Engineer Service Learning in Ghana

Name: Megan Pearson

Project: Engineering Service Learning/Study Abroad to the Offinso North District of Ghana

Introduction

My STEP project entailed a semester-long preparatory class leading up to a 2 week trip to Ghana to implement sustainable energy and safe water engineering projects.  We worked with the local government, Offinso North District Assembly, to successfully do this work in the Offinso North District in the Ashanti Region of Ghana.  My specific project provided a solar cell phone charging kiosk to a village with 50 phones was completely off grid.

Personal Impact

This project was freeing, enlightening and I am truly honored to have been a part of this awesome effort connecting Ohio State to the people of Offinso North, Ghana.  After this experience, I feel empowered and challenged to do more for the world, especially those currently being served ineffectively by relief services.  I have more confidence in my field’s ability to promote change in the world, and better respect for ethical codes as it relates to the consumer or customer.  When working with a population with few to no regulations that is very trusting of foreign aid, I see many implications for unethical behavior, where professional engineers could take advantage of the situation.  Due to this awareness, I also feel a responsibility to contribute to future ethical humanitarian practices in the engineering field.

I had long-held assumptions about Africa, and expected to be uncomfortable and avoided during my stay there.  What I found instead were fiercely nationalistic Ghanaians, proud of their individuality, strong in community and the most genuinely hospitable people I could have imagined.  While we had seen presentations and briefly discussed Ghana in our class, I was not prepared for the constant good humor and support we found in Ghana.  There were basic physical discomforts, and some awkward situations, but I was treated with respect, and even though there was a slight language barrier, it was accompanied by a real effort to understand and be understood.

Before going on this trip, I thought that my world view was well developed from travels around Europe and across the United States.  As a half-Taiwanese person, I felt my biggest traveling hole was in visiting Taiwan to meet the rest of my family.  I didn’t realize how wrong I was until I went to Ghana and interacted with the amazing culture and people that was just as complexly faceted and intriguing as that of Americans.  The ever-present repercussions of slave culture in their country, as well as the impact of misplaced relief/humanitarian efforts and voluntourism was an unexpected discovery for me, and is one I am newly passionate about upon my return home.  I hope that my involvement with Ghana and other places across the globe does not end with this experience, and that I can better understand our global community through the cultural awareness and connections I made and will continue to make from this trip and into the future.

The People

In Ghana, it seemed that everyone was saying “hi” or talking to us.  Small children would chase our cars or busses yelling “Obruni! Obruni!” which means “White man! White man!”  This was never meant out of offense, but rather a typical calling card or greeting.  Everyone I talked to was helpful and friendly, and I personally tried to make light conversation about daily life with whoever I could.  Two of our contacts at ONDA, Andy (our main host ONDA) and Ramant (a mother but active leader at ONDA) were very good at English and specifically told our group to ask any questions, offensive or otherwise, to debunk any myths about Ghanaian culture that we had.  They helped sate my curiosity about things I saw or did while there, and pushed me out of my comfort zone to ask the blunt, often rude, questions, or try things I would not have otherwise.  Without this invaluable resource, I would not have come back so comfortable with interacting with Ghanaians or those in vastly different culture.

Their willingness to answer questions extended into other members of ONDA, specifically friends I made named Vera, Abby, Azumah, EA Jonas, and Augustine.  The language barrier was greater with these friends, but they taught me to value patience as I was rewarded with a wealth of understanding I wouldn’t have without them.

Vera joined our group later, but was amazing at answering questions about the economic factors of life at ONDA.  She was a shorter, stylish 23 year old working as Ramant’s intern.  During a 2 hour bus ride, she talked to me about everything from her personal aspirations to visit America, to the rich farming culture in the North Offinso District.  She spoke excellent English, although it was clearly not her primary language.  She was confident, well-kept and independent.  She seemed to do what she wanted when she wanted to, and was always stylishly dressed.  Through perception and interaction, Vera taught me a great deal about the role of young women in Ghanaian culture.

Abby was a sweet 10 year old who was constantly at our work area at ONDA.  She was funny and playful, and clearly strong-willed among the group of kids running around as we were there over their school holiday.  She always wanted to play with us, and was eager to learn games from me, and teach me words and songs in Twi.  Her parents worked the small stand next to ONDA, and I would often buy snacks from them per Abby’s suggestions.  She was my favorite by far, and I grew to care about her deeply while in Ghana.  Ultimately, I hope to go back and spend more time with her, and hopefully work with kids there to teach them about sanitation, energy and other efforts that will benefit them in a culturally aware, anti-voluntourism manner.

Azumah was an electrical technician intern at ONDA.  Professionally, he was a part of our team to help us when needed, and learn firsthand about the solar energy work we were implementing.  On a more social level, his English was weaker than some and he didn’t understand us as well.  When someone in our group would say something he didn’t understand, he would agree and act like he knew, and we would have to figure out when he didn’t really understand.  On a more social level, he frequently mentioned marrying me, and bringing me to live with him in Ghana or joining me in America.  This cultural difference made me the most uncomfortable, as I am already uncomfortable with gender dynamics even within the United States.  Although several other men asked to marry me, Azumah’s more constant presence allowed me to delve deeper into the conversation of why I was saying no.  I don’t know how much he understood, but I gained a lot from talking with him, and from these interactions and asking questions of Ramant, I gained a firmer understanding of the relationship culture in Ghana.

EA Jonas was a professional electrical engineer at ONDA.  Most of the group from America thought he was a mean old man who sat around all day and criticized our projects.  They weren’t wrong; he told one group that ONDA would never work with their project again so not to bother performing training or maintenance measures, and told another group that we were insulting Ghanaian quality and engineering.  He had no basis or power in these claims, and was a huge head-sore to them.  He was critical in similar ways with our project, however I got him to talk to me about his career and teaching within Electrical Engineering, his specialty.  He understood English supremely well, and conveyed his messages clearly too.  He explained the kinds of thing Ghanaians learn in school about engineering, and while it was a lower level than what we have in America, it followed similar principles.  I appreciated his knowledge greatly, and although he was a sourpuss, I hope to message him more from the states about his work.

Augustine was the lead electrical technician and resident inventor at ONDA.  He held the main responsibility of the future of our solar project, and was not only headstrong and independent but had weaker than ideal English skills.  When I met him, he was critical and a visionary; talking about past project success and failure as well as a frustration about not having wider-spread success.  He had caused drama for past groups, and I quickly learned why.  His nature was similar to many other Ghanaians in that he would have an idea in a situation and execute immediately.  His patience was thin and his ability to act on something was great, and this combination led to many misunderstandings and near conflicts.  By the end of the trip, I learned that he worked best when something was explained to him, rather than someone correcting him by telling.  This level of communication was probably my most valuable skill by far, and something I hope to share with other groups as much as I can.

In conclusion, although the trip was primarily about engineering, the interactions and experiences I gained shaped and impacted me the most.  The cultural awareness I gained from this trip was irreplaceable, and the engineering project steered everyone involved toward the same end goal, which was ultimately successful on all fronts of the project teams.  The entire group was extremely satisfied by the trip, and I personally was influenced to do more work like this.  Working with a group closely in creating a solution to a problem they have is essential.  I believe that it empowers them, shows them the respect they deserve, and may even help wean them off of the feeling of dependence on foreign aid incited by voluntourism and gifting practices of Americans and first-world efforts.  I value the individuals I met there, and am inspired by them every day in my life back in the United States.

Where Do I Go From Here?

This project had a significant impact on my future actions as a professional engineer, and on my educational and career decisions.

Firstly, I plan to gear my work as a professional engineer more towards the betterment of those around me, either in choosing a company that will support humanitarian work on the side, or that will do humanitarian work themselves.

With regards to my academic future, I hope to further broaden my perspective beyond the engineering field.  This project fulfilled the final requirements of my Humanitarian Engineering minor; a very new and growing program here at Ohio State.  In addition, I am broadening my academic scope in a unique way by adding a Global Option to my Engineering degree. Furthermore, I hope to add an Anthropology minor to my degree to learn more about the impact of social perspectives on science-based fields.  I want to combine all of these things not only due to my true interest and passion for the subjects, but to hopefully push my future career in an internationally impactful engineering career.

In my career, I currently plan on taking my Electrical Engineering degree and putting it towards a project management position.  This position is extremely broad, and is very client dependent.  While I could be working in an engineering firm, I could also put this towards a non-governmental organization or law-influencing group.  The anthropology minor would demonstrate my interest, while the engineering degree would support the critical thinking required for such a job.

Realistically, in our government there are rarely engineers filling leadership roles.  I personally object to the notion of keeping engineers in think tanks, labs and manufacturing, and believe there is stronger potential for wide-spread impact with strong, sound engineering minds in the leadership.  As I go into this semester, I am taking classes in both Electrical Engineering codes of ethics and the anthropology of global mental health.  After returning from Ghana and experiencing their vastly different culture, these classes have a more obvious connection to me that they would have before.  In the future, my personal experience will hopefully help me make more abstract connections, and influence other engineers to make bold connections to make strides within and beyond their specific field.

One thought on “Engineer Service Learning in Ghana

  1. Hi Megan,

    I appreciate your commitment to using your engineering skills to benefit those who need support the most, especially in an ethical, socially just fashion.

    I’m also glad to hear that you stepped outside of your comfort zone to better understand and immerse yourself in a culture different from your own.

    Take care,
    Kara

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