Adventures of literacy: The world sport in northern Ghana

When asked to document their perspectives of literacy, the participating boys from both communities produced images of football jerseys. The alphabetic letters form the name of famous football players with their positional number below. Xavi, van Persie, Drogba and Ronaldo. These are jerseys that have been donated from outside of Ghana, but find their way to second-hand shops in towns like Tamale and Savelugu in northern Ghana. The boys know the players' names, and are able to sound out the Spanish, Dutch, Ivorian and Brazilian names. 

I sent these photographs to a friend in Sydney who contributed to the crowdfunding campaign. He tweeted back, having arranged the images in a 2x3 grid. I asked him what these images tell him about the children's perspectives of literacy. He replied, "literacy is local languages through chalk and global brands on the back of shirts. The children understand what's around them, regardless of where it comes from". 

Young children's perspective of literacies

Full circle.

In 2012, UNICEF Australia published the photographs of five out of school children I worked with in northern Ghana. I piloted a participatory M&E method that involved asking children to document their everyday lives with digital cameras. In 2016, I'm at the final stage of my PhD that was inspired by these children and their unique perspectives on everyday life, schooling and literacy. Facebook reminded me of this "memory" from four years ago. I had almost forgotten about some of these photographs, but not the memory that launched my PhD research topic for which I just finished my Completion Seminar; the penultimate event before submitting. 

You can view each of the albums below:





A picture is worth 1000 Likes

"There us no such thing as inaccuracy in a photograph. All photographs are accurate. None of them is truth" - Richard Avedon

A young Ghanaian girl practices taking photographs at a community exhibition. As part of my PhD research into out of school children's literacy practices, 10 children in two communities in northern Ghana were invited to participate as photographers. They produced 4,000+ photographs, which are the primary data for my research.

A young Ghanaian girl practices taking photographs at a community exhibition. As part of my PhD research into out of school children's literacy practices, 10 children in two communities in northern Ghana were invited to participate as photographers. They produced 4,000+ photographs, which are the primary data for my research.

Yesterday, the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) hosted a Twitter chat on global development and photography (#DevPix). It was certainly one of the more engaging Twitter chat's I've participated in, and there are already a number of good Storify posts. 

I want to tease out some of the pertinent issues, as Twitter tends to be superficial despite the quality of the content. In particular, I want to address the six questions put forward by ODI in a little more detail. 

1. Development has largely moved beyond 'flies in their eyes' imagery - but do #DevPix still negatively shape perceptions of development?

I'm not so sure we've moved too far beyond. NGOs revert to the famine-genre of images every now and then. This question shaped the Twitter chat. It positioned #DevPix firmly in the realm of communications. And this is a problem. Development photograph is much more than a comms issue. It is about ethics, morality, identity and representation. 

The question also set a particular tone for treating photographs - largely as representative of reality. Of one reality. We have moved slightly away from famine-genre imagery, but we've gone to the opposite end of the spectrum. The "Everything Is Awesome" genre. Both are problematic in that they present the viewer with only one reality, and only one truth. Images need to be treated critically as any other produced narrative, data or object.

2. What are aid agencies doing to counter negative stereotypes in photography? 

There are some fantastic initiatives that put photography in the hands of the so-called recipients. Often this falls into the "Everyday Life" genre of participant-led photography, in which children and adults are asked to document their everyday life (In research, this concept has come to be known as photovoice). The participants-cum-photographers are then interviewed or discuss the photographs produced (photo elicitation). 

3. Does it matter who takes the photo? And on a practical level, how can NGOs make greater use of local photographers?

Yes. It is everything. To again quote Richard Avedon, "The photographer has complete control, the issue is a moral one and it is complicated". This statement holds even when the photographer is a recipient, local or community member. Even though the tool has changed hands, the resulting object created needs to be critically approached. And, what is sometimes more significant in this context is what is not photographed.

If an NGO wants to make use of "local" photographers, they first have to take a few steps back. What is the purpose of this photography? What is the ethics protocol? How are photographs going to be treated? Photography needs deep reflection on these questions to ensure that it is not just a novel add-on for report writing. 

4. What are some of the rule for commissioning/using #DevPix responsibly?

Pertinent ethical issues such as consent, privacy, ownership and risk management in photography are often overlooked or ignored. I'm always hesitant when I see the image of a child's face in a photograph, particularly a child who is vulnerable. I ask, "How was consent given? Was it informed? How was the family consulted?" Consent, in particular, needs to be an on-going dialogue and not a one-off event. 

Can children understand exactly how their image will be used by organisations for reports, presentations, fundraising and advocacy? I doubt it. Add the layer of social media and the speed at which content moves, and even NGOs are unable to predict where images end up and how they will be viewed. It is important to always think about the intended and unintended audience/s.

5. How has social media affected how people use photography to communicate global development?

Tolu Ogunlesi highlighted Twitter's "propensity for decontextualising", but this is the tip of the iceberg. The process of decontextualising starts way before Twitter, back at the beginning of design. Captioning and including text with a photograph is necessary, but doesn't alleviate this challenge. 

Perhaps even more alarming is Twitter and other social media's propensity for misrepresentation and falsehood. Images are extremely vulnerable to being misused. For example, an NGO posted a photo of girls in a classroom under the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls on Facebook. The image was actually of Nigerian refugees in Chad (I only discovered this by finding the source). The NGO cropped out the boys to only show the girls. It leads the viewer to think that the girls pictured were those kidnapped by Boko Haram. They were not. 

6. What's the single greatest obstacle to using #DevPix responsibly - lack of time, budget, understanding?

Understanding. A lack of understanding of photography as a practice and of a photograph as an object. If you don't have the time, then don't do it. However, it can be very cost effective. I crowdsourced 10 digital cameras for my research, and the children only needed basic training for one hour in how to operate them.

Not all of Ghana’s children attend school – but that doesn’t mean they aren’t learning

This post was first published in The Conversation Africa

Researchers know very little about the daily lives and education of children who are excluded from formal schooling. According to UNESCO’s definition of “out of school” these children are never expected to enrol, have dropped out or are expected to enrol later in formal schooling.

But a case study in Ghana suggests that there may be a different way of considering notions of literacy and schooling.

This is important because goals set for universal primary educationunder the Millennium Development Goals have not been achieved. What to do about this was discussed at the recent 2015 World Education Forum in Incheon, South Korea where delegates mapped out the world’s educational agenda for the next 15 years.

A Ghanaian story

In Ghana, 80% of school-aged children are enrolled in primary school. This leaves up to one million children between the ages of six and 14 recorded as “out of school”.

Savelugu is a big country town about 650km north of Ghana’s capital city. The major - and only - highway to Burkina Faso splits the town in half. More than 97% of the area’s residents are small-scale farmers. Savelugu is considered a deprived district because it performs poorly against a number of key development indicators. The 2014 UNICEF Ghana District League Table ranked Savelugu 138th out of the West African country’s 216 districts.

A few kilometres from Savelugu’s town centre are the small communities of Botingli and Bunglung. Every morning the villages' children work on farms and do household chores. They also learn the Qur'an. They do not attend formal public school. Most never have and the rest dropped out during their early years.

But on four or five afternoons a week, 25 children in each community make their way into a classroom in twos and threes. During these lessons, which last for about three hours, children are taught numeracy and literacy in their mother tongue, Dagbanli.

The afternoon classes are part of a nationwide program called Complementary Basic Education. International donors, the government of Ghana and non-government organisations are working together to oversee and implement CBE for 200 000 children who don’t attend formal school. The programme aims to provide flexible and accelerated literacy and numeracy schooling to out-of-school children over the course of nine months.

Once they have completed the programme, children are encouraged to enter or re-enter public schooling at either Grade 4, 5 or 6 level. Children can achieve similar learning outcomes in nine months that their peers achieved in three to four years of formal schooling. This is a huge saving in opportunity costs to parents and families living in poverty.

Literary practices in the frame

For two weeks in February and March of 2015, 10 children from Botingli and Bunglung were invited at random to participate in a PhD research project. They were asked to document their literacy practices using digital cameras. More than 4000 images were captured by the ten children. These offer some fascinating insights and challenge long-standing notions of what it means to be literate or illiterate and out of school.

The community facilitator in Bunglung helping a student read aloud. Soma, from Bunglung.

The children participate in emergent and complex literacy practices across three languages. From Qur'anic Arabic to Dagbanli, they are formally learning two languages through informal programmes. Children in Bunglung are also exposed to English language learning texts and material because there is a public school in their village.

The participating children experimented with taking photos of their own writing from a variety of angles and depths. Barachisu, from Botingli.

It is also fascinating to see that their informal learning looks and feels very formal. They complete homework, study with their peers outside the time allotted for Complimentary Basic Education lessons and teach their brothers and sisters. They write on walls in their own homes as a form of note-taking.

This form of learning is shaped by social and cultural forces within the community. The curriculum and textbooks use Dagbanli names for characters. At the same time, it is a patchwork of global influences: this programme wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the millennium development goals which channelled much-needed funding and placed universal primary education at the top of the global education agenda.

A CBE student writes on the walls of her home. Amina, from Bunglung.

The children are far from uneducated. In two weeks they produced a rich and thoughtful set of photographs. The data set is full of behind the scenes images of children reading and writing at home, daily life and classroom scenes. The children are creative, bright and motivated. They can read, write and complete arithmetic.

The children of Botingli and Bunglung may have much to teach us about rethinking ideas of literacy and schooling. Perhaps it’s time to stop seeing these as static, uniform concepts and start exploring them as fluid, mobile and flexible.