Studying at The University of Ghana Legon

The campus in general is huge! Although I am technically located on campus, my walk is similar in time to the one I made every day last year to school, from off-campus. I imagine that once I begin to truly feel settled, I will really enjoy the walk from my hostel to my classes each day. Between the main part of campus and my dorm, in addition to the market and the grocery store, there are several dormitories, a soccer field (not of grass, but of very red-brown dirt), basketball courts (shaped slightly differently than American courts), other sports fields (possibly some tennis courts), a cafeteria and a few campus buildings.

This past week, we also spent several stressful days going through registration and several orientations. Although the orientation was pretty standard—the essentials about being a foreign student in Ghana, including health and safety, the registration was incredibly complicated. It took nearly a full day to simply get all of the students in our group registered with the school. And that was the easy part. After registering with the school, each student then registers separately with the different departments. For regular students, the process is relatively straight forward, but for special admissions students like myself it was a little overwhelming. Between all of the special rules for special admissions students, the fact that the majority of classes that I had approved weren’t offered and the fact that there were multiple departments that I wanted to register with, it was a long and tiring couple of days. Although it truly seems to work for them, I am certainly happy to be through with that part of the experience.

I also find it fascinating how the classes work here. For some of the departments, the times and locations weren’t posted until the Friday before classes started and for others they weren’t posted until early this week. As classes were supposed to start on Monday, this really gave us true insight into how relaxed the culture is here. We were also told by our advisers not to expect the lecturers to necessarily even show up for class this week. As most of the Ghanaian students are still moving and getting registered, full classes don’t really start until next week. Some departments aren’t even holding registration until next week.

I was pleasantly surprised to have my lecturers show up for each class period and classes were very similar to our first week at Iowa, where often there won’t be a true lecture for the first class, but just a basic introduction to the topics that will be studied and giving the students a syllabus. However, in discussing the syllabus and required readings, there was one key difference that stuck out. Because their book store couldn’t accommodate orders for the entire student body, nor could many afford to purchase all of the books, courses operate primarily out of course packs. I guess it isn’t that different, but I found the reasoning interesting.

My First Week

I honestly can’t even remember now what I expected to see when I arrived in Accra on Monday, but nothing could have prepared for what I would actually see when I came here. Between my own reading, talking to students who had previously visited and the Study Abroad office, I felt that I had realistic expectations for my trip. However, as time continues, I can’t help but find new things that simply go beyond my imagination.

Initially I was struck by number of signs up around the city welcoming the Obamas to Ghana. Lining the exit from the airport, on almost every billboard had a sign of President Obama and the President of Ghana with either a slogan that stated that work of our two countries was the beginning of a great journey (they put it better than my description) or simply saying, Akwabba, which means welcome in Twi, one of the languages spoken in Ghana. This trend was continued, to a lesser extent, throughout the city with many billboards of pictures of the President and the First Lady, or just President Obama. On the way there was even a hotel that had renamed itself to “Hotel Obama” (even though we later found out that the Obamas didn’t venture in that direction).

I think that the biggest shock to me what the state of development of which I found Ghana as I rode away from the airport in a taxi. The ride wasn’t too long (Legon where the University is located isn’t too far outside of the capital city of Accra), but never ceased to amaze me. The farther away that we got from the capital city, the more rural it became. Now, growing up in Iowa, this really shouldn’t have been that big of a surprise, but I didn’t expect the University of Ghana campus to seem so far away from heavily populated areas. As we approached the University gates, there were several markets on the sides of the roads and vendors who approached the cars selling everything from sticks of gum to phone minutes. Once we drove inside the campus and headed toward the International Student Hostel, it didn’t seem to be any different. Along the road from the heart of campus to the International Student Hostel (or ISH as it is called by everyone), there is a small simple grocery store and a market. Otherwise we are surrounded by fields in a setting that simply screams, “I’m in Africa.” Also alongside the road, horses graze and families of goats wander through campus, noticed by no one other than the international students.

Of course this was a lot to take in, but our trip into Accra was truly mind-boggling. As Americans, our concept of what makes a city is very different that what Accra looks like. Maybe inappropriately, I expected to see a mixture of skyscrapers, buildings/dwellings of wealthy people, storefronts, government buildings and of course evidence of poverty in areas where there would be slums. Although there was some of all of that, mixed-usage seems to be the theme and zoning, absent. There could easily be rows of slums and markets on the streets near what seemed to be the wealthier homes. There could also be a farm of some sorts right next to a shop. It was just very different than what I expected and anything that I have ever seen before. It is also very difficult to see how many people live on so little.

In spite of the poverty or their troubles, the people are very friendly and always greet you with a smile. Here, it seems to be the custom to introduce yourself to everyone that you meet, whether they are a vendor at the market or the person at the front desk. In Accra, when we visited some of the poorest areas, the children seemed excited to see us. They called to us “obroni”, technically meaning white person, but used simultaneously with foreigner, and posed for our pictures. (Note: by them calling to us and saying obroni is not intended to be an insult, but rather simply an observation that they are making). In spite of all of the poverty that they face, they are all very kind to us and friendly.

Timeline:

Monday: Everyone arrives

Tuesday:
1. Ghanaian breakfast (Porridge with evaporated milk and sugar, piece of bread and butter, sausage (resembled a hot dog, but just a tad spicier), choice of coffee, Milo (a protein drink) or orange-mango juice.
2. Make introductions and discuss safety issues
3. Ghanaian lunch (jollof rice (spicy rice with cooked vegetables), white rice, fried/broiled chicken, fried plantains (like a banana, but starchier and they need to be cooked), cabbage salad, various sauces, including one made of fish)
4. Campus tour/Exchange money
5. Break
6. Ghanaian dinner (variations on the lunch menu)

Wednesday:
1. Ghanaian breakfast
2. Lecture on Cultural Etiquette and Health Issues
3. Ghanaian Lunch
4. Break
5. Ghanaian Dinner

Thursday
1. Ghanaian Breakfast
2. Instructions for Academic Registration
3. Lecture on Adjusting to Life in Ghana (from an American professor)
4. Ghanaian Lunch
5. Registration
6. Ghanaian Dinner

Friday
1. Ghanaian Breakfast
2. Tour of Accra (visit the W.E.B. Dubois Memorial, lunch at Country Kitchen (not the American chain), Kwame Nkrumah Monument and Museum, American-esque mall)
3. Dinner at the night market