At the start of the last decade in 2010 – in what was probably one of the most eye-opening experiences of my life – I spent weeks volunteering as a school club facilitator and teacher in some of the most deprived rural communities in the then Mpohor Wassa District of the Western Region.

Thanks to the Yaa Amekudzi Peprah led Modeleze International Cocoa Life Programme, myself and nine other tertiary students had been selected after a national screening exercise as Cadbury Cocoa Ambassadors. Among those who trained and mentored us for the almost three-year assignment were a collection of ‘know how to get things done folks’ like Ningo Prampram Member of Parliament Sam George, current Deputy Employment and Labour Relations Minister Bright Wereko-Brobby, Consultant at the African Development Bank Benjamin Yaw Manu and a host of others.

My thinking that “a fulfilled life is one that achieves more than just personal ambitions but things greater than ourselves” was shaped through those interactions and experiences. That’s when my career path – development journalism (the kind of journalism that says journalists must be more than just storytellers and voices in the media but changers of lives and activists against society’s ills) – was shaped.

Opoku Gakpo Foundation Volta region

But most importantly, this is when I learnt how “rough” life can be for the everyday African child. “Rough” in the real sense of the word “rough.” Selling kerosene in the Aflao Market and soup in a Kumasi drinking bar to support my education was tough but obviously nothing compared to how the young ones in these communities lived their lives.

With no electricity and flowing water, darkness at night and long hours of walk-in search of drinkable water every morning hampered access to quality education daily. They were supposed to be competing with colleagues in Accra and London whose worlds had been connected by information technology just by the touch of a button, but they hadn’t touched computers in their lives before. The luckiest of them studied in structures built of wood or brick and roofed with thatch or leaking aluminium zinc respectively. Their counterparts who weren’t that luck studied under trees.   

And as if that wasn’t bad enough, some had to walk over an hour through lonely and scary thick bushes to get to school and back daily. Not forgetting that on a daily basis, they had to make time either before, during or after school hours to help their parents on the farms.

These were not only the most hardworking pupils and students you will find anywhere in the world; but also the bravest, and most passionate. Those kids lived their lives not expecting tomorrow to come with less difficult tides than the day before, but rather praying every day for increased strength to tackle whatever comes their way. It took a while to learn that lesson from them but it’s since been one of the most useful principles of my life.

Opoku Gakpo Foundation Volta region

We always left the communities with words of encouragement to the children that in the soon future, our leaders will get their priorities right and create a better environment for them to learn in and live their lives to the fullest.

Ten years on, I travel in line of duty from my hometown Dzelukope in the Keta Municipality through Bawku in the Upper East Region to small towns in Burkina Faso, Nigeria and Mozambique only to be hit by the hard reality that nothing has really changed. Children still learn under trees sitting on blocks, toddlers swim through floodwaters to get to school because of the absence of basic bridges, and computers still remain artworks on chalkboards in classrooms in rural Africa.

In a decade that saw us repeatedly pound the theory (and in fact, now a myth) that Africa will rise; and that the rising tide will lift all boats, the everyday African child got cut out of the deals that were supposed to make the world a better place for them than that into which my parents birthed me almost three decades ago. And on almost all occasions, the leaders into whose hands heaven entrusted the future of these children looked on. Not helplessly, but deliberately. Maybe because their own children were waking up in five-star rated apartments inexpensive western schools and walking around in fancy shoes on icy grounds during cold winters. They can’t be bothered.

In a decade that saw the world put more kids in school than the decade I grew up in, Sub-Saharan Africa still has the highest rate of out-of-school children with an estimated one out of every five children (18.8%) not in school whilst the rest of the continents have percentages in single digits.

Opoku Gakpo Foundation

In a decade that saw economies in the developed world bounce back from years of recession into bloom and blossom, 75% of the world’s poorest countries are still located in Africa. Approximately one in every four people on the African continent is under-nourished, more than 500 million people still live without electricity and Africa remains home to 90% of all malaria cases in the world with about 1 million people dying from it on the continent annually.

In a decade that saw the world score itself high in meeting the Millennium Development Goals and went ahead to launch the ambitious Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), approximately one in every 16 women living in sub-Saharan African still dies during childbirth or pregnancy; and only 58% of people on the continent have access to safe water supplies. We obviously have a long, long way to go.

If you are still reading this piece, I’m sure you’ve been anticipating since paragraph nine what my own suggestions to fix these challenges are. Sadly, I have none. But my dream for every African child is that in the course of this new decade, may our political leaders just stop dreaming, wake up and work? Can they just leave dreaming to the struggling children and get to work on what needs to be done today? Cut wasteful expenditure, be less corrupt, make judicious use of our taxes, build the school blocks and other infrastructure, supply the teaching materials, construct the bridges, and do what actually matters.   

Parents will parent. Teachers will teach. Good Samaritans will help bring the safety nets together in the interest of children who are not theirs biologically. Hopefully, the kindness of philanthropists will not underflow. But in this decade of our Lord, can our political leaders just lead the way and do what needs to be done instead of the three-point speeches, more predictions about a good future and plans for a better tomorrow that never get off the papers on which they are drawn? That’s the best legacy they can leave to the generations ahead. May God bless us all.