I met Shifa Amankwa-Gabbey when she was only 12; she was in JHS 1 and was competing in the national spelling competition, The Spelling Bee. Shifa was exceptionally quiet, I had noticed.
Shifa, with former US Ambassador to Ghana and President Akufo-Addo
That year, Shifa would emerge The Spelling Bee 2018 champion out of 197 national finalists. What was newsworthy about her win was her being a Kumasi (Asante Region’s capital city) resident; Accra and Tema based students had won the competition for so long, many actually thought the programme was the preserve of those residents. (In 2012 Philemon Awan from Ho won, also a first)
Shifa’s win was historic again because, CNN’s African Voices programme highlighted her very inspiring story for all to see (go to https://edition.cnn.com/videos/world/2018/07/14/african-voices-ghana-shifa-amankwah-gabbey-spelling-bee-vision-b.cnn for the video).
She did Ghana and the African continent proud at the 91st Scripps Spelling Bee in the USA and was suddenly not that extra quiet girl I thought she was. Shifa was now a very experienced public speaker (from age 13) and was engaging with the likes of the Asantehene and the President of Ghana. Shifa was becoming an inspiration to her peers and we all were happy for her. All this was happening whilst she was still in school.
Come 2019 and Shifa launches her own charity- she doesn’t tire, does she? Remember she’s only 13 years and still in school, and now running a charity. Shifa’s charity, Sage Literacy Foundation (SLF) promotes literacy, a matter very dear to my heart. Shifa came up with the idea after participating and winning the spelling competition in Ghana. Her father has been her biggest champion and helped her set up her charity foundation.
In late 2019, SLF came up with a great idea – to run a writing competition. Yes, it may not be novel but it sure is a great idea, spearheaded by a precocious tweenager! What intrigued me about the initiative was how Shifa cleverly and creatively tapped into her network of friends and support both in Ghana and in the US. She had her former colleague Spellers from her US spelling days join her panel for judges, whilst getting prizes from her local contacts – simply brazilliant*!
Then 2020 arrived and all was set for the competition; we all were excited about the prospects for SLF. Entries would pour in like manna from heaven and we’ll probably need an army to help shift through them all. Then the pandemic struck Ghana and life as we knew it was changing right before our eyes.
The President ordered a lockdown of human activities in Accra and Kumasi, whilst all schools were also shut, as were our borders (land, air and sea). Businesses were not spared-their doors were also shut. Everyone was to stay indoors and only step out, in a face mask, for only the utmost necessary activities, which had been outlined by the President.
Staying indoors, for many people, took a heavy toll on their state of mind and life in general. Not being able to work meant you didn’t have a means of livelihood, therefore no reliable source of income to take care of one’s everyday needs. Yes, you may have savings and would fall back on it, but the presence of the pandemic created so much uncertainty as to when we could go back to our lives as we knew it.
In times of a crisis, such as the pandemic, survival is what everyone strives for – making it to the next day is the goal.
As such, SLF’s writing competition suffered- only 5 entries were received. Eventually, four pulled out, citing the presence of the pandemic, leaving only one entrant. This development will hit even the most optimistic person – your first ever project tanks!
But Shifa recovered quickly from this setback and decided to go ahead with just the one entrant who kept faith with the writing competition. A 13-year-old Takoradi-based student was rewarded for his effort and received prizes due him.
I picked lessons from Shifa’s experience as she shared them with me –
- You are never too young to lead and impact lives positively; look around you for inspiration
- Your word should be your bond – even when things do not go as planned revise your plans, but do not abandon it
- Build your network of support now- your friendships should be mutually beneficial. A good network always, always comes in handy in life
If Shifa, at age 12 could identify a need in our space and start a project in spite of any challenges, then surely, you too can.
(*not a real word, but it’s cool word).
>>>The writer is a passionate educator who makes learning fun for children under 18 through co-curricular programmes. Through her charity organisation, Young Educators Foundation (YEF) in Ghana, the programmes portfolios have expanded to include literacy programmes in local languages as well as public speaking programmes for the youth.
Based on her work in education and with children, Eugenia is the recipient of many nomination and awards such as a presidential award for the contribution to education over the past decade in 2018. In 2019, she was named as one of the 74 individuals in Those who Inspire Ghana, a global programme that identifies nationals whose experiences are worth sharing. Eugenia believes that children are not the ‘future’, but rather the ‘present’ and so the need to invest in their total development. She is a regular contributor on radio and television shows as well as various public fora on this and related topics.