“Anyone Could Be Next”: Irene’s Story

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How One Girl Is Defending her Community From COVID-19

In rural northern Ghana, a 12-year-old girl braves a deadly epidemic. Irene goes door-to-door in her village. After she knocks, she takes a big step back and waits for her neighbours. When they answer, she explains that she’s here to teach them how to protect themselves from COVID-19. Rumours have been flying around the community about how drinking alcohol or prayer can stop the disease, but Irene corrects them, showing her neighbours how avoiding close contact, proper handwashing, and a few other simple measures can slow the rate of infection. Once she’s done, she collects the names of any children in the home who are affected by Ghana’s school closures, so that they can be sent home study packages. Then, it’s on to the next house.

Irene has been making these stops since June, shortly after schools in Ghana shut down. Ghana has been providing radio and television lessons for children, but Tolon district, where Irene lives, is one of the poorest in the country. More than 40,000 people live in extreme poverty and cannot afford a television or radio. A lack of access to outside news also means that information about COVID-19 is spread mainly by word of mouth, with rumours and speculation mixed in with what little accurate information reaches them.

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Irene is just 12 years-old, but she’s actively helping her neighbours in an impoverished area of rural northern Ghana to protect themselves from COVID-19.

When school shut down, Irene was stuck at home with her family, left to do chores and wondering when she would get to go back. One day, a few weeks after schools had closed, there was a knock on her door. A volunteer teacher working in a Right To Play program had stopped by. The teacher introduced herself to Irene’s parents, and explained that she was here to help them protect themselves from COVID-19 and to help Irene keep learning.

Ghana has had more than 46,000 cases of COVID-19. One of the biggest challenges Ghana’s government faces is confronting untrue rumours and skepticism about the disease.

“Our neighbours do not believe the coronavirus is real,” Irene says.

“Our neighbours do not believe the coronavirus is real,” Irene says. “I had doubts myself because my parents didn’t believe it either but after my meeting with the teacher, I have realized the virus is real.”

The teacher explained that COVID-19 was a deadly respiratory infection, and that it could be prevented through proper hygiene. She led the whole family through a series of activities that taught them how wash their hands to remove the virus and guard against infections from others. Along with the prevention activities, the teacher dropped off some books and a home study package of exercises for Irene so that she could keep on practicing her reading while school was closed.

Irene was fired up by her new knowledge about the risks COVID-19 posed to her friends and neighbours. She knew that many people in her community in Tolon were skeptical about the disease, which put her friends from school at risk of infection. She decided that she would follow the teacher’s example and help her community defend itself.

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Irene’s community has not yet reported a COVID-19 infection. After teaching a neighbour’s family how to protect themselves, she sits and reads with the children.

“The government cannot do everything,” Irene says with a broad smile on her face. “To stop the spread of the coronavirus, we all need to help our friends and families to protect themselves. We should be united in this cause.” Irene now goes door to door using the same information and exercises she was shown by the teacher to teach her neighbours.

“Irene is helping to prepare us ahead of a possible case in the community.” – Salifu, Neighbour

After her lessons about the coronavirus are complete, Irene spends time with the children at the homes she goes to. She shares her storybooks, and the children take turns reading out loud to one another. At the start, Irene had some trouble pronouncing all the words, but with the frequent opportunities to read with others, she’s been improving rapidly.

"I am happy that I can now read well thanks to the help extended to me by Right To Play. I am now able to help my friends read too,” she says.

Tolon district has so far been spared from an outbreak of COVID-19, partly thanks to the important preventative work of teachers and young leaders like Irene who have risen to the challenge of preparing the community. Still, she’s not relaxing until the pandemic is over.

“Anyone can be the next person and you may never know,” Irene says. “We need to protect ourselves against the virus.”

In 2018, Right To Play launched the Gender Responsive Education and Transformation (GREAT) program with the financial support of the Government of Canada provided through Global Affairs Canada. Active in three countries, Ghana, Mozambique and Rwanda, GREAT uses Right To Play's play-based learning approach to remove barriers to education, especially for girls, and to build teacher capacity to improve learning outcomes.