach them the figure one, and ask again in the next few minutes, they start mentioning whatever comes into their mind. With constant practice, some will be able to identify things. That is why we are not so much into academics because teaching them the subjects we learn in a normal school will just be a waste of time. Ours is basically about giving them some self-help skills, vocational skills to survive,” Mr. Asante said.

In ordinary life, the sight of crying children can easily irritate or draw sympathy from parents, but in Three Kings Special School, learning to cry is part of the curriculum.

Unlike their normal counterparts, some children living with intellectual disabilities are unable to express emotions.

“Some of them don’t even know danger. They don’t feel any pain. If they’re in a situation in which there is pain, it is very difficult for them to express it. Speech is a problem for them. So, if that person is able to cry, then you’ll know that something serious is happening to him or her.”

A noble idea suffers setbacks

In 1995, when the leadership of the St Maria Goretti Catholic Church in Battor understood the need to provide opportunities for the vulnerable, they settled on a school for the mentally handicapped.

The Three Kings Special School for the Mentally Handicapped was built to help rehabilitate the behavioural and learning deficits of its students through academic and social skills necessary for easy integration into society.

The school’s Physiotherapy Unit has been shut down because it has no instructor PHOTO: Clement Edward Kumsah

The church acquired land far from the prying eyes of the public and built a school that would later attract students mainly from the Greater Accra and Eastern regions.

Five years later, the school was absorbed into the public school system and is currently administered by the Ghana Education Service.

The oldest of three special schools in the Volta Region, Three Kings accepts students with learning and emotional disabilities from age nine. Per the school’s curriculum, a student should be ready to be integrated into society after 10 years.

It currently houses 115 students from age 12 to the mid-30s. Many are adults with the minds of children.

The “forest” in dormitories

Inside an uncompleted four-block dormitory at The Three Kings Special School, nature has invited itself and turned the corridors into a habitat for tree, shrubs and creeping plants—a disturbing monument of waste.

Such is the nature of the thicket that one would struggle to walk through the verdant greenery. The entire space has the eerie appearance of a haunted home.

This Ghana Education Trust Fund (GETFund) project was awarded on September 24, 2007, and was expected to be completed on August 5, 2008, as a solution to the accommodation problem in the ever-growing school.

But by the time the 2008 election was over, it was forgotten. The contractor, Omstar Construction, complained of a lack of funds to complete the 100-bed structure.

“The contractor was serious with the job and worked until 2008 when the change of government came, and he started complaining of funds. He managed to complete the roofing and did the tiling.

“But somewhere along the line, he stopped coming to the site and it was all about funds,” Mr. Asantide recalled in an interview with The Fourth Estate.

A decade after the project stalled, the owner of the construction company, whose name Mr. Asantide remembered only as Nene, died.

The dormitories, built around a courtyard, were expected to accommodate 25 students per room with provisions for caregivers, also known as mothers. The dormitories would have separate bedrooms, a kitchen, and a bath.

Currently, the structure has been roofed and wired. The cables hang loosely in almost every room. Some ceilings have been completed. Doors and windows are yet to be fixed. Not much has been done on the 20 washrooms.

Inside the dormitories and caregivers’ apartments, everything imaginable in an uncompleted building snaps at your attention. There is an army of wall geckos and a lounge of lizards preying on the insects that have made the space their home.

A brown canvass (rotten mangoes) of unintended art littered the tiled floor—the handiwork of the special students. In their moments of fun, they are said to pelt the blocks and rooms with mangoes, as if to drive away the spirits stalling the project.

Outside, foliage is overgrown around the building. With only two labourers and a 10-acre land, Mr Asantide said there were very few muscles to tame the ever-growing weed. So, they prioritized the habitable spaces.

In 2020, the Architectural Engineering Services (AESL) went to the site to introduce a group of people to continue the job. One of them, the assistant headmaster said, is the contractor’s son. But he could not do much because of the same old story—lack of funds.

“He said he was going to look for a loan and come back. Since then, he has not returned,” Mr Asantide recalled.

In 2007, when the government decided to build the dormitories to ease congestion, there were 80 students. With a 44% increase in the number of students to date, the school ran out of options.

“We had to convert some of our classrooms into dormitories even though we don’t have enough classrooms. Because of the accommodation challenges, a lot of students are on a waiting list. Parents come and go, but we are not able to help because of the accommodation problems. We can’t take all of them,” Mr. Asantinde said.

He observed that the congestion could sometimes be suffocating.

According to him, the crowding resulted in heat in the rooms. The students don’t feel comfortable in the rooms when the sun is high and controlling them becomes difficult for the mothers [caregivers].

“As mothers, we have a big challenge because we don’t have our own spaces,” a caregiver told The Fourth Estate. “It makes it difficult to even cook. Sometimes, you could be cooking in the corridor and a child would just defecate by you. Some even get seizures and fall on the cooking pot. If we have our own spaces, we won’t be recording such unfortunate accidents. We are suffering.”

No records at assembly

north_tongu_district_assembly
The North Tongu District Assembly, Coordinating Director, A.M Awal Suhiyini PHOTO: Clement Edward Kumsah

When The Fourth Estate reached out to the North Tongu District Assembly, the District Coordinating Director, A.M Awal Suhiyini, said the assembly [created in 2012] was new and had no records of the abandoned project.

He was, however, quick to add that when the District Chief Executive, Richard Collins Arku, was informed about the state of the abandoned dormitory project, he followed up to the GETFund, where he learnt that the contractor had died.

Mr. Suhuyini was lost between hesitation and a frown when he was asked whether the assembly was willing to complete the 14-year-old project.

“As a district assembly, we don’t have it in our plans to complete it. As an assembly, before we can complete it, we would have to ensure that the project is terminated before it can be repackaged and re-awarded,” he explained.

GETFund responds

GETFund office in Accra PHOTO: Clement Edward Kumsah

The acting Head of Project Monitoring and Evaluation at GETFund, Godfred Schandorff, however, acknowledged the existence of the project, which was originally scheduled to be completed within a year.

The project was estimated to cost  GH₵ 350,455. When the contractor, Omstar could not complete it, the company asked for a review of the contract sum given the rise in the cost of building materials. This was approved by the Volta Regional Coordinating Council. However, Omstar could not complete the work.

Mr. Schandorff said the fund had fulfilled all its financial obligations to the contractor, with the last certificate of work honoured in 2009. The company had received almost GH₵ 44,000 for the work done, as it was paid based on work done in phases.

Mr. Schandorff said although GEtFund financed projects, it did not have control over the award of contracts and supervision, except to engage the project supervisor, in this case, the Architectural Engineering Services (AESL).

“The structures and bureaucracies of the system are beyond the control of the GETFund. To hire and to fire is out of our scope,” he said of the award and execution of contracts.

On the way forward, he said the AESL could re-engineer the project to get it completed.

By re-engineering, he meant the project would be revived through either the awarding institution (Ministry of Education). The ministry could terminate the contract and re-award it to another contractor or offer it to the same contractor at a new contract sum.

From there, he said the fund would be informed to take the needed action.

AESL reviewing the project 

That decision has been taken by the AESL. The Volta Regional Consultant, Richard Osei Amanfo, told The Fourth Estate, “It’s unfortunate the project has delayed. Currently, we are seeking rectification from the review board of the Volta Regional Coordinating Council (VRCC). The contract sum has changed and needs authority (sic) to continue work.”

He said without the approval of the VRCC, GETFund would not pay for the completion of the project.

The son and brother of the late contractor, he said, had brought letters to the AESL and expressed their desire to continue with the project.

AESL figures indicate that as of 2014, the cost has jumped up to almost GH₵ 817,000

Encroachment, disappearing students

What was in the past an isolated asylum for children with mental challenges (hhttps://backinmotionsspt.com/diazepam/) is now a highly sought-after real estate address.

The school authorities are fending off encroachers. But they fear that it may not be too long before the school’s 10-acre land shrinks.  But Mr. Asantide is worried about the safety of the children.

“Because the school has not been fenced, the children walk out of their limits [boundaries]. They go beyond the school boundaries and sometimes we have to go and look for them,” he said.

Forging ahead despite challenges

Walking into the workshops of the school is like a step into chaos after a storm-battered roof, broken ceilings, a burnt storeroom and training rooms at the mercy of the weather.

Here, time seems to travel at a slower speed. It could take the average student months to stitch something together. Training materials are barely enough.

The school’s only storeroom for artifacts was reduced to ashes in 2018. The Ghana National Fire Service has asked that it should be pulled down because it is too risky to be used. But five years on, nothing has happened.

In spite of all the deficiencies, some of the teachers have reason to smile because some of the students are picking up vocations.

Among them is 34-year-old Edem Klege. Partially blind and mentally challenged, her fingers were swift as she wove at the time of our visit.

A 34-year old student of  the Three Kings Special School, Edem Klege PHOTO: Clement Edward Kumsah

 

Her teacher, Cothilda Afeku, described the shy-looking tricenarian as being quick to pick up what she is taught. Her peers take at least 12 months to master bead-making and other skills.

As her colleagues twisted and tied bundles of clothes of different colours into doormats, she smiled to herself, occasionally squinting to squeeze thread through the eye of a bead. The more she threaded the beads, the more she tapped her feet, as if to ward off tension in her legs.

Next door, two students stared attentively at the mat as another vocational teacher, Joseph Appah, wove a labyrinth of ropes into a doormat. They take turns to make the same move.

He has his frustrating moments teaching students with little memory to recall what they had been thought the day or term earlier, but Mr. Appah said he found joy in contributing to the change in the lives of his students.

“I have accepted that it is my work. I’m not bothered. My aim is that at the end of the day, at least, one of them will learn it and practice [make a living out of it].”

A WHO 2012 data estimated that of the 21.6 million people living in Ghana at the time, 650,000 were suffering from a severe mental disorder and a further 2,166, 000 were suffering from a moderate to mild mental disorder.

The treatment gap is 98% of the total population expected to have a mental disorder, meaning only two percent of the country’s mentally sick got treated.

In some communities, mental illness is seen as a taboo and the mentally ill are referred to as “mad people.” Ex-communicated by their families, they are forced to roam the streets in tattered clothes and eat from refuse dumps.

But the students of the Three Kings Special School are isolated from stigmatization and are helped to have a future –a sanctuary that disability experts would want to be protected and resourced.

It is a reason the authorities of the school say the government and interest groups in education and mental health should pay attention to their disturbing plight.

Students of this school might have difficulty crying, but their teachers do not think those in charge of the country’s resources need to see tears before they can give a sympathetic ear to the predicament of students and caregivers at The Three Kings Special School for the Mentally Handicapped

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