My semester at sea: Ghana

Martha Bawn/Courtesy
The village of Atomkwa.

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One of the most important parts of traveling is forcing yourself out of your comfort zone. That’s one of the main reasons I am on this voyage, and it’s definitely had a huge effect on the way I approach new experiences. No country so far has pushed me further from my comfort zone than Ghana. This was my only stop where I forced myself into close contact with the people for an extended period of time, and I found that extremely challenging but also intensely rewarding. I had the opportunity to volunteer at an orphanage and a middle school and also to stay overnight in a small village called Atomkwa with a host family. All of this required a lot of flexibility and openness and was significantly more difficult than I expected it to be.

My first two days in Ghana were spent on service visits. The first was to a primary school outside of Accra, where I was assigned to the group working with seventh- and eighth-graders. Unfortunately, there had been some last-minute changes to the plan, so we ended up at a different school than the one that had been expecting us, and the new one was not really sure what to do with us when we got there. The older students were taking final exams, so my group was supposed to help with that, but all we did was pass out exam papers and then sit silently with the teacher at the front of the room for more than an hour. It wasn’t exactly the cultural experience I was expecting, and I felt somewhat uncomfortable because my presence was definitely a distraction. Afterward, we had a little bit of actual interaction with the kids, which was really fun, but there was a constant feeling that we were intruding throughout the day.

The fishing docks at Cape Coast.

The fishing docks at Cape Coast.

My second service trip was a little more successful, but it had its own problems. We went to an school and orphanage called City of Refuge, which is an American-run institution that works to end child slavery in the fishing industry in Ghana’s Lake Volta region. We actually learned a lot about the problem and how it’s being dealt with, and we got to help clean the school and work with the kids to write letters to their generous Western sponsors. The main source of discomfort there was something I had not anticipated — the other side of the “starving African” image that is so prevalent in the West. There is a actually a sense of entitlement and expectation of help among the communities surrounding the place, and apparently, this is a problem at all levels of society. It was clear that we were all expected to feel sorry for the Africans and that it was our duty to make their lives better. It seems to me it would be much more constructive to treat the people we come across as equals, and any help we offer should be taken as an exception rather than the rule. There seemed to be an intense dependence on outside help that was not only uncomfortable but seems problematic for long-term progress.

School children in the village.

School children in the village.

My village homestay was definitely the most intense cultural experience, in both good and bad ways. I stayed with a family of eight and spent most of my time with the two older kids. They gave me a tour of the village, showing me the soccer field, the community garden, the chief’s house, the school, the medical clinic and the Muslim section. Everyone was extremely welcoming, and the whole community was eager to welcome us, but again, there was the feeling that we were expected to help them. But aside from that, I participated in a traditional naming ceremony where I was given a formal name based on the day of the week on which I was born (mine was “Akua,” which means “Wednesday-born”); I went to a dance party with the whole village; and I was woken up by roosters crowing at about 3 a.m. The whole experience certainly wasn’t easy, and I can’t say I enjoyed every moment of it, but I think it was an important one to have. The fact that I could get back on the ship the next day but that, for these and so many other people, this was just normal life is not an easy thing to process.