Monday, May 21, 2012

Ghana one year later

Some people have asked me for a conclusion, a proper ending, a goodbye of sorts to my many posts about my adventures abroad. For a long time, literally one year to the day, I had little idea as to what to write. Fortunately, that has changed and instead of Sorkin-esque prose, I think I will retreat to a more matter of fact presentation of experiences and general thoughts.

My original rationale for studying abroad stemmed from my career choice. I harbor ambitions to join the Foreign Service and as it requires extensive time abroad, I naturally wanted to see how well equipped I was and how well I could cope. While I had thoroughly enjoyed my time in Paris and London, I knew that those plush locales were few and far between. Therefore, I wanted to test my skills in a country that was well off the beaten path.

Why Ghana?

My first search was not confined by continent but by status of developing or developed country. I decided to stick within the SUNY system for convenience and its costs are among the lowest of any study abroad program. India and Vietnam made the list only to be kicked off due to program limitations. Singapore was too developed. Then, I read an article in Foreign Affairs about Chinese foreign aid in Africa. The topic quickly became the focus of my honors thesis. Interning at SUNY/Center for International Development (CID) which has several programs in Africa also pushed my interest towards the “dark continent,” as CID sparked my interest in development and democracy in the region. As SUNY has only a handful of programs in Africa, I was able to narrow it down to Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Morocco and South Africa. Much to my dismay, Kenya was off-limits thanks to the Department of State. Egypt fell off the list next due to high costs and the fact that the university was recently relocated to the middle of nowhere. Deciding against Egypt in the spring of 2011 turned out to be good luck. I decided against Morocco and South Africa for reasons similar to Singapore. I was also looking to escape what was shaped up to be a brutal winter. Ghana it twas!

Impressions of studying abroad

First and foremost, despite being locked away and ill, and possibly other complaints, I did on a whole enjoy my time there. I would almost certainly go back and may have the opportunity to next summer through Syracuse. I more than satisfied my rationale for going abroad. Granted, conditions in Accra were quite luxurious compared to less developed countries including neighboring Abuja, Nigeria, nearby Togo and Benin. While I did mingle with Ghanaians, I have but one Ghanaian Facebook friend and no long term friends. I found myself hanging out with my fellow obruni’s more than the obibini’s, which is not uncommon but something I wished I had been more aware of at the time.

A note on those obruni’s, it takes a special sort of person to want to study in a developing country and I was nothing but impressed by my colleagues from America, Australia, Sweden, California and elsewhere.

Below are a few laments: 
  1. Mingling more closely and meaningfully with locals would be one thing I wish I could have done more of.
  2. Working at a meaningful internship would have been very helpful and I wish I could have done this. I was a bit overwhelmed when I arrived so would suggest to arrange this well before arrival. This also would have better answered the question, “what are you doing here?”
  3. There was one place in Ghana I wish I could have gone, Mole National Park, located in the far north of the country, to see some wild animals. The weekend some friends of mine were going was the weekend my dad was coming.
  4. In addition to enjoying Ghanaian culture, I wish I could have spent more time in Ghana’s neighbors. I did visit Togo twice and Benin once but more time there would have been nice. I wanted to visit Burkina Faso but it was too far and had a very fragile political scene, so much so that I advised some friends against going. I tried to go to Mali but was unable to secure a place to stay with someone there and it would have involved two days of traveling. Cote d’Ivoire was in the midst of a mini-civil war over election results and was off-limits, effectively blocking off Liberia and other countries to the west.
  5. I would have liked to travel more but it was stressful and costly. Although a ride to the Togo-Ghana border was just four dollars, the entrance visa was about ten times that. While a room in Togo cost only $15 per night, dinner alone cost about that much. It did not help that I did not know any French which brings me to my next point.
  6. I would have liked to study in a country whose language is not English. In Africa, this would have meant French, Portuguese, Swahili or Arabic although my poor language background would have prohibited this or made it even more difficult. 
  7. I would have dearly loved a car as it would have made traveling for less stressful and faster, and would have allowed me to explore far more. I made up for this somewhat with a bike. While enticing, a motorcycle was probably a fairly dangerous option given that I had no prior experience.
  8. Perhaps in retrospect, I would have studied abroad my last semester although class requirements for my final fall required I go in the spring. My situation was compounded by the fact that I had enough credits from high school to graduate in only two and a half years. My first year was my only full year. Then, I had one fall semester, Ghana and then the last fall semester. It made language study difficult and I was not able to row nearly as much as I would have liked.
  9. I wished I had brought some Ghanaian music. It was something I planned to do but never did. 
A few things I am particularly glad I did:
  1. I developed a taste for dark beer, mainly stouts, porters and dark ales, by drinking almost entirely Guinness Foreign Extra, brewed right in Ghana.
  2. I was fortunate to not be significantly impacted by culture shock except for the hospital.
  3. I visited the US embassy and met an amazing diplomat. 
  4. I traveled to two other countries and had the good fortune to compare them to Ghana.
  5. I saw firsthand the African end of the slave trade, something that is not taught in the US much.
  6. I spent a night in a jungle, something I had long wanted to do, and with my dad.

Ghana would not leave my system easily either. My journey home began with a dilapidated cab ride to the airport at 6p Thursday and ended in the wee hours of Saturday morning. While Amsterdam was great, I fell terribly ill from a bad case of jet lag at of course my favorite Indian restaurant, long before food would arrive. I literally could not stop shaking despite putting the heat on full blast, literally unable to adjust to the climate of May in western New York. I collapsed on my way to the bathroom, deja vue, of another episode. While Lockport hospital was better equipped, getting care was an equally slow and difficult process. I discovered I was a bit malnourished, having lost almost twenty pounds.

Final thoughts

Studying abroad has been a perfect resource to draw upon in terms of justifying myself as a serious student of international relations. I applied the experience my internships, my graduate school and endless tales to people I barely know. It was the best of times, the worst of times and I would absolutely do it all again.

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