Meet Gideon Commey, Royal Commonwealth Society Africa’s Regional Youth Coordinator. Gideon grew up in rural Ghana attending a school with no access to books other than the textbook his teacher used in class. Today, he is studying for an MSc at University College London. He hopes to one day become a research activist advising the Ghanaian government on environmental policies.
Gideon believes in the power of books and he will be sharing some of his personal insights and experiences at our London Book Fair seminar discussing the transformative power that books can have on disadvantaged communities. He talked to us about how books helped him get to where he is today and how he believes books and initiatives like the RCS’s Queen’s Commonwealth Essay Competition can help change the lives of more young people across the world.
I grew up in a village in Ghana, in the Brong Ahafo region which is more than 12 hours journey from Accra the capital city. All my basic education was in the village and I never got any books to read. Just a textbook in school and even then you don’t get hold of it– the teacher just teaches you from it. So you don’t read anything apart from the notes you take in class.
It is difficult for children growing up in the villages in Ghana. Even if a kid gets into school, a lot of schools are under-resourced – few learning materials, teachers who live too far away to travel to school every day. Yet they are supposed to write the same school examinations as children who are in the best schools. And how do you compete with them? You can’t, you are limited. Without reading something extra, you can’t do anything. Thousands of people [in Ghana] are limited because they can’t crack a book open.
How did things change for you?
My dad got transferred to Accra when I was about to enter high school. Because he was an Anglican Priest, he got me into an Anglican school called Adisadel College. I probably also got in because I performed well in the Basic Education Certificate Examination which I wrote in a local school in Accra. And that was the first time I was able to read a book. The first book I read from cover to cover was Things Fall Apart and I was almost 16.
I struggled for the three years that I was in that school because I didn’t have any foundation to build on – there was some basic things that I didn’t know. Even English construction. But I had an interest in books – I wanted to really know more. So I began to fall in love with books. Then, when I graduated and I went to the University of Ghana, that was where my life really changed because we had a huge library. You could spend hours reading.
Then, when I graduated and I went to the University of Ghana, that was where my life really changed because we had a huge library. You could spend hours reading.
It was amazing and I think that’s what shaped my life.
I had a very transforming experience in 2007– I went to Keta, a community in the Volta Region of Ghana and I saw sea level rise as a result of climate change. The sea had taken away a lot of housing but I didn’t understand the phenomenon. I came back to university to do some research on it and watched Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. That really inspired me to do something about the situation.
I read a lot of books and they transformed my thinking.
I founded the Ghana Youth Environment Movement to advocate on environmental sustainability and empower other young people with the tools to take action on behalf of the environment. I would say that was the vehicle of gaining a scholarship to study here in the UK because the scholarship was based on impact you have had in your local community, not just academic performance. It amazes me sometimes because of where I’ve come from. And it’s just because of reading books and getting to know more.
It amazes me sometimes because of where I’ve come from. And it’s just because of reading books and getting to know more.
Where do you think you would be now if you hadn’t had that opportunity to learn and read when you were younger?
Without books, today I’d probably be a hawker somewhere who thinks I am at the mercy of any political decision that happens around me, I can’t change anything. The hopelessness. Because I wouldn’t see beyond the walls of my environment, I’ll be stuck within that small space.
But books are universal. If you are able to grab it in a village in Ghana and somebody grabs it New York or London, you are on the same level. So they are really transforming.
As part of your role as RCS Africa’s Regional Youth Coordinator, you encourage young people to take part in the Queen’s Commonwealth Essay Competition. What difference do you see the competition –and books – making in the lives of young people in Ghana today?
I think the essay competition is a really very powerful tool. Before, all the entries in Ghana were from international schools. Last year was a breakthrough from us because some schools from the villages participated and they won prizes so that shows you the potential there. If they are getting the resources, they can compete with the best schools anywhere in the world.
I feel that these are the kids we want to get to in the villages [with the essay competition] because when those kids begin to read books it changes their world view, it empowers them. That kid may have no electricity at home, no opportunity to read the news or even listen to the radio but a book can give them the passion, the power, the ability to dream, at least about the solution to their problems and for me, that’s a good step.
That’s what the essay competition can do – it gets the opportunity out there for these children and motivates them.
What hopes do you have for their futures, especially those in rural communities?
I basically put myself in their shoes; how I went through the system. I don’t expect it to be easy for them but I think you use a very important word – hope. In the mist of uncertainty, it is the most important asset. The kids studying in international schools in Ghana are no better than village kids so I have very high aspirations for them. They want to become pilots, they want to become doctors, because that’s what they’ve read in books and they know it is possible. If I have been able to come from that background, then any kid anywhere that gets a little support can do the same. They will make it with hope, but we need to give them the opportunity to overcome their challenges and that is what things like the essay competition and access to books can do.
The Queen’s Commonwealth Essay Competition is open to any young person aged 18 or under living in a Commonwealth country. Entries for this year’s competition close on 1st June. To find out more about the competition and how to enter, click here.
Gideon will be speaking at London Book Fair alongside our Head of Programmes Samantha Thomas-Chuula and Cheltenham Festivals’ Director of Education Ali Mawle on Thursday 14th March. Find out more here.
Header image: photo by Lapping on Pixabay.