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May 252015

May 19
Accra, Ghana

The third and final week of our spring term trip to Ghana was spent touring rural areas and visiting several major cities. We saw the Cape Coast Castle, fed monkeys bananas in the Volta Region, learned how Kente cloth is made in Kumasi, and swam in the Vli Waterfalls near Ho. It was nice to take a break from the hustle and bustle of Accra and explore some rural areas.

This trip has marked my first visit to a developing country. Throughout my time here, I have meditated heavily on the relationship between developed and developing nations. Specifically, as a U.S. citizen, what is my role in this setting? Especially as the course comes to a close, my classmates and I have all been wondering how we will take what we’ve learned here and use it when we get home. We’ve had a fulfilling cultural immersion—scheduling plans around daily power outages, bargaining with taxi drivers, and washing our own clothes by hand—but at the end of the day, we will all return to the United States where we drive our own cars, have consistent electricity, and throw our dirty clothes in the washing machine. As I work to internalize this experience, I’d like to share some of my thoughts.

Last week, we were scheduled to complete a community service project in Krofu, an isolated rural village in the central region. We arrived at 9 a.m., a bus full of foreigners, ready to help with the construction of a library. We spent about an hour waiting for the chief elders to arrive, and while we were playing soccer and talking to the village kids, the majority of us felt uncomfortable. What were we doing here? What did these kids think of us? Were we right to be there? Yes, we were doing a community service project but we were also there to see what a rural Ghanaian village was like. Once we met with the elders, we set to work digging the foundation of what will become a library for the village’s school children. As we were digging, I couldn’t help but think: What impact are we really making? Is this the best use of our skills and resources? Is a library the most effective way to improve this village? When we quit digging about 45 minutes later, we left behind slightly deeper holes than the ones that were originally there.

The next day, while we were on the bus on our way to visit Kumasi, we had a full debrief with Professor Dickovick. The conversation helped many of us work through our feelings about the Krofu visit. As a former Peace Corps volunteer who spent two years in a village in Togo, Prof. Dickovick could relate to our frustration. He talked about how it can be difficult to prescribe development solutions, and he made one point, in particular, that stayed with me. Our experience in Krofu serves as a micro-scale metaphor for development as a whole. The World Bank, for instance, is such a large organization that its projects can sometimes be unproductive; it’s hard to know exactly what a country needs in order to thrive. Just as we had arrived, dug holes for an hour, and left—feeling good about ourselves and yet questioning whether we’d helped the village, NGOs and development organizations oftentimes get stuck in the same cycle. It’s very possible to provide unproductive aid. This realization, brought on by the experience in Krofu, is one that I will keep in mind as I continue to study development and other countries.

And such is the beauty of Spring Term. This course could have been taught in Lexington during a regular 12-week term but the benefit of studying in Ghana is that I’ve been immersed in the course content. The experience has made a lasting impression on me.


Honk If You Can Read This

May 11
Accra, Ghana

The past week in Ghana has been packed with lectures, site visits, and plenty of cultural immersion. As a poverty studies minor, I’ve been able to draw some connections between lectures on foreign development and my studies of domestic poverty.

On Thursday, we listened to Dr. Akosua Darkwah, of the sociology department at the University of Ghana, speak about women and rural development. She discussed how rural workers, mainly women, have been pigeonholed into roles as cash crop farmers, and as such, are subject to the control of corporations in outside countries. Last semester, I finished my poverty capstone on the structural isolation of the urban poor in the U.S., and I came across many of the same types of barriers. These barriers can leave people powerless. Though there are differences when it comes to scale and the types of problems each population faces, I found it interesting to be able to make cross-cultural comparisons.

The adjustments I’ve had to make to my daily life in Ghana have made me reconsider how much waste I produce, even on a weekly basis. On Wednesday, I woke up to find that all our water had run out. This has never happened to me at home or at school; our plumbing delivers a continuous supply of water. Later in the day, as the workmen came to refill the tank at my home stay, I was very aware that every time I ran the sink, some water from that limited tank was expensed. Even brushing my teeth with bottled water every night, I’m more conscious of how much water I use, as I watch a third of a bottle disappear.

I’ve also been thinking about excessive consumption in terms of data. I read an article praising Facebook for being one of the most efficient smart phone apps, in terms of information delivered per megabyte. With frequent access to WiFi and a large data plan at home, I had never considered my consumption of data. Now that I have to buy credit for my Ghanaian SIM card and monitor my data usage, it’s on my mind a good bit.

In other immersion news, I did my own laundry by hand for the first time this week. I had three buckets, for washing and rinsing, and in order to make the clothes clean, it’s necessary to scrub them together hard until the dirt comes out. We spent the better part of an hour doing this, before hanging all our clothing on a line to dry in the Ghanaian heat.

Washington and Lee laundry on the line

My roommate Lucy and I also experienced Accra’s public transportation for the first time this week. The system consists of unmarked minibuses called Tro Tros, which are distinguished by a man hanging out the side window, yelling the route with accompanying hand signals to passerbys on the road. With directions from our host mother, we were able to take two Tro Tros to the tourist spot, Labadi Beach, on our free day this week.

When we’re not walking or taking a Tro Tro, Accra’s taxi service is most convenient. Driving in Ghana should be left to Ghanaians—traffic is dense and scooters dart in between cars, everyone trying to outpace each other. Honking is a necessary part of driving, done more to announce that you’re proceeding through an intersection or passing another car than to indicate frustration. If you were to do a study of honks per minute, I would bet that there’s a positive correlation with efficiency of travel. Perhaps this is something to look into on any future economics trips to Ghana!

Our Girl Friday

May 3
Accra, Ghana

Hello from Accra, the capital city of Ghana! After spending a couple days in Lexington, preparing to study Ghanaian politics and economic development, we’ve finally arrived and settled into our home stays, enjoying the sights, sounds, tastes and newness that comes with exploring a place for the first time. During our three days in the city so far, we’ve tried local cuisine, toured the Masoleum of Kwame Nkrumah, driven through the coastal markets and neighborhoods downtown, and attempted to bargain for souvenirs at the Cultural Arts Center.

The home stays have been an integral part of our course, and I’ve already learned so much about Ghanaian life and history from my host family. Upon our arrival on Thursday night, the lights in our house were off because the power had been shut down. Ghana is currently having an energy crisis, called Dumsor, caused by insufficient rainfall to power the hydroelectric energy converters. Households are on a timed schedule, with 12 hours of power followed by 24 hours without power (though we haven’t been experiencing this pattern regularly). Since we don’t have a generator, this has affected the heat in the house — we can’t turn the fans on — and our access to WiFi.

Today, my roommate, Lucy Ortiz, and I went to an Evangelical Presbyterian church with our host mother. Ghana has 10 regions, which contain over 63 distinct ethnic groups. Our parents are both from the Volta Region of Ghana, where Ewe is spoken. (I’ll note that in Accra, the most common language is Twi). My host mother explained that the Germans colonized the Volta Region, bringing the Evangelical Presbyterian faith with them, and many of the Volta natives who live in Accra continue to worship in this religion.

The service was unlike any other church service I’ve ever attended. We arrived at 9 a.m. to sit with our host mother’s choral group, and spent the next four hours singing, dancing, and listening to men and women read scripture. Most of the service was in Ewe, but our host mother translated the main points for us. The community was lively, using trumpets, drums and clapping to go along with each song. And everyone was incredibly friendly! The W&L Speaking Tradition is alive and well in Accra, Ghana.

There were two collections of tithes, and everyone formed a line to dance up to the front and place the offerings into the basket. The second collection was a special one, done on the first Sunday of each month. In Ghanaian culture, each person has a name that identifies the day of the week on which they were born. For instance, I was born on a Friday, so I am called Afia. (If you want to find out your own Ghanaian name, there’s a great summary on Wikipedia.) This collection, then, was a competition between the names, and the winner was announced at the end of the service. It was a great experience, and I was glad to be able to partake in local culture at such a close level.

Tomorrow is our first guest lecture, and we will be hearing from a professor at the University of Ghana. After finally getting somewhat acclimated to the weather and time zone difference, I’m excited to start connecting my cultural observations and daily experiences with economic models.

About Ellen Wiencek

Ellen is a senior mathematics and economics major from Medina, Ohio. During her time at Washington and Lee, Ellen has studied abroad in Paris, Oxford and now Ghana. On campus, she has been involved on the Campus Kitchen Leadership Team for four years, and she is an active member of the Nabors Service League and Pi Beta Phi sorority. She also loves to go hiking in the Shenandoah Valley and enjoys going on Outing Club trips. After graduation, Ellen will be working as a research assistant at the Federal Reserve Board in D.C.

  • Class Year: 2015
  • Major: Mathematics and Economics
  • Hometown: Medina, OH
POL 288 Course Description
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May 21
Accra, Ghana

“What are you liking most about Ghana?” my classmate asked me the other day.

“Dancing,” I said, without hesitation.

During last week’s visit to the central region, which is northwest of the greater Accra region, our bus stopped in a rural village where we were to help build the foundation for a library. When a rainstorm kept us from getting to work, we began to dance in the rain with some of the local children. A couple of street drummers made music, and we moved to the rhythm of their beat. Although our original plan had fallen through, the afternoon was not a loss. We danced the time away with our new friends.

Last night, dressed in the traditional African clothes we have each accumulated over the last three weeks, everyone in our group gathered together for a farewell dinner. While we ate, we were entertained by a group of drummers and accompanying dancers. The music pumped during dinner, and once we finished eating, the dancers called us all up onto the dance floor to teach us some of their moves. It was a perfect evening for dancing.

My second favorite thing about Ghana, I told my classmate, is the food.

Months before I ever left the United States for Ghana, I began anticipating the food. Having some African friends at home and at school, I’d already had the pleasure of tasting delicious dishes from Nigeria, Ethiopia, Kenya and other countries in African. Here I am, eating Ghanaian food three times a day, and loving it. I love jollof rice, foo-foo (a soft mixture of cassava grain and plantains) and red-red (bean stew made red by the addition of palm oil). Then there is grilled tilapia, fried plantains and banku (another cassava mixture that tastes something like sourdough mashed potatoes). The food is spicy and delicious. And the best part? Everything is eaten with one’s hands. At first, some of us were a bit apprehensive about forgoing silverware, but now we’re fully embracing this new way of eating!

After deep consideration, the third thing I told my classmate I’d miss about Ghana is the timelessness.

The only way I can think to describe this aspect of Ghanaian life is to introduce its opposite: the rushed, time-efficient nature of life in the United States. Even in a little town like Lexington, Virginia, I am always trying to efficiently and productively manage my time. Here in Ghana, we certainly have an everyday agenda of activities and classes, but we are also aware that time is fluid and our plans are subject to change. You would think I might be frustrated or feel unproductive but that’s not the case. I am relishing the relaxed nature of life here. There is plenty of time to retreat from the unrelenting sun and sit in the cool shade or to spend a little more time at lunch in the company of friends. It is a new and refreshing way of life for me and I am enjoying every bit of it.

I realize that the three things I love about Ghana will soon become the three things I miss about Ghana. But I plan to continue dancing to African music. I bought a cookbook full of delicious Ghanaian recipes. And I’m learning to walk a little slower, sit a little longer and enjoy my time. Although I am leaving today, I believe I will bring a little bit of Ghana home with me.


How Do You Define “Nice”?

May 15
Accra, Ghana

“Ghanaians are nice,” said Winni, our tour guide. It was our first full day in Ghana and she was leading our orientation.

Several thoughts popped into my head in response to Winni’s claim: “How could a whole country be nice?” and “Of course she’s going to say that, she’s Ghanaian!” I quickly dismissed her comments as tour guide rhetoric, but that was on the first day of our trip to Ghana, and the experiences I’ve had in the two weeks since have proved her right.

If you read my last post, you’re already acquainted with the nice taxi driver who saved my housemate Cathy and me from being hopelessly lost in Accra. Well, the story doesn’t end there.

Two mornings after our misadventure, Cathy and I were enjoying our breakfast of mangoes and oatmeal when our other roommate’s phone rang. It was the original taxi driver calling—the one who had driven away with Cathy’s phone in the back seat of his car! He had found her phone that night and returned to Jerry’s to give it to us, but we had already left. So the next day, he went out and bought a charger for the dying phone. With the battery revived, he telephoned one of Cathy’s recent calls and reached Caroline! Cathy and he arranged to meet at a nearby plaza where she retrieved her phone. The three of us were shocked by this turn of events and extremely overwhelmed by the kind-heartedness of the taxi driver.

The returned cell phone alone would have been enough to make me reevaluate my quick dismissal of Winni’s claim. But soon after the phone’s return, our housemother Auntie Lydia made an announcement, “We’re going to a wedding this Saturday!” Two people from her church were getting married and, according to Auntie Lydia, “everyone was invited.”

On Saturday morning, my two roommates and I drove with our host family to a beautiful house where the wedding was to be held. Before the ceremony even began, we enjoyed some pre-show entertainment. Two jolly women sang songs, cracked jokes and contributed to a spirit of merriment that rippled through the crowd of more than 100 people.

Just as the wedding was about to officially begin, a woman shuffled the three of us out of our seats and into a small backroom. We glanced at each other, confused, wondering why we had been removed from our seats. Soon we found out that we had just been appointed the newest members of the wedding party! We fell into line with several other women and processed down the aisle with the bride, dancing along to calypso music. The guests in the audience clapped and smiled at us as we returned to our seats.

Wedding in Ghana

After the two ceremonies had ended (a traditional African ceremony was followed by a Western-style one), we stayed to enjoy delicious food at the reception. My housemates and I approached the bride to give her our congratulations, somewhat embarrassed that we had crashed her wedding. But she was as gracious and nice as Winni had promised. “Thank you so much for coming!” she said, offering to take a picture with us. The new groom welcomed us heartily as well, even expressing his hope that we would attend services at their church on Sunday.

These two experiences—as well as a number of others that I do not have the space to transcribe—have me convinced that Winni was right and Ghanaians are truly, genuinely “nice.” I consider myself blessed to be able to enjoy their company this month.

*Take a look at our Instagram page instaghana288 for more pictures of our adventures!


A Calamity of Errors Teaches a Valuable Lesson in Ghana

May 4
Accra, Ghana

Yesterday evening, my roommate Cathy and I decided to go meet up with the rest of the students on W&L’s Ghana trip at Jerry’s — a local dive bar that’s well known and came highly recommended. With few cell phone minutes between us, it was difficult to make plans. The group finally agreed to simply meet up there “sometime after dinner.”

After a delicious meal of mashyam (mashed up yam covered in a spicy soup) with our host family, we left the house for Jerry’s. Cathy made sure to save the location of our house on her phone’s map so we’d know how to get back. There are few street names in Ghana, so people must rely on a combination of arrows, landmarks, and ubiquitous road signs to get around.


With our professors’ advice to “stay away from isolated areas” in mind, we quickly made our way through the mostly empty streets of our neighborhood. It took us a while to realize we were walking in circles. Eventually, we found ourselves on the main road and hailed a cab to Jerry’s. When we arrived, we hurried out of the cab, eager to find our classmates and spend a night on the town in Accra.

Once inside, we began to look around for our friends but we didn’t recognize anyone.

“Let’s call them,” I suggested.

Since my phone had not yet become acquainted with Ghanaian cell service (which is spotty at best and utterly frustrating at worst), I turned expectantly toward Cathy. She shuffled items around in her purse.

“Uh oh,” she said.

“Don’t say that.”

“I think I left my phone in the cab. It was on my lap and must have slipped off when we got out,” she said desperately.

We stood there silently, coming to terms with the fact that we were stuck. We had no contacts, no map, and, we soon realized, no friends at Jerry’s. Apparently, they had all left while we had been wandering the streets of our homestay neighborhood.

All that was left to do was sit down, have a beer, and figure out a game plan. The only resources we had were the landmark, “Magnolia Lodge,” near our homestay and my rapidly fading sense of direction. We were feeling pretty hopeless.

We soon decided we should leave. Neither of us knew how long it would take to get back and we needed to make it home before the lights went out (Ghana is enduring a country-wide power shortage; only a certain number of power hours are allotted per day and many people rely on generators).

Unfortunately, none of the taxi drivers we approached knew where Magnolia Lodge was. After paying five cedis (Ghanaian dollars) too much for a cab ride down the street and feeling more and more like an oburoni (“foreigner” in Ghanaian Twi), Cathy and I came upon a hotel where the receptionist graciously searched online and found us a loosely-drawn map to the lodge.

Reinvigorated, Cathy and I returned to the street and hailed another cab. We got lucky — this cab driver was actually an angel. After several twists and turns, he got us back to Magnolia Lodge.

That should have been the end of the story but, as it was only our second day in Ghana, Cathy and I were unsure which house was ours. It didn’t help that, by this time, a power outage had blanketed the city in darkness.

The cabbie pulled over to ask directions from a group of guys on the side of the road. They seemed helpful at first but soon started jeering at us and getting too close to the car. Cathy and I were freaked out, but thankfully, the driver was unfazed. He drove off, leaving the group of guys in a cloud of dust.

“Wait! That’s it!” Cathy suddenly called out. Sure enough, just down the street from where we had left the group of men, was our homestay.

Once our taxi driver/angel saw us safely inside the house, we could finally relax and even laugh at our series of misfortunes.

Coming on this trip, I didn’t expect to find myself so unprepared. Our professors talked about Ghana’s challenges, including its lack of infrastructure, but it was hard to envision how those challenges played out in daily life. Going without cell service, power and even road signs has helped me see the picture more clearly. While I acclimate to life in Ghana, I appreciate the genuine kindness and helpfulness local Ghanaians are showing this oburoni.

About Faith Pinho

Born and raised in Everett, Massachusetts, Faith E. Pinho is a freshman at Washington and Lee University. She is double majoring in Politics and Journalism, and minoring in French with the intent of becoming a political journalist. Faith works for the Office of Diversity and Inclusion on campus, writes for W&L’s student-run newspaper The Ring-tum Phi and plays saxophone for the University Jazz Ensemble. When she is not participating in a number of other student diversity organizations, Faith loves to indulge her creative outlets, which include exploring her surroundings, cooking and crocheting.

  • Class Year: 2018
  • Major: Politics and Journalism
  • Minor: French
  • Hometown: Everett, MA
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