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Life Lessons in Ghana
2010 Student Writing Contest Runner-Up Winner

Study Abroad in Ghana with SIT

Open Your Imagination to New Cultural Experiences

Article and photos by Isabel Dickinson

School Children in the village of Benim, Ghana
School Children in the village of Benim, Ghana.

First Impressions of Ghana

After traveling for nearly two days, I had finally made it. My air flights, which took me from Los Angeles to New York, from New York in Frankfurt, Germany, and from Frankfurt in Accra, Ghana, left me bleary-eyed and feeling cramped. By the time I tumbled down the stairs of the plane at the tiny Accra Kotoka Airport(ACC) into the humid afternoon air I almost did not believe that I was there. My new environment seemed a world away from my hometown in California and I had not even left the airport. 

I felt so lost walking through customs, so how was it that when I walked out of the arrival section of the airport to find Kokroko, one of SIT’s program directors, standing alone with a cardboard cut out scribbled with the three letters of “SIT” was I so comforted? From this first encounter on, I found that the people of Ghana are some of the most gracious and welcoming that I have ever met. Whether it be taking time to walk you to your next destination if you have found yourself lost or offering to share their meal with you, even if you are not an acquaintance, Ghanaians’ hospitality is touching. One difficulty that I had from the very beginning of my experience living in Ghana was connected to the understanding that it would be almost impossible for me to fit in. I was always labeled as the “Obruni,” meaning foreigner

My first impression of Accra was that it was crowded and hot. The air felt thick and so was the traffic. I certainly did not mind the traffic, however, as I was enthralled by the people selling anything from plantain chips(fried, thinly sliced, and salted plantains) to wind-up mice and toilet paper right against our tro tro window. I was soon to find out that a tro tro is a type of public transportation most commonly used in Ghana for short and long journeys. Although many programs state that they are based in Accra, the capital of Ghana, many are truly based in Legon, a type of suburb of Accra. It is much less crowded, fewer streets are paved and it takes at least 40 minutes by tro tro to reach downtown Accra.  However, the University of Ghana, where most students are stationed, is located in Ghana and boasts a gorgeous campus with some excellent professors.  

Tro tro ride from airport.
Tro tro ride from airport.

SIT Arts and Culture Immersion 

One of the most interesting aspects of the SIT program is that we had the resources of the University of Ghana at our fingertips, but we were able to travel with the program directors’ guidance. We had the opportunity to stay with three different families in three areas: Accra, Kumasi, and a small village approximately two hours away from Kumasi. For one month after our three consecutive home stays, we traveled with the group from Kumasi to Tamale for a week of lectures and a weekend stay at Mole National Park. From Tamale, we traveled through Ghana to Cape Coast, the capital of Ghana prior to Accra, for just over a week.  Finally we travelled to the Volta region and then back to Accra for our final 1-month independent research period. The program gave all 15 students freedom to experience Ghanaian culture independently but at the same time a structure to enable these experiences.

Baboon Crossing, Mole National Park
Baboon Crossing, Mole National Park.

Through the program, each student experienced an extreme amount of cultural immersion. To a certain extent, we were all thrown into our home stay family’s home with very little knowledge about the culture and what to expect. We were told never to use our left hands, as it is seen as a huge insult to any Ghanaian receiving a left handed gesture, as well as how to greet our elders in Twi, one of the 49 different languages in Ghana, for which we had an intensive 4-week class. Our 3-day orientation prior to home stays prepared us as much as possible for life in a completely foreign culture, but it never seemed enough. That is the point of the program though, learn as you go, and you will never forget. 

Drum Lessons, Accra, Ghana
Drum Lessons, Accra, Ghana.

The SIT program includes drum lessons, an intensive 2-week dance class followed by a graded performance, and multiple craft lessons including pottery, batik, jewelry, and adinkra symbols. All of these are hands on and outside of the classroom. If there is anything that the SIT Arts and Culture program taught me in my semester abroad, it is that some of the most valuable learning happens outside of the classroom. I created yards of batik fabric, glass and clay bead, and ceramics as well as learning how to drum and dance to traditional West African music. 

An exceptional portion of the semester with SIT is dedicated to a month long individual research assignment of the students’ choice. This is a great opportunity for a student to independently research a topic of their choice in a destination of their choice for a long period of time. Despite being the most rigorous part of the semester, it is also the most rewarding. I have come out of this program with an entirely new outlook on life. As a student in the United States, I am so fortunate for my education and opportunities. I believe it is almost impossible to travel to a country like Ghana, become fully immersed in their culture for an entire semester, and not take away a great amount of confidence in yourself and your ability to obtain anything. This period in my life has been unforgettable ,and I can only hope that others will have the chance to experience a culture so completely different from their own.

Living in Ghana

The transportation system in Ghana is based primarily on large vans called tro tros. Fares are extremely low, maybe about 50 cents for a 20 minute trip, but they can often be crowded and it is hard to catch them during rush hour. Depending upon which city you are in, rush hours vary. However, if you are studying at the University of Ghana, Legon, the hardest time to catch a tro tro is between 7 and 9 a.m. and 4 and 6 p.m. The roads are often unpaved, which can make for a bumpy ride, but it is always an adventure. There are taxis available but it seems like such a high price to pay when the tro tros are so inexpensive. Tro tros tend to stop running by 1 a.m. So, if you are traveling late at night, it is probably best not to wait at the stop for hours, but to pay the extra fare to get home. Traveling between the larger cities is easy, but very time consuming.  A tro tro from Cape Coast to Accra--two very popular destinations--takes around three hours, but all on paved roads and costs only about 3 cedi, or $2. Traveling alone is safe and you will no doubt make friends along the way.  I preferred not to travel alone very much after dark, but when it was necessary I never felt threatened. If anything, more people helped me after dark than during the daytime.

The food is one of the cultural structures that I was only able to begin understanding towards the end of my semester. Food is not necessarily a social ritual for most Ghanaians, although it is becoming more and more common to share a meal as Ghana becomes more Westernized. Do not be surprised if your host families do not eat with you, as mine rarely did. It was difficult for me to eat in Ghana as a vegetarian. Although there are beautiful fruits and vegetable growing everywhere, the diet of most Ghanaians is starch based; mostly plantains, rice, yams, and ground corn. I was able to buy the most delicious fruits, including avocado, mango, pineapple, coconut, oranges, and bananas, but it was hard for me to find vegetables to eat on the spot as you have to peel and wash all fruits and vegetables before consumption.  One of the most widely produced products in Ghana is ground nut paste, more commonly known as peanut butter, and it is absolutely delicious. It is very important to try the traditional Ghanaian dishes--and most can be prepared without meat--because many Ghanaians swear by them. Two of the most popular dishes are fufu, ground and pounded corn, and banku, ground, pounded, and fermented corn. Both are served with either pepper sauce or a stew. here seems to be a controversy throughout Ghana about which dish is better. You might just have to decide for yourself, but my favorite is banku

Hygiene and dressing well is important to many Ghanaians. However, the protocol for showering, dressing, and going to the bathroom is very different. Bucket showers in cold water are the norm, and it is easy to adapt to them. Many people in Ghana are either Christian or Muslim, and most Muslims live in the northern areas of Ghana. It is especially important not to dress provocatively in Northern Ghana and it is recommended that most students wear something to cover their hair. In the southern regions it is fine to dress just a little more conservatively. However, it depends upon the crowd with which you travel. As foreign students and travelers, I think that it is important to represent your country well, however, many of the younger people in Ghana have taken to dressing in mini skirts and tank tops. It is hard to judge others as they live in their own culture, but it is important to dress in a way that makes you feel comfortable. 

For More Info

The program I participated in is SIT Ghana, Arts and Culture: www.sit.edu

I have heard great things about the NYU program in Ghana as well.

STA Travel is a great travel resource for students.

If you plan on traveling independent from the program: www.hostelworld.com

Additional Information about visas and the country: www.ghanaembassy.org

University of Ghana website: www.ug.edu.gh

Great Source of Information, not just about tourism: www.touringghana.com

Isabel Dickinson is a junior music major at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. Her concentration is in Ethnomusicology, especially in the ever-growing impact of globalization on world music. Although Isabel is very interested in world music, she is classically trained in the cello, and is an active participant with many music groups on the Wesleyan campus. Isabel was born and raised in Santa Barbara.

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