Friday, June 8, 2012

Reflection on Ghana

I have been back in America for a little over a week and while I did get sick on my plane ride back I am still happy to be home.  Now that I am home I have had some time to fully process my trip to Ghana. When I was actually in Ghana it was hard to sit down and examine exactly what the trip has accomplished; however, now that I am home I am able to better understand the impact that Ghana has had on me.  Simply put the trip to Ghana was a life changing experience; however, to only say that is both too cliché and does not capture the true weight that the trip Ghana has on my life.  While the trips and the food are fun and exotic I would not simply label my experience as such material things.  The experience of Ghana is at times a vacation and at other times a lesson in survival.  To any student looking to study abroad in Ghana you should know that it is not an easy trip.  This trip is not for every person and before you decide to go you should examine yourself on a very deep level, only then will you know if you can thrive in the Ghanaian study abroad experience.

While a semester may be long enough for some programs Ghana is not one of those programs.  For the person looking for the most complete experience a full year program is best.  The academics may not be up to the usual CMU standards, but there are plenty of opportunities for independent research that is best done if the student is there for the full year.  A semester is great in its own respects because at least you are getting a great experience.  The lifestyle that I adopted in Ghana is to find more positive aspects within any situation.  Also, since there are many things that do not always work in Ghana the best thing to learn is creativity in problem solving.  These lessons are more valuable than any wood carving or other material items.

Being away from my family for the entire semester was very hard; however, there are plenty of ways to communicate with everyone at home.  Though contacting home is necessary the other international students in my group became a makeshift family for me and I for them.  We were all in a place that was very different than what we were used to; therefore, we relied on each other for the support that we needed to get through the tough days.  The friends I made in Ghana were fantastic and I hope to have them for the rest of my life.  The necessity of friendship was yet another thing that Ghana showed to me.  While it may seem obvious to most that since we are social beings we must have friends, it seems that too much in American society we remain largely isolated from each other.  This disunity and independence is a major cultural difference between Ghana and America and was an issue that I had to deal with at times.

For the individuals who need to feel at home at least a little bit I suggest bringing some trinkets or pictures that remind you of home. Also, I ate one meal that was not Ghanaian per week; this was a way to change things up from just eating jolof, waakye, or banku, and it was a way for me to feel more at home.  The best way to thrive in Ghana is to make yourself as comfortable as you can.  This means finding a routine, making lots of friends, and finding special spots where you can go when you need to reflect.  One of my friends used a small coffee shop in Madina and a restaurant in Aburi; another friend used Kokorbeta, it really depends on what things make you happy and then surrounding yourself with those things.

Overall, I hope this blog has been helpful for everyone reading it to understand a little more about Ghana. Ghana is a place unlike any in the west and therefore should be understood in a different fashion.  The African philosopher John Mbiti said that we should not compare the philosophy of traditional Africa with the modern West.  This is because Africa is still finding itself, and Ghana is no exception.  As a student coming in to Ghana while it is still finding itself is challenging, but overall very rewarding.

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Trip to Volta Region Day 2

Patrick and I started the next day before the sun rose.  Our 6:00am wake-up call was necessary in order to feed the monkeys.  This was a great experience, because the guide was knowledgeable about the monkeys and truly cared about their welfare.  In order to feed the monkeys we had to go to the edge of the forest.  The guide made a loud kissing sound and monkeys started jumping from all parts of the trees.  There was a family of 6 monkeys that came to greet the group, 5 young and 1 mother.  The young monkeys were very friendly, while the mother more cautious and stayed back, letting her children eat.   We fed the monkeys bananas by holding out our arms like a perch and keeping a firm grip on the banana.  The monkeys did not bite or scratch and were more than happy to jump on our shoulders and crawl up our arms to get the bananas.  The monkeys would not simply try to grab the banana; instead they would grab each finger and peel it back and then once they peeled back 2 fingers and a thumb they would take the banana.  I was awestruck at the intelligence of the monkeys, because they were still so young.
After the monkeys and we were fed Patrick and I started our trip to Mount Afadjato.  The normal way to get out of Tafi Atome is by moto-taxi.  Moto-taxis are simply motorcycles that you ride to a destination like a taxi.  Since there were four visitors trying to get moto-taxis and only two taxis Patrick and I had to ride double.  Strictly speaking this is illegal, but sometimes rules are meant to be bent.  Patrick and I ended up getting the moto-taxi for 20 cedi to the mountain and then 10 cedi to get from the mountain to the junction where we could catch a tro-tro to Accra.  This was a pretty fair price considering the driver’s opening offer was 25 cedi each.  This further proves that when getting transportations in Ghana bartering is a very beneficial skill.
Once we arrived at Mount Afadjato Patrick and I set out to climb the mountain with our guide Kofi.  Unknown to us at the time there are actually two paths to the top of the mountain, one is rather easy and has steps, and the other is much harder because it uses tree roots and rocks as makeshift steps; Patrick and I took the latter path.  Knowing now that there are two paths to climb the mountain I must admit that Frost may have gotten it wrong when he took the road less traveled because the path Patrick and I took was extremely difficult to climb.  Though our guide said he has made the trip to the top five times in one day, once was good enough for me.  The trip up was extremely steep and treacherous due to the fact that rocks functioned as steps and trees as posts that we could use to help us up.  About fifty feet from the top I felt as though I could go no further; however, after a rather long break I made it to the top.  Making it to the top was worth the pain of getting there, the view was awe-inspiring and the air smelled as though it had never seen pollution.  Though the sky was somewhat hazy we could still see for miles.
The climb down the mountain was easier but not less treacherous.  Patrick ended up slipping on some loose rocks and cutting his hand and we both had to use tree branches to keep from slipping all the way down.  The path was the steepest I have ever traversed and going down rivaled the difficulty of going up in some aspects.  Overall, the climb, and the entire visit to the Volta Region was a great experience that made my experience in Ghana even richer than it had been to that point.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Trip to Volta Region Day 1

During the last weekend of March my friend Patrick and I went to the Volta Region.  The Volta Region is northeast of Accra.  While on our trip we saw the tallest waterfall in West Africa (Wli Falls), fed monkeys at a monkey sanctuary (Tafi Atome monkey sanctuary), and climbed the tallest mountain in Ghana (Mt. Afajato).  This whole weekend trip only cost about 90 cedi which equates to about 60 USD.  This was an adventure, and for the cost it was unbeatable.
The day started at about 9a.m. when Patrick and I caught our first tro-tro to the Madina tro-tro station.  After that we found a tro-tro going to Hohoe (Hohoy) which cost 9 cedi.  This was a very good price since we would be traveling quite a distance.  Upon our arrival in Hohoe we were very hungry so we planned to get food.  This plan was diverted for a few minutes because the taxi drivers bombarded us with the question of where we were going.  One taxi driver said he would find us food and take us to the falls for 30 cedi.  When we walked with him to get food another taxi driver came up to us and said he would take us to get food, go to the falls, and take us to Tafi Atome for 30 cedi.  The first taxi driver became angry at the other driver and they began to argue over who was to take us.  We ended up going with the younger taxi driver because he had the better price.
Yabi and Amos were our “guides” for the first day.  Yabi’s role was to get travelers to the cab and Amos was the driver.  We went to the Wli Falls and it was magnificent.  The falls were extremely high and the water was warm.  The light sandy colored rocks that made the falls formed around us and lush green foliage was found creeping down the rocks.  The sound of the waterfall was very relaxing and the way it echoed within the cove encompassed me with a calm not found in Accra.  The walls jettisoning out of the cove served not just an aesthetic feature but, also was the home of many bats who simply hung on to the rocks and slept.  These falls were unlike any other I had seen before and they may in fact be my favorite place in Ghana.
After the falls we started what came to be our “adventure” to Tafi Atome.  The adventure ensued directly after leaving Wli Falls.  The driver had to stop at his house in order to get his driver’s license because there was a checkpoint on the way to the monkey sanctuary and without a license he would have to pay a bribe to go through.  This stop took us about 40 minutes out of the way and since we were on a tight schedule this was not a good thing.  The next stop was to by corn milk which Yabi insisted that we should have; Patrick and I did not want the milk and simply took it not to offend Yabi.  Next, Amos saw a friend and decided that he needed to get some more “African Snuff” (African Snuff is merely tobacco in powder form so it is not illegal).  This took about 20 minutes and then we still had to drive about an hour to get to the monkey sanctuary.  At this point Patrick and I were more than ready to get to Tafi Atome and we made that known to Amos and Yabi.  They eventually got on the road to Tafi Atome; however, Patrick and I had to call the sanctuary in order for them not to close.  After speeding down a dangerously rough dirt road we finally made it to Tafi Atome.  After we paid to stay at the sanctuary we went back to Amos and Yabi and gave them the 30 cedi price we had agreed upon.  Then both of them started asking for 10 more cedi.  This caused a rather large argument between Yabi and I and Patrick and I walked away without giving them any more money.  While this was a trying experience it taught me to stand firm on the agreed upon price no matter what.  This was a very beneficial experience for not being pushed around.  The thing to keep in mind while traveling in Ghana is that everything is negotiable and sometimes you may encounter people who want to take advantage of you; however, if you stand your ground and make sure you listen to your intuition about danger you should be fine.  Overall, I would say that even with the suspicious activity done by Yabi and Amos I still enjoyed the first part of my trip to the Volta region.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Classes at The University of Ghana

The classes at the University of Ghana are based in lectures. Many of the classes are between 50-150 students. This makes things very interesting for learning since at Central Michigan University a large class is about 150 students; however, most are less than 40. There are three distinct things that are very necessary to know about when attending classes at the University of Ghana, these are: signing up for classes, differences that international students may find in their classes, and exams.

Prior to even going to class one must sign up for classes which requires you to follow the rules of groupings and levels. Students must only take one subject from a group but can take any number of different groups. Also, students must have all the same level classes, e.g. POLI 404, SOCI 420, ARCH 412. This is set up by the university to avoid conflicts in the end of the semester exam schedule. If this sounds confusing it is because it is somewhat confusing. Once a student signs up for classes online during orientation the student has to go to each department and sign a sheet that says which classes they are taking. This is a prolonged process because not all of the departments have what classes are offered and the timetables up until after the start of the semester. While some departments may not post the timetables on time almost all of the departments post the timetables without any issues.

Once you are signed up for classes it is now time to start going to them. This brings us to the first difference international students may find with their classes. The first difference is that many of the students and professors do not hold class on the first week. This is due to the fact that many students are still making their way to the school and professors have grown accustomed to this practice. While this may occur, newer professors have started to change this by holding class on the first week. Basically, you should show up to the spot where your class is going to occur but do not feel strange if it does not occur. This is simply part of the experience and is helpful in teaching you to “roll with the punches”.

Once you start to have lectures you will notice that the classes are very loud and not always on time. Professors may show up on time, or they may show up an hour late but it is best to stay until someone tells you the lecture is not going to happen. Students are expected to come to all lectures and the professor will know if you are not there so be sure to make it to every lecture you can. Also, the lectures are normally quite good. Though they are mostly dictation the information is beneficial when understanding Ghana in a more conceptual way. For example, my political science classes have given me many different ideas about the society within which I am currently living. While there are practical sessions these are not as necessary to attend because, if you understand the lecture the practical sessions will be redundant. Also, practical sessions do not go by a set timetable so you may have a class during the practical and therefore be unable to make it to the practical.

Exams are very important within any school but at the University of Ghana they are your grade in many cases. The exams are cumulative and should be taken seriously. If you want to prepare the best the Balme Library offers exams given in classes from prior years. You can look over these exams and find some correlative questions asked throughout the years. This is very beneficial because even good students may find it hard to stay calm about their entire grade being based off of one exam. The thought that should help to calm you is that the grading scale is not the same as it is at CMU; 70 percent to 100 percent are considered to be within the A range. The more intricate exam rules will be given at the orientation but overall if you are a good student at CMU then you should be a good student at the University of Ghana.

While classes may be very different than what you are used to they are one of the larger parts of the experience and should therefore be taken seriously. Some issues may come up but this has been the best time to simply allow the experience to happen and understand that “while the systems may not always work the people do”.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Open Air Markets

The open air markets of Ghana that I have ventured to thus far into my travels are mainly located in Accra and Kumasi. The markets are Circle, Makola, Madina, Kanesi, and Central Market. Each of the markets are similar but still different in many interesting ways. My time in each of the markets has been an experience unlike any that I have had prior to coming to Ghana.

Circle is actually the Kwame Nkruma Circle, however when catching a tro-tro you simply look for a mate making a circle motion with his hand and saying “circ, circ, circle”. Once dropped off in circle it is important to keep your belongings close to you. Though this market is less known for pick-pockets than other markets in Accra it is the busiest market due to its size. Within circle you can literally find anything you want. If it cannot be found in circle then it probably does not exist in all of Ghana. Some of the items for sale are not necessarily acquired in the most legal fashion but that is how things go when there are so many people trying to sell what they need for money. The sellers in circle are willing to bargain and will settle for a fair price when an above average bargainer pushes them to the price.

Makola is a very interesting market in the fact that it has many different sights and smells not found in the other markets. This market is good to find foods that would not normally be thought of as market food. This would include live snails that are about a foot long, and live crabs. This market also has chickens and fish ready to be sold to anyone that wants them. Makola is also a good place to get traditional African fabric. There are many sellers that have very different fabrics of great quality. Fabric of the quality found in Makola is very good for making shirts, dresses, or anything else one could think of making. The prices are normally set on all fabric since there is an initial set cost that the seller has to pay to get the fabric from the manufacturer. Therefore, about 20-30 cedi for six yards is a good price. Some sellers will only sell in quantities of six yards because that is how much it takes to make a dress. Although you can find sellers that will sell by the yard for about 5 cedi.

Madina is located outside of Accra. In order to get to Madina you would take a tro-tro the opposite direction of Accra from the University of Ghana. This market is smaller than Circle, Makola, and Kanesi. Some students enjoy going here because it is a quiet place to do some grocery shopping and due to the smaller number of sellers one can build relationships with the people from whom they buy. On a side note building relationships with the women of the markets are very beneficial because, not only can you learn many new things about the culture and society of Ghana but you can also be “dashed” more items. Dashing is when a seller will give you more than the usual price while still only charging you the regular price. An example of this is if you ask to have 2 cedi worth of eggs and the seller gives you 3 cedi while only charging you 2 cedi. Normally, dashes only happen between sellers and buyers who know each other.

Kanesi is located passed Circle and is another large market. This market is unfortunately known for its pick-pockets. Therefore, when traveling to this market you should always keep your bags in front of you and your money close. Sellers will look out for you so in the event that you notice someone trying to rob you, make as much noise as you can and yell “thief”. Vigilante justice is found within the markets when dealing with thievery. A moral code of no stealing is almost universally held to within Ghana; therefore, when thievery does happen the women of the markets have been known to beat the perpetrator to death. While there are safety concerns while in Kanesi many Ghanains will help you if you find yourself in trouble.

The markets of Accra and Kumasi are very different but hold many important qualities that will help you understand the culture and society of Ghana. Thus, any individual who travels to Ghana and is looking to understand an integral part of the society should traverse the markets.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Trip to Kumasi

This past weekend I took a trip to the second largest city in Ghana, Kumasi. Kumasi is located north of the University of Ghana in the Ashanti region. The trip took about six hours through beautiful mountain terrain. The only downside to the bus trip through the mountains is that instead of a regulated speed limit the government of Ghana has decided to regulate the speed of automobiles by laying a gratuitous amount of speed bumps ranging in size from a simple rumble strip all the way to a small hill that requires drivers to come to a complete stop. There was a silver lining about the speed bumps though because it gave many opportunities to capture the beautiful scenery through the Eastern region.

Once in Kumasi we visited the Asantehene Palace and museum. The Asantehene Palace belongs to the king of the Ashanti people. The Ashanti people are a sect of the Akan ethnic group which makes up many of the people in southern Ghana and is about 40 percent of the population. The Ashanti still have a thriving culture that is exemplified in the palace, festivals, and their monarchical structure within Ghana. The Ashanti are very proud of their heritage especially the golden stool. The Golden Stool is the most important part of the Ashanti because it was made using gold, the fingernails, and hair of all the chiefs within the Ashanti people. The making of the Gold Stool represented the unification of all Ashanti people. As long as the stool remained with the Ashanti they were all united. The British did try to take the stool from the Ashanti during the British colonial period; however the Ashanti gave the British a replica of the Golden Stool and kept the real stool until after the war between the Ashanti and British was over. The rituals done over 400 years ago are still performed today by the Ashanti people and they truly are a thriving culture within Ghana.

The next day my group traveled to three craft villages to learn about the art done in the Ashanti region; the villages were the Bonwire, Ntonso, and Ahwiaa. The Bonwire village was known for making Kente cloth, which is only found in the Ashanti region. These weavers would weave all day on large wooden looms. The looms were manually operated and took quite a bit of practice to weave at even a slow rate. I was able to weave part of a single-weave cloth and found out that it takes a great amount of coordination between your hands and feet.

The next village we traveled to was the Ntonso village which is where Ashanti symbols are pressed onto fabric. Within this village we learned how the ink was made from trees imported from the north and then boiled down until only a thick black ink remained. The symbols had many meanings and were very interesting. Symbols representing “accept God”, unity, and strength were prevalent on the fabrics that were being sold in the village.

The final place we stopped was the Ahwiaa village which is better known as the wood-carving village. This village had more shops filled with beautiful African wood-carvings than I had ever seen before. Every shop had its own special wood carving style in their pieces. The owners of the shops were the actual carvers and were very happy to give a fair price for their work. The masks and figurines were fantastic and I was able to get quite a few for fewer than 60 cedi. If there is one place that I would like to go back to for shopping it would be the Ahwiaa village.

Throughout the entire trip to Kumasi I was very happy to be seeing how beautiful the country is because being in the urban environment of it becomes hard to remember that there are many picturesque areas in Ghana. Kumasi is a very unique area that while being an urban area is very different from the Greater Accra area.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Getting Around in Accra

I have been in Ghana about a month at this point and I have taken all forms of transportation that are available within Accra. Therefore I see this as the perfect time to talk about the interesting ways to travel in Ghana. Based on the order of price taxis come first. While taxis allow for less walking from junction to actual destination they come at a steep price. Taxis can range from 4 cedi to over 20 depending on where you want to go and how well you can bargain. Therefore, in order to get a good deal on a cab you have to be willing to play the game. For example a cab going from Osu, an area in Accra, to the University of Ghana, in Legon, "should" cost about 5 cedi. However, cab drivers may start the price at 12 cedi. To be clear THIS IS NOT A GOOD PRICE. The best way to handle this is to say "dabi tisso tisso", which is Twi for "no lower lower". By speaking Twi it shows that you are not a tourist that will pay anything. The cab driver will most likely come up with an excuse about why he wants to charge more but if you are able to stand to the price you know to be correct you will be able to get close if not exact to the price you want. A second thing to remember is to never be afraid to walk away. This means you can physically walk away, which will normally bring down the price as well. The third way to handle taxi drivers is when you are in a group you can laugh at the price when they suggest an absurdly high price. This option should only be used if the price is absurdly high because you do not want to offend the driver. Once a cab has been gotten you should not expect to get to your destination without getting lost a little bit first. However eventually you will get to your destination.

Tro-tros are the second most expensive; however, tro-tros around Accra are around 70 peswaas which equates to about 30 cents. The experience of getting in a tro-tro is something unlike anything in America. Tro-tros are fifteen passanger vans that can be anywhere from fine running condition to almost condemn-able. Most tro-tros only stop at designated junctions or stops, somewhat like a metro bus. The "mate" in the tro-tro will use certain hand signals and call out where the tro-tro is headed when it comes up to the junction. Therefore, it is necessary to know which signs signal which places. The reason it is so necessary is because many people will be vying for the same spots on the tro-tro and there are no lines or order to keep your spot. Thus you will have to push your way in and be aggressive in order to get the tro-tro you want, otherwise you will be waiting a very long time. Once on the tro-tro you will pay the mate and sit in very close quarters with all who are on the tro-tro. For people over 5'7" this will be a rather uncomfortable ride but you will get used to it. The tro-tro is the easiest transportation for the best price.

Lastly, are the buses. They are not much different from metro buses in America so if you have ridden on Detroit's People Mover before then you should be fine with the buses in Accra. The only issue with the buses is that they do not run on any particular schedule so actually getting them is more difficult than a tro-tro. These are the three ways to travel in Accra; all are fun and interesting in their own respects and with practice you can make the most of all your travels before you even get to your destination.