She has water in her eyes, and it isn’t because she is selling it from the top of her head.
Theodora Bortey is eight-years-old. But instead of going to school like all children her age should, she sells small packs of water to people in Nungua market in Accra, Ghana.
“Why aren’t you in school?” my colleague at Pravda Radio, Mercydalyne Lokko, asks Theodora.
Struggling to find the words, Theodora looks down at her fist. She opens her hand to show us her palm full of small coins. She jingles them around.
“My grandmother says I should come,” she says after Mercydalyne asks again.
She is the only child out of her five older siblings that sells water, she says. The rest live with her parents outside of Accra. But Theodora helps financially support her grandmother: “My father says I should come.”
After cost, selling water makes Theodora two cedis a day, which is CND$1.
“I want to go to school,” she says, after admitting she doesn’t know the last time she went to class. “They [her classmates] laugh at me.”
The tears in her eyes become more apparent.
Kwame (who doesn’t know his last name), 11, sells water in the same market as Theodora. A year ago, he left his family in Eastern Ghana to live with his great aunt.
Speaking in Ga, one of the local languages, Kwame tells Mercydalyne he moved to Accra because the city’s school systems are better than in his village. Schools in his village, for instance, don’t teach English.
He sells water because he got bored at home. His great aunt tells him he can’t go to school until his uniform is ready.
He has been waiting for it to be finished for an entire year.
“School is important so you get educated so you don’t get cheated,” the boy says in Ga to Mercydalyne because he still doesn’t know English.
Ironically, Mercydalyne says there is no way a school uniform would ever take a year to make: “The boy just isn’t being told his great aunt doesn’t have the funds to send him to school.”
Mercydalyne asks the boy if he has anything to add before we end the interview.
“They just have to finish the zipper on my uniform’s pants,” he says. Then continues on his way yelling “pure water, pure water!”
Angelina Okyere, 17, also strolls the Nungua market selling water sachets.
She moved to Accra this month to live with her sister. She left the East in hopes of starting a business in the city as a seamstress. She wants to make clothes because its hands on, a trade she can learn without a classroom.
“I don’t feel comfortable in school because I never understand,” Angelina says to Mercydalyne in Twi, another local language. She says she can’t remember the last time she went to school.
So far, her best daily earnings are five cedis, about CND$2.50. She gives her money to her sister who is helping her save for her business.
These are the faces motivating Abdul Razak Yakubu. The president of Youth Movement for African Unity (YMFU) says he wants to get children off the streets, and back into classrooms.
But not just any classroom.
The traditional daytime schooling system doesn’t meet the needs of all youth in Ghana, he says.
Too many have to work during the day to support family members, or, they see the quick cash benefit behind self-teaching a trade over investing in a formal education. Trades are not associated with government curriculum in Ghana.
Public school systems also appear to be free, he says, but are associated with hidden costs like book fees.
Until the government adjusts school systems to meet the needs and interests of such children, youth will remain out of the classroom and selling items on the streets, says Yakubu.
Meantime, Yakubu wants to start “mobile schools,” he says with a chuckle: “Schools on wheels.”
He plans to buy vans and outfit them as classrooms.
“Instead of sitting under trees for shade to take a break,” says Yakubu. “The students can come into the van to learn from the teachers.”
He says he thinks it is a good idea not necessarily because of the educational aspects, but to simply motivate the children selling goods on the streets to find their way back into formal education systems in the future.
The government just has to make them work for youth with unique situations first.
The YMFU is an organization in Ghana lobbying for youth empowerment. The key to African development lies in educating youth, says Yakubu.
Youth like Theodora, Kwame, and Angelina.