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International Relations Program

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September 26, 2013 at 1:21pm




GHANA JULY 4 - JULY 31, 2013 This Study Abroad project was carried out under a 6 credit service-leaning program led by The City College of New York as part of the MA Program in International Relations. Students conducted research and worked with the residents of the two communities of Kobina Ansa and Akoanso to involve them in improving the quality of the local school, which lacked water, electricity, sanitation and needed classrooms. They interviewed children, parents, and teachers to help determine how the school can best address the needs of the villagers, and how to sustain their commitment as well as that of donors once the school projects are in operation.

I had the pleasure to meet Alexander Lord, who participated in the program and agreed to talk with me about his experience in Ghana. Here are some of the highlights of our chat.

Q: Did you have any personal goals aside from the program requirements or the project was your main focus?

A: A little bit of both. Definitely I had my personal goals but I was really interested in the service-leaning concept and much of the research for that was done prior. Well, the first group of students went a year ago and then there was a group from Yale that went and did some community mapping and surveys. It was determined that what was needed were two classrooms for kindergarten children. Currently the kindergarteners just met in whatever room was available, a lot of times it was out in the grass and so if it was raining they just went home. So it was determined that building classrooms for the school was the first priority for the community. What we did was step one out of three or four stages. We had enough funding to make the two classrooms but we did not have sufficient resources to address the electricity or the water supply needs of the school. These were stage 2 or 3 or 4 when they would also install solar panels. So I really enjoyed the aspect of actually building the school, which was a very labor intensive part of the trip.

But my own personal goal was to do a little bit of research. I’m interested in sports in international relations so I wanted to go over there and just interact with the locals and find out how they use sports in the commutative way and in community development. It actually turned completely different. There are a couple of refugee camps in Ghana of people from the Ivory Coast. So there were groups of Ivorians who were also helping to build the school with us. They were hired by the local contractor, so that they have something to do and make some money because they live in a refugee camp about 45 minutes away. My research was going to focus on the use of sports for community development and community integration for these refugees into Ghanaian society. Clearly they use it within the camp as community development, morale building, etc. But I also wanted to see how they can use sports to connect and bridge the gap with the community that they were in, with the Ghanaian village around them because there is a little bit of tension right now. Basically I wanted to see if they can use sports as a method of peace building. My goal was to see in which way sports were being used in and around the community, as well as try to really finish the school. We were able to complete building the classroom and the roofs were put on just after we left.

Q. Did you experience any culture shock?

A: There were a few things that surprised me. I’ve been to Africa before, so it wasn’t the “oh I’m in Africa” kind of initial shock. I also was in Peace Corps where I was a volunteer for 27 months in Armenia in a small village so I lived abroad and I’ve been in a situation where there is no water for a few hours. However, the culture shock for me was some of the Ghanaian traditions. They have a tradition for funerals that when someone dies they have an all-night party and everyone is invited. Basically, on Friday night we went funeral hopping because there were 3 different funerals. We went to one at 10.30 at night and no one was there yet. They told us that the party hadn’t started yet and to give it a few more hours. So we went to another one where we noticed a bunch of chairs outside and everyone was seating in them. In the center there was a giant space where people can dance. So people dance, sing, they hand out candy, they eat while the body is inside the house and it’s open so that way everyone can come in and pay their respects. They dress it up really nicely and the house looks very good. This might have been only in the region where we were, but they wrap the body in Christmas lights so it’s flashing with lights. That was really different!

Q: So it’s not the kind of wake where people are rather sad?

No, it was lively, people were dancing. It was a celebration of life.

Q: What is your perception of Africa? Would you say it’s different from what we see on the news? Would you like to go back?

A: I would love to go back to Africa. I’ve been there once before. I’ve spent about two and a half weeks in Ethiopia but I was in the capital. It’s a city of 5 million people, so it was massive. I think the difference with going to Ghana was that it was a bit easier than most African nations. First of all it’s quite stable, it is doing fairly well economically and they speak English because it’s a former British colony. So there wasn’t that much of a language barrier. It made it very easy just to move around and do what you need, order a taxi or go to a market or restaurants. But I would love to go back to Africa. There are so many more places to go. Ghana didn’t almost feel like Africa at all because we were close to the beach and there were coconut trees and people were on the side of the road chopping up a coconut for you and we drank it. It was not the view of Africa that I had before.

Q: How were the local people?

A: Very open, very friendly, very willing to help you in any way that you need. We never really felt unsafe. We also made sure that we weren’t putting ourselves in situations where we might have felt unsafe. But yes, they are very warm, very friendly. You could go into a restaurant and the owner would talk to you for about 20 minutes before taking your order. They just like to talk to you and see what you’re doing there.

Q: Tell me more about the process of building the school; did you also interact with the students? What was your job? How did it look like when you got there?

A: When we first got there, there was like a basic wood structure but very flimsy and not so strong. So we came and we met the head teacher and the staff. They formally invited us to come to the project. Regarding the process of building the school, we were using a specific type of brick called Theraform. What we did is take clay and we had to put many wheelbarrows of clay into a pile. Then we had to mix it up, add a little bit of concrete and sand and then mix that all together. Then we sprinkled water on it so it doesn’t begin to harden but smooths out the concrete a bit and then you mix that up. Then you put it into a pile and you have to put it into a bucket which you then pour into a machine which forces it down and forms it into a brick. And we had to make 45 hundred bricks! There were Ivoirians from the refugee camps that were working and there were Ghanaians from the local village that was there, but it was just a very labor-intensive process. We were just shuffling for hours and hours and stacking the bricks and letting them dry. Then we had to fill in the whole foundation with dirt and concrete for 3 days straight. After that we had to measure each brick so that they fit according to a certain size because there was no concrete used, they are molded to fit together naturally. It’s a specific type of building that comes from the ground and if they need to, they can just water it down and it will dissolve back down. That way you’re not bringing a lot of foreign material. So yeah, we were just stacking the bricks, leveling and stacking more bricks. 45 hundred bricks is a lot of bricks but it was good!

Q: It looks like a lot of work but I imagine it must be very rewarding when you think about the goal.

Right. When we finished, all that was left to be done was to insert the electrical units as well as the roof needed to be put on. The roof wouldn’t come for another week or two so we couldn’t be there when it was finished.

Q: Thank you for taking the time and meeting with me. Good luck!