This semester I was blessed to be able to visit Accra, Ghana on a Global Classroom Series trip over spring break. I have spent the semester learning about global inequalities and development through a course called Economics of Poverty, and it was such an academically beneficial experience to be able to actually go to what is called a “developing country” and see what we’d been learning about firsthand. But beyond that, for me, this short one-week trip was one of immense personal growth and discovery.
Ghana is located in West Africa between Togo and Cote D’Ivoire, and is known as “the heart of the world “due to its geographic location on the prime meridian and directly north of the equator. Ghana is now probably my favorite country that I’ve ever visited, and I want more than anything to return someday. Before leaving for the trip I did not know it was going to turn out that way. Over my time in college I have absolutely caught the “travel bug” and love to explore new places in the world, but up until this Global Classroom trip, I had only explored two continents. I was so excited to check a third off of my bucket list, but I was also incredibly uncertain whether I would love this place as much as others that I’d visited. Pre-conceptions of Africa as it is portrayed in the media/in discussions about poverty were giving me worries leading up to this trip. I had never been to Africa, and also had never been to a “poor” country in general before; for some reason many trivial anxieties such as “Will there be air conditioning? Will everything be dirty? Will the people not like us being there? “Were things that I could not get past when I tried to prepare myself for the trip?
Fast forward to getting off the plane on the other side of the Atlantic. We all immediately noticed the humidity as we waited at the baggage claim, and we were all uncomfortable after almost a full day of travel and being in a new environment. When we exited the doors of the airport, we immediately were reassured to see the representatives of our program wearing their CIEE shirts and holding a sign saying “Marymount “on it. They grouped us all together and quickly passed around ice cold water bottles to each of us, and this first act of gracious hospitality set the tone for the rest of the week.
“Akwaaba!” became the most common phrase, among a few others that we were able to catch on to in our time there. In Tri, which is the most common language in Accra (the official language of Ghana is English), akwaaba means “welcome”, and the locals who were in charge of our trip with the CIEE program made us feel the true meaning of this word. From the very first minute we felt welcomed and all became good friends; not only did these amazing Ghanaians show us around the city and teach us about their country, but they ate with us, danced with us, and laughed with us all day every day. The very first night we had a “welcome dinner” at a woman’s home who lived near the University of Ghana. She was a professional caterer, and she served us the best meal of our lives and allowed us to stay late into the evening celebrating together. This is where we had our first of many dance lessons from our friends at CIEE, and despite the extreme humidity we all let loose and immersed ourselves in the joy that is experiencing another culture through music and dance. Not only did we learn some traditional Ghanaian dance, but my classmates then took their turn teaching the locals some Bachata and Salsa, along with the whip and dab, etc…; the entire week was characterized by these awesome moments of positive (and sometimes hilarious) intercultural exchange.
You can probably already tell that the CIEE program staff are the ones who made our trip what it was; in addition to these new friends, some of my favorite moments of the trip were those where we were able to meet and interact with other locals –especially the kids! Our first day in Accra was a Sunday morning and we visited the coastal community called Jamestown. When we were arriving on the bus, we noticed that many members of the community were walking about, wearing bright and beautiful clothing, probably on their way to one of the countless worship services that we noticed on either side of the streets. As we got out and walked through the neighborhood together, we were greeted with smiles, high-fives, and even invitations to join church services! We also came upon a community center and some of our group played some quick basketball with all of the kids there. I had never expected to encounter such warmth from total strangers, and this caused me to be completely rid of the anxieties I had prior to travel. For the rest of the week, whether trying to strike up bargains for souvenirs in the art market or dancing with new friends and old at a jazz club celebration, I felt that we were completely embraced and welcomed and was also able to embrace the culture that we were there to learn about.
You might be wondering when we found time for “school” amidst all of this fun – I mean it was a trip with a class after all. We actually were privileged to hear from three professors at the University of Ghana about different topics related to poverty, and we also visited a nonprofit as well as a development research center! We learned, among many other things, about gender inequality, unemployment and the informal market in Ghana, about the effects of institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, and that “corruption is sometimes good”. This statement was made by a country economist at the research center on the University of Ghana campus; he included an anecdote about how if you’re running late and run a red light, it’s convenient to be able to bribe a police officer if you get pulled over, so you’ll be able to get where you’re going on time. It was very interesting to hear this Ghanaian expert’s perspective on corruption, and think about the cost and benefits of corruption at the individual and social level. What I mean by that is, this economist relayed an individually-focused situation in which one of the benefits of corruption is that those with money are able to avoid being inconvenienced by the presence of law enforcement.
However, there are actually very negative social costs of corruption, for instance the fee of a traffic violation that should be going to the public fund but is instead going into the policeman’s pocket. This is the cost in the particular situation outlined by the economist, but it is even worse to think about what other crimes the wealthy are able to get away with through bribing the police to leave them alone. Ultimately, police corruption in the developing world makes the poor worse off. The experts at this research center gave an example of a Randomized Control Trial they had done to try to study the phenomenon of police corruption, and see whether being paid a higher salary would cause police to be less inclined to receive bribes. When speaking with these economists, we were able to learn about this and other research projects done by the International Growth Center that will be implemented directly into future policy in Ghana! I was nerding out.
Hearing from all of these Ghanaian experts about development in their own country was an opportunity unlike any other, and really brought us grounded information related to our course topic. However, I believe that what I learned from this trip outside of the academic setting was of even more value. One example is when we visited the Kwame Nkrumah memorial park in Accra. There was a museum there detailing his life and his role as the founder and first president of the country of Ghana, and I learned more about the country’s history than I ever thought I would even desire to. Prior to going on this trip I knew absolutely nothing about the history of Ghana (or many countries in Africa for that matter); they don’t teach very much about that part of the world in “world history” classes. Through going on a tour of the park and mausoleum in Accra, I learned how and when Ghana gained independence from Great Britain, and I learned that the first president of the country was not only a politician but a philosopher and academic writer. This inspired me to learn more about him.
Another example of what I learned from a week spent in Accra is that a city in a developing country has many similarities to a city in a country such as the U.S., particularly in terms of extremes of rich and poor. Accra is the capital of Ghana, just as D.C. is the capital of the U.S., and we drove past many landmarks such as the president’s office, national theatre, and football stadium. But just as D.C. is a center of wealth and political power and also home to some of the weakest and poorest, so it is in Accra. The difference is that these extremes are even wider. We were able to visit a large slum called Nima in the middle of the city, and I was dumbfounded at the lack of even basic infrastructure in this place where thousands of people lived a mere ten miles or so away from the lavish memorial park and president’s office mentioned above. We visited a school in this slum community, and spent a few very joy-filled hours playing with the children and hearing from the Principal about the origins of the school. We danced under the hot sun, sat in on some of their lessons (even the youngest ones were learning both English and French) and then we played Simon Says with them! This was a wonderful time and I wouldn’t trade the memories for anything, but for me the experience was clouded by the thought that the children deserved so much more than what they were being given. The Principal explained to us the cost of tuition per term at the school, and said that even with this he sometimes wasn’t able to pay the teachers, and all of this seemed extremely unfair to me. It’s hard to imagine that there are cities in the world where kids are denied access to education, yet the community we visited was only one of many.
Towards the end of the week, we traveled to Cape Coast and visited the slave dungeon called “Cape Coast Castle”. It is hard to explain the devastating yet hopeful nature of the tour that we experienced at this location, as we were given a detailed education about the crimes that took place there. From the courtyard and upper rooms of the fortress (which included the historic chapel, governor’s office, and schoolhouse of the “Gold Coast” colony, plus a gift shop), we enjoyed the most unbelievable panoramic view of the sea and other side of the cape. However, this view looked completely different after our tour guide had taken us through the many dungeons deep below all of this. He described how for 400 years, African peoples were taken captive by European colonizers and by rival tribes, sold as property and marched to this and other castles on the coast, and imprisoned here in large numbers and often fatal conditions before being shipped off to work as slaves in the Americas (if they survived the journey). In reality this was a mass kidnapping -a prolonged period of violent human trafficking which plagued this particular region, and which has reverberating consequences to this day. In economic terms it’s called the “exploitation of human capital”, which –as our tour guide explained –can be considered a main factor in the continuing poverty of Ghana and surrounding countries.
Of course I had learned about the slave trade before in history classes, but that was all it was framed as: a tragic period in history. Never before had the reality of human suffering been felt so strongly as in those dark and malodorous dungeons, and never before had I fully realized how recently this world-wide crime actually did take place, and to what extent it continues today. We descended into the first dungeon, and as our eyes adjusted to the dim light shining through just one narrow window far above, the guide described the number of people who would be crammed together and held in the small space, how the little food they received was thrown to them through that same sliver of light, and how the smell we noticed actually originated from the “stone” floors which had not been excavated of their layer of human waste that had formed a solid surface. This and other mind-numbing accounts of the horror that was the human experience in this place not even a full two hundred years ago rendered our group silent for most of our time there.
This was not one of the fun days of our trip. I for one was thinking the entire time of how this was not an isolated incident. All throughout time, in all corners of the world, human rights violations are perpetrated and suffering is profitable. In the darkness of the Cape Coast dungeon, this reality was as tangible for me as it had been when walking through the gas chamber in Dachau, Germany, or when watching news coverage of another innocent man’s death at the hands of U.S. police. Just as these experiences are not easy, neither was the tour of the dungeons there in Ghana; the realization of injustice never is. But this is why our incredibly sad tour on that day was also a hopeful experience: I was not just depressed, but also angered by the truth of what had occurred there and continues to occur on a large scale. This anger was a motivating factor, that in my life going forward I will fight further injustices and strive to right the wrongs that take place. The hope didn’t rise from this conviction (a strong conviction which I already had), but from the knowledge that I couldn’t have been the only one who felt that way. Countless others had been to this site before me and countless more would come after, and learning of these atrocities would have the same effect on many of them. In this way, memorializing and educating people about the past can slowly pave the way for a better future for the world -at least an optimist like me can hope.
This spring break trip to Ghana was the experience of a lifetime, and one that I’ll never forget. From the strengthening of my convictions to developing my career goals to learning that what is called a “poor” country may be rich in ways that others are not, I would not trade any part of the week for anything. Moral of the story: don’t ever let fears and worries about a certain part of the world hold you back. We all have misconceptions about other countries, or even about other people, that can often limit our life experiences if we allow them to. If I had let my worries hold me back, I would have missed out on a beautiful place and culture. College is one grand adventure, but we won’t learn anything of value if we don’t take the leap (or the flight).
Class of 2019