For my STEP Signature Project, I went to Costa Rica with Buck-I-SERV and the Outdoor Adventure Center at Ohio State. Our main objectives on this trip were service through helping the community build bathrooms, and exploration of the area through activities such as hiking, surfing, and rafting.
While completing my STEP Signature Project, I learned more about myself than I was even expecting to; for example, I took away a deep appreciation for the things that I have at home, such as the luxury of going to school in a safe place, the enormous amount of technology that I have access to, and the education I have. In Costa Rica, it was easy to forget about the problems that I had at home and just focus on the beauty of my surroundings. Therefore, I also took away a newfound appreciation for nature and what is really out there in the world, as well as looking closer at the nature around me in Ohio and appreciating it for what it is. Additionally, we did not have access to the internet most of the time, so I learned the value of living in the moment with those around me, whether it was having a face-to-face conversation with my friends or playing cards and laughing, I took away the value of interacting with real human beings instead of my phone all the time. Lastly, I learned to try new things and seek out adventure, even if they are small ones.
One of the biggest things that influenced my perspective on the world was my ability to form meaningful relationships with all the host families, which will stay with me forever. Especially since we were staying with host families, I was able to observe the families that lived in Costa Rica in their every day lives, learning how they lived, and being able to see what it was like to live in such a beautiful, simple environment. Every afternoon, the families would get together to have coffee and a snack. This time was especially valuable since it was obvious that this time would be dedicated to spending time with each other, even if it was only for an hour or so. The families really emphasized the importance of being connected face-to-face.
Another thing that greatly influenced my perspective is the activities we were able to do, such as waterfall rappelling, surfing, and rafting. These activities were ones that the majority of us had never tried before, and I was especially scared since I am a very weak swimmer. However, with the support of those around me and their constant encouragement, these activities turned from something that I feared to challenges that I was looking forward to overcome. Stepping out of my comfort zone is definitely something that I will try to do more in my every day life now.
The last thing that influenced me a lot was being able to have time to myself to reflect on the activities and events that happened at the end of each day. We were given the opportunity to speak to the group and give “high’s” and “low’s”, so we were able to exchange a lot of ideas that way. There was also a bit of time to be able to reflect on the events of each day on my own after talking it through with other people, so that everything that happened had more of an impact on me. Rather than just staying in home-stays and then leaving, for example, we were able to reflect on how they interacted with each other, and what we were grateful for.
This change in my perspective on my life is immensely valuable because I will never look around the same way again; now, I realize the beauty in things I have and the things I see. I look at every meal a little differently, thinking about the people who actually put effort into producing the food from scratch and the source that my food came from. This makes my life have more value, since I don’t take as many things for granted. I can take my sense of gratitude, as well as my newfound sense of exploration, into my relationships, academics, and career. Especially as a physician in the future, I want to keep the value of interacting with people face-to-face with me , as well as being grateful of my position in life and the people I have, since I believe that it is easy to forget the little things once a career has started.
The Engineering Service-Learning in Ghana program is a semester long course followed by a two week in-country implementation process. The Ohio State University partners with the Offinso North District Assembly (ONDA) in Akumadan, Ghana to identify, design, and implement projects that meet the felt needs of the people living in Akumadan. During the semester, we explored existing literature about the best practices in humanitarian engineering and worked on teams to develop projects. My team collaborated with ONDA and in-country contacts to develop a modular rainwater harvesting system implemented at the Akumadan Health Center.
This project challenged my development as an engineer. Before this trip, I do not think that I understood the depth of my knowledge and skills. I underestimated myself. This trip changed my perception of myself. I now am empowered and view myself as an engineer with the ability to apply my knowledge and skills to given circumstances. I am now able to more productively and effectively portray my ideas. This change resulted from being in a focused environment that inspired an abundance of ideas and being a part of a creative team. Additionally, I was pushed to draw these ideas from my team members. Team management skills were also developed through this project as I learned how to capitalize on different personalities/mindsets while also portraying my own. My team and I tried to create an environment of respect for one another’s ideas.
During this STEP Signature Project, I connected with people who live in the surrounding cities and communities. One person in particular allowed me to understand the realities and beauties of living in his home. He would often say that it is not easy to live in Ghana and he would tell me about frustrations that he has with certain aspects of life in Ghana. However, he would then crack a smile as he told me that we were working too hard. This man, who took time off of work to collaborate with us on this project, wanted to learn and had a lot to teach. We were able to bring technical skills and design ideas for the system. He brought an eclectic set of skills and an understanding of life in Ghana. This man provided an honest opinion, which is vital to implementing a productive system, and a connection to the surrounding community. His insights were often a creative implementation of a technical skill, which drove me to do the same.
An aspect of my life that I have felt was missing previously was unrelenting focus. Two experiences allowed me to get some of this back into my life. My team members all were driven and created an environment of dedication to the work we were doing. Additionally, the people that I encountered all relished in the simple bliss of another’s company. People were dedicated to their conversations, and I noticed that my student counterparts began to pick up this trait as well.
Respect of another’s work: a concept that seems so simple is often overlooked in my daily life. One of my favorite parts of Ghanaian culture that I experienced was mutual respect for another’s work. An example of this respect occurred when my team went to a PVC store. Our ONDA collaborators came with us to the store and helped to translate. While the store owner is fairly fluent in English, it is often easier to understand ideas at a deeper level in your most used language. The interaction that occurred was my team entered his store to buy parts for his system. At this point, we had done our research into PVC parts, but we were no experts. We took our plans into the store and asked for his input and our ONDA collaborators said, “Yes ask him. He is the man with the ideas.” Their words and attitudes indicated a deep respect for the work this man does.
This change is significant to me in all facets of my life. The ability to respect another’s work should be fundamental. In my daily interactions with people, I will try to approach conversations with the understanding that every person knows something that I do not. It will allow me to learn deeper and more intentionally about a wide variety of topics. In my academic life, I have started to connect basic ideas learned in class to real-world applications. Most notably, I plan to do cross-disciplinary work long term. As such, I will need to have the skills to draw out knowledge and ideas from team members in order to be completely successful in my work. This STEP Signature Project will continue to impact me for many years to come.
Service-Learning and Community Service
This past winter break, I went on a Buck-I-SERV trip with the Akumanyi Foundation to Akokwa, Ghana for 10 days where we worked at an Orphanage in a very rural part of Ghana. Most of the daily chores we helped with included sweeping and mopping, dishes, cooking, and bathing kids. When we weren’t helping with these chores, we played a lot with the many kids there. On the weekend of December 30-31st we took a trip to Cape Coast and did a lot of sight-seeing and toured historic sights such as Kakum National Park and the Elmina Slave Castle. We also had the opportunity to go to various neighboring villages to see the foundation’s other projects.
Going into this trip, I didn’t have many expectations. I knew I would experience some form of culture shock from seeing how different Ghana is from America, which I definitely did experience. The biggest difference I did see was how content the kids in Ghana were with the little they had. Because the orphanage houses over 85 kids, none of them really had anything that was their own. Everyone shared everything and was very open and willing to sharing with their brothers and sisters. This was so different from my experience with American children who always seem to want to take possession of “their” things. Related to this, another difference I also noticed was how everyone seemed to have a group mentality instead of a “me first” mentality so often seen in America. Almost everyone I encountered there had a very large focus on everyone around them and success as a group. This was such a refreshing change from the way of life in America that tends to focus a lot on “every man for himself.” I do feel like a lot of my own personal views on life were put into perspective because of these encounters and I reevaluated a lot of my life. This was evident solely by watching the kids work and interact with each other. They always made sure all of their brothers and sisters were taken care of and would share everything they had to make the others happy. One day, for example, one of the kids found a cardboard box that they started playing with and found so much joy in playing with. Another kid came up and immediately the other shared the box with them so they could enjoy it together.
On the other hand, I feel like my biggest shock actually came from the large amount of similarities between Ghanaians and Americans. Many of the kids I interacted with reminded me so much of American kids at heart. Although they found joy in such different things, it made me realize that kids are kids and they all have the same spirit, which was really cool to see. This definitely opened my eyes to the idea that, while people may come from different backgrounds or situations, we are all still the same in some ways.
Another big aspect of this trip, for me, was seeing the incredibly strong faith everyone had. Having faith in God is not even a question for everyone is there and it shows everywhere. In all of the villages and on all of the cars were signs and sayings about God and having faith in Him as a protector. Additionally, all of the kids genuinely enjoyed learning about and praising God and going to Church. They would openly ask all of the volunteers if we knew God and gave Him the praise He deserved. For me as a Christian, this transformed my view of my faith entirely and strengthened it tremendously. I also had the opportunity to go to Church on New Year’s Eve from 9 PM to 12:30 AM. The concept behind it was to start off the new year giving praise to God and praying for well-being in the upcoming year. This was such an incredible concept to me that I had never thought of before. I also got a chance to talk to a 14 year old girl named Lovester. This girl suffered through many hardships because of her situation but also because she relied on a prosthetic leg that didn’t fit very well at all. It was easy to see that she struggled to run and play with other kids or even do basic chores because of this. In spite of her situation, Lovester had some of the strongest faith in God I have ever experience in my life. She alone gave me an entirely new perspective on my life and what I consider to be problems.
Lastly, an experience that had a big impact on my views was the tour of the Elmina Slave Castle in Cape Coast. The castle was the largest center for slave trade in Ghana. We were fortunate enough to be able to get a tour of the castle and it was extremely eye-opening for me. It is one thing to learn about the slave trade in history class in school but it is another to be standing in the place where part of it all occurred and to be immersed in the experience. To actually see how small and dark the rooms were the captives were held were and to walk through the “Door of No Return” puts a whole new understanding on the subject. For me, not only did it give me a newer and realer understanding of the slave trade, it also gave me a new perspective to modern-day racism in the United States and how we have gotten to the point we’re at now.
All of these experiences on my trip transformed my world view as well as my personal view. Overall, it was an incredible opportunity that I think everyone should be able to experience in their lifetime. I went into this trip with a pre-existing passion for service and came out with a new understanding for what that means in my life. Personally, I now have a deeper perspective to who I am as a global citizen and how important it is for me to do my part in helping others. Academically and professionally, I feel compelled to combine what I learned and experienced with my long-term professional goals. As previously mentioned, I have always had a passion of helping others but have always seen it as a hobby and not so much as a career path. Now, I am looking into ways of integrating what I learned about service to my future career. As an engineering major, this is definitely within my possible career paths. I was extremely inspired by Lovester and am currently looking into work with prosthetics for children with disabilities. Seeing her hardship with an ill-fitting prosthetic inspired me to fix that specific issue. Additionally, my trip made me realize that, no matter what I end up doing in life, I would like for it to involve helping others.
I am so incredibly grateful for the opportunity I had to go to Ghana and am looking for any chance to go back. If it were not for STEP, I would not have had this experience and would not be who I am now.
My STEP Signature project consisted of a 10-day long Buck-I-SERV trip, in partnership with the Outdoor Adventure Center, to Costa Rica. We spent the first five days traveling from San Jose, to San Isidero, to las Piedras Blancas, and then to Brujo where we completed two days of community service. Then we spent the last three days white water rafting to la Playa Uvita, where we spent our last days learning to surf.
The biggest reason that I advocate traveling is because it gives you a look at the world outside of the U.S. Often we can become wrapped up the bubble of the United States since it surrounds us on a day to day basis. However, it’s important to remember that there are many other cultures, values, beliefs, and lifestyles throughout the world that are just as important and relevant as ours. Travel, at a very basic level, promotes understanding and cultural osmosis.
On our second day in Costa Rica we left our homestay from the night before and embarked on the journey to our next homestay, a house located in las Piedras Blancas, which is only accessible by climbing Cuesta Roja (“Red Hill”). As it turns out, Cuesta Roja is a four-hour hike of straight ascent. The fact that the locals considered the hill worthy of naming should have been the first sign that I may have gotten myself into a situation I wasn’t prepared for. Before this trip I considered myself an active, fit person, however, Cuesta Roja had me questioning everything in a near delirious state of mental and physical exhaustion. The point of this anecdote is more so the boy from the homestay who came to bring us lunch rather than my physical trials. After we had eaten lunch, we started the remainder of our trek with the 12-year-old boy, Daniel, acting as the leader. While the entirety of our group floundered on the side of the mountain, Daniel picked his footholds strategically and scaled the mountain with a grace only gained through years of practice. Daniel never complained that he was sweaty, that he was tired, or that he was out of breath. Leading our group was a part of contributing to the tourism business that supported his family, and so he waited patiently for us to catch up while we all watched, astounded at his hill-climbing prowess.
My objective in providing that short anecdote is to provide insight into the lives of the people we met in Costa Rica. I realize it’s said often, but the lifestyle we lead in the United States is somewhat cushy in comparison to other countries. The people of Costa Rica, especially those living in rural areas, must work for everything they have. They grow their own sugar, they raise their own livestock, they provide most necessities for their families themselves. The work ethic in Costa Rica is by far the aspect I am most impressed by, and an area in myself I spent a of time reflecting on as a result. Daniel never complained about Cuesta Roja, and subsequently I started noticing when I complained. If this 12-year-old could climb this hill multiple times a week, then I could climb it once with minimal griping. Daniel was only 12 and already helping with the family business by guiding tourists and delivering lunch.
It didn’t just end at Daniel, everyone we met seemed to work hard every second of the day. Our host families prepared us three meals a day, in addition to a small snack provided during afternoon coffee at 3:30pm every day. That’s a lot of cooking when they’re housing a group of 16 as well as their own family. Not to mention the fact that most of the food we ate had to be grown by the families themselves. It was about half way through the trip before we realized that any meat we were eating had been raised and butchered by the families themselves. This is something few people must deal with in the United States and was incredibly eye opening. Manos and Abraham, our guides, leave their families in Brujo for days on end to lead tourists and support their families. Some of the kids in the village walk two hours to get to the nearest high school.
Everyone we interacted with worked so hard at everything they did, and it caused me to evaluate my life back home in the States numerous times a day. If I want to eat chicken for dinner, I simply go to the store. I don’t ever have to hike, period, let alone hike Cuesta Roja weekly. The approach they have to life was probably the most memorable and admirable part of the trip for me, and my goal since getting back has been to give more of myself to whatever I do. If I could develop even a fraction of the work ethic they have, I’d be a much better person.
I hope to bring back to the U.S. with me a better attitude. That’s not to say that I’ve ever considered myself to have a bad attitude, but I want to incorporate more of the zest for life found in the people of Costa Rica into my everyday life. I hope that whenever work gets me down that I think of Daniel and his patience in getting us up the hill.
My STEP signature project caused me to reflect on my life in the United States by comparing it to the lives of the Costa Rican people we were surrounded by daily, and become aware of areas for improvement. This trip truly was a transformational experience and changed me in more ways than I can put in writing. As a result, I make it a daily goal to try to incorporate the hard working nature of the Costa Ricans into my life and work. I want to be known for volunteering for the hard and unpleasant tasks and for completing them thoroughly and with a smile on my face the whole time, similar to Daniel volunteering for the unpleasantness of the Red Hill. While it’s not especially applicable now while I’m in school, I want to remember the sacrifices that Manos and Abraham make in order to support their families, and keep that with me as a reminder that prosperity and success comes with sacrifices. Perhaps most importantly, I feel this experience has made me a more globally aware person. I started this reflection by commenting on our cushy lifestyle here in the U.S. Some might consider the lifestyle in Costa Rica as beneath that of ours because of the manual labor and lack of luxuries in the typical household. However, after living with multiple host families, I would argue that these people live a more fulfilling life than many people do in the United States. The bonds within the families are all the stronger due to the need to rely on each other. One family member may cook the meals while the other tends the farm, but they both rely on each other to do their part. This reliance extends to the community as well, especially in these tourism towns, where everyone plays a role in ensuring a smooth operation. These experiences made me reflect on my role within my family and the community. I think we often become too wrapped up in ourselves and fail to help our neighbors due to the inconvenience. I’ve already become more aware of this in my everyday life, and am striving to evaluate the opportunity costs and inconvenience compared to the aid it would provide a friend. Picking someone up from the airport is a slight inconvenience compared to the amount of stress it relieves from a friend in need. While I did improve my Spanish by being in Costa Rica and the experience motivated me more academically and professionally, the biggest transformation for me was gained through self-reflection and a new commitment to better certain areas of myself.
Written by Jared Brown
1. For my STEP Signature Project, I took part in the Engineering Service-Learning in Ghana program throughout Fall 2017 and travelled to Ghana over winter break 2017-2018. I was part of a team of 5 multidisciplinary engineering students that researched, designed, developed, and built a rainwater harvesting system at the Akumadan Health Center in conjunction with our partners at the Offinso North District Assembly (ONDA).
2. The entirety of the program, both the class and travel portion, had an incredible impact on me in ways that I am discovering every day. What surprised me about this program was the degree to which the pre-trip class taught me about myself and my understanding of my broader education and maturity. It all started with a small quote from my professor that got stuck in my head. My professor said something during the beginnings of the program that went something like “the whole point of your undergraduate education is to increase your comfort with ambiguity and uncertainty in problem-solving”. This quote would come to subconsciously define my pre-trip project experience. I saw myself grow in confidence and understanding of the next direction of our project so that we could be fully prepared for the implementation phase in Ghana. Taking the broad felt need of water security and the economic burden of purified water access, and creating a project with our partners in Akumadan that focuses on solving these complex issues began as a daunting but exciting task. So to say that I had any idea of the steps to take to be successful would be an incredible lie. Yet, this project taught me how to stay confident and find the next step to stay on track toward its completion and feel comfortable in the midst of a project in which I had limited experience. This growth then helped to make our time in-country extremely successfully and highly impactful.
During my time in Ghana, outside of the technical engineering side of the project, I came to understand the delicacies of human relationship and friendship. While that sounds high and mighty, my experiences in Ghana truly affected how I want to strive to interact with both my good friends and new people I meet every day. I personally can become very invested in my schoolwork and let it overtake too much of my time during the heat of the semester. Yet this experience showed me that there will always be to-do lists and assignments no matter what stage of like you are in, and these moments that you have with the people around you will never happen again. From this trip, my value of the generosity of time as one of the most important personal virtues has grown intensely.
3. My time in Ghana was filled with an incredible amount of discovery and self-realization while also paired with a healthy amount of stress from the finalization and construction of our rainwater harvesting system. On a personal side, one of the mental struggles that I wrestled with throughout the trip was judgment. I was very worried that we were seen or perceived as as an out-of-touch, wasteful student project group. This worry grew and was slightly reinforced during the initial stages of the trip as eyes followed us wherever we went. I knew we had spent all semester diving into the theory of international development, reading about best international development practices, researching Ghanaian culture, learning conversational Twi, reading books about small business and economics in Ghana, continuously talking with our partners at ONDA, extensively researching sustainable designs for our projects, and continuously reassessing our project’s approach all to counteract the documented failures of past international student service. We were students who greatly benefited and learned so much about international development, Ghanaian culture, and humanitarian engineering projects from this partnership with ONDA while at the same time creating successful and sustainable projects that served the felt needs of Akumadan as the result of our partnership. In my mind this was a fine ideological line to walk. However, during my time in Ghana specific conversations and the generosity of the people surrounding us began to greatly change the way I thought.
While eyes followed us, a simple wave or hello was always returned by a now smiling face no matter young or old. I was always striving to start conversations with anyone we came across to learn about their lives. Every instance turned into an inspiring conversation that began turn my worries into understanding. One conversation I had centered around one man’s excitement in seeing student groups in his country. He loved to see students learning about his vibrant and inspiring culture and volunteering among the communities. From each of these conversations the sharing of their Ghanaian culture and our ability to work with them was the central theme. It was from here that I understood so much more about our role and our perception.
Everyone was incredibly welcoming and generous throughout our trip, constantly looking to aid our projects and our learning. Our ONDA partners and other volunteers we worked with were some of the most genuine and friendly people I have met. Some of the volunteers took off work to help us finish our rainwater harvesting system while also learning the technicalities of the project for possible future implementation. Seeing this gave me great insight into the virtue of time generosity and being deliberate with the time that you spend to build the relationships around you.
4. My experience in Ghana giving me insight into the way I work in groups in a challenging new environment, and amplifying my pension toward generosity. These insights affect me both on a personal and technical level. Knowing my strengths within a team will greatly help my success in my career, whether that be in industry or in international development/humanitarian engineering. Throughout the trip I found myself reflecting on my strengths and weaknesses in all aspects of my life and will look to continue this self-reflective mindset into my future. As I have come back the significance of my experience has very much come into perspective. I have realized the slight changes in my outlook and the way I treat the relationships I have. These changes and deeper perspectives will stay with me throughout my life.
Service Learning & Community Service
The International Engineering Service-Learning Program in Ghana consist of a fall semester course followed by a two week in-country experience in Akumadan, Ghana in coordination with OIA and the in-country partner, ONDA, Offinso North District Assembly. The program was designed to introduce us to the concept of humanitarian engineering: the application of science and technology to directly improve the well-being of marginalized or underserved people, families and communities. The overall course consists of preparation phase (research, design, develop, prototype and plan engineering solutions to meet their needs), in-country implementation (evaluate cost, sustainability and local ownership), and post-trip evaluation (document through reports and presentations). While enhancing our international development technical skills, our understanding of global diversity broadened throughout the entire process.
Reflecting on the STEP Signature Project, I began to understand myself, and my assumptions/ views of the world changed/transformed. The biggest transformation that occurred during the trip, would be the importance of communication – between peers, faculty members, governmental officials, translators, community members, the locals and more. Upon arriving in Africa, I realized that an unconscious assumption that I had, or the world, has of Africa was false. The ‘starving African children image’ is a superficial image of a nation used by foreign entities’ propaganda. The Ghanaian people are smart, resilient and joyous. Although the trip changed my views and understandings in many other aspects, these points are what I deem most impactful during my journey.
Communication – an easy concept difficult to perfect. During the in-class preparation at Ohio State, our professor required that we study different theories of international development work and foreign aid in developing countries. Not only did we read papers from the western perspectives but also from the perspectives of those in these countries. What I learned through this research, was for a project to be sustainable, it must have involvement, enthusiasm and ownership from the community. Without clear and corporative communication on all levels, this is not possible. On the trip, our communication, flexibility and adaptability skills were put to the test. We needed to explain our projects to the governmental partners, elaborate the technical concept and material requirements to our faculty advisors to maintain on schedule, discuss plans within our team of student engineers while keeping the community members up to date on the implementation process. At times, we made mistakes on the effectiveness of how and when we communicated. However, we learned that illustrations made large concepts more understandable and slowing down when we speak not only makes it easier for our Ghanaian partners to process our words, but it enables us to think about what we’re saying and if we are truly understanding the design. At the end of trip, we all agreed that the things we learned on the trip are skills that can be applied in our engineering field and in everyday life.
The biggest misconception of Africa is the image of the ‘poor starving child’ nation: Africans are in desperate need of your help and do not living well. I thought I had no preconceived notions of Africa, but this image is engrained in western societies due to propaganda and lack of knowledge. This is false. Africa is rich in culture and spirit. The people are resilient and resourceful. Their smiles beam with joy and arms open wide with hospitality. From the food to the traditional Kente cloth, the history and future of the nation radiates through the people and into the products. During our trip, not only did my team engineered a sustainable solution, we conducted interviews of women entrepreneurs/workers. Through this experience, I was able to connect with the individuals, learn their stories and find commonality between us even from across the globe. There is a ‘think smarter not harder’ and ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ mindset that is seen in Ghanaian people and lost in American society. There is joy. There is peace. There is harmony. I will never forget the excitement in their faces when I ask ‘Ete sen?’ (‘Greetings/How are you?’ in Twi) and their upbeat, ‘Eye!’ (‘I am well!’), following.
This transformational experience was valuable to my future endeavors, academically, professionally and personally. The International Service Learning Program in Ghana provided me the necessary steps to continue my path in humanitarian engineering by creating meaningful experiences to learn from and introducing resources, connections and skills to become a better engineer, teammate, student and person. It validated my aspiration and increased my drive to look for more opportunities in this field through internships and volunteering. Because of the STEP Program, I was able to embark on an unforgettable journey that has directly impacted my future goals and plans for the better.
International Service Learning
My trip consisted of 12 days: 10 days in Ghana with most of our days spent at Engyankwa wo enyiadad (Hope for orphans) Children’s Home in Akokwa, a small village in the central region of Ghana, a weekend in Cape Coast, and an additional 2 days for traveling to and from the US. Days at the orphanage consisted of chores such as sweeping, mopping, cooking, serving meals, and washing dishes and kids (not at the same time though). In between chores we were spending time with the kids which was more unique this time of year because it was also their holiday season and we got to be included in their customary Christmas and New Year’s celebrations. In addition to our daily chores, we did a site-improvement project where we painted the inside and outside of a classroom. When in Cape Coast we visited one of the oldest and largest slave castles in Western Africa and learned the impact and devastation that the slave trade and colonialism had on the region by seeing, smelling, and feeling the very dungeon cells that had held thousands of African men and women captive.
Starting at a young age I had a preconceived but misinformed notion of Africa and all of its inhabitants. With the opportunity STEP presented me, I was able to mobilize myself and pursue this service site in Ghana that I’ve had long-standing personal motivations and curiosity towards. Coming into the first meeting I had many ideas of ways to improve their lives and fun new activities to bring the children that I had such nostalgia about. The first pre-trip meeting was a much needed wake up call to responsible service learning and sustainable cross-cultural engagement. I had fooled myself into thinking that my American way of life was the best way of life and teaching them about it and giving it to the children was going to make them happy like it did for me. After living with the children, immersed in their lifestyle everyday, I am so glad I never acted upon my traditional American views.Me enforcing my values on them is only benefiting me and reinforcing my diluted idea of what kids “should” be doing, which is not what serving any community is about and would be counter intuitive of cultural immersion. I saw that these kids are happy and they don’t need people “improving” their life with Western ideals, they need understanding people working alongside them and willing to learn their ways of life in order to help them better with the resources they already had. I learned to listen to the needs of the community and work to their strengths: resilience, perseverance, kindness, resourcefulness, and desire to learn. They taught me so much by opening my eyes to different ways to accomplish household tasks that I never would’ve attempted in the US. I know ways to carry very heavy items uphill efficiently, I know I can clean over 100 dishes with only 3 gallons of water, and that your hands are just as good of a utensil as a fork. In many of these situations I was out of my comfort zone and unfamiliar with certain techniques or customs, but by embracing my discomfort I was able to learn more than I had ever anticipated about the Ghanaian culture and serving a community.
While I was very impressed and admired the minimalism that the orphanage operated on everyday, I saw that it was giving the 60 kids there so much more than what the other children in the villages had while living with their families. As part of custom for any volunteering in their community, we met with the Chief of the village and met with other elders and families that lived in the community as well. We were given a tour of the village and told that there is no opportunity for school there: there were no classrooms or anyone skilled enough to teach the subjects to all the differing ages. Most of the children in the village did not have full outfits complete with shirt and shoes; we were also told that it’s hard for many people in the village to eat three times a day and that in their one-room homes there might be as many 5-7 people sleeping on the floor at a time. I realized that the orphanage does so much for the kids that reside there. It was so encouraging to see everything that the Akumanyi Foundation does for their community partners, continually empowering women and children when they partner with this orphanage, other children’s homes, provide villages with clean water projects, public bathroom initiatives, and provide more opportunities for the advancement of women with a sustainable income program of a seamstress school. By partnering with Engyankwa wo enyiadad the kids there will continue to have a bed to sleep in, water to drink, food to eat, education, and a welcoming sense of community that keeps you safe.
The community aspect of the home was very impressive to me as well. I had many perspectives to compare it to from being an RA, where part of my job is to build community and foster inclusion, and from the perspective of other child-care settings like volunteering in the classrooms of my brothers and sister or attending their music programs and helping coach their sporting events. In all of these experiences I’ve had with community building, it always is a reoccuring theme that you have to remind everyone to be “nice” to each other, respect everyone’s differences, and treat others how you want to be treated. Essentially, it’s a constant battle to keep the peace in all of these situations, whether it’s as an RA with people 18+ years-old or with a t-ball team. At Engyankwa wo enyiadad, I never saw or sensed this constant need for mediation that has normally gone on with my past experiences with kids. In fact, it was quite the opposite. The kids were not aggressively competitive with each other and I could tell they genuinely enjoyed the company of everyone who lived at the home. During the New Year’s Eve church service I was very impressed with how the kids would come up so willingly and sing songs in front of all their peers. I couldn’t help but compare it to my siblings’ talent shows where the kids were always making fun of eachother; I enjoyed the genuine and supportive atmosphere for a change.
While in the orphanage I got to spend time with many kids and learned the names of just about all 60, but on the very first night when we arrived I was pulled aside by one of the children and he introduced himself to me. In the darkness of the night we could not see each other but he told me his name, Emanuel, and asked me for mine. He wanted to know if I would be his friend- of course my response was an immediate yes. He was fourteen, the same age as my brother, but he was a role model for me. He would talk to me about all the things he loved like wrestlers, rappers, movies, superheroes, and, of course, school. At the age of fourteen Emanuel described to me in great detail the respiratory system, digestive system, ecosystems, the solar system, algebra, geography, and even some general chemistry. I was amazed at his dedication to retaining this knowledge and made me reevaluate how much I’m actually trying in my studies; I realized the privilege of education I was taking for granted. I came out of this relationship with a newfound respect for all the knowledge I have at my fingertips. I also rekindled my love of education and discovery for the sake of knowing; it made me step back and realize I’m only studying to do well on exams and not for the sake learning the material. Whenever I don’t want to do my readings for classes I think of how enthusiastic Emanuel and the other children were for books, paper, and pencils.
After Undergrad and before graduate school I would like to continue serving internationally as member of the Peace Corps which is a 27 month commitment in a developing country, many of which are in Africa. I think that my time in Akokwa was a good introduction for the Peace Corps, granted it was on a much smaller scale. Recently there was a reorientation meeting with the Akumanyi Foundation Club on campus and at the meeting we were able to discuss ways to improve the issues we saw or discovered while being on the trip. Many of the projects the club intends to undertake involve specialization areas that I am interested in going into in the Peace Corps like community development, education, and health promotion. I plan on staying involved in this club so I can keep giving back to the community I served even while back overseas.
This truly immersive experience pushed my cultural competencies, I was uncomfortable at times due to how innately different I was from the native populations. I stuck out like a sore thumb- it was painfully obvious that I was Obruni (white person/foreigner), but I knew I came to learn through service. In order to grow I had to be uncomfortable; rather than letting my differences hold me back, I acknowledged them. I was able to let go of my American values in this process by the acceptance of this cultural divide; I didn’t get frustrated when I had no expectation for familiar things. I enjoyed transitioning to the Ghanaian lifestyle while I was there, it was a refreshing adversity- a reminder that the outside world exists.
This proximity to different culture is something that in the United States we lack. When I had returned to the US there were quickly headlines of our president generalizing where I had just been as a “shithole country”. I would like to attest from my own personal experience that his statement could not be more untrue. Tragedies of disease, war, and hunger do occur in African countries, but that is not the only place where these things are occurring. In fact, it would be harder to find a place on this earth where these travesties aren’t happening. His remarks insinuated that the quality of the country’s infrastructure and government reflected the quality of its people, which again, could not be more untrue. When we only focus on these negative aspects in a country we start to only think of its citizens in that negative way. The famous Nigerian author Chiamanda Ngozi Adichi warned us best when she said, “The single stories create stereotypes and the problem with stereotypes is not that they aren’t true but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story…The consequence of the single story is this: it robs people of their dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.” After this experience I will not remain silent about my time in Ghana and I will not let those around me stay ignorant to these places because they are unable or unwilling to go there themselves. To deny the people of Ghana, Haiti, and any other developing nation entry into our country would be a great misfortune to our national foundations and loss of personal character. Just from the 10 days I had spent in Ghana, I have not met brighter smiles, sharper minds, kinder hearts, or more helping of hands.