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15.08.2004 General News

US students experience culture shock in Ghana

By Tim Donnelly at [email protected]
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They were on a trip to Ghana last month -- part of a summer class studying cultural diaspora -- and wanted to ignore the warnings of their professor, who said they should wear skirts instead of pants.

Women who wear pants in that culture are considered "women of the night," she said, but some of the students still shunned the skirts.

That all changed when they saw the bathrooms.

"We lost all modesty," said Cynthia Baylor, a graduate student from Clinton. "There's no way they would have been able to prepare me for what I was in for."

The toilets in the small, poorer villages of Ghana are not much more than a bucket on the floor, enclosed in what looks like a shoddy wooden box. Wearing a skirt greatly assists in the relief process, the students found out.

Ten Bowie State University students and two professors endured the unfamiliar bathrooms, language barriers, long-distance travel and overall culture shock when they journeyed across Ghana July 5 to 19.

The trip, part of the undergraduate and graduate level class International Health and Cultures of Diaspora, was the first of its kind for the university, but campus officials said they will make the trip a yearly event.

The students, all who were in the Behavioral Science and Human Service Department, focused on assisting with humanitarian aid for the country where about 30 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.

They conducted workshops at schools and held training sessions for female business owners and provided aid in some free clinics. In Ghana, about 360,000 people are infected with HIV or AIDS.

The travels around Ghana, which took the students to five of the country's regions, quickly turned into a lesson of cultural relativism for the American students.

The biggest shock, some said, came when seeing the beaming faces of Ghanaian children who sang and played with no concept of the poverty affecting their country.

"It brought a smile to your face just to see it," said Kimberly Hanson, a senior from Washington, D.C. "They taught us so much more than we taught them."

In Ghana, women are the primary means of support for the family because their husbands will often go off to work away from home for long periods at a time.

A majority of the employment is informal: vendors, seamstresses or peddlers, said Mona Reide, the professor who coordinated the trip. The students selected 12 Ghanaian women to receive grants of $55-- or about 100,000 Ghanaian Cedis -- to start or expand their businesses.

"We're beginning a systematic process so they can be more successful and eventually grow their business," Reide said.

While humanitarian endeavors may have been the purpose of the class, the students from the historically black university admitted they saw the trip as a way to inexpensively travel to Africa.

Some of the trip's costs were subsidized by the university and donors provided other funds. Students paid $2,200 each for an experience that many described as a trip through their family roots.

The personal journey for the students made perhaps the biggest impact when the students visited the slave castles and dungeons in Cape Coast.

Being able to walk through, and return from, the "door of no return" that once led to the slave ships is an important right for the Ghanaians, Reide said.

"To go through the slave dungeons and see that someone in my family was strong enough to make it through those dungeons," Baylor said, "I am so glad to go back to where I believe it originated with my family."

Lisa Carter, a 2004 graduate from Laurel, agreed. The travel through Ghana, she said, "felt like home."

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