Traveling as an American Under a Trump Presidency

This post is mildly political (as in one chili pepper on the salsa jar mild), but if you don’t want to think about politics or the election, this is your warning to stop reading now.

Since the election, I have found myself thinking about what it will be like to be an American traveling abroad with a President Trump. For all of my international travel experiences, except one, it has been under President Obama. (And even for that trip in 2007 it was the transition of power in Britain, not our own government, that caused us problems. With several thwarted terrorist attacks across the UK during the days we were in London, it was quite a time to be there.) Whatever your personal opinion of President Obama, he was loved abroad which made it so much easier to be an American abroad.

I think back to some of the experiences I had in Africa. President Obama had just visited a month or two before I arrived and left a legacy of goodwill towards Americans. Let me share one of my favorite stories (I always thought this is the story I would share with President Obama if I had the pleasure of meeting him).

My friend and I decided to take a trip to Benin for a few days. On our way back crossing the border from Benin to Togo, we had to fill out some paperwork. As we were filling out our paperwork, one of the immigration officers grabbed my friend’s left hand, ripped it away from her paper and held it up. Unsure about what was happening, we gave each other this terrified look. We knew one thing. Using your left hand is not done in polite society because it is associated with “unclean” things. In some circles and social situations it is highly insulting. For example, you would never wave hello to someone with your left hand – that would be an insult. (Even seven years later, when I do raise my left hand to wave, I experience a bewildering moment of panic until I realize that I still unconsciously carry this association.) Remembering that my friend is left-handed and was using her left hand to fill out her papers, my mind started racing. In Benin, the language spoken is French. Based on our experiences the past few days and during a previous trip to Togo, I knew my French was at a level sufficient only to keep us from starving and from living on the streets. It was not sufficient for calmly, rationally, and diplomatically explaining that this was merely a cultural misunderstanding and that my friend did not mean to insult this officer or anyone else. Struggling to translate the words in my head in preparation, we braced ourselves for the worst. Sternly and in English, he said, “You are left-handed…”. We stood there cringing. Then his expression changed. A smile crept across his face and exclaimed excitedly, “…like Obama!”. I think the whole room heard us sigh and laugh with anxious relief. We spent the next few minutes chatting with this officer and his colleague who were, after all, very friendly.

In a place where people excitedly greeted you with the word, “Obama”, comic books portrayed a young Barack in the likeness of a young Clark Kent and you could buy any piece of merchandise with Obama’s likeness (watches, flip flops, you name it), the goodwill towards Americans because of Obama was palatable. This was one instance of many where the simple fact that Obama was president made our travels easier.

A sign in Cape Coast, Ghana for Obama's visit in 2009.

A sign in Cape Coast, Ghana for President Obama’s visit in 2009.

In all of my travels, people have asked me about politics – where I stand on international politics and my personal opinion of the president. That’s not going to change. What may change is that underlying feeling of goodwill and the epithets used to describe our president or my fellow Americans, which, depending on how it goes could be the same profane epithets I encountered abroad used to describe President Bush.

In the days since the election, I have been surprised by the responses I have received from non-Americans who have discussed it with me. Knowing that I am American, many would cautiously ask, “How do you feel about the election?” After I disclosed that I was unhappy with the outcome, they apologized to me. (And I thought I was going to be doing the apologizing!) While most people think the outcome is absurd, they aren’t shocked. We are just in another global cycle of nationalism, like before World War II, they say, suggesting that while concerning, this was inevitable (thanks, that’s really comforting). Others say, it is just like Brexit – people want change and they thought this was the only way to make that change happen. Most have said that while the president of the United States has monumental impacts across the globe (to the point where it was suggested to me that the role was too important and too impactful on a global scale for the decision to be left to Americans alone…to which I was surprised that for how open and international and “enlightened” I think I am, my inner Uncle Sam was like, “Now wait just a minute…”), they believe in our system of checks and balances and don’t think that he can really do that much damage. Others still, especially from countries much older than our own, said that every country takes their turn with bad leaders and if he turns out to be one, it will be okay. (Completely unrelated, but equally interesting was one comment about the US/Russian relations. Having grown up in the Cold War, they just couldn’t fathom this new close relationship between Trump and Putin. After all this time and everything that happened, this would be the next chapter in that story.)

The most comforting words have come from my classmates who don’t blame me personally for whatever may come next (and have kindly offered to welcome me to their countries…). Because of this, I don’t think I’ll need to fear for my safety while traveling in the near future. However, I will need to be ready to articulately discuss this election and Trump’s subsequent policies. As much as I am ready for it to be over (and not just because of the outcome, but because as an Iowan for whom the election started in what, like 2013 (?), I have been ill with “election fatigue” for some time and I’d like to have permission to think about something else for awhile), but as an American abroad I am a spokesperson for our country and I think that will be truer now than ever before.

My Favorite Conversations with Ghanaians

As an obroni, we are often approached and asked all sorts of questions. Of those conversations that I have witnessed, I wanted to share a few of my favorites.

1. One day I was walking to class all by myself and someone approached me and asked me a few questions. Our conversation went a little like this:

Gentleman: Are you American?
Me: Yes.
Gentleman: I knew it. I could tell by the special color of your skin.
Me: (confused because I could easily be European based on the color of my skin)
Gentleman: I have always wondered why it is so difficult to become friends with Americans. I have friends that are German and Norwegian, but not American.
Me: Well, a lot of times Americans aren’t used to having people we don’t know approach us and ask us for our phone numbers. Its just not something we do in America, we’re a little more reserved in that respect.
Gentleman: Well, why not?
Me: We don’t always think that the friendship is genuine when you immediately ask for our number. A lot of people ask us to give them things [once they have our contact information] and so it makes us not want to give out our numbers to anyone.
Gentleman: Well, it is nice to give alms.
Me: (To myself: And that’s exactly why you don’t have American friends.)
I ignore this response and luckily he brings up something about American politics and President Obama. President Obama is very popular here in Ghana and so I say something that indicates that I like him.
Gentleman: Why wouldn’t you want to vote for your fellow American for president?
Me: (shocked) What do you mean?
Gentleman: Well, President Obama isn’t American.
Me: President Obama was born in America so he is an American.
Gentleman: But his father is African.
Me: But that’s what America is, people come from all over the world to live in America.
At this point, I continue to try to explain that America is a country of immigrants, but then he has reached his class, so we part. I think this conversation just really took me off guard, but that it was too interesting not to share.

2. In our adventure to try to find the Benin and Togo embassies and square away our visas for an upcoming trip, we met a couple of interesting characters.

On our way out to the embassies, one Ghanaian shouted to our guy friend who was accompanying us, “Why do you have three women? That is too many for you!”

Equally entertaining was the conversation between our guy friend and a gentleman with whom we shared a taxi:
Ghanaian: Why do you eat candy? Men don’t eat candy.
Friend: Maybe I don’t want to be a man then. Maybe I’ll just stay a boy.
Ghanaian: If you are a boy, the women (indicating to us who are sitting behind them) will beat you up.
Friend: They already do.

3. One night a girl in my group introduced me to one of her Ghanaian friends who took us to one of the dorm lounges on campus. There we shared a very interesting conversation, but I’ll just give some highlights:
A. When comparing accents, apparently one appears more intellectual if they have a British accent, but they are infinitely more cool if they have an American accent.
B. By sitting with him at this central spot on campus(2 obroni girls), we were making his dream come true. Apparently when he was a kid and would come to the university, he thought that it was the coolest thing for Ghanaian guys to be sitting at this cafe with obroni girls and always wanted to be like them.

4. During one of my study sessions, I was met by one of the Ghanaian gentleman that lives on my floor. Somehow we got into a conversation about dating and values. He had a couple of great one-liners:

Ghanaian: I can’t figure out if you are a good girl or someone who just appears to be good.
We chat and later on it comes out that I haven’t really dated anyone.
Ghanaian: (After a while) Do you repulse guys?
Me: (holding back laughter) Do I repulse you?
Ghanaian: No, I think you are nice.
Me: (Not even sure what to say at this point) Well, thank you. Yeah, I’m sure I repulse guys then.

5. Needing some obroni-ness in our lives we decide to go to the obroni hub located in Osu called Ryan’s Pub. While the night was full of many interesting moments, my favorite had to be when we met up with some interesting characters. I don’t know we got introduced to these guys, but somehow we had this conversation (One guy said the next day, “You mean this really happened? I thought I just dreamed that.”):

Characters: From now on, when we see you in Accra, we will call you Donkey Kong (indicating to our guy friend) and you Crispy Cockroach (indicating to my friend) and you Pregnant Fish (indicating to me).
Us: (My guy friend and I are laughing hysterically, but my other friend speaks) I don’t like my name, Crispy Cockroach. I think I should have a new name.
Characters: Fine, we will call you Ninja Lizard.
Me: (Still laughing) Why Pregnant Fish?
Characters: Don’t worry, its a good thing.

A Ghanaian Funeral

One of the weekends that I decided to stay home, we were invited by some of our friends at the school to attend a funeral with them (it was the parent of one of their/our colleagues at the school). Now, when we went through orientation the international programs office told us that if we were ever invited to a Ghanaian funeral, we shouldn’t think of it as weird and should absolutely accept the offer. As we drove with our teacher friends to the occasion, they explained to us that funerals are different in Ghana than what we are used to in America and that they vary by ethnic group.

On this day we were going to the second day of an Ewe funeral. Our friend explained to us that the first day is for crying, but the second day is for celebrating. As weird as this sounds, Ghanaians sure know how to throw a funeral party. Upon our arrival we were greeted by onlookers with the typical stares and cat calls, but being the only obronis there, it was probably a shock to see us. Our hosts then directed us to the main part of the celebration where we were introduced to the family of the deceased who welcomed us warmly. Shortly after, we were directed to the front row of a traditional dance performance where we were offered drinks and were greeted by those around us.

It didn’t take long before the dancers had the bright idea of inviting people from the audience to join them. So who do they pick? The people who know the dances, know the culture and probably knew the deceased? No, they pick the obronis in the crowd siting awkwardly in the front row. At first, they dragged all of us on to the stage area and had them mock their dance moves. I can’t imagine what we looked like, but the crowd thought it was simply the greatest thing and laughed hysterically watching us try to not make fools of ourselves (but totally failing). However, we felt that by doing this, we were at least contributing to the ceremony by being entertaining rather than just being more mouths to feed. Well, unfortunately, our group appearance wasn’t enough. After a short break, each one of us was taken individually on stage where we again had to mock the movement of our dance partner for the immense pleasure of the crowd. Now, I would be lying if I told you I wasn’t having fun. While I felt utterly ridiculous because my body did not move in a way remotely close to what my dance partner was doing and I was awkwardly dancing in front of a full crowd of people, I had thought, “When else in my lifetime will I be able to attempt a Ghanaian dance at a funeral?” While many people have had this little realization about how cool it is to be in Africa, that was definitely my moment.

After we had all fulfilled our duty of dancing, we were able to sit back and observe the rest of what was going on around us. For the most part, we spent a significant amount of time trying to talk to the kids. It was so cute, because most of them were scared to approach us and would dare each other or push each other in our direction and then run away giggling. Eventually a few of them became comfortable around us so we spent some time talking and taking pictures together.

Before we returned to the hostel, we were invited to eat a marvelous dinner of banku (pounded, fermented corn dough) and fresh tilapia. While many of us haven’t been a big fan of banku because it can have a very lingering taste of fermentation, as this was made fresh, it was simply amazing! The only problem was that for the first time in my life, I was going to have to eat a fish that was staring at me and still had most of his teeth intact. Refusing the food would be impolite, it was fresh fish and I was very hungry, so in spite of my reservations, I dove in. After finishing my fish, only the head remained. We asked our fellow teachers if they typically eat the head. They informed us that some of the best meat is in the head and that some people even eat the eyes. Well, I was feeling a little adventurous that night, so I decided to eat the eye. (For those who are curious, it really just tasted like fish. The only bad part was a very hard circle in the middle, that I chose to not risk trying to digest.) Overall though, it was probably one of the best, if not the best, traditional Ghanaian food that I have had in my time here.

Soon thereafter we returned to the hostel and to our great pleasure found the electricity to be back on. A great ending to a great day. 🙂

Volunteering at a local school

Today I gained a new found appreciation for teachers.

One of the things that I wanted to do while I was in Ghana was volunteer, so when a member of our group said that she had found an opportunity to work at a school in the area, I decided to join her. Many of our colleagues were being turned away from orphanages and hospitals because there were actually too many volunteers (at least locally), so I knew that this might be my only chance to volunteer. As I have volunteered at schools before, I figured that I would simply be a teachers’ aid and help to control the class, answer questions or anything else that fit into the teacher’s lesson plans. When we arrived we found that their need was much different. After talking to us about our interests, they asked if we would be willing to teach. Although hesitant about my ability to actually teach my own class, I said yes figuring that they wouldn’t ask college students to teach these kids unless there was truly a need.

Before I continue, I should mention that we were initially greeted with hugs by the principal of the school and invited into her office and offered cold water after a long taxi ride in difficult traffic. We introduced ourselves and met many of the different people that we would be working with throughout our time with the school. During this meeting, the students were all assembling in courtyard in order for us to be introduced to them. Never have I ever been greeted so warmly in my life—-I felt like a celebrity! The kids were clapping and screaming and cheering with such joy, I was nearly in tears because it was so sweet. We then formed a line at the front and all took turns introducing ourselves as “aunties and uncles”. After each us said our names, the entire school would repeat it, but sometimes Africanizing our names a little, such as pronouncing my name as “Auntie Christiana”. Following introductions we went to the staff room to begin discussing our placements.

While they tried to work on placing us, we were sent to different classrooms so that the kids would have a chance to interact with us. I went to classrooms for children at about a kindergarten age level. They were, of course, adorable. As before, they were very welcoming and the teachers were very friendly. First, I introduced myself and talked about where I came from and what I was doing in Africa. Then the teacher translated, not into another language, but retold what I said in their accent so that the kids could understand. (On a side note, I have just started saying that I am from Chicago simply because it’s easier and with that of course I add that it is President Obama’s hometown which just gets everyone riled up because they love him here.) After a brief introduction, I asked the teachers to ask the students if they had any questions for me. They were very shy at first, but finally one of the brave ones asked me if I was from “Obama place” (meaning America) and I laughed and said yes. Once this student had finished, several others were now raising their hands. Probably the next five questions were either, “Do you come from ‘Obama place’ or America” and the occasional, “Do you come from London?” A few times students raised their hands and then when the teacher called on them, they became mute. Once I made the mistake of crouching down to the kid’s level and asking him if he had a question for me, which just scared him I think. I was also interested in hearing what they thought America was like, but when I posed that question to them, the crickets you could hear in the background were deafening. When no one said anything, (and it seemed like the teachers expected me to say something) and I asked what they thought we ate in America. The teachers translated this to the kids and they were a little more responsive. While I expected to hear universal cries, of pizza and McDonald’s, I was surprised that they mostly named popular dishes in Ghana, like jollof rice and chicken. Not sure if I should play to stereotypes or not, I think I ended up giving a well rounded list of dishes focusing on what I would eat in the Midwest. The teachers then asked me to talk a little about America. This was surprisingly difficult-—I had no idea what to say, especially trying to be culturally sensitive and not ethnocentric. I started by first talking about my family and describing what my neighborhood looked like, pointing out that there were no street vendors or markets everywhere. I also remembered that we treat pets very differently than they do here, so I explained that many Americans have dogs that live in their house with them and that are like members of their family. I particularly enjoyed hearing the teacher translate this one, because she knew what I meant and expanded upon what I said. She told the kids that Americans often have dogs and cats that live in their houses, sleep in their beds and that we will even kiss our pets. The kids’ faces were priceless and laced with disgust; they laughed ridiculously. The teacher even added (note: avid animal lovers should consider skipping this sentence) that if the students saw a dog or cat on the way home they should refrain from kicking it for Auntie Kristina. Just so there isn’t confusion, most dogs here are wild and not domesticated, unless they are a guard dog. For most Ghanaians, they have as much attachment to dogs as Americans do to raccoons. (Again, animal lovers don’t read this: Some villages, as one of my classmates studying nutrition has discovered by going to some of the more rural areas, will even eat cat and dog as a part of their diet.)

The kids were also very kind to perform for me a few different songs. The most memorable song was the “Barack Obama song” which is about 2 minutes of the kids singing his name and dancing around. It was absolutely adorable! They sang a few other songs and then it was time for me to move on to another classroom. When I was in the other classroom, it was fairly similar, however a few things struck me as being a little odd. First, when the children would get a little rowdy, the teachers resorted to two main “threats”. Either they would say something along the lines of “If you are not quiet, Auntie won’t take you back to America with her” or “Be quiet or Barack Obama will not come back”. I was quite taken aback by the first one, worried about what 4 and 5 year olds thought about having a stranger take them to America (or what they would tell their parents) and the second one, I just found funny.

Upon leaving the classroom, I wandered around a little, unsure of what I was supposed to do. For a while, I stood with one of our group members simply admiring the view of the mountains and the towns. Within a few minutes, however, I was approached by one of the instructors we had met with earlier who handed me a book and asked me if I could teach the lesson listed there. “Right now?” I asked. And he said yes. Hesitantly, I said that I could and he led me to the classroom. With little instruction, no knowledge of what time the class ended and no experience, I was left by myself staring at twenty 6th and 7th graders. I was told that the primary objective of the class was for English language practice, so I figured that just about anything we talked about would be satisfactory (if nothing else to help calm my nerves) and decided to begin my introducing myself and having them introduce themselves. This went fairly smoothly, aside from the fact that these students talked at volumes comfortable for dogs, but not for someone trained to loud Americans and that most of their names had indistinguishable sounds (to me) causing most of them to only use their English names in hopes that I could better understand. Used to typical American teenagers, when one student told me that his name was Prince (someone who had already been testing the waters slightly by moving around to sit with his friends) and the rest of the class laughed, I figured that he must be playing around with the silly obroni teacher who can’t understand anyone. I turned to the rest of the class and asked, if that was, in fact, his real name and they said it was. Later, it seemed appropriate as we continued with introductions where others had names such as “Rejoice”. After this, I asked them what they thought America was like or if they had any questions about America. Crickets, yet again. I asked if any of them had ever been to America, by their silence, I assumed this meant no, but I repeated the question anyway. When I was yet again met with stares, I told them that we would just have to start their lesson then.

I looked at the page and the assignment was for the students to practice describing things around them. Since many of the students had already tried to move around and sit by their friends, I figured that having them get into partners would be at least trigger some emotion. They seemed to like this idea and quickly formed into groups of two. As I walked around, I quickly realized though that none of them were doing the assignment and many of them weren’t even speaking in English. I pulled out a teacher line and said that since they weren’t doing the assignment, they must be ready to present. Thankfully, they were. As it turns out, most of these kids had known each other since birth, so describing a friend was no big deal and for the most part, they all spoke fantastic English, so this assignment seemed to be a breeze. Most of the descriptions were pretty entertaining too. Many of the boys described their friends with, for lack of a better word, charisma, almost as if they were placing an ad on behalf of their friend on eHarmony or something. Although, like any other group of middle schoolers, they were prone to talking while others were presenting, but overall, they were very respectful. Plus, this short activity got them to emerge from their shell, just a little.

Until I was saved by an administrator who said that our lunch was ready, they asked me all sorts of questions about American history and pop culture. First, they tested my knowledge of American history asking everything from who the first president was to who was the first man on the moon. Luckily, I enjoy American history, so I smugly told them each answer. Once they were satisfied with my ability to come up with historical facts, they moved on to what kind of music I liked. I told them about favorites like Jason Mraz and Michael Bublé, but they wanted to know if I had heard of Jay-Z and other hip hop artists. My favorite though was when they asked me if I knew any Michael Jackson music. Upon the mere mention of his name, I think about half of the boys in the class stood up and showed me one of his many famous moves, but mostly the moon walk (it reminded me of a story my mom tells about her early years as a teacher where she would have to go into the boys bathroom and end the break dancing parties they would have there). After I saw the other volunteers leaving their classrooms, I ended class and just left them alone (which they insisted was okay) so that I could go eat my lunch.

From then on, we sat in the teacher/staff room waiting for our meal. During that time, we exchanged stories about our experiences and the students we had encountered. Although our stories of confusion (and having no idea of what to do) were similar, one of my classmates had each of the students write a brief short story, so we spent some time enjoying those. While most of them resembled fairy tales or plot lines of soap operas, most were very original and creative. Also while we were waiting for our meal, we continued to figure out what we were going to teach. Pulling out the semester requirements and textbooks, they showed us what they hoped for us to cover. For me, I was supposed to focus on spoken language while also incorporating English grammar lessons and required readings by the government including topics such as Guinea Worm, HIV/AIDS and the natural resources of Ghana–nothing of which I felt qualified to teach, nor which I felt like I had adequate resources to prepare, especially considering the reading level for what I would presume to be relatively technical articles. Left with our assignments, our meals arrived and we were treated to the best jollof rice I have tasted so far, fried chicken, some sort of salad and amazing fruit juice. That meal left me the most satisfied I have felt throughout my time here. After our meal was finished, we piled into a taxi and the car of the principle and rode back to our dorm.

Note: In the end, I decided that it would just be best for me to help out in a classroom with the younger kids. They are wonderful to work with and I look forward to seeing them every week.

Trip to the North

Day 1: Driving to Kumasi

We spent most of the first day driving to reach Kumasi. The journey is between four to five hours between Accra and Kumasi. The drive is not always easy. There are certainly times when the road is either unpaved or although paved, there are many potholes that must be avoided. In spite of the driver’s best efforts, it was still very bumpy making it a little bit difficult to sleep. (Although I still managed to fall asleep.)

There are a few things that made this drive very interesting though. First would be the views of the different villages. Driving in the car, we had a unique opportunity to be able to observe the way many of these villages along the way functioned. Seeing the way that these small, isolated villages lived offers a perspective on lifestyle that we don’t find in the United States. These quaint villages seemed self-sufficient and very relaxed. The emphasis (as can be found most places in Ghana) were clearly on family as most of the people we passed seemed to be simply enjoying spending time with their families and others in the village. For the most part, they were very receptive to seeing us and waved as we would pass. Probably one of the most interesting sites was seeing a gentleman walk by our bus balancing a large, probably 32-inch, analog television set on his head as if he was wearing a helmet.

After a long journey, we finally arrived in a beautiful hotel, clearly designed for foreigners. Among the incredible accommodations, were internet access, a pool and spacious suites each with several rooms and a balcony. That night we enjoyed playing American-style drinking games (I observed, but did not drink), sleeping in air conditioning, watching American shows and playing limbo outside the pool, while some of our colleagues swam. After a long day, it was perfect to relax.

Day 2: Kintempo Falls/Mole National Park

That morning, we woke up to beautiful prayers of a local mosque. I found it very interesting to realize that for once in my life, I was staying in a primarily Islamic area, something that I had never experienced before. Then it was time to shower, a hot shower that I had been craving ever since I arrived. Quickly, I realized that as I didn’t turn on the water heater, there would be no hot shower for me. (Although by this time, another cold shower was really just another cold shower.)

We had a full breakfast of omelets, toast with a ginger-flavored jelly, pineapple and instant NesCafe Coffee. After that, we quickly checked out in order to start on our next leg of the journey, probably the most difficult part of our entire trip. This trip was broken down into two parts. First we were to stop at Kintempo National Waterfalls and then after a brief tour of the falls we would continue on to Mole National Park.

The first part of the drive to Kintempo falls was not bad. It was certainly bumpier than we are used to driving on our highly paved roads throughout the US, but nothing like what we would face later. Kintempo Falls is a national park where visitors can see the three stages of the waterfall. Also, it served as a rest stop, probably primarily for tourists, but for travelers to relax and use a restroom. Although there are some rest stops between Kumasi and Kintempo, they are a little bit of a novelty and often having one questionable restroom (which we were absolutely thrilled to use!). Anyway, we were met by a young guide who took us on the trails to the different stages of the waterfalls. The first stage was the source of the waterfall where the water started and was only 10 feet or so off of the ground. Water gracefully cascaded over large, rectangular, onyx-colored rocks amidst lush green trees and other vegetation. Need I say anymore? Our group climbed onto the rocks to capture every angle of the waterfall, beneath, directly in front of and behind in a semi-open cove. While we were exploring, our tour guide found a millipede. Chocolate brown in color and about 2 inches long, everyone was a little squeamish about holding it. Eventually most of us, including me, got over our fear and held it just long enough for a picture. When you held it, all of the feet tickled and gave me shivers. After a little bit, I got used to the feeling and it didn’t bother me, not that I was too disappointed to pass it along to someone new.

The next part of the waterfall, stage two, was a little less impressive. Essentially the water trickled over a few rocks creating a very small waterfall.

Stage three was by far the most impressive. To get down to the bottom of stage three, we climbed down close a lot of steps (between 50-100 maybe?) that basically hugged the side of a steep hill. As we walked down the stairs, between the foliage, you caught glimpses of the top of the waterfall (that looks a lot more picturesque than what was captured by my camera). However, it wasn’t until you reached the bottom that you could see the waterfall completely. The water started maybe a hundred feet or so above us and trickled over three main sets of rocks, forming a pool at the bottom and then creating a babbling brook of sorts that continued into the trees beyond where were able to be.

While many of my classmates enjoyed swimming in the pool, I enjoyed documenting the experience with my camera. A big part of why I never got into the water though was because I had been advised by several people not to go into fresh water because of parasites. I don’t intend to get any sort of parasite or worst of all, the dreaded Guinea Worm, just so I don’t hear any I-told-you-sos when I return.

We stayed for approximately 30 mins swimming and enjoying the scenery and then got back on the bus to begin the journey to Mole National Park.

This part was, well, educational I guess. In the United States, I think the drive would have taken approximately 2, maybe 2.5 hours based on the distance between the two places. However, because the roads were not well taken care of, our journey took between five and six hours. Because I wanted to take pictures out the window, I chose the remaining window seat in the back for the ride. This seemed like a good decision, until we actually got on the road. The roads often times during this journey are hardly navigable—-these were dirt roads where there were more potholes than road. I doubt our speed surpassed 30 mph for most of the trip, but required some professional maneuvering on the part of our driver who had to drive a Volkswagon bus on both sides of the road and negotiate traffic patterns with the other cars also trying to drive on these roads. Like I noticed when traveling to Italy a couple years ago, traffic is like a social dance and all of the drivers know just the right moves. While the rest of us stressed multiple times about driving situations, it seemed almost like a game to our driver and he would just laugh after every difficulty we faced. This not to say that it wasn’t a long bumpy ride where you wouldn’t be able to sleep at all, especially in my seat where you were airborne after clearing every pothole, it just gave a whole new meaning to “off-roading”.

This night was the first time we really got to see a sun set amongst untainted, natural scenery. As many of us desperately tried to capture this moment with our cameras, the trees became really thick and it disappeared. It seemed to be the quintessential sunset over African savannah, and offered a nice break from thinking about the long drive.

After several bumpy hours of travel, puppet shows by one of our classmates and eventually scary stories as it became dark (not a ride for anxious young children—-this was enough to drive 20+ year olds crazy), we entered Mole National Park, home to different animals such as elephants, antelope, warthogs, monkeys and baboons. We quickly checked in to our hotel and then went to enjoy a dinner complete with American-style French fries (this never gets old)! Tired from a long drive we primarily enjoyed a quiet dinner and enjoyed briefly talking to some other foreign students (obronis!) eating at a table not far away.

Throughout the last 15 minutes of our drive and while we were eating dinner, we noticed lightning beam across the sky several times. Because we couldn’t hear thunder, I personally assumed that it was heat lightning as it didn’t seem to be approaching and it was a hot evening. As most of us settled into our rooms, it became very clear that this wasn’t just lightning. Slowly, the lightning and thunder did get closer and rain followed, steady at first and then monsoon-like. The rain roared on for most of the night dwarfing the sounds of the thunder. Although there was nothing we could do, our group had two primary concerns, would we be able to go on our safari/hike tomorrow and would the roads that we came on even be passable?

Day 3: Mole National Park and Larabanga Village

We met the next morning at 6:30 for our safari at 7:00. We were quickly informed that due to the rain storm, some of the trails had been flooded and that they wouldn’t be taking anyone out this morning. They would monitor the conditions and reevaluate in time for the 3:30 safari. From there, we all went back to bed for a little while until breakfast was ready.

Tired and a little disappointed we ate our typical breakfast of omelets, instant NesCafe Coffee, and toast. As they placed our food in front of us, we were met by some sneaky baboons intent upon stealing food from unsuspecting guests. Although we were not victims of their thievery, a baboon jumped onto the tablee of other international students where it snatched something and then ran off. Shocked and surprised, we all laughed at their experience, while secretly paying more attention to our own food.

After this, we were met by a speaker who told us about the history of the north and explained to us why it exists as it does. From the underdevelopment of the area to the establishment of Mole National Park, we discussed the effects of colonialism, religion and natural resources and the impact that they had on these regions.

During our time before the next chance at a safari, we took the opportunity to visit a nearby village, Larabanga. In Larabanga we were able to see the oldest mosque in West Africa and then also saw the mystic stone, a large stone that they have tried to move several times, including when they were trying to build roads, would always end up back in the spot where it is now.

Although these were fun, little touristy things for us, the whole experience of being in the village is more worth writing about. By this point, we are used to having the bus surrounded by people selling us stuff when we stop. With an unreasonably heavy load on their head, they come up to the windows and try to get you to buy something. There were certainly people trying to see us stuff, but everything was not what anyone expected.

The lucky members of our group were met by little kids. Children under the age of 5 who simply wanted to hold your hand and talk to you (if they were brave enough). These kids were so precious, and seemed to have some admiration for many of the students. This sounds horribly conceited, but what made me think this was that there were two little girls who were walking with one of the girls in our group. When our tour guide was trying to tell us about the history of the mosque, she decided to crouch down in almost a catcher’s position. Two little girls that had been walking with her, noticed this and did exactly the same thing, checking periodically to ensure that they were crouching just so. Although not initially, but eventually, a young girl came up to me and just grabbed my hand. I asked her what her name was and she replied almost inaudibly.

Those of us who weren’t so lucky, including myself were approached by others closer to our age. They were on a mission. The guy who approached me started by asking questions about me and saying things like he wanted to be my best friend in Larabanga. Having been proposed to already, I wasn’t too phased by such false flattery. He was nice enough to explain some of the history of the mosque and even explain to me the meanings of some markings on a wall—-a calendar of sorts. However, after catering to what he believed were my interests, he told me that he wanted to tell me about a little problem that their village encountered. He explained to me that football was a crucial part of the community and they had a very important game coming up. Sadly, their ball had either popped or was lost and they wouldn’t be able to play without it. He then asked me if I could buy a ball at one of the nearby markets and bring it back to him. Although I was slightly offended and annoyed, figuring that this was quite rehearsed and that was done to every tourist group that came by, I tried to be diplomatic and said that I would think about it. This person then asked me for my contact information which I declined to give him and he followed me to the bus, where he watched me from the window. When we got onto the bus, it turned out that everyone had been approached for the same thing—a soccer ball from many different people, including five captains of the team.

While some of the girls in our group came prepared with little toys and school supplies to give to villagers, I felt bad that I didn’t even have trinkets to give. However, as they continued to hand stuff out, they were quickly rebuked by our tour guide. His voice raised louder and louder as he lectured them about giving stuff directly to the villagers. According to our guide, by having us give stuff directly to the villagers it only encouraged them to approach visitors expecting gifts and then often times, the gifts may not end up in the right hands and not benefit the village outside of one person. At this point, we were all a little frustrated and overwhelmed, primarily because we had just become so accustomed to the overall generosity and unbelievable kindness of the Ghanaians we have been meeting. I think to be bombarded with requests in the way we were here, was just so contradictory to our experience thus far that we weren’t quite sure what to think, but nonetheless, we agreed that we were glad to have visited the village anyway.

Tired, we went to go see the mystic stone. As we approached our tour guide told us more about the history of the stone and its significance to the village. When we went in, it was very simple, a brick encampment with the stone propped up in the middle. We all touched it and got some cool pictures of our hands and stuff, but only spent about 10 minutes looking at the stone and enjoying the serenity of the area. When we decided to return to the bus, we noticed that the children from the village, giggling and adorable, had followed us all of the way from the village to the stone and then ran behind the bus as we approached the village.

After that little excursion, we returned to Mole National Park and the Mole Motel for lunch. Since we were able to order lunch on our own, most of us chose American dishes because we knew that we probably wouldn’t have many more opportunities to eat them for a long time. I personally chose Spaghetti Bolonaise while many others chose fries, club sandwiches and salads. Thoroughly enjoying our American cuisine, we finished lunch quickly.

At this point, many of the animals in park had begun to wander into areas where tourists would go. For instance, as we went back to our rooms to rest, there were a couple of warthogs just chilling in front of my doors (and I should note that they don’t have the most appealing scent). However, we were nonetheless excited to see wildlife in our midst. Right after many of us went to our rooms, we were called by others to let us know that an elephant had wandered near the starting point of the safari. Not expecting to be able to go on the safari we quickly headed over to see the elephant. First I ran back to my room to grab my camera. When I exited my room, there was several girls from our group standing around. Apparently, I had just missed one of the funniest things that has happened during the whole time that we have been here. So, one of the girls decided to offer a baboon one cracker, while holding a whole package of crackers in her other hand. The baboon decided it didn’t want the one cracker, so it slapped her across the face causing her to drop the entire package of crackers. The baboon snatched the packet of crackers and ate all of them at once like a sandwich. This same baboon was later caught on tape eating a butterfly (gruesome, but also really cool to watch at the same time). On our way to see the elephant, we ran into another pack of baboons, but more specifically a baby baboon and its mother. The combination was adorable. However, we got way too close to the both of them and the baby started screeching a little, showing that it was scared. Initially, this seemed okay because the mom just picked it up and walked on. Since some other tourists (not in our group) continued to pursue the mom and baby, they quickly became annoyed until the mom jumped out at the group and began to make noises at us. I took that as my cue to leave.

We then went a little bit further down the trail to see if the elephant was still there. It was! Standing very close to the safari welcome center, it was just chomping away on some bushes. While some other tourists told us that we should get closer to get good pictures, once the tour guides saw how close we were, they yelled at everyone for being too close. I wasn’t able to get any pictures. At that moment, the elephant raised its ears slightly and started walking a little closer to the welcome center. Our guide for the whole trip, who had been chased by an elephant before, became very nervous and started to walk away. Considering her experience, I thought that it would be best to follow.

After a couple hours, they decided that they would make an exception (I guess they don’t normally do any safaris after it rains) because we and the other foreigners wouldn’t be able to stay an extra day in order to go on the morning safari. Our group separated into two and we parted. The safari was very cool, but mostly very relaxing. Walking on trails throughout the park, we saw some animals, but mostly had the opportunity to enjoy the scenery. We crossed paths with warthogs, bush pigs (which kind of look like warthogs), antelope, another kind of deer-looking creature and different kinds of baboons. The highlight of the trip was the end where we saw a family of baboons and then three elephants crossing the street approximately 50 meters away (that’s supposedly how close it was recommended we be). After that we changed and went back to our rooms to prepare for a quiet dinner.

Day 4: Driving to Kumasi

We woke up the next morning for an early breakfast because we knew that we would have a long drive to get back to Kumasi. Although we were planning to take a different road, it would still be a long and difficult journey. The best part of our typical breakfast was the visit by our lovely baboon friend to our German friends. Having had something stolen during almost every meal, they were ready this time. Our German friends faced the monkey head on, standing in karate-like poses holding large 1.5 liter water bottles which they banged together. The monkey didn’t seem too scared, but for the first time it didn’t steal any of their stuff.

Throughout our journey back to a new hotel in Kumasi, we encountered a couple of interesting things. As we drove through one town there was what we believe was a graduation in progress. However, it looked like the best graduation ceremony I had ever seen in my life. The “graduates” were in the front of the line and then what seemed to be the rest of the city was following close behind them dancing and singing as they walked down throughout the area. Needless to say, they all seemed to be having a blast!

We also spent some time at the craft center where we were able to go into a few select shops that were open and also just walk around. In a pavilion, there apparently was a Nigerian wedding going on too. It looked very interesting and different from what any traditional wedding. There was a lot of shouting (joyous I believe) so we would have never guessed that it was a wedding when we first passed it.

What was probably the most interesting encounter we experienced was walking around the square and having a chance to talk to some of the people there. First, when we were sitting, a palm nut farmer came and sat down next to us wanting to share the word of God with us. Now, let me break just a minute to explain that Ghana is a very religious country. Particularly in the southern parts of Ghana, people are generally very Christian and faith is something that is commonly talked about. In fact, it is so commonly discussed that a large amount of little shops and businesses incorporate something about God in their title, such as “By God’s Grace Bakery”. So, it really isn’t that surprising that someone would come up to us and talk about faith. Anyway, after the girl that I was sitting with said that she wasn’t really interested in talking about faith, he asked us if we liked the food here. We told him that we did and that most of it we couldn’t get in the United States and tried it here for the first time. He seemed to really enjoy talking to us about that, especially since he grew food that we were eating here.

Later, while we were walking around, we met another small group of people. They were all well-dressed as if they had just gone to church and seemed to be relaxing in the square. We didn’t say much, but a lady holding a baby jokingly asked if we would take her child back with us to America. She was joking, but, as always, there seemed to be a slight bit of remorse that it wasn’t possible for us to do that. We refused joking that we just couldn’t however, its these experiences that really make me grateful for the fortunate lifestyle that I was born into.

Also, one of the girls in the group separated from us for about 15 minutes or so and got three phone numbers and a marriage proposal.

We spent the rest of the day driving until we arrived at the lovely Engineering Guest House where we spent a nice relaxing night. For dinner, I enjoyed fries with sweet and sour pork—-nothing like what you would have at a Chinese Restaurant (not very sweet or sour, just spicy) and the pork was very fatty and not of the caliber I am used to eating in Iowa. That night, I also enjoyed watching Spanish soap operas and CNN. And, this time, a hot shower.

Day 5: The Craft Villages

We left the Engineering Guest House early so that we could visit the market and the different craft villages. We left after a full breakfast to begin the drive to the craft villages. Before we left though, one of the girls in our group got a spider bite overnight and her knee swelled up so much that she wasn’t able to walk. Luckily we have our own resident medicine man, who knew what to do and how to monitor it.

Our first stop was the biggest market in West Africa located in Kumasi. Not really interested in buying anything, we just did our best to weave in and out of the crowd. Over a period of 15 minutes we maybe walked through about 1/8 of the market and that was enough stimulation for us. Although nothing too exciting happened to us, two of the people in our group went off to find a place where a guy could get a haircut. Once they found a place on the street where he could get a trim, the girl with him wandered just a little to see if she could find something to eat. As she began to walk off, the women street vendors called to her (not frantically, but certainly with concern) that she was leaving behind her husband. Laughing, she explained that they were just friends. To which, these women asked if they were boyfriend and girlfriend. Again, she said that they were just friends, but didn’t think that these women really believed them or understood how a relationship could work that way. Eventually though, one of the women told the guy that she had a wife for the guy, her sister, very pretty (she said).

From there, our next stop was the wood carver’s village. I was a little nervous that I was going to be swindled out of everything I bought, but I really wanted to get a mask, so I knew that this was a fear I needed to get over. As we approached the village, it was clear that they were waiting for us. When they saw a big white bus full of obronis, I’m guessing money signs appeared in their eyes. As we walked out of the bus, each one of us was approached by about 5 different people all trying to talk to us and pull us to their shops. Immediately I went with one person, keeping an eye on my fellow classmates. I briefly looked around at this gentleman’s shop and then moved on to the next shop (or I should say was persuaded and nearly dragged there). I felt more at ease there because some of my classmates were lingering there. Throughout the rest of the time there, I wandered between shops trying to find something that spoke to me. Because the whole idea just really stressed me out, I told myself that I would shop for the first half of our time and then spend the last half of our time actually shopping. While I was there, all of them kept telling me that they would give me a good price, student price, but I had to be incredibly careful not to show interest in anything. If I picked up anything that was an indication to them that I wanted to buy it. They very much had the attitude that anything I wanted, I would buy, they just had to find the right price. Sometimes I just had to say, that I wasn’t interested unless they wanted to give it to me for free. I was constantly guilted into going to new shops that finally I had to distinctly walk back to the bus followed by a line of Ghanaian men all saying, “Christiana!” (since they can’t pronounce my name) and asking me to just visit their store. I also can’t tell you how many times I was asked where I was from, to which I replied Chicago (just because no one in the US even knows where Iowa is, I didn’t expect Ghanaians to know) to which they often responded, oh I know someone in the Bronx (for example), do you know them? To which, I usually just said, “the US is a big country”.

We left the wood carving village to go to another village where they make fabrics and stamp them with Adinkra symbols. In the beginning, they gave us a demonstration about how they make the dye. First, they peel the bark of special trees that grow in the area. The bark regrows very quickly, so it is a great source of material and it doesn’t hurt the trees. Next, the bark is ground using a mortar and pistal of sorts (a big wooden one) to release the liquid from the bark. From there, the material is boiled to allow the dye to thicken (I believe). Then, they use the dye to stamp handwoven fabrics. There are probably around 100 different symbols all with their own distinct separate meanings.

For those of us who were interested, we could purchase a fabric and have it personally stamped with the symbols of our choosing—-we even had the opportunity to learn how to stamp them ourselves. The next part was a little tricky. In this village, a lot of the weaving, seemingly, is done by 11-13 year old boys and they all have their own looms. While I was waiting for mine to dry, one approached me and wanted to give me a gift. I figured this was some sort of scam so I said no thank you. He continued saying that I was like a mother to him (they respect their elders, so I’m going to say that he was trying to complement me) and he wanted to give me a gift from his heart. He then wrapped a woven fabric around my wrist. It was pretty, but I wasn’t convinced that this was a gift. I tried to refuse, but he kept asking why I didn’t want his gift. Although I replied that I didn’t think that it was a gift, he insisted that it was. Finally I just said thank you hoping that he would go away. Then he said, I gave you a gift from my heart, so if you want to give me a gift from your heart…I then started to take it off and say that it wasn’t a gift and he again said no that it was, so in the end I just gave him a cedi so that he would go away (about 75 cents, so whatever). I should also mention while this was going on, one of the other guys in our group was dealing with the same thing. To satisfy those who approached him, he gave the kid some coins which apparently wasn’t a good enough gift, because the kids ripped the cloth off of his wrist and ran away laughing. He thought it was pretty funny, too, so I guess no harm done.

From then on, I made a point of talking to others in my group, and trying to look occupied, so I wouldn’t be approached again, which worked for the most part. When I was approached, all I had to say to these children was that I already had a bracelet. A little while later, I was approached by my little buddy asked if I wanted to try to weave. I asked him again if it was going to cost money and to which he replied that he just wanted to show you how to do it. He demonstrated the motions-—you slide a wooden stick with the string connected to it through the loom, then you use your feet to secure the string by switching the top and bottom lines and then you use a comb and push it against the newly formed line to ensure that it is tight. I was surprised at how much coordination and talent it took to be able to weave as quickly as these boys did! One of my friends took a couple of pictures after encouragement from my little buddy and then we switched places and she tried to weave. I took a couple of pictures of her and that’s when it started yet again. The boy’s brother came up to me and said that for his brother’s kindness, I should give him a gift from my heart. I was kind of playing dumb and said that I already had. He seemed satisfied and left me alone. However, my little buddy came up to me soon after and said the same thing, that for his kindness, I should give him a gift from my heart. I explained to him that he said he just wanted to show me and that I already gave him something for his “gift”. I told him I would think about it. He seemed satisfied for the time being and left me alone. At this point, I was ready to go.

While waiting for everyone else to finish making their prints, I paid the guy that I bought the cloth from (who I should note, was helpful, accommodating and nice) and chatted with my classmates doing everything possible to avoid the locals. I was approached a couple of times, but I wasn’t going to put up with any more of the scams. After a while, our tour guide gathered up the half-dried cloths and began to load them onto the bus. I practically ran to the bus because I was so excited to leave. Once I got on, I placed my cloth in a place where it could dry, and then most of the village appeared at the bus windows. My little buddy wanted me to give him something and safely on the bus, I just said that I had nothing to give. Others continued to beg for anything, pens, food, whatever. Many of my classmates obliged and gave them pens or crackers. When one of the guys showed that he had a package of crackers, a whole group crowded around him and the guy he intended to give the crackers, ended up not getting them. When the guy complained and asked for more, my classmate simply said, “If you want them, go and get them”. This was the sentiment on the bus, pure exhaustion laced with annoyance. At this point, we debated on whether we should even go to the next place, the Kente weaving village. Knowing that it wouldn’t be any different than the last two, most of us were ready to just go home. Eventually, we decided that we just wanted to look and that we would only stay 10 minutes max.

When we arrived, it was exactly as we expected, they were waiting for us and swarmed the bus the minute that we drove up. Some people didn’t even leave because they had no money or no interest in putting up with the sales people. For the rest of us, we walked by people trying to sell us stuff and simply walked into the one shop. As I was walking into the shop, one girl approached a classmate of mine and simply said, “I like biscuits.” (a biscuit is a cookie, that’s just how the British say it) I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I laughed because she was just so little and so forward with her intentions. Finding it hard to admire their work, not because it wasn’t beautiful, just because we were so tired, I walked quickly around. Now, here they really wanted you to buy their stuff, instead of even asking for prices, we just said that we didn’t have any money and we just wanted to look. After seeing the varieties of beautiful cloth they had there, I decided to walk back to the bus.

Because so many people didn’t even get off of the bus, there were a dozen or more people trying to sell bracelets through the windows. “Sister, sister, don’t you like my bracelet?” they kept saying. “No, thank you,” I usually replied. Since we didn’t even open the window in the back, one of the guys tried to convince a male classmate of mine to sell his bracelets to the two of us girls in the back. He laughed, asked us if we wanted them. We, of course, said no and he told them that we weren’t interested. The guy persisted, but by this time it was just funny to us. One person was so insistent that one of the girls, that she said, “I’m going to pinch your nose off.” (Meaning that when she closed her window if he didn’t move, he was going to get hurt). Once everyone piled back onto the bus, we started chanting, “Go Martin, Go!” Martin our bus driver laid on the gas and peeled out of there. Exhausted, we were entertained by one circumstance that happened while most of us were in the shop. Apparently a little girl, maybe three years old came onto the bus and said, “Give me all of your money.” Shocked, most of the bus laughed and one girl asked where she had learned that.

Although it had been a fabulous journey, after such a long day…well, let’s just say, I never looked more forward to a 4 hour “off-roading” bus trip.

Dorm Life at The University of Ghana

Living in the International Student Hostel, called ISH by foreign and native students alike, has been a relatively positive experience. The accommodations are very typical—possibly more spacious than many of the freshman dorm rooms that I saw when visiting friends at their home universities. Each room has a desk, a wardrobe, a bed and an armchair (not just a desk chair) for each inhabitant. Our rooms also have a beautiful balcony where we have a drying rack. The building itself is shaped like a motel, where the rooms all face inward connected by open “hallways” which surround a courtyard. Each floor has a TV room where there is a TV that receives Ghanaian television and some select American shows. There is also an internet café where students can use desktop computers or pay for a full semester of wireless internet. Although this is great, it is not the same speed and consistency of internet that we are used to using in the United States. On the ground floor there is a kitchen where students can order food and also a small shop where students can buy different commodities from Fanta to soap.
So far, I have really enjoyed living at ISH. Even so, there are a couple of things that create some challenges. For example, because the area is so open, any noise that is made, whether it is American students just enjoying each other’s company or workers trying to get a head start before the sun comes up, can be heard by all. However, what has been far more challenging is the spottiness in which we get our water. During the first week, on Friday night, the water stopped working and started working again on Wednesday. Now, it wasn’t as awful as it sounds (certainly being an awkward middle schooler at a coed summer camp during an Iowa August without any water was worse), but it was inconvenient. We learned very quickly how much we appreciate our showers (though freezing cold) and flush toilets so now we will be a little more conservative in our water usage. Basically, you know that it’s a good day if you wake up and hear the water running. Otherwise, I will be ready with my bucket so I won’t spend so many days without a shower.
Also, I have had few run-ins with the wildlife that inhabits the area surrounding ISH, aside from a couple birds. First, we have a resident rooster who crows at all hours of the day. Morning, midday, whenever. I don’t know if it is confused or what, but I hear it several times every day. Aside from our rooster friend, there is also a really annoying crow-like bird that enjoys squawking all of the time. I wake up to its lovely call, that no prettier than a dying duck. And, I hope this never happens to me, but one of members of our group woke up to find a lizard on his face!

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