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Many hands across the sea

One Norfolk school has provided thousands of pounds to help pupils in Ghana, yet racism still stalks parts of rural Britain. Reva Klein looks at the issues involved in appreciating cultural difference

It's not every teacher who plans to spend their Easter hols getting "enskinned" in northern Ghana. But then, it sure beats the thought of getting "enstooled", which is what they do in the south. Neither is as terrible as it sounds. In fact, these are great tribal honours, part of the inauguration ceremony bestowed on honorary chiefs in Ghana.

Lynne Symonds, a 42-year-old science teacher in Norfolk, will shortly be taking up her animal skins (probably antelope) to become one of three chiefs of the Mamprugi tribe. This confers on her jurisdiction over 3,000 villagers living in the Wulugu district, one of the remotest parts of Ghana. "It means taking on a lot of responsibility," she says.

She will be conferring with some Ghanaian women chiefs to find out what and how much she can do with the powers bestowed on her. It also means dealing with a lot of media attention, plus a deluge of offers for her exclusive story from British tabloids. (Enstooling, in case you were wondering, requires nothing more invasive than sitting on a wooden stool.) Lynne Symonds is no flippant middle-aged woman going native for a bit of a lark. She is being awarded the chieftaincy because, thanks to her efforts last year, the village of Wulugu has the largest and best-stocked library (four tons-worth of books) in the north of the country. Since then, with help from her school, Hethersett Old Hall in Norfolk, she has been involved in improving science teaching and facilities at the secondary school in Wulugu and setting up a boarding house for girls and female staff whose homes are far away. She also campaigns for other British schools to link up with those in developing countries, and provides advice.

It's a long way to Wulugu from Lynne Symonds' life as an English farmer's wife, science teacher and senior mistress of a small independent girls school in Norwich. The north of Ghana is a malarial backwater, abandoned by the national government. It suffers malnutrition, parasite-ridden water, environmental pollution (Britain exports the pesticide DDT that we ban for domestic use to Ghana and other developing countries) and many other problems. There is an illiteracy rate of 98 per cent and a workforce that is mainly female and uneducated.

Symonds found out about the area at an international conference on education and industry in Tokyo three years ago. There she met the headteacher of Wulugu secondary school, who described the pressures of trying to teach 350 pupils in a school with no books, equipment, running water, sanitation, nor money to turn on the electricity. There are not even any desks (the children carry their own to school and back home again every day).

From that moment, she decided to do something to help. Through Hethersett Old Hall, she appealed for, collected and sent hundreds of books to Wulugu. Last year, thanks to funding from the Overseas Development Association, she went there to launch the library full of the books she had sent. After seeing the place and learning about what the needs and problems were, she came back to set up links and projects that would concentrate on the education and welfare of pupils.

Underpinning her connection with Wulugu is the link between pupils and teachers at Hethersett and Wulugu schools. Through letters, the children learn about each other's societies, cultures and environments. Symonds has used these letters and photographs sent by the Wulugo children as the basis for work on the science, society and technology course and for science and cross-curricular work.

"By looking at pictures of the children, we can see that they're smaller than our kids are and this feeds into work on nutrition," Symonds says. "We've looked at problems of plastics in the context of pollution there, because they've written and told us that their goats die when they eat polythene bags that are lying on the ground. And we have seen how cigarette companies sponsor road signs, and have explored the implications for agriculture when the tobacco companies persuade people to grow tobacco cash crops."

The Wulugu children have received letters from Hethersett children as well as tapes of the school's orchestra and chorus, science equipment and advice for teachers, in response to questions about teaching science. "The teachers know I'm a chemist, so they'll write asking me how I'd teach kinetic theory, " she explains. She sees enormous scope for running parallel science experiments between the schools, on soil for instance, but these would have to avoid using materials such as bottle tops which are not available in Wulugu.

The boarding house project is a way of promoting girls' education, which is not a priority for families in northern Ghana. When girls are sent long distances to school, they have to board with families living nearby. This has led to cases of pupils being sexually abused, some of them getting pregnant and having to leave school.

According to Lynne Symonds, even though the boarding house project is not yet complete, it is already having an impact on parents. "They are beginning to realise that something is happening now because of the project and are seeing the benefit of keeping girls at school," she says. She has already raised Pounds 5,000 for the house and needs another Pounds 3,000.

Symonds doesn't see herself as doing anything particularly extraordinary: "I'm a science teacher and I want to remain one." She appears to be a pretty good one, too. Eighty per cent of girls at her Norfolk school who did higher level science GCSE papers in 199495 received double A stars.

Her aim is to share the wealth of knowledge in Britain with the developing world, whether in Ghana or elsewhere. And she wants other schools to set up similar links - with or without chieftainships. "This is not an 'oh my God, starving children story. It's a story of hope through sharing."

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