‘Impossible is Nothing’: An Interview with Emmanuelle Dankwa

2018 Rhodes Scholarships for West Africa Awardee

Emmanuelle Dankwa
Emmanuelle Dankwa

by Tony Usidamen

It was boxing legend, Muhammad Ali, who said “Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it.” Emmanuelle Afaribea Dankwa, a First Class Honours graduate of Mathematics and Statistics from the University of Ghana, and recipient of the Rhodes Scholarships for West Africa 2018, affirms that ‘Impossible’ is not a fact but an opinion; it’s not a declaration but a dare. Through her life’s journey she shows us that we are, indeed, capable of much more than we think, and that we can rise against all odds and achieve anything we set our minds to.

What was it like growing up, and who were your major influences?

I grew up in Dzorwulu-Ebony, a town in Accra, Ghana, and I had my basic school education at Redeemer Preparatory and Dzorwulu Junior High School (JHS). I was enrolled in the school’s daycare when I was only five months old because my mum, a travel ticketing agent, had to return to work early after her maternity leave. In 2002—when I was about five years old—my family moved to another part of Accra, which was quite far from my school, so I became a boarder. It was tough being away from home at such a young age but it seemed the best option my parents had of ensuring that my education progressed without any hitches. Three years later aged eight, my mother travelled out of the country to make a better life for the family, and my dad—at this time—had taken up a job outside Accra. So, Redeemer became more like “home” for me than school as I spent the holidays in the boarding House too. Indeed, those were very difficult times but that experience helped mould me into the woman that I am today, and I owe a lot to Aunty Kate Dapaah, the proprietress of the school, and Mr. David Sagodo—the headteacher.

Besides academic excellence, Redeemer taught me the value of hard work and perseverance, and also instilled in me moral discipline and strength of character. I participated in lots of extracurricular activities at school, from sporting events to drama and dance. I really loved dancing as a child, so it was no surprise that I joined virtually every dance group that was formed. I was part of the students who represented the school in dance and cultural performances at the National Theatre and the Efua Sutherland Children’s Park during inter-school competitions or national festivities. I was also an active member of the Red Cross during basic school. I don’t really recall my motivation for joining but I am sure it had to do with my earlier aspiration of becoming a medical doctor—a dream that I am glad didn’t come true! 

Growing up, I had my fair share of disappointments. After successfully completing the Basic Education Certificate Examination (B.E.C.E) in 2010, I was offered admission to Abuakwa State College (ABUSCO) for my secondary education, which saddened me at the time because it wasn’t my first choice school. Also, even though I had indicated preference for general science, I found out that I had been registered for the arts. I always enjoyed analytical subjects, and I could not imagine being anywhere but the science class. So, I pushed for a changed in course and, after weeks of pleading with the assistant headmistress, my wish was eventually granted. It was a gesture she would later be proud of, as I bagged six academic awards during the school’s 75th Speech and Prize-giving Day in my second year of study. I was privileged to have wonderful teachers at ABUSCO who pushed us to be the best we could be. I graduated from the school in flying colours in 2013 and, today, I say with great pride that I am an ABUSCO old student!

What informed the choice of your course of study at the university, and how would you describe your experience?

Again, this episode is not without some drama. I actually wanted to study biochemistry at the University of Ghana but I was offered mathematics, which was my third choice. My uncle suggested that we contact a faculty administrator for advice, so we were directed to see the then Vice-Dean of the Faculty of Sciences (currently Vice-Chancellor) at the University of Ghana, Professor Ebenezer Owusu Oduro. He encouraged me to go ahead and study mathematics, explaining that the course offered a broad range of opportunities. He was very convincing, so I followed his guidance and proceeded to study mathematics with minor in statistics. Although challenging, the analytical nature of both courses and the receptive attitude of my lecturers kept my interest soaring. I remember the long nights my colleagues and I spent in Math Room 01, trying to solve a plethora of questions before the end of semester exams. The less said about the kind of insects we had to deal with, the better! I must say, however, that all of these contributed to making my undergraduate experience special. I was awarded the Prof. F.T. Sai prizes for ‘Best 200 Level Female Student’ in the Mathematical Sciences, ‘Best Graduating Female Student’ in Mathematics and ‘Best Graduating Female Student’ in Statistics.

But I wasn’t all about books! While at the university, I noticed that waste disposal was a real challenge for the institution, with litter and heaped refuse posing environmental and health hazards. I decided to do something about the problem and founded a plastic waste recycling advocacy group, which not only enlightened the university community on the benefits of recycling waste but was actively involved in collection and removal of plastic waste from the university campus through a partnership with the local government and some plastic recycling firms. I am glad that the initiative contributed to lessening the school’s waste management burden and helped change the attitude of students and staff towards waste.

How did you learn about the Rhodes Scholarships, and what was the selection process like for you?

I heard about the Rhodes Scholarships through a friend—Robert Afulimi—about a month to the application deadline. After studying the requirements, I decided to send in an application even though it was indicated that only one winner would emerge from West Africa. Robert’s mentorship and advice were invaluable throughout the whole application process; I owe him a lot of gratitude. My referees were also very supportive; none expressed any doubt that I was suitably qualified to get it, and I will always be grateful for their encouragement and support. Once I submitted the application, I could not take my mind off it. I checked my email regularly because I didn’t want to miss any update. After a few weeks, I got a message that I had been shortlisted for an online interview. Soon after, I received another email informing me that I had been shortlisted as part of fifteen candidates for the final interview in Lagos, Nigeria. I was ecstatic! Not only would I be making my first-ever trip outside Ghana, I was much closer to realizing the dream of becoming a Rhodes Scholar. That fateful day—Saturday, 2nd December 2017—when the winner was to be announced, I could virtually hear my heart racing. The atmosphere in the room was very tense with fifteen exceptional young people competing for one scholarship slot. Even after Mr. Ike Chioke, the Rhodes National Secretary for West Africa, disclosed that there would be two scholarships not one, the increased probability of each candidate emerging winner made little difference to our mood. And then I heard my name read out: I had been named Rhodes Scholar-Elect alongside 24-year old Nigerian doctor, Toluwalase Awoyemi; I was completely overwhelmed!

Rhodes House

What does being a Rhodes Scholar mean to you, and what are you going to be studying at Oxford?

Becoming a Rhodes Scholar means being placed on a significant platform where I am empowered to make a huge, positive impact in the world. As one of the pioneer awardees of the Rhodes Scholarships for West Africa, it also means setting an example and blazing the trail for young people in the sub-region and beyond. I consider this an honour and a privilege, and I am determined to make the most of it.

I will be studying Statistical Science (EPSRC & MRC CDT) at Oxford. Apart from my love for Statistics due to its practicality, I chose to study this course because there is a growing need for expert data researchers and analysts who can make the most out of the increasing amounts of complex data that is generated in the world on a daily basis. Statistical techniques help in prediction and forecasting thus enabling proper decision-making and policy formulation in various spheres of endeavour. I am particularly interested in statistical epidemiology, where statistics is applied in the control and prevention of diseases.

Where do you see yourself in the next 5 to 10 years?

Over the next decade, I hope to develop myself in a teaching and research-related position in the field of statistics. I also hope to be identified as an avid environmentalist. I believe that environmental conservation should be discussed as often as possible and it is my desire that practices like waste recycling will become very common in all societies.

What important lesson from your journey would you like to pass on to other young people and aspiring scholars?

Like the American poet and philosopher, Henry David Thoreau, I have learned that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life that he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. But when you take the path of timidity and fear, your destiny is to wonder—years later—what might have been. So, no matter how big and frightening the dream, or how impossible it seems, go for it! It will take a lot of hard work and perseverance but the reward will be worth every sacrifice. Get inspired and take the chance you need today!

The Rhodes Scholarships for West Africa are part of a wider geographic expansion of the international Rhodes Scholarships, and it is open to students from Benin Republic, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, the island of Saint Helena, Sierra Leone, São Tomé and Principe, and Togo. Depending on the course of study, the total value of the scholarship could range from £50,000 to £60,000 per annum, with the average tenure for a Rhodes Scholar being three years. Application opens on 1st June 2018 for the 2019 Scholarships. Interested candidates are to apply online at www.rhodeshouse.ox.ac.uk 

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