A youth group in the community once staged a debate, boys against girls, on the topic: “Is it more useful to send a girl child or a boy child to school?” In our culture, even the idea of debating such a topic would be offensive. But the event was a rousing, cheerful activity, more of an excuse to engage and encourage the youth than anything else. Out of principle, the women loudly cheered on the girls, and the men sided with the boys. Of course the girls were declared the winners.

(As a PCV, with my not-so-attentive class)

Afterwards, the moderator gave a short speech, summing up the issue for everyone.

Yes, it was certainly useful to send girls to school, he concluded, but not for the reasons I expected. Send Your Girl Child to School was a widely publicized campaign encouraging families to send their daughters to school.

Send Your Girl Child to School appealed to logic as well as equality, advertising that an educated girl means an educated mother and more educated future generations. But the fact which tipped the debate, put forth by the moderator, had to do with development. Not that a more educated population was useful for development, but that other countries and organizations held back financial aid from countries that refused to educate half their populations.

It was a political issue, in the end. Send Your Girl Child to School meant more investment, more aid, more money.

Of course I never saw women in Ghana act as if they were less equal than men. I could see that during the debate, as the girls hammered away at their points while women in the audience jumped up and pressed coins to their foreheads in praise. One of the great heroes in Ghanaian history was Yaa Asantewaa, a woman who led an Ashanti rebellion against the British in 1900. When the Ashanti chiefs were afraid to fight, she rebuked them for not standing up for their own king against the governor. She famously said, “If you men will not go forward, then we women will. I will call upon my fellow women. We will fight the White men until the last of us falls in the battlefields.” She led her troops into battle and it took 1400 soldiers with advanced weapons to defeat her.

At any rate, whether it was an issue of equality or politics or colonialism, the debate swirled over the heads of the young girls crowding into classrooms. From my limited vantage point, the Send Your Girl Child to School campaign was successful. Girls were sometimes even in the majority, at least in my lower grade classes. As the students got older, for whatever reason, there were less girls.

One of my gourd paintings, from the series about women’s roles in Ghana, pictured young girls in this role, as a student, but also as a political and international symbol.

The two girls pictured were my students, in second or third grade. They were looking at a National Geographic Magazine. I had signed up for a program which sent old copies of the magazine into schools. There were wonderful photographs inside, from all over the world. The first time I opened the box of magazines, my students handled them carefully, replaced them almost reverently.

But as time passed, the parts of the magazine that interested them the most were the advertisements. They loved the car ads that folded out into sleek, modern, bright red models. And they especially loved food advertisements, the kind that advertise some kind of box mix with a picture of a complete, prepared meal, so close up to the camera lense you can almost smell it.

Great ideas are so often different in practice, but it doesn’t mean they aren’t still great ideas.