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Digging for Answers

Digging for Answers

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